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One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong

Chapter Text

Everything was still right with the world when Steve arrived at his office. Sharon was dutifully waiting for him with his morning latte, the computer turned on, and his work space tidied and prepared for the day how he most preferred.

“You've got a conference call in thirty,” she reminded him as he accepted the latte she held out for him, knowing better than to waste time with pleasantries. “There is a staff meeting at nine, and your immigration lawyer sent some papers for you to sign. He says it is imperative that you—”

“Cancel the call,” he told her as he took his seat, looking through the small stacks of papers and mail Sharon had sorted for him. “Move the meeting to eight. My attorney can wait. Did you call the—what’s her name? The one with the overbite?”

“Danielle?” Sharon guessed; when Steve hummed in confirmation around his first drink, she quickly added, “I called her like you said, and told her that if she doesn’t turn her manuscript in on time, you won’t give her a release date.”

Steve acknowledged her report with a nod. “Get a hold of PR,” he said as he considered the first print of a manuscript that had just come off the press. “Have them whip up a press release: Foster is doing Ellen.”

“Jane Foster? Wow,” Sharon couldn’t help but say. “Nicely done.”

“I don’t need your praise,” Steve said as he finished with the mail, and finally deigned to look at her. “But I do need you to explain to me who Jean is, and why he—she?—wants me to call?”

“I, um,” Sharon stammered, her gaze immediately falling to the Starbucks cup Steve had turned around for her. Sure enough, there was a short, enthusiastic message and phone number written in Sharpie. Color rose in Sharon’s cheeks and for the first time that morning, she was demonstrably flustered.

“That was originally my cup. Yours spilled.”

“You also drink extra hot grande chai tea lattes with 3 pumps, skim milk, no foam?” he wondered, regarding the cup with a thoughtful smile. “Is that a coincidence?”

“No, no, it’s,” she started to say, then cleared her throat. When she spoke again, it was with direct honesty, getting right to the point the way Steve preferred. “It’s not, boss. Last May I tried it the way you drink it, and it’s surprisingly good, and—”

“Five exclamation marks,” Steve noted dryly, interrupting her with the only thought he had on the issue. With his poor approval of Jean clearly expressed, he easily moved on. “Table everything; Sitwell first.”

The only thing that gave away Sharon’s surprise was a slight pause. Without a word, she stepped out of Steve’s office to hold the door for him, and by the time Steve stepped out to march down the hall towards Sitwell’s office, she seemed more poised, ready to fall in step behind him.

“No more than a prop,” Steve murmured to her as she stepped around to hold Sitwell’s door open for him.

“Our fearless leader and his menial drudge. Please, do come in,” Sitwell welcomed them with a false smile, before shamelessly returning to whatever currently entertained him on his desktop.

“Sitwell, I am here to tell you your attitude is tiresome. Frankly, I’m relieved to say I have to let you go,” Steve replied, a fact relayed as plainly and effortlessly as if he had said the sky was blue, the earth was round, or pointed out how Sitwell’s decorative compass pointed due Ego rather than due Class.

The man looked up from whatever he was doing on his computer to stare at them. At Steve.

“Pardon?”

Steve shrugged one shoulder as if to concede an error on his part. Except, there wasn’t a humble bone in Steve’s body, so Sharon turned to shut the door behind them immediately.

“No, I take that back: I don’t have to let you go. I am choosing to let you go. I asked you over a dozen times to get Foster to do Ellen, and you didn’t. You are redundant and a waste of my department’s resources.”

“You—are you deaf?” Sitwell forced through gritted teeth. “I have told you before that it is impossible: Foster doesn’t want the publicity. She won’t do an interview, let alone on national daytime TV. Hell, she hasn’t done an interview in over a decade!”

“I convinced her to do Ellen today in the time it took me to walk to work,” Steve told Sitwell, and his tired tone had Sharon wincing. “For your long, if questionable, service to this company, I will give you one month to find a new job. You can tell everyone you resigned, or you can tell them I fired you; I don’t care. The only condition to this offer—and it is incontrovertible—is that you remain out of my sight until you leave. If I have to spare another thought on your insignificance, your termination will be immediate.”

Having said what he needed to say, Steve gave Sharon a look; she hurried to open the door for him and followed him out at once.

“He’s moving,” Sharon reported under her breath as she hurried to keep up with Steve’s strides, keeping an eye on Sitwell so Steve wouldn’t have to. “He’s got crazy eyes.”

“Prepare the paperwork for his termination,” Steve was telling her just as Sitwell started shouting at their backs across the bullpen.

“You self-righteous, egotistical faggot!” he bellowed in his rage, and every head in the office turned in their direction. Steve was the last to turn and face him, and his was the only expression that was indifferent to the whole fanfare.

“You can’t fire me! You don’t think I see what you’re doing here? Sandbagging me with this Ellen thing just so you can look good for the Board? Because you are threatened by me. You are a monster—just because you have no semblance of a life outside of this office, you, you get your thrills, your power-hungry need to control everything, by pushing us around. You think you can treat all of us like your own personal slaves! And you know what?” he added, “I feel sorry for you, because you know what you’re going to have on your deathbed? Nothing, and no-one.”

“Incontrovertible. Look it up in the dictionary. Now, listen to me carefully, Jasper,” Steve told him with a cold, quiet professionalism that had even Sharon closing her eyes with a shudder. “I’m firing you because you are incompetent, entitled, and lazy. If you spent half as much energy on your work as you do cheating on your wife, you could have made a decent assistant to someone in the basement. You have thirty minutes to pack up your office. One more word out of you, and Sharon will have armed security escort you off the premises.”

He paused for a beat, as if waiting for Sitwell to say a word and give him a reason to call armed personnel, but the moment passed in absolute silence.

“No? Then get out of my sight: pack up your office, and stop wasting my time. I have work to do.”

Without another word, Steve turned his back on the floundering man and left. Sharon startled to attention and leapt into action to keep up with him.

“Pick up his Polycom and put it in my conference room,” he was telling her, “then call his authors and explain what happened. And I need you around this weekend to help review his files and manuscripts—”

“This weekend?”

“Is that going to be a problem?”

“Oh—no, of—sure, it’s only my baby sister’s bachelorette party, and I’m her maid of honor, but—I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Sharon explained as calmly as she could, but Steve had already stopped listening and stepped into his office. “Yeah, I’ll just—yeah, I’ll cancel, no problem.”

“Make it happen, Carter,” he called over his shoulder, barely even invested in the conversation anymore. “Foster first.”

Sharon ground her teeth against the surge of irritation that threatened to overwhelm her; she counted to ten and forced down the many colorful ways she often dreamed of telling Steve she damn well knew how to do her job, and had only reached for the phone when it started to ring.

“Mr. Rogers’ office,” she greeted politely enough, then sat up with interest. “Hi Louise; sure, I’ll let him know.”

Fury’s personal secretary calling was enough to interest Steve, and he was waiting across the desk from her again by the time Sharon hung up the phone.

“Fury and Hill want to see you upstairs immediately.”

Steve grumbled in frustration, but dropped his arms in defeat. “Fine,” he muttered. “But come get me in five minutes. We have work to do.”

***

“Nick, Maria,” Steve greeted them both as he stepped into Fury’s office. Fury sat behind his imposing desk, ever observant without giving his own thoughts away. Beside him, Maria casually stood in wait, less expressive than their boss.

“Congratulations on Foster,” Fury replied without a smile or even a hint of satisfaction.

“Just doing my job, Nick,” Steve said with a pleased grin. “This isn’t about my second raise, is it?”

“Rogers, do you remember when we agreed that you would not go to the Frankfurt Book Fair because you were not allowed to leave the country while your visa application was being processed?”

Steve nodded, and shrugged. “Yes, I do.”

“And then you went to Frankfurt.”

“That I did,” Steve replied just as easily. “We were going to lose Delito to Viking, and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”

“As it turns out, the American government doesn’t care who publishes on Delito,” Hill told him impatiently. “Your visa application has been denied, and you are being deported.”

Steve stared at them, stunned.

“No,” he said slowly, still processing what Fury had said. “No, this—deported? That can’t be right. I’m not even an immigrant—I’m from Canada—”

Hill cleared her throat and, at that, Steve knew to shut up.

“We can re-apply,” she told him, “but to do that you must leave the country for at least one year.”

“One year? One—oh. Okay,” Steve echoed numbly. It wasn’t impossible, was it? With technology being what it was, he could make it work; they could make it work. “Okay, well—that’s, that’s not ideal, but I can manage. I can handle everything from Toronto, with video conferencing, and—”

“Rogers, if you’re deported, you cannot work for an American company,” Fury told him, “so until this is resolved, I will be turning operations over to Sitwell.”

“—Jasper Sitwell? The guy I just fired? No, Nick, don’t—”

“I need an Editor in Chief. He is the only person in the building with enough experience,” Fury continued to speak over Steve, “if there was any way that we could make this work, we—”

There was a quick knock on the office door before Sharon leaned into the office.

“We’re in a meeting,” Hill told her stiffly, and Sharon had enough sense to smile sheepishly in return.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Hill, but,” she said in a gentle tone before turning her attention to a bewildered Steve. “Mary from Whittaker’s office is on line three, she needs an answer from you. I told her you were otherwise engaged, but she’s insisting—”

Steve stared at Sharon, wide-eyed and breathless.

“Uh,” he said eloquently into the silent room of people waiting for his response. “Right, exactly. Uh, there’s—Mary, I will have to talk to her, right, thank you, Sharon, I—I, because I will not be able to get back with her until next Monday, because I, uh, I will be away. I will be away for the weekend with my fiance.”

Fury’s expression twitched, but he said nothing. Hill, on the other hand, spoke without compunction.

“You have a fiance?”

“I—yes, I do,” Steve all but whispered, then turned to Sharon and urgently waved her into the office. “Right, Sharon. You’ve met him?”

“I have? Yes—yes, uh, I have, he’s—he’s kind, and, and dreamy,” she replied slowly, managing to meet Hill and Fury’s scrutiny with a steady gaze. “I’ve been helping Steve with his bachelor party; I can show you my calendar, if you need dates. I don’t know what Jim’s doing, but Steve—Steve doing a historic tour of Brooklyn, and—”

“I don’t care,” Fury told her, and from Sharon’s left, Steve cleared his throat in a silent plea for immediate silence. “Make it legal, Rogers, and get Hill the paperwork so we can forget this ever happened.”

“Yes, sir. Yes, of course,” Steve agreed and started to retreat at once. “Thank you, sir—I’ll get it done immediately; today, in fact.”

“A week,” Sharon interrupted in a rush, and she barely managed to keep speaking when she felt Steve freeze beside her. “The paperwork, sir, I—it will take two weeks to go through, but, but Mr. Rogers hasn’t taken his vacation days for three years, I think it could be—”

“Fine,” Fury said impatiently. “The government won’t work faster than that anyway. In two weeks you’re either married, or you are resigned.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve agreed immediately, and this time he grabbed Sharon by the elbow and dragged her towards the door with him. “Two weeks. I’ll have it done.”

“Come with me, right now,” Steve hissed as soon as Fury’s door was shut behind them, and marched them back to his office, top speed. Sharon rushed to keep up, trying not to look too frazzled as they passed through the sea of cubicles on the way to Steve’s office.

“Good thinking,” he told her as soon as the door closed behind them, barely keeping calm himself. “Good think—two weeks, that’s good, that’s really good, I need—are you married?”

“Yes,” she said after a brief pause, not bothering to remind him he had no right to ask such a question. “Four years.”

“Happily?”

“Mr. Rogers—”

“Your sister isn’t!” he cried with sudden excitement, his whole expression lighting up. “I can marry her.”

Sharon took a deep breath and tried to stop herself herself from saying anything regrettable.

“With all due respect,” she said in a palpably disrespectful tone of voice, “you have been out to the whole department ever since Rumlow announced that you, quote, ‘needed some pussy’ to lighten up.”

Steve’s excitement fizzled out with a twist of bitter disgust. “Oh. I forgot about that dick.”

“Sorry to bring it up, boss, but I doubt anyone else has.”

“So… do you have a brother?”

No.” Sharon ground out, abandoning polite pretense. “What the hell is going on, boss? Why do you have to get married or res—oh,” she suddenly inhaled as the pieces came together. “You’re being deported.”

“Not if I marry an American first.”

“Right, of course... why didn’t I think of that? I’m sure single Mr. Gay U-S-A is just waiting outside the office, dying to commit a federal offense!”

Steve glared at her, snarling in his visceral anger. “I am not losing my career because of some stupid, arbitrary, socially constructed nationality. I worked hard for this job; I earned this job. So, I’m going to go out there and find myself an American husband, and if you care about your job, you are going to help me.”

A painful and uncomfortable silence passed between them.

“Are you threatening me?”

“I’m not,” he replied, “but if I leave, Fury will make Sitwell the new Editor in Chief. You think you’ll ever achieve your dreams of touching millions of people with the written word then? He will fire you the second I’m gone, which means the three years you’ve worked for me will have been for nothing. Do you understand?”

Sharon buried her face in her hands and muffled a miserable groan. A conversation with herself followed; Steve couldn’t make out what she said, but when she looked up in the end, she had clearly lost the argument.

“Alright, boss. Fine. Let’s go find you a husband.”

***

“I busted my ass in grad school for what?” Tony mumbled around a mouthful of his raspberry filled cronut. “I should quit while I’m ahead; Yinsen’s reference could get me in anywhere.”

“Again with this?” Bruce sighed, picking at his sugar-free, fat-free bran muffin. “What did he actually say?”

“That I’m a strong candidate, but if I want to represent the entire marketing brand of Trending: Now, I need to demonstrate that I can speak to the fairer demographic, not just the men.”

“He’s helping you out,” Bruce agreed, and Tony vindictively shoved a whole old-fashioned chocolate donut into his mouth in reply.

“I will hurt you,” Bruce warned him and finally dumped the bran muffin he’d been torturing himself with, then sat back with a happy cup of tea.

“He said he’d keep the search live for two more weeks,” Tony continued after a beat, clearly unbothered by Bruce’s threat. “So now I have two weeks to write a fluff piece women will like.”

Bruce gave him a skeptical look that tried to convey how badly he was failing with that attitude already, but Tony was too grouchy in the aftermath of his meeting with Yinsen to acknowledge him. They continued to sit in companionable silence in Bruce’s office, Bruce cleaning through his weekend’s worth of shit email, while Tony flaunted his freedom to consume sugar by cannibalizing half a dozen donuts on his own.

A gentle knock on the door startled them both.

“Staff meeting in thirty minutes,” Scott ducked in to remind them.

Tony rolled his eyes to himself at the thought of wasting another hour of his life in a meeting that decided who wrote about new car engines and who wrote about the most exciting upcoming hair transplant procedure. It was Bruce who looked out through the little window and glanced around the office.

“Have you seen Thor today?” he wondered.

Shit,” Tony muttered, and he shoved off of Bruce’s desk to toss the donuts and start putting his jacket back on. “Jane,” he reminded Bruce, who immediately winced in sympathy. “Dollars to donuts, he’s still wallowing. You’ll get the coffee?”

“And I’ll call in an order for breakfast burritos at Alacran,” Bruce agreed even as he pulled up the website for their number. “Dress him in anything but blue!” he reminded Tony before he was out the door.

“Got it!”

Tony half-jogged through the gaggle of people milling around the office on a Tuesday afternoon, and took to Thor’s apartment on foot to avoid the chaotic morning traffic. Spring was cool and crisp at best in New York, but running through the streets of Manhattan in his leather jacket had him overheating and uncomfortable by the time he made it to Thor’s building.

Rather than buzz Thor’s apartment directly, he swept both hands over the buttons all at once, and like magic he was buzzed up by some irritated soul who had no patience for pranks. Taking the steps two at a time, he made it to Thor’s fourth floor apartment in record time, panting, sweating, and regretting at least two of his donuts from earlier.

“Thor?” he called through the door as he knocked obnoxiously. “Thor, open up, it’s Father Christmas, I need you to come out here and be a good boy at work!”

“I’m agnostic!” Thor shouted back from the safety of his apartment.

Tony stared upward for a beat, wondering if he’d missed something. “That’s a little hypocritical, don’t you think?” he called back. “You’re Thor, aren’t you? God of Thunder?”

Something slammed and shattered against the front door, and Tony jerked back instinctively. “Go away, Stark!” Thor roared, destroying something else against the door. But this time, Tony kneeled down at the door instead of retreating, pulling out a small lock-picking kit out of his wallet to start working on the door.

“I don’t get paid enough for this,” Tony muttered to himself in the ten, fifteen seconds it took for the lock to snick open, and he pulled the door open to let himself in. “Thor?” he called into the apartment, casting around cautiously to try and spot the giant in case he was still violent. “I come in peace. We have a staff meeting in twenty minutes.”

“I’m not going,” Thor sulked just out of sight, and Tony turned the corner into Thor’s bedroom to see the man still in bed, hugging a pillow that Tony guessed had been Jane’s at some point. Rather than sit on the bed and risk shifting any of the blankets currently maintaining Thor’s modesty, Tony crouched next to the bed so that he could face Thor eye to eye.

“I know it’s hard, man,” he said sincerely, rubbing at Thor’s enormous bicep. Thor barely batted an eye, let alone acknowledged him by looking at him. “I know she meant a lot to you, but… don’t give her this kind of power in your life. You barely knew her for two months.”

Thor’s lips pressed together stubbornly, twitching with the overwhelming need to cry.

“They were the best two months of my life,” he confessed with a watery hiccup. Tony squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself not to outright laugh or begrudge his friend his feelings, and instead reached over to tug Thor closer by the shoulders until his friend caved and fell into the hug Tony was offering.

The sudden shift in weight almost knocked Tony off-balance, and he clutched Thor tight for the balance to maintain his precarious position beside the bed. Ironically, the added strength of the hug seemed to be what Thor needed, and he finally let go, sobbing freely against Tony’s shoulder while Tony tried to be patient, rubbing Thor’s back for comfort and resisting the urge to roll his eyes.

“Come on,” he said after they had let the mourning go on long enough. “Listen. Thor. Sure she broke your heart, but if you think I’m going to let you lose your job over her, too, you’re down shit creek without a canoe. You’re going to take a shower. You’re going to look and smell out of this world; not for her, but for you, because you deserve it. You got it? I need you to get on your feet, Point Break, chop chop: we’re doing this right now.”

***

They got back to the office and took their saved seats on either side of Bruce just as Yinsen walked into the conference room.

“Good morning, all. We will make this quick—Thor,” he said in surprise, not having expected him there. “It is good to see you in the office again,” he amended without irony, but then with a stricter glance towards Bruce and Tony, he added, “Remember, if you feel unwell, you are under no obligation to attend these meetings. Your health must come first.”

Thor shrugged a little, looking inexplicably small in his large red jumper. He shook his head once, but he struggled to find words he was comfortable speaking.

“If you wish, you could go first,” Yinsen suggested gently, “then take the remainder of the day remotely.”

“I have nothing to report,” Thor began to say, fussing with the sleeve of his jumper with an embarrassed frown.

“Yet.”

Thor and Yinsen looked as surprised as the rest of the staff to hear Tony speak up. Tony arched an eyebrow at the dry, questioning looks he was being given, and valiantly continued.

“Thor was helping me in preparation for the piece we talked about this morning,” he told Yinsen directly. “It’s about relationships—how, the uh, the stages of a relationship, and how men navigate them. We were thinking,” he added, reaching to put a hand on Thor in case it wasn’t clear whom he was referring to, “our readers should know how tricky men can be. They are not just simple creatures who need sex all hours of the day. Men are manipulative and fragile. Don’t you think our readers could benefit from the strategies men use to get their way? Everyone from Cosmo to Teen Vogue talks about spicing things up in the bedroom, but how will they learn the different circumstances, strategies, and—and warning signs of men who use relationships rather than, uh, nurture them?”

Yinsen considered them both in turn, then turned to Tony. “Elaborate.”

“With Thor’s help, we’ll go out and find people to date. Subjects. Decent, regular people; people our readers can relate to. We’ll see how we can manipulate each: for borrowing money, or getting copies of their house-keys. We’ll monopolize their time for ten days, to show how easy it is to begin isolating them from their friends and family. Warning signs that could save our readers.”

“I will need updates every four days,” Yinsen said after some moments of silent consideration. “De-identified profiles on each date. Full draft in twelve days, publish in fourteen. Good; go.”

Bruce and Thor stared at Tony in disbelief. Tony grinned back at them looking just a little frazzled around the edges. "Right, okay," he mumbled, half to them, and half to himself. "Dress up nice and scrub all the cracks, guys. We've got work to do."

Chapter Text

“What are you wearing?”

Steve pursed his lips at Sharon’s question and looked down at his outfit. “What’s wrong with it?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it, but you’re—” Sharon said with a sigh, gesturing at him. “You look great, but you’re too desperate to look that good.”

“I don’t follow,” Steve admitted after a beat. “And I’m not sure I want to.”

Sharon glared up to the sky and took that brief moment to brace herself before grabbing her boss by the arm and towing him a little further away from the nice bar they had agreed to meet up at. There, in the nascent shadows of the alleyway, she tried to explain.

“A lot of people go for this look,” Steve was saying in his defense all the while, then tugged his arm free to re-settle the leather jacket. “It’s polished, it’s fashionable, it could pay my rent for a month—”

“Yes, and who do you usually pick up with that kind of outfit?” Sharon interrupted him to point out.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but 9s and 10s,” he told her, not without pride.

Sharon was anything but impressed. “You made it my business, boss, remember?” she reminded him in a rather tired tone, then took a breath to steady herself and try again. “We’re not aiming for 9s and 10s. 9s and 10s can get anyone they want, they’re not going to be so spellbound they’ll fall in love with you and agree to marry you! But we can’t go too low either, or they’ll be too suspicious; you’re a decent 8, and you wouldn’t waste your time with a 3 or a 4.”

“What—an 8?

“You need to open yourself up to 5s and 6s,” Sharon continued. “Attractive enough, but people who have been rejected enough to be sympathetic. And you’re not going to do that,” she added, “in a 200 hundred dollar polo.”

Steve frowned and smoothed his hand over his polo shirt again, as if to comfort himself that it looked better than what Sharon was suggesting. “Don’t insult me: it was 400 hundred dollars.”

“That’s exactly my point! No reasonable person—just, take it off.”

“And what, go in there shirtless?” Steve asked dryly. “That’ll sure attract the right crowd.”

“There’s a Zara right down the road,” Sharon answered without even acknowledging his childishness. “We can just pick something reasonable up—”

“Zara?” Steve echoed, as if waiting for the punchline, but when Sharon only turned to lead the way, he grabbed her by the elbow and turned her in the direction of the bar instead. “Forget it, Carter: I’ll take my chances with what I’ve got.”

“Whatever, boss. It’s your future divorce,” Sharon muttered, following his lead without another complaint.

***

Bruce leaned back against the bar, sipping his third drink of the night and surveying the crowd.

“What about her?” he suggested, a little louder than necessary while pointing at a nearby girl who was having a great time dancing with her friends. “She looks like a free spirit.”

“That is no woman,” Thor disagreed unhappily. “She is a girl.”

“This is a 21 and over bar,” Bruce reminded him, but Thor only grimaced and shook his head.

“If it was not her 21st birthday today, it was so recently. Hers would not be a relatable story.”

“Yeah, let’s stay away from students,” Tony agreed, sipping on his scotch. It was still his first drink of the night, and really, for what they had planned he would need to be sober. “Let’s avoid anyone who looks under 25.”

“Then why don’t you suggest someone,” Bruce said with a huff. “I’m doing all the work here, and this isn’t even my damn problem—”

Bruce stopped talking when Thor and Tony glanced at him as one, and if he didn’t already regret his words, Tony’s look of alarm and Thor’s guilt really made him wish a hole would open up at his feet and swallow him whole.

“Uh, I mean,” Bruce said then, “do you prefer blondes or brunettes?”

“Anyone who can give consent and who our readers can relate to,” Tony replied for lack of a better answer. “I’m not trying to fall in love, I just need two or three dates.”

Thor downed the last of his stout and turned to order another. In the time it took to catch the bartender’s attention, he spotted a small group of young women at the other side of the bar.

“What of the young woman in the yellow dress?” he said, and both Tony and Bruce turned to see whom he meant. “The one laughing with her friends.”

“No wedding band,” Bruce observed just as Tony threw back the last of his scotch to go do something about it. Thor and Bruce watched from afar as Tony walked around the bar in a rather unhurried approach, pausing near the group long enough to gauge a natural break in their conversation to slide in.

They watched him separate her from her friends with conversation; they watched her smile and laugh at what he said, and it wasn’t long before she was blushing and tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear.

“She is smitten,” Bruce murmured, almost in shock. “How did he do it?”

“Jane would look at me like that,” Thor said with a sigh, looking down into his refreshed pint. “I miss her, Bruce.”

“I know you do, pal,” Bruce replied quietly, then, feeling like words were not enough, he reached over to rub at Thor’s shoulder in a comforting, if awkward, gesture.

Across the bar, the young woman leaned into Tony’s personal space to whisper something in his ear. He looked quite pleased with himself, and angled his face to grin at Bruce and Thor over her shoulder when his good humor transformed into confusion. They watched him lean away from the young woman, shake his head with a polite smile, wave to her friends, and then leave.

“They’re looking for a threesome,” he explained as soon as he came back around to Thor and Bruce. “She and her partner are trying to get pregnant, and they want a, and I quote, ‘willing donor.’”

“Oh my god,” Bruce whispered, and couldn’t resist glancing their way again. “You—you turned that down?”

Tony stared at him in silence while he tried to reconcile Bruce’s words with what he knew about his friend. “Yes,” he said after the stretch of silence. “But they’re still looking, in case you’re interested.”

“No, no—of course not, I couldn’t,” Bruce said immediately, though he seemed a touch regretful about it. He looked unexpectedly close to tears. “Just, you know. They want to start a family.”

Thor gave Bruce and his drink a curious look. “How much have you had, my friend?”

“Yeah, no, we’re definitely cutting you off for the night,” Tony decided without waiting for the answer, and he reached to gently pry the most recent cocktail out of Bruce’s hands. “Let’s—let’s get out of here, alright? Get you some fresh air, walk a little.”

“We will follow your lead,” Thor said in agreement, draining his stout with two big swallows. “To better hunting grounds!”

“We could go to Tribeca, they’ve got great places there, with really hot people—and rich, too,” Bruce started eagerly telling them as Tony led him out through the crowd.

“Bruce, we are in Tribeca,” Tony reminded him at the same time as Thor said, “My friend, perhaps it is time to go home?”

“That’s not a bad—I’ll get him a cab,” Tony agreed while Bruce tried to insist that he wanted to help. It became a bit of a juggling act getting Bruce to go along with them, and Tony was backing out of the bar talking over Bruce’s head while uncapping the water bottle Thor had passed him when he backed right into someone.

The water bottle jerked in his hand and, to Tony’s horror, it gleefully tipped half its content all over the person he’d bumped into.

“Fuck! What the hell—”

“Sorry! Shit, sorry,” Tony rushed to say while Bruce plastered himself to Tony’s back and giggled madly into his shoulder. “It’s only water, it shouldn’t stain or—damn,” he muttered when he couldn’t even find a packet of tissues in his jacket pockets. “I’m sorry, man.”

The freshly-soaked blond grimaced and shook the water off one sleeve, but his frustration seemed to ease away when he finally laid eyes on Tony.

“I’ll accept your apology if you have a drink with me,” he replied, even grinning a little when Tony blinked back at him in surprise.

“How easy do you think I am?” Tony asked before he could think better of it.

The blond gave him a look of rueful amusement. “How cheap do you think this shirt was?”

Tony gave the blond a quick but appreciative once-over, then with a poorly restrained smirk, shrugged in show of begrudging concession.

“Fair enough,” he said, “my number is 918-432-1857. If you remember it, call me and we’ll find a time for that drink. Cause right now, I’m leaving. Bye-bye, darling,” he added, even blowing him a kiss as he passed to steer Bruce towards the curb and the nearest waiting cab.

“Could he not have been a contender?” Thor wondered in a hushed voice even as he packed Bruce into the cab. Tony only glanced at him while he was in the middle of explaining Bruce’s address to the driver.

Tony shoved a couple of twenties at the driver before they shut the door and watched the car pull away with Bruce all but napping already in the backseat.

“Sure. He was hot,” Tony finally said in answer to Thor’s question. “I wouldn’t say no to a couple dates with him or his wingspan, but hey, bad tim—”

His phone rang from his jacket pocket, and Tony reflexively started patting himself down to find it.

It was an unknown number, but given his line of business, he answered it anyway.

“This is Tony Stark,” he said into the phone, already pressing two fingers against his other ear to hear the caller better.

“Hi, Tony. How about that drink?”

Tony blinked at his phone, then slowly turned around. Sure enough, the blond he had run into earlier was still standing two or three yards away, his own phone to his ear, and he was watching Tony with an air of self-satisfied mischief.

“You’re good,” Tony answered into the phone after a beat, not even bothering to resist grinning back.

“I work with numbers,” the man replied with a little shrug. “Looks like it finally paid off.”

Tony hummed in non-committal agreement. “What if I don’t want a drink?”

“What is it you want?”

“Dinner,” Tony said casually enough. “Burgers. Good ones.”

“I know a place.”

Tony licked his lips to keep from laughing, and glanced over at Thor, who was only hearing half the conversation and looking curiously between his friend and this stranger.

“Is that so?” he said after a pause. “Got a way to get there, too?”

The unexpected sound of two loud beeps startled Tony and Thor, and they both turned to see a new Harley Davidson low rider come to life behind them; it took a moment, but Tony turned around to look at the blond stranger again, and sure enough, he was holding up his keychain with a fob between his fingers.

“How about I give you a ride?”

***

A pretty boy like Tony Stark, Steve had expected him to cling to his body the whole way. But Tony had swung his leg over the bike and settled in behind Steve comfortably, with his hands loosely framing Steve’s hips, as if he was so confident in his seat that holding on was a secondary thought.

They pulled into traffic smoothly, gliding between cars as easy as breathing. Even when Tony eventually leaned into Steve’s broad back, he refrained from any full-body clinging to Steve’s body.

Steve found himself unexpectedly pleased to have a comfortable rider behind him, and at the first red light, he couldn’t resist turning his head just enough to ask, “How you doing?”

With a quiet rumble of laughter, Tony squeezed his thighs around Steve’s hips. “You always ride this slow?”

Steve had never been so amused at being proved wrong. He grinned at Tony in return, and reached back to give his knee a pat. “Maybe next time,” he promised with a smile still in his voice.

It was almost too soon when they pulled up to the Burgary.

“How’d you hear about this place?” Tony wondered as he climbed off, lingering on the curb until Steve joined him.

“I live around the corner,” Steve explained, holding the door open even as he paused to point out his building. It was an elegant modern building with generous windows and a lush rooftop. “When I work from home, I grab lunch here.”

“Impressive. What do you do?” he asked while they wandered up to the counter to order. Steve hung back a little, familiar enough with the menu not to have to read it.

“I’m an editor,” he said, before stepping in a little closer to add, “and if you like pork, the Godfather is really good.”

“I’m more of a short rib and jalapeno guy, actually,” Tony said, then turned to order when it was his turn; Steve wouldn’t let him pay, and instead invited Tony to add a cocktail to the order before adding his own burger, fried pickles, and a Brooklyn gin cocktail.

“I was the one who spilled water on you,” Tony reminded him as they walked to a table in the corner.

“I didn’t ask you to buy me a drink, I asked you to have a drink with me,” Steve said, sitting down in a seat where he had a view of the doors. “So what do you do? Besides hosing down strangers in the street.”

With a shake of his head, Tony quietly snorted to himself and leaned back in his own seat. “I am a writer. Not for books,” he clarified, before Steve asked, “I write about tech and anything that runs on an engine for Trending: Now, but I’m trying to get some new stuff going. Director of ‘branding,’ basically, has opened up, and if I can prove to my boss—who loves me, by the way, that’s very important—that I can write for men and women, I’ll be a shoe-in for the job.”

Steve nodded slowly as he processed that information, finding himself surprised that he didn’t have to fake being impressed by someone. “How will you prove that you can write for women?”

“I’m working on a new piece right now,” Tony explained, pausing only to thank the waiter as she brought their cocktails and fried pickles over. “I’m trying to turn the typical narrative of how women can ‘make themselves more desirable to men’ into how they can better protect themselves from abusive relationships.”

“That would be an impressive accomplishment,” Steve observed, but his editor’s role was coming on too easily, and he found himself asking, “but that’s not the same thing as proving women enjoy your writing. How does that happen with magazines?”

“Nowadays, a lot of that happens through social media,” Tony said, sitting up and leaning forward as his hand gestures increasingly became part of the conversation. “What headline gets retweeted and shared on Facebook, what do our readers choose to respond to and comment on. Many people still write emails to the editors, either to compliment someone’s work or tell them to fuck off.”

“Would that come in in time for you—sorry,” Steve said suddenly as he finally caught himself being far too much of himself. He cleared his throat and tried a bashful smile. “Sorry, that’s shop talk. We can talk about something else?”

“Yeah, sure,” Tony agreed easily enough. “What do you do when you’re not working?”

Steve stared back at him like a deer in headlights, and his surprise was enough to have Tony laughing.

“Uh, no—stop laughing,” Steve grumbled, though a blush was creeping up his neck and undermining his whole expression. “I do things when I don’t work! I, uh.”

“Very convincing,” Tony noted, to which Steve only gave him a flat look in return.

“I watch hockey,” Steve finally thought to say. “The NHL. I catch a game when I can.”

“The Rangers or the Islanders?”

“Rangers, of course,” Steve replied, “they often choke, but they’re good to watch.”

“Yeah, they still make you feel it’s possible, every year,” Tony said with a solemn sigh, then moved on without a second thought. “What else? The gym, obviously.”

“It’s cheaper than therapy.” Steve started to say, but their burgers were brought out in time to interrupt him. “And food, of course.”

“Of course,” Tony grinned, thanking the waiter again as he sat up to get himself situated. He raised his glass, and said, “To a life worth living.”

Steve had been about to bite into his burger when Tony raised a toast, and scrambled to drop the burger and scoop up his glass to raise his glass and second Tony’s words.

***

Tony was snooping through Steve’s bathroom when Thor finally picked up the phone.

“Do you require a rescue?”

“What? No, Thor, I do not require a rescue!” Tony whispered into his phone, “why would you say that?”

“Because I am at home and comfortable, and wanted to assure myself I don't have to leave,” Thor explained honestly. Tony couldn’t find a flaw in that logic.

“He's stiff, but I think this could work.”

“Was this not meant to be for a female audience? How will the connection be made if your subject is a man?”

“The way I see it, we’re really the only ones who know the subject is a man,” Tony said under his breath. He glanced at the bathroom door again, then lowered his voice further in case for any reason Steve was hovering in the hallway to listen in on him in the bathroom like some crazy person. “Yinsen won’t know; nobody will know. We’re obviously changing his name for anonymity anyway, so we’ll just change it to a woman’s name. A relationship is a relationship: everything else will be the same.”

“Until you suck his dick.”

“I'm not going to suck his dick!” Tony hissed indignantly, then immediately held his breath to listen for any signs that Steve was eavesdropping on him.

“You’re not? That's terrible form,” Thor rumbled, his frown evident in his voice. “How do you think he'll perform for you if you refuse the simplest act?”

“First of all, it is not the simplest act. It requires skill and coordination, and it is ridiculously intimate,” Tony tried to explain without losing his head. “Second, there's not going to be a performance, because all we're sharing is two dates—maybe three! Then I’m dumping him and moving on to the next willing target.”

“For a bisexual, you really sound like a straight, privileged prick.”

Tony stared at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror and tried to will himself calm.

“Good night, Thor,” he finally managed. “I'll report back in the morning.”

“Text me when you're home safe,” Thor replied, making Tony almost feel bad about his most recent thoughts.

“And spare no details in your report! Take measurements. Remember, some of us are now living vicariously through you.”

Tony hung up the phone, and briefly considered throwing it out the window. But eventually he managed to simply wash his hands, dry them off, and finished going through Steve's medicine cabinet before stepping out of the bathroom.

Steve’s apartment had a stunning view. Tony had seen it when Steve first invited him up, and he had been curious and impressed in equal measure. But now, when he walked back to the living room on his own, it almost left him breathless. Steve was standing with his back turned in front of the floor to ceiling windows of his living room, looking out over the city. He was backlit by the city lights below, and it framed his long legs, his narrow waist, and his impossible shoulders, like something out of a dream. Those tailored trousers gave him every advantage, and the well-structured polo enhanced his size without appearing too small.

Three dates, Tony reminded himself. This was not real, and it would end with only three dates.

It had to.

***

With her boss on extended holiday, Sharon knew she could have done one of two things: taken it easy, or continued to run the office the way Steve had taught her over the last three years. She stepped in for his meetings where she could, responded to emails when she could, and otherwise scheduled everyone else to see Steve when he returned.

He would return. They needed him; as disliked as Steve was, sometimes Sharon felt like she was the only one who knew how badly they needed him.

She had returned to her desk after a meeting with Hill’s secretary when her personal phone started ringing. All she needed was more drama to deal with, but when she saw the name on the screen, she picked up the phone and ran into Steve’s office where she could shut the door behind her.

“Boss?” she whispered even in the privacy of his office. “What’s wrong? How did the date go?”

“It—hell, I wish I knew,” Steve moaned in complaint. “He said he wanted me to respect him, and wanted to take it slow. Carter, he didn’t stay the night. Who does that, what does that even mean?”

“I told you to go for the 4s and 5s! You had to go for a 9,” she reminded him, because really, that was essentially the whole argument she’d made yesterday. “Will you see him again?”

“I thought I’d call him, invite him out to something,” Steve replied, trying to answer her question but obviously still struggling with how. “If he is available tonight, I’ll see what happens, but if he isn’t, I’ll have to move on. Right? Cut my losses?”

“On your timeline, you’ll have to,” she agreed. “And if you don’t lock down a third date at the end of this one, cut him out. Move on.”

“Right, that’s reasonable,” Steve agreed in a distracted tone, clearly worrying over a whole other issue now that the first one was solved.

“You know I still have a job to do, don’t you?” Sharon pointedly reminded him while Steve was quietly musing to himself. “Your job, in fact, on top of my own.”

“I’ve never been on a date,” Steve told her in a quiet voice, and just like that, Sharon was shocked into silence. Now she needed to hear everything. “I’ve had one night stands, sure; even friends with benefits occasionally. But… a date, a relationship? I’ve never… needed that. What—how do you ask someone out on a date?”

“I… I don’t really remember,” she whispered, needing to sit down in one of the guest chairs at Steve’s desk. “Besides, things are different now. People do everything online. But, try to think of something you could do together that you would both enjoy? What do we know about him?”

“He’s not from around here. He’s lived here for a few years, but he’s from a small town. Somehow, he said he loves the big city, how alive it is. That when he’s homesick, he still manages to find things that remind him of home in little bodegas, mom and pop restaurants.”

“...alright, okay. That’s… sweet,” she conceded, confused, but pleasantly surprised. “How about something more tangible.”

“Hockey!” Steve suddenly shouted. “I’ll take him to a Rangers game!”

Sharon immediately got off the guest chair and ran to Steve’s desktop. She had turned it on and gotten everything ready as she always did by force of habit, and it was ready to go.

“There’s a home game tonight,” she told him within seconds. “The Detroit Red Wings. I think that’s a good team, too.”

“It doesn’t matter: are there good seats left?”

“The only seats left are at minimum $178,” she said after a brief search. “Corner of the rink near the Ranger’s net.”

“I want something facing center ice, if possible,” he replied, “preferably padded.”

She acknowledged him with a quiet hum as she looked up what seats were padded, and then which were center ice.

“There are padded seats in the balcony,” she told him after a few moments, “but I think the best available seats are in section 107: center ice, great view of the game. They’re expensive, but—”

“Buy two,” Steve interrupted her.

Sharon frowned at the thought. “What if he can’t go tonight?”

“Then you can do whatever you want with the tickets,” Steve said without so much as asking about their cost. “Make it happen, Carter. In the meantime, I’ll be… asking Tony Stark out on a date.”

“You got this, boss.”

***

The minute the three of them were all free from their respective meetings, Thor, Tony, and Bruce all hustled into Tony’s office and shut the door behind them.

“I don’t think this is going to work out,” Tony reported bitterly. “I overshot it big time, he’s a millionaire or something.”

“But he’s hot, so does that matter?” Bruce asked, looking from Thor to Tony in his confusion. When they both gave him a weird look, he rolled his eyes and said, “I was drunk, I wasn’t blind.”

“You weren’t just drunk, you were—”

“Focus!” Thor rumbled over them both, gesturing for them to bring it down a level. “Let’s talk about it.”

“You should have seen his apartment, he lives in the fucking penthouse! His custom island counter probably costs more than my car, but he doesn’t even cook. How much do book editors make?”

“I have found that it is reasonable, perhaps even cheaper to eat out if one is single in the City,” Thor noted, but Tony only gave him a look that expressed how much he didn’t appreciate being undermined.

“He’s got a point,” Bruce seconded before Tony could disagree. “But rich people read our magazine, too. We write about Elon Musk all the time; Tesla owners have relationships, too.”

“But, he’s not normal,” Tony insisted. “He—he can talk about art and history and science, but he can’t talk about his family for ten seconds?”

Thor frowned, but Bruce threw his hands up. “It wasn’t even the first date!”

“That is quite personal, my friend,” Thor agreed. “It alone is not cause for dismissal.”

“How was the sex?” Bruce prompted then, and he gave Tony a sympathetic look. “Is that what was wrong?”

Tony pursed his lips in distaste, giving Thor and Bruce both unimpressed looks. “Seriously. You, too?” he asked, dryly. “You realize this is for a job, right? I’m not trying to get laid; in fact, I’m trying to do the opposite! There was no sex.”

“Yeah, but—isn’t that the main issue between couples?” Bruce tried, “intimacy disconnect, or something?”

“Had you sucked his dick, he likely would have been far more pleasant company.”

“That’s—no! That’s not how that works! Don’t you hear yourselves? Toxic fucking masculinity, why do I even talk to you two?” Tony muttered, but before he could continue, he was interrupted by his ringtone. When he saw the name on the display, he gave both Thor and Bruce stern looks, then picked up.

“This is Tony Stark.”

“Hi, Tony,” Steve replied on the other end. “Is this a good time to talk?”

“Uh—yeah, yeah, it is,” Tony said, mustering a fake smile so that he would at least sound pleasant over the phone. Steve didn’t need to know about his suspicions yet, but for the sake of future discussions, he turned the phone on speaker and gently laid the phone down on his desk.

“I’m glad you called, Steve. I had a good time last night.”

“I did, too,” Steve said in a stilted tone, and Tony frowned at Thor and Bruce immediately. The two of them were only looking back at him, wide-eyed, and struggling to keep themselves quiet. “Actually, that’s sort of why I was calling. I have tickets to the Rangers game tonight, and, I know it is short notice, but I was wondering if you would like to join me.”

Tony blinked down at the phone, genuinely blindsided. “You—you do?”

There was a brief pause on the other line. “Yes,” Steve said in a cautious tone. “Was that not… did you not like them?”

“Yes, but—just—” Bruce grabbed up an old discarded copy of Trending: Now and threatened to smack Tony in the head with it, which finally seemed to kick him into gear. “That sounds like fun, yeah. Yeah, I’d like that. What time?”

“The game starts at six,” Steve answered, and this time he sounded much more relaxed, as if a factual reply was easier to handle. “How about we meet at 34th and 7th at four thirty?”

“Sounds great, Steve. I can’t wait, I’ll see you then,” Tony smiled warmly into the phone before hanging up.

***

Steve had already been waiting for twenty minutes at the corner of 34th and 7th when he saw Tony finally step out of a cab. He found Steve in the crowd at once, and hurried over.

“Traffic literally killed me,” were the first words out of his mouth. “Have you been waiting long?”

“Not at all,” Steve said tersely, struggling to smile for him. “Come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Tony perked up at once, so Steve counted it as a win until they turned to walk and Tony reached for his hand without so much as a warning. Steve froze mid-step and immediately forced down his instinct to jerk his hand out of Tony’s hand, and he even managed to smile a little.

That seemed to be all the encouragement Tony needed. He wrapped his arm around Steve’s and leaned in close, hugging the full length of his arm and leaning into Steve’s side as they made their way in through the crowd.

“Have you been to a game before?” Steve asked through his teeth, trying to look more pleased than furious about Tony’s apparent lack of boundaries.

“Not since my cousins got really bored that one winter in Montana,” Tony grinned, barely even letting go of Steve’s hand for the security check. “I’ve never even seen Madison Square Garden before.”

“This is your first time?” Steve echoed quietly to himself, then he asked, “Do you have a jersey?”

“What? No. Was I supposed to?” Tony replied, and he glanced around at the other fans to see if he had somehow missed an important memo. Most people were wearing some kind of Rangers swag, but it didn’t seem like jerseys were mandatory. But then, even Steve wasn’t wearing one.

“No, not at all,” Steve grinned, and taking Tony’s hand in his own again after the security check, he led the way to the escalators with a newfound eagerness. “It’s only going to make my surprise better.”

“No way,” Tony whispered, then bounced up on the balls of his feet to shake Steve’s shoulders. “What! Are you getting me a jersey?”

“I can’t answer that!” Steve insisted, but the way he refused to meet Tony’s eyes seemed be enough of an answer.

By the third escalator, Tony had wrapped his arms around Steve’s waist, and proceeded to lean into him until Steve was supporting most of Tony’s weight.

“You’re not wearing a jersey either,” he whispered against Steve’s neck, his breath hot and wet over Steve’s skin. It was all Steve could do to resist squirming, or shaking Tony off. “Are you getting one, too?”

“That’s a clever question, but I won’t fall for it,” Steve replied in a quiet voice, in the hopes that Tony wouldn’t be offended. Instead, Tony laughed at being caught, and by the time they got on the fourth escalator, he had buried his cold nose in the warm, soft skin in the crook of Steve’s neck.

Steve resisted the squeal of discomfort, but he couldn’t stop himself from a full-body shudder.

“Tony, your nose is really cold,” Steve warned him quietly, but Tony only cuddled in closer.

“And you’re so warm,” Tony whispered in return.

Steve kept his mouth shut the rest of the way to the Ranger’s team store, where Tony finally peeled himself off of Steve and instead tugged him into the store in his excitement.

One after another, Tony picked his way through every alternative, while asking Steve the same unreasonable questions nobody could answer honestly.

“Does this look good on me?”

“Does it make me look scrawny?”

“Does it make me look smaller?”

In the end, Steve avoided calling Tony fat, scrawny, or small, and even convinced him to settle for one of the classics: the current white or blue jersey.

Tony decided on white for himself, but that Steve had to wear the one in blue, because matching was tacky.

(Finally, they agreed on something.)

They got their beers, a sandwich to share, and tempura sweet potato fries, then made their way to their seats with about fifteen minutes to spare. The pre-show game was on the jumbo screen and classic rock music played in the background to pump up the crowd. The players were already out on the ice warming up.

“This is insane,” Tony was still saying since they first received the steak sandwich. Steve died a little on the inside every time Tony used the word incorrectly. “How is anyone going to eat all that meat?”

“With care and determination,” Steve guessed in a monotone, but Tony only laughed and smacked him playfully on the arm in return.

“You should hold it from the corner,” a stranger’s voice said from Tony’s other side, and they both turned to see a woman no older than them smiling back. “Hey, sorry,” she said, “couldn’t help but overhear. I ate that last time I was here and I thought the same thing, but it’s really great. It’s easier than you’d expect.”

“Oh hey, thanks!” Tony smiled back easily, as if it was normal for strangers to eavesdrop or tell people what to do. “You a regular here?”

“Not really, but my brother gets tickets through work sometimes, and he’s more of a Knicks fan,” she explained, “I just moved here from Tennessee a year ago, and we’ve got the Predators, but not anywhere near where I’m from, you know? Besides, it’s not like here,” she added with a secretive smile, gesturing around them as if to encompass to full arena. “This is so cool!”

“Hey! You’re from Tennessee? I’m from Oklahoma—I’m Tony,” he said with an easy smile, and he held up his pouch of tempura sweet potato fries. “Nice to meet you.”

She laughed in delighted surprise, and happily took one of his offered fries. “I’m Amanda, it’s nice to meet you, too, Tony.”

All of a sudden, the people around them in the audience roared in applause and laughter, chanting something unintelligible. Tony and Amanda looked up and immediately saw themselves captured on the Kiss Cam on the enormous screen over the rink.

They both blushed and laughed in their surprise before looking at each other as if trying to measure where the other stood on the matter at hand.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Steve growled from Tony’s left, and before Tony could even try to kiss the woman on his right, Steve reeled him in by the collar of his new jersey and claimed his lips in a needful, passionate kiss.

There was a brief moment of silent shock around them, but it was almost as easily shattered by laughter, wolf whistles, and thunderous applause.

***

By sheer luck, the game became a thriller. Detroit took the lead early in the first and second period, but the Rangers turned it into 2-1 before the second break, and equalized in the third period.

The clock was in overtime. Any pass, any slapshot could have been the game winning goal, and Steve could barely breathe from the tension. Tony kept glancing at him, captivated by the genuine excitement in Steve’s entire body, from the way he would curl his fists when the Red Wings moved too close to Lundqvist’s net, or the way he would lean in and almost brace his weight on the balls of his feet anytime the Rangers moved the game back to put the pressure on the visiting team.

They were nearly ten minutes into overtime when Tony leaned into Steve’s space and whispered, “I’m dying, Steve. I’m going to get a drink. You want anything?”

Steve couldn’t look away from the rink, but he was still aware enough to frown at what Tony said. “Now? There’s overtime, they—it could end any minute.”

“I know, I really don’t want to miss it! It’s such an exciting game; I’ll hurry—” Tony started to assure him, but Steve shook his head. He knew what he was supposed to do.

“No, you sit—no, it’s your first game,” he insisted and got up, though he still couldn’t really look away from the ice. “I’ll get it, what would you like?”

“A coke, a coke is good; no ice!”

“Coke, no ice,” Steve repeated dutifully, then shuffled down the aisle to go get it for him. He ran up the stairs, down the hall (and god, why was there a line?), and when it was finally his turn, and he had finally paid, and the old man behind the counter asked if he’d like a straw with the drink, the buzzer rang throughout the stadium.

He spun around to glare at the nearest screen, and sure enough, the Red Wings had won the match.

Steve told the goddamn drink to fuck off, picked it and the accompanying straw up with a vindictive grip, then marched back to their section.

In perfect contrast to himself, Tony was beaming with excitement.

“That was an amazing game!” he crowed, clinging to Steve as they made their way out of their seats with the rest of the audience, recounting all the excitement that Steve had missed out on as if it wasn’t a sore memory already. “I can’t believe I was here for this! That goal was epic! Lundqvist was great, but holy shit, the defense was like—oh, hey, thank you,” he said with a smile when Steve handed him his Coke. “Do you think they know how good Lundqvist is, and that’s why they never get decent defenders? They—oh,” he frowned then, peering down at the drink in his hand.

“What is this?” he asked Steve.

“Coke, no ice,” Steve replied with a smile that was all teeth.

“No… no, this is regular Coke,” Tony complained after another hesitant sip, and without another word, he dumped it in a passing trash can. “I can’t drink that.”

Steve set his jaw, and quietly counted backwards from thirty before he started shouting at his date.

“Thank you for tonight,” Tony said as they emerged into chilly the night time air, and he stretched to kiss Steve’s cheek. “I really enjoyed that game.”

“Thank you for joining me,” Steve replied in a whisper, turning to better face Tony so that they nearly stood nose to nose when Tony relaxed down on his feet again. “Would you like a ride home?”

“Thank you, but I’m good with the cab. You know,” Tony whispered then, almost secretive with his confession. “I really enjoyed your surprise tonight.”

This time, Steve smiled a little more easily. “Then, how about one more?” he asked in a lowered voice, and Tony squeezed his hand in excitement. “Tomorrow?”

“Is this not too fast for you?” Tony wondered, searching Steve’s eyes for an explanation. “You won’t get tired of me three days in a row?”

“Never,” Steve lied, returning Tony’s squeeze gently. “Tomorrow, same time?”

“To do what?” Tony pressed, but Steve only grinned and shook his head.

“That’s not how surprises work.”

“Well, you did alright with today’s surprise,” Tony said, as if having to think this over out loud. “Why not. Next surprise, tomorrow at four thirty… where?”

“I’ll text you at lunch,” Steve promised, bringing one of Tony’s hands up to kiss the back of his hand. “Have a good night, Tony. I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Bruce mumbled without picking his head off the floor. “That… that Amanda? She sounds great for subject number two.”

“Ohh, yeah,” Tony murmured in reply, still sipping on his whiskey green tea. Or, green tea steeped in whiskey, because that’s how Bruce preferred his whiskey. “Thought so, too, but… y’know, couldn’t ask for her number in front of him.”

“Sure you could!” Bruce exclaimed, “it’s happened to me. Twice!”

Tony grimaced in horror. “Your date asked for somebody else’s number while y’all were on a date?”

“Yeah! Two different women, two different times,” Bruce added, to be clear. “But then I was the bad guy for ending things, because ‘giving someone your number isn’t cheating.’”

“If he doesn’t throw in the towel soon, I’ll’ve to try that,” Tony thought out loud, picking up his phone to tap the idea into his project notes to be sure he wouldn’t forget. “That’s a shit move.”

“Sure made me feel like shit,” Bruce muttered, rolling up on his elbow just long enough to take another long sip of his tea. Tony reached over and scrubbed a hand through Bruce’s curls, ruffling them up affectionately until Bruce was too amused not to grin back. When he was happily relaxed on the floor again, he hummed in question and asked, “So what’s going on then? Is Steven’s being stubborn? He’s a stubborn Steven?”

“You should see him Bruce,” Tony said, his voice bright as he tried to muffle a sudden burst of giggles against his hand. “Every time I say literally, he gags; and this muscle in his jaw? It jumps when he’s real frustrated, it’s a compass for how to best annoy him. Every ‘literally,’ ‘like,’ ‘insane’—it’s like takin’ candy from a baby.”

“Is it though?” Bruce pointed out, tilting his head back to look up at Tony curiously. “You put it on pretty thick today. You think you’re gonna get a reaction out of him worth writing about if you keep going like this?”

“No… no, you’re right. Guess he’s more resilient than I expected,” Tony mused to himself, working through the problem Bruce had pointed out. “We’re—I don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow, but he’s weird about PDA, like no—no disrupting the peace. Hates bad attention. Think that’s how I’ll get him.”

Bruce’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead. “Oh, man. He’s so screwed,” he said, not without pride, “if there’s anyone who can be an real asshole in public, Tony, it’s you.”

Tony rolled his eyes, though he couldn’t resist a big grin. “I’ll drink to that,” he mumbled into his drink, then downed the rest of it.

***

Tony’s phone rang a little before 10am the next morning. The ringtone was new and distinctive, and loud enough that Bruce and Thor could hear it from their respective offices.

Does he not know how to text? Bruce wrote into their collective chat box.

To text is juvenile. This is clearly a man. Thor disagreed.

“This is Tony Stark,” Tony answered the phone and made sure to shut his door for privacy.

“Oh—hey, Tony,” Steve replied, clearly a little caught off guard. “Is this a bad time? I expected the voicemail. This isn’t urgent,” he made sure to add.

“I’m good, my meetings are in the afternoon today,” Tony assured him with a smile, and he moved to the armchair he’d somehow squeezed into his tiny office. “It’s good to hear your voice, sugar, how’s your morning been?”

There was a momentary pause at the other end of the line—blink and you’ll miss it. “Slow,” Steve eventually said, clearly choosing not to comment on Tony’s unexpected term of endearment. “How would you feel about seeing a movie with me tonight, Tony?”

“What movie were you thinking of taking me to, boo?” Tony whispered playfully.

“There’s a theater in my neighborhood that is hosting a week-long tribute to the best of Michael Keaton,” Steve replied in a perfectly normal, steady voice. “They’re showing Batman Returns and the Night Shift tonight.”

The suggested movies gave Tony pause. He had prepared himself for romcoms, or for Steve to maybe suggest a horror movie in the hopes that Tony would be scared enough to cling to his side for protection. But these were neither; in fact, they were fun, classic 80s movies he wouldn’t mind going to see.

Damn his luck.

“With Danny Devito as the Penguin?” Tony sounded impressed despite himself. “You go hard on these dates, don’t you, Sparky?”

“I,” Steve bumbled for a moment, then quickly cleared his throat. “Does, uh. Is that a good thing?”

“Yeah, stud, you’re doing real well,” Tony purred in a teasing sing-song. “When and where do I meet you?”

“Do you remember where I live?” Steve asked, waiting to hear Tony hum in the affirmative before continuing. “Be here at six, and we can walk from here. Maybe grab a bite to eat on the way?”

“Let’s; you haven’t led me astray yet,” Tony reminded him happily. “Can’t wait to see you tonight, boo.”

Tony hung up the phone before Steve could respond. He dropped the phone in the chair cushions and closed his eyes to sit in silence for some time, struggling to distance himself from that humiliating conversation.

Thor and Bruce shoved their way into his office so fast it was obvious they had been eavesdropping at the door, and for once, they seemed to agree: they were both cackling.

“My friend! Your contempt for romance is a sight to behold,” Thor announced with a big laugh, perching himself on the armrest of Tony’s armchair where he seemed blissfully ignorant of just how much of his bulk encroached on Tony’s personal space. “Truly. Jesus wept.”

As if the experience had not been mortifying already, Tony rubbed both hands over his blushing face and groaned into his palms, as if hiding himself from the world would somehow help him escape this minor nightmare.

“I think what Thor is trying to say is that there’s something wrong with this man,” Bruce said from his comfortable spot at Tony’s desk. “Maybe it’s time to cut our losses?”

“One last date,” Tony mumbled unintelligibly behind his hands, then finally dropped his hands in defeat and took a deep, steadying breath. “Fuck. It’s—I’ve got him on the ropes, I’m so close I can taste it.”

“That’s not victory, that’s bile,” Thor pointed out, and Tony glared up at him.

“Remind me, why am I in this position again?”

Thor had the decency to look a little shamefaced, but it was Bruce who answered him. “To prove to Yinsen that you’re a good candidate for brand director, and that you can write something the female audience will like. Tell me, Tony: what is it about this scheme of yours that a female audience will like?”

“Look, I’m not doing anything crazy—nothing that crosses the line,” Tony said, though neither Bruce nor Thor seemed that convinced. “Come on, think about it! Bad nicknames, poor grammar—being clingy? I’m just, doing it on overload to speed up the process. Soon, he is going to snap, and then our readers will get a first-hand account of what a man does to a woman he wants to hurt. Whether it’s verbal, emotional, physical—and, importantly, all the warning signs leading up to it.”

“His clenching jaw,” Bruce remembered, as if the pieces were slowly coming together.

“Right,” Tony agreed, counting off on his fingers, “his clenching jaw, kissing without consent as a sign of jealousy, being territorial. It’s everyday stuff that people ignore, but they’re important warning signs.”

Thor hummed pleasantly after a beat, having perked up a little now that he, too, figured out what plan and story Tony was weaving. “I always knew you were a weasley fellow, Stark, but to see you put it to use for the good of others?” he said, patting Tony on the shoulder. “I am glad to count myself your friend.”

***

“This isn’t working, Carter. I won't survive this—this relationship, whatever it is.”

“Boss, he’s nothing but an airhead,” Sharon promised as she gathered up the documents and manuscripts she was picking up for the office. “I know your tolerance for airheads is …pretty low, but you got this. It’s working. And, at least he’s hot; and he’s nice, isn’t he?”

Steve turned to her and gave her a flinty glare. “He calls me Sparky.

Sharon nearly choked on the orange juice she was drinking, which was a shame, because the juice was freshly squeezed from oranges imported from southern California. She cleared her throat and poured herself some more.

“And he lived to see another day?” she noted, mildly impressed.

“It was only an hour ago,” Steve muttered, finally stopping his anxious pacing to drop and sprawl on his couch.

“What’s the plan, after the movie?” Sharon asked in a blatant change of topic. “Are you finally inviting him over for the night?”

“I’ve been trying!” Steve insisted, grumbling to himself in his frustration. “This whole dating game is not my scene; if I don’t get him into bed soon, I don’t stand a chance.”

Sharon frowned a little, intuitively knowing that those were pretty tragic words without being able to put her finger on why. “Don’t sell yourself short,” she said instead. “He’s clearly enjoying himself. Wasn’t that a direct quote?”

“What if he meant I ‘go hard’ as in it’s overkill? That I’m coming off as desperate?”

“You’re not playing the game—or, well. You’re playing a game, but not the usual ‘hard to get’ schtick. If he’s still into you, he probably appreciates that.”

When Steve couldn’t muster more than a slight shrug, Sharon made sure to look away and gather her thoughts. She had never seen her boss insecure before, and it made her uncomfortable to think of him as anything but confident and assertive.

“The dinner and a movie date is classic, boss. You really can’t go wrong,” she said after a while, and this time he looked back at her across the room with an expression that suggested he might believe her. “Tomorrow is Saturday. If you can’t bring him home tonight, invite him home tomorrow for a homemade dinner. Trust me, boss,” she hurried to say to Steve’s sudden look of alarm. “He’ll love it—it’s romantic in a way people can forget to be these days. You’ll stand out.”

“And who’s going to cook the meal?” Steve muttered, pushing a hand through his hair. “All I know how to make is breakfast food. What am I going to do, romance him with cinnamon buns?”

“It’s Saturday: make it a brunch! It doesn’t have to be extravagant, boss, just pancakes and eggs or something. Homemade potatoes? Just, make sure you get more of this juice,” she added, pouring out the last of the bottle into her glass. “This was excellent.”

***

Six o’clock came and went without a peep from Tony.

Steve paced the length of his living room, glaring daggers at his phone and daring it to prove him wrong, that he hadn’t just been stood up. He tried to sit down, he tried to relax and forget it, or even pretend that it wasn’t bothering him so that when (if) Tony did show up, he could appear to have been entirely casual and calm about the entire affair.

At ten past seven, there was a knock on his front door. Steve startled, staring at his door in shock, then immediately looked around his apartment to make a plan. He rushed to the remote, turned the TV on in the kitchen and set it to mute, then changed the channel to the Discovery channel. As a final touch, he ran to the kitchen and grabbed up a mug to pour himself some old, cold coffee into so he wouldn’t open the door empty handed.

“Stevie, sugar, forgive me,” Tony pouted the minute Steve opened the door.

“I was getting worried, Tony,” Steve lied, his grimace pulled into an unimpressed frown. “You couldn’t have called to say you were running late?”

“I’m so sorry, I was working and lost track of time,” Tony said with big, sad eyes, batting his eyelashes in a way that somehow made Steve even angrier. “Please, forgive me, Sparky?”

“Do you still want to see the movie?” Steve asked quietly, anything to ignore the stupid nickname. “If you need to get back to work...”

“No, sugar, I’ve been looking forward to this all day,” Tony said with as much conviction as he could muster. “I’ve been looking forward to you all day. We can do something other than the movie, if that’s what you want, but, I, I want to spend today with you.”

Steve looked him up and down, considering Tony dubiously. Then, after some time, he stepped back and left the door open for Tony let himself in. He wandered back to his kitchen and made a show of tossing his coffee out in the sink and going around to turn off his TV, all for Tony’s watchful eyes. Finally, Steve snatched up his leather jacket and came back to join Tony at the front door.

“The movie starts in twenty minutes,” Steve said as they walked out to the elevator together. “We won’t have time for dinner before the movie. Will you be alright?”

“I’ll grab some popcorn, honey, no need to worry,” Tony assured him, “it will hold me over.”

“So what was the work you were doing?” Steve asked, attempting to move on from all the frustrations of the past hour. “Did you have a chance to finish it?”

Tony took Steve’s hand in his the minute they emerged from the building, wrapping both his arms around Steve’s so that they pressed close together as they walked down the street.

“They were head notes for my boss on the project I’m working on,” Tony explained, “you know how you start something and you think it’ll be a short task, but then you look up and all day has gone by?”

“Not really,” Steve said with a wry twist of his lips. “A task takes as long to finish as you allow it.”

“You sound like one of those people who has everything figured out,” Tony said quietly. “Who works out and eats healthy and gets shit done.”

“I am, because I wasn’t,” Steve admitted, even looking at Tony with a little smile. “It’s not easy because it’s simple. Nothing ever is.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” Tony sighed, leaning against the length of Steve’s arm then for a more intense cuddle while they walked. “You smell good.”

“As do you,” Steve replied, then after some thought found it to be true. They fell into a companionable silence after that, making their way to the theater arm in arm.

Steve already had their tickets when they got to the theater, but they got in line so Tony could have his popcorn and drink (diet Coke, no ice) before they walked in to take their seat in the theater. It was first come, first serve, but fortunately the show wasn’t sold out, so they had their pick of seats towards the front of center.

“I love Tim Burton’s Batman,” Tony said as they sat down, and he didn’t seem to worry about talking while chewing his popcorn. Steve did his best to maintain eye contact without grimacing. “And Michael Keaton as Bruce is the best, isn’t he?”

“They’re both great at what they do,” Steve agreed diplomatically. Then, remembering what Tony had said earlier, he said, “In this though, Danny Devito really stands out.”

“Yes!” Tony cheered just as the lights went down. He enjoyed his popcorn and his drink, and even if he was a little louder than the average person, Steve didn’t find it too difficult to ignore the sounds of Tony’s slurping and munching.

His relative peace didn’t last twenty minutes.

“Did you know that Christopher Walken has had the same hair since he first fell in love with Elvis as a young guy?” Tony stage-whispered only a few minutes into the movie. “First of all, a young Christopher Walken? Creepy, right? But it’s kinda sweet, he fell in love with Elvis’s style, and he hasn’t changed it since. Weird, huh? But that kind of commitment to anything, who has that anymore? I change my hair every six or seven months; short, or cut it to grow long… fashion, you know.”

Steve didn’t know. He knew what worked for him, and he didn’t mess with it. He also didn’t want to know what Tony was talking about, and he especially didn’t want to know about it while the movie was rolling.

“He’s classically trained as a dancer first,” Tony continued, clearly not discouraged in the least by the irritated looks people were throwing their way. Then, as if his whispering wasn’t bad enough, Tony suddenly laughed in the silent movie theater. “Oh man! I forgot his name was Shreck! Isn’t that silly, boo?”

“Sure,” Steve whispered very, very quietly, trying not to shrink in his seat from embarrassment. His monosyllabic and unenthusiastic reply seemed to do the trick, however: Tony didn’t speak again.

Until Max Shreck found Selina Kyle working late in his office.

“Run, bitch!” Tony hissed so loudly people four rows away turned back to glare at them. “He’s crazy!”

“Tony,” Steve leaned in to whisper at a polite volume against Tony’s cheek. “If you want to talk, we don’t have to stay, but other people are trying to watch the movie.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tony asked in a shrill voice, leaning away from Steve as if his suggestion was offensive. “Are you embarrassed by me, Steve?”

“I fucking would be,” a voice behind them commented with a huff. A chill ran down Steve’s body from a long-repressed memory he really didn’t need to be reminded of; before he could snap out of it, Tony had whirled around in his seat and snarled at whoever had addressed them.

“How dare you speak to me that way?” he glowered, indignant and even louder than before. “Steve! Are you going to let him just get away with talking to me like that?”

Steve stared at him for a beat, racking his brain for anything to say besides you deserve no less or I’m on his side.

“Put a muzzle on him next time, for all our sakes,” the voice muttered, clearly addressing Steve this time, and god, when did his life come to this? All Steve wanted was to get back to his job; was that too much to ask?

“Steve! If you’re not going to teach him a lesson, then I will—”

“You’ll do what?” the other voice growled, and Steve could hear the shuffling of popcorn, clothes, and then the grateful creaking of a seat as whoever Tony had picked a fight with got to his feet.

That was when Steve stood up. With his hands on his hips, he rose to his full height, flexing his arms and back in his leather jacket in a way that made him look even bigger than he was. At some solid inches over six feet and 250 pounds, intimidation often got him farther than he cared to admit.

Yet when he finally got a good look at the monstrosity of a man whom Tony had pissed off, the tables turned immediately. Whatever he was, the man had a foot and easily a hundred pounds on Steve.

“You and me,” the giant growled down at Steve. “Outside, right now.”

The night was spinning out of control, and Steve didn’t even have a hand on the wheel anymore. Before he knew it, he and Tony were marching out of the theater in the giant’s wake.

“Let me talk to him, Sparky, this isn’t what I—this isn’t about you,” Tony was whispering behind him, and boy, he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t tempted to let Tony handle it.

“Whatever you did or didn’t do, he has no right to talk to anybody that way,” Steve said as he turned to face the man waiting for them in the lobby.

“—Steve!”

The fist came out of nowhere. With a resounding crack, it connected across Steve’s left temple and the force of it threw Steve into a wall. Tony lunged to catch him, but Steve was too dazed, off-balance, and already falling; Tony didn’t stand a chance. They crumbled together an uncoordinated heap, with Tony cradling Steve in his arms.

“Oh, god—Steve? How, how do you feel? Do we need an ambulance?”

Steve’s first coherent thought was that Tony really did smell nice. He groaned softly then, and when Tony whispered kindly-worded apologies and praise for what Steve had done, Steve decided to kick it up a notch, from confused groaning to plaintive moaning.

Whether he did it consciously or not, Tony had started combing his fingers through Steve’s hair, and Steve leaned into the tender touch of his hand, even indulging a little by nuzzling against Tony’s firm chest.

It didn’t take long for Tony to catch on to Steve’s charade.

“Steve! Damnit, you scared me,” he laughed, shaking his head at himself before squeezing Steve just a little closer, a little possessively, before relaxing back against the wall. For reasons they both chose to overlook, Tony didn’t stop playing with Steve’s hair.

“I’m sorry, Sparky,” he whispered into Steve’s hair as his laughter eased into a smile, and he pressed an affectionate kiss to Steve’s temple. “You really are my hero tonight.”

Steve’s expression pulled down in a slight frown, and in the end, he couldn’t resist asking, “Even though I got knocked out?”

“That could have been me,” Tony said truthfully, and there was a quiet tremble of hesitation in his voice that gave Steve pause. He blinked his eyes open, and despite the crazy headache that really insisted he not move, he looked up to try and understand Tony’s expression. To his surprise, all he found was genuine gratitude. “I mean it, Steve. Thank you.”

Steve eyed him critically in silence for a second or two before the corner of his mouth turned up a little smile. “You’re welcome, Tony.”

***

Steve insisted that he was alright, and that Tony had no reason to worry, but Tony wouldn’t have any of it. He towed them back to Steve’s place within the hour, invited himself in and helped Steve get comfortable on the couch before dashing into the kitchen to raid the freezer.

“Here, take this,” Tony returned with a bag of frozen broccoli wrapped in a hand towel, and he gently pressed it against Steve’s face until Steve understood and brought his hand up to cooperate.

“Is that alright, or is it too cold?”

“You bein’ ridiculous,” Steve mumbled, his words muffled by the bag of broccoli pressed against his face.

Tony pursed his lips to keep from grinning at Steve’s unusually pouty voice, and instead made a show of rolling his eyes. “You’re ridiculous,” he teased, easing himself onto the couch beside Steve.

He snuggled in close, and with an arm draped over Steve’s shoulders, he held the bag of frozen broccoli against the swelling on Steve’s cheek while combing his fingers through Steve’s hair with the other, rubbing and gently scratching at his scalp from time to time.

Slowly, Steve started to relax in his arms. Eventually, his eyes slipped shut, and his head relaxed back against the shared support of Tony’s arm and the firm couch pillows. For the first time since the one-sided fight in the theater lobby, Tony had the relative privacy to take a breath and re-evaluate.

He couldn’t have predicted that mountain of a man, or how aggressive he was, but he shouldn’t have discounted the possibility. And Steve—irritated, but dutiful Steve—who clearly was as unhappy with Tony’s behavior as the violent giant, had still gotten up to defend him.

He never meant to put someone in harm’s way, and especially not a man who was trying to make this budding relationship work. Steve, who was too mature to play games, who would call him with well-thought out dates that were genuinely fun and exciting, and not predictable fast-track lanes into his pants. Steve, who probably wouldn’t have been jealous enough to kiss him without consent if he hadn’t been flirting with Amanda, or wouldn’t be balling up his fists and clenching his jaw if Tony wasn’t purposefully pushing his buttons. Steve, who was handsome and well off, but worked hard and showed interest in learning about Tony’s work.

What had he been thinking? Steve was a good man; a man Tony should have been thrilled to date given half a chance. And here he was, actively trying to push him away for a column.

Steve snuffled softly and brought Tony back to the present. It almost hurt to look at him, with his handsome face and smooth skin, and his long eyelashes fanning over his cheek. The memory of that cracking punch that sent Steve reeling backwards, his disorientated, startled expression when Tony had caught him and held him in his arms, and the swollen, purpleing bruise on Steve’s face made Tony sick to his stomach with guilt.

“You hungry, Steve?” Tony whispered into Steve’s hair, hoping he wouldn’t wake the man if he’d already fallen asleep.

“Mmmno,” Steve mumbled in reply. “Jus’sleepy.”

Tony whispered something in the affirmative, nuzzling Steve’s hair affectionately before pressing a soft kiss to his forehead. Steve shifted against him, then settled with a content sigh, and in that moment, it occured to Tony that in some twisted way, this was maybe the first sincere interaction they had had since they met.

He distracted himself the best he could. He looked around Steve’s place again, this time with the hazy light of dusk throwing the open floor plan of the apartment into a dream-like relief. Steve’s living room was bigger than Tony’s apartment: the couch could have comfortably seated eight adults with room to spare, and even so, there were two additional armchairs for more guests. There was no TV in the living room, and where one might have expected a TV, there was a grand piano instead, beautiful and well-kept like the day it was made.

A variety of framed artwork decorated the scant wallspace available between the arched, floor to ceiling windows, everything from vibrant oil paintings to charcoal sketches of figures in motion. Healthy plants of all shapes and sizes added an inviting warmth, turning the unnaturally attractive apartment into a home.

Everything had its place and its purpose. The only thing Tony couldn’t figure out was the eight foot tall mirror in a beautiful, gilded frame, propped up against the corner wall behind the couch. There was enough space between the couch and the wall that Tony couldn’t have reached it even if he tried, but that didn’t mean he understood why a tired, morose reflection of himself was judging him through the mirror.

Out of nowhere, the unusual silence of the room was disturbed by a quiet vibration of noise. Tony glanced around the room, careful not to displace Steve or wake him up, and finally noticed Steve’s phone flashing with a series of new incoming text messages on the table.

He really shouldn’t have touched it - by now, he should have known better.

He picked it up anyway.

RECEIVED FROM CARTER @ 19:56 >
Suggested menu: Jalepeno Scramble, Fried Chicken, Avocado toast. Drinks: Eastside. Dessert: Sour cherry pie.

RECEIVED FROM CARTER @ 19:53 >
If breakfast fails tomorrow, Bubby’s: http://www.bubbys.com/menu/tribeca/

RECEIVED FROM CARTER @ 19:46 >
Confirmed Foster for Ellen. Danielle Yin manuscript received and under review. Finalized Sitwell transition, re-assigned his work. Priorities on my desk for your oversight, final five accounts distributed to Wilson and Lang as you wanted.

Tony didn’t know whether to be touched or a little hurt that Steve had an assistant helping him plan their dates. Either way, it made him feel like dirt. While he spent his time planning ways to make Steve’s life miserable, Steve was actively trying to treat him to memorable dates.

RECEIVED FROM CARTER @ 20:01 >
Got that airhead in the sack yet? I deserve a raise for all this extra work.

Then again, maybe he wasn’t.

***

Steve woke up the next morning and found himself in bed, undressed to his boxers. His head was throbbing, and half his face felt tight and weird, and about the same time he realized someone was in bed next to him. Was it possible that last night hadn’t just been a terrible dream? Had he been punched in the face at a screening of Batman Returns? Had Tony taken care of him all night, waking him up every two hours to be sure there were no lasting symptoms of his injury?

A bottle of water and some Tylenol in a shot glass were waiting for him on his nightstand. He touched his face cautiously, and the soreness tripled with the faintest touch. So, it hadn’t been a nightmare after all. He helped himself to two pills as soon as he could wrench the water bottle open, and he finished half the bottle before turning to see if Tony was awake.

Beside him, Tony was so tightly wound in the bed sheets that Steve couldn’t see much more than his hair and forehead on the pillow. He seemed to be fast asleep, and Steve couldn’t bring himself to wake him up. It was Saturday morning, and if his next plan was to treat Tony to breakfast, why not surprise him with it?

He threw together the sugar, oil, and milk, and brought it all nearly to boil before cutting the heat. That, he could leave to cool in its own time, so he went to the bathroom to get washed up, then paused at his computer to go through his emails and address all of Sharon’s questions before sitting back with a manuscript he hadn’t gotten to finish the day before.

The rest of the hour passed without interruption, and it wasn’t until Steve was beating the maple frosting together and the whole house smelled of coffee, sugar, and cinnamon that Tony finally shuffled out of the bedroom.

His hair was in wild disarray, he had pulled his jeans and (probably) Steve’s shirt on before stepping out. He was still rubbing sleep out of his eyes when he came around with small, drowsy steps, following his nose directly to the kitchen. Tony draped himself against Steve’s side and nuzzled into his neck with a playful little rumble.

“How’d you sleep, Tony?” Steve asked, watching Tony with curious interest. The way he clung and cuddled, the soft little sounds he made, it all painted a picture of childlike innocence that Steve couldn’t quite believe.

Tony hummed something in reply, and though Steve didn’t distinguish any words, there was a positive lilt to his voice that translated into high praise. Eventually, Tony picked up his head to perch his chin on Steve’s shoulder. “How’s your face, boo?”

“Swelling’s down, the headache is better. Thank you for the Tylenol,” he added, “there’s coffee, if you’d like some. Just made it. Orange juice is in the fridge, help yourself.”

Tony pressed a kiss to the back of Steve’s neck, and despite himself, he shuddered with delight. While Tony was distracted with coffee, Steve took a moment to steady himself, to remind himself of why this was something he needed, not something he wanted. This was no time for romance, this was all hinging on the end game.

He pulled out the pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven and sat it down on the marble counter. Giving the frosting a final few turns with the whisk, he turned it out over the pan to all but drown the rolls in the maple frosting.

There was a sudden gasp and a deep, guttural groan from somewhere behind him, and he looked over his shoulders to see Tony staring, wide-eyed at what he was making.

Oh. My. God,” he sobbed, stalking to Steve’s side immediately as if hypnotized by the rolls. “What is—is that what I think it is? You’re—oh, god, Steve.”

“I hope those are good sounds,” Steve said with a quiet laugh, and he offered the spatula for Tony to lick clean.

“No!” Tony cried, immediately shying back from the rolls and the spatula dripping with freshly made maple frosting. “Damnit, that looks amazing, Steve, but I can’t.”

Steve froze where he stood and stared back, his face stony. “You can’t what?”

“I—I can’t,” Tony repeated, and he was so agitated that he couldn’t seem to decide where to put his hands; first on his hips, then crossed at his chest, then gesturing wildly at the magic Steve had created, until finally he pushed his fingers through his hair with a long whine. “I, I don’t eat sweets. Weight loss diet.”

Steve blinked once, feeling so blindsided and so confused he didn’t know what to say. All he could do was give Tony a critical once-over, but he couldn’t understand where, exactly, Tony was trying to lose weight.

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am,” Tony said with a wry twist of his lips, but he couldn’t quite meet Steve’s eyes when he said it. “It’s been so long, and, well, eating sugar makes me sick. I’m sorry, Steve. It’s… it’s fucking gorgeous, I can’t tell you how badly I want to eat it.”

“Alright,” Steve eventually said, setting his jaw against the roar of disappointment and frustration, and instead he just pushed the pan aside and walked out of the kitchen before he said or did something he would regret.

“Oh, but you know what?” he heard Tony say only moments later, and Steve paused to brace himself before he snapped. Tony was already on the move to somewhere in the living room, which hopefully distracted him from how awkward Steve was behaving while processing this whole mess. “Someone was texting you last night, and I think I saw something with a breakfast recommendation.”

Steve’s hands balled up into fists. Through gritted teeth and a rising anger, he said, “You read my text messages?”

“I didn’t read them, it just started flashing on the table and I noticed,” Tony started to say, and he was on his way back with Steve’s phone in hand when the lock screen lit up and all the messages were on display again.

Tony stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the phone screen. Steve glared at him for so obviously reading the messages on the screen—private messages he had no right to read. He could feel his hackles rising, and that dam of righteous anger was buckling under the pressure of polite society.

He was just about to snap at Tony to mind his own damn business when Tony beat him to the punch.

“Steve,” he said in a tight voice, “do you call me an airhead behind my back?”

All at once, the fight died in Steve’s chest. Blood drained from his face, and he stared at Tony’s hurt, angry expression in shock.

He was never supposed to know.

“I,” he stammered, but ironically, he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So, you do? You think I’m an airhead,” Tony repeated in a breathless voice. “I spilled water on you, and so you, what? Your shirt was so expensive you’re taking it out of my body?”

“No, Tony—please,” Steve promised, walking towards him to close the space between them, but Tony stumbled back, not letting Steve anywhere near him.

“Don’t,” Tony warned him, “don’t you touch me.”

Steve stopped and immediately backed off. “I don’t know what that text says, Tony,” he said in deliberately gentle and calm voice, “but, if it’s Carter, she’s my assistant. She happened to be with me when we first met. She, she’s the one who calls you that,” he clarified in his own defense.

“And you let her?! That’s just okay with you, for your assistant to call me a good for nothing?” Tony shouted without warning, and Steve startled so badly he had to clutch at his heart. Tony didn’t seem to notice, or maybe he did and he didn’t care, but he didn’t stop shouting. “What is—why,” he interrupted himself mid-speech with an unnatural calm, “no. What am I saying. No, this is over. We’re done. If that’s how you treat me, how you let others treat me, we’re done.”

He dropped Steve’s phone on the island counter, and without trying to get his things from Steve’s bedroom, he made a beeline for his shoes and his coat, and walked right out of Steve’s life.

Chapter Text

Steve raced out of the apartment after Tony, and by the grace of whoever was watching over him, he caught up to Tony before the elevator doors closed.

“Tony! Tony, please,” Steve choked out past the lump in his throat that seemed to know better. “Please, I’m sorry, it has—that is out of context, please.”

“What fucking context could possibly make that acceptable?” Tony demanded, glaring at him in a rage with his arms crossed tightly across his chest. He stood in the far corner of the elevator, as far from where Steve hovered in the doorway as he could be.

“It’s—I know how it sounds, I know,” Steve promised, casting around for ways to explain away the blunder. “I am so sorry, I’ll have her fired if that’s what yo—“

“What? No!” Tony all but shouted at him, though it wasn’t shocking enough to get Steve to release the elevator doors. “Don’t fire your assistant, she’s not the fucking problem! You are clearly okay with someone calling me an airhead, Steve: you are the problem.”

“I, I was wrong, I was so wrong,” Steve agreed, “after last night, after you took care of me; Tony, please. I didn’t know what I have, I didn’t appreciate you. I was frustrated and couldn’t see how, how generous and kind you are. Please, Tony? Give me another chance.”

“You can’t even hear how entitled you are, can you?” Tony said after a long beat of silence, his voice lowered and his lips curled back in distaste. “You can’t even ask me to forgive you, you demand that I forgive you.”

Steve blinked at him wildly, trying to make sense of what had just happened. To have anyone accuse him of misunderstanding the English language was the last thing he had expected. “I—what?”

“You’re an editor. You can’t hear the difference?” Tony asked, and as angry as he was, there was a pitying weight to his words. “There is a difference between ‘give me another chance,’ and ‘could you give me another chance.’”

“It’s more concise, it’s—”

“Fuck you, it’s entitlement,” Tony said, cutting him off. But this wasn’t the hill Steve intended to die on, so he nodded and made a show of accepting Tony’s conclusion.

“Please, please, could you give me one more chance to show you how much you mean to me?” Steve said then, lowering his voice in deference.

“You’re a good guy, Steve, sometimes. I enjoy spending time with you,” Tony admitted quietly, almost reluctantly. “But if you can’t tell how your behavior makes me feel, these little ways you have to make me feel second-rate, or somehow inferior to you? Less important than you? Why should I expect better from you when you just don’t get it?”

“Then please, tell me how I can get it, or—show me how I can learn,” Steve rushed to say, “please, if it’s books to read or people to talk to, I’ll do anything. Couples therapy, or—”

“Therapy?” Tony echoed quietly in surprise, and Steve felt a little uncomfortable by the sudden spark of curiosity in his eyes. “You would do that, you’d go with me to couples therapy?”

Steve did his best not to look as queasy as he felt when he nodded and promised, “Anything, Tony.”

“I know someone,” Tony said then in a slow, thoughtful voice. “He comes highly recommended. We’ll go to him and talk, and, and hear what recommendations he has. If he thinks this is something we can work on, and you are willing to work on it… okay. One chance.”

“Thank you, Tony,” Steve exhaled with palpable relief, “I, I won’t let you down. Day or night, Tony. Whatever is available, as soon as possible, schedule it and I will be there.”

***

An immediate crisis meeting was called in Tony’s apartment that afternoon. Bruce brought the booze, and Thor brought more booze.

“Wait, I’m confused,” Bruce said slowly around the rim of his glass of whiskey. He had finished drinks one and two while Tony recapped the day before, the shit he threw in the theater, and the next morning. Three Drink Bruce was far more eager about interactive conversations than any other Bruce. “You… said agreed?”

“You got some good dicking, didn’t you?” Four Drink Thor teased obnoxiously in a loud sing-song. “Works every time! You know, there was this one time—”

“No!” Bruce and Tony shouted as one, startling Thor into silence. The stricken look of betrayal in his big, watery eyes made startling a drunk Thor feel like kicking a puppy, but given the circumstances they didn’t have time for his recounting of any glorious sexcapades.

“Suit yourselves,” Thor pouted, curling his hands more protectively around his stein of tequila. “What do you know anyway? Too kinky for your Christian ears.”

“Alright, sure, let’s go with that,” Tony said with a note of relief, “but guys, I didn’t think he’d go for it. Couples therapy! This could be a gold mine!”

“No,” Bruce disagreed, shaking his head, but only once, because then the world started to spin a little too fast. “Listen, cause this is important, Tony: No.”

“Good, that’s good,” Thor seconded, “too big of a risk, an’ we’re on deadline. I mean, how’d you even know you’ll get good stuff?”

“Well,” Tony said slowly, cautiously, “wouldn’t be much of a risk if one of you pretended to be the ther—”

“—Me!” Thor announced with a sudden boom, making Tony jolt upright and nearly knocking Bruce to the floor. “I’ll do it!”

“Love the enthusiasm,” Tony said sincerely once his heart stop racing, then turned to Bruce. “Bruce… can you do this for me? Help me out.”

“I don’t know,” Bruce said with a small frown, and it was his turn to huddle into his drink as if he could hide in it. “I don’t like the pressure… no, I don’t—I don’t like that.”

“Come on, man, you’d be great! And you already look the part,” Tony whined softly, pouting and batting his biggest puppy dog eyes at Bruce in the hopes it would work.

I can look the part,” Thor insisted, clearly offended. “Therapists can be tall and sexy, with fire in their loins!”

“I have fire in my loins!” Bruce shouted back in his own defense, and all Tony could do in for the next ninety seconds was regret his relative sobriety.

“Thor,” he said finally, waving his hands at them both to interrupt the sudden shouting match between his friends. “Just, just out of, I don’t know, morbid curiosity. Did you ever tell Jane about the fire in your loins?”

“It may have come up, on occasion,“ Thor replied, giving Tony a dubious look. “How come?”

“No reason,” Tony eventually said, because he really didn’t know what else to say. Instead, he turned back to Bruce. “Bruce, please. Help me get him: help me make him uncomfortable as hell. A man like that will hate to be told what he’s doing wrong in life.”

“No, Tony, I don’t think—no, I can’t lie like that, Tony. Makes me feel... squirmy? No, I’m, I’m good, it’s not for me.”

Tony frowned and waited, waited and frowned, but Bruce wasn’t about to change his mind. Finally, Tony let out a long, heavy breath, then turned to Thor.

“Thor, if you’re still—”

“I am in!”

***

Tony, Bruce, and Thor spent the next afternoon transforming Thor’s apartment into something approaching a respectable home office. By the time they had to stop for Tony and Steve’s four o’clock appointment, the floors were polished, the shelves and tables were tidy, and natural light flooded his living room. They tucked fresh white sheets over the couch and the armchair, pinning the folds into place until they looked as good as new, then hid what they couldn’t fix under plush blankets and pillows from Bruce’s apartment.

“We should do this more often,” Thor decided as he looked around the inviting space he could barely recognize as his own.

“You probably should,” Bruce agreed, and Tony stretched to swat his arm. Bruce winced and momentarily stuck his bottom lip out. “Alright, I’m out. Meet back here at seven?”

“I’ll text if anything changes,” Tony agreed, calling after Bruce as he headed for the door. Then he turned to Thor, and asked, “You remember the plan, right?”

“Make him give up and dump you.”

“Well, yes,” Tony replied slowly, “but the questions, the questions about roles, beliefs. Patterns of behavior. You got them?”

Thor frowned, his pleasant expression suddenly dark and grave. “Do you take me for an imbecile, Stark?”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Tony mumbled quietly, dropping the issue before he lost his last ally. “I’ll go wait for him outside. He’s punctual, we shouldn’t be long.”

“I know what needs to be done. I’ll be ready.”

***

“I don’t know who the hell this ‘Barnes’ is, I’ve never heard of him in my life,” Steve was glowering into the phone. “This isn’t an entry level position. Who are his references? Damnit, Carter, how difficult is this? When I said clear out the inexperienced applicants, I meant it. I’m not going to waste my time with novice no-names—shit, I’m here,” he interrupted his own tirade. “I have to go. I don’t trust Hill, she hired Sitwell; vet the applicants yourself, and whomever you think is worth my time, schedule him or her at my place at 11:30am tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, boss,” Carter replied as steadily as she could, “I’ll get it done. Good—uh, good luck, sir.”

“Just get back to work,” was all he said before hanging up on her. He got out of the Uber and was thumbing over to his email to get some last minute work done, but unlike their dates, Tony was on time for their appointment and already waiting for him.

Steve jogged across the road, then came to an awkward stop in front of him. He tried to smile, but Tony only nodded in greeting.

“Thanks for making this appointment for us, Tony,” Steve said, and this time, Tony’s lips turned up in a shy smile.

“Thank you for being on time,” Tony replied, “you ready to go?”

“I’m right behind you.”

He let Tony lead the way, and he did his best to ignore the unexpectedly domestic building they were walking into, if questionably shabby. They trudged up the stairs in silence, until Tony led them down the hallway to a door with a new welcome mat.

A tall, broad man with long blond hair opened the door, wearing a red tunic and gold-wire glasses. Tony spun around in a coughing fit, and Steve reached out to gently pat him on the back.

“Mr. Stark, Mr. Rogers,” the doctor said with an inviting smile, and he stepped back to let them in. “It is a pleasure to meet you, gentlemen. I am Dr. Odinson.”

“Call me Steve. Thank you for seeing us on such short notice,” Steve replied while Tony tried to get over his cough.

“Tony made it clear that time was of the essence,” Dr. Odinson said as he led them through the apartment to a large, brightly lit office where a small couch had been made ready across from an armchair. “Please, have a seat.”

“We need help with our communication,” Tony started, and Steve turned to watch him talk and shift uneasily on the couch as calmly as he could manage.

“We will get there,” Dr. Odinson assured him, “but let us first develop a foundation. We will begin with you, Tony. Tell us about your family.”

Tony looked anything but reassured by the doctor’s suggestion, and stared openly at him for some time instead of answering the question.

“Uh, okay. Alright,” he sighed eventually. “I’m from Oklahoma, outside Tulsa. I moved up for college, been here ever since. Eight years now.”

“Your parents, are they still married?”

Tony all but glared at the doctor at that, then with slow, exact enunciation, he said,“They are.”

“Tony,” Dr. Odinson said gently, then making a show of crossing his legs and setting his pen down on his journal. “You were the one who wanted this appointment, were you not?”

“Yes, but—”

“Do you expect me to address your behavior without knowing anything about you? Why, you are both strangers to me,” Dr. Odinson pointed out, “I wouldn’t know you from Blanche, Rose, or Dorothy. Turner or Hooch. Now, we can sit here and look at each other’s noses as long as you like for 375 dollars an hour, but I do not believe that will solve any of your problems.”

Steve opened and closed his mouth when he heard the price, but before he could croak out a protest, Tony was speaking again.

“My mom is the town gossip, and my dad is a workaholic alcoholic. They disagree, but it’s never physical. Mom tells him what to do, and dad does what he wants when he can get away with it. I’ve… I never saw them together that often, growing up; she spends the day with the girls, and he’s out on the ranch or in his office.”

“Any siblings?”

Tony hesitated for a moment, glanced at Steve with a considering look, then quietly said, “A younger brother. He’s back at home. He likes the ranch life better than I ever did.”

“Good, thank you for sharing with us, Tony,” Dr. Odinson said after jotting down some notes. Then, he turned to Steve. “And then you, Steve. Tell us about yourself and your family.”

“There isn’t much to tell,” Steve said with a shrug. “I don’t have any parents. I was a ward of the state until I turned 18. I moved to New York for my education, and I’ve never wanted to leave.”

Like an ant under a magnifying glass on a sunny day, Steve could feel Tony staring at him. He refused to turn, refused to look at anything but the eight thousand dollar watch on his wrist that assured him that time hadn’t stopped, and that he was still a safe man: a man of means.

The room was absolutely silent around him, and Steve cleared his throat in discomfort. Finally, to avoid stewing in the pitiful silence, he continued talking. “I haven’t actually done this, before.”

“Therapy?” Dr. Odinson asked in a gentle tone.

“A, no,” Steve replied, and finally he looked Tony’s way. Tony was still staring at him, unblinking with his lips slightly parted as if he had forgotten how to maintain his listening face. “A relationship.”

“Wait, you—”

“Tony, this is Steve’s turn to share,” Dr. Odinson said in a stern tone of voice. “Please, show him the same courtesy he showed you. Steve, what were successful methods of communicating what you needed when you were growing up?”

Steve frowned a little at the question and leaned back in the couch to think it over. His plan to be as open as possible about everything but his citizenship had been more plausible in theory; to put the plan into effect, to say these words out loud in front of strangers, it all made his skin crawl now that it mattered most.

He glanced at Tony, but the visceral sympathy and heartache on Tony’s face only made Steve more uncomfortable. A part of him wanted to shout at him that he wasn’t that weird—he was just a foster kid. There were over four-hundred thousand of those in United States alone, and that was by conservative estimates. He wasn’t some freak to pity.

He looked away and took a deep breath to steady himself. “Formal decisions. Communicating with the court when I wanted to join an internship intended for older students. My social workers. They didn’t treat me like I’m different.”

Dr. Odinson hummed quietly in understanding. “Do people often treat you like you are different?”

Steve frowned at the question and, without thinking, his gaze turned to Tony. Tony blinked back at him, then gasped softly and looked away immediately when he realized how he’d been staring. “I don’t tell many people, because when I do, yes. I am treated differently.”

“Thank you, Steve. Then, let us take a step back,” Dr. Odinson said calmly, clearing his throat and taking a moment to consult his notes before he spoke again. “What I am hearing from you both are tendencies to keep people at a distance.”

“What the hell?” Tony muttered, mostly to himself. Steve frowned a little at the unexpected response, because of all reactions Tony might have had, Steve had not expected him to be impatient or upset. Though, given the cost of this consultation, Steve could sympathize.

“What? What the hell did I say—”

“You described your mother as a town gossip,” Dr. Odinson spoke over him, “and your father as neglectful of both yourself and his wife.”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“And how does that make you feel, Tony?”

Tony outright glared at their therapist, his fingers balling into fists against his knees, and for a moment Steve braced himself to grab him in case Tony tried to take a swing at Dr. Odinson.

“—Annoyed! You and all of your questions are making me feel annoyed.”

“Take a moment, Tony,” Dr. Odinson said in a deep, soothing rumble. “Calm yourself. Consider the question with care.”

Tony made a strangled sound and leaned back in his seat, leaning most of his weight against the armrest and glaring at the far wall. Steve could so easily imagine the veritable steam coming out of his ears, and he tried not to laugh at how agitated Tony was getting with his own plan.

Served him right.

“Fine,” Tony eventually spat out. “Sure. Maybe I keep people at a distance until I get to know them.”

“Who was the last person that you, as you describe, ‘got to know’?” Dr. Odinson asked gently.

Tony pursed his lips in frustration, glanced down at his own shoes for some time. When he looked up at Dr. Odinson again, he quietly said, “My ex. Eight years ago.”

Dr. Odinson nodded and scratched some notes down for his reference. “To be clear, you have not been in a relationship in which you trusted your partner for eight years?”

“If that’s—whatever,” Tony said, all but throwing his hands up in defeat. “I wouldn’t say it like that, but sure.”

“And how does that—”

“—Do not ask me how that makes me feel!” Tony snapped, but Dr. Odinson only closed his mouth, gave Tony a moment of peace, then tried again.

“By your own account, you have not met anyone whom you are willing to trust in eight years. In all the time you have been away from home,” Dr. Odinson summarized. “How does that make you feel, Tony?”

Tony’s jaws worked in agitation, and when he spoke his lips curled back in distaste, as if he didn’t want anything to do with the words he said. “It makes me feel great! Okay? It’s no big deal. It makes me feel really great,” Tony said through his gritted teeth, “I’m free to be who I want, where I want to be. For the first time in my life, I get to be myself without answering to anyone. Does that answer your question, Dr. Odinson?

“I will give you some time to collect yourself, Tony,” Dr. Odinson said in his low, soothing rumble, before turning to Steve. “You have already said that this is your first serious relationship, Steve. You care enough about Tony to attend couples therapy. Could you tell me what it is about Tony that made you interested in pursuing a relationship?”

“He is the first man whom I have met who feels like an equal,” Steve said without much trouble. Evidently, unlike Tony, Steve knew how to prepare for a meeting. “He is someone I feel I could speak to, and share my thoughts with without needing to explain myself. My career is important to me, and my sense is that his career is important to him,” Steve added, looking at Tony then, giving him a chance to interrupt if he wanted to. But Tony only watched Steve with a curious and mildly confused expression. “I respect that in a partner. He is kind to strangers, and when I needed him, he was there for me, without being asked. I could learn from him; I could be better, with him.”

“That was well articulated, Steve. Tony, how does that make you feel?”

“Give me a break!” Tony cried, more in surprise than in anger. “If that's how you feel, why do you make me feel like I’m an idiot half the time we're together?”

Steve looked at him and, with a straight face, asked, “You mean when you talk and chew loudly in theaters until you get me punched in the face? Or, when you invade my personal space without permission?”

“What? You kissed me without permission—”

“Gentlemen, please,” Dr. Odinson said in an effort to rein in the conversation. Neither Steve nor Tony paid him any attention.

“You were about to kiss someone else on our first date!”

“And you knew about your assistant calling me derogatory names, and you did nothing about it!”

Dr. Odinson stood up in a sudden rush. “Gentlemen!” he roared, looming over them in a way that reminded Steve that he was only a mortal man. “This is getting out of hand. Will you calm yourselves?”

Neither Tony nor Steve made another sound, and soon Dr. Odinson felt comfortable to sit down in his armchair again, settling down with his notepad and his pen.

“Tony, you sound skeptical of Steve’s expressed interest in you,” Dr. Odinson said, and Steve cleared his throat to interrupt him.

“In his defense,” Steve said once he had both of their attention, “I recognize that I have no experience.”

Dr. Odinson looked confused for a while, but as understanding dawned, he blurted out, “Are you saying you are a virgin, Steve?”

Tony hung his head and looked away, and Steve looked up in alarm, the blood drained from his face.

“Not… that kind of experience, no,” Steve said under his breath once he recovered. “Communication. You’re right, Tony,” he said, turning to address Tony directly. “I feel uncomfortable when people stare at me for being different, for standing out. And when they do it because of something you do, then it is difficult for me to—to not be frustrated with you. But I don’t know how to say that in the moment, when I’m angry, in an effective way.”

“So you make me feel like shit instead?”

“I don’t mean to,” Steve replied in a strained voice.

“You treat me like you’re embarrassed by me, Steve,” Tony insisted, closing the opportunities for Steve to weasel his way out of the argument. “You can’t care about me and also be embarrassed by me on the sly. Life doesn’t work like that.”

“I believe what Steve is trying to tell you, Tony,” Dr. Odinson said then, “is that he does not know how ‘life,’ as you say, ‘works.’ He is here to learn how. But you, Tony, who have not trusted anyone to get to know you in eight years: Are you willing to make that journey with him?”

“This is unbelievable,” Tony muttered under his breath, unable to even meet Dr. Odinson’s eyes. The room fell into silence for some time as Tony thought, Steve waited, and Dr. Odinson watched them squirm.

“Fine,” Tony finally decided, quietly at first, but more clearly as he gained momentum. “You want to get to know me, Steve? You want to learn how to communicate with me? Sure thing: let’s do it. We’ll go to Oklahoma, we’ll go to the ranch, and you can learn everything you’d ever want to know about me and who I am. Meet the family, meet the cows. Bumfuck Nowhere, Oklahoma.”

Steve watched him, struggling to keep up with the sudden left turn this conversation had taken. But, if he was sticking this out, if he was going to convince Tony to marry him by the end of the week, what choice did he have?

“If that is something you sincerely want to do with me,” he said in a measured voice, “if that is what it takes to get to know you, Tony, then yes, let’s do it. I will go with you to Oklahoma.”

***

“Could we… talk? In private,” Tony asked as they stepped out of Dr. Odinson’s building, speaking in a measured voice, as if he was worried speaking at his normal speed might spook Steve somehow. “My place, your place, either way.”

Steve’s instinct said no. Steve’s instinct said run away.

“Yeah,” Steve replied despite his better judgement, already reaching for his phone to call for a car. “My place?”

“That’s good,” Tony agreed, happy to stand on the curb with his hands in his pockets to wait for the their lift. Some time passed before he looked up at Steve again and said, “You didn’t have to pay for the whole session, you know.”

“I was the one who asked to do it, it was only fair,” Steve assured him.

Tony smiled back, warm and genuine. And then, he started grinning and shaking his head, as if confounded by some thought. By the time the car arrived, Tony had turned from Steve and was giggling to himself with his hands over his face.

“Tony? This is us,” Steve said gently, but Tony still jumped at the sound of his voice and spun around in surprise. His eyes were watery and red, but his lips twitched upwards in his anxious grin.

“Us?” Tony repeated in a whisper, but if he had meant to continue and say something else, he was interrupted by the realization that their car was waiting for them. With a self-deprecating roll of his eyes and a quick thanks, he got into the car and let Steve shut the door behind him.

They rode back to Steve’s place and up the elevator in silence, but the moment the door closed behind them in the apartment, Tony spun on his heel to face Steve.

“Okay, so, I know it’s totally ominous and obnoxiously cliche, but: we need to talk,” he said up front. “You should sit down.”

Steve blinked back at him for a minute, frozen in the act of shrugging out of his jacket. “Is this where you tell me you’re already married? Two-point-five kids, house in Hoboken?”

“First of all, how dare you?” Tony tried to say with a straight face, but the moment Steve raised his brows in a further challenge, his offended facade started to slip into a delighted burst of snickering. “New Jersey, Steven? Really?”

Steve grinned with genuine amusement, finally slipping out of his jacket to hang it up in the closet along with Tony’s. “Well, you made it sound serious,” he said in his own defense. “Make yourself comfortable, I’ll be right there. Drink?”

“Water, please,” Tony called after him, and he toed his shoes off and made himself comfortable in the corner section of the couch by the time Steve came back with two water bottles and sat down beside him.

“I’m officially sitting down and listening,” he prompted, taking a drink from his own bottle.

“I need to tell you some things,” Tony said in a nervous rush, then cleared his throat and tried again. “Three things. Important things. They’re not all good things, so get ready to be mad, but if you could hear me out before you got really mad, it won’t exactly get any better but maybe it’ll be easier; actually, you know what? I can just leave—”

“Tony,” Steve reached for his hand before Tony got more than halfway off the couch, and with a gentle squeeze and a tug, he convinced Tony to sit back down. “It can’t be that bad. We’re working on communication, right?”

Tony stared at his water bottle for a few moments, pursing his lips in thought. Then, with a cautious hope, he looked up to meet Steve’s eyes. “Did you mean it?” he asked carefully, as if the thought itself was frightening. “What you said to, uh—Dr. Odinson, about why, why you’re willing to do this? Be in a relationship with me.”

At first, Steve only knew to nod in reply. He had expected this kind of reaction in the moment at Dr. Odinson’s office, when he first shared his practiced rationale for why he wanted to be with Tony. Now, in a more intimate and unstructured context, he wasn’t so sure what to do with Tony’s unexpected vulnerability.

“I did,” he said eventually. “I do.”

“You really mean it?” Tony repeated, and received the same response from Steve. “You’re sure?”

“Hey, how many times do you need to hear me say it before you believe me, Tony? What’s on your mind?”

Tony glanced down at his hands again, this time busying himself by rubbing his thumb over the plastic label on the bottle until it came loose and peeled away.

“I liked what you said,” Tony admitted in a whisper. “I wanted it to be true.”

“What—what do you mean?” Steve stammered, momentarily breathless. He was bracing himself and gearing up for insisting that it was true, and why would Tony doubt him, but then Tony looked him in the eyes again and derailed Steve’s defensive rant in one breath.

He didn’t look angry. He looked miserable, and very guilty.

“I haven’t been honest with you, Steve,” he said then, struggling to keep eye-contact. “Look, I’m—I wasn’t looking for anyone the night we met, alright? I wasn’t looking for anything serious; definitely didn’t think I’d find someone outside some bar in Tribeca. But, if you’re willing to give this—me, whatever—a chance, I would like to—to, uh. Give this a chance. Time. Water, sunlight.”

Steve peered at him, then shook his head slowly as he eventually gave up on trying to make sense of what Tony had said. “You lost me, Tony.”

“Ironic, that’s what I’m trying not to do,” Tony muttered to himself, then with a big sigh, he sat up, braced himself, and said, “I wasn’t looking for something serious because I’m writing an article on failing relationships, and I needed someone to date briefly and then push away so that I could write about it in the article—but! But,” he added as Steve’s expression started morphing from shock to horror, “I, I’m kicking myself, I—Steve, listen: I genuinely like you, and I know I haven’t been fair or honest with you, but if—if you meant what you said, and if you’re still, uh, still interested in me after… after this, you’re worth it. To me. So, that’s it. Full disclosure. All the cards on the table, no more secr—”

“Tony. Stop talking.”

Tony shut his mouth in the middle of his rambling, and as miserable as he looked, there was a glimmer of gratitude in his eyes.

Steve couldn’t stomach looking at him. In the moments when he had been sprawled, hapless and concussed on the theater floor; when Tony held him and helped ease his pain with gentle fingers and laughing words; when he had woken up after a night of attentive care and medicine at his fingertips, Steve had dared to imagine that Tony was different.

Turned out, he was only another disappointment.

But unlike the other people who haunted Steve’s past, Steve needed Tony. Steve had already invested too much time and too much effort to turn his attention elsewhere. By the end of the day, he would only have nine days left to get married and save his career.

Too desperate to scream and fight, and too hurt to think clearly, Steve held his head in his hands, gripping fistfuls his hair while he tried to maintain his composure.

Seconds turned to minutes, and eventually, Tony must have lost his limited patience. “Steve? Say something, please,” he whispered, leaning after him. Steve could feel the warmth of his hand hovering just over his shoulder, and it was almost as infuriating as if he had been touched.

“You lied to me. You used me,” Steve heard himself mutter.

“I never meant for it to be this way,” Tony promised, even pulling his hands back to firmly plant them on his knees before he made a grab for him. “I swear, it was—it was meant to be quick, two dates, maybe three; it wasn’t supposed to be—”

“Was that why you laughed at me?” Steve hissed, sitting up straight to use his height and size advantage to glare down at Tony with all his raging resentment. “When we got out of Dr. Odinson’s office—”

“No! No, Steve,” Tony promised immediately, “I was laughing at me, I wouldn’t laugh at you.”

“How stupid do—”

“Steve, I swear,” Tony whispered emphatically, “I was laughing at me. Six years, do you understand? Six years I’ve been dating, and nothing. No-one stood out. But two fake dates with you? The first time I wasn’t supposed to get attached? Come on! The definition of irony, you know how crazy—but Steve, I’ve had more fun with you; watching you freaking out over the Rangers? I could barely watch the game, you—”

Oh, my God! You made me miss the game winning goal in overtime to mess with me?”

Tony’s words died on his lips, and he could only stare back at him, floundering, momentarily mute.

“You were supposed to dump me by date three,” Tony told him then, with an unusual calm. “You were supposed to get mad. You were supposed to curse me out; call me selfish, ungrateful.”

“You are!”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Tony cried, then shut his mouth and ran a hand through his hair. When he seemed to have pulled himself together, he continued. “I know I was an asshole. I was hurtful and manipulative. A liar.”

Steve frowned at him, flustered by where the conversation was going. Tony couldn’t possibly expect him to defend him after all the shit he pulled.

“Damn right you are.”

“I was, Steve. I was,” he insisted, lowering his voice to a gentler tone. “You asked me for a second chance yesterday. I’m asking you for a second chance today.”

Steve set his jaw to keep all the words he wanted to shout from reaching Tony’s ears. In his lingering silence, he could so clearly see the spark of Tony’s delusional hope fade in his eyes.

“I’m not going to beg, Steve,” he finally said. “I know I treated you like shit, even when you continuously treated me with respect. Give me a chance to show you I’m a better person than what you’ve seen these past four days.”

Steve wanted to say no. He knew better than to expose himself to worse.

“The second chance you gave me wasn’t genuine, Tony,” Steve reminded him, quietly. “You were going to use that conversation for your article. I shared parts of my life with you that I, that I don’t tell people, Tony. I trusted you.”

With those words, Tony closed his eyes. He hung his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, then let a slow breath out. “For the record,” he said calmly, the hopeful zeal of seconds earlier extinguished. “The game was up when you said you were a foster kid.”

Without another word, Tony pushed his way off the deep, plush, and entirely too comfortable couch. He placed the water bottle on the coffee table and picked up his loafers, and walked himself out.

Steve should have let him go, but somehow, that was no longer a choice he was willing to make.

“That’s it?” Steve called after him. Against the silent backdrop of the evening, his voice carried a startling punch, and Tony turned with his hand on the door handle to look back like he was bracing himself for the worst.

“You can’t even ask me to give you another chance,” Steve asked, his lip curling up in a smirk of satisfaction as he saw recognition dawn on Tony’s face. “You demand that I give you another chance?”

Tony stared at him in open shock, but he couldn’t seem to move. “What does that mean?” he finally asked, only loud enough to be heard in the silence between them.

“It means, if you are willing to be yourself with me, and keep our relationship out of your article, then I have some vacation days I could spare,” Steve replied. “Would five days be enough?”

“I—yes,” Tony stammered clumsily, “five days is plenty.”

“Then, why don’t you stay, Tony? We have a lot to talk about.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Tony woke up feeling better rested than he had all week. Clearing his conscience, the decision to prioritize someone special over a career move, and the relief that his feelings were reciprocated, it was all almost too good to be true.

He glanced to his right and found Steve still sleeping on his side of the bed. In the privacy of his own home, Steve was a different sight to behold than he was in public. Out in the world, a hair was never out of place; his clothes, his shoes, and his accessories were striking and elegant. With his manicured hands and his perfectly styled hair, he looked more like a model stepping off the cover of GQ than an average man in the real world.

If he was striking and elegant in public, he was breathtaking in private. In the hazy hours before dawn, with the world kept at bay beyond his bedroom door, the alert tension in his posture and flawless presentation gave way to loose limbs and soft hair. Asleep and carefree, the man was almost too beautiful to look at, with his long eyelashes, full bottom lip, and strong jawline. Tony was mesmerized, and would have been happy to continue cataloging the minute changes he could see in Steve’s existence as a private and a public man for hours on end.

Instead, Tony pushed himself up and out of bed. It was the crack of dawn, and he had work to do before he risked Steve waking up.

Tony took a moment to wash his face and brush his teeth before settling in on Steve’s enviable couch with his phone. He had emails to address, news to read, and he had almost finished drafting his out of office autoresponder when Steve shuffled out of the bedroom in nothing but his boxer briefs and a navy blue silk robe.

“You’re up early,” he mumbled, his voice still husky with sleep.

“Good morning to you, too,” Tony grinned up at him, and as Steve made his way to the couch, he tossed his phone aside and shifted his position to make space for Steve beside him. Steve didn’t need to be told twice. He sat down on the couch, sprawled comfortably between the large, plush cushions and the firm lines of Tony’s body.

“You’re gorgeous first thing in the morning, anyone ever tell you?” Tony whispered, brushing the soft, blond hair back from Steve’s face where it fell into his eyes, and he bowed his head to press a gentle kiss to the purple bruise still marring his temple. Thankfully, the swelling was no longer noticeable.

Steve rumbled deep in his throat in reply, turning where he lay until his cheek was pillowed on Tony’s thigh, and he had an arm curled over Tony’s leg to hold him close. His open palm rested against Tony’s inner thigh with a light touch.

“This feels surreal,” Tony whispered with a smile, running blunt nails across Steve’s scalp and neck in absent little patterns. “I must be dreaming.”

Steve pressed his lips together in a blatant attempt to resist smiling back, but it shone through all the same, his whole face warming as he smiled. He tried to hide his face against Tony’s leg, and Tony laughed before he could help himself, tugging gently on his hair to encourage Steve to bring his smile out of hiding.

It didn’t take much coaxing before Steve obliged him, rolling onto his side and smiling up at Tony. “You’re not dreaming, Tony,” he whispered, if a little distracted, and soon he was reaching up to run his fingers through Tony’s otherworldly bedhead before dropping his hand in Tony’s lap again.

“Not from where I’m sitting.”

Steve’s smile faded momentarily as he watched Tony’s face in thought. He reached for Tony’s t-shirt with two fingers and gave it a playful little tug. “Then, would you like me to show you what a real dream feels like?”

Tony openly stared; he couldn’t believe his ears. This was, without question, more than he could have hoped for two days ago. There was a momentary hesitation stemming from suspicion and cynicism, because something wasn’t right. This Adonis in his lap, with his broad shoulders and stunning pecs, should know better. Except, nobody knew what was right for Steve better than Steve, and if he felt that Tony could be part of what was right for Steve, Tony only intended to be grateful.

“Baby, you can show me anything you’d like.”

Steve didn’t acknowledge his response at first. He gazed up at Tony instead, as if searching for an answer other than what Tony had given him. Tony found himself unable to look away. Gently, he curled his fingers against Steve’s cheek, sweeping his thumb reverently over Steve’s temple.

Without a word, without any effort, Steve rolled up and off the couch to land on his knees in front of Tony. Tony stared down at him shamelessly, momentarily stunned by the look of desire in his eyes, and the way the silk robe framed his strong shoulders and his sculpted chest. A gentle squeeze of Tony’s knee brought him back to the present, and it was all the encouragement Tony needed; he obliged Steve easily by spreading his legs to make room for him between his thighs. Steve’s swept his hands under Tony’s legs, pulling him forward and positioning him just as he liked. Tony sat up to pull his own t-shirt off over his head; Steve stretched up on his knees and took Tony by the chin, tugging gently and angling Tony’s head down for a kiss before he even registered tossing his shirt aside.

Steve kissed like he had a lifetime to spare, and Tony was all that mattered. At first, it was only an innocent touch of his lips, soft and imploring against Tony’s. Without pulling back, Steve wetted his lips, tasting Tony’s bottom lip as he did; Tony moaned with shamelessly and listed forward in eager pursuit, yielding at his first opportunity to Steve’s kiss.

They shared unhurried, indulgent kisses, each time pulling apart when their play got too heated so that they could ease off and try again. Tony quickly learned that Steve responded to gentle bites, but found ways to back off if there was too much tongue. He wanted to drive, that much became clear early on, and so eventually, Tony surrendered, encouraging Steve’s every touch.

Soon, every breath Tony could spare slipped away in short, gusting moans. A strong hand pushed against his right thigh, spreading his legs further apart, while another scraped insistent, blunt fingernails down his upper thigh, the first hint of Steve’s desire. Between his rough hands, and the fleeting tickle of the silk robe brushing over his skin, Tony shuddered and groaned into Steve’s mouth, and when Steve wrapped one hand around Tony’s hard cock to stroke him, firm and fast, through his briefs, the contrast of his touch to his tender, languid kisses had Tony’s eyes rolling back with pleasure and whimpering with need.

When Steve’s hands skimmed over Tony’s hips and slipped into his briefs to cup gluttonous handfuls of his ass, Tony arched up into his touch. It took a moment to realize Steve had more in mind than self-indulgent groping. Without hesitation, Tony draped his arms across Steve’s shoulders to help Steve lift, pressing himself against Steve’s body until Steve could push the briefs down and out of the way.

Steve laid him back against the firm back cushions of the couch. In his new, adjusted position, Tony reclined comfortably in a gentle backbend, and with one hand at the small of Tony’s back, Steve angled his hips up for himself, allowing Tony’s legs to naturally fall open. With a quick lift and sleight of hand, Steve slipped a cushion under Tony’s ass to keep him positioned just so.

“Don't move. Do not touch yourself,” he warned him in a low rumble, then, to Tony’s dismay, Steve got up and walked away. Tony stared after him, barely restraining himself from moaning his frustration in Steve’s absence. His cock ached and throbbed, and soon he needed to reach back to clutch at the couch cushions if he was going to resist touching himself.

Tony couldn’t have guessed whether seconds or minutes passed by, but eventually, Steve returned with a small tube in hand. He knelt before Tony’s cock, and Tony squirmed as he watched Steve rubbing lube between his fingers, taking the time to warm it up before touching Tony again.

Steve skimmed his clean hand up and down Tony’s flank to soothe him, rubbing the heel of his palm over Tony’s nipple, then pinching and rolling it between his thumb and forefinger until Tony arched up and mewled. Tony clutched at Steve’s hair, lightly tugging as he moaned and garbled demands for Steve to hurry it up, to touch him, because he needed more—but his words died with a sudden hiss as Steve dug his fingertips into the firm muscle of Tony’s chest and scraped five faint, red lines across his chest and abdomen.

While Tony eagerly rolled and arched up for more, distracted by his instinct to chase Steve’s touch and tugging more insistently at Steve’s hair, Steve wrapped his fingers around Tony’s cock one at a time, his touch so delicate and gentle that Tony didn’t feel his touch until his cock was guided against Steve’s spit-slick, closed lips. Tony’s body responded like a live wire, and he choked on air as Steve rubbed his lips around over the head of his cock, spreading his spit and the precum well before breaking the seam of his lips to slide the first inch of Tony’s cock into his mouth.

Steve concentrated only on the tip, turning the wet, warm suction of his mouth into a precise and dedicated pressure that left Tony sobbing with the need to thrust up into his mouth for more gratification, more friction. Steve anchored Tony’s hips firmly on the couch with one hand, where he massaged the base of Tony’s cock with his lube-slick fingers, even stroking slow, firm lines along the thick vein at the underside of his cock to help stave off the inevitable.

A sharp pinch and a firm tug at one nipple gave Tony another full-body jolt and had him crying with both pain and pleasure, distracting him for just a second when Steve pressed two slick fingers into him. His soft hiss of pain slurred and deepened into a full-throated groan at the tight but gratifying stretch, and soon his whole body rocked down with his hips eagerly pushing down to meet the confident, purposeful thrusts of Steve’s fingers.

It wasn’t long before Steve found his spot. Tony blinked his eyes open and sucked in a sudden gasping breath, watching Steve with tears in his eyes. Distantly, he prayed it was an accident, that Steve had only brushed against it by coincidence. But the way Steve was bent to his task, he was handling Tony’s body like a master at his instrument. His hands were everywhere, but never rushed or unsatisfying: his lubed palm rolled Tony’s balls wet and squeezed just hard enough to distract Tony from noticing when his other hand smoothed across his chest to pinch his other nipple, hard. How he managed to inflict such pain with only his fingers Tony couldn’t understand; his whole body arched and twisted, and he was still whimpering when Steve took him deep in his throat, gagging himself so his throat constricted around the length of Tony’s cock. Tony had nearly no air left when the orgasm tore through him, and breathlessly he cried out Steve’s name, fisting his hair desperately as his eyes rolled back into his head with overwhelming pleasure.

Soft, hapless words of gratitude spilled from Tony’s lips while his hips continued stuttering up to thrust his cock against the back of Steve’s throat. But Steve still had his long fingers curled deep inside Tony, and each time Tony started to relax, he would graze his knuckles over Tony’s prostate to coax another thrust, another gush of come, another grunt of satisfaction. Tony was almost at the point of having to shove Steve away just to catch his breath when Steve eased off. Instead of his knuckles directly pressing up against Tony’s prostate, now only the pads of his fingertips lazily circled it; he also pulled off of Tony’s cock, shifting down instead and closing his mouth around Tony’s balls, suckling with an easy going and self-indulgent hunger.

In a moment of post-coital insanity, Tony wondered if he had died, if this continued high of orgasm was what the afterlife could be. The way Steve soothed and teased his insides, and left his spent, twitching cock alone, Tony could sense the impossible happening, from the tingling in his toes to the rebuilding pressure at the base of his cock: somehow, he was already gearing up for a second round. But that couldn’t be; his brain was still sluggish and doped up from his orgasm, and he could only moan Steve’s name in warning, needing him to know that his cock would be rising to the occasion again if Steve didn’t stop what he was doing.

Steve must have sensed some distinction between the way Tony mumbled his name now and how he had said it before in the heat of the moment; without releasing his mouthful, Steve looked up Tony’s body to meet his eyes, and he hummed around Tony’s balls in question. Another full-body shudder rolled through Tony from the divine vibrations of Steve’s mouth, and he was just about to attempt speaking when Steve dug in against Tony’s perennium with the knuckle of his thumb, twisting and grinding to stimulate his prostate from another angle. With his fingers teasing it from the inside, and the firm pressure of his thumb from the outside, Tony’s mouth fell open with a silent gasp, and he melted back into the firm cushions of the couch.

When strong hands guided Tony’s legs further apart, he was still so loose and relaxed from his orgasm that he barely noticed the stretch. He was starting to breathe through the pleasure and mounting pressure of his second orgasm when Steve loosely closed his hand around the shaft of Tony’s half-hard cock to give it a few slow, easy strokes while he pumped his fingers smoothly in and out of him to gradually ease his fingers out, one at a time. Tony thrust up into Steve’s loose, dry fist, and still high on the pleasure and satisfaction of fucking Steve’s fist while Steve finger fucked him, he barely noticed how two fingers turned to one, turned to none.

At least, he didn’t notice until some seconds later, when Steve smoothly changed his hands so Tony was thrusting up into his lubed hand. Then, Steve slid his clean hand under Tony’s lower back and hefted him further up against the couch. The new position eased Tony into a deeper backbend, with his head tipping back off the couch. It became more difficult for Tony to thrust up into Steve’s wet hand, but before he could groan in frustration and voice his demand that Steve continue what he started, Steve bent down to brace one of Tony’s knees over his shoulder before kneeling up on the couch himself, looming over Tony and nearly bending him in half until Tony’s raised knee pushed against his own shoulder.

Unaware of what he was even saying, Tony purred endless praise and pleas for Steve to do it, to take him, to fuck him, and he only just managed to lift his head to look down between them in time to see Steve guide his cock up to Tony’s hole and press in. Steve hadn’t bothered to shrug out of his robe or even push his boxer briefs down his thighs; he pulled his hard cock out over the waistband of his underwear, rolled on a condom, and pushed into Tony’s stretched, slicked up body with one smooth, confident thrust.

The tension of his stretch, of being folded into this position, accentuated the girth of Steve’s already thick cock, and Tony squeezed his eyes shut, whimpering and clawing at the cushions as he tried to breathe through the intrusion. A sob heaved through him again; he had been so close to release and now it was almost too much and too little all at once—his whole body had been singing moments earlier, excitement and pleasure tickling down his spine and everywhere Steve touched him, but now his entire world had narrowed down to the heavy, unyielding pressure stretching him apart and leaving him no space to breathe.

Steve shifted, without pulling out or grinding further in, and Tony could still feel it all around him and inside him. He opened his eyes just as Steve leaned in to kiss his cheek, then gently swept his thumb over his cheeks, one at a time. “I got you, Tony,” he whispered, his low, hoarse voice a reassuring contrast to the galloping heartbeat in Tony’s ears. “You’re stunning, you’ve been so good. Trust me, I got you.”

Tony was about to answer him, but Steve bowed his head to take his lips in a tender kiss. Tony moaned with surprised delight and eagerly responded, deepening the kiss with a sudden needful hunger until Steve experimentally rocked his hips forward; a whimper escaped between them as Tony’s mouth fell open in surprise, and Steve swallowed it with another kiss, and another, soothing Tony with a string of worshiping and playful kisses as he gradually, carefully, built up to a slow, shallow rhythm.

The tension started to ease away, and the pressure deep inside him started to build into a consuming pleasure. Tony’s quiet, occasional whimpers of discomfort grew into soft, insistent moans, and as they grew more eager and needful, Steve pulled away from Tony’s lips and straightened. Without the constraint on his position, Steve took Tony’s other leg by the ankle, and bore down on Tony with newfound intent.

He started to pull out farther with each thrust, until he was almost pulling out all the way every time. Tony’s head tipped back in pleasure, keening needfully with every breath. He was still clutching at the couch cushions, but he grabbed on to the cushions behind him and arched up as far as his position allowed. His body was stretched and full in a way he had never felt before, but he was a drowning man thirsting for more: he still needed more—more friction, more of Steve’s touch, and all of Steve’s attention.

That was when Tony noticed their reflection in the mirror. Clear as day, he could watch himself and Steve—he could watch Steve fucking him, taking him apart, like his very own private viewing channel. There were recent scratches across Steve’s chest and over his shoulder, contrasted clearly against the red blush coloring his skin. Tony had no memory of scratching him up, but he felt a surge of pride and lust in the knowledge that the marks were his. A flash of shameless desire overcame him with this new perspective of their position, the obscene display of how he’d been folded in half and spread open for Steve’s taking. Heat pooled behind his cock, and he thrust up instinctively, but there was still no mouth, no hand, no heat to find satisfaction in. Tony had never come without touching his cock before, and he was so close, so desperate for release; the way Steve’s thick cock filled him with every thrust, the slow, punishing burn of his rim, all of it was enough to bring Tony repeatedly to the edge of release, taunting him with both pain and pleasure, but never enough to push him over.

“Please,” Tony begged with a hitch in his voice, his hips stuttering up for attention. “Fuck—Steve, I’m so close.”

But instead of reaching to give Tony a hand, Tony watched through the mirror as Steve only repositioned his hand around Tony’s ankle to push his legs further apart until Tony whimpered and sobbed at the stinging tension. Through the mirror, Tony could see how this new position exposed his cock and balls only to better highlight their intentional neglect. Shame burned through him to see the lewd bounce of his hard, leaking cock and his drawn up balls, but he still couldn’t bring himself to look away.

Not until Steve leaned in close, and caught his eyes through the mirror.

“You come on my cock, Tony, nothing else,” Steve growled, his voice tight and hoarse from need and exertion. Then, his lips curled up in a dark smirk, and lowered his voice to ask, “Are you watching yourself, Tony? What do you see?” he asked with a guttural grunt, slowing his thrusting and changing his position until he found the right angle to grind against Tony’s prostate, reducing him to a mewling, desperate mess; he bent over Tony’s body and closed his lips and his teeth over a nipple, biting and laving it with his tongue in turn between his questions. Tony sobbed with the need to come—he was so full, so close, all he needed was a touch, just a little—

“Can you picture me, breeding you? Filling you with more than my cock? Leave you gaping, dripping with my—”

He shouted Steve’s name in a strangled voice as his second orgasm rocked through him like a freight train, and in the delirious throes of ecstasy, he lost consciousness and blacked out.

***

By the time he got Tony out of his apartment, Steve had his work cut out for him. He suspected a pair of boots would be required reading for those country yokels, and since he couldn’t afford to make a bad impression, he immediately made a call to his personal shopper.

The conversation took no more than a minute, and soon he was free to review Sharon’s notes on the hiring process, along with her preliminary investigation of their references. He typed up his reply to each of her reports, then finally sat down to slog his way through some prioritized manuscripts until the scheduled interview.

Meeting Barnes was a clear improvement to every accolade and achievement he had shared on his CV, and after a surprisingly good conversation, Steve grudgingly found himself sharing Sharon’s assessment. Yet the thought of his department falling into the hands of his assistant and a new hire was already giving Steve a migraine.

Except, he didn’t have time for a headache. He had a 3:10 out of LaGuardia, and he had less than an hour to pack for a trip he knew nothing about.

“Mr. Rogers’ office,” Sharon answered promptly and politely.

“Carter, what do I pack for a ranch in Bumfuck Nowhere, Oklahoma?”

There was a momentary pause on the other line, presumably while she investigated the question. “Generally, prepare for rain," she eventually told him, “and temperatures range from mid-40s to high 60s. They’ve got venomous snakes, so wear boots if you got them.”

“And did you get the seats upgraded?” he asked, concluding the previous conversation by starting a new one.

“First class, but I couldn’t get two aisle seats. You’re sitting next to each other,” she said without so much as pausing at the change in topic. “I called ahead to confirm a luxury four-wheel SUV. I requested a Range Rover, but it will depend on what they have. It is Kansas, sir.”

“Call Barnes’ references before the end of the day,” Steve changed the subject again. “He’s competent, but I am not confident in his ability to multi-task or lead a team. Call me back with a report by voicemail tomorrow morning; otherwise, move on to that what’s-his-name out of Princeton. At least he’ll have a network to stand on.”

“Hammer?” Sharon supplied, albeit skeptically. When Steve grunted in agreement, she said, “You got it, boss.”

“No later than 9am, Carter,” Steve reminded her before hanging up.

He threw some necessities, jeans, and shirts together into a leather duffle, and by the time he was wrapping up his toiletries, Jan was finally at his door with a large paper bag.

“They will fit like a dream,” she promised as he lifted them out of the box. “American made—hand made—two tone crocodile and ostrich leather. These are a statement piece that will impress without being too loud.”

“Give yourself thirty percent,” Steve said offhandedly as he pulled the boots on, far more concerned with how they would look with his jeans than the cost. “Do… do the jeans go inside or over?”

“Over,” Jan said without hesitation. “Skinny jeans don’t suit you, Steve. Don’t go there. But, remember to give these time. Feel them out: break them in before extended use.”

“They feel good, shouldn’t be a problem,” Steve decided. Once he was satisfied with the way they looked, he finally looked back at Jan. “I’m in the market for an engagement ring, expedited to Oklahoma. Masculine; noticeable, but not gaudy.”

“I know just the thing,” Jan promised, and as Steve grabbed his leather duffle and work bag, she got the hint and made to follow him out of the apartment. “I’ll send you two options today.”

They talked briefly about the possibility of bringing a decorator in to re-do the bedroom until they came to the front doors of the building where a car and driver were already waiting to take Steve to the airport.

“My assistant will have the address to you within the hour,” Steve told Jan before they parted. With everything delegated and taken care of, he handed his luggage to the driver and climbed into the car.

However his gamble played out, Steve was keenly aware of what he had already lost. Win or lose, he would never be able to return to this life he loved—the dream he had worked tirelessly for, and painstakingly made a reality.

These final moments in the car en route to the airport would be his final moments of peace in a life that was his own, by his rules. The thought of losing his agency again terrified him, so he sat in meditative silence for as long as that car ride afford him, breathing through his rising panic.

***

Bruce slid into the seat across from Tony.

“When you said to pick you up from Tribeca,” he said, “I was looking forward to moping. Maybe some tears.”

Tony glanced up from his heaping stack of sour cream pancakes and caramelized bananas, as if waiting for Bruce to make his point.

“A crestfallen Tony Stark, maybe. It would be a nice change of pace,” Bruce explained, helping himself to a slice of banana—except Tony intercepted his greedy fingers with his fork, and pulled his plate closer to himself. “Hey!”

“Get your own.”

“I’m driving you to the fucking airport, you can’t give me a banana?”

“If you only knew,” Tony murmured dramatically between ravenous mouthfuls, “Bruce—I gotta carb up, I’m running on a deficit here! Captain fucking America—”

“Let me stop you right there: I don’t wanna know,” Bruce cut in before anything too vulgar was shared.

“And you call yourself my friend? I thought he was going to tear my groin—”

“It’s like talking to a brick wall,” Bruce muttered, only nodding in the affirmative when the waiter came around to ask if he’d like the menu and a cup of coffee.

“You’re not listening to me: it was like fucking a hydra,” Tony continued without pause.

“Yeah, that’s an image that won’t haunt me forever,” Bruce said with a sigh of defeat while Tony continued his monologue.

“—you think you’re safe from one head, and then—bam! Another one attacks! Bruce,” he added emphatically, pausing for dramatic effect and to shovel more pancakes into his mouth. “Nobody should be that good without—magic, or, or professional training, maybe?”

“Come again?”

“I couldn’t if I wanted to!” Tony burst out, to both his and Bruce’s surprise. After a brief pause of re-evaluating how they had arrived at this moment, Tony leaned in across the table. “He’s a fucking savant, Bruce—pun very much intended, and deserved,” he whispered in a rush, as if imparting a secret, gesturing wildly with his fork before attacking his food again as if that would help explain his meaning.

Bruce, mature man that he was, did his best not to respond or react. “How about we talk about more important things, Tony?” he decided for both of them in the moments of silence while Tony chewed. The waiter came around and refilled Tony’s coffee, and Tony was quick to ask for his check. “Like, where’s your luggage? We gotta go.”

“Got my wallet, and my phone,” Tony said as he sipped down some needed coffee between his pancakes. “There’s enough stuff back at the ranch.”

“What, really?”

“The house is big enough, Bruce, it’s not like my mom would throw my shit out just cause I haven’t visited in a few years.”

“In seven years,” Bruce said quietly, as if Tony needed reminding. He glanced down at his watch with a frown and tried another approach. “Tony, uh. When, exactly, is your flight?”

“3:10,” Tony mumbled around his first bite of his last pancake. “Why?”

“Uh, look, Tony, I hate to be the bearer of bad news—”

“Like hell you do.”

“You were… a little, you know,” Bruce vaguely gestured to indicate Tony’s body. “Bigger. Seven to eight years ago.”

Tony stared at him for so long Bruce started to turn red.

“You know what? On second thought,” he said quickly, “you’re right. You probably haven’t changed that much. Southern food, constant manual labor—why should you look different after eight years of sitting at a desk and walking a few dozen miles a day? Unless, that’s important to you.”

When Tony still didn’t answer, Bruce leaned in with a serious expression. “Wanna tell me how that makes you feel, Tony?”

“Do you want me to call a cab?” Tony glowered with an accusative shove of his fork.

“Actually, that would make my life easier—”

“Tough,” Tony huffed in reply. “Whatever. We gotta go; it’s almost noon.”

Before Bruce could think of a counter argument, Tony had the cash folded under a plate with the bill and was on his way out the door.

***

As promised, Steve was waiting for him at the gate. Tony dropped his canvas shopping bag into the seat beside Steve and leisurely swaggered the three last steps that brought him to Steve’s feet.

Steve watched his approach with a faint smirk. “Tony,” he said with a smile in his voice, “you’re on time.”

“I live to impress,” Tony replied, toeing at Steve’s near foot. “Hey, babe, any allergies?”

“Cashews, and infantilizing pet names.”

Tony opened and closed his mouth, pursing his lips a little as he thought. Then, with a curious kind of hope, he tried, “Sparky?”

Steve closed his eyes and hung his head. It had looked like he was trying not to outright grimace, and Tony’s shoulders hunched a little with disappointment, but, after a long stretch of silence, he realized Steve wasn’t looking back up at him. No glares, no groans, no quips.

“You like it!” he realized with a bark of laughter, and he snatched up the canvas bag to drop into the seat next to Steve. “Man, plot twist. So babe is a no, but Sparky—”

“Doesn’t give me hives,” Steve interrupted him to say. Tony clicked his mouth shut, and he even held his breath to give Steve absolute silence to encourage him to continue sharing. Color rose in Steve’s cheeks and up the back of his neck, until finally he glanced away and mumbled, “And, maybe… maybe it’s alright.”

“I will use it sparingly,” Tony promised, and to be on the safe side, bowed his head to press an affectionate little kiss to Steve’s shoulder. He felt more than saw Steve’s huff of amusement, but he straightened and held up his canvas bag before there was any time for Steve to comment. “Stopped on the way for snacks. You’re lucky: no cashews.”

Steve sized up the heavy-looking canvas bag with one look. “What, for the whole trip?”

“More like, the flight,” Tony said and reached in for some peanut M&M’s he’d already opened; he took a few for himself and offered the bag to Steve, who declined. “The closest store is two hours away back home, so whatever you need… better stock up now.”

“The only thing I will need my assistant will be mailing to me by tomorrow night,” Steve replied after a beat. “You—will we ...will it make it?”

“So long as she overnights it, and there’s no bad storms, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Steve opened his mouth to say something when the announcement was made that first class passengers were welcome to begin boarding. “That’s us,” he said instead, then got up and offered his hand to help Tony to his feet. “Anything I need to know before we get in?”

“Anything you need to know?” Tony echoed as he considered Steve’s question, then with a smile he couldn’t quite feel, he said, “I mean, this is it. This is your last chance. The south is ...you know,” he tried to explain with a little shrug, but when he noticed Steve taking a breath to say something, he rushed to say, “so, you might have heard, they’re not the nicest to gay—or bi—people, they think God said so, whatever. And just cause my parents know I’m not straight doesn’t mean everyone’s cool with it. Doesn’t even mean they’re cool with it, so that’ll be fun—but, you know. They know. And open—”

Steve took Tony’s hand in his own and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Tony,” he said in a firm, patient voice. “Take a breath. You’re overthinking it. I just want to know if you’re a nervous flier or not.”

Tony blinked owlishly as he slowly realized how badly he’d blown that out of proportion, then had to look down at his feet before his embarrassment turned into a crazy smile, or, worse, giggling. He cleared his throat quickly to regroup, trying to hide the tremble of laughter in his voice when he peeped out, “Nope, I’m good.”

Whether it was because of Tony’s obvious embarrassment or his squeaking reply, Steve’s expression warmed with a smile, but he didn’t comment on it. “Good,” he said easily, and with a final reassuring squeeze, he released his hand and stepped aside. “Go on, you go first.”

“Ever the gentleman,” Tony said with a put-upon sigh, and when he passed Steve to join the short line of remaining first class passengers, he made a show of a haughty, exaggerated sniff. “Make sure your eyes stray, Sparky. Don’t let this show go to waste.”

***

When Tony had showed up at the gate with no luggage, Steve had assumed he’d checked everything. But it turned out, the man really had traveled with nothing but his wallet and his phone.

Steve tried not to think too much about it.

“I told dad I’d call when we landed. He’ll be on his way—” Tony started to say as he unlocked his phone, but Steve shook his head before he made the call.

“I got us a car,” he interrupted, “don’t trouble them, Tony, it’ll take them twice as long to make the trip to pick us up.”

“Wait, Steve,” Tony interrupted, but Steve shook his head.

“It’s not just a hospitality thing,” he promised. “I’d just be more comfortable with a car. One less reason to inconvenience anyone.”

There was a moment of silence where Steve could practically see Tony’s mind working over Steve’s words, but eventually he nodded and put his phone away. Steve gave him a grateful smile, then together, they started looking for Avis.

It turned out, there was no luxury SUV; Avis didn’t have a Range Rover for Steve to take with him.

“A what?” Tony whispered from Steve’s elbow, shuddering at the thought. He leaned across the counter to address the reservation agent directly. “Look, just give us a Ford truck. F-150.”

“That, we’ve got,” the woman said with a relieved smile. “Will you be a secondary driver for the vehicle?”

“Yes,” Tony replied before Steve could get a word in; he watched Tony go through the process with a slow, measured sigh.

“Why did you get a Ford truck?” Steve asked in a careful tone—a tone that hopefully didn’t make his simmering anger too obvious. “I don’t want to drive a cheap truck.”

“Okay, first of all, I’m not touching ‘cheap’ with a thirty foot pole, cause I assume you’ve never even tried to buy a good truck,” Tony muttered, “second: you said you didn’t want to stand out. A Ford is how you don’t stand out.”

For the first time in a long time, Steve found himself tongue-tied and fumbling for a reply.

“You remembered,” he whispered, quiet in his disbelief.

“Well, yeah,” Tony answered easily, as if it wasn’t a remarkable matter; as if Steve was being weird for thinking it was remarkable in the first place. Then, he changed the subject by saying, “She said the cars are that way, come on. We’ve got a long drive.”

“That’s fine with me,” Steve assured him, “I like long drives.”

“No, I’m driving,” Tony replied, and Steve could feel his hackles rising at yet another occasion where he was told rather than asked what to do. “Steve,” he continued, before Steve could think of the right words to say. “We’re not going to a big city, we’re going to a ranch in the middle of nowhere. It’s dark already, and there are a lot of unlit, unmarked dirt roads GPS doesn’t know about. You can drive when there’s sunlight,” he finished, gentling his tone as he did.

Steve didn’t have to like it, but he could only nod and agree.

***

“Probably my brother,” Tony replied, smiling at the memory. “He’s a pain in the ass, but I haven’t seen him since Christmas first year of college.”

“You haven’t been back in seven years even though you missed them?”

“Him,” Tony clarified, then with a wry grimace, he quietly said, “look, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I know it’s, it’s a privilege, having a family, especially one that wants to see you every once in a while, but we just function better apart. My dad has these traditional opinions of me taking over a business I don’t want to run, and mom lives to introduce me to debutants so she can finally have a daughter. I’d rather not be reminded of how I managed to disappoint them both.”

Steve stared ahead into the dark night. It was a wonder, really, how Tony even knew where to go; the headlights illuminated the path a few yards ahead, but no more, and somehow Tony just knew how to find the turns and avoid the ditches through the night. There was no question he had driven on that road his whole life, long enough to do it now in the dark without missing a beat, and Steve struggled to reconcile his unwarranted envy for such a childhood with the luxury of a life without expectations. He could live his life without answering to anyone, without worrying about failing to live up to anybody else’s dreams.

“So, it’s your mom, dad, little brother,” Steve summarized after a stretch of thoughtful silence, “who else?”

“Pepper, my ex. She’s a school teacher, second grade. She’s… she’s special,” he said like it was a promise. “You’ll see her if we go out; she loves to dance. My best friend, Rhodey, he owns and runs this converted barn—the best drinks, great music. Mechanical bull,” he added with a smirk and a playfully exaggerated wink. “We call him the Captain.”

“How come it ended?” Steve found himself asking before he thought better of it. “With Pepper.”

Tony slanted a considering look his way. “Sometimes love isn’t enough,” he said with a sigh, wringing the steering wheel and adjusting in his seat. “She wanted us to be together: raise a family, a life. Maybe some goats. She just didn’t want to do it in the City.”

“Is that what you want?” Steve wondered, shifting a little in his seat to face Tony better. Tony kept his eyes on the road, but his frown made it clear he was confused by the question. “A family? Maybe some goats.”

Tony’s face broke into a wide grin, and he glanced Steve’s way with a warm affection. “Someday, yeah,” he admitted, still smiling. “Goats optional.”

Despite himself, Steve couldn’t resist smiling back.

“Listen, speaking of future,” Tony said then, pursing his lips as he struggled to find the right words. “What are you comfortable sharing about your past?”

Steve’s smile faded then, and he ducked his head briefly as if to think it over. Except, he had already spent hours worrying over the same question.

“They can know,” he said with practiced calm. “Orphaned, from New York. Atheist, nihilist, gay.”

“Boy, are they going to love you,” Tony drawled sarcastically, drawing a surprised laugh out of Steve. “I don’t even know how you could make that any worse. Vegan?”

“Only when medically necessary,” Steve promised with smile, and across from him, Tony snickered as he pulled the car through onto another road. “I’ll eat anything twice.”

“Except cashews.”

“Well… I can only eat that once,” Steve pointed out, and as a reflex, Tony slapped him through his laughter. But as they passed an unassuming set of mail boxes, he sobered up and cleared his throat.

“Hey, buck up, handsome,” he said as he sat up straighter in his seat. “This is it. We’re here.”

Mirroring Tony’s behavior, Steve found himself sitting up and growing more alert. The night was still too dark for him to be able to see much farther than the car’s headlights, but as Tony slowed in preparation to park, he thought he could make out the general outline of a solid structure in front of them. But if this was the house, there was no sign of life: no lights were on, and beyond the sound of the wind and wilderness around them, Steve could hear nothing to suggest a family was awake, waiting for their child and his partner to come home.

“Are they home?” Steve wondered as Tony hopped out of the driver’s seat; he peered out into the night for any sign of life before opening the door and following suit.

“They should be,” Tony said, though he sounded a little confused himself. “At least the dogs—”

Flood lights came all around them at the same time, temporarily blinding them against the vacuumous darkness of the night. Steve startled back with a wince of pain, covering his eyes and squinting up at the house to make out what was going on.

“Hands in the air!” someone shouted, and for the first time in his life, Steve recognized the distinctive sound of two cocking rifles, something he had only previously heard in film and TV.

An icy chill ran through his veins, and he shrunk in on himself, stumbling back to the truck. Steve had no awareness of how or when Tony had wrapped his arms around him, or what his unheard words of comfort were, but for reasons he couldn’t have articulated if he’d wanted to, he instinctively knew to turn into Tony’s body to feel safer.

“Dad! What the hell!” Tony was shouting. “Put the goddamn guns away!”

The lights were turned down, but Tony’s arms continued to hold him close—continued to keep him safe.

“I got you,” he whispered, and when Steve blinked his eyes open and looked into Tony’s eyes, he found himself believing him. “You’re safe, Steve, it’s my idiot—”

“You are on private property,” another voice barked at them, “announce yourselves!”

“Clint!” Tony snapped, “you fucking—for fuck’s sake!”

Steve dared to look up, dared to straighten up to stand tall beside Tony. That was when he finally made out the two men standing on the raised porch with rifles in their hands.

“Hey city boy,” one of them drawled with a smug smirk. “Welcome to the South.”

Chapter Text

While his dad and brother laughed themselves hoarse, Tony led Steve around to the stairs and to the front door where five hound dogs of various shapes and sizes wagged their entire bodies with excitement. He didn’t pause to greet them or indulge in their abundant joy; instead, the dogs were left to trail them through the house as Tony hustled Steve in, past the broad, winding staircase that dominated the foyer, past open doors and hallways until the fourth hallway to their right opened up into an obscenely large living room.

Unless the dim lighting of the room was playing tricks on his vision, the wall to the far right was made entirely of glass, or a two-storey window that stretched the full width of the room. Steve didn’t have to see anything to know the view was stunning. The room itself was designed as an open space with a four-sided fireplace built with pale grey stones at its focal point. Steve could only stand there, staring at the casual opulence of the room in disbelief.

This was not the time to learn that Tony came from money. All this time, and he had never suspected—how could he have missed it? His plan would never work now, Tony would never marry him; Steve was nothing compared to this—

“Steve?”

Steve startled at the sound of Tony’s voice, and he choked on a quiet gasp in his surprise.

“Hey, you okay?” Tony whispered, his brows creased with concern. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something.”

“I didn’t know,” Steve tried to explain, but he couldn’t find the words. He didn’t know Tony was rich. He didn’t know Tony was so far out of his league.

“This isn’t me,” Tony explained—Steve hadn’t managed to ask a question, but somehow, Tony seemed to have guessed right.

“You are rich,” Steve still mumbled incoherently. He couldn’t stop staring at the far left side of the living room where the wall pushed out into a point like the bow of a ship, creating a tucked-away, triangular alcove where a large mahogany table was flanked on all sides by plush leather chairs. It was dark, imposing, and polished to a shine. It looked like money.

“You are filthy rich.”

“My parents are filthy rich,” Tony corrected quietly, and he resumed rubbing Steve’s back, as if he recognized that the news of his parents’ wealth was a shock Steve would need help recovering from, more so than the shock of their welcome only minutes earlier. A dog weaseled its way closer, rubbing its head against Steve’s limp hand in an explicit request for attention. Steve couldn’t even muster the energy to pull his hand away.

“That’s something only rich people say.”

“Well, alright, sure, but there’s nothing I can do about that right now,” Tony eventually said, then urged Steve on to the nearest chaise lounger. Distantly, Steve heard the a door open and close, and the voices of two chuckling men filtered from the way they came. The dogs whined quietly around them before three of them trotted back towards the front door, compelled to go greet their master.

Knowing that Tony’s dad and brother would soon be making another appearance was enough to make Steve shudder, so when Tony guided him to sit, Steve followed his lead blindly, sitting down carefully while trying to maintain his bearings. By the time he regrouped, Tony was bundling him up in a warm, patchwork quilt out of a nearby basket.

“Sit. Stay.”

The two hopeful dogs obeyed Tony without any compunction, wagging their tails and desperate for validation, but Steve had many reservations about what Tony’s words implied.

“You’re—where are you going?” he whispered anxiously, wringing the quilt in a white-knuckle grip. “Tony, don’t leave me here.”

“What do we have here?”

The lights came on all around them, and Steve sat up in alarm as Tony spun around to see a woman approach from across the living room. She was still dressed for the day in jeans and plain cotton shirt under her plaid long-sleeves. She was beautiful, and even from a distance Steve could see so much of Tony in her eyes and in her smile.

“What the hell, mom? Is that the welcome wagon dad throws down whenever y’all have company? If I didn’t know any better—”

“If I wasn’t so happy to see you, darling,” she said over him with a big smile, pulling him into a tight hug even as he grouched and grumbled, “you’d be getting hell for calling yourself ‘company’.”

They fell into a easy, if a little stilted, exchange, and, forgotten, Steve started to relax. He peered at the two dogs that just wouldn’t give up on him, trying to push them away without being too obvious in his dislike for smelly, slobbery creatures, when he heard his name out of the blue.

“You must be Steve.”

Tony’s mom’s words pulled Steve from the safe space he had only just discovered, and he braced himself before turning to face her with a smile. He was ready to offer some polite greeting, some appropriate comment about her beautiful home, but whatever he had meant to say fell away.

She wasn’t smiling back at him. She leered.

“Why, I don’t know if I should get lost in your sweet blue eyes, or wrap myself in your big arms,” she purred, holding her hand out to him with the intention of having it kissed in greeting.

“Mom, no,” Tony muttered in a tired voice, grabbing her hand before Steve had to worry about what it might do to his person. “That’s harassment,” Steve heard him warn her in hushed tones.

Under any other circumstances, Steve might have grinned back at him, at least a little; he might even have brushed it off and given her some polite, untrue platitude, like, ‘it’s nice to meet you,’ but he couldn’t do anything but stare and listen; he sat absolutely still, frozen in place by the uncomfortable proximity of her armed husband.

“Don’t you take that tone of voice with your mother, boy.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Are you doing this on purpose?” he complained, giving his mom a warning look before turning to glare at his dad and brother. “This is fun for you, embarrassing me in front of Steve?”

“Why, I’m sure we don’t know what you’re talking about,” Maria said with a sweet smile. Clint, however, was much more honest.

“What’s family for?” he replied with a big smirk, then with a more genuine smile, he came forward to shake Steve’s hand. “Good to meet you, Steve. No hard feelings?”

Steve glanced at his hand and reluctantly reached to shake it. “That’s not a question, is it?”

“Not really,” Clint agreed, and if he was going to say something else, he was distracted by the dogs collected at Steve’s feet. It must have been easy to spot Steve’s discomfort, so Clint absently promised to take care of them for him as he stepped away, whistling for the dogs’ attention and leading them away with promises of bones.

“Are you going to introduce us or not?” Howard asked Tony then in the relative privacy when Clint stepped out of the room. “We ain’t seen you in seven years, and now you’ve been here five minutes with no manners and pitchin’ a fit?”

Tony only frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “After that welcome, you think you deserve an introduction?”

As much as his frustration was warranted, and even appreciated, Steve cleared his throat, pushed the quilt aside, and stood up tall. He offered his hand to Howard first.

“Steve Rogers,” he said in a surprisingly steady voice, and with a smile that never failed to impress. “It is a pleasure to meet you all.”

“Howard Stark,” Tony’s dad replied, shaking Steve’s hand with a firm grip that bordered on painful. “Ever been out in the country, boy?”

“Never,” Steve admitted, pulling his hand back at first opportunity before the discomfort turned to pain.

“We’ll teach you everything you’ll ever need to know, darling,” Tony’s mom promised, rubbing a comforting hand up and down Steve’s arm. “You can call me Maria.”

“Mom, no,” Tony complained as soon as he realized what she was doing, tugging her away gently to stand between her and Steve.

“We’ll see you kids in the morning,” Howard said before any more could come of that conversation. “Tony, we sure could use your help mending the fences to the east, near the lake. Hogs’ve been tearing everything up this season.”

“Yeah, alright, dad,” Tony replied after a quick glance at Steve, not that Tony’s was anything but a mystery to Steve.

“Breakfast’s at 6, like always; no special city folk hours, understand?” Maria told him, then stretched to kiss his cheek one more time. “It’s good of you to come home, baby. Mama missed you.”

“I missed you, too, mom,” Tony replied with a smile, and both he and Steve wished his parents goodnight when Howard and Maria left them to turn in for the night.

Tony waited until they were gone before turning to Steve. “You haven’t run away yet,” he noted, and the timid hope in his eyes easily told Steve he was only half-joking.

“I’m not running away just cause your parents are ...uh,” Steve floundered for an appropriate word to end on, when Tony suggested, “crazy?”

Steve grimaced a little at that, and instead suggested, “Bold?”

Tony stared up at him in clear surprise, until sheepish relief bubbled out of him. He bit his bottom lip in an effort to clamp down on the laughter, but nothing seemed to help; he ducked his head forward to hide his red face against Steve’s chest.

“I am so sorry,” he mumbled unevenly between giggles of embarrassment, “it’s—that was bad, Steve, I had no idea—”

“Shh, hey,” Steve said gently, leaning back enough to meet Tony’s eyes. “How about we go to bed? It’s been a long day, I’m ready to be put it behind me.”

Tony was quick to agree, and, together, they went back to the truck to grab Steve’s luggage before making their way to Tony’s room. It took a moment for Steve to realize nothing they were passing on their way there looked familiar.

“Clint’s two doors down, but at least we won’t have to worry about mom and dad on this side of the house,” Tony told him, his voice still lowered. “This was the whole house until I was eleven, when dad learned that sound carries through the air vents. So, he added a second wing and saved us all.”

Steve frowned at the thought, finding himself feeling bad for baby Tony. Tony probably never had to worry about whether adults fighting would lead to him being kicked out of the house, but that didn’t mean the fights weren’t scarring.

“You heard them fighting your whole childhood?” he asked quietly, following Tony’s lead into a long hallway.

“What?” Tony asked him with a confused quirk of his brow, but he quickly seemed to realize what Steve meant. With a laugh, he said, “No! No, I heard them fucking. You should’ve seen dad’s face the first time I called him ‘big daddy.’”

If it was possible to choke on nothing, Steve did it. He stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of the hallway, and through his delighted snickering, Tony patted Steve on the back to help him catch his breath.

“Come on, champ,” he said with a big grin, “how about you sit down before you pass out?”

Steve followed Tony’s lead on autopilot until the hallway opened into a tidy, but cramped bedroom. A four-poster bed was pushed up against the far wall almost as an afterthought, while the rest of the space was devoted to a deep workshop bench and its miscellaneous cabinets and shelving. Something Steve could barely identify as a saddle was the only project currently out, along with a handful of tools that were strewn around it on the bench, as if Tony had only gotten up from his work a few minutes ago.

“Shower’s the first door on the right the way we came, use anything you want in there. Clint has his own,” Tony was saying while Steve looked around the room. “I’m gonna grab something from the kitchen, you want anything?”

When Steve shook his head no, Tony briefly excused himself to find a bite to eat.

Left to his own devices, Steve dropped his bag at the foot of the bed and took a moment to take stock of his surroundings. Without Tony’s voice, the room was eerily silent. Even on the rare occasion he took holidays, he had only been to cities—to San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago. This was a silence unlike anything he had experienced, a silence that had his skin crawling and his heart racing. For the first time in his life, Steve couldn’t hear the city—not the distant rumble of passing cars, not the drunks stumbling back home late at night, not the K-9 units barreling through alleyways on late-night sweeps.

A lifetime of experience had taught him that silence was isolation. Silence was danger.

He had never felt more alone in his life.

With a full-body shudder, he dug through his bag for toiletries and clean underwear before rushing to the shower. The white noise of the water filled the void around him, and if he closed his eyes and focused on only that, he could imagine himself back in his own apartment, in his own shower, in the middle of a city where reliable security was ready to respond from every floor of his apartment building at every hour of the day.

Between the soothing noise and the incredible water pressure, Steve managed to calm his heart rate for a long, relaxing break. He left the water running even when he stepped out to dry off and pull his boxers on, brushed his teeth and got ready for bed, but in the end, he had to shut it down and abandon his temporary sanctuary.

From the far side of the bed, Tony lit up with a delighted little hum. “Worth the wait.”

Relief washed over Steve like sunshine emerging from the shadows on a warm summer day. “You’re back,” he said with a broad smile, and he ducked back to the bathroom to hang his towel up before joining Tony on the bed.

He couldn’t stop smiling.

“Where else would I be?” Tony wondered, but he seemed more concerned with pulling down the blankets closest to Steve than hearing an answer to his rhetorical question. “Come on, Sparky, get in. Are you going to make me beg?”

Steve didn’t answer him, but his smile stretched into a grin and he climbed up into the bed without hesitation. Unlike the nights they had already spent together at his place, where Steve comfortably kept to his side of the bed, Steve shuffled to the middle without thinking. Tony lost no time meeting him halfway: he moved to the middle and threw an arm over Steve’s waist, nuzzling into Steve’s chest.

“God, this is so weird. You smell… like home,” he murmured, breathing Steve’s new scent in deeply. Steve hummed quietly, from the lack of anything to say.

“Never gotten a boner smelling home before.”

And just like that, Steve’s momentary discomfort was forgotten. He laughed, a heartfelt, carefree belly laugh; affection swelled in his chest, and he pulled Tony in tight against his side, until he could nose into Tony’s soft hair and kiss the crown of his head.

As Steve’s laughter calmed into a quiet chuckle, Tony pushed up on an elbow to look into Steve’s eyes. “I want to kiss you,” he confessed, struggling even then to keep his gaze from drifting down to Steve’s lips.

Steve reached up to tuck some of Tony’s hair behind his ear, then gently cupped his cheek, as if all he wanted was to hold him steady and cherish the look of him. Moments passed in silence between them, and Steve’s open reverence had color rising in Tony’s cheeks, until Tony could no longer resist the urge to duck his head and hide his blush. But Steve wouldn’t let him get away with hiding; he swept his thumb over Tony’s cheek, urging him to look up, then pushed up to meet Tony halfway as he pulled him in for a kiss.

A smile spread across Tony’s face the moment he felt Steve rising up to meet him, and he followed Steve’s lead eagerly. When their lips finally met in a sweet, indulgent kiss, Tony was still smiling.

***

It was still the dead of night when Tony stirred awake. He peered around himself with a sleepy frown, only to realize Steve was crawling over him to reach the window.

“Steve?” Tony slurred, his voice still hoarse from sleep. “What’s goin’ on?”

“The window, it’s open,” Steve whispered, and after a few moments, Tony’s eyes focused enough to see Steve running his hands along the window frame looking for something.

“Latch’s broken,” Tony told him when he realized what Steve had meant. Steve frowned at his words and shied away from the window, sitting back on the mattress.

It took concerted coordination, but Tony pushed himself to sit up so he could look out the window before turning his attention to Steve. “Are you cold?” Tony asked, puzzled and bordering on concerned. “You’re shiv—wait, did you see something? Something out there?”

Steve grimaced at the question. He couldn’t meet Tony’s eyes, and he looked so uncomfortable he practically hunched in on himself. “Tony, we’re—we’re on the ground floor, the window is unlocked,” he said with an accusative gesture at the windows. “Anything—anyone—could break in.”

“Steve, sweetheart,” Tony said in a slow, quiet tone, the same voice he used to put anxious horses at ease. “There are five hunting dogs and four hunters in this house. No person or animal is dumb enough to try.”

But when Steve glanced his way, Tony saw the fear in his eyes, a haunted, hunted look he hadn’t seen in decades. This wasn’t about something Steve had seen or heard, this was about something Steve felt. All rational arguments for comforting Steve abandoned him, and instead Tony fought back the overwhelming urge to pull Steve into his arms.

“Hey—hey, I’m here, darling. Look at me?” he urged him with gentle words, “you’re not alone, Steve.”

Steve shook his head and he sucked down an unsteady breath, covering his face with both hands; he was still hoarse and breathless when he husked out, “It’s quiet, Tony. It’s all so quiet.”

Tony wanted to reach out to touch him, or at least repeat his question. Somehow, he resisted. Long minutes passed before Steve dared to let his hands fall away, and he opened his eyes again.

There was recognition in Steve’s eyes this time, and the knot in Tony’s chest eased a little. “No-one can hurt you here, Steve,” he whispered, “not a person, not an animal, not a soul. You’re safe here, I promise you.”

Steve turned to look at him at that, hesitant but amused. “The P-word,” he whispered in clear surprise.

Tony blinked back at him, nearly as taken aback as Steve looked. He racked his brain, trying to remember when he slipped and said penis; he couldn’t have—this was too important, Steve was too uncomfortable, he wouldn’t have been so blase—

“Promise,” Steve clarified, and Tony could make out the glimmer of a smile.

“If you don’t think my personal hero would be safe in my hometown,” Tony started to say, quite serious in his tone. Like a charm, Steve’s hesitant little smile shone, and he watched Tony settle back down in bed, his body curved just so to casually to leave space for Steve to move in close beside him.

“Since when am I your hero?” Steve asked, curious in his expression, and, despite his earlier tension, he moved into the intimate space made available for him between Tony’s torso and his arm. Whether he intended it or not, Steve rested a hand against Tony’s arm, close enough that his thumb could absently brush across Tony’s bicep.

Tony did his best not to draw too much attention to the casual touch, and instead made a show of pouting up at Steve. “You don’t remember? It was only last week, Steve. Batman Returns? You stood up for me when Andre the Angry Giant got in my face.”

“That can’t count, Tony,” Steve said in a lowered voice. “I didn’t know how big he was when I stood up. I didn’t know he’d get violent.”

“Heroism isn’t what you do when you know how things will turn out. You could’ve run away when you saw how big he was,” Tony pointed out, smiling up at him. “You didn’t run away. You don’t even know how much that meant to me.”

Steve huffed in amusement. “What do you mean? And don’t pretend you’re ‘too pretty’ to be punched.”

“What’s that?” Tony complained with an exaggerate little moue of self-pity. “You don’t think I’m too pretty to be punched?”

“What I believe is irrelevant.”

Tony bit into his lip in his effort not to grin too broadly, but he couldn’t resist giving Steve’s thigh a playful pinch. “You think you know so much,” he teased, soothing Steve’s skin by slowly rubbing the heel of his palm over the spot he pinched. Then, with a quieter tone, he explained. “I’ve been in the rodeo all my life. Competed all my life. Barrel racing, bull riding. Broncos. My last trip to the hospital,” he said with a slight grimace, trying to find the words in vain. In the end, he shrugged it off and cut his losses. “Forget it—long story less long, I didn’t really need another trip to the hospital, courtesy of the Not-So-Gentle Giant.”

Steve watched him with a slow dawning horror, but Tony interrupted him before Steve even got a word out.

“Also, for the record: this face? It’s all mine,” he said, smirking with a heaping serving of pride. “This isn’t the magnum opus of some plastic surgeon, I really am this devastatingly handsome.”

The concern on Steve’s face morphed into long-suffering exasperation—which, for less than a week of exposure, Tony felt was a little unwarranted. But he wouldn’t have survived another minute of Steve’s concern and pity, and everyone knew the frustrating fate of beggars.

“I’ll keep you safe from violent giants,” Steve said in the end, “if you keep me safe from bears or wolves or whatever else can climb through—”

“Bears?” Tony blurted out, a little confused (and a lot amused). “What exactly do you think lives out here, Steve?”

“Don’t give me that, Tony. I know there are bears in Oklahoma.”

Tony had half a mind to tell Steve that it was the five different species of scorpions and the seven venomous snakes he should be worried about. Or, if size was the terror factor, the 200 pound boars who could run as fast as a horse and were particularly territorial this time of year should be at the top of his list, not the friendly little black bears.

“Then, I guess you got yourself a deal, Sparky,” he said instead, smiling at his hero with warm affection. He smoothed his hand up Steve’s flank, trying to coax him back down to sleep. “I’ll protect you from the bears, if you protect me from the giants.”

“Deal.”

“Now will you come back to sleep?” Tony wondered, pulling him down a little more insistently. “I can’t really sleep like this, not with you hovering.”

Steve glanced down at the hand rubbing up and down along his ribs, then looked up at Tony with a quirk in his expression. Without breaking eye contact, he lifted Tony’s hand in his and brought it to his lips to press a soft, lingering kiss over the back of his hand. He didn’t say anything, but he slid in under the blankets and stretched out on the mattress along the length of Tony’s body. Even though he was several inches taller, he settled with his head pillowed on Tony’s shoulder, and much like Tony had done some hours earlier, he draped his arm over Tony’s waist.

Tony couldn’t have contained his smile if he’d wanted to. He draped an arm around Steve in return, hugged him close, and they held each other as they drifted off into a safe, peaceful sleep.

***

The next time consciousness intruded on Tony’s sleep, it was with a soft touch of his hair, lapping through it in a gentle rhythm. He smiled to himself and moaned quietly under his breath in appreciation.

“Tony,” he heard Steve whispering. “Tony? Tony, wake up.”

“Sun’s not up, shhh,” Tony mumbled without any genuine grasp of what the sun was doing, because as far as he was concerned, the sun had no business showing its face while he was still tired, and the petting just felt too good—hell, the soothing rhythm of Steve’s caress was almost enough to lull Tony back to sleep. “Don’ stop...”

“Tony,” Steve hissed urgently, “wake up right now.”

With a surly, irritated groan, Tony finally opened his eyes. Steve was crouched on the floor of his room, ducked behind the bed. He frowned to himself in confusion, blinking at Steve for several beats until it sunk in that someone else was still petting his hair. With sleep-heavy limbs, he twisted around onto his back to come face-to-nose with the long, grey face of his horse.

“You asshole!” he laughed, sitting up so suddenly that the horse startled back and withdrew from the window. “Get in here, Dummy! Come on,” he called after the horse with a smile in his voice; it wasn’t long before the horse nickered and nudged the windows open again, sticking its head into the room to fit nuzzle into Tony’s waiting arms. “You’re dumber than a bucket of wheat, but your nose sure works.”

“He smelled you?” Steve asked, as if this was a new terrifying trait for horses to have.

“You can stand up, you know,” Tony said instead of answering him. “He can’t climb in through the window, he can only reach a few feet.”

“Can it please reach a few feet somewhere else?”

Tony pouted into Dummy’s cheek, stroking his horse’s velvety muzzle. “I missed you, too, little guy,” he whispered, before gently urging Dummy to back off. The horse snorted unhappily and went unwillingly when Tony pushed him away, but eventually complied and trotted off.

“Hey, Captain America: you’re safe from the pony,” Tony drawled, crawling over to the edge where Steve was now sitting on the floor. “You okay, Steve?”

Steve peered up at him with a little frown. “Captain America?”

Tony considered telling him. Recounting his earlier conversation with Bruce, which would inevitably be a compliment to his stamina and strength, then subsequently explain how his sexual prowess was more reminiscent of ancient Greek monsters than any mortal sex Tony had ever had.

The more he thought about it, the more he felt keeping such delicate secrets to himself seemed the better option.

“I’ll forget about you hiding from my twenty year old horse, if you’ll forget I ever said that,” Tony muttered all in one breath.

Steve pursed his lips in thought. “Ever said what?”

A thrill of amusement tickled down his spine, and Tony eased himself down on the mattress until he could lean far enough over the edge to kiss Steve’s nose. “Anybody ever tell you how gorgeous you are first thing in the morning?” he whispered with a mischievous smile.

Since Steve had nothing but his underwear on, Tony could easily see the blush coloring his chest and his neck as easily as he saw it spreading across his face. He grinned with delight, itching to reach out and tease him, but Steve only huffed quietly and tried to keep a straight face, as if to pretend Tony’s words hadn’t affected him one bit.

“Flatterer,” he muttered and crossed his arms over his chest.

Tony rolled his eyes, and reached down to brush Steve’s hair into place instead. “There,” he decided, “better. You ready to face my family again, sunshine?”

Steve looked genuinely confused this time, and he sat up to grab his wristwatch off the bedside table. “They’re up at 5am?” he wondered, dubious.

“Mom’s probably going out to get the eggs for breakfast,” Tony guessed, given the time. Then, out of the blue, he popped up with excitement. “Steve! How’d you feel about making those cinnamon buns of yours?”

Steve raised his brows, looking anything but impressed. “You mean the ones you can’t eat?”

Tony had the decency to look contrite. He cleared his throat delicately, bracing himself for making the necessary confession. “I wasn’t lying when I said I really, really wished I could eat those, you know. But, ah. I am not on a diet, and I, uh, might actually be half sugar. The way I eat, anyway.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Steve assured him after a brief silence. “You’re sweeter than you think.”

Tony narrowed his eyes at him, suspicious of the word ‘short’ so close to a blatant compliment. “I’m not sure I like it when you’re clever,” he murmured thoughtfully, mostly to himself, but Steve’s face warmed with a little smirk, as if he was amused that Tony had caught on to the jab. But he had handled Tony’s admission better than Tony could have hoped for, so he wasn’t about to question his good fortune—after all, Steve had every right to be angry about the blatant lie.

“Steve, darling, I’m telling you, I’ve been dreaming about those buns all week,” he admitted with a small pout and big, pleading eyes he shamelessly batted for full effect. “Please?”

Tony waited with bated breath and barefaced hope, and, luckily, he didn’t have to wait very long. He couldn’t see his own face, but by the way Steve rolled his eyes and quietly chuckled with a slow shake of his head, Tony figured looking goofy was better than not having cinnamon buns with breakfast.

“Alright, Tony. I’ll make cinnamon rolls. Get some pants on, and show me to the kitchen.”

***

“Mom!” Tony shouted into the house as they walked out into the foyer. His jeans were loose around his thighs and hanging off his hips, and he had to hold them up by hand if he didn’t want them dragging on the floor. Steve cringed at the loud volume, and tugged on the belt loops of Tony’s loose jeans in a non-verbal rebuke, but Tony ignored him and kept shouting. “Mom, where are my belts? Mom?”

“If ever I doubted you were your father’s son,” they heard her muttering from the kitchen, and Tony immediately made a beeline for her voice. “You’d think the sun rises every morning just to hear your voice.”

The sweet and savory smell of breakfast permeated the air more noticeably the closer they got to the kitchen. The lure of coffee and bacon, of buttery biscuits and French toast, grew stronger with every step.

They found Maria at the dining table, tying up a tea towel around a basket full of flaky biscuits.

“Mom!” Tony cried in excitement and surprise, not believing what she’d prepared for them even as he stared down at the breakfast feast. “This—this is amazing,” he crowed, reaching for a strip of hot, crispy bacon, but Maria smacked his hand away before he even got close, tuting at his poor manners.

“Were you raised in a barn, child?” she chided. “You two wash your hands and come set the table.”

The front door opened and they heard Howard’s voice calling through the house. “Maria!” he shouted, coming through with a basket of eggs. “Remind me to have someone fix the roof on the coop, would ya? Make the eggs, boy,” he paused to tell Tony as he pushed the basket into his hands, then went sat down on the bench by the door to pull his boots off while talking to his wife.

“Mom, you seen my green sweater around?” Clint wondered as he walked into the kitchen, noticeably calmer about his morning predicament than either Howard or Tony. “I can’t find it anywhere.”

“Darling, I haven’t seen that sweater since your last date with Laura.”

Tony nearly dropped the basket of eggs, and Steve grabbed it out of his hands on instinct when Tony turned to stare at his brother in complete disbelief. “Laura? Laura Cooper?

Clint frowned at his brother and put his hands on his hips, in case his frown wasn’t intimidating enough. “You got a problem with that?”

“Laura Cooper who always had shit in her braces and chewed on erasers?”

Clint rolled his eyes. “Of course you’d remember that—Tony, everyone’s weird in middle school!”

“Who raised you this ugly?” Howard commented with a frown, but Tony was too agitated to fully address the irony of his words.

“Oh, that’s rich coming from you—come on! Clint, you could do so much better than Laura Cooper!”

“Now, hold your horses, Tony. Not that it matters, but Laura’s grown up just like everybody else, and she’s a beautiful young woman. She even took home the Flower Crown in last year’s Rose Fair, and she’s a kind, remarkable lady besides,” Maria told him, then turned to Clint with a proud smile. “Forgive your brother, darling. He likes flashy blondes and little else.”

Tony stiffened at the comment, and a silence fell over the family as they all seemed to realize who was in their company all at the same time. With varying degrees of subtlety, they turned to look at Steve, who had taken to the stove to make the eggs.

After a few moments of silence, he turned to look at them over his shoulder, visibly confused.

“What?” he asked the room at large. “Wait, you thought I’d be shocked that he likes blonds?”

Howard shook his head, while Maria and Clint both either grinned or snickered to themselves, but it was enough for them to move on and get back to their tasks. Maria carried a bag full of oranges over to a big fancy-looking juicer in the corner, while Howard wandered out of the kitchen with a stack of letters and bills.

“Hey, why don’t I help you with that?” Clint told Steve as he walked around the dining table in the kitchen, pulling out a big serving plate and grabbing a second pan off the rack to take over half of Steve’s work. “How’re you doing them? Scrambled?”

“I scrambled eight so far. That’s not too much, is it?”

Clint laughed as if the question had been absurd, and picked up three eggs in each hand. “We eat in this house,” he said with a big grin, then with a glance back at his brother, he added, “Just cause Tony’s too skinny to cast a shadow—”

Tony sat the stack of plates down with a huff and glared at them both. “Alright, that’s it. For the last time: I’m not unhealthy, I’m well over 150 pounds, which is perfectly reasonable—”

“Tell it to your pants, man,” Clint snickered, then with another obvious once-over of his brother, turned back to Steve and said, “you should’ve seen him in his prime. He—”

The moment Clint turned his back, Tony pounced on his brother and wrangled him away from the stove in a chokehold.

“Who’s not in his prime now!” Tony growled into Clint’s ear while his brother’s slapping attempts to fight back only had Tony cackling maniacally and sawing his knuckles over Clint’s head in a terrible noogie. Clint cried out with a string of words no pastor would forgive, to which Tony only shouted back “Who? I can’t hear you!”

Armed with a pan and a ladle, Maria marched their way banging the pan full force. The blistering exchange of cursing and adrenaline-fueled laughter immediately turned into childish cries of complaint, and the boys separated like oil and vinegar with their hands over their ears.

“Mom!” Clint shouted over the noise, “it’s over—mom!”

“There’s rocks in Mississippi with better sense than the two of you,” she shouted back, tossing the pan and ladle back on the counter. “Your brother’s home for the first time in seven years, and this is how you welcome him?”

“He attacked me!”

“You were asking for it!”

“And Tony, pull up your pants, I can tell your religion,” Maria snapped, but whatever was meant to follow was quickly forgotten. She lowered her hands to her sides and looked past Tony, who had just gathered his loose jeans in his hands again. Tony turned to see what she was suddenly staring at, and to his horror, he saw Steve standing in a corner of the kitchen, hunched into himself and still covering both his ears with his hands.

“Oh, shi—Steve? Steve,” Tony whispered, rushing over to Steve’s side. Steve visibly shivered even in the warm kitchen; remembering Steve’s reaction to the unlocked window last night, Tony had a nauseating understanding of what his shivering meant. At first, Tony walked over with a tight grip of his loose jeans to stop himself from pulling Steve into his arms. He needed a moment to steady himself, and as soon as he did, Tony forgot about everything else and opened his arms instead, leaving Steve the option to be held if he needed the physical comfort.

It took some time, but Steve shuffled closer and leaned into Tony’s arms after a stretch of silence. He still wouldn’t let go of his ears.

“What’s wrong, darling?” Maria asked in genuine concern as she came over to check on them. Tony turned them enough to stop her from touching Steve, shaking his head in a silent bid for her to keep her hands to herself. Reluctantly, she stepped back, but she couldn’t help but repeat her question. “Talk to us, sweetheart, what’s the matter?”

“Mom, I don’t exactly know,” Tony said quietly; while speaking for Steve wasn’t his first choice, he needed his mom to stop her line of questioning. He pressed his cheek against the side of Steve’s head and rubbed slow, soothing circles over his shoulder, until Steve’s posture started to relax. Little by little, his hands slipped from his ears. “Foster kid, CPS,” he finally told his mom, as if that was all that needed to be said.

“Aw, sweet child, and there I went making a ruckus,” she said in an even quieter voice, as if to make up for the earlier clatter of her pan. “For what it’s worth, darling, that makes two of you.”

Steve frowned a little in confusion, and without shrugging or leaning out of Tony’s arms, he lifted his head to look at Maria, and then Clint, over Tony’s shoulder.

Clint grinned shyly, and gave him a little wave of his fingers.

***

“Tony and I ran into each other at a rodeo out in Iowa when I was seven,” Clint told Steve when they all were sat down for breakfast a few minutes later.

“He was feeding my pony sugar and oats,” Tony stage-whispered from Steve’s right, unwilling to let Clint have full control of the story. “I was racing that day, he sabotaged me.”

“But you caught me. Red-handed and too dumb to know better,” Clint added with an ironic but blatant pride. “I came back with Tony and dad after that. The rest is history.”

Steve’s brows climbed up his forehead in surprise. “Just like that?”

“There isn’t a negotiation dad can’t win,” Clint explained, looking more sincere than boastful, then slanted a long-suffering look Tony’s way. “And you...”

“I might have… insisted?” Tony finished with an playfully innocent tone that had Clint and Maria laughing. Even Howard smirked at the memory. “You know, looking back, I don’t even get how all that was legal. It took what, a week? Ten days?”

“Son, I’d sooner tell you how we had you,” Howard told him dryly. Steve took a sip of his coffee before Tony’s responding pout and huff had him grinning like a fool, but then Howard cleared his throat, and everyone at the table turned to hear him. “So, what is it that you do, Steve? Tony says you write books?”

“Not quite, sir,” Steve said, brushing biscuit crumbs off his hands before putting his cloth napkin away and giving Howard his full attention. “I work for a global—”

Clint frowned immediately, and, with a straight face, asked, “Globo Gym?”

“Close,” Steve replied, without missing a beat. “I’m the editor-in-chief for Shield Publications.”

Tony perked up at Steve’s elbow, and Steve momentarily forgot about Howard to see what that meant. When Tony noticed Steve looking at him, he just grinned and said, “I’m pretty sure they own Trending: Now, or something like that.”

Steve’s brows quirked in question since that was a little out of his overview of the company, but he couldn’t help smiling at how pleasantly surprised Tony seemed. Before he could ask anything further, however, Howard spoke.

“That’s it? You’ve made a career as a copy editor?”

Clint stared at his dad as if he couldn’t quite believe his ears, and Maria whispered across the table in warning, but Howard seemed apathetic to their scrutiny.

“‘That’s it’?” Steve repeated far too calmly, though he frowned around the words and their bitter aftertaste. “With all due respect, during my four-year tenure, Shield has received more accolades and recognition than the prior decade.”

“That’s how you think you’ll be remembered, is it? ‘Accolades’?”

“What’s wrong with you?” Tony glowered with an anger that was felt more serious than this conversation warranted. Distantly Steve remembered something about debutants and children, but he was too irritated to make a meaningful connection.

“Dad, this is not the time—”

Steve laid a hand on Tony’s forearm to stop him there. He squeezed Tony’s arm gently in a silent expression of his appreciation, but he didn’t need anyone to fight his bullies for him.

“Sir, whatever opinion you have of me,” he told Howard in the brief silence, “I don’t need fame to know my contribution to society and to our future.”

Yes, Howard: books are important,” Maria told him in a flinty, clipped tone that had both Tony and Clint shuddering in their chairs.

“It’s not like they’re his books, Maria. He's a glorified spellchecker,” Howard scoffed, but Maria smacked her hand flat on the table, hard enough to rattle the vases of fresh flowers and the cutlery.

“Not another word out of you on the subject. Not at my breakfast table.”

Whether he was genuinely chastised or not, Howard knew better than to talk back. He reached for another biscuit and the butter dish as if nothing had happened.

While their mom stared down their dad across the table, Clint glanced Tony’s way and they both rolled their eyes. “You still up for fixing the fence out by the east lake?” Clint asked then, determined to move on. “We could do it together on Thursday, if it’s too much.”

Tony frowned at the question, his expression caught somewhere between suspicious and offended. “How bad is it?”

“They only dug up three posts, we just got unlucky with where they hit the fence. There’s only two good posts between the damage and the watering hole, so we gotta replace them, too.”

Steve watched as Clint shrugged at what was undoubtedly part of every-day life, while Tony groaned and rolled his eyes. Clearly, he accepted the news with far less grace than his brother.

“I can help,” he offered, without knowing anything about fences. It was almost worth it to see Tony blinking wildly in surprise.

“Yeah, sure, help would be great,” Tony said after a beat, smiling again for the first time since Howard spoke. “Who knows? Maybe with your help, we’ll finish early.”

***

“I think that’s enough for today.”

Tony helped Steve into the flatbed of the truck, and pulled together some of the horse blankets so that Steve could at least be comfortable even with his scratched up hands.

“I didn’t even help,” Steve complained, frowning down at his hands and the half-dozen deep, red gashes from the barbed wire. Tony had only just managed to get the bleeding to stop, and now Steve had to sit in the back of the truck while Tony did all the work himself.

“Next time, listen to me and wear the safety gloves—”

“They were uncomfortable and not my size,” Steve muttered petulantly. “My gloves should have worked. They’re good quality leather.”

“Darling, I’m sure they’re the best quality,” Tony said in a patient voice that made it clear he was trying pretty hard not to laugh. “But designer gloves aren’t made for working barbed wire fences. Now, keep this on, would you?” he added, dropping a wide-brim cattleman hat on Steve’s head.

Steve frowned to himself and glanced up at the hat.

Tony already knew that look. It was Steve’s argumentative face, which he was brazenly (though probably not successfully) trying to resist. Except, the sun was already getting high, and the last thing Tony needed was to leave the hard labor for the hottest hours of the day.

“You look great,” he assured Steve before his argumentative side started complaining. “Your job is to keep time, and make sure I don’t forget water, alright? Every thirty minutes or so, water. Got your phone?”

“Got it.”

Tony hopped out of the truck and got to work. Five posts to be replaced and three wires to patch. He was out of practice and, despite what he liked to believe, was at a physical disadvantage.

The heat really wasn’t all that bad, but after just ten minutes of digging, the layers had to come off. He pulled off his long sleeves and tossed it into the back of the truck.

“I don’t think your dad likes me,” Steve blurted out as Tony got back to work. He glanced back over his shoulder to try and get a good read of him, but Steve was looking anywhere to avoid eye-contact. “I’m sure this will help.”

Tony frowned to himself, but since Steve wasn’t comfortable with eye-contact, he went back to work. He could multitask. “You’re worried about what he thinks?”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Impress the parents?” Steve asked rhetorically. “I’m pretty sure he laughed at my boots this morning.”

With the first post free enough to turn, Tony tossed the shovel aside and crouched down to get a good grip. With a grunt and more effort than he ever remembered, he pulled the post out and threw it aside.

“It’s your first time out in the country, Steve,” Tony huffed out, pulling up the bottom of his tank to wipe at his nose.

“Uh. Uh-huh. You... you, uh. Think your mom likes me?”

“I think she likes you too much,” Tony snickered, going back to the hole with the post-digger to clean it up for the replacement. “Steve? Don’t think too much about it. It’s not like the movies, unreasonable parents aren’t going to realize what they’re doing wrong and fall in love with you in 60 minutes or less.”

“I don’t need them to love me. They don’t even have to like me,” Steve muttered. “I just don’t want them to be disappointed if… if you’re with me.”

The first four lifts of the digger were smooth and easy. There was some resistance near the end, but after several firm thrusts into the ground, Tony heard the satisfying snap of a branch giving way, and he finished without a problem.

With the hole cleared, he dropped the digger back on the ground and walked back to the truck. He leaned far enough into the truck to reach the cooler, and dug out a bottle of water for himself.

“I feel like I’m missing something,” Tony told Steve between quick gulps of water. “It’s not like I’m less interested in you if they’re disappointed.”

Steve blinked back at him with round, owlish eyes. “Even… even, uh. Even if it gets serious?”

“How much more serious could it get?” Tony asked, and try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself from chuckling nervously. “It’s, what? Our fifth day together, and you’re visiting my family. Steve, this is… insanely fast. You should be running for the hills.”

All at once, Steve’s distracted, unsure attitude was forgotten. The shift from defense to offense was as clear as night to day: he sat up straight with his shoulders pulled back, and instead of his surprised or unsure look from earlier, Steve could look at him again with his characteristic confidence.

“Just because it’s going fast doesn’t mean it’s not where I want to be,” he said with the deep-seated conviction that sent shivers tingling down Tony’s spine. “I don’t like uncertainty, and I know what I want. I’m not interested in playing any unnecessary games about being hard to get or, or to test you somehow. You’ve been there for me when I’ve needed you,” he added, more quietly. “I know a good man when I see one.”

Tony could have thanked him. He could have assured Steve that he, too, was uninterested in popular games of bumbling mating rituals. That he, too, knew what he wanted. That Steve could very well be what he was looking for.

Except, he had no voice, and no words adequately meaningful came to mind. Before he knew it, Tony had climbed into the flatbed and gotten on his knees at Steve’s feet. When he leaned in close enough to kiss, Steve neither shied away or grimaced at the sweat and grime.

“Yes,” Steve answered on a soft breath before Tony even had to ask. Permission given, Tony closed the space between them and claimed Steve’s lips with a hungry kiss, with eager teeth and needful moans that formed Steve’s name. He pushed at Steve’s knees with his elbows until he relaxed his legs from his comfortable seated position, and made it easier for Tony to get his jeans undone.

Tony sat back on his haunches, and even with the gloves, he managed to get Steve’s jeans unbuttoned and tugged down just enough to reveal his briefs. He pulled down the waistband of his underwear inch for inch, until Steve’s already hard and leaking cock had enough space to pop out of its confines.

“Been thinking of me?” Tony smirked up at Steve, and even as he blushed, Steve rolled his eyes and huffed in amusement.

“Can you blame me? Watching you work—you know how hard it is to jerk off in jeans and with cut-up hands?”

Tony laughed in his delighted surprise, and he stretched out on his belly over the flatbed. Without looking away from Steve’s face, he eased the head of Steve’s cock past his lips, wasting no time in slowly, carefully, easing the length of his hard cock down his throat. Steve was too thick to swallow to the root, but Tony did his best; it wasn’t until he felt Steve’s fingers in his hair that he pulled off.

“Don’t,” he mumbled with a faint grain in his voice and long trails of saliva connecting his lips and chin to Steve’s cock. “Keep your hands above your heart, remember? Keep them relaxed, do that for me?”

Steve frowned, but was fairly quick to comply: he crossed his arms and held on to his own shoulders.

“Perfect,” Tony murmured against the flushed head of Steve’s cock, and he lapped up the gush of precum with a playful enthusiasm before parting his lips and smoothly swallowing him down.

***

They didn’t return until the sun went down. Four of the five posts had been replaced, and most of the patchwork finished. What remained would be quick work for tomorrow.

The first thing they saw as they pulled up to the house was Maria, standing on the porch with her arms crossed over her chest.

“Lunch was at two,” she told them coolly. “Where were you?”

“Mom, you packed us lunch,” Tony replied as he climbed out of the truck and slowly made his way to the porch. The last thing he needed was for her to find new reasons to worry, so he did his best to walk as casually as he could. “It was enough for both of us.”

“Are you trying to kill me, child?” she demanded, smacking him when he tried to come in for a hug. “You work all day, you call your snacks a lunch—”

“And we are really hungry right now, aren’t we Steve?”

“Can we help with dinner?” Steve said instead of answering Tony.

“We already ate dinner, but thank you, Steve. Go wash up and make a plate before I pack it away, food’s still on the table.”

Tony agreed before she got too insistent, and quickly gestured for Steve to follow. He led their way to the kitchen, but rather than lingering and talking to anyone, he told his mom they’d eat in the bedroom, excusing them as quickly as he could.

“Everything hurts,” he whined as soon as the door closed behind them. He dropped his plate of food on the workbench and shuffled immediately for the bed, where he belly-flopped with a groan.

He heard Steve set his plate down, too. Then, the boots came off, followed by the quiet but distinct sound of a shirt, jeans and a belt hitting the floor. Not a moment too soon, he felt the bed dip as Steve kneeled his way to the headboard.

At Steve’s first touch, Tony pushed and grunted until he could stretch out on the bed with his head in Steve’s lap.

“You’re really something,” he murmured, combing his fingers through Tony’s hair gently and brushing it aside so that he could see Tony’s face better. “Can I help?”

Tony laughed a little breathlessly, but he was almost too sore to even manage that pain-free. “Darling, you’re hot as sin, but if you think I—”

“Not sex, Tony,” Steve interjected gently, smirking a little at Tony’s assumption. “If you’re sore, I can help. My hands are better,” he assured him when Tony opened his mouth to reply. “It’s been hours, I feel fine.”

Tony’s expression quirked in exasperated confusion. “How’d you know what I was gonna say?”

“You made that face,” Steve whispered, drawing a finger over Tony’s forehead and temple before going back to combing his fingers through Tony’s hair; slowly, he started to rub his fingertips over Tony’s scalp, and before Tony knew what to expect, Steve’s strong fingers were finding the knots of tension over his scalp and the base of his neck.

“I don’,” Tony mumbled quietly, moaning with relief as he all but melted under Steve’s touch. “Don’ make face...”

Steve chuckled under his breath, leaning back against the pillows piled up against the headboard to settle in as he found a comfortable rhythmic pattern.

“You do,” Steve said eventually, speaking so quietly that Tony almost missed it. He moaned quietly in protest, and he wanted to tell Steve to speak up, but his lips were so heavy, and he was so comfortable. He’d just close his eyes first, only for a minute.

A hammering on the bedroom door suddenly cut through the comforting silence, and Tony groaned at the pain of being startled awake.

“Tony, Clint’s worked all day, you’re on hay duty with me.”

Tony whined under his breath and turned his face into Steve’s thigh in an effort to get away from his dad’s demand.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Steve whispered, carefully lifting Tony off his lap before sliding out from under him.

“Steve?” Tony mumbled, slowly pushing himself up to sitting with small, careful movements. “What’re you doing?”

Steve, who was already in the process of buttoning up his jeans and buckling his belt into place, came back to bed to stand between Tony’s knees. He didn’t patronize Tony with an answer, and instead leaned in to give him a kiss on the forehead, then another kiss on the cheek.

“Take a shower, sweetheart,” he told Tony with a smile. “Eat, get some sleep.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Tony assured him, even pulling Steve closer by the belt-loops of his jeans to nuzzle at his sternum. “And you really don’t need to get dressed, like, ever. It’s a crime.”

Steve chuckled, bowing his head to nuzzle at the crown of Tony’s head. “You can undress me all you like, as—”

“Tony!” Howard shouted from the other side of the door. “We’re losing sunlight, boy, get out here!”

“As soon as I come back,” Steve finished into Tony’s hair. With a last kiss, he stepped away to pull on his shirt and grab a sweater out of his bag before stepping out of the room.

***

Howard gave Steve an unimpressed once-over when he stepped out onto the porch.

“What do you want, kid?”

Steve took a deep, calming breath. “My name is Steve,” he said. “Tony’s worked all day. I can help.”

“You?” Howard said with an unfriendly smirk. “You think your decorative designer plumage makes you qualified for honest labor, Steve?”

“Not necessarily,” Steve admitted with a shrug. “But it makes me qualified to try. And, I suspect there are things you’d like to say to me without an audience.”

Howard’s brows climbed up his forehead, but his smirk was more telling of his mood.

“How novel. It can think,” he mused to himself. “Fine. Get in the truck.”

Steve took another deep, steadying breath. He reminded himself of his treasured apartment, his career. The bookshelf decorated with awards and photos commemorating his achievements.

He reminded himself of Tony’s sleepy, tired smile. Of the sound of his slow, deep breathing while he slept, tucked against the length of Steve’s legs with his head in Steve’s lap only moments ago, before Howard woke him.

The memories helped, and when he climbed into the passenger seat of the truck, he could genuinely smile again. Howard gave him a side-long look, but he didn’t say a word as he started up the truck. They took off down an unlit dirt road.

Once they had driven far enough that Steve couldn’t see the house, the stable, or the barn, Howard broke the silence. “If you think my son is some cash cow to take advantage of,” he told Steve matter of factly, “you are sorely mistaken.”

“Sir, I’m not interested in your son because of your money,” Steve said as calmly as he could. “Nothing he said of you or his childhood lifestyle suggested you were wealthy.”

“I find that convenient and hard to believe,” Howard drawled.

“What do you want, my tax returns?” Steve bit out, then pursed his lips again as he reminded himself to keep calm. If he wanted to count this a win, he needed to keep a cool head. “I assure you, I have enough money for a good life for a long, long time.”

“Yes, as an editor,” Howard said with a tone dripping with sarcasm. “Lucrative, I’m sure.”

“I own real estate in New York City,” Steve told him, which finally seemed to give Howard pause. “Two apartments, one condo. Paid off; they’re paying my mortgage now. I’m eyeing a beach house in California as my next purchase. If you’re worried that my intentions are motivated by money, you are welcome to my financial plans. I’ve got the next five to ten years laid out to the dollar, and none of them involve your son.”

“Then why are you targeting my son?” Howard demanded, somehow angrier now that he’d been proved wrong. “Tony… has a big heart. When he falls, he falls hard and fast. You’ve known him less than a week, and you’re already considering marriage?”

An icy chill washed down Steve’s back, and he struggled to outwardly keep himself as calm as possible.

Quietly, he asked, “Why would you—”

“These arrived for you today,” Howard said and held up two ring boxes. One was large and square, the other round, and more demure. “Why don’t you tell me what’s in here, Steve.”

His heart raced hard and fast in his chest, and Steve stared at Howard, stared at the ring boxes. If Howard only knew what he held in his hands. They were supposed to be Steve’s ticket to stability, the key to the life he had worked so hard to achieve, and a career in which he could thrive.

But now, none of it was clear anymore. Steve’s hopes and dreams weren’t the tidy list of opportunities it had always been, and as he stared at the incriminating ring boxes, they warred in his mind with his shame and his self-contempt.

“I can’t,” he whispered in a small voice.

“Now, unless you’re some kind of millenial polygamist, it looks to me like you’ve got someone mailing you a selection of engagement rings. Does that sound like love to you, Steve?”

If only.

“No, sir.”

“Then I suggest you reconsider your priorities, kid,” Howard told him quietly, and pulled the car into park in the middle of a dark pasture. “You hurt my son, and you can kiss your apartments, your condos, and your beachfront California shithouse goodbye. That is a promise. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Chapter Text

Tell him, or I will.

Hay duty took no longer than an hour, but by the time Steve made it back to Tony’s room, he was tired and his body ached in disturbingly unfamiliar ways. Howard’s words weighed on his mind, and the two ring boxes in his pocket were bloated with too much shame to carry, but he managed to shuffle into the room all the same.

He’d expected Tony to be asleep when he got back, but instead found him lounging in the tub. He stood there in the doorway without saying a word, watching Tony in this brief moment of peace. It didn't take long to realize that by the way Tony’s head was rested comfortably over a rolled-up towel, and the unusual stillness of his fingers draped over the side, Steve’s first assumption hadn’t been so far off.

Experience had taught Steve that honesty in its entirety was never a safe option. Tony was forgiving, and Tony was kind; he was protective and he made Steve feel safe, but whether he knew it or not, Tony knew too much about Steve. Already he had more emotional ammunition than other one-night-stands and Johns had ever enjoyed against Steve in the past.

“Darling?” Tony drawled sleepily, startling Steve out of his thoughts. He held out his hand, reaching for Steve and urging him closer. “You’re back.”

Before Tony moved and dislodged his comfortable set-up, Steve closed the bathroom door behind him and came to sit beside the tub. He pulled the bathmat over and gingerly lowered himself into a seated position, groaning every time his sore back cried out in protest at unavoidable sudden movements.

“Dad wasn’t too harsh, was he?”

“It could have been worse,” Steve said with a lopsided smile, and it was the truth. After all, Howard hadn’t shot him. “Tossing hay bales off a moving truck might be my new favorite work-out.”

Tony’s sleep-happy face shone with a smile until he just couldn’t stop himself from laughing. “You’re such a liar,” he giggled quietly, shaking his head to himself. “Your back okay?”

Steve couldn’t look away from him, from the affection in Tony’s eyes, and the easy way he smiled back at Steve. In those brown eyes, Steve found that nothing mattered but the two of them, and this private moment they shared.

“Tony, there’s been a misunderstanding,” Steve whispered before he lost his courage. He tried to smile to ease the surprise, but it didn’t help. The easy smile faded from Tony’s expression, and he frowned with concern. “It’s nothing bad,” Steve hurried to reassure him. “I, I have a personal shopper, Jan. Jan van Dyne. I don’t always have time to shop, so if important events come up, I ask her for help.”

Tony’s frown of concern started to look more like confusion, and Steve allowed himself a quiet breath of relief. He could work with confusion.

“I asked her to help me find boots,” Steve confessed. “I didn’t—I thought, if everyone—”

Tony nodded in understanding. “Didn’t want to stand out,” he filled in, and Steve hummed quietly in agreement. “Go on.”

“I told her I was going to ‘meet the parents,’ and—it’s not like she knows much about my life, she just—I talk to her once a month at most, about what clothes I need,” Steve explained, the lie spilling from his lips easier with every word. “Maybe I said something, or, or she just extrapolated, but, uh. She sent me these.”

He pulled the boxes out of his pocket then, and, carefully, balanced them on the wide rim of the tub.

Wide-eyed and unblinking, Tony stared at the ring boxes.

“You—you,” Tony stammered in a weak voice, inexplicably short of breath. “Are you—”

“No!” Steve rushed to say, and Tony lifted his startled stare from the boxes to Steve. “No—I mean. At least… maybe? Someday,” Steve whispered then, quietly. “It’s… it’s not the endgame anyway, it’s. I mean, that’s—that’s the benefit of being men, right? This—we can choose, choose this for our reasons, not for, for ‘starting a family,’ or whatever. But, for me,” he added, his lips twisting wryly as he tried to get the words out right. “It’s stability. Knowing that... someone wants to stick around. With me.”

“And… dad knows?”

“He opened the package and found them, yes,” Steve replied, and found some gratification in spying a glimpse of anger on Tony’s face.

“I’ll talk to him,” Tony promised. “This would be his biggest nightmare, I’ll—I’ll talk to him. I’m sorry for whatever hurtful shit he said to you, Steve, and the invasion of privacy, he can’t—”

“Tony,” Steve said in a quiet voice, interrupting Tony’s righteous protective streak. “Before… before you do all that,” he continued once he had Tony’s full attention again. “What if… uh. Um. What if?”

“What if it was a proposal?” Tony guessed, and when Steve nodded jerkily, he mirrored it, nodding in understanding. “Right... okay, Steve? Listen. I like you—a lot, uh. Actually, more than I, I thought I would like someone after—you know what? It doesn't matter. I just don’t know you that well, Steve,” he said so sincerely that Steve really couldn’t fault him for the rejection. “I don’t know what all you’ve lived through. I don’t even—I mean, if you don’t want to talk about it, you never have to tell me, but, it’s not that I don’t want to know. To know you. Get to know you better. I do. But, if, if this’ll give you peace of mind, it’s… I mean, we can sign a detailed prenup, so nobody has to worry. If this goes south, we separate amicably with what we had before, like any other break-up.”

Steve couldn’t breathe. Steve couldn’t move, he couldn’t blink, he couldn’t speak.

“Steve?” Tony called his name gently, but he said it with a smile, as if he could guess at the effect of his casual acceptance. “Hey, darling? You alright?”

“You—you would do that?” Steve finally managed to whisper. “You would do that for me?”

Tony sat up in the tub, careful not to move too quickly to either startle Steve or have the warm water sloshing over the rim. Without dislodging the ring boxes, he reached for Steve’s hand and brought it up to kiss the palm of his hand. “Steve? It’s not that complicated... it’s kind of what you call a ‘no-brainer’? Cause if that's what it takes to date you proper,” Tony said with an adoring smile, “then watch me marry you, darling.”

***

Whatever ghosts from Steve’s past were haunting him now, he wouldn’t move. With his face hidden in his hands and his shoulders shuddering with the weight of his uneven breaths, Tony struggled to think of ways to get his attention again without startling him.

In the end, Tony stood up in the tub and let gravity do the work for him. The warm water from his bath trickled down his shoulders, smoothing down the natural planes and curves of his arms and his chest, until a few drops landed on Steve’s hands.

Steve inhaled with a gasp and looked up with watery, red eyes.

“Stand up, come on,” Tony whispered and reached for him, helping him find his feet. “How about a shower? You'll feel better.”

Steve sniffed and scrubbed a hand over his face, wiping away the stray tears Tony pretended not to see. “Will you, uh,” he started to say, then cleared his throat quietly. “Will you be in it, too?”

“I could be.”

A hopeful smile stretched across Steve’s lips, warming his expression like a star rising in the darkest hour of night.

“I’d like that,” Steve admitted, a quiet laugh escaping alongside his words.

He wasted no time pulling his sweater over his head and unbuttoning his jeans. Tony unstopped the tub and turned the shower head on, so by the time Steve had tossed the ring boxes safely on top of his pile of clothes and stepped in beside him, they could stand together under the warm spray, indulging in the intimate canopy that kept the rest of the world at bay.

Steve gravitated towards him and cupped Tony’s face in his hands, kissing him breathless. Tony moaned shamelessly with delight, wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck to draw himself flush against Steve’s body as he eagerly, greedily, returned the kiss.

“Let me,” Steve husked against Tony’s ear, bowing his head and scraping his teeth down the column of Tony’s throat. With an arm around Tony’s lower back and a firm grip of his thigh, Steve jerked Tony’s hips flush against his own. Instinctively, Tony thrust up with a deep purr of pleasure, delighting in how his hard cock slid against the length of Steve’s erection.

“Steve—darling,” Tony moaned softly, his head tipping to the side as Steve worked on raising a dark bruise at the base of neck. With a half-hearted tug of Steve’s hair, he whimpered, “please?”

Steve hummed in reply, laving his tongue over the darkening bruise with a proprietary confidence. When he lifted his head at last to nuzzle at Tony’s cheek and see what he had to say, Tony couldn’t have stopped himself from smiling back if he tried.

“I missed you, too, Sparky,” he teased, intentionally turning his head to mouth at Steve’s plump bottom lip with every word. “We’re not exactly in a state to invite more injuries. Let’s wash up and take this to bed, hm?”

For a moment, a little frown of confusion creased Steve’s brow, but he quickly understood. He pressed a soft kiss to the bridge of Tony’s nose and released the possessive grip of his thigh.

“As you wish.”

Still, they couldn’t keep apart for long. Tony had already showered, but while he massaged the shampoo into Steve’s hair with firm, attentive fingers, Steve chased kiss after indulgent kiss from his traitorous lips. When he lathered up the firm sponge and turned Steve around to wash his back, Steve took Tony’s free hand in his, lifting it from where it rested on his hip to his lips, so he could brush absent kisses over his knuckles and lick the warm water off his skin.

When he finally had Steve turn back around to wash his front, Tony almost gave up on the sponge all together. “You strike a hard bargain,” he murmured with an appreciative tone, staring shamelessly at Steve’s clear show of interest. But he resisted the urge to rush, instead indulging in the pleasure of washing the firm muscles of Steve’s chest and shoulders, muttering silent curses under his breath at the surreal cut of Steve’s body.

As he knelt to wash Steve’s legs, ass, and everything in-between, he couldn’t help but shake his head and, glancing up at Steve, muttered, “I feel like someone’s going to report me to the authorities for touching priceless art any minute now...”

“And I haven’t been cleaner in my entire life,” Steve complained in return, his lips tugging up at the corners as he strained to keep from grinning.

“I don’t know, Sparky,” Tony said with exaggerated suspicion. He swept his soap lathered hand over Steve’s cock, balls, then the crack of his ass, forcing Steve to take a wider stance to steady himself so Tony rubbed his soaped up thumb slowly around the puckered rim. “That look of yours is filthy.”

“Bed, Tony,” Steve growled impatiently. “Now.”

Tony bit his lip to keep from snickering at Steve’s sudden lack of control, but it would take a stronger man than he to deny Steve. He ran his fingers over Steve’s skin as the shower water washed over him, until there was no arguable reason to delay.

Steve stepped out first, grabbing a towel off the rack for Tony, then for himself. But while Steve scrubbed and dried himself off, Tony made a beeline for the ring boxes.

“What did she pick?”

Steve froze and looked at the boxes in Tony’s hands. A blush crept up across his chest and neck, and color bloomed over his cheeks; by the time he shook his head and admitted that he didn’t know, Tony had already figured it out.

Tony barely bothered to towel off, walking out to the bedroom instead with the towel simply draped over his shoulders. Steve tied his towel around his waist and followed Tony out to the bedroom, sitting down beside him and watching Tony mull over the boxes. He held the big box in the palm of his hand and the smaller, round one with his fingers, thumbing at the latch in thought.

“You could open it, you know,” Steve whispered. Tony glanced at him with a smile, and did exactly that.

Inside the small, round box he found a classic gold wedding band. He glanced back at Steve again and saw that he, too, was a little surprised by its simplicity. In the second box, Tony found the ornate ring he had expected from the kind of shopper who had also bought Steve’s boots. It was a gold band, again, but its raised prong design boasted five neat rows of six diamonds—except in the top row, where the first gem was a vibrant ruby.

Tucked inside the lid of the box they saw a little note that read, A ring to grow with you through the years.

“I think we can do better,” he decided then, closing the boxes up and stretching to put them away on the wide ledge of the bed. Steve pressed a kiss to Tony’s shoulder and hummed softly in agreement, then slowly, careful of his stiff back, stood up again to hang their towels over the Tony’s old desk chair.

“You choose, I’ll pay,” he promised as he came back to the bed, and before Tony knew what happened, Steve had scooped him up in his arms to toss him further up the bed, so Tony sprawled haplessly in the center. Tony hurried to push up on his elbows and watch Steve crawl up the bed after him on his hands and knees.

“You asshole,” Tony snickered at the first touch of Steve’s lips. He let his legs fall open at Steve’s sides, so that when Steve lowered himself to lie on top of him, Tony could easily cross his legs over Steve’s back and keep him captive. With an added squeeze to remind his prisoner of his subordinate position, Tony innocently asked, “You mean it? I can choose any ring I want?”

Steve moaned softly at the squeeze, and again at the question, kissing Tony’s smiling lips and trailing a reverent trail of wet love bites down chin and his throat. “Anything you want,” he murmured quietly, between the kisses.

“Platinum? Titanium?” Tony asked with a slight quiver in his voice, losing himself momentarily as Steve made his way down to his nipples, humming in the affirmative all the way. “Gummi? Ring pop?”

Steve stilled mid-hum with his teeth teasing at Tony’s nipple. He picked up his head and gave Tony a flat look.

“Really, Tony?”

“Hey, don’t underestimate gummi rings,” Tony accused even as he had to pinch his lips in a firm line to keep from giggling at Steve’s befuddled expression. “They’re sweet, flexible. Stackable!”

“Like you,” Steve murmured with feigned understanding. Tony gave him a flat look and squeezed Steve’s sides hard enough to get a laughing huff out of him, but when Steve pushed forward to kiss his lips again, Tony forgave all his past and current sins.

“I want to fuck you, Tony,” Steve said softly against Tony’s lips, a touch more seriously than before. “But if you’re tired, if you’re sore—”

“What’s that, The New New Colossus? Bedside drawer,” Tony answered before Steve finished his question. “Lube, condoms.”

Steve pushed up on his hands and knees and moved to check the drawer, and he had just located the small collection of condoms when Tony sat up with a question on his face.

“Wait. It’s been—does that, what’s the expiration date?”

“What—Tony? 2009?” Steve asked plaintively, tossing the lube and condoms into the small bin beside the bedside table before climbing off the bed to dig through his own luggage.

“I only had one partner at the time,” Tony reasoned, but he sat up to enjoy the view of Steve’s back and backside. Those firm, glorious shoulders, that tapered waist—hell, that ass. Tony couldn’t believe he’d had his hands all over Steve only minutes ago, and, Lord help him, he was about to have his way with this man again.

Steve returned to bed with a travel size tube of lubricant and a small box of condoms that he sat down on Tony’s bedside table. “No judgement,” Steve promised with a little smile when he climbed back into bed, pressing himself against Tony’s side this time.

“For the record,” Tony murmured between playful little kisses, “still clean.”

Steve grinned against his lips with a hum of delight. “Damn, Tony. So romantic,” he teased, and when Tony snickered quietly, Steve laughed. “Me, too. For the record.”

He should have expected such a response, but something about the quiet way Steve said it, as if he didn’t want someone else to overhear, gave Tony pause. “Do you,” he started to ask in a whisper, glancing at the condom Steve had dropped on the bedspread within reach, but Steve shook his head.

“Not why I said it, sweetheart,” he promised, pressing a soft, lingering kiss to Tony’s lips. “Maybe another time.”

Every slide of their lips grew hungrier, more needful, until Steve’s tongue and his teeth had chased all awareness of the world around them from Tony’s thoughts. When Steve pulled off to suck and nibble his way down Tony’s chest, his abdomen, Tony could only whimper for breath and claw at Steve’s shoulders.

Distantly, with barely no energy left to sustain his conviction, Tony told himself that this couldn’t be a repeat of their first time. He wouldn’t be the passive sacrifice to Steve’s hydra tactics again, he couldn’t—he shouldn’t, but then Steve swallowed him to the root and hummed deliberately around his cock, distracting him enough that he almost didn’t feel the momentary pain of being stretched opened on Steve’s slick fingers, and Tony struggled to remember why or what he refused to do.

His was the fate of a dinghy out in a storm on the great ocean tide, thrown out of his depth and overwhelmed at every new turn. Two fingers scissored and fucked into him while Steve rubbed firm, soothing circles over his perineum with his thumb, and Tony’s entire world narrowed to more, he needed more, to be filled, to be one with Steve again, and damn him, he needed it urgently, desperately.

“No, not again,” he heard himself groaned hoarsely, and he dug his fingers into the firm, meaty muscle of Steve’s shoulders. Steve pulled off his cock then and eased the rhythm of his fingers until he was only slowly, gently, pumping his fingers in and out of Tony’s body, giving him a sliver of satisfaction.

“Anything you want, sweetheart,” Steve promised, as if there was a menu to make selections from, and Tony was his favorite customer. The thought alone made him frown, and he pushed up enough so that he could look Steve in the eyes.

“I want to feel you,” he explained, his voice low and gravely with want. “Not just your cock, Steve: all of you.”

He wasn’t sure it made sense outside of his head, but there was a look of understanding in Steve’s eyes, so Tony counted it as a win.

Steve nodded wordlessly, pressed a parting kiss low on Tony’s abdomen before gently withdrawing his fingers. He sat back momentarily to tear open the packet and roll the condom on, then moved up beside Tony to move them both onto their sides until he could spoon right up against Tony’s back, his hard cock nestled in the cleft of Tony’s ass.

“Better?” he whispered against the shell of Tony’s ear. His warm breath gusted over the sensitive skin of his neck, sending shivers down Tony’s spine. Tony had barely nodded in agreement before Steve pushed Tony’s top leg forward to spread his thighs and expose the cleft of his ass.

With a cursory touch, Steve spread lube from his fingers over his cock, then guided his cock into position and pressed in with one slow, painfully slow, thrust. Tony clutched at the bedspread as those first few inches breached him, but at the same time as he felt his body stretching and straining to accommodate the blunt, unyielding intrusion of Steve’s cock, Tony could hear Steve’s quiet, otherwise unheard puffs of effort against his ear, his gasping prayer and his praising curses.

To know how he, too, overwhelmed Steve, and how hard Steve was struggling to keep himself steady, to make this perfect for them, all of it made Tony melt back into the cradle of Steve’s body. He reached back to grab a fistful of his hair; this time, he wouldn’t let Steve hide his emotions and his desire in private little moments against his pillow or Tony’s neck. With a firm tug of Steve’s hair, Tony demanded his attention, and he twisted just so to slot his mouth over Steve’s, pouring his heart, his joy, his ecstacy into the kiss.

A primal groan tore from somewhere deep in Steve’s throat, and with a vicious snap of his hips, he thrust his cock all the way into Tony with such sudden force that Tony cried into his mouth and pulled back from the kiss with guttural moan.

An arm slipped under and around Tony’s head, tenderly cradling his neck and cheek on Steve’s firm biceps as if in apology. Gently, Steve turned Tony’s head back so he could mouth at his lips, sucking and nipping at Tony’s bottom lip and his jawline with poorly restrained passion, as if Steve wanted to give Tony the chance to catch his breath, but he was unable to live a moment without the soft whimpers and moans that every bite and bruise from his lips inspired.

He took a firm grip of Tony’s top leg, and with a casual display of his strength that had tension and desire coiling somewhere deep and filthy within Tony, Steve lifted Tony’s thigh until his knee practically rested on his arm, opening his body up for Steve’s taking. His grip was strong, and it never wavered; he tirelessly held Tony in position, and it was only the softly whispered curses that gusted against Tony’s lips that showed him how affected Steve was despite his outward composure.

“Louder, darling,” Tony whispered between breathless kisses when he thought he caught Steve gasping his name. “Don’t hide from me.”

With a turn of his hand, Steve shifted Tony’s position ever so slightly, and with the next thrust, his cock grazed past Tony’s prostate. It was a cutting spark of pleasure, but not enough to give Tony that deep satisfaction; with every thrust, Steve drove Tony mad with pleasure, leaving him panting and hungry for more.

“Touch me,” Tony whispered, begged, but Steve only grinned against his pleading lips.

“You come on my cock,” he reminded him, grinding into Tony’s body after a particularly rough thrust.

Tony’s head was spinning, but without friction, without something, he only tasted the promise of orgasm without its blissful release. He keened and arched his back, desperate for a new angle, anything, until Steve shifted his grip from Tony’s thigh to his calf, forcing his leg straight and adding to the tension of his position.

The pain was so sweet that Tony nearly cried with it. Without thinking, he turned his face away from Steve’s to muffle his wet, panting breath against the arm that so gently cradled him, and curled over his head in a protective arc. When Steve next bottomed out, filling Tony’s body to its limit, Tony’s orgasm hit him with rattling force—he bit down hard and came with a strangled cry, all but thrashing in Steve’s firm grip as his muscles seized with all his strength.

Steve held on, fucking Tony through his aftershocks as Tony continued to shudder and jerk his hips in his pleasure, groaning and drooling around his mouthful of Steve’s forearm. Slowly, he eased down from the force of his orgasm, and with a deep, guttural moan of satisfaction, Tony rolled his hips back to meet Steve’s leisurely thrusts. He was high on endorphins, high on life, and all he seemed to need anymore was Steve’s fat cock filling him. He followed the gentle nudge of Steve’s arm, twisting so they came face to face again and Tony could reach his mouth, sucking on his bottom lip with lazy interest and watching the dazed smile that spread over Steve’s face. The next time Steve was buried to the hilt inside him, Tony squeezed down around him; he purred at the sight of Steve’s eyes rolling back into his head, and he chased the victory with a sloppy, needful kiss. This time he heard Steve gasp his name, quiet but unmistakable.

It wasn’t long before Tony learned that rocking his hips to meet Steve’s thrusts back wasn’t as effective as the clutch of his body. So, he waited. He relaxed as Steve pushed into him, eager to feel every glorious inch of him, but when Steve tried to pull out, Tony squeezed around the full length of his cock, boasting a lifetime of core strength and balance honed in the saddle. Steve gasped audibly and his hips stuttered forward; a guttural moan escaped Tony, and he relaxed again to receive him. The next time Steve tried to pull out, Tony squeezed down with enough strength that Steve’s grip of his leg went slack.

“That’s what you need, is it?” he rumbled with a smug grin, squeezing and pulsing his muscles around Steve’s throbbing cock without so much as moving his hips.

“Tony,” Steve whispered, his voice breaking with another particularly tight squeeze. His blunt fingers dug into the meat of Tony’s calf. “Tony, I’m not gonna—”

At the first sign of vulnerability, Tony tugged his leg free and pulled away. Before Steve realized what was happening, Tony had pushed him down onto his back and straddled his hips with a devious smirk.

“My turn.”

He waited for Steve’s eyes to find his, and without looking away, Tony lined them up and slowly, inch for inch, sunk down on Steve’s cock. He rocked forward with experimental curiosity, even rolled his hips around, drawing soft, keening moans from his stud.

Tony had no intention of teasing him. With his hands firmly planted on Steve’s abdomen, he rode Steve fast and hard, maintaining his viselike grip of Steve’s thick cock through every tight roll or greedy bounce of his hips. No matter how Steve bucked under him, Tony wouldn’t falter, meeting him thrust for thrust until Steve came with a strangled cry, his hips snapping up and his back arching off the mattress.

Tony bent at the waist to bodily lean over Steve, murmuring words of praise and kissing him everywhere he could reach. “Fucking hell, you’re gorgeous,” Tony murmured as he kissed his collarbone, tasting Steve’s sweat and feeling the wild rise and fall of his chest as he struggled to catch his breath.

“Couldn’t take my eyes off of you,” he promised against Steve’s chin, then pressed another adoring kiss to the corner of his lips, “god, you’re amazing. So fucking gorgeous.”

“What—” Steve stammered under his breath, almost sounding shaken from his orgasm, as if he couldn’t quite find the strength speak yet. “What was that, Tony?”

“That?” Tony smirked, perhaps a lot smug. “Nothing but a lifetime of bustin’ broncos, my love.”

***

Breakfast was quiet the next morning. Tony had snuck off while Steve was getting dressed to have words with his dad, and whether Clint and Maria knew about the engagement rings was anyone’s guess.

Howard was the first to leave the house for a meeting out in the City that would keep him all day. Maria volunteered to join him, deciding that she had spent far too many days cooped up on the ranch without other women.

The accusation came two-fold when she leveled a pointed look at Tony, who only responded by scooting another couple sausages onto his plate.

“I expect the house to be spotless when I come home,” she told the three of them. “You’re adults. Divide the chores among yourselves.”

Clint and Tony frowned at each other across the table, unhappy but unsurprised.

“It’s not you,” Clint told Steve when the door had closed behind the parents. “Ever since she found Dummy in the house that one time, she says it every time she leaves.”

Steve hadn’t meant to react the way he did, but he knew who Dummy was. The thought that he wasn’t safe from that giant animal inside of a house had him sitting ramrod straight in his chair and staring at Tony with startled, wide-eyed fear.

“He didn’t break into the house,” Tony hurried to say while kicking his unaware brother under the table. “I needed to reach something in the living room, there was nowhere to rest the ladder, and the chairs were too short.”

On one hand, Steve figured that was less scary and marginally reasonable, if you squinted. “You’re a disaster,” he muttered back at Tony instead, trying not to smile about it.

Tony smirked at him and chewed on his bacon with a smug look. “Not the first time I’ve been called that, and it sure won’t be the last,” he said. “But I am a disaster who’s got a fence to finish up. Should be done by lunch?”

“I can get started with the house, trade off when you get back,” Clint suggested, “I’ve got the stables to get through, I think we got mold—”

“I can clean the house,” Steve interrupted, since neither of them had bothered to include him yet. Clint looked a little disturbed by the suggestion, and Tony looked like Steve’s words somehow hurt him.

“It’s not that difficult,” Steve promised, “I know how to do it. I’m even good at it.”

“First of all,” Tony answered, before Steve got a chance to continue. “That’s kind of you to offer, Steve, but you’re a guest. Guests don’t do work.”

Steve frowned. “Unless it’s fixing a fence?”

“No—well,” Tony cleared his throat, and if Steve didn’t know any better, he’d swear Tony was blushing. “That was different. I thought… it’d be fun to build something. With you.”

“Lord, spare me the fucking cavities,” Clint muttered. “But, he’s right. Steve, guests don’t do our chores. You any good in the kitchen?”

“Only breakfast,” Steve admitted.

“You know, he made the most amazing cinnamon rolls the first night I stayed at his place,” Tony told his brother immediately. “Maple coffee glaze—it was out of this world.”

Clint frowned and crossed his arms over his chest, clearly very unimpressed. “That ain’t fair! I want the best cinnamon rolls, too.”

“Leave the cleaning with me,” Steve reiterated, “and I’ll make the rolls.”

“You know,” Clint said quietly to Tony, as if there’d be hell to pay if someone somehow caught them making such terrible, uncouth life choices. “If Steve cleans the house while we’re out, I bet I could get back here in time to get the grill going for lunch.”

For five shuddering seconds, Steve watched as Tony’s lizard brain and his moral compass of Southern propriety duked it out across his face.

That was all the time it took.

The brothers took Steve to Maria’s formidable cupboard of cleaning supplies. Steve stared at it with palpable envy.

“You should see the pantry,” Clint said with a smirk. “There’s a rolling ladder.”

Logically, he knew this was the tradeoff for not having any stores nearby. He lived in Manhattan; he had a maid service. He didn’t need any of this.

Clint must have seen how badly he was fooling himself. “Tony built the pantry,” he added, leaning in as if sharing a secret. “I bet he’d—shit,” he said all of a sudden, grabbing Steve’s forearm to get a better look at his watch. “Is that the time?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the watch,” Steve said. If Clint felt his reply was defensive, he didn’t seem to care; instead, Clint cursed under his breath, and smacked his brother as he marched out of the closet. Tony followed him without taking a look for himself, as if wanting to spare himself the horror.

A few minutes later, Steve caught up to Tony on the porch. He had pulled on his boots, and he was lingering on the first step of the porch with a mess of rope in his hands. Steve couldn’t quite tell what the rope was for, but the way Tony was tying it up had him momentarily spellbound. The effect wore off when Tony brought two fingers to his mouth and whistled twice quickly in succession, two similarly long, high-pitched notes.

Before Steve could ask what he was doing, he saw Dummy come prancing around the corner, making a beeline for Tony.

On instinct, Steve took two quick, shuffling steps back. Tony might be comfortable with the big grey horse, but Steve needed one hand on the front door to feel even marginally safer.

“Hey, Tony?” he called, holding up a canvas bag in Tony’s direction. “This had your name on it in the kitchen, I think it’s your lunch.”

The rope turned out to be a makeshift halter and lead for the horse. Tony called over his shoulder to Steve that he’d be just a minute, but he might have been even faster than that at getting Dummy strapped in. He leapt up the porch and made his way to Steve with a grateful kiss.

“Thank you, Sparky,” he murmured against Steve’s lips, and when he leaned back, he was smiling up at Steve with a contagious, buoyant affection. “You know, I’m gonna miss you today. The lake was fun yesterday, with you. Can’t believe you’re letting me go alone today… think you can make it up to me when I get back?”

Steve huffed in amusement, and he couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Yes, Tony: the rolls are happening. I already promised.”

“You're the best and I can't wait to eat, like, half a pan, before it goes cold, but,” Tony added emphatically with a mischievous grin that definitely caught Steve’s attention. “I was thinking more like, a date? Night out, a drink; maybe a dance? I mean,” he said in the brief second Steve hadn't reacted, rocking back on his heels a little as if he was growing less confident in his plan all of a sudden. “Sure, it’s not Tribeca ...hell, it’s not even Kansas, but you’d be hard pressed to find better people anywhere.”

“I’d like that, Tony,” Steve assured him with a smile, chasing his worry away with a chaste kiss. When he straightened again, he held Tony’s lunch up and pushed it into his hands.

“Now get out of here before it gets too hot,” Steve said, even taking a step back into the house, as if Tony was more likely to leave if Steve stood further away.

Somehow, it worked. Tony backed off the porch and swung himself onto Dummy’s back with such ease that Steve’s mouth fell open at the sight.

“You know,” Tony called to him, “I was gonna say, you look damn handsome this morning, but right now you look kinda goofy.”

Steve snapped his mouth shut and gave Tony a flat look. “How about you stop talking and go fix that fence? Be back by one if you want the rolls hot out of the oven.”

“Darling, I wouldn’t miss your hot buns for anything.”

***

“What the fuck?”

Steve startled out of his reverie when he heard Clint’s voice from the general direction of the front door. He made his way back through the labyrinth hallways, through the sitting room, and found Clint still standing in the foyer.

He was frozen in place, staring at the floorboards.

“I can see my fucking reflection,” he said, his tone so surprised it approached horrified. “I didn’t—how did you do that?”

“Elbow grease,” Steve said simply. “No point doing anything if you don’t do it right.”

Clint immediately stepped back out of the house and started to pull his boots off on the porch. He sat them down just inside the door in his effort to leave the clean floor unsullied.

“Is that the kind of thing fancy schools teach you?” Clint asked with a little grin, hanging up his hat on a hook before wandering through to the kitchen. Steve followed him, increasingly amused by Clint’s continued surprise at how clean everything was.

“I didn’t even know wood could shine like that,” he muttered as he helped himself to some coffee and marveled at the polished work bench in the kitchen. “Kinda think we need to rub some dirt over the house… hell, if mom sees this is possible, she’ll never be happy again.”

“I can show you how I did it,” Steve offered, but Clint scoffed and shook his head.

“I think I can live with less than sterile floors,” Clint told him with a grin. He carried his mug of coffee around to the stove, and peeked in through the glass. “This all what smells so good?”

“I made two pans,” Steve explained in the affirmative.

Clint smirked up at him like a devil spawn with his hand in the cookie jar, but he said nothing. Instead, he made his way to the fridge and started to pull out a selection of meat cuts and vegetables.

“Did you get a chance to rest? Or have you been scrubbing the house all day?” Clint asked while he got his ingredients in order.

“I finished a while ago,” Steve said with a smile, albeit a little distracted. He glanced back over his shoulder in the direction of the sitting room, mulling over his question. “I saw some pictures, over the fireplace.”

Clint laughed, and a moment later he shut the fridge and turned to grin at Steve over the counter full of steak and colorful vegetables. “He looks like a different person, doesn’t he?”

Steve blinked at Clint at the question, caught off-guard. “Tony?” he asked after a moment, then couldn’t help but smile a little. “He… yeah, yeah he looked different. What happened?”

A moment of silence passed between them. Clint’s easy smile faded until it was nearly a frown. Instead of answering Steve, he grabbed a large serving platter to start piling on the groceries for the grill. Steve watched Clint balance the tray, and if it wasn’t for his earlier question, he would’ve been astounded by how Clint was managing to stuff everything on a single platter without dropping anything.

With the platter balanced on one hand, Clint walked out through the kitchen door onto the back porch. Steve watched him go for a moment, then slid off the stool to follow him out.

“What can I do?” he asked, reaching for a peeler.

“You’ve done enough,” Clint told him absently, busy getting the grill started. “House never looked cleaner, Steve, you did good. Take it easy.”

“I don’t mind the work.”

“You keep saying that,” Clint muttered, slowly getting the grill ready for good while it heated up. “You allergic to kicking back or something?”

Steve huffed a quiet sigh, but eventually, he pulled out a chair at the patio table to take a seat.

“I wasn’t strong enough to do chores when I was little. The other kids… anyway, now it feels wrong,” Steve muttered, grabbing a pear off the platter Clint had carried out. He turned it over in his hands, rubbing its unblemished skin to a shine between his thumbs.

Clint frowned, looking back at Steve over his shoulder with a confused grimace. “That’s pretty messed up,” he wryly pointed out before turning back to what he was doing, throwing a couple of sausages on first. “You ever take a holiday?”

“I travel for work,” Steve admitted. “Conferences, mostly.”

Clint grabbed two cutting boards from a shelf near the grill. He put one board and a knife in front of Steve, and sat down with his own on his side of the table. “Alright, then we’ll put you to use: you wedge potatoes and slice onions. I got the rest.”

Steve smiled a little to himself, and instead of thanking Clint, he reached for the nearest sweet potato. They worked together in silence for some time, until the spicey smell of the cooking sausages started to fill the air.

“My biological ‘dad’ went to prison when I was six,” Clint told him while they wedged the potatoes and halved the bell peppers, only pausing when necessary to make air quotes with his fingers. “I had a brother, Barney. He was old enough to work, so ‘mom’ let him stay at home. When mom found out,” he continued, this time with a smile on his face, “I’d been here almost a month? They’d treated me the same as Tony—chores, allowance, schoolwork. But when mom caught on, she took Tony and me out to Sedona. Two weeks; she spent three to five hours a day in spa treatments while Tony and I did everything we couldn’t do at home. Water parks, balloon rides, helicopter tours. Took horses out to the Grand Canyon, learned how to make bows and arrows ...until Tony tried to rope a buffalo, and we were invited to never leave the resort grounds again. Got my first facial the next day,” he finished with a big grin.

A small smile tugged at the corner of Steve’s lips, but he kept his eyes on his work. His amusement would be more convincing if Clint couldn’t look him in the eyes. Fortunately, Clint got up then to check on the cooking food, throwing the hot dog buns on the grill to warm up while the sausages were finishing.

“Long and short of it is,” Clint continued after a short silence, “the whole, ‘working hard enough to deserve a good life’ line is bullshit. You deserve a good life, period. Until you accept that, you could spend your time earning all the money and recognition in the world, but you’d never be happy.”

Steve frowned a little to himself, and finally looked up at Clint to give him a flat, tired stare. How many people told him he didn’t have a life? How many people told him he’d die alone?

“And you think I don’t know how to be happy?”

“I only have my suspicions,” Clint admitted with a casual shrug of his shoulders. He brought the finished sausages and the warm buns to the table, then sat down to fix himself a hot dog with mustard and relish to continue his earlier train of thought.

“Look, I don’t know you that well. I’m just… what you said, it sounded a little familiar, that's all. Nobody can tell you what to do, that’s your business. I get that. But my brother cares about you, Steve. He’s not the type to give up. He deserves someone who’s willing to help himself, too.”

Steve kept his eyes on what he was doing. Slice a potato; stack the slices; cut lengthwise. He avoided the onions for now.

“He seems better, you know,” Clint said after a while. Steve wouldn’t look at him still, but he could hear a smile in his tone. “I don’t know if it’s you or what, but man. I never thought he’d be back here. You just don’t tell my brother he can’t do something; he’ll find a way,” Clint couldn’t help but point out, his tone lowered in his pride. “Didn’t matter if he was twelve and that bison was well over eighteen hundred pounds—”

Steve’s heart dropped and he stared up at Clint in pale-faced horror. “He was twelve?

Clint all but beamed when he grinned back. “There’s nothing my brother can’t ride. Easily the best of his generation. But, you know, fast forward a couple years, and the idiot sees a manatee on our first trip to Florida,” he added in a slow, accusative drawl, “then, he learns they’re called sea cows…”

“No,” Steve said with the distaste of someone who knew he was being duped. “You can’t… right? You can’t ride a manatee.”

“By law, yeah, you can't,” Clint agreed, snickering to himself. “But Tony sure as hell didn’t like it. He tried; nearly got mom arrested for it. Then he spent about half the vacation in the water with dolphins, and the other half trying to convince dad to buy us dolphins.”

A little vein was making itself known to Steve whether he liked it or not. It throbbed, slow and mild at first, but it was quickly building to a robust, undeniable headache.

“He what.

“Fourteen,” Clint said, as if that explained everything.

“Clint, Steve looks upset,” they heard Tony’s voice calling from not too far away. “Why are you upsetting Steve? Dad already gave him a shovel talk, you can stand down.”

“The world doesn’t revolve around you, Tony!” Clint called over his shoulder, but Steve barely heard their conversation. He sat up the moment he recognized Tony’s voice, looking for him.

Tony had released Dummy, but the horse was faithfully trailing him as Tony made his way to back porch. When Tony made it around to the table, Steve’s face was already split in a broad smile.

“Kisses?” Tony whispered playfully, and Steve kept smiling at him, adoring and inviting, until he was distracted by the soft touch of Tony’s lips.

“Don’t be gross,” Clint whined in complaint, “or I’ll tell Steve about that time you got into the Rose Fair pageant.”

“First of all, it’s a scholarship program—”

“Talk, right now,” Steve demanded over Tony’s indignant outrage. Tony smacked him on the shoulder, but that only turned Steve’s smirk of amusement into a wolfish grin.

“He didn’t know there was a swimsuit component,” Clint told Steve without any regard for the faces Tony was making.

“It’s a sexist practice,” Tony grumbled in his own defense. “It’s not like men get pageants. And I had great legs when I was sixteen—no, no not ‘great’, I looked amazing. The Flower Crown should have been mi—”

“Hey, hey sweetheart?” Steve tried in a low, gentle voice, trying to soothe Tony’s minor outrage despite the quiet laugh still lifting his voice. “Something is warming in the oven for you. Why don’t we take a look?”

Tony sniffed quietly, but said nothing. Instead, he turned on his heel and marched to the kitchen. Steve watched him go with a thoughtful smile, but when he turned to excuse himself from Clint, Clint only waved him off.

“I’ll tell you how they found out he wasn’t a girl another time,” Clint promised, smirking at the memory already. “Go make peace.”

It only took Steve a minute to catch up with Tony in the kitchen, but Tony had already pulled out both pans, and he was in the process of tipping the bowl of frosting over the first when Steve saw him.

“Give it a minute to breathe, Tony,” Steve said with a big grin. “Maybe wash your hands first?”

Tony muttered a few choice words, but he stalled on his way to the sink, standing still and listening with a thoughtful expression. “Hey Steve,” he asked after a moment, “is that your phone?”

Steve paused in the act of stirring the frosting, and sure enough, he could just make out the familiar tune of his ringtone. He excused himself quickly to the living room where he’d been staring at all the Stark family photos not that long ago.

He reached the phone in time to see a missed call from Sharon.

Chapter Text

Tony eyed his brother suspiciously while he chewed his hot dog. His delicious, bacon wrapped hot dog with cream cheese, grilled onions and bell peppers that Clint clearly wouldn’t have made unless he felt guilty about something.

“You told him about Montana, didn’t you?” he mumbled around his mouthful. “That’s—that’s it, isn’t it?”

“My brother comes home for the first time in seven years,” Clint drawled while flipping burgers on the grill. “I can’t make him his favorite stupid food without getting an interrogation?”

Tony pursed his lips and considered his brother with a suspicious, narrow-eyed look. “Gammy’s eightieth?”

Clint rolled his eyes and continued with the burgers, covering each patty with slices of sharp cheddar. “Fence finished?” he asked, trying to change the conversation.

Tony happily stuffed the last big bite of his hot dog into his mouth, so he nodded and hummed in the affirmative.

“How’s the stable?” he said slowly, careful not to spray his mouthful everywhere.

“Got the hole patched up, it’s all good. Luckily, no mold,” Clint clarified. “That would’ve been a nightmare.”

Clint was still telling him about the things they’d have to wrap up before the weekend when Steve stepped out onto the porch. Whatever that phone call had been about, whoever had made the call and chased the easy smile from Steve’s face, Tony immediately felt a vindictive contempt rising in his chest for what they had done. It had taken no more than the fifteen minutes they were apart, and it hurt to watch Steve return with stiff shoulders and an uncomfortable tension in his whole posture.

“Hey, Steve,” Tony said with forced cheer, reaching for his hand when Steve sat down across the table. “What’s on your mind, darling?”

Steve scrubbed his hands over his face, then with a heavy sigh he raised his gaze to look Tony in his eyes. He looked so tired. “It’s just work, one of my clients. She’s an exceptional scientist, a leader in her field, but no-one has gotten her to do any kind of promotion for her work—it screws with our marketing, and this is our first manuscript with her. If she doesn’t get good sales, a second manuscript would be a liability, and that’s—her work is great, I don’t want to lose her as a client.”

“Eat. You’ll feel better,” Clint said, shoving a plate with a packed cheeseburger and grilled potato wedges in front of Steve.

Tony smiled up at his brother as Steve thanked him, then he turned back to Steve. “So, what happened? What’s her name?”

“Dr. Jane Foster,” Steve said quietly, picking up a wedge to dab in a pink sauce on Tony’s plate. “I got her to agree to do a TV interview, a ten minute spot. My assistant just called to say Foster’s backing out. Again.”

“Aw, man. That blows, I enjoyed her last book.”

Both Steve and Tony turned to stare at Clint in their surprise. It took a moment for Clint to realize the silence was unusual, and he turned back to eye them both in return.

“What? Just cause we’re in rural Oklahoma doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy advanced astronomy.”

To Tony’s delight, Steve recovered from his surprise first. “You do have incredible skies here,” he agreed. “Everything is so clear.”

“We’ll go out tonight,” Tony promised, “go to the barn, have a good time, then come home and relax on the roof.”

Steve grimaced, looking pitifully guilty. “Sweetheart, I don’t think I’ll have time for that tonight,” he said quietly. “I have to find a replacement spot for her now.”

“What, today?” Tony blurted out before he could reconsider his word choices. He cleared his throat quickly, trying to think of ways not to sound or look too disappointed; he was going to introduce Steve to Rhodey, to Pepper—to everyone. Quickly, with a small, but genuinely hopeful smile, he asked, “Is it so urgent that it can’t wait until you’re back?”

“Tony, I promise, I wouldn’t cancel tonight if I didn’t have to—”

“Wait,” Tony said suddenly, grabbing for his phone. “Say her name again? Foster?”

Steve made a face, looking from Tony to Tony’s phone and back again as he tried to figure out where Tony’s sudden energy came from. “Yeah, Jane Foster. Why?”

“Alright, longshot, but I think she’s my friend’s ex,” Tony explained while texting up a storm. Then, with a bashful grin, he added, “Remember Dr. Odinson?”

Steve groaned and rolled his eyes, covering his face with his hands. “Of course, sure. Why should I be surprised? Our therapist was your friend.”

“We fix this, and you’ll be free tonight?” Tony asked pointedly, putting the phone to his ear while he waited for Thor to pick up.

“You really think Odinson can help?”

“Thor? He’s deceptively smart, really percep—hey! Thor, I need to talk to you, got a minute?” he got up from the table once Thor picked up, and he walked a few feet away for more privacy. The conversation wasn’t long, and Thor wasn’t surprised.

“He said Jane worries about people taking her seriously. She’s young, she’s beautiful, but Thor often noticed people being uncomfortable or dismissive of her intelligence. He agrees with you that she’s fiercely intelligent, and he wouldn’t say that lightly. So,” Tony said after the summary of his and Thor’s conversation.

Steve frowned to himself, giving Tony a skeptical look. “She’s insecure? She has four PhDs.”

“Doesn’t that make it worse?” Tony countered. “That’s raising the stakes, and in a man’s world. Find a way to frame the spot as a chance to address it head-on. Maybe as an opportunity to talk about other strong women in the field, the institutional ways that women like herself are discouraged from pursuing their research. Scientists love implications, so make her understand the implications of her effort to stand up for future generations of outstanding women in science. If that’s not enough, frame it as an opportunity to share the projected benefits of her work. Concrete, measurable changes.”

Steve didn’t speak for a long time, but Tony could practically see the wheels turning as he considered Tony’s suggested plan.

“I think,” Steve said eventually, then pursed his lips as he tried to talk and think at the same time. “I’ll—alright, I think I can work with that. When do we need to leave?”

“Not anytime soon,” Tony promised. “Sundown. Six, maybe seven?”

“I’ll do what I can,” Steve promised, and with his phone in his hand, he excused himself to Tony’s room.

Tony followed Steve into his room a few minutes later. He’d arranged a tray of food for him, with the burger Clint had made for Steve, along with a cinnamon roll, a cup of coffee, and a glass of water.

As expected, Steve was talking on the phone, even pacing in his agitation. Tony put the tray down and turned to leave as quietly as he’d come.

Steve gravitated to him before Tony got very far. He was still talking to someone over the phone, but Tony could see him smiling at the tray, then at him, as if somehow Tony’s gesture had been priceless. Before Tony had a chance to leave, Steve muted the phone and reeled Tony in for a grateful, lingering kiss.

“Thank you,” Steve murmured against his lips, and even though he had to return to his conversation, he reached for Tony’s hand to give it a gentle squeeze.

Tony squeezed it in return and brought Steve’s hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to his knuckles.

When he turned to leave, Tony found he didn’t really want to. He didn’t want to be that far from Steve. In the end, the decision wasn’t difficult to make: Tony undressed quietly and crawled in under the covers. Steve’s voice floated through his consciousness, and Tony closed his eyes to relax as he listened to the sound of his voice.

Before he knew it, the sore weight in his muscles eased away, and he drifted to sleep.

***

“Tony?”

Strong, gentle fingers stroked through his hair, easing Tony back to consciousness.

“Tony, sweetheart,” he heard Steve whispering, and his lips curled up at the heady and endearing combination of Steve’s deep, spicy musk mixed with the cedar and citrus scents he long associated with home. “Your plan worked: Foster is onboard again, I’m free for the night. We can go see your friends.”

“Mmmno,” Tony mumbled sleepily, reaching for Steve with a clumsy hand. “No. Only wake with kiss.”

He felt Steve’s quiet huff of a laugh before he heard it, but there was no hesitation. The bed dipped as Steve crawled closer, and without opening his eyes, Tony turned onto his back and puckered his lips.

“You’re ridiculous,” Steve laughed, and leaned in to press his lips against Tony’s in a slow, tender kiss.

Tony smiled into the kiss and purred in delight, wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck and absently scratching at Steve’s naked shoulders while he pulled him in closer.

“And you’re fucking gorgeous,” Tony whispered when he opened his eyes again, licking into Steve’s mouth with a playful flick of his tongue.

“You know what, Sparky? I like this. This is how I want to wake up every day. First rule: no clothes. At all, ever. Your blue eyes, these soft lips…” he brushed his lips over Steve’s, as if to highlight whose lips he wanted. “Think you can do that for me?”

He could feel Steve’s answering smile. “For you? I can try,” Steve replied quietly. “Tony, do you want to stay in tonight, or go out?”

“I’ll just need a minute to get dressed,” Tony said, snickering quietly in surprised amusement when Steve pouted at him. “Don’t give me that, darling. Undress me when we get back.”

Steve pushed himself up to sitting, and he smiled back down at Tony. “You got yourself a deal.”

There was a quick rapping on the door, which gave them just enough warning for Steve to stand up and for Tony to sit up in bed before Maria stepped into the bedroom. She had two big shopping bags in one hand.

She had clearly entered the room for a reason, but she stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Steve standing by the bed in nothing but his well-tailored jeans.

“Mom?”

“Lord, how you tempt me,” Maria sighed, shamelessly undressing Steve with her half-lidded gaze.

Tony’s mortified heart dropped, and when he saw Steve's shoulders hunch inward, a chill washed over his back.

“Mom, please don’t—”

“A stallion in his prime, no less. And raring to go,” she added with a smirk, eyeing the noticeable bulge in his jeans. “Boy, you did good—”

“Mom!” Tony glowered through gritted teeth, this time grabbing for Steve and pulling him down to sit on the bed so he could get his arms around him. “What the hell? What did I say about harassment?”

“You city folk get so sensitive about compliments,” she said with a roll of her eyes and a shake of her head. Then, as if nothing had happened, she changed the subject by putting the shopping bags down on Tony’s workbench. “Here, Tony. One of these should fit. Now, I don’t want to see your underwear showing the rest of the time you’re home, you hear me? I raised you better than that.”

“Yes, mom,” Tony drawled, hugging Steve a little closer to himself when Maria gave him one last shamelessly lecherous look before leaving them to it.

When the door closed behind her, Tony bowed his head and hid his face against Steve’s shoulder. “I am so sorry,” he whispered. “She won’t touch you, Steve. Nobody will hurt you, I promise.”

“It’s okay, Tony,” Steve replied, but Tony struggled to understand his response. The way Steve’s shoulders slumped inward was telling of his nerves and anxiety, but Steve was still leaning into Tony’s embrace, still trying to smile back at him even when it couldn’t reach his eyes. Something had Steve on edge, but for the life of him, Tony couldn’t put his finger on it. His mother was more talk than bite, and his dad had kept his word about keeping his distance. All he could do was hold Steve closer and do his best to communicate to Steve that he was safe.

Steve covered one of Tony’s hands with his own, and he gave it a grateful squeeze. “It’s only two more days, sweetheart,” he said in a calmer, steadier voice. “I can survive unwanted looks and words for two days.”

“So long as she doesn’t scare you into putting any clothes on,” Tony half-joked, and found himself endlessly relieved when Steve genuinely smiled back at him. He pressed a little kiss to Steve’s shoulder before shuffling out of bed to see what his mom had gotten for him.

There was a variety of jeans in different sizes folded up in the shopping bags, along with a new brown leather belt. Tony dug through the selection until he found his measurements, then wasted no time pulling the jeans on, practically jumping into them in his hurry to wear something that fit again.

After two days of wearing either the sweats he wore on the plane, or jeans that sagged around his body and reminded him of all that had been and never could be, wearing snug, well-structured jeans made him feel like a whole person again.

Tony was still pulling off the tags when Steve walked up behind him and gently rested his hands on Tony’s hips, loosely framing Tony’s ass with his hands. “Damn, Tony. These jeans were made for you. You look incredible.”

“Guess that means I'll keep’em, then,” Tony said with a grin, twisting in Steve’s arms to give him a quick peck on the lips. “But if you don’t get dressed soon, I doubt we’ll make it to the barn tonight.”

Steve moaned softly under his breath, and quietly asked, “Would that be so bad?”

“One hour, tops,” Tony said, indulging Steve in one more kiss. “I’ll make it worth your time.”

***

Dusk was fading into night when Steve pulled up to the old barn. Had they been in Manhattan, it would have been too early for any deserving bar crowd, but in this part of the world, the designated parking area was already so full that there was barely room to turn the truck around.

“Park it in the ditch,” Tony suggested, pointing to a clear spot behind them. “Just tuck the back half in, and turn the wheel out.”

A part of Steve wanted to point out that a ditch is the last place to put any vehicle, but kept it to himself and threw the car in reverse to do as Tony said.

“That’s it,” Tony murmured with a broad grin, so pleased with the parking job that he reached across to gently squeeze Steve’s knee. “Darling, I love the way you handle a truck.”

“You should see me with a stick,” Steve said as a half-joke, but the sudden heated look Tony gave him in return told him Tony had understood.

“One hour, tops,” Tony reiterated and slid his hand further up Steve’s thigh for a firmer squeeze. “Promise.”

Steve followed Tony to the Red, White, and Brew, but the closer they got, the heavier his guilt became. As tired and ready to be alone with Tony as he was, he couldn't help feeling uncomfortable about rushing Tony back to the ranch.

“We don’t have to hurry home, you know,” he said, doing his best to keep his voice calm and gentle. He reached for Tony’s hand to hold in his own. “You haven’t seen your friends in seven years, Tony. Don’t feel like you need to rush back because of me.”

Tony smiled up at him and pressed a little kiss to Steve’s shoulder. “I’m not just rushing home for you, darling,” Tony told him as they walked hand in hand to the bar. “I miss Pepper and I miss Rhodey. I’d like you to meet them. If nothing else happens here tonight, all the better.”

“If you say so,” Steve conceded, albeit skeptically.

But when Tony opened the door and the low thrum of noise suddenly turned into an excited ruckus, Steve’s guilt about leaving early evaporated. He was already grateful to leave. After the unnerving silence of a remote, rural farm, the sound of a drunk, excitable crowd packed into a small space hit him like a kick in the gut. If they stayed here ten minutes, it would be ten minutes too long.

Even in the city, clubs and bars were places Steve only frequented when necessary, when he needed a partner and a blissful release from the day’s frustrations. But despite the formidable noise rising in this converted little barn, Steve found the crowd to be less intimidating than he was used to. There were only sixty or seventy people in the barn with them, and most people were gathered around various group activities—darts, billiards, or jeering at those participating in either darts or billiards. Only a dozen people huddled around the big, round bar, while another handful entertained themselves on a mechanical bull at the center of the barn.

Tony steadily towed Steve towards the bar where Rhodey would presumably be, but Steve was so busy taking in the scene that he had trouble keeping up. And, cliche as it was, that mechanical bull was particularly intriguing.

“We call him the Captain, after Captain America,” Tony told him when he realized Steve was staring at the dumb-dumbs climbing up on the mechanical bull, only to inevitably be thrown from its back. “Rhodey—no, that’s—we,” Tony struggled to correct, blushing faintly even though he tried to pretend he wasn’t embarrassed. “We are life-long fans of the comic books. When Rhodey had the bull installed, he picked a round air mattress that looked like Captain America’s shield.”

“Fits with the theme,” Steve observed casually, though he was a little distracted by the twenty-something blonde climbing up to ride the bull while facing the wrong way.

Life could only get worse for her.

“That pretty much became the deciding factor,” Tony agreed, “it was either ‘Red, White, and Brew,’ or ‘I Miss Brew.’”

The woman was hanging on to the back-end of the saddle, undulating her hips with every toss and turn of the bull. Steve couldn’t bring himself to look away; it was an inevitable disaster.

None of this was new to Tony—hell, it was probably normal. But he didn’t rush Steve or suggest they move on. Instead, he waited patiently, leaning against Steve’s side, still hand in hand, while they both watched the woman stay in her seat for a ten to fifteen seconds before being tossed from the saddle.

“You wanna ride the bull, darling?” Tony teased, leering up at Steve through his lashes. But by now, Steve knew better than to take his exaggerated behavior seriously.

“I just,” he tried to explain, though he failed to find words that could be both honest and respectful of Tony’s past. “I don’t get it.”

“You don’t get what?”

“That,” Steve said, gesturing at the mechanical bull with his free hand, where a redhead now climbed on to try her luck. “You don’t learn anything. The only potential gain is an injury.”

Tony didn’t say anything for some time. He continued leaning against Steve’s side, resting his head on Steve’s shoulder while they observed the spectacle.

The redhead didn’t last ten seconds.

“Why do people play chess?” Tony asked then, without irony. Steve mulled it over for a while, because it wasn’t a question he had considered before.

“Mind against mind,” he said eventually.

“This is body against body,” Tony replied. “In chess, your opponent’s potential is equal to yours. You're both people. But your power against a bull… the odds are impossible. It’s chess against the computer, or math against Stephen Hawking.”

Strangely enough, Steve found that he could relate to that. After all, was that not what he had done on a smaller scale at the gym, pushing his body against the unlikeliest odds? The effort and determination of a sickly foster kid to grow strong could not be greater than a boy training to wrestle animals ten times his size.

For the first time he felt an understanding for how important this part of Tony's life must have been for him. In his way, he could better appreciate Tony’s loss. It was tragic and heartbreaking, but still Steve he couldn't stop himself from smiling about realizing this unexpected connection between them.

“I never thought of it that way,” he admitted with an affectionate smile, pressing a soft kiss to Tony’s forehead. “You really are something special, Tony. You think you’ll always find ways to challenge my assumptions?”

Tony peered up at him with a curious smile. “I don’t know, Sparky,” he replied in a playful tone. “You’ll have to keep me around to find out.”

***

Rhodey threw his hands up in frustration and pointed aggressively at Tony, as if Steve didn’t know to whom he was referring. “Six feet, Steve: tip to tip, that bull’s horns were six fucking feet.”

Steve was quickly learning that this unnatural fusion of horror and hilarity was par for the course with Tony’s past, and he was getting better about laughing it off with each passing story; after all, Tony was within arms reach, perfectly safe and healthy.

“Hardly five and a half,” Tony felt the need to add, but Steve gave him a flat look that told him just how irrelevant such a detail was.

“Longer than you were tall then,” Rhodey recalled, as matter-of-factly as he could after three whiskeys in his system. “But whatever, doesn’t matter: while Howard’s tying the rope around the biggest ranch hand they had, Tony grabs some rope and gets in the damn river. And I’m telling you, that animal was scared; thunder, lightning, water level was rising—”

“Is this really necessary?” Tony muttered quietly, avoiding Steve’s stare of disbelief.

“He needs to know,” Pepper said before Rhodey had to slur through a monologue of ‘what is right and true in the Red, White, and Brew!’ “I mean, this is serious: you’re dating, and it’s—a week, wow, Steve, I mean, with this one it’s like dog years, you have to be committed—”

Tony whined and pouted in protest. “What do you mean, ‘this one’?”

“I love you Tony, but you’re reckless,” Pepper told him, both kind and direct with her response. “First it was puberty, then you were a teenager, and then you couldn’t stop winning—there are people who care about you who don’t want to see you hurt—”

“And we especially didn’t want to see you skewered by a scared cow!”

“Alright, honeybear, easy does it,” Tony soothed with slow, gentle words, reaching for Rhodey’s mostly-empty glass. “How about we try some water, hm?”

“I’m fine,” Rhodey insisted petulantly, but when Tony managed to swap his whiskey out for water, he didn’t really seem that bothered.

“I’m sure there are nice stories,” Steve said diplomatically, and to his right, Tony perked up at his attempt to steer the conversation elsewhere. “Or,” Steve added, “perhaps, less suicidal?”

“There was that one week after Calgary where you couldn’t talk right,” Pepper remembered, a bittersweet smile on her face. “He was out of school for two weeks, so Clint would go to his classes and take notes for him. And nobody asked why he was there, this kid four years younger than the rest of us, but—”

Steve looked down at his glass with a frown. There was no question in his mind why Clint would do such a thing, but just hearing more about how there were foster families out there who loved all their children made him bitter with envy.

“He hasn’t had it easy since you left, you know,” Rhodey told Tony quietly, his slurring less noticeable with his voice lowered. “We all missed you, but I think… it’s different for him.”

Rhodey’s words caught in Steve’s mind like a flare, and he immediately looked up at Tony. Tony looked paler, and he wasn’t meeting anyone’s gaze: he stared down at the bar top with unseeing eyes, clearly off in his own thoughts.

“Tony. He doesn’t hold it against you,” Steve said with the kind of conviction he rarely expressed for near-strangers. “If anything, he’s happy you’re doing better. He said so himself.”

“Steve’s right,” Pepper agreed in a gentle tone, and she rubbed soothing circles over Tony’s back. The intimacy of her casual touch stung somehow, but Steve cleared his throat and pushed past it the best that he could. This was new, like everything else about a relationship was new, and he would deal with it. More importantly, this wasn’t about him.

“Maybe just, reach out more often the next time you leave?” she suggested mildly, “or invite him up north?”

“I have two guest rooms,” Steve chimed in, but it was Pepper who smiled at him first and agreed that that would be a great idea. His lips curled up in a stilted smile in return, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. It wasn’t like he’d said it for her.

“Oh,” Pepper said suddenly as a jingling ringtone got her attention. “That’ll be Happy. Time to put Olive to sleep,” she said as she got out of her seat and pulled her jacket on. “It’s been so good to see you, Tony. Take care of yourself, so you can meet her the next time you visit.”

“It would be my pleasure,” Tony replied sincerely, pulling her in for a hug. She gave him a quick peck on the lips, then kissed Steve and Rhodey on their cheeks before wishing them all a good night.

“It is getting kinda late,” Rhodey admitted with a yawn, and he sat up with some difficulty to stretch and force himself awake. “What’re people even doing here? There’s work in the morning,” he muttered, eyeing the thirty or so people still lingering in the bar.

“Wanna take a last ride on the Captain for good luck?” Rhodey teased, and Tony snickered at the old, childish joke. “Show ‘em all how it’s done?”

“I’m afraid my good luck riding days are over,” Tony say with an exaggerated sigh, but he grinned up at him a moment later. “Let the young’ns have a go.”

Rhodey muttered something about millenials as he wandered off, presumably to start closing up shop.

“You know, Clint was telling me about how great you were when you competed. The best of your generation, he said,” Steve said quietly when Rhodey was out of earshot. “I’d love to see what that looks like.”

“Darling, I’d love to show you, but I’m hardly in my prime,” Tony conceded, and his grin faded. “I’m out of practice—”

Steve interrupted him to ask, “How long would you have to stay in the saddle? Thirty seconds?”

Tony chuckled quietly at his guess and shook his head. “You wouldn’t walk straight after thirty. It’s ten on a mechanical bull, eight live.”

“Think you can ride the Captain that long?”

Tony narrowed his eyes at him, both amused and suspicious at Steve’s sudden interest. “Why the sudden interest, Sparky?”

“It feels like I’m the only one around who’s not had the chance to appreciate your talent—” Tony gave him a hard, dubious look, and Steve folded like a house of cards in a stampede. “And… maybe it’s really hot?”

Tony snorted loudly in his clear surprise, then he dissolved into quiet giggles.

“Wait—so, what, an hour ago it's pointless, and now all of a sudden it’s foreplay?” Tony teased, sipping his water to clear his throat. “Alright, darling. I'll bite. What’s in it for me?”

Steve glanced in the direction of the bull, then looked back at Tony. “How about you take the reins tonight?”

Tony didn’t flinch, he didn’t blink. He watched Steve as if he expected to see a sign that he was joking any second.

When that didn't happen, Tony made up his mind quick enough.

“Rhodey!” he called across the bar, waving his hat in the air to grab his friend’s attention. “One more, for luck!”

Steve bit down on his lip to keep from grinning with his embarrassing abundance of excitement, and quickly hopped off his stool to follow Tony’s lead.

“I’ll only let you climb on if you promise not to fall,” Rhodey told Tony before he got anywhere close to the bull. “Promise?”

Tony gave him an unimpressed look. “Come on, Rhodey, what’s the worst that could happen?”

“Didn’t I just say?” Rhodey muttered. “You could fall.”

Tony smirked and made a show of angling at his big brass belt buckle up at him. “Got a lifetime of experience that says I’ll live.”

He pushed past his friend to get to the Captain. While Tony climbed up in the saddle, Rhodey turned to Steve with a grin.

“Wanna drive?”

If Steve wasn’t excited already, he was outright gleeful when Rhodey took him around to the operating stand. It looked a little like how Fisher Price would reimagine an airplane console for toddlers, but Steve wasn’t going to let that stop him.

“Hey darling, that smile of yours is—what’s going on?”

“Spin or no spin, and these control the power,” Rhodey was telling Steve, “the joystick is pretty self-explanatory. Hold on, Tony!” he called to Tony then pulled the joystick down to make the bull snap up. Tony hung on easily by his thighs, with both hands off the bull. “Got it? This is the emergency stop.”

“Got it,” Steve promised, because how complicated could it get?

Rhodey smirked, and pushed the big red button to start the clock. “Ten seconds on manual, Tony—don’t fall!”

Steve turned on the automatic spin, but dialed down power from 10 to an 8, and then further to 7. On the first buck of the bull, Tony rolled with the toss easily, but at least he had one hand on the saddle now.

When the next spinning throw had Tony turned to face Steve at the control stand, Tony winked at him with a grin and taunted him with, “You can go harder than that, darling!”

Steve dialed both power dials for spinning and bucking up to 10, and Rhodey reached over and reset the timer. The training wheels were off. The next sharp turn-and-buck to the left had Tony grabbing for his hat before it flew off his head, and from then on, it became a real show.


artwork by Clobeast

Despite the initial competitive flare that Tony had goaded him into, Steve quickly learned to divide his time between trying to throw Tony into the cushioned ring, and choreographing his own new favorite memories.

When the bull bucked, Tony led with his thighs and rolled his hips forward, absorbing the shock like a rolling wave. The highest power setting had the bull twisting and throwing Tony so quickly it was all nearly a blur, but Tony rode out the bull with a natural grace to the wild cheering and applause of the crowd.

Ten seconds into the ride, Steve eased up on the power to slow it all down and reset the clock. No more aggressive bucks or turns, no more sudden throws rearing back; what mattered was slowing down the smooth, confident movement of Tony’s hips into a fantasy that Steve could clearly see, and indulge in for years to come.

His intentions did not go unnoticed. By the second throw, Tony made a point to twist in his seat when possible to meet Steve’s wide-eyed, hungry gaze. His hips undulated with enviable ease, elegant and strong. Every time Tony rolled his body forward, he rose in his seat to follow through with this whole body, until his back bowed in a smooth backbend. Every time the bull spun so Tony faced away, Steve threw the bull back to personally indulge in seeing Tony’s firm, round ass rise and flex as he squeezed his thighs around the girth of the rearing bull.

“That’s thirty seconds, man,” Rhodey told Steve quietly, sounding sober all of a sudden. He sounded serious enough that Steve didn’t hesitate to follow his unspoken command, and powered down the bull.

The reason for Rhodey’s concern became clear the moment Tony slid out of the saddle. He landed on unsteady legs, and seemed to stand upright through sheer will-power alone. By the time he wove and wobbled his way to the edge of the enclosure around, Steve was waiting for him, quick to put his arm around him and help lead Tony away from the thrilled, drunk crowd.

“Impressed yet, Sparky?” Tony purred in a whisper.

Steve growled softly in answer. “Take me home, and I’ll show you.”

***

Tony shuffled into his room, doubled over with silent, wheezing laughter.

“How many wrong turns can a person take!”

“There is no signage on any of the roads. It’s bullshit,” Steve groused, crossing to the bed where he could sit down and tug his boots off at last. Once his feet were free, he wiggled his sore toes to work the feeling back into them.

“It’s a truck, we’re out in the plains: you don’t need roads,” Tony pointed out with a playful tone, and when Steve straightened to look at him, he found Tony standing directly in front of him, already reaching to undo the buttons of Steve’s shirt.

“The next time I tell you to turn left and floor it,” Tony whispered, “don’t hesitate.”

Try as he might, Steve couldn’t resist rolling his eyes. He let Tony push his shirt off his shoulders, then grabbed Tony by the belt to pull him into his lap.

“What’s this for, anyway?” he murmured, angling the belt buckle Tony that had flashed at Rhodey earlier to read it himself. “Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association?”

“‘Tony Stark, World Champion Bareback Rider, 2004,’” Tony recited without having to look. Steve’s grip of his waist tightened, and Tony pressed his hips forward to indulge Steve’s greedy hands. “My first world championship prize. The rest are in drawers with the other stuff, but this one’s my favorite. I was so damn nervous,” he sighed to himself, almost as an afterthought.

Apropos of nothing, Steve announced, “I’m gonna turn to the left and floor it.”

Tony barely had time to yelp before Steve lifted him into his arms, pivoted to the left, and jumped into bed. They landed in a tangle of limbs, Tony on his back halfway under Steve’s bulk, laugh-giggling in his surprised delight. Steve crawled even closer, until he could nuzzle into Tony’s soft throat and Tony’s body was almost entirely under Steve.

The first touch of his tongue had Tony squirming and squeaking, but before he managed to shove Steve away from his newly-discovered treasure, Steve kissed his way up the column of Tony’s neck. With his wicked teeth and hungry lips, he soon turned Tony squirming, giggling protests into a slow, instinctive rocking of his hips, and soft, drawn-out moans of encouragement.

“The way you looked tonight, Tony,” Steve rasped in a whisper near Tony’s ear, “you moved like a dream.”

Tony’s low moan turned into a quiet, throaty laugh. He combed his fingers through Steve’s hair, then gave it a tug at the end to make him look up. “Is that what you want, Sparky? Want me to ride you like a bull? Turn you into a boneless mess?”

Without looking away from him, Steve took a long, steadying breath. Now or never.

“In a manner of speaking,” Steve hedged at first, speaking quietly. Tony wasn’t dumb, and judging by his sudden silence and careful attention, Steve was pretty sure he already understood. Still, it was a question he needed to ask.

“I haven’t,” he started to say, then abruptly stopped. One more steadying breath, and another. He could do this. It could be as short as three words, just three short words. Tony rubbed his fingers over Steve’s scalp gently, soothing him rather than urging him on.

“It’s been years,” Steve said under his breath, keeping his eyes turned down as he spoke. It was easier to find the words if he looked at Tony’s chest rather than meeting his eyes. “I never liked… never, I guess, really had anyone I thought—I mean,” he cleared his throat and tried again. “I know it can be good, and I think it could, with you. I want to try it, bottoming,” he finally managed to say, even if in a whisper. “For you. I trust you.”

“Hey, easy, darling,” Tony finally interrupted Steve’s quiet ramble. Steve pressed his lips together in a line, quieting himself, but Tony started combing his fingers through his hair again. “Would you look at me? Please?”

Steve frowned a little to himself, but it wasn’t like he could hide forever. When Tony cupped his cheek, he pressed into it gently, then opened his eyes to look up at Tony.

“Your trust and your affection are for me to earn, not for you to prove,” Tony said slowly, and with the gravity of a promise. “You never have to prove anything to me, Steve.”

“You already have,” Steve replied, a corner of his lips curling up in a shy, lopsided smile. “Look, I know it can be good, I’ve seen it. I just haven’t had that, yet. I want it to be you,” he added, his words stronger and more confident. This, he had no doubts about. “I want this to be with you.”

Tony shifted down in bed the few inches he needed to kiss Steve’s lips, a slow, gentle slide of their lips together. With firm pressure on Steve’s shoulder, he turned them over so that Steve was on his back, and Tony could rest his chin on Steve’s chest.

“Do you know what you like?” he wondered, and Steve could feel himself blush with the question.

“Not so much,” he admitted. “I know what to do, on top, but if I’m not in control, I… I don’t know.”

Tony smiled, pressing an adoring kiss to Steve’s chest. “You can bottom and take the lead, you know.” Then, with one more kiss of Steve’s lips, Tony asked Steve to stay where he was. He climbed out of bed and made straight for his dresser, where he dug around in his sock and underwear drawer until he came up with a silk pouch.

He returned to bed with the pouch, and the lube and condoms Steve had brought with him. Before getting back in bed with Steve, however, Tony started to undo his own shirt.

“Let’s start small, figure out what you like,” he said with a smile, tugging the shirt out of his pants to take off and toss aside. His hat followed. “Work our way up from there.”

Steve watched with a somewhat glum expression as Tony undid his belt and started on his pants. Those were all the duties he wanted to be in charge of. “I kind of wish you could keep that belt on,” he admitted with a wry smile.

Tony snickered quietly as he shucked his pants and his briefs, kicked off his boots, then tossed everything aside without a care. He returned to the bed then, naked and glorious and entirely out of reach.

“It’s not impossible,” Tony conceded, struggling to keep from smiling too broadly. “You want to keep your pants on, too?”

Steve rolled his eyes, but he reached down to undo his jeans. “You sure know how to make this all feel special.”

“This… this is going to be a little different,” Tony explained without explaining anything, but he helped pull Steve’s jeans and underwear down his legs. Whatever else he was about to say fled from his mind; Steve could see it in his eyes, how Tony lost his train of thought and instead came to a stand-still where he could do nothing but stare at Steve’s naked body.

“Christ,” Tony muttered, smoothing his hand gently up the length of Steve’s thigh. “You are something else… fuck, alright, hold on, what was I saying?” he muttered to himself, kneeling up on the bed finally to join Steve.

Steve grinned up at him, reaching to pull him closer. Tony followed the tug of his hand easily, sliding into place against Steve’s body.

“You said this was going to be different,” Steve reminded him, brushing some hair out of Tony’s eyes before leaning in for a slow, chaste kiss. “Tell me more,” he murmured between kisses.

Tony hummed happily into the kiss, but before he forgot what he was saying again, he reluctantly pulled back. “Let’s think of this as… warm-up,” he said, still a little breathless from the kisses that hadn’t remained chaste for very long. “Tonight, it’s only about you and what you like. We know you like kissing,” he added with a grin, cupping Steve’s face in one hand and fondly brushing his thumb over Steve’s spit-slick lips. “And darling, you’re damn good at it.”

“I like kissing you,” Steve murmured, chasing Tony’s lips with a mischievous grin. Tony laughed quietly, pushing back against Steve gently, and continued to push until Steve gave in and rolled onto his back again. But when Tony didn’t follow through and slot his lips over Steve’s to resume the kiss, Steve whined before he could stop himself.

“Tony?”

Instead of answering, Tony crawled on top of him, straddling Steve’s hips and lowering himself to nuzzle at his ears. Shivers ran down Steve’s spine, and his hands came up to grip Tony by the hips. He held on while Tony mouthed and nibbled down the shell of his ear, until Tony reached the fleshy lobe and sucked it into his mouth. Steve’s deep gasp of surprise filled his senses with the heady smell of Tony’s natural scent mixed with his cologne.

All at once, Tony was all around and within him, and Steve could feel the warmth of his skin even if he couldn’t feel as much of him yet as he wanted. The memory of Tony’s lithe, powerful body riding the mechanical bull was still too fresh in his mind, and it was scary how quickly his heart was racing at Tony’s insistence that tonight was only about him. It was exciting, but scary in its passivity; with every touch of Tony’s fingers, every eager love bite, Steve could feel his restraint fading. The urge to take control was nearly overwhelming. His hands ached to bodily turn Tony onto his belly and open him up on his fingers, to fuck him until he sobbed.

Steve reached for the sheets and grabbed on before he lost his composure. He had spent too long thinking about the power of Tony’s thighs, and the way his round, perky ass filled out his jeans. If this was only the beginning of what Tony had planned for them, Steve wasn’t going to last.

Unaware of Steve’s state, Tony continued his exploration, sucking big, wet kisses down the cording muscle of Steve’s neck, and licking out the hollowed notch between his collarbones. Steve shuddered under him, earning himself soft words of praise, until Tony reached his chest.

“You’re a work of art,” he murmured, laving his tongue across Steve’s right pectoral and sloppily sucked down on his nipple, biting into the firm, ample muscle with a husky groan of pleasure.

With a gasp, Steve arched off the bed and, without thinking, brought his hands up to fist Tony’s hair in his surprise. Tony whimpered around his mouthful at the sudden sting of pain, and immediately let go of Steve’s nipple.

Steve pushed up on an elbow to tug Tony back for a kiss, and while Tony was distracted, he slid his hands down Tony’s body to cup greedy handfuls of his ass, squeezing and pulling his cheeks apart in a clear demonstration of what he wanted.

“Let me touch you, sweetheart, please,” Steve whispered, reaching with his fingers to stroke up and down the exposed cleft of Tony’s ass. His cock was already hard between them, the head wet with precum; it would have been so easy to take what he wanted.

Despite the grip Steve had of him, Tony adjusted his position to leave Steve’s throbbing cock untouched.

“Easy, Sparky,” Tony rumbled with a deep, throaty laugh. “Tonight’s my night, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t ask you to tease me,” Steve complained hoarsely, but when Tony again pushed at his shoulders, Steve obliged him, obediently easing down on his back.

Tony rolled his eyes, then reached back to pull one of Steve’s hands off his ass. “You asked me to please you,” he said in an undertone, “now, let me.”

Before Steve had a chance to insist that he didn’t need more pleasing or teasing, that he just needed four minutes to fuck Tony into spiraling ecstasy, Tony guided Steve’s long fingers to his tongue and into his mouth.

Tony filled his mouth with three thick fingers, almost choking with the effort to swallow them all to the last knuckle and bobbing his head on their full length. The wet, slick heat sensation of Tony’s mouth stirred the inevitable pressure coiling and building behind Steve’s cock. He worked their length with his tongue, sucked on them eagerly.

Then, it was over almost as quickly as it had started. Tony started to pull off, releasing Steve’s fingers through his teeth, one at a time, just as Steve felt the first, sweet tension of his orgasm mounting.

“Tony, please,” Steve begged as Tony sucked a wet trail of hickeys down his abdomen. Whether Tony finally heard the tone of desperation in Steve’s voice, or the irrepressible thrusts of Steve’s hips gave it away, Tony gave in: he grabbed up a wrapped condom and tore it open.

This was what Steve had asked for, it was what he wanted. Steve sucked in a shallow breath, then went quiet and still. He knew this was the plan; this was exactly what he had asked for. But rational thoughts were irrelevant sometimes. Unbidden, his memories from the past, the fear and anxiety associated with being fucked, used up, and being discarded after, all hit at once. Instinctively, his toes curled, and his legs started to close even with Tony lying between his thighs. Despite the near-desperate need only seconds earlier, his erection started to wane.

“Antsy, Sparky?” Tony said with a smile, unaware of everything Steve was experiencing. He rubbed Steve’s thigh in encouragement, and pressed a soft kiss to his hip. “Guess I’ll indulge later, darling. Turn over? We’ll do it your way.”

It took Steve so long to comply, that Tony called his name again and repeated himself. Tony was asking Steve to get on his hands and knees, to trust Tony enough to turn his back to him and hope not to get hurt.

“Darling?” Tony asked then, genuinely concerned this time. “Hey, Steve, are you alright? Is,” he paused, struggling momentarily with how to phrase his question. “We don’t have to do this; we never need to do this.”

His Tony, who wasn’t afraid of anything, except hurting Steve.

With monumental effort, Steve shook his head and assured Tony he wanted it. And he did, he really did, he wanted it to be with Tony. He braced himself and turned over then, settling on his forearms and wide-spread knees. He could hear Tony fussing with something behind him, but he didn’t want to know, and he didn’t dare look—he kept his eyes on the nearest pillow, as if it was a fascinating art piece.

“Relax, darling,” Tony whispered, smoothing the heel of his palm over Steve’s back, rubbing slow, gentle circles over his muscles to help angle Steve’s hips better and help release the tension in Steve’s lower back.

But Steve couldn’t relax; he couldn’t even speak. When Tony inevitably pulled his cheeks apart, exposing Steve’s hole in a way no-one had in more than a decade, Steve’s whole body went tense, involuntarily clenching in anticipation of the inevitable, blunt pressure of a cock breaching him.

Tony adjusted his grip, spread Steve’s ass almost to the point of pain, then with a slow, measured pace, he licked a wet stripe from the bottom up to the top.

Steve rocked forward and nearly crawled away at the unexpected sensation, but Tony’s grip was too strong. He held Steve in place, with his ass spread open like a gift, and with absolutely no regard for air or Steve’s internal panic, Tony laid into his task like a starving man. He bit, tugged, and sucked at the furrowed rim of Steve’s hole, rolling and flicking his tongue over and around it. He slipped first one, then both, thumbs into Steve; it was a tight fit, but he wedged them both in, finger fucking him slowly until his hole relaxed enough to stretch.

It was new, it was all new, and without thinking Steve hugged the pillow to his chest and bit into it to muffle the embarrassing string of aborted gasps and whines Tony was drawing out of him. At the first sign of easing tension, he felt Tony push his thumbs in deeper and stretching him open. Again the chilling reality clawed at him, and Steve squeezed his eyes shut and clutched the pillow in his arms to brace himself for Tony’s cock. He reminded himself that whatever sound he made needed to be Tony’s name; men liked hearing their names.

Steve jolted out of his mantra when Tony’s tongue first pushed into him. By no means could he reach far, but instead of trying to thrust his tongue in like Steve expected, Tony rolled and flicked his tongue hard and fast under and around the rim of his hole. Steve’s body heated with a sudden flare of passion, and an unbidden, low, guttural moan escaped him. His knees slid further apart as the tension melted from his body, until slowly, for the first time, Steve became aware of an emptiness deep within him that left him desperate for more of what Tony was giving him.

Tony was heedless to all the spit he slobbered up and down Steve’s crack in his wake, and when it first started dribbling down to wet Steve’s balls, Steve reacted with a full-body shudder. The mounting need was driving him wild, and without thinking Steve reached back to grab one side of his ass to pull even harder, a silent demand for Tony to fuck his thumbs into him, to fill him, to cure him of this sweet, hollow ache.

Without missing a beat, Tony let Steve spread himself, and with a light squeeze, he encouraged Steve to use both hands. Steve obliged without thinking, spreading his ass as much as he could, and Tony answered by diving in with newfound enthusiasm. Steve groaned against the pillow he’d been biting into, loud and deep like a wounded animal. Tony hummed in the middle of some aggressive sucking around the rim of his hole, then before Steve knew it, replaced his mouth with one slick finger.

The intrusion was strange, but Steve only sucked in a breath in surprise; he’d been so distracted and so eager that it all happened without discomfort. Tony closed his free hand loosely around the base of Steve’s heavy cock, rewarding him with two to three slow, light strokes while working his lubed finger in and out of Steve’s ass, spreading the excessive lube around. He was taking his time, thoroughly working Steve over, until even Steve wanted to cry for him to hurry up. With the little brain power he had left, Steve was plotting different ways to demand more when Tony added a second finger, turning and twisting his fingers inside him.

The world was spinning, and it was already more pleasure, more satisfaction from being penetrated than Steve had ever had. Heaven help him, but he wanted more, he wanted everything Tony would give him. As Tony developed a hard, steady pace with his fingers, Steve experimentally pressed his hips back to meet Tony’s fingers.

“Beautiful,” Tony murmured, his voice deep and hoarse in a way Steve had never heard from him. He needed to hear it again; he couldn’t bear it if this was the last time he made Tony sound this way.

Without breaking their slow, steady rhythm, Tony bent over Steve’s back and pressed a kiss against his shoulder. “Breathe,” he whispered, easing his fingers out. Steve whipped his head up so fast he nearly knocked Tony in the head, but Tony was already straightening behind him.

Despite his limited range of motion, Steve was still trying to see what Tony meant by ‘breathe,’ when a light, blunt pressure replaced Tony’s fingers.

Steve sucked in a sudden breath and went absolutely tense. He abandoned his position, needing to clutch the pillow he’d been biting into out of sheer ecstacy only seconds ago, but Tony pressed on, slowly rubbing a gentle palm over Steve’s lower back and whispering affectionate encouragement.

“So good,” Tony whispered softly, “you’re doing so good.”

Apart from the slow, hypnotic circles Tony was rubbing into his aggravated lower back, neither of them moved.

As the fear ebbed, and Steve noticed that there was no pain, no overt discomfort, awareness returned to him in increments. It began with his gratitude for Tony’s self-restraint, for being able to stay so still and so calm; even his voice didn’t quiver with need. He remembered the first time he fucked Tony, and even now, after having had the privilege twice, he didn’t think he could be this calm if he tried.

But, as he experimentally shifted his hips, some things didn’t add up. Tony’s cock was bigger than this—Steve had expected his cock to feel much thicker, and certainly longer.

“Breathe,” Tony repeated softly, and Steve cried out when he first felt slow, pulsing vibrations against his prostate. “Breathe, darling,” Tony said again, and if Steve had had two brain cells left to rub together, he’d tell Tony to stay in his lane and worry about his own damn breathing.

Steve knew how powerful prostate stimulation could be, he knew how it always gave him the upper hand. This was his first time on the receiving side, first time to feel utterly exploited for his own benefit and pleasure. Then Tony rotated the vibrator gently inside him, until the curved shaft wasn’t just adjacent to Steve’s prostate, but spooning up against it. Steve’s eyes rolled back in pleasure, his hips stuttering back and forth as he mindlessly tried to get more friction; he was so close to the edge that it hurt, and he sobbed with it, pitiful and desperate.

He could no longer make out the words Tony said, but he could hear the affection in his deep, honeyed voice, but then he pulled the vibrator out just a fraction to begin thrusting into Steve’s body, shallow and unhurried, and it was all Steve needed. His hips shot forward involuntarily, pumping wildly as he came, painting the bedsheets with his come.

Tony did his best to keep the vibrator inside Steve through his sudden orgasm, leaving it to massage and milk his prostate to the last drop before easing it out of Steve’s slack body with care.

There was no strength left in Steve’s limbs. He was a boneless heap. He couldn’t even open his eyes, but he privately thrilled to hear Tony’s dark, uneven voice stuttering curses and praise in turn. Handsome, brave, generous Tony, who wasn’t afraid of anything, but hurting Steve. He wanted to do something, wanted to tell Tony how he never thought sex could be this way, but it would have to wait, because all Steve was good for at this point was panting, open-mouthed and drooling, into his soaked pillow.

He recognized the sound of the lube, and little by little, the hazy, distant words spilling from Tony’s lips started to come into focus over the aggressive sound of flesh slapping on flesh.

“Jesus fuck,” Tony bit out, his voice high and choking with need, “fucking—god, so gorge—you’re incredible—”

“No,” Steve mumbled, blindly reaching back where he could feel Tony kneeling behind him. “No, pl’s.”

The lewd sound of slick, slapping flesh ended abruptly, and Tony immediately leaned forward to give Steve his attention. “Darling? What—what’s wrong?” he choked out. There was no hesitation or frustration in his tone, even though his voice was unsteady and strained with need.

“Tell me,” he urged in a whisper, pressing a gentle kiss to the back of Steve’s neck.

Steve peeled one eye open and looked in Tony’s direction. God, if love was real, Steve knew it existed in those brown eyes looking back at him.

“I want it,” he mumbled, slurring most of the words into his pillow, but he really couldn’t find the energy to make his tongue move yet. “Tony, please,” he whined, clumsily pressing back with his hips to better articulate what he needed. “Fuck me, Tony. Sweetheart, please.”

For some time, Tony didn’t move. Steve blinked at him, finally managing to turn his head so he could see Tony better, but Tony still struggled with Steve’s request.

“Steve, you just—” Tony pinched his lips together, trying to find the words. “It won’t feel as good, so soon after an, uh. You’ll be sensitive, sore—”

“Tony, shut up,” Steve mumbled, making an effort not to slur his words to sound more serious in his demand. “Please, don’t make me wait longer, want to feel you now. I know what I want. Fuck me.”

Tony muffled a strangled groan against Steve’s shoulder, and his hips jerked forward, willing and eager to comply with Steve’s demands.

“Slowly,” he finally conceded, though he sounded worried, as if he wasn’t sure it was possible. Steve wanted to assure him that he was fine, that he knew now his trust wasn’t misplaced in Tony, but before he had a chance, he was distracted by one well-slicked finger pressing into him again, smearing lube as far as Tony could reach. He heard another condom wrapper being ripped open.

For a long, unbearable second, it was absolutely quiet.

“Breathe,” Tony told Steve in a whisper. This time, Steve did as Tony said, breathing in slow and steady through his nose. With one hand on Steve’s hip, Tony shuffled just a little closer, lining them up carefully, and then there was no turning back.

Tony pressed in with a slow, steady pace. He didn’t stop to let Steve adjust until he had bottomed out. Steve did his best to relax to receive him, but Tony’s cock was thicker than he had expected, and nearly twice as long as the vibrator. It was all Steve could do not to claw at the sheets or his pillow.

“Not, not gonna last,” Tony choked out, his fingers digging into Steve’s hips hard enough that Steve could practically feel the bruises forming. “Darling, I’m gonna have—you, you okay?”

Steve growled, and hesitant though he was, he tried squeezing his muscles around Tony’s cock. It worked like a charm; Tony’s hips thrust forward hard enough to rock Steve’s body, and Steve groaned softly in pleasure.

“I’m okay,” he hissed through his teeth, “I’m waiting, Tony. Do it, please.

Tony didn’t say anything, but Steve felt how he shifted in bed, adjusting his position so he could plant one foot on the mattress next to Steve’s shoulder. With newfound leverage, he pulled out of Steve to thrust back into his body with greater force, until he was pounding into Steve like an animal.

This, Steve remembered. The mad, selfish rutting of men seeking their pleasure.

“Talk to me,” Steve begged, swallowing down against the swelling lump of tears threatening to choke him. This was Tony, he tried to tell himself, it was no-one else.

“You’re—fuck, darling,” Tony whispered, breathless and unthinking as he fucked Steve into the mattress hard enough to rattle the bedframe, mad with lust. “Jesus, you give me life, you—fuck, the smell of you, your voice, Steve, Steve you’re heaven, you feel, feel so—”

Steve focused on his voice to anchor himself in the present. Tony was his choice; this was a man he wanted. When Tony’s thrusts soon became uncoordinated and desperate, Steve pushed back to reciprocate his interest. It was the final straw. Tony thrust into him one final time and came with a strangled cry that Steve thought might have been his name.

Tony fell forward, but braced himself on his hands in the last moment, struggling to keep from dumping his weight on Steve. Steve briefly thought he wouldn’t have minded, might even have welcomed Tony’s weight heavy against his back, but Tony was already pulling away, pulling out, and climbing off the bed.

Steve must have dropped off for a moment, because the next thing he remembered was the mattress dipping with Tony’s weight as he slid in under the covers.

“Sorry, darling,” he whispered, leaning in to kiss the bridge of Steve’s nose. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Not sleepy,” Steve sighed muzzily, reaching for Tony.

He could hear Tony smiling, but he didn’t care. All he wanted in that moment was to get his hands on Tony, and to hold him close. Tony readily obliged.

Steve rolled onto his back as Tony shuffled in closer, pulling Tony to his side. Tony nuzzled in closer, pillowing his head on Steve’s chest.

“‘ll be dreaming of you,” Steve whispered into Tony’s soft hair. “You ‘n your hips.”

He felt Tony’s chuckle against his chest as he faded into a deep, restful sleep.

***

When Tony woke up the next morning, Steve was already awake and watching him.

“Anyone ever tell you,” Steve whispered, brushing his fingers through Tony’s hair, “that you are gorgeous first thing in the morning?”

Tony closed his eyes and bit his lip to keep from laughing in Steve’s face. But clearly, Steve could still feel and hear his amusement; he leaned in with a big grin to kiss Tony’s smiling lips. A moment later, Steve shuffled up in bed until he was partially sitting up, and he pulled Tony in closer again to hold Tony in his arms.

Tony followed his pull easily, nuzzling into the crook of Steve’s neck, where he took a deep, steady breath. If he wasn’t careful, his feelings for Steve were going to spill right out of him, and he couldn’t afford that. It was just too soon. Steve was really rolling with the punches, but some things needed time, even if he didn't.

“Still can’t stop thinking about you on that bull last night,” Steve said quietly in the silence Tony had created. “You looked so happy. Don’t think I’ve ever seen you happier. How come you stopped competing?”

Of all the conversations to have instead, this had to be it.

Tony shrugged one shoulder, but it took him a while to answer. “Same reason I moved up north,” he admitted, as objectively as he could. “I had a series of bad injuries. Horse ran over my arm, bull threw me into a wall. Fell on my neck. Add to that lifelong—whatever, you get it,” he sighed, before he thought too much about it. “It’s not the safest sport.”

With his head still pillowed on Steve’s chest, Tony could hear his heart racing. He took one deep, slow breath, then leaned up on his elbow so he could look Steve in the eyes. The shock and grave concern in Steve’s expression were expected, but it hurt to see guilt so obviously shaking him.

Tony had just wanted one night of fun. Now Steve knew.

“The rodeo was my life,” he continued, determined to finish the whole story. “I couldn’t stay here and not participate. Then, we heard the best rehab clinics for my needs were in New York. I went there; they kept me at the facility for six months, then it was just regular visits. I started going to college. My life changed, but I’m better, Steve,” he promised. “I can walk again, I can talk. I can write. Falling on an air mattress wouldn’t hurt me.”

“Why,” Steve breathed, still too shaken to speak. “Why didn’t you say, yesterday?”

Tony smiled at him, shaking his head slowly. “You treat me like a person,” Tony admitted quietly, his voice so low it was a miracle Steve even heard him. “Not some recovering invalid, or, or someone who can’t get on a bull to show off for his boyfriend. I thought, if I told you, you might never look at me the same way.”

“Oh, Tony—”

“No,” Tony interrupted Steve before he said any more. “Don’t. Don’t ‘oh, Tony’ me, like I’m some wayward child. Like I’m a victim. I lost everything that was important then. They all look at me here, they see I’m different. I’m not as strong. I’ll never go on a drive with my brother again, I’ll never feel the rush of the cage. The only horse I can ride anymore is Dummy, because I broke him in, he’s only ever been mine, and he’s so familiar I could ride him in my sleep. But my life now,” Tony said with a small, but genuine smile, “Steve, I’m enjoying my life. I apply myself in other ways, not just physical strength. It’s a second chance; how many people can say they had that?”

This time, Steve defied his expectations. Instead of disgust, or heartache, or even pity, Steve’s expression was thoughtful.

“I need to tell you something about my… my life, before,” Steve told him. “It occurred to me yesterday, and I think… I mean, it meant a lot, to me.”

Steve’s unexpected reply gave Tony pause, but he nodded eventually. He settled back down on Steve’s chest, pressing a soft kiss to his sternum, and he watched Steve in attentive silence.

“A foster family took me in when I was two. I was sick with a lot of stuff, and it became too much trouble, so they gave me back. That became the pattern, I was placed with, well. Until I was eight. I could breathe better by then, but I was small, and I got into fights in school. Once I was ten, eleven, families wouldn’t really want me. Then, I came out when I was fifteen. That was a nightmare. So, I ran away. I was homeless for almost three years,” he added before Tony had to ask. “It wasn’t so bad when I was younger, I could sleep in youth shelters pretty regularly. They’d always find a space for a fifteen year old, a sixteen year old. But at seventeen, you’re practically an adult, there’s no special treatment. There’s really only one thing you can do then, and it got bad, for a time. Winters, especially.”

Tony couldn’t blink; he couldn’t look away. Rationally, he knew this wasn’t a competition, but boy did he feel foolish. And how Steve had listened to him, empathetic and kind, as if Tony knew what suffering meant.

“I can see your thoughts spiraling, Tony,” Steve whispered, combing his fingers through Tony’s hair and making Tony look him in the eyes again. “Sweetheart, look at me. I’m fine—hell, I’m better than most. I got my diploma in the end, I got my college education. The government paid for tuition and housing. Now I’ve got a career and a life that most people envy. But I thought… I thought I’d be alone. People look at you differently when they find out you’re a foster kid, that—that you were homeless. But to meet someone like you,” he said, smiling at Tony with deep affection. Tony could only stare back at him; what he wouldn’t give to meet all those people who gave up on Steve, to get his hands on them.

Steve cupped his face in his big, gentle hands, brushing his tears away and bringing him back to the present. “You know how lucky I’ve got to be to find someone who understands? It’s not… there’s no point, it’s not a pity parade. I haven’t thought of myself as a victim, Tony, I never did. I never could. I’m one of the lucky few with a second chance, and I worked my ass off to get it. I just never thought I’d find someone who could… understand what that means.”

Tony watched him in quiet, humbled awe. Slowly, he pushed himself up to until they were eye to eye, nose to nose.

“Thank you for telling me, Steve. For your trust in me,” he whispered, brushing his lips over Steve’s in a soft, adoring kiss. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you. I’m grateful you were strong enough. Grateful you survived, to have you in my life.”

“And,” Steve asked, a little more hesitant. “Even knowing. I traded, traded, um.”

Tony nodded a little, reaching up to brush Steve’s ever-growing hair out of his eyes. “I know.”

A slight tension around Steve’s mouth eased not to have to say the words out loud, and he cleared his throat to steady his voice and soldier on. “Knowing what I did, you’d still marry me?”

Tony blinked up at Steve at first, blindsided by his question. It took him the space of two heartbeats to understand, but when he did, all he could do was smile. Smile, warm and adoring, to show him Steve how happy he made Tony.

“Would I? Darling, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d dare you to stop me.”

***

They were late for breakfast the next morning, but Steve really couldn’t have cared less. He followed Tony through the house easily, trying to distract himself from his private but enthusiastic countdown to their return flight tomorrow afternoon. They were on their way to the kitchen when Tony made an abrupt stop and rushed out to the front door.

“Where are you going?” he demanded of his brother, who was clearly strapping something over the saddle of a horse. “It’s not the season.”

“Al and Pedro said something about hogs out east again,” Clint said simply while he double checked his rifle and gear a last time. “They’re getting too close to the cattle, and dad wants me to check it out.”

Steve wasn’t entirely sure what a hog was, but by the look of concern on Tony’s face, he assumed Babe wasn’t an accurate reference point.

“Not alone you’re not,” Tony told him, and before Clint or Steve could get a word in, he brought two fingers to his mouth and whistled twice, two long, high-pitched notes. Dummy never seemed to be more than a few yards away, and the big grey horse came cantering from the side of the house with Tony’s bedroom windows.

Clint frowned, but in the end, he only sighed and said, “At least get a saddle on him first.”

Tony rolled his eyes, and instead went to pick up a rope like he had used the day before. “We’ll be fine.”

“What?” Steve finally asked, looking from Clint to Tony. He was sure he was missing some important piece of the conversation, but he was also sure he didn’t like where any of this was headed. “Tony, what’s going on?”

“Wild pigs,” Clint explained, and he pulled his classic Winchester carbine out of the scabbard. “Hunting pigs.”

“Why—why, what? Who hunts pigs?”

Maria stepped out to join them on the porch, still drying a mixing bowl with a tea towel. “Now, I know y’all aren’t planning to do something stupid. Tony?”

“Mom, it’s Dummy. I’ve been riding him over ten years, I don’t need a saddle. We’ll be fine.”

“Boy, did I bring you into this world just so you could die when your horse trips in a gopher hole?”

“Tony, come on. Mom’s right,” Clint said quietly, trying to coax his brother into being reasonable. “They’re mean and fast.”

Tony finished getting the halter on Dummy’s head, and went to dig a hunting rifle out of the chest of blankets on the porch. “Come on, look at him. He’s not as young as Celeste, he’ll run faster without a saddle.”

Steve was still staring at the chest of fucking blankets that so casually seemed to double as a gun rack when Maria gently touched a hand to his elbow. She didn’t say anything, but she give him a meaningful look and gestured at Tony with her head.

“Tony,” Steve tried, scrambling for something meaningful to say. You couldn’t tell Tony what to do, he’d only get more stubborn. Clint looked worried, and so did their mother, though she seemed better about concealing it with her anger.

Tony rolled his eyes and turned to give Steve a flat look. “Steve, it’s okay. I’ll be—Steve?”

Steve stumbled to the nearest bench and dropped into a seat, a hand covering his heart. Tony dropped what he was doing and rushed over to him, kneeling on the porch and turning Steve’s face to look him in the eyes.

“Steve? Darling, what’s wrong? You alright?”

“Just, you know,” Steve whispered, his voice low and jittery with nerves. “Guns. Hunting. I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, Tony, but if they’re saying you should—and you’re refusing, I don’t. It just, it scares me, Tony, that’s all.”

“Why? I—”

Steve shook his head before Tony got to explaining, even waving it off. “No, no I’ll—I’ll be fine, just, just anxiety. You know. I mean, I’m better, usually, heart still acts up sometimes.”

“No, no, hey don’t, don’t worry. I’ll go get the—look, I’m gonna go do it right now, just, just breathe, and—mom? Can you get him water?”

“Yes, baby,” she promised, and turned on her heel to do that exactly.

“You just sit here, I’ll gear up, you’ll see, super safe. All good,” he promised, taking Steve’s free hand in his to press a kiss to the palm of his hand. He got up then, promised his brother it’d only be fine minutes, and led Dummy away to the stables.

Steve didn’t turn around to look after him to be on the safe side, but when Maria came back to him a few moments later, he quietly asked, “Did it work?”

“God bless you, boy,” Maria grinned down at him, giving him his glass of water and ruffling his hair. Like he was just another kid in the house.

“Mom, you’re messing up his hair,” Clint complained on Steve’s behalf, as if it had happened so often in his life that Steve was more worried about his hairstyle than the affection shared.

Steve smiled at her before turning to look at Clint, where he sat in his saddle already, waiting for Tony to get ready. “What are you guys even doing?”

“Pigs get more aggressive and territorial this time of year,” Clint explained, “mating season’s coming up. They normally don’t come out near the cattle, but I guess water’s been bad this year.”

“He’s coming: turn around!” Maria whispered urgently, and Steve immediately turned his back and focused on his water.

Sure enough, Tony was cantering back to the house on Dummy’s back, but this time, the horse was fully decked out. No more bareback rides with makeshift bitless halters: Tony sat in a full saddle, with real reins in his hands, and the rifle was safely tucked away in a scabbard like the one Clint had strapped to his horse.

“Steve?” Tony called, then looked at his mom. “He okay?”

“I’ll take care of him,” she said, and for the first time, it didn’t sound indecent; it sounded affectionate and protective. “You two watch each other’s backs out there, you hear?”

“Yes, mom,” they chorused, and turned their horses around, riding off in the direction of the east lake.

Steve turned in his seat then, watching them go. “How come Dummy’s always loose?” he wondered.

“Cause Tony taught him how to open fences, and he prefers to be close to us. He just loiters outside Tony’s window, he’s harmless,” she said, as if it made perfect sense. Then, apropos of nothing, she said, “Howard tells me you’re thinking of marrying my son.”

Steve closed his eyes, took a slow, steadying breath, and privately wondered when the hell he’d catch a break.

He turned around in his seat to face Maria. She pulled a wicker chair over, and sat down to look him in the eyes.

“Listen, son,” she said so plainly Steve blinked at her in surprise. He’d expected a threat, or a come-on, but direct, simple talk was a happy surprise. “Tony’s alone out in that Yankee city. I can see it, we all can. Do you care about him?”

“I do,” Steve answered earnestly.

“Good. All I want is for my boy to be happy. Have a good life, a dependable partner. Clint’s gonna give us grandbabies, and I don’t care so much about this blood business as Howard does. But you listen to me,” she said with steel in her voice. “You hurt my boy, I’m not suing you, or taking your property like my husband would. I’ll take it out of your hide. Am I clear?”

Steve swallowed quietly, but nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“And when you’re family,” she continued, just as seriously, “if anybody hurts you, you tell me. I don’t care if they’re in New York, California, or fucking Mexico. You’re my son, my boy. Howard doesn’t always let me handle it my way,” she conceded with a wry smile, “but honey, nobody hurts my family.”

The conversation had turned on Steve so quickly that he nearly got whiplash.

“Yes, ma’am,” he promised.

She must have been satisfied with his answers, because she smiled back. “You asked him yet?” Steve was too surprised to do anything but nod, but she only seemed happier for it. “He said yes?”

“He—yes, he,” Steve tried to explain, almost convinced Howard would appear any second to chase him from the property. “We agree it’s quick, so there’ll be a prenup.”

“Howard’s in his office, honey,” she whispered, “I don’t give two shits about the money. You look like you make enough, anyhow. But if you think I’ll let you boys run away to do this marriage thing on your own, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Ma’am, I don’t understand—”

“You’re having the wedding here,” she told him, smiling with the satisfaction of a woman who only allowed people to agree with her. “Go get dressed dear, we’ve got work to do! I’ll go get Howard’s pocketbook.”

“I—ma’am, wait!” Steve called after her, but it was no good; Maria didn’t listen, and before Steve got to his feet, she had disappeared into the house, out of sight.

***

“You look rattled, son. What’s wrong?”

The truck was barreling down a country road at speeds Steve didn’t dare to look at. He was grabbing on to his seat and door handle like his life depended on it, because he was genuinely afraid it would. Still, he forced himself to a smile at her.

“Don’t you think we should ask Tony first?”

“I’m his mother,” she said matter of factly. “My first son’s getting married? He’s not doing that in some dirty old city like New York: he’s doing it here, with family. His friends are here; if he wants to ride Dummy down the aisle he can.”

“No, he cannot,” Steve said much too quickly, because as much as he’d like to tell himself he didn’t have opinions about his wedding day, there was no question he’d involve a horse.

Maria laughed, and took a sharp turn from one road to the next. When Steve recognized the distant outline of the ranch house, he closed his eyes and thanked his lucky stars. Maybe he’d survive this car ride after all.

“You give any thought to a cake?” she wondered, entirely oblivious to Steve’s panic. “Red velvet is one of Tony’s favorites, and I need a good reason to make another Lane cake. Do you have a preference, honey?”

“I—I like everything,” Steve said quietly, still silently praying they’d just get to the house without vaulting the car or hitting a cow. “Red velvet is fine.”

“How do you feel about lemon?”

“Ma’am, if we get out of this car alive, I will eat anything.”

Luckily, Maria only laughed at Steve’s comment, but that didn’t mean she slowed the car down. “We have work to do, why should we drive slowly? You know how to bake, don’t you?”

“A little,” Steve allowed. “Simple things; breakfast food.”

“A little?” Maria gawked in clear disbelief. “Honey, I had one of those cinnamon rolls you made. Two of them,” she admitted, probably in case God was listening in. “We’ll teach you how to make a red velvet that’ll put some meat on that boy’s bones.”

When she pulled up to park at the house, Steve was out of the car like a shot. He didn’t kiss the ground, per se, but he took a moment to quietly thank whoever had been watching over them.

“Come on, honey, hurry up,” Maria told him, pulling her boots off at the door. “We got five hours before the officiator gets here, and we got work to do.”

She introduced him to the legendary pantry that lived up to its reputation, then left him a hand-written 3x5 index card with the recipe for a red velvet cake.

“It’s Howard’s grandmother’s recipe,” she told him. “It’s the only recipe we allow in this house. I’ll show you what she showed me,” she added with a smile, “so if Clint doesn’t get his act together before I die, you can show Laura.”

“That isn’t a lot of pressure at all,” Steve drawled, but Maria only smiled more brightly, and rubbed his back.

“You can handle it,” she promised. “In fact, here are the two cakes; go through them, find the ingredients. If it’s not here, it’s in either fridge. I’ve got other business to sort out, but I’ll be back in half an hour, so you just get us started on all three, alright?”

Steve stared down at the index cards in his hands, and tried not to think about all the generations who would have enjoyed these precise recipes. The task she had left him with, however, was fairly straight forward. He shook himself out of the stupor, and focused on his work.

***

“Mom? Mom!” Clint called into the house later that evening, soon followed by Tony’s echo.

“Mom!” he called, “mom?”

Maria stomped out of the kitchen in her Sunday best and a mean look. Both boys straightened in alarm, as if they’d somehow gotten caught in the middle of misbehaving.

“Yes, children, what is it? I’m busy,” she said impatiently, holding a cream-covered spatula in one hand.

“Mom, what’s Reverend Stanley’s car doing out back?” Tony asked, because between the two of them, he had technically lived a longer life. He hoped Steve would remember him fondly.

Just like that, Maria’s expression changed to happier than joy. “I’m glad you asked, darling,” she said with a beaming smile. “Dad and I heard y’all were getting married—”

Clint’s head whipped around to stare at him. “You what?

“—and we thought, why don’t y’all just do it here? With family? Just the four of us, sweetheart, nothing big. Dad’s gotten the lawyers to get a prenup together, Steve and I picked up the marriage license.”

Tony stared at her with a kind of horror that could only be laughed at. They had what? Oh, god, his parents were lunatics, and he’d left Steve alone with them for six hours—

“Now, you two go wash up, get dressed. Ties!” she insisted, “You have twenty five minutes, go!”

Tony was still shell-shocked, so it was Clint who stepped up to ask, “Mom, can we see some proof of life for Steve?”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Maria said with a roll of her eyes, and she turned to walk back out to the sitting room where they’d been preparing to have the ceremony. “I got him hanging up the flowers, come see him yourself when you’re dressed!”

The brothers stood in the foyer, too shocked to move. Finally, Clint turned to Tony and quietly asked, “You think Reverend Stanley will be addressing the questions to you, or to her?”

Tony would have laughed if the answer wasn’t so ambiguous.

***

Tony put on another of the jeans his mother had bought him, one that didn’t have two days worth of grime and sweat caked into it, and found the oldest church-appropriate button up in his closet. It was a little short at the sleeves, but it fit, so he buttoned it up, tucked it in, and picked a tie.

He spent thirty seconds deciding on whether or not to wear his belt buckle. But in the end, Steve had said he liked it, so he couldn’t resist.

“I like that blue,” Clint said when they met up in the hallway, grinning at his brother. “I was afraid you’d go for white.”

Tony snickered quietly, but he didn’t bother answering. Instead, he reached to fix Clint’s tie. “There,” he said when he’d smoothed it out and slid it into place. “I hope Laura at least knows how to tie a tie.”

“She does,” he said, but he glanced down at his own tie to try hiding his blush. Tony watched him curiously, because if Clint was the one worried at his marriage ceremony, something wasn’t right.

“But, uh. You know,” Clint eventually continued, “I’m glad you’re good with them, because, it, it’s important, you know, that my best man knows how to do fix ties. And, things. So, you know, since you can and all, I thought maybe you…”

“Clint Francis Stark, you better talk better than this when you ask that girl to marry you,” Tony said with a huge grin, and when Clint snapped his gaze up to look at him, Tony laughed and pulled him in for a hug, smiling even when he pressed an adoring kiss his brother’s temple.

“Of course, man, of course, it’d be my honor,” Tony promised, letting his brother go with a clap on the back. “Come on, let’s get this one in the bag. Hell, maybe Reverend Stanley’s got time for a second one?”

“Oh no, Laura wants a church wedding,” Clint replied even though he knew Tony was only joking. “I think I want one, too.”

Tony glanced in the direction of the sitting room. It hadn’t occurred to him before that he didn’t know what kind of wedding Steve might want. They hadn’t planned on a wedding for a wedding’s sake, so it hadn’t seemed important at the time, but this wasn’t exactly something they’d do together twice.

Still, he smiled at his brother and quietly asked, “You’ve given this some thought, haven’t you?”

“Ever since she walked twenty-three miles in the rain to bring Celeste home after a bad storm last winter,” he said without hesitation. “Just… I just haven’t found the right ring, or the right time to ask. Don’t want it to be just another day.”

“Listen,” Tony said, smiling but serious. “Steve and I were talking yesterday, and we thought—he’s got guest rooms, we wanted to invite you to the city. Why don’t you and Laura come this summer, get out of the heat? We’ll plan something nice.”

“Are his walls any good?” Clint asked with deadpan delivery. It took Tony a second too long to understand what he meant. “This whole sharing an air vent thing is—”

Tony spun on his heel, beet-red in the face, and marched away from his cackling little brother.

“Steve! Oh, good,” he breathed when he spotted Steve sipping bourbon by the large west-facing windows. “You’re alive, I was—god, that’s not fair,” he murmured when he noticed Steve’s beautifully tailored, dove grey suit. “Why—you packed this? Of course you packed it, it’s made for your body.”

Steve grinned, and, thoughtful as he was, offered his drink to Tony. Tony downed it like a shot.

“Wow,” Steve murmured, brows furrowing a little in concern. “Everything alright?”

Tony returned the glass to him, and wet his lips. Telling Steve wouldn’t solve anything; it wasn’t even that important. Better to tell him later, when they were safe in New York and could laugh about it.

“I was just,” Tony said instead, searching for words, “surprised. Is this—are you alright with this?”

There was a tension in Steve’s expression, but he denied it. “I think your mom makes a good point,” he replied. “If we can do the same thing here as there, why not do it with your family?”

“But, don’t you have a dream wedding?” Tony asked, trying to keep his voice calm. “Something not this?”

“I,” Steve started to say, then had to smile and shake his head at the thought, as if it was ridiculous. Eventually, he tried again. “I used to dream of getting married at sunset in an orange grove. Late spring.”

“Oh,” Tony whispered, starting to feel a cold sweat trickling down his spine. Damn him, why hadn’t he asked sooner? “That, that’s really specific.”

“I mean that literally, Tony, it was a dream,” Steve tried to explain. “I didn’t—it wasn’t with anyone special, it wasn’t even conscious, I just… it was a recurring dream. A nice dream, but… I was alone. Who is more important than how.”

“Yeah, of course,” Tony agreed quietly, however uncomfortably. He was going to have some serious words with his mother. “That makes sense.”

Maria walked up to them before Tony had a chance to find her, and with a smile she told them, “Reverend Stanley is ready whenever you are. Come on, dad’s got the papers for you to sign.”

“You sure about this?” Tony asked Steve one last time. Steve smiled and nodded in return, but even so, something wasn’t right. He was too tense, and his thoughts were somewhere far away. “Steve?”

“Let’s, let’s do it,” Steve said, smiling for Tony.

Tony took Steve by the hand, and they walked together to where Howard was going over the marriage license and the prenup one more time.

“The prenup is iron-clad,” he promised, but he looked at Steve when he said it. He held out the pen to Steve first, as if he needed to see Steve sign and initial the prenup before anything else happened. “You won’t get a penny.”

“Dad, stop being such an asshole,” Tony snapped, and grabbed the pen out of his hand to sign first. He went through it carefully, making sure he didn’t miss anything, then handed the pen to Steve. “Here, darling.”

Steve took the pen, and with a last glance at Howard, he followed Tony’s lead, signing and initialling the document with care.

“Clint?” Tony asked for his brother, turning to find him. When he saw Clint talking to the Reverend a few yards away, he called his name and waved him over. “I need a witness, get over here!”

He watched his brother make his way over, and his mom was saying something to him about photographs with the cakes, and how Steve had helped her make them, when by some miracle, he picked up the sound of his dad’s voice.

“I figured it out,” he was whispering to Steve. “I made some calls. I know what you’re after.”

Tony didn’t know what it meant, but a chill ran through his veins. In the near distance, his mom was saying something about being Steve’s witness, but Steve looked ill. Whatever his dad had said to Steve had him scared, so scared the blood drained from his face.

“Steve?” he whispered, but when he squeezed Steve’s hand to get his attention, Steve jerked his hand away like it had been burned.

It looked like it hurt, but Steve managed to tear his eyes away from Howard to look at Tony.

“Dad?” Tony stammered, trying to get a hold of Steve, but it was like catching steam in a net, he slipped through his fingers and evaporated from sight.

Steve was gone.

They laughed together minutes ago, how could this be?

“Dad! What—what did you—Steve!”

The fog lifted and he sprinted after Steve, his parents shouting after them in his wake. Tony got out on the porch just in time to see Steve pulling away in their rental truck, pulling out and speeding away into the approaching night.

Tony whistled twice, long, high-pitched notes that brought Dummy dutifully, happily, trotting to the porch. With a hand in Dummy’s mane, Tony swung himself up onto his back, and spun his horse around to chase after the speeding truck.

Steve wasn’t getting away from him, not like this—not without an explanation.

Dummy tore after the truck at a breakneck speed, stretching and reaching as best as he could. It was too dark for Steve to drive too fast on such unfamiliar roads, and soon, Tony managed to slide up against the driver’s side window. He pounded on the window, shouting for Steve to stop, to slow down—they needed to talk, this couldn’t be happening—

Steve refused to look at him, hunched in on himself and staring directly ahead over the steering wheel. Then, with a sudden jerk of the wheel, he swerved away from Tony and sped up, but Tony had had enough practice with steer not to be thrown. Dummy was tiring, but Tony urged him on, and god, just another two inches and he could reach the truck bed.

A dip in the road had Dummy stumbling forward at over thirty miles an hour, and Tony went flying over his neck.

***

The truck came to an immediate, screeching stop. Steve’s heart had stopped beating the moment he’d seen Dummy stumble forward, and he almost broke the car door in his hurry to climb out.

He needed to get Tony to the hospital. If he was hurt, if his head—if he—

Tony was standing beside Dummy, unharmed. Both the horse and rider were exhausted and panting from exertion. Neither of them moved. Tony was still holding on to Dummy, still gripping the horse's mane like a lifeline, but he was unharmed.

If Steve wanted to get away, this was his chance.

“I can’t do this,” Steve told Tony, because what else could he say? I can’t take advantage of you. I can’t lie to you. I can’t tell you how selfishly I’ve abused your trust.

“Then don’t,” Tony begged. “Steve, what are—Steve?”

This was it. Steve knew it, this was his chance. He looked at Tony one last time, then made up his mind.

Tony called his name, and still Steve climbed back into the truck.

Tony was too good for him, and he knew it. If he stayed, Tony would be stuck with him, a man who had lied to him for so long. A man who was too scared, too insecure to ever be entirely honest.

Tony deserved better than this.

Without a look back at Tony and his horse, Steve turned the key in the ignition. He knew what he had to do.