Tony blinked lethargically at the numbers hovering before him and willed his brain to focus, but when everything began to swim and turned into unintelligible squiggles that resembled some strange alien language, he finally gave up on the effort. Schematics could wait—had to wait because if Tony followed these squiggles, he could very well end up with some alien monstrosity instead of a nanotech-powered gauntlet and then where would he be?
With a half-hearted swipe, he sent the hologram into the ether of Friday’s convoluted, but admittedly effective filing system and turned in his seat to let himself stretch, relishing in the way his joints loosened up with the movement. A big, unashamed yawn escaped him and he smacked his lips, then scratched a hand through his beard, idly considering his options. It wasn’t late, per se, at least not by normal people’s standards, but he hadn’t slept all that well the last few nights and it was starting to catch up with him. The couch in the workshop was lumpy, but convenient. His actual bed was much better for his spine, but the suite here never did manage to feel like home and the trek upstairs felt daunting right now.
Of course, there was a third option on his list of sleeping arrangements.
It was almost a week ago that Tony had woken up in the middle of the theater room, sometime nearing noon, next to a cuddly and well-rested super soldier.
A mind disoriented from an overabundance of sleep processed sensory input slowly and made decisions at an even more sluggish pace, so at first, the delight of having a warm body to snuggle up against was all that concerned Tony and he may have let out a happy hum while pulling James closer. When their brains did catch up with reality and they both realized they were all but wrapped up in each other, arms and legs intertwined, with James’ breath tickling Tony’s neck and Tony’s hand splayed possessively over James’ thigh and Tony’s body being just on the right side of aroused…
Well, that was when things got a little awkward, because Tony was not a well-adjusted, perfectly rational adult who could handle these sorts of situations with grace. No, instead of grace, he laid there, now completely awake and staring at an equally startled James, and instead of worrying about impropriety or James’ perception of this, his first real worry was that James looked so kissable, but if he just up and kissed James right then and there, that would be a terrible first kiss because they both had awful morning breath, what with the popcorn and the skipped tooth-brushing.
No, worst first kiss ever, even if he really did want to kiss James senseless. James, and his dumb, messy hair and the soft, unguarded expression, and the curve of his nose and the bow of his lips and he was just so warm—
So yes, instead of being suave or respectable or anything resembling cool, Tony may have laid there and obsessed over the tiny details that made up a sleepy, disheveled James Barnes, which didn’t help the situation, certainly didn’t help the arousal heating up his blood, and the only option left at that point was to untangle from one another other awkwardly, make fumbling excuses for the entire thing, and flee the scene.
Thankfully, the awkwardness was a temporary affair. After the lives they’ve led and the shit they’ve been through, neither Tony nor James had room for embarrassment, especially over something they both had enjoyed. Things went right back to normal and they saw each other for meals, arm updates, and discussions about James’ future goals. Mostly though, they saw each other just because they wanted to.
The night spent in each others’ arms wasn’t brought up again, but that didn’t mean Tony wasn’t thinking about it; that was some quality sleep right there, no two ways about it, and while being snuggled up with your crush wasn’t exactly a panacea for trauma and nightmares, it sure as hell didn’t hurt either.
And Rhodey did always say Tony should get more sleep, right?
“Hey, Fri, is our resident super soldier still awake?”
“He sure is, Boss.” Her tone mimicked the one she used when asked about Tony’s questionable habits.
“What’s the longest stretch of sleep he’s gotten in the last five days?”
“Longest is three hours and fifteen minutes, although the nightly average overall is approximately 25% higher. Sleeping pattern has been irregular, which is not conducive to overall health.”
“So you keep telling me, baby girl.”
Tony hopped off his seat, listening to Friday give him her usual sass about how worrying over Tony’s life choices ate up all of her processing power; he took the opportunity to stretch out his arms this time, then his back and shoulders, twisting his torso back and forth. A few things creaked, but all things considered, he was doing well for an old man. He was overdue for a sparring session with Hope, actually; without their respective suits, they were well-matched and their training together usually left him sore and bruised, but wiped out in all the right ways. As much as he whined about sparring, he secretly loved working up a sweat since it was one of the few things that calmed his overactive brain.
He wondered if he could convince Hope to let him spar with James next time… There was an idea. Tony’s mind rolled that image around, remembering what it was like to spar with a super soldier—painful and frustrating, mostly—but this time, his thoughts took a massive detour about two seconds in when he pictured James pinning him down on the mat, sweaty and smirking and smug, with all that gorgeous muscle pressing down on Tony, and—
Tony willed his libido to settle and decided to stick with Hope if he wanted an actual workout instead of an inappropriately timed boner.
As he surveyed the workshop, Tony considered his options again and what he wanted was clear. He wanted to crawl into bed with James, to snuggle up against him again, to feel that strong arm holding him close, to have James whisper his name in that husky tone that made Tony’s toes curl…
He wanted a lot, but it was the motivation behind it all, the why’s and the should he’s—
No, he had to stop thinking like that. If he truly wanted this—this friendship, relationship, unabashed love, whatever the words he chose to describe it—if he wanted any of it to work, Tony needed to stop being a damn coward.
Because so far, it had been James reaching out, asking, risking. God, the reserve of courage that man had to possess to keep making himself so vulnerable to Tony’s whims, to face the possibility of rejection so willingly. Because every touch, every kiss on the cheek, every “Please, Tony…” and “I like what we have,” could’ve been so easily thrown back in his face.
Tony had to start taking some risks here too.
Far more awake now than he had any right to be, Tony left the workshop with a determined stride, stopping only to grab the blanket from the couch.
James was on the cusp of giving up for the night, the vocational opportunities of the future overwhelming after hours of research, leaving him wiped out and on the wrong side of intimidated, but before he even had the chance to power down the tablet, Tony appeared at his door, dressed down and clearly exhausted, carrying a blanket that looked suspiciously like the old, ratty one from the workshop.
The smile at the sight came unbidden, a reaction so natural now that it took James an actual moment to realize he was smiling at all.
“Hi. Did you need me for something?”
“No, not really. I was just checking with Friday to see if you were still awake.” Tony tossed the blanket at James and he caught it, letting it settle in his lap to cover up the bright screen of the tablet. “And since you are, I’m thinking we need to start up Insomniacs Anonymous.”
Tony gave him a pointed look and an unsubtle arched brow, but James matched that with an unimpressed look of his own.
“You have no room to judge, zaika. I know for a fact you haven’t been sleeping either.”
Tony sauntered over and plopped down on the edge of the bed, bouncing a little on the plush mattress. “And that’s why we need a super exclusive club just for us.”
James pushed the blanket off to the side and put the tablet away on the night stand. “And what will we do in this exclusive club?”
He played along, his tone light and teasing, but inside he was all nerves again. Tony being here late at night, in James’ bed of all places… Another night together, even when it was the simple act of sleeping next to each other, was a temptation James had no plans to refuse, but if Tony were to hesitate again, to change his mind…
There was only so much push-and-pull a man could take, and for all that he appreciated Tony’s respect for him and his boundaries, it was driving James up the wall.
“Well, we wouldn’t sleep, obviously,” Tony began, then paused to crawl over and unceremoniously collapse on the empty part of the bed, moving around to make himself comfortable as he snagged a spare pillow and curled around it. “Sleeping would defeat the whole purpose of the club. Ironically though, I am suddenly dead tired.”
James looked down on him, bemused, and it must’ve been his own confusion that made Tony hesitate—a damn feedback loop between the two of them at this point—because the playfulness faded and Tony started moving away.
“Ah, shit, I made this weird, didn’t I? I can leave, I’m sorry— oomph—”
Tony let out a heavy breath as James pushed him down, not giving him a chance to sit up, let alone flee. No, no way he was letting Tony out of his sight again, not when the man willingly offered his company—and in James’ bed. He leaned over, one good arm bracketing Tony in.
“Tony, you can’t tease a man like this.” He was close enough now that he could count each one of those pretty, long lashes. “A good night’s sleep is worth its weight in gold, you know.”
“Does it now?” Tony asked, throat bobbing on a swallow.
James propped himself on his elbow and it put him even closer to Tony, the tips of their noises almost touching. Some of James’ hair fanned out over his face when he moved and Tony was the one to tuck it away.
“Would you like to stay, Tony?”
“I think it’ll be good for both of us, yeah.”
James’ eyes dropped, unmistakably, to Tony’s lips. “Would I get a kiss goodnight out of it?”
And there was that uncertainty again, written clear across Tony’s face.
“James, it’s not that I—”
“No, shh, it’s alright,” James interrupted softly, then pulled Tony upright so that they were sitting up, still facing each other. “I shouldn’t have pushed.”
“God, that’s not even close to pushing. Hell, given my reputation, everyone knows I’ve never been good at waiting—or discretion, for that matter, or being subtle or tactful, so it’s reasonable to assume that—”
“Don’t. Don’t do that. You know I don’t care about that. Reputations are usually more fiction than fact anyways.”
“Eh, mine’s pretty on point.”
“So’s mine,” James deadpanned, “and yet here you are, alone, in my bed. Weaponless.”
“What can I say? Your reputation as a good-looking, gentle assassin precedes you.”
“I know, I know, I should get to the point.” Tony paused to brush his hand up and down James’ arm and some of James’ nerves settled at the touch. Even this was enough, the fact that Tony was always so gentle with him…
Before, James would’ve read this hesitation as some aversion to James himself, a disgust at something inherently unappealing about him—and there was plenty there to disgust and appall and repel. But that couldn’t be true, not here, not anymore, not when Tony had never shied away from these tender gestures.
James caught Tony’s hand and brought it up, his lips tingling when he brushed them over Tony’s wrist, right across the pulse point.
So maybe this wasn’t exactly enough, but he’d take what he could and keep working on getting that heated look out of Tony— yes, that exact look he received right now and James could almost hear Tony’s heart speeding up. He would keep coaxing this desire out until Tony had no choice but to give in to it.
Tonight though, Tony still resisted. “I’d like for us to just sleep, if that’s alright. I really am tired and I know you are too.”
No matter what he wanted, James wouldn’t have been able to deny that request.
“On one condition.”
“With my shoulder as it is, I do better on my back, so I think it’s only fair if you’re snuggled up to me this time.”
Tony’s easy laughter softened the tired lines around his eyes. “Fine, fine. Is this you trying to tell me you prefer to be the big spoon?”
“Well, I am bigger.”
“Hey, I happen to make a fantastic jet pack.”
James had to think for a second to make sense of the reference and was rewarded with an image of Tony pressed up against his back, arms and legs curled around James. Truth be told, that position had merit too.
“C’mere then,” James said and pulled Tony down, giving him no time to find another reason to protect James from some imagined impropriety. Tony landed with a huff, but to his credit, he made quick work of getting comfortable again, this time in the crook of James’ arm, pulling with him both the blanket he brought along and James’ own comforter.
Friday dutifully turned off the lights when prompted and they were plunged into comfortable darkness where they quickly found comfort in this new position, as if their bodies already knew how best to fit together. This time, it was Tony throwing a leg over James, then a possessive arm around his waist, face smooshed into James’ good shoulder.
“Is this alright?” James asked and earned himself a muffled hum. He took it as approval and wrapped his arm around Tony, relishing the opportunity to do so.
The Russian slipped out without much thought, a murmured “Good night, my treasure,” but there was no more shame attached to these slips; the endearments came easier too, carried a different weight than the ‘sweethearts’ and ‘honeys’ he could’ve uttered in English.
“Good night, James.”
James smiled. He hoped to work his way up to it. One day, he’d sweet-talk Tony in every language available.
Rhodey cradled his cup of coffee, blew on the steam, and took a steadying sip as he enjoyed the early morning on their patio. Quiet moments like these didn’t come around often, not at the Avengers Compound, so when they did, he savored each one.
The sun was just visible above the horizon, rays of light scattering over the hills; the birds were chirping their pleasant tunes and while everything around them still stubbornly clung to the greens of summer, there was already a pleasant chill in the air, heralding the onset of fall.
Of course Rhodey managed a full three sips before the sliding door opened with a soft whoosh and a disheveled Tony Stark pattered onto the patio, pajama-clad, barefoot, and sporting the most ridiculous birds’ nest on top of his head.
It was so damn adorable and so familiar—for a moment, Rhodey was a college kid all over again—that he didn’t begrudge the interruption. Well, not that much anyways.
Tony blinked his eyes at him slowly, murmured a soft “Morning, Sour Patch,” then walked over to lean heavily against the railing. He appeared entranced by the Compound grounds too, but Rhodey doubted Tony was seeing much behind those droopy eyelids. The sleepy gaze soon gave way to an outright yawn, then a stretch, which was followed by Tony doing a weird, little wiggle that Rhodey suspected was meant to loosen up his spine (because Rhodey certainly didn’t need Tony wiggling his behind at him for any reason other than a bad back).
Tony was rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand when Rhodey took another sip of coffee and said, “Is it bad that I can’t tell whether you just woke up or whether you’re coming up from the workshop after an engineering binge?”
Tony snorted, but didn’t offer an answer, just to be contrary.
“I’m assuming it’s the former,” Rhodey continued, amused by his friend’s state and endeared by the genuine vulnerability he was lucky enough to see. “I was looking for you last night, wanted your thoughts on that ridiculous proposal to have the Avengers at that convention—I mean, really, do we have to stamp it across our foreheads that the organization is meant to be nonpartisan?” He waved away his own tangent with a lazy hand when Tony finally looked at him. “Point is, I asked Friday where the heck you were and she said you were ‘indisposed’ and ‘not to be disturbed’. I had to assume you were passed out under a workbench like last time.”
“No, no,” Tony yawned again, scratching at his stubbled cheek, “I just slept with James last night.”
Rhodey choked on his coffee, which suddenly went down all the wrong pipes. “Excuse me?”
“Oh god, that wasn’t—”
“Definitely not what I meant—”
“You can’t just say things like that! And at six in the morning no less! I do not deserve this.”
Tony was gesticulating wildly, now completely awake and five kinds of mortified. “Oh god, that came out wrong. No, that is not what happened.”
Rhodey wiped some of the coffee off his chin. “No? So you didn’t sleep with Barnes?”
More nonsensical hand-waving. “Well, yes— well, no, not like that. Just… literally slept with him. Next to him. In a bed. With both of us sleeping. ”
Rhodey cleared his throat, trying to get the coffee out of his windpipe. “Well, you’re sure more articulate than usual this morning.”
“Oh stuff it, Sour Patch,” Tony grumbled, then dragged a chair over and sagged into it. “Nothing happened, okay?”
The sullen tone, the mopey expression - Rhodey didn’t need more to know Tony wasn’t particularly happy about this lack of… activities.
“Well, at least you two didn’t pass out in the theater room like last time. Beds really are better for your neck, you know.”
Tony remained unimpressed. “You’re about as funny as I am articulate. It’s not a big deal, okay? We just, uh, we sleep better when someone else is around apparently. It’s a trust thing, a safety thing, whatever, I don’t know. The point is, that was like six hours of solid sleep for both of us. So, you know…”
“A damn near miracle,” Rhodey finished and it was mostly sincere. Figures, he thought. Here was Rhodey, spending decades trying to get Tony to sleep like a normal human being, and all it took was a doe-eyed pretty boy to get him into bed. “So, just sleep then? Really?”
“Yup.” Tony was on the edge of outright pouting and Rhodey had to hold himself back from rolling his eyes.
“And nothing more?”
God, was Rhodey really going to have this conversation with him? Apparently.
“And why not?”
Tony’s head shot up. “Excuse me?”
“I said, why not? You had a good-looking, perfectly willing guy in your bed, who you’ve been nursing a crush on—oh, going for an eternity now—”
“Hey, just because I have a reputation—”
“Nuh-uh, nope, that’s not what I’m talking about this time, so don’t get huffy, it ain’t cute.” Rhodey leveled Tony with a stern look, which softened when Tony grumbled something unintelligible and slumped against his arms on the table. “Look, you have feelings for him, right?”
“And by the way you’re pouting like a teenager right now, they’re not just ‘take him to bed’ sort of feelings. I mean, my god, I thought you pining over Pepper couldn’t be worse, but yet again, you prove me wrong.” Tony opened his mouth, probably to argue the point, but Rhodey pressed on. “Barnes obviously has a thing for you. It’s not even a thing anymore, it’s a cheesy dime novel romance and he’s the smitten maiden on the cover just waiting to be ravished. For the love of God, have you seen the way he looks at you?”
“Yeah, well, the rest of the Compound sure has. Seriously, Tones, what is going on? I’m not here to tell you how to live your life, but you two… You’re both grown-ass, single adults, and your feelings for each other are plain as day. Unnecessarily so, if I may add. So why the hold up? Is there something I’m missing? Something wrong with Barnes?”
Tony flicked a drop of dew off the glass table top, gaze growing distant. “Nothing wrong with James, trust me. I just… I don’t want to hurt him.”
Rhodey kept his commentary to himself this time, letting Tony mull his own words over without pressure.
Just as Rhodey expected, Tony continued after a minute without needing the prompt. “He’s been through hell and a lot of that had to do with others manipulating him, in the worst possible way. Even this side of the century, he ended up with Maximoff’s fingers in his head. This is the first time he’s had a real break, he’s putting his life back together and— and I don’t want to ruin that by throwing my stupid feelings into the mix. And what if— what if he’d only reciprocate because he thinks he has to?”
Rhodey sipped his coffee, rolling the bitter taste around on his tongue before answering. “Do you think his feelings for you aren’t genuine then? That it’s self-preservation?”
“No, no, that’s not it.” Tony scowled at the table and groaned. “I don’t know. Well, no— he’s told me as much, I just… No, I don’t know.”
He trailed off and this time Rhodey took over.
“I do agree that this is probably his first opportunity to get his head on straight. For someone like him, having free will, the ability to make choices, that’s a big deal.”
“So shouldn’t he be the one to decide how much of your involvement he wants in his life? Because if you’re taking that choice out of his hands, then all you’re doing is saying that he’s not ready to run his life free of other people’s control.”
It really was a testament to how much Tony cared about Barnes that Tony remained silent and thoughtful instead of automatically jumping on the defensive.
“He’s an adult, Tones,” Rhodey said, softening his voice. After all, he really wasn’t trying to accuse Tony of anything, not with Tony sitting there and practically oozing concern and insecurities. “Listen, I do get what you’re saying. Feelings, they always complicate a situation. They make us to do stupid things, they make us irrational.”
“Pretty big words coming from the perpetual bachelor.”
Tony’s teasing was a good sign and Rhodey rewarded it with a smile. “I have smart things to say occasionally. For what it’s worth, I do think he’s ready. At least as ready as anyone can be when they’re facing a whirl-wind romance with Tony Stark, drama queen extraordinaire.”
“But true. He’s been here for a few months now, he’s not following you around like a lost puppy anymore. He’s made friends, he’s working on getting an education, hobbies, all those things. Hell, he’s even considering doing the whole therapy thing, which makes him a less stubborn pain in the ass than you, since that took you years.”
“Wow, the barrage of insults just doesn’t stop.”
“Shut up. You know I love your dumb ass. Even when you’re being a pain in mine.”
Tony’s shy smile was reminiscent of their early days too. “You’re a pain in the ass,” he parried back, as clever as always, but then sighed and deflated again. “So… You don’t think I would— I dunno, take advantage of him?”
“If anything, you’ve been uncharacteristically cautious— and that’s not a bad thing,” Rhodey hurried to add. “Because yes, you’re dealing with a guy who’s been brainwashed and tortured and abused six ways to Sunday. I’m sure Barnes appreciates that caution more than anyone. But if you two want—whatever it is that you two want, let Barnes decide where his boundaries are. Don’t pretend to know what he needs, let him tell you that himself.”
Tony sat up a little straighter as he listened, tapped his fingers in an uncoordinated rhythm against the table; he began nodding to himself, obviously processing at first, and even though it started out slow and unsure, that nod quickly morphed into something determined.
“Huh… Maybe you’re right.”
Finally there was a hint of that fighting spark in Tony’s eyes. “I’m sorry. You’re always right.”
“Damn straight I am.”
Tony took a resolute breath, then let it out slowly, looking like he discovered the meaning of the universe itself. “I think I needed to hear that from someone else, actually. Because in my head, everything you just said sounds like justifications to get what I want, you know? But coming out of your mouth, it just sounds so… reasonable.”
“I’m glad I could help. I guess? Although I didn’t actually do this for you.”
Rhodey’s lips twitched as he struggled to maintain his faux-serious expression. “Nope. I just want all this damn sexual tension gone from my Compound, so just do what needs to be done—in the privacy of your rooms—and please, for the love of all that is holy, let this tension settle before I lose my damn mind.”
Tony stood up and the tentative smile turned into a familiar, wicked smirk. “If you think me and James finally kissing and touching and having hot, kinky sex everywhere—”
“I swear to God, Tony, I am going to kill you.”
“—is going to reduce tension… Oh ho ho, you’re in for a world of disappointment.” He laughed as he walked away, just like the obnoxious little brother he’d been for the past three decades. The parting gift was another one of Tony’s triumphant smirks and then he was gone and Rhodey was left to his solitude and his coffee. He let his gaze settle back on the greenery beyond the balcony, taking in the beautiful blue of the clear skies above him.
Tony had made a lot of mistakes throughout his life; those same mistakes were often thrown around as proof, both by enemies and well-meaning do-gooders alike, that Tony Stark was simply no good. The thing many often forgot—or outright ignored—was that everyone made mistakes; if someone hadn’t, they were either a liar or a coward who never took a single risk in their life, so it weren’t the fuck-ups that defined someone, but rather what one did with them afterwards.
Tony, for all his flaws, had never given Rhodey a reason to doubt his innate goodness, and these past few years had given him proof of Tony’s true character in spades. Even with Barnes, when Tony literally brought the man in from the pouring rain, Rhodey didn’t doubt for a second that Tony did so for the right reasons.
Hell, his own concern had been whether it was Barnes manipulating Tony into giving him protection, funding, and care, not the other way around.
Sure, pulling Barnes away from Rogers was probably the biggest form of payback Tony could achieve and it would’ve been a downright sinister move if it were done on purpose, but really, all it took was one minute around this pair to dispel that notion as a possibility, let alone a reality.
The way Tony looked at Barnes, the gentle way he handled him, the care and worry oozing out of Tony every time they were together. The smile Tony began to carry around whether the super soldier was so much as mentioned.
It was sappy and ridiculous and so damn genuine that Rhodey was willing to kiss Barnes himself just to thank him for bringing that extra bit of light back into Tony’s eyes.
And Barnes, for all his fucked up past and less-than-stellar associations, had proven himself to be a good man too. He was someone willing to put in the hard work to make amends, who apologized without making excuses, who learned and adapted and grew. The man was blossoming before their very eyes and since Rhodey wasn’t made of ice, thank you very much, there was a genuine pleasure to be found in seeing Barnes so eagerly embrace this second chance.
So Rhodey hoped that these two, for all their stubborn idiocy, would find their way to each other. Like all relationships, this could eventually go pear-shaped, but Rhodey liked to think there was potential for success here too.
Because goddamn it, Tony deserved to be happy, and for that matter, so did Barnes.
Of course, Rhodey deserved to live in a home free of these ridiculous shenanigans and grown-ass adults making googly eyes at each other over the dinner table—oh, and free of early morning discussions about your best friend’s sex life (or rather, lack thereof), but he was willing to make sacrifices too if it meant two knuckle-heads finally finding their own slice of joy.