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Letters to a Soldier

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Dear Mister Sergeant Barnes,

 

My name is Peter Stark and I am six years old.

At school, my teacher told us that we could write to soldiers. She said that some of the soldiers liked to have letters because not a lot of people wrote to them. I said I wanted to try and she gave me your name!

My dad said that it would be a good exercise for my writing and that it would make you happy. Are you really happy I'm writing?

I asked Daddy what I could tell you, and he said I should tell you about my life, so I am going to try to do that.

I am in the second grade class in my school in New York. Most of the others in my class are bigger and older than me, but I have lots of friends, so it is not a problem for me. I like math and science lessons, but my favorite one is drawing lesson! I love to draw like my dad, and I'd like to be an artist like him. My dad draws on people's skin, and sometimes he paints on me, but it is not the same thing, because I'm too little and have to wait a few years before he can really draw on me.

I love to read, and animal stories are my favorites. I like jokes too! 

Do you know what we call a fish without eyes? A fsh!

We only have one dog at home, but it is the best dog in the world. Her name's Cocoa, I was the one who chose it! I love her very much.

When I am not at school, I like to draw with my daddy, or play with Cocoa, she loves it when I throw a ball. I also like to read, especially science and space books. Space is so cool! Do you see lots of stars where you are?

I hope that you answer my letter and tell me about your life too. Do you like animals? Do you have pets? Do you like books? Do you know lots of jokes?

I wish you a nice day, Mister Sergeant Barnes,

Peter

 

P.S. My dad read the letter and corrected the mistakes. Sometimes I don't know how to write some words!

 

***

 

Far away from New York, deep in a desert in Afghanistan, Bucky smiled while reading the letter. He had actually forgotten that he had signed up to get letters, and had been more than a little surprised when Steve had handed him a letter, eyebrows raised.

Peter's letter, though, was a very, very good surprise. He had felt kinda alone and sad in his bunk, reading to try and forget where he was, but the kids' words had put a huge smile on his face – and his joke had made him burst out laughing, even if he'd refuse to admit it to anyone else.

 

''Uh oh,'' Steve exclaimed, stopping in his tracks when he saw his face. ''I don't like this grin. What exactly are you planning?''

''God, Stevie, so much trust, it's nice to hear. Any other compliments in store for me, or is that it for tonight?''

''Come on, Buck, you know I love you. And you also know that I've known you for so long I can't miss when an idea crosses your mind. Out with it.''

''Actually, you're wrong. No evil plan in my mind. It's the letter though – remember that program I signed up for, to get a letter from a kid? Well, there's one who wrote me. His name's Peter, and he sounds like the cutest kid ever. There, read it.''

 

Bucky watched as Steve read it too and smiled when he burst out laughing at Peter's joke – apparently, he wasn't the only one who liked stupid kids' jokes. Steve was grinning too when he gave him the letter back.

 

''Seems like a great kid. You're gonna write back, right? It looks like he's waiting for some answers.''

''Of course I'm gonna answer, who do you think I am? D'you have a pen for me? Mine died and I forgot to steal another one.''

 

***

 

Dear Peter,

 

I was really happy to get your letter! It is sometimes hard to be a soldier, and it made me smile all day thinking about what you wrote.

You know, as I am still pretty young, you can call me Bucky – my full name's James Buchanan, but all my friends call me Bucky.

You seem to have a really nice life!

Do you think you could send me a picture of your dog? I love animals in general, but dogs are my favorites. I had a dog when I was your age, a black Labrador who also loved when I threw him a ball. He could run after it for hours without getting tired!

I said that I loved animals in general, but that's not totally true, I hate snakes… and, unfortunately for me, there are a lot of snakes around here. Are you afraid of any animals? Or maybe anything else? 

You said that you liked to draw and your dad's an artist. Am I right in thinking that he's a tattoo artist? It's funny if he is, because I love tattoos! Would you like to get some of them when you're older?

I have to say, I loved your joke, and my friend Steve did too. He told me to write one of his favorite jokes, I hope you don't know it already. Here it is:

Do you know what fish only swims at night? A starfish!

I'm not sure if it is a very good joke, but Steve made me promise to write it, so here it is.

I do love books, and I miss having a good library around. I still read, though, books people send us in here. My favorite book when I was your age was Peter Pan – have you ever read the book or seen the movie? I loved Peter Pan and Hook, and I still look for the second star to the right some days. It would be great to live in Neverland and spend time with fairies, don't you think?

We see lots of stars here. There aren't a lot of towns around, so the sky is very clear. I like watching them too.

I read you live in New York, I was born and grew up in Brooklyn, so I know the city well. Is there any part of it you especially like? When I was younger, I loved to go all the way to the top of the Empire State Building and stay there for hours. Sometimes, my friend Steve came too and he drew the city – he's an artist too, he's the one who made the drawing I sent you.

I'm very glad I get to know you, Peter, and I can't wait to read your next letter.

I hope you spend a great day and wish you all the best, to you and your dad,

Bucky

 

***

 

''Peter! Come on down here, please, I have a surprise for you!''

 

With a small shout of glee, Peter let go of his toys and got up, running down the stairs to the tattoo studio. He waved at Natasha, who smiled and winked at him from where she was tattooing a comic character into her customer's arm, and rushed to his dad's office.

Tony was waiting for him in his chair, holding an envelope in his hands, big smile on his face.

 

''Is that Mister Barnes' answer?'' Peter gasped.

''The postman just brought it, Petey. Wanna sit here and read it now?''

''Yes, yes, yes! Can you open it, daddy?''

 

Tony nodded and opened it quickly, giving him the letter and the folded sheet of paper, before turning back to the letters he had received.

His son had been waiting impatiently for days to get an answer, running to open the letter box when he could, and asking Tony if he had received anything when he couldn't. So he thought it best to let him enjoy the moment and read it alone, even if he was more focused on the gasps and laughter he could hear on his right that on what he was supposed to do.

 

''Look daddy, he sent a drawing that his friend did, too. Look how cool it is!''

 

He looked at the drawing that his son was showing him, planets and stars delicately drawn in black and white.

 

''That's really cool, Peter! Do you want to tell me what he wrote?''

''He said I could call him Bucky, and that he loves pets too. He had a dog when he was younger! And he also wants me to send him a picture of Cocoa, because he misses dogs. And you know what? His favorite book is Peter Pan. It's my favorite movie, Daddy!''

''Awesome! You know what we could do? I still have a client this afternoon, so you can stay here and write an answer, and tonight we'll try to take a nice picture of Cocoa and you, so you can send it to him. Maybe you could send a drawing too, I bet he'd love that.''

 

Nodding, Peter took a blank sheet and was about to begin writing when he changed his mind, getting up and hugging Tony instead. Tony smiled softly and hugged his son tighter, burying his nose in the soft brown hair and stroking his back gently.

 

''Thanks, buddy. Whoa, I'm pretty sure your hugs are like magic, I feel so much better now!''

''Don't be silly, Daddy,'' Peter giggled. ''I'm not a magician!''

''Um. Are you sure I didn't discover your biggest secret, sorcerer?'' Tony asked with his eyebrows raised.

''I'm not a sorcerer, I'm just a little boy.''

''Pretty sure you're not just a little boy. At the very least, you're the best little boy.''

 

Peter grinned and kissed Tony's cheek, unconsciously breathing the smell that comforted him so much: ink, his musky cologne and a bit of sweat after a long day in the studio's heat. He stroked one of the drawings on his dad's left arm, a habit he had picked up when he was very young, and Tony couldn't help a soft smile filled with love.

 

''I love you, buddy. You know that, right?''

''I love you too. You're the best dad ever! Can you help me with the mistakes when I'm done writing?''

''Of course. And you can ask Nat or Uncle James if you've got a question, they'll be happy to help if you need it. Are you going to draw something too?''

''Maybe a dog, I think Bucky could like that. I'll try to draw Cocoa!''

''You do that, and come look for me if you need to, I'll be right there, okay!''

''Okay, Daddy.''

 

After ruffling his son's hair one last time, Tony got up and looked at him for a couple of seconds. He was already focused on his letter, little tongue out, exactly like Tony himself looked when he was focused on a tricky drawing.

He had a nice feeling about this Bucky guy. And even if his feeling was wrong, it made Peter happy right now, and that was the most important thing in his life.

 

Chapter Text

Each of them had his or her own rituals and habits when they came back from the field. No matter if it had been a good day – well, at least as good as it could be when your job was basically being shot at – or a bad one when they had lost someone, Steve found a quiet corner and isolated himself with a drawing pad and some pencils, staying alone for a couple of hours until he got back, smile firmly in place and his usual good-natured self. Clint tended to be the complete opposite: he needed to get the rush of adrenaline out of his body, and spent hours joking around, exercising in their small fitness room, and generally being a dick with his fellow soldiers, playing pranks and flirting with everybody he met.

Bucky's habits had changed since a few weeks. He came back hoping for a letter from Peter, and thinking about what he could write back, whereas before he just lay down and tried to get some sleep. It had been this way ever since he had sent back his first answer; that had been about three weeks back, and ever since he cursed the slowness with which mail traveled, and finally understood the regular complaints of other soldiers.

 

This time, though, after a particularly rough days with way too many close calls, he was lucky: a letter with his name carefully written was waiting for him on his bunk. He sat down heavily and read, smile already on his lips:

 

Dear Sergeant Bucky,

 

I was so happy to get your letter too! I waited for days and days, and my daddy said it would come eventually, but that you were very far away so I had to wait a bit more.

I didn't forget to take a picture of Cocoa, and my dad said I should be in the picture too, so you can see me. It was very funny to take the pictures, because Cocoa doesn't like to stay still, so we had to give her biscuits to make her stop moving! We took a lot of pictures, but I sent you my favorite.

 

Reading that, Bucky looked inside the envelope, seeing a printed picture. He took it out and his smile broadened. Peter, all fluffy brown hair and crinkled sparkling eyes, was grinning at him, exposing some missing teeth. Even in the picture, small freckles were visible on his nose and cheeks, making him easily one of the cutest kids Bucky had ever seen – and the bright green t-shirt with blue robots proclaiming him to be ''Daddy's Little Geek'' absolutely did not help. The beautiful border collie dog looking at him, seemingly perfectly at ease to be hugged by Peter, only strengthened the general impression

He blinked rather forcefully once or twice – God, he missed kids, he loved babysitting when he was younger – and kept reading.

 

Did you forget to tell me your dog's name? I love hearing dog's names, we met a dog called Cruella de Vill once, my daddy and me laughed and laughed for hours! Is your dog waiting for you at home?

I don't like sleeping when there's no light in the room, and my dad doesn't like spiders. It's funny, because I like spiders, but when he sees one, he yells and runs and asks me or Aunt Natasha to get it out! I'd love to have a big spider as a pet one day, but dad tells me that he won't accept one in his house, so I have to wait until I'm a grown-up with my own house.

My dad is a tattoo artist, yes, and so are my Aunt Natasha and Uncle Rhodey. They all work in the same place, which is really nice, because I get to see them almost every day. There are lots of people who come to see my dad to get a tattoo, and he was in a newspaper once! The people who came to take pictures let me play with their camera, I had a lot of fun. I know that when I'm older, I want to be like daddy and have lots and lots of drawings on me. Maybe I'll get a spider, or maybe Peter Pan (it's my favorite movie, that's funny!), I don't know yet, but I know that I want my dad to do it.

Your joke was very funny! I told it at school and to my dad, and they all laughed. Can you ask your friend Steve if he knows any other jokes? Here is one joke my friend Gwen told me:

Do you know how you count cows? With a cowculator!

She told me it was her dad (he's a scientist) who told her this, did it make you laugh?

I haven't read Peter Pan yet, but my dad bought it for me the other day, and he'll read it to me before I go to sleep (I love when my daddy reads for me, he does all the silly voices!). My favorite book is Winnie the Pooh! I told you my favorite movie was Peter Pan, do you have any favorite movie too?

I like going to the Empire State Building too, even if that is not my favorite place in New York. I have two favorite places. The first one is Central Park, I love running and playing there in the summer, and we even got to skate during the winter! I'm not very good at staking, but my Aunt Nat helped me and it was really funny, even if it hurts falling down. I also really like the Hall of Science, we go there with my dad when he can, and I love it because we can play with a lot of things, and my daddy can always explain how it works! We even went to the Maker Faire last year, and there were lots of funny inventions and cool robots. Do you like robots? I think it's so cool that we can make them do awesome things, but I wish they could do my homework for me.

I have to leave for school now, but I hope my letter was good.

Have a nice day Sergeant Bucky,

 

Peter

 

Bucky knew his smile was definitely goofy, but he couldn't help himself. God, this kid was so cute. Outside, he could hear the usual noises of dozens of soldiers sharing the same space – cries, laughter, and what definitely sounded like someone insulting Clint – but he couldn't care less, already focusing on what he could write back to Peter.

He was pretty sure that Steve or Clint would come and see him, and tease him mercilessly for his weak spot for the little kid he barely knew… But he was also pretty sure that they would stop their teasing as soon as they saw the freaking cute picture he had received.

 

 

***

 

Tony Stark knew his usual day seemed weird to whoever didn't work in a tattoo parlor, but every morning he took a couple of seconds just to enjoy the happiness he felt at doing the thing he liked most and being surrounded by the people he loved.

He usually woke up before Peter, enough so that he had time to take a shower – shamelessly singing along to the latest pop tunes and the greatest rock classics – and get breakfast ready, usually pancakes with some fruit if he had enough time, or cereals if not.

Then he got to spend an hour with what, in his very objective mind, was the cutest kid ever born on this planet.

 

This morning made no exception to the rule. He woke up right before his alarm began to ring and took some clothes out of his closet: skinny and well-worn dark jeans with a V-neck soft shirt. He made a quick detour in the kitchen to fill a mug with coffee, taking a few sips before even entering the shower.

This time, he sang along to some Taylor Swift and ACDC while taking great care to wash a new tattoo that had recently joined the lot of ink he was already sporting – courtesy of one of the guest artists who had stopped at their shop a few days back. The geometric wolf looked to be healing up all nicely, already entering the annoying time when it itched day and night, and peeled like a motherfucker.

When he got out and dressed himself, he could already hear Peter moving around in his room, probably getting his backpack ready for school. He smiled and got out after a cursory look at his beard – he could leave it a day without skimming it – whistling as he made a way to his son's room.

 

''Hey Peter!'' he called out. ''Already up?''

 

His son appeared at the door, which was covered in robots stickers, Cocoa on his heels. His hair was adorably sticking up on one side and he was rubbing sleep out of his eyes with one hand, the other raised in greeting. Tony couldn't resist and swept him up on his hip, where Peter settled comfortably, burrowing his head in his dad's neck; Tony smiled and kissed his head tenderly, humming and rocking his son gently.

 

''Slept good? No nightmares?''

''No, daddy. I had really good dreams, but I can't remember all of them. Can I watch some cartoons?''

''Okay, but no long, you still have to go to school, right? Here, I'll call you when breakfast's ready. Don't fall asleep!''

 

Peter nodded and Tony turned the TV on, watching his son all curled up on the sofa, a wave of love threatening to overwhelm him, before he whistled for Coca and got some food and water in her bowl, stroking her quickly between the ears.

He made quick work of the pancakes; six years ago, he couldn't even manage an omelette most of the time, but Peter had made him learn to cook, and he loved it now. He often baked cookies on his time off, bringing them to the parlor for customers and artists to enjoy them; every artist and regular costumer had their favorite, and he tried his best to content everyone, writing in a small journal which recipes were good and which were best left forgotten.

In the end, he didn't even have to call Peter; the little boy entered the room as soon as he smelled pancakes baking, TV dutifully turned off, and eyes looking a little bit more awake. Tony smiled at him and set some pancakes and fruit in front of him, adding a glass of chocolate milk when Peter asked for it.

 

''So, do you know what you're going to do at school today? Science, drawing?''

''We're talking about planets now. And reading a cool book, with a magician nanny in it. D'you know it, daddy?''

''Yeah,'' Tony answered with a small smile. ''I think I know what you're talking about, buddy. Cool day, then, uh?''

''Yes! And you, daddy, what are you doing today?''

''Well, Bruce's coming back to get a new tattoo, so there's that I need to do. After that, I'll need to stay at the parlor for a while, so Aunt Nat will come pick you up for school and have lunch with you, maybe here, or maybe you'll stop somewhere in the city, she hasn't told me yet. But I'll be free all afternoon, so I'll come pick you up at the end of your day, and maybe we can go to the park, what do you think?''

''Yes! Look, even Cocoa likes it,'' Peter giggled, pointing at the border collie, who was looking at them, wagging her tail. ''Will you bring Bucky's letter if it's there?''

''You know I will. And it should get there soon, too, I think.''

 

Peter smiled around his mouthful of pancakes, and Tony scowled at him gently, reminding him of his manners.

The little boy had received four of Bucky's letters by now, but his enthusiasm hadn't lessened the smallest bit. He still waited impatiently for each one, spent hours thinking about what he could write, and drawing more and more elaborate things to ''decorate his room''. They had sent a small package last time, too, with two books that Peter had carefully chosen for Bucky, a second-hand edition of Peter Pan, and a fantasy book whose cover he had liked. There was also some chocolate, and a pack of pencils for Steve, Bucky's friend. Now Peter was waiting to know if Bucky had liked it or not, and as they knew that it took about five weeks for the letter to come, he was growing more and more impatient by the day. One day, he had even begged to stay at home and miss school, pretending that he could ''feel the letter would come today'', but Tony had put his foot firmly down, reminding him that the letter would still be there when Peter would come back, and that he promised to check the mailbox regularly and not allow anyone to steal anything.

 

Half an hour later, Peter was ready to leave, and Tony clipped the leash on Cocoa's collar, taking Peter's hand in his own. They walked to the school, since they had the time and the weather was nice, Tony enjoying to hear Peter babble about the day he'd like to have, the discussions he hadn't had time to close with Gwen and his other friends, and how he couldn't wait for Natasha to come pick him up.

Tony left him at the school's gates with a quick kiss and hug, waving at him as he walked away to meet his friends. His green backpack was bouncing on his back with the rhythm of his run, and Tony thought once again of how lucky he was to have the small boy in his life.

 

When he got back to the apartment right above the parlor, he set to work on Bruce's last request. The man had been a regular customer for years now; he had tattoos from both Nat and Rhodey, but he claimed that Tony's style was still his favorite, and came back often for a new project.

This time, he wanted some strange, futuristic-looking machine, only giving this and rough infos like the size he wanted to Tony and letting him deal with the drawing. Right now, Tony had three different sketches ready and was working on a fourth, adding some details and polishing it. He was pretty sure Bruce would like at least one of them (if not all of them, he tended to like everything Tony proposed), but he always felt a bit of pressure when working with a customer who had become a friend with time; he didn't want to disappoint, even if he knew that Bruce was smart enough to not be rude and cruel, and rather liked to give him advices and precisions on what he wanted.

At nine o'clock, all drawings finally ready, he packed everything he needed – phone, wallet, snacks, sketchpad and pencils – and left the apartment to open the parlor. Rhodey and Natasha would arrive a few minutes later, and as there were no customers around for walk-ins or appointments at this hour, he began to set up his station carefully, setting up his tattoo gun, – a beautiful custom one he got for his birthday, all mat black and grey – taking the bottle of ink he'd need, and wrapping up everything carefully in plastic wrap. After that, he set some water and chocolate next to the chair, just in case Bruce forgot to take some with him, and put some random playlist on. He took a critical look at his flash tattoos' board, hanging up a new drawing of a small monkey he had done the night before, and made a mental note to ask Nat and Rhodey about some possible dates for a flash day.

Speaking of them, the bell rang at the door and he turned to see both of them strolling in. Natasha was looking as sexily deadly as ever, with her usual leather black pants and ripped red top barely showing her lacy bra; the combat boots, lip and ear piercings, and delicate black widow tattoo sometimes showing behind the fabric on her left hip have a nice finale touch. People on the street tended to either gawk at her, to which she'd return a sly smile, or avoid her simply. Once, a mother had told her daughter, who was looking at Nat with admiration in her eyes, that she had to work at school to ''not look like the lady'', to which Natasha had simply enough but very effectively answered that she had a Master in law, but had changed path a few years back to live the life she really wanted – offering a wink to the little girl who smiled brightly. The woman had sputtered and scoffed before walking away, pulling her little girl along.

Rhodey was seen as the model child of their team. He was covered in tattoos too – rare were the tattoo artists with no ink on their skin – but most of them were hidden by his military-style clothes. There was only one who peaked from under his shirt at all time; a drawing from Tony, that Rhodey had asked for a few years back to honor their friendship. As both of them were huge and unashamed nerds, Rhodey's tattoo was of the Rebel Alliance symbol; Tony had a similar one on his left bicep, done by his friend, of course. Most of the new customers tended to look at Rhodey when they entered the shop, avoiding Tony's ink-covered body and Natasha's… Natasha-ness, at least until they realized that Rhodey was as bad, if not worse, than both of them.

 

All three of them worked as only best friends could work: always talking with each other when they weren't with a customer – and even then, they kept talking, just took care of including the customer in the discussion too – and knowing what the other ones needed before they even had to ask for it. Tony had on very frequent occasions turned around to ask for a bottle of water only to find that there was already one right next to his hand, with a small smiley on a post-it note right next to it.

At first, it had been hard – opening a tattoo parlor when all of them had virtually zero experience in this particular business – but they had kept going stubbornly, motivated by their love of tattooing and by their mutual trust. And it had worked beautifully. A popular website on tattoos had featured them on one article, and suddenly, their shop was invaded by customers and curious people attracted by the very futurist-looking premises.

Seven years later, they were all known as some of New York's best tattoo artists, and had to refuse some customers regularly; international guests came to tattoo for a few weeks or days, and they often put in place flash days that always had a huge success, even attracting customers from other states.

And their relationship didn't stop at the doors of the shop. Natasha and Rhodey had become Aunt and Uncle to Peter, who absolutely loved to spend time with them – and they did too. Unofficially, Tony saw them as a second family to Peter, and he knew that if some day something should happen to him, they would be there for the little boy, even if that wasn't something he particularly liked to dwell on. They spent evenings together, too, leaving Peter to Rhodey's mom's care and spending awesome time in clubs, bars, and shows all around the city.

In short, Tony was living the dream: doing something he loved everyday with the people he loved the most.

 

''Hey, Tony!'' Nat greeted him. ''All set already?''

''Yeah. Bruce'll be there in a few minutes, so he won't have to wait too long before we get to work. Still picking Peter up from school at lunch? He couldn't stop talking about where he wanted you to take him this morning.''

''Of course I am, I wouldn't even dream of disappointing him. I only have the one customer this morning, so I'll be free pretty early.''

''Hey Tones,'' Rhodey said, clapping him on the back. ''No customer for me this morning. I'll manage the desk and look at some of the bills, too. Maybe make some drawings for flashs, too.''

''Yeah, about that, I'd like to organize a flash day someday soon. Maybe on a specific theme? I don't know yet. Anyway, just write down somewhere dates you could be there and free of any customers, and I'll see what I can do.''

 

And so the day began.

As always, Bruce arrived early, looking ruffled and almost lost in his too-big shirt and old pants. Looking at him, you could never have guessed that he was covered in tattoos under his clothes. His job in a scientific research company forced him to look serious and traditional, but as soon as he got the shirt or pants off, it was a whole other story.

Tony had been a little bit in love with him since the first time they had met and Bruce had totally pranked him, affirming that he thought the original Star Wars trilogy was worse than the recent one. Tony had been ready to tattoo ''I've got BAD TASTES'' rather than the landscape Bruce had asked for, when the man had suddenly burst out laughing and hadn't been able to stop for a whole five minutes. He still laughed today when they talked about it, widely exaggerating Tony's affronted face, and the occasional customer always loved that story.

They had been friends since, though, and Tony loved to see him come back for more ink. He was one of the best customers, not afraid to talk and joke around even as he was getting tattooed and staying perfectly still. He often stayed for a while after the session too, enjoying some take-out or pizza with the other artists and, once or twice, with Peter, who seemed to be in awe of the man and his job.

This session was great, too. They debated of the plus and cons of the new Star Wars and Ghostbusters movies, Tony arguing relentlessly that the stupid secretary in the new Ghostbusters was the absolute doppelgänger of Thor, a guest artist from Sweden who came back often, except with short hair, and everybody laughing at him.

He was so focused on his tattoo he almost missed Nat slipping out, but still asked her absentmindedly to kiss Peter for him and have a nice lunch. They took a very quick break with Bruce, only snacking on some chocolate before getting back to the tattoo – trying to avoid the skin getting too sensitive.

A few hours later, Tony could finally stretch, taking one last critical look at the tattoo. It would need some touch-ups – the skin had been too bloody at the end to see very clearly – but Bruce was already proud of the machine drawn in delicate traits of grey and black on his right forearm. He wrapped it up, explaining how to take care of it to Bruce for about the twentieth time – at this point, Bruce could probably recite it by heart – and taking a long sip of cold water. The other man thanked him profusely and paid, promising to come back as soon as it was healed to see what needed to be perfected, before giving a heartfelt hug to Tony, who returned it happily.

 

After eating a small sandwich, Tony checked the time and saw that he should already have left to pick Peter up. He winced but still took time to empty the mailbox, smiling when he saw that the letter had arrived, before frowning when he noticed another letter with the same handwriting; except that this one was addressed to him.

He would have to run, but he couldn't resist. He opened it and read:

 

Dear Mr. Stark,

 

I'm pretty sure you already know who I am, but just in the case: my name's James Buchanan Barnes, or ''Sergeant Bucky'', as Peter calls me. I'm his soldier correspondent.

Before all, I wanted to tell you what an amazing son you have. He always managed to put a smile on my lips with his letter, and I keep them all preciously and re-read them when I feel down. I hope that doesn't sound too creepy.

There's something I wanted to ask you before telling anything to Peter: I will be on leave in three weeks, and will be staying with my friend Steve in Brooklyn.

As I know you live in New York, I thought it could be nice to try and meet Peter in person. We could spend some time together (with you too, of course!) someplace he likes. I'd be very glad to meet him and thank him properly for the time he takes to write letters. In the way he talks to me, I also sincerely think that he would like to meet me.

The decision is up to you, though. I totally understand if you don't feel comfortable letting your son meet a stranger, and I'll still write to him – and won't tell him anything about my leave.

It'll be too short to send the answer here in Afghanistan, but you can write to the address I wrote at the end of the letter, or phone the number from the 9th of August, I'll be there to answer.

Please don't feel pressured in accepting or anything,

I wish you all the best,

Bucky

 

P.S.: Thank you very much for the package you sent. Steve loved the pencils (I guess they're some of the ones you use?) and I've already read Peter Pan once. Probably have read it once at the moment you read this.

 

Well, that was… unexpected. And he had quite a difficult decision to make. If he didn't accept Bucky's proposition, he knew he would feel guilty, but he was still afraid of all the things that could turn out wrong. Bucky could be a mean and weird guy. Or maybe he didn't like kids who weren't just writing to them. Or maybe this whole thing was a setup. Or…

He sighed and left the building, letter for Peter in hand, the other safely tucked in his pocket. After a few steps, he got his phone out of his other pocket and dialed a number.

One thing was for sure: Peter wouldn't be able to sleep for nights when he told him who he would meet.

 

 

***

 

Leaving for home, even temporarily, was always weird.

First of all, because it didn't even feel like home to Bucky anymore. It was his home country, sure, but nothing in particular linked him to it now. His parents had died before he left for the army, and his sister was somewhere abroad; he still sporadically received postcards from a city he most of the time didn't even know. Steve had been what linked him to the States, but Steve had left with him. At least, this time, he was on leave too.

Second, because he never knew which fellow soldiers he'd see again when he said goodbye to them. They were all aware that it may well be the last time they saw each other, and each of them pointedly avoided talking about it. They joked around, speaking of which women he should meet, and which he was totally forbidden to talk to, and they hugged each other roughly, but they avoided the fact that, while Bucky would be safe at home, others would be on the field, hurt or killed. It was better not to talk about it if you wanted to leave.

 

The flight home seemed unusually long and painful – and he guessed it was the case for Steve, too, whom he constantly bothered during the endless hours. People stared at them in their uniform, some with respect – one or two even came to thank them for their service – some with obvious contempt, like they were personally responsible for every disaster the country faced.

Bucky was nervous, too, of what kind of answer would be waiting for him in Steve's Mom's small apartment. Would Peter's dad agree to him meeting his son, or not? Strangely enough, he really wanted to. This kid had charmed him from the very first letter, and he wanted to spend some time with him. Even him could see how strange that could seem, though, so he half-expected Tony to not even answer, and totally forbid Peter from writing to him ever again.

When they finally touched down in New York, both Steve and Bucky sighed in relief. They left the plane as quickly as they could, barely patient enough to wait for their bag on the luggage carrousel – these things always seemed to be as slow as they possibly could, anyway.

Finally, though, they were in the big arrival hall, and Bucky felt kind of overwhelmed by all the people and the noise. Steve nudging him incessantly with his elbow didn't help either.

 

''What?'' he finally snapped, turning to him.

''Right there, see? Isn't that your cute kid?''

 

Eyebrows raised, Bucky looked to where Steve was pointing. Right there, five meters from them, a kid was bouncing excitedly up and down, holding a big board that said ''Sergeant Bucky''.

Bucky could feel himself grinning goofily, frozen right there in the middle of the airport. At least, until he saw the man who had taken Peter in his arms so he could see better.

He watched to well-toned arms covered in black and color, the nice thighs in the skinny jeans, the exact same ruffled hair as Peter. He tried to take a step but stumbled.

He… hadn't been expecting that.

 

''Oh god, we're fucked,'' Steve muttered behind him.

Chapter Text

Tony was… surprised.

Peter had shown him a picture of Sergeant Barnes, a few weeks back. He had had the very bad, terrible idea, of taking it to the parlor to show his so-called friends, and the still worse idea to tell them that he thought the guy was kinda good-looking.

Which, if he had to be honest, was a bit of an euphemism. With his dark hair, beautiful blue-grey eyes that seemed to twinkle even on the picture, incredible jawline and muscles even where Tony didn't know that there was supposed to be muscles, Sergeant Barnes was, honestly, more on the ''beautiful'' side of the spectrum.

But, wisely enough, Tony had restrained from telling that to his friends, naively thinking that they would simply agree with him that the guy seemed nice, and let it drop. That was a big mistake, though. His horrible friends had teased him for weeks, saying again and again how he was exactly Tony's type of men, and how he should ask him out already.

Even the fact that Barnes was living more or less on the other side of the planet hadn't seemed to be a problem for them. Go figure.

 

Anyway, he had kind of expected to be charmed by the guy, but the young-looking soldier standing a few meters from them and staring right at him was something else.

There was something almost feline in his way of walking, for one, and that wasn't even talking about the fact that Tony was pretty sure these thighs could crush someone to death. Tony wasn't ashamed to admit that he liked how he looked himself, body well-toned – he felt guilty if he didn't get a bit of exercise at the end of a long day spent sitting down – and muscles in the right place, but these thighs were more than a bit of exercise every two days, they were years and years of exercising and hard, physical work.

And if the thighs had been the only problem, he could have managed it, but Bucky had a certain aura around him, a weird mix of danger and extreme niceness that Tony couldn't quite figure out.

The danger was there in the way Bucky's shoulders moved behind his uniform shirt, muscles obvious enough to be menacing, and in the way he looked all around him, tense and obviously ready to fight if it was needed. And the niceness was in the way he had stopped to look at the Peter, and in the smile that had formed on his lips, unashamed and unrestrained.

 

All in all, Tony was confused. And a tad turned on.

 

''Daddy! Can we go meet him? Daddy!''

''C'me on, Peter, slow down, let him breathe. We can't go there, that's the rules, he has to come here. Just let him take a few seconds; it's probably weird to see so many people.''

 

Actually, if Bucky could have heard what the duo was saying, he would have disagreed. It wasn't exactly the people who were the problem; it was more the effect of seeing the total surprise that was Tony, and dealing with the stupidity that was Steve right after.

 

''Do not even think of making these kinds of comments when the kid can hear you,'' he hissed at his friend. ''And not even when only the dad can hear you.''

''God, Bucky, you know me, I wouldn't do that! That's a good-looking guy, though. Don't you think?'' Steve asked, all innocence and wide eyes.

 

A groan was his only answer. Behind his back, Bucky flipped him off and took the few steps that still separated him from Peter and his dad. He took a few deep breaths but didn't even need to simulate a smile; the way Peter was waving at him was enough to make him relax again.

 

''Hey there,'' he called when he was standing juste a meter from them. ''I didn't expect to see you there. I'm really glad to meet you, Peter. How are you?''

 

A small, squeaky, and slightly squishy warm body ran into his legs as an answer; he stumbled slightly and looked up at Tony, astonished, for a couple of seconds, before his arms went to wrap around Peter and hugged him tight despite the slight awkwardness.

 

''I waited so long until you came!'' Peter exclaimed, his voice a bit muffled against Bucky's uniform pants' legs.

''Yeah, I know about that,'' the sergeant chuckled. ''I was impatient too. But I'm here now.''

 

Peter didn't move for a long while; long enough for Steve to join them and greet Tony properly – and Bucky grimaced when he realized that his manners were not the best right now. Tony seemed nice enough, shaking Steve's hand warmly and grinning all the while; he seemed to be unable to stop from moving around, though. His hands were waving madly one second, playing with his hair the next – and, oh God, the little spider web tattooed behind his ear and the shaved hair hidden behind longer dark strands were an amazing detail – and his face was surprisingly expressive, too.

Bucky got a hold on himself right as Peter was finally letting him go. The kid was looking at him with eyes full of wonder, and a smile showing his adorable dimples. He went away for a while without a comment, tugging on his dad's sleeve until Tony turned around and asked what the problem was. Peter whispered something in his ear and his dad nodded, all serious, and reached for a plastic bag; right after, the boy was back at Bucky's side, and holding out a thing wrapped in gift paper to Bucky.

 

''Here,'' he said, all earnestly. ''We brought this as a gift for coming to see us. Do you want to open it?''

 

Bucky nodded and took it, taking a few steps forward so he wouldn't be in the way of the people looking for their family. He unwrapped it gently and slowly, feeling Steve's and Tony's eyes on him, while Peter was almost devouring his nails out of anxiousness.

Inside the gift paper was an old, battered-looking copy of Winnie the Pooh, and, when he opened it, he discovered a small message carefully scribbled behind the cover: ''Dear Bucky, I hope you like the book. It's my favorite, but I wanted to give it to you! Peter.''

He cleared his throat softly, looking up shyly to see Tony's small smile and Peter's big grin.

 

''That's awesome, Peter. Thank you very much, I love it. I'll be sure to take it with me when I go back,'' then he added, finally turning to Tony. ''Hello, Mister Stark, I'm pleased to meet you. Thanks for coming to meet us here, that was a nice surprise!''

''Oh please, call me Tony, Mister Stark just makes me feel old and disgusting. Which I'm not. I hope so, at least. Nice to meet you too, Sergeant Barnes''

''Definitely not. Old and disgusting, I mean,'' he carefully avoided Steve's eyes and changed the topic as fast as he could. ''And you can call me Bucky, if I can call you Tony. I'm not that old either.''

''Older than me, though,'' Steve cut in, before picking his bag up from the floor. ''We should go find a cab before traffic gets too bad, Buck.''

''A cab?'' Tony huffed, looking positively vexed. ''What, did you think I'd let you go back in one of these awful things that make you pay half of your salary and almost kill you? Like I'd do that. My car's parked here, just give me the address and we're off.''

 

Steve and Bucky looked at each other for a few seconds, then shrugged, following Tony and his little boy to the parking.

 

''It doesn't look as if they'll try to kidnap us or anything,'' Steve whispered when Peter left Bucky's side for a second. ''But if they still do, promise you'll help me and not refuse to fight because you've got a huge crush on the guy?''

''You're an idiot. A true, pure idiot. Who should walk to Brooklyn.''

''Yeah, yeah, if you say so. Anyway… Hey, Tony?'' he called out, and the artist turned around, raising an eyebrow. ''How did you know when to wait for us?''

''Uh, yeah, good question. Long story short, a client of mine worked in the army. Still does, in a way, he works with veterans at a VA. Anyway, he still has some contact in the army; I asked him if he could get me some info about you, and he did. So there we are.''

''Impressive. Do you have any secret spy in your friends list too?''

''Pretty sure I do, actually. But don't tell Natasha I said that, she'd kill me. In my sleep. Painfully.''

''It sounds like you have some weird friends.''

''Oh god, you have no idea. Wait until you meet her.''

 

When they finally found Tony's car – the man had apparently forgotten in the space of an hour exactly where he had parked it, remembering only the floor, which was still impressively large – Peter jumped in his seat and begged Bucky to sit next to him, while Tony was carefully buckling him in.

 

''Is it even possible to resist those eyes?'' Bucky grumbled as he opened the door on the other side.

''Oh, you'll learn, at some point. At least you'll pretend to have learned. Still works on me, and it's been a few years.''

 

Bucky smiled up at Tony and slipped inside the car. It was small but clean and obviously taken good care of; the motor made a strong, satisfying noise when Tony turned it on, and classic rock blasted from the radio.

 

''Ugh, sorry, we had a bit of a karaoke on the road,'' Tony explained, quickly turning it off.

''At least you have good tastes. You wouldn't believe what some soldiers listen to. I don't think I'll be able to hear Taylor Swift singing without remembering some truly weird nights.''

 

Tony laughed and turned around to check no car was coming, winking at Bucky at the same time.

 

''I actually like Taylor Swift,'' he said. ''Good songs to sing under the shower where nobody can see or hear you. I can get the sort of problems it can lead to with soldiers, though.''

''I'll just say that you'd be surprised at how some of them can move their hips. Talk about the American dream.''

 

Tony burst out laughing – a great laugh, in Bucky's opinion.

 

''Yeah, okay, I definitely needed this mental picture. Thanks for that.''

 

The journey was longer than Bucky remembered, but he didn't complain, far from it: the company was good, and it was nice to see the city again after so much time. They talked books and dogs with Peter, while Tony shared tattoo anecdotes with Steve; at some point, they found common ground when Peter mentioned robots and Star Wars. That was apparently a favorite subject of Tony's, and he got all excited about it, even showing them the Star Wars tattoo done by his best friend on his bicep when they stopped at a red light.

 

''I'm thinking of getting another one,'' he said. ''Natasha made some great drawings of BB-8 and some are still available and staring at me every single day. If that's not torture, I don't know what it is. I know it's terribly cliché of me to ask, but do you guys have any tattoos?''

''Steve does but not me. Not yet, at least.''

''Oh yeah? Thinking of getting one, too?''

''Yeah, just haven't found the right idea yet.''

''We're having a flash night at the parlor in a few days. Cocktails, cookies and good music, I don't want to brag but it's always nice. You could come if you don't have anything planned. All three of us have drawings ready for it, and there are some other guests from all over the city. Maybe you'd find an idea?''

''Sure. We don't have much planned with Steve except sleeping in a real bed and eating hamburgers, so we'll probably make it.''

''Could you give us your phone number?'' Steve asked, and Bucky knew him well enough to hear the touch of laughter in his tone. ''So we can reach you if we need to?''

''Sure. Bucky, you can give your phone to Peter, he knows the number.''

 

When they finally reach their goal, and after Tony and Peter left – not without a lot of hugs and promises to see each other again very soon – Steve turned to Bucky and raised an eyebrow.

 

''I hope you noticed that he wrote his number in your phone when I was the one who asked.''

''Oh, shut up and move, your Ma's waiting.''

 

***

 

Tony looked around at the parlor, satisfied with what he saw. They had finally decided on a pop culture theme for the flash night, and the most famous themes from different movies were being broadcasted from a speaker in a corner of the room. Peter had offered some drawings of his own, cute versions of R2D2 and C3PO in a corner, some Pixar characters in another. Each artist who would tattoo this night had put together some sheets of different designs, Harry Potter mixing with Adventure Times and Disney.

The bartender from around the corner had helped too, giving them some recipes for cocktails – non-alcoholic ones, of course – they could serve this night, and Rhodey had bought what looked like tons of cookies.

This kind of nights usually attracted a lot of people, young and less young ones, some who were only curious, others who were determined to get tattooed, no matter how much time they had to wait outside – some had already been waiting for close to two hours, and Tony went out a few times to give them something to eat and drink, and check that everybody was alright.

 

His phone vibrated in his pocket and he took it out, smiling when he saw Bucky's text announcing that he and Steve had joined the line waiting to get in.

 

''Okay!'' he called out, and five tattoo artists turned around, instantly stopping their conversation. ''Everybody ready to let the crazy in?''

 

A chorus of yes answered and he gave them a thumbs-up, checking one last time before finally opening the door to let the people in.

The tattoo parlor – not really a small one – was immediately swarming with people who laughed and talked excitedly, running from one sheet of design to the other.

After a minute, Bucky and Steve went in, too, and Tony winked at them from where he was talking with a customer. He asked her to wait for a second and went to greet them with a quick hug.

 

''Hey, sorry, it's the busiest time of the night. Go take a look around, see if there's something you like. I'll probably be tattooing most of the time, but you can come talk to me if you've got any question, or ask Rhodey or Nat, they know who you are and they want to meet you.''

''No Peter?''

''He's staying with Rhodey's mom tonight, she asked if he wanted to see the last Cars movie with her and he couldn't resist.''

 

Someone tapped on his shoulder and he turned around to see a young man clutching a drawing in his hand.

 

''Found something you like, uh? Any idea where you want it tattooed?''

 

From there on, he barely saw Bucky and Steve again, spending hours tattooing until his wrist ached, and talking with whoever was on the chair.

Finally, after about four hours, he put the tattoo gun down for the last time and stretched painfully, grimacing when his back cracked loudly.

 

''Ow,'' he whined, rubbing at his eyes.

''Want a back rub?''

 

Bucky was behind him, grinning.

 

''I'd kill for one, actually. Why, is that an offer?''

''Mine are precious, so no. Maybe another time. What's up?''

''Not much. Something like seven tattoos and thirteen appointments, maybe? And you, did you get a tattoo?''

''Nah, you would have seen me if I did. I like what you do best, this Stormtrooper one was awesome. Steve got one from Natasha, though, he's a fan of Captain America and she had a drawing of the shield.''

''Steve, a fan of Captain America? Man, what a surprise. Look at how surprised I am. Surprising amounts of surprised.''

''I know, I know. That's actually one of his nicknames, I swear the guys will laugh at him for hours when they see it.''

''Please write to me when they do, I want to know all about it. Anyway, you met Nat and Rhodey, then?''

''Sure. You were right, Nat's probably a super spy. She's nice, though, and I'm pretty sure Steve's got it bad, but well, I get where he's coming from. Rhodey looks like a giant teddy bear but with more sass.''

''He does give the best cuddles, in case you need one.''

''He wouldn't have been my first choice in this room,'' Bucky admitted with a soft, shy smile. ''But that's good to know.''

 

Oh no, Tony could feel himself blushing, and that was just… no.

 

''Do we still have cookies?'' he asked, carefully avoiding Bucky's eyes

''Rhodey even ordered pizzas, I think. But Steve and me should go, the last train'll leave in a few minutes.''

''You know, you could say. I'll take Peter's room, and you and Steve can take mine, or the couch, whichever you like best. Then we can surprise the little guy tomorrow and spend the day together somewhere in the city. No pressure, it's fine if you've got something planned or just want some quiet time, but the offer's there.''

''Let me go talk to him and see what he thinks.''

 

Steve was still talking with Natasha, smiling goofily and joking around. Bucky rolled his eyes and bumped his shoulder against his friend's.

 

''Hey big guy, Tony's asking if we wanna stay with him tonight and spend the day with Peter tomorrow. You interested?''

 

Steve turned to Natasha and raised his eyebrows, to which she answered with a shrug.

 

''Your choice,'' she simply said, and smiled at Bucky.

''Nat asked if I wanted to go and have a drink with her after the pizzas, and see the city by night. Nothing against you, but I think I'll take her up on the offer.''

''Sure,'' Bucky grumbled, hitting him softly on the head. ''Leave me alone and go have some fun and drink alcohol, I'll be alright. See you, old friend.''

 

He left them, barely hearing Steve whispering about how he was such a drama queen, smirking to himself. Tony was waiting for him, sitting at his chair with a slice of pizza in his hands.

 

''So?''

''Looks like Steve's more interested in Natasha than in Peter, but I'll be there, if you still accept me.''

''Of course I do. What do you think of going to the Empire State tomorrow? We haven't been there in a while, and Peter told me you liked it up there, right?''

''Yeah, you're right. It's been a while for me, too. Think there's any way we could go to FAO after that? I'd like to get Peter something for his birthday, since I couldn't really find something in Afghanistan.''

''Sure. I'm sure he won't stop talking about that for weeks.''

 

***

 

Bucky felt… sad. Upset. Lost.

These two weeks back home had been amazing.

Of course, there were the most obvious sides of being back home: being able to sleep on a comfortable bed without weird noises around, enjoying some home-cooked meals, shopping for whatever you needed whenever you needed it…

And there were the most unexpected things, too.

Before leaving, he had felt that he would get close to Peter, but never this close. They had spent almost every day of these two weeks together, sometimes with Tony, and sometimes just watching movies in the flat when Tony was working. The little boy didn't leave Bucky's side anymore, plastered to him at all times, giving him hugs and cuddling up close whenever he could. The relative shyness of their first meeting had completely gone away, replaced by a little boy who never stopped talking and asking questions.

There was Tony, too. Bucky had learned to know him and his slight crush of the first day had only worsened. Tony was kind, generous, funny, awesome with his kid, ready to give everything to his friends, and beautiful. Day after day, Bucky had discovered things about him, and he was totally charmed.

And absolutely devastated now that he needed to leave.

 

Coming back from leaves was never easy for a soldier: it meant leaving family and friends behind, without the slightest idea of when or even if you would see them again at some point.

Not only was it hard for them, but it also took a toll on the people they left behind. Steve's ma was crying by the time they left, and Steve had tears in his eyes too, promising that he'd do his best to stay safe and come back soon.

Peter had been silent from the moment both soldiers had greeted him and gotten a quiet answer back, and even Tony's hands were clenched on the steering wheel, his eyes hard and his words few.

When they finally stopped at the airport, it was completely silent in the car for a few seconds, at least until Peter suddenly and unexpectedly burst out crying. He was clutching the big Winnie the Pooh soft toy Bucky had bought him a few days back and sobbing loudly, and Bucky could almost feel his heart breaking at the sight.

Tony hurried to get out of and around the car to open the door and talk to his son, but Bucky had already acted, taking Peter on his lap and hugging him tight.

 

''Hey buddy,'' he said softly, ''what's wrong?''

''I d-don't want you t-to leave,'' Peter sobbed in his neck, and Bucky stroked his hair gently, thinking cautiously about his answer.

''I know, it's hard, hm? We spent a lot of time together and now I leave and you don't know when you'll see me again. I'm sad, too, because it was really great to play together, and it would've been great to stay here in New York, but I can't. I have to go back to work, and it means that I'll be far away for a while. But you know we'll keep writing, right? I'll send a letter as soon as I'm back there, so you won't have to wait too long to have news and write back. And we've got a phone and even a laptop, so maybe we can try to call each other, or even talk on Skype, if your dad agrees. That'd be cool, right?''

 

Peter nodded, cautiously and softly, and Bucky placated a smile on his face for his sake.

 

''Yeah, we'll do that and it'll be really great. And you have Winnie to keep you company, and your dad! I bet you'll find lots of things to do with both of them, and you can tell me everything in your letters, okay? Maybe you can even send some drawings, so I can hang more of them on the walls, and show them to the others. You'll see, it'll be alright.''

 

Tony's hand joined his on Peter's back, and the little boy turned around, hiding in his father's arms.

 

''Bucky's right, you know. I'm sure you'll write each other a lot, and of course you can call him on Skype.''

''I'm still sad, Daddy.''

''Yeah, I know, honey, I'm sad too, because it was really great to spend time with Bucky and Steve. It's okay to be sad.''

 

Their eyes met, and Tony smiled tiredly and sadly above his son's shoulder. Bucky's heart tightened but he took a few deep breaths, swallowing back tears.

 

''Now Peter, do you think you can still help Bucky and Steve find the plane they have to take? It would be a problem if they missed it, can you imagine? They'd have to walk and swim back.''

 

Peter giggled, then rubbed at his eyes, promising he'd help so they wouldn't have to swim back.

Each of them had a smile – a wobbly smile, but still a smile – on their face when they got into the airport, and made their way to security. Once there, something caught Peter's eyes and he pulled his dad along, asking the two soldiers to wait for them. When they came back, the boy had a small dog soft toy in each hand, dogs that looked a lot like Cocoa. He gave one to Steve and one to Bucky.

 

''So you have something to keep you company,'' he explained, eyes wide and full of innocence. ''Because I'll have Cocoa, and Daddy, and Winnie, but you won't.''

 

They both promised that they would take great care of their new friend, and Steve took Peter in his arms, bouncing him around for a while to make him laugh, then kissed him a few times on his cheek to tell goodbye. He swore he'd send some more drawings for Peter's room if Peter sent drawings too, then shook Tony's hand and thanked him.

It was Bucky's turn to say goodbye, and he stubbornly kept smiling all the while, even if Peter cried a bit once more. He repeated his promise to write as soon as he arrived back at camp and to ask when he could phone Peter. He hugged him tight one last time, closing his eyes for a second and just enjoying the weight of the boy in his arms, then turned to Tony.

 

''Thanks for everything,'' he said, awkwardly extending his hand.

 

Tony rolled his eyes, though, and drew him in in a hug, keeping him there for a few seconds – and Bucky was not ashamed by the way he breathed in Tony's scent, a mix of cologne and ink.

 

''Take care of you,'' the man whispered. ''And come back as soon as you can and want, the door'll be open for you. And write.''

''I'll do my best,'' Bucky promised, the best thing he could promise in his situation.

 

Tears were definitely in his eyes this time, and he didn't wait too long to turn around and get in line for security. Once on the other side, he turned around one last time and waved, looking at the little boy in his dad's arms and wondering despite himself if he would see them again one day.

 

''Come on, Buck, the longer you stay, the harder it'll be for all of you,'' Steve said, pulling him along gently, and Bucky nodded, looking one last time before he followed his best friend.

 

They walked for a while in silence, until they were sure to be out of sight. Then Steve stopped in a corner out of the way and took Bucky in his arms, hugging him tight.

 

''I don't know how parents do it,'' whispered the soldier. ''It's fucking hard.''

''Yeah. Yeah, Buck, I know.''

 

They stayed that way for a while longer, and, if Bucky cried for a bit, well… he knew Steve wouldn't judge him for it.

 

***

 

''You look like shit, Tones.''

''Oh well, good morning to you too, Rhodey.''

 

The man snorted and came closer to him, watching Tony get everything ready for his next customer.

 

''You miss him, right?''

''Who?''

''Oh, come on, don't play dumb with me. You miss Bucky.''

 

For a few seconds, Tony didn't say anything, just kept doing what he needed to do, until he sighed and sat down.

 

''It's stupid, I know.''

''I never said it was stupid, Tony.''

''But it is. I've known the guy for, what? Two weeks? Come on, I can't miss someone I've known for two weeks.''

''Of course you can. Especially as it's Bucky and he's awfully nice, and funny, and cute. What? Don't look at me like that, man! I'm straight, not blind.''

''That's not what you say when I ask you what I look like.''

''That's because I don't want you to think I'm flirting with you.''

''We'd be an awesome couple, though.''

''Or not. Anyway, you're trying to distract me, and that hasn't worked in years, Tony.''

''It was worth the try, I regret nothing. It's just…'' Tony sighed and rubbed at his eyes. ''I don't know if he'll ever come back. I'm not stupid, I know he's in danger no matter what he tells Peter, and I never know if his letter is just late or if he's been hurt or killed and I just know nothing about it. I could manage the missing thing if I knew when he'd come back, but I don't know, so I just have the letters he writes me, and some phone calls, and I can't tell anything to Peter, because it's already hard as hell for him to understand why Bucky lives so far away. What will I tell him if Bucky can't ever come back?''

''Wow, slow down there, Tony. You're thinking too much about things that may never happen. Sure, being a soldier is dangerous, but that doesn't mean he'll die tomorrow, and anyway, I'm sure you'd be informed if something happened, he wouldn't just leave you hanging.''

''It's still fucking hard.''

''Maybe you should talk to Sam, I'm sure he could give you some advice, or someone else could.''

''That's… that's a good idea, actually. Maybe I could even bring Peter along, right?''

''You look so surprised when I have a good idea, it's awful. I'm hurt. Anyway, did you say he writes letters to you, now?''

''You know, I really have to get ready for…''

 

Rhodey stared at his friend, and Tony visibly swallowed.

 

''You are a terrifying man. But yes, he writes to me now, not just to Peter. Tells me about things he can't tell Peter, the kind of stupid things soldiers do, what he feels like, this kind of stuff. It's nice. He's nice.''

''Your crush is beginning to show, Tony.''

''You know, I have needles in here. Needles I wouldn't be afraid to use if you keep mocking me. Don't tempt me, Rhodey. Don't. Tempt. Me.''

 

His friend burst out laughing and clapped Tony on the back.

 

''It's cute. I like it.''

 

***

 

Dear Tony,

 

I know it must have been weird to see only one letter in your mail box today.

I'm sorry about it, and I hope Peter wasn't there when you saw it, so he doesn't feel disappointed or hurt.

I'll get to the point quickly: I'm writing this from the hospital.

Three days back, we were on the field when we got attacked. We were able to defend ourselves and left without casualty, but some of us got hurt, and I was among them.

I can almost hear you panicking from where I stand – well, where I lie, okay – and please stop. It wasn't anything too bad: a bullet touched me and I had to get stitched up. As the wound is on my right arm, and I'm right-handed, it mostly means a few days of rest for me, and hours of boredom in a bed. Plus, the food is shit.

Steve's writing this for me during a visit, as I can't exactly write myself right now.

I'll say it once more: I'm all right, it's not anything too bad and I'll be back in the field in no time, so don't worry for me, please. I only let you know so you wouldn't worry waiting for a late letter.

Tell Peter if you feel like it, or don't – I'll write anyway as soon as I can, as usual, and I won't mention it, so it's up to you.

I hope everything's all right with both of you.

 

Bucky

 

''The asshole fucking writes it like nothing at all happened! 'Oh, hey, Tony, what's up? By the way, I almost die. Bye!' Seriously, what the fuck?'' Tony almost yelled at Natasha, both of them alone in the closed tattoo parlor.

''Okay, calm down. He told you everything was alright.''

''Yeah, that's what he told, sure, but the guy got attacked and took a bullet! Don't tell me to calm down!''

''That's his job, Tony,'' Natasha reminded him softly. ''It's hard, but it's the truth and you have to deal with it.''

 

When Tony finally looked at her, he saw his own pain and anxiety reflected in her eyes and he sighed. She didn't talk much about it, but he knew she was still in contact with Steve, and the man had probably told her what happened, too.

 

''I'm sorry, Nat, I know it's hard for you too. Steve was there too, right?''

 

She nodded and Tony took her hands in his own, squeezing them.

 

''Fuck, I thought it'd get easier with some time, but… no. I'm worried sick about him, and it's hard on Peter too. I told him about what happened, and he was full of questions. 'Is it dangerous for him where he is?' 'Will he get hurt again?' 'But he'll come back, daddy, right?' What the hell am I supposed to answer when he asks this kind of things?''

''The truth, Tony. Well, not the entire truth,'' she admitted when he looked at her like she was crazy. ''But he knows what a soldier is, some of the kids in his school have soldiers for parents. Peter's smart, you know that, he'll understand. You told me you took him to the VA center a few weeks back, right?''

''Yeah. He talked with Sam, and Sam asked if we wanted to take part in some group. I told him no, but maybe I'll change my mind, now. It could be good for Peter.''

''And for you, too, Tony. You're not sleeping enough at night, I can see it. And don't try to lie, I've known you for years, I know what you look like when you're tired.''

 

He sighed and rubbed at his eyes, hiding behind his fingers.

 

''I know you'll make fun of me for that, but… I'd really like to see him again, you know. He's… he's really nice.''

''You like him,'' Natasha tries to clarify.

''I don't… honestly, Nat, I don't know. We don't know each other this well, and I don't even know if he's straight or bi or gay or whatever. He never told me, even if he did kinda flirt with me back when he was here. I can't tell that I like him, but I can tell that I could like him with a bit more time.''

''Then, Tony, I sincerely hope you'll have more time soon. You deserve to find someone like him.''

 

Natasha's eyes were soft and filled with love when Tony looked back up, and he smiled at her, before wrapping his arms around her.

 

''Thanks for that. You deserve it, too. And Steve does seem like a nice guy, too. Maybe not nice enough for you, but I'm not sure guys this nice actually exist.''

 

***

 

That had been a terrible, awful idea. My God, what was he even doing there? He hadn't told Tony, maybe the guy wasn't even in the city. Oh shit, that would suck. He'd just go back to Steve's car and drown in his shame and stupidity, and-

The door opened and Bucky startled, looking up right in Natasha's eyes. Her mouth was hanging open and he smiled, all awkward.

 

''Hey, um, surprise? Are Tony and Peter there? I, uh, Steve and me, we got leave, we didn't really know about it until the last minute, and-''

''Tony and Peter are in the office, they're doing homework,'' Natasha answered, and the ability she had to deal with any situation would probably always surprise Bucky. ''Steve's there?''

''Yeah, he's in the car, he wasn't sure you'd be there this late.''

 

He almost didn't get the time to finish his sentence before Natasha pushed him to get out and go see Steve.

 

''Thanks!'' he called out with a smirk in his voice. ''And have a good night!''

 

His only answer was a small chuckle, and then he entered the parlor silently. He wasn't really considering staying there for hours, but he was… he didn't quite know what to do and if his surprise would be a good one.

He'd told the truth to Natasha: they hadn't known about the leave almost until they were on the plane, and he didn't really think about the option to call Tony and let him know he was on his way. Instead, he just decided to come straight to the parlor and surprise Peter and his father.

And right now, he was almost regretting this decision.

 

He braced himself, though, and walked to the door to the small office, where he could hear voices arguing about the colors of lions and tigers.

A smile came on his lips and he lifted his hand to knock.

 

''You can open the door, Peter, it's probably Nat checking we're still alive,'' came a muffled but oh so familiar voice.

 

The sound of small bare feet running followed, and then the door opened.

 

''Surprise!'' Bucky chuckled.

Chapter Text

''Bucky!!'' Peter shrieked, and Tony looked up so suddenly that he heard his neck make a loud and slightly worrying noise.

 

He winced, but seeing Bucky standing right there, in his office, quickly made him forget about the pain. That was definitely unexpected, he decided after thinking back to the last letters they had received and concluding that he couldn't remember Bucky ever mentioning the fact that he would be back soon.

Questions would have to come later though, because right now, Peter was wrapped up all tight in the soldier's arms – and yeah, wow, the uniform definitely looked good on Bucky –, babbling endlessly about the tons of things he had done while Bucky was away, and what they could do now that he was back, the movies that he had to see, the books they should read and–

 

''Wow, wow, Peter, calm down, there, let Bucky breathe! Did you even say hello?''

''Hello, Bucky,'' the little boy said obediently.

''Hello, Peter,'' the man answered with a smile. ''Hey Tony. How are you guys doing?''

''Trying to deal with the surprise right now. Good surprise, though. Definitely good. What about you, how are you? How's the arm?''

 

Tony finally got up to welcome Bucky properly, drawing him in a quick but tight embrace.

 

''I'm alright, tired but alright. And the arm's great, if it weren't for the scar, you wouldn't even know something happened.''

''A scar?'' Peter exclaimed, eyes wide. ''Can I see it?''

''Peter!'' Tony protested, rolling his eyes. ''What did we say about insensitive questions?''

''Don't ask what you wouldn't like people to ask you,'' Peter recited obediently. ''But Daddy, I like when people ask about my scars.''

''Yeah, okay, but… You know what? Just don't ask that question. You'll understand later.''

 

Bucky was watching them talk with a small, fond smile, leaning heavily against the wall.

 

''You look exhausted,'' Tony frowned, and walked right in front of him, close enough to look at the heavy bags under his eyes. ''You are exhausted. Are you sleeping at Steve's house?''

''Nope. He took Nat back there, so, um… yeah, no,'' he explained in as few words as he could, glancing at Peter. ''I saw there was an hotel right next to the parlor, though, so I'll just check in there and get a good night of sleep.''

''Nonsense. We won't let you sleep in an hotel when we have plenty of space up there. Right, buddy?''

''Yeah, Bucky, stay with us! Maybe you can sleep in my room.''

''Definitely not,'' his dad said firmly, rolling his eyes at Bucky. ''I know you, you won't get any sleep if Bucky's there and then you'll be all cranky tomorrow. No, thanks. You'll take my bed, Bucky, and I'll take the couch, I'm smaller than you, I'll fit.''

''Tony, you don't have to-''

''I know I don't have to, but I want to. So come on, let's go up there, I bet you're hungry too. Grilled cheese okay with you?''

 

Bucky nodded, thankful, and Tony led the way, grabbing the soldier's heavy bag as he went. He was about to protest, but Peter grabbed his hand and, when he looked down, he saw the little boy grinning at him, his eyes shining.

 

''I'm so happy to see you,'' Peter whispered. ''When Daddy said you were hurt, I was scared. Do you have to go back again?''

''I do, yes. But I promise I'll be careful and try not to get hurt again. And,'' he added when the little boy's smile fell, ''I'll tell you a secret: I'll be back real soon. Don't tell your dad, though, ok? It's just between you and me for now.''

''I won't say anything. I'm really good at secrets!''

''I bet you are,'' the soldier chuckled at the same time Tony called them to see what was taking so long. ''Come on, now, your dad's getting impatient, let's go before he eats everything.''

 

***

 

That was really nice, Bucky thought as he licked his chocolate ice cream. Really nice, and he could get used to it really quick, too.

He'd been back in the city for two days, and had spent the weekend with Peter and Tony, playing with the little boy on Saturday and helping him with his homework when his dad had to go back to work for a few hours. On Sunday, they'd spent a lazy day all together, watching cartoons and playing with Legos – Tony had made a ridiculously high tower, that he'd so modestly called the Stark Tower, and Bucky had sticked with little houses that looked almost ridiculous in comparison – until it was Peter's bedtime. They'd read a story together and the little boy had fallen asleep with a big smile on his lips.

This morning, Peter had had to go back to school, which had led to a big tantrum, as he absolutely refused to leave Bucky's side for more than ten minutes when he was awake. He'd only calmed down when his dad had reminded him that it was his own free day, and that they would spend the afternoon together in the city if Peter stopped crying and tried to understand that life still had to go on even when a guest was home. Peter was still frowning when they left him at his school's doors, but at least he wasn't crying anymore, and he'd kissed his dad goodbye like he always did. Bucky had wanted to apologize or possibly disappear for the whole ordeal, but Tony had quickly reassured him as soon as Peter was out of earshot, telling him that it still happened when only Tony was home. It looked like the little boy had a hard time understanding that he couldn't take part in everything his father was doing.

 

So now he was alone with Tony, in the park close to the parlor, licking his ice cream, joking around and talking. And he was enjoying that so much that he didn't really want it to stop any time soon. It was so easy to be with Tony, as if they'd known each others for years rather than a few months writing letters to each other. Bucky, who hadn't really had anyone to talk to apart from his fellow soldiers for years, had been afraid at first, that he wouldn't really remember how to do this sort of things, how to talk without using strategic acronyms and private jokes. He'd been afraid that Tony would refuse to hear about his experience as a soldier, but it was the complete opposite: the man listened to him no matter what he said. He listened when Bucky was sharing frustrations with the way the army was organized; he listened when Bucky complained about their current president and told him about what the other soldiers thought of him; he listened when Bucky needed to get a weight off of his chest and told him about how scared he'd been the day he was hit.

And more than simply listening, he seemed to know what to say to Bucky. He didn't tell him he knew what it was to get shot – Bucky hated when other non-soldiers people said that they knew what it was like to risk your like on the field every day –, or that he didn't have the right to get afraid since he'd chosen this life. He just found the right, comforting words.

 

''I like to be with you,'' Bucky blurted suddenly in a moment of silence, blushing furiously when Tony turned to look at him in surprise. ''It's… refreshing, you know? I mean, I knew before I met him that I would love Peter, but you- you're great, Tony, you're something else. I hope…''

 

He stopped, hesitated, but Tony's warm hand on his shoulder and his encouraging eyes made him finish.

 

''I hope we'll have more time together,'' he confessed, avoiding Tony's stare. ''I feel like, like maybe there could be something more there, you know? Maybe it's stupid – hell, it's probably stupid, but…''

''It's not stupid,'' Tony stopped him, and when Bucky finally looked up, he was smiling, something shy and vulnerable on his face. ''It's really not. I… My God, Natasha will laugh so hard when I'll tell her what you said, but I, yeah. Feel the same way about, about more time. I'd like that, I'd really like that, to see where we could go. Pretty sure Peter would like that too,'' he added with a small grin, and Bucky smiled back.

 

They stayed silent for a couple of seconds, looking at each other, and then Bucky sighed.

 

''It's gonna be my last tour,'' he confessed. ''When I come back in a couple of months, I'll come back for good.''

''Really?''

''Yeah. It's… I realized I wanted something else, now. It's terrifying, honestly, to know that I'll come back with no idea of what to do and no education to speak of behind me, but it doesn't feel right anymore to me, to be over there. It's harder every day, and I don't feel up to doing it for much longer. Steve feels the same way; we talked it out a few weeks back. At least we'll still be together when I come back, y'know? I won't be all by myself struggling to find what to do with my life,'' he chuckled darkly.

''You wouldn't have been, even if Steve had decided to stay,'' Tony said quietly. ''If you wanted me there, I'd be there and help in any way I could, gladly.''

 

Bucky swallowed, and when he looked up at Tony, the artist was already watching him, these beautiful brown eyes focused on him. A warm hand gripped and squeezed his left hand and he looked down for a second, noting the way their fingers linked so beautifully, before his eyes went back to Tony's face. Almost unconsciously, he inched closer to him, feeling his warmth even through their clothes, until their shoulders were touching.

He waited for what seemed to him a long time, waiting to see if Tony would protest or get away, but he didn't. And so, slowly, carefully, Bucky wrapped his hand around the back of his neck and kissed him, softly, like a promise. Tony's lips – so nice, so warm – opened under his and he exhaled softly, the air hot on Bucky's skin, making him shiver.

The kiss was short and soft but still, Bucky was panting when he found the courage to let go of Tony.

 

''I can't, Bucky,'' Tony whispered, almost sadly. ''Can't do much more than that right now, not before you come back. It wouldn't be fair to Peter, or to you, and–''

''I know,'' Bucky answered as quietly. ''I know you can't. It's just – just so I know this isn't all a dream, that it's real. So I know that there's something, someone waiting for me when I'll come back.''

''I will. I will wait for you, I promise. I'll wait in the airport, and you'll run and kiss me, and we'll put it on YouTube with one of these awfully sad songs, so people will cry looking at us,'' Tony smiled, and Bucky chuckled softly.

 

He put his forehead down on Tony's shoulder, the artist's arm wrapping around his waist almost instinctively, and sighed.

 

''Thank you,'' he whispered, and smiled when Tony's arm tightened around him.

 

They stayed that way for a few minutes in a comfortable silence, watching the people play, run and talk around them, most of them ignoring the two men in an embrace, some smiling fondly at them. It was one of those perfect moments that Bucky'd relive a hundred times over when he was alone in the desert.

 

''We should go, Peter'll have a fit if we're not there at his school when he gets out.''

''Sure,'' Bucky groaned but didn't move an inch.

 

Tony laughed, a clear, pure sound, and shook him gently. With a last groan, Bucky sat up reluctantly, smiling when he felt Tony's fingers playing with his hair.

 

''You should maybe stop doing that, or we'll spend the whole afternoon on this bench. And I distinctly remember that we promised Peter an afternoon together.''

''Yeah, yeah, you're right. C'me on, up, let's go!''

 

***

 

Last night. It was his last time in New York for a couple of months, and, once more, Bucky was not ready to leave.

He sighed and his shoulders slumped, tears prickling in his eyes. Tony and Peter were both waiting for him in the living room, and here he was, having an existential crisis in their bathroom.

A sound, half-sob, half-chuckle, escaped from his throat, and he closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and swallowed back his panic.

It's going to be okay, he thought, hands gripping the sink. You're going to go back there for a few weeks, and then come back to Tony and Peter, and it's going to be–

There was a soft knock on the door, and Tony's worried voice:

 

''Everything alright in there?''

''Yeah,'' Bucky answered, but even to his ears, his voice sounded wrecked and weak. '' 'm alright.''

''Can I come in?'' Tony asked after a second.

 

Silently, Bucky opened the door and listened to Tony coming in and closing the door behind him.

A hand wrapped around his waist and, a second later, his face was buried against Tony's warm chest. He chuckled, but his hands gripped Tony's soft shirt almost desperately anyway. Talented hands were playing with his hair delicately, and he sighed, burrowing closer to the shorter man.

 

''I know that it's not the same at all for you, Bucky, but it's hard for me, too. I can promise you one thing, though, if that can help. Peter and me will be waiting for you when you come back. No matter when it is, or what you decide to do next, if you want us by your side, we'll be there. Damn, Bucky, I'm pretty sure you'll get tired of us before we get tired of you, but–''

''Not gonna happen,'' Bucky mumbled, and Tony's arms tightened around him for a little while.

''Okay, then. Well, then you know we'll be there, and help you when you come back. We'll get to spend a lot of time together, and Peter might finally show you every book and movie he likes. It's nice, I won't be the only one watching The Lion King about three times a day, that'll make for some nice change. And when you're over there, we'll write often, so you won't even have time to miss us, or maybe just a tiny bit. If you do, you can complain about it with Steve, because I'm pretty sure he's having the same sort of moment right now, am I right?''

 

Bucky nodded and Tony smiled against his skin.

 

''Right. So the both of you will wax poetic about the people you miss, and the other soldiers will terribly regret the period when you hadn't met Peter yet. Is that a deal?''

''Yeah. Yeah, that's a deal.''

''Great! Now, I think Peter's waiting for us, but I told him he could draw something while waiting for us. He wanted us to watch Up, can you imagine? I cry watching it even on the happiest of days,'' he admitted, and his voice wavered the slightest bit. ''Asked him to watch Winnie the Pooh or Paddington instead. I'm in the mood for some silly bear. Anyway, there was a question I wanted to ask you here somewhere. Uh. Yeah. Do you need some more time in here?''

''Just a minute, and then I'll be alright.''

''Sure,'' Tony agreed easily enough, and he hummed when Bucky thanked him. ''Up, I swear, this kid's got no pity for his old dad. We're lucky he didn't ask to watch Inside Out, because this movie makes me sob, and not the pretty kind of sobbing, oh no.''

''I've never seen it,'' Bucky mumbled.

''No? Well, we'll watch it when you come back. I hope you'll support me in my sobbing party.''

 

That was so nice to hear, Tony's easy way to say he'd come back and be with them again for a movie as if there wasn't a few months in a desert with gun fights between both points.

 

''Well, I tend to be a heavy crier when I watch sad movies, too,'' he smiled. ''So I guess that'll make two of us.''

''Finally! Rhodey and Nat just stare at me with so much judgement, I swear they have no heart. How can you watch Up and not cry? Damn.''

''Uh, yeah, that's a sad one if there's ever been one.''

''Right? Ugh, now I really need some silly bear to make me forget this movie.''

 

***

 

Tony was about two seconds away from having his own breakdown into one of the airport's bathrooms, but for Bucky and Peter's sake, he took one deep, deep breath and soldiered – ah! – on, never stopping his silly comments about how some people shouldn't be allowed to drive suitcases without a license. Bucky and Peter's smiles were small, and tired, but still, they smiled, and even Steve and Natasha, following them a few steps back, occasionally laughed.

They reached security and, after a quick look at his friend, Steve ruffled Peter's hair fondly.

 

''Hey buddy, do you think you can help me choose something to read on the flight?'' he asked innocently, pointing at the little bookshop right next to security. ''Bucky told me you loved to read. We'll come back right after so you can say goodbye, promise!''

''Okay, Steve,'' Peter nodded with a grin, and Tony made a mental note to thank Steve as soon as he could.

 

Natasha followed them, and now he was alone with Bucky – or, at least, as alone as you could be in a crowded airport.

They both sighed at exactly the same time, and Tony snorted.

 

''What a depressing pair we are, really. C'me here.''

 

He opened his arms and Bucky came closer eagerly, his cheeks rough with stubble tickling Tony's neck. He was shaking slightly, and Tony put a comforting hand on his back, above the uniform.

 

''You'll be alright,'' he whispered encouragingly. ''A bit less than three months, and then we're back together. I did promise you a nice welcome back, too, so there's that to think about, work on your surprised expression so our YouTube video can really be successful. Seriously, Bucky,'' he said, taking a step back to look the soldier in his eyes, ''we'll be there, and it'll be really nice. So stay strong over there, okay? And don't–''

 

His voice wavered and he closed his eyes, counting to three to calm down.

 

''Don't do anything stupid. I need you to come back, I really do. And Peter really does, too. We need more cuddles and movie nights, and I need you to cry with me and make me feel less alone. Okay?''

''I promise I'll do my best, Tony. I want more of that too.''

 

Absentmindedly, Bucky traced one of Tony's tattoos – Peter's name in large, looped black letters – with one finger, staring into his beautiful brown eyes. Tony smiled a watery smile and put a strand of hair back behind his ear after a quick look around them to check nobody was paying too much attention.

 

''I can't wait,'' he said, all soft and sincere, and drew Bucky back in his arms.

 

They couldn't stay together very long, though; their friends came back and Peter jumped into Bucky's arms. He hadn't cried this time – and it broke his father's heart a little, to see how fast he'd gotten used to the fact that Bucky had to leave – but he was still sad and grumpy, and had asked Bucky about a hundred of times when he'd come back.

This time, as Tony was saying goodbye to Steve and wishing him a good flight, he overheard Peter's whispers, a plea for Bucky to come back fast and spend more time with him, and keep away from the bad guys. The soldier's eyes distinctly watered, but he swallowed his tears back and hugged the little boy tight. He didn't make any promise to him, and it was painful to think about why he refused to make promises, but still tried to reassure him as best as he could.

 

''And you'll write, right, Peter?''

''Yeah! Me and Dad will write every day, so you never spend a day without having a letter. And we'll send chocolate and stuff, so you can eat what you like. We'll send some to Steve, too!''

''That's great, buddy, thank you very much,'' Steve said with an earnest smile.

 

He kissed Natasha goodbye with whispered words that Tony didn't hear – and didn't really want to hear either – and gave Peter one last hug. The little boy thankfully didn't make too much of a fuss when he had to leave Bucky, which was a good thing because Tony was pretty sure that he would have begun to cry if Peter had, and, after a few last waves and words of encouragement to the soldiers, they watched them turn their back and pass security. They refused to leave as long as they could still see them on the other side. Even after they's disappeared around a corner, they stayed standing in the middle of the hall,  staring at where they had last seen them, people passing around them, living their own life and giving their own goodbyes.

 

***

 

Dear Bucky,

 

I tattooed a veteran today. Damn, I can't even tell you how powerful and emotional that was.

He wanted something to remember the ones who fell. He spent the three hours it took telling me anecdotes about them and about his life overseas. He was crying by the end, when he saw the result – and to be honest, I was too. You know, I think that it's for this kind of moments that I like my job so much. I get to put important memories into people's skin, so they'll never forget, and I get to see their reaction when they look at it. What else could I ask for?

He told me to tell you to stay strong and never give up.

So I'm telling you: Bucky, stay strong, and don't ever give up.

 

In happier news, Peter discovered he loved Brooklyn. Wanted me to buy him history books and guides. I wonder who he got that from, uh?

By the way, I know you worry for him, so I'm telling you, don't, he's really alright. He misses you like crazy – of course he does, even Cocoa misses you like crazy – and can't stop talking of you and of everything you didn't have time to do, but he's alright. He told me yesterday he thinks of you every night, and that he hopes you can feel it where you are. I do too, now. I really hope you can feel it.

Damn, that turned nostalgic and sad really fast, didn't it? I'm telling you, I suck at these letters. I should ask Peter some tips. I've seriously never seen him as focused as he is when he's writing you. He said he has a list he keeps to know what he told you about, and what he still needs to tell you. His friends help, too; it was Wade's idea – he's one of his friends from school, kinda weird, but nice – to ask you about Harry Potter. And what an idea: now he can't stop talking about Harry Potter and wants me to read them to him. How do I explain he's still a bit too young? Ugh, this boy hates hearing me say you'll understand when you're older.

Just so you know, I'm a Ravenclaw too. Glad to hear you're not one of these Gryffindor snobs; these people are crazy.

 

Natasha is brooding. I've known her for ten years, and I don't think I've ever seen her brooding until now. Let me tell you, it's terrifying. She eats cookies all day long and I think I've heard Chasing Cars about two thousand times these last ten days. I feel like someone's going to die really soon – side effect of Grey's Anatomy, this show's ruined me for some songs.

Anyway, tell Steve to send her some sexy letters so she stops brooding for a couple of days. We all live in fear of forgetting cookies right now.

 

What else can I say? I miss you, Bucky. We had a movie night yesterday with Rhodey and Natasha, to try and get her spirits back up. We watched Titanic – yeah, I know, way to go to make someone happier. Needless to say, they both laughed at me as I sobbed my heart out, and no one was there to get me ice cream when Jack let go. I missed you then, and I still miss you today. I need someone to sob with me, and that's your official role now. You can't escape from it!

I saw a Paddington soft toy yesterday in a toy shop. So now it's waiting for you in my room, because it was too cute and it made me think of you and this adorable movie. I'm telling you, the bear alone is a good enough reason to come back. It's cute and so soft, I could cuddle with it for hours.

Even though I'd rather cuddle with you.

 

Um, that was maybe a bit too much. But still, I miss your hugs, I won't lie.

We're all thinking about you here.

 

Stay strong, Bucky.

 

Tony

 

***

 

''It's been ten days, Natasha,'' Tony mumbles from where his head is resting on the redhead's lap.

''I know.''

 

She sounds as stressed out as Tony feels, and that definitely isn't a good sign. He sits up, looks at her, at the dark circles under her eyes and the tense way she's sitting.

 

''You don't have any news from Steve either, do you?''

 

With a sigh, she shakes her head, and Tony groans.

 

''We shouldn't worry, though. Maybe they had to leave for a mission, or something like that. Maybe there's a problem with mail, and that's it.''

''You're right,'' Natasha agrees. ''We shouldn't worry.''

''You're worried too, right?'' he asks after a beat of silence.

 

She nods, and Tony groans again.

Usually, he gets one of Bucky's letter every week at least, sometimes every three days – they don't even wait for the other's letters to arrive first before sending one, they just write whenever they want or need to. It's costing him a small fortune in stamps, but whatever, it's for Bucky, it's not a problem.

Now, though, it's been ten days since his last letter, and there wasn't any mention of a long mission in the last one. Just mundanities about how the other soldiers pissed him off with their bad jokes, and how Steve was, apparently, also brooding.

He has a bad feeling about this, to be honest.

 

''I have a ba–'', he begins, but Natasha cuts him with a hand in front of his mouth before he can finish.

''Don't say it. It's bad luck.''

 

He shrugs and lies back down on her lap, eyes closed. Her fingers are playing with his hair, and he relaxes slightly, wondering how exactly he'd feel if Nat wasn't there to at least support him.

 

''Peter doesn't really get it,'' he said softly. ''I told him maybe Bucky had to leave in a hurry and that he couldn't write where he was, but he's still worried.''

''I know, I've seen him check the mail every hour.''

''Yeah,'' he sighed sadly. ''I tried to explain that it wouldn't really change anything, but looks like it helps him, so whatever, right?''

''He'll be alright,'' Natasha soothed him. ''Don't worry, whatever happens, we'll all be alright.''

 

***

 

''Tony!''

 

He froze as he heard Nat's tight voice calling him from the shop and took a deep breath. Bad feeling. He'd know there was something wrong.

 

''Coming!'' he called back and rushed downstairs.

 

Natasha was pacing in the office, clutching her phone to her ear and face so pale that it was worrying. Without thinking about it, Tony led her to one of the chairs and made her sit down gently. She looked up at him, and he swallowed, his throat suddenly dry, when he saw the tears in her eyes. Without a word, she held the phone out to him, and he took it, hands shaking.

 

''Hello?'' he cleared his throat when his voice came out all shaky.

''Tony,'' Steve sighed at the other end of the phone. ''It's me, it's Steve.''

 

His voice was hoarse, rough, like he'd been shouting or– or crying.

 

''Steve. Steve, what's happening?''

 

A sob answered, and he closed his eyes, fingers tightening painfully around the small phone. Suddenly, Natasha's hands were there, on his shoulders, helping him keep calm at least for a little while.

 

''Breathe, Steve, come on. Can you… can you tell me what's wrong?''

''It's Bucky. Tony, it's Bucky.''

Chapter Text

''We were in the truck,'' Steve explained in an exhausted monotone. ''Going back to camp. Just– just talking. Bucky was half-asleep, right next to the window. They were waiting for us, they knew when we were going to be there. We're… lucky. They weren't that well organized. I…''

 

There was a pained sound on the other end of the line, and Tony wiped at his still dry eyes, blood pounding in his temples.

 

''Bucky… Bucky was the unlucky one. The door on his side of the truck got blown up. We were able to get him under cover fast, but- but there was a huge chunk of metal from the door in his arm. His left arm. He lost a lot of blood as we were waiting for rescue.'' He swallowed thickly. ''A lot of blood.''

 

He fell silent, ragged breathing the only sound left. Tony had to swallow back tears hard before finding the courage to ask:

 

''Is he alive? Steve, please, tell me. Is Bucky alive?''

''Yes. Jesus, Tony, yes, he's alive. Sorry, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have– shouldn't have told you like that, I'm, I'm exhausted.''

''Alright,'' Tony said, and let himself slide down to the floor, Natasha following him silently. ''Alright, it's okay, Steve. Just– how is he then? Is he–?''

''He's in the hospital,'' the soldier answered, and he was slightly calmer now, his words less breathless. ''He… they tried everything. They managed to close down the wound at first, but… Then it got infected, from the dirt and the sand and all of that.''

 

Tony heard him gulp, and he knew what would follow, even before Steve said it.

 

''They had to amputate. Yesterday.''

 

Knowing it didn't mean that it didn't hurt, apparently. Natasha, sitting next to him and listening to what Steve was saying, put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him closer, silently supporting him.

 

''He was barely conscious when they took the decision to… you know. And he hasn't woken up yet.''

''Shit,'' Tony croaked, feeling the beginnings of an headache. ''Are you staying with him?''

''Yeah. Just left him for a few minutes to call you – Clint's with him though, another soldier from our group. He won't be alone when he wakes up, Tony, I can promise you that.''

''Great. That's… okay, great. Are you still in the desert, then?''

''Yeah,'' Steve chuckled tiredly. ''Military hospital. They'll transfer him to the States as soon as he's stable enough. I'll let you know when we'll be back as soon as I know it, okay?''

''Thank you Steve. For letting me know and everything. But what about you? How are you?''

''I wasn't badly hurt. A few scratches here and there, but nothing too bad. I'll come back with Bucky, probably, at least if they let me – and I really hope they do. So… yeah.''

''Steve,'' Natasha finally spoke up, ''that's not what Tony was asking.''

 

There was a long beat of silence, and then a long, pained sigh.

 

 ''I don't know. And I'm not just saying this so I don't have to answer, honestly. It's just… everything's going really fast over here. I didn't have much time to sit down and think – and I'm not really complaining about it. I guess it's going to sink in at some point, and that's not going to be pretty. But for now, Bucky needs me to be here for me, so I am.''

 

Tony gave her phone back to Natasha after that, leaving her to talk with Steve for a few minutes more. Stumbling, he took the few steps to the little bathroom adjacent to the office, and splashed his face with the coldest water possible. It helped a bit; made him find his bearings and realize what he'd heard and what had happened.

Bucky had been hurt, badly hurt. He was alive, not alone, but hurt, and not in a way that could easily be overlooked. Losing a limb, that was something that traumatized people. Of course, most of them lived very well with it; that didn't mean that they couldn't be happy and have a normal life. But there were some who…

 

''He's strong,'' a soft voice said, stopping his thoughts. ''You know he is.''

''I know he is,'' he agreed, his own voice shaking. ''But…''

''No but.''

 

Natasha came closer and made Tony turn around with soft touches. There was deep love on her face, and unfailing support in the way her finger stroked his cheek.

 

''It's not gonna be easy, on either of you. Of us,'' she corrected after a second. ''It's probably even going to be really difficult on some days. But Tony, from what I know of Bucky, and of you, I'm pretty sure that Bucky's stronger than even he knows. And you too: you'll be able to help him more than you think, with Peter. Bucky's going to survive this, and will probably come out of this stronger than ever.''

 

He opened his mouth to answer, struggling to find the right words to thank her… and gave up quickly, hugging her to his chest instead.

 

''It's so unfair,'' he whispered, closing his eyes against the tears. ''They were going to come back.''

''Oh, I know, honey, I know. But it's going to be okay, I promise. You're not alone in this.''

 

***

 

While Rhodey was out to go get Peter from school, Tony took the time to sit down, process the information, and think about how he should tell Peter.

He couldn't not say anything; the little boy was smart enough to notice when his father wasn't feeling good and, anyway, he would notice that letters had stopped coming. More than that, Tony didn't want to lie to his son. He'd had enough of that when he was a kid himself, he absolutely did not want to do the same mistake with his own child.

So he had to tell him. But Peter was only seven, for God's sake, how was he supposed to find the right words? Luckily, Natasha helped him some, brainstorming with him and telling him what was too harsh and what was probably not clear enough and too elusive.

 

When Peter finally came back in the shop, babbling happily with a Rhodey who looked slightly anxious and scared to say the wrong thing, Tony felt at least somewhat ready.

 

''Hey Pete,'' he greeted his son with a tired but warm smile. ''Everything all right?''

''Yes dad, but I'm hungry!'' the boy answered with round eyes, making his dad chuckle.

''Really? Well, you know what, I was about to ask you if you wanted to come upstairs and eat something with me. I've got something I need to talk to you about, okay?''

 

Peter nodded and followed him up the stairs silently. He seemed to have picked on the weird atmosphere in the shop already – the kid was impressively perceptive when it came to other people's moods, and despite Natasha and Rhodey's best efforts, they couldn't hide that something was wrong. And Tony couldn't, either.

They sat down in the living room, munching on cereals and drinking juice. The TV stayed off, no cartoons like Peter was used to. He didn't protest, though, only kept watching his father and waiting. With a sigh, Tony relented.

 

''There's something I have to tell you. I got a call from Steve a couple of hours ago.''

''Did Bucky talk to you, too?''

''Well, that- that's just it. Remember a few months back, when we went to see Sam? The man who talked to us about the army, and what sometimes happened there?''

''Yes. He told us… he told us that it was dangerous sometimes, like being a firefighter, or a policeman. He said sometimes people got hurt, even though they tried to stay safe. Dad?''

''Yeah, honey?''

''Did Bucky get hurt?''

 

Tony swallowed painfully under his son's worried gaze, and wiped at his eyes, sighing.

 

''Yes, he did. Can you come here next to me, please?''

 

Peter didn't need to be told twice; he put his head down on Tony's chest, his little body shaking against his father's skin.

 

''Hey, hey, Pete, shhh, it's alright. It's okay, buddy, I promise they're taking good care of him right now, alright? Steve's with him in the hospital, and he said he'd tell us as much as he can what happens over there. And he'll say when they'll come back here, so we can go and see Bucky. Okay?''

''I'm scared,'' Peter whimpered, and Tony gulped, tracing circles on his son's back with the tip of his fingers.

''Yeah,'' he answered truthfully, ''I am too, a little. It's okay to be scared, remember we talked about that too? Sometimes you'll get scared, and that's normal. Everyone gets scared at some point, it's healthy. And I'm scared too, because I don't know much about what's wrong with Bucky, and I guess I'd like to be with him and be able to help in some way. But we're stuck here, hm, and that's scary. Right?''

 

The little boy nodded and sniffled loudly, his breath shaky and fast.

 

''I wanna talk to him. Maybe that could help, daddy?''

''I think he'd like that, but… Listen, Peter, Bucky got hurt on his left arm. He… they had to operate on him in the hospital. You know the man we saw at the veterans center last time? You asked me about his leg.''

''Yeah, because he had a robot leg, right?''

''Yes,'' Tony smiled. ''I told you sometimes people got hurt, or sick. Like with this man. He got hurt and doctors had to… to take the part of his leg that was hurt off, so it wouldn't get worse.''

 

When Peter looked up this time, there were tears in his eyes, and Tony's heart clenched painfully.

 

''Will Bucky have a robot arm too, now?'' he asked in a very small voice.

''Maybe he will, baby, yes. They had to operate and take it off, too, because it was hurt too badly. That's why we can't talk with him now: because he's still sleeping. But I swear that as soon as Steve calls and tells us Bucky is awake and can talk, we'll find the best time to have a little chat with him, okay?''

''Promise?''

''Yes, Peter, I promise you I'll tell you. I know he's your friend too.''

 

Peter nodded, all serious, and sneaked his little arms around his father's waist, hugging him.

 

''I know it's scary, and maybe you don't understand everything, because it's complicated, and it's a lot to take in when you're seven years old. So, Peter, and that's really important, if you've got any question, if something is scaring you, or that you need to talk about something, you can always, always ask me, okay? And if I'm not here, or that you'd rather talk to somebody who's not your dad, you can ask Natasha or Rhodes, too, they'll always answer as best as they can. Okay?''

''Yes. Daddy?''

''Hm-hm, honey?''

''Maybe you can talk to me too, if you're scared.''

 

With a strangled chuckle, Tony put a light kiss on his son's forehead, a wave of love overwhelming him for a minute.

 

''Thank you, Peter, that's very sweet. I love you.''

''Love you too, daddy,'' Peter answered in a whisper, and burrowed closer to his dad, his soft breath tickling him gently. ''You're the best dad in the world.''

 

***

 

The following day, Tony, Natasha and Rhodes were all in the empty office, after Tony had called a meeting during their small afternoon coffee break. Customers would start coming in again in twenty minutes, so he spoke plainly and frankly:

 

‘’I guess it won’t be much of a surprise when I tell you that I’ll do the most I can to help Bucky – and Steve, too – when they come back,’’ he said, and watched as both of his friends nodded as if it was the most logical thing in the world. ‘’I thought about it hard all night. They’ll need somewhere to sleep first; I guess that living with Steve’s mom isn't the best situation. So…’’ he sighed.

‘’So you want to ask Bucky to live with you and Peter, right?’’ Rhodey completed with his eyebrows raised and the shadow of a smirk on his lips.

‘’Yeah. I’ve got the room; just need to move a few things up there and he can have his own room. If he wants, I mean. In the meantime, I’ll look around and see if anyone’s renting his apartment or something. Maybe they won’t even need this particular help, maybe the Army will find something for them, I don’t know much about that. But anyway, should they need it, I’ll do my best to help. Alright?’’

‘’Sure. But Tony, you know that’s not something we’d have refused. So come on, what’s the real reason of this little meeting?’’

‘’Well… Actually, I was wondering if the two of you were interested in teaching someone how to tattoo?’’

 

There were confused expressions on their face now, until Natasha’s eyes lit up and she sat up straight.

 

‘’Steve?’’ she asked simply enough.

‘’Yeah. He’s a real good artist, I’m sure you know that. Got his own style and everything. And I’m pretty sure that’s something he’d like. Haven’t asked him yes, I’ll do it as soon as we can see each other but… well, he likes tattoos, he likes drawing, and he was real interested in the technical side of things last time he was here. I just figured…’’ he shrugged, and Rhodey nodded slowly.

‘’We’ve already talked about having an apprentice. I’m all for it, if you two are, and if Steve is.’’

 

Natasha agreed quickly, and Tony suddenly felt as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He’d spent hours reading about what it was like for a soldier to come back from the war and to get back to the everyday life, trying to figure out how he could help his two new friends. He didn't want to intrude too much on their life, but if Steve was interested in learning their art, well… Finding a job would be a great start for him; after all, that was one of the most difficult steps of the return to ‘’normal’’ life. Especially as neither Steve nor Bucky had years of study behind them.

 

‘’Great,’’ he smiled, but his smile froze when he saw the way his two friends looked at each other, then at him. ‘’What’s wrong?’’

‘’Nothing’s wrong, Tony. We were just wondering about you. Worried. Are you… how are you dealing with all this?’’

 

He snorted nervously and shook his head.

 

''How do you think I'm dealing with it? I know I won't have much news until they're back here, so Bucky could already be dead and I wouldn't even know it. And there's nothing I can do about it, except sitting back and waiting for some hopefully good news. But I can't complain, or even look stressed, because Peter is freaking out too, and looking up to me. So if I do look stressed, he'll completely lose it along with me. But yeah, apart from that, I'm dealing just fine!''

 

Great, now he'd done it; snapped at his friends who were only trying to help and worried about him. He really was an amazing person.

 

''Stop being too hard on yourself, Tones,'' came Rhodey's soft voice, and Tony jumped slightly when two hands landed on his shoulders. ''We won't get pissed at you for being stressed out and angry. A lot of people would react like this, it's normal. We can't do much about the waiting and the lack of news but… if we can help with Peter in any way, you just have to ask, okay? If you need some time for yourself, or if you want to go talk with this Sam Wilson guy alone, we can spend time with Peter. And you can talk to us too. We'll be glad to listen, you know that, right?''

''Yeah. Yeah, I know, and thank you about that. And I am sorry I snapped at you, too. I just- I just feel so angry. They were about to come back! In two months, they would've been here, in New York, safe, and then this happened. I know they knew about the risks, and everything, but it's just…''

''Really unfair,'' Natasha finished with a sad smile. ''Steve told me the same thing. That it was really painful to see Bucky the way he is now, when just two days before he was smiling about coming back to live here. But I'll tell you the same thing I told you yesterday: he's strong. He'll have a good life here, even if it won't be the same one he'd planned.''

''I can't wait until they're back here,'' Tony admitted in a whisper, wiping at his eyes. ''I want to see them and make sure they're really safe.''

''Soon. I promise Tony, they'll be back here soon.''

 

Natasha and Rhodey both put their arms around him, drawing him in a hug that lasted until the bell of the shop rang, announcing the arrival of their next customer. Even if that didn't resolve all of Tony's problems, it at least managed to put a smile back on his lips. The following days would be hard, but there was one thing on his side: he wasn't alone, never.

 

***

 

The phone rang right as Tony was about to turn the lights off and try to go to sleep. He straightened up immediately, and scrambled for the small device, almost making it fall in the process. The unknown number on the screen wasn't that big of a surprise – especially at this hour – but still, Tony had to take a deep breath in before he could answer.

 

''Hello?''  he asked, and promptly cleared his throat to stop the squeaky noises his voice was making.

''Hey, Tony. It's Steve. Sorry, I know it's really late.''

''No, no, it's alright, don't worry about it. How are you, Steve? Everything alright?''

''I'm tired,'' the other man chuckled. ''Exhausted, even. We're back in the States. In New York.''

''Really?''

''Yeah. Came back today. We weren't expecting it at all, but there was some room left on a plane, apparently, so they were able to take us back too. I'm sorry, I called as soon as I could, but this has been a hell of a day.''

''You were able to come back with Bucky, then?''

''God, yes, thankfully. They probably thought it wasn't worth it to get me back on the field for two months. I don't know. I'm just glad I could come back.''

''Is- Bucky, how is he?''

 

There was a long hesitation on the other end of the line, and Tony's heart clenched in fear of what was to come.

 

''It's… it's complicated, Tony. He's on a lot of pain medication right now; most of the time, he's sleeping, or barely conscious.''

''Does he know about, about his…?''

''His arm? Yeah. They told him when he first woke up. It was…'' there were noises of Steve walking, and then sitting down heavily somewhere. ''It was awful, Tony.'' His voice wavered and broke on the words, and he had to take a big intake of air before he could continue in a weaker tone. ''He screamed and cried, and they had to sedate him at some point to calm him down.''

 

Tony threw his free arm over his eyes, closing them firmly. Steve wasn't the kind of guy to lie, and he didn't know if he was thankful of that or no. Of course, he'd figured that Bucky wouldn't just wake up and accept that a part of him was missing; but still, hearing that… It hurt, deeply, more than Tony would have guessed.

 

''And now?''

''Well,'' Steve sighed, ''some days he tries to pretend everything's fine. Talks and watches TV and looks everywhere but not on his left side. Other days he doesn't eat, doesn't talk, doesn't even look at us. He refused to talk to the shrinks back there. He won't really have a choice here, they told him he had to talk about what happened before they could release him. It's hard, you know? I can't really help him. I'm with him most of the time, I talk with him and I try to get him to talk with me, but I can't force him. I can't even imagine what he's going through. I just have to watch him suffer and try to find some words, and fail most of the time.''

''I know it's not worth much from where I'm standing, but I'm sure you just being there by his side helps, Steve. Don't start thinking it doesn't, okay?''

''I'll try, at least. He asked about you while we were on the plane. About you and Peter. Wanted to know if I'd told you what had happened, if you knew. And then he was worried about how Peter was coping.''

''Well, you can tell him that Peter is mostly alright. He's worried and afraid, but he's alright; spends most of his free time drawing, so Bucky can have something to make his room happier.''

''You could tell him yourself, you know. Not right now; he's sleeping, and he probably won't wake up until tomorrow. But maybe tomorrow afternoon? They don't want him to have people visit right now, say he needs to get a few days of rest, but we can call. I can't promise anything, maybe he won't feel up to it, but if he does, I can call you?''

''Oh. That- that'd be great, actually. Peter's here tomorrow afternoon too, so they could talk. Don't do it if Bucky doesn't want to, though, but… yeah. I'm sure Peter would love that. And I would, too, it'd be great to hear his voice.''

''I'll see how he's feeling tomorrow. Promise I'll at least write to you to let you know how it's going; they gave me a phone and everything, so I can actually give news to people,'' he explained, following it with a big, loud yawn. ''Shit, I'm sorry. I'm just-''

''Exhausted. Yeah, go to sleep, Steve. I'm really glad you called me, but you need to rest, too. D'you have somewhere to sleep?''

''They gave me a room at the hospital for a few days. Then I'll probably go live with my mom until I find something else.''

''Great. Thank you for the news, really. And for staying with Bucky. Take care of yourself too, okay?''

''Promise. Thanks Tony. Have a good night.''

 

Right. Like he was going to be able to sleep after what he'd heard.

Still, he would maybe hear Bucky's voice tomorrow. Despite everything else that was going on, this was a huge relief.

Tomorrow. He couldn't wait.

Chapter Text

Tony was tattooing a client when his phone rang – a young woman who’d come in almost shaking with anxiety and now looked at her arm with was was unmistakably awe. He looked at her with a grimace.

''D’you mind if I answer this? I wouldn’t usually, but one of my friends got hurt and he’s in the hospital, and, well–''

She smiled gently and straightened up, reaching for her bag.

''Go on, it’s all right. I was going to ask for a break, anyway.''

He thanked her in a rush and took his latex gloves off, reaching for the buzzing little device. He swiped his finger hurriedly on the screen.

''Hello?''
''Hey Tony, it’s Steve again. Everything all right?''
''Yeah,'' he sighed and walked to his office, where Peter was doing homework with Natasha. ''I was with a client, sorry it took me so long to answer. How are you?''
''A bit better, now that I've slept. Sorry I called at a bad time. D'you want me to call back later?''
''No, no, it's fine. She said she needed a break anyway, so I've got a few minutes. Are you with Bucky?''
''Not yet, just left his room to call you. He's awake, though, and he said he wanted to talk to you and Peter. If you can't talk right now, it's okay, we can do it again later, but–''
''God, Steve, seriously?'' Tony chuckled, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. ''I could be tattooing the president and I'd still answer. Well, maybe that's not the best example ever, but you see what I mean. Just get Bucky on the phone, please.''

There was a little laugh on the other end of the line, and then muffled voices for a couple of seconds. Tony waited impatiently, biting his nails and taking a few deep breaths.

''Hey,'' a hoarse, rough voice, finally greeted him, and a big great weight suddenly seemed to let go of Tony.
''Bucky,'' he said in a rush of air, needing to close his eyes for a second against the intensity of the wave of relief that suddenly overwhelmed him. ''Shit, it's good to hear you.''
''Right back at you.'' The soldier cleared his throat and coughed a few times. '' 'Sup?''
''Are you seriously asking me what's up? Forget about that, how are you?''
''Armless,'' Bucky answered with a dark chuckle, and Tony could hear Steve's protests and Bucky's answering groan. ''And exhausted. But alive, I guess.''

That… that was so far from the Bucky Tony knew, happy and carefree, that he swallowed back a couple of unexpected tears, leaning his back heavily on the wall behind him. He didn't even know how to answer to that, either. Say stupid things like ''yeah but some people have got it worse than you''? Certainly not. He couldn't find the words to confort him, or make him laugh, and there wasn't anything he could do to heal him.

''I'm– I'm really glad you're alive, Bucky. I can't even imagine what you're going through right now, it's so completely unfair and sad, but… It's so nice to hear you.'

There was a long, heavy silence, and Tony sighed inwardly, sad and lost. He felt like he'd said the exact thing he shouldn't have said, but he also felt like there wasn't a good thing to say to Bucky right now.

''Is Peter with you?'' the soldier asked, completely avoiding having to answer. ''I'd like to talk with him… if I can.''
''Of course you can. Bucky… is there any way we could come visit you some day? When you're up to it, in a few days?''
''I'm… just, talk to Steve about that, please.''

His voice had taken a hard tone, and Tony, surprised, let the subject drop, knocking on the door of his office. He went in, taking a few steps forward under Peter and Natasha's curious eyes, and smiled reassuringly.

''Well, okay. I'll do that. Peter's ready to talk to you, so I'll leave you both to it. I'm happy we could talk, really. Take care.''
''Yeah, thanks. Goodbye, Tony.''

That sounded… awfully definitive. He passed the phone to Peter wordlessly, and smiled absentmindedly when the little boy squealed, a big grin on his face, as he heard who was on the other side of the phone. Natasha was looking at him, her eyebrows raised in a silent question, but he shrugged it off, pointing a thumb behind him.

''I've got a customer waiting for me. Just bring me back my phone when you can, all right?''

He left before she could answer or say anything else. As he walked back to the young woman waiting on the chair, he could feel his friend's worried stare on his back, but he didn't stop, instead pushing everything he felt back deep in his guts.
He could do this.

***

He could not do this.
Twenty days later, he hadn't heard back from Bucky. He got news and updates on his health from Steve every day, and they talked on the phone. Steve had been increasingly embarrassed as time went on, and now he spent most of his time apologizing on Bucky's behalf. Bucky himself hadn't called Tony and apparently didn't want to talk to him anymore. Even Peter didn't get any news anymore, and he'd been weirdly subdued ever since their first discussion – whose content he didn't want to share with his father.
Which meant that now that Tony'd left Peter to Rhodey's mom's good care for the afternoon, he was on the way to the hospital, hands clenched on the steering wheel and hard rock blasting from the radio. The music only managed to make him angrier still, though.

It had taken him a long while, and a few discussions with Natasha and Rhodey, to decide that Bucky's behavior had the right to make him angry.
Of course, he didn't know what the soldier was going through, and wasn't stupid enough to believe that everything would get better as soon as Bucky was back on American soil. The – ex – soldier had every right to be angry and not to know how he should act now that he was back to civilian life as an amputee.
That did not mean, though, and both Rhodey and Nat had heavily insisted on this, that Tony didn't have the right to be frustrated about the fact that Bucky had simply decided, without talking with him about it, that he didn't want to stay in contact with them anymore. Tony would have understood if Bucky had told them that he needed some time for himself, to regroup and think about what was to come; but he hadn't, and Tony didn't deal well with it… at all.

So he'd said to Steve the day before that he would come and see Bucky in his hospital room now that he could have people visiting him. It hadn't really been a question: he stated it more than asked Steve if this was okay. Steve hadn't told him it was a bad idea, though; just sighed and told him that he could come whenever he wanted to in the afternoon.
There was a nice speech all ready in Tony's head, about how Bucky should have known that it was okay to ask him for some time alone, but that it was absolutely not okay to just disappear without any explanation. As he parked next to the hospital and entered the reception area, he repeated this speech again and again. He checked the room's number, that Steve had sent him the day before, and looked up at the signs indicating on which floor he needed to go. Surprisingly, he managed not to get lost in the long, white corridors that all looked the same, and found the room easily enough. He took a deep breath and knocked firmly on the door.

Steve opened it with a small, sad smile, and slipped outside, closing it softly behind him.

''Hey,'' he greeted Tony, drawing him in in a quick hug. ''Nice to see you again, Tony.''
''Same here, Steve. How are you feeling?''

The blond sighed and looked away for a second, his hand wiping at the stress lines on his forehead.

''Useless, to be honest,'' he shrugged. ''They say he's doing better physically. He can walk better, longer, got better balance, everything, but… he still doesn't talk much. Not to me, anyway. I thought– I thought maybe after a while he'd feel good enough to confide in me, but he never does. He pretends everything's fine, when I can see that he almost never sleeps enough, and that he spends most of his days staring out of the window without doing anything. I'm glad you're here,'' he admitted, looking at Tony with tear-filled eyes. ''Maybe you'll be able to help him where I can't.''

Tony squeezed his shoulder, silent, giving him a few seconds to catch his breath. His heart was beating painfully in his chest, terribly aware of the deep sadness in Steve's voice, of the way his shoulders sagged and of the dark circles under his eyes.

''I promise I'll try, Steve. Go take a break, okay? Nat's on break, too, so maybe you can call her, go take a coffee or something. I've got this.''
''Thanks. I think I'll do that. Call me if you need anything, I'll keep my phone with me.''

He was already walking away when he stopped and turned around, a grimace on his lips.

''And Tony? Good luck.''

That was really reassuring.
With an exasperated sigh, Tony opened the door and entered the room.

''God, finally,'' came a grumbling voice. ''What, did you get lost on the way from the restroom, again?''
''Hi, Bucky.''

Tony took a few steps forward, looking down at Bucky, lying motionless on his bed. The younger man was staring at him with his mouth half-open, fingers of his right hand twitching on the sheets. His hair was much longer than the last time Tony'd seen him, a rebellious strand falling in his tired eyes. His left arm stopped right behind his shoulder – a white bandage was tightly wrapped around the stump.
They stared at each other for what seemed to be an eternity, not moving, not saying anything, until Bucky closed his eyes and sighed loudly.

''You couldn't get the fucking message and stay away from me, right?''
''I…'' Tony snapped his mouth closed, and sat down heavily in the chair next to Bucky's bed. He had to take a deep breath to calm down for a bit before he could continue. ''You know what, you don't get to talk to me like this.''
''Oh, I don't?''
''No. No, you don't. We've known each other for, what? A year, a year and a half? And I'm supposed to stop talking with you, to stop seeing you, just because you decided so? Without even giving me a reason to do so?''

With a sarcastic little smirk, Bucky raised his left shoulder and what was left of his arm.

''Not good enough of a reason for you?''
''Fuck, no, Bucky!'' he shouted, and straightened up on his chair, gesturing wildly with his hands. ''Is that why you don't want to see me anymore? Because I seriously hoped you knew me better than that! I work with veterans almost every day, do you really think I've never seen someone missing a limb or wearing a prosthetic? Really? For fuck's sake, Bucky, I'm not that vain! I wouldn't ever want to stop seeing you because you were hurt. You didn't do anything wrong, you got hurt. Why in the hell would that be a good reason to stop seeing you?''

His voice wavered, and he shook his head. Something passed in Bucky's eyes, but the man still kept smirking sarcastically, watching Tony as if he was crazy.

''Peter…'' he started to say, but Tony stopped him.
''Peter already knows what happened to you. We talked about it, he talked about it with Sam. He's not afraid, or disgusted, or whatever else you think he is. His biggest worry is to design the coolest robot arm for you. D'you know how many prototypes he's drawn since he learned what happened? Seventy-six, Bucky. Seventy-six. Don't think my kid doesn't want to see you and show you the latest gadget he's created for you.''

He shook his head and breathed deeply.

''What he is, though, is sad. He misses you like crazy. He didn't want to tell me what you talked about last time you called, but he's been unhappy ever since. For more than a year, he's considered you his friend, and now you just drop out of his life when he's worried to death about you. I mean…'' he sighed and looked out of the window, fleeing Bucky's eyes, ''I can get why you didn't tell me anything. I'm an adult, I could have dealt with it, even if it was still unfair. But Peter's a kid, and he's already lost his mom when he was only a baby. I didn't want to make him go through that again.''

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, which lasted far too long, and then Bucky, his voice thick with emotion, said:

''I told him he was still the best kid on the planet, that this hadn't changed… but I had. I'm not the same person I was last time you both saw me, Tony. I don't– Everyday, I wake up, and I need help to walk to the bathroom because my body can't manage to walk properly now that he's missing a big, fucking important part. I need help cutting my meat, and I need help getting dressed, and I need help to open a can of Coke, and I can't deal with it. And as if that wasn't enough already, I can't sleep at night because I've got horrible nightmares of what happened this day, and I see myself lying in a puddle of blood, and–''

He shuddered, closed his eyes tight against the wave of memories, and rubbed at his stump with his right hand.

''I'm not the same, I'm not. And I don't want Peter to see me like this.''
''Bucky. Bucky, look at me. I know you're not the same. You weren't the same man between your first letter and your last one either, though. Yeah, sure, you've changed; you've still got a long way to go before you feel like yourself again, before you can deal with the new you. You've got PTSD, and you're missing an arm, and I am so, so sorry that this happened to you. But what you are here,'' he said, pointing to his heart, ''hasn't changed. And I'm aware that this sounds cheesy as fuck, but it's true. You wanted to talk to Peter even when you're feeling bad. You wanted to protect us, even if you chose the wrong way to do so. You're still as amazing as the man you were a few months back; that'll never change. And that's what made me, and Peter, like you. We don't care about the arm, or about the nightmares, or about having to help you with some things. I don't care about that; I care about you, no matter what you look like.''

The ex-soldier looked at him for a few seconds, mouth open on silent words… and suddenly burst out crying. With a pained whimper, Tony scrambled out of his chair and sat on the edge of the bed, putting a careful hand on Bucky's shoulder. That wasn't enough for the younger man, though; he twisted around until his head was on Tony's thighs, his arm wrapped around his waist. With a quick look around, Tony took his shoes off and lied down next to him, shushing him softly and drawing circles on his back with the tips of his fingers.
It took an awfully long while for Bucky to calm down, and Tony kept whispering soft ''it's all right'' and ''just let it all out, that's it, it's okay'' all the while, some stray tears on his cheeks despite his closed eyes. When Bucky's shivers finally stopped, and his sobs became a hitched breathing, Tony grabbed on the night table for the tissues he'd seen there, and handed some to Bucky, who took them gratefully, wiping his now red eyes with it. With a groan, Tony got up and took the empty glass on the nightstand to fill it with fresh water in the bathroom.
When he came back in the room, Bucky was sitting up, sniffling intermittently but otherwise calm. He emptied the glass in three big gulps, licking at his dry lips afterwards.

''Thanks,'' he rasped. ''For… everything. I'm sorry, really.''
''It's okay. I know you thought that was the best solution for all of us.''
''I missed both of you too, you know. I wanted to call you everyday, and Steve didn't help when he told me how anxious and sad you were that I refused to. I don't– don't think you're vain. I don't even really thought that the arm would bother you, I know you're not like that. But you deserve so much, Tony, you're such a great man, and I'm…''
''A great man, too. You're generous, and smart, and funny, and everything in-between. My kid's almost adopted you, and you're great with my dog. What else could I ask for?''

Bucky half-chuckled, half-sobbed, his eyes filling with tears once more.

''Stop this. You're gonna make me cry again. I hate crying.''
''You shouldn't. It feels good, sometimes, to let it all out. I do, and Peter does, and that's okay. You've got every right to be crying.''
''I thought of you, you know. When… in the desert. When I didn't know if they were gonna be able to bring me back on time. I thought of you, and I thought that there were so many things more that I wanted to live with you and Peter. Shit, you didn't even tattoo me yet. I thought of you then, and I thought of you when I woke up and they told me they had to cut my arm off. And when they brought me back here. You, you were one of the reasons I kept eating and trying to get up, even when I didn't really want to.''

There wasn't much of a choice, really, but to kiss Bucky then and there. He gave him time to stop him, to refuse, but Bucky didn't, just looked at him, eyes so blue, so earnest and so afraid, that Tony just wanted to be able to take every bit of fear out of them. He did his best by kissing him, put everything in the press of his lips against Bucky's chapped ones: his fear, the last bits of anger remaining, his affection, his panic. He gave, and gave, and gave, and Bucky took everything, sighed softly against his mouth, stroke his fingers through his hair, so, so gently. It was so nice – and so overdue – that neither of them wanted this to stop but they had to, eventually, to draw back and catch their breath. They didn't stop touching, though, Tony's hand on Bucky's warm and firm back, the ex-soldier's fingers stroking his face, tracing his nose, his lips, the curve of his chin.

''I really, really like you,'' Tony admitted in a whisper, nosing at Bucky's neck. ''And I'm really, really glad you fought to come back. Don't know what I would've done if you–''
''Shhh. I'm here, I really am, and I'm not leaving again anytime soon. We've got so much time in front of us, Tony. So much.''
''Hmhm… Can't wait to make good use of it all.''
''D'you think… I mean, I know you'll have to leave at some point, but do you think you could come back tomorrow? Or in a few days, or whenever you can. With Peter, maybe?''
''Oh Bucky, honey. Of course I can. Peter's been waiting so long to see you, he'll be ecstatic. Tomorrow afternoon, I promise.''

They stayed like this, wrapped tightly around each other, until a nurse knocked on the door and startled them out of their embrace. But even when Tony sat back in the chair, he kept Bucky's hand in his owns.
He wouldn't let go anytime soon.

***

Tony hadn't said anything to Peter about where they were going, despite the little boy's insistent questions. When they arrived at the hospital, Peter turned wide eyes to his father.

''Are we going to see Bucky?'' he asked in a small voice so filled with hope that Tony's heart clenched painfully in his chest.
''We are,'' he confirmed, and smiled at his son's outburst of joy, at the squeals of laughter. ''Bucky's feeling better now, he's all ready to see you. He's still hurt, though, so…''
''I'll be careful with him, I promise. And not tire him too much. Can we go, daddy, please, please, please?''

He laughed and got out of the car, opening Peter's door for him. The little boy jumped out and sprinted to the hospital's entrance; Tony was slightly more subdued, and followed him quickly, but without running – he'd feel totally stupid if he broke an ankle just before seeing Bucky. His son took his hand and they entered the building together, stepping into the elevator; Peter was already listing everything he needed to tell Bucky, and there were a lot of them.
Steve was waiting for them when they arrived at Bucky's room's door, and he crouched down to wrap Peter in a big bear hug.

''I'm happy to see you, buddy! Everything's fine?''
''Yes, Steve, I'm all right. Is Bucky in this room?''

The blond laughed and nodded, opening the door and gesturing for Peter to step inside; after a look at his father for his permission, he did, and soon, they heard happy voices. Steve quickly closed the door though, and looked at Tony solemnly.

''Thank you,'' he said, earnest and obviously grateful. ''For yesterday, I mean. I– hadn't seen Bucky like this in a long while. I told him, trust me, I did, that he'd feel better if he just tried to talk to you, but… he's probably as stubborn as I am, and when he got this stupid idea in his head, he wouldn't give up. It helped him so much just to see you, Tony. I don't know what you told him, but it helped.''

He looked down at the white tiles, and ruffled his hair absentmindedly, a touch of red on his cheeks.

''Just told him the truth, Steve. I didn't do anything else; you were the one who was there for him in the most difficult times. I'm so thankful you brought him back,'' his voice cracked, and he cleared his throat awkwardly, ''I really am. I promise I'll be there as much as I can for the rest of the way, okay? So you don't have to carry so much weight on your shoulders.''

Steve nodded, and pointed to the door.

''Go on in. Enough with the emotional talks; Bucky's spent half of the morning demanding to know when you were going to be there, don't make him wait anymore.''

He walked away with a last wink, and Tony stared at his back as he went, hoping with all his heart that Steve would get what he deserved in his life: happiness. He wasn't physically marked by the war like Bucky was, but Natasha'd said enough for him to know that he suffered from nightmares as much as Bucky did. Both of them had a long way in front of them and Tony promised himself that he would do everything he could to make it as easy as he could.
Peter's voice called him from the room, and he shook himself out of his thoughts and opened the door. His son was already lying next to Bucky on the bed, and he was showing him a drawing – probably prototype number seventy-seven, which, as far as Tony knew, included an hidden, almighty sword. They were laughing together, Bucky's eyes twinkling, his hand protectively on Peter's back so he wouldn't fall off the bed.

''Really, you think I should have a laser finger?'' he asked, pointing at something on Peter's drawing. ''Wouldn't that be dangerous?''
''No! You could get a cat, and play with him all day, that would be really cool. And daddy said we should get a cat, so that's awesome!''
''Okay, Peter, but I can't play with your cat all day; I'll have to get home at some point,'' Bucky reasoned, and smiled up at Tony when he saw him enter.
''Maybe you can live with us?''

Tony looked at his son with an eyebrow raised, wondering if, somehow, the little boy had overheard some of their conversations in the parlor.

''Oh, I… It's your home, Peter, I can't…''
''Actually,'' Tony finally interfered, and ruffled his son's hair as he went to sit next to them, ''I had something to ask you about that. We talked about it some, and I thought I could redecorate my office, make it into a room – I never use it anyway. You could stay with us. If you want, I mean. No pressure or anything, I haven't done anything yet, so it's totally up to you. But… you can.''

Bucky looked at him like he'd turned batshit crazy for a couple of seconds, and then he grinned, big and bright, and so nice to see.

''You mean I wouldn't have to be alone in a sad little apartment somewhere in Brooklyn?''
''Well, no. You'd have your own room, of course, but there would be Peter, and me, and Cocoa…''
''And a cat!''
''Okay, maybe a cat too,'' he rolled his eyes, already regretting the idea he'd let drop a few days before. ''It wouldn't be anything definitive; if you wanted to go live by yourself at some point, you could, of course. I've got some friends who could help you find something nice, probably. But in the meantime, when you get out of the hospital…''
''That… Tony, are you sure about this? I'd have to pay you, and–''
''God, no, you wouldn't. The parlor and the apartment are mine, Bucky, I don't have to pay rent or anything; bought them off a few years back with the money my dad left me. But maybe you'd like to stay with Steve, so…''

Bucky shook his head before he could finish.

''Stevie would stay with me if I asked, but I know Natasha invited him to stay with her, too. I heard him on the phone the other day. So if I really can stay with you, I'd be so thankful, Tony. You just– actually, you just gave me a easy way out of a really big problem,'' he chuckled lightly.
''Well, then, that's that. We'll talk more about it another day, maybe,'' he gestured discreetly at Peter, ''talk with your doctors about what you'd need. And you'll have to tell me what color you want the walls, too.''
''Can we do a spaceship wall for him?''

They smiled, and Bucky drew Peter closer to him.

''I'd love a spaceship wall. Or maybe just a spaceship painting somewhere on the wall. You'll help me choose, right?''

That was enough to launch Peter on an almost heated discussion about which colors spaceships should be; if there should be a monkey piloting it, or if they should stick with the boring human; how many stars should be on the painting. Tony sat back, grinning, watching his son and his – friend? boyfriend? he didn't really know anymore – interacting and debating of really important matters.
He knew that Bucky wouldn't always been like this, of course he did, and he only enjoyed it more. He could foresee the harder days, where it would be hard for the ex-soldier to get out of bed, much less to get out in the big, terrifying real world, but this, – his son in Bucky's arms – he'd been waiting for this for so long, that he put everything back on a corner of his mind, and joined the conversation, arguing for a monkey and a dark green spaceship.
When they left, a few hours later, Peter kneeled up and kissed Bucky's cheek softly. He told him something that Tony couldn't hear from where he was standing up, but which made Bucky tear up and smile at the same time.

''Didn't you want to give him something, Peter?'' Tony reminded him gently, holding up the little soft toy Peter'd brought with him.
''Oh, yes! Bucky, I told Winnie that he had to stay with you for a few days. You'll see,'' he whispered his secret, ''he makes you feel happy again when you're sad. I think he has magic powers, but you can't tell anyone, or else, they'll want him too. You can just give it back to me when you're feeling all better, okay?''

When Tony leaned down to kiss Bucky goodbye – on the cheeks, he hadn't told his son anything yet – he heard the younger man whisper a ''your kid's the best'' in his ear, and he nodded.

''I know he is. Take care, Bucky. We'll be back really soon, okay?''

As they left, Tony took one last look behind him, and there Bucky was, hugging the little yellow bear tight against his heart, a single tear glistening on his cheek.
He really hoped the bear had magic powers. Bucky deserved to be happy again.

Chapter Text

‘’Hey, Steve, wait!'' Tony called out to the blond who was walking away from Bucky's room.

 

He stopped and turned, smiling with his eyebrows raised quizzically.

 

''Do you have a minute? I wanted to talk to you about something, and Nat did, too. Just need to go and say hello to Bucky, and then we can go.''

''Sure. Go on, I'll wait here,'' Steve said, and gestured to the door.

''Thanks. Be right back!''

 

Tony knocked and went in, greeted by Bucky's smile – he was in one of his good days, then. His mood fluctuated greatly between one day and the other. Sometimes he was smiling and joking, ready to leave the hospital and go on with real life; making plans about what he could do, what he wanted to do. At other times, he barely talked and didn't smile,  curled in on himself and lost in dark thoughts, and it was up to Tony to talk for the both of them – thankfully for him, talking hadn't ever been a hardship to him. Usually, as soon as Peter was visiting, though, it was enough to get Bucky out of his own head and smiling, even after a hard day of pain and frustration.

Still, the last few days had been hard on both of them, with doctors postponing the day he could get out of the hospital again, and again. Each day he woke up full of hope, and each day a nurse had to be the unfortunate one announcing that the planned date had been put off. Again. Apparently, it was due to his stump not healing quickly enough – it still hurt him more than it should, and the scar wasn't what it should be like at this point. Despite Bucky's great caution, and his efforts during physical therapy, it looked like he wasn't doing enough, and this was harder for him to deal with every day.

 

''Good news!'' he exclaimed, putting an abrupt stop to Tony's thoughts. ''They said I finally could leave next week. Looks like  I finally managed to heal like they wanted me to, and by next week, everything should be okay. Well,'' he smirked after a second of reflexion, ''I'll still be missing an arm, but apart from that, I'll be okay.''

 

Tony chuckled and shook his head, glad to hear Bucky's dark humour again. He leaned down to hug him and kiss him hello, ruffling his hair affectionately.

 

''I'm really glad to hear that, baby. And happy for you, that's a big step forward. Back to real life, uh?''

''God, yeah. Can't wait to go grocery-shopping like everyone, and to complain about this shitty weather again. Still want me staying with you, right?''

''Peter talks about this at least ten times a day,'' Tony rolled his eyes, shadow of a smile on his lips. ''I wouldn't dare disappoint him. Plus, I'm kinda looking forward to having you around all day. Lots of kisses to come, and of things to talk about, too. Your room's almost ready, you know: we painted it yesterday, just have to furnish it.''

''Will I have a monkey on my wall, then?'' he asked, snorting when Tony swatted him softly on the head. ''What, no monkey?''

''You're lucky, Buck, that I've got some control on my son. I managed to restrain him for a bit: if I hadn't been here, you'd have come home to a whole zoo on your walls. Nah, they're just boring grey and blue, sorry to disappoint.''

 

With a falsely disappointed sigh, Bucky pulled on Tony's arm, making him fall ungracefully on the bed next to him.

 

''All jokes aside,'' he whispered shyly, ''I hope you know that I'm really grateful of you two for doing that. And really happy that I can have you by my sides. Don't know how I'd be able to do this if I was alone.''

''Well, you won't have to discover it, right? Promise I'll help you as much as I can.''

 

He turned his head just enough to place a soft peck on his cheek, physically restraining himself from doing more.

 

''I need to go talk to Steve for a bit. I'll be back real quick to spend the rest of the afternoon with you, though, all right?''

''Oh, yeah? Leaving me for Steve already? I'm hurt, sweetheart, real hurt.''

 

Ignoring the way his heart jumped at the endearment, Tony got up and grabbed the little Winnie the Pooh soft toy on the nightstand, tucking it in next to Bucky.

 

''Here, something to keep you company. Be right back!''

 

He left the room snorting at the shout of ''he's softer than you!'' from Bucky, shaking his head as he joined Steve, who was still waiting for him in the corridor, tapping away on his phone. The blond looked up at the sound of the door closing softly, and smiled.

 

''Ready to go?'' he asked, and put his phone back in his pocket.

''Yep. Nat's waiting for us in the cafeteria already, so let's just join her downstairs.''

 

After a quick trip in the elevator, they reached the cafeteria, and Tony looked away with an amused smirk as the young couple fell in each other's arms, kissing passionately despite their audience of sick people and their relatives. When they finally parted, after a pointed cough from Tony, all three of them sat down at one of the tables, sipping the coffees that Natasha had nicely bought for them.

 

''So, Steve,'' Tony started, and the blond looked at him quizzically. ''There was something we wanted to offer you. You don't have to accept or anything, just wanted to put this on the table.''

''Yeah?''

''I've seen some of your drawings; Bucky sent some of them to Peter a while back. You've got your own style, and I'm pretty sure it's something people would like. To get on their skin, I mean,'' he clarified when Natasha kicked him pointedly under the table. ''That's what we wanted to offer you: an apprenticeship with us, with Rhodey, Nat and me. We've got room for at least one more artist in our parlor, and we could teach you to tattoo. If that's something you'd like, of course.''

''You want me to work with you?''

 

Steve looked really astonished; he was staring at Natasha and Tony, mouth gaping open. With an adoring smile, Natasha took his hands in hers and squeezed them.

 

''You'd need a few months of practice before actually working with us,'' she explained. ''But in a few months? Yeah, of course. We think you'd be pretty great at it, Steve.''

''As we said, though, it's your choice. It's a job you've really got to love to be good at; if you had other plans, if there's anything else you wanted to do, of course you can. We'd still help you making it.''

''I… need to think about it for a while. To be honest, I've never really thought I'd be able to make a life out of my art. It's always been more of a hobby, you know?''

 

Tony threw a sidelong glance at Natasha; at first, she'd also been pretty doubtful about being able to make money out of her art, as she'd told Tony numerous times. Now, she was one of the most booked artists in all of New York.

 

''Trust me, honey, I know what it is to think like that,'' she smiled. ''But you've got the opportunity, and even if I'm not psychic, I'm pretty sure you could make it work. Just… think about it, okay? Don't think we're offering this just because of pity, either; you really are talented.''

''I promise I'll think about it carefully, don't worry. And thank you, for– for the offer. It's really nice of you. Thank you.''

''Just, you know, take your time and then tell us when you decide what to do. I should get back upstairs, but ask Nat if you've got any question. And you can always call me, of course.''

 

He got up and went to the other side of the table to clap Steve on the back gently. The other man looked up at him and smiled, squeezing his biceps shortly.

 

''Thank you, Tony, really.''

''I'm not doing this out of pity, or patriotic duty, or whatever, you know. Well, of course, it's great if I can help you, but I really do think that it's something you'd be good at. So I'm kinda doing it for me, too. More money,'' he grinned, and Natasha and Steve both rolled their eyes, and mock-threateningly gestured for him to go away.

 

He was still grinning in the elevator, and was in a really good mood when he went back to Bucky's room.

 

''Already there?'' the younger man asked, looking up from his E-reader with a little smile. ''That didn't take so long.''

''Nah, I'm leaving all the difficult bits to Natasha.''

 

Tony watched, smiling internally, as Bucky opened his mouth and closed it again a few times, then finally dared to ask, tilting his head:

 

''Is Steve alright?''

''Well, I'd guess so. I hope he is, I just offered him a job.''

''Oh, cool, I– Wait, you what?''

''Damn,'' Tony snorted, ''that took some time to get to your brain. C'me on, move over so I can sit down.''

 

Bucky obeyed wordlessly, moving to the right edge of the bed, and Tony sneaked under the sheets right next to him, sighing as he laid down.

 

''I offered him a job. As a tattooist, I mean. You know the drawings you sent Peter a few months back?''

''Yeah, I remember those.''

''Well, we thought that people would like to get something like these on their skin. Steve's really talented, and we've wanted to take an apprentice on for some time, so that's the perfect occasion, right?''

''I guess, yeah. That's– seriously, Tony, that's awesome. What did he say?''

''That he needed some time to think about it,'' he shrugged, smiling at Bucky's indignant noise. ''What?''

''He's a punk, I swear. He's been talking my ear off for years about how 'oh I'd love to live off my art', you give him a possibility to make his dreams come true, and this idiot says he needs to think about it? He probably left his brains back in the desert,'' he spat in an angry tone.

 

With a breathy groan, Tony turned around to look at Bucky properly. He was looking up at the ceiling, jaw clenched almost painfully.

 

''Hey,'' he said softly. ''Are you all right?''

''Yeah… I mean, no,'' his shoulders sagged and he turned to look at Tony too, huffing. ''It's just that, well. Steve's still got the possibility to make every one of his dreams come true – and that's good, great, even, I'm real happy of that – and then there's me and… I probably won't have any choice in what I can do next, I won't be able to say no to an offer like yours, you know? Most of the things I wanted to do as a kid are already out of question, cause I didn't take time to go to school and get an education. I can't do anything physical even, because, hey, look at that,'' he gestured with a sharp nod to his empty sleeve, ''I'm missing an arm. I can't be a doctor, or an architect, or even a damn plumber, because I was stupid enough to go and get myself blown up. Really, what do I have left?''

''How old are you?'' Tony asked, raising an eyebrow when Bucky sighed. ''Well, tell me.''

''Twenty-six.''

''Hm. Did I ever tell you how old I was when I decided to become a tattoo artist? No? Well, I was twenty-five, Bucky. A year younger than you are now – not even a complete year, because I turned twenty-six a month after I took this decision. I was supposed to be an engineer, actually; almost finished my studies when I met Peter's mom. She was crazy about art, and as talented as they get. When she saw my blueprints– damn,'' he chuckled, remembering this day perfectly, ''she hit me and yelled at my poor life choices. For an hour. It took some convincing, because I was more stubborn then than I am now, but by the time she was pregnant, I'd begun learning how to tattoo.''

 

He cleared his throat awkwardly, and looked away from Bucky's grey eyes.

 

''Two years after that, she– she died, and left me alone with Peter. I had a bit of a fuck everything period, and decided to open my own parlor. It could have been a complete disaster, probably should have been one, but miraculously, and thanks to Rhodey and Nat, it wasn't. We survived the first few months, got into a routine to take care of Peter, survived another couple of months and then, suddenly, we had our hands full with customers. And look at us today – I'd say we're pretty successful.''

''You never told me,'' Bucky whispered, and Tony shrugged.

''No, never really found the occasion to tell you. But anyway, what I wanted to tell you is just that, well. We live at a time where it's never too late to get a new life. To find a new job, or to learn new things, or whatever. Sure, it's gonna be more difficult for you than for a young, rich person, but does that mean that you won't be able to get anything out of your life? No. Shit, Bucky, you're twenty-six; you've got your whole life in front of you. Go look at what universities here can offer you, or take evening courses, or whatever, but don't think that you've ruined your life, because that's not, absolutely not, true. Okay?''

''Do you really think I could go back to studying? With my arm and all the… the shit in my head?''

 

Tony sighed inwardly, thinking back to what Bucky's shrink had told Steve right after Bucky had had his first horrible nightmare, shortly after being back on American soil – and what Steve'd told him after. She'd talked about depression, about PTSD, about survivor's guilt, and while Steve had nodded comprehensively, listening to him, Tony had just struggled to understand exactly the scale of what she had been talking about.

Tony had needed some more explanations after that, and thankfully Steve had been there to explain in easier, gentler terms what she meant, referring back to his own struggle with nightmares and the difficulties he'd had going back to normal life. He'd answered every one of his sometimes admittedly stupid questions, depicting a life in which the honk of a car could be enough to start a panic attack, and the sigh of blood was almost impossible to hold.

Tony was still thankful to him for having been this honest because, not even a week after their big discussion, a doctor had let a tray of tools fall in Bucky's room, and the resulting loud clattering noises had made the man jump out of bed and in a corner of the room, curled on himself and shaking like a leaf. He'd been there then; had seen the empty look in Bucky's eyes and the terror written on his face. Thankfully, Steve hadn't been far, and between the both of them, plus Bucky's shrink, they'd managed to calm the younger man and get him back to bed, where he'd shortly collapsed from exhaustion.

Nothing of the sort had happened ever since, but nightmares kept interrupting Bucky's sleep, and he'd finally gave in and accepted the offer of anxiolytics to at least try managing them. Thankfully, they'd worked; he was able to sleep most of the nights through now, waking up only once or twice a week. He still lived in the terror of living another incident like the one with the tray of tools, though, and had mostly refused to go outside because of it.

 

''If you give yourself some time to heal, and keep taking your treatment and talking with your shrink, Bucky, I'm pretty sure you'll be as fit as any other student to survive university. Sure, it'll be hard at first; but that's the case for almost every student, and they still manage. Dream big, right? Don't go and think of obstacles before you absolutely have to.''

''God,'' Bucky groaned, and managed a dry chuckle. ''I feel like I'm just this old, grumpy cat. Complaining about everything all of the time. You are allowed to tell me to shut up, y'know?''

''You do look like Grumpy Cat,'' Tony snorted. ''A wet Grumpy Cat. Cute, though,'' he was quick to add when Bucky glared at him. ''A very cute wet Grumpy Cat. Uh. I'm just gonna… stop there.''

''Yeah, you do that, that's wise.''

 

They stayed silent, Bucky playing with the short hair on the side of Tony's head – good, he'd need to go back and get them cut again, he didn't like having to watch them regrow – until Bucky whispered a soft ''thank you'', face mashed against Tony's tattooed shoulder.

Tony just held him tighter and closed his lips tight against the ''love you'' that wanted to escape.

Not now. But soon.

 

***

 

Truth be told, standing there in the middle of the dining room, with his left arm firmly kept in his back, Tony felt slightly silly. He knew, though, that testing what was doable one-handed and what was not was the only way to really help Bucky for when he'd come home.

So he'd entered his kitchen, and grabbed a as of yet unopened water bottle, trying to open it. Of course, he had to grab one of these impossible to open ones – even with his two arms and hands, he'd cursed his way through opening them a lot of times. With one arm, though? He had to sit down, grip the bottle tight between his thighs, and try to unscrew it. And when he finally managed to open it, half of the bottle poured on his jeans, from the way the bottle was pressed between his legs. Of course. He groaned, frustrated, and grabbed the notepad in his back pocket to scribble about buying one of these bottle-openers he'd seen at a Walmart once. Same went for the cans – he didn't even want to risk them. Stocked in one of the cupboards were already a few things that Bucky's physical therapist had given them: some specially designed kitchen aids so he could help them cook without having to ask for help every time; plates with a rim that had made Bucky groan and protest the first time he'd seen them, and non-slip mates to keep them in place; and weird-looking cutlery that allowed him to eat without any exterior help.

As an afterthought, Tony tinkered with a simple metal bottle-opener for a while, until he'd managed to stick it firmly on the fridge. He tested it with a bottle of beer; he was able to take the top off in a matter of seconds, and he smiled proudly, chugging some of it.

 

Bucky's room was already furnished: night table on the right of the bed, so he wouldn't have to struggle for the light or for a book. He'd ordered some clothes online, and they were already folded and put in his closet, along with a button hook so he'd be able to close his shirts – this one had made him grin like a loon, and Tony could only too well imagine why this was.

 

Next was the bathroom and once more, Tony tried everything out. Because Peter was still a kid, there were already a slip mat and a step to the bath, which already made things easier. Thankfully, the soap holder was on the right side – there wasn't much he could have done about this.

He checked to see if he hadn't forgotten to buy a toothbrush, but no, it was there, next to Tony's and Peter's, with the toothpaste. The electric razor he'd already brought back from the hospital was there too, charging so it'd be ready to go the next day, when Bucky would come home.

 

That only left the living room, where, after a quick try, he deemed everything ready, and Peter's room, that Rhodey and Tony had already rearranged. The day before, they'd moved the bed from one wall to the other, so it would be easier for Bucky to tuck the boy in should he want to.

Everything was ready, then. He only had to wait a few hours now.

 

***

 

There were… there were a lot of people.

Bucky could feel their eyes on his back, hear them whisper behind his back, point at him. He took a shaky breath and huddled in, trying to make himself small and invisible.

Tony's hand landed on his shoulder, warm and comforting.

 

''Hey,'' he said, head close to Bucky's. ''Everything okay?''

''I don't, don't know. Feel like everyone's staring at me.''

 

Tony hummed and hooked an arm through his, steering him along the street, slowly but firmly toward his car.

 

''Hm, well, I can guarantee you they're not. Except this lady we just passed? She was definitely checking you out.''

''Not true,'' Bucky protested with a weak laugh, and promptly jumped when someone closed a car's door right next to them, his heart racing, ''she–''

''She what?'' Tony prompted him on, and looked at him.

 

Bucky stared back, letting fear sweep into his eyes, and Tony, always keeping a hand on him, passed on the other side of him, his body hot and comfortingly strong right next to Bucky's stump. Like this, Tony's arm thrown casually around his neck, people couldn't tell there was something wrong with him, not if they just threw a glance at them. He breathed out, rolled his shoulders, breathed in.

 

''She was checking you out,'' he finally managed to get out. ''Not me.''

''Seriously? Me, the tattooed and kinda old punk? Nah, forget it, it was you. Go right here – we're almost there.''

''You're not old,'' Bucky scoffed, and Tony chuckled good-naturedly.

''Not really young anymore, either. Steve, could you– thanks.''

 

His friend passed them with Bucky's luggage in his hand, and smiled at them as he opened Tony's car, loading his suitcase in the trunk while Tony opened the passenger door for Bucky to get in. He almost lost his balance as he sat, but, like always, Tony's hand was there to help, all casual like.

When the door closed with a soft thunk, Bucky let his head hit the headrest, exhaling slowly and deeply. Steve's head appeared right next to him, a concerned frown between his eyebrows.

 

''How do you feel?''

'' 'm okay. It's just–'' he paused as Tony came in, too, then finished: ''just feels weird to be back outside. Haven't seen this many people in a long time, you know.''

''You'll get used to it quick,'' Steve assured him, and he grinned, frown disappearing. ''In no time, you'll be like me, yelling internally at people who walk too slow and don't watch where they're going. Just you wait.''

''Oh, I don't doubt it,'' Bucky chuckled, and looked back in front of him as Tony started the car, carefully joining the long line of vehicles, ''I've never really been a patient man.''

 

The car ride back to Tony's was mostly quiet, soft music in the background, and a conversation about what Bucky wanted to eat this evening – pizza, he'd wanted to eat pizza from the moment he'd woken up in the United States. They dropped off Steve at Nat's apartment, waving back at the redhead who was waiting for her boyfriend, and five minutes later, they were…

 

''Home,'' Tony announced grandiosely, gesturing wildly to his apartment's door. ''Welcome, Bucky. Oh, wait, I've got something for you, somewhere, hold on…''

 

He searched his pockets, tongue out for better focus, and finally managed to extract a small key, on a Winnie the Pooh keyring.

 

''There,'' he grinned, and held it out to Bucky. ''For you.''

''Really?''

''Well, it's your home now, so yeah, you get the keys too. Or was the really meant for the keyring? Peter chose it, not me. Blame him. Come on, get us inside, I don't know where my keys went.''

 

And so Bucky unlocked the door, inhaling as he pushed it open. He took a few steps and turned around, gripping Tony's wrist, who looked up at him, surprised. He didn't give him much time to wonder, just pulled him to his chest and pushed the door closed with his foot as he leaned down to kiss him softly and reverently.

 

''Home sweet home,'' he whispered, and traced the lines of the star tattoo on Tony's left wrist. ''Thank you.''

Chapter Text

He had been feeling so confident when he had left Tony and Peter's – and well, his, he guessed – apartment to go shopping for some groceries. Put a baseball cap on his quickly growing hair, shrugged on the black leather jacket Steve and Nat had gotten him as a get well gift, grabbed his keys and headphones, and off he went.

It had been going pretty well at first, too. Sure, he still needed to check the street before he really put a foot on the sidewalk. And sudden, loud noises kept tending to make him jump in fright and duck in a side street – even though the headphones had mostly dealt with that. But overall, he had been able to walk to the store like everyone else, without feeling like a complete outsider.

 

That had lasted until the moment he had taken a basket and realized he couldn't very well hold it and fill it at the same time. Every item he needed, he had to put the basket down, reach more or less awkwardly for what he needed, lean down, and grab his basket again. And he felt like everyone in the damn store was looking at him with pity all the while. He'd tucked his empty sleeve in the left pocket as he always did, of course, but what with his awkward gymnastics, that wasn't enough to keep the illusion that everything was all right with him.

After only ten minutes of this, he was sweating profusely and his ears were buzzing so hard he couldn't even hear his music anymore. The young store employee that approached him with caution had to wave a couple of times before he even noticed there was someone in front of him. He reached instinctively with his left hand for his headphones, and had to close his eyes and take a deep breath against the wave of pure anxiety when nothing moved. He finally got them off and around his neck with his right hand, and the young man smiled tentatively.

 

''Sir,'' he said, and licked his lips, seemingly as lost as Bucky was – and he spared a thought for how the other employees must have ganged up on the young man and forced him to be the one to go talk to the weird one-armed man. ''I, uh. Noticed you had some difficulty. I wanted to let you know I am available to help you, should you need it. You only have to ask.''

 

Bucky had to fight against the impulse to snap at the man – he hadn't done anything wrong, he just wanted to help, get a grip, Barnes. He breathed in and smiled.

 

''Thank you for your offer,'' he answered in what he hoped to be a light tone. ''I'm okay, though. Not very efficient, but I've got all the time I need.''

''Oh. Sure. Well, then, I guess, I– just, thank you for your service. Sir. Have a good day.''

 

He smiled tightly but had to swallow hard around the lump in his throat, praying that the kid would just go away and let him get his breath back.

 

''Thank you. Have a nice day.''

 

The kid left after a last worried glance, and what he probably thought was a respectful, military salute, and Bucky just–

Mike had this habit, this irritating habit, of throwing him a nonchalant salute with two fingers every time Bucky said something that even remotely looked like an order. A salute, and a mocking ''sure thing, Sarge'' and that's–

He'd done it, in the truck. He'd done it, because Bucky had asked him to move over just a bit, so that he wouldn't be stuck against the door, half his face mashed against the glass. He'd said ''sure thing, Sarge Bucky'', and the next thing Bucky saw was a huge piece of metal right above his left elbow, and the blood flowing freely, warm and so, so wrong on his arm. And Mike, kneeling right above him, protecting him with his body, repeating again and again and again ''you're okay, Sarge, Bucky, you're okay, stay with us, it's okay'', his eyes red and his jaw tight.

There had been blood, so much blood–

 

He gasped, loudly, bolted for the first empty department, let himself slide to the floor, head between his knees.

His breathing was so loud to his own ears, loud as it'd been when he'd been laying there, in the desert, feeling his blood leave his body, and–

No, no, no, he thought, desperately, and scrambled back up to his feet. He needed to go out, to see for himself that he was safe, back home, not there anymore, not on the light sand that had turned bright red under his body.

He ran out of the store, ignoring all the stares on his back, ignoring everything but the sunlight right outside the doors.

 

But there were so many people out there, so many people who looked at him as he bolted out of the door. He could feel himself shaking and sweating, knew he probably looked like a ghost, or a crazy man, but there was nothing he could do about it, nothing.

The sun wasn't enough to help, and the loud noises everywhere, so audible now that his headphones were off, sent him tumbling right back into deep, uncontrollable panic.

It felt like every rational thought had turned off in his brain; he followed his deepest instinct, not even knowing where he was going and not really caring either, until he'd found a dark side street, dark and desert, and silent. The floor was dirty, still wet from the earlier rain, but he didn't care about any of that; he let himself fall on a corner, huddled on himself, praying that nobody would follow and try to help, that he'd finally just be left alone.

He didn't quite know how long he'd been out there, sobbing and shaking. His watch told him that he'd left home almost two hours ago, but that didn't quite manage to convince him; he felt like he'd been sitting down there for only ten minutes, maybe fifteen. However long it had been, he finally managed to get a hold of himself, his breathing evening out, his shaking subsiding some.

He wouldn't be able to go back home by himself, he knew that. He didn't have any idea exactly where he was and he didn't quite feel up to walking alone in the streets just now. Sure, someone would probably help him if he asked. But just the thought of getting up and stopping someone on the street to explain his situation made him panic again.

No, he needed to call someone: Steve or Tony. But you'll annoy them, they're working, not like you, a dark, twisted part of his brain whispered. He shoved at it, ignored it, and got his phone out of his pocket, sniffling and swallowing back his last tears. It rang once, twice, the seconds feeling like an eternity, before Tony answered.

 

''Bucky?'' he said, his tone soft and worried and God, how did Bucky dare make him go through all of this. ''Everything okay?''

 

Bucky chuckled darkly and let his head thump against the hard stone of the wall behind him, delighting in the brief flash of pain.

 

''No,'' he finally managed to mumble, his voice hoarser that he expected. ''Need you.''

 

There was the snap of latex gloves – shit, Tony had been working – and a few distant voices whose words he couldn't quite decipher.

 

''Where are you?'' Tony asked, straight to the point.

''Dunno. Somewhere– somewhere not far from the store. Dark street.''

''Okay. Okay, Bucky, I'm on my way, understood? I'm gonna come get you. Is there anything on the street that I could easily recognize? So I can find you quicker?''

 

Bucky looked around, his head feeling horribly heavy to move.

 

''I can– can see a Subway. On the other side of the road.''

''Great. That's great, Bucky,'' he said, and Bucky could hear him snap his fingers, before he heard Steve's voice asking what was wrong and Tony answering something he couldn't understand. ''We'll be there in a few minutes. Don't hang up, okay? We just left the shop, we're gonna be here soon.''

 

He kept talking, describing where they were and how far away they were from him, and Bucky hummed from time to time, answered a short yes or no when Tony actually expected him to answer. Mostly, he focused on the voice on the phone, anchoring himself to this tone he'd grown to know and like so much, hanging to it like a drowning man would hang to a lifeline. He didn't even notice when the voice on the phone turned into a real voice, right there a few meters away from him; kept gripping the phone tight in his right hand until Tony kneeled next to him and slowly took it away. From the corner of his eyes, he could see Steve keeping guard, throwing him worried glances, but the most important thing was Tony, with his small smile and his warm hands in his hair.

 

''We're here,'' he was saying, and Bucky suddenly snapped back to reality, his eyes focusing back on his boyfriend. ''We're here, sweetheart, everything's okay. Keep breathing, yeah, just like this, you're doing great. Want your headphones back on? No? Okay, no headphones, got it. Oh, honey…''

 

Bucky followed his stare, looking at Tony's hand, his fingers red with blood. His breath hitched, his heart missing a beat, but then he remembered– he'd hurt himself when his head had hit the wall. That wasn't his arm, that was not the same thing, he was not back there, not anymore.

 

''Sorry, sorry,'' Tony was apologizing, and now his left hand was behind his back, where Bucky couldn't see the blood anymore. ''Are you back with me? Oh, god, I'm sorry, that was stupid. You're okay, Bucky, that's just a scratch. We'll take care of that as soon as you're back home, it's nothing bad. Wait, you're shaking, are you cold?''

 

At Bucky's nod, Tony leaned away, just a bit, just enough to be able to shrug out of his old, worn jacket, that he draped around Bucky's shoulder. It smelled just like him: ink, cologne, and the hair gel he used. Bucky inhaled deeply, the scent managing to bring him back from the brief flare of panic. He held his right hand up, put his arm around Tony's shoulders and drew him in for a hug; he was still shaking but right there, his nose against Tony's warm, olive skin, he finally felt whole again, the fear and anxiety slowly trickling out of him until only bone-deep exhaustion was left.

 

''Wanna go home,'' he mumbled like a little kid, and felt Tony's puff of laughter on his skin.

''Of course. Steve?'' he called, a little louder, and a second later, his friend was there, kneeling right next to Tony. ''We'll get you back on your feet, okay?''

 

Steve crawled to his right side and put his arm over his shoulders, gripping his waist with his muscled arms. Tony was on the other side, a more psychological support, but his hands were still ready to catch him, should he stumble out of Steve's grip.

They probably looked weird like that, like two guys bringing their drunk friend back home in the middle of the afternoon, but Bucky didn't even notice the stares they attracted, focused on walking, one foot after the other, and on breathing. Tony and Steve were like two bodyguards, keeping him away from the noise and agitation of the city, shielding him from everything that could have made him panic again, and hiding his missing arm from everyone, now that he felt like he couldn't deal with it.

No one stopped them on the way, and they were back to the shop relatively quickly; Steve left after exchanging a silent conversation with Tony, letting him take care of Bucky. Once they were back in the apartment, Tony gently towed him to the couch and made him lie down. Bucky obeyed without a protest, closing his eyes gratefully but, a minute later, his boyfriend was back. He straightened up a bit and thanked Tony with a small, wobbly smile, when he gave him a glass of water and one of Peter's chocolate bars.

The cold water helped him settle down more, and the chocolate gave him back some of his energy; still, he was exhausted, and Tony seemed to notice it. He climbed on the couch next to him, grabbed a pillow to put on his lap and made Bucky lie down again, his head on the pillow. He didn't say a word, but started massaging his head slowly, helping him forget the headache that had been pulsing in his skull with little scratches on his scalp and gentle pressure on his temples.

The last thing Bucky saw before he fell into a deep sleep were Tony's wet, red eyes.

 

When he woke up, it was to the feel of hands playing in his hair, doing what probably was–

 

''Are you braiding my hair?'' he asked, his voice still sleepy.

 

The movements in his hair stopped, and he made a low sound of protest, reaching blindly for Tony's hands so he'd keep doing it – it felt really nice.

 

''Yeah,'' Tony chuckled, and the gentle tugs and scratches started again. ''They're just long enough to do it, now. Kinda hipster-y. I like it.''

''Like it too. It's different from the buzzcut.''

''How are you feeling?'' Tony asked after a few beats of silence.

 

Bucky moved around gently, making an inventory of his body, feeling what hurt and what didn't.

 

''I'm still tired. Sore all over too – like I ran a marathon, except I didn't. Arm hurts.''

 

He felt Tony move under him and, the next second, he was holding out a full glass of water and two painkillers. Bucky took them from him with a grateful smile and straightened up, Tony's hand a support on the small of his back, swallowing them quickly.

 

''I've got your anxiolytics here too. Want one?''

''Yeah. It's a bit early, but that'll probably do more good than bad, I guess.''

 

They were both sitting up now, Bucky curled up on Tony's side, and cautiously avoiding his eyes. He knew he should do something – apologize, explain, anything – but the first thing that came to his mind was to ask:

 

''Were you working?''

 

Tony twitched against him, and now Bucky could feel his eyes watching him.

 

''Just getting started when you called, yes,'' he admitted, and Bucky sighed sadly. ''Hey, that's not a problem. We sent her back home with a reschedule and a gift voucher. Nat took the time to explain what was wrong; I promise, she's not pissed at you, or at me, and neither am I. It's great that you called, Bucky.''

''You're kidding, right?'' Bucky snorted, shaking his head.

''Absolutely not, I'm serious. Don't look at me like that! You know one of the things that worried me when you came home? That you'd have a problem sometime when I'm not with you, and that you wouldn't trust me enough to call. I was afraid that you'd just stay out and not give any news until some cops brought you home, or someone had to get you to an hospital. Sure, I freaked out when you called, because it was scary, not knowing how bad it was, but I also felt really relieved, because you trust me enough to call if you need it.''

 

He'd finally found the courage to turn and actually look at Tony, and could only read sincerity and affection in the way he was looking at him.

 

''I know you, I know you don't like doing what you think would annoy people. You don't like asking for help when you think I'm busy elsewhere, and you'd rather pour a whole can of soda on yourself than ask me to open it when I'm helping Peter with his homework.''

 

Tony smiled when Bucky rolled his eyes at this – it'd happened exactly once, reminding him of this was completely unfair, really.

 

''What I mean is, it feels huge that you trusted me enough to call even when you knew I was working. And you should know that no matter who I'm tattooing, you're still my top one priority, and Steve's, too. Maybe I'll piss off a customer once, and so what? They're not the one who matter; you are. And if they can't understand why I had to leave, well, too bad. So no, don't feel bad because you had to call me while I worked, okay? And don't stop yourself from going out and trying things all by yourself because you're afraid you'll need help in some way.''

''I just wanted to buy some orange juice and what I needed to bake pancakes,'' Bucky mumbled. ''That seemed so easy.''

''It always seems easy, right until you realize it's really, fucking not easy. But next time, you'll manage. And if not next time, then the time after that. You've got all the time you need to heal.''

 

Bucky squinted at Tony, trying on a smile that felt wobbly and weak.

 

''Seriously, what did I do to deserve you?'' he tried to joke, but that came out in a more serious than intended tone.

''Wrote amazing letters to my son. And then charmed the hell out of me the first second I saw you.''

''I charmed the hell out of you? Did you see yourself lately? You were the irresistible one in that airport, with your bad boy looks.''

'' 'Bad boy looks', really? I'm the farthest thing from a bad boy you could find in New York.''

''Well, yeah, okay, but you look like one, with all these tattoos,'' he gestured at the ones visible on Tony's naked forearms, ''and your shaved hair, and the piercings… A real bad boy. Just how I like them, really.''

 

Tony laughed, clear and high, his eyes wrinkling delightfully at the corners, his little pink tongue darting out to wet his lips.

It hit Bucky like a freight train, right there; it'd just been waiting for him to realize it, probably, as stubborn and blind as he could be. He looked at Tony, at the fond smile he was giving him, at his eyes that were always so full of compassion but never ever of pity, at the warm arms that had soothed him so many times already, at the tattoos telling the story of an eventful life, at this man who, at times, was the only reason he kept going through the roughest of times.

It hit him, and he had to bite hard at his lips to keep the words from just blurting out of him.

God, I love you.

 

***

 

Every step outside that didn't end in a panic attack – he'd had more of these since the first one, three weeks ago, though with his therapist's help, he was slowly managing to get them under control faster, and Tony had only needed to come and take him home once – felt like a small victory. So now, Cocoa's leash around his wrist, Bucky felt like a victorious warrior coming home to his family.

He stepped into the shop and quickly went upstairs to release the dog, after a few strokes of her soft fur, and after checking that her bowl of water was still full.

When he went back downstairs, he was met with the by now familiar sound of tattoo guns buzzing more or less loudly. In a corner of the shop, Steve was focused on synthetic skin, gripping his own gun in his hand, Rhodey watching what he was doing, and tipping him to what he could do better. He'd finally accepted the offer of an apprenticeship and, from day one, had thrown himself into learning with all his heart. He loved it, that much was obvious; of course, he was only on his first tries, and his lines were still wobbly, still a few months away from being tattooed into actual skin. But he loved drawing different designs, and training himself to answering customer's requests. One of them had actually seen his work and made him sworn that he would tell her as soon as he was able to tattoo her: that had been enough to make Steve smile for the rest of the day.

It was a real pleasure to see him like this, because Bucky knew that it wasn't that easy every day. Steve suffered from some of the same problems as he did, and he and Natasha were battling the same nightmares and panic attacks as Bucky was. Still, he was doing better everyday, losing the edge of stress and anxiety that had been a permanent feature since the day they'd enrolled in the army. He smiled more, laughed more, and his love for Natasha, and hers for him, was obvious to and enjoyed by everyone around them.

 

''Hey, Stevie, Rhodey,'' Bucky greeted them, nonchalantly leaning on a wall right next to them. ''How're you doing?''

''We're okay. Though Steve would be more okay if he stopped gripping his machine with all his strength. Relax your hand around it a bit; you'll get cramps after five minutes if you don't. It won't bite if you let it go just a bit.''

 

Steve nodded and finished the line of his cartoon rabbit, studying his work with a frown. He finally turned to Bucky and smiled brightly to his friend.

 

''Hey Buck. Glad to see you back. Everything went all right?''

''Yeah, everything okay. You're doing great, I see.''

''Still a little shaky, but I think it's improving. Oh, hey, Tony told me to tell you that he'd like to see you when you came back.''

''Really? What does he want?''

''No idea. He's in his office,'' he said, pointing to it with his thumb – like Bucky didn't already know where he was.

''Okay, well, I'm gonna go see what he wants. See you later. And relax!''

 

Rhodey laughed as he went away, and even with his back turned, Bucky could only too well imagine Steve rolling his eyes at him.

He waved at Natasha as he passed her station – she was busy tattooing a muscular man, but she returned the wave with a smile – and walked to the office's door, knocking lightly on it, and waiting for Tony's call of ''Come in!''.

 

''It's me,'' he said as he stepped inside, closing the door behind himself.

''Well, hello, me,'' Tony grinned, and got up from his chair, stopping right in front of him and kissing him on the cheek. ''Glad to see you there. Cocoa all right?''

''Yeah. And I am, too, before you ask. No scary cars or terrifying baby, everything went smoothly.''

''I'm really glad to hear it.''

''Steve said you wanted to see me?'' Bucky pressed, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

''Yes! Well, it's nothing that important, really, you know. I was just thinking back on everything we did since you came back, and I realized that we never went to a date. We ate outside with Peter a lot of times, went to have some drinks with Nat, Rhodey and Steve, but we never had a real, romantic, sappy date. Just the two of us. Soooo… I wanted to ask you if you were free Friday night?''

 

He was grinning, probably proud of the doubtless shocked expression on Bucky's face. That was true – they'd never really found the occasion to go outside in a fancy restaurant, just the two of them. Now that Tony had mentioned it, Bucky really wanted it, too. He'd been a real charmer back in his youngest days, bringing his conquests to restaurants that weren't that fancy (he'd only been a teenager, after all), and laying it down thick with his dress pants and greatest shirt.

Dressing up for Tony and seeing him dressed up sounded like something he could really enjoy.

 

''Well, you know my agenda's not that busy,'' he deadpanned. ''I'll gladly go out on a date with you. Friday night sounds great. Guess you won't have to go ring at my door with a pretty flower, hm?''

''Oh, I could, you know.''

''No flowers; Peter and flower vases don't go along that well. But I will wait for you to knock at my door at eight o'clock. Don't be late, mister Stark.''

''That's how it is?''

 

Tony was grinning, his eyes twinkling with mischief, and really, there wasn't much Bucky could do but take him in his arms and kiss him silent. Their lips met in an rush of air, Tony still smiling against him, at least until Bucky gently bit at his lip, feeling him shiver against him as a result. Tony had a thing for bites and marks in general; he loved it when Bucky went a little crazy on his neck and left traces of him behind. After a few seconds of Tony's hands in his hair and on his waist, and of their lips moving away and meeting again, Bucky had to take a step back and breathe in deeply.

His traitorous body tended to react every time they kissed, lately, but he wasn't sure he was ready for more than their embraces and kisses for now. He threw a quick glance at the empty sleeve of his t-shirt and swallowed, smiling through the feeling of self-hatred.

 

''Friday, eight o'clock, then. Can't wait.''

 

Tony watched his back as he turned and walked away, and waited until Bucky had left the room and closed the door to let himself fall back into his chair, groaning low into his throat, his hand lightly palming his crotch.

He could only hope that he would be able to make Bucky see how beautiful he was to him on Friday. He wanted to give him everything.