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the most undefinable yet paradoxical of things

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“Are you listening to me, Tony?”

A voice from his phone’s speaker reached Tony though a fog. He blinked and shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, I hear you. Obie thinks it’ll move the merchandise, he’s usually right about these things.”

“Just schedule the demonstration for a different loca—”

A scream and a heavy impact toward the front of the car interrupted him. Happy swore, panic leaching into his voice as he slammed on the breaks. Momentum threw Tony violently forward and his head struck the partition with a painful whack.

“What the hell was that?” Happy turned back to look at Tony, gesturing wildly with his hands. “It happened all of a sudden, Boss. Out of nowhere. I didn’t hit him, he just fell out of the sky—”

“I gotta go,” Tony said, a disoriented hand pressed to his forehead, before hanging up on Rhodey and slipping the phone into his pocket.

Countless horns from the cars behind them clamored as Tony stumbled from the car out onto the street. A snowflake drifted in front of Tony’s face before evaporating. Tony blinked, nearly tripping over a bent metal bar as he rounded the car before he regained his balance, and rushed to the side of a man lying on the pavement. A low groan could just barely be heard over the impatient clamor.

“Hey! Are you okay?” he asked, gently cupping the man’s face. He didn’t get a response, but the man’s eyes fluttered as if he barely clung to consciousness. “It’s going to be fine. You’re going to be okay.”

The man’s left arm looked off, almost crooked, and blood soaked the sleeve. Tony wanted nothing more to crawl back into his car and raid the drinks bar, but instead he ignored his brewing headache to look around at the gathering crowd. “Is anybody going to call an ambulance?”

Tony’s hands shook as he ran them over him, checking for other injuries as best he could. His clothes, a thick, dark blue jacket and cargo pants, were oddly cold and stiff with grime. Between the smell and the uneven stubble, Tony was sure this man hadn’t seen the inside of a shower in a long time.

How had he ended up splattering himself on Tony’s car? Tony already suspected he wouldn’t like the answer. There were only so many reasons someone that had been sleeping rough would fall out of the sky.

The man hazily stared up at Tony, eyes half lidded, before snapping into focus. His gaze pierced Tony with blue-eyed intensity. Tony’s heart leapt at the approaching sirens of an ambulance.

“Hey, help is on the way, just hold on for me,” Tony said, but the man’s eyes had already slid shut.

=========

Tony pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, doing what he could to abate his well-developed headache, before peeking through his fingers at the sleeping man. Something about his features--the straight nose, full lips, and slightly cleft chin--nagged at Tony’s memory, though he couldn’t say what.

He wondered for the thousandth time what he was doing waiting for some homeless stranger to wake up. So what if he’d taken a flying leap and landed on Tony’s car? He’d been wheeled out of surgery about twenty minutes ago with a fresh cast on his arm and a good prognosis.  He was not Tony’s problem. Tony should be kicking it back on a plane to Malibu by now, drinking wine with his in-flight meal, and complimenting the flexibility of his flight attendants.

Shifting in the hard hospital chair with a frustrated sigh, Tony texted Pepper again about increasing funding to the Maria Stark Foundation’s New York shelters. He fiddled with his melted ice pack for a few seconds before abruptly standing.

He needed coffee, even shitty, waiting-room coffee.

Moments later, Tony cradled one of those dinky styrofoam cups in his hands, careful not to spill on his way back to the room. He took a cautious sip and grimaced at the watery, burnt taste when someone rushed past, knocking the cup from his hands and splattering the coffee across the tiled floor.

“Hey!” Tony shouted. That was his shitty cup of coffee.

The perpetrator stopped and looked back at Tony. It was the man that put a dent in the hood of his car the size of Valles Marineris. There was a clear moment of recognition, the man’s eyes widening in surprise, before he grabbed Tony’s hand and resumed running.

He was stronger than Tony expected, dragging Tony along before Tony could even react. He hauled Tony into a closet down the hall. As soon as he finished easing the door shut, he crowded Tony against the shelves of cleaning supplies.

“Woah, calm down,” Tony said, inching to the side. “I hate the food here too, but you’re going to hurt yourself running around like this.”

“Where am I?” the man spat in a low voice. He blocked off Tony’s escape route with one leg. “Why did you bring me here?”

Tony tried shoving him away, but it was like pushing a wall. “It’s a hospital, I was saving your life!”

“This is a trick.” His breath was hot on Tony’s face, the harsh smell of chemicals permeating the air between them.

Heart pounding, Tony quickly said, “No tricks. We’re at Columbia University Medical Center. My car broke your fall, remember?”

He nodded, expression growing distant. “I saw you. You were there.”

“That’s right.” Tony smiled reassuringly, or what he thought was reassuringly; he didn’t get much practice with that one.

“I was hanging on to the side of the train, but the bar snapped.” The man staggered back, and Tony took the opportunity to slip between him and the door.

Tony kept his voice steady as he reached for the door handle. “You have a name?”

“Bucky. James Buchanan Barnes. 32557038.

“Nice try,” Tony said, but he saw it now, what was so familiar about his face. “Bucky Barnes died more than 60 years ago.”

The-would-be-Bucky stared at him blankly. “What?”

“Captain America’s sidekick, Bucky Barnes, died 62 years ago.” Though Tony had to admit, he looked eerily similar. The outfit he’d been wearing looked right, too.

“This is insane!” Barnes snarled, grabbing the front of Tony’s shirt. Tony held his ground, and after a few seconds, the fabric slipped from Barnes’ fingers. Shaking his head, he looked back at Tony pleadingly. “I can’t be dead. I’m here, aren’t I?”

Tony was at a loss for words. He wanted to tell Barnes that he made a mistake, that Bucky Barnes was alive and well decades after his death, but dead people don’t just fall out of the sky.

Yet, Tony had to admit, there were so many details that didn’t quite fit, how cold his clothes had been, the snowflake in sixty-degree weather, the bent metal bar, and one crucial fact: Bucky Barnes’ body had never been found.

“What do you know about time travel?”

=========

Barnes’ mouth dropped open as he took a few tentative steps into the lab. “It’s different from what I thought it’d be.”

“Mmm?” Tony hummed, adjusting the particle detector’s settings on the computer to capture the broadest spectrum of results possible. Out of the corner of his eye, he kept a close watch on Barnes.

If Barnes wasn’t just some nutjob that got plastic surgery to look like a dead war hero, there was a chance scans could identify something left over from the event that brought him here. Tony should scan the area where Barnes fell, too. If only he knew what he was looking for.

Barnes wandered through the lab until he came to a stop beside Tony. “It’s kind of homey. None of the labs I’ve been in had couches.”

“This is my private lab for whenever I’m on the East Coast. The one back home in Malibu has more toys, but if there is anything to find, we’ll find it using this.” He patted the side of his particle detector with a smile.

“I need you right over here.” Tony guided Barnes over to a clear spot in front of the detector. “I developed this for CERN, but I think they’ll forgive me for discovering a new particle without them.”

Expression turning grave, Barnes focused his gaze on Tony. “And if you find one? What then?”

Hiding behind the computer monitor, Tony initiated the scan. “It could be proof that you time traveled.”

It was obvious what he was really asking: could Tony get him home? If they found some evidence that it happened, either on Barnes or where he dropped, it would set them on the path to replicating and reversing it, but even he was, at best, years, if not decades, from cracking this.

Barnes’ shoulders sagged and in a quiet voice he asked, “I’m not going home, am I?”

Tony didn’t answer. How did you tell someone that they’re trapped in the future? Barnes seemed to sense the answer because he stumbled over to collapse on the couch.

The numbers came in, flashing silently across the screen.

[I’m sorry, sir. I cannot detect any anomalies at this time,] JARVIS reported.

Tony looked down at his hands, nodding to himself. “It was a long shot anyway.”

=========

Holding his breath, Tony raised his hand to knock on the hardwood door. He brought it down three times in quick succession, almost as tense as that first night, when he showed up at Bucky’s door with the greasiest burger and fries the city had to offer.

The minutes seemed to stretch to hours as Tony waited there, hands in his pockets. At last, Bucky opened the door.

Without waiting for an invitation, or more likely a refusal, Tony pushed his way into the room and headed for the closet. He began sorting through the clothes the shoppers had bought for Bucky.

“Hey—” Bucky weakly protested.

“We’re going out tonight.”

Bucky hadn’t left the mansion since Tony brought him there, hell, he barely left his room, even Tony could see this couldn’t go on.

For a while, dinner meant take-out and answering Bucky’s questions about the future, but over the past week, Bucky had withdrawn more and more. After two nights of being told to leave the take-out at the door, Tony decided to take action.

Bucky blinked slowly at Tony. “What?”

Dark circles had formed under his eyes, leaving no doubt in Tony’s mind that he was exhausted. Tony quietly revised some of his plans for the night.

“I’m sick of being your delivery boy, and if I eat another eggroll, I’m going to barf.” Tony tossed a pair of what he thought would be very flattering jeans over his arm and started hunting for a shirt that would work with them. It’d have to be something that would fit over the cast. “We’re going to eat real food and drink until Happy has to pour us back into the car.”

“Wh—” Bucky started, but Tony continued over him.

“See, I was thinking to myself, ‘What kind of host am I if I don’t at least try to show you a good time?’” At last, Tony pulled a short-sleeved Henley in dark red off its hanger.

“But—“

Tony raised one unimpressed eyebrow at him. “You’re in the future and you’re just going to stay inside?”

Bucky stared at him, looking something like a bewildered and greasy raccoon. “All right.”

“Shower first.” Tony threw the clothes on the bed and pushed Bucky toward the bathroom.

=========

Tony whistled. “You clean up nice.”

Coming down the stairs to meet Tony, Bucky looked more alert than before. He’d taken the time to slick back his hair and shave his stubble. He wore the clothes Tony had chosen for him and those jeans looked as good on him as Tony thought they would.

“You’re looking at Brooklyn’s most eligible bachelor. Back home, the ladies were falling over themselves to get a date with me,” Bucky said with a note of pride. He was almost a completely different man.

Tony slapped him on the back. “Let’s see if you still got it.”

Dragging Bucky into the car, Tony had Happy take them to the Westlight. It wasn’t as exclusive as some of the bars Tony frequented, but it was sleek, modern, and had some of the best views of the city. A fine introduction to the wider world of the future, Tony thought.

They settled in a spot out on the terrace, where the bar’s shouted conversations and thumping music didn’t quite reach. Tony sat with his back to the railing and the whole of Manhattan spread out behind him.

Looking out at it, Bucky regained some of the wonder he’d first shown back at the lab. That was what Tony had been aiming for.

Before the waiter could hand Bucky a menu, Tony snatched it. He glanced at it before ordering snacks and drinks for the both of them. When the waiter left, Bucky looked a bit taken aback.

“Trust me, you didn’t want to see it. We’ll save that bit of culture shock for another night.”

Bucky laughed a little, his eyes scrunching at the corners. “I guess I’m not used to sitting back while someone orders for me. Usually I’m the one taking care of my date.”

“I’ll tell you what, next time you can order for me,” Tony said, just as the waiter returned with a beer for Bucky and a Manhattan for Tony. Just in time honestly, he needed something to take the edge off.

Bucky took a cautious sip of his drink. “A bit different from the Ballantine I used to get at the game, or the swill they sent us at the front.”

“That is the most surreal thing about all this,” Tony said. “You know, I grew up on stories of, well, mainly Cap to be honest, but you and the Howlies, too.”

A heaping cup, almost a bucket, of fries was placed between them.

“I didn’t know what to make of you at first,” Bucky said. “You’re flashy and half of what you say is a joke. It made sense once you told me you were Howard’s kid.”

Bucky paused as he plucked a fry from the cup and chewed on it thoughtfully. Tony’s eyes couldn’t help but track the movement of Bucky’s mouth closing around it and something awakened inside him.

A tendril of want coursed through him, heating him from the inside out—but it wasn’t just Bucky’s mouth he wanted. It was everything. His wide-eyed wonderment and sloppy smiles, his keen mind and dry sense of humor; Tony wanted it all. He wanted to know more. It could become something more.

When Bucky finished, his tongue darted out to lick the salt and grease from his lips in a bright flash of pink before he spoke again. “You really know how to put on a show, don’t you? You’ve got everyone thinking you’re an ass, but that’s not true.”

Tony turned to look out on the city lights. “A lot of people would disagree.”

“Well, a lot of people don’t know shit about you. You listened when you had every reason to believe I was nuts, did everything you could, still doing it even, to figure out something as crazy as time travel, and gave me a place to stay when you couldn’t.”

“You—you’re Bucky Barnes,” Tony began, not quite sure where he was going with it yet. “You’re a legend. You fought Nazis— you fought Hydra . I had to at least try to get you home. Besides, I’ve wanted to take a crack at time travel since 1985.”

Bucky swirled what was left of his beer in its glass. “When I was—in Hydra’s care you could call it—I thought that would be the end of it, you know? Then things changed, but somehow I still knew I wasn’t gonna go home again.”

A breeze kicked up, blowing the feathery strands of Bucky’s hair around. There was a haunted look in his downcast eyes, one that Tony had been trying to erase. He floundered, out of his element.

“Back before all that, I was always taking girls I met around town out, showing them a good time, having a bit of fun, but not a one of them stuck around. I suppose it’s my fault, I never tried for anything more. I didn’t think I wanted it—someone who’d miss me when I’m gone and now—”

“I’m sticking around,” Tony said as he surged forward and kissed him. He tasted the beer on Bucky’s lips and wanted nothing more than to drink it down, but he broke away.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have—it’s too soon, you aren’t even interested anyway.”

Bucky reeled him back in for another kiss.

=========

Back at the mansion, they staggered into Bucky’s room together. Bucky backed him up until they tumbled into the bed together. Tony laughed, startled, and there Bucky was grinning down on him.

“God, you’re beautiful,” Bucky said.

Bucky traced his fingers along Tony’s throat. Tony was sure he could feel Tony’s pulse fluttering beneath the skin. Time slowed, as if to impress upon them the significance of the moment.

Tony swallowed thickly. “Are you sure?”

Bucky leaned in closer until his lips brushed Tony’s skin. “I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”