Only for one moment - the hot sun on his face, the dust in his hair, his jaw aching from a punch, because it was just another day in Timely for him - he was slipping. It had happened before, consciousness just sliding, his vision blurring. The barren landscape fell away and there standing with his back against the sun, where Steve could not clearly make out his form, was Bucky. His face was dark and he couldn’t actually see any details of his expression, couldn’t really see his eyes, but he knew it was Bucky as surely as he knew that he was sheriff of a town that had been taken over by vipers.
“You need to see this, Steve,” Bucky said and he could see the mouth move and settle into one of Bucky’s infectious grins. He did not need to see the details to know that.
It was a nice memory to have, those smiles. But just now it served to make him feel lonely.
“I'm not sure...” he started, because he had learned already that talking to Bucky wasn't helping. It made it harder to move on, if you held on to ghosts too tightly. But then he still felt if anyone had the right to come back from the afterlife to haunt him, it was Bucky.
“You'll like it,” Bucky said in his cheeriest voice.
And the next words just slipped out: “You're dead. What are you all excited about?” The pang of guilt that came with the thought took his breath away. Just for this moment he thought he couldn't go on like this, with the guilt and loneliness, fighting a fight that perhaps couldn't be won.
Bucky seemed to understand it too. “You're not a quitter, Steve. You never were. Don't start now.”
He gritted his teeth. “You really are just a figment of my imagination,” he said, pushing past the deeply ingrained knowledge that you did not make fun of the afterlife. He'd never set foot in Ireland, having been born shortly after his parents had arrived in America, he had spent his first few years in New York, before his father had followed his luck and tried to settle and farm in Wyoming, dragging him and his mother across the country from place to place after the farm failed. Still his mother had raised him like a good Irish boy and Steve had no doubt that this haunting, if it wasn't just happening in his mind, was earned.
He'd sinned. He'd led Bucky here. He was as much to blame for his death as the actual killers. While officially he wasn't doubting the story of the Indian raid, he knew too much about Timely by now to think that Bucky did not have unfinished business here if he hadn't moved on yet. And he doubted it was only about Steve.
“I've always been more than that, Steve. Don't pretend. And I promise, you need to see this. Come on.” Bucky's voice, ethereal and suddenly far away, was his first hint that he was drifting.
“Sheriff,” someone cried, the plea overlapping with Bucky's voice in his head. “Sheriff Rogers!”
His head snapped up and he became aware of his surroundings again. Bucky was gone. The wasteland was still exactly that: dust and dirt and heat. And it was Carol Danvers' voice calling for him. She was running, skirts pulled up with her fists, so they wouldn't interfere with her running. It looked like she was coming from the direction of the train station.
It was too far away to see it yet, but Steve had heard the train from the east arrive some time ago, the noise always carried far over the dusty plains. The train must have arrived around the time a fist had connected with his chin at the Cage farm, so it wouldn't be here for much longer. He hoped nobody had decided to stage a robbery.
“Miss Danvers,” he said and inclined his head. He wasn't going to comment on her red face or the fact that she was breathless. Carol Danvers was one of the upstanding citizens of Timely, one of the people Steve was here to protect. The fact that she'd been running did usually not mean good things.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “Doc said, you were out helping Luke with a... problem.”
“Problem,” he repeated. “We took care of that.” Although probably only for now. Fisk had taken an interest in the property and he was not the sort to just give up.
“Good,” she said. “There's some trouble at the train station. Some thugs are trying to play a joke on a poor drunk.”
Of course, trouble never was far away in Timely. He threw a strained smile in Carol's direction and nodded his head again , this time in understanding. “Thank you, Miss Danvers. I'll look into it.”
He offered her a ride back, but she shook her head. “I can walk, thank you.”
His horse jumped and whined as he urged it into a gallop. But by the time he got close enough to the train tracks, he could hear the thundering of the train and he just hoped that this meant whatever had been going on wouldn't need his intervention after all.
Suddenly nervous, the horse reared. He immediately searched the ground for signs of rattle snakes. From the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of something: Bucky standing further ahead pointing towards the tracks with a half smile. Steve blinked, and the apparition was gone again.
It should have given him pause, should have instilled him with dread of what he would find there, but he only pulled the reins taught and closed in on the tracks. What he found there looked like trouble, but definitely not the kind of trouble he had expected. Dismounting quickly, he was half-convinced that the partly naked body that had be disposed on the tracks was a corpse that was beyond any help. But the station attendant was standing meters away informing him in a loud voice: “Dead drunk.”
That was a relief. A drunk drifter was not much compared to the trouble this town faced on a daily basis. He thought as much until he bent over the man, who was stirring, blinking confusedly up at the blue sky. As far as Steve could tell he wasn't hurt. For some reason he was wearing nothing but light colored tightly tailored suit pants, the jacket and shirt having been lost somewhere. He scanned the area for a sign of the missing pieces of garment, all the while watching the man, who had one arm under his cheek, his face resting uncomfortably on his hard iron pillow as if he didn't care about his own discomfort. With the sun shining down on him as it was, he would care very much about resting out here tomorrow when his skin itched.
But that wasn't what Steve was most concerned about. His eyes roving across what was revealed of the strong chest and back, he felt an uncomfortable stirring, a long forgotten longing, rise up in him. He couldn't turn his eyes away. Narrow hips were as tantalizing in the suit pants as the exposed upper torso of the man was on closer inspection.
Then the stranger finally blinked up at him with the bluest eyes that Steve had ever seen and it took all of his willpower not to forget how to breathe.
Trouble, he thought and swallowed. Exactly the kind of trouble he had no use for out here. It was all well and good then, that he had no patience for drunkards. “You missed your train,” he said neutrally.
“Is that what happened?” the man asked, sounding slurred and out of it.
“I was hoping you could tell me what happened,” Steve offered, frowning now. “Trains only come through here once a week, Mister...”
“Hmm,” the man said, sounding unfazed by that information. Steve wasn't sure he had even heard him. Then he mumbled: “Once a week? That's not very often. What's this place?”
He tried to sit up and take a look around, not that there was much to see here at the station a bit outside town. Out of pure reflex, Steve took him by the arm the moment he floundered a bit to help him sit more steadily. The man's confused gaze settled on his hand, then on his face and suddenly Steve just knew he was staring at the full, slightly parted lips, much to dry for kissing. The whiff of alcohol on the man’s breath brought with it a welcome feeling of disgust. He knew men like this, knew better. There was no way giving a sign of his interest would end well.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, because taking care of the people in the town was his job and if they had a drunken drifter stuck here, they would not just let him die of heat stroke or let him lie on the train tracks until the week had gone by. He was taking him to Doc Banner, because someone had to make sure the moron survived until he could safely leave this place again. And Steve would be damned if he would let a stranger die on his watch, even if he was a sad excuse of drunk.
“Should you be wearing a hat?” the man asked fuzzily, as Steve pulled him to his feet, staring up at Steve’s hairline. His clipped tones were those of a New York accent. Steve remembered it well. Even after years of his father dragging him and his mother from one border town or farm to the next, Steve had never forgotten New York, one of the few places where he'd ever felt at home.
“Mister, you are very, very drunk and I have no idea what happened to you, but you're lack of a shirt does not make you the one I would ask for hints about appropriate dress for a day in the sun.” He should not have mentioned the shirt, because his eyes drifted over the exposed chest once more, making him feel immediately uncomfortable.
It had been too long. Not long enough.
He dragged the man along a few steps, his charge stumbling and trying to look up at him to get a better look at his face, but then his eyes suddenly came to rest on the star on his chest. “You the sheriff?” he asked with incredulous wide eyes. “Just my luck,” he groaned then, before he barfed over Steve's only pair of boots.
The situation wasn't helped by the fact that he could have sworn he could see Bucky standing in the shadows of the nearby ward's house, grinning at him as if he was pleased.
No, he couldn't wait to get this drunkard off his hands and out of his town again. He just hoped Banner would forgive him for washing his hands clean of this one and dumping him on his doorstep.
There was only so much a haunted man could bare.
After deposing of their involuntary visitor he would head out to see old Jameson. He'd been putting off a visit to the mansion for days, avoiding the unpleasantness that was the Jonah Jameson when he could. But if he expected Banner to take in this felon, then the least he could do was put himself up for a bit of penance today.
Bucky looked at him with undisguised disappointment as he dragged the drunken man down the main street and towards the apothecary.
Steve knew what he was thinking. But right now Steve had no intention of thinking about it too hard.
Bucky was dead.
Steve was alive. And he had to go on with everyday life on his own.
* * *
It had been a while since he had seen Hank this excited.
The man, now clad in what looked like an ill fitting shirt that someone must have given him to cover himself, had still cleaned up nicely, looking much better without red dirt on his face, was carrying his own weight and sauntering with the kind of self-assurance that came with an easy life. Steve wanted to dislike it, but when their eyes met for the briefest of moments as he was leaning against one of the posts on his own porch, watching, the man nodded and he nodded back, the barest acknowledgment that was possible. To Steve it felt like too much and not enough.
In a few days the stranger with the enticing blue eyes and slim, taught chest would be gone and Steve could forget about the desire he'd felt, this little spark, that the inappropriate display had stirred in him and that he now had a hard time quenching again. He was better than that. He could be better than that.
This time he would be better.
“You've never been a coward, Steve,” Bucky said as he stepped up to stand beside him and watched the little procession vanish into the Savings and Loans.
“Haven't I been?” he asked back. “Don't tell me that, Bucky, you of all people know better.”
Across the street, Natasha had stopped to look at him and he nodded at her. Bucky was staring at her with a sad expression and that hurt too. Even now. Natasha slowly moved past, giving him a curt nod.
This was as close as they came to sharing their grief most days. Not because they disliked each other, but because they had shared something and lost it and it was easier for both of them to pretend it had never even existed.
But there was something he needed to know. “Are you haunting her too?”
“No,” Bucky answered immediately.
“Why?” He knew the answer of course. Because I don't blame her.
“Because she doesn't need me to,” he said with a simple finality that only the ghost of a dead man had any right to.
Steve threw a lingering look down the street towards Starne's place then pondered if now was a good time to go see Banner and ask him for something that would help him sleep.
If anyone had earned the right to stay by his side forever, it was Bucky. But Steve needed to keep it together. He had come out here for a reason, dragging Bucky along to his doom. There was a reason why he stayed in Timely even now; a reason beyond the fact that James Barnes was buried in a plain grave on the dusty town graveyard.
He had a life here.
Despite Fisk and his gang there were good people here.
He was part of the community.
Even if a ghost was the only one keeping him company at night.
Steve remained planted to the spot until Natasha Barnes had vanished down the street then he made his way to the apothecary. He did not ask Banner for a tonic, but Banner looked up at him grumpily. “Sheriff,” he said and he didn't exactly sound cheerful, but he looked less overworked than Steve had seen him in a long time. “Any more drunks you want me to take care of?”
“Not today. I would have thought the one I dropped on you was enough.”
“Ah,” Doc Banner mumbled. “He knows his stuff. Useful to have around when he's sober.” Then he grabbed a bottle of a brownish tonic and shoved it a t Steve. “You look like you’re working too hard, Steve. Take this. Won't do harm in any case. Get some rest.”
“Run into trouble, sheriff?” the clipped New York accent of the man he was trying to avoid asked from the doorway.
“Not recently. Not since I scrapped someone from the train tracks,” he said and raised an eyebrow, challenging. There was no sign of Bucky and Steve wondered where his ghostly companion had wandered off to, whether he would be back.
“I hear the train only comes by here once a week, so that wasn’t as risky as it sounds,” he said and Steve smiled despite himself. The accent was like a piece of home. The blue eyes regarded him with guarded interest. “Thanks anyway.”
He nodded. “You from New York?”
“What's it to you?” the man asked, raising his chin as if he expected an insult. Cleaned up and sober he was a sight to behold, even with the ill fitting shirt and the tired, gaunt look to him.
“Nothing,” Steve answered quickly, banishing the thought. “Nothing at all.”
When he pushed past to get outside the man let him go, but he could feel his eyes lingering as he walked away.
“Mornings and evenings,” Banner called after him. “And get that rest, Steve!”
Outside on the porch, the door having closed behind him, he took a deep breath. Only a few days and the stranger would be gone. There would be no more need to fret about blue eyes and inquisitive stares then. The shirtless man on the train tracks would be a harmless memory.
“You like him,” Bucky supplied helpfully. He'd waited outside, leaning against the wall beside the door looking more translucent than he had in days, but relaxed and smiling easily. “Can't hide it.”
“I don't even know him.” And what he knew so far - actually knew beyond the looks - spoke of a life that Steve would not approve of.
“But I know you,” Bucky retorted and was gone.
* * *
But if the sounds coming from the old smithy were anything to go by, he was serious about staying for longer than the week. And if the stories May Parker, Hank Pym and Edward Jarvis had to tell were true, then he was more than their new blacksmith. He was a good man, even if he’d seemed like someone who couldn’t even take proper care of himself.
“Fixed it for me without asking anything for it,” the old woman told him, showing him the ax head she’d been given for free. “Claimed it was defective. But look at it sheriff,” she implored holding it up even higher. “It's perfectly fine, isn't it?”
There had been no sign of Bucky all day, but now suddenly his form appeared beside the old woman like it was forming from the dust hanging in the air and he was giving him an expectant look. “You're not usually one who judges a book by its cover, Steve.”
He ignored Bucky, and smiled at May and said: “That was a very fine thing of him to do.”
“He's a good sort.”
“Yes,” he answered and smiled. Even Doc Banner had gone on about how “Tony” had helped out when he'd put him to work. And for whatever reason, for whatever strange idea that had taken hold of him, the train today would be leaving without him again. The whole week Steve had been waiting for the man to finally be on his way, so that he could forget all about how he'd looked lying half-naked in the searing hot afternoon sun. “Timely can always use more of those,” he added. He wasn’t surprised to find that he was looking forward to meeting Stark properly now.
The smile he and May shared between them was closer to a grimace, though. Fisk's grip on the town had been gradually tightening. Timely was not an easy home for good sorts these days. Good people and those with the sense and means to do it were leaving, one after the other. So why was someone like Anthony Stark staying here playing blacksmith? He must have a much better and easier life waiting for him somewhere.
That evening he walked by the smithy on his way towards the sheriff's office. Stark was standing on his porch, wearing a blue-grey frock coat, watching a couple of men hoisting boxes and crates to the back of his new shop. “Be careful,” he advised, with a slightly strained expression as he watched another crate move past him.
Steve walked closer, wondering whether all these crates had arrived on the train that he had expected Stark to leave town on forever.
“These were meant to follow me to Sacramento,” Stark said as he nodded at him, when he caught him staring.
Not sure what he was supposed to say to that Steve nodded. “I hear you're setting up shop.”
“I bet you hoped to get rid of me sooner.” There was a sudden guarded twinkle in the blue eyes, and his features relaxed somewhat.
“What's in there?”
Stark looked at the crates, shoulders going tense again. “Pieces of my old life. A story for another day, sheriff.”
In the evening when the crashing and hammering from Stark's shop had died down somewhat and Steve was sitting at his desk, legs up and finally relaxing a bit and staring out the window to the house across the street, he saw the man sitting on his porch alone, face hidden in his hands, an untouched bottle beside him. Steve couldn't look away.
“You know someone who has ghosts in his past just by looking at them,” Bucky's voice supplied from the edge of the jail cell. He'd hung around since Steve had set foot into the office, but today he'd been very quiet. Until now. “Right, Steve?”
He sighed. “I miss you.”
“You feel guilty.”
“Look at him,” Bucky pointed out. “Doesn't look like the carefree frolicking east coast type now.”
Steve had already caught up on that fact. It made sense that his own mind would speak the truth to him through Bucky’s mouth. Still he felt a cold feeling creep up on him, make his hairs stand on end as Bucky touched his cheek.
The question was still, why had a man like Tony Stark decided to stay here all of all places? And what was going on with him that he'd ended up in Timely in the first place, without a shirt, without a penny on him? He hadn't even complained, now that Steve thought about it, about what had happened on the train or about waking up on the train tracks, drunk and robbed.
Something about Anthony Edward Stark, formerly of New York and now of Timely, didn't quite add up.
But it didn't take much brain to guess that someone with Stark's reputation and that much money to his name, would not be able to live a quiet life here. The townsfolk was already talking. That meant Fisk already knew.
And Stark was sitting there forlornly in the dirt, looking in the direction of the Casino now. Finally he picked up the bottle and slowly walked back into the house that Steve supposed was now his, opening the bottle as he went taking a sip as he closed the door behind him.
“He looked sad,” he observed, feeling like someone should really go over and stop the man from drowning his sorrows in cheap whiskey.
When there was no answer he looked around.
Bucky was gone.
* * *
Bucky hadn't been around all day and Steve, who had come to expect the ghost's snarky remarks as much as he had once expected him to bounce into the sheriff's office unannounced, whenever he had come back from a job he'd taken care of without Steve, was feeling restless – lonely.
Speaking to a dead man's ghost was better than not having anyone around who really knew you, who he did not need to keep secrets from.
It wasn't unusual for him to go days without seeing Bucky. When Timely kept him busy, and his mind was preoccupied he usually saw less of the ghost. But today it was a slow day and that was why he was idly pacing up and down the length of his office at a loss with what to do with himself. He blamed the fact that today his mind couldn't even conjure up Bucky for the fact that his eyes strayed out the window every so often. Out there Stark was working at his anvil, using his hammer to shape metal into a new tool or gadget. Fully dressed he was not as laid bare to Steve's interested gaze as he had been that first day, but after days of watching and thinking about him, Steve had no trouble of coming up with the image of taught moving muscles beneath that shirt. He wanted to look away, but couldn’t. Tony was working with his sleeves pushed up to reveal his strong arms, his brow sweaty, biting his lips in concentration, focused and intense.
Steve wanted these eyes to look at him like that.
The moment he thought it he shook his head, banishing the stray longing to the back of his mind. It was inappropriate. More than inappropriate. Dangerous.
He could not go down that road again.
Not now or ever.
Timely wasn't much, but he had a home and a job here and some good people depended on him, respected him.
And whatever had brought Stark to his city, he was a good man who struggled with his lust for alcohol. Or something worse. Steve did not need the added complication.
Everyone around seemed to know something of Stark’s history, had something to tell about the brilliant man who made the best colts, the best army rifles, and cannons; the war hero who had won them the war with his inventions. But nobody could really say what he wanted out here. And as far as the rumor mill went he hadn't yet made one straight comment about it either.
Steve wanted to help.
Sweet lord, he wanted to help and not because he wanted to take advantage. But he was afraid too. How far could he trust himself with someone like Stark?
And so he was watching intently from his window as Turk stepped into the small paddock that made Stark's backyard and current working place. The steady sound of the hammer stopped and Stark raised himself up to look at his visitor, cautious.
Steve had gone stock still.
He'd known this would be coming.
He had no idea how Stark would deal with it. Would he be cowed? Would he work for Fisk as long as he let him have a quiet life?
But less than two minutes later, Turk spits into the sand before Stark's feet, shouting obscenities. Calmly, Stark watched him go.
Steve remained glued to the floor until Stark picked up his hammer and started working again.
Everybody knew that Fisk did not take rejection well. And Steve could easily add up the numbers. Stark made weapons. That was the kind of expertise Fisk would not want to pass up. And in this town he usually got what he wanted.
Stark would need some help if he wanted to stay out of trouble.
But perhaps he was looking for trouble and that was why he’d picked Timely. The thought made Steve's chest constrict with nervous unease. He would not allow the man to seek his end at the hands of Turk and thugs like him. Not in this town.
Perhaps he had a reason to take more interest without getting too close.
* * *
Stark turned his head to look at him. “Just something I'm working on. Hank needs some supplies and the train, I hear, only comes through once a week.”
“We have horses, you know?”
“Ah,” Stark said. “They already make half my living.”
“I hear you don't need to make a living, so you give away the tools that don't come out right for free.” He watched as Stark tensed a bit.
“Word spreads fast in this town, for sure.”
Steve smiled. “Every town.”
“True, true.” For the first time there was an answering smile.
“Did you have time to unpack?”
“Unpack?” Stark swished away some sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeves and Steve couldn't help but think that Stark wasn't like any other rich guy from New York. He wasn't just an annoying drunk. Not just a good man. Not just a gunsmith. A complex mystery. Someone who if he wanted to survive here needed someone on his side. Someone he wanted on his side.
By my side. But that would never be possible. Still, Steve could at least make a friend.
“The crates,” he explained, swallowing against his suddenly dry throat.
“Oh, no. I don't think...” Stark hesitated. “Come on in,” he suddenly said striding toward his door. “This business is not meant for the street.”
Of course, Steve was about to protest. He wasn't here for any... business; especially not the kind that couldn't be done out in the street. His feet were carrying him towards Stark's door anyway. The stale smell of alcohol, smoke and metal hung in the air and Stark made no move to hide it. There was a half empty bottle on his table.
Steve frowned at it.
“That's the least of my problems and yours,” Stark supplied helpfully as he moved towards the nearest wooden crate. He picked up a crowbar to open it. Steve's eyes glided along a peculiar machine in the corner, a red extraordinary looking man's torso sitting in a glass box. In the dim light it looked scary but it was just a fun fair machine. He'd seen the like across the country.
Finally, Stark had the crate open. And by his stance Steve could tell he was dead serious. When he moved closer, his shoulder brushed against Stark's purely by accident. Then he took in a breath as he saw the guns. The box was full to the brim with guns. “These your...?”
“Yes,” he said, but it sounded sour. “And before you ask, you can't have one. I have no use for them anymore, but nobody gets their hands on these.” His voice wavered a bit like even talking about it was causing him pain. Back in the war, Steve had seen the look. It belonged to someone who had seen too much death. Death he’d caused.
Some pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
“I'm not in need of a gun,” Steve said, giving Stark a gauging look. “I'm in need of good men around town. Men who don't cause trouble.”
“Had a feeling,” Stark said. “Can't promise about the trouble. The mayor has declared an interest in my... profession.”
“That was only a matter of time. Tread carefully,” he warned and contemplated the weapons. “What are you going to do with these?”
“Melt them down. Make tools. Make something worthwhile. Make something better.”
Stark really was someone who lived with his own ghosts, he realized. It gave Steve the courage to pat him on the back in an amiable, hopefully strictly comforting way. “We should start by hiding them beneath your floorboards if that's an option.”
“Skeletons in closets, weapons under the floorboards. I like it,” Stark declared.
Steve chuckled mirthlessly. His skeletons weren’t hiding in closets or under floorboards usually, but he had no problem helping someone to get their own out of sight.
* * *
Only two days before Stark had gotten into a fist fight after he'd won back all of Hank’s money at the poker table, while the rest of the card sharks had underestimated his skill, and fed him drink after drink, hoping to rob him of some of his money.
It was becoming a worrying and annoying pattern, that Stark went into these things drunk, but with the knowledge of what he was doing. Steve wanted it to stop before he got hurt. “You do realize, that you'll be dead, before the month is out if you go on like this?” It was becoming a likely possibility.
“Hn,” Stark mumbled. “Know what I'm doing.”
“That's what I'm afraid of, Stark.”
Suddenly appearing out of nothing like he sometimes did, Bucky was leaning against a wall at the end of the street, watching them approach. He said nothing, but he nodded at Steve, as if in greeting.
“Tony,” the man beside him mumbled. “Call me, Tony.”
“I will, if you offer that to me sober,” Steve reprimanded as he finally got Tony to his own door. Banner hurried over from the apothecary. “Is he alright?”
“Just as alright as he was when he set foot in this town for the first time.”
Stark snorted, unamused or half-asleep. Together they wrestled the key out of his pocket and got him to bed inside his messy house that was more a workplace than home. Steve was glad for Doc's presence, it kept him from sliding a hand through Stark's hair or letting his own emotions get the better of him as he put him down on the covers.
“One day you have to stop being lonely, Steve,” Bucky told him.
Steve wasn't convinced being lonely wasn't preferable to the contempt. For now he would be content to get Stark to take better care of himself. He would have a talk with Dugan at the saloon, ask him to cut Stark off before he got out of hand. He doubted “Tony” would thank him for that.
* * *
When he was building, he was always in a better mood. Clear headed and less sad.
Steve recognized that quality in himself too. He got like that when he was doing his job.
Bucky was there in the day as always, but his dreams were full now of Tony and the muscles that were now only hinted at by pushed up sleeves, but that he had gotten a perfect glimpse and feel of that first day. Heat rose in his cheeks when he thought of those dreams too hard.
It was shameful but so much better than dreaming of blood and murder.
Even thinking it, he threw an apologetic look towards Bucky who stood, unseen, right beside Tony, looking at his work from up close, without fear of getting hurt by the steadily flying hammer. He shrugged at Steve. “It's about time you got interested in someone, Steve. And he does have pretty eyes.”
And he thought of these eyes that night, his own hand on his cock, writhing and moaning in his bed alone. It had been a while since things had been so simple and complicated. Nothing would come of it, because Stark would never look at him that way.
* * *
A stab of ice froze his stomach. And suddenly he felt like an idiot.
Stark and Banner.
Sneaking around at night.
He should have tried at least.
“I'm an idiot,” he mumbled.
He saw Bucky appear in the corner of the room. “No more of an idiot than you ever were, Steve.”
The next morning Stark was walking funny; limping a bit, but trying to hide it. Steve had no right to feel jealous or sad, so he put the thought away and moved on.
Bucky looked sad enough for them both.
* * *
Steve had heard about it from Hank before he had seen Stark step out of his front door, taking a swig from a bottle and marching straight down the road towards the mayor’s office. He didn't let him get far, before he caught up with him and pulled him along by the arm, hard.
“I've been robbed,” Tony spat at him. “Isn’t that something you should be taking care of, sheriff?”
“You're also drunk, Stark.”
“Let me go! ” Stark tried to free himself, but Steve was already pulling him along toward his office and the town prison. At this time of day it was hot and people avoided the street, but curtains were pulled aside and Steve knew like always raised voices made people take notice. “I'm going to take back what's mine,” Stark hissed at him between gritted teeth. “And you won’t stop me.”
“No, you are going to spend some time in the cell, till you've sobered up and your head is clear. Not up for debate.” Steve was dead serious.
Banner had emerged from the apothecary and watched them with a worried frown. But he made no move to interfere. Perhaps Steve allowed himself a second to resent that fact. If Stark were his surely he would have interfered. Stark wasn't and he sill had.
“They stole from me, Rogers! Blazes, let me go! I'm just going to take my own property and...”
“...get shot.” He had finally dragged Stark over the threshold, pulling the door closed behind them, while Stark still struggled against his hold. “I'm not doubting your story, Stark.”
“Tony! My name is Tony!” he shouted angrily. “And you can't keep me here. I'm not that drunk. Not today.”
“I say you are. You'll stay here until I make you see sense. There is no need to get killed over something like this.” He had him close to the cell, when Tony tried to break free and make a run for it. Steve tackled him to the ground, before he made it to the door. They landed on the floor in a tangle of limbs.
“I’m not going to get killed.” Perhaps Stark even believed it himself today, but Steve wasn’t sure he should. Someone who wanted to live didn’t skirt danger like Stark did.
“You are so infuriating!” They struggled and fought, without throwing punches. “Don't make me shackle you.”
“I'm not making you do anything.” Stark looked furious and he hadn't lied. He was actually not all that drunk today. His eyes were clear and he looked like a man who knew what he had to do. Then he gasped as if in pain and let up a bit, when Steve held him down with his whole body.
And now, friction of clothes and bodies moving against sensitive flesh, Stark breathing hard and agitated beneath him, Steve could feel how hot he was suddenly. Both of them were panting, their eyes meeting, gauging each other. The spark that had been there all this time was finally kindling. Steve couldn’t look away this time, couldn’t hide from this.
“God damn it, Rogers. I thought...”
And that was as far as Stark got, before Steve finally gave in and kissed his parted lips, taking advantage. Stark stopped struggling, hissed into his mouth, the smell of stale whiskey not as annoying and distracting as Steve would have thought. No, it was perfect.
It was easy to forget about all the trouble, that came with these kind of entanglements, feeling the connection.
“God, finally, sheriff,” Stark begged.
It was all the encouragement he needed to pull him to his feet, and against his desk. “I shouldn't, I really shouldn't,” he breathed against Tony's neck.
“Don't you dare stop now!”
It was all so wrong. He should have waited until Stark was completely sober, until he wasn't angry, until Steve wasn't beside himself with jealous thoughts.
But none of that mattered now when he had Stark beneath him, and his own hardness was begging him to stake his claim.
There was no turning back now.
He couldn’t wait to get his hands on the shirt, expose Stark’s chest to his gaze again like that first day, but instead he ended up with the man leaning heavily and boneless on his desk and their pants pooling around their ankles.
“Stark,” he chanted against the searing hot skin of the man’s throat as he finally claimed what he had wanted to have for himself for weeks. “Stark.”
“Tony,” the man corrected breathlessly. “Call me, Tony.”
* * *
This was where things turned nasty.
But Stark just pulled his shirt apart and a shining plate of metal became visible. “You might want to help me out of this first,” he said reluctantly. An incredibly thin but sturdy looking sheen of metal was strapped all around his upper body like an armor plate and leather straps were holding another contraption fixed to Stark’s arm. He had been prepared for a fight, Steve realized, blinking.
“This doesn’t mean I won’t go get back my property,” Tony said and gestured between them.
“I know,” Steve said and felt a rougeish grin settle on his lips as he felt another of Tony Stark’s secrets had been revealed to him. “That’s why I’m going to shackle you to the bed, until you see sense.”
“It’s a better deal than the cell,” Tony agreed, not shocked even for a moment.
* * *
Banner must have patched it up. They had never been lovers. Stark wasn’t anyone’s lover, but his own. The lusty need to claim him all over again, scared him, but he kissed the man’s lips, and let his hands roam free for a while, just to convince himself that this was real.
Now that the fire of lust had been quenched somewhat, thoughts were becoming clearer again. For a blissful minute he could pretend that none of this would be a problem, as he lay here, while he stroked his hand along Tony’s lean muscles.
Then a noise outside let Steve shoot up where he was sitting, but it wasn't the door. Nobody was about to walk in on them. But the suddenly realization of danger caught up with him. “God,” Steve buried his face in his hands. “Not again. Please, not again.”
“Again?” Tony asked, watching him carefully. “This happened before? Is that why...? I thought you were interested, but you never... said.” The sudden insecurity was in stark contrast to Tony's usual cocksure behavior.
The heat in his own cheeks was the perfect answer.
He did not tell the story of Bucky and how Steve had been forced to leave Sacramento after he'd been caught kissing a pretty young man, how rumors had spread and he'd not been able to hang around; not of how the young man had followed him because he'd blamed himself. Timely had become home and he did not want to go through any of that again – this time for taking advantage of a drunk man instead of corrupting a judge's son.
“Nobody will believe you had to force me anyway. I’m easy.”
Steve chuckled. Not exactly in relief. None of this would be easy. Nowhere. Surely not in Timely.
At the door Bucky stood giving him a wave good-bye. He was smiling. Then he faded out and was gone.
* * *
Still, now that he was the one who made his way to Stark’s bed in secret at ungodly hours of the night, he felt happier than he had in a long time. And Tony even tried to keep his own demons at bay, not complaining when Steve took his bottles away without asking.
They put up the fun fair machine outside of the store. “Doesn’t work anyway, stupid thing.”
Bucky appeared beside the automaton the moment Tony had walked back into his workshop. “It tells the future. Give it a coin.”
The ghost looked translucent and like he was about to just vanish again, but he looked hopeful too, just like Steve remembered his vivacious deputy.
He searched his pockets for the needed coin and gave the machine a try. With a whirring sound the red man in the box moved, and a cardboard card with print on it fell out.
“Sharing the burden, will lighten the load,” it read.
He smiled at Bucky. “I think I’m in love.”
“About time you noticed,” the ghost told him. He smiled, saluted him and then he just vanished into thin air.
And Steve knew this would be the last time he ever saw him. Finally he could let go, because he had something else now to hold on to.