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Under the October Sun

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It starts on an unremarkable Friday afternoon at a small table in the back of the campus library.

Well no. It actually starts in a lecture hall holding freshmen orientation when a stranger, long and full of gorgeous angles, almost trips over Tony’s satchel that’s chilling out in the aisle. The knee-jerk my bad is nearly out of Tony’s mouth but his tongue dries on the half-hearted apology at the sight of eyes stained with sky and sea, and the sun-colored fringe that falls in them before it’s finger-combed back.

“Sorry,” stumbles out of the curve of the stranger’s sheepish smile that just about flips Tony’s heart inside-out.

“No, it was my fault. Here let me--” Tony says once he’s able to string together words. He hurriedly picks up his bag. “Total safety hazard. Don’t want to break anyone’s neck on my first day. It couldn’t get any worse than that, right?”

Laughing, the guy says, “That’d really be something for sure. I don’t think I was in that much danger, though.” He nods to the space next to Tony. “Is that seat saved?”

“Nope. Just waiting on you, I guess.” Tony pulls his feet out of the walkspace and with that the guy shuffles into the row, legs brushing up against Tony’s knees; and then they’re nearly sharing the armrest, he’s so impossibly broad.

He extends a hand to Tony. “Steve Rogers.”

“I’m Tony.” Steve’s hand is warm in his, filled with heat, and so, so much trouble. Swallowing, he continues, “Tony Stark.”

Fast-forward three years and Tony is still woefully pathetic in the presence of Steve Rogers. However, to his credit, he’s gotten better at hiding it. His gargantuan crush stays wrapped up in the guise of tip-toeingly careful teasing and the same lazy flirtations he uses with everyone because it didn’t take long after meeting Steve to realize that he’s the sort of person you keep in your life. Tony’s stupid feelings aren’t worth the risk of losing the best friend he’s ever made. While Steve’s gorgeous, funny and smart, he’s also impossibly kind and good, so much better than Tony, who’s already bitching about underclassmen almost two months into their senior year.

“And now they’ve all pretty much decided they want to push our study session a day back,” Tony says, editing on his laptop with one tab dedicated to google docs and another open with a draft of stern email that borders on passive aggressive, telling the Circuit Analysis class to be sure to bring in the study guide he’ll be attaching when they show up on time. “So I had to switch around my schedule for Sunday to fit it in. Why did I agree to be a Junior TA again?”

“Because you’re the best,” Steve says like it’s easy, which in turn makes everything incredibly complicated. Tony has to bite his lip to keep from saying something cretinous and dip his head because how else is he supposed to deal with that. Steve clears his throat before adding, “At least your Saturday is free now. You can’t be too upset about that, right?”

“Ugh, your rationality is showing, Rogers. But yeah, I guess that’s true enough. I’ll find a party or something, catch that zombie shark movie that just came out.”

“Well, that’s an idea or. I mean, if you’re free anyway—”

Tony’s head snaps up because that sounds like it’s going somewhere, somewhere that has his fingers convulsing over his keyboard and creating a line of incoherent vowels and consonants in his document. That is at least until they’re interrupted by one of the students that he is assistant teaching, Scott Lang coming around the stacks like a sure-fire bet to ruin Tony’s day.

“Oh! Hey, Tony!”

Tony groans, put-upon, and Steve tells him to be nice, before the freshman, who’s only taking an engineering class to impress the girl he has a crush on by the way, is propping his hip against their table. Which yeah fine, Tony can kind of relate to wanting to impress the person you lo—like but still, the more Lang barrages him with questions, the longer Tony goes without knowing what Steve was about to ask and god, Tony really needs to know what Steve was about to ask.

When there’s a rare gap in Lang’s extensive rigamarole, Tony says, “Listen, I’m happy to answer your questions, really, but can they wait until, like, Sunday or you can send me an email? I know you have my email address because I’ve given it to you at least twice.”

Steve presses his lips together against a laugh and starts packing up his things. He generously motions for Lang to take his seat. “It’s alright. I have to head out to the elementary school anyway.” Because Steve actually loves teaching and wants to do it for the rest of his life. To Tony, he asks, “Is it alright if I pick you up tomorrow? At like three? Or if you really have your heart set on that zombie shark thing—”

“Um, no, no,” Tony says, shaking his head so much that he’s a little shocked it doesn’t pop right off and roll over to the reference section. “You can. That’d be cool.”

“Great. Okay. I’ll see you then,” Steve says with a smile that is completely unfair before he’s gone, leaving Tony stunned.

Lang mugs a face of apology at Tony. “Sorry, man, I didn’t know that you were getting asked out.”

“I wasn’t, that wasn’t—” Tony pauses. “Wait. Is that what you think that was?”

”Dude, that sounded like a date to me.”

*

The next day, Tony dramatizes searching for a signal once he’s climbed out of Steve’s pickup, circling around with his phone up in the air and broadcasting mock distress. He turns to Steve with a grin.

“This is a really impressive kidnapping attempt. I’ve gotta hand it to you, Steve. You’ve taken me hours away from all civilization and I’m surrounded by acres of hay and cornstalk with seemingly no end in sight. And there’s no way to let anyone know where I’ve gone because this place doesn’t have service.”

“There are plenty of people here who would probably be happy to assist you if you were in fact being kidnapped. I know you get wary of anything that remotely resembles a remote life, but I promise you, you’re not being kidnapped.” Steve says and Tony follows him out of the gravel parking lot. Where gravel changes into dried mud and patches of grass, Steve exchanges money for entrance beyond a gated area.

Tony hums, considering him, and small part of his brain silently questioning who gave Steve’s hair the right to dance in the wind like that. “Sounds like something a kidnapper would say.”

“Have you never been to a farm before?” Steve asks, crossing his arms over a table tennis club hoodie he got at the activities fair years ago. Tony’s pretty sure Steve’s hasn’t made a single meeting, but the hoodie is oddly cherished. Steve doesn’t go an autumn or a winter without it, not even with the cuffs fraying and its color washed at least two shades softer. Tony’s had many thoughts about this hoodie: imagining how it’d feel against his hands, the sweater paws it’d turn them into if he ever stole it and tugged it over his head, brought the frayed edges to his lips. He thinks on what it’d smell like if he ever got to breathe it in.

“Farms aren’t really my style,” Tony says after a bit, shaking that particular fantasy loose. And to not be a total prick, he continues with, “But I’m adaptable.”

Although, Tony’s not entirely sure what he’s adapting to. Petrified to crash-land them both into a crater of embarrassment, he’s refrained from asking Steve to define this little outing. His fingers itching to text Steve all last night and this morning, Tony just managed to keep conversation neutral for a hour and a half down the freeway and through illustrative backroads. But now that they’re here, on a farm, driving two wheelbarrows through an actual pumpkin patch, and zigzagging through scatterings of people and kids whose parents can barely keep them corralled. Tony is wondering if this is Steve Rogers’ idea of a first date. It’s quaint, with the sweet-smelling air, cobwebbed haystacks, and the riot of harvest colors. It’s so wholesome and charmingly original, so incredibly Steve, that Tony’s insides twist with affection even as rotted pulp squelches under his sneakers.

About an hour in and away from most of the farm’s populace, Tony is watching Steve examine a warted pumpkin, searching for another contribution to their haul, which has now reached double digits, when he thinks to ask what Steve actually plans to do with all of them.

Tony laughs. “Exactly how many of these do you need?”

Steve shrugs, levering up a decent-sized pumpkin into his wheelbarrow with little effort. “I figure a few more than the kids in the class I student-teach should be safe. There’s this one kid that I’m especially picking out two for. He has ‘smashing pumpkins’ written all over him.”

“This is for your class?” Tony asks, gut-punched and a feeling that’s melancholy and numb and so dumb wastes no seeping into his bones. Tony laughs again, this time without humor because this is what he deserves for suffering an apparent lapse into insanity and giving credence to anything freaking Scott Lang has to say. For letting his want and hope pen a fiction that almost passed as believable inside his head. “Of course this is for your class. And you needed my help so…”

“I asked if it’d be okay with you.”

“Yeah, kinda. I—it’s okay. It’s really okay. I just thought. Nevermind. Forget it.”

“I can’t forget it, Tony. I can look at you and tell something’s wrong. You know you can talk to me about whatever it is. If you’re having a bad time—”

Tony doesn’t think a bad time and Steve Rogers can even co-exist. He scrubs his forehead and tries to think up a lie that Steve won’t see right through because willing this moment to end most certainly won’t work. However, everything Tony thinks of sounds too stupid or unfairly mean. And Tony’s exhausted by all of the lying because while he’s gotten better at hiding his feelings that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard or that it doesn’t shred at his heart each time he has to do so. That it didn’t crack his chest wide seeing Steve with other people or have Tony feeling unfinished when he tried to move on. And in a year where are they even going to be? No longer in each other’s pockets or a jaunt across campus away, that’s where, and he can’t graduate in May not having known because sometimes, late at night and flat on his back, he creates a pros and cons list on why Steve would stay in touch after. Because Steve constantly feels like something dropped in Tony’s life by accident.

Recklessly and going full-crater under the October sun, Tony confesses, “I thought that this was a date.”

Micro-expressions play across Steve’s face. Confusion flickers in his eyes that bounce around Tony’s face, lines form and dip at the corner of his mouth, wrinkle his nose. “You thought that this was a date? How?”

“How could I, right? God, in the middle of a pumpkin patch is not how I pictured this happening,” Tony says. “It’s ridiculous and you didn’t really give me any reason to believe this is a date. I want to blame it on Lang but I can’t even do that because I think that I was wishing a little too hard. Look, if it makes you uncomfortable—”

“Stop talking.”

Even mid-love confession, Tony takes the time to tut at Steve because hey, that’s kind of rude. But he stops caring too much once Steve edges into his space, crowding in until the what surrounds them blurs and loses definition, color, and shape. Steve’s hands are cautious and yet insistent on Tony’s shoulders before they travel down his arms and clasp around his wrists.

“I’m sorry that was rude,” Steve starts quietly. His worried expressions have melted into these looks of fondness and soft awe that Tony wants to special order in bulk. The crooked smile makes Tony’s spine curl. “However, you talk a lot and you’re my best friend, so I’m sure of two things. You won’t let me get a word in and you’ll talk and talk until you talk yourself out of this. You’ll decide how I feel before I get a chance to tell you and right now, I don’t think I can go another second without telling you that you’re not alone in this. When I said ‘how’, I was wondering how I could have possibly missed this. You make me the furthest thing from uncomfortable. And a date sounds really good, amazingly good.”

“If this is a pity thing, Steve, I swear--”

“You’ll have to enlighten me on the one time I pitied you. Think I might’ve missed it.”

Anticipation welling up inside of him and threatening to spill over, Tony needs to be sure. “Are you potentially concussed? Any chance of that?”

“If so, I have definitely have the world record on the longest concussion, by far. Probably pretty dangerous. What do I have to say to convince you, huh?” Steve’s forehead falls to Tony’s softly with a sigh. He nuzzles with his nose, impossibly close and devastating; his eyes are thoughtful and yank Tony to a tenuous edge of something more. “Or is it something that I can’t say?

Steve’s hands move from his wrists and Tony mourns the loss until they loop around his middle, drawing him near. Tony abandons boundaries that three years of pining have instilled in him and rolls his fists into Steve’s hoodie, warmth spreading through the knuckles when they bunch and bury in the cushiony cotton.

Tony doesn’t know who gives in first but it hardly matters because once it happens, he discovers that Steve tastes like sunshine ought to. The kiss begins slowly, if a little awkwardly, learning how the other works but once they get it, they get it with hot sweeps of tongue and urgent mouths. It’s as easy as everything else has been between them.

Decorum comes back on a brisk breeze and they pull away gasping, shivering into each other and holding on tightly. On Steve’s mouth, there’s amazement and Tony feels the same shaping his own, can taste it from his lips and all the way down to his weakened knees.

“Wow, we need to do that again and often,” Tony decides. “Full decree.”

Steve nods, dragging his thumb along Tony’s jaw as if fascinated. “And maybe more?”

A chill runs through Tony bodily at the prospect of that. He can see it all too clearly. Leaning forward, he admits, “I have very specific designs on your hoodie, just to warn you.” His fingers still haven’t let go.

“No worries,” Steve says, kissing Tony’s forehead like it’s already a habit. “We’ll finish our date first. I can make this a date. I owe you dinner. Lunch? And a show?”

“Steve, you don’t have to.”

“Oh, I’m gonna.”

And he does. Once they get more than a dozen pumpkins loaded into the bed of Steve’s truck, the two of them get hopped up on sugar from apple cider donuts, kiss the salty-sweet of kettle corn off pliable mouths with knees brushing knees underneath a picnic table. For a show, Steve takes Tony by the hand to the other side of the farm and skids to a happy halt at the petting zoo. Steve plays a far-fetched game of six degrees of separation: Cirque du Soleil to circus to zoo animals to petting zoo.

Tony rolls his eyes with his fingers twined in Steve’s. Smiling, he comments, “Not really how that works.”

But Steve is so excited to do this--in fierce competition with the children surrounding them--and so viciously adorable that Tony follows him to the alpacas, llamas, calves, pigs, and goats. Steve is over the moon when they reach the goats because apparently his grandmother had a farm full of them when he was a kid. He presses goat feed into Tony’s nervous hands with promises that it won’t bite. Apparently, goats don’t have the teeth to cause serious injury. Its nibbling only tickles the skin of Tony’s palms. It’s not too bad if Tony doesn’t look it directly in the eye. It’s worthwhile given how Steve’s laugh washes over the kicks of wind and the animal’s bleats. The day is nothing that Tony predicted and all the more perfect for it.

fin