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Letters to a Soldier

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Dear Mister Sergeant Barnes,

 

My name is Peter Stark and I am six years old.

At school, my teacher told us that we could write to soldiers. She said that some of the soldiers liked to have letters because not a lot of people wrote to them. I said I wanted to try and she gave me your name!

My dad said that it would be a good exercise for my writing and that it would make you happy. Are you really happy I'm writing?

I asked Daddy what I could tell you, and he said I should tell you about my life, so I am going to try to do that.

I am in the second grade class in my school in New York. Most of the others in my class are bigger and older than me, but I have lots of friends, so it is not a problem for me. I like math and science lessons, but my favorite one is drawing lesson! I love to draw like my dad, and I'd like to be an artist like him. My dad draws on people's skin, and sometimes he paints on me, but it is not the same thing, because I'm too little and have to wait a few years before he can really draw on me.

I love to read, and animal stories are my favorites. I like jokes too! 

Do you know what we call a fish without eyes? A fsh!

We only have one dog at home, but it is the best dog in the world. Her name's Cocoa, I was the one who chose it! I love her very much.

When I am not at school, I like to draw with my daddy, or play with Cocoa, she loves it when I throw a ball. I also like to read, especially science and space books. Space is so cool! Do you see lots of stars where you are?

I hope that you answer my letter and tell me about your life too. Do you like animals? Do you have pets? Do you like books? Do you know lots of jokes?

I wish you a nice day, Mister Sergeant Barnes,

Peter

 

P.S. My dad read the letter and corrected the mistakes. Sometimes I don't know how to write some words!

 

***

 

Far away from New York, deep in a desert in Afghanistan, Bucky smiled while reading the letter. He had actually forgotten that he had signed up to get letters, and had been more than a little surprised when Steve had handed him a letter, eyebrows raised.

Peter's letter, though, was a very, very good surprise. He had felt kinda alone and sad in his bunk, reading to try and forget where he was, but the kids' words had put a huge smile on his face – and his joke had made him burst out laughing, even if he'd refuse to admit it to anyone else.

 

''Uh oh,'' Steve exclaimed, stopping in his tracks when he saw his face. ''I don't like this grin. What exactly are you planning?''

''God, Stevie, so much trust, it's nice to hear. Any other compliments in store for me, or is that it for tonight?''

''Come on, Buck, you know I love you. And you also know that I've known you for so long I can't miss when an idea crosses your mind. Out with it.''

''Actually, you're wrong. No evil plan in my mind. It's the letter though – remember that program I signed up for, to get a letter from a kid? Well, there's one who wrote me. His name's Peter, and he sounds like the cutest kid ever. There, read it.''

 

Bucky watched as Steve read it too and smiled when he burst out laughing at Peter's joke – apparently, he wasn't the only one who liked stupid kids' jokes. Steve was grinning too when he gave him the letter back.

 

''Seems like a great kid. You're gonna write back, right? It looks like he's waiting for some answers.''

''Of course I'm gonna answer, who do you think I am? D'you have a pen for me? Mine died and I forgot to steal another one.''

 

***

 

Dear Peter,

 

I was really happy to get your letter! It is sometimes hard to be a soldier, and it made me smile all day thinking about what you wrote.

You know, as I am still pretty young, you can call me Bucky – my full name's James Buchanan, but all my friends call me Bucky.

You seem to have a really nice life!

Do you think you could send me a picture of your dog? I love animals in general, but dogs are my favorites. I had a dog when I was your age, a black Labrador who also loved when I threw him a ball. He could run after it for hours without getting tired!

I said that I loved animals in general, but that's not totally true, I hate snakes… and, unfortunately for me, there are a lot of snakes around here. Are you afraid of any animals? Or maybe anything else? 

You said that you liked to draw and your dad's an artist. Am I right in thinking that he's a tattoo artist? It's funny if he is, because I love tattoos! Would you like to get some of them when you're older?

I have to say, I loved your joke, and my friend Steve did too. He told me to write one of his favorite jokes, I hope you don't know it already. Here it is:

Do you know what fish only swims at night? A starfish!

I'm not sure if it is a very good joke, but Steve made me promise to write it, so here it is.

I do love books, and I miss having a good library around. I still read, though, books people send us in here. My favorite book when I was your age was Peter Pan – have you ever read the book or seen the movie? I loved Peter Pan and Hook, and I still look for the second star to the right some days. It would be great to live in Neverland and spend time with fairies, don't you think?

We see lots of stars here. There aren't a lot of towns around, so the sky is very clear. I like watching them too.

I read you live in New York, I was born and grew up in Brooklyn, so I know the city well. Is there any part of it you especially like? When I was younger, I loved to go all the way to the top of the Empire State Building and stay there for hours. Sometimes, my friend Steve came too and he drew the city – he's an artist too, he's the one who made the drawing I sent you.

I'm very glad I get to know you, Peter, and I can't wait to read your next letter.

I hope you spend a great day and wish you all the best, to you and your dad,

Bucky

 

***

 

''Peter! Come on down here, please, I have a surprise for you!''

 

With a small shout of glee, Peter let go of his toys and got up, running down the stairs to the tattoo studio. He waved at Natasha, who smiled and winked at him from where she was tattooing a comic character into her customer's arm, and rushed to his dad's office.

Tony was waiting for him in his chair, holding an envelope in his hands, big smile on his face.

 

''Is that Mister Barnes' answer?'' Peter gasped.

''The postman just brought it, Petey. Wanna sit here and read it now?''

''Yes, yes, yes! Can you open it, daddy?''

 

Tony nodded and opened it quickly, giving him the letter and the folded sheet of paper, before turning back to the letters he had received.

His son had been waiting impatiently for days to get an answer, running to open the letter box when he could, and asking Tony if he had received anything when he couldn't. So he thought it best to let him enjoy the moment and read it alone, even if he was more focused on the gasps and laughter he could hear on his right that on what he was supposed to do.

 

''Look daddy, he sent a drawing that his friend did, too. Look how cool it is!''

 

He looked at the drawing that his son was showing him, planets and stars delicately drawn in black and white.

 

''That's really cool, Peter! Do you want to tell me what he wrote?''

''He said I could call him Bucky, and that he loves pets too. He had a dog when he was younger! And he also wants me to send him a picture of Cocoa, because he misses dogs. And you know what? His favorite book is Peter Pan. It's my favorite movie, Daddy!''

''Awesome! You know what we could do? I still have a client this afternoon, so you can stay here and write an answer, and tonight we'll try to take a nice picture of Cocoa and you, so you can send it to him. Maybe you could send a drawing too, I bet he'd love that.''

 

Nodding, Peter took a blank sheet and was about to begin writing when he changed his mind, getting up and hugging Tony instead. Tony smiled softly and hugged his son tighter, burying his nose in the soft brown hair and stroking his back gently.

 

''Thanks, buddy. Whoa, I'm pretty sure your hugs are like magic, I feel so much better now!''

''Don't be silly, Daddy,'' Peter giggled. ''I'm not a magician!''

''Um. Are you sure I didn't discover your biggest secret, sorcerer?'' Tony asked with his eyebrows raised.

''I'm not a sorcerer, I'm just a little boy.''

''Pretty sure you're not just a little boy. At the very least, you're the best little boy.''

 

Peter grinned and kissed Tony's cheek, unconsciously breathing the smell that comforted him so much: ink, his musky cologne and a bit of sweat after a long day in the studio's heat. He stroked one of the drawings on his dad's left arm, a habit he had picked up when he was very young, and Tony couldn't help a soft smile filled with love.

 

''I love you, buddy. You know that, right?''

''I love you too. You're the best dad ever! Can you help me with the mistakes when I'm done writing?''

''Of course. And you can ask Nat or Uncle James if you've got a question, they'll be happy to help if you need it. Are you going to draw something too?''

''Maybe a dog, I think Bucky could like that. I'll try to draw Cocoa!''

''You do that, and come look for me if you need to, I'll be right there, okay!''

''Okay, Daddy.''

 

After ruffling his son's hair one last time, Tony got up and looked at him for a couple of seconds. He was already focused on his letter, little tongue out, exactly like Tony himself looked when he was focused on a tricky drawing.

He had a nice feeling about this Bucky guy. And even if his feeling was wrong, it made Peter happy right now, and that was the most important thing in his life.

 

Chapter Text

Each of them had his or her own rituals and habits when they came back from the field. No matter if it had been a good day – well, at least as good as it could be when your job was basically being shot at – or a bad one when they had lost someone, Steve found a quiet corner and isolated himself with a drawing pad and some pencils, staying alone for a couple of hours until he got back, smile firmly in place and his usual good-natured self. Clint tended to be the complete opposite: he needed to get the rush of adrenaline out of his body, and spent hours joking around, exercising in their small fitness room, and generally being a dick with his fellow soldiers, playing pranks and flirting with everybody he met.

Bucky's habits had changed since a few weeks. He came back hoping for a letter from Peter, and thinking about what he could write back, whereas before he just lay down and tried to get some sleep. It had been this way ever since he had sent back his first answer; that had been about three weeks back, and ever since he cursed the slowness with which mail traveled, and finally understood the regular complaints of other soldiers.

 

This time, though, after a particularly rough days with way too many close calls, he was lucky: a letter with his name carefully written was waiting for him on his bunk. He sat down heavily and read, smile already on his lips:

 

Dear Sergeant Bucky,

 

I was so happy to get your letter too! I waited for days and days, and my daddy said it would come eventually, but that you were very far away so I had to wait a bit more.

I didn't forget to take a picture of Cocoa, and my dad said I should be in the picture too, so you can see me. It was very funny to take the pictures, because Cocoa doesn't like to stay still, so we had to give her biscuits to make her stop moving! We took a lot of pictures, but I sent you my favorite.

 

Reading that, Bucky looked inside the envelope, seeing a printed picture. He took it out and his smile broadened. Peter, all fluffy brown hair and crinkled sparkling eyes, was grinning at him, exposing some missing teeth. Even in the picture, small freckles were visible on his nose and cheeks, making him easily one of the cutest kids Bucky had ever seen – and the bright green t-shirt with blue robots proclaiming him to be ''Daddy's Little Geek'' absolutely did not help. The beautiful border collie dog looking at him, seemingly perfectly at ease to be hugged by Peter, only strengthened the general impression

He blinked rather forcefully once or twice – God, he missed kids, he loved babysitting when he was younger – and kept reading.

 

Did you forget to tell me your dog's name? I love hearing dog's names, we met a dog called Cruella de Vill once, my daddy and me laughed and laughed for hours! Is your dog waiting for you at home?

I don't like sleeping when there's no light in the room, and my dad doesn't like spiders. It's funny, because I like spiders, but when he sees one, he yells and runs and asks me or Aunt Natasha to get it out! I'd love to have a big spider as a pet one day, but dad tells me that he won't accept one in his house, so I have to wait until I'm a grown-up with my own house.

My dad is a tattoo artist, yes, and so are my Aunt Natasha and Uncle Rhodey. They all work in the same place, which is really nice, because I get to see them almost every day. There are lots of people who come to see my dad to get a tattoo, and he was in a newspaper once! The people who came to take pictures let me play with their camera, I had a lot of fun. I know that when I'm older, I want to be like daddy and have lots and lots of drawings on me. Maybe I'll get a spider, or maybe Peter Pan (it's my favorite movie, that's funny!), I don't know yet, but I know that I want my dad to do it.

Your joke was very funny! I told it at school and to my dad, and they all laughed. Can you ask your friend Steve if he knows any other jokes? Here is one joke my friend Gwen told me:

Do you know how you count cows? With a cowculator!

She told me it was her dad (he's a scientist) who told her this, did it make you laugh?

I haven't read Peter Pan yet, but my dad bought it for me the other day, and he'll read it to me before I go to sleep (I love when my daddy reads for me, he does all the silly voices!). My favorite book is Winnie the Pooh! I told you my favorite movie was Peter Pan, do you have any favorite movie too?

I like going to the Empire State Building too, even if that is not my favorite place in New York. I have two favorite places. The first one is Central Park, I love running and playing there in the summer, and we even got to skate during the winter! I'm not very good at staking, but my Aunt Nat helped me and it was really funny, even if it hurts falling down. I also really like the Hall of Science, we go there with my dad when he can, and I love it because we can play with a lot of things, and my daddy can always explain how it works! We even went to the Maker Faire last year, and there were lots of funny inventions and cool robots. Do you like robots? I think it's so cool that we can make them do awesome things, but I wish they could do my homework for me.

I have to leave for school now, but I hope my letter was good.

Have a nice day Sergeant Bucky,

 

Peter

 

Bucky knew his smile was definitely goofy, but he couldn't help himself. God, this kid was so cute. Outside, he could hear the usual noises of dozens of soldiers sharing the same space – cries, laughter, and what definitely sounded like someone insulting Clint – but he couldn't care less, already focusing on what he could write back to Peter.

He was pretty sure that Steve or Clint would come and see him, and tease him mercilessly for his weak spot for the little kid he barely knew… But he was also pretty sure that they would stop their teasing as soon as they saw the freaking cute picture he had received.

 

 

***

 

Tony Stark knew his usual day seemed weird to whoever didn't work in a tattoo parlor, but every morning he took a couple of seconds just to enjoy the happiness he felt at doing the thing he liked most and being surrounded by the people he loved.

He usually woke up before Peter, enough so that he had time to take a shower – shamelessly singing along to the latest pop tunes and the greatest rock classics – and get breakfast ready, usually pancakes with some fruit if he had enough time, or cereals if not.

Then he got to spend an hour with what, in his very objective mind, was the cutest kid ever born on this planet.

 

This morning made no exception to the rule. He woke up right before his alarm began to ring and took some clothes out of his closet: skinny and well-worn dark jeans with a V-neck soft shirt. He made a quick detour in the kitchen to fill a mug with coffee, taking a few sips before even entering the shower.

This time, he sang along to some Taylor Swift and ACDC while taking great care to wash a new tattoo that had recently joined the lot of ink he was already sporting – courtesy of one of the guest artists who had stopped at their shop a few days back. The geometric wolf looked to be healing up all nicely, already entering the annoying time when it itched day and night, and peeled like a motherfucker.

When he got out and dressed himself, he could already hear Peter moving around in his room, probably getting his backpack ready for school. He smiled and got out after a cursory look at his beard – he could leave it a day without skimming it – whistling as he made a way to his son's room.

 

''Hey Peter!'' he called out. ''Already up?''

 

His son appeared at the door, which was covered in robots stickers, Cocoa on his heels. His hair was adorably sticking up on one side and he was rubbing sleep out of his eyes with one hand, the other raised in greeting. Tony couldn't resist and swept him up on his hip, where Peter settled comfortably, burrowing his head in his dad's neck; Tony smiled and kissed his head tenderly, humming and rocking his son gently.

 

''Slept good? No nightmares?''

''No, daddy. I had really good dreams, but I can't remember all of them. Can I watch some cartoons?''

''Okay, but no long, you still have to go to school, right? Here, I'll call you when breakfast's ready. Don't fall asleep!''

 

Peter nodded and Tony turned the TV on, watching his son all curled up on the sofa, a wave of love threatening to overwhelm him, before he whistled for Coca and got some food and water in her bowl, stroking her quickly between the ears.

He made quick work of the pancakes; six years ago, he couldn't even manage an omelette most of the time, but Peter had made him learn to cook, and he loved it now. He often baked cookies on his time off, bringing them to the parlor for customers and artists to enjoy them; every artist and regular costumer had their favorite, and he tried his best to content everyone, writing in a small journal which recipes were good and which were best left forgotten.

In the end, he didn't even have to call Peter; the little boy entered the room as soon as he smelled pancakes baking, TV dutifully turned off, and eyes looking a little bit more awake. Tony smiled at him and set some pancakes and fruit in front of him, adding a glass of chocolate milk when Peter asked for it.

 

''So, do you know what you're going to do at school today? Science, drawing?''

''We're talking about planets now. And reading a cool book, with a magician nanny in it. D'you know it, daddy?''

''Yeah,'' Tony answered with a small smile. ''I think I know what you're talking about, buddy. Cool day, then, uh?''

''Yes! And you, daddy, what are you doing today?''

''Well, Bruce's coming back to get a new tattoo, so there's that I need to do. After that, I'll need to stay at the parlor for a while, so Aunt Nat will come pick you up for school and have lunch with you, maybe here, or maybe you'll stop somewhere in the city, she hasn't told me yet. But I'll be free all afternoon, so I'll come pick you up at the end of your day, and maybe we can go to the park, what do you think?''

''Yes! Look, even Cocoa likes it,'' Peter giggled, pointing at the border collie, who was looking at them, wagging her tail. ''Will you bring Bucky's letter if it's there?''

''You know I will. And it should get there soon, too, I think.''

 

Peter smiled around his mouthful of pancakes, and Tony scowled at him gently, reminding him of his manners.

The little boy had received four of Bucky's letters by now, but his enthusiasm hadn't lessened the smallest bit. He still waited impatiently for each one, spent hours thinking about what he could write, and drawing more and more elaborate things to ''decorate his room''. They had sent a small package last time, too, with two books that Peter had carefully chosen for Bucky, a second-hand edition of Peter Pan, and a fantasy book whose cover he had liked. There was also some chocolate, and a pack of pencils for Steve, Bucky's friend. Now Peter was waiting to know if Bucky had liked it or not, and as they knew that it took about five weeks for the letter to come, he was growing more and more impatient by the day. One day, he had even begged to stay at home and miss school, pretending that he could ''feel the letter would come today'', but Tony had put his foot firmly down, reminding him that the letter would still be there when Peter would come back, and that he promised to check the mailbox regularly and not allow anyone to steal anything.

 

Half an hour later, Peter was ready to leave, and Tony clipped the leash on Cocoa's collar, taking Peter's hand in his own. They walked to the school, since they had the time and the weather was nice, Tony enjoying to hear Peter babble about the day he'd like to have, the discussions he hadn't had time to close with Gwen and his other friends, and how he couldn't wait for Natasha to come pick him up.

Tony left him at the school's gates with a quick kiss and hug, waving at him as he walked away to meet his friends. His green backpack was bouncing on his back with the rhythm of his run, and Tony thought once again of how lucky he was to have the small boy in his life.

 

When he got back to the apartment right above the parlor, he set to work on Bruce's last request. The man had been a regular customer for years now; he had tattoos from both Nat and Rhodey, but he claimed that Tony's style was still his favorite, and came back often for a new project.

This time, he wanted some strange, futuristic-looking machine, only giving this and rough infos like the size he wanted to Tony and letting him deal with the drawing. Right now, Tony had three different sketches ready and was working on a fourth, adding some details and polishing it. He was pretty sure Bruce would like at least one of them (if not all of them, he tended to like everything Tony proposed), but he always felt a bit of pressure when working with a customer who had become a friend with time; he didn't want to disappoint, even if he knew that Bruce was smart enough to not be rude and cruel, and rather liked to give him advices and precisions on what he wanted.

At nine o'clock, all drawings finally ready, he packed everything he needed – phone, wallet, snacks, sketchpad and pencils – and left the apartment to open the parlor. Rhodey and Natasha would arrive a few minutes later, and as there were no customers around for walk-ins or appointments at this hour, he began to set up his station carefully, setting up his tattoo gun, – a beautiful custom one he got for his birthday, all mat black and grey – taking the bottle of ink he'd need, and wrapping up everything carefully in plastic wrap. After that, he set some water and chocolate next to the chair, just in case Bruce forgot to take some with him, and put some random playlist on. He took a critical look at his flash tattoos' board, hanging up a new drawing of a small monkey he had done the night before, and made a mental note to ask Nat and Rhodey about some possible dates for a flash day.

Speaking of them, the bell rang at the door and he turned to see both of them strolling in. Natasha was looking as sexily deadly as ever, with her usual leather black pants and ripped red top barely showing her lacy bra; the combat boots, lip and ear piercings, and delicate black widow tattoo sometimes showing behind the fabric on her left hip have a nice finale touch. People on the street tended to either gawk at her, to which she'd return a sly smile, or avoid her simply. Once, a mother had told her daughter, who was looking at Nat with admiration in her eyes, that she had to work at school to ''not look like the lady'', to which Natasha had simply enough but very effectively answered that she had a Master in law, but had changed path a few years back to live the life she really wanted – offering a wink to the little girl who smiled brightly. The woman had sputtered and scoffed before walking away, pulling her little girl along.

Rhodey was seen as the model child of their team. He was covered in tattoos too – rare were the tattoo artists with no ink on their skin – but most of them were hidden by his military-style clothes. There was only one who peaked from under his shirt at all time; a drawing from Tony, that Rhodey had asked for a few years back to honor their friendship. As both of them were huge and unashamed nerds, Rhodey's tattoo was of the Rebel Alliance symbol; Tony had a similar one on his left bicep, done by his friend, of course. Most of the new customers tended to look at Rhodey when they entered the shop, avoiding Tony's ink-covered body and Natasha's… Natasha-ness, at least until they realized that Rhodey was as bad, if not worse, than both of them.

 

All three of them worked as only best friends could work: always talking with each other when they weren't with a customer – and even then, they kept talking, just took care of including the customer in the discussion too – and knowing what the other ones needed before they even had to ask for it. Tony had on very frequent occasions turned around to ask for a bottle of water only to find that there was already one right next to his hand, with a small smiley on a post-it note right next to it.

At first, it had been hard – opening a tattoo parlor when all of them had virtually zero experience in this particular business – but they had kept going stubbornly, motivated by their love of tattooing and by their mutual trust. And it had worked beautifully. A popular website on tattoos had featured them on one article, and suddenly, their shop was invaded by customers and curious people attracted by the very futurist-looking premises.

Seven years later, they were all known as some of New York's best tattoo artists, and had to refuse some customers regularly; international guests came to tattoo for a few weeks or days, and they often put in place flash days that always had a huge success, even attracting customers from other states.

And their relationship didn't stop at the doors of the shop. Natasha and Rhodey had become Aunt and Uncle to Peter, who absolutely loved to spend time with them – and they did too. Unofficially, Tony saw them as a second family to Peter, and he knew that if some day something should happen to him, they would be there for the little boy, even if that wasn't something he particularly liked to dwell on. They spent evenings together, too, leaving Peter to Rhodey's mom's care and spending awesome time in clubs, bars, and shows all around the city.

In short, Tony was living the dream: doing something he loved everyday with the people he loved the most.

 

''Hey, Tony!'' Nat greeted him. ''All set already?''

''Yeah. Bruce'll be there in a few minutes, so he won't have to wait too long before we get to work. Still picking Peter up from school at lunch? He couldn't stop talking about where he wanted you to take him this morning.''

''Of course I am, I wouldn't even dream of disappointing him. I only have the one customer this morning, so I'll be free pretty early.''

''Hey Tones,'' Rhodey said, clapping him on the back. ''No customer for me this morning. I'll manage the desk and look at some of the bills, too. Maybe make some drawings for flashs, too.''

''Yeah, about that, I'd like to organize a flash day someday soon. Maybe on a specific theme? I don't know yet. Anyway, just write down somewhere dates you could be there and free of any customers, and I'll see what I can do.''

 

And so the day began.

As always, Bruce arrived early, looking ruffled and almost lost in his too-big shirt and old pants. Looking at him, you could never have guessed that he was covered in tattoos under his clothes. His job in a scientific research company forced him to look serious and traditional, but as soon as he got the shirt or pants off, it was a whole other story.

Tony had been a little bit in love with him since the first time they had met and Bruce had totally pranked him, affirming that he thought the original Star Wars trilogy was worse than the recent one. Tony had been ready to tattoo ''I've got BAD TASTES'' rather than the landscape Bruce had asked for, when the man had suddenly burst out laughing and hadn't been able to stop for a whole five minutes. He still laughed today when they talked about it, widely exaggerating Tony's affronted face, and the occasional customer always loved that story.

They had been friends since, though, and Tony loved to see him come back for more ink. He was one of the best customers, not afraid to talk and joke around even as he was getting tattooed and staying perfectly still. He often stayed for a while after the session too, enjoying some take-out or pizza with the other artists and, once or twice, with Peter, who seemed to be in awe of the man and his job.

This session was great, too. They debated of the plus and cons of the new Star Wars and Ghostbusters movies, Tony arguing relentlessly that the stupid secretary in the new Ghostbusters was the absolute doppelgänger of Thor, a guest artist from Sweden who came back often, except with short hair, and everybody laughing at him.

He was so focused on his tattoo he almost missed Nat slipping out, but still asked her absentmindedly to kiss Peter for him and have a nice lunch. They took a very quick break with Bruce, only snacking on some chocolate before getting back to the tattoo – trying to avoid the skin getting too sensitive.

A few hours later, Tony could finally stretch, taking one last critical look at the tattoo. It would need some touch-ups – the skin had been too bloody at the end to see very clearly – but Bruce was already proud of the machine drawn in delicate traits of grey and black on his right forearm. He wrapped it up, explaining how to take care of it to Bruce for about the twentieth time – at this point, Bruce could probably recite it by heart – and taking a long sip of cold water. The other man thanked him profusely and paid, promising to come back as soon as it was healed to see what needed to be perfected, before giving a heartfelt hug to Tony, who returned it happily.

 

After eating a small sandwich, Tony checked the time and saw that he should already have left to pick Peter up. He winced but still took time to empty the mailbox, smiling when he saw that the letter had arrived, before frowning when he noticed another letter with the same handwriting; except that this one was addressed to him.

He would have to run, but he couldn't resist. He opened it and read:

 

Dear Mr. Stark,

 

I'm pretty sure you already know who I am, but just in the case: my name's James Buchanan Barnes, or ''Sergeant Bucky'', as Peter calls me. I'm his soldier correspondent.

Before all, I wanted to tell you what an amazing son you have. He always managed to put a smile on my lips with his letter, and I keep them all preciously and re-read them when I feel down. I hope that doesn't sound too creepy.

There's something I wanted to ask you before telling anything to Peter: I will be on leave in three weeks, and will be staying with my friend Steve in Brooklyn.

As I know you live in New York, I thought it could be nice to try and meet Peter in person. We could spend some time together (with you too, of course!) someplace he likes. I'd be very glad to meet him and thank him properly for the time he takes to write letters. In the way he talks to me, I also sincerely think that he would like to meet me.

The decision is up to you, though. I totally understand if you don't feel comfortable letting your son meet a stranger, and I'll still write to him – and won't tell him anything about my leave.

It'll be too short to send the answer here in Afghanistan, but you can write to the address I wrote at the end of the letter, or phone the number from the 9th of August, I'll be there to answer.

Please don't feel pressured in accepting or anything,

I wish you all the best,

Bucky

 

P.S.: Thank you very much for the package you sent. Steve loved the pencils (I guess they're some of the ones you use?) and I've already read Peter Pan once. Probably have read it once at the moment you read this.

 

Well, that was… unexpected. And he had quite a difficult decision to make. If he didn't accept Bucky's proposition, he knew he would feel guilty, but he was still afraid of all the things that could turn out wrong. Bucky could be a mean and weird guy. Or maybe he didn't like kids who weren't just writing to them. Or maybe this whole thing was a setup. Or…

He sighed and left the building, letter for Peter in hand, the other safely tucked in his pocket. After a few steps, he got his phone out of his other pocket and dialed a number.

One thing was for sure: Peter wouldn't be able to sleep for nights when he told him who he would meet.

 

 

***

 

Leaving for home, even temporarily, was always weird.

First of all, because it didn't even feel like home to Bucky anymore. It was his home country, sure, but nothing in particular linked him to it now. His parents had died before he left for the army, and his sister was somewhere abroad; he still sporadically received postcards from a city he most of the time didn't even know. Steve had been what linked him to the States, but Steve had left with him. At least, this time, he was on leave too.

Second, because he never knew which fellow soldiers he'd see again when he said goodbye to them. They were all aware that it may well be the last time they saw each other, and each of them pointedly avoided talking about it. They joked around, speaking of which women he should meet, and which he was totally forbidden to talk to, and they hugged each other roughly, but they avoided the fact that, while Bucky would be safe at home, others would be on the field, hurt or killed. It was better not to talk about it if you wanted to leave.

 

The flight home seemed unusually long and painful – and he guessed it was the case for Steve, too, whom he constantly bothered during the endless hours. People stared at them in their uniform, some with respect – one or two even came to thank them for their service – some with obvious contempt, like they were personally responsible for every disaster the country faced.

Bucky was nervous, too, of what kind of answer would be waiting for him in Steve's Mom's small apartment. Would Peter's dad agree to him meeting his son, or not? Strangely enough, he really wanted to. This kid had charmed him from the very first letter, and he wanted to spend some time with him. Even him could see how strange that could seem, though, so he half-expected Tony to not even answer, and totally forbid Peter from writing to him ever again.

When they finally touched down in New York, both Steve and Bucky sighed in relief. They left the plane as quickly as they could, barely patient enough to wait for their bag on the luggage carrousel – these things always seemed to be as slow as they possibly could, anyway.

Finally, though, they were in the big arrival hall, and Bucky felt kind of overwhelmed by all the people and the noise. Steve nudging him incessantly with his elbow didn't help either.

 

''What?'' he finally snapped, turning to him.

''Right there, see? Isn't that your cute kid?''

 

Eyebrows raised, Bucky looked to where Steve was pointing. Right there, five meters from them, a kid was bouncing excitedly up and down, holding a big board that said ''Sergeant Bucky''.

Bucky could feel himself grinning goofily, frozen right there in the middle of the airport. At least, until he saw the man who had taken Peter in his arms so he could see better.

He watched to well-toned arms covered in black and color, the nice thighs in the skinny jeans, the exact same ruffled hair as Peter. He tried to take a step but stumbled.

He… hadn't been expecting that.

 

''Oh god, we're fucked,'' Steve muttered behind him.

Chapter Text

Tony was… surprised.

Peter had shown him a picture of Sergeant Barnes, a few weeks back. He had had the very bad, terrible idea, of taking it to the parlor to show his so-called friends, and the still worse idea to tell them that he thought the guy was kinda good-looking.

Which, if he had to be honest, was a bit of an euphemism. With his dark hair, beautiful blue-grey eyes that seemed to twinkle even on the picture, incredible jawline and muscles even where Tony didn't know that there was supposed to be muscles, Sergeant Barnes was, honestly, more on the ''beautiful'' side of the spectrum.

But, wisely enough, Tony had restrained from telling that to his friends, naively thinking that they would simply agree with him that the guy seemed nice, and let it drop. That was a big mistake, though. His horrible friends had teased him for weeks, saying again and again how he was exactly Tony's type of men, and how he should ask him out already.

Even the fact that Barnes was living more or less on the other side of the planet hadn't seemed to be a problem for them. Go figure.

 

Anyway, he had kind of expected to be charmed by the guy, but the young-looking soldier standing a few meters from them and staring right at him was something else.

There was something almost feline in his way of walking, for one, and that wasn't even talking about the fact that Tony was pretty sure these thighs could crush someone to death. Tony wasn't ashamed to admit that he liked how he looked himself, body well-toned – he felt guilty if he didn't get a bit of exercise at the end of a long day spent sitting down – and muscles in the right place, but these thighs were more than a bit of exercise every two days, they were years and years of exercising and hard, physical work.

And if the thighs had been the only problem, he could have managed it, but Bucky had a certain aura around him, a weird mix of danger and extreme niceness that Tony couldn't quite figure out.

The danger was there in the way Bucky's shoulders moved behind his uniform shirt, muscles obvious enough to be menacing, and in the way he looked all around him, tense and obviously ready to fight if it was needed. And the niceness was in the way he had stopped to look at the Peter, and in the smile that had formed on his lips, unashamed and unrestrained.

 

All in all, Tony was confused. And a tad turned on.

 

''Daddy! Can we go meet him? Daddy!''

''C'me on, Peter, slow down, let him breathe. We can't go there, that's the rules, he has to come here. Just let him take a few seconds; it's probably weird to see so many people.''

 

Actually, if Bucky could have heard what the duo was saying, he would have disagreed. It wasn't exactly the people who were the problem; it was more the effect of seeing the total surprise that was Tony, and dealing with the stupidity that was Steve right after.

 

''Do not even think of making these kinds of comments when the kid can hear you,'' he hissed at his friend. ''And not even when only the dad can hear you.''

''God, Bucky, you know me, I wouldn't do that! That's a good-looking guy, though. Don't you think?'' Steve asked, all innocence and wide eyes.

 

A groan was his only answer. Behind his back, Bucky flipped him off and took the few steps that still separated him from Peter and his dad. He took a few deep breaths but didn't even need to simulate a smile; the way Peter was waving at him was enough to make him relax again.

 

''Hey there,'' he called when he was standing juste a meter from them. ''I didn't expect to see you there. I'm really glad to meet you, Peter. How are you?''

 

A small, squeaky, and slightly squishy warm body ran into his legs as an answer; he stumbled slightly and looked up at Tony, astonished, for a couple of seconds, before his arms went to wrap around Peter and hugged him tight despite the slight awkwardness.

 

''I waited so long until you came!'' Peter exclaimed, his voice a bit muffled against Bucky's uniform pants' legs.

''Yeah, I know about that,'' the sergeant chuckled. ''I was impatient too. But I'm here now.''

 

Peter didn't move for a long while; long enough for Steve to join them and greet Tony properly – and Bucky grimaced when he realized that his manners were not the best right now. Tony seemed nice enough, shaking Steve's hand warmly and grinning all the while; he seemed to be unable to stop from moving around, though. His hands were waving madly one second, playing with his hair the next – and, oh God, the little spider web tattooed behind his ear and the shaved hair hidden behind longer dark strands were an amazing detail – and his face was surprisingly expressive, too.

Bucky got a hold on himself right as Peter was finally letting him go. The kid was looking at him with eyes full of wonder, and a smile showing his adorable dimples. He went away for a while without a comment, tugging on his dad's sleeve until Tony turned around and asked what the problem was. Peter whispered something in his ear and his dad nodded, all serious, and reached for a plastic bag; right after, the boy was back at Bucky's side, and holding out a thing wrapped in gift paper to Bucky.

 

''Here,'' he said, all earnestly. ''We brought this as a gift for coming to see us. Do you want to open it?''

 

Bucky nodded and took it, taking a few steps forward so he wouldn't be in the way of the people looking for their family. He unwrapped it gently and slowly, feeling Steve's and Tony's eyes on him, while Peter was almost devouring his nails out of anxiousness.

Inside the gift paper was an old, battered-looking copy of Winnie the Pooh, and, when he opened it, he discovered a small message carefully scribbled behind the cover: ''Dear Bucky, I hope you like the book. It's my favorite, but I wanted to give it to you! Peter.''

He cleared his throat softly, looking up shyly to see Tony's small smile and Peter's big grin.

 

''That's awesome, Peter. Thank you very much, I love it. I'll be sure to take it with me when I go back,'' then he added, finally turning to Tony. ''Hello, Mister Stark, I'm pleased to meet you. Thanks for coming to meet us here, that was a nice surprise!''

''Oh please, call me Tony, Mister Stark just makes me feel old and disgusting. Which I'm not. I hope so, at least. Nice to meet you too, Sergeant Barnes''

''Definitely not. Old and disgusting, I mean,'' he carefully avoided Steve's eyes and changed the topic as fast as he could. ''And you can call me Bucky, if I can call you Tony. I'm not that old either.''

''Older than me, though,'' Steve cut in, before picking his bag up from the floor. ''We should go find a cab before traffic gets too bad, Buck.''

''A cab?'' Tony huffed, looking positively vexed. ''What, did you think I'd let you go back in one of these awful things that make you pay half of your salary and almost kill you? Like I'd do that. My car's parked here, just give me the address and we're off.''

 

Steve and Bucky looked at each other for a few seconds, then shrugged, following Tony and his little boy to the parking.

 

''It doesn't look as if they'll try to kidnap us or anything,'' Steve whispered when Peter left Bucky's side for a second. ''But if they still do, promise you'll help me and not refuse to fight because you've got a huge crush on the guy?''

''You're an idiot. A true, pure idiot. Who should walk to Brooklyn.''

''Yeah, yeah, if you say so. Anyway… Hey, Tony?'' he called out, and the artist turned around, raising an eyebrow. ''How did you know when to wait for us?''

''Uh, yeah, good question. Long story short, a client of mine worked in the army. Still does, in a way, he works with veterans at a VA. Anyway, he still has some contact in the army; I asked him if he could get me some info about you, and he did. So there we are.''

''Impressive. Do you have any secret spy in your friends list too?''

''Pretty sure I do, actually. But don't tell Natasha I said that, she'd kill me. In my sleep. Painfully.''

''It sounds like you have some weird friends.''

''Oh god, you have no idea. Wait until you meet her.''

 

When they finally found Tony's car – the man had apparently forgotten in the space of an hour exactly where he had parked it, remembering only the floor, which was still impressively large – Peter jumped in his seat and begged Bucky to sit next to him, while Tony was carefully buckling him in.

 

''Is it even possible to resist those eyes?'' Bucky grumbled as he opened the door on the other side.

''Oh, you'll learn, at some point. At least you'll pretend to have learned. Still works on me, and it's been a few years.''

 

Bucky smiled up at Tony and slipped inside the car. It was small but clean and obviously taken good care of; the motor made a strong, satisfying noise when Tony turned it on, and classic rock blasted from the radio.

 

''Ugh, sorry, we had a bit of a karaoke on the road,'' Tony explained, quickly turning it off.

''At least you have good tastes. You wouldn't believe what some soldiers listen to. I don't think I'll be able to hear Taylor Swift singing without remembering some truly weird nights.''

 

Tony laughed and turned around to check no car was coming, winking at Bucky at the same time.

 

''I actually like Taylor Swift,'' he said. ''Good songs to sing under the shower where nobody can see or hear you. I can get the sort of problems it can lead to with soldiers, though.''

''I'll just say that you'd be surprised at how some of them can move their hips. Talk about the American dream.''

 

Tony burst out laughing – a great laugh, in Bucky's opinion.

 

''Yeah, okay, I definitely needed this mental picture. Thanks for that.''

 

The journey was longer than Bucky remembered, but he didn't complain, far from it: the company was good, and it was nice to see the city again after so much time. They talked books and dogs with Peter, while Tony shared tattoo anecdotes with Steve; at some point, they found common ground when Peter mentioned robots and Star Wars. That was apparently a favorite subject of Tony's, and he got all excited about it, even showing them the Star Wars tattoo done by his best friend on his bicep when they stopped at a red light.

 

''I'm thinking of getting another one,'' he said. ''Natasha made some great drawings of BB-8 and some are still available and staring at me every single day. If that's not torture, I don't know what it is. I know it's terribly cliché of me to ask, but do you guys have any tattoos?''

''Steve does but not me. Not yet, at least.''

''Oh yeah? Thinking of getting one, too?''

''Yeah, just haven't found the right idea yet.''

''We're having a flash night at the parlor in a few days. Cocktails, cookies and good music, I don't want to brag but it's always nice. You could come if you don't have anything planned. All three of us have drawings ready for it, and there are some other guests from all over the city. Maybe you'd find an idea?''

''Sure. We don't have much planned with Steve except sleeping in a real bed and eating hamburgers, so we'll probably make it.''

''Could you give us your phone number?'' Steve asked, and Bucky knew him well enough to hear the touch of laughter in his tone. ''So we can reach you if we need to?''

''Sure. Bucky, you can give your phone to Peter, he knows the number.''

 

When they finally reach their goal, and after Tony and Peter left – not without a lot of hugs and promises to see each other again very soon – Steve turned to Bucky and raised an eyebrow.

 

''I hope you noticed that he wrote his number in your phone when I was the one who asked.''

''Oh, shut up and move, your Ma's waiting.''

 

***

 

Tony looked around at the parlor, satisfied with what he saw. They had finally decided on a pop culture theme for the flash night, and the most famous themes from different movies were being broadcasted from a speaker in a corner of the room. Peter had offered some drawings of his own, cute versions of R2D2 and C3PO in a corner, some Pixar characters in another. Each artist who would tattoo this night had put together some sheets of different designs, Harry Potter mixing with Adventure Times and Disney.

The bartender from around the corner had helped too, giving them some recipes for cocktails – non-alcoholic ones, of course – they could serve this night, and Rhodey had bought what looked like tons of cookies.

This kind of nights usually attracted a lot of people, young and less young ones, some who were only curious, others who were determined to get tattooed, no matter how much time they had to wait outside – some had already been waiting for close to two hours, and Tony went out a few times to give them something to eat and drink, and check that everybody was alright.

 

His phone vibrated in his pocket and he took it out, smiling when he saw Bucky's text announcing that he and Steve had joined the line waiting to get in.

 

''Okay!'' he called out, and five tattoo artists turned around, instantly stopping their conversation. ''Everybody ready to let the crazy in?''

 

A chorus of yes answered and he gave them a thumbs-up, checking one last time before finally opening the door to let the people in.

The tattoo parlor – not really a small one – was immediately swarming with people who laughed and talked excitedly, running from one sheet of design to the other.

After a minute, Bucky and Steve went in, too, and Tony winked at them from where he was talking with a customer. He asked her to wait for a second and went to greet them with a quick hug.

 

''Hey, sorry, it's the busiest time of the night. Go take a look around, see if there's something you like. I'll probably be tattooing most of the time, but you can come talk to me if you've got any question, or ask Rhodey or Nat, they know who you are and they want to meet you.''

''No Peter?''

''He's staying with Rhodey's mom tonight, she asked if he wanted to see the last Cars movie with her and he couldn't resist.''

 

Someone tapped on his shoulder and he turned around to see a young man clutching a drawing in his hand.

 

''Found something you like, uh? Any idea where you want it tattooed?''

 

From there on, he barely saw Bucky and Steve again, spending hours tattooing until his wrist ached, and talking with whoever was on the chair.

Finally, after about four hours, he put the tattoo gun down for the last time and stretched painfully, grimacing when his back cracked loudly.

 

''Ow,'' he whined, rubbing at his eyes.

''Want a back rub?''

 

Bucky was behind him, grinning.

 

''I'd kill for one, actually. Why, is that an offer?''

''Mine are precious, so no. Maybe another time. What's up?''

''Not much. Something like seven tattoos and thirteen appointments, maybe? And you, did you get a tattoo?''

''Nah, you would have seen me if I did. I like what you do best, this Stormtrooper one was awesome. Steve got one from Natasha, though, he's a fan of Captain America and she had a drawing of the shield.''

''Steve, a fan of Captain America? Man, what a surprise. Look at how surprised I am. Surprising amounts of surprised.''

''I know, I know. That's actually one of his nicknames, I swear the guys will laugh at him for hours when they see it.''

''Please write to me when they do, I want to know all about it. Anyway, you met Nat and Rhodey, then?''

''Sure. You were right, Nat's probably a super spy. She's nice, though, and I'm pretty sure Steve's got it bad, but well, I get where he's coming from. Rhodey looks like a giant teddy bear but with more sass.''

''He does give the best cuddles, in case you need one.''

''He wouldn't have been my first choice in this room,'' Bucky admitted with a soft, shy smile. ''But that's good to know.''

 

Oh no, Tony could feel himself blushing, and that was just… no.

 

''Do we still have cookies?'' he asked, carefully avoiding Bucky's eyes

''Rhodey even ordered pizzas, I think. But Steve and me should go, the last train'll leave in a few minutes.''

''You know, you could say. I'll take Peter's room, and you and Steve can take mine, or the couch, whichever you like best. Then we can surprise the little guy tomorrow and spend the day together somewhere in the city. No pressure, it's fine if you've got something planned or just want some quiet time, but the offer's there.''

''Let me go talk to him and see what he thinks.''

 

Steve was still talking with Natasha, smiling goofily and joking around. Bucky rolled his eyes and bumped his shoulder against his friend's.

 

''Hey big guy, Tony's asking if we wanna stay with him tonight and spend the day with Peter tomorrow. You interested?''

 

Steve turned to Natasha and raised his eyebrows, to which she answered with a shrug.

 

''Your choice,'' she simply said, and smiled at Bucky.

''Nat asked if I wanted to go and have a drink with her after the pizzas, and see the city by night. Nothing against you, but I think I'll take her up on the offer.''

''Sure,'' Bucky grumbled, hitting him softly on the head. ''Leave me alone and go have some fun and drink alcohol, I'll be alright. See you, old friend.''

 

He left them, barely hearing Steve whispering about how he was such a drama queen, smirking to himself. Tony was waiting for him, sitting at his chair with a slice of pizza in his hands.

 

''So?''

''Looks like Steve's more interested in Natasha than in Peter, but I'll be there, if you still accept me.''

''Of course I do. What do you think of going to the Empire State tomorrow? We haven't been there in a while, and Peter told me you liked it up there, right?''

''Yeah, you're right. It's been a while for me, too. Think there's any way we could go to FAO after that? I'd like to get Peter something for his birthday, since I couldn't really find something in Afghanistan.''

''Sure. I'm sure he won't stop talking about that for weeks.''

 

***

 

Bucky felt… sad. Upset. Lost.

These two weeks back home had been amazing.

Of course, there were the most obvious sides of being back home: being able to sleep on a comfortable bed without weird noises around, enjoying some home-cooked meals, shopping for whatever you needed whenever you needed it…

And there were the most unexpected things, too.

Before leaving, he had felt that he would get close to Peter, but never this close. They had spent almost every day of these two weeks together, sometimes with Tony, and sometimes just watching movies in the flat when Tony was working. The little boy didn't leave Bucky's side anymore, plastered to him at all times, giving him hugs and cuddling up close whenever he could. The relative shyness of their first meeting had completely gone away, replaced by a little boy who never stopped talking and asking questions.

There was Tony, too. Bucky had learned to know him and his slight crush of the first day had only worsened. Tony was kind, generous, funny, awesome with his kid, ready to give everything to his friends, and beautiful. Day after day, Bucky had discovered things about him, and he was totally charmed.

And absolutely devastated now that he needed to leave.

 

Coming back from leaves was never easy for a soldier: it meant leaving family and friends behind, without the slightest idea of when or even if you would see them again at some point.

Not only was it hard for them, but it also took a toll on the people they left behind. Steve's ma was crying by the time they left, and Steve had tears in his eyes too, promising that he'd do his best to stay safe and come back soon.

Peter had been silent from the moment both soldiers had greeted him and gotten a quiet answer back, and even Tony's hands were clenched on the steering wheel, his eyes hard and his words few.

When they finally stopped at the airport, it was completely silent in the car for a few seconds, at least until Peter suddenly and unexpectedly burst out crying. He was clutching the big Winnie the Pooh soft toy Bucky had bought him a few days back and sobbing loudly, and Bucky could almost feel his heart breaking at the sight.

Tony hurried to get out of and around the car to open the door and talk to his son, but Bucky had already acted, taking Peter on his lap and hugging him tight.

 

''Hey buddy,'' he said softly, ''what's wrong?''

''I d-don't want you t-to leave,'' Peter sobbed in his neck, and Bucky stroked his hair gently, thinking cautiously about his answer.

''I know, it's hard, hm? We spent a lot of time together and now I leave and you don't know when you'll see me again. I'm sad, too, because it was really great to play together, and it would've been great to stay here in New York, but I can't. I have to go back to work, and it means that I'll be far away for a while. But you know we'll keep writing, right? I'll send a letter as soon as I'm back there, so you won't have to wait too long to have news and write back. And we've got a phone and even a laptop, so maybe we can try to call each other, or even talk on Skype, if your dad agrees. That'd be cool, right?''

 

Peter nodded, cautiously and softly, and Bucky placated a smile on his face for his sake.

 

''Yeah, we'll do that and it'll be really great. And you have Winnie to keep you company, and your dad! I bet you'll find lots of things to do with both of them, and you can tell me everything in your letters, okay? Maybe you can even send some drawings, so I can hang more of them on the walls, and show them to the others. You'll see, it'll be alright.''

 

Tony's hand joined his on Peter's back, and the little boy turned around, hiding in his father's arms.

 

''Bucky's right, you know. I'm sure you'll write each other a lot, and of course you can call him on Skype.''

''I'm still sad, Daddy.''

''Yeah, I know, honey, I'm sad too, because it was really great to spend time with Bucky and Steve. It's okay to be sad.''

 

Their eyes met, and Tony smiled tiredly and sadly above his son's shoulder. Bucky's heart tightened but he took a few deep breaths, swallowing back tears.

 

''Now Peter, do you think you can still help Bucky and Steve find the plane they have to take? It would be a problem if they missed it, can you imagine? They'd have to walk and swim back.''

 

Peter giggled, then rubbed at his eyes, promising he'd help so they wouldn't have to swim back.

Each of them had a smile – a wobbly smile, but still a smile – on their face when they got into the airport, and made their way to security. Once there, something caught Peter's eyes and he pulled his dad along, asking the two soldiers to wait for them. When they came back, the boy had a small dog soft toy in each hand, dogs that looked a lot like Cocoa. He gave one to Steve and one to Bucky.

 

''So you have something to keep you company,'' he explained, eyes wide and full of innocence. ''Because I'll have Cocoa, and Daddy, and Winnie, but you won't.''

 

They both promised that they would take great care of their new friend, and Steve took Peter in his arms, bouncing him around for a while to make him laugh, then kissed him a few times on his cheek to tell goodbye. He swore he'd send some more drawings for Peter's room if Peter sent drawings too, then shook Tony's hand and thanked him.

It was Bucky's turn to say goodbye, and he stubbornly kept smiling all the while, even if Peter cried a bit once more. He repeated his promise to write as soon as he arrived back at camp and to ask when he could phone Peter. He hugged him tight one last time, closing his eyes for a second and just enjoying the weight of the boy in his arms, then turned to Tony.

 

''Thanks for everything,'' he said, awkwardly extending his hand.

 

Tony rolled his eyes, though, and drew him in in a hug, keeping him there for a few seconds – and Bucky was not ashamed by the way he breathed in Tony's scent, a mix of cologne and ink.

 

''Take care of you,'' the man whispered. ''And come back as soon as you can and want, the door'll be open for you. And write.''

''I'll do my best,'' Bucky promised, the best thing he could promise in his situation.

 

Tears were definitely in his eyes this time, and he didn't wait too long to turn around and get in line for security. Once on the other side, he turned around one last time and waved, looking at the little boy in his dad's arms and wondering despite himself if he would see them again one day.

 

''Come on, Buck, the longer you stay, the harder it'll be for all of you,'' Steve said, pulling him along gently, and Bucky nodded, looking one last time before he followed his best friend.

 

They walked for a while in silence, until they were sure to be out of sight. Then Steve stopped in a corner out of the way and took Bucky in his arms, hugging him tight.

 

''I don't know how parents do it,'' whispered the soldier. ''It's fucking hard.''

''Yeah. Yeah, Buck, I know.''

 

They stayed that way for a while longer, and, if Bucky cried for a bit, well… he knew Steve wouldn't judge him for it.

 

***

 

''You look like shit, Tones.''

''Oh well, good morning to you too, Rhodey.''

 

The man snorted and came closer to him, watching Tony get everything ready for his next customer.

 

''You miss him, right?''

''Who?''

''Oh, come on, don't play dumb with me. You miss Bucky.''

 

For a few seconds, Tony didn't say anything, just kept doing what he needed to do, until he sighed and sat down.

 

''It's stupid, I know.''

''I never said it was stupid, Tony.''

''But it is. I've known the guy for, what? Two weeks? Come on, I can't miss someone I've known for two weeks.''

''Of course you can. Especially as it's Bucky and he's awfully nice, and funny, and cute. What? Don't look at me like that, man! I'm straight, not blind.''

''That's not what you say when I ask you what I look like.''

''That's because I don't want you to think I'm flirting with you.''

''We'd be an awesome couple, though.''

''Or not. Anyway, you're trying to distract me, and that hasn't worked in years, Tony.''

''It was worth the try, I regret nothing. It's just…'' Tony sighed and rubbed at his eyes. ''I don't know if he'll ever come back. I'm not stupid, I know he's in danger no matter what he tells Peter, and I never know if his letter is just late or if he's been hurt or killed and I just know nothing about it. I could manage the missing thing if I knew when he'd come back, but I don't know, so I just have the letters he writes me, and some phone calls, and I can't tell anything to Peter, because it's already hard as hell for him to understand why Bucky lives so far away. What will I tell him if Bucky can't ever come back?''

''Wow, slow down there, Tony. You're thinking too much about things that may never happen. Sure, being a soldier is dangerous, but that doesn't mean he'll die tomorrow, and anyway, I'm sure you'd be informed if something happened, he wouldn't just leave you hanging.''

''It's still fucking hard.''

''Maybe you should talk to Sam, I'm sure he could give you some advice, or someone else could.''

''That's… that's a good idea, actually. Maybe I could even bring Peter along, right?''

''You look so surprised when I have a good idea, it's awful. I'm hurt. Anyway, did you say he writes letters to you, now?''

''You know, I really have to get ready for…''

 

Rhodey stared at his friend, and Tony visibly swallowed.

 

''You are a terrifying man. But yes, he writes to me now, not just to Peter. Tells me about things he can't tell Peter, the kind of stupid things soldiers do, what he feels like, this kind of stuff. It's nice. He's nice.''

''Your crush is beginning to show, Tony.''

''You know, I have needles in here. Needles I wouldn't be afraid to use if you keep mocking me. Don't tempt me, Rhodey. Don't. Tempt. Me.''

 

His friend burst out laughing and clapped Tony on the back.

 

''It's cute. I like it.''

 

***

 

Dear Tony,

 

I know it must have been weird to see only one letter in your mail box today.

I'm sorry about it, and I hope Peter wasn't there when you saw it, so he doesn't feel disappointed or hurt.

I'll get to the point quickly: I'm writing this from the hospital.

Three days back, we were on the field when we got attacked. We were able to defend ourselves and left without casualty, but some of us got hurt, and I was among them.

I can almost hear you panicking from where I stand – well, where I lie, okay – and please stop. It wasn't anything too bad: a bullet touched me and I had to get stitched up. As the wound is on my right arm, and I'm right-handed, it mostly means a few days of rest for me, and hours of boredom in a bed. Plus, the food is shit.

Steve's writing this for me during a visit, as I can't exactly write myself right now.

I'll say it once more: I'm all right, it's not anything too bad and I'll be back in the field in no time, so don't worry for me, please. I only let you know so you wouldn't worry waiting for a late letter.

Tell Peter if you feel like it, or don't – I'll write anyway as soon as I can, as usual, and I won't mention it, so it's up to you.

I hope everything's all right with both of you.

 

Bucky

 

''The asshole fucking writes it like nothing at all happened! 'Oh, hey, Tony, what's up? By the way, I almost die. Bye!' Seriously, what the fuck?'' Tony almost yelled at Natasha, both of them alone in the closed tattoo parlor.

''Okay, calm down. He told you everything was alright.''

''Yeah, that's what he told, sure, but the guy got attacked and took a bullet! Don't tell me to calm down!''

''That's his job, Tony,'' Natasha reminded him softly. ''It's hard, but it's the truth and you have to deal with it.''

 

When Tony finally looked at her, he saw his own pain and anxiety reflected in her eyes and he sighed. She didn't talk much about it, but he knew she was still in contact with Steve, and the man had probably told her what happened, too.

 

''I'm sorry, Nat, I know it's hard for you too. Steve was there too, right?''

 

She nodded and Tony took her hands in his own, squeezing them.

 

''Fuck, I thought it'd get easier with some time, but… no. I'm worried sick about him, and it's hard on Peter too. I told him about what happened, and he was full of questions. 'Is it dangerous for him where he is?' 'Will he get hurt again?' 'But he'll come back, daddy, right?' What the hell am I supposed to answer when he asks this kind of things?''

''The truth, Tony. Well, not the entire truth,'' she admitted when he looked at her like she was crazy. ''But he knows what a soldier is, some of the kids in his school have soldiers for parents. Peter's smart, you know that, he'll understand. You told me you took him to the VA center a few weeks back, right?''

''Yeah. He talked with Sam, and Sam asked if we wanted to take part in some group. I told him no, but maybe I'll change my mind, now. It could be good for Peter.''

''And for you, too, Tony. You're not sleeping enough at night, I can see it. And don't try to lie, I've known you for years, I know what you look like when you're tired.''

 

He sighed and rubbed at his eyes, hiding behind his fingers.

 

''I know you'll make fun of me for that, but… I'd really like to see him again, you know. He's… he's really nice.''

''You like him,'' Natasha tries to clarify.

''I don't… honestly, Nat, I don't know. We don't know each other this well, and I don't even know if he's straight or bi or gay or whatever. He never told me, even if he did kinda flirt with me back when he was here. I can't tell that I like him, but I can tell that I could like him with a bit more time.''

''Then, Tony, I sincerely hope you'll have more time soon. You deserve to find someone like him.''

 

Natasha's eyes were soft and filled with love when Tony looked back up, and he smiled at her, before wrapping his arms around her.

 

''Thanks for that. You deserve it, too. And Steve does seem like a nice guy, too. Maybe not nice enough for you, but I'm not sure guys this nice actually exist.''

 

***

 

That had been a terrible, awful idea. My God, what was he even doing there? He hadn't told Tony, maybe the guy wasn't even in the city. Oh shit, that would suck. He'd just go back to Steve's car and drown in his shame and stupidity, and-

The door opened and Bucky startled, looking up right in Natasha's eyes. Her mouth was hanging open and he smiled, all awkward.

 

''Hey, um, surprise? Are Tony and Peter there? I, uh, Steve and me, we got leave, we didn't really know about it until the last minute, and-''

''Tony and Peter are in the office, they're doing homework,'' Natasha answered, and the ability she had to deal with any situation would probably always surprise Bucky. ''Steve's there?''

''Yeah, he's in the car, he wasn't sure you'd be there this late.''

 

He almost didn't get the time to finish his sentence before Natasha pushed him to get out and go see Steve.

 

''Thanks!'' he called out with a smirk in his voice. ''And have a good night!''

 

His only answer was a small chuckle, and then he entered the parlor silently. He wasn't really considering staying there for hours, but he was… he didn't quite know what to do and if his surprise would be a good one.

He'd told the truth to Natasha: they hadn't known about the leave almost until they were on the plane, and he didn't really think about the option to call Tony and let him know he was on his way. Instead, he just decided to come straight to the parlor and surprise Peter and his father.

And right now, he was almost regretting this decision.

 

He braced himself, though, and walked to the door to the small office, where he could hear voices arguing about the colors of lions and tigers.

A smile came on his lips and he lifted his hand to knock.

 

''You can open the door, Peter, it's probably Nat checking we're still alive,'' came a muffled but oh so familiar voice.

 

The sound of small bare feet running followed, and then the door opened.

 

''Surprise!'' Bucky chuckled.