“Okay, this is the fourth Saturday you’ve spent getting dolled up and taking off to god knows where, Tones. Was Pepper right? Is there a mysterious beau we don’t know about?”
“Like I’d tell you, Platypus.” Tony didn’t break the eye contact with his own image in the mirror as he mussed his hair this way and that, trying to figure out which way looked better. “Plus, this is not me getting ‘dolled up’.”
Okay, maybe it was. A little bit. But he couldn’t let James put him to shame!
That man inevitably would, especially now that he was taking better care of himself and that haunted look in his eyes wasn’t quite as pronounced, but just because James was unfairly good-looking didn’t mean Tony couldn’t give him a run for his money.
“You don’t spend that much time on your hair for major press conferences.”
Tony finally turned around.
“You’re just jealous of my good looks.”
As expected, Rhodey huffed good-naturedly. He was watching Tony from his spot against the doorframe, on the threshold between Tony’s study and the bedroom; his posture was casual, no visible tension in the shoulders, no strain in the lines of his face, and he seemed at ease with the braces worn over his jeans.
The sight flooded Tony with renewed relief and so much affection he could barely breathe, but he embraced every bit of it. He would’ve given Rhodey his own legs if he could, but since that wasn’t an option, this—the best doctors in the world, every bit of Tony’s ingenuity, and Rhodey’s remarkable strength and willpower when faced with this injury—this had to be enough.
“Yes, it’s jealousy,” Rhodey said, unaware of Tony’s momentary lapse into sentimentality, “you caught me. If only I were as handsome as your scrawny ass.”
“Excuse you,” Tony parried back, pushing the maudlin thoughts out of his head, “look at this!” He flexed a bicep and tapped it to make a point, but of course, the gesture was wasted on his best friend. “That is not scrawny!”
“It was when I met you. First impressions, Tones, they stick with you forever.” Rhodey’s eyes glinted with mirth. “To me, you’ll always be a scrawny, bratty fifteen year old with stick-skinny arms who couldn’t handle his liquor.”
Tony stuck his tongue out, essentially proving Rhodey’s point, but it gave him unmitigated joy to see Rhodey’s face light up with delight, so in the end, it was worth it.
“Seriously, you gonna tell me where you spend every Saturday?”
Tony had actually thought about telling Rhodey, he really, really did, but he just couldn’t find the right opportunity to come out and say “Hey, so, the Winter Soldier and I have been talking every day for the past two months and going out on not-dates every week. Turns out, James Barnes is a pretty decent guy, phenomenal actually, and he just gets me, you know? Likes to spend time with me, doesn’t find me too annoying, has been keeping Rogers off my tail, and he has the prettiest pair of blue eyes, oh my god, and also those broad shoulders aren’t so bad either and his voice is like whiskey and—”
Yeah. He needed to find a better way to deliver that message. For Rhodey’s sake.
And until such a time, Tony would just have to keep his ‘evil plan’ under wraps. It wasn’t hurting anyone, no state secrets were being given away, so no harm in keeping it close to heart for a while longer until Tony figured out the right way to deliver the news.
So in the meantime, Tony just needed to deflect.
“Hey, isn’t a man allowed to have some secrets in his life? You don’t tell me everything.”
“You don’t have to share everything, you know that, so don’t fuss, and I do know how important it is to have some privacy in our crazy ass lives. But I worry about you, that’s all.”
“Nothing to worry about, I promise. Just a new project I’m working on.”
Rhodey’s eyes narrowed. “Is it going to explode, piss someone off, or get us into legal trouble?”
Tony tapped a finger against his lips, throwing in a pensive hum for added effect. “No… Probably… And I don’t think so?”
Rhodey scrutinized him, obviously unsatisfied with Tony’s non-answer, but then he heaved a great, big sigh and threw his hands up in mock surrender. “Fine, fine, fine. If you don’t want to tell me, I accept that. Honestly, if nothing explodes like you promise, that’s better than your usual track record. Just stay out of trouble, okay?” Rhodey turned on his heel, but then threw over his shoulder as he walked away, “And enjoy your date!”
“It’s not a date!” Tony shouted right back, but when he looked in the mirror again, the guy staring back at him did sort of scream ‘date’.
A date with the Winter Soldier.
It wasn’t, not really, but did he want it to be a date? Sure, James was handsome, that was a well-established fact, something Tony had known since he was a teenager, and sure, they actually got along like a house on fire, and maybe Tony did get a bad case of the butterflies every time James’ lips quirked into a smile or those blue eyes lingered on Tony for longer than was strictly appropriate. Tony haven’t had to deal with butterflies since the early days with Pepper, when everything was still new and exciting and unburdened, so the fact that it was happening here… And the fact that James was sort of checking him out sometimes…
No, bad Tony, bad.
James was still barely above ‘functional’ and the last thing he needed was Tony’s ill-advised crush.
Be a Rhodey, not a Rogers.
A sensible motto to live by. Tony glanced at his reflection one more time, decided it was as good as it was going to get, and headed out to the flight deck to pick out a suit he could fly to the diner.
This meal fell into the same familiar pattern as all the rest as they picked out their food and then consumed it eagerly over free-flowing conversation and friendly banter. Today’s discussion consisted of Tony struggling to explain the general state of pop culture, which devolved into explaining the broad-stroke differences between the generations. James chimed in with his own observations and looked far too entertained when Tony complained about his ‘Gen-Z brats’ and their often nonsensical approach to humor.
It would be silly to deny it, but these stolen moments with James had become the highlight of Tony’s week. That didn’t mean the rest of his week sucked, per se, but there was something so warm and comfortable and right about sitting in this tiny booth, indulging in good food, stealing said food from each other’s plates, laughing over James’ deadpan commentary, having longer, more serious discussions where James’ memories of decades long gone combined beautifully with Tony’s more futuristic vision of the world.
Their feet sat nestled next to each other under the table, occasionally brushing up against an ankle and every time it happened, Tony had to suppress the desire for more. He always wanted more—more, more, more—always so damn greedy in life, but he’d never take what wasn’t freely given, not here, not from James who had everything taken away once already.
This was enough, he told himself, but it was such a damn lie. It didn’t feel like enough, not when they sat together and talked, and not when they parted ways. Tony just stood there, watching James’ retreating form blend into the crowd; he stood, watched, and hated that he kept longing for more.
Are you up for something different today? I love the diner, but I think we need some fresh air. We shouldn’t waste this amazing weather. With our luck, the damn rain will start back up tomorrow. How does Central Park sound?
It sounds great, but it’ll be packed with people. Someone’s bound to recognize us.
I got it covered. Trust me?
James chose a less-populated area of the park to meet Tony, but for once, he arrived first and had been waiting for a good ten minutes; thankfully, between the beautiful sunny day and the lively scenery, the wait was hardly unpleasant. He scanned the park again, out of habit, his spot underneath one of the tall maple trees giving him plenty of shade and an excellent vantage point, and he noticed nothing out of the ordinary, right until his gaze panned left and he spotted a man heading his way. James narrowed his eyes and when that stranger stopped a few feet away instead of walking past him, the rest of his body followed suit, turning into a tightly-wound coil of tension. Something was definitely off about the guy; the face especially kept ringing James’ internal alarms.
“Can I help you?”
The stranger just grinned, unaffected by the threatening tone.
“Nope. Just wanted to admire those fantastic sneakers you’re wearing, Snowflake. Are they Captain Marvel colors by any chance? You see, I’m more of an Iron Man fan myself.”
James blinked when he heard the familiar voice and the tension bled out even as he was trying to figure out whether his eyes were playing tricks on him. “Tony?”
If the voice hadn’t given it away, that eyebrow waggle would have. The man—Tony—glanced around, then after making sure no one was close enough to pay them any mind, he tapped his right temple with his pointer finger. The skin of his face shimmered a translucent blue, revealing the same familiar—gorgeous—features James had been seeing in his dreams more and more often these days.
“Pretty cool, huh? An upgraded version of the Photostatic Veil SHIELD loved so much. The SHIELD one was decent, but you don’t have to peel this one off and it itches a lot less, let me tell you. I nicked two of them from inventory for our stroll in the park.”
Tony thrust his hand out and in his palm was a small metallic disk, about the size of a button; it was identical to the one attached to Tony’s temple, now that James knew where to look beneath the curls of brown hair.
He obediently took the device, but hesitated to put it on. Having foreign tech attached to his head, that hadn’t gone well for him in the past. His gut clenched, a reaction rooted in fear, beaten into him over the decades, but he took a deep breath and reminded himself that this wasn’t a Hydra lab. He was in Central Park, for god’s sake. With Tony.
Tony, whose easy smile slid right off.
“Shit, I didn’t think— Making you wear that— Jesus christ, I’m sorry, it should’ve occurred to me—”
James pressed the disk to his temple before Tony could finish and ignored the shudder that ran through him at the press of cold metal against his skin.
Wide brown eyes blinked. “Are— are you sure? You don’t have to—”
“Tony, I’m fine, it’s okay,” James said and made sure his voice didn’t give away his body’s initial reaction. The fight-or-flight response was natural, expected even, but he would not let Hydra define what he could and couldn’t do anymore. What he wanted to do today was have a wonderful time with Tony at the park, free from distractions and interruptions, and this Veil was an elegant solution to their problem. Yes, one could argue that this sort of blind trust was risky, but so far, trusting Tony had paid off tenfold and while James was no gambling man, if he were, Tony would’ve been his bet every time.
“Can you show me how it works?”
Tony didn’t miss a step, quickly getting over his surprise. He moved closer, close enough to be in James’ space and now James had to ignore another perfectly natural reaction as his body flooded with a flash of desire for Tony to step even closer.
Tony reached out and tapped a sequence against the disk. There was a shimmer of light in James’ periphery, like sun rays reflecting off water, and with it came a brush of air, humid and sticky, against his skin.
“Did you at least make me look handsome?” he asked, his voice dropping an octave, and he watched as Tony let out an amused huff.
“Sorry, gorgeous,” he said, looking up at James, still so close that James could count the lashes framing those expressive eyes, “but no matter what I program into this thing, it’ll be a significant downgrade, so that’s, uh, I mean—”
Tony stopped, that big brain of his catching up with what he just said—something that wasn’t helpful at all at fending off James’ unruly craving for more contact— and he cleared his throat, took a step back, and focused on the device instead of James.
“The Veil, it, uh, it works by running an algorithm and modifying your features to look generic, for the lack of a better word. A composite of thousands upon thousands of faces produces an average. Nothing remarkable or memorable, neither good nor bad, nothing that would catch someone’s eye when you’re walking down the street.”
“You caught my eye when you walked up.”
Tony’s laughter was a beautiful sound and it soothed the remaining discomfort from that earlier spike of fear. James was safe with Tony and he was glad his instincts were finally catching up with the program.
“That’s because I was being a creep, James. Now come on, I’m starving. We should hit up every food cart that looks even remotely interesting.” He tapped a pattern against his own temple and to James’ dismay, there was that shimmer of blue again, erasing Tony’s much more appealing features. The stranger from before was back and Tony was right - there was nothing remarkable about that face. James already missed all the details that were uniquely Tony, ones that his mind catalogued over and over every time they saw each other.
“I know it’s weird looking at a stranger, it takes some time getting used to, but it was the only way for us to enjoy a day out without drawing any attention.”
“It’s alright. I’d really rather look at you, Tony, but the anonymity will be a welcome break.”
The hint of surprise at the compliment was beautiful too and James realized that even though the color of Tony’s eyes changed to a dull green, they were no less expressive and no less warm.
They took off down the path, heading towards the areas of the park bustling with activity and it didn’t take long for Tony to resume a conversation they were having over text messages and with great detail—and with several expletives—he explained to James what his bots did to the workshop while Tony was away in D.C. a few nights ago.
Made bold by the present—the anonymity, the sunshine caressing his skin, the man walking next to him—James let himself smile, filled to the brim with something that may have even been happiness, if he could believe such a whimsical thing.
He supposed this sunny day, although amazing, still fell short of perfection. After all, he couldn’t do the one thing he wanted, which was to reach out and hold Tony’s hand in his own.
They were both stuffed with every food imaginable and a few Tony didn’t even know he could imagine when they unceremoniously collapsed onto the grass, choosing a spot for themselves underneath the cool shade of the towering trees. There was also some conveniently positioned shrubbery around to keep them out of sight of all but the nosiest tourists, but thankfully, there was a good chance no one come looking for Iron Man and the Winter Soldier in the bushes of Central Park, so they were sufficiently safe from discovery.
“Alright, I think we can be ourselves for a while,” Tony said, then tapped the Veil and released a sigh of relief when the invisible mask lifted, exposing his skin to the fresh air. “Friday, can you keep an eye out for us, please? Put out a disruption field and just give me a heads up if anyone gets too close.”
James was shimmering back to his own gorgeous self when Friday responded, “Will do, Boss. Also, hello, Mr. Barnes, so sorry I haven’t had the chance to say a proper hello yet.”
The bemused expression on James’ face was kinda adorable. “Um, hello, Ms. Friday?”
“She kinda has a soft spot for you,” Tony added sotto voce, “she’s been eager to introduce herself.”
“Soft spot for me?” Now James looked even more confused. “Why would she like me?”
“Oh, that’s very simple, Mr. Barnes! You see, I love seeing Boss smile—”
“Um, Fri, ix-nay on the—”
“—And your messages never fail to make him smile. He is flushed with endorphins every time you—”
“That’s quite enough of that, Fri. Go back to being the look-out, please.”
His AI gave him an unrepentant chirp of affirmation and then went silent. When Tony chanced a glance at James, the man was sitting there, smiling.
There was just a whole lot of smiling going these past few months, wasn’t there?
“She’s a huge sap, please ignore her.”
“She seems sweet. I like her.”
“Hmm, sweet, yeah. That’s what she’d like you to believe.” Tony cleared his throat, then shifted around so he was sitting cross-legged next to James, who was reclining against the thick trunk of the tree, one leg stretched out in front of him and the other bent at the knee. “Anyways, did you enjoy our extended lunch in the park today?”
“Loved it. It’s been a long time since I could just… be. Like a normal, everyday person, you know?”
“Sure do.” Tony tapped his temple, just to the side of the Veil. “That’s why I don’t let myself indulge in this little beauty for too long. Too tempting to just be a nameless face in a crowd.”
“Being Tony Stark can’t be that bad.”
“It has its perks. Just wish— just wish it weren’t always so complicated.”
James’ look of sympathy wasn’t surprising. Of course he understood what Tony meant about the temptation of anonymity. The Winter Soldier was intimately familiar with a life of complications and now a life of public scrutiny to boot.
They were just close enough that Tony’s knee was pressed against James’ thigh and Tony wondered what it would be like if he gave into the crazy desire to get just a little bit closer, curl up against James, embrace the satiated warmth filling him up, and just let himself rest—
James broke the spell of Tony’s runaway thoughts when he leaned over to grab the backpack he carried with him. While he rummaged inside looking for something, Tony squeezed his eyes shut, counted backwards in Russian, and let out a breath. Goddamn tempting super soldiers and their cozy-looking—
“I made you something.”
Tony opened his eyes to the sight of James looking ten kinds of shy and holding out a plastic Tupperware container.
Tony’s stomach did its usual acrobatics at the sight even as he gingerly reached for the container.
“What did you—” Tony didn’t finish when he opened the thing to find it filled to the brim with cookies. “Did— did you bake for me?”
“Yes— I mean, you’ve done so much, and I just wanted to—” James cringed as he stumbled over the words. “Sorry, I know it’s silly. A few cookies don’t compare to everything you’ve given me—”
“James, this is awesome,” Tony grinned, first at James, then at the treats. “I’m serious. I can’t remember the last time someone baked for me. Ooh, and I get two flavors? We got chocolate chip here and…” He took a different cookie out to examine it. “Okay, level with me, did you use your super special assassin powers to figure out that white chocolate macadamia are my favorite ones?”
“No, they just sounded really good when I read the recipe. Not sure I ever had a macadamia nut before making these though. Pricey bastards too.”
Tony hummed as he broke the cookie in half and handed one piece to James who took it without complaint. “Here, I know you like your fresh fruit better, but you have to share this one with me.” Tony bit into his own and good lord, someone needed to add baking to this former assassin extraordinaire’s resume. Tony didn’t manage to stop the frankly indecent moan that escaped him, but really, that was entirely James’ fault for making something so delicious.
“Oh my god, this is so good,” he said around a mouthful, to the sound of James’ quiet chuckle, “you have a gift and now I’m gonna want these every week.” He took another bite. “I’m eating every one of these. The Iron Man suit is gonna feel a little tight afterwards, but I don’t even care. I’ll build a bigger suit. Thank you, James.”
“It’s nothing. Baking’s all about precision, I’m good at that sort of thing. Felt silly making them though. I’m sure you could buy a whole bakery if you wanted to.”
“I can buy a lot of things, but it’s hard to buy someone’s desire to do something like this.” He shoved the rest of the cookie into this mouth, savoring the burst of buttery sweetness, then decided this was as good a time as any to bring up a topic that had been buzzing around his head for a few weeks. “Since we’re exchanging presents and all, I’ve been working on something for you as well—two somethings actually, but—”
“Tony, if it’s something bright red again, I’m going to have a real hard time convincing everyone I just randomly developed a liking for the color.”
“No, no, this is way better than sneakers, although I suppose it could be painted red. But, uh, there are no concrete designs yet, everything’s just in here right now,” Tony tapped his non-Veil-wearing temple, “but long story short, I’ve been thinking about building you a new arm.”