i. the players
It was a bitch and a half trying to get Captain America to move into the Avengers Tower, for some reason. Bruce was first, and resolving his objections was as easy as having the robots toss a car around Tony’s specially designed Hulk-proof suite for a while. Black Widow had invited herself over, practically, dodging the fallout from her rousing speech on Capitol Hill, not to mention her inconveniently thorough infodump which, while saving Tony the trouble of hacking into SHIELD databases to find out her favorite vodka, had not been his favorite heroic gesture ever. Clint wandered in and out depending on whether or not Widow was there, which Tony counted as a win, and Thor had promised him seriously to stay there whenever Jane’s work took her into the field.
But Cap absolutely could not be dragged from his little apartment in Brooklyn. It couldn’t have been nostalgia, since his little apartment in D.C. had been thoroughly trashed during Fury’s “murder” and God knew Tony had put enough old stuff on Cap’s floor to satisfy the most far gone of nursing home residents. Cap made noises about trying to be a part of the community, which was bullshit, of course - you can’t be part of a community when everybody who recognizes you gets starstruck and whips out their cameraphone. Cap also had a lot to say about the strategic value of keeping all of the Avengers in one place, where they could be easily blown up or kidnapped, which sent Tony into a long rant about the protective power of wealth in the twenty-first century, which he knew even before he began would annoy the fuck out of Cap, and boy, was he right.
Pepper told him he was trying too hard. JARVIS also told him he was trying too hard. And he was trying too hard, but in that important genius way where the perfect solution is right there in your head and you just can’t get to it until you’ve worked through all the garbage surrounding it. And so at three in the morning, in the lab, halfway through a series of remote shutdown protocols that could be added to existing weapons technologies, Tony’s brain finally sifted through all his bad ideas to the good one: Bucky Barnes.
“Hey,” Tony said, blasting a guy in an all-black base jumping outfit out of the sky. “What’s up, man? I don’t think we’ve met yet.”
Bucky had his metal arm locked around the neck of another base jumper, and he didn’t reply until the guy had stopped clutching at his throat and was limp as a fish. “No,” he said, dropping him. “We haven’t.” He grabbed a knife off his back and threw it past Tony. There was an anguished cry from the darkness. Bucky squinted after it, and then said, “What brings Iron Man to a routine robbery?”
“Oh, solidarity, superhero team-building, also I’ve been out of the papers for weeks and I’m getting bored. Duck, please.” Bucky rolled, and Tony blasted another would-be jewel thief. “Little stuff like this is great for PR. Which I guess you know all about.”
From what Tony had been able to ascertain, Bucky had spent the last month or so doing solo crime busts, mostly small-time crooks, with a few mobsters thrown in for good measure. He couldn’t get a whole lot out of either Natasha or Cap, but what they hadn’t told him had painted a pretty clear picture. James Buchanan Barnes, in Tony’s opinion, was doing his penance.
Bucky had come up out of his roll close enough for Tony to see his expression, which was a mixture of sardonic and ice cold. “Yeah, I’m in it for the headlines,” he said.
“Obviously. That’s why you’re at a William Barthman in the middle of the night with no security cameras on you and - well, would you look at that, no streetlamps on you either.”
“They cut the streetlamps,” Bucky said, with a small head jerk towards the inert bodies.
“And you cut the cameras,” Tony finished.
Bucky looked at him, and the heads-up display registered the minute back-and-forth of his eyes as he searched Tony’s face. “What do you want?” he said at last.
“A look at your arm,” Tony said easily. “The fancy one. Not the normal one. Although the normal one is very nice, great muscle definition.”
“I stay in shape,” Bucky said, so deadpan that Tony actually blinked.
A heat signature was blinking at the top of his display, drifting down from the sky. Tony gestured up. “You want to take the last one?”
Bucky unholstered a tranq gun and made a face that was kind of like a smile. “Thanks,” he said.
The deal was pretty cut-and-dry: Tony got to examine the arm, and in return he gave Bucky a run-down of whatever he found. No modifications without Bucky’s green light.
The first time Tony took Bucky up to his lab, Bucky paused on the threshold and got a weird look on his face, kind of a lack of a look, like all the expression just dropped right off of his face, and Tony said, “You know what, the light’s better in the kitchen,” and they never went in there again.
It took Tony about twenty minutes of rooting around inside Bucky’s bicep to casually mention the open guest floors, because Tony was awful at waiting for things.
“I’m not a superhero,” Bucky said flatly.
“Yeah, okay, Midnight Rider,” Tony said. “Seriously, you’re not even the only ex-assassin in this tower. And Bruce has a higher death count than the rest of us put together.”
Bucky reacted to none of this. He said instead, “I’ve already got a place in Brooklyn. And I don’t play for a team.” He pronounced ‘team’ like a dirty word.
“How do you know what you do?” Tony said.
The look Bucky gave him in reply was genuinely chilling. Tony maintained eye contact despite a serious impulse to fake a phone call and get the fuck out.
“Look, you’re rebuilding,” Tony said, after clearing his throat. “I get it. Well, no, I don’t get it, I literally have no idea what it must be like for you, but either way you’ve gotta start somewhere. And hey, I’m not saying ‘put on another uniform’ or anything like that. I’m just saying -” Tony shrugged. “There’s tech here, gear if you need it. There’s always food in the fridge. Your floor would be right below Cap’s. All the suites are sound-proof, so you’ll never hear me setting off chemical explosions at two in the morning.”
Bucky furrowed his brows. “Steve has a floor here?” he asked.
“Mm-hmm,” Tony replied in the lightest of voices. Steve had never actually set foot there, but Bucky didn’t need to know all the little details. He bent down towards Bucky’s arm and followed the path of a circuit for a while. When he chanced a look back up, Bucky was studying him with narrowed eyes.
“So is this what you do?” Bucky asked. “Collect weirdos?”
“To be fair, I have many hobbies,” Tony said. “And anyway, that’s assuming I don’t consider myself one of the weirdos.”
Bucky thought this over for a long moment, looking somewhere over Tony’s head. Finally he gave a nod and a frown like, yeah, okay. “I’ll get my shit,” he said.
And two days later, like magic, Cap turned up on Tony’s doorstep.
“You always get what you want, don’t you, Tony?” he said by way of greeting into the comm. He was shouldering an Army-issue duffel bag and a judgmental expression.
“Usually,” Tony said cheerfully, and he typed in the code to buzz him in.
ii. the setup
Cap was not, after all that work, that great of a housemate. He kept regular hours, was early to bed, early to rise, and he didn’t drink anything stronger than milk.
“It doesn’t work on me, but thanks,” Cap had said patiently after Tony’s third offer.
“Works great on me, though,” Bucky said, reaching for the proffered scotch glass.
Bucky, now - Bucky Tony could work with. He slept even less than Tony, somehow, which meant he was always around to bother if he wasn’t out fighting secret crime. He was much more hip to pop culture references than could have been reasonably expected, a plus, although he was a little heavy on the eighties stuff, which he and Black Widow both inexplicably loved. They had fights about which cut of Blade Runner was more meaningful, and the day Tony walked in on the two of them in tears laughing at Weird Science was the day he decided he didn’t really understand the world.
Sure, Bucky woke up screaming, which Tony only knew because his security feeds had a noise threshold that Bucky’s nightmares regularly crossed. But he did better than Cap, who just spent most nights in with a book or a record and then slept on his back like a corpse, which Tony only knew because he sometimes, maybe, watched the security feeds when he couldn’t sleep, which was always.
“So are you bored of the grandma routine yet?” Bucky asked, voicing all of Tony’s most deeply held feelings. He was touching the spines of the books on Cap’s bookshelf while Cap stuffed his boxing things into his duffel bag. Tony was crunching on gluten-free granola in the lab, watching with a quarter screen while the other three quarters analyzed arc reactor power output simulations for Potts Tower. It was too early to claim insomnia as an excuse, but it was never too early to claim boredom. Boredom was Tony’s excuse for most things.
Cap huffed out a laugh. “If you don’t want to box, you can just tell me.”
Bucky shrugged his human shoulder. “I want to box. Got to stay fighting fit in case any avenging comes up. I’m just saying, you box, eat, sleep, read, eat, sleep.” He shook his head. “When are we going to go to a rave?”
Cap’s head came up in disbelief. “You want to go to a rave?”
Bucky turned around with a grin on his face that made him look at least five years younger. “If I wanted to, would you go with me?”
“Yeah,” Cap said without hesitation. “And I’d hate every minute of it.”
“Reason enough for me,” Bucky said.
Cap smiled down at his duffel bag and said, “It’s good to know, Buck, that after everything, you’re still a jerk.”
“Look, what did we used to do?” Bucky said, leaning back against the bookshelf. “And don’t tell me it was all reading. I can tell you right now that that rings no bells of recognition for me.”
“I mostly just remember being poor,” Cap said. “I think we just ran around trying to make money all the time.”
“And look where we are now,” Bucky said, spreading his arms elaborately and, Tony thought, rather sarcastically.
“Look where we are,” Cap repeated. He bit his lip, and then said, “I don’t know, Bucky. If there’s something I should be doing, I’ll do it. Just -” He shrugged. “Tell me what it is.” He met Bucky’s eyes.
Bucky stared, then looked away from him. “Well, right now, it’s box,” he said, and he held out his metal hand for the duffel bag. Steve tossed it to him, and Tony hit the mute button in a revelatory state.
“JARVIS,” he called thoughtfully.
“Those young people are in love,” he said.
“Oh, are they?” JARVIS said in a tone that made it clear just how much he cared about that.
“I can help them,” Tony said, watching it unfold before him like a blueprint. “This is my calling. I can help these two wounded birds to fly.”
“Sir, I feel that Miss Potts would want me to advise you against meddling in the love affairs of other people. There are too many variable outcomes, particularly when one of the parties is mentally unstable.”
“Who are you calling - oh, you mean Barnes.”
“I mean Barnes,” JARVIS confirmed, but he said it in a way that didn’t exactly exclude Tony, either.
Tony didn’t need him. Tony had a plan.
The first step was enlisting Pepper, who predictably agreed with JARVIS at first, and who said, “You filmed them? Tony, that is such a huge invasion - I can’t even begin to tell you how inappropriate -” and then sat down and watched the entire recording that Tony had saved as evidence.
“It’s really not my business," she said. “But they both seem very lonely,” which was Pepper code for “I’m on board.”
Step two only cost Tony a few hundred thousand dollars, and really, what was money in the face of true love? Pepper made a few calls, Tony pulled a few strings, and voila, a standard donation to a good cause became a gala. Pepper okay'd the costs on the grounds that Stark Industries had a long history of supporting LGBT organizations, and that in the wake of New York and D.C., among other recent Avengers-related disasters, it was a good idea to reaffirm the company's commitment to social interests.
"I love it when you talk business," Tony told her, and he meant it, and he would have dragged her out of her desk chair for some mid-mission encouragement if she hadn't thwapped him across the knuckles with her pen.
"Eyes on the prize, mister," she said. Then she kissed him once, sneakily, before turning back to her phone.
Sometimes Tony had no idea what he'd ever done to deserve that woman.
Step three was an exciting one and Tony dressed up for it a little, although he would have died before admitting it, in his most casually adorable henley and some jeans that had spent a lot of time and money getting that effortlessly faded.
"Did you do your hair?" Pepper said out of the corner of her mouth as they entered the common room.
"I woke up like this," Tony told her loftily. "Greetings, friends and freeloading housemates," he announced to the room, to various unsatisfactory responses.
Clint saluted vaguely from where he sat on a countertop. Cap raised his head from his Gore Vidal book with an alert expression on his face, like he was expecting an emergency. Bucky merely clicked his teeth, occupied with holding a skein of yarn for Black Widow, who was knitting something diaphanous and black and patterned with tiny skulls. Widow didn't acknowledge Tony at all. Instead she wiggled the fingers of one hand at Pepper with a small smile.
"Okay," Tony said, nonplussed, and he tried again. "Everyone - there is going to be a gala in my honor."
Cap relaxed out of his soldier's posture. Pepper cleared her throat.
"There is going to be a gala for the organization Federal Families, run by the esteemed Senator James Harboldt," Tony corrected himself, "at which I will be a guest of note."
Pepper nodded at him, and picked up the ball. "Stark Industries gives semi-annually to different charity organizations, most recently F2, and Senator Harboldt has chosen to thank us for our philanthropy by giving us VIP tickets to an exclusive donor event at the end of the month. Heavy security, no press." She shifted a little on the balls of her feet; she could hide it better than Tony, but she was excited too. "We'd love for you all to join us there."
"Senators don't really like me right now," Widow pointed out, raising a single lovely eyebrow. "Any of us, really."
"Senator Harboldt is an old friend of mine and Tony's," Pepper assured her.
Clint raised his hand. "Will there be food?" he asked.
Tony's eye twitched a little but he said grandly, "All the donuts you can eat." Request donuts on menu, he mentally noted for later.
"Why now?" Cap asked. "You've never invited us to a business event before."
Unsurprising; trust Cap to immediately poke holes in any plan whatsoever, even if the plan was just ‘going to a party’. “Oversight,” Tony said glibly. "We should have been doing a lot more meet and greet before now, in my humble opinion. We shake enough hands, maybe the next time we destroy a national landmark, they don't foot me the bill."
"Well, have fun without me," Bucky said lazily. "Wearing a suit all night, cozying up to some senator and his wife? No thanks."
"Husband, actually," Tony corrected, and he tried really hard not to look significantly at either Bucky or Cap.
Bucky laughed. "What?"
"Husband," Tony enunciated. "Senator Harboldt and husband, noted writer-activist David Marwat."
"I thought you said Senator Harboldt was a man," Bucky said, still smiling a little.
Clint slid off the counter and disappeared into the kitchenette.
"He is a man and he has a husband, yes," Tony said, glancing at Pepper. "I thought you had been on the internet more than this."
Bucky laughed again, but it came out all fucked-up, too loud. "You're telling me a man is married to another man?”
"It's legal now," Black Widow told him over her knitting. "For women, too." She winked at Pepper, which was just really unnecessary.
"Romanoff, when are you going to stop hitting on my girlfriend?" Tony demanded of her.
"When she stops liking it," Widow said calmly, and when Tony turned to Pepper for support, she was bright pink.
“I’m sorry, I know I’m repeating myself,” Bucky said, and something about his tone made the room go silent. “Men can just… marry other men, now?”
Clint came back into the room with a bowl of popcorn.
“Sure can, buddy,” Tony said, casually putting his hand into his pocket, where he kept a panic button capable of locking down the building in sixty to ninety seconds. “Welcome to the future, where people are nicer and things are better,” he stressed.
“And everyone’s okay with that. Senators can be like that,” Bucky said, harsh and flat, as though Tony hadn’t spoken.
“Bucky,” Cap said quietly.
Bucky didn’t even glance his way. “How long has that been true?” he demanded of Pepper.
“Not long,” she said softly. “Only about ten years.”
Bucky stared into nothing, jaw working, while everybody but Clint fairly held their breath. Tony turned the little button in his pocket over and over. At last Bucky bit out, “Well, like I said, have fun without me.” He got up with so much force that the couch skidded backward an inch. He threw down Widow’s yarn and stalked out of the room.
All eyes turned to Cap, who was already halfway out of his chair. “It’s okay,” he said to them, uselessly, and then he was gone too.
"Hm," Tony said. That had not gone exactly the way he'd expected it to go. "Well, the bar is set, everyone. I expect equally dramatic RSVPs from each and every one of you. The party is the twenty-fifth; it's white tie; no backing out, because none of you has a reason as good as 'the forties taught me homophobia'. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some important computer... type... business to attend to." He raised significant eyebrows at Pepper, who didn't even bother trying to look disappointed in him, just nodded resignedly.
As they left, Clint said, "I knew I came around here for a reason," and Widow drawled back, "You're a real asshole, Barton."
"I feel like this is all our fault," Pepper whispered while Tony booted up the security feeds on his office computer. "Why did we do this to them?"
"Why are you whispering?" Tony whispered back, and then Cap was putting a cautious foot through Bucky's doorway and saying, "Buck?"
A dresser was overturned, the vanity mirror shattered above it like a halo. Otherwise, the suite was empty and pristine.
Cap cased the suite quickly, moving on soft feet. Then he spotted something Tony and Pepper couldn't see. His body language relaxed a little.
"You wanna tell me what the hell that was?"
Cap was addressing the balcony. Tony paged through feeds at the speed of light until he found the right balcony camera. Bucky was sitting in the far corner, back against the bars, arms wrapped around his knees.
"Get the fuck away from me," Bucky said.
Cap moved carefully into the frame, hands raised placatingly. He positioned himself across from Bucky and didn't go any closer. "Talk to me," he said. His voice was so low the camera almost didn't catch it; the outdoor cameras were all-weather, which meant serious compromises in video and sound quality. Tony silently cursed himself for ever compromising on anything, ever; first thing tomorrow he was designing a new camera.
"Why?" Bucky asked, in a monotone. "Why should I? To tell you stories about the good old days I don't even remember?"
Cap stopped, surprised. “I -” He shook his head. "That's not why I -"
"It's not?" Bucky said, with a complicated expression the camera couldn't quite catch. "Then what is it, Captain? What am I here for?"
Cap took a while to answer him. "Don't call me that, Bucky," he said.
Bucky leaned on his metal hand and pushed himself to his feet. "Why not?" he said. "That's your name, isn't it? That's the new you." He smiled with lots of teeth. "The great Captain America."
"You want it? You can have it," Cap said with a sharp edge to his voice. "I don't care about that. You know I don't."
"Is that what I know?" Bucky said venomously. "Is that the kind of thing we share, friends like us? Best friends?"
"We're not," Cap snapped, which shut Bucky right up. "I mean," he said into the silence. "I know we're not, anymore. I know that."
Bucky just stared at him, expression halfway between surprise and something like horror.
"I know things can't be like they used to be," Cap said. "And I'm not asking you to be - that, anymore. I'm not asking you to be the old Bucky. You can't."
"No, I can't," Bucky said, and his voice was raw and awful.
Cap passed a hand over his face. “I can’t go back, either,” he said at last. “This is where we are now.”
Bucky just looked away, out at the million-dollar view of New York City’s nighttime lights.
“What’s this about, Bucky?” Cap asked, so softly it was mostly static. “You’re wrecking furniture, having it out with Tony about - civil rights?” He took a step forward, almost close enough to touch. “Explain it to me, Buck. I just want to help you.”
Bucky looked back at him, and there was a rise in noise that might have been a small laugh. “Jesus. You know, Steve, it’s good to know that after everything, you’re still fucking stupid.”
He made a move as if to brush past Cap for the balcony door, but Cap blocked him with a hand on his chest.
“Wait, please,” Cap said. “Just give me a minute. I can figure it out.” He smiled a little, just enough to show up on-camera. “I’m really not that stupid.”
Bucky shook his head and drew in a long, shaky breath. “Yeah, you are,” he said, and then he leaned in and kissed him.
Cap didn’t move for a long moment. Pepper’s grip tightened convulsively on Tony’s hand.
When they parted, Cap whispered something that was hopelessly lost in static. Bucky put a hand over his eyes and his head dropped onto Cap’s shoulder.
“Tony, we have to turn it off,” Pepper said. She was still whispering.
“What? Yes, you’re right, give them their privacy,” Tony said, but after she was gone he spent the next seventeen minutes picking the static out of the audio file.
What Cap said was: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that was the first time.”
iii. the results
“Natasha, if you’ll do me the honor?” Clint asked, bowing over his hand elaborately. She took his hand reluctantly, but then turned out to have a black belt in ballroom dancing, too, and the two of them promptly made all the other dancers look bad for the next ten minutes. After that Clint danced with Maria, who was taking a break from her new-job productivity binge, and Widow nabbed Senator Harboldt himself, follow-leading him in a sedate two-step.
Tony was at the bar, of course, accepting accolades for his generosity and surveying his good works, which in addition to his spy friends included Pepper, who had been schmoozing all night and was happy as a clam, and Cap, who was sort of involuntarily schmoozing since people kept coming up to him and telling him how amazing it was that he’d brought his partner with him and what a statement it made.
Said statement was lurking near the buffet table, looking only mildly creepy. He was freshly shaved and he had his hair back in a clean ponytail. His metal hand was gloved in a thin flesh synthetic Tony had whipped up for the occasion, and with the suit on top of everything else, he looked downright presentable. Every few minutes Cap would turn and make eye contact with him in a pleading sort of way, and every time, Bucky raised his mini plate of shrimp like, good luck, buddy.
Tony was really very proud of himself.
“Goddamnit,” he said out loud, noticing that Widow had lured Pepper out onto the dance floor. Something had to be done about that woman.
He marched over to Bucky and said, “Can’t you control your Soviet friend over there?”
“Is that a joke?” Bucky said, raising an eyebrow. “Natasha could kill almost everybody in here.”
“Oh, ‘almost’, huh? Not you, though,” Tony said.
“Not me,” Bucky agreed calmly. “Shrimp?”
“Thanks, I’ll be getting all my calories from alcohol tonight.”
Bucky shrugged and bit the head off the shrimp he was holding.
“You guys gonna dance?” Tony said. “You should dance. You should dance with Natasha, get her away from my girlfriend.”
“The last dance steps I learned were probably in 1945,” Bucky said. “I’m not eager to find out if I’ve retained them.”
“Party pooper,” Tony said. “Can I get you a drink, at least?”
“Yeah, bourbon, neat,” Bucky said. “I’ll drink it in front of Steve, make him feel bad.”
“I like you so much,” Tony said sincerely, and he wandered away to find some bourbon.
When he came back, Bucky wasn’t there. Some hard scanning located him, of all places, on the dance floor. Steve was there too, smiling nervously and leaving a ton of room for Jesus, while Bucky’s face was blank and foreboding with concentration. They were a train wreck. Tony had never been more proud.
“You done good, Tony,” he said to himself, and helped himself to a congratulatory sip of Bucky’s bourbon.