The Avengers, as a whole, ate a lot. A lot. (Half of that was Thor, Tony was positive.)
Tony, personally, tended to drink his meals — whether in the form of coffee or something with a higher proof — unless there were cheeseburgers or pizza to hand, or just if someone else basically reminded him that food was supposed to be something people chewed.
Pepper did this by asking him very pointed questions about when his last meal had been, with big, guilt-inducing eyes. Rhodey did it by pretending to be starving until Tony gave up and had JARVIS call for takeout.
Steve, the newest person to decide that Tony needed a keeper and consequently volunteer for the job, did it primarily by collaring the back of Tony’s neck and leading him into the kitchen, then making him sit at the table (where he never got to drink more than two cups of coffee) while Steve cooked him breakfast.
Sometimes, Steve made enough for everyone, without prompting — even though it was pretty obvious that the cooking was mostly a means to keep Tony properly nourished — but sometimes he didn’t, and then, well. When he didn’t, this happened.
Tony glared at the circling vultures and tugged his plate a little closer.
Across the table, Thor stared at Tony’s breakfast, and made hungry eyes.
Natasha licked her lips.
“I thought this was a team thing, now,” said Barton, sounding like a whine to Tony’s ears.
Tony considered pouting, but he didn’t think it would work on anyone but Steve, and Tony wasn’t exactly in danger of him stealing Tony’s food, not when he’d gone to so much trouble to get Tony to eat it in the first place.
Tony would be a step away from hissing at everyone like a feral cat, if it weren’t so undignified, so ridiculous, but they were really good eggs and Steve made them, just for Tony, and — wait, who was he kidding? Tony totally had no shame.
He swallowed, wrapped his arm around his plate; bared his teeth and said “Mine.”
“You will not share your sustenance?” said Thor, gone over all mournful and big sad puppy.
Tony averted his eyes. He had a weakness, sure, but he knew how to handle it. Natasha just stared, unimpressed. She was badass that way.
Steve, on the other hand, was an unrepentant sucker for that look — which was hilarious and ironic and adorable, because Steve used it himself, frequently and to great effect, like the freaking ninja captain of woebegone faces — and so he caved. Utterly.
“I’ll make you some eggs, too,” Steve told Thor, who lit up with a huge smile just like that, Thor was so easy for food.
Tony curled around his eggs and judged them.
The weekly ‘Avengers, please remember to behave like the adults you allegedly are; also, here are any new obligations we have for you’ briefing was delayed — from what Tony could tell, hacking into SHIELD security feeds, it was because Coulson was needed to deal with some junior agent’s gooey, acidic green mistake in one of the lower levels — and, really, when you put that many superheroes in the same room without any explosions or food or similarly shiny distracting things, they could only go so long without talking, and no longer.
Tony was just deciding where best to poke Steve to get his attention, and Steve was looking at him expectantly, sidelong under his lashes, like he knew it was coming — which sort of made Tony want to burst out into song and dance, and sort of made him want to hide under the table — when someone else broke the silence.
“How do you do it, Captain?”
“Do what, Bruce?” asked Steve, looking up.
“Put up with…” Banner gestured at Tony. “That.”
Tony’s eyebrows twitched, but that was it. He wasn’t surprised by the question, had been expecting it, actually, but he was surprised that it had taken them this long to ask.
Steve, bless him, frowned, like he didn’t understand the question. “What are you talking about?”
And, see, this was because Tony hadn’t actually changed when he and Steve started getting along instead of bickering every other minute, but Steve reacted to him like Tony had, like maybe he’d honestly forgotten how annoying Tony was. Which was nice. Really nice. Most people never let up about how annoying Tony was.
(To be fair, Tony was pretty sure that Thor liked him just fine, but then again, Thor saved some of his fondest feelings for Loki, so Tony was also pretty sure that Thor actually didn’t get a say anymore.)
“He’s talking about Stark,” said Natasha, dry as freaking dust, “And how impossible he is.”
Oh, well, thanks for that.
“Thank you for that, Agent Romanoff,” Tony muttered.
She just looked at him.
That was never going to get less unnerving. Never.
“No, really,” Banner said. “How are you immune?”
“Was it his father? He was supposed to have worked with you. Were you inoculated against Starks?” asked Barton. Tony considered flinging a pen at his smirky little face… but if he did, he’d probably miss, and that would be embarrassing considering this was Hawkeye, and Hawkeye probably didn’t miss even with pens.
“That makes us sound like an infectious disease,” said Tony. “Wasn’t that nice of you.”
Steve frowned harder. In a second it was going to cross the line into the Disapproving Frown and then they’d all be sorry, because the Disapproving Frown was lethal. It was to be avoided at all costs. If it couldn’t be avoided, Tony’d figured out — fairly early on — that the best and only way to fight it was to throw words at it, the more incoherent and meaningless the better, until the weight of them pulled it down into an exhausted sigh, and that only worked some of the time. On good days.
(If all else failed, he’d try to imply Barton made the Hulk do whatever it was Steve was Disapproving Frowning about, and go hide before they could rat him out, then have a distraction ready for when Captain America inevitably came to hunt him down and be gravely disapproving in his direction.)
“They’re not an infectious disease, Clint.”
“Sure, didn’t say they were, Rogers,” said Barton. “But was it him? Stark’s daddy, I mean.”
“I’m really not sure what you’re talking about,” said Steve.
Barton leaned forward. “I mean—”
Steve jerked in his seat, like somebody’d just punched him, and turned to Tony with wide eyes. The interesting part was, his cheeks were a little pink.
“What?” asked Banner. “Who?”
“Cap’s best friend,” Tony said, not looking away from Steve’s face. “Was in the Howling Commandos with him. Haven’t any of you seen the documentary? I’m disappointed in you as Americans. Also, as people; it’s moving stuff, you’ll tear up, I promise you.”
“There’s a documentary?” said Steve. Tony couldn’t read the expression on his face.
Barton made a surprised noise. “What, you’re saying this Barnes guy was worse than Stark the elder? I find that hard to believe. I thought it was genetic.”
“I’m not saying Dad didn’t help, probably — I don’t think Barnes ever had rich genius inventor going for him — but from what I can tell,” and the heavy look in Steve’s eyes finally got Tony to look away, as he said the next part, “Cap here was conditioned from childhood to respond well to cocky, mouthy playboy.”
“Really,” said Barton, giving Steve a speculative look that set Tony’s teeth on edge.
Natasha smiled. It looked about as dangerous as she did — which was to say, far too much so. “You know, Stark. I’ve seen that documentary.”
“Oh,” said Tony, stomach swooping. That was— it didn’t matter, it was irrelevant. So what if she’d seen it, wasn’t like it was a secret, Tony wasn’t hiding anything.
“Children,” Coulson cut in, his voice utterly bland, and yet Tony still heard taser; Supernanny; drool into the carpet, Stark. “Recess is over. Eyes front.”
Back at the mansion, Steve caught his arm just as he was about to head for his workshop. “Tony.”
Tony obediently gave Steve his full attention. Well, almost all of it. Definitely most of it, anyway. “Yeah, Steve, what’s up.”
“At the briefing… I mean. You said there was a documentary? About me, the Commandos, the War?”
“Yeah, sure there is.”
Steve hesitated, a conflicted look on his face. “Do you… have it?”
Tony had it. Tony had a copy in each of his houses. Tony had a copy at Rhodey’s house.
“I could probably get ahold of it,” he said.
Steve’s jaw did that strong, determined thing it was so good at. “I’d like to see it,” he said.
“Yeah, sure. Whatever you want. I’ll make it happen.”
Tony was a little bit surprised — and a lot impressed — that Steve sat through most of the thing without going rigid or bursting into tears or just plain old getting off the couch and walking out.
But then they hit the part that Tony’d been dreading.
On the screen, Jacques Dernier said, “Relationship? That is a good word for what was between Rogers and Barnes. ‘Relationship’.”
Steve’s eyes widened, while in the documentary one of his men was — and Tony had maybe watched this section of the film a little more than was healthy, so he knew — smirking in a really, horribly knowing way.
“Oh, yeah, of course I knew about Barnes and Rogers. We all did,” said Gabe Jones, without bothering to stop smirking, Tony could hear it in his voice even if he couldn’t see it, didn’t know already that it was there.
Steve flushed, shifting in his seat. His shoulders hunched up a little, going toward his ears and— Yeah, Tony couldn’t watch him be that uncomfortable. He cut his eyes to the screen, instead.
“It was obvious from the beginning that they were… closer,” Dernier said, with a little shrug. “Hard to miss.”
“How was it obvious? Well.” James Morita paused, a faraway, oddly wistful look on his face, like he was remembering something he had mixed feelings about. “The first night after we got out, we set up camp, and Sergeant Barnes dragged Rogers down to sit in front of him — this was before we knew about what had happened to the Captain, we didn’t know he was different — and stood there staring at him for a long time, touching him; his arms, his chest, his shoulders, his face. And Rogers just— let him.”
Next to Tony, Steve let out a surprised, soft little Oh. Tony kept his eyes on the screen.
The footage cut again. “The whole time Barnes was pawing at him,” said Dugan, “the Captain was just sitting there, looking up at him, and smiling like… like it was the best thing he’d ever seen.”
“Oh,” said Steve again, louder this time. Less surprised.
Tony curled his hands together between his knees and bit the inside of his cheek.
“Yeah,” said Falsworth, clearly having just had Dugan’s words repeated for him, “yeah. The Captain looked at Barnes that way pretty often, actually.”
“And you know, that rescue of the Captain’s? The one that started our outfit?” Dugan added, with a grin. “Yeah, that was all because of Barnes. Not that the Captain wouldn’t have tried to save us anyway, maybe he would have, but it was definitely Barnes he really came for.”
“Everyone knew that, though,” said Jones, shaking his head dismissively. “Even the Colonel and Agent Carter.”
“Agent Carter?” Morita shrugged. “Well, I’m not saying she wasn’t sweet on Rogers, or Rogers on her, but. I don’t know that I ever even saw ‘em touch. And he didn’t deliberately go behind enemy lines all by himself just to pull her out of a HYDRA base.”
“Oh, the Captain had his girl, sure — she was a knockout of a woman, and I mean that literally — but, no offense to Agent Carter, really, but, well. The Captain had Barnes first. Or Barnes had him, I never could decide.”
“But the big thing, the thing that was the worst,” said Falsworth, no time to absorb the implications of Dugan’s words. “Was the way Rogers looked after Barnes died.”
“It was not an expression I had wanted to ever see on Rogers’s face again.” Dernier looked down, at his hands resting across the table. “But I would have seen it and been glad a hundred times, if we could have saved Rogers.”
“It was sort of poetic, if you think about it that way,” Dugan said, smile slipping off his face. “Barnes fell, and then the Captain crashed.”
Steve’s breath hitched. When Tony looked over, Steve’s cheeks were gone past pink, and his eyes were too shiny. There was a hurt little line between his eyebrows.
With a wave of his hand, Tony had JARVIS shut off the film.
“I have lawyers,” said Tony.
Steve’s gaze turned to him, slow, like his eyeballs were heavy. “I beg your pardon?”
“Lawyers,” said Tony. “I have them, I have lots, you could use some. Sue ‘em .”
“Why would I do that?”
“Uh. To defend your honor? Defamation of character? Slander? Something?” Tony shrugged. “I thought it would be obvious.”
Steve’s shoulders hunched even harder, his arms across his chest and his hands tucked in his arm pits. He looked so awkward that it made Tony’s teeth ache.
“Tony,” Steve said, in a quiet, oddly cracked voice, “Tony, they didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.”
Tony stared. There was an odd noise in his head, a whirring, like a computer trying too hard to compute a particularly difficult problem. “What are— You mean you— What?”
“I… I did feel that way. About Bucky.”
“Steve,” said Tony, and then couldn’t decide what else he meant to follow it with.
Steve wasn’t quite meeting Tony’s eyes, and he was fairly vibrating with tension. “I always thought I was a bit transparent. I guess I just didn’t realize how much.”
“You mean that you and Barnes were—”
“Oh, no.” Steve shook his head, gaze skittering all over, everywhere except Tony’s. “No, we weren’t. I wanted to, though.”
“Didn’t you ever…?”
Steve shook his head again, so hard it looked like it hurt this time. It certainly hurt Tony to watch. “First I was a skinny guy nobody wanted, then he was in the Army, then I was as well, then there was Peggy— It never seemed like the time. And besides, Bucky didn’t— He wasn’t,” Steve said, quietly.
“Oh. So. Okay.”
Steve licked his lips. “Okay?”
“So you had a crush on your best friend,” said Tony, shrugging. “Not like you’re the first guy in the world to do it.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. Then, stronger, “Yeah, okay. And, uhm. Thanks, Tony.”
“It was nothing, don’t mention it. You’re welcome,” said Tony.
After that, there was silence for several minutes.
“There are others,” Tony found himself saying.
Steve looked up. “Others?”
Tony waved a hand toward the screen, the frozen footage. “Yeah, you know, others. Not documentaries, this is the only one of those, but it kind of— sparked a thing, you know, for, uh, your and Bucky’s epic, tragic romance.”
“It wasn’t a romance,” said Steve, his brow furrowed. “We were only ever friends.”
“Sure, no, of course it wasn’t,” said Tony. “But a lot of people decided it would have made a good story, if it had been. So, uh. Some people maybe wrote a couple books to that effect?”
“There are books about us?”
“And a movie,” said Tony. “Well, a movie and a half; there was the one about my dad, you guys were in that. But definitely at least one movie. They never used your real name or anything, couldn’t come out and say they were writing about Captain America, but, yeah. They totally were.”
Steve was quiet a moment. “Could you get them for me?” he asked.
Tony looked at him. His shoulders weren’t hunched quite so much anymore.
“Yeah,” he said, “I can get ‘em all. For you.”
A month passed. Steve read every book Tony gave him, watched both movies.
(“In this one they changed my name to Stew,” he complained. “That’s not even subtle.”
“It’s like if your mother’d had a lisp,” said Tony.
Steve glared at him.
“What, did she?”
Steve started to make the Disapproving Frown. Tony found something else to talk about.)
And it was okay, really. Tony still hadn’t admitted to himself that he was working his way around to making actual use of this whole new ‘it wasn’t romanticized history, Captain America actually is interested in guys too!’ thing, but, y’know. He was getting there. Eventually. Maybe.
Tony’d never met a bad idea he couldn’t breed like rabbits, but somehow asking Steve out was too hard to face.
Then Barton found the documentary, and Steve and Tony came back from dinner one evening to discover that everybody else had watched it, too.
(“Your loss saddens me,” said Thor, big droopy lines on either side of his mouth. “Come, we will drink to the memory of your fallen shield brothers!”
Barton crossed his arms and smirked. At Tony. “This explains so much, you have no idea, Stark.”
“I sort of feel like Hulking out and smashing something,” said Bruce, as sad-faced as Thor.
“No!” said everybody.
Natasha didn’t say anything, but she did give Tony these knowing looks that were, seriously, so much worse than Barton’s smirk.)
Without looking anyone in the eye, Steve mumbled about yes, thank you, it did suck, he appreciated their sympathy, and — cheeks pink enough it couldn’t be just Tony noticing anymore — could they please not talk about it ever again? Thank you. Just like any guy embarrassed and a little miserable to be talking about his ex; or in this case his dead best friend who he’d had a whopping pink elephant of a crush on.
“One day soon, Barton, I’m going to fill your computer with octogenarian porn, when you least expect it, and it’s going to be a glorious day,” said Tony, snatching his disc away and not at all cradling it like a semi-precious item. “Teach you to go through a man’s antiques and help yourself to them.”
Which was the end of it — well, other than Thor deciding they did actually have to drink, and drink, and drink in memory of Steve’s lost friends, but Tony didn’t actually remember a lot of that so it didn’t count — because either everyone else just wasn’t as much of an asshole as Tony was and therefore wouldn’t push their fearless leader into spilling his secrets all over them, or Steve had actually wanted to tell Tony what he did. Either way, Steve didn’t say more, and the others didn’t press, and the subject dropped there.
After that it seemed less like a… like a thing, that Steve was a little bit gay. Less like it needed its own special folder in the mental file Tony was keeping on all things Steve. It just… was.
Bizarrely, that made it harder.
It was like his spirit was willing but his words wouldn’t come out right.
(“So. Steve. I was thinking.”
Steve gave him an appropriately wary look. “Yes?”
“We should get coffee sometime. Together.”
Steve sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know, JARVIS monitors your caffeine intake for me, Tony. Going out and buying me a cup too doesn’t raise the limit.”
“Yeah, okay, but that wasn’t what I meant when I said we should— Wait, there’s a limit? You’ve got JARVIS monitoring me?”
“Yeah,” said Steve, sighing again, “you definitely don’t need any more coffee today.”)
But Tony would get it right. Eventually.
Halfway through breakfast a couple weeks later, Steve’s Starkphone started blaring Star-Spangled Man, which — because sometimes Tony knew he was being funny when nobody else saw the humor — meant it was SHIELD on the line.
Tony tensed for a second, waiting for his to go off too, but it didn’t, and Steve’s phone was singing about fighting for the American Way, and Tony’s phone still didn’t ring, so the next moment everyone else at the table relaxed, and Steve was frowning a little and stepping away to answer his call.
“Now he’s just getting special treatment,” said Tony, not really a complaint, because he certainly didn’t want Director Fury calling him up at all hours to chat, or whatever this was.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” said Barton, with what was really far too much like a leer for the breakfast table. At least, any breakfast table not situated inside an entirely different mansion. One with bunnies.
Natasha glared at them, like she knew what Tony was thinking, and shifted her grip on her knife and fork.
Tony cleared his throat and looked away from Barton, who was doing something remarkably similar, only grinning while he did it.
“So,” said Tony. “How ‘bout them Dodgers?”
“Do you even like baseball?” asked Banner, eyeing him sidelong.
“Another!” Thor called, holding his entirely too large coffee cup (it was bigger than Tony’s, okay) out like he expected someone to get up and refill it.
Banner actually did.
“Okay, really, I know we’re all nice people here— well, most of us try— and you’re totally my favorite, Thor, don’t get me wrong, but, Banner, do you actually think we should be encouraging—”
Tony’s head whipped around at that, because that was Steve’s voice, being hoarse and unsteady, which was not how Steve had sounded when he’d left the table— and what was this, was he hovering? What the hell had happened on that phone call?
Steve was, indeed, hovering just behind Tony’s chair, and he looked, oh, he looked wrecked.
“What is it? What’s wrong? Why do you look like that, your face, why is it—”
Tony froze. “Steve?”
“He’s alive,” said Steve.
“They found him, Tony, and he’s— I don’t know how, Zola must’ve done something— but he’s alive.” Steve still looked wrecked, but now he was smiling through it, like he couldn’t help it, even maybe like he didn’t know he was doing it—
“Bucky’s alive,” said Steve, wrecked and radiant.
Big, beautiful Steve, that Tony never got around to making his.
God damn it.
“That great, Cap,” Tony said, the words coming out evenly, despite it feeling like his throat was trying to close up around them, strangle them and keep them in. Steve didn’t seem to notice. “That’s really— it’s great.”
“Wait,” Barton interrupted, waving his fork around like he didn’t realize there was still bacon on the end of it, or that right now Tony would happily stab him in the face with it if he kept talking. “This guy. The one who inoculated you to Starks. You’re telling me he’s alive?”
“They’re not a disease, stop saying that,” said Steve, barely sparing him a glance and still smiling, painfully bright, at Tony. “And yes. Yes, he is.”
“Wow,” said Barton.
“I think you should sit down, Captain,” said Banner, cautiously.
Tony thought that was a brilliant idea. Steve’s face wasn’t supposed to be that pale. Ever. It hadn’t been that pale after that one time he’d sustained copious blood loss and given Tony an anxiety attack, Tony didn’t approve of this. He dragged Steve back down into his seat next to Tony.
Steve kept smiling.
He didn’t stop all through breakfast, was still smiling when Tony excused himself.
“I’m not going to panic,” Tony told JARVIS, after realizing, twenty minutes into sitting in the workshop, that nothing he was trying to work on made sense and he couldn’t stop thinking about Steve and Steve’s Bucky-smile and Steve. “No, really. This isn’t anything to panic about, it’s a strictly non-panic situation. And I’m not giving up, either.”
“Of course not, sir,” said JARVIS.
“I don’t give up.”
“Of course, sir.”
“I’m just… not going to make any moves, or move-like actions, and I’m just… not going to hit that quite yet. That’s what I’m gonna do,” and if he kept saying it, maybe it would even make it true, or a good enough lie that it would fool people who weren’t Pepper. Thor, maybe if he said it enough it would be able to fool Thor.
“Of course, sir.”
“Which doesn’t mean I’m giving up.”
“Of course not, sir.”
“Stop patronizing me,” Tony snapped. Then he groaned. “I can’t believe I’ve been reduced to this; yelling at my AI because somebody’s boyfriend came back from the dead, really?”
“It would seem so, sir.”
Well. At least JARVIS couldn’t come right out and tell him he was being an idiot, the way Pepper or Rhodey would.
(Couldn’t, yet, anyway.)
Tony wasn’t actually sure whether he left the workshop at all after that, until two days later when Steve dragged him upstairs to breakfast.
“Director Fury called again,” said Steve, once Tony’d had a cup of coffee and three bites of french toast.
Tony looked up from the tablet he was pretending to work on, a compromise because Steve had come down and started doing the it’s time to refuel, Tony loom, but Tony didn’t actually feel like he could face being in a room with Steve and actually having all of his attention the way Tony did when Steve was making absolutely certain he actually ate the food Steve put in front of him. So, tablet. With what probably looked to Steve like work on it, but was actually just Dummy’s schematics inverted, which didn’t count as work because he didn’t have an idea or a goal, he was just playing around.
“You didn’t mention. I didn’t get a call. There’s a distinct lack of assembling going on here,” said Tony, frowning around at the otherwise unoccupied kitchen— and, hang on, what was this, why wasn’t Thor trying to con Tony’s scrambled eggs away from him with his big sad puppy face? Why hadn’t Natasha threatened with her eyes to stab Tony just because she was bored and he was in reach?
“Not that kind of call,” said Steve. His hand flattened against the table top, was snatched back up. Clear, obvious fidget.
Tony set the tablet down. And his fork, for good measure. “Spit it out, Steve, talk to me.”
Steve took a deep breath, and blurted, “He said Bucky can have visitors now.”
“Huh.” Tony thought about that, just for a second; he took in Steve’s uncharacteristic twitchy, the steadily more suspicious absence of their teammates (really, when did team breakfast become enough of a thing that the lack of it made Tony twitch, he’d really like to know), and the fact that the button-down shirt on Steve’s chest was his presentable one.
Steve looked at him earnestly.
It was possible Tony wasn’t quite seeing straight at the moment. Sleep deprivation, it did that to you.
“I’ll call Happy to take you over to HQ,” he offered dutifully.
Except that was apparently the wrong thing to say, because it made Steve frown and clutch at Tony, leaning in too close and saying, all in a rush, in a too-fast, anxious voice that wasn’t like him, “But— But you’re coming in with me, aren’t you?”
Tony hesitated. “I. Do you want me to?”
Steve kept looking at him, pleading in his eyes, his hand too tight on Tony’s arm. He didn’t say anything.
He didn’t need to. Tony wasn’t stupid.
“Of course I’m coming with you,” Tony promised. To visit your not-so-dead best friend and first love. Won’t this be fun.
Steve smiled, relieved.
His hold on Tony didn’t loosen at all.
Steve went in to see Barnes first, but he’d made Tony promise to come in after a while and not just run off to harass Dr Foster or whoever else he could find in the bowels of SHIELD HQ, so Tony gave him thirty minutes, then forced himself to enter Barnes’s room, too.
“Yeah, okay, no,” Tony said, first thing, because, seriously, were they joking? “I’m putting my foot down.”
The man with the metal arm — Barnes, of course it was Barnes — looked up from where he was sitting on the edge of his cot, next to Steve, and gave Tony the hairy eyeball. “Who’s this clown?”
Tony ignored that. It was nowhere near the top of his priority list right now, and also, really. He’d been called worse things. He’d been called worse things that were true.
“Bucky,” Steve said, heavily, and that was his Cap voice, he was probably giving Barnes the Disapproving Frown, but Tony didn’t look over to see. “Be nice.”
“Oh, it’s like that, is it,” said Barnes, but he didn’t punch Tony in the face when he started poking at the metal arm, which was all Tony cared about at the moment. The Frown was a weapon of Good today.
And, anyway, looking at the arm was important, because if Tony was looking at the arm, Tony didn’t have to look at his face — either of their faces — didn’t have to see them smiling and being happy at each other. Which was good. It was great, actually, because Tony really couldn’t handle how this was making him feel, didn’t know whether to call it good or bad, because, yeah, he was burning with jealousy over here, but he was also sort of weirdly burningly happy for Steve.
Steve deserved this, this happiness, he had a right to it and Tony wanted it for him all the time, wanted Steve’s best friend around to make Steve happy like he was; if Tony could’ve given Steve one impossible thing it would always have been this.
The least Tony could do now that someone else got it for Steve was not fuck it up for him.
“Seriously, who is he?” said Barnes. “Why is he doing… what is he doing?”
“Bucky, this is Tony Stark,” said Steve. “Tony, this is Bucky.”
“Is this really the best that SHIELD could do?” said Tony. “I’m making you a new one. A better one.”
“‘Stark’, really,” said Barnes, drier than Natasha at her worst, dry enough to give the Mojave a run for its money. “I’d never have pegged it.”
“He’s usually not nearly this bad,” said Steve. He paused. “Well, he’s not this bad, anyway. Sometimes.”
“What nice things you say about me, dear,” said Tony.
“… This is definitely payback for something,” Barnes said to Steve over Tony’s head. “I’ll figure out what, Rogers, see if I don’t.”
And Steve laughed.
Arm, thought Tony grimly. Bionic arm, much more interesting.
“I don’t like leaving him here,” said Steve, once the door closed behind them.
“Don’t worry,” said Tony, “I’m already working on a plan to spring him, I promise.”
Yeah, that got Steve smiling again. Tony’d been pretty sure it would.
Tony let himself indulge in it for a moment, just a moment, because he was selfish that way and besides, who was it hurting? Then he turned himself around and went to find Coulson.
Probably he’d need to go through Fury directly, in the end, but it would be more fun to start with the supernanny. He made the best unimpressed faces.
Whatever it took, though, Tony was going to make sure that Steve got to take Barnes home with him. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and—
Everybody knew that quote, anyway.
“You actually busted me out,” said Barnes, when the three of them were finally in one of Tony’s convertibles heading away from SHIELD HQ, Tony driving and Bucky sitting shotgun, with Steve behind them grinning at the backs of their heads. “You actually did it. And it only took a week. Thanks, pal.”
“Well not to be immodest, or anything, but there was some serious Fury-wrangling going on there, and a promise to SHIELD R&D that most likely comes worryingly close to a bribe, or blackmail, or possibly indentured servitude, I didn’t read the fine print too closely, but. Hey, you’re out!” Tony flashed the road in front of him a bright smile, and avoided looking in his rearview mirror.
“Thank you, Tony, really,” said Steve, his voice all heavy, sincere gratitude. Then, before Tony’d really had a chance to enjoy that, “You won’t believe the mansion, Bucky. It’s great.”
“… and through here’s the kitch—”
Tony froze in the doorway.
“Why is everyone in here, in their breakfast spots?” he demanded. This was suspicious. Very suspicious.
“We have held our repast in wait for you!” said Thor, beaming at them. “We knew you were to return with the Captain’s fallen shield brother.”
“Let me guess,” said Barnes, from behind Tony. “He means me.”
“Everyone,” Steve announced, easing Tony to the side, where Tony belonged now, so he and Barnes could enter the room too, “I’d like you to meet my friend, James Barnes. Bucky, this is… my new team.”
“It is an honor to meet you, Bucky,” said Thor. Then, very seriously, “I have drunk much wine in your name.”
Barnes did a complicated sort of surprised, blinking, non-twitchy facial… thing. “Uh,” he said. “Thanks?”
“That’s Thor, bona fide God of Thunder,” said Tony, quickly. “He’s always like that, just go with it. He’s my favorite.”
Barnes cast him a look. “Sure he is.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Tony very seriously.
“Sure you don’t,” said Barnes.
“Oh, you and I are gonna get along great,” said Barton, smirking at them from the table. “Have a seat over here, Barnes. I’m Clint.”
“This is Natasha,” said Barton, risking life and limb by draping an arm around her shoulders, over the back of her chair. As usual, he escaped the experience unmaimed. “Keep your hands to yourself and she usually doesn’t stab anyone. Very much.”
“Good to know,” said Barnes. To his credit, he didn’t look like he was wishing he’d sat down at the other end of the table, the way most people might’ve, but then, Tony’d already figured out he had to be a bit of a balls-of-steel kinda guy, to go following stupidly brave Steve around during WWII, and all.
“I’m Dr Bruce Banner,” said Banner, leaning across the table to offer Barnes his hand. His lips quirked wryly, and he added, “You won’t like me when I’m angry.”
“Oh, you must be the Hulk,” said Barnes. He shook the offered hand. “SHIELD made me get briefed about you before they let me loose.”
“Why do I hear introductions?” called Rhodey’s voice. A moment later the rest of Rhodey appeared in the doorway. “Is this a party, because I only came over for lunch, but if there’s a par— Oh god, Tony, please tell me you didn’t cut somebody’s arm off to build him a better one.”
“… Is that the sort of thing he’s likely to do?” Barnes asked Steve.
“No,” Tony thought he heard Steve say, but he was busy being offended in Rhodey’s direction.
Tony drew his shoulders up and glared at Rhodey. “That arm looks like my work to you?”
“I don’t know anyone else who builds human accessories out of metal.” Rhodey crossed his arms. “Please tell me you at least had him sign a waiver first.”
“I didn’t do it!” said Tony, flapping his hand dismissively. “He came that way from SHIELD.”
“I’m going to make him a better one,” Tony added.
Rhodey looked skeptical.
“He’s Steve’s,” said Tony, because that ought to be explanation enough. The fact that it made Steve blush had absolutely no bearing on why he said it. No, really.
“Only sort of,” Barnes put in, and when Tony looked over at him, he was grinning at Rhodey. “Hiya. I’m Bucky.”
“Nice to meet you, Bu— Oh my god, you’re not seriously James Barnes, the James Barnes. Are you?”
“Yep,” said Barnes, smug.
“Does anyone else want popcorn?” Tony heard Banner say, from somewhere over by the microwave.
“Holy shit. You’re supposed to be dead.” Rhodey squinted from Barnes, to Steve, to Tony, and back to Barnes. “How many of you guys is SHIELD planning to dig up? And is Tony planning to collect all of you?”
“I resent the—” Tony started, but he was interrupted by Thor clapping his hands together loudly like he did when he’d just had what he considered to be a brilliant idea. (JARVIS usually had to call repairmen, after.)
“We should drink!”
Everyone turned to look at Thor.
Tony checked the clock. “Uh, buddy, it’s not even noon yet?”
“We should drink to celebrate the shield brother’s return. It is traditional!”
“Jesus,” said Rhodey, shaking his head. “No wonder you keep falling off the wagon, Tony.”
“Tony hid the good stuff on top of the fridge, Thor,” said Natasha mildly. She was— Wait, was she actually—
Natasha was smiling at Bucky.
“I’m just gonna go elsewhere now,” Tony declared, to nobody in particular, “and pretend I’m not an alcoholic.”
Steve looked over, the beginnings of a frown between his eyebrows. “Tony—”
Tony left them to it.
“JARVIS,” said Tony, once he was alone in his workshop. “I want you to tell me as soon as Barnes starts moving his things into Steve’s room.”
“You wish me to monitor them?”
“That is what I just said,” Tony pointed out.
“Do you think that’s wise, sir?”
“Are you second-guessing me, JARVIS?” asked Tony, narrowing his eyes.
“I was merely—”
“Because I have this handled, I promise; this is the way to go.”
“If you say so.”
“No, really,” said Tony, “it’s going to happen sooner or later, I get that, I just want to be aware when it does. I have a carefully nonchalant congratulatory speech prepared for the occasion, and everything.”
“Of course, sir,” said JARVIS, but he sounded really disapproving, for an AI.
Tony narrowed his eyes. “Steve taught you that tone, didn’t he.”
There was a pause.
“He suggested I employ it when you exhibited any of a number of ‘worrying’ behaviors,” said JARVIS, which was as good as a confession.
“Jesus, did he, really?”
“He provided a list,” said JARVIS. “It was highly detailed.”
“I knew it,” said Tony, groaning. “It’s a conspiracy.”
Really, Tony should have realized that it was only going to be a matter of time before they came home from Avenging, or a press conference, or something, and Barnes would be standing around having found Ton— uh, Steve’s stash of pseudo-Steve-and-Bucky romances.
It didn’t even take Barnes very long to find it. Eight days.
“Oh,” said Steve, when he looked at Barnes over the stack of books and DVDs in Barnes’s hands and noticed the knowing look on Barnes’s face.
“Yeah,” said Barnes. “‘Oh.’”
Tony stopped next to Steve. He looked between them, and didn’t say anything. It was… strangely hard to breathe.
“I was going to show them to you,” said Steve.
“Sure you were,” said Barnes.
“I can, uh, explain?” Steve tried.
“Explain? Oh, yeah, explain. While you’re at it, how about you explain why in this one I only wanted you before the Project got you, because you were somebody I could protect; in this one, it was only after, because you got all tall and stopped being invisible. They’re all different and wrong and they’re all the same.” Barnes dropped the books and DVDs on the table, with a noise of disgust. “I’m either a schmuck who’s full of himself, or a blind horndog. Who’s full of himself.”
Tony cringed. Steve looked like he was trying not to as well, and weakly offered, “It’s not that bad?”
“Yes, it is,” Tony said helpfully.
“The least they could have done was get it right,” said Barnes.
“It’s a work of fiction, Bucky. They don’t care about getting it right,” said Steve. “Obviously. Seeing as they’re romances.”
“Yeah, well. I’m just saying, your miracle growth spurt didn’t change how I felt about you a damn bit,” said Barnes, his face serious.
Steve nodded. “I kno—”
“It just meant I had to worry a little less about how much you could get hurt, taking on every bully in the world. And worry a little more how hard you’d punch me, if I ever ballsed up enough to actually try getting fresh with you.”
“Bucky, I get it, you— What did you say?”
Barnes hesitated, something Tony recognized too well flickering across his eyes, but in the end he said “You heard me,” and thrust out his chin in a show of bravado Tony had to admire.
Steve stared at him, boggle-eyed, his own jaw slack.
“Yes, well, awkward,” said Tony, because he’d known this was coming but he didn’t want to have to watch it. “I’m going to, uh, go do that thing, the thing I do in my workshop, weld some genius, maybe work on your arm, Barnes, and, uh, basically not be here. Okay? Okay.”
“Sergeant Barnes is approaching,” JARVIS said sometime later, drawing Tony back from the jigsaw pieces of wiring and hydraulics he was absorbed in. “He has expressed a desire to speak with you.”
“Of course he has,” muttered Tony.
“Shall I keep him out?”
Tony hesitated. Then he sighed, and shook his head. “No, no, let him in. Might as well get it over with.”
“Stark,” said Barnes as he walked in. He had his hand shoved in the pocket of his pants; his SHIELD-issue, shitty-tech arm was hanging limp, like maybe he was trying to pretend it wasn’t there.
“I would, too,” said Tony. “I just look at it and I get all itchy.”
Barnes faltered. “What?”
“Nothing, forget it. Talking to myself. So. You and Cap kiss and make up?” asked Tony. He immediately wished he’d soldered his mouth shut before Barnes had entered the workshop, because, just, no. He didn’t want to know.
“We cleared some things up,” said Barnes, smiling like he knew something Tony didn’t — and he did, didn’t he, of course he did, because Tony didn’t get to do things like kiss Steve, much less go around gloating about it, after.
Then, because beneath all his genius Tony was, fundamentally, an idiot, who didn’t know when to leave things alone for his own good, he asked, “He sleeping it off?”
“He’s in his room,” said Barnes, still with that smug little smirk in the corner of his mouth. Maybe Tony should have soldered his lips together. “I think he’s trying to figure out if he should be more disappointed or relieved I never got my courage up when I had the chance.”
“Relieved? Why reliev— What? What do you mean, ‘when’, what are you talking about?”
“I mean back in our time, before we both died. Before you were born.”
“Well I don’t know that you should have, uh, made your move, back then, back in the day. Probably they wouldn’t have taken very well to you and Captain America getting it on, gaying up a national icon and all that — hell, some people still won’t take it well now — but, I mean, then was the Forties. The Forties ruin everything, okay.”
Barnes stared at him. Tony cleared his throat.
“Yeah, all right,” he said, shrugging, “I admit, that statement could have used a tad less enthusiasm. But my point stands. You couldn’t make your move then, you can now; everybody wins here, you’ve got a second chance.”
“No,” said Barnes, “I really don’t.”
“I had my chance. I didn’t take it.”
“I don’t get it,” said Tony, slowly, frowning.
Barnes’s lips twitched. “What’s not to get?”
“You’re both here, you’re both alive, yours isn’t the love that dare not speak its name anymore— where’s the bad, why aren’t you falling into bed, making the beast with two backs like you can’t believe you’re both alive, which, hey! Perfectly reasonable, didn’t that happen to you guys?”
Barnes straightened, shoulders back and arm at his side, face cool and flat, and looked at Tony with old, old eyes; every inch of him a soldier, cold and remote. Tony clenched his fingers around the handle of the soldering iron a little, reflexively.
“A first love’s only good enough until you meet the love of your life, Stark. You, of all people, ought to know that.”
“Okay, Steve, really, I love you,” Tony started, barely noticing that he didn’t have to manually bypass the lock on Steve’s door even though he could see it was locked. His hand touched the door, and the light flashed from red to green, and Tony made a mental note to compliment JARVIS, really, that was some seriously good command anticipation, right there.
Steve, sitting on the edge of his bed with his face in his hands, looked up with a sharp jerk of his head. His eyes were huge.
“Really, I do, you’re a great guy, you’re awesome, and all that, but— What is your problem?”
For a second, Steve didn’t react. Then his eyes went flat, and the corners of his mouth turned down, and his cheeks went pink, and— well really it was like watching his whole face crumple up, one feature at a time. He dropped his head again.
“Tony,” he said, sighed really, and Tony didn’t think he was imagining the way Steve’s shoulders slumped as it left his mouth.
Tony felt bad — he really did, honest, there was a sick, heavy clenching feeling next to his arc reactor, just looking at Steve like this — but he reminded himself of Steve, tense and vulnerable on Tony’s couch talking about his hopeless crush on his best friend. Of the way Steve’s smile had been blinding when they found Barnes, found him alive and not dead and Steve’s again. And, finally, of the stiff line of Barnes’s shoulders down in Tony’s workshop, just now, as he said Steve didn’t want him anymore.
“No, seriously, I’m being serious here, Cap,” Tony said. “I want to know.”
“What do you want to know?”
And damn Steve for sounding that resigned, anyway. What right did he have, he was the one who’d just turned away the man he loved, he could just deal with Tony calling him on it. Preferably without the defeatist attitude, without that tone of voice that made Tony’s gut hurt.
“What the hell crazy thing you’re thinking, that’s what I want to know! Seriously. Barnes is a good man, he’s an awesome man, he’s your best friend, you told me yourself you’ve always had the hugest thing for him! Are you nuts?”
Steve’s hands slipped a little, dragged down his face to the point Tony could see his eyelids, his long distracting lashes. “Tony, you’re not making any sense again.”
“I talked to Barnes,” said Tony.
“Yeah, that much I got.”
“He told me, okay? About how you— how you’re— How there’s somebody else. Somebody you’re into enough not to want him. Is it true?”
“Explain to me how that led to you in my room yelling at me,” said Steve.
It wasn’t a denial.
“You’re in love with Barnes, you always have been,” said Tony, the words leaving his throat like trying to swallow nails in reverse. “So why now, when you find out he’s interested in you, do you turn him down? What the hell, Ste—Cap. Why would you do that? Who could you possibly be so crazy about that you would—”
Tony faltered, felt his face freezing before he gave up and let it screw into a frown. “What?”
“I’m not in love with Bucky,” Steve repeated, lifting his head and meeting Tony’s gaze, his face set in familiar stubborn lines.
“I’m not. Not anymore, if I ever was. Not Bucky. God.” Steve laughed, shortly, rough and hard to listen to. “Is that what you think?”
“But.” Tony hesitated. “But there is somebody?”
“Do you really have to ask?” said Steve, real heavy, the way people usually did when they were setting Tony up with loaded questions that he couldn’t possibly answer right.
“Okay let’s pretend you’re talking to a really confused person here,” said Tony, “and explain what the hell that means, and who the hell you’re interested in, if it’s not Barnes.”
Steve’s eyes skittered away. “I’d really rather not, actually.”
Tony took a couple of steps closer to him, finally daring to leave the doorway; behind him, the door swung closed and automatically locked again with a soft, electronic click.
“Do it anyway,” he said, oh god, what did Tony think he was doing, this was a stupid idea, he shouldn’t be pushing, not at Steve, not about this.
“Go away,” said Steve, but there wasn’t any heat behind it, and he tilted his head back as Tony got closer, like he usually would have, even though he wasn’t actually looking at Tony right now.
Steve made a wounded noise. “Tony—”
“For me,” said Tony, stopping just within touching distance. Steve’s hair looked so soft, rumpled and wrecked, like the look on his face. “Explain it for me.”
Tony’s under-exercised heart had a fit, tripped all over itself in his chest and started going triple-time like he’d switched to vibranium all over again.
“All right? I give up. That person I’m crazy about, it’s you, Tony,” Steve was saying. His hands dropped, curling around his knees, where they went white knuckled almost immediately. “And I’m sorry if that wasn’t what you wanted to hear, but you asked, and I can’t—”
“Oh my god, Barnes is a genius,” said Tony, awed.
“No, listen,” and Tony flailed at Steve with evil, treacherous hands that didn’t seem to want to work properly, until he caught a fistful of t-shirt and reeled himself in closer, buried his fingers in soft blond hair, “seriously, your buddy’s a genius, I’m going to make him the best goddamn prosthetic arm in the universe, I love you, we’re idiots.”
Steve’s eyes snapped to his, blown and shocked, with joy just beginning to seep across his face. His hands brushed Tony’s chest, his sides, skittish and uncertain, before settling on his hips.
“Tony?” Steve sounded so hopeful, god, didn’t he know he was killing Tony with that tone of voice?
“I know usually when this gets said I’m on the other end of it, but shut up,” said Tony, and he bent down, pulled Steve up, pressed their foreheads together. “I’m having a moment here.”
“Okay,” said Steve, easy as that. He closed his eyes, and his hands tightened, pulling Tony just a little closer between his legs, and he shut up.
God, he was so Steve.
And he was gonna be all Tony’s.
“No, really,” said Bucky. He tossed back his shot, so many gone the same way already that he didn’t even feel the burn. “Idiots.”
“Yeah,” said Rhodey, doing likewise. He grimaced. “Tell me about it.”
“Steve’s always been an idiot,” said Bucky, waving vaguely around at the mansion rec room, like this illustrated anything other than that Clint and Natasha had been throwing something more than darts at the dart board.
Rhodey nodded. “Tony’s the dumbest smart person I know.”
“This is truly staggering idiocy, though.” Bucky shook his head. “A real muddle.”
“Morons,” agreed Rhodey. “Big giant stupid… stupid things.”
“I mean, thinking I wanted Steve, that I get, and thinking I’d take him if I could get him, I get that, too. I maybe even get why Stark thought his chance was over as soon as I stepped back on the field — the boob — but they both started out figuring it wasn’t a possibility!”
“… Wait, it was?”
“As if I wouldn’t swing for fellas,” said Bucky, scoffing. He poured them both another shot. “I so go for fellas. I so do, Rhodes.”
Rhodey paused. He leaned toward Bucky, squinting to eye him closely. “Oh, yeah? You do?”
Bucky straightened up indignantly. “Sure I do! Why, I’d swing for you, if you were willing.”
“Sure I would,” snapped Bucky. He downed his shot, curled his fingers around the empty glass.
Rhodey grinned. He emptied his, too, and leaned even closer. “I’m willing, Sergeant.”
Bucky blinked. “You… are?” he asked.
“I am,” said Rhodey, nodding.
“Oh, thank fuck,” Bucky said, and closed the space between them, kissing him.