Tony’s ass had literally just touched the bed for the first time in about a week when JARVIS called out, “Sir, we have an intruder in the penthouse.”
Of course- because Tony couldn't just catch a fucking break these days, could he?
“What?” he hissed, looking sharply up at the ceiling and mentally going through his checklist of recalibrations for JARVIS’s mainframe and trying to work out if he’d accidentally fucked up a line of coding while he’d been updating it, because there was no fucking way anyone would have managed to get past JARVIS for long enough to actually get into his penthouse-
“Initiating defensive measures immediately- sir, I strongly advise calling your suit,” JARVIS drilled out, sharp and professional and ignoring his question entirely.
“Wait!” Tony said, stumbling to his feet and trying to push down the annoyance of being interrupted while he had been so fucking near to finally getting a proper sleep. “Are they armed? Show me the security footage.”
He leapt across the room, stopping at his desk and pulling out a handgun from one of the drawers before moving toward his door, hand curling around the handle. A video feed blew up on his window, and Tony turned, eyes widening as he spotted a figure, dark and draped in the shadows, creeping steadily along the walls.
He was heading for Tony’s room.
Tony swallowed, readjusting his grip on the gun and taking a breath. “Uh… yeah, okay then JARVIS, go on with those preventative measures.”
He opened the door, cursing himself for leaving his bracelets in the workshop. If he’d had them on him right now, he could have just called the suit and been on his merry way. As it was, there was someone slowly advancing on him after breaking through the Tower’s security measures without even leaving a trace behind him, and all Tony had to defend himself was a gun with three bullets.
Which would seem sufficient to anyone else. But if someone was smart enough to get past JARVIS, then Tony wasn’t about to underestimate them.
He kept tight against the wall in the darkness, gun held aloft as he stepped down the pitch-black hallway. He knew that the intruder was nearly at the bottom of the stairs, and Tony was just coming up to the top of them now.
So far, none of his ‘preventative measures’ that JARVIS had told him he was initiating had actually been taken. Unfortunately, he had expected that; if the intruder had bypassed everything else so far, then there was no reason why he would have let himself be caught out at this stage.
So it was up to Tony.
He stopped, letting his knees unlock and fall silently to the carpet as he poked his head cautiously around the corner and looked down the stairwell. He could see the bottom from his angle, and watched for any sign of movement- a telltale flash of a blade, or an ominous click as the safety of a gun was turned off.
He had to wait another thirty seconds before finally spotting anything.
Silent and unmoving, Tony waited- watching the person as he crept slowly along the wall, hand out and feeling along, seemingly looking for a banister to grip. He was… he was moving jerkily, and Tony could hear his breathing from his position on the other end of the stairwell.
It was almost as if he were injured.
But that was impossible. Well- not impossible, as such- just very statistically unlikely. The intruder had turned off all of Tony’s security measures, so that couldn’t have been what hurt him. But trying to infiltrate a place that was tighter than the Pentagon when you weren’t in your very best shape was just stupid- and no one who managed to bypass Tony’s security was stupid.
It didn’t make sense. And Tony hated things that didn’t make sense.
While Tony was having his little internal argument with himself, the intruder took a moment to wheeze suddenly, and Tony watched in surprise as their knees buckled, hitting the stairs with a dull thump and a whispered curse.
Man, Tony decided, as he heard the deep hiss of pain.
Their hand on the railing was probably the only thing that had stopped them from completely faceplanting, and it was at that point that Tony finally decided on a plan of action, bored with waiting for this weird man to crawl to him. Jumping up to his feet suddenly, he slammed his hand on the light-switch and illuminated the stairwell, pointing his gun directly at the figure hunched on the floor.
“Okay, buddy, show’s over. What the fuck are you doing here, and how did you get in my-“
Tony didn’t get a chance to finish; too busy noticing a few very important facts as the man’s gaunt and ashen face jerked up and spotted him.
One- the hand gripping the banister had crushed the metal completely under his fingers.
Two- he wasn’t just injured. He was dying- the trail of blood he’d left in his path was fatally plentiful.
Three- it was The Winter Solider.
“Please don’t call Steve… just …hide me…” The assassin whispered, hoarse and broken and exhausted, before his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed on the stairs.
It was a testament to how fucking weird Tony’s life was that this didn’t even break top five in the list of Weirdest Shit That Has Happened.
That wasn’t to say it wasn’t a shock, though.
The Winter Soldier—James Barnes—was lying on the cot in the medbay, still unconscious and hooked up to all the machines Tony knew how to work. The bullets had all been removed and sewn up, the flesh-arm put in a cast, and the gash that ran from ribs to hip had been fixed up, too.
After Barnes had dropped and Tony had realised that the guy was in serious need of medical attention, his first port of call had just been ringing 911, before remembering that, oh no, the guy was a fucking assassin, and you couldn’t just leave him in the hands of nurses and be on your merry way.
His next move had been Steve. Steve, who’d been looking for Barnes for a year now, desperate and relentless and persistent in his search. Who would probably know how to handle him, know what and what not to do around him.
(Who Barnes had begged him not to tell, his eyes so fearful and pained as he stared pleadingly up at Tony.)
And it wasn’t like Tony could call on anyone else; he had no idea who Barnes had asked him to ‘hide him’ from- it could be SHIELD, or HYDRA, or anyone on the fucking planet that wasn’t Tony, apparently.
Of course- Tony could have just called someone anyway. It was hardly his problem, after all.
But Barnes had looked so desperate. Like Tony was his last hope. Tony hadn’t known what to do with that information- but he’d got to work all the same. Getting the man down to medical, removing all the bullets, sewing up the wounds. It had been lucky that Tony was experienced, if a little rusty, in medical procedures, or Barnes really would have been screwed.
Three hours later, and it seemed like he was finally stable. Which was surprising, considering the extent of his injuries.
Probably enhanced, he guessed, eyeing the sleeping man from across the room, where he’d been sat ever since he’d finished stitching his visitor up.
It wasn’t exactly a big leap to make. HYDRA sure loved their experimentation, and it was the only way Barnes would have survived that fall all those years ago.
God, he was tired. Not to mention confused.
Why the fuck had Barnes come to him? Of all the people in the world, of all the places he could have gone, and he went and found Tony. The superhero. Who could just as easily have shot him as soon as he’d been spotted.
Like he’d said before; it didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense, and Tony was tired.
But someone had to watch over Barnes, and JARVIS was still reconfiguring himself, which would probably take a few hours.
A few hours. Keep going for a few more hours. Then he could sleep.
Okay- so he was lying on the floor.
He’d probably blacked out for a few minutes. He was running on 5 days without rest and two without food, though, so he kind of had an excuse for it.
Jolting upward, he felt the blood rush to his head and the slip of fabric as it brushed his skin, and wondered where the hell the blanket had come from.
And pillow, for that matter.
Upon further inspection, he realised that the blanket was, in fact, just a quite frankly horrifically bloodstained jacket, and the pillow was one of the shitty ones from the medbay, and honestly, he had no idea was his sleep-deprived self had chosen to use one of them to have an impromptu nap on, they were shitty as-
The memories hit him like an oncoming vehicle, and he suddenly became intensely aware of his surroundings, and, more importantly, who else was in them.
Turning slowly, he manoeuvred himself until he was facing the other way. Across the room, Barnes sat, backed up against the wall of the medbay, watching him with sharp eyes.
They stared at each other for longer than was probably socially acceptable. But Tony had never been good with the rules, anyway, and Barnes didn’t seem to mind.
“Well this is weird,” he eventually blurted, shrugging off the jacket and realising that he definitely hadn’t put that there- if only because he would never voluntarily sleep with something so horribly bloodstained.
The soldier stared at him for a few seconds longer, completely blank as he said, “you should take care of yourself more.”
Okay, and now Tony was at least 60% sure he was just hallucinating this whole sequence of events, because was The Winter Fucking Soldier, the man who had shown up on his doorstep at 4am half dead, telling him he should take better care of himself? Really?
He said that part out loud. Barnes just looked at him expressionlessly and kept silent.
“Okay. Okay. Alright,” Tony sighed, rubbing a hand across his face and swivelling, so he was sat directly across from Barnes, “how much sleep did I get, do you know?”
“Three hours and 20 minutes.”
“…Weirdly specific, but okay. That’s fine. Good. So… thanks, first of all, for the- uh- pillow.”
Barnes looked at him properly, then, and for the first time, Tony thought he saw the ghost of an actual emotion crossing his face. “I break into your house and force you to spend hours fuckin’ saving my life, and you’re thankin’ me for giving you a damn pillow?”
“Uhh-“ God, there were so many, so very many people who would probably be better than this than Tony, who was still pretty fucking sure that this bullshit was just a figment of his own imagination. “Yeah? I mean- it was nice of you. You could’ve, you know… slit my throat or something.”
Barnes raised an eyebrow. “You’re thanking me for giving you a pillow rather than murdering you?”
Tony could do nothing but shrug and nod. This was fucking surreal.
Barnes opened his mouth to say something, but then seemed to change his mind, clamping up again, the blank look returning to his face.
It was up to Tony to keep this conversation up, then.
“I need to know why you’re here,” he said. He wished he was standing. Things were easier when he was standing, he felt far more in control when he was standing. But he didn’t want to scare Barnes- he was obviously on the edge as it was, and Tony wasn’t even sure if the guy was still thinking of killing, kidnapping or otherwise maiming him, and didn’t particularly feel like taking any chances.
Barnes clenched his jaw. Then unclenched. Then clenched it again, and let a full-body shudder run through him. Tony watched in a sort of morbid curiosity as his entire body tensed up and started to shake, and his mouth began doing a funny sort of spasm, as if trying to communicate but being stopped by some unforeseen force-
Tony realised what was happening in an instant, and quickly held up a hand. “Stop. Don’t speak.”
And it was like a switch had been flicked. Barnes had another second of horrible tension before he slumped, breathing out shakily and shutting his eyes.
He looked so tired. And thin.
Tony thought for a moment, trying to work out how to go forward. He was well aware of the effects that certain conditioning could have on a person, and Barnes was showing obvious symptoms.
He wanted to speak, but his own brain wasn’t letting him. A response that had probably been forcibly drilled into him over the years.
“Would it be easier to write it?” Tony asked calmly, beginning to get to his feet, carefully making sure his movements were fluid and slow.
Barnes was silent for a minute, and then Tony saw the tiny nod of his head against the wall, which was as good a confirmation as he was going to get. Heading over to the medical drawer, he searched for a paper and pen amongst the mess, constantly aware of every movement to the left of him as he hunted. Eventually, after coming up blank, he huffed out irritably and called out to JARVIS, “pull up a virtual screen, will you buddy?”
It was only a second after, when JARVIS replied with a brisk affirmation, that Tony realised his first mistake.
Barnes was up in an instant, wild panic in his eyes as he scanned the room for the voice. He was hunched over and winced in pain, but his eyes were still moving and there were probably sharp things that he could grab hold of if Tony didn’t calm him down.
“Whoah there, soldier boy, hold up, it’s okay. You need to sit down, you’re gonna burst your stitches- the voice is just my computer, an AI called JARVIS. He’s a friendly,” Tony put his hands in the air, palms toward Barnes as he explained, keeping his voice as even as he would allow.
Barnes’ eyes flickered back to him, that horrible fear so prominent in his eyes once again- but he slowly let his fists drop, falling to his sides slowly as his mind caught up with his body.
“Sit back down. I don’t want to clean up another trail of blood off my floor, thank you very much,” Tony told him casually, “listen. I’m going to send a kind of... virtual pen and paper your way, okay? It’s safe, it’s just a projection, but I don’t have any of the actual thing, so you’re gonna have to use that for now.”
Again, there was a tiny trace of emotion- confusion, this time- that passed Barnes’ face, but he nodded once more, and slowly sat down on the floor. Tony waved a hand, and a square projection popped up in front of Barnes’ line of sight. He jumped a little, but he was prepared, so there were no meltdowns.
Which was good.
Tony sat down too, his butt resting on the thin pillow he’d woken up on as he waited patiently for Barnes to write what he wanted. It felt a little awkward; him just sat there, watching Barnes as he scrawled out a reply on the holograph. Whatever it was he was writing, he still appeared to be struggling with it. The shakes had returned, although not as extensive as before, and his mouth was pursed in a painfully thin line as he concentrated on the letters.
But at least he was getting somewhere.
It was slow and shaky and pretty much impossible to read at all in some places, but Tony ended up with the basic gist after a few minutes.
“You want me to get rid of your arm?” He asked dubiously.
Barnes looked up at him, eyebrow raised. “I hadn’t even finished writing. Or turned it around so you could see.”
Tony waved a hand, “I’m a genius, you think I can’t read writing backward and work out what the end of your sentence is gonna be? Anyway- why the hell do you want me to do that?”
Barnes opened his mouth, but then snapped it shut again and squeezed his eyes closed.
“Write,” Tony encouraged, gesturing to the holograph.
Tracker- Barnes scrawled.
This time it was Tony raising his eyebrows. “Am I about to get whichever assholes that are after you knocking on my door in the immediate future, because I’d like to prepare for that.”
“No,” Barnes shook his head, “I disabled it. But it’s gonna come back online soon, so I need you to do it fast.”
“And if I say no?”
Barnes held his gaze, and then shrugged, looking over his shoulder. “Then I keep running.”
Tony scoffed at that, getting to his feet once more. “Yeah- because you look like you’re in a fit state to run from villains right now. You can barely even stand straight- what’s that about, anyway?”
Barnes scowled. “I was ambushed. Wasn’t careful enough. Started gettin’ desperate as I got near New York. Some mercs spotted me, called HYDRA on my ass. There’s a price on my head, so bad people have been on high alert for me ever since I started runnin’.”
Tony eyed him curiously, gesturing for him to stand up. “Desperate for what?”
Barnes didn’t reply, but Tony saw the exhaustion- saw the hunger and the thirst and the frantic need for rest in his eyes anyway.
“Right. Uhh- well, first thing’s first, you need to get back to the cot. You’re still really injured, and I’m not gonna start working on this until you’re no longer at risk of opening up your stitches or somethi-“
“I’m fine, I’m enhanced,” Barnes interrupted, getting slowly to his feet and making a show of not even wincing as he did it, which must have taken some remarkable self-restraint.
“Which means you’ll heal super fast, and be ready in no time at all,” Tony finished, walking forward until he was within touching distance and then slowly reaching out, allowing Barnes the opportunity to step out of it if he wanted.
He didn’t, so Tony grabbed his arm and began pulling him gently toward the cot he’d been on originally.
Barnes refused to budge. “Stark- I can’t stay here long. They’ll find me, and then they’ll find you, and then we’ll both be in shit. Just get the thing off and I’ll be on my way.”
Tony laughed at that. “ ‘Just get the thing off and I’ll be on my way’- really? You think I’m just going to, what, take a chainsaw to it? And then you’re going to wander back into the streets without an arm? No fucking way- you’re staying here until I can at least design you a new one, okay?”
“No,” Barnes said obstinately.
“You asked me to hide you,” Tony snapped, annoyed now. “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I do actually give a shit about people. And HYDRA’s after you, so I’m going to make sure you’re either safe away from them, or at least fully capable of handling yourself when the time comes that you need to, okay?”
“I said that when I was nearly fuckin’ dead, I don’t think it counts,” Barnes snapped back.
“Yeah, and that’s when humans are at their most vulnerable. Their most truthful,” Tony replied, pulling him again, and this time he actually moved, which was a helpful development.
Barnes was silent and sullen as Tony moved him back to the bed, but he was clearly in desperate need of it, because as soon as Tony pushed his shoulder down, he was melting on to the cot like he hadn’t slept properly in weeks.
Maybe he hadn’t.
“Rest,” Tony told him. “I’m going to go up to my workshop and start doing some research, but I’ll have JARVIS monitoring you. We’ll… we’ll talk again when you wake up.”
Barnes didn’t say anything, so Tony turned to leave. But then he heard a sigh and a muttered, “I ain’t human anyway, Stark.”
He didn’t know how to respond to that. He just picked the pillow he’d been sleeping on up off the floor and walked back, placing it by Barnes’ side before turning his heel and walking out again.
Barnes slept for five hours before JARVIS informed Tony that he’d appeared to have had a nightmare and woken up.
It was better than Tony had been expecting, to be honest.
“Put everything on hold, J,” Tony said, pushing off the desk and letting his chair roll across the majority of his workshop before actually using his feet and walking the rest of the way to the elevator.
It was weird, having someone else in the tower again. Someone to check up on, like he’d used to before…
Well, before it had all gone to shit with Ultron, and everyone had left.
Which was his own fault, really. He’d fucked up, a lot of people had died, and it was on him. The team barely spoke to him now, aside from Natasha and sometimes Bruce, if he was in a place that sold postcards.
It was lonely. But like he’d said- he deserved it.
Then Barnes’ shows up, and just shakes his whole routine right up. Funny, but the conversation he’d had five hours ago was probably the first face-to-face talk he’d had in about a month, now.
Tony made sure to try and forget that fact.
Once the elevator had taken him up to the kitchen, he quickly grabbed as much food he could find, and a few bottles of water from the refrigerator before turning on his heel and making his way back down to medbay where (he hoped) Barnes was.
He still didn’t have a clue where to start with the man. Part of him desperately wanted to tell someone, anyone- get the responsibility off his shoulders- but he knew he couldn’t. Barnes didn’t want him to, and he’d probably just disappear again if Tony brought anyone else into it.
He was on his own. Which, to be honest, wasn’t too bad. He was used to dealing with everything alone. It was comfortable. Familiar.
The elevator opened again, and Tony stepped out, arms stacked so high with food that he could barely see Barnes at all.
“Hey,” he called out in the general direction of where he assumed the other man was.
There wasn’t a reply, but when Tony manoeuvred himself a little, he saw Barnes sat, cross-legged and staring at him from the cot.
“I brought the kitchen,” Tony told him, wandering forward and dumping all the food on the desk and then gesturing to it, “I didn’t know what you liked, but you looked hungry enough, so…”
Barnes was still staring at him, a little spaced-out and a lot confused, but not actually moving, so Tony took initiative and grabbed a box of Lucky Charms, chucking it across the room toward Barnes, who caught it instinctively.
There was an awkward silence again, and Tony began tapping anxiously against the reactor. “Okay, so… I’m gonna go. If you want anything else, ask JARVIS-“
“What do you want?” Barnes said suddenly, eyes sharpening as he sat up a little straighter. “You want me to take someone out for you? Is that it? Because I don’t do that any more, and if that’s what you want in exchange then it’s gonna be a no-“
“What?” Tony asked, brow furrowing in confusion. “I don’t… of course I don’t want you to take someone out, what the fuck, you just look hungry!”
Barnes paused, and he looked down at the Lucky Charms in his hands. “So you don’t…”
“Nope. Definitely no. It’s just cereal. No strings attached.”
Barnes mulled over the statement, and his eyes didn’t move from the box as he muttered a surprised little “oh,” and then delicately opened the box, wincing a little as he moved his arm.
Barnes didn’t look as if he was going to say anything else, so Tony left.
JARVIS informed him ten minutes later that Barnes had gone through all of the food, and was now resting again.
“JARVIS, how’s he doing?”
“Mr. Barnes is currently conversing with me, as he has been for the past hour and a half. If I may suggest giving him something to do while he heals, sir, or let him leave medical, he would probably appreciate it.”
Tony frowned, pulling himself up from the desk. “He can leave. I haven’t locked him in.”
“…Perhaps you should explicitly state that, sir.” JARVIS paused, and Tony had a brief moment to marvel at how human his communication had become before he was speaking once again, slowly, and slightly apprehensively. “Mr. Barnes probably feels he is… under your control, considering what you are doing for him.”
Tony paused, eyes widening a little. God, he’d just assumed Barnes would call him if he needed something; there wasn’t even a goddamn toilet in there, and he’d been in there just short of 24 hours, Barnes must have been bored out of his mind-
"Shit,” he stumbled to his feet, rubbing his eyes and making his way quickly to the elevator. "Shit shit shit shit,"
See, this was why he couldn’t work with a team. This was why the Avengers had goddamn left. He was horrible at this shit; he forgot things and he didn’t think and he had no idea how to act around people like Barnes, he was just learning as he went, but it was obviously a fucking trainwreck so far-
“I believe I have kept him relatively entertained, sir, do not worry on that front. Most of the time he has spent resting and eating,” JARVIS was in the elevator with him, quietly assuring him as he rode down, and Tony was glad of it, but it didn’t do much to quell the guilt.
A person who’d been under HYDRA’s brainwashing for seven decades, and Tony was keeping him in medbay like it was a fucking prison-
“I’M SORRY!” He burst out of the elevator as soon as it opened, and Barnes jumped about a foot in the air, hands coming up immediately to deal with the threat.
They stared at one another for a second before Barnes dropped his hands and looked a little confused. “Sorry about what-“
“You can leave,” Tony babbled over him, “you can go wherever you want, James, okay, you don’t owe me anything, Jesus, don’t you need a piss or something? I’m not… you don’t need me to confirm anything for you to be able to do it. I mean, I’d like you to stay in the medbay for a little while longer, but you have your free will. I’m not gonna take that away from you. Do whatever you want while you’re here, make yourself at home.”
Barnes froze like a rabbit caught in the headlights, and he stared at Tony blankly for a few seconds. “I… are you sure?”
Tony hated how unsure Barnes looked. “Of course I’m sure. James… you don’t have to follow any orders you don’t want to follow any more, okay? Unless it’s the law. Please follow the law. I’d be a really bad superhero if I were advocating against that. But… other stuff.”
The clench of the jaw was back again. “I know that. Obviously.”
Tony paused. “Well… good. I’m glad. Uhh, if you want, you can leave medbay now. From what I can tell from the scans, your body has pretty much healed up now- damn you supersoldiers and your freaky fast healing- and I'm going to start taking a few scans of your arm to begin working on it, so HYDRA following your every move won’t be an issue any more-“
“Stark- you plannin’ on getting some rest in between all this, huh?” And Tony could almost have imagined a brand new emotion this time—concern—on his face, but it was gone too fast for Tony to pin down, replaced with the usual blank stare.
Tony scoffed, and waved away the concerns. “I’m fine, I’m fine, don’t worry- but yeah, I mean even if your tracker’s been reactivated, they aren’t coming near the tower. It’s pretty much a fortress, and aside from the seven loopholes you somehow managed to find and exploit- which BTW, not cool- nothing can get into this tower without my express permission, and right now it’s on lockdown, so-“
“I want to watch a movie.”
Tony stopped. Barnes was looking at him completely seriously. “What?”
“I want to watch a movie,” Barnes repeated again. He took a breath, as if he were steeling his resolve, and then got unsteadily to his feet. “You might have to give me some recommendations, though. I spent the last 70 years as a fuckin’ icecube, so I probably have a lot of catchin’ up to do.”
Tony’s brain completely shut down for a good five seconds, because holy mother of god that was a joke, from The Winter Soldier, and it was only until Barnes came within touching distance that he rebooted. “I-uh-okay? Okay. Movies. Right. I can do movies. Yes. Cool. Movies. Let’s… let’s go do movies.”
He paused. Barnes raised an eyebrow. He nodded his head and then turned around, gesturing for Barnes to follow him into the elevator.
The ride up was silent. Barnes seemed on edge, as usual, but Tony was still reeling over the whole icecube joke, and hadn’t much energy to focus on anything else.
God. It had taken months for Steve to stop getting offended by his jokes, and then here Barnes was- seventy years of torture under his belt, talking about it as ‘his time as an icecube’.
It was… kind of brilliant, actually.
“So JARVIS can get pretty much anything you want up. The kitchen’s behind you, and the bathroom’s down the corridor and to your left. Just, uh, make yourself at home,” Tony said, pointing to the TV and sticking a hand down the side of the cushions in order to retrieve the remote.
James looked over to him curiously, and then frowned, before turning his head back to the TV. “What’s… how do I use this?”
Tony paused, hand halfway to giving James the remote. He’d… well, he’d sort of expected him to know- but then again, Steve had been just as hopeless in the beginning.
He could spare five minutes to teach James the glories of TV.
“What do you want to watch? Anything in mind?” Tony asked, sinking into the cushions of the couch and letting a sigh slip from his lips at the comfort.
He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d spent more than five minutes in this room.
“Put your favourite on,” James answered, sitting cautiously on the armchair furthest away from Tony, but with full view of the whole floor, including exits and windows.
Natasha always sat there too.
“I don’t have one,” Tony answered on autopilot.
James gave him a look. “Everyone has a favourite, Stark.”
Tony was silent for another few seconds. And then, “JARVIS, let’s put some Mama Mia on, why don’t we?”
James smiled. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good start.
He felt a strong sense of déjà vu when he opened his eyes and found himself shrouded in a blanket once more, pillow tucked under his head.
James was flicking through the channels like a pro, the tension in his shoulders relieved ever so slightly as he leant back against the soft cushions on his armchair.
“You tricked me,” Tony stated, pulling himself up and stretching his arms.
There was a silence- which Tony was growing used to by now, because the Solider thought of every word that came out of his mouth- and then, “I don’t want someone workin’ on my arm when they can barely keep their eyes open. Had enough of that sloppy workmanship from before, thanks.”
Tony gasped, offended. “Are you saying you think my work would be anything other than top quality, Barnes?”
“Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“You have a lot to learn, my friend,” Tony shook his head, pulling himself up and tugging the blanket around his shoulders a little further, “I’ve worked in a hell of lot worse states than this, thank you very much.”
“Doesn’t mean you should have to do it all the time, though,” James shrugged, “you’re lookin’ out for me- I’ll look out for you, too.”
Tony’s words caught in his throat a little and he swallowed, looking back to the TV when he failed to think of a reply.
“So how’s about we let Steve in on the fact that you’ve decided to start-“
The mug James was holding shattered into pieces, and Tony jumped in surprise, turning around with his arms half-raised.
James was rigid; eyes blank and jaw tight as he stared down at the remains of his coffee. “Sorry. I… if you want to tell him, then… you can.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, ‘cause you definitely look ready to let him know. It was just a suggestion, James. Remember what I said- you can make your own choices, here-“
“I GODDAMN KNOW I CAN!” James yelled, eyes blazing and fists clenched against his sides.
Tony couldn’t help it; he took a reflexive step backward.
It wasn’t much, but James saw it, and his eyes widened a little as he looked down at himself, tense and ready for battle. Immediately, he forced himself to relax, eyes shutting and chest heaving as he inhaled deeply. “I… sorry. I think… this isn’t working, I- I shouldn’t have come here, I’m putting you in danger just by fuckin’ being here, it isn’t-“
“You’re bleeding,” Tony interrupted, eyes catching on the shiny red as it dripped down James’ fingers and on to his floor.
James glanced down, and then shrugged, opening his mouth to continue. But Tony frowned, and raised a hand, wandering forward and reaching out slowly for James’ injury. “Trust you to crush a mug between your non-metal fingers. We’re gonna have to clean that up, or it’ll get all sorts of fucked up.”
“I… what?” James asked, as Tony kicked out a stool and gestured for him to sit.
“I’m gonna take a look; it might need a few stitches if it’s really bad, but we should be-“
“What the hell- were you even listening to me when I told you I’m dangerous?” James asked him incredulously.
“I always listen- sometimes I just filter out the unimportant information,” Tony answered absently, bending down and opening the drawer where all their first aid stuff was- according to Bruce, at least.
He pulled out the little bag, and when he turned around, James was staring at him like he was crazy. “I’m sorry- you consider me putting your life at risk and forcing you to harbour a fuckin’ fugitive ‘unimportant information’?”
“Uhh, where was the ‘forcing’, exactly? You asked me for help. I gave you help. Nothing forced about that. Also, technically you don’t actually exist, so I’m really just harbouring a ghost of sorts. We could rename you, if you want? The Spring Soldier? Sounds a little more approachable,” Tony answered cheerfully, sitting down on the stool next to James and unzipping his bag.
“You’re fuckin batshit, aren’t you?” James asked him, wide-eyed.
Tony winked. “Jury’s out. Now let me have a look at that hand, Barnes.”
James took another second to stare at him, before shutting his mouth and silently raising his hand. Tony took it wordlessly, and held it up, twisting it gently in the light and then making a face. “Looks like you’ve got quite a few of those shards stuck in your fingers. This is probably gonna sting. I’ll remember the subject of Rogers is a no-no from now on, though, so hey! Learning curve!”
James didn’t say anything, just looked down at the floor. Tony didn’t pull him up on it; just got to work, carefully extracting the shards with a pair of tweezers and apologising quietly with every removal. When he looked up briefly, James was staring at him in, confusion written all over his face.
Tony raised an eyebrow. James quickly smoothed his face over and looked back down again.
“If I may ask, how the hell did you disable the tracker in your arm? I’ve been looking over scans, and the thing’s embedded deep into your prosthetic’s mechanisms. It got a glitch I should know about, or something?” Tony asked, ripping the cover off an antiseptic wipe and running it over his hand to clear up the blood.
“Yeah. It’s old. You bash it hard enough, and it’ll cut out. But it’s got backup supplies, so it eventually comes back online again. Worked that out the first time I tried running,” James explained.
Tony stopped cleaning for a second to look up sharply at James, eyes flickering over to the arm, taking in the severe dents and mangled plating where his bicep should have been. “What the fuck? James, this thing is connected to your sensory cortex, which means you… you can feel it. Fuck. You just… you just stabbed yourself. What, every month? Week?”
James just shrugged, and Tony… Tony wanted to vomit, because he’d have had to go at his own arm with a knife under the plating and just- it would have been agony.
“It’s fine. Got used to it, after a while. I’m tough,” he said, and Tony realised he’d been gripping at James’ wrist very tightly for a while now.
“You asked me to fucking rip your arm off, James, and you call me crazy? Holy fuck.”
“It’s better than having to run for the rest of my goddamn life, okay!” James snapped. “I haven’t been able to stay in the same place for more than two days. I’ve had to cover my tracks everywhere I go. They follow and they follow and they don’t fuckin stop, and I was just getting sick of it. It was either getting the arm removed or just going back, and I would gladly have the damn thing pulled right off it meant I could be free of that shit.”
Tony watched him breathe, fast and quick and angry, and tried to imagine living like that for a year.
He really couldn’t.
“Well I’m certainly not doing any pulling. The arm is so deeply intertwined with the rest of your body and brain, it’d take far too long and be far too risky. I’m just taking the tracker out and then giving it some maintenance, okay? And you’ll be all nice and drugged up, too, so you won’t feel a thing, I swear.” He said, turning his concentration back to the James’ hand and beginning to pull out some bandages. “Lucky this doesn’t need stitches. Just going to wrap it, and you’ll be good.”
Tony worked in silence again, immersed in properly dressing James’ wound. His fingers were delicate as he worked, careful not to cause any further damage.
“I’m sorry,” James whispered out of the blue, and Tony looked up to see a pair of horribly guilty eyes watching him. “I’m sorry. I’ve- I’ve forced you into my own mess, and now you’re takin’ all this time to try and fix me up, and I don’t fuckin’ deserve that, and if I could, I’d do it all myself, but- I just can’t. And you’re… you’re the only guy I know who could, and who I could trust enough to do it. I was- I was desperate when I came here. I shouldn’t have, but, like I said… desperate.”
“Hey, no- feel free to break into my house and scare the shit out of me whenever you fancy, I don’t mind,” Tony told him- and then realised that was probably the wrong thing to say when James’ face, if possible, managed to look even guiltier. “No, I mean… it wasn’t… that came out badly. I mean I’m happy to help you. I don’t know why you picked me, and why not St- other people, but hey, I’m not complaining, it’s nice to have someone to talk to for once.”
There was a quiet moment, before James spoke up again, softer this time. “Yeah- it is, isn’t it? Kinda… kinda forgotten how to do it, though. Been a long time,” he admitted with a shrug, and Tony laughed.
“Yeah, me too. Totally not my fault, though, I’m lovely to talk to.”
James huffed, and it almost sounded like a laugh. “Well, I mean, at least I actually have an excuse for my isolation. Sounds like you’re just a shit conversationalist.”
Tony looked at him, offended. “I’ll have you know my conversation skills are finely honed and rather magnificent actually. It’s mostly the personality aspect that’s shit- the conversation side of me is just fine.”
“Jesus, Stark, if you think you’ve got a shit personality, you’re gonna really hate me.”
Tony looked at him, and for the first time since he’d seen the guy, James was actually grinning. They’d moved past tiny smiles at funny movie lines and on to grins.
“I don’t think I’d mind getting to know your shit personality, to be honest.”
And the smile dropped off James’ face.
He turned away, looking down at the table and tightening his jaw as he said bluntly, “you really would. I’m fucked up. Better off on my own. I’ll be outta here soon, anyway.”
And Tony couldn’t help but let his heart sink, at that. He didn’t really know what he’d been expecting- why the hell would James want to stay once he had no need to be here? He didn’t even know Tony. And once he did, then there was definitely no chance in him sticking around.
He didn’t answer; waiting instead until he’d efficiently bandaged James’ hand before announcing he was all good and turning back in the direction of his workshop.
Dealing with James was…difficult.
Most of the time, he just stayed in the guest room that Tony had offered to him. He rarely spoke unless Tony initiated, and…well, rarely did anything unless Tony initiated, and even then it seemed as if he was incapable of saying no it, even if he didn’t want to do it.
Tony knew why. He knew exactly why.
One night, Tony discovered that James had simply been washing all his own clothes in the sink and then re-wearing them (Which had to have been uncomfortable when he was sleeping) rather than picking new stuff from the wardrobe Tony had stocked up for him.
He’d asked why, without really thinking about it, and James had got this sort of panicked look on his face and refused to meet Tony’s eye when he said “you… I didn’t know if I was allowed.”
Tony briefly let his eyes shut, and of course James had taken that for annoyance, because there was a quick curse and then he was being bombarded with quiet apologies that made Tony’s heart ache for the man.
“No, fuck, it’s not like that, I just should have known better than to assume, that’s all,” Tony had explained, waving a hand and then running it over his face. He’d been feeling particularly exhausted that night; splitting his time between working on upgrades for the arm and fending off SHIELD agents who wanted to come around and discuss new contracts, and he knew he wasn’t going to be able to stay conscious for much longer.
He’d sat down on James’ bed, crossing his legs and watching the other man as he stood tensely to attention in front of him.
“You know, I got kidnapped once,” Tony started with, resting his elbows on his knees and making a point of looking directly at James, because he could get through this without being a coward, goddamn it. “Three months, trapped in a cave and being forced into making them things that go boom. Tricky shit. Sometimes I’d tell them ‘no’, and then they’d put my head underwater until I was pretty much dead. ‘No’ became sort of a taboo word for me. Bad things happened if you said no. In fact, just generally stepping out of line, even in stupid ways, like asking for more coffee or if I could take a leak, was a no-go. Never knew if I was gonna get my skull bashed in for it, so I tended to just keep quiet.”
He’d paused then, taking a breath and making the effort to unclench his fists.
“I came back, and those habits came back with me. Because it’s been conditioned into you; you don’t accept what hasn’t been explicitly offered to you, and you most certainly don’t refuse what has. I found myself in kind of a tricky situation- I couldn’t say the word ‘no’ without having a panic attack, and everything Pepper- that's my PA slash Boss slash ex-girlfriend, by the way- told me I needed to complete, I completed. Even if it drained me dry and left me exhausted because of the workload, I just couldn’t refuse. It took her a while before she figured it out. In the end, she stated filtering all the work down to vital stuff only, and I had to write the word ‘no’ and just show it to the people I was refusing, because doing that seemed to stop my brain from flipping the fuck out. That’s why I suggested it to you, in the beginning.”
James had migrated to the bed along the way too, and he was sat opposite Tony, mirroring his position in a way that made him look incredibly vulnerable for a deadly assassin. “How… how did you make it stop? You can say no now. How did you do it?” he asked quietly.
Tony shrugged. “I’d say it was a mixture of time, extensive therapy I was forced into by Pep, and my career path. Being a superhero and being unable to refuse things wasn’t a good mix. It… it still hasn’t gone away though, not really- it just manifests itself in different ways now. See, I’ve moved to the opposite end of the spectrum. Every time someone hands me something, I have to refuse it, unless I really trust them. I don’t know why- my therapist said it’s me trying to ‘take back control’ or whatever, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.”
James remained silent, eyes on the bed sheets underneath him and completely still, as opposed to Tony’s awkward fidgeting.
In the end, when the silence got too much for him to take, Tony had ended their little conversation with a gentle pat on James’s shoulder and a quiet “I understand. That’s what I’m trying to say. I won’t judge you if you freak out randomly because I’ve been through that. Still do, some days. Also, just for future reference, you can do whatever you want in this tower. Mi casa es su casa. As long as you don’t try and destroy it, I’m good.”
He’d been at the threshold when he’d heard James’ quiet “thank you, Tony.”
It was the first time James had called him by his first name.
The kitchen was dark and empty. Because it was 3am, so of course it would be dark and empty.
It hadn’t used to be.
The nightmares were bad, that night. Tony had put off sleep for as long as he could, because he knew, he knew the days when it got bad- but despite his best efforts, he’d fallen asleep anyway.
And he saw them all die again.
Everything was exactly the same as it had been the last hundred times he’d seen it. They were in space. And they were all dead, except him. He had to survive. He had to look at their lifeless bodies and know that it was his fault, that he’d put them there, his friends were dead and it was because of him-
He choked on a sob, and then let his head fall into his hands, leaning on the table in the pitch-black kitchen and trying to breathe.
He’d left the team, after Ultron. They’d barely spoken to him since. And he missed them. He missed them so much.
But he deserved it. The sleepless nights, the isolation- he deserved it all. He knew that.
Didn’t mean it didn’t still suck, though.
“You got any cocoa?” called a voice from behind him, out of absolutely nowhere.
Tony leapt about a foot in the air, spinning around on the stool and reaching wildly for the drawer underneath him where the cooking utensils and knives were stored. His hand quickly found the hilt of something, and it was up in front of him faster than it would take to blink.
He was pointing it directly at James, who was now crouching with his hands up, spread open in a gesture of peace. “Whoah, I’m sorry, I should have… I tend to walk lightly so people don’t- I’m sorry.”
It took him another few seconds to register the face and remember that he wasn’t actually all that alone in the tower, and he blinked a few times before dropping the knife back on the table with a clatter. “Shit. I… caught me off guard. Sorry for- y’know- threatening you with a knife.”
James smiled. He looked just as tired as Tony did. “Don’t worry. I’ve been threatened with a lot worse.”
There was a pause, and Tony looked back down to the table, too tired to try at conversation.
Not tonight. He wasn’t…not tonight.
“JARVIS?” James called out, “does Tony have cocoa? And milk?”
Tony cracked an eye open briefly, looking at James through the gap between his arms. Watching curiously, he observed as James began to search through his cupboards under JARVIS’s instruction, pulling out a tin of cocoa and a bottle of milk from the fridge.
“You’re fucking making hot cocoa, aren’t you?” Tony blurted after a few seconds, when his brain finally caught up and he realised what James was doing.
“My mom used to make it when I couldn’t sleep,” James told him, pulling out a pan and then staring at the ingredients with a crease in his brow.
“Did it help?” tony asked
James paused, and then chuckled self-deprecatingly. “Not a fuckin’ clue. Can’t remember anything other than that fact. I used to… I’m pretty sure I used to know her recipe off by heart, but…” he shrugged, “my memory’s a goddamn shitstorm now, so- just working it as I go.”
Tony watched him for an extra three seconds, as he stared at the ingredients as if he were expecting it to just jump out and make itself, before finally sighing and pulling himself up in order to lend a hand.
“Just let it boil for a few minutes, and then take it out. I think I’ve got some vanilla around somewhere, too- makes it sweeter,” Tony told him, smiling tightly and then turning on his heel, beginning to walk back to his room.
“What, you don’t want to stay and taste the finished product?” James asked after him.
Tony turned slowly, raising a surprised eyebrow. “You- uh- okay? If you want me here, that is.”
James rolled his eyes. “Made enough for two, anyway. Sit down, Stark.”
Tony stood, watching as James turned his back and continued to stir whilst looking in the cupboards above him for some vanilla flavouring, before eventually jerking back into life and sitting slowly on a stool. His fingers were moving, fast and constant against the tabletop, and he knew he probably looked like he really didn’t want to be there, which wasn’t the message he wanted to put across, because he actually sort of did- but his head was still kind of messy after the whole night terror thing and so his body was still reacting to it, making him tense and shaky.
James turned around and smiled at him; a tiny little thing that only lasted a moment before he was moving again, grabbing two mugs from the side and tipping in the hot cocoa.
“I understand you too, y’know,” he spoke quietly, as he pushed the mug across the table toward Tony. “Why else would you think I’m up at the ass-crack of dawn? It certainly ain’t through choice.”
Tony didn’t answer; instead choosing to take a sip of his drink and look back to the table. James did the same, and for a few moments they just sat in silence, allowing themselves to become lost in their own heads.
“Your mom really made some shit cocoa, didn’t she?” Tony said suddenly, putting down the mug gently and raising an eyebrow at James as he tried to swallow down the weirdly bad taste in his mouth.
James looked up at the sudden break of silence, and then chuckled again, taking a sip himself and wincing as he began to taste. “Oh wow. Didn’t know I could fuck it up that bad. Momma’s probably turning in her grave right now.”
Tony looked down incredulously at his cup. “How do you manage to make hot cocoa taste bitter? There are literally no ingredients in there that aren’t sweet. This is…impressively crap.”
James did a little two-fingered salute, “I aim to break boundaries, Stark. I was always a shit cook anyway. Don’t even know why I thought it’d be a good idea tonight, I just… wanted to see, I guess.”
“Well, at least now you know,” Tony told him, “it’s confirmed that James Barnes is still just as shit at cooking as he was eighty years ago. I’m surprised, actually, I’d have thought Steve would have taught you at some point over the years-“
He knew he’d made a mistake when the smile began to slide off James’ face in the same way it always did whenever Tony brought up Steve.
He shut his eyes, knowing the whole conversation had just been ruined by the slip of his tongue. “I’m sorry. I… need to work on that, uh-“
“It’s fine. I don’t- just… I think I’m gonna…” James stood up suddenly, flicking a thumb over his shoulder and back in the direction of his room.
Tony cursed himself inwardly, but just nodded unhappily and let James move jerkily back to his room, mug of disgusting cocoa long forgotten.
“Well done, idiot,” Tony groaned to the empty room, letting his head sink back into his hands.
“I’m not afraid of Steve,” James burst out one night from the kitchen table, while Tony was cooking dinner.
He jumped at the sudden outburst, and turned around, sensing an important conversation on the horizon. “I never said you were.”
“Yeah, but you were thinkin’ it,” James answered adamantly.
Tony stopped, and then shrugged. “Yeah, I was, to be honest. I mean, I can’t say his name without invoking some sort of negative reaction from you, so I just…assumed.”
“Well don’t. ‘Cause I’m not,” James snapped, as if he was riling himself up for an argument that hadn’t even happened.
Tony raised his hands as a show of peace, and got back to the meal he was making on the stove. He tried to ignore James’ presence behind him, but he was being unnaturally still and it made Tony antsy just watching him. He was barely even breathing.
“I know that you want to tell him,” James said eventually, finally breaking his weird trance as he slumped a little on the table, “and I… I just don’t want him to know I’m back. I can’t. Not right now.”
"Why, though?” Tony flailed a hand in the air bewilderedly. “He’d be better with you than I am.”
“No he wouldn’t,” James said quietly.
“Uh, yeah, he really would. The guys actually knows you, for starters,” Tony raised an eyebrow, turning around to dish up their food.
“He doesn’t. Not anymore.” James sighed, “Whoever I am, it ain’t Bucky Barnes. That person- he died the day he fell off that train. And he’s not coming back. I can’t… I can barely even remember anything from my past life. That's not only gonna be painful for Steve, but it's gonna hurt me too when he inevitably attempts to- I don't know, try mould me into that guy again. I can’t be that. And it would just fuck as all up trying.”
There was a pause, and then James’ voice was a little softer as he said, “that’s why you’re so… you don’t have any expectations. You don’t know me. And you don’t call me Bucky. I like that. I don’t have to- I don’t have to answer to the name of a dead guy.”
“I’m an unbiased view,” Tony finished, nodding his head and turning back to the table, handing James his plate. “I get that. Listen, James- I’m never going to force you into telling him. We can just wait until you’re ready. And if you’re never ready, then so be it. But I promise, he’s not going to find out unless you explicitly tell me it’s okay for him to.”
James nodded, and he looked utterly miserable as he stared down at the food on his plate. “God, I’m- I’m sorry.”
“… Being a mess? Not givin’ you anything back, after you’re doing all this shit for me?”
Tony frowned. “Uhh, James- keeping you a secret is really not a big deal. I’m an asshole, and I’m still capable of that.”
James just scowled down at his food again, and then stabbed it with a fork. “Thanks for the meal.”
Tony sighed, and picked up his own fork. “You’re welcome.”
They ate in relative silence after that.
Tony was walking up from his workshop in order to go to the kitchen for some coffee when he’d discovered that someone had beaten him to it. Which was surprising, considering James rarely left his room before afternoon.
“Hey,” he said, wandering over to where the other man was poking confusedly at the machine and cocking his head a little, amused. “Need some help with that?”
James scowled. “Why don’t you just have a normal one like everybody else? There are so many damn buttons.”
Tony grinned, hopping on to the counter and grabbing a mug from the cupboard above him. “That’s why I have it. No one else knows how to use it, ergo, more coffee for me.”
A pause, and then “no wonder you got no pals, Stark, you coffee-hoarding bastard.”
James looked tense- like he was testing the waters of his own personality and wondering if he’d gone too far in. Tony made an obvious point to laugh, and it seemed to do the job, because the man’s shoulders relaxed a little and he smiled back.
“Um, coffee over friends, any day. Look- how about I make myself one first, and if you can successfully remember all the buttons I press and the order they go in, then you are deserving of it. If not- tough shit.”
James rolled his eyes. “Tony, I’m a trained spy. You really think I’ll struggle with that?”
“You’d be surprised. It took Black Widow at least four attempts before she got it.”
James let an eyebrow rise. “Then Black Widow’s losing her game. Or she was just humouring you. Anyway- get on with it. I’m thirsty”
Tony made a point of making the most complicated version of coffee he could possibly produce with the machine.
James got it in one go.
“Yeah, she was definitely humouring you,” he said smugly, gripping the mug between his hands and taking a sip, before wincing. “What the fuck is this, anyway? Tastes like garbage.”
Tony shrugged, immediately throwing his cup down the sink after tasting his own. “I don’t know. I was just trying to confuse you.”
“Brilliant. Now neither of us has coffee.”
“I’ll just make myself some more, later, so I don’t have to worry. Shame for you, though.”
James scoffed. “Listen up, Stark, I might be givin’ up my assassin lifestyle, but I’m sure I can make one exception if you don’t just tell me how to work your damn coffee machine.”
Tony grinned. “Oh, Winter Soldier’s cracking jokes now, is he?”
“Sweet that you think it’s a joke.”
“Anyway, they’re terrible tactics,” Tony jumped off the counter, snatching the mug out of James’ hands and throwing it under the coffee dispenser, “if you killed me, then I would take my secrets with me to the grave, and you would be coffee-less. I thought you were good at this.”
James laughed quietly, and it sounded so lovely in Tony’s ears- warm and deep and real. He’d been at the tower for just under a week now, and every day Tony got to see a different development in James’ personality. Considering how blank and empty he’d been when he’d turned up at Tony’s doorstep six days ago, watching him laugh and relax a little bit was lovely.
He’d also started looking after himself a little more; trimming and washing his hair, shaving his beard and wearing the clothes Tony had leant him, rather than the dirty, dark leather he’d shown up in.
It was… he certainly cleaned up well- that was all Tony was saying.
“Hey, look,” James began, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear, “I don’t want to push you, but I really need the tracker out today. It’s just- my methods only end up disabling it for about a week, and then it comes back online. I need to get rid of it quickly, I can’t… I don’t want them finding me here. And if you can’t do it now, it’s better if I start running sooner rather than later, y’know?”
Tony stilled against the counter, glad that his back was turned to the coffee machine rather than James.
He’d known that this had had to happen. He couldn’t keep putting it off, it was stupid and selfish and wrong of him. But… it had just been really nice having someone else in the tower. James was quiet and sullen and a hot, hot mess, but he also had kind of a wicked (if slightly morbid) sense of humour when it chose to show itself, and talked to Tony like there wasn’t anything in it for him- like he was just talking for the sake of conversation.
It wasn’t particularly exciting, and it was even slightly stilted and awkward at times.
But the place had been silent for so long, Tony would take stilted and awkward any day.
“Uh, yeah- sure. You can come down right now, actually- if you want. I’m pretty much ready to get to work,” Tony said airily, focusing all his concentration on the coffee machine in front of him and desperately trying to convey the same relaxed attitude he’d been portraying a few seconds ago. Because James was one of the best trained spies he had ever met, and he’d notice the slightest change..
Tony had no interest in pushing his own neurosis’s on him. James didn’t need that. Tony had been fine a week ago, and he’d be fine when James left, too.
“Tony, are you sure?” James asked slowly, and Tony heard him as he pushed himself off the countertop and began taking a few steps toward him.
“Yep! Fine as rain! Absolutely right!” Tony said, whipping around and smiling brightly up at James, who turned out to be a lot closer than Tony had previously estimated, because he ended up bouncing off his chest as he turned and stumbling backwards.
“Hey, careful,” James jerked a hand out, catching Tony’s waist and tugging him back gently, a frown carved into his face as Tony was slowly brought back. “Tony, seriously, are you okay?”
James face was close, too close, and his hand was still on Tony’s hip, as if he might suddenly fall over again. Tony could see streaks of grey in the icy blue of his eyes. His mouth was slightly open, and Tony’s eyes couldn’t stop staring at it.
A sudden, overwhelming rush of want need must have right now shot through him so fast he gasped, and his eyes widened in horror.
That was so not good.
"I HAVE TO GO SET UP!” He yelled suddenly, and James jerked in shock, seemingly only getting even more worried as Tony pretty much ripped himself out of James’ arms and turned tail toward the workshop at full-speed, choking back a string of curses and desperately trying to think of something that wasn’t the way James’ mouth pouted and his eyelashes curled.
Good God. That was so so so not good.
“JARVIS, where’s James?”
“He is currently in his room, sir, would you like me to call him down?”
Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair and looking at himself in the reflection of his tablet.
He looked tired. He always looked tired.
“Yeah. Send him in,” he said, chucking the tablet on to the desk a little forcefully and leaning back in his chair, letting it spin a few times, just because he was Tony Stark and he did what he goddamn wanted to.
A few minutes later, James knocked on the door looking a little awkward and tense as hell. His shoulders, his jaw- everything was tight and clenched, and his eyes were hard and empty as he stood outside Tony’s glass door.
Tony frowned, and gestured James inside. JARVIS released the lock, and James took a second of hesitation before stepping in.
“Right, okay, let’s get straight to it,” Tony clapped his hands, standing up from his chair and then signalling for James to come forward again.
He had to tread very carefully here, and he knew it. Just from his body language, Tony could see that James was struggling with keeping it together. The memories of people working on his arm were undoubtedly horrific, and that wasn’t going to go away any time soon.
“Before I start, you need to be honest with me here, James. Do I need to suit up? Because I’d prefer not to, but if you’re gonna freak out on my while I’m doing delicate work, then I might mess up.”
“Just restrain me, I’ll be fine-”
“No,” Tony cut that shit off before it could finish, “I’m not going to fucking tie you down while doing invasive surgery on you, okay, because that just sucks- if I need to, I’ll put on the suit.”
“Won’t that just make things difficult for you?” James asked, rather than ‘won’t that just make things difficult for me?’
It seemed he didn’t care much about what happened to him. Tony guessed he just wanted it out, and wanted it out fast.
“Tony shrugged. “I’ll keep my gauntlets off. Just don’t attack my fingers, okay?”
James swallowed and then nodded briskly, looking over to the tools on Tony’s table, dirty and blunt and covered dangerous. His face paled a little further, but he didn’t say anything.
Tony caught him looking, and he swivelled a little, glancing at the various tools he’d been using to fix one of his cars up earlier that morning. He then saw the blank look on James’ face that barely concealed the terror underneath, and let his mouth fall open, horrified.
“James, those tools are not for you. They’re for my damn car. Holy shit, dude, you really think I’d do that?” Tony scrabbled at the desk, pulling out another toolkit he’d just designed a few days ago and then opening it, showing James the thin, shiny new spanners and various other pieces of equipment.
James stared down at the kit in Tony’s hands, and then let out an audible sigh of relief, slumping a little into the chair.
Tony shook his head a little, turning away in order to find a cloth to wipe away the grease on his hands with. The work would be intricate and difficult, and he couldn’t afford to let the tools slip. “Your arm’s connected to your brain via some wires that run alongside your nervous system. If I were qualified in surgery, I’d give you a local anaesthetic and then just cut them out completely and put a new set in, ‘cause these ones are a little shitty anyway. Unfortunately, I’m not even close to being qualified for that, so-“
“Does it matter? It’ll be fine, just do whatever you-“
“Stop it! Fuck, Barnes, stop it!” Tony snapped, banging his hand on the desk and feeling his temper rise, suddenly, like a wave of anger rushing over him. “I’m not going to do anything, anything that might hurt you when I’m working. I goddamn will not, okay?” he paused, catching his breath a little and then glaring at James through a scowl, “I am well aware of how fuck-awful that shit is, and I am not going to hear you ask for it to happen to you again, okay? I don’t fucking care how much you want it out, we are doing this my way.”
James froze, taken aback by the sudden outburst. Tony was breathing heavily, hand clutched around the edge of the desk, and it took a few deep breaths before he spoke again. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. Just… bad memories with this sort of thing.”
There was a moment of confusion, and then James’ eyes flickered down to the reactor before widening a little in understanding.
He didn’t say anything, but he sat back and nodded.
“Okay, JARVIS, bring my baby forward,” Tony signalled with his hands, and then grinned at James when he cocked his head in curiosity.
He preened as James gasped, watching the metal fly forward and begin assembling around him, scanning the bracelets on his wrists before curling around them and cocooning him in red and gold. “Like it?” He asked, raising an eyebrow gleefully.
James was smiling too, eyes wide and fascinated as he watched the suit connect and build around Tony’s body. “Sure is somethin’, I’ll give you that.”
Tony scoffed. “Something? This is everything, Mr. Barnes; this is my pride and joy. Can break Mach 5 in under 30 seconds, travel round half the world in the space of a few hours. See, I modified the exo-systems to make it capable of functioning above the atmosphere, so I can literally use the rotation of the Earth in order to reach-“ Tony paused, realising that James neither knew nor cared what he was talking about. “Uh- sorry. Irrelevant. It’s just really cool, okay? Anyway… back to the subject at hand,” he looked away, trying to hide the blush of embarrassment that he knew was staining his cheeks.
James just chuckled, and punched his arm lightly. “Hey, no, I think it’s awesome, buddy. Don’t have to convince me of that.”
When Tony looked up again, James was smiling softly at him. It was his nice warm one, quiet and mellow and lovely.
Tony had to look back down again, because that smile just made his cheeks hot all over again, damn it.
“Okay, right, okay,” he stumbled, releasing his gauntlets and grabbing something off the desk, “so, like I was saying- I can’t just dig in there and rewire you, but I can send a really, really minor electromagnetic pulse into your shoulder. It’s probably gonna sting, because, y’know, they’ll send a signal to your brain saying you’re being electrocuted. But after that, they’ll just short out. I can switch them back on once we’re done, though, don’t worry.”
When Tony looked up, the smile was gone from James’ face again, replaced only with the same old clenched jaw and empty stare. “Yeah. Sure. Let’s go.”
Tony sighed, placing a hand on James’ shoulder. “I swear, if you want me to stop, then we stop, okay? This is in your control.”
James said nothing. He just nodded again.
“Sir,” JARVIS spoke quietly through the earpiece, “I think, perhaps, you should put the faceplate down.”
Tony ignored him.
He brought down the device against James’ shoulder, and felt pretty much every single muscle in the man’s body tense up.
“This is only going to hurt a tiny bit,” Tony promised, hating how panicked James looked.
He pressed the button, and James flinched wildly- but then froze when no other pain came. He turned to Tony, slowly, carefully, hopefully. “Is… is that it?”
Tony smiled. “That’s it. You won’t be able to feel a thing, now.”
“I- It’s-“ James seemed at a loss for what to say, staring at his arm as if he expected it to suddenly bust into flames and prove him right. “It’s… really great. Wow. Thank you,” he said, slightly dazedly as he continued to stare at his arm with a small crease in his brow.
“Okay- now I’ve gotta actually get down and dirty in there,” Tony explained calmly, grabbing for his toolkit. James grimaced a little, shuffling nervously in the chair. Tony watched his eyes flicker nervously across the room at all available entrances and exits.
“We don’t have to do this. You can leave if you want,” Tony said softly.
James shook his head. “No. I need to do this. I need to go somewhere they can’t find me.”
You can stay here, they won’t hurt you here, I wouldn’t let them near you.
Tony sighed. “Yeah. I’m gonna start now, okay?”
James shut his eyes briefly, and then nodded. “Go for it.”
Tony bit his lip, but began to get to work all the same. As soon as his screwdriver touched down on James’ arm, he flinched, and Tony braced for impact. But nothing came, and James just continued to breathe deeply and clench his eyes shut.
“Talk to me about your suit,” he blurted suddenly through gritted teeth as Tony loosened the first plate.
Tony stopped briefly. “Huh?”
“Please. Just… it’s nice. Relaxing. Always loved hearin’ about that sorta fancy stuff. You mumble about it in your sleep, too, when you black-out on the couch while we’re watchin’ movies. I’ve already learnt a ton of shit. Tell me how it works.”
Tony allowed himself two seconds to be surprised that he sleep-talked about the suit, before launching into an explanation, talking quietly into James’ ear while he worked. He wasn’t sure if James was even listening; too engrossed in his work to look up and watch out for facial cues- but occasionally James would huff amusedly or make a tiny little noise of confusion, and so Tony guessed he was at least keeping up with a little of it.
Eventually, Tony noticed James’ shoulders begin to relax backward on to the chair a little more, and his breathing even out. He kept talking, though, partly because it gave his mouth something to do while he worked, and partly because- well- if it helped James keep calm, then there was absolutely no reason for him to stop.
“Just give me a sec,” he muttered a few minutes later, standing up and placing the tools on his desk for a second before releasing the suit and stepping out.
James looked at him, eyes wide as he shook his head. “Tony, what are you doing, that’s… don’t do that.”
“Why?” he asked, turning to grab his tools and feeling the added dexterity with relief. No matter how much he loved his suits, he goddamn he hated doing delicate work in it. “You’re calm, you’re relaxed. You won’t hurt me unless I hurt you.”
“I trust you,” Tony waved him off and sat back down on his stool, “not to go all freaky rage-mode on me. I get enough of that nonsense from Bruce.”
James was still spluttering, but Tony had already jumped back in, having to fight back a literal groan of pleasure at being able to move his joints more freely. He satisfied himself with a simple sigh of delight, and then focused back in on the wiring he was delicately exposing.
“It’s the thing in your chest, isn’t it? That’s your demon,” James said, after another long bout of silence.
Tony froze, immediately having to fight the urge to place a hand over the casing of his reactor. “You could… you could say that, yeah.”
There was another pause. James was looking at him, but not expectantly. He wasn’t pushing for Tony to continue, he was just… seeing. Understanding. It was weird- Tony felt like James already knew exactly what had happened, exactly how he felt, and he’d barely even spoken about it.
“I never used to be this guy,” he said quietly, eyes fixed on the wiring in front of him, “before Iron Man. Before superheroes, I was just… kind of an asshole. Made weapons, ‘cause it was what I’d been told all my life that I had to do, that it was what was right. Thought it was right, for a long time. Thought that was the best way to keep my country safe. Just give ‘em a bigger stick than everyone else.”
“That ain’t such a terrible outlook, Tony,” James shrugged, “I was a soldier. I killed other men ‘cause I thought it was the right thing. Keep my people safe, by killin’ someone else’s. It’s fucked up, but someone’s gotta do it.”
Tony stopped, briefly caught off guard. That was… pretty much the first time in his life that someone had said something like that. “I… yeah, in theory. But I got careless. I let someone else run the company because I was too busy doing my own thing. Turns out, that person was selling weapons to terrorists. And then they tried to take me out, too.”
Tony bit his lip and tried to imagine that he couldn’t taste sand and dirt and blood and betrayal.
It didn’t work.
“Next thing I knew, one of my own bombs had gone off next to me, and there were shards of shrapnel wedged inches away from my heart. I was going to die. And then… there was a doctor. Yinsen. He saved me. Open heart surgery, took out the shards,” he took a deep breath, taking his hands away from James’ arms for a moment, because he’d started shaking and that was no good when you were trying to do delicate work.
“Except terrorists don’t really care much about whether it hurts or not, so they didn’t give me any anaesthetic. He carved into my heart and I was conscious the whole time.”
Another breath, in and out and in and out. “I don’t really remember it. Luckily. But when I come ‘round again, there’s this,” he tapped on the casing and laughed, “big ol’ hunk of metal, slap bang in the middle of my chest. Hurts like you wouldn’t believe, and it’s wired up to a car battery.”
“Holy shit,” James exhaled, eyes wide as he looked down at the reactor that was now fortunately wireless and far more aesthetically pleasing than the first model. “So that’s… do you need to charge it up, then?”
Tony shook his head. “I modified it. Made it run on arc reactor tech, rather than just electromagnetics. But, uh, yeah. That’s the story.”
He looked down, glaring accusingly at his shaking hands and then jerking his head up in surprise when they were covered gently with someone else’s.
“It’s okay,” James said, nodding his head. There was brief pause, and then he appeared to change his tune, laughing a little and turning the nod into a shake. “You know what- scratch that. Nothing about this is okay. Not what happened to you, not what happened to me. But there it is. Happened anyway. I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”
Tony just shrugged, unable to take his eyes off the hand that was still covering his own. “I don’t believe that. I think I did. It was the only way for me to wake up and open my eyes, to see the destruction I was causing.”
James’ grip tightened a little, and he opened his mouth- but then let it close again, choosing to just shake his head. Tony allowed himself a few more seconds to feel the warmth of James’ hand on his, and then pulled away, picking up his tools again.
“So how does the suit fly?” James asked, breaking the silence after a few minutes.
Tony smiled. “Well-“
An hour later, and Tony was done. He’d pulled out the tracker and destroyed it, and given James some maintenance during the process too, because- well- his arm was in shit condition, and the mechanic in Tony couldn’t just leave it that way.
“This is… wow, this is fuckin’ brilliant,” James breathed, as he began to move his arm backward and forward, fluid in a way that he can’t have been for months, if not years.
Tony laughed, watching the mechanics and movement of his arm as it swung, checking for any flaws. “Yeah, it needed a big upgrade, I thought I might as well do some of it now. You like it?”
Rather than replying, James just laughed and pulled him in by the waist, hugging him tightly. Tony squeaked a little and flailed his arms, unsure of where the hell they went, until they eventually curled around James’s shoulders.
He couldn’t help but melt a little bit further into the other man’s touch. It had been so long since someone had hugged him.
“Thank you,” James whispered, and Tony could feel him flexing his fingers experimentally against his hip as he spoke.
James smelt wonderful. And his shoulders were very broad.
It was probably something Tony shouldn’t be thinking about while pressed up very close against him.
Eventually James broke away, and Tony could see a hint of pink colouring his cheeks as he ran a hand through his hair and looked awkwardly around the workshop. Tony kept his eyes fixed on his feet, wondering where they went from here.
“So I should… probably get moving again,” James said eventually, his body going completely still in the same way it always did whenever he got anxious.
“Yeah. Uh. Cool,” Tony lied, turning back to his desk and fiddling with the papers that were scattered across it. “What are you planning on doing when you leave?”
“I need to find someone. They’re…they’re important. Got something I need. Something I’ve been looking for,” James answered.
Tony nodded. “Can you tell me what it is? You don’t have to,” he added quickly, knowing James’ habit of just agreeing or doing whatever Tony asked of him.
James paused, and Tony turned around to see him as he opened his mouth, and then shut it again, pursing his lips and scowling as his throat did a little convulsion, as if trying to force the words out.
“JARVIS,” he said eventually, knowing that JARVIS would understand by now- and sure enough, a holographic sheet appeared in front oh him seconds later.
HYDRA weapon. Dangerous- it read.
Tony’s eyes narrowed. “How dangerous?”
If it falls into the wrong hands? Very.
Tony nodded. “Yeah- you should probably… find that.”
James nodded. “Probably.”
There was an awkward silence. “Thank you. For letting me stay. And… fixing me up. And taking out that tracker. And- well, everything, really,” James said, a plastic looking smile on his face.
He obviously couldn’t wait to be out of here.
“Yep,” Tony said blankly. He wasn’t going to drag this out. If James wanted out, then the door was right there. “Well, it’s been good having you here. And, uh, you’re always welcome back. If you want. JARVIS will let you in, won’t he-“
“Sir, if I may suggest something-“ the AI cut in, “Mr. Barnes is looking for someone. We have some of the most extensive facial recognition and SAR programs in the United States, if not the world. Would it not be wise for him to search from here?”
Tony paused, eyes wide as he turned to look at James. “I… uh, yeah- that’s a good idea. I mean, I could probably find your guy in a week, max. Less if he’s not hiding.”
“Oh, he’s definitely hiding. Very well hidden, probably- so I’d, uh, probably have to stick around for a while longer, right?” James said slowly, shifting from one foot to another nervously.
“Yeah. Definitely. I MEAN. No. Uh- I mean, only if you want to,” Tony stumbled over his train wreck of a sentence, feeling his cheeks grow hotter and hotter with every passing second.
When he spared a look in James’ direction, he saw the man obviously attempt to hold back a grin. “Okay. Yeah. I want to. If that’s okay with you, obviously.”
“Well, yeah, it’s totally okay with me, is it really okay with you though?”
“Yeah, I just want to check it’s definitely what you want-“
“Sirs,” JARVIS interrupted again, and there was no hiding the exasperation in his tone this time, “it seems to me like you have both established that yes, you do indeed both want to remain in one-another’s company for the time being. Now that is sorted- may I please cut in and ask you both to take a break and eat something? Neither of you have had a full meal in well over twenty four hours.”
Tony shot a disapproving look at James, only to find him pulling exactly the same face at him. “You need to eat,” they both said at the same time.
“Seriously, Tony, you gotta start lookin’ after yourself more,” James said, frowning as he took a step toward Tony and gave him a gentle shove in the direction of the exit.
“Uhh- so do you, buddy, JARVIS said that neither of us have eaten, not just me,” Tony replied sulkily, “anyway, I’ve gotta clean up down here, so you just go on-“
“Tony,” James exhaled exasperatedly.
“I’ll be with you in five minutes, okay? I promise,” he said, turning to face James and again, realising a little too late that he was a lot closer than previously predicted. It appeared James didn’t appear to have any concept of personal boundaries.
Not that Tony was complaining, mind.
James stared at him- the same intense look he gave everything that he was concentrating on- and it made Tony feel like his body was on fire, but in the best possible way. And he knew that was never a good sign; he knew that this was only going to end in disaster for him. It always did.
Then James smiled, soft and happy- and Tony didn’t care.
The pain would come and it would hurt like a motherfucker and Tony would deal with it in due course. Because it was worth it.
James was worth it.
“Five minutes,” he said quietly, patting Tony’s shoulder with his new and improved metal hand before walking back in the direction of the stairs that led to his kitchen.
When Tony lost sight of his feet through the panes of glass- he immediately groaned and slumped against his desk. “That was officially too many emotions to deal with in a single morning. I am exhausted. I need to not feel anything for like, five days before I can come back from this,” he complained to JARVIS.
“Maybe you just need a rest, sir,” his AI answered.
Tony laughed. If JARVIS were capable, he probably would have sighed.
“Thank you, by the way,” Tony told him, as he swept his tools away and cleared his desk up a little, “for persuading him to stay.”
“I didn’t persuade him of anything, sir. He wanted to stay of his own accord- I simply offered him a further excuse to. Because it seems both of you are too emotionally stunted to just ask,” JARVIS replied irritably.
“You know, you sound like Pepper when you talk that way,” Tony raised an amused eyebrow and turned on his heel, wandering toward the exit. He was vaguely surprised that the mention of her name didn’t bring a fresh wave of sadness over him- the memory of her was now simply a dull ache in his chest, rather than a fresh wound.
“Talking of Miss Potts, she has been asking for you to teleconference the board of directors for three days now- you may want to answer her, unless you wish her to come to the tower and tell you face-to-face.”
“Uhhh, yeah, okay. Tell her I’ll call her in a few hours, then,” Tony told him, slipping out of the doors and making his way up the stairs.
It was going to be tricky; keeping everyone away from James whilst simultaneously attempting to track down some sort of dangerous HYDRA weapon. He was going to have to get a little more information off James, but if it posed a serious threat… Tony wasn’t sure if he could keep it secret. Not after what had happened last time.
He hoped it would be okay. He hoped he could keep this.
It was bound to go wrong- but he hoped anyway.