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A Stake in This Ground

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The world crawls back into Tony's awareness like an insistent lover, refusing to let him rest in peace. Vultures circle high overhead, hungry, and he'd invite them down early for the feast if he thought they spoke a lick of English. (But he's not so drunk as to be that far gone.)

Drunk he certainly is, though. The world seems to tilt around him, dipping and twisting. Whatever he's lounging on has sharp metal supports that bite into his shoulder blades and legs, but his stomach lurches with every shift, so Tony finds he doesn't care enough to move. He's content to sleep off his liquor where he's fallen.

Where did his coat go? He wonders blearily, wishing he could pull it over his head against the bright afternoon. For that matter, where's his shirt? Probably lost both in the stupor.

Well, damn. He's going to want both once the sun sets.

And then something fuzzy and yellow that isn't the damnable sun obscures his vision. Focusing his vision aches, but once he does, Tony realizes eyes as blue as the cloudless sky overhead are staring down at him.

"Here now," the blond man says. He's got a troubled look on his sunburnt, pink face. "If you’re waitin’ for a train to take you on to the next place, you oughtta know it won't run by again till noon tomorrow."

"You oughtta wear a hat," Tony slurs back, half because his tongue isn't working right, half mocking the stupid drawl. "Sun clearly don’t agree with you."

"You’re one to talk." The man snorts, Tony's half nudity not lost on him. "Now, unless Fisk's boys have tied you to those tracks with invisible rope, you'd best get up and get some water in you. Doc's plenty busy without me havin’ to haul your corpse in for a death certificate."

Tony blinks, realizing that the man is offering his own canteen at arm’s length.

And then the reason his "bed" is so uncomfortable clicks. Not metal poles. Rails. Of all the places to pass out, he's done it on train tracks.

Tony scrambles to sit up, but the world turns upside down on him and his stomach turns traitor. His throat burns as he retches, and he groans, hunching over and clutching his head. For a few moments he also squeezes his eyes shut, but that only makes the spinning sensation worse.

Boots scrape against the dry earth and Tony feels a strong arm snake beneath his, helping him up.

"Maybe I should take you to the Doc." Tony feels the blond man's eyes are roving over him. This close, Tony can smell him. In the west, Tony’s come to expect the sour perfume of stale beer and horse shit, but the only thing his nose detects on the man is clean pressed linen.

He’s strong too, all but carrying Tony. Even if he weren't drunk, Tony thinks that maybe his legs would still be goo. Of course, if he weren't drunk, he wouldn't be drooling on himself or unable to put even a basic sentence together.

He wonders who exactly this good Samaritan is and what fortune has crossed their paths. That's when he looks down and sees the star pinned to the gray cotton vest.

Oh. Great.

And that is how Tony first meets Sheriff Rogers.

#

Doc Banner turns out to be a tired looking man with round glasses and a neatly knotted string tie who is less of a doctor, more of a pharmacist. Sleeve garters keep his shirt rolled up to the elbow and out of his work. As the bell on the door chimes, he looks up from the scale he’s been using and, with one look at Tony, frowns.

“Oh no,” he says.

“Oh yes,” says the sheriff, depositing Tony in a chair.

“Nrgh,” agrees Tony.

Rogers steps back, watching to ensure Tony won’t keel over flat on his face.

“Can’t you let him dry out in one of the cells?” Banner bustles about, picking up a steel scoop and gingerly depositing small piles of the powder into a brown bottle. “I’m going to be up till midnight at this rate.”

“No.” Rogers sounds adamant about that. “I have to head out to the Jameson mansion.”

Oh,” the tone of Banner’s voice makes it clear he’s sorry to hear that. “I’m not sure which of us will have more fun tonight.”

Rogers makes a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat and crosses his arms.  

Banner sighs as the two sides of his scale equalize. “Fine, I’ll see to him.”  His next words are directed at Tony. “But I hope you can count. Soon as you can string three words together, I’m putting you to work.”

#

Over the next week, Tony adjusts.

It’s fortunate for Tony that Banner is so overworked. At first, Banner’s reticent to let him help with more than cleaning up, but when Tony tells him he’s well-versed in formulating explosives, Banner gives him a simple compounding order and watches with a suspicious eye. Apparently he passes the test, because that’s the last Tony gets to sit idle. In exchange, he gets a clean shirt, a floor to sleep on, and — because working over a bench for hours is boring — all the dirt he could ever want on Timely: from the dam choking the river to a trickle, to the new addition that Jesse Alexander and his wife are expecting any day.

What Tony really wants to know about, however, is the sheriff. At first he’s oblique, asking about the officials in town. After Banner goes on at length about how he ought to steer clear of Fisk, Tony asks directly.

He gets a shrug from the apothecary. “From Boston originally, I think. Stickler for the law, but a good man. Came out west years ago with our former deputy. Shame that.”

He wants to ask just how close the two were, but the thought of using a dead man’s memory like that causes the question to stick in his throat and curdle.

When the questions turn toward Tony, he doesn’t know what to say.

Outside of his trade, Tony doesn't really remember much about his life before Timely. There are stops and starts in his memory, and it all feels vague, like a dream.

If he was really ever the carefree, spoilt man that the reporter he meets — Urich — paints him as from the papers, then he’s not sure what caused him to grow a conscious and split from New York. Mostly he just remembers the weapons: designing, building, and using them.

Too bad those memories didn’t vanish with the others.

When he has Hank, the hardware salesman who moonlights as the telegram operator at the Savings and Loan, wire money from back east — and when Mr. Starnes takes the paper and suddenly looks so happy he could cry — Tony decides that maybe it isn’t just a strange dream.

Hank claps him on the back, walking Tony out on his way back to his store. The man’s babbling about something. Possibly it’s important, but Tony only catches bits. Something about Fisk and competing cash flows.

It’s not that Tony tries to block it out. The hope in Hank’s voice alone is too much for him, regardless of substance. It stirs a beast deep inside of him, ugly and fearful of anyone who would place trust in him. He doesn’t even muster a polite good-bye. He just nods and turns his feet toward the saloon, shoulders hunched.

#

Of course, word spreads fast in a small town.

Tony isn’t even through his first dram of single malt when he hears the doors creak open, followed by the sound of several pairs of boots clicking across the floorboards, spurs jangling.

They turn out to be big fellows. One of them is so large that Tony’s pretty sure he could wrap his arms around the man’s middle and his fingers wouldn’t touch. No smiles either — not one out of the group of five looks happy. Briefly, Tony feels flattered that someone would send five men to give him a talking to. Then he thinks that, more likely, they were all just bored and tagged along.

The one wearing a black hat sidles up to where Tony’s sitting (or at least doing his best to remain seated like the locals. Everyone else in the place seems to have grown accustomed to Fisk’s boys and their ways.)

"Well, well, well," Black Hat says. "It isn't every day the drifter turns out to be a millionaire."

"Technically, I'm not," Tony mumbles over the rim of the tumbler. He'd be an idiot to transfer everything. A few hundred is more than enough to live well on in the west.

"Don't think it matters either way to Mr. Fisk," Black Hat's got a grin on his face stretching ear to ear. "He's got more of a shine fer your talents."

Tony groans inwardly. "Funny thing about talent, sometimes it just dries up."

Leather creaks, and Tony tenses head to toe. The big guy's hand has come to rest on the butt of his revolver's shiny, mother-of-pearl handle. A buzz zips through Tony that has nothing to do with alcohol.

But the man in the hat just leans on the bar next to him, so close Tony can smell the stink of saddle and dried sweat on him. He motions to the barkeep for the top shelf scotch, and though Dugan keeps a wary eye on both of them, he hands the bottle over.

"Well, thing about talent, it never really goes away. You jest have to find a way to unstopper it." He pulls the cork with a hollow pop, and fills Tony's glass. Quite literally. Instead of two fingers worth of scotch, Tony's got a fist.

Hello, stick and carrot, Tony thinks, still watching the big guy with the gun out of the corner of his eye. His fingers curl around the tumbler and his shoulders tense, even though that's the opposite of what he ought to do. If he has to take a punch, he ought to be loose and fluid. And a punch is about the nicest thing they’re going to throw at him.

Because Tony doesn't know anyone who takes a face-full of liquor well, and that's exactly what Black Hat is in for.  Not like Tony can drink it now, which pisses him off.

"Now what's going on here?" A familiar, lazy drawl floats through the room, snapping whatever spell Black Hat thought he might have been weaving. The scowl comes out on his face faster than rats from a burning building.

“Just doin’ business, Sheriff,” he smiles and nods, but any fool could see how put on the expression is.

Rogers looks between Black Hat and Tony. His eyes pause for an extended moment on the tumbler in Tony’s hands and the bottle in Black Hat’s. “You always make deals with drunk men, Turk? Someone might get the idea you can’t strike a fair deal.”

Turk’s eyes narrow, but the sheriff crosses his arms and cocks his head, as if honestly waiting for an answer.

“Think on it,” Turk hisses at Tony. “You can either be useful and rewarded accordingly, or stay out of our way. Your choice.”

Once Turk and gang have tramped out of the saloon, Rogers gives Tony an appraising once over, trying to figure out where Tony fits into their plans.

“I could have handled that myself,” Tony grumbles.

The sheriff frowns. “Fisk’s boys may not be subtle, but don’t underestimate them.” He looks at the drink still clutched in Tony’s hands. “Or overestimate yourself.”

“I won’t,” Tony’s mortified and trying to hide it. But it figures that this would be the way they meet again. He hopes Rogers chalks up the redness on his cheeks to the liquor.

He leaves the tumbler full of scotch on the bar.

And the saloon with the bottle in hand.

#

An empty storefront on the main drag, right across the way from Doc Banner’s apothecary proves just the right place for Tony to set up shop. He starts out forging the easy things: horseshoes, nails, cooking pots and ladles. His first commission comes from Hank, after the other man bemoans how his last shipment took two months and was missing the calipers he ordered. So Tony makes a set for him, one to use and one to sell.

May Parker almost cries when she sees he's got axe head replacements. When she opens up her purse to pay and Tony sees how little is in there, Tony turns the blade over in his hand and feigns embarrassment.

There's a flaw in the balance. Too heavy on the right side, he insists. On his honor as a smith, he can't charge her a penny if she's willing to take the defect off his hands. For that he earns himself a standing invite to Sunday dinner at the Parker house.

And of course Turk makes good on his promise to revisit their chat a few weeks later.

This time it's just the two of them. All cozy like, as Ben Urich would say. (Timely's quaint vernacular is infectious, and Tony can already hear it slipping onto his tongue, replacing the clipped New York tone.)

Turk swings himself, uninvited, over the fence and into the area behind the shop where Tony’s anvil is set up. At first, Tony doesn’t notice. He's in the middle of quenching a wagon hitch with one hand, and his throat with the other. Wagon hitches are boring, necessary work, but if Tony's honest, he'd be three-sheets-to-the-wind even if it wasn't. The bourbon bottle just seems to make the whole affair easier.

Turk hollers to get his attention and tips his black hat at Tony, "Mr. Fisk's been a mighty patient man. But a man waiting for you to dry out may as well wait fer the day the cows come home on their own."

Tony tightens his grip on the tongs he’s working with, and wonders if the man is stupid or cocky confronting him here.

"Home, home to the slaughter," Tony remarks with every bit of dry disdain he feels for the man. "Can't imagine why they aren't more amenable." He flicks his tongs and transfers the hitch from the water to the pile of today's work. Then he snatches up another piece of shapeless metal and sticks it in the coal furnace to begin heating while he grabs his hammer.

"C'mon, Stark," Turk shakes his head. "Your God given gifts are wasted on doorknobs and dishpans. Let Pym handle the hardware. Mr. Fisk will be happy to put you to work on better things."

"I don't need work," Tony says, pulling another piece that’s fiery red from the furnace. He begins hammering the iron out into a thin rod. Ostensibly it will be a fireplace poker, but the vindictive part of Tony envisions sticking it somewhere delicate if Turk doesn’t leave soon.

“If you’re holding out because you think you can get a better deal—"

"I’m really not.” Tony brings the hammer down harder than he intends, and smashes the metal too flat. “Tell the mayor he can keep his filthy money."

He sees a vein throb in Turk's neck. "Fine, you stupid Italian half-breed. Your funeral.”

After he’s finished with the poker, Tony takes another swig from the bourbon bottle, only to find he’s drained it.

He thinks about Turk’s threat and wonders if it even matters.

In some ways, maybe it would actually be a favor.

#

Tony stumbles to the saloon that evening without even bothering to lock up the shop, demanding the strongest stuff Dugan’s got.

Dugan glances at him apologetically as he scrubs down the bar board. “The sheriff asked me to make sure you don’t accidentally poison yourself. Says you’re pretty handy around town.”

“What?” Tony is apoplectic. “You can’t cut me off if I haven’t even started!”

“Maybe not here, but you’ve clearly been in something. Your nose is redder than the cherry on top of a Sunday.”

He swells with indignation and his face feels hot. And then, because it seems like such a bright idea at the time, he storms off for the county jail.

“I have RIGHTS!” He screams at the top of his lungs outside the frosted glass with “Sheriff” etched in black India Ink. “You hear me, Rogers? You better go tell Dugan how full of it you were and—"

He takes a deep breath, ready to bluster some more when he realizes the blond haired man he’s supposed to be yelling at through the door has just rounded the corner, his horse’s reins in hand and a sly smile on his face that is far too amused with whole the situation.

“Oh, are you here to see the sheriff too?” he asks as he approaches. As if the shiny star on his vest wasn’t a dead giveaway.

“Damn it, Rogers, I’m not that drunk.”

“Prove it.”

Tony puffs up with outrage. “I don’t have to prove a goddamn thing to you.”

“No, but I also don’t have to go down to the saloon. So either close your eyes, stick out your arms, and touch your nose, or go home.”

Tony glares at him for a moment before deciding the only thing he has to lose is the last few scraps of his dignity. So he complies with Rogers’s orders.

And completely misses his nose and smacks himself in the mouth.

“No, I suppose you aren’t that drunk. But you’re still well soused.” The mare gives a contented whicker as Rogers ties her up and rubs her nose affectionately. “I’m not taking back what I told Dugan, though.”

“Well if that isn’t the most blatant abuse of power I ever did see,” Tony rages. “If you think you can order people not to do business with folk just because you don’t like them—"

Rogers gives the horse one last pat and looks up at him with an arched eyebrow. “I didn’t order him to do anything. I asked.

Tony blinks and then realizes his mouth is hanging open. “You what?”

Steve strides closer, a serious set to his features. “I see you down there most nights, Stark. I just asked him to keep a friendly, neighborhood eye on you. Nothin’ more.” His blue eyes linger on Tony’s just a little longer than prudence says is warranted.

“Why?”

“I heard what you did for Doc and Widow Parker,” Rogers says in a low voice. “And I meant what I said to Dugan. We could use more men around here like you.”

The glass in the jail's door rattles as Rogers gives Tony a nod and pulls it shut behind him.

Tony’s left standing speechless in the middle of the deserted street. And later, when stars have settled into the sky, the sheriff’s words are still on his mind.

#

Tony still drinks, and he still goes to the saloon. But these days when he comes home he can at least still see straight. Inevitably that leads to work.

Not weapons. He’ll be damned if he makes another gun or artillery shell again.

But something in the event that Turk makes good on his promise — that’s in order. Tony’s apathy, at least for now, has been beaten back by the embers lit that night out front of the jail. He can’t say what’s so different about Rogers’s words than say…Hank’s, but it gives him the same floating sensation that liquor does and makes him glow.

So he sets down a lantern, takes a piece of chalk in hand, and starts working out schematics on the floorboards of his bedroom.

#

It goes like that for some time: Tony smithing in the morning and building in the confines of the shop in the evening. In the late afternoon he always gravitates toward the upstairs, even though the heat clings to the room. From there he can see the town closing up and going home. It hasn’t escaped his notice that Rogers always likes to be out and about at that time, talking to the townsfolk.

If he ever sees Tony peeping at him, he never lets on.

At night, after Tony’s worked himself to the point of exhaustion he crawls into bed. More often than not he goes to sleep with the sheriff on his mind. Sometimes its innocent, but frequently it’s coupled with Tony’s hands on his own cock.

It's hard, after all, not to remember — or ache for — the feel of the sheriff's hands on his bare skin, or the way those strong arms supported him. And in his dreams, Tony's mind runs wild imagining what they must look like under the shirt.

But his infatuation cuts much deeper than simple lust. At the core of it all, Tony sees an honest man shielding the inconvenient and "less desirable" from Fisk's tyranny and Turk's lawlessness. And Tony thinks that he'd like to help Rogers hold that line.

Remembering what Rogers said, Tony thinks that maybe he could — that maybe, just maybe, he's good enough as he is.

And whenever Tony spills his seed onto his stomach, he wonders if he could be "good enough" in other ways.

Day by day the bits and pieces of a metal array start to take form. Piece by piece, pneumatic gears and triggers start to become something bigger. Layers of the thinnest steel plates he can make, interwoven with cotton fibers, go over the exoskeleton, and eventually he has a wearable chest piece.

The real test comes when he sets it on the back fence post and takes aim with a rifle.

He’s never been the best shot, but he hears a loud ping that tells him he’s managed to hit the metal, followed by a hollow thunk, and a bright, excruciating pain. Blood seeps and spreads against the dun color of his right pant leg, smelling like the metal he works in his hands.

Tony blinks. Right. Bullets ricochet. Especially off of flat metal objects. He’s damn lucky the thing didn’t come back to strike him in the face or the heart.

But of course, Tony has priorities. He limps to the chest piece and examines the thin piece of steel and feels a surge of triumph. At least the test proves what he needs to know. The armor has only a faint surface indent where it’s been struck.

The steel is thin enough to wear, but thick enough to hold up against gunfire.

Success verified, Tony ties a rag around his leg and limps to Banner’s.

You shot yourself?” The Doc looks half amused, half disgusted.

“Swear to me you won’t tell another soul,” Tony sits and hoists his leg up into another chair as Banner goes to work.

“I should put this in the paper.”

“Not if you ever want my help again.”

Banner laughs and pats his knee. “Fine. But you drive a hard bargain. Do you want...uh, anything while I look for the bullet?”

Tony gives him a weak smile and pulls out his flask. “I came prepared.”

While Banner patches him up, Tony closes his eyes and tries to distance himself from the sensation of the blunt tweezers digging for the bullet, or the needles with catgut stitching him shut. Instead he thinks about the chest piece, busy designing the rest of a suit of armor in his head.

Tonight promises to be productive.

#

It’s early morning and Tony hasn’t even slept when he hears banging on the door below.

“We need your help,” Hank says, breathless, his voice a touch higher than where it usually sits in the octave.

Tony’s fingers slip, and the helmet he’s been working on clatters to the workbench.

He’d ask what the problem is, but Hank’s mind seems elsewhere. He has them riding east out of town at a hard gallop, and when they come to the tracks they jump them before heading north with the rails.

“We” turns out to be Bobbi Morse. There’s a small group assembled on the porch of her homestead consisting of her, her neighbor, Sam Wilson, and the sheriff. Rogers has his arms crossed. Bobbi and Sam both look like tinder that could be set ablaze by the smallest spark.

“You found him, then.” Bobbi draws a hand through her long straw colored hair as Tony and Hank approach.

“Course I did,” Hank swings down off the horse. “He’s only ever in two places.”

Tony lets that slide, curiosity getting the better of him. “What’s all this about?”

Bobbi looks grim. “Your property and mine seem to have had a run in.”

“It’s Fisk,” Sam says gruffly. “You know it is. Every time I come back from a round-up I’m half-surprised his boys haven’t burned down my home. He wants a no-man’s land around the dam clear to the rail’s north bend.”

“He can want all he likes,” Bobbi snaps. “That doesn’t mean he can put a bomb on someone’s land. ‘Course, if the law won’t hold him accountable—”

She glares at Rogers, who remains quiet and thoughtful.

“Bomb?” Tony looks around at the assembled.

“A mine,” Hank clarifies. “Found it while I was prospecting near the dried up riverbed. It’s stamped with your name."

That’s all Tony needs to hear. “Show me.”

#

Hank is damn lucky he didn’t blow an arm off, let alone get torn to pieces by the thing. The iron canister is roughly the width of a teacup plate and lays partially uncovered. True to Hank’s words, Tony can see bits of the “Stark Enterprises” moniker beneath the sandy dirt.

It’s just him, his sweat, and the landmine. And while Tony gingerly uncovers it further, he wishes he’d brought the steel chest plate. Then again, it might not do him any good. Bullets are one thing, the explosive force of a mine is a completely different matter.

Disabling it, with no sleep and the weight of his neighbor’s eyes on him, is one of the most unnerving things that Tony has ever done. He tries to recall the model, if it’s one of the builds he designed. All that his mind conjures is a Union soldier cursing him, accusing him of blowing off his leg.

But that can’t be right. Tony didn’t make weapons for the South.

Did he?

Once the mine is exposed, Tony sets about trying to figure out how the thing is set up. His first priority has to be finding the detonator and removing it.

Deep breath, Tony. He picks up the canister like a piece of china and examines it for openings. All the while a tiny voice inside of him reminds him that this is his legacy. Wouldn’t it be fitting if his own mine exploded in his face?

Tony’s pushes the thought down, wipes the sticky sweat off his brow, and focuses on his anger.

The fact Fisk would use such destructive weapons with so little regard for civilian safety burns him up. It also tells him all he needs to know (and what he suspected after Banner’s tales) about the Mayor. But the fact that Tony’s had a role in this at all? The fact that he made it possible for Fisk to do this, no matter how unintentional? It tears him up inside.

Once he finds the pin holding the detonator in place, dismantling the thing is quick work. It isn’t even noon before he leaves Fisk’s mine a neutered husk.

As they head back to town, Rogers’s palomino draws up next to Tony’s mare. “Your right leg giving you trouble?”

Tony doesn’t bat an eye. “Dropped the hammer on a toe.”

“Uh huh,” Rogers says, looking at him sideways. “Does the Doc always make house calls when you stub your toe?”

Tony scowls at him. “Do you have eyes in every goddamn hitching post?”

Rogers ignores him. “Thank you for your help,” but the inflection is hollow and paired with a faraway look. He doesn’t say anything else before spurring his horse into a canter and leaving the group behind.

For a moment Tony’s tempted to give pursuit. Instead he watches in frustration as the man shrinks into a gray dot.

“Don’t mind the sheriff,” Tony's startled by Sam's placid voice. “Sometimes he gets in a mood.”

“I’ll say,” Tony agrees. “Is he really not going to do anything about Fisk?”

Sam shakes his head. “Don’t misunderstand him. Just because a man can’t do anything, doesn’t mean he won’t. I’ve only known Steve to back down from one fight. He's biding his time.”

Tony’s curiosity is piqued. “Really?” And then because he is a masochist, "Was it a pretty girl he couldn’t argue with?”

“No,” Sam looks sad. “He wanted to go back home.”

A sympathetic pang shoots through Tony’s heart. He can't go back to what was before, either. Since his arrival in Timely, he’s never been more mindful of that than today.

“Boston?”

Sam nods. "But his...friend, Bucky, wouldn't leave."

Tony hangs on that pause. “Why doesn’t he go back now?”

All he gets is a shrug from Sam. “I imagine most men who stick to a place long enough put down a stake. But you’d have to ask him.”

As they reach the edge of town, Tony’s drive to dive back into working on the armor fizzles. It’s a combination of sleeplessness, worn nerves, and the day’s jarring reminder that no matter where he runs, he can’t just become another man. His past sins will always linger.

He should work on the armor, or at least be thinking of ways to undermine, disband, or destroy Fisk’s gang. He should also sleep, or bathe, or a million other things. But his dusty, tired feet carry him past his shop.

Instead he goes to the saloon.

#

The sun still isn’t even half-way over head and he’s drunker than he’s been in a long while. Dugan can’t be blamed for that. That’s all on Tony’s head for the flask he’s continued carrying since the gunshot wound.

He stumbles toward home, sweating and reeling, and vowing to burn every trace he can find of his former life to the ground. First he’s going to finish the armor, then he’s going to sweep the entire riverfront for mines. After that, he’s going to drop the detonated shrapnel on Fisk’s doorstep as both present and warning.

Walking is hard, though, when the world doesn’t seem interested in staying stable. His right leg doesn’t do him any favors on the trip down main street either. A redheaded woman mutters something laced with disgust behind him, but he doesn’t care enough to turn around and see who it is.

Something’s wrong, Tony realizes, as the wood steps to the storefront creak under his steps. His front door is sitting ajar. The rig under his coat releases with a pneumatic wheeze and his pistol slides into hand.

Inside, Tony squints as his eyes adjust from the brightness outside. Nothing looks out of place or disturbed. Did he forget to lock up? But no, he wracks his soggy brain and remembers fumbling with his keys as Hank hurried him along. Only once he heads upstairs does the point of the intrusion becomes obvious.

Tony’s been careful around the chalk schematics. But he sees that now they’re smeared in places where someone’s stepped on the lines. The chest plate is still lying where Tony left it, but the helmet he’d started is gone.

Bile climbs up the back of Tony’s throat at the thought of it in Turk’s grubby hands.

Tony looks down at his feet and allows himself a moment of mourning. Then he stamps the chalk lines to obliteration. The thought of someone else reading them, using them, makes him want to throw up. He only hopes that the footprints mean whoever was here didn’t know what they were looking at.

#

Tony barges in on Steve nose deep in a book with a French title — it’s got a submarine on the front cover and is presumably about 20,000-something-or-others.

“I need to report a crime,” Tony says, and only then does he realize that the other man is staring pointedly at his hand.

Which still has the pistol in it.

“And what might that be?”

“Theft. Fisk’s boys broke into my place and took one of my inventions. I want them arrested and charged.”

Rogers’s words come out slow and guarded. “You got any proof of that, Stark?”

Tony frowns. He thought Rogers would have his back on this, or any chance to strike at Turk’s gang. “Of course it was them. They’ve been after me to work for them since I showed up in this town.”

“I can’t just arrest them on your word.”

Tony clenches his jaw and his free hand before straightening up. “Fine. I’ll get it back by myself.”

“No, I don’t think you will.”

“Excuse me?” Tony’s blood is churning.

Rogers turns down the corner of his page, and sets the book on his desk. “Stark, you smell like a brewery. You clearly can’t walk a straight line, and you’re slurring your words like you got half a tongue. You are going to put that pistol down and sober up before you get within a hundred feet of Fisk’s office.”

“The hell with you,” Tony says. His invention is in the hands of an evil man, and he can’t abide that. It’s one thing if Rogers won’t help, but he’s not going to stop Tony.

“You’ve got till the count of three to drop the gun. One.”

Tony’s eyes narrow and he turns on his heel, wobbling only a bit in the process.

“Two.”

Let the sheriff go back to his book, he thinks bitterly. Disappointment seeps through him because he’s come to expect better from Rogers. But the whole day, it seems, has been a litany of frustrations.

“Three.”

Tony is surprised by the strong hand on his shoulder and at having the pistol wrestled out of his hand. The man is quicker than lightning.

But Tony’s genuinely shocked by the sound of cuffs ratcheting shut as Rogers pulls both of Tony’s wrists behind his back.

“You can’t do this,” Tony splutters.

Rogers ignores him, nudging him so that Tony spins around and takes a step back, almost losing his balance. His knees knock against a chair and his feet go out from under him. Tony sits, more out of reflex and suggestion than voluntary will.  

“I can.” Rogers is glaring down at him, hands on his hips. “Drunk and disorderly is the least I can throw at you. You won’t cooperate? I can start asking questions about that piece on your palm.” He nods to Tony’s right hand. “And why you’ve been hiding something up your sleeve.”

Illegally carrying a concealed firearm, Tony mentally fills in. Intent to harm an elected official.

“You’ve seen firsthand what Fisk’s willing to do with my inventions,” Tony hisses, the cuffs rattles as he strains against them.

“Were you making more mines in your shop?” It’s plain from his tone that Rogers doubts that.

“No, it’s a piece of armor—"

“Can he kill anyone with it?”

Tony blinks. “No, but—"

“We’ll get your gizmo back, Stark.” Rogers assures him, plopping himself back down behind the desk and picking up the book again. “But for now, you’re gonna sit there till you can prove to me you’re in a right mind. You’re not stumbling into anything half-cocked on my watch.”

#

Vindictive would be the wrong word for what Tony’s feeling.

It’s close though.

But there’s also a strong undercurrent of frustration that vindictiveness just doesn’t capture.

The key problem with Rogers’s plan is that sobering up, when one drinks like Tony does, takes time. A lot of it. And that presents Tony with two problems. The first is that the object of his desire is sitting half a dozen feet away, ignoring him.

The second is that Tony is very bored and drunk, which is how the singing starts.

So when Tony sees Rogers’s eyebrow twitch at the first verse of “Danny Boy,” he knows he’s hit on something. At the end of the song, he starts it all over again.

He’s not sure exactly how many times he gets through it beginning to end before the patient sheriff snaps and finally tosses down the book. “Do I need to gag you to get some peace and quiet, Stark?”

“If you can’t think of anything more creative.”

“Oh, and what would you suggest?”

A kiss. It slips out so easily Tony only realizes he’s blurted it aloud when Rogers snorts.

“You’re more full a whiskey than an Irish wedding if you’re mistaking me for a girl.”

Tony rolls his head back and squeezes his eyes shut. The room’s spinning on him, and he’s not sure if it’s the alcohol, or dizzy relief that Rogers is brushing off his slip as a drunken mistake. After everything he’s seen, Tony had thought that maybe, just maybe—

He hears the other man’s chair scrape back and the grate of metal twisting against metal. When he opens his eyes, Rogers is hovering above him, water canteen in hand and an apologetic look on his face.

“Come on, my mistake. It’s hot out and your throat’s probably dry with all that singing.”

Tony tilts his head, accepting, but their coordination isn’t perfect, and some of the water dribbles past Tony’s lips into his goatee. On impulse, Rogers’s thumb brushes it away, the back of his knuckles gently grazing against Tony’s cheek, tender and familiar. And then the sheriff seems to realize his own error, judging from the way his cheeks color a pretty shade of pink.

Tony’s tongue darts out between wet lips. It feels like his skin is on fire, every bit of himself churning beneath. He’d give anything to have Rogers touch him again like that.

Tony shifts his shoulders, rolling them as best he can with his hands pinioned behind his back, and the sheriff blinks.

“I ought to switch you to the front,” he says, fumbling in his pocket for the key, happy to have a distraction from what just happened.

A thrill runs up Tony’s spine as Rogers brushes his shoulder and grasps his arms. He hears the click of a lock release and Tony twists at his freed wrist, the cuffs still dangling from the other.

“Better?” Rogers bends and cinches his hands together again.

“Could be worse.”

“Yeah,” Rogers smiles, but it’s thin, little more than a porcelain mask over…something. Melancholy? “I could have kissed you.”

A dam breaks inside of Tony. He can’t stand it anymore. He has to know, one way or the other. “Oh how I wish you would,” he whispers.

For a moment Rogers’s blue eyes go wide. When he finally speaks, his voice is strained. “Do you know what you’re asking?” Even drunk, Tony can hear the pain, muted and buried under layers of time. There’s more than loneliness in that deep, vulnerable voice. Tony hears regret and doubt too.

But Rogers has also lingered, frozen in the bent position, hands just inches away from Tony’s shackles, as if he’s caught and can abide neither pulling away nor bringing himself to touch Tony again.

When Tony catches Rogers’s hand in his manacled grasp and lifts, he doesn’t find resistance. The bristles of his beard catch between the soft crook of Rogers’s finger and thumb. It’s as if that touch melts the sheriff. Rogers’s fingers remold themselves, cupping Tony’s jaw as the inventor revels in the warm touch.

Then Rogers lifts Tony’s head back up, and the sheriff’s lips are soft and pliant against his. Tony’s lower lip slides against Rogers’s, lapping like a tide. And Tony pauses every so often, reveling in the way friction causes his lip to drag against the other man’s flesh.

This feels like one of those bits of his life that is half-dream.

“I think about you every night,” Tony pants once the sheriff breaks the kiss. It feels like the confession has been ripped from Tony as Rogers draws back, putting them nose to nose.

Rogers’s eyes close and his breath comes out through his nose in a rattle.

Outside, the hubbub of the town filters through the window and the white curtain sways back and forth in a breeze. A carriage rolls past kicking up the smell of dust and horses.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” Rogers says, but there’s ache in his voice.

Tony stands. He’s not quite the same height, maybe a few inches shorter. When Rogers takes half a step back, Tony closes the distance again, refusing to let the other man retreat.

Rogers very visibly swallows.

It’s telling, Tony thinks, that the sheriff doesn’t push him back into the chair or a cell. And when Tony settles his bound hands around the man’s neck, he’s rewarded with strong arms circling around the small of his back, and a firm, hungry kiss.

“Oh God,” Rogers groans, catching his breath and burying his nose in Tony’s neck. His voice is run roughshod with need, and Tony feels himself swell, pressing up against the cotton of his trousers.

“Please don’t be a dream,” he mutters into Rogers scalp. The sheriff’s gold hair smells like leather and moss and dry paper all rolled into one.

“Oh please, no,” Steve agrees, pressing those sweet lips of his to the base of Tony’s neck. Tony arches into the touch, and he’d be embarrassed that Rogers can feel how hard he is, except it’s a mirrored condition.

And there it is: all their cards on the table.

Took long enough.

They kiss again, and Tony’s fingers curl at the back of Rogers’s head as he feels the other man begin to work open his shirt. As Rogers reaches the last button and parts the two shirt halves, the inventor feels a wave of uncertainty. Rogers’s head is bent, studying him: his lanky build, the trail of dark hair not nearly thick enough to hide the scarring or burns that have been written into his ruddy skin. A life half in love with the forge will do that to skin. It all lasts perhaps seconds, but it feels like an eternity.

When Rogers touches him again, reverent and gentle, Tony feels like a weight has been removed from around his throat.

“Sorry, it’s just—" Rogers bites his lip, hands wandering, drifting to Tony’s hips.

“What?” The chain between Tony’s wrists clatters as he re-adjusts, moving to undo the sheriff’s vest.

Rogers doesn’t look up, his eyes seemingly fixated on Tony. He lets out a soft, deprecating laugh. “It’s just been awhile. I don’t want to seem…ah—" he dissolves into a moans and rolls his hips.

Tony feels positively wicked, grinding against Rogers through his pants. But he could really get used to seeing that blush.

Unfortunately, his hips have more dexterity than his fingers. Undoing the buttons of the vest and the bleached white shirt beneath proves challenging, so Tony’s grateful when Rogers decides to lend a hand. The metal star clinks as it hits the floor.

By comparison, Rogers is all lean muscle and smooth cream colored skin. Tony feels a twinge of envy that’s quickly snuffed when the sheriff decides to exact revenge, rubbing Tony through his pants.

He pants, hips bucking. “Okay. I think it’s time we get down to business, Rogers.”

“Steve,” he says. “Call me Steve.”

“Okay, Steve.”

His name on Tony’s tongue seems to set off something feral. In only a few smooth movements Rogers has Tony’s head thrown back, nipping at the soft skin beneath his jaw, and knee worked between Tony’s legs.

“What do you like?” Rogers — or rather, Steve — asks, running his hands along Tony’s hips.

Not sure he trusts his voice at the moment, Tony leans back on the desk and wraps his legs around Steve in answer. Seeing the sheriff’s playful grin fill with excitement is almost as heady as being touched.

Steve pushes him down so that his back rests on the smooth wood, and Tony hears a zipper undone. A meek sound escapes the back of his throat as Steve starts inching the fabric of Tony’s underclothes and pants down, inch by inch, trailing kisses every time the clothing retreats further. He continues until Tony is left in just a shirt. Then Steve nudges his knees wider, spreading him open like a wanton libertine on his desk.

And Tony can’t help the gasp that escapes him as Steve takes one of his balls into his mouth, teasing it with the broad part of his tongue. Steve sucks and lets go. And Tony arches and squirms as Steve trails his tongue up and over his hard shaft.

“Please,” Tony isn’t too proud to beg. Something exquisite and satisfied dances behind Steve’s blue eyes as his mouth and throat envelop Tony’s length. Of their own volition, Tony’s fingers curl into the blond hair, insistent and impatient. Steve makes a humming noise around his cock before pulling back and looking at Tony’s bound hands.

“I’ve half a mind to leave you cuffed.” His voice is light and playful, but the groan Tony makes, and the obvious twitch of his traitor cock gives him away. And Steve is leaning over him, shoulders taught, reading him like an open book. “Seems like you’d like that too.”

“Fuck — yes,” Tony hisses. The strained cloth of Steve’s pants rubs against his ass as he reaches over the desk, fumbling with a drawer. He pulls out a glass vial of something viscous and pale as his hair — oil.

Then Steve takes Tony in his mouth again. But he’s not content to stop there. Tony feels one of Steve’s thumbs circle his entrance, stroking the muscle. “You’re tight,” he says in a low, throaty voice, and Tony hears the clink of the glass before Steve’s thumb is back, slick this time as it rubs against his opening.

Tony shifts against him, stretching his arms over his head. “My last rodeo wasn’t exactly yesterday.”

Steve switches from thumb to finger, probing him deeper. “I guess we’re square there.”

Tony moans as Steve brushes his prostate, and Steve takes the opportunity to slip another finger inside, scissoring the fingers with slow even movements. Tony lets himself be worked, grateful for Steve’s patience. He’s not sure if their roles were reversed whether he’d have the same self-control. Even with his cock being sucked, it’s hard to wait.

Finally, when Steve’s withdrawn his oiled fingers, he lets Tony move. The inventor flips himself over on the desk and spreads his legs. In answer, his shirt gets pushed up around his middle, exposing his ass. Behind him, Tony hears the rustle of trousers being discarded and the slick sound of Steve stroking himself.

A soft gasp escapes Steve as skin meets skin, and the hard pressure of his cock at is insistent and needy. Focus, Tony tells himself. Relax. But he’s tense. Anticipation is running through him like a live wire.

Steve’s cock pushes in slowly. The hands on Tony’s hips tighten, as if clamping down on the urge to sink in in one fell swoop, and Tony moans as Steve buries himself deeper and deeper. It’s tight and it burns, but not as much as it would without the residual effects of the liquor. A tilt of Tony’s hips, and he feels Steve’s balls resting against his sensitized skin.

“Oh,” Steve’s groan is deep and guttural, and when Tony peeks over his shoulder, he sees the blond with his head down, chin on chest. He starts a slow withdraw, but his hips buck once, seemingly of their own accord. Gentle hands rub Tony’s hips by way of apology as Steve gets himself under control and begins a rhythm.

Just how long has it been for him? Tony wonders.

Steve’s broad hands sweep down to the soft hair on Tony’s thighs, rubbing circles and pulling Tony back on to his cock as he thrusts get quicker. “Ah—" Tony makes a high noise in the back of his throat — the possessiveness of Steve’s hold making his stiff cock twitch with excitement.

Steve doesn’t miss the lust in the cry, and the thrust of his hips get rougher.

The cuffs clink as Tony pushes himself up, resting a knee on the desk, and arching his back and head up and back. Steve obliges him with a kiss while running a hand from Tony’s hip, through the dusting of hair at his navel, to his chest. Tony’s nipple tingles as Steve pinches it, his hold on the inventor still firm, his motions unbroken. Tony’s erection bobs in the air with each snap of Steve’s hips, but he doesn’t dare touch himself yet — he thinks he might come from the velvety feel of Steve cock alone.

And then he feels Steve urging him down so that his elbows rest on the desk. Fingers interlace with his as Steve changes angles, nestling deeper between Tony’s legs. The breath in Tony’s ear is labored, harsh, and Tony wonders if he’s close. He bites his lip and groans at the thought, his own breath coming out in pants, overwhelmed by how heady Steve’s desire is.

So when Steve withdraws, Tony keens at his loss. Until Steve flips him over, his thick cock filling Tony again, brushing his sweet spot. Steve bends down, brushing the shirt open wide and pressing sloppy kisses that only catch half of Tony’s lips.

“You seem to be enjoying yourself,” he murmurs.

What an understatement. Tony’s erection is pressed flat and heavy against his stomach and leaking, and when Steve takes him in hand, a glistening thread of pre-cum trails from his belly to the head of his cock.

Tony pants hard in broken gasps, head thrown back, and tilting his hips upward — whatever gives Steve the easiest access. “Oh fuck. Yes.” He almost screams. The slap of Steve’s flesh against his ass seems louder in his ears and the feeling of his cock bobbing in the man’s hand is almost too much. He’s so, so agonizingly close — he brushes Steve’s hand away and curls his hand around the head of his cock, tugging, all of his muscles tight and coiled.

“Ah, ah — fuck — Steve!” He comes in breathy, ropey spurts that splash off Steve’s heaving chest and pool on his.

Steve’s hips still, and Tony catches the briefest, decadent smile on Steve’s face before his nose begins to drag along Tony’s chest, his deft tongue licking Tony’s wanton mess up, his hard length still seated deep inside Tony’s twitching body.

And then he jerks up, all good humor evaporating from his wide blue eyes. He looks like he’s just had a bucket of ice dumped down his shirt. They both probably do.

Because they've both just heard glass rattle and the creak of door hinges.

“Oh. Um.” Through the gap between Steve’s arm and side, Tony can see Banner has turned red as a beet. The Doc’s Adam’s apple bobs noticeably. “I thought I heard someone hurt.”

There is a very, very awkward moment of silence.

“I’ll just…go.” He finally says, and hastily shuts the door behind him.

Once they’re alone again, Steve’s withdraws. He’s flaccid and his entire demeanor has changed. He doesn’t seem to be able to look at Tony as he runs his hands through his hair. “Oh, God. What have I done? Here it was just rumors, but now…”

Tony’s worried. He tries to lay his pinioned hands on Steve’s shoulder, only to have the sheriff jerk away. “Hey, what’s gotten into you?”

“I’ve just been caught taking advantage of the town drunk, that’s what!”

Tony blinks, and then snickers. “Taking advantage of? Sheriff, I’m not some wilting flower bent over your knee. I’m a full grown man.”

“That’s half the problem,” Steve snaps.

Here it was just rumors.

Here as in Timely?

That’s when it clicks for Tony. He stops laughing as what he's suspected for so long is confirmed. “Bucky wasn’t just your deputy, was he?”

Steve’s jaw clenches tight.

“Is he the reason you can’t go back east?”

The blue eyes flick up to meet Tony’s. How do you know that? They ask. After a long pause he blows out a long breath. “We were both eighteen, but he was a judge’s son. They called me a corrupter of the youth.”

“So you ran away west.”

“I should have left him in Boston.”’

Ah. There it is: what he sensed under the hesitation earlier. Steve blames himself, thinks he's the catalyst that brought his partner out here to his death. And now Tony understands the other reason Steve is so on edge.

A tree with deep roots can’t throw caution to the wind like a seedling.

The injustice of it all is infuriating because Steve is a man he can’t picture running from anything. But bullies, thugs, and robber barons, are one thing. They can be punched in the face. The weight of public scorn is an entirely different beast.

“For what it’s worth,” Tony says, “I don’t think we have to worry about Doc." Judging how he's kept quiet about the whole gunshot thing, Tony's optimistic.

Steve’s face falls further. “Why? Do you have an…arrangement?”

“I suppose you could call it —" Tony’s brain catches up to his mouth when Steve starts to glower. “Wait, what do you mean by arrangement? Do you—” He can’t help grinning as the absurdity of it all dawns on him. “Is that why you were so interested in Banner’s house call?” He tries so very hard not to crow, but it still comes out sounding triumphant. “Were you jealous, Rogers?”

Steve crosses his arms, but his red ears are tell-tale.

“Banner was making sure it didn’t fester,” Tony motions at the gauze-wrapped wound on his leg. He wonders if the sheriff even noticed in the haze of things. “Whatever his feeling on what he saw, I don’t think he could afford to run either of us out of town. As for me,” Tony shuts his eyes and stretches his arms out. He brings them up, tapping himself with a feathered touch on the nose before peeking one blue eye open, “I am stone cold sober.”

Steve looks like the earth has stopped shaking beneath him. Though that isn’t to say he looks good. Unsettled doubt still lines the crease of his brow as he takes out the key and frees Tony’s wrists. “I guess you’re free to go then.”

He actually seems surprised when Tony doesn’t just up and stroll out.

“You promised you’d help me get back my invention.”

Steve blinks. “I suppose I did.”

“Well, are you going to take down an official report?”

“What? Now?”

Tony sits, crossing his legs, still wearing just his rumpled shirt. “You got more pressing matters?”

“I…suppose not,” Steve says reluctantly, taking out a battered register.

“Good,” Tony watches as Steve scribbles down his description of the theft. He emphasizes the footprints he found on his bedroom floor. “So you’ll have time to come by?”

Steve looks up confused.

“I assume you’ll want to conduct a follow up investigation at the scene." Tony adopts his best rakish smile. "A thorough one.”

Steve swallows, slides the book back into his desk drawer, and nods.

He may have lost the helmet — for now, Tony tells himself — but he thinks it might actually be worth it for what he's gained.