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Splenditudinous Figment of Wonder

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It’s been years since Tony was last in the midst of a gang. He’d forgotten most of how it goes: the noises, the smells, and the awareness that he’s always being watched. It’s difficult to relearn this, but Tony tries.

He stays quiet and helpful, and barely moves from his spot by the wagon. When one of the women comes to him with a torn canvas for repairing, he sews carefully under her watchful eye, and is grateful when she doesn’t take his bone needles away when he’s done. When one of the men comes to him with shoes that are falling apart, Tony shows what he needs, and fixes the pieces as well as he can manage.

As Tony does this, he observes.

Their camp is set at the foot of Tony’s hill in a loose oval, demarked by three tents, two wagons, the pump, and the hearth. Food-handling is at one side of the hearth, repairs and tinkering at the other. A few calcified pieces of wood have been dragged out for use as makeshift tables or seating. The hill provides cover for one side of the camp, and they’re smart enough to stay away from the treeline leading into the woods.

As for the gang itself, there are six of them in total. Aside from their leader, Tony knows none of their names, because they rarely speak within his range of hearing, and don’t speak to him at all. He thinks that this is partially out of caution, but Steve’s gang seems efficient enough to not need the casualness of names, or even for the casualness of spoken orders. Tony sees more than once instructions passed along in a tilt of a head or a jut of a jaw, and understood satisfactorily.

It's too early to tell what binds this gang together. They’re not all from a single family, for nature is too random to have birthed six people of such muscle and mind strength within a natural family clan. Yet they are not sharpened together by the fight, for they don’t seem driven the bloodlust common among gangs of this region. They aren’t purely scavengers either, for they are organized and careful: there are always two on watch, and they eat and sleep in shifts.

Even picking out the hierarchy is a challenge. A few hours up close should have made this clear, but it’s not.

Steve is, of course, the absolute leader. Red, thus nicknamed after her hair, is Steve’s second, or maybe his prime wife. But Wings, the man with the goggles etched with wings, could also be Steve’s second, though maybe a minor wife. The rest seem equally important and respected, with no obvious weak link to be focused on: Black Braid, after the way she pulls her long hair back to the base of her skull; Metal Arm, for the build he wears; Arrows, for the sheath he carries.

There are no whipping weaklings in this gang. No clever but muscle-light gearsmiths who need to be protected.

This is a gang slimmed down to the functional hunt, and free of extraneous fat. Is that on purpose? They must be lacking certain skills, but again it’s too soon for Tony to see what those skills are.

Not sewing, though. For all that Steve took Tony in his raid, the repairs that they’re making him do are basic work. It’s tedious and tiring but within their capabilities, and the only reason they’re making him to do it is so that they don’t have to.

That’s not the only reason Tony’s been brought here, of course.

It’s well after sunset when Tony’s finished with the last item given to him: a belt, which Arrows takes from him with a curt nod. Wings and Black Braid are on watch. A small fire has been built at the camp hearth. It could attract attention, but that’s less an issue since the last Gray-Feet attack. Metal Arm seems to be preparing dinner.

Steve is sitting on one of the wagons and cleaning his shield. He must do this often, because otherwise the blood and viscera would spoil the edge. He is thorough in his work, and makes a careful check of the whole piece before he’s satisfied.

Tony’s ankle itches from the manacle. He doesn’t dare scratch it, but he moves his foot back and forth along the ground. He stops when Steve stands up.

There is hope that Steve will let him go. He has made no trouble, and a visiting mouth to feed can be more trouble than it’s worth. They won’t keep him for selling, either; not when they’d killed all the Gray-Feet that dared challenge them. They don’t travel light, but they do travel quick.

But if Steve means to let him go, it will not today. He comes to stand in front of Tony and holds out a small canister. While Tony opens it for study, Steve unlocks the other end of the chain and sets it to his gauntlet.

Steve doesn’t gesture for Tony to follow, or wait for him to stand up. He just walks, and Tony scrambles to follow.

As their leader, Steve has his own tent. The structure is smaller than Tony’s alcove, but it serves its purpose. Its roof and walls are canvas, its frame old metal. A flap in the roof is open, letting moonlight in and casting the space in silver-gray lines. There are crates arranged in an L-shape against two sides of the tent. A pallet lies in the corner made by that L-shape.

Steve sits on his bed pallet, boots planted on the earth just beyond the edge. His helmet comes off and, without looking, he sets it on the crate of trinkets closest to him. That motion is routine. What is likely not routine is the way he jerks his chin at Tony. Go on.

The canister Tony’s holding contains animal grease, making it an order all on its own.

While Tony undresses, he has the thought that surely Steve doesn’t need a whore. His gang are all fit, healthy, and lacking obvious deformities. He could fuck any of them. Or maybe he does, and he’s just bored. Tony understands boredom.

Perhaps someone like Steve finds it novel to fuck an older man who doesn’t have a fighter’s body. Tony will have to be cautious later, because Red gave him a look when he’d followed Steve into the tent. She could gut him: a quick flick of her knife, followed by a slow bleed. Tony wouldn’t stand a chance.

But that is a fear for later, and Tony has a fear for now. Fear is an ache that’s as constant and necessary as breathing, but its intensity waxes and wanes as with all things. It waxed earlier today, when Steve first put his hands on Tony’s body. It waned with Steve’s promise, a given mark that Tony wears on his wrist.

Promises can be broken, of course. Tony is no fool. Steve could still kill him with one hand. Casually, easily.

But Steve doesn’t seem to be a petty bloodlust. Tony can’t be sure of the others in his gang – Arrows in particular had a glint in his eye when he’d sharpened in his arrows – but Steve’s kills are for function instead of entertainment. If he kills Tony, it’d be because Tony offends him, or breaks his rules. He won’t torture Tony for the joy of it.

Probably. Tony could be wrong. But if he is, he was a dead a man the moment Steve found his hiding home, and that kind of thinking doesn’t help.

Tony chooses to hope that he will survive this, and he chooses to act in accordance with this hope. He takes off his pants without a fuss, and kneels on the ground while he uses the grease to open himself up. Steve makes no indication that he wants a show, so Tony keeps it simple, using one finger and then two to push slick inside himself in preparedness.

“All,” Steve says. Again, the soft calmness of his voice is startling. A man with that face should growl, or have a sandstone-rough throat. He shouldn’t have the quietness of a man unhurried and unworried.

Tony freezes at the single-syllable comment, uncertain. Steve’s eyes flicker down to Tony’s chest.

Swallowing, Tony pulls his shirt over his head and lets it fall to the ground. This leaves him naked save Steve’s star band on his wrist, and the deliberate disparity between this and Steve’s full dress sends a frisson up Tony’s spine. Steve’s gaze moves slowly over him, taking in the softness at his waist and awkward angles of his knees and arms. He pauses only briefly at the knot of scars in the center of Tony’s chest. Tony knows he’s not a prize, but he isn’t diseased, and a warm body is a warm body, just as a usable hole is a usable hole.

Still, Tony’s dick twitches under Steve’s brazen attention.

He must be acceptable, because Steve nods. Steve opens the seam of his pants, the motion enhanced by the fingerless-gloves he wears. He pulls his half-hard cock out, but that seems to be as much as he’s interested in doing, because he then sets his wrists to rest on his spread knees. A man at leisure, but also a man coiled in readiness.

Tony takes the rest of the grease with him as he approaches, taking small steps and watching Steve’s face for warning. Once he’s close enough, he lowers himself between Steve’s open thighs. Tony jumps a little at the sudden movement of Steve’s right hand, fingers coming to touch the side of Tony’s face. Steve’s touch seems purposeful, along the line of hair on Tony’s jaw and pulling his lips open. Steve’s thumb, salty and coarse, pushes into Tony’s mouth.

“Only tongue,” Steve says, before retracting his hand.

Yes, Tony can do that. He braces one hand on the pallet underneath, and uses the other to take a loose hold of Steve’s dick, keeping it in place as Tony lowers his mouth.

He starts with a few small, testing licks to the foreskin, pushing it back and getting used to the taste. Salt and heat, not unpleasant. Steve has a good diet, or is just nature-blessed to unusually good health. Tony warms up to it and lets his tongue linger in slow stripes, sampling Steve’s thickening arousal.

It is tiring work to bring Steve’s erection to a full rise. Tony’s jaw twinges but he keeps at it, painting Steve’s length with spit as thoroughly as he can manage. He draws along the veins, rubs against the glans, and teases the cockhead until it leaks. These angry red inches are the only evidence of Steve’s enjoyment at all; the man’s face is still lazy implacable, and his breathing is so steady one would think him asleep.

He is not asleep.

“Mount me,” Steve says.

Tony takes a last swipe of grease from the canister and pushes it down Steve’s shaft. He’s about to lift one leg over Steve’s hips when Steve grabs his arm. Tony goes still, and Steve shakes his head.

“That way,” Steve says.

Ah. If Steve doesn’t want them to be face to face, that’s fine, too. Tony takes a moment to negotiate the chain, then turns around and moving to straddle him in the other direction. He definitely needs leverage, so he tentatively touches Steve’s knee. When Steve doesn’t protest, Tony leans forward, putting more of his weight on Steve’s thigh.

This is a show, too, whether Steve wanted it or if it’s incidental. Here’s Tony with his legs open on either side of Steve’s body, ass canted back, his opening bared for study. With one hand, Tony reaches behind to find Steve’s dick, holding it in place for that first blunt press against Tony’s opening.

Tony should be relieved. This is what he’d offered the man a few hours ago, when it would have hurt almost beyond bearing, but it won’t hurt as much now. Yet he pauses, trepidation slowing his limbs as he fully realizes that what seemed a reasonable thickness against his tongue feels less reasonable against his ass. Tony hasn’t done this for so long that there’s no trusting his memories on what it actually feels like. His body has changed, too.

But another terror rises up like bile in Tony’s throat: the threat of Steve getting impatient and snapping his hips, taking what is already his.

No, it’s better for Tony to do this. Tony holds his breath and bears down.

Big. Bigger. Tony pushes a little too fast, the muscle protesting with a rawness that makes him hiss. But he keeps pushing, sinking down with a nervous franticness, as though wanting to prove to himself: see, it’s not so bad. But this is also to prove to Steve: see, doesn’t Tony feel good?

At long last Tony’s fully seated, the grease having done its work. All Tony needs to do now is convince his body that the solid girth up inside him is not an intrusion. It’s not an intrusion because it is a goal – Tony needs that inside him, because if it is inside him then Tony can please it, and if Tony can please it then everything will be all right. Here he goes.

Both Tony’s hands are braced on Steve’s thighs as he rocks against him, tentatively at first and then with greater ease. Though perhaps ease is the wrong word – Steve’s cock is very large and drags at the muscle of Tony’s opening – but Tony is insistent. He will ride Steve, and Steve will reach orgasm, and everything will be fine.

If only Tony could see Steve’s face. Then he could know what’s working and what isn’t, because even a fierce grip around one’s dick can be unsatisfying. But all Tony has is a view of Steve’s legs and booted feet. It’s hard to read tension underneath the cloth of his pants, and Steve’s not even thrusting upward, no matter that Tony’s settled into what should be a pleasing rhythm.

All Tony can do is work Steve as best he can. He clenches and releases, rolls his hips, and pushes hard against Steve’s body to get him as deep as he can go. It’s almost as if Tony’s fucking himself on a statue, albeit a statue that breathes and has a pleasing cock. Tony even starts to get hard himself, the shaft inside him brushing up against that sensitive place within. Tony tries to change the angle so he won’t get distracted, but that’s when Steve finally moves.

A hand comes to rest on Tony’s ass. Actually, that’s both of his hands, one on either cheek. Tony can feel the skin of Steve’s fingers and the cloth of his gloves, pressing up against skin and pushing Tony open.

A thumb moves inward, through sweat and grease to find the meet of Tony’s flesh with Steve’s. Tony jolts at the touch – the sensitive skin there is made more sensitive by the rub of Steve’s dick against the opening. Steve takes that as a sign to do it again, tracing a confident circle around the stretch of Tony’s hole and that’s… a lot.

Tony gasps, arms shaking. He knows he can’t afford to stop, so he keeps up his rocking movements as best he can, willing himself not to pay attention to how Steve’s other hand has moved down, the fingertips nudging at the wrinkled skin of Tony’s balls.

Does Steve want Tony to get off as well? Is this like back in the alcove, and how Steve had only gotten interested in the offer once Tony was hard with him?

This isn’t just about the sex. Steve’s commands are quiet and simple; his authority is subtle instead of showy. His control of Tony’s body is its own type of power, too, isn’t it? He is the leader of this gang, he has taken Tony in a raid, it is by his leave that Tony will know his fate.

As Tony pants for breath in the dark of Steve’s tent, he contemplates giving in. He could test the parameters of Steve’s command, and find out more of what Steve wants. Tony needn’t necessarily give Steve what he wants, but it’d be good to know.

God, Steve’s cock feels good.

It does, it’s excellent, Tony was wrong when he thought it was too big. It is exactly as thick as Tony’s hole is meant to be opened, and it goes exactly as deep as Tony’s inner walls need fitting. Tony grinds down onto it and lets himself feel it.

Steve sets a thumb to Tony’s perineum. Then he presses, hard and deep, and the sudden pressure sends a jolt through Tony’s cock from the inside out. Tony yelps – the first noise he’s made since coming into the tent.

This sends a new thought trickling through the fog in Tony’s brain: that canvas makes for poor sound masking. They are fucking in an enclosed space but that is an illusion, for the walls are cloth. This isn’t like the transaction in Tony’s alcove, for this is Steve’s space, and his people are outside.

Tony may not be loud, but the members of Steve’s gang are quieter, and the rattle of metal and feet outside have long since quieted down.

They can hear. They must. They might even be able to hear the slap of Tony’s ass against Steve’s lap, a pounding of flesh upon flesh, and know that their leader is being serviced. Would they be proud of this? Is Red or whoever else might be Steve’s prime wife plotting Tony’s execution right this second?

This awareness crackles like lightning through Tony’s body, ramping up the twisting pleasure inside. Tony’s startled when Steve grabs his hips, a bare half-second to brace himself before Steve yanks him down hard, onto that stiff merciless cock, which kicks Tony over the threshold.

Tony comes. He means to be quiet but his lips are parted and air passes through it – punched out through the hard fuck down. A shock is a shock, and Tony’s loss of control brings with it bliss and humiliation, which are pretty much the same thing anyway.

There is a mark in this, too. This is Steve’s tent, his place, his small patch of gangdom. Steve has put his boot on Tony’s soul, pushing him onto his place in the ranking of said gangdom, which is to be Steve’s dick sheath.

This is fine. It’s what Tony offered him in the first place.

Tony is shaking and useless, which makes it easier for Steve to get up. Steve moves with an ease that is terrifying, bearing Tony’s weight against his hips as though he’s nothing. He turns Tony over onto the pallet, face and stomach down, Steve’s hand firmly at the back of Tony’s head to keep him still. A sheath for the use, and now Steve uses it, his thrusts hard and fast enough to rattle Tony’s teeth.

When Steve spills, he makes a sound that could almost be considered a sigh. It’s the only sign Tony expects he’ll get on Steve’s approval on the fuck, so he’ll take it.

Steve pulls out, but the hand on the back of Tony’s hand stays. He presses once, an order to stay, and gets up.

Tony stays where he is. He can’t see Steve but he can hear him – the rustle of cloth and the clink of Tony’s chain as it’s locked at a new point. When Steve comes into view, his back is to Tony and his pants have been set to rights.

Tony imagines rising up, pulling the chain with him and tossing it over Steve’s neck. It’s not a strong metal but it’ll be enough to cut through skin, and if Tony had the right leverage he could even have a decent chance at breaking Steve’s throat.

It’s just a thought, though. Steve is right that he can afford to put his back to Tony.

Steve leaves the tent, but only long enough to return with two bowlfuls of dinner. He signals for Tony to get up, and hands one bowl over. They eat – Tony still naked on the pallet, and Steve while sitting on a crate. Tony watches Steve throughout, but Steve doesn’t say anything or do anything but eat. He licks the bowl after, and waits until Tony’s done before taking that bowl and returning it outside.

Tony expects to be sent out to sleep, but that doesn’t happen either. Steve moves Tony’s chain again and has a stretch of canvas put on the ground. The canvas is for him, so Tony takes the spot, puts his clothes back on and lies down.

Steve doesn’t seem to mind Tony’s watching him. More than once, Steve even looks back, his eyes dark and unreadable.

For sleep, Steve only removes his gloves and gauntlets. Everything else stays on, including the boots.

Late into the night, when Tony’s very, very sure that Steve is asleep, Tony tests the length of the chain. He can’t reach the pallet, which at least means he can’t be tempted to strangle Steve, or to use the flint he stole from outside to drive into Steve’s eyes.

Tony accepts this, and tries to sleep.

 


 

 

In the morning, Steve hands Tony off to Arrows to take into the woods. Arrows grumbles but does as he’s told, pulling Tony by the chain to a place between the trees to relieve himself.

Tony knows these woods well from spending long hours poking at the undergrowth and climbing its grey-brown trees. He has a handful of traps out here, too, and every other day he’d come out here to check and replenish them. He hasn’t gone on his rounds in a while, though. He wonders if Steve’s gang has taken any of his pickings.

This morning, however, Tony just goes where he’s brought and takes care of himself when instructed. Where Steve is nigh impossible to read, Arrows is far less of a mystery. He is bored with this chore, and almost offended in being given it. He isn’t curious about Tony, either, and barely acknowledges his presence. At least, until Tony pulls down his pants and Arrows sees the mottled handprints on Tony’s hips.

Arrows starts, swallows, and turns away. “Whatever,” he mutters.

When Tony’s done, he cleans himself best he can and rights his clothing. Arrows has averted his gaze, but he turns back when he realizes Tony’s looking at him.

Arrows is a fighter like all the others and, also like all the others, he’s smaller than Steve. He’s twitchy, too, and betrays his impatience with the tapping of his fingers against his thigh. There is no hunger in the way he looks at Tony, which is why Tony does what he does next.

Tony makes a show of looking around – as though just realizing where they are, and that they’re alone. Telegraphing his movements clearly, he lowers himself down to his knees and reaches out to touch Arrows’ foot.

Arrow makes a panicked sound and backs away. “No!” he hisses. Arrows looks around wildly, as though expecting Steve to jump out from the foliage. “No, please, get up.”

Tony does as told, but keeps his head lowered, as though embarrassed. Tony lets Arrow drag him back to camp, and thinks.

Steve commands by loyalty, but there is fear there as well. Unfortunately, this isn’t pure fear, because pure fear is like pure iron and easily cut through; that worked well when Tony was held by the Rings. This is fear in alloy with respect, and tougher for that. Tony’s not sure if he can do anything with this, but it’s good to know. Steve’s gang is unlike any Tony’s encountered before, and Tony is curious.

Once back at camp, Arrows practically throws Tony at Wings – whose actual name is Sam, thanks to Arrows’ helpful snapping at him.

Sam rolls his eyes but takes Tony and shows him where to sit. There is food, and then more mending and cleaning.

Tony is helpful and agreeable and makes no fuss about anything. He watches the others rotate in their duties and slowly let their guard down, letting Tony catch their names and flashes of personality. Steve leaves with Red and Metal Arm (Bucky) on a raid, and they come back a few hours later with a haul to clean and sort.

Tony keeps his head down and does as he’s told. He also steals a handful of small items here and there, but he buries them in the earth to collect later, once the gang has moved on.

It’s obvious they’re not going to settle here. An open camp like this is meant for short-passing, for if Steve meant otherwise and had any sense (which he does) he’d have taken cover up on the hill or taken better care with the weak spots around the perimeter. They are passing through for supplies or a gang hunt, though there’s no telling if they know where they’re going to when they’re done. They travel too heavily to be true nomads, but the form and function of their camp is well-planned.

A gang like this has no need for someone like Tony, and Tony would rather be alive and whole when they decide to move on.

In the late afternoon, Tony finds an opportunity. When Steve walks past Tony’s place by the brazier, Tony quickly throws himself in his way, head ducked and hands out.

“Steve?” Tony says.

Steve hums an acknowledgement.

“When can I go?” Tony winces. That’s too direct. “Please take everything. All my haul.”

A weighty pause. When Steve speaks, he almost sounds amused: “Everything?”

“Yes.” Tony realizes his error, if it can be called such, when Steve crouches down and puts a hand on Tony’s head. His fingers move into Tony’s hair, while his other hand goes to the manacle at Tony’s ankle.

For a second, Tony thinks that that’s it. He’d asked nicely, and that was enough.

But that’s never the case, is it? Steve removed the manacle so that he could pick Tony up, one arm looped around Tony’s middle as Steve rises to his feet. Steve carries him across the camp, past Black Braid and her raised eyebrow, and around the back of his tent, where Steve deposits Tony on the ground.

Oh god, Steve means to fuck him right now.

The man’s libido isn’t surprising but the tenacity of it is. Steve uses a knee to push Tony over onto hands and knees, and Tony rushes to comply, fumbling with his pants in the hopes that Steve not tear them because this is a good pair.

Steve has grease with him. As soon as air hits Tony’s ass, two of Steve’s fingers go right in – skin and knuckles and the coarse leather at the base of Steve’s fingers all. Tony grunts and bears it, until he realizes that he doesn’t need to bear much else at all, because Steve’s fingers are just… there.

Two fingers, barely thrusting, though they twist and turn and curl. Tony gasps, forehead almost thumping against the ground when his arms go weak. Tony could’ve sworn that this head-down pose was a mocking exaggeration of the slut in presentation, but he finds himself parting his legs in true earnestness, his ass for the taking.

Tony’s only excuse is that he hasn’t known human contact for so fucking long. Of course he’d want this. It’s perfectly understandable.

Steve seems uninterested in having him just yet, though. He just fingers Tony to hardness, proving that Tony’s body needs very little to betray the rest of him. Tony wonders if it’s possible for Steve to feel his own come still inside Tony, lining the channel that was his not even a day ago and is his again now.

“Everything?” Steve says again.

Tony grits his teeth. “Yes.”

“What?”

Yes.”

Steve removes his fingers. The emptiness doesn’t last long, because there’s Steve’s cock pushing right on into him, a splendid drag and fullness that conjures a whine from the back of Tony’s throat.

At least Steve is not playing the statue this time. He moves with single-minded focus, his hands on the bruised handles of Tony’s hips, and his crotch ground tight against the swell of Tony’s ass. Where yesterday was Tony’s attempt to prove his ability on Steve’s dick, today Steve is taking proper use of Tony’s hole for his pleasure.

And why shouldn’t he? Tony won’t fight, won’t resist. In fact, Tony offers gratitude in the sweet clench around Steve’s full thickness – thank you, Steve, it’s very good, Steve, bury yourself as deeply as you please. Tony doesn’t even need to pretend, because this is all true. His enjoyment is an unnecessary side-effect but he’ll take it. Life is too shitty not to take the pleasures where he can.

Tony doesn’t think he ever had cock that filled him this good, or could find his pleasure center with unerring accuracy. That little spot, usually so tricky to pinpoint, now feels huge inside him. Tony almost wants to twist his whole body away, to get a breather from Steve’s relentless battering.

Footsteps. Through a lust-filled haze Tony registers footsteps approaching, followed by Bucky’s exasperated, “Steve, what are you doing?”

“Keep to the perimeter,” Steve says. He sounds tense and distracted. Tony likes how it changes his voice, and the mix of that with how Steve has not paused one whit in his pounding of Tony’s ass. “I’m busy.”

“You’re outside camp center—”

“I know where I am,” Steve says wryly.

Tony should feel ashamed. He should be mortified at being seen like this, pants around his ankles and being taken out in the open. But the knowledge licks like fire under his skin, tightening the knot of pleasure in his belly. Bucky sounds more impatient instead of appalled, so he’s probably not even looking at Tony.

But he could. It’s perfectly plausible that Bucky can see right where Steve’s spearing Tony open, the skin there no doubt pink and grease-slick, the hole stretched so wide that the furls are no longer visible. Tony imagines all of this, and the gang’s casual acceptance of Steve’s right as leader to have Tony wherever he pleases. This is enough for Tony to come wildly, so he does, balls tightening into a final, messy release all over the ground underneath him.

Steve goes still. There’s a second or two of silence, and then he says, “Get back to your post. I need to finish.”

“Right,” Bucky says, in a tone that implies that the discussion isn’t over. Still, he goes.

To be honest, Tony barely registers Steve’s orgasm. All he knows is that at some point Steve hauls Tony up onto his lap and fucks him like that, using not much more than the strength of his thighs to bounce Tony on his dick. Steve’s hands find their way under Tony’s shirt, too, grabbing at his pecs as though they are breasts worth fondling.

In the aftermath, Steve lets Tony lie down on the ground for a while, staring at nothing.

“You will go when we go,” Steve says. “For now, you’ll stay.”

It’s not worded as an order, nor as a request. It is a statement of fact, of which if Tony tries to make that statement false, Steve will take action to make it true again.

As Tony lets that statement settle in his head, Bucky returns to the spot, gearing up for round two of whatever disagreement is going on. Steve gets up, and Tony takes that to mean he should get up, too.

Steve goes with Bucky to the perimeter, while Tony staggers back into camp center, legs shaky and knees aching. He can’t sit properly, so the best he can do is retake his spot by the brazier by partially lying down on one side. He considers the small stack of hunting nets that need patching, and pulls the closest one to him to get started.

Red and Sam watch him from the hearth, the pair talking to each other in a barely-audible murmur. If Steve fucks like that on the regular, it’s perfectly understandable if they’re jealous. But Tony thinks that their interest is more out of concern than jealousy, which is another angle for Tony to chew on.

No one puts the manacle back on his ankle, but Tony can’t run even if he wanted to.

That night, Steve doesn’t touch him again, but he does give Tony a sharp-smelling ointment to treat his soreness, and Tony sleeps on the canvas as before.

 


 

 

On the third day, Tony starts contemplating the possibility that Steve may mean to keep him. He doesn’t enjoy that thought, but it is important to consider it.

Being a plaything is better than being dead, but Tony can see the extinction date on that clearly. Tony can see the interest for Steve to keep an undemanding whore who can also do menial work, but it is a role too easily replaced. And Tony will be replaced.

Then there’s Red.

By now it’s clear that Red isn’t Steve’s prime wife, nor does Steve seem to have a wife at all. She doesn’t wear any of his marks, and has not demanded more than the others’ share of Steve’s attention. She disapproves of Tony’s sleeping in Steve’s tent, but Bucky and Arrows disapprove, too, so that doesn’t mean anything specific.

All that Tony’s sure of is that Red is displeased with his presence in general. She wants him gone, which is something they have in common.

On this day, Red waits until Steve, Arrows and Black Braid (Maria) have left on another raid. Then she joins Tony at his little spot by the wagon, and sits cross-legged in front of him.

From her pockets, Red pulls out a stretch of cured meat, a piece of copper plating, and a ball of twine. She arranges the items on the ground between them.

The meat and twine are generic, but the plating is specific. Tony recognizes it as one of the pieces he’d taken from the gang’s semi-combust engine and buried by the tree line. It was part of the gang’s haul stack, and probably meant for trading somewhere down the line.

Tony meets her gaze. He can’t defend himself, so he doesn’t.

Red moves. She has a blade, which she presses tight to Tony’s jugular. Tony thinks that this could be it. He will die here, and it will be painful.

“I can go,” Tony says shakily. “You can tell him I escaped. I’ll hide until you leave.”

“You think Steve won’t find you?” Red says.

“I can run. A head start.”

“That won’t help either.”

A shadow falls over them. It’s Sam, who sighs. “Nat.”

Nat.

Tony swallows, trying and failing to think of anything else to offer. Even if he tries to fight, the blade is too tight against his neck; he would just as likely slit his own throat on it if he tried to move.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says.

Nat tilts his head. “For what?”

For what, indeed. For stealing the copper plating? For distracting Steve? For putting their gang at risk? But none of that would’ve happened if Steve hadn’t sought him out in the hill and brought him here in the first place. Tony didn’t ask for any of this.

“Did you break the pump, too?” Nat says.

Tony’s stomach sinks. “Hammer.”

Nat pushes the blade, forcing Tony to move his head up with it. “You used a hammer on it?”

“Nat,” Sam says, firmer this time. “He’ll be angry.”

Angry? Steve could get angry. Nat is threatening Steve’s living trinket. But would she get into trouble if she hurts Tony? She is Steve’s second, a position that cannot possibly be easy to earn, and the execution of a camp prop cannot possibly threaten that.

Nat leans in, her voice a whisper: “What are you up to?”

Tony stares at her. The answer should be obvious, isn’t it? He wants to live. That’s all, that’s everything.

“What did you do?” Nat presses.

“Please,” Tony says.

“Come on.” Sam puts his hand on Nat’s shoulder. “Let it go.”

“No,” Nat says. “Steve’s not thinking right—”

“Or maybe he is, for once,” Sam says. “Just ‘cause he’s never taken anything for himself before, doesn’t mean he won’t ever. He is human.”

Nat huffs in annoyance, and turns to Sam with a rebuttal on her lips. The edge of the blade slips away just a fraction, and that moment of distraction is all Tony needs to jump her.

Tony doesn’t accomplish much, of course. There are two of them and one of him; they are in the prime of their lives, while Tony less so. Tony gets a mere handful of punches and a single bite in before they have him on his back, limbs flattened to the ground and knife pressed up against his ribs. Tony closes his eyes and thinks of those who gave up before he did – Pepper, Happy, Harley.

Rhodey used to say life wasn’t worth living without something to live for, but Tony never really understood that. Life is life. What use is trust or love or loyalty? What matters is resilience, stubbornness, and refusal to give up. The fact remains that everyone dies, and everyone who’s weak dies faster. Tony’s spent all these years refusing to be weak.

But there are limits. In the darkest moments in Tony’s years of being alone, he’d even thought that those limits might be worth testing, but those thoughts have always been brief. He is a survivor. He will keep those limits at bay for as long as he can.

It’s for that reason that a part of Tony hates this gang – this Nat and Sam and Steve. They are strong in ways Tony could never and has never been. They are tight and efficient and brutal. They understand the importance of getting things done, which Tony hadn’t been able to instill in his own gang, back when he still thought he could have one. These people can wipe out whole other gangs if they want to, and they probably won’t be killed by such stupid things as starvation or exposure.

“Hey, stop,” Nat says, her voice strange. “Stop.”

Tony doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He’s not moving.

“Stop crying,” Nat says.

Oh, that. Tony holds his breath, and tries to will his eyes dry.

Nat draws back, taking the knife with her. Sam lets go as well, so Tony lies there shivering and defenseless, and wondering if this view of the murky-yellow sky is going to be his last.

“Get up,” Sam says. “Here.”

Sam helps Tony sit up. Nat has backed off, rubbing the spot on her arm that Tony sunk his teeth into, though her face is more unreadable than Steve’s has ever been. Tony holds his wrists out for them tie, but Sam ignores that. Instead, Sam picks up the hemp fiber Tony had been working on, and puts it back in his hands.

“Keep going,” Sam says. “Finish all of it, and then you’ll come with me. Do you understand?” Tony nods.

Nat leaves quietly, shaking her head as she goes, but Sam stays behind Tony’s shoulder to keep watch.

Tony gets back to work. The repetitive motion is calming, and soon enough Tony stops sniffling altogether. He works until the pile is finished, and then he follows Sam cleaning up the camp’s mess. Tony is aware that reverting back to the role of useful and untroublesome is a lost cause now, but it’s not as though he has anything else to do.

Sam was worried that Steve would get angry, but such worries were obviously unfounded. When the others return (without a haul, so either the raid didn’t happen, or they traveled out for another purpose) Nat and Sam immediately go to him, presumably to tell on what happened. Steve listens, nods, and does not get angry at all.

Steve continues to not be angry as he comes to Tony and sits down next to him. Tony resists the urge to fidget.

“You gave them a fight?” Steve says. When Tony bobs his head, Steve adds, “I’m sorry I missed that.”

Then Steve smiles at him, slow and terrifying.

Tony’s breath catches. He should look away but he cannot, for the sight compels him. Steve is a prime predator and all that that implies: focused, controlled, cautious. His eyes are always sharp, his senses enhanced, his pleasures taken carefully and without waste. But apparently, he is capable of indulging, too; in this case a smile, meant for Tony and because of Tony.

A burst of warmth rolls over Tony. His skin prickles with anticipation, or is it dread?

He thinks back on what Sam said earlier, about how Steve doesn’t usually take things for himself, but now he’s gone and taken Tony. Nat and maybe others are concerned about this, either for the risk it entails or because of its seeming break in Steve’s character.

Tony misbehaved and should be punished, but Steve seems uninterested in pursuing that. Maybe? There is still time yet, and if Steve can smile, he can also enact gang justice at his leisure.

For now, though, Steve’s gaze roves over Tony again. It seems to be appreciation, but that makes no sense, because Steve’s had Tony already. There are no surprises, nor anything else to discover.

“Your people don’t want me here,” Tony says quietly.

“They don’t get to decide,” Steve replies.

Tony can’t disagree with that. Any gang leader can be questioned and replaced, but if they are not, it’s because the force of their leadership outweighs all else. A gang is only as good as the sum of its parts, and the leader keeps those parts together. If the others really wanted to challenge Steve, they could. They could take Tony out, too, but they haven’t.

What is it like to live as Steve’s does, wearing confidence as easily as his armor? He isn’t afraid all the time.

Steve puts one hand to the back of Tony’s neck. Tony makes a faint sound at the touch, which is unexpectedly grounding. Something new stirs inside Tony – a desire to touch in return. But that kind of thing is not possible and not worth thinking about, and any itch in Tony’s hands to learn the body Steve keeps hidden is to be firmly buried.

“I want your mouth,” Steve says.

Tony nods. He stands up when Steve does, and follows him to the tent.

There’s no interrogation here, either. Steve tosses his helmet at the pallet, and then steps forward to take a firm hold on Tony’s arms. There should be interrogation, but there isn’t, and Tony doesn’t know if he should be relieved.

Tony starts to kneel, but Steve clicks his tongue.

Steve’s eyes are blue in memory of a sky long gone, and their unnaturalness is only enhanced by the scar running across one side of his face. Tony must stare at the scar a touch too long, because Steve takes one of Tony’s hands and brings it up to Steve’s face.

Tony’s hand is shaking a little, but he puts his fingertips at the root of the scar, just above Steve’s left eyebrow. At Steve’s urging, Tony trails the path, over Steve’s eye and across cheek, to the thick of the beard below. Steve stares at Tony throughout the caress, and that stare feels like a tangible touch all on its own, squeezing Tony’s ribs.

There is a seed of understanding in Tony’s head, but it can’t quite root. Steve took him. Steve picked him. Tony has something specific that Steve wants, but he cannot understand what that could possibly be.

“Mouth,” Steve says. His hand comes to Tony’s jaw, fingers digging in harshly.

Tony relaxes into the grip, though he tenses up again when Steve leans down in to press their mouths together.

Tony’s eyes go wide. He stares at the far canvas wall for a few long seconds, then forces his eyes to focus on Steve up close. The scar that Tony touched a moment ago is now right there, almost pressed right up to Tony’s cheek.

Steve’s mouth is a furnace. He takes Tony’s mouth with the same efficiency as he took the rest of him, Steve’s teeth pressing hard and his tongue pushing deep and their beards catching together. Steve’s determination is familiar but the action is not, and Tony can only return the kisses clumsily. Steve doesn’t seem to care, though. He just takes and takes and takes.

Tony’s been kissed less than he’s been fucked. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. The spit-slick mesh of their mouths has Tony stiffening in his pants, the sensation of which is just shy of painful. He’s never had this much sex so close together.

While one of Steve’s hands keeps its iron grip on Tony’s face, the other is at work down below. Tony realizes that Steve’s got his erection out, and is pumping it slowly.

That doesn’t seem right. Tony lets his lips go slack, and speaks against Steve’s mouth: “Not inside?”

Steve huffs against him, almost a laugh. “You can take it?”

Yes. No? Tony clenches, testing the give between his legs. He’s sore, but there’s also an ache there, a yearning for fullness. Tony can smell the tang of Steve’s arousal – hell, the phantom taste of Steve’s precome is still in Tony’s mouth – and it makes him want. Tony feels empty.

“Yes,” Tony says.

Steve releases his grip and Tony goes to the pallet, shedding with his pants along the way. Tony starts to turn onto his stomach but Steve changes it again, grabbing Tony’s knee to flip him back over.

Tony is on his back, and Steve eases his way between Tony’s thighs, making room for himself. Steve removes the chest plate and gauntlet, but that’s the limit of what he removes. The man stays swaddled in dark blue and gray, while the only skin to be seen is of his face, his arms, and the jut of his cock.

Grease-wet fingers slip inside Tony. It burns, the tender skin woken all over again into use. Tony’s teeth clack together when he tosses his head back, eyes large and unseeing as he tries to understand the mix of sensations between his legs. It’s pain, but it’s folded into pleasure, folded back into pain and pleasure again. It makes perfect sense that the two are twisted up in each other. It’s not enough.

Tony cannot speak, but he kicks his legs out, urging Steve in.

He dimly registers the replacement of fingers with a more substantial thickness. Tony feels light in the head, as though most his body has fallen away. There is just the sweet-sharp fullness somewhere down below, where Steve’s fully sheathed in him.

Then Steve starts moving, and Tony can only breathe with it. Tony feels jittery, craving two opposites from Steve’s torture: escape and more. Parts of him are swollen and sensitive and so alive, as if his whole body is a live wire, making all muscles spasm at once.

“Busy,” Steve says.

Tony tries to focus. That doesn’t sound like an order.

“No,” Steve says.

But Tony hasn’t said anything. He strains, and eventually makes out other voices, male.

“You’re fucking him anyway, so we might as well.” Arrows? It sounds like Arrows. “It’s boring.”

“You have things to do,” Steve says. Tony thinks he might have been moved. A hand is at the back of his right haunch, holding his hips up onto Steve’s lap. His other hand is sweeping down Tony’s stomach, pushing his shirt up. “Tony. Show me your tits.”

Tony complies. At least he thinks he does. Steve’s fingers are on his nipples, so he must have.

“Bucky got to watch.” This sounds like Sam.

“Bucky didn’t watch,” Steve says. “He interrupted.”

“So we’re interrupting,” Arrows says. “Is… is he even awake?”

Steve rolls his hips, sending his cock bumping up different spaces inside him. Tony gurgles so much he thinks he could choke on his own spit.

“He’s awake,” Steve says.

There are other people in the tent. There are other people in the tent? This doesn’t feel important. Tony’s only goal is the fuck, which is a good goal to have. In this moment nothing else matters, and there’s nothing at all to worry about – not food nor cover nor safety – but pursuing the filth of this, with Steve chasing his pleasure in the lax readiness of Tony’s body.

“That feel good?” Sam says.

“You can leave,” Steve says.

“Sorry, sorry,” Sam mutters quickly. “I was just asking.”

There’s a sloppy wet sound somewhere. Tony thinks it’s coming from the meet of his body to Steve’s, because he can’t even clench properly, not with how it stings down there. There’s just the grease and Steve’s dick keeping him open.

“Fuck,” Arrows says. “Can he even close up anymore, with you fucking him like that? Okay, okay — shutting up.”

Sudden tightness around Tony’s cock makes him shriek. That’s Steve’s hand around him, working him

Tony does reach orgasm, if it can be called that. What happens is that all the sensations everywhere mesh together, coiling tighter and tighter until it thins to a single point of raw purity. Everything goes white, and then relief. Exhale. All the knots everywhere in Tony’s body release at the same time.

Everything’s vague and murky for a while. When Tony returns to himself, the tent’s doorway is open but there is no one else in here with them, and Steve is still sitting between his legs. Tony starts to twist away before he realizes that Steve’s applying salve to his opening, the strokes of his fingertips business-like and not at all meant for anyone’s arousal.

Steve’s clearly settled his orgasm a while ago. His face is a little red, but otherwise there’s no sign of it. His breathing is regular, and he’s frowning with concentration as he works. They’ve had sex four times, and Tony still doesn’t know what Steve looks like when he comes.

Tony still doesn’t know what Steve looks like under all the armor. He cleans the outer pieces regularly, and presumably changes the under pieces when they get too dirty, but he never does either in Tony’s presence.

Yesterday, Tony wouldn’t have dared ask. Today, he says, “You never take it off?”

“Not while on a mission,” Steve says.

That’s reasonable.

Tony floats for a while. Steve disappears somewhere, and there are other voices. Tony rolls on to his side to get more comfortable, and fails to pull his pants up properly.

Steve’s helmet is right there. Tony hooks a finger on the strap to pull it close. He studies it, running his fingers over the skull and eye sockets. It’s remarkably well-crafted, though Tony could do better.

There’s a piece of metal set into the back, subtle enough that no one can spot the difference of material at a glance. There are letters in that piece of metal, and when Tony turns the helmet upside down, he can read them: STEVEN G ROGERS, followed by a series of numbers.

This kind of printing is too delicate, the letters too orderly. Tony has seen its like before, when the poisons first cleared and there were still pickings to be had in the old death fields. It takes Tony a minute or so to recall the term. Dog tags.

It’s funny that Steve would take his name from a long-dead soldier. Maybe he chose it, or it was given to him.

A rustle of movement nearby, as Steve sits on the other end of the pallet, his legs brushing Tony’s feet. Tony looks up at him, and belatedly remembers that he shouldn’t touch the man’s things.

Steve holds his hands up, and mimes pulling something out. Tony looks back at the helmet. He spots the pocket at the back, and pulls out a flat piece of paper. It’s a picture paper, faded and crinkled with age.

Tony’s seen pictures papers before, too. Howard was a greater hoarder than he ever was, and kept things of little use, pictures among them. Tony knows that optics weren’t always used for weapons and sensors. Once, they were also used to take pictures, slicing moments into paper for when memories failed.

He’s holding a picture now of two men and a woman. Tony’s eyes home in on the man in the middle, with fair hair cropped short and a chin as hairless as a baby’s butt. The face is almost mockingly clean and young, but the eyes. Tony knows those eyes.

“You’re from before. Before the big death?” Tony frowns, searching his brain for the other word. “Before the war?”

Steve clenches his jaw, and nods.

Why not. It should be impossible, but plenty of things that should be impossible are also true. The world they live in is one of them: it used to have stone cities that were tall enough to touch clear skies, but anyone alive with two eyes can see that that’s impossible, too.

Steve is almost certainly confirmed to be a mutant, then. A long-lived one, who is also lucky enough to not have the deformities that accompany the kind of prime muscle-build he has. It is a wonder he seems only a little insane, instead of a lot. Or maybe bloodlust madness was different in the old days.

Tony has many questions, but not the strength nor right to ask them.

Instead Tony just says: “You’re old.”

Steve makes a sound that is definitely a laugh.

 


 

 

That night, Tony sleeps on the pallet with Steve. He’s too tired to have an opinion either way, so he lets Steve manhandle him into the narrow space between Steve’s body and the crates. It’s stuffy and unpleasant to have another body so close, but there is little room to move. Tony keeps waking up in intervals, his instincts primed to get away from any and all intruders. But in this case the intruder is, technically, him.

In these pockets of wakefulness, Tony considers the man sleeping next to him. Here’s an old war soldier who remembers the world of before, and who has seen it move on from the big, quick death to the agony of its current slow, grasping death. It makes sense that a man like that isn’t afraid anymore. Maybe fear was burned out of him entirely. Or maybe fear is a new trait that came in after the death fields, accumulated in body fat over generations like poison.

Tony thinks of this and other things, his thoughts linked together in stuttered starts-and-stops. Steve sleeps on his back, one ankle crossed over the other, one hand on his chest, and the other hand around Tony’s wrist. His chest rises and falls with a steadiness that is a hypnotic.

It is while in this dazed half-wakefulness that Tony hears the noise outside. Steve hears it, too, despite being asleep.

Steve wakes up like no living being Tony’s ever seen. He’s asleep, and then he’s awake, his eyes open and alert. He sits up quickly, head canted and listening, as though he was never asleep at all. It’s unnatural.

Tony doesn’t get up, but he watches as Steve grabs his shield and heads out. There’s more noise outside: voices and clatter, though far from the ruckus of a full-on fight. Whatever is happening, it’s small enough that Steve’s gang can handle it easily.

The pallet is nice and empty, so Tony curls up on it, ready to fall asleep. He doesn’t, though, because the tent flap opens again.

Maria peers in and says, “Come.”

The sky is still dark outside, but a fire has been lit in the hearth, casting the camp in red-orange. When Tony steps out of the tent, the others are standing in a loose circle around the heart, where a flailing scavenger lies face down, babbling and flailing while Nat holds a spear to his back. The scavenger is dressed heavily, in multiple layers of scraps and cloth.

The scavenger is also saying his name. “Tony. Tony! Tony, please.” His eyes are panicked and he reaches out for Tony, though he doesn’t get far with Nat half-standing on top of him.

“You know him?” Steve says.

“Hammer,” Tony says. It certainly took them long enough to catch him.

Steve nods. “Is he the one who broke the pump? And stealing from us? Was also stealing from us,” he amends.

Tony nods. Hammer’s fingers scratch into the dirt, plaintive and pathetic. “Tony, please,” he says.

The marks on Hammer’s back show him to be a Cottons now. That’s just like Hammer, always changing loyalty when it suits him. This could be more proof that loyalty means less than nothing, but Hammer’s ability to survive has always stood out as a mark to irritate. The weak die faster, yet Hammer – a rat-faced weakling with no cleverness between his ears – lived longer than those far tougher than he is. Hammer squirms and steals and hides behind the strength of others, and he thrives.

Well, he thrived.

Steve puts a boot on the Hammer’s back, taking Nat’s place. He raises his shield, and it comes down with a single, beautiful crunch. Blood paints the earth in a shallow arc from where Hammer’s head rests in uneven pieces.

Tony smiles.

It’s so easy for someone like Steve. He sees a problem, he acts, and it’s no longer a problem. So clean, so straightforward. Tony feels a pang of envy, but it’s resigned instead of bitter.

Nat and Arrows pick through the body’s adornments. They can see that Hammer was a Cottons, too, and this is of some concern. The others start discussing this – calmly and thoughtfully, though there’s a sense of urgency underneath.

Steve, though. When Tony drags his gaze away from Hammer’s remains, it’s to look up at his executor’s face. Steve’s eyes are on Tony, and he seems… pleased. His face hasn’t altered in any obvious way, but he seems to be exuding an aura of pride and contentment.

Tony ducks his head, swallowing back his smile and abashed at being caught.

It’s funny, though. From the way Steve’s standing there and watching him, it’s almost as though Tony is his prime wife. But that, of course, isn’t true.

This day is apparently to start early. Instead of retiring to rest, the others all fall into motion, driven by a shared focus. No one gives Tony anything to do, so he lowers himself to the ground, and rests on his side as he half-watches the gang at work.

He catches words here and there as the others speak. They’re almost done. Hammer was a scout, or maybe they bought him out because of his knowledge of this area. The Cottons are regrouping, but will take this as a slight. Better to bring the fight here, make a stand. Tie it up.

A gang fight, then. It’ll probably be Tony’s best chance to run.

Late in the morning, after sunrise and a meal, Steve comes to Tony and crouches down in front of him.

This might be the moment when Steve demands Tony explain why he’d not told them about Hammer. Maybe he won’t. Maybe Steve will take the embarrassment for what it is. It’s easy to miss a scavenger thief when a camp is an open as this one, no matter that they’re all fighters and their leader has extra sense strength. Gaps still exist.

“Tony,” Steve says.

He’s holding a spring bow. One of Arrows’ bows, which is fastened together out of discordant metal and wood. It seems odd that Steve would take one of Arrow’s weapons, when he prefers the spear and shield. Steve puts the bow on the ground in front of Tony.

There’s a question here. Tony sits up slowly and tries to understand what that question is.

Steve runs a hand along the bow’s sight. His finger catches the clip, which makes a blunt echoing sound. Anyone can see that it’s unbalanced.

The camp has gone quiet. Tony looks up and beyond Steve’s broad shoulder, wondering if the Cottons have arrived. There’s no sign of a foreign visit, but Steve’s gang is in fight readiness, and their tension seems to be turned inward instead of out. Maria and Nat are poised with their bar spears. Sam has a hand out to Bucky’s chest, as though holding him back. Their attention seems to be on Steve.

That makes no sense.

Steve taps the bow. An arrow is still hooked at the back. There’s no reason for Steve to put such things within Tony’s reach, even if the bow is damaged.

“The Cottons are coming, and we are going to wipe them out,” Steve says. “You can fix this for us. Can’t you, Stark?”

Tony hasn’t heard that name in a long time. So long, in fact, that it takes him a few seconds to remember what it means. When he does, his stomach drops, and he can only stare up at Steve in dismay.

Is that who Steve thinks Tony is?

Tony understands the others’ caution now, too. They hang back, wary and afraid. Nat, with her knife and vicious speed, is afraid.

Twenty, or even ten years ago, that would’ve been a well-suited reaction. Tony was clever, he had a hoard three generations in the making, and he could get things done. But sand and time and the deaths of those he should’ve been clever enough to keep alive wears everything down. Wiping out the Rings was the last he’d been capable of, and it drained him to a near husk.

If Tony were ever famous in these parts, he should’ve been long forgotten by now. The last time he’d ventured out to the tradeposts years ago, time had already swallowed the knowledge of the Starks having had a part in causing the big death. Surely a decade on, the Stark name would be gone entirely.

Yet here Steve is, trying to give that name back to him.

It’s an unfair trade, no matter how one looks at it. The Rings wanted from Tony, Killian wanted from Tony, Hammer wanted from Tony. If Steve wants from him the same way, then he’ll only be disappointed, because all that Tony has left, Steve’s already taken. What would even be the point? Steve’s gang is strong and caulked, sharp and brutal. Tony is best at hoarding.

Steve lifts a hand and hits him across the face.

Tony gasps, a palm-shaped sting blooming across his cheek all the way down to his jaw. The sound seems to echo in the aftermath, this flesh on flesh harder than even Steve’s pounding into him. Tony blinks, but before he can shake his head to clear it, Steve strikes him across the other side.

There’s noise. A thunderstorm, but only in Tony’s head.

Tony moves, and there’s blood at his palm where he’d thrust his hand up to Steve’s nose with a loud crack. Steve punches him low at the kidneys, and Tony has the bow in his hands and swings it up across Steve’s face, forcing his head to snap back.

Steve falls backwards onto his arms. Tony looks wildly from the bow to Steve and back. The bow’s unbalance is even more obvious when Tony’s holding it, and that… is annoying. Even more annoying than Steve’s hitting him.

Tony clicks the arrow in place, and lifts it to shoot. Steve raises a hand, but only to hold it up in a fist – a signal for the others to stay back. The trigger is pathetic, and slow to respond under Tony’s finger. But it still responds.

Steve grunts when the arrow meets its mark. Tony’s aim has the arrow caught in the weak juncture between two plates of Steve’s chest armor. Tony spotted that juncture days ago. Maybe the arrow struck flesh, or maybe it hasn’t. It doesn’t matter, because it is a single arrow, and it means nothing.

Tony smashes the bow against the ground. Somewhere nearby Arrow makes a sound of distress, but that is unimportant. Tony hits the bow until the useless frame is broken off, as is the unnecessarily long gear sight. The clip cracks, finally succumbing to its weakness.

When the storm in Tony’s head recedes, he realizes that Steve’s staring up at him, lips parted. His chest heaves with heavy breaths. His eyes are lit up like an animal that’s about to snap its jaws shut around a lure that it knows perfectly well is a lure. Arousal, but not exactly.

Tony’s lip stings where Steve cut it open. His hands aren’t shaking.

“Clip and a sander,” Tony says.

Steve flicks two fingers in the air. Someone brings the items, and Tony lowers himself into a crouch as he gets to work. Leverage and balance, always leverage and balance. So many gearsmiths think more is better, when clean lines and simplicity reduce the chances of malfunction and warping.

When it’s done, the bow is almost half the size it was before, but it will shoot. Tony shoves it across the ground at Steve, who calmly picks it up. He’d also pulled the arrow out of his chest, so he passes both to Arrows for testing.

Tony doesn’t watch Arrows test it, because he doesn’t need to. He bristles when Steve crouch-walks towards him and puts a hand on the back of his neck.

“You had traps around your cave,” Steve says. “Can you make more for us?”

Tony tries to snap his teeth around Steve’s hand, but Steve doesn’t falter. He just adjusts his grip and squeezes, thumb and fingers digging deep into the flesh of Tony’s neck. Tony waits for the panic to rise, but it’s gone, it’s somewhere else. He needs it to come back.

All Tony has in his head is a smoke-stifling mess. It’s not the usual fog that makes it difficult to think; this is smoke from a fire unseen, crackling and sharp and burning. Tony doesn’t like it. To be fair, Tony doesn’t like a lot of things, but this in particular is troubling in its strangeness.

“Traps,” Steve says. “We will give you what you need.”

As if Tony can help this gang. Yes, Steve can make Tony act, but there will always be danger in letting Tony act at all. Nat knows it, Bucky knows it. (The Rings only thought they knew it, so they died.) Tony could do the work and turn that work against them.

Tony lifts his head to view the camp’s perimeter. The weak spots still stand out.

He gets up and walks. He hears Steve follow, and has a vague impression of the others moving subtly out of their way.

The gang keep the main haul in three stacks around the camp. Tony goes to the closest one and picks through it, grabbing anything that looks useful and tossing away all that doesn’t. He makes a mess, but it’s someone else’s mess to deal with. Steve’s gang are discerning in what they take, and Tony finds wire, metal sheets, and small containers that can shatter easily.

The next few hours are a daze. Tony hands never seem to stop moving. Steve touches him at some point, two hands running up and down his sides while Steve presses up against his back to watch him work. Tony elbows him away, but Steve persists in staying nearby.

The others don’t understand, but Tony does. They think Steve has gotten distracted and let his guard down for an available fuck. Worse still, they probably think that Steve’s asked for Tony’s tinker hands because he trusts him. As if Steve’s breaking Tony in, commanding his body to pleasure, and sharing intimate information about himself (a man from before the war) would make Tony… what? Feel obligated towards him? Want to protect him? Ludicrous.

Trust is useless. Trust is for the weak. What Steve has is confidence in himself; in his strength and his durability. Tony can try to trick him, and Steve would even expect it – he knows the Stark name, after all. Steve sees the risk and eats it, sure of his ability to withstand anything Tony gives him.

Steve is smart and strong. His eyes are wide open. He is a survivor.

This knowledge is… pleasing.

It shouldn’t, because nothing has actually changed – Tony is still his plaything, his fate in Steve’s hands alone. But there is something else, a new piece dropped in to dismantle and reshape the mess in Tony’s head. Admiration. Steve will live for many decades yet, too clever and too strong for the slow death to take him.

A small box hidden deep inside Tony, buried years ago in acceptance of the safe loneliness of the world, slowly creaks open.

 


 

 

The Cottons come at sunset, hoping to use the glare to their advantage. They’ve fixed their semi-combust wheels, too, and they ride in on them in an attempt to intimidate. It makes little difference.

Tony is up on the hill during the clash. He slipped out of camp while the others were in preparation, and no one stopped him, so here he is. He’d watched Steve’s gang wipe out the Gray-Feet from the hill, too, but unlike then, he’s sitting out in the open. He has another crossbow with him, just in case any of the Cottons try to escape his way.

As for the fight itself? The rest of the gang is good, but Steve is perfection. His moves are crisp and clean, and there is little waste of energy or momentum as he deals with one head after another. There are about two dozen Cottons in the first wave, and more in the second. Tony’s traps help to turn their attack disorderly, but it’s really Steve who does most of the wiping.

Tony’s managed to kill a few Cottons over the years, but he’d never thought a near-extinction like this could happen in his lifetime. With both Gray-Feet and Cottons so thoroughly hobbled, this region may even have a few years of relative quiet. Others will come into vacuum eventually – the Scales or the Mud Vines, maybe, though Tony has little idea if those gangs are still around.

Does Steve’s gang even have a name? Tony’s eye drifts down to the leather band on his wrist. The star feels more like Steve’s personal mark than that of gang’s. Maybe they aren’t even really a gang in the way that gangs are known to be. So many questions.

Some of the Cottons down below seem familiar. Tony recognizes at least a few from their face marks, though it’s harder to tell once Steve’s brought his shield down on them.

It would make sense for Tony to use this time to pack some things and run. This idea felt important not too long ago, didn’t it? He should do that.

But he doesn’t. Tony stays where he is into the night, until the last Cotton is cleaved and stripped bare, and the camp’s hearth is lit up for the evening. Steve stands there, a mighty soldier looking over the spread that is his triumph. The responding twinge in Tony’s chest at the sight is not envy.

When Tony does finally get up, it’s to take the winding route upwards to his alcove. This path is familiar, yet it feels strange under his feet tonight. His alcove itself, with his loom and dry table and scattered haul, is familiar-strange as well. He’s only been away from it for a few days, but there it is.

His pallet is where he left it. Tony lies down and contemplates sleep, though it doesn’t come. He gets up instead, and waits.

It’s not a long wait. Tony hears footsteps – Steve’s footsteps. He’s followed Tony’s path, instead of the one he took the first time. Tony sits on the stone ledge by his loom, where the moonlight enters the cave, though he thinks Steve would be able to see him even if it didn’t.

Steve has no weapon with him when he enters the alcove. His helmet is gone, too, and his hair is matted with sweat from the fight. He seems to fill the whole space of the entranceway, height and shoulders and all. Tony finds himself trying to think of an animal – a lion, the symbol of kingship in ancient times.

Tony looks at this lion in human form, and understands that the pull he feels inside himself is a yearning.

“We were sent by Carbon Town,” Steve says. He points, though it’s unnecessary. Tony knows about the tradepost Steve’s referring to, though it hadn’t been called a town the last time Tony visited. Is it really a town, or is that wishful thinking? “We were tasked to clear this area. A new caravan route.”

That makes sense.

“And now it’s done,” Steve says. “The mission is completed, so we go back in the morning. You’ll come with us.”

Tony looks around his alcove. His haul, his home.

“You’ll come with us,” Steve says firmly. “You’ll come with me.”

Will he? Steve could make him. It would be easy.

Steve crosses the cave, coming to stand in front of Tony. If someone were to describe Steve to Tony years ago, he doesn’t think he could’ve believed that such a man could exist. But he does, and he’s here, and he’s had Tony. He could keep Tony, too. There is a temptation here, for Tony to take a place for himself in Steve’s shadow. Steve’s largesse, Steve’s leadership, Steve’s firm hand. The impossible man who’s survived impossible things.

“We’ll go,” Steve says. “Because you need me.”

“That’s an excuse,” Tony says. “You need.”

Steve’s brow furrows.

Tony kicks him square in the groin. Steve blocks most of it but still goes down, grabbing Tony’s leg as he does. Tony has a flint, which he uses to stab Steve’s hand before kicking him again. This has Steve falling to his knees in front of Tony, a flash of lovely confusion twisting over his face. Tony pushes off the stone ledge and onto his feet, forcing Steve to look up at him.

“You’re the one who needs,” Tony says.

The impossible man who’s survived impossible things, and has been searching for something (someone) as impossible as he is.

Steve’s throat bobs as he swallows. A few strands of hair cross his forehead as he gazes up at Tony, surprise lighting up his eyes. They both know he could get up easily. He doesn’t.

You need,” Tony says again. He moves a foot up Steve’s thigh, finding the swelling thickness he thought might be there. When Tony presses his foot down carefully, Steve sways, moans, and grabs the back of Tony’s knees for balance.

“Tony,” Steve gasps.

Tony reaches for his pants, and Steve is quick to help. Tony’s half-hard, but Steve’s fingers work him to full stiffness.

“For you,” Tony says. “This is for you.”

Steve shudders. “God, Tony.” He sounds battered, but not from the earlier fight. His hands are huge and grasping on the back of Tony’s thighs, and he tilts his head up like a man starving, mouth open and eager. His tongue is there to catch the swell of Tony’s cockhead, his lips pursed like a well in the thick forest of his beard.

It feels like a mercy when Tony finally feeds Steve his dick. Steve’s mouth is sweet and warm and perfect, right down to the vibrations when Steve moans. Tony’s wanted to touch Steve, and now he indulges by pushing his fingers into Steve’s mane, and yanking hard at the strands, forcing Steve’s head still for the final inches of Tony’s length. Steve takes it all, and does nothing but swallow until Tony’s balls are up against his chin.

One would think this is Tony exacting vengeance, but that’s not it. He’s not made of the same stuff as Steve; he doesn’t have Steve’s strength or confidence, and instead he has decades of terror accumulated like sediment in his soul. Even now, Tony is afraid – of Steve changing his mind, or clamping his jaw shut, or take his revenge later by breaking him in half – but that fear is subsumed by other emotions. A new understanding of how Steve sees him, reacts to him, wants him.

Tony is still Steve’s, but in this he’s fulfilling a need – Steve’s need – because Tony can be a very good whore when he puts his mind to it.

“Yes,” Tony breathes. Steve’s eyes shine with satisfaction, and Tony feels something like starlight burst in his veins.

Steve curls his fingers into Tony’s ass, massaging the muscle with obvious greediness. He does this even as Tony starts fucking his mouth, little jolts inward that just makes Steve moan harder. Steve sucks and swallows until drool spills from the corner of his mouth, but he does not choke. Steve’s physical abilities apparently include being able to breathe despite having a cock down his throat.

The wet pulse around Tony’s dick makes him dizzy. He tries to hold on, to stay hard as he mashes his crotch against Steve’s face.

“Oh,” Tony gasps, rocking tight against Steve’s lips. “Oh. Oh. Steve.”

Steve doesn’t even falter when Tony spills into him. His hands tighten their grip on Tony’s hips, and his mouth stays latched there, swallowing all of it. Tony shudders and sighs and loosens his hold in Steve’s hair, fingers dropping down to brush against Steve’s face.

It’s a pleasing orgasm, though not as intense as having something inside him. But the orgasm isn’t the point.

The point is that Tony gets to watch Steve come. Because Steve does come, just like that, with his hardness pushing against Tony’s foot and his mouth sucking stubbornly on Tony’s softening member. Surrender washes over his features, a harsh noise rumbles from Steve’s used throat, and his eyes glaze over and flutter shut.

Through all this Steve keeps trying to rock Tony deeper into his mouth, his hands guiding Tony’s hips towards him despite there being nothing left to give. The overstimulation is too much and makes Tony squirm, but that’s probably why he does it.

Then Steve’s eyes open. They are perfectly clear and alert as they look up at him. Clear and lucid and contemplative.

Steve releases Tony with an obscenely slow glide of his lips down his shaft. Tony just about manages a sigh of relief before Steve’s rising to his feet, the hands that bruised Tony’s hips coming up now to hold Tony’s face.

Steve kisses him deep, his tongue sweeping in to return Tony’s come to him. Tony winds his arms over Steve’s mountain-broad shoulders and, despite the tingle in his still-cut lip, Tony kisses him back. They kiss and kiss, and Tony’s hands learn the breadth and solidness of Steve’s chest and arms and armor.

“We leave at daybreak,” Steve says at long last. “You pack tonight.”

Tony nods.

 


 

 

In the dark of early morning, Tony comes out from his alcove. He takes another route around the back of the hill, where he can’t be seen from camp. Mindful of every step, Tony makes his way around the hill and into the tree line, where he finds a spot in the undergrowth and pulls a grey-brown canvas blanket around himself.

He can observe the camp from here. Sure enough, it’s almost fully cleared. The wagons are loaded, the tents are packed, and whatever else they cannot bring with them, they’re burning in the hearth. Everyone has packs to carry, even Steve. That’s a flaw, albeit a necessary one. They’ll be slow-moving, and will lose precious seconds if they need to fight along the way. But they’ve had a good haul, and it would be a shame to give it up.

Closer to daylight, Steve puts his things together in a small pile and gets up. He prowls back and forth, and every so often looks up at the hill. Bucky comes to him, but Steve turns him away.

At the first touch of sunlight, Steve goes up the hill. By the time he returns, the sun is full risen and the others are restless, ready to leave. Nat and Sam are on their feet, concerned, but Steve marches past them. He looks calm, his back straight and footsteps steady.

Steve picks up his shield, walks over to the remains of a semi-combust, and smashes it. Three strikes of his shield, followed by another other three strikes, against the dead engine, where each hit is stronger than the one before it. The metal screams, and screams some more.

Tony’s chest twinges, but he holds his breath. It wouldn’t do to laugh and get caught.

When Steve’s had his fill, he stands there for a long moment, chest heaving. Then he straightens up, returns to his pack of things, and puts his shield in its harness. His movements are once again serene and efficient, and he does not speak to anyone. Tony wonders if Steve found his leather band with the star mark, for Tony left it at the mouth of his alcove earlier for Steve to find. That was Tony’s answer, if Steve could take it.

He will have to take it.

They will travel to Carbon Town. They will rest and replenish, and find entertainment if they need it. Steve will search for a new mission, if that’s what he needs. He will think of Tony, if he needs that, too. Perhaps he will plot a return to the hill once he’s seen his people off safely. Perhaps he hopes to return on a hunt, and the chance to show Tony his anger. (He is capable of anger. That is fascinating.)

Steve can plot and hope all he wants, to what little use it may be. He’s the one who started this. He found Tony, took him, woke him up. Now he has to deal with what happens next.

Tony stays where he is until they’ve fully decamped. Their caravan goes westward, away from the sunrise. Tony waits until they’re out of view, though their tracks and marks trail out behind them like a long shadow.

Then Tony gets up, fixes his own pack over his shoulders, and follows. He’ll stay just out of sight and follow them all the way to Carbon Town, and then… well. He’ll see what new opportunity will arise then.

There’s no point in making it too easy for Steve, after all.