Steve took a deep breath, huffing it out in a short burst. Once more.
Lift them. Over, under and-
'Damn it all to hell!'
'You're turning the air blue awful early this morning,' Tony said, from somewhere behind him.
At the familiar drawl, Steve twisted in the chair to look at him; unable to stop a slight smile tugging at the corner of his lips despite his frustration. Tony was a sight in the morning, hair tousled with sleep, his beard and moustache not yet shaved and combed back into their customary perfectly groomed shape, tie not yet in place and suspenders hanging loose down by his sides. It was a side of him no-one else got to see. Unfortunately, it meant Tony saw a side to Steve no-one else did too; and Tony had already figured out the cause of the early morning rage, his eyes drifting to Steve's trailing shoelaces.
'Picking another fight, huh?' Tony asked.
Steve looked away, ashamed. 'It's fine,' he said. 'Go back to bed, I'll keep it down.'
'Let me help, Clementine.'
It was one of the many pet names Tony liked to use for him, and secretly one of Steve's favourites. It was the one Tony used in public, the one he said was because Steve liked the fruit, so hard to get all the way out here in Timely. The truth of it, though, was that it was in reference to Down by the River lived a Maiden, and it's protagonist Darling Clementine. The song had been Tony's choice of drunken serenade the first night Steve had stayed here. The nickname, though significantly less scandalous than some of the ones Tony used when they were alone, never failed to make Steve blush.
'Let me help,' Tony repeated, and Steve did, despite the burning feeling of humiliation that seared through him at having to have his shoe laces tied for him like a child. Of course, he could have just worn his calfskin boots. He always used to wear them to work, saving the shoes for trials and Sunday best. But since the incident with Fisk, since finding out that shoelaces were nearly impossible with his temperamental arm, he had worn them almost every day. Every day he didn't felt like another victory for the corrupt old mayor, who had so nearly taken everything from him.
Tony was kneeling in front of him, tying first one shoe and then the other. His hair curled slightly at the ends. Not many people noticed that, but Steve did. He always did. And, just then, it would have been the most natural thing in the world to just lean down and plant a kiss into that hair. A small intimacy, a little touch, a reminder that he was here, that when Tony was in front of him he would always have his full attention.
Except, of course, he didn't. Steve had been staying in Tony's house the best part of a year now, and he still had managed to not cross that line. Just about. If he did, and they were caught, Tony would be strung up for sodomy and maybe, if the preacher was to be believed, sent to eternal damnation. Steve privately thought that the God he knew had mercy on temptation, that it was hard to see the sin and darkness in a feeling that made him feel like he was being flooded with light from the inside out; but what did he know? He couldn't risk it. Besides, he knew the law of men right enough, and he knew how easy it would be to get caught. So no, he did not kiss Tony's hair that day, just like he didn't kiss it any other time. He was careful that there was never anything improper between them, besides the feelings he kept locked in his breast. Tony said their relationship was Greek love, like they'd had back in that ancient society; that in Roman times Plato would have defined it as philia. Companionship, dependability and trust, he said it meant; wanting the best for each other. In Ancient Greece, it had been normal for men to be this close with nothing lustful, nothing unlawful in it. In some countries on the other side of the world, it still was. 'We're not breaking any laws, Sheriff,' Tony would say, every time Steve reluctantly shifted away from his too-far-out-of-the-ordinary caresses.
He could reach down and run his fingers through Tony's hair, feel it curl around them, Steve thought. He'd done it before, one night back in the winter when Tony had stayed out too long and come back cold, and he'd made a noise like old Abraham's cat when it got the fish. Tony adamantly denied he'd done any such thing, but Steve knew he liked it.
Indulging the urge, Steve raised his arm to begin; but his hand was bad today, and the clawed shape of his damaged fingers made him flinch. Tony wouldn't want that anywhere near him.
It was too late anyway. Tony was already getting up, using Steve's knee for balance. Even through the linen of his trousers, Steve could feel the callouses on Tony's blacksmith hands, the hands that made such miraculous things. This time, however, he was more concerned with the stumble itself. It was an unfortunate fact that Tony was a drunk. He was at least trying to fight the demon now, had signed the temperance pledge and started wearing the ribbon months ago, but once something had claws in you that deep, it was a hard thing to shake free.
Then again, if it wasn't for drink, they would probably have never been much more than nodding acquaintances. Night after night Steve had been called out to some watering hole or other to deal with Tony's shenanigans; everything from being unable to pay his tab (usually because he had forgotten his wallet, not from any actual lack of funds) to singing, gambling, public nudity, even an attempt at brawling despite the fact he was hardly sober enough to stand.
Those nights when Steve had been forced to throw him in a cell, they talked and talked, and oftentimes it didn't even make any sense, but it was enough to intrigue him. Something about Tony had drawn him in, convinced him that there was more to the soak than everyone thought. Gradually, they began to talk the morning after too. Then Steve got to know his habits a bit better and started being able to track him down before he got drunk enough to turn criminal. He'd drag Tony out of whatever saloon he'd found him in, walk him home or back to Steve's little room, and they'd play chess or checkers until Tony either sobered up or fell asleep at the table.
Back then, Steve had been living in a six feet square room just behind his office. It had a bed, a closet, a desk and chair, and a wash stand. Steve had thought this was quite sufficient to his wants. Tony had strongly disagreed, and one night, heavy in drink, had tried to buy him a house. Steve had been forced to lock him in a cell after all, that night, until the effects of the drink had worn off.
Not long after that came the whole mess with Fisk. Steve had saved Tony's life – part of the job, yes, but he would have done it anyway, he wasn't thinking about the badge when he'd waded in, he was thinking about Tony, and how he would fall apart if he lost him – and together, with assistance from Red Wolf, and Widow Barnes, and Dr Banner, they'd put a stop to Fisk's trouble making ways. But not, unfortunately, before Steve had taken a bad hit.
If he had been a little slower, the bullet would have gone right through his heart. He'd turned away just in time, curling up instinctively, and the bullet had gone straight through his right shoulder and into his wrist.
The surgeon had wanted to amputate, and Steve hadn't been surprised, but Tony had hissed like a rattlesnake and pushed his way between them.
'Over my dead body,' he had said. Steve had been lying on the table by then and a few pints shy of bleeding to death, but he remembered feeling strangely focused by the pain. It was like all his life up until then he had been looking at Tony's reflection in a dented mirror, and now he was finally seeing him face to face. He'd been unable to tear his eyes away, wondering if this would be the last time he would see him.
'Why is it always amputation with you?' Tony had demanded, which wasn't really fair. It was true the surgeon had removed Bucky's arm shortly before his death, but the limb had been crushed in a nasty fall when they'd chased an outlaw too near to the edge of a cliff. There had been no saving the arm then, and, Steve had been fairly certain, no saving his now. The feeling in it had already almost gone.
'Last I checked, you weren't a doctor, Stark.'
'Bones are just pistons, muscles are just pulleys,' Tony said. 'And I'm an engineer.'
'You're a blacksmith!'
'Let him try,' Steve had ground out, and ended the conversation.
Steve wasn't sure how long it had taken, or, indeed, exactly what had happened. Tony had removed the bullets, and repaired the shattered bones and ligaments with metal rods and wires and hinges before sewing him shut again. No-one had been sure if it would work, especially when Steve had spent the next month fighting fever and infection. He didn't remember much about that time, except for the sound of Tony singing on that first night. Oh my Clema, oh my Clema, oh my darling Clementine, not completely sober. He remembered hoping Tony hadn't been drunk when he'd done the work. He remembered thinking the song was beautiful, and sad, before he'd fallen into the dark heat of unconsciousness.
When he'd woken at last, Tony's eyes had been bloodshot enough to be almost completely red, and Steve had been unsure whether it had been tears or booze that had made them that way.
'Thank God,' Tony had said, breathily, squeezing Steve's good hand, and Steve knew he meant it literally. He was thanking a God Steve suspected he didn't even believe in that the fever had broken. Steve had smelt the whiskey on his breath with the words, but Tony was at least not quite as deep in his cups as usual. 'Thought I'd killed you with my meddling,' Tony had said, hoarsely, and tears built in his sore eyes. 'You're my whole world, Steve, you know?'
Steve did know, because he felt the same way about Tony, and he had said so. Tony had kept hold of his hand, rubbing his thumb in gentle circles over Steve's skin, until he had fallen back to sleep.
It was true Steve's injured arm and hand didn't work as well as it used to. Sometimes it was stiff and gave him a little pain; and anything involving fine motor skills was a challenge. His penmanship had gone straight to hell, and now he had to scrawl out block capitals with his left hand, forming all the letters in a backwards fashion, just to make it legible. The surgeon thought the infection had gotten into his bones, too, because it was liable to flare up again from time to time, leaving him weak and shaking for a day or two.
As far as Steve was concerned, though, he still had two arms, one good and one serviceable, and that was one more than the surgeon would have left him with. It was all thanks to Tony, and Steve loved him all the more for it, even if, on occasion, he'd catch Tony eyeing it with heavy guilt. The man was a perfectionist. He couldn't see that it was only thanks to him that Steve had an arm at all. He only saw it's shortcomings. Tony wore that expression now.
'Tony,' Steve said, not sure how he was going to finish the sentence, but Tony cut him off with one of his brilliant smiles that didn't quite get to his eyes.
'Well, have a good day at the office, beloved,' he said. 'Remember, stay safe. And, um, keep an open mind.'
'An open mind? Tony, what?' But it was too late for the question. Tony had already fled off in the direction of the forge at the back of the house, forgetting, again, to get properly dressed.
Sighing, Steve straightened his own shirt and necktie, putting on his hat before stepping out of the front door and onto the porch.
'Good morning, Mr Stark,' Mrs Palmer called from where she was sweeping the front step across the way. 'Oh, my mistake. Good morning, Sheriff.'
Steve coloured and tipped his hat to her, moving quickly on. There was no way she could have mistaken him for Tony, not with a foot of height between them. She was just making a point about him being there so early in the morning, staying there.
But there was no laws against topping and tailing in a bed as wide as Tony's. Even if sometimes, in the dark, Tony would run his toes up Steve's calves and make him shiver. There were no laws against that, either. Still, people were talking more than usual. It made him nervous, but he comforted himself with the thought that he was the only lawman in town. If Timely wanted him arrested, they'd have to get someone else in to do it and they'd surely catch wind and have time to run before that could happen.
Even so, he felt as if he was attracting more looks than usual on the way to work that morning, and you didn't need a lawman for a lynching. Maybe he ought to sleep in his own old room that night. Or would the change in habit just set more tongues wagging?
When he got in sight of the Sheriff's station he was surprised to see someone waiting out front for him, looking up at the building with interest. Things had been mostly peaceful in Timely since Fisk had gone and they had reached an understanding with Red Wolf's people, and Steve couldn't remember the last time someone had been waiting at the door for him.
The man was a stranger. Taller even than Steve himself was, with his fair hair worn long between his wide-brimmed hat and dark cloak. More than that, he was almost as wide as he was tall, built solid as a wall, muscles clear even from this distance. He turned at the sound of Steve's approach and smiled widely, holding a hand out to greet him.
'Good morning, Sheriff.' He said, cheerily, shaking Steve's hand with a grip firmer than any Steve had ever felt. 'I think you're expecting me. Shall we go in?'
'I'm sorry,' Steve said, putting his key into the lock but not turning it yet. 'I wasn't expecting anyone.'
'I'm Thor,' Thor said, as if that illuminated anything. 'Thor Odinson.' Then he seemed to remember himself and added, 'At your service, sir.'
'Steve Rogers,' Steve nodded back. 'Can I help you, Mr Odinson?'
'I'm your new deputy,' Thor said, rummaging into the pocket of his coat before producing an envelope of somewhat crumpled papers. 'I thought Mayor Danvers would tell you.'
Feeling his heart sink, Steve took the proffered papers, knowing before he even looked that they would all be perfectly in order. He hadn't appointed a Deputy since losing Bucky, and didn't plan on doing so.
'There must have been some sort of mistake,' Steve said. 'We're not looking for a Deputy here.' He unlocked the door and held it open. 'Have a seat, Mr Odinson. I'll go and get to the bottom of this.'
Ignoring Thor's baffled look, Steve turned around and marched back the way he had come. There was no need to go and see Carol. He knew exactly who was behind this.
Tony didn't notice him at first, absorbed in his work. He'd abandoned his shirt entirely now, wearing only his vest, the muscles in his shoulders rippling as he hammered away at the red hot metal in front of him. The sight of him like that made Steve's breath hitch, but he shook himself sternly and pulled his shoulders back, arms folded, waiting to have his attention.
When Tony finally noticed him, he was so startled he dropped his hammer; the tool falling onto the floor with a weighty clang.
'Good morning, Sheriff,' he said, nervously.
'A deputy? Really?' Steve demanded, not at all impressed. 'Bucky died years ago, Tony, when Timely was a hell of a lot worse off than it is now. I've been just fine.'
'Yeah, fine, except your arm doesn't work,' Tony replied, picking up the hammer and pretending to wipe dust off it.
Huffing, Steve finally let his arms drop to his sides. Angry as he was, he didn't want to needle too much about what was, for Tony at least, still a sore subject. 'My arm works,' he said.
'Not well enough! What happens the next time Fisk, or someone exactly like him, comes calling?! Because they will come, Steve, and if you can't defend yourself then-!' He cut himself off, smashing the hammer viciously down onto the now-cooling metal, the sound reverberating around them. He looked Steve dead in the eyes, defiant. 'I can't go through that again. I refuse to go through that again, Steve. If you get hurt – if you die – that's it for me. You understand? That's it.'
'Tony...' Steve said, stepping towards him, wishing the forge was closed off so he could cup his cheek, press his forehead against Tony's grime-streaked one, do something to ground him, remind him that he was here, and whole, and safe. But the forge was open to the street, so he contented himself with standing close, one hand gripped on Tony's elbow and the other, the bad one, doing what it could to squeeze his shoulder. This close, he could hear that Tony's breath was ragged. 'I had no idea you were this worried.'
'Of course I'm worried, you dolt, I've been worried about you ever since we met, but everything with Fisk...' Tony took a deep breath, then, not quite able to meet Steve's eye, he added, '...the drink helped. But since I took the pledge, it's gotten harder.'
Steve stared at him, appalled. True enough, Tony broke his blue ribbon on the regular, but he always went right back the next day and tried again, over and over, no matter how exhausting it was. Steve had never understood, before, exactly what made it so hard to keep the pledge. Guilt and horror was burning through him like quicklime, chewing a hole through his stomach, turning his bones to lead. 'Tony, I-'
'If the mother's meeting is quite finished,' an irritated voice called from the street; and the two of them immediately sprang apart. 'I've got a horse that needs shoeing sometime today.'
Not rising to the bait, Tony went forward and was all charm. Steve thought he recognised the man as a worker in one of the ranches a couple of miles out of town, far enough to try and travel with a near-lame horse. Far enough to carry a story and set tongues wagging, until the story little enough resembled its origin. Steve felt the bile rise in his throat at the thought. Hell's teeth, imagine if he had cradled Tony's face, touched his forehead, kissed him like he wanted-
'Sheriff,' the rancher said, with a suspicious look in his eyes.
'Morning,' Steve nodded. 'Okay, Mr Stark, stay out of trouble now, you hear? Keep that ribbon.' It was a flimsy cover, but as Tony said, his reputation as a drunk ought to be good for something. Still, Steve hated using it, not when Tony was trying so hard to break the habit. Not when Steve had been making it worse without even knowing. He couldn't live with that for another second, so he added, 'Wouldn't want Deputy Odinson to have to arrest you his first day on the job.'
Tony brightened considerably, looking up from where he had been trying to settle the horse enough to look at its hooves. That smile made everything worth it, Steve thought, even as Tony said, 'Sure thing, Clementine,' and Steve heard the darling underneath it. Even the way the rancher looked back and forth between them, frowning, did nothing to dent his mood as he headed back to the station. People could say what they liked as long as they never took that look off Tony's face.
'Alright, Deputy, sorry to keep you waiting,' Steve said, as he breezed back into the office. 'That all seems to be in order. Good to have you on board.'
They shook hands, and this time Steve even managed to smile.
Thor was good at his job. Maybe even a little better than Steve would have liked; these days Thor had been out and come back with whatever bandit needed rounding up before Steve had even managed to holster his gun with his stiff hand. The residents of Timely, Steve had noticed, were increasingly seeking to come to Thor rather than him, and he tried desperately not to be jealous. The important thing was that justice was done and the citizens were protected, but it was a bit of a hard mouthful to swallow, feeling like a spare part in your own office.
'So retire,' Tony had said, completely unsympathetic when Steve had voiced the feeling to him one lunchtime. Tony came by most days now around one, to share in coffee and whatever vittals they had going. Seeing how much better he looked, how much more relaxed he was, made everything else worth it. Steve would have born anything to keep him this near to carefree, with the blue ribbon on his lapel now tattered and frayed, not changed once since Thor had arrived. 'Come on, Sheriff,' he said, wheedling. 'We'll get a couple of chickens to keep you busy, go grey together drinking coffee on the porch. Doesn't that sound better than staying here to be constantly upstaged by Deputy Handsome?'
Steve frowned at the nickname, the stab of jealousy having the complete opposite effect than he assumed Tony had been going for. 'I'm not ready for my bath chair just yet, thank you.'
Tony snorted at that. 'I hope not. If we wait until you're too decrepit to move, there'd be no fun in having you in the house all day.'
For a moment Steve was confused, then he saw the downright lewd look Tony was giving him and caught his meaning. He flushed, all his blood rushing to his face – and somewhere else. Dammit.
'Tony, you can't say that things like that.' He said, rubbing his temples.
'Sweetheart,' Tony smirked, 'Have you seen yourself? How can I not?'
Somewhere in the conversation, he had taken Steve's hand and Steve hadn't pulled away. Now Tony was leaning in towards him, and Steve somehow knew this was it, that his defences had finally crumbled away and no matter how dangerous it was, how selfish it was, he was going to kiss every inch of this man he could get his lips to, right here in the town jail.
It was, then, perhaps a blessing that Thor chose that moment rather than a few seconds later to enter, shoving a stumbling man in ahead of him. It just didn't feel much like one as Tony quickly withdrew his hand and leaned back in his chair. Steve got up, going to open the cell ready. The young man, he realised, was one of the newspaper men,Tiberius Stone. Tony was already cackling with delight. He had never liked Stone, not since the journalist had written a very unflattering and almost inflammatory expose of Tony's father instead of an obituary. Stone glared at him.
'What have you done now, Stone?' Steve asked, drawing his attention away from Tony as Thor shoved him in. 'Been going where you're not supposed to be again?'
'I've done nothing,' Stone said, furious. 'Your friend here is just throwing his weight around, trying to impress the girl.'
'Oh, be quiet,' Thor said, tiredly, and slammed the cell door shut, locking it tight before turning to Steve. 'He was making some very unseemly remarks to Miss Maximoff, and putting his hands where they clearly weren't wanted. I thought perhaps he needed to be reminded of the law around here.'
Rounding on Stone in disgust, Steve shook his head and said, 'Right. Well maybe a few nights in the cell with cool you off.'
No-one would soon forget the tragedy of the night the Maximoff house had burnt down. Steve and Tony had both been there along with everyone else; Steve arranging the townsfolk to make supply lines for the buckets, Tony turning up with a high power hose he'd managed to rig together for the purpose, but it had been too late. Steve and Bucky had got the kids out, but hadn't been able to get to the parents in time. Wanda Maximoff and her twin brother Pietro had been just ten at the time, and the town had come together to give them lessons and errands to earn their keep, to keep them from stealing or prostitution. Last summer they'd turned fourteen, Pietro had been apprenticed at the apothecary's, and to Steve's utter contempt, some of the men had started to pay Miss Maximoff completely inappropriate attentions. The same men who would have been happy to find her in a brothel would accept carrying her off as a reluctant bride. It didn't bear thinking about. She was still a child.
'You sick son of a bitch,' Tony said, walking over to the cell bars. For once, he didn't veil his insult in sarcasm or wit, just said viciously, 'We ought to string you up.'
'There's no law against trying to woo a pretty penniless girl who ought to be grateful,' Stone said, sneeringly. 'Not like some relationships going on in this town, right, Sheriff?'
Steve barely had time to flinch before Thor had reached through the bars and lifted Stone by the shirt collar.
'Now then Stone,' he said, sounding quite genial. 'You stay nice and quiet, you hear? Or we'll find out how well you dance the hangman's jig.' He dropped Stone to the floor and the three of them retreated to the far side of the office. Steve's heart was pounding, and he couldn't help but keep looking over his shoulder. We haven't broken any laws, he kept reminding himself, we haven't. But if Stone knew that they wanted to, who else did? Who had he told? Did it even need to be told or was it obvious? They'd been so careful. Tony squeezed his arm comfortingly, looking characteristically unconcerned. His expression calmed Steve a little.
Except now Thor was unusually quiet, looking back and forth between them, suspicion clouding his features. Tony left Steve's side to slap Thor on the back congenially. He'd built up quite a friendship with the Deputy, having been disposed to like him from the beginning because of the workload and risk he'd taken off Steve. Oftentimes if Steve was late back for lunch he'd find the two of them laughing and conversing easily together.
'Well, I'd call that a good morning's work, Thor,' Tony said. 'Stopped a bad guy, saved the child, back in time for lunch. Congrats.'
'I thank you,' Thor beamed back. 'And how was yours, Sheriff? Another avalanche of ne'er-do-wells, bandits and thieves to defeat and bring to justice?'
'No,' Steve said, flatly. 'An avalanche of permit and license requests for the Fourth of July festival.'
'Ah,' Thor said, sounding genuinely disappointed. 'Still, festivities are equally important as justice. And, um, licenses are a kind of justice, if you... if you think about it..' he cleared his throat, clearly no more convinced by this than anyone else.
'That reminds me, Mr Stark,' Steve said, very aware that Thor and Stone were both still watching. 'I was going to ask if you'd consider rigging us up some of those fancy electric lights in the square, for the dancing.'
'Consider it done,' Tony said, and from his pleased expression Steve was oddly certain that he had already planned and made the things. 'Anything for my Clementine on his birthday.'
'Birthday?' Thor repeated. 'Is the fourth your birthday, Sheriff?'
'Certainly is,' Tony confirmed, gesturing at Steve. 'You're looking at the most patriotic man in the United States. His momma didn't even expect him until September, but Sheriff Rogers here was determined to celebrate this great nation's birthday. That's why his middle name is Jefferson.'
'None of that is true, Thor,' Steve said quickly. 'Except that, yes, I was born on the fourth. Not that anyone cares except Tony.'
'Nonsense!' Thor said enthusiastically. 'It is a double celebration! We will ensure the beer flows freely!' Steve gave him a look. 'When we are not on duty,' he added, hastily.
'That's the spirit,' Tony said, laughing, even as his fingers closed around his ribbon, a reminder. Last year he'd gotten so drunk at the celebrations he'd nearly set himself on fire trying to set off a firework and Steve had been forced to give him a dunking in the horse trough before taking him to the jail to sleep it off. He hoped he'd be okay. Maybe he could persuade him to stay home this year.
It was a fruitless effort, of course. Nobody loved a party like Tony Stark, even if he was determined to go through it sober. Steve had rarely felt prouder than he did when Tony pinned that blue ribbon to the lapel of his best navy-coloured jacket, the frayed edges a public testament to his determination that meant he'd be judged even more harshly if he made the slightest slip tonight.
'You look great,' Steve said, earnestly, brushing a little dust off Tony's shoulder, just as an excuse to touch him.
'Thanks,' Tony said. 'You don't. Come on, Sheriff, it's meant to be a party.'
Steve was hearing the same hat and coat as he always did. 'I need to be recognisable.' He shrugged.
'Yes, that's what your face is for,' Tony dismissed.
'That doesn't work in a crowd.'
'I think a royal blue for you,' Tony mused. 'Or maroon. Something a bit bolder.'
'Definitely not.' Steve was of the opinion a suit should be black, brown or dark grey. Tony could pull the navy off, but Steve was not Tony.
'It would bring out your eyes.'
'Fine,' Tony pouted and opened the door. 'Well then, Sheriff, shall we?'
The town square, when they reached it, was transformed. The market stalls were out, festooned in flags and garlands of summer flowers, piled with trinkets and souvenirs, mingled with the bright colours of carnival games and the odours of a dozen different kinds of food. In the middle, a space for the dancing was marked out by wooden posts, the band up on a scaffolding-type stage at one end, already playing. What made it magical, however, was the electric lighting strung up all around.
'Happy birthday, Steve,' Tony said, quietly.
The lights were like nothing Steve had ever seen. For one thing, there were so many of them; all of them brighter than any light he'd ever seen, but it was warm and soft like candlelight, and it shone yellow, pink, silver, orange, reflecting around the scene and making it seem as if the whole place was covered with a layer of fairy dust.
'I've... this is incredible,' Steve said.
Tony looked delighted and started rambling about coloured glass and hidden mirrors and generators and fuses and a whole bunch of other stuff Steve didn't understand, but he could have listened all day. Tony was gesticulating widely as he talked, thoughts so quick and large that he was unable to express himself with his words alone, the beautiful lights reflecting in his eyes. I love him, Steve thought, and it was like Tony's lights were inside him too, warming him. I love him. I love him, I love him, I love him.
Tonight, Steve decided, the shadows of his doubts and fears chased off in the light of this glittering world. Tonight he would tell Tony the words he had only ever implied. Tonight, if Tony would let him, he would move his pillow to the same end of the bed, and lie cheek to cheek with him. He would kiss him, and let the world be damned.
Tony was still gesticulating, talking about the innovations, but Steve brought him up short, grabbing one of the waving hands, intertwining their fingers and squeezing, just briefly, before he had to let go. Tony smiled.
'Come on birthday boy,' he said. 'I smell a hog roast.'
'I can't,' Steve said, more reluctant than he'd ever been in his life to go to work. 'I said I'd take the first duty.'
'Which involves what exactly?'
'Well, mostly standing somewhere visible and dealing with any problems that come up.'
'Sounds fun,' Tony said easily. 'I'll keep you company.'
'It isn't fun,' Steve replied, unable to keep from smiling as Tony followed him to lean against the post just at the corner of the dance floor, by the band. 'And people will talk.'
'I hate to tell you this, Clementine, but they're talking already.' Tony shrugged. 'But with any luck I have a solution for that- oh, here we go.'
'Stark!' Thor's cheery voice came, and Steve turned to see the deputy approaching. Like Tony, Thor had dressed for the occasion, looking rather dashing in a deep red coat that reached almost to his knees, his long hair pulled back. On his arm was a tall, striking woman with masses of flowing red hair and an imposing expression. She didn't smile as they came near.
'Good evening Stark, Sheriff,' Thor said, looking delighted with himself. 'Stark, this is Angela. My sister that I was telling you about.'
And Tony looked at Angela properly, and lit up. There was no other way to describe it.
Oh, Steve thought.
'It's good to finally meet you in person,' Tony said, lifting Angela's hand to his lips.
In person? Steve wondered.
'May I ask you for a dance?' Tony asked.
'You did not say there would be dancing,' Angela said to Thor, scowling, but Thor simply laughed at her and ushered the two of them out onto the floor. Tony took Angela's hand and her waist and off they went.
They looked good together. Right. Natural. Well-suited. And Tony was still looking at her like she was an oasis in the desert, like his every dream had just come true. Like he had just fallen in love.
Steve barely noticed when Thor clapped his shoulder and went off to find something to eat. He stood there, alone, wanting to look anywhere but at the dancers yet unable to look away.
Four dances. Far too many to be good etiquette. And when they finally separated, they both refused dances with anyone else; Angela going directly in search of her brother and Tony coming back to Steve.
He was beaming, so excited he was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, not tired from the dancing at all. 'It's a done deal,' he announced. 'She's going to marry me!'
Oh, Steve thought, then, Oh.
'And,' Tony continued triumphantly. 'She has a friend. For you.' He nudged Steve with his elbow. Steve moved away.
He wanted to rage, to cry, to protest. You said I was your world. But it was just Greek Love after all. Philis. It amounted to a big fat nothing.
Steve snapped his jaw shut. It wouldn't do either of them any good to cause a scene. With this many people around he'd only end up getting them both hanged, even though it seemed Tony at least was completely innocent. But if Steve had misread the situation, it was only because Tony had let him. Or he'd been an even bigger fool than he'd thought.
'I have to go patrol,' he said.
'Excuse me, Mr Stark.'
It was petty, and Steve would regret his coldness later, but just then all of him was cold. The light inside him was like a frozen lake now, clear and numb and sharp. He worked his way around the festival, breaking up a few back-alley dice games and making sure nobody was too drunk, trying not to think about Tony. He might as well have been trying not to breathe.
'Sheriff!' The first he was aware of Miss Maximoff was when she grabbed his arm. 'Please, I need your help, it's Pietro.'
His heart began to beat again, only to be set racing. This was far from the first time he'd been sent out after the boy. Pietro was headstrong and jaded, which often turned into an explosive combination. Miss Maximoff had shame-facedly asked them not to tell Pietro about the liberties Stone had taken, and they had reluctantly agreed, because there was no way they wouldn't end up having to arrest the young man for murder. If Pietro was in trouble, it was probably going to be bad.
'He went into the mine,' Miss Maximoff said, her face white. 'He was looking to see if there was anything left. But he hasn't come back out. I went in as far as I could, but the shaft has collapsed and-'
Steve was already striding away, towards the hitching post and his horse. Of all the stupid things the boy could have done to earn an extra dollar, this was probably the worst. The gold mine nearest town had been abandoned for a reason; two reasons in fact. The first was that had been picked clean, the gold vein a small one. The second, of less importance to the owners but even greater to the miners, was that the whole place had been structurally unsound ever since the river had been rerouted to run barely forty yards from it.
It occurred to him that he ought to get Thor to come with him, but when he turned to look Thor had swept his sister back onto the dance floor and she was bearing with it and smiling in such a self-satisfied way that Steve turned away, feeling sick. He'd handle this himself. It seemed like his retirement plan had just fallen through anyway.
He rode up there as fast as his horse could take him, before leaving it to rest and graze at the mine entrance. Unhooking his paraffin lamp from the saddle, Steve headed inside, cautiously calling Pietro's name, not daring to be too loud in case he brought the whole thing down. He was sure Wanda would have already tried it anyway, but reasoned the kid could have been unconscious before and awake now.
Before long, he was deeper than the moonlight could reach, and he stepped forward blindly a few paces before his grasping hands hit a rubble wall of dislodged earth and rock; the cave in Miss Maximoff had told him about. Pietro must be on the other side of it, or worse, underneath it.
'It's alright, son,' Steve called out, just in case. 'Soon have you out.'
He wasn't going to be able to do anything, however, in the dark. He thought of Tony's beautiful electric lights as he fumbled in his pocket for a match to light the lamp, and smiled bitterly. He struck the match against the rock wall before him, and the world erupted into flame, before being swallowed by a deep, crushing darkness.
Hell? Steve wondered, faintly. But I didn't even get to kiss him.
Then the darkness swallowed him, too.
'No, Stark, get out!'
Steve knew that voice. He knew that name.
'I need to see him!' The voice was strained, thick with tears. Slurred. Steve knew that voice, too.
'Wait,' he tried to say, but nothing came out. His lips had dried shut, and he didn't have the strength to part them. He wanted to open his eyes, but they wouldn't listen.
'Please. Please. I just need to- to- please.' Tony begged, his voice broken. He was sobbing, weeping openly.
'You're drunk,' the cold voice said. The surgeon. 'Have some respect. I'm going to fetch more bandages, and you'd best be gone when I return.'
'Come along, Stark.' It was Thor's voice, but quiet, kind. 'We can be of no use here.'
'I have to- I didn't say goodbye.'
'Time enough for that later. Let's find you some coffee.'
'But I love him. I love him. I love him.'
No. Steve needed to open his eyes now. It was illegal, Thor would take him away, Tony would be arrested, strung up, no, no, no, no-
'Ssh, now, Stark, ssh.' Thor's voice came more urgently. 'I know, but not here. Come away, come now.'
With a herculean effort of will, Steve managed to half open his eyes. His vision was blurred, mostly eye lash, and nothing more to see than an empty room.
The darkness overtook him again.
'I'm fucking furious with you,' Tony said, bluntly. 'Open up.'
Humiliating as it was, Steve didn't dare protest and opened his mouth obediently as Tony fed him another spoon full of lukewarm soup.
It had been a gas pocket, of course, and if Steve had been concentrating instead of having half his brain taken up with Tony and Angela, he would have figured out that lighting the match was a bad idea – and exactly what Pietro had done. Luckily for the kid, he had managed to avoid serious injury and after several hours had found a way out through an old air well, only to find his sister had already gone for help.
Steve had not been so lucky. His left arm had been trapped in the rock fall along with half of his chest, and his right arm had been twisted enough to dislodge the metal rods Tony had put in. The ribs and arms would heal, according to the surgeon, but in the meantime he was utterly helpless.
'I told you,' Tony said, angrily, slamming the bowl down onto the side table. 'I told you if you were hurt – if you died -' He took a deep, shuddering breath, eyes filling with tears. He looked terrible, pale and exhausted. The blue ribbon on his jacket was brand new.
'No,' Tony held up a hand to stop him. 'I put a gun in my mouth, Steve, did Thor tell you that? The same night. Didn't want to see a sunrise without you.' He swiped his hand over his eyes. Steve said nothing, couldn't say anything, wished he could reach out- 'But I thought about how upset you looked that day at the forge. How scared you looked. It stopped me pulling the trigger.'
'I'm sorry,' Steve said, but the apology only seemed to upset Tony more.
'The whole thing came down, Steve! Like it was never there! It was a downright miracle you survived, and I didn't know you had! Not for four days.' Stating the time seemed to remind him of what he was there to do, making sure Steve got some much-needed nourishment, and he picked the soup bowl up again, stirring it agitatedly. 'I thought I'd lost you.'
'I thought I'd lost you,' Steve replied. 'You were the one getting married.'
Tony stared at him, the spoon suspended mid-air between them. 'What?'
'Thor's sister,' Steve said. 'I guess it would stop the gossip. If you loved a woman.'
Tony kept right on staring, then set the bowl carefully back down again. He covered his face. For a moment, Steve thought he was crying. Then he realised Tony was laughing. Maybe a bit of both.
'You fool,' Tony said. 'Steve. Sweetheart. Darling. Listen to me very carefully. I'll marry Angela, and Angela has a friend for you to marry.'
'I'm not really looking for-'
'No, no, Steve, listen. Angela has a friend. In the same way you and I are friends.'
'Oh,' Steve said, then, 'Oh.'
'Yes, oh,' Tony repeated, exasperated, knocking lightly on the bandages over Steve's chest. 'Thor set it up. I think he's been looking for something like this for a while. You know, where we're such good friends that it would only be natural for such good friends to go on living together, especially when their wives are also such good friends with each other. I thought it was an elegant solution.'
'I... I thought...'
'You thought I was replacing you?' Tony asked. 'Don't be stupid, Clementine. I told you, didn't I? You're my whole world. And we are never doing this again, understand?'
'No more dying?'
'Nope. No more dying, ever.'
'You realise that might be a little difficult to achieve, right?'
'Fine,' Tony said, grudgingly. 'If you are very, very good for the next fifty to sixty years and never scare me like that again, you may die of a broken heart a week after I go.'
Steve couldn't pull him close, but he could still speak. 'I love you,' he said, quietly.
Tony exhaled deeply, the last of his anger and fear vanishing from his face. He leant forward, resting his forehead against Steve's. He was smiling.
'Does that mean you're finally going to kiss me, you ridiculous man?'
They didn't marry Angela or her friend. It was silly, but Steve hadn't been able to stand the thought of someone else having that kind of claim on Tony, to be known in public as his. Besides, they couldn't haven taken proper care of a wife in such circumstances, couldn't have made vows to her before God and then not kept them, however willing she had been to take part in the scheme. It wouldn't have been fair. It wouldn't have been right. So once Steve had retired, and Thor had taken on the Sheriff's duties and salary, he had quietly moved them in with him, and no-one thought anything of Angela taking her 'cousin's' arm as they walked down the street.
They didn't marry the girls, but they did keep chickens, and they did grow grey together, sitting on the porch and drinking coffee. In the end, when the new Sheriff clearly had even less intention of doing anything about it than the old one had, people got used to it. Their days had mostly been peaceful ones.
Steve looked over at Tony, who was sitting on the old rocker he'd produced on Steve's fiftieth birthday – you're an old man now, sorry darling – and playing with the infant on his lap. A grandchild of either Wanda or Pietro, Steve wasn't entirely sure which. He was ashamed to say that at his age, they all blurred into one.
'We'd better get going,' Thelma, the mother – Wanda's daughter? Pietro's? - said, and scooped the child up. 'See you soon, Uncles.' She kissed them both on the cheek, and made her way down the steps to the street. Tony looked a little bereft. He would have liked to have had children, Steve thought. He wondered if Tony regretted it.
'What? No, of course not,' Tony said, and Steve realised he'd spoken aloud. 'Not one second of it. Except,' he hesitated, then trailed off.
'What?' Steve asked. He noticed Tony was shivering, and struggled to his feet to fetch his coat from where it was draped over the rail of the steps. Tony got cold easily these days.
'Just that time when you decided to blow yourself up in a gold mine-'
'It's been forty six years-'
'I seem to remember telling you that you were allowed to die a week after me. I changed my mind. You're not allowed to die, ever.'
'Sorry, beloved, no take backs,' Steve said, wrapping the coat carefully around Tony's shoulders. On the front, an ancient, faded blue ribbon was still pinned; so old now that nobody knew what it meant.
'Unacceptable,' Tony grumbled, resting his head against Steve's chest. Steve put his arms around him, dropping a kiss into his hair before releasing him and heading back to his own chair. 'I'm going to invent a fully automated mechanical body. We're going to live forever.'
'Alright,' Steve said. 'I'll get us some more coffee.'
Except he didn't, not right away. The sun was going down, and it was catching on Tony, making him glow like he had that night on the fourth of July. Steve knew he was an addled old romantic, and his memories weren't always where he had left them, but he remembered that right enough. The beautiful lights and this beautiful man, and the beautiful life they had built here together.
'What about you?' Tony asked, just as Steve slowly struggled to his feet again. 'Any regrets, Clementine?'
Steve wished he could have married Tony properly. He wished he'd kissed him so much sooner. He wish he'd listened about Angela instead of storming off and getting himself hurt. He regretted his actions that had led Tony to break his ribbon, that had hurt him, scared him. But that was it. He supposed it wasn't a bad tally, in a life as long as his.
'Not a one,' he said, smiling, and went to get the coffee. The soft, warm light was still inside him, and glowing as bright as ever.