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Fractures (Filled With Liquid Gold)

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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.

 Great.

 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-

 

Oh.

 

 

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.

 

 

Barnes.

 

 

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.

 

Tony smiled.

 

 

*****

 

 

“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.”

 “For what?”

 “… 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.”

 “But Tony-“

 “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.

Chapter Text

James

 

 

 

 

 When Tony called him back down to the workshop a few days later and asked for the name of the man he was looking for, he was hit with a brief and uncharacteristic desire to hold back on as much information as possible in order to make him harder for Tony to find.

 

 He discarded that notion immediately, a little horrified that the thought had even popped up. No matter how badly he wanted to stay with Tony in the safety of the tower, there was no way he was going to delay the search for this guy.

 Someone needed to find him. Before HYDRA did.

 And then when Tony had tracked him down, James could get on his way again. Like he had been for the past year; running and hiding and hunting for that damn computer chip.

 It was better that way. Safer for Tony, too. Because James was a mess and it was only a matter of time before Tony was hurt by something he did. Even a year after managing to shake of HYDRA’s control over him, there were still moments. Periods of time when he didn’t know who he was, didn’t know what he was doing or where he was going.

 

 If Tony got caught up in him when he was in the middle of one of those…

 

 James couldn’t let that happen. Not to Tony, who had been so kind to him. Who laughed too loudly at things that weren’t funny and talked a mile a minute when he was explaining something he loved.

 No. James wouldn’t hurt him. He needed to be… to be protected, not put in danger. He was already fucked up enough as it was, even James could see that.

 The guy didn’t eat or sleep or look after himself- too busy working so damn hard for this and that and the other. And there was… no-one was there for him. James had been so confused at the start; he’d expected people to at least visit. Steve, or Romanov or Barton or, well, any of the Avengers that he worked himself so hard for, and designed weaponry and kit for in order to keep them safe.

 But it had been a week and the tower hadn’t been visited. Not once.

 It was a big place to be so alone in.

 

 

“Alexander Roswell? The computer scientist?” Tony asked, spinning around in his chair to look at James incredulously when he spoke the name out loud.

 “That’s the one,” James nodded, “didn’t know you knew about him.”

 “I read some of his papers a few years back. Quite insightful stuff. But he died about one and a half years ago, didn’t he? I thought he got in a car wreck. Only 19, poor kid.”

“No. It was a setup. HYDRA took him,” James explained, leaning a little further forward over Tony’s shoulder as he read the file in front of him. “He was on the brink of a breakthrough- something about working out a virus that knew how to break through any security code, any firewall or defence that a computer possessed. He’d been designing it for the government, but quit before the thing was ever finished. Probably realised how dangerous somethin’ like that really was. But by the time he left, the message was out there. He knew how to do it; and he was up for grabs. HYDRA just got there first,” James explained quietly, eyes scanning the familiar face in the file in front of him.

Tony whistled, folding his arms and leaning back a little in his seat, so his back was resting against James’ arms.

He bit back a sharp exhale at the contact, and fixed his eyes firmly to the screen. Tony touched him all the time- probably just as touch starved as he was- but it was still an electric shock on each and every occasion. The last person who had touched him without violent intent was probably a good seventy years ago, now- and so having Tony in his space, a hand on his back or his shoulder or arm was… unfamiliar.

But god, James had missed it.

“How did you even know about this in the first place?” Tony asked.

 James felt the air in his lungs freeze, and the familiar sensation of guilt and pain and fear course through his body at the thought of it, of HYDRA, of everything. He tried to force the words out- to push them out of his throat and into the air- but just like the last million times, they just wouldn’t fucking come.

 It was weird; what he could and couldn’t talk about. It seemed like if it was directly related to HYDRA secrets or Intel, his years and years of conditioning suddenly woke up and forced him to keep quiet about it. The training of a lifetime; don’t speak about us, or there will be consequences.

 James knew all too well about those consequences. And it seemed they stuck with him, even now, because he wanted to just speak, but he couldn’t.

 

He was weak, he was goddamn pathetic, and he couldn’t.

 

 “James, you know what to do,” Tony said, the same casual tone, the same nonchalance that he always used. Like this didn’t even freak him out- the fact that James was acting like a maniac and potentially a second away from losing the plot entirely.

Tony just carried on. Same old, same old. It… it helped, in a weird kind of way. Made James feel like he wasn’t quite such a disaster.

He took a breath, and then another, while Tony waited patiently. Eventually, he called JARVIS up, and the screen appeared in front of him.

At first, it had been kind of weird, writing with a holographic pen on holographic paper. But James had done it enough times now, and it had even progressed from messy chicken-scrawl to what could actually be considered as genuine handwriting.

James was rather proud.

Because I was the one who took him. And I remember how important they told me it was that I retrieved it, he wrote, watching as Tony began to nod his head and then turn back around to face his giant computer screen, tapping in the name and then flicking his fingers around, making the projections magically organise themselves into different categories.

It was honestly mesmerising. James had only ventured down into the workshop about three times now, but it was already his favourite place in Tony’s tower. The way it worked, the things that were created in here…

It was beautiful. All of it. The machines, the colours- all just completely stunning.

Not to mention how Tony looked; fingers tapping at lightning speed over a keyboard or flicking a spanner between his fingers like it was born to be there. His whole persona changed when he was in here- the tired eyes and aurora of exhaustion still hung over him, but at least here he looked happy. There was a spark in him that James rarely saw anywhere else.

James could watch him work all day.

It was only when Tony poked his chest and asked “did you hear any of that?” that he zoned back in again, realising with embarrassment that he’d just drifted off for two minutes to think about stupid Tony and his stupid eyes and stupid smile and-

“Yes. Sorry. No- uh- I didn’t,” James muttered, pushing down the thoughts and refusing to delve any further into that.

 It was a road that lead only to disaster.

 “I was asking how he escaped,” Tony said, swivelling his chair until he was staring up curiously at James, head cocked and eyes alight with interest.

 James shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s just smarter than they were. It was about a year ago now- he’s been running ever since. I only started looking for him a month or two after HYDRA fell, but even with my skillset, it’s been difficult to track him down.”

 Tony just chuckled, and turned back around, repositioning himself against James’ arms again. “Well, I’m about to make your life a hell of a lot easier then. Depending on how well hidden he is, finding him will probably take around five days. Considering the fact that he’s a computer whiz, he’s probably got some sort of anti-tracking system in place, but luckily I’m a computer whiz too, so if I can just trace it back…”

Tony talked, hands waving excitedly around him as he spoke, and James let it wash over him, briefly shutting his eyes in order to hone in on Tony’s voice. It was soothing; like the babbling noise of a river, except it was just words. Flowing over each other hastily, messily, but familiar all the same.

 

It scared James a little, how fast he’d gotten attached. How soon he’d managed to consider Tony’s voice… safe.

 

“You didn’t listen to any of that either, did you?” Tony sighed, but it was fond, and he was smiling, so James just smiled back and rolled his eyes. “Wouldn’t have understood it anyway, Stark. My area is more…stabby.”

 Tony raised an eyebrow. “Stabby?”

 “Stabby,” James clarified, gesturing vaguely with his hand, “so you work out the science stuff, and then I’ll go and…get him.”

 “Uh, you’re not going to stab him are you?” Tony asked warily.

 “No!” James said quickly, “I’m just gonna…. Persuade him? I’m convincing.”

 “You’re also the person who got him kidnapped in the first place,” Tony said skeptically, “listen- let me come with you. I know you feel responsible or whatever, but you can’t do this alone. It’s too risky. If what you’re saying is true, we cannot let him get recaptured.”

 James opened his mouth to argue, but Tony cut him off. “I’m coming, James,” he said firmly.

 “Fine,” James shrugged, “just don’t get yourself killed.”

 Tony grinned, and James saw that spark of life glittering in his eyes again. “Sounds like a plan.”

 

 

 

*****

 

 

Tony wasn’t sleeping again.

 

 James knew it. He’d asked JARVIS after seeing Tony barely even register his existence at breakfast that morning, and his worries had been confirmed when the AI had informed him that this was the thirtieth hour of being awake.

 James knew the feelings that came with that sort of sleep-deprivation. It wouldn’t be long until he crashed, just like he had on the first night James had visited (okay, broken in, but whatever) the tower.

 

 He wondered why Tony did this to himself.

 

 “JARVIS,” James sighed, stepping back from the punching bag he was working on and beginning to unwrap his hands, “can you call Tony to the living room, please? Tell him I need to ask him something.”

He walked quickly back toward the elevator, and then stepped out when he reached Tony’s penthouse. The place was a little messy, but James liked that. When he’d arrived, everything was spotless. It felt musty. Like Tony barely used it.
It seemed more lived-in now. James was just glad that Tony seemed to be leaving the bowels of his tower a little more, even if it was just to look after James’ sorry ass.

He dropped down on to the couch and switched the TV on, allowing the dull background noise to block out everything else around him for a few minutes, before Tony stumbled up the stairs, head turning jerkily as he tried to spot James.

“Oh. Hey,” Tony said, when James sat up and waved his hand a little, attracting his attention.

 

He looked like shit.

 

“I need your advice,” James said, gesturing for Tony to come further in, “you told me I have to watch the Star Treks, right? But there are two versions here. Which one is the one you think is-“

 “I know what you’re doing, you know,” Tony interrupted, looking at James blankly.

Instantly, James curled in a little. It was stupid, he knew that, the whole thing he was trying to do, getting himself involved in Tony’s life, was stupid- it was none of his business anyway. Tony didn’t want him interfering, he had to fucking learn his place-

“James! James, stop, you’re shaking, fuck- I didn’t mean to upset you, I was just running on autopilot, I tend not to think about what I’m saying when it gets late, but whatever you think, I can assure you it’s not that-” and Tony was sat next to him now, face anxious and worried as his hands hovered, obviously wanting to touch, but holding back.

 James wanted to hit himself for upsetting Tony. He just…
Well. Let’s just say that Tony wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep that night, either.

“Sorry. No, don’t… I’m fine. Just- wanted the company. That’s all. But I’m sorry- I know you’re busy with, whatever-“

“Not anymore,” Tony shrugged, “finished it before coming up. Anyway- you were talking about Star Trek?”

 

 And it was as easy as that.

 Within five minutes, Tony was curled up on the couch, head resting next to James’ thigh and hands tucked under his head. His eyes were drifting shut as the fancy sci-fi film about aliens played in front of them.

 

 “Thank you,” Tony whispered a few minutes later, making James jump a little. He’d thought Tony was asleep.

 “For what?” James asked quietly.

 His hand was resting dangerously near Tony’s head. He was being hit with the strange desire to run his fingers through the strands of dark hair.

 “For caring,” Tony said, and it sounded horribly fragile and hoarse, barely even audible over the movie. “It’s been a while since… yeah. Thanks.”

 James didn’t know how to answer, but it didn’t seem like he needed to. Tony just moved his head a little until it was properly resting on James’ leg, and James replied by finally letting his desires take over and softly twirling a lock of curly hair around his pinky finger.

 

 They did that a lot. Sometimes, when either of them didn’t want to talk, they just sat there, in silence. But it was good, it was comfortable. And it had been a long time since James could say he’d have been comfortable with anyone, before.

He said that a lot, about Tony. But it was true. He seemed to just… bring out the human in James Barnes.

 

 “Why are you always awake, Tony?” he asked, breaking the silence again.

 There was a pause, and James wondered if Tony had actually fallen asleep this time, before the shuffle of his head gave it away. “I have a lot of work.”

 “That’s not work. That’s punishment. I can see the difference, Tony.”

 Again, a silence. But this one was stilted, heavy with unspoken words.

 

 “They’re gone. I nearly destroyed the world and they’re gone.”

 

 James didn’t sigh, but he shut his eyes and very quietly took a breath inward. He didn’t know a lot about what had happened with Ultron, but he’d heard of it. He’d seen the damage that had been caused.

 But he knew Tony. And he knew that there was no way on hell or earth that he’d ever do all that knowingly. He’d rather have fucking died.

 “They should be gone, anyway. It’s what I deserve-“

 “You get any help? With the whole Ultron thing,” James asked, fingers never stopping their gentle caress of Tony’s soft hair.

 Tony paused, and then shrugged. “I- I asked Bruce. I’d been kinda on edge, since we’d got back from a mission into HYDRA. I was around this… sceptre thingy, and it’s been known to fuck with your emotions, I guess. And… well, I saw something. Something that kinda got stuck in my head, and… yeah. I wanted to stop it from happening. I tried…. I tried to help. I just wanted to keep everyone safe, but I just made everything- I made it all so much worse.”

 Tony laughed, then. “But that’s what I do. It’s everything I’ve ever done- the weapons I created for so long, and believed so viciously that I was right, that it was the only way to help- and look what happened there. I can’t… I’m not good. I’m not a hero. I’m not whatever you think I am. I’m Tony Stark, Merchant of Death. I sold weapons and got innocent people killed-“

 “Right. No. Fuck that, Tony, fuck that,” James said suddenly, sitting up a little straighter and gently removing Tony’s head from his lap (how the hell had that happened?) as he got to his feet.

 “Stay there. I’ll be two minutes,” James told him firmly, before walking swiftly toward the elevator, one destination in mind.

 

And, true to his word, two minutes later James came back again. Marching toward Tony, who was still curled desolately on the sofa, he crouched down on his knees in front of the other man and pulled out the gun he’d taken from his room.

“Look at this,” he said gruffly, taking Tony’s hand and gently wrapping it around the barrel. “You know what this is?”

Tony looked at him, frowning. “It’s your handgun?”

 James scoffed. “It’s more than a handgun. That’s a Stark Auto- and it’s been the gun I’ve used for a good ten years solid. It’s accurate, it’s perfectly balanced, and it’s durable as fuck. Not too expensive, but excellent quality. Clean shot, every time.”

Tony looked down at it properly now, eyes widening as he rubbed at the faded logo with his thumb and then turned it over in his hands. “Hey. This was my favourite design, too.”

“Tony, do you know how many times that gun has saved my life?” James asked.

Tony froze, his eyes meeting briefly with James’ before he shrugged and looked away.

“I can’t even count it. Especially in this last year and a half, when I’ve been running. It’s saved me from recapture and kidnap, muggings and outright murder. Tony- you’ve been savin’ my life without even being a part of it for ten goddamn years.”

“I…well, I mean- it's not...” Tony trailed off, eyes a little wide as he stared up at James, tired and haunted and beautiful.

James shook his head, gently prying the gun out of Tony’s hands and then laying it back on the table behind him. He used his other hand to push Tony back on to the cushions a little more, until he was leaning back against the soft leather.

“I’m sorry. I was supposed to be trying to get you to sleep, not get you even more wound up,” he said softly, taking back his position on the sofa next to Tony and grabbing a blanket from the armchair, throwing it at Tony and then grinning when he looked disgruntled.

Tony yawned, and buried himself a little into the fabric of the blanket and then leaned sideways, and before James knew it, he was resting his head on James’ shoulder.

 

 “You’re kinder than you make out to be, you know,” Tony said, voice muffled by James’ shoulder.

 “I’m an assassin, Tony-“

 “You’re my friend. You’re James Barnes. No one else.”

 

 James paused, his brain trying to process what Tony had just called him.

 A friend.

 A friend.

 

A friend.

 

 

By the time he thought of a reply, Tony’s eyes were shut and he was fast asleep against James’ shoulder.

 

 

 

*****

 

 

 

James woke up a few hours later, as the sunlight rose through the windows and hit him in the face.

 

He was still on the couch, with Tony wrapped around his side.

 

 

It was the first time he'd not woken up feeling like he was covered in ice.

 

 

 

*****

 

 

 

And of course, five days later, it all had to fall apart.

 

“I’ve got him,” Tony said, standing awkwardly at the entrance of the gym as James as he drove into a punching bag.

He frowned for a second, before working out what Tony was talking about and freezing up immediately. “Right. Where?”

“A city called Varadero, Cuba. If you’re ready, we can go get him right now.”

James paused, looking at Tony, who was obstinately looking anywhere else than at him. “Yep,” he gritted out, turning back to his punching bag and offering it one last punch.

It snapped off its chain and went flying across the room.

“Don’t worry about that- I’m used to it,” Tony said hurriedly, as James opened his mouth to apologise. “Anyway- we’ll lift off in about twenty minutes- I’m gonna head down to the shop,” Tony said, beginning to turn and walk away quickly.

 

 James watched his back as it turned out of the door, and wondered why hearing the good news made him feel quite so shitty.

 

 

 

*****

 

 

 

The town was sweltering, and completely crowded with people. It was early evening, with the sun just beginning to dip below the crystal blue ocean, and yet the leather was still sticking uncomfortably tightly against James’ body.

“Pretty nice place to hide from HYDRA forces in,” Tony said, looking around with his tinted shades and kicking a mound of white sand with his shoe.

“Pretty fuckin’ inconvenient, if you ask me,” James muttered, tipping the brim of his hat a little lower and scowling at the sand that he kept getting his shoes stuck in.

Tony just laughed. “Inconvenient for you, yeah, which is exactly the point. No doubt this guy is monitoring CCTV footage of the whole area, and knows the paths and the ferry times like the back of his hand. If he caught wind of our arrival, you'd still be fucking around in the sand while he’d be halfway to the Bahamas.”

“If he’s monitoring CCTV, then what’s to say he hasn’t noticed us?” James asked warily.

“Uh, because a) you’ve been dragging us through all the damn blind spots in the city, which, I’d like to add, has been hell in these shoes- and b) he might be good, but I’m better. JARVIS has been temporarily looping the camera feed a few seconds before and a few seconds after we pass along its line of sight. We’re invisible for as long as I say we are,” Tony explained, hand flexing against the casing of his suitcase suit and turning to raise a smug little eyebrow up at James.

“Okay, okay, we get it, you’re a whiz,” he said fondly, breaking his gaze just for a second in order to shoot Tony a fond smile and nudge his shoulder.

Tony nodded wisely. “I am a whiz,” he agreed.

They kept silent after that, continuing down through the back alleys and streets in search of the apartment they were after. It was tiring and hot, hiking through the town in scorching sun and trying not to be detected, and they’d already been walking an hour. They’d agreed to travel down by plane and just walk the rest of the way, so as to attract the least attention, but at this point James would happily just say fuck it and risk being caught in order to get to Roswell’s place a little faster.

“Winter Solider not so built for the heat, huh?” Tony said, sensing James’ discomfort.

“It’s in the name, pal,” he replied, and then bit back a grin of his own when Tony started laughing.

It suited him, being here. Tony’s skin didn’t just burn up and turn red like James’ did; it just slowly went a little darker than his seemingly permanent tan already was. And the fabric of his shirt hung breezily across his shoulders- he didn’t look sticky or sweaty or as generally uncomfortable as James was.

Then again, he’d opted for slacks and a simple white shirt, rather than black leather.

Yeah- that one was probably on James.

They wandered in amicable silence for a little while, and every so often their shoulders would brush and Tony would look over to him to smile brightly.
James adored that smile. It was happy and bold and…well, everything James was not. It wasn’t a bad thing, though. It just made him feel a little bit more whole when he was around Tony.

 

And he knew it wasn’t going to last. He knew that he was getting way too involved in all this.

But then Tony would smile like that at him and he just… wouldn’t care.

It was very bad form for a man like him.

 

 “Look. That’s the apartment,” Tony said, sidling a little closer to speak into his ear.

 James snapped back to attention, cursing himself for losing focus during a mission. “We need to check for hidden cameras or sensors before we go near. I’ll go scouting, see if I can spot anything-“

 “No need,” Tony brushed him off, fiddling with his glasses a little as he swept his gaze over the block of flats that stood on the opposite end of the street to them, “I’m scanning now. It looks clean.”

James paused, opening his mouth to ask what Tony was currently seeing, before spotting a flash just behind the lens of his glasses. And then another, and another- a red light that wasn’t just the reflection of his aviators.

“Nifty,” he muttered, impressed.

Tony smiled, and it looked like he was biting down on a laugh. “Yeah. Thanks. ‘Nifty’ indeed.”

James refused to look over to Tony, instead choosing to keep his eyes on the window and check for any obvious signs of movement. It was obvious the place was lived in- there was a plant that seemed to be growing healthily on the windowsill, and he could just about spot a light source from within.

It was just about whether the guy they needed was the one actually living there, or whether they were about to walk into a trap.

 

Because it was always there. The question. The worry. What if they’ve found him, what if they’ve known all along, what if this was just some elaborate plan to capture them both and James has just sent them both straight into HYDRA’s waiting arms-

“Single resident, according to thermal scans- no traps or noticeable motion sensors, but a fuck-ton of CCTV cameras dotted around, and two exits, back and front door,” Tony finished. His posture gave off the impression of relaxed holidaymaker- but James could see the fast-paced movement of his eyes, he noticed the way Tony’s hands were flexing behind his back.

“I’ll take front exit,” James muttered, making to step forward, before an arm pushed up against his shoulder and stopped him.

He turned around, raising an eyebrow at Tony. He was in the zone now; he didn’t have time for games. “What?”

“Let me be the one to go in and speak to him,” Tony replied, “computer scientist to computer scientist. He’ll trust me way more than the guy who kidnapped him in the first place.”

 And, logically, James knew that was true. Of course he did. It was the simplest and most effective point of action.

But there was still the risk that it might be dangerous in there, and it was Tony going in first, not him, which felt…. It just felt wrong- he needed to look out for Tony, needed to keep him safe from anything at all to do with HYDRA. And letting him go in there, where God knows what might be laying in wait for them- because who the hell knew what HYDRA had planned- it sat like a lead weight in his stomach.

He bit his lip, pushing down the unfamiliar sense of protectiveness in order to nod his head.

“Fine,” he muttered, “you go in first, but at the first sight of danger, you get out and you call me, understood?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Sure. But a) there will not be any danger, and b) if there was, I’d handle it. I am actually a superhero, you know.”

 James wanted to snap back, but he kept his head down and just started walking, heading around the back of the apartment and making sure his hat was low enough to hide his face from the cameras.

Tony had a point. If Roswell saw him, he’d run for sure.

“Right. I’m gonna go for a knock on the door, but I’m guessing I’m not gonna be getting a reply,” Tony said through the earpiece.

James stayed silent, dipping his head to the side a little so he could see through the glass in the door. He was looking into a cramped little hallway at the back of the house, and he could see the staircase just ahead of them.

He watched intently as two feet slowly began to creep into view- cautiously, nervously, moving along the edges of the steps as if he didn’t want to be heard.

“Target’s moving. He knows something’s up,” James said quietly, eyes fixed on the moving figure.

He waited a few more seconds, doing nothing more than watch through the door as more of Roswell began to be displayed- a knee, a thigh, a hand-

“Gun,” James said immediately, eyes fixing on the small, sturdy pistol that was clenched between the man’s bony fingers. “Roswell has a gun, Tony, do you need-“ 

“I’ve got this,” Tony replied quickly, and James nodded, before realising that Tony couldn’t see that. “Okay,” he confirmed, knowing that Tony could deal with the five-foot scientist.

 

Then, suddenly, the man on the stairs turned around and looked him right in the eye.

 

James’ stepped back in surprise, and then swore. Loudly. “He’s spotted me, he knew I was here and- he’s seen my face.”

He was an idiot. He was an idiot and he wasn’t damn concentrating and now Roswell’s eyes were looking so wide and so terrified, because of him, because of what he’d done-

Roswell lifted a shaking hand, but it wasn’t his right one, with the pistol on the end of it, it was the one that was holding a phone in a deathgrip. James watched as he pressed a button, mind immediately jumping to triggers, bombs, bullets, traps.

Instead, there was just a crackle of static, and then his voice over a sort of comm system that he must have rigged up outside.

“You want my designs? Tough shit. You’re not having them. No-one will. Not again,” the man hissed, gun rising steadily, higher than James, only stopping once it was pressed firmly against his temple.

James’ eyes widened in horror. He put his hands up, backing off and hissing for Tony down the line. “Get to him, Tony, he’s gonna fuckin’ shoot himself-“

“You won’t ever find where I hid it! I fucking promise that!” The man was near hysterical now, hand shaking wildly against the gun that was pressed up against his forehead.

This was a person who obviously did not want to die, but was fully intending to do it anyway.

Tony was cursing down the line, and James was yelling at him to get the fuck in and stop him, but nothing was happening, and Roswell looked like he was psyching himself up for it-

Suddenly, James noticed the phone in his hand begin to ring, an unknown number popping up on the man’s screen and blaring a dull tune down the speaker-system.

“Gesture for him to answer it,” Tony said, after a few seconds of nothing.

James, although completely bewildered, followed Tony’s orders, slowly putting a hand up against his ear and making the phone symbol, and then gesturing in Roswell’s vague direction.

He attempted to make himself look as non-threatening as possible, although he was more sure it just made him look like a fucking idiot.

Although it seemed- somehow- to be doing the trick. Roswell seemed more…confused, than panicked now- glancing in puzzlement at James as he jiggled his hand around his ear and kept waving around like a fool.

As far as assassins went, he wasn’t doing a very good job at maintaining his image right now.

There were a few more seconds where the tones played out, and then slowly, a shaking finger pressed down on answer, and James heard Tony’s voice filter through the speakers.

“Hey!” He began with, “I’m Tony. Tony Stark. The guy you’re looking at, that’s my pal James.”

He waved a little awkwardly as Roswell stared at him.

“What the fuck,” Roswell said suddenly, “is Tony Stark doing in Varadero with the HYDRA assfuck that kidnapped me?”

 

The warmth of Cuba suddenly evaporated, as fast as it would take to blink, and James felt the weight of the man he had been, the man he still was to some extent, pressing down on him, crushing him with the weight of his sins.

Roswell was just one of the many.

 

He blinked a few times, forcing down any emotions and saving it for later. For now, there was only the mission. That was all he could afford to think about right now.

 It would all come back, later, anyway. It always did.

 

 

“Well, you see now that’s a tricky one,” Tony began, “he’s… he’s not HYDRA. James Barnes never was. It just… took a while for him to break out of their brainwashing.”

“Bullshit,” Roswell interrupted; eyes fixed on James, terror evident in his features.

James didn’t blame him.

“I swear to you. You know how their neuro-science division was so thoroughly funded, you know the sort of equipment they have, you’ve seen it yourself-“

“Yeah, because he fucking put me there! And I heard about the corruption, about HYDRA in SHIELD, so I’ve got absolutely no goddamn reason to trust you either, Tony Stark, superhero or not.”

“He was just as much of a prisoner in there as you were, Roswell, let me just make that clear,” Tony said sharply. “You can think whatever you want about me, but at the end of the day, he’s probably more trustworthy than I am.”

James watched as Roswell reeled, trying to process everything he was hearing in quick enough time. Even for a genius, the whole situation was… a lot to take in. James was having a hard time, and he knew the entire fucking plan anyway.

“What the fuck do you want,” he whispered eventually.

There was a pause, and then, “I tried to think of a non-threatening way to say this, but I came up blank, so I’m just gonna say that you know exactly what we want, Alexander.”

“And you’re not fucking getting it, I’ve already told you,” Roswell growled, all five feet of him quivering with rage and barely contained fear as he stared down his opponent, as if sheer force of will might make James go away.

He was hit with a strange and sudden burst of déjà vu- flashes of memory of a skinny boy too sickly and too angry for his age, who held that same stance when facing down the people so much bigger than him- and it was enough to make him gasp, just for a second. That sort of memory-burst was rare, but when it happened, it could sweep him off his feet entirely if he wasn’t careful.

“Look, Alexander, I’ve read some of your work- it’s some great stuff. Really, I was impressed, and I’m never usually impressed by the things that people say about computers unless I’m the one doing the talking. But Roswell- you know what you’ve got, hidden away in your head, and the real copy that you admitted you have somewhere, is incredibly dangerous. James came to me, a few weeks ago now, and he had been trying to track you down for a year. Not to hurt you,” Tony said hurriedly, when Roswell shot another glance his way, “he was trying to stop HYDRA from getting to you. He was trying to save you, because you’re wanted by a lot of dangerous people right now, and you’re just lucky we found you first.”

Roswell paused, before his brow creased a little. “How did you find me, anyway? I’ve been hidden for years and no one realised until you.”

“Yeah, well I only discovered you were even alive about five days ago. And I’m clever, so tracing you wasn’t really hard. But I mean, it took me like four days! That… sounds really patronising, damn- but you gotta listen to me here Alexander, we’re the good guys! It’s the only reason you haven’t been forcibly dragged out of your apartment by a team of angry men wearing HYDRA logos right now,” Tony muttered, and James heard the mumbled curses over the comm.

 

They probably could have planned this out an awful lot better, James realised with hindsight.

 

“Look, can you let me in? So I can explain properly. I’m not armed, you can check yourself if you want-“

“You’ve already pretty much deemed all of my other fucking tech redundant,” Roswell muttered, slightly sulkily, “what’s to say you’re just hiding something that my scans can’t see?”

“Uhhh, I’m a good guy? Remember me? Sort of a superhero- well- I fly around in a shiny suit and save people a few days a year.”

Roswell shot James a look through the glass. “Yeah- and you also brought a HYDRA lackey who beat me up and dragged me back to their little Siberian cell in the goddamn first place. Excuse me for being wary, but I know all about how deep the HYDRA infiltration ran in SHIELD. There’s absolutely no reason for me to think you’re not one of them.”

Tony sighed, and James heard it through both comm and speaker-system. “Right. Okay. I’m not lying when I told you I wasn’t armed, but I do have a sort of… weapon. That will only really affect me,” he said slowly, and James’ head darted up, eyes sharp and suspicious as he hissed down the comm, “Tony? What the fuck are you-“

“Call it an EMP, Tony said, ignoring James and soldiering onward, “but specified to only affect a certain frequency. Uh… my frequency. You’ve seen the arc reactor in my chest, right?”

 James reeled back, completely stunned, as Roswell replied “yeah.”

 “Well this can turn it off. I worked on it before coming out here, because I knew you’d need an incentive to trust me. And believe me, this is… an incentive. I’m about to put my life in your hands, okay? I’m gonna just push this through your letterbox, it’s only a small little button, absolutely harmless.”

“Tony!” James hissed, caught between the desperate urge to force his way in and just stop Roswell from touching that device using whatever means necessary, and sticking it out to see if it would work.

Down the comm, Tony shushed him, and then James watched as Roswell’s head jerked, hearing the sound of something being dropped through his door.

The man’s eyes widened and he flinched, expecting some sort of explosion. When none came, Roswell started moving, slowly, surely, out of James’ line of sight and toward the front door that Tony had just dropped a fucking EMP through. 

“He’s coming your way,” James gritted, craning his neck to try and see through the door, “I’m coming ‘round, get ready-“

“No,” Tony interrupted hurriedly, “you will freak him out and you goddamn know it, James, just stay put.”

“He’s got a fuckin’ gun and an EMP that could fuckin’ kill your idiot ass, Stark, fuck this shit!” James snarled, smacking the wall with his flesh hand and trying to stay calm.

 

He should be better than this. Calmer. More professional. He knew that.

 

But damn it, the guy was about to pick up something that could seriously hurt Tony, and James knew that must be freaking him out, he knew the issues that Tony had with his arc reactor, and James didn’t want anyone even slightly dangerous going anywhere near the fucking thing.

He heard Tony’s breathing down the comm; shaky and shallow as he waited to see whether Rowell to open the door for him, or end his life.

There was a good minute of silence, as it seemed Roswell was either inspecting the EMP or just debating whether or not to trust them- and then James heard it as a door was slowly opened, the creaking and whining of the hinges noticeable from all the way around the other side of the house.

James stilled, hearing Tony’s breathing hitch a little, and then a quiet “hey. Uh. Thanks for… y’know. Not killing me. Yet.”

James didn’t hear the reply, but Tony huffed out a strained little laugh, and then there was another bout of silence where Roswell started speaking, nothing more than vague sounds through the comm in James’ ear.

He waited for three minutes at the back of the house, listening in to one half of a conversation before Tony finally called his name. He seemed relaxed, more so than he had been a few minutes ago, anyway, and so James knew that the biggest danger had almost certainly passed.

It still took him far more restraint than he was comfortable with to not sprint back to Tony’s side just in case, though.

Instead- he wandered. Wandering was casual. It suggested a relaxed and calm nature. It was what people who weren’t hardened killers did sometimes. And Roswell needed James to look as little like a hardened killer as possible.

He wandered all the way around the house, and then wandered up to Tony’s side. And then his eyes wandered all the way across Tony’s body, checking for any signs of injury or control.

Tony nodded and smiled reassuringly, a hand on his forearm. “I’m fine. Not dead. After some conversation, I have managed to convince Mr. Roswell over here that neither of us actually work for HYDRA, and we have his best interests at heart.”

Roswell stared at him, apprehension obvious in his eyes. “I’m working on actually believing it, though. I still have a gun, and I will use it. Don’t fucking think I wont.”

“What about the EMP,” James said, scanning Roswell for something that looked like what Tony must have given him, “still got that, too?”

Roswell nodded, no shame in him at all. “Think I’m just gonna give it up now the first part’s over? I’m not a dipshit, asshole, I’m keeping it until I can fully trust you-“

“Well I ain’t gonna trust you for shit unless you give that thing back,” James growled, and suddenly Tony’s arm was tighter on his arm, pulling him back from taking a step in Roswell's direction, “keep the damn gun, if you want. It’ll kill me stone dead if you get a headshot. But give the EMP-“

“James,” Tony said warningly, turning to face him, “let him keep it. It’s fine. If it means he’ll come with us, then it’s got to stay with him.”

Tony was staring up at him, through his stupid dark eyelashes and looking as earnest as James thought anyone ever could. “Trust me, James. Come on.”

 

 And damn it all to hell, but James did.

 

So rather than just forcibly removing the EMP from Roswell, he let himself stick to nodding his head sullenly and look away into the distance, checking the streets at the bottom of the hill for any suspicious activity.

There was nothing. Typical. James would have loved to punch something right about then.

 

“Okay. We should probably get moving, then,” Tony said, after an awkward pause.

 Roswell hummed his agreement, and James chose to remain silent, simply pulling himself out of Tony’s grip and walking forward, back down in the direction they had come.

 

 

*****

 

 

 

It took another hour of walking back to the jet for Roswell decided to finally tell them where the chip was hidden.

 

“New Jersey? Really?” Tony said, curling his lip a little in distaste.

 James stayed silent, but inwardly he agreed with Tony. New Jersey did not sit well with his Brooklyn roots.

 “Listen, when you’re running from dangerous terrorists and you gotta get rid of a fucking death-code as fast as possible, then you don’t really think about which state is your personal fucking favourite,” Roswell said defensively, rolling his eyes and running a hand through his unkempt hair. “I had no choice. The damn thing itself was made entirely of this… ridiculously durable material. Said it was the same thing that made Captain America’s shield-“

“Vibranium?” Tony stopped in the street, turning to grab Roswell’s arm in surprise. “Where the fuck did HYDRA find Vibranium?”

Roswell shrugged, and then made a vague measurement with his two fingers. “It was only this big- not a lot of it. But whatever I did, I couldn’t destroy it. And they’d- they’d made me design it so it couldn’t be written over, or the data destroyed. I didn’t… I didn’t have a choice- I need you to know that. I tried, okay, but they made me-“

“I know,” both Tony and James said at the same time. Tony shot him a look from across Roswell; a slightly raised eyebrow that said ‘oh, so you’re talking now?’

James just rolled his eyes and then turned to look forward again, clenching his jaw and sullenly reverting back to silence.

“We both get what it’s like to be forced into doing things for bad people. Trust me, there’s no judgment here,” Tony reassured him quietly, placing a hand on Roswell’s shoulder and smiling gently down at the smaller man.

James was hit with the sudden, overwhelming desire to slap it off. Because that fucking asshole was bonding with Tony whilst still holding that EMP above his head like a goddamn threat, and it was making James’ skin crawl.

Not to mention the fact that it had somewhat proved his prediction- Tony’s physical touches were not restricted to James. He was like that with everyone. James wasn’t fucking special.

 

 Which kind of sucked, to be honest.

 

 

 

*****

 

 

“I know you’re mad at me, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you what I had planned, but I knew that if I did then you wouldn’t let me go through with it and it was the only way I could get him to come with us,” Tony burst out suddenly, wandering over to where James was sat in the furthest corner of the jet and sitting himself down right in front of James, so he was impossible to ignore.

 

James turned to face him, watching the man twitch and jiggle sporadically, head held up obstinately like he was gearing himself up for a fight.

“Okay,” was all James said, before turning to look back out of the window.

 

He didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to say that he wasn’t angry with Tony for doing that.
Well- he was. But he knew that tony was experienced, and that he wouldn’t do it unless he had to. He was aware that him insisting on being there had probably fucked everything up, so he couldn’t exactly get angry with Tony for having to resort to more desperate measures.

But how the hell was he supposed to tell Tony that he was pissed because someone was still in control of Tony’s safety? Roswell still had that goddamn EMP, and James just wanted to… attack. He wanted to forcibly remove it from Roswell’s pocket and destroy it, so no one could ever hurt Tony like that again.

And he knew what the implications of that were.

He knew it and he hated it.

Because there was going to be an expiration date to this. James wasn’t naïve. It was only a matter of time before Tony got bored of having to deal with his shit; having to clean up his mess when he punched something he shouldn’t or hurt himself unnecessarily or generally just got under Tony’s feet.

 

And when that time came for him to leave, James had no idea how the fuck he was going to deal with it.

 

He’d been running for so long. And he’d been fighting for so much longer. But with Tony…. He felt like he didn’t have to. He didn’t have to be Bucky Barnes, or The Winter Soldier. He was just James. Because all Tony wanted was James. And he never expected anything else.

Tony had treated him like he was a human being. Smiled at him in the morning and made jokes with him when he was panicking and refused to act is if he was fragile.
He’d taken a broken man in from the foot of his stairs and helped to fix him, in more way than one.

 

And then of course- because the universe never seemed to let him catch a fucking break- James had gone and fallen stupidly in love with him.

 

Which was just bad on every level, really. James didn’t even hope for a chance in hell- not with Tony. He was a mess. He was dangerous. Tony would never want anything to do with him in a million years. Hell- the only reason James was still clinging on was because he’d jumped on the chance to find Roswell with Tony, rather than alone.

 

He knew he didn’t have long left. And he honestly didn’t know how to deal with going back. With leaving the comfort and kindness that Tony had given him.

With abandoning his humanity again, in order to just fucking survive.

 

 

“James? Come on, don’t just ‘okay’ me, I said I’m sorry-“

“You don’t need to fuckin’ apologize for doing your job, Tony,” James snapped, “it’s fine. I don’t care.”

Tony froze, and James got the feeling he’d just had the rug swept under him a little. “I…okay? So what the hell are you all moody for, then?”

James huffed, shaking his head. Because I love you and I’m broken and I don’t know what to do.

 

“Because you piss me off, Stark, Jesus, do I need a reason?”

 

Tony reeled back, mouth opening a shutting a little as he tried to think of a response. James could see the hurt he’d just caused by saying that, and it just made him even angrier that he had done it, that he was the one hurting Tony now, because he was fucking chaos.

“Right. You were just staying so we could find the chip. I forgot. You’re allowed to be as much of an asshole as you want now, right, ‘cause it’s all sorted, and we saved the day,” Tony said, his voice as hard as his eyes as he stood up, hands clenched against his sides.

“Yep,” James bit out, “hit the fuckin’ nail on the head.”

 

 God, he hated himself so much.

 

Tony took a sharp breath, and then looked away. “Fuck you,” was all he said- but it didn’t sound angry, like it should. It just sounded sad. “Fuck you, James, honestly. God, I can’t believe I thought… whatever. It doesn’t mean shit now, anyway. We’re landing in an hour, and then you can get off and do whatever the fuck you want.”

James wished there was something to punch. “I will.”

“Great.”

“Fine”

“Happy for you”

“So am I,”

Tony swallowed, and shook his head, hiding a laugh in his hand. “Yeah. Been fun, Barnes. Sorry I pissed you off for so long.”

 

He stood and walked away, and James felt his metal hand as it dug into his arm so hard it left deep red marks on his skin.

 

 

 

*****

 

 

 

The rest of the journey was spent with James at the back of the jet, and Tony and Roswell talking avidly at the front.

 

They were discussing computers. Of course. James hadn’t meant to start listening in, but he couldn’t help himself sometimes- and they were talking pretty loud, in his defence. Roswell had been discussing the theory behind his designs, and how he’d only just managed to escape with the original plans before they had managed to mass-produce it, whilst Tony listened, completely enthralled.

At one point, Tony had had to take a call, and from what it sounded like, it had been SHIELD, asking where has was. Because apparently Tony was monitored by them, which was ten levels of fucked up.

“No, Hill, for fuck’s sake, is a guy not allowed to just fucking take a break if he wants? Yeah- yes, I know you want the specs, but I’ve got about seven million other jobs on my hands right now and I needed a break or I was gonna keel over from stress, okay?” Tony said, wandering a little closer to James as he spoke.

 

He sounded weary again. Like he always did when SHIELD called, or when he’d been working for thirty-odd hours in the shop in order to send equipment over to the Avengers.

 

Tony put a hand up against his forehead and rubbed, a sign that he had a migraine coming on. “No- I’m not taking on another project right now. I can’t…. yes, I fucking understand that you need to protect- what? No! I’m not trying to…. Holy shit, okay, fine! Send me the goddamn plans tonight, and I’ll look over them if I can.”

James scowled. He couldn’t help it- everyone was always taking advantage of Tony and he fucking hated it.

Although, he guessed it wasn’t much different to what he’d done.

 

Suddenly, Tony froze, and his eyes darted to James. Just for a second. But a second was enough. James could sense the change in the conversation immediately.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony said, his voice no different to how it was before. It was just his body language that had changed; tense and preparing for a fight.

Without even thinking about it, James had silently left his seat and walked over to Tony, trying to hear the other end of the conversation without giving himself away.

“Stark, you haven’t left the house in over two weeks. You’ve locked anyone and everyone out from entering. We just need to know what you’re doing-“

“I’m having a bit of a genius binge, it’s fine. I don’t want to be disturbed,” tony said effortlessly.

“Then why are you currently in Cuba?”

“Because sometimes I need a change of scenery to make the creative juices flow, God, you’re not my fucking handlers, and I’ll do whatever the fuck I want. I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Tony hissed, hand tapping anxiously against his side as he flashed a quick glance over to James.

There was silence on the other end of the line, and then “you should watch yourself, Stark. We’re not going to have another Ultron on our hands.”

The line went dead, and the jet was deathly silent. Tony was stood; frozen to the spot, phone still clutched against his head as he stared ahead of him blankly.

James’ stomach lurched. He knew that Ultron was a dangerous subject for Tony. Knew that Tony dreamed of it, some nights. And he was pretty sure it was the reason for Tony’s self-imposed exile in the tower.

James was a second away from stepping forward and saying something when Tony jerked back to life, stepping hastily away from James and reversing back the way he’d come, his movements robotic, empty.

He walked past a confused Roswell and went straight into the cockpit, shutting the door softly.

There was silence again.

 

“You gonna go see if he’s okay?” Roswell asked, breaking the quietness with his high-pitched voice.

James’ head snapped over to him, and he noticed the way Roswell’s hands were clutched very tightly in the pocket of his jacket. He didn’t need to wonder too hard to guess at what he was gripping.

James chose not to answer, turning his back and walking stiffly over to where he’d been sat before and convincing himself that this was what was best.

Comforting Tony wasn’t his place. And Tony most certainly wouldn’t want him to either.

 

Across the room, Roswell laughed harshly. “Really?”

“Mind your own fuckin’ business,” James snapped, looking at the window again and containing the desperate need to hit, to punch, to break.

“Whatever man, sure. I couldn’t give a less of a shit about how you treat your boyfriend-“

“He’s not my motherfucking boyfriend, asshole!” James snarled, and he’d only realised he’d moved five steps closer to Roswell when there was a click of a gun and suddenly, the barrel was pointed directly between his eyebrows.

He froze, regretting it immediately as he took in Roswell’s barely contained panic as his hand shook over the trigger. “Sorry,” he muttered, raising his hands slowly and backing away, “sorry. I didn’t… sorry.”

It was only when he was sat back on the seat at the other end of the jet that Roswell finally put the gun down, letting it fall against his lap with a gentle click as he put safety back on. “I still don’t trust you,” he said, looking James right in the eye and doing that thing with his chin again, “but I trust Tony. And that’s-“

“You trust him? Really? ‘Cus ya still got the thing that could stop his heart sittin’ in your damn pocket. But sure thing, numbskull, I believe you alright, 'you trust him'” James drawled, hands clenching and unclenching in his lap, trying not to move again.

He hated the damn asshole. But he didn’t want to scare him anymore than he undoubtedly already was.

Roswell paused, eyes widening a little as his hand automatically began reaching for what was in his pocket.

James was up again, on his feet quicker than it took the other man to blink. “If you fucking dare-“

“I’m not gonna hurt him, Jesus Christ, chill the fuck out!” Roswell yelled, hand going for the gun again as the other one jumped back out of his pocket and was raised into the air. “I was gonna fucking give it you!”

James paused, surprised. “What?”

“I am giving you,” Roswell rolled his eyes and dug his hand into the pocket of his jacket once again, “the stupid switch. Do what you want with it- I don’t need it any more. Like I said, I trust him. I just forgot I even had it, to be honest.”

James watched him pull out the little thing- nothing more than a centimetre cubed, with a tiny activation switch covered in a glass casing. Roswell threw it (badly), and James just about managed to catch it, steadfastly keeping his grip as gentle as he could manage.
Just in case.

Roswell watched him as he carefully placed the switch on the table, eyebrows slightly raised in curiosity. “So… you yell at him that all he does is piss you off and that you don’t care about him, and then blow your damn top if I move too quickly toward that thing?”

James went back to scowling at the device on the coffee table. “Fuck off, asshole.”

There was a tittering of laughter. “Sounds like someone has a schoolyard crush, to me.“

James looked up, conveying as much threat into one look as he was physically capable of. Apparently it was good enough, because Roswell cowered a little, and quickly shut his mouth.

 

 There was silence after that.

 

 

 

*****

 

 

 

When the jet landed an hour later, James knew that he was going to have to go and find Tony. The man hadn’t left the cockpit since retreating there after the phone call, and despite their argument, James still needed to say thank you. He hadn’t been raised in a barn, after all.

 At least- he didn’t think he had.

 

Knocking softly on the door, James cracked it open a little, immediately spotting Tony, curled up on the co-pilot’s seat, fast asleep. He’d obviously just put the plane on autopilot in order to take a nap.

He looked exhausted. Almost as bad as when James had first arrived.

And James really hated to wake him. A sleeping Tony Stark was rare, and unlike him, Tony didn’t have any enhancements to keep him going. He survived on willpower alone.

Bending down, he put a hand on Tony’s shoulder and softly shook. His hair brushed against the back of James’ hand- soft and lovely.

It took another second or two, but Tony suddenly jerked upright so fast that James pulled his hand back in surprise. “Holy shit, Tony, it’s only me. You’re okay.”

Tony’s head whipped around to look at James, eyes flickering just about everywhere. Eventually, he seemed to register that James was just James, because his face closed off again and he looked down into the glass ahead of him. “Oh. We’re back.”

“Yeah,” James replied, for lack of anything better to say.

There was an awkward silence in the air for a few seconds, as Tony looked between the window and the exit, until finally he said, “So I should probably head off to get that chip, then.”

“…yeah,”

 

Tony looked at him, and then stood up suddenly, forcing James back a few steps to give him room. “You’re not coming, are you?”

 

James shook his head. He wasn’t going to drag this out. He didn’t… he couldn’t do that to himself. “No. I’m just gonna head out, go back to what I know. I’m free now. They can’t find me. That was what I came to talk to you about, actually. To say thank you. For everything you did. It was… I’ll always owe you for that. You saved my life.”

 Tony allowed himself a second where he smiled involuntarily, before he wiped it off and let the aura of indifference return. “Yeah, well, I’m a superhero. It’s what I do. I know I’m an asshole, but-“

 “You need to stop saying that about yourself,” James said suddenly, because if this was the last time he was going to get to see Tony then he was damn well going to try and get the message into the man’s thick skull. “Cause you’re not. At least, not in the way you think you are. You’re the kind of asshole that hides the remote to piss me off, or only speaks sarcastically for seventy percent of the day- but you’re not the kind of asshole that hurts people. You’d never be that kind of asshole.”

Tony paused, brow furrowing as he processed what James was saying. “You… you used the word asshole far too many times in the space of two seconds for me to be able to deal with.”

And despite it all- despite the foundations of what had been the only good thing in James’ life for a good seventy years beginning to crumble around him- he laughed. Because stupid Tony was funny and James knew he wasn’t going to be able to laugh much once he left again.

 

“Goodbye, Tony,” he whispered, pulling Tony’s shoulder forward and wrapping his arms around the other man’s waist tightly, so tightly, just for a few seconds. Just to savour it.

 

Tony’s mouth was opening against James’ chest, the beginning of a “but-“ about to be spoken. His hands were gripping at the fabric of his jacket, and James couldn’t stay, he couldn’t- it was dangerous and SHIELD were already beginning to notice something was up. If James stayed, then it would put him at risk of getting caught.

This was for the best. For both of them.

 

 

He let Tony go, and walked out of the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony

 

 

 

 

 

 

“But-“ Tony began against James’ chest, quietly enough that he was barely even aware he’d made sound.

 

 Then James pulled away and turned away for the door without a backward glance, and suddenly Tony was alone.

 Again.

 

 

 

“-I think I’m in love with you,” he finished weakly.

Chapter Text

James

 

 

 

 

He wasn’t entirely sure where to go. He had his backpack, because he always kept that with him, so there wasn’t any need for him to go back to the tower.

 

He wanted to anyway.

 

But he was in New Jersey, and it would take hours before he reached Manhattan. Besides, what the hell was he gonna do when he got there? He barely had anything of his own in there anyway- it would just be stupid. He was being stupid.

 

So instead, he wandered.

 

Tony and Roswell were heading to a warehouse a few blocks down from where James had split off from them, and James guessed they were probably there by now.
Tony was probably smiling in delight, looking down, entranced at the sight of that complicated chip. And his hands would be fiddling, delicate and soft as he held it up to his eye-level; tongue stuck out a little like it always did when he was concentrating-

Stop it, he told himself, scowling viciously and pushing his hand against the door of some bar, any bar, he didn’t give a shit, he just wanted a drink.

 

It was fairly empty, which was good. James kept his head down, taking a seat on a stool and signalling for the bartender.
He ordered his drink- a line of six shots- and then downed them all at once. It would barely do shit, he metabolised it all far too quickly, but he had plenty of time, and enough cash to get him where he needed to be.

(Wasted.)

Across the bar, a couple were raising their eyebrows at him as he quickly tipped back all six shots in quick succession, but he ignored them. He didn’t give a shit what they thought, it didn’t matter. No one mattered.
Only Tony- and he was gone now anyway.

 

He was back at square one. Except this time he had a little more freedom to be as much of a fucking mess as he wanted.

 

The alcohol burnt at the back of his throat and he winced. He’d forgotten that tequila tasted like ass. Worse than his fucked up cocoa, or Tony’s ridiculous coffee machined latte thing-

Fuck- he wiped his mind clean, eyes fixed on the smooth wood of the bar, and inhaled sharply.

This wasn’t going to go away. Not for a long time.

 

He sighed, rubbing a hand across his face and then pulling back until his head was facing the ceiling. The couple to his left were whispering again, but Bucky just turned to them with a curse on his lips and a clench of his jaw that would tell them right where they could shove their disapproving voices.

He stopped, once realising that they weren’t actually being directed at him. There was a phone in the guy’s hand, and he was showing it to the woman next to him and talking quietly, worriedly.

James frowned, but turned away all the same. Their personal problems were none of his business. He just needed to drink and drink and forget and then maybe drink some more.

He called the barkeep, but she was on the other side of the bar, leaning in and talking to the two people James had just been staring at. They showed her the screen and then gestured to the TV in the corner of the room, saying something James couldn’t hear. After a few seconds, the barkeep nodded hurriedly, and ducked under the bar, grabbing for a remote and raising it to the screen, switching it on and flicking through the channels until she reached the news.

Curious now, James watched, noticing more people as they sidled up to the bar, phones in hand and worried looks on their faces as they stared up at the screen. “What’s going on?” a man asked the room, and then gasped as someone showed them their phone screen. “Holy shit. That’s…that’s a few blocks away. Ali, we’ve gotta get out of here, come on-“

 

 

And that was all it took for James to know that something was very, very wrong.

 

 

“Show me,” he said quietly, holding out his hand and waiting for the nearest person to give him their phone.

The woman next to him just pointed to the TV, which was now flashing red news alert warnings on the bottom of the screen, grainy images of grey smoke and fire filling up the camera, obviously being filmed from a phone. He could hear the sound of gunfire, and the screams of civilians as they ran across the roads, trying to get out of range.

“News reports are just coming in- it seems a bomb has been detonated, and there are reports of gunshots from two sides. What was first thought to be a huge gang-fight is now believed to be something much more sinister. We’re… we’re getting live footage here-“ the news reporter said, as the video changed, and suddenly James was watching the shaky footage of six, seven, eight men, creeping in the shadows of a building, guns raised and masks high, the insignia a blood-red reminder on their shoulders.

 

James felt it, sweeping over him.

 

The emptiness. The numb feeling that let him know that what he was now was not James Barnes, not Bucky- it was the Winter Soldier.

 

And he had one objective.

 

He jumped on top of the bar and sprinted across it in order to get to the door and avoid the crowds that had gathered around him, smashing out into the open and immediately breaking into a sprint, running against the crowd of people fleeing in the other direction.

 

One objective. One mission.

 

Protect the most important thing he had.

 

 

 

Tony

 

 

 

He had no idea what had happened. One minute, they’d been walking toward the exit of the huge warehouse that Roswell had been keeping the chip, and the next-

Well.

 

Tony heard it first; the noise ripping through the air, terrifyingly loud and terrifyingly real.
The quakes came next, shuddering through the concrete and almost knocking both of them down to their feet.

Tony knew the next step. The fire and the heat and the death.

Without a spare second and using nothing but instinct alone, he silently locked on to Roswell’s elbow and hauled, throwing them over to the side and sliding in between the piles of metal crates that were lining the corridor. Alexander was yelling- scared and panicked as Tony rolled and covered the smaller man’s body with his own, bracing his hands against his head as he began to hear the fire ripping through the corridors.

His mind was calculating, running possibilities and equations through his head.
They could survive this, depending on the force of the explosion and the thickness of the crates they were hiding behind. The time between the noise and the actual blast meant it had gone off in a different part of the warehouse and therefore potentially able to run out of steam before it even reached them; but it all depended on the explosive.

Strong enough, and they were dead either way.

 

A fraction of a second later, and Tony felt it. The all-consuming heat that slammed against the both of them, Tony taking the worst of it as the flames rolled past them, down and down and down the corridor, orange and red and fire and burning heat.

He clenched his eyes shut and prayed that they’d be protected, that they were at the edge of the explosion. All he could see was orange, and the heat was almost unbearable; Tony knew his skin was going to be red and raw by the time this was over.

(If they even made it that far.)

It lasted for what Tony was convinced was an eternity- nothing else other than fire and heat and burning, and tony was so sure this was it. That he was going to die, here, in some empty warehouse.

In New Jersey.

 

But then Tony felt it as the explosion ran out of momentum and the flames began to recede, slowly putting themselves out with a dull hiss. The heat rose and dissipated, and Tony groaned in relief.

Slowly opening his eyes, he saw nothing but smoke and darkness. The explosion had blown out all the lights, and everything seemed black and charred. Tony knew if they touched the metal that had surrounded them, they’d feel it burn against their skin.

“Alex,” he choked, rolling a little and feeling every burn that had appeared on his exposed patched of skin as the floor pressed against them, “Alex- are you okay? Say something, buddy,”

There was a tiny cough, and then the body moved a little underneath him with a grunt.

Tony sighed in relief, and then carefully sat up; coughing up the smoke that was finding its way into his lungs. The space they were in was small and cramped and surrounded with crates piled up high above them. Tony was surprised they hadn’t crushed them when the place had gone up.

“We’ve gotta get out of here. Someone’s found us, and I’m guessing they’re not good,” Tony told Roswell, shaking his shoulder and beginning to pull him up.

“How the fuck did they know we were here?” Roswell asked throatily. His hands were shaking.

Tony grimaced, and began crawling out of the gap he’d thrown them in. “No idea. I… they must have been watching me- I told you about how I met James. They’d been after him, too. They must have guessed at where he ended up. And then when we left for Cuba, I assume they put two and two together. Which means they know. They know you’re here, and they know the chip is too,” Tony explained quickly, grabbing Roswell’s hand and hauling him back into the corridor.

“Keep low,” Tony said, when Roswell immediately started choking on the fumes. “We need to get out of here. If the roof doesn’t cave in and kill us first, then you can bet your ass that HYDRA’s gonna finish us off. We need to get ‘round to the front, grab my suit from security- from there, it’s easy flying. Literally,” Tony said, pulling them forward and squinting, feeling the smoke hit his eyes.

Everything was burning, and the heat, although no longer deadly, was still stifling.

 

 

He wondered if James was safe, or if they’d found him too.

 

 

Tony felt his stomach drop at that thought. He couldn’t… James was too smart for that. He’d be well clear of the area by now, anyway- and even if he hadn’t, as soon as the news reports started filing in, he’d have run.

He’d be okay. He was good at hiding. HYDRA weren’t going to find him.

There was a sudden crash from a few corridors to their left, and Tony turned immediately as light streamed in from a door that had been opened.

Shit.

“Can you climb?” Tony whispered, turning to Roswell and grabbing him by the arms. When the man failed to reply, tony asked again. “I know you’re scared, Alex, I know, but I need to keep us safe and the only way I can do that is thinking of a really kickass plan to help us avoid as many bullets as possible- and right now the extent of my amazing kickass plan depends a lot on whether you can climb.”

Roswell stuttered for a few moments, before nodding, and looking up at the towering rows of crates. “Onward and upward, right?”

Tony grinned, feeling the addictive burst of adrenaline run through his blood and consume him, reminding him of every reason why he started this shit in the first place. “You got it, pal, onward and upward. Now climb; your life depends on it.”

Tony could hear voices, muffled and hushed as their boots crunched through broken glass and rubble. The light that was filtering through the door kept dimming a little, and Tony wondered how many people HYDRA had brought along to try and find them both.

A lot, seemed to be the answer.

Roswell started climbing, boosting himself up, crate by crate, barely even wincing as the hot metal stung at his skin. Tony followed after him quickly, horribly aware of the footsteps getting gradually louder as HYDRA swept each corridor. Tony could just about see a few moving figures drift by on the other side of the huge shelf of crates that obscured them from sight.

They didn’t have long.

He watched Roswell climb steadily higher, until reaching a large half way up and shuffling in it. His head peered out, looking down at Tony, who was still only a quarter of the way up. “Hurry up, Stark!” He hissed.

But Tony shook his head, pursing his lips and pressing himself into the tiny crack between crates, hoping it would be enough to keep him hidden temporarily. “I have a plan,” he said firmly.

He’d been taught this. He knew how to land properly, how to take the surprise approach. Natasha had drilled with him so many times. He could do this.

It had been a while since he’d practiced, but he could do it.

Roswell was whispering hysterically above him, but Tony shot him a look and silenced him. Which was a good idea, because a second later, Tony watched as six HYDRA operatives rounded the corner; three of them splitting off to go down the corridor on their right, and the other three taking off down the hall where Roswell and Tony were hidden.

Tony really hoped he wasn’t too exposed, here. It was dark and smoky, yeah, but HYDRA had torches. One glance in the right place and Tony was fucked.

 

He waited for his chance. Slowly, the men advanced forward, guns raised and footsteps quiet along the stone floor.

Tony counted himself in. Knees bent, body relaxed, roll with the impact, Natasha whispered in his ear, and Tony felt the phantom memory of pain as his body hit the floor from a place that was too high for normal humans to be jumping off.

 

He took a deep breath. And let go.

 

The agent at the back of the group was where he ended up, immediately knocking him over with the force of his land. Pain lanced up his knees, and God, he was too old to be pulling that sort of shit without the suit, but he kept going anyway, rolling just like Natasha had said and diving for the gun that the guard had released from his grip as he’d gone down.

There was a shout, and that was it now, Tony had a second before the other agents found him and shot him to shit.

Luckily, because he was awesome at this, he got in first.

Grabbing the gun and sliding along the floor so he was backed up against the shadows of the crates, he fired three shots, careful to keep his aim true in case of unfortunate ricochet incidents.

The HYDRA agents didn’t stand a chance. They went down like flies.

And Tony had a gun now, which was great. Pulling a second one from the downed guard’s grip, he gestured upward and called Roswell. “Get down, quick, we're running a tight ship here.”

He was aching and his lungs were crying out for some clean air and he knew that it was more likely that HYDRA were just going to cut them off at the exits, but he had to try. He had to stop that chip from falling into their hands.

Tony crouched behind a crate and fired three more rounds at the next three guards that came barreling down the corridor, just as Roswell jumped to the floor and grabbed his arm. “Tony, come on, get the fuck out of here!”

Tony didn’t need telling twice. Jumping to his feet, he sprinted in the direction of the windows at the far end of the room. They’d been blown out by the blast, which was lucky, and they were only on the first floor, so at least they wouldn’t fall to their deaths.

More shouts, now, and Tony ducked down as bullets flew around them. Roswell was wheezing loudly in fear, but Tony couldn’t focus on that right now, he had to get them out, he had to-

 

The reached the window. Without thinking about it too hard, Tony found Roswell’s arm again and flung them both through.

 

Glass shards scraped his skin, cutting the already sensitive and exposed parts of him. It hurt like a bitch; not to mention the impact of landing against concrete pavement.

But they hadn’t died yet.

Stumbling to his feet, he hauled Roswell up by the collar and pushed, sending him stumbling forward. They were in a parking lot, and it was damn lucky that the smoke was currently shrouding them; otherwise the six conspicuous vans that were parked ahead of them would have almost certainly spotted their entrance.

There were more bullets, whizzing out of the windows and hitting other cars, sending the alarms off. Roswell yelped, and his face was ashen as he winced over the gunfire.

Tony grabbed hold of his arm and pulled. There wasn’t any time to reassure him; it would only end up wasting time and getting them killed.

 

He just ran.

 

There were yells and fire and gunshots ringing everywhere and Tony could see bodies dotted across the floor, and he was really trying to ignore the haunting sense of déjà vu he was feeling as he dove behind a car and held the sub-machine gun between bloody hands.

They scrambled through the sea of cars, eyes set on the exit at the far end of the parking lot. Roswell obviously wasn’t equipped for this sort of thing; he was panting heavily and Tony could hear his gun rattling in his hands.

Suddenly, there was a fresh wave of gunfire, and Tony ducked instantly, trying to configure the trajectory of the bullets he’d just watched. Tilting his head a little, he spotted a new wave of cars, piling into the lot with the windows down and agents with guns of their own leaning out of them.

 

They wore the SHIELD emblem.

 

Tony shut his eyes and huffed out an exhausted sigh, gripping Roswell’s arm and pushing him down. “We’ve gotta stay here. There’s gunfire from both sides, now- we’ll only be caught in the crossfire if we move.”

Silently, Roswell nodded, and sunk to the floor, wiping a cut above his eye. “This is… not how I expected my day to go.”

Tony laughed. “Welcome to my world, kid.”

 

Roswell was about to reply when suddenly, Tony caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and he spotted a line of HYDRA emerge out of the haze of the building.

They were walking parallel to him and Roswell. One look to the side, and they’d be seen.

“Move,” Tony said quickly, dropping low and rolling to the side, scooting around until his back was against the bonnet of the car.

Roswell followed quickly, but he was more obvious with his movements than Tony and there were yells- the sudden movement must have alerted HYDRA, because a fresh wave of gunfire shot over their heads, deafeningly loud and sharp as the bullets caught in the car.

Tony swore, feeling a blinding pain in his side as something buried itself there, and for a second he thought it would be enough to knock him unconscious, but he managed to cling on with everything he had, thanking the adrenaline coursing through his system for keeping him awake and numbing the pain a little.

From the other side, there was gunfire too, and God, this was like a battlefield, with Tony and Roswell caught right up in the middle of it all. He needed his damn suit, and he needed it yesterday.

 

 

There was a second or two where it seemed HYDRA stopped firing, and really, that should have been Tony’s first warning sign.

 

 

Roswell looked to Tony, and Tony looked back.

 

Something fell, a few feet away from them.

 

Tony’s eyes widened, and he screamed at Roswell to dive, pushing him away and then throwing himself as far from the grenade as possible as it exploded, sending dirt and shrapnel flying into the air.

And Tony could barely even see, there was just chaos, chaos everywhere- but still he looked for Roswell in the rubble, crawling back the way he’d come and trying to get a sight on him.

 

He did. Roswell had stumbled a few feet to the side. He was already back on his feet, and beginning to move, but for that brief half a second, he was right in everyone’s line of sight.

 

 

 


It was inevitable, really.

 

 

 


His body jerked unnaturally, and Tony watched Roswell’s eyes widen a little as he stumbled forward the rest of the way, landing at Tony’s feet with that surprised expression still on his face.

 

 

There were three bullet-holes in the centre of his chest, stark red against the white of his shirt.

 

Roswell looked at them for a few seconds, before turning to face Tony. “Well that sucks.”

“No,” tony said, hands immediately going to unbutton the shirt, check the damage. This was fixable. “This is fixable.” He’d be fine. “You’ll be fine.” Tony wasn’t going to let someone else die because of his carelessness. “I’m not going to let you die.”

Roswell didn’t say anything, but his hand shakily dropped down to his jacket pocket, pulling out the chip and holding it in his hand, smeared with his own blood. “Take it, Stark. Fix it. I never wanted this to be all I achieved, but...please. Don’t let anyone use it. Destroy it. Do whatever you have to do, just…get it gone.”

Shut up, Alex,” Tony hissed, and there were so many bullets coming from every direction, he could barely even be heard above the noise. “Shut up and keep your eyes open, you hear me? Keep them open, I’ve still gotta pick that brain of yours, you’re a smart one, you have to do something for the world, come on-“

 

Roswell just smiled. “It’s okay. I’ll be…”

 

 

And then he was gone.

 

 

Tony just stared, numb. His hand was still gripped around Roswell’s, with the chip firmly nestled in between them both.

 

He’d been 20 years old.

 

“Fuck,” he said softly, letting go of the hand and pulling out the chip. “Fuck fuck fuck, no, come on, fuck this, I can’t-“

His throat hurt too much to keep talking. He could taste ash and sand and blood in his mouth.

 

He ducked down when yet more bullets were fired, and knew that he needed to leave. He was going to get caught, HYDRA knew his position- but Roswell was still here, and Tony couldn’t just-

 

 

 

“-Tony? Tony, come on, sweetie, look at me, you’ve gotta move, okay? Come on, there’s nothing we can do for him, he’s gone, Tony. He’s gone.”

 

 

 

And he felt hands one his face, one warm and one cold against his burnt skin. Looking up with blurry eyes, he saw James, face close to his as he crouched in front of him.

 

He was hallucinating, then.

 

“Tony, they’re gonna kill the both of us unless you work with me here. I do not want to die at HYDRA’s hand, so please, we need to go,” James said again, and his fingers were rubbing soft circles across Tony’s temple now- it was soothing. Nice. Familiar.

 

Tony nodded robotically, hand tightening around the gun in his hand as he tucked the chip slowly into the pocket of his jacket.

James didn’t wait. Hauling Tony to his feet, he pulled them both forward, James’ metal hand covering the back of Tony’s head as they sprinted.

Tony was numb. He just kept going, because James was pulling him, and James was the only clear thing he could see amongst the smoke and the gunfire and the blood on his hands.

 

They ran and ran and ran until they didn’t, and Tony couldn’t hear the gunfire or smell the smoke anymore, and he was keeling forward, only feeling blackness and numbness and a pair of hands breaking his fall.

 


*****

 


When he woke up again, he was in a hospital bed.

 

“Hello, Mr Stark,” a nurse said from his side, and Tony jerked, brain still in Imminent-Danger-Mode.

The nurse just raised her hands and looked at him a little sympathetically. “It’s okay, don’t worry, you’re safe now. We got a call a few hours ago from a young man saying he’d stumbled upon you while he’d been walking home. Quite the hero, actually- when we told him the ambulance would arrive for you in ten minutes, he told us to ‘cancel it, I’ll get him there myself’. Surprising thing is, he actually did. 3 minutes faster than it would’ve taken the ambulance. He’s still here now- says he wants to check if you’re okay.”

Tony looked at her groggily, trying to piece together her long-winded speech before saying “James?”

“Uh, I don’t think so. Told us his name was Barney.”

Tony frowned, wanting to try and sit up, but feeling with disappointment that his muscles felt far too tired for that. Probably because he was drugged seven ways to Sunday.

“Let him in,” Tony mumbled, a frown creased into his brow as he tried to work out what had happened last time he was conscious.

It had been hot. And loud. And him and Roswell had been running and hiding and then Roswell had given him the chip-

 

It hit him just as the nurse walked out.

 

Roswell was dead.

 

“Oh,” he said softly, closing his eyes swallowing thickly, as the door opened again and James stepped in.

There was a moment where James just took him in- surveying the damage with wide eyes and a grey face.
It was only a few seconds later when he slumped, moving forward to the chair and grabbing for Tony’s hand.

“James, what the hell are you doing here? You’re gonna- someone’s gonna see you,” Tony whispered, trying to turn and look at him before realising how much pain that caused him.

James shrugged, eyes fixed on the hand that was holding Tony’s. “Snuck into the security booth and wiped the footage. Messy job, but I didn’t have a lot of time.”

He stopped, sucking in a deep breath before looking up. “You scared the shit outta me back there, Tony,” he whispered, eyes horribly wide and vulnerable, “I saw the explosions on TV. I… I thought you were gonna be dead by the time I got there.”

Tony nodded, swallowing again as he tried to rid the lump from his throat. “Probably would have been, if SHIELD hadn’t shown up. Guess I gotta thank them for that, at least.”

James frowned. “Why were they even there in the first place?”

“Eh,” Tony shrugged, “HYDRA tracked me, SHIELD tracked HYDRA, the two teams met in the middle. I’m not sure if SHIELD knew we were there or not, but I’m guessing at yes. I left my suitcase suit there, and even if they can’t get in it, there’s a fifty-fifty chance they know what it is.”

James opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment Tony’s lungs suddenly spasmed, and he the painful sensation of a coughing-fit as it crawled up his throat.

“Hey, hey, okay- you gotta quit your yapping, you’ve just inhaled a hell of a lot of smoke- just keep quiet,” James said hurriedly, moving off the chair to offer Tony a small cup of cool water as he coughed his lungs up on the cot.

 

Tony just looked at him- at those lovely cool eyes, the hair that had been tied up in a messy bun, and the teeth that were biting down anxiously on his lip as he watched Tony’s hand grasp around the cup.

 

“Stay. Please. Just… don’t leave me,” Tony whispered quietly, a shaky hand gripping James’ own, and this was ridiculous, it was weak and stupid and selfish- but Tony was hurt and still kinda high and he just… he wanted. Everything. Anything he could have, for as long as he could have it.

 

“I don’t want you t’leave. Please…” Tony mumbled, suddenly very aware of the weight of his eyelids as they dropped down lower and lower, and he knew it was the drugs he was on that was making him keep talking, but he couldn’t stop it, it was all coming out now- “I know you don’ like me but you made me not lonely an’… an’ since you came I don’t feel like I’m jus’ goin’ through the motions, I feel like I have… somethin’ to exist for. A reason. You.”

There was silence in the room after that, and Tony stumbled a little, trying to backtrack before he lost consciousness completely. “I mean- if you wanna leave, I’m not… I wan’ you t’be happy. That’s all. Thought you were happier here. I know I was.”

James was staring at him, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, and Tony just sighed. He knew he’d fucked up for good now. There was no going back from that. He’d pretty much just outright declared love for the guy, which was so many levels of bad.

He was a fucking asshole.

“Sorry,” he whispered hoarsely, before letting his eyes close, darkness blissfully consuming him once more. “Sorry…”

 

 


In his dreams, James leant over and kissed the top of his forehead. “I’ll stay. Of course I’ll stay. For as long as you want me,” he whispered, his breath tickling Tony’s face.

 

 

Tony wished it was real. More than anything.

 

 

 

James

 

 

 

James stood guard at Tony’s bedside for two days.

 

He didn’t move. Didn’t eat unless the nurses brought the food to him. Barely slept.

He just kept watch.

In case.

 

James knew that it was probably irrational, illogical, all different kinds of stupid- but it didn’t stop him.

 

He could still see it all, clear as day in his mind’s eye.
The incinerated warehouse. The parking lot that had been used as a battlefield between SHIELD and HYDRA. The blood that covered Tony- which for a second, a heart stopping, gut wrenching second- James had believed was Tony’s own.

He’d never thought there would be a day where he’d voluntarily run into the same area as armed HYDRA operatives. But when he’d seen Tony- head bent down between a stupidly unprotected car whilst him and Roswell tried to avoid the never ending gunfire- none of it had mattered any more.

 

He’d done the only thing his brain had supplied him: protected the thing that mattered most.

 

And he couldn’t shake it, not even now, when the biggest danger was over. Which was why he hadn’t slept in two days- like he’d said: just in case.

The feeling he’d experienced when he’d realised Tony was in danger… it was something James wasn’t even sure he’d ever felt before. A sickening, gut-twisting fear that had made him run faster than he’d ever thought possible in order to get to Tony’s side and protect using whatever means necessary.

 

And it had been at that moment- when he’d held Tony’s face in his hand and felt the heartbeat, the beautiful, rhythmic thud of life beneath his jaw- he’d known he couldn’t ever leave. Not now. He was too far deep, too compromised.

Ever since he’d run from HYDRA, from Steve, from everything a year ago, he’d been trying to find himself. Trying to find something.

And looking at Tony- it made him feel as if maybe he’d found it. The first, fragile beginnings of something that was… human. Someone who actually lived, rather than just went through the motions of existence.

 

Just like what Tony had said. About him.

 

And he’d be damned if he was going to let that slip through his fingers. He didn’t deserve Tony- not even slightly- but Tony… for whatever reason, Tony liked him. Tony wanted him to stay.

And at this point, James would do just about anything Tony asked of him.

 


*****

 


“I need to leave the hospital. Now.”

 

James bolted upright, awake as soon as Tony had begun speaking. “What?”

“We both have to go. Back to the tower.”

James stared at Tony, chin barely able to hold itself as high as he was trying to place it, jaw set as tightly as he could with the stitch that had been sewn just underneath it. “Are you fuckin crazy, Tony? No.”

“Yes.”

“Tony, you’ve only just woken up, you’re still pretty drugged up,” James began wearily, running a hand over his face, “you can’t just-“

“They’ll find it,” Tony interrupted him sharply. “James, whoever it is- whether it be SHIELD or HYDRA- they’ll find it and they’ll use it. They already know something’s up with me. They’ve… one of them has probably found Roswell’s body by now. And they’re going to be coming for me next.”

“They won’t get very fuckin’ far, let me tell you,” James growled sharply, sitting a little straighter in his seat.

“And believe me, SHIELD are gonna be snooping around this hospital any moment now-“

“They already did,” James told him, shrugging. When Tony’s eyes widened in fear, he quickly placed a hand on the bed.

Not on Tony’s hand, exactly. But near it.

“I hid. Took the chip with me. I told the nurses I was leaving a day ago, and then snuck back in through the back window. When SHIELD came, I just left the way I’d come in. I… I wanted to go to the tower and put the chip somewhere safe, but… I didn’t wanna leave you that long,” James muttered, looking away, “you know why? ‘Cause you’re still fuckin sick, Tony, and leaving would just be-“

“Roswell died to keep this chip safe,” Tony cut in, and his voice was edging on hysterical now, as his breath caught in his throat and his hands tightened against the sheets, “he bled out in my arms and died, and the last thing he told me, begged me, was to make sure no one touched this again. You know what would happen with tech like this, James- once it’s out, it’s out. A code of that power… it would ruin society as we know it. I- I can’t. Not again. I’m not going to let it happen again, not if I can stop it, I won’t-“

“Okay, okay, shhhhh, Tony, it’s okay, I know- I know,” James soothed, finally taking Tony’s hand away from the sheets that he was now gripping tight enough to make his knuckles white and placing it in between his own, as Tony choked again, heart monitor spiking wildly.

He pressed his mouth against the back of Tony’s hand and shut his eyes, trying to think of what to say. He wanted Tony to stay- Tony needed to stay- he needed time to heal.

But James knew that Tony would only work himself up even more if he did. Not to mention the very real danger of SHIELD and or HYDRA finding them, and more importantly, the chip that was resting in James’ breast pocket.

James was good, but he wasn’t a damn superhero.

“Okay,” he whispered quietly against Tony’s fingers. “Fine. But Tony, you’re going to rest up when you get to the tower, do you understand? I’ll take care of everything, I swear. You just need to concentrate on getting better.”

Tony shut his eyes tightly, taking a few steadying breath and pursing his lips. He didn’t say anything for a good long while, and James thought he had fallen asleep until there was a hoarse “help me up, and call Happy. His number’s in my phone- do I have my phone? No, I don’t, never mind, just find me a phone and I’ll call him-“

“What, now?” James asked in surprise. “Tony- it’s three in the morning.”

“He’s used to it, just get him on the line, we need to go,” Tony said, slowly sitting up with a wince and grabbing the rails. There was a manic look in his eye, and James knew that Tony wasn’t in the right place to be making calls like this- but unfortunately, he was spot-on in his predictions and James knew it.

They had to leave. Or SHIELD would come back, and this time they wouldn’t take Tony’s unconsciousness as an excuse.

With a sigh, James wrapped an arm around Tony’s waist and lifted, pulling him off the bed. Tony bit back a cry and shut his eyes, but didn’t complain as they slowly shuffled to the doors. “Call Happy,” he said again.

 

James nodded.

 

It was going to be a long night.

 


*****

 

 


HYDRA and Blood and gunfire and Tony and blood and HYDRA and-

 

 

James jerked, eyes shooting open as he was awoken by his own voice, ripped and torn and muffled by the pillow his hands were gripping.

Or. Well. The two halves of it, anyway.

 

He shut his eyes and let a whimper fall from his lips as he buried his face in the dislodged feathers.

He was so tried. But, as always, sleep never came easily.

Pulling himself wearily upright, he slid off the bed and padded to his door, his hand going for the doorknob. It curled around the smooth metal, but James suddenly found himself too tired to continue the action.

 

It wasn’t fair.

 

None of this was fair. He couldn’t… he wasn’t…. he didn’t belong anywhere. He wasn’t real. He was broken, but not in a way that could be fixed. No shards of a mug that could just be stuck together. This wasn’t just cracks in the original. Whatever he had been was gone, and the only thing that remained was something dark and twisted and ugly and it wasn’t fair-

 


Luckily, this wasn’t a violent breakdown. This was just a sad one.

 

 

He wasn’t sure how long he stood by the door, forehead leaning against the soft wood as he cried, but it must have been a while because suddenly his legs had given out, and he was backed up to the wall next to it instead, head held in his hands as he choked on sobs that he’d been conditioned to try and hide.

 

He could crush his own skull, if he really wanted to.

 

He just wanted to sleep, really. That was it. That was all.

 


“Then sleep, moron,”

 


That voice was nice. Soft. Quiet. It made it sound so simple.

 

There was a minuscule tap of his shoulder, and a quiet “am I allowed to touch you, or is that inadvisable?”

Someone warm. James liked warmth.
He nodded his head.

 

It wasn’t a big gesture, when it came. Just a hand, running through his hair. Fingertips, really. Barely anything at all- but still something that warmed him from head to toe anyway.

The fingers slowly ran, crown of his head to the back of his neck, and then curling the ends of it absently as Tony (because it was Tony, it had to be Tony, if it had been anyone else then he would have killed them by now) spoke softly, his voice just as warm as it always was, talking about his Iron Man suit.

James loved that suit.

 

“Sleep, James. I’ve got you. I won’t let anyone touch you, ever again. You’re safe,” Tony whispered, and it was only the fact that James could feel Tony’s words as they brushed against his forehead that he realised he’d fallen against Tony’s chest at some point, and his hands were gripping against Tony’s baggy T-shirt.

“You can sleep,” Tony said again. “You can sleep.”

 

 

James did.

Chapter Text

When he woke up, the sun was high in the sky and he had ended up back in bed again.

 

Wincing at the brightness, he rubbed a hand across his face and sighed, the memories of last night flooding back to him.
The dreams. The screaming. The crying and the whispering and… well, pretty much everything.

He had no idea how the fuck he was going to face Tony after that particular debacle- God, was he just trying to broadcast how damaged he was? How pathetic?

It was Tony who needed comforting, after everything he’d been through. For God’s sake, he was still technically an invalid! But of course, James just can’t stop making everything about himself for one goddamn second-

 

“James, JARVIS is telling me you’re awake, so I’m gonna just put the offer of waffles and pancakes out there. I was gonna come up and assault you with them myself, but- uh- thought that might be kinda insensitive, considering… stuff. Anyway- they’re on the table. That is all. Tony out,”

 The voice cut off through the speakers as quickly as it had appeared, and James rolled his eyes, thanking JARVIS quietly for relaying the message and then rolling on to his back to stare at the ceiling.

 

Tony was probably waiting for him. And they needed to discuss a lot of important shit. And- and Tony was owed an apology, too, considering how much of an ass he’d been last night.

 

 

But… he really didn’t want to.

 

 

He wasn’t sure if he could face the other man right now. He was too fucking embarrassed, honestly. Tony would try and bring it up, and James really didn’t want to talk about it, and then everything would just get tense and horrible and that would be his fault too-

God Fucking Dammit.

He couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. Not yet.

 

“You fucking coward,” he hissed to himself, as he rolled back on his side and shut his eyes, leaving Tony- sick and injured and upset Tony- on his own at the kitchen table.

 

*****

 

He stayed in bed for an extra 6 hours before finally getting up and starting his day.

 

By that time, it was 3 in the afternoon- but he had to start somewhere, right?

 

The weather was dark and miserable, and rain slammed into the window of his room as he pattered aimlessly about, but he didn’t mind. He liked the rain. It was strangely cathartic to watch, to listen to the steady beat. Sometimes it worked well with grounding him, or helping him pull himself out of his own head.

Rain was a good omen. He could salvage his mood if it was raining.

Slipping on a jumper, he quickly ran a handful of water over his face and swept the hair that probably should’ve been washed 2 days ago into a messy bun at the back of his head. There were still deep marks in his hands from where his own fingers had pressed, but he ignored them.

A good day. It was a good day. They had the chip, Tony was safe, and James was back at the tower.
It was a Good Day.

 

“JARVIS, where’s Tony?” James asked, pushing open the door of his room and padding quietly down the corridor.

“Sir is currently in the workshop, analysing any available data he can find from the chip you gave him, Mr. Barnes,” JARVIS replied- not that James didn’t already know that- Tony was unpredictable in many ways, but his work ethic wasn’t one of them.

He sighed, shaking his head at Tony’s self-preservation instincts. Or rather, his lack of them.

“Why is he incapable of letting himself heal?” James mumbled to JARVIS as he bounded down the stairs and rounded the corner to Tony’s workshop.

“I feel he seems to believe that if he stops for a second, the world may spontaneously fall apart,” JARVIS replied dryly, and James laughed as he typed in his code and pushed the door open.

Tony didn’t seem to notice him, and as James stepped forward a few steps, he saw that Tony was hunched right over the desk with the chip placed on a board underneath him as his hand passed over it with a scanner of some sort. His face was pinched and his spare hand was clutching his injured side, obviously uncomfortable with the bent position he was in, but not enough to stop him working, of course.

 

“Hey Tony,” James said, as casually as he could, despite the fact that his situation felt anything but casual.

For the past few days since HYDRA had made a return appearance, his senses had been on fire. He was noticing… everything; each noise and vibration and object in the room. It was all being catalogued and sorted through, whether it was of importance or not. It seemed he’d lost his filter, and now it was all an overwhelming tidal wave of observations and sensation that he couldn’t control.

It had helped when he had been the Winter Solider on a mission. Not so much when he was James, and he just wanted to rest.

But that wasn’t important right now. It was going to be a Good Day- James would make sure of it.

 

Tony froze, carefully placing his tools back on the desk, but keeping his back turned away. “Hey, James. How you feeling?”

“That’s really the question I should be asking you, don’t you think?” James answered, walking forward the rest of the way and placing a hand on Tony’s shoulder, gently turning the chair as he dropped into a crouch. “ You said you would rest.”

“I also said I’d work out how to get rid of this thing, and right now that’s coming first,” Tony replied a little sharply, grabbing James’ hand as it snuck forward to check the injury on his side. “I’m fine, James, quit it.”

“Come on, Tony, I need to look, I told the hospital I’d keep an eye on it and I want to m-“

“No, I told you James, I’m fine-“

Dammit Tony, let me look after you for once!” James yelled, hand curling in to a fist by his side as he tried to keep hold of his temper.

 

Good Day Good Day Good Day Good Day Good Day.

 

Tony was silent for a few seconds as he glared obstinately at James, but ultimately released his hold on the other man’s wrist, silent confirmation to let him in.

Without another word, James gently lifted Tony’s shirt up and glanced carefully at the bandages wrapped around his torso. “You’re probably gonna need this re-bandaged,” he said, looking up at Tony as he nodded silently, staring adamantly at the spot above James’ head.

He sighed, but stood up and went to the desk he knew Tony kept his first aid kit all the same. If Tony felt like being sulky with him because he was looking out for the idiot, then so be it. James wasn’t about to back down.

“Got anywhere with it, then?” James asked, nodding to the desk.

Tony glanced at it venomously, and then shook his head. “Nothing. Literally, it’s… Alexander did a fucking good job. The hard drive is stored in the middle of the vibranium casing, and my scans can’t get through the metal. Goddamn vibranium- I still don’t know how HYDRA got hold of it,” Tony muttered, hand tapping insistently on the table. “I don’t want to try and plug it into anything, because I genuinely do not know anything about how it works, and I can’t risk spreading the data anywhere.”

“What are the chances of that, though, really- considering the quality of your tech,” James countered, turning back to him and walking forward with the bandages in his hand.

Tony threw his hands into the air, shrugging his shoulders. “That’s the question- what are the chances? Unless it’s 100% going to work, I won’t risk it. Can’t risk it. And seeing as it’s not a definite chance of success, then it’s not leaving the hard drive.”

Tony looked incredibly put out by the fact that he’d been bamboozled by a tiny little chip, and James guessed that was where his apparent bad mood was stemming from. He couldn’t blame him- Tony undoubtedly felt a sense of responsibility after what had happened with Roswell, and what the young man had asked him to do with it.

“What about just destroying it? Can you do that?” James said quietly, bending down again and beginning to unroll the bandage.

Tony shrugged, letting out a heavy sigh and then wincing in pain when James began to unwrap the older bandages.

“Sorry,” James said softly, overcome with the urge to kiss the exposed skin on Tony’s stomach in order to try and ease the pain.

 

He shook his head minutely, pushing back the desires and focusing on redressing Tony’s injury.

 

“Vibranium is near indestructible. The science behind it is incredible, and it’s damn useful when you’re using it as a shield- but I don’t need a fucking shield, I need to get in there-“

“Tony, hey, stay still,” James grabbed his hand, steady it between his own and pushing his spare one against Tony’s shoulder, so he was guided back to the chair again.

Tony cursed under his breath, and then sank back into the chair, fingers winding around James’ hand and gripping tightly as he shut his eyes. “Sorry. Sorry, I know I’m being… just having a bit of a rough few days. Weeks. Months? Who the fuck knows at this point, really-“

Tony was giggling a little, and James couldn’t help but laugh back, because wasn’t that the truth?

 

And then they were both cackling, Tony leaning into James’ shoulder as his shoulders heaved, and James was holding him as he laughed too; glad to hear the warmth in Tony’s voice again, even if it was only because they were laughing at themselves and their shitty luck.

 

“This seems like... unhealthy behaviour,” James choked, cheek pressing into Tony’s hair.

Tony just shrugged. “Well, I’m not really in a place to show healthy mental behaviors, am I? And neither are you, so I think we get a free pass-“

“I’m fine, don’t worry about me,” James said on autopilot, pushing Tony away gently so he could get back to work on Tony’s bandaging, smile still on his lips.

He was distracted when a hand suddenly appeared in his view, tilting his chin up with two fingers, and James went with the movement until he was staring at Tony’s face again, serious this time.

“No you’re not,” Tony said softly, and suddenly the smile was gone from his lips and James felt himself pale, because if Tony even knew the half of it, then there’s no way he would stay, no one would, they’d have to be crazy-

I don’t care, James. I don’t care. I promise. It’s okay for people to… to not be good. I’m not good. You’ve not fucked off yet, though. So don’t think I intend on doing it to you, either.” Tony explained calmly, and James felt like every muscle was tensed, every nerve on fire as he willed himself to believe it was a Good Day, it could still be a Good Day, he just had to keep telling himself-

 

 

“It’s not a good day, is it?” he whispered, shutting his eyes as he tied off Tony’s new bandage and sat back.

 

 

Like a switch had been flicked, the words made his body seem to just shut off, and every bone felt tired, like the weight of everything that had happened- HYDRA and Roswell and SHIELD and the nightmares and everything- suddenly becoming a hundred times heavier, until the weight on his shoulders felt like it was enough to crush him.

“No. No, it’s… it’s not,” Tony said, just as quiet and scared as him as he slid off the chair and knelt down in front of James, smiling a little as he reached for James’ hands. “But I guess that’s to be expected. I just watched a guy barely out of his teens bleed out in my arms and you were re-introduced to the people who had held you captive for seventy years, and now we’re both being pursued by SHIELD. I think we’re allowed to have Not Good Days.”

James laughed again, dropping his forehead a little until it bumped against Tony’s. His hand wound around the back of the smaller man’s neck and he just… held. He needed to feel Tony, alive, there, with him. It was selfish and stupid but God, James just needed it.

 

He could still see Tony, in his mind’s eye- leaning against the hood of the bullet-ridden car, and stained in deep red blood.

 

“What a fucking pair we make, huh?” Tony said, his hand still clutching James’.

James smiled self deprecatingly, shaking his head a little. There were a lot of things he still wanted to say- to ask what they planned on doing about SHIELD, and how they intended to get rid of the chip, and and and and and-

 

“Let’s go watch a shitty movie and complain about it the whole night through,” he said instead, thumb tracing the hairs at the back of Tony’s neck.

They could talk about the serious shit later. Right now, James just wanted to take a fucking nap.

 

Tony laughed, and pulled away, jumping to his feet with his hand still holding James’. “You know what, I can agree with you on that. I think if I sit on that desk for another second, my stomach is going to explode. It was painful as fuck, honestly.”

James shook his head in fond exasperation. “I swear, you have the self preservation instinct of a mayfly. You’re supposed to be resting- ever heard of that word? Resting is when you-“

He was cut off as Tony flung a sheaf of papers at his face from the desk and laughed as they exploded in James’ face. “Hey, I think I got a fuckin’ paper cut in my damn eye, you bastard, just fuckin wait until I get hold of your ass, you’re dead, shortstack-“

Tony gasped, offended. “Shortstack? Shortstack? I’ll have you know I am of average height, Barnes, it’s only because you’re a damn giant that I may not look my usual strapping self when you’re around-“

“You’re a shortstack, shortstack.”

“Do you really want to be fucking around with the person who owns all the paper in this tower?”

Yes.

James rolled his eyes, following Tony as he bounded up the stairs toward the living room, eyes a little more alive than they had been a few minutes ago.

He liked that. At least he was able to do that much for Tony. Even if that was all he could offer.
At least he could help bring back that spark.

“Get a move on, asshole!”

 

“Alright, alright, but you’re on popcorn duty,” James called after him, smiling as he began to make his way up the stairs and saw Tony’s form just slip around the corner.

 

 

*****

 

 

After the fourth call of the night from SHIELD, Tony switched off his phone and threw it across to the other side of the room. The tight look was back in his eyes.

 

“How long do you think we have before they start using more… insistent methods?” James asked wearily, looking at the movie in front of him and trying not to notice the way Tony was holding his head in his hands.

Tony shrugged. “Can’t say. They know something’s up, definitely. I can’t… God, they probably found Alex’s body. So they- they’re gonna start working out what I was doing with him fairly soon,” Tony shuddered, and James knew that he was thinking back to that afternoon, thinking about what he could have done, what could have happened that would have resulted in Roswell still being alive and here with them today, rather than…

God, James didn’t even know what must have happened to his body.
Maybe they had already buried it. Or maybe they were still analysing, testing, seeing if it was the real Alexander Roswell rather than the one who ‘died’ way back-

 

Roswell’s death wasn’t on tony, though. It was on James. Ever since he’d gone and taken Roswell to HYDRA, he’d been James’ responsibility.

And now he was dead.

(Of course he was, James destroyed everything he touched, it was inevitable really, come on, and Tony would be next, James would destroy him too, because that was what he did-)

 

He knew what he had to do. What he'd always have had to do, in the end.

 

“Tony. I’ve got to leave,” James said blankly, sitting up a little straighter and tuning to look at Tony, who had snapped his head around to star eat James in shock. “What? James- what the fuck, we’ve been through this, you don’t- you’re happy here, aren’t you? I thought you were happy-“

“I am happy, Tony, you know that,” James said miserably, “but I can’t stay here and put SHIELD all over your ass just because I wanna sit comfy in a tower. It ain’t fair on you, and you’ve already done so much for me. They already make your life hell as it is, I refuse to give ‘em any more reason to stress you out-“

“I don’t give a rats ass about SHIELD,” Tony snarled, standing up and facing James on the couch, “they can try as much as they damn well want, but they won’t get fuck-all from me.”

“Oh come on Tony, that’s a lie and you know it,” James yelled, “they’re not even an official Government organisation any more, they don’t run by the same rules, and they’ll do what they damn want if they think you’re harbouring an international terrorist in your damn penthouse!”

“Then they can come and fight me all by their damn selves, can’t they! See how they fancy going up against Iron Man when he’s pissed off, huh?” Tony said viciously, hands flying everywhere as he stood in front of James and snarled like an angry dog.

James knew that Tony was stressed and scared, but dammit, so was he, and he couldn’t just be expected to sit here and do jack shit while Tony took the hits for him, it wasn’t goddamn fair-

James was on his feet too, now, stepping closer to Tony as he gestured vaguely out of the window, hair flipping into his eyes as he turned. “They’ll arrest you, Tony. You’ll be labeled as a terrorist, your name will be fuckin smeared in the dirt, and it will be all because of me. I am not worth that, okay Tony, I am not-”

 

“YOU ARE TO ME!”

 

James froze, eyes wide as Tony stepped into his space, eyes ablaze and teeth gritted as he stared James down. “You, James Fucking Barnes, have managed to become one of the most important things in my life since you showed up, and I’d be fucking crazy to let you leave now without a fight. Okay? You- you can’t. I’m so fucking lonely here, James, and so so sad. It was just constant. It never left, I never did anything other than work, I hated myself more than anything else in the world, and I wasn’t…”

He paused, shaking his head and biting his lip as James stared dumbly at him. “I was a mess. Still am a mess. But… God, James, having you here is like I can live again. Like I get to something other than just exist. You’re… listen, I know what you think of yourself, okay? You think you’re this Bringer-Of-Death type character, who ruins everything he comes into contact with, but fuck it, James, you sure as hell didn’t bring me anything other than the exact opposite. You gave me… purpose. A reason, again. It’s unhealthy- fuck- it’s unhealthy as shit, and I know that, but like I said, I’m a mess, and you’re a mess, and then when I’m with you I just feel like it’s okay, like I can be a mess and I can be broken but it just doesn’t matter-“

Tony broke off, voice cracking and fading out entirely as he dropped his head into his hands and groaned, overwhelmed with emotion whilst James just stood there, a few centimetres away, completely shocked.

 

He didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t even sure this was real.

 

"what do you want me to do, Tony?" james asked desolately. "I can't hide with you forever. You know I can't. Someone will find me eventually, and then all hell will break loose. I'll lose you. And..." I love you and the thought of them taking you away from me damn near feels like someone stabbing me in the motherfucking chest  "I just can't. I might deserve it, but you certainly don't deserve to spend the rest of your life in a prison because of me. This... this can't plausibly last. It won't end well for either of us."

And God, didn't that thought hurt? He knew, of course he knew deep down, that he wasn't really going to be able to stay. That it was just... impossible in the long run. But being with Tony- laughing with him and talking with him and letting someone into his life for the first time since Rogers- had made it hard to think about. He hadn't wanted to, happy to just let it last for as long as he could drag it out for.

Now he just realised that if he continued down that road, it was Tony who was going to get hurt more than him. And there was no way he was letting that happen. Ever.

 

He'd just have to run. Again.

 

 

“Let’s run,” Tony said quietly, after a few seconds of silence.

James broke briefly out of his trance in order to frown in confusion. “I don’t… what?”

“Let’s just get out of here,” Tony said, voice teetering on completely manic as he grabbed James’ shoulder, “I’ve got nothing left for me here. You never had anything to begin with. Let’s just… leave.”

James stared, open-mouthed. “What? Tony- Tony, come on, you do have things here, you’ve got the business, you’ve got the Avengers-“

“I’m not involved in either of those things any more. Pep is CEO, I’m only there for R&D now, which I can still do from anywhere in the world. As for the Avengers- I’m not part of them any more, remember? That’s done, it’s over, there’s nothing left there,” Tony was smiling now, eyes alight in a way that let James know a plan was already in formation in his mind. "Come on, James. Please. This... this could solve everything. This could work."

 

James didn’t even know what to say. The fact that Tony was even considering it; just packing up and leaving his whole life behind, for him, for James, the broken person who didn’t belong anywhere-

 

Except.

 

What if he did?
Tony’s smile; he definitely wanted to be wherever that was. And JARVIS, JARVIS was brilliant; he would happily follow wherever JARVIS went. Or just the words he’d written all across Tony’s forearm, a stupid inscription in black ink that was still visible- ‘James Bucky Barnes Was Here, and he actually got Anthony Edward Stark to eat some food for once in his life’.

 

Maybe that was where he belonged. Maybe he could just follow Tony’s smile, and see how far that got him.

Maybe they could do it.

 

“Are you serious?” He asked, desperate, pleading.

Tony was outright beaming now, his other hand holding James’ jacket, gripping tight and excited. “Seriously serious.”

 

It was ridiculous. Stupid. Crazy.

 

“...Let’s fuckin’ do it,” James breathed, hands circling Tony’s wrists and gripping as tight as he could without it being physically painful.

This time it was Tony's turn to look surprised- like he hadn't expected James to actually even consider it an option at all. "Wait. Are you... you're serious? You're not just saying this because you feel like you have to, right, because remember what we talked about, James, No is cool, no is absolutely cool-"

"Tony. I'm seriously serious," James laughed.

Tony took a moment to process it- eyes narrowed, trying to look for any of James' ticks as proof that he was only agreeing through conditioning- before he realised James was being authentic and yelled in glee, throwing himself at James and burying himself in his jacket, arms wrapped tightly around his waist. “Holy shit, yes, okay, okay, let’s do this fucking thing, God, Pep’s gonna have a fucking aneurism when I tell her, hahah, this is so fucking stupid, I’m so excited-“

James laughed again, picking Tony up and spinning him around a few times before throwing him on the couch and flopping down next to him, suddenly filled with adrenaline and a euphoric feeling that was completely different to the one he’d been feeling mere minutes ago.

 

He was really going to do it. He was going to run away. With Tony. Together.

 

“I think this is the first time I’ve been excited to run from the authorities,” James said, leaning his head against the back of the pillow and looking up at Tony gleefully.

Tony laughed, grabbing a pillow and tucking it up against his chest. “Well, you’re probably gonna have to get used to it, because SHIELD are persistent little fucks- but we’ll be fine. Once I’ve packed up and gone, I can just lay low, stay off the radar- hopefully they’ll never find me. I’m good at hiding, especially when I’m their main surveillance provider, you know,” Tony said smugly.

“Am I putting my life in the hands of the guy who tried to fit ten crackers in his mouth at once because I was telling him to eat more? That one? Holy shit- I’m gonna die, aren’t I?” James replied, laughing even as Tony thwacked a pillow in his face.

At that moment, when he saw Tony- face split into a genuine beam of happiness and excitement, hair messy from the pillow James had thwacked at him in reply, and fingers just brushing James’ on the couch- the urge to just take his face in his hands and kiss the life out of him was almost too much.

Almost.

James wasn’t about to ruin a good thing (the best thing) because of a stupid lack of restraint. He’d be happy to take Tony in whichever way he offered- friendship was just fine with James.

 

“Still a Not-Good Day?” James asked him, softer this time as he looked into Tony’s eyes.

Tony just smiled in reply, stretching like a cat across the sofa and letting an arm fall across the James’ shoulders. “I’d say it was looking up a bit, wouldn’t you?”

Chapter Text

Tony

 

 

 

 

He wasn’t fucking around with the planning.

 

Everything- each minute detail had been accounted for and planned ahead. Pepper had been informed, important documents on their way to be signed, and carefully coordinated routes were in the process of being drafted. He’d briefly considered fake ID’s, but it hadn’t lasted long. Tony was too well known to pull it off, and James probably already had half a dozen lined up and waiting anyway.

They were really going to do it.

It still didn’t feel real. Impulsive and rash and stupid, that was what it felt like, but not serious . Not a plan he would genuinely go through with.

It was probably because he’d had people to hold him back and give him the boring voice of reason for most of his life when he’d been making plans like this. Telling him to be an adult, to be responsible, blah blah blah blah.

But now, all he had was James. And they were both probably in the wrong state of mind to be making serious decisions like this, which made it perfect. Impulsive and rash and stupid and perfect.

Of course, he could still be Iron Man. The thought of leaving that behind was something he didn’t enjoy thinking about- he still had a debt to pay. He could just fly back whenever he was needed- some of his suits broke mach five in under twenty seconds; it wasn’t exactly difficult.

And he’d be with James.

Impulsive and rash and stupid, yeah- but weren’t the best things in life? Tony hadn’t done something like this in years. It felt good. Crazy. Exhilarating.

James seemed happier too. There was a bit of spring in his step whenever he was around Tony, and his smiles were frequent. It was brilliant. He was more alive and charismatic than Tony thought he ever had been, and quick to contribute his extensive knowledge into Tony’s plan.

Everything was going surprisingly well.

 

“I’m going to grab us some pizza from the restaurant down the block- wanna hitch a ride?” Tony asked with a stretch of his limbs, rubbing a hand across his face and jostling James’ shoulder. They’d both been sitting working in the shop all day, and yeah, Tony could’ve gotten JARVIS to order some in, but he felt like getting some fresh air. After all, there was only so much time he could spend in his lab before the air became too stifling.

James rolled his eyes. “That means I’ll have to dress up all incognito and stuff. Do you know how much fuckin’ effort that takes?”

“Oh good lord, just put on a fake moustache and be on your way,” Tony brushed him off, slapping James on the shoulder before making his way out the shop, just stopping to grab his car keys. “Speak now or forever remain on that desk, Barnes,” he said seriously, shooting him one last look.

James stared across at him, pondering the suggestion, before finally huffing and getting to his feet. “Alright, I’ll come. Just give me a minute to put myself together.”

“It’s literally down the road, no one’s gonna jump you,” Tony said, making a face as James began following him up the stairs.

“Keeping up good habits,” James told him with a shrug of indifference.

“Fine, just be quick, I’m starving. I’ll wait for you down at the garage,” Tony told him, jumping forward a little before breaking off toward the elevator whilst James continued across the hall and toward his room.

 

The ride down into the garage was uneventful, but upon jumping into the driver's seat, his phone began chiming in his pocket. With a roll of his eyes he pulled it out, ready to hit decline.

Except this was Pepper, which was odd. She was supposed to call in two hours.

“You okay?” He got straight to the point, because Pepper always stuck to her schedules, always always always.

There was a pause on the other end of the line. And then, “so I got a call from SHIELD just now.”

Tony froze. “And?”

“I…” Pepper trailed off and sighed, and Tony got the feeling she was probably running a hand through her hair, “Tony- are you sure you know what you’re doing? Are you sure running off to become a recluse is really the best path for you to go down, here?”

“Don’t divert, Pep, what were they asking-”

“I want what’s best for you Tony,” Pepper interrupted, “I want you to be happy and you really, really haven’t been lately, and it… it kills me to see you like this- but you literally called me a few days ago and told me to start initiating Project Hermit, which, by the way, should only have been used if you were being pursued by supervillains-”

“Pepper,” Tony cut off her ramble, shutting his eyes and leaning back against the headrest. He knew that this was hard on her, and he hated putting her in a position of stress like this; but after the end of the week, it would all be sorted out. He just had to make it through the storm. “I need to do this. I have… something I have to take care of, and I can’t do it here.”

 

There was silence for a while, and then a quiet, “Will you come back?”

 

“Maybe,” Tony shrugged, “when everything’s quietened down and I’ve sorted this out. But right now, I have to get some interested parties off my back and stop them getting their hands on what I’ve got. It’ll suck for everyone if I can’t. But… I don’t know, maybe once it’s destroyed. Maybe I’ll come back then.”

“The interested party, I take it, is SHIELD?”

Tony ground his teeth. “Yeah- SHIELD and HYDRA, but to be honest, the latter is not the biggest threat here-”

“My God, Tony, you do realise that they don’t own you, right? You can just tell them to fuck themselves, they’re barely even a legitimate organisation, our lawyers would crush them-”

“But I can’t leave the world without SHIELD, Pep,” Tony bit out, hands tight against the steering wheel, “I… I nearly destroyed everything, and they were there to clean up the mess after. I owe them. And siccing my lawyers on them? Leaving the world without something to defend them? I won’t do that.”

“And they know that! They know you won’t, Tony, and they’re using it to manipulate you into being their damn slave! I understand, Tony, that you feel responsible, but SHIELD isn’t the reputable organisation it once was, okay? They’re down to their bare bones, and they’re willing to do things that they just weren’t before. You have to learn where to draw the line, where to stand up to them-”

“There’s a lot more on the line here than just me, Pepper,” Tony said, eyes flicking up to where James had just slipped out of the elevator and was making his way over to Tony’s car, a smile on his stupidly beautiful face.

Pepper sighed again. “Okay. Fine. Run. Save the day, do your thing, whatever. I’ll sort out Stark Industries, and I’ve got your normal schedule already arranged, so no-one will know any different. Just…please,” she said quietly, her voice quiet and earnest, “come back, okay?”

Pepper would always be in his corner. Tony loved Pepper.

“I’ll try,” he said, and he really would. He knew he’d miss New York fiercely, and perhaps once everything had cooled down; once James was ready to come back into the world, and Tony had found a way to destroy the data on that chip for good- maybe then they’d both come back.

 

For now, though, there weren’t many other options.

 

“Stay safe, Mr Stark” Pepper said quietly, and Tony nodded, a little grin on his face. “You know I won’t, Miss Potts.”

“It’s still nice to dream, though. I’ll call you tomorrow, Tony,” Pepper said, fond exasperation in her voice as she ended the call, and Tony was left with the same small smile playing on his lips as James slid into the passenger seat beside him.

 

“Who was that?” He asked, looking over at Tony as he buckled himself in.

“Pepper. Apparently SHIELD’s started calling her now, too, which is a little irritating,” Tony grumbled, “I swear, one day I’m just gonna block the phone reception down there and watch them all squirm.”

James laughed, all lovely and soft around the edges. “Well, seein’ as angry phone calls are pretty much the only thing they’re good at, I reckon that taking that away from them will render them entirely useless.”

“Oh, if only,” Tony mused, pulling out of the garage and turning out of the driveway, into the busy New York streets.

James smiled and leaned back against the headrest, metal fingers clinking rhythmically against the side of the car as he watched New York pass them by through the tinted windows. “It’s all different to how it used to be,” he said quietly, after a few beats of silence, “I bet Steve hated it, at first, didn’t he?”

Tony paused, eyebrows rising a little in surprise. James usually avoided talking about Steve if at all possible- seemingly still not in a position to feel comfortable around even the mention of his name. “I...uh, yeah, no, he really- he really struggled, at the start. It… it frustrated him, I think.”

James nodded, but his face had gone blank again, like all he could remember was that Steve would have reacted negatively to the new future, and not why.

“You don’t mind it, though, do you?” Tony asked him, as he shot a glance over to James, who stared up at the high-rise buildings in fascination.

“Not even slightly,” James admitted with a shrug, “don’t really remember what it was even like before, really. Just feelings. And most of ‘em are negative- like how cold I always was, or cramped, or bitter. I remember…hating the price of medicine. It was always so expensive for him.”

There was a long pause, and Tony saw him chewing on his lip, turning a little so that he was angled more toward Tony. “So no. I can’t say I miss it. But… I don’t know what made me say that he would… just kinda get the feelin’. He was always a simple guy. All this techy shit would probably just piss him off, right?”

“Right,” Tony agreed, with a nod and a slightly fond smile as he recalled all their many adventures trying to inform Steve of what various gadgets did. “God, you should’ve seen his face when I tried to explain the internet to him-”

“Don’t tell me, it looked something like this,” James pulled his brows together, taking on a look of mild disgust as he pouted his lips forward and folded his arms.

Tony opened his mouth and cackled. “Oh my god, that’s exactly it, holy shit, that is scarily similar, how are you even doing that?”

James laughed, and flailed his hands in the air, “Fuck if I know- I didn’t even have a vague idea of what he looked like when he was pissed until you mentioned it.”

Tony paused, his face dropping into something a little more serious as he turned to James. “But it was relatively easy for you once I gave you the stimulus, right?”

James’ face dropped. “Tony-”

“I’m just saying,” Tony said, raising his hands in a show of peace before letting them drop back onto the wheel, “it looks like your memories are still… there, sort of? Maybe the neurons are still present in your mind, and it takes a lot less time to to connect them for you than it does for others, meaning you can remember things a lot quicker, potentially even whole pasts and histories with people-”

“I don’t want to,” James said stubbornly, folding his arms properly now, “I don’t want… I’m not ready to meet him again.”

Tony sighed, and turned back to face the traffic. He had to admit- keeping this from Steve made guilt sit heavy in his stomach; not only because of the fact that he knew how much James meant to the man, but also the fact that it felt like he was just going around and around in circles. Hiding dangerous things from the rest of the team and trying to solve it all on his own hadn’t gone down very well before.

“I know,” Tony said, nodding, “but I’ll be honest here- I think it might do you good. In the long run. Like I said, though- your choice.”

James nodded, before looking out of the window and remaining silent. Tony watched him; following the sharp line of his stubbled jaw with his eyes until he reached soft red lips. They were caught between his teeth as James bit on them incessantly- a habit he was often caught doing when he got a little lost in his own head.

 

He really was a sight. Tony couldn’t remember anyone he’d met who was quite as striking at James. Sure, there were plenty of hot people in the world, but James… he caught your eye and kept them there, on his face, like something was drawing you to him. Intangible, but very very real.

 

“Right,” Tony blurted, snapping his face back to the road as he swerved and parked up quickly, “We’re here. It should only take a few minutes, so if you wanna stay in the c-”

“I’ll come,” James said, smiling a little as he looked over to Tony from across the car, “I came out all this way, didn’t I?”

“Just don’t complain about anything whilst you’re in there. Dom is a sensitive soul who will kick you out if he thinks you’re insulting his food,” Tony warned, opening the door and sliding out.

James fell into step beside him, and their shoulders brushed together as they both walked inside. Tony would never get over the way the slightest touch from James made him feel as if he was electrified. It was a surprise every single time.

“Oh god, what the hell is that smell?” James exclaimed loudly, as soon as they entered the small restaurant. “I feel like my nostrils are having an orgasm.”

Tony grinned, pushing them both further in and walking up to the counter. “That, my friend, is the smell of Dom’s magnificent pizzas, all being delicately prepared in the kitchens behind the counter. I’m pretty sure I too compared the smell to sex when I first found this place.”

Ugh,” James groaned, leaning forward on the counter a little, trying to get closer to the kitchens, “I think the smell is killing me,”

“The smell will not be the only thing killing you if you cannot keep your big mouth shut,” came the familiar booming voice from behind them, fluent italian signalling Dom’s presence. “If you do not like it here, then the door is right th-”

“No no, I didn’t mean it like that,” James answered, also in perfect Italian, holding his hands in the air. He seemed blissfully aware of the fact he’d just caused Tony to choke on his own tongue. “I mean it in the best possible way. Your pizza is going to be the greatest thing that has graced my mouth in a long, long while and I haven’t even tasted it yet.”

Dom paused, puffing his chest proudly as his scowl turned quickly into a smile as he clapped James on the back, “ahhh, that’s better. Good boy. Speaking italian, too. Good choice, Anthony.”

Tony stuttered again, shaking his head and trying to focus on something that wasn’t the overwhelming fact that James could speak in beautiful, rolling italian. “Uhhhhh. Um. No, we....not together. Just friends.”

“Ah ah ah, Italian in my restaurant, Anthony.”

“Ah, right. Sorry. Uhh, we’re not together. Just friends, Dom.”

Dom looked over to Tony skeptically, before raising a single grey eyebrow. “Well then. See that changes, boy.”

Tony, if possible, just blushed even harder, and closed his eyes. God, James speaking Italian had literally done better at shutting off his brain than any of the drugs ever taken in his time. See, maybe that was all he’d needed back in his youth; an Italian-speaking James Buchanan Barnes to ease him into the world with his lilting voice and kind eyes-

“Food,” Tony blurted, rubbing a hand across his eyes and stubbornly looking at the desk, “can we… do you have the food ready for us?”

Dom just laughed, and Tony was reminded of Thor as the sound boomed across the room. “Coming right up, Anthony, I’ll be thirty seconds.”

Still laughing, Dom backed off in the direction of the kitchen, leaving a thoroughly red-faced Tony and a bemused James staring down at him fondly.

“He seems like… a character,” James grinned, running a metal hand across his forehead and sweeping a strand of hair behind his ear, “although I’m pretty sure that’s not how you’re supposed to treat customers when you first meet them.”

Tony shrugged, “what can I say- that’s Dom. People take the brunt attitude, ‘cause they know they’re not gonna get pizza like this anywhere else.”

James nodded, shutting his eyes as he sniffed the air again. Tony allowed himself that brief moment to stare; good God , the man was beautiful. It was crazy, how long those stupid eyelashes were. And his hair, fuck , Tony had never imagined he’d find hair quite that attractive on its own, but here they were-

“Food,” Tony mumbled again, pulling his eyes away and then turning to the door Dom was coming through, four pizzas stacked in his arms. “Food food food food food.”

James shot him a curious look, but took the pizzas from Dom’s arms with a smile. “Thank you,” he said, before turning to Tony and gesturing with his head, “shall we? I’m starving.”

Tony nodded, thanking Dom and obstinately ignoring all the raised eyebrows and knowing looks the old man sent his way as he turned to follow behind James. What did he know anyway? He’d seen them for all of two minutes.

 

Unless Tony was just that obvious.
Fuck. He was probably just that obvious, wasn’t he?


Tony was so caught up in his own head that he ended up banging right into James’ solid frame at the entrance of the door. He stumbled back a little, brow furrowed as he tried to regain balance. “Hey, James, maybe you wanna start mov-”

The words were cut off halfway as James suddenly spun, grabbing Tony by the front of his shirt and pushing them back inside again. With a grunt, Tony felt the doors give way behind his back as he hurriedly tried to keep up the pace James was pushing them at. “Whoa, fuck, James, what the hell are y-”

“They’re here,” James said bluntly, letting go of Tony and then straightening up before anyone in the restaurant could see them, “SHIELD. There’s two cars outside and four agents walking down the street, right this minute.”

Tony’s jaw dropped, and he felt his heartbeat suddenly skyrocket. “Oh, hell.”

Taking a deep breath, James suddenly grabbed Tony’s shoulder. “You need to go out. Distract them, do whatever. I’m gonna go out through the kitchens.”

Nodding, Tony extracted the pizzas out of James’ hands and then looked over his shoulder, spotting Dom as he carried a tray of empty drinks back into the kitchens. “Hey, Dom!” He called out, pulling James by the arm and then hurrying them forward.

Dom turned, his brow creasing as he watched them walk forward. “Anthony- did I give you the wrong order? What’s wrong?”

Tony shook his head. His hand was still clutching James’, but right now he didn’t have time to care. “I need you to do me a favor. You have to take James out through the back entrance- and if anyone comes in and asks, he was never here. Please, Dom, you know I wouldn’t ask unless-”

The older man was pulling James away before Tony could even finish, his face suddenly serious. “There are jackets and hats through the corridor that you can take on your way. Going through the kitchens will be too obvious; I have a window down the hall that leads off into the alley.” He stopped, looking at Tony and nodding. “I won’t ask questions. I know your job, Anthony. And I trust you. He will be safe with me.”

Suddenly a little weak on his feet, Tony nodded. James was looking at him, eyes hard and face blank as he slowly left himself in order to get into Winter Soldier mode.

Before Tony could register what he was doing, he pulled James in by the sleeve of his jacket and wrapped his arms tightly around the bigger man’s shoulders, standing on his tiptoes to do so. He shut his eyes, feeling James grip tightly to his waist for a second, before pushing off and beginning to step back. “Be safe,” he told Tony, nodding solemnly and then slipping out of Tony’s arms entirely.

“Give your jacket to the waiter over there,” Dom told James, pulling the jacket off his shoulders with ease, “he’s my son. I will explain to him. Tell them you were picking him up and dropping him here because he was going to be late for work and he happened to be near your tower at the time.”

Tony wanted to thank Dom a million times over, but he knew he had no time for that. James was already turned, walking quickly down the corridor and shooting one last reassuring smile over his shoulder before slipping around the corner. Dom followed, stopping to grab his son’s shoulder and hand him the jacket with a few words in his ear.

Tony took a breath, and then turned back toward the doors, hurrying forward and pulling out his phone as he did so. Pressing number one on his speed-dial, he pushed it up to his ear and then waited for the reply.

Immediately, he heard JARVIS’ quiet “sir?”

“Erase CCTV footage from every camera with eyes on the garage at the tower over the past 30 minutes,” Tony instructed curtly, before ending the call and stepping out the doors. He knew JARVIS would follow through without further prompting.

Making sure not to look across the street at the conspicuously inconspicuous SHIELD cars or the four agents that were walking toward him from each side of the street, he walked casually toward his car, pizzas clutched in his hand.

They wouldn’t try anything on him. They wouldn’t. For starters, Nick would have their asses fired before anyone had a chance to bl-

 

Except Nick wasn’t in charge any more. There was, technically, nothing of the Real SHIELD left.

 

Pepper had called them the bare bones of the organization. The desperate ones. Maybe she wasn’t that far off the bat.


Sighing, he stopped at the door of his car, pulling out his phone once again and waving it in the air like a threat. Which, he guessed it was. “One press of a button and this phone goes straight to my lawyer. Believe me, I’ve had to use her a damn lot over the years. So unless you fancy having to deal with her on a Sunday evening, then I strongly suggest you fine gentlemen stop tailing me.”

He spoke loudly, still not looking over at them but instead rolling his eyes into the back of his head. The agents stopped, looking surprised that Tony had noticed them at all. “Yes, yes, I am indeed talking to you,” he confirmed, shooting the ones on the left a very unamused look and then curling his hand around the handle of the door.

 

Maybe they’d just let him leave. Maybe he’d freaked them out enough.

 

“Mr Stark, if it’s all the same with you, we’d like to ask you a few questions-”

“Oh, it is very much not ‘all the same with me’. I’ve been dealing with your shit for months now, and I’m fucking tired of it,” Tony snapped, stepping away and whirling around  to the ones on the right this time, who just happened to be nearest, “this has gone on long enough. Tailing me, seriously? I was getting fucking pizza, I’m not going to to destroy the god damned world. Go stalk people who actually pose a threat, rather than wasting your time on me.”

“I’m sorry, but our intel has led us to believe otherwise, Mr. Stark,” one of the agents answered coldly, stepping forward. “We’re going to have to ask you some questions about Alexander Roswell-”

“You absolutely will not,” Tony turned again, fucking hating how he was currently being trapped on both sides by the stupid assholes. “You want to talk? Here’s my fucking number,” Tony pulled out a business card from his coat and flicked it expertly at their faces, shooting them a toothy smile before stepping forward toward his car again, “call that and you’ll be sent directly to the reception desk. They’ll arrange a meeting for when I’m next available. So, you know, probably half a decade from now.”

“Stark, who was with you five minutes ago when you arrived here,” One of them began, but Tony was already getting in his car, shutting the door in their faces and then rolling down the window a crack.

“I was dropping off the owner’s son. We’re old friends, and the guy was near my tower. He needed a lift. Now back the fuck off, or I’m running you over.”

Closing the window and blocking out any more questions, Tony threw the boxes into the passenger seat and reversed out quickly. He had to admit, he felt a light sense of satisfaction as he watched the agents stumble out of the way in surprise, obviously not expecting Tony to go through with the threat.

As he pulled out, he watched them all through the tinted windows as one of the agents started talking into a comm on his wrist. Two others barged into Dom’s restaurant and the other began jogging around to the back of the building, gun in hand.

Tony’s heart sped up a little, but he kept calm as he rolled down the window and generously offered up his middle finger to the agents sat in the car he drove by.

 

James would be fine. James had been hiding from SHIELD for most of his life. Tony didn’t need to worry.


Tony worried anyway.


Driving in the opposite direction to where James had run was physically painful, but he knew he didn’t have any other choice. Anything even remotely like recon would just put SHIELD on him again, and Tony couldn’t risk it. He had no idea what SHIELD would even do with James if they found him. And there was no way in hell Tony was ever going to let them find out.

So, ignoring every single instinct in his body, Tony simply bit his lip and turned out in the direction of the tower, wishing he’d just fucking ordered in in the first place.




*****




He waited in the kitchen for four hours before James came home.


He was soaking; hair bedraggled and dripping from the torrential rain that had begun a few hours back, but his face broke out into a smile of relief as he laid eyes on an unharmed Tony standing in front of him at the kitchen counter.

“So what was that about not getting jumped whilst going to get pizza?” James asked wearily.

“Oh thank God,” Tony breathed, stumbling forward and pretty much falling into James’ arms, feeling the scratchy wet material of the sodden jacket push into his face and smear rainwater across his cheek. He didn’t care.

James was safe. He’d got back okay.

With a gentle sigh of tiredness, James curled his arms across Tony’s shoulders and gripped right back, letting his nose press into Tony’s hair. “I’m fine. Took me a while to throw them off and get back here without being caught, but I managed. Don’t worry.”

“Wasn’ worrying,” Tony mumbled against his chest, shutting his eyes and letting go of all the tension that had built up around his shoulders since he’d come home alone.

James laughed, and then gently pushed Tony off, hands on Tony’s forearms as he leaned down a little, eyes sharp and scanning. “What did they do when they saw you?” He asked quietly, his gaze flickering worriedly up and down Tony’s body.

Tony waved him off, shaking his head. “They didn’t hurt me, if that’s what you’re thinking, SHIELD wouldn’t fucking dare. They- uh, they asked about Alexander. And… I think they know I’m not alone any more,” he admitted, biting his lip and looking up at James anxiously.

Surprisingly, James didn’t react as badly as Tony had been expecting. He just sighed in annoyance, and then pulled away a little bit further. “Tony, are you very very sure that you want to go through with th-”

“Oh, shut up,” Tony interrupted, rolling his eyes and yanking James forward again, pushing himself into the damp chest. His clothes would be ruined, but honestly they were getting there on their own anyway, so who the fuck cared?

James tensed a little, but it didn’t take long for him to give in and put his arms back where they’d been a few seconds ago, resting gently across Tony’s shoulders. “You’re a stubborn bastard, Stark, you know that right?”

Tony looked up, raising an eyebrow. “You’re pretty slow for a man who specialises in espionage, aren’t you.”

James just huffed in reply, letting them sway back and forth for a few seconds before moving his head, craning it around in search of something.

“Pizza’s in the fridge,” Tony declared, knowing exactly what James was looking for. His hunch was proved correct when he heard the audible groan of pleasure from James mouth, and the sudden loss of contact as the man broke away in search of food. “I saved you two whole slices, too, you lucky lucky bastard.”

James shot him a look as he pulled the fridge open. “You better be joking, Tinman,  I am fucking starving.”

Luckily, Tony was indeed joking, and James pulled out two whole boxes of pizza, pretty much stuffing one of them into his mouth in one fell swoop. It was quite a sight.

“How’s your side?” James asked after a minute, looking down to Tony’s injury and raising an eyebrow in question.

Tony shrugged, hiking his shirt up and showing the quickly-healing mark on his side. “Fine, fine- I changed the bandages this morning, it’s all good. I should raring to go s-”


He never got to finish the sentence, however- because suddenly the annoyingly familiar alarm began to blare through the sound system in the tower. Tony looked up, and then groaned loudly, shutting his eyes and running a hand across his forehead. “Son of a Goddamn whore,” he cursed, before calling “JARVIS?”

 

“It appears a fleet of UFO’s has just descended upon the outskirts of Delaware, sir,” the AI explained, “reports coming in say the inhabitants of the ship are armed and firing at civilians. The Avengers have been called in.”

Tony clenched his jaw. “Oh, well isn’t that just dandy. I get out of one dangerous goddamn situation five fucking minutes ago, and then I’m immediately thrust into another one. Fucking typical. Jesus-” he looked over to James, somewhat despairingly. “I’m sorry, but I have to go again.”

“Tony- you’re still healing, you can’t go out to fight when y-”

“I’m fine enough,” Tony shrugged, getting to his feet. Fuck, he was tired already, and the last thing he felt like doing after that evening’s debacle was leave James, but...aliens.

James looked at him grimly, before standing up. “Let me come with you,” he said.

Tony made a face. “Don’t be ridiculous James, come on-”

“You’re hurt,” James told him, grabbing him by the arm and looking down at him. “You can’t just expect me to sit here and-”

“Well you’re going to have to,” Tony told him firmly, pushing him away, “you won’t achieve anything from coming with me aside from getting us both caught, and all the Avengers are going to be there. Including Cap. Just…” Tony wrung his hands together, before shooting one last apologetic look over at James and then beginning to jog backwards, “just stay here. I’ll be fine. I’ll keep you on the comm, if you want.”

James growled, but Tony couldn’t do anything to soothe him. He didn’t have time.
He had a job to do.

 

Turning away properly, he reached the elevator, which was already opened for him. “Take me down, J,” Tony told him, knowing the suit was already being prepped for him down in the shop.

He caught James’ eye for a moment, and nodded with a tight smile. James opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was lost as the elevator doors slid shut and left Tony staring at nothing more than smooth chrome metal.

He took a breath, glancing down apprehensively at the healing injury on his side. It would be sensitive, but it wasn’t anything Tony couldn’t deal with. He’d gone into fights with a lot worse.

“JARVIS?” Tony asked as the elevator opened up in his workshop, revealing his primed and ready armour, as well as the undersuit which DUM-E had helpfully laid out for him, “can you.... can you link me through the, uh, the Avengers?”

JARVIS took a second, which in Robotic terms was practically like pulling a disgusted face, but a second later Tony heard the dial tone blare out through his speakers as he hurried toward the undersuit and grabbed it, pulling off his own shirt as he did so.

 

“Hello?” He called out when the speaker crackled into life.

 

There were some murmurs down the line, and then Steve’s voice finally came through the speakers. “How far away are you?” He got straight to the point, a few clatters down the line which let Tony know the others were still suiting up, probably on the quinjet.

Tony checked his watch, “12 minutes, if I break a few airspace regulation laws. You?”

“20. Hold them in perimeter until we get there, and stay on comm so you can give us a sitrep. Oh, and Tony?” Steve said, in the kind of voice which made Tony certain he was about to say something bad, “I need to talk to you after this.”

Yep. Definitely bad, then. “If there even is an after,” Tony muttered grumpily, tugging the undersuit on fully and then cracking the vertebrae in his back.

Steve gave something that sounded a little like a laugh. “Always so cynical, Stark.”

“Someone’s gotta be- it’s the only way to even things out against your optimistic ass,” Tony replied easily, trying to ignore the pang of hurt which came with the easy camaraderie. He’d missed the goddamn asshole, what could he say?

Steve exhaled in his version of a laugh. “Stay on comms, and please try not to get yourself killed,” he said again, before cutting the call.

Tony yawned, looking to the ceiling for a moment. He felt old. “Once more unto the breach,” his voice announced to the empty room.

DUM-E beeped in response, claw poking Tony’s side with his usual idiotic enthusiasm. Tony looked down at him, huffing out and patting him on the head fondly. “Good boy,” he whispered, before stepping backward, allowing the suit to converge around him.


Damn, it felt good to be back.


He was interrupted from his musings, however, as he heard the door of his shop open, and the sound of James’ voice calling his name. Turning to the side, he watched as the man jogged quickly through the room, vaulting the desk in his way effortlessly in order to reach Tony.

Tony winced, preparing to tell James again that there was no way he could come with him- but James didn’t open his mouth as he reached touching distance. He just...kept going.

Tony stumbled a few steps at the intensity of the hug James enveloped him in, but quickly regained balance, returning it quickly and immediately.

James squeezed, and Tony felt it (which said something about the strength of the damn hug). “Stay alive,” James said, voice a bit jagged as he pulled back a fraction.

He was just as tall as Tony, even with the suit on, so they were eye-to-eye, barely an inch between James’ face and the metal plate which covered Tony’s. He was both intensely grateful and vehemently bitter about the fact that there was a sheet of reinforced gold-titanium alloy in between them.

James looked at him for another second- that intense gaze, those icy blue eyes boring into his own- and then he slowly lifted his hands, wrapping them around the back of Tony’s neck. Tony just watched him; frozen in shock as James got to the tips of his toes and gently pulled Tony’s head down, pressing a kiss to the forehead of the faceplate.

“Stay alive,” he said again, mouth ghosting over the metal as he spoke. Then his hands released, and James stepped back again, looking toward Tony with a clenched jaw and pursed lips.

Tony just nodded a little jerkily, trying to process what had just happened. “I...I’ll try my best,” he said weakly. “I promise.”

And before anything stupid (like ‘I love you I love you I love you’ ) could come out of his mouth, he fired up the repulsors and spun, turning out into the in-flight exit he’d designed and heading off into the rain and the wind and the possible near-world-ending situation which was about to follow.


Just like old times.

Chapter Text

James










He watched through the TV screen as Tony flew and fired and fought against the threat that had fallen down to earth, and he barely breathed more than 10 times throughout the whole sequence of events.



The news didn’t show particularly good footage, so James had to rely on the comm line Tony had called his phone through in order to know that he was okay. He couldn’t even fucking say anything. It was a one-way signal, so that no one would hear James if he said anything.

At one point, he’d heard Tony yelling down the phone, and then the corresponding news footage had panned out to a fuzzy image of Iron Man being hit by...something, which sent him careering into the concrete at a terrifying speed. James hadn’t been able to stop the strangled cry from leaving his mouth, and the pillow he’d been holding against his stomach was torn in a matter of seconds.

It was hell. Watching Tony go out and fight, unable to help him, protect him. It was just hell.

 

Four hours later, at 2:31 in the morning, the news reports claimed the fight was over. James heard the team through Tony’s comm- which was now pretty staticky from the knock- as they cheered one another through wheezing breaths and blood-filled mouths. James himself let out a small exhale in relief when he heard Tony’s answering call, and let his head fall back against the couch, breathing heavily.

Tony was okay. He was safe. He’d done it. There was no need for James to worry.

 

“Iron Man?” He heard Steve call out down the line, and there was something in his tone that made the relief he’d been feeling seconds previously evaporate. “Can I have a word?”

“Steve, does it really have to be n-”

“Yes, it does Tony,” and his voice was firmer now, a little sharper.

Say no, James wanted to call out to him, say no and come home, please.

Tony sighed- James could imagine how exhausted he must have been. “Fine. Where are you?”



“Christ, Tony,” James muttered, running his hand along the side of the couch anxiously as they chattered. His instincts were going crazy- he didn’t trust Steve, but he did. He felt on edge, but at the same time, he just… he knew Steve wouldn’t hurt Tony. Hopefully.

God, he didn’t know, he didn’t know and it was stressing the fuck out of him. He just…

Shit. Christ. Fuck. He felt like he had a migraine, even though he knew it was biologically impossible now.

“I’d like to meet at the tower,” Steve said suddenly, and that- the inflections in his voice, the stubborn and almost challenging way in which he said the words- that was enough for James to understand.

 

Steve knew. He had to have known. He wanted to meet at the tower because he knew that James was there , shit shit shit shit shit -



“Sure,” Tony said easily, and James gaped, “but can I at least get checked out by the med-team first? Or is that not allowed?”

Time. Okay. Tony was giving him time.

Jumping to his feet, he looked around the room with sharp eyes. “JARVIS?” He called, vaulting over the couch and walking toward his hoodie in order to yank it from the coat rack, “I need you to locate everything in this tower that might alert someone to my presence here.”

He could have done it himself. He was used to running, after all. But JARVIS would make it quicker, and there were possibly things that even he could miss. He didn’t want to chance it. He wasn’t going to risk getting Tony into trouble.

JARVIS shot off a list hurriedly, and James rushed around the main floor, picking up all his stuff, meticulously removing all evidence of his existence from the rooms and stumbling up to his room to shove them there instead. He just had to hope that Steve wouldn’t end up leaving the communal floor.

“Captain Rogers and Sir are approximately 30 seconds away,” JARVIS informed him crisply, and James swore without even thinking about it, storming up to his room to wait and hoping that Tony would be able to divert him effectively enough.



Slamming the door with a firm bang, he slid on to his bed and waited. It was all he could do, really- he just had to trust that Tony knew what he was doing. And that he hadn’t left anything behind as evidence.

He thought, briefly, about just going down. Revealing himself. He didn’t really know Steve, but he felt like he did. He felt like Steve wouldn’t be angry, or at least, he’d calm down relatively quickly once James explained it. Steve would understand. It was… well, it was Steve. He didn’t even fully know the guy, but he just- he knew that Steve was good.

But then Steve would want them to spend time together. He’d want to take him from the tower, put him somewhere in SHIELD to get proper help. He’d try his best to make James better, but James knew that the stubborn bastard would try and do it his way. It was just who he was. Wanted to help so badly that he sort of lost himself in the challenge. 

James had no desire to leave Tony’s side. He had no desire to involve himself with SHIELD, especially after… well, everything. It just wasn’t worth it.

 

So he sat on his bed and waited.



15 minutes later, there was a quiet knock on the door. James jerked, hand instinctively reaching for the gun he kept at his side before realis ing that whoever it was on the other side, they weren’t a threat. “Tony?” He called shakily .

“Yeah,” came the muffled reply, and the voice sounded so tired and quiet, James felt his heart pang in sympathy. Tony must have been through hell during that fight.

Springing off the bed, he walked forward and pulled open the door. On the other side, Tony was stood in front of him; swaying unsteadily on his feet as he smiled up at James. “Good morning,” he said with a sigh.

James didn’t say anything. He just wrapped his arms around Tony’s shoulders and tugged him inside, pulling the smaller man into his chest and holding gently. Tony exhaled, and his own shaking hands clutched against the back of James’ jacket as they embraced.

James wanted to just stay there- holding Tony against him and feeling the heartbeat drumming through Tony’s chest - just so he could know. For certain. But he had more important things to think about and he knew it.

Pulling away a little, he held Tony’s arms between his hands and looked down once more. As opposed to when they had met up again after the first scare that evening, Tony now looked like he had… well, like he’d been in a fight. There were cuts all over his face, some of them covered with plasters or butterfly stitches, and he was holding himself pretty heavily on his right side. He looked like he was barely even managing to stay awake at all.

“Oh, Tony,” he said softly, barely resisting the urge to raise a hand and trace one of the cuts across the other man’s cheek as Tony grinned in exhaustion.

“‘M’fine,” he mumbled, a shaky hand coming to rub up against his eye, making him look almost childlike- as if he’d just risen from a long nap and was struggling to wake up properly. James wanted to wrap himself around the smaller man, he felt like his heart was burning. He hadn’t wanted to protect anyone this badly since...before.

“Hey, just… come here, Tony, come on,” James muttered, pulling Tony forward a little more and directing him toward his massive bed on the other side of the room. Numbly, Tony limped along after him, largely supported by James himself as they made the journey. “Yeah, okay, that’s good, just sit- there we go.”

Tony fell onto the soft mattress as soon as the back of his knees hit the side of it, and landed amongst the bedding with a soft moan of happiness. Eyes fluttering shut almost instantly, he curled amongst James’ sheets, nose burrowing into the material and inhaling with a soft smile of contentment.

“Tony, your clothes- you’re filthy, buddy, you gotta- you gotta get outta them,” James tried, frowning at the muddy and bloodstained attire Tony was decked out in. If he could have it his way, he’d get Tony to at least take a shower before sleeping, in order to stave off the risk of one of those cuts being infected, but as he stared down at the other man, he realised Tony was probably too tired to even stand, let alone take a wash.

Huffing and shuffling awkwardly for a few seconds, he got to his knees beside Tony and put a hand on his shoulder, shaking gently. “Tony, come on, look, just sit up and I’ll do the rest, I’ll let you sleep right after, I promise,” he murmured, his metal hand slipping under Tony’s neck and prying upward gently, unable to hold back the soft smile as Tony’s eyes scrunched even further shut and he pouted visibly at the disturbance.

The man’s eyelids heaved themselves open with what looked like intense effort, and he stared blearily up at James as he righted him. “Steve wanted-”

“I don’t care what Steve wanted,” James interrupted quietly, “we can talk about that in the morning. For now I just want you to get some rest. Can I?” He gestured to the zip at the top of Tony’s undersuit, and when Tony nodded blearily, he proceeded to draw his fingers toward it and pull down.

Tony’s head lolled a little, and James pushed upward to allow him a place to rest his forehead as he removed the first half of the suit.  He could feel the warmth of him, and was wary of the impressive array of injuries as his hands moved across the torso and up the chest.

Once he’d extracted Tony’s arms from the tight sleeves as gently as possible, James took a moment and then drew his hands under Tony’s thighs, shifting them upward just a little and allowing him room to tug the suit down his hips. Tony dropped backward once more, falling into the sheets with a dull thump and sighing softly. James felt his heart tighten again- Tony never fucking slept enough. He never slept enough and he didn’t look after himself properly and it drove James nuts. And now he was injured- again, may he fucking add- and the wound on Tony’s side looked as if it had just been restitched. James couldn’t even hold back the growl of displeasure when he saw that; something almost primal awakening in his gut, wanting to hurt whatever had caused Tony pain. Unfortunately, it seemed Tony had done that for himself; all James could do was mutter angrily whilst his fingers gently pried the undersuit from Tony’s battered body.

Eventually, he tugged the thing off Tony’s ankles, mumbling a quiet apology when the exhausted man hissed in pain. James guessed it was a sprain at the most, though, so he held back from worrying too much over it.

Tony was left in only his boxers; cuts and purple marks littering the expanse of his body as it curled up into James’ soft sheets. He noticed with a frown that the man had started shivering a little, and realised it was probably cold for a guy to be lying pretty much naked in a room that James liked to keep cool.

“Just a minute,” he said quietly, although he was almost entirely sure Tony didn’t even hear him as he got to his feet and started burrowing in his wardrobe. All his shirts would most certainly be far too big for Tony, but it wasn’t the end of the world. He didn’t want Tony to get chilly.

Coming back with a nondescript black sweater he wore when he felt lazy, he got back down to his knees and then poked Tony in the cheek. “Come on, come on, one last thing , and then you can sleep.”

“Huuurgh, go’way.”

“Tony,” James rolled his eyes, biting back a grin and taking Tony’s wrist, tugging him upright. There was a little resistance, but eventually Tony just went with another groan, head lolling precariously as James opened up the sweater and then dropped it around Tony’s neck. “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Tony let his eyes open a little, simply so that he could shoot James a withering stare.

Huffing out in fond amusement, James gently pulled the sweater over Tony until it was resting a little precariously across his bare shoulders. He pointedly didn’t observe too hard- something about Tony wearing his clothes was making his stomach go a little haywire.

There was a moment after James was finished where he let himself just… stop. Take a good look at the other man, knelt on his bed and wearing his clothes as he struggled to keep his eyes open. Dirt and blood smeared his face, and the bags under his eyes had reached the point where they were about to start carrying themselves. He didn’t even want to get started on the state of his hair.

Smiling softly, James ran a hand through the messy curls, letting the warmth of his fingertips linger against Tony’s jaw, just for a second. Tony stared at him, his head tilted down a little in order to face James properly.
It would be so easy for James to just… let go. Kiss him senseless like he’d wanted to for months now.



He could hear Tony breathing. Could hear his heartbeat through the beat in his neck.




“Sleep,” James said quietly, fingers falling away and dropping to the man’s chest in order to push back, “you need it.”

Tony fell backward by James’ hand, immediately curling up horizontally on the bed and clutching a handful of the sheets. He stared at James for a few seconds more, a tiny little wrinkle crossing his forehead before he finally shut his eyes properly. James heard his breathing even out just a few seconds later.

With a huff, James leaned over and tugged some of the bedsheets over him. Like that; drowning in James’ jumper and curled up on the huge bed, he looked impossibly small. Breakable. His hair fell in waves, a few of them flopping into his closed eyes, and James brushed them away with barely-there fingers. He still felt on edge from the whole dramatics of the night, but something about the scene now helped to quiet his nerves a fraction.

 

Tony was here . Right next to him. Alive.



He sunk to the floor at the foot of the bed and pulled out his gun, taking up watch by the door.





*****





Through his light doze, he heard as Tony groaned a little and rolled, a tiny muttered ‘fuck’ being the evidence that he had just woken.



James opened his eyes properly, craning his neck behind him in order to watch Tony as he rolled tiredly onto his elbows. He looked down in confusion at his black sleeves, and then the bed that was most certainly not his. After a second, it seemed to click, because he called out “James?”

“Mornin,” James waved a little from the foot of the bed, cracking his neck and wincing, “you sleep okay?”

Tony jerked, staring at him for a few moments and then pulling a face. “Did you sleep on the fucking floor?”

“Didn’t sleep,” he said with a shake of his head, and then thrust the gun across the room, landing it on his couch, “keeping watch.”

Tony just frowned, rubbing a sleeved hand over his eyes. It was rather endearing. “So I take it you went into Soldier Mode last night, then.”

‘Soldier Mode’ was Tony’s way of putting ‘that thing you do where you go all serious and start carrying five guns around with you because you’ve shifted into Winter Soldier and so everything and anything becomes a potential threat’. But as you could imagine, the latter was a bit of a mouthful.

“Can you blame me?” James asked, waving his hands across the air, “first, we get jumped by SHIELD, and then I have to leave you to get beaten up by aliens. Are you okay, but the way? I checked you over, but-”

“I’m fine,” Tony said, “a little stiff, but what’s new? I’ll be good in a few days.”

James nodded a little, eyes flickering over to the windows. The uneasiness hadn’t left him since returning to the tower last night, and he couldn’t help but feel as if the tension was only building higher and higher with each day. He knew they were running out of time.

“Go take a shower,” James ordered, pointing to his bathroom, “you’ve probably got blood all over the damn sheets. After that, we’ll talk about what happened.”

Immediately, Tony’s face grew a little more serious, but he nodded shortly and then slipped out of the bed. James watched him limp off and then got wearily to his feet, quickly changing out of his clothes and putting on clean ones. He wasn’t particularly a fan of the Wet Dog smell he’d been sporting since last night.

He heard the shower switch on as he pulled back his hair into a messy bun. It had grown a little since his first cut, but he didn’t really mind. Honestly, he kinda digged it. Now it wasn’t so straggly and matted and gross, he thought he rather suited it.
Tony liked it, too. He played with it, sometimes, when he was really tired and James’ head was nearby. Not that that was a deciding factor, of course.

 

The water cut off from the bathroom, and James glanced up at himself from the mirror on his dresser. He looked pretty grim, that was for sure. The frown lines wouldn’t seem to be able to budge from his forehead, and his hair was a complete mess from the way it had dried last night.

 

Although when Tony wandered back out, James had to admit, he actually looked worse.

 

Dressed in only a towel wrapped around his waist, James got to see the full extent of his injuries as he limped back out. Bruises- deep, dark and angry- mottling his left side. The gunshot wound on his opposite hip looked sore and red, with fresh stitches that told James they must have burst sometime during the fight. Various scratches, cuts, and stitches sprinkled his torso, with a particularly vicious one running from left shoulder to right collarbone. His whole body screamed exhaustion, and although the bags under his eyes had lessened, it wasn’t enough to take the worry from James’ shoulders.

Tony saw James staring and winked, although it didn’t seem like his heart was in it. “Like what you see?”

“Not at all,” James said absently, stepping forward and reaching out, metal fingers brushing impossibly lightly against the raw redness of Tony’s cut. He frowned deeply, and Tony sucked in a short little breath as he watched James move. “I hate it when you get hurt,” he muttered, without really thinking about it.

Tony paused, opening and shutting his mouth a few times before clearing his throat. “I- right. I’ll try and avoid that in future, then,” he said a little jerkily.

James just frowned a little deeper before dropping his fingers, looking at Tony expectantly. Sensing it was his turn to talk again, Tony moved his head down and then turned it to the window, swallowing. James just watched the movement, waiting patiently.

“He thinks I’m planning something,” Tony said eventually, “he… SHIELD informed him of my ‘suspicious activity’ and he was trying to check up on me.”

James growled a little, shaking his head. “Isn’t he supposed to be your fuckin’ team mate, isn’t he supposed to-”

“It’s not like that,” Tony said quickly, shaking his head, “he’s… he was trying to help me. Said he wasn’t supposed to even be talking to me about it, that they just told him to try and see what I’m up to, but he wanted to warn me first. He wanted me to just tell him what was going on.”

“Did you?” James asked quietly, and Tony’s head snapped up, eyes hard.

“You told me not to. You think I would do that? Really?”

James sighed. “Of course I don’t. But I know that this is spiralling, Tony, and I know that this is becoming a lot more serious than it was when you first found me. They’re getting Captain America to snoop in your business, for God’s sake. Sometimes I feel like it would just be easier to let him in on it all.”

Tony stopped, eyes a little wide. “Is that… is that what you want?”

James paused, and then shrugged. “I’d rather not. But I know he’d be on my side, if we did. He’s a useful ally.”

There was a silence, and then James shook his head. “Jesus, I just- I just want to run away. I want to... not deal with any of it. But if it would make things easier-”

“Ohhh, believe me,” Tony said with a dry smile, “involving Cap in something like this would most certainly not make things easier.”

“Well then,” James shrugged, “I don’t want him to know. Maybe when we’re gone, when there’s no SHIELD or HYDRA or Avengers to worry about, I can tell him. But for now, we’re good just as we are.”

Tony smiled softly, and nodded a little. “Fine by me.”

James hummed his agreement, turning to the coffee machine he kept by his bedside table and flicking it on the setting he knew Tony had his at. “So go on,” he gestured with his hand, “what else did the guy say?”

Although his back was turned, he knew Tony was shrugging. “He was actually weirdly nice about it. Saying he was worried about me and stuff. SHIELD had told him how reclusive I’d become lately- how they thought I was keeping someone else in the tower with me.”

There was another break, and James heard the pitter-patter which informed him that Tony had found something to fiddle with. “He, uh- he said that he trusted me, but I couldn’t afford to lose my head again. Which is entirely true- I do get why he’s nervous. They told him about Roswell, so God only knows what he thinks is going on there. But he’s not… he doesn’t want to push, and I’m pretty sure he likes the new SHIELD about as much as we do. He stuck his neck out for me by warning me- it’s more than I expected, to be honest.”

James nodded briskly, swallowing. “He’s… he’s a good one, isn’t he? I can feel it, even if I’m not… even though I don’t know him. It’s weird.”

Tony laughed. “Yeah, you tend to get that with Rogers. Bastard.”

James smiled, and then turned around, handing Tony his coffee with a quick smile. The man was still wearing only a towel; wet hair plastered to his face adorably as he stared up to James. There was another short silence, and then Tony cleared his throat a little, something that looked all too similar to a blush creeping up his neck. “Sorry, I just remembered I don’t have any clothes on. Whoops. Sorry, I’ll just-”

“Don’t do it for my benefit,” James interrupted with a sly smile, watching as Tony sputtered to a stop and widened his eyes in James’ direction, “I’m enjoying the view.”

There were another few moments of silence, and then a surprised laugh. “Careful, Barnes- a young man like yourself caught with Tony Stark in his room wearing nothing but a towel? People will talk.”

James huffed, shaking his head and looking to the floor as he slipped past Tony and headed toward the main kitchen to make them both breakfast. “Let them,” he said quietly into Tony’s ear on the way out, shooting the man one last smirk and then slipping around the corner.



It was reckless and he knew it, but he still felt shaken up from yesterday, and in a situation that felt like it was fast beginning to slip from his control, he just wanted to have something to hold on to. Something he was in charge of.

 

And, apparently, flirting with Tony was just one of those things.

 

It felt normal, he realised, as he wandered in the direction of the kitchen. Natural. Maybe that was how he’d been before. Maybe that was who he could be again, some day. He liked the thought of that.

Getting to work on his breakfast, he allowed his mind to wander absently whilst his hands worked under him. The tower was warm and Tony’s various accessories were still littering the kitchen around him, and James found himself smiling without thinking about it. It was like coming back home after a long day. And that- the sense of belonging that James felt when he walked through the tower- was sacred to him. He hadn’t had a home in so long; had forgotten what that warm, calm little sensation deep in his heart was when he sat down on a comfy couch or looked in a fridge full of food was. But he didn’t think he’d be able to go without it any more- he’d become accustomed to smelling coffee in the morning or watching TV as he napped on the couch. He’d gotten used to being with Tony.

Hence the reason why he was making enough food for two without even thinking about it.

He frowned. “JARVIS- tell Tony to get his ass down here and come have some breakfast, please,” he called out to the room, turning out toward the fridge again and searching for what he was looking for.

“Sir is already on his way- and I should warn you, it appears he has had a revelation of some sort, and so his behaviour may seem erratic,” JARVIS answered, sounding amused, and James laughed, shaking his head fondly. “Noted,” he said, and that was all the time he got before there was a dull thud, a short curse and then a clatter as Tony pushed open the doors and careered into the huge kitchen.

“I know how to get rid of the chip,” he breathed, eyes wide. His jeans were unzipped, there was one sock on and his shirt was hanging around his neck, having never made it over his shoulders. “I know… God, honestly, for a genius I am such a dense idiot sometimes, can you fucking believe it took my this long to think of a solution-”

“Tony,” James said, smiling as he stepped forward and took hold of the man’s bare shoulders, “what’s the plan?”

Tony took a breath, and then he grinned up at James. “I’m gonna launch it at the fucking sun.”

He stopped. Replayed the sentence in his head. “Uh- what?”

Tony bounced up and down on his feet, happiness threatening to envelop him entirely. “Listen, I can’t hack into it, I can’t destroy it, and I can’t give it away. It’s too much of a threat to just keep hold of, though- so I’m gonna put it in a suit-”

“And launch it into space?” James asked incredulously, “that’s… not actually a terrible idea.”

“I know, right!” Tony said, almost dancing, “I’ll have to modify the suit a little to allow it space-flight, but it shouldn’t take long at all, and it should have been sent off by tomorrow morning.”

“Tony, that’s- that’s so great!” James pulled him in, spinning them around happily in the kitchen and then breaking away, hand finding the back of Tony’s neck and holding them steady, “see- he didn’t die for nothing, Tony- you’ve worked it out. Roswell would be so pleased.”

Tony nodded, smiling softly up at him. He looked more relaxed than James thought he’d ever seen him; shoulders loose and his whole body devoid of the tension that he seemed to carry with him constantly. “God, that’s a weight off my chest,” he muttered, sighing deeply as his head fell forward and knocked against James’ shoulder.

James held him, sinking his chin into Tony’s damp hair and savouring the touch as he closed his eyes. Tony’s hands were tucked in between their chests as they embraced and he could feel the little patterns that he was tracing into the material of James’ shirt.
He never wanted to let go.



Maybe that was what did it, in the end. That desire to hold on, to take whatever he could get. He was so relieved they’d found a way to stop HYDRA or SHIELD or anyone from getting their hands on the damn chip, and Tony was there in his arms, and James just wanted to be selfish, for once, he just wanted to let himself go. He just wanted Tony.

 

Pulling back a little, he lifted his hands, pressing them against the sides of Tony’s face gently. His thumb brushed the other man’s lip, just for a second, and Tony’s eyes widened, breath hitching under James’ fingers. They were practically nose-to-nose; James’ taller frame meaning his mouth just about reached the bridge of Tony’s nose, and he took a deep breath, clearing the doubt from his mind.

 

“I’m going to kiss you, now,” James murmured quietly, before leaning in.



And then their mouths were pressed together and they were kissing in the middle of the kitchen.



It was quite the anticlimax, really- James had been expecting at least some confusion on Tony’s part, more likely a full-out rejection if he’d been honest with himself. In fact, he’d only been planning to ever admit how he felt for Tony if he had seconds left to live or something, which was dramatic in itself.

In reality, nothing even close to that happened. Tony just… melted into him. Not even a word of confusion or shock, just a tiny little sigh of contentment and a quick step inward, hands immediately snaking around James’ waist to hold on tighter.

Okay- and James was being honest here, he hadn’t really thought that far ahead. He hadn’t been expecting… well- reciprocation, to be perfectly honest. He hadn’t expected Tony to want this, to want him. He was the Winter Soldier. He was a mess of a human; a hundred broken pieces of what had once been a good man, stuck haphazardly back together again- enough to look normal, but not enough to hide the fractures left behind.
He wasn’t something people fell for.

 

Breaking away after only a second, James looked down at him, eyes intense and worried. He opened his mouth to say something, but the only thing that came out was air. Tony was just staring up at him, eyes at half-mast and mouth still parted from the kiss.

There was a second of nothing, where the both of them just stood in one another’s space and stared- and then at the same time, both of them surged forward again. James felt it as Tony pretty much slammed into him, arms coming up immediately and tightening around his neck like he was terrified of James pushing him away, of being let go of.

Like James would ever.

Breathing in sharply, James pushed, deepening the kiss and letting his hands roam through Tony’s damp hair, his strong shoulders, the delicate cut that ran across his chest. His teeth caught Tony’s bottom lip and tugged, pulling his head upward a little with a barely contained groan from the man. Tony’s eyes were closed and his head rolled languidly for a second before slamming right back into the action, his own fingers skimming the hem of James’ shirt and tracing the skin underneath.

James moaned, needing more, needing anything Tony would give him, and his hands pushed at Tony’s shoulders lightly, pressing forward until the man bumped into the counter. Wordlessly and between frantic kisses, James bent low, picking Tony up by the ass and placing him on the counter, arms coming up to lean forward and trap Tony’s body between his hands.

“Jesus,” Tony muttered breathily, his voice cracking toward the end as he lifted his head, kissed along James’ cheekbone and then tugged at the shell of his ear with his teeth, “if it turns out this is all just a drug-induced fever dream I am gonna- I’m gonna be so mad.”

“Not a dream,” James assured him, the ghost of a smile passing over his face as he ducked under Tony’s persistent mouth and went for his neck, kissing just under his ear and scraping his teeth along the skin of his throat, “jus’ needed to kiss you for a long time… thought it would be fitting…. Celebratin’ an’ everything.”

Tony shuddered, head falling back against the cupboards as James sucked a mark into his throat. “Uh, God, James, I need to- I need to know what your end goal is, here, because I can’t…” he broke away, clenching his eyes shut and moaning brokenly as James pressed his tongue softly against the mark he’d just made on Tony’s neck, “-Fuck, I can’t do this if it doesn’t mean anything to you, I can’t, okay, James, I’m in love with you and I can’t-”

James stopped, then, his eyes widening as he pulled back, looked down at Tony. “You… you what?”

Tony froze up in his arms, mouth opening and shutting dumbly as he turned his gaze down to the floor. “I- I’m sorry, I should’ve have put that on you- oh, God, okay, this was… a bad idea, I’m just- I should go-”

He started to slip off the counter, cheeks flushed red with humiliation, but James caught his waist with his flesh hand and held him back against the counter. “Tony, please,” he whispered, the hints of desperation in his voice giving away how much he needed to hear it, “did you mean that?”

Tony’s eyes were going crazy, flitting everywhere except James’ face and blinking rapidly like someone had just hit him in the face.

“Tony,” James said again, properly pleading this time.

There was a moment of silence where Tony finally looked at him, and then he nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” he breathed, “I’m… hopelessly. Yeah.”

James didn’t wait. With a euphoric burst of laughter, he dropped down and kissed Tony again- hot, passionate, elated- and swept the man up in his arms, until he was leaning over James and had his hands pressed into the sides of his face to keep steady. “Tony, I love you too, I love you- oh, God, we’re idiots, I love you so much-” he spoke between kisses, the smile still clinging to his face and making it difficult for him to kiss Tony effectively- not that either of them cared, too caught up in their own revelations for that.

“Are you- are you serious?” Tony asked, hands running through James’ hair and pausing at the nape of his neck, framing his face between his hands.

James grinned. “More sure than I am about anything else in the world- think that’s good enough, don’t you?”

“God, I love you, holy shit,” Tony blurted, stooping down and kissing him again, legs wrapping around James’ waist. “I feel like I’m enacting a scene out of the fucking Notebook, Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Just James is fine,” was the response he gave, a smug grin revealing his teeth through the kiss, and Tony made a noise between pleasure and irritation. “Ugh, that joke is so old, you need to get on top of your entertainment repertoire, Barnes.”

“I’d rather get on top of you,” he muttered, turning them so that he was pushing Tony up against the wall. He let go of Tony’s waist and Tony dropped back to his feet as he slid down the wall, trapped by James’ body. He didn’t seem to mind, though, if the noise he made as he refitted himself against James was anything to go by.

“God, you’re going to kill me,” Tony muttered, eyes fluttering shut as his hands automatically went for the hem of James’ shirt again, this time tugging upward to reveal more skin than before, “you’re going to kill me- ah- kill me dead with that mouth, fuck, is this actually fucking happening, this doesn’t feel real, I’ve wanted you for so long and now-”

He stopped talking when James kissed him again- probably better for both of them, because lord only knew how much Tony could talk when he got too excited. They busied themselves with kissing for a few minutes; James crowding him up against the wall feverently as Tony pressed closer, rolling his hips and teasing a few whines from James’ mouth.

Eventually, Tony felt a cool metal hand pressing around his wrist and tugging him over to the side. “Bed, now,” James growled, his mouth pressing into Tony’s ear.

Tony got ready to agree, but stopped himself just a second before the word could leave his mouth, instead shooting a concerned glance up at James. “I- you’re sure, right? I don’t want you doing this because you’re grateful of my hospitality or feel like you owe me or something, okay? You’re not- I don’t want this to be anything other than, y‘know, consenting mutual desire and all-”

“Tony,” James said, somewhere between fond and annoyed, “I know what I want. Let me make this choice- I want to do this. I want you.” He pushed a soft kiss into the other man’s lips and smiled down, pressing away the small frown lines with the tips of his fingers.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I took advantage of you right now, James- I want to be sure,” Tony told him quietly, his hands wrapping around James’ wrists and clutching, “I love you- we don’t need to do anything you’re not comfortable with, we don’t even need to do anything at all, I don’t care, I really really don’t c-”

James smiled fondly, shaking his head and letting it drop into the juncture of Tony’s neck. “Darlin’, I’m gonna level with you- I couldn’t have imagined actually getting this in a million years, and so I’m gonna take everything I’m allowed to get.”

Tony looked up at him, smiling. “Okay. I...okay. Whatever you want, it’s yours, honestly, you want an island? I can do that. Or a baseball team? You like baseball, don’t you? Say the word and it’s yours-”



James laughed and kissed him quiet again, and when he felt Tony’s fingers intertwine with his own metal ones and start pulling, he went without hesitation, feeling happier than he had been since 1939.





*****





It was 11 in the morning, but Tony had fallen into a nap curled around James’ chest, and James was unwilling to wake him, so it seemed remaining in bed was the only option. Not that he minded. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to care about anything else ever again.

 

Tony wanted him. Tony… Tony loved him. James.

 

And Tony had kissed him like he was the most precious thing in the world- Tony had run his fingers across each scar and line of Bucky’s body like it was made of gold. He’s smiled as if it was the best experience of his life and James still couldn’t even believe it was real. Couldn’t believe he’d struck this lucky for the first time in so long.

James didn’t believe in God- but if he did, he knew that sending Tony to him would’ve been h is way of saying sorry. Sorry for all the shit you went through, but here’s a man who can make you forget you’re broken, just for a few seconds, and it’s enough, it’s enough.

Tony was his angel. His saving grace. And maybe that had scared him at first- the thought of letting someone in and compromise him like that being enough to make him want to run far far away- but now, he just felt like he’d been blessed. Like he finally had something to get better for. Something to protect, look after. Live for.



“Mmf,” Tony mumbled, turning his face and nuzzling a little further into James’ chest, “‘I think we should jus’ stay here for...ever.”

When he laughed, Tony’s head bounced on his sternum. “Believe me darlin’, if it didn’t put us and the world in mortal danger, I’d be totally up for that.”

A hand waved vaguely in his face. “Fuck the world.”

“That would be a bit of a challenge, but if you really want me t-”

Tony clamped a hand over his mouth, finally letting his head up to scowl at James. “Turn of phrase, Barnes, please do not fuck the entire world, I would not be amused.”

James lifted a smug eyebrow, and Tony just smacked his arm, looking away as he blushed. “Shut up, I only just got you, buddy, you’re not going to leave me for the rest of the world any time soon.” He stopped, and then backtracked, “unless- I mean, unless you want to, like I won’t stop you, it’s your-”

James groaned, rolling over so his body covered Tony’s. “Shut up, Tony, I’m not leavin’ until you physically kick my ass from this building, alright, quit it with that talk.”

Tony laughed and kissed him again, and James was happy to kiss right back, passing time like a blur as they wrapped around one another in Tony’s huge bed- James being careful of the variety of injuries which littered Tony’s body all the while.

It was perfect.

Holding Tony’s face between his hands, James smiled, placing a kiss on his nose. “I’m so in love with you,” he murmured, head shaking minutely above Tony’s. “Have been for so long. Never said it, I was too afraid, too stupid- whole reason I left after we’d come back from Cuba was ‘cause I knew I’d gone in too deep, was too compromised.” He laughed, kissing Tony’s face, neck, eyes, nose- “you ruined my rep as a cold-hearted spy, Stark.”

Tony tilted his head, lips parted as he tried to reply, but nothing came out except a huff of air as his hands curled over James’ shoulders and pulled him down to his mouth again. “Love you too,” was whispered into James’ mouth quietly, and James didn’t think he’d ever get tired of hearing that spoken to him, coming from Tony’s lips, from his heart. It was more than anything he could ever have asked for.

“So-” Tony said, breaking away just for a second, “just to clarify here, because Pep tells me that it’s important to do so- you’re serious about this, right? You want this?”

James nodded seriously. “I’m in it for the long haul. What about you? What do you wanna do?”

Tony smiled, then, his hands sliding across James’ shoulders, picking up the lingering sweat that was hidden in the divots and indents where his muscles bunched. “Everything,” he whispered softly, “I want everything. Morning kisses and fights over TV rights and date nights and sex, wow, so much sex- and you, James,” the look on his face as he lifted his hands to cup the sharp stubbled line of James’ jaw was nothing short of reverent, “you, in any way I can have you. I’ve always wanted that.”

James shut his eyes against the feel of Tony’s fingers against his face, leaning into the touch and breathing in sharply. He couldn’t believe this. But there was no way he would have been able to make up something this perfect. Swooping down, he took Tony’s mouth against his own and let himself go for a few more minutes, until the real world knocked on their door in the form of an alarm James had set on his phone.

Breaking away suddenly, James swiftly rolled off Tony and slid off the bed, stretching and then chucking the first shirt he could find at Tony. “Hate to pressure you, honey, but we have to get rid of that chip ASAP, and I shouldn't be distracting you,” he said with a cheeky grin.

Tony shot him a foul look. “You fucking tease,” he grumbled, but shrugged on the dark-coloured shirt all the same.

James chuckled, scampering forward and leaning over the bed to kiss Tony once more, simply because he could, and he was going to take advantage of that for as long as he was allowed. “Sorry, doll.”

Tony just huffed and rolled his eyes, but he smiled again. “Well, I guess one of us has to be responsible in this relationship. Now, where the fuck are my pants?”



In a blur of activity and laughter and interspersed with kisses, they both got dressed and wandered down to the workshop together. Whilst Tony settled into his desk and clapped for JARVIS, James settled into the couch with the book he’d slowly been getting through.

“Are we still leaving, after this?” He asked suddenly, head flicking up as the question popped into his mind.

Tony stopped, and turned to him with a raised eyebrow. “Well, do you want to be dealing with SHIELD up our asses every hour of every day? I mean- there’s no actual threat to human safety once we get this out, but SHIELD or HYDRA aren’t gonna know that. They’re still gonna come after us.”

James nodded. “Fine by me. Just wondering… I mean, this is still your home. Your friends are all here.”

“I know,” Tony said, rubbing his eyes, “I... it won’t be permanent. I want to come back- I need to. The Avengers will still need me on occasion. But right now- it’s just too much.” He paused, and then cocked his head, a small smile playing on his face as he called out to JARVIS. “Hey, buddy, pull up all the houses I own across the US, will you?”

James shot Tony a look as the holoscreens were brought up and displayed a large map of the United States, in which red dots were flashing over various points let James know which places belonged to Tony.

“Pick one,” Tony said, standing up from the desk and moving over to the couch before he threw a leg over James’ hip and straddled him, “pick one and that’s where we’ll go. Or just throw a holographic dart on a holographic map, if you want. Or if you already have a place in mind, that’s fine too. World’s your oyster,” he shrugged, hands stroking across James’ shoulders and neck, “we’ll go anywhere you want.”

James shut his eyes as Tony’s hands moved up his neck, stroked through his hair. “Never been to Seattle,” he said softly, fingers flexing against Tony’s waist, “But I heard Washington’s nice.”

Tony nodded, glancing over to the map and squinting. “I think the place I got there’s good. Bit smaller than my others, but it’ll be fine. Seattle’s cool, from what I can remember.” He grinned, kissing James, long and hard, and J ames sunk into it with a contented sigh, his hands splayed across Tony’s back as he fell back in the couch cushions.

“Still can’t believe I get to do this,” Tony purred softly, and James could feel the smile across his face as he pressed his mouth into it, “still can’t believe I was lucky enough to find you.”

“You’re telling me,” James agreed, “I wouldn’t even be alive if I hadn’t.”

Tony just hummed, and then broke away a few seconds later with an irritated grumble. “Ugh, God, fuck you, you’re being very distracting right now, I’m supposed to be working.”

“Hey- I’m just sittin’ here,” James raised his hands as Tony slipped off his lap and turned away.

“Yeah, that’s the problem,” Tony told him, before falling back onto the chair by his desk and slumping, “your existence keeps sidetracking me from my work.”

James knew as he watched Tony’s back that he probably had a stupid look on his face, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care. Even with his back turned, Tony still hypnotised him in the way he moved; the way his back arched and his fingers flexed. He was so beautiful.

 

“I can feel you staring,” Tony said, and James knew he was hiding a smile.

 

“Guilty.”





*****





“Cap, look, you have to trust me here, SHIELD are manipulating you, I’m not-”

 

James walked back into the workshop to the sounds of Tony arguing over the phone, holding his head in his hand and standing rigid at the center of the room. James raised his eyebrows and felt himself tense up almost subconsciously at the prospect of conflict; padding further into the room and putting down the plate of food quietly as he made his way closer.

“No!” Tony yelled, sounding angry, “no, Cap, you know I wouldn’t fucking- God, look how tight they’ve got you under their thumb, Rogers, I thought you were done with this game after what happened before-”

There were a few words that were loud enough for even James to catch, and then Tony growled and threw the phone back on the desk roughly. “Son of a bitch hung up on me,” he muttered, before turning around and waving absently toward James.

“What’s happened now,” James sighed, and Tony just shook his head tiredly, hand going instinctively toward the arc reactor as he tapped absently.

“SHIELD called, you know, they left a message?” Tony told him bitterly, “said if I didn’t start complying soon they’d be forced to take ‘more extreme measures’. And then they obviously got in touch with Rogers and started spouting bullshit about how ‘intel’ told them I was about to do something with the chip to him, so he’s just been yelling at me down the phone.”

James growled a little. “Tony, I really think it’s time you got your lawyers in on this, they cannot fucking do that-”

“Oh, believe me, I am,” Tony cut in, laughing, “as soon as I’ve got you out of the middle of this mess, I am going to tear that piece of shit organisation a new one. I’m sick of their shit- I was willing to bend for them, but they’re not pushing me to this, they’re not, they’re not allowed to just fucking lie to people who should trust me about- about- fuck,” Tony trailed off, shutting his eyes and sighing shakily, hands going to the side of the desk and clenching hard. The relaxed, happy look that had been on his face only that morning was long gone, and for a brief second James wished he could just take a bat to everything SHIELD stood for.

Wandering closer, he put his metal hand tentatively over Tony’s and pried his fingers away from the desk. “One more day and we’re out,” he said adamantly, cupping Tony’s jaw, “one more day and we won’t have to care about SHIELD or HYDRA or Cap or anyone.”



Tony smiled, and nodded softly. “One more day,” he agreed.





*****




Tony came and joined him up in the living room that evening, yawning tiredly and curling immediately into James’ side.



“How’s it coming?” James asked quietly, shifting a little whilst Tony got comfortable and shrugged.

“It’s mostly done- I’ll be sending it out in a few hours once JARVIS has finished with the upgrades, and then we can focus on getting the hell out of here,” Tony told him, before making a face, “but more importantly- what the fuck are you watching?”

“What, does Spongebob offend you now?” James asked, grabbing the remote before Tony could get his fingers on it.

“Greatly. If you’re going to watch cartoons, at least make them good ones,” Tony scrunched up his nose, “I’m more of an ‘Adventure Time’ kinda guy- more sophisticated, you know.”

“That entire show is on drugs.”

“Perfect viewing material, then,” Tony said cheerily, before his cheek slumped into James’ shoulder and he sighed, “you know what, I think I’m just gonna take a quick nap-”

“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted, and Tony’s eyes opened instantly at the tone of his AI’s voice, “I’m getting multiple proximity alerts in the surrounding area from unmarked drones and helicopters in the air, and vehicles at ground level. Take cover immediately.”

 

James reacted instantly. Jumping to his feet, he pulled out his gun and grabbed Tony’s shirt, pulling him up in order to haul him behind his back. “Get your suit,” he gritted. If this was HYDRA, they needed all the firepower the could get.

 

Tony started yanking them backward, away from the window, and he called to JARVIS. “Where’s the chip?”

“On your desk in the workshop, sir. I am calling the suit immediately-”

“Don’t,” Tony cut him off, and James turned in incredulity, but Tony just stormed on, “Jarvis, pilot the suit. Grab the chip and take it up, don’t bother with the exits, just fly.”

“But sir-”

“DO IT!”

There was no reply, and James knew JARVIS was currently following through his orders. Spinning around, he grabbed Tony by the shoulders, taking them over to the elevator. “What the hell are you-”

He never got the chance to finish. James turned his head to the window for a second, just in time to see as they aimed some sort of weapon right into the centre of the room and fired.




He didn’t think. Just grabbed Tony’s arm and threw him across the room, as far away from the impact as he could.




The energy wave hit him like a brick wall, and he heard the glass shattering into thousands of pieces, saw furniture and brick and metal explode around the room, taking him with it as the shockwave carried him backward.

He knew that despite his best efforts, Tony would have been caught up in that too.



There was a brief second in which he careered through the air before finally slamming into the wall on the opposite side of the room and landing back on the floor with a heavy thud. The world spun and he coughed up debris, curling his hands over his head as various objects fell into him. There was no fire, though, and no sound of explosion, and so James guessed they must have used a sonic wave to shatter through the windows rather than a missile.

The world spun as he hauled himself to his feet, but he didn’t care. He needed to find Tony.

Looking across the room, he spotted another body lying on the floor and beginning to curl slowly in on himself as he came back to consciousness. James breathed out in relief, but turned back to the windows in which shadowed men in black combat gear were beginning to abseil through.



James was gone again. There was just the Winter Soldier, and he had one objective. Protect Tony at all costs. Kill anyone who got in the way.



Diving to the ground, he spotted his gun, which had been yanked from his grasp as the shockwave had hit him. Problem was, it was crushed under a huge chunk of concrete which had dislodged from the ceiling, and even if James had been able to lift it, the gun was mangled beyond repair.

Snarling in fury, he rolled back to his feet, taking up a chunk of rubble and hauling it, hard and fast, toward the nearest shadowed attacker. They were knocked over like bowling pins.

Wasting no time, he began his sprint across the room to meet Tony, who had now sat up and was looking around in fear. Their eyes met across the room, and Tony visibly sighed in relief, pulling himself up to his feet jerkily. He was leaning heavily on his side, one hand clutching his injured hip, and red spots were beginning to appear across his collar, undoubtedly from where the gash had reopened.

James felt fury, deep and primal and completely consuming. He wanted to rip these people limb from limb, wanted to kill each last one for even attempting to lay a finger on the man he loved.

Something fired, and it whizzed just a few centimeters away from his nose. Tony screamed at him to take cover, hiding himself behind the corner, and James had no choice but to obey, realising that there was no point trying to get Tony out if he just died along the way.

Rolling behind the counter in the open-plan kitchen, his eyes roved the bottom of the table for one of Tony’s hidden guns. There was the sound of orders being yelled on the other side of the room and boots advancing, and James knew it wouldn’t be long before they were on him.

“WHERE THE FUCK IS YOUR GUN?” He yelled, gesturing to the bottom of the table when he came up empty.

“IT’S ON YOUR BED FROM THE LAST TIME YOU THOUGHT YOU WOULD FUCKING NEED IT!” Tony screamed right back, eyes wide and frantic, “JAMES, YOU HAVE TO GET OVER HERE, WE NEED TO GET TO THE CORRIDOR, THERE’S AN ESCAPE ROUTE DOWN THERE!”

Letting out another growl of frustration, James wiped the blood from his eyebrow and blindly put his hand into the cutlery drawer until his fingers clutched around something smooth and round. Excellent.

Tony’s iron-man themed egg timer would be sorely missed- but then again, so would his windows. James couldn’t really pick and choose, right now.

Turning around and popping up for a second, he chucked it into the centre of the line and yelled in his most terrified voice “GRENADE!”

It was simple psychology, and one of the first things he’d learned how to manipulate when he’d been dragged into HYDRA. People were easy to scare in a situation as volatile as this, and if James threw something that was shaped vaguely like an explosive and then reinforced the idea that that was what it was, the likelihood was that they’d react to it it.

And they did. Just for a second, but they all turned, and the few nearest leaped away, dismantling the line and disrupting the rest of them. It was a second, maybe even less, of time- but it was enough.

Scrambling to his feet, he dived across the gap between him and Tony, nearly crashing straight into the man as he held out his hands and found James’ shirt, pulling him out of the line of fire. They both rolled for a few seconds, James’ hands coming up and covering Tony’s head until they ran out of momentum.

“Corridor, now,” James said, getting straight back to his feet and pushing Tony in front of him so that he could turn back and face the still-advancing line of attackers on his other side. He was weaponless, caught by surprise, and outnumbered, but his body was still a viable shield.

Tony didn’t wait. Tugging at James’ flesh hand, he pulled them both back, running across the dirt-strewn floor and over toward the corridor to the left of the elevator. James allowed Tony to lead him blindly, still facing the window and raising the metal hand high, ready to try and deflect whatever bullet came his way-

 

Tony stopped moving suddenly, and James nearly crashed into him.




It happened so fast.




James heard Tony whisper “shit,”- he saw out of the corner of his eye another dark figure as it stepped out of the elevator doors.



He heard the suppressed noise of the gun as it went off. Felt Tony stumble, and then fall immediately to his knees.

He grabbed hold of Tony’s waist on instinct, breaking his fall dumbly. When he looked up, a pair of piercing blue eyes gazed back at him, outright horror on his attacker’s face, gun still pointed right at James’ chest.

He knew those eyes.

 

“What the- Bucky?” Steve asked, completely bewildered, and then-




Something hit his back, and James jerked.



He fell with Tony.










Tony









His eyes fluttered open blearily, and then snapped shut almost instantly after as the brightness of the room threatened to make his head explode.



Every inch of his body was hurting. His side throbbed in something not too far from outright agony, and various areas of his skin felt sore- like he’d been put through a grater.

That was probably all the fucking glass he’d gotten hit with.

Groaning softly, he tried opening his eyes again. He was slumped over a desk, and there was a second where he let himself believe that perhaps it had all just been a really shitty dream and actually he was back at home, back in the workshop- but the notion was crushed almost instantly. The height of his desk was completely different to this one, and wasn’t nearly so cold. Or empty.

 

He was going to fucking kill Steve Rogers.

 

Chuckling dangerously, he lifted his heavy head away from his arms and observed the room with sensitive eyes. Yeah- exactly what he’d thought. Simple SHIELD interrogation cell, a desk and two chairs, both bolted to the floor. Main light in the center of the room, two-way mirror to the left.

“Ohhh, boy, you better have invested in illegal offshore funds, my friends, because I am going to strip you of every last penny you possess,” he declared to the mirror, giving it a wink as he sat up and rubbed tenderly at the cut on his chest.

He was going to kill Steve Rogers, and then he was going to burn SHIELD to the fucking ground. And pour salt over the earth. No, fuck that, he was going to pour Uranium over it, and irradiate the ashes until it became nothing more than toxic fucking waste.

He was handcufed to the desk, and he laughed loudly before sticking his middle finger up at the window. “Alright, alright, okay- so that’s how it is, is it? You don’t get what you want and suddenly I’m a criminal?”

“Terrorist, actually.”

Tony stopped, head jerking to the door as he watched a young man in a dark suit step through the threshold. As far as Tony knew, he was the temporary director of SHIELD whilst everyone sorted out their collective shit and begged Fury to come out of whatever hole he was hiding in. On the surface, he seemed a good choice. Young, athletic build, a no-nonsense face and and body language that just screamed ‘asshole’.

Tony couldn’t remember his name. And to be frank, Tony couldn’t give less of a shit about it, either. “Where’s James?”

“Oh, you mean the winter soldier you’ve been hiding in your t-”

“No, I mean James Buchanan Barnes, a prisoner of war who is really, really not gonna be happy waking up here,” Tony hissed, leaning forward on the desk and starting to tap his fingers along the surface, “which can be said for me, too, actually.”

“Stark, the time where you call the shots has long since past here,” the asshole said, and Tony snorted, leaned forward curiously, because whatever he was about to hear was probably going to be pretty amusing, “you lost that right after Ultron. And yet it seems you still haven’t learned your lesson when it comes to meddling in things that should be left alone.”

“Oh, go on Director Assclown,” Tony snarled, pushing off his chair and stepping out, stepping away from the desk he’d previously been chained to, “tell me why I’ve been meddling. Tell me why I’ve been the one who hasn’t learned anything- because my dear, I’m standing in a room with a man who’s supposed to be leading one of the most formidable spy agencies in the world, and he didn’t even notice me uncuffing myself from his desk, so it doesn’t exactly look like I’m the one out of my depth here.”

He thought about stepping forward and just clocking he guy. If he hadn’t even noticed Tony’s fingers slipping into the cuff of his shirt and pulling out a pin whilst his hands had been tapping, then he might not even know how to throw a fucking punch. Unfortunately, guessing by the size of him, Tony doubted it. “Stark, sit back down, this is a SHIELD interrogation and you know the protocols-”

“Fuck the protocols!” Tony spat, “ you and your merry bunch of shitheads quite obviously have. Do you want me to make a list?” He held up his hand, raising his fingers with each sentence. “Let’s start with the stalking and blatant disregard of my rights. Emotional manipulation, blackmail, I got that too. Theft- because I looked for that suitcase back in the parking lot, you know, and it wasn’t fucking there. Searching Dom’s restaurant without a warrant, attempted corporate espionage, because yes, JARVIS saw that little attempt to get into the databanks, you idiots. Oh, and of course, how could I forget- you blew up my fucking house and kidnapped me!”

“And it turns out that you were harboring an international fugitive!” Fuckhead roared, tensing up, “our concerns for public safety were valid, and completely necessary. We know what you were planning, Stark- with him and Roswell and that chip- and the reason you’re here is so that you can tell us where you put it.”

“What, so you can use it for your own intents and purposes?” Tony asked him sweetly, “because I know damn well that was why you brought me here. As soon as you saw Roswell in that parking lot, you were like fucking sharks smelling blood. Just couldn’t resist holding all that power in your little hands could you?”

“You talk like you weren’t planning exactly the same thing-”

“Stop fronting!” Tony screamed, fury boiling inside him, “I don’t know what fucking bullshit you spun Steve to make him believe you, but this here? This is just you and me, buddy. So admit it- you wanted that chip off my hands, because it was valuable. Because you’d spent months trying to get your hands on those plans when you found out about what Roswell was working on with the government, and were probably so very disappointed when you heard he’d been killed. And then, a year and a half later, when his body showed up and was traced back to me, you knew what had happened. You knew exactly what had happened, and you knew I had one of his designs, and you wanted it.”

“You were harbouring-”

“You knew nothing about James! Nothing! All you knew was that I was in the tower and I wasn’t answering your demands and I had another person with me. They are nowhere even vaguely near to the appropriate parameters to storm someone’s home and take them by force,” Tony braced his hands against the edge of the desk, looking up at this foolish new director without fear. He knew his way around the law better than the little cretin in front of him ever could, and he was not going to be intimidated by SHIELD and their lackeys. Ever.

“We knew your history,” the man said cooly, eyes hard, “knew what had happened before, when you wrapped yourself up with powerful forces and refused to tell anyone about it. Hundreds of people died because of it.”

“And I fucking learned my lesson!” Tony hissed, “I learned my fucking lesson, unlike you, who try and take on too much over and over again. With the tesseract, with project insight, and now this.” He stopped, laughing bitterly. “Is that what you told Steve? That I was gunning for Ultron 2.0? I bet it was, wasn’t it? You needed a way to hit him so that he’d flinch, so that he’d snap. Good plan,” he said bitterly, “solid- wouldn’t blame him for coming after me, if you spun it right.”

He still couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe Steve had been a part of the team who had taken Tony and James. Jesus- he knew they weren’t on the best of terms, but… he thought Steve would’ve at least trusted him a little bit.

“Stark,” the director said, his voice never wavering from its cool composure, “tell us what you have done with the chip.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“We will put it in a secure facility and-”

“Bullshit,” Tony interrupted, and the other man bristled angrily, “absolute bullshit, my good sir, you will take it to the nearest techies and tell them to open it up, even though you haven’t got the faintest idea how it works.” He paused, taking great pleasure from the words that came out of his mouth next. “Which is why I’ve destroyed it- no one should have that much power, and now, no one will.”

The look on the Director’s face was enough to make him laugh. His eyes almost popped out of his skull, and he sucked in a sharp breath before his eyes turned angry. “What did you say?"

“It’s gone,” Tony said gleefully, “on a one-way mission into our nearest star. Couldn’t break through it, couldn’t hack into it, so I just got it off the planet. It won’t fall into anyone else’s hands ever again- whether it be good ones, bad ones, or morally gray ones.”

Even though it was only Tony and his new friend in the small interrogation room, he could almost sense the commotion through the two-way glass to his left. The man turned instantly, hissing frantic words into the earpiece before clenching his fists and glaring at Tony. “You have no idea what you’ve just cost us, Stark-”

“Oh, believe me when I say that’s just the fucking beginning, darling,” Tony sneered, pushing away from the desk, wandering over confidently, letting the ‘Stark’ in his name exude from his body like a physical force. “You seriously overstepped yourself with this. I was willing to let it slide, was willing to accept it for the sake of the world, but you know what? Now you’ve really pissed me off. Now you’ve really done it- and I’m gonna show you exactly what the consequences of that are.”

He was face to face with Director A-hole, standing as tall as he could so that he met the man’s eyes head on, and shoved his hands into his pockets, rocking forward slightly. “I am going to call every single lawyer I can get my hands on, and I am going to bleed you dry,” he whispered like a sweet nothing, the smile on his face so delicate and misleading from the utter fury he could feel in his bones, “I am going to make sure you never sit your ass in that director’s chair ever again. I will personally see to it that every last person involved in this op gets what’s coming to them- and once I’ve sued you so hard you can’t see the horizon for the pile of lawsuits in front of your nose, James and I will wave you goodbye from my rebuilt penthouse and watch as you get in a cab and never set foot inside SHIELD again.”

The director opened his mouth, but Tony shook his head. “No no, I’m speaking now, so you stand there and you listen. Threaten me with whatever you want, tell me you’re not letting James walk- that’s what you were going to say, weren’t you? But buddy, I know the law better than you could ever even hope to, and you will not stand a chance against me. He doesn’t even exist- James Barnes died in the 40’s, and the Winter Soldier has never been truly identified. You don’t have a single leg to stand on. Not even a toe. Oh- and just for fun, let’s add a very protective and very, very pissed off Captain America to the equation. You want to be dealing with that? You want a national icon to publicly condemn you?”

Tony grinned, and it was full of teeth. “James Barnes is protected from all sides, and if you even so much as consider laying a finger on him, metaphorical or otherwise, I will destroy you. He is not your bargaining tool, he is not your anything. He belongs to me , and believe me when I say I don’t share my toys well at all.”

There was a long, tense silence. Tony got ready for the next attack- wondered if he’d pissed the director off to make it a physical one- but nothing came. Just an intense, stony glare.

Idiot. Fury would have known what to say- or at least, he would’ve given it a go. This asshole knew nothing. No wonder he was so bad at his job.

“Where is Cap?” Tony said lightly, stepping back. He made sure to keep his posture relaxed, made sure not to let slip the panic he’d been feeling since he’d woken up here. James was here- Tony was sure of it. And he was willing to bet his entire fortune that Steve would be there with him. It was easier if he just asked after Cap- they were more willing to answer that one, at least.

“Captain Rogers is currently in charge of overseeing containment of Barnes,” the Director said grimly, “and if you think you’re leaving yet, you have another thing-”

“You either let me leave now, or the suit smashes through your many layers of expensive infrastructure and comes to pick me up, buddy,” Tony patted him on the shoulder lightly and started wandering toward the choice, making a gesture up to the camera a he pointed to the door with the other, “I’ll let you decide for yourself which one you think is the better option.”

“Stark-” the Director sounded as if he was about to get into another speech, but all the air he prepared in his chest was quickly released when he cocked his head and spaced out, obviously listening to something through his earpiece. “Oh...son of a bitch.”

Tony stopped, noting his quickly graying face and tense posture. “Get backup to the Captain, now, I want an evac team on standby and a perimeter set up in the West corridor- do not let him escape-”

“That’s James, isn’t it?” Tony said hurriedly, anxiety flaring in his stomach instantly, “Jesus- you have to let me get to him, right now-”

“Don’t be stupid, Stark- your precious Barnes sounds to me like he’s just gone insane; he’s fighting with Captain Rogers using lethal force- he’ll rip you apart-”

“He thinks I’m dead, fuckhead,” Toy snarled, grabbing his arm before the man could storm past him, “he doesn’t have a clue what the ICERS we got shot with are- he just thinks I got murdered by the person who has been trying to find him for months, and has absolutely no idea where he is. You think that’s a good combination right now?”

There was more stony silence, and Tony growled louder, slamming his hand into the door. “He loves me, you idiot, and if you don’t let him see me he will not stop until Captain Rogers is dead, do you understand? Now let me out of here.”

 

Facing off, they glared at eachother- Tony visibly baring his teeth, breathing hard as he stood tall against the Director, who looked pretty shaken up himself.  Eventually, the man made a frustrated noise, and signalled at the camera in the corner.




The door opened, and without another word, Tony shot through it.

He had to find James. He had to get them out.










James










He opened his eyes in a room he didn’t recognise.

It smelt sterile. Empty. His head rested against a thin pillow, and his body against something slightly yielding. A bed, maybe.





Tony was dead.





The same three words, around and around his head, springing into the forefront of his mind from the moment of consciousness. Tony was dead. Tony was dead. He’d failed. He’d let the man he loved die, and there was nothing left. Nothing else mattered.

James felt sick. Felt his soul ripping from his body, fragment by ruined fragment. Devastation hit him like a battering ram, slamming into his sternum and cracking his bones, and the grief, sudden and overwhelming and entirely all-consuming, forced a pained sound from his mouth like that of an injured animal.

Tony was dead. Nothing was left. Nothing else mattered.



He didn’t know where he was. HYDRA, SHIELD- what was the difference any more?
He didn’t care. He didn’t care.


He could still taste Tony on the tip of his tongue- lost as quickly as it had come to him. Stolen from his grasp before he’d even had a chance to savor and cherish it like Tony had deserved.

He could still see it- Tony, crumbling to his knees almost instantly after the shot was fired, going limp in James’ arms only seconds after some sort of explosion must have knocked him out and left him alive, left him to survive when Tony had not.

Tony was dead because James couldn’t protect him. He was alone, again, because he hadn’t done the one thing he’d promised himself he would. Keep Tony safe.

Tony was dead, and nothing else mattered.







“Bucky?”





He stiffened; pinned the voice down in his head until it supplied a picture of Steve Rogers to him. His old best friend from before the war, the man who had been trying to chase him down for months-

The one who’d looked him in the eye and shot Tony right in front of him.



“Bucky, listen to me. You’re in a secure facility at SHIELD, you’re safe- we’re going to sort all this out, don’t...whoah, hey, you should sit down, pal, you’ve had a big shock-”

James was barely even listening. Sitting up slowly from the hospital bed, he flexed his fingers, toes, cracked his neck. All in order.

“Bucky, calm down,” Steve said worriedly from the other side of the clear glass that separated them, stepping forward a little. He looked exhausted; drained by the shock of what had happened earlier, and James noted it. Good advantage.

Steve was still talking, hands going up as James stood smoothly, wiped his mind aside of the two most important facts: Tony was dead, and James was going to make people pay for it.

James was going to make the man in front of him pay for it.

Whoever he had been before, whoever Steve Rogers had been before the ice, before HYDRA, before it all- that wasn’t who they were any more. James didn’t even know him properly. All he knew was that Rogers had pointed a gun and fired at the man he loved.

And he was going to die for it.

The Winter Soldier, back in full force, took the next step. Steve seemed to sense this, because the worry began to ebb from his face, replaced slowly with wariness as he shifted stance, just a little. “Bucky- you need to calm d-”



“You killed him,” James said softly, and then pulled back his metal fist and hammered straight through the bulletproof glass.

 

It splintered, cracked, and when James yanked his hand out, he splayed his fingers and opened the hole he made a little more. Again, he punched, watching Steve intently as he sprinted out of the observation room and hurled himself around the corner.

The fight was coming to him, then. Okay.

Twisting on his heel, he bent his legs and turned his eyes on the door, leaping instantly at Steve’s waiting shield as the man slammed through the entrance heavily. The impact vibrated through his metal arm, but Tony’s work was flawless and it merely absorbed the impact, leaving him time to get his fingers on the shield and pull as hard as he could.

Steve didn’t let go, though, so James readjusted. Spinning his body, he rolled around Steve’s waist and hauled backward, his hands still on the shield. He heard the grunt as Steve was crushed between James and his own shield and stumbled back a few steps as his balance failed him.

James didn’t waste the opportunity. His metal arm dropped the shield and went instead to Steve’s midsection, throwing him across the corridor with as much force as he could muster. The man hit the wall, hard, but was on his feet instantly, arms coming up in a show of peace.

He said something, something about how Tony wasn’t dead, but the words just twisted the knife of solid fury deeper into James’ gut, and he snarled viciously. “Liar,” he hissed, and then advanced again, rolling his metal shoulder in preparation.

“Don’t, Bucky, please don’t make me hurt you again-” was all Steve said, before James threw a punch that would have taken off his head, had he not ducked in time.

Using the angle, Steve drove his knee into James’ side and then leaped, swinging his leg over James’ back before hurling himself over the other side and pulling both of them to the floor. James landed swiftly, doing his best to roll over to his feet, but Steve’s thighs pinned him down in a crushing grip.

“Bucky, stop, he’s alive, I wouldn’t-”

“MY NAME,” James screamed, driving his elbow heavily into Steve’s ribs until he heard a crack, “IS JAMES!”

Steve yelped, letting up for a second, but he moved before James could press further, backing down the corridor with fast, experienced feet whilst James pursued mercilessly. He knew he wouldn’t win this, really- Steve was stronger, faster than him- but James didn’t care. His rage, his complete blind fury, would drive him for as long as he could go before Rogers gained the upper hand and put him down.

Blow after blow after blow Steve deflected, all the while shouting things that James didn’t register and didn’t care about either. Someone came in from around the corner and James turned, ready to eliminate the threat, but Steve tackled him to the floor and yelled for them to stay back. Fine by James- left Steve all to himself.

He howled, deep and low and bursting with anger as he thought of Tony’s body, losing all strength in James’ arms as they’d come for him and shot him in his own home, his own goddamn home.

He landed a punch on Steve’s jaw as his constant barrage eventually left a gap in the supersoldier’s defenses, and Steve stumbled backward, where James followed insistently, leaping and kicking the space Steve’s chest had been milliseconds before. When Steve batted it across his body, James landed on it steadily and quickly spun, using his back foot to come around and go for his middle.

He wasn’t going to stop. Not until one of them dropped.

“B- James, you have to listen to me,” Steve said desperately, slamming into a wall and then dropping just as James put his fist through the space which had been occupied by his face a few moments previously. “We sedated the both of you, we needed to ask Tony what was happening and he wouldn’t answer, I had no idea you were even there, you have to believe me-”

The mention of his name on Steve’s mouth just curled the fury, the grief and the desperation further into James’ gut, and he found his way to Steve’s shoulders; taking the fabric of his dark uniform and throwing him across the corridor once more.

The fucking bastard just kept getting up again, and again and again and again, but that didn’t mean James was going to give up, not a hope in hell, and he cracked his neck whilst stepping forward-




Something slammed into him from the side; something that felt familiar, the proportions and the temperature and the feel of the hair against his chin-




“James, look at me, look- I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m alive,” Tony breathed heavily, pushing James against the wall with all his might and fisting his hands into the material of James’ shirt.

He brought his hands up instantly, ready to fend off the attacker, but Tony didn’t waver against him, holding his gaze intently in a way that only Tony ever had. “Alive. I’m okay. Steve didn’t hurt anything other than my ego, I swear.”

James froze; simply staring gobsmacked at Tony as the man in question glared right back, breathing almost as heavily as James himself. He had obviously been sprinting; his hair was windswept and hands shaking just a little against James’ chest- but he couldn’t deny the fact that this was undeniably Tony, here, for whatever reason, whatever stroke of impossibly good fortune.

James knew he wasn’t breathing properly as he tried to process the sudden 180 his thoughts did as he forced himself to re-evaluate the situation, but he couldn’t seem to make the air come. It didn’t make sense. He’d seen it, he’d seen Tony…

Wordlessly, Tony wrapped his warm, living hands around James’ wrists and tugged them over to his neck, just under his jaw where James loved to put them. “Feel- look at that pulse, look at how… pulse-y it is. See? There we go, there we- yeah, just breathe with me, James, we’re both okay, we’re both alright. Just breathe.”

He didn’t know what was happening. Didn’t know why, or how- but he knew to follow. Tony was there, face in James’ hands, and he was breathing, so James did too. Slow, harsh breaths that didn’t form quite right, because he was still trying to get out the question he needed to know more than anything-

“ICERS, James,” Tony said softly, hands never leaving James’ wrists as he stroked there gently, “they’re called ICERS. Couple of SHIELD agents designed them- instant unconsciousness when you fire one at someone. Looks alarmingly like a gun, apparently, but it’s not.” His gaze flickered over to Steve, just for a second, and he looked slightly amused as he said “even I know Rogers doesn’t hate me that much.”

James stopped breathing again; too focused on trying to process the information in front of him, and Tony tapped his chest insistently, quiet words of encouragement falling from his lips until the flow of oxygen started back up again.

“Is this real?” He whispered eventually, voice barely even audible through the wavers and cracks that were embedded through it.

Tony smiled softly, turning his head to the side a little and pressing his mouth into James’ metal palm. “I sure hope so.”



It didn’t make sense. But… maybe it did.



He looked down at Tony- bruised and tired and a little drained of colour- and his hands dropped to his waist, pulling him  in as close as he could possibly go. “Oh- thank God,” he choked, burying his head into the warmth of Tony’s neck, “I thought- I saw you go down and I thought he’d-”

“I’m fine,” Tony hurried to assure him, his own hands coming up to stroke across the planes of James’ back, “I promise. Thoroughly pissed off and ready to raise hell, but fine.”

James sighed deeply; the sound of Tony’s voice like a drug to his system, calming him down, slowing his racing heart. The anger was still there, simmering dangerously close to the surface, but it was pushed away in favor of just holding Tony as closely as possible without hurting him. “I love you,” he muttered, bringing his lips up to Tony’s temple and clenching his eyes tightly shut as the relief swept through him.

“I love you too,” Tony said quietly, tucking his hands in between their chests like he always did when they embraced, his fingertips brushing over James’ chest softly, “I’m going to annihilate SHIELD, by the way.”

James couldn’t help it- he laughed jerkily. “Wasn’t expecting anythin’ less, darling.”

They swayed gently for a few moments; too caught in one another’s touch to focus on anything else- until there was an awkward cough down the corridor, and both their heads turned to see Steve, blushing like a fire-truck and leaning awkwardly against the wall. “Hey- so does one of you fancy explaining what the fuck is going on?”





*****





Tony did his best to explain the situation to Steve without starting a brawl.

It was… a lot tricker than he had probably imagined.



“Well- I just wanna know why you decided to betray one of your teammates and drag them forcibly from their home in order to have SHIELD interrogate them,” James said fiercely, glaring over to Steve from across the table they had sat themselves down on after finding the empty briefing room. His arm was curled possessively around Tony’s waist and he didn’t plan on letting go of it anytime soon.

“Bucky, it wasn’t like that,” Steve said softly, looking over to Tony with something that was almost an apologetic face, “I- look, they told me what they thought was happening, and it didn’t sound good. It really-”

“What did they tell you,” Tony interrupted bluntly, beginning to tap his fingertips against the glass of the table again, “just out of curiosity.”

Steve paused, biting his lip. “They told me about Roswell. What he was creating. How he was… how he was found dead, and you were the last known person with him at the time. They showed me the records, the files- said you had been practically non-existent in the past few months, and then suddenly started moving on the radar, apparently having picked up another person along the way.” He paused again, looking down and then meeting Tony’s eyes head-on, obviously unwilling to seem like he was a coward as he stated bluntly, “they told me you’d taken the chip from Roswell and were gonna try and open it, using the help of whoever was in the building with you.”

“And you goddamn believed that? About your own team-mate? Your friend?” James hissed, leaning forward a little, but Tony put a hand on his chest soothingly and just shook his head. “James- I know this sounds stupid coming from my mouth, but I think we should let him finish.”

Steve’s jaw was clenched tight, and he was glaring suspiciously over at Tony as he spoke. “Yeah- and it’s my turn to ask a question, now-” his eyes flickered over to James for a fraction of a second, and then narrowed as they moved back to Tony, “-what the damn hell did you do to Bucky?”

That put Tony on edge; James felt his whole body tense in irritation as he leaned forward. “And what is that supposed to mean then, Steve?”

“Why the hell did he turn up at your tower?” Steve burst out angrily, “why the hell is he insisting on being called a name he hated before? Why does he seem to have such an interest in you, when he never- he never swung that way before! Why has he been hiding with you without you thinking I should have known about it!”

“Because I didn’t want you!” James yelled right back, feeling that easy anger leap straight to the surface as he jumped to his feet and slammed his hand against the table, “I came to his tower pretty much dead and begged him to hide me from everyone, and when I said everyone, that included you! He asked me, he kept asking- but I was the one who said no, I was the one who decided I liked being called a name that felt more goddamn familiar to me than the one you’re so insistent on using. He did everything for me- did it all without complaining. Treated me like I was normal, like I was just James- not Bucky; a guy who died when he fell out of a train.”

Steve flinched horribly at that, and James felt a stab of pity for him. He just wanted his old friend back, after all.
Didn’t mean he was going about it in any of the right ways, mind.

“Look,” James said, trying to compose himself, “I know you want...him. You want Bucky Barnes back. But- but you were following me everywhere, you were trying to find a man who just doesn’t exist any more- not yet, not properly anyway- and I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t deal with being forced back into that mould, that character, if I tried to reach out to you. So I went to the only other person I knew I could trust, even just a little bit.”

Steve was silent; grey-faced and pale under the harsh lights of SHIELD. “You- you wanna be called James? That’s fine- I’ll do what you want, you just have to let me-”

“I don’t have to let you do a damn thing,” James said, all sharp biting words and tense muscle, “you shot my goddamn boyfriend, and I still want to fuckin’ know why.”

“Listen, you think I wanted to be involved in that?” Steve gritted out, hands flexing against the arms of his chair, “I had been trying to contain the situation for weeks before they came into your tower, Tony, do you realise that? They were calling me asking me to lead a task force and storm your goddamn building the moment they got wind of Roswell’s death, that’s how afraid they were-”

“Have you literally learned nothing about them since you woke up?” Tony bit out, shaking his head, “they weren’t ‘afraid’, Jesus, they were greedy and curious and willing to go to extreme measures to get their hands on what I had. It was the fucking tesseract all over again, and look what happened with that.”

“Yeah, and look what happened the last time you saw something with potential and decided to keep it all to yourself!” Steve yelled right back, “what the hell was I supposed to do, who was I supposed to trust? Both of you had done dumb shit with powerful objects in the past, and Tony, as much as I wanted to trust you, I genuinely wasn’t sure what lengths you would go to to try and make things right again-”

“Hey, here’s a fuckin’ thought,” James piped up suddenly, standing up next to Tony and looking fierce, “maybe if you hadn’t abandoned him when he needed you all then you never would have had to wonder about that sorta thing! Jesus- whole reason he created that Ultron thing was ‘cause he was so terrified of you all dying, but in the end, you left him anyway.” He stopped, and ran a hand through the long strands of hair tiredly. “Oh, and for the record? When you’re faced with choosing between a superhero or an organisation who were torn down because they were so deeply intertwined with a terrorist organisation- you choose to trust the superhero. You choose to trust your friend.”

Steve looked away at that, and Tony just sighed. “James, that’s enough. I know- look, Steve, I understand why you felt… nervous, whatever, but it’s gone. I destroyed it. I learned from my mistakes, unlike SHIELD. And I still can’t believe you broke into my fucking house and knocked me out because you wanted to talk to me. You could’ve just, oh, I don’t know, knocked on the fucking door and asked,” Tony said bitterly, looking over to Steve and feeling the sense of disappointment curl in around him. He’d hoped Steve had let it go; hoped maybe there was a chance to regain their trust and friendship- but it was obvious Steve still didn’t trust him. Not properly.

“Tony,” Steve said through a sigh, like he was tired. Tony had mentioned, once, that their arguments always made them both so tired. “You wouldn’t have told me shit even I had. I’m not stupid. I knew when I spoke to you after the battle that you were hiding something, but I stuck my neck out for you anyway. Trusted you as far as I could go. But when they called me, told me they had reason to believe the chip was world-threatening and you were planning on trying to get into it, so they were going to go and break in to forcibly take it? I had to step in, if only to save your ass, dammit. What do you think would’ve happened if I hadn’t been there? How much force do you think they would have used to bring you down? To bring Buc- James down?” He said quietly, before shaking his head. “I know you don’t believe me, but I was actually trying to keep hold of the situation as best I could so no-one would get killed .”

Tony was silent, before nodding once. “I understand,” he muttered, “I do, I- yeah. Trying to control the situation as best you could, right-”

“You could have just asked us- asked the Avengers,” Steve said, pursing his lips, “you know we would have helped you.”

“Don’t try and make this seem like Tony’s doing,” James bit, irritated. Steve didn’t seem to want to put any of the responsibility on James’ shoulders- maybe because he thought he was too vulnerable to have been making cognisant choices of his own or some shit, that sounded like Steve, so damn desperate to let James know he was always the innocent party, always the one who needed to be nursed back to health by Captain Fucking America- “I begged him not to tell anyone I was there. Bringing you into it would’ve only complicated things further. And it wasn’t exactly like you’d been givin’ off the message that you were willing to help him anyway- you were happy just leaving him to work himself to death in his tower as punishment or whatever the fuck that was.”

There was silence in the room, and James sighed. He knew he was hurting the poor guy, and he wished he didn’t have to, but dammit, he couldn’t just sit there and let him pin all the blame on Tony. Never. He was perfectly capable of making his own decisions- he wasn’t fragile, wasn’t in need of coddling. This was exactly why he had been running from Rogers in the first place.

“Can I have a moment alone with Steve?” He spoke after a few seconds, turning into Tony’s body so they were inches away from one another; Tony looking up at him through a bruised eye and torn lip.

His brow furrowed, just for a second, but his hand came up and pressed lightly at James’ forearm and he smiled softly all the same. “If you need me, I’ll be outside planning how best to desecrate SHIELD.”

James laughed, a hand wrapping around the back of Tony’s neck and tugging him forward to press a kiss to the messy hair. “Good.”

Tony smiled as he stepped backward and began to walk out of the briefing room. “Try not to kill each other, ” he called, turning around by the door and pointing a finger toward James, “I want you to coming home tonight in one piece- we’ve made it this far without succumbing to the drastically high chances of death, I’m not gonna lose you now.”

He slipped through the door and James heard his bare feet pattering down the corridor (they hadn’t exactly had to time to suit up when they’d been attacked, and it had left Tony without shoes and James without a shirt- although SHIELD had thankfully rectified that one), and he just watched the door for a few seconds as he tried to think of what the hell he was going to say to the man sat watching him like a kicked puppy.

“Uh,” he rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, and turned back to Rogers, “so- you probably have questions-”

“How,” Steve blurted; like his mouth and forced out the word before the rest of him could finish the sentence. He stopped for a moment, before just sagging and raising his hands. “How did this all happen?”

“I was dying,” James said bluntly, and Steve winced a little. “HYDRA had been tracking me after I ran from the Potomac, and I happened to be in New York when they caught up with me. I escaped, but I was badly injured, and… I don’t know, Tony’s tower was there and he was just the last option I had. The only option.”

James paused, gesturing vaguely to his metal arm. “They’d put a tracker in my arm. After Tony had nursed me back to health, he took the thing out for me.” James broke off in order to smile a little, and then shrugged. “It all just went from there, I guess.”

“And you’re…” Steve made an odd sort of face, “romantically involved with him?”

James’ eyes narrowed. “Yeah. Problem?”

“Maybe,” Steve said a little worriedly, “you’re sure this isn’t just some sort of… Stockholm syndrome thing, Buck? You’ve been through a lot, and I’m just- worried. I know Tony can be very-”

“Jesus, it’s not stockholm syndrome, are you fucking crazy?!” James snapped, “you know, just because I’ve been through some shit doesn’t mean I’m utterly incapable of thinking for myself. Tony always, always made it explicitly clear that I could leave anytime I wanted. He was kind. He treated me like I was normal , not some- some broken thing,” James spat. “I made the first move. He told me he loved me, and that he would never ever take advantage of me. Is that good enough for you?”

There was a long silence. James sighed again. He felt like a tool- but Rogers was acting like one, too, and even though he knew the guy was trying to look after him, he just wished he’d back off.

“I’m sorry,” Steve clenched his jaw, “you know I’m just- you’re my best friend, B- James, and I’m trying to look out for y-”

“I’m not,” James said softly, feeling his heart tighten, “I’m… who I am now and who I was then are not the same person. I’m sorry- but Bucky Barnes died in the world war. Guy who came out didn’t even know his own name. And… and I’ve learned stuff about myself whilst I’ve been with Tony- learned how to act like I was human again. But it’s not the person you knew. This,” he gestured to himself and shook his head, “this is a person who built himself up from scratch. From a blank slate that HYDRA had turned me into. I’m still learning, still finding new stuff about myself. And maybe one day I’ll be able to be the guy you knew again. But I’m not sure. For now- I just need space to relearn myself as my own person, not Bucky Barnes. I don’t know him- don’t know you either, not really.”

“That’s why you need to stay,” Steve said, almost desperately as he stood up, “you can remember, Bucky, I know you can-”

“You can’t even call my by the name I asked you to,” James said, not accusingly, but layered with a sad truth that sent a little flinch running through Steve’s frame once more, “see- that’s the problem. You’re always gonna be expectin’ him, and I’m never gonna be able to give you him in the way you want. Hell- maybe I don’t even want him- sounds to me like Bucky Barnes never went for fellas; but James sure as hell couldn’t really imagine his life without one.”

Steve stopped, and then despite himself, he let out a little huff of air. “What, you sayin’ HYDRA turned you gay?”

And, surprisingly, James laughed back. “Who the hell knows what they did? I wouldn’t put it past ‘em.”

They both smiled at eachother, and James felt the flutter of recognition in the back of his mind of smiles shared decades ago, just like that one. Not enough, but maybe someday it could be a start.

Not now, though.

“So you’re gonna leave?” Steve asked, the smile slipping a little to reveal the sadness underneath, “with Tony?”

James nodded, and felt his heart warm subconsciously. “We both just need a break. Tony’s gonna try get me in touch with some therapists, I’m gonna try and convince him to slack off the workload a little. He’s still gonna come back when he’s needed, but-” James trailed off briefly, imagining for a second what his life was going to be like- just him and Tony, silent and peaceful as they took a break on the other side of America- “but we both want a change. And I think it’ll be good for us.”

Steve opened his mouth and James got ready to defend his actions, but the counter never came. Steve just halted it before the words could form, and instead chose to do his best at smiling. “If… if that’s what you really want, then I’m happy for you.”

He certainly didn’t look too happy about it. But James couldn’t do anything about that. He didn’t want to live his life being chased down by Steve Rogers- if he was going to try and rebuild his bond with the guy, it was going to be on his terms. It had to be, for the sake of his goddamn sanity.

“You were never good at lying,” James muttered, shaking his head and smiling a little as he leaned over and plucked the pen from the front of Steve’s jacket. “Look- I’m gonna write my number on your arm, ‘kay? I’ll call you sometime.”

Steve’s face lit up at that, and he leaned forward and gave his arm whilst James scrawled messily on it. When he was done, he patted Steve’s shoulder a little awkwardly. “There. Now you won’t have to travel across the US just to talk to me.”

Steve nodded, straightening up a little. “I’ll keep SHIELD off your back,” he promised, “and seriously, if you’ve got Tony backing your corner legally, you couldn’t be safer.”

“I know,” James answered, looking down as he grinned a little, “I… I’ve got some good people on my side.”

Steve swallowed, and then nodded his confirmation once. It was clear the conversation was coming to a close. “Go,” he motioned to the door, “go run away with Tony. Just… be careful, alright? Tony Stark is... he’s a difficult man, sometimes.”

“From what I remember you weren’t all that easy yourself, pal,” James raised an eyebrow, deciding not to rise to the little jab.

Steve laughed softly as James began to turn away. “You make a good point.”

James reached the door, and he turned his head just a little, watching Steve sadly as the man shuffled on his seat and looked rather lost. “Look after yourself, Rogers,” he called out, waving a hand.

“Oh, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, shall we?” Was what Steve replied with, and James laughed as he slipped back out of the doors and looked around for Tony. He felt oddly heavy- sad, but with no real foundation as to why. He knew Steve Rogers only in the way a person knew a TV character, after all- able to connect memories, likes and dislikes, facial features and habits all the way back to man, but unable to find meaning in it all. It was uncomfortable and stressful, and James was glad Steve hadn’t fought him on staying. He didn’t want to feel like that all the time.

 

“Hey there, soldier- glad to see you out in one piece.”



James felt the smile on his face before Tony had even finished his sentence, and he turned around in time to watch the man saunter around the corner with his hands shoved in his pockets. He still wasn’t wearing any fucking shoes.

“Could say the same for you,” James reached out and snagged him by the waist, pulling him in close, “Didn’t kill any SHIELD agents whilst on your travels, did you?”

“Unfortunately no.”

“Shame.”

Tony chuckled and leaned up, kissing him softly. “You gave Captain America your phone number,” he murmured against James’ mouth.

James broke away, rolling his eyes whilst Tony pouted. “It’s rude to listen in to people’s private conversations, you know.”

“I wasn’t!” Tony exclaimed, “well- I mean, only half. I was watching visual just in case.” He paused, and then leaned his head against James’ shoulder. “Please don’t leave me for Captain America.”

James just batted him on the head softly. “ Идиот,” he muttered, kissing Tony’s temple. Anyone else would probably have been a little freaked out by the Russian, but sometimes it just slipped out, and neither James nor Tony particularly minded it, so they let it be. “Unlucky for you, but I’m sticking ‘round.”

“Unlucky?” Tony scoffed quietly, but apparently finished the rest of his sentence in his head, because James never heard it. He just felt Tony take his hand and tug softly. “Listen, I sorted some stuff out whilst you were talking. There’s a car waiting for us outside with all the stuff we’ll need for the night, and the place over in Seattle is all ready to be moved into. I say we just get in and go- I’ve had enough of this place to last me a lifetime.”

James opened his mouth in surprise. “You work quick,” he told Tony, whilst the man just wiggled his eyebrows. “Well, darling, there’s no time like the present.”

James stared down at Tony as the man pulled them through the corridors, his bare feet padding over tile and his mouth moving a mile a minute as he described the place in Seattle. He wondered how on earth he’d managed to get quite this lucky.
Although, he guessed he was long overdue for some good fortune after all the shit he’d been through.

They finally made it out of the giant complex- mostly through Tony just yelling about how he was going to fire them all anyway, so they might as well attempt to get on his good side and let them out, mixed with James staring death at them all from behind Tony’s back- and once they hit open air, James wasted no time in taking Tony by the waist and kissing him senseless.

“Making up for lost time,” was his excuse- not that he needed one. Tony seemed pretty enthusiastic either way.

“Hey- we’re not dead or imprisoned or dealing with a death-chip in the hands of a bunch of idiots,” Tony said suddenly, “that’s actually a much better outcome than I was expecting.”

“You still got pretty banged up though,” James said with a frown, fingers trailing over the bruise on Tony’s face, his collar, his hip. “We’re gonna have to re-bandage all your wounds again.”

Tony pulled a face. “Romantic.”

“Necessary,” James rocked them back and forth a little on the sidewalk before letting go of everything but Tony’s hand. “Now come on- heard there’s a car waiting for us somewhere and it’s gonna take us wherever we wanna go.”

Tony’s face lit up, and he pulled them over to a sleek black sports car parked on the side of the road. Together, they jumped in; James taking the driver’s seat whilst Tony took shotgun- barely even complaining as he did so, which sure was a first.

There was something in his chest as he started the engine that he couldn’t quite pin down. Something light and giddy and exciting, something that made him want to smile for no reason. He looked over to Tony, already getting comfortable as he put his feet on the dash and fiddled absently with the radio, and the need to smile tripled immediately.

“I’m happy,” James blurted as soon as it struck him. “I’m… this is the first time I think I’ve ever felt this happy.”

Tony paused, slowly looking up to catch his eye. When he smiled, James wanted to put his mouth over it and wanted to keep his eyes on it at the same time. He felt high- felt overwhelmed with the realisation that that was what he was feeling in his heart, for the first time in so long. Sure, there had been plenty of occasions where he’d felt something close- but there had always been something lingering in the background. Something that could have gone wrong or ruined it.

Now, there was only him and Tony, and their intended destination.

He was getting a second chance. For the first time in so long, his life was looking up. In a big, big way. It was Tony, after all- he didn’t do things by halves.

“I think you’re the best thing that ever happened to me, James Barnes,” Tony told him simply, and his fingers linked through James’ own against the clutch as they leaned into each other across the car.

It was such a wildly intimate moment, but James just wanted to laugh. He couldn’t really believe it- couldn’t imagine this ever happening, not really. This was the sort of happy ending that only happened in fantasy worlds or to other people- not to him.

 

And yet…



“God, I love you,” James said, and he kissed Tony’s forehead softly before shoving the keys in ignition, “now let’s get the hell outta here.”

 

“After you,” Tony gestured ahead of them, and the look on his face made James feel like he was something worthy.

 

 

He released the handbrake and pressed down on ignition.










EPILOGUE









There was rain pitter-pattering against the windows.



It was hard and fast and it matched the equally miserable clouds that loomed over the skyline. Tony could tell he’d woken up early from how dark it was- only bleak, grey ripples of half-light illuminated the room with a silver sort of hue, and even that was sparse. All in all, it looked like they were in for another stormy, cold day.

Tony smiled. He loved those days.

Sighing sleepily, he rolled away from the window and tucked himself into the warm chest that had previously been pressed against his back. The two hands that had been splayed against his abdomen shifted to accommodate for Tony’s movement, and then ended up stroking softly along the curve of his spine once Tony had reworked himself into a more warm and cocooned position. Their covers got caught between their bodies for a moment, and Tony made an irritated little noise as his foot pushed them off and then raised, so that his knee was held almost up to the height of his own waist and he could lay it flat across the pair of legs next to his own.

Once he had every inch he could get pressed up against James, he settled down again, pressing an absent kiss to the place where metal met skin as he shut his eyes once more.

It seemed that the movement had awoken James, however, because Tony heard the small little exhale of breath and felt the twitch of a single metal finger which signalled his ascent back to consciousness. There was a moment of nothing, and Tony felt himself about to fade back into another doze until a soft hand stroked absently across the forearm he’d flung over his lover’s waist, and suddenly sleep didn’t seem half as interesting.

“Mornin’,” James said hoarsely, his voice croaky from disuse, “sleep well?”

Tony hummed his agreement and nuzzled further into James’ body. “Like a log.”

It was weird, to actually be able to say that and mean it. Weird to have someone around to ask him that at all. But Tony found even the smallest things like that were sometimes the most important- for both of them. It was always the littler things, with James, but they always made the most difference.

He felt James’ laughter against his mouth as he pressed his lips into the chest in front of him, and it was as beautiful as everything else he did. Tony could listen to him laugh all day, for ever and ever. “You got any plans for today?”

James glanced over to the window, and his hands pressed Tony a little further into his body when he looked back down again. “Well it doesn’t look like we’re gonna be able to go out any time soon,” he said, whilst his fingers ran up and down Tony’s spine absently, “how about we just...stay here?”

Tony suppressed a shiver from James’ touch along his back, and when James caught him doing it, he ge grinned wickedly. “Yeah- day in bed sounds great, actually,” he wrapped his hands firmly around Tony’s waist and rolled, swiftly planting him atop James’ own body, “just us an’ some movies, an’ maybe some takeout if we get hungry,” he peppered little kisses across Tony’s face whilst the other man laughed and scrunched up his nose.

“I have-” Tony broke off, unable to stop himself leaning down and putting his own kiss against James’ mouth, “-I have work, and I’ve already skipped like, three days-”

He knew, though- he’d known as soon as he’d opened his eyes that he wasn’t going to be doing any of that. Not when James was right there in their bed, suggesting they just stay there and idle away their hours in one another’s company. That was an offer Tony was never going to be able to refuse.

From the look on his face, James knew too.

“Really?” he whined, pouting a little sadly, and Tony rolled his eyes with a huff, because he knew what James was angling for, and he was not going to fall for it. “You’d really abandon me; leave me alone in this big empty bed just so you can call some people back in New York?”

“...yes,” he said, and then slapped James on the chest, “and you have to stop making that face, alright- give me the murder stare if you want, threaten me with knives, but don’t give me that look. You know that’s cheating.”

James said nothing; just continued to stare up at Tony like some kicked puppy, the shadows on his face shifting as the clouds moved over the sky, and honestly, how the hell was Tony ever supposed to reject that?

Groaning, he collapsed back into James’ arms and scowled into the man’s collar. “You, sir, are a terrible influence.”

“Mmmh,” James agreed absently, running metal fingers through Tony’s hair. It had grown longer since they’d left New York, and was just beginning to reach the stage where it peaked over the top of his eyeline. James seemed to love it, if the rate at which he played with it was anything to go by, and so Tony was happy to leave it as it was for the time being. James always had hair ties to hand if he ever needed to tie the top bits up for work anyway.

 

It was crazy, how easy they’d fallen into the routine of an almost normal life. How relieving it was to finally be getting a break, to be waking up and not immediately feeling like he needed a drink in order to get through the next day. They were peaceful here- relatively speaking, anyway. Tony worked on his suits, just tinkering mostly, and then took business calls and the like if he had any spare time after that, but it wasn’t a pressure. He usually did them all with James somewhere nearby, curled up with his head on his lap or just reading in the other room. James went out; explored the city, dragged Tony off to new restaurants or museums or anything he found interesting and wanted to share. He was doing fantastically; getting on well with the therapist he was working with and slowly working out things about himself he hadn’t previously realised. There were hard days, of course- some really, really hard ones- but Tony knew that when he’d gone into it. He knew James was more than worth it anyway.

 

He had a lot of days when he wondered what the probabilities had been that James would end up on his doorstep on that fateful night, crashing into Tony’s world and shaking up everything he knew. They had been so low that Tony hadn’t even been able to work it out in his head, which said something about how stupidly tiny they were. But for whatever reason, he’d managed to do it anyway.

Probability-wise, Tony was perhaps one of the luckiest men in the world. But that was just the math- whether it had been a one in a bilion, one in a hundred or even a one in ten chance, Tony would still have believed he was getting more good fortune than anyone else on Earth.
He had James, after all- it was impossible not to feel that way.



“Somethin’ on your mind, sweetheart?” James asked, pulling Tony out of his own head with his voice and the fingers that trailed down his neck.

 

Tony looked over; took in the icy blueness of James’ eyes, the soft pink of his lip, the red mark that had begun to fade just under his neck.
Tony’s. All Tony’s.



He smiled. “We got here in the end,” he spoke, mostly to himself as he leaned down, pressed a kiss to the center of James’ chest where his heart lay, “took us a while- but we got here.”

A hand found his under the covers and they gripped on tight; metal against flesh, heartbeat against heartbeat. James was watching him intently, those beautiful piercing eyes zeroed in entirely on Tony’s like he was the center of his universe. Hell, maybe he was. Tony sure felt that way about James, anyway.

 

 

“Yeah,” James smiled, and when he leaned up for a kiss, Tony met him in the middle as always. “And I wouldn’t change it for the universe.”