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James Barnes, the Winter Soldier, has been out of the ice and Hydra’s hands for a month the first time he hears a familiar voice. A month since he fished an unconscious Captain America out of the water, left him on the bank, and vanished into D.C. to figure out exactly what the hell all the fractured scenes in his head were about. Eventually he figured out that they were memories, his memories. A blend of the history of James “Bucky” Barnes, and the actual missions carried out by “The Asset” on behalf of Hydra.

He might have ended it all right then, except he also remembered running into a pretty slip of a thing at a College. Remembered the kid bouncing off his chest and nearly hitting the ground, but for the fact that The Asset had caught him. Remembered sending him on his way with a gentle nudge, not knowing what to do with the half-whispered compliments about his lips and jawline as the kid had shuffled off.

It was important, for some reason. So important The Asset hadn’t told his handler he’d been seen... hadn’t told his handler anything, about the pretty slip of a boy with mercurial bronze eyes.

Not that it matters, it may as well have been a lifetime ago. Could have been more, in fact, since The Asset had little notion of what year it was when the meeting occurred. He rarely needed to know such things, and he certainly didn’t get to keep that knowledge once the mission was carried out and the report given.

It was wiped away, like everything else he had ever seen and done. Only, not as well as they hoped, or so it seems. Now he’s on the loose with a skull full of half-remembered events, places, people and dates. There’s no frame of reference for it, no safe way to view a timeline of his activity. If he goes in, they’ll capture him, wipe him and start over. If he stays here, at least he has choices, at least he has memories.

At least he has the sun on his face, and the memory of bronze eyes.

But walking out of the museum exhibit for Captain America, he goes stone still at the sound of polished tones addressing a crowd. A voice that he knows, but doesn’t know. He turns slowly, hunting for the sound by eliminating quadrants of space around him. Not someone on their phone, not someone present in person. There. On a nearby television there’s a press conference, featuring about two-dozen blood-thirsty reporters practically climbing over each other as they fight to get in the first word.

A gorgeous man in an expensive suit stands behind the podium, looking disinterested and slightly impatient in the barrage of camera flashes and shouted-commentary. The light seems to reflect off his tinted sunglasses, a shade off royal blue to match the tie and shirt he’s wearing with his dark indigo-blue suit. His pocket square is a riot of color James doesn’t know what to do with, but damn if the pinstripe suit doesn’t look sharp on him.

"Kids quiet down.” He scolds with a smooth smile, but there’s a hint of a bite to his tone. “If you can’t be quiet, you can’t hear me… and if you’re not listening to me, what are any of us doing here?”

A fragment of memory, of sleep-fogged coffee colored eyes that go copper-shot bronze in the sun. ‘Are you a student? Because you don’t look like a student and you don’t look like a teacher. But if you’re not a student and you’re not a teacher, what are you doing here? Ugh what are any of us doing here? Do you know the nearest place to get coffee? Never mind, you didn’t even know this was a school, why would you know where to get coffee. At ease, handsome, and put those pouty lips away. I’m sleep deprived and coffee deprived and you look delicious. That jawline could literally kill someone. Wow I need coffee. I’m gonna go, maybe I’ll see you around after I’ve caffeinated and we can try this whole thing again, okay? Okay. Bye beautiful.’

That pretty, rambling student from James’s memory is all grown up and leading a pack of reporters through a three ring circus routine like he’s been doing it his whole life. James steps closer to the television, blinking as the name scrolls by.

Tony Stark Announces Maria Stark Foundation Relief Efforts; Offers Support for Recently Disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D.

The kid was Tony Stark.

“Well…” James sighs. “That certainly makes things more difficult.”

On the bright side, he knows where his Soulmate is, now.

Chapter Text

Of course, because there is a bright side, the Soldier should know to expect a downside. Maybe he hasn’t figured that part out yet, but it announces itself in short order. The down side appears during the next news cast the Soldier sees, and happens to star an all-too-familiar face. It’s another press conference of sorts, with long tables draped in navy fabric and microphones scattered from one end to the other. The Avengers file in, those of lesser importance –in the Soldier’s observation- relegated to the outer edges. The important people are clustered in the center. Iron Man Tony Stark is one, Captain America happens to be another.

As Tony steps into the room the cameras go off, an explosion of flash bulbs and yelled questions. He’s clearly not going to answer until they’re seated and orderly, but there’s a smirk on his lips and his tinted lenses are firmly in place. Today they’re crimson, matching the red of his tie and pocket square but standing out against his night-black suit. He’s the only one not in uniform, a business man amongst spies and soldiers. James wonders if it’s a calculated deception, or merely for comfort’s sake.

Regardless, Tony struts in dressed to the nines and the press lose their mind. James would congratulate them on their good taste if he was there in person to make sure not to press his Soulmate too far. Tony Stark is an unfairly attractive man, a billionaire and a hero and a philanthropist, in a glorious suit. Of course he is worthy praise, of admiration, of their attention. The Soldier cannot fault them in that.

However, as it stands, he’s not present to ensure their good behavior. To make matters worse he clearly recognizes Steven Grant Rogers in the background. Steve, for his part, is standing in the back corner of the room, perhaps waiting to walk up and take his seat, with his arms crossed over the white star on his chest, glaring at the back of said mate’s head… Or maybe the mob of reporters? James can’t tell, but the expression the Captain’s face makes the metal hand clench in his pocket.

One wrong move… The Soldier warns in the back of his mind, ice on every word, and James can’t help but agree. He needs to get to New York, and soon, but first he needs to sort a few things out. Namely, Tony Stark.

James Barnes becomes aware of soulmates as a concept (the second time around) from an avenue that most people probably wouldn’t. It is, like many other things, a fact that he gleans from the Smithsonian exhibit on Captain America. As if it is not jarring enough to walk through the building and see pictures and video of his old life- a stranger wearing his face- he also sees strange markings scrawled on the limbs of soldiers pictured in the unit. Many of them keep them half covered with either a sleeve or a cuff, but there are also words or parts of symbols creeping out from under a neckline or vanishing beneath a belt.

They make no sense, but he knows they aren’t tattoos. Knows they’re important, significant, and special. Personal, even. That people don’t really share them, but everyone has them. And suddenly he’s standing watching a collage of video snippets and segments, listening to “noted specialists” debate the possibility of soulmates for the Howling Commandos. For Captain America. For James Barnes.

The Soldier goes still, something like a distant memory glinting just out of reach. He can’t get to it yet, knows better than to grab at the fragments since all it does is make them crumble into nothingness, slipping like mist through his fingers. Instead he waits, tries to still his racing thoughts until something discernible can surface. The specialists are speculating as to whether or not Steve and James could have been a pair, fueled by the fact that they’re frequently described as being “inseparable”.

The Soldier snorts, shaking his head. Steve was a lot of things, but never the other half of him. They’d grown up practically in each other’s pockets, but Steve had never drawn him in, made the world spin, made electricity sing down his spine. All Steve had ever done was drive him crazy, brawling in back alleys and refusing to rest when he was sick. Impossible to keep the Punk down, even if it was just rest for his own good.

If Steve had been his soulmate, the Soldier probably would have removed his arm like a coyote in a trap with half the things that kid had put him through. Still, it was new knowledge, and a hint of an old memory, and that was more than enough. The Soldier left the exhibit, and the museum, and went to one of his favorite things about the future.

The nearest library, and its handy computers.

*

Tearing through a few online articles about Captain America, the Avengers, and soulmark speculations quickly turns the Soldier off of the computer angle. Annoyed with all the wild accusations and claims, literally hundreds of people betting they’re Stark’s soulmate, he turns instead to print sources. For all that it’s a thing people don’t think to talk about, there are a dozen titles about Soulmates. Recognizing them, courting them, the significance of different identifying marks, even the significance of the first meeting and the range in the compatibility of pairings.

It’s enough to make someone’s head spin.

Still, the Soldier is patient, and organized. Cool logic creeps in when James feels like the panic may take over, sorting new information and discarding irrelevant details. He remembers the first meeting with Tony Stark, remembers the kid literally crashing into him in the middle of a college campus. Considering how smart he is, James is fairly certain ‘kid’ is an accurate statement, remembers dark circles under stunning eyes, epic bedhead, the sleepy glaze to his glances and exhausted, aimless babbling.

Remembers how the press of warmth against his chest made everything stop, the skate of a graceful, work-rough hand up his arm had made him tilt his body, lean into the touch. Remembers how fingertips barely brushed his jaw as the kid slipped around him, liquid in the Soldier’s space like he had every right to be there, then gone the next moment. In hindsight, he knows that the shot of warmth to his stomach, the creep of sparks up his spine, had been an indication.

He wonders if Tony had known, had felt it, or if he’d just been too exhausted to notice. Maybe he knew but didn’t want a Soulmate? The Soldier kicked that thought into a dark corner of their mind, slammed a door on it and locked it. None of that. They knew who their Soulmate was, knew what that frisson of awareness during their first meeting had meant. Maybe they didn’t know what their marks had been before the fall, but they knew him.

He was enough.

The Soldier had to get to New York.

*

Chapter Text

Moving the Avengers into his tower, outfitting the team, springing for upgrades, transportation, and covering damage costs could probably qualify as the world’s most expensive midlife crisis. The trouble of the matter is, Tony doesn’t know how to do casual. Not in relationships or friendships, not when picking a fight or making a statement.

Of course, anyone that saw a reported minute of his twenties, or his “I Am Iron Man” conference probably already know that. All of that aside, his adoption of a ragtag band of heroes certainly fits Pepper’s definition of a midlife crisis.

“Tony, you’re moving in at least two people that are ten or more years younger than you, all of them are attractive, and you’re footing the bill for everything. You've put your PR team and the lawyers to work on protecting them. Even if this paperwork takes us a month, we’re doing it right because you are not personally paying for the future damage these people may incur.”Pepper had scolded. “Why can't you just buy another Audi?”

The reality of the present is that Tony is forty and has yet to find his Soulmate. While there are those that would argue it’s a good indication he doesn’t have one, because he doesn’t have a soul, he doesn’t like to pay them any attention. Besides, the markings scrimshawed along his ribs –held closer than any other secret- certainly seems to say otherwise. Granted, the pattern is a confusing one, a sweep of black like an inked feather. Cut into the dark are shapes, a few scattered stars, what might be a hunting wolf done in a silhouette style, a hint of a crescent moon. It curls along his ribcage from front to back, a gentle arc framed above the bone.

There are few alive that have seen it. None, outside of Rhodey and Pepper, that Tony is aware of. Of course, that in itself is no small feat, considering how the paparazzi have stalked him his entire life and managed to get pictures of him in various stages of undress, usually with company. Because of the photos he’s got more of a reputation as a playboy than he’s rightly earned, but there’s little point in arguing when people say they’ve met you or slept with you.

By the time he’s twenty Tony learned to just let them chatter, that there are better uses for his time. As evidence of this he invents a paint on cover for Soulmarks so he can disguise his own, and it has the added benefit of being able to smooth out most minor scars and blemishes as well as tattoos. Hollywood hails it at the greatest cover-up option in history, as it’s waterproof and lasts up to 30 hours without flaking, and they buy it by the gallon.

People accuse him of creating it so he can con more innocents into his bed, and Tony privately wonders why he’d bother to share it with the world if that were the case. Still, rather than respond he elects to put puts the funds into support programs of those that don’t have marks or those that have been abused and injured, therefore losing them. He secretly wonders if somewhere his Mate has befallen the same fate, disfigured or damaged, or if they’re just part of a city he’s never seen and has no way to meet.

Pepper is one of the first who is actually a friend to try and talk to him about it in any great detail. She waits until things have settled in the wake of the Avengers moving in, and though she wonders if any of them might be a match to her boss, she doesn’t outright ask it.

As he’s grateful for all the times she keeps him on track and saves his neck, Tony even responds rather than rebuffing the comments with a sarcastic quip or cutting remark. Granted, he gets sucked into the conversation because Pepper is a professional Tony Stark handler, but he doesn't really mind it. He's fairly certain it was her plan all the time, though when she bursts into the lab she certainly seems to be genuinely annoyed.

“I think if Natasha could provide sufficient evidence to establish herself as the only one without a Soulmate, she would. In the meantime, she seems hell-bent on figuring everyone else’s out, and using it against them.” She wonders as she walks into the lab, her arms full of goodies.

“Was there a throwdown in the women’s locker room, and I missed it?” Tony perks up.

“You only wish.” Pepper murmurs blandly. “I wish I knew hers was so I could bring them to the tower. Maybe she’d finally give someone a straight answer.”

“Why do you want a straight answer from Natasha about her Soulmate?”

“I want a straight answer from Natasha about anything, Tony.”

“Stop asking about her Soulmate and maybe you’ll get one. I’d just get a knife to the abdomen and she’d steal my kidney and sell it. There’s a plan, it’s oddly specific and I don’t want it put into motion.”

“I never asked about it in the first… Fine, I’ll stop talking about Natasha’s soulmate. How about you? Have you ever met yours?”

Tony fights the urge to flee the room immediately, a knee-jerk reaction when people begin to harp about Soulmates to him on a one-on-one basis. If there’s a group he’ll redirect attention, if he’s on his own it’s too much like a trap. Still, he can’t flee, Pepper’s just brought the latest books for his cover up’s sales.

It’s one of the few meetings he’s rather happy to take, taking pride in reviewing where the funds are allocated and how many damaged marks they’ve tended to. Since the beginning of the program Tony’s added three therapists and two tattoo artists to the payroll. The staff is currently a dozen strong, though Pepper seems to think at least one more counselor, a program assistant manager and another case officer would be prudent as new cases crop up all the time. In the meantime the current staff will work with the damaged patients and –if they show interest- may also attempt to reconstruct their soulmarks via careful tattoo designs.

“Met what now?” Tony mumbles, half in a project and half eager to check over the books. It’s good to see the list of names and cases, to review progress, to know that they’re helping.

“Your Soulmate.” Pepper mutters, half exasperated and half charmed. “Put down the mad scientist hat for a moment, there’s a new provisional case I need you to approve.”

“Oh? Special circumstance?” Tony mutters, reaching for his coffee cup and frowning at the sight of it being empty. “Pepper. Peps, light of my life.”

“Yes, I brought you a fresh thermos.” The redhead murmurs, swatting at his grabby hands as she unloads a basket, two binders, two case folders and a series of pens. “Don’t touch, if you spill on my files I’ll have to murder you.”

“You can’t bring me coffee and then threaten me like that, you know how it turns me on.” Tony mumbles just to watch her blush, laughing when it earns him a swat to the ribs. “Ouch! No fair, that’s off limits!”

The redhead knows where his mark is, even if she’s not really had much cause to see it in detail.

“I think your Soulmate would thank me.” Pepper sniffs, handing over the thermos. “Stop pouting and take it already. But we’re talking about this now.”

“Yes, of course my Angel of Mercy.” Tony mumbles as he eagerly uncaps the thermos and fills his mug with the steaming brew.

“Also, I brought you a sandwich from that deli on third you like, you have to eat it.” She glares at him as she unpacks two wrapped sandwiches and tosses a bag of chips and a bottle of water toward him before pulling out chips and tea for herself. “A working lunch, tada.”

“I’m so flattered I’ll sign anything you want for the next 20 minutes, provided it doesn’t keep me from my sandwich.” Tony murmurs at her solemnly, grabbing for his food and beginning to unwrap it. “Now, because I am a good boss and I was definitely listening, what were you asking about meeting and Soulmates?”

“Have you met yours?”

“I meet a lot of people, Pepper-pot.” Tony mumbles as he bites into his sandwich. “How would I even know, at this point?” About to bite into her perfectly respectable club sandwich, Pepper freezes, blinking at her boss before carefully setting the food back down. “What do you mean, ‘how would you know’?”

“What I said?” Tony’s got another mouthful of sandwich, but Pepper doesn’t even make a face at his manners, her brow crinkled in bewilderment. He carefully chews and swallows, tilting his head in concern. “Pepper?”

“Tony, you’re supposed to feel it when your Soulmate touches you.” She murmurs softly. “Not like a normal touch, it’s more than that. It’s warmth where their skin brushes yours, and electricity in your spine. A song in your heart, you know?”

“Not really.” Tony murmurs, guileless and distracted by the file he’s flipped open with one finger so he can read as he eats. “Any touch feels like that.”

“How can any touch feel like that?” Pepper mutters, outright goggling at him now but not sure how to stop herself.

Tony shrugs, looking faintly uncomfortable as he leans closer to the file in an attempt to avoid the discussion. “People don’t touch me that often, Pep. How should I know how a Soulmate touch is different?”

“You… I…. what?” For once in her life, Pepper Potts seems beyond words.

Tony doesn’t give her time to recover on the subject, nudging the file over. “Tell me about our new potential hard case. Suspected abuse in the form of Soulmark removal, right? But he’s a minor? What can we do?”

Scrambling to slide her food aside, accept the file, and regain her composure, Pepper allows the subject change to slide. She’ll have to address this through more than a conversation, and from the look of things Tony isn’t willing to do that right now. That’s fine, Pepper can be patient. Reaching out to poke his hand with one finger, she shoos him back to his lunch.

“You’re eating, no touching my files.” She chides gently as she taps the back of his hand with her fingertips in a gentle brush. “You eat, I talk. Sound fair?”

“You drive a hard bargain, Miss Potts.” Tony smiles, withdrawing his hand and savoring the whisper of warmth that lingers on his skin.

He seems to have avoided that clearly painful discussion, for now.

Chapter Text

Tony doesn’t know it at first, but he’s really only managed to delay the inevitable. The discussion may not be happening, but Pepper Potts has preferred action to talk for as long as she’s worked at Stark Industries. She’ll work on making progress first, and then pin her boss down to have an uncomfortable conversation. For the moment, things work best if he thinks she has forgotten. She’s got a network in place that will help get things rolling.

Tony’s visit to the New York office for a meeting the following week starts out as one of the few times he’s actually early to the building. Granted, it’s part of a new strategy Pepper has undertaken to tell him the meeting is an hour earlier than it actually happens to be. The deception works too, consistent across Pepper’s schedule and JARVIS’s own records, so it’s 9:55 am when he strolls into the building. Seeing as there’s no one lingering at reception except Erinn, championing the desk, he stops for a visit.

“How’s the world’s snarkiest receptionist?” He grins, leaning an elbow on the counter and peering at her over his lilac shades.

“Thanks for visiting Stark Industries Manhattan, can you hold please?” The blonde woman sasses, pointing at the sitting area with a loud snap of her gum.

“To my face.” Tony mourns softly, shaking his head. “To my very face.”

“I see it so rarely, ya know, I have to get my hits in when I can.” She shrugs, smiling impishly.

“That’s true, why don’t I send you a signed eight by ten?”

“Pass. But ya know, I been thinkin’? You should have one of those massive commissioned portraits put up on the far wall, so you can gaze imperiously down at those who deign to darken your lobby.” Erinn murmurs with a tilt of her head, blonde hair hissing over the navy silk of her blouse.

“And be just like Hank Pym? I’d never.” Tony snarks back, shuddering in exaggerated horror. “Besides, if they’re here? They know who I am.”

“It’s your humility that makes this place such a joy to work in.” Erinn murmurs clicking away at her computer. “Hey boss, have you gotten caught up on those baking challenges lately?”

“No, I’m terribly behind, I’ve been sleeping like a human being lately.” Tony mourned.

“Tragic.” Erinn murmured with a smirk and another pop of her gum. “There’s this new one on Netflix, about some guy in Australia? There’s levitation and stuff in his elimination rounds.”

Tony blinks over his shades. “Levitation?”

“I swear, floating chocolate hats. Some real Willy Wonka level stuff.”

“What do you mean there’s a floating hat?”

“Just what I said, Boss.”

Glancing at his watch, and then the empty lobby, Tony huffs and strides around the desk to stand at her back. “To hell with my meeting! Show me this jackass.”

They spend fifty minutes watching segments of various Zumbo challenges, and Tony hisses in annoyance at the floating chocolate hat. Which melts when one pours hot chocolate over it, and reveals a hidden edible element inside. The thing has layer upon layer of flavors when they cut into it.

“This man is a sadist.” He mumbles, in awe, as Erinn nods. “It’s got how many layers?”

“I dunno, like, eight?” She rocks sideways in her seat, nudging his side gently with her elbow. “You gotta freeze each one separately, tho. Probably feels like eighteen. Why? Getting nesting tech ideas?”

“Not yet, but I might try it just to make Pepper yell.” Tony grins, elbowing her back. “You know what? I should get him to cater an event… I need this insanity in person. I’m gonna send him a plane ticket and a summons to make me that golden chocolate duck. I need it.”

Pepper finds them hunched over the computer screen when she finally makes her way downstairs, and she taps her heel impatiently as Tony leaves with a quick goodbye hug and a promise to visit later. The entire elevator ride up she shakes her head, refusing to smile when Tony goes off on a rant about nacho breadcrumb crusted savory deliciousness and chocolate duck bubble baths. No one said working for Tony Stark was boring.

Even so, he’s on time for the meeting, if only barely. The entire room looks surprised, and both Tony and Pepper are smug. It’s the best way to get what they want out of the room, after all. Pepper begins the meeting and takes no prisoners.

It’s a very satisfying hour.

*

Post meeting, Tony’s quick hello to the management hub turns into a twenty minute gossip session with one of the grandmothers that play secretary and coordinator for big events. Misty, like Bambi, is a lethal combination of gossip central and everyone’s dream grandmother. She knows everything, about everyone, even if they don’t work at SI New York.

He’d be terrified if she worked anywhere else, but she always calls SI her home and tells him not to worry like he’s a grandson afraid that he might be usurped in favor of another relative. She pats him on the head when he holds the door for her and tells him he should eat more, hugging him and stashing a pack of cookies in his pocket before he leaves.

He grins at her on the way out the door and smiles the whole ride back to Avengers tower, chewing on cookies as Happy weaves through traffic.

A week later Tony doesn’t think anything of his New York trip when he visits Stark Malibu and is greeted by what seems like it might be his name if it were whistled instead of spoken. There’s a bannering pony tail of light caramel hair trailing behind the slip of the thing hurtling toward him, and he has an Intern tucked under his chin before he knows what’s what. He’d laugh because it makes him feel tall, but is too caught up being quietly pleased by the greeting.

“You’d think I never turn up, with a greeting like this. I thought you’d be sick of me!” Still, the arms that wrap around his middle are warm and comforting, and Tony beams as he returns the hug. “Hello Meg, it’s nice to see you too.”

“Pepper said you’d be in tomorrow.” Meg mumbles against his silken tie. “I don’t work tomorrow, I was trying to figure out a cool way to visit with my boss on my day off.”

“There’s no way to do that.” Tony says with overly grave intonation. “None at all. You’re a geek. Leave my sight.”

“Whatever you say, King Geek.”

“The sass!” Tony gapes. “Unbelievable! Wait until I tell Pepper I’m getting sassed by the interns! She’ll make you go to a sensitivity seminar.”

“She’ll give me a raise and a vacation.” Meg retorts, peeling away at last.

“Only because I tell her to.” Tony winks. “Get back to work, will you?”

“Yes, the glamor of filing is way more important than you, what was I thinking?”

Tony shoos her away, grinning as he walks to the elevator. “Nice to see you too, kid.”

He gets waylaid just outside R&D by the sudden arrival of Alyssander, shoulder-length brown hair bound in a tail and bright-eyed. Tony happily stops for a hello and finds himself all too pleased to learn about their latest knife purchase. Having once designed a tac knife that’s still in production through their military contract, Tony poses a few questions regarding material and the tang length for the blade.

Mischievous, Tony playfully argues against unique details and aesthetics, instead campaigning for efficient, practical weapons just for the mock-punch it earns him. He can’t genuinely argue against some of the unique beauties in the collection, but he can fake it long enough for it to be funny. Alyssander obligingly taps him with a playful fist, glaringly providing photos of the beautiful hilt for the blade. Tony takes the StarkPhone to scroll through them and has to admit the mottled patterning on the wood is stunning.

“You’re damn right it is.” Alyssander murmurs proudly, taking their phone back and stowing it in a pocket. “You heading into R&D?”

“I need to make sure they haven’t wrecked any walls today.” Tony grins as a loud bang reverberates through the hall. The walls are largely soundproof, but with explosives there’s only so much that can be done.

“Tell them I get crack their skulls together the next time they do.” There’s a lackadaisical shrug, but Tony can tell it’s not really a joke. “I’ve had to get contractors out here three times in the last month to repair walls. Thankfully, none of them have been loadbearing, but your destruct-o brats are lethal, Mr. Stark.”

“This is why you’re my favorite fixer, Alyssander.” Tony simpers, tossing an arm around his employee for a moment and giving a grin. “The best. But I’ll go tell them –and Pepper- you’ve got permission to beat them up the next time they break something, just for you.”

“Sound exhausting.” The brunet droops a bit. “Can’t you just make them behave for the rest of the week?”

“For you? I’ll do my best.”

“Thanks, Boss.”

Tony Stark walks into R&D beaming widely and can't stop, even when the boys mishandle a unit and there's a crash that just spells out disaster. 'Poor Alyssander... Maybe we'll just do a vacation package instead.'

*

Chapter Text

The tower is quiet, exterior lights on but very few windows lit. It’s not all that surprising, considering the hour, but Tony is almost certain he sees a few of the work common work-levels lit up and resolves to investigate. Happy takes them around to the garage entrance and parks the limo, waving at Tony as he meanders to the service access elevator and rides it to the lobby. The elevator doors ping open with a soft whisper, revealing a half-shadowed lobby that at first-glance seems abandoned.

Half way into the room Tony freezes as he walks in the door, staring nervously at the presence of a very annoyed Stark Industries doctor. For her part, Dr. Bill glares at him from in front of the express elevator, arms crossed over her chest, dressed in casual clothing but with her access badge hanging around her neck. Tony approaches the brunette woman with caution, as she’s nearly of a height with him and imposing even at a distance.

“Doc.” He murmurs, partially playful and partially worried. “I feel like there should be some really romantic blues music playing right now… If you’re making house calls shouldn’t you be wearing the coat?”

“Clearly you’re watching too much medical garbage on television… and don’t you joke with me, Mr. Stark.” Bill scolds, unfolding her arms and reaching out to poke him in the chest. “I hear there was an explosion at SI Malibu, and you didn’t go to medical.”

Tony, bewildered by the grumbling, lifts his arms and turns when she directs, mutely baffled as she pokes and glares at him at turn. “Wha? Huh? I was literally across the country. How did you even know that?”

“The how is not important.” Bill grumbles, pressing a finger to the underside of his chin to make him look this way and then. “No visible contusions is promising, I understand you have a press conference in two days. The way you move indicates no broken bones, may wonders never cease. Then again, the way you act you could be hiding severe sprains, I have met you, after all. Alright, follow my finger.”

“Wha?” Tony blinks but obediently moves his eyes to track the sweep of her finger before his eyes. “I wasn’t involved in the explosion, honest! I was just in the room at the time, but the R&D boys did it, and no one got hurt! Honest! And really, how?!”

“Alyssander.” Bill shrugs, dragging him down by the chin to squint at him thoroughly.

“You talk to Alyssander?” Tony’s certain his eyes are bugging, more than a little, but what?

“There’s an entire spy network you have no notion of, it’s better that way.” Bill nods stoutly before letting him go with a frown that Tony assumes means she’s found him fit.

“You still should have checked in with Medical. Miss Potts has been calling us for updates on the hour and wouldn’t believe that you’d skipped out on medical in both Malibu and New York.”

“It’s like she doesn’t know me at all.” Tony laments, finally relaxing and giving her a half smile. “Do I get a sucker, since I was a good boy?”

“You’re lucky you don’t get a sucker punch, you had us all worried.” Bill mutters with a threatening curl of her fingers.

“Alright, alright.” Tony murmurs, pretending to be cowed, and bows his head. He is sorry, but there’s a suspicious glowing feeling in his chest because his staff are literally the greatest in the world. “I’m sorry for the scare. I promise though, I was well out of range. They put another hole in a wall and I’m scheduling them a firm talking to via Pepper. Maybe the building will go undamaged for a week it they feel the full force of Pepper’s wrath?”

“I’m not here because I care about buildings, Boss.” Bill murmurs, relaxing at long last. Her brown eyes are fond when she reaches for him again, pulling him forward into a quick hug. “Welcome home. You have to go check in with Kasey on forty-two, okay?”

“Is this a take two and call me in the morning kinda deal?” Tony wonders, hugging back with a faint smile. The glow in his chest is softly warming to fill his chest, fueled by the gentle banter and shielded by each soft touch. “Can I call you when Kasey tries to make me sign something and I get a paper cut?”

“It’s already late, you better not call me at some ungodly hour of the morning on my day off, you jerk.” Bill mutters fondly, releasing him and stepping back. “But if Kasey brutally assaults you with files and there’s a chance you’ll die the Death of a Thousand Papercuts, sure, call me.”

“You’re the best, Doc.” Tony beams. “Safe trip home.”

“Good night, Mr. Stark.”

*

When Tony reaches forty two, he’s unsurprised to find it’s one of the floors that remains well lit. Most of the desks and offices are empty at this hour, but there’s an elaborately moving shadow against a near wall that indicates the secretary is just around the corner. Tony pauses as he reaches the shadow, tempted to reach out and make shadow puppets to see if she notices, but the silhouette abruptly throws up hands and spins away, the young woman stalking further away and around the corner.

“Kasey?” Tony mumbles, following the sound of muttering and stomping until the secretary comes into view. “How’s my favorite theater nerd?”

Kasey’s abruptly dramatic air evaporates in lieu of a giant smile. It lights up her whole face and makes Tony smile automatically, stepping forward as she resets her deep blue glasses with one dark hand before flinging the stack of papers in the other aside. “Mr. S!”

“Heya trouble, you’re working later than usual.” Tony beams, arms open as he catches the young woman in a hug. He busses a kiss to one ebony cheek in retaliation for the one she lands on his own olive-skinned cheekbone, grinning all the while. “Oof! All this boss appreciation. A guy could get used to it! Wait… did Pepper dish out some policy that made me look good?”

“Just nice to have you back.” Kasey murmurs, smiling as she unwinds her arms from his shoulders and steps back, squinting at him thoughtfully. “Got some paperwork from Pepper about your new pack of strays, though.”

“Of course you do.” Tony sighs. “What did they do now?”

“Nothing that I know of.” Kasey shrugs, stepping back from him to lead the way to the stack of paperwork and a few files. “Though…”

“Though what, Kase?” Tony questions gently, eyeballing the stack of documents with some trepidation. My, Pepper had been busy. That hardly bodes well for Tony, if the amount of paperwork is anything to go by. Maybe this team thing isn’t going so well, and he should just box them up and ship them back to Fury.

“It’s just that, well… Miss Pepper doesn’t want us unenhanced sort up past the sixtieth floor unless there’s an ally with us.” Kasey admits. “With you out of town and everyone else on the team as an unknown, she doesn’t want to risk it. Stella’s been playing watchdog this evening, I think she’s up on sixty again now, actually.”

“Did someone say something to one of you?” Tony feels concern flare in his spine, longing to call the suit and knock on the door of whatever Avenger spoke to his staff. The team did good work, on the street, but if they were threatening Tony’s people, in Tony’s building, there was going to be a throw down and not just words. “Because they’ve got no right, so if they did something, I need to know.”

“I’m alright, Boss.” Kasey smiles gently. “But Miss Potts says your friends break stuff whether they mean to or not, and she doesn’t want any of us on the list. I’m not sure how accurate it is, the rumor mill has been grinding today.”

Tony slid the files aside, perches on the desk, and leaned forward with eyes as wide as possible. “Weeeell? Come on Kasey, don’t hold on your favorite boss.”

“Ain’t my story to tell.” Kasey hedged. “You take the files and you head up to see Stella on sixty. As her if any donuts are left.”

“Awww man, I missed the donut fairy?” Tony wilted, immediately forlorn. “Must be a Thursday. I love it when Laila visits.”

“Yes you missed it, yes it’s Thursday, or at least it was.” Kasey grins. “Don’t worry, she wasn’t happy you were absent.”

“Well that’s some comfort, I guess.” Tony paused then glanced up, brown eyes glinting when they met Kasey’s laughing gaze. “You’ve got that look… I smell a story, and I can’t not know. Alright, as wonderful as this midnight delight has been, I must dash!”

“Take your files, go talk to Stella, get some sleep.” Kasey scolds, accepting the one-armed hug she gets as he obediently sweeps up the files and trots eagerly toward the door. “Welcome home!”

“Thanks and break a leg at your audition!” He cheerfully retorts as the elevator doors close.

“JARVIS?” He murmurs idly, leaning against the wall and considering his burden. The stack of files is a daunting one, and Tony thumbs through the labels to check for any standout clues as to what is inside each.

“Sir.” JARVIS returns and obediently navigates the car toward the sixtieth floor.

“Did something bad happen?” Tony scrubs at his face as he asks, worry stirring in his gut.

“Your staff remain unharmed.” JARVIS soothed. “There’s video footage later, assuming you wish to view it after you’ve had your talk with Security.”

“Stella didn’t have to knife someone, did she?” Tony pinches the bridge of his nose. “Just… tell me there’s not a murder to cover up.”

“Considering the ladies present in the altercation.” JARVIS murmurs, sounding fondly amused. “If there was a body, it would already been safely removed from the premises and the murder successfully hidden. You also would not be offered paperwork, perhaps beyond a non-disclosure agreement.”

“We do tend to hire a very competent staff.” Tony acquiesced. “Though from the sound of things… JARVIS, are you on the girls side?”

“Oh look, sir, Floor 60 as you requested.”

And the doors cheerfully slid open with a musical ping. Tony supposes that’s its own kind of answer. Maybe moving in a bunch of unknown superheroes really wasn’t his best move.

*

Chapter Text

Earlier Thursday

The Winter Soldier arrives to New York and easily makes his way to Stark Tower. It’s easy enough to walk through the lobby, with all the people coming and going. There are even tour groups that wind their way through the public floors. James curls his lip but joins one of them, listening to the information the guide gives with only a fraction of his attention. Still, it gives him an excuse to walk around Stark Tower for well over an hour without anyone second-guessing his presence.

Eventually he parks himself in one of the chairs in the public sitting area, reading his way through various articles about Stark Industries in the magazines provided. The most interesting moment of the afternoon is when he sees a short girl tumbling through the door with a frankly staggering amount of white boxes. A business man clips her and she bobbles, the tower wavering precariously. For some unknown reason James throws himself out of his seat and hurries to her side, reaching out to steady them. The Latina is swearing in a mix of Spanish and Italian until she realizes he's got the boxes re-balanced.

“Oh, thank you!” The woman chirps, leaning back so she can eye him around the armload. Her ocean colored eyes sweep over him, hesitating over the metal arm before she meets his gaze with a quirk of her brow. “Don’t suppose you’re a friend of Mr. Stark.”

James grins, sharp and wicked. “Yeah doll, you could say that. Don’t tell me all these are for him though? He’s gotta have room for real food, too.”

“Oh, no.” She laughs. “Pepper would murder me for being that much of an enabler. But I have friends on the staff and it doesn’t seem fair to leave them out, ya know? Half a box for him, at most.”

“You bring donuts to all of the staff?”

“Thursday afternoon staffing is lighter in the departments I actually visit. They’re friends of mine, they deserve snacks.” She replies in a tone that borders on stubborn.

“How about I carry, and you tell me where we’re dropping all’a these off?” James offers, taking the boxes out of her hands without issue. “I’m James. You got a name?”

“Most people do.” She counters, swiping her badge over the pad beside the elevator doors. They open with a cheerful ping. “Thank you, James. I’m Laila, but a lot of the staff around here calls me The Donut Fairy.”

James watches her push a floor button and then blinks at the dozen boxes he’s balancing. “These are all donuts?”

She laughs. “Hungry?”

“Starving, doll.”

“Well, my beautiful assistance can certainly demand a donut tax.”

“Awesome. I’m splitting the box with Tony, then.”

“You’ll earn it, so that sounds fair to me.”

*

James has set another box of donuts down in a conference room, watching hungry programmers meander through with coffee in one hand to grab a sugary snack. Laila is working the room, fluttering from person to person with hugs and reassuring comments, then waves at them all before scuttling to the elevator before they repeat the cycle all over again on the next floor.

They reach sixty with two boxes left, one for James and Tony and the other for the employees on this floor. Laila keeps one box in hand and uses the other to tow James and his box out of the elevator, calling cheerfully for the security staff. She introduces him around to Stella, Evan and Jen, all of whom seem happy to meet him and eat donuts as they all catch up. Jen is pale and lean, but wears her uniform with an easy sort of confidence. Stella is shorter and olive-skinned, her grey eyes sharp as she gently elbows evan. Due to the height difference it hits him in the stomach but he gives a soft laugh like he's used to it.

James can tell they're good, genuine people, which makes it easy to talk to them. Sadly, Jen and Evan depart before long, off to walk the floor and then head down to lower levels in security sweeps. Stella, Laila and James remain behind, the girls taking turns talking about various improvements that Stark Industries has offered to tech, medical and clean energy. James has slowly relaxed throughout the evening, sinking back into the couch in the sitting room they’ve taken over as their own.

Stella is in the middle of slicing herself half a donut and telling a story about an AI miscommunication, the Hulk, and an order to an animal rescue for a dozen kittens when the elevator dings. The appearance of Hawkeye makes them all hesitate, the girls staring as the spy-turned-hero meanders into the room like he owns it.

“Aha, I knew I could smell donuts!” He beams, bouncing forward to lift the lid on the box clearly labeled as Tony’s.

Stella doesn’t even seem to think, just lashes out with the butter knife to the back of his hand like a nun with a ruler. She slaps the flat of the blade over the man’s knuckles sharply, automatically, like a strange sort of reflex. James wants to laugh at the offense and shock on both her and the archer’s faces, but he prepares to stand and step toward the table in case he needs to break up a scuffle instead. Stella looks like the sort that won't back down, and the Archer is an unknown.

Seeming to sense trouble brewing, Laila reaches a hand out and catches Stella’s elbow, towing her backwards. “Ok Stell-”

“You’re not supposed to be on this level.” Stella retorts, glaring at Hawkeye. It reminds James that she's in uniform, on the job right now, and suddenly she seems much less the bubbly companion that's been telling him stories for half the evening. “You should go back up to Avengers quarters, Sir.”

“What the hell?” Clint sounds honestly bewildered, but also more than a little annoyed.

'An inadvisable response.' The Soldier notes.

James can't help but agree. Soundlessly he sways to his feet, moving from the shadow corner of the sofa and closer to the lamplit table. As he moves it sends the light glinting on the articulating plates of his arm, and for good measure he flexes. “You heard the lady, Archer. Run along, now.”

Clint freezes at the movement, a ripple of surprise passing through his frame. He probably doesn't intend to telegraph his surprise, but James can read it clear as day. When Clint clocked the bodies in the room, it was only the two girls. He hadn't noticed James at all. And clearly, the AI running the building hadn't told him.

Interesting.

Unsurprisingly, Clint goes without argument, merely glaring as he steps back into the elevator. At least he’s not as dumb as he looks. James waves coyly as the doors close. Well, Tony’s sure to hear about him now.

*

Chapter Text

Thursday evening...

JARVIS doesn’t say another word as he lets Tony out onto Floor 60 and promptly closes the elevator doors. The billionaire shoots the doors a glare, eyeballs his ceiling, and sighs. Well, that’s as close to an answer as he’s going to get, it seems. His AI, for whatever reason, is going to let him deal with this on his own. So, it probably won’t be awful?

“J, you aren’t arranging a tragic accident for Daddy, are you?” Tony mutters, not surprised when there’s no response. “Come on now, I’ve been good to you. Don’t tell me you’re having me smoked now, J… Did Pepper put you up to this?”

The silence continues, but Tony can tell JARVIS is amused by him. Shrugging, Tony meanders down the hall and stops at the sight of familiar white boxes on the table near a shadowed sitting area. “Ooooh, for me?”

“Not all of them, no.” Stella snorts as she appears from a connected hall. “But you’re lucky, we were about to give up on them.”

“Give up on who now?” Tony blinks. “Also, we?”

“Yeah…” Stella glances over to the shadowed couch, then gestures. “Your knight in shining armor took a nap before my last round. Feel free to give him a nudge, I’ll get us coffee.”

Tony shuffles over to couch, blinking down at the beautiful man draped on the smooth black leather. Seemingly peacefully asleep sprawls a handsome man, his flesh arm pillowing his head, metal arm folded across his flat stomach. His jeans are dark and clean, the henley clinging to his muscled torso, black booted feet hung over the far arm of the couch. On the proud line of his jaw there’s just enough scruff to be ruggedly attractive –at least where Tony’s standing- and his silken hair fans out in chocolate waves.

Holy… Tony’s brain short-circuits, mahogany eyes gone wide as he stares down at Steve Rogers best friend, Tony’s favorite part of the old war reels. James Buchanan Barnes, a sniper and sharp shooter, a Sargent and Second-In-Command of the Howling Commandos.

The freaking Winter Soldier is sleeping on his sofa, hanging out with his staff… defending his donuts?

“James.” He exhales sharply.

Storm-gray eyes snap open, looking up at Tony with an attentiveness that relaxes to interest. When Barnes speaks his voice is soft but gravel edged, low and fond. “Hello gorgeous…”

Something pathetically eager manages a little flip inside Tony’s chest before promptly going melty. Wow, those eyes in that face with that voice… It should not be allowed. It should not be allowed at all.

“I bet you say that to all the boys.” Tony mumbles, folding his arms and leaning on the back of couch, swaying closer to this beautiful man.

He probably should be afraid, but JARVIS has let Barnes stay for untold hours. Besides, his staff seem to be relaxed around him, to have welcomed him as one of their own. Tony hires good people, smart people, and he trusts their judgement in spite of how much they care for him. Between that and the fact that James’s very presence inspires something warm to kindle in Tony’s stomach, he can’t help but relax.

“Only the pretty ones I wake up to.” Barnes argues. “Which as you can imagine, there ain’t that many of, given my age and circumstances.”

“I suppose there is that.” Tony concedes. “Though in your defense, you look stunning given your age.”

James gives a smile that's more a baring of teeth than a grin, but his words roll out in a playful purr. “I hear that it’s only a number.”

Tony laughs, he can't help it. “Pretty high number there, Sarge.”

“Are we really playing it that way?” Barnes challenges, arching a playful eyebrow.

“Ouch, right to the heart!” Tony pouts, purposefully sticking out his lower lip and trying not to preen when the Soldier’s eyes fix on his mouth. It’s awfully hard, but he manages to swallow back a few dozen lines and murmur, “You know, you’re in my building, Soldier.”

“Seemed like the best place to find you, Dollface.” James quirks a grin. “Go to the place your name is on the outside of, hope you turn up.”

“Was that the extent of the plan? Hmmm… A strategist you are not.” Tony teases.

“Wouldn’t say that.” The soldier tilts his head. “It worked, didn’t it?”

“I…” Tony frowns, then sighs loudly. “I can’t even argue, but, sheer dumb luck.”

“I’ll take it.” James shrugs.

Before Tony can ask why this man looked for him, came to New York and into one of the most secure buildings in the world to find him, there’s the soft sound of approaching steps.

“You two done whispering? I’m back, and there’s coffee and donuts.”

“We’re talking about this later.” Tony mumbles before perking up and spinning around. “If it’s decaf, Stell, I will cut you off. I don’t care if Bill told you to or not. You and me? We will have words.”

“Would I do that to my favorite boss?” Stella asks innocently. “One cup regular and if you tell a soul I will never supply you again, get me? And I’m arranging for you to have a real breakfast, I’ve already got agents in place. If you don’t eat it, you’re in trouble. Stop threatening me and get over here already, Boss Man.”

James sits up, watching Tony Stark walk across the room and accept a cup of coffee and a hug from the spitfire security guard. He wishes it were him, wrapping an arm around the brunet man’s waist or bussing a kiss to his cheek. Wishes that when Tony had leaned over the back of the couch and into his space, it had been for a kiss rather than a whispered conversation. But for now the opportunity has passed, and there’s fresh coffee waiting.

James sighs and sways to his feet. At some point, he’ll tell his Soulmate, but on some level he thinks Tony might already know. And if not? Well, he hasn’t courted anyone in a while… now’s a good time to start.

*

An hour later Tony is sitting on a couch, arms wrapped around his ribs as he laughs until tears run down his cheek. For his companion’s part, the olive-skinned Stella just cocks a hip and folds her arms over her chest, grey eyes narrowed in mock annoyance. There’s a small plain white box of donuts on the table between them, unmarked except for a sketched “Stark Industries” logo and a scrawling message: “Property of Tony Stark, all other hands off. Xoxo, The Donut Fairy”.

Tony has eaten two of the contents in between his snickering as Stella expansively gestures. “So then, then, this jackass decides that I must be some kind of idiot because he drops out of the ceiling grate and clearly thinks I won’t notice. Mind you, this is after the throw down where I hit him with a butter knife and Laila holds me back from all out murder.”

“In the vents again, huh?” Tony shakes his head, wiping at his tears. “That sounds like Clint.”

“You tell that violet wearing pain in my ass that if he turns up on an employee floor without an access badge or supervision, I will taze him until he blacks out.” Stella growls. “I mean it. No questions, no conversation. BAM. With a song in my heart.”

“Yes ma’am.” Tony nods obediently. “So you kicked his ass?”

“The first go around, I smacked him with a butter knife. Don’t gimme that look, I had it on hand at the time.” Stella shrugged. “They’re your donuts. Laila left ‘em for you, I couldn’t just let him take them, Boss!”

“Yeah, I get that.” Tony tilts his head. “But the second, the ceiling vent?”

“I may have helped.” James shrugs, rolling his shoulders in a way that emphasizes his muscular arms. “Tossed him in the elevator.”

“I appreciate you both going to bat for me, especially since it probably ruined Barton’s afternoon.” Tony admits with a smile. “If he or any of them say anything to you, I want you to tell me, Stella.”

“After I taze him.” The security guard growls. “But you know what? You tell him, the next time he calls me a child? I will wreck him.”

“Name calling and food theft, a really good example of a hero.” Tony sighs, sorrow threatening the little warmth in his chest until Stella wraps an arm around his shoulders and gives an affectionate squeeze. It flares back to life immediately, and he smiles fondly at her. “Thanks, Stella. Tell the Firecracker I said thanks too, when you see her? I’m gonna go look over this paperwork from Pepper and crash.”

“Take your donuts too.” The security guard urges as she watches him climb to his feet and then gives him another hug. Her grey eyes are soft and kind now as she beams up at him. “Thanks for visiting, Boss. Nice to meet you, James.”

Barnes rises to his feet, tilting his head. “I’ll visit again soon, Stella.”

“You better, Mister.”

“Thanks for defending my snack, and lightly damaging that insufferable birdbrain.” Tony smiles. “And for babysitting this guy, I guess. Don’t work too hard.”

“You either, Boss.”

“Oh, you know me, Sweetheart.”

“Yeah, I do… That’s sorta the problem.”

*

Chapter Text

With a final wave to Stella, James follows Tony down the hallway and steps into the elevator a moment after the billionaire does. Out of habit he moves to a far corner of the small space, planting himself in a without a word. His only belonging are stored in the backpack slung over his flesh-and-blood shoulder. There’s a hint of a shiver creeping up his spine, and he can feel Tony’s eyes track over him, linger on the bag, then drift away.

“Guessing you’re moving in?” Tony murmurs as JARVIS begins to move the car upward. “Steve will be thrilled.”

“If you don’t mind.” Barnes replies in a soft tone, fixing his eyes on his Soulmate. “Ain’t doin’ it for Steve, though.”

Tony goes wide-eyed, glancing over at him and then away. There’s a hint of a blush creeping up his neck and over his cheeks. “Well, there’s plenty of room. We’ll get you set up with a suite, order in some clothes and weapons, you can train with the team, it’ll be great.”

“If you say so. But I ain’t here for the team, either.” Barnes shrugs, considering Ton silently for long minutes. “So… One of your girls let me in, and I’m betting your fancy robot let me stay… But why?”

Tony would like to know ‘why’ as well, but JARVIS is smugly silent and he doesn’t see that changing any time soon. Well, that’s what he gets for giving his children free will. “Are you disappointed you didn’t have to climb the façade like Kong?”

“Woulda been a shame to put that many holes in this tower of yours… But I was prepared to figure it out.” James says just to tease. “What’s a few thousand holes in steel and concrete, between friends?”

Tony eyes him, mock severity sweeping over his face before it dissolves into a grin. “I’d rather not find out, if it’s all the same to you. Please don’t wreck my tower.”

“More fun wrecking your other guests.” The Soldier shrugs. “So, you gonna tell me why, or you gonna make me ask real nice?”

“I bet you would ask very, very nicely if you wanted to.” Tony speculates.

“I could.” James agrees with a sly smile. “But it’s late and I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to be getting some sleep. Stick a pin in that thought, though. Maybe I’ll let you collect at another time.”

“Why Sargent, I do believe I am properly scandalized.” The billionaire murmured in a tone reminiscent of a cliché Southern belle.

“You don’t know the half of it.”

Tony sobered, giving him a gentle look. “No… I guess I don’t.”

Another handful of floors drifted by in silence before he spoke again.

“I’m doing it because it’s the right thing, Barnes. You’re not a criminal, you’re America’s longest serving Prisoner of War, a beloved teammate of Captain America, and a recovered hero.” Tony frowns faintly at him. “The world wants nothing more than to hear you got a happy ever after, that you’re home safe in America and with the Avenges and fighting the good fight.”

“Seems to me that fighting for the rest of my life don’t really fall under ‘happy ever after’, Doll.” Barnes argues with a curl of his lip and a flash of teeth. “Ain’t the Prince supposed to find himself a Princess or someone to share his castle with?”

“You got a castle you aren’t telling me about?” Tony retorts with a grin.

“Ain’t this tower of yours enough?”

“I prefer the Malibu house, it’s true.” Tony murmurs, seeming to wilt slightly. “I miss it already. Better views, right on the ocean, not nearly as many roommates.”

“I don’t have to stay, Doll.”

“You’re about the only roommate I want to keep at this point, handsome, so don’t you go fishing for compliments.”

Barnes grins, ducking his head in a faint nod. “Yes sir, Mr. Stark.”

“Wow, you’re secretly a sarcastic little shit, awesome.” Tony deadpans as the doors ping open. “I can’t imagine why Steve wouldn’t mention that.”

“Prolly a lot of thing Steve don’t think to mention.” Barnes sasses back just because he can, rolling his metal shoulder before following the billionaire down the hall. “Prolly even more that he’s forgotten, conveniently.”

“Arm bothering you?”

“If I said it was?”

“I’d offer to look it over…” Tony admits without hesitation. “Or build you a new one. Or first look it over and then build you a new one. Probably the latter, though. Because let’s be honest, I’m way better at it than those Hydra assholes. You got any feeling in that tin can of yours?”

“Enough to buy produce.” James murmurs peaceably, admiring the art on the walls as they pass. “Might could do with a little more, though. This your place?”

“More I can definitely do. But yes, this is mine. Currently the team’s all splitting floors, and then I’ve got some levels under construction.” Tony admits with an airy wave. “I’d say you could bunk in Steve’s spare room, but I’m not sure you really want to be that close? After all, Falcon shares floor space with him.”

“Polite pass.” Barnes rumbles. “Who stays up here then?”

“This would just be you and me, if you decide you like the guest suite.” Tony shrugs. “If you don’t, it’s not a big deal. I think I might have some emergency employee housing open around sixty two? But I’d have to check with JARVIS…”

“Here’s fine.” James agrees promptly, hopefully not fast enough to scare the man away. “Here’s good. Away from most people… and you… you don’t mind?”

“Why would I?”

“Me moving into you floor and moving into your building are two different things, dollface.”

“I’ve got the penthouse for a reason.” Tony shrugged again. “There’s a spare bedroom and an entirely separate suite on this floor, the living area is massive, and it leads out to the roof. You get all the fresh air you want, for a given value of fresh air.”

“Sounds pretty swell when you say it like that.”

“Don’t get cute.” Tony grumbles, pointing at him.

“Too late.” James sasses back, beaming wide like he’s won something when it prompts Tony into actual laughter.

“I give, I give.” The billionaire shakes his head, smiling. “So then, you’re moving in. Joining the team. It’ll be great.”

“I’m moving in.” James agrees, watching as the man folds his arms over his ribs like he’s protecting something. “We’ll see about the team bit… But yeah, it’ll be great.”

“Ok.” Tony murmurs, catching his gaze and holding it. “Great.”

James bares his teeth, lowers his voice, and gives Stark a once-over from under his lashes. “Great.”

*

Chapter Text

If any sane person had been around, the first thing they would have pointed out to Tony was the sheer madness implicit in moving Captain Rogers’s back-from-the-dead best friend onto his personal floor, without telling said Captain. Especially considering the fact that this floor was –of course- in the same tower that the Captain was living in. They might also have pointed out that said best friend was a former assassin and prisoner of war, likely in need of counseling, most certainly antisocial, and fairly probably a danger to Tony’s health and wellbeing. Of course, no such persons were around, and so none of this was said.

Because none of it is said, Tony does it anyway. Though, if Tony is being completely honest with himself, he likely would have done it even with Pepper standing right there, looking at him despairingly as she pleaded with him not to do said foolish thing. Regardless, no one is around and Tony is reckless and bullheaded -or so he has been told- and James Barnes needs a place to stay. So, Tony welcomes the soldier onto his floor, ushering the man into a fully appointed guest suite. The bedclothes are a rich navy color, there are matching towels in the bathroom, and the desk in the spare room is a sturdy wooden thing that looks like it’d hold up even if Barnes decides to sit on it. Much better than the modern stuff that had been part of the Penthouse before Loki's attack. Then again, hardly any of it had survived, so, that was telling in itself. 

Not willing to touch on only trauma or think about how many times he's invited disaster in his front door, Tony avoids all of that. Instead, he breezes Barnes through the tour, ignoring the surprised and grateful look on the Soldier’s face, and gestures him to the closet where there are some spare clothes already folded away. Granted, it’s Stark labeled casual wear, but it’s better than nothing. Making a note to arrange for a tailor, Tony takes a moment to eye the Sergeant up and nods to himself, typing away on his phone.

“What are you up to?” James wonders, tilting his head in question as he finally turns away from the King sized bed.

“New clothes for you.” Tony mumbles. “After a lifetime in and out of tailor shops and suit fittings, you develop an eye for this sort of thing. Not good enough to get you outfitted for a suit or black tie, but serviceable casual wear? Please, easy. Delivery in the morning, J will send it up in the elevator so no one's up here to bother you.”

“You’re eyeballin’ me just to buy me new clothes?” The soldier laughs, shaking his head as he lets the backpack slide to the floor and then slinks closer. “That’s precious.”

“You said to stick a pin in it.” Tony reminds him, darting out of reach as he continues to type away. “There! I’ve put in an order for clothing, a food delivery, had JARVIS give you access to movies, reading materials and anything else you might want to queue up on the television or a computer. One of my spare StarkPads should be in here somewhere…”

The billionaire trails off, drifting to the bedside table and pulling the top drawer open. “Aha! There we are. J? Program this little orphan for Barnes, won’t you? It’s got a charger and everything in place already, isn’t it nice when I think of everything?”

“Indeed, Sir, I am overwhelmed with joy at your forethought.” JARVIS murmurs dryly. “Anything else?”

“Such sass.” Tony sighs. “Just play nicely with the new toy, won’t you? He’s vintage.”

James snorts a laugh at the sly look Stark gives him, shaking his head. “Not all original parts though.”

“Retro upgrades aside.” Tony brushed it away with an airy hand wave. “I’ll have a phone for you in the morning, and an access card so you can get to any of the floors or express the elevators. J will give you floorplans so you know where the Team is quartered, and he can give you a read on anyone in the building if you only ask.”

“Sounds good.” James tilts his head, smiling faintly. “How about I make something for us to eat before we crash?”

“I…” Tony hesitates, then shrugs. “I could eat.”

“Thought so.”

Barnes leads the way back to the kitchen, and once Tony’s settled on a stool he proceeds to work his way through the fridge and cabinets before coming to a decision. “Breakfast.”

“It’s the middle of the night?” Tony tilts his head, grinning.

“So what’s it matter?” The soldier gives a shrug. “Pancakes, eggs, bacon?”

“Sure… why not.” Tony murmurs, leaning on the counter and watching the man move about the room without hesitation.

Barnes seems to know, or guess, where everything is. Maybe he clocked it all in his initial sweep, who can say. At any rate he seems comfortable here, mixing and stirring and gently cracking eggs as he asks innocuous questions about a variety of subjects. As the conversation goes on they make up code phrases to text each other, confirm the next few days of Tony’s schedule, and don’t discuss Captain America at all. It’s understood that Tony won’t say anything to Steve until James is ready, or James asks.

James isn’t ready, James doesn’t ask. He serves Tony breakfast in the middle of the night, does dishes, and shoos him off to bed with a playful smirk.

Tony could maybe, sort of get used to it.

*

When he rolls out of bed in the morning and stares at himself in the mirror as he tries to wake up, Tony admits he does not have a plan for the day. Washing his face and brushing his teeth get him no closer to a plan, and he abandons the idea and staring in the mirror in favor of shuffling toward his kitchen. He can smell coffee already on, and it makes him wave affectionately at the ceiling. J has his back.

“I’d hate to take undue credit, Sir.” JARVIS intones, sounding inexplicably fond. “It seems that Sergeant Barnes greatly appreciated the shower, and decided he’d make you coffee this morning.”

“Huh…” Tony draws to a halt mid-way between the hall and the kitchen, rolling the idea around for a minute. He had almost convinced himself that part of the evening’s antics had been a dream, but clearly that wasn’t the case. “Alright then.”

“Sir? I do want to remind you that you intended to get him a StarkPhone and possibly a ‘moving in basket’ today, which you’ll need to do without running into Captain Rogers unless you have a cover story planned? Aside from that, Miss Potts does require you for several signatures down on sixteen, with legal? And some of the engineers in R&D were hoping you might grace them with your presence. Your pre-lunch conference has been postponed and the post lunch meeting was canceled when we found the company had some rather distasteful secrets.”

“Canceling is great.” Tony chirped, looking almost awake for a moment.

“Legal and SHIELD have already exchanged several calls and emails about the whole matter and Agent Coulson advised he’d get back to you before dinner.”

“Ugh, meetings and Agent means probably Fury… Yeah, yeah.” Tony sighs, shuffling into the kitchen. “Can you wait until after coffee? You’re gonna spoil my morning telling me about my day.”

He abandons all thought of his day when he comes face to face with a freshly showered, and shaved, James Barnes. The cheekbones were visible, but paired with a clean jawline and bright sea colored eyes, Tony had to take a minute. He blinks several times as his brain tries to reboot, silently delighted at the sprawl of STARK across a very muscular chest. Ok so, the clothes hadn't arrived yet, but that was the opposite of a problem because wow. Just wow.

"J, take a memo, I'm a genius." He mumbles, brain stuttering back on track and jolting him forward. 

"No news there, Sir." JARVIS retorts blandly. "May I remind you that there are at least three new patents you need to sign off on with Miss Potts, and if you wish to break into some of your previously unshared projects I'll need to arrange for the necessary forms to ensure they're properly protected before we allow them out of the vault, as you say."

"Not even a day and you already want to send him out in the field with toys? Am I being replaced?" Tony mumbled.

"Perish the thought, Sir, but trustworthy backup is so hard to find. I merely seek to employ it to the greatest utility."

"You're an awful, manipulative tech deity just waiting to unleash terabytes of wrath, and I'm so proud I could cry." 

James watches Tony shuffle into the room, clearly still half-asleep, and thinks about taking back the firm admonition that Tony behave as nothing has changed. Though, in Tony’s defense, the billionaire is highly unpredictable and therefore has no real set schedule. Maybe he could have slept a few more hours, gotten rid of those circles under his eyes.

“Sounds like an awful lotta work, Doll.” James murmurs sympathetically.

“Don’t you help.” Tony grumbles, looking about as irritable as miffed kitten and just as cute.

“You awake enough to deal with Steve?” He asks, soft and fond as he pours a cup of coffee. “Or are you gonna tell him I’m here as soon as he offers you coffee?”

Tony continues to shuffle into the room, attention captured by the coffee cup being held out to him than the words the Soldier says. He blinks for a moment, heavy and slow, then shakes his head faintly. “Steve doesn’t offer me coffee.”

“Punk doesn’t know how to bribe you, huh?” James quirks a smile at the slow flutter of lashes, sliding the mug across the counter. “Come get it, Dollface… You look like you didn’t sleep a minute.”

“Would’a been better if I hadn’t.” Tony grumbles, falling on the mug like he’s ravenous and downing half of it before James can say a word. “Fell asleep in the middle of ordering materials, maybe an hour or two. Worse than just powering through it.”

“What the hell were you ordering in the dead of night?”

Tony smirked, a wicked curl of his lip that only served to remind how handsome he was. “Whatever I damn well wanted, Buttercup. There’s not a lot of companies in the world that’ll say no to me, no matter what the hour.”

“Power plays all by yourself?” James tsked and made a mournful face. “That sounds awfully lonesome.”

“If you want to be invited, you just have to say so.” Tony flirted, downing the rest of his cup and looking much more awake for it. “Any more coffee?”

“I’m tryin’ to decide if I should let you have more, or if I should drag you back to bed.” James sighed, shaking his head. “You’re trouble, Dollface.”

“You didn’t know that before you moved in?” Tony blinked big, seal-like eyes at him and sighed mournfully. “I must be losing my touch.”

“Maybe it’s the exhaustion.”

“If I can’t run rings around everyone, I’m losing my touch.” Tony replied a bit sorrowfully. “You should definitely drag me back to bed.”

“Don’t you go flirting with me, Kitten.” James scolded as he refilled the billionaire’s coffee mug. “I’m liable to take you up on that, and it doesn’t sound like you’ve got time to play slap and tickle.”

Tony snickers into his mug, warmth curling in his chest at the sight of James’s smile. “Maybe later, Terminator.”

By the time they’ve made it through coffee, Tony has resolved to breeze through the common floors for the sake of appearances, but on the way to his meeting with Pepper so he has a reason not to stay. He blows a kiss to James and vanishes back into his suite, showering and shaving so he can dress to the nines in a black on black suit with a slim silver tie. Grabbing a pair of black sunglasses with silver rims, he styles a black and grey pocket square in the breast pocket of his jacket, slides on a silver watch, and sails back through the living area with a careless air-kiss to his new pet soldier.

“Be good and play nice with J while I’m gone, I have to go lie to your best friend and impress people.” He calls cheerfully over his shoulder.

Barnes turns to lean over the sofa, waving goodbye with a lazy grin. “You look like a million bucks, Kitten, say hi to the girls for me.”

“Flirt with my staff and I end you, Barnes.” Tony warns as the doors slide closed. “Miss me just a little.”

“Count on it.” The soldier’s last words drift through just as the doors click shut, and Tony can’t help but beam the entire elevator ride down.

He’s already decided to deal with Steve like he’s not stashing an amnesiac assassin in his spare room, and warns his AI and bots not to say or do anything that will jeopardize the scheme. Tony will handle it, if he sees Steve, or when he sees Steve. Of course, Tony’s sure to see him in the communal kitchen at breakfast, if he goes. And of course he’s going to go, because the thing he and Bucky –Barnes? James? The Soldier?- agreed on was that Tony’s to act like nothing has changed.

Ok, nothing has changed. Tony’s going to breeze himself through the communal kitchen for coffee and maybe a slice of Sam’s peanut butter toast, and then dash on out to his meeting with Pepper. Basically, somewhere between last night and this morning, half-asleep and under caffeinated, Tony Star decided to embark on the world’s greatest game of keep-away meets two truths and a lie.

But sure, nothing has changed.

Beneath his shirt and jacket, the black mark that curls over his ribs seems to warm, but Tony rubs it idly and then smooths the jacket as the doors open. It's nothing, he's fine, and nothing has changed. 

*