The first time Tony ever heard Bucky's name, he was being shot at.
In retrospect, maybe that ought to have been a sign.
A bullet skittered off the side of the column, cracking the marble, and then two more embedded themselves in the temple wall behind Tony's head. Tony swore under his breath and kept reloading.
Even in the dimness, Captain America was visible behind the column next to Tony; the blue scales of his uniform glinted in the half-light, and the star on his chest and the bright concentric rings of his shield made him a hell of a target.
The only consolation, really, was that the AIM men, in their bright yellow gear, were even more of a target than Cap was.
It wasn't like Tony hadn't been in worse situations, but objectively, this one was pretty bad. AIM had beaten them to the temple, and though they hadn't managed to find the Wand of Watoomb yet either, the beekeepers had boxed them into this wing of the building, and they were armed. And Tony was rapidly running out of ammunition. It was a lot like the old days, actually.
On the plus side, unlike the old days, he didn't have to worry about his heart giving out on him: the repulsor pump was augmented with orichalcum now. His heart would probably keep beating long after the rest of him was gone. That was probably the only plus. Well, that and the fact that MODOK wasn't here.
More bullets were raining down on them from above. This wing of the temple was, essentially, a long gallery, and an open balcony ran along it at what would have been second-floor height, and that was where AIM was. Fortunately for Tony, AIM's... well, aim... was about as bad as their general competence at everything else, but they were bound to get lucky eventually.
Captain America, who was closer to the balcony, dropped into a half-crouch and pulled his shield over his head. Bullets pinged off the vibranium of his shield with an unearthly, too-resonant echo.
"Take 'im out, Stark!" he yelled.
The closest AIM man was a story up, had ducked behind a convenient railing, and was crouched in the shadows. Only the very top of his hood was visible. Tony was no slouch at ballistics, and if he'd had the Iron Man suit it would have been no problem to overwhelm the enemy with sheer force, but as it was, Cap was asking him to hit a spot the size of a dime with a revolver, at a distance and angle that was not particularly easy, nor particularly forgiving of mistakes. In the dark.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Tony yelled back.
Oh, he'd been looking forward to working with Captain America. He'd done some work as an engineering consultant on Project Rebirth, but somehow he'd never managed to meet the man before Rebirth, and after Rebirth they'd hurried Cap into training, handed him the Invaders, and shipped him out. So when Tony had gotten into London two days ago, he'd been overjoyed when General Fury had said that Cap was sitting around kicking his heels and waiting for the rest of his team, and Tony could borrow him for his own op in the meantime. And who wouldn't have wanted a chance to run a mission with the Army's one and only super-soldier?
Sure, Captain America wasn't part of Tony's usual team -- nor was Tony part of his -- but Tony had figured they'd probably mesh well enough for operational purposes. He'd imagined, even, that Cap might defer to him, might be a little bit in awe of him -- Tony Stark, formerly of Marvels magazine -- the way all the rest of the GIs seemed to be. Kids, all of 'em.
The reality of working with Captain America was nothing like he'd expected.
Tony didn't know who most of the rest of the Invaders were. He meant that literally: he didn't even have clearance for their files, although he knew enough to know that a few of them were more than just ordinary humans. But he'd come to see over the past few days that whoever or whatever they were, they must have been goddamn amazing, because Cap was expecting the world of Tony and acting like it was nothing.
He knew what Rebirth had done to Cap: it had made him stronger, faster. Given him better reflexes. Given him a healing factor. But it was like Cap didn't know what a regular man was capable of, and whatever he felt about Tony, awe definitely did not describe it. Maybe he'd never read Marvels. They'd reached the underground temple this morning, and Cap had spent the first twenty minutes of the assault barely remembering to look back, like he thought Tony was automatically going to be able to keep up with him, when Tony probably had a good decade on him and a heart condition to boot. Cap had assumed Tony was in places Tony hadn't gotten to yet, that he'd heard or seen things Tony could barely make out in the noise and the shadows.
But none of those assumptions had been as egregious, as out of bounds, as this.
Cap bared his teeth. "Do I look like I'm kidding? Take the shot!"
"I can't make that goddamn shot!" Tony hissed out an angry breath, in despair and defeat. "It's impossible!"
This response seemed to stun Cap. Before now, Tony hadn't actually told him no. Cap's eyes rounded, impossibly wide, his skin pale against the blue of his cowl, and his mouth fell open, dumbfounded.
"Bucky could have made that shot!" Cap called back, as if being compared unfavorably to a complete stranger was supposed to be some kind of positive motivation.
Who in God's name was Bucky?
Another shot rang out, and a chip of marble fell and sliced across Tony's forehead, bringing with it a whipcrack of bright pain and a wetness that was probably blood.
"I don't know who the hell Bucky is," Tony snarled, "but it's just you and me and a bunch of beekeepers here, and if you want to make that shot you're going to have to do it all by your goddamn self because I have six bullets left and I'm not wasting them!"
He probably could have put it more nicely, but being shot at and condescended to at the same time was not a combination that brought out the best in Tony.
Cap's eyes narrowed into a glare. "Fine!"
And then Cap stood up all the way, and he threw his shield high into the darkness like an Olympic athlete with a discus. There was a crunch and a wet thud, and then another, and then another, and as the shield sailed back into Cap's hand Tony registered, dimly, that the shooting had finally stopped.
"Jesus," Tony breathed, finally daring to move out from behind the bullet-riddled column. "If you could do that from the beginning, what the hell did you need me for?"
Hefting his shield, Cap shrugged and smiled an awkward smile. "I thought you could make the shot."
Like his mysterious Bucky could have, Cap had meant, and Tony suppressed the urge to sigh. None of that mattered, Tony told himself, sternly. They had a mission. He needed to put this stranger out of his mind. They had a Wand to find.
The Wand of Watoomb glimmered at the top of Tony's pack, and Tony grinned in satisfaction over at it. Mission accomplished. Just like the old days.
Now there was one more magical item that Victor von Doom wasn't going to be able to find and lend to the goddamn Axis. Or whatever the hell he was doing with them. Tony was looking forward to being briefed soon.
If Tony saw Doom in Latveria later this week, he was going to rub his victory right into Doom's shiny metal face.
AIM had retreated in defeat, and Tony and Cap were sprawled on the stone floor of the temple, in front of the altar where the Wand had lain. They could finally breathe. Cap had fished a ration out of his pack, and he was eating cold Spam with the grim, thin-lipped determination of a man who had to eat Spam to survive but couldn't be made to enjoy it. Tony considered the metabolism projections he'd seen from Rebirth, then passed him his chocolate ration, wordlessly. Cap's mouth twitched, a silent thank-you.
After Cap had come to understand that Tony couldn't make that shot, they'd started to work better together; Cap had started checking to see what Tony was actually doing rather than assuming he was just doing whatever it was Cap thought he should be doing, and they'd cleared the rest of the temple in record time. By the end of it, Tony had been starting to envy the Invaders for getting to run with this guy every day, because when the Army had said he was a super-soldier, they'd meant it. Cap was good. Sure, he had to eat like he was three entire horses now that they were done, but he could fight better than anyone Tony had ever seen.
And honestly, he didn't seem like a half-bad guy.
Cap pushed aside his empty Spam can and sighed.
"Look," Cap said, a little hesitantly. "I think maybe we got off on the wrong foot. Maybe we could try this again?" He held out his hand. "Steve. Steve Rogers."
Well, that was sweet. Of course, Tony was certain he wasn't supposed to know Captain America's name, but it was still sweet.
Tony shook his hand. "Pleasure to work with you, Steve. I'm Tony. Tony Stark." He winked. "I think you might have heard of me."
Steve was smiling in relief now, and he started to chuckle. "Maybe a little. That mission was straight out of Marvels, wasn't it?"
Oh, so he had heard of him.
"Essentially," Tony agreed, "but with fewer explosions than we usually had in Marvels."
Steve was still laughing. "Bucky's going to be so jealous when he finds out what I've been up to. I've read the odd issue or two in my time, Mr. St-- I mean, Tony -- but Bucky's the big Marvels fan."
There was that name again. Bucky.
Tony sat back. He stretched one leg out and drew his other leg up, knee against his chest. "So, who's Bucky? I got the feeling I ought to be taking shooting lessons from him, the way you were talking about him."
And Steve just lit up, beaming at him, his face glowing with an incredible delight -- like whoever Bucky was, he was the best guy Steve knew.
Tony considered the fact that anyone who was the best guy Captain America knew was probably pretty goddamn special.
"He's my partner," Steve said, and his smile was radiant.
Confused, Tony could only blink at him. "I thought you were with the Invaders."
Steve gave a half-shrug that could have been either yes or no, and the hand he held in the air wavered from side to side in illustration of the same equivalence. "Yeah. No. Sort of. I mean, we're both with the Invaders, me and Bucky, but we're with each other when we're not with the Invaders. He's my sidekick. We're partners."
"I didn't know you had a partner," Tony said, because he'd only heard of the team. "Just the Invaders."
Steve was still grinning. "Yeah, we try to keep it all quiet. Secret identities. But he's a good kid."
Tony stared. "He's a kid?"
The expression Steve's face bore was a strange one, twisted up in thought, as if Tony's words had made him consider a previously-immutable fact in a new light. "Well, he was when he started, back in '41. I suppose he's not really a kid anymore, though it kind of still feels like it, you know?"
Tony didn't really know, but he nodded anyway.
"He was Camp Lehigh's unofficial mascot." Steve named the camp in Virginia where Tony knew Rebirth had been based. "Poor orphan. Just a kid. Not even a soldier. And he -- it's pretty funny, now that I think of it, though of course I didn't think so back then -- he walked in on me changing." Steve brushed dirt off a scale on his uniform, and it was clear that he'd meant changing into Captain America. "And, well, there was my secret identity shot to pieces, right? I'd seen this kid around the camp, but I didn't know him well enough to say what he'd do." Steve grinned in fond reminiscence. "So, this kid, Bucky, he walked right up to me -- and, bold as brass, he told me he knew who I was. So what else was I going to do? I made him my partner."
It sounded unbelievable, but Tony wasn't about to call Captain America a liar. "And they let you?"
Steve grinned again. "And they let me, yeah." His eyes were bright. "Two years, and I haven't looked back. It's been great."
"Nice." Tony whistled. And then he breathed out and thought about the future, as far as he dared consider it -- which, these days, only went out to about Thursday. "So, me and you and the Invaders, we're probably going to see more of each other soon, huh? Maybe later this week?"
Steve gave him a narrow-eyed glare of disapproval and he opened his mouth like he was about to recite loose lips sink ships. And then he seemed to think better of it. "Latveria?"
"Latveria," Tony agreed, resigned, on a sigh. But, hey, at least they'd be there together. It would be good to have a friend, especially since Pepper and Rhodey were off in the Pacific and he didn't get to bring them this time. "Wonderful place."
"You've been?" Steve raised a curious eyebrow. "That wasn't in Marvels."
"That was after Marvels," Tony said, and he rubbed the ridged scar on the back of his right hand, a souvenir from last year when Doom had broken his armor around him. "But Victor's been trying to kill me since '39. I'm beginning to think it's personal."
Steve grimaced in sympathy. "Well, whatever Fury's got you doing to fight Doom, it'll probably be quieter than whatever he's got planned for us." He grinned. "I love my team, and I wouldn't trade 'em for the world... but people do tend to see us coming."
Tony laughed. "Let me guess. Is it because you're all literally on fire?"
He might not have known much about the Invaders, and even though their actual identities were secret, Steve was right -- it was hard to miss when the Invaders were coming in. He'd seen two of them swooping in and out of bases, firebrands in flight.
There was a dry chuckle in response, a noise of amusement and protest. "Hey, that's only Torch and Toro. The rest of us are much less... flammable. And I know you know at least one of my team isn't on fire, because I know you've met Namor before. I did catch that issue of Marvels."
Huh. Tony had never really pictured Namor as the kind of fella who played well with others. It was hard to imagine him on anyone's team. "And how is ol' fishface doing?"
Steve burst out laughing. "Yeah, he never seemed that keen on you, either."
"I," Tony said archly, drawing himself up, "am lovely and charming. And a delight to know, let me tell you."
"I'll make sure to tell Bucky how modest you are," Steve offered.
Tony grinned. "You do that." He considered what he knew about Steve, and the Torches, and Namor. Namor hadn't been very forthcoming with personal details, but Tony had always thought that there must have been something about him other than the ears, some ability that regular humans just didn't have. "So you've all got special powers, the Invaders?"
That would go a long way to explaining why Steve had expected him to be able to make that shot. He was clearly used to working with people who had superhuman abilities.
"More or less," Steve said. "I mean, there's me. There's Torch and Toro. I think Namor can do something, but he's never exactly said what. Union Jack's strong, maybe as strong as I am; he's got a serum variant." Tony raised an eyebrow, because he hadn't heard of any other Rebirth subjects -- but if this guy was British, as his code name suggested, then that explained why he hadn't heard of him. "And there's his sister, Spitfire," Steve continued. "She's a speedster. Fast. Fast like you've never seen. So, like I said, we can be quick, with her and the fliers, but we're not exactly invisible."
Tony nodded, taking this in. "Fair enough." And then he realized there was a member of the team Steve hadn't named. "And this Bucky of yours, what's he got? Superhuman sight? Superhuman aim? Superhuman reflexes?"
Steve blinked and shook his head. "None of the above. Regular human." He was still blinking, like he'd never thought of it like that, like it was strange that some ordinary kid was holding his own with superhumans. "He's just... really good."
"Wow," Tony said, impressed. "Maybe I should ask for those shooting lessons after all."
Pleased, Steve nodded; there was a huge, earnest smile on his face. "I'll definitely tell Bucky you said that. That'll make his day. Maybe his whole year. Thank you."
Tony grinned. "No problem. Hey, when your team gets in, have him drop by my lab if he wants, okay? I'll give him my autograph."
"Sure thing," Steve said, and then he paused. "Hey, Tony?"
"This was good," Steve said. "I mean, I'd heard about you, but... you're a good teammate, you know? I'm looking forward to working with you again."
Tony couldn't help but smile. It wasn't like he needed Captain America's approval, but it felt good, a warm fuzziness spreading out from beneath his ticking mechanical heart.
"That's what you get for listening to Namor," Tony told him.
Steve, of course, started laughing again, and he kept laughing as he began packing up their gear. It was time to go home.
They made it back to base the next day, the Wand of Watoomb securely stowed away in Steve's pack, and Tony could tell as soon as he caught a glimpse of their destination that the Invaders had just barely beaten them there; the skies above RAF Uxbridge were tinged red with flame as two fireballs in the shape of men swooped down, coming in for a landing.
Uxbridge wasn't one of the American bases -- but then, most of the teams that Fury ran weren't wholly American. The Howling Commandos mostly were, and Tony's team was, with the exception of Jarvis, but the Invaders sounded like they were about half and half. At any rate, the Brits clearly didn't mind, and they'd been nice enough to give Tony laboratory space on the base grounds. He was an engineer, after all, and his talents extended well beyond finding magical artifacts.
Steve tilted his head back and shaded his eyes with one red-gloved hand. He was grinning up at the skies.
"Your team, huh?" Tony asked.
Steve held one hand high in greeting, and the smaller of the two figures waved back.
They parted ways not long thereafter; since the mission had been Tony's, he was the one due to report to Fury for the debriefing, and Steve said he needed to take care of his team's billeting.
"See you around, soldier."
Steve just grinned. "Looking forward to it. You can meet the rest of the team next time."
"Sure thing," Tony said. "I should be free tonight if that Bucky of yours wants to come by. Ask anyone where my lab is."
Steve nodded like he was acknowledging receipt of an order, and he headed down the corridor. In shining red, white, and blue, shield on his back, he didn't exactly blend in with everyone else. He was probably used to it. Tony watched him until he turned the corner and was gone, and then he sighed and went to find Fury.
The debriefing was standard, as these things went; this was far from Tony's first magical artifact. Ten minutes with Fury and then another twenty minutes finding a scientist who could take the Wand into custody. Three separate forms to fill out, accompanied by Tony's fervent promises that he'd have a full written report by Wednesday. It was times like these that he really missed Marvels; at least then he hadn't had to do his own writing. Sadly, the budget now didn't stretch to getting him a chronicler.
Tony's stomach grumbled, and he belatedly realized that it was chow call, and furthermore, that Steve had eaten the last of the rations for lunch and Tony hadn't had anything since breakfast.
Time to get fed.
He fell in line with everyone else at the enlisted mess, waiting for a tray -- and then he stopped dead, staring at the man in line in front of him.
The man wasn't in uniform, and Tony supposed that was what had caught his attention first; his coat was bright blue. It was a little odd, but hell, it wasn't like Tony was in uniform either. No, what was odd was the way that this fella was carrying himself. As the line moved on, the stranger moved smoothly, gracefully, with a confidence that was out of place in an ordinary soldier. He moved like his body was a weapon and he knew it; he moved like he knew what the nearest six things in the room were that he could use to kill someone with. He moved like he had twenty years of experience as an assassin, which honestly didn't mesh with him wearing the brightest colors in the room.
And then the man turned to grab a tray. Tony caught a glimpse of him in profile, and he became infinitely more inexplicable, because he was young. Eighteen, he had to be; he couldn't be any older. He had a pretty face, bright and unlined, with that earnest cast to his features that Tony associated with thousands of new recruits -- but his gaze didn't settle, and he was taking in the room like a goddamn professional, even though there was no way he was old enough to be one. He was brown-haired, brown-eyed, maybe half a head shorter than Tony, and solidly muscled. His strange blue coat was double-breasted, and Tony didn't see anything on it that looked like a unit patch.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Tony did like a good mystery.
He realized he was staring. He realized the man was watching him.
Hastily, Tony glanced away.
When they both got their food, Tony sat down -- why not? -- across the table and one seat away from him, and Tony looked up halfway through his sandwich with the unnerving feeling that he was being watched; he'd at least had the appropriate number of years to develop those instincts.
The man in the blue coat was staring at him, his eyes narrowed, one hand rubbing at his chin in thought.
"Hey, do I know you from somewhere?" the stranger asked.
Another piece to add to the puzzle: his accent was American, through and through. If Tony had to pin him down to anywhere more specific, his vowels had a midwestern flatness. Some corn-fed boy, off to war. But nice corn-fed midwestern boys didn't walk through a room like they knew how to murder everyone in it. Not when they looked barely old enough to be out of basic, anyway.
And there was another fact to be gleaned from that statement: he knew who Tony was.
It didn't mean much, of course; Tony was famous enough, what with Marvels, that he had a decent chance of being recognized. But it was usually only the die-hard fans who ever noticed. Marvels had only had illustrations, not photographs, and it was tricky work sometimes, matching them to their actual subjects -- especially given that his fans would not have necessarily expected to find him in an enlisted mess at an RAF base. That was probably why the guy wasn't sure. But he knew he'd seen Tony, even if he didn't remember where.
Official policy, alas, was that Tony wasn't supposed to confirm it unless they already knew, and he was still supposed to be discreet about it. If he had crowds beating down his door for autographs, it would be hard for him to get his work done.
So Tony shook his head. "I don't think so," he said, and he let his face fall, the slightest moue, inviting the listener to sympathize, the gesture he'd perfected for this moment. "You know how it is, right? I've just got one of those faces. Everyone thinks they've seen me somewhere."
It was not, strictly speaking, untrue.
"Yeah." The man nodded in agreement and sighed. "I know how that is."
Tony ate the rest of his meal in silence; when he'd finally polished off every last crumb, such as it was, of his hard biscuit, he looked around to find that the man in the blue coat was already gone.
Oh, well. An unsolved mystery. He'd live. He had plenty of those to last him, anyway.
He stood up, he returned his tray, and he'd taken three steps outside when someone behind him tapped him on the shoulder.
It was the man in the blue coat. His expression now, far from stone-cold confidence, was almost shy. It was the strangest of transformations.
"Yes?" Tony asked.
"I, uh," the man said, his voice gone high with nerves. "I remembered where I saw you before. I get why you didn't want to say so in front of everyone, but you're Tony Stark from Marvels, right? That's you?"
Tony glanced around. There was no one in earshot outside of the mess, and the din within meant that no one could hear them.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, that's me."
The stranger smiled, bright and unselfconscious, and his face went from pretty to downright stunning. Tony sternly told himself not to let his mind wander any farther; his romantic life didn't need the added complication of falling for the straight ones.
"Oh," the stranger breathed. "Oh, wow. I'm sure people tell you this all the time, Mr. Stark, but it's such an honor to meet you. I'm a huge fan of your work."
Tony found he was smiling back. "It's always a pleasure to meet a fan. And call me Tony."
"Tony," the man murmured, like Tony's name was the key to happiness. His face was practically shining.
Damn, but that was a gorgeous smile. No. He needed to not think about that.
"And you are?" Tony prompted, when the man hadn't said anything more.
The stranger blinked a few times, like he was so awed that he'd forgotten his own name. "Oh! I, uh. B-- Barnes." He coughed. "James Barnes."
"Nice to meet you, James," Tony said, and he held out his hand.
James shook it, and he was still staring at Tony like he couldn't believe he wasn't dreaming. He looked like he wanted to pinch himself, just to check. "I don't mean to be a bother, and you're probably very busy, but--"
Oh, Tony knew where this one was going. "You want me to sign something?"
James nodded eagerly.
He ought to have said no -- but there was just something about this guy, and it wasn't just that he was pretty. Tony wanted to find out what in the world he was doing here, and if he really was as deadly as that earlier stance of his had suggested. And if he was, maybe he'd tell Tony where the hell he picked that up.
Okay, so maybe getting all hot and bothered by murderous competence wasn't one of Tony's more survival-oriented traits. He blamed Gialetta Nefaria for that one.
"You," Tony said, giving James his best and most dazzling grin, "have caught me at exactly the right time. You want to come by my lab?"
James was still nodding. "I need to stop by the barracks first, though."
Of course. He probably needed his issue of Marvels, so that he could have it for Tony to sign.
"Not a problem," Tony said. "I'm on the other side of the officers' mess. You can't miss it."
Amused, Tony considered the fact that he'd be meeting two fans in his lab today, assuming that Steve's Bucky came by later. It was strange, but pleasant. He usually went a while without meeting his fans, these days; he'd almost forgotten what it felt like.
"Thank you," James said, fervently. "Thank you very much."
Tony smiled to himself as he watched James bound off. It was nice to be wanted. Of course, James didn't want him like that -- but it was still nice.
Tony was pleased to find that his lab was exactly as he'd left it, empty teacups and all. After the incident where someone had taken it upon themselves to clean his chalkboards and in the process had removed several critical equations, it always paid to check for changes as soon as he got in. Everything was as it should have been: scattered spools of wire, a disassembled rifle on the main table that he'd been in the process of improving before the mission had called him away, and of course the looming, cloth-covered shape in the corner. That one hadn't even been touched; Tony could see a bit of bright metal peeking out from underneath the cloth, just the way he'd haphazardly covered it.
He was just starting to clear away the teacups -- and wishing already for coffee -- when there was a knock on the door.
"You can come on in," Tony called out. "It's not locked."
The door creaked, and then James stuck his head in. He looked the same as he had in back in the mess hall, blue coat and all, but with one addition: he was clutching a magazine, rolled up in one fist, fingers denting and crinkling the paper in a familiar nervous manner. Starstruck, once again. Tony had definitely seen the look before.
His face wasn't starstruck, though, not quite: his gaze was calm, relaxed, taking in the room as if it were another battlefield, cataloging everything instantly. And then he stepped inside and got a good look at the far end of the room, and Tony witnessed the exact moment when James stopped playing it cool and gave in to being a Marvels fan.
"Wow," James said, astonished, and he tipped his head back, staring at the looming figure whose hefty bulk was hidden under the dropcloth. A huge, beautiful smile -- goddammit, Stark, quit it -- spread across his face. "Is that-- is that really--"
"Absolutely," Tony told him, and he could feel a satisfied smile on his own face in response, so wide it hurt his face. "Do you want to see it?"
"Do I ever," James breathed.
Feeling more than a little like a stage magician, Tony got a good grip on the dropcloth with both hands and whisked it away with a flourish. Fabric fluttered and fell, and underneath it, of course, stood the Iron Man suit. Taller than Tony, the suit was massive, bristling with guns, looking every inch as deadly as it was. The thick steel was reinforced with scrounged-up tank armor, patched and scratched; it had been through as much of the war as Tony had. The new flight capabilities were a bit iffy still, but they were why he was at an RAF base rather than an Army one. The helmet was perched atop the suit body at a stern angle, its hollowed eye sockets gazing down. Tony hoped it looked goddamn terrifying. These days, it was supposed to.
James' eyes were as wide as dinner plates.
One of James' hands, the one that wasn't still clutching his copy of Marvels, was halfway extended, not quite daring to reach out all the way. "Can I?" he whispered, his voice still suffused with wonder and amazement -- and, Tony thought, a certain amount of professional appreciation.
Tony grinned. "Knock yourself out."
He watched as James extended his trembling hand to the closest part of the suit to him, laying his palm flat on the suit's pitted, scarred forearm. His touch was light, delicate, almost gentle, as if he were concerned that the suit itself could somehow feel it.
Tony couldn't help but wonder what it would be like if James touched him like that.
James' hand curved over the arm of the suit, in the direction of the guns, which he had better sense than to touch himself. Tony's regard for him ticked upward a few more notches. The guy was definitely experienced. "Machine guns?"
"Yeah." Tony nodded. "Automatic fire is the best choice for the suit. Anything else demands dexterity I really don't have with the armor on. Inelegant, I know."
"Gets the job done, though." James' sentence ended with one lifted eyebrow. It might have been a question.
"That it does," Tony agreed.
"I would have thought you'd have a Browning." He gestured again at one of the guns. "A Vickers is a... strange choice. No offense meant."
Oh, he wanted to talk shop? Be still, my heart. And he knows his machine guns, too. Tony's stomach lurched in a pleasantly nervous way that he thought he'd never feel again after the age of sixteen.
"What, strange for an American, you mean?" Tony grinned. "I was here when I started working on this version of the suit, a couple years back, before America was formally in the war. The RAF kindly loaned me some of their aircraft guns. I wasn't about to decline."
James nodded, taking this in. "Makes sense. I like what you've done to the armor, though," he added, urgently, as if he thought he might somehow still have offended Tony with that last comment and needed to make it up to him.
"It's been through a few changes over the years." Tony tried to convey reassurance with his smile. "This is, hopefully, the deadliest."
James' head tilted back as he took in the full armor once again. "Looks a little different than in Marvels."
The flight rig and the armoring had definitely changed the suit profile, but it was the sort of thing that only someone who had spent hours poring over the magazine would have known. It was awfully nice to be admired, Tony thought, and he let himself smile. "Big Marvels fan, then?"
Now James' radiant smile was turned on him, and Tony tried to tell himself that wasn't why he'd asked. The guy was a fan. Even if he wanted anything more from Tony, this would be taking advantage of him in the worst way. But goddammit, he was really, really pretty.
"Well, I haven't read every issue," James admitted, and the smile dimmed just a little. "My folks moved around a lot. I was an Army brat. So I didn't exactly manage to build up a proper collection, myself. Think I probably read most of them at a PX or a newsstand somewhere." He grimaced.
As if Tony was going to complain because James hadn't bought them all. "Hey," Tony said, gently, "I didn't mean you had to own every issue to be a real fan. I'm just glad you liked the ones you read." He glanced down at the issue in James' hand, which James seemed to have forgotten he was holding. "Is that your favorite?"
The magazine unfurled as James' grip loosened, and Tony saw a familiar cover, slightly creased: him facing off against the Mandarin. Tony had always thought that illustration had been particularly good. It was dramatic, an action pose, with him and the Mandarin locked in battle on either side of the page. Energy crackled from the Mandarin's rings all the way across the page, the light illuminating Tony as he faced him down, pistol in hand, shirt ripped open in a manner that was haphazard yet artful. Tony was of the opinion that this particular cover had made him look especially handsome.
James nodded. "I lost most of the issues I had, between the moving and the Army and, well, everything." He was looking away, almost shyly. "But this one I kept." That smile now, that shy smile, that was gorgeous. "I liked the cover the best." His thumb brushed over the picture of Tony, faded and well-worn. The smile turned fond, a wry quiver of lips.
That, now... that had promise. Didn't it? Or was Tony just imagining some feeling that wasn't there? Surely it was the height of arrogance to assume that James found him attractive just because he was a fan of Tony's work? Just because Tony wanted him to like him back?
James' smile was broader. Goddammit, he had dimples, and Tony couldn't not look at the little creased corners of his lips, the way the smile lit up his face. Tony wouldn't have said dimples would have done it for him before, but there was a first time for everything, and a cheerful, excited, almost innocent, smile on the face of a man who clearly knew his way around a firearm was, apparently, a surefire way to get Tony all worked-up.
Oh. Right. James had actually said something.
Tony opened his mouth to reply, and then found himself still unexpectedly speechless, caught out by that damn smile. "Uh," Tony said, awkwardly, mouth open, all of his usual suaveness and charm gone. "Thank you. That's, uh. Flattering."
Well, that was going to win him over for sure.
Trying to recover as best he could, the only thing Tony could manage was to fill the silence with a discreet cough. "So, uh. Did you want me to sign that?"
Now it was James who was speechless, because he just nodded again and again, still smiling, his gaze brimming with excitement, and the hand he held out with the magazine in it was trembling ever so slightly.
Tony took the magazine, laid it on the nearest flat surface, and rummaged around the detritus of the table. Finding a pen, he uncapped it, flipped the magazine open, and scrawled an inscription across the first page: To James, my number one fan. Best wishes, Tony.
He didn't quite want to hand the magazine back yet; if he did, this pleasant interlude would end, since James had no reason to be here other than that. And damn him, but he was enjoying himself. So he left the magazine open and was grateful he'd signed it in pen, as that at least bought him a few more minutes.
"Let's just let this dry for a minute, shall we?" Tony offered, waving a completely ineffectual hand over the paper.
Wide-eyed, James just nodded again. He still hadn't managed to say anything.
"I have to admit," Tony added, "it's always nice to meet a fellow countryman. You get lonely for the accent, you know?" It was stretching the truth a little, because he'd just been talking to Captain America that morning, and Steve was a New Yorker, albeit a poorer one, if he was anything -- but of course, he couldn't just go blabbing about how he'd met Captain America.
"I can imagine," James said, which at least indicated that whatever he did, he was probably mostly with Americans.
Tony leaned in, just a bit, a move into James' personal space that was not at all rebuffed; James stayed in place. That was encouraging, indeed. "So where are you from, then?"
James' face went bright in surprise, like he hadn't thought someone like Tony would care enough to ask. "I, uh. I was born in Indiana. Haven't been back for a while, though. Spent a lot of time in Virginia. I suppose I'm not from anywhere in particular."
"Citizen of the world, eh?" Tony asked. "Fair enough." And then he let himself edge in even closer. "So what's a nice Indiana boy like you doing in this man's army?"
It wasn't quite out-and-out flirtation; Tony had years of practice at being careful, at being deniable. The distance was a hint, certainly, for James to take or leave as he wanted, and the words were, of course, but Tony kept his voice even, neutral, infused with only bright curiosity and not the low smokiness that would have given him away.
The words hung between them for an instant, and then an instant longer, and then Tony saw when James figured out exactly what he meant, because James' lips curved into a dark, dangerous smile that went right through Tony in a sizzle of heat. Oh, he was interested.
"If you knew me," James murmured, gaze fixed on Tony's, "I don't think you'd ever call me nice." His smile went even sharper. "Tony."
Tony was breathless for a few seconds, assailed by sudden sheer desire. Wherever this went, he was sure it was going to be good.
"But since you asked," James continued, stepping back and changing gears, downshifting into innocence, "I'm here for the same reason I expect everyone else is. Someone's gotta show those Krauts what-for."
"Of course," Tony said, recovering. He gestured to James' jacket, barely managing not to touch him. "Interesting choice of outfit."
"That's because I'm an interesting man," James returned, voice level, giving nothing away. And then he smiled ruefully and suddenly seemed much younger. "You have to know I can't talk about the work."
Tony was beginning to wonder if James was one of Fury's men. But if so, why had he never heard of him? Tony thought he had the clearance to at least know about most of the operations Fury had a hand in, even if he was hazy on the specifics.
"I know," Tony said. "Call it an idle curiosity. You seem... highly-trained." He raised his eyebrows.
"I'd hope so," James replied, and then he relented, taking pity on Tony. "I'm a marksman. And that's all you're getting."
That explained why he looked so goddamn deadly, at least.
The flirting hadn't been unwelcome, so Tony decided to press his luck. He licked his lips and leaned in; he watched James' eyes go to his mouth. "Well, thank you," Tony said, smiling. "I'll take anything I can get."
There was another pause, a heavy one, with so much unsaid. James bit his lip. Tony's heartbeat was thunderously loud.
And then James swallowed hard. "I'm not saying no," he murmured. "Believe me, I'm not saying no. But I can't. I-- I wish I could right now. My CO's expecting me back as soon as possible, and after this we're going to be busy as hell--"
So that was a no, after all. Tony quashed the swell of disappointment as best he could. He was going to be busy too, with the Latveria mission. Not that James was going to Latveria, of course. This was their chance, disappearing.
"I understand," Tony said, and he made himself smile. "Duty calls."
"Yeah, it does," James said, with about as much reluctance as Tony felt. And then he reached around Tony and picked up the copy of Marvels. "Well, uh. Thanks for the magazine. I have to get going."
Wait. There was something Tony could do for him after all. Less euphoric than his initial plan, of course, but probably more useful in the long run. Tony was an engineer, after all, and it did come in handy.
James was already edging toward the door, magazine tucked under his arm, his steps awkward and hesitant.
"Hang on," Tony said. He snapped his fingers and turned toward the row of cabinets at the far end of the room. "Marksman. What do you use?"
James blinked at him, like this was the last question he ever expected. "What?"
"What kind of rifle?"
"Springfield Model 1903," James said, finally, as Tony flung open the nearest cabinet. It was a mess in here. Christ, where had he put them...?
That made sense, at least; Tony was pretty sure it was the standard-issue rifle for Army marksmen. "What's that chambered for, thirty-aught-six?"
He glanced over his shoulder to see James' bewildered nod.
He shoved a few boxes aside until he found the one labeled .30-06 CARTRIDGE PROTOTYPE. Opening it up, he took out a box of bullets, then he strode across the room to where James was standing by the doorway. Confused, James held out his hands for the bullets.
"Here you go," Tony said.
James stared down at his hands and then back up at Tony. "I don't understand."
"Try 'em," Tony said, and he closed James' fingers over the ammunition. "Let me know how you like them." He couldn't seem to make himself let go, and God, they were standing next to an open door. Anyone could see them. "You'll have to come back to tell me, of course."
James looked up into his eyes and smiled. "Thank you," he said. "I'll make sure to come back."
And then he dropped his hands, stepped back, and was gone down the corridor before Tony could do anything especially stupid.
Tony watched him go, smiling and smiling.
The rest of the day was a loss for getting any work done; it was ridiculous, really, how much Tony was mooning over James, considering that he didn't even know when he'd be seeing him again, if ever. There were no guarantees in life, and in wartime least of all.
Tony sighed, told himself to pay attention, and got back to working on the night-vision prototypes. With any luck, he'd have a scope by tomorrow, not that that was going to be any help in Latveria. But maybe that could save a marksman's life. Like James, he thought, and then he was off again, smiling idiotically at thin air.
It wasn't until Tony was locking everything up for the night that he realized he'd missed something; he'd told Steve to send his partner Bucky over. But he hadn't seen any sign of any Bucky; other than James, there had been no interruptions whatsoever.
Huh. Well, maybe this Bucky had changed his mind. Or maybe he would come by tomorrow. Given how highly Steve had spoken of him, Tony was looking forward to meeting him, if only to see what kind of fella was Captain America's partner. He was probably young, idealistic, just a kid, like how Steve had made him sound.
Whoever Bucky was, anyway, he couldn't possibly be as interesting as James Barnes.
Tony finished the prototype night-vision scope the next morning with minutes to spare before his meeting at 0900; as it was, he practically had to sprint across the base to get to the Operations Room. He wasn't entirely surprised to see Steve, in full Captain America garb, already waiting, standing across the table from Fury. The shield gleamed on his back. Admittedly, Tony was a little surprised not to see the rest of the Invaders; it wasn't like there wasn't room for them. Two of Fury's old Howling Commandos, Pinky and Dum-Dum, were sitting placidly at the edge of the room.
A map of the Transia-Latveria border was spread out over the plotting table, covering the usual display of southeast England and the Channel.
"Gentlemen." Fury cleared his throat. "As you are no doubt aware, our destination is Latveria." He tapped the map with one finger. "While Doctor Doom has a great personal distaste for the Nazis, neither is he our ally, and intelligence indicates that he wishes to use the general instability of the region to his advantage and, perhaps, be victorious himself."
"Doom's on Doom's side," Tony muttered. It was easy to talk about the guy in the third person like that; after all, Doom was the one who'd started it.
Fury nodded. "Exactly. To that end, as you know, he has been amassing a collection of powerful magical artifacts, but our spies have happened upon information that he has something even deadlier, fueled by a combination of scientific knowledge and those selfsame magical resources. He calls it a time platform, and our best information says it is days away from functionality." He met their eyes in turn. "He's cracked time-travel."
"My God." Steve scrubbed his hand over his face, like he was hoping that if he rubbed his eyes the situation would just go away. "If he changes the past, he can win the war."
"What war?" Tony heard his own voice come out of him, bitter and acidic. "If he changes the past, he doesn't even need a war. Kill a few key figures at the right time, and voilà. The whole world will be flying a black and green flag. All hail Doom."
"That's his plan." Fury's voice was grave. "That's why it's up to you to stop him."
"So," Dum-Dum said, from the edge of the room, "where are we going?"
Fury tapped the map again. "This is a three-pronged operation. We want to disable the time platform, destroy the material used in the creation of the physical platform itself, and either steal or destroy the scientific research enabling its creation." His finger landed on the south side of the Klyne River, on the bank opposite Doomstadt, and he eyed Dum-Dum and Pinky. "Dugan, Pinkerton. You two and the rest of the Howling Commandos will be responsible for the destruction of the physical resources; they're in a warehouse just outside Doomstadt."
Pinky nodded. "Yes, sir."
And then Fury tapped the center of Doomstadt itself, and Tony winced. That was going to be a major assault, right there. "Cap, you and the Invaders are heading to the capital to disable the time platform. We have no direct confirmation of the time platform's location, but our agents' best guess puts it there. You'll parachute in."
"Yes, sir." Steve's jaw twitched, determined.
"And as a reminder to you and the other non-flying members of your team," Fury said, with as much delicacy as he could muster, which was to say not much, "please actually use the parachutes this time. No one wants to scrape what's left of you and Bucky off the ramparts of Castle Doom."
Steve's mouth twisted up. "That was one time," he said, and Tony hid a laugh behind a cough, because Captain America was clearly a man after his own heart.
"Nevertheless," Fury said, dryly, and he left it at that.
"And me?" Tony asked.
Fury tapped something that looked like the edge of Doomwood Forest. At least it wasn't a city. "Stark, you're the genius, so you're going after the scientific material. There's a small lab here, in a bunker at the base of Mount Victorum. You'll parachute in too. No need to be Iron Man. Get in, get out, be quick, don't get caught. Steal the data if you can, destroy it if you can't."
Steve frowned. "Wait, who's going with him?"
"No one," Fury said. His eye squinted. "Surveillance indicates it's all Doombots there, guarding a minor cache of records. Stark can handle it."
"Oh, come on," Steve said. "At least send someone in with him."
Tony was simultaneously touched and annoyed. Of course he could handle it, but it was nice not to be the only one thinking that these operations ran better with some backup. He definitely missed Rhodey, Jarvis, and Pepper.
"Captain," Fury said, sternly. "He'll be fine." He turned to Tony. "Stark, prep your gear. You're flying to our staging point in Transia in an hour, and you're getting dropped in tonight. Your part of the mission is going to be the quietest, so you're going first. The idea is to get out with the data before the Latverians find out what else is hitting them."
Tony nodded. "Yes, sir."
As he turned toward the door, Steve and Fury were still arguing... about him.
"General, please," Steve was saying. "At least reconsider giving him backup."
God, Steve was persistent, Tony thought, and he sighed, turned away, and headed out the door. He paused on the threshold, because they were still talking.
"And just where do you think I'm going to find someone who can head to Latveria in an hour?"
"Give him one of the Invaders, then," Steve said, with more stubbornness than Tony thought he'd heard in any other human being's voice in his entire life. "Bucky would go with him. Any of my team would go."
Tony decided that except Namor was not a helpful comment.
Fury sighed. "I am not giving him an Invader. You need your entire team, son. You're going to Castle Doom. Stark's just going to the woods."
And that was the last thing Tony heard before he shut the door behind himself. He had a mission to prepare for, after all.
It didn't matter. Tony could handle it by himself. Of course he could.
One forest, Tony was rapidly discovering, was very much like another.
Everything so far had gone according to plan, which for him was a refreshingly different experience. He'd packed, flown into Transia, and then waited patiently for sunset so he could be dropped on the other side of the Latverian border in the dark. His pilot had been, oddly enough, a woman; her nametag proclaimed her to be "C. Danvers." She hadn't been in a WASP uniform, which, given everyone else Fury employed, was par for the course around here; instead, she'd been wearing blue jeans and a faded red shirt with an odd eight-pointed star pin. She'd been no-nonsense, hardly wanting even to make conversation, but she'd been damn good at her job, evading Latverian searchlights unerringly.
"After this you're on your own until tomorrow morning," Danvers had yelled over the roar of the engine. "Be in that field west of the forest for pickup at 0600. You don't show, I'm not waiting around for you."
Tony had nodded, grabbed his pack, checked his chute straps once more, and jumped out into the darkness.
And now he was down here. He'd finished hiding the parachute, and now he was crouched under a tree rummaging through his pack, looking for the map and his flashlight. The bunker he needed to infiltrate was just outside the forest, probably on the other side of the next hill or so, but he really ought to double-check that before he headed in.
His groping fingers closed around something cylindrical -- the flashlight? Huh, no, that was the prototype scope. Why the hell had he packed that? He didn't even have a rifle, just his usual revolver. He was just going to blame his packing list on his completely distracted thoughts lately. He didn't have time for this. He needed to figure out where he was and get moving.
Focus, Stark, he told himself. You're going to get yourself killed.
He had finally located the flashlight when he heard it -- the soft, yet unmistakable, sound of footsteps, crunching over twigs and rustling through leaves and grasses. Behind him. Not too far away. Coming closer.
There was someone else here.
His gun was in his hand in an instant, but save for that movement, the rest of Tony's body was frozen. He was in the shadows. He was wearing a dark coat. There was every possibility that whoever was out there simply hadn't seen him. And there was only one of them; Tony was certain of that.
He could definitely take out one Latverian soldier by himself, if it came to that.
Gun at the ready, Tony turned around and took in the landscape behind him. He was at the edge of a tiny clearing; there was light in the center, but at the far end, three huge gnarled oaks stood, their branches arching upwards, covering the ground in leaf-spattered shadow. It was as dark as sin back there.
And then something shifted behind the middle tree. Metal glinted in the darkness. Someone was moving.
If they hadn't taken a shot yet, Tony wasn't about to let the opportunity pass him by.
He leveled his gun at the point of light. At this distance, a hit would be lethal.
"Vlashtoni," Tony called out, and he really wished that he'd brushed up on his Latverian. "Nakani." He repeated himself in English. "Don't move. Surrender." Unfortunately that was his entire Latverian vocabulary done for, but luckily the language of firearms was universal. He gestured with his free hand, keeping his gun trained on the shadows. "Put your hands in the air and come out here into the light where I can see you."
Tony breathed in and out, held the gun steady--
--and James Barnes stepped out from behind the tree and into the middle of the clearing, his palms raised to the sky, a rifle slung across his back and a devil-may-care grin on his face.
"Jesus fucking Christ," Tony blurted out, as dizzying relief swamped him and he lowered his gun as fast as he could, his arm sagging down. "I could have killed you. What in God's name are you doing here?"
James was only a few steps away. Tony desperately wanted to close the distance between them and sweep him up into his arms in sheer joy that they were both alive and that Tony hadn't accidentally shot him. But he had a mission.
Still grinning at him, James lowered his hands. "Same thing you are, actually. You didn't hear?"
"Didn't hear what?"
"Captain America threw a fit about you coming out here all by your lonesome." James' smile was crooked, and he tossed off the name Captain America without any of the awe that Tony was used to hearing, which was more than a little bit odd. "The general finally agreed to send someone with you. I volunteered." His grin went even broader, a smile limned with promise. "But by the time Fury had changed his mind, you were already gone. So I've been chasing you across Europe all day."
Tony had a very keen sense of what might have been called paranoia, had he not been born into a world where they really were, as the saying went, out to get him. Everything James said could have been true, and it was also exactly what a spy would have said. He'd received no messages, but James had even come with a plausible story as to why there hadn't been any. And James was still wearing that same blue coat. Not a uniform.
And damn him if he wasn't going to trust the guy anyway.
Tony exhaled hard. "Okay. Were you briefed on the mission?"
"More or less." James shrugged; the rifle across his back shifted with the movement. "You're supposed to get into a base and steal some files. I'm here to assist in whatever capacity you deem necessary, and, I quote, 'keep you from getting your fool head blown off by a robot.'" He grinned.
Well, that sure sounded like Fury.
Tony nodded. "All right. I'm pretty sure I can find a use for you," he said, and he waggled his eyebrows just to watch James smile and glance away.
Right. Later. After the mission.
The base was where the map had said it would be, nestled at the foot of Mount Victorum. Not much was visible except an ugly concrete door set into the stone; Tony supposed that the base itself was carved into the mountain. If the map was anything to go by, it wasn't large; it was just a tiny storage cache for records. Still, the door itself was bounded by a high chain-link fence, a few dim industrial lights... and a pair of green-cloaked figures, pacing back and forth across the entrance with a step too regular to be human. Even at this distance, Tony could tell exactly what they were.
He'd been expecting only one of them, if any.
Tony swore under his breath and crawled back down the ridge on his elbows and knees to where James was waiting behind a fallen log.
James squinted at him in the dimness. "Is there a problem?"
"Two Doombots," Tony said. "Which is a problem because I thought there'd be only one." James had probably never seen Doombots before -- lucky him. "They have a radio link to the local alarm system, and they can respond faster than any human can. If there were only one, we could take it down and it wouldn't be able to trigger the alarm. But with two--"
James got it instantly; God, but Tony loved the smart ones, even if the situation, admittedly, could have been better. "We get rid of one, and the other one sets off the alarm."
"Yeah." Tony nodded. "And they're out of accurate handgun range, for me at least. You've got the only rifle. And the radio signal goes off faster than you can reload."
And, unlike humans, Doombots wouldn't get tired or need to change shifts. They couldn't wait the Doombots out.
James frowned. "Let me take a look."
Tony watched as James crawled up the hill to the spot where Tony had lain. He moved the same way he had at the mess, the way that had drawn Tony's attention because of how practiced it was. He was cool, calm, controlled; everything in him said that this was far from his first mission. Once again, Tony wondered who the hell James Barnes was and how in God's name someone who couldn't be much older than eighteen had this much experience, as he watched James peer over the crest of the ridge with a deadly economy of movement.
He also looked damn good doing it, but Tony put that thought aside. Later. This mission was a milk run. All he had to do was grab some files. It certainly hadn't merited a sidekick. Not that he was complaining about having James along. Maybe Fury would let him borrow James again sometime...?
Tony was drawn out of his thoughts as James slid back down the hill and rejoined him on the other side of the log.
"I've got good news and bad news." James smiled a tight, focused smile. "Which do you want first?"
Tony lifted an eyebrow. "Good, please."
"Theoretically," James said, "I can solve the radio signal problem. I can take them both out in one shot. They won't know what hit 'em."
It sounded impossible. "How?"
James' hands sketched the paths of the sentries in the air between them; the two Doombots were at opposite ends of a line, as they each marched from one end of the building to the other. Their paths crossed in the middle, in front of the door, and this was where James' hands stopped moving. One Doombot would be right in front of the other.
Tony stared. Surely they were too far. James would need to be a better marksman than anyone alive. "You can make that? At this distance?"
"Sort of," James said. "That's where the bad news comes in."
Tony motioned him to continue.
"The distance isn't the problem." James said it without any modesty, like this was something he could of course handle, like he expected himself to make impossible shots; it kind of reminded Tony of that mission with Captain America a few days ago. "The problem is that I can't guarantee the path of the bullet after it hits the first robot. Not with the ammunition I've got on me. It might tumble, especially going through metal. And the other problem is that even with the light by the building, it's not quite bright enough. There are too many shadows by the door."
Tony could feel himself grinning wide. "I can help you out there. With both of those issues, actually."
Now it was James' turn to stare at him. "What do you mean?"
"Have you still got those bullets I gave you the other day?"
"Use them. This is what they're for. And as for the other problem--" Tony rummaged through his pack and found the scope-- "take this."
Squinting, James turned the scope over in his hands. "What's this?"
"Night vision scope." Tony tried to sound casual about it.
The nonchalance didn't work; James gaped. Clearly he knew what the implications were as well as Tony did. "You-- I heard they were working on it, but I heard the prototypes were huge. Impractical for the field, they said. Massive batteries." He looked skeptically at the tube in his hand like he was trying to figure out where the rest of it was. "What the hell is the power source?"
A little scrap of orichalcum. The same thing that keeps my heart beating.
Tony winked. "I'm afraid that's classified."
"Ain't that always the way," James opined, and then he swung the rifle off his back and got to work fitting the scope to it.
Crouching on the hillside a few feet behind him, Tony watched James set up for the shot. He'd gotten the rifle propped up, he'd checked the wind, he'd calibrated and recalibrated the scope as he frowned at the notebook next to him. It was a slow process, but Tony wasn't about to rush him.
The shot still seemed impossible, but James had sworn he could make it. Tony trusted him. Tony had to trust him.
James peered through the scope again and then lifted his head and grinned back at Tony. "This is amazing, by the way. Can I keep this?"
He could make another one for Fury. "Sure," Tony said. "It's yours."
James' grin was even wider. And then his gaze went intent again, as he loaded a single bullet into the rifle. It was one of the bullets Tony had given to him. James stretched out along the hillside, nestling down into the scrubby grasses, nearly invisible in the darkness as he peered through the scope. He was in position. His finger rested against the trigger guard.
"Almost there," James murmured. "Next pass."
The Doombots had just crossed paths and were heading away from each other, marching toward opposite ends of the front of the building. At the end of the pattern they stopped and turned, precisely in sync, the exact way they had been every other time. There was a certain advantage to robots in these circumstances, Tony supposed. They were a hundred percent predictable.
James' finger slipped to the trigger as the Doombots paced toward each other. His breathing was slow and regular. In. Out. In. Out. In. The Doombots were seconds away from each other.
James squeezed the trigger.
The crack of the bullet was the only sound in the still night. Before Tony could blink, the building in front of them went bright as the Doombots arced with electricity, sparks fountaining every which way. There was a sizzle, a crackle, and two heavy thuds. The Doombots were down.
Tony breathed out, a shaking breath, and he waited. There was no movement. No sign of an alarm.
"You did it!" Tony breathed, in jubilation, and he put a congratulatory hand on James' shoulder.
For a second, James leaned into the touch, and Tony went warm all over.
James' smile was oddly shy. "Aww, it was nothing," he said. He was already pushing himself up and breaking the rifle and scope down, quick movements familiar enough to be rote. "Are we going inside now?"
"We?" Tony shook his head. "We aren't doing anything. I'm going inside. You're staying here."
James' face twisted up. "But--"
"Intelligence said those were the only guards," Tony told him. "This is a teeny-tiny records cache. I'm just going to grab some files. I can do that by myself. It's more important that you stay out here, in case some other Latverians decide to take an interest in the place. I need you to keep the escape route clear."
"But nothing," Tony said. "I'll be fine." He was going to be fine. He was. But they should probably have a contingency plan anyway. "And if I'm not back in half an hour, get out of here, okay? No heroics. We don't need two people getting killed."
James looked as if he wanted to protest, but then he shut his mouth and nodded. "Yessir."
"Good," Tony said, and then he stood up and unholstered his revolver. "See you in a bit."
Everything went wrong from the instant Tony stepped inside.
On the other side of the door was a wide corridor, stretching hundreds of feet into the mountain. Other corridors criss-crossed it, with doors opening to who-knows-where. There were two separate stairwells down at least ten feet away.
This wasn't the base that had been in the plans. The intelligence had been all wrong. This place was massive. Tony considered ducking back out and getting James to come in with him, but that plan was promptly abandoned as a squad of four Doombots crossed the nearest corridor junction and Tony hastily flattened himself against a wall and held his breath as they walked by, cloaks swishing on the floor.
That had been close. And they were definitely going to notice if Tony opened the front door and ran back outside. It was a miracle he hadn't been caught on the way in.
No, he had already committed to this. He was going to have to find those files all by himself.
He was Tony Stark of Marvels. He could do this, he told himself.
He glanced up and down the corridor, got a better grip on his gun, and ran for the nearest stairwell.
Three floors down, he found something even worse.
The Doombots had become more numerous with every floor that he descended, or so his hasty glances through the window set into each door revealed. Luckily, none of them had noticed him, but he knew it was only a matter of time.
This floor was the bottom of the stairwell, helpfully labeled a dozen different things in Latverian, which Tony mostly couldn't read, but he was pretty sure one of those words was time. Maybe temporal. Something like that. Was this where they were keeping the files for the time-travel research?
Well, it was the only thing he had to go on.
Peering through the window, Tony waited until the coast was clear, counting at least ten Doombots, who hurried busily on without looking up. Sheesh. This definitely had to be something important.
He eased the door open, silently, and found, to his surprise, that there was a red stripe painted on the linoleum floor, highlighting a path down the closest corridor and turning left at a junction, disappearing further into the bowels of the base.
"Don't mind if I do," Tony muttered, and he edged forward, down his own personal yellow brick road.
Four turns and three squads of Doombots later -- one group of them had even been wearing lab coats, and Tony was going to appreciate the hilarity of that image at some point later -- the line on the floor dead-ended at a door next to a wall of windows.
Tony peered through the windows, and for an instant he wondered if his brand-new heart was going to stop.
The space beyond was huge, cavernous. On the other side of the door was a lattice of catwalks stretching across the room, with stairs that led several flights down to the floor. And at the bottom, there was--
A huge machine, a raised platform, stood in the middle of the room. All sorts of antennas and generators were placed about it, as if it were the focal point for vast and unknown energies. There were banks and banks of controls, levers and buttons. Everything seemed to be switched off, which was probably good for Tony if not for Doom. Doombots bustled back and forth. This was where they were all going. It had to be. There were at least fifty of them here, working on this machine.
And there was a sign next to it, in angular Latverian, and in English underneath: TIME PLATFORM.
"Holy shit," Tony whispered.
Doom's time platform wasn't in Doomstadt. Doom's time platform was right fucking here. And he was the only one who could stop it.
There was nothing else to do.
Tony opened the door.
A klaxon whooped.
Goddammit, wrong move, Tony thought, and he threw himself face-down on the catwalk as a hail of bullets passed through the space where his head had been.
Three Doombots were running up the stairs toward him, and Tony rose to his feet and emptied his revolver into the chest of the first one. It didn't so much as slow down.
This is a really embarrassing way to die, Tony thought, and God, he wished he hadn't forbidden James to come with him. He could have used the help. Fury had been right. He was going to get his fool head blown off by a robot after all. What a way to go.
Then something hit him from behind, the world went dark, and Tony didn't think anything else.
Consciousness came back slowly and hazily. Tony's head was killing him. He was lying on his back on an unyielding surface, probably metal, and he could feel the pressure of cuffs at his ankles and wrists; his arms were stretched over his head, pinned above him. He felt colder than he'd been; he didn't think he was wearing his coat anymore. His pack was gone, of course, and he'd definitely been disarmed. He couldn't feel the familiar weight on his leg where his boot knives should have been, so he was betting they'd found all the knives too. Experimentally, he tested the restraints, rattling the cuffs; there was almost no give.
The night just kept getting better and better.
It had to have been at least half an hour by now. James would already have left.
At least James was going to be all right, Tony told himself. Only Tony was going to pay the price for his mistake. That was the way it should be.
Of course, it wasn't a price Tony was looking forward to paying, but no one had ever promised him an easy death.
"Mr. Stark," an all-too-familiar voice said. "How good of you to join us."
And the way he said it, that had to be the royal we.
Tony opened his eyes, and yep, he was on a table, and another green-cloaked figure stood over him. Like all the Doombots, it wore an armored mask, as well as gauntlets and a familiar, identical outfit. But the brown eyes behind the mask now were bright with an awful, vicious intelligence, an indescribable spark of life that no robot could counterfeit. Tony could see the edges of the scars beginning just under those brown eyes, scars upon scars over insensate flesh.
This was no Doombot. This was the real thing. Victor von Doom.
"Victor!" Tony said, brightly, smiling his best I acknowledge you've chained me to a table but I don't see why I shouldn't flirt with you especially since I know how much you hate it smile. "Fancy meeting you here. How's tricks?"
It was of course impossible to tell, on account of the mask, but Tony knew Doom was scowling. "Do not sully Doom's name with your unworthy mouth," Doom intoned. "Filthy thief."
It was clearly going to be one of those nights.
"My mouth?" Tony retorted. "How about your mouth? You kiss your mother with that mouth? Oh, that's right, you can't, because she's trapped in hell for all eternity--"
The impact of Doom's gauntleted fist against his face ripped his cheek open, made his ears ring, and left him gasping, breathless with the pain.
Okay, maybe Tony had deserved that one.
"Silence!" Doom snapped. He paused and drew himself up; Tony waited, and Doom continued on, at a more reasonable volume. "Welcome once again to Latveria, Mr. Stark. As you will very shortly give your life in the furtherance of Latveria's glory, it pleases me to inform you of the sacrifice you will make."
"Aww," Tony said. "You shouldn't have. I mean that," he added. "You really shouldn't have."
Doom ignored him.
"It was easy to feed information to your spies," Doom said, "and this turned out better than I could have hoped. Your Allies believe my time platform is in Doomstadt, and they have sent their best team; Captain America and his partner Bucky will meet heavy resistance and, tragically, find no sign of the machine as they perish, alongside the rest of their Invaders. Meanwhile, your superiors have sent a single man to the true location of my time platform. And you, you are the exact man I needed to see, Mr. Stark. The answer to my prayers, as it were."
Tony plastered another smile on his face. At least he was going to die pretty. "I never dreamed you felt this way about me, Victor."
Doom glared at him... and started to unbutton Tony's shirt.
Well, this was confusing.
"Um," Tony said.
Lacking dexterity, Doom's gauntleted fingers fumbled with the buttons, which meant that Tony had plenty of time to wonder what the hell Doom was thinking as he gently undid one button after another. Finally, Tony's shirt fell open, exposing a wide strip of skin from his neck to his waist.
Doom tapped two metallic fingers... on the casing of the repulsor pump, over Tony's heart. The sound echoed.
Oh, God, no.
"Sadly," Doom said, "the time platform, though it is in its final stages of completion, lacks one critical element: a reliable power source. Do you have any idea, Mr. Stark, what sort of material might serve as a power source for such a machine?"
It was all perfectly, horribly clear.
"Orichalcum," Tony whispered.
Doom tapped Tony's chest again. The sound this time had an awful finality. "Exactly so," Doom said, his voice brisk. He clicked his tongue. "And, Mr. Stark, you have selfishly used the world's only known supply of orichalcum to provide a battery for your own pathetic heart. No, no, this simply will not do."
Tony swallowed hard.
"Your so-called repulsor pump will be removed, and the orichalcum within it will be used to power the time platform," Doom said. "I expect your heart to fail shortly thereafter. You may take comfort in the fact that your death will serve the greater glory of Latveria."
"Strangely," Tony said, "I'm not finding that very reassuring."
Doom gave him a contemptuous glance, as if even Tony's protests were beneath him, and he stepped back. "My presence is now required in Doomstadt; I shall inform Captain America and his associates of their failure, and, as a courtesy, of your impending demise." He raised a hand toward the door, beckoning. "My Doombots will perform the operation momentarily."
Doom vanished in a flash of green light.
Tony tried to lift his head and look around. Two Doombots were walking toward him. One was holding a tray of surgical instruments.
He supposed there wouldn't be much in the way of anesthetic.
He didn't see how he was going to get out of this.
"Come on," Tony told the Doombots, as they moved to stand next to him, one on either side of the table. The one on his left put the tray down. A row of scalpels gleamed, and next to them lay a hacksaw. "Really? I don't even rate being killed by the real Doctor Doom?"
The Doombots ignored him, which was probably what the real Doom would have done.
Well, Tony thought, all in all, it had been a pretty good life. He'd had a lot of adventures, he'd met some wonderful people, and he'd even saved the world a couple times, which was more than most people could hope for, certainly. He was going to miss it, though.
He just hoped James had gotten out safely.
The Doombot on his left picked up a scalpel from the tray and raised it high--
--and then its head exploded in a shower of metal.
Tony blinked, confused.
From somewhere behind his head, in the direction of the doorway, there came the most beautiful sound in the world: a shotgun being racked. The gunman had stepped closer now, and the noise of the shotgun going off again was thunderously loud. The second Doombot was blown into two pieces; its entire top half was on the floor, and the bottom half of it twitched uselessly and fell over.
There was the sound of footsteps, and then James was standing next to him. He was wearing Tony's pack, the one Doom had taken from him, and he was holding a shotgun in his hands and grinning down at him in triumph.
This was the exact moment when Tony fell in love with him.
"So when I said no heroics," Tony began, weakly.
James coughed. "You didn't specifically say I shouldn't break in and rescue you," he said, glancing away nervously as he talked. Like he thought Tony was actually objecting.
Tony smiled up at him. "Thank you."
James' smile in return was once again gorgeous. "Anytime."
If he hadn't already fallen in love with James just then, he would have fallen in love twenty seconds later, when it turned out that James had a set of lockpicks. James abandoned his stolen shotgun and freed Tony. He picked up his rifle, stashed just outside the door, and they ran for it.
Speed was always a good idea, even though there wasn't that much of a need to hurry anymore; the floor was covered in the twitching, sparking remains of Doombots. James had been busy.
Tony figured it probably wasn't normal that that was so attractive. He didn't really care.
"Hold on," Tony said, putting a restraining hand on James' arm as he was about to head back to the stairwell. "Can we make a stop first? There's something I need to destroy."
James grinned the gleeful grin of someone who appreciated mayhem as much as Tony did. "Not a problem."
Tony was definitely going to need to see this guy again. And not just in his bed.
Tony's coat never turned up as they ran back through the base, but, as it happened, his pack still had explosives in it. It was convenient, he mused, as he set the last of the charges around the time platform, that removing the explosives gave him just enough room to fill the pack with the platform's design schematics, which had been helpfully stored next to its controls.
Spare gun from his pack. Check. Detonator wired to timer. Check. Five minutes on the clock. Check.
"Time to get out of here!" he yelled up at James, who was standing on the catwalk by the door and picking off every Doombot who walked past.
James glanced back and nodded, then took two more shots without blinking. "Come on up!" he yelled. "I'll cover you!"
The timer started ticking, and Tony hoisted his pack onto his shoulder and they ran for freedom.
Thirteen more Doombots and exactly four minutes and forty-seven seconds later, they hit daylight -- well, moonlight -- and threw themselves over the ridge next to the base's entrance.
"Down, down, down!" Tony yelled, and he dragged James backwards, even further down the slope, and he threw himself over him for good measure. He expected James to tense under him, to protest, to shove him off, but James just went slack and trusting, like he'd decided to let Tony do what he wanted--
There was enough adrenaline coursing through Tony's body now to ensure that certain parts of him were definitely in favor of that thought.
And then the night sky lit up as a giant fireball blossomed from the building. They must have gotten really lucky with the explosion, Tony thought, and he watched the remainder of the building cave in slowly, like an implosion, as it all fell into the crater underground that Tony had made of the time platform.
Slowly, reluctantly, he let James go.
They were sitting next to each other, the world around them silent save for the occasional creaking as other parts of the base collapsed inward. Tony sat up and tilted his head back at the night sky, spattered with stars. It was a clear night, a pretty night, the kind of night that made Tony remember why he'd wanted to be an adventurer: you could see forever. A universe of possibilities.
"You think that's going to tip Doctor Doom off?" James ventured, after a contemplative silence.
"Eh." Tony shrugged. "He came by to check on me, and he said he was going back to Doomstadt. I think he's going to have his hands full there with Captain America. Cap'll show him."
From the way Steve had talked about his partner, Bucky, Tony wasn't worried -- if Steve had a guy as good as that with him, he was going to be all right. Not to mention that he had the rest of the Invaders backing him up.
"Yeah," James agreed. "I'm sure Cap will be fine on his own." He blew out a breath and smiled ruefully. "Hard not to be concerned, though, just a bit, you know?"
Tony wondered what on his own was supposed to mean. Did James think Steve was there by himself? Maybe James didn't know about the Invaders? Well, if he wasn't cleared to know about the team, Tony wasn't allowed to tell him.
"Yeah, I know," Tony said, and then he figured he'd try to be reassuring. "But Cap knows what he's doing. And so he's going to keep Doom busy, and we'll be long gone by the time Doom thinks to come back here."
Tony glanced at his watch. 0400. Two hours until Danvers' pickup, and the hike to the rendezvous point would probably be a good hour or so. It was really time to get up and get moving.
But then he glanced over, and he saw James studying him in the starlight, as the tiniest smile curled around James' lips, like he liked what he saw. Another man in this situation might have called it the imp of the perverse, but looking at him, Tony couldn't resist giving voice to the feeling growing within him, that warm and welcome awareness of mutual attraction.
Surely there wasn't any harm in spending a few more minutes under the stars with a pretty young man. It was likely to be the most privacy they would ever have. And James liked him back. He knew it.
"So," Tony murmured, smiling, "is this the best first date you've ever been on, or what?"
James let out a startled laugh. His eyes were bright and his cheeks were suffused with an even brighter red. God, he was blushing. He was a goddamn special-ops marksman and he was blushing and it probably shouldn't have been as attractive as it was. But God Almighty, did it ever do something for Tony. Tony wanted to say everything he could to make James keep looking at him like that.
And then James' gaze went away from Tony, thoughtfully, like he was considering the question on its own merits, as something other than a prelude to romance.
"I don't know if you can understand," James said, softly, "if your life is like this, but maybe you have a friend, say. Best friend. Guy you've known for years. The guy who knows you best out of anyone in all the world. You're closer to him than anyone else. A comrade-in-arms. And everyone knows him, and everyone knows you because of him. And the way he thinks of you -- well, it used to be right. It used to be you. But you think, maybe, he looks at you and he sees you the way you were when he met you, the way you used to be. And you've changed, but he's never going to see that. He can only see you the way he first saw you."
Unbidden, Rhodey came to his mind, when Rhodey had told him back in '39, in the middle of the Zemo mess, that he was putting in for a transfer, that Tony had changed, that he used to be different. That he was running away. And then the war had happened, and all their lives had changed again. But Rhodey had seen it in him, the way he really was. The fear, before he'd found the orichalcum and fixed his heart, before he'd saved himself. The cowardice. The selfishness. But if he hadn't had a friend like Rhodey, he would have fooled everyone. Tony Stark and his brave face, Tony Stark and his mask. No one would have known the truth. No one knew James' truth.
"I think I understand."
James gave a tiny, jerky nod. "And in work like mine," he added, "you keep secrets. You don't get a lot of opportunity to... meet people. Not people who are allowed to know you. Not like you want them to know you. The victory girls, they're never going to find out about something like this." He gestured in the direction of the base. "And even if they could, they wouldn't really want to know. And you wouldn't want them to." He exhaled hard. "So it's just you, and the one guy who understands you, except he-- he doesn't anymore, not really."
James was looking away from him, still, his gaze faraway, tinged with sadness.
"Sounds rough," Tony said, because what else could he say?
And James' eyes went to Tony, then, and a smile began to spread across his face, slowly brightening, like the way the sky lightened into dawn. A new sunrise.
"And then there's you," James whispered. "And you... I think you see me. I think you actually see me. I don't think anyone else has, not like this. To be honest, it scares me a little. But it's good. It's really good." He smiled. "So, yeah. Best first date ever."
Silence hung between them, as Tony tried to figure out what the hell he could say that would even remotely approach that. He ran his hand through his hair. "Uh. Wow," Tony said. "I... thank you? I don't even know what to say."
James bit his lip. "Sorry. Was that too much?"
"Not too much," Tony assured him, and then he took a breath and went for it. "I was just-- I was wondering if you'd mind me kissing you?"
Christ, but he was nervous about this. It was like being a teenager again.
James grinned that crooked grin of his, the one that was rapidly becoming familiar. "I was really hoping you would."
Tony leaned in, and James mirrored him. James' lips were parted, ever so slightly. God, he was beautiful. Tony's senses were filled with him; there was nothing in the world but him. The entire world was poised, waiting, as this moment of anticipation stretched out into infinity--
"Aww, fuck," James snarled.
The world fragmented into pieces of disjointed perception. James was jerking backwards, away from Tony. His hands were at Tony's waist, and then Tony's gun -- Tony's gun? -- was in James' hands, and James was bracing his arms on Tony's shoulder in the most unorthodox of firing stances.
The gun went off somewhere behind Tony's head, violently loud, and as Tony twisted around and dropped back while James' hands shuddered with the recoil, he saw a Doombot toppling over not ten feet away, and two more behind it, coming up from the remains of the base.
James pressed the gun into Tony's hand and unslung his rifle.
Now, clearly, was not the time for kissing.
"I think we should go now," James said, very calmly, pushing more ammunition into his rifle without looking at what his hands were doing.
Tony pushed himself to his feet, picked up his pack, and they ran into the forest together.
They stood at the edge of the field at 0600, watching Danvers' plane descend. They'd left five more Doombots scattered through the forest, but Tony was confident now that they'd gotten them all. A success.
A success on several fronts, really, he thought, considering James' profile in the dawn light.
"I'll make it up to you," Tony murmured. "Come find me when we get back."
James didn't say anything, but he grinned, wide and beautiful, and Tony knew that was a yes.
The corridor heading to Fury's temporary office at Uxbridge was deserted, except for a familiar red, white, and blue figure about twenty feet ahead of Tony and James, walking rapidly down the hall ahead of them, like he had somewhere to be. Probably Fury's office.
Tony lengthened his stride -- he had longer legs than James, so he quickly pulled in front of him -- until he was within shouting distance of Steve.
"Hey, Cap!" he called out, and Steve wobbled to a halt. "Hell of a mission, huh?"
Steve turned around, astonishment on his face. "Tony! Last I heard, you were dead." He frowned. "That was what Doom was claiming, anyhow."
Tony laughed. "Yeah, well, reports of my death, greatly exaggerated, yadda yadda yadda."
Steve was still frowning at him. No, wait, at his cheekbone, where Doom had struck him. Tony hadn't had the chance to look in a mirror, but he suspected from Steve's face that he looked like shit. Steve squinted at him. "Looks like you had a wild night."
"The usual." Tony let the corners of his mouth turn up, his best daring-adventurer rakish smile. "You know. Got captured. Shot some robots. Blew up a building. Stole some papers. Saved the world."
Steve grinned, and then his gaze went past Tony, to where James was standing at his shoulder, and he grinned even wider.
"And, hey," Steve said, his voice jovial, "I see Bucky caught up with you after all."
The world crashed to a halt.
Tony stopped dead in the middle of the corridor. For an instant every sound went away, save for the frantic pounding of his orichalcum-enhanced heart, roaring in his ears.
James was Bucky? This man, this mysterious sharpshooter -- he was Captain America's sidekick?
Steve had made it sound like Bucky was barely more than a child. An innocent, as much as anyone in the middle of a war could be. A kid. Talented, sure, but still a kid. He'd made it sound like he was Bucky's protector, his friend, his surrogate older brother. He hadn't said--
Well, he hadn't said Bucky was so goddamn attractive.
Tony had flirted with Captain America's kid sidekick. Tony had nearly kissed Captain America's kid sidekick. Tony had entertained a variety of exceedingly inappropriate thoughts about Captain America's kid sidekick.
Oh my God, Captain America is going to kick my ass, Tony thought, and it was all he could think. He's going to kill me if he finds out.
Tony spun around. James -- Bucky? -- was staring at him in utter confusion. Like he didn't understand why this should be a surprise.
"You're Bucky?" Tony asked, numbly. It was the only thing he could manage to say.
There was an agonizing silence.
"Yes?" James -- Bucky, he was Bucky -- ventured the word, slowly, his brow furrowed. "But you knew that, right? Didn't you?" He glanced over at Steve. "Cap, you said you told him all about me."
"I did," Steve said, and now he was glancing up and down the corridor. "Look, I'm really sorry, but we don't have time for this right now. The team's meeting Fury in five minutes and you're not even in uniform. You've got to go get changed. Come on, Buck."
James gave Tony an apologetic look and trotted closer to Cap; somehow his face changed as he did, becoming brighter, unworried, untroubled. A mask.
Tony remembered what James had been talking about. A friend, a comrade, a man who no longer saw him as he was. I think you actually see me, James had told Tony. But James was gone, and in his place was Bucky. The sidekick.
"I didn't know," Tony said, stupidly. The realization had been a gut punch, driving all the sensible thought out of him. "I didn't."
They didn't hear him.
Steve and James were walking away, and Tony could only stare after them.
Tony sat at his workbench, staring across the empty room, not seeing anything.
It had been half an hour, and in the intervening time he'd dropped a teacup on a stack of blueprints, cut a wire instead of stripping it, and scattered two boxes of ammunition on the floor.
He was a mess.
And it was all because of--
James. Bucky. James. Whoever he was.
It made sense. Now that Tony knew, he understood all the things that hadn't quite added up before. The way James had stumbled over his own name when they'd met. The sheer coincidence of James and Bucky being Marvels fans. The fact that Bucky had never come by Tony's lab, that first day, but James had. The familiar, casual manner James had used when he talked about Captain America, as if he knew him well. The way that Steve, in the Operations Room, had offered up Bucky as Tony's companion in Latveria -- and James had shown up in his place. The way James had been concerned about Steve in Doomstadt "on his own" -- because he hadn't been there. James' secret assignment, the one he hadn't wanted to talk about. And his strange outfit, presumably something he wore with the Invaders.
Steve had never called Bucky a marksman, but hell, the very first thing he'd told Tony about him had been his skill with a gun. He'd expected Tony to make a shot that Bucky could have made.
And what were the odds that Nick Fury employed two crack shots who were both hanging around the same base?
They were the same man.
Steve had sounded especially protective of Bucky. And that meant he was definitely going to kill Tony, if he ever found out. Seducing Captain America's sidekick, not one of Tony's better decisions. All James had to do was mention it to Steve. All Steve had to do was mention it to Fury, and there went... everything.
Tony shut his eyes.
He'd been such an idiot.
He always fell for a pretty face, didn't he?
But James had wanted to kiss him--
That didn't matter. They couldn't do this.
There was a knock on the door.
Opening his eyes, Tony drew himself up and attempted to look like a responsible adventurer/engineer who definitely had not spent the past hour mourning the loss of his love life. He sighed.
"It's open," he called out. "Come in."
"It's me," James said, and Tony's stomach twisted up in anticipation and dread, because he didn't want this to be over, even though they had to end this now.
And then James stepped inside, and Tony couldn't stop staring.
When Steve had told James to change into his uniform, Tony had assumed he'd meant an Army uniform. But Bucky, Captain America's sidekick, wasn't in the Army. So what he was wearing, presumably, was some kind of Invaders uniform, like how Steve had his Captain America outfit. And what he was wearing was--
In terms of its general design, it was similar to James' other outfit, with his blue coat. But where that had been an outfit someone could wear in the field, this... wasn't. It took every feature of that outfit and made it outlandish, cartoonish. The blue was brighter, and the coat, such as it was, was tighter, buttoned with bright red buttons, the matching red of his shirt collar visible at his throat. He wore bright red gloves to his elbows, like Captain America did.
And good lord, the rest of him! Tony remembered then what James had said about only being seen the way he'd first started out. That was the only way this outfit made any sort of sense, because he was wearing bright red tights. That, and obscenely tiny blue shorts that clung to him all over. He might as well have been wearing nothing. It was an outfit you could give a kid sidekick, all right, but it was like they'd forgotten that a kid sidekick was going to grow into a man. Even Captain America got actual pants -- but not Bucky. You could see every ripple of muscle, every curve of flesh.
Blue cavalier boots scuffed against the floor as James turned around to shut the door behind him, and Tony's view of James' backside made his mind white out and forget everything except what he wanted to do to him. Dear God, he was walking around like that? In public? Tony swallowed, his throat tight, and dragged his gaze away from James' ass with a Herculean effort.
To top it all off, James wore a tiny domino mask that did absolutely nothing to conceal his identity.
This was how he looked when he was Bucky.
"Yeah, laugh it up," James said, dully, his voice laced with shame and embarrassment. "I know I look like an idiot."
I want to peel those shorts off you with my teeth, Tony didn't say.
"You don't," Tony said, softly, and James flashed him a weak smile. Tony paused. "Do I-- do you want me to call you Bucky?"
James blinked a few times, like it was a question no one had ever asked him. "No," he said. "I-- I liked when you called me James."
"Okay," Tony said. "James."
James smiled again, another brief glimpse of something that used to be happiness, and he stepped forward. He was fidgeting, his gloved fingers picking at the hem of his shorts, which didn't do much for Tony's resolve not to ogle him.
"So I think I owe you an apology," James said. "I-- I thought you knew. I mean, it's a secret identity, me being Cap's partner and all, so obviously I didn't want to talk about it that much, but I really thought you knew. I never meant to deceive you." His mouth twisted up, an expression of sadness and regret. "After I met you in the mess, when I went back to get that magazine, I ran into Cap in the barracks and I told him how I'd met you and was going over to your lab. And he told me what a great coincidence that was, because he'd just been working with you, and he'd told you all about me and how I was a fan of yours, and that you'd actually invited me to your lab, which he was just about to tell me."
Tony wasn't sure whether he wanted to laugh or cry. "He did. And I did. But he told me all about his sidekick Bucky. He never mentioned anyone called James."
"Oh," James said, very quietly, and then he said several words under his breath that Tony was certain Captain America's sidekick was never allowed to say. "Yeah. That would do it." He sighed. "It's my fault, I suppose." He glanced away again. "I mean, I should have said my name was Bucky. Everyone calls me Bucky. But... you're Tony Stark of Marvels, you know? I-- I wanted you to be impressed. By me."
Tony blinked. "You shot two robots in the head with one bullet, from a thousand yards, in the dark, and you didn't think I'd be impressed by you?"
There was color in James' cheeks, spreading out from under the bottom of the domino mask. "Not like that." His voice went high, an adult mimicking a child. "Golly gosh, my name's Bucky Barnes and I wear shorts and tights to work! I'm Captain America's best pal! I grew up on an Army base after my dad died and after I turned sixteen I trained with the SAS for months just so I could join Cap and the Invaders! He won't use a gun, so that's my job! My kill count is so high that I've stopped keeping track, but everyone in the entire world thinks I'm twelve fucking years old!" His voice slipped out of the mimicry on the last few words, and he sighed heavily. "So, yeah, maybe I should have said something to you. Maybe I should have made sure you knew. But you were my hero, and you were looking at me like-- like you didn't see that, when you looked at me. Like you wanted to maybe get to know me better. Like you didn't think I was twelve years old."
"I really do not think you're twelve years old," Tony said, fervently.
James' mouth twitched. "The way you were looking at my ass just now, I sure as hell hope not."
Tony wanted to laugh now, but he couldn't. They couldn't do this.
"I'm sorry," Tony said, a helpless apology.
"Yeah, and then there's that," James said, and his mask twisted like his brows had drawn together underneath. "I thought-- I mean, okay, I was interested. I was pretty damn sure you were interested. But you've been looking at me now like I kicked your puppy. Is it the sidekick thing?" There was something dark and miserable in his eyes. "Is it too much?"
"It's not you," Tony said, as fast as he could. "It's just-- Captain America is going to kill me."
He felt silly just saying it like that, but well... it was a concern.
James squinted at him. "What? Why?"
He was really going to make him say it?
"When he was telling me about you, Cap seemed like he was... looking out for you. And you're-- and I'm--" Tony waved his hands in the air between them. "I'm not an uncontroversial choice, let's just say. And even though they can't actually give either of us a blue ticket, I don't want to find out what they can do if Cap objects. Which he wouldn't, wouldn't he? He's got to."
James' face was twisted with confusion and incomprehension. "Because you're a man, you mean?"
"Yes?" Tony said, rapidly descending into confusion himself. "Of course. Isn't that, you know, a big problem?"
And James... started laughing. "That's it?" he asked. "That's all? That's what's got you so worked up?" He snorted. "Didn't anyone tell you about the Invaders?"
"Tell me what?"
"It ain't a problem," James said, simply, like he didn't know how unbelievable it was. "None of us care about the rules. Cap doesn't care. You should hear him when he starts going off about human decency and how love's never wrong. His best friend when he was a kid, he's queer. And Brian -- that's Union Jack -- he's got a fella, name of Roger." James nodded firmly. "So if Cap likes you, and I promise he does, he's not going to kick up a fuss."
Tony wanted it to be true. He wanted so desperately for it to be true. He could feel the hope rising in him, coming up, like the way James had smiled at him this morning. A new world, opening up before him.
"But," Tony pointed out, "it's one thing if it's a friend or a teammate, but he's practically your brother--"
"Tony," James said, and Tony stopped short, caught and held by the command that crackled through James' voice. "Come here."
Tony stood up, and his shaking legs carried him across the room.
"Yeah?" His voice didn't even sound like his voice. God, what James did to him.
"Steve ain't my brother," James pointed out. "And he ain't my keeper, and he doesn't get a vote. I am done talking about him." He looked up, and his gaze met Tony's, his eyes glittering dark with lust. "I want to talk about you. You and me. Do you want me?"
In Tony's experience, Tony was usually the one who ended up doing the seducing. This... this was different. Another way James wasn't like anyone else.
This was going to be good.
Tony licked his lips, and it took him two tries to find his voice. "Yes," he whispered.
James grinned up at him, showing all his teeth, bright and deadly, like he could do whatever he wanted to Tony and they both knew it. "Good."
And then James wrapped his hand around one loop of Tony's suspenders, tugged his head down, and suddenly, surprisingly, their mouths met. Tony had expected none of it. He didn't think he'd ever been kissed like this before, like James knew all of his moves, knew them better than he did, knew how to leave him overwhelmed, breathless and gasping, floating on sensation. He knew every trick James was using, knew it because they'd learned it from the same book. James left him wanting, begging for more, and somehow the fact that Tony knew exactly how he did it made it even better.
"Oh God," Tony said, and he wobbled into James and his arms went around him. "I'm an idiot. Christ. I don't know what I was thinking. Keep doing that. Please."
"But I want to talk about you some more," James said, with that same sharp grin that made Tony even hotter all over.
Tony was definitely going to have to take notes and turn the tables on James. Just as soon as he could think again. Which was maybe never, at this rate. He was okay with that.
"What about me?" he panted.
"I'd like to go back," James said, almost wistfully, plucking at the band of Tony's suspenders again, "to the part where I found you tied to a table with your shirt undone. That was really very good for me, and I didn't get to appreciate it at all. Deeply unfair."
James' face furrowed in a mock pout, and he nudged Tony backwards in the direction of... Tony's cleared-off worktable. Yeah, Tony saw where this was going, all right.
And James had seen what was left of Tony's heart, when he'd seen him on the table like that, and he clearly didn't mind it, and that-- that was better than the last half-dozen people Tony had slept with, really.
"Yeah," Tony breathed. "Yeah, okay. I can work with that."
James' eager fingers went to the buttons of Tony's shirt. "I thought as much."
When Tony had heard the name Bucky for the first time barely half a week ago, in the middle of a firefight, he could never have predicted meeting the man behind the name. But Tony was an adventurer through and through, and if there was one thing he'd learned, it was that the best adventures got their starts in the strangest of places.
And now, finally, he knew James Barnes, the man who was a thousand times better than any Bucky, and Tony smiled and smiled as James traced trembling fingers over steel and orichalcum, Tony's heart in James' hands for as long as he'd have him.