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Such Sweet Revenge

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“Thanks, Alex. Is this everything?”

“Sure is, Mr. Stark. Can’t believe you still get snail mail delivered, sir.”

Tony smiled brightly at the new administrative aid. “To be fair, Tony Stark doesn’t get any. Iron Man on the other hand,” he shrugged and that smile turned into a grin, “what can I say, he’s popular with the six year olds. Anyways, thanks for these,” he gestured with the hand holding the thick stack of colorful envelopes and after exchanging quick goodbyes, headed over to the elevator.

“Friday, my quarters, please.” 

“Of course, Boss. Also, I would be remiss not to warn you,” her voice followed him into the elevator when it opened up, “one of the letters in the stack was not written by an Iron Man fan. The address on it… It belongs to them.”

The venom in her voice— that Tony did not remember ever programming— was difficult to miss and Tony groaned. “Dammit, is Rogers seriously resorting to snail mail now? Do we have to reject him over every form of communication before he gets it through his thick skull that we washed our hands clean of them?” He rolled his eyes. “Next thing we know, he’s going to Morse code us all to death.”

“Don’t know about Morse code, Boss, but I did scan the letter. No chemical traces, no foreign substances, no trackers. It also passed through the security incantations Dr. Strange had placed on the Compound perimeter, so no malignant magic either. Just paper and ink.”

“This is Rogers. That’s all he needs to do a lot of stupid shit.”

The elevator stopped and Tony didn’t bother with another disparaging comment. He weaved his way through the study, into the bedroom, and threw the letters onto the bed to give himself a minute to undress. The shoes came off first and then the suit jacket ended up thrown over the recliner. Tony loosened his tie as well, letting it hang around his neck, and undid the two top buttons of his dress shirt. He loved wearing a sharp suit— he looked fantastic in them, no shame in that— but wearing it all day long was overkill. So many damn meetings, so little time. 

Feeling less overdressed, Tony plopped onto the bed and picked up one of the more colorful envelopes, leaving the conspicuously plain white one alone for the moment. He’d need to work up to that and reading kids’ letters, looking over their art, hearing about their hopes and dreams, it always put him in a good mood. Falling back against the plush pillows with a small sigh, he lost himself in the enthusiastic, multi-colored ramblings of the future generation.

***

It had been just over a year since that damn “Superhero Civil War”, just over a year since Tony was left behind in a cold bunker in Siberia, suit disabled, chest busted open, all promises of family and friendship dashed.

Lying on that frost-covered floor, for seventeen hours, slowly bleeding out and freezing to death, gave Tony a lot of time to think. Looking back on it, he knew it was a moment that could have easily pushed him into the arms of depression. Family fractured, trust destroyed, betrayals suffered. He could’ve given into that inner voice that sounded like Howard, or sometimes Obie, he could’ve listened and believed that he deserved what Rogers did to him, that Tony Stark wasn’t really worth the trust and love of others. He could’ve just given up and let himself die on that damn bunker floor.

He wasn’t sure which god out there took pity on him— with his luck, probably Loki— but that wasn’t what happened. No, instead of getting depressed, Tony just got angry. It was a boiling, seething sort of fury and it must’ve been what kept him warm, warm enough to survive until Vision and a rescue team showed up to scrape his half-busted form off the bunker floor. He was angry. He was determined. He refused to let Rogers, the darling of America, Howard’s golden boy, be the one to break him down. Tony Stark had just about enough of shitty teammates and shittier friends. 

He could and would do better.

His determination wasn’t about revenge though, as tempting as it would’ve been to get payback. Sure, Tony could’ve easily hunted down the “Rogue Avengers” (a cute little moniker bestowed upon them by the social media at large). They all initially fucked off to Wakanda, according to the trackers in their uniforms no one bothered to disable; then they left the hidden country a month later, leaving Barnes behind, most likely because T’Challa kicked the rest of them out. Since most of the world still viewed them as criminals and they were short on both resources and allies, they laid low, so Tony left his former co-workers to their lives on the run as long as they kept out of trouble and stayed out of Tony’s way. 

After all, he had more important things to focus on.

He put himself back together, one stitched up piece at a time. He got Rhodey walking again. He put every resource, connection, and dollar at his disposal to fix the mess left behind, whether that meant rebuilding the destroyed overpass in Romania and the demolished airport in Germany or rewriting the lackluster draft of the Accords sitting on his desk. 

He got Secretary Ross out of the way— it was a wonder he’d stayed out of jail this long given the list of crimes Tony unearthed when he took the time to look— and gained allies along the way.

Bruce came back home and after an awkward apology on both their parts, they fell back into the easy camaraderie they had before Ultron. Thor literally crashed landed on their lawn one night, dragging his ‘reformed baby brother’ along with him. The break-up of the superhero boy band left Thor disappointed and sad, but he got over it quickly, their petty Earth squabbles barely pinging on his godly radar. On the other hand, his far more insufferable little brother proceeded to rant for an hour about them “ruining all of his hard work to bring the Avengers together” and then, after accepting that the old Avengers were no more, spent half his time on Earth posting anonymous pro-Tony posts on the internet and trolling Captain America fans. That was the exact moment Tony realized his life was fucking bizarre and left it at that, letting Friday monitor the Trickster god for any truly nefarious activity.

Some new faces joined in as well. Hope van Dyne saw past her own father’s prejudices and decided to sign the Accords, putting her newly minted Wasp Suit and her killer business instincts to good use. The Sorcerer Supreme came on the scene when Tony and Vision were fighting some magician wanna-be and the good doctor, despite the snark and his token disdain for “people running around in tights”, ended up sticking around too. Carol Danvers joined the superhero brigade later on and of course, there was the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man who refused to stay on the sidelines and miss out on all the fun.

Slowly but surely the New Avengers were formed. Between Hope and Tony, they were well-funded. Between Rhodey and Carol, they were well-managed and the new dynamics were like night and day compared to what Tony knew from before. The contrast was so stark in fact Tony had to wonder how the hell he ended up spending years living with people who never respected him, never trusted him, never even bothered with a simple thank you.

Night and day.

He and Pepper weren’t together anymore, but they remained business partners and friends and both were better off for it. Pepper was happier this way, less burdened, and in turn Tony was too. 

He was happy, as strange as that was after everything that went down. Sure, he was a little lonely at times, would have loved to have someone to come home to, so to speak. Plus, he still had needs, there was no shame in that either, but nowadays they were a lot harder to fill because casual hookups with strangers made his skin crawl— this infamous playboy now needed trust to go with his intimacy, unfortunately— and so he just didn’t bother. Plus, sure, he was a bit overworked and still dealing with messes that weren’t always his, but his new team, his family, had his back, the world wasn’t at his metaphorical or literal throat, and he was protecting people, doing what he was meant to do and preparing for threats both big and small.

Everything was looking up, slowly fitting together into one cohesive puzzle. 

And then the pardons came.

Neither his team nor the Councils (US or international) had anything to do with them, but a group of ‘well-meaning’ US politicians (some of whom loved Captain America and some who just hated Tony) somehow managed to garner enough support to convince the President that the pardons were a good idea. They blathered on about mercy, unity, strength.

Bullshit.

What this group of politicians didn’t expect was for Tony and the New Avengers to tell them all, politely, to go straight to hell. Rogers and Company wanted to be Avengers? They could fill out the applications. They wanted to fight crime as their own team and needed equipment and weapons? They could buy them at fair market value. They needed money to do that? They could get a damn job.

Tony hated to admit that, had their return happened days, weeks, maybe even a month after Siberia, Tony’s anger, his determination, wouldn’t have been enough. He would’ve caved to them, again and again, giving and giving until there was nothing but a walking shell of a man left behind. 

Steve would’ve convinced Tony to forgive, to move on, to sacrifice himself for the sake of the bigger picture. For the sake of their family.

In fact, Steve did try every one of those things after the Rogues finally touched down on American soil just over a month ago.

Thankfully, this time it didn’t work. Tony refused to even meet with the Rogues, let alone forgive and forget, and instead he let his very eager team handle his former teammates. After all, nowadays Tony was just the tech guy.

Oh, the Rogues were pissed about the stonewalling, about the ‘childish stubbornness’ and the ‘dangerous lack of cooperation’ on the part of the New Avengers. They even cried about it to the public, but the New Avengers’ good reputation, carefully earned over the past year, spoke for itself and the support for the Rogues remained minimal, composed mostly of hardcore Captain America fanatics and Tony’s many professional and personal rivals. 

***

Tony placed the last letter, the pages of which were filled with bright doodles of Iron Man, Spider-Man, and a very Picasso-esque rendition of the Wasp, on top of the pile and then studied that damn white envelope sitting innocuously on the other end of the bed. He should burn it. He should take the damn thing down to the lab and burn it in the incinerator, scatter the ashes from the top of Stark Tower, and maybe invoke Loki’s name in an incantation or something. Tony was not ashamed to admit that he was petty enough to sic the Trickster god on Rogers.

He should do all those things, but already he resigned himself to the fact that curiosity would get the best of him. It was both one of his best and most reckless personality traits. 

Kudos to Rogers for using snail mail again to get a direct line of communication to Tony.

Alright, let’s see what kind of half-assed apologies and passive aggressive nonsense he came up with. At least there’s no insulting, out-of-date tech this time around.

He reached for the envelope, tore it open, unfolded the paper, and promptly realized that it wasn’t Rogers’ tidy scrawl (he hated that he had the man’s handwriting memorized). A glance at the bottom of the letter where it was signed confirmed his suspicions.

Huh.

With a raised eyebrow and renewed curiosity, Tony leaned back again and began to read.

Mr. Stark,

I wasn’t sure this letter would get to you, but I had to try. I thought about meeting you in person (you’re too easy to track down for someone of your importance), but that would have been both imposing and selfish.

Even this is selfish. I know no apology will fix what I’ve done. It won’t bring your parents back, it won’t fix the destruction I left behind. It won’t fix what happened between you, Steve and the others. Might not help you at all, so this apology, it’s selfish, isn’t it? Just to help me sleep better at night. If it makes a difference, I still won’t be able to sleep.

But for whatever it’s worth, I am sorry. I’m so sorry. For your parents, for fighting you in Germany without knowing anymore than what Steve told me. I’m sorry for fighting you in Siberia, for leaving you behind when you were hurt.

I wish you would’ve taken more than just my arm back in that bunker. 

I’m not sure if there’s something I can do to make up for what happened. I don’t have money and most of my skillsets are frowned upon, but if there is any way I can help, or if you just wanna shoot me between the eyes to even out the score, just say so.

Being back in the States, I’ve had a lot of time to think. Can’t sleep with that damn witch across the hall, so I got nothing but time. I made mistakes, hurt people who weren’t my enemies. First time I was free of Hydra’s control and all I did was do more damage. 

I’ve been reading up on your work. Green energy, technology, the new Accords. All of you are doing amazing work and I’m sorry Steve and the others are getting in the way of that. They shouldn’t have ambushed Rhodes and Danvers like that. A damn charity event for sick kids. I don’t know what they were thinking. Rhodes and Danvers held their own though. Soldiers through and through.

Steve is also thinking about coming to that green energy conference. Thinks he can get a moment with you because you’re the keynote speaker. No idea if this letter gets to you in time, and knowing you, you probably already know, but felt like I should warn you.

They used some of your tech to help with the triggers, by the way, so thank you for that too. T’Challa’s sister probably could’ve done a better job with it than the doctors, but she didn’t want to help any of us. I don’t blame her. The doctors did well enough though. My brain feels like it’s been scrubbed raw, but at least some lunatic won’t be able to control me anymore. Thank you for giving me that freedom. Again, I have nothing to repay you with but empty words.

You seem like a good man. I wish I got the chance to know you under different circumstances, but I guess that’s selfish too.

Wherever life takes you, I wish you well.

Sincerely,

James Buchanan Barnes

“Huh…” Tony exhaled the breath he was holding and just kept staring at the letter in his hands. 

Not what I expected. At all.

***

Tony read and reread the letter while slowly making his way over to the kitchen, led there by a late afternoon caffeine craving. 

“What are you reading, Tones?” Rhodey’s familiar voice broke through the thoughts whizzing around Tony’s head and he looked up just in time to watch Rhodey’s eyes narrow. “That looks like a letter. Only one person sends you letters.” The disdain was practically dripping off that word. “Is there a shitty cellphone attached to this one too?”

“Nope,” Tony popped the p with casual nonchalance and then handed the paper over to Rhodey as he walked by, “and now it’s two people writing me hand-written apologies. Surprisingly, one of them is better at it than the other.”

Rhodey caught the name at the bottom too and let out a surprised hum. The letter quickly pulled Rhodey in and Tony left him to it, content to start up the coffee machine and wait for a hot cup of smooth, black-as-tar caffeinated goodness.

While Rhodey was reading, Tony decided he also wanted some fresh berries and he had just enough time to pull them out of the fridge and prep himself a bowl before Rhodey let out a matching “Huh…” of his own and then gave Tony a bemused expression.

“Right?” Tony motioned at the letter, then popped a raspberry into his mouth. “That was my reaction too. Sure as hell didn’t expect the Winter Soldier to be writing me apologies.” 

Actual apologies too, instead of the crap Rogers sent you last year.” Rhodey glanced down at the letter again, scanned a few lines. Tony let him, using the pause to also pour the now-brewed coffee into his favorite Hulk-themed mug. “Sounds like they got rid of the triggers at least,” Rhodey added eventually, “which is a damn relief, I gotta say.”

“Yeah, the BARF modifications came through. Sure wish they were better at following directions over there in Wakanda though. I specifically told them to keep my name out of it.”

“He sounds lucid too, aware of what’s going on. Although he’s not really having a good time with Rogers and Co, is he? He sounds—”

“Depressed? Yeah, I know,” Tony interjected quietly. They all came far this past year, but there was no denying those first few month were rough and there were some dark, awful places Tony found himself in when the anger and the determination weren’t enough to keep him going. He knew what it was like to find yourself without hope. “Sounds like Maximoff is causing him trouble too. I couldn’t sleep either when she was here. Maybe she’s setting off some assassin instinct of his, I dunno.”

“Uh, being uncomfortable around her? That’s not assassin instinct, Tones, that’s common sense.” After a beat, he scoffed too. “You know, this is just like Rogers. He spits in our faces, destroys everything in his way, ruins the Avengers, almost kills you. All for Barnes, right? But now… Now he’s not even bothering to take care of the guy? Barnes sounds miserable. This is what Rogers upended the entire world for?”

Tony shrugged, polished off a few blueberries, then took a sip of his coffee. “Getting Barnes the help and support he needs requires an admission that Barnes isn’t that smiling, flirty, happy-go-lucky guy from the forties anymore. That’s who Rogers ‘upended the world for’ and I can’t see him easily accepting that his long-lost love or whatever got replaced by this broken ex-assassin who probably has Swiss cheese left for brains. You know how Rogers is. He sees what he wants to see, reality be damned.”

Letting the letter drop on the table, Rhodey stood up, grabbing his own empty mug to place it in the dishwasher. He shook his head, then aimed a crooked smile at Tony. “Rogers screwed all of us over, turned his back on everything. What if, after all that, he loses Barnes anyways?” He huffed, amused at his own question. “Talk about some sweet revenge, huh?” When he glanced at his wrist watch though, his expression turned into a grimace. “Shit, how is it so late already? I should run. Carol and I are putting together some new training material and you know how she is about everyone being on time.”

“Tell her I said ‘hi’ and let me know if she kicks your ass for being late again!” Tony called out at Rhodey’s retreating back and laughed when the man just flipped him off and kept on walking. Tony remained where he was, sipping his coffee, nibbling on his berries, and mulling over the sudden influx of some very interesting ideas. 

Sweet revenge indeed.

“Friday,” he called out after a minute, “earmark a Starkphone for me from the storage room, one of those gaudy IM Anniversary models, and have it brought up here please. I think our assassin friend needs an upgrade. Letter writing is so last century.” He tapped his fingers against the mug, willing himself not to grin like some damn Bond villain. “Step one to luring the former Winter Soldier away from his BFF and into our evil, evil clutches - shiny new tech.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, how come you get an Amazon package? Since when do brainwashed assassins even know how to use the internet?” Barton snarked, keeping the cardboard box up in the air and out of reach, as if that would somehow stop James from getting it. Sam just rolled his eyes and kept on walking back to his room with his own package in hand.

James didn’t bother replying to the archer’s jibes. His former self would’ve had some smart-ass, clever comment at the ready, but he didn’t talk much these days and neither snark nor sarcasm were worth the effort. Instead, he took a menacing step forward, gave Barton a cold look— they called it his Winter Soldier look; he just called it his ‘I can’t stand you people’ look— but today Barton was even more of a brat than usual and it took a growled “Barton…” and a warning in Russian for the man to finally relinquish the package.

James tucked the box under his right arm, then grabbed his water bottle and went over to the sink to refill it. Might as well, since he was already out of his room. Unfortunately, even this small amount of movement made the stump of his left arm ache, the muscles pulling at the inflamed skin where flesh met the chunk of metal still fused to him. Every twist of his body hurt, but as always, he continued to ignore it.

“What’s in there anyways?” Barton asked and Steve chose that moment to appear in the cramped little kitchen, so James just ignored that question too. 

“Oh, Buck, did you get the clothes you ordered? That’s great. What’d you get?” 

“S’just basics, Steve,” James murmured, not looking away from the running water. He hope it didn’t sound ungrateful, but he hated relying so much on this group of people. Whatever money and assets James Buchanan Barnes owned before he was exposed as the Winter Soldier was garnished by his own government to pay for the destruction he left behind in Romania and Germany. He didn’t begrudge a single penny, but it did mean that even though he was now pardoned and free, he was also dead broke. The others weren’t much better off, but there was enough to get them this apartment and basic necessities.

The shabby, cramped apartment was the unfortunate back-up plan because the original plan, one James had no part in because he wasn’t an idiot, was apparently for Tony Stark to start paying their expenses as soon as they were pardoned. After the pardons were made public knowledge, everyone came back to Wakanda to pick James up (he spent a good ten months in cryostasis there before getting pulled out, his brain scrubbed clean, and sent on his merry way with a very polite ‘Don’t come back here again’). Steve and the others went on and on about all the amenities, the fancy housing, the tech, the weapons that Stark would provide them as soon as they were back home. Things would go back to normal, they said. 

Imagine the surprise on their faces when Stark and the New Avengers rejected them without a shred of hesitation. Honestly, that sense of schadenfreude alone was almost worth being broke and living in this place with people who either didn’t care about him or didn’t care for this new, defective version of James Barnes.

Sometimes he thought about running again. Hell, he managed on his own in Romania for whole two years, but his pardon was contingent on remaining in the US for the next year, and even if he stayed somewhere else in the country, Steve would just come looking for him again, which ran the risk of Steve breaking something else again. James didn’t want to be responsible for anymore damage, so he stayed put.

The bottle was full, so he screwed the lid back on, awkwardly, given that he had to lean over the sink while trying to keep the package tucked under his arm. He grabbed the bottle and turned, only to be met with a pitying look from Steve, the same look that appeared every time James had trouble doing something. Pity was bad enough, but James also couldn’t miss the hints of familiar disappointment lurking in Steve’s eyes.

Stop isolating yourself, Buck. You have to give us a chance. These people are your family too. We only want what’s best for you, Bucky, for all of us.

These people were a damn menace half the time. The other half they were just annoying.

James knew he wasn’t being particularly charitable, but even though Lang was tolerable most of the time (albeit lazy and unambitious, despite his protests to the contrary), and Wilson was a decent guy too (who just had blinders the precise size of Captain America), as a group, these people loved to complain and pass the blame off to anyone but themselves. Stark was the devil in this place and if James didn’t already know Stark, he would’ve assumed this man was some cartoonish supervillain instead of their former teammate.

While the two aforementioned men were amicable in their interactions with James, Natalia and Barton weren’t nearly as pleased that he was here (the sentiment was mutual). The Widow’s dislike of him had to be personal, if the snippets of hazy Red Room memories were any indication, but James didn’t care enough to find out just how personal; Barton’s ire stemmed both from his annoyance that Steve dragged him out of retirement for someone as disappointing as James and from his anger with the world at large.

The witch, despite barely knowing James, was somehow worse.

Last night was another night spent staring at the ceiling, his head throbbing with a dull pain, striking up a fucked-up sort of synchronicity with the ache in his shoulder. Every time he was in the same room as the witch, that throb transformed into a sharp icepick right between the eyes. Any time he did manage to fall asleep, he’d wake up with a silent scream on his lips an hour later, drenched in sweat, shaking and breathless, haunted by horrid, bloody nightmares. Given that he slept better in Romania, even on days when he was barely able to remember his own name, this had to be the effect of Maximoff’s powers. The powers she used casually and without restraint, something no one else seemed to care about, even when James nearly begged Steve to speak with her.

They’re her natural powers, Buck. She’d never hurt any of us, I’d trust her with my life, so it’s gotta be something else. You probably just need to get more sleep, that’s all.

Unlike Steve, James was far less generous with his trust these days, so he refused to let his guard down around the witch, even if it meant that Steve’s disapproving looks were a frequent occurrence.

Because James’ interactions with these people, or rather lack thereof, didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Steve’s disappointments with him.

James didn’t talk enough. He wasn’t happy enough, he didn’t smile enough, he wasn’t laughing and joking around like he used to do. Too broody, too quiet, too short-tempered. Made out of too many sharp edges. 

James didn’t let anyone touch him— that required trust too— and Steve nearly got stabbed the one time he tried to lean in for a kiss. James may not have remembered much from his time as Bucky Barnes, but he sure as hell would’ve remembered Steve being sweet on him, so the suddenly confessed “I have feelings for you, Bucky,” was one hell of a surprise. Thankfully, Steve didn’t try again and James got even better at ignoring the pitiful puppy dog eyes the man would throw his way every once in a while.

No matter what he did, James just wasn’t enough of Bucky that Steve remembered and he didn’t have the right words to make these people understand that the man Steve knew and loved was dead. He was dead, left in pieces at the bottom of the ravine, carved out and killed by stone-faced doctors and sneering handlers. His mind, his memories, everything that made him a man was tortured out of him, over and over and over, until he was no more than a vessel for the will of others.

After decades of being broken and put back together by those who wanted to use him, each time building him into something different, someone new, he was finally free to put these broken pieces back together himself. Whatever parts of him were left, whoever he was now, he was still trying to figure that out, but he sure as hell wasn’t the man Steve wanted him to be. 

James didn’t bother striking up a conversation today either. His words were few and far between, always stuck somewhere in his throat, in his head, so he didn’t want to waste the few words he did have on these people. He left the kitchen, not bothering to look back to see Steve’s disapproving frown.

The only upside to his violent nightmares was getting a room to himself, although it was little more than a glorified closet. With the door closed behind him, James placed the bottle on the ancient-looking night stand, then carefully sat himself on the edge of the bed and secured the package between his knees. Thankfully, the box was easy enough to open and as expected, there were the plain t-shirts, underwear, and socks he ordered. The internet had to be a godsend for people like him who didn’t want to deal with the world. One press of a button and things appeared right at your door.

He grabbed one of the shirts and frowned when he felt something solid underneath it, hard edges digging into his hand. He stilled, immediately cataloguing every detail he could see, but nothing else seemed off, so carefully, he picked up the shirt… only to find a bright red box with gold accents sitting beneath it.

Starkphone, it read and James’ eyes widened. What the hell?

Gingerly, he discarded the shirt and reached in for the smaller box. No stubborn plastic wrapping here either, the box wasn’t even sealed, and James wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but inside, as promised, was a Starkphone, painted in the same bright colors as the box, except for the thin strip of bright blue around the edges. A touch ostentatious for his tastes, but analyzing the color scheme really wasn’t a priority at the moment. This had to be Stark’s work, sneaking the phone into the delivery box, but to what end?

Was this a tracker? A surveillance device? A bomb? 

Probably a bad idea to pick it up, worse yet not to alert anyone about it, but sue him, he was curious.

James carefully took the phone out of its padded box and was surprised yet again when he found a small piece of paper lying beneath it. The phone joined the shirt on the bed as James reached in to grab the paper.

It was a note.

Barnes, 

Thank you for the letter. I know you think it was selfish, but an apology like that does mean something. It makes a difference, especially when you’re the one person to actually get it right. Teach the rest of them how to do it, would you?

It’s only fair that I return the favor and let you know that I forgave you, a long time ago, even before your letter. You didn’t kill my parents, Hydra did. It wasn’t you lying about it either. Your worst offense was trying to kick my ass in Siberia, but let’s be honest, I wasn’t being a good sport back then either. 

Our shared history is shit, mostly through no fault of our own. I’m sick and tired of others choosing our destiny for us, so in the spirit of new beginnings and giving everyone else who wants to use us the middle finger, this is my olive branch. Have fun with the phone. Stop using paper like a damn luddite.

-TS

James read and reread the note until he realized he was trying to blink away wetness that stubbornly clung to his lashes. God, he desperately hoped Stark wasn’t lying, that this wasn’t some attempt to manipulate him, because this short little note, it meant so damn much. Stark’s words didn’t erase all the guilt, not by a long shot, but still, something inside him eased. He could breathe just a little bit easier, knowing that there was one person he harmed who was willing to forgive him.

It meant that maybe he was worth forgiving.

James carefully folded up the note, then tucked it into the pocket of his jeans. The phone was back in his hand again and with less caution than before, James touched the screen with his thumb. It lit up to display another message.

Paper is out, fancy touch screens and holograms are in!

The phone doesn’t monitor, track, or blow up on command. I already know where you people are, I can hack everyone else’s phones if I need to, and blowing things up is only fun when I’m blowing up bad guys.

Use this for that research of yours or to take selfies or something. It’s already coded to your thumb print and I’m sure you’re familiar with discretion, so keep it out of sight. Wouldn’t want your comrades to get jealous of your cool, new tech.

Sincerely,

-You know who I am.

James sat there, staring at the phone like an idiot and he was glad no one chose that moment to barge in unannounced. Yes, Stark might be working some angle here— please, please, don’t let that be true— but hell, what was the worst that could happen? If this was Stark’s weird way of luring James into a false sense of security only to strike later, then so be it. James didn’t have much to live for nowadays, so what was the harm of pretending this was real?

Especially if there was a chance that this wasn’t some elaborate trap. Maybe his apology did earn him some genuine goodwill with Stark. Goodwill and a fancy new phone.

This wasn’t ever James’ intention though. He wrote the letter after Steve and the others decided to crash the charity event hoping to get some facetime with Stark. Thankfully, Stark’s schedule was changed last minute— whether on purpose James wasn’t sure— and Carol Danvers attended in his place. On their own, both Rhodes and Danvers were formidable, but together they were downright terrifying. Steve got nothing out of that night but a healthy dose of public humiliation.

Even though James refused to participate in something so juvenile and intrusive, he still felt bad about it— as if his conscience needed more shit to feel guilty about— so while the others were out on their ill-conceived mission, he found paper and pen and began to write.

The Compound’s address was public information, but he knew that the probability of the letter making it past the Avengers’ impressive security was small. Still, he hoped Stark would receive it because it was the only thing James could do to make things right between them.

He swiped at the phone’s screen, minimizing the message. He never used Stark tech before, but Wakandan tech was similar in that everything was controlled by touches and swipes too, so his two conscious months in Wakanda were enough to pick up on the nuances of modern tech.

There were a few pre-loaded applications on the phone, along with a bright red notification indicating he had a text message. 

It wasn’t hard to guess who it was from.

Text messages, the cool new way to talk to people! No one calls anymore, or at least that’s what my two Gen-Z brats keep telling me every time I try to call them. 

Again, it was the message rather than the content that left him strangely off-balance. Did Stark leave the line of communication open on purpose? Why?

Well, James had never been a coward.

Thank you for the phone. Much better than what I currently have. ‘Flip phones’ seem to be out of style, huh?

He pressed ‘Send’ with his heart in his throat, but nothing happened other than his typed words popping up on the screen. Just in case, he gave it a minute, exploring a few familiar features in the meantime, but of course Stark didn’t reply. Tony Stark was a busy man, James reminded himself, he had no time to exchange text messages with disgraced, ancient ex-assassins. Another minute passed and James just hoped Stark wouldn’t be offended by the reply.

Leaving the phone discreetly tucked under the pillow right next to the only gun he currently owned, James snuck out of the room once he knew the hallway was clear to use the bathroom down the hall. A cold splash of water cleared his thoughts and he contemplated a shower, but decided to wait until tomorrow morning when everyone was out for the weekly grocery run. He hated taking showers when someone else was in the apartment. There were no secure locks on anything and being under the water, naked as the day he was born, was a level of vulnerability he couldn’t handle, not here.

Forget the fact that he could easily kill anyone here, naked or not, save perhaps the witch herself. Ability meant nothing without intent. 

There was a shuffle of steps— Wilson— and James waited until the man walked past the door and into the room he, Barton and Steve shared before silently slipping out of the bathroom and heading back to his own room. He felt like a ghost sometimes, sneaking around like this, but it was better than the alternative. Mistrustful glances from the Widow and Wilson, sarcastic insults from Barton, that disappointed look from Steve. Worse yet was running into the witch. James had enough headaches to last him a lifetime.

He changed into a raggedy pair of pajama pants— they used to to be Steve’s— and settled underneath the threadbare blanket he knew wouldn’t keep him warm come winter. The phone was in his hand a moment later and his heart damn near skipped a beat when he saw that there was a new message. 

No one should feel this excited about a damn text message, but there was something inexplicably novel about this whole experience. Hearing from Stark was like a breath of fresh air.

James knew that his reaction was nothing more than evidence that he severely lacked positive human contact and needed to get out more, but that level of introspection could wait. For now, he let himself revel in the small flutter of nerves and unlocked the phone.

Chapter Text

Thank you for the phone. Much better than what I currently have. ‘Flip phones’ seem to be out of style, huh?

OMG, they gave you a flip phone?? Haven’t you suffered enough? That is cruel and unusual punishment. So glad I could right that wrong.

James couldn’t help the small smile that tugged at his lips and it felt a bit odd, like working a long-forgotten muscle. This whole thing was silly and strange, if he were honest. Was he really having a casual chat with Tony Stark? 

We’re on a budget here. Gotta use the money on things that matter, like disrupting children’s charities. Sorry about that again. I tried talking them out of it, but I’m not very persuasive these days.

Between the messages and the letter, this had to be the most words he exchanged with another person in years. Writing things down was easier though, something he learned when he began to write down his fragmented memories back in Romania. The written word had more weight, more prominence, and it was harder for someone to ignore it in favor of whatever they wanted to hear.

The phone vibrated in his hand after only a minute.

If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think it’s your persuasion skills that are lacking. Stubborn is as stubborn does. How are things back there, btw? You said Maximoff is giving you headaches?

Again, James briefly wondered whether this was Stark’s way to gather intel, but he decided it wasn’t likely. There were easier ways for a man so proficient with technology to get whatever information he needed. 

I’m not sure she’s doing it on purpose. I just can’t sleep with her in the building. It’s worse when we’re in the same room and she uses her powers. Feels like a damn jackhammer to the skull. 

Sorry to hear that, I know what it’s like. I couldn’t sleep when she was living at the Compound either. I know it’s not my place, so feel free to ignore me, but when it comes to her, be careful and trust whatever your gut tells you.  

James frowned at the words because Stark’s warning only served to reaffirm what he already knew. He did trust his instincts, probably the only thing he could trust right now, and they were incessant in reminding him that she was a threat. Her powers were dangerous, obviously, but her behavior was suspect too. Always saccharine sweet and innocent, to the point of obvious insincerity, except somehow it was obvious only to him and no one else, who all treated her, a fully grown woman, like a child who needed to be coddled. Then, there was also her history. Steve told him she had volunteered with SHIELD years ago to help protect her country during civil unrest, but of course SHIELD was infested from the ground up and she inadvertently ended up working for Hydra. A story shared by many SHIELD agents nowadays, but something here just didn’t add up. It could’ve been incomplete information, it could’ve been plain old paranoia on his part, and in a situation like this, Bucky would've trusted Steve. James only trusted his instincts. 

Something Tony Stark apparently encouraged, which was heartening, a damn relief actually, because it meant James wasn’t going crazy again. His fears and suspicions weren't just paranoid delusions. Someone else saw what he saw.

The whole Maximoff dilemma wasn’t going to be solved overnight though and James decided it could wait another day. There were more pressing issues.

Thank you, I will keep that in mind.

Stark, I gotta ask. Why did you send me the phone? Why reply at all?

It wasn’t subtle, but James needed something here, even if Stark offered empty platitudes. 

This time, the reply took a few minutes.

You apologized, not because you wanted something out of me, but because you were actually sorry. So I wanted to return the favor. I forgave you, I don’t hate you, and I thought it was important that you knew that.

It was. It means a lot. Thank you.

It meant the world, but Stark didn’t need to know how pathetically grateful James was for that one simple note. 

So yeah, I wanted to clear things up between us, but also, you sounded like you were having a tough time. Maybe I read too much into it, maybe you’re just fine, but there’s no harm in having another friend, right?

Is that what we are? Friends?

Hmm, how about we start with “screwed-by-life pen pals” and see where it takes us?

I’d like that.

James let his eyes rest until the phone buzzed again.

Another sleepless night tonight?

Yeah. 

It’s alright though, I have this snazzy new telephone to keep me entertained. Came from some fella named Iron Man. Seems like a real swell guy to me.

Omg, you don’t actually talk like that, do you?

No, I don’t (I was trying to be funny, but I’m no good at that either). Lost the Brooklyn drawl too. I do slip into Russian sometimes though. You should see Steve’s face when it happens.

Ooh, do his nostrils flare and he gets that judgmental crease between his brows and his jaw clenches so hard you can hear his teeth creak? 

That’s the one.

My sincerest condolences. 

It was hard not to enjoy the casual banter, even if James knew it should be cut short. It wasn’t necessarily suspicion that made him wary, although the trained soldier— the weapon— inside him had already acknowledged that Stark might be no different than anyone else, using words to manipulate James. But what if Stark’s words were sincere?

That made James more anxious, ironically, because then it’d be him messing this up somehow. Already this exchange bordered on something teasing, something familiar, and he was so bad at that nowadays. Bucky would’ve known what to say, how to charm someone properly. James didn’t and he didn’t want to overstep some invisible boundary and have Stark hate him again. The realization that he didn’t want that, that he wanted to keep hold of these tender new beginnings so badly, that was the scariest part.

Wanting something all to himself, well, that was new too.

Thank you. I will brave his disappointment with grace.

It’s late, I must be keeping you up with this chatter, I’m sorry.

On the contrary, I’m a perpetual night owl, so my day is just beginning. 

Have a good day then, Stark. Thank you, again.

Have fun on the internet, Barnes. And you’re welcome, again.

***

Steve’s gonna bring Romanova to that meeting he requested with Rhodes tomorrow.

Well, that’s rude, she’s not on the guest list. Thanks for the heads up! Rhodey will be happy to kick them both out, you probably just made his day.

I’m sorry they won’t leave well enough alone. You don’t owe them anything.

Don’t apologize for them. 

Someone has to.

***

You looked miserable at that press conference Steve slapped together. 

I was miserable. Steve insisted that I come no matter what I said. It’s like talking to a damn wall. Just about dragged me there.

Oh, I know that feeling all too well.  Aren’t you stronger than him though?

The missing arm evens us out.

Sorry you got dragged into the shit-show then. Rogers is not doing himself any favors when his amnesiac best friend looks like death warmed over on stage.

You sure know how to sweet talk a man, Stark.

Just being honest. Do former assassins not get haircuts? Did razors not exist in the forties?

Maybe I’m just embracing the whole “I’m miserable and I hate the world” look.

Well, shit, I can’t fault you there. You should scowl more then, like really lean into it, bring out the scary assassin part of you. Bonus, people will leave you alone.

You may be onto something.

***

What the hell did you just send me?

Memes. They’re all the rage, according to my brats, although I’ll be honest, I can’t keep up anymore, everything becomes outdated within a week.

I’m confused and I don’t like this.

[video link]  Here, have a youtube playlist of cats chasing lasers instead.

Better, thank you.

***

Omg, my brain is going to melt out of sheer boredom.

Barnes, save me.

(unless youre busy, I know you have a house full of nosy comrades)

But seriously, we’re talking potential acquisitions here and this one CEO just. keeps. talking. like. this. with. zero. inflection. or. life. in. his. voice. 

Where is an alien portal when I need one?

Sorry, had to sneak away to my room to check the messages. You still alive?

Barely. I’d leave or make a scene, but I’m afraid Pepper will kill me if I mess this merger up. Help me, pleaaaase.

I can tell you the story of how Okoye and the Dora Milaje kicked Steve and the others out of Wakanda just before I went into cryo.

OMG, YES, PLEASE.

***

So Thor’s in town for a few days and we had a get-together thing last night to celebrate. Bad idea. Worst idea. I might quit the Avengers because of this.

Are you always this dramatic?

Don’t judge me! Thor brought this fancy mead from Asgard and everyone got super drunk way too quickly, and suddenly me and the kids are the only responsible, sober ‘adults’ in a sea of drunk Avengers.

Oh my god.

I can’t see you, but I know you’re laughing, Barnes! Stop it!

I’m not laughing.

Smiling a little though.

I’m glad you’re amused while I had to deal with this disaster. We could’ve died! What if a super villain attacked us? 

Iron Man to the rescue?

Ugh. Maybe I would’ve called the Winter Solder for backup. 

Anyways, I spend the entire night babysitting, making sure none of their drunk asses fell off the Tower or something. 

Just imagine this mess.

Thor and Carol are in the middle of the room singing karaoke all night. Then Wong joins them and starts singing Beyonce songs. Surprisingly, he’s actually very good.

Jane and Bruce are arguing loudly in the corner somewhere about the Einstein-Rosen bridges and rainbow roads. I send Peter to watch them and then he joins the argument too. 

I don’t even know what the hell Strange was doing on my nice oak bar, but it was weird. 

And then Rhodey “walks” Hope back to her room. I don’t know what happened there, but I do not need to know. 

Okay, maybe I do, but only for blackmail purposes.

You are such a gossip, Stark.

More importantly, are they all hungover and miserable this morning and are you making lots of loud noises, opening up every curtain, and cooking greasy, smelly foods?

I love this devious mind of yours, Barnes, especially when it’s on the same wavelength as mine.

Give them hell, Stark.

***

Are you still awake?

Barely through my second coffee of the night. What’s up?

Nightmare. Bad one.

Helps to talk.

I’m sorry.

I shouldn’t be bothering you.

Nah, no bother. I’m just running tests on the latest IM model, but I’ll let you in on a secret - Friday does most of the work. I just sit back and look pretty.

Actually, your timing is perfect because I’ve been meaning to tell you what happened last night. Remember how Shuri and Petey are friends now? Yeah, so, I can never trust another toaster again.

Oh god, what did they do?

***

“You seem to be in a better mood, Buck,” Steve remarked and broke James out of his reverie, ironically ruining the exact thing he was referring to. 

James realized he must’ve been sitting here staring off into space, smiling, and he tried to maintain said smile, but it felt more forced when directed at Steve rather than the conversations with Tony James kept replaying in his mind.

If Steve noticed the shift, he didn’t say so, instead adding cheerfully when he sat down across from James, “It’s good to see you smiling again.”

“Yeah, just— slept better, I guess,” James lied, feeling no remorse over it given that the truth amounted to ‘I’ve been talking to Tony Stark for two weeks now and he’s kind and funny and charming and I look forward to every one of our conversations’.

Better keep that to himself.

Steve definitely wasn’t privy to those private thoughts because all he did was smile brightly at James and clap him on the shoulder across the table. James just grit his teeth at the overly enthusiastic and none-too-gentle touch.

“See, I told you just needed to get some sleep!”

“I still have the headaches, Steve.”

Steve’s smile dimmed as he hesitated. “Well, um… We can try getting you to a doctor? It’s tough, medicine is no more affordable now than when we were kids, and we’d need someone trustworthy—”

“Steve, I don’t need a damn doctor. It’s Maximoff,” James hissed that last part, keeping his voice low. He didn’t need a doctor to know it was her, given that his headaches eased as soon as he was away from the apartment and whenever she was out of the building. 

This wasn’t rocket science, but Steve gave him a face as if it were. “Buck, no, you have to stop accusing her—”

“I’m not saying she’s doing it on purpose.” She could’ve been, but James had no proof. “But you could— just ask her to stop with the magic, please?”

“None of the others have any symptoms, it has to be something else—”

James groaned, interrupting whatever else Steve wanted to say, and stood up, unable to sit still anymore. Same shit, different day. They had this conversation dozens of times by now and it always ended here, with James wanting to tear his hair out.

“Why do you trust her so much?”

Steve looked him straight in the eye, chin jutting out stubbornly and James wondered whether someone else had challenged this trust before. He would’ve bet every dollar he had left that it was Tony.

“She has saved my life numerous times, risked her own life for others on multiple missions, and she stood by me when the rest of the world turned on us. She’s been there for me, for all of us, and that’s why I trust her. She’s my friend.”

“So was I. Why aren’t you trusting my word?”

Steve’s mouth worked for a second as if trying to find the right words. “You’re— you’re not exactly yourself right now, Buck. And I’m just worried that— wait, I didn’t mean it like that!” Steve hurried to placate when James just snarled, called him a stubborn bastard in Russian and turned to walk away.

“Please, Buck! You just have to trust me!”

The echo of those words followed him down the hall, but James ignored them as he stalked back into his room and slammed the door behind him. He slumped against it, then slid down and stayed there on the floor, feeling both hot and cold inside, but numb all the same. He was just so damn tired. Maybe he should go for another walk, but it was still raining and he didn’t have enough willpower to deal with being soaked to the bone.

Instead, he reached into his pocket and produced the bright red phone. Already it felt familiar in his hand, the smooth surface soothing as his fingers traced the curved lines. Even though it was midday, Tony was asleep right now, after yet another long night in the lab, so James didn’t want to wake him with a message, but maybe reading through the old ones would help bring back some of that earlier good mood.

James doubted it, but it was worth a try.

***

How good are you at kidnapping people?

I’m not sure how to answer that.

Honestly.

I’m very good?

Sweet, can you get me out of this board meeting, pls? And grab me a Starbucks on the way too!

***

Do you remember much about your old life?

Why do you ask? 

Curiosity, mostly. But also because I somehow got roped into chaperoning Peter’s field trip to the Smithsonian today and it got me thinking. You’ve seen the Captain America exhibit?

I have. After D.C. Was hoping it’d help me remember.

Did it? 

Barely. I remember facts and figures, a few pieces, but everything is detached. 

I’m not sure if that’s the right word.

Like it happened to someone else?

Yes, something like that. I remember the year my mother was born, where she worked, but I don’t remember how it felt when she read stories to me when the lights would go out. I know she did, but the memory is cold.

Empty? Hollow?

That doesn’t make any sense either.

No, it does. I think. As much as anything could in our lives. I’m sorry, I was just curious. It must be tough with Steve then, right? For him, all of that was just a few years ago.

Feels like we’re speaking different languages, yeah... 

Well, if you ever wanna talk about it…

***

I hope you’re in one piece, Stark. That hit you took looked rough, even on grainy TV footage. 

I may have told Maximoff to go fuck herself when she said you deserved it. Steve ended up mad at me. Go figure.

Media is singing your praises, how you saved all those people by taking the hit for them. They’re right.

It was brave of you. 

***

Barton was running his mouth all day today until I threatened him. I don’t understand what the hell his problem is with you.

Maybe its because you're a hero and hes not.

***

It's been two days. Please be okay.

***

Shit, sorry, I’m fine!!

My comms went out and it took forever to get me out of the rubble, and then Bruce and Friday took my phone privileges away until I cooperated and got through medical. 

Oh thank god. Finally!

Aw, were you were worried about me? You’re giving me the warm and fuzzies, Barnes, I’m touched.

If you’re dead, who’s gonna explain the 21st century to me?

That’s true, you’d be lost without me. 

You’re really fine?

Yeah, I am. The suit kept me safe, aside from a few bruised ribs. I’m sore and cranky and on bed rest, but all in one piece.

Bedrest is good. Keeps you still long enough to explain to me all these Star Trecks and Wars things like you promised.

Well then, strap in, Barnes, because you’re about to get educated.

About time.

And I really am glad you’re okay, Stark.

***

“Tony, stop smiling at that phone like an idiot. Who are you even talking to? No, you know what, I don’t wanna know. Just put that away, you’re on a date with me and Pep right now.”

“Stop calling our monthly lunches dates, Gumdrop. This is nothing like what you and Hope were getting up to the other night.”

“Oh, Jim and Hope? I wanna know!”

“Nothing happened! I just made sure she made it to her room in one piece!”

“Wait, wasn’t the party at the Tower? Wouldn’t her room just be one elevator ride down?”

“That’s not the point, it wasn’t— it was just one kiss! On the cheek!”

“Mm-hmm, that's how it starts, Platypus,” Tony chimed in teasingly and glanced away from his phone to take in his two best friends. Rhodey was glaring, but his eyes were warm and playful, while Pepper looked entirely too amused with herself, and god, the sight reminded Tony just how much he loved these two, loved them more than he could say. Hated himself just a bit too because it took the whole “Civil War” fiasco and Siberia for him to remember just how much he appreciated them both and the fact that they’ve stuck around in his life through thick and thin.

He needed to buy them both presents, like yesterday, and he probably should put the phone away, at least until they were done. His back-and-forth teasing and joking with Barnes could wait.

“Now, I’m not letting this go, Jim, I will hear more about Hope,” Pepper pointed a perfectly manicured nail his way, but then shifted her focus to Tony, “but I do also want to know who you were texting. I haven’t seen that dopey look on your face in a long time.”

“It wasn’t— I’m not dopey!”

“It was a little dopey, Tones.”

“Traitors, the both of you. I don’t even know why I go on these lunches, and pay for them. All you two do is gang up on me.”

“Aw, you poor thing,” Pepper reached out and ran a gentle hand through Tony’s hair, musing it up, and Tony would’ve purred at the soft touch if he could, “however will you live? Now, come on, tell us. Is there someone new in your life? Someone interesting we should know about?”

Oh, you have no idea.

“S’just a friend,” Tony responded with a shrug, then winked at Pepper who laughed and shook her head fondly. Rhodey was rolling his eyes, probably about to comment that he didn’t trust Tony’s definition of ‘friend’, but then the waiters began bringing out their main course and the topic was quickly forgotten in favor of delicious food.

All the better because Tony wasn’t sure how he would explain that he’d been talking to the Winter Soldier for almost a month now (and dopily smiling about it, apparently).

He decided that like all things in life, he’d cross that bridge when he got to it.

***

Almost took teh wtichs head off justnow, her damn hands lit up an

and and I lost it. Fuck, my hand is still hsaking. 

Are you okay?

Barnes?

Sorry, just needed a few minutes. Not easy to type with one hand, even when it’s not shaking.

Steve tackled me, but I’ll be fine.

You know that’s not what I meant. 

This was deliberate, I know it, but no one listens.

Barton was yelling, Steve laid into me too, said he’s disappointed that I’m so eager for a fight. Even Wilson didn’t argue with him this time.

I’m so damn tired of being ignored. I’m always in pain, I can’t sleep. I just need a damn break.

Shit, I’m sorry.

Not your problem. 

Sorry.

A minute passed, then another, but there was no answer. James curled in on himself, willing himself not to cry like a damn child. He was sitting outside, up on the roof of the apartment building, and the fact that Steve was too busy calming down Maximoff to follow him gave him a chance to catch his breath without unwanted company. His head was still throbbing, a sharp-shooting pulse of pain right between the eyes, timed perfectly with each heartbeat. He let his eyes close in the hopes of alleviating some of the ache. 

The damn witch did this on purpose, he didn't doubt it anymore. Oh, she denied it, said she was just trying to give him some magical help to open the damn can of beans, but her little triumphant smirk, one she aimed right at him when no one was looking, said otherwise. 

Her stunt worked like a damn charm too. Her hand ignited with magic and James just lost it, saw red, and lunged right at her, driven by some long-buried instinct to protect himself. Luckily, Steve was nearby to stop him.

Luckily for whom he wasn’t sure. 

The buzz of the phone in his hand brought him back to the present and he hurried to turn it back on.

You want to grab some breakfast right now?

James reread the message just to make sure he got that right.

Right now? It’s eight at night.

What better time to get breakfast?

Up to you, no pressure, and only if you feel safe enough to be out on your own, but fresh air and good food might help. The waffles here are amazing.

The next message was an address, some place located roughly halfway between Stark Tower and their shabby little apartment, if James remembered his city layout correctly. It’d be a bit of a trip on foot, but a walk in the cool summer night actually sounded amazing.

And so did the potential company.

After nearly a month of frequent, nearly daily conversations over text, James was far less suspicious of Stark’s motives. Hell, these messages became the highlight of his day, something to look forward, a balm against the others’ bickering and bitter complaining, against his own loneliness and nightmares.

All the same, he knew this might still be a trap, but between being here, with Maximoff and the others, and seeing Stark, well, that choice was an easy one. 

Really, it was no choice at all.

I don’t have a fancy flying suit, so might take me a while.

No rush. Take your time. 

Chapter Text

Tony’s booth was tucked discreetly in the back of the restaurant, secure and away from prying eyes. The owners were long-time friends who Tony met when he was still in his early twenties. Back then, he stumbled into the diner one early morning, hungover, skinny, and on the wrong side of pathetic, and the two women running this place (at the time they weren’t legally married yet) took one look at him and decided he needed coffee, food, and some kindly, but sternly offered life advice (they weren’t wrong). 

Because the owners were both trustworthy and accommodating enough to put up with Tony’s extensive security needs, over the years this little diner had become a go-to place for discreet dates, business deals, Avengers recruits, and whatever else that required discretion and good food. In return, Tony’s patronage had put the owners’ three kids through college and kept the place in business through several economic downturns. 

Today, the cute little diner (with security that now outmatched the Pentagon’s) would also serve as a rendezvous point with one former Soviet assassin extraordinaire.

Tony took a sip of his coffee while he waited, absently watching through the window as the occasional pedestrian or five hurried down the rapidly darkening street. 

How the hell did he end up here? He still hadn’t figured that one out, but this developing… something between him and Barnes really wasn’t what Tony expected when he suggested to Friday that they ‘steal’ Barnes away from Captain America.

It was true that Rhodey’s off-handed comment had lit Tony’s mind up like a lightbulb and that thought of sweet revenge overtook everything else for an instant. The urge to entertain the idea, so tempting, so delicious, was too strong to resist and Tony had never been particularly disciplined in these matters, so he let himself get lost in the image of Rogers, distraught and alone, broken, all because he lost the one person he held most dear, that loss made all the more painful, all the more sweet, because the person in question had become Tony’s. It’d serve Rogers right, to lose Barnes like that, to Tony of all people—

Of course, that moment lasted just under two seconds because his conscience surfaced right back up to give him a swift kick in the ass and remind him that using someone as a pawn was several levels of fucked up and it was the sort of thing Howard or Obie would do. 

Something Tony would hate himself for. 

So he pushed the image away, locked it down someplace dark where the rest of his shitty thoughts lived, cruel and selfish thoughts that shouldn’t ever see the light of day, but he did already order that phone, so the least he could do was send the damn thing to Barnes. For better or worse, he harbored no vengeful thoughts against this man and he did genuinely forgive him, after some soul-searching and a little therapy, so if nothing else, maybe his letter and the offer of peace would make a miserable man out there feel a little less hopeless. 

And while the phone was a potential line of communication, Tony honestly didn’t expect more than an awkward “thank you” as a reply. Hell, there was a good chance the super soldier would take one look at the phone, see ‘Stark’ on the label, and smash it into a million pieces just out of sheer paranoia. Less likely, but still possible, was Barnes sharing the existence of said phone with Rogers and the others. That would’ve been annoying, if nothing else, because that would give Steve a line of communication instead, and then it’d be Tony smashing cell phones to pieces.

Surprisingly, none of those things came to pass. Instead, a reply from Barnes turned into a conversation which turned into several conversations, and before Tony even knew what happened, a whole month flew by. A month which Tony spent texting with Bucky Barnes like an overeager teenager. 

Granted, it wasn’t all bad. The conversations were decent, actually. Okay, maybe more than just decent and perhaps even something he began to look forward, if the Pavlovian flutter in his stomach every time his phone buzzed was any indication. 

True, Barnes was obviously unhappy in his current situation, but underneath the layers of doom and gloom, there were glimpses of dry humor, a sarcastic nature, an inquisitive mind, and at times something almost sweet. The fact that Tony’s phone was filled with worried messages after he lost that fight with a falling building— and after he wrestled his phone away from a grumpy Bruce— left him pleasantly surprised and all sorts of warm and fuzzy inside. 

These were all bits and pieces, hints of a different man, someone Barnes could become with the right environment and support. It was a man Tony enjoyed getting to know more and more with each passing day.

Plus, Barnes was polite and honest when necessary, but blunt and unapologetic in regard to his current roommates. Maybe it was petty on Tony’s part, but the fact that Barnes wasn’t the loyal Captain America lapdog Tony had imagined him to be earned the man some major brownie points. After all, even though the thought of truly manipulating someone for his own personal gain made Tony sick to his stomach, the desire to see Rogers destroyed, to make him feel a fraction of Tony’s pain, that part still lingered at the recesses of Tony’s mind. He wasn’t always a good man, even if he tried to be.

Unlike Tony’s former teammates, Barnes also wasn’t trying to play mind games with him or get something out of Tony. In fact, he hadn’t asked for a damn thing— money, tech, favors, you name it— despite having ample need for all of the above, and that alone was refreshing. 

Most people in Tony’s life, present family and friends excluded, always wanted something from him. He was a means to an end, a tool to be used, so to be wanted for nothing more than conversation was a little intoxicating and he was self-aware enough to know that he enjoyed having Barnes’ attention all to himself. In fact, despite his best efforts and mental lectures on ethics and proper conduct, Tony was verging on proprietary when it came to Barnes’ times and affections. It wasn’t exactly healthy and his therapist would have kittens if she only knew, but it was a problem Tony would never inflict on Barnes himself, so what the man didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

All in all, Tony’s ‘vengeance’ actually amounted to nothing more than joking about it with his AI co-conspirator— Friday named the operation Project Dark Side— and hours of fun conversations with a man who was nothing like Tony expected, but someone Tony actually liked, and now here was Tony, sitting in a familiar booth and waiting to see Barnes with an eager sort of anticipation thrumming through his veins. 

Well, that and a steady well of anger roiling just beneath it.

Because goddamn Maximoff was at it again, this time with a new target. Tony had no idea why she was tormenting Barnes, but knowing her, she didn’t need a rational reason. Even worse was Rogers’ inability to keep her from hurting people. Hell, she was hurting his precious Bucky and he was still taking her side? 

Fine, so be it. If Rogers didn’t take care of his ex-assassin, Tony would just have to proceed with his oh-so-evil plan and do it for him. 

Step two in luring a Winter Soldier over to the ‘dark side’? Be less of a dick about his trauma than Rogers. 

With his apparent propensity for dramatic timing, Barnes chose that exact moment to appear, shuffling past a cheery waitress who pointed out the booth to him. Sharp eyes zeroed in on Tony right away and to limit the awkwardness, Tony waved him over, gesturing at the seat across from him while smiling brightly.

“Well it’s about time! Did you enjoy your leisurely stroll through Manhattan?”

Barnes’ expression didn’t change from the ‘doom and gloom’ he came in wearing, other than a nod which turned into a scrutinizing tilt of his head as he sat down opposite of Tony. 

With no answer forthcoming, Tony decided to just keep talking. “Yeah, yeah, it was a long walk, the streets are crowded, excuses, excuses. Either way, glad you could make it. It’s a cute little place, huh?”

Tony gestured at the diner and obediently, Barnes took the place in, that same attentive gaze now scrutinizing the space around them. Tony’s eyes remained on Barnes.

The man did look miserable. Worse, in fact, than the last time Tony saw him. He was wearing the standard Avengers ‘stealth’ get-up of sweatshirt and baseball cap (the hat came off when Barnes sat down), faded old jeans, and even older-looking, scuffed-to-hell sneakers. Rounding out the ‘bedraggled assassin’ ensemble was the long, unkempt hair which hung like a curtain around his face and a beard that hid most of what Tony remembered to be a sharp, attractive jawline. 

Honestly, this actually was a decent disguise because no one would ever look at this man and think Bucky Barnes. Hell, this didn’t even look like the infamous Winter Soldier.

Barnes was visibly tense, hunched in on himself, wary, trying to take up as little space as possible. Dark bags under his eyes confirmed the sleepless nights and even though Tony thought it was impossible for a super soldier to look gaunt, Barnes somehow managed it. 

Add lack of eating to the lack of sleep. 

How was it that Barnes looked worse now than when he was under Hydra’s care? Honestly, Tony’s mostly sarcastic evil plot might be turning into an actual rescue mission. 

Tony noticed the empty left sleeve then, tucked into the pocket of the sweatshirt, and held back a wince, the memory of blasting that arm off forcing its way to the forefront off his mind. That part he couldn’t blame on Rogers and the others. 

Belatedly, Tony realized he was being watched and cleared his throat, then decided to skip right over the niceties. “So, uh… You look like hell.”

Barnes’ lips twitched, but that was the only hint of amusement Tony could detect. “Rough day.” 

The soldier’s voice matched the sentiment, a scratchy, low sound, and Tony wondered whether that was from lack of use. 

“I bet. I wouldn’t wish Maximoff’s shit on my worst enemy, seriously.”

Barnes broke the eye contact first, staring pensively at the table, still visibly tense. “Not that I’m not grateful, but— not sure what you expect outta me here, Stark.”

“Just a simple, late-night breakfast, that’s all. You had a shitty day and I thought you deserved a break.”

Barnes raised an eyebrow and when he looked back up, that gaze turned piercing again. Those eyes did belong to the Winter Soldier. He titled his chin at Tony. “A gauntlet on each wrist. Iron Man suit behind that partition. Self-piloted.” A tilt of his head at the front door. “Scanner. Checked for weapons, chemicals, identity, trackers. Four security cameras pointed on this table alone.” His eyes narrowed. “Just breakfast?”

“Wow, that’s not bad at all,” Tony praised, impressed, but not at all surprised, “but security is a must, given who I am, I’m sure you understand. Still, those are just precautions. All this really needs to be is good food and friendly conversation.”

Barnes gave a terse nod. “I understand. One knife on me, nothin’ else.”

Tony already knew that and he was heartened by the fact that Barnes didn’t bother lying, but despite the easy smile Tony gave him as a reward for his honesty, none of the man’s tension eased. 

“Seriously, Barnes, you gotta stop looking like a spooked animal. I’m not planning to hurt you.” When no reply was forthcoming, Tony studied the man for a few seconds with narrowed, curious eyes. “You know, you were a lot chattier over text.” 

That did not have the intended effect because Barnes’ expression fell, that tight line of his lips turning into something insecure, something sad, and Tony realized he may have put his foot in his mouth. He didn’t mean for it to sound like an accusation. “That probably came out wrong. I just thought, after a month, that we were on better terms, that’s all.”

Barnes was pointedly looking anywhere but at Tony, his shoulders tense and hunched again, his expression nearly distraught. “S’not you. Writing is just— easier,” he offered, throat working on a hard swallow, “I just— sometimes words don’t work so well and this— you— I’m not sure how—” The words were tumbling out faster and Barnes finally looked up at him with eyes that were filled sudden panic, shame. “Sorry, I know you expect—”

“Hey, hey, no, it’s fine, everything’s fine,” Tony hurried to reassure, the insecurity he could hear in Barnes’ voice making his own stomach clench painfully, especially when Barnes was visibly uncomfortable. Tony wondered how many times someone else had put Barnes on the spot like this when he struggled to find the right words. God, Tony could just imagine Rogers’ patented face of disapproval, aimed at this man because he barely resembled that smooth-as-whiskey, charming young man from the forties that Rogers wanted back. 

Barnes was a walking minefield, unsurprisingly, going from trained weapon to a broken man in two seconds flat, but Tony needed to try harder too. “I didn’t mean anything by it, honestly. See, texting probably gave you a false impression of me too. In person, I’m kind of an insensitive jerk sometimes because my brain-to-mouth filter is broken, so don’t take anything I say to heart, okay?”

Barnes eyed him warily and Tony smiled with what he hoped conveyed sincerity and understanding, then kept talking, his voice soothing, the sort you would use with small, frightened animals. “I’m serious, nothing to worry about. So in person, you’re a man of few words, that’s totally cool. Me, I love talking. Some people think I don’t know when to stop talking. So, the two of us, match made in heaven, right?”

The way Barnes regarded him made it obvious he wouldn’t appreciate any sort of patronizing from Tony, which was fair, but Tony was actually being sincere right now.

“Listen, I spend half of my days down in the lab and I don’t stop talking just because the bots are my only company— Dum-E, U, Butterfingers, I told you about them— and guess what? They only respond to me with beeps and boops and our conversations still go on for hours.”

Barnes’ lips twitched again and after a beat, he quietly asked, “That mean I should boop and beep at you too?”

Tony couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him. “Honestly? You could and you’d still be a better conversational partner than some people I’ve met in my life.” 

Finally, there was a small uptick of Barnes’ lips, a shy, little ghost of a smile, but it may as well have been an outright grin for all it did to soften the lines of tensions in the man’s face, hell, his whole body, and suddenly Tony was overcome with the strangest desire to see Barnes’ real smile, something bright and eager and happy. 

“Thank you, Stark.”

“We’ll see how thankful you’ll be when I’m talking your ear off.”

“Not about that. This,” he gestured between them, “thank you.”

Tony nodded, unsure what else to say— he wasn’t choked up at the fact that it was Tony’s company Barnes appreciated, no sir— and after running his eyes over Barnes’ admittedly pathetic state once more, Tony asked what probably should’ve been his first question.

“How are you holding up?”

The man in front of him gave him a noncommittal shrug. “Head’s better.”

“Still hurts though?”

A tight nod this time, accompanied by a pained grimace, but only for a second before Barnes caught Tony’s displeased scowl and quickly schooled his features into passive neutrality. “S’alright. Pain’s nothing new.”

Tony didn’t miss how practiced that action was, the masking of pain; he wondered whether Barnes learned to do that during the war, with Hydra, or at the place he now called home. Probably all three and instead of alleviating Tony’s worries, the whole thing just carved the scowl deeper into his face. He asked the next question while pointedly ignoring the voice in his head calling him a mother hen (it sounded exactly like Rhodey). “What else hurts?” 

When Barnes motioned with the stump of his left arm though, it was like getting dunked into ice water. Shit. Yeah, that pain was his fault. 

Barnes must’ve seen that realization on Tony’s face too.

“M’glad you blasted it off. It was Hydra’s, not mine.”

Tony scrubbed a frustrated hand over his face, suddenly not liking the cocktail of emotions screwing up what was supposed to be a perfectly pleasant breakfast for dinner.

Pleasant. Yeah, right. Between the two of them, they ticked off every ‘traumatized superhero’ box and frankly it was a miracle they weren’t a sobbing mess at this very moment. 

Barnes didn’t seem to be waiting for an answer— honestly, he looked like he was waiting for an execution again and that did not sit well with Tony at all— but Tony felt compelled to say something. Which in itself was weird because he hadn’t talked about Siberia with anyone other than Rhodey and his therapist, at least not in any detail beyond the broad brush strokes of “Dead parents, lying teammate, got my ass kicked and abandoned.”

“Doesn’t matter who it belonged to, it was attached to you. I have the schematics— pulled them from the SHIELD data dump— and that shit was wired right into your nervous system. You felt that.” 

Barnes didn’t deny it. Just looked downward at the table again, the fingers tracing lazy lines over the glassy surface. The movement caught Tony’s eyes and he followed it for one second, two, then realized he was staring— goddamn it, he had a thing for hands, and this so wasn’t the time— so he forced himself to look back up at the man. Tony’s gaze remained unmet. “For what it’s worth I’m sorry too. I don’t get off on causing pain. I just—”

“You were hurt. I understand.”

“I lashed out, yeah. I — I couldn’t think straight.”

Barnes hummed, a doubtful sound. “Had to be doing some thinking. You could’ve killed us both. You didn’t.”

Tony grimaced, but couldn’t really argue the point. Barnes wasn’t exactly wrong. Iron Man suit had taken down bigger and badder threats than two angry super soldiers, but Tony didn’t want to kill anyone that day. The hand-to-hand just gave him a visceral way to lash out against the onslaught of grief and maybe some small, stupid, pathetic part of him hoped that Rogers would refuse to fight, that his teammate and friend of many years would reason with him instead, pull Tony back from the edge. 

After all, Rogers did exactly that with Barnes.

Turned out, Tony wasn’t worth that sort of effort, but no matter how much that realization hurt a year ago, it didn’t matter anymore. That memory just left a bitter taste in his mouth now, but since Rogers wasn’t here— thank fucking god for that— Tony wasn’t going to spend another minute thinking about the guy. This wasn’t about him. This was about his amnesiac best friend who still looked like death warmed over and who Tony was supposedly trying bring over to the ‘dark side’. And possibly feed and groom and protect from bitter and unstable magic-wielding ex-teammates because apparently Tony had to do everything around here.

“Well, that’s all water under the bridge, I guess. Neither one of us can change the past. I just— I’m sorry you’re in pain, that’s all. Honestly, I would’ve thought T’Challa would get you all fixed up. I was expecting you to come back with a shiny new Vibranium arm, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

Barnes shook his head while his fingers kept absently tracing the edge of the menu on the table. Tony pointedly kept his eyes on the man’s face. “Arm needed extensive work and we… wore out our welcome. They gave me medicine— for the pain, but the, um—” he scrunched up his face as he searched for the right word, “the super soldier physiology, it burned through it too quick. Barely lasted me a week.”

Yikes. Tony figured as much though. “The Wakandans really weren’t happy hosting a bunch of ‘colonizers’, were they? Especially after the events in Lagos.”

“Mm-hmm. T’Challa was kind, but his guilt… that wore off too.”

“Especially when the rest of his people didn’t feel the same way.” Tony added and received a nod as confirmation. “Yeah, that makes sense. So I’m guessing they stuck you in cryo, somewhere out of the way, then scrubbed your brain clean ten months later, called it even, and sent you on your merry way?”

“About sums it up. Still better than what the others got though,” Barnes added and there was a little glint in his eye now, a hint of the man Tony had gotten to know over the phone. “Barton still walks with a weird limp.”

“Serves him right for mouthing off to Okoye in her own damn country.” Tony rolled his eyes and tried not the let the petty satisfaction seep through, but the effort was half-hearted at best. “I still have to ask Shuri if there’s footage of the Dora Milaje kicking their asses.” 

Tony let his smile turn mischievous then and watching its effect on Barnes was like watching the sun coming through the storm clouds. The way those eyes of striking pale blue softened, the way the corners crinkled on a hint of an amused smile. For the second time, Tony’s mind got momentarily preoccupied with the desire to know what those features would look when Barnes was smiling outright, joyful and unburdened, but Tony quickly squashed down the wayward thoughts.

“Alright, I think we’ve stalled long enough. Let’s order some food because I am starving. 

Chapter Text

“Alright, I think we’ve stalled long enough. Let’s order some food because I am starving.” Tony gestured at the menu. “Go crazy, order whatever you want, it’s on me.”

Barnes obediently picked up the menu, but the look he aimed at it was the sort of look reserved for strange scientific anomalies.

“Something wrong?”

Barnes shook his head immediately, but then bit his lip and that shake turned into an awkward shrug. 

“The future has too many damn choices,” he finally offered, and while it was a frustrated declaration, it was said without that earlier panicked rush, so Tony considered it progress. Barnes gingerly placed the menu back on the table, then tapped his fingers against it. “Why does everything need a thousand options in the future?”

Tony shrugged easily. “What can I say? We like our variety.” He glanced over his own menu, taking in the long list of dishes, drinks, and appetizers. “I can imagine how something like this can be overwhelming though. I remember Steve struggled too, but he coped by sticking to what he knew, what he liked. It’s the exact opposite of what I would do, but I’m a futurist, I live for the new and unfamiliar. Still, both are viable options.”

“That’s the problem though… It’s worse when— when others are around, expecting the right choice outta me, but even if I ignore that, it doesn’t change that sometimes I don’t know what I like now.” Barnes let out a long breath and his gaze grew distant as he stared at the menu. “Vse te svolochi u menya eto zabrali.

Togda pora zabrat’ obratno.

Barnes’ head shot right up. “You know Russian?”

“I know a lot of things,” Tony waggled his eyebrows, but decided to curb his usual antics and leave it at that. “So you say those Hydra assholes took all of that from you. Take it back. All those cocksuckers are dead and you’re still here, alive and— eh, relatively well, we’re working on it— but this is your chance to explore, to learn who you are now.” 

Barnes contemplated Tony’s impassioned words for a moment, then ran a frustrated hand through his hair and visibly deflated. “That sounds great when you say it, but I just feel like a damn fool when I can’t even pick out a meal without having my hand held.”

Tony could sympathize with the frustration, but he also understood, intimately, that sometimes the smallest things created the biggest challenges.

“Well, first of all, you’re an amnesiac former assassin stuck in the wrong century. Pretty sure you’re allowed to struggle. And second, you’re not exactly alone. A lot of us have our own hang-ups; I know for a fact your comrades back at that apartment do too. I, uh— I don’t like being handed things, for example.” His own confession surprised him, because he really didn’t mean to offer something so personal, but it felt right, so Tony let the rest of the words tumble out. “There are a few people who can hand me something— Rhodey, Pepper— but everyone else… I just— I freeze, and then, when my mouth starts working again, I make a joke out of it. Most people think it’s just me being a snobby billionaire asshole.”

“It’s about trust.”

Funny how it took Barnes two seconds to figure out something that others refused to understand and instead spent years being annoyed by. Tony wasn’t surprised that Barnes was this perceptive, not really, and he hummed his acknowledgement. “Something like that, yeah. Steve wasn’t the first guy who betrayed me in some spectacular fashion.” Barnes opened his mouth, probably to apologize again, but Tony just shook his head. “But that’s not what this is about. I get it, that’s all I’m trying to say. But less soul-bearing, more pancakes, yeah? And today is your lucky day because you have the best tour guide the future has to offer— me— here to help you. So let’s try to narrow this down. Let’s see… Coffee, tea, or something fruity?”

Barnes glanced at him, uncertain. “Coffee is fine.”

“Excellent choice. Coffee is always the right answer. Now, do you want it plain black or something sweeter and creamier?”

This time Barnes took a second to think, but he looked more confident when he answered, “Milk is good, but less sugar. Everything in the future is also too damn sweet.”

Tony let out a chuckle. “It sure is. Hmm, how about a cappuccino then?” He kept talking as he scanned the rest of the menu. “Did they have cappuccinos back in the forties? Well, they did in Italy, of course, but I can’t see you and Steve fancying it up in Brooklyn with a cappuccino during the Depression. It’s just steamed milk and espresso, in case you didn’t know. Nice and smooth, without too much sweetness.”

“You really do talk a lot, don’t you?”

Tony glanced up at Barnes, realized it wasn’t an accusation because Barnes looked amused, so Tony went right back to examining the menu, even if he was unable to keep a pleased smile from tugging at his lips. “Hey, I gave you fair warning, didn’t I?”

“You did. And yes, cappuccino sounds great.”

“Good. Moving on. Are you feeling savory or sweet in terms of our breakfast for dinner?”

It went on like that, back and forth, Tony offering simple explanations and Barnes choosing from the options Tony presented, until they narrowed it down to a veggie omelet and fresh fruit. On top of that and his own eggs and waffles, Tony ordered a few more items just in case, leaning towards the fresher, less heavy options which Barnes seemed to favor. Last he remembered, super soldiers had the metabolism of hummingbirds and while Barnes either hadn’t had access to enough food or struggled with shitty appetite, Tony was hoping something would catch his interest today.

Tony made the order and kept up the conversation while they waited and then after, when the food arrived. He started with simple topics, talking about the diner and its owners, retelling the story of how he met the two women. Then Tony chattered on about New York, explaining to Barnes how the city changed in the past several decades, what was worth checking out and what 21st century ‘attractions’ should be avoided. Somehow they moved onto clean energy, always a relevant topic when discussing the current century, and given that this was Tony’s bread and butter, he had no problem jabbering on about it for as long as Barnes let him. 

As Tony expected, everything ordered, including the extras, was enthusiastically consumed, at least after Barnes got over his initial reluctance and realized that the food wasn’t going anywhere and no one was going to take it or use it as leverage or whatever other depressing thing the man came up with that made him look so pathetically sad while staring at an innocent stack of blueberry pancakes. 

For the most part, the conversation remained one-sided, but Barnes listened attentively the entire time, keeping his eyes on Tony, only looking away when the food needed his momentary attention. The man offered nods and brief answers; there were clarifying questions too, short but to the point, and evidence of both Barnes’ attentiveness and a clever mind. 

Tony’s focus always came back to those eyes though, which became more and more expressive the longer the two of them talked and the more time Barnes had to just relax and let himself be. 

So, even though Tony did most of the talking, the fact that Barnes remained engaged avoided any awkwardness and Tony had to acknowledge that their first real conversation had already developed a natural flow, something Tony often lacked with others, despite sometimes working with them for years; they either pretended to listen or just outright told him that if he wanted to jabber on about something, he should go find someone who actually cared.

Talking with Barnes… this was easy. So easy in fact that Tony didn’t realize they spent hours together until the waitress who served them came by to shyly announce that her shift was ending and someone else would take over. 

Barnes was still nibbling on fruit and taking slow sips of his second cappuccino when Tony was done exchanging friendly goodbye with the waitress and making sure she got a proper tip before she left.

“So, what’d I tell you? Best damn waffles in the damn state, huh?”

“I don’t think I got to try the waffles. You kinda inhaled them.”

Tony stifled his snicker into his nearly empty cup of coffee. “Whoops, did I? I regret nothing, they were delicious.”

“Everything was delicious. Thank you, again.” 

That uptick of Barnes’ lips, the almost shy look he was giving Tony, it made something warm and unfamiliar— and decidedly not pleasant, nope, not at all— blossom in Tony’s chest. God, if Barnes just up and beamed at Tony right now, Tony would probably give him whatever he wanted just because he wouldn’t be able to pay attention to anything else. 

He forced himself to focus and faced with that sincere gratitude, he was torn between being honest and cracking a joke to lighten up the moment. Somehow he ended up doing both.

“Well, you are an exceptional excuse to get late night waffles, so I say we should do this again. Hopefully under more cheerful circumstances? I don’t want to wait until Maximoff has another temper tantrum before indulging in good food.”

Barnes blinked at him. “You… want to do this again?”

“Sure. Same time, same place, next week? Unless you don’t want to? Maybe the walk’s too long? The coffee’s not to your liking?”

“No, no,” Barnes shook his head, but he noticed Tony was smiling impishly and he ducked his head. “That’s not…” He worried at his lip, which only exaggerated the flustered expression (Tony didn’t even know assassins could do flustered and he certainly wasn’t admitting that it looked just a tiny bit cute). “I’d like that. Whenever you want. This was… really nice.”

“Yeah?”

Tony received an emphatic nod and a hum, then a pair of clear grey-blue eyes observing him. Still cautious, still weary, but that initial discomfort, that fear in fact, seemed to be gone now. Tony considered that a victory too. 

Still, there was a sadness lingering there now and Tony’s next question was more subdued.

“How are you feeling, Barnes?”

The man’s shoulder slumped, just enough for Tony to notice. “Like I don’t want to go back.”

Rhodey’s stern voice in Tony’s head ordered him to ignore the desire to bring the sad, unloved super soldier home. Resist, dammit. Tony did, but by a razor thin margin.

“I’m sorry. Really, I am.” Tony scrunched up his nose, the thought of living with that group of people in a cramped space giving him hives. Talk about nightmare fuel. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but why don’t you just leave? You’re smart, you’re resourceful. You made it two years in Romania without pinging anyone’s radar— well, until Steve showed up of course.” Barnes gave him a meaningful look when Rogers was mentioned and Tony groaned as the realization hit him. “Right, right. The overprotective boyfriend’s gonna come looking for you. Yeah, that’s a good call. I mean, I just finished fixing the last highway overpass he broke.”

The guilty expression returned, although only for a moment as Barnes seemed to have ran out of apologies, because his face quickly settled into a scowl.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” he mumbled, and the tone was so close to petulant that Tony had to stifle another unattractive laugh into his cup of coffee.

“No? You guys never—”

Barnes’ head shake was vehement. “Not before and not now. Steve— he wants something. Nearly stabbed him when he tried to kiss me a few months ago.”

This time, Tony actually choked on the mouthful of coffee and he had to wave an apology at Barnes’ unimpressed glare. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I swear I’m not laughing. Someone being an ass about personal space isn’t fun, trust me, I know, but it’s just— your delivery, that terrifying scowl on your face, it’s flawless. I forgot how terrifying you can be.” He quickly got his reaction under control. “Seriously, I’m sorry he did that. He shouldn’t have.” 

He really, really shouldn’t have, but at the moment, Tony really had no room to judge because he also shouldn’t be so interested in finding out that Barnes was a free agent. Goddamn it, his brain needed to sort out its priorities and that needed to be at the very bottom of the list.

“Listen, Barnes, I understand your reluctance to leave, but at the end of the day, you’re not Rogers’ keeper and given what you’ve told me… If you don’t feel safe with them—”

“It’s fine,” Barnes cut him off, with more force than Tony expected. “So much of what happened was my fault. I can’t let— can’t let it happen again.”

“Just— keep what I said in mind, yeah? No one’s gonna hold it against you if you decide to take care of you first.” Barnes nodded, albeit without any real conviction, so Tony let the topic drop for now. “As for the Steve thing… I have to assume that you’re actually into men, ‘cause otherwise he’s even more delusional than I thought, but if there was never anything between you two, then yeah, that’s a dick move on his part. I gotta tell you though, a lot of people assume that you did have something romantic going on. Some call you two the romance of the century or whatever, finding your way back to each other through space and time, blah, blah, blah.”

Barnes’s face contorted into a disgusted grimace. “Ugh, no, where do people get that? He was like a brother to me. Now— now I don’t even know who we are to each other. Hell, he can’t even call me by the right name most days.”

That was enough to distract Tony from his still inappropriate and entirely uncooperative thoughts and he tilted his head to the side, eyeing Barnes curiously. “Huh, so ‘Bucky’ isn’t cutting it for you anymore?”

“I barely remember Bucky,” Barnes spat the name out, “and I don’t want to pretend to be that guy just for Steve.”

Tony’s slotted that information alongside everything else he already knew, which didn’t lead to any surprising revelations, but it did give him plenty of confirmation. This man really wasn’t Bucky Barnes anymore, was he? God, knowing Rogers’ inability to let go of the past, he had to be fucking this up worse than Tony could’ve imagined. Unfortunately, all of that was to Barnes’ detriment.

Step three - call the man by his fucking name.

“You shouldn’t have to pretend, not for anyone. Plus, Bucky is a dumb name.” He winked to show he was mostly teasing. “I mean, the most feared assassin of the twentieth century and he’s named Bucky? That’s a travesty. Nope, nuh-uh, we need something better.” 

Tony leaned back and draped one arm over the back of the booth with practiced ease while the other hand came up to knead at his chin. “Hmm… We already tried ‘Manchurian Candidate’, but I’m not feeling that one. There’s always ‘Red October’ and ‘Terminator’, but I think we need a wintery angle. How about ‘Winter Wonder’? ‘Tastee-freeze’?” Barnes was so close to an actual smile that it made Tony a touch giddy. “Sugar plum? Frosty the Snowman? Snowflake?”

“James.”

“Hmm?”

“James is fine.”

Tony gave an exaggerated eye roll, but his smile never wavered and he casually bumped his foot against Barnes’ under the table when he said, “Fine, fine, if you want to be boring and go with your first name. Which probably means,” he added with a loud sigh, playing it up for Barnes’ amusement, “that you should call me Tony or whatever. It’d be weird otherwise.” 

Tony wasn’t sure why he was keeping up with the playful banter, the reassurances, the offer of familiarity. A part of him whispered that he should be cautious, but god help him, he liked what was happening here.

And not because his oh-so-evil and totally-not-fake plan to steal Barnes away was unfolding beautifully without him actually doing anything. The daily text conversations, now this dinner… Forget revenge, this was actually fun. He enjoyed every bit of it and damn it all, but he wanted this to be his, in some shape or form, even if it meant only getting to keep this easy sort of banter and the way they played so well off each other.

He knew he shouldn’t be going down this path, there was a world of reason why he and Barnes should remain nothing more than amicable, but distant acquaintances, but when did he ever do what he was supposed to do?

Especially when Barnes looked at him with those damn blue eyes, like Tony hung the moon or something, all because Tony offered the use of his first name.

That look was both too much and not enough; a minuscule part of Tony wished he never sent that damn phone, because it complicated his already messy life, but the rest of him just didn’t want this night to end.

They finished off their coffee and the leftovers relatively quickly though, then Tony exchanged his goodbyes with the wait staff, told them they were doing holy work by serving cranky bastards like him at one o’clock at night, and left a generous tip for the entire team, cooks and cleaning staff included. 

Barnes obediently waited, then followed him out when Friday gave Tony the all-clear on the ‘paparazzi and nosy fans’ front, and both he and Barnes faltered just outside the restaurant. Friday quietly walked the suit out as well and waited for Tony to take over whenever he was ready to fly back to the Compound.

“Well, I was gonna say ‘be careful walking home, it’s late’,” Tony said as he turned and it put him close enough to Barnes that Tony had to tilt his face up to look at the man, “but I suppose that’s wasted on scary assassins, huh?”

Barnes’ expression looked fond, but then he glanced away, so maybe that was just Tony’s eyes playing tricks on him in the darkened light of the street. The other man scuffed the asphalt with his sneaker, keeping his hand in the pocket of his hoodie, then finally dragged his gaze back up. 

“Thank you, Stark—”

“Tony, remember?”

Tony.” The way that rolled off Barnes’ tongue made Tony feel things, things that should be squashed and stowed far, far away, but in the quiet of the late night, he was tempted to indulge in that warmth. 

“Thank you,” Barnes said again, “you never owed me anything, but you still…” he faltered, his throat working. “Still feel like I haven’t earned this kindness.”

The defeat in his voice made Tony’s stomach clench again. He wanted to cling to the levity, but it’d be foolish of him to pretend things were that simple. Guilt and insecurities couldn’t be cured overnight. Hell, he knew that better than anyone. 

“Are you saying you should suffer some more before I can be nice to you?” Tony waited until he received a barely perceptible shrug. “You’ve suffered enough, James, and frankly, it’s not up to you to decide whether I forgive you or not. That decision belongs to me.”

A nod this time, with more conviction and just a hint of a tired smile. “That’s fair. Then… Same time, same place? It’ll be nice to, uh— to have something to look forward to.”

Tony had to recite equations in his head to distract himself from the desire to just drag Barnes home with him. And not even in the usual ‘drag someone home with him’ way, because, he reminded himself, that was at the bottom of the priorities list. Honestly though, it wasn’t even about that. Tony just wanted to wrap the man up in a blanket, feed him, bundle him off to bed, and maybe rain vengeance on the witch and on Rogers, because it was a veritable crime for eyes so pretty to have that much soul-deep sadness in them. 

He talked himself out of the first three, but the final part lingered. He should really talk to Strange and Loki about Maximoff again. They got the Compound and the Tower all warded off, but personal protections wouldn’t go amiss either.

All thoughts for later. He had some goodbyes to make.

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll try the dinner menu next time.” 

Barnes nodded again, without reservation, while small smile tugged at his lips and Tony took the chance to observe the man one last time. Barnes’ gaze was clear, sharp, and his posture more relaxed, the tension in his shoulders not entirely gone, but certainly eased. Already he looked different from the miserable man who shuffled into the restaurant hours before. Tony supposed getting away from that apartment would’ve given him a new lease on life too. He hated that he was sending Barnes back there again. 

“If you need anything, if Maximoff causes trouble again, just let me know, yeah? You don’t have to be a martyr for Steve’s sake and go through this alone.”

“I know. It’s fine, Tony. I’ll be fine.”

Tony wasn’t sure he believe that, but ultimately this was Barnes’ decision. “Then I’ll see you next week. Although, I gotta say,” Tony added, keeping his voice light and his smile firmly in place, “they might not let us in again, what with you looking like the saddest, scruffiest guy in all of Manhattan. Seriously, google razors, they’re this amazing 21st century thing, so useful—”

“I’m just taking your advice. You know, leaning into it.” 

When Tony just laughed, unable to keep a straight face at the deadpan delivery, Barnes’ right hand left the confines of its pocket, then hesitated, but the man must’ve found some reserve of courage, because after a beat, he reached out and gave Tony’s bicep a light squeeze. The hand withdrew quickly, but the warmth of that touch lingered on Tony’s skin. 

“Thank you, again, for everything. Have a safe flight home, Tony.

“Get home safe, James.

Chapter Text

James ignored the weird looks everyone in the living room aimed at him and left the apartment with a terse “Need some fresh air,” although not before bluntly rejecting Steve’s attempt to come with him.

After all, Tony probably wouldn’t appreciate Steve tagging along to their meeting. 

They settled on an early dinner this time, which gave James the chance to enjoy the warm, sunny day and ‘people watch’ as he weaved through the crowds at a far more leisurely pace than last week. Back then, his focus was inward, save for the small part of his brain forcing one foot in front of the other, as his mind replayed the incident with the witch over and over on a damn loop. He was anxious, shaking, and his distress eased only marginally with the distance.

By sheer force of will he pulled himself together, if only in appearance, when he entered that diner to meet Tony Stark.

And what a meeting it was. Stark— Tony— was both exactly what he expected and somehow nothing he could’ve predicted. He was charming, funny, had no problem filling every awkward silence with his own chatter. The real surprise, however, was the man’s unreserved kindness, generosity, sympathy, and his preternatural ability to put James at ease.

It wasn’t the first time someone had offered him help— hell, there were people who sacrificed far more than they should have for him— but there was something different about Tony and it took James a little time to figure out exactly why he was already so comfortable with this man. 

Like everyone else, Tony was well aware that James was struggling, both with his past and his present. However, when Tony looked at him, he wanted to fix the situation at hand. When everyone else looked at him, they wanted to fix James. It was a simple thing, but it made all the difference in the world.

With Tony, there was no thin-lipped frustration when James couldn’t decide what he wanted, no awkward pauses when someone expected him to talk beyond his few, hard-earned words. There were no sorrowful, lingering glances when he didn’t act like a dead man he barely remembered. Even something as simple as being called by his name meant so much.

He liked the way James sounded on Tony’s lips.

He reminded himself, not for the first time, that this was probably bad— very, very bad— to be so taken with a man he barely knew. He was imprinting, dammit, like a baby duckling, and Tony could have a million ulterior motives for this whole thing. He could strike when James’ guard was down, hurt him in some way, or he might just get bored and walk away when James no longer held his attention.

But talking with him, meeting him, thinking about him, it felt good and James was reluctant to give that up. He would always be cautious— he was the Winter Soldier after all— but thus far Tony had been nothing but kind and thoughtful and James was willing to put his fate in this man’s hands. After all, James’ hands changed the trajectory of Tony’s entire life too, so it was only fair to give Tony that same privilege. 

The diner was just around the block and James’ stomach suddenly filled with butterflies. He was nervous again, just like last week, albeit for entirely different reasons, and he inhaled deeply, but the effort to steady himself was half-hearted at best. Excitement was such a welcome change to the usual anxiety.

He stepped into the diner and headed straight over to the now familiar booth hidden away in its private corner. Just like last time, Tony had already beat him to it, but today, instead of a friendly smile and a lively greeting, Tony stilled and his eyes went wide as soon as he spotted James. Feeling incredibly self-conscious, James almost turned and ran, but he was no coward, so he kept walking. 

“Hi, Tony,” he greeted and came to a stop, probably making for an awkward sight just standing there while Tony gawked at him.

“Holy crap, I don’t even think I recognize you. I forgot how handsome you were under all that doom and gloom,” Tony proclaimed quietly as he blinked and gave James another once over. “I mean, uh—” He cleared his throat, twice, and then just like that, the spell lifted as Tony’s face lit up with a pleased grip that absolutely did not make James feel all sorts of warm and fuzzy things. “I mean, hi, James.

Tony’s eyes still followed him though, as if unable to look anywhere else, as James settled in on the other side of the booth; he hoped like hell he wasn’t visibly blushing, despite the rush of heat to his cheeks, but he’d be lying if he said Tony’s reaction wasn’t… flattering.

Tony’s expression turned into something almost contrite though after a beat. “You know I was only joking about the whole ‘not letting us in here again’ thing, right? You didn’t have to do… all this,” he gestured at James, who ducked his head, feeling like a damn teenager on his first date.

He had himself convinced that he shaved, trimmed his hair, and dressed in a nicely fitting black shirt and a new pair of jeans because it was to his benefit to stop scaring all the civilians in his proximity, but the way Tony was watching him was outing that as a half-truth at best. 

“It wasn’t…” he started, then stopped, mulling the words over. He wanted to talk and the struggle frustrated him, especially when it was Tony who had his attention. “Wasn’t that. I needed this. Feels nice.” Which was true, but Tony looking at him like that was even nicer.

“I bet. Well, you look like a million bucks, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“They don’t.”

Tony’s grin got even brighter. “Well, would you look at that, there was snark hiding underneath that beard after all.” 

Tony’s energy was infectious and James couldn’t help but smile too, even if his own was more reserved than Tony’s. It didn’t seem to phase the other man at all. James took in the crinkled corners of Tony’s eyes— warm, whiskey-colored brown eyes— the sculpted jaw and the immaculate goatee, the bow of his lips. The small nicks and scars indicative of a life spent fighting villains and building metallic suits of armor. Today Tony’s hair wasn’t styled with whatever product he usually used and some of the wisps fell over his forehead. 

God, he was so handsome.

That thought hit James at the exact time as the desire to reach out and sweep those curls away and a realization that he’d been staring and Tony was now regarding him with a quizzical look. 

Oh, jesus christ, Barnes, get it together.

“You alright? Do— Do I have something in my teeth?” Tony dipped his chin to examine his dark blue dress shirt. “A stain? You gotta tell me, I have appearances to maintain.”

“No, no,” James hurried to reassure, stumbling over the words, “nothing like that. It’s just…” Oh god, could he really say it? Should he? “You look really nice today too.”

The gamble paid off however when Tony just stopped mid word and tilted his head to regard James, but with neither annoyance nor discomfort nor smugness. He almost looked… shy.

If it was bashfulness however, it lasted only a second because on the next beat Tony playfully rolled his eyes. “Alright, enough of this flirting, we both know why we’re here. Let’s get ourselves some food. There are some excellent dinner options, and you’re welcome to chime in whenever you want, but I’m thinking we should get…” 

Tony chattered on, pointing out his favorite items on the menu, asking James which ones peaked his interest, which ones he never tried. The conversation flowed so easily again, even with James’ subpar responses, a stark contrast to the stilted, frustrating attempts back home. Again it was made clear how effortless this was with Tony. James supposed having no real expectations to live up to helped a lot. Tony had seen him at his worst, once as a triggered Winter Soldier, then as a brain-addled idiot who didn’t think before following Captain America into the fray, so any improvement on James’ part must’ve been a welcome change for Tony.

God, he wished he could go back in time and do it all differently. Avoid the fights in Romania and Germany, let logic guide him in Siberia… Unfortunately, reality was a much messier beast.

He never thought he’d move past that, but here he was, sitting in a sun-lit booth in a tiny diner tucked away in one of the corners of Manhattan, listening to Tony Stark sing praises to “the best sourdough toast this side of the Mississippi.” James let that voice, deep and smooth and comforting, flow over him, and he felt warm, for the first time in a long time, although whether from the summer sun streaming through the windows or Tony’s smile, he couldn’t tell.

Maybe it was a mistake letting himself get so caught up in the bright star that was Tony Stark. He could still get burned, but after everything that happened, everything that was taken from him, James knew the value of enjoying moments like this. Today belonged to him, so he let himself get lost in Tony’s eyes and cadence of his voice, letting their time together soothe him and give him strength to go back out into the proverbial cold.

***

Same time, same place?

Yes. I can’t wait.

***

Steve was perched at the kitchen table and he looked more frustrated than usual, frowning at whatever papers were scattered in front of him. Barton was sitting opposite of him, legs propped up and crossed at the ankle on an empty chair, and he was outright scowling, so James just hoped they were too preoccupied to pay much attention to him. 

He could’ve waited to sneak into the kitchen later, but dammit, he wanted the plums he bought at the farmers market, they were his plums, bought with his own cash, and frankly he was sick of sneaking around in his own home.

Steve did notice him and offered a smile, more subdued then usual, but by the time James was reaching for the plums on the counter, Steve’s attention was elsewhere as he heaved a great big sigh, the forceful whoosh of air unintentionally loud in the quiet kitchen.

“I just don’t get it. This is the third time we’ve acted on what ended up being false information.”

“I’m telling you, man, this place is bugged.”

“I might have to start believing that theory, if only because there’s no way Tony could avoid us this easily. But we checked everything,” Steve said, then turned to look over his shoulder at James. “Didn’t we, Buck? You, me, and Sam did a sweep of the whole apartment just a few days ago. Didn’t find a thing.” 

James hummed noncommittally as he washed one of the plums. “Sure did.” 

If there was a bug planted in the apartment, James would’ve found it, if only because his training, his conditioning left him hyper-vigilant at all times, whether he wanted to be or not. 

Fortunately, Tony didn’t need bugs to know when Steve and the others were about to ambush him in public.

Barton snorted in response to Steve. “Maybe we got a rat among us.”

With his back turned to them, James let his lips twitch in amusement. For once, Barton wasn’t actually wrong.

“Clint, that’s crazy. None of us had contact with Tony— not for the lack of trying. I just wish— just wish he would— ugh!” Steve let out an angry, frustrated noise and James turned just in time to see him muffle it into his hands, before scrubbing one hand through his blond locks. “All I need is a moment with Tony. Just one moment alone. I know that if I talk to him without the rest of his team there— without Pots or Rhodes or Danvers— he’ll come around. He’ll remember what we had and he’ll understand why we all need to be together again.”

“I dunno why you’re so fixated on Stark. He obviously never gave a damn about us.”

“We need him Clint, and despite whatever he might think, he needs us too. We were a family once, a team.”

Barton didn’t appear particularly moved by Steve’s declaration, but neither was he arguing the point and after a beat, he planted his feet back down on the floor and leaned forward to sort through some of the papers. 

“Yeah, I guess I’d rather deal with Stark than Hammer. I mean, Hammer’s offer was decent, but—”

“We are not taking money from Justin Hammer. That man is a slime ball and the only reason he offered to finance us was because he hates Tony.”

“Hey, I don’t disagree, but money’s money.”  

“No, we’ll reconcile with Tony. I’ll find a way.”

James cleared his throat and the other two startled, clearly having forgotten that he was still in the kitchen. Steve instantly turned sheepish, then his gaze fell on the plums in James’ hand and he smiled.

“I’m so glad to see you eating more, Buck. I told you it was just a matter of time you got your appetite back.”

James’ one-armed shrug didn’t give much away. “I guess.” 

“Now you just gotta stop hiding in your room or taking off to god-knows-where every day. Come on, come sit with us, maybe you’ll see something we missed. I mean, Tony can’t avoid us forever.”

He sure as hell can.

“Sorry, m’not feeling like company today.” 

Barton snorted at James’ reply, then squinted with suspicion. “You’ve been weird lately. Weirder. First the whole—” he gestured vaguely in James’ direction, “transformation thing you have going, then you’re always out, doing whatever, and you always got those damn plums now.”

“Clint, come on, Bucky’s just—”

“Wow, I shaved and ate and went outside. A real mystery.” James aimed an unimpressed glare at Barton. “Idi k chertu.”

“Stop it, you two.”

They both ignored Steve’s order.

“Cute, but if you haven’t noticed, I’m already in hell, Barnes.”

“Clint, please,” Steve tried again, “I know you’re still upset about your fight with Laura, but that’s no reason to take it out on Bucky.” 

“Whatever. Bucky, Bucky, Bucky,” Barton mimicked under his breath like a petulant child, then flicked at a piece of paper and watched it slide across the table before glaring up at James again. “At least I don’t sit around all day online shopping. What the hell was in that package you got anyways?”

James flashed a toothy smile in the same way a wolf bared its teeth. “Just a big ol’ box of go fuck yourself, Barton.” 

He bit into a plum and walked out without bothering to listen to Steve’s reprimand that followed him down the hall.

***

In the relative privacy of his room, James put the plums onto the nightstand first, then laid back on the bed and let himself sprawl, relishing in the softness of the blanket beneath him. The softest, most comfortable thing he had ever owed, that much was true.

He had no idea what material it was made out of or where Tony even got it, but James had a hard time complaining. Comfort hadn’t been a relevant factor in his life for a long time and now even a sliver of it was wonderful.

The blanket wasn’t the only item tucked into the package that originally meant to have a few notebooks and a set of pens that James ordered. Apparently the security on Amazon deliveries was severely lacking if any genius billionaire could just hack into it at will. 

The brand new combat boots sat neatly underneath the bed and those were quite impressive as well. High-end material, durable, comfortable, and sported a secret compartment for James’ blade. James had no idea how Tony knew his exact size either, but again, hard to complain when they fit him so perfectly.

That pair of sneakers however—

The phone buzzed in James’ pocket and he wiggled around and lifted himself up just enough to pull it out, then plopped back down and propped himself up on one of the pillows (which were now like sandpaper compared to that heavenly blanket).

Phew, just got out of another meeting. Pep and the Board are getting a little acquisition-crazy. Yuck. I just wanna be home with the bots.

Ooh, did you get your package?

James smiled at the screen and began tapping out the response.

I did. Thank you, Tony. Everything is perfect, but you really didn’t have to send me anything.

It was a blanket, new shoes, and some super-soldier approved, heavy-duty painkillers. Not exactly showering you in diamonds and caviar over there.

I appreciate it all very much. 

Not sure about the sneakers though.

Aw, you’re breaking my heart, Snowflake.

Tony, they’re red and gold.

Hey, there’s no Iron Man logo! They could be Captain Marvel colors.

Yeah, that explanation will go over just as well with my roommates. 

Do you really not like them? 

Shit, yeah, I should’ve been more careful.

I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to create more trouble for you.

I’ll send you new ones, I’ll just stick to black and white.

Tony, stop that. I was only teasing. I love them. 

He really did, even if the colors were too flashy for someone who wanted to blend into the shadows most days. They were Tony’s colors though, colors of a man who always stood out from the rest, and James came to realize that he liked wearing them. Steve and the others were already distrustful of the changes in his behavior, so if they got suspicious about the shoes, well, then it’d be a worthy distraction from everything else James was doing in secret. At the end of the day, he didn’t really care what they thought and obviously neither did Tony. 

Honestly, sometimes he wanted the whole world to know that Tony was a part of his life, even if meant inviting a storm of complications in this already convoluted mess. He wondered what it would be like, to spend time with that man without the need for secrecy. 

Of course, he didn’t believe things would go on like this forever. Either Tony would get bored, James would mess this up somehow, or Steve would find out and complicate everything tenfold with his incessant belief that if things weren’t exactly at he envisioned them to be, then they were wrong. Plenty of ways for things to go wrong.

Neither did he particularly mind being Tony’s ‘dirty little secret’ for however long it’d last, but it didn’t stop his mind from wondering— fantasizing— about a life where he was a real part of Tony’s life too. Someone important enough to share Tony’s spotlight.

He snuggled further into the blanket and let out a quiet sigh. Dreams were for fools and no matter how foolish he wanted to be, he needed to face reality. He had nothing to offer a man like Tony and the only reason their current friendship existed in the first place was due to Tony’s superhuman capacity for forgiveness and magnanimity. 

Tony was a good man, but he had no place in his life for dead-broke, one-armed ex-assassins with a whole lot of baggage and no remarkable talents (unless those talents included murder), so this— whatever this was that they had— had to be enough. 

In fact, not simply enough, but above and beyond anything James could’ve expected. Here was Tony, sending him secret packages filled with necessities, but they were all high-quality enough to turn into indulgences, and the pain killers were a literal blessing. Unfortunately, they did nothing for the headaches (proving that those weren’t normal), but his shoulder no longer ached, which meant he would be pain free as long as he stayed the hell away from the apartment.

Everything Tony did was kind, thoughtful, and frankly a touch overwhelming, but the last thing James wanted was for Tony to think he expected these things from the man. 

Sure, things were nice— amazing even— but material goods came and went and James had gotten by with less. Tony’s friendship however, that he coveted with a steadfast ferocity. 

His next several messages were words of gratitude, unashamed and sincere, because the least he could do was make it clear that while he would never ask Tony for anything, he appreciated it all the same. 

Then he had to get a picture of himself wearing those ridiculous shoes just in case Tony needed evidence of just how much James loved them. 

Chapter Text

“Okay, this is the fourth Saturday that 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 waved the man off, not breaking eye contact with his own image in the mirror as he mussed up 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 put him to shame because he was unfairly good-looking, but the least Tony could do was give him a run for his money.

“You don’t spend that much time on your hair for major press conferences.”

Tony finally turned to meet Rhodey’s gaze. The man was leaning casually against the doorframe of the entrance to Tony’s quarters, looking at him with a raised, expectant eyebrow.

“You’re just jealous of my good looks.” 

“Yes, it’s jealousy, you caught me. If only I were as handsome as your scrawny ass.”

“Excuse you, I am not scrawny!”

“You were when I met you. First impressions, Tones, they stick with you forever. In my eyes, you’re still a scrawny, bratty fifteen year old who couldn’t handle his liquor.”

Tony just stuck his tongue out at Rhodey, essentially proving the man’s point, but it gave him unmitigated joy to see Rhodey’s face light up with amusement, so in the end, it was all 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, and also those broad shoulders and his voice is like whiskey and—”

Yeah. He needed to find a better way to deliver that message. For Rhodey’s sake. Until that time however, Tony would just 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 little while longer. Which meant Tony needed to deflect in the meantime.

“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. I know how important it is to have some privacy in our crazy ass lives. I just worry about you, that’s all.”

“Nothing to worry about. 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 made a show of contemplating the answers, throwing in a pensive hum for added effect. “No… Probably… And I don’t think so?”

Rhodey scrutinized him for another long moment, then heaved a sigh and threw his hands up in mock surrender. “Fine, fine, fine. That’s better than your usual, I guess. Just say out of trouble, okay?” Rhodey turned on his heel, but then threw over his shoulder, “And enjoy your date!”

“It’s not a date!” Tony shouted right back at Rhodey’s retreating form, but when he looked back in the mirror, the guy staring back at him sorta did scream ‘date’. 

A date with the Winter Soldier. 

Huh.

It wasn’t, not really, but did he want it to be a date? Sure, James was stupidly handsome, that was a well-established fact, and something Tony was aware of since he was a teenager, and sure, they actually got along really well, and maybe Tony did get a bad case of the butterflies every time James’ lips quirked up 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 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 necessarily, 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 against one another under the table, occasionally brushing up against an ankle and every time, Tony had to ignore 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 lie because it didn’t feel like enough, not when they sat together and talked, and not when they parted yet again. Tony just stood there, watching James’ retreating form blend into the crowd down the street; he stood there 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. 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 had been waiting to meet Tony in a less-populated corner of the park for a good ten minutes now, but between the lovely summer weather and the scenery, the wait was pleasant. He scanned the park from his spot next to one of the tall maple trees, noticing nothing out of the ordinary, right until his gaze panned left and he spotted a man heading his way. James narrowed his eyes and then the rest of his body followed suit, a tightly-wound coil of sudden tension, when that stranger stopped a few feet away from him instead of walking past. Something was definitely off about the guy; it was the face, in fact, that kept ringing James’ many internal alarms. 

“Can I help you?” 

The stranger just grinned, entirely unaffected by the threatening tone of James’ voice. 

“Nope. Just wanted to admire those fantastic sneakers you’re wearing, Snowflake. Are they Captain Marvel colors by any chance? You see, I’m actually a bit of an Iron Man fan myself.”

Tension bled away as James blinked at the familiar voice, 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’ve. The man— Tony— glanced around, then after making sure no one was around 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 peal 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 today.” 

Tony thrust his hand out at James 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 what to look for underneath the curls of brown hair.

He obediently took the offered 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 painfully, a reaction rooted in fear, beaten into him over 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 earlier easy smile slid right off, guilt darkening his features.

“Shit, I didn’t think— Making you wear that— I’m sorry, it should’ve occurred to me—”

James pressed the disk to his temple before Tony could finish that sentence and ignored the shudder running through him at the press of cold metal that attached itself to his skin. 

Wide brown eyes blinked at him. “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 still 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 and going with the flow. 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 just a bit closer.

The other man reached out and tapped a sequence against the disk. There was a shimmer of light in James’ peripheral, like sunrays reflecting off the water, and with it came a brush of air, humid and sticky against his skin. 

“Did you make me look handsome at least?” he asked quietly and watched Tony let out an amused huff, his features softening as the rest of the earlier guilt disappeared.

“Sorry, gorgeous, but no matter what I program into this, it’ll be a significant downgrade, so that’s—” Tony stopped mid-word, probably realizing what he just said— something that wasn’t helpful at all at fending off James’ unruly craving for more contact— but then the man focused right back, on the device instead of James, and cleared his throat. “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, 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 still lingering from that earlier spike of fear. James was safe with Tony, that much he knew, 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 declared, then 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 unique details that belonged to Tony, ones that his mind catalogued over and over every time they saw each other.

“I know it’s weird looking at a stranger, 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 pathway, heading towards the areas of the park bustling with activity and it didn’t take long for Tony to jump back into a conversation they cut short earlier, recounting in great detail and with several expletives, what his bots did to his lab while he was away in D.C. a few nights ago.

James couldn’t help but smile, filled to the brim with something that may have even been happiness, if he could believe that, but he supposed this sunny day wasn’t quite perfect. After all, he couldn’t do everything he wanted, like 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 one of the towering trees. There was some conveniently positioned shrubbery around them as well, keeping them out of sight of all but the nosiest of tourists. Thankfully, there was a good chance no one would be looking for Iron Man and the Winter Soldier in the bushes of Central Park, so they were safe for the moment.

“Alright, I think we can be ourselves for a little 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? Just give me a heads up if someone is getting too close.”

James was shimmering back to his own gorgeous self too 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.”

“Spot 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,” Tony cut that off and groaned, hiding his face in his hands, “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 at him. 

Just a whole lot of smiling going on these past few months, apparently

“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 one 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 let out a sigh, then 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 holding out a plastic tupperware container, suddenly looking ten kinds of shy. 

Tony’s stomach did its usual acrobatics act at the sight even as he gingerly reached for the container. 

“What did you—” Tony didn’t finish when he opened it to find the thing filled to the top 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 cookies. “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…” He took a different one 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 in agreement as he broke the cookie he was holding in half and handed one piece over 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— well, he’d be damned, someone needed to add baking to the list of skills of this former assassin extraordinaire. Tony didn’t manage to stop the frankly indecent moan that escaped him, but really that was James’ fault for making something this delicious.

“Oh my god, this is so good,” he said around a mouthful, to the sound of James’ quiet laugh, “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 on his tongue, 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. There are no concrete designs yet, everything’s just in here for the moment,” Tony tapped his head, “but I’ve actually been thinking about building you a new arm.”

Chapter Text

“I’ve been thinking about building you a new arm.”

James stilled, wide eyes trained on Tony, but instead of the curiosity or excitement that Tony would’ve expected, his words just erased all traces of the earlier levity. Tony couldn’t tell whether it was anger he was seeing or suspicion or something else entirely, but his own excitement about the project dissipated with the downturn of James’ lips. 

“Tony, that’s, uh— an arm?”

“Like I said, still a work in progress, nothing tangible, just some preliminary plans,” Tony offered tentatively, then dropped his gaze to watch his fingers tap out a nervous staccato against his thigh. He couldn’t quite meet James’ gaze anymore. “And it’ll take some time obviously. We’ll, uh— if you don’t want to tell the others about me, we can always loop T’Challa and Shuri into this, tell everyone they built the arm. You have a lot of options though, in terms of capabilities, and we can probably—”

“Tony, no. You— you really shouldn’t have.” 

James’ voice was colder, sharper, and Tony wilted under its force, already regretting bringing this up and ruining their perfectly good day.

“The gifts, those were already far too generous, but this— Tony, this is too much.” He heard James take a breath, then after a beat, “I don’t want to be your charity case.”

It hurt to hear those words; they stung, a rejection of Tony’s effort, of Tony, and he wanted to throw something uncharitable right back, and maybe he would have, but when he looked back up at James, he was stopped short by the distress he could see in the man’s features. James wasn’t angry, he was… distraught.   

Tony had to remind himself that James wasn’t like the others. He hadn’t asked Tony for a damn thing, not even something as inconsequential (to a man like Tony) as pocket cash for necessities. The guy chose instead to do odd jobs around town (no shortage of people who needed something heavy lifted), just to earn himself enough to buy his own food instead of relying on either Tony or Rogers.  

So it didn’t make sense for that to change now and for James to say that Tony’s effort weren’t good enough somehow, that they were unwelcome because Tony wasn’t good enough. Hell, who was Tony to even claim any moral high ground here, given how all of this started? He was the one who started this whole thing over petty revenge, then decided to just throw money and gifts at the poor guy without ever asking what James wanted. No one likes being indebted to you. When will you fucking learn, Tony?

So he took a steadying breath and squared his shoulders, hoping he could find the words to make this right. “You’re not my charity case. Trust me, I’m not very good at charity these days. I learned a lot last year and the lesson to stop doing shit for people who don’t deserve it was beaten into me, literally.” Another deep breath because he didn’t mean to let his own voice turn so harsh either— they were both made out of so many sharp edges, weren’t they?— but this was James and the way he flinched at the words wasn’t the reaction Tony meant to incite at all. “But the thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that I still love doing things for the people I care about.” 

James’ eyes darted up, just long enough to give Tony a startled look, but Tony didn’t bother taking the words back. He did care about James. 

He continued after a beat, channeling his nervous energy into his hands, which began picking at the innocent blades of grass. “This isn’t charity. Hell, it’s not even remotely selfless. Working on a project like this, it’s exciting, it’s exactly the kind of work I live for, and who knows, something I learn might turn lucrative for SI, or we could expand our non-profit foundation— I don’t know, I can’t know for sure, but there are a dozen possibilities here where I benefit directly. Still, all that scientific curiosity, profits, whatever— all that aside, it makes me feel good when someone I care about is happy, especially when I did something to make that happen. You’re in pain right now, you’re not at your best, and I just thought— I thought this was something I could do to help you. But I should’ve— I should’ve asked, I should’ve…”

He wasn’t sure what he should’ve done, so he fell silent, out of words and out of excuses. For a moment, neither one of them said anything, letting the sounds of the rest of the world, humming with busy life and blissfully ignorant of the emotional tension between them, wash over them, but then James’ hand reached out for Tony’s and gently plucked the abused blades of grass out of Tony’s fingers, then skimmed over Tony’s open palm.

The touch prompted Tony to look up and he found wary eyes searching his own, for a hint of deception perhaps, platitudes, something else altogether. Tony held that gaze even though leaving himself open like this was a frightening sort of vulnerability, but this was important. He didn’t know why, or maybe he did and he was still in complete denial about it, but what he couldn’t ignore any longer was the fact that James had wormed his way into Tony’s heart and there was no going back now.

“I don’t deserve this,” James finally whispered as he shook his head, looking crestfallen, “I have nothing to give in return and— you give and you give, but Tony, I don’t want to keep taking only to end like them.”

“Them?”

“Steve and the others. The way they talk about you, it’s so… entitled. As if you owe them something. Please don’t think I expect this.” James was studying his fingers as they kept up those careful brushes over Tony’s own, each touch sending a shiver through Tony. There was a moment when he did look at Tony, just long enough to expose the anxiety lurking in his eyes, before forcing his gaze back down. “When I wrote to you, I just wanted to make things right between us. I didn’t want… things or money or anything like that. I just—” James stopped to take another deep inhale. Steadier this time. A deliberate, controlled movement. “None of that is worth it if I risk losing this. 

As he spoke, James’ fingers curled lightly around Tony’s, which curled into the touch on instinct, and Tony wasn’t sure he could speak over the lump in his throat, nor over the way James’ thumb began stroking the inside of Tony’s wrist.

For a brief instance, all he could really focus on was that James’ hand was warm. For some reason he imagined it to be icy cold— ‘Winter Soldier’ and all— but the warmth was nice. Really nice.

“If— if you really don’t want this—” he said once he was certain his voice wouldn’t do some weird shaky thing, “I understand, but I promise it doesn’t come with strings attached. You don’t owe me, you don’t have to ‘pay me back’ and trust me when I say there’s a world of difference between you and the others. I’m— I’m really not that hard to keep happy, I swear. I mean, a thank you every once in a while is nice, and— and you baked for me and every time we’re together—”

I’m happy.

He forced the words down, almost choked on them, as the vulnerability suddenly became too much and overwhelmed him so badly that he wanted to flee. His hand though, it was still linked together with James’ and Tony couldn’t find it in him to break that connection. He didn’t want to give up that warmth. No, he wanted to keep it all to himself in fact; more, more, more, his mind chanted. Oh, if James only knew how wrong he was about Tony, if he only knew the extent of Tony’s selfish desires.

“I want to do this for you, James, really, I do, but I don’t want to lose this either. Just— know that it’s an option, that’s all.” 

Tony deflated, all out of steam again. God, emotionally charged exchanges were exhausting. 

“The real problem is that I apparently suck at big gestures,” Tony aimed a self-deprecating smile at their hands. “I’m not joking, I really am bad at this. When I asked Bruce to move in with me at the Tower, I offered him two entire floors of research labs as his own personal kingdom. Took him months to trust me and realize my only motive was science. I designed and built entire floors for each of the original Avengers. None of them even considered the offer to move in until it was their only decent option. Pepper, dear sweet Pepper, my beloved CEO? I gave her a gigantic stuffed bunny for Christmas. She still brings up that damn thing anytime we have a fight and we’re not even together anymore. So this is probably my fault. I— I sprung this on you and—”

“Tony.”

James’ hand gave his a light squeeze too, which effectively stopped Tony’s borderline incoherent ramblings. Tony swallowed hard, torn between enjoying that warmth, outright clinging to it, and hiding himself away forever, just to avoid the embarrassment of this entire thing. 

Paging suave, cool-as-a-cucumber Tony Stark, you are needed in Central Park, stat.

“I can never thank you enough for— for any of this, so I’d never ask for more, but if you’re willing…” James trailed off, but Tony could hear the hints of permission there. 

“I am. It’ll be awesome, James, I promise, and nothing to stress about, especially not right now.”

James nodded, then after a pause quietly asked, “So how big is ‘gigantic’ exactly? You know, as far as bunnies go?” and the teasing notes had Tony looking up at him hopefully.

“It was like two stories high,” he played along, grinning, “just a ginormous, ugly pink rabbit.”

“Tony, that’s terrible.”

“Yeah, I know. I have no idea what I was thinking. Impulse buys are not my strong suit.”

That earlier suspicion, that cold set of James’ features, it was all gone, and the tension running through James’ body was beginning to melt away as well. Tony felt like he could breathe again.

“I suppose an arm is better than a bunny,” James joked, but the teasing was short-lived as he finally broke the connection between them to run a frustrated hand over his face and into his hair. “God, I’m sorry, this was— a terrible reaction, huh? I’ve been on edge, with— with the headaches getting worse, and all these gifts— I wasn’t sure what they meant, if they were a test— and I didn’t want you to think I was greedy—”

“James, no, god no, they’re just— just things because I wanted to help and because I have terrible impulse control. And wait— what do you mean the headaches are worse? You didn’t say anything before.”

“Didn’t want to worry you.”

“Well, now I’m worried.”

“I’m sorry. I’m— I’m a mess, aren’t I?” The self-deprecation, the hints of hurt in those eyes, it had Tony reaching for James again without thinking, resting his hand on James’ calf to give it a squeeze.

“You’re a bit of a mess, but that’s okay. Messy is good. I’m a mess 24/7, so who am I to judge?”

“I should be thanking you, finding ways to repay you—”

“I told you, you don’t owe me. You don’t expect something in return when you give someone a gift, that’s not how it works. Although yes, thanking someone is the polite thing to do, especially when that someone offers to build you state of the art tech that’s going to be a million times better than the crap Hydra dared to call ‘revolutionary’.”

The playful reprimand worked and James had to good graces to look bashful. “Thank you, Tony.”

“See, better already.”

“You really don’t have to—”

“I want to.”

“—but you’re a good man. Better than I deserve. I’m sorry I panicked. I like what we have and the thought of losing it…”

“I like this too and I’m not going anywhere. You can’t get rid of me, I’m like a stubborn fungus. Or glitter or something.”

James acknowledge the joke with a smile, but hesitated again when he tried to speak, so Tony waited patiently, giving James a chance to find his words at his own pace. In the meantime, he kept up the soothing strokes of his fingers against the jean-clad leg. He was indulging in that touch, he knew that, but he had himself convinced that it was just for James’ benefit. Just like Tony did earlier, the other man needed comfort too, a point of contact to ground him. So what if Tony was also feeling like he never wanted to let go?

James seemed to channel his own nervous energy by worrying at his bottom lip instead of picking at the grass, which wasn’t helping Tony’s situation either, because seeing that soft, plump thing get redder and bruised between his teeth did nothing to help keep his thoughts chaste and pure and on point. Tony valiantly willed his body to behave. 

“You said there were two things for me?” James finally spoke and Tony was heartened to hear the steady voice and the complete sentence. “Wondering if I’m gonna need to panic about that second one too.”

Tony let out a relieved huff. “No panicking allowed. We’ve over our emotional talk quota for— for the next month, okay? Maybe even a year. Plus, this thing actually has immediate use, especially given what you just told me about your headaches.”

He dug into his jacket pocket and produced a thin, silver chain. From it hung a tiny round locket; nothing remarkable at first sight, but hiding inside the locket was an even more miniaturized arc reactor, and hiding even deeper still, imbued into the metal itself, were a variety of protection spells, courtesy of one cranky mage and one pain-in-the-ass Norse god.

Of course James was privy to none of that and his confused look spoke for itself.

“You giving me… jewelry?”

“Yes,” Tony conceded, but he gestured with the hand holding the delicate chain, “but this is useful jewelry, I swear, so it’s not weird. Strange, Loki, and I have been working on some protections against Maximoff. Now, we figured out a while back that the reactor has protective powers. The element powering it has its basis in one of the Infinity Stones— the Tesseract, which Howard fished out of the ocean— which is backstory you don’t need to know, I’m now realizing.” 

Tony took a breath, then continued. “The arc reactor, it acts like a repellant. Those powers are more effective and far more reliable when the reactor is big, like the one powering the entire Compound. She literally can’t get inside the building. Unfortunately, miniaturizing it down to this size creates some issues we didn’t foresee, but we’ve been working through them. And by ‘working’, I mean literally bending the laws of physics a little, but I try not to think about it— no, that’s a lie, I do think about it, it keeps me up at night and, uh—” He cleared his throat and forced himself to stop rambling. He popped open the locket instead so James could see what was inside. While James’ eyes widened when the steady blue glow was revealed, Tony was distracted by how the glow of the reactor complimented James’ eyes. 

“It’s a… protection charm?”

“Ugh, that sounds so Harry Potter,” Tony made a face, but then nodded, his nose still scrunched up in displeasure, “but yeah, essentially. It’s a prototype and obviously we can’t run actual tests without getting close to Maximoff—”

“You want me to test it?”

“No, no, that’s not it,” Tony reassured, because this wasn’t about scientific curiosity, not really, “I mean, there’s a chance it won’t work and I’d appreciate you letting me know so we can continue improving it, but I don’t expect you to provoke her or anything. Just— wear it and hopefully between me, the Sorcerer Supreme, and an actual god, we got it right and it will work. Please? I just— I’d rather you move to the other side of the planet away from her, but if this helps with the headaches and the nightmares, that’s good enough for now.”

Tony wasn’t sure whether it was the naked gratitude he could see in James’ expression or the proximity between them that made his heart skip a beat, but it was skipping all sorts of beats and Tony found himself woefully out of depth again.

James remained oblivious to Tony’s inner turmoil however, but he did sit up, tilting his head down and offering his neck up to Tony. That was all the prompting Tony needed to unlock the chain and loop it around James’ neck. With a click, the chain connected again, and Tony gave in, just this once, to a tiny portion of his inappropriate desires to smooth a hand down James’ chest where the chain and the tiny locket settled.

His mouth went dry at the glorious muscles he could feel beneath the shirt and he pulled away abruptly lest his hand trail down lower. 

However, James was intent on being unhelpful because he caught Tony’s hand before it fell and gave it a squeeze, lacing their fingers again for one long moment— not long enough— before letting go.

“Thank you.”

Tony nodded, willing his tongue to form words. “See, we’re getting better at this. I give you stuff, you thank me. Easy peasy.”

“You know it’s so much more than that. You’re… amazing. Not sure how else I can put it.”

The genuine praise left Tony even more tongue-tied. He swallowed, but it did little to alleviate his suddenly dry throat. “Just let me know if it works, okay?”

“I will.”

Still feeling exposed and ten kinds of uncertain, Tony reached for another cookie, for a lack of something better to do, and munched on in, absently watching a couple teenagers in the distance taking selfies. Snap-chatting probably. Wasn’t that what Peter and Harley always did—

“Can you tell me more about the arm?” 

Tony looked back to James and the shy look he was given beneath the long lashes, that tentative smile making the pretty blue eyes shine, it all hit Tony full force and now he was torn between all that earlier emotional turmoil and this new desire that dictated he just skip half the steps in his master plan— he forgot what step he was on, to be honest, or what the plan even was— and drag the super soldier back home with him right the hell now.

“Are you— are you sure you want to spend the rest of our time here listening to my boring tech talk?”

It was meant to be a joke, but James gave him a sincere look of gratitude. “You know I love listening to you talk.”

It probably said something about Tony that those words, coupled with that soft look in James’ eyes, that was what did it for Tony. He could sit straight-faced and unaffected through the filthiest of dirty talk, but take one down-on-his-luck super soldier with a pretty face and the body of a god, add the beginnings of a sincere friendship, finish it off with just a pinch of appreciation for Tony’s actual talents— in the lab, if not the bedroom— and you got Tony going weak-kneed and blushing.

God, he was so screwed. He could see where this was headed from a mile away, a train wreck in the making, but Tony just couldn’t look away. 

He clung to denial for a little while longer— he was an expert at that— and delayed the inevitable introspection, the panic, and the shame for another day. 

After all, right now a certain, handsome super soldier was waiting for him to speak and Tony knew he no longer had the willpower to deny this man anything.

Chapter Text

James slowly blinked his eyes open and it took a few seconds before he realized it wasn’t pain that had woken him up, nor blood-curdling nightmares, but rather the rays of early morning sun streaming through the cheap, uneven blinds. 

The revelation wasn’t exactly new, but each time filled him with a renewed sense of awe. Awe and gratitude and toe-curling satisfaction. Who knew that the absence of pain could feel so fucking good? 

A tap and a glance at his phone verified that it was just after six, which also meant that James had slept, uninterrupted, for about five hours. 

Inadequate for most people, but for him, it was fantastic and he savored the unmitigated pleasure of waking up because he was rested, because his body was re-energized and ready. 

Simply because he could, James also let himself indulge in a leisurely stretch before relaxing again, enjoying the way the soft material of the blanket shifted against his bare skin. Without any conscious thought, his hand reached up to play with the charm around his neck. Already a habit after only a week, it was a soothing weight against his fingertips, representing safety, peace of mind.

Tony.

His pain-free existence and this wonderful morning were, of course, all thanks to Tony. The man really shouldn’t have doubted his tech because it worked flawlessly. The headaches were gone and the nightmares that still plagued him were limited to his own, already less frequent and decidedly less vicious.

The ability to think without pounding pain trying to split his skull was a godsend, which really meant that Tony was a godsend. Yet another gift from a man with seemingly endless generosity and James knew he was lucky to have earned Tony’s goodwill. One letter, a simple apology, but he was rewarded for it tenfold.

He really couldn’t wait until Saturday and their next secret meeting. Tony had something planned, some fun surprise, but James would’ve been perfectly content to spend another day at the park or at the diner. All he wanted was more time with the man, more opportunities for them to get closer. 

He just wanted more.

James’ thoughts drifted from one pleasant thing to another, still a lazy sort of meandering through the early morning haze, and spurred by the warmth of the sunbeams falling on the bed, by the sensation of being pain-free and comfortable, those thoughts slowly morphed into something James took care to avoid in the bright light of day, even if this wasn’t the first time these fantasies had come up. Every time they did, they left James flushed with heat, desire, and no small amount of shame, but it seemed today his body didn’t care to dwell on that shame and already arousal coiled low in his groin from the mere suggestion of those treacherous— tempting— thoughts.

He had no right to Tony Stark, not even in a fantasy, but it was a struggle to remember that when he was hazy and warm and so damn comfortable. The charm was cool against his fingertips, housing inside it something infinitely more powerful— made to protect him— and without a thought, he brought it to his lips, held it there for one long moment, then let it fall back onto his bare chest while his hand trailed lower. 

Sex and anything to do with it had been a veritable minefield after waking up in the new century. The snippets James remembered of Bucky told him he used to be a flirt who could charm the pants off anyone, man or woman, although his preferences were and still remained more firmly male. The James Barnes of today, however, couldn’t charm a cup of coffee out of anyone, let alone a sexual encounter; granted, he didn’t bother actually trying since his interest had remained at a glacial low anyways. 

It was a small mercy that Hydra had kept him out of the hands of the more perverted handlers. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, of course, but simply because he was too valuable; still, that put seventy years between him and his last roll in the hay.

So, in light of that clusterfuck of a history and his general inexperience, James had very little interest in sex, mentally or physically. Hell, he wasn’t even keen on platonic touching since the last time someone had their hands on him, they were shoving him into the Chair, so he wasn’t sure he’d ever let anyone touch him again. And whenever he managed to touch himself, well, that was a clinical, quick affair to take the physical edge off and be done with it. 

James thought the issue was with him, something deep inside him irreparably broken, but it turned out, he’d just been hanging out with the wrong people.

Because then Tony Stark crashed into his life and turned it all upside down. It wasn’t an immediate attraction, although James certainly noticed that Tony was objectively handsome even before they met in person, but the simmers of something more took their sweet time to get going and it was impossible to pinpoint the moment when gratitude and friendship transformed into this heated thing. Maybe it was during that second encounter when Tony looked at him as if James was worth looking at. Or maybe it had always been Tony’s voice, that deep tenor keeping James grounded and warming him up from the inside. That heat was definitely already there, that intoxicating desire for more, when they held hands in Central Park, when Tony’s hand settled on his shin, warm and heavy and so, so good. It had his heart beating faster, had him flushing with a desire to get closer. He wanted touch, to taste, to feel. He wanted, for the first time in a long time, and it was a true relief to know that he could.  

Tony was kind and funny and so damn gorgeous— hell, a veritable ‘most desirable bachelor’, if the magazine covers James saw around town were to be trusted— but James knew a part of his attraction was also rooted in the fact that he trusted Tony. Who knew that trust would be the headiest of aphrodisiacs for the infamous Winter Soldier? And yet, here he was, dreaming about Tony and finding it so easy to fall into that alluring haze of desire and lust and let himself pretend.

His hand skirted lower still, finding evidence that his body was fully on board. He pushed away the blanket and canted his hips up so he could push down his pajamas and boxes just far enough to give himself access. He wrapped his fingers loosely around himself while his mind continued down its forbidden path. 

He imagined those gorgeous eyes again, regarding him with desire, and wondered what sort of things Tony liked. His own inexperience could be a disadvantage, but James liked to believe he’d make up for it with eagerness. And boy, was he eager to get his hand on Tony. How he’d like to see every inch of that tanned skin, to see for himself the muscles he knew were hiding beneath the colorful shirts and suits Tony always wore. He wanted to map it all out with his lips, kiss every dip and curve, every glorious inch. He imagined himself kissing the scars that must’ve littered that lithe frame, imagined Tony trusting him, enough to show that sort of vulnerability, and he wasn’t surprised by the spike of pleasure that thought brought along with it. James would make it all worth Tony’s while though, worship that body and the man it belonged to.

The movements of his hand were almost experimental at first, as if testing out how this felt when it was meant to be deliberate and pleasurable rather than a rote need for physical release. Another spark of pleasure ran up his spine and he bit his lip to stifle any noise, mindful of the paper-thin walls.

More confident movements had his stomach clenching in mounting pleasure.

Would Tony like him on his knees? James bet he would. Tony was the sort of man who liked to take charge, that vibrant, powerful presence demanding compliance and James would willingly give it. Because Tony’s hands on him didn’t feel wrong, they weren’t a threat, not anymore. 

No, Tony’s hands were warmth and comfort and a thrill of electricity that made James’ whole being light up from the inside. He loved the way Tony looked at him from across that table, warm brown eyes harboring no ill-will, seeing James rather than a ghost of a dead man. He wanted to see those eyes darkened with want, pupils blown wide. He wanted Tony’s hands in his hair, guiding him. James had no single memory of giving a blowjob before, although he knew he had, and maybe he would struggle with it, but Tony would be patient and gentle, the same way he had been with James since the beginning of their secret friendship.

As his hand moved with a steady rhythm, his mind imagined what Tony would taste like, what Tony would say as he chased after his pleasure. Tony was always so good with words, so much better than James, and he hoped Tony would be sweet and encouraging, telling him how good it felt, how well James was doing. Maybe a part of him still needed that sort of praise, that validation that he was doing well, completing his objective. Maybe he would always crave that, but that sort of depressing self-reflection had no place here. He’d trust Tony not to hurt or take advantage of him. 

God, just look at you. You’re gorgeous like this, honey. So good for me, James.

Sharp waves of pleasure raced up his spine and dispersed throughout his body as he tumbled over the edge. He rode it out, eyes falling shut as he savored this visceral moment, and it took several uneven breaths before his mind and body slowly settled back into reality. He was still feeling hazy, floating on that rush of endorphins, but eventually his brain kicked back into gear and reminded him that parts of him were now sticky. He opened his eyes and grimaced at the ceiling, then gingerly rolled onto his side and reached over to the nightstand to grab a tissue. Thankfully he didn’t make too big of a mess, and with his pants back on and the evidence disposed of, James snuck out into the bathroom, washed up, and then returned to his room to plop back down onto the bed.

Well, that was… something. A part of him was wondering how the hell was he supposed to look Tony in the eye the next time they met, but the rest of him was still buzzing pleasantly with the endorphins hurtling through his bloodstream and he couldn’t find it in himself to regret this moment of indiscretion. 

His mind unhelpfully supplied more images of Tony, reality this time rather than fantasy. The way his breath caught when James reached out for him, the way he clung to James’ hand with matching fervor. His smiles, genuine and shy, or the toothy grins that made his eyes crinkle at the corners. His simple joy at spending time together. Tony didn’t have to continue these secret meetings, hell, he could end this whole thing tomorrow, but there hadn’t been a single hint of hesitation on Tony’s part. So maybe Tony wanted this too? James wasn’t sure he remembered what it was like to be desired, but he wanted to believe it looked like the longing he sometimes caught in Tony’s whiskey-colored eyes. 

His hand was back around the charm, running idle fingers over it. James was genuinely content with what he had, but even a little bit of hope left him enthusiastic about where life would take him next.

***

Venturing out into the kitchen, even with James’ newfound good mood, was still a chore, but at least it was no longer physically painful, so James decided his need for food outweighed his reluctance. With the headaches gone, he found himself famished more often than not and James planned to take full advantage of it. It wasn’t as if he liked getting by with the bare minimum. Good food was one of the few real pleasures in his life; strangely, also associated with Tony, just like the rest of his carnal desires.

He threw on a pair of jeans and one of Steve’s well-worn shirts, then grabbed the old pair of sneakers too. He hated walking around barefoot; paranoid instinct dictated that it left him vulnerable. Thankfully, it was just Wilson in the kitchen and they exchange friendly greetings, with Wilson kind enough to start up another pot of coffee while James gathered the ingredients for some scrambled eggs and veggies. He would’ve preferred some fruit and a cup of that fancy tea the diner served that Tony once insisted he try, but preferences aside, he could eat just about anything, so he told himself not to complain. 

By the time the eggs were done, Wilson excused himself, needing to take off to parts unknown, and James didn’t bother pressing for more details, content to enjoy his food alone.

If only he were so lucky. 

Around bite number three, Maximoff sauntered into the kitchen, still clad in her sleep clothes with a matching case of bedhead. The seeming vulnerable appearance didn’t fool him however, not when she aimed a sickening little smirk at him as she walked by. 

The path of least resistance would’ve been to get up and leave, but he was sick and tired of her bullying him. He lived here too and had every right to finish his damn breakfast in peace without running scared and hiding like a child.

So he remained where he was, ignored the raised hairs on the back of his neck, pushed back the fight-or-flight instinct, and chose to focus on the positive - the fact that the witch was mere feet away from him and yet his head was fine.

God, as soon as he was back in his room, he was texting Tony to tell him again that the man was a veritable genius. He supposed that Strange guy and Loki were partly responsible too, but sue him, he was biased. Tony was his favorite genius. 

Unfortunately, her presence did kill his burgeoning appetite and his eggs tasted like paper as he chewed them mechanically and then drowned them in periodic sips of coffee. Just a few more bites and then he could leave, he told himself, but then the witch decided to throw a wrench in that plan when she unceremoniously pulled out a chair and sat right across from him, a glass of juice in her hands and a saccharine smile on her lips, one that was downright mocking in its sweetness.

James didn’t let any inkling of fear show on his face, but he was apprehensive. She was a powerful entity, in possession of magic he had no real way to counter, and despite no one in this place believing him, Maximoff was unstable and unpredictable. 

His eyes darted toward the hall where their bedrooms were located before coming back to settle on her. She obviously noticed because that facsimile of a smile widened.

“Are you waiting for someone?” she said, conversational as could be. “Scott is out with his kid. Steve, Clint, and Natasha are out too, meeting with some former SHIELD agents. You know, the ones who aren’t so happy with their current… management. Personally, I think they’re wasting their time.”

“You got a point?”

“Just making conversation, that’s all. After all, you and I, we never spend time together. Why is that, Bucky?”

“Name’s not Bucky.” Fed up with the exchange, he stood up, plate and cup clanking in protest as he grabbed them both with one hand. Two steps put him next to the sink and he threw the dishes in without bothering to wash them. Someone else can deal with them; he needed to get the hell out of here. He turned and headed in the direction of his room to grab his wallet. A nice walk around the neighborhood would do him a lot of good. Maybe Mrs. Harrison would need help unloading some of the inventory for her store again. 

“You know, you keep breaking Steve’s heart every time you say that,” Maxomiff’s voice rang out across the apartment and his step faltered, not even halfway down the hall. He hated that the accusation had the power to stop him short, that some part of him still felt guilty. After all, wasn’t he the one making everyone— Steve— unhappy? His own fault for being this broken, pathetic thing that could never be good enough.

“Stay out of our business, Maximoff,” he growled and was about to move again, but then there was a pulse of warmth against his chest. His eyes widened. It had to be the charm tucked beneath his shirt, but why?

He spun, just in time to see the flickers of red fizzle out around her hands. She was standing now, still at the table, but given the size of the apartment, that was still too damn close. That sickly sweet smile was gone too, replaced by a displeased frown.

The automatic stab of fear that lanced through him squeezed the air out of his lungs. “What— what are you doing?”

“Trying to figure out what you’ve been doing, James.” She flicked her hand again, sparks of red flying and he flinched— like a fucking coward, what the hell was wrong with him?— but the flinch was pure instinct rather than pain. All that happened was the charm growing warm again for a moment.

A forceful, deliberate breath regained some of James’ resolve— and dignity— and he raised himself up to full height, squared his shoulders and clenched his fist.

“Do that again and I will put you through a damn wall.”

The threat fell on deaf ears however as her face twisted with fury. “How are you doing that?”

James had no plans to explain, ever, and since this confrontation had every opportunity to go very wrong, very fast, he needed to get the hell out, now.

Maximoff moved when he moved, far faster than James would’ve anticipated, and he didn’t have enough time to react before she pressed both glowing hands to his head. His whole body seized and he froze, unable to do anything but watch as her eyes turned blood red.

“You’re not keeping me out this time,” she hissed and pressed both palms harder, flat against his temples. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting— pain, always pain— but Maximoff’s face skewed into something confused, disbelieving, eyes darting from hand to hand, and then the pain finally came, a sharp axe right through James’ chest, heat and knives digging into flesh, but he could barely pay any attention over the sudden sea of red flooding him, drowning him.

A silent explosion sent them both flying back. His head hit something solid, but he didn’t feel the pain, didn’t feel anything, couldn’t hear, couldn’t see a single thing around him as everything was swallowed up by that sickening red. When it receded, however, it was no longer the apartment surrounding him. Instead he was bombarded with glimpses of another place— another time. Images, voices, words, blood— so much blood— all of it was too much—

“The girl. Bring her in. I want to see what she can do.”

Test number four. The Asset is docile when subjected to the Enhanced’s powers. Does not respond to verbal commands. Responds only to physical stimuli. Vitals are within parameters. 

Test number seventeen. The Asset responds to verbal commands and can execute orders autonomously. However, the range of control is limited by spacial constraints. Control was maintained for four minutes and thirty five seconds. Vitals are within parameters.

“Bring her some of the men we captured. She needs practice before we can continue.”

Test number twenty-five. The Asset is operational. Responds to verbal commands and can execute orders autonomously without the use of the triggers. Vitals show mild distress, but are still within parameters. 

Test number thirty. The Asset remained operational for seventeen minutes and twelve seconds. Procedure terminated due to severe physical distress of the Asset. Use of chemical tranquilizers necessary to subdue.

“The more we use her, the worse he gets. Can’t she control how much power she’s pumping into his head?”

Test number thirty-seven. The Asset now exhibits severe physical and mental distress. Does not respond to verbal commands. Use of electroshocks necessary to subdue. 

“It’s not working, she’s going to damage him. Terminate the procedure— no, get back, back! Forget about the restraints, we can’t— zhelaniye, rzhavyy—”

Test number forty-one. The Asset continues to exhibits severe physical and mental distress in the presence of the Enhanced. Distress manifested in violent outburst, which resulted in death of the handler and one lab technician. Use of physical force and triggers necessary to subdue. 

No further tests are to be performed. The project has been terminated.

“Strucker wants his pet back. Tell him he can have her, she’s obviously no good to us anyways.”

“What about the Asset, sir?”

“Put him back in the freezer. Stubborn piece of shit. The triggers and the Chair will have to be enough for the next mission.”

The apartment finally materialized around him as James gulped for air, desperately tried to blink away the images, but those voices kept echoing in his ears, relentless, and he could barely pull up one coherent thought.

“You—” his eyes struggled to focus on the witch as the world swam around him, “you were with them. You— in my head—”

She was prostrated on the ground too, groaning as she sat up. “What the hell did you do? You shouldn’t be able to deflect me like that.” She pressed a hand to the back of her head and snarled. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not letting months of work go to waste.”

“I don’t—” James struggled to verbalize his racing thoughts, still drowned out— the Asset is operational— by the damn voices— the Asset is exhibiting severe distress— “you’re Hydra then, always were, you’re doing this—”

“Please spare me,” she hissed at him. She slowly got up to her feet, using the wall for support when she swayed. “Hydra was always a means to an end. I’m not doing any of this for them. I’m doing it for Steve.” His wide, shocked eyes must’ve been enough to spur her on. “After he sacrificed everything for you, you turn around and spit in his face. You owe him your life and you can’t even smile at him? He deserves the friend he lost, not a pathetic mess like you. So I was testing the waters. Wanted to make sure I could still get into your head. But I wasn’t not trying to hurt you. I just want to make you better, Bucky, can’t you understand that? Just like you used to be.”

Put him back in the freezer. Stubborn piece of shit.

“You’re— you’re fuckin’ crazy,” he spat and pushed against the damn voices until there was enough room in his head for blind, unadulterated anger. He scrambled to his feet and lunged, ignoring the wave of dizziness and nausea, uncaring of the pain in his chest, and tackled her just as she was about to move away. She let out a pained cry as he forced them both to the ground and then wrapped his hand around her throat.

“You’re all the same— controlled me— tortured me,” he hissed, each word punctuated by pressure— more, more, more— so many of the monsters who destroyed him, they were dead, peaceful deaths they didn’t deserve, but this would have to be enough— one less Hydra scum to walk the Earth—

There were hands on him, strong hands, pulling, wrenching him away from his target. His ears rang with echoes of the old voices again, telling him to complete the mission or suffer, and they mixed painfully with the shouting around him.

“Bucky, stop! What are you doing?” 

“Barnes, let go of her! What the fuck?” 

He was being pulled away, the hands on him too strong to struggle against, especially when he could barely draw in a breath. His chest was on fire, his head ached, and although the anger still lingered, it was now being replaced by raw fear. Because he was restrained, a muscled arm across his neck, his own arm wrenched painfully back, and there was Barton helping the witch up, who was crying

“I don’t know what happened. I just—” she hiccuped and swiped at the crocodile tears, “I came into the kitchen, asked Bucky how he was and he just— he attacked, out of nowhere.”

Why couldn’t these bastards come back just a few seconds sooner

“It must be the conditioning, Steve,” that was the Black Widow, at his back, “something must’ve triggered him. This is the second time he attacked her. We can’t keep letting this happen. It’s not safe.”

The grip on him tightened as he tried to kick out, but Steve was stronger like this.

“Let me go— it wasn’t— she’s—” the words, they failed him when he needed them most. “Hydra, she’s—”

“Is that why he lashed out? Maybe he thought she was one of his old handlers?” Barton asked and James wanted to scream. Why didn’t anyone understand him? He did scream, a keening noise of desperation ripping itself out of his throat, but it was useless, just like his attempts to escape Steve’s hold.

“It doesn’t matter. Steve, you have to do something about him.”

“Do what? We don’t have money for therapists or— or—”

“Let me help.”

“Wanda, you don’t have to—”

“I can do it. I can soothe his mind with my magic, help him heal.”

Sheer terror gave James’ enough adrenaline-fueled strength to kick harder. He didn’t know whether he did actual damage this time or simply startled Steve, but the grip on his arm and neck loosened just enough for James to wrench himself out of the hold. 

“Get away—” He swung his arm out blindly. “Keep her away from me—”

“Bucky, honey, I know you’re scared, but she can help you—”

“She hurt me!”

“It wasn’t real, it was just a flashback! She’s your friend—”

James’ back hit a wall and with sickening fear, he realized the exchange with Steve distracted him long enough for the Widow to pull out a stunner. 

No, they couldn’t— if they let the witch into his head—

With every bit of his super soldier strength, he charged forward, barreled right into Steve and knocked him down, then slammed his fist into Steve’s solar plexus. There was no time to see whether it worked. He rolled off, just fast enough to dodge the Widow’s gun, then kicked again, aiming for her kneecap. He missed, getting her shin, but it was enough. A pained grunt and she stumbled back, giving him an opening.

He dashed, as fast as his legs could carry him towards the exit. The door was locked, so he literally ripped the handle right off, shoved the door open with his shoulder, and ran. 

James ran and ran and ran, letting instinct carry him away from the imminent threat. ‘Flight’ was a rare response for the Winter Soldier, but sometimes mission parameters required it. 

He kept running and it was only when his mind deemed his location relatively safe— abandoned, secluded, difficult to access— that he stumbled, his knees slamming into the asphalt covered in wet dirt. It was raining, his addled, terrified mind supplied, had started pouring almost as soon as he left the apartment. He was soaking wet, but it didn’t matter. He slumped against something metal— an old shipping container— and pulled his legs up against his body, curling into a ball.

He was shaking, but it didn’t matter. He had to think. He couldn’t— couldn’t let them into his head. Not again. No, please

He needed help. 

He needed Tony.

His head shot up and eyes widened as sudden panic set in. The phone, oh god, the phone! Did he leave it behind?

A frantic hand scrambled to feel his clothes and he let out a keening noise of despair, terrified that he would be left all alone. Please be here. His hand landed on something solid though and he thanked god in that moment, something he hadn’t done in seventy years, wasn’t even sure he believed anymore, but he whispered his thanks, and with a shaking hand, pulled out the phone. There was one unread message, probably Tony’s usual ‘good morning’, but it was quickly obscured by water and he panicked again, but then forced himself to pull in a breath. It was waterproof, Tony told him that. 

His hand was still shaking, violently now, so there was no way he’d be able to type. One other option then. He managed to tap the “Call” icon and selected the only number programmed into the phone, then brought the thing to his ear.

Please, please answer.

Chapter Text

Please, please answer.

The dial tone— one, two, three— had to be the longest three seconds of his life, but then finally, a click, and James’ breath stilled.

“Snowflake, what did I tell you about phone calls? Luckily for you, this got me out of a horrendous board meeting—”

“Tony,” James whimpered, still panic-stricken, but relieved all the same, because Tony was safety and peace of mind. Tony would help. “Tony, please—” his voice broke and the damn words refused to cooperate.

“James, what’s going on?” The earlier levity all but disappeared, Tony’s tone serious now, concerned. “Hey, talk to me, please. I need you to tell me what’s wrong.”

“Maximoff, she— her magic,” was all James managed before the voices came back— does not respond to verbal commands— to howl a terrifying song in his brain— responds only to physical stimuli, the Asset now exhibits severe physical and mental distress— he could barely think past the echoes— put him back in the freezer, stubborn piece of shit. 

“Did she get inside your head?” Tony’s voice chased the voices away and James forced himself to breathe in, then out. Tony understood. He would help and James needed to think

“James? Please, I need an answer.” 

James belatedly realized he was nodding. Stupid, so stupid.

“Yes, I think— She tried to—” The crimson red stood stark before his eyes and he couldn’t tell whether it was the color of her magic or whether it belonged to the blood spilled in that lab, both his own and so many others’. “Tony,” he said the name again and this felt like a prayer too. “She— she was Hydra.”

A pregnant pause. “You didn’t know?”

The question didn’t make sense to James’ barely functional mind— was he supposed to? Mission parameters were not properly defined, the Asset requires additional information— so he tried to explain again. “She used her— her powers on me. When she was with Hydra.”

James was proud he could manage a whole sentence now, without choking on the words, but then Tony let out an anguished “Oh god…” on the other end of the line and James hated that the distress was his fault.

“M’sorry.”

“Don’t, it’s not—” Tony was cut off by noises, shuffling, muffled words that James couldn’t decipher. “Never mind, none of that is important. I assume you got away?” He didn’t wait for a confirmation. “Can you tell me where you are?”

He couldn’t, not exactly. Just knew it was safe enough, at least for the moment. He apologized again, but Tony was shushing him, telling him it was okay. It wasn’t. None of this was okay.

“Look, your phone has a tracking feature. It’s been off since the beginning, but Friday can turn it on remotely. Is that okay? I just need it to find you, that’s all.”

“Please,” again James begged, unable to do much more.

“Okay, thank you. It’ll be alright, okay? Just stay on the phone. Friday already has your location— there, I got it too, you’re really close. I’m at the Tower, already getting into my suit, so I’ll be there in a flash, okay? Just stay with me, James.”

There was another voice— Friday, it was Friday, a good voice, she wasn’t going to hurt him either, she was very sweet— then sounds of rushing air and Tony had to speak louder, but he didn’t stop, just kept up soothing nonsense that drove away the old, cruel voices. James clung to the phone, curled in on himself to shield his face from the pouring rain, leaned against the dirty metal crate, and waited.

***

Tony stumbled out of the Iron Man suit as soon as it opened, then covered the distance in a few long strides, uncaring of the dirt splashing across his brand new pair of loafers. The position put him within a few yards of James’ huddled form and even from here, Tony could see that the man was shaking, although Tony doubted it was hypothermia. Yes, he was soaked— Tony was quickly getting there himself— but the rain only barely tamped down the summer heat. This had to be shock.

“James, hey, it’s me,” he called out over the rain, trying to keep his voice calm and measured, mimicking the way Rhodey would talk to him when Tony had one of his own, now rare, panic attacks. Terrified eyes peeked at him from the tightly wound ball that was James Barnes. “I know we were just on the phone, but you need to let me know it’s okay before I approach you. You’re still a super soldier, Snowflake, and I’m just a squishy human. Is it okay for me to get closer?”

James gaze remained unfocused for a few seconds and Tony was already trying to find other ways to subdue the man to get him to safety, but then James uncurled and recognition returned to his eyes.

“Wouldn’t hurt you,” he mumbled, barely audible over the pouring rain, but Tony still caught it.

“I know you wouldn’t. But you’re scared and hurt and I wouldn’t blame you if you lashed out.” Would be a tad hypocritical of him, wouldn’t it? “Let me get closer and take a look at you, yeah?” Tony moved, arms up and out to show he was unarmed, then lowered himself to his knees. He did spare a brief thought for his favorite Armani suit. “Friday is keeping an eye out on everything, making sure no one stumbles in on us. You picked a good place to hide though, pretty secluded, plus the rain cleared out the streets. It’s just the two of us— well, three— so nothing to worry about.”

He was finally close enough to reach out and touch, but before he even managed to exhale and ask where the man was hurt, James lunged at him. Tony’s stomach lurched, adrenaline pumping as his body prepared for an attack, but even though the force of the tackle did knock the wind out of him, all James did was press himself into Tony and wrap his arm around Tony’s waist. The grip on the back of Tony’s jacket was unyielding and pressed together like this, Tony could feel every tremor wrecking James’ body. 

There was no guidebook for this sort of thing and this sure as hell wasn’t part of any plan, so of course Tony found himself supremely out of his depth, but hell, what else was new? Tony decided to stick with his usual when faced with the unfamiliar - he went with his gut and right now his gut told him James needed him. He tried to focus on that instead of how right it felt to wrap his arms around the man and guide his head to Tony’s shoulder. 

Warm but erratic breaths hit his neck and Tony shivered at the contrast against the chill of the rain. 

“Hey, you’re okay,” he said, then smoothed a hand down James’ hair, the long strands soaked and in disarray. To be fair, they were both dripping wet and Tony knew they couldn’t stay here for much longer, but going by the iron grip James had on Tony, moving them anywhere right now would be a Herculean task. “Everything’s going to be alright.”

James shook his head then buried his nose against Tony’s neck. “I can’t— Tony, I can’t let them have me again—”

“I know, James, I know—”

“Can’t let anyone control me again— Tony, I can’t— I’d rather be dead—”

“Oh sweetheart, no, no. Please don’t say that,” Tony whispered into James’ ear, face pressed into the man’s temple. He didn’t bother fighting against the instinct to hold James closer and the endearment slipped out with such ease that it should’ve startled him, but he didn’t try to hold it back, not today. James was so out of it right now, he’d likely forget what Tony did or didn’t call him. 

His only real focus was the shaking man in his arms who let out a broken inhale, then an outright sob. James was crying. 

“She’s been inside my head before. Now— now she wanted—”

James still struggled with words sometimes, although he was getting so much better these days, but in a situation like this, anyone would’ve been too choked up to speak.

“She wanted to control the Soldier?”

A desperate shake of his head. “She wanted to—” another sob, a heart wrenching sound that had Tony hiding his face in James’ wet hair and gripping him tighter, pulling him closer. “She wanted to make me into— into Bucky. Into what Steve wanted.”

Oh god. How, how the fuck could this situation get any worse? “She wanted to use her powers to turn you into the guy Steve remembered?”

The whispered ‘yes’ did break his heart, Tony was certain, because why else would his chest ache so damn much? 

Tony had no idea how Maximoff expected to pull that off, but he’d bet his entire fortune that it’d have nothing to do with actual healing and everything to do with forcing someone to look and act like someone else, turning James into a puppet for all intents and purposes. God, it made him nauseous just thinking about it, the idea that this man in his arm, a little broken, a little rough around the edges, but no less amazing, could be erased by a single flick of that woman’s hand. 

Tony didn’t even know something like that was part of Maximoff’s repertoire, but admittedly, her powers were a dark well of unknowns; this was exactly why he, Strange, and Loki were working on ways to defend against her, but apparently they needed to work a lot harder.

He pushed those scattered thoughts away for the moment. Later he would think about dealing with Maximoff. Right now he had to take care of his distraught super soldier.

“Does Steve know about any of this? Did anyone try to help you?” Maybe no one else was home and Maximoff took advantage of the isolation—

“They all believed— believed that I just attacked her— then Steve didn’t even argue— she said she could fix me— wanted her to fix me. Tony, I don’t— don’t want to be fixed. I just want— just want to be me. Please don’t let her change me.”

Oh fucking hell, Rogers. 

The damn plan was a joke and here you are, practically handing me your best friend. You goddamn idiot, this wasn’t supposed to— You know what, fuck it. Fuck Steve, fuck every single one of those idiots, and fuck this entire goddamn mess. I’m done.

Because James was his now, dammit, he was Tony’s, and Tony wasn’t going to let anyone hurt him again. 

“I’m never letting that happen, okay? I am not going to let her, or anyone else, get anywhere near you. I’m right here, it’s okay…”

He knew James wasn’t ready to let go, but they needed to move. Pushing James away nearly tore his heart in two, but he needed to see James’ face, needed to know that James understood what Tony was about say. The other man let go reluctantly, shoulders hunching, eyes downcast as soon as they were apart. Tony kept his hands firmly on James’ shoulders.

“James, please look at me.”

The man obeyed and glassy eyes slowly blinked up at him. Scared, resigned. What was he expecting? An execution?

Probably. Tony blew out a tired breath, then briefly pulled one hand away from James to wipe some of the water off his own face. James was soaked too, blinking away the raindrops clinging to his lashes and the desire to do the same for James won over any sense of professionalism (or whatever the hell Tony was supposed to maintain in this situation). He swiped his hand gently down a scruffy cheek, but he couldn’t tell whether he was just wiping away the rain or James’ tears too and the way James turned his face into the palm of Tony’s hand, the way he looked at Tony with those sorrowful eyes, oh, it killed him.

Those eyes were as mesmerizing as they were heartbreaking. 

“Please don’t make me go back.”

That was somehow worse, James practically begging him for help. Sitting there in the mud, drenched from head to toe and sporting that defeated look, he just kept breaking Tony’s heart to pieces and dialing Tony’s ‘protect and care’ instincts up to a damn twelve out of ten and frankly it showed considerable restraint on Tony’s part that he hadn’t already carried James away to parts unknown and hid him away from the whole damn world.

“James,” Tony called out and James focused on him again, but remained pressed into Tony’s palm. Tony didn’t mind. Tracing his thumb over the arch of his cheek, the sensation of cool, damp skin under his fingertips, it solidified the present for him. It gave weight and reality to the decision he was about to make.

Step number what-fucking-ever - take the Winter Soldier home with you and keep him safe.

“I’m not letting you go back there. Never, if you don’t want to. Here’s what I can offer you though. Two options. One, I can set you up in one of my properties. I have homes and lofts all over the planet, hell, we can do something overseas if you want. Friday can set you up, get you whatever you need to give you time to recover and figure out what you should do.” Tony paused to let the words sink in and watched James for a reaction. The haunted look didn’t fade, but James appeared lucid enough, contemplating Tony’s words.

“And the second option?”

“The second option is that you come back to the Tower with me, at least for tonight. The building sits on top of a giant arc reactor too, it’s the safest place for you other than the Compound.” Tony would’ve preferred to take James straight to the Compound, but the last thing this man needed was to be bombarded with the entire New Avengers roster and their inevitable mix of suspicion, apprehension, and worry. “It does mean we’ll have to come clean about— about us, since it’ll be impossible to avoid everyone, and you are pretty recognizable, so I understand if you don’t want the company right now, we can find something— something on the West Coast maybe or—”

“No, please,” James shook his head frantically, clutching Tony’s sleeve in his hand, like he was afraid Tony would just disappear on him. “Please don’t leave me behind.”

“I won’t, James, I promise.” He needed a straight answer however; this had to be James’ decision. Coffee and dinner options were one thing, but this was James’ life and too many times had others made these choices for him. “Tell me what you want.”

James appeared pensive for a moment. Then, “You don’t mind the others knowing that— that we’re friends?”

“No, not at all,” Tony reassured right away. It was the truth, surprising as it was. People finding out was inevitable, and Tony probably should’ve told someone a while ago. Plus, the people about to find out were Tony’s friend and family, and however they reacted, Tony knew both he and James would remain in one piece. James would gain allies rather than enemies.

Tony didn’t let himself think about the inevitably of Rogers and Friends finding out however, because that would probably just end with another shield rammed into Tony’s chest.

Ah well. Hashtag YOLO, or whatever the kids said these days.  

“People will be wary at first, but the Avengers, they’re good people and I trust them. They will understand and they’ll want to help you. I promise.”

James nodded, then took a shuddering breath. “Okay. Then I want to go with you. To the Tower”

Tony was nodding too, before James had even finished speaking. “Okay, yeah, we can totally do that. You’ll love it there. I have a whole penthouse all to myself at the top. Nice and cozy, and the view’s amazing.” Tony knew he was rambling, amped up by the sudden burst of energy at hearing James put his desires so plainly into words. He wanted to come with Tony.

Yes, Tony knew that this was likely just desperation talking. A scared man in need of immediate help, with little resources and allies. Tony could still pretend though, couldn’t he? 

He brushed his hand over James’ face again, then down over his hair. It was pointless, really, because there was no salvaging this other than getting them both out of the rain. “Okay, well, I do have my suit, but fun fact, being carried around by the suit is less fun than it looks. So I’m going to have Friday call us a car— Happy, he used to be my driver and bodyguard, he’s awesome, completely trustworthy, he can take us to the Tower. Is that okay?”

Tony waited for a nod before calling out to Friday. “Fri, sweetheart, can you ping Happy?”

“On it, Boss.” A short pause. “He is available and will be on his way shortly. I also asked him to grab towels, thermos with hot drinks, and a first aid kit.”

“You’re always on top of things. You’re amazing, Fri— wait, med kit?”

“Mr. Barnes’ chest is bleeding. I’m detecting several cuts and what appears to be a burn. Nothing life threatening to someone with super soldier physiology, but should be treated with antibacterials and analgesics to relieve discomfort and avoid infection.”

“Wait, what? Shit,” Tony was already reaching for James, but it was difficult to see anything on the dark, rain-soaked shirt James was wearing. Friday had much better eyesight from the suit, so he’d have to trust her. “James, I’m sorry, I should’ve— should’ve asked. Are you hurt?”

Of course Tony received a predictable head shake. He should have known. That was his standard answer whenever he got hurt too.

“It’s nothing. Just— The charm exploded when she tried to— to get into my head.”

“It exploded? Fuck—” Tony groaned, his mind suddenly flooded with both guilt and several potential options to improve the protections. “I’m so sorry, I had no idea. Why didn’t you say something sooner? Shit, we’re wasting all this time sitting here—”

“S’fine. Just hurts. M’fine, Tony.”

Tony grumbled under his breath, but gave up the point, if only momentarily. It wasn’t as if he could actually do anything about the injuries. Unable to resist— and really, this was going to be a recurring problem, wasn’t it?— Tony pulled James closer to wrap him up in a hug again. To keep him warm until the car arrived, he told himself, and it wasn’t a total lie. He was helping. This was necessary and it had nothing to do with how easily James pressed himself into Tony’s warmth, how good it felt to have that hand at the small of his back, holding on tight. Tony certainly wasn’t thinking about how right it felt to hold James in his arms, to be the one keeping him safe and making things right.

He blinked away some of the rain drops clinging to his lashes, kept up the soothing strokes against James’ hair, kept talking about whatever came to mind, and waited for Happy’s arrival.

***

By comparison, the drive was uneventful. Happy was his usual, unfazed self, although to be fair, he’d seen Tony in situations far more shameful and a lot less heroic, so a wet, bedraggled former assassin cautiously eyeing Happy while getting into the car only to get the entire backseat dirty and wet probably didn’t even ping Happy’s radar. Before Tony got into the car himself, all he got was a raised eyebrow and a look that said “We’ll be talking later,” which was the best reaction Tony could’ve hoped for at this juncture. Bless that unflappable man.

While Happy drove like a madman— well, tried to, this was Manhattan— Tony fussed over James. They decided the chest injury could wait until they were both at the Tower, so in the meantime, Tony spent the time trying to towel dry James’ messy hair and then wrap the man up to keep him warm. 

James appeared to be slowly coming back to himself. Shaky and wary, but clear-eyed, and Tony almost wept from relief when James made a token protest and tried to get Tony to stop fussing. Granted, Tony was about to do a lot more than fuss. He was going to fix this, dammit, and he would give James everything he needed. A safe haven, with all that entailed. Medical help, clean clothes, better company, a meal and a cup of hot tea were a good start.

Once they were both slightly drier, James gave into the exhaustion he must’ve been keeping at bay by sheer will and drifted in and out of fitful sleep as he leaned heavily against Tony, who bore the weight with little reluctance while looking pensively out the window. What Tony actually wanted was to wrap his arm around James again, to pull him in even closer, but the moment of panic where these boundaries blurred for the sake of comfort was over and Tony had to keep his hands to himself. He had to be content with the fact that James still felt safe enough with Tony to remain this close.

Still, James’ warm weight against him was nice and it kept Tony grounded, kept the swirling thoughts from spinning out of control, but it did nothing to dispel the anger building up inside him. A hot, bubbling cauldron of anger, righteous and possessive.

If Maximoff came near James again, he was going to tear her apart. He wouldn’t even leave a goddamn trace. As for the rest of them… The goddamn, blind enablers with one single brain cell between them.

Honestly, it boggled Tony’s mind. Steve nearly killed him, all to protect James, and now he was going to let Maximoff play around in his head, just like that? Why was Barton and Wilson fine with this? What the hell was Natasha thinking? Didn’t Steve see how miserable his supposed ‘best friend’ was? None of that even began to touch the fact that they apparently lied about the former affiliations of one Scarlet Witch.

What a clusterfuck.

Then again, maybe this wasn’t such a great mystery. After all, the others always did have blind faith in Steve and he had blind faith in Maximoff, for a reason Tony never understood. Steve let her onto the team days after the whole Sokovia disaster and promptly went on to ignore every protest issued by both Tony and Bruce. She changed, he told them, and everyone deserved a second chance.

Tony agreed with that last part, but from personal experiences and a haunting voice telling him not to waste his life, he knew those second changes had to be earned. 

He’d like to believe he earned his own— no, was still earning it, would keep doing so until his dying breath— and he would argue that James earned his second chance too. They both wanted to do better, be better, and willing to put in the hard work required.

None of that was true for Maximoff, who never once displayed an ounce of regret, never issued a single apology. 

No matter. Tony couldn’t change who she was, nor did he care to. Couldn’t change Steve’s stubborn ass either. Maximoff hurt both Tony and Bruce, then essentially got away with it. Steve walked all over Tony too, then carried on with his life with minimal repercussions. Now they were doing it again, to James of all people, but this time, Tony wasn’t going to be so merciful.

James shifted against him, eyes fluttering for a moment as he flinched, a sudden tension running through him, but it was gone on the next exhale, when he must’ve remembered that he was safe. He leaned back into Tony, head resting against Tony’s shoulder, and Tony turned his head, angled it so he could press his lips against James’ damp locks. It was a barely-there touch, something James probably didn’t even feel, but it ignited something hot and roaring deep inside Tony.

Your loss, Rogers. James is mine now and I am not giving him back.

If this was truly revenge though, Tony wished it would’ve tasted just a bit sweeter because the memory of haunted blue eyes still lingered, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth and his heart aching and cold.

Chapter Text

This wasn’t the first time Happy had to sneak Tony into the Tower without catching the attention of the paparazzi, the SI employees, or in the earlier days, Obie, so the back way was a familiar sight, the drop-off at the underground garage taking Tony and James straight through to the private elevator. James remained silent as they made their way up to the penthouse suite, the floors rushing past them noiselessly. When they entered, Tony was relieved to see that Friday had taken the initiative to provide extra supplies here too. His clever baby girl, growing by leaps and bounds every day. There were towels, extra clothes, a proper med-kit, and trays full of food, mostly soups accompanied by sandwiches and finger foods, along with a carafe of coffee and a steaming pot of tea. 

Poor Happy was probably the one scrambling to put this together before taking off to pick them up, given the security-sensitive guest currently standing next to Tony and studying his surroundings.

Tony urged James forward with a gentle hand on his back as they made their way into the suite. He had to admit that it was difficult to read the other man right now; Tony couldn’t tell whether it was curiosity he was seeing, or suspicion, or something else altogether. To be fair, James still appeared exhausted, swaying a little with each step, likely upright on sheer willpower, so obviously that colored James’ expression. Still, Tony could deal with suspicion and unease, if it came to that; realistically, a traumatized, former POW-turned-brainwashed-assassin wasn’t going to become instantly comfortable in an unknown environment with practical strangers. Tony just hoped there was no real fear there. God, he wanted to be James’ sense of safety so badly, more than he expected to, more than he was willing to admit; wanted to be his comfort too, but that was a desire Tony needed to shove even further away.

He cleared his throat and stopped them both. “So, first thing’s first, let’s get you cleaned up. The bathroom’s that way— Friday, do we have everything we need in there as well?”

“Yes, Boss. Toothpaste, toothbrush— I could go on if you need a full requisition list—”

“No, we’re good, just wanted to make sure. So,” he turned back to James, who was still wrapped up in a damp towel, clothes clinging to him, hair in disarray, “there’s a fantastic shower and tub in there. Clean up, relax, take as much time as you need.” Tony walked as he talked, over to the lounge area to pick up the stack of clothes and give them a critical once-over. “I, uh— I think these are actually Thor’s. I hope you don’t mind, everything should be freshly laundered, but I’m guessing we didn’t have anything extra on hand and Friday and Happy had to improvise. And since Thor’s the only one big enough…” His critical gaze fell on James. “Taller than you, but just as bulky, yeah, so it should fit. He, uh— probably hadn’t even worn these in a long time, he usually stays at the Compound when—”

“Tony, it’s fine,” James interjected quietly and Tony nodded, realizing he was rambling. He was still out of his depth here and his gut worked a lot better under pressure, with adrenaline pumping and objectives simple and clear. Now, with common sense and logic rushing right back, along with ‘propriety’ and ‘sense of responsibility’ and whatever the hell else Tony should be taking into account, it was suddenly a lot harder to decide what the right thing was. Tony had a sinking feeling he was going to mess this up somehow. Didn’t he always?

James took the offered stack, but hesitated with a wary glance at the bathroom.

Tony frowned. “Do you, uh—” God, this was awkward. “Do you need help?”

James’ eyes snapped back to Tony and widened. “No, no, it’s just—” he swallowed, his surprise morphing right back into stress, “my instincts, they’re all still… on edge. Can’t turn that off. And showers… Hard to do on a good day. Make me feel vulnerable.”

Tony understood the dilemma well enough and accepted the answer with a simple nod. “Would you be okay in there just to towel off and change? We just need to get you dry and warm.”

James accepted that as a workable compromise with a muted nod and headed over. While he was occupied with that, Tony snuck over to the bedroom to change into drier clothes himself. He probably should’ve opted for something less casual, he thought as he toweled off and got dressed, but an old shirt and a pair of sweatpants were within reach and sue him, but maybe he was craving safety and comfort right now too.

He tiptoed out, realizing too late that he was doing it out of a strange compulsion avoid loud noises, as if poor James was some sort of tiny, easily-spooked animal. The other man wasn’t done yet however, so Tony filled the time wandering through the suite, trying to make sense of his jumbled thoughts. He absently trailed his fingers along the floor-to-ceiling windows as he walked, taking note of the rain and the grey, ominous clouds looming heavy on the horizon. Fitting, really.

These were the same windows, of course, through which Tony was defenestrated years ago; an eternity ago, it felt like. He chuckled to himself. Damn Loki, that outright diva, and his inability to handle one simple joke about his dick.

Of course the interior of the suite looked nothing like the old set-up, not after the extensive renovations. When the suite was initially built, it was put together by an interior designer who received zero feedback from Tony (because Tony, at that time, could care less about his living spaces; if it wasn’t his lab or his cars or his booze, he didn’t care). This time, Tony was an active participant and ended up with something less modern-looking, but a whole lot cozier. Warm colors and soft textures, curves and weaving lines instead of sharp edges. Plush couches and loveseats, covered in pillows and blankets, that sat in a semi circle around a low, ornate table, all facing a large television screen. A true lounge area, made for comfort and relaxation. He and Pepper used to spend their nights together here, but Tony had to admit he couldn’t remember the last time he indulged in this space; usually, if he was spending the night at the Tower, he was too exhausted to lounge and his lovely, equally luxurious bed was a sufficient rest stop, even if it was too spacious, too empty without someone else in it.

God, Tony really needed to stop thinking about beds. He went over to check a few of the food dishes and nibbled on a tiny sandwich while going through the med-kit to make sure it had everything he needed.

Tony didn’t have to wait very long. He heard James first, the bathroom door opening and closing, then a quiet pitter-patter of feet; Tony looked up to ask what James wanted to do first and got a consonant out, maybe even a vowel, but then the rest of his words got stuck in his suddenly dry throat. 

There needed to be a phone alert or something, like those for severe weather, for a shirtless James Barnes. That expanse of pale skin and those perfectly sculpted muscles, the way those sweatpants hung loose on his hips, those abs, those pecks, the way the bicep flexed beautifully—

Tony’s brain registered the red marks on the man’s chest at the same time James called out his name, both serving to break the spell almost instantly. James’ brows were knitted together, an uncertain look on his face as he stopped halfway to the lounge area, his old clothes still loosely in hand.

Tony scolded himself for ogling the man like some damn neanderthal— an injured, traumatized man, what the hell was wrong with Tony and his stupid libido?

“Sorry, just— a lot of things on my mind.”

James didn’t call Tony out on the vague and useless answer, just shuffled over quietly. He stopped again, just before the couch, and shifted awkwardly foot to foot, bare feet rubbing against one another.

“Everything alright?” 

James gave him a silent nod, although he obviously wasn’t alright, but Tony didn’t think pushing the issue would help anything.

“So, uh—” he cleared his throat, admitting to himself it was time to be a responsible adult— well, try to be a responsible adult. “Food first or do you wanna get your chest taken care of?” 

James’ eyes darted between the food and the med-kit, before settling again on Tony, unsure, pleading with Tony for help. Tony decided to step in this time. Small decisions, that was alright, wasn’t it?

“Let’s get those cuts looked at, then I’ll get you fed.” He motioned for James to sit down and watched the man comply with the directions; James moved with a strange mix of lethargy and caution, someone struggling against both an exhausted mind and a deeply-seated instinct to be hyper-alert. Unfortunately, there was no rule of thumb to determine the recovery time after a brainwashing attempt, but Tony suspected James was still in shock too, at least to some extent.

Tony grabbed the med-kit and situated himself next to James on the sectional. This close, that expanse of skin was admittedly even more tempting, but James’ general state, that caution, the glassy eyes, the weary droop of his shoulders, it had Tony’s libido shriveling up pretty quickly. There was no pleasure in a moment that the other person couldn’t also enjoy.

He focused on the cuts and the small burns instead; none of the injuries were bad, thank god, although that was mostly attributed to the supernatural healing rather than the safety standards of Tony’s tech. Granted, this wasn’t the first time a gadget of his had blown up, but usually it was Tony getting injured rather than someone he cared about.

His hands made careful swipes against the skin, first with some antiseptic solution to avoid potential infection and clean up the little bit of blood James didn’t manage to get off; then, some SHIELD-created and Dr. Cho-improved cream that alleviated pain. Handy little thing when every Avenger got banged up five ways to Sunday every Sunday.

With each swipe, Tony was reminded of his failure; he hated that something he created hurt James this way, but by god, he hated Maximoff more. The anger flared up again, made him grit his teeth until his jaw ached. He didn’t want to play nice anymore. He was sick of letting Rogers and the others get off scot-free, hurt people, destroy lives, then dare to play themselves up as innocent victims. Time after time, same old story.

The only reason Tony wasn’t over in that shitty apartment right now, ripping their heads off, was his determination to help James first. James needed him. That was enough to keep Tony here.

However, if Maximoff came anywhere near James again with her filthy little magical powers, Tony would have no problem finishing her off. He blew up his own godfather with an arc reactor, he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to her if she forced his hand. Enough was enough. He couldn’t let her hurt anymore people.

Tony tried to keep his expression neutral, the anger his own private struggle to deal with later, but apparently his efforts weren’t good enough because barely a minute passed before James gently grasped Tony’s wrist and stopped him.

“You don’t have to do this. I can finish.”

“No, it’s fine—”

“You look like you wanna be anywhere but here.” He moved the hand down, to rest on Tony’s lap, then let go. “It’s the arm, isn’t it?”

Tony blinked, confused. “The arm?”

James shrugged with his left shoulder. “This awful thing. Can’t stand to look at it myself. Shouldn’t expect you to— to deal with it either, right?”

The shrug drew Tony’s eyes to the stump and yes, okay, his brain did register it before, the melted chunk of metal fusing with flesh, the mess of scars and the inflammation; he already made a list of appointments they would need and doctors Tony should consult, but Tony’s brain always had multiple processes running alongside each other and he prioritized, shoved some things to the back burner until more urgent matters were dealt with. 

The sight of the missing arm though, it didn’t actually unsettle Tony. He had seen a lot of awful, gruesome things before, some he could never scrub out of his mind, no matter the amount of therapy; this, by comparison, was mild. It elicited sympathy out of him, of course, as well as guilt because he was the one responsible for that pain. It had his protective instincts ringing all sorts of bells too— take care of him, help him, take the pain away— but disgust never crossed his mind.

Tony thought the Winter Solider would’ve been observant enough to tell the difference between anger and disgust, but he supposed the man did have his mind scrambled an hour ago.

“It’s not the arm, James. I mean, I noticed, trust me, and whenever you’re up for it, I’d like to get that looked at and treated, but I’m not— I’m not disgusted.”

“No?” James didn’t seem to believe him.

Tony tapped nervous fingers against his thigh. “You want the truth?”

“Please. Been lied to enough.”

Tony took a breath. “I’m angry. So unbelievably angry about what just happened. I—  Well, I want to beat Steve’s stubborn ass straight into the ground until he sees how badly he betrayed your trust by lying to you. I want the others raked over the coals for their inability to act in someone else’s interest for once, all because they’re too busy looking out for their own sorry asses. I—” his throat worked on a painful swallow. “Well, no need for me to detail what I want to do to the witch. This should have never happened. You should’ve been safe— and I didn’t— if I had helped earlier, if I would’ve done something—”

James’ hand squeezed Tony’s, stopping the torrent of words. 

“S’not your fault.”

“Feels like it is.”

Those world-weary eyes held Tony’s gaze, then trailed down slowly, stopping at their clasped hands. “Imagine what would’ve happened if I didn’t have you.”

Tony refused to imagine, didn’t want to, not today, not ever, but his ever-active mind had its own ideas and decided to present him with the worst image possible. James, under Maximoff’s control, smiling facsimile smiles, spouting fake cheerful words, his happiness and recovery a complete lie, and Rogers right there at his side, eagerly lapping it all up, too stubborn to pull his head out of his ass and admit that he was in love with a ghost. 

His stomach churned painfully and Tony forced his focus back to the present, began massaging the cream into the faded wounds again, letting the medicine distract him from horrible “what ifs”. 

After a minute, he looked up at James again. “How are you holding up?”

“Tired.” Glassy eyes blinked at Tony slower than he would’ve liked to. “Not— not a normal tired either.”

Tony reached for the gauze and carefully began to wrap it around the man’s chest.

“I think you’re still in shock and who knows what else her magic did to you. Food and sleep might help, but if it doesn’t… well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I have people who know about this more than I do, doctors, sorcerers, what have you. They can help.”

James nodded and his eyes were on Tony’s hands again, but Tony wasn’t sure whether James was actually seeing them. He wasn’t even sure whether James heard him at all, so he let the topic drop.

James needed rest, not pestering; next steps could wait until the man was clear-headed enough to discuss them. Tony remained quiet as he worked, but then, after a silent minute filled with only their breaths, he heard a quiet, defeated, “I didn’t know she was Hydra.”

Tony stilled, hand pressed against James’ side to keep the bandages in place. “I’m sorry. If I had known… I would’ve told you. I just thought—” he shrugged, decided not to beat around the bush, “just thought you heard the same old sob story and overlooked her past just like everyone else. It really wasn’t a topic of conversation I wanted to bring up during our time together.”

“She hurt you too, didn’t she?” 

The question startled him, reminded him that James still had the capacity to be perceptive, regardless of mental state, and the gaze that met Tony’s was further proof, so intense, such a one-eighty from the lethargy of a moment ago that it made Tony shiver. It felt like James was looking straight into him, down to his very soul.

“Yes. I mean— she tried to hurt all of us when she and her brother worked with Ultron, right until Ultron got too ambitious for their tastes. Her powers, they let her get into everyone’s heads—”

“Don’t care about the others. What did she do to you?”

Tony hesitated. That vision, it ruined him, exposed a part of him, a fear so great, so monstrous that it set him on a permanent path of destruction and death, cost so many lives, cost him JARVIS. He didn’t have to offer up something so personal and James probably wouldn’t push if Tony refused, but there was a certain temptation in sharing this with someone who would understand, intimately, the horror of having another force, another being, get inside your head. Bruce understood, which was why he remained one of the few people privy to the details of that vision. 

Tony realized he wanted to share, to see if James would understand too, if he could be trusted to know this little secret and keep it safe.

“She showed me my worst fear,” he finally said, but he did look away, unable to hold that gaze any longer, not when there was anger there, on behalf of Tony no less, and wasn’t that a rare sight. He focused on finished up the bandages. “After New York, after the missile— not sure how much you know—”

“I know enough.”

“Well, seeing what I saw— alien warships, more massive than anything we were capable of building, weapons, enemies, the vastness of space unfamiliar to the human race— it changed me. I was terrified that something bigger was coming, but I didn’t know what, couldn’t even begin to identify it. I had no answers, just a shitton of anxiety. I was a mess. And when she got inside my head, she used that fear somehow. I saw—”

Dark shadows of monsters floating overhead, uncaring for the destruction they wrought, as Tony reels from seeing Natasha’s lifeless eyes, the mangled forms of his teammates. He kneels next to Steve’s bloodied body. 

“Why didn’t you do more?”

“I saw the aliens destroy everything. I saw Steve and others dead. I was the only one left alive and I was too late. Failed to save them, didn’t do enough to protect the people I cared about.”

The bandages were done, snug around James’ torso and Tony didn’t offer more explanations, the impromptu confession over. It left him exposed, this baring of his soul, but strangely, the usual panic didn’t spring to the surface.

Still, he hurried to put away the medical supplies, the activity an excuse to avoid James’ eyes. “Anyways, not sure what you wanted to eat, but we have a few options—”

A hand on his knee, warm and heavy, stopped his attempt at deflection. He looked back at James.

“Thank you for telling me. I’m sorry if I— if I pushed, I shouldn’t have—”

“Don’t. I’m an adult. I know when to say ‘no’. It’s been years.”

“But it still hurts you. I just—” James shook his head and the weariness returned. “So selfish, that it makes me feel less alone…”

Tony’s heart twisted into knots. He was over it, mostly. Water under the bridge and all that, right? Who cared if he still had nightmares about that otherworldly hellscape, about the mangled bodies of his teammates? 

He wondered if James would have new nightmares now too.

“That’s not selfish,” Tony tried to argue, “knowing that someone else understands… that’s a precious thing.”

James didn’t refute the point and Tony decided to let the rotten memories go and focus on the positives. James was safe, in one piece, right here with Tony. That was a precious thing too. Everything else, they could figure out tomorrow. 

Tony kept up inconsequential small talk as he handed James a bowl of soup, which the man took without protest. It smelled delectable, a warm broth filled with veggies, and Tony was heartened to see James sip at small spoonfuls until roughly half of the bowl was gone. Not nearly enough to fuel a super soldier, but Tony understood how a stomach rebelled in time of emotional turmoil. This would have to do for now, and at least James seemed to like the tea that was served with their… breakfast, lunch? Tony didn’t know and the storm clouds outside made that determination even more difficult. 

James’ eyes began to droop soon after the quick meal and Tony took that as a sign to move things along. 

“Well, there’s, uh—” he scratched the back of his head, “there’s only one real bedroom in this place, but the bed is comfy, so you’re welcome to rest for as long as you need. I’ll just… stay out here,” Tony motioned at the space around them, “get some work done or something. There’s always something for me to review.”

James looked in the direction of the bedroom, but it was a look reserved for a punishment, not a comfortable bed.

“Can— can I stay out here, please?”

“Of course, I just thought— Well, you just look like you’re about to keel over, that’s all, and I really don’t mind. Can’t remember the last time I slept in that bed, to be honest.”

“S’not that, I just don’t want to…” James trailed off and Tony took a sip of his coffee, waiting patiently for James to find his words. “It helps that you’re here. Feels like I could just close my eyes right now and fall asleep, but if I go in there alone, into a space I don’t know… I’ll be alert again, on edge. Everything will feel like a threat.”

“But it’s doesn’t out here? With me?”

James shook his head. “You came when I called.”

Such profound sentiments in such simple words; it left Tony unable to say anything other than, “Sure, you can stay here.” 

Of course you can stay. Please stay with me.

He wasn’t sure whether that more desperate plea was obvious, whether it came through in the way his eyes lingered on James, in the way Tony held his hands in his lap, a conscious tension as he denied himself the desire to reach out and touch again. 

Hell, probably not that obvious. James could barely keep his eyes open at this point. 

With a few hurried movements, Tony picked up a blanket— soft, warm, and large enough even for a super soldier— and a pillow from the other couch, and with the items delivered into James’ lap, Tony was about to dart away, situate himself elsewhere, but James reached for him, gently grasped his wrist, and whispered “Stay, please?” 

Even if he wanted to, Tony couldn’t deny that request, but he didn’t want to say ‘no’, whatever the hell that said about him, so he came willingly, let James tug him back until Tony was sitting again, in the corner of a sectional, which gave them both room to stretch out. He watched as James, with uncharacteristic boldness, grabbed the pillow and tucked it against Tony’s thigh, and curled into himself on his right side, facing the back of the couch. He struggled with the blanket, so Tony helped, tugging it over and carefully tucking the edges around. His hand brushed over James’ hair when he was done, an automatic gesture he caught too late, but then Tony decided, to hell with it. Yeah, the closeness was going to drive him crazy, but someone would have to bodily drag him away before he gave it up. 

He did it again, the strands slipping through his fingers. “Is this okay?”

James nodded, then after a beat, quietly whispered, “Thank you. I promise I won’t be so selfish tomorrow.”

Oh, sweetheart, Tony wanted to say, please be more selfish, please, please, let me give you everything you could ever need. 

Instead, in a low tone that matched James’, he answered, “We deserve to be selfish sometimes.”

James didn’t reply and although Tony was initially skeptical, the super soldier was out like a light within a few minutes, his breath evening out and his body losing tension Tony didn’t even know it holding until James sagged against him, pliant and warm. And so damn trusting, to fall asleep, just like that, after everything that happened. He trusted Tony to keep him safe, not to take advantage of this obvious vulnerability.

It was both a terrifying responsibility and an intoxication sort of rush, knowing he had James’ trust.

With the soldier sound asleep, Tony pulled up a holographic screen, intent on catching up on some emails, but his usual fevered pace turned molasses slow. It was difficult to concentrate with nearly a lapful of super soldier, although the proximity didn’t incite any heat or lust, not right now. On the contrary, the steady breaths and the heavy weight were luring Tony into a relaxed, hazy state of his own; between that and the dark grey skies outside, Tony’s eyes began to droop too. Knowing that Friday was watching over them, Tony let his head drop back against the couch and with a proprietary hand settled on James’ side, just above his waist, he gave in to the temptation of sleep.

***

The warmth lingered, but the haze lifted just enough to rouse Tony from his nap as something persistent nagged at the back of his head. He’d learned to listen to these nagging instincts long ago, so he blinked his eyes open, slowly, trying to find his bearings. His brain registered James first, went through a moment of sheer panic, and then shook it off just as quickly when memories surfaced to explain why a super soldier’s head was resting comfortably in Tony’s lap. At some point, James turned to lie on his back, one leg hanging off the side of the couch, the other stretched out. His breathing was still steady and he looked younger, unburdened, without those lines of stress etched into his handsome face. 

While they were both asleep, James had also managed to appropriate Tony’s hand somehow because Tony distinctly remembered it resting on James’ waist rather than on top of his chest, firmly grasped in James’ own hand. Tony decided he liked this better and the sheer domesticity of it all was inviting him to close his eyes again and go back to sleep, but that nagging feeling persisted.

Tony turned his head the other way and gave a full-bodied jerk, just barely muffling a startled yelp, because there she was, the one and only Pepper Potts, standing just inside the suite, her wide, disbelieving eyes trained on Tony and James. 

Chapter Text

Tony’s mouth opened and closed, mind scrambling uselessly to explain any part of this situation without defaulting to the classic ‘this is not the worst thing you’ve caught me doing’. If that came out of his mouth again, he was almost positive Pepper would throw a shoe at him; actually, with the way Pepper’s shocked expression was morphing into appalled disbelief with every ticking second, heralded by that severe furrow between her brows and the tight set of her lips, a pointy stiletto aimed Tony’s way was still not out of the question. 

Tony gave up and shrugged, presenting her with the fakest innocent smile in his repertoire. Her brows just knitted further together. She mouthed a furious, but thankfully silent “Tony Stark!” and pointed to the spot on the floor next to her. 

Tony had no intention of disobeying (because ignoring Pepper Potts meant certain death), but first, there was that tiny little issue of the sleeping super soldier in his lap, who just looked so damn cozy— and wow, James really must’ve been out of it if his super soldier assassin instincts were missing out on this entire exchange.

Tony’s chest expanded with warmth at seeing James like this, so much so that it bordered on painful. How could James trust him this much? How could he trust Tony enough to drop his defenses, make himself vulnerable, let Tony watch over him?

So much responsibility and so many ways for Tony to mess it up, but that thought didn’t scare him quite as much the second time around.

Tony glanced at Pepper again and earned himself an arched brow, so he sighed and gently grasped James’ shoulder with one hand while tugging at the other to get James to release him. Instead of letting go however, James made a displeased, sleepy noise, turned over on his right side and curled into himself further, keeping Tony’s hand effectively trapped against him. Tony looked back at Pepper, who was standing there, arms crossed and fingers tapping impatiently against her bicep, so Tony attempted the escape one more time. Thankfully, James released him this time and even slept through Tony repositioning his head back onto the pillow and tucking the blanket back around him. And if Tony maybe brushed some of that long hair away from James’ face and tucked it back behind his ear, and maybe if his hand lingered a second too long in doing so, well— well, Pepper probably noticed because she noticed everything and Tony was so damn screwed. 

He held up a finger to his lips as he walked towards her and then silently ushered her to follow him out into the private lobby outside of the suite. The walls were almost entirely soundproof, so here they could have a relatively private conversation.

“Friday,” he called out as soon as the door closed behind them. The tempo of Pepper’s agitated fingers increased. “Keep an eye on him for me, would you? Let me know right away if he’s in any distress or if he wakes up.”

“Will do, Boss,” Friday chirped and Tony left it at that, even though he was tempted to say more. His first instinct was to reprimand her, actually, for letting Pepper inside, but he realized almost immediately the fault lied with him. JARVIS… He would’ve known what to do. He would’ve understood, without explicit instructions, the sensitivity of the situation and he would’ve alerted Tony to Pepper’s presence long before she had the chance to discover their new guest.

Friday was still so young and while she would’ve protected him (and James) fiercely against a real intruder, Pepper Potts had the highest security clearance possible and Tony never explicitly asked for her to be kept out of the suite. Why would Friday stop her from entering? It was a subtle sort of lesson Tony had yet to teach his young AI.

He had no more time to think about Friday however because Pepper planted her hands on her hips and leveled him with a steely glare. 

“Would you like to explain to me why James Buchanan Barnes, the infamous assassin, Captain America’s best friend and the guy responsible for the entire mess last year was taking a nap on the couch with you?”

“Because we were both tired?”

“Tony!”

The ‘What the actual hell?’ part was heavily implied, and Tony scrubbed his face, rubbing his eyes until the darkness behind his eyelids lit up in bright spots. It helped, marginally, to shake off the last bits of lethargy from that nap. It didn’t unfortunately help him come up with a succinct, simple way to explain this. Shit, he had months, he should’ve had something by now. 

“There’s… a lot to explain here. It’s complicated.” Tony began with the most obvious part, but of course, Pepper Potts wasn’t one to cow before complexity.

“Oh, it better be complicated because this has to be, by far, your craziest—” Pepper suddenly stilled, eyes going wide, frustration bleeding abruptly into fear. “Oh god. Are you under duress?” Her voice dropped to a furious whisper and she took a step closer. “Are you in danger? Is he forcing you to—”

“Pepper, Pepper, take a breath, everything’s fine,” Tony raised his hands in supplication, then let them rest on her bare biceps. “No one is forcing me to do anything, no one is holding a gun to my head, etcetera, etcetera. I’m a free man.”

“But he was— he’s the one who—”

“Don’t you think Friday would have alerted half of Manhattan by now if I were in any danger?” Tony gave her a pointed look, but his hands were gentle, rubbing her arms soothingly. “Plus, did I look like I was under duress? I’m pretty sure I was laying there drooling, Pep.”

She studied him, her eyes darting back to the closed door every few seconds, as if worried the infamous Winter Soldier would burst right out and attack them. When he didn’t and when Tony didn’t spontaneously combust or break down into terrified tears or whatever other awful scenario she was coming up with, Pepper sighed loudly, a relieved whoosh of air, and finally let her shoulders droop. “Tony, my god, you shouldn’t scare me like this.”

“Hey, you’re the one who assumed I was being forced into a nap against my will.”

“How could I not?” That’s—” she waved a wild hand at the door, “that’s the Winter Soldier on your couch!”

“Pepper, darling, light of my life,” Tony said and gave her biceps a squeeze, “you’re still panicking. Everything is fine.”

She took another deep breath and Tony nodded in approval as he watched her gather herself with impressive speed. Despite a few panicked exclamations here and there, Pepper was as cool as a cucumber when she truly needed to be.

“So you’re okay?”

“Mm-hmm.”

Her eyes darted back to the door again. “And he is…”

“He’s less okay. We’re working on it.” 

“Tony, what the hell is going on? I come up here, wondering if you wanted to have lunch together and I—” she struggle to articulate what she found, “I go in and find you cuddled up with the guy who—” she stopped again, then continued, somewhat subdued, “the guy who caused you far more trouble than he’s worth last year.” 

Tony, unfortunately, heard the part she left out, loud and clear. The guy who killed your parents. 

Her fierce gaze, now free of fear, was intimidating, there was no denying that; it was a look that had caused plenty of powerful men and women to shrivel up and capitulate to her demands. Tony had been one of them on multiple occasions, although on most of those, his easy surrender was intentional because making Pepper happy was usually its own reward. Today, however, he wasn’t as inclined to give in.

He understood Pepper’s perspective and appreciated the protectiveness, but ultimately he didn’t do anything wrong here, and while he loved Pepper, would die for her in a heartbeat, while her and Rhodey were at least three-quarters of his impulse control, he wasn’t going to feel guilty about anything that happened with James.

Tony let Pepper go, then paced a few steps as his hand came up to rub the back of his head. It’s now or never. 

“Here’s the deal,” he said and Pepper’s ire lessened considerably when she noticed Tony’s more serious tone. “he sent me a letter, to apologize. Do you remember that?”

“Yes, you told me about that months ago. You said he was genuine sorry. I’ll be honest, it was a little hard to believe, given who he is. I mean, this is Rogers’ best friend, I expected him to be cut from the same cloth as the rest of those criminals.”

“In his defense, they’re not really his… friends anymore. Surprise, surprise, they’re not really treating him any better than they were treating me.”

Pepper narrowed her eyes, obviously doubtful. “And how exactly do you know that?”

“Because I wrote him back. We started talking. Lo and behold, I find out he’s actually a decent guy. Funny, smart, curious, and so damn apologetic and honorable it drives me nuts. He wasn’t doing well though, stuck in that shitty place with them. I mean, no surprise there either, right? I wouldn’t wanna be stuck in that hellhole myself. Imagine what he had to deal with, Pep. This poor guy, who got his brain scrubbed in Wakanda and sent on his merry way with no help, nothing. Missing a damn arm— my fault, I admit it— and still in a lot of pain. Steve, meanwhile, just wants his forties buddy back, Natasha probably sees an old Hydra operative in him and nothing more, the others barely know him…”

“That does sound awful,” Pepper conceded with a downward twist of her lips, “I didn’t really think about it like that. I just assumed he’d be…” she gestured awkwardly, “you know, happy to be reunited with his one true love or whatever.” 

“Yeah, apparently some of those stories have been embellished. A lot,” Tony added, then barely suppressed a growl, which had nothing to do with any sort of proprietary feelings over James’ affections, no sir. He was just… indignant on James’ behalf. “That’s not the worst of it though. Maximoff, she—” Tony grit his teeth and exhaled noisily through his nose, “Pepper, she was actively messing with his head.”

Pepper whispered a startled “What?” and when she looked at that closed door again, it was with a newfound worry rather than apprehension. Understandable, given that she was one of the few who knew all the sordid details. “She did something to him? Was— was she trying to turn him back to Hydra?”

“I don’t have the details, and the details I do have aren’t mine to share. This wasn’t about Hydra though, it was something more… personal. Whatever her motives, she’s been messing with him for months, causing him to have constant headaches, nightmares, her usual repertoire. Remember how I’ve been working on charms with Stephen and Loki? Well, that was technically for him.”

Tony regretted saying that almost immediately because Pepper was looking at him differently now, like a piece of the puzzle suddenly fell into place. Dammit it, he knew just what she wanted to say. You only make things for the people you care about, Tony.

He kept talking so she wouldn’t have the opportunity. “Apparently Maximoff got impatient, or ambitious or something, I dunno, but today she attacked, tried to get right into his head. Long story short, the others believed her over him and James got the hell out of there. You can imagine how terrifying it had to be, with his history.”

“And he called you for help?” When Tony nodded, she rubbed at her bottom lip distractedly as she processed the information. “How long have you two been in contact?”

“A few months now. Mostly texting back and forth and—”

“Wait,” she tilted her head, “the texting, that was—” her eyes suddenly went wide, “that was him?” 

Tony hoped his shrug was properly nonchalant. “It was just texting. Well, that and a few meals together. Went to Central Park too—”

“Hold on, he was your Saturday night dates too, wasn’t he? Oh my god, Tony, are— are you dating the Winter Soldier?”

“What— no! They’re not— dates, they’re— not-dates, you know, just two guys—” Tony shut himself up with a groan and rubbed his hand over his face, wishing he could take half of this back. “Pepper, you’re making this bigger than it is, okay? We’re just friends, that’s all.”

He sneaked a peek at her through his fingers and wanted to groan again. She didn’t look like she believed him, but she seemed to let the topic go when she continued with, “And of course Rhodey doesn’t know about this little friendship, does he?”

“You know me too well,” Tony tried for teasing, but wilted a little when Pepper remained unimpressed. “I was gonna say something sooner or later. I just… didn’t want to complicate what James and I had. He, uh— well, at first, I actually expected him to ask for favors or something, use my pity or guilt to help him, whatever. Same ol’ crap Rogers has been trying to pull.”

“That’s what I was worried about when you said this man wrote you a letter.”

“Right, but that’s not what happened. I’m not saying I was short on friends or anything, so I didn’t start out looking for another one, but after we started talking… things just clicked. We worked through our issues without anyone hovering over us, talked about what happened, forgave and moved on. He’s… a lot easier to forgive than Rogers. And we just had a nice time together, you know? He likes talking to me, spending time together, I dunno. I guess I just…” Tony’s voice dropped a little lower, “just like the way he looks at me…”

“Oh, Tony.” The words were accompanied with a soft sigh and at this point, Tony had lost count of how many different ways Pepper could say his name. She reached out to take his hands. “You deserve the world, you know that, don’t you?”

“Pepper, my sunflower, you’re being maudlin.”

Her smile stretched across her face. “Maybe a little. I just want to see you happy, that’s all. Especially after everything that happened last year. You understand why I worry, don’t you?” 

“I do, really, and I appreciate it, you know that. You and Rhodey and Happy… You’ve been here since the beginning and I’m sorry I got so swept up in whole Avengers drama. I’m sorry I forgot who my real friends are.”

She squeezed his hands. “We love you enough to let that go, just this one time.” Again a glance at the door. “Do you really trust him then? Not to do the same things Rogers did?”

“I do.”

“Then I trust him too,” she said and Tony’s heart sang at the easy acceptance, at the trust his friends had in his judgment. “But god help him,” she added then, “if he hurts you, in any way, there’s no place on Earth he’ll be able to hide from me.”

“Duly noted. He’ll be on his best behavior, I promise.”

“Is he going to stay?”

Tony shrugged. “I’m going to make the offer. Tell him he could stay at the Compound. You know Maximoff is unpredictable and who knows what Rogers is thinking. He’ll probably come after him again and— I can’t— can’t let anything happen to him.”

“Mm-hmm.” That hum was a little too knowing, like Pepper had every fine detail of Tony’s scrambled mind already figured out. “You really do care about him, don’t you?” When Tony shrugged awkwardly, tried to come up with a smoother answer than his actual ‘Yes, god yes,’ Pepper shook her head fondly. “Well, this will be… interesting, at least. You’ll have to tell Rhodey though, and the others. Soon, Tony. Like, as soon as we’re done talking.”

“I know, I know. Cross my heart, I’ll loop Rhodey into this as soon as James isn’t feeling like the walking dead. He deserves a chance to get his head on straight before facing the others.”

“I’ll hold you to that. Now, I assume I’m taking myself out to lunch today?”

“Sorry, Pep. Got a super soldier to take care of.”

She huffed, like she couldn’t believe their actual lives. “Only you would end up bringing home an assassin, Tony. Were they out of stray puppies to adopt?” 

Tony refrained from telling her that James had a pretty lethal set of puppy-dog eyes himself.

***

After Pepper left, reluctantly and with another warning to inform the Avengers, Tony snuck back into the suite and was relieved to find James still asleep. The sight of the man, he realized, remained just as tempting, calling to Tony like a siren, so after convincing himself that James needed more rest and Tony had to stay close in case James needed him, Tony wriggled his way back into his original spot. He nearly melted when James instinctively shifted closer, head snug against Tony’s stomach. 

He might never have this again, this little sliver of domesticity, so Tony decided that telling Rhodey could wait a few more hours, and while he had every intention to get some work done, it wasn’t long before his eyes began to droop this time too.

***

James woke up surrounded by warmth, his mind floating as it struggled to make sense of his surroundings. He nuzzled into the soft material beneath his cheek and breathed in the spicy sweet scent. Oh, he recognized that scent. Tony’s cologne, the wisps of it always lingering whenever they were close enough, driving him crazy because each time all he wanted was to bury his face into the curve of Tony’s neck and fill himself to the brim with that scent.

He let out a soft breath, wanting to curl into the warmth. What a wonderful dream. He needed to be closer, pull Tony close and let himself indulge in the fantasy. He reached out with his left arm to curl it around Tony—

Tried to and his mind suddenly cleared, warmth dissipating instantly when all he got in response was the stiff movements of his stump. Then, someone cleared their throat and his eyes flew wide open. James scrambled back, lacking grace as his sleep-heavy body failed to adjust to surroundings he didn’t recognize, eyes darting from point to point, taking everything in until they landed on Tony, who regarded him with his own set of wide eyes from the other end of the couch, hands up and out in surrender.

“You’re okay, you’re alright. Do you remember what happened?”

James blinked, wanted to shake his head, but that was when everything flooded back, and then he had to squeeze his eyes shut and shake for an entirely different reason, desperate to remove the images from his head, but unable to do so. The confrontation with Maximoff, those flashes of memories. Then, the others; Steve, holding him down, the Widow with that stunner. Running away, run, run, run— 

Tony’s voice filtered through the roaring in his ears, still soothing and so steady that James couldn’t help but latch onto it. It was nonsense Tony was babbling, telling him he was okay, that he was safe, but it helped. All of his broken pieces slowly fell back into some semblance of order.  

When his head no longer felt like it was going to explode, when he felt like himself again, James took a deep breath, let it out through his nose, and opened his eyes. Tony was still there, a relief in itself, however irrational.

“Sorry,” James mumbled. “Didn’t— didn’t remember, when I woke up.” He licked his dry lips. “Panicked a little.”

“It’s fine, everything’s okay.” How many times had Tony said that to him today? Miraculously, James was starting to believe it. “How are you holding up?”

Tony was obviously worried and that caused a strange mix of longing and guilt to flare up in James’ chest. He answered, said he was alright, then contemplated that for a moment, and decided it wasn’t even a lie. He was clear-headed again now that the haze of terror and desperation had finally lifted. Earlier, when the world crashed around his ears, after that horrid shock to his system, all that remained of him was instinct. It was instinct that led him to fight, to run and hide, to call the one person he knew he could trust. 

Instinct was a powerful thing, but now that he was running on something a little less primal, James was left floundering, unsure how to deal with the rest of the memories filtering through. Not the confrontation with the witch however; no, that disaster, although unexpected, but par for the course. James had a veritable museum of memories like that. No, it was what happened after, all of which he remembered with unfailing clarity despite his mental state at the time. The way Tony didn’t hesitate to rush to his side, the way those strong arms held him up as the rain soaked them both to the bone. Every tender touch as Tony patched him up, the righteous anger when the man spoke. He remembered falling asleep as Tony carded his fingers through James’ hair and the way Tony looked at him, big expressive eyes full of… longing, James wanted to call it longing.

How was he supposed to move on with his life after having a taste of something like that? He didn’t want to move on. He wanted this, just him and Tony, this affection and tenderness and—

“James?”

Tony’s voice brought him back and James realized, flushing with sudden heat, that his mind drifted, too fixated on Tony and Tony’s hands and Tony’s eyes… and, well, Tony’s everything.

“Sorry,” he mumbled again, “head’s still a mess.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably and Tony jumped up to pour him a glass of water. James drank greedily before giving Tony his quiet thanks. “Not as tired though and less— less fuzzy. Don’t feel like I’m in a fog anymore.”

“Yeah, you went out like a light, so I think you needed the rest. Now, did you want to try food again or—”

“There was someone else here, wasn’t there?”

Tony was still standing and he blinked down at him, stopped in a half turn. “Did you wake up when I was gone?”

“No, just… have a sixth sense. I guess my mind registered it, but didn’t bother to wake me up.” And wasn’t that a revelation. Anywhere else and James would’ve been completely alert and ready to fight at the slightest hint of danger.

Before answering, Tony grabbed two small bags from a tray and handed one to James before sitting back down. Blueberries, James discovered when he opened the thing; he stuck the bag between his knees to hold it steady and followed Tony’s cue to toss a few berries into his mouth.

“Pepper was here,” Tony confessed after beat, “I, uh— I was a little out of it too, let’s just say, so I didn’t have Friday lock down the entire suite. Pepper was a little surprised, as you can imagine, but I explained things to her the best I could.” Tony gave him an apologetic shrug. “I tried to keep things vague, but I had to tell her about what happened to you.”

James brushed the apology off. Logically he knew the others needed to know the sordid details, that he was the victim here rather than the aggressor, and James was willing to give up every shred of privacy if it meant Tony’s friends wouldn’t force him to stay away from Tony. 

“So what happens now?” he asked, because it seemed to be the logical next step.

Tony chewed on his blueberries thoughtfully, taking James in. “How’s your chest doing?”

The non-sequitur threw James for a moment, but then he realized Tony meant his injuries. He ran a tentative hand over his chest. Nothing hurt, which he relayed to Tony, who decided that the bandages needed to come off then. James wondered whether Tony was stalling.

Or whether the man just wanted to get James half-naked, he thought as he gingerly pulled the shirt off, always an awkward process with one arm; that thought made him flush too, pleasantly, in a way he was learning to crave. He remembered Tony’s gaze on him, the way his eyes widened and his words dried up when James came out of the bathroom.

Another thing he didn’t want to give up. 

Tony settled in close, same as earlier, and competent fingers began to unwind the gauze. When James was still out of it, these ministrations soothed him, let him know he wasn’t alone, that someone was willing to care for him. Now, each touch sent tingles up and down his spine, adding to the well of heat inside him.

“Tony, what happens now?” he asked again. Whatever Tony would tell him to do, he would, even if it meant leaving, but god help him, he didn’t want to.

Tony didn’t answer right away, focused on the work. He pulled away the rest of the bandages, then brushed his hand over the now unmarred skin, as if he was trying to drive James ever crazier. There was still no answer though, leaving James both hot and cold.

“I can leave. I don’t want to cause you more problems and I can survive on my own—”

“Stay with me,” Tony blurted out, dropping his hand to James’ knee to prop himself up when he leaned in closer. It took a second for Tony to realize what he actually said, what he did, and then he tried to pull away, but James’ hand landed on top of Tony’s, keeping it in place. “I mean, uh— with all of us, at the Compound. It’s the safest place for you.”

That addition didn’t change the way Tony looked at him when he said those words, stay with me. It didn’t erase the way his fingers twitched against James’ knee, like he wanted to physically keep James from leaving.

“Would the others be alright with that?”

“It’ll take some time for everyone to wrap their head around it, but they’re good people. Rhodey’s gonna huff and puff for a little while, but that’s understandable. His main priority is keeping all of us safe, he wouldn’t be Rhodey if he didn’t do his due diligence.” 

“I just don’t want to cause you trouble. I already—” James shook his head, his guilt overtaking the longing, “already caused so much of it. For you, mostly. And you’ve done so much for me already. I have nothing to give in return.”

But he’d give everything he did have just for the chance to keep this… this warm, affectionate thing, to have Tony take care of him, to do the same for Tony. For the two of them to fall asleep together again.

Tony kept himself exactly where he was, not backing away now, not putting any space between them. It was almost a dance, one of them growing bolder when the other faltered.

“I didn’t do any of this with the expectation of payment,” Tony’s voice was steady and his words certain, “and if there are any expectations, they only consist of basic human decency. Don’t hurt anyone under my care, don’t reveal information someone outside of the Compound shouldn’t know, don’t stab any of us in the back. Pretty easy to do, right?”

James nodded emphatically, having no intention to ever break Tony’s trust. “How long can I stay?”

“As long as you need to.” 

“And Steve? He’s going to be looking for me.”

“Do you want him to find you?”

“No, not— not yet. Maybe not ever. I don’t know.”

“Then we’ll figure something out. You can call him or send a message, use an untraceable number. Say what you need to say, then send him on a wild goose chase. Maybe across the Midwest. He can look for you in all those corn fields.”

James didn’t hesitate. “I’d like to stay then, with you. Thank you, Tony, I mean it. You saved my life.”

Tony rolled his eyes fondly, but he was grinning up at James and it was like seeing sun rays for the first time after a rainy day. “You really gotta stop thanking me for everything, Snowflake.”

“Some of us have manners, you know.”

“Ah, and there’s that snark I know and love. Glad it’s back.” 

Tony tried to pull away, assuming the conversation was effectively over, but James still had a hold of his hand and when Tony stilled, pretty doe eyes looking at James in confusion, it was James’ turn to make use of that boldness. He leaned in slowly, giving Tony time to lean away, but the man didn’t move, so James did and pressed his lips to Tony’s cheek.

It wasn’t quite what he wanted, but it was already so much more than he deserved. 

“Thank you, Tony,” he whispered against the warm skin, wanting to memorize how this felt, the soft cheek and the prickle of stubble, that spicy-sweet scent that filled his lungs again. Tony’s hand twitched beneath his own, fingers moving against Bucky’s knee, but it was a caress rather than a reprimand.

Did it matter what he deserved? He was so damn tired of having to earn every little moment of joy and didn’t Tony say they deserved to be selfish?

Staying like this forever was tempting, but lingering for a second too long ran the risk of turning everything awkward, so James pulled away, even if he wanted nothing more than to press in closer. He straightened up, gave Tony’s hand one last squeeze, and let go, forcing himself to stand up and point at the bathroom while trying to pretend his whole body wasn’t tingling with nerves. 

“I’ll, uh— just go clean up, if that’s alright? Think I can handle a shower now.”

Tony’s wide eyes blinked up at him and the man nodded distractedly. “Uh… Yeah, I mean, sure.” He shook his head, as if trying to clear it. “You, uh— you thank all the boys like that?”

James felt an inkling of a smile tugging at his lips. “No. Just the real pretty ones.” 

He turned and walked away, but not before seeing Tony’s own delighted half-smile.

Chapter Text

Tony realized he was holding his breath when the elevator doors opened to reveal none other than James Rhodes himself. The man didn’t waste a single second, heading straight for Tony, who was standing just outside the suite.

Round two of ‘Tell my friends I’ve been not-dating the Winter Soldier for months’. The conversation went surprisingly well with Pepper. Rhodey on the other hand… the man did not look pleased.

Didn’t sound pleased either when Tony called him up an hour ago to inform him that hey, the Winter Soldier was at the Tower, but it was totally fine, perfectly safe, and oh, could he stay at the Compound, for the next foreseeable ever

There was a good chance Rhodey thought that call was one of Tony’s less-than-clever practical jokes. If that were the case, this poor man was in for a surprise. 

“Platypus, hey, didn’t expect you quite so soon! It’s a good thing I made War Machine waterproof right? This rain just won’t let up. Someone should really talk to Thor.”

Tony’s cheerful voice didn’t budge Rhodey’s severe expression a single inch.

“Thor can wait. I’m still processing our little phone call, which made it sound like the Winter Soldier was here at the Tower, as our guest. You wanna tell me what’s going on, Tones? Are we having a party with all of our favorite people? Am I going to open the bathroom door and find Rogers in there?”

“Ergh, no, don’t let me picture that. The only one here is James, that’s all.”

“Oh, it’s James now? What the hell did I miss, Tony?” Tony opened his mouth to speak, but Rhodey cut him off with two frantic, waving hands. “No, you know what, I need to see this guy for myself to make sure I’m not hallucinating this entire conversation. Where is he?”

Tony obediently walked back to the closed door, rapped his knuckles against the wood, ignored Rhodey’s muttered “Oh my god, he’s staying in your suite,” and carefully opened the door.

The sight that greeted them was actually adorable and exactly what Tony was hoping for. James was sitting cross-legged on the couch, a bright green blanket thrown over his shoulders (trademarked ‘Hulk Smash!’ merchandise Tony unearthed earlier in his bedroom closet), watching a nature documentary on the TV screen. There was a bowl of fruit in his lap and his hand was holding a raspberry half-way to his mouth. Big innocent eyes were looking up at them.

Okay, so maybe Tony coached James, just a tiny little bit, in preparation for their meeting with Rhodey. They needed to reduce James’ ’threat factor’— not eliminate, because that was impossible— and the less he looked like the Winter Soldier Rhodey remembered, the better. There were still hints of wariness there in the tense way James held himself, of course, but Tony was certain he was the only seeing them. He didn’t spend the last few months observing, memorizing every aspect of this man for nothing, after all.

Tony’s eyes flickered to Rhodey, who was examining James like a particularly dangerous bomb about to go off.

James slowly put the raspberry back into the bowl and gave Rhodey a small nod. “Colonel.”

A muscle in Rhodey’s jaw twitched.

“Sergeant.” Another silent, drawn-out second before Rhodey shook his head minutely and muttered, “Dammit, I was really hoping you were just trying to fuck with me, Tony.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Don’t be rude, Honeybear. We have guests.”

Rhodey’s attention never actually wavered from said guest and to his credit, James was the perfect combination of caution and vulnerability, which Tony didn’t think could be attributed to the Winter Soldier’s acting skills alone. James was on guard, pushed into dealing with yet another unknown element, but at the same time, he left himself vulnerable here, at their mercy, and all because he trusted Tony to keep him safe.

“I’m not here to cause trouble.” James paused, then grimaced. “I needed help and Tony— he brought me here. Said it’d be safe.” 

“You in danger, Sergeant?”

James nodded. “Yes sir. Maximoff went after me. The others believed her over me when I told them.”

Rhodey looked over at Tony. “And you believe him?”

“Wouldn’t have brought him here if I didn’t.”

“Why?”

Tony’s face went through some complicated acrobatics, accompanied by a frustrated hand gesture, all of which were meant to say “Can we not discuss this here?”.

Rhodey seemed to get the message, because after he threw poor James another suspicious look, he plastered on a stiff media smile and asked, “Would you excuse us for a second? I need to… talk to my best friend.”

“Of course.” 

Rhodey’s plastic smile didn’t falter even though James was giving him the most ridiculous set of puppy dog eyes that were certainly melting Tony’s heart. James Rupert Rhodes was a damn hard-ass, but Tony supposed that was part of his charm.

“Friday, you have an eye on him?”

“My metaphorical eyes are on everyone always, Colonel.”

“Don’t sass me, Fri.” Rhodey tapped his fingers against his thigh in agitation, then with a nod grabbed Tony’s arm and dragged him back out in the hallway, barely letting Tony shout a “We’ll be right back, James!” before slamming the door shut behind them. 

Tony rubbed his arm, pretending that it was bruised. “Gentle on the goods, Honeybear.”

“Start explaining, Tony, and it better be good,” Rhodey ordered.

Tony scrunched up his face. “I’m getting a serious case of deja vu here,” he muttered, but apparently Rhodey was immune to his puppy eyes too, so he launched into the same explanation he offered Pepper.

Unlike Pepper however, Rhodey didn’t interject and fret, didn’t throw worried glances that alternated between Tony and the Winter Soldier hiding behind the closed door. Rhodey just stood there, watching Tony ramble on about texting and diners and crappy teammates; the man’s arms were crossed over his chest, his eyes slightly narrowed, and Tony had a suspicion that Rhodey, having realized this wasn’t a prank, was now assuming Tony must’ve been replaced by an evil alien species.

Tony was perfectly human however, human enough to fidget awkwardly with his shirt sleeve once he was done with the explanation. 

The way Rhodey’s hand came up to pinch his nose wasn’t encouraging, but at least he took another deep breath and didn’t seem like he wanted to throttle Tony on the spot. “Over two months, Tony. Two months. Were you planning on telling me at all?” 

“If things continued to go the way— the way they were going, I would’ve told you before thinking about bringing him here,” Tony offered, and it was true, he would’ve said something to someone eventually, “but how often do our lives go according to plan? He was in trouble, Maximoff-level trouble, and that’s not something I’d let anyone suffer through… let alone him.” That last part was a whisper, a slip up if Tony were honest, but of course Rhodey caught it and his expression suddenly grew suspicious.

“Wait, did— did you actually sleep with him?”

“Excuse me?” Tony’s offended expression was genuine. “No, I didn’t—”

“Did you want to?”

Tony’s first instinct was to sputter and ramble, a surefire way of convincing Rhodey that he did want to, but that earlier comment had actually stung; it forced his words into semblance of control. “You know what, I get it, really, I used to be a man whore, used to sleep around—”

Rhodey’s face crumbled. “No, I’m sorry, shit, that was uncalled for—”

“—but you’d think spending years in a monogamous relationship with one woman would’ve done something to improve my shitty reputation.” 

Rhodey let out a frustrated noise. “No, no, you’re right, I’m sorry. You just… had that soft look in your eyes when you were talking about him. The same one I’ve seen you give Pepper and I just… I’m sorry.”

Tony scowled, but it lost some of its strength, what with Rhodey looking all apologetic over there. Luckily for him, Tony loved the idiot and this wasn’t the first nor the last time they would say something dumb to each other. Plus… 

“Well, in your defense, you’re not exactly wrong…” Tony hesitated with a glance at the walls. Sure they were soundproof, but what happened when soundproofing met super soldier hearing? His voice dropped lower. “Maybe I do have feelings for him… and not just ‘get in his pants’ sort of feelings, although that’s obviously on the list, but I— I like him,” Tony confessed and held Rhodey’s eyes as he said it. A vulnerable position because Rhodey could see everything like this. The sincerity, the uncertainty, probably every bit of longing and pining Tony had been doing over the past month.

Rhodey sighed, a weary, soul-deep sort of sigh only reserved for Tony. “Well, if you two actually managed to get past what happened last year, you probably never stood a chance after that anyways. He is your type. Painfully so. Pretty face, great body, and a blinding beacon of neediness just calling out to you to take care of him.”

“I resent that last part,” Tony pointed his finger at Rhodey, but the reprimand was playful at most, “but I can’t argue with it, so… Not that it matters either way, not really. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit I was prone to thinking with my dick, before, but this isn’t me being taken in by a pair of pretty eyes. He’s been suffering over there, literally, in part because his roommates are assholes— no surprise there— and in part because the witch was out to get him. We started talking, we liked the talking, and— and we’re friends now, if nothing else, and he needed my help. I wasn’t going to turn him away. Say whatever you want, but I don’t regret doing this. He needed me.”

Rhodey didn’t respond right away, but it didn’t take long before he deflated and groaned, scrubbing a hand over his face. Tony wanted to laugh; he was an expert at wearing this poor man down.

“Dammit, Tony. You have to got to stop bringing all these damn strays home.”

“Rhodey, that’s no way to talk about Brucey Bear and Peter.”

“And Harley, and Loki, and now the Winter Soldier. You have a problem, man.” 

Rhodey’s exasperated, but ultimately fond expression took most of the sting out of those words. Rhodey’s scrutinizing gaze however finally abandoned Tony and the man spent an impressive second staring down the door. “I just… I’m thinking about the disaster this is going to be and it’s giving me a cluster headache already.”

Oh Rhodey, always thinking. This was why he co-lead the Avengers with Carol and why he’d give himself ulcers, the poor man. Tony walked closer and reached out to massage Rhodey’s shoulders, kneading away some of the tension. 

“Rhodey, my best friend, the light of my life, oh captain, my captain, it will be fine.”

“How? What if he goes tattling to Rogers the first chance he gets? We didn’t spend months avoiding those fools only for one of them to end up here and ruin all that hard work.”

“Trust me, there’s no love lost between them. No trust either, not after Rogers lied to him about Maximoff’s history.”

“Still, last time Rogers got separated from his pal, he demolished a highway, spat in the face of 117 countries, and nearly killed you. We’ll have Rogers beating down on our door looking for him tomorrow—”

“Oh please, as if they aren’t already bothering us every other day. Might as well give them a good reason.”

“The others might have a problem with Barnes at the Compound.”

“Um, have you seen his Bambi eyes? Rhodey, I know you’re a hardened military badass, so I know you’re immune, but the others will melt at the sight. And sure, it might take some time, but they’ll see the kind of guy he is, just like I did.”

“The media is going to have a field day if they find out.”

“Which is why we have a dedicated PR team. If this gets out, we can spin it. Something about taking in the amnesiac war hero, giving him a new lease on life, etcetera etcetera, so on and so worth.”

“He’s unstable.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“He’s dangerous.”

“He’s more dangerous with Maximoff pulling the strings.”

Tony wasn’t going to budge and Rhodey obviously saw that conviction because something in his expression gave way even further. His hands came up to cup Tony’s face, a firm grip but one not meant to harm.

“You,” he shook Tony’s head gently, “are the reason I’m going gray.”

What else could Tony do but smile a toothy grin at the man? “You’d be so bored without me.”

“Bored sounds great right about now.”

“Aw, come on, Rhodey, lighten up. I know this is unexpected, but James… He’s a pretty great guy, and I wouldn’t be saying that if it weren’t true, not with our history. He deserves a chance to be that guy without Rogers hovering over him and without Maximoff rooting around in his head. He needs our help and I mean, isn’t that what we do for a living?”

Rhodey’s sigh indicated he was questioning every life decision that lead them up to this, but since Tony was privy to that exact sigh at least once a week, he was used to it.

“Damn but you have it bad for him, don't you?”

Tony didn't let his expression reveal that yes, yes he did. “I have nothing for no one, so shush. Now, when we go back in there,” Tony added after they both let go of each other, “be nice, okay? He had a shitty day, he’s just coming back from a shit-show of a panic attack, and you know, even in general, he, uh— he’s got a metric crapton of misplaced guilt and terrible self-esteem—”

“Oh god, please stop. I don’t wanna hear how you two are practically made for each other. Gross,” Rhodey made a disgusted face, but obediently followed Tony and thankfully that expression was replaced with a polite media smile when they stepped back into the suite.

James sat exactly where they had left him, the bowl of berries half-finished in front of him, but his expression was shuttered now, wariness overtaking everything else. 

“Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. I should go. I’m not— I don’t want to cause you all problems…”

Tony gave Rhodey a look that telegraphed a stern See what you did?, and Rhodey seemed to have caught on.

“Barnes, now hold on a second.” Rhodey began, slowly walking over to sit in one of the love seats, close enough so he wouldn’t have to raise his voice to speak, but far enough to give James some room. Tony leaned his forearms on the back of the couch, just a few feet away from James. "Now, Barnes— Bucky? Can I call you Bucky?"

“James, please.”

James. Very well. I… apologize about my earlier entrance. You see, Tony here, he’s my best friend, but he’s a right pain in the ass. Likes to surprise me.”

Everything about Rhodey was the epitome of casual, the way he was leaning back in the chair, arms held loosely behind him, the braces-clad legs scrawled in front of him and crossed at the ankles, but that was all just on the surface. In reality, he was watching James ever so carefully, sizing him up. Of course James wasn’t oblivious, aware from that first second that he was being scrutinized. He was studying Rhodey’s every move too and honestly, it was like watching two alpha dogs circling each other, trying to sniff out the other’s scent. Tony wanted to roll his eyes. 

“I’m sorry if we, uh— sprung this on you, Colonel,” James said. His voice was steady, but quiet and each word carried a heaviness; it had to be straining, dealing with yet another person questioning him, making their own assumptions about James, doubting him. As much as he wanted to, Tony resisted the urge to jump in and speak for James, to chatter and cajole until Rhodey gave in (Tony was an expert at wearing Rhodey down), but Rhodey wouldn’t have been impressed by that, so when James glanced back at Tony, as if to ask permission to continue, all Tony did was offer an encouraging smile. 

“I understand why you’re cautious, given my history,” James said after a beat, meeting Rhodey’s gaze again, “given our history and what I did to Tony. I… regret so much and I know I don’t deserve Tony’s kindness, but despite… despite how much of a pain he may or may not be,” James added and although Tony couldn’t see his expression, he could see Rhodey struggling to remain perfectly impassive, “he saved my life. Maximoff, she…” James finally faltered and Tony gave in, damn whatever Rhodey would think, and reached over to rub a hand over James’ back to remind him he wasn’t alone. “Hydra used her on me, years ago, and now, she wanted to try again, make me ‘all better’ for Steve. I… won’t go back there, I can’t. So consider me a refugee, Colonel, asking for asylum.”

A long, quiet moment passed between the three that Tony spent gritting his teeth, to the point where his dentist would surely complain, because the urge to break the tension was overwhelming. The worry that Rhodey wouldn’t believe James, however, that he would fight this, was worse. If that were the case, Tony wouldn’t necessarily give up, certainly wouldn’t abandon James, but he’d appreciate the support of his friends.

Finally, some of the tension eased when Rhodey exhaled loudly and leaned forward to rest his arms on his knees. “You obviously understand where I’m come from. Only a year ago you were happy to fight Rogers’ fight, to beat Tony down in Siberia and leave him to die.”

James dropped his head, shoulders tense, but he gave a subdued nod and Rhodey continued. “But the Compound is filled with people who were offered a second chance, to prove themselves, to right their wrongs. Hell, had Rogers approached us with humility or— or an ounce of regret, these past few months would’ve been a different story. He didn’t, of course, but you did. That counts for something.” Rhodey’s eyes darted over to Tony, who met the gaze head on, giving Rhodey a small nod, letting a silent conversation pass between them. 

“Tony was right to bring you here,” Rhodey added then, “we are the Avengers, helping people is what we do and you were obviously in trouble. We’re not in the habit of turning people away. However, while I understand that Tony trusts you, which already earns you brownie points— now, forgive me for being blunt here— despite all that, I'm under no delusion that you’re not still a wildcard, a dangerous one at that. If Maximoff is after you, in any capacity, I’d rather have you where I can see you.”

“Rhodey!” Tony finally gave up on keeping quiet. He huffed, then paced to the other corner of the room. “He’s not coming to the Compound to be monitored!”

Tony turned to apologize to James, but was stopped short by the small smile on the man’s face. When his look turned quizzical, James just shrugged.

“What? I like him. Honesty’s refreshing.” He tilted his chin at Rhodey. “Thank you, Colonel, for the chance to prove myself.”

Now Rhodey was sporting a small, satisfied smile as if James managed to say the exact right combination of words to unlock his approval. He got out of the loveseat and James followed his cue, untangling his long limbs, letting the blanket fall off his shoulders as he stood up.

“I’ll save the ‘hurt anyone I love and regret it speech’,” Rhodey said, “because you’re smart and well aware of what will happen if you waste this chance.” He extended his hand to James. “Instead, I’ll just be polite and welcome you to stay at the Avengers Compound, Sergeant.”

James took the proffered hand and shook it with a strong grip, while Tony just beamed at them both like an idiot, the biggest grin he could manage, and it didn’t dim, not even when Rhodey looked over after that handshake to give Tony the most long-suffering look in existence of long-suffering looks, one that spoke of many more conversations to come.

Nothing could faze Tony right now because James was finally coming home with him.

***

James fell back onto the bed with a sigh. Everything was so soft and although he remembered having trouble with this level of comfort before, back on the run, in Romania, he was quickly getting used to it now. He ran his hand over the sheets again, reveling in the smooth fabric. It might’ve been silk, he had no way of knowing, but whatever it was, it was lovely.

That was also true for the rest of the quarters where he was staying. Tony said, sounding almost apologetic, that this was one of the spare rooms some of the non-resident Avengers used when they crashed for the night after a long meeting or a grueling fight, so there weren’t any over-the-top amenities, just a standard bedroom and bathroom set up, but James could hardly complain. It was spacious, it was warm and clean, and it was private. 

Well, as private as it could be with an artificial intelligence watching over them, but Tony assured him Friday had minimal surveillance access in personnel’s private quarters. 

James hummed. What a day. What a long, awful, bizarre day, but for once in his damn life, it ended on a high note. He was lucky, James knew that. Not everyone had their own guardian angel to watch over them and they certainly didn’t have one that also happened to be a genius billionaire superhero with the pretties set of eyes, a smile that made James go weak in the knees, and a body that had James feeling like he wanted—

A knock on the door interrupted that train of thought, and James squeezed his eyes shut, berating himself for letting it get that even far. Fantasizing about Tony, in his own home no less! 

He supposed it was par for the course since he went and kissed the man already. It was a moment of unadulterated boldness on his part, a longing so strong he could no longer resist it, but the fact that Tony didn’t push him away, didn’t tell him to go to hell, didn’t do anything but smile as if James had done something good… well, that simultaneous left him all warm inside and complicated the jumbled mess in his head even further.

Another rap against the door and James hurried to sit up, calling out a belated “Come in!”

The door opened to reveal Tony’s head peaking into the room, a smile breaking across his face when he saw James.

“Settling in?” he asked, then came inside and carefully closed the door behind him, giving them privacy from any stray Avenger who might come wandering down the hall. “Well, I’d say so. You look very cozy,” Tony added with a playful grin.

James tried to return the smile and its fervor wasn’t as bright only because James was still learning how to be so open with his expressions. “This is so great, Tony, thank you,” he said, running his hand over the comforter next to him. “Is everything in the future so soft?”

Tony chuckled. “Not exactly. You still gotta pay through the nose for that sort of quality. I, uh— these are the linens the staff usually uses to make up my suite, actually. Had Friday switch them out.”

James’ brows knitted. “Tony, you didn’t have to—”

“No, but I wanted to,” he shrugged, but his expression was unrepentant, “you deserve nice things, James.” 

His first instinct was to argue, but it was becoming harder and harder to do so. The self-hatred hammered into his brain by guilt was slowly thawing, bit by bit, every time Tony acted like James was worth something ‘nice’.

Of course the nicest thing in the room, by far, was Tony, but James tried not to think about it.

“Anyways, sorry you didn’t get the grand tour of the Compound today.”

James appreciated the distraction from his errant thoughts. “Does sorta feel like you were sneaking me in here in the dark of the night,” he teased.

Tony huffed, then pushed away from the door and walked over to plop on the edge of the bed. “For your sake, Snowflake, trust me. I promise I’m not trying to hide you, but the Avengers… some of them are exuberant, like Peter, and some are absolute menaces who will take every opportunity to ruin my good time. Like Loki. You deserve a good night’s sleep, at least, before dealing with all of them. Speaking of, you think you’re set for the night? Anything else you need?”

James looked around the room, took in the beautiful furnishings, the tasteful decorations, the stack of clean clothes on the dresser, the small fridge by the table, filled with drinks and snacks. His bed, comfortable and spacious. Did it make him ungrateful to say that all of it wasn’t enough?

“Not sure I’ll sleep tonight, unfortunately. Too many things running through my head.”

Tony started pouting before James had even finished speaking. “Aren't you exhausted? You were out like a light before.”

“Those were different, uh— different circumstances.” Probably not a good idea to confess that Tony would help him sleep tonight. Preferably Tony in this lovely bed. Just in case those thoughts were showing on his face, James hurried to add, “You don’t have to worry. Super soldier, remember? I can function on no sleep for days. Besides, are you going to sleep?”

Tony’s eyes darted to the side as he hesitated and James hummed knowingly. “See, you can’t lecture me about sleep, Tony, not when you're worse than I am.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t have ten R&D designs to review and improve. Iron Man’s work is never done.” Tony drummed his fingers on the comforter. “But since you’re not sleeping either… Do you, uh— wanna come down to the lab with me? I’ll have to work, but there’s a lot of cool stuff down there to keep you busy. Plus, the bots have been dying to meet you.”

James swore his own face actually lit up, but the surprise that it could actually do that was no more than a fleeting thought. He’d been dreaming of seeing Tony’s lab, seeing Tony in his element, in the place where he was most at home.

“That would be— that’d be fantastic, Tony.”

“Yeah?” Did Tony look hopeful too or was that just James’ imagination? “Well, come on then, up and at ‘em. I’ll introduce you to the bots and then you can keep them distracted while I get some work done.”

James' stomach began doing excited flips as he followed Tony, but Tony’s voice proved to be a lovely distraction from his nerves as Tony launched into an explanation while they walked, talking about some SI project or another that caught his attention. 

James focused on that voice and on Tony, not letting himself think about the hurdles on the horizon, some of which promised to be outright painful. Tomorrow, there would be more people who would study him, judge him, potentially find him lacking, unsuitable to be around Tony (and James wouldn’t even begrudge them that judgment). Tomorrow, James would have to deal with contacting Steve and that man’s stubborn refusal to see past his own nose. He would had to deal with Maximoff, out there, existing.

A complicated mess all around.

Tonight though, James decided to concentrate on just two things. One was Tony’s lab, which was bound to be the second most wonderful, breathtaking sight he’d ever seen, and two was the effort needed to resist leaning in again and kissing the first most wonderful, breathtaking sight right in front of him. 

Chapter Text

At first, there was nothing but darkness, filled with haunting voices calling out to him from within, commanding him to obey. The voices were an old memory, only now threaded with red, their echoes a familiar terror, but where before James would break free from these memories with a strangled scream on his lips and an abject sense of loneliness, this time James was guided back to the fragile state between sleep and wakefulness by warmth and a gentle hand.

“Shh, you’re alright,” a voice soothed. It was nothing like the old voices because this was Tony’s voice and despite his foggy, sleepy state, James knew now that he was safe, wherever he was. “Just a nightmare.” 

Someone was smoothing down his brow with their thumb, back and forth, back and forth, a grounding motion that kept the flashes of red away. This had to be Tony too.

“What— where am I?” James said, or tried to, rather. His mouth was full of cotton and he wasn’t sure if he managed more than mumbled nonsense, but Tony just shushed him again, brushing his hand over James’ temple.

“You fell asleep in the lab, remember?” he answered, and James did remember, somewhat, through a lens of sleepy exhaustion. He tried to blink open his eyes, but his lids were too heavy and the lights just too bright. As he struggled, Tony added fondly, “The bots really wore you out, didn’t they?”

“S’been a long day,” James managed, proud that the words sounded vaguely more coherent this time. He smacked his lips and scrunched up his nose, trying to fight against the lethargy, trying to sit upright, but the rest of his body was heavy too.

“Hey, no, go back to sleep. With the way you’ve been crashing on me, you obviously need it.” 

James did manage to blink open one eye, took in Tony’s concerned face, and obediently plopped back onto the couch when a firm hand on his shoulder urged him to lie back down.

He rubbed his face into the pillow as he settled back in. The material was soft and it smelled like Tony and suddenly the idea of sleeping, right here in this comfortable little spot with Tony watching over him, sounded like the best thing ever. Tony always had the best ideas. 

Still, one particular worry nagged at the back of James’ mind despite all the haziness. “You gonna get any sleep?” he asked the other man. Tony wasn’t a super soldier, after all. He needed sleep too. Preferably snuggled up right next to James.

Tony chuckled softly and James realized he might’ve said that last part out loud. Thankfully, he had no mental capacity to feel any embarrassment at the moment. The shame, the regrets, that could all wait until morning. 

“Still have a few more reports to review,” Tony whispered; James couldn’t understand why the other man was whispering, but then he realized he went and closed his eyes again. He was falling right back asleep, and with Tony near, with the hum of the lab around him, James let go and allowed himself to fall.

There was another brush of callused fingers against his temple, the touch lingering there, but that could’ve simply been James losing track of time as his mind drifted. Someone covered him up with a blanket and he assumed that was Tony too. He curled up underneath it, seeking its warmth and protection, and his last conscious thought before sleep claimed him again was that no, that wasn’t Tony, but rather a clumsy mechanical claw trying to gently tuck the blanket around him.

***

When James woke up for the second time, his head was finally clear, no fuzziness, no lethargy, and he was feeling more rested than he had since… well, possibly ever, given his long and shitty history. He was still on the couch, he noted, as he tried to unfold and straighten out his legs— a couch a touch too small for him, but comfortable all the same. The blanket, courtesy of Dum-E if he remembered that part correctly, pooled in his lap as he let himself sit up and indulge in a stretch, joints popping pleasantly as he stretched his arm above his head. 

He glanced around the lab next and realized with a jolt of something unpleasant running through him that he was alone. His stomach clenched, the reaction induced by longing and maybe even a touch of panic, but he told himself, rather firmly, not to be a damn child. Tony was a man with a job and countless responsibilities; he couldn’t baby sit him at all hours of the day. Still, having been left alone in a space still relatively unknown to him, it left him unsettled.

Thankfully, James didn’t have long to fret because he was distracted by Dum-E, who rolled around the corner, cheerfully trilling as he made his way over with a tray precariously balanced on his mechanical claw. James watched, that initial pang of worry now turning to wry amusement, as Dum-E, the poor thing, nearly upended the tray, but the bot successfully made it all the way to the couch and James relieved him of the tray as soon as it was within reach. The robot let out another higher-pitched string of beeps, followed by a low hum that James learned was the bots’ moniker for him, at least according to Tony. 

He thanked Dum-E and patted his chassis, taking the time to marvel all over again at this surreal idea— reality, in fact— that for all intents and purposes, Dum-E was a living being with a mind of his own. James spent most of last night interacting with him and U, playing fetch, indulging the bots as they demonstrated their many skills like overeager children just dying to show off to a new friend. Those skills included some impressive soldering and somewhat less impressive smoothie making.

That entire time, Tony was stationed in his own little corner, pouring over R&D proposals, but every once in a while James would get the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching him. About half of those times, when he would look over at Tony, the man would keep his gaze where it was, on James, his lips always stretched into a smile. There would be the occasional comment— “Whatever you do, don’t drink the smoothies. Ack, Dum-E, no, you gotta be gentle with our new guest. Sorry, they love meeting new people.”— but for the most part, James was left to explore the lab on his own while the bots kept him company. 

He looked down at the couch and made a face at it. Passing out like he did wasn’t exactly part of the plan, but as far as he could remember, all he did was grab one of Tony’s tablets to pull up a science magazine Tony recommended and then the next thing was him waking up to old nightmares, only for them to be chased away by Tony.

James sighed, then realized it was a ridiculous, pining sort of sigh, and got himself under control again, focusing on the offered tray instead. Breakfast, by the looks of it, and he tried a spoonful of the fruity yogurt to find it perfect for his tastes. There was also a steaming mug of tea and a hand-written note. He grabbed the piece of paper and smiled when he recognized Tony’s writing.

Snowflake,

Sorry to bail on you so soon, but the Avenging is never done unfortunately. Standard mission, business as usual, shouldn’t be too dangerous. I wanted to wake you up before I left, but you just looked so darn cozy. Plus, rest is good, right?

The bots wanted to make you breakfast (check with Friday before eating it), but feel free to go up to the kitchen for more. Friday can also help you avoid (or meet) the others, although a good half are out on the mission with me. Your presence won’t be a surprise (Rhodey says we owe him big time), but I know introductions can be awkward, so you can hang out with Friday and the bots until I get back. 

We should be done by lunch, but non-mission comms are off until then. 

Be good and don’t miss me too much!

-TS

James read the note twice, pouting the entire way through the second read. This was confirmation that Tony wouldn’t be around for a while, which obviously dampened his mood, but at the same time, the time alone was probably a good idea. He had a lot to think about after all. 

He folded the note up and placed it back on the tray, trading it for the bowl of yogurt. After Friday gave him the go-ahead, he ate slowly, the bots keeping him company and engaging him in a mostly one-sided conversation, but one more pleasant than he’d had with some actual humans. The bots didn’t mind if James went silent to mull over his words; they were perfectly happy with whatever responses he gave them, no matter how brief. They beeped and hummed, waving their claws around to emphasize whatever they were saying and James liked to believe he was getting the hang of their ‘bot speak’, although Friday still helped to translate, sounding both fond and exasperated with the bots, something James was certain she picked up from her creator.

The bowl of yogurt disappeared in no time, the return of his appetite a hopeful sign; he’d grab more food later, he told himself, but right now, he had to get back to his quarters to make a phone call.

***

James closed the door behind him, eyes scanning the surroundings automatically. No threats, of course; this was just his room, in the safest place on the continent. Who exactly did he expect to jump out of the shadows?

“Thank you for getting me through the Compound without running into anyone,” he said to Friday.

“You are very welcome, Mr. Barnes.”

“I know I have to meet everyone eventually,” James felt the need to explain his behavior, “but just… not yet.”

“Your comfort is of utmost importance,” she replied, polite as ever. He tried to smile at one of her cameras, but his lips didn’t cooperate and it likely came off as a grimace. He knew he was safe here, but with this phone call looming over him and without Tony around and with the space still so unfamiliar— old habits kicked right back in, he supposed. Reaching back behind him, James tested the door handle, even though he just locked it, but everything was digital here and he just needed to be sure—

“Friday, the door’s locked, right?”

“Yes, Mr. Barnes, and I will ensure it remains locked. Only Boss and Colonel Rhodes would be allowed to enter without permission, and only during an emergency where you are at risk of significant harm.”

James nodded. That was acceptable. “Thank you. Sorry I keep asking these things. I’m sure you’re very busy.”

“I am currently running one hundred and seventeen major processes, plus over a thousand less critical subroutines, all without experiencing any significant strain. As you can see, my capacity for multi-tasking is unparalleled. Your questions are no trouble at all.”

James took her word for it, but thanked her again just in case. Stalling for time, James decided to drag himself into the shower first. Another scenario rife with potential stress, but between the locked doors and the amazing water pressure, it was manageable and even became downright pleasurable the longer he let himself stand under the water, letting it massage the tension out of his muscles. The scars and the inflamed tissue around the left shoulder smarted against the hot water, but the pain was worth it when the rest of his body felt so fantastic. The sting was a good reminder however that his injury needed professional help and letting Tony drag him to a doctor was the responsible thing to do, no matter how much the idea made him want to run and hide.

Tony had his permission to continue the work on the new arm prosthetic too; everything was still in the planning stages because Tony needed James to be physically present for the detailed scans— and here he was, finally— but James hadn’t yet found a way to feel worthy of a gesture that grand and that selfless. He might get there one day; perhaps basic necessity would push him to overcome the mental roadblocks because guilt or no guilt, having his left arm back would certainly make some things easier. 

That was a worry for another time however, so he let those thoughts settle. There were other hurdles to overcome first. 

*** 

Clean, and dressed in new clothes that fit him almost perfectly and smelled recently laundered and fresh, James’ spirit valiantly clung to this feeling of wellness, but in the end it was a futile task. James paced the length of the room while his anxiety reared its ugly head all over again, then grew and grew.

He told himself that the worst had already happened. There was nothing Steve could possibly do to hurt him further. 

Like ripping off a band-aid, James, come on. He stopped and squared his shoulders, willed his heart to stop hammering away in his chest.

“Miss Friday? Is there a way for me to contact Steve without risking my location?”

“Certainly. I can dial the number for you and you may simply speak or you may use your cell phone— and let me just say, excellent choice of color scheme. Whatever you choose, Mr. Rogers will not have access to your phone number and not even the most advanced tracking technology will get past my security protocols to discover your location. Although,” she added with a huff, “I sincerely doubt that your former colleagues have access to even the most rudimentary of technology.”

James eyed the cell phone sitting innocuously on the night stand, decided he needed something physical, an illusion of control where he could begin and end this conversation on his own terms; he took a deep breath and marched over to pick the thing up before he lost his courage and with clumsy fingers dialed the number, then brought the phone to his ear, exhaling as his entire body went still.

“Hello?” the voice on the other end answered after a beat and James’ stomach clenched painfully, Steve’s voice inciting an unpleasant combination of both friend and threat.

He forced his mouth to form the words. “Steve, it’s me.”

A sharp intake of breath, then, “Bucky? Oh thank god— Bucky, I was so worried! Where are you? Are you alright? We couldn’t find you and we’ve been trying to—”

“Steve, calm down, I’m fine.” No thanks to you, James wanted to say, but he held his tongue.

“Bucky, you have to come back, it’s not safe for you out there.”

Bucky. Bucky, Bucky, Bucky. James didn’t realize how much that name grated on him until he was confronted with it again.

“The apartment’s not safe either.”

“What are you— No, Bucky, no, Wanda isn’t a threat to you. God, she’s been so upset about what happened, worried. Honey, that’s what we were trying to tell you, but you panicked and— and you must’ve slipped back into the Winter Soldier programming, because I’ll be honest, you did not pull your punches yesterday. Natasha’s going to walk with a limp for a few weeks.”

James also refrained from spitting out a spiteful serves her right. It would’ve been satisfying, but ultimately counterproductive; Steve would just assume James was still under someone else’s control. 

There was so much nervous energy thrumming inside him that James already regretted taking the call on the phone. This way, his only hand was occupied and there was no second set of fingers to drum against a surface in mounting agitation. Instead, he started to pace again.

“You expect me to apologize?”

“No, no, I know it wasn’t you. After what you went through, these things are unavoidable. I know that, the others do too, and they’ve already forgiven you. We’re willing to deal with it, injuries and all. The only thing we want is for you to come back home.”

“I can’t—”

“That’s okay, just tell us where you are and we’ll come get you.”

His teeth hurt from grinding them so hard. “No, what I meant— I don’t want to, Steve. I’m not coming back.”

A pregnant pause, then a quiet “What are you talking about?”

“I’m saying— I don’t want to be around—” God, why was this so hard to explain suddenly? 

He almost forgot what it was like to struggle with words. They came easier here, around Tony, even around the others, like Friday and Rhodes. Not always, but here it was easier to forget that he was broken. The expectations were different too. They were limited to a simple ‘be a good man’ instead of ‘be this man’.

“I won’t be around her,” he finally managed, the corners of his eyes prickling with the sting of futile tears, but he was proud of himself for the steadiness of his voice.

“Bucky, I told you, Wanda wasn’t trying to hurt you, she was just—”

“She admitted it, Steve! She used— they used her magic— she’s Hydra and you never told me that.”

“She was Hydra,” Steve corrected, as if that changed a damn thing, “but she changed and I didn’t want others to hold her past against her.”

“So you lied to me?”

“I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have, but I just wanted to protect her.”

“Right, the same way you lied to T—” he choked on the name, “to Stark to protect me. Careful, Stevie, someone might think you’re a liar.” 

This part, this was actually worse than Maximoff’s underhanded attempts to manipulate him. The broken trust, it hurt, and James could only imagine how much worse it had to have been for Tony.

“She has a right to a clean start.”

“And I have a right not to have my head fucked with.”

“She didn’t—”

“Would you stop?” James took a gulping, shuddering breath, the outburst making him shake. “Please, my god, why— why won’t you just listen to me? Why do you trust her like this over— over me?”

For a few seconds, there was no reply. Maybe Steve was struggling to find a proper excuse, James didn’t know, but when the man spoke again, his answer was a simple, “You’re not yourself right now, Bucky.”

Steve should’ve taken another damn minute to think.

Suddenly drained of energy, James felt his legs nearly give out from under him, so he lowered himself to the floor without any of the usual grace afforded to a master assassin, and slumped against the back of the bed, legs akimbo in front of him.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” he asked quietly.

“Get what?”

“I’m not that guy anymore. I’m sorry, I know you miss your old life, I know it’s not fair that— that you lost everything, but… you gotta face reality.”

“No, don’t say that, please. You— you just haven’t had the help you need.”

“You think a— a therapist is gonna magically fix me?” 

“We could at least try—”

“That’s what the witch wanted to do. Make me Bucky again.”

The huff on the other end of line was frustrated. “You are Bucky. And I told you, she wasn’t doing anything—”

“How can I trust you if you don’t believe a word I say?” 

Another pained sound and James could just about picture Steve pinching the bridge of his nose. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. This is coming out all wrong. We’ll, uh— we’ll figure something out, okay? I can talk to Wanda, I can— I don’t know, I just— I can’t stand to think of you out there all alone. It’s like the years after SHIELD all over again. I just want you safe, Bucky, so please… let me know where you are and I’ll come get you, okay? All that matters is that we’re together, everything else will fall into place. I’m with you till the end of the line, Buck, you know that.”

The pleading words, the cajoling tone, that damn line, it had the opposite effect of what Steve had intended because it did nothing to convince James of Steve’s trustworthiness. The entire thing just made him angry instead. 

Steve probably believed every word that came out of his mouth; he probably didn’t even intend for James to get hurt in the first place, but that wasn’t enough, not anymore. Steve was so hellbent on living in the past that he’d rather stick his fingers in his ears and scream over everyone else; James knew in his gut that Steve would turn a blind eye to a little flicker of magic too, a little spell here and there that would erase another small sliver of James, all for the sake of getting ‘his Bucky’ back.

James couldn’t risk that, he couldn’t. Yes, he was a damn broken mess right now, someone who couldn’t even string a full sentence together without choking on his words, who couldn’t take a damn shower without checking the locks over and over, who was still learning how to go from being a murderous monster to something resembling a human being.

He wasn’t perfect, hell, he wasn’t even great, but when he was with Tony, when Tony smiled at him, when he listened so patiently, when James managed to make Tony laugh or get Tony to look at him with that sweet sort of fondness in his eyes, when they were together, for the first time since he took back control of his mind, James felt that he had something resembling worth. 

There was still room— so much room— for growth, for improvement, for healing, but Tony’s treatment of him taught him that he didn’t have to revert back to a man he barely remembered in order to be treated decently. Hell, in his most private fantasies, James even let himself believe this new version of him was worthy enough to be loved someday too. 

“Steve, I can’t, I’m not coming back—”

Steve cut him off again, first with imploring no, Bucky, please, then taking an abrupt jump into more excuses, explanations for what happened, why James was wrong about Wanda, why this whole thing was just a big misunderstanding. James must’ve misinterpreted the situation, Steve said, and overreacted; this was just James’ trauma talking, his brain overlaying images of his former Hydra tormentors onto Maximoff, who was clearly nothing more than an innocent bystander caught in the midst of James’ panic attack. 

James let him talk, let the words fall and fall and fall, and wondered whether Steve thought this diatribe was convincing. 

Because it wasn’t on his end. 

James closed his eyes, a headache pounding at the back of his skull. Not a magic-induced headache, thank god, just regular old pain borne out of sheer frustration, hopelessness, and that wretched feeling of knowing nothing you said mattered to the other person. 

Maybe it made him selfish to think like this, ungrateful, whatever word described someone who turned their back on a man who sacrificed so much for him already, but selfish or not, James was infinitely glad that there were miles and world-class security separating him from Steve today. The separation was crucial because if they were in the same room right now, James wasn’t sure what he’d do. Maybe lash out, maybe run and retreat into his mind until the world was deemed safe again. Or maybe he’d just give in, like he did so many times before, let Steve dictate what he could feel, how he should react, and what truth he should believe. Shame clawed at the back of his throat. Did it make him weak for letting Steve and the others push him around for so long?

“Bucky, please, just come home,” Steve added one last time, a finishing touch to his impassioned pleas, to the excuses, to the subtle accusations that made it sound like James was the only one here who had it all wrong. “My first priority is to make sure you’re safe.”

“I am safe and I’m not coming back,” James said, getting sick and tired of repeating himself. “Not until you—”

God, was there even a pathway that would lead James to ever returning to that place? Unlikely, but he had to say something… “Not until you understand that Maximoff is a threat. You, the others, you should be careful too.”

“Bucky, I’ve known Wanda for years, you just— no, you know what, we can discuss all this when we're together again. I hate being apart like this. I’m worried. The last thing you need is to be alone right now.”

They were going in circles at this point. James would say one thing and Steve would promptly ignore it. Rinse and repeat. James gripped his phone tightly and any other contraption would’ve shattered under the pressure, but apparently Tony had this phone reinforced. Thoughtful, considerate, even then, even when he and James were basically strangers with nothing but an awful past to share between them.

The thought reminded James he wasn’t alone and it was so tempting to inform Steve of exactly that. I’m not alone. I’m with Tony, who treats me like a human being, who respects my space and my choices. 

The words were on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed them back down. It wasn’t worth giving away his location, definitely wasn’t worth letting it slip that he and Tony were friends, not even for the sheer satisfaction of proving Steve wrong. 

Instead, he quietly said, “I’ve been just fine on my own before. I was fine, for two years, before you and that maniac Zemo came after me. I’ll be fine now too. I’m not even in New York anymore,” James lied and the guilt of doing it so effortlessly was lost between the anger, the frustration, and the echoes of melancholy, “so don’t bother looking, okay?”

“That’s not fair, Bucky. You know I’m not gonna stop worrying, so why can’t you just—” Steve made a frustrated, angry noise. “After everything we went through, after everything I’ve done—”

“I didn’t ask for any of it!” God, he already carried that guilt around, he didn’t need a damn reminder. “You— you can’t hold that over my head forever.”

“Bucky, that’s not what I meant—”

“My name is James, but I know you keep forgetting that. Goodbye, Steve.”

The protests on the other end of the line were cut short and James tossed the phone over his shoulder. It landed on the comforter with a soft thump.

He could feel the tell-tale pricks of tears again, moisture gathering at the edges of his vision, but he fought against it, forcing himself to call on training that would center his emotions. It wasn’t a pleasant way to calm himself, but he refused to cry over this, even if it did hurt, severing this connection so thoroughly, turning his back on the man who helped break Hydra’s hold. Steve went against SHIELD, against the whole world and his team, then nearly killed one of his teammates, all to protect James.

No, that wasn’t right. Steve nearly killed Tony to protect Bucky and he couldn’t pretend anymore, not even for Steve’s sake, that he was still a carbon copy of that man. Didn’t he deserve to live out this second chance on his own terms? Or did that make him selfish too?

Sometimes we deserve to be selfish. 

The words lingered in his mind, the images of warm brown eyes and a soft smile joining them, and James admitted that his desire to stay here was only partially related to the threat of Maximoff’s powers and the issues with Steve.

Swiping at his cheek to get rid of the evidence left behind by one treacherous tear, James forced a deep exhale out of his lungs and got back up to his feet. Everything was still raw and aching inside, but sitting here and moping about wasn’t doing him any good.

He called out to Friday. “Do you know when Tony is coming back?”

“I’m sorry, the team is still in mission-mode, so the comms are restricted.”

“Is he safe?”

She hesitated. “You are… not classified to request mission-related information, I’m sorry.”

James mulled it over. “Are you worried about him?” he asked instead.

This time, she made a peculiar noise that James swore sounded like a long-suffering sigh. “I always worry about Boss. He's... a handful.” She sounded fond. “I promise I will notify you as soon as he’s available, Mr. Barnes.”

“Thank you,” he said, then looked around the room. Where did that leave him? He supposed there were enough things here to keep him entertained and he could sit around, wait until Tony showed up. Keeping himself locked away behind closed doors though, hiding until the one person who made him feel safe came back… it sounded tempting, but in reality, it was a dangerous idea. If his mind was left to its own devices without an appropriate distraction, it was going to find new and inventive ways of making him feel shitty about this whole Steve situation.

Some company would be advisable.

“Can you tell me who else is at the Compound? Someone who knows that I’m here,” he clarified.

“Mr. Loki and, err— Spider-man are in the kitchen at the moment. The rest are either participating in the mission or are off-base.”

James caught the strange pause Friday made, but didn’t bother calling her on it, although his mind was already putting the pieces together. Was Spider-man that kid he fought in Germany? 

Of course Loki was one of the people Tony warned him about, but what better way to integrate himself into the social framework of the Avengers than by starting with the most troublesome part of it?

Not wanting to show up unannounced and risk getting a bolt of magic to the face, James asked Friday to check if the other two would mind the extra company; when he received the green light, James gathered every last bit of courage he had and left behind the relative safety of his quarters, without Tony this time to guide the way.

Chapter Text

Steve stared helplessly at the phone for one more second, two, three, then tossed it aside dejectedly and slumped over his knees. For something that started off on such a high note, something that filled him with near-hysterical elation when Bucky’s voice came through the phone, it all ended in the worst possible way. Bucky just outright rejected him. 

Steve’s fingers clenched harder where they were buried in his hair. This wasn’t right, none of this was right.

“Please tell me we got something,” he called out to Natasha. At first, Steve thought that tracing the call would be nothing more than a precaution, the location only useful in case Bucky was in serious trouble, unaware of his location or unable to communicate it. Somehow, what actually happened was worse and Steve needed that location now, but all Natasha gave him was this soft little noise of defeat and Steve didn’t even bother looking up at her. He knew it wasn’t good news and his heart sank all over again.

“I have plenty of something,” she still offered after a beat, “but none of it is what we need. The tracer is currently placing Barnes at…” she drew the word out to give herself a moment, presumably to look at the data, “Sao Paulo, the outskirts of Tokyo, a mountain range in Canada, eastern Ukraine, and— oh yes, that one hot dog stand in Central Park.” Steve did sit up now to look over his shoulder at her, intent on saying that he didn’t appreciate the strands of sarcasm weaved into her words, but her own steely gaze was warning enough and he kept the reprimand to himself. At least her lips twisted into something more apologetic. “You’re dealing with the Winter Soldier, Steve. He’s a ghost, finding him is difficult on a good day, and we’re not exactly working with top-tier tech here.”

“Neither is he though,” Steve countered. “How would Bucky have any tech at all, let alone something that would scramble his location like that? He’s been gone for one day.” 

So many damn questions swirling around in his head. Where the hell was Bucky right now? Was he safe? Why did Bucky insist on staying away at all and acting like Steve was his enemy? Why didn’t he just trust Steve?

Not a single satisfying answer so far.

Steve glanced around the room, hoping to see something more promising from the others. They all gathered in the living room as soon as Bucky’s name left Steve’s lips, with Scott the only exception, absent again to be with his daughter. Clint was leaning against the glass door that lead to their unremarkable, tiny balcony while Wanda stood next to him, nervously rubbing her hands together, obviously distressed by this whole situation. Steve couldn’t blame her. 

Neither one offered him anything though, but Sam, perched on the arm of the rickety chair on Steve’s right, let out a snort in response. “Steve, we spent two years chasing this guy and that was with Stark’s tech at our disposal.”

“Not to mention Tony’s bank account too,” Natasha murmured and the strange, subdued tone of her voice resonated oddly with Steve. The words sounded like they could’ve been a jibe, but maybe Steve was just reading too much into every unimportant detail right now. Last time they were on Bucky’s trail, they did have access to money and top-of-the-line technology, that was a simple fact. Today was a different day however, very different, and Steve couldn’t waste a single moment parsing the underlying meanings of people’s tones right now.

That distressing phone call replayed itself again in his head, like a film reel stuck on a loop, and Steve groaned. “Maybe you’re right. Bucky, he’s smart and even when he’s not himself, he can probably find a way to throw people off his scent. That’s what he was trained to do. That— that makes sense, right?” Steve couldn’t help but ask the room again. Nothing made sense right now.

“Well, what else is there?” Clint asked in turn, crossing his arms over his chest, frowning at some vague spot on their dirty carpet. “It’s not like he has any allies. Unless… He has been getting all that stuff lately. I’ve been suspicious for a while, but you told me not to antagonize him,” he added air quotes, a gesture Steve thought was entirely unnecessary, “but that blanket and those shoes we found in his room? He cannot afford those.” Clint snorted then, lips pulling apart into a sarcastic, sharp smile. “Maybe Barnes is the one with Stark tech. Went and got himself a sugar daddy.”

Wanda rolled her eyes and huffed. “As if Stark would help anyone but himself. We all know he’d never lift a finger unless it’s to point it at his next victim.”

Clint shrugged, but didn’t disagree. Steve mulled over the actual point Clint was trying to make and had to concede that it had merit. Someone else being involved was a possibility, but Wanda was right of course. The idea that it was Tony was laughable

“The last time Tony was in the same room as Bucky, he tried to kill him. I can’t imagine his attitude improved over the last year, especially not with the way he and his ‘team’ have been treating the rest of us.” A shiver ran down Steve’s spine at the memories of that godforsaken bunker. “God, this is why I don’t want Bucky out there like this. I know he’s strong, I know he’s smart, but he’s vulnerable. What if someone takes advantage of that, what if— what if Tony does find him? Oh god, he could— he could hurt him or— or stick him in a jail cell or worse!” 

Damn Clint for putting these possibilities into Steve’s head because suddenly all he could think about was Tony and every godawful thing he could do to Bucky.

The frown on Sam’s face reflected Steve’s distress. “Damn, I didn’t even think of it like that. That— that’d be a real sick way for Stark to get revenge on you, huh? To do it through Barnes?”

Steve hid his face in his hands and groaned for all the world to hear.

“God, don’t say that. Don’t even think it,” he reprimanded. “Bucky— no, he is smart,” he declared; he didn’t care if the words were only meant to convince himself of the fact. “He’s lost and confused right now, but Bucky had always been clever. He’s not going to be so easy to trick.”

“And hopefully he’ll just stay off Stark’s radar entirely,” Sam added; Steve appreciated the attempt at reassurance. “Stark’s been busy— hell, too busy to see any of us, so maybe that means he won’t bother paying attention to one super soldier on the loose.”

“As long as Barnes stays out of trouble,” Clint said before adding derisively, “you think your boy can do that? Because so far he’s been nothing but trouble for the rest of us.”

Steve left the illusion of safety behind his hands to glare at Clint, team unity be damned. “I’d appreciate you not talking about him like that. It’s not helpful.” Neither was sitting around and bickering about it though. “I should— I should check out Central Park at least.”

“Steve,” Natasha said and her tone grated on his nerves again, because she might as well have said “Steve, don’t be an idiot.” Instead, she just added a quiet, “He won’t be there.”

“Well, I can’t just sit around, I have to do something.”

“It might be best to let him catch his breath. What happened with—” Natasha’s eyes darted to Wanda, “whatever happened yesterday, he obviously got spooked.”

Spooked? Tasha, he nearly broke your damn tibia in half!”

She brushed off Clint’s words with a shrug. “Going after a panicked Winter Soldier with a stunner wasn’t my brightest move.”

“Can we go to anyone about this?” Sam chimed in again, ignoring the back and forth between the spies. “The Council? The authorities maybe?” 

Steve began nodding along, right until Natasha shook her head.

“The Council has nothing to do with this. They only oversee the adherence to the Accords, which Barnes hasn’t signed. They have no jurisdiction over him.”

“Well, what about—”

“The pardons?” she read Steve’s mind. “For all intents and purposes, he’s a free man. Nothing in the pardons says we have to stick together. He has to remain in the country for a year and abide by the laws. And no, you can’t file a missing persons’ report either. He’s not missing, he just doesn’t want to be found. Steve, come on, you have to let this go. Just for now,” she amended when Steve glared at her, his nostrils flaring with building agitation. “Let the dust settle. He’ll come back once he feels safe enough.”

“He’s already safe here!” The words just burst out of him and were followed by a frustrated noise clawing its way out of Steve’s throat while he tried to choke the rest of his anger down. “So what then, that’s my only option? To sit and wait?”

Natasha’s thin-lipped expression wasn’t encouraging. “We don’t have the money to look for him and we don’t have the tech to track him down. You would need someone like Tony and—”

“And Tony would much rather kill Bucky than help him, yeah, I get it.” Steve finished. He stopped and looked around the room. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be taking this out on all of you. I’m sorry you were dragged into this at all. You especially, Wanda. You must’ve been so scared when Bucky attacked you.”

Her delicate hand came up to rub her neck, the bruises on the left side now a mottled patchwork of blues and yellows. “I was terrified, but I think it was worse for him. Whatever he saw…” She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “I just wish I got the chance to help him.” When she looked at Steve again, her gaze was earnest. “I can do it, I can help him, I just need one chance to look inside is head— why are you frowning like that, Sam?”

“Hey, no, I’m not frowning,” Sam waved his hands in front of him, “I’m just… okay, fine, I gonna be honest, I’m not really comfortable with this whole ‘get into a brainwashed guy’s head again in order to help him’ thing. That just doesn’t pass the smell test with me, that’s all I’m saying.”

Wanda’s eyes narrowed. “I know more about this than you do, so I suggest you don’t comment on things you don’t understand.”

Sam held his hands up in surrender and didn’t respond, but he did stand up to walk away, into their small kitchenette to grab a beer, and Steve’s hearing still picked up the muttered, “Yeah, because I never worked with traumatized vets before, sure.”

A tired breath escaped Steve’s lips, one that spoke of both heartache and surrender. The surrender was temporary— he’d never give up on Bucky— but he knew when it was time to step back and wait until the variables changed again. “Let’s not argue about this. Please? Being at each other’s throats is the worst thing we can do right now. When Bucky comes back, we’ll decide on what’s best, but until then…”

Until then, Steve had to hope, had to pray that Bucky was safe, wherever he was, and that his luck would hold up just long enough to save him from crossing paths with Tony.

***

James’ sensitive hearing picked up the voices when he was still out in the hallway that led into the kitchen.

“Why not?” a deep, masculine voice filtered through.

“Because— well, for one, Mr. Stark would not approve!” a younger voice answered. James barely remembered the airport fight, but the voice sounded vaguely familiar, so this had to be Spider-man.

“Tony never has to know,” the other voice— Loki then— answered; the tone was amused.

“Mr. Loki, no, you can’t just turn Flash into a snake.”

James’ already nearly silent footsteps ceased as he stopped just before the entrance, using the wall to shield himself. It was curiosity, partly, that caused him to hesitate, but mostly the eavesdropping was driven by a need to gauge these two individuals before throwing himself to their mercy.

“But he’s been bullying you,” Loki countered, “and that is unacceptable. I won’t stand for it. However, if you are so opposed to my involvement, I may have a compromise.” There was an unmistakable grin in the man’s voice. “I will teach you how to turn him into a snake.” 

The kid sputtered. “No, that’s not— I mean— okay, that would actually be super cool, but—” the words stopped suddenly.

“Is your mask on tight, dear one? Because our guest is here and he’s doing a bit of eavesdropping if I’m not mistaken.”

Smooth move, Barnes. Of course Loki would hear him coming, he was a Norse god. Not the brightest decision on James’ part, but it was done, so he just rounded the corner to meet his fate, with every movement carefully telegraphed to make himself appear non-threatening. After all, Tony wasn’t here to protect him from a punch to the face. 

“Sorry,” he mumbled, then cleared his throat while he studied the other two. Loki, long black hair slicked back, was adorned in black pants, a tight shirt and green sneakers, all of which gave him the appearance of perfectly human (James momentary mourned his own pair of sneakers) and he was lounging at the dining table, legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankle, a glass of something amber in one hand; the kid was perched on the chair on the other side, wearing a simple shirt and jeans, but his face hidden by the mask James recognized from his memories. Spider-man indeed, although by the looks of him, Spider-kid was a more appropriate moniker.

“Oh, no harm done, dear soldier, I’m glad you could join us,” Loki said while his own sharp gaze studied James right back. Different from the Colonel though, who observed James like one would a dangerous thing, a threat. Loki looked at him like he was some fascinating anomaly instead.

James just nodded stiffly again, then promptly wished the earth would just swallow him whole because this used to be easier, but before he could embarrass himself further, Spider-man finally gave up on sitting still, jumped up off his chair, and bounded right up to him, all with enough energy to startle James out of his awkwardness.

“Oh my god, Mr. Barnes sir, it’s so cool that you’re staying with us,” the kid enthused and James swore the boy was grinning, despite the mask hiding his face. “The Colonel told us yesterday, you know, that you weren’t doing so well with them and that we were going to help you, and I’ve just been so excited to meet you— well, meet you again. Obviously. ‘Cause we already met in Germany and everything.”

“Dear one,” Loki called from his spot, his voice almost melodic, “our guests don’t appreciate being accosted by your enthusiasm. Especially guests as shy as this one.”

Spider-man glanced over his shoulder, huffed, and then turned back to James, who just wondered how a mask could convey sheepishness so well. 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Barnes, I didn’t mean to, uh— accost you— wait, no!” He was looking back at Loki. “That’s not even what I was doing!” All the indignant words managed to do was turn Loki’s fond amusement up a notch.

James decided he should probably stop impersonating a mime and start talking. “S’alright, I’m fine. It’s, uh— nice to meet you too. Again.”

Spider-man remained unfazed by James’ awkward delivery as he jumped from foot to food excitedly.

“Ah, you do remember!” He let out a small squeak, then cleared his throat hurriedly and thrust his hand out. “Ahem. Welcome to the Compound, Mr. Barnes. I’m Spider-man and that’s Loki over there,” he said, this time trying to make his voice sound deeper, and the fact that he was mostly failing was sort of adorable and it brought back long-lost memories of another skinny kid James used to know. Someone who was just as long-gone as Bucky, he reminded himself, and tamped down on the brief flash of nostalgia.

“Hard to forget,” James shook the offered hand and still tried to smile because this kid was pretty endearing; he hoped his attempt didn’t come off as some weird-looking grimace. “Stopped my metal arm with one hand. Real strong for a kid.”

“Yes, he’s quite talented for his age. Brilliant too. We’re very proud,” Loki added, the comment an endearing mix of sincerity and teasing. “Now, dear soldier,” Loki arched an inquisitive eyebrow, “will you join us for lunch? I assume that’s why you’re here.”

“Ooh, yes, Mr. Barnes, please do! You gotta tell me everything— like, what you remember about the forties, or— or—” Spider-man paused to grab James’ wrist and began tugging at it, “tell me about Wakanda, actually! I need a second source to verify what Shuri keeps tells me because I have a feeling that she embellishes.” 

James’ breath caught a little, someone other than Tony touching him like this still a shock to his system, but he ignored the automatic desire to run, reminding himself that if he ever wanted a semblance of normalcy, if he ever wanted even a chance of being someone good enough for Tony, he needed to stop acting like a skittish animal and this kid was a damn good place to start. A sweet kid who meant James no harm.

He followed willingly, although he had to dodge Loki’s gaze when he got closer and took a seat. Those eyes were still too damn knowing.

“No need to embellish,” he said quietly to Spider-man, then cleared his throat again. “Probably. Depends on what she’s saying. Wakanda is very impressive.”

“Oh man,” the kid just groaned when he dropped to his seat, “well, that just makes me wanna visit her more. I really hope they figure out the whole immigration and visas thing soon. I wanna visit Shuri and see her lab. Plus, she keeps teasing me about this new chemical compound she’s been working on for my webs and I just wanna know.” He sprang back up to his feet, apparently guided by an endless supply of energy, and skipped over to the refrigerator as he talked. “Okay, Mr. Barnes, sir, what would you like? I’m no chef, but according to Aunt May, I can make a killer sandwich. Although we do have leftovers or— ooh, mac and cheese, I can make that too! Wait, no!” he peaked around the door. “The cafeteria downstairs is doing hand-rolled sushi today! By a real sushi guy! Have you ever tried sushi, Mr. Barnes?”

The torrent of words was enough to finally push James straight into overwhelmed, although he was supposed it wasn’t entirely bad. The kid was just… a lot and it took a deep breath for James to manage a coherent reply. “Haven’t had sushi, no. And it’s, uh— it’s James… if you don’t mind?”

He didn’t mean for that last part to come out so hesitantly, but how many times had he made that request? How many times had it been willfully ignored?

Spider-man leaned against the door, letting it rock back and force while he let the cool air out. James’ hand itched to close it. “James is a great name. The Colonel is a James too!” The kid scratched his chin. “Although no one ever calls him that, come to think of it. Is that weird? Miss Pepper calls him Jim…”

Loki cleared his throat. “Please close the refrigerator before our darling guest closes it for you.” Spider-man let out an eep and hurried to do what Loki asked. “Thank you. Now, you were discussing our food options?”

“Oh yeah! Sushi! Do you like fish, Mr. James? Sushi is just rice and different fish, plus stuff like avocado,” he began listing things out using his fingers, “cream cheese, sometimes crab— fake crab and real crab, but fake crab is just fish all smooshed together— ooh, shrimp! Lots of shrimp! Some of the fish is raw though… er, I’m not selling this very well, am I?”

James shook his head, but it was mostly out of amusement rather than disagreement. The kid was growing on him with every word, it seemed.

He hadn’t tried sushi, actually, although Tony enthused about it once, promising to take him to a local place that made the best hand-rolls, then promising to take James all the way to Japan to try the authentic, non-Americanized dishes. Knowing Tony, the promise of whisking James off to the other side of the world was only partly a playful tease. 

“That sounds great, really,” he tried to reassure Spider-man, he had to when the kid sounded so darn earnest, “but you don’t have to—”

“No, no, I totally got this!” the kid shouted, already on his way out of the kitchen— leaping out of the kitchen, really— and his voice carried down the hall. “I’ll get you one of everything!”

James blinked at the sudden exit, then slowly turned back to his other companion and just like that, he was left alone with the infamous trickster. Worse still was that the damn too-clever look in Loki’s eyes hadn’t faded one bit; it made the hairs at the back of James’ neck stand on end. 

“He’s, uh— he’s quite the kid, huh?” James tried to fill the awkward silence between them.

“He is indeed. Very young and very gifted, both with incredible powers and a bright mind. A kind soul too,” Loki added, then tsked, “which I’ve been trying to teach him to ignore before it gets him into trouble, but alas,” he sighed melodramatically, “no such luck. I will die of old age before that boy’s goodness grows dim. Never mind that though. Now… James, was it?” Loki didn’t wait for James’ hum of approval. “Are you planning to stay with us at the Compound for very long?”

“As long as Tony lets me.”

Loki’s lips twitched. “I see. And what are your intentions towards Anthony exactly?”

“Intentions? I’m not—”

“Because you see, many of us are quite fond of that man and it would be a terrible thing indeed if anything… untoward happened to him.”

James hardened his expression and looked Loki right in the eye. “I don’t plan on hurting him.”

Loki tilted his head, looking at James like some shiny, fascinating thing again. “You know you can’t lie to the Liesmith, don’t you, soldier?”

“I’m not lying.”

Loki held his gaze for another beat, then shook his head and huffed, face breaking out into a coy smile. “No, you are not. Fascinating, given your history, given what you did do to Anthony not so long ago.”

“You seem to know a lot about me.”

“I pride myself on knowing. I also protect those I consider worth my loyalty, and until very, very recently, you were one of the people threatening Anthony’s peace of mind. Mostly by association, I suppose,” he added.

James didn’t need further clarification and honestly, he didn’t begrudge Loki this protectiveness either. It was heartening, actually, to see others— Potts, Rhodes, and now this guy— so protective of Tony. Tony deserved to have good people in his life, ones who prioritized him and his well-being. James privately longed to be one of these people too, but that sort of wishful thinking was meant for the quiet moments when he was left along with his fantasies. 

“I told you, I won’t hurt him,” he said again and hoped the conviction he felt in his gut was clear in his words. The idea of maliciously hurting Tony, for any reason, made him sick and James would rip his other arm off before willingly hurting the man again. “Tony saved my life— my mind. You, of all people, must know how valuable that is.”

“You seem to know a few things yourself, soldier,” Loki remarked, then looked away, out through the large wall-to-ceiling window that afforded them a view of the expansive courtyard. The god took a sip of his drink before speaking again. “You see, Anthony has a peculiar tendency of saving people. Some who aren’t always worth saving,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

When Loki continued though, his voice retained that subdued quality. “I suppose that makes us alike in a way. Two lost souls given a home by a mortal man whose conviction rivals that of a god.” He pointed with his glass at James. “Some would even say our pasts parallel each other, although I would call them foolish for believing so. I was never… brainwashed,” Loki’s lips curled around the word distastefully, “I was simply… broken by my captors. Made unrecognizable even to myself and like a terrified animal, I ran when the opportunity was presented, did what had to be done so that I would never go back into the hands of my jailers.”

As far as introductions went, this one was uncomfortably personal and James lamented not listening to Tony about Loki’s… eccentricities. “Dunno why you’re telling me all this, but it doesn’t sound all that different.”

That coy smile didn’t waver. “I suppose I’m simply building rapport with our new honored guest. Plus, my infamy precedes me and I’m certain Anthony has told you all about me, the wicked reformed villain.”

Tony had actually told him about Loki, about the sordid history that began with the Battle of New York and ended with Loki becoming someone who occasionally called himself an Avenger and fought alongside them. 

Clearly James wasn’t the only one who was handed a second chance on a silver platter with the only stipulation being do not fuck it up this time. 

“My jailers broke me too,” he decided to share, although he didn’t know why he felt the need, “wasn’t strong enough to fight them off either.”

Loki’s eyes flashed with something, pity perhaps, but it didn’t stick around long enough for James to dwell on it. “From what I gather, you held out for decades. A veritable eternity when compared to your life span.” He shook his head then. “My sincerest apologies, what a morbid topic I set us up on, and just when we were getting know each other. Forgive me, sentiment truly does not suit me. Our histories, whatever they may be, are behind us now. Today, Anthony has welcomed you into our home, so I have no right to do anything but follow his lead.”

“As long as I behave and don't ever hurt Tony, right?”

Loki's eyes sparkled mischievously. “Precisely so. Such a clever mortal you are, I certainly hope to get to know you far better than I already do, darling soldier.”

James squinted a little, the conversation giving him whiplash, and it was hard to tell whether Loki was flirting with him or if this was just a bizarre Loki thing, to use endearments with everyone around him including amnesiac super soldiers he met five minutes ago.

He didn’t bother asking— he’d ask Tony later— and Loki didn’t bother letting him, jumping into a new topic instead, this one less emotionally charged— thankfully— and the god spent a few good minutes telling James about the Compound and its residents before Spider-man’s hurried footsteps alerted them to his arrival.

“So I was thinking—” the kid said as he rounded the corner and Loki flicked a hurried hand in the boy’s direction at the same time James turned around to look at him. His eyes went wide when he saw a green fog obscuring the boy’s face.

“Dear one, your mask, you forgot it.” 

Spider-man fruitlessly swiped at the green swirls with one hand while the other balanced stacks of paper boxes without any sign of effort.

“Mr. Loki, ugh, I can’t see, make it go away. That’s what I was thinking about,” he waved a hand again and made an admittedly adorable grumpy noise. “Mr. James is going to stay a while, right? So I don’t wanna wear my mask all the time, that’s dumb. Mr. Stark trusts him and Mr. Stark is like the smartest guy I know, so…”

With a roll of his eyes, Loki waved his hand again and the green disappeared, revealing—

“Peter?” James blinked, the young face recognizable to him from the many photos Tony had sent him over the past few months. “Huh.”

Peter was grinning, no, outright beaming at James. “Oh my god,” he made that squeaky noise again, “you know me as Peter too? Best day ever,” he declared as he bounded up to drop his stack of boxes onto the table and settle back in his chair. The kid’s antics made James smile, the tension in his gut easing all over again. “How do you, uh— where’d you hear about me?”

“Tony,” James answered simply. “Told me all about you and Harley.” He glanced at Loki. “I shouldn’t be surprised that Tony adopted the wonder-kid, huh?”

Peter sputtered and the tips of his ears turned a brilliant shade of pink. “A-adopted? No, no, he didn’t— I mean, it’s not like— okay, so there was that one time I called him ‘dad’, but it was an accident and—” Peter groaned and hid his face in his hands. “Oh my god. This is so embarrassing. Just let me die a fiery death, please.”

“Just be thankful Harley isn’t here to witness it,” Loki chuckled, “he’d never let you live this down.” Without prompting, the god reached for the boxes and began opening them up to check their contents before distributing them out. One was placed in front of James and he looked inside to see different kinds of sushi rolls stacked neatly side by side. 

“Eat, both of you,” Loki ordered, then raked his eyes over James, assessing. “Hmm, too skinny. Eat whatever you can, there’s always more.” He glared at Peter next. “That one is always too skinny.”

“Fast metabolism,” Peter shrugged, a sushi roll already muffling the words. “Not my fault.” Loki’s fussing quickly lost Peter’s interest. “Okay, seriously though, tell me everything about Wakanda. Ooh, and Romania, ‘cause you were there too, right? Was that cool? I’ve only been to France and Switzerland— Tony took Harley and me to see the Large Hadron Collider— and I visited Canada with Aunt May, but that’s it and I always wanna learn more about other places.”

Peter continued to chatter away, asking questions that thankfully required simple answers from James. Loki interjected, often times to steer the boy’s enthusiasm away from wild tangents, and while the beats of the conversation were different from the ones James had become accustomed to with Tony, he didn’t feel like the odd man out. He thought he would’ve, but the others didn’t speak over him, listened when he did talk and didn’t try to fill in the words for him when it took him a moment too long to say something. He suspected that with Loki, who undoubtedly picked up on James’ peculiarities and discomforts, that was deliberate, but Peter appeared to be sumply gifted at putting people around him at ease.

The other theory, of course, was that living with Steve and the others had skewed James’ perspective so badly that having a perfectly normal conversation felt like some damn miracle now. He wanted to shake his head at the thought, disgusted with himself that it took him this long to understand that, but thankfully there was enough to distract him from the dark thoughts. Peter’s enthusiasm, Loki’s sly but ultimately fond remarks, and even the sushi wasn’t so bad. He was a fan and he’d have to get Tony to take him out someday, maybe, if he found the courage to ask. 

They continued to eat, the two continued to talk, with James content to sit back and listen, getting looped back in every once in a while, and he had to admit that this whole meeting was… nicer than he had anticipated. A small part of him still itched to have Tony near, longing for that reassuring presence that had become a basic need at this point, but having the company of not one but two of the most colorful characters at the Compound without wanting to run and hide was more progress than James could’ve asked for.

Peter was still talking, but at some point he began throwing looks James’ way, trying to be subtle about it and failing entirely. After the third or fourth look, it was obvious what kept catching his attention.

Loki caught it too. “Peter, darling, please don’t stare.”

Peter made a strangled sound and trained his eyes on the demolished roll of sushi on his plate that didn’t survive Peter’s attempt to get the pieces of fish out of it. His ears were red again. “Oh god, sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

James’ mood soured, but only by a fraction. He couldn’t blame the kid. “It’s alright.” He shrugged his left shoulder. “It’s not a pretty sight, I know.”

Peter’s face darted back up, confused at first, but then his brows knitted together. “Oh, that’s not—” he shook his head. “No, no, it doesn’t bother me. I was just worried that it hurt, that’s all. It looks like it’d hurt. And if it does, we, uh— we have doctors here, they’re super nice.”

Between the quiet admission and those big, sad doe eyes, James wondered if it would be in poor taste to outright hug the kid. He refrained, but by god, he wanted to, if only to thank him for genuinely caring about this old, one-armed vet.

“It doesn’t hurt anymore, no,” he said, then cleared his throat to get rid of the pin-pricks of sentiment, as Loki would probably call it. “Tony took care of all that.”

Peter smiled again, although this one wasn’t one of his excited grins; this was softer now, gentler and it reminded James of Tony’s own smiles. “Tony’s pretty great at doing that, huh?”

“Hmm?”

“Taking care of people. He’ll deny it, of course, but he always takes care of everyone.” Peter poked at another sushi roll with his chopsticks, fished out the shrimp, and stuffed it into his mouth. “Colonel’s braces, helping Doctor Banner after a Hulk episode,” he began to list, “Miss van Dyne gets sick sometimes after going tiny, so Tony always makes her this super gross smoothie with a bunch of ginger and lemon and stuff. Bleh. Oh, he helps me with homework too. Usually things like Poli Sci, you know? Harley hates history, so Tony usually quizzes him on that too.”

“He does a lot, doesn’t he?”

“Mm-hmm, so that’s why I gotta look out for him sometimes, because he leaves no time in his schedule for himself, you know? Always too busy making sure everyone else is doing okay.”

Loki hummed agreeably at the declaration, but didn’t comment; James, however, couldn’t help himself. “Tony’s done a lot for me too. I, uh— I wouldn’t mind helping you out once in a while to— to look out for him.”

His awkward offer was rewarded with the return of Peter’s beaming grin and James thought, as hope swelled inside him, that he might just fit in here after all.

Chapter Text

“Let’s see… and this piece goes here, right?” 

Peter’s smile was answer enough and James carefully connected the Lego piece to the half-built USS Enterprise. The design itself was simple enough that James picked up on it quickly, but Peter took to teaching like a duck to water, so James indulged him and tried to find questions for the boy to answer.

Of course, the only reason James knew the name of the ship before Peter launched into an excited explanation of all things Star Trek was Tony’s own lengthy pop culture lectures, from what seemed like years ago now. God, had it only been a few months since those early days? Since the awkward text conversations, the pain and the guilt, the uncertainly over Tony’s true motives? 

So much had changed so quickly; here was James, waiting for Tony to return home from a mission, building this spaceship with Spiderman because the kid invited him over to the common room after they both had lunch with the resident Norse god.

Odd, so odd, but also pleasantly domestic and it wasn’t a difficult realization to make that he wanted more, so much more of this. Tony had been leading him to this point from the beginning, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that after only a day of being surrounded by basic kindness, gentleness, normalcy, James had no inclination to go back to a life filled with pain and dread and indifference.

He took another Lego piece and attached it right next to the first one. “Wish I had something like this when I was growing up.”

Peter looked up from the booklet in his hands. “Really, no Legos?”

“Definitely not. Nothing so… intricate,” James picked up another piece, tossed it in the air absently, caught it and repeated the motion. His mind struggled to remember the finer details of his childhood of course, a fact that no longer elicited more than a momentary frustration. Those years would remain in tatters, he accepted that. Just facts written down on a sheet of plain paper rather than actualized, true memories that held sentimental meaning behind them.

Peter was looking at him curiously, so James flicked the piece he was holding at the kid and watched him catch it effortlessly. “Grew up poor, in Brooklyn, right in the middle of the Depression, so we played with whatever we had around. All of this?” James gestured around him, at the gorgeous room, the breathtaking technology effortlessly incorporated into every space. “The future is amazing, but it’s a lot to get used to.”

Peter was nodding along solemnly. “It’s so weird, isn’t it? That you’re from, like, a whole different century?”

“Calling me old now, kid?”

Peter sputtered and waved his hands in denial, but he must’ve caught the amused glint in James’ eye because the momentary panic was gone just as quickly as it had come.

“I didn’t mean it like that. But you know, it is kinda weird that you’re technically one hundred years old.”

“Says the kid who hangs from the ceiling and lives in a house full of superheroes.” 

Peter conceded the point and went back to studying the booklet, while James took the chance to study the boy himself. Peter had put James at ease within hours— if not minutes— of their introduction; it had to be due some natural ability, one that likely stemmed from a genuinely good heart and an empathy that extended to everyone around him.

They continued with the construction efforts for a little while longer, trading tasks at some point, blocks for booklet, to make the process easier since attaching some of the pieces one-handed was a tricky affair.

Peter was in the middle of explaining the science behind the fictional ship when he was interrupted by Friday’s lilting voice, announcing that Tony, after a lengthy debrief offsite, was finally home and waiting for James down at the workshop.

James was up on his feet before Friday had finished speaking, before he even realized that he jumped to attention like an overeager Labrador. The realization did set in, with no small amount of embarrassment, when he looked down and saw Peter trying hard not to crack a smile.

“Sorry, I just— Tony, he’s—” James suddenly lost every bit of eloquence gifted to him by Peter’s comforting presence, reverting right back to a bumbling fool unable to string a sentence together.

Thankfully, Peter had that good, merciful soul of his and only regarded James with easygoing amusement, free of any real judgment. 

“Yeah, you should probably go check on him,” he said, obviously humoring James, “sometimes Mr. Stark skips Medical, which is funny because he never lets me skip Medical, you know?”

James peered down at the boy. “You’re both trouble, aren’t you?” 

Peter gave him an unabashed grin, and James, feeling flushed with equal parts nerves and excitement, emboldened by the positivity radiating from this kid, decided to part with a teasing, “Like father, like son, I guess.” 

As he walked out, James was rewarded by the sound of that adorable embarrassed squeak.

***

James hurried down to the lab, Friday leading the way through the private stairwell so he could avoid unnecessary distractions. He ignored the small voice at the back of his head admonishing him for acting like a damn puppy. Yes, it was ridiculous, but he wanted to see Tony. Was that so wrong? 

His entrance was announced by the woosh of the workshop doors and even if James tried to, he wouldn’t have been able to stop the smile spreading over his face at the sight of Tony. The man had his back to James, fussing over something on one of the workshop’s tabletops. 

James really hoped he was getting better at this smiling thing because Tony deserved something attractive and endearing, not an awkward grimace, but whatever smile James did manage was instantly gone as soon as Tony turned around to greet him.

“Tony, what— my god, what happened to your face?” 

“Okay, first of all, rude. That’s no way to greet a man. And second of all, I’m fine, Snowflake. Nothing to make a fuss about. How was your day?”

James approached Tony with hurried steps, his initial shock turning to outright worry. Nothing to make a fuss about… except that livid bruise taking over the entire left side of Tony’s face.

James reached out a hand and only caught himself when it was already half way up. He jerked it back, ordered himself not to touch without permission, even if his fingers flexed against his will, demanding to examine that awful bruise. “My day was fine. I thought your mission wasn’t supposed to be dangerous.”

Tony obviously noticed James’ internal struggle and the aborted gesture, but he didn’t comment on either, just turned this way and that, looking for something.

“Eh, we had… complications,” Tony wiggled a hand, then when he found what he was looking for— a coffee cup— Tony made a grab for it, took a sip, then grimaced and winced when the expression pulled on the injured part of his face. James gently took the cup out of the genius’ hands, then placed it out of reach. Tony really shouldn’t be drinking day-old coffee.

“You know how it is though,” Tony added, sounding far too casual for someone whose face was a livid patchwork of reds and rapidly deepening blues. “When did a mission ever go according to plan, you know? Enough about that though, seriously, how was your first day at the Compound?”

“Tony,” James sighed, exasperated with the obvious attempt at deflection. “Why aren’t you in Medical? That bruise looks awful, you should— you need to—” He trailed off when he caught himself sounding like a displeased parent, then scolded himself for the tone of his voice. Did he really have a right to tell Tony what to do? He was just an interloper here, a house guest living off the goodwill of this man, and for him to have the audacity to reprimand Tony like that—

“James, hey, stop that. You’re thinking too hard again.”

James frowned, his runaway thoughts halted by Tony’s words. “How did you—”

“I’d like to think I’ve gotten to know you pretty well. Plus, for a master assassin, you wear your emotions right on your sleeve.”

James didn’t bother correcting Tony that his lack of ‘master assassin stoicism’ was attributed to Tony himself rather than any particularly personality trait that belonged to James. Before, he rarely ‘wore’ anything other than a detached sort of annoyance around the others. There was little room for a wide emotional range when your primary concern was basic survival. Tony, however, this was a man that incited conflict inside James, made him question himself, made him doubt, fret, come alight with nerves and heat and excitement, but at the same time, Tony gave him both the confidence and the safety he needed to allow himself to experience all those things in the first place. 

A complicated matter, one that required further thought, but James couldn’t concentrate on that either, not with that damn bruise grabbing his attention right back. 

Tony pursed his lip. “Okay, see, how you’re giving me that look too.” 

“What look?”

“You know,” Tony waved a hand in the air, a gesture that explained nothing; the man then deflated with a sigh. “The one where those damn doe eyes of yours can get me to do whatever you want in two seconds flat.”

“I would never try to—”

“No, I know, you don’t do it on purpose.” Tony stopped to grip his own shoulder with a firm hand, then rotated it back and forth as if trying to work out a kink. He glanced up at James. “I’m fine, I promise. I do get checked out whenever it’s something serious. But Friday scanned me. No concussions, no lacerations that might get infected, no internal bleeding, no broken bones. A little sore, a little bruised up, that’s all.”

James tapped his fingers against his thigh, protective instincts warring against both his uncertainty over his boundaries with Tony and the knowledge that Tony had a stubborn streak a mile wide. “What about a compromise?”

“Hmm?”

“Would you let me take a look at it?” James glanced around the lab. “Is there a med kit down here? Since that bruise looks painful and it won’t heal overnight on its own—”

“Yeah, yeah, just remind me that I’m squishy and mortal.” Tony scrunched up his nose, at least as much as he could given the bruising; the sight had no right to be as endearing as it was. Tony was watching James though, in clear contemplation, likely fighting some internal battle of his own. Perhaps it was simple stubbornness, maybe something else, something to do with Tony’s past experiences. James could only hope it wasn’t his presence that cause Tony’s hesitance. 

Tony’s silence was interrupted, at least to James’ ears, by one of the bots whirring to life behind him, but he didn’t look away from Tony; his reward was a victory when Tony finally nodded, grumbling under his breath about bossy super soldiers. 

James, triumphant and pleased, turned around just in time for U to roll up and thrust a medkit into his abdomen, the bot all force and little finesse. Thankfully, super soldier abs were good for something other than looking pretty. 

“Thank you,” he petted the bot before taking the offered white box; his lips twitched when U let out a trill and rolled back the other way, waving the claw around cheerfully. “At least someone around here is helpful.”

“Oh, I see how it is, playing favorites, huh?” Tony commented playfully, then marched over and plopped himself unceremoniously onto the couch. The funny thing was, James couldn’t quite tell whether Tony was talking to him or to U. 

He let the thought go and went to join Tony on the couch, trying not to smile at Tony’s pouting expression. 

“Bossing me around already… Yeah, you’ll fit right in around here. Rhodey will be pleased as punch.”

“Not bossing. Just… gently suggesting,” James said while he rummaged through the medkit on his lap, quickly finding the same cream Tony used on him yesterday. “Hmm. The two of us, on the couch, with a medkit. I feel like I’ve been here before,” he joked and he glanced back up at Tony, who just snorted.

“I guess you do owe me, seeing as how I did patch you up all nice and pretty.”

“I think it actually means we need to stop getting banged up so much.”

“Now you definitely sound like Rhodey.”

James ignored the comment, no matter how great the banter made him feel. Instead he handed Tony the tube of cream, who understood the wordless request and squeezed a small dollop onto James’ fingers. He reached out then and gingerly dabbed the silky white substance over Tony’s bruised skin.

Tony hissed as soon as James touched him and James hissed in sympathy too, but his fingers didn’t stop, spreading the cream over the heated skin. He let out a soothing shhh when Tony flinched again, then murmured an apology, rubbing his fingers gently to work the medicine into the skin. Another second, two, and then, just as James expected, Tony’s shoulders visibly sagged and he let out quiet, breathy sound of relief. 

“God, okay, yeah, that feels good, you were totally right,” the man mumbled, eyes falling shut. James remembered what the cream felt like, the way it sank into your skin, a sensation of rolling waves of numbing chill that worked their way through your body before warming everything up again.

Tony tilted his head a little, exposing more of his neck, giving James access, and the vulnerability was a beautiful, captivating sight. James didn’t let his thoughts get away from him though, just took advantage of the angle to spread the cream over every patch of damaged skin, his fingers lingering at each point of contact.

He had no intention of letting this moment go to waste though, especially not with that blissed out look on Tony’s face. James committed that to memory too, finally thankful for his enhanced super soldier memory. Tony, with eyes closed and those long lashes fanning out over tanned skin; the parted lips, the soft exhales. James just wished the bruise itself would be gone already, the only thing marring the beautiful picture before him.

“That’s better, yeah?” James said, whispered really, too afraid to ruin the moment. Tony moved his head just enough to nod.

“Dr. Cho is a goddess,” Tony said, his voice a low rumble too. He licked his lips, distracting James for another long moment, giving him another image to remember, that pink tongue darting out like that, teasing. Tony, unaware, simply continued with, “Remind me to send her another gift, I dunno, fancy med equipment maybe. The SHIELD stuff didn’t work nearly as well. Accelerated the healing a bit, yeah, but she figured out a way to… well, hack the nerve receptors, for a lack of a better word, to alleviate pain too.” Another breathy sigh. “Science is amazing… And you’re not so bad yourself, by the way. I mean, if I had you administering this stuff, I’d come down to Medical every other day.”

James laughed softly. “S’that so?”

Tony hummed. “Don’t get me wrong, the nurses and doctors down there? Top caliber, crazy smart, doing the lord’s work patching up us dumbass superheroes, but uh…” he blinked one eye open to look at James, “ya know… cold hands.”

“You’re ridiculous,” James couldn’t help the admonishment, just as he couldn’t help the utterly fond way it came out. “Well, all I got is one hand, but it is warm, so you’re welcome to it, uh— any time you need it.” James only stumbled because his mind conjured up other ways his hand could be useful for Tony. God, had he always been this easily distracted by gorgeous men? Or was it just this gorgeous man in particular? “Although I’d prefer you not to get hurt at all,” he added hastily, hoping to cover up the awkward pause, “but that’s asking for too much, isn’t it?”

“Part of the job description,” Tony said. He blinked open both eyes when James finally pulled his hand away. “Thank you, Snowflake, I feel better already.”

“Now all that’s left is for me to kiss it better, huh?” James said, then realized what he said, probably went a terrifying shade of white and just hoped the ground would swallow him whole. Jesus, these sudden moments of boldness would get him in trouble sooner rather than later. “I mean— that wasn’t—” 

Tony, the damn menace, was smirking at him, which was better than a punch, but made James feel no less like a fumbling, awkward teenager.

“Yeah, the nurses downstairs definitely don’t give me that treatment,” Tony teased, then hesitated, swiping at his bottom lip with his teeth. “You think it’d help?”

James just about swallowed his tongue because if this was Tony flirting back

“Certainly wouldn’t hurt,” he managed to say because all of his self-preservation went right out of the window apparently, at least when Tony looked at him like that; he wasn’t sure what Tony would say next, but the man didn’t say anything at all, just tilted his head again, presenting the injured side of his face to James.

James definitely swallowed his tongue then because he wouldn’t have managed a simple word even if he wanted to, but he didn’t need words, he supposed.

Before fear and doubt took over, he leaned in and pressed his lips to Tony’s skin, right beneath the curve of his cheekbone. He was met with heat beneath his lips, a hint of menthol, and James wanted to drag his lips lower, pepper Tony’s face with kisses, his jaw, his neck, get access to all of that tantalizing skin—

He pulled away before another moment of boldness took over, then out of some childish desire to hide, he dropped his head and pressed his forehead into Tony’s closed shoulder. A shiver ran down his spine when Tony’s hand came up to brush through his hair at the base of his neck before pressing in close, keeping him right where he was.

James breathed, deep inhales that brought with them Tony’s familiar scent. He willed his heart to settle, but it had other ideas, beating out a rapid staccato in his chest, eager for more, more, more.

“There you go,” James finally whispered, his voice hoarse when it had no reason to be, “all better, right?”

Tony’s hand on his neck tightened just a fraction. “Mm-hmm. Fixed me right up.” 

“I don’t like to see you hurt like this.”

“I know… Feeling’s mutual, by the way.”

“Thank you for letting me take care of that.” Another deep breath to chase away the inappropriate thoughts, to will his body to behave and James sat back up, reluctance turning his movements sluggish. “Any more injuries I need to know about?”

“Oh, I see how it is. Not even gonna buy me dinner first?” Tony’s eyes crinkled, the heat that might’ve been there bleeding away to make place for the equally familiar mischief, and just like that, the moment was over, but James didn’t mourn it for long. Tony’s ridiculous, leering expression was a welcome sight in itself.

“Tony, I’m serious,” he said, trying to sound stern, but ruining the effort with his own smile, “are you hurt anywhere else? I can ask Friday, you know she’ll tell me.”

Tony rolled his eyes, this time muttering something about traitors, then began pulling at the hem of his shirt, craning his neck to see his ribs from the awkward angle. Lo and behold, the skin over Tony’s left side was mottled with angry reds and blues too.

“Huh,” Tony let out flatly, “no wonder my side hurts.”

“Tony, my god. Are you sure it’s not more than just bruises?” Tony’s grumbled yes wasn’t satisfying and neither was the pained hiss that Tony released between clenched teeth when James barely prodded the bruised skin. 

James knew he wasn’t in the best position to press the issue further, he wasn’t Tony’s keeper by any definition, so despite his near-primal desire to throw Tony— gently— over his shoulder and carry him off to a real doctor, he settled on being content with what he was given. Tony was a grown adult and survived his forty-odd years without James’ concerns; James could relieve Tony’s pain, then trust Tony with the rest.

Despite the cross look on Tony’s face, aimed at the bruise rather than at James at least, the other man obediently dabbed more cream onto James’ hand and they restarted the process. Gentle strokes to distribute the medicine, then firm circles to work it into the skin. Again, the pain was obvious in Tony’s features at first and it made James’ stomach clench; he murmured soft sorry’s to make up for the pain until the medicine finally began to work.

They didn’t talk this time, Tony too caught up in the wave of endorphins that followed the release from pain, and the silence gave James a chance to think. He realized, as he watched his fingers skirt across abused skin, that doing this for Tony soothed him too. Partly because it was Tony— everything somehow circled back to Tony these days— but there was also something satisfying about caring for another person. He wondered whether this was a piece of his older self slowly rising to the surface.

It made sense, he supposed. The Bucky Barnes of his past had younger siblings; plus, there was Steve, who was sickly and frail before the serum. Even though the memories he did have were detached from any real emotion, they were enough to know that in another lifetime, he was a natural caretaker. Thinking about his past, about Bucky, was bittersweet, in no small part thanks to Steve, but James supposed it wasn’t all bad, especially since preserving this part of his past felt like a giant ‘fuck you’ to Hydra. 

They tried to stamp out every bit of good in him, they wanted the perfect weapon, a ruthless killing machine, but as soon as he was free of their control, all this killing machine wanted to do was fuss over someone and make them feel good and cared for.

James decided he didn’t mind keeping this part of Bucky Barnes for himself.

“There, all done,” he declared, after only spending a minute too long enjoying how Tony’s skin felt under his fingertips. “Now, are you sure there isn’t—”

“No, no,” Tony was already batting James’ hand away and dragging his own shirt down to James’ utmost dismay. “I’m fine. Just the face and the ribs.” He wiggled his torso, probably testing out whether the movement hurt. “This is just what happens when something heavy smacks you in the side.”

“Were you fighting someone?” James asked, but when Tony made a hesitant noise, he backpedaled with a hurried shake of his head. “I’m sorry, not my business, I shouldn’t’ve asked.”

Before saying anything, Tony collapsed against the couch and beckoned James to sit a little closer. James complied, settling in sideways so he could face Tony, one leg folded beneath him and the other dangling off the edge of the couch.

“It’s not that it’s classified— well, I mean, it is,” Tony made a face, mouth twisting downward. He was looking out over the lab, but his left hand inched closer until it settled warm and heavy on James’ knee. The touch made his heart leap and James stopped breathing for a moment, too fearful of spooking Tony away.

Tony didn’t seem spooked though, just reluctant. “I don’t mind telling you, not the broad strokes at least, but this one… well, uh— it was a recon mission at an old, uh… Hydra base.”

“Oh…” James blinked, took a moment to process the admission. He supposed he understood why Tony didn’t say anything, even if the effort wasn’t strictly necessary. “You know I won’t wilt away like a flower if someone mentions te svolochi, da?” 

“No, no, I know that, I just… You had a shitty day yesterday. I didn’t wanna add to that. Also, by the way, you should use that Russian of yours a lot more. It’s, uh… it’s nice.” 

That had to be the first time someone had referred to James’ use of Russian as nice. Unsettling, problematic, unnatural; those he all heard before. Nice, however… 

James made a note to let himself slip into Russian more often. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“Eh, nothing newsworthy, really. A university lab in a town just outside was getting unusual readings— radiation, we all know that’s never good— so they reported it to their radiation control office; eventually it got to us when someone up the chain realized it was coming from an old, known Hydra base. Our inside sources marked it as abandoned, by all accounts it should’ve been and it technically was… but it was also booby trapped to kingdom come, which we didn’t expect.” He shrugged. “We don’t always get things right, incomplete information, shit happens. We got the source of the radiation out though— just a shocking amount of radium, I don’t what the the hell were planning to do with it— and no significant damage other than me getting banged up.”

James shook his head, then dropped it to rest against the back of the couch. “Those bastards just won’t die, will they?”

“Unfortunately not. We chased them into the shadows a few years ago, so now we’re just going from place to place and spraying the insecticide to get rid of the remaining scum.”

“That’s quite the metaphor, given that you’re the one with a Spider-man on the team.”

Tony twisted his body a little to face James more fully. “Oh, did you get to meet him today? He was so grumpy about not getting to go on this mission. Thank god he didn’t, right? Anyways, tell me about it. Actually,” he grinned, “tell me about your whole day. How was your first official day at the infamous Avengers Compound?”

Tony’s enthusiasm was infectious, so James re-told his meeting with Peter and Loki, not sparing any of the ridiculous details, mostly because they all made Tony’s face light up as he laughed. 

“My god, of all the people to meet first. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there.”

“You’re just jealous you missed out on me making a fool of myself.”

“Mmm, yes, that’s exactly it, Snowflake,” Tony said and even though it was meant to be teasing, it sounded so fond that James thought he might burst from all the sweet warmth building up inside him. All of this, it had that same sense of domesticity, sharing your day with someone, laughing and teasing, coexisting together so effortlessly.

Tony was still touching him too, distracted fingers brushing and tapping and rubbing over James’ knee. It was wonderful. 

“Anything else I missed out on?”

Remembering what else he crossed off the list soured James’ mood considerably and it was tempting to leave that for another day, but Tony had a right to know.

“I called Steve.”

Predictably, Tony’s smile fell away. “I take it the conversation didn’t go so well?”

“No, it didn’t. I just— he’s so damn stubborn. I don’t know how to get through to him without— without changing everything about me.”

“Hey, you don’t have to change a thing, okay? Whoever you are now, that’s up to you to decide, not him.”

“I just want him to trust me.” James’ voice dropped to a low, tired monotone. “S’like he doesn’t hear anything I say. Like I don’t even exist unless… unless I’m acting like the man he lost.”

And that right there, that had been the problem long before Maximoff decided to scramble his mind with her magic. All James wanted was to be seen, to be heard, but all he received were impatience and judgment. When will you stop acting like this? When will Bucky return? 

Never, because Bucky was dead, but Steve refused to accept that simple truth.

Tony was the first one who really saw him, James, for the person he was now, the good and the bad.

“I’m sorry,” Tony said, still rubbing a hand up and down James’ knee, soothing, as if Tony was somehow responsible for this whole mess. “Steve has always been stubborn. It’s a character trait we both share, I’m afraid. Did he ask you to come back?”

“Repeatedly. First he pleaded, then he demanded, then he went right back to explaining how I just went nuts, had a— a flashback to my Hydra days. Chert s nim, no better than talking to a damn wall.” When Tony didn’t comment, only offered a look full of sympathy, James added quietly, “I just told him I wasn’t even in New York anymore. Said if nothing changes, then I’m not coming back.”

Tony’s crooked smile didn’t reach his eyes this time, “Well, they definitely won’t find you, especially if they’re running low on funds. As long as you’re careful when you go out, you can stay off their radar for as long as you want. Which, uh— I know it’s too early to ask, but, uh… I mean, I was thinking…” 

Tony hesitated with his next words, moved as if to pull away his hand and James acted on instinct, sliding his own hand beneath Tony’s, lacing their fingers together.

“I’m usually the one bad with words,” James teased, watched as Tony’s eyes crinkled at the corners on a true smile. “What are we too early for?”

Tony looked down, their joined hands the object of his scrutiny; he watched as his own thumb brushed lines over the top of James’ hand, a gesture that had no right to feel so intimate, no matter that the contact had James’ body sparking with heat.

“I was just wondering,” Tony finally spoke again, “if you thought about what you wanted to do next. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you need to, I guess that’s all I’m trying to say. You’ve got all the approval you need. Rhodey’s on board, Pepper’s already in your corner.” Tony’s eyes up drifted to James. “I had a chance to speak with her, actually, while I was flying out to the base. She wants to get our lawyers involved, get you squared away legally. Take a look at any assets you might still have, set up a will, make sure all your documents are in order and up to date, that sort of thing.”

“That… sounds complicated, actually. I’d appreciate whatever help Ms. Potts is willing to offer. I know how to fake a passport. Not sure I can get a real one though.”

“Pepper and I assumed as much. Don’t worry, we’ll get you squared away. My original point though… you’re welcome to stay and we can help you with whatever you need. Get your arm fixed up, set you up with a therapist maybe, just someone to talk to if you’re up for it. We got top of the line training, facilities, whatever you might need, and uh… well…” Tony ducked his head. “God, I’m rambling, aren’t I?”

“A little. You know I don’t mind though.” Tony’s voice had been one of his favorite things from the start, although now it was marred by notes of uncertainly and James decided this wasn’t the right time to play coy. 

“Do you want me to stay?” he asked and his heart would’ve sank right through the floor when he saw Tony shake his head, but Tony hurried to explain. 

“It’s not about me. I know everyone thinks that every single thing I do is about me, but this… You get to decide this. I’ll pick out the coffee I know you’re going to love and I’ll choose your outfit so you look ridiculously good, but… With something like this, what I want doesn’t matter.”

“It does though. If I’m staying in a place where I’m not wanted—”

“You are wanted though,” Tony interrupted, but the words must’ve been unintentional because Tony blanched and hid his face in his hand before trying to correct himself. “I meant— you’re wanted here, with us.”

The tight hold on James’ hand spoke of something else though, a truth that Tony couldn’t put into words just yet. James wasn’t sure he could either, but he had to try.

“It matters to me, Tony.” James leaned in a little closer. “Do you want me to stay?”

Tony’s lips parted slightly as he let out a breath. “Yes, I do. I… I like what we have,” Tony echoed James’ own words from their day at the park, held his hand the same way too, “I want to know where we can go from here, the two of us. And call me selfish, but I kinda want to be there to see you get better. You’re going to do so great, James. You’re going to be great, and the other Avengers, they’ll help too, a little, but you know I’m gonna take most of the credit.”

James knew Tony was only teasing, trying to downplay the significance of everything else he had said, but James couldn’t actually argue. He did owe so much of this to Tony. 

“Then I’m staying. For as long as you’ll have me.” Forever, if you’ll have me. 

Chapter Text

Tony passed by Peter’s quarters first, waving a friendly hand at the kid and his guests, the infamous Ned and Michelle, both of whom were familiar faces at the Compound by now. The whole Parker clan was here in fact, at least according to Friday, who had informed Tony earlier that May was spending the afternoon with Rhodey and Hope; Tony made a mental note to say hello later because right now he was on a different mission altogether - finding his resident super soldier who (Friday had also promised) was hanging out, all by his lonesome, in the common room. Tony certainly couldn’t let that stand.

The kids waved back at him, offering a chorus of “Hello, Mr. Stark,” to match their cheery dispositions before going back to their video games, and Tony continued his own strut down the hallway, relishing the sound of voices and laughter that followed him. Maybe it was silly, this buoyant sort of warmth inside his chest, but hearing genuine, light-hearted laughter in his home was a balm to his soul. After the last several years, after all those distrustful looks, the derisive comments, the reprimands, all that damn fighting 

The original group of Avengers had some good times, although most of those were on the battlefield rather than at home, but looking back on it all, it was so obvious how much of that good was outweighed by the bad. So obvious in fact that Tony, to this day, wondered how he missed it.

Others— Pepper, Rhodey, Happy— they didn’t.

Now you’re off with the ‘super friends’, I don’t know what’s going on with you anymore.

He really should’ve listened to Happy, should’ve trusted the intuition of his old friends, but Tony had already come to terms with this mistake and tried to live by that old adage, no use crying over split milk. The Old Avengers were a thing of the past and Tony had been taught yet another valuable lesson about family and trust. As he rounded the corner into the common room, he also admitted that even after all that, his life looked pretty damn good right now anyways.

“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?”

James looked up from his tablet, pulled the headphones out of his ears, and smiled, his whole face coming alive with just that simple quirk of his lips.

“Tony, you’re home.” The sound of his own name on James’ lips still had Tony’s stomach performing elaborate somersaults.

“About time, right?” Tony parried back, then to emphasize the point (and because the damn thing had been choking him since early morning), he undid his tie as he walked over, letting it hang around his neck as he straddled the arm of the couch, perching right next to James. 

James looked up at him, his clear, steady gaze a reassurance that he was doing well today and the sight quelled some of Tony’s worry over being gone. Without fanfare and awkwardness that one might’ve expected, James leaned into him to rest his head against Tony’s hip, and in the same manner, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Tony’s hand reached for James too, began carding through his hair, those long, soft, touchable strands of dark brown slipping through his fingers, and James all but purred at the touch. 

God, Tony really shouldn’t miss someone like this after a few days apart and James really shouldn’t be so damn open with his affection, so trusting, not when it made Tony want things. 

“M’glad you’re back, luchik,” James murmured as he nuzzled his cheek against Tony’s thigh. Those Russian pet names that peppered James’ replies now, sometimes Tony’s own name said in that heavy Russian lilt, that had been a recent— and delightful— addition. Tony couldn’t get enough of it, even if he wouldn’t admit that to anyone.

“Sorry I had to leave.”

“Only three days.”

“I know, but I was the one who dragged you over here in the first place and then promptly abandoned you. I haven’t exactly been around for the two weeks you’ve been here either and then this damn trip came up all of the sudden…”

James looked up at him, the blue of his eyes so piercing that it was enough to stop Tony’s chatter.

“You’ve never abandoned me,” he said, with so much conviction that Tony couldn’t find the words to protest. James didn’t let him either, just continued with a quiet, “Plus, it’s been good to be around the others. Helps put things in perspective, you know? And everyone’s been so sweet… The last thing I want is for you to feel like my babysitter.” That earlier resolve turned into something less confident and James dropped his head back against Tony, hiding half of his face in the folds of Tony’s dress shirt. “I love having you here, but I’m an adult. I can take care of myself.”

Tony knew, logically, that James was right. Getting to know the others, carving out his own space, one that was separate from Tony, that was a positive thing. Independence, autonomy, all that good stuff his therapist would nod approvingly at, it was essential. So what if everyone else was getting to spend quality time with his super soldier while Tony had to be the responsible adult and make sure the lights stayed on around here?

No, that small sense of jealousy worming its way out and making Tony want to keep James all to himself, that was bad, no good, completely unreasonable, something that would get a patented therapist frown. He needed to bury that jealousy deep down, somewhere with the rest of Tony’s less than savory personality traits and maybe then it would help slow down this run-away train heading full-speed for… well, for something. Something between them that was so heated, so needy, so emotionally charged that it made thinking critically around James all but impossible. 

The problem, however, was that Tony didn’t want to bury that jealous little spark, not entirely at least, and he wasn’t particularly keen on slowing things down either. What Tony wanted was to see where all of this would go, what he and James could have, together, and sometimes, like that day down in the workshop, with James so sweet and caring and good, Tony slipped up, let himself think that he could let this whole thing unfold without consequences.

What James needed, however, was his life put back together first; he needed that more than whatever this was between him and Tony.

Was it lust? Affection? Love? Some would argue it was too early for love, but that was the other problem with Tony. When he loved, truly and faithfully, he loved hard and fast with every bit of himself, risks and consequences be damned. His love wasn’t cautious and it wasn’t reserved, even if he himself tried to be.

Unfortunately, that sort of devotion, romantic, familial or otherwise, it had led Tony to ruin before, had resulted in heartache for himself and for others. Could he really let himself be that selfish again, with James?

Tony’d already spend several sleepless— lonely— nights thinking about James, about this heady sort of chemistry between them, the way they fit together like two long-lost puzzle pieces, the consequences of giving into these desires, what it would be like to kiss, to touch, to explore and to take, to take and take and then give back in equal measure— 

He forced himself to think of something else now, to save the brooding introspection and those needy fantasies for later. 

Despite the irrational flashes of jealousy, Tony really was glad that the introductions between James and the others went as smoothly as they did. The kids loved him, of course, and Loki seemed to be equal parts protective and fascinated; Rhodey was his usual self, pretending to be all surly and serious, the big, bad Colonel, but Tony knew better. The soft teddy bear that was James Rhodes already had plans in mind to help James adjust to his life at the Compound. 

Vision was welcoming and polite, Thor was absent, but would no doubt love James too, and Bruce found a kindred spirit, already taking over Tony’s job of introducing James to new cuisines and gleefully sharing his impressive stash of tea with the man, the same stash Tony dutifully side-eyed every time he was in the vicinity. 

Both Hope and Carol remained wary, unfortunately, but it came as no surprise. Hope’s reservations stemmed in part from Lang’s dumbass decision to steal the Ant-man suit in an effort to help Captain America (and by extension James), a move that almost ruined Hope and Pym last year, both financially and legally. Carol wasn’t personally involved in the “Civil War” mess, but she knew enough and just like Rhodey, she placed her duty as an Avenger and the safety of her team above everything else. Being cautious was part of her job.

Of course, they were still amicable and kind and Tony knew that it was only a matter of time before they succumbed to James’ natural brand of charm too. Those rare but earnest smiles, the quiet but calm demeanor, the honorable behavior, the genuine apologies. Yeah, they’d be sold on James within the month.

“I know you can handle yourself just fine and you’re right, you do need more people in your corner. Honestly, I’m loving the fact that everyone’s already crazy about you.” James let out a huff, as if to say yeah, right, but the joke was on James, it was basically true. “Still doesn’t stop me from hating the fact that suddenly everyone wants a piece of me, you know? An acquisition negotiation fell through out of nowhere, the Council wants to bring a new Accords amendment in front of Congress, so they’re getting fidgety about every tiny detail. I have to attend every gala, every charity event, or people will magically stop donating… Ugh,” Tony let out a disgusted noise and decided to distract himself with more pleasant things, like the way James’ hair slipped between his fingers, the comforting weight of him against Tony’s side. “Thankfully the excitement should die down for a while and I can stick around. I’m pretty sure I need to,” he added and felt his lips curl into a mischievous smile, “because adult or not, Snowflake, I gotta ask, what are you even wearing today? You know it’s summer outside, right?”

That part was meant as a tease and was thankfully interpreted as such, James’ eyes peeking at him again, this time full of amusement, the crinkles at the corners, the way he bit his lip shyly, all genuine, real. 

God, how quickly Tony grew to love that smile, those clever eyes. He swallowed, tried to steady himself against the wave of warmth washing over him.

“At least you got the trademarked, real-deal Iron Man sneakers this time,” he added, tilting his chin in their direction, “they’re your only saving grace, even if they do nothing to take away from your ‘teenager going off to college’ look.”

“Be nice. I get cold sometimes with all this air conditioning. And I’ll have you know, May said I looked adorable.”

Tony muffled an unattractive snort into the back of his hand, even if he couldn’t deny the point. James did look adorable, stretched out so comfortably on the recliner in his oversized hoodie, black skinny jeans wrapped around those muscular, long legs, sinfully so, but that may have been Tony’s own bias. The very stylish red and gold sneakers completed the ensemble, a splash of color against the blacks and the grays.

“So she and Peter took you shopping, I hear? Did the Veil work okay?”

“Worked just fine, although it wasn’t just Peter and May. Peter’s friends came along too, and then,” James scrunched up his nose, “Loki wormed his way into things somehow.”

Tony chuckled, mirth spilling over. “Oh god, don’t let Loki anywhere near you. He’ll have you wearing leather and chains and crap before you can blink. Not that, uh—” Tony cleared his throat, mind suddenly filled with remembered images, “not that you look bad in leather, necessarily. That is the standard issue assassin get-up, isn’t it?” 

James squinted at him, unimpressed. “Please don’t tell me you found the Winter Soldier straight jacket fashionable.” 

“Er, fashionable wasn’t exactly the word I was thinking of, but I mean, it was… you know, kinda hot.”

“You are terrible, you know that?” James shook his head, every bit of him oozing fond exasperation and he leaned into Tony’s side again, brought his hand up to brush over Tony’s thigh, fingers skirting over the expensive material of Tony’s trousers. Just a quick caress before the hand dropped back down into his lap. “I think I’d like to stick to hoodies and sneakers for a bit, if that’s alright. It’s, uh… nice, you know? May helped me pick out some quality things. Everything’s so soft in the future… Feels good to wear.”

Tony’s heart clenched at the unspoken meaning woven into the admission, darkening this otherwise sweet sense of domesticity that dominated the moment. So easy to forget, especially when James was so soft and affectionate, when he smiled and teased, that this man had so much darkness lurking just on the edges of his mind, so many horrors inside his head, memories and nightmares that had to be dealt with each and every day.

Tony could relate, at least in part, which was probably why they ended up clicking so well in the first place. A shared sense of loss rather than well-meaning pity, an understanding of what it was like to be broken and put back together again, only now with pieces that no longer fit together, missing pieces augmented by metal and spare parts and guilt. Tony knew about recovery too, about the struggle, the ups and downs, days that gave him hope and days where it felt like he was back in that damn cave again, or taking his last breath in the coldness of space.

Progress, healing, it was a slow, bumpy affair, and given everything that had happened, James was already doing remarkably well. Tony could only hope his own role in that was a positive one.

“Well, you can have as many soft, pretty things as you want, alright? You can just… nest, or something,” Tony chuckled, “soft blankets, pillows, scarves— I dunno, whatever makes you feel good, yeah?”

“I appreciate that, more than you know. Thank you, Tony,” James murmured, voice dropping lower, right down into that register that had Tony shivering pleasantly. “Moy heroy.”

Tony tried not to let that rumbling tenor, that whispered moniker— my hero— affect him too much. “You’re, uh… you’re very welcome. So, what else did you do while I was gone? Anything exciting I missed out on?”

“Well… speaking of teenagers going off to college,” James began, then wiggled the powered-down tablet in his lap, looking up at Tony hesitantly. “I’ve been looking at classes…”

Tony’s brows climbed in surprise, but already his smile was turning into an outright grin. “Wait, really? Why didn’t you tell me, I could’ve helped, we could’ve—”

“It’s nothing, I haven’t really… haven’t done anything,” James hurried to interject. He pulled one of his legs up against him, curling his arm around it and radiating sudden self-consciousness. “I mean… It’s nothing yet. Just, uh… I’ve been looking things up. On the internet,” he added as he gave Tony another shy look, emphasized by those long, pretty lashes. “Friday and the kids have been helping, explained colleges and GEDs and online classes to me. It’s… a lot, nothing like I remember— the bits and pieces that I remember anyways, so I haven’t— haven’t picked anything or—”

“Hey, hey, you’re fine,” Tony soothed when James began to stumble over his words. “James, this is amazing. The fact that you’re thinking about it at all, even though you have every right to, I dunno, take an eight-decades long sabbatical, it’s fantastic.”

“Assassin spies don’t do well on the job market. So I hear, at least,” James shrugged his right shoulder, but some of his earlier confidence was returning.

“Oh, you’d be surprised. I mean, you could make— ahem— a killing with the fat cats on Wall Street alone.” Tony grinned when James gave him a flat stare. “I’m sorry, I know, I’m not funny. But uh… I mean, when you’re ready— if you’re ever ready, you know that there’s a place for you with the Avengers, right? Would, uh— would that be something you’d consider?”

What answer he wanted, Tony wasn’t actually sure. The thought of fighting with James side by side was intriguing, had so many possibilities to it, but then again, the last time they fought, they were sort of trying to kill each other. 

To his credit, James didn’t offer a quick answer, mulling over the suggestion. “I wouldn’t be… opposed to it, I don’t think,” he said eventually, his tone pensive. “I know I can fight again, be the Winter Soldier, just… without the puppet strings.”

“Would you want to though?”

James shrugged. “Might need more time to get there, but for the right cause? I— I have so much blood on my hands and— and I know, I know it was Hydra, but it was me too, and I’d like to make up for that. Fighting to protect others…” He glanced up at Tony. “That was why I said you could weaponize the new arm, remember? I could do it, I could fight, I might even want to, but I didn’t think anyone would want me, to be honest. Fighting alongside them, I mean.”

The words were heavy with resignation and Tony regretted bringing the topic up, not when they were doing so well otherwise, but some of these pitfalls were unavoidable.

“I’ll admit it’s not something that can happen overnight, but down the road, when you’re feeling stronger, more confident, when all of us have had time to understand each other, grow closer, build trust… I hope you don’t see it as penance though, because that’s not fair to you,” Tony said and realized the hypocrisy of his own words as he said them, but carried on all the same. “I know the others would love to have you, that’s all. I would. But that’s way down the road and I’ll admit that Carol is probably gonna smack me upside the head for making offers she hasn’t approved, but I’m usually right about these sort of things anyways. And,” Tony emphasized with a stern finger, “by no means should you halt your college aspirations because of what I just said either. You can do both, neither, whatever you want.” 

James nodded, but there was still something weary about it, so Tony decided to table the discussion for another time. 

“Did you have lunch already?”

James propped his chin up on his knee and gave the question a moment of thoughtful consideration. “I did, but I could eat again. Did you?”

Tony’s smile was full of playful irreverence. “Um… I had coffee.” It was half-true, Tony did actually eat a little, but James was far too endearing when he got all affronted and exasperated over Tony’s lack of survival skills, so Tony couldn’t resist playing up his helplessness.

As expected, James let out a dramatic sigh, patted Tony’s thigh, then moved the tablet off his lap so he could stand up. “Boje moy, Antosha. Come on then, I’ll fix you a sandwich. Maybe some vegetables. Fruit. You know, something that comes from a plant.” 

“Mmm, I should leave more often if I’m gonna get this five-star treatment every time I come back. Also, I’d like to point out,” Tony added as he hopped off the recliner, “coffee does come from a plant.”

James just gave him an unimpressed look, belied only by the twitch of his lips, before muttering something about Tony being ridiculous, so ridiculous.

He reached for Tony’s hand then, warm palm pressing against Tony’s, fingers lacing together, and gently tugged, as if asking for permission to lead. That permission was enthusiastically given as Tony murmured a teasing, “Aw, you’re so good to me, Snowflake,” and kept himself pressed into James’ side as they walked out.

Tony never expected their lives to work out this way, never thought he’d be here, but when this complicated, honorable, endearing enigma of a man had every part of Tony lighting up from the inside with his presence alone, when Tony was so full of hope and excitement when they were together, full of affection and unbridled want, what else could Tony do but eagerly follow the temptation that was James Barnes?

Chapter Text

Although he was no longer a stranger to the place, Tony’s workshop still managed to steal James’ breath away and that realization would hit him every time he entered through the glass doors only to be enveloped by the future. Given that the workshop was an extension of Tony himself though, who always managed to take James’ breath away… well, maybe the awe he felt as he stepped inside wasn’t so strange after all.

He was here due to Tony’s summon a few minutes ago (to pretend he wasn’t outright eager to spent more time with Tony would’ve been foolish, and even the fact that he was here for more scans of his arm hardly dampened the flutter of excited nerves). Slowly making his way through the workshop, James drank in the details around him, always discovering something new and exciting the longer he looked.

When Tony’s workshop was still nothing more to him than the background in a photograph, James wondered whether being in this science lab would unearth awful memories for him. After all, James’ idea of a ‘science lab’ was corrupted. Cold, sterile, dark sort of spaces that were buried deep beneath the Soviet earth. The stench in the air burning his nostrils, glaring lights blinding him; drab walls covered in grime and remnants of prior experimentations. The horror of being strapped into that chair, cold hands pulling at him, twisting him until he was unrecognizable, remorseless voices ordering him to comply.

Yes, the thought of a ‘science lab’ still made him want to retch, but he should’ve known (and he certainly did now) that Tony’s world would be the exact opposite of every awful memory James still carried with him.

Because despite the benches laden with tools and metallic parts that reflected the blue holograms hovering in mid air, despite every inch of this place screaming ‘technological genius at work!”, this place still felt immeasurably loved. 

The workshop was spacious and colorful; it exemplified chaos, but somehow everything had its own purpose (even if said purpose was only known to Tony). The space was obviously meant for work, but it also appeared lived-in, like a true home. There were scattered coffee cups on every surface, snacks precariously balanced on top of marvelous, shiny gadgets, a pair of well-worn shoes tucked in a corner, a stack of vinyl records in another (those James did recognize). A geometry textbook and notes were tucked away at one of the benches, a colorful blanket was throw over the back of the couch, same one that kept James safe and warm when he took his very first (unplanned) nap down here.

The wall of Iron Man suits guarding the workshop would’ve been an intimidating sight, but even those were made more inviting by the decor. One steely-faced suit of armor sported fluffy bunny ears, another wore a brightly colored rainbow scarf around its metallic neck, and a rather bulky-looking suit held out a pumpkin-shaped bucket, offering an assortment of candy to anyone who passed by (Tony explained on James’ first visit down here that ‘the brats’ loved to decorate for the holidays, but then never actually got around to taking the decorations down). 

And then of course, no Hydra or Soviet lab ever came equipped with—

“Hey, easy, you two, why do you always ambush him like that? Ugh, sorry, Snowflake, they get too needy when you don’t visit.” Tony hurried over and didn’t give James a chance to say that the bots were just fine before he was batting away Dum-E’s attempt to pull James in some undisclosed direction.

“Sounds like I should visit every day then,” James teased and gave each bot a pat to go with his greeting, which satisfied them for the moment and gave Tony the opportunity to take James’ hand and steal him away, threatening the mechanical troublemakers with a donation to the natural history museum if they didn’t get back to their assigned duties (sweeping for U and not making a bigger mess for poor, sweet Dum-E).

“The fact that you’re not down here every day is a tragic oversight,” Tony offered him a charming smile, then gave his hand a squeeze before letting go and making his way back to the cascade of holographic screens. “Although I suppose that’s 90% my fault, isn’t it?”

“You’ve been home nearly all week now. I can hardly complain,” James said, then settled into the chair nearby, the thing lumpy and creaky and nothing like the damn thing Hydra used. It helped that he didn’t have to lie back down either, but he took a deep breath to steady his nerves nevertheless, letting Tony’s voice wash over him as the genius argued with Friday about the best way to update and organize the existing scans for the prosthetic arm. 

Today was meant to be the final set of scans before Tony would begin to build the arm in earnest and although James had cooperated with Tony’s every request thus far, he still wasn’t certain he was ready for this prosthetic. It wasn’t some moral dilemma, per se, nor anything to do with the old arm. Rather, the thought of Tony building this arm, giving it to him, making him whole again, it filled James with a sense of inadequacy. He was unworthy, wasn’t he? Shouldn’t some other, more deserving person receive all this care and attention?

Tony and Friday came to a compromise, finally, and Tony joined James at his side, gracing him with another smile and a playful wink, both obviously meant to put James at ease. 

“You ready?”

James supposed the care and attention came hand in hand with being in the good graces of one Tony Stark and deserving or not, James had no intention of giving that up. 

He gave a tight nod, which prompted Tony to begin the process and direct Friday, who was in charge of moving the scanning device to access every necessary angle. The results began to pour in quickly, the screens lighting up with data and images, but while most of Tony’s attention remained on the procedure, their eyes kept finding each other and each glance left James more at ease while each smile made him feel that much more worthy.

***

The scans themselves only took a handful of minutes and with a few suggestions from Tony, Friday took the rest of the process over, taking the first swing at analyzing the data gathered. In all honesty, this project was as much Friday’s as it was Tony’s. She took an interest early on and had led the effort on research, schematics, and hard data crunching. Tony handled the ‘softer science’ of pulling in experts and using that unique spark of human intuition to guide Friday whenever her thought processes veered off into decidedly more AI-flavored directions.

Reluctant to let James leave so soon, Tony sauntered over to the fridge to grab a tray of fruit and then offered some to James when he came back to his rickety bar stool. The man dutifully took a raspberry for himself while Tony munched on an apple slice. 

“How’s your shoulder and arm doing, by the way? Any pain?”

“Still a little sore, but it’s manageable.” James leaned over to swipe a piece of melon and popped that into his mouth too. “The doctor said the soreness is expected though, so you don’t have to worry. They had to pull off a chunk of metal fused to my body. Not exactly a walk in the park.”

At hearing those words, Tony couldn’t help but glance down at what remained of James’ left arm and shoulder. The black sleeve James was wearing kept the irritated and scarred flesh out of sight, but Tony was there as the surgeons painstakingly separated the metal from James’ skin, worked furiously to protect the connective tissues that facilitated the control of the arm, the circuitry that essentially replaced a part of James’ nervous system and was wired straight into his brain. Tony saw with his own eyes what those bastards did to James all those decades ago, the crude way they pieced this man back together. The science and tech was admittedly brilliant, but it was obvious that the comfort of the patient was never a concern. Efficiency and effectiveness only. Brutality.

Fucking bastards. The Avengers ran Hydra pretty deep into the shadows before the Ultron debacle, so their sightings were now rare, but if another overly ambitious Hydra cell reared its ugly head, Tony was calling dibs and if he ended up taking some inappropriately perverse pleasure in getting payback, well, no one would judge him too harshly.

“Alright, I’m taking your word for it, but let me know if you need more meds. I don’t want you in pain.”

James assured him he was fine, then averted those pretty eyes, suddenly shy. “Thank you, by the way… For, uh… for being there. Not sure I would’ve been strong enough to go through that surgery alone.”

As if Tony ever had the intention of abandoning James. He tapped his chest. “I practically had Pepper holding my hand for ten hours when I got the reactor removed. A procedure like that is tough on anyone, but god, with your history…” 

Tony trailed off, neither one of them eager to rehash said history. There was no need for it and what truly mattered was James’ exceptional bravery when he laid back down on that operating table. Of course, it wasn’t James’ first run-in with doctors since waking up this side of the millennium; after all, someone had to scrub his brain clean in Wakanda, but Tony honestly wasn’t sure how James managed to get through that, surrounded by people who merely tolerated his presence, helping him only because their king decreed it so. How terrifying it must’ve been to relinquish control yet again, to let strangers back into his head and trust said strangers to do the right thing, even though they wanted nothing more than to have him out of sight.

This time, James trusted Tony to keep him safe, to watch over him as strangers— however well-meaning and thoroughly vetted— worked to remove the final remnants of the original metal arm. No force on Earth would’ve stopped Tony from being there to support James. 

Unfortunately, since general anesthesia reacted badly with the super soldier serum, they had to rely on localized anesthetics to spare James most of the pain while he was forced to remain awake for the surgery. 

Given his expertise, Strange got involved in the procedure too, so Tony let the man supervise and direct while he himself, adorned in the same scrubs and mask as everyone else, perched on the chair next to James and focused on keeping the man distracted. The banter was one-sided, mostly, and Tony’s voice actually grew hoarse after several hours of chatter, but to his credit, he was a well of interesting anecdotes and he kept both James and the doctors entertained by regaling them with ridiculous, funny, thrilling tidbits and stories he had collected over his lifetime. James didn’t speak more than a few strained words, but he kept his eyes firmly on Tony whenever he could. 

When everything was set and done, the look Stephen gave Tony… Well, knowing didn’t begin to cover it, while smug and self-satisfied were basically Stephen’s default expressions and therefore didn’t require a mention, but whatever that look entailed, it earned itself an unimpressed glare from Tony and an order to mind his own business. Tony couldn’t exactly stop any of the Compound residents from picking up on the growing feelings between him and James, but he certainly could delay the inevitable.  

“I’m just glad that we got the surgery done. Once the arm is ready, attaching it will go much smoother now that your skin and connective tissues will have time to heal without that damn metal irritating everything and causing infections.”

James hadn’t looked up at him, not even during Tony’s momentary pause to mull over the memories; the man’s eyes were still trained on his lap, watching as his fingers skirted over his jean-clad thigh. 

“Still hard to believe I’m rid of that thing… Feels like I can breathe again, like— like Hydra finally doesn’t own any part of me anymore. Thank you, Tony. I know I keep saying that, but it’s— I just— I wish I could explain how important this is to me. When I really stop and think about everything that happened… I thought—” He pulled in a breath, closing his eyes shut for a moment, as if steeling himself for something painful. “You have to understand, I thought I’d just rot away in that apartment. Maybe I would’ve left eventually, I don’t know. I’m not sure I would’ve had the will to deal with Steve’s inevitable protest. But then you saved me. Not only from Maximoff, not just from Steve’s pigheadedness, but from myself too… ”

With that sad frown marring James’ face, with that tone so heavy with resignation, Tony could no longer fight against the siren call urging him to get close, to comfort and make everything alright, so he abandoned his seat and walked over, planting himself in front of James, right there in the vee of his knees. James had to look up at Tony like this, those pretty eyes, framed by long lashes, fluttering open.

Every time they did this dance, getting closer and closer, step by step by step, Tony would watch James, watch for a flinch, a frown, any inkling of fear. He had every intention of backing off if there was even a hint of discomfort, his desires be damned, but James never appeared distressed and even now, the way he spread his legs just a touch wider when Tony stepped in between them, the way he looked up at Tony so trustingly, chin tilted up to reveal his lean neck. Long hair framed his pretty face and Tony gave into the urge to touch (again and again), brushing a few strands away from his forehead, tucking them behind his ear. He couldn’t resist brushing his thumb over the sharp line of the man’s jaw, down over his neck. James’ eyes fluttered closed again and he swayed closer towards Tony, drawn in by some invisible force. 

“I’m so glad that you didn’t stay in that damn apartment. I’m glad you wrote that letter and I’m so, so glad I got to know the real you, without anyone interfering or trying to get between us. I have no regrets about what happened other than I wish I would’ve done it sooner.”

It was harder and harder remember why he shouldn’t kiss James right here and now, not with the way his whole body tingled every time they were this close.

James inhaled deeply and offered Tony a smile, then angled his face to brush against Tony’s palm; soft, searching eyes locked with Tony’s again. “I always wondered… Why did you answer? Why help me all those months ago?”

Tony opened his mouth but whatever answer he wanted to give was overtaken by a squirming thought that blared through his head, I wrote you back because I wanted revenge on your best buddy Steve.

He tried to push it away, ignore the words that formed in his head because that wasn’t actually true, was it? He wasn’t using James. He wasn’t, no matter that sharp pang of guilt that lanced through him. From the beginning, Tony tried to do the right thing, offer genuine support with no strings attached, no expectations other than the reciprocation of basic human decency.

And his feelings for James… those had nothing to do with Steve. Didn’t they? 

He gave the intrusive thought a mental shove and searched for the rest of the truth. “At first, it just felt like the right thing to do. I came to terms with what happened between us, I forgave you. It was only fair to let you know and I never actually thought you’d reply to my silly note. But then…” He paused and brushed the back of his knuckles against James’ cheek. “Then I started to get to know you… I found out that you’re this brave, intelligent, honorable man who was nothing like I imagined you to be, probably because my every assumption about you was colored by my issues with Steve.” 

Tony felt himself sway too, leaning into James’ space, just close enough for their noses to barely brush before he pressed his forehead against James’, cradling the man’s  face in one hand while the other came to rest on James’ right shoulder. The last thing he saw before his own eyes fell shut was James’ lips parting on a soft exhale. 

“I didn’t exactly plan for this to happen,” Tony continued softly. I didn’t, I swear, not in my wildest dreams did I think I’d fall in love with you. And by god, it couldn’t be anything else at this point, nothing but the flourishing beginnings of love. “Each time we talked, each time we met, I grew to like you more and more until… until I couldn’t picture my life without you. I like you, James. I like our talks, I like spending time with you. We both have a horrendous sense of humor, we both understand what it’s like not to live up to people’s expectations, wanting to be one thing when the rest of the world expects something else. When it’s just the two of us, things are… they’re so damn good.”

Tony felt James’ hand reach up to cling to a fistful of Tony’s shirt, as if trying to keep him close, and Tony wanted nothing more than for that hand to trail up just a little bit further, hell, trail down too, he wanted James to touch him everywhere.

He really wanted to lean in and kiss James senseless too. 

“Tony…” The word was an exhale against Tony’s lips. “The opportunities you’ve given me to change my life… You gave me your forgiveness, your time, a home. It’s immeasurable and—” James’ breath hitched. “And I don’t want to imagine my life without you either. I— I have nothing to give you in return, Tony, no matter how thankful I am for everything you’ve done for me, but god, Tony, the way you make me feel…” He tilted his face up just a fraction and it left all but a hairbreadth distance between their lips; James’ grip on him loosened and that hand trailed down, just a little lower, skirting over Tony’s upper thigh, only inches away from where Tony desperately wanted it. “Please, Tony? Please let me— prelest’ moya, let me just… I just want to make you feel good, give back a fraction of what you’ve done for me…”

Tony flinched; it was like getting doused in ice-cold water when the words finally registered above the haze of lust and desperation and he stumbled back, pulling away, feeling infinitely colder when he lost contact with James. He groaned as he turned away, muffling the sound into his hands.

He couldn’t force himself to see anymore of that hurt expression blooming on James’ face. 

“I’m sorry, I can’t— I just— God, I can’t do this, James.”

James was… he was so vulnerable right now, intent on surviving, and Tony was terrified that James would be willing to do whatever he thought was needed to ensure that survival, including giving into Tony’s desires. 

***

Having Tony pull away so suddenly was like a physical blow and it left James suddenly breathless, confused, hurt.

“Tony, I don’t— I’m sorry—” God, of course Tony pulled away, why would anyone want to touch you, you’re a monster, a killer

“James, no, don’t apologize. You— you have nothing to apologize for.”

It felt like he did though, especially when Tony’s back was still turned to him, when Tony still refused to look at him.

James realized that there was some small part of him that still struggled with a Pavlovian fear of being punished in a moment like this. Remnants of his conditioning and he hated that fact because it wasn’t a true fear, but his heart hammered away all the same. “Please tell me what I did wrong.”

Tony let out another frustrated noise, then scrubbed his hands over his face none-too-gently. James’ strange fear was joined by a desire to pull Tony’s hands away from the man’s face to stop the rough treatment.

“God, no, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s— it’s not like that at all.” Finally, he slowly turned to face James, hands nervously picking at the cuff of his shirt now. “This is— this is me trying to do the right thing, even if I…” Tony cut himself off and pressed his lips together, the crease between his brows deepening, expression turning into something pained. “James, if the only reason you’re doing this is because you think you need to pay me back… What kind of person would that make me if I took advantage of that?”

It was when he asked that last question that Tony finally met his eyes and the earnestness of his gaze finally managed to cut through James’ self-flagellation. He replayed back his own words and it took only a second to see how easily they could’ve been misinterpreted.

James took a steadying breath and dug the palm of his hand into his thigh to clear his mind. He needed to concentrate and he hoped his words wouldn’t fail him now.

“I am thankful though,” he began, choosing each word carefully especially when this next confession was so damn terrifying, but he wasn’t a coward, he wasn’t. “How can I not be? But it’s more than that and I don’t think there’s a way for me to separate my gratitude from how I feel about you. I— Tony, I do want this.”

Tony’s expressive face didn’t hide the inner struggle the other man was going through. Tony wanted this too, that much was obvious, but he was holding himself back, causing himself distress because he was trying to protect James.

“See, but you’re telling me exactly what I want to hear…”

“And you can’t be sure if I mean it or I’m just trying to keep the nice things I was given,” James finished, sparing the man from having to say it. 

“Yeah, that sounds awful when you put it that way. I’m not— I’m not trying to say that you can’t think for yourself or—”

“No, no, I know you’re not. You’re just… trying to protect me, from yourself.” The more James thought about it, the more of his self-hatred gave way to understanding. With a nod, James stood up slowly, then took a step towards Tony, thankful that Tony didn’t pull away again. There was no flinch, no step back. Nothing but that same pained expression. Guilt mostly, now that James could see it closer. “But you do actually want more than what we have?”

Asking the question was like putting his fate into Tony’s hands all over again, but he trusted Tony and that trust was rewarded when Tony stepped closer too, although it was no longer close enough to touch. 

“I do, yes.” 

James smiled— how could he not?— and the only thing playing against his elation was the tiny regret that he couldn’t just kiss Tony right here and now.

Tony was right though, as difficult as it was to step back and look at this situation critically. How easy would it be for someone to question the veracity of James’ affections? To claim that there were ulterior motives to his actions, motives that could either stem from basic survival or something even more nefarious, like greed or manipulation?

Tony of course, saw things in a different light altogether, casting himself as the villain who was taking advantage of the poor, brain-addled soldier who’d be left to fend for himself without Tony’s support.

Oh, if only Tony knew how much stronger James had become in these past few months, because of Tony rather than in spite of him, but he supposed there was no rush. For once, he could think about the future, plan for it, and that plan now included proving to Tony that the love and affection James had for him wasn’t contingent on anything but James’ desire for this man. Whatever he and Tony could have together, James wanted them to have it as equals.

“Well, I want more too, but I understand why you stopped and I think you’re right… I think it’s better, for both of us, if this, uh, this thing between us takes a bit more time.” Oh, the willpower it took to admit that when all James wanted was to have Tony’s lips on his, to have his hand on Tony, all of them pressed against each other—

By the sound of his unsteady breath, the flush dusted across his cheeks, Tony wasn’t exactly in disagreement with that sentiment. 

“Time, yeah, uh—” Tony visibly swallowed. “That’s all I want. I— I wasn’t rejecting you.”

“I know that now. It’s strange though that it took me a second to recognize what you were doing…”

“What do you mean?”

“Not sure I’m used to someone putting my needs above their own.”

Tony let out a soft, surprised oh and some of the tension holding his body so rigid began to slip away, shoulders slumping, the lines between his brow softening. He swayed a little, still drawn to James, and risking another moment of boldness while hoping for a better outcome, James reached out and drew Tony against his chest. This time Tony came willingly and a wave of relief washed over James as the other man slumped against him while two arms came up to wrap around James’ waist.

“I just don’t want to hurt you,” Tony whispered into his shirt. “You deserve better than that.”

James inhaled deeply, drawing into his lungs the scent of coffee and that spicy sweet cologne he had long ago become addicted to. The arm around Tony’s shoulders tightened. 

“Can you promise me something?” he asked, then continued when Tony let out a hum. “Please don’t pull away from me. I like what we have and you never— never did anything I didn’t welcome. I want to prove to you that this isn’t just gratitude, but until we’re both ready… God, zaika moya, I need you. I don’t want to lose this.”

Tony sighed against him, but made no move to pull away. “I’m not sure I could give up everything even if it was the right thing to do…”

“Isn’t the right thing whatever makes us both happy?” 

After a beat, Tony offered a nod and they remained where they were for a little while longer, content to hold each other close. Well, mostly content, because James still wanted just one simple kiss today, so he pressed his lips to the crown of Tony’s head and whispered, “Well, you make me happy, Antosha.” 

Just let me prove that to you so that I can make you happy too.

Chapter Text

No matter the cliches, movie nights were sacred at the Compound. They were less a ‘team-bonding’ exercise (arguing about the scientific feasibility of the starships hurdling through space on the screen or bickering over who was really the better looking James Bond didn’t make the Avengers any more efficient on the field), but these gatherings did offer everyone a designated night to kick back and relax. Meetings and debriefs were rescheduled; grueling training routines and piles of incomplete projects were left behind to wait until tomorrow; politicians, investors, and nosy reporters were promptly put on hold.

Because on movie nights, there was indulgent, unhealthy, delicious take-out instead. There was popcorn, enough of it to bury a small child; candy and snacks; cozy blankets and soft pillows; and at least an hour spent arguing about which movie they were actually going to watch.

Some of their picks were new releases, but more often than not, the movie chosen was an old favorite, something most of the attendees had seen countless of times because in their chaotic lives, familiarity was a welcome friend. Plus, an old movie also gave everyone the chance to whisper, talk, argue, or just outright pass out without missing any crucial plot points. With a houseful of perpetual insomniacs, movie night naps were celebrated for the miracles that they were and accidentally waking up a napping Avenger was tantamount to treason. 

Not everyone always made it, unfortunately, and tonight the theater room was looking a bit sparse, with half the team out of the Compound on various business. From his spot on the cushy couch at the back of the room, Tony could see Viz sitting in one of the seats closer to the screen. The android’s head was propped up on his fist as he idly flipped through a book, waiting for everyone else to gather. Hope was furiously typing away on her cell phone, ever the busy woman, but at least she was dressed for the occasion, clad in comfy PJs and her long hair pulled back into a messy bun. Rhodey’s spot a seat over was empty, but the man’s voice could be heard from the adjoined kitchenette talking to Loki. Mouth-watering scent of popcorn wafted from the room too as the industrial-sized popcorn machine merrily popped the kernels away and unable to resist it any longer, Tony temporarily abandoned his spot (the stealing of designated spots was also a crime punishable by a swift and painful death, not that it stopped anyone from swiping each others’ seats). 

Tony pattered over into the kitchen, engaged in some friendly bickering with the two men, and when presented with his popcorn options, amended the original plan and made a bee-line for the caramel corn to satisfy his sweet tooth. 

Dumping several bags into a giant bowl, Tony carried it all back, and to his delight, James was already sitting in his designated seat right next to Tony’s. A bright smile blossomed on James’ face when he noticed Tony and his armful of popcorn and Tony couldn’t help his own answering grin.

During their very first movie night together, there was a rousing argument ten minutes prior to James’ actual arrival between Tony, the brats, and Loki about who would get the honor of sitting with James and explaining to him the wonders of modern pop culture. The brats were genuine in their fervor (both have grown fond of James), while Loki probably joined the argument just to be a little shit about it, although Tony had a sneaking, displeased suspicion that James’ good looks had something to do with it too.

That argument ended with everyone agreeing to let James choose, so each of them left an empty spot next to their own. Tony almost felt bad about it though, because it was a terrible strategy on everyone else’s part, but he didn’t feel bad at all when he watched a shy James look around when he came in, settle those pretty, wide eyes on Tony, and come over to ask if the seat next to Tony was taken, sparing no more than a wave for everyone else.

Everyone else should’ve realized that Tony was undeniably James’ favorite, but if they didn’t know it then, they knew it now. After all, the man had been at the Compound for a few months now, had become a familiar and welcome sight, with even Hope and Carol finally warming up to him. There were no more wary glances in his direction, no more tired sighs coupled with an “I hope this doesn’t blow up in your face, Tony.” James had integrated himself into the fabric of their everyday lives with little effort and had simply become… theirs.

How could he not, when he made private apologies to Rhodey and Viz, even to Hope and Peter (none of which Tony knew about until after the fact)? Who could resist those smiles that grew just a little brighter each day and managed to catch Tony off-guard every single time? James had a way with people, he listened when others talked, and although he no longer possessed the suave, roguish charm of Bucky Barnes, James won people over with a genuine and kindhearted demeanor, with a clever mind, with a dry wit that fit right in with this group of mostly tired and sometimes jaded superheroes.

Both Rhodey and Pepper had also said that James’ presence had Tony smiling more too, but Tony tried not to think too hard about that. 

Of course, if that weren’t enough, no one stood a chance after the night James decided to give baking another try, convinced half of the Avengers to help him, and ended up turning their kitchen into a veritable pastry shop that filled their entire wing with the scent of vanilla and strawberries and chocolate. Apparently, the Compound kitchen was far better stocked than Rogers’ crappy apartment and if Tony was vindictively gleeful over that fact too, well, that was between him and his conscience. 

Tony knew from the start that James would do well here. The Avengers— the new rag-tag group of wayward superheroes at least— knew better than most about making mistakes, about needing to right wrongs, about needing a home, so if nothing else, Tony knew the others would be kind to James, but this… This was so much than that. This was the kids whining to James about their summer reading, this was Rhodey giving Steve and his crew the run-around with even more determination and Loki spending extra nights weaving stronger protection spells over the Compound. This was Pepper helping James establish an identity in the new century, it was Happy coming by to talk cars with the man for hours, it was Vision sharing his morning meditation with him. It was Bruce and late-night talks that Tony suspected were more than simple discussions of favorite flavors of tea.

It was so undeniably good to see his family come together like this for someone else; Tony savored every little moment of camaraderie and acceptance, knowing intimately how vital these interactions were, how it changed your perspective on life, on your own self-worth.

Who would have thought, just a year ago, that Tony and James would end up here? They certainly didn’t, but here they were, and life was good, with friends and popcorn and the promise of movie night cuddles. 

Tony eyed James appreciatively, who looked particularly cozy tonight, feet propped up on the recliner and bundled up in what had to be the softest blanket in the Compound.

Maybe later he could let James migrate from couch to couch (Tony himself loved to occasionally sprawl over Rhodey or have furiously whispered arguments with one of the kids), but Tony hadn’t gotten his fill of James’ company just yet, so he was keeping the super soldier all to himself for a little while longer. 

Of course, none of that had anything to do with the fact that ever since their almost not-kiss down at the workshop, Tony could barely stop thinking about James. Nope, nothing to do with that at all.

“Aw, you didn’t want to sit next to Loki tonight?” he teased, then placed the popcorn to the side so he could get onto the couch, tug at the blanket and then worm his way underneath it, refusing to accept that this blanket wasn’t quite big enough for two. They could make this work, even if it meant Tony was basically pressed up against James’ side. After all, finding another blanket would’ve be such a hassle. 

James watched Tony’s burrowing and wriggling and general fussing with a fond sort of look and he didn’t make a move to get away either. They were pressed shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, and it was cozy and warm and definitely still counted as taking things slow.

Given all the other things Tony wanted from James, all the lustful, needy fantasies he harbored (right alongside the soft dreams of domesticity and romance Tony didn’t even know he had in him), sitting side by side and sharing a bowl of popcorn was the epitome of innocence.

Tony had to momentarily lean away to grab said popcorn, but then he was back, only his head and right arm peeking out from under the blanket so he could toss a few kernels of the sweet corn into his mouth. 

“You cozy over there?” he asked, glancing over at the super soldier.

James’ answer was to take Tony’s left hand into his larger one, palms pressed togethe, fingers intertwined, and pull both over to rest heavy on his thigh beneath the blanket.

“Cozier than I would’ve been with Loki,” the man said, giving Tony’s hand a squeeze, and god, every time James did this, these small, but bold steps in drawing Tony in, pulling them both closer together to something so tempting and exciting and terrifying, Tony’s entire being just flipped upside down all over again. “Is this alright?”

Tony smoothed a thumb over the top of James’ hand as silent encouragement.

“I like this,” Tony said too, but he was deliberate in keeping his voice light, “this way, you can’t get to any of my popcorn.”

James tried to swallow a laugh. “You know, in some circles, that’d be considered insensitive.”

“Hey, facts are facts. Good luck getting one your hand back. It’s mine now.”

James held onto Tony’s hand even tighter and tilted his head to see Tony better, lips stretching into something almost coy. “But what happens if I really, really want some popcorn though?”

How could Tony even pretend to resist when James’ voice dropped low and sultry like that, when that subtle roll of the ‘r’ snuck into his voice? Oh god, Tony wanted to know what that rolling ‘r’ tasted like, but before that fantasy spun out of control too, Tony plucked a kernel from the bowl and presented it to James.

It was meant as a joke, just their usual teasing, but oh, that was not what happened. Because James didn’t hesitate, he just wrapped his lips around Tony’s fingers, a hint of tongue brushing over the pads as he took the offered kernel, effectively shutting down Tony’s higher brain functions in one fell swoop.

Oblivious to Tony’s whole brain rebooting where he sat, James chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and then licked his lips. “Mmm, caramel with a hint of popcorn.” His eyes were bright as he smirked. “Vse-taki ti slashche.”

You’re still sweeter.

That was just unfair. Here was Tony, trying to remember how to breathe, and James had to go and throw the endearment in too, in that husky Russian no less. So irresistible in his hard-won confidence, growing more comfortable in his skin by the day, and if Tony didn’t know any better, he would’ve thought he was being seduced here too—

James licked the corner of his mouth again and oh god, Tony was being seduced.

Since he wasn’t going to manage anything resembling eloquence or charm, not with his brain still fixated on that kitten lick against his fingers, Tony just shoved another handful of the popcorn into his mouth and made obnoxious mmm sounds to let James know what he was missing out on. If nothing else, the ridiculous display made James laugh.

Everyone else was starting to file back in though, so the unabashed flirting had to be put on hold, and soon enough Friday started up the next movie in the queue. For the past month, movie nights were devoted to iconic Disney films and today was another handful of classics. Tony was looking forward to James’ open curiosity and wonder again, the way the man appreciated the advancements the world had made while he was out of commission, but once the first movie was roughly half-way through, James’ attentiveness wavered as his lids began to droop lower. Usually it was Tony passing out on whichever Avenger was closest, so he watched the super soldier out of the corner of his eye, curious. James was definitely struggling to stay awake and at some point, his head honest-to-god booped, as he drifted in and out of light sleep.

Tony had to literally grit his teeth together so he wouldn’t make some embarrassing cooing noise because all he could think about was that one video Peter insisted on showing him last week of a tiny gray kitten falling asleep right where it sat. 

James went from seductive and sexy to sleepy-kitten adorable in the span of an hour and Tony decided that it absolutely criminal for one man to wield that much power. 

They hit their first interlude between movies soon after that and while some of the others moved around, stretching and going back into the kitchenette to restock on snacks, Tony watched as James blinked open his eyes, squinting at the overhead lights that came back on.

“You alright there, Sleeping Beauty?”

“Sorry,” James mumbled. His left shoulder twitched and he grimaced at it, then pulled at his right hand until Tony released it. He rubbed at his eye with the heel of his hand while his mouth stretched around an idle yawn. “Didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

“I mean, I know Disney movies aren’t all jam-packed action, but—”

“No, no, that’s not it,” James wiggled to sit up a bit, brushing his foot against Tony’s ankle in the process. “I loved the movies we saw last week, you know that.”

Tony tilted his head. “Then why the snooze? Are you feeling alright?” James’ shuttered expression didn’t reassure Tony. “Hey, James, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, just… haven’t been sleeping well, that’s all.”

Tony frowned, a hint of worry worming its way into his otherwise relaxed state. “I thought you were doing better. Is it still the whole Maximoff thing that’s bothering you?”

“I am better,” James insisted. He was fully awake now, fingers playing with the blanket in his lap where he sat, half-facing Tony. “But nightmares don’t just disappear. You know I have plenty, even without her getting involved.”

Tony squeezed James’ knee, some childish part of him wishing he could just chase the nightmares away with his touch. “Yeah, I get that, trust me. So is it just that then?”

“Mostly,” James said, but his one-armed shrug wasn’t convincing, and when Tony didn’t let the point drop, James just sighed. “Sometimes I can’t shake off the— the need to be on full alert. It’s so deep inside me that I can’t— I can’t just—”

“Shut your brain off and relax?”

“Something like that. You get like that too sometimes, don’t you?”

The words weren’t an accusation the way they would’ve been with a lot of people and Tony’s crooked smile was one of commiseration. “All my best ideas come from the days-long inventing binges, and yeah, those come from my brain refusing to shut up and shut down. But,”  he added pointedly, “I also remember feeling like hell after those too.”

“I’m a super soldier though,” James argued, but Tony could see a downplay of the damage from a mile away, “I only need a few hours to function and I do get that most nights. This week has just been… troublesome.”

“There’s a different between functioning and living, Snowflake,” Tony said, while a voice at the back of his head that sounded just like Rhodey laughed and laughed, because wow, that was rich coming from Tony. He glanced over at the kitchen to make sure the real Rhodey wasn’t about to pop out and call him out on this offered, but rarely-taken life advice. Going by the look James was giving him though, he didn’t need Rhodey to point out the hypocrisy. “I’m just saying, I don’t want you surviving on the bare minimum. The whole point of bringing you here—”

“Was to keep me safe from Maximoff.”

“—Was to get you better. If there’s something bothering you, no reason we can’t try to fix it.”

The others were filing back into the room now, settling into their seats, so Tony urged James to do the same and the man laid back down next to him. 

“We can talk about it later,” Tony said as he looked over, “if you want, obviously. I just wanna help.”

The volume in the room picked back up, the others chattering away before restarting the movie, so James shifted a little closer, chin nearly hooked over Tony’s shoulder so he wouldn’t have to raise his voice. The added benefit of having the man pressed closer again was lovely too.

“I, uh— I think I have a hard time sleeping alone, actually,” James admitted after a hesitant pause and Tony let out a surprised hum, trying to formulate an appropriate response while his mind merrily pranced down some very inappropriate roads.

He tilted his head, barely able to see James’ profile like this, both of them almost cheek to cheek. “That makes sense, I guess. Other people can give you a sense of safety.”

James huffed, although it was barely audible over the background noise. “Just you, Antosha.” 

Tony’s ‘oh’ wasn’t particularly eloquent either and since when did Tony Stark get tongue-tied? “So your mind, it, uh— it associates me with safety then?”

“Makes sense to me. You’ve always been there for me and with you, my mind just stops. Stops running a mile a minute, stops the damn threat analysis, stops treating every suspicious noise as a threat. But when I go back to my room and lie down… Everything’s cold, dangerous… Even when I know that it isn’t. I’m sorry,” James cut himself off with a tired exhale. “It’s really not a big deal. Just a tough week. Please don’t worry.”

“Hey, you live in my house now, I’ll worry if I want to.”

“Hey, chatter boxes,” Hope glanced over the back of her couch, “can we start the movie or are you gonna keep whispering to each other?”

“We’re gonna keep whispering, darling. Very important Avengers business,” Tony parried right back, grinning widely to compensate for the flush creeping up his neck at the realization that he and James were close and cozy enough to be considered intimate by anyone who cared to look.

Hope just rolled her eyes though, the look unmistakably fond, then waved a dismissive hand at them both and told Friday to resume the film. The room filled with music and talking and Tony shifted so his lips were right next to James’ ear.

“We’ll figure it out, okay?” he said, although his words came out a bit breathier than intended and may be it really was the intimacy of this whole thing, but James’ nod was a bit shaky too. “But let’s take advantage of right now, hmm?”

James glanced over, clearly confused if that adorable furrow between his brows was anything to go by, so Tony decided actions spoke louder than words. His left arm wrapped around James, then with his hand cupped over James’ head, Tony pressed it down to rest on his shoulder.

For a moment, James’ body went stiff, as if he didn’t know what to do with the gesture, but on the next beat, he sagged against Tony, all tension gone. Perhaps permission was all he needed because with only minimal maneuvering, his own arm wrapped around Tony’s back and pressed them even closer together.

Tony’s throat went conspicuously dry at James’ heavy weight and the undeniable heat emanating from it, then nearly shuddered when James tightened his grip on Tony’s waist and angled his face so that his nose brushed against the column of Tony’s neck and at that point, Tony couldn’t have been able to say what the hell was happening on the screen. All he could focus on was James’ body and the hand that now found a sliver of flesh where Tony’s shirt had ridden up. 

Tony closed his eyes and exhaled.

“Is this alright?” he whispered, breathless from the sparks of electricity shooting up and down his spine. His own words were unintelligible to him over the noise of the movie, but James must’ve heard him just fine because he pressed in closer and nodded.

“You don’t have to protect me,” he added and Tony felt more than heard those words murmured against his cheek. “But thank you for doing so.”

James let his head drop again, pressing his nose back against Tony’s neck, hiding himself in the curve of Tony’s shoulder. His body, lying almost on its side was curved into Tony too, as if seeking Tony’s warmth beneath the blanket; close, so close, and then as if that weren't enough, James threw a leg over one of Tony’s, thick thigh all but pressed into Tony’s groin and Tony thought right then and there he would die from the tension and need running through him. He didn’t however, didn’t even die of simple mortification given that half of his family and friends were in the same room, happily watching whatever film— what the hell were they even watching? Tony didn’t know anymore— with no apparent awareness that Tony was currently having the life snuggled out of him by the Winter Soldier.

What a way to go.

He gave in to instinct instead and began carding his hand through James’ hair, hyper aware of every motion at first, of every point of contact, but as minutes ticked by, as James’ breath slowed and evened out, the caresses became more and more automatic, an absent, natural gesture as if Tony had been soothing super soldiers to sleep his entire life. 

Tony let his head rest against James’ too, drawing in slow breaths to steady himself, inhaling the mild, pleasant scent of whatever hair products Friday chose to order for James. His fingers wanted to keep exploring, so they trailed down to settle on the impressive curve of James’ broad shoulder, and kept up their absent ministrations, with infinitely greater care each time they skirted over that scarred line where metal used to met flesh.

At some point, Tony gave a genuine attempt at dragging his attention back to the movie, but it was a partial success at best. It wasn’t as if James’ presence was stressful however; on the contrary, after that initial shock to Tony’s system, Tony found himself relaxing again, even more than before, and he drifted in and out of sleep too, soothed by safety, comfort, and warmth.

When the movie ended, Tony could see that at least half of his companions succumbed to sleep too. Harley and Peter both passed out, although they were now being poked and prodded by a long-suffering Loki, and after some grumbling that Tony couldn’t decipher, the boys managed to stand upright and shuffle out of the room, not sparing anyone a second glance. Tony hoped they were heading to their respective rooms because it wouldn't be the first time those two found a random spot at the Compound to snooze away in some ungodly bodily contortions like two lazy kittens. Ah, to be that young and flexible again.

Hope was too busy with her phone again to pay Tony much mind and he now suspected, going by the frown on her face, that she had been talking all night to Lang. The man had been in contact with her for a while now and Tony recognized the distinct thin line of her lips anytime his name came up on her phone. What they were working out Tony didn't know, but he trusted Hope enough to keep the Avengers out of it as she dealt with unfinished business between her and her ex.

Viz just offered Tony a serene wave, not perturbed in the least, which left Rhodey, who wasn’t quite so keen to ignore Tony and the sleeping super soldier pressed against his side. After throwing away a few empty bags of popcorn, Rhodey took a few steps up the stairs and stopped just before Tony’s couch, head cocked to the side, arms crossed, eyes studying the scene before him. Rhodey was evaluating. 

The only indication that James was aware of anything was a tightening of his arm around Tony when Rhodey stopped in front of them, as if his mind had perceived something, but deemed it unimportant once it had confirmation that Tony was still in his embrace.

Or maybe Tony was just projecting, hard.

He looked up at Rhodey and cocked an eyebrow.

Yes?

Rhodey shook his head, lips held tight, but there were no harsh lines set around his eyes.

Do you know what you’re doing?

Tony’s cocky smile said enough.

Of course I do.

So did Rhodey’s unimpressed expression. There were hints of amusement at first, but his eyes darted to James, then back to Tony. 

Are you sure?

Tony’s hand curved more possessively around James’ shoulder.

Yes.

Rhodey’s eyes narrowed, the rest of the amusement fading.

Be careful, Tony.

Tony offered a small tilt of his chin.

I know.

Rhodey contemplated them for one more moment and Tony didn’t need words to know when Rhodey gave in either, when he decided to trust Tony and let the issue go. It was that small shake of his head and that huff, defeat and incredulity and something altogether softer and fond rolled into one little exhale. 

Rhodey mouthed a good night and walked away with a parting wave, then Friday, without needing to be asked, dimmed the lights as the man exited the room, the sliding doors closing behind him.

Tony could’ve woken James up, herded him upstairs to his own bed, but he knew how precious these instances of good sleep were and how easily they could be ruined. Waking up now could very well mean not going back to sleep again, and since the couch was practically a bed in itself at this point, with its footrests and reclined backs, it wasn’t the worst spot to catch some much needed z’s, with Tony only risking a potential stiff neck come morning.

It was worth it, he decided, so he relaxed back against the plush couch as best he could, buried his nose into James’ soft hair, pressed a kiss to the same spot, just one he knew James wouldn’t hold against him, and let his eyes close, hopeful that he’d find some rest tonight too. 

Chapter Text

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 they be?

After swiping at the hologram with a half-hearted hand and sending it into the ether of Friday’s convoluted, but admittedly effective filing system, Tony turned in his seat and let himself have a 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 already disheveled hair, wondering idly if he should just pass out here on the couch or make the trek up to his room. It wasn’t exactly late, not by normal people’s standards at least, but he hadn’t exactly slept all that well last night either… 

The couch was lumpy, but close. His actual bed was much better for his spine, but his suite here never did manage to feel like home. Of course, there was also 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 equally well-rested super soldier. 

A mind disoriented from an overabundance of sleep processed sensory input slowly, making the delight of having a warm body to snuggle up against all the more difficult to resist, so when their brains did catch up and they both realized they were all but wrapped around 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, 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 and worried about the fact that if he just up and kissed James right then and there, that would be a terrible first kiss, because blergh, morning breath. 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 dumb his disheveled hair and the soft, unguarded expression, and the curve of his nose and the bow of his lips and he was just so warm

Tony may have laid there and obsessed over tiny details like that too, which didn’t help the situation, certainly didn’t help the arousal heating up his blood, so the only option was to untangle from one another other awkwardly, make fumbling excuses for everything, and then flee.

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 shame over something like this. 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 however, 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, actually, probably with Hope since they were well-matched; 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. 

Hmm, he could convince Hope to let him spar with James next time… There was an idea. Tony’s mind rolled that image around, remembered what it was like to spar with a super soldier, 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 rather than an inappropriately timed boner.

As he surveyed his 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 again 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 thing, this friendship, relationship, unabashed love— 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 must 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 of those risks too.

Suddenly far more awake 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, when Tony appeared in his bedroom 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 by 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, who just let it land in his lap to cover up the bright screen. “And since you are, I’m thinking we need to start up Insomniacs Anonymous.”

Tony gave him a pointed look and a less than subtle 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 himself down on the edge of the bed, bouncing a little on the plush mattress. “Hence why we need a super exclusive club just for us.” 

James gently pushed the blanket onto the bed, then put his tablet away on the night stand. “And what will we do in this exclusive club?” 

He played along, but inside he was suddenly all nerves again. Tony being here so 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, it was driving James up the wall

“Well, we wouldn’t sleep, obviously,” Tony began, but then just crawled over and unceremoniously collapsed on the empty part of the bed next to James, moving around to make himself comfortable as he curled around a spare pillow, “otherwise that’d defeat the whole purpose. 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 back up.

“Sorry, shoot, I made this weird, didn’t I— oomph—” Tony let out a heavy breath as James pushed him down, not giving him a chance to even 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. James leaned over, one good arm bracketing Tony in.

“Tony, you can’t tease a man like this.” James leaned in closer still, close enough that he could count each one of those pretty, long lashes; his lips quirked up. “A good night’s sleep is worth its weight in gold, you know.”

“Is 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 reach out 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 still facing each other. His hand stayed resting on Tony’s hip. “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, so it’s expected that—”

“Don’t, 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.”

“Tony…” 

“I know, I know, I should get to the point.” Tony paused to brush his knuckles over James’ cheek and god, even that was enough. The fact that Tony was gentle with him, that he always reached out like this…

Before, James would’ve read hesitance, from anyone, as some aversion to James himself, disgust at something inherently unappealing deep inside him— and there was plenty there— that would repel someone from ever coming closer. But that couldn’t be true, not here, not anymore, not when Tony had never shied away from these tender gestures.

James angled his face so he could brush his lips over Tony’s wrist, right across the pulse point and his eyes fluttered shut, just for a moment, at the sensation of that soft, warm skin.

So maybe this wasn’t exactly enough, but he’d take what he could for tonight and keep working on getting that heated look out of Tony— yes, that exact one the man couldn’t help but offer him now and god, James could practically 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 simple request.

“On one condition.”

“Oh?”

“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 a second to make sense of that and was then rewarded with an image of Tony pressed up all against his back, arms and legs curled around James. Truth be told, all these positions had merit.

“C’mere then,” James said and then pulled Tony down along with him so the man wouldn’t have time to find another reason to protect James from some impropriety. Tony landed with a huff next to him, but to his credit, he made quick work of getting comfortable again 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 just how to fit together. This time, it was Tony throwing a leg over James, then a possessive arm around 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 just a bit tighter, relishing in the opportunity to hold the man like this.

Spokoynoy nochi, zolotse moyo.

“Good night, James.”

***

Rhodey cradled his cup of coffee, blew on the steam, and took a steadying sip as he enjoyed the early morning weather 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 very 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— god, Rhodey was a college kid all over again for a moment— that Rhodey didn’t even 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 looked out over 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 and a stretch, 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 other 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 off of an engineering binge?”

Tony snorted and didn’t offer anything else, just to be contrary. 

“I’m assuming it’s the former,” Rhodey continued, amused by his friend’s state and endeared by this 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 his way. “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 just 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—”

“Tony, no—”

“Definitely not what I meant—”

“You can’t just say things like that! And at six in the morning no less!”

Tony was gesticulating wildly, now completely awake and five kinds of mortified. “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— no, not like that. Just… literally slept with him. Next to him. In a bed. Actually sleeping. ”

Rhodey cleared his throat, trying to get the coffee out of his windpipe. “My god, you are 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 much more than that 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… we sleep better when someone else is around apparently. It’s a trust thing, a safety thing, whatever, I don’t know. Point is, that was like six hours of solid sleep for both of us just now. So, you know…”

“A damn near miracle,” Rhodey finished the thought and it was hardly even sarcasm. It figured. 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?”

“Nope.” 

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, going for an eternity now—”

“Hey, just because I have a reputation—”

“Nuh-uh, nope, that’s not what I’m talking about at all, so don’t get huffy, it ain’t cute.” Rhodey leveled Tony with stern look, which softened when Tony just grumbled something unintelligible and slumped against his arms resting on the table. “Look, you have feelings for him, right?”

“…Yes.”

“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, it’s basically 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?”

“I… might’ve.”

“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 here? Something wrong with Barnes?”

Tony flicked a drop of dew off the glass top of the table, 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 beat 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 on 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 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 groaned, scowling at the table. “I don’t know. Well, no, I do— he’s told me as much, I just…” 

He trailed off and Rhodey took over this time.  

“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.”

“Right, exactly.”

“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.”

“Rude.”

“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 pain in the ass.”

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 just 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 hell and back. 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.”

“Maybe?”

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 suddenly discovered the meaning to the universe itself. “I think I needed to hear that from someone else, actually. Because in my head, everything you just said sounds like nothing more than justifications to get what I want, you know? But coming out your mouth, it just sounds so… reasonable.”

“I’m glad I could help. I guess? Although I didn’t actually do this for you.”

“No?”

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 let this tension settle before I lose my damn mind.”

Tony got up, this time with a definite pep in his step, and grinned down at Rhodey. “If you think me and James finally kissing and touching and having hot, kinky sex—”

“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 Tony’s triumphant smirk and Rhodey was once again left to his solitude and his coffee, so he let his gaze settle back on the greenery outside, 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 forget however— or outright ignore— 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 concern was whether it was Barnes manipulating Tony into giving him protection, funding, and care, not the other way around.

Sure, pulling Barnes into the fold, pulling him 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 practically 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 the fucked up past and less-than-stellar associations, had proven himself to be a good man too. He was someone who was willing to put in the hard work to made amends, who apologized without making excuses, who learned and adapted and grew. The man was practically 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 at 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, Barnes did too.

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, and this early morning discussion about his best friend’s sex life (or rather, lack thereof), but he was willing to make sacrifices too if it meant two knuckled-heads found joy in a life that put them both through hell before letting them finally get here.

Chapter Text

Dum-E’s answering hum matched the tune of Tony’s own absentminded whistling as Tony passed by the robot and gave him an encouraging pat on the chassis. Dum-E, bless his mechanical heart, had moved on from smoothie to sandwich making— picking up habits from certain super soldiers, no doubt— and the bot was currently preoccupied, piling on salami slices on toasted wheat. While the efforts were great for his precision work, they were not particularly great for anyone’s stomach when Dum-E inevitably reached for his beloved motor oil instead of the mustard.

Still, a humming Dum-E who was wildly swinging around a slice of salami held in his claw was an endearing sight and it only served to brighten Tony’s mood further. 

Tony settled back into his spot on the floor, right in the middle of what looked like a summoning circle made out of disembodied hands and feet. Thankfully, when everything was shiny gold-titanium alloy, a scene like this turned out far less morbid and only had the power to summon one casually-dressed, oil-smudged Tony Stark.

His quiet humming continued as he tinkered with the suit parts, some nonsensical mashup of melodies swirling around in his head, and although he was never big on these sorts of admissions, it was hard to deny that his good mood wasn’t some simple momentary joy fostered by the comfort of his workshop and Dum-E’s shenanigans.

No, most of this could be traced back to a days-old conversation and really, Tony should’ve spoken to Rhodey weeks ago, but in his defense, when did his Platypus get so smart anyways?

Nah, Tony corrected his own little jibe, Rhodey had always been smart. Tech smarts, people smarts, street smarts, and if that weren’t enough, Rhodey had plain old common sense too. That last part Tony lacked, occasionally, which was why Rhodey had to step in every once in a while.

Let Barnes decide where his boundaries are. Don’t pretend to know what he needs, let him tell you that himself.

The thing was, that same thought had crossed Tony’s mind before, but the words in his head sounded like simple excuses, some clever-sounding rationalization that would absolve Tony of any responsibility for James’ well-being and sanity. 

Hearing Rhodey say it however, well, that put things in a different perspective all of the sudden. Rhodey was an outside party, far removed from the emotional, irrational, incredible whirlwind that had been Tony’s and James’ relationship thus far, and even though Rhodey would ultimately prioritize Tony if push came to shove, the man had no real ill will towards James anymore. In fact, since James’ arrival, Rhodey had taken a real liking to the man; the apology went a long way, as well as James’ general likability, but Tony suspected it also had something to do that pleased expression Rhodey wore every time James would subtly wait to eat until Tony joined him, thus getting Tony to eat at regular meal times (it was a strange game of trying to out-mother-hen each other, with James becoming frustratingly more successful as time went on) or the entirely unsubtle ways James had of convincing Tony to go to Medical when James’ steady hand and the Medkit just weren’t enough. 

Apparently Tony had a glaring weakness for those pretty doe eyes, but it wasn’t all bad. He liked making James happy, liked seeing that smile blossom on the other man’s face, and if it meant Tony was also better fed and in less pain as a result? Well, that was an added bonus no one needed to know about.

And now, after Rhodey’s stamp of approval, the thought that there were truly no more excuses to hold himself back, no real reason to hesitate… It made Tony giddy. He wondered if this newly-found sense of ease also came from Rhodey calling Tony cautious; the comment was proof that Tony hadn’t been some selfish, overbearing creep who kept misinterpreting every signal received and pushing himself onto James. 

Granted, James’ signals hadn’t exactly been subtle either, but Tony needed a reminder sometimes that his world view could occasionally get skewed by his own hang-ups. Or as Rhodey would so eloquently put it, Tony needed his head pulled out of his ass.

Choosing to leave his musings for later, Tony lost himself in his work instead, hands expertly taking care of the damage sustained by his suit in the latest battle. It only took another hour however to bring his mind brought back to reality and to the object of his affections. James appeared in the workshop in all his gorgeous super soldier glory, wearing a shirt and jeans that clung to him beautifully (and were probably so ridiculously soft that Tony would struggle to resist touching every inch of the man). There was a tray in his hand laden with goodies that Tony’s nose picked up clear across the workshop; his stomach grumbled approvingly. 

How times have changed, from Tony picking out James’ coffee and ordering extra food, hoping to erase that gaunt look off his face, to James bringing Tony his afternoon cup of pick-me-up, presenting it with a smile and a pair of bright, clear eyes, the haunted look nowhere to be seen.

James sauntered over, the swing in his hips even more tantalizing than the promise of coffee and snacks, and Tony didn’t bother looking away. He let himself get his fill of the gorgeous man instead, but the usual flare of guilt didn’t linger and oh, he could get used to that.

“Lunch time, zaichonok. I brought a salad, some fruit, and that mix of nuts you like.”

“Salad?” Tony pouted at the man. “I know you keep calling me a bunny rabbit, but surely you’re not trying to turn me into one.”

James stopped to give him an unimpressed look before setting the tray down on one of the benches. “That nickname sounds sweeter in Russian. Plus, I did bring you your coffee—”

“Ooh, I take that back, you are a blessing, James Barnes, what would I ever do without you?”

And I also brought these,” James paused to open a container, pick it up, and show its contents to Tony.

Tony’s gasp was only partly exaggerated. “You made me the cookies again?”

“Mmhmm. I’ve had a busy day.”

Tony was already scrambling to his feet, his back protesting the shift in position, but he ignored the achy joints, too busy making grabby hands at the other man.

“Hey, no, give me those!” he all but whined when James just fastened the lid back on and held onto the box. “What was it you said the other night? You can’t tease a man like this?”

“Not teasing,” James said, then contrary to his words, still held the box out of Tony’s reach. The man’s eyes shined with mischief, which just made him more gorgeous. “Salad and fruit first, then coffee, then cookies.”

“Fine, fine, you mother hen,” Tony conceded. Well, pretended to, because he immediately tried to lunge for the box, but really, what was he thinking, trying to outdo the Winter Soldier? James effortlessly moved out of the way, backing up easily as Tony chased after him with a more petulant than threatening, “James, give me those or I swear to god!”

James just laughed and kept moving away until Tony had him cornered and James had no choice but climb onto the couch while still holding the box out of the way.

Well, Tony was certain James did have a choice and could’ve easily avoided Tony’s less than graceful attempts to steal the cookies, but this was nothing but a game to them both, the whole thing ridiculous, two grown men arguing over a box of sweets, but it was joyful and carefree and Tony relished the moment.

He hopped onto the couch too, shaking with laughter as he struggled to crawl over James who was giggling too, the man on his back now, but still holding his arm out over his head to keep Tony from reaching the box. With only one arm, James couldn’t really hold Tony back, but he made a valiant effort to trap Tony between his thighs.

“Give it up, James,” Tony said between fits of laughter, wildly reaching out, trying to wriggle out of James’ hold on him. Thighs of steel indeed. “I’m getting those cookies.”

“S’that so? Not sure you deserve these now,” James said, but then finally, finally, Tony stretched out far enough and snatched the box out of his hand.

“Ha! Victory!” Tony crowed and sat up, clutching the box to his chest. “Bested by Tony Stark, no shame in that, Snowflake.” He looked down to give James a cheeky grin to rub it in, but instead of a silly smile or a fond eye roll, he was presented with James’ flushed face instead. The man’s cheeks were dusted with pink, lips parted as his chest rose and fell, strained by their playful struggle. 

James’ eyes, their icy blue darkened by the widened pupils, met Tony’s, and Tony suddenly became aware of the position they were in. Tony was sitting on top of James, straddling one of the man’s thighs; his own thigh was pressed between James’ legs and that realization flooded Tony’s mind with possibilities and his body with heat. God, what would happen if he pressed in just a little closer, just so? What would James look like as that sudden spike of pleasure coursed through him?

James still watched him expectantly, laid out beneath him so willingly, not moving away, not shifting to get Tony off him. Waiting for Tony to do something. 

Without looking away from James, Tony moved the box of cookies from one hand to the other and then placed it on the floor. With his prize all but forgotten and now out of the way, Tony leaned in to examine something far more tempting. He held himself up above James, bracketing the man’s head with his hands.

“You should’ve known you can’t win against me,” Tony said, but instead of sounding amused, his words came out husky instead, full of promise, and in a tone Tony hadn’t had the opportunity to use in a very long time.

“What was I thinking?” James parried back, but he sounded a little breathless himself. “Not very smart of me to stand between you and your sweet tooth, huh?”

“Nope, not at all,” Tony said, then leaned in a little closer, the side of his nose just barely brushing over James’. The man’s hair was in disarray after their short tussle, spilled out over the pillow, and Tony found a lock to wrap around his fingers.

“My sweet tooth is legendary, you should know that by now,” he added, a few moments too late to make this a fluid conversation, but he was too captivated by the sight in front of him, so much so that his usually quick-as-lightning brain slowed to a crawl, thoughts struggling to work their way through the haze of building desire. 

That tingling heat inside him drove him closer still and he nuzzled his nose against James’ cheek now. James’ arm, where before it rested above his head, moved too and it slid down over Tony’s side before coming to rest on Tony’s hip. It didn’t stay still for long, dragged the hem of Tony’s shirt up with a careless move, and then there were fingers skirting over the sensitive skin of Tony’s lower back, sending sparks of electricity up his spine and making him release a surprised exhale.

“Fuck, James…” the words spilled out before he could catch them and although it wasn’t exactly what he planned to say, wasn’t sexy or romantic or suave, it didn’t matter. So what if James made him incoherent with need? Maybe it was finally time to stop fighting that feeling.

“Love hearing my name like that,” James remarked, the tone almost casual, but there was nothing casual about the hand dragging itself up and down over Tony’s back. “You were the first to say my name without— without judgment, and it was the first time I wanted to be the man I am now. I wanted to be James, for you.”

Sentiment this profound really should’ve clashed with the unabashed lust coursing through Tony, but no, on the contrary, it only added to this moment, intensified everything that sat heavy in Tony’s chest, making it ache, in the best way. It was desire and tenderness and hope, all rolled into one singular wave of emotion crashing over him.

“James…” he repeated just to see those eyes flutter closed, taking the opportunity to memorize the way long, thick lashes fanned over flushed skin. “I love the way you say my name too, love the way you make me feel…”

“Tony…” James whispered, pleaded, and it added yet another spark to the fire building inside Tony.

This couldn’t be just his overactive, needy mind misinterpreting something, picking up on signs that weren’t there, right?

For the love of God, have you seen the way he looks at you?

Tony met James’ eyes and yeah, yeah, he’d seen that look before, so many times before. 

His hand buried itself in James’ hair, unable to resist those luscious locks, needing another point of contact.

“Say it again for me, sweetheart. I wanna hear it.”

“Tony, lyobov’ moya sladkaya, please…”

Oh god, James was going to be the death of him. My sweet love. As if the begging wasn’t enough to drive Tony out of his mind. 

“You know what else I want, James? Even more than hearing that pretty little mouth of yours say my name?” 

“Tell me. What do you want, Tony?”

Tony’s lips were just over James’ now, not close enough to touch, not yet, but their breath mingled together into a shared warmth. “I really, really want to kiss you right now.”

James shifted a fraction of an inch closer, but only enough to let their lips brush against one another. 

“Please…” he whispered and even a saint wouldn’t have been able to resist that, but Tony… Oh, Tony was no saint at all, so finally, he threw all that uncharacteristic caution to the wind, let his eyes fall shut, and slotted their lips together with no more regrets.

Perfect.  

James’ lips were as perfectly soft as Tony had imagined them to be and although the scratch of stubble wasn’t something Tony had experienced in years and years, suddenly that contrast was his favorite thing all over again. He shifted to better support himself above James, breaking the kiss only to come right back, the feel of James’ lips, the body beneath Tony’s, that big hand splayed possessively over Tony’s exposed back, all of it intoxicating, magnetic. There could’ve been another alien portal just outside and Tony wouldn’t have been able to pull himself away.

Despite the heat coursing through him however, despite the building arousal and need, the kiss remained chaste, nothing more than gentle brushes and soft pressure, but even that was so damn good, had to be better than any kiss that came before it, even though that made no logical sense. Tony knew that, but none of that mattered, not here, not when it was so good, and Tony may have let out a needy moan, but there was no room to feel shame here either. 

Before, Tony wondered if taking this next step would quell some of this neediness, level out the want, want, want that filled every nook and cranny of his mind when James was with him, that hunger, but oh, how wrong he was in that expectation. He just wanted more now, more, more, more, but there was still something holding back from letting go completely, from letting himself be selfish and take

He broke the kiss, the need for air a paltry excuse, but an excuse nonetheless. There were things he needed to say, which meant he should give them both room to breathe, but he couldn’t pull himself very far away.

“James, honey,” he said, the words a hoarse whisper against James’ skin where Tony peppered soft kisses over a flushed cheek and down a stubbled jaw. “I want you so badly I can’t think straight, but god, sweetheart— sweetheart, you know you can tell me ‘no’, right?” 

Please don’t say ‘no,’ I’m not sure I can handle it, Tony’s mind whispered, but he would, he’d pull away and force himself to behave, James only had to say the word. 

“Nothing would change,” Tony urged himself to say the right words, “I’d understand, I promise, nothing would be taken away— you can say ‘no’, you can tell me to go to hell, and I wouldn’t— wouldn’t ever— oomph—”

Tony’s breath was punched right out of him as the world shifted and he suddenly found himself flat on his back, staring wide-eyed at the super soldier who flipped them both over, straddling Tony now while his arm held both of Tony’s above his head. The physics of how James managed that so quickly eluded Tony, but in his defense, he wasn’t sure he knew what two plus two was right then either. For all he knew, two plus two equaled James and the delectable weight of his body, one the soldier did not bother to keep off Tony as he pressed into him from groin to chest. Tony attributed his sudden inability to breath to that too, rather than the look in James’ eyes. 

James leaned in now, a reversal of roles, lips brushing over Tony’s in the same way too and oh, this wasn’t fair, not fair at all, to tease Tony like this when he couldn’t even think straight—

“Tony, sweetheart, you have to stop trying to protect me. I can take care of myself.”

“I know that, I do, I just—”

James shushed him, the exhale of air brushing against the corner of his lips.

“You won’t hurt me, I promise. You have to remember how much you’ve done for me. Tony, it was you who helped me be strong again. Don’t take that away from either one of us.”

There were lips on Tony’s again, pressing in, urging him on, and when the hand holding his wrists let go, when it trailed to cradle Tony’s face like some precious treasure, Tony didn’t hesitate. He threaded both hands into James’ silky hair and held on.

A pleased moan escaped between kisses and Tony couldn’t tell whose it was, but if it was James’, it reflected Tony’s own state of mind just the same. So good, to finally have this connection, so right

James slid his hand down to the curve of Tony’s back so he could lift them both up and Tony lost his breath all over again when he was deposited in James’ lap, knees on both sides and pressed against James’ thick thighs. 

As if breathlessness ever stopped him though; Tony dived back in, first for a proper kiss, but unable to resist everything else for long, he abandoned James’ lips to kiss that stubbled jaw again, then trailed down lower, planting open-mouthed kisses on the column of James’ neck while Tony’s hands explored too, so much to touch, now that he was allowed. 

“God, I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long,” he managed between the kisses and felt more than heard a rumble of laughter roll through James’ body. He pressed in closer, rocking his hips against James and hiding his moan into that sweet spot behind James’ ear.

“How long, Tony? Tell me.”

“Too long,” Tony answered and it was cliche and predicable, but so, so true. “Don’t know when exactly, but god, it was that second meeting at the diner, when you walked in all cleaned up and so damn pretty, and then you smiled at me… That’s when I knew I never wanted to stop looking at you.”

“I was so damn nervous that day…” James angled his face to chase after Tony’s lips and they shared another kiss, frantic energy simmering just below the surface, pushed back for a moment as they both savored the touch. “Didn’t know how you’d react, what you might think. Still thought, ah—” James was interrupted by a nip to his bottom lip, but despite that encouraging reaction, James was intent on sharing both kisses and words. “Still thought you might secretly hate me, so what was a shave and a haircut gonna do, you know?”

Tony pulled away a little and licked his lips, feeling them tingle all over. Kissing was far superior to talking, but even nowadays James was a man of few words, so when he did have something to say, Tony knew it was important. He gave James his attention and took a chance to study him too; admittedly the pause was hardly a burden if it meant Tony got to see the results of his work, those flushed cheeks, the kiss-swollen lips, the hair in disarray from Tony’s inability to keep his hands to himself. 

Tony wanted to ruin James just a bit more, but that could wait another minute or two.

“Never hated you, James,” he responded, the words sincere and sure, “not even last year, when everything went to shit, I don’t think. I was angry and hurt, but so much of that was at the hands of others… And then when I finally met you— the real you— well… As if I ever stood a chance.”

Tony’s smile and teasing tone pulled a genuine smile out of James too. The hand on Tony’s back pressed them close together and Tony wrapped both of his arms around James’ neck, one hand clinging to the soft shirt while the other played with the hair at the back of James’ neck.

They were still so close that the shared air between them was warm, infused with their familiar scents.

“I want this, Tony…” James said. “I don’t know when it changed, when I went from appreciating your kindness, your willingness to forgive me, to— to wanting you. I dreamt about it, you know, about what it would feel like to touch you and kiss you. I didn’t think I could feel like that again, not after everything, but you— you are so damn tempting that I guess I couldn’t help it any longer.”

“And? How does reality compare?”

“Oh, fantasy doesn’t even come close.”

Tony kissed him again, because he had to and because he could. He let his tongue dart out this time, brushing over James’ plush bottom lip.

James responded in kind, parting his lips to let Tony in, to finally let Tony taste that sweet, sweet mouth and yes, James was right, reality had fantasy beat because no imagination, no matter how active, could conjure up something so good.

Tony pushed even more, deepening the kiss, taking control again, and James let him, let them both fall back on the couch with Tony on top again and the shift grinding their hips together. Tony let himself tumble into the sensation, ground his body harder against James, wanting to test the waters; he wanted to push and to prod until they both got what they wanted.

James broke the kiss, breathless huffs warming Tony’s own stinging lips. 

“This alright?” Tony murmured and watched as James nodded, but it was obvious he wanted to say more, so Tony just brushed a strand of hair out of James’ face as he waited.

“I, uh— god, it’s good, Tony, everything’s good, but…” James hesitated after that tell-tale word.

“James, I told you, all you have to say is—”

“It’s not a ‘no’, just a— a ‘not yet’.” James licked his red, swollen lips and Tony wanted to groan at the sight, but he maintained composure on sheer will alone. This was important.

“It’s been a while, you know?” James continued after a beat, the words accompanied by an amused huff, a crooked smile, the whole thing hardly sufficient to describe all he had been deprived of and for how long. “I know the old Bucky used to be a suave, sly dog… but I’m not sure I have his charm anymore.” 

James smiled shyly then and the fact that Tony could just kiss that shy smile, was allowed to, encouraged to— god, he couldn’t think of a better high.

“I’m a quick learner at least,” James added, playful this time, and now Tony did kiss that smile, keeping everything gentle now, pleased by the fact that tenderness came just as easily to him when he was with James. They both could use some tenderness in their lives.

“Whatever you want, James, you’re in control here,” he said between kisses, “you just— you tell me what you want, okay? That’s all I’m asking. Because if I ever do something you don’t want, I’d—”

“Tony, I know. You’re the hero here, love, I know you’ll protect me. And despite some proof to the contrary, I do know how to speak up.”

One more kiss because Tony really couldn’t resist. “Good, that’s all I want.”

“That’s all you want? Really?” James asked and the sly smile on his face was so damn kissable too. Tony assumed this would remain a constant dilemma— so many smiles, so many kisses— so it was a good thing they had all day to themselves then.

“I want anything you’re willing to give me, James. Anything and everything, at any hour of the day. Honestly, I’m not actually sure how I waited this long. Maybe we shouldn’t have waited so long.”

James chuckled at the banter and his hand found Tony’s back, dipping low to skirt beneath the waistband of Tony’s jeans, making him shudder.

“Well, my body certainly wants to agree with that sentiment…” James began and earned himself a huff.

“But your mind doesn’t?”

“No, no, mind’s on board too,” James said, then sat back up again, drawing Tony back into his lap. Maybe the super soldier couldn’t keep still, maybe it was restless energy from overwhelming sensations, but Tony couldn’t complain because like this, they were pressed close together again and he loved the proximity. 

“Sorta see the merit of that second arm though,” James added absent-mindedly. “So much of you to touch. One hand’s not nearly enough.”

Tony’s imagination ran wild for a moment at the reminder of the nearly completed metal arm sitting right down in his workshop. All those… practical applications alone would make up for the time and effort he spent on it.

“Sounds like I need to speed things up then.”

“May be. After all, you are quite—” James’ hand dropped lower to give Tony’s ass a light squeeze, “the handful.”

Tony snorted unattractively and muffled the rest of his mirth into James’ shoulder. “Oh my god, you are such a dork.” 

Hoping he wouldn’t make another embarrassing noise, Tony sat back up after a moment, adding a little wiggle to get more comfortable in James’ lap and earning himself an unsteady inhale. “I can’t believe you. Now, come on, you were saying something about the waiting?”

Apparently James needed a moment to gather his thoughts too before coming back to that train of thought. 

“I just meant… I wanted this for so long now and yes, you’ve been driving me up the wall for a good while, Tony. But when I think about it all again, the way you’ve been with me since the beginning… The thing was, very early on, I was ready to give you anything, Tony. You could’ve asked for anything and I— god, I was so wrapped up in you, so grateful for the shred of kindness you showed me, I wouldn’t have hesitated to give you anything you wanted.”

The husky whisper in which those words were delivered did nothing to quell the heat between them, but at the back of his mind, Tony registered James’ words as confirmation that he did the right thing after all.

James pressed his hand against Tony’s back to draw him closer for a kiss, then after getting his fill, he dropped his forehead to Tony’s and breathed. “You knew all that, you knew you could’ve had any part of me you wanted.”

“I wouldn’t have wanted for things to go that way though, I swear.”

“I know, I know. You’re a good man, Tony. You’re kind and generous and selfless and you don’t have it in you to use someone like that. You waited, you put me first, and that means more than I can say.”

James brought his hand up to brush it over Tony’s cheek, the thumb tracing lines, the tenderness of his touch matching everything Tony felt inside just then. “Now though… Ya tvoi, Antosha. Anything and everything about me is yours, if you’ll have me.”

Tony decided the only appropriate response to such an offering was a passionate kiss meant to steal James’ breath away. 

Chapter Text

Wakefulness came slowly, sliding through Tony like molasses, starting with the curl of his toes and the stretch of his ankles, then through arch of his back, the stretch releasing sleep-heavy tension, and then Tony wiggled his shoulders and snuggled closer to the comforting warmth next to him. He had every intention of falling right back asleep, but the light filtering through the windows tugged at his eyelids, tugged and tugged until Tony had no choice but to blink his eyes open and lift himself up on his elbows. 

It took a moment for his brain to catch up and when it did, Tony remembered why waking up was something to look forward to now. James was stretched out next to him, on his back, his head tilted in Tony’s direction (Tony’s own face had been smooshed into James’ right shoulder just seconds ago) and the plush lips were parted on even breaths as James slept, undisturbed by Tony’s movements. Some unruly strands of hair fell across James’ forehead and Tony resisted the urge to tuck them away. 

The two of them sharing a bed wasn’t new, but waking up first was a rare treat and Tony didn’t want to ruin it by rousing James too soon. He let his eyes trace the planes of James’ face instead, the curve of his nose, those lashes that went on for miles as they fanned out across pale skin, the bow of his lips and the sharp cut of his jaw, peppered now with stubble that made him look rugged and sexy. 

God, he was beautiful, especially like this, relaxed and untroubled, and Tony reveled in the opportunity to enjoy this. He carefully propped himself up just a little higher, fighting a new urge to lean in and kiss some part of James. Maybe the apple of his cheek or the tip of his nose or the curve of his right bicep. A soft kiss to the temple was tempting too or maybe Tony could just go all in and kiss him right on the lips.

The fact that Tony could, that he was allowed to kiss whatever part of James looked most tantalizing, was enough to make him light-headed. 

Like any relationship, their own ‘honey-moon’ phase was full of these head-spinning moments and with barely a week since their first kiss, everything was still shiny and new.

Thankfully, they seemed to be skipping the inevitable awkwardness of new relationships, but that wasn’t surprising either. They had friendship before there was romance, built on the ashes of a conflict that could— and did— tear apart lesser ties. They survived lies, betrayals, trying to kill each other, and an old tragedy neither one could’ve prevented in the first place. The worst of the worst was behind them.

Of course, Tony wasn’t so naive as to think that things could ever be this simple - this had every chance to go belly up and knowing his own tendency to self-sabotage, it wouldn’t be his parents’ death or the fight in Siberia that would break them apart. No, Tony could manage that all on his own. He wasn’t always careful with his words and he lashed out when he felt threatened or hurt. He’d get lost for hours in his head, neglecting everything but the workshop and his latest project. He’d forget an anniversary or something equally important, his stubbornness would get the best of him, or his partner would simply get sick and tired of dealing with Tony’s insecurities and hang-ups. Not to mention, most people didn’t appreciate Tony’s day job of flying around in a tin can and fighting intergalactic threats. 

Simply because something was good now didn’t meant it was going to last forever, but by god, he wanted it to. Who knew that the Winter Soldier was the final piece of the puzzle Tony had been missing this whole time? James had been so good to him, good for him, offering Tony companionship and solace on a level so profound that Tony struggled to find it with anyone else. It was easier to be himself around James too, a gentler, more vulnerable, more loving version of himself. James was one of the few people (and those Tony could count on one hand) who made Howard’s voice in Tony’s head go quiet. 

As it always did, this sort of thing came down to trust and to admit that he trusted James… That was big, but Tony couldn’t shy away from it anymore. He wanted this, he reaffirmed to himself, and the thought rang pure and true as he took in James’ peaceful face.

Because James trusted him too, didn’t he? Even the soldier’s finely honed instincts were quiet now, the man trusting Tony to take care of him, even in this vulnerable state… 

The thought brought a familiar rush of protectiveness, tangled together with a heated, selfish thrum of possessiveness. James was his and Tony saw no point in denying himself that claim, not when that selfishness was so tightly intertwined with the instinct to cherish and protect that Tony could never be able to separate the two. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. 

He watched James take another slow breath and a tenderness settled right next to those protective instincts deep in his chest.

Everything was still so new between them, almost shy, but despite what Tony’s reputation might suggest (that same reputation that hadn’t held water since a bomb blew up in his chest), Tony wasn’t merely tolerating the slower pace. There hadn’t been anyone since Pepper, so he was rusty too and while the younger version of Tony would’ve been mortified at the thought of not jumping straight into bed with a lover (but then again, younger Tony was mostly just coping), the older and wiser version of Tony knew how to savor pleasure.

Plus, it had been a lifetime for James. Tony could only imagine— no, actually, he couldn’t— the horror of James’ past, to have been denied love and affection and the most basic of physical urges for so long, to live out decades where physical touch only meant pain and punishment. It made Tony want to shower James with every bit of physical affection he could offer and he would, because James had chosen him with whom to share this new life and relationship. 

Somehow, his battered chest made room for a curl of gleeful spite too. The evidence of James’ choice was right here before him, laid out like an offering, all Tony’s, and it made his stomach clench, seizing with anticipation and need, the sensation only made sharper by that delightful taste of vindication. Tony would be the one to make James happy, not Steve.

A question unfurled in his mind, contemplating whether Tony’s possessiveness skirted the same edges of Steve’s own obsession with ‘Bucky’, the same one that proved to be so disastrous for all involved just a year ago. 

Tony wasn’t exactly keen on comparing himself to Steve, but there were similarities, he could admit that. Still, there was a world of difference between protecting your loved ones and being stupid. 

Steve broke every damn thing in his path (up to and including Tony), recklessly, without an ounce of clear thought, and he still failed. He failed to protect James, he failed to make him happy, and Tony refused to follow in Steve’s footsteps. 

He shoved the thoughts aside though, refusing to linger on what Steve could’ve and should’ve done. The room was filled with soft light of the early morning, Tony’s body was comfortably warm, and his chest was close to bursting with affection. There was no room for Steve here.

Tony resisted the urge to kiss James up until now, content to simply watch (frankly, it was a miracle the super soldier hadn’t woken up yet), but Tony could resist no longer, so he leaned in and pecked James’ stubbled cheek.

As expected, James stirred as soon as Tony shifted closer, his body twisting on a good stretch before lying back down while low-blinking baby blues settled on Tony.

“Morning, sunshine,” Tony said with a cheery smile and James wrinkled his nose, mumbled something in Russian as he shifted onto his right side, facing Tony. The Russian sounded like a order to go back to sleep, then another muffled “Rano esche…” as James buried half of his face into the pillow.

Still early. 

Tony huffed. James had a point, sure, but Tony was awake now and everyone knew he couldn’t be left alone to deal with early mornings without proper supervision. 

“Come on now,” he insisted, voice lilting in playfulness as he peppered the scars on James’ left shoulder and then his cheek with butterfly kisses. “Where’s that vigilant super soldier, hmm?”

“Sleepin’,” came the muffled reply. James was obviously awake now, that sweet little half smile giving him away, and despite the grumbling, he was reaching for Tony, dragging his fingers down Tony’s cheek and making him shiver. “Why are you up, kotenok? Everything alright?”

Tony nuzzled into the hand petting him. “Yeah, just up earlier than usual. I think my body is still adjusting to this whole ‘seven hours a night’ idea and this is a conscientious protest. But we can stay in bed longer if you want. I’m not really in a hurry.”

“C’mere then,” James beckoned him, a soft pressure on the crown of Tony’s head and Tony followed that nudge eagerly as he slid closer. His head found its place in the crook of James’ right shoulder while Tony’s limbs wrapped themselves around the man, turning Tony into a convincing octopus. 

James’ hand began carding through Tony’s messy hair and combined with the body heat, it was an effective way to keep Tony exactly where he was. It was heavenly.

“This alright?” James whispered and Tony nodded against him. 

“Perfect.” 

Tony’s whole body sang, having craved this sort of intimacy for so long, and now it seemed it couldn’t get its fill, urging Tony to press in closer and closer. He knew James was just as desperate, just as touch-starved and far more deprived of these basic human affections, which urged Tony to leave the hesitations and the pride behind. They deserved this.

As if to soothe that hurt away, as if he could, Tony let his lips ghost over James’ clavicle and he felt the other man shiver, heard him exhale, so he did it again, just a simple drag of his lips over warm skin. The hand in Tony’s hair stopped and pressed Tony closer, as if keep his lips right where they were, and that slight pressure that could’ve easily been a request for more, for something more frenzied and passionate and needy, but it was still early morning, the world around them was quiet, and their bodies were still heavy with vestiges of sleep.

There may have been another lazy kiss or two, but they stayed where they were and before long, Tony drifted off again. He may have dreamt too, but he wasn’t quite sure. On a morning like that, it was difficult to tell apart dreams from reality.

***

They were snuggled up on the couch another week later, a nature documentary playing on the TV screen, and while the program itself was full of colorful imagery and interesting tidbits, Tony wasn’t being an attentive viewer tonight. There were lions on the screen, that much he knew, but the rest of his considerable brain power was occupied with a whole parade of drifting thoughts that swirled about in his head, surprisingly worry-free.

This was turning into a trend, and maybe it was some dastardly plan on James’ part, to lull Tony into this tranquil state, morning, noon, and night, but Tony was hard-pressed to protest it.

The documentary on screen was for James’ benefit anyways. He adored these shows, finding them a safe way to discover the world, both the parts that were inaccessible to him in the past and those that didn’t exist yet. Nature, technology, other cultures, it didn’t matter, James was an eager student and Tony wasn’t ashamed to admit that this unbound curiosity was one of James’ most attractive features (and there were many to choose from). The fact that Tony himself was in a prime position to show off that shiny new tech or take James to whatever corner of the world he found fascinating… Well, that was the beautiful thing about relationships, wasn’t it? They were meant to be mutually beneficial and with Tony’s help, James would get to heal and start a brand new life, learn about the world around him, see and experience new things, enjoy himself, while Tony would get to be there to soak in all that joy and curiosity and revel in the way James grew stronger, steadier, and happier each day. The way he smiled. Knowing that James’ pleasure was Tony’s doing was its own reward.

Tony blinked lazily at the leaping lion on screen, then replayed that earlier thought back, and promptly realized he just described himself as a skip and a hop away from being a sugar daddy.

He hid his amused snort into James’ shoulder and earned himself a confused look which he had to wave off with a muttered apology. James was easily mollified though, even more so with a quick peck to the lips, and seconds later, his attention was back on the lions (or leopards now, as it were).

Tony snuggled back into James’ chest, delighted when the arm around him tightened.

Okay, so the relationship dynamic was always going to be weird, but they were taking things slow for a reason and James wasn’t exactly helpless either. A well-trained, highly intelligent assassin spy who survived for years on his own didn’t need Tony to hold his hand. Hell, James could leave right now and be just fine, but Tony hoped James would never have reason to do so. Surviving was one thing, but with a bit of Tony’s help (and the help of the other well-meaning disasters living in this Compound), James could finally thrive.

Granted, most of those well-meaning disasters didn’t actually know Tony and James were an item. Not yet, and they enjoyed their privacy while they could, relishing the undeniable thrill of having this little secret all to themselves, a possessive little this is mine, this is ours 

Although Rhodey already knew, of course. He knew as soon as Tony surfaced from the workshop that night after the first kiss and Tony didn’t even have the chance to reach for the coffee pot before the words “Oh, thank god, finally,” came out of Rhodey’s mouth.

Apparently Tony’s smile was dopey and telegraphed “I made out with the Winter Soldier” to everyone within a one-mile radius. 

Tony argued that, for all his theatrical range, never have any of his smiles been ‘dopey’, but he had to concede that he may have walked into that kitchen with an extra pep in his step. Sue him, he did make out (and cuddle, and nap, and make out again) with the Winter Soldier.

Rhodey just knew him too damn well. That was the problem.

Everyone else could wait though, even if they weren’t missing out on much anyways. Even these snuggles were perfectly innocent. Well, mostly, because in all fairness, Tony didn’t usually sit plastered quite so tightly to someone and his hand wasn’t ever this high up on someone else’s thigh and James didn’t usually play with anyone’s hair but Tony’s. And there were plenty of kisses too, but that was fine. Kisses were nice.

Kisses and lazy cuddles and the way James’ fingers felt in his hair were all wonderful, but they also had the ability to short-circuit very important parts of Tony’s brain, and that would’ve been fine if it meant Tony paid little attention to the lions and tigers, but tonight, his blissed-out state had the unfortunate side-effect of completely forgetting the schedules of certain other members of this household.

Tony and James were just in the middle of another kiss too, tender and sweet and—

“Oh my god.”

—and it really did not deserve the two identical shit-eating grins on Loki’s and Peter’s face. Tony may have let out an embarrassing, startled noise he’d deny to his dying day, and at least Peter had the good graces to try and tame his delight (he failed, mostly), but Loki looked like every Norse holiday had come at once. 

And then the grin on Peter’s face widened not even a moment later as he glanced up at Loki and thrust his hand out. “I told you they were already together. You owe me twenty.”

Loki was teaching Tony’s kid to gamble now, apparently.

Without taking his eyes off Tony and James and looking so insufferable and smug that Tony wanted to get up and punch him, Loki snapped his fingers and a crisp twenty dollar bill materialized out of nowhere, promptly handed to Peter who did a little dance as he clutched the money and beamed.

Menaces. 

Tony sneaked a glance at James, worried how this would pan out, but James didn’t appear distressed, expression neutral but not strained as he watched the two troublemakers with a raised eyebrow. The arm around Tony’s shoulders was still there and the hand that had been carding through Tony’s hair earlier was still tracing lazy lines up and down his neck, which reassured Tony that James wasn’t freaking out.

He supposed that made sense. Ever since that first introduction, James had forged a strange friendship with these two. Now, Peter could befriend both Godzilla and Mothra in two seconds flat and have them singing kumbaya on the third, so that wasn’t a surprise, but Loki was always a wildcard, equally capable in both endearing himself to someone and annoying them to near death. So far though, he seemed to have taken the overprotective trickster route with James.  

Satisfied that James was alright, Tony finally pinned the other two with a half-hearted glare. “Did no one ever teach you that it’s rude to interrupt? Petey, you should know better.”

“Sorry, Mr. Stark,” Peter offered, sounding only a touch chagrined. “We really didn’t mean to. We were just coming back from training, wanted to see if anyone else was around and we saw the lights on in here.”

“Yes, we are truly, terribly sorry for interrupting this little… date.” The world was emphasized with the curl of Loki’s lips that somehow made him appear more smug. “How long has this lovely, wonderful thing been going on?”

“A few weeks,” James answered.

“And you didn’t share the happy news with the rest of us? I am hurt, James, truly, I thought we were friends.”

James wasn’t falling for Loki’s simpering tone either. “Tony and I like our privacy, nothing personal.” 

“Well, I think it’s great that you two are together,” Peter piped up. He, at least, sounded genuine. “I totally called it too. Mr. Stark just had a look on his face lately, you know? There’s this smile, a really specific one, that he only gets when Mr. James is around.”

“Yes, they are just precious, aren’t they?”

Loki’s cooing made Tony’s eye twitch, Peter’s honest words made a blush crawl up his neck, and the whole scene was making Tony feel like a teenager caught by his parents with his hand down his date’s shirt.

Mostly, he just wanted the earth to swallow him and James whole, but there was a small part of him, just a tiny one, that relished this irreverent, silly, and positive reaction. Knowing that no one here would pull James aside and warn him of the inevitable— Tony’s no good for you, he destroys everything he touches, run while you can— that no one would receive their relationship with passive aggressive jibes or open hostility, no one would sit back and wait for things to blow up… It was sheer relief, frankly.

“You have that right, Lokes. We are the most precious thing here and don’t you forget it. But since this precious thing is also new,” Tony added meaningfully, “we’ll like a little privacy. I’m sure you both understand.”

Peter nodded with vigor, expression suddenly solemn in the face of this very adult responsibility.

“Of course, Mr. Stark! We won’t say a thing.” The solemnity wavered. “Although… Well, I think everyone kinda knows already— guesses, I mean, that you two are together. We’ve just been speculating, that’s all.” The boy scratched his chin. “I’m still amazed, to be honest. Never thought the Avengers would be worse gossips than the kids at school.”

“What Peter is trying to say,” Loki interjected, “is that you two haven’t exactly been discreet with your… affection for one another and no one here is so obtuse as to miss it. All of us have simply been puzzling over when this wondrous thing was going to happen.”

Peter was beaming again. “Everyone thought it was going to take you forever, but I had a hunch.”

“I suppose the rest of us overestimated the stubbornness of love-struck, pining pair of fools.”

Tony groaned and hid his face in his hands. “I am so glad the entire Compound has been discussing our love life over drinks.” 

“They do have a point, Tony,” James said and Tony just groaned louder. “We did fall asleep in the theater room, remember?”

“And you call each other all those cute nicknames too!” Peter supplied.

Loki chimed with a smug, “And your eyes stray when you’re in the same room. The rest of us just cease to exist. I’d take it personally, but I suppose it’s sweet, this whole… what do you call it, Peter dear?”

“A crush?”

“That’s it.” Loki smirked until his cheeks must’ve hurt. “An adorable little crush.”

“Next training session,” Tony threatened with a jab of his finger, “I’m taking you down, trickster. You’re getting cocky and I don’t like it.”

‘Looking forward to it, Stark.” The god didn’t let Tony get another jibe in before he took Peter by the shoulders and began steering the boy out the door. “Now, let’s leave these two love birds alone—”

Love birds? Where did you even—”

“And you, young man, need a filling dinner after that training session. The love birds,” Loki shouted over his shoulder while pushing a waving Peter along, “are more than welcome to join us whenever they get bored of one another.”

Tony slumped against James with a grumble as soon as the two disappeared. “Menaces, those two… but I guess we really haven’t been subtle, have we?”

“Not really, no.”

Tony glanced up at James. “Is that a problem?”

Should we make this official? almost slipped past his lips. It didn’t, but James understood all the same.

“I don’t mind the others knowing. The privacy has been a breath of fresh air, but if they already know—”

Suspect, but now that those two troublemakers found us like this… Loki is physically incapable of keeping his mouth shut, but I mean, I could make him keep it shut if you don’t want—”

“No, no, this is… good, I think.” James didn’t sound so sure though and Tony twisted around to face him.

“Whatever you want, James. We can keep doing what we’re doing, it doesn’t matter. I just want you comfortable.”

James contemplated the words and Tony watched him worry his bottom lip between his teeth. A finely-trained assassin with a nervous habit. It was as adorable as it was heartbreaking, knowing James spent years being forced to suppress these simple, human habits…

This time, Tony gave into the urge to thumb at the lip to save it from those anxious little bites.

“What are you thinking, gorgeous?”

“I’m going to stick around here, aren’t I?” James let out a breath, then continued. “With the others and— and with you?”

The fact that there was still uncertainty, that the question had to be posed at all, meant Tony had more work to do, so much more, but Tony had never been one to shy away from hard work.

“Yes, definitely. You are definitely sticking around, James. I have no intention of letting you go.” 

James’ shy smile made Tony’s stomach swoop with pleasure and heat, and he was so, so bad at resisting this man, which meant there was nothing left to do but to lean in and kiss him. Tony’s hands found their way into James’ hair, his tongue slipped out to trace James’ swollen bottom lip, and it was perfect, the slide of their lips, the scratch of James’ stubble against Tony’s skin, the roaming hands trying to find purchase…

Talking was the last thing Tony wanted to do, but dammit, this was a conversation they needed to finish.

An inch of space between them, that was enough, wasn’t it? But even with the kiss broken, Tony still kept James close, their heads pressed together and their breaths mingling.

“M’not letting you go, James. I want this. Hell, I want everything, and that includes letting the world know that you’re mine. But I need to know what you want, gorgeous.”

James’ answer was to chase after Tony’s lips to claim another kiss for himself and god, those kitten licks were so distracting, the taste and the feel of this man, but Tony pulled away again, on sheer, stubborn will this time.

James huffed against him. “Was that not clear enough, kotenok?”

“Spell it out for me.”

“I want this too,” James said, voice clear and certain, and it muted the doubt trying to rise up in Tony. James nuzzled his cheek then, peppering it with kisses, and Tony had the sneaking suspicion was being seduced here. “I want you and I want this to be real, to be a… a real relationship.”

“Yes. God, yes.” Tony inhaled sharply when a hint of teeth pressed against his clavicle. “I’ll tell the whole damn world if that’s what you want.”

James chuckled, but didn’t stop tracing Tony’s skin with his lips, exploring the spot just below Tony’s ear now. “Let’s start with your friends—”

Our friends, James.”

“Our friends,” he reaffirmed. His hand found Tony’s to lace their fingers together. “But we both know the rest of the world is a tougher one…”

“Because the rest of the world includes Steve?”

“Yes… I don’t want him causing trouble for you, especially not over me. And who the hell knows what Maximoff is thinking and—”

“James, babe, Steve’s already causing trouble for me, so don’t let that factor into your decision. You get to decide how to live your life and he’s… well, he’s just gonna have to deal with it. And god help Wanda if she comes anywhere near you. Don’t ever worry about her, okay?”

James nodded, not as confidently as Tony wanted him to, but this was still progress. “I’ll tell you… when I’m ready for the world to know.”

For Steve to know.

“Square deal,” Tony said and then pushed lightly for James to lie down. There would be no more talk of Steve here, nor Wanda, nor anyone else who could pierce their little bubble of joy. 

Tony’s sly smirk was a contrast to James’ sweet smile as Tony straddled him and kissed him again, determined to push away all these worries. They deserved to spend this time enjoying each other, just the two of them, lost to pleasure and joy, before they would inevitably deal with the nosiness and judgment of the world. Before Steve and the inevitable attempts to destroy this newfound happiness. 

Not on my watch, Tony decided, and held onto James just a little tighter as he pressed in closer and kissed just a little deeper.

Chapter Text

“You know, I could get used to this,” Tony said as he walked into the penthouse to find James sprawled on the couch, comfortable and loose-limb and smiling up at Tony. “Getting to come home after a long day at work to such a pretty sight.”

“Mmm. Is that what I am?” 

Without letting Tony answer, James was already up off the couch, treating himself to a luxurious stretch that elongated his whole body (and made Tony’s mouth water when the button-down James wore rode up over his abs), and then before Tony could shake himself out of that trance, James was already in Tony’s space, wrapping an arm around him. 

Despite the show James put on, the sinuous movements, the spark in his eyes, there was still a hesitancy about that touch, an unspoken request for permission in the way James paused before getting closer, in the way his hand hovered over Tony’s lower back rather than pressing in and claiming that space for itself. Tony would’ve loved nothing more than to have James to use that super soldier strength to bring Tony flush against him, kiss Tony senseless, remind Tony of that manhandling kink he was starting to develop, but he also knew those things would take time. They’d work their way up to that level of comfort and in the meantime, this reverent treatment was just as enjoyable.

Tony made a show of standing up on his tip-toes to give the tip of James’ nose an exaggerated kiss, then laughed at the way James wrinkled his face and tried to fight the smile that broke through that put-upon expression.

“How was your day, gorgeous?”

“Quiet, mostly. How was yours, zolodtse?”

“Oh, you know. Work is work. Made my rounds, sat through the Board meeting, made sure no one was messing with our latest operating system update. In and out of meetings all day, basically. I wish I could blame this on Pepper, but her list of meetings is usually much longer than mine. I’m sorry it took forever to get back up here though, I know we missed lunch. Hopefully you didn’t get too bored?”

“Not at all. And it was nice to get out of the Compound. Change of scenery, you know?” James shrugged. “Plus, your entertainment center and Friday kept me busy.”

Tony looked James over, the rising guilt making him frown. “I’m sorry you’re still basically stuck at the Compound. I wish you could just go out whenever, but with the, uh, the—”

“The former best friend still out there looking for me? Tony, it’s okay. The Compound is huge. I still haven’t explored all the trails and you know I won’t ever get bored of that gorgeous lake. And I do get to spend time out in the city. Mostly with May and the kids, but Happy took me out to those car shows too, remember? That’s more than I could ask for.”

Tony’s frown twisted in deeper displeasure. “Yes, well, that’s because your expectations are heartbreakingly low, Snowflake. You deserve more than that.” 

The ability to go outside without hiding his face behind a Veil was at the top of that list.

It would take some work to get there, mostly to manage the media’s response, but Tony was confident they could re-introduce James to the world with minimal trouble. It was already common knowledge that he was back in the States, but between the Rogues’ contentious relationship with the media and James’ silent and downtrodden presence at those ‘press conferences’ Rogers set up, the public’s opinion of him remained murky, mostly because it was based almost entirely on conjecture. James was still a ‘ghost story’ and that gave everyone far too much room to wonder and speculate, which rarely turned out well.

Tony and his PR team could do much, much better.

Of course there was still the Star-Spangled headache himself and that was a problem that couldn’t be solved by some well-timed tweets, strategic public appearances, and James’ lethal set of puppy-dog eyes.

No matter, Tony decided. Whenever James chose to open up about his whereabouts and his new associations, they’d be ready to deal with the backlash from the Rogues and frankly, the thought of facing off against Rogers sent a tiny thrill through Tony. He didn’t want to deal with that mess, but if he had to, he wouldn’t be so easy to push aside again. Tony was done being a push-over for Howard’s favorite creation. 

Tony clung to that thought as he pulled James in by the collar of his shirt and finally kissed him, deeply, throughly, staking his claim as he let his tongue slip between James’ lips to map out that hot, sweet mouth. James gave as good as he got and Tony’s toes curled in his designer loafers when James’ tongue swiped against his, when that hand on Tony waist finally pressed him in close.

They kisses for a good minute and it was James who pulled away first, panting, cheeks dusted with pink, blue eyes bright and eager and alive. 

God, the sight of him was addicting and Tony enjoyed it without shame. After everything, after he tried and tried and earned himself nothing but a betrayal and a shield to the chest, Tony was ready to take what he wanted and savor it. He deserved to be happy too.

Luckily, James was just as willing to stay right here at Tony’s side and enjoy their slowly-entwining lives.

“So, what were you up to while I was working?” Tony asked, his hands absently running up and down the row of buttons on James’ shirt, the same ones he buttoned this morning. James was perfectly capable, but Tony had developed a rather insatiable urge to fuss and James indulged him, occasionally. Mostly, he let Tony take care of his hair, brushing it out after a shower and putting it up into an artfully messy bun, but this morning, Tony was allowed to fuss just a bit more.

“Friday and I have been working on a list of schools, classes, and potential jobs that would suit me. She’s fantastic, by the way, she found things I didn’t even know existed. The job market’s, uh, it’s different in this century.”

“I bet. And she does have a knack for research, doesn’t she? Anything spark your interest?”

James’ hand ran up Tony’s left side, making him shiver, and it was distracting enough that Tony’s eyes fluttered shut and he almost missed James’ shrug. 

“A part of me wants to try something theoretical. Books and paper and sitting inside a fancy lab all day, you know? Physics maybe, or astronomy. I’m not sure, but I, uh… I think I’ve always been pretty good at math.”

“You were— still are, frankly— the best sniper out there. Of course you’re good at math.” Tony smiled at James encouragingly, then outright beamed. “I love this idea, actually, the more I think about it. You’d fit right in with the science squad and you’d look so damn sexy with a book and a pair of glasses.”

The bashful reception to praise only served to make James look more delectable. “I see. You just want me for my good looks, don’t you?”

The teasing was great too, a sign that James was growing more and more comfortable with Tony. Teasing, flirting, friendly banter - something you took for granted until you encountered someone who was punished, over and over and over, for talking back, for disagreeing, for disobeying. 

Tony hoped this sense of comfort would continue to grow. It had to, because they needed to trust each other, not only to enjoy this playful back-and-forth, but to deal with genuine disagreements and the inevitable fights that awaited them down the road if this became more. With a clarity that took his breath away, Tony realized he really did want this to work. He wanted to see himself and James make something great out of this, something long-term. 

He kissed James again, slow and sweet this time, because he could and because he wanted to.

“Of course I want you for your good look, gorgeous,” he said when they parted. He winked too and it had James stifling a snort. “That and that sweet ass of yours.”

“You are so romantic.”

In lieu of words, Tony let his hands explore, tracing a path up James’ chest first, over that row of buttons again, then letting his fingers brush up over his neck and up over his stubbled cheeks. Before, Tony would’ve let this next part remain unsaid— men don’t go on and on about their feelings, Tony, stop being such a girl— but Howard’s voice was easier to ignore today. 

“You do know it’s more than that, right?”

James tilted his head just a fraction, as if trying to see those words from a different angle (like the most adorable puppy, and really, Tony shouldn’t be so damn smitten). The hand on Tony’s back kept him steady and close as James leaned in and pressed their foreheads together and Tony’s eyes fluttered shut again.

“Yeah, I know, Antosha,” James whispered, and really, how did they go from joking to these heartfelt confessions in two seconds flat? What a pair the two of them made.

“I like so many things about you. You, most of all, to be honest.”

A soft huff, then, “A lot of me is broken.”

“Well, we’ll fix what can be fixed and work around the rest.” Tony’s hand traced the sharp line of James’ jaw, the stubble making his fingers tingle. “I’m not exactly the pinnacle of perfection here either. And you know what, actually?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re not nearly as broken as you think. You don’t need to be fixed, you just… need to find what makes you happy, now, in this century, in this life. And some of that might change you or your habits, sure. Honestly, we could all stand to learn some better coping mechanisms, but at the end of the day, it’s not about molding yourself to fit somewhere or someone else, it’s finding a place that fits you.”

It was more than Tony meant to say, and far, far more meaningful, but it felt like the right thing, so he ignored the urge to backpedal or fall back on humor as a shield against the emotionally charged atmosphere. There was no response from James at first, not right away, but he still held Tony close, both of them pressed together, breathing the same air, and Tony took that to mean his words weren’t rejected.

“Thank you,” James finally whispered, “I will never say it enough, but thank you.”

“You’re welcome, James. And for what it’s worth,” Tony pulled away to clear his suddenly dry throat— it certainly wasn’t the string of tears he was blinking away, no sir— and just like that, the moment was over, but they both needed air and a chance to gather themselves. “I think you’d be fantastic at any job you pick up. Theory, research, even teaching, that could all work really well for you. Something new and different.”

James took a shaky inhale to match Tony’s own. “Yeah… Books and pencils and chalkboards—”

“And holograms and computers and databases, you old man.”

“Right, of course. Although I suppose I’m not against getting my hands dirty either.”

“Oh, is that so?”

Tony’s leer earned him nothing more than James’ exasperation, although it was laced with amusement James didn’t bother to hide, so Tony considered it a win. 

“Veterinary science sounded interesting actually, or— what did Friday way it was? Wildlife rehabilitation, that’s it. Animals don’t care if you were a former assassin, you know?”

Tony hummed as he walked over to the bar to pour himself a quick drink. “That’s not a bad idea either. You’d be perfect for working with the bigger animals. You’d be able to do more than a baseline human and with less risk to yourself and to others.”

“Does sound fitting.” James perched on the arm of the sofa and watched as Tony take a long swallow. “A monster taking care of animals people see as monsters.”

“James,” Tony reprimanded softly. His heart ached and he put the glass back down as his throat filled with thorns. “You’re not a monster.”

“No?”

“No. Monsters don’t feel guilty, they don’t apologize, they don’t make amends.”

James nodded after a moment, but Tony wasn’t naive enough to think his words were accepted so easily. After all, how long did it take him to believe that? Hell, even now there were days he couldn’t look in the mirror with anything but muted resignation.

They were both a work in progress and that was okay, but between the heartfelt confessions and these insecurities, they’ve done enough soul-baring for one day.

Tony sauntered over and made himself home between James’ legs when they parted for him.

“Personally, with this vet gig, I think you should go the opposite route because I’m just… well, I’m imagining you…” He traced his thumb over James’ chin, just below his bottom lip, and watched James exhale and his lips part. “All gorgeous six feet and 250 pounds of you, with a tiny, itty bitty kitten in your hands. Let me tell you, my heart just does this weird pitter-patter thing and I’m sold.” James was trying not to smile, but he was also too distracted by Tony’s wandering hands. “I’m serious, James, that way lies world domination. Grown men and women will swoon.”

James leaned in closer. “Do I need a tiny kitten to make you swoon, zvezda moya?”

Tony buried his hand in James’ hair, tugged him closer, and kissed him until they were both satisfied with the answer to that question.

***

James made a noise, some cross between a curious hum and a moan, and Tony wondered whether the the sound was purposefully seductive or whether it was simply Tony’s tendency to find every bit of James attractive, even when his face was Veiled to look like a stranger. 

“How’s that hipster nightmare of an ice cream treating you?”

“It’s interesting.” James gave the charcoal-colored milky concoction another lick. “Not sure if I’d get it again, but I’m glad I tried it.” 

The ice cream was James’ idea, the colorful food truck catching his eye, and Tony, never to be outdone, proudly carried his own unicorn-inspired rainbow nightmare alongside him. His ice cream tasted like cotton candy and he wondered what it would taste like mixed with the licorice he’d be certain to find on James’ lips. 

The Veil did temper some of Tony’s fixation with James’ seductive ice-cream consumption, which was probably for the best. It was already bad enough when earlier today they found each other so thoroughly distracting that by the time Tony resurfaced from the glory and miracle that were James’ lips— and body and laugh and pretty blue eyes, and really, Tony could go on forever, because he was on the stupid side of smitten these days— they realized they breezed right past a ‘late lunch’ and were heading straight into ‘early dinner’ territory. Despite putting on a respectable amount of weight, James didn’t need any more skipped meals, so Tony was determined to rectify the situation.

He suggested several of the local restaurants, but James asked if they could take a walk to Central Park instead. The weather outside was gorgeous, he insisted, they hadn’t done one of their walk in months, and the streets of Manhattan would be another welcomed change of pace. 

That alone was enough to say ‘yes’, but this wasn’t just any request, this was James asking for something that didn’t directly relate to his survival, something he simply wanted and so they’d be going to Central Park even if Thor himself was out there raining down thunder, lightning, and a torrential downpour in all his broody, godly glory.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, the day was beautiful, and that was how they found themselves strolling down a familiar path, filled up on street food and finishing off their meal with their hipster ice cream cones

Friday preserved some of their privacy, using a disruption field that kept pesky cameras and listening devices at bay, but the park itself was always busy and if Tony gave into the urge to hold James’ hand or link their arms together or wrap his arm around James’ waist and pull him close, anything that signaled at romantic affections, it’d be only a matter of time before someone tweeted about Tony Stark strolling through the park with his new beau and the world at large had something shiny and new to gossip about.

Until James was ready for the reveal, Tony had to avoid starting any more rumors than necessary, but the upside of being the focus of so many gossip rags and internet message boards was the plethora of already existing rumors. The more rumors, the harder it was to tell the truth apart from outright lies and Tony really didn’t need to worry about being seen with a random man when some parts of the internet were still in a frenzy over the last public outing where Tony had given Hope a kiss on the cheek, which obviously meant he was now having an affair and cheating on Rhodey (apparently, he and Tony had been married since their MIT days). The other leading theory was Tony being part of a sexy ménage à trois with Thor and Pepper (that one was a personal favorite), but neither held a candle to the poor souls who were somehow convinced that Tony was meeting up with Rogers in secret to rebuild their also-secret relationship.

The internet was wild and it would get wilder still when the world found out Tony had actually been dating the Winter Soldier this whole time, but this was why his PR team got paid the big bucks.

He sneaked another glance at James and was met again with a stranger’s face. It was still disconcerting, even though Tony was slowly getting used to it, but at least with Friday watching out for them, James didn’t have to disguise his voice. In addition to the Veil, James chose to wear a prosthesis too, a simple polyethylene plastic arm that had limited adjustability and was worn mostly to fill in the sleeve of James’ button-down. 

James never wore the prosthesis at home, but here, it served as another precaution against prying eyes. The public might not pick up on the clues, but certain super spies would certainly put two and two together if they saw Tony Stark hanging out with a tall, beefy man with long, luscious hair and a missing left arm.

With the prosthesis tucked discreetly into the pocket of his jeans, James looked like every other guy on the street, as long as no one looked too closely.

The new cybernetic arm was actually ready, because Tony always worked hard and worked fast, but a while ago they learned that James himself wasn’t. Complications arose when they tried to attach the new arm as it appeared that the super soldier healing actually dampened some of the neurological pathways now that the old metal arm was gone and Tony’s own attack on James didn’t help, triggering further healing that gave no concern for the technology weaved into James’ nervous system and brain when the original arm was installed. Fortunately, Tony was able to cash in another favor with Dr. Cho, who had been staying away from the Avengers ever since Ultron; the project piqued her interest however and she was now working with James to facilitate his physical healing, using a modified version of the Cradle to actively direct the growth of delicate nerve tissues so that in time, both James’ body and brain would be receptive to the new arm. 

Until then, James had opted out of a more functional prosthesis, asserting that he was content to wait as he was and Tony had to wonder, even though he hated the thought, whether James saw that choice as self-inflicted punishment.

He hoped the reluctance was something else, but hell, it wasn’t as if Tony couldn’t understand the appeal of having something so tangible to serve as a reminder of your past. The surgery to remove the shrapnel was viable long before Tony got under the knife and his resistance had little to do with the risk of the surgery (Tony took more risks on a daily basis flying around in a tin can). Rather, it was letting go of the reactor itself, the physical embodiment of Tony’s penance. Before, he’d look in the mirror, see that icy blue glow, take a shallow breath, and be reminded of Yinsen’s dying words. 

Don’t waste your life. 

Turned out, removing the reactor didn’t change Tony’s need to atone all that much, but Tony wasn’t going to tell James that, no matter his good intentions. They were different people, dealing with different traumas, and James had the right to carve out his own path to recovery. This was James asserting bodily autonomy and Tony could do nothing but respect that.

The man in question, oblivious to Tony’s meandering thoughts, pointed out a Samoyed in the distance, a giant, white fluff cloud of a dog trotting proudly between his two owners, and James’ curiosity pulled a smile out of Tony as he replied, fond as could be, that James must’ve gotten his own puppy dog eyes from this fluffy beast.

They kept walking and Tony prompted James to talk about his research with Friday, content to listen, that voice as soothing to him as the rays of sun dancing along his skin and the vivid swirl of city life around them.

At some point, James turned to him, unfamiliar eyes laced with familiar affection and there was just a speck of ice cream at the corner of his lips. Rumors be damned, Tony couldn’t resist that invitation and he reached out to wipe that speck away with his thumb, sticking it into his mouth when he pulled away. James laughed, the sound warm and carefree, and Tony’s whole being tingled with the knowledge that this laugh belonged to him in some small way.

Whatever complications they faced, they were either temporary or manageable. James would continue to heal, both physically and mentally; they would continue to grow as a couple, learn new things about each other, deal with disagreements, fears and hurts. Neither was alone, with a full support network to catch them when they stumbled, and the relationship going public? Well, they’d cross that bridge they came to it.

He gave James a big grin and bumped their shoulders together.

“Give me a taste of that terrifying-looking ice cream, would ya?”

James pretended to consider the request for a moment. “Alright, but only if you let me taste yours.” 

They stopped and offered their cones to each other, giggling like children as they tried to get a lick in and then instead of a taste, James managed to smudge Tony’s nose. Given that his steady hand was legendary, foul play was afoot and Tony scrunched up his now ice cream-covered nose like a child. 

“Hey, you did that on purpose!”

“Did not,” James said, stifling laughter because he was guilty as sin. “Sorry, kotenok, I’d wipe that off for you, but I don’t think the good people of New York would appreciate me licking your face right here in the middle of the park.” 

James gave his ice cream a smug little lick then, his eyes never wavering from Tony as Tony wiped his own nose himself and valiantly tried not to blush like a school boy.

It wasn’t even a particularly dirty suggestion, but coupled with James’ voice and that tongue… Tony’s only solace was the Veil obscuring James’ gorgeous face, but even these generic features were beginning to grow on him.

“So rude. I didn’t even get a taste,” Tony pouted and James was already offering him the ice cream again. This time, Tony made sure to give it a good lick and take a generous bite of the cone.

“Mmm, not bad for something that looks like watered-down coal.” Tony licked his lips. “Mine’s better, obviously.”

“Of course.” James looked down at the ice cream then, his face turning wistful. “Thank you for this, Tony.”

“For the ice cream?”

That prompted a soft laugh. “Sure, yes. For the ice cream, for the day at the park.” James kept his eyes on the path ahead of them as they continued their walk, but Tony kept his eyes on James. “Each day that I’ve known you has been better for it. You know that, don’t you?”

Sometimes this sort of sincerity was the most terrifying thing and Tony admired James’ courage.

“I know… Really, I do.”

“I just… You deserve to hear that.” James took a deep breath. “Tony, you’ve done so much for me. Even small things like today, they’re so important and I just wanted—”

James stopped mid-step, eyes going wide as whole body went stiff, a curse of quiet Russian slipping between his lips, and Tony didn’t have the chance to ask what was wrong before a familiar voice rang behind them.

“Tony! Wait!”

Tony’s stomach dropped and just like that, the good feelings vanished.

Chapter Text

“Tony!” echoed behind them again and hearing Steve’s voice for the second time was somehow worse. A confirmation that Tony didn’t hallucinate the first shout, didn’t imagine the hairs at the back of his neck standing on end. He’d been avoiding this for a year and now, Steve was here, this was real

“Fuck,” Tony swore under his breath. His heart raced, a painful rhythm against his ribs that had his blood pumping, had adrenaline flooding his limbs and making his hands tingle. 

Did he really think he’d be ready for this confrontation? That he’d be unaffected? ‘Rogers the ex-coworker’ turned right back to Steve, the friend who betrayed him, and Tony’s body still remembered the sharp vibranium buried in his chest, the wild look in Steve’s eyes as he pushed that shield deeper, the biting cold, the dead suit that felt like a tomb—

Tony’s single moment of panic screeched to a halt as James took a shuddering breath next to him, face ashen and eyes falling shut, something so starkly resigned about his expression that it was enough to cut   right through Tony’s spiraling memories and bring him back to reality.

It was resignation and fear, something Tony hadn’t seen in months and suddenly his blood was pumping for an entirely different reason. Far easier to ignore his own fear when he could focus on righteous anger instead and the need to protect roared within him, drowning out the echoes of his own pain. Steve was not going to hurt James again, not on Tony’s watch.

Tony forced himself to take a deep breath, taking only a moment to marvel at this strange role-reversal. Bizarre, how life worked sometimes. 

“Boss, I’m so sorry for the delay,” an apologetic Friday chirped for both of them to hear before he could say something, “I was on top of the aerial scans, but I haven’t been scanning the park visitors. You told me not to, if you remember, because it was violating people’s privacy to face-scan every—”

“Friday, it’s alright. Not your fault, baby girl.”

A discreet glance over his shoulder confirmed that it was indeed Steve, with Natasha in tow, and both were on the other side of the river bank. Apparently neither was desperate enough to wade through the water because they were heading for the closest bridge, which gave Tony and James another minute or two, at best.

“Friday, is Maximoff here too?” 

“No, I don’t detect any of the others in the vicinity. Should I deploy the Iron Legion?”

Tony sighed a breath of relief because had Friday’s answer been different, Tony’s would been different too. “No, let’s hold off on the fire power.” He paused when he noticed James stir next to him, as if Tony’s and Friday’s voices had pulled him out of his own spiraling thoughts. “Just figure out if this is a coincidence or if someone dropped the ball on disclosing my whereabouts.”

“I’m on it, Boss. Should I alert Colonels Danvers and Rhodes?”

“Please do,” Tony said, “tell them they’re welcome to join if punches start flying, but I think I have this handled.”

With that out of the way, Tony moved to put himself face-to-face with James. He put his hand on James’ bicep, giving it a comforting rub, and even through the cotton of the button-down, Tony could feel a tremor run beneath his hand.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m not—” James swallowed heavily, eyes squeezed shut, “I’m not sure. I— I don’t know why I’m so damn scared. Jesus.” He exhaled forcibly and Tony felt another shudder go through the man. “That witch isn’t even here and—”

“Hey, hey, you’re allowed to be scared, alright? James, hey, look at me, please?” Tony waited until James met his eyes. “You don’t have to be here for this. They think you’re just some random guy, they wouldn’t care if you just kept walking.”

James’ eyes widened. “Wait, you’re staying?”

Tony glanced over James’ shoulder, took note of the approaching figures, then focused back on James. “I think I have to. You know how stubborn Steve is.” 

Logically, Tony knew he could leave. He could have the Iron Legion cover their backs or he could just put on the suit right here and now and fly off with James in his arms, but he needed this, Tony realized with a sudden clarity, he needed to say the things that had been festering inside him for months, to face the man who lied to Tony, who made a mess of their collective lives and then refused to pick up the pieces. The same man who held James down and almost let Maximoff wipe him from existence. 

“For Steve and me,” Tony said, “this conversation is long overdue. But only you get to decide when it’s time for your conversation.”

A moment passed, then another, both made of deafening silence even though logically Tony knew the world around them kept on spinning, full of life and noise of a late summer afternoon, but to Tony, nothing else existed but James. Tony watched James’ resolve crumble, the line of his shoulders sagging, a grimace twisting his face as if he were in physical pain and Tony hated seeing this defeated expression. Even the Veil didn’t take away the sting because all Tony could see was James, his James, in pain.

“I’m… I’m not sure I’m ready to face them, but… I don’t want to leave you here alone.” 

Tony appreciated the concern, really, but what the hell could Steve even do to him that hadn’t already been done?

“James, I’ll be fine. They won’t do anything stupid in the middle of a public park and even if Steve did decide to throw a punch or two—” Tony could practically hear James grind his teeth and Tony wished he hadn’t conjured up that mental image. “Even if things get dicey, I can take care of myself.”

That much was true. Tony didn’t need anyone, not the New Avengers, not the Iron Legion, to fight his battles for him.

“I know you can, Tony, but it doesn’t mean you have to.”

And that was the crux of Tony’s new, redefined life, wasn’t it? It was the same thing Rhodey and Pepper had told him on multiple occasions, the same sentiment shared by the New Avenger. All of them could handle the worst and many of them have, but now, with a true family to watch their back, they never had to face the world alone. 

Tony’s instincts though, they demanded that he send James away, far away from Steve and those awful memories. James deserved safety, he deserved protection and a peace of mind, and every part of Tony screamed to shield him from this… but he wasn’t a hypocrite and James, after all, was a free man. The decision had to be his.

Steve and Natasha were already crossing the bridge, their pace picking up and Tony felt his palms go clammy.

“You can stay, if you want, but please know it says nothing about you if you leave. You’re allowed to protect yourself. You get to decide when to reveal yourself, not Steve, and even if you stay Veiled, you and I both know this won’t be a pleasant conversation. You don’t have to deal with this until you’re ready.” 

James shook his head, a conflict warring inside him, but then finally, he whispered, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this yet…”

The meek apology, the guilt, it broke Tony’s damn heart.

“You have nothing to be sorry for. Go, please.” Tony gave the arm another rub. “I got this, I promise.”

And without you here, I can focus on ripping Steve to shreds. 

James gave him one searching look, then leaned in close, their foreheads pressing together, and Tony allowed them both this one weakness, unable to muster the care needed to avoid those pesky rumors. 

Besides, the internet would be alight with something else entirely in a few short minutes. 

“I got this,” Tony repeated, a whisper this time, meant just for them. “Just wait for me at the Tower, okay, sweetheart?”

James nodded against him and with one last look, that same longing and guilt marring his face, he took off.

Tony let his eyes linger for just one second and then he forcibly tore his eyes away, before James had even turned the corner, to face his unwelcome guests.

“Rogers,” Tony addressed the man as he approached down the tree-lined path, his pace slowing now. Tony nodded at Natasha next. “Miss Romanoff, always a pleasure.”

“Likewise, Mr. Stark,” she said and flashed Tony a placid smile.

“Tony, thank you for waiting,” Steve lowered his voice now that he was close enough, not even a touch out of breath even though they were both practically jogging in Tony’s direction a moment ago. “I didn’t think… well, didn’t think you would wait, to be honest. It’s, uh… God, it’s so good to see you.”

Steve’s eyes lingered on Tony, trailing up and down, taking him in, while Steve’s hand rubbed the back of his head, mussing up the blond hair, and it was a gesture so familiar that Tony’s stomach seized painfully. God, he used to care about this man, so damn much, so long ago.

As Tony tried to find the air that left him, his eyes scanned the two as well and although he should’ve been looking for weapons, he was looking for differences, and despite a year’s worth of time standing between them, both looked just as Tony remembered them. Natasha was clad in a leather jacket over a tight-fitting shirt and fashionable skinny jeans, her hair a mess of signature red curls and Steve hadn’t given up on his affinity for too-tight shirts and khaki pants, apparently.

The only real difference was that damn beard on Steve’s face, a hairy, unbecoming thing and Tony wondered whether this was the ‘I lost my Bucky and I can’t find him’ beard.

“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have waited,” Tony said, purposefully ignoring that last assertion. He held his hands behind his back, shoulders straight and feet planted firmly on the ground. It was the same stance he used in board meetings and press conferences. “But what can I say, Rogers, you wore me down.”

The stubborn set of Steve’s jaw was familiar too and it contrasted poorly against the apologetic look in his eyes. “We didn’t meant to interrupt your, uh—” he stumbled, eyes darting down the path James had taken and Tony’s body stiffened immediately, ready and willing to fight his way through— defend, some part of him roared— even if the logical synapses in his brain told him that James was far away from here and safe

“My date,” Tony filled in the awkward blank, then threw them both a nasty glare just for good measure. “We were out on a date, enjoying the nice, sunny day like the rest of New York’s fine citizens. The fact that you showed up kinda put a damper on that, don’t you think? Now, tell me, do I have my lucky stars to thank for your company or did somebody actually spill the beans about my location?”

Steve glanced away, looking cagey, so Tony pressed on.

“Come on, Rogers. Or— wait, you’re not exactly on speaking terms with ‘telling the truth’, huh?”

The hurt that blossomed over Steve’s face was far more satisfying that it should’ve been.

“Tony, come on, please don’t do this. It’s been over a year and we just wanted to talk—”

“One of your interns told us when we called,” Romanoff cut in with a roll of her eyes. “Although in her defense, I think she was just a kid left to deal with a task that wasn’t her responsibility. You should look into that, Tony.”

“Will do. Although, of course,” he gave a nonchalant shrug, “you could’ve just, oh, I don’t know, refrained from stalking me.”

“I’m sorry, Tony, but I’ve been trying to speak with you for months and every time—”

“You got stonewalled, yeah. You think there might be a reason for that? When someone changes all the locks, it’s usually because they don’t want you getting in again.”

“I just want to talk, Tony. I deserve that much.”

The only reason Tony’s jaw didn’t outright drop at the sheer audacity wrapped around that statement was his fine-honed ability to keep his masks firmly in place. He could feel his own words growing sharper though with each pass of the conversation and people were beginning to give them looks, so he grit his teeth and silently waved the two over, down to a shaded area away from the path. 

Both obediently followed, with Natasha giving the area a careful once-over, taking note of the same onlookers. She studied Tony too and he wondered what it was she was seeing these days. Tony Stark still not recommended? 

“Hey, Friday?” Tony tapped his ear, a unnecessary gesture made solely for the benefit of his company. “Make sure the scrambler is still active. People will still talk, unfortunately— after all, Captain America ambushing Iron Man in Central Park is headline news— but the less evidence out there, the better. Alert the media team too, I’m sure they’re going to have a great time watching Twitter explode over this.”

“Will do, Boss,” she answered, her tinny voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “Are you sure you don’t want the Iron Legion here? I can… take care of this nuisance for you with minimal effort.”

Steve was eyeing Tony like he was about to unleash Ultron 2.0, but Tony didn’t let it bother him. He was confident in his abilities to create benevolent AI these days. It took a lot of work, a lot of painful conversations, with Vision, with Thor and Bruce, with Tony’s therapist, but Tony could finally see that the blame for Ultron didn’t sit squarely on his shoulders. That fuck-up was a team effort.

He met that suspicious gaze head-on as he answered, “I appreciate the offer, Fri, but these two are just here for a friendly conversation.”

That earned Tony a terse nod from Steve rather than some defensive comment and it appeared Steve was trying to exercise some modicum of self-restraint. Tony supposed the man really did want to have this conversation, but patience had never been a virtue here, neither Tony’s nor Steve’s, and Tony had to wonder how long it would take before they started shouting at each other.

“So, despite my best efforts, you found me, Rogers. Congratulations. I guess stubbornness always wins out in the end, so here I am, all ears. Let’s talk.”

Of course this was exactly when Steve promptly ran out of words, a rare and now inconvenient occurrence. 

He floundered for a moment, then heaved a great, big sigh and scrubbed a hand over that monstrosity of a beard. “I wanted— What I meant was—” Steve shook his head viciously, then took a step closer, reached for Tony, and Tony took a matching step back, never breaking eye contact, wanting Steve to see that Tony didn’t want the proximity. 

Steve’s outstretched hand dropped back to his side, a despondent little gesture that didn’t manage to produce so much as a twinge in Tony’s heart. 

“I’m here because I want to make things right again,” Steve finally managed and by god, that actually sounded sincere. “Everything that happened last year, it was… it was messy and yes, I did make mistakes. Tony, if I could take it all back…”

He trailed off meaningfully and Tony’s resolve weakened, just for a moment; he had to wonder, was it selfish of him— vindictive, even— to keep denying Steve his own second chance? Tony got one, after all. James and others too. Why not Steve?

That wisp of mercy dissipated quickly, lost in the vivid memories of Steve dropping his shield and walking away as Tony struggled to breathe. 

Would Steve really be here, making things right, if he and his little gang weren’t in desperate need of accommodations and cash?

Tony reminded himself that actions always spoke louder than words.

“You would’ve done the exact same thing, Rogers, let’s not kid ourselves.”

“Tony.” 

It was spoken like a reprimand, as if Tony were a child. Funny how that name could sound so different on someone else’s lips.

Steve continued with a terse, “You obviously got the letter I sent. I apologized, I kept my head down until they pardoned us and I… I don’t know what else you want me to do. Do— do you want me to grovel or—”

“I wanted you to stay away from me. That’s what I wanted you to do. I would’ve thought, you know, the whole, me actively avoiding you would’ve made that pretty clear.” 

Before Steve had the chance to say something else, and he was gearing up for something with that pinched, tight press of his lips, Tony interrupted him with a great big sigh of his own. His hands were still firmly clenched behind his back. “Just… drop this whole ‘I just want to be friends’ act. Please. Why are you really here? You didn’t actually give me an answer and this whole ‘making amends’ business is just insulting.” He eyed the two, not bothering to be subtle about the scrutiny. “You certainly wouldn’t have brought back-up if it was just about the two of us, Rogers.”

“You can pretend I’m not even here,” Natasha said, head cocked to the side, appearing perfectly non-threatening with those pretty doe eyes and a soft smile, “I’m just here to keep an eye on things, keep everyone out of trouble.”

Tony smiled right back, but the corners of his smile turned sharp. “Right, of course. Our resident Black Widow, playing the peacekeeper.” His grin remained in place even when his voice hardened. “Come on now. We both know you’re here to stake out the situation, gather info, assess where you stand in this whole mess. So, did you figure out all my new buttons and pain points, Miss Rushman? Or do you need a bit more time?”

The reminder of her duplicitous nature, of that stellar beginning to their acquaintance (built on lies, just more and more lies) had Natasha trading in her little smirk for a spy-appropriate poker-face.

Good. They could all stand to take him a bit more seriously.

“Tony, you don’t have to speak to her so harshly,” Steve tried again with that patronizing tone, but all it did was make Tony feel shame over the time it used to work on him, before.

“What can I say? You caught me in a bad mood, although it isn’t exactly my fault that the truth can be harsh sometimes. Now, I’m waiting for an answer, Rogers. Talk, otherwise I’m done wasting my time here.”

The line of Steve’s clenched jaw twitched and it was a long, tense moment before Steve finally answered, “I want all of us to be part of the Avengers again.”

Tony eyed him, drawing out his own pause to make sure he looked appropriately unimpressed. “Really now? I suppose I’m not surprised. You’ve brought this up with Rhodes before, and Danvers. When was that? Oh yes, right after you crashed a charity for sick children and right before you were kicked out by a very angry Captain Marvel. I don’t think that left a good impression, to be honest. None of you seem eager to play by the new rules.”

“Circumstances have changed.”

“Oh yeah, I bet. Justin, he’s just not that great of a sugar daddy, is he?”

The muscle of Steve’s jaw jumped again. “We never considered taking Hammer’s money… but this isn’t about the money—”

“Right, of course not.”

“—it’s about wanting to help people. It’s always been about that.”

Incredible that Steve could say that with a straight face and Tony shook his head slowly, unable to keep the incredulity off his face. “I… don’t even know where to start with that one. I’m just… Yeah, I’m not touching that, I already have enough of a headache. So… what you’re telling me is you want to help people, hmm?”

“Yes,” Steve nodded his head emphatically, “we all do.” He glanced over at Natasha, who gave a small nod of her own, which honestly, coming from her, could’ve meant anything.

Tony just shrugged. “Believe it or not, I have no problem with you signing up to fight the good fight. Hell, Lang signed on last month.” 

“He— he what?” Steve blinked a few times, then tried to wipe the surprise off his face. “Uh… I see. I didn’t realize that’s why he’s been gone so much lately. That’s… good. No, great, it’s great. I know how worried he was about his relationship with Hope. I’m glad she was able to forgive him and move on.”

That had to be the least subtle jab Tony had ever received, and one based on faulty assumptions no less. Not surprising, since Steve likely never bothered to learn more about the New Avengers. Hope wasn’t exactly known for her mercy and gentle demeanor. She was brilliant, capable, and now one of Tony’s closest friends, but she didn’t get to be where she was by being overly forgiving and lenient. Pragmatist that she was, she agreed to let Lang use the Ant-man suit again so they could train together— and probably because he did do some groveling to get back on her radar— but if that man stepped so much as a toe out of line again… Well, even Tony would feel sorry for the poor bastard.

But that was neither here nor there. 

“Forgiveness, Rogers, has nothing to do with my willingness to let you become an Avenger. Hell, it’s not even up to me, I’m just the mechanic these days. The real question is - are you willing to go through the proper channels to do so? Sign the Accords, submit yourself to physical and psychological evaluations, complete the required educational trainings?”

Educational trainings? This isn’t school, we’re fighting wars—”

“We’re not in a war right now, Rogers,” Tony said, “at least not a war in which we have any right to be involved, and when there aren’t Avengers-level threats, we spend our time training and these days, that means more than just beating each other bloody in the ring. Every Avenger is required to study law, be well-versed in global socio-political issues, protocols, chain of command. Ethics.” Tony flashed them both a bitter grin. “Continuous education is essential for any professional in today’s job market, especially if they dream of ever being promoted to a leadership role.”

Steve looked like he bit into the most bitter lemon on Earth and Tony found himself genuinely surprised  that no argument followed to challenge that last claim. Tony would’ve bet good money on Steve walking around and demanding to be Captain again, despite his rank being nothing more than a stage name. 

There were no demands though, just a long pause and a strained, “Fine, that’s fine. I’m glad the Accords are working out now, that they’re making us stronger, instead of— instead of putting the power in the wrong hands.” He swallowed heavily and looked away, the whole display almost painful. Oh, how it must’ve burned to be praising the Accords now when only a year ago Steve was ready to throw away everything to oppose them. Well, that and to save Bucky.

Tony blinked and a sudden clarity descended on him, sending a crawling chill down his spin. This whole song and dance, was this really about the Avengers? 

“Well, if you’re willing to do this correctly, that’s great,” Tony said. He had to push this further and find where Steve’s desperation ended and stubbornness began. “Of course, it goes without saying that Ms. Maximoff will not qualify for the initiative, given that she is not permitted to step foot on any and all Avengers and Stark properties.”

There, that was the flash of fire in Steve’s eyes that Tony had been looking for. 

“I still can’t believe you put up spells,” Steve bit out, “she was hurt last time she tried to enter the Tower, Tony, and I still can’t believe—”

“Steve, that’s enough,” Natasha hissed, finally stepping in, grabbing Steve’s arm to pull him back, “this is old news and a fight you can’t win. Are you really willing to throw away this tiny shred of goodwill over her?” 

Steve looked at Natasha as if she betrayed him right here on the spot and Tony watched his face, disastrous beard and all, go through a complicated dance of emotions before settling on something that telegraphed both Steve’s displeasure and his lack of options.

“Fine. Wanda… she can take care of herself. We can… we can figure that out later.”

Wow, this really wasn’t about the Avengers. 

“I’m glad we’re on the same page then,” Tony said, trying to keep that thought off his face and the bitter laugh to himself. “Better late then never, right? I would suggest approaching the Council so you can start the process while I loop Colonel Danvers in on your intentions. Of course, everything is subject to you passing all prerequisite evaluations, and the initial stage can take several months, sometimes more if there are complications, and then you will start out as junior members, placed on a team that best fits your—”

“Wait, you said a few months?”

Tony arched a brow. “On rare occasions, we would expedite the process, but seeing as we’re not experiencing an alien invasion right this second, there’s no need for expediency. Unless… are there some other pressing matters you need to address, Rogers?”

“No, I just thought… Well, why waste time when we could be helping—”

“Come on, Steve, stop,” Tony cut in, hating himself for the slip of the name. “Just — can we just stop with the bullshit for once? For someone who lied to my face for years, you’re shit at pretending you’re here just out of the goodness of your heart.”

Predictably, Steve’s eyes dropped to the ground. “I’m not lying. We do want to be the Avengers again, we do want to help.”

“Sure hope Barton and Wilson are okay with you doing all this talking for them.”

“Sam didn’t really want me to find you, but yes, he does want to get his wings back and Clint… He just wants to be with his family again.”

“Somehow, I don’t think him shooting arrows at bad guys is going to make Laura any less angry, but that’s not the issue at hand and frankly, I don’t care about Barton’s marital problems. Why do you want back into the fold so desperately, Rogers?”

Steve still didn’t answer, his eyes studiously glued to the grass-covered ground. Natasha’s hand, still resting on his forearm, gave it a squeeze.

“This is why we came here,” she said quietly, although the soft tone of her voice was meant to be soothing rather than private, “but we don’t have to do this today, Steve. Tony’s too angry. We can try—”

“We tried everything, Tasha, and it’s been months. We might not get another chance. We have to take the risk.”

Oh god, Tony was right. He was right and he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to stand here and laugh or to scream in impotent rage at the shameless, unmitigated gall of these people.

Steve and Natasha exchanged another look, some silent conversation passing between them, and then Steve straightened up, held his head high, and those blue eyes looked right at Tony, trying for pleading and landing somewhere closer to defiance. 

“Tony, we need your help finding Bucky.”

Chapter Text

When James looked over his shoulder and realized that he could no longer see Tony, that he’d walked this far without registering any of the steps he’d taken, he nearly stumbled as he stopped right in the middle of the path.

Someone bumped into him going the other way and they grumbled under their breath about watching where he was going. James didn’t have the capacity to apologize, but there was a bench nearby and unsure if he would remain upright for much longer, what with his legs suddenly shaking, James made his way over and all but collapsed onto the metallic seat. He hunched in on himself, elbow digging painfully into the meat of his thigh while his fingers racked through his hair.

Breathe, he ordered his body to cooperate. Breathe, dammit.  

The vice grip on his lungs didn’t ease and instead of air, all he got was an acute sense of shame.

He just took off and left Tony, left him alone to deal with both Steve and Romanova and he didn’t even look back.

Coward, he thought with disgust, nothing but a goddamn coward. Tony has given you everything and you leave him behind at the first opportunity. Just like back in Siberia, right?

Wisps of logic struggled to make it past the self-flagellation, whispers telling him that Tony didn’t need him for protection, but that didn’t help make James feel any better. It just meant he was a useless coward.

He heard a whimper and for a moment, his addled brain was convinced there was a distressed puppy nearby in need of attention before reality settled into place and he realized he was the one making that pathetic noise. He swallowed it back down and let it join the shame swirling in his chest, then forced another uneven, shaking breath into his lungs.

His eyes stared at the gravel under his feet and he tried counting the bigger rocks, tried to describe their shape and colors to himself. It was something he learned to do during his time on the run, in those early days when he’d wake up and not know who or what he was.

Why was he so damn panicked all of the sudden anyways? He was holding it together, even when he was still with Tony, even when he left, but suddenly, fear and uncertainly flooded him and he couldn’t string two coherent thoughts together. What was wrong with him?

Hell, if it came down to it, if they posed a true threat, he could take out both Steve and Romanova—

But it wasn’t their power that scared him, James realized. He was afraid that having them back in his life, that facing Steve right now would change him right back into that pathetic excuse of a man, the one who didn’t care to stand up for himself, who just wanted to wallow in misery and let himself waste away, who gave up and let himself be manipulated and lied to.

He didn’t want to be that man again, he couldn’t let himself slide right back into that cloying, relentless depression. 

Was running away with his tail between his legs any better though? 

James clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, the memory of Tony’s face floating behind his eyelids. 

Tony was so reassuring, so gentle. He said James was the one who got to choose how this played out, but why did this feel like the worst choice he could’ve made?

James tried to take another breath, but it stuttered to a stop in his throat. Tony said it was his choice and he chose to run away, so maybe nothing changed, maybe he was still that same, pathetic man, hiding away in his tiny room from the thinly veiled insults and guilt trips hidden behind reminiscing, just waiting for something to happen, for someone to end his misery, and god, Tony could do better, he deserved so much more

“Are you alright, young man?”

James startled and jerked his head up, eyes blinking away tears he hadn’t noticed before, to see an older man watching him in concern a few feet away. The threat assessment was automatic— not listed as a person of interest under HYDRA or SHIELD, no weapons detected, body language cautious, but nonthreatening— and as James’ eyes studied the man, he also noted neatly-combed thin, white hair, a thick mustache to match, the wrinkled face that spoke of many long years lived. Sunglasses obscured the man’s eyes and although they didn’t match in style, they reminded James of Tony somehow.

He swallowed heavily and willed his tongue to cooperate. “Yes, I’m just— I mean— fine, I’m fine.”

When was the last time he struggled so badly to get one measly sentence out?

The old man tilted his head curiously. “You just looked like you could use a helping hand, that’s all.”

James wanted to laugh because yeah, he probably did make a pathetic enough sight that random strangers suddenly wanted to help.

“Just… had a bad moment, that’s all.”

“Well, we all have those, no shame in that.” The man smiled at him and James tried match the expression, failed, and then gave in and outright frowned when the man gestured at the empty spot next to him. 

“May I sit?” the man asked, undeterred by James’ scowling. “‘Fraid I’m not as spry as I used to be, need to take a breather every once in a while.” 

James’ instinct was to say ‘no’, but before he realized he was doing it, he nodded and the man took his time walking over and settling in next to James.

The man didn’t speak again right away. He placed both hands on the tip of his cane first, took a long inhale, breathing in the fresh air with a look of joy on his face, and as his shoulders settled back on the exhale, he looked at the park before them and smiled.

“So, what’s got you so bothered, son?”

Again, instinct dictated that caution was mandatory, but James wasn’t planning to share his whole life story anyways and he couldn’t deny that having the company actually helped. He inhaled again and felt a flicker of relief when his lungs actually filled with air.

“I think…” James started, then grit his teeth as the right words eluded him, swimming around in fog. “I think I’m being a bad friend. Ran away from… from a problem. Left someone else to deal with it.”

“Why did you run?” the man asked, but the question was delivered so conversationally that it didn’t feel like an accusation. Definitely didn’t sound anything like the last time someone had asked him that question. 

“I was scared. Something came up, from, uh, from my past… and this person… god, they’re everything to me, they said, ‘go, just go, I’ll take care of it’… and I— I did. Just took off like a damn coward.”

The vice grip of guilt wrapped around his lungs again and for a moment, all James wanted was to curl in on himself and hide from the world.

The man next to him just let out a hum, a simple, curious sound, and continued to observe the busy park around them.

“Do you think this… person of yours, they can’t handle the trouble you’re facing?”

“No, he— he can. He’s the strongest person I know, but it doesn’t mean that he should. It’s— it’s my responsibility too, but I—” James scrubbed his hand over his face. “I’m not sure if I’m ready.”

“Well,” the man said, “sometimes we really aren’t ready to face our fears and that’s alright.” He paused to wave at a kid who was walking by. The boy waved back enthusiastically, then skipped away to join his parents. James took the moment to observe the older man, who met his eyes a moment later.

“Sometimes, we’re just not ready,” the man continued, “and if we’re lucky, we have people who love us, who support us and help us until we are. Sounds to me like you have someone like that, right?”

All James could do was nod. Lucky indeed. If anyone asked, he’d tell them he was the luckiest man in the world. 

“So you might not be ready to face this challenge, son, and that’s okay. That just means today you have to trust your friend to take care of you.”

“I know… I just— I hate running away. I keep running away and I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t be afraid, I should be stronger, braver—”

“Well, bravery isn’t always about having no fears, you know.” The man rubbed his thigh absently, as if he were rubbing away some soreness or ache. “Courage is knowing that something else is more important than whatever it is you’re afraid of.” 

James blinked as he processed the words, then looked down at his hand hanging limply between his knees. He concentrated on it as the fingers flexed, forming a fist, then relaxing again.

There were things more important than this awful fear inside him. James’ new life, his freedom, his ability to choose how he lived said life, these were precious to him. His new family too, people who opened up their lives to him, who helped him without demanding something in return.

And Tony… Tony was more important than anything.

James took another breath, found his lungs expanding as they should, and his resolve strengthened. 

“Thank you,” he whispered and the man next to him chuckled. 

“Oh, no need to thank me. I’m sure I just heard that in a movie somewhere.”

James smiled despite himself, just a twitch of his lips, but already he was regaining control over his thoughts, bit by bit, forcing them back into some semblance of sense. 

An outside perspective, simple logic delivered in a new voice. Sometimes that was all it took.

James gave his eyes a good rub to shake off the rest of this anxious state.

“Thank you,” he said again, heartened that his voice was stronger, “I think that’s exactly what I needed to hear.”

James heard the man get up to his feet with a quiet groan and when James opened his eyes and looked up at the man, the sun was just behind him, framing his head like a halo.

“I think you’ll be just fine, son,” the man said and reached over to pat James on the shoulder, a light, reassuring touch, and then the man withdrew his hand and slipped it into the pocket of his jeans. “And be sure to take of that special person of yours too, alright?”

“I will.”

James watched the man leave then, careful steps down the graveled path, a wave here and there to the kids running around on the grass, and James was up on his feet before the man turned the corner and disappeared from view.

A tap behind his ear summoned Friday. “Is Tony alright?”

“He is unharmed… but there are indicators of mental stress, Mr. Barnes.”

Her displeasure was palpable and why wasn’t James surprised? Steve had the ability to give anyone a massive headache. 

The idea of just marching back over and pulling off the proverbial mask, that was still too much to contemplate, but James knew now that he needed to go back. He needed to make sure that Tony was alright and if he weren’t, if something were to happen… 

James would make the right choice this time.

“Friday, I’m on my way. Give me audio of the conversation, if you can. I need to catch up.”

“Certainly, Mr. Barnes.”

***

“Tony, we need your help finding Bucky.”

The words still echoed in Tony’s head, stuck on a stuttering loop as he tried to work past his own bewilderment— he saw this coming, there shouldn’t be a speck of surprise, and yet—  

It took him a moment to process. The surprised part of him was baffled that they’d have so little remorse. They had both known about Tony’s parents and neither one thought it was important enough to share (Natasha’s excuse that she thought Steve had told Tony earlier was a flimsy attempt to save her former alliances at best). 

Some other part of Tony kept getting stuck on the fact that they’d make the demand in the first place after everything that went down last year.

And to top it all off, did they even think this would work? Tony, the decent but fallible human being, would just turn them down because it wasn’t his business to look for ‘Bucky’, but Tony the selfish, self-obsessed, dangerous killer they claimed he was would absolutely take this as an opportunity to finish off what he started in Siberia.

Funny how Tony suddenly wasn’t so evil in their eyes when they needed something from him.

Steve was still trying hard not to look like a defiant, stubborn man ready for a fight, Natasha still wore her perfectly neutral and highly unreadable spy expression, and after a breath and a dry swallow, Tony decided he was done with his one allowed second of being amazed by the audacity— and stupidity— of his former co-workers. 

And when that was over, when the surprise, the bewilderment, the hurt, when it all vanished… it was replaced by clarity and suddenly this whole mess was much easier to enjoy for what it actually was.

Tony’s triumph and oh, it tasted so sweet.

He burst out laughing.

“Wow, this I did not expect,” he said, then had to stifle a full-on snort into the back of his hand when Steve’s face cycled through his own version of befuddlement that quickly bled into annoyance.

“Tony, please,” he implored, “ this is serious—”

“Serious?” Tony widened his eyes dramatically. “Wait, oh my god, you’re serious? You— you actually lost the Winter Soldier? Again?” Vindictive pleasure flooded Tony and he pressed a hand into his chest as the last of his laughter bubbled up to the surface. “Oh wow, I thought you were joking.”

“This isn’t a joke. Bucky’s gone and I need—”

“Shit, you should really consider buying him a bell or something. How do you even lose a guy like that? He doesn’t exactly blend into the crowd.” 

You lose him by not loving him enough, that’s how, Tony thought and his internal crowing probably bordered on inappropriate and petty and he didn’t care. He was right here, Rogers, just a few yards from where we’re standing. He was with me, because you fucked this up and handed him to me on a silver platter.

The sheer pleasure, twisted and selfish and darker than Tony wanted to admit to, coiled inside him, made his limbs tingle for a wholly different reason that fear. 

James is mine, his mind chanted and it almost surprised him that those word didn’t slip from his tongue, that he didn’t spit them right into Steve’s face because the urge, oh, the urge, it was so damn strong. 

“Really, Rogers, I wanna know. How’d you lose your best buddy this time?”

Steve shifted uncomfortably and his eyes refused to meet Tony’s again. “There was… an incident.”

And just like that, an undercurrent of guilt joined Tony’s twisted pleasure. 

This shouldn’t be so damn satisfying, he forcibly reminded himself, because helping James hadn’t been about this sick satisfaction of seeing Rogers flounder and fail. James was in danger and he needed Tony and Tony loved James…

But Tony couldn’t just deny himself this either, he just couldn’t… He couldn’t stop himself from savoring every little morsel of this turnabout and with James gone from his side, it was easier to slip further down that slippery slope of spite. 

Steve calling that awful day ‘an incident’ though, that was downright insulting. Was that what they were calling Maximoff’s predilection for ripping apart people’s minds now?

“An incident?” 

He wanted to see Steve squirm and he wasn’t disappointed.

“It was a misunderstanding. That’s all. An awful, uh, misunderstanding and Bucky got spooked and he bolted and we, uh, haven’t been any to track him down.”

Natasha’s impassive mask cracked, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grimace, but Tony zeroed in on it.

“Something you want to say, Miss Romanoff?”

“It was a bit more than a misunderstanding.” She didn’t look particularly pleased when she said it and when Steve shot her a warning glare, she met it with cold daggers of her own.

“Wow, dissent from the ranks?” Tony whistled. “And here I thought you would all follow Steve straight into hell if he asked.”

“I can think for myself, Tony.”

“I know you can. All of you can, actually. Wilson, Barton…” Tony shrugged. “Kinda why this whole mess has been baffling to me, frankly, but that’s neither here nor there. So. The Winter Soldier ran away. Why, exactly?”

“He had a confrontation with Wanda—”

“It was just a flashback, Nat—”

“—and we aren’t sure if she antagonized him or—”

“She wouldn’t do that!”

“Steve, we can’t know that! Something happened with Barnes, and Tony needs to—”

“It doesn’t matter!” Steve’s harsh exclamation put a stop to the back-and-forth and the raised voice twisted Natasha’s face into a momentary scowl before it disappeared just as quickly, morphing back into a neutral mask. In Tony’s opinion though, that sharp, cold neutrality only made Natasha look angrier.

Steve looked away from her and rubbed his face in frustration, scraping his palm against that damn beard. “It doesn’t matter how it happened. All that matters is—” he let out a frustrated noise and then focused on Tony. “Bucky’s out there, alone, possibly in danger, and I don’t know how to find him. I need help. ”

“So you came to me.” 

“Yes. Tony, please.”

At any other time, in anyone else, Steve’s helpless look, the outright begging, would’ve incited pity, sympathy, some smidgen of positive emotion. 

But not here, not right now, and not from Tony.

“I know that our history,” Steve added, oblivious to Tony’s thoughts, “everything that happened last year, it makes this whole thing complicated and— and messy… But Tony, Bucky shouldn’t pay for our mistakes. He’s been trying to put his life back together, he’s been doing so well. He needs our help.” 

James shouldn’t have paid for their mistakes, that much Tony agreed with, but everything else? God, just more and more lies, more pretty words to get Tony to do what they wanted.

Doing so well. Tony should blast Steve with a repulsor just for this one particular lie.

“I’m not sure you have me convinced, Rogers. Barnes is a big boy, isn’t he? If he’s doing so well, maybe he doesn’t need you to come to his rescue, maybe he can take take care of himself. And besides, why the hell should I care about your fuck ups anyways?”

“Do you honestly feel safe with the Winter Soldier on the loose?” Natasha interjected before Steve opened his mouth.

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Wait, should I be worried? Are you telling me he’s dangerous now? Didn’t Steve just say that he’s on the straight and narrow?”

“Barnes is stable, but like we said, he had an episode, possibly flashbacks, possibly something else—”

“He’s not dangerous!” 

“Steve, enough!” Natasha snapped, then gathered herself before addressing Tony again. “This was the only violent outburst he’s had since… since, uh—”

“Since what? Since Siberia? You don’t have to sugarcoat it for me, darling, you can say it, I won’t break. What I’m hearing though— and correct me if I’m wrong— is that you stuck this poor bastard in a room with Maximoff and he had a violent outburst? Honestly, I don’t blame him.” 

Usually, pulling the wool over people’s eyes by putting on an act, playing up the most obnoxious, most distracting facets of his personality, was like stepping into a well-worn pair of shoes, but Tony had to actually pick and choose his words today because the temptation to rip into them for what actually happened with James was overwhelming and Tony nearly bit his own tongue just to keep those words from spilling over.

The last thing he needed was these two getting more suspicious of him than they already were. 

“I don’t think Barnes is dangerous,” Natasha said, ignoring what Tony had actually said, “but triggers or no triggers, there are plenty of parties who would be very interested in acquiring a weapon like him. You don’t think that’s a problem for the Avengers?”

“Maybe.” Tony made sure his shrug was obnoxiously casual. “I suppose it is better to have a guy like Barnes off the streets and properly dealt with, right?”

“Properly dealt with?”

The look of muted horror on Steve’s face was downright insulting, but also hilarious if Tony didn’t let himself dwell too much on being seen as a monster again so soon. If only Steve knew how Tony was dealing with James Barnes these days.

Gently, with infinite care and plenty of kisses. A very hands-on approach. 

“Seriously, Rogers? Already back to thinking I’m the bad guy? That didn’t take very long.”

Steve tried to school his expression. “No, I’m sorry, I… misinterpreted. I’m just stressed, I’m on edge.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. If someone important to me went missing, I’d be stressed out too.”

“So you’ll help then?”

Steve’s eyes almost shone, maybe even with some unshed tears, as he stared at Tony imploringly, and it was almost too clique of a sight. 

Years ago, dashing Steve’s hopes would’ve been physically painful. Tony would’ve thrown himself on a grenade before doing so, but now? Now, he wanted to do it, with a sick, vindictive eagerness. The only problem, really, was his inability to throw the real truth right into Steve’s face. 

He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels, knowing it would make him seem obnoxiously blithe. “So, here’s what I think you should do. Since I’m actually just a lowly mechanic, in charge of nothing, you should set up an appointment with Rhodey— or Carol, although I think she’s still holding a grudge over that charity snafu— and you let them know you lost this century’s most fearsome assassin. I’m sure they’ll get right on that, get back to you in two to three weeks, however long it takes to process the paperwork. I mean, bureaucracy, right? What can you do?”

“Tony—”

“Although I’d recommend you don’t mention the whole ‘I wanna be an Avenger” thing yet because, you know, they might think you were just trying to use the organization for your own selfish needs.” 

“Tony, stop this.” Steve practically growled, his earlier pleading expression quickly growing thorns. 

Tony stilled and blinked innocently, lips pursing as he frowned. “Stop what? I’m not doing anything, I’m just—”

“Everything really is a joke to you, isn’t it? Ever since I met you, you’ve been just like this— irreverent, arrogant, uncaring and—”

“Steve,” Natasha gripped his bicep again in warning, “this isn’t helping anything—”

“—you are selfish, Tony. Only out to help yourself. You don’t give a damn about anyone else, do you?”

Tony flashed him a thousand-watt smile. “Guilty as charged, asshole.”

Steve snarled, right into Tony’s face since they were so close, and Tony knew he was goading Steve into this anger; he also knew he probably shouldn’t, but Steve’s anger mixed with Tony’s own, that storm building and building, up and up and up, and Tony wanted it to explode

“You don’t care, you’d rather let Bucky rot, let him die, just to get back at me, huh?”

“If I’m all these terrible things, why did you come looking for me in the first place?”

“Because I was hoping you changed. You— I thought a year was enough time for you to get over this—”

“Get over this? Believe it or not, this isn’t about Barnes. I know he was a victim of HYDRA. I get that, even though you never trusted me to get it. You’re the one who lied to me for years, Steve, you used me,” Tony added with a hiss. It felt like the world had stopped around him again, the noise of other people’s lives falling into the background as he stared at Steve’s face. “I don’t blame Barnes for any of this. I blame you.”

“I told you that I was sorry,” Steve whispered harshly. His expression turned appropriately contrite, but the tone of his voice was all wrong and there was nothing in his eyes. Before, Tony might’ve missed this, might’ve believed the words and taken at face value the downturn of Steve’s lips, but now all Tony had to do now was remember James’ stormy blue eyes, they way they looked at him, begging for forgiveness. The way James’ heart was laid bare in his words as he whispered his apologies.

Steve’s apology made it sound like Tony’s anger was an inconvenience, as if Tony’s feelings were nothing more than some roadblock keeping Steve from something more important.

“Right, you’re sorry. You lied to me, again, about wanting to join the Avengers—”

“I didn’t lie—”

“—just so you could butter me up, get access to my funds, and use them fund your search for my parents’ killer. Again. After the two of you almost killed me and left me to die in the middle of Russia’s finest parts. After you lied to me for two years. Do I have all that right? Or did I miss something?”

Steve held Tony’s gaze for a long, painful moment and he was the one to look away first.

More silence followed until Tony scoffed. “Sounds shitty when you put it so plainly, huh?”

“It wasn’t Bucky’s fault, Tony, and what happened with Howard—”

“What happened with Maria!” Tony cried out, overtaken by a sudden burst of pure wrath, the same one that drove him to throw the first punch in that godforsaken bunker. He knew he was visibly shaking and he clenched his fists, trying to stop his body from betraying him. “She was there too, Steve, my mother—”

“You both need to calm down, you’re making a scene.”

They both ignored Natasha and Tony ignored everything but the stubbornness in Steve’s eyes. The man remained silent though. 

“He killed my mother and you lied to me about it.”

Their eyes were still locked on each other and Tony swore they were both right back in that bunker. The same look, the same defiance, the exact same lack of remorse as Steve said, “It wasn’t Bucky.”

Of course. Steve’s mantra. Tony shouldn’t have expected anything else and he should’ve know that the satisfaction of this whole damn thing would be short-live. It always was and suddenly Tony wanted nothing more than to be done with this. He wanted to be back home, to be with James and the rest of his family. He wanted this to be over. 

“If you really think your Bucky is a threat, then contact Rhodes. But me? I’m done here.” Tony’s chest heaved on the words, the finality of it all weighing him down. 

“You’re really just going to walk away?”

“Yup. You sure did when you picked your buddy over the rest of us.”

“What was I supposed to do?” Steve exclaimed, arms flailing wildly to the sides. The apples of his cheeks were flushed, hints of his super soldier’s anger. “He’s— he’s all I have left and I love him—” 

“Yeah, you loved him and then you lost him. You keep doing that, weird.” Tony knew it was as low-blow, but all that was left of his initial high was bitterness and he couldn’t help the cruel words. “Maybe you should’ve looked after him just a bit better, loved him a little more—”

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

I sure as hell do, and the temptation to say it was almost too much, Tony even opened his mouth to do just that, but he stopped at the last second, knowing it wasn’t going to be worth it. 

“You’re right,” he spat out instead and turned around, his back to Steve, “I don’t know a damn thing.”

He needed distance and Tony was determined to walk away with his head held high, walk far enough to be out of sight before putting on the suit and flying the hell out of here, but he managed barely a step before his arm was roughly grabbed, a big, heavy hand closing around his bicep hard enough to hurt and wrenching him back around. 

Several things happened at once. 

Natasha shouted Steve’s name, Tony’s gauntlet materialized over his hand as he thrust it into Steve’s face, and Steve managed a growled “I won’t let it end like this—” before they were all stopped in their tracks by a menacing “Let go of him, now.” 

Time stood still, for one beat, then another, and then the world spun right back into action, with Steve and Natasha both turning to face the newcomer while Tony stayed still, heart hammering away in his chest.

Chapter Text

There was a moment, encapsulated in that single instance of time when Steve reached for Tony and grabbed, in which James’ heart stuttered to a stop and he was once again the Winter Soldier, the Asset, the weapon, his mind preoccupied, to the detriment of everything else, with nothing but the mission. 

Today, that mission, that moment, belonged to Tony and every fiber of James’ being urged him to protect and defend. 

A snap of the proverbial fingers and his heart jolted right back into action, blood and adrenaline rushing through his body as reality spun back into place, but the remnants of that single-minded focus remained— would always remain, James knew this, but he felt little regret when the mission was worthy— and the only reason Steve wasn’t ripped apart by a furious Winter Soldier was the fact that Steve did obey when James ordered him to let go.

Having stepped out of his hiding spot, James had no more reason to hesitate and he marched across the grassy expanse. Even in this, the Winter Soldier was still present, his ghost lingering in the long-forgotten swagger to James’ step, in the steadfast confidence of knowing his mission was righteous.

There was no time, not today at least, to reflect on the fact that this was the first time in decades that ‘righteous’ was defined by James and James alone.

He watched Tony stumble back, three generous steps meant to put distance between him and his assailant, and the hand bearing the repulsor dropped, although James noted that the weapon did not retract. 

Good. Tony wasn’t naive and whatever would happen, the chances of it going smoothly were nil.

James held no desire for things to get physical— any more physical— but he also didn’t miss the wince Tony tried to hide as he moved his arm and James knew, with a certainty that made him sick to his stomach, that he’d find a ring of bruises around Tony’s bicep. 

That alone was enough to make him want to break something.

It was also enough to put aside the hurt that flared just minutes ago, when he heard in clear audio, he killed my mother, and his heart tore in two.

Convincing himself, reminding himself, that Tony had forgiven him would take some soul-searching, and when that would inevitably fail, he’d turn to Tony’s mercy again, to kind touches and gentle reassurances for proof of his absolution.

That would all have to wait, however.

There were three pairs of eyes watching him, but he only met Tony’s wide set and didn’t break that gaze until he pushed right past Steve and put himself in front of Tony, shielding him from the other two. 

“Ja—” The rest of the name was lost to a wince as Tony corrected himself. “Why are you— you’re still here? I thought— you were—” Tony swallowed, then took a shaking breath, “you were supposed to go back to the Tower.”

“Changed my mind. Thought it’d be best to come back and I was right,” James bit out, the Veil-modified voice jarring, even to his own ear.

To make his point clear, he glared over his shoulder and when Steve actually met his eyes and registered the murderous expression on James’ face, that was when Steve suddenly remembered why someone was glaring death at him.

“I’m sorry, that wasn’t— I shouldn’t have done that,” he mumbled and looked away. A hand came up to rub his eyes, as if he were fighting exhaustion, then it slid back down over a beard James didn’t remember. “We were just having a conversation and, uh… our tempers got the best of us, that’s all. I’m sorry.”

James’ eyes narrowed into more severe slits. That ‘sorry’ sounded a whole lot like the apologies Steve would throw his way when James was still stuck in that moldy apartment. Steve would apologize for calling him ‘Bucky’, for entering his room without knocking, for trying to get him and Maximoff to be friends. He’d apologize and look contrite and then do the same damn thing all over again the next day. 

James’ anger turned into disappointment, which promptly turned into a headache. 

He scoffed, bitter and tired. “Right. Friday had me patched into the audio. I’ve heard more than enough of this ‘conversation’.” 

He gave Steve one final glare, then looked back at Tony and everything inside him swung right back into blinding fury because Tony was still pale— paler even than a moment ago— with his brows pulled together and eyes wide, a bead of sweat glistening on his temple, and he looked scared as he peered up at James. 

The desire to break some part of Steve roared inside him again, a protectiveness that was new to him, but James accepted it with little reserve. Still, he tried to channel that desire for violence into words first. 

“We’re done here,” he said as he turned around. “You two need to go.” 

“I don’t be mean to be rude, but this… this is a private conversation and frankly, whoever you are, it isn’t any of your business. This is between me and Tony,” Steve argued and tried to look past James to catch Tony’s eyes. “Things just— they got out of hand, I told you. Tony, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to grab you, but you just wouldn’t listen—”

“Enough. Do not talk to him like that.”

Anonymity bred confidence, James realized, and he was ready to repeat himself one final time, make it clear Tony wasn’t going to put up with this any longer— the audacity of these two, really, demanding his help— but he was stopped by a tentative hand on his elbow as Tony went around and placed himself at James’ side. 

“Hey, it’s fine.” There was another brush of fingers along James’ bicep and then Tony pulled away.

“Tony’s right, I think you just startled us all. We’ve haven’t had a proper introduction. I’m Natasha.”

She extended her hand and James wanted to laugh at Romanova for dancing around the real question she wanted to ask. Where the hell did you come from and why didn’t I notice you? 

It took a spy to avoid a spy, he supposed, and James knew how to blend into a crowd; he also had the advantage of Friday, who gave him the ability to listen in at a safe distance. Things were made easier still by the gaggle of on-lookers now gathered around them, some trying to take pictures and others chattering away about the spectacle. The people shielded him from the Widow’s scrutiny, but James knew this audience did not bode well for Tony and his public relations crew.

Something Tony clearly understood because he was observing the people gathered with increasing worry.

“We may have to nix the introductions, Romanoff,” Tony said, then addressed Friday. “Got anything interesting for me, Fri?”

“Well, Boss,” the AI spoke, loud enough for all of them to hear, “people are mostly curious. Many are admittedly frustrated with the lack of sound and the fact that their photos are blurry, but some are expressing genuine concerns. One even tried to call the police, although I may have rerouted that phone call to an inactive landline.”

Tony visibly deflated, shoulders drooping like all of world’s worries were dropped onto them, but he transformed the very next moment, back straight again, hands on his hips, and his smile painfully plastic.

“Alright, damage control. Fri, drop the disruption field, please.” 

From their perspective, nothing changed, but Tony must’ve known when Friday complied because he waved at the crowd and with a booming voice that needed no microphone, addressed them with, “Hello, fine citizens of New York City and hello to our assorted mix of tourists! Tony Stark here, as you can see, with a few old friends—”

“That didn’t look very friendly!” someone shouted and the crowd rippled with murmurs. 

Another voice rang out, “Is there trouble? Do we need to call War Machine?”

A third one answered, “No way, if we get to see an Avenger, I want to see the Hulk!” 

More shouting, more murmurs, now more excited than worried, especially as Tony continued to beam at the crowd, arms held loosely behind his back and rocking on his heels like a kid. The perfect picture of ease, except James was privy to the way Tony’s right hand clung to his left wrist like a vice.

A younger man at the front, barely in his twenties, crossed his arms over a broad chest, and grinned at Tony. “Is that guy bothering you?” He titled his chin at Steve. “Do you want me to take care of him for you? Frees you up to go get a drink with me, handsome.”

God, James had forgotten all about the strange nonchalance of New Yorkers. 

Tony’s smile didn’t waver. “I’m sorry,” he shrugged easily, then gestured up and down at himself, “but you gotta be over thirty to ride this ride, son.” A ripple of laughter went through from the crowd and Tony waited a beat before adding, “But I appreciate the enthusiasm! And no, no one is being bothered, I promise you. What we have here is us— Steve and I, that is— picking a very public place to have a very private conversation. Unfortunate, inadvisable, and honestly kinda rude, and I’m sure I’ll hear all about on Twitter later tonight, but come on, ask anyone. We’re just a bunch of knucklehead superheroes. The expectations are really low.”

Tony’s playful banter, coupled with the patented Tony Stark media smile seemed to ease the tension flitting around some parts of the crowd. There was more chatter, some shouted questions, but Tony broke through it all with a practiced wave of his hand. “Now, please, go on with your day, I promise whatever plans you have in this fine city— sightseeing, dining, going home after a long day at work, meeting someone cute for a drink,” he winked at the young man from before, “whatever it is, it’s way more exciting than what Steve and I were discussing. ”

Tony made shooing motions at the crowd, laughing amicably, making a few more teasing comments, and waving at a few of the kids, everything people would’ve expected from the easy-going, extroverted, and eccentric billionaire. Thankfully, it seemed to have worked as the crowds began to disperse as more and more people realized nothing of interest was going to happen. 

A few people were left milling around, but that was expected, and after surveying the place one more time, Tony turned around, his attention back on James and the others, and it was like being dunked into ice-cold water, cold shiver up his spine and all, seeing Tony’s expression morph from that flirtatious, cheeky smile back into the exhausted, tense frown. 

“Damn, I should’ve done that earlier,” he muttered to himself, eyes darting between the three of them, landing on Steve last before dropping to the ground. “Whatever, it doesn’t matter. We made enough of a mess here and we’re done. I think it’s time for everyone to go home.”

“Okay, I admit, doing this in public wasn’t the best idea, but Tony, we didn’t resolve anything—”

“Because there’s nothing to resolve!” Tony hissed, then let out an angry grunt. “Friday, put the field back up. Clearly the good Captain here isn’t done talking.”

“All I’m doing is asking for help and—”

“Well, I’m evil, remember? Go find it somewhere else.” 

There was another brush of fingers against James’ bicep, startling in how gentle they were in contrast to Tony’s harsh proclamations, and they were meant to coax James to come along. “Come on, let’s just get out of here.”

James didn’t need to be asked twice and he turned to follow Tony, but he managed barely a step and a half before Steve was marching up to them, reaching out for Tony again.

This time, however, Tony wasn’t alone and James turned swiftly around to stop Steve with a splayed hand on his chest.

“Don’t,” he growled, but the menacing tone seemed to have lost its efficacy because Steve didn’t back down this time.

“Get out of my way,” he ordered instead, then tried to shove James’ hand to the side, “this isn’t about you.”

“Rogers, what the hell?” That was Tony, already back by James’ side, looking almost frantic. “Are you seriously trying to start a fight again? Think about where you are! Hey, come on now,” he gentled the words and wrapped a hand over James’ shoulder, “they’re not worth it. Let’s go.” 

Steve didn’t listen through and neither did James, because he was sick and tired of being pushed around, being pushed aside, and when Steve tried to do it again, James shoved him right back, and then Steve, frustrated, angry, and forgetting yet again about his superior strength, shoved James with both hands, hard enough that a normal person would’ve been knocked way down. James only swayed, so Steve shoved again and this time one of his hands hit roughly against the prosthesis, knocking it out of its already awkward position tucked against James’ body.

All four of them went perfectly still as the prosthesis moved to hang limply in its sleeve, then Steve was the one to take a step back as he eyed that plastic hand as if it’d suddenly grown claws. 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tony cut in, trying to put a protective arm around James, both to shield him and to to steer him away from the others. “We’re leaving, now.”

Romanova was already putting it together though, the frown on her face taking on a calculating tilt. She never stopped studying James, he could feel her eyes boring into him this entire time, even during Tony’s impromptu performance for the crowd, but now she didn’t even bother to keep that scrutiny discreet and James could practically map out the progression of her thoughts, one by one, right up to the moment when everything clicked and her eyes went wide.

“Oh my god… It can’t be.” 

She looked genuinely shocked and on any other day, it would’ve been amusing to see the unflappable spy let her surprise be so obvious, but James was too preoccupied with his own inner turmoil.

He looked away from Romanova to Steve, taking in those narrowed eyes, the blue of them still so familiar to the echoes in James’ mind, the remnants of those old, sepia-toned memories, but so foreign to the man he was today and that earlier panic clawed its way up his spine all over again. Could he really do this?

The image of Steve grabbing Tony and wrenching him around flitted across his mind; that wince of pain, that fear… Some things were more important than his own trepidations and James wouldn’t let Steve hurt Tony again, physically or otherwise.

“We don’t have to do this,” he heard Tony say softly, as if he’d read James’ mind. “Let’s just— let’s go home, okay? We have nothing to prove to anyone.”

“Romanova has it all figured out. Only a matter of time before everyone knows.”

“Probably,” Tony didn’t disagree. He sounded resigned and when they locked eyes, James’ resolve only strengthened at the sight of Tony. Pale, uncomfortable, apprehensive, so exhausted by this whole thing.

James needed to rip this damn bandage off and be done with it, so they both could go back home. 

“I’m sorry…” James whispered. “I know this isn’t… ideal.” He glanced at the park around them. “But I think it’s time, Tony.”

Tony didn’t nod, didn’t shrug. He didn’t protest either, simply said, “Don’t worry about that. I just need you to be sure because— because there’s no going back.” 

“I am sure,” James said and maybe it was the finality in his tone that made Tony let go of him and take a step back, giving him space.

Steve’s eyes darted between them, brows knitted together, and the explosive anger from moments ago was replaced by confusion

James was ready, he told himself, but there was still an anxious pressure that gathered deep inside him, coiling and pulsing, and it made his right hand shake as it came up to tap his temple.

One, two, three, a simple configuration, and his skin shimmered, light flickering before his eyes, like sunlight reflecting off the edge of the water, followed by a damp breeze skirting along his skin. 

Silence, the world coming to a standstill once more, and then the proverbial fingers snapped again and Steve’s face, held in suspension of momentary shock, crumpled on a pained gasp. 

A bitter little voice inside James’ head told him that they’ve seen that betrayed look before, just last year, in a frozen wasteland where the Winter Soldier was once built.

He forced himself to hold Steve’s gaze, even if it felt like a knife sinking into his gut, right into that part of him that still carried those fractured memories of a skinny, sick kid who depended on him.

That kid was long gone. He no longer existed and neither did the bright-eyed, hopeful young man that used to stand by his side. 

“B-Bucky?” Steve stammered out the name and it was like they were right back on that bridge again. This time however, James’ mind was clear. No triggers, no orders, no Hydra, it belonged to him and him alone.

He let out a measured breath and held his head high. 

“It’s James now, Steve. You know that,” he said quietly, voice thick with emotion.

After decades of wearing a muzzle, he was still getting used to hearing his own voice, but it took Tony no time at all to appreciate this part of James too.

Sometimes, on the nights where nightmares chased after Tony, he’d ask James to read something aloud for him as he tried to fall back asleep. What James read didn’t matter, because it was his voice Tony found soothing. Tony would say it made him feel safe.

Protectiveness surged within him all over again and this time it was joined by something darker, something almost vindictive.

Here were Steve and Romanova, cajoling, begging, demanding that Tony help them. They wanted help from the same man they tossed away, treating him like the enemy right until they suddenly needed him again. 

They spat on their history together, on Tony’s generosity and love, and now they wanted it all back, but it wasn’t theirs to demand anymore.

It would never be theirs again, but a part of that affection, that fierce, protective love, that charm and silly jokes, those sleepy early mornings and soft, private murmurs of late nights, it did belong to James. He had what Steve and the others threw away.

It wasn’t revenge, exactly, not even vindication, but whatever it was, James found the feeling thoroughly satisfying, in the most selfish way.

Steve’s voice wrenched him right out of those thoughts, a weak and stumbling, “Wait, I don’t— I don’t understand… Why are you here? Why are you with— with—”

Steve didn’t finish, but the look he sent Tony over James’ shoulder said more than enough. 

“So that night, when you ran, you went to Tony,” Romanova mused aloud when Steve felt silent. That one moment of real shock was already replaced by careful scrutiny. “I’ll admit it, I didn’t see this coming, but I’m curious to know the parts of the story I’m missing. Ones I assume we’ll hear about now?”

She arched a questioning brow and James met it with a withering glare. There was no love lost between them, for a variety of reasons, but he wouldn’t need a complicated history to take issue with her flippant tone. She didn’t get to come off high and mighty when it came to the truth. After all, she knew about the Starks too, same as Steve. 

“You—” Steve seemed to have found his voice again, “how could you not tell me? You were in New York this whole time? And— and with Tony?”

“I told you I was fine. That should’ve been enough,” James said, brain working overtime to choose the right words. He didn’t want to go back to stumbling over each sentence. “After what happened, I didn’t feel safe and Tony—”

“What did he do to you?” Steve interrupted James and it took a moment for James to register that he was trying to accusing Tony. “Did he find you? Force you to come with him? Did he—”

“Force me?” James repeated, expression morphing into disgust. “What are you— no, Steve, no one forced me to— to do anything— it wasn’t—” 

He was right back to a mouth full of cotton and his words lost in static and Steve took this stumble as an opportunity to jab a finger in Tony’s direction.

“What did you do? Have you had Bucky this whole time?”

“I did what you failed to do, Rogers,” Tony snapped. “He needed the help, so I helped.” 

“You want me to believe you helped him when you clearly—”

“Steve, no, he hasn’t hurt me—”

“—haven’t even tried getting past this grudge—”

“Steve, that’s enough!”

“My ‘grudge’ is with you, asshole, not him and—”

“Enough!” James’ voice cut through the words thrown between them and took a gulping breath to steady himself. 

Tony ran a hand through his hair and gave a furtive glance in all directions. “Fuck, James is right, we’re drawing attention to ourselves again,” he said, tilting his chin meaningfully at another small crowd of people who halted their walk to gape at the superhero quarrel taking place in the middle of the park.

Before Tony had a chance to say something else, Romanona added her own sternly delivered, “Steve. I think it’s a little early for accusations, don’t you? Barnes looks to be in good health, he’s lucid. Frankly, he looks healthier than he was in the forties, so why don’t you listen to him? And calmly this time.” 

Steve clenched his teeth, then his fists, but after a drawn-out moment, he finally nodded and some of the crackling tension between them eased back. 

“Barnes,” Romanova addressed him when she deemed herself safe from Steve’s interruptions, “can you tell us what happened? It’ll make more sense if we know how you and, uh— how you and Tony got to know each other.”

Tony let out an angry huff and turned on his heel to pace, arms crossed over his chest defensively. “He doesn’t owe you a damn thing, let alone an explanation,” he muttered and while James appreciated the sentiment, he knew they were already in too deep.   

“When I ran that day, Tony and I already had… an established friendship. I wrote him a letter, he wrote me back, we came to an understanding. Started talking. Realized we had a lot in common.”

“How long had this— this talking been going on?” Steve’s expression couldn’t settle on one single thing. Surprise, incredulity, hurt

“Months.”

That pushed it straight into pain as Steve winced as if he’d been slapped across the face. “I don’t believe this… Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I didn’t have to,” James snapped back stubbornly. “I’m not a child. I had a right to privacy.”

“P-privacy? That— that isn’t what this is about, Buck! You could’ve been in danger, Tony could’ve—” Steve didn’t finish, stopped himself before another accusation slipped out, but he still threw a sour look Tony’s way, so it made no difference in the end. James itched to step in front of Tony again to shield him from that vitriol, but he resisted the urge, if only because Tony met it himself, unflinching.

“So then, when you left,” Romanova continued the inquiry, “you went to Tony for help and then stayed with him?”

“That’s right. Back then, he was the only one I could trust.” 

There was no waver in James’ voice this time; this was the one thing he had no doubts about. He trusted Tony to help him when he was at his most vulnerable and that trust paid off ten-fold. 

“How can you say that?” Steve’s accusation contrasted sharply against the memory of Tony’s arms holding James up as he wept in the rain. “I always, always, looked out for you, I sacrificed everything for you, Bucky, and you tell me you couldn’t trust me? What—” Steve paused to press a fist against his mouth before forcing it to drop back down. “What more can I do? What could I possibly—”

“You could’ve believed me about Maximoff and—”

“She wasn’t— that was misunderstanding—”

“—you could stop talking over me at every turn,” James spoke even more forcefully, “you could accept that things have changed, that I have changed. Hell, you could call me by my own damn name.”

Steve opened his mouth, then closed it, his fist opening and closing in a matching rhythm. Stubbornness versus compromise, pride versus acceptance. The whole world teetered on the edge of Steve’s next words.

“Okay…” he finally said. “I’m sorry, Bucky— no, James, I’m sorry. This is something I still have to work on. I will, I promise. Whatever it takes, I just— no, whatever it takes. No excuses. I want to fix this.”

Another tiny fraction of the tension inside James loosened. He wasn’t happy with Steve— between Maximoff and his treatment of Tony, there were a canyon’s worth of issues between them— but a peaceful parting would be better for everyone, Tony most of all. “Thank you. I know it’s not the answer you want, but too much has changed. We have to accept that.” 

Steve was nodding along as James spoke, as if he had believed those words all along.

“I know, you’re right. I changed a lot too. I’m not the same man who went into the ice either.”

“I know this isn’t easy. I wish it were.”

“Well, things that are worth something rarely are.” There was a tiny hint of a smile trying to break through. “I know the way we parted— god, that was terrible, and I’m sorry, you’re right, I should’ve listened, but I was just so scared for you, but… I’m glad you had some place safe to stay in the meantime. You do look great, by the way.”

The compliment, tacked on at the end like that, made James’ stomach clench uncomfortably and he gave an awkward, tight-lipped smile and then looked to Tony automatically, seeking that comfort, but he frowned when he actually took Tony in. Eyes on the ground, arms wrapped around his middle, as if he were protecting himself from something. Was he still wary of Steve’s temper or—

“Come home with me,” Steve said suddenly and James got to watch Tony flinch before quickly schooling his expression, and then the rest of his posture, into a picture of nonchalance.

Steve continued, not paying Tony, nor anyone else, any mind. “We don’t have to go back to the apartment. We can stay somewhere else— anywhere you want— until we get this all figured out. We, uh, we can get our own little apartment somewhere, just like the old days.” Steve brightened up, as if the idea sparked a measure of hope in him. “I’m not sure we can afford a place in Brooklyn anymore like we used to, but maybe we can go somewhere else, move somewhere, just the two of us, so we can, you know, get to know each other, whoever we are now. Understand how we’ve changed. Just like you said. No one to bother us, no stress. Just time and space to heal.”

In some other world, some other lifetime, an offer like this would’ve been tempting and wanted, but here, it made James’ insides grow cold. It wasn’t so much the offer itself, or Steve’s complete inability to pick up on non-verbal cues (or his finely-honed ability to ignore them), but rather the picture those words immediately painted in James’ head.

This offer meant trading the life James had built for something else. Saying goodbye to his time with Peter and the rest of the kids, to Friday and her steadfast support of James’ scholastic endeavors. No more Happy and Rhodes and their tentative friendships, formed over greasy food, fast cars, and stories of Tony’s infamous hijinks. There would be no more Pepper and her no nonsense attitude and confidence that made James feel like no problem in the world was too big, no more Loki and his ridiculous pet names and knowing looks.

No more walks on the winding Compound trails, no more movie night, no more tentative plans for the future.

No more Tony

Tony, who meant lazy mornings and gentle hands trailing over warm skin, long days at the workshop where James got to watch the future come to life, and nights where James would get lost in bad memories, spend hours whispering in disconsolate Russian, committing to words the atrocities he had lived through; nights that he spent feeling safe because Tony was right there beside him, listening without judgment and holding him steady. Every little gesture of love, every small gift that somehow suited him perfectly, and every opportunity to give that love and devotion right back. 

Steve didn’t realize it, he couldn’t, but what he had just offered James was a life without Tony and that wasn’t an offering, that was a threat. 

“I’m not going with you, Steve.”

Steve nearly choked on whatever he was about to say. 

“I— I don’t understand. Why not? What else can I do? Whatever it is, I’m willing—”

“It’s not about you. I’m sorry, but… I’m not saying we can never talk again, although I still think we need distance before we can fix this, but even if we do, this part doesn’t change. I’m staying with Tony.”

“I don’t— that’s not—” Steve’s eyes darted, rapid-fire, between James and Tony, and the thing was, Steve wasn’t stupid. On the contrary, the reason why his stubborn, bone-headed moves were so damn devastating was because he was smart enough to fuck everything up six ways to Sunday.  

Once Steve stopped willfully ignoring what was right in front of him, things came together rather quickly, and his eyes, now framed by furrowed brows, stopped on Tony. “You two were walking through the park and you said… you two were on a date. Was that just a—”

“That wasn’t a cover, Steve,” James replied, “and we’re not just friends. Tony and I are in love.”