Serenade

Her name was Lauren. Steve liked it; he'd always had a bit of a crush on Bacall, back in the day. Lots of the starlets back then were the bee's knees—Betty and Rita and Lauren. Steve had pinned up one or two himself, caught up by certain smiles that touched something deep inside him. Some little promise of magic and heat.

Long ago that was the allure. A gal could shoot a smile straight into a guy's dreams, give him something to fight for. Something to strive for against the enemy. Something to come home to.

But this was now, and now meant that this Lauren ran the Time Was Bookstore and Café off the bike lane on Second Avenue and 34th. She and her grandfather, the pair of them managing the place together even though Mr. Scott—Joe, he'd insisted on being called—was pushing eight-seven now. He still got around but Steve knew Lauren was looking out for him more and more.

Lauren Scott. Steve had found the place simply by walking around, and right from the first day Lauren had given him one of those starlet smiles. He'd gotten a cup of coffee and a copy of the paper, feeling at home amid the old movie posters, strains of Benny Goodman in the air, and even though it was all wishful thinking, for one afternoon Steve felt like he had his feet under him. It wasn't his old world, but there was enough of it to feel . . . grounded.

So he came back the week after, and after that, and pretty soon it got to be his go-to place in the afternoons. Most of the other patrons were older, or fans of past generations; either way they made a comfortable little crowd that Steve found himself on nodding acquaintance with. The coffee was good, the muffins were home-made, and there was always Lauren to talk to.

It was tough at first. Steve had always thought women were a bit of a mystery, and in this day and age they were even more exotically unreachable with their confidence and strength. He admired it—he'd always liked women who didn't play coy—but it was damned hard to get used to after the lifetime of manners and morals he'd had drilled into him.

And there was Peggy of course. He'd fallen hard for her, and the heartbreak of waking up to a future where she was gone . . . Steve was still dealing with that. He and Doctor R had covered it in their weekly sessions the last year, and he'd done his share of grieving. Peggy had been his first love, and she would always be a tiny ache deep in his heart, sure. That was the human part of him, and always would be.

Steve didn't think he'd ever want anyone else, but Doctor R had assured him he would; that over time he'd accept that life was a forward process, and that it wasn't selfish to want companionship, and even love. He was skeptical, but as time went on, Doctor R's words bore out, and he accepted them. When he told her about Lauren, she'd smiled.

"It's not like that," Steve told her. "She's easy to talk to, and the whole place . . . it's good."

"It's not a rrrreplacement though, Steve. And she is not either."

"No, I know that."

"Goot. As long as you rrremember that, things will go well."

So it had been over a year, and little by little he and Lauren had a . . . friendship thing going. She confided in him, and remembered his birthday, the way he liked his coffee and pie. Steve brought her flowers for her birthday and took her to Radio City Music Hall for the Easter show. Sometimes they both took Joe to Central Park for a Sunday afternoon, talking about everything and nothing in particular.

They said things to make each other laugh, and Lauren never made fun of his old-fashioned ways. Steve wasn't quite ready to talk about exactly why he didn't get most current references and neither Joe nor Lauren pushed. They accepted he was a vet and left it at that, for which Steve was grateful. In due time he'd tell them, but for now it was okay to just enjoy their company and not brood about the way things were.

He wasn't quite sure when his feelings about Lauren changed, but it seemed Doctor R was right about that. Steve suspected his brain was still trying to catch up to what his body already knew, particularly once the dreams started. Awake, he could always put his focus on training and whatever Fury assigned him to, but once he got into bed and closed his eyes, Steve was helpless to resist the images that drifted through his mind in sleep.

The first time it happened he'd woken up damp and sticking to the sheets, feeling mortified and achy, glad to be alone in his humiliating state. Sure Doctor R had told him to expect this, but wet dreams at this age seemed a little ridiculous, and if Stark ever found out-Steve knew his life would become a living nightmare.

Sure he could indulge in a little manual relief and had in the shower, but it was difficult not to feel a sense of shame to it even after all of Doctor R's assurances that it was both normal and beneficial. But jerking off was a kid's option and Steve felt he was too old to be doing it.

It wouldn't be so bad if the dreams weren't so . . . vivid, he thought with a sigh. Lauren's hands on his chest and stomach, Lauren's round little bottom in his lap, Lauren's lips against his . . . . Even the memory of some of those dream fragments made him restless. Steve tried to distract himself with extra time at the gym, or by catching up on some of the reports Fury passed his way, but those did only so much to keep him from daydreaming.

-oo00oo-

The day Steve Rogers stepped into Time Was roughly a year ago, Lauren thought he looked like one of the old recruiting posters come to life. She remembered looking up at him and thinking this guy couldn't possibly be real; not with that earnest face and hunky build. New York had all types, but the All American was pretty damned rare in the big city.

But there he was, polite and genuinely nice. Lauren waited on him and watched how he sat and ate and talked with Grandpa Joe. She was pretty good about assessing customers; most business people in the Big Apple were and Lauren knew that Time Was customers fell into one of three categories. There were the old-timers, who had lived through the past generations represented and liked the atmosphere of the place. Then there were the respectful historians and nostalgia fans who poured over the movie posters and second-hand memorabilia, indulging themselves.

The last category were those she called lost souls; people who came to the shop for some unknown reason. It was a small category, limited at the moment to Steve, who was neither old nor particularly geeky. She found she didn't mind, either—he was a loyal as a Golden Retriever, and about as hungry at times, always ordering a muffin or slice of pie at every visit.

At first she wondered if Steve might be gay—one of those bodybuilder types drifting up from The Center—but within a few visits Lauren knew that wasn't the case. He was always alone, and once she'd caught him staring at one of the War Bonds posters in the back, the one that featured the Captain America chorus line with all the leggy cuties. He'd blushed when she caught him.

"They were all nice girls," Steve had mumbled, "I bet."

"I bet they were," she'd agreed, relieved.

So not gay, just . . . shy.

She liked that, and made it a point to be quietly friendly each time Steve came in. That wasn't hard, mostly because Lauren liked people and specifically because Steve was easy to chat with. He knew a hell of a lot about The Big One, as Grandpa called it, and sometimes the two of them went on long discussions about the Axis powers and various battles while Lauren bussed tables and listened in.

Grandpa pegged Steve as a veteran right away. "The way he talks, the way he sits and keeps an eye on everyone in the joint—he was an officer. I can tell." It wasn't a surprise when Steve nodded at the question next time he came in, but he looked so melancholy that neither she nor Grandpa asked him any questions beyond that.

"When he wants to talk about it, he will," Grandpa predicted. "It's not our business anyway, right?"

"Yep." Lauren had seen plenty of vets before and knew that not all of them transitioned back in to civilian life that easily. Still, Steve seemed fine—he was all there, mentally, and as for physically . . . well, Lauren knew those muscles weren't just for show. One afternoon he'd helped her take the garbage to the dumpster out back, and with a one-handed shove he'd pushed the huge metal container back up against the wall.

And it had been full at the time, Lauren remembered with a shiver.

Most of the time Steve wore plaid shirts and a brown leather jacket, but she couldn't help wishing she could see him in a little less, or at the very least in something a little more form-fitting. When summer rolled around her wish was partially granted when Steve took to wearing polo shirts which showcased his biceps nicely.

It sort of embarrassed her that she was so conscious of his physique. After all he was a nice guy, and it wouldn't matter if he wasn't buffed as all get-out, but Lauren knew part of her interest was just good old hormones pointing out what she liked. She and Jay had broken up nearly two years ago, and although it was the right decision, there were parts of the relationship she missed.

Jay had wanted to update Time Was and make it a franchise to one of the bigger bookstore chains. He had all kinds of ideas for upgrading and improving the place, and while Lauren wasn't crazy about them, his cold, off-hand comment of "oh, and we'll find a nice retirement home for your gramps' had been the capper. Sure Jay was bright and ambitious, and he'd been a lot of fun to cuddle and make out with, but if the price of getting married was putting Grandpa in a home, no way.

Her biggest regret was that they'd just done it for the first time.

Lauren remembered lying in Jay's arms, listening to him rattle on about the future of Time Was, and then when he'd said what he'd said, it was over. She'd gotten up and dressed, so fuming mad that she couldn't see straight, walking the whole twelve blocks back home, pissed as hell. Grandpa let her in and held her while she cried, but she never told him what Jay had said, and when the flowers came the next day she threw them in the trash.

So that was that.

Sure a few guys tried to hit on her at work, but Lauren deflected them pretty easily, and most got the hint right away. She wasn't really interested in dating at the moment anyway—Time Was took a lot of her attention, and her other project sucked up the rest. She found herself making time for Steve, though. Part of it was because of the way he and Grandpa got along of course.

And part of it was that he was just so darned cute.


Chapter 2: Chapter 2


He knew Lauren was up to something; she always blushed when trying to change the subject, and seeing her going pink was fun. Steve gave her his best semi-stern look as he leaned on the counter, and she giggled.

"Okay, okay, it's the little bar at the Doubletree. Their regular is on vacation and she suggested I fill in for her. I'm scared to death, but I think I'm ready," she confessed.

Steve nodded, running through his schedule in his head. "I'm pretty sure I can make it," he told her, painfully aware of the empty hours of his evening. "What time?"

"Steve, no! You don't have to come see me make a fool of myself!" she blurted, reaching out to touch his arm, her fingers light.

"You're going to be great and I wouldn't miss it for the world," he grinned. "Want me to give you and Joe a ride?"

"Grampa's got poker at Phil and Lucy's, and anyway he doesn't know yet. I haven't exactly told him."

That explained the guilty look, Steve realized. He shook his head lightly. "Lauren, Lauren—you know he'll be proud of you too!"

"It's not the being proud part, it's the crowd and the nerves," she replied, shrugging one shoulder up in embarrassment. "Steve, if I bomb . . . I don't want him to see it. I don't want to have him watch me go down in flames." To emphasize her point she sent one little hand on a downward glide to hit the counter, and Steve winced inwardly at his own memories.

"Okay, I can understand that, I guess," he gave a reluctant nod. "But you're not going to bomb; you've got talent and a great voice. You'll have them eating out of your hand."

"Thanks," she murmured in that breathless way and when she smiled Steve felt slightly giddy deep inside. He pushed both hands onto the counter to try and recover.

"So . . . what time should I pick you up?"

"What? No—you don't have to do that!" she protested. "I can get the bus."

"That might be okay to get there but you'll be done by what, eleven? You're not riding the bus at that hour; not alone," Steve informed her earnestly. "It's no trouble to drive you."

"This wasn't about getting a ride from you," Lauren murmured, and she busied herself with refilling one of the napkin holders.

"I know, but if I'm going to see you anyway, it just makes sense to be able to take you there and bring you back," he pointed out. "And if you still want to keep it from Joe—which I don't think you should—but if you do, then you can tell him we're going to a movie."

It wasn't manipulation, he argued with himself; the buses weren't safe after dark, and the chance to be with Lauren was too good to miss. She was look at him now, and he liked the way her cheek dimpled when she smiled.

"Okay," she conceded sweetly. "It would help to have someone in my cheering section, and if you're going that way . . . about nine or so. I'll need to get there a little early."

They made plans, arranging to meet back at Time Was. Steve found himself feeling pleasantly nervous, and it was only a few hours later while brushing his teeth after his workout shower that he realized why.

It was the first time he'd made a date he had a chance of keeping.

That hit like a soft punch below the belt, and for a long couple of moments he stared at his foamy-mouthed reflection in the mirror, wondering why he felt guilty. Peggy had moved on with her life years ago; he'd accepted that . . . hadn't he?

Steve rinsed out his mouth and leaned over the sink, gripping it tightly. Peggy Carter had grieved for him, and in time she'd gone on to get married and live a long, productive life without him. He'd faced that reality and mourned what could have been, but now and then Steve felt the splinters of doubt prodding him in tender places.

He fished out his cell phone and dialed a number. "Hi. I uh, I just wanted to tell you I'm going on a date."

"That's vonderful Steve!"

"Thanks. Right now though . . . it doesn't . . . feel wonderful."

"Ahhh. You are rrremembering Peggy, and the date you never kept."

"Yeah," Steve admitted, carrying the phone into his bedroom and sitting on the edge of the bed. "Tell me Doc, why is it my head and my body can't get on the same team?"

"They are; you are simply experiencing some doubt about your own ability to move forward. Tell me—if Peggy had been the one to face certain death, what do you think she would have told YOU to do, Steve?"

It didn't take much thought. "She would have told me to go on and have a good life."

"Exactly! Her feelings for you were such that she would vant you to be happy, and that would most certainly mean giving yourself permission to find it, yes?"

Steve thought back to Peggy—fierce, proud, and compassionate. "Oh yeah."

"Good. My advice is to do just that. Peggy is gone and you are here. This date is just an opportunity to start moving. Have a lovely time, and I will talk to you soon."

Steve sighed, feeling a hell of a lot better. "Thanks doc. 'Night."

"Good night!"

-oo00oo-

The piano player for the lounge was a bony beanpole named Mel Fein, and he had glasses as thick as lighthouse lenses. Luckily he could play on pure instinct, and when he turned his myopic gaze towards her, Lauren tried not to giggle at his magnified eyes.

"Okay sweetheart, what's your repertoire?" he croaked kindly. "Bacharach? Streisand hits? Maybe some watered down disco?"

"Uh, I was thinking some Sinatra and Peggy Lee," Lauren countered softly. "Stuff that's a little more . . ."

"Torchy," Mel supplied happily. "You got it, doll-face. I think you and I are gonna get along fine. Key of C okay with you?"

"Perfect," she agreed, handing him some sheet music. He took it, grinning as he looked over the scores, nodding in approval at the titles.

"Hoo-boy, the classics. These take me back." Mel peered up at Lauren, smiling. "This the lineup you want?"

"If that's okay."

"Works for me, Toots. Whenever you're ready."

Lauren took a breath, smiled out at the audience and felt her heart sink a little. Four. Only four people out there—two businessmen, a lady on her laptop, and Steve. Ah well; had to start somewhere.

She sang. It was easy to work with Mel, who clearly loved the songs as much as she did. He took her through Black Coffee and You'd Be so Nice to Come Home to and My Funny Valentine without missing a beat, his long fingers keeping the tunes soft under her voice. Lauren tried to sing to everybody, but her gaze kept going back to Steve, who sat ramrod straight at his table, his palms caressing the glass of Pepsi between his big hands. By the time she worked her way through In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, she knew that not only was Steve the only one listening to her, but that he was also the only one that mattered.

The songs flowed, and suddenly the words meant so much more as Lauren crooned them, saying things she'd only dreamed about to the man out there in the shadows. It was almost arousing to be able to tease and confess, to bare herself heart and soul this way.

And given how he kept his eyes on her the whole time, Lauren hoped the feeling was maybe a little bit mutual, although she couldn't really tell. By the time she'd started Daddy, though, she felt Steve's gaze smolder a bit. She gave it her best low tease, making her way through the verses and gave a few sways of her hips for emphasis. By the time she finished, even Mel behind her clapped, grinning.

The businessmen applauded politely; the woman with the laptop didn't bother glancing her way. Steve however, was looking at her as if . . . well as if she was an apple pie he wanted to gobble up. Lauren blushed at that while she said goodnight and went to thank Mel.

"Wonderful workin' with you," he croaked back, grinning. "You got the chops, kid. I'm gonna put in a word with the manager so we can get you back. Loved that last one—you did Julie proud, ya did!"

"Thanks." Impulsively Lauren hugged him. "You made it a lot of fun!"

Steve walked over, and before she even looked up Lauren could feel the heat coming off of him. He was smiling shyly, but there was something about the way he studied her that made Lauren want to lick her lips. "You liked it."

"I more than liked it," he murmured back, picking up her backpack and swinging it over his shoulder. "You were terrific."

He was so earnest, his gaze so direct that Lauren found it hard look back at him. "Thanks for being out there, Steve; you were a lifeline!"

"Wouldn't have missed it for the world!" he told her, grinning, and she slipped her arms around him, hugging him hard. The minute she did, Lauren sighed; Steve was all warm muscle with a hint of aftershave, a pillar of a man. Dizzily, crazily she wondered for a moment what he'd look like without a shirt.

God she hoped she'd get a chance to find out.

It started to rain halfway through the ride back home, and Lauren clung more tightly to Steve as he slowed the motorcycle down in response, and she squirmed a bit, feeling the vibrations all through her in a way she didn't really need at the moment. Having her arms around his waist was tempting enough, but being bounced as well didn't help at all, not with the way she was feeling about him.

It wasn't just that he was handsome. Heck, it wasn't about Steve being handsome—it was about him being so . . . everything else. Being sweet, and kind, and considerate, and funny, and gentle. Being good to grandpa. Being a little bit lost and a little bit lonely too. Lauren understood that last part pretty damned well herself, but seeing it in Steve made her want to just . . . well . . . love him.

When they reached the Time Was, Steve rolled the big bike into the side alley and parked it, then helped her off and hurried with her to the awning that covered the side door that led to the upstairs apartment. The light was on, so Grandpa was home, Lauren noted with mingled relief and disappointment. She had hoped to invite Steve in for a private moment, but now that wasn't likely.

She reached for the backpack on his shoulder, suddenly aware that she probably looked like crap all wet from the rain, but Steve didn't let it go. Instead, he looked at her, his own hair darker and plastered down from the rain.

"I had a good time tonight," he told her. "Best time in . . . well, years."

"Me too," Lauren replied. She felt a shiver of fear in her stomach as a sudden mad impulse surged through her. She wanted this, wanted it so badly . . . "Steve . . ."

He moved closer under the awning, bending a little to hear her, and Lauren raised her head moving closer as well, passing that daring point of being misunderstood, looking up at Steve and hoping, hoping . . .

The press of his lips was so exquisitely soft, and Lauren shivered. The minute his mouth touched hers, she gave a sigh that mingled with his, and then the kiss melded and grew, becoming their kiss, a hungry, urgent thing, quiet but intense. She savored it, pressing against him and trying to slow the frantic beat of her heart.

They kept kissing breathlessly, nuzzling together, lost to the rain and the dark and the cold, swept up in this new paradigm. Lauren felt fire racing through her, heat flaring between them at a barely controlled level making her achy and breathless and hungry. Steve scooped her up; she felt her feet leave the ground, and Lauren clung to him, shyly parting her lips and letting her tongue touch his. He groaned in surrender, making her wriggle-

"Lauren, did you forget your k—whoa! Sorry kids, sorry . . . I'll just . . ." came Joe's voice as the door opened a crack and closed again.

In a rush, Lauren found herself standing again, reality slamming back in the cold, wet chill of the rainy night. She looked up at Steve, who seemed just as reluctant to let her go, and licked her lips. "Do, do you want to come in?" she asked him.

Steve shook his head, flinging raindrops as he did so. "I . . . can't stay," he told her gruffly, eyes never leaving hers. "Lauren . . ." but he didn't finish whatever it was he wanted to say. He touched her cheek and turned, striding off into the downpour and she watched him go before taking a deep breath. Lauren touched her mouth, remembering Steve's kisses, locking the sensation away before turning to the door and going inside.


Chapter 3: Chapter 3


He didn't remember the ride back to his apartment. Steve drove on autopilot, his brain and body too caught up in tender turmoil for the mundane issues of rain and direction. By the time he parked in the garage and made his way to his apartment he was short of breath and shaking, stumbling into the dark entryway as he dropped his keys on the floor.

Steve pressed his back against the nearest wall, needing its support as he closed his eyes. His senses were on fire, still caught up in the physical ache for Lauren, and without a moment of hesitation, he yanked on his fly buttons, popping them open as he skimmed his palm along the iron ridge of his erection.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this stiff or desperate; probably back around the time Dillinger had been gunned down outside the Orpheum, when being fourteen meant being a living hard-on. Steve gave a sob of a laugh and stroked himself, swelling against his fingers and wishing they were Lauren's. He tightened his grip, stroking the veiny shaft as he thought back over the last half hour, the images and scents coming in a rush that threatened to overwhelm him.

Lauren, soft and warm, curves pressing against him, hot and luscious, her perfume and the scent of her skin like sugar . . . kissing her, God, feeling her lips open under his and sliding his tongue into her mouth . . . . He groaned, fingers tightening as his cock swelled rampantly. Need coursed through Steve's body; raw and undeniable need, driven on by memory and desire.

He wanted her. Naked, under him, clinging to him and giving herself to him, holding him, wanting him as much as he wanted her. Steve had never before let himself admit to lust this way; it seemed obscene, but here in the dark with the taste of Lauren in his mouth it was right and dangerous and perfect. This was what lay at the core, this primitive urge that lay buried in the heart of every man.

Steve stroked himself harder, slipping his other hand to cup his balls, his breathing erratic now, his hips rocking with every pump. Wild images flared in his mind of Lauren kissing his body, of her breasts bared to his touch and kisses. He wanted to touch her, to undress her himself and uncover those curves and hollows only briefly glimpsed until now. More than that, Steve gritted his teeth as he acknowledged he wanted to slide into her, drive himself deep until . . . until . . .

Hard spasms rocked his big frame, and the heavy sprays of thick hot semen splattered in heavy ribbons on the carpet, splashing across his slacks and boots as Steve groaned mindlessly. When the last pleasure-filled shudder died away he let his head fall back, knocking against the wall, gasping for breath. Steve let go of his softening prick and wiped his palm down one thigh, his mind blank.

He sat in the dark for nearly an hour, dozing a little, not thinking of anything. When he'd done that long enough, Steve got to his feet and showered, scrubbing himself under the scalding heat. He pulled on boxers and lay down, waiting until morning.

-oo00oo-

Doctor R agreed to see him first thing, and Steve made his way to her office, which overlooked Central Park. The weather had cleared, promising to be hot, but he didn't notice as a receptionist waved him in. Doctor R came over and hugged him, her tiny size as always reminding him of a garden gnome.

"Steve, come in, come in," she ordered softly. He did, making his way to the chair just off to the side of her desk, dropping himself into it bonelessly. Doctor R pulled up a low ottoman and sat herself, looking towards him with sympathetic patience, waiting for him to say something.

When he'd first come to see her it had taken a while for him to deal with her German accent; for him the war hadn't ended yet. But she was understanding and patient, and now Steve hardly noticed it at all. She looked at him with her bright sparrow eyes, and he gave a sigh.

"The date," he began, heavily. "I went to go hear Lauren sing."

Doctor R gave a nod. "And was she good?"

Steve gave a faint smile. "She was great. A real crooner's voice, actually. I recognized almost all the songs."

"That was comforting then."

"Yeah." He looked around, not exactly avoiding her eye, but not quite ready to meet it either. "I took her home. It rained."

Doctor R said nothing, perched on her little ottoman, gaze compassionate. Steve dropped his head into his hands, resting his elbows on his thighs.

"I kissed her. We both wanted it, Doc, but it was like . . ." he struggled for a moment, "like I was starving! Like I wasn't kissing her but devouring her, her face, her lips, her tongue . . . I've never felt anything like that! I didn't think I'd be able to stop. I didn't want to stop . . ." he ran out of breath, shoulders shaking a little.

Doctor R reached over and lightly patted one of his knees, her touch gentle and firm. "That's perfectly normal, Steve. You are a healthy and virile man with a working libido. Did she rrrrrrespond in kind?"

Steve blushed, the pink hue washing over his cheeks. "Ahhh, yeah. That was part of the problem. I don't think she wanted to stop either."

Doctor R considered this a moment, her eyes twinkling. "So. You and she have a mutual physical attraction between you. Biological chemistry."

Steve nodded, shoulders slumping. "You could say that. I went home and . . ."

"Masturbated," Doctor R prompted gently. "A verrrry good and healthy option. And now?"

"Now I think I'm going nuts," Steve muttered. "Doc, I've never felt this way about anyone before! I loved Peggy, and I wanted her, but there was a war on, and we both had other duties, other obligations! I could put thoughts of Peggy aside because I had a job to do. But Lauren . . . she's always in my head, Doc. I think about her when I'm not with her, I worry about her and Joe, I want her to be safe and happy and sometimes, like last night, I just want her . . ."

"And this is a wonderful thing," Doctor R pointed out. "You are rrrrrejoining the world now, Steve. You have feelings for this young woman that are normal and natural. As humans we rrrrequire rrrrelationships, and I'm very glad to see that you are making steps in that direction."

"Doc, I'm seventy years older than she is, and not exactly 'normal' compared to other people," Steve snapped, running a hand through his hair. "And on top of that, I'm still . . . ." he trailed off, not wanting to say it aloud, but Doctor R gave a patient smile.

"A virgin, yes. It's not something to be ashamed of, Steve, and in your case, I don't believe that your hibernation actually counts in terms of aging. You have the body and mindset of a young man. A young man from a different era, true, but certainly not that of an octogenarian. Believe me, I know!" she chuckled.

There was a moment of silence between them, and Steve gave a soft sigh of his own. "I need to tell her. It wouldn't be right for this to go any further without her knowing."

"I agree," Doctor R nodded. "If you intend to pursue this rrrrelationship, then you must be honest with her."

"Fury," Steve murmured tonelessly. "I don't want to have to ask permission, Doc. I have a right to my own damned life!"

"Yes, you do," Doctor R agreed. "A fundamental right to your own happiness. If you will give me permission to talk to Nicholas, I will put in my rrrecommendations as soon as possible."

Steve shot her a look of hope mingled with pragmatism. "You knew this was going to happen, didn't you? That's why he arranged these sessions with you. Notjust because I needed to be brought up to speed on this decade, but because-"

"But because eventually you would need to start living," Doctor R agreed. "Super soldier or not, you are a human being with needs like the rrrest of us. You have been alone for a very long time, Steve. I can't promise that this rrrelationship will work out, but the fact that you are rrreaching out is wonderful."

"What if—" he began hesitantly, but Doctor R patted his knee again, interrupting him.

"We will make a plan," she told him pertly. "You are a soldier; you know about objectives and goals. Go home and wrrrite, Steve. List what you want and the best ways to accomplish them. Be very honest with yourself. Take as much time as you need to get the list exactly rrrright. I will talk to Nicholas, and meet with you on our rrregular day, yes?"

"But Lauren . . . I don't know if I can face her yet," Steve admitted, blushing again. "After kissing her like that . . ."

"You need a little time," Doctor R agreed. "A few days, but no more than that."

A soft chime broke in, and she looked up, noting the time with a start. "Oh! I'm sorry Steve but I have another appointment this morning."

"That's okay. Thanks so much for seeing me on short notice," Steve told her, rising up. "I really appreciate it."

"Not to worry!" Doctor R told him, giving him another hug. "You are doing very well, and I'm proud of you. Now go and make your list and think about what you will say to Lauren when you see her in a few days."

Steve nodded and made his way out of the office, feeling lighter.


Chapter 4: Chapter 4


Lauren didn't sleep well the first night; after coyly dodging Grandpa's questions she escaped to her room and tried to go through her normal routines, but she was simply too wound up. Instead, she pulled out the books for Time Was and tried to concentrate on the figures before her even as her mouth still tingled from Steve's kisses.

Sensible. She was going to be sensible about this. Clearly Steve had feelings for her as well, but he was old-fashioned, which meant the ball was in his court now. Lauren knew he wasn't the sort to rush into anything, be it choosing a slice of pie or anything else, so she resigned herself to wait for him to make contact. He had her number, he knew where to find her, so now all there was left to do was wait.

But after three days, Lauren had to admit to herself that matters looked less optimistic with each empty hour. She tried not to look up every time the door bell jangled at Time Was, but did. Checking her voice mail every half hour didn't help either, and she half-dialed Steve's number three times, forcing herself to hang up before making any connection. It was difficult not to analyze the reasons for his silence, and none of them made her feel any better.

And there was also a growing sense of anger. Lauren tried not to let her temper out too often, but she didn't appreciate being left in the dark this way. If Steve didn't want anything more than being friends then he should at least have the common courtesy to tell her to her face, she grumbled to herself.

Grandpa didn't say anything, but occasionally he patted her shoulder, and somehow that was worse. When the week was over and still no Steve, Lauren locked up the bookstore, lifted her chin higher and slipped off to the back office to do her crying there in the dark. She berated herself for everything: for making assumptions, for letting him get under her skin, for pushing the relationship.

She wanted to throw things, to scream and yell, but that just wasn't the way she did things, Lauren thought miserably. Ever since dad died- killed himself, she corrected mentally—she didn't dare make a fuss in public. Good girls didn't pitch fits, not even when their daddy blew his own head off. Her mother had been very clear about proper behavior, and now, fifteen years later Lauren still felt trapped by that memory.

The hell with that, she thought, and heaved the old brass paperweight at the wall with the Captain America poster on it. It hit with a satisfying 'thump' and then she scooted guiltily to pick it up before Grandpa came downstairs to see what the matter was.

Lauren wished she could go get drunk. It would be nice to drown herself in alcohol and let everything go. The only problem with that idea was Grandpa of course. He wouldn't stop her—hell, he'd probably buy her as much scotch as she wanted, but Lauren wouldn't put him in jeopardy by incapacitating herself. She'd promised to look out for him and that was that.

She blew her nose, wiped her eyes and went upstairs to bake some brownies instead.

Two days later, Steve walked into the Time Was.

Lauren had just bussed one of the front tables and her arms were full of dirty plates; one of the sodas had spilled all over her apron, soaking her stomach. She looked up to see Steve step in uncertainly, his gaze on her, and for a long moment Lauren thought she'd drop her armload.

Then she remembered how pissed off she was and turned away, pushing into the kitchen and slamming the dishes around noisily. She pulled her apron off, tossed it towards the dish rack, then slipped out the back door, pressing her back to it, her jaw so tight it ached.

She wouldn't cry.

She would NOT cry.

Lauren focused on her anger instead, and fumed, wondering how long it would take before Steve got the message. She leaned against the fire door, was mentally rehearsing what she was going to say when she looked up to see him coming down the alley towards her, his expression wary. "Lauren?"

"Oh, so you remember my name?" she shot back, her tone heavy with acid. "Amazing after all this time."

"Lauren, I can see you're upset with me-" he tried to begin, but she cut him off, shooting him a dirty look.

"Another brilliant observation! Batting a thousand there, Steve. I bet you might even be able to figure out why I might be a little mad if you put in the effort! No wait—save it. Whatever you've got to say I don't think I want to hear it. You made me wait; I think I'll return the favor!"

He flushed. By now Steve was only a few feet away, and Lauren tried not to stare at him, tried not to remember the last time they'd been in the alley together.

Tried, and failed.

He looked upset and for some reason that pleased her. Lauren crossed her arms, putting up every defense she could. She'd be a stone wall; a Sphinx.

"I got called away. I meant to phone," Steve told her in a low voice. "But there wasn't time, and we only got back today. You've been on my mind that whole time, Lauren. Every minute."

She turned from him, reaching for the door handle. "Voice mail. Internet. Text messages, Steve. You've had plenty of opportunities to say something. Seven days worth of time."

"I had . . . I had a job to do!" he protested weakly. "Yes, I should have called before we left—I swear I meant to, but I didn't want to say the wrong thing! Lauren-"

The door opened and Grandpa stepped out, his expression flinty. He hobbled his way over to Steve and lifted his cane, setting the rubber tip up in the middle of that massive chest and gave a light push.

"Not today, Steve. She doesn't want to see you right now and neither do I. You've treated my granddaughter poorly, and I'd appreciate it if you'd amscray until she says otherwise."

Lauren wanted to say something, but Grandpa was handling it, and she watched Steve bow his head in defeat. It should have made her feel vindicated. Pleased. There was a little of that, sure, but something about the slump of those big shoulders made her blink hard against a few tears.

"Yes sir," Steve muttered softly. He took a deep breath and looked beyond Grandpa to her, and Lauren had never seen him look so desolate. "But I will be back. We've got to talk, Lauren."

She gripped the handle of the door to keep herself from going to him. "Sure. I'll call you!" she shot over her shoulder before slipping inside, feeling angry for herself for the cheap shot, and pleased that she hadn't cried.

Then she burst into tears.

Hot and angry tears, frustrated and painful tears. Lauren slumped at the desk in the office, buried her face in her arms and cried herself out. When she was done she wiped her face and sat up for a little while, letting the churned silt of her emotions settle down again. She went out to the bookstore and spent the next few hours straightening the shelves; mindless drudge work for her fingers while she thought very hard about nothing.

Grandpa and Binh the bus boy handled the pie counter for the rest of the day and after they closed up that evening, he put an arm around her as they sat on the bench out front.

"He'll be back," Grandpa murmured quietly. "And you're going to have to talk to him, sweetie-pie."

"I thought you were on my side," she mumbled back, a tiny bit irked with herself when she felt a sense of relief at his words.

"I am, but the man's got it bad," Grandpa pointed out quietly. "You and me know Steve isn't some jerk. Man's got issues, sure, but he's good people inside."

"If he's so good, why didn't he call?"

"Can't answer that," Grandpa replied slowly, "ask him."

"Men," Lauren chuffed, and Grandpa laughed at that, his voice creaky and full of good-humor.

She joined in.


Chapter 5: Chapter 5


Steve walked. He passed his parked motorcycle and kept going, moving on automatic and putting on the miles as he did so, heading towards the Bowery. He avoided cars and other pedestrians, but paid minor attention to anything else around him as he trudged on.

He hadn't felt this helpless since . . . well, since before the super soldier serum. Lauren's anger stung like a burn, tender and constant. Steve knew he should have called, but Fury had a mission that couldn't wait and the helicarrier on stand-by, and before he'd realized it, too much time had passed.

Lots of construction going on around this part of Manhattan, he noted dully.

There really wasn't anyone to blame but himself, Steve acknowledged with a bitter sense of honesty. Oh sure dating rules had changed; he'd read up on them through Doctor R's books, and even though he knew Lauren could have called him, deep in his heart Steve knew she wouldn't. Part of her charm was that she was as old-fashioned as he was.

"Rogers, you screwed up," he muttered aloud, circling around Stuyvesant Square, hands in his pockets. "You have two options facing you, soldier: retreat or surrender."

He felt better putting his situation in those terms; they were familiar at least, and just as applicable. Steve looked up at a section of wrought iron fencing, noting the dented bars where someone had hit it with a car. Absently he reached over and straightened them, bending the metal back into shape. Once they were repaired, he looked up to see a little girl watching him from inside the park.

She applauded, and Steve flushed a little, smiling at the spontaneous gesture on her part. He gave her a wave and sauntered on, feeling inexplicably cheered by the moment.

"Retreat . . . Not a viable option. I've wasted too much time already," he argued with himself. "Flowers? Definitely. That's a start in the right direction."

Steve nudged an illegally parked SUV away from a fire hydrant, making its brakes squeal, and walked on, still musing aloud. "Okay then. Flowers today, and maybe tomorrow too. What else?"

Faint yelling from down the street made Steve look up; he held out an arm, neatly clothes-lining the purse snatcher who tried to run pass him, and snagged the kid's jacket. After marching him back to his victim, an elderly woman with a cane, Steve returned her purse and asked her advice.

"She's pretty steamed right now and I want to get back in her good graces as soon as possible," he told then woman, who thanked him and nodded.

"Poetry's always nice, young man," she advised. "Girls eat that mushy stuff up. Nothin' too x-rated though. Something from the heart."

"What about me?" the purse snatcher wanted to know, scowling as he wrestled against Steve's grip on his upper arm. The woman glared at him.

"I don't know—got anything that rhymes with 'arrested fool?"

After turning in the miscreant to the 13th precinct north of the Square, Steve jogged back to his bike, feeling better for the moment. Wistfully he glanced down the block towards Time Was, then gunned the big bike to life and headed for the nearest floral shop.

-oo00oo-

"Red and white," the portly man behind the counter suggested. "With a pink bow; wins them over every time. We've got a selection of cards to enclose too."

Steve selected one with a misty looking window on the cover and flipped it open, then stared at the blankness. What to say? Writing had never been his strong point.

Sighing, he drew instead; a large doghouse, sketching it with rough boards and long grass, then added 'ME' and a loopy arrow pointing into the doorway. Under it, Steve added, I know this is where I am, but I hope to get out soon. Forgive me, or at the very least talk to me, Lauren. I'm crazy about you.

Steve

It would have to do, he decided with a sigh, and tucked it into the envelope.

-oo00oo-

Steve stood still, looking at Fury's back as the other man stood gazing out over the view of Brooklyn from the Stark Tower windows. Neither of them spoke, and finally Fury turned, facing Steve, his expression blank.

"Ruth said you wanted to see me," Fury stated, and let the words hang in the air.

Steve nodded fighting back apprehension. "Yes. I'm sure you know what it's about."

"The girl," Fury sighed. He stepped away from the panoramic view and came closer to Steve, his one-eyed glare softening a bit, but his mouth still pursed. "Miss Lauren Scott."

Steve's eyes narrowed, and he took a calming breath. "I know you've been watching me since the first day, so let's cut to the chase. I want to tell her everything."

Fury seemed to weigh these words for a moment, and gave the faintest of sighs. "Everything about you."

"About me," Steve agreed. "I won't put her in danger by passing on any classified information beyond the basics concerning my . . . situation."

"Hmmmm," Fury mused, moving around Steve as he thought aloud. "Hard to consider, Cap, given how your 'situation' as you call it is the very wellspring from which our current organization rises."

"She wouldn't care about that," Steve pointed out dryly. "Lauren's no spy; she's a sweet kid who works in a bookstore and wants to be a singer. Look, I'm trying to fit into this decade, and it's not easy. Lauren's the first person I've met who likes Steve Rogers."

Fury rubbed his chin. "Let's look at the cons then, Cap. What happens if you tell her and she decides she doesn't want any part of being girlfriend to a superhero? Because ugly as it is, that scenario plays out a lot with this crowd. Not everyone is cut out to deal with waiting on the sidelines waiting to hear if you're dead or alive."

Steve shifted, feeling a sliver of apprehension run down his spine. He'd considered this, but it sounded a lot uglier in Fury's pragmatic tone. A lot more possible. "Then . . . I'd deal with it. I have had some experience with rejection."

Which was an understatement, Steve thought wryly. When it came to women it was the only experience he had before the serum. Afterwards there had been several offers, subtle and not-so-subtle, but Steve knew he wanted to be in love, not just in lust. Peggy had known that, he remembered. She'd tried so hard not to love him, and he'd tried not to love her . . .

Fury's expression hinted at compassion, and after a long moment he spoke up, voice softer than before. "Fair enough. If you think this girl and her grandfather can deal with the truth then I won't stop you. All I ask is that you keep seeing Ruth in the meantime. Other than that, you've got a free hand."

Steve gave a relieved sigh, and straightened up again. "Thanks."

Fury said nothing, but gave a little nod and turned back to the view, leaving Steve to stride out, thinking about what to say and how to say it.

He spent the rest of the day considering about how best to explain matters to Lauren, and filled a yellow legal pad with notes, since he didn't want to leave anything out. Steve figured the whole debriefing would end up looking like a mission report, but at least it would be thorough. After that he put in a few hours at the gym, pushing himself through a double routine of calisthenics and speed bag.

Steve showered, ate a quick dinner and climbed into bed, feeling more optimistic than he had in a long time. He dropped off to sleep quickly and wasn't prepared for the ring of his phone roughly five hours later. He reached over for it sleepily and noted the time: three thirty-two. "'lo?"

"Steve," Came Lauren's soft voice. "God, I'm sorry to call you in the middle of the night, but . . . I need a ride."

He shook off his sleepiness and sat up, feeling dread at the tone of her voice. "Lauren, what's wrong?"

"Grandpa," she replied quietly. "He fell and broke his hip. We're at Bellevue. He's going to need surgery, but he's doing all right for now."

"I'll be right there," Steve told her firmly, reaching for the bedside light. "What floor?"

"Eighteenth. I'll meet you by the elevators," Lauren told him, and gave a little sobbing breath that broke his heart. "I wouldn't ask, but I left my purse in the ambulance, the buses don't run this late and they won't let me stay the night."

"You did right in calling me," he assured her, his voice breaking a little. "I'll be there as quick as I can."

"Thank you. I'm glad I hung onto my phone."

"Me too, sweetheart. Be there quick."

He hung up before he realized what he'd said, and fought not to grin at how easily the term of endearment slipped out. Then Steve felt a flash of guilt immediately afterwards; Joe was in serious condition and this wasn't the time to think about anything else.

Steve remembered to snag a second helmet on his way out to the Tower garage and gunned the big bike up Park Avenue to 26th, glad that the traffic was relatively light. The night was cool and the lobby of Bellevue felt unnaturally bright to his eyes after the dark ride. Steve found the elevators and pushed the button for 18, feeling apprehensive.

He stepped out when the doors opened and looked along the hall, spotting Lauren as she sat on a vinyl sofa in a smaller reception area, looking wan and lost. Any resentment he'd felt at their earlier misunderstanding evaporated, and Steve strode over, a new and tender urge welling within him. He reached her and Lauren jumped up, wrapping her arms around his neck.

"You came," she murmured in a soft tone of wonderment and relief. "I'm so sorry Steve! God I was such a bitch, and I didn't know if you'd even talk to me even though Grandpa said you would . . ."

"Shhhhhh," came his soothing reply as he savored the warmth of her hug. "It's copacetic now. How's Joe?" Reluctantly he pulled out of her hug to look at her.

Lauren sniffled, not crying, but eyes overly bright. "He's doing okay. Doctor Goldstein says he needs a partial hip replacement and they're going to schedule that for tomorrow. I've been filling out forms all night and the ambulance team just returned my purse so I have it now."

"Good. Now I'm going to tell you what we're going to do," Steve murmured quietly. "I'm going to take you home and you're going to get some sleep. You're going to close Time Was tomorrow and I'll bring you back first thing in the morning, after you've had some rest and breakfast. Sound good?"

Lauren looked up at him. "Steve, you don't have to-"

"I want to," he rumbled back. "That way I can see Joe for myself, you know?"

She grinned. "He'll like that."


Chapter 6: Chapter 6


Lauren was too damned tired to sort out exactly how she felt, but when she wrapped her arms around Steve's waist and he gunned the bike out of the hospital garage, she leaned against him, her muscles relaxing for the first time in hours.

It had happened so fast, she thought. One minute Grandpa was almost down the stairs—only four or so up—and then he was sprawled on the floor, gasping, his glasses skittering along the tiles of Time Was. She'd tried to help him up but it was clear he was seriously hurt, and thank God she'd been able to dial 911 within minutes.

Everything else was a blur, she admitted. The EMTs charging through the bookstore doors, the questions and radios and fear permeating everything. She'd never seen Grandpa look so old and helpless as when they'd loaded him carefully onto the gurney, and his fingers had felt icy even though he'd given hers a feeble squeeze. The paramedics had been kind though, letting her ride in with them.

A break of the ball joint, was how Doctor Goldstein simplified it. He wanted to get Grandpa stabilized before they did the surgery to replace it, and Lauren filled out form after form after form while she waited. Or she tried to—once she realized she didn't have her purse she filled out what she could and waited for her purse to come back with the insurance cards.

It had been hellish to pace and drink bitter coffee and wait.

When it became clear that she wasn't going to be allowed to stay, that was when Lauren had to consider her options. Binh didn't have a car, and Sally from the nail salon across the street was all the way out in Brooklyn . . . that left Steve.

Calling him had been hard. Lauren had wanted her first call to be social; to thank Steve for the lovely flowers and maybe get back on easy footing with him. The card had made her grin, and was now standing on her night table while the flowers graced the little kitchen table.

She'd wanted the call to be personal.

Not desperate.

But he'd come, and Lauren hadn't realized how much she'd missed Steve, how much she'd counted on him to help. Seeing him striding up through the hospital corridor had made her want to run to him like some stupid ingénue out of a movie. Thank God she hadn't; he probably didn't need the drama. Lauren was too tired for drama at the moment; all she wanted was bed.

They pulled up in the alley, and this time there was no awkwardness under the awning as she unlocked the door and Steve followed her in. At the foot of the stairs Lauren paused, frozen for a moment by the memory of the EMTs there. Steve came up behind her and gently laid his big hands on her shoulders; somehow the warmth and weight of them helped and she took a breath.

"Right here," she whispered. "He fell. Coming down."

And Lauren sobbed. All the hours of holding back her tears dissolved in an instant. She felt Steve turn her towards him, and by instinct she slipped into his hug, burying her face against the front of his shirt under his open leather jacket. Lauren cried, clinging to Steve and barely hearing his soothing murmurs.

After a while she realized he was rubbing her back in long slow strokes that felt wonderful. Steve smelled good too; clean and masculine, with the leather and cotton and faint hint of Aqua Velva. Lauren knew recognized the aftershave; Grandpa had used it for years whenever he went out.

Her tears slowed to a sniffle, and she stayed in the haven of Steve's hug even though her face was hot and her eyes stung. Lauren knew she was a perfect mess now; crying always made her eyes red for a few hours, but the release felt so good that she didn't care. It was a hell of a comfort to be able to let go with someone who understood.

"Feeling better?" Steve whispered.

"Yeah, a little," she sniffed. "You probably think I'm a complete crybaby. I didn't mean for that to happen-"

"I think you've just been through a lot with someone you love," he replied. "I understand that, but I also know you could use some rest. Visiting hours start around ten, and some shut-eye will help."

Lauren nodded and reluctantly pulled back to look up at Steve; in the semi-darkness she could see the whiteness of his teeth. "You're right." Impulsively she added, "You could stay, if you wanted to."

A shiver went through her as she asked; a frisson fueled by apprehension. Would he reject her? Say no? At this point Lauren had no idea; all she knew was that she didn't want to be alone, not here without Grandpa.

"I . . . think that would be a good idea," Steve replied softly. "I want to be here if you need a ride back and Joe would never forgive me if I left you on your own right now, so if you've got a sofa or a recliner I'll park there for tonight."

"Sofa, upstairs," Lauren replied, weak with relief. "It's probably the newest thing we own and pretty comfortable. Thank you Steve."

"Thank you," he murmured, and she could hear his shy smile in the dark. "I'm glad you called. Really glad."

She blushed and led the way. The narrow stairs led to an upstairs area that looked to have originally been storage for the shop down below, but charming conversions had made it into a comfortable apartment. Two side by side rooms that had clearly been storage closets formed bedrooms at the back, while the center area held a living room area complete with sofa, recliner and tv. A small bathroom filled one corner and against one long wall was the kitchen. Lauren turned on one of the lamps and hung her purse on the hooks at the top of the stairs, then kicked off her shoes and padded towards the kitchen wall for a glass of water.

"Nice," Steve commented, looking around.

"Home," Lauren answered. "It took a lot of permits for the wiring and the plumbing, but the commute into work is great."

That got a little chuckle, and she relaxed a bit, drinking and feeling herself re-hydrate. When Lauren looked over her shoulder, Steve was untying the laces of his boots, and that simple gesture sent a wave of tenderness through her. She got a blanket from the foot of her own bed and brought it, along with a spare pillow, handing both to him.

"This might make it more comfortable," Lauren murmured.

"Thanks. Now let's get you to bed," came his quiet reply.

Steve was as good as his word, making sure she brushed her teeth and tucking her in. Lauren knew she would have bristled at such juvenile treatment at any other time, but right now in the aftermath of everything that had happened it was just right. He kissed her; a soft and lingering press of his lips to her forehead, and Lauren found herself torn between giggling and crying again.

It had been a long time since anyone had taken care of her.

God, it had been a long time since she'd let anyone take care of her.

Steve broke into these thoughts, looking down at her. "Joe's going to be fine, honey. Get some sleep and we'll go see him in the morning, 'kay?"

"Thanks," Lauren nodded, smiling. "For everything. You're my hero, Steve."

He blushed and reached to turn out the bedside lamp. Lauren caught his smirk at seeing his card there a moment before the light went out, then he padded out in his big socked feet, closing the door behind him. She lay in the dark, relaxing by inches, feeling comforted.

Gratefully, Lauren slept.

-oo00oo-

Steve had slept on worse. It wasn't a bad sofa, just too short. His long legs hung over the arm at one end, and it took a while to get comfortable, but he settled in, keeping an ear out for Lauren as he mulled over the morning's possible plan of action.

First thing he'd let Fury know he was taking some personal time. Steve blushed, well-aware that his overnight absence would already be noted, but figured he was due some leave, particularly for personal reasons.

Secondly, he'd take Lauren back to Bellevue tomorrow and they'd check on Joe.

Thirdly . . . he paused, frowning. He'd originally had the goal of telling Lauren and Joe the truth, but in light of what had happened, somehow that wasn't a priority at the moment. Steve didn't want to burden Lauren was something as weighty as this, not when the two of them were already worried about Joe. He mentally pushed 'tell the truth' further down the list.

Thirdly, he'd make sure Lauren had help with the bookstore and café. Steve brightened a little at this; he knew the ins and outs pretty well already, having been a steady customer for over a year. He got along with Binh and knew a lot of the regulars too.

Absently he ran his nose along the edge of the blanket; it carried Lauren's scent and he felt a shiver of happiness at breathing it in. Steve pulled the blanket higher and closed his eyes, letting himself drift off.


Chapter 7: Chapter 7


Soft unfamiliar sounds woke him, and Steve opened his eyes, looking up. Water. A shower.

He remembered where he was, and the sudden realization that Lauren was now three yards away and naked made Steve grit his teeth. It didn't help that he was already tumescent; before he could stop himself he rubbed a hand along the thick ridge against his fly, then chided himself.

Not now, Steve argued with his body. His body was being rebellious about the matter, and his prick throbbed. Steve manfully ignored it and checked his watch; nearly eight. He sat up, pulled out his phone and left a message for Fury, giving the basics of the situation and promising to call later.

The water had stopped and to distract himself Steve went to the kitchen and looked at the coffeemaker there. It felt awkward in a wonderful way, this knowledge that Lauren was close by, going through her morning so easily. A little searching revealed the filters and can; Steve managed to get a pot brewing without too much trouble.

Coffeemakers were one of the first things Steve had mastered since waking up in this decade. The java had much improved since the Forties, and it was a hell of a lot easier to make, too.

A few minutes later he heard Lauren step out of the bathroom and the click of a bedroom door. "Okay, the bathroom's free. Thanks for starting the coffee!" she called through the door.

"You're welcome," Steve called back. In the bathroom he used the facilities, washed his face and hands then brushed his teeth with his finger and some paste. After rinsing, he rubbed his chin thoughtfully; not much stubble, but he'd definitely need to shave by tomorrow.

The scent of bacon greeted him when he stepped out again; Lauren was cooking up a skillet, her hair up was in a turbaned towel and she had his favorite sundress of hers on—the blue one with the little daisies design. For a moment Steve stood blinking at the sweet domesticity of it all, overwhelmed with quiet longing. He helped himself to a cup of coffee while Lauren cracked eggs into another skillet, humming.

"I figure we might have a long day today, so breakfast first," Lauren murmured. "I called Binh and told him what's happened and to take the day off. He sends his thanks too, by the way."

Steve gave a shrug. "We all care a lot about Joe. Thanks." This last was for the plate of she slid in front of him with bacon and toast on it. For a second he let himself fantasize as he watched her scoot back to the stove to stir the eggs.

Married-this was what it would be like. Someone to talk to in the morning. Someone to make coffee for and share toast with.

Someone to look out for.

Lauren brought the skillet of eggs over and began to push the majority of them onto his plate. "I didn't even ask if you like them scrambled," she sighed. "Do you?"

"Yep," he nodded. "Hey, save some for yourself. You need to eat just as much as I do!"

Lauren took the towel off her head, gave herself a small portion of eggs and scooped it up with toast. "Sleep okay?"

"I was fine. You?" he replied between mouthfuls. She still looked tired, but she smiled.

"I slept," Lauren shrugged. "I'll do better after I see Grandpa today. I've been thinking about what to bring him—mostly his personal stuff and bathrobe."

They finished breakfast and Steve offered to do the dishes while Lauren did her hair and packed; he was done by the time she'd finished both.

"I want to run over to Nail-o-Rama and let Sally know," Lauren told him as they descended the stairs. "After that we can go."

"We've got time," Steve agreed, and watched her head out as he sat on the bench out front. A few people wandered by, noticing the 'closed' sign with a frown and Steve knew how they felt. He studied Lauren through the glass window across the street, enjoying the way she moved as she spoke to Sally. Lauren had a swing to her hips when she walked, and sometimes he had to slow his stride a little so she could keep up.

When she came back out and headed for him, he stood, feeling like a happy puppy at the sight of her. She gave him a smile, shifting her purse to her shoulder. "Sally will keep an eye on the store even though it's closed. She said she'll start a Novena for Grandpa tonight."

"That's nice," Steve nodded, waving to Sally, who waved back. "Ready to go?"

-oo00oo-

Joe looked pretty haggard, Steve thought, but then again it was to be expected. He was alert though, and when he saw the two of them coming in the door, Steve swore there was a flash of a grin on the other man's face.

"Grandpa-" Lauren was hugging him, bending over the hospital bed. Steve hung back to give them some privacy, hearing little reassurances that did his heart good. Finally Joe raised his voice and called him over.

"Steve. Damned glad you're here. Damned glad. Made a pretty big idiot of myself as you can see."

"No sir," Steve replied lightly. "Accidents happen. Could have just as easily been Lauren who fell."

"I'd like to think that, but . . ." Joe shook his head wryly. "They're going to give me some new-fangled hip part sometime tonight."

"Grandpa's going bionic," Lauren smirked in clear relief at seeing him in good spirits. "He'll be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."

"Nothin' doing," Joe protested with a wry expression. "I'm keeping my feet on the ground, little girl."

"Good, that's where they belong," she replied lovingly, and Steve watched her squeeze his hand. "Need anything?"

"Got a hankering for some water," Joe admitted. "The nurse has some bottled stuff back at her station."

Lauren excused herself and headed out; after she'd left Joe looked at Steve, his expression more exhausted. "Needed to talk to you, son. Is she okay?"

"She's holding up," Steve replied, coming closer. "But she's pretty shaken."

"Yeah, I thought she would be. Steve, I want you to do me a favor and stick with her—at least until I'm through this and back on my feet. Looks like you two have worked through whatever rough patch you were having, and truth is, I don't want her alone at the store. There have been two attempts at break-ins, and if word gets out that I'm not there . . ."

Steve nodded. "I understand. I'd be glad to do it, sir. You can count on me to um . . . behave myself." He felt the blush flash over his face, but kept his gaze on Joe, who seemed vastly amused by it.

"Oh I know that . . . Captain."

For a second Steve couldn't breathe, but Joe smiled, his eyes bright. "Yeah, figured it out a few days ago, son. Haven't told Lauren; that's your business, along with whatever else you young people do. You've been coming around for over a year, so I know I can trust you to be there for her whether or not I pull through this."

Steve found his voice. "Thank you, sir."

"Don't mention it. I wish I'd known the first Captain back in the Forties—man was a legend, and a damned good soldier. I hope you'll live up to his reputation." Joe closed his eyes for a moment. "She comes back, we were talking about the shop, got it?"

Steve grinned. "Got it."

As Lauren gave Joe the bottled water, Steve took a moment to consider what had just happened. Joe knew—well, Joe knew half of the truth. Steve figured the second half could wait until after surgery. In the meantime, felt a sense of giddy delight in the trust the other man had in him.

He wouldn't screw this up, Steve vowed.

-oo00oo-

They left Joe, promising to return before the surgery, which was scheduled for six in the evening, and headed back to Time Was. Once there, Lauren mentioned a need to bake—"I've got to stock up on brownies and peach pie for Friday"—so Steve nodded. When she casually added, "You might want to go back to your place an overnight bag," his pulse did a quick rumba for a few seconds.

She shot him an amused glance. "I wasn't born yesterday, Steve Rogers; while I was out of the room, Grandpa asked you to look out for me, didn't he?"

He couldn't lie. "Yes, but I wouldn't—I promised . . ."

"To be a gentleman," Lauren teased quietly. "And you are. Thank you. I always feel a lot better when you're around."

Moved, Steve looked down at the floor, but Lauren reached a hand out to touch his chest. "Dinner will be early—four thirty or so. Meatloaf okay?"

He lifted his head and nodded shyly. "That would be great."

Steve grinned all the way back to the Stark Tower, and twenty minutes later when he climbed back on the motorcycle with a backpack, he headed for Time Was, feeling like he was finally going home.


Chapter 8: Chapter 8


Lauren didn't try to fool herself. She'd come from a broken little family where people had denied their impulses and emotions and she knew first-hand that while honesty might hurt at first, it was easier in the long run. Her father had lied to himself about his mental state, her mother had lied about their home life, and out of it all, Lauren had turned to Grandpa, who schooled her in the truth.

She knew she wanted Steve. Not just physically, although that was a primary urge. Lauren understood that the ache between her thighs was natural and normal, and she was pretty sure Steve had a few warm-blooded urges of his own. All that was to be expected.

But there was more to it all, and that was the part that scared her a little. Lauren knew when she looked at Steve there was so much tenderness as well. She wanted to cuddle him and feed him and make sure he slept well—and not in the way she took care of grandpa, either.

Lauren knew she wanted Steve to whisper goodnight as he curled his big body around hers, and thinking of that terrified her because she knew what a thought like that meant.

The big L.

Something she had NO experience with.

So she baked, turning out pan after pan of brownies, making the little upstairs apartment smell of warm chocolate. When the pie was in, Lauren started on the meatloaf, keeping her hands moving so her brain wouldn't brood on this revelation. Phone pinned between her ear and shoulder, Lauren fielded calls from Binh, who was willing to come in during the afternoon tomorrow, and from Phil and Lucy, who asked about visiting hours and whether Lauren needed anything.

After reassuring them all, she hung up, changed the sheets in Grandpa's room, washed her hands and went into the bathroom to stare at herself in the mirror, wondering what Steve saw when he looked at her. Red hair somewhere in the blonde spectrum, she noted. Brown eyes; very boring compared to his handsome blue ones. Skin too pale for the sun and prone to freckles, big ears and okay, she had a nice mouth, but nothing special beyond that . . .

The ring of her phone startled her out of the self-examination, and she blushed as she answered. "Hi."

"Hi. I'm downstairs." He sounded a little breathless, and Lauren felt a happy tingle.

"Hang on and I'll let you in," she replied, and grinned at herself in the mirror, pleased at how something as small as hearing Steve's voice could change her whole face so quickly.

She opened the door for him, amused at his bashfulness as he swung his backpack from one shoulder to the other. "You travel light."

"I don't have much," he replied, and there was something in his tone that sent a pang of sadness through her. Lauren led the way up, determined to lighten the mood.

She waved in the direction of Grandpa's room. "Tonight you can have a real bed. Sheets are clean, and there's a towel and washcloth for you on the pillow."

Steve smiled at her. "Thanks. Something smells pretty good."

Lauren jumped. "Oh! Dinner!"

The meatloaf turned out well, glazed with brown sugar and catsup, and she'd cooked peas to go with it, serving it up with glasses of milk for both of them. After saying a quick grace, they ate. Lauren was quietly amazed at how Steve could tuck food away, but given his build it made sense.

"Seconds?" she asked, seeing his empty plate a few minutes later. Steve looked guilty, but she snickered. "Eat up; whatever's left over will go for sandwiches tomorrow. I'll be opening Time Was around noon and Binh will be here."

"Good. I can work some of this off if you still want me to move those back bookcases."

"Counting on it—and you," Lauren assured him. "Do . . . do we have a moment to stop over at St. Vartan's before we go to the hospital?"

Steve gave a compassionate nod and Lauren sighed. She and Grandpa were Methodist, but St. Vartans was the nearest church to Time Was, and they went there periodically over the years sitting in the back pews listening. She loved the serene majesty of the place, but the priests scared her a little with their full beards and solemn demeanor. Still, she wanted to light a candle for Grandpa and send a few prayers up before the long wait.

After dinner they walked over together, holding hands. Lauren felt a little self-conscious, but wouldn't have given up the comfort of Steve's grip for anything. The cathedral was open; evening services wouldn't start for another hour or so. Lauren made her way to the rack of candles and lit one using the matches on the side table. She knelt on the little padded riser before the rack and had just started to pray when she felt the pad shift as a second set of knees dropped on it.

Steve was next to her. Lauren fought the rising surge of tenderness and focused on her own prayers.

-oo00oo-

Doctor West was optimistic and upbeat; he assured Lauren that everything would go well. "His blood pressure's good, his general health is terrific for his age and he's looking forward to recovery—all that plays well in his favor, Miss Scott. Barring complications he'll be with us for two to three days and then home to recover for the next three months or so."

She and Steve walked around Bellvue after that, first outside in the immediate neighborhood, and then inside once it got dark, moving from floor to floor, talking quietly and waiting. Lauren knew she wasn't particularly good at waiting, but it couldn't be helped. Luckily Steve distracted her through the hours, mostly with weird questions.

"Why do you want to know how I feel about superheroes?" she teased. "I think they're great—they saved the city, didn't they? I know the bookstore wasn't near the invasion, but we had a few near hits up our way in Murray Hill. I'm just so impressed that they took on the aliens without backup, you know? And from what I saw they weren't just brave, they were smart. If we've got people like that looking out for New York more power to them. I'm just sorry they weren't around to save the Towers back then."

"It's dangerous work, though."

Lauren gave a shrug. "It's a dangerous city, Steve. Every policeman and firefighter and paramedic out there faces death. I think they're heroes too, even if theydon't have superpowers."

He smiled at that, and looked like he was going to say something more, but by then they'd made their way back to the waiting area and Doctor West was coming out still in his surgical scrubs, his expression pleased.

"Went off perfectly. He's still in recovery, but I think you folks should head home for the night."

-oo00oo-

She turned on one light; the little one over the kitchen sink, which was just enough to navigate by. Lauren set her purse down and turned, not completely sure of what she was feeling, but aware that Steve was looking at her, his big frame half in shadow, his gaze tender. When he held out his arms she moved into them, relaxing in the safety of his hug.

"It's good," he murmured to her, his words muffled against the top of her head.

"Very good," she agreed, although she wasn't sure if she meant Grandpa's recovery, the hug, or something more as she pressed closer. "Steve . . ."

"I . . . I have something to tell you," he whispered. "Something that has to come first, sweetheart, if there's going to be an us."

"An us?" Smirking, Lauren looked up at him, well-aware now of tension in his body, particularly where it pressed up against hers. "You mean a . . . relationship?"

"Yes," Steve agreed thickly. "I want one—God knows I'm crazy about you, Lauren Grace Scott—but it wouldn't be right unless you knew the truth about me."

This sounded serious, so she cocked her head and held his gaze. "Okay Steve. What is it?"

"Three things," he replied, and carefully steered her to the sofa, making her sit next to him there. She hadn't seen him look this troubled since their argument in the alley, and her concern grew.

"Okay, I'm getting a little worried. Just . . . spit it out. Are you married?"

"No!" He blinked, distracted for a second. "No. It's simply this: I'm ninety-six years old, I work as a super-hero, and I'm . . . a virgin."

For a second Lauren said nothing, and then a rush of loud giggles welled out of her, spluttering up as she helplessly snorted caught up in the hilarity of Steve's words.


Chapter 9: Chapter 9


Out of all the reactions that had played out in his thoughts, this was not a scenario Steve was prepared for. He stiffened, but Lauren's laughter was highly contagious and he found himself grinning almost against his will. She collapsed against his shoulder, eyes wet, her dimples showing in the dim light as she tried to catch her breath. "G-g-good one! If you were t-trying to lighten the mood, that did it!"

"Yeah, I'm a regular Groucho Marx," Steve muttered through a twisted smirk. "Too bad it's not a joke, Lauren; it's all true."

He watched her wiped her eyes and looked at him more closely, sobering up slowly as he kept his gaze steady. Gradually Lauren took a deep breath. "You're saying it's true—which part? The age, the super-hero or the, uh, virginity?"

"All of it," Steve blushed, looking down now. "I don't blame you for laughing, actually, but I've got some proof to back it up. Hang on—"

He went to his backpack and pulled out two items; a tattered photo album, and a cigar box. Steve brought them over, and flicked on the light near the sofa before settling in next her again, nervous as hell but determined.

She looked skeptical but amused, clearly humoring him and took the photo album, running a hand over the worn leather cover, touching the gold embossed lettering on it. "Wow, this is old."

Steve flipped it open. The black and white photos, ragged edged, were pinned to the page with gummed corner mounts. He pointed to a shot of a man in plus-fours and a woman in a cloche hat standing on a street, arms around each other. "My parents, Sarah and Joseph Rogers. That's the Lower East Side, around 14th Street. They lived there until they moved to Brooklyn, where I was born in nineteen twenty."

The photos brought a sharp pang, and Steve distracted himself from the melancholy they brought by focusing on Lauren. She studied the young couple intently.

"You . . . look like your dad," she said finally, her voice a little more serious.

"Yeah, that's what my mom used to tell me," Steve nodded. "These are some shots of the neighborhood, and I don't know if you're ready for this. Geez, I don't know if I'm ready for this," he muttered, and turned the page before he could change his mind.

Three photos were there in a triptych: a scrawny, bright-eyed curly blonde baby in a long christening gown sitting on a photographer's padded set. In the first shot the infant was tugging at the hem of the gown, not happy. In the second he was eyeing the camera, clearly distracted by someone, and in the third, a bright toothless smile shone out.

Lauren gave a delighted coo of joy, fingers touching the old photo and Steve felt himself blush to the roots of his hair. He'd never shared these photos before, not even with Bucky, but Lauren's pleasure left him feeling both embarrassed and happy.

"Oh my God you were adorable Steve! That little button nose, and those curls! Oh God. Oh God." She choked, hyperventilating for a second. "This really is.You."

"Yes," he replied. They didn't speak or look at each other for a while, and Lauren's fingers traced around the ragged edges of the photo.

Finally she gave a sigh, and shot him a sidelong glance. "Next page?"

"School," Steve flipped the page and a group shot of what looked like twelve year old boys squinting in sunlight. He pointed to a rail-thin figure on the right side in knickerbockers. "Me."

Lauren looked from the photo to Steve; he nodded. "I'll explain, but for now, trust me. As a kid I had measles, constant earaches asthma and colic."

"Wow," she murmured, moved.

There were photos of the Brooklyn Orphan Asylum, ("After mom died I ended up there. Not great, but I did meet my best friend there.") then there were about six candid shots of art classes and groups of friends. The rest of the pages were blank, and he closed the album gently.

"When World War Two started, I wanted to join up, but I couldn't," Steve began, reaching for the cigar box. He opened it, and lifted out newspaper clippings, medals, letters and dog tags.

The whole story rolled out in the quiet of the apartment, and Steve explained about meeting Doctor Erskine, the Super-Serum and the Vita-Rays. Lauren listened to him talk about the Red Skull and the Howling Commandos, and about Peggy. By the time he got to the part where he crashed the plane, tears were running down her face even though she didn't make a sound.

He reached over to wipe her cheek with his thumb. "I ended up frozen solid, like a man-sized box of Birdseye peas," Steve mumbled. "Got thawed out about two years ago and woke up in S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ where Colonel Nick Fury brought me up to speed on what's been going on for the last seventy years. And that's . . . it."

Lauren sniffed, rubbing her eyes. "Oh Steve! No wonder you always looked so . . . lost. I remember the first time I saw you I wondered if somebody had died, and now you're telling me it was pretty much everyone you knew!"

"Yeah," he nodded dully. "It was. Dum-Dum, Peggy, Howard, Bucky . . . time does that, I guess. Sometimes I feel guilty that I'm still here and they're not."

"Don't you ever say that!" Lauren chided. "You were willing to die to save New York. My God, you've done it twice now! You're a hero!"

"I'm a soldier doing my duty," Steve corrected. "What I was trained to do, what I've always wanted to do. I just didn't realize some of the strings attached to the job. Anyway, you needed to know all this Lauren. I know it's a lot to take in, and I don't expect we're done talking about it, but now you know."

She turned to face him, taking the cigar box and setting it aside with the album before taking his hands in hers. "Now I know," Lauren nodded. "The age part, and the superhero part. And the last part . . . ?"

Steve blushed again, swallowing hard. "I probably should have waited to mention that part," he croaked, "but yeah, you probably needed to know that too. I've been seeing a psychologist who's been helping me adjust to this decade, and we've talked about . . . sex."

Lauren squeezed his hands. "Good. You're nervous too, huh?"

"Just a lot," Steve admitted with a little laugh. "I was never much of a ladies' man before the Super-Serum, and afterwards I was a little busy fighting Nazis."

"And there was Peggy," Lauren prompted gently.

Steve felt an odd hitch in his chest, hearing her name from Lauren's lips. He blinked, feeling tears begin to slip out. "Y-yeah."

Lauren pulled him to her, holding him against her shoulder. He pressed his face there, snuffling in the dark until she whispered, "It's okay Steve; I'm here."

And he let the tears come, feeling both release and comfort at being in Lauren's arms. This was different by far than the support he got in Doctor R's office; this felt as intimate and right as breathing. Lauren soothed him as she cradled him close and time passed without counted minutes. When Steve felt strong enough again, he pulled away gently, wiped his eyes and gave a grateful sigh. "Thank you," he murmured. "All this time and I hadn't actually cried for her, or any of them."

"This," Lauren told him quietly, "is what makes me believe you, Steve." She reached a hand up to cup his damp cheek, tears in her own eyes. He pulled her clumsily into his lap, holding her close and there against the arm of the sofa, curled together, they fell asleep.


Chapter 10: Chapter 10


Lauren woke up slowly, feeing that luxurious sense of well-being that comes with being warm and rested. She took in a deep breath and gradually opened her eyes, aware of two interesting things. First was that she was draped over Steve like his personal blanket, splayed across his big body in an ungraceful sprawl.

The second was that part of Steve was . . . prodding her through layers of clothing.

She tried not to giggle. Given all of the emotional extremes of the night before—grandpa's surgery, Steve's past—it was sort of nice to deal with something so . . . basic.

Experimentally she wriggled; this brought an immediate surge against her thigh, and Lauren smothered a laugh at the enthusiastic way Steve's libido was responding to her. It was gratifying to know his body liked hers. Still not fully awake, Steve gave a moan and the arm around her shoulders tightened. Lauren held still, waiting for him to drift back into deeper sleep as she lifted her head and studied his face.

Lord he had long eyelashes. Obscenely long and almost too pretty on a man. His nose was aquiline and his mouth seemed pursed for a kiss, even in sleep. Lauren could see a faint shadow of stubble across Steve's cheeks in the morning light, golden and fine.

"You are my hero," she whispered ever so softly, and Steve smiled in his sleep.

Emboldened, Lauren shifted again, rolling her hips ever so gently in a sensual move. Steve's breathing deepened and under her she felt him rock his hips forward, his strength lifting her slightly. It was fun to tease him ever so lightly this way, and her own arousal was growing.

Lauren knew a bit about making out; she and Jay had certainly done enough of it for her to understand masculine anatomy and response. Still, she wasn't prepared for Steve's hands as they slid across her back, tugging her up and creating a full-body rub.

The sensation made her shudder and she braced herself, hair falling forward when she looked down into his face. Steve's eyes were open now, and the gleam in them was decidedly mischievous.

"You don't look like a boy scout this morning," Lauren accused, trying to keep a straight face.

"I don't feel like one either," Steve informed her. "Not with you plastered on me like a band-aid."

"I can move," she offered, making no attempt to do so.

Steve smiled in a way that had her a little breathless. "Nah, I sort of like you just where you are, sweetheart."

Lauren blushed. "Sorry for falling asleep on you."

"S'okay," he murmured, "we both were pretty tired last night." Steve ran a hand down her back. "Wow, I guess this means we've . . . uh, slept together."

Lauren laughed. "I guess it does, strictly speaking. You're very comfortable. Well, most of you is," she amended with a shy smirk.

Steve blushed. "Happens with guys." When Lauren shifted a little he added, "Not helping."

She clambered up to kiss him, and despite some morning breath on both their parts it was a sweet and welcoming sort of kiss, a happy cuddly thing.

Lauren knew she could get used to those.

Apparently Steve could too because he kept kissing her, and she kissed back, feeling a growing warmth between her hips again. Kissing became rubbing, and within minutes Lauren found herself breathlessly grinding against Steve in a way that sent sparks of pleasure down her spine. She straddled him, making Steve groan as she did so. The sofa creaked a little in protest but neither of them noticed, being much more focused on each other.

Lauren felt Steve's warm breath against her lips as he gasped, "Gotta stop . . ."

She gave a whimper of protest; the syrup sweet build-up of her arousal was rapidly leaving her dizzy now and her body ached for release, for Steve to press just a little harder and faster. "Don't want to," she protested, grinding tiny circles with her hips, focusing the exquisite pressure there.

"Don't want to either but . . ." Steve replied in shaky gasps, "Oh. Ohhhhh Lauren . . ."

She shuddered as a wave of pleasure washed over her, spurred on by the throbbing ridge between her thighs. Lauren clung to Steve, lost in her own climax, vaguely aware that he was breathing heavily, his hands cupping her ass. Moments later Lauren felt wetness seep along her thigh as Steve grunted in hoarse gasps, his big frame tensing under her.

She gave a sigh and kissed him, starting at one corner of his mouth and moving across it in a leisurely way to the other, murmuring little sounds of contentment. Steve sighed himself and his hands began that lovely slow stroking down her spine.

"Wow," Lauren murmured. "That was amazing. I probably should have stopped but it felt so good and just . . . wow . . ." she trailed off and pushed herself up to look down into Steve's face.

He was tousled and contented, his blue eyes shyly meeting hers as he cleared his throat in embarrassment. "Frottage," he murmured. "It's called, uh, frottage."

"Yeah? I thought it was dry humping, even though it wasn't really . . . dry," Lauren yawned lightly.

"I . . . read about it in one of the books my therapist wrote," Steve told her. "I didn't know it had an official name either, but it does. And yeah, that was pretty damned wow all right, but I think I uh, better get cleaned up." He blushed as he finished, and Lauren tried not to chuckle. She cupped his face, her fingers brushing the golden bristles of his stubble and kissed him soundly once more.

"Okay," she whispered. "And I don't know about you, but I feel wonderful right now. I don't regret it at all, Steve."

"I don't either," he rumbled with an embarrassed grin. "Best alarm clock I've ever risen to."

-oo00oo-

Breakfast was easy; cereal and milk. Lauren checked in with the hospital and they planned out the day together as she made notes on the back of an envelope. "So if you drop me off for visiting hours you can be back to Time Was and open with Binh. I can get the bus back because I want to stop and get some things from the market on the way. I won't be long if you need to go to . . . save the city or something," she finished uncertainly.

Steve cocked his head thoughtfully. "Things have been quiet, and I'm taking some leave for the moment so I can help out. What do you want me to tell the regulars about Joe?"

"That he's on the mend," Lauren replied. "I'll call Phil and Lucy to give them the update. Are you sure I'm not keeping you from anything important?" She looked anxious, and Steve shook his head as he swallowed another spoonful of Wheaties.

"Nope. I can get to those back bookcases any time you want me to."

And so the day rolled on. Steve found himself running Time Was in a quiet manner, greeting people, selling books and pie. The regulars took the time to chat, commiserating on Joe's situation and offering support and advice. Binh re-painted the gold and black script on the front window in the lull, touching it up with professional pride as Steve held the ladder steady. The two of them discussed other improvement projects for the store, agreeing that doing them before Joe came home would be a nice surprise.

"We should redo the insulation along the windows and doors before winter," Binh pointed out. "And I think we can get Joe a Con Ed discount if we get some energy-saving ceiling fans in."

"Terrific idea," Steve agreed. "I've got enough for the outlay right now if you know the type to get."

Binh smiled. He was a lean man with straight dark hair threaded with grey that he wore in a neat ponytail. Lauren had introduced him as 'New York's best undiscovered artist' and seeing his elegant work on the windows and bathroom mirrors of Time Was, Steve had to agree.

"Sure," Binh nodded. "Shouldn't run more than two hundred, and we'll get the rebate in six weeks or so."

Steve pulled out his wallet and handed over several bills. "All right, let's get to work on it then!"

"You're really good for this place," Binh told him, and lightly reached up to punch Steve's shoulder.

Lauren returned by mid-afternoon, admired the touched-up lettering, and brought kosher dogs steaming and fragrant for lunch. She got busy shifting books off the shelves to be moved, and insisted Steve take a break and eat while she did so.

He took one of the back tables where he could admire the curve of her back, and the sweet bounce of her ass as Lauren worked. Part of Steve felt guilty in ogling her, but other more basic drives overruled it for the moment. He felt a sense of joy in watching her, in knowing how warm and sweet she was, and how damned happy he felt around her.

Needed, Steve supposed. He felt needed for the first time in a long time. Working for S.H.I.E.L.D. was his duty, and he did it as honorably and honestly as he could, but Steve was aware that life consisted of more than missions and battles. He'd always thought he'd have time for marriage and a family once the war was over; that was as much a part of his goals as defeating Hydra. Peggy would have made a good mother too, he knew as he smiled to himself—she'd have done the disciplining while he probably would have done the indulging.

But that was then. The here and now presented a new dynamic, and Steve considered it carefully, surprised at a sense of eagerness now. He'd felt so adrift in the last two years, floating around the city, regaining his bearings. Time Was had been the first anchor in civilian life, and with it, Lauren and Joe. They'd both become important to him, Steve realized.

They'd started as his friends and over the last year had become his surrogate family. Steve blinked at this epiphany, feeling a lump in his throat.

Lauren came over and looked at him with concern. "Are you all right, honey?"

The little endearment made him blink hard, and Steve smiled. He reached a hand up to cup her cheek, so soft under his fingers. "Not yet, but I'm getting closer all the time, sweetheart."


Chapter 11: Chapter 11


The man stepping into Time Was that evening just before closing looked vaguely familiar to Lauren; she was sure she'd seen him on television at some point or another, but he was wearing sunglasses so she wasn't sure.

"May I help you?" she asked, giving him a quick smile and hoping that whatever it was he needed wouldn't take long.

"I'm looking for Steve Rogers; six foot two, Eagle Scout written all over him," came the reply, "although now I can see why he'd rather be here than at my place."

His voice gave him away and Lauren gave a little gasp, recognizing the man in front of her as Tony Stark.

THE Tony Stark.

She glanced towards the kitchen, suddenly nervous. "Oh! Let me get him . . ."

"I think you've probably already gotten him," Stark called out cheerily as he pulled off his sunglasses. "Oooh, pie."

In the kitchen, Lauren lightly tapped Steve's shoulder, pulling his attention from the repairs he was attempting on the toaster oven. "Out front—it's Tony Stark!"

Steve looked as if he wanted to say a very bad word; instead he gripped the screwdriver more tightly and moved out to the front of the pie counter, his big shoulders tense. Lauren followed, fascinated.

Tony Stark was not only a billionaire but Iron Man as well, she remembered. Of course he'd know Steve; they'd fought off the invasion of Manhattan together.

"Tony. What do you want?" Steve asked, and Lauren realized he was working hard to be civil.

Stark seemed to be focused on the confections in the display case and didn't answer right away. "So this is where you go for pie. Nice."

"Tony . . ."

"No, seriously, the peach crumble there is calling my name." He looked up and added, "I finished up some modifications for your shield and wanted you to try them out when low and behold you weren't around. Naturally I'm not the patient sort, so I came looking for you."

"I'm on leave," Lauren heard Steve point out. "Whatever you've modified can wait, Tony."

Stark nodded. "Sure, I get that, now. So aren't you going to introduce me?"

Lauren tried not to blush as Steve slipped an arm around her and she appreciated the sense of protection it gave. "This is Lauren Scott. Lauren, this is Tony Stark."

"Pleased to meet you," she murmured, not sure whether to hold out a hand or not. The tabloids said that Stark didn't like things handed to him, but Lauren wasn't sure if that meant hands themselves too.

"Enchanted," Stark replied, giving her a quick but thoroughly assessing look. "Do you make the pies yourself?"

"Yep," she admitted. "Grandpa generally runs the bookstore side of things and I take care of the kitchen. If you want the crumble it's on the house, Mr. Stark."

He gave her a smile, and Lauren could feel Steve tense up again as she slipped out from his arm, heading back behind the counter. "Pretty and generous; I can see the appeal."

"We're just about to close," Steve rumbled in what Lauren could hear was a no-nonsense tone as she wrapped up the pie slice to go. "We've got to get to the hospital for visiting hours, Tony."

Stark was nodding. "Sure, sure, I get it," he repeated. "No hurry, no rush on coming back to the tower. Miss Scott, a pleasure."

"I'll walk you out," Steve muttered picking up the pie, and Lauren watched him do just that, striding out with Stark to the sidewalk outside in the twilight. She couldn't hear what the two men said, but from the body language it was pretty clear that Stark was teasing Steve and that Steve wasn't amused by it. When he came back in after Stark had left, he looked decidedly annoyed.

"Are you all right?" she asked, wiping off a tabletop and scooping crumbs into her palm. Steve pulled the wrought iron security grille across the front and locked it before turning around.

"I will be," he sighed. "Tony's a good guy, but I'm not crazy about how he treats women."

"Grandpa says his father Howard was a bit of a womanizer as well," Lauren shrugged. "Before he married, that is."

"Howard had an eye for the ladies too," Steve conceded with a half-shrug. "But he also treated them as thinking beings. I'm not always sure Tony does."

Lauren gave a nod and moved to the next table. "Some guys are like that, although I did read that he's in a relationship now. I bet she has her hands full with him."

Steve laughed, and in doing so seemed to loosen up a bit. "That she does. So, ready to go see Joe?"

-oo00oo-

Grandpa looked much better, although he was still pale. In the hospital bed he seemed smaller than usual, and Lauren saw that he was rubbing his beard impatiently. He brightened when he saw them though, and insisted on hearing all the news. Lauren broke off when Doctor Goldstein stopped in and beckoned her over. She left Steve talking about ceiling fans with Grandpa and went over to the doctor out in the hallway.

"He's doing great," Doctor Goldstein smiled. "He was in pretty good shape prior to the fall and I don't see any complications setting in; however he's going to need physical therapy and some intensive home care for the first few weeks once he's discharged. Do you have first floor facilities?"

Lauren thought hard. "We could convert the office into a bedroom," she offered. "There's a small bathroom with it, so he wouldn't have to climb the stairs."

The doctor nodded. "The therapist will probably have him doing the stairs before too long, but I suspect Joe will be more comfortable in the first floor for a while. The nurses will give you a full print-out of home care, and help you arrange for any medical equipment you need for his safety and comfort . . . ." They talked for a while longer and Doctor Goldstein assured her that barring complications, Grandpa could be discharged by Monday.

When she brought this news back to the other two, they were delighted as well, and they chatted together until one of the nurses came in to shoo them out. "He really needs to rest, I'm afraid," she told Lauren and Steve. "We'll take good care of him."

"Thanks," Lauren replied, feeling a sense of relief.

On the ride home, she clung to Steve's back and considered the next three days very carefully, thinking of what she needed to get done before Grandpa came home. Under all the practical things—convert the downstairs office, contact the health care people, file the insurance paperwork—was another, unspoken need that she didn't quite have the courage to name. It was that one that had given her the courage to include the little box along with the other groceries she'd bought.

Lauren was scared. It was one thing to kiss and make out with Steve, but full-on seduction was a big step. Sure she knew he liked her, and they'd had some pretty intense contact, but Lauren wasn't sure if he was ready to go further.

Heck, she wasn't sure if either of them were ready to go further.

Still, she argued with herself, if they got to that point, at least they'd have protection, and that had to count for something. Lauren knew she was old-fashioned, but she was practical too, and Steve seemed to appreciate that aspect of her as much as anything else.

They reset the burglar alarm on the store and trudged up the back stairs, debating on what movie to watch, both of them pleasantly bantering about nothing and everything.

"Fine, we can watch Robin Hood if you want," Lauren announced, trying to sound nonchalant, "But we need to get into pajamas first."

"Fine with me. Popcorn or ice cream?" Steve asked, shrugging out of his jacket and hanging it up.

"Which do you want?"

"Both," he admitted, making her laugh.

Lauren waved towards the kitchen and slipped into her bedroom, her voice drifting through the closed door. "You can have both, Mr. Sweet-talker. Consider it payment for the bookcases today."

He took a few steps towards the kitchen and she spoke again. "Ah-ah! Pajamas first, then snacks."

"I didn't know you were going to be strict about it," she heard him pretend gripe back, a smile in his voice.

"I just want my fair shot at the Rocky Road," Lauren called, and heard Steve laugh at that. She opened her dresser and pulled out the silky clothing there before she lost her nerve, feeling excited, nervous and under it all, happy.


Chapter 12: Chapter 12


Steve wandered out after changing, feeling a sense of sweet stress as he made his way to the refrigerator. His pajama bottoms were nothing more than sweats, and the white ribbed tank top he wore was equally utilitarian; unlike Bucky Steve had never gone in for fashion statements when it came to clothing. He'd been in boy's sizes up until the Super Serum program, and even now still didn't see any advantage to stripes, checks or paisleys when it came to boxer shorts.

In the freezer sat a quart container of Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory Rocky Road. Humming in anticipation, he pulled it out and rummaged through the cupboard for bowls, feeling hungry on a few different levels.

Steve was well-aware of the undercurrent of flirtatious tension with Lauren. In each glance and casual conversation he felt growing hints of giddy anticipation that left him feeling quiet joy unmarred by anything else, not even Tony's surprise visit.

Tony had teased him outside the shop, offering up a three pack of condoms, adding instructions on how to use them that grew louder until Steve had taken the damned things just to shut the man up. They were stuffed deep at the bottom of his shaving kit now, waiting to be disposed of . . .

Or used, Steve acknowledged mentally with a blush. He'd read enough of Doctor R's books over the past year to have a pretty good understanding of contraception along with all the other aspects of the sexual revolution. In fact, he'd spent a good bit of time catching up and supplementing what he already knew in theory.

A chance to put some of it into practice with Lauren was definitely tempting and becoming more of a possibility all the time. Steve didn't want to rush things, but he couldn't deny a sense of rightness in the here and now.

He wondered if Lauren loved him.

Certainly he loved her, Steve reflected as he added a third scoop of ice cream into his bowl. Lauren made him laugh and think and feel things he hadn't thought he'd ever feel again.

Steve heard footsteps and turned, preparing to earnestly justify why he had so much Rocky Road in his bowl when he caught sight of Lauren's pajamas and froze.

Thin silk bottoms clung to her hips low enough to reveal her little navel and smooth stomach while the spaghetti strap top barely veiled her rounded chest. She looked like a perky genie, and adding to the unbearably sexy cuteness, her pajamas were pink.

With scampering white kittens printed on them.

Steve clung to the bowl so tightly he felt the plastic start to bend under his fingers, and fought a wheeze as she sauntered in.

"There'd better be some left," Lauren muttered, peering around him to the carton on the counter. "Meatloaf I can take or leave, but I'll fight to the death for Rocky Road, Steve Rogers!"

Wordlessly he surrendered his bowl, trying not to stare, and feeling that his blush must be full-body by now. Lauren didn't seem to notice as she took the proffered ice cream with a happy squeak. "Ohhh, wait, this is too much even for me. This one was yours, wasn't it?"

"Yeah . . ." Steve managed, aware that he needed to move before Lauren had a chance to notice his body's swift and unmistakable response to her pajamas. "But I think I, uh, overdid it."

"We'll share," Lauren decided, putting the carton back in the freezer. Steve couldn't help but notice that the chill from it had made her nipples perk up; biting back a groan he strode out to the sofa, trying to get himself under control. He sat on the far end of the sofa and crossed his legs, caught between feeling absurd and amused at his situation.

Lauren. Beautiful, sexy, clearly clueless Lauren, he thought in wry discomfort. They weren't pajamas as much as gift wrapping, and Steve wondered how the hell he was suppose to concentrate on Errol Flynn when there were cuddly little kittens barely covering sweet and enticing womanhood within arm's reach.

She wandered out, digging a spoon into the ice cream and plopped herself down next to him. "Remote's on the coffee table," Lauren murmured. Steve reached for it, acutely aware of her proximity now, and feeling dizzy. He fumbled with the remote, and finally got the movie started, then leaned back and draped his arm over the back of the sofa, forcing himself to relax.

Nope. Not possible, he realized a moment later.

The situation became infinitely more complicated when Lauren took this as a cue to snuggle up against him, and the press of her warm body cranked his senses into overload. Steve closed his eyes for a second and ran a quick mental assessment of his situation.

Say nothing and suffer for the duration of the film, or confess to his raging lust and throw himself on the mercy of Lauren's compassion?

Throwing himself on Lauren in any scenario had Steve gritting his teeth to keep from groaning. Manfully he set the remote down, took a deep breath and turned to look at her tucked against his side.

She glanced up at him, and when their gazes met, Steve noticed Lauren was licking her lower lip, and not because she'd gotten ice cream on it either. In a flash he caught on: she was nervous too.

Which meant she was just as sensitive to their situation as he was.

Steve took a breath and felt a heady sense of confidence flood through him in a reassuring rush; he took the bowl from her hands and set it on the coffee table, keeping his eyes locked on hers the entire time.

"I'm not exactly scared and I'm not exactly nervous," he told her, "however you've got to know that I have zero interest in this movie right now. None. Zip."

"Yeah?" Lauren squeaked at him, blinking timidly.

Steve gave a slow nod. "I cannot tell a lie; your pajamas are making my teeth sweat, Lauren. Pink silk would be tough enough to ignore in any case, but throw in the kittens and the little belly button and I'm pretty much focused on making whoopee."

Lauren snickered, and the snicker turned into one of her bubbly giggles. "M-making whoopee?"

"Yeah," Steve nodded. "A dorky euphemism for uh, you know." He would have said more, but Lauren slid a hand up to touch his chest, and her fingers were warm against the thin fabric of the tank top.

"Well I can't concentrate either if you're going to sit there in a shirt I want to take off with my teeth, Steve!" she confessed, eyes bright. "You're not the only one trying to be good!"

He grinned. "Sounds like a serious problem for both of us."

Lauren's fingers hooked at the neckline of his tank top and she pulled him closer, mock-glaring at him. "You know I'm in love with you, right?"

He felt a sharp pang of joy rocket through his chest. "No, I'm the one in love with you," Steve countered, the heat of his breath inches away from her mouth. "Give me a chance and I'll show you how much."

"I think you'd better do just that before I go crazy!" Lauren whimpered, and pounced, her mouth meeting his in a hot rush.

Steve felt the cognitive part of his brain shut down because she tasted of chocolate and woman, and before he realized it, Steve had pulled her into his lap. Lauren's weight was perfect, settling over the throb of his cock and making him groan with pleasure.

"Want you," Lauren murmured between kisses, plastering herself against him. "Sort of need you . . ."

Steve caught the back of her head in the palm of one big hand and settled into kissing the breath out of them both, giving himself over to instinct. Lauren let him take the lead, relaxing a little as she entwined her arms around his neck.

Beyond them the movie droned on, and by the time Errol Flynn was proving his archery marksmanship, Steve was trying not to hyperventilate. Lauren had peeled her top off, tossing it lightly to the floor, and the perky heft of her breasts as she did so held him mesmerized.

Breasts. God, Steve liked those and Lauren's were magnificent. He stared, and she giggled, reaching for his hands and pulling them to her chest, where they cupped the bouncy weight lightly.

"A little big," Lauren murmured, as if this was something to be ashamed of. "My mom's side was always that way."

"Shhhhh," Steve whispered. "I'm . . . I'm looking at something almost holy here . . . you're gorgeous, Lauren. They're terrific!"

She gave a pleased squeak as Steve rubbed his thumbs over her hard little nipples, and that squeak turned into a soft cry of pleasure when he followed up with his mouth, sucking ever so gently on the warm puckered rivet of each one.

He felt fevered, aching, and alive for once in his life: completely free. Steve nuzzled the soft skin, aware of the intimate sweetness of Lauren's skin and how much he wanted to wear the scent of her on himself. Steve raised his face reluctantly, his hands sliding away to stroke her waist. "Lauren, sweetheart, if we . . . about protection . . ."

"Got some," came her answering moan. "Yesterday. In my room. I know that sounds bad, but I figured . . . might be a good idea . . ."

Steve kissed her quickly. "Good, because I think we'd better . . ."

"Move this in there," Lauren agreed in a lust-soaked voice. "Yeah. I don't think I can wait much longer . . ."

Steve gave a grunt of agreement and moved, holding her close as he rose off the sofa with her in his arms. He carried Lauren into the bedroom, leaving Errol to banter with Olivia De Havilland.

Lauren helped him peel off his tank top, and when she reached for the drawstring of his sweats, Steve caught her hand, making her look up at him questioningly. "Um, I'm . . ." he hesitated, "not circumcised."

She blinked. "Okay. Does that . . . matter?"

Her mild and unsurprised tone caught Steve off-guard, and he gave a crooked smile. "I guess not. Just letting you know."

Lauren plucked the drawstring and gave a tug; his sweatpants pooled at his feet while she gazed at him, eyes wide. "Wow."

It was the best thing she could have said, and Steve held his hands up in a placating manner, feeling both pleased and embarrassed as he stepped out of the sweats. "Yeah, the one part of me the serum didn't have to enhance, actually."

"I can see why you needed a shield to go with that spear," Lauren teased, holding out her arms to him. Steve snorted and slid onto the bed, reaching for her pajama bottoms.

"I think you're overdressed there, sweetheart," he croaked. Lauren lifted her hips to help slide them off and rolled to press against him, shivering a little herself.

"Steve—" she pleaded, "Right now I'm so close I'll probably die if we don't just . . ."

"Me too," he admitted in a shaky voice. They shifted and Lauren reached for the nightstand, fishing out the box of condoms and handing it to Steve. It was awkward and sweet as they fumbled to get one on him; neither of them was too steady at this point, and for a moment Steve worried he might go off like a rocket when Lauren's fingers slid around his shaft in a lingering caress.

She shifted until she was under him, kissing his throat and murmuring hungry little sounds drove him slightly crazy. Steve knelt between her thighs, grateful for Lauren's gentle guidance as he shifted forward.

"There, oh puuushhhhh . . ." came her delighted cry, and he did, thrusting into her and giving a hoarse groan as the hottest, slickest squeeze he'd ever felt enveloped his shaft. He shuddered, nearly overwhelmed by the raw sensation of it all, and when Lauren slid her hands down his ass to pull him in deeper, Steve thrust again.

It only took a second before both of them were caught up in the desperately sweet rhythm; their bodies rocked together, building heat fueled by kisses and nips and groans. Steve couldn't think or breathe as the molten sweetness of driving into Lauren seared through him, need and passion fusing up through his cock unrelentingly.

A few minutes later Lauren gave a slow soft cry and tensed; Steve felt her go taut under him, her legs tightening around the back of his thighs, and the little pulsing squeezes of her cleft around his shaft was enough to bring him to climax himself. He rocked harder, trying not to growl as rich waves of pleasure crested though his big frame.

Steve shuddered and slumped onto Lauren, the damp of his sweat mingling with hers as he kissed her chin and nose and mouth, trying to convey his gratitude, his joy. Her cheeks were wet, he realized, but he couldn't tell who was crying.

Probably both of them, he realized.

"Love you," Steve whispered, "Kitten."

Lauren sniffled and clung to him, smiling. "Love you, Hero."


Chapter 13: Chapter 13


She woke up slowly, rising up through layers of consciousness, feeling bonelessly relaxed and achy in a good sort of way. This was now the second morning Lauren had woken up like this, and she felt she could get used to it. She let her eyes flutter open, noting the faint light along the far wall, and estimated it was about six in the morning.

Steve . . . Lauren realized she was on her back and that a large and possessive arm was draped around her waist like a security blanket. She looked at him, taking in the dim sight of Steve Rogers curled next to her, naked, tousled, and boyishly sweet in his sleep.

She smirked, indulging in a sense of mischievous delight in remembering the event of a few hours past, and sighed, feeling smug. She'd done it; seduced Steve! Although, Lauren admitted, he'd been extremely cooperative about it, which made things all the better.

Looking at him now, Lauren risked a peek at his body, not wanting to waste a perfectly good opportunity in the growing light. She drew in a breath as she did so, aware of how magnificently proportioned Steve Rogers was. Broad shoulders, lean waist, long muscular arms and legs, and between those narrow hips . . . Lauren gave a little murmur of appreciation as she eyed the dark blonde thicket of wiry hair that framed his thick shaft and covered his heavy balls.

As if it had heard her, his cock twitched, and she smothered a giggle. The rest of Steve stirred as well, and the arm around her tightened. Lauren gave another contented hum, and this time Steve smiled although his eyes were still closed.

"Laughing at me?" he asked in a sleepy murmur.

"At both of us," Lauren whispered back. "You look very nice with no clothes on."

"And you feel very nice with no clothes on," Steve replied, opening his eyes and tightening the arm around her waist. "Thank you, by the way. Last night was nothing short of amazing." He yawned and shifted, propping his other arm up and resting his head on his hand.

Lauren giggled softly; his hair was disheveled and the faint beginnings of beard stubble were back, but it was the shining happiness in his eyes that left her feeling happy. "My pleasure, believe me. You look smug this morning."

"It's Saturday. The shop doesn't open until ten, which means we have . . . four hours ahead of us," he replied, pulling Lauren closer and shifting until she was draped over him. "Four whole hours."

A flash of desire surged through her, and she wriggled against his long bare body as she bent to nibble his neck. "Oh my . . . whatever shall we do to pass the time?"

Steve gave a happy moan, his big hands gliding down her bare back to cup her ass. "Parcheesi?"

"I don't think so," Lauren growled mischievously.

They took things more slowly this time, and Steve insisted on thoroughly inspecting her; something that left her feeling flushed and squirmy as he ran reverent hands over her torso, his gaze intense.

"You have the greatest breasts," he sighed happily, cupping one. "I've always liked your cleavage, but seeing them . . . unobstructed? Wow."

Lauren rolled her eyes. "I'm going to forgive you for that since I know you mean well, but to be perfectly honest Steve, they're just breasts. They're bigger than average, they get overly-sensitive when I'm having my period and . . ." her comment trailed off as he bent to lick the underside of one, his aquiline nose nudging the responsive skin there.

"Oohhhhhhh," she moaned, "okay, that feels really good . . ."

She felt him smile against her skin. "Mmmmmmmm."

Lauren was too distracted to realize Steve was working his way down her body, and by the time she felt him kissing her belly button, she was too slow to stop him from going any further. She pushed herself up on her elbows, protesting as he slid a big warm palm down her belly and over the top of her curly mound. "Steve . . ."

"Wow," he breathed again in a voice so sincere that she blushed. "It's fluffy."

That was too much, and Lauren laughed, dropping a hand over herself. "I swear if you call it a kitten, I'll bop you on the head!"

He laughed too, but made no promise; instead, Steve nuzzled her curls, kissing lightly, making his intentions clear. Lauren gave a little squeal. "You . . . what . . . ?"

"Show and tell," Steve pleaded. "I've never seen the real thing, sweetheart."

Lauren swallowed hard. "Ummm, okay," she agreed, shifting her legs and parting them, feeling foolish. Jay had never been much interested in looking, and she wasn't sure how Steve would react.

She wasn't prepared for his slow sigh, or for the gentle touch of his fingers as he parted and stroked the soft petals of her sex. "Oh God that's beautiful."

"Really?" Curious now, Lauren rose up on her elbows to shoot him a perplexed look.

He glanced up at her for a second, then back down between her thighs. "Yes," Steve told her quietly. He bent lower and Lauren gasped as he kissed her there; a jolt of desire flared as his tongue began to stroke the slick folds with loving focus.

She couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything but whimper as he kept going, his lips and tongue and warm breath driving her crazy. Even the occasional faint scratch of his fine whiskers had Lauren on edge, and finally when she thought she couldn't stand any more teasing, Steve tenderly pushed a pair of thick fingers deep into her.

Lauren cried out, her hips rising as she clutched his broad shoulders, her climax as sharp and bright as broken glass. Steve slowed, gentling his licks a few moments later as she slumped, and he took his time in pressing kisses along the tops of her damp thighs. Blearily she glanced down, aware that he looked incredibly smug. "Wow," Lauren told him weakly, echoing his own words back to him.

Steve grinned, lips and cheeks wet. He rose and slid up along her body, moving to play with her hard nipples and making her shiver again as he did so. "I love you," he announced.

Lauren was already reaching for the nightstand drawer. "I love you too. Speaking of two . . ."

It was slower this time, and in the growing light Lauren wrapped herself around him, whispering in his ear as Steve thrust himself deep, his eyes hazy with passion, his breathing rough. She whispered softly to him, running her nails along his back, savoring the pleasure of his heavy strokes into her. This time was meant for him, but Lauren found herself building up once more, a molten sort of pleasure that made her wriggle, and when she shifted her knees higher, the push against some magic spot inside her made her clutch him tightly and hiss.

Hearing that, Steve came, hard.

They were late opening the store that morning.

-oo00oo—

Moving Grandpa's bed down the stairs took all three of them, and Lauren was glad that Binh was more than willing to help. She'd spent the afternoon clearing out the office—not a fun chore—and managed to find room for most of the effluvia up in the storage loft. The medical supply company delivered the elevated toilet seat and the walker; Lauren was pleased at how quickly things were shaping up.

Upbeat. She felt amazingly upbeat at the moment. Sore, yes, and maybe sleepy as well, but every time she looked at Steve her stomach did flippity-flops for a few seconds and it took her a moment to relax again. Lauren tried hard to stay calm and relaxed but he would brush by her, grinning, and she'd find herself grinning back.

"Are you flirting with me?" She accused him over a tub of dirty dishes being bussed to the back.

"Yep," Steve agreed, "Can't help myself. You're cute when you're bossing people around."

"I don't boss people!" she protested. Binh looked up from the bookstore register and shot her an eloquent look as a few customers snickered.

Lauren went red, but grinned, lowering her voice. "Okay, maybe I do, a little, but I'm definitely not flirting back, even if you are handsome and your hair does that flip over one eyebrow thing, and I love the way you smile."

"Breaktime," Steve announced, and towed her out to the alley. She giggled through his kiss, feeling him lift her off her feet just the way he had on their first date.

"I think," Lauren laughed, "You're a horndog, Mr. Steve Rogers!"

"So says the woman who has been staring at my backside all day," he replied calmly. "Don't think I haven't caught you doing it."

"No corroborating witnesses," Lauren challenged, kissing his chin. "Your word against mine."

Whatever Steve was going to say was cut off when Lauren's cell phone rang. She gave him an apologetic look and Steve set her down as she answered.

"Doll, you busy tonight?" the croaky voice of Mel Fein asked.

"Hey Mel . . . Tonight?" Lauren asked, startled.

"Yeah. Karen's got some stomach bug; I keep telling her not to order the nachos from the bar, but does she listen? She does not. So we're down a singer and I know it's short notice, but management will pay ya if you want the gig at eight."

"Hang on," Lauren murmured and looked up at Steve. "It's Mel, from the Doubletree. Wants me to sing tonight."

She saw a brief flash of disappointment cross Steve's face and was about to cancel when he nodded. "You should do it. You're good and you love to sing."

"But tonight . . . us . . ." Lauren murmured, torn now between a night in with Steve and a chance to belt out tunes.

"Hey, it's still about us, Kitten," he assured her. "I'm your ride, remember?"

"In more ways than one," Lauren replied, making him blush. She grinned and put the phone to her ear again. "You got it, Mel. Same play list as last time, okay?"

When she ended the call she looked up at Steve. He cupped her face in his hands, his gaze bright. "They called you back. That's really good, sweetheart."

"I hate losing a minute of time with you," she admitted quietly.

"You won't be," Steve pointed out. "I'll be in the audience and afterwards . . ."

They smiled at each other, and Lauren reached to hug him, making sure to squeeze his ass before they stepped back into the store.


Chapter 14: Chapter 14


He thought she looked amazing. Steve watched Lauren croon her way though her set of show tunes, and while her singing was sweet, the way she filled out her snug little black dress was mighty fine too. Something about the swing of her hips and the way she flaunted her smile had him feeling pleasantly possessive, and Steve glanced around the rest of the crowd, making sure everyone's admiration was respectful.

It was strange, he mused. He'd never actually felt this way about anyone before, this sense of protectiveness. Maybe it was because he knew how much bigger and stronger he was than Lauren. Maybe it was because he'd honestly committed himself to making her happy.

Or just maybe, he acknowledged to himself, it was because he was in love with her. All of her—her long toes, the spattering of freckles across her shoulders, the way she made paperclip chains or sang in the shower. She nagged and teased and cuddled and cooked and Steve ate it all up.

It dawned on him that he was happy, and that made him nearly laugh aloud. Happy. Steve hadn't thought he'd ever be happy again, not when he'd first been revived. For such a long time his life had consisted of getting knocked down and getting back up again. He'd been lucky in having friends; people who believed in him, but on the whole, 'happy' hadn't been an adjective he'd encountered too often. Steve knew he had purpose, and talent and determination, but happiness?

Lauren finished her last number and belatedly he clapped along with the other people in the audience, beaming as several appreciative listeners whistled as well. She blushed and hugged Mel, who was beaming, and looked to where he was sitting. Steve rose and came over to her, feeling yeah—happy.

"I think these are for you," he told her, handing over a bouquet of roses wrapped in green tissue. Lauren bit her lips as she took them, and Mel gave a hoot, pushing up his thick glasses.

"Ya first stage door Johnnie!"

"My only," Lauren smirked. "Mel, this is Steve; Steve, Mel Fine."

Steve made sure his handshake was gentle. Mel peered up at him, blinking. "Hoo boy, a regular linebacker! How do ya get through doors with them shoulders, kid?"

"Sideways," Steve offered, slipping an arm around Lauren. "Thanks for doing such a good job up there with her, sir."

"My total pleasure," Mel beamed. "It's a thrill to play songs with real lyrics and a singer who can sing 'em."

"They're my favorite songs," Lauren admitted with a shrug. "My dad used to play them and I've loved them since I was a kid."

"Good taste," Mel patted her hand. "Listen, I think I can get you steady work if you're interested. Buddy of mine's opening a retro lounge in a few months down in the reconstruction zone. I know he's lookin' for acts and if you're interested . . ."

Steve felt Lauren hesitate and knew she was torn; it was a great chance, but with Joe's recovery coming up, not the best timing. "A few months?" Lauren murmured thoughtfully. "Sounds great, but I've got some commitments right now . . ."

"Still, it wouldn't hurt to call," Steve carefully murmured. To Lauren he added, "Things change, and it's a heck of an opportunity."

She nodded. "No promises, but thank you Mel!"

After Lauren had changed and picked up her check, Steve helped her onto the bike, stealing a quick kiss as he checked the strap of her helmet. They rode back to Time Was through the dark streets, weaving through the thin traffic.

Lauren slid off the bike and shook her hair free after handing him the helmet, her smile bright. "Sleepy?"

"Not really," Steve admitted, following her inside. The semidarkness engulfed them and Steve thought to follow Lauren up, but she moved away from the back stairs and into Time Was, passing through the shadows. Curious, he moved towards her, aware of how different the bookstore looked at night. The iron grille lattice across the big front window cut the streetlight's glare into diamonds of brightness against the linoleum floor, and the scent of leather and coffee hung lightly in the still air. "Lauren?"

"I love this place," she murmured, looking over her shoulder at him. "I used to spend the summers here with my mom and grandpa while dad went on tour. After he killed himself, mom and I couldn't afford to stay in Queens so I talked her into letting me live with Grandpa while she stayed with friends and looked for work. I got to know the whole neighborhood here. I know this store better than anyone, Steve—where the fuse boxes are, the roof access, all of it. It's my home."

He felt a deep pang in his chest. Moving closer, Steve pulled her into his arms. "It's a great place."

"Yep, Lauren told him quietly. "It's gotten even better since you're a part of it, Steve. This past year has been one of the best, and considering we almost got invaded by aliens, that's saying something!"

They both laughed, still holding each other in the semi-darkness, and Steve sighed. "This place is the first one that's felt like a home to me since I came back. Maybe that's overly-sentimental but it's true, and while at first it was because of the décor, that wasn't all. There was Joe, and there was . . . IS . . . you."

Lauren nodded, and gave him a serious look. "I've never been in love before, but . . . you make me even happier than this place does." She laughed awkwardly, "Okay, that sounded weird, I know—"

Steve didn't let her finish, sweeping her up in his arms and kissing her welcoming little mouth with all the tenderness he could. Lauren wrapped herself around him, and within moments their embrace became something more breathless and intimate, the two of them entwined in the soft grey light, clinging to each other tightly.

-oo00oo—

Steve was the first to wake this time, and it was early enough for him to savor the feeling of being curled around Lauren in the grey dawn. Outside it looked like it might rain, and he almost wished they could sleep in, but it was Sunday and that meant services as well as the late morning crowd downstairs.

He buried his nose in the silky strands of Lauren's hair, feeling blissful and aroused by the press of her bottom against him. Steve knew some of his teammates considered him a prude, old-fashioned and out of touch when it came to things like sex, but at the moment he was pretty sure he was anything but. Neither he nor Lauren had even bothered with pajamas last night, and out of the fifteen condoms they'd started the weekend with, only nine were left, including the ones Stark had given him, which Steve was determined not to use.

Apparently the damned things had the SI logo on them, and if anything was a mood-killer, that was, Steve acknowledged sourly.

Still, matters were looking good this morning, given that Lauren was giving little purrs and pushing back against his hips. She rolled over to face him, eyes still closed, but smiling just the same. "Morning."

"Morning. Did I wake you?"

"Part of you did. Does that thing ever sleep?"

"Not around you," Steve admitted, feeling breathless as Lauren reached down and curled her fingers around as much of him as she could. "And that's not exactlydiscouraging it . . ."

"Not meant to," she murmured. "Shhhh, just lie back and let me have fun . . ."

Steve hesitated, but Lauren had already disappeared under the coverlet, and seconds later both her hands were caressing him. He rolled onto his back, slightly dazed, and lifted the coverlet again, flinging it off. Lauren looked up at him, startled. "Did I hurt you?"

"No," Steve muttered thickly, "No, I just . . . wanted to . . . uh, see . . ." It was embarrassing to admit, but she smiled and nodded, shifting until she was straddling his legs, her hair draping around her cheeks as she nuzzled him.

Steve felt himself stiffen even more, felt a flush of excited awkwardness cross his face. She wasn't going to. . . She . . . ohhhhh . . . .

She definitely was. Steve gave a gasp as Lauren licked his shaft, and when she took the big plum head into her mouth, he groaned loudly, his face red, his prick fiercely hard. Lauren gave a little hum and slowly began to suck, her red hair brushing his hips with each bob as Steve fought the urge to climax then and there.

Hell of a turn-on.

Doctor R had told him he would discover a few and Steve knew logically he would, but the difference between assumptions and realities, particularly slick, warm, slow reality was incredible. Lauren, his Lauren doing this to him . . . Steve tried to keep his hips still but couldn't; he rocked up, lifting her slightly and throwing off her concentration for a moment, but she merely slowed a little and began to work a sweet counter-rhythm, the stroke of her lips driving him to sensual insanity.

He fought to stay in control, but a while later when Lauren let her tongue slide over the underside of his shaft Steve gasped and reached blindly for her shoulder, feeling the need to warn her that matters were about to become critical. "Baby . . ." he managed, his tone hoarse. Steve felt his thrusts speed up, felt the rush of overwhelming pleasure charging up through his damp, naked body and heading for that critical point beyond any control.

The rush of orgasm surged through him and Steve clutched the sheets, feeling himself gush thickly, and the sight of Lauren swallowing, licking him clean left him utterly spent and stunned that something so raw and animalistic could be so loving and in its own way, beautiful too. She kissed his softening cock, and moved to stretch out next to him long moments later, and Steve pulled her into his arms, kissing her face, tasting traces of himself on her lips.

"Lauren," he began, unsure what to say, how to thank her for the pleasure she'd given him, but she grinned, brushing his bangs to one side.

"That was fun," she murmured. "I sort of hoped you'd enjoy it."

That made him laugh, and he rolled his eyes. "Enjoyed it? Kind of an understatement, sweetheart! I was . . ."

"Blown away?" she offered, smirking, and Steve laughed again, warm happiness in it.

"Can I . . ." he began, but Lauren shook her head, smiling with a hint of regret.

"Steve, my period's about to start, so I'm liable to be a little cranky today. Did you want to go to church with me this morning, or just sleep in?"

"Church," he murmured. "Yours or mine?"

"Yours," Lauren suggested. "After that we'll go get breakfast and see Grandpa?"

"Good plan," Steve agreed contentedly.


Chapter 15: Chapter 15


They pulled up into the parking garage of the Tower, and Lauren felt her nervousness increase. She'd agreed to come here with Steve, but the place was intimidating as hell, and it didn't help when the security system scanned them both with lasers and demanded IDs.

"Lauren Scott; she's my guest," Steve told the guard at the booth, who took the card Steve passed him, along with her driver's license.

It took a few minutes, and Lauren was glad to have her arms around Steve. Finally the guard gave a nod and passed the two cards back. "Okay sir, you're both cleared. Have a good day."

She sighed with relief as the bike rolled in through the sliding doors, and once inside Steve pulled it up into a parking space against the far all. Lauren noted the bay was mostly empty except for a few expensive cars here and there. Steve helped her off the bike and smiled, putting the helmets on a padded shelf on the wall.

"I know it looks a little scary, but it's not that bad," he reassured her. "This way." Steve's hand on the small of her back felt comforting, and Lauren allowed herself to be herded towards an elevator.

"Welcome back Captain Rogers," came a cultured British voice. "To which level may I take you?"

"Your elevator . . . . talks," Lauren murmured, looking around the polished oak and brass box with trepidation. The thing looked fancier than even the posh ones in the Park Avenue hotels.

"That's Jarvis," Steve told her. "An artificial intelligence who's sort of the major domo around here. Need to go to the living quarters, please."

"Certainly, sir. Welcome, Miss Scott," came the smooth reply. The elevator rose and Lauren held her breath, a little overwhelmed by the décor. Stark Tower had been in the news since its inception, and Lauren knew it was state of the art, but she hadn't considered it would be quite so . . . luxurious. It was difficult to believe Steve preferred Time Was to this but that's what he'd said.

The doors opened and he led the way out into a hallway of floor to ceiling glass windows with a view of the city that made her gasp. Steve gave a chuckle as he paused and pointed. "Yeah, it's impressive, at least on sunny days."

"It's beautiful," Lauren murmured, gazing out.

Steve gave a sigh. "It's also pretty . . . distant. I like being down at street level, seeing people instead of dots. Come on-" He headed down the hall and passed a few doors, stopping at one and pressing a palm against a hand-shaped pad to the right of it. A moment later the door slid open, and curious, Lauren peeked inside.

She'd expected some sort of luxurious suite, but instead found herself looking at a large room made all the larger by its relative emptiness. A living room set in beige sat in the center, and a dinette off to one side. No television or stereo systems, instead there were several oak bookshelves filled with books. Many of the titles she recognized had come from Time Was.

On the walls were collections of pinned sketches, and Lauren recognized them as Steve's handiwork: street scenes from the Village, a few charcoal drawings of skyscrapers, a series of simple pen and ink studies of . . . her. Fascinated, Lauren moved closer to look at it, smiling. Here she was serving a young couple at the counter, and there she was laughing with Grandpa, and here, bent over a book, a strand of hair dangling down . . .

"Steve!"

"Hmm, oh, yeah . . . those," he seemed embarrassed, running a hand through his bangs. "I liked watching you in action, and I tried to get it on paper . . . and you're cute."

He was blushing now, and Lauren smiled, lightly touching the edge of the paper. "You've got talent, real talent here."

"Some," he shrugged, "but there's not a big demand for artists with no computer skills these days. I'm taking a few courses on-line, but . . ." he gave a wave of one big hand, "I've got a day job, so to speak."

Lauren nodded, and turned to look at him. "So I hear. Can I see the rest of the place?"

He nodded. The kitchenette was utilitarian, but Lauren was amused at the number of cheerful magnets on the refrigerator, most of them tourist souvenirs from New York landmarks. The bathroom was large enough for a full Jacuzzi tub, which seemed to embarrass Steve further. "Stark put those in everyone's quarters," he mumbled.

Lauren shot him a mischievous look and nodded. "He did seem pretty hedonistic."

"That's putting it mildly," Steve agreed. "At least I made him take out the bar."

"In the living room?"

"No, the one that was here in the bathroom," he replied, rolling his eyes and smirking.

The last room was the bedroom of course. Lauren stood in the doorway, gazing in and what struck her immediately was how utilitarian the room was. The bedspread was chenille, off-white, very old-fashioned. On the dresser sat a single framed photo of a group of men in various military uniforms, and next to it was an old-fashioned candy dish with change and keys in it.

Only two pictures hung on the walls here; a huge map of New York City from the nineteen Forties, and a larger print of the black and white photo of his parents in a silver frame.

Those were the only personal touches, and for a moment Lauren felt her heart ache at the loneliness that permeated the place. She looked at Steve, but he was sliding the door of the closet open. "And yeah, the uniform. I don't pretend to know what it's made of, but apparently it's bullet-resistant, waterproof, pretty comfortable as these things go . . ."

There it was, the red, white, and blue uniform made famous in the Invasion broadcast footage.

Lauren came over and lightly touched the sleeve of the outfit, caught now between empathy for Steve's personal life, and fascination in this concrete evidence of his public persona. It was cool under her fingers, and she stroked the material. "Do you . . . like doing it?"

He caught her gaze and gave a slow nod. "Yeah, I do. When I first joined up it was about fighting the enemy and winning the war. Once I woke up in this decade, I didn't think I had any purpose left, but after the invasion . . . I know I do. The job of defending America isn't done, sweetheart, and I'm ready to keep doing it."

Lauren blinked back a few tears, determined not to let them fall. "That's what makes you a hero."

"Lauren," Steve sighed, "I wish it was as simple as it used to be. I love this country and I'm sworn to protect it, but I'm also . . . me. Steve Rogers from Brooklyn. Before the war I wanted what lots of guys wanted—a house, a loving family, maybe a dog . . . and just because it's seventy years later those dreams haven't changed too much. Those are things I still want. I just don't know how to get them."

She found herself giving him a twisted little smile. "You'll figure it out; you're a smart guy."

Without looking directly at her, Steve pulled the uniform out and laid it on the bed, folding it neatly. "What about you? Does this-" he waved at the clothing in front of him, "bother you?"

"Steve, I'm proud as hell of what you're doing!" Lauren protested. "All of you were—are—heroes! Sure now that I know I'm going to worry, but that's part of being in love with you, honey. I may not be crazy about the fact that you do a dangerous job, but it's something you're uniquely qualified to do, and . . . you love it. I'd be an idiot not to accept that."

Neither of them spoke for a moment, and Steve finished packing the uniform before walking over to her and taking Lauren in his arms.

"I love you," he murmured huskily. "I really do, Lauren Grace Scott."

She slipped her arms around him and hugged hard, feeling very vulnerable for the moment. "I love you, Steven Joseph Rogers. That's what scares me."

Lauren felt him kiss the top of her head. "Scares me too, but in a good sort of way." Steve whispered. "And there's a lot we still have to talk about, but . . . you needed to see my life the way it is right now. Why you and Joe and the store mean so much to me."

She nodded, blinking quickly. "I get it now. Really get it, Steve."

"Good," he murmured. "We're going to need to talk about the future I know, but I guess for now we'll just take things as they come."

Lauren nodded, taking comfort in his massive hug. Steve's hugs were full-body affairs, solid and comforting. She squeezed him back, sending up a grateful prayer.

-oo00oo—

The rest of the Tower—at least the parts Steve could show her—were impressive too, and Lauren found herself by terms amazed and intimidated by the complexities packed into the Park Avenue building. Apparently Tony Stark believed in comfort, luxury, and instant access to anything he wanted at any hour of the day or night. Lauren wasn't sure she approved, but said nothing as Steve finally led her back down to the garage, his backpack loaded with clean clothing and his uniform.

"So . . . that's my place, for the moment," he murmured. "It's central, I'll give it that."

"It's a palace and fortress and Shangri-La all in one," Lauren sighed. "Are you sure you want to give all this up to hang out in a second-hand bookstore in Murray Hill?"

"No contest," Steve laughed. He would have said more, but someone came striding across the parking garage towards them and Lauren looked up to see a compact man with piercing eyes and a panther's stride approaching. He looked at her and then at Steve, relaxing fractionally.

"Hawkeye," Steve murmured in a quiet voice.

"Captain," came the low reply. "Ma'am." He gave her a nod and moved past them into the building; Lauren looked from him to Steve, a question in her eyes.

"The archer," Steve confirmed. "Good guy, but not a big talker. So where to now?"

Lauren took a breath. The growing ache in her lower back had gotten stronger, and the need for Motrin was imminent. "Uh, home . . ."

He gave her a sharp look. "Not feeling well?"

"Cramps," she confessed. "I'm sorry—they usually wipe me out on the first day."

"I know," Steve replied. "I've seen you under the weather a couple of times before. Let's get you off your feet for a while, okay? You can grab a nap and I'll man the store with Binh. Sound good?"

She grabbed his shirt and growled up at him playfully. "Will you stop being so perfect?"

"Oh I'm not perfect, Kitten. I still need to be fed," Steve reminded her. "Also, I think I used up all the toothpaste, and I still haven't finished repairing the toaster oven so the parts are all over the back counter."

"Okay, that's better," Lauren smiled, and climbed up behind him on the bike. "Let's go home and you can have meatloaf sandwiches."

"You said the magic word," Steve grinned, handing her a helmet.

"Meatloaf?"

"Home."


Chapter 16: Chapter 16


Joe was thrilled to be out of the hospital. He was pale of course, and bristly, but delighted to be back at Time Was. Steve had borrowed a car to bring him home, and was quietly grateful that Stark was willing to provide one so easily. The wheelchair was a loaner, but helpful; Lauren pushed it in through the front doors as Steve held them open. Inside, she put the brakes on and moved the foot pedals out of the way, then brought the walker forward.

Joe made a face. "Damn it. Beg pardon Lauren sweetie, but I really hope I don't need that thing permanently."

"You won't," Steve assured him. "It's temporary."

"Do you want to lie down?" Lauren asked, trying not to hover and not succeeding, Steve noted with amusement.

Joe shook his head, looking around. "Nope. Hey, you got those shelves moved!"

"Steve did it," Lauren announced with pride. "So now we can make that little reading corner by the military history section as well as put in a few more racks for cookbooks."

"That's terrific!" Joe rose slowly and gripped the walker. "I know we talked about it, but it really does make more room back there. So what else have I missed?"

Steve paused and looked at Lauren, who went pink. She moved closer to Joe and gave a sigh. "Something big, Grandpa. Well, two big things, really. One Steve needs to tell you and the other one we both do. Are you sure you don't want to sit?"

"I will, later, Sweetpea," Joe assured her. "Right now I need to stretch a little. Nurses have been making me move around so I don't stiffen up. So . . ." He looked at Steve curiously, "Son?"

Steve squared his shoulders. "Back in the hospital, you told me you knew about me," he began. "About who I was."

Joe nodded, the beginnings of a smile on his face. "Yep, I remember the conversation."

"It's only part of the story," Steve continued. "It's not that I'm Captain America, Joe—I'm THE Captain America. The original. The only."

For a moment nobody spoke and Steve watched the old man carefully, hoping this seemingly outrageous statement didn't send the man into some sort of shock. Joe cocked his head and pushed his glasses up, still assessing him for a long moment, then glanced at Lauren as if for confirmation.

She nodded.

"Ooookay," Joe murmured softly. "Care to explain that one?"

The story came out once more, this time without the visual aids but with all the same details he'd shared with Lauren. After a while Steve went over to the Bond Tour poster and pointed. "Betsy, Marion, Jane, Helen, Mitzi, Sally and Kate," he murmured, tapping each smiling face in turn. "And they were great gals. Jack was our stage manager and doubled as Hitler for the floor show. Once early on in Hoboken I accidently decked him for real. Poor guy had a concussion for a week. Learned to pull my punches after that."

Joe stared at the poster and swallowed. "My mother saw that bond drive," he mumbled. "She and two of the others from our neighborhood. Came home singing about the Man with a Plan."

"I didn't write the song," Steve assured him, feeling a blush. "Anyway, once we made it to Europe I sort of went AWOL from the tour."

"The rescue of the hundred and seventh," Joe murmured in awe. "We heard about that, even in the Pacific theater! Geez, you're really him! I knew there was something about you, Steve, I knew you'd been in the service! Didn't tell you?" This last was to Lauren, who had her hand on his shoulder. "I know a vet when I see one!"

"Yes," Steve admitted simply. "You do."

They talked for a while longer while Lauren brought them lemonade and Steve could see her growing more concerned for Joe so he smiled and made a point of checking his watch. "Look, I promised Lauren I'd pick up the pizzas for dinner and I know you're probably a little bushed so we can talk later, all right?"

"Yeah," Joe admitted, settling back into the wheelchair with a sigh. Steve could see that whatever energy the man had was draining fast. "A little nap actually sounds like a great idea."

Steve wheeled him into the converted office and let Lauren get Joe settled. He remembered this part of recovery himself; trying to maintain a balance between dignity and necessity, and was glad that Joe wasn't overdoing it. When Lauren finally came out, she looked relieved.

"He's already asleep," she reported. "So . . . he took that pretty well, huh?"

"He did," Steve agreed, "Although he had a head-start on it. It's a good thing most of my missions from that time are declassified; I think Joe's going to want to hear about them in detail."

"Probably," Lauren agreed, chuckling. "It's the sort of thing he adores; you know that." She moved closer and slipped her arms around him. Steve hugged her, enjoying the press of her chest against him, and feeling a little guilty about it as well.

Lauren glanced up, her expression wry. "This changes things again, doesn't it?"

He sighed. "Yeah, it does. I guess we both knew that, though."

She made a face and snuggled closer. "Just when I was getting used to sharing so much with you too-"

His cell phone rang. Startled, Steve fished it out, aware that only three people had the number and one of them was standing in front of him. He glanced at the display and groaned softly before putting the phone to his ear. "Sir?"

"Sorry to cut your leave short, Cap, but we've got a situation that calls for your personal expertise," came Fury's surprisingly quiet voice. "Need you back at HQ in two hours."

Steve bit back an obscenity, well-aware that Fury wouldn't have revoked his down time unless it was necessary, and that Lauren was looking at him questioningly. "Understood."

"Good. I'll have some people keep an eye out on Ms. Scott while we're out of the country." Fury hung up, and Steve slowly put the phone away, feeling as if someone had just draped a lead cape on him. He looked at Lauren.

"You have to go," she murmured quietly, "don't you?"

"Yes," it was difficult to say, and Steve hugged her more tightly. "But not for an hour or so. Let's . . ."

"Cuddle?" Lauren murmured, as if reading his mind. He nodded gratefully, and they went up the back stairs, settling in on the sofa.

Steve couldn't help but grin as he pulled her into his lap and whispered into her ear. "Back where it all started."

"That's what coming home is all about," Lauren replied gently. "And I DO expect you to come home you know." She stroked his bangs across his forehead and Steve knew she was trying to stay light. "I'll make pot roast for you, with noodles."

"Okay that's a deal," he murmured, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. "I'll go do whatever it is Fury needs me to do but my mind's going to be on dinner and you. I have no idea how long this is going take though, Kitten. Could be a week, could be . . ."

"Longer," she nodded. "I know. I don't suppose I'll be hearing from you while you're gone."

"Probably not," Steve admitted. "I'm pretty sure it's all classified. He did promise me that some folks would be looking out for you and Joe though."

"Looking out for us?" Lauren gave him a startled glance and Steve gave a nod and cupped her face in his hands, making her meet his gaze.

"I've been up against some people with very long memories, Sweetheart, and I'm not taking anything for granted. You and Joe are now the most important people in the world to me and I don't want either of you in danger. It's not as if you're going to have armed guards outside of the store, but S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to be making sure you two are safe while I'm gone."

Lauren looked troubled. "Are you . . . expecting trouble here?"

"I don't expect it, but I'm not going to risk anything either," he replied. "You and Joe have enough to deal with right now. I feel awful having to go, especially right now."

And he did. Already Steve felt a sense of guilt and worry within himself. The time went too fast, and Steve felt a growing sense of melancholy as Lauren walked him down to the alley. They stood there in the late afternoon light as the soft sounds of the city drifted around them. Steve finally picked Lauren up and set her on the seat of the bike, kissing her softly.

"I'll be back as soon as I can. Take care of yourself and Joe until then. If you need anything, anything at all, just go to Stark Tower and let them know—you've got clearance there now. I've got to go Kitten, but remember I love you."

Lauren gave a sobbing laugh and kissed him hard. She slid off the bike and reached up to pat his cheek. "Love you too, Hero. Go take care of business and you can have pot roast when you get back."

"Pot roast and you; that's a deal."

Steve climbed on the bike, gunned it and roared out of the alley, not looking back, but all too aware of Lauren watching him go.

Later, when he was changing, he found the hair ribbon tucked in his jacket pocket. Steve carefully put it into his glove of his uniform, smiling.


Chapter 17: Chapter 17


Lauren was grateful that the next few days were busy; it made it easier not to worry about Steve as she took care of Grandpa. He needed help dressing and getting up. Mrs. Clemmons, a big cheerful woman from the home care service, came and bathed him, giving Lauren a chance to bring out extra pies from the freezer and restock the counter. Most of the regular customers were supportive and Lauren noted sales were up from the usual level.

Grandpa took his medication, did his exercises and did his best to keep her spirits up. When Lauren came down to check on him a few nights later, he was writing in a notebook, filling it with pages of notes.

"What are you doing?"

"Notes for a book about Steve," Grandpa told her cheerfully. "I figure a book covering Captain America's World War Two missions is overdue, and if I get to interview Steve, he could give me his personal impressions of 'em. Course I'd have to end it with his tragic death in the polar ice. Think he'd be interested in the project?"

"I don't know," Lauren smiled. "You'd probably get his okay, but you'll need clearance from some other people you know. Probably the people he works for now."

"S.H.I.E.L.D." Grandpa nodded curtly. "Yeah that might be touch and go. Still, wouldn't hurt to get some outlines down. How are YOU doing, Sweetpea?" He patted the edge of the bed, inviting her to sit.

Lauren did, sighing. "I'm okay. Mostly. Miss him of course and I worry about him, but . . ."

"Not easy I know," Grandpa sighed. "Your grandmother Lil hated every one my deployments. She hid it pretty well until I got shot and sent home. Then boy did I get an earful! So did the doctors and nurses and other patients as I recall."

Lauren chuckled. "She yelled at you?"

"She was just worried," Grandpa nodded. "Emotion builds up, Sweetie, and your grandmother had a habit of trying to keep it all in. When she finally had a chance to see me it all sort of came flooding out; I knew she wasn't mad, just needed to vent. Don't YOU do that, Sweetpea. If you need to let it out, let it out."

"I know he's smart and experienced but there are so many dangerous things out there," Lauren murmured.

"He's already faced a lot, and now he's got something to come back to," Grandpa pointed out with a smile. "I told you the man had it bad for you."

"Yeah," Lauren admitted, blushing. "We sort of have it bad for each other."

"No!" Grandpa chuckled, "Never would have guessed. Not that I want details, but I'm guessing it's well beyond the hand-holding stage."

"Grandpa—" Lauren blushed, but dropped her head, not meeting his gaze. He reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.

"Shhhh, don't fret, Sweetpea. You two aren't the first to make hay while the sun shines. Your grandmother and I . . . lord, even your folks from what I remember," Grandpa murmured softly. "Neither you nor Steve are the sort rush into things, so I know you're being careful and that's good too."

Lauren nodded, still red in the face. "We're good together. We've talked a little about the future . . . nothing definite, but right now, it's good."

"You know," Grandpa told her heavily, "it's probably going to be like this for years, Lauren. He's going to go on missions and you're going to be here, either watching him go or waiting for him to come home. Have you thought about that?"

She drew in a deep breath and didn't answer right away, looking around the converted office before saying anything. Finally Lauren sighed. "I know. I thought I knew what it would be like before this, but right now, I really know. This sucks."

"This part of it," Grandpa agreed. "Not all of it though."

"Then that's what I need to concentrate on," Lauren managed a small smile. "Getting past this part. At least I have you to help me."

"That you do, Sweetpea, that you do," he told her, squeezing her fingers.

Later that night, Lauren slipped into the plaid shirt Steve had left behind and climbed into bed. She knew it would take a while to fall asleep, but the scent of him helped, and gradually Lauren drifted off, murmuring a quick prayer.

The week dragged on, and Lauren paid close attention to the news, hoping to glean something from the reports. There were the usual stories about unrest in various Middle Eastern countries, and reports of various military actions in a few third-world hot spots, but nothing that mentioned American intervention. She felt frustrated and relieved at the same time, a balancing act she figured she'd have to live with from this point on.

Luckily the weather turned cooler as the last days of summer finally shifted into fall, and Lauren took advantage of the car. She stocked up on fresh fruit from the farmer's market, took Grandpa to his appointments, and found time to organize an End of Summer sidewalk sale with Binh.

Every morning Lauren looked towards the Stark Tower, thinking of Steve.

This waiting was different than the other time when Steve was gone. Then she'd been uncertain of their relationship, of what might or might not come to pass. Now, it was simply a matter of enduring.

The call came on her cell phone in the early afternoon; a blocked number. "Miss Scott?"

Lauren pinned the phone between shoulder and ear, trying to refill the napkin holder as she did so. "Yes?"

"Rogers is fine. He'll be arriving in New York at fifteen hundred hours," the man's voice told her. "Promised him I'd pass on the message." The call ended and Lauren let the phone fall as she wobbled for a moment, filled with so much elation she thought she'd fly.

Two hours. Steve would be home in two hours. Lauren scooped up the phone and went to find Grandpa, her mind already moving at light speed through the logistics of closing early, making pot roast and crying in relief.

-oo00oo—

It had been an old base, built back in Hydra's heyday and abandoned for decades. Steve had recognized the standard floor plan and was able to draw it for the rest of the team, was easily able to show them where the exits and vulnerable points were.

It wasn't Hydra in it now; just a group of terrorists in search of cheap and forgotten technology, but that didn't matter because Steve knew as much as they did about what had been left behind. He, Tony and Natasha cleaned the place out in two days, putting an end to the budding hopes of the nascent cell group. The enemies had an impressive arsenal though, and tracing their contacts and suppliers had taken time as well.

Steve put his focus into the job, but found himself thinking about Lauren in the odd moments throughout the day, wondering what she was doing. One evening Tony came to sit next to him in the helicarrier mess hall and Steve braced himself, expecting a series of lewd innuendos.

He wasn't prepared for quiet words over a bowl of soup.

"She's fine. She'll be a wreck when you come home . . . she'll fuss, and have to check you over for herself to make sure you really are in one piece, and then she'll tell you she wants to hear all about it but she doesn't, not really. Just let her talk wash over you and when there's a break in the flow, kiss her for all you're worth."

"Yeah?" Steve muttered back, relieved and suddenly aware that yes, Tony did have experience with this.

"Yeah," Tony nodded. "She might cry a little, so you hold her for a while and let her do it. And sleep together after that. Really sleep," he re-iterated, blushing a little. "As in both of you going into REM for a while."

"And it helps?" Steve shot him an earnest glance, and was pleased when Tony gave another slow nod.

"Yep."

They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes longer, the hum of the carrier a faint sound all around them. Tony stirred his soup for a moment and cleared his throat, shooting Steve an inquiring look.

"No," Steve muttered. "I'm not using prophylactics with your company's logo on them. That's taking product placement a little too far, Tony."

"Pepper said the same damned thing," Tony grumbled. "I'll have to take it up with marketing."

They did the mission debriefing on the way home, and by the time Steve disembarked from the helicarrier, all he could think of was getting to 34th and 2nd as fast as humanly possible. The golden haze of fall was turning the leaves in the parks and for the first time Steve had trouble keeping to the speed limit as he rode up 2nd Avenue, feeling his pulse quickening with every mile.

What if she wasn't there? He should have called, Steve thought belatedly. At the next light he pulled out his cell phone, but a bike courier swooped past like a hawk, and the messenger's momentum knocked the phone out of his hand. Steve watched helplessly as his phone tumbled into the intersection and a cement mixer rode over it, crushing the thing into a mosaic of plastic and metal on the asphalt. "Hey!"

No time. The light changed.

Pushing on was the best option, and Steve revved the motorcycle, letting the big machine surge forward. The blocks passed in a blur and finally he turned at the corner, moving into the alley and bringing the bike to a halt outside the back door of Time Was. Steve didn't know if anyone heard him; he parked, climbed off and ran back down the alley, moving around the corner and onto the sidewalk, slowing down as he approached.

So dear. Binh's scrollwork on the painted logo, the tattered awning, the rusted bike rack out front . . . it all felt familiar and safe and welcoming. Steve ran a hand through his bangs and took a breath, aware that he was grinning like a fool, that he felt so much happiness that he couldn't stand still. He grabbed the handle of the door and pulled.

It didn't open.

Steve stared, suddenly aware that the inside of the bookstore was dark, empty. A taped note at face-level caught his eye:

Closed for Pot Roast

He grinned.


Chapter 18: Chapter 18


The back door was unlocked but Steve knocked anyway, feeling a surge of anticipation and joy as he stood there, waiting. He heard footsteps rushing down the wooden steps, and a scrabbling for the door handle, then—

A soft little cry of joy and Lauren launched herself into his arms. He caught her up and the momentum spun them both around. Steve breathed in the scent of her, light peach-tinted womanly skin mingled with hints of Blue Waltz perfume, and felt all his tension shift from his shoulders to below his stomach.

He'd missed her so much, and so deeply, he realized. His heart and soul, surely, but even his body had missed hers. Raising his face, Steve looked up and caught her gaze; Lauren slowed herself, kissing him lightly, a mere peck on the lips, as if afraid he was simply an illusion.

Steve had no illusions. He shifted, letting his hands slide under her thighs to easily support her as he let his lips nuzzle her chin. "Hello Kitten. Still crazy about you."

"Yeah, well it's not a tenth of how crazy I am about you, Hero." Faltering, Lauren added in a softer, more desperate voice, "Steve . . ." and kissed him.

That was what he'd been waiting for, what he needed. Steve tilted his face and blissfully kissed her in return, relishing the slide of her little tongue against his, the warmth of breath against his cheek. The sweet reality of Lauren in his arms, his to kiss and hold made him grin.

He could get used to coming home like this, oh yes.

"Oh!" she blurted, eyes wide. "The noodles!"

"Noodles?"

"They're going to boil over; you have to put me down so I can go take them off the stove!"

Steve thought about this. "Nope," he replied, and carried her into Time Was, climbing the stairs with Lauren spluttering the entire trip. Once at the apartment, he moved over to the stove, and reluctantly set her down, keeping himself plastered along her back as she turned down the heat on the roiling pot. "Smells good."

"Yes, well you need to step back otherwise someone's going to get scalded," Lauren informed him distractedly. "I was going to put these in the crock pot to keep warm because the roast won't be done for another hour and a half and I didn't know when you were getting home exactly . . . oooohhhhhh . . ." she trailed off as he nuzzled her neck. She hurriedly dumped the noodles into the pot, covered it and turned in his arms, eyes wide. "Bedroom, Steve."

"Yes ma'am," he cheerfully agreed, sweeping her up again and carrying her there. Steve paused at the door, belatedly wondering about Joe, but Lauren seemed to catch his thoughts.

"Grandpa's at Phil and Lucy's for the evening. He, ah, thought you might like some private time to . . . unwind . . ." She blushed, working her fingers along his shirt buttons. "Steve-"

Gently he set her on the bed and leaned over her, letting her undo the shirt and tug it off. The t-shirt came next, and once he was bare-chested, she splayed her fingers across each pec, giving a sigh.

Tony was right, Steve realized quietly. She needed to see for herself that he was fine.

He let her undress him, feeling her hands glide over his skin even as her imperative touched his heart. Lauren caressed his shoulders and chest, relaxing with lingering strokes. Steve shifted, stretching out on the bed and trying to relax, but each tender touch made his libido jump, and he was grateful when Lauren finished pulling the rest of his clothes off.

Steve felt only a little self-conscious, but the joy and heat in Lauren's face made him blush a bit. "All the important parts still here."

"So I see," she murmured, pulling her blouse off and dropping it on the floor next to his shirt. "But I want more proof."

"Come here," Steve smiled, and pulled her into his arms to lie next to him.

He was gentle as he peeled her out of her skirt and lingerie, amused at the pink lace that adorned the latter. Lauren let him, her eyes dark with desire, and when they were both nude, Steve gave a happy groan. "I thought about you every day. Most of the time my thoughts were fairly pure, but after dark, well . . ."

"After dark you're entitled," Lauren told him shyly. "I thought about you too." Her fingers slipped around his erection, caressing it and making him shudder a bit. "Although my thoughts were um, dirty most of the time."

"Really? Maybe you'd better tell me about them," Steve nuzzled her ear. "Just to get it off your chest." He slipped one hand up to cup a lush breast, making Lauren squeak.

"I . . . I think about you and me ah, making love. A lot," she managed in a breathless tone. "Pretty much everywhere."

This made him laugh. "Everywhere?"

"Yeah. Down in the bookstore, on the kitchen table, even . . ." she trailed off to a whisper, "on your bike."

Her words made Steve throb; unlikely as it was, the erotic imagery—particularly this last one- was potent. He drew in a breath. "Ahhhh. Yeah, I can see that too." And he could, God yes. Wide leather seat, sturdy handlebars; a dozen potential positions came to mind. "We'd need a private garage though."

Lauren laughed, caressing his shaft slowly. "The alley gets really dark after midnight, and anyway, it's just a fantasy. I like right here right now a WHOLE lot better!"

He couldn't argue with that. Steve shifted and stretched out on Lauren, letting the kiss of skin on skin make both of them stop talking. She slid her legs up along the outside of his, moving to cradle him between her thighs. Steve felt his shaft slide over the top of her silky mound in a sweet tickle, a body kiss that felt as intimate as any they'd done with their mouths. Lauren looked up at him, eyes wet as she held out a condom.

"Can we . . . go slow?" she whispered. "Make it last and last? I've missed you so much . . ."

Steve made an affirmative sound and bent to kiss her breasts, savoring their bouncy warmth, and feeling as if all of time had slowed to this bed, this woman, this moment.

Slow and sweet. Steve kept his word, difficult was it was with Lauren writhing under him, her skin damp and her hair tangled as she clung to him, murmuring things that would have made him blush at any other time but seemed so perfect in this golden bubble of time. He was determined not to let an inch of her go untouched, unkissed. Lauren seemed on the same mission, and Steve laughed softly to find his eyelids licked, his nose nibbled.

Finally though, both he and Lauren were ready, both of them achy and aroused, restless for consummation. He loomed over her, lifting her legs until her knees wrapped over his shoulders and braced his hands on either side of her shoulders on the mattress.

God it was hard to go slow when all Steve wanted was to plunge hard and deep. He fought his urge, but the first slick stroke into Lauren's hot cleft had him groaning and shaking, uncertain whether or not he could last. She wiggled, giving a sweet little cry and brought her hands up to grip his wrists.

Ohhh that touch, that possessive little power move nearly overwhelmed him.

Steve gulped, feeling shaky. She looked up at him and gave a little growl. "Harder, Steve, please! I want it that way!"

He rolled his hips forward in a maddeningly slow pace and pressed his mouth blindly to hers, feeling Lauren's fingers tighten on his wrists. Steve grunted, moving deeply now, slowly stroking into her, feeling the searing squeeze of her body around his shaft, each throb a melt of pure pleasure down his spine. Relentlessly it built, and he gasped for breath, feeling Lauren's nails now against his wrists, her knees gripping. She cried out in breathless lust, "Ohhh . . . yesss . . . Steveyesyes . . . oohhhHHHHH!"

And that was all it took. Steve growled, thrusts hard and fast now, the slap of skin on skin mingling with the creak of the bed under them. He felt his orgasm—hot, wild, unstoppable-rocket through him, powerful and searing, merging with Lauren's spasms as she arched up under him, her body tight around his.

Moments later, Steve groggily shifted out of her, pulling the condom off, mildly amused at how heavy it was. He dropped it into the bedside waste can and rolled over on the bedspread, utterly relaxed. He was well aware of how the still air held the scent of himself and Lauren, their musk and sweat blending in an unforgettable perfume of the most basic kind.

Lauren curled to his side, her cheek against his shoulder as she sighed contentedly. "That was . . . fantastic."

"No, you were fantastic," Steve replied, practically purring. "Lauren, sweetheart—I . . . I want to marry you."

He felt her stiffen and turned his head to look at her. She stared up at him, naked, flushed, bright eyed—in a word, beautiful.

The kitchen timer went off, filling the apartment with its strident buzzing, and Lauren flinched. "Pot roast," she murmured, and slipped off the bed. Confused, Steve watched her hurry out to the kitchen and he wondered what was wrong.


Chapter 19: Chapter 19


Lauren hurried to the kitchen, blinking hard to keep the tears back, and reaching for the potholders. She forced herself to open the oven carefully, and when she did the fragrant scent of pot roast and onion filled the apartment. Briefly she smiled at the perfect meal and pulled it out, setting it on the stovetop to cool.

Hands curled around her bare hips and she stiffened as Steve pressed close, his mouth coming down to her ear. She hadn't even heard him get up, let alone move up behind her. "Sweetheart, what's wrong? I thought we were . . . looking at the future the same way. Did I do something wrong?"

God. He was so wonderful, so big and sweet and in a few ways still so clueless. Lauren turned and looked up at Steve, reaching to cup his face. "You didn't doanything wrong Hero. I just . . . that's a really big decision, you know?"

He still looked concerned. "Not for me." Very gently Steve mirrored her touch, his blue eyes very big. "I love you."

Lauren sniffled. "I love you too, you big lug, but saying something like that after we've just . . . and we're naked and so . . . vulnerable."

It was funny to see Steve blink as he figured it out. He smiled, pulling her closer. "You're worried it's just because of the lovemaking."

Lauren didn't trust her voice, and nodded instead. There was something so terribly tender about making love with Steve. He was so open and giving and made her feel as if he'd grab the moon and hand it to her if she asked for it. Lauren didn't know if she could live up to that sort of devotion.

She didn't know if she was worthy of it.

"I'm telling you right now it's not just because you and I had a hell of a reunion. Okay then. I'll make it a point to do the whole proposing thing right," he murmured, dimples flashing as he shifted his big hands around and cupped her butt. "It slipped out back there because I'm so damned happy at the moment but I understand about it sounded sort of awkward and all. Doesn't change a thing about how I feel though, Kitten."

"Steve," Lauren sighed, "I love you more than I can ever say, but right now I think we ought to have dinner before we talk about anything else all right?"

"Naked?" came his tease. "You know, you've got some really great ideas about welcoming me home."

Lauren laughed. "Maybe not completely naked; I don't want you to spill and burn anything vital there, Darling."

He nodded. "I don't think I could face Joe if either of us ended up at the Emergency Room tonight."

She giggled at the thought.

The pot roast was fall apart tender, and Lauren was grateful that she'd done the noodles early because Steve cleaned his plate in record time, and then proceeded to have seconds and thirds. It was a personal pleasure to see him enjoy the food, and by the time they were done, twilight was coloring the sky outside in light purple.

Steve sighed, leaning back from the table. He'd put on the sweats he normally used as pajama bottoms, and Lauren had pulled on her sundress and panties, leaving off the bra for comfort's sake.

"Wow. Ooookay, I'm definitely a fan of your pot roast."

"Thank you. It's a good thing I can read recipes off the back of the onion soup box, huh?" she teased, coming over to drop a kiss on his forehead as she began to clear the table. Steve got up and helped her.

"Doesn't matter where it came from, it's great. When do we need to go pick up Joe?"

Lauren shot Steve a smile and began to run hot water in the sink. "In a while; he said he'd call to let us know."

Steve stacked plates efficiently and cleared the rest of the table. "Good. He can supervise while Binh and I see about putting in the ceiling fans tomorrow."

Lauren glanced at him. "Oh? I thought you'd be ah, doing stuff at the Tower. You know . . . hero stuff."

Steve sighed. "Hugely important stuff like working out at the gym, reading in my room, listening to the oldies station and waiting for the next mission. If it's a choice between being there or here, here wins hands down . . . as long as it's okay with you and Joe."

"It's more than okay," Lauren assured him, handing him a dishtowel as she rose up on her tiptoes to kiss him lightly. "You're family now, buster."

"Like a stray dog," Steve smiled. "Feed me and you won't be able to get rid of me."

"I don't ever want to get rid of you," Lauren assured him, her voice soft and serious. "Steve . . . you talked about both of us looking at the future the same way . . . what did you mean by that?"

He moved to stand next to her and picked up one of the clean dishes from the drain rack, wiping it carefully before speaking. "You know me pretty well, Sweetheart. I'm not a complicated guy. I have a job and now I have, yeah, a family-you and Joe. I've already put you both down as beneficiaries of my pension and estate-"

"What?" Lauren nearly dropped the glass she was holding as she turned to look at him. Steve reached out and took it from her, his expression bemused.

"Well yeah. Back at the start of summer when everyone had to update their paperwork at S.H.I.E.L.D. I figured you and Joe were the closest I had to family, and it made the bean-counters happy to have names on the forms. You two will get my life insurance and my personal belongings in the event of my death. Stuff like that has to be taken care of even if we don't like talking about it."

"Um, yeah," Lauren nodded, feeling stunned. "I know, but that's awfully generous of you!"

Steve shrugged. "I've seen how things are at the store. You two are getting by but it's not easy in this day and age. It would be smart to buy out the empty place next door and expand, the way Joe wants to but I know you guys haven't got the funds for it. I tried to talk to Joe about loaning the money but he wouldn't hear me out."

"Grandpa's stubborn," Lauren agreed. "He doesn't like banks."

"No, I meant lending him the money personally," Steve sighed.

Lauren blinked. "Steve, that's crazy. Are you saying you're . . ."

"I've got scratch," he flashed her a grin. "You'd be surprised how much a few good investments from before the war can accrue. Senator Brandt made me put some of my Bond Tour money in stocks and Colonel Fury made sure I had access to them once I ah, returned to duty."

She laughed; it was so like Steve to be modest and smart. And generous, Lauren realized. She cocked her head and smiled. "So all that talk about a house and kids and a dog . . . you still want those?"

He looked at her, those blue eyes bright, his own smile slightly crooked. "Yeah, I do. I . . . I love you Lauren, and all that stuff I want with you. I know how you feel about this place and I'm good with being right here for as long as we want."

"And a baby?" She pushed, feeling a flush of impishness as she teased. "Some little person toddling around the bookstore?"

"Only if you want one too," Steve assured her quickly. "I've seen you around kids; you'd be a great mom."

"Well you'd be a great dad, but uh . . . can you . . . be a dad? I mean, the Serum and changing you didn't . . . change you, right?" Lauren found herself blushing madly now, hot-faced and looking away.

Steve looked equally embarrassed. "Yeah I can. They did some pretty thorough testing both back in the day and when I was thawed out, none of which I ever want to go through again by the way, but yes. I'm ah, virile."

"Would our babies be . . . super babies?" Lauren asked, startled by the idea. Steve flicked the towel over his shoulder and moved to take her in his arms; he was warm and she leaned against him, feeling comforted.

"I have no idea," he rumbled thoughtfully. "Nobody seems too sure about that, but I haven't been asked to ah, donate anything other than blood. I think the real issue now is what do YOU want, Sweetheart?"

He kissed her forehead and looked down into her eyes, his expression a little anxious. Lauren noted some sweat along his upper lip, and the fact that her big and strong Steve was nervous gave her little joyful pangs inside her chest.

Lauren took a deep, shaky breath. "Steve I want you. I want to stay here at Time Was with Grandpa and you. I even want babies when we decide it's the right time for them—everything else we can figure out as we go along."

Steve stared at her for a moment then scooped her up hugging her close and shuddering just a little bit. Lauren sniffled, determined not to cry but it was hard when so much joy was surging through her. She clung to him right there at the kitchen sink feeling like the queen of the world.

"God I love you," Steve whispered brokenly. "I have no idea what I ever did to deserve you, sweetheart."

"I think that's my line," she laughed, and the tears Lauren had tried to hold back came out and she let them fall.


Chapter 20: Chapter 20


Joe was in good spirits, talking animatedly about Lucy's terrible streak at Texas Hold'em and how he was now fifteen dollars up in their ongoing nickel game. He used the walker instead of the wheelchair, and settled in on the edge of the bed in the downstairs office, looking at Lauren and Steve with a twinkle in his eye. Lauren was leaning uncomfortably against the dresser and Steve stood straight, his eyes on her the entire time.

Joe looked from one to the other. "Okay, out with it; I can tell when you've got something to say, Steve. What's on your mind?"

"I . . ." Steve began quietly, feeling nervous. "I'd like your ah, permission to marry Lauren. If she'll have me, that is."

Joe glanced at Lauren and then back to Steve, his expression serious but behind his glasses his eyes were bright. "Is that right?"

"Yes sir," Steve murmured quietly. Lauren shifted away from the dresser and came over to him, slipping her hand in his in a wordless show of solidarity. It felt wonderful in his, and he lightly squeezed it.

Joe was trying to look serious and not succeeding very well. "You really are the old-fashioned type, Steve, aren't you? Truth is you don't need my permission for this. Lauren's a modern woman and she can make the important decisions in her life all on her own. What I CAN give you both is . . . my blessing, which I do. I think the two of you are a good fit for each other and you're both willing to work with each other to make a good life."

Steve felt Lauren let go of his fingers as she moved over to Joe and slipped her arms around his frail frame, hugging him tightly. Steve hesitated, and stepped over as well just as Joe rose up.

They hugged. Steve tried to be gentle but Joe was surprisingly strong, and when they parted, he looked up at Steve, blinking wetly. "I always wanted my Lauren to find a good man, Steve. I'm blessed that she found the best one in the whole country."

Steve found himself too choked up to reply.

-oo00oo-

Within the week Steve had quietly moved out of the Tower. A single U-Haul brought his worldly goods up to Time Was, parking in the back alley. Steve and Binh unloaded it while Lauren supervised and Joe minded the store.

A few long-time customers came and out and helped as well, something that touched Lauren very much. Steve was patient about re-arranging the furniture upstairs, and cheerfully shifted anything she pointed to, waiting until she was satisfied with things and took pity on him. When he dropped himself into one of the recliners, Lauren brought him a can of soda and Steve grinned at her.

"So for now we'll leave it like this, right? Joe prefers to be downstairs for the moment, and if my bid on the place next door goes through we can consider taking out the wall and expanding things into a full loft up here."

"And the Laundromat downstairs will pay for it?" Lauren giggled. It was Steve's suggestion and made a lot of sense, given the businesses all around them. She knew Sally would be grateful to have one close by, and chances were good a lot of the little eateries would as well. "What should we call it—Time Wash?"

"That's not bad, actually. You hungry?" Steve asked, fishing out a box of Cracker Jack from the one of the grocery bags he'd brought back with him from the Tower. Lauren settled on the arm of the recliner, nibbling at the proffered treat as Steve waved the soda can and spoke again. "I'll have to take the truck back before five, but once I've done that we could go out tonight to celebrate."

"Sounds wonderful. You and me, or Grandpa too?" she asked, hoping for the former, but not too worried if it was the latter. Grandpa's recovery was going very well.

"Depends. Hey, you want the prize?" Steve held up the box and Lauren could see the little envelope among the popcorn.

She dug it out and grinned. "Mine! Man, I haven't gotten one of these in . . ." her words trailed off as she tore open the little packet and a delicate diamond solitaire tumbled out into her palm.

Dumbly Lauren stared at it, and then glanced at Steve, who was looking at her, his blue eyes bright. He slipped out of the recliner and got on one knee, and for a moment Lauren had the strange timeless feeling of unreality.

"So . . . Will you marry me, Lauren?" he murmured in a husky voice.

She looked down at him. Steve was in his usual khakis and a plain tee-shirt, he was slightly dusty and slightly sweaty and absolutely adorable. Lauren felt her pulse thrumming in her ears. Without thinking about it, she bent down and kissed him, tasting Cracker Jack, soda and sweet salty Steve.

The flavors of home, of love, and life.

"Yep," she whispered when she pulled back for breath. "Sure will."

For a second they simply looked at each other, and then Steve plucked the ring from her palm and slipped it on her finger. The fit was a little loose, but Lauren didn't care as the bright diamond sent twinkly flashes through the apartment. He rose, picking her up and twirling her around, his joyous laugh mingling with hers as she gave a happy whoop.

"God I love you—how did you DO that?" she demanded, giggling and trying to talk at the same time.

"Classified secret, Kitten; all that matters is that you said yes!" Steve laughed. "Now, about that dinner out . . . ."

"Us," she told him. "I'm pretty sure Grandpa would agree. Oh! We have to tell him! I need to show him the ring!"

Steve set her down and she raced to the stairs, stopped halfway, raced back to grab his hand and towed him along, the two of them making a racket on the way down. Most of the patrons looked up as they reached the first floor and Lauren darted over to the register to shove her hand under Grandpas' nose. "Look!"

"Sweetpea! Oh that's a beauty all right!" he crowed, catching her hand in his arthritic fingers and studying the ring. A few female patrons looked on as well, and Lauren heard a murmur of approval rippling through the store. Someone patted Steve on the back, and when he came closer, a quick burst of spontaneous applause made her blush.

"That's right, my little gal's engaged!" Lauren heard Grandpa announce loudly and proudly. "To celebrate, I'm letting you folks have one free dessert starting right now! Pie, brownie, or cake—come on up and take your pick!"

This was met with a cheer of store-wide approval, and Lauren laughed, moving behind the counter. Steve was still blushing, but he followed her and gave her a quick kiss before heading back into the kitchen to pull out the extra pies. For the next twenty minutes or so they were busy handing out treats and accepting congratulations and Lauren was amazed by how many people offered good wishes. When the last bit of lemon meringue had been served, she felt Steve slip an arm around her and leaned against him, looking up into his face. "Fun?"

"More than a barrel of monkeys," he replied, grinning.

-oo00oo-

They had dinner at the little Italian place down the block, the evening was cool and they walked there, hand in hand. The meal was wonderful, and Lauren thought Steve looked boyishly handsome as they laughed over pasta and wine.

She wore her ring of course; a little thread wrapped on the bottom of the band helped the fit, and Steve promised to take her to the jewelers to have it properly sized. When they'd finished dinner they walked home together, Steve's arm around her as Lauren carried the doggy bag of leftovers in one hand.

Grandpa was already asleep; they passed by his room downstairs quietly and moved up in semi-darkness and at the top, Lauren felt Steve slip his arms around her and sigh contentedly. "Happy," he murmured.

"Happy," Lauren agreed, feeling not only a wonderful sense of well-being, but also a slow tingle of desire that had been building all through dinner. Steve seemed to feel it too; she could tell by the slightly restless slide of his hands down her spine to her butt. "I think I'd like dessert, though."

"Oh?" Something in Steve's tone let her know her implication was perfectly clear. His voice always got deeper and slower when he was aroused, the way he was now, Lauren knew. She pressed against him with her hips and made a little murmuring sound, pleased when Steve gave a breathless groan.

"You go get comfortable in the bedroom," Lauren suggested softly, "And I'll go get you something nice to eat."

"Yes ma'am," came his soft rumble. As she squeezed his ass he added, "You give the best orders!"

That made her laugh, and Lauren waited until he'd moved off before heading to the fridge. She opened it, and there, hidden in the back was her little prize; carefully she lifted out the pie and smiled.

Early on Lauren had figured out exactly which pie Steve Rodgers loved most. Given the patriot he was, most people would have guessed apple, but the truth was just as American and sweet. Lauren set the cherry pie on the counter and stripped.

Under the sink was the frilly apron, tucked away and still in its lingerie store bag. Lauren pulled it out and slipped it on, feeling foolish and tickled as the dark gauze of it wrapped around her. Black sheer with shiny little appliqué cherries on it—silly of course, but when she'd seen it Lauren knew Steve would probably like it. She tied off the bow over her bare ass, then picked up the pie, plates and forks.

Time for dessert, she thought to herself with a shiver of sensual anticipation.

At the bedroom door, Lauren looked in; Steve had thoughtfully lit one of the fat candles there and was lounging in his boxers against the headboard, looking a lot like dessert himself. When he saw her, his blue eyes widened, and he worked his jaw for a few seconds unable to speak.

"Want some pie?" Lauren murmured, and then began giggling because Steve was still so stunned. She sauntered over on her high heels and cocked a hip at him flirtatiously, offering up the plate on her fingertips.

"Lauren, oh God, you look . . ." Steve began, his voice shaky. "Damn, I didn't think I could like cherry pie more than I already do!"

"Mmm, well eat up, Big Boy," she giggled again when Steve slipped an arm around her thighs. He caught the plate, set it gently on the nightstand and turned back to her, his expression not at all his usual Boy Scout sweetness. In fact, if Lauren had to describe it, 'lustful' would be the first adjective.

"Come here," he rumbled, tugging her to him. Lauren tumbled onto Steve, slipping her arms around him and kissing him soundly.

The kissing was good; Lauren loved how soft and slow Steve teased her tongue with his, and how he knew exactly how to nibble and nip until she was squirming. Not that it took much at the moment; Lauren had been feeling tingly all during the walk back, and tasting Steve's mouth left her hungry for more.

He knew though, and seemed to make it a point to tease her, slowly sliding his hands along her body and stroking all the ticklish places with unerring accuracy. Lauren suspected there was a bit of ruthlessness in Steve, and that at times he was going to set the pace to suit himself whether she liked it or not. At the moment she simply squirmed and moaned and found herself propped up, a knee on each side of his head.

"Steve!" Lauren murmured, slightly scandalized and aroused at the same time. He gave a low growl of delight.

"Hey, you offered pie; I'm just taking you up on it, Kitten. Looks mighty tasty too . . ." Steven sighed, and slid his warm hands up along the insides of her thighs. Lauren shuddered, her fingers clutching the headboard of the bed as she waited for his first soft kiss.

She writhed and wriggled but Steve was sweetly persistent. He teased her for long sensual minutes, flicking his tongue and lapping gently, slipping in a tiny nip here and there between open-mouthed kisses, and gradually Lauren gasped as her orgasm flared through her with aching sweetness. She arched up, gripping the headboard tightly through her soft cries.

Finally she shifted, looking down at his bright eyes and impish expression.

"Sweetest pie ever," he whispered smugly.

"Just for that," Lauren told him when she could speak again, "Turnabout is fair play!"

She slithered down his body, laughing softly as Steve playfully tried to slow her, and when Lauren was settled between his knees, she took his shaft in her hands and began to toy with it. It was a pleasure to take her time in teasing him, and Lauren loved the way she could make Steve breathless and heavy-lidded in a matter of minutes.

It was fun to whisper naughty things between licks, and certainly a thrill to apply her lips and tongue in tantalizing ways. He was so big that reducing all of Steve to a highly tensed state tended to make the entire bed vibrate. He reached down to cup her chin after a while and caught her gaze with his own, his voice hoarse. "So good, but I want . . . I want you, Sweetheart!"

And Lauren nodded, satisfied and eager herself now. She helped sheathe him in a condom and shifted until she was crouching over him, then every so slowly impaled herself on his shaft, her hands on his damp shoulders. Steve grunted, the sound deep and almost desperate; when she was on his lap, his big hands cupped her ass and they rocked together in slow, tender strokes.

So deep. Lauren shuddered, feeling full and achy at the same time. She leaned forward to kiss Steve and the shift of the angle made both of them gasp. They rocked together, the rhythm quicker and rougher, a grind of skin and muscle. Lauren gasped into his mouth. "Harder, please, harder!"

Steve obliged, hips thrusting up, bouncing the mattress and stroking deep, the tension accelerating. Lauren slipped her hands around the back of his neck and spoke again, "Yes, oh yesss, more Steve, I love you, oh please more!"

His hands gripped her ass and Steve drove himself into her, his eyes a blazing blue now as he dragged his lips across her cheek to her mouth, his husky words ragged and deep. "Love you Lauren, oh God, yeah I'm, I'm . . . .cominggggg!"

The sweet raw sensuality of his surrender was enough to nudge her own, softer orgasm, and Lauren felt her body squeeze his, felt the heat of his climax through the thin latex. It was so primitive and yes so very intimate, and she kissed his face as they both rode out the waves of pleasure.

They collapsed back against the headboard, sweaty and grinning at each other, sticky and incredibly happy. Lauren kissed his nose and mouth, giggling at how disheveled he looked as he disposed of the condom. "Oh wow! You are . . . incredible!"

"Not me," he licked his lips, eyes twinkling as he lay back and took her in his arms. "You. My Kitten, my Cherry Pie, my sweet, sweet Lauren. Love you."

"Love you too, my Hero, Steve Rogers," Lauren sighed happily. "I . . . I never thought I'd be this happy."

"That," he told her earnestly, kissing her nose, "makes two of us. I don't know about the rest of the world, but right here, right now, I'm home."

"Yes," she told him, hugging him close. The pie could wait; they had the whole night.

end