The rooms materialized around them as James stepped through the portal and the silence of their quarters was jarring, but Tony attributed that mostly to his still-ringing ears.
James stopped in the middle of the foyer with Tony still in his arm and Tony’s grin turned wicked when he saw James looking a lot less threatening and a lot more flustered in the privacy of their own home.
“That was amazing, babe,” he teased his boyfriend. The Winter Soldier getting all shy about that incredibly sexy display? Downright adorable.
“That was… out of character, mostly.” James chewed on his bottom lip and Tony tapped it gently to get him to stop. “I’m not usually that forceful with people.”
“No, that was fantastic. Never apologize for being awesome. Plus, it’s Strange and Loki. They need a good threat every now and then, otherwise they get too uppity.”
“Just got sick of them talking about you like that. As if you failing was just another outcome written out on paper, some thought experiment, instead of something real, something—” Any trace of amusement faded and James finished with a harsh whisper, “Something I’m not sure I would’ve survived.”
Tony pressed their foreheads together and cupped James’ face, brushing his thumbs over a scruffy cheek and wishing that whatever residual magic left into those still-glowing runes could soothe away the worry.
He supposed magic wasn’t the only tool at his disposal, so he whispered a soft, “We’re alright,” and was prepared to repeat the reassurance a dozen more times. He couldn’t imagine having to watch James do what Tony just did—mostly, pump himself full of science-boosted magic and play a tasty morsel of bait—and frankly, James was handling this remarkably well. If it had been James coming out of this with shaking hands, a head wound, and a body battered by forces they could barely comprehend, Tony would be dragging him into a bed, putting their entire quarters on the highest level of lockdown, wrapping himself around James like a damn octopus, and not letting him out of sight for the next month.
So Tony could do nothing but appreciate how careful James was with him and he didn’t complain about being carried all the way through their study and only allowed to stand on his own feet when they reached the bedroom. Even then, James couldn’t seem to let go and Tony leaned into the embrace with the same urgent need, just as desperate to remind himself that they were both alright—and maybe there was something about the way he fit so perfectly tucked against James that soothed Tony too.
“Do you need Medical?” The questioned was almost reluctant, as if James was torn between never wanting to let go and knowing he needed to check anyways.
“I think I’m okay, actually.”
“What about your head though?” James gently separated them to examine Tony’s temple again and Tony tracked the way worry flared in those baby blues once more. “You took a pretty hard hit. Even if there’s no concussion—and that’s a big ‘if’—you should get the wound treated.”
“On any other day, I’d agree with you, I’d definitely need stitches, but uh… I think it healed.” Tony prodded the blood caking his hair himself, body tensing in preparation for pain, but there was nothing other than the tenderness of newly healed flesh. There was no new bleeding, no swelling, and he didn’t have any of the usual signs that came with a too-hard hit to the head—he flew around in a tin can, he was an expert at spotting those.
James followed Tony’s hand, frowning at the dried blood. “It healed already? How is that possible?”
Tony grinned and clicked his tongue. “Magic, baby.”
“Please, you would never be satisfied with that answer.”
“Alright, alright, you got me there. When did you get to know me so well anyways?”
“Well, it so happens, I’ve got this massive crush on you, so I think about you all damn day. Can’t help but get to know you.”
Their adrenaline-drunk giggles commingled as they pressed back together, forehead to forehead.
“Wow, how lucky, I happen to have a crush on you too.”
“Lucky indeed.” They swayed together and enjoyed the moment, but Tony could practically feel every inch of James vibrate and it took no more than a minute for James to let out a defeated sigh, kiss Tony’s cheek, and pull away to duck into the bathroom with a murmured, “Give me a moment.”
He called Tony in a few minutes later and he found James by the sink, armed with a clean towel and a determined look on his face.
“Sit.” He pointed to the closed lid of the toilet and Tony obeyed, getting settled while James got the towel wet under the faucet.
Tony would never admit it, but this had become the best part of any mission, this attentiveness and gentle treatment that left Tony tongue-tied, loose-limbed, and floating, all tension melting away under James’ touch.
It took a moment for him to realize James had spoken.
“What was that, sweetheart?”
“I asked if you really think it’s the magic. Don’t get me wrong, I’d sleep better at night if I knew your bruises could heal faster, but it worries me, all those things you did to make this happen.”
“No, no need to worry about anything.” That wasn’t exactly true, the chances of something going wrong were always present, but James needed reassurances, not a dissection of probabilities. “I think it’s the Extremis, actually. In its pure form, it can regrow limbs within minutes—of course, it also makes you explode, so win some, lose some. The stable formula loses some of the efficacy, but I guess I’m still getting the benefit of accelerated healing until the runes fade in a few days. Nifty, if you ask me. Tingly, too.” Tony gave James a cheeky grin. “Although I’m not really physically stronger, so I feel like I’m getting the raw end of the deal here.”
“You stopped Maximoff, sweetheart. You’re strong enough.”
“If you say so.”
James gave him an indulgent look, but didn’t try to wrestle with Tony’s self-deprecation today, and Tony was content to watch James as he continued to fuss, running the towel under warm water.
“Do you think you’ll try to make any of this permanent?”
“Well, I know Loki is itching to get the runes to stick so he could paint himself blue head to toe and I’m sure we’ll explore this further—if it works on Mind Stone-adjacent magic, maybe it’ll work on the other magical rocks too, you know? It’d be really nice to have something in our back pocket the next time some alien douchebag comes knocking.”
“That makes sense, but I was asking about you.”
Tony hummed, giving himself a moment to think. That part was tougher to answer. “I’m… not sure I’m comfortable pumping myself full of Extremis.” Tony had seen what it could do; he’d seen the fire, the explosions. The echoes of Pepper’s screams still haunted him and if nothing else, those memories made him cautious. “Accelerated healing on demand is nice, sure, but I might pass the formula off to Helen instead. She could do a lot more with it and hey, maybe I’ll get to enjoy the end results anyways.”
“And the magic?”
Tony remembered the pull of this power too.
“As a last resort, I’m willing to do this again, but barring an actual apocalypse—or someone I love being directly threatened by magic no one else can stop—the wizard boyfriends are free to the whole thing. I’ll just stick to being a baseline smart-ass with a metal suit.”
James tilted Tony’s chin to wipe away the blood that had trickled down his cheek. “We both know you’re so much more than that.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll keep being the handsome, baseline smart-ass.”
“Much better.” The grasp on his chin turned into skimming fingertips along Tony’s jawline, back up over his cheek and across his temple, all feather-light touches that sent shivers dancing across Tony’s skin. He closed his eyes, let James explore to his heart’s content, but they fluttered open again when he heard something hit the floor and the sight of James on his knees—oh, it did things to Tony, made his brain go haywire in a brand new way.
James tugged meaningfully on the hem of Tony’s shirt.
“I know you have all these fancy powers right now, but could I just— could I make sure you weren’t hurt anywhere else?”
James was all but pleading for Tony to indulge him and Tony wished he wasn’t so tongue-tied that he couldn’t explain that James taking care of him was a privilege, not a burden.
Tony took his shirt off without complaint and James continued his explorations from there, tracing each muscle, giving each curve and each dip the steadfast attention of a super soldier on a mission. At some point, he used the damp towel to wipe Tony’s hands—he must’ve used them to brace himself during the explosions and they would’ve been covered with scrapes, but today, there was only dust and dirt to wipe away.
Tony sunk into the sensation of being taken care of again and let himself float, eyes closed.
“I think I’m starting to see the benefit of getting that metal arm on me sooner.”
Tony hummed sleepily. “Why’s that?”
“For one, this would be a lot more efficient with two hands.” The warm towel slid over Tony’s shoulder and trailed down the curve of his bicep. “We both know you’re more than just one handful, Tony.” James winked at him when Tony opened one eye. “I need two hands to take care of you properly.”
“I dunno, I’m feeling pretty well taken care of already.”
The towel brushed over the spot on his chest where the reactor used to be, now no more than a nest of scars, and Tony’s breath stuttered to a stop. “It will never enough, Tony. We won today, but this won’t be the last time you put yourself in danger—comes with the job, I know, I’m not blaming you—but when something like this happens again, I want to be strong enough to be useful.”
Those words were enough to pull Tony back to reality. “James, sweetheart, c’mere.” He waited until James scooted closer into the vee of Tony’s knees and Tony cupped both cheeks so James wouldn’t get any ideas of looking away and not listening. “You don’t have to turn yourself into a weapon again to be useful. If you never pick up another gun, if you never use that beautiful, shiny arm for anything other than manhandling me around the Compound, I will not think any less of you. Never.”
“I know, I know you’d never ask, but I’m the one who gets to make that choice now. I can choose to fight and that makes a difference. I’d do anything to protect what we have. I know nothing is ever certain, but if there’s something I can do…You can take care of yourself, but I’d like to be there, by your side.”
Tony’s throat was not growing thick with emotion, it wasn’t. The last thing he needed was to get all misty-eyed, thinking about how brave James was, how strong, how much he loved Tony.
It was something Tony still needed to wrap his head around, but it humbled him all the same, to know that yet another incredible person had seen enough good in him to plant themselves at his side.
He cleared his throat to chase away the pesky pinpricks of gratitude. “Well, uh, if that’s what you want, we can get Helen on the phone and see if we can speed things up. Maybe she can put that Extremis to better use. Not gonna lie, sure would love to see you all strong and gorgeous and badass with that shiny arm.”
James tossed the towel into the sink and leaned in, hand propped on Tony’s thigh, brushing the tip of his nose against Tony’s cheek as his voice dropped to a raspy whisper. “I don’t think I’m the one who deserves those monikers, Tony. Strong. Gorgeous. Badass.” He punctuated each word with a kiss to the apple of Tony’s cheek, tender and sweet, but not enough to feed the heat quickly pooling in Tony’s belly. “I hated seeing you in danger, that doesn’t change, and I’d take your place in a heartbeat… But I’d be lying if I said seeing the way you handled that power wasn’t the most incredible sight I’d ever laid my eyes on…”
Tony shivered when the hand on his thigh began to rub up and down, skirting just below where Tony wanted it.
“You were gorgeous,” James continued and his lips touched every inch of Tony’s neck, down to his collarbone, playful nips at the meat of his shoulder, and this was— this was worship. It was the only way Tony could describe it. “You were incredible and seeing you glow with that power… I’m not sure I had ever been more turned on.”
James was intent on driving Tony out of his mind, but two could play at that game.
There were still remnants of magic strumming through him, a mostly harmless quiver just beneath his skin, and Tony lifted his hand, the tiny runes spiraled around his fingers and wrist now glowing. He watched James go perfectly still and Tony took that hungry look as permission to touch, to drag his fingers down the row of still done-up buttons of the pretty maroon shirt James was wearing, back up to trace the curve of James’ neck with the back of his fingers, skirting over his Adam’s apple, feeling it bop on a swallow. Tony grasped James’ chin and James let out a shaky moan, panting, nearly trembling beneath Tony’s touch.
This playful display of power was intoxicating, but it had nothing on the way James let his lips part when Tony traced them with his thumb and when Tony prodded further, James eagerly welcomed that thumb into the heat of his mouth, and that right there was power, because Tony would’ve given him anything in that moment, anything his heart desired.
“God, James, you’re gorgeous and you’re perfect,” he whispered, entranced by the sight. He mourned the swirl of that tongue when James pulled away, but then there were fingers circling Tony’s wrist and the tug that came next, the promise in James’ eyes when he stood up, had Tony’s heart hammering away again.
“I want to kiss every rune on your body, every part of you,” James declared, “and I’d like to do it on a proper bed.”
Tony could do nothing but eagerly follow and he let himself fall back on the bed when James pushed. James crawled over him and made himself home in Tony’s lap so he could sit up and take hold of Tony’s hand again, lavishing each knuckle with its own kiss.
“I can never thank you enough, for any of this,” James whispered and that right there was more powerful than any sensual touch, any magic. The raw gratitude of it all had Tony blinking away the sting of tears.
“You don’t have to thank me. I wasn’t going to let her hurt you again. Never again,” Tony emphasized and he would’ve said more, would’ve reminded James that Tony was no saint, that this was the right thing to do, nothing more, but it was difficult to dwell when James and his touch drove every thought out of Tony’s mind.
Every thought except one, but Tony wasn’t sure there was anything powerful enough to make him forget how much he loved James.
James followed the runes all the way up to the curve of Tony’s shoulder and continued the gentle cascade of murmured praise between each press of his lips.
“You take my breath away and I’m so lucky to have you.”
“Wanna keep you all to myself.”
Tony’s body may have been fully on board from that touch alone, arousal accentuated by the hum of the runes in the most delicious way, but it was those simple words that left Tony wrecked. It was too much, to see James look at him like he was worthy, but at the same time, it wasn’t enough, would never be enough, and Tony hoped he’d never get to a point where he’d take this love and devotion for granted.
“Mine,” James whispered, drawing ragged, warmth breaths over Tony’s shoulder, “you’re mine, Tony, and and I’m yours for as long as you’ll have me,” and Tony couldn’t take it anymore, he gripped the front of James’ shirt and pulled him in for a proper kiss, lips and tongues crashing.
“You’re going to be the death of me, gorgeous,” Tony whispered without thinking, too caught up in the moment, and he huffed his displeasure when James broke the kiss.
“Wrong choice of words, sweetheart.”
Semantics, Tony wanted to say, and the thought of sounding exactly like one smarmy Trickster made him grin. “You make my brain not work good when you’re like this,” he tried to explain—with the appropriate level of eloquence, of course—and thankfully James kissed him again, licked into Tony’s mouth eagerly, with a dedication that made Tony arch off the bed and into that hard, lovely body, had his toes curling in the sneakers still on his feet.
James didn’t let him up until Tony was panting for breath.
“I think that big, genius brain of yours can do anything it wants. So… try again?”
James was wrong, Tony’s brain was absolute mush for the second time in one day and it took Tony several seconds to even remember what he was supposed to be trying, but who could blame him, what with the expert way James used his tongue? All Tony really had on his mind was the borderline illegal amount of clothes still on their bodies.
You’ll be the death of me.
Tony supposed that really didn’t fit here, did it? Ironic, maybe, given they almost were each other’s demise.
“You— you make me wanna live, James, which I think is even scarier,” Tony answered, too high-strung and exhausted and head-over-heels in love to be anything but honest. He watched James’ lips curl into a soft smile. “I just want to be good enough.”
James sat up again and guided Tony’s hand to his shirt and Tony didn’t need more encouragement to unbutton and slide it over James’ shoulders. James leaned back in, rolled them both over until Tony was on top, and when he beckoned Tony down for another kiss, expert fingers began to tease at the zipper of Tony’s jeans.
“You’re already good enough, Tony, but let me prove it to you here, just in case.”
Not for the first time today, Rhodey’s hand twitched for his cell phone, but he resisted, leaving it to rest in his coat pocket. He studied Carol’s expression instead and it was obvious she couldn’t care less about hiding her distaste for the scene before them.
“So, she really is baseline human now?” she asked.
“Apparently. The whole wizard squad signed off. I even asked Wong to come in and confirm.”
“Oh good. I’m glad it wasn’t just Strange and Loki. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a riot at parties—”
“But Strange can’t see past his own nose sometimes and Loki is Loki?”
“Something like that.”
Rhodey huffed, already exhausted by the day’s events without having seen a single minute of action. Being out there, fighting the good fight, that was easier, he decided, than being stuck behind a desk and waiting for news. He scrubbed a tired hand over his face and motioned for Carol to follow him; they headed out of Medbay, leaving the sight of Maximoff’s glorified ‘holding cell’ behind.
“There are days I still wonder how the hell we ended up with the would-be conquerer of New York on the team.”
“There were extenuating circumstances to that mess and he is repentant—occasionally—and it never hurts to have that sort of power on our side. Plus, like I said, fun at parties.”
“I know, I know,” Rhodey said and Carol looked too damn amused by his near-whining. “Just wish he didn’t have to be a complete menace about it.”
Carol gave him a good-natured grin, still mostly unaffected by the day’s events, walking confidently beside to him, her hands slung behind her head. She’d seen worse, he supposed, and their little squabbles down here on Earth had nothing on whatever space battles she had to fight. Since Rhodey was over here actively trying to forget about his best friend’s latest attempt to get himself killed, one would think her easy-going attitude would be grating, but as always, her confidence helped him breathe a little easier.
They kept walking until they reached the common area and got in line for the coffee bar, waving away several attempts to let them cut in line. Sure, they outranked every person in this building, but it wasn’t polite to take advantage of that—well, at least not too often. There were days Rhodey needed his triple shot of espresso even more than Tony and most people learned to recognize those days by the look on his face and swiftly got out of the way.
“You’re going for the macchiato today, aren’t you? With extra syrup.”
He tried to give Carol a withering glare when she smirked at him knowingly, but it was half-hearted at best. It was a long day and he was tired, feeling every one of his almost fifty years, and the espresso would just send him bouncing off the walls. Lord knew the Compound didn’t need another Tony Stark on their hands.
“I think I hate that you know me so well.”
“You like to indulge after a stressful mission, but only when it’s successful. If something goes wrong, you punish yourself by getting plain old tea.”
“Wow, that was… uncomfortably spot-on, please cut it out.”
She shoved him playfully—forgetting her strength as always, so Rhodey had to brace himself to stay on his feet.
“Hush,” she said, “it’s so spot-on because we’ve been friends for a long time. So just get your cup of syrup and maybe we can work it off at the gym later. You need to let this mission go. Everyone’s fine.”
“I just— I swear Tony does this on purpose,” Rhodey muttered with no small amount of petulant exasperation. “I can’t believe I miss our MIT days. At least that was just alcohol and parties and terrible one-night stands—still regret not punching Ty Stone in the throat, by the way.”
“You and me both. Unfortunately, those days are long over. Now it’s alien portals and magical runes.”
Carol knew him well enough to understand his weariness without needing his sour expression, but he couldn’t help but make it anyways. She refused to let him wallow though and when her hand gave the back of his neck a squeeze, he deflated with a sigh, melting into the touch as she massaged out some of the tension.
“I guess I shouldn’t complain. One less magical threat on the streets.” Rhodey glanced to his right, back the way they came, in the direction of their newest unwanted guest. “Just feels like a damn waste, you know? With what we know is coming, we could’ve used a powerful player like her. I mean, Tony and I can fly around in our suits all day, but when it’s alien armies we’re up against, a little bit of ‘phenomenal cosmic powers’ goes a long way and—gah, watch where you poke, woman!”
The jab to the ribs didn’t hurt, but he was ticklish, damn it, and when he turned to glare at Carol, she was grinning impishly, entirely unapologetic. It reminded him all over again how much he’d missed her.
She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “I can’t believe you’d say that while I’m standing right here. I’m all the phenomenal cosmic powers you’ll ever need, Colonel.”
“Fair enough, Colonel.”
The Scarlet Witch would’ve been a powerful ally, that much was true, but Rhodey knew having a team member you could trust was worth more than any magical power.
By the time they reached the counter, their drinks were already waiting for them, Colonel R and Colonel D adorning the cups in someone’s loopy hand-writing; they thanked the baristas and appropriated an empty table by the stories-high glass wall that afforded them a beautiful view of the courtyard.
Carol sprawled in her seat without preamble, propping her combat boots on an unoccupied chair and giving herself a long stretch. With the way she and Tony both scrawled over any given surface they occupied, Rhodey swore they were both cats in another life, but he couldn’t deny she looked comfortable when she finally took a sip of her own sugary concoction. Really, she had no room to judge Rhodey’s coffee preferences. At least a macchiato was dignified. Her drink was a coffee-flavored milkshake.
Still, he may have let out a satisfied sigh of his own when the caramel and the sugar hit his tongue.
So distracted by his ‘cup of syrup’, he didn’t realize he reached for the phone again, this time going as far as unlocking the thing and absently tapping his thumb next to the ‘Call’ icon. When he heard Carol snort, he startled and looked up guiltily.
“Oh, just call him already, would you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I was checking for updates from Strange.”
Unsurprisingly, she rolled her eyes. “Oh please. Strange doesn’t text, he portals in so you could see his sour face in three dimensions. Come on, you’ve been thinking about it all afternoon. Call Wilson, tell him everything went off without a hitch. Hell, if you’re feeling generous, thank him for giving us a heads-up. It made a difference, didn’t it?”
Rhodey looked back at the phone as he slid it absently back and forth on the table.
“Listen, Jim, I need to tell you something important. It’s about Steve and Wanda.”
“Sam, if this is another way to sneak past our defenses on pretenses of wanting to play nice—”
“They’re planning to hurt Barnes.”
“Hurt or— or kidnap or whatever, I don’t know. I just… I know it’s bad. Steve’s not thinking straight at all—hell, he may have finally lost it, and Maximoff is gleefully jumping down the rabbit hole with him. They both have nothing to lose and I’m afraid something bad is going to go down. And if they’re going after Barnes, chances are, Stark’s going to get caught in the crossfire too.”
“Jesus christ… Okay, let me just— let me think for a moment. Are you safe?”
“Don’t worry about that, okay? Just—”
“Sam? Are you safe?”
“Not really. Let’s just say Nat and I are both gonna be fish food if Wanda finds out about this call.”
“I’m sorry. I’m serious, Jim, for everything. I shouldn’t have gotten involved in that damn fight, I should’ve said something sooner, I should’ve—”
“Sam, don’t. Just— just tell me everything and we’ll figure this out and the rest… We’ll deal with the rest later.”
“I guess we could’ve still outnumbered her, overpowered her—”
“Never did see a magic that could stand up to a photon blast to the face.”
Rhodey pointedly ignored that. “We might’ve won, but the early warning did help, yeah. We had the chance to plan, to use the element of surprise to lure her right where we wanted her.”
“I don’t disagree, which means you should call him,” Carol ordered before hopping gracefully out of her sprawl and back onto her feet. With her drink in hand, she stopped to give his shoulder another squeeze before walking away. “And when you’re done, join me in the training room, yeah? I think we both have some tension to work through. Don’t be late!”
Don’t be late. He shook his head and smiled. She had no right to say that after disappearing into space for years, but it sure as hell didn’t stop her.
The phone in his hand was heavy and he spent a good minute staring at the contacts list, but he made up his mind before long and left the table to walk outside, both for the sake of privacy and for some much-needed air.
He brought the phone up to his ear and it took a moment to connect, just enough for him to wonder how Sam must’ve felt as he made that call. What would Sam have done if Rhodey didn’t pick?
Another coil of tension eased and maybe he was too much of a sentimental fool these days, but if Tony was allowed to take the entire damn olive tree and toss it at his mortal enemy before dragging him back into his home and falling all sorts of stupid in love with him… Well, Rhodey was allowed to feel genuine relief. Tony was safe, Barnes was safe, Sam was safe, and maybe it didn’t all have to end in tragedies and regrets.
“Yeah, it’s me. I got some good news.”