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Looking for Heaven

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Lord Anthony Edward Stark’s stable boy was named Steven Rogers, but young Tony—who found nothing wrong with the shortening of Christian names—always called him Steve. It caused the most delightful blush to bloom in Steven’s cheeks.

“That’s not my proper name,” he would say with a haughty tilt to his chin, one befitting a noble and not the son of a cook.

“It is if I say it is,” Tony would reply, perching precariously on top of the edge of a stall door. He’d swing back and forth, whistling idly until Steve would cross his arms over his chest and demand Tony get down at once—but not before glancing quickly over his shoulder to make sure no one heard him chastising the young lord of the manor.

Steve was small for thirteen, thin-limbed and narrow through the shoulders. Tony had once heard the servant girls comment that Steve could be blown over by a stiff wind, which didn’t seem far from the truth. And yet he loved to be around the horses, mucking out their stalls with shovels nearly twice his size, and the horses took well to him.

Once, Tony had found Steve tucked up against the stable wall with a sketchbook in his lap, his hand smudged black from the charcoal drawing he was rendering of Tony’s own horse, Archer.

“I don’t think you have his ears quite right,” Tony said without announcing himself. Steve jumped, giving a startled yelp as he slammed the sketchbook on the ground.

“You’re not supposed to be here!” he yelled breathlessly, glaring at Tony.

“That’s my horse,” Tony replied. He pointed to the sketchbook lying face down in the dirt. “You’re getting him all dirty.”

Steve had scooped the thing up and clutched it to his skinny chest, suddenly bowing his head and looking more contrite than Tony had ever seen him.

“I’m sorry,” he’d said quietly. “But do not make me show you the rest. It’s not for you.”

Tony’s stomach had given a strange swoop. He’d narrowed his eyes, feeling angry for some odd reason. “I don’t need your silly drawings,” he’d sniffed, “especially when you should be working, anyway.” Then he’d stomped off to his rooms, bowling over the manor butler and making one the servant girls cry in the process.

He’d decided in that moment that he hated Steven Rogers.

~*~

“And just where do you think you’re off to?”

Tony skidded to a stop in the doorway of the parlor, hat in hand. “Miss Van Dyne is having a party, I told you weeks ago—”

Lord Stark gave a bored sigh. “Another party? This is your third one this week.”

“Fourth, actually. You forgot Lady Romanov’s birthday soiree.” He wondered why his father cared; he was never home enough to notice Tony’s comings and goings, and at seventeen, he had every right to do as he pleased.

“There are matters to discuss before I leave for Paris tomorrow, Anthony. Namely, the selection of a new stable hand.”

“Whatever you need to discuss can wait until—” Tony froze. “A new stable hand? But, we have Steve. There’s no need to—”

Steven has decided to enlist.” His father had always thought it inappropriate for Tony to have a petname for a servant. “He intends to leave in two day’s time. Lord knows what they’ll do with the boy, but I suppose they really are desperate.”

Tony felt a buzzing in his ears, a tightness in his chest. Steven’s decided to enlist. It wasn’t possible, Steve was not meant for the war, which was something far off, distant, unrelated to them.

Not that Tony cared one bit what Steve did with his life. He rarely set foot in the stables these days, and when it happened that their paths crossed, Steve merely nodded his head stiffly and murmured, “my Lord,” in a quiet, emotionless voice. Tony made the occasional quip, just to see if he could make Steve’s cheeks turn pink like they once did.

“The manure scent becomes you today, Steve,” he’d said once, smirking for good measure.

But Steve had ducked his head and replied quietly, “I do my job well, my Lord,” and quickly turned away.

That time it was Tony’s own cheeks that felt hot to the touch.

No, Tony didn’t care at all if Steve was foolish enough to risk his life on the battlefield. He cared so little, he forgot all about Miss Van Dyne’s party and stormed into the stables, ready to tell Steve just how idiotic his decisions truly were.

He did not find Steve alone. He also did not find Steve calmly puttering about the stables. Instead, Tony found him brawling with two slightly older boys from the kitchens.

“You think yourself a soldier, eh?” one boy sneered as he shoved Steve back against a stall door. “A soldier who can’t fight?”

“Leave me alone,” Steve growled, and the words held considerable rage, even if his physical movements did not. He was simply out-sized by the other boys, swinging his fists at them in vain.

The second boy held Steve back as the other pummeled him in the stomach. But Steve tried so hard to keep his chin up, struggling with all his might against the boys’ hold.

Tony stood in the stable doorway, speechless. After a moment, he finally shook himself and yelled, “Stop this at once!”

The boys immediately dropped Steve and backed away from him as if he were on fire. They faced Tony, heads bowed in feigned shame.

“Sorry, m’lord,” the first boy said. “We meant no trouble, just havin’ a bit of fun.”

“Fun?” Tony looked over the boy’s shoulder at Steve, who was slumped on the ground, one arm clutched around his stomach. His lip was starting to bleed down his chin. “You call attacking my stable hand ‘fun?’”

“We didn’t mean nothin’ by it—”

“Enough.” Tony glared at them both, dropped his voice into its most menacing tone. “My father will hear of this, so you both should kiss your mothers one last time, as I’m sure he’ll agree the stocks will be an adequate place for you after tonight.”

Their faces went pale, eyes wide, and Tony almost smirked. They muttered unintelligible words under their breath before stumbling out of the stable.

Tony let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding, then dared to let himself meet Steve’s eyes.

Steve was frowning at him.

Tony held up his hands. “What? I saved you and all you can do is—”

“You needn’t have interfered. It was humiliating enough already.” Steve tried to push himself up off the ground, hissing in pain.

Without thinking, Tony dropped to his knees at Steve’s side and laid a hand on his arm. Steve promptly jerked away.

“I don’t need your help, Tony.” He swiped the back of his hand over his bleeding lip.

Tony sat back on his heels and crossed his arms over his chest. “Fine. Then perhaps you’ll explain to me this rumour I’ve heard about you rushing off to join the army.”

Steve went very still, then slowly raised his eyes to meet Tony’s. His hair was a tangled mess across his forehead, and his cheek was starting to bruise. “It’s not a rumour,” he replied softly. “I leave tomorrow.”

“And you actually plan on seeing battle?” Tony asked before he could think better of it.

“I can fight,” Steve growled in that same fierce tone Tony had heard moments earlier. “I don’t need to prove anything to you.”

He’d forgotten himself, speaking to a lord’s son in such a manner. But Tony did not reprimand him. He never had. He took a deep breath and rose to his feet, brushing his knees off as his heart thudded heavily.

“No, you don’t. I shall give you your leave, then.” He wanted to tell him good luck and keep yourself safe, but Tony knew Steve did not want to hear such things from him. He stood over Steve for a moment, took in the way Steve watched him through the soft fall of his hair.

Steve opened his mouth, began to speak, then looked away.

Tony bit his tongue and left.

~*~

As a boy, Tony has always imagined life as the Lord of Stark Manor being carefree and effortless, something he would not have to concern himself with until years in the future.

Unfortunately, the future arrived the day after he turned twenty-one years old, when his father collapsed from a heart attack. He died two days later.

Tony stood at the back of the room during the funeral and watched the mourners pass Howard Stark’s casket. He felt as if someone had thrown a punch to his gut when Tony was least expecting it. It didn’t feel real, seeing his father lying motionless and pale. He thought of the last time he’d seen him alive, three months ago; Lord Stark had returned home from a trip to India and had spent a lengthy time berating Tony for not being present at the manor.

“University is well and good, but your responsibilities are here,” he’d said, as if his last six months spent traveling the globe meant nothing.

Now Tony’s university days were over. Already he had been beset with letters from business associates of his father’s, requesting time to meet with Tony to discuss the transfer of assets and how Tony planned to take over the elder Lord Stark’s holdings.

Tony was no longer simply Tony. He was now Lord Stark of the Stark Manor, heir to a fortune.

He thought of his mother, long since buried in the Stark family cemetery. It was becoming more difficult to remember her face, but Tony still remembered her smile.

Then he thought of Steve, which always seemed to happen at the most inappropriate times. He wondered—not for the first time—whether Steve was still alive, if he was surviving somewhere, if he’d suffered some sort of horrible injury and was now lying in a hospital bed, looking much like the late Lord Stark. Tony wondered if Steve ever thought upon his time at Stark Manor, and whether or not the news of his father’s passing would make it to him.

Tony wondered if Steve would care the slightest bit.

He went home that evening and found himself standing in front of the stables, the cold late autumn mist causing his hair to hang limply in his eyes. The horses snorted softly, oblivious to his presence; Tony half expected to see Steve walk out of one the stalls, one eyebrow raised and a disapproving tilt to his mouth.

“My Lord?”

Tony glanced over his shoulder where Jarvis stood patiently. He’d inherited his father’s valet, although Jarvis had been with the Starks for years before being appointed to the position.

“Will you be needing my assistance anymore this evening, my Lord?” Jarvis asked quietly.

“No, that’s alright,” Tony sighed, rubbing a hand over his damp neck. He couldn’t help but notice the umbrella in Jarvis’s hands, and he smiled ruefully. “Go inside and warm yourself.”

Jarvis cocked his head to one side. “And you? Are you planning to ride shortly?”

Tony shook his head. “No. I haven’t ridden in years.” Then he turned and walked back to the manor, Jarvis following silently behind him.

That night Tony went to his father’s study, opened a new bottle of their best brandy, and drank until he passed out, slumped behind the massive desk that now belonged to him.

~*~

The next morning brought cursed sunlight and a splitting headache. Tony wanted to beat the blasted wisp of a boy who knocked far too loudly on the study door.

“I’m dead at the moment,” Tony yelled, glaring darkly at the daylight streaming in through the open curtains. He tried in vain to bury his face in his folded arms, wincing at the sour taste in his mouth.

“My Lord, I have a letter to deliver. The messenger said it was urgent,” the boy said, wide-eyed and breathless. He startled when Tony sat back in the chair and groaned loudly.

“Why in God’s name would you possibly think I would want to read a damned thing at this hour?” Tony grumbled.

“My Lord, it’s past noon.”

Of course it was. Tony shut his eyes and flailed his hand out. “Fine, fine, bring it here. Then leave me alone. No, leave me alone, but bring me all the scones in the house first. And tea. Lots of tea. With honey.”

The boy placed the letter gingerly in Tony’s hand and fled the room. Tony managed to pry his eyes open and finally take a look at the envelope. It was sealed with a plain bit of wax, and the handwriting was oddly familiar—it read simply Lord Anthony Stark on the front, nothing more. If it was correspondence from one of his father’s business colleagues, Tony doubted it would arrive with such simplicity.

He slid open the flap, and the sheet of paper inside was also oddly reminiscent; smudged at the edges, worn, like it was torn from a well-loved notebook. Tony unfolded it carefully, an anxious flutter in his chest.

He read the first paragraph and nearly lost his breath.

 

Lord Stark,

I heard about your father’s passing, and I am sorry for your loss. News travels quickly when one is no longer on the battlefield. I was discharged six months ago to go home to my mother, who took ill in the spring. The doctors say she may recover, but nothing is certain.

I write to you to ask for guidance, at the risk of bruising my pride. My mother’s health has left her unable to perform her duties as head cook of the manor where she was employed. She has no money left, and cannot afford to pay the doctors who care for her so well. There is an eminent danger that she will lose her home in order to pay for her growing debt. As a discharged soldier, I have nothing to offer her, and I cannot leave her side to find employment for myself.

I would not be writing to you if I had any other choice. I am asking you to please meet with me and offer any assistance, even if it is the smallest amount. I served you and your father for many years, and I would hope that my faithful service would endear myself to you, though it is likely you have forgotten about me by now.

Please, Tony. I am asking for your help.

Sincerely,

Steven Rogers

 

Tony’s hands were shaking by the time he finished reading the letter. Then he read it again, and then a third time. Each time his eyes lingered on Please, Tony, and his heart thudded painfully.

Please, Tony. I am asking for your help.

It was as if Tony were seventeen again, standing in the stables over his beaten, bloody stable hand. There was nothing that could stop him from fumbling quickly for his quill and stationery.

With his heart in his throat, Tony scribbled hastily, Steve, I will meet you next Friday afternoon, the fourteenth, at The Grey Ox. Give your mother my regards.

He stuffed the letter into an envelope, sealed it with the Stark crest, then bellowed for the servant boy, who arrived moments later with a platter piled high with scones.

“My Lord, your breakfast—”

“Hang the bloody scones, I need you to deliver this at once. At once, do you understand?”

The boy’s eyes widened. He set the plate of scones on the chair by the door, raced over to Tony’s desk to snatch the envelope, then dashed out of the room.

Tony did not touch the scones. He sat in his chair for many hours, staring out the window, one hand splayed over Steve’s letter.

~*~

The Grey Ox was a tavern not far from Stark Manor, a staple of the small village within which it resided and a place Tony visited with startling frequency. Everyone knew the young lord’s face, and Tony knew theirs, which may have accounted for the impending dread he felt on the afternoon of the fourteenth as he sat at a table toward the back of the room. He had a perfect view of the door, and he held his breath each time someone walked in.

He hadn’t seen Steve in over four years. In that time, Steve had gone off to war, and Tony to university. While Tony did not think he had changed, he pictured Steve as care-worn, perhaps his skin tanned by being out in the elements, his eyes older, wiser. There were tales of men returning from war with dead eyes, haunted by the things they’d seen and done; Tony’s stomach went cold at the thought of Steve’s blue eyes full of a fear he could not escape.

The tavern’s door swung open, and Tony looked up from his mug of ale. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood in the doorway, one wide hand shoving his tousled blond hair back from his forehead. His body was solid, finely muscled as if he fought for a living, but his expression was one of nervous apprehension.

Then the man’s gaze fell upon Tony, and his eyes flared.

All the air rushed from Tony’s lungs.

Steve.

Neither one moved for a long, painful moment. Tony pretended to be slightly confused, tilting his head slightly as his hands gripped his knees hard beneath the table. Steve stood frozen in place, looking terrified and sad and possibly many other things Tony did not want to acknowledge flashing through those ridiculously lovely blue eyes.

Finally, he tipped his chin up in a familiar display of determination and headed toward Tony’s table. As he drew closer, Tony could see a hint of pink in Steve’s cheeks.

He swallowed tightly, then gave his most casual smile. “Hello, Steve.”

Steve continued to stand over the table, biting his lip. He nodded his head slowly. “My Lord.” Tony could not stop his eyes from mapping every inch his body, a new body, as if Steve had returned from the war an entirely different person. Gone was the thin, gangly boy who mucked out stable stalls; the man standing before Tony was a hardened soldier.

“You don’t have to call me that anymore,” Tony replied, forcing a laugh. “The formalities are unnecessary. Or shall I call you Commander?”

That somehow drew a smile from him. “It’s Captain, actually,” Steve said with a small quirk of his mouth, pulling out the chair across from Tony and sitting down rather carefully. It felt as if Steve were waiting for Tony to dismiss him before their conversation had even begun.

Steve laid a hand on the table, stared down at his fingers, and said softly, “I truly am sorry for your loss, Tony.”

“Yes, well. We’re not here to talk about my father, we’re here to talk about your mother.” Tony took a drink to gather his thoughts. “How bad is it? Financially speaking.”

“As bad as it could be.” Steve sighed heavily, the wide breadth of his shoulders expanding and contracting. “There’s nothing left. She will be homeless just as her health returns to her. The bill collectors are already swarming.”

Tony ordered Steve an ale without asking. He deserved a drink. “I can loan you the money—”

“No.” Steve took the mug the serving girl handed him and drained it in half a dozen gulps. He sat the empty thing on the table and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I cannot possibly expect you to do that, we’d never be able to repay the amount. And I won’t allow myself to go into debt to you.”

Something in his tone made Tony flush with irrational anger. “Then what do you propose I do? I’m afraid my money is all that I’m good for around here.”

A pinch formed above Steve’s eyes. “That’s not what I—no. I had hoped you would, perhaps, employ me again? If I were in your service once more, I’d be able to take out a loan more easily with the understanding that—”

“Employ you? I already have a stable hand.” His name was Hanson and he was well beyond fifty in age, but he did a fine job, even if he wasn’t Steve.

“Not in your stables. I can—I can do other things now, I’m stronger, faster, I can do more.”

“And what would you tell the rest of the staff when they ask why you’ve suddenly returned to the manor?”

Steve looked away and shrugged. “I shall think of something.”

Tony snorted. “You could always tell them you missed being in my company. That is a convincing lie as any.”

“If we’re going to tell unconvincing lies, we might as well say we’re engaged,” Steve replied with a rueful smirk.

A silence fell between them, but the cogs of Tony’s mind were suddenly whirling with a vengeance.

“Engaged,” Tony said slowly. Normally it was not a word he liked to hear; during his first year at university, his father had surreptitiously arranged a betrothal between Tony and the daughter of one his associates in order to strike a lucrative business deal. Once Tony learned of his engagement, he immediately went straight to the lady’s home and told her in no uncertain terms that there would be no marriage. He’d been furious with his father, and swore he would never let himself be forced into another engagement.

But this was not a situation outside of Tony’s control. This was something he could mold to suit his needs, and Steve’s as well. A marriage arrangement would go a long way in protecting Steve’s battered pride, and save Tony the trouble of chasing off would-be suitors with the Stark fortune on their greedy minds.

Steve’s eyes grew wide. “You don’t actually think—”

“If you were to marry me, I would be free to give you as much money as I wanted to, no questions asked. And there would no reason for you to explain your reappearance at Stark Manor.”

“Tony, you can’t possibly—”

“Your mother would keep her house, her health. And you—you would only have to stay with me for the first few months or so, to keep up appearances. Then you could do as you pleased.”

Steve’s cheeks were now a bright, bright pink. He frantically licked his lips, which Tony found horribly distracting. “I’m not going to marry you,” he whispered, leaning across the table. “There has to be another way.”

Logically, Tony knew there had to be another option. Of course there was. He wasn’t even sure why he’d suggested marriage in the first place, as it was clear Steve wanted nothing of sort.

And yet, Steve’s insistence that he would not marry him made it difficult for Tony to think of another suggestion.

“It would be a title, nothing more,” Tony said. He tried to ignore the irritated bite in his words. “Marriages are an arrangement, after all, as everyone knows. You would have the means to help your mother, and I will look the part of a proper lord—I have already received dozens of marriage proposals since my father’s passing, and I doubt they will stop anytime soon.”
Steve frowned. “But...you have no plans to ever marry for love?”

Tony gave a genuine laugh. “Love? Steve, really, did the military make you fanciful? Love is myth created by poets and writers desperate to sell their wares. Love is commerce.”

“The military did not make me fanciful, but I’d say age has made you cynical,” Steve replied in a low voice. He looked rather hurt.

Tony held his arms out. “If I am a cynical man, then I am a wise one.”

“Maybe you have yet to feel love.”

“And maybe you are still young, Captain Rogers.”

Steve folded his hands on the table. The edges of his nails looked slightly smudged, as if blackened by charcoal. Tony had a sudden memory of Steve’s sketchbook, the drawings of the horses.

“If I were to agree to this...what would be your terms?” he asked.

“I would not insist on terms,” Tony replied. “I would only ask that once the marriage is valid, and your mother is seen to, you would allow me to go about my life, and I shall allow you to go about yours.”

“As simple as that?”

“It can be, yes.”

“But I would still live with you.”

“In theory. But—” Tony cleared his throat. “—you would not share my bed. You would have the adjoining room, of course.”

Steve nodded, a slight panic in his eyes. “That seems reasonable, yes.”

“I go out in the evenings. You won’t ask me where I go.” Tony didn’t know why he felt the need to make such a statement.

“Of course not. That is your business.”

“If I choose to escort a young lady or gentleman into the house, that, too, is not your concern.”

Steve bowed his head, said, “Of course,” again in a soft, demure voice that made Tony’s breath grow shallow.

He shook himself, gritting his teeth. “Very well. Are we in agreement?”

Steve took a deep breath, closed his eyes, then opened them again. When he looked at Tony, his jaw was tight.

“Yes,” Steve said, and held out his hand. “I will marry you.” He said the words as if he had just agreed to be locked in the stocks for a month.

Tony shook his hand, hating the tiny surge of possessive pleasure he felt blooming deep inside himself.

~*~

Their wedding day fell on a bright, warm Sunday afternoon. The ceremony was a private, simple affair with only Jarvis and the priest in attendance, and was held at the little chapel on the very edge of the Stark estate—a relic from the days when Tony’s ancestors took God and their faith quite seriously.

Tony was dressed in his finest coat, a dark burgundy colour that matched the soft gold of his breeches and the delicate silk of his cravat. His hair, however, seemed to be a lost cause, as he could not stop himself from constantly shoving his hand through the neatly coiffed strands in nervous anxiety. His boots had been polished to a high shine that morning, and they glinted in the sunlight as Tony paced the front of the chapel.

Jarvis looked on, smiling gently, his hands clasped in front of him. He cleared his throat and said, “My Lord, you have nothing to worry about. I’m sure Captain Rogers will arrive shortly.”

“I’m not worried,” Tony snapped, but came to an abrupt halt at the altar. He took a deep breath, tried desperately to clear his thoughts. There was no reason to be so nervous. Tony had dealt with powerful men before, men who had more money than God and knew how to wield it, but never had he been this terrified.

“Perhaps he is merely running late today,” Jarvis provided when he no doubt noticed Tony glaring out the window.

Tony opened his mouth to say Steve is never late, only just then the door to the chapel burst opened and Steve rushed in, panting as he made his way up to the altar.

“I’m so sorry,” he said breathlessly, “the carriage you sent lost a wheel on the road and it took far too long to fix, so I ran the rest of the way—I haven’t kept you waiting long?” He looked at Tony with wide, anxious blue eyes, sweat shining on his upper lip. Wet strands of dark blond hair clung to his damp forehead, and his cheeks were flushed.

The rest of him, however, was rather devastating: his jacket and waistcoat were both a glowing sapphire that matched his eyes, and tailored so immaculately (courtesy of Tony’s own personal tailor) they made his shoulders look impossibly broad. His breeches were a pure, snow white, and his cravat, while less ornate than Tony’s, was a deep, subtle red, the same shade at Steve’s boots, which were now covered in dust and mud.

He was absolutely gorgeous. But Steve caught Tony frowning at his filthy boots and said miserably, “I know, I’m a mess. I did not mean to run, I only—I didn’t want you to think I—”

“Yes, well.” Tony jerked his eyes away from the distracting sight of Steve’s solid thighs in snug-fitting white. “You’re here now, and that is what matters.”

Steve nodded, then fell silent as he took in Tony’s own attire. The flush of exertion in his face seemed to deepen. “You look—very lovely, Tony,” he replied softly, eyes downcast. Tony wanted to believe it was genuine shyness in his voice, but that was ridiculous; Steve had never been shy in Tony’s presence.

“As do you,” Tony replied with a bit too much gruffness. He scrubbed a hand through his hair once more, causing it to fall into his eyes. He wished he had chosen to chop it all off for the ceremony.

He startled when Steve reached up and skimmed two fingertips over his cheek, tracing the edge of Tony’s newly-trimmed goatee.

“I like it,” Steve said, a faint smile tugging at his lips. “It makes you look regal.”

Strange how Tony felt oddly bereft once Steve lowered his hand. He wanted to lean closer, let Steve touch him for however long he wished. It was yet another disturbing thought that Tony quickly pushed aside.

“Shall we proceed?” He gave Steve what he hoped was his most brilliant and casual smile.

Steve visibly swallowed. “Yes. I’m—I’m ready.”

Father Wagner gave a graciously brief sermon about devotion and giving oneself to God, nodding at both Steve and Tony when he spoke of faith and love. Out of the corner of his eye, Tony could see Steve wince slightly. Their shoulders brushed together, and Tony had an irrational moment where he considered reaching for Steve’s hand.

He will soon be your husband, a little voice inside Tony’s head whispered. His pulse began to thunder frantically.

“And so it is now that you shall be joined forever more in holy matrimony, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Praise be to God,” Father Wagner said, smiling at them expectantly. “You may now kiss.”

Oh, Tony thought, and nearly burst into hysterical laughter. He had not thought this part through. He turned to Steve, whose face had gone pale.

“Tony,” he whispered, like a warning. There was a glimmer of fear in his eyes; Tony could sympathise.

He was about to simply laugh and kiss Steve’s cheek in an effort to keep the atmosphere light, but Tony was again distracted by Steve swiping his tongue over his lower lip, a quick, meaningless motion that left his mouth slick-shiny and gleaming in the hazy light of the chapel.

“Tony,” Steve whispered again, only this time it sounded like a question. Or maybe even a plea. Tony would not let himself think on it too closely. He did not let himself think anything except that he would kiss Steve here and now, just this once. Just for the sake of appearances.

When he cupped Steve’s cheek, Tony heard him gasp faintly, and his eyes fluttered shut as Tony’s thumb brushed the corner of his mouth. He shook beneath Tony’s touch, a barely perceptible trembling, and Tony—

Tony kissed him, soft and sweet, his tongue caressing the edge of Steve’s lower lip as if soothing all his fears and worries. Steve made a soft sound, deep in his throat, and his skin felt so very warm under Tony’s hand.

Tony pulled back abruptly, blinking at the room as if waking from a dream.

Steve stood beside him, chest rising and falling with each shallow breath. Slowly, a beautiful, brilliant smile spread across his face.

He’s mine now, that same little voice inside Tony’s head whispered. My husband.

Tony gritted his teeth. He desperately needed a drink.

~*~

The reception party was quite lavish, but the best part as far as Tony was concerned was the abundance of champagne at every turn. He lost himself in greeting the guests and sharing the wealth of alcohol, and if he purposely lost track of Steve in the meantime, well. It was merely a coincidence.

He was blissfully sinking into intoxication when Miss Potts found him—or rather, Mrs. Hogan, as she was now a married woman. Tony, however, would always refer to her as Pepper, since they had been friends at university, and Tony was never one for propriety.

“You have the look of a married man now,” Pepper drawled, her smile fond.

Tony saluted her with his champagne flute. “Would you agree that this is the only way to celebrate matrimony?” He swayed toward her, grinning lasciviously, which only made Pepper burst into laughter.

“I should have known you would not change a bit, even on your wedding day.” Her expression softened, and she laid a hand on Tony’s arm. “He really is quite lovely, Tony. You are a lucky man, indeed.”

A rumble of guilt settled low in his belly. Tony quickly drained his glass. “Yes, but, is he lucky to have me?” he asked with a wink, ignoring the uncomfortable truth to his words.

Pepper sighed. “Oh, Tony. Anyone would be lucky to have you. As an eyewitness, I can safely say that you truly have Steven’s heart. Why, he’s barely taken his eyes off you this entire evening. I would say he shows the signs of a devoted husband, don’t you?”

Tony frowned and quickly glanced about the room. He hadn’t seen Steve for hours; he had thought him retired for the evening, gone off to his new bedchambers to unpack his things. “He’s still here?”

“Of course!” Pepper laughed. She nodded her head toward the far corner of the room, to a paisley armchair. There sat Steve, with a sketchbook in his lap, lost in whatever he was drawing.

“An artist and a soldier, Tony? Where on earth did you find him?”

Tony said, “He used to be my stable boy.”

Pepper blinked, her mouth falling open rather ungracefully. “Your stable boy? But how—”

He took both her hands in his, replied in a low voice, “Can I trust you with something of the utmost secrecy?”

Looking utterly bewildered, Pepper nodded.

Tony lead her to one of the empty sitting rooms, quietly shut the door, and said, “Steve doesn’t love me.”

“Tony, really—”

“He doesn’t love me, because our marriage is a business arrangement.” He proceeded to tell her every detail of his agreement with Steve leading up to that very day. As Tony spoke, he felt an unseen weight lift from his shoulders.

Pepper’s mouth pinched together in thought once Tony finished. “Your solution to Steve’s financial burdens was to marry him?”

Tony dropped his head into his hands. “I could not think of another alternative.”

“Why did you not employ him as he asked?”

“He didn’t want to explain his circumstances to the staff. He values his pride, and his privacy.”

“You could have employed him in other ways without bringing him back to Stark Manor.”

“People would still ask questions.”

“Indeed.” Pepper raised an eyebrow, then added casually, “I’m beginning to wonder just how much you both fought this idea.”

“You think I wanted to marry my childhood stable hand? The very same boy who despised me and found my very presence an annoyance? You didn’t see his face when he agreed to this arrangement, Pepper—the man looked ready to walk to the guillotine.”

“Yet here you both are, married men. And as I mentioned, he seems quite taken with you.”

Tony scoffed. “It’s an act.”

“You look as if you’re quite fond of him yourself.”

“What I am fond of, my darling, is being freed from the lecherous individuals who set their sights on my money through matrimony. No longer will I have to endure the countless proposals and public declarations for my affections. Why, you were the first female this evening to approach me without another man in tow.”

“That is because my husband could not care less about social engagements,” Pepper replied dryly.

Tony slumped back in his chair, wishing he had another glass of champagne. “It will not be so bad for him,” he said quietly, mostly to himself. “He’ll have the means to care for his mother, and I’ll—”

“He shan’t be sharing your bed, then, I take it?”

Pepper,” Tony spluttered.

She rolled her eyes, waving him off. “Oh, please, you have said far less appropriate things in my presence.”

“Of course he won’t. We have adjoining rooms, that’s all.”

“I see.” Pepper nodded slowly, but a knowing smirk was playing at the corner of her mouth. “So there is not even one small part of you that, perhaps...wants your husband?”

Tony glared at her. “No,” he said.

“Fair enough.” She stood up, brushed out the wrinkles from the folds of her gown before holding her hand out to Tony. “Care to give a lady a dance?”

Tony let himself breathe a sigh of relief. “Maybe not a lady, but I shall dance with you instead,” he quipped, and Pepper pinched his arm as he lead her from the room.

~*~

It was quite late by the time Tony stumbled upstairs to bed. The last of the guests had trickled out the door an hour or so ago, but Tony found himself unwilling to face what was sure to greet him in the room adjoining his. He told himself it was no different than before, that his bed was empty and the candles were lit, and it scarcely mattered that his husband was asleep on the other side of the wall.

Tony slammed the bedroom door closed with too much force, then knocked into his dresser, sending bottles and combs scattering onto the floor. He swore loudly, tugging at his cravat and throwing it across the room, followed by his jacket and waistcoat; if only Jarvis were still awake, then he would make sure they were hung up properly.

He was half out of his boots, crashing into the bed posts as gravity took hold, when he heard a soft voice say, “Tony?”

With another sharp curse, Tony collapsed in a heap on the floor, his breeches tangled around his knees, one boot still on his right foot. He tipped his head back against the bed and saw Steve standing in the adjoining bedroom doorway in his nightshirt, his hair sleep-tousled.

“Go back to bed, Steven,” Tony muttered, an unwanted lump of humiliation in his throat.

“You’re drunk.”

“Very astute observation, now leave me be.”

Steve sighed, rubbing a hand over his cheek. “Does this happen frequently?” he asked. “Or only on your wedding night?”

“We had an agreement,” Tony hissed through clenched teeth, jerking his boot off to fling it in Steve’s direction. It landed harmlessly at Steve’s feet, which made Steve give him a sad look.

“Here, before you fall asleep on the floor and catch your death,” he said, and set the stray boot aside as he came toward Tony, dropping to his knees at Tony’s side and pulling his breeches down his legs with quick, efficient movements.

“I don’t need you to—to undress me,” Tony grumbled like a petulant child.

“No, you don’t need anyone, do you?” Steve replied, but the words sounded as if they were not meant for Tony to hear. He set the breeches aside and set to work unbuttoning Tony’s shirt collar.

The room was spinning and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep his eyes open. Tony let his eyes slip shut as Steve tugged his shirt down his arms. “What were you drawing this evening?”

He felt Steve pause, fingers barely touching Tony’s skin. “Guests at the reception. It was nothing.”

“I remember when you drew my horse,” Tony slurred. “You should go out to the stables again, finish what you started.”

Steve didn’t move for several long moments. Tony forced one of his eyes open, and found Steve gazing at him with an odd expression in his eyes.

“Are you and Mrs. Hogan...close?” Steve asked before pulling Tony to his feet and rolling him onto the bed in an awkward heap.

Tony stretched his arms out over his head and laughed. “You mean Pepper? She has been my closest friend since university. I tell her everything. We don’t keep secrets, her and I.”

There was a twitch in Steve’s jaw before he yanked the covers out from under Tony, tucking his legs underneath. “You disappeared with her. I had wondered if—if—”

“If what, Steven? If I was ravishing her in the study on the night of my wedding day?” Tony managed to push himself up onto his elbows and smirk deviously.

The room was too dark to see well, but Tony was certain Steve was blushing. “If you would be in your room tonight,” Steve replied. He sounded angry.

And that anger sparked something deep inside Tony that made him fall back into old habits, habits that were easy to recall when he was this intoxicated. He sunk back down onto the bed, folded his hands behind his head, and arched his back in a slow, wanton stretch of his body.

“If you were so concerned about my whereabouts this evening, well, here I am. I’m in my room, in my own bed, and you are welcome to look your fill, soldier.”

Steve flinched as if struck. He took a step back from the bed, his head bowed. “Good night, my Lord,” he whispered, and those last few words slammed into Tony like a physical blow.

He sneered, “Get out,” and hated that Steve obeyed.

But he paused in the doorway to look over his shoulder at Tony, his eyes unreadable in the dim light.

“You call me Steven when you are drunk,” he said, then closed the door behind him.

Tony rolled onto his stomach, burying his head beneath his pillow.

~*~

The weeks passed slowly. Steve spent his days seeing to his mother’s health and debt, and Tony attempted to sort through the maze that was his father’s business dealings. By the time evening came, Tony was so exhausted, so sick of hearing the repeated mantra of how his father knew best in all things, that he rarely stayed in the manor. Most nights found Tony in the city, at one of many social clubs, all who knew Tony’s face well.

He did not think about Steve on those nights. He certainly did not think about Steve when he finally crept into his room in the wee hours of the morning, even if he did frequently find his bed covers neatly turned down and the candles burning.

During those first few weeks, Tony and Steve barely spoke to one another.

Then, nearly a month into their arrangement, Tony returned home from a business meeting early one afternoon to find Steve sitting in the parlour with a young man about his age. They were laughing, and Tony couldn’t help noticing just how closely Steve sat beside the man on the settee, their knees just shy of touching.

Tony cleared his throat. The laughter immediately stopped, and Steve gave Tony a sheepish smile.

“Tony, hello,” he said, bowing his head politely as if Tony were a guest and not his husband. “Allow me to introduce an old acquaintance of mine, Sergeant James Barnes.”

The man gave Tony an incredulous look, but held out his hand. “It’s a pleasure, Lord Stark.”

As Tony shook the man’s hand, he blurted out, “How did you come to know Steve, Sergeant?”

“No need to use formal rank, my Lord; it’s simply James now, as I was discharged with Steven. We fought in the war together. Steven saved my life on more than one occasion.” He smiled at Steve, who laughed brightly.

It was not a sound Tony heard often.

“You’re forgetting all the times you saved me, Bucky,” Steve said, grimacing slightly before turning back to Tony. “My apologies, Bucky was his nickname in the field. Old habits are hard to break.”

“Yes, I’m sure.” An irrational urge to touch Steve, right where Sergeant Barnes could see, bloomed within Tony’s chest. It was ludicrous, of course, since Tony did not care how or with whom Steve spent his days. He was pleased Steve had friends; he should be relieved that Steve was not moping about the manor alone when he was not tending to his mother.

Steve shifted awkwardly as a silence fell, but Tony did not miss the little secretive smile he gave to Sergeant Barnes. “Bucky was going to take me into the city for a bit of supper. I shouldn’t be home too late.”

Tony couldn’t help but notice the lack of invitation in Steve’s tone. It was just as well. Tony had just been away on business, after all.

“Don’t be silly, stay as late as you like,” Tony replied, beaming happily at the two of them. “Are you lodging in the city, Bucky?”

“No, I’ve a room at the inn just down the road. I won’t be staying long—”

“Nonsense, you’ll stay here, of course. We’ve dozens of rooms from which to choose, and they are all at your disposal. Any friend of Steve’s is welcome here.”

Steve shifted again, his brow pinched together in that familiar expression of disapproval Tony knew well. “Tony, that’s not necessary—”

“I’m merely being a gracious host to your friend. What’s wrong with that?” Would you like for me to send his things to your room? Tony thought.

Sergeant Barnes’ eyes flitted between the two of them, until he held up one hand and said, smiling gently, “I thank you for the offer, Lord Stark, but I will not be an imposition. The inn is quite suitable, especially for men such as Steven and myself, who’ve grown accustomed to sleeping on the ground most nights.”

Steve laughed softly at that, a fond sound. “It has been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of sleeping in the rain and mud. Perhaps I should be reminded sometime.”

“Indeed!” Sergeant Barnes laughed. “We cannot have you growing soft, Captain.”

“I’m hardly soft! Also, I seem to remember a certain sergeant who complained bitterly about his wool socks being wet.”

That is a faulty memory, my friend. They were not my socks, they were my gloves, and it’s a miracle my fingers did not freeze to death.”

Tony stood there, realising suddenly that for all intents and purposes, he had ceased to exist.

With a simple nod, Tony excused himself and disappeared into his study. He sat for nearly half an hour staring at ledgers and receipts, not seeing a thing, until he finally gave up and reached for the brandy bottle on the bookshelf behind his desk.

As he took his initial drink, Tony wondered what it would be like to have Steve’s secret smile all to himself.

~*~

The weeks turned into months, and gradually Tony became accustomed to the feel of a gold wedding band on his left hand. Soon he forgot it was there, and it became just another bit of clothing he wore every day.

That is, until that simple bit of gold became heavy and undeniable, or flashing and angry. Sometimes Tony could do nothing but rub his thumb over the band and think about Steve, sitting quietly at the breakfast table as he read the morning paper, sunlight glinting off the identical ring around his finger. He would sip his tea, then sit the cup back in its saucer, his pinky finger trailing absently along the smooth edge of the band.

Tony would look away, an unwanted heat stirring in his gut. How amused Pepper would be to know Tony grew aroused at the sight of his husband fondling his own wedding ring.

He was not a superstitious man, and yet that band of gold seemed to bewitch his thoughts. More often than not his thoughts would drift whenever he went to the clubs in the evenings; the superficial conversations bored him, and not even an endless supply of brandy could keep his attention. Tony attributed it to the wedding—of course people treated him differently now, so it would stand to reason that he would feel...off somehow.

But the ring on his finger was a constant reminder that, if he wanted, Tony could go straight home and find Steve there, waiting for him with a curious tilt of his head and a quirked eyebrow—

No. Tony was not a romantic. Steve would never wait up for Tony, unless there were some urgent matters at hand.

He jerked the damned ring off his finger, shoving it into his waistcoat pocket as he finished off what was left of the brandy in his glass.

“You’re looking rather agitated this evening,” a smooth, deep voice said, and as Tony glanced up a man approached him with another fresh glass of liquor in his hand. He vaguely recognised him as the son of a business entrepreneur Tony’s father had associated with on several occasions. His name escaped Tony, but his looks did not; he was tall, broad-shouldered, with lovely blond hair that fell artfully over his forehead.

Moisture pooled in Tony’s mouth. He took the offered glass and smirked with intention. “If I am, you have helped my mood immensely.” Tony clinked the glass against the gentleman’s, then drank heartily.

The man leaned in close, trailed his fingers over the back of Tony’s hand, and whispered against Tony’s ear, “I can give you more assistance in that area, if you like.”

Tony shut his eyes and tried to give himself over to the sensation of being wanted, for his body and nothing more. Until the past few months, there was nothing in the world that would satisfy him more than to lose himself in a lovely face, smooth hands, a soft mouth.

A broad hand splayed over his chest, pushing inside Tony’s coat before sliding lower. Tony leaned back against the wall and sighed, because he did not need to worry about propriety here; he could let himself be whomever he wanted and no one would judge him. He could let this beautiful man touch him and not have to think about what it meant, what he would say to him in the morning once the alcohol cleared from his veins and reason returned.

He would not have to explain his reasons for wanting so desperately to taste that same kiss that was shared on his wedding day.

Abruptly, the man released Tony and stepped away. Tony opened his eyes, blinked owlishly up at him.

“What is it?” Tony asked.

“You...called me Steve,” the man said, frowning in confusion.

“I—did I?”

“Yes. I didn’t think you were so attached to your husband.”

Tony’s heart began to race furiously. He threw back the rest of his drink, swiping the back of his hand over his mouth. “A slip of the tongue, I assure you,” he replied without looking the man in the eyes. He suddenly did not want to be in this place any longer.

The man sniffed, then said in a bored voice, “Perhaps you should return home, if your tongue is so clumsy at the moment.”

Tony didn’t reply. He merely set his glass down on the closest table and went to find his coat.

~*~

It was unexpected when Tony looked outside the carriage window to find he had arrived back at Stark Manor. He didn’t remember telling the driver to take him there.

Nevertheless, he paid the cab fare and went inside, ignoring the polite greetings from the night staff. He would go to his room and sleep for a thousand years and not think upon this night again.

But Tony did not make it to the stairs. He came to a halt in the doorway of the parlour, unable to tear his eyes away from the sight on the settee.

There, fast asleep, his large, bulky frame barely folded onto the cushions, was Steve. One arm hung off the edge, and a quilted blanket was tossed haphazardly over his lap. A book was open face down on his chest—Tony recognised his own copy of Paradise Lost.

Tony had never seen Steve completely asleep. He looked startlingly young, innocent, peaceful. His lips were slightly parted, and his lashes seemed impossibly long against his cheeks. To wake him felt like some sort of mortal sin.

“I tried to move him to the bedroom, my Lord,” he heard Jarvis say behind him, something very much like amusement in his tone. “But he insisted on staying right here. I believe he wanted to wait up for you.”

Tony rubbed a hand over his eyes. He must have been quite intoxicated, for he could not have heard Jarvis correctly. “How long he has been here?”

“All evening, my Lord. It’s what he does most evenings, although many times he has his drawings to keep him busy. But Master Steven is usually not so stubborn about sleeping in a bed.”

“I see.” He watched as Steve sighed in his sleep, burying his cheek a little deeper into the cushions.

“Shall I prepare your bed then, my Lord?”

Jarvis knew they did not share the same room—the whole staff knew. It had never bothered Tony until now; and yet, there was nothing to be done about it. “Yes,” he said, taking a step closer to the settee. Then, softer, “Prepare Steve’s as well.”

“As you wish, my Lord.” Jarvis disappeared up the stairs, leaving Tony alone to wonder just what on earth he was still doing staring at the sleeping form of his husband.

As if hearing his thoughts, Steve frowned, made a groaning noise, and blinked sleepily up at Tony, his blue eyes hazy and unfocused.

“Tony?” he asked, voice a few notches deeper than normal, rumbling and soft. “When did you come home?”

“I...” Tony rubbed his cheek awkwardly. “Not long. Jarvis said you were, ah. That is, you—”

“I was reading,” Steve said, splaying a hand over the book on his chest.

“That’s my book.” Tony wanted to bite his tongue.

But Steve smiled crookedly and replied, “I know. Although I’d wager it hasn’t been read in some time. The spine has not yet been broken.”

Tony wanted to tell him that the book was actually his father’s, and that Tony did not like to touch his father’s things, but the words caught in his throat. “I...I didn’t mean to disturb you, I only—”

“No, it’s alright. I was...” Steve sat up slowly, pushed the hair from his forehead. He was still in his shirtsleeves, his collar open and rumpled. “I wanted to...wait for you. For once.”

The alcohol sitting in his blood did nothing to stop the sudden pounding of Tony’s heart. “Why?”

Steve set the book beside him on the settee and shrugged. “Can a man not wait for his husband to return home in the evening once in awhile?” he asked with a rueful grin, but there was a sadness in his eyes.

“I wanted to come home,” Tony said, because it was impossible to have Steve looking at him in such a way and not speak honestly.

Steve blinked. “Did something happen at your club? Are you alright?”

Yes, something happened, and no, I am certainly not alright. “It was deathly dull. There was nothing to keep my attention.”

“Oh. Well.” Steve looked down, tapped his fingers against the book’s cover. “Are you to bed, then?”

It was not said in an amorous tone at all—Tony doubted Steve would even know how to say such things seductively—and yet a heated shiver wound its way through Tony’s body. He blamed the brandy for the sudden image of Steve rising to his full height and taking Tony by the hand, kissing his knuckles just before leading him up the stairs to his room—their room.

His palms began to sweat, and to his horror he felt the first stirrings of an erection. “Not presently,” Tony replied hoarsely, already backing away from the settee. “Go to sleep, Steven.” He winced at the formality.

Steve watched him leave with wide, searching eyes, and Tony could not stay there another moment. Not without committing several acts both of them would regret come morning.

He hid in his study for hours, ignoring the tension in his breeches. It was close to dawn by the time Tony crept up the stairs to his room.

The copy of Paradise Lost sat on his pillow.

~*~

The next day over tea, Pepper sighed in exasperation and said, “You really don’t understand why Steve would wait up for you?”

“There was no reason for him to do so,” Tony replied, fiddling with the handle of his cup. “He’s never done such a thing before, why now?”

“Because he’s lonely, Tony.”

“Nonsense, he visits his mother nearly every day, and his military friend, Mr. Barnes, comes to see him every so often—”

“Yes, and what is he doing with the rest of his time? Falling asleep on settees in the desperate hope that he’ll see his husband for a few fleeting moments? I don’t care what your arrangement is with him, you cannot expect the poor man to be thrown into a home he hasn’t known in years and not feel isolated. Here you are, at my estate having tea, and Steve is back at Stark Manor, alone once more.”

Tony glowered into his tea, hating the wretched guilt curling in his stomach. “Then what do you suggest I do?”

“Talk to him. Engage him. Let him know you at least acknowledge his existence.”

Acknowledging Steve’s existence was not the problem. More and more Tony found himself locked in his bedroom with his hand wrapped around his cock, jerking himself furiously to frivolous memories, such as Steve doing nothing more than biting the corner of his thumb whilst he gazed outside from the window seat, his sketchbook perched in his lap. Tony would always come on a strangled gasp, never saying Steve’s name.

“Perhaps he needs something else to occupy him when I am away,” Tony said, and Pepper shrugged.

“Is it really so terrible to spend time with your husband?” she asked, one delicate eyebrow raised.

“I’m a busy man,” Tony replied, and finished his tea.

He left the Hogan estate and traveled west to a farm that sat on the edge of a beautiful lake. Tony knew the farmer there had once sold his father a Greyhound many years ago.

It just so happened that this very same farmer had another puppy to sell.

Tony felt rather nauseated the entire way home as he held a wriggling, whimpering grey ball in his lap. Surely he’d made some sort of mistake; Pepper did not know everything, contrary to popular belief. Tony was being presumptuous, and that—that could never lead to good things.

By the time the carriage arrived at Stark Manor, Tony was prepared to turn around and take the sleeping puppy back where he came from. He cradled the animal to his chest, swallowing tightly.

The manor was quiet, not a soul in sight, and Tony wondered if perhaps Steve had gone to his mother’s house for the evening. He gave his hat and coat to Jarvis and bade him goodnight (ignoring his valet’s amused smirk as the puppy burrowed its face into the front of Tony’s waistcoat), then climbed the stairs to his room. If Steve was indeed away for the night, the dog would simply have to stay in Tony’s room.

But there was light seeping underneath the door of Steve’s room. Tony held his breath for a moment, and the puppy sighed in its sleep.

He knocked on the bedroom door, and heard Steve call, “Yes, come in.”

When the door opened, Tony saw that Steve lying on his stomach on top of the covers, a large novel open in front him. He glanced up idly, only to quickly snap to attention when he realised who was standing in his room.

“Tony...is that a—?”

“He’s yours,” Tony said quickly, thrusting the poor creature at Steve. He held it out by the arms, and the thing snuffled and whimpered, its tail wiggling sleepily.

Steve’s mouth fell open. “I...what?”

Tony felt sick. “I understand if you do not want him, I shouldn’t have been so—I can return him in the morning—”

“No.” Steve suddenly scrambled off the bed, the book falling forgotten onto the floor. He snatched the puppy from Tony’s grasp and held it snug to his chest, nuzzling his nose between its ears.

“Does he have a name?” Steve whispered into the puppy’s fur.

“Puppy?” Tony replied sheepishly, unable to think of anything witty when his heart was in his throat.

Steve smiled, then turned the animal over until it was tucked into the crook of his elbow. The puppy yawned broadly and gazed up at Steve with liquid brown eyes.

“You shall be Rembrandt,” Steve said. “And I’ll call you Remy.”

“Remy,” Tony repeated, smiling in spite of himself. “I like it.”

Steve looked at Tony over the top of Remy’s head. “I’ve never had a dog, but I have always wanted one.”

“Well, consider this a belated wedding gift,” Tony replied without thinking.

“Thank you.” Steve did not stop smiling.

Tony left before he did something foolish, like kiss his husband goodnight.

~*~

It was two weeks later when Tony arrived home from a business meeting, irritable and exhausted and desperately wanting a hot bath. He knew that Steve was visiting his mother, whose health had improved immensely over the course of the past several weeks; she would be returning to her position as head cook soon, and Steve wanted to assure himself that she was properly ready.

However, the moment Tony stepped through the front door, Steve appeared out of nowhere and grabbed him by the arm.

“Thank God you’re home,” he said, looking utterly frantic. Steve pulled Tony into his study and shut the door with a loud bang. The force shook the paintings on the walls.

Tony, at a complete loss, said, “Steve, what in the devil is going on? Why aren’t you at your mother’s?”

“I never made it there,” Steve said breathlessly, and Tony could see it now, the frightened worry in his eyes.

“What happened? Is your mother alright?” Tony asked, taking a step closer. He started to reach his hand out to touch Steve, but pulled back at the last minute.

Steve shook his head miserably. “You had just left for the city, and I was preparing to leave for Mother’s house, only as I was about to climb into the carriage, a man arrived. He looked rather official, so I asked him his business. He asked me if I was Lord Stark’s husband, and when I replied that, yes, I was, the man laughed and introduced himself as Mr. Justin Hammer. He said he was here to claim what is rightfully his.”

Tony went very still upon hearing the name. “Did he explain his meaning?”

“Yes. I didn’t know what to say, Tony, I was caught completely unawares—”

“What did he tell you?” Tony whispered, and this time he let himself lay his hand on Steve’s arm, fingers sliding back to cup his elbow. The touch seemed to calm Steve; he leaned a little closer to Tony and let out a long, quiet breath.

“He told me that your father’s will states that you must be married within a month of his death in order to claim the Stark estate. If you are not, everything goes to Hammer, as he is your cousin and next in line since you have no siblings.”

Tony smiled in relief. “Well, there you have it, then. As we are married, there is no validity to his claims—”

“Hammer believes our marriage is a sham, Tony. He’s already interviewing our staff; he knows we do not share the same bed, that our marriage has not been—” Steve swallowed and ducked his head, turning bright pink. “—consummated.”

Something dark and angry unfurled within Tony’s chest, abrupt and sharp. “He has no right,” he said through clenched teeth.

Steve shook his head. “But he does. Soon he’ll discover all the details of our arrangement, and you’ll be left with nothing, and he’ll no doubt demand that I repay everything that has gone to my mother’s debt, and what shall we do then? God, I knew this could never work, I knew something awful would happen.”

“Listen to me.” Tony was dangerously close to Steve, his mouth nearly brushing the flushed skin of his cheek. “Nothing awful is going to happen. Hammer is a sniveling, pathetic excuse for a man who barely knew my father at all. It is poor circumstances that have left him my next of kin, but he shall not have the Stark estate. He will not take that from us.” The us slipped out before Tony could stop himself.

“But...a true marriage involves—it involves more than what we have,” Steve replied, eyes downcast. “You cannot deny that the house staff finds it odd that we sleep in separate rooms. They could tell Hammer any number of things.”

“And we will deny them all. Our marriage is our business, not theirs.”

“People gossip, Tony, that is the way of things. And who is to say others outside of Stark Manor do not speculate on the validity of our marriage? Hammer himself said our engagement was quick, and scheduled rather conveniently following your father’s death.”

“To hell with Hammer’s opinion!” Tony yelled, causing Steve to flinch. He didn’t mean to be so forceful, but the defeated look in Steve’s eyes made him want to pummel his fist into Hammer’s nose. “And to hell with the gossip mongers.”

Steve gave him a wretchedly pained look. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “You cannot simply wish them away.”

Tony nearly gave into the urge to press his forehead to Steve’s. “But I can damn well try,” he replied with a weak smirk.

“This isn’t a joke.” The air felt far too intimate between them; had theirs been a true marriage, Tony would have put his arms round Steve and kissed his mouth softly to calm his fears. He could feel the heat of Steve’s embarrassment coming off in waves, and Tony hated not knowing how to soothe it away.

“There is nothing to be done for it,” he replied, attempting a light-hearted laugh. “Hammer has coveted my father’s fortune for years. He shan’t succeed so easily because he believes I am not sleeping with my husband.”

Steve raised his eyes to Tony’s. There was a familiar, determined set to his jaw, one that said he was readying himself for a challenge.

“We will have to prove him wrong, then,” Steve said, his words barely louder than a whisper.

It felt as if the ground dropped out from beneath Tony’s feet. He stared at Steve, unable to believe his ears.

“Prove him wrong?” Tony repeated, just as quietly.

“He cannot accuse us of something that isn’t true.”

“Are you suggesting that we...that you and I...”

Steve huffed out a breath. “I am saying that we do whatever is necessary to protect what is our—what is yours. And by extent, mine.” He kept his chin tilted in that haughty way Tony remembered from when they were boys.

“Whatever is necessary.” Tony could hardly breathe.

Steve nodded stiffly, shoulders squared. “I am willing to do my part.”

He made it sound as if it were a military mission to which he was being assigned. “This was not part of our arrangement,” Tony said. “I won’t ask you to do this, not because of Hammer.”

“You are not asking me to do anything,” Steve replied. “I’m insisting. We came to an agreement before, and this is no different.” His words wavered ever so slightly at the end, but Steve held his ground.

Tony hated the thought of Steve viewing sex between them as another battlefield for him to conquer. It made his stomach grow cold. “No,” he said quietly, and to his dismay, Steve’s determined expression faltered.

“I realise I am not...that I’m not your ideal partner in such endeavours,” Steve said, his throat bobbing. “But I can be—serviceable. It will not be such a hardship, and one time should stifle the rumours.”

Serviceable. Tony wanted to laugh. If only Steve knew how very serviceable he was in Tony’s deepest, darkest fantasies that he dared not speak of. “You’re offering yourself for one night?” Tony whispered.

“Yes. One night, and it should be made obvious what we’re on about. Something that will make the gossip mongers eager to share.”

Tony felt half-crazed, his skin buzzing. The low, subtle stirring in his groin made him look away and take several steps back from Steve.

“Then there is only one thing for us to do,” he replied with a broad, albeit forced, smile. “I shall host a ball.”

~*~

In all actuality, Tony despised hosting balls. Parties were one thing, but even those brought about far too many headaches. And in the end, Tony liked being able to fade into the background when things grew tiresome, a luxury that was not afforded to a host of a grand formal ball.

But he didn’t let on to Steve about his hesitations. In fact, Tony approached the entire gala as if it were the one thing in the world that would give him pleasure—whilst steadfastly ignoring the true reason for such an event.

When the night of the ball arrived, Steve grew more quiet than usual, barely speaking a word at breakfast. He disappeared after that, and Tony told himself that it was for the best, anyway. If Steve needed to collect his nerves for the evening, so be it.

That didn’t stop him from casually asking Jarvis later that afternoon, “You have not, by chance, seen Steve today?”

Jarvis raised an eyebrow and replied, “He’s been in the stables, my Lord. I believe he said he wished to draw the new colts born last week. He has been out there with the dog since morning.” Having an aversion to household pets, Jarvis had taken to calling Remy the dog. It made Steve frown, which in turn made Tony secretly grin behind his hand.

“I see,” Tony replied, glancing out the window toward the stables.

“Shall I call him in for you?”

“No, no. I only—I just wanted to be sure he was...present.”

A smile quirked the corner of Jarvis’s mouth. “Not to worry, my Lord. I highly doubt he will escape before tonight’s ball.”

It was as if Jarvis knew every detail of what tonight entailed. Tony eyed him warily, then said, “Of course not. Now, is the champagne ready?”

Evening came quickly, and with it guests from all across the countryside, many of whom Tony did not see outside the social clubs. Soon the front of Stark Manor was lined with carriages, a constant stream of finely-dressed ladies and lords flowing into the foyer, twittering in impressed, hushed voices at the lavish decorations Tony had had made for the occasion. The theme for the evening was Nights in Arabia, and Tony had spared no expense when it came to draping the house in expensive silks. The marbled floors had been overlaid with intricately designed tiles of blue and red, and gold lamps of all sizes flanked the walls. A large waterfall greeted the guests, along with a massive elephant statue covered in gold leaf.

Tony was rather pleased with his efforts. He stood at the edge of the ballroom, watching as his staff offered champagne to the attendees slowly filing into the room. The orchestra struck up a familiar waltz, and it took no time at all for the dancing to begin.

“You’ve out done yourself,” an elegant voice said. Tony glanced to his right and smiled when Lady Romanov held her hand out to him.

“I had to make a spectacle in order to draw you out,” he replied with smirk as he kissed her knuckles. Still unmarried, Lady Romanov—or, Natasha, as she insisted upon being called—did not follow the normal etiquette of society. She did not care to have a husband at her side, much to the dismay of her father. Tony had once heard her proclaim that should she ever marry, she would not live her life any differently.

“And you have succeeded quite well.” She looked about the room, eyes narrowed. “Where is your dashing husband, Lord Stark? The rumour is you’ve stashed him away in an attic, only to be brought out for special occasions.”

“He’s making the rounds,” Tony replied, although he had yet to see Steve that evening. “I’m sure you’ll get a proper introduction soon.”

Natasha pursed her lips. “There have been other rumours, you know,” she said, tapping one gloved finger to her chin. “Justin Hammer claims you and Mr. Rogers are not actually married. That your marriage is a business arrangement.”

“Hammer claims a lot of things. Once I swear I heard him state the moon was made of green cheese.”

“Indeed, he has a talent for ignoring the truth. But you should tread lightly, Lord Stark. Hammer likes to play games that are not always fair.”

He opened his mouth to inform her just where Hammer’s games could go, only Tony’s gaze happened to land on Steve the moment he walked into the ballroom.

Steve was not dressed for a ball; his coat was a dark, unassuming navy, his breeches a pale cream, cravat a plain white. Even his boots were his normal brown riding boots that he wore every day. There was not a bit of ostentation about him, and he stood against the wall looking like a man lost at sea.

Tony felt an uncomfortable tightness in his chest. He did not realise he had been staring so openly until he heard Natasha clear her throat pointedly and say, “I would say those rumours do not do your husband justice—he is far more handsome.”

Her comment went unnoticed, for Tony was too focused on the lovely woman who had floated out of the crowd toward Steve. Steve’s face lit up the moment he laid eyes on her, then he laughed and grasped both her hands, kissing her cheek. The woman leaned forward, said something into Steve’s ear, and Steve pulled back to smile at her with heartbreaking fondness.

He loves this woman, Tony thought, the tightness becoming almost unbearable. He finished the rest of his champagne, then bowed to Natasha. “Excuse me, my lady, important matters need my attention.”

“Yes, by all means,” Natasha drawled, her words laced with subtle humor. Tony spared a moment to wonder if she were secretly mocking him.

As he made his way through the crowd, Tony did not take his eyes off Steve, or the woman who had captured his smile. He did not know what he would say once face to face with him, if he would ask to be introduced; Steve’s acquaintances were his business alone, and while he’d been gracious enough to introduce Tony to Mr. Barnes, that did not mean that he felt the need to reveal all his personal friendships. Tony would simply say hello, play the proper host, and let Steve be.

Tonight was not the night to have some sort of misplaced form of possessive jealousy, no matter how often Tony checked the clock to see how many hours remained until Steve would be in Tony’s bedroom.

It is the perfect night for it, the little voice in his head objected. After all, you’re supposed to prove to everyone that you’re a properly married couple, that you desire your husband above anyone else.

It was this ridiculous voice that caused Tony to come up behind Steve, lean in close, and say softly, right against his temple, “I’ve been looking for you all evening.”

Steve startled noticeably, then covered his surprise with a cough. He flushed a lovely pink, turning his head toward Tony before Tony could pull away. Their mouths nearly brushed.

“I’ve—I’ve been here the whole time,” Steve said a bit too breathlessly, and Tony believed it an illusion when Steve’s gaze dropped momentarily to Tony’s lips. “I was out in the stables with Remy.”

“So I heard.” A frightening urge rushed through Tony to push Steve into the wall and bury his face in warm skin of his neck. He blinked twice, bit the inside of his cheek before stepping away and addressing Steve’s lady friend. “My apologies, where are my manners? I’m—”

“Lord Stark, yes.” The woman beamed and offered her hand. She was a beautiful brunette with soft curls and a charming smile. “I’ve heard much about you.”

“Good things, I trust?” He glanced at Steve, who looked oddly flustered.

“Tony, may I introduce Miss Margaret Carter,” Steve said. “She was—”

“A friend of Steven’s from the war,” she supplied. “Please, call me Peggy. I was a nurse at the main army hospital. I saw to Steven’s wounds more than a time or two.”

An image of Steve lying in a hospital bed, bloodied and beaten, flitted through Tony’s mind. “I am much obliged to you, Miss Carter,” Tony said, more than a little aware that he knew nothing of Steve’s time in the war.

“It was not serious, Tony,” Steve said sheepishly, as if hearing Tony’s thoughts. “But, ah, Peggy talked to me when I was lonely. We discussed many books, among other things.” He gave her a sweet smile, and Tony nodded to himself. Yes, he does love her.

“Well, I‘m pleased you could attend this evening.” Tony kissed Miss Carter’s hand, no longer wanting to intrude on Steve’s time with her. Steve deserved to have something pleasant to distract him before...later.

She curtsied and replied, “The pleasure is all mine, Lord Stark. I was quite thrilled to receive Steven’s invitation, as it has been ages since we spoke.”

“Then I shall leave you to reacquaint yourselves.” He bowed to her, then tipped his head to Steve.

“You don’t have to leave us,” Steve said quietly, close enough for Tony alone. “I didn’t mean to give the impression that—”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Steve! It is a ball, after all, and you are meant to enjoy yourself. Entertain the lady, by all means.” He patted Steve’s shoulder, dismissing the dull ache he felt just below his skin.

But Steve suddenly reached out and circled his fingers loosely round Tony’s wrist. He simply held him there, his thumb against Tony’s pulse.

Tony could not think of a single thing to say.

Steve licked his lips slowly, swallowed, opened his mouth once to speak, then thought better on it, until he finally tried again and said, “Do not go far,” in a low voice that Tony had never heard from him before.

And then he leaned forward and brushed his mouth over Tony’s.

The music, the people, everything vanished in that one moment, narrowed down to nothing but the warm puff of Steve’s breath over Tony’s lips. It only lasted a second, perhaps two, yet when Steve pulled back his shoulders were heaving slightly. His cheeks had gone from pink to scarlet, and his eyes were dark.

For appearance’s sake, Tony thought, resisting bringing his knuckles to his lips.

He pulled his hand from Steve’s grip, huffed out a breath that he intended to be a smile, and quickly left the ballroom.

Tony was halfway to his private collection of whiskey, when he realised that he could not drink tonight. Not because he was playing the diligent host, but because—

Because tonight, just this once, Steve Rogers was going to be completely his.

“Lord Stark!” a voice called.

Tony turned to find Miss Van Dyne smiling expectantly at him. “I believe you owe me a dance, Lord Stark,” she said fondly. “Or do you not remember the lost bet at my last party?”

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten,” Tony replied with a casual laugh, shaking off whatever doubts and fears he had for later. “I was merely waiting for you to come collect.”

She twittered pleasantly as he took her hand. “Oh, Lord Stark, if only all married men were as accommodating as you!”

Tony thought, If only.

~*~

It was well into the wee hours of the morning when the last guest left the manor. A tentative hush fell over the house, and Tony found himself avoiding the stairs in favor of pacing in front of the fire in the parlour.

“Was tonight satisfactory?”

Tony was shaken from his thoughts, blinking at Steve for a moment before taking a deep breath and replying, “Yes, quite. It was a great success. I believe I even saw Lady Natasha laugh once or twice.”

Steve stood in the parlour doorway, hands folded in front of him, like a servant waiting for Tony’s command. “You’re an excellent host, Tony. I received several compliments on your behalf.”

“And what did you say in return?”

A soft smile tugged at his mouth. “I thanked them, and said my husband will be pleased to know they enjoyed themselves.” He said my husband with such care, as if he were still not sure if he had the right to such words.

There was a warmth shimmering in Tony’s blood, one that had nothing to do with the fire blazing behind him. All night he had been unable to concentrate on anything but Steve’s impromptu kiss, and it did not help matters that Steve seemed to be watching him intently whenever Tony would look across the ballroom. It had been a long time since Tony had felt so aware of someone.

Of course, it was to be expected. Steve was someone new, someone Tony had yet to try, so naturally he was on edge and hungry. It scarcely mattered that Steve happened to be his husband and, quite possibly, a virgin—not that Tony had spent considerable time wondering about Steve’s sexual conquests, or lack thereof. The military had probably afforded him many opportunities to explore his desires, however discreetly; to think Steve was inexperienced was just naivety on Tony’s part.

But selfishly, Tony wanted to believe that the stiffness in Steve’s shoulders meant that Steve was nervous, that he had never been with a man before tonight. Tony wanted to delude himself into believing he could, possibly, be the first to touch Steve. For tonight, Tony would be the first.

He pushed off the mantel, his throat far too dry. Tony watched, fascinated, as instant colour bloomed in Steve’s cheeks, his blue eyes flaring. He did not move from his spot in the doorway, nor did he speak until Tony was standing mere inches in front of him.

“Shall we retire for the evening?” Steve asked, his voice suddenly a few octaves lower than Tony had ever heard it. He was still as polite as ever, but Steve’s words shook ever so slightly, and his lips were parted, as if unconsciously waiting for a kiss with which to begin.

Tony realised with a shock that he wanted Steve with a fierceness that took his breath away. He clenched his teeth against the pounding of his own heart and reached up to lay his fingers gently against Steve’s cheek. His skin was soft, hot to the touch.

“Will you accompany me upstairs?” Tony whispered, because he needed to know that Steve wanted this as well, even if it was only for a means to an end.

He did not expect Steve’s eyes to slip closed as he leaned gently into Tony’s palm. “Yes,” he breathed, “I will.”

It took considerable restraint for Tony not to simply fall to his knees in the parlour doorway and strip Steve bare. He held out his hand to Steve and slowly lead him up the stairs to his bedroom. As they ascended, the lights of the lower floor slowly diminished; Jarvis had been waiting for them.

They spoke not a word as Tony closed the bedroom behind them. He drew the lock into place, and Steve visibly swallowed.

“You can leave at any time,” Tony said, ignoring the tug in his chest at the thought of Steve leaving him alone. “I won’t force you to—”

“No. I want to stay.” He squared his shoulders, which belied the nervous way he bit his lip, then began shedding his jacket, head bowed.

This would not do at all. Tony did not want Steve stripping for him as if it were some duty. He shook his head, put a hand on Steve’s arm to halt his undressing. Steve looked up as if Tony had shaken him.

“Here, I—come over here.” Tony sat on the end of the bed and spread his knees. He beckoned for Steve, who was now frowning at Tony in confusion.

“But...you are still dressed. I had thought you would want me to—”

“That can wait. There are many things we can do without taking off a stitch of clothing, yes?” He tried to smile at Steve, but it was more a breathless huff of a laugh. He was half-hard in his breeches while Steve was probably still perfectly soft, and God help him, Tony would not rush this.

Steve worried his lower lip again as Tony pulled him in between his spread legs. The bed stood high off the ground, but Tony still had to tilt his head far back to look up into Steve’s eyes.

He considered asking, Have there been others? Will you close your eyes and think of them instead of me? Tony would convince himself after that it was merely for his own curiosity, that it did not matter if other men or women had seen Steve in this state before, if they had laid their hand upon Steve’s chest and watched him draw in a shaking breath and felt his heart beat faster. Tony liked to know how things worked, and even after all these weeks and months and years, Steve was still a mystery.

Tony did not ask, however, because he was a coward. If he knew anything about Steve, it was that between the two of them, Steve was the brave one.

He slid his hand carefully up the front of Steve’s waistcoat, over the pearl buttons of his shirt. Steve stood utterly still, except for the slight rise and fall of his shoulders.

“May I?” Tony asked softly, and Steve nodded with a quick jerk of his head before Tony began opening each button, one by one. He drew open the waistcoat first, pushed it off Steve’s arms along with his jacket, and both fell to the floor without a sound. His eyes flicked upward to Steve’s every few seconds.

“You can tell me to stop if I do something that does not please you,” Tony said, parting Steve’s shirt as the last button slipped free. It was like being presented with a priceless gift; so much solid, warm skin suddenly bared for him, etched planes of hard muscle shivering with each inhale Steve took. He was a work of art, gorgeous and honed to perfection, and Tony could not help himself.

He pushed his hands into Steve’s shirt and leaned in to set his mouth against the muscles of Steve’s abdomen.

Steve jerked, crying out sharply at the softest touch of Tony’s lips. Tony licked the ridges of his muscles, tasting the tang of sweat and skin, his fingers tightening along Steve’s sides.

“Tony,” Steve gasped, and that—that could not be. Steve could not be calling out Tony’s name in a breathless plea so quickly, not when Tony had barely touched him. Tony felt as if he were drunk, but completely aware of himself, and oddly powerful. He opened his mouth wider, scraped his teeth gently down until his tongue met the scattering of hair just above Steve’s breeches. Tony kissed him there, and it occurred to him belatedly that they had not even shared a proper kiss.

His plan was to pull back and give Steve a reassuring smile, then tug him down into a sweet, slow kiss. However, Tony made the mistake of drifting his hand over the front of Steve’s flies before setting his plan in motion.

Steve was hard.

I’ve done that to him, Tony thought, choking back a desperate moan. God, what was wrong with him? He was not an untried lad of fifteen, fumbling through his first try at sex. And yet the mere suggestion of Steve’s hardness pulsing beneath Tony’s palm made him shudder and gasp at the heat building low in his groin. He could not remember the last time he was this mindless for touch, or to touch someone else in return.

Tony did not give Steve the kiss he had planned. Instead, he cupped Steve through his breeches, closed his eyes at the sound of Steve’s broken moan, and then licked Steve through the material. He could taste the wetness already growing there, the salty hint of precome. Christ! Tony was already shaking and they had scarcely begun.

“Oh God,” Steve gasped. Without warning, Tony felt a broad hand curl around the back of his head, fingernails scratching against his skull. He did not normally like to be touched in situations such as this, resented being directed and prodded like a child, but now the feel of Steve’s hand tugging lightly at his hair made Tony almost whine with need.

He sucked in a breath and tipped his head back, gazing up the length of Steve’s body. Desire punched through Tony’s chest at the sight that greeted him; Steve looked wrecked, cheeks darkly flushed even in the dim light, eyes heavy at half-mast, hair falling across his forehead, his mouth slick and full and parted. His shirt had fallen off one shoulder, giving him a wanton appearance Tony could not have imagined in his deepest fantasies.

Tony did not mean to say the words, but they came out of his mouth rough and breathless. “What would you like?”

A pinch formed over Steve’s brow, as if he were genuinely confused. He swiped his tongue over his plush lower lip—I must taste it, Tony thought frantically—and replied, “Anything.”

Tony huffed a rather hysterical laugh, pressed his forehead against Steve’s stomach. “Surely there is something you want,” he said. He would overwhelm Steve with the amount of depraved things Tony had flitting through his mind.

Steve groaned softly, his fingers sifting through Tony’s hair. “I-I want anything you care to give me,” he whispered, and Tony absolutely did not let himself ponder the possible meaning hidden there. As usual, Steve was being polite. That was all.

“I would like to kiss you,” Tony said.

A shadow of a smile flickered across Steve’s face. “Then kiss me,” he replied, and Tony did not wait for another invitation. He surged up Steve’s body and caught his mouth savagely, sucking at his lower lip with too much force. Tony shoved the shirt the rest of the way down Steve’s arms, then fisted his hands into Steve’s hair, holding him captive as he claimed his mouth over and over, graceless and wet and frantic. Tony would have been appalled at himself and his lack of restraint had Steve not fallen to pieces under his hands, clinging tightly to the lapels of Tony’s jacket and letting his mouth go slack and open for Tony’s plundering.

It took several moments for Tony to realise that Steve was fumbling at his clothes. His fingers caught in the knot of Tony’s cravat, and he growled into Tony’s mouth in frustration. Tony jerked back, blinking dazedly until Steve said, “I want to feel you,” and tugged again at the offending bit of silk.

Tony smiled crookedly and kissed him again, this time aiding Steve in divesting him of his clothes. They did not stop kissing until Tony was bare from the waist up like Steve, clothing littering the floor.

Steve exhaled on a stuttering breath, eyes trained on Tony’s chest. “Oh,” he said simply, tracing one fingertip down Tony’s sternum. His hand splayed out over Tony’s stomach, swept back and forth. Tony was accustomed to being told he was handsome, that his body was pleasing to look upon, but he found himself arching into Steve’s touch and straightening his shoulders, a nervous apprehension fluttering in his stomach.

“I never imagined...” Steve began, then shook his head. Tony did not ask him to finish.

Instead, he wrapped his fingers around Steve’s wrist and fell back onto the bed, tugging Steve down with him. Steve followed after him like a newborn fawn, gangly and unsure of how to use his body. In the back of his mind, Tony let himself believe that this was not a man who had had a slew of lovers; this was a man unaware of how desirable he truly was.

“On your back,” Tony murmured, and Steve went willingly, propping his huge body up against the pillows scattered across the headboard. His erection tented the front of his breeches, and Tony watched, dumbstruck, as Steve absently palmed himself and rubbed the heel of his hand over the covered head of his cock. If Tony did not know better, he would say Steve was showing off for him.

“Is that how you like it?”

Steve blinked, his hand stilling. “What?”

“Is that how you touch yourself when you’re alone?” Tony asked, crawling up the bed and bracing himself over Steve’s thighs. He nodded toward Steve’s hand, and Steve looked down as if noticing for the first time that he was rubbing himself.

“I do not—I didn’t mean to—” He lifted his hand, chagrined, but Tony reached out and grabbed his wrist, lowering it back to Steve’s flies.

“No,” he growled, “I want to watch you. I want to see how you like it.”

Steve’s throat bobbed, and he stared up at Tony with eyes that were nearly all pupil. “Then I would ask the same of you,” he said, and slowly opened his breeches.

Tony very nearly lost himself completely. “Jesus Christ, Steve,” he swore through gritted teeth, tearing into his own flies. He sat back on his heels as he drew his cock out, gasping as the slick head popped free, bobbing against his stomach.

It was made all the worse by Steve scrambling up onto his elbows to gaze at Tony’s cock with something akin to hungry awe.

“Steve,” Tony choked, unable to stroke himself for fear of coming instantly.

Steve did not look away. He lifted his hand and reached out as if to touch Tony, but just as his fingertips were about to slip over the head, Steve gasped softly and drew back.

Tony bit back a moan as if he were left bereft. As close as he was to climax, he suddenly wanted nothing more than Steve’s careful, tentative touch curling around him, one large, broad hand holding Tony in its grip. He shuddered, a quick spurt of liquid forming at the tip of his cock.

“You did say you wanted to feel me,” Tony said, forcing a shaky smirk.

“That is easier said than done,” Steve replied in a voice barely above a whisper, and then Tony knew the truth. He did not need to ask, he simply knew—Steve had never done this before.

Out of all Tony’s conquests, he considered the virgins to be the least desirable. Too much care, too much fumbling, and they never lasted long. Tony liked to avoid them at all cost.

But this was no ordinary virgin; this was Tony’s husband.

“I shall make it easier for us both,” Tony replied, soft and soothing. He moved to Steve’s right side and stretched out on the bed parallel to Steve’s body before adding, “Move onto your hip. Face me like this.”

Steve did as Tony instructed, until they were nose to nose, bare centimeters separating them. Steve was panting hard now, a sheen of sweat gathering on his brow, dampening his hair. Tony wanted to reach up and push it off his forehead.

“I’m sorry,” Steve breathed, closing his eyes. “I-I don’t have much knowledge in these things.”

Tony’s blood surged. Against his better judgement, he put his palm against Steve’s cheek and kissed him gently, saying against his mouth, “Don’t apologise, you’re doing splendidly. You—you are truly gorgeous. You know this, do you not?”

He felt Steve’s sigh. “I’m nothing to write sonnets about, if that is what you mean.”

“You are either quite humble or quite stupid. Or both.” Tony felt as if he could devour Steve whole and it would not be enough.

“I have my mother’s eyes. She is the beautiful one.” Steve laid a hand on Tony’s bicep, and then, in a move that was more than likely beyond Steve’s control, he arched his body into Tony’s, causing their cocks to brush. “Oh sweet God, Tony.”

“Here, give me your hand,” Tony gasped. He licked Steve’s palm, making Steve moan again, louder this time, before angling his hips back enough to make adequate room.

Tony nipped at Steve’s chin and said, “Watch.” When Steve’s eyes fluttered open, Tony guided his hand down between their bodies and cupped Steve’s wide, warm palm around the hard length of his cock.

Steve keened as if dying, and that was nearly Tony’s undoing. “M-move your hand,” he said. “Pretend it is your own cock. Show me what you like.”

“Fuck,” Steve groaned, and it was the first time Tony had ever heard Steve curse. With painful slowness, he stroked his hand up to the tip of Tony’s cock, swept his thumb over the wet slit.

“God, oh God, Tony, you feel—you feel so—”

“Keep going. Look at me.”

Steve watched with heavy-lidded eyes as Tony licked his own palm and reached down to touch Steve, moaning at the heft of him in his hand. He was long and thick, just like the rest of his body; moisture pooled in Tony’s mouth at the thought of tasting Steve, sucking him deep into his throat and holding him there until Steve came. He squeezed him quickly, once, and Steve cried out and lost his rhythm completely.

“I—I can’t—”

“Then let me.” Tony pressed closer, ducked his head to claim Steve’s mouth again, messy and inelegant as he lined their cocks up in his palm. Steve was too large, Tony’s right hand was not as broad, and it finally took both of Tony’s hands to get the friction just right. Their precome was enough to slick them, but before Tony could start any sort of rhythm, Steve’s hips began thrusting sharply.

“Tony, I’m—oh, oh, oh God.” His eyes were closed, head tipped back to expose his throat as he fucked into Tony’s fist. Tony let Steve do as he pleased, as he was seconds from coming. He set his teeth into the soft curve where Steve’s neck met his shoulder, sucking hard until Steve cried out Tony’s name again and came in hot bursts over Tony’s hand, slicking their stomachs. Steve could not seem to stop shaking or whimpering for God and for Tony to never stop, and it was only a matter of moments before Tony buried his face against the hard line of Steve’s jaw and climaxed, white stars spotting his vision.

Tony half expected Steve to turn quiet and polite once it was all over, giving Tony his thanks as he left the bed and went off to clean himself discreetly. But instead, Steve melted against him, his sated body curving into Tony’s like it was the most natural thing in the world. The mess between them was momentarily forgotten; Tony wiped his hand on the leg of his breeches, smirking in bemusement. They had not even let themselves be completely naked.

As he listened to Steve’s breathing turn slow and even, Tony allowed himself to imagine what this would be like if it were real, if he could have Steve in his bed every night, crying out his name and then burrowing in tight to let Tony hold him close, keep him safe. Tony drew his thumb up the solid planes of Steve’s arm and wondered what it would be like have Steve love him.

“Tony?”

He winced in irrational guilt over his thoughts. “Yes?”

Steve lifted his head and pushed his nose against Tony’s, giving him a sleepy, warm, post-coital smile. “T’was not so awful, was it?” he asked, but there was heartbreaking earnestness in his tone.

Tony slid his arm round Steve’s waist and lightly kissed his chin. “Far from it,” he whispered, hating the same earnestness he heard in his own voice.

Steve’s smile broadened, and he tucked his head up under Tony’s chin before sliding easily into sleep.

Tony did not sleep at all. He was glad this was only for one night.

There was only so much wondering Tony could allow his heart.

~*~

In the morning, Steve was still in Tony’s bed, sprawled on his stomach with his arms hugged around a pillow. He was still half-naked, breeches open and hanging low on his hips.

There was a dark, purplish bruise on his neck, ugly and stark against his pale skin.

Tony skimmed a finger over the mark. No one else would see it but him; Steve’s collars would hide the evidence. But Tony would know.

Steve sighed in his sleep, the muscles of his shoulders shifting in the warm light streaming across the bed from the window. His hair had tumbled over his forehead, a tousled, dark blond mess that clung in pieces to his delicately long eyelashes.

The night was over, but a stillness hung over them, the morning lying in wait. Tony held his breath and leaned over Steve, brushed his lips over those soft lashes, the sleep-flushed curve of his cheek.

Steve hummed softly and nuzzled into Tony’s touch like a cat. He did not wake.

Tony climbed from the bed, dressed quickly, and left.

Jarvis was standing patiently at the top of the stairs. “Sleep well, my Lord?” he asked with the slightest tilt of his eyebrow.

Tony rarely blushed, and he certainly did not do so now. “It...was a long night,” he replied as he brushed past, raking a hand through his hair. His collar was open, as well as his cuffs, and God, he swore he could still smell Steve on his skin.

“Breakfast is ready, my Lord. Shall I rouse Master Steven?”

“No, no, that is not—no. He is exhausted from last night’s revelry, let him sleep.”

“Of course, my Lord. I shall have the kitchen make him a plate and have it waiting outside your room.”

“Thank you, Jarvis, that is—” Tony froze, his valet’s meaning sinking in. “I...ah. Yes. I am...certain Steve will appreciate it.” He did not meet Jarvis’ eyes, but he knew the man too well not to know the exact expression on his face. Tony hurried down the stairs and slunk into the kitchen, disregarding the dining room entirely, as he was wont to do.

The staff were bustling about in their daily preparation of meals. A pot of stew simmered on the stove, and several trays of biscuits sat waiting to be baked. Tony grabbed a handful of scones and an apple, and was just about to sneak out undetected when he heard one of the servant girls say, “I do not think Lord Stark has praised God that much since the day of his baptism.”

A chorus of giggles erupted from the kitchen. Beatrice, the head cook, scolded, “Here, now, Kat, it ain’t polite to be speakin’ of the young lord in such a way. What he and Master Steven do in their rooms in their business.”

“But they never shared a room until last night!” another girl piped up. “Jane told me herself, she washes Lord Stark’s bed sheets—they’re always clean. As are Master Steven’s.”

“I would share Lord Stark’s room,” a third girl sighed dreamily, only to be swatted on arm and told, “If you ain’t Master Steven, then you’ll never get his eye.”

“Oh Steve!” Kat cried out, fainting into another girl’s arms, and the laughter grew.

Tony stayed crouched behind a cupboard, his ears feeling quite hot. He did not remember being so...vocal about his pleasure; he was normally very discreet. Then he thought of Steve, and the embarrassment he would no doubt feel when he caught the manor staff gossiping about—

Well. That was the plan, was it not? The gossip mongers had their fodder. The plan had worked perfectly.

That did not explain the urge to reprimand the girls and demand they take their wagging tongues elsewhere, especially somewhere away from Steve.

Tony took his breakfast and slipped quietly out of the kitchen. In the hall, a happy grey pup greeted him, tail wagging eagerly.

“Come on, Remy,” Tony said, smiling in spite of himself. He scooped the puppy into his arms and went outside for some peace and quiet. If that happened to be at the stables, so be it.

He feed Remy bits of scone and did not think about the man lying half-naked in his bed, still sound asleep.

~*~

Tony had every intention of carrying on as normal. A goal had been achieved, and now he simply had to wait for the news to travel to Hammer. He had no doubt the man had spies everywhere; Tony would wager it would not take long.

However, Tony had not foreseen Steve avoiding him for an entire week.

At first he thought nothing of it; Steve was quiet—the morning after he came downstairs with a pink pillow crease on his cheek and murmured to Tony, “Thank you for breakfast”—which was nothing out of the ordinary.

But soon it seemed like Steve was rarely present for meals. Tony would frown at the empty place setting, to which Jarvis would reply, “He has already had supper, my Lord.” No matter how early Tony would rise for breakfast, Steve would be long gone.

They had returned to their previous arrangement of sharing separate rooms. Tony thought surely Steve would be relieved, and yet this behaviour was beginning to smack of deliberate avoidance.

Things came to a head a week after the night of the ball. A business associate named Dr. Banner had come to the manor to discuss an investment in the sciences; while Tony’s father had avoided putting funds into experimental endeavors, Tony found them infinitely fascinating. Dr. Banner was a renowned scientist in the field of hereditary traits, having studied under Johann Nestler. His research was highly theoretical, but Tony considering investing in said research a new and invigorating step for his father’s company.

They were seated in Tony’s study, figures and notes on Dr. Banner’s theories littering his desk, when a knock came at the door and Steve leaned his head inside.

“I am going to the city for the night,” he said simply, then began to shut the door without another word.

Tony jumped up from his seat and ran over before Steve could disappear. “Wait, wait! I have not properly introduced you.” He took Steve by the arm and tugged him into the study. “Steve, this is Dr. Bruce Banner. He is going to make us rich.”

Dr. Banner gave a good-natured smirk. “You are already quite rich, Lord Stark.”

“Yes, well, one cannot be too rich. There is always room for improvement.” He laughed, as did his guest, but Steve stood quiet and still, his arm stiff under Tony’s hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Steve said, nodding demurely. He turned to Tony and slipped neatly from his grasp. “I have a cab waiting. Do not let me disturb your meeting.”

Tony frowned. “Where are you staying in the city?” he asked in a low voice, trailing after Steve to the door.

“Bucky has booked some rooms for us. It’s his birthday today.” Steve paused with his hand on the knob. He met Tony’s eyes, and something flashed there, messy and conflicted. But it was gone a moment later.

“Let me take you,” Tony heard himself say. “Or I shall have Jarvis take you, he knows the quickest routes to the city—”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you have guests. I will leave you be.” Steve lifted his hand, then seemed to think better of it. He left Tony standing in the doorway.

He stopped halfway down the hall and glanced over his shoulder. “Remy is in the kitchen playing with the girls. Make sure he is fed this evening.”

“Of course,” Tony replied. Something was not right, but for the life of him Tony could not put his finger on it.

He laid awake that night, Remy curled up at the foot of his bed. One thing was certain—since childhood, Tony had never been able to abide Steve ignoring him.

~*~

Steve arrived home in the late afternoon the following day. Tony waited until he had unpacked his things, greeted Remy with an affectionate kiss between the ears (Tony refused to feel envy toward a dog), shed his traveling coat and wandered down to the library with his sketchbook in hand. He was smiling to himself, a distant look of contentment on his face that made Tony’s chest seize tightly.

“I take it your trip was enjoyable.”

Steve jumped and nearly dropped his book. “Are you lurking the halls now?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at Tony.

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes, it was. The city can be a nice change of pace.”

“Indeed.” Tony sauntered into the room, his arms crossed loosely about his chest. He circled around Steve, paused in front of the window seat that looked out onto the small lake on the edge of the estate.

He heard Steve softly clear his throat. “How was your evening?”

“I fed Remy, if that’s what you are hinting at,” Tony replied. He glanced back at Steve, who leaned against a bookshelf with a look of chagrin.

“I know that. I was only wondering if you...had other company besides Dr. Banner.” He fidgeted slightly with his hands..

And suddenly, Tony knew what was wrong.

“You think about it,” Tony said.

Steve’s eyes flared. “What?”

“Our night together. You think about it. You are thinking about it now, actually.”

An honest flash of anger darkened Steve’s eyes, but the bright pink blooming across the tops of his cheeks was enough of an answer. “I’m doing nothing of the sort, Tony, and I am not discussing this here.”

“Where else shall we discuss it? This is our house. We can do whatever we like, in whatever room we choose.”

“It’s not proper. This is a library.”

“That it is. And the things I have done in this room would take far too long for me to list.”

Immediately, Tony received the haughty chin tilt he secretly loved. Steve glowered at him and replied, “I’ve no wish to hear of your conquests, Tony. I wish to be alone.”

“Yes, you’ve made it quite clear all week you’ve no wish to be in my presence. I wonder why that is? We have been married for nearly three months now; you’ve had no qualms previously.”

“I—” Steve’s jaw tightened, and the colour spread down his neck. “Did we not agree that we would leave one another to our own devices? I am simply adhering to your stipulations.”

“That,” Tony replied, letting his voice grow low and soothing, “was before we agreed to do whatever was necessary to make the world believe we want each other.” He took slow, careful steps toward Steve as he spoke, until he had him cornered against the bookshelf. His pulse began to race at Steve’s almost imperceptible gasp.

“We have done that. It was one night, nothing more. There’s nothing to discuss.”

“I believe there is.”

Steve huffed, but Tony did not miss the lightning-quick dart of his eyes down to Tony’s mouth. “Must you always be so—so stubbornly insufferable?”

Tony pressed his luck and leaned closer. The tip of his nose brushed Steve’s cheek, a whisper touch. “I think about it as well,” he breathed. “Every day.”

He heard Steve swallow hard. “Tony—”

“There is nothing to be ashamed of, Steve. You are human, after all.”

“I am not ashamed—”

“Then tell me why you insist on avoiding me. Tell me why you refuse to meet my eyes, why you’re shaking at this very moment.”

“I’m not—” Steve licked his lips. His eyes had slipped shut. “It...is not important what I think. You know this.”

“It is important to me,” Tony whispered, and pressed his lips to Steve’s cheek.

Steve made a soft sound that was very close to a whimper. Tony went instantly hard.

“I think about the way you looked, spread out on my bed,” he went on, kissing his way up Steve’s jaw. “The way you touched yourself, how easily you came for me, the sounds you made.”

“It was one night, I have no expectations for more of the same,” Steve said. Subconsciously, however, he had tilted his head, baring his neck and a hint of the faded bruise Tony had put there.

“But what if it did not have to be one night?”

“I am no fool, Tony, least of all yours.”

The words were painfully honest, so soft Tony wondered if they were even meant for his ears. They caused something to squeeze and shatter inside him, and suddenly Tony ached to prove Steve wrong.

“I do not think you a fool, Steve Rogers.” He kissed the corner of Steve’s mouth as his left hand splayed over the front of his shirt. “But I do think we can come to new arrangement, one that will satisfy us both. We are married in the eyes of God; there is nothing to keep us from pursuing our pleasures with one another.”

Steve opened his eyes. Dark, dark blue, fathomless, beautiful and frightening; Tony had never felt as if he could drown in a gaze before. “You could pursue your pleasures anywhere,” he said.

But I do not want to be anywhere, Tony thought, the heat of Steve’s body sinking into his skin without them removing a bit of clothing. “Perhaps I do not want to go out just now,” Tony replied, his hand sliding upward to cup the back of Steve’s neck.

Steve then whispered, “Perhaps I do not want you to go,” and finally, he curled his fist in Tony’s collar, simply holding on instead of tugging him close, as if he feared Tony would vanish at any moment.

It was enough of an acquiescence for Tony. He parted Steve’s lips with the tip of his tongue, a filthier version of the kisses they had shared previously, and a part of him waited for Steve to object.

Steve opened his mouth to Tony’s kiss, melting against the bookshelf. He moaned as Tony licked against his tongue, and within seconds he returned the kiss with a vengeance, hard and inelegant but everything Tony wanted.

“God, Steve,” Tony panted, and to hell with the servant girls and their laughter—he would cry out Steve’s name as loud as he pleased.

“Yes,” was Steve’s breathless reply, a simple word that might as well have held the world as far as Tony was concerned. He couldn’t think about that now, though; now was not the time for fruitless hopes.

Instead, he scraped his teeth over Steve’s chin and sank to his knees.

The groan Steve made was so obscene, it almost made Tony smile. “Tony, what—”

“We can do anything we like,” Tony breathed, eye level with the bulge quickly forming in Steve’s breeches. “Anything at all. I can suck you right here and there is no one to tell us no.”

“Oh Christ, you are not seriously—oh God—”

Tony yanked Steve’s flies open and sucked the head of his cock into his mouth before Steve could object further. He was without finesse or form, but this was about making Steve come apart, letting him know it was alright to want this, that Tony wanted it just as badly, if not more. He drew Steve completely out of his breeches and began palming his balls as he mouthed the head, shuddering at how thick Steve was. Tony tasted salt and heat, and he thought, I will make you tell me how much you want me.

He pulled off Steve’s cock with a lewd pop, saliva clinging to his lips as he gazed up Steve’s body, his hand keeping a steady, stroking rhythm. “Is this what you think about, what you try to hide from me?” Tony asked in a raw voice.

Steve’s hands were clenched at his sides, his face brightly flushed and a convoluted mess of arousal, nerves, and embarrassment. He gasped, “I—I think about you, Tony.” He sounded wrecked; Tony wanted to him to shatter.

“Please elucidate further.” Tony licked at the slit, squeezed his hand a bit at the base, and Steve cried out, hips jerking abruptly.

“I...I am naked. Fully naked, in a bed.”

“My bed?” He flattened his tongue against the underside of Steve’s cock.

Yes,” Steve hissed, his head falling back against the bookshelf. “God, Tony, do not make me say more—”

“What are you doing in my bed?”

“I’m...kneeling. In front of you. Touching myself as you watch and I start to—to—”

“Do you beg me? Do you spread yourself for my eyes and slide your fingers inside yourself?”

Steve made a choked, growling sound, and without warning he thrust his hips up, making his wet cock slip against Tony’s lips. “Fuck,” he whined, “Tony—”

“Tell me, Steven,” Tony growled back, lost in the sensation of sucking Steve deep into his throat in between words.

“I spread myself for you, and beg you to fuck me—God, please, make me come Tony, I must—”

Tony did not make him wait. Steve had answered him, and Tony believed in rewarding good behavior. He took Steve as deep as he could, tightened his throat as his hand worked the rest of him, his other rubbing the slickness of spit and sweat and precome over Steve’s balls. His nose was buried in coarse pubic hair and he could not breathe easily, but Steve was falling apart above him, his voice cracking as he swore like a sailor around Tony’s name, groaning and panting.

Tony had successfully taken away the quiet, polite soldier, and replaced him with a wanton man made of nothing but desires.

When Steve came with a strangled yell, Tony swallowed as much as he could. Steve was seated too deep in his throat, however, and Tony pulled off with a gasp, seeing stars. Come dripped from the corner of his mouth, and Tony swiped absently at it as he collapsed back on his heels.

“Oh,” Steve breathed, sliding down the bookshelf to land in a heap in front Tony. His eyes were dazed and hazy, every inch of his skin flushed, but that did not have Tony’s attention as much as the hungry way Steve licked his mouth as he stared at Tony’s erection pushing at the front of his breeches.

“You don’t have to,” Tony said, dizzy with sensation and an overwhelming need to come.

Steve shook his head slowly. “I think of this as well,” he murmured, “Of tasting you, feeling you fill my mouth.” His hand inched up Tony’s thigh, and Tony was too aroused to stop him as he fumbled open Tony’s flies. Tony scrambled back onto his hands, feeling like he was sixteen again.

“Steve,” he started, but Steve was already pushing Tony’s knees apart. He exhaled sharply through his nose, and then he was leaning down to take his first tentative lick.

Tony shut his eyes and pictured his head cook naked on a cold day. Christ, he had not wanted to come this hard in years—perhaps even when he was sixteen. “S-steve, that’s—go slow, gently—”

“You taste good,” whispered Steve, eyes fluttering shut as he wrapped those sinful, gorgeous lips around the head of Tony’s cock. He did not use his hand, and he did not touch Tony’s balls; when he tried to suck Tony deeper, there was a sharp scrape of teeth, making Steve wince and gag.

Tony came within minutes, all because Steve refused to stop. His cock twitched painfully afterward as Steve swallowed as much as he could, then licked his fingers clean as if savoring the taste.

He held his hand out, beckoned Steve close, and to Tony’s secret pleasure Steve came without any hesitation. He let Tony draw him into a long, slow kiss, draped himself against Tony like he belonged there.

“I could use a nap,” Tony murmured into Steve’s mouth. “And you spent the morning traveling. You are no doubt exhausted by now.”

He could feel Steve’s smile. “I suppose you are right. But I am not sleeping on the library floor, I don’t care what you say.”

“Absolutely not, what do you take me for, a heathen?” Tony punctuated this by dabbing a stray bit of come off his chin. “I meant we can...ah, retire to my room. Remy can come, too, and I shall advise Jarvis not to disturb us for the rest of the afternoon.”

Steve pulled back slightly, regarded Tony with a far too pensive expression for one who had just climaxed minutes ago. Tony reached up and tapped his index finger to Steve’s nose.

“Please?” he asked innocently, eyes wide and pleading.

Steve pursed his lips, then began to laugh in earnest. “Fine, yes, of course. A nap it is.”

~*~

The evening after his confrontation with Steve in the library, they ate supper in companionable silence, until Tony inadvertently shifted his foot beneath the table, knocking it gently against Steve’s. He glanced up to give his apologies, only to find Steve’s eyes had instantly gone dark, and a familiar flush spread over his cheeks.

Tony held his tongue, unable to think of anything to say. Steve looked away guiltily, and Tony thought, No, not again. He would not have Steve shying away from him once more, not after he had spent the better part of the afternoon sprawled in Tony’s bed, one arm slung over Tony’s chest as he snored softly. Tony himself had not slept much; he had been too distracted with memorising the hard curves of Steve’s shoulders with his fingertips.

Taking a deep breath, Tony said casually, “I think I shall retire early this evening.”

Steve nodded down at his plate. “Yes, alright.”

“I would...ah...” Tony winced at his awkwardness. “That is—would you care to accompany me?”

Steve glanced nervously at the servants standing just outside the dining room. “This is hardly a place to proposition me, Tony.”

“This isn’t a proposition. I would like to sleep, in my own bed. I had thought you would enjoy this as well, since you slept so soundly not long ago.”

He looked genuinely perplexed for a moment. “You are not—you aren’t asking me to—to—” Steve licked over his lower lip, an unconscious movement that made heat stir in Tony’s belly.

But for once, Tony ignored the heat. “I am asking you share my bed for the night—to sleep,” he whispered. Strange how the words felt more intimate than erotic.

Steve did not answer for several long moments. He carefully pushed his plate away, took one last sip of his wine, and finally replied, “I would like that,” in a small voice as he rose from the table without meeting Tony’s eyes. He left the dining room, and Tony stayed in his seat, speechless, until he tossed his napkin aside and followed after him.

They changed into their night clothes in silence, and Steve was the first to get into bed. He had his back to Tony, who pretended to not feel disappointment that Steve’s earlier pliant state seemed to be gone. The sheets were cold on Tony’s side, but he climbed in without complaint.

“Good night,” he said softly, and as he blew out the candle he heard Steve whisper back, “Good night, Tony.”

It felt like hours before Tony finally fell asleep, his mind a jumble of emotions he could not ignore, but eventually he woke to find his back curved against a broad, warm chest, a heavy arm wrapped about Tony’s waist. Steve’s nose was buried in Tony’s hair, and he made quiet little groans in his sleep.

Tony closed his eyes and smiled in contentment. He sunk easily back into unconsciousness, his hand resting on over Steve’s arm.

And so it went for a while; Steve began leaving the adjoining door to his room open in the evenings as he changed, and Tony most certainly did not linger in the doorway to watch whenever Steve would wander about shirtless, whistling quietly to himself as he set his sleeping clothes out. Eventually he would come to bed and whisper good night, always with his back to Tony.

And always, Tony would wake in the middle of the night to find Steve spooned around him, clutching at him almost possessively.

Remy would join them some nights, curled up at Steve’s feet. In the mornings he would lift his head and thump his tail against the blankets whenever Tony would slip from the bed.

“Good morning, ol’ boy,” Tony would whisper, scratching the pup behind the ears, and Remy would butt his head against Tony’s hand.

Their nights continued innocently enough, and they did not talk about their unexpected sleeping arrangements during the day. Tony did begin to notice, however, that he was growing less and less inclined to leave the manor in the evenings; he found himself more likely in the parlour with his ledgers whilst Steve sat not far from him, immersed in his drawings. Every so often, Jarvis would serve them tea without needing to be asked.

Unfortunately, the more innocent their time together, the more Tony found himself desperately needing to put his hands on Steve. The tryst in the library was burned in his brain, a constant loop of Steve crying out and begging for Tony to make him come, until Tony began to physically ache whenever Steve, who was steadily growing more comfortable around him, climbed into bed in nothing but his linen sleep shorts.

As time wore on, Tony took to bringing himself off in the wash room not long after supper. It helped immensely, until the evening he came rather hard, gritting his teeth against the image of Steve naked and wanting. He felt strangely bereft after, wrung out in an unsettled way that made Tony irritable. He was not prepared to open the wash room door and find Steve standing there, eyebrows knitted together in concern.

“Are you alright?” he asked. “You left the dining room in a hurry, I was worried you had taken ill.”

Tony did not want Steve’s soft-eyed look of concern. It only served to make him more irrationally angry. “You needn’t worry, I’m fine,” he snipped.

Steve took a step back, genuine hurt in his eyes. Tony bit the inside of his lip. Goddamn it all, there was never a moment Tony did not want to kiss him in some form or another, and it was frustrating as hell.

“You’re flushed. Are you certain there is nothing—”

“I said I was fine,” Tony mumbled, pushing past Steve. Months ago, he would not have thought twice about going into the city to find a nameless companion with whom to rid his frustration, but now Tony no longer had the heart for such endeavors.

He left Steve standing in the wash room doorway with every intention of hiding himself in his study until Steve went to sleep. But it was less than an hour before Tony found himself climbing the stairs once more, unable to stop thinking of Steve’s hurt expression.

The room was dark, save the one candle burning on the table at Tony’s side of the bed. Steve appeared to be asleep, curled in on himself like a small child. The flickering candle cast long, dark fingers of shadows across Steve’s solid, smooth skin.

Instantly, the burn of anger fled from Tony.

I will simply kiss him, just a kiss, he thought as moisture pooled in his mouth. But his cock was beginning to twitch, and a familiar heat swirled low in his belly. Tony knelt on the bed, stripped and tossed his shirt onto the floor. Steve did not stir. Tony held his breath, licked his mouth, and with one arm braced over Steve’s body, he kissed him.

Tony heard a soft gasp, a sleep-roughened voice sigh his name, and suddenly Steve rolled onto his back and slid his hands up Tony’s chest to cup his jaw.

“Am I dreaming?” Steve breathed in between kisses, fingertips splayed over Tony’s cheek.

“Yes,” Tony whispered without thinking as he shifted himself above Steve. All notions of a simple kiss disappeared in the wake of Steve moaning breathlessly and wrapping his arms round Tony’s neck to tug him down against him. The kiss became deeper, more urgent, Tony panting into Steve’s mouth at the first push of his hips. Steve was fully hard, and Tony felt as if he had not brought himself off mere hours ago.

A slow rhythm began, their bodies rolling and thrusting in tandem with their staggered breaths. Tony wanted Steve bare, skin on skin, but he could not tear himself away from the heat and taste of him long enough to pull their nightclothes aside. Steve was making the most intoxicating sounds, broken growls that went high and frantic whenever Tony moved just so. Tony wondered if he had actually woken Steve from dreaming about this, if Steve truly believed this was still fantasy.

The ache from earlier flared back to life, but Tony melted against Steve and did his best to ignore it. He did not last long; Steve suddenly looked up at him with lust-heavy eyes and said, “I want to make you come.” Tony cried out, his orgasm punching through him without warning. Seconds later, Steve threw his head back and groaned loudly, baring his teeth as he came.

Tony collapsed on top of him, boneless and gasping for breath. He was exhausted in a pleasant, satisfying way, so utterly different from earlier that day. He let himself stay draped across Steve’s body, and Steve just hummed and nosed at Tony’s temple, one broad, heavy arm curving around Tony’s hip.

“You are not still angry with me?” he asked tentatively.

Tony was already half asleep, but he still had the presence of mind to wince and swallow around his guilt. “No,” he replied, placing a careful kiss to Steve’s collarbone. “I never was.”

He felt Steve’s arm tighten a fraction around him as Tony drifted into sleep.

~*~

Tony had almost forgotten about the threat from Hammer, until Hammer himself decided to pay Tony another visit.

Steve had wandered off onto the grounds with Remy, and Tony was busy in the parlour trying to fix the grandfather clock that had broken. The blasted thing was hundreds of years old, but it had been his mother’s favourite; it held a special place in Tony’s heart, even though every few years it decided to stop working altogether. Against Jarvis’ insistence that they call a clock maker to come perform the repairs, Tony had taken it upon himself to get it running again, and now there were cogs and various parts scattered about the room.

He was on his knees, peering into the back of the clock case with a wrench in his mouth, when he heard Jarvis say in a very even, very tense voice, “my Lord, you have a visitor.”

Tony sighed. “Tell them I am otherwise engaged at the moment,” he replied, words garbled around the wrench.

“He insists upon seeing you.”

“Then whoever it is should have sent correspondence prior to simply appearing on my doorstep.”

“My Lord, it’s Mr. Justin Hammer.”

Tony dropped the wrench into the clock case with loud bang. He scrambled to his feet, heart beginning to pound. “He’s here?”

Jarvis nodded. “I fear if you keep him waiting much longer, he will go in search of Master Steven.”

“He will not speak a word to Steve,” Tony growled as he stormed out of the parlour.

Hammer was slowly pacing the foyer, hands clasped behind his back. He had an unassuming look about him, but Tony knew better.

“Things must be quite dull if you are wasting your time darkening my doorstep,” Tony said with all the false pleasantness he could muster. He still held the wrench in one hand, arms crossed over his chest. Hammer was not a tall man, and it wasn’t difficult to appear imposing.

“No, not at all! It is always worth a trip to see my future holdings.” He smiled broadly at Tony, who clenched his jaw and forced himself to smile back.

“I believe you’re mistaken, as this is Stark Manor, and always shall be.”

“For now, yes. But let’s be honest with one another, Anthony; this charade of a marriage to a simple war veteran cannot last forever.”

It wasn’t the improper, condescending way in which Hammer addressed Tony by his full Christian name as if he were twice Tony’s age that caused his blood to boil; it was the casual way Hammer referred to Steve as a simple war veteran.

Tony’s grip on the wrench tightened, and his smile turned predatory as he took a step closer. “Lucky for me I did not marry a simple soldier.”

“You did not marry anyone, and I will prove this, one way or another. All the legal documents in the world do not negate a business arrangement.”

“And what business arrangement would that be? It’s not as if I would marry Steve for his money.”

“That I have not figured out as of yet, but one thing is quite clear—you would never marry for love, least of all someone of honor and duty.”

It enraged Tony, the sudden, sickening clench in his chest. He would not let Hammer bait him so easily, regardless of the truth in his words. “You know nothing about me.”

“Don’t I? Our fathers were first cousins, and yours never hesitated to share his disappointments in your achievements, or lack thereof. I know it pained him to think of leaving the Stark fortune in your hands; a son who was well-known throughout the whole of the south of England for drunken debauchery is not the ideal prospect for an heir. And yet they are still forced to call you ‘my Lord.’”

Tony felt the burn of shame crawling up his neck. “At least I am a lord, unlike those who merely wish themselves into such status.”

That at least drew a slight blush from Hammer. “You’re nothing but a drunken, spoilt brat, and a disgrace to your father’s name.”

“You’ll take that back at once.”

Both men startled at the loud, commanding boom of Steve’s voice. Tony didn’t know when Steve had returned from the grounds, but he stood by the stairs with Remy at his feet, shoulders squared, hands clenched at his sides. His eyes were flashing with an anger Tony had never seen before, and the glare he directed at Hammer was absolutely murderous.

“My husband is the Lord of this Manor,” Steve continued, “and you will speak to him with respect.”

Hammer’s eyebrows nearly reached his hairline, but he quickly recovered and cleared his throat. “Your husband, is it? And how long were you acquainted before—”

“That is none of your business,” Steve replied fiercely, advancing on the other man so quickly that Hammer scrambled back toward the door. “We were married before God, and I am bound to this man. What a pathetic coward such as yourself believes means nothing to us; if you want to come into our home and spew vitriol at Lord Stark, you would do just as well to say it to my face.”

Hammer grew pale, and Tony was...speechless. Utterly speechless.

“Don’t think I do not know what you’re on about, Captain Rogers,” Hammer said, fumbling for the door handle. “You have everything to gain from this match. You could not afford to care for your mother or pay her debts on your pity soldier’s allowance—”

“Get out,” Steve growled, and shoved Hammer out the door, slamming it shut with enough force to shake the paintings on the walls. He stood there for several long moments, hands braced on the door and his head bowed, shoulders rising and falling with each breath.

Finally, Steve whispered, “I’m sorry, Tony. That was inappropriate, I should never have—”

“Why?” Tony asked. His throat felt dry, his heart skittering behind his ribs about like an anxious rabbit.

“Because...” Steve sighed, then raised his head to meet Tony’s over his shoulder. “Because I could not stand by and allow him to speak to you like that. You do not deserve that, Tony, no matter—” He broke off and looked away with a huff.

“No matter, what?”

“No matter what you believe,” Steve whispered.

All the breath vanished from Tony’s lungs, leaving him stunned and confused. And yet, inexplicably, he had never felt more aroused in his life. He was consumed with the overwhelming need to wrap himself around Steve, sink into his skin and make him feel the convoluted mess of need and longing and gratitude that swirled like a storm inside Tony.

“Steve,” he breathed, and the next thing Tony knew, he dropped the wrench on the floor with a loud clatter and pushed Steve against the door, taking his mouth in a kiss that was painfully tentative in spite of the urgency pounding through Tony’s veins. Steve stiffened in surprise, but only for a moment, and in the next he opened to the kiss with a gorgeous little moan that nearly undid Tony completely.

Tony did not know how long he clung to Steve, biting at his mouth just to hear him gasp, until Remy butted his head against Tony’s leg.

“Upstairs,” Tony said, his own voice unrecognisable to his ears.

“Please,” was Steve’s whispered reply, and Tony, God help him, could never resist that word from him.

Remy made a soft wuffling noise as they stumbled past him. Tony waited for Steve to break away and speak to the dog, but Steve only tugged Tony up the stairs, one broad hand cupped behind Tony’s neck as he panted against his mouth. They did not stop kissing, not even when they reached the bedroom door. Steve yanked at the buttons of Tony’s shirt, gasping, “Why do you smell of grease?” and Tony could only laugh breathlessly and pull at Steve’s clothes in return.

Everything was a blur of Steve and want. Tony could not think past the feel of Steve’s hands on his arms, the slick heat of his mouth on Tony’s neck as he palmed Tony’s flank. He was dimly aware of the bed behind him, and Tony frantically wondered how easily he could get Steve flat underneath him without having to tear his mouth away from Steve’s skin.

He did not have to wonder for long. With a rough, feral groan, Steve slid both hands around the back of Tony’s bare thighs and hoisted him up until Tony’s legs wrapped around Steve’s waist of their own accord. He held Tony as if it he were light as air, a thought that made Tony’s cock swell to aching hardness.

“God,” Tony gasped, his fingers tangling in Steve’s hair as he licked at his mouth, his free hand splayed over the solid, wide muscle of Steve’s back.

“Let me,” Steve moaned in between kisses, “let me do this for you, please, Tony.” His hands flexed against Tony’s thighs, making him arch against Steve and kiss him harder, deeper, unable to reply with words. He would think about the effects Steve had upon him later, when he was not desperate for friction and sensation.

His eyes flew open when his back hit the bed, and Tony watched, breathless, as Steve stood over the end of the bed and shed the rest of his clothes slowly, a bright, beautiful blush spreading all across his shoulders and chest. He licked his swollen, red mouth, eyes dark and blond hair clinging to his obscenely long lashes; he held Tony’s gaze almost defiantly whilst he bared himself, and it struck Tony like a blow to the gut that Steve was, perhaps, attempting to look seductive.

You don’t have to seduce me, Tony thought.

Steve knelt one knee on the bed, completely naked now, his thick cock jutting almost parallel to his abdomen. “There is oil in the table beside you,” he whispered.

Tony’s eyes went wide. “How did you—when did—”

“I found it a few weeks ago.” The dark, wanton look in Steve’s eyes flickered into shy embarrassment for a moment. He did not elucidate further.

“You’ve been...experimenting?” Tony could not pull enough air into his lungs.

An irritated, haughty pinch formed between Steve’s brows, but his cheeks went scarlet. “This isn’t about me.”

“If you are in my bed, touching yourself with my oil, it is about you.” The mere thought of it made beads of liquid slip from the head of Tony’s cock, yet he resisted palming himself. Instead, he lifted his hips off the mattress, presenting himself to Steve. “Tell me,” he ordered, low and liquid smooth.

“I...” Steve lowered his eyes as he climbed onto the bed, carefully straddling Tony’s thighs. “It wasn’t intentional...at first. You had left the bottle sitting out, and I thought—I’d wondered if—so I slicked my fingers, just to see, and then I—”

“Yes,” Tony growled, grabbing Steve by the forearm to yank him into a hard, frenzied kiss. They fell back onto the bed together, Steve stretched out above him, big and solid and powerful. Fleetingly, Tony thought of the skinny boy in the stables, the same boy who hid his drawings from Tony and blushed so easily at his taunts. Tony cupped his hands over Steve’s cheeks, felt the heat in his skin beneath the soft scrape of his evening stubble; even now, Tony loved knowing he could still be the cause of Steve’s blushes.

He heard words whispered against his mouth. Tony pulled back, swiped his thumb over Steve’s slick lower lip. “What is it?”

“Tell me what you want,” Steve breathed.

You, always you. “Can you ride me?” he replied, regretting the words almost immediately after he’d said them. Steve was not ready for such things, no matter how much “experimenting” he had tried in the past, and Tony would not—

“I can try, I can—oh God.” Steve bit his lip, and to Tony’s utter amazement, he skimmed his hand up the length of Tony’s cock. “Yes, I-I can try.” His eyes went very dark and unfocused as he curled his hand loosely around Tony, as if he were already imagining Tony inside him.

Tony shut his eyes against the sight, counting to ten in his head before fumbling for the oil in the little table beside the bed. When he opened them again, Steve was watching him with a look that was both hungry and anxious.

“Show me,” Tony said in a voice that was far too unsteady. He made the mistake of glancing at Steve’s cock as he handed the bottle over; the instant Steve took the oil from him, he seemed to thicken even more. Steve held the bottle in his hand, rubbing absently at his abdomen.

“I’m normally on my back,” he whispered, and Tony grit his teeth around a startled moan. His hips jerked, and if he did not get inside Steve soon it would be all over.

“Just—,” he tried to gasp, not sure what advice he was trying to give, but Steve had already unscrewed the cap and poured a generous amount of slick onto his fingers, rubbing them together until his right hand was shiny in the candlelight.

Then, ever so slowly, Steve licked his lips and went up on his knees. Tony could not see, but he knew the exact moment Steve slipped a finger inside himself, for his eyes fluttered closed and his cock spasmed.

“Do you just start with one?” Tony asked roughly, palming Steve’s thighs. God, how he wished he could flip Steve onto his back and watch every movement of his hand, but Steve was in control here.

Steve rolled his hips down a bit and moaned. “I can use two now,” he gasped. His voice hitched, which lead Tony to believe he was doing so at that moment. “I’ve tried three once, only I—I couldn’t—”

Tony sat up abruptly, fitting Steve’s thighs around his waist until their cocks were flush. He swallowed Steve’s shuddering cry and slid his hand back to Steve’s arse. As he’d guessed, Steve had two fingers buried deep, his cheeks slick with oil.

“You came too quickly, didn’t you?” he bit into Steve’s mouth, cupping his hand over Steve’s fingers. He pushed gently, causing them to give shallow thrusts. Steve whimpered, his free hand clutching Tony’s shoulder. “You liked the sensation of being stretched and filled.”

Steve shuddered again. “God, yes,” he whined, sucking at Tony’s lower lip. He canted his hips back, riding his own fingers as best he could whilst their cocks slid together. Tony’s vision quickly grew hazy as his stomach clenched with frantic need.

He could come like this. He could tell Steve to take them both in hand and jerk them to completion. The old Tony, the one who existed before their marriage, would have done exactly that. But back then Tony had not cared about his partner’s pleasure, only his own. And while Steve had insisted that he wanted to do this for Tony, this was not about Tony’s pleasure alone.

His thoughts splintered as Steve pressed his forehead to Tony’s and pleaded, “I’m ready, Tony, please.”

Tony’s fingers slipped over Steve’s, his hands clumsy. “You’re certain?” he asked, desperately clinging to what was left of his common sense.

“You won’t hurt me,” Steve said.

Tony wanted to gasp never, but the word was lost as Steve slid his slick hand over Tony’s cock and held him steady against the crease of his arse. When the head began to push past that small ring of muscle, Steve gasped, lower lip caught between his teeth.

“Slowly,” Tony moaned, for Steve was tight, infinitely tight, and Tony was barely inside him. “Breathe, it will relax you, help open you up for me.”

Steve’s thighs were trembling, his hands spread over Tony’s sternum. He sunk down onto Tony’s cock in small increments, whimpering until he was seated completely, his balls brushing over Tony’s skin. He was all hot, tight heat, and so much more than Tony ever imagined. He feared he would faint from pleasure.

“T-Tony,” Steve pleaded. “Please move.” His eyes were closed, brow pinched together as if in pain.

“I do not wish to rush,” Tony said, counting down from twenty in his head to keep from flipping Steve onto his back and pounding into him.

“I need you—” Steve suddenly cried out when Tony shifted inside him, barely pulling out. At this rate Tony would never last.

He rubbed his hands over Steve’s thighs, whispered in a shaking voice, “Do as you will. I am yours to command, Captain.” Tony tried to smile, only the dark, smoldering look Steve gave him made Tony moan and roll his hips.

Steve arched his back, a low, feral growl coming from deep within him as he gradually took control. The pained look faded, and soon his jaw went slack with bliss, his obscene lashes fanned over his flushed cheeks. It did not take long for Steve to discover a rhythm he liked; his swollen cock bobbed against his stomach as Steve lifted with his knees and fucked himself with hard strokes.

“You feel incredible,” Tony groaned, unable to look away from the gorgeous sight Steve made, stretched out above him as he took his pleasure.

“Feel—feel so full. You’re so large, Tony, I can feel you so deep, oh.” Steve threw his head back and growled fuck so loudly Tony was certain the horses could hear him. He fumbled for his cock and stroked himself with frenzied speed, panting and desperate.

“Do you need to come?” Tony asked. He folded his hand over Steve’s, halting his punishing strokes.

Steve sobbed, “Yes,” and Tony’s cock jerked inside him.

“Then come, just like this.” Tony pulled their hands away. Instantly, Steve cried out and came in pulse after pulse of white, covering Tony’s stomach. When the spasms passed, Steve stared down at the mess before him, panting heavily. He reached down with two fingers and pushed them through the come. Hazy-eyed, Steve brought his fingertips to his lips and licked them clean with a soft moan.

Tony could only take so much. The reasonable portion of his brain shut down, and in the next second he grabbed Steve by the waist and shoved him back onto the mattress, driving his cock deeper, harder. He could feel himself losing control, falling into the dark, red abyss of want, but he could not pull back from the edge, not when Steve continued to beg Tony to take him. He came buried balls-deep inside Steve, his throat raw from screaming profanities he had no memory of.

He collapsed upon Steve, wrecked beyond all comprehension. Tony pressed his sweaty face into Steve’s neck and breathed him in, feeling as if the earth had just tilted beneath him.

Distantly, he felt gentle fingers comb through his damp hair, and a tiny kiss against his temple.

“Are you...alright?” Tony mumbled, suddenly awash with guilt. Jesus, he’d taken Steve like an animal.

Steve chuckled quietly. “Stop your worrying, now is not the time to play the martyr,” he said, kissing Tony again, this time on the lips. “I’ve never been better. I...I wish I could keep you inside me a little longer,” he added shyly.

“Were I not on the verge of unconsciousness, I would demand my cock harden this instant so that I might fuck you again immediately.” Tony pushed into the kiss like a lazy cat, dismayed when he felt his cock soften and slip from Steve’s body.

Steve hissed at the loss, wincing slightly. “Perhaps we should rest now and recover your strength?” he asked, turning so that his body was pressed against the length of Tony’s. He pushed his knee between Tony’s thighs, dragged his fingers over Tony’s bicep.

“You are filthy. We should get you cleaned up before—”

“I like it,” Steve whispered. “It is not a hardship to smell like you.”

Against his will, Tony yawned. He knew they should talk more about what had transpired in the foyer with Hammer, but he was sliding into sleep, too sated and too wrung out to think. All that mattered at the moment was Steve’s weight curled around him, comforting and safe. The rest could wait until tomorrow.

~*~

A few weeks later, Tony received word that a new lord had moved into the hall down the road. The estate had sat empty for a few years now, its previous owner having passed away with no heirs and leaving the property in disrepair.

“Neighbours!” Steve said, the cheerful lilt in his voice causing Remy to bounce around his feet. “We must invite them for tea soon.”

Tony sighed. “Perhaps Lord Coulson isn’t interested in tea.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Really, when was the last time you entertained your neighbour folk around here?”

“If it’s not a ball, I rather think it’s a waste of time and resources,” Tony replied, pretending to scribble some numbers in his ledger. Soon a shadow was cast over his desk, and when Tony raised his head he found Steve standing over him, mouth quirked in a crooked, yet knowing smile.

“If you must know, Remy and I took a walk down to the hall yesterday. I’ve already spoken with Lord Coulson, and he is delighted to make our acquaintance tomorrow afternoon.”

“You—” Tony blinked. “But—”

Steve leaned over the desk. “Please let me do this, Tony,” he said in low voice, one hand splayed over Tony’s ledger, the other just shy of brushing against Tony’s fingers. “I want to do this.”

Perhaps Steve knew how deeply the word “please” affected Tony when he said it in such a soft, earnest tone. Or perhaps Tony had grown accustomed to giving in to Steve at the very slightest inclination. Whatever the case, he could not look into those lovely blue eyes and deny Steve anything.

It was becoming quite problematic.

“Alright, tomorrow afternoon it is. I shall cancel all my appointments,” said Tony, even though he had no such appointments scheduled. “Will there be a lady accompanying Lord Coulson?”

“I do not think so. However, I...heard a rumour...” An odd flush bloomed across Steve’s cheeks.

Now Tony was intrigued. “Go on. It seems I am not quite up-to-date on my gossip mongering.”

“There is talk that Lord Coulson is involved with his valet.”

“Ah, yes, I’d forgotten all about that. From what I know, Coulson was injured in a horrible riding accident some years ago; his horse threw him, then nearly trampled him to death. He would have died alone had a vagrant not found him and nursed him back to health. To this day I believe he walks with a limp.”

Steve’s eyes widened. “How awful. So he needs a valet to care for him?”

Tony grinned slyly. “The valet in his service is the same vagrant who saved him from death. At least, that is what the rumours tell me.”

The blush darkened as Steve ducked his head. “Oh. Well. I suppose that would make a marriage arrangement rather difficult.”

“I married a stable hand.”

“I’m a soldier,” Steve replied haughtily. Tony laughed, rising to his feet just enough to place a quick, chaste kiss to Steve’s mouth.

“That you are,” Tony said. He steadfastly ignored the familiar flutter in his chest when Steve inadvertently leaned into him, as if chasing Tony’s mouth for a real kiss. “Now, please take that mutt and let me attempt to finish some work.”

Remy promptly circled Tony’s desk and flopped down at Tony’s feet with a loud sigh. Steve burst out laughing, and Tony, while secretly charmed and enthralled with the sound of Steve’s open, honest laughter, did his best to look put out.

“You are both insufferable,” he grumbled, to which Steve said, “I believe he was your idea, was he not?” and kissed Tony’s cheek.

~*~

Lord Coulson did not arrive by carriage with a footman and servants in tow, as his title would suggest. An Earl from a very old bloodline, Coulson could afford all the niceties he desired; Tony was quite certain the old manor would serve as a simple summer home for the earl, nothing more. Perhaps Coulson enjoyed hunting, for which the area was well-known.

But as Tony watched two men ride up the road together on modest-looking thoroughbreds, he wondered if perhaps he’d guessed wrong. Coulson rode a bit further ahead of the second man, yet even at a distance Tony could see that the other man had an intensity about him that was not common among simple valets. A pistol was holstered at the man’s hip, and while he wore the uniform of a gentleman’s servant, his hair was wild, and sunlight glinted off several silver rings adorning his ungloved hands.

“Is that the vagrant?” Steve asked from beside Tony.

“I’m sure he has a name,” Tony replied. As the horses came up the road and circled in front of the manor, he locked eyes with the man, who did not blink. He held Tony’s gaze with a steely-eyed ferocity, then nodded slowly when Coulson brought his horse to a stop.

“Good afternoon, Lord Stark,” Coulson said. “I’d hoped we would make acquaintances some day. Your reputation precedes you.” He did not smile as he dismounted, but there was a spark in his eyes that seemed to hint at a hidden playfulness.

Tony beamed. “All lies, I assure you,” he said, holding his hand out to Coulson. The other man swung silently from his horse and cast a quick, calculating look around himself before coming to a stop just behind Coulson.

“I’m so pleased you could make it,” Steve said as he shook Coulson’s hand. “It’s a lovely day for a ride.”

The corner of Coulson’s mouth twitched. “Indeed.”

Tony and Coulson’s mystery man continued to size each other up as Coulson and Steve shared pleasantries. Tony was beginning to think the man was planning to rob them once their backs were turned—after all, he had been a vagrant before coming into Coulson’s services, it wouldn’t be all that surprising—when Coulson put a hand on the man’s shoulder, his smile turning soft and fond.

“My Lords, may I introduce to you Mr. Clint Barton,” Coulson said. “My husband.”

It was then Tony caught the flash of Coulson’s silver wedding band, identical to the one around Barton’s left ring finger.

~*~

They had been married for over three years.

“When?” Tony asked, still flabbergasted that Coulson had kept such a thing private from the gossip mongers for so long.

Coulson smiled ruefully. “It was not planned, I’m afraid.”

“You didn’t have qualms with binding yourself legally to a...a...”

“It’s alright, you can say it. We’re all very aware of Clint’s past.” Coulson sipped his tea and smiled as he watched Steve demonstrated to Barton the handful of tricks he’d taught Remy. Barton was stoic, hands folded behind his back and pistol still at his hip, but he knelt in the grass immediately when Remy brought a stick to him, both hands scratching over the dog’s ears. He then took the stick from Remy and threw it several yards off, much to Remy’s delight.

“He saved your life,” Tony said quietly, shielding his eyes from the bright afternoon sunlight.

Coulson sat his cup back in its saucer and regarded Tony thoughtfully. “He did. But that’s not why I married him. Once I’d recovered from my injuries, Clint disappeared for over a year without a word. I thought I’d never see him again.”

Out across the grounds, Remy jumped into the air and caught the stick in his mouth. Steve laughed and clapped his hands, his cheeks pink with a happy flush, his hair tousled across his forehead. “But he came back,” Tony replied.

“Yes, he did. Unfortunately, it was because he’d escaped police custody and needed a place to hide. When I asked him what had happened, he told me he’d racked up a rather large gambling debt and could not repay it. He had nowhere else to go.”

“You paid off the police?”

“No. I paid Clint’s debts, with the condition that he come work for me in repayment.”

Tony drank his tea as he took in Coulson’s words. “You’re a very trusting man,” he finally said. “I would have sent him back to Scotland Yard.”

“It wasn’t easy at first, I assure you. Clint is...quite headstrong. He didn’t know how to read or write, and didn’t trust a single person. He spent many months believing I would eventually turn him out into the streets. I spent those months waiting for him to run away.”

“Why didn’t he?”

They were interrupted suddenly by a stick landing squarely in Coulson’s lap, knocking his hand into his tea cup, sloshing tea over the table. While startled, both Tony and Coulson laughed. As Tony mopped up the spilt tea with his napkin, he saw Barton come up behind Coulson, slightly breathless.

“My apologies,” Barton said. His voice was rough and quiet, like that of a man who did not speak often. For the first time Tony noticed that his eyes were a kind, striking blue. Those same eyes fixed on Coulson as he added, “Perhaps we should consider a dog for the manor.”

“Do I hear a hint of jealousy?” Coulson asked with a smirk.

Barton rolled his eyes. “Steven has offered to show me the stables. If you’d like to accompany us—”

“Go on,” Coulson said, waving his hand. “I’ve yet to finish my tea. We’ll discuss the future purchase of your dog later.” He raised an eyebrow at Barton, who huffed and appeared rather put out.

But then he smiled at Coulson, quick and discreet. Tony felt as if he’d witnessed something secret, something to which not many people were privy.

“That is why,” Coulson said softly as he watched Barton leave with Steve and Remy. “Clint is fiercely protective of me, but above all, he’s loyal. When one learns to live with very little, they fight for what they have.”

Instantly, Tony was struck by the memory of Steve advancing on Hammer, his eyes flashing with barely restrained anger. It was unexpected, a sudden shock of emotion that rolled through Tony like a storm. He knew, logically, that the incident was not the same thing at all; Steve was polite and loyal, yes, but he fought for Tony out of duty and obligation, nothing more.

The two men sat in companionable silence for a bit, sipping the rest of their tea as birds twittered in the trees around them. Coulson’s accounting of his relationship with Barton played over and over in Tony’s mind. For some inexplicable reason, Tony’s chest grew uncomfortably tight, along with a deep ache that unfurled within him.

“Tell me, Lord Stark,” Coulson eventually said. “How is it you came to know your husband?”

Tony did not look him in the eye as he replied, “He was my stable boy, many years ago. He left for the war, and circumstance brought him back to me.”

“Ah, then you and I are not all that different. It seems we both found the most unexpected men to love us.”

Steve does not love me, Tony thought. He forced a smile. “Our marriage is rather dissimilar to yours in many ways, I’m afraid.”

Coulson regarded him with narrow eyes. “I hope you are not referring to the rumours spread by that horrid Mr. Hammer. I don’t believe them, and if that man spent even a few moments watching the two of you, I’d reckon he’d know better than to spread lies.”

Tony cleared his throat. “I’m not saying Hammer is correct—”

“Then why would your marriage be any different from ours?”

He did not know how to answer Coulson, and the ache inside him had grown nearly unbearable. Tony steeled himself and stood, straightening his jacket as he attempted another smile. “I’m being a dreadful host. Would you like a tour of the grounds? There is normally a flock of swans gathered at lake during this time of day, it’s quite lovely.”

Coulson, however, seemed to sense Tony’s coward’s way out. He stood up as well, but he leaned close to Tony and put a hand on his arm. “I know there are those who judge me for marrying a vagrant with no family and no title,” he said. “But those people do not matter to me. What does matter is that he loves me, and I love him. That is what makes a marriage.”

It sounded so simple when Coulson spoke the words in his calm baritone, Tony could almost believe him.

~*~

Tony’s guests stayed until the sun was beginning to fall into the horizon, and even then Steve seemed genuinely dismayed to let them go. He and Barton had formed a friendship of sorts, if making Barton smile in short, imperceptible intervals counted as friendship.

“I would invite you both for dinner next week, but I’m ashamed to admit the hall is still in disarray,” Coulson said as a servant brought their horses from the stables. “We’re still in the midst of renovation and cleaning. I hope to have the estate in working order by next month, and at that point I promise a proper invitation.”

“We understand completely, my Lord,” Steve said. “It’s quite an undertaking. Goodness knows Tony would never have the patience for such an endeavor.” He turned to Tony and winked, his mouth crooked in a playful smile.

“I reserve my patience for more important things,” Tony replied, returning the smile even while his heart felt sick. Steve performed the role of the doting, contented husband so well, and once upon a time Tony had thought that would be enough.

Coulson laughed and shook Tony’s hand. “It’s been a pleasure, Lord Stark.”

From behind Coulson, ever watchful and present, Barton actually bowed his head and smiled. “You have a lovely estate,” he said. “And...if it’s not too much trouble...I’d like to ask if I may bow hunt in your fields some day?” His voice grew softer and softer as he made his request, shoulders hunching slightly. For a moment, the ferociously intimidating, confident lord became the shy, tentative servant. Tony was strangely charmed.

As was Steve, for he said with happy surprise, “I didn’t know you hunted!”

“He is utterly exceptional with a bow and arrow,” Coulson replied, nudging Barton’s side with his elbow. Barton bowed his head further, but a deep crimson blush had spread over his cheeks the instant Coulson complimented him.

“You’re more than welcome to hunt,” Tony said.

Barton raised his head, genuine relief in his eyes. “Thank you, my Lord. If I take down something exceptional, you shall be the first to hear of it.”

Tony watched as Coulson carefully reached down and laced his fingers through Barton’s, his thumb skimming over the inside of Barton’s wrist. “I told you they would be happy to accommodate you,” Coulson said quietly into Barton’s ear. In response, Barton huffed a short laugh and squeezed Coulson’s hand. His blush had not faded.

And this, Tony thought, was what two married people in love looked like. He was a fool to think he would ever truly fool Hammer into believing what he and Steve had was real; no one would ever look upon them and see what existed between Coulson and Barton.

Even the greatest actor could not portray real true love.

When Coulson and his husband finally mounted their horses and bid their farewells, Steve turned to Tony and asked, “Is everything alright? You’re very quiet this evening.” He touched cool fingertips to Tony’s cheek, and Tony wanted to growl at the unfairness of it all.

“Yes, I’m fine, merely tired. It has been a long day,” Tony said, ducking neatly away from Steve’s hand.

“You’re certain?”

“Quite.”

Steve bit his lip, then pressed forward until his mouth brushed over Tony’s ear. “Come upstairs and I’ll rub your back,” he whispered, liquid smooth, an offer wrapped in seduction and innocence. He splayed a hand over Tony’s chest, right over his heart.

Tony had just enough strength to pull back and nod reassuringly. “Thank you, but I should attend to some matters before supper.” But he was not strong enough to resist grabbing Steve’s hand and kissing his knuckles just to make his concerned frown disappear.

“I shall wait for you,” Steve said, his voice still low and intimate. His fingers twisted with Tony’s, holding onto him.

Tony let him go. He reckoned he might as well get used to it.

~*~

He waited two days before letting Steve out of their agreement, because when all was said and done, Tony would always be the weaker of the two of them. He could not bring himself to say the words after a night spent wrapped in Steve’s arms after coming deep inside him, Steve’s breath evening out against Tony’s neck. He could not bring himself to say the words the following morning, when Steve had awoken early and made the kitchen staff prepare a breakfast fit to be served in bed. They had eaten together amongst the blankets, Steve curled against Tony’s shoulder as they talked of things both frivolous and not. Tony had combed his fingers absently through Steve’s sleep-tousled hair and thought, I can pretend this is real. I can simply pretend he wants me, wants this.

But Tony knew it could never last. Steve deserved so much more than a sham marriage and a man who had spent his life consumed by superficial desires. He’d known, even from a young age, that Steve was destined for greater things.

So when Justin Hammer arrived back on Tony’s doorstep the next day, Tony felt resignation rather than anger or fear. It felt like the beginning of the end.

“Anthony,” Hammer said with contemptuous pleasure, “I’m here to inform you that your little charade with Captain Rogers is over.”

Tony folded his arms over his chest, his heart sinking. “How so?”

Hammer blinked as if momentarily taken off guard. He’d obviously expected Tony to be more defiant. “I have several witnesses who were at The Grey Ox at the time you and Captain Rogers were making your marriage agreement. Three of these witnesses claim to have overheard your conversation and the details of your arrangement. You bribed Rogers into marrying you in order to pay his mother’s debts and relieve you from potential suitors.” Hammer grinned maniacally, hands sweeping about him in a flourish.

Tony nodded. “Yes, I did. You are correct.”

This time Hammer jerked in surprise. “I—I am?”

“I struck a bargain with Steve in which our marriage would be beneficial, financially, to us both.”

“But—before, you insisted—”

“I am tired of lying,” Tony said. “There was never any love between Steve and I. We made a business deal, and now I wish to end it.”

“Tony.” The shocked, angry call of his name came from behind, but Tony did not turn around to face Steve. But Hammer spotted him, and immediately his eyes went wide, no doubt remembering their last confrontation.

Nevertheless, Hammer straightened his shoulders and attempted to look commanding. “Mr. Rogers, it appears Anthony has renounced your marriage as a sham.”

“So I heard,” Steve said, and he grabbed Tony by the arm, pulling him away from the door. “Tony, what are you doing?” he hissed when they were no longer within earshot of Hammer. “He’ll ruin everything, he’ll—”

“No, he won’t,” Tony said calmly. “It’s over, Steve. You don’t have to pretend any longer. I’m letting you out of the agreement.”

Steve dropped his hand, growing pale. “You’re letting Hammer win?”

“I’m not letting him win anything. I went over my father’s will, and at no point does it state that I must be married in order to hold the estate after his death. My lawyers will make sure Hammer gets nothing.”

Steve’s expression was slowly crumpling, and it tore at Tony’s heart. “Then it doesn’t matter if he knows or not. There’s no reason to end this—”

“You will still receive more than enough compensation for your time spent with me.”

“Compensation,” said Steve, a hard edge creeping into his tone.

“I won’t expect you to repay me. In fact, should you require extra living expenses, I shall pay you those as well.”

“I see.” A muscle twitched in Steve’s jaw. “Must I relinquish Remy as well, or is that part of my payment for services rendered?”

Tony refused to flinch. “Remy is yours. He was a gift.”

“Then I supposed I should see to having my things packed. As our marriage has been outed as a sham, I will leave Stark Manor as quickly as possible.” He gave Tony a quick bow, his mouth tight and his hands clenched into fists at his sides. He turned on his heel, a movement of a lifelong soldier, and marched upstairs.

Tony desperately wished to run after him, cling to him and beg him to stay, but this needed to be done. He should have never offered the solution of marriage for Steve’s problems. For once, Tony would do the right thing, the unselfish thing.

He swallowed past the lump lodged squarely in his throat and went back to inform Hammer that their lawyers would be in touch.

Jarvis was at Tony’s side as Hammer stormed off toward his cab, furious as ever.

“Shall I prepare tea, my Lord?” Jarvis asked. Tony knew he’d witnessed the discussion with Steve; Jarvis was always painfully tactful when he knew Tony was grieving in some form or another.

“No,” Tony said. “I shall require the carriage for the evening. I’m going into town.”

~*~

The usual crowd at Tony’s club were surprised to see him, but they welcomed him back with open arms. Several open arms, actually; more than one lovely man licked his lips and whispered offers of debauchery into Tony’s ear. One beautiful woman even asked to join them, if Tony wished.

How Tony wished he could lose himself in the promise of unadulterated, uncomplicated pleasure. He wished he could rewind time to when he hadn’t know Steve was still alive and was perfectly content to live out his days as a bachelor.

But he couldn’t undo time. And he couldn’t put a stop to the feelings that had already taken hold, no matter how much he longed to be free of them. The worst part was, Tony was beginning to realise that the feelings he harboured for Steve had not taken form weeks and months ago, but when he was a boy chasing after Steve in the stables. It seemed Tony had always been meant to love Steve, one way or another. Fate was a cruel mistress who was no doubt laughing at Tony’s miserable expense.

So Tony spent that evening getting utterly intoxicated, to the point where he woke up in his carriage in front of Stark Manor, Jarvis helping the poor driver pull Tony’s limp body from the cab.

“Jarvis,” Tony slurred, tugging at his butler’s jacket. “Where’s Steven?”

“Master Steven is gone, my Lord,” Jarvis replied.

“Completely?” Tony could hear the sob in his voice, but he didn’t care.

Jarvis steadied Tony on his feet as best he could. “Yes, my Lord.”

Tony sucked in a breath, desperate to hold himself together. He lasted a handful of seconds before crumpling to the ground at Jarvis’ feet. His vision went slightly blurry.

“I love him,” Tony whispered. He closed his eyes, wanting to fall asleep and pretend everything had been a dream.

He felt gentle hands pull him up and walk him slowly toward the front door. Tony thought he heard Jarvis say, “I know.”

~*~

Weeks went by. Tony pretended nothing had happened and that life could go on as normal, regardless of the fact that his bed was now empty and Jarvis continued to handle him with kid gloves. Coulson sent an invitation for Tony and Steve to come to dinner; Tony declined due to a sudden illness.

He was certain Hammer had spread the word of Tony’s dissolved marriage, yet no one seemed to comment on it, save Pepper, who was never shy about commenting on anything in Tony’s life.

“You’re a bloody fool,” she said to him over their weekly tea, smiling with feigned politeness.

“I’m a realistic fool,” Tony replied.

“You look a mess. You haven’t slept.”

“I told you, I’ve been under the weather.”

Pepper snorted. “I’m sure Steve is no better off.”

Tony would not allow himself to think of Steve; there was only so much personal torture Tony could withstand. Yet he still found himself clinging to a dim hope that Steve would write to him and beg Tony to bring him back. If such a letter arrived, Tony would immediately give in.

But no letter came. However, a month later, Tony received a visit from Sergeant Barnes.

“My Lord,” said the man, bowing his head politely. “May I have a moment of your time?”

Seeing Barnes was as close to laying eyes on Steve as Tony would get. He nearly tripped over himself ushering Barnes into his study. “Would you care for a drink?” Tony asked, already pouring himself several fingers of brandy.

Barnes held up his hand. “Thank you, my Lord, but no. I came here to discuss Steven.”

Tony stared at the brandy bottle in his hand. “I gathered as much. Is he well?”

“He’d like for me to think so. I’ve seen Steven suffer through battle wounds with more grace.”

“But his mother is recovering, yes?” Tony downed his drink quickly.

“Oh yes, she’s doing fine. Under different circumstances, she’d be happy to have Steven home.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

Barnes laughed, but it did not reach his eyes. “Yes, you do. Steven has been miserable since you turned him out, and if I weren’t so adverse to spending an evening in jail, I’d bloody your nose this instant.”

Tony’s eyes went wide. “Why on earth would he be miserable? He has more than enough money to keep him and his mother comfortable and happy for years. I hardly left him destitute.”

“How can you not—” Barnes angrily shoved a hand through his hair as he paced in front of Tony. “This isn’t about the money. It never was.”

“The very essence of our agreement concerned money.”

“But can’t you see? Steven was extremely well-liked in the army; when he was discharged, he had dozens of friends who offered to help him and his mother. He could have gone to any number of people and asked for help, but it was you he chose, even though he hadn’t spoken to you in years.”

Tony grimaced. “Of course, I had the most money.”

No.” Barnes pointed an accusing finger straight at Tony. “It was because he—damn it all, Stark. Please go to him. Talk to him. I think there is a grave misunderstanding between the two of you.”

“Why are you really here?” Tony suddenly snapped, his confusion and heartsickness muddling his thoughts. “Steve is free from his obligation to me, and the two of you can run off together.”

Barnes laughed again, sharper this time. “Unlike some individuals, I’m not in denial of my feelings. I love Steven like a brother, and I always will. I hate to see him suffer so needlessly—that is why I’m here.”

Tony was at a loss. He poured himself another brandy; his hand shook. “I saw the way you looked at him.”

“And I saw the way you looked at him, and if you truly do not want anything more from Steven, tell me now, and I’ll do my best not to beat you into the ground.”

“It doesn’t matter what I want,” Tony said.

“Do you love him?”

Tony threw back the drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Without looking Barnes in the eyes, he replied roughly, “Yes.”

“Then go to him. If nothing else, be honest with him. Tell him the truth. He deserves as much.”

He deserves everything except me, Tony thought, but he said out loud, “Alright. You have my word.”

“Make it worth something,” Barnes growled before showing himself out.

~*~

Tony knew where Steve’s mother lived, but had never visited. In his weakest hours during the course of their marriage, Tony had wondered what it would be like to meet the woman Steve loved most in the world and have her welcome Tony with open arms. He had wondered, selfishly, if she would accept him as her own son.

He didn’t wonder such things now as he stepped from the carriage in front of a tiny, modest country home. Daffodils lined the short path to the front door, and a pair of roosters wandered through the yard. An orange tabby cat had draped itself lazily over the windowsill, and it regarded Tony with unimpressed eyes.

Tony stood still, unable to build up the courage to knock on the door, when he heard a sharp bark. Moments later, Remy ran from behind the house, panting happily at the sight of Tony. He pawed at Tony’s legs, wuffling as his tail wagged.

“I’m glad you still remember me, ol’ boy,” Tony said. He knelt down and scratched Remy’s ears, placing a quick kiss to his muzzle.

“Of course he remembers you.”

At the sound of that achingly familiar voice, Tony raised his head and found Steve standing not far from him, dressed in drab farmer’s clothes. His hands were filthy, and his face was smudged with dirt, sweat clinging to his hair. There was several days’ worth of beard shadowing his cheeks.

He had never looked more beautiful to Tony.

“He’s grown so much,” Tony said, forcing a smile. “He’s hardly a puppy anymore.”

“He’ll always be a puppy to me,” Steve replied. There was a hammer in his right hand; he’d obviously been working.

“I’ve interrupted you, I apologise.”

Steve shrugged. “It’s not often we receive guests such as yourself...my Lord.” He ducked his head, the address no more than a whisper.

Tony’s heart quietly broke into a thousand pieces, but he did not waver. He would see this through. “You look well,” he said, though the dark circles beneath Steve’s eyes said otherwise.

“What do you want, Tony?” Steve asked.

“I want to speak with you.”

“Why? We’ve nothing to talk about.”

“It would seem that we do.”

Steve swiped his forearm over his face and grimaced. “Bucky came to see you,” he replied.

“He seems to think there’s a misunderstanding between us.”

“He’s confused,” Steve said between clenched teeth. “As I said, we have nothing to—”

“Why did you write to me about your mother’s debts?” Tony asked, swallowing his pride and taking careful steps toward Steve.

Steve blinked. “I had no choice.”

“You had friends, others who could have helped you.”

“I needed money.”

“Which you refused to take from me.” Tony was close enough to him now to reach out and touch him if he wished. But he kept his hands at his sides. Remy stood between them, his tail swiping back and forth tentatively.

“I—I told you my reasons. I did not want to go into debt to you—”

“Then why seek me out in first place?” Tony cried, his emotions bubbling to the surface. “We had not spoken in four years; we didn’t even part on good terms! You despised me when we were children, and when you left for the war I knew I would never see you again. There was nothing to keep you bound to me, not even friendship. And yet you knew—you knew when my father passed. You took the time to write a letter and send it addressed to me, not the Stark Estate. You sought me out, and to this day I know not why.”

Steve’s expression looked pained. “I’ve never despised you, Tony.”

He laughed weakly. “You can admit it now, no one will have you arrested.”

“Don’t you think I would do so if I could?” Steve blurted out, then quickly bit his lip, turning his face away. He added, softer, “You have no idea how...how much I wish I could hate you.”

“You have every right to hate me,” Tony said.

“That’s what you tell yourself every day, because you don’t—you never see. You can never see what’s right in front of you.” Steve shook his head, a resigned slump in his shoulders. “You are so much more than the spoilt boy who was ignored by his father.”

“My father has nothing to do with this—”

“He has everything to do with it. After all we’ve been through together, can you honestly look into my eyes and tell me you believe I want nothing from you but your money?”

Tony felt his blood pulsing in his throat. “I am not a romantic, Steve. I’ve said that from the beginning. Our agreement—”

“You saved me from those boys, remember? My lip was bloodied and I could barely stand, and suddenly you came out of nowhere and chased them off.”

Startled that Steve remembered so clearly their final moment together before he left for the war, Tony replied, “I...I wasn’t about to let them beat you.”

“You were in the stables because you’d just been told I was leaving.”

“Yes, my father had told me, and I wanted—I thought I would—” Tony was at a loss, for he did not why he’d sought out Steve that day, why he’d needed so desperately to bid him farewell.

Steve stepped closer, his eyes wide and searching. Tony could not look away. “We so rarely spoke back then. There was no need for you to find me. You would not have noticed my absence.”

“I would have,” Tony whispered before he could stop himself. “I always noticed you.”

A slow pink blush spread across Steve’s dirty cheeks. He dragged his tongue over his lower lip, and Tony, God help him, watched in breathless anticipation, though he knew there would be no kiss. He’d lost the right to kiss Steve ages ago.

But he heard himself say, “I wanted to find you to say goodbye. I wanted to see you one last time.”

Steve’s throat bobbed. “I wrote to you because...because I will always be that skinny boy with the bloodied lip, waiting for you to save him.”

All the air rushed from Tony’s lungs. “You’ve never needed me to save you.”

“Then maybe I dreamed of us saving each other. Maybe I simply wanted to—to—” He tipped his head up toward the sky and shut his eyes.

Tony ached to touch him. “Steve—”

“I’ve forgotten what it’s like to not be in love with you,” he said, voice catching on the last few words. “Ever since I was a boy, when I had no idea what love was, when I could do nothing but draw your horses and pray you never found out. I enlisted because I knew—I saw the company you kept, and I knew I was fool to torture myself. So I left. And like the fool I was, I came back to you, terrified you’d forgotten all about the gangly boy in your stables.”

“No,” Tony breathed, “I never forgot you. Even on the day of my father’s funeral I thought of you.”

Steve’s eyes opened. “I was wrong to agree to marry you. I thought I could treat it as an agreement and nothing more, but—”

“You’re not a fool, Steve Rogers, I am. I believed I could be worth something to you, but I’m a bloody idiot.”

He huffed a shaky sigh. “That is your father speaking,” Steve replied.

Tony reached out and grasped Steve’s dirty hand. “You are everything I want in this world,” he murmured, throat dangerously tight. “Yet I do not know what I’ve done in this life to deserve someone such as you.”

Steve slid his hand free of Tony’s hold, and Tony thought his stomach would sink clear into his boots. But then Steve dropped his hammer onto the ground and cupped Tony’s cheeks with both hands, pulling him close to place a soft, gentle kiss to his lips.

Against Tony’s mouth, he whispered, “We complete each other, you and I. That is all you need to know.”

Tony clung to him, desperate to deepen the kiss, yet loathe to fracture the moment between them. “I love you,” he said, sliding a hand into Steve’s hair, holding on.

He felt Steve gasp and press tighter against him. “Then you will marry me? Again?”

“I’ve...yet to complete the paperwork for our annulment,” Tony replied sheepishly as he nipped at Steve’s lower lip, and the laugh Steve gave made Tony’s heart swell to bursting.

Remy barked sharply, winding his way around their legs. His tail thumped against the back of Tony’s thighs in a steady beat that matched the rhythm of Tony’s pulse.

“Come home with me,” Tony pleaded.

Steve pulled back, his mouth already red and slightly swollen. Beautiful. “My mother will be returning home soon. I cannot leave her without—”

“Then we shall bring her with us.”

His smile was like the sun after a week’s worth of rain. “You’re serious?”

“I’ve yet to meet my mother-in-law, and I happen to have a large, drafty house with too many rooms. I should think my husband’s mother should occupy her own wing, wouldn’t you agree?”

Steve kissed him with enough fervor to cause them to stumble back into the closest tree trunk, where they continued to kiss, wrapped in each other’s arms, until Remy’s barking drew them apart.

Steve’s mother was walking through the front gate into the yard, a basket of bread and potatoes in her arms. Her blond hair fell in loose tendrils about her face, and her lovely blue eyes were identical to Steve’s.

“Steven, who is this?” she asked, although Tony sensed her tentativeness.

“Mother, this is...” Steve paused, held Tony’s gaze, then continued, stronger, “This is Lord Anthony Edward Stark. My husband.”

His mother gasped surprise. She quickly curtsied to Tony, head bowed. “It’s a pleasure, my Lord. Steven has spoken very highly of you over the years.”

Tony blushed. “The same can be said for you as well.”

She glanced up, eyebrows raised. “But...it was my understanding that you were not—that your marriage wasn’t—”

“We’ve come to another agreement,” Tony said, loving the way Steve tried to rein in his grin.

“We’re moving to Stark Manor,” Steve said, kissing his mother’s cheek.

Her eyes flared. “So you are to marry again?”

“We are to stay married,” Tony corrected. “Your son is a lovely husband, and while I’ve made some dreadful mistakes, I’d like the opportunity, if given the chance, to love him until the end of my days. If you don’t mind, that is.”

She seemed to ponder Tony’s words for a moment. Slowly, a knowing smile spread across her face. “I admire a Lord who can admit his mistakes. And I am so very tired of seeing my son mope about,” she replied. “If you love him, you have my blessing. Though truth be told, I’ve wondered how long it would be before I lost my son to Lord Stark for good.”

“You’re not losing me, Mother,” Steve said in exasperated fondness. “You’re coming with us.”

“I’m merely referring to that wisp of a boy who returned home each night full of breathless tales of being chased through the stables by Lord Stark’s only son. A mother knows.” She winked at Steve and hugged him. Over the top of her head, Steve met Tony’s gaze and shrugged sheepishly.

“You did chase me quite a bit,” he said with chagrin, as if Tony did not remember every such incident with crystal, fond clarity.

My beautiful stable boy, Tony thought, reaching out to fold his hand over Steve’s.

He didn’t plan on letting go anytime soon.

 

 

 

~*~ the end ~*~