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Such Sweet Revenge

Chapter Text

“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 snail mail. Iron Man on the other hand…” He shrugged and the smile turned into a sly 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, then tipped his sunglasses at the kid meaningfully. “And keep up the good work, alright? This is the illustrious world of superheroes you’re in now.”

“I gotta say, sir, so far it’s just been paperwork, memos, and manuals.”

Tony let the mock-serious expression drop and chuckled. “That about sums it up, actually.” 

He decided he liked this kid and they’d have to grab a coffee or something later, but right now exhaustion was calling Tony’s name, screaming it in fact, so with a quick goodbye, he headed back to the residential side of the Compound. His legs carried him through the familiar space while he scrolled through some of the unanswered messages on his phone, but he quickly decided there was an easier way to catch up.

“So, Friday, my dear,” he talked as he walked, “how are things? My beautiful Compound still in one piece?”

“You’ve been gone for four days, Boss. Hardly enough time for things to fall into ruin.”

“You and I both know four days is plenty. Give certain people here five minutes and they can do some serious damage.”

“Fair enough.”

“Has Peter been doing his summer homework?”

“Always, Boss.”

“Do Rhodey’s braces need a tune-up?”

“Not yet. The update we made to the shock absorbers has been holding up wonderfully.”

“Excellent. Did Loki behave himself?”

“Never, Boss.”

Tony smiled, feeling flushed with the simple pleasure of being home. “Rhodey and Carol make anyone else cry in training?”

“No, they have not—”

“And if I remember correctly, Stark, you were the one crying.”

Tony nearly collided with the Norse God and had to stumble awkwardly to halt himself, so he graced Loki with a scowl and an exaggerated glare while brushing off non-existent dust from his suit.

“Well, speak of the devil and he shall appear. Hello, Rudolph.”

Loki’s saccharine smile was awfully familiar too. “Your Judeo-Christian devil wishes he were half as devious and delightful as I am.”

Yeah, Tony was ignoring that comment entirely. “I swear we talked about you appearing out of thin air,” he said instead, “I have a heart condition, you know. And— and—” Tony waved the envelopes in his hand as if they were a weapon, “for your information, I was not crying. I was pretending to cry so Rhodey would stop making me spar with Hope. I’m a lover, not a fighter, and let me tell you, that woman? She does not hold back, not even when I bat my eyelashes at her. She’s immune to my charm, it’s ridiculous.”

“Hmm, a true anomaly indeed. With your money and power and those dazzling brown eyes, you usually get whatever you want, don’t you, Stark?”

“Oh, you flatterer, you.”

“Although, I can’t help but notice…” Loki tapped his chin thoughtfully with his pointer fingers. “You’ve been without a lover the entire time I’ve been here, haven’t you? Pity, that, a charmer like you, all alone.”

Reminding Tony about his single status was a bit of a low blow, but honestly, the real sting of his break-up had faded long ago. He and Pepper weren’t together anymore, sure, and when the break-up happened, Tony thought he’d never be happy again, but the cliché about time healing all wounds held up and things were alright now. Better than alright in fact, because he and Pepper were still kick-ass business partners and more importantly, they were back to being friends. In the end, they were both were better off. Pepper was happier this way, less burdened, and in turn Tony was too.

He supposed he did get a little lonely at times now and it would’ve been wonderful to have someone in his life again. He missed that domesticity, the knowledge that someone was waiting for him, someone who wanted him, piping hot mess and all, and despite all the ‘old man’ comments, there were also certain needs that had gone entirely unfulfilled (having nothing but the Trickster snark-flirting with you was hardly satisfying). However, casual hookups with strangers made Tony’s skin crawl—this infamous playboy now needed trust to go with his intimacy, go figure—and Tony wasn’t exactly going out there, meeting new people, making meaningful connections, and bumping into his one true love down at the park or in some cutesy little diner or something.

So mostly he just didn’t bother. Being overworked, still dealing with messes that weren’t always his, none of that helped either, but his new team and family had his back, the world wasn’t at his metaphorical or literal throat as much anymore, and he was protecting people, preparing for threats both big and small, and doing what he was meant to do.

Given all that, Tony was content with his life.

“You know, some would consider it rude to remind a man of his loneliness.”

“My deepest apologies, Stark, I only meant to say… Well…” Here Loki just gave up on the pretenses and made it clear he was checking Tony out. “You don’t have to be lonely.”

“Oh please, and incur Stephen’s wrath? You’re not worth the trouble, Reindeer Games.”

“I’ll have you know I am a generous lover, plenty enough for two. You do know I can clone myself, yes?”

Blergh, okay, this is heading into the type of kinky territory I do not want to explore,” Tony made a face and began shooing the Trickster away so the man would get out of his way. The god complied, laughing at Tony’s exaggerated disgust. 

Tony shook his head, amused and appreciative of the banter, but even though Tony’s absence was short, the actual trip was a grueling four days of business and ass kissing and his creaking bones and aching back had him cutting this snark fest short as well.

Tony, his exhaustion called to him again, go lie the fuck down.

“Alright, as much fun as this is—”

“It could always be more fun.”

“—I am dead tired and need a long nap. Pencil me in for this Saturday— and no, not for your wild clone shenanigans with Stephen,” Tony held up a hand and tried not to grin at how ridiculously pleased Loki looked with himself, “I don’t need to know what you two do in the privacy of your own home. No, pencil me for a sparring session. It’s been a while since I kicked your ass and you’ve been getting lippy.”

“Looking forward to it, Stark,” Loki simpered and waved him away. Tony didn’t bother looking back to see the god poof back out of existence like the show-off that he was, content to keep walking towards the elevators.

“Friday, my quarters, please,” he asked, daydreaming about collapsing into his soft, inviting bed and sleeping for days.  

“Of course, Boss. Before you nap, however, I must warn you about something.” Her voice followed him into the elevator. “One of those letters was not written by an Iron Man fan. The address on it… Well, it belongs to them.”

The venom in her voice—and Tony did not remember ever programming that into her subroutines—was difficult to miss and Tony couldn’t help but groan, letting his head thump against the glass behind him. 

“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, just because there was no one here to judge him for being childish. “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 traces of harmful chemicals, 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 we’re talking about, baby girl. ‘Paper and ink’ is all he needs to accomplish a lot of dumb shit.”

The elevator stopped and opened into Tony’s quarters, so he 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 the suit jacket followed, thrown carelessly 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 one could deny that—but wearing it all day long was overkill. So many damn meetings, so little time. 

Feeling less overdressed, Tony plopped onto the bed with a satisfying groan and let himself sink into the mattress, eyes closed and muscles finally letting go of the tension they had accumulated over the last few days. It was divine. 

Unfortunately, despite his body’s insistence to kick back, relax, and enjoy both his comfortable bed and the peace and quiet of his rooms, his mind still swirled with thoughts and memories, all dredged up by this one ridiculous letter.

The infamous ‘Superhero Civil War’ was just over a year ago. Only one year had passed since Tony was left behind in a cold bunker in Siberia, suit disabled, chest busted open, and 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 and looking back, he knew 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, one that sounded like Howard, he could’ve listened and believed that he deserved what Rogers did to him. He could’ve 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 kept him warm, just warm enough to survive until Vision and a rescue team showed up to scrape his half-busted form off the floor. 

Without opening his eyes, Tony trailed his fingers over his clothed chest, knowing exactly where the scars were (both old and new) without needing to feel them beneath his fingertips.

He remained angry, all through the rescue, the long hospital stays, and the return to a belligerent Ross, a frenzied media, and a half-empty Compound.

Anger quickly grew into determination. 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.

Tony could’ve easily hunted down the ‘Rogues’ (a cute little moniker bestowed upon them by the social media at large) to exact some form of revenge. According to the trackers in their uniforms no one bothered to disable, they were all in Wakanda for a while (the only place on Earth Tony’s trackers couldn’t pick up on a map); they left the hidden country a few months later, likely because King T’Challa finally got fed up with footing the bill and kicked them out. Tony didn’t have a tracker on Barnes, but through the grapevine, he found out the man chose to go back into a cryo chamber and was left behind.

Payback was tempting, but since most of the world still viewed his former co-workers as criminals and they were short on both resources and allies, they laid low, so Tony left them 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 worry about than payback.

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—and it was a wonder that man had 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 a round of mutual, awkward apologies, they fell back into the easy camaraderie they shared 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, but he quickly got over the heartbreak, their petty Earth squabbles barely pinging on his godly radar. 

His far more insufferable little brother, however, took the whole thing to heart and proceeded to rant about ‘these pathetic mortals ruining all of his hard work to bring them together to fight the Mad Titan’, insulted Rogers’ entire familial lineage, and flirted with Tony, all in the space of one breath.  

Tony wasn’t sure which part had endeared the god to him most effectively, but in the blink of an eye, the brothers became a regular sight, seamlessly integrating themselves into the Compound’s daily life. Another benefit of having these two around was seeing the lovely Jane Foster more often (she was often kidnapped away from poor Thor to spend time with the science squad) and now one Dr. Stephen Strange actually visited them voluntarily, despite his often-communicated disdain for ‘people running around in tights’.

It was when Tony caught the Sorcerer Supreme in a hallway closet making out with the Trickster that Tony realized his life was fucking bizarre and left it at that.

He also decided he didn’t quite mind this new and improved version of ‘bizarre’.

Some new faces joined them as well. Hope van Dyne saw past her own father’s prejudices and decided to sign the Accords, putting both her Wasp Suit and her killer business instincts to good use. One Carol Danvers, freshly descended from space, 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 night and day compared to what Tony knew from before. The contrast was so stark in fact that 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 to say a simple thank you.

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

And then the pardons came.

Tony couldn’t help his snort, which echoed through the quiet room and the sound of it made him finally open his eyes. Plain off-white ceiling stared back at him. He hated that day, when the news broke and he realized everyone would be a stone’s throw away again, although he couldn’t remember if it was genuine heartbreak or petty bitterness that truly got to him.

Neither his team nor the Councils (US or otherwise) had anything to do with the pardons, 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.


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 and determination wouldn’t have been enough. He would’ve caved, 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 (plus one freshly woken Bucky Barnes) 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. Instead, he let his very eager team handle his former teammates. 

After all, nowadays, Tony was just the tech guy.

With a reluctant sigh, Tony sat up, gave his back a stretch, and after a few things made a satisfying pop, he leveled a suspicious look at the pile of envelopes. 

The Rogues had been pissed about the stonewalling since day one. They griped about the ‘childish stubbornness’ and the ‘dangerous lack of cooperation’, they even cried about it to the media. Thankfully, 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. 

Apparently, rants on Twitter just weren’t enough anymore and the Rogues were resorting to old-school letter writing as a way to wriggle their way back into Tony’s life. 


It took a full minute to talk himself into moving, but in the end, Tony left the conspicuously plain white envelope alone, picking up one of the more colorful ones instead.

It made better sense to work up to Rogers’ nonsense and reading kids’ letters did always put him in a good mood. Cute art, the kids’ hopes and dreams, their stories about school or their wild made-up adventures (some about the Avengers even), he loved it all.

Falling back against his plush pillows, Tony let himself get lost in the enthusiastic, brightly-colored ramblings of the future generation.

Tony admired the bright doodles of Iron Man, Spider-Man, and a very Picasso-esque rendition of the Wasp one last time and placed the last letter on top of new pile next to him. With nothing else left to read, he studied the damn white envelope still 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 this time. At least there’s no insulting, out-of-date tech to go along with this letter.

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


With a raised eyebrow and renewed curiosity, Tony leaned back 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 bring anyone I killed back to life. It won’t fix what happened between you, Steve and the others either. Might not help you at all, so this apology, it’s selfish then, 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 had 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 want to 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 next month. Thinks he can get a moment with you because you’re one of the speakers and the security isn’t as strict. No idea if this letter gets to you in time, and knowing you, you probably already know, but thought I should warn you.

They used some of your tech to help with the triggers, by the way. Thank you for that too. T’Challa’s sister didn’t want to be involved though and I don’t blame her, but the other doctors did well enough with the tech. 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 give back 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.


James Buchanan Barnes

“Huh…” Tony exhaled and kept staring at the letter in his hands. 

Not what I expected. At all.

Tony reread the letter while slowly making his way over to the kitchen, led there by a late afternoon caffeine craving. There was no way he’d be taking that nap now anyways.

“Hey, Tones, I didn’t know you were back already,” 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. “What are you reading? 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 must’ve caught the name at the bottom too because he 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 read, 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 managed the same sort of “Huh…”and gave Tony a bemused look.

“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, not 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 pour the now-brewed coffee into his favorite Hulk-themed mug. “Sounds like they got rid of the triggers at least,” Rhodey added, “which is a damn relief. One less thing to worry about.”

“Yeah, the BARF modifications came through. Sure wish the Wakandans were a bit better at following directions though. I specifically told them not to mention my involvement, but at least Barnes doesn’t seem too put out about the fact that the oh-so-evil Tony Stark helped fix his brain.”

“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.” 

Things were better now, much better, but there was no denying those first few month after Siberia were rough; there were some dark, awful places Tony found himself in when the anger and the determination weren’t enough to keep him going, some he still had to bring up with this therapist on occasion to avoid falling into that pit of despair again. He knew what it was like to find yourself without hope. 

“Sounds like Maximoff is causing him trouble too.” 

Tony nodded. “I couldn’t sleep either when she was around. Maybe she’s setting off some assassin instinct of his?”

“Uh, being uncomfortable around her? That’s not assassin instinct, that’s common sense.” After a beat, Rhodey scoffed. “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? Is this really what Rogers upended the entire world for? I mean, hell, Barnes sounds miserable.”

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 hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in decades and has the equivalent of Swiss cheese in his head after the hell he’s been put through. You know how Rogers is though. He sees what he wants to see, reality be damned.”

Letting the letter drop on the table, Rhodey grabbed his own empty mug and walked over to the counter. He shook his head as he placed the mug into the dishwasher. “Rogers, he screwed all of us over, ruined his reputation, turned his back on everything… but what if, after all that, he loses Barnes anyways? Talk about some sweet revenge, huh?”

“I suppose so.”

Rhodey glanced at his wrist watch and grimaced. “Shit, how is it so late already? Sorry to cut this short— and I do want to catch up— but I should run. Carol and I are putting together some new training material and you know how she loves to give me hell when I’m late to anything.”

“Yeah, yeah, go, get out of here. Tell Carol I said ‘hi’ and let me know if she kicks your ass for being late again.” 

Rhodey rolled his eyes and just flipped him off as he walked out and Tony was left to his own thoughts once again. He remained where he was, leaning against the counter, 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 when he settled on a decision, “earmark a Starkphone for me from the storage room. One of those gaudy Iron Man Anniversary models. Have it brought up here please. I think our assassin friend needs an upgrade, don’t you? I mean, 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, what is this? How come you get a delivery package? Didn’t know brainwashed assassins even knew how to use the internet.” 

Barton seemed overly pleased with his remark and he kept the cardboard box up in the air and out of reach, as if that would somehow stop James from getting to it. Sam just rolled his eyes at them both and walked past them back to his room, 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 an ass and it took a growled threat in Russian for the man to hand over 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 chose to 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. It probably made him ungrateful, but he hated relying so much on these 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 actually the lackluster back-up plan because the original plan, one James had no part in because he wasn’t an idiot, was for one Tony Stark to start paying their expenses again. 

After the pardons were made public knowledge, everyone came back to Wakanda to pick up James (he spent a good ten months in cryostasis before he was pulled out, his brain was scrubbed clean, and he was 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 their surprise 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 and that always came with 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 catch a pitying look from Steve, the same look that appeared every time James had trouble doing something. Pity was bad enough, but beneath that pity were hints of disappointment, and those were much worse.

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 unambitious and the sort of guy who needed a swift kick in the ass to get him back on the straight and narrow), 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 who Stark was, he would’ve assumed this man was some cartoonish super villain rather than a 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 was rooted in a painful history, and going by the snippets of hazy Red Room memories floating in his head, James couldn’t exactly blame her for the mistrust, but James also didn’t care enough to find a resolution to her cold and distant demeanor; they both had blood on their hands they could never wash away, so she didn’t get to act like he was the only real sinner here. 

Barton’s ire was simpler in its nature and 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, but James had no real evidence—not yet—to determine whether the current situation was a result of deliberate sabotage or simply his rotten luck.

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. On the rare occasions he managed to fall asleep, he’d wake up with a silent scream an hour later, drenched in sweat, shaking and breathless, haunted by horrid, bloody nightmares. Given that he slept better in Romania, even on days he was barely able to remember his own name, he decided this had to be the effect of her powers. The same powers she used casually and without restraint around everyone, something no one else seemed to mind. Steve didn’t care either, not even when James nearly begged him to speak with her, every pleading word costing him so damn much.

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.

He didn’t speak for days after that. 

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

A more frequent occurrence, as it were, because James’ lackluster interactions with these people didn’t begin to scratch the surface of Steve’s disappointment.

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 anything again and James got even better at ignoring the pitiful puppy dog eyes the man would occasionally throw his way.

No matter what he did, James just wasn’t Bucky enough 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 that 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, each time being built up 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. 

Today, James didn’t bother striking up a conversation 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, not 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 black 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. With enough money and one press of a button, things just appeared right at your door.

He grabbed one of the shirts and frowned when he felt something solid beneath the other items. Did he order something else? He stilled, immediately cataloguing every detail he could see, but nothing else seemed off, so he lifted the second shirt out of the way, only to reveal a bright red box with gold accents sitting at the bottom of the package.

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

Gingerly, he discarded the shirt and picked up the smaller box. No stubborn plastic wrapping here either, the box wasn’t even sealed, and 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 here. 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, but sue him, he was curious.

James carefully took the phone out of its padded box, examined the sleek edges of the device, and when he looked down, he was surprised yet again when he spotted a small piece of paper lying at the bottom of the box. The phone joined the shirts on the bed as James reached in to grab the paper.

A note, he amended, when he unfolded it over his knee.


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, and 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 was the one to start that ass-kicking fiesta. 

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 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.


James read and reread the note until he realized he was trying to blink away wetness that 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 there was one person he harmed who was willing to forgive him.

Maybe it meant that he was worth forgiving.

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

Paper is out, fancy touchscreens 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 whatever it is you do to pass the time. It’s already coded to your thumbprint 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.


-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 thing 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 these days, so where was the harm in pretending this was something 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.

Of course, getting something in return wasn’t ever James’ intention. He wrote the letter after Steve and the others decided to crash the charity event, hoping to see Stark. Thankfully, Stark’s schedule was changed at the last minute—likely on purpose—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 responsible somehow—as if his conscience needed more shit to feel guilty about—so while the others were out on their next ill-conceived mission, he found paper and pen and began to write.

The Compound’s address was public information, but he knew that the chances of the letter making it past the Avengers’ impressive security was low. Still, he hoped Stark would receive the apology 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 with touches and swipes, 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 itself rather than its contents that left him feeling off-balance and apprehensive (and strangely hopeful, but James resolutely ignored those wishful thoughts). Did Stark leave the line of communication open on purpose? Why would he do that? What could he possible want with James?

James hesitated, thumb hovering over the screen. There was no way for him to know the answers to those questions, but in the end, what did he have to lose? 

Thank you for the phone. 

He typed slowly, getting used to the keyboard and the touchscreen.

It’s much better than my current one. ‘Flip phones’ seem to be out of style, huh?

Heart in his throat, he pressed ‘Send’. Nothing happened other than his typed words popping up on the screen, but just in case, he gave it a minute, exploring a few familiar features in the meantime.

Of course there was no reply right away. Tony Stark was a busy man, James reminded himself, he had no time to exchange text messages with disgraced ex-assassins. Another minute passed and James just hoped Stark wouldn’t be offended by him replying.

Leaving the phone discreetly tucked under the pillow right next to the only gun he currently owned, James snuck out of the room and ducked into 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 would be 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 shared with Barton and Steve; when the hallway was clear, James silently slipped out of the bathroom and back into 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 additional evidence that he severely lacked positive human contact and needed to get out more, but that level of introspection could wait until tomorrow. Right now, he gave himself the permission to enjoy the flutter of nerves at the pit of his stomach as he unlocked the phone and opened the message.

Chapter Text

Thank you for the phone, it’s much better than my current one. ‘Flip phones’ seem to be out of style, huh?

James skipped over his own words, eyes pulled straight to the new message below.

Oh my god, they gave you a flip phone?? Haven’t you suffered enough? That is cruel and unusual punishment. I am appalled. Glad I could right that wrong.

His lips twitched. The sensation was odd, as if his body was attempting to work a long-forgotten muscle, and to be honest, this whole thing was so strange. Was he really having a casual chat with Tony Stark right now?

We’re on a budget. Gotta use the money on things that matter, like invites to children’s charities. 

Typing the words proved to be easier than forcing them out of his throat, something he figured out when he began writing down his fragmented memories in Romania. The written word had more weight, more prominence, and it was harder for someone to ignore in favor of whatever they wanted to hear.

Sorry about that, again. I tried talking them out of it, but I’m not very persuasive these days.

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 considered the possibility that Stark was only trying to gather intel, but he quickly discarded it as unlikely. There were easier ways for a man so proficient with technology to get whatever information he needed. 

I’m not sure she’s actually doing anything. I just can’t sleep with her in the building. It’s worse when we’re in the same room, especially when she’s waving her hands around using 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 screen. He did trust his instincts, probably the only thing he could trust right now, and Stark’s warning only served to reaffirm what those instincts already knew, that somehow, some way, that woman was a threat. Her powers were dangerous, that much was obvious, but her behavior was suspect too. That sweet and innocent act of hers, she pushed it to a point of obvious insincerity, except somehow it was obvious only to him; everyone else treated her, a fully grown woman, like a child who needed to be coddled. 

Well, Steve and Barton did, mostly. Natalia never said anything to the contrary, but she did keep her distance—James had to wonder what the Widow’s instincts were telling her—Wilson tried to follow Steve’s lead and remained amicable, and Lang was too busy taking afternoon naps to care that he was all but irrelevant to the witch.

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, but in this case, something just didn’t add up. It could’ve been incomplete information, it could’ve been plain old paranoia, and in a murky situation like this, Bucky would’ve trusted Steve. James only trusted his instincts. 

Something Stark apparently encouraged, which was the sort of relief James couldn’t put into words. It meant James wasn’t going crazy again, that his fears and suspicions weren’t some paranoid delusions of a broken man. No, someone else saw what he saw.

He let that vindication settle somewhere deep in his chest, holding onto it with an almost possessive fervor, and he wanted to ask Stark more questions, but he decided the whole Maximoff dilemma could wait. It wasn’t going to be solved overnight and right now, there were more pressing questions on his mind.

Thank you, I appreciate the advice.

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 is. 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?

Friend. What a peculiar choice of word.

James put the phone aside and sat up, trying to find a position that didn’t aggravate his shoulder and also made it easier to text with his one hand. The effort was mostly futile, the left side of his body still aching no matter how he twisted and turned, but as always, the pain could’ve been worse and James had to admit that his headache was at a more manageable level tonight too.

He settled in and picked up the phone, then chewed on his bottom lip, a nervous habit he picked up from god knew where—an awful habit because it left his lips chapped to hell—as he reread Stark’s last message.

He typed a reply, squinted at the words, erased them, then typed the exact same thing again and hit ‘Send’ before he changed his mind.

Is that what we are? Friends?

Stark’s reply was almost immediate.

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

James hesitated again, but in for a penny and all. There was no point in lying, in pretending to be someone else, in trying to decide what Stark wanted to hear from him. James was too damn tired for pretenses.

I’d like that, he sent and let his eyes rest until the phone buzzed again.

Another sleepless night tonight?


It’s alright though, I have this snazzy new telephone to keep me entertained. 

He snorted softly at the ridiculous words, but it was sort of funny, wasn’t it? This was how a lot of people expected him to talk (and they were left thoroughly disappointed when all they got out of him were a few gruff words and a grimace). 

Came from some fella named Iron Man. Seems like a real swell guy to me.

Oh good god, you don’t actually talk like that, do you?

No, I don’t.

Sorry. I was trying to be funny, but looks like I’m no good at that either. Lost my humor, lost the Brooklyn drawl too. Don’t talk much at all these days, but I do slip into Russian sometimes without thinking. You should see Steve’s face when it happens.

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

That’s the one.

Yeah, I’ve gotten that look many times over the years. My sincerest condolences, Barnes.

James realized he was smiling at the screen. The smile wasn’t something spectacular, just a small upward tilt of his lips, but it was more than anyone had gotten out of him in months. He couldn’t help but enjoy the casual banter, even if he 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?

Ironically, that possibility made James more anxious, 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 sort of thing these days. Bucky would’ve known what to say, how to charm someone properly. James didn’t and he didn’t want to say something stupid, 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 scared him the most.

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.

James rapped his fingers against the shitty mattress, glared at his closed door, and contemplated his next move.

Certainly if anyone knew what he wanted to do, they’d call his loyalties into question (again), but in reality, he had no loyalties anymore. For once, he just wanted to do what was right instead of causing more problems.

He reached for the phone tucked discreetly on the inside of his second-hand jacket.

Steve’s planning to bring Romanova to that meeting he requested with Rhodes. He called a journalist too. I don’t know what the hell they’re planning anymore.

Well, that’s rude of them. If I remember correctly, Steve specifically said he’d be alone. Tsk tsk. 

Oh well. Thanks for the heads up! Rhodey will be happy to kick them all 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.

Steve’s reprimands and Barton’s jibes still echoed in James’ ears, magnifying the headache already pounding against his skull.

He wanted to curl up into a ball, forget about every bit of this bullshit, and just disappear. Some awful part of him missed the numb non-existence of the cryo chamber, and he hated himself for that thought.

The phone buzzing in his pocket interrupted his pity party and James sat up, stifling a groan when the pulsing pain in his head worsened at the shift in position. He tried to ignore it, concentrating on the blurry message on the screen.

You looked miserable at that press conference Steve slapped together. I was cringing the whole way through. You alright?

Huh. Stark was checking up on him. That thought, even more than the message, distracted James from his current predicament, both from the pain and that disastrous farce of a press conference that led to the latest fight with Steve and the others. 

A spark of warmth settled inside him at the idea that Stark was thinking about him in a time and space outside of these back-and-forth messages.

The whole thing was awful. I didn’t want to go, I tried to say something, but it was like talking to a damn wall. Steve insisted I come and just about dragged me there.

James didn’t hesitate with his replies so much anymore, typing whatever came to mind. It was freeing, being able to express himself, be himself, at least within the boundaries of these typed-up words.

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. I could barely see you under all that hair. Are former assassins allergic to haircuts? Did razors not exist in the forties?

James put the phone down and scratched self-consciously at his admittedly unkempt beard. Steve mentioned it too sometimes, but his method was to pull out an old photo (nicked from the Smithsonian exhibit) and point out how happy the two of them looked back then and wouldn’t it be great if they could get back to that? Why, Steve could take him to get his hair cut and buzzed right now and then they could go to Brooklyn and reminisce! 

At this point James was letting his hair and his beard do whatever the hell they wanted just out of spite.

Stark’s blunt comment didn’t sting the way Steve’s gentler coaxing did. The words didn’t sting at all, actually, because it hadn’t taken long for James to realize that Stark spoke ‘snark’ the way one would a second language and this was… well, the word ‘teasing’ still felt too intimate, something done between real friends who were comfortable enough in their love for each other, but maybe this was some lesser version of that. The sort of teasing done between two guys who tried to kill each other at one point and were now sending secret text messages every other day.

Don’t judge me. Maybe I’m 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.

They’ll definitely leave you alone if you whip out a knife too and just sit there and glare at them.

His headache didn’t abate, Steve was still full of righteous disappointment just on the other side of the paper-thin wall, and James was still stuck in this shitty apartment with few options and fewer allies, but maybe he didn’t quite want to dive back into frozen oblivion after all. He shoved some of that self-pity out of the way and typed his response.

You may be onto something, Stark. I like that.

Got a knife I could borrow?

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.

This is better, thank you.

His phone buzzed against his chest, sending a pleasant rush of adrenaline through his veins (James knew all about Pavlov’s dog, but he refused to admit that this was his version of salivating) and he had to make several excuses, claiming another headache (in his defense, it wasn’t a lie) before Steve agreed to let him skip ‘movie night’. 

James closed the door behind him, silencing the chatter of the movie, inhaled the stale city air, still humid and chilled by the rainy afternoon, and settled back against the railing of the fire escape. Giving it a minute to make sure no one followed him, James pulled out the phone, pressed his thumb to the glass, and watched Stark’s messages cascade down over the screen.

Omg, I can’t do this.

My brain is going to melt out of sheer boredom.

Barnes, save me.

(unless you’re busy, then it’s okay, I know you have a house full of nosy comrades)

But seriously, get your ass over here.

I’m sitting in a meeting and we’re talking potential acquisition here and this one CEO just. keeps. talking. like. this. with. zero. inflection. or. life. in. his. voice. 

You know what’s worse?

He doesn’t know shit about his company either.

But his CFO is brilliant and we want both her and the company. 

But I might not survive this guy long enough to close this deal.

Where is an alien portal when I need one?

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

Oh thank god.

And barely! 

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

Just keep me awake. Tell me something I don’t know.

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.




Hey, you got a minute?

James was reading the newspaper he bought with the loose change in his pocket on his earlier walk (Stark found it both offensive and hilarious that James preferred the weight of paper in his hands when reading) when the phone vibrated again. The paper quickly found its way back onto the nightstand, folded up and forgotten.

I’m here.

So Thor’s been in town for a few days.

I think I told you before, he technically has a room at the Compound, but he comes and goes, Asgard business and whatnot, whatever.

Anyways, we had a get-together at the Tower last night to celebrate our last mission (yay, minimal property damage!). 

Bad idea. 

Worst idea. 

I might quit the Avengers because of this.

There were times when Stark would get borderline ridiculous in his retelling of something and James loved every second of it. He bit his lip, trying not to grin as he typed back his reply.

Are you always this dramatic?

Don’t judge me! Thor brought this fancy mead from Asgard and everyone got super drunk way too quickly.

Suddenly, it’s just me and the kids as 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.

But I might be smiling. Demoted to a babysitter, huh, Stark? Tough luck.

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? 

I’m sure Iron Man could’ve handled it.

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

Anyways, YES, I did in fact 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 about the Einstein-Rosen bridges and rainbow roads and string theory. I send Peter to watch them, but  bless his heart, he’s no help at all, he just joins the argument. 

I don’t even know what the hell Strange and Loki were doing on my nice oak bar, but it was weird and I might have to burn it.

(they’re sleeping together, btw, but this wasn’t sexual, this was just magical wizard nonsense, which is somehow ten times worse) 

It was awful.

I took pictures of everything.

Blackmail purposes?


What I gotta know - are they all hungover and miserable this morning?

And more importantly, are you making lots of loud noises, opening up every curtain to let the sunshine in, and cooking greasy, smelly foods?

I love this devious side of you, Barnes. Especially when it’s on the same side as me. 

Give them hell, Stark.

His chest rose and fell rapidly, heart hammered away, and James willed himself not to whimper as he stared up unseeing at the ceiling. Between the ghostly images still lingering in his head and the far more tangible pain nestled right between the eyes, he wanted to cry, but he didn’t want Steve hearing him and barging in here, trying to comfort him, trying to touch him.

Without a conscious thought, James reached for the phone.

Are you still awake?

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

Nightmare. Bad one.

James cringed when his brain caught up with his thumb. Jesus christ, just how needy was he?

I’m sorry.

I shouldn’t have bothered 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 the other night. Remember how Shuri and Peter are friends now? Yeah, so, I can never trust another toaster again.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, his mind chanted and James vowed to someday repay Stark for this offer of simple, unqualified kindness. 

What did those two do now?

“You seem to be in a better mood, Buck,” Steve remarked and broke James out of his reverie, ruining precisely the good mood he referred to. 

James realized he must’ve been sitting here staring off into space as he replayed some of the conversations with Stark. Sitting there and smiling, and the sight had to be ridiculous. He tried to maintain that smile, if only for the sake of appearances, but it came off forced when directed at Steve.

If Steve noticed the change, he didn’t comment. Instead, he sat down across from James and added cheerfully, “It’s good to see you smiling again.”

“Yeah, just— slept better, I guess,” James lied with little remorse. When the truth amounted to ‘I’ve been talking to Tony Stark for two weeks and he’s kind and funny and charming and I look forward to every conversation’, some things were better kept to himself.

Steve wasn’t privy to those private thoughts. All he did was smile brightly at James and clap him on the shoulder, oblivious to the way James grit his teeth at the overly enthusiastic and none too gentle touch.

“See, I told you, you just needed to get some sleep and everything would get better.”

“I’m not really better, Steve. I still have the headaches.”

Steve’s smile dimmed as he faltered. “Well, hmm… 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, keeping his voice low. He didn’t need a doctor, he knew it was her. His headaches eased as soon as he was away from the apartment, then came back with a vengeance when she was near again. 

Didn’t take a genius to figure that one out, but Steve gave him a look as if his theory amounted to nonsense. “Buck, no, you have to stop accusing her—”

“I’m not saying—” He grit his teeth again. “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 and stood up, unable to sit still anymore. Same shit, different day. They had this conversation a dozen times and it always ended up 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 had to wonder who else had challenged this trust before. He would’ve bet every dollar he had left that it was Stark.

“She saved my life more times than I can count, she 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. So why aren’t you trusting me?”

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 stalked 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 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. He wanted to get out of here, go for another walk, but it was raining now and he didn’t have enough willpower to deal with being soaked to the bone.

Instead, he reached into his jacket. The phone was a familiar weight in his hand, its smooth surfaces soothing against his fingertips as they traced the curved lines. It was midday, but he knew Stark had just finished another long night in the lab and was deep into his well-deserved sleep, so James didn’t want to wake him.

Maybe reading through the old messages would help bring back some of that earlier good mood.

James doubted it, but it was worth a try.

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 class field trip to the Smithsonian.

Did you know someone robbed the Captain America exhibit? A bunch of stuff is gone. Pictures mostly, one of the uniforms. I should really upgrade their security.

But anyways, have you seen it?

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

Did it? 

Barely. I remember facts and figures, faces and people, but everything is detached. 

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

Does it feel 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 electricity would go out. I know she did, but the memory is cold.

Empty? Hollow?

I’m not making any sense.

No, you are. At least, I think. As much as anything could make sense in our crazy lives. I’m sorry, I was just curious. It must be tough with Steve then? To 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…

James couldn’t get the damn image out of his head and for once, he would’ve preferred his own nightmares to this. 

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 straight to hell when she said you deserved it. Steve ended up getting angry with me. Go figure.

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

It was brave of you. 

Barton was running his mouth about you until I threatened him. That knife idea did come in handy after all. I don’t understand what the hell is his problem, but this isn’t even new.

Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s because you’re still a hero and he’s not.

The phone hadn’t buzzed all day.

It’s been over forty eight hours. Please be okay.

Shit, shit, I’m so sorry, I’m fine!

My comms went out, it took forever to get me out of the rubble, and then whoops, my bad, got a mild concussion, I was out like a light, plus they pumped me full of the good drugs. 

Thank god you’re okay.

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

If you’re dead, I got no one else to explain the 21 st 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 and the aforementioned knock to the head. I’m sore, cranky and on bedrest, but otherwise, I’m a-okay.

Also Brucie Bear won’t stop fussing.

Tell Banner to keep up the good work. Bedrest is good. Keeps you still long enough to finally explain all that Star Trecks and Star Wars nonsense to me.

Well then, strap in, Barnes, because I am loopy from painkillers, stuck in this damn bed, and you’re about to get educated.

About damn time.

James closed his eyes and pressed the edge of the phone to his lips, giving himself a moment to stop his hand from shaking, to let the relief settle deep into his bones.

Idiot superheroes making me worried sick, he thought, the reprimand laced with surprising affection. He didn’t know he had the capacity to worry like this anymore, to feel the absence of someone so sharply.

Before he lost his courage, James typed the only thing on his mind.

I really am glad you’re okay.

“Tony, stop smiling at that phone like an idiot.”

Tony ignored that, typing away his reply, and he didn’t need to see Rhodey to know the man was rolling his eyes. Tony could feel that in his bones. 

“Just give me a minute, Gumdrop.”

The morning was a beautiful, sunny exception to an otherwise rainy summer, the perfect Saturday for a fancy brunch out with his two best friends. There were even birds chirping away somewhere and the gentle scent of blooming flowers wafted up onto their private balcony.

“Who are you even talking to? Everyone you know is at this table.” 

This time Tony glanced up to see Rhodey’s unapologetic grin that held until the man took a generous bite of his rosemary scone.

“I have other friends, you know.”

Pepper speared a piece of cured salmon onto her fork, hummed in satisfaction as she chewed, then said, “Jim, be nice. I like seeing Tony smile.”

“I am nice. Tony, just put that phone away, you’re on a date with me and Pep right now.”

Tony did put his phone away—not because he was listening to Rhodey, but only because he was done replying to Barnes—and took the time to enjoy a taste of his own perfectly crafted Eggs Benedict. Rhodey was shaking his head, pretending to be exasperated, but his eyes, which were warm and playful, gave him away, and Pepper looked entirely too amused with their antics. 

More than the sunshine and the birds and the flowers, the sight of his two best friends filled Tony with joy. It reminded him how much he loved these two, how important they were to him. He hated himself too, just a little bit, because it took the whole “Civil War” fiasco and Siberia to remember just how much he appreciated Pepper and Rhodey. They’ve stuck with him through thick and thin.

He needed to buy them presents. Right now, in fact, except that would require picking up his phone again, and the phone had to wait. His back-and-forth joking with Barnes, who was having one of his better days, that could wait until the end of brunch too.

“So…” Pepper tapped her perfectly manicured nails against her flute of mimosa and her smiled turned wicked, “are you gonna tell us who you were texting with, Tony? 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.”

“You’re dopey,” Tony muttered his petulant, uncreative comeback. “Honestly, I don’t even know why I go on these lunches with you two. I take you out, I treat you well, pay for your meals, and all you 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? Do you want me to pay next time? I think I can scrape together a few dollars.”

“Sarcasm, Miss Potts, is a good look on you.”

“Everything is a good look on me, Tony. Now, come on, tell us. Is there someone new in your life? Someone interesting we should know about?”

Oh, you have no idea.

“Just a new friend, that’s all,” Tony answered cryptically, then winked at Pepper to make her laugh, because he loved hearing it, that same sweet laugh from before things got so heavy and tense between them. Rhodey opened his mouth, probably to deliver a comment on Tony’s questionable definition of ‘friends’, but then the waiter returned with their main courses and the topic was quickly forgotten in favor of more delicious food.

All the better because Tony wasn’t sure how he could explain that he’d been talking to the Winter Soldier for almost a month now.

And dopily smiling about it, apparently. Good god, he needed to get his face under control.

Tony 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?


Sorry, just needed a minute. Not easy to type with one hand.

Steve tackled me, stopped me from hurting anyone.

You know that’s not what I meant. 

This was deliberate, I know it.

Nobody wants to hear it.

Barton was yelling, Steve laid into me, said he’s disappointed.

Said I’m too eager for a fight. Even Wilson didn’t argue with him this time.

I’m so damn tired. I’m always in pain, I can’t sleep. 

I just need a damn break.

Shit, I’m sorry.

Not your problem. 


A minute passed, then another, but there was no answer. James curled in on himself and hid his face in his knees, embarrassed and hurt and willing himself not to cry like a damn child. He was outside, up on the roof of the apartment building, and he was only alone because Steve was too busy calming down Maximoff to follow him.

He was thankful for the solitude. It 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 knew that now. 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 sabotage worked like a damn charm too. Her hand ignited with magic and James just lost it, he 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 startled him and with a trembling hand, he hurried to turn it back on.

You want to grab some breakfast right now?

James reread the message just to make sure his eyes weren’t tricking him.

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, 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 when the choice was between staying here or seeing Stark?

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, away from prying eyes and ears. The owners were two long-time friends who met Tony when his twenty-something self 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 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 was ready to 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 the occasional pedestrian or five as they hurried down the rapidly darkening street. 

How the hell did he end up here? He still hadn’t figured that 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 up Tony’s mind like a lightbulb. That idea of revenge, it sounded so tempting, so delicious, and Tony had never been particularly disciplined in these matters. So he let himself get lost in the heady fantasy of a world where Rogers was left distraught and alone and broken, all because he lost the one person he held most dear, and that loss would be made all the more painful, all the more sweet, when that one dear person became Tony’s. It’d serve Rogers right, to lose Barnes like that, to Tony of all people and—

And of course, that indulgent fantasy lasted all of two seconds before Tony’s 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 would do.

It was something Obie would have done and Tony hated himself for it. 

So he pushed the image away, locked it down someplace dark with the rest of his 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. 

He convinced himself it wouldn’t hurt to keep tabs on the Winter Soldier anyways and Tony harbored no vengeful thoughts against this man anymore, not after some soul-searching and a little therapy, so if nothing else, maybe the letter and the phone would make one 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, he was betting on the super soldier taking one look at the ‘Stark’ on the phone, and smashing it to a million pieces just out of sheer paranoia. 

Less likely, but still possible, was Barnes sharing the existence of said phone with Rogers and that would’ve been plain annoying because then it’d be Tony smashing cell phones to pieces instead.

To Tony’s surprise—and a delight he tried not to over-examine—none of those things came to pass. Instead, a reply from Barnes turned into a conversation which turned into several conversations, and before Tony knew what had happened, a whole month flew by. A month which Tony had 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 the 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, and 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 Barnes 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… well, that part of his fantasy 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 didn’t play mind games and hadn’t tried to get something out of Tony. In fact, he hadn’t asked for a damn thing, despite having ample need, 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’ time 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 couldn’t hurt him.

All in all, Tony’s ‘vengeance’ amounted to sending off a phone to a former enemy, joking about it with his AI co-conspirator—Friday filed the requisition form under a secure folder appropriately titled ’Project Dark Side’—and hours of conversations with a man who was nothing like Tony expected, but someone Tony actually liked, and now here Tony was, sitting in a familiar booth and waiting to see Barnes for the first time since Siberia with an unexpected 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 himself. 

Step two in luring a Winter Soldier over to the ‘dark side’, he dictated to himself and made a note to tell Friday that the plan was evolving, be less of a dick about the man’s trauma than Rogers. 

With his apparent propensity for dramatic timing, Barnes chose that moment to appear, shuffling past a cheery waitress who pointed out the booth to him. Sharp eyes zeroed in on Tony 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, but he did give Tony a nod that turned into a scrutinizing tilt of his head as he sat down. 

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.

Rhodey was right, 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 Tony recognized from the footage of the press conference; it hung like a curtain around his face and a beard 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 man didn’t even resemble the infamous Winter Soldier.

Barnes was obviously wary, hunched in on himself, 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 someone 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 due to 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, genuinely impressed, but not at all surprised. “Security is a must, given who I am, but 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 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— it’s 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—” Barnes grimaced and pressed his lips together, then looked up at Tony with eyes that were filled sudden panic and 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, the visible discomfort, all of it making his own stomach clench. Tony wondered how many times someone else had put Barnes on the spot when he struggled to find the right words. God, Tony could just imagine Rogers’ patented face of disapproval, all because this man 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 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, hoping to convey sincerity and understanding, then kept talking, his voice soothing, the sort of tone one used with small, frightened animals. “I’m serious, there’s 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 anyone’s patronizing, which was fair, but Tony was actually being sincere right now.

“Listen, I spend half of my days down in the workshop and I don’t stop talking just because the bots are my only company—Dum-E and U, I told you about them—and guess what? They only respond 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?”

The chuckle escaped him before Tony could stop it. “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 ghost of a smile, but it may as well have been an outright grin for all it did to soften the lines of tensions on the man’s face—hell, in 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 by the fact that it was Tony’s company Barnes was grateful for, 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?”

Barnes gave a noncommittal shrug. “Head’s better.”

“Still hurts though?”

A tight nod this time, accompanied by a pained grimace, but it was gone a second later when 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 Tony’s fault, wasn’t it?

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 there was and frankly it was a miracle they weren’t both 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 down 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 and pay attention to the man himself. 

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. The 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.

It turned out Tony wasn’t worth the effort, but no matter how much that realization hurt a year ago, it didn’t matter anymore. That memory 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. “Shoulder and wiring 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. “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 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 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 and watching its effect on Barnes was like watching the sun shining 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 was 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. “Those fucking bastards took that away from me…”

Barnes appeared unaware that his last words were spoken in Russian and Tony only hesitated for a moment before replying with his own, somewhat rusty,“Then it’s time to take it all back.”

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, especially since this next part was anything but amusing. “So you say those Hydra assholes took everything away from you? Take it back, Barnes. Those cocksuckers, they’re all dead and you’re still here, you’re alive and well— okay, 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, then ran a frustrated hand through his hair and visibly deflated. “That sounds great when you say it, but— but I feel like a damn fool. I can’t even pick out a meal without having my hand held.”

Tony could sympathize with the frustration, knowing from personal experience that sometimes the smallest obstacles created the biggest challenges.

Saving the world? Piece of cake. Convincing yourself to just get in the damn shower when the mere sight of water made me want to throw up? Not always so simple.

“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 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.”

“But 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 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 and some of us happen to love it. 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. 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 that 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 did so after their food arrived. He started with simple topics, talking about the diner and its owners, recounting the story of how he met the two women. Then Tony chattered on about New York, explaining to Barnes how the city had 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 away from him 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 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 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; many 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… it 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 be taking over. 

Barnes was still nibbling on fruit and taking slow sips of his second cappuccino when Tony finished exchanging friendly goodbyes 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 bottom 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.”


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

Still, there was a sadness lingering there 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. “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 this one only lasterda moment as Barnes seemed to have ran out of apologies, and 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 Barnes not being anyone’s boyfriend 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. “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. “Where do people even 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 came up to knead his chin. “Hmm… We already tried ‘Manchurian Candidate’, but I’m not feeling that one anymore. 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 giddy. “Sugar plum? Frosty the Snowman? Snowflake?”



“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 actual 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 the playful banter and the reassurances. He wasn’t even sure why he offered the use of his first name. A part of him whispered that he should be cautious, that he needed to protect himself because this was how it always started (only to end in disaster and heartbreak), 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. Those daily text conversations and 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 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 reasons 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 name.

That look was both too much and not enough and 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.

The coffee and the remaining food disappeared relatively quickly though and then Tony was exchanging his goodbyes with the wait staff, telling them they were doing holy work by serving cranky bastards like him at one o’clock at night; he 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 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. 

“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. 

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 really should 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 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, but Tony supposed getting away from that apartment would’ve given him a new lease on life too. He hated 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. You don’t have to go through this alone.”

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

Tony didn’t believe that, but in the end, 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 chortled, unable to keep a straight face at the deadpan delivery, Barnes’ right hand left the confines of its pocket. At first, it hesitated, hanging in the air, but Barnes 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 his way as he walked past them, bluntly rejected Steve’s attempt to follow him with a terse “Need some fresh air, alone,” and left the apartment as fast as his legs could carry 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 more leisurely pace than last week. 

Admittedly, last week hadn’t been his greatest hour. The first time he made this trek, his focus had been directed inward save for the minuscule part of his brain forcing one foot in front of the other; his mind was stuck replaying the incident with the witch over and over on a damn loop. He was anxious, shaking, and his distress eased marginally as the distance between himself and the threat grew.

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 voice. 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 some time to figure out exactly why he was already so comfortable in this man’s presence. 

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 knew. 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 to 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 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 another block away and James’ stomach filled with butterflies when he spotted it in the distance. 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. Excitement was such a welcome change to the usual anxiety.

He stepped into the diner and headed straight for the now familiar booth hidden away in its private corner. Just like last time, Tony already beat him here, 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, he reminded himself, 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 and Tony’s face lit up with a pleased grin that absolutely did not make James feel all sorts of warm and fuzzy things. “I mean, hi, James.

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

That initial appreciative gaze dimmed however and Tony’s expression turned into something almost contrite. “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 had been 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. “It 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 beneath all that beard after all.” 

Tony’s energy was infectious and James couldn’t help but smile too, even if his own was more reserved, but that didn’t seem to faze 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 moment 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 when Tony stopped mid-word and tilted his head to regard James, with neither annoyance nor discomfort nor smugness. He almost looked… shy.

If it truly 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 easily again, even with James’ subpar responses, and it served as a stark contrast to the stilted, frustrating attempts back home. Another day, another conversation, all evidence that made clear how effortless these things were with Tony. 

James supposed having no real expectations to live up to helped significantly. 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 rather than fear 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 that warmth came from the summer sun streaming through the windows or from Tony’s smile, he couldn’t tell.

Maybe it was a mistake, getting 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 seated 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 these two were too preoccupied to pay much attention to him. The last thing he needed was to get caught up in their anger.

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 recently-earned cash, and frankly he was sick of sneaking around in the place he was meant to call home.

Steve did notice him and offered a smile, one more subdued than usual, but by the time James was reaching for the plum on the counter, Steve’s attention was elsewhere and 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. “No, we didn’t.” 

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. “Maybe we got a rat among us.”

With his back turned, James let his lips twitch in amusement. For once, Barton wasn’t 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 that frustration into his hands, before scrubbing one hand through his blond locks. “All I need is a moment with him. Just one moment alone. I know that if I talk to him without the rest of his team there— without Potts 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 plum 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 before 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 squinted at him with suspicion. “You know, 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. “Go go hell.”

The Russian twisted Steve’s expression into something sour. “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 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 place the plum 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. It was heavenly.

He had no idea what material this was or where Tony got it, but James had a hard time caring about the details. Comfort hadn’t been a relevant factor in his life for a long time and now even a sliver of it was divine.

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

The brand new combat boots sat neatly underneath the bed and those, well, they were quite impressive too. 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 his back pocket, then plopped back down and propped himself up on one of the pillows (which were now essentially made of 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 Tony 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 pear-shaped.

Neither did he particularly mind being Tony’s ‘dirty little secret’ for however long that would last, but it didn’t stop his mind from wondering— fantasizing— about a life where he was a real part of Tony’s life. 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 at all 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—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 photographic evidence of just how much James loved his new sneakers. 

Chapter Text

“Okay, this is the fourth Saturday you’ve spent getting dolled up and taking off to god knows where, Tones. Was Pepper right? Is there a mysterious beau we don’t know about?”

“Like I’d tell you, Platypus.” Tony didn’t break the eye contact with his own image in the mirror as he mussed his hair this way and that, trying to figure out which way looked better. “Plus, this is not me getting ‘dolled up’.”

Okay, maybe it was. A little bit. But he couldn’t let James put him to shame! 

That man inevitably would, especially now that he was taking better care of himself and that haunted look in his eyes wasn’t quite as pronounced, but just because James was unfairly good-looking didn’t mean Tony couldn’t give him a run for his money.

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

Tony finally turned around. 

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

As expected, Rhodey huffed good-naturedly. He was watching Tony from his spot against the doorframe, on the threshold between Tony’s study and the bedroom; his posture was casual, no visible tension in the shoulders, no strain in the lines of his face, and he seemed at ease with the braces worn over his jeans. 

The sight flooded Tony with renewed relief and so much affection he could barely breathe, but he embraced every bit of it. He would’ve given Rhodey his own legs if he could, but since that wasn’t an option, this—the best doctors in the world, every bit of Tony’s ingenuity, and Rhodey’s remarkable strength and willpower when faced with this injury—this had to be enough.

“Yes, it’s jealousy,” Rhodey said, unaware of Tony’s momentary lapse into sentimentality, “you caught me. If only I were as handsome as your scrawny ass.”

“Excuse you,” Tony parried back, pushing the maudlin thoughts out of his head, “look at this!” He flexed a bicep and tapped it to make a point, but of course, the gesture was wasted on his best friend. “That is not scrawny!”

“It was when I met you. First impressions, Tones, they stick with you forever.” Rhodey’s eyes glinted with mirth. “To me, you’ll always be a scrawny, bratty fifteen year old with stick-skinny arms who couldn’t handle his liquor.”

Tony stuck his tongue out, essentially proving Rhodey’s point, but it gave him unmitigated joy to see Rhodey’s face light up with delight, so in the end, it was worth it.

“Seriously, you gonna tell me where you spend every Saturday?”

Tony had actually thought about telling Rhodey, he really, really did, but he just couldn’t find the right opportunity to come out and say “Hey, so, the Winter Soldier and I have been talking every day for the past two months and going out on not-dates every week. Turns out, James Barnes is a pretty decent guy, phenomenal actually, and he just gets me, you know? Likes to spend time with me, doesn’t find me too annoying, has been keeping Rogers off my tail, and he has the prettiest pair of blue eyes, oh my god, and also those broad shoulders aren’t so bad either and his voice is like whiskey and—”

Yeah. He needed to find a better way to deliver that message. For Rhodey’s sake. 

And until such a time, Tony would just have to keep his ‘evil plan’ under wraps. It wasn’t hurting anyone, no state secrets were being given away, so no harm in keeping it close to heart for a while longer until Tony figured out the right way to deliver the news. 

So in the meantime, Tony just needed to deflect.

“Hey, isn’t a man allowed to have some secrets in his life? You don’t tell me everything.”

“You don’t have to share everything, you know that, so don’t fuss, and I do know how important it is to have some privacy in our crazy ass lives. But I worry about you, that’s all.”

“Nothing to worry about, I promise. Just a new project I’m working on.”

Rhodey’s eyes narrowed. “Is it going to explode, piss someone off, or get us into legal trouble?”

Tony tapped a finger against his lips, throwing in a pensive hum for added effect. “No… Probably… And I don’t think so?”

Rhodey scrutinized him, obviously unsatisfied with Tony’s non-answer, but then he heaved a great, big sigh and threw his hands up in mock surrender. “Fine, fine, fine. If you don’t want to tell me, I accept that. Honestly, if nothing explodes like you promise, that’s better than your usual track record. Just stay out of trouble, okay?” Rhodey turned on his heel, but then threw over his shoulder as he walked away, “And enjoy your date!”

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

A date with the Winter Soldier. 


It wasn’t, not really, but did he want it to be a date? Sure, James was handsome, that was a well-established fact, something Tony had known since he was a teenager, and sure, they actually got along like a house on fire, and maybe Tony did get a bad case of the butterflies every time James’ lips quirked into a smile or those blue eyes lingered on Tony for longer than was strictly appropriate. Tony haven’t had to deal with butterflies since the early days with Pepper, when everything was still new and exciting and unburdened, so the fact that it was happening here… And the fact that James was sort of checking him out sometimes…

No, bad Tony, bad. 

James was still barely above ‘functional’ and the last thing he needed was Tony’s ill-advised crush. 

Be a Rhodey, not a Rogers.

A sensible motto to live by. Tony glanced at his reflection one more time, decided it was as good as it was going to get, and headed out to the flight deck to pick out a suit he could fly to the diner.

This meal fell into the same familiar pattern as all the rest as they picked out their food and then consumed it eagerly over free-flowing conversation and friendly banter. Today’s discussion consisted of Tony struggling to explain the general state of pop culture, which devolved into explaining the broad-stroke differences between the generations. James chimed in with his own observations and looked far too entertained when Tony complained about his ‘Gen-Z brats’ and their often nonsensical approach to humor. 

It would be silly to deny it, but these stolen moments with James had become the highlight of Tony’s week. That didn’t mean the rest of his week sucked, per se, but there was something so warm and comfortable and right about sitting in this tiny booth, indulging in good food, stealing said food from each other’s plates, laughing over James’ deadpan commentary, having longer, more serious discussions where James’ memories of decades long gone combined beautifully with Tony’s more futuristic vision of the world. 

Their feet sat nestled next to each other under the table, occasionally brushing up against an ankle and every time it happened, Tony had to suppress the desire for more. He always wanted more—more, more, more—always so damn greedy in life, but he’d never take what wasn’t freely given, not here, not from James who had everything taken away once already.

This was enough, he told himself, but it was such a damn lie. It didn’t feel like enough, not when they sat together and talked, and not when they parted ways. Tony just stood there, watching James’ retreating form blend into the crowd; he stood, watched, and hated that he kept longing for more.

Are you up for something different today? I love the diner, but I think we need some fresh air. We shouldn’t waste this amazing weather. With our luck, the damn rain will start back up tomorrow. How does Central Park sound? 

It sounds great, but it’ll be packed with people. Someone’s bound to recognize us.

I got it covered. Trust me?

James chose a less-populated area of the park to meet Tony, but for once, he arrived first and had been waiting for a good ten minutes; thankfully, between the beautiful sunny day and the lively scenery, the wait was hardly unpleasant. He scanned the park again, out of habit, his spot underneath one of the tall maple trees giving him plenty of shade and an excellent vantage point, and he noticed nothing out of the ordinary, right until his gaze panned left and he spotted a man heading his way. James narrowed his eyes and when that stranger stopped a few feet away instead of walking past him, the rest of his body followed suit, turning into a tightly-wound coil of tension. Something was definitely off about the guy; the face especially kept ringing James’ internal alarms. 

“Can I help you?” 

The stranger just grinned, unaffected by the threatening tone. 

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

James blinked when he heard the familiar voice and the tension bled out even as he was trying to figure out whether his eyes were playing tricks on him. “Tony?” 

If the voice hadn’t given it away, that eyebrow waggle would have. The man—Tony—glanced around, then after making sure no one was close enough to pay them any mind, he tapped his right temple with his pointer finger. The skin of his face shimmered a translucent blue, revealing the same familiar—gorgeous—features James had been seeing in his dreams more and more often these days. 

“Pretty cool, huh? An upgraded version of the Photostatic Veil SHIELD loved so much. The SHIELD one was decent, but you don’t have to peel this one off and it itches a lot less, let me tell you. I nicked two of them from inventory for our stroll in the park.” 

Tony thrust his hand out and in his palm was a small metallic disk, about the size of a button; it was identical to the one attached to Tony’s temple, now that James knew where to look beneath the curls of brown hair.

He obediently took the device, but hesitated to put it on. Having foreign tech attached to his head, that hadn’t gone well for him in the past. His gut clenched, a reaction rooted in fear, beaten into him over the decades, but he took a deep breath and reminded himself that this wasn’t a Hydra lab. He was in Central Park, for god’s sake. With Tony.

Tony, whose easy smile slid right off.

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

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

Wide brown eyes blinked. “Are— are you sure? You don’t have to—”

“Tony, I’m fine, it’s okay,” James said and made sure his voice didn’t give away his body’s initial reaction. The fight-or-flight response was natural, expected even, but he would not let Hydra define what he could and couldn’t do anymore. What he wanted to do today was have a wonderful time with Tony at the park, free from distractions and interruptions, and this Veil was an elegant solution to their problem. Yes, one could argue that this sort of blind trust was risky, but so far, trusting Tony had paid off tenfold and while James was no gambling man, if he were, Tony would’ve been his bet every time. 

“Can you show me how it works?”

Tony didn’t miss a step, quickly getting over his surprise. He moved closer, close enough to be in James’ space and now James had to ignore another perfectly natural reaction as his body flooded with a flash of desire for Tony to step even closer.

Tony reached out and tapped a sequence against the disk. There was a shimmer of light in James’ periphery, like sun rays reflecting off water, and with it came a brush of air, humid and sticky, against his skin. 

“Did you at least make me look handsome?” he asked, his voice dropping an octave, and he watched as Tony let out an amused huff.

“Sorry, gorgeous,” he said, looking up at James, still so close that James could count the lashes framing those expressive eyes, “but no matter what I program into this thing, it’ll be a significant downgrade, so that’s, uh, I mean—” 

Tony stopped, that big brain of his catching up with what he just said—something that wasn’t helpful at all at fending off James’ unruly craving for more contact— and he cleared his throat, took a step back, and focused on the device instead of James. 

“The Veil, it, uh, it works by running an algorithm and modifying your features to look generic, for the lack of a better word. A composite of thousands upon thousands of faces produces an average. Nothing remarkable or memorable, neither good nor bad, nothing that would catch someone’s eye when you’re walking down the street.”

“You caught my eye when you walked up.”

Tony’s laughter was a beautiful sound and it soothed the remaining discomfort from that earlier spike of fear. James was safe with Tony and he was glad his instincts were finally catching up with the program.

“That’s because I was being a creep, James. Now come on, I’m starving. We should hit up every food cart that looks even remotely interesting.” He tapped a pattern against his own temple and to James’ dismay, there was that shimmer of blue again, erasing Tony’s much more appealing features. The stranger from before was back and Tony was right - there was nothing remarkable about that face. James already missed all the details that were uniquely Tony, ones that his mind catalogued over and over every time they saw each other.

“I know it’s weird looking at a stranger, it takes some time getting used to, but it was the only way for us to enjoy a day out without drawing any attention.”

“It’s alright. I’d really rather look at you, Tony, but the anonymity will be a welcome break.”

The hint of surprise at the compliment was beautiful too and James realized that even though the color of Tony’s eyes changed to a dull green, they were no less expressive and no less warm.

They took off down the path, heading towards the areas of the park bustling with activity and it didn’t take long for Tony to resume a conversation they were having over text messages and with great detail—and with several expletives—he explained to James what his bots did to the workshop while Tony was away in D.C. a few nights ago.

Made bold by the present—the anonymity, the sunshine caressing his skin, the man walking next to him—James let himself smile, filled to the brim with something that may have even been happiness, if he could believe such a whimsical thing. 

He supposed this sunny day, although amazing, still fell short of perfection. After all, he couldn’t do the one thing he wanted, which was to reach out and hold Tony’s hand in his own.

They were both stuffed with every food imaginable and a few Tony didn’t even know he could imagine when they unceremoniously collapsed onto the grass, choosing a spot for themselves underneath the cool shade of the towering trees. There was also some conveniently positioned shrubbery around to keep them out of sight of all but the nosiest tourists, but thankfully, there was a good chance no one come looking for Iron Man and the Winter Soldier in the bushes of Central Park, so they were sufficiently safe from discovery.

“Alright, I think we can be ourselves for a while,” Tony said, then tapped the Veil and released a sigh of relief when the invisible mask lifted, exposing his skin to the fresh air. “Friday, can you keep an eye out for us, please? Put out a disruption field and just give me a heads up if anyone gets too close.”

James was shimmering back to his own gorgeous self when Friday responded, “Will do, Boss. Also, hello, Mr. Barnes, so sorry I haven’t had the chance to say a proper hello yet.”

The bemused expression on James’ face was kinda adorable. “Um, hello, Ms. Friday?” 

“She kinda has a soft spot for you,” Tony added sotto voce, “she’s been eager to introduce herself.”

“Soft spot for me?” Now James looked even more confused. “Why would she like me?”

“Oh, that’s very simple, Mr. Barnes! You see, I love seeing Boss smile—”

“Um, Fri, ix-nay on the—”

“—And your messages never fail to make him smile. He is flushed with endorphins every time you—”

“That’s quite enough of that, Fri. Go back to being the look-out, please.”

His AI gave him an unrepentant chirp of affirmation and then went silent. When Tony chanced a glance at James, the man was sitting there, smiling

There was just a whole lot of smiling going these past few months, wasn’t there?

“She’s a huge sap, please ignore her.”

“She seems sweet. I like her.”

“Hmm, sweet, yeah. That’s what she’d like you to believe.” Tony cleared his throat, then shifted around so he was sitting cross-legged next to James, who was reclining against the thick trunk of the tree, one leg stretched out in front of him and the other bent at the knee. “Anyways, did you enjoy our extended lunch in the park today?”

“Loved it. It’s been a long time since I could just… be. Like a normal, everyday person, you know?”

“Sure do.” Tony tapped his temple, just to the side of the Veil. “That’s why I don’t let myself indulge in this little beauty for too long. Too tempting to just be a nameless face in a crowd.”

“Being Tony Stark can’t be that bad.”

“It has its perks. Just wish— just wish it weren’t always so complicated.” 

James’ look of sympathy wasn’t surprising. Of course he understood what Tony meant about the temptation of anonymity. The Winter Soldier was intimately familiar with a life of complications and now a life of public scrutiny to boot.

They were just close enough that Tony’s knee was pressed against James’ thigh and Tony wondered what it would be like if he gave into the crazy desire to get just a little bit closer, curl up against James, embrace the satiated warmth filling him up, and just let himself rest

James broke the spell of Tony’s runaway thoughts when he leaned over to grab the backpack he carried with him. While he rummaged inside looking for something, Tony squeezed his eyes shut, counted backwards in Russian, and let out a breath. Goddamn tempting super soldiers and their cozy-looking—

“I made you something.” 

Tony opened his eyes to the sight of James looking ten kinds of shy and holding out a plastic Tupperware container. 

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

“What did you—” Tony didn’t finish when he opened the thing to find it filled to the brim with cookies. “Did— did you bake for me?”

“Yes— I mean, you’ve done so much, and I just wanted to—” James cringed as he stumbled over the words. “Sorry, I know it’s silly. A few cookies don’t compare to everything you’ve given me—”

“James, this is awesome,” Tony grinned, first at James, then at the treats. “I’m serious. I can’t remember the last time someone baked for me. Ooh, and I get two flavors? We got chocolate chip here and…” He took a different cookie out to examine it. “Okay, level with me, did you use your super special assassin powers to figure out that white chocolate macadamia are my favorite ones?”

“No, they just sounded really good when I read the recipe. Not sure I ever had a macadamia nut before making these though. Pricey bastards too.”

Tony hummed as he broke the cookie in half and handed one piece to James who took it without complaint. “Here, I know you like your fresh fruit better, but you have to share this one with me.” Tony bit into his own and good lord, someone needed to add baking to this former assassin extraordinaire’s resume. Tony didn’t manage to stop the frankly indecent moan that escaped him, but really, that was entirely James’ fault for making something so delicious.

“Oh my god, this is so good,” he said around a mouthful, to the sound of James’ quiet chuckle, “you have a gift and now I’m gonna want these every week.” He took another bite. “I’m eating every one of these. The Iron Man suit is gonna feel a little tight afterwards, but I don’t even care. I’ll build a bigger suit. Thank you, James.”

“It’s nothing. Baking’s all about precision, I’m good at that sort of thing. Felt silly making them though. I’m sure you could buy a whole bakery if you wanted to.”

“I can buy a lot of things, but it’s hard to buy someone’s desire to do something like this.” He shoved the rest of the cookie into this mouth, savoring the burst of buttery sweetness, then decided this was as good a time as any to bring up a topic that had been buzzing around his head for a few weeks. “Since we’re exchanging presents and all, I’ve been working on something for you as well—two somethings actually, but—”

“Tony, if it’s something bright red again, I’m going to have a real hard time convincing everyone I just randomly developed a liking for the color.”

“No, no, this is way better than sneakers, although I suppose it could be painted red. But, uh, there are no concrete designs yet, everything’s just in here right now,” Tony tapped his non-Veil-wearing temple, “but long story short, I’ve been thinking about building you a new arm.”

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 erased all traces of the earlier levity and Tony couldn’t tell whether it was anger he was seeing or suspicion or something else entirely. 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 and now unwilling to meet James’ disconcerted gaze, he watched his fingers tap out a nervous staccato against his thigh. “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. “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, but when he looked back at James, any bitter words he might’ve said died in his throat. 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 as pocket cash for necessities. The guy chose to do odd jobs around town instead (there was no shortage of people who needed something heavy lifted), just so he could stop relying on either Tony or Rogers to buy his own food.

So it didn’t make sense for that to change now and for James to say that Tony’s effort weren’t good enough, 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 throw money and gifts at the poor man without ever asking what James wanted. 

No one likes being indebted to you. When will you fucking learn, Tony?

So he took a breath and squared his shoulders, hoping he could find better words to make all of 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 for his own words to come out so bitter. He had to be kind, even when they were both made out of too many sharp edges, because this was James and it killed Tony to see him upset. “But the thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that I still love doing things for the people I care about.” 

James’ distress turned into confusion, but Tony didn’t bother taking the words back. He did care about James. 

He continued, channeling his nervous energy into his hands, and began picking at the innocent blades of grass around him. “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. The world around them, humming with life and blissfully ignorant to the emotional tension weighing them down, washed over them as neither one said anything else, and Tony kept picking at the grass morosely, hating that their fun day had gone so pear-shaped so quickly.

He stilled when James’ hand reached out to gently pluck the abused blades of grass out of Tony’s fingers and skimmed over the now open palm.

Tony looked up and found wary eyes searching his own, perhaps for a hint of deception, platitudes, or something else altogether. Tony forced himself to hold that piercing gaze. He felt exposed, leaving himself vulnerable to judgment, to rejection, but this was more important than that. He didn’t know why, or maybe he did and he was still in complete denial, 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.

“I don’t deserve this,” James finally whispered, crestfallen, and he looked away first, his eyes dropping back to their hands. “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.”


“Steve and the others. The way they talk about you, it’s… entitled. As if you owe them something. Please don’t think I expect this.” James’ fingers kept up their careful brushes over Tony’s, each touch sending a shiver through Tony’s body. “When I wrote to you, I only wanted to make things right. I didn’t want… things or money or anything like that. I just—” James stopped and when he tried again, his words were deliberate and steadfast. “None of that is worth it if I risk losing this. 

James’ fingers curled lightly around Tony’s, which curled into the touch automatically, and Tony wasn’t sure he could speak, not past the lump in his throat, and not when James’ thumb began stroking the inside of Tony’s wrist.

For a brief instance, all he could think about was that James’ hand was so 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 wobble, “I understand, but I promise it doesn’t come with any 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 revelation back down, almost choked on it as the vulnerability suddenly became too much and overwhelmed him so badly he wanted to flee. His hand though, it was still linked together with James’ and Tony couldn’t find it in him to break the connection. He didn’t want to give up that warmth; no, on the contrary, he wanted to keep it all to himself. More, more, more, his mind chanted and if James only knew how wrong he was about Tony, if he only knew the extent of Tony’s selfishness.

God, emotionally charged exchanges were exhausting. 

“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.” He let the words settle, then he smiled with no small amount of self-deprecation. “Now, the real problem is that I apparently suck at big gestures. 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 until moving in 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—”


James’ hand gave a light squeeze, which proved effective at stopping Tony’s nervous ramblings. Tony swallowed, 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 it’s really nothing to stress about, especially not right now.”

James nodded, then after considering his words, he quietly asked, “So how big is ‘gigantic’ exactly? You know, as far as bunnies go?” 

The teasing notes had Tony grinning up at him. “It was like two stories high,” he played along, gesturing with his free hand above his head, “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 now, and the tension running through James’ body was beginning to melt away too. 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 hints of hurt in those words had Tony reaching out without thinking to rest his hand on James’ calf and he gave it a quick rub and a squeeze before saying, “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’.”

That seemed to have worked and James had the 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 the words at his own pace. In the meantime, he kept up the soothing strokes against the jean-clad calf, barely able to convince himself that the touch was strictly for James’ benefit. After all, just as Tony did earlier, James needed comfort, a point of contact to ground him. So what if Tony also felt like he never wanted to let go?

Unlike Tony, James channeled his own nervous energy by worrying at his bottom lip, which wasn’t helping Tony’s situation either. Seeing that soft, plump thing get redder and more bruised 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 said and Tony was heartened by the steady voice. “M’wondering if I’m gonna need to panic about that second one too.”

“No, 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 Sorcerer Supreme 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, so it’s not weird. The wizards 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 when he was looking for Rogers—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 created some issues we didn’t foresee, so we’ve been working through them. And by ‘working’, I mean literally bending the laws of physics, just 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, umm, and… Yeah, that’s about the gist of it.” 

He cleared his throat. Jesus, he needed to stop rambling, again, so to move things along, Tony popped open the locket and presented it to James, whose eyes widened at the sight of the steady blue glow. All Tony could think about however was how well 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, but—”

“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 everything right. Please? I just— I’d rather you move to the other side of the planet to get 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 in James’ eyes or the proximity between them that made his heart skip a beat, but it was skipping all sorts of beats now and Tony found himself woefully out of depth again.

James remained oblivious to Tony’s inner turmoil, but he did sit up, tilting his head down and offering up his neck and that was all the prompting Tony needed to unlock the chain and loop it around James’ neck. With a click, the chain connected, and Tony gave in, just this once, to a tiny portion of his inappropriate desires and smoothed 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, but he pulled away abruptly lest his hand trail down lower. 

However, James was intent on being unhelpful because he caught Tony’s hand and laced their fingers together 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 those long lashes, that tentative smile making the pretty blue eyes shine, it all hit Tony full force all over again and now he was torn between all that earlier emotional turmoil and this brand 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 this second.

“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 appeared completely sincere. “You know I love listening to you.”

It probably said something about Tony that those were the words that did it for him. 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 talent— 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 heading from a mile away, a veritable train wreck in the making, but Tony just couldn’t look away. 

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

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

Chapter Text

James opened his eyes and blinked slowly, needing a moment to realize that it wasn’t pain that woke him, nor blood-curdling nightmares, but rather the rays of early morning sun streaming through the cheap, uneven blinds. 

The revelation wasn’t new, but each new morning like this filled him with a renewed sense of awe. Awe and gratitude and toe-curling satisfaction and 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 for the day ahead. 

Simply because he could, James 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 a conscious thought, his hand reached up to play with the charm around his neck. Already a habit after just one week, it was a soothing weight against his fingertips, representing safety, peace of mind.


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 phantom memories, already less frequent and decidedly less vicious.

The ability to think without pounding pain splitting 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, one simple apology, but he was rewarded for it tenfold.

He couldn’t wait until Saturday and their next secret meeting. Tony had something planned, some fun surprise, and James enjoyed the build-up of anticipation, but he would’ve been perfectly content to spend another day at the park or at the diner. All he wanted was more time with Tony and 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 crept up to the forefront of his mind. 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 claim to Tony Stark, not even in 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—and crafted out of ancient magics and futuristic technology 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 against 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 someone, 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 crowd.

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 sweet, 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. The touches were quintessentially platonic, perfectly innocent, but 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 own attraction was 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 the 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 so he could push down his pajamas and boxers 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 he was eager, 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, just enough to be vulnerable in James’ presence, to let James take care of him. 

James wasn’t surprised by the spike of pleasure that thought brought along. Oh, he would make it all worth Tony’s while, 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 the noises he wanted to make, 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 and hadn’t been for a long, long time.

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 the 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. Maybe he would always crave that, but that sort of depressing self-reflection had no place here in these fantasies. He’d trust Tony not to hurt nor 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 squeezed 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 the rush of endorphins, but eventually his brain kicked back into gear and reminded him that parts of him were now unpleasantly 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 of his illicit fantasies 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 him 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 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 his revived appetite. It wasn’t as if he liked getting by with the bare minimum and good food was one of the few real pleasures in his current 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. He hated walking around barefoot; paranoid instinct dictated that it left him vulnerable. 

Thankfully, Sam was the only one in the kitchen. They exchanged friendly greetings, with Sam kind enough to start up another pot of coffee while James gathered the ingredients for some scrambled eggs with veggies. The peppers and onions were pre-cut, also courtesy of Sam, who chopped up some extras for James while preparing everyone’s dinner last night. Coming from Sam, who didn’t shy away from jokes and teasing on the rare days when they were both in better moods, the gesture didn’t feel like coddling and James liked to think that in another, less complicated life, they would’ve been good friends. 

In this life, their potential friendship was marred by Sam’s loyalty to Steve and James’ mounting desire to leave this place and never look back.

He dumped the veggies into the skillet first, enjoying the sizzle of the onions in the hot oil. He would’ve preferred some fruit and a cup of that fancy tea from the diner, but preferences aside, he could eat just about anything and it wasn’t like him to be picky, so he told himself not to complain. 

By the time the eggs were done too, Wilson excused himself, needing to take off to parts unknown, and James didn’t bother pressing for details, content to enjoy his food without company.

Oh, 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 seemingly vulnerable appearance didn’t fool James, 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 of letting her bully him. He lived here too and had every right to finish his damn breakfast in peace without running scared and hiding away like a child.

So he ignored the raised hairs on the back of his neck, pushed back the fight-or-flight instinct, and remained where he was. He just needed to focus on the positives, like 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 would text Tony and tell him, again, that he was a genius. James supposed Stephen Strange and that Loki guy were partly responsible too, but sue him, he was biased. Even if those two deserved some credit, Tony would always be his favorite genius. 

Unfortunately, Maximoff’s presence did end up killing his burgeoning appetite and the subsequent bites of food tasted like paper. He chewed them mechanically, drowning them in periodic sips of coffee. Just a few more bites, he told himself, and then he could leave, but 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 smile on her lips so saccharine that it crossed over into absurd.

James didn’t let an inkling of fear show on his face, but truth be told, 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, her tone mockingly conversational. “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 any 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 could deal with that; he needed to get the hell out of here. He turned and headed back to his room to grab his wallet. A nice walk around the neighborhood would do him a lot of good and maybe Mrs. Harrison down the street 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 across the apartment and his step faltered before he could even reach the hallway. He hated that the accusation had this much power over him, that some part of him still felt guilty for the choices he was making. After all, he was making everyone—and most importantly Steve—unhappy, wasn’t he? 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. Maximoff was standing now, still at the table, but given the size of the apartment, that was still too damn close. The sickly sweet smile was gone now, replaced by a displeased frown.

The automatic stab of fear lancing 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. There hadn’t been any actual pain and all that happened was the charm growing warm again.

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, it was always pain—but Maximoff’s face twisted into something confused, disbelieving, eyes darting from hand to hand—

And then the pain came, an explosion inside his head, a sharp axe right through James’ chest, heat and knives digging into flesh, but he could barely pay attention to it, overwhelmed by the sea of red flooding him, drowning him.

The red built and built and expanded in a flash of unmitigated power, a silent explosion sending them both flying back. James’ head hit something solid, but he didn’t feel the pain, didn’t feel anything. He couldn’t hear, couldn’t see a damn thing as everything was swallowed up by that sickening red and when it receded, the apartment was gone and he was bombarded with glimpses of another place— another time— and the images, the voices— shouted words and blood— so much blood— all of it too much, too much, please make it stop

“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 acceptable 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 acceptable 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 remain within acceptable 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 electroshock 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 exhibit 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 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 materialized back into place as James gulped for air and desperately tried to blink away the images, but those voices kept echoing in his ears, relentless and cruel, and he could barely pull together 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, 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 by— the Asset is operational— by the damn voices— the Asset is exhibiting severe distress— “you’re Hydra then, always were, you’re doing this—”

“Oh, please spare me the hysterics.” She got up to her feet, using the wall for support when she swayed. “Hydra was always a means to an end and I’m not doing this for them anyways. I’m doing it for Steve.” His wide, terrified eyes must’ve been enough to embolden her because she kept talking. “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 inside your head. But don’t you understand? I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I was just trying to make you better, Bucky. Just like you used to be.”

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

“You’re— you’re fuckin’ crazy,” James wheezed. He needed to think, to do something, so he pushed against the damn voices, shoved them all back until there was enough room in his head, and the empty space filled quickly, this time with blind, unadulterated rage. He sprung to his feet and lunged, ignoring the wave of nausea and the pain in his chest, and tackled her just as she was about to dart away. She let out a pained cry as he toppled them both to the ground, but fell silent when his hand wrapped 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, afforded 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 those 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 from his target, he was failing to complete the mission, but the hands on him were too strong and light danced before his eyes as he struggled to draw in a breath. His chest was on fire, his head ached, and although the anger still lingered, it was now replaced by raw, primal fear. He was restrained, a muscled arm across his neck, his own arm wrenched back painfully, 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 have come back just a few seconds earlier

“This might 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. Wanda, did you do anything to—”

“We can’t keep letting this happen. It’s not safe.”

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

“I didn’t do anything, how could you say that, Natasha?”

“Let me go— it wasn’t— she’s—” the words, they were failing James 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.

“You know what, 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—”

“Is that really the best idea?”

“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 hurled himself over the railing and off the fire escape. He landed on the ground with a grunt of pain, rolling to avoid some of the damage from the two-story fall.

He ran without looking back.

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 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 in his back pocket 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, over and over, 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, worried that the rain would destroy the phone. 

He forced himself to pull in a breath. The phone was waterproof, he reminded himself, Tony told him that. 

His hand was shaking, violently, so there was no way he’d be able to type. One other option then. He managed to tap the “Call” icon, selected the only number programmed into the phone, and 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, a click, and James’ breath stilled.

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

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

“James, what’s going on?” The earlier levity disappeared. “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 head—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 concerned words chased the voices away and James forced himself to breathe in and 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 that had 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 without choking on the words, but then Tony let out an anguished “Oh god…” and James hated that the distress was his fault.


“Don’t, it’s not—” Tony was cut off by noises, shuffling, and 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?”

James couldn’t, not exactly. All he knew was that the location was safe enough, for now. 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; he kept up soothing nonsense that drove away the old, cruel voices. James curled in on himself to shield his face and the phone from the pouring rain and leaned against the dirty metal crate. He listened to Tony’s voice and waited.

Tony stumbled out of the Iron Man suit as soon as it opened and covered the remaining distance in a few long strides, uncaring of the dirt splashing across his brand new pair of loafers. He was within a few yards of James’ huddled form and even from here, Tony could see that the man was shaking. Even though James was soaking wet—Tony was quickly getting there himself—Tony doubted it was hypothermia since 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 and Tony was already moving onto Plan B, thinking of ways to subdue the man and get him to safety, but then James straightened up 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 bit 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 carefully, sparing one 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, okay?”

He was finally close enough to reach out and touch, but before Tony managed to open his mouth and ask if James was hurt, the other man lunged at him and Tony’s stomach lurched, adrenaline pumping as his body prepared for an attack, but all James did was knock the wind out of him with how hard he clung to Tony. His arm wrapped around Tony’s waist and like this, Tony could feel every tremor wrecking James’ frame. 

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 depth. It wouldn’t be the first time, however, and Tony decided to stick with his usual tactic when faced with the unfamiliar - he went with his gut and right now his gut told him James needed him, so he wrapped his arms around the man and guided 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 long, but going by the iron grip James had on Tony’s jacket, moving them anywhere would be a Herculean task right now. “Everything’s going to be alright.”

James shook his head, nose buried 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— Tony, I can’t— I’d rather be dead—”

“Oh sweetheart, no, no. Please don’t say that.” Tony pressed his cheek against James’ temple, didn’t bother fighting against the instinct to hold James tighter. The endearment, the reassurances, it all slipped out with such ease that it should’ve startled him, but he didn’t try to hold back, not today. James was so out of it right now, he’d likely forget the specifics of what Tony did or didn’t say to him anyways. 

Tony’s only real focus was James, who let out a broken inhale, then an outright sob.

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

“She wanted to control the Soldier?”

A desperate shake of James’ head. “No, she wanted to—” Another sob, a heart-wrenching sound that had Tony pressing his face into James’ wet hair to hide his own distress. “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 hurt so damn much? 

Tony had no idea how Maximoff expected to pull that off, but he’d bet his entire fortune that it would’ve had nothing to do with actual healing and everything to do with forcing someone to look and act like someone else, for all intents and purposes turning James into a puppet. God, it made him nauseous just thinking about it, the idea that this man in his arms, 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 the scattered thoughts out of the way. Later he would think about dealing with Maximoff, but right now he had to take care of his distraught super soldier.

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

“They all believed— believed that I just attacked her— 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— No, 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, 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 hunched, eyes downcast. 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 used one hand to wipe some of the water off his own face. James was soaked too, blinking away the raindrops clinging to his lashes; 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 his palm, the way he looked at Tony, oh, it killed him all over again.

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 here 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.

Tracing his thumb over the arch of James’ cheek, the sensation of cool, damp skin under his fingertips, solidified the present for Tony. It gave weight and reality to the decision he was about to make.


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

“I’m not letting you go back. 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. It’ll 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.

“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, just like the Compound. It’s the closest and safest place for you right now.” Tony would’ve preferred to take James straight to the Compound, but the last thing James needed was to be bombarded by the entire New Avengers roster and their inevitable mix of suspicion, apprehension, and worse, insatiable curiosity and proclivity for gossip. “It does mean we’ll have to come clean about— about us, since it’ll be impossible to avoid everyone for very long. You are pretty recognizable and 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, clutching Tony’s sleeve, like he was afraid Tony would just up and disappear on him. “Please don’t leave me behind.”

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

Tony was encouraged to see that James gave the question actual consideration. Then, in a voice so tentative Tony could barely hear it, James asked, “You don’t mind the others knowing that— that we’re friends?”

“No, not at all,” Tony immediately reassured. Truth be told, this was a long time coming. Tony probably should’ve told someone a while ago and the people about to find out were Tony’s friend and family. However they reacted, Tony knew that after all was said and done, James would gain allies, not enemies.

Tony didn’t let himself think too much about the inevitability of Rogers and his pals finding out too, mostly because that would likely end with another shield rammed into Tony’s chest.

Oh well. Hashtag Y.O.L.O., 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.”

Relief flooded Tony. “Okay, yeah, we can totally do that. You’ll love it there, I promise. I have this whole penthouse all to myself, right at the very top. Nice and cozy, and the view, oh, it’s amazing.” 

He was rambling, amped up by the burst of energy sparked by James putting his desires so plainly into words. James wanted to come with Tony.

Tony tried to tamp down the elation and reminded himself that this was just desperation talking. A scared man in need of immediate help, with little resources and allies, of course he would take Tony’s offer, but Tony could still pretend this was something more, couldn’t he? 

He brushed a hand over James’ face again, trying to wipe away the moisture, but there was no salvaging this. They needed to get out of the rain. “Okay, well, I do have my suit, but fun fact, being carried around is a lot 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 getting Friday’s attention. “Fri, sweetheart, can you ping Happy?”

“On it, Boss.” There was 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.”

“Thank you, Fri, as always, you’re on top of things— 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 the wounds should be treated with antibacterials and analgesics at the soonest opportunity 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?”

It was a dumb question, of course James was hurt, but Tony received a head shake, and really, he should’ve seen that coming.That was his standard response whenever he got hurt too.

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

“It exploded? Fuck, what a damn mess.” Tony groaned, his mind flooded with both guilt and several ideas as to why the protections failed. “I’m so sorry, I had no idea. Why didn’t you say something sooner? Shit, we were wasting all this time sitting here—”

“S’fine. Just hurts. M’fine, Tony.”

Tony grumbled under his breath, but didn’t push the issue further. 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, he could see it already—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 to the Tower 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. A wet, bedraggled former assassin cautiously eyeing Happy and getting the entire backseat dirty  with the rivulets of rain water dripping from him would hardly ping Happy’s radar these days. 

Before Tony got into the car himself, he did get 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. Happy deserved a raise and a new shiny badge and maybe even a starring role on Downton Abbey, if Tony could successfully sweet-talk the director. 

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 wrapped James up to keep him warm and spent half the drive trying to towel dry James’ messy hair.

Shaky and wary, but now clear-eyed, James slowly came back to himself and Tony almost wept from relief when James made a token protest to get Tony to stop fussing. 

Of course, 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, a meal, and a cup of hot tea would just be the start of it.

Once they were both slightly drier, James gave into the exhaustion he must’ve been keeping at bay. Leaning heavily against Tony, he drifted in and out of fitful sleep and Tony, who bore the weight with little reluctance while he watched the rain and the still busy streets outside, tried to ignore how much he wanted to wrap his arm around James again, to pull him in closer. That shared moment of panic however, where 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 trusted Tony enough to let his guard down like this.

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, and 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 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 chances 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 required hard work.

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, caused a reprehensible amount of collateral damage, and got away with it. Steve walked all over Tony, spat in the face of the whole world, and 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 flinched against him, eyes fluttering as he mumbled something incomprehensible, but the tension running through his body was gone on the next exhale, James’ head lolling back against Tony’s shoulder. 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 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. The memory of haunted blue eyes lingered in his mind, 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 someone’s attention—the paparazzi, SI employees, or in the earlier days, Obie—and the drop-off at the underground garage took 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 were deposited into the suite, 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 studying his surroundings with a cautious disposition.

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 James right now; Tony couldn’t tell whether it was curiosity he was seeing, or suspicion, or something else altogether; at this point, the only obvious emotion was exhaustion. James swayed a little with each step, likely upright by sheer willpower. 

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 here. God, he wanted to be James’ sense of safety so badly, more than he expected to, more than he was willing to admit; he wanted to be his source of comfort too, but that was a desire Tony needed to shove even further down.

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 over to the lounge area to pick up the stack of clothes and gave 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, so yeah, these should fit. He, uh, probably hasn’t worn these in over, he usually stays at the Compound when—”

“Tony, it’s fine,” James interjected quietly and Tony nodded, realizing he was rambling again. 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 back in, along with ‘propriety’ and ‘sense of responsibility’ and whatever the hell else Tony needed to take into account, it was a lot harder to decide what was the right thing. Tony had a sinking feeling he was going to mess this up somehow. Didn’t he always?

James took the offered stack of clothes, 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 anxiety. “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. He headed into the bathroom and while he was occupied, Tony snuck over into the bedroom to change into drier clothes himself. He probably should’ve opted for something less casual, but an old shirt and a pair of sweatpants were within reach and maybe James wasn’t the only one craving safety and comfort right now.

He tiptoed out, realizing too late that he was doing it out of a strange compulsion to avoid loud noises, as if poor James was some sort of tiny, easily-spooked animal. James was still in the bathroom though, so Tony filled the time wandering through the suite and trying to make sense of his jumbled thoughts. He absently trailed his fingers along the floor-to-ceiling windows as he walked—somewhere, he knew, Dum-E was having a bot’s equivalent of an aneurism and reaching for a bottle of Windex—and the windows afforded him a view of the rain and the ominous, gray 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, and he chuckled to himself. Damn Loki, that outright diva, and his inability to handle one simple dick joke.

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 the Tony of those days couldn’t care less about his living space; 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 and sitting 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 long. He heard James first, the bathroom door opening and closing, then a quiet pitter-patter of feet against the tile; Tony looked up to ask what James wanted to do first and managed to get 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, 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 James’ chest at the same time James called out his name and the spell broke almost instantly. James’ brows were knitted together, an uncertain look on his face as he stopped halfway into 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, and 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 answer. He shuffled over and stopped again, shifting awkwardly as he stood in front of Tony, bare feet rubbing against one another.

Tony cleared his throat, admitting to himself it was time to act like a responsible adult—well, try to act like one, as it were. “Alright, so, food first or do you wanna get your chest taken care of?” 

James’ eyes darted from the food to the med-kit before settling again on Tony, unsure and pleading 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 him comply without protest; 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-vigilant. 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.

Tony grabbed the med-kit and situated himself next to James on the sectional. This close, that expanse of skin was even more tempting, but James’ general state—the caution, the glassy eyes, the weary droop of his shoulders—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 burns marring James’ chest and after a quick examination, Tony determined none of the injuries were bad enough to warrant intervention of an actual medical professional. That was mostly due to the supernatural healing rather than the safety standards of Tony’s tech and he had to admit 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 to clean up the little bit of blood James didn’t manage to get himself, then some antibacterial ointment to avoid any potential infection, and finally, he applied a 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 like this, 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 any more people.

Tony tried to keep his expression neutral, but apparently he was failing 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 Tony’s hand down to rest in Tony’s lap, then let go. “It’s the arm, isn’t it?”

Tony blinked. “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 of James’ arm 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 from 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 his 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— I wasn’t there— 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, 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 picture imaginable. 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 up, too stubborn to pull his head out of his ass and admit that he was in love with a ghost. 

His stomach churned and Tony forced his focus back to the present, began massaging the cream into the fading wounds again, letting the medicine distract him from horrible ‘what ifs’. 

After a minute, he looked up at James. “How are you holding up?”

“Tired.” Glassy eyes blinked, slower than Tony would’ve liked to. “Not— not a normal tired either.”

Tony reached for the gauze and carefully began to wrap it around James’ 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 more than I do, doctors, sorcerers, what have you. They can help.”

James nodded listlessly and Tony 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, intent on finishing his work, and their world was reduced to the sound of the rain outside. It was James who finally broke the silence with a whispered, “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 and decided not to beat around the bush. “Just thought you heard the same old sob story and overlooked her past 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, a reminder that even like this, James still had the capacity to be perceptive. The gaze that met Tony’s was further proof, so intense and 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. It 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 his brightest creation. 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 secret, to keep it safe.

“She showed me my worst fear,” he finally said. Unable to face the anger now lurking behind those blue eyes, Tony focused on finishing up the bandages. “After New York, after the missile— not sure how much you know—”

“I know enough.”

“Right. What I saw that day—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 float overhead, uncaring for the destruction they wrought, as Tony reels from seeing Natasha’s lifeless eyes. The mangled forms of his teammates surround him as he kneels next to Steve’s bloodied body. 

Steve opens his eyes.

“Why didn’t you do more?”

“I saw the aliens destroy everything. I saw Steve and the 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 now, snug around James’ torso. Tony didn’t offer more explanations, the impromptu confession effectively over; this was enough—approaching too much—and it left him exposed, his soul bared.

Strangely, the usual panic didn’t set in.

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.

“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 to know that you understand…”

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,” he tried to argue, “having someone who understands… that’s a rare, 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. It smelled delicious, a warm broth filled with veggies, and Tony was heartened to see James sip 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 times 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 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 very comfortable, 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 fancy king-sized bed.

“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 while he waited for James to find his words. “It helps that you’re here. Feels like I could just close my eyes 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 sentiment 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 desperate plea came through in the way his eyes lingered on James, in the way Tony held his hands in his lap with a conscious tension as he denied himself the desire to reach out and touch again. 

Hell, it probably wasn’t that obvious. James could barely keep his eyes open at this point. 

Tony got up to find the softest blanket available—both he and Pepper loved them big enough to drown in, which meant it’d be large enough for a super soldier—then grabbed a pillow from the other couch, and with the items delivered into James’ lap, Tony was about to dart away to give James some space, but James reached for him, gently grasped his wrist again, and whispered “Stay, please?” 

Tony couldn’t deny that request, even if he wanted to—he didn’t—so he let James tug him back to sit in the corner of the sectional. He watched as James, with uncharacteristic boldness, grabbed the pillow and tucked it against Tony’s thigh, then laid down 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. Being this close was going to drive him crazy, yes, but someone would have to bodily drag him away before he gave this up. 

He did it again, the still-damp strands slipping through his fingers. “Is this okay?”

James nodded and 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’ own, Tony answered, “We deserve to be selfish sometimes.”

James didn’t say anything else and although Tony was skeptical of James’ earlier claim, the super soldier was indeed out like a light within a few minutes, his breath evening out and his body losing tension Tony didn’t know it holding until James sagged against him, pliant and warm. So damn trusting too, falling asleep like this, leaving himself so vulnerable after everything that happened.

It was both a terrifying responsibility and an intoxication sort of rush.

With James sound asleep, Tony pulled up a holographic screen, intent on catching up on some emails, but after the day’s events, his usual fevered pace turned molasses slow. It was difficult to concentrate and James’ steady breaths and his comforting weight were luring Tony into a relaxed, hazy state of his own; between that and the dark skies outside, Tony’s eyes began to droop. Knowing Friday was watching over them, Tony let his head drop back against the couch and with a proprietary hand settled on James’ left 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 mind. He’d learned to listen to these nagging instincts long ago, so he blinked his eyes open and tried to find his bearings. His brain registered James first, went through a moment of sheer panic, 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 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’ side 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 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 inside the suite, her wide, disbelieving eyes trained on Tony and James. 

Chapter Text

Tony’s mouth opened and closed, mind scrambling to explain any part of this 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 certain Pepper would throw a shoe at him; actually, with the way Pepper’s shocked expression was beginning to morph into appalled disbelief, heralded by that severe furrow between her brows and the tight set of her lips, a pointy stiletto aimed at Tony’s head was still not out of the question. 

In the end, Tony gave up and shrugged, presenting Pepper with the fakest innocent smile in his repertoire. Her brows knitted further together. She mouthed a furious, but thankfully silent “Tony Stark!” and pointed to the spot next to her. 

Tony had no intention of disobeying—because ignoring Pepper Potts meant certain death—but first, there was the 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 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?

So much responsibility and so many ways for Tony to mess this up, but the thought didn’t scare him nearly 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 while tugging at his other hand to get James to release it. Instead of letting go, James made a displeased, sleepy noise, turned over on his right side and curled into himself further, keeping Tony’s hand effectively trapped. Tony looked back at Pepper, who was standing there, arms crossed and fingers tapping against her bicep, waiting, 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 around him. And if Tony maybe brushed some of that long hair out of the way and tucked it behind James’ 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 pressed a finger to his lips as he approached her and then silently ushered her out into the private lobby outside of the suite. The walls were almost entirely soundproof, so they could have a relatively private conversation there.

“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 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 available 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 when Pepper planted her hands on her hips and leveled him with a steely glare. 

“Would you like to explain 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?”


The ‘What the actual hell?’ part was heavily implied. Tony scrubbed his face, rubbing his eyes until the darkness behind his eyelids lit up with bright spots. It helped wake him up, but unfortunately, Tony was no closer to coming 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 froze, eyes going wide and frustration bleeding abruptly into fear. “Oh my 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’ve alerted half of Manhattan by now if I were in any danger?” Tony gave Pepper 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, as if the infamous Winter Soldier would come bursting out any second to attack them. When he didn’t and when Tony didn’t spontaneously combust or break down into terrified tears or whatever awful scenario she was imagining in that brilliant head of hers, Pepper sighed loudly, a relieved whoosh of air, and 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 arms 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?”


“And he is…”

“Less okay. We’re working on it.” 

“Tony, what the hell is going on? I come up here, hoping we could grab lunch so you could explain why you just up and disappeared on me earlier, but then—” She struggled to articulate what she found. “Then I go in and find you cuddled up with the guy who— the guy who caused you far more trouble than he’s worth.” 

That last part was subdued, as if Pepper regretted saying it, but knew it needed to be said, and Tony heard the part she left out, loud and clear. The guy who killed your parents. 

Her fierce gaze, now free from 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 many occasions, although his easy surrender was often intentional because making Pepper happy was its own reward. Today, 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 when she noted 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 genuinely 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.”

“In his defense, they’re not really… friends anymore. Surprise, surprise, Rogers and the others don’t treat him any better than they treated me.”

Pepper narrowed her eyes, obviously doubtful. “And how exactly do you know that?”

“Because I wrote him back. And we started talking. And 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 that well though, stuck in that shitty place with them. I mean, no surprise there, 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. Missing a damn arm—my fault, I admit it—and dealing with constant 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, “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 the tabloids like to call it.” 

“Yeah, apparently some of those stories have been embellished. A lot.” Tony 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— Pepper, she has been actively messing with his head.”

Pepper whispered a startled “What?” and her brows knitted with newfound worry. Understandable, given that she was one of the few who knew all the sordid details of Tony’s encounters with the Scarlet Witch. “She did something to him? Was she trying to turn him back to Hydra? Tony, is he dangerous?”

“No, he’s not dangerous—well, not any more than a suped-up super soldier assassin is on a normal day—and I don’t have all the details of what happened. The details I do have aren’t mine to share. This wasn’t about Hydra though, this was… 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 too. 

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 straight 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?” Tony nodded and she rubbed her bottom lip with her thumb 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 widened. “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 date 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 a bigger deal than it is, okay? We’re just friends, that’s all.”

He sneaked a peek 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 to joke, 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 guilt to help himself, 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. “I just like the way he looks at me.”

“Oh, Tony.” At this point, Tony had lost count of the many different ways Pepper could say his name. She reached out to take his hands, her slender fingers chilly against his; Tony wrapped them up in his own to warm them up. “You deserve the world, you know that, don’t you?”

“Pepper, my sunflower, you’re being maudlin.”

“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 and Rhodey and Happy… You’ve been here since the beginning and I’m sorry I got so swept up in the whole Avengers drama that I forgot, just for a moment, who my real friends are.”

“We love you enough to let that go, just this one time,” she teased, then glanced at the door one more time. “Do you really trust him then? Not to do the same things Rogers did?”

“Yes, 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, 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?”

“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— I just can’t let anything happen to him.”

“Mm-hmm.” That hum was a little too knowing too, 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, trying to come up with a smoother answer than his actual ‘Yes, god yes’ and failing, Pepper shook her head fondly. “Well, this will be… interesting, at the very 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 just 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 fluttered shut and he fell back asleep.

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 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. What a wonderful dream. He needed to get closer though, pull Tony close, let himself indulge in the fantasy. He lifted his left arm to curl it around Tony—

Tried to and his mind cleared, warmth dissipating when all he managed was a stiff movement of his left shoulder. Then, someone cleared their throat and James’ eyes flew wide open. He scrambled back, lacking grace as his sleep-heavy body failed to adjust to surroundings he didn’t recognize. His eyes darted from point to point, not registering anything until they landed on Tony, who regarded him with his own set of wide eyes from the other end of the couch, hands up in surrender.

“You’re okay, you’re alright. Do you remember what happened?”

James was about to shake his head ‘no’, but that was when everything flooded back, and then all he could do was squeeze his eyes shut and try not to whimper as flashes of memories bombarded him. The confrontation with Maximoff; 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, soothing and steady and 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, even if the thought of him disappearing into thin air was irrational.

“Sorry,” James mumbled. “Didn’t— didn’t remember, when I woke up.” He licked his dry lips. “Until, uh, until I did.”

“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 worried, for him, and that caused a strange mix of longing and guilt to flare up in his chest. Earlier, when the world crashed around his ears, all that remained of James Barnes was instinct and it led him to the one person he knew he could trust. 

Instinct was a powerful thing, but now that the haze of terror and desperation had lifted, James was left floundering, unsure how to deal with the rest of the memories filtering through. Not the confrontation with the witch; no, that disaster, although unexpected, was par for the course. James had a veritable museum of memories just like that. No, it was what happened after, all of which he remembered with startling 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 he spoke. James remembered falling asleep with Tony’s gentle fingers in his hair. 

How was he supposed to move on with his life after having a taste of that tenderness? He didn’t want to move on. He wanted this, just him and Tony and—


Tony’s voice brought him back to reality and James’ face flushed with heat when he realized his mind had drifted. Too damn 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.” A convenient excuse. He cleared his throat and had to cough several times to get rid of the dryness. Ever vigilant, Tony jumped up to pour him a glass of water and James drank it greedily. 

“How are you feeling?” Tony asked again as he walked back to the tray-laden table to pour himself a cup of coffee.

“Not as tired. 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 the food again or—”

“There was someone else here, wasn’t there?”

Tony blinked at him, hands holding a pitcher of cream above the steaming mug. “Ah crap, did you wake up while I was gone?”

“No, no, just, uh, have a sixth sense. My mind registered it, but didn’t bother waking me up, I suppose.” And wasn’t that a revelation? In any other situation, the presence of a potentially dangerous stranger would’ve had James on full alert and ready to fight at the first hint of things going wrong.

“Pepper was here,” Tony confessed. He grabbed two small bags from a tray, opened them, and brought them over along with his coffee. He handed one to James, who discovered fresh blueberries when he looked inside.

“Let’s just say,” Tony continued, chewing methodically on a plumb berry, “that I, uh, I was a little out of it too and I didn’t ask Friday to lock down the suite. Pepper was a little surprised, as you can imagine, but I explained things to her and she understands why you had to come here.” Tony gave him an apologetic shrug. “I tried to keep things vague, but I did have to tell her some things about what happened to you. I’m sorry.”

James stuck the bag of blueberries between his knees and followed Tony’s cue to toss a few into his mouth. The burst of flavor was refreshing and he savored the taste, reminding himself that he was alive and well and in control of his body and mind.

“It’s alright. I’m glad you have her to watch out for you.” The apology hadn’t been necessary. James knew the others would need the sordid details sooner or later and he was willing to give up every shred of privacy if it meant Tony’s friends wouldn’t force him to stay away. “But I gotta wonder… what happens now?” 

The question seemed to be the logical next step, but Tony decided it wasn’t. “How’s your chest? Any pain?”

James ran a tentative hand over his chest and wondered if Tony was stalling. Nothing hurt anymore at least, a fact he relayed to Tony, who decided that the bandages needed to come off so they could see if the super soldier healing (along with the medicine) did its job.

Either Tony was stalling or he just wanted to get James half-naked. A fanciful notion, but it made him flush all the same, 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 and apparently that reaction wasn’t about his missing arm and the off-putting scars.

James only wished, as he gingerly pulled the shirt off, a process made awkward by his lack of limb, that he were undressing under different circumstances.

Tony settled in next to him and competent fingers began to unwind the gauze. Earlier, when James was recovering from the shock, these ministrations soothed him, let him know he wasn’t alone, that someone cared enough to help. Now, with his mind clear, each touch sent tingles up and down his spine, adding to the well of heat building 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 still didn’t answer, eyes firmly on his work. He peeled away the rest of the bandages and brushed his fingertips over the now-unmarred skin, as if he was trying to drive James crazy. 

Tony’s touch lit up a fire inside him, but the lack of an answer left him freezing cold. It was disorienting.

“I can leave,” James took the blunt approach, “I don’t want to cause you more problems and I can survive on my own—”

“Stay with me,” Tony blurted out and James got to watch Tony freeze and his eyes go wide, a brown-eyed deer caught in headlights as he realized what he just said.

“I mean, uh,” Tony tried again, “stay with us. All of us. At the Compound. It’s the safest place for you.”

The addition didn’t change the way Tony looked at him when he said those words. Stay with me.

“Would the others be alright with that?”

“It’ll take some time for everyone to wrap their head around it, sure, 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.” James shook his head, the guilt overtaking his momentarily bliss. “You’ve done so much for me already and I have nothing to give in return.”

He’d give everything he did have if it meant a chance to keep 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’s expression lost its earlier shyness and it was almost a dance, one of them growing bolder when the other one faltered.

“I didn’t do any of this with the expectation of payment.” His voice was steady and his words certain. “And if there are 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 of ever breaking 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.”

That was all James needed to hear. “I’d like to stay then, with you. Thank you, Tony. You— you saved my life.”

Tony rolled his eyes, signaling the end to their emotionally charged conversation, and began gathering the discarded gauze to be thrown away. “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 was about to sit up, but James took a hold of his hand to stop him and when those pretty doe eyes looked at James expectantly, it was James’ turn to make use of that boldness. He leaned in slowly, giving Tony time to lean away and when Tony didn’t move, 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 skin and the prickle of Tony’s stubble, that spicy-sweet scent filling his lungs when he took a breath. Tony’s hand twitched beneath his own, fingers moving against Bucky’s knee, but it was a caress, not a reprimand.

Did it matter what he deserved? James 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 he wanted, more than anything else, to press in closer. He sat back, 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 anticipation and nerves. 

“I’ll, uh, just go clean up, if that’s alright? Think I can handle a shower now.”

Tony nodded distractedly. “Uh… Yeah, I mean, sure, of course.” 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

The hall outside his suite was becoming familiar. Too familiar, Tony decided as he waited to start the exciting round two of ‘tell my friends I’ve been not-dating the Winter Soldier for months’. That conversation went surprisingly well with Pepper, but Rhodey was a whole different ball game. He was an Avenger, a pragmatic leader with responsibilities that extended far beyond his friendship with Tony, and unlike Pepper, he’d seen the Winter Soldier in action first-hand. If Rhodey decided James’ presence was a threat, to any one of them, he wouldn’t hesitate to put the well-being of the Avengers above Tony’s desire to help James, no matter how well-meaning.

Tony hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he was nervous; he realized he was forgetting the all-important function of breathing when the elevator doors opened to reveal none other than James Rhodes himself. He didn’t look pleased, which Tony expected, given that they were on the phone not even an hour ago, and Tony may have snuck into conversation that hey, the Winter Soldier was at the Tower after a run-in with Maximoff, but it was totally fine, everyone was perfectly safe, and oh, could James maybe stay at the Compound for the next foreseeable ever? 

There was a good chance Rhodey thought that call was a practical joke and if that were the case, this poor man was in for a surprise of a lifetime. 

“Platypus, hey, didn’t expect you so soon!” Tony greeted him, the false cheer in his voice making him even louder than usual. “It’s a good thing I made War Machine waterproof, huh? This rain, I tell you, it just won’t let up. Someone should really talk to Thor.” 

Rhodey’s severe expression didn’t budge one single inch. 

“Thor can wait, and you wanna know why? Because I’m still processing our earlier phone call, which made it sound like the Winter Soldier—yes, the infamous Hydra assassin who’s besties with Rogers, that Winter Soldierwas right here in our Tower. As our guest. You wanna tell me what’s going on, Tones? Are we having a party for 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, I promise.” 

“Oh, it’s James now? What the hell did I miss, Tony?” Tony opened his mouth, but Rhodey cut him off with two frantic hands. “No, no, you know what, I need to actually see this guy with my own two eyes, just to make sure I’m not hallucinating this entire conversation. Where is he?” 

Tony obediently walked back to the 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 in his bedroom closet), watching a nature documentary on the TV screen with a bowl of fruit in his lap. With a hand holding a raspberry and frozen half-way to his mouth, James turned those big, blue—innocent—eyes on them. 

Okay, so maybe Tony coached James, just a tiny little bit, in preparation for this meet-and-greet. 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 way James held himself like a tightly-wound coil, tracking every fine detail of his surroundings and the movement of people around him with a vigilant gaze, but Tony was certain he was the only one to notice these things now. After all, he didn’t spend the last few months observing—memorizing—every aspect of this man for nothing. 

Tony’s eyes flickered to Rhodey, who studied James like a particularly dangerous bomb about to go off. 

Okay, so maybe Rhodey saw right through the green Hulk blankets and the raspberries and the assassin doe eyes, but they had to try something.

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 drawn-out second before Rhodey shook his head and muttered a sullen, “Dammit, he is real. 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 enough to keep him safe. 

“I’m not here to cause trouble.” James paused, then grimaced. “Not any more trouble. 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.” 


Tony’s face went through complicated acrobatics, accompanied by a frustrated hand gesture, all of which were meant to say ‘Can we not discuss this here?’. 

Rhodey got the message, it seemed, because he threw poor James another suspicious look, then 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, not even in the face of James’ most ridiculous set of puppy dog eyes. They were certainly melting Tony’s heart, but James Rupert Rhodes was a damn hard-ass (at least when he wasn’t being a big, soft teddy bear with a heart of gold).

“Friday, you have an eye on him?”

“Colonel, my metaphorical eyes are on everyone, at all times.” 

“Don’t sass me, Fri.” 

With a nod, Rhodey 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 behind them. 

Tony rubbed his arm, pretending that it was bruised. “Gentle on the goods, Honeybear.” 

“You have your privacy, so start explaining, Tony, and it better be good,” Rhodey ordered. 

Tony scrunched up his face and muttered, “I’m getting a serious case of deja vu here,” but apparently Rhodey was immune to his puppy eyes too, so he launched into the same explanation he offered Pepper. 

Unlike Pepper, Rhodey didn’t interject and fret, didn’t throw worried glances that alternated between Tony and the Winter Soldier hiding behind closed doors. Rhodey just stood there, watching Tony ramble on about texting and diners and crappy teammates; Rhodey’s arms were crossed over his chest, his face impassive except for the slight narrowing of his eyes, and Tony had a suspicion that Rhodey, having realized this wasn’t a prank, was now considering the possibility that Tony had been replaced by an evil alien species. 

Tony was perfectly human of course—too human, he decided when he realized he’d been fidgeting with his shirt sleeve the entire time and Rhodey’s eagle eye picked up on the damn nervous tick.

At least Rhodey no longer appeared five seconds away from throttling Tony on the spot. Small victories.

“Over two months, Tony. Two months. Were you planning on telling me at all?” 

“If things continued the way they were going, yes, I would’ve told you before thinking about bringing him here.” It was true, he would’ve said something to someone eventually. “But, Rhodey, come on, 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 Tony didn’t mean to say, at least not with so much emotion behind the words, but of course Rhodey caught that too. 

“Why him specifically? Wait, wait a minute, did— did you actually sleep with him?”

“Excuse me? No, I did not—” 

“Well, do you want to?” 

Tony’s first instinct was to sputter and ramble, a surefire way to prove Rhodey right, but that earlier comment had actually stung; it forced Tony’s words into semblance of control as they turned icy cold on his tongue. 

“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 sound as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “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 being all apologetic. Luckily for him, Tony loved the guy and this wasn’t the first nor the last time they would say something dumb to each other. Plus… 

“In your defense, you’re not—ahem—wrong, exactly.” 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 some feelings for him… and not just ‘get in his pants’ sort of feelings, although, yes, that’s part of it, because I mean, have you seen him? But it’s not just that. I, uh, I like him. A lot.” 

He held Rhodey’s gaze as he said it, left himself vulnerable so Rhodey could see everything. The sincerity, the uncertainty, probably every bit of longing and pining Tony had done over the past month. 

Rhodey must’ve seen it all—and more—because he sighed, a weary, soul-deep sort of sigh only reserved for Tony. 

“Damn it… The worst part is, I’m not even surprised. If you two actually managed to get past what happened last year, you never stood a chance after that. 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.” 

“Hey, I resent that last part,” Tony wagged his finger at Rhodey, “but I can’t argue with it, so… Not that it matters either way. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that I used to think 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—I’m sure that comes as a complete shock to us both—and in part because the witch was playing games with him. But you know what, we started talking, we liked the talking, and— and we’re friends now and maybe that’s all we’re ever going to be, but it doesn’t matter. Today, he needed my help and I wasn’t going to turn him away. Say whatever you want, but I don’t regret doing this. He needed me.” 

Tony could see the conflict raging inside Rhodey’s head, the need to be responsible and tough and cautious clashing with the simple desire to help someone in need. It didn’t take long before Rhodey 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 the words and his scrutinizing gaze finally abandoned Tony to spend an impressive second staring down the door. “I just… I’m thinking about the disaster this is going to be and it’s already giving me a cluster headache.” 

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 put himself within touching distance and massaged 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 to end up right inside our own home to ruin the 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 you’re obviously 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—when 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 POW, 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 sure what it was that did it—his responses making actual, logical sense or Rhodey simply accepting Tony’s crazy deed of the day because it was better for all involved—but something in Rhodey’s expression finally gave way. Hs hands came up to cup Tony’s face with a firm grip, but one not meant to hurt. 

“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 his best friend? 

“You’d be so bored without me.” 

Rhodey rattled Tony’s head one more time and let go. “Bored sounds great right about now.” 

“Aw, come on, lighten up. I know this is unexpected, but James is a pretty great guy and I wouldn’t be saying that if it weren’t true, not with our history. I think you’ll really like him and plus, he does need our help. Isn’t that what we do for a living?” 

Rhodey’s sigh indicated he was questioning every life decision that lead up to this, but since Tony was privy to that exact sigh at least once a week, he was used to it. 

“You really do have it bad for him, don’t you?” 

Tony kept his grin firmly in place to make sure his expression didn’t reveal that yes, he did in fact have it bad

“I have nothing for no one, so shush. Now, when we go back in there, be nice, okay? He just had one hell of a day and even in general, he’s got a metric ton of misplaced guilt and terrible self-esteem and—” 

“Oh god, please stop. I don’t wanna hear how you two are practically made for each other. Gross.” 

Rhodey’s disgusted face was over-exaggerated, as far as Tony was concerned, but the expression shifted back into a polite media smile before Tony could complain. 

James sat exactly where they had left him when they stepped inside the suite, the untouched bowl of berries still in his lap. His expression was shuttered now however, wariness overtaking everything else, including the pair of Bambi eyes. 

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” he said as soon as they stepped inside, “I’m not— I have no right to ask for your help. I should go.” 

Tony gave Rhodey a pointed look that telegraphed a stern ‘See what you did?’ and Rhodey caught on quickly. 

“Barnes, now hold on a second,” Rhodey said as he approached, his pace measured and unhurried. He chose to sit down in one of the love seats, close enough to speak comfortably, 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, which did not count as hovering.

“Now, Barnes— Bucky? Can I call you Bucky?”

“James, please.” 

“James then. I… apologize about my earlier entrance—and subsequent hasty escape. You see, Tony here, he’s my best friend and I love him, but he’s a right pain in the ass sometimes who likes to think he’s a comedian.” 

Everything about Rhodey’s projected image screamed that this was a ‘casual, no big deal’ conversation. The way he leaned back in the chair, arms held loosely behind his head, the braces-clad legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles, the easy-going quirk of his smile. Of course, that was only the surface and in reality, he was watching James ever so carefully, sizing him up, and of course James knew, he wasn’t oblivious. He was studying Rhodey’s every move too, just like Rhodey was studying him, 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 chose the word carefully. Tony could see James was making a conscious effort to keep his voice steady to avoid stumbling through a sentence when the nerves got the better of him. It had to be straining, to deal with yet another person questioning him, making their own assumptions, 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. Rhodey wouldn’t have been impressed by that and James didn’t need Tony to babysit him. So when James looked back to meet his eyes, as if to ask for permission to continue, all Tony did was offer an encouraging smile. 

“I understand why you’re cautious, given my history,” James said, giving Rhodey his full attention again. “Given our history and what I did to Tony. I regret so much of what happened, but I know these are just words and I can’t prove to you how I feel. I also 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 Tony could see Rhodey struggling to maintain his poker-face, “Tony saved my life. Maximoff, she— when she—” James faltered and Tony gave into the urge—damn whatever Rhodey would think—to reach down and rub James’ right shoulder to remind him he wasn’t alone. 

James, to his credit, gathered himself with impressive speed. “Hydra used her on me, years ago. Wanted an alternative to the triggers, but the Asset was not compatible—” He swallowed convulsively and drew in a breath. “I was not— I reacted badly and they sent her back to Strucker. I didn’t remember until today, until she tried again. But she doesn’t want a weapon, she— she wants to make me ‘all better’ for Steve, to turn me into a puppet. I— I’m terrified of what she can do and I won’t go back there, I can’t. So consider me a refugee, Colonel, seeking asylum.” 

A silence fell between them, seconds ticking by that Tony spent gritting his teeth to the point where his dentist would surely complain. The urge to break the tension was overwhelming and the sympathy invoked even by this brief mention of the hell James had suffered sat heavy in his chest. The worry that Rhodey wouldn’t believe James, that he would fight this, was somehow even worse. If Rhodey were to deny James entry into the Compound, Tony would accept the decision, but he wouldn’t give up and he certainly wouldn’t abandon James. He was Tony Stark after all and there were other options, but the support of his friends meant a lot and Tony secretly ached for their approval, for his own sake and for James’.

Some of the tension eased when Rhodey exhaled loudly and leaned forward to rest his arms on his knees, chin propped up on his hands. He eyed James critically.

“First, let me say that I’m sorry for what you went through. Both all those years ago and then again today. I can’t imagine what it was like and I won’t pretend that I can. But you have to consider my side too. 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 sharp nod. 

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 an ounce of goddamn 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 slid over to Tony, who met the gaze head-on. He gave Rhodey a nod, urging him to do what they both knew was right.  

“We are the Avengers, Rhodey said when their silent conversation ended, “and helping people is what we do. We’re not in the habit of turning people away. However, while I understand that Tony trusts you, which already earns you brownie points—and forgive me for being blunt here—despite all that, I’m under no delusion that you’re not still a dangerous wildcard. Your history and your abilities speak for themselves, both good and bad, and there’s also Maximoff to consider. If the Scarlet Witch is after you, in any capacity, I’d rather have you where I can see you.” 

“Rhodey!” Tony gave up on keeping quiet. He huffed and paced from one end of the couch to the other. “He’s not coming to the Compound to be monitored!” 

Tony turned to apologize, but was stopped short by the expression on James’ face. It wasn’t quite a smile, too burdened by guilt as it were, but James certainly didn’t look offended or anxious. When Tony’s look turned quizzical, James shrugged. 

“What? Honesty’s refreshing.” He tilted his head at Rhodey. “Thank you, Colonel, for being fair and honest and for the chance to prove myself.” 

Now it was Rhodey sporting a satisfied smile as if James managed to say just the right combination of words to unlock his approval. He got out of his seat and James followed his cue, untangling his long limbs and 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 one 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 beamed at them both like an idiot. His grin didn’t dim one bit, not even when Rhodey gave Tony the most long-suffering look in existence of all long-suffering looks that spoke of many more conversations to come.

Nothing could faze Tony right now. James was finally coming home with him. 


James fell back onto the bed with a pleased sigh. Everything was so soft. He remembered having trouble with this level of comfort before, back on the run and in Romania, but he was quickly getting used to it now. He ran his hand over the sheets and the comforter again, reveling in the smooth fabric. Whatever this material was, it was lovely. 

That was also true for the rest of the quarters now designated as his. Tony said, sounding unnecessarily 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 or customizations. It was 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 at all times, but Tony assured him Friday had minimal surveillance access to personnel’s private quarters. 

James hummed a long-forgotten tune to himself as his body relaxed, muscle by muscle.

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 prettiest set of eyes, a smile that made James go weak in the knees, and a body that had James feeling like he wanted to— 

A knock on the door interrupted that train of thought, and James squeezed his eyes shut, berating himself for letting it get that 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 simultaneously left him all warm inside and complicated the jumbled mess in his head even further. 

Another rap at the door and James hurried to sit up, calling out a belated “Come in!” 

The door opened to reveal Tony’s head peeking 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, giving them privacy from any stray Avenger that might come wandering down the hall. “Well, I’d say so. You look very cozy.”

James tried to return the smile; his own didn’t manage to be as bright as Tony’s, but James supposed he was still learning how to be open with his emotions. 

“This is great, Tony, thank you.” He ran his hand over the comforter again. “Is everything in the future so soft?” 

Tony chuckled. “Not exactly. You still gotta pay through the nose for that sort of quality. These are actually the linens the staff use to make up my suite. I had Friday switch them out before we got here.” 

James’ brows knitted. “Tony, you didn’t have to.” 

“No, but I wanted to. You deserve to have 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 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 that. 

“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 himself away from the door and came sit next to James on the edge of the bed. “For your sake, Snowflake, trust me. I promise I’m not trying to hide you, but the Avengers… Well, some of them are well-meaning, but over-exuberant, like Peter, and some are absolute menaces who will take every opportunity to ruin my good time. Like Loki and Stephen. You deserve a good night’s sleep before dealing with them. Speaking of—you think you’re set for the night? Anything else you need?” 

James looked around the room. He 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 nutritious snacks, his bed, comfortable and spacious. Did it make him ungrateful to say that it wasn’t enough? That he wanted just one more thing to complete this picture of heaven?

“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, 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 and James hummed knowingly. “See, you can’t lecture me on sleep when you’re worse at it 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, did you maybe, uh, wanna come down to the workshop 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. He’d been dreaming of seeing Tony’s workshop, seeing Tony in his element. 

“That— that’d be fantastic.” 

“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 a new SI project that caught his attention. 

James focused on that voice and on Tony, not letting himself think about the hurdles on the horizon. Tomorrow, there would be more people who would study him, judge him, potentially find him lacking and 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 his memories, the nightmares, and knowledge of all that was done to him. Tomorrow, Maximoff would still be out there, ready and willing to tear him apart from the inside in some perverse attempt to ‘fix’ him. 

Tomorrow, he would face the complicated mess that was reality again, but tonight, James decided to concentrate on just two things. One was Tony’s workshop, which was bound to be the second most wonderful, breathtaking sight he’d ever seen, and two was resisting the desire to lean in and kiss the first most wonderful, breathtaking sight that now walked beside 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, their echoes a familiar terror, threaded with an unfamiliar red, but where before James would break free from these memories with a strangled cry on his lips, this time the warmth of a gentle hand guided him back to the fragile state between sleep and wakefulness.

“Shh, you’re alright,” a voice soothed, but this one didn’t resemble the old voices. This was Tony’s voice, his foggy mind supplied, and James knew he was safe, wherever he was. 

“It’s just a nightmare, everything’s fine.” 

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, at least. His mouth was full of cotton and he wasn’t sure if he managed more than mumbled nonsense. Tony shushed him again, brushing a hand over his temple.

“You fell asleep in the workshop, remember?” 

James did remember, 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. He smacked his lips and scrunched up his nose, trying to fight the lethargy, trying to sit upright, but the rest of his body refused to cooperate.

“Hey, no, go back to sleep. With the way you’ve been crashing on me, you obviously need it.” 

James did manage to open one eye and lift himself up just enough to see Tony’s concerned face, but when a firm hand on his shoulder urged him to lie back down, he obediently plopped back onto the couch, rubbing his face into the pillow as he settled in. The material was soft and it smelled like Tony and suddenly the idea of sleeping again, right here in this comfortable little spot with Tony watching over him, sounded like the greatest idea in the world. Tony always had the best ideas. 

Still, one particular worry nagged at the back of James’ mind. 

You gonna get any sleep?” he asked, the eye not smooshed into the pillow regarding Tony critically. Tony wasn’t a super soldier, after all. He needed sleep too. Preferably snuggled up next to James.

Tony chuckled and James realized he might’ve said that last part out loud. Thankfully, he had no room in between all the cotton in his head to feel any embarrassment. The shame, the regrets, those could all wait until morning. 

“No, not yet. Still have a few more reports to review,” Tony whispered; James couldn’t understand why Tony was whispering, but then he realized he went and closed his one open eye. He was falling asleep again. He could’ve fought the compulsion, but with Tony near, with the hum of the workshop around him, James knew he was safe and so he allowed himself to fall.

There was another brush of callused fingers against his temple, the touch lingering, 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 underneath it, seeking its warmth and protection, and his last conscious thought 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 cotton, no lethargy, and his body sang with replenished physical energy. There was something to be said for uninterrupted sleep, a lack of pain, and an overeager super soldier serum. 

He tried to unfold and straighten his legs—on a couch a foot too small for him, he realized, but comfortable all the same. The blanket, courtesy of Dum-E if he remembered correctly, pooled in his lap when he sat up and indulged in a stretch, joints popping pleasantly as he lifted his arm above his head. He surveyed the workshop, automatically searching for Tony, but when his scrutiny met a decidedly quiet space, he realized with a jolt of something unpleasant that he was alone. 

It might’ve been panic that raced down his spine, a high-pitched chant at the back of his mind—he left you, he left you, he left you—clawing its way to the forefront, but this time it was easier to smother it back with simple logic. Tony was a man with countless responsibilities who couldn’t baby sit James at all hours of the day and who clearly trusted James to be down here without explicit—human—supervision.

Of course, logic or no logic, Tony’s company was always preferable, but James didn’t have long to ponder just how much he already missed that man because a trilling Dum-E rolled around the corner with a tray precariously balanced on his mechanical claw. James watched, the initial panic now gone to make room for wry amusement, as Dum-E, the poor thing, nearly upended the tray on his way over, but by some miracle of engineering and plain old determination, the bot successfully made it to the couch and James relieved him of the tray as soon as it was within reach. The bot 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 again at this surreal idea—reality—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 dying to show off to a new friend. Those skills included some impressive soldering and somewhat less impressive smoothie making.

Tony was stationed in his own little corner all night, pouring over research 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, their eyes would meet and Tony would always greet him with an indulgent smile. 

There were the occasional comments—“Whatever you do, don’t drink the smoothies. Ack, Dum-E, no, you gotta be gentle with our newest guest. Sorry, they love meeting new people,”—but for the most part, James was left to explore the workshop while the bots kept him company. 

He looked down at himself and made an exasperated face. Passing out like that wasn’t exactly part of the plan, but as far as he could remember, all he did was grab one of Tony’s electronic tablets to pull up a science magazine Tony recommended and then the next thing he remembered was waking up to old nightmares.

The ones Tony chased away.

James sighed, then realized it was a ridiculous, pining sort of sigh, and so to get his mind off Tony—oh, how he hoped his handlers were rolling around in their graves because their Fist of Hydra was sighing and pining like a lovelorn teenager over Tony Stark—he focused instead on the offered tray. Breakfast, by the looks of it and he tried a spoonful of the pink yogurt to find it fruity and sour and perfect for his tastes. There was also a steaming mug of tea and a note that he grabbed as soon as he spotted it. He recognized Tony’s writing—his g’s looped in a peculiar way—and there was something so endearing about Tony leaving him a hand-written note. James tried not to let the butterflies in his stomach get too wild lest he also swoon like a heroine in a bad western.


Sorry to bail on you so soon, but Avenging is never done. 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), 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 and yeah, we totally do), but I know the introductions might 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!


James read the note twice, pouting the entire way through his second read. This was confirmation that Tony wouldn’t be around for a while, which obviously dampened his mood, but at the same time, he also needed to sit down and think, about his situation and his future, and having Tony around was always distracting, to say the least. In the best possible and most pleasant way of course, but distracting nonetheless.

He folded the note 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 yogurt disappeared quicker than he expected and the return of his appetite was a hopeful sign; he’d grab more food later, James promised himself, but right now, he had to get back to his room 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 at him from 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, “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, so probably all he did was grimace menacingly. He knew he was safe here, but once he made the decision to make the damn call, with the next step of actually calling looming over him, with Tony gone and the Compound still so unfamiliar… The earlier good mood and restful countenance evaporated as soon as he stepped out of the workshop and old habits kicked back in.

God, it didn’t take long for him to revert back to a paranoid ness, did it?

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 Colonels Rhodes and Danvers 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 became downright pleasurable the longer he let himself stand under the water while it massaged 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 however was also a reminder that his injury needed professional help. 

With his permission, Tony had begun preliminary work on the new arm; 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 so grand and so 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. 

Letting Tony take him to see a doctor, letting him install the new arm, those were the responsible, logical, healthy things to do, no matter how much it all made him want to run and hide, but those were gut-churning decisions left for another day. He let the thoughts wash away as he watched the water swirl around his feet. There were other hurdles to overcome today.

He was clean and dressed in new clothes that fit him almost perfectly and so James’ spirit valiantly clung to this feeling of wellness, but in the end even that was a futile task. James paced the length of his room while anxiety reared its ugly head again, then grew and grew until he could feel his ribs nearly cracking under the pressure.

He told himself that the worst had already happened. There was nothing Steve could possibly do to hurt him further. 

If you don’t dig the bullet out, it will just fester, James, come on. He stopped, squared his shoulders, and willed his heart to stop acting like a frightened bird beating its wings against its cage.

“Miss Friday? Is there a way for me to call Steve without risking my location?”

“Certainly. I can dial the number and you may simply speak or you may use your cell phone to call him—oh, and let me just say, excellent choice of color scheme—but whatever you choose, I will ensure that Mr. Rogers cannot access your information, including your location. The most advanced tracking technology cannot get past my security protocols. Although,” she added with a huff, “I sincerely doubt that your former colleagues have access to even the most rudimentary of technology given that there were flip phones involved.”

She sounded as offended as Tony did and at any other time, James would’ve loved the banter, but he was too busy eyeing the cell phone sitting innocuously on the night stand to appreciate Friday’s charm. He decided he needed something physical, an illusion of control where he could begin and end this conversation on his own terms, so he marched to pick up the phone before he lost his courage. With clumsy fingers, he dialed the number, brought the phone to his ear, exhaled while his entire body went still, and listened.

“Hello?” The answer came after three dial tones and James’ stomach clenched automatically, Steve’s voice now inciting an unsettling combination of both friend and threat and his nerves didn’t know what the hell to do with that.

He forced his mouth to form the words. “Steve, it’s me.”

There was a sharp intake of breath, then, “Bucky? Oh thank god— Bucky, 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 there he held his tongue.

“Bucky, you have to come back, it’s not safe for you out there. Do you need our help?”

Bucky. Bucky, Bucky, Bucky. James didn’t realize how much that name grated on him until he spent a day not hearing it.

“The apartment’s not safe either.”

“What are you— No, Bucky, no, Wanda is not a threat to you. Look, 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. 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 only 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, and 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.”

The pause that came wasn’t surprising. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m saying— I don’t want to be around—” 

God, why was this so hard to explain? 

He almost forgot what it was like to struggle with words. With Tony, they came easier, coaxed gently by a welcoming patience, and even around the others, like Friday and Rhodes, the struggle didn’t seem so pronounced. The expectations were different here, he supposed. ‘Be a good man’ instead of ‘be this man’. It was easier to forget he was broken. 

“I will not be around her,” he finally managed, the corners of his eyes prickling with the sting of futile tears, but he was proud of making his choice clear.

“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 bothered to tell me that.”

There was a pause again and perversely, all James could think about was Siberia.

Don’t bullshit me, Rogers! Did you know?


“She was Hydra,” Steve finally said, his voice so damn sure, so absolute, but it didn’t mean a damn thing. “But she changed and I didn’t want anyone 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 who had vivid, living memories of Steve’s friendship, of Steve’s supposed goodness.

“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?”

Again there was no immediate reply. Maybe Steve was struggling to find a proper excuse, James didn’t know, but when the man spoke, his answer was a simple, “You’re not yourself right now, Bucky.”

Steve should’ve taken another damn minute to think.

James felt his legs go weak, suddenly drained of all that super soldier energy thrumming through his body earlier, so he lowered himself to the floor without any of the usual grace afforded to a master assassin. He slumped against the back of the bed.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” he asked quietly.

“Get what?”

“I’m not that guy anymore, Steve. I’m sorry, I know you miss your old life, I know it’s not fair that— that you lost everything, but… we have to face reality.”

“No, don’t say that, please. Reality is what we make of it. You just haven’t had the help you need.”

“You think 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 was a step too close to condescending. “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 frustrated sound and it was easy to 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 when I didn’t know where you were or if you were alright. I just want you safe, Bucky, that’s all. Please, let me know where you are and I’ll come get you. 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, did nothing to convince James of Steve’s trustworthiness.

Steve probably believed every word he said to James; he probably didn’t intend for James to get hurt either, 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 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 string a full sentence together without choking on the 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 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 being around Tony taught him that he didn’t have to revert back to a man he barely remembered in order to be treated with basic decency. Hell, in his most private fantasies, James even let himself believe this new version of him was worthy enough to be outright loved someday too. 

“Steve, I can’t, I’m not coming back.”

Steve didn’t accept that; he tried again to convince James otherwise, first with the pleading, then by jumping into excuses and explanations. James was wrong about Wanda, this whole thing was just a big misunderstanding, James must’ve misinterpreted the situation, overreacted, and it was nothing more than James’ trauma overlaying images of his former Hydra tormentors onto Maximoff, who was clearly just an innocent bystander caught in the middle of James’ panic attack. 

James let Steve talk, let the words fall and fall and fall, and wondered whether Steve thought this diatribe was convincing. He closed his eyes, a headache already pounding at the back of his skull. No magic this time, only simple pain borne of sheer frustration and hopelessness, and James hated this wretched sense of knowing nothing he said would matter in the end. 

Maybe, after all the sacrifices Steve had made for him, it made James selfish to feel relief that there were miles and world-class security separating them today. The separation was crucial. If they were both in the same room, close enough for James to see Steve’s pleading gaze, to hear the nuances in his voice as he begged James to stay with him, maybe he would simply give in again. It’d almost be easier to give up this control, to 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 repeated while the guilt and the pride tore him to pieces. “Not until…” God, was there even a path that could lead James back to that place? “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 this when we’re together again. I hate this and I’m worried. The last thing you need is to be alone right now.”

They were going around in circles. James would say one thing and Steve would promptly ignore it. Rinse and repeat. James gripped the phone tighter and any other contraption would’ve shattered under the pressure, but apparently Tony had this phone reinforced. Thoughtful, even back then, even when he and James were basically strangers with nothing but an awful past to share between them.

The thought reminded James that he wasn’t alone and it was so tempting to inform Steve of 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. 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 said, “I’ll be fine on my own. 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.” The guilt of lying so effortlessly was lost in the anger and the echoes of melancholy. “So don’t bother looking, okay?”

“That’s not fair, Bucky. You know I’m not going stop worrying, so why can’t you just— After everything we went through, after everything I’ve done—”

“I didn’t ask for any of it!” God, he already carried that guilt, he didn’t need a damn reminder. “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 were silenced with a touch and James tossed the phone over his shoulder. It landed on the comforter with a soft thump.

He could feel the tell-tale prickle of tears again, moisture gathering at the edges of his vision, but he fought it, forcing himself to call on the 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 to sever this connection so thoroughly, to turn his back on the man who helped to 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 quite right. Steve nearly killed Tony to protect Bucky and he couldn’t just 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 amid the images of warm brown eyes and soft smiles, and James admitted his desire to stay here was not entirely due to the threat of Maximoff’s powers and his issues with Steve.

Swiping at his cheek to get rid of the evidence one treacherous tear left behind, James forced a deep exhale out of his lungs and got back up to his feet. Everything was raw and aching inside him, but sitting here and moping wasn’t going to do 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 over her reply. “Are you worried about him?”

This time, she made a peculiar noise 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. With nothing else to do, James 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 to make 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 web-slinging 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 mischievous part of it?

Not wanting to show up unannounced and risk getting another bolt of magic to the face, James asked Friday to check if the 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 room, this time without Tony guiding the way.

Chapter Text

Steve stared at the phone, helpless, struggling to comprehend, and the seconds ticked by—one, two, three—before the tension inside him finally snapped and he slumped over his knees, the phone tossed aside. 

That phone call, it started off on such a high note, the mere sound of Bucky’s voice filling him with near-hysterical elation, and yet, it ended in the worst possible way. 

Bucky rejected him. 

Steve dragged rough fingers through his hair, forcing his racing thoughts into semblance of control. 

How could this happen? After everything they’ve been through, why would Bucky do that?

“Please tell me we got something,” he said, the words meant for Natasha who was in charge of tracing the call. At first, Steve thought it’d be nothing more than a precaution, the location only useful if Bucky were in serious trouble. Somehow, what actually happened was worse and Steve needed that location now. Desperation clawed its way up his spine, demanding answers, but all Natasha did was let out this soft little sigh, one that sounded like defeat, and Steve didn’t bother looking up.

“I have plenty of something,” she still offered, “but none of it is what we need. The tracer is currently placing Barnes at…” She drew the word out to give herself time, presumably to look at the data. “Sao Paulo, the outskirts of Tokyo, a mountain range in Canada, eastern Ukraine, and… Ah yes, that one hot dog stand in Central Park that always gives Clint a stomach ache.”

“That’s because they put mystery gristle in their hot dogs.”

“You’re the one who keeps coming back there.”

Now Steve did sit up to look over his shoulder, ready to tell them that he didn’t appreciate this banter, not when one of their own was missing and in trouble. Natasha’s steely gaze met his own however and it was warning enough that he kept the reprimand to himself. At least her expression twisted into something more apologetic as she said, “You’re dealing with the Winter Soldier, Steve. He’s a ghost and finding him is difficult on a good day. Here, like this?” She waved a hand at a counter full of technology that would’ve been right at home at a Stark Expo—Howard’s Stark Expo, eight decades ago. “We’re not exactly working with top-tier tech here.”

“Neither is Bucky though,” Steve countered. “How would he have any tech at all, let alone something that would scramble his location like that? He’s been gone for one day.” 

Why was Bucky hiding at all? Didn’t he know that Steve would die for him, in a heartbeat? Where was he? Was he safe? Why did Bucky insist on acting like Steve was his enemy? Why didn’t he just trust Steve?

There were so many questions and not one satisfying answer.

Steve glanced around the living room, hoping to hear something more promising from one of his teammates. They had all gathered here as soon as Bucky’s name left Steve’s lips, with Scott, who was visiting his daughter, being the only exception. Clint was leaning against the glass door that lead to their unremarkable, tiny balcony and Wanda stood next to him, nervously rubbing her hands, face twisted into a frown. She was wearing a thin top that barely covered her shoulders and Steve tried not to stare at the near-ring of bruises, now a mottled patchwork of blues and yellows and perversely prominent even from across the room. He forced his eyes to look at her face, but already his own throat began to ache in sympathy. No, he couldn’t exactly blame her for the clear display of distress.

Neither one spoke, but Sam, who was perched on the arm of the rickety chair on Steve’s right, shook his head when their eyes met. “Steve, come on, Natasha’s right. We spent two years chasing this guy and that was with Stark’s tech at our disposal.”

“Not to mention making liberal use of Tony’s bank account too,” Natasha murmured and the strange tone of her voice resonated oddly with Steve. She did that sometimes, made these off-handed remarks, usually when Tony was the topic of conversation, and Steve couldn’t tell if it was bitterness or regret or something else altogether hiding behind the words.

It grated on Steve sometimes because Natasha excelled at these sorts of jibes, but in the end, they were just words. He didn’t doubt Natasha. She had stayed by his side through it all, from the fight in Germany to their journey into Wakanda, from their lives on the run to their pardons, and she was here right now, helping Steve put their lives back on track. Her actions spoke louder than the occasional jaded comment. 

And she was technically right. Last time they were on Bucky’s trail, they did have access to money and top-of-the-line technology. Today, they had little more than a stubborn will to plant themselves firmly into the ground and weather this storm.

Admirable, but ultimately useless when trying to find a man who was known for disappearing without a trace.

The phone call replayed itself in his head again, like a film reel stuck on a loop.

“You’re probably right, Sam. 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 makes sense, doesn’t it?” 

Nothing made sense right now.

“Well, what else is there?” Clint asked as he continued to frown at some spot on their dirty carpet. “He doesn’t have any allies, does he? Unless… I mean, 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 hardly necessary. “But that blanket and those shoes we found in his room? Nope, he cannot afford those with his spare change.” Clint snorted, lips pulling apart into a sardonic, sharp smile. “Maybe Barnes is the one with Stark tech. Went and got himself a sugar daddy.”

Wanda rolled her eyes. “Please. As if Stark would help anyone but himself. We all know he’d never lift a finger unless it’s to point at his next victim.”

Clint shrugged, but didn’t disagree, but Steve considered 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 year, especially not with the way he and his ‘team’ have been treating us.” A cold hand squeezed Steve’s core, stealing his breath, as he thought back to that godforsaken bunker. “This is why I don’t want Bucky out there on his own. 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 put in a jail or worse!” 

Damn Clint for planting these possibilities in Steve’s head. Before, he was worried, but now he was outright terrified to think of Tony and every godawful thing he could do to Bucky.

The frown on Sam’s face reflected Steve’s mounting distress. “Damn, I didn’t even think of it like 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’s 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 and Steve clung to that hope. “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.”

“Sure, as long as Barnes stays out of trouble,” Clint said. “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 only added a resolute, “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 shattered your damn tibia!”

She brushed off Clint’s words with a shrug. “Going after a panicked Winter Soldier with a stunner wasn’t my brightest move, I admit it, I just couldn’t think of any other way to subdue him without hurting him. I was a threat and he reacted accordingly. Any of us would do the same.”

“Can we go to anyone about this?” Sam chimed in, ignoring the back-and-forth between the spies. “The Council? The authorities maybe?” 

Steve was about to agree, but 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, his nostrils flaring with renewed agitation. “Let the dust settle. He’ll come back when he feels safe enough.”

“But he’s already safe here!” The words burst out of him and were followed by a frustrated noise clawing its way up Steve’s throat while he tried to choke down the rest of his anger. “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 brush her neck. “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 could help him.” When she opened her eyes to look at him, her gaze was earnest. “I can do it, I can help him, I just need one chance to look inside his head— why are you frowning like that, Sam?”

“Hey, no, I’m not doing anything,” Sam waved his hands in front of him. “I’m just… okay, fine, I gotta be honest, I’m really not comfortable with this whole thing. Barnes hasn’t been happy here since day one. You know him best, Steve, so I tried not to butt in, and yeah, I agree that he shouldn’t be out there alone if he’s in distress. But at the same time, all this talk about getting inside his head—you know, the same guy who’s been brainwashed—all because we’re trying to ‘help’ him… 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.”

Sam held his hands up in surrender and didn’t respond, but he did hop off his seat to walk into their small, adjoining kitchenette. Natasha was there with their meager tech and they exchanged a glance when Sam passed her to open the fridge and grab a beer and that was another mystery Steve hadn’t been able to solve - these looks between Sam and Natasha, unspoken words Steve wasn’t privy to. He wondered if they were sleeping together. 

His sensitive hearing picked up Sam’s muttered, “Yeah, because I’ve never worked with traumatized vets, sure,” just before he took a swig of his beer and Steve tried to steer his thoughts back to the issue at hand. A tired breath escaped him, one of both heartache and surrender. Natasha was right, wasn’t she? There was nothing he could do right now.

The surrender would be temporary of course—he would never give up on Bucky—but he knew when 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. When Bucky comes back, we’ll decide on where to go from here, but until then…”

Until then, Steve had to hope—had to pray—that Bucky was safe and that his luck would hold up just long enough to save him from crossing paths with Tony.

James was still in the hallway when his sensitive hearing picked up on the voices in the kitchen.

“And why not?” a deep, masculine voice filtered through.

“Because!” A higher-pitched voice replied. “For one, Mr. Stark would not approve!”

The memories of the airport fight were a scrambled mess, but the voice sounded vaguely familiar, so James decided 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 that 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.

“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.”

James bit back a groan.

Smooth move, Barnes.  

Of course Loki would hear him coming, he was a damn god. Not the brightest decision on his part, but too late to avoid that and so James rounded the corner to meet his fate, 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—or worse. 

“Sorry,” he mumbled, then coughed while he studied the two, already grasping for words. 

There was Loki, long black hair slicked back, body adorned in black pants, a tight shirt and green sneakers, all of which gave him a perfectly human appearance—and made James momentary mourn his own pair of sneakers. The god was lounging at a 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 was hidden by the mask James recognized from his memories. Spider-man indeed, although by the sound of his voice and the sight of those skinny adolescent limbs, Spider-kid was a more appropriate moniker.

“Oh, no harm done, dear soldier, I’m glad you could join us,” Loki said as his own sharp gaze scrutinized James in turn. Different from the Colonel, who observed James like one would observe a dangerous threat. Loki looked at him like James was some fascinating anomaly instead.

James nodded stiffly, then promptly wished the earth would swallow him whole because this used to be easier, the talking and the charming and the acting like a damn person—but before he could spiral and embarrass himself further, Spider-man finally gave up on sitting still, jumped up off his chair, and bounded up to him, all with enough energy to startle James out of his self-hatred.

“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 behind the mask. “The Colonel told us yesterday, you know, that you weren’t doing so well—with them, I mean—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 taking on a melodic quality, “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 could only wonder how a mask could convey sheepishness so well. 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Barnes, I didn’t mean to, uh, accost you— wait, no!” He whipped his head back around to look at Loki. “That’s not even what I was doing!” The indignant words only managed to 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 foot. 

“Ah, you do remember!” He let out a squeak, then cleared his throat and thrust his hand out. “Ahem. Welcome to the Compound, Mr. Barnes. I’m Spider-man and that’s Loki over there,” he said, trying to make his voice sound deeper. He was mostly failing, which was adorable, and it brought back long-lost memories of another skinny kid James used to know, someone who was long-gone, same as Bucky Barnes, and James tried to tamp down on that brief flash of nostalgia.

“Hard to forget,” James shook the offered hand and tried to smile because this kid was pretty endearing; he hoped his attempt didn’t come off as that weird-looking grimace he gave poor Friday. “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, 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 him in the direction of the table. “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 so much as a chance to be 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 and made the hairs at the back of his neck stand on end. Loki appeared perfectly harmless, yes, but James’ instincts screamed that he was anything but. 

“She probably doesn’t embellish,” he said to Spider-man, then cleared his throat again to force himself to speak louder. “Well, depends on what she’s saying. Wakanda is very impressive.”

“Oh man,” the kid complained 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, you 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, 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 into overwhelmed. It wasn’t entirely bad, but the kid was a lot and it took a deep breath before James managed 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 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 forth 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? Mr. Stark calls him Rhodey—or Platypus or Honeybear—and 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 counting things out on 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.

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 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,” he tried, the urge to reassure Spider-man too strong when the kid sounded so damn earnest, “but you really 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 and just like that, he was left alone with the infamous trickster. He slowly turned to face his other companion and that damn too-clever look in Loki’s eyes hadn’t faded one bit. 

“He’s, uh, he’s quite the kid, huh?”

“He is indeed. Very young and very gifted, both with incredible powers and a bright mind. A kind soul too.” Loki tsked and took a drink from his glass. “I’ve been trying to teach him to ignore all that goodness before it gets him into trouble, but alas, no such luck.” He sighed melodramatically. “I will die of old age before that boy’s goodness grows dim. But never mind all that. Now… James, was it?” Loki didn’t wait for James to confirm. “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 bauble 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 worthy of my loyalty, and until very, very recently, you were one of the people threatening Anthony’s peace of mind. Mostly by association, I suppose.”

Despite his raised hackles and his instincts blaring every alarm, James didn’t begrudge Loki the protectiveness. It was heartening, really, 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 alone 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 enough 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 that 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 and the lake further out. The god took a sip of his drink again, letting out a pleased hum as he savored the taste of what looked to be whiskey. “You see, Anthony has a peculiar tendency to save people. Some who aren’t always worth saving,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

When Loki continued, 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 tilted 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 presented itself. Did what had to be done so that I would never go back into the hands of my jailers, the collateral damage be damned.”

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 newest guest. Plus, my infamy precedes me and I’m certain Anthony has told you all about me. Loki, 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 of ‘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 decipher. “From what I gather, you held out for decades. A veritable eternity when compared to your life span.” He shook his head and sat up, placing his glass on the table. “My sincerest apologies, what a morbid conversation I set us 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 personal quirk, to use endearments with everyone around him, up to and including amnesiac super soldiers met five minutes ago.

He didn’t bother asking—he’d ask Tony later—and Loki didn’t bother letting him ask either, jumping straight into a new topic and spending a few good minutes telling James about the Compound and its residents, only pausing when 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. James flinched when he saw a green bolt of magic that turned into fog obscuring the boy’s face and Loki shot him an apologetic look, but said nothing else on the matter.

“Dear one,” he addressed Spider-man instead, “you seemed to have forgotten your mask.” 

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 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? This is the best day ever!” 

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. With Peter around, even Loki’s presence seemed tolerable. 

Peter was entirely focused on James however. “How do you, uh—where’d you hear about me? You know, the Peter-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 hid his face in his hands and groaned. “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 would never let you live this down.” Without prompting, the god reached for the boxes and began opening them 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 no more than simple answers. 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 choose his words for him when it took a moment too long to reply. He suspected that with Loki, who undoubtedly picked up on James’ peculiarities and discomforts, that was deliberate, but Peter appeared to be simply gifted at putting people 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 this long to see 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’d have to get Tony to take him out to that restaurant one day. 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, and he had to admit that this meeting had gone far smoother 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 being in 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 hoped for.

Peter was still talking, but at some point he began throwing him looks, 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 that didn’t survive Peter’s attempt to get the pieces of fish out of it. His ears were red again. “Oh god, I’m 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 head jerked back up, and he looked 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 and they’re super nice and I was trying to figure out if it’d be rude to ask if you needed someone to show you where the Med Bay was. I could go with you, I don’t mind.”

Between the quiet admission and those 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.”

“Mr. Stark’s pretty great at doing that, huh?” Peter said, smiling again; this one wasn’t one of those big, excited grins, though; it was softer and it reminded James of Tony’s own smiles. 


“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. 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. Always too busy making sure everyone else is 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.”

The return of Peter’s beaming grin was the reward for his awkward offer and James thought, as hope swelled in his chest, that he might 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 now seemed like years ago.  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 Spider-man—Tony’s kid in every way that mattered—because the boy insisted they hang out in the common room after their lunch with the resident Norse god.

Odd, so odd, but also pleasantly domestic and it was easy to admit that he wanted so much more of this. Tony had been leading him to this point from the beginning, so it wasn’t exactly surprising that it took one day, surrounded by basic kindness, gentleness, normalcy, for James to lose any lingering desire to go back to a life filled with pain and dread and indifference.

He took another Lego piece and attached it adjacent 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 and tossed it into the air absently. His mind struggled to remember the finer details of his childhood and whatever he did retain felt no more substantial than facts jotted down on faded paper. The memories no longer held sentimental meaning and those years would always remain in tatters, cold and detached. James had to accept that.

Peter regarded him curiously, so James flicked the Lego piece at the kid, watched him catch it effortlessly, and tried to expand on the memories he did have. “I grew up poor, in Brooklyn, in the middle of what you now call the Great Depression. We played with whatever we had around. All of this?” James gestured at the gorgeous room and the technology seamlessly incorporated into every bit of space. “The future is amazing, but it’s a lot to get used to.”

Peter nodded solemnly. “It’s so weird, isn’t it? That you’re from 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 panic disappeared quickly.

“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 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 at the workshop.

James was up on his feet before Friday had finished speaking and before he realized he had 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 back to a bumbling fool unable to string a sentence together.

Thankfully, Peter had a good, merciful soul 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 and emboldened by the positivity radiating from the kid, decided to part with a teasing, “Like father, like son, I guess.” 

This time, as he walked out, the sound of that adorable embarrassed squeak was James’ reward.

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 wanted to, he wouldn’t have been able to stop the smile spreading across his face at the sight of Tony, who had his back to James as he fussed over something at one of the tabletops. 

James really hoped he was getting better at this smiling thing because Tony deserved something attractive and endearing, not some 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 though.”

Tony must’ve noticed James’ aborted gesture, but he didn’t comment on it, just turned this way and that, looking for something.

“Eh, we had… er, complications,” Tony wiggled a hand. He found what he was looking for—a coffee cup—made a grab for it, took a sip, grimaced, then winced when the expression pulled on the injured part of his face. James gently took the cup out of the genius’ hands and 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 and he 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. “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, around the others, he rarely ‘wore’ anything other than a detached sort of annoyance. There was little room for a wide emotional range when your primary concern was basic survival. Tony, however… This was a man who incited conflict within James, made him question himself, made him doubt, fret, come alight with nerves and excitement and heat, 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 anything other than that damn bruise. 

“Okay, see, how you’re giving me that look too.” 

“What look?”

“You know,” Tony waved a hand in the air, a gesture that didn’t actually explain anything, and James watched Tony deflate with a sigh. “It’s 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, but that’s all.”

James tapped his fingers against his thigh, protective instincts warring with his uncertainty over the boundaries here and with the knowledge that Tony had a stubborn streak a mile wide. “What about a compromise?”


“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. It was also obvious Tony was fighting some internal battle of his own as he considered the offer. Maybe it was simple stubbornness, maybe something else, something to do with Tony’s past experiences, but James could only hope it wasn’t his presence that caused Tony’s hesitance. 

The silence was interrupted by one of the bots whirring to life behind James, but he didn’t look away from Tony and his patience was rewarded with a nod, Tony 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 med-kit into his abdomen, the bot all force and little finesse. Thankfully, super soldier abs were good for something other than a pretty sight. 

“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 teased, although James couldn’t quite tell whether he was talking to him or to U. 

Tony marched over and plopped himself unceremoniously onto the couch and James followed to join him, 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 around. Just… gently suggesting,” James said while he rummaged through the med-kit on his lap, quickly finding the same cream Tony used on him yesterday. “Hmm. The two of us, on the couch, with a med-kit. I feel like I’ve been here before,” he joked and Tony let out a chuckle.

“I guess you do owe me, seeing as how I did patch you up all nice and pretty last night.”

“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. He handed the tube of cream to Tony, who understood the wordless request and squeezed a small dollop onto James’ fingers. James reached out then and gingerly dabbed the silky white substance over Tony’s bruised skin.

Tony hissed as soon as James made contact 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 in. It took another few seconds, but just as James had expected, Tony’s shoulders visibly sagged and he let out a quiet, breathy sound of relief. 

“God, okay, yeah, that feels good, you were totally right,” he mumbled, eyes falling shut too. 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, taking away the pain before warming everything up again.

Tony tilted his head a little, exposing more of his neck and the vulnerability it created was a beautiful, captivating sight. James didn’t let his thoughts get away from him, not this time, and he only 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 tried to remember every detail, 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 only wished the bruise itself would disappear, 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,” he said, his voice a low rumble. He licked his lips, distracting James and 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 after every mission.”

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 dumbass superheroes, but uh…” He blinked one eye open to look at James. “You 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, I suppose, so you’re welcome to it any— any time you need it.” James only stumbled because his mind conjured up other ways his hand could be useful to Tony. God, had he always been so easily distracted by gorgeous men? Or was it just this one gorgeous man in particular? “Although I’d prefer for 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, Snowflake” Tony said. He blinked open both eyes when James pulled his hand away. “Thank you, I do feel a lot better.”

“Now all that’s left is for me to kiss it better, huh?” James said and it took a full second for his brain to catch up with his mouth. He must’ve gone a terrifying shade of white as he hoped the ground would swallow him whole because good god, these streaks of boldness would get him in trouble soon. “I mean— that wasn’t—” 

Tony, the damn menace, was smirking at him, which was better than getting a punch to the face, but it 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. He wouldn’t have been able to manage a single word, but he supposed he didn’t need them.

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 clothed shoulder. A shiver ran down his spine when Tony’s hand came up to brush through his hair at the base of his neck and applied gentle pressure to keep James in place.

James took a deep inhale that brought with it 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,” he whispered, his voice hoarse when it had no reason to be, “all better, right?”

Tony’s hand on his neck tightened 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 breath to chase away the inappropriate thoughts, to will his body to behave, and James sat up, reluctance turning his movements sluggish and Tony’s hand falling away left him feeling bereft. “Any more injuries I need to know about?”

“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, but he began pulling at the hem of his shirt, craning his neck to see his ribs from the awkward angle and 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 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 and trust Tony with the rest.

Despite the cross look on Tony’s face—aimed at the bruise rather than James—he obediently dabbed more cream onto James’ fingers 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 least at first, and it made James’ stomach clench; he murmured soft apologies to make up for it until the medicine 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 former 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 present-day Steve, but James supposed it wasn’t all bad. Preserving this part of his past certainly felt like a giant ‘fuck you’ to Hydra. 

They tried to stamp out every bit of good in him, they wanted a ruthless killing machine, the perfect weapon, but give him freedom from their control and 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 beneath his fingertips. “Now, are you sure there isn’t—”

“No, no,” Tony was already batting James’ hand away and dragging his 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 workshop, but his left hand inched closer until it settled warm and heavy on James’ knee. The touch made his heart leap and James almost stopped breathing, too fearful of spooking Tony away.

“Classified or not, I don’t mind telling you, at least not about the broad strokes, but this one… Well, it was a recon mission, and so happens that it was at an old— an old Hydra base.”

“Oh…” James blinked and took a moment to process the admission. He supposed he understood why Tony was reluctant to say anything, but the effort wasn’t strictly necessary. “You know I won’t wilt away like a flower if someone mentions those damned bastards, right?”

“No, no, I know that, but you had a shitty day yesterday and 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 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 small-town university lab kept getting unusual readings—radiation, and we all know that’s never good—so they reported it to their radiation control office; eventually it got all the way up 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. Information is faulty sometimes, shit happens. We got the source of the radiation out though—just a shocking amount of radium, I don’t what the hell they were planning to do with it—and there was 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 better face James. “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 he had begun craving earlier. 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 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— I don’t know what to do. 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 over James’ knee, soothing him, 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, told me I had a— a flashback to my Hydra days. To hell with him,” James muttered in harsh Russian, “no better than talking to a damn wall.” When Tony only offered a look full of sympathy, James added quietly, “I just told him I wasn’t in New York anymore. Told him if nothing changed, I wouldn’t be coming back either.”

Tony’s crooked smile didn’t reach his eyes. “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… I mean, I was thinking…” 

Tony moved as if to pull his hand away and James acted on instinct, sliding his own beneath Tony’s and 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’s thumb brushed lines over the top of James’ hand now, 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 said, “if you thought about what you wanted to do next. You’re welcome to stay here for 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. 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. 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, at least not in the 21st century.”

“Pepper and I assumed as much. Don’t worry, we’ll get you squared away. Back to 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 here, libraries, hiking trails, a lake—whatever you might need, I’m sure we have it, and uh…” Tony ducked his head. “Oh 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 uncertainty and James decided this wasn’t the right time to play coy. 

“Do you want me to stay?” he asked and his heart almost sank 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 I’m not wanted—”

“But you are wanted,” Tony interrupted, but the words must’ve been unintentional because Tony blanched and tried to correct himself. “I just meant— you’re wanted here, with us.”

The tight grip on James’ hand spoke of another desire, a truth that Tony couldn’t—or wouldn’t—put into words. James wasn’t sure he could either, but he had to try.

“It matters to me, Tony.” He leaned in closer. “Do you want me to stay?”

Tony’s lips parted as he let out a breath. “Yes, I do. I… I like what we have,” Tony echoed the words from their day at the park. “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, of course, just a little bit, but you know I’m gonna claim 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. Ned and Michelle were both familiar faces at the Compound by now and Friday informed him May was here too, spending the afternoon with Rhodey and Hope. Tony made a mental note to say ‘hello’, but that would have to wait until later because he was on a very important mission of his own right now; according to Friday, his resident super soldier was hanging out in the common room, all alone, and Tony certainly couldn’t let that stand.

The kids waved back, offering a chorus of “Hello, Mr. Stark!” to match their cheery dispositions. They went back to their video games and Tony continued his own strut down the hall, relishing the sound of voices and laughter that followed him. Maybe it was silly, this buoyant 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 passive-aggressive reprimands, all that damn fighting 

The original group of Avengers had some good times, although most of those were on the battlefield, but looking back on it all, it was 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 the past, just one more valuable—painful—lesson about family and trust, and that was that. 

As Tony rounded the corner into the common room, he admitted that 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 loveseat, 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 and let his head rest against Tony’s hip. In the same manner, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Tony’s hand reached for James too and began carding through his hair, those long, soft, touchable strands of dark brown slipping between his fingers, and James all but purred at the touch. 

God, Tony really shouldn’t miss someone this much 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, had been a recent—and a delightful—addition and 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 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 as he 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 about, 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, a patented therapist no-no. 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, at least not entirely, 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 after the mission, 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, 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 chemistry between them, the way they fit together like two long-lost puzzle pieces. He fantasized about giving into those desires, about kissing, touching, exploring—taking and taking and taking, only to 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 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. 

Thor and Vision were 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 James, 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 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—and the world—above everything else. Being cautious was part of her job.

Of course, they were amicable and kind and Tony knew it was only a matter of time before they succumbed to James’ natural charm. 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 wearing today? You know it’s summer outside, right?”

That part was a definite tease and was thankfully interpreted as such, James’ eyes peeking up at him again, this time full of amusement, the crinkles at the corners, the way he bit his lip shyly, all of it genuine, real. 

God, how quickly Tony grew to love that smile and those clever eyes. He swallowed and 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 remarked, tilting his chin in their direction. “They’re your only saving grace, even if they do nothing to detract 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 Loki wormed his way into things somehow.” 

James scrunched up his nose and Tony chuckled, mirth spilling over. “Oh god, don’t let Loki anywhere near you. He’ll have you wearing leather and chains 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. “Please don’t tell me you found that 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 back into Tony’s side, then brushed his hand over the top of Tony’s thigh, fingers skirting over the expensive material of Tony’s trousers. It was only a brief caress—too brief—and the hand dropped back down. “I think I’d like to stick to hoodies and sneakers for a bit, if that’s alright. It’s nice, you know? May helped me pick out some quality things. Everything feels good to wear.”

Tony’s heart ached at the unspoken meaning woven into the admission. It darkened this otherwise sweet sense of domesticity, but it was so easy to forget, especially when James was so soft and affectionate, when he smiled and teased, that this man had so much pain 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, 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 all over again. The nights he spent 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, but it was an uphill battle. “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 his right leg up against him and curled his arm around it, 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 at least, so I haven’t— haven’t picked anything or—”

“Hey, hey, you’re fine,” Tony soothed when James began to stumble. “James, this is amazing. The fact that you’re thinking about it at all, even though you have every right to, I dunno, take eight decades of a sabbatical… It’s fantastic.”

“Assassin spies don’t do well on the job market or so I hear.” James shrugged his right shoulder, but some of his earlier confidence had returned.

“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 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. “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? Sure. 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… That was why I said you could weaponize the new arm, remember? I can do it, I can 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 conversations were unavoidable.

“I’ll admit it’s not something that can happen overnight, but down the road, when you’re feeling stronger, when all of us have had time to understand each other and grow closer, to 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 know 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 things anyways. And,” Tony emphasized with a stern finger, “by no means should you halt your college aspirations because of what I just said. You can do both, neither, whatever you want.” 

James nodded, but there was something still 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 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, 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 his own 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 like this, 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

James was no longer a stranger to Tony’s workshop, but somehow it still managed to steal his breath away. Every time he entered through the glass doors, he was enveloped by the future, which would’ve been enough to make the starry-eyed fanatic inside him content, but the workshop was also an extension of Tony, who always took James’ breath away, so maybe the awe flooding him as he stepped inside today wasn’t so strange after all.

Slowly making his way through the workshop, James drank in the details again, always discovering something new and exciting the longer he looked. Tony had summoned him a few minutes ago and to pretend he wasn’t outright eager to spent more time down here would’ve been foolish; even the fact that he was here for more scans to prepare for the new arm hardly dampened the flutter of excited nerves. 

When the workshop was still nothing more than the background in photographs he received from Tony, 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 sorts of spaces buried deep beneath 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, and 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 complete opposite of every awful memory James carried with him.

Because despite the benches laden with tools and metallic parts shimmering in the blue light of the holograms hovering above them, despite the impressive machinery performing its complex duties while filling the air with beeps and whirrs, despite every inch of this place screaming ‘Technological genius at work!’, the space felt immeasurably loved. 

The workshop was spacious and colorful; it exemplified chaos and yet everything had its 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 sneakers tucked in a corner, a stack of vinyl records in another (those James did recognize). A geometry textbook and notes were tucked away on one of the benches, a colorful blanket was thrown over the back of the couch (same one that kept James warm when he took his very first nap 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 that ‘the brats’ loved to decorate for the holidays, but never got around to taking any of the decorations down. 

And then of course, no Hydra or Soviet lab had ever come equipped with this happy welcome.

“Hey, easy, you two! Why do you always ambush him like that, huh? 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 enough to give Tony the opportunity to take James’ hand and steal him away, all the while threatening the mechanical troublemakers with a donation to the natural history museum if they didn’t get back to their assigned duties (U was supposed to be sweeping and poor, sweet Dum-E was supposed to be not making a bigger mess).

“The fact that you’re not down here every day is a tragic oversight, I agree.” 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? I can’t believe how busy I’ve been.”

“You’ve been home nearly all week now. I can hardly complain,” James said. He settled into the chair pulled out for him, the thing lumpy and creaky and nothing like the damn thing Hydra used. It helped that he didn’t have to lie back either, but he took a deep breath to steady his nerves nonetheless, letting Tony’s voice wash over him as the genius argued with Friday about the best way to update and organize the existing scans. 

Today was meant to be the final set before Tony would begin building the arm in earnest and although James had cooperated with Tony’s every request thus far, he still wasn’t sure whether he was ready for this prosthetic to be a reality. It wasn’t a moral dilemma, per se, nor anything to do with Hydra and the old arm. Rather, the thought of Tony building this arm, giving it to him, making him whole again, filled James with a sense of inadequacy. He was unworthy. Wasn’t he? Shouldn’t some other, more deserving person receive this level of care?

Tony and Friday came to a compromise, finally, and Tony sidled up to James, gracing him with another smile and a playful wink, both obviously meant to put James at ease. 

“You ready?”

James supposed the care 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, sat up straight, and held himself still—Friday was very sweet, but she would ruin his day if he fidgeted again and turned all of her images grainy—and Tony directed Friday to begin. She was the one in charge of moving the scanning device to access every necessary angle and she was nothing if not efficient; 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.

The scans themselves took a mere handful of minutes and with a few suggestions from Tony, Friday took over the rest of the process, taking the first swing at analyzing the gathered data. 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 them something; James dutifully took a raspberry when Tony sat back on his rickety bar stool and offered him the procured tray of fruit. 

Tony munched his way through an apple slice as he studied his super soldier. “How’s your shoulder doing? 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. “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, remember? Not exactly a walk in the park.”

Tony couldn’t help but glance at what remained of James’ left shoulder. Everything was carefully bandaged and covered to keep the risk of infection and irritation low and to keep the scarred flesh out of sight, but Tony was there when the surgeons painstakingly separated the metal from James’ skin and worked diligently to preserve both the connective tissues and the wiring that would facilitate the control of the new arm. All that circuitry had essentially replaced a part of James’ nervous system and was now wired straight into his brain. Tony had to see in vivid detail what those bastards did to James, the crude way they pieced this man together. The science and tech was admittedly brilliant, especially for its time, but it was obvious that the comfort of the patient had never been a concern. Efficiency and effectiveness only. 


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, he was certain 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 any intention of abandoning James. He tapped his chest and said, “Ask Pepper, I practically had her holding my hand the entire ten hours it took to get the reactor and the shrapnel removed and I was out like a light for most of it. 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 and 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 placed his trust in Tony, to keep him safe, to watch over him as more 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. It spared James most of the pain, but he was forced to remain awake for the whole thing. 

Given his expertise, the Sorcerer Supreme got involved too, so Tony let the man supervise and direct while he kept himself busy elsewhere. Adorned in the same scrubs and mask as everyone else, he parked himself next to James and focused on keeping the man distracted through the whole surgery. The banter was one-sided and Tony’s voice actually grew hoarse after several hours of chatter, but to his credit, he was a deep well of interesting anecdotes; 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. 

Between Tony’s tech, the surgeons’ hard work, and Stephen’s hovering, the surgery went off without a hitch. When everything was set and done however, the way Stephen looked at Tony… Knowing didn’t begin to cover it; smug and self-satisfied were basically Stephen’s default expressions and therefore did not require a mention either, but whatever that look entailed, it earned itself an unimpressed glare and an order to mind his own business rather than the copious thanks Tony should’ve been offering.

Thankfully, he and Stephen weren’t in the habit of thanking each other and Tony couldn’t exactly stop any of the Compound residents from picking up on the growing feelings between him and James, but he could certainly delay the inevitable and pretend that Stephen and Loki weren’t sequestered somewhere cozy to discuss how Tony and James—scandalously—held hands the other day.

“I would’ve done anything to help ease the process,” he reiterated, trying to get away from any and all thoughts of Loki and Stephen, “and I’m just glad the surgery is done. Once the arm is ready, attaching it will go that 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, not even during Tony’s momentary pause to mull over the memories, still too busy watching his fingers skirt over a jean-clad thigh. 

“Hard to believe I’m rid of that thing. Feels like I can breathe again, like— like Hydra doesn’t own any part of me anymore.” The fingers stilled and curled into a fist. “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 stop to think about everything that happened… I thought—” He pulled in a breath, closing his eyes, as if to steel himself for something painful. “You have to understand, I thought I would rot away in that apartment. I might have left eventually, I don’t know, but I’m not sure I would’ve had the strength to deal with Steve’s inevitable protests. I’m not sure I cared enough about myself to leave. But then— then you came and you saved me. Not only from Maximoff, not just from Steve’s stubbornness, but from myself too… ”

With that sad frown marring James’ face, with his tone so heavy with resignation, Tony could no longer fight the siren call urging him to get close, to comfort, to make everything alright, so he abandoned his seat, planting himself in front of James; like this, with James still seated, Tony had a few inches of extra height, and he watched those pretty eyes flutter open to look up at him.

Every time they did this dance, getting closer and closer, Tony would watch James, for a flinch, a frown, any inkling of fear, and his desires be damned, Tony had every intention of backing off if there were even a hint of discomfort, but there had never been any distress. Even now, James spread his legs just a touch wider when Tony stepped in between them and he looked up at Tony so trustingly, chin tilted up to reveal his lean neck. Long hair framed his face and Tony gave into the urge to touch—again and again, because self-control was for someone stronger than Tony—to brush a few strands away from James’ forehead, tucking them behind his ear. He couldn’t resist brushing his thumb over the sharp line of that jaw, then down over the neck. James’ eyes fell shut again and he swayed closer.

“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 happy I got to know the real you, without anyone interfering or trying to get between us. I have no regrets about what happened. I only wish I would’ve done it all 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 at all?”

Tony opened his mouth, but whatever answer he was prepared to give was overshadowed by an intrusive reminder. 

I wrote you back because I wanted revenge on your best buddy Steve.

Tony tried to push it away, to ignore the thought, because that wasn’t true, was it? He wasn’t using James in any way. He wasn’t, no matter the sharp pang of guilt that lanced through him when he thought back to those days, the earliest ones, when he wouldn’t have cared whether James were dead or alive. 

Despite their unsavory beginnings, Tony had tried to do the right thing, especially when James became a real, breathing person to him and not simply an inconvenient extension of Steve. Tony tried to offer him genuine support with no strings attached, to have 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 inappropriately-timed self-reflection a mental shove and searched for the simplest truth—or at least the parts of it that didn’t involve Steve. 

“At first, it just felt like something I had to do. I came to terms with what happened between us, I forgave you, and it was only fair to let you know that I did. Honestly, I never actually thought you’d reply to my silly note.” That part was true and Tony rewarded himself by letting the back of his knuckles brush against James’ cheek. “And 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 experiences with everyone but you.”

Tony leaned into James’ space too, just close enough for their noses to barely brush before he pressed his forehead against James’, cradling his 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. 

“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 cling to a fistful of Tony’s shirt, as if trying to keep him close, and Tony wanted nothing more than to feel that hand trail up just a bit further—hell, trail down too. He wanted James to touch him everywhere.

He really wanted to lean in and kiss James too. 

“Tony… You gave me your forgiveness, your kindness, your home. It’s just so much 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, no matter how thankful I am for everything you’ve done for me, but god, the way you make me feel…” James tilted his face just a fraction and it left all but a hairbreadth distance between their lips; the grip on Tony’s shirt loosened and the hand trailed down, 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 and—”

Tony flinched. Ice ran through his veins as the words registered above the haze of lust and he stumbled back, pulling away, feeling infinitely colder as soon as he lost contact with James. He groaned in shame as he turned away, muffling the sound into his hands.

He couldn’t force himself to see any more 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 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 more suspect desires. 

Having Tony pull away so suddenly felt like a physical blow and it left James breathless, confused, and most of all 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.”

James couldn’t disagree more. Tony’s back was still turned to him, Tony still refused to look at him, and the way he pulled away, as if burned—no, some awful part of him whispered, James should be begging for mercy right now.

He realized with no small amount of shame that these thoughts were remnants of his conditioning, a Pavlovian fear of being punished, and he hated the way his heart hammered away all the same, even though this wasn’t true fear. He couldn’t help the pathetic plea that escaped him either. 

“Please tell me what I did wrong.”

Tony let out another frustrated noise, then scrubbed his face none-too-gently, and despite his half-petrified state, James had to ignore the desire to pull Tony’s hands away to halt the rough treatment.

“James, you didn’t do anything wrong. Good god, it’s— it’s not like that at all.” Finally, Tony turned to face him, hands dropping to his sides; one of them began picking at the cuff of his shirt. “This is— this is me trying to do the right thing, okay? Even if I—” Tony cut himself off and pressed his lips together, the crease between his brows deepening, expression becoming pained. “James, if the only reason you’re doing this is because you think you need to pay me back, then what kind of person would I be if I took advantage of that?”

Tony met his eyes when he asked the question and the earnestness of that gaze was enough to cut through James’ self-flagellation. He replayed back his own words and although it took him a second to grasp Tony’s reluctance, he could see now how easily his offer could’ve been misinterpreted.

Tony was undeniably wrong in his assumptions of course. James’ desire to touch and to kiss and to explore, to rediscover how to give another person genuine pleasure, to hear his name on Tony’s lips whispered in ecstasy… None of those things had anything to do with being grateful, but he supposed their difficult history and the complicated dynamics between them made proving any of it a challenge.

He forced air back into his lungs and dug his palm into the meat of his thigh to clear his mind. He needed to concentrate and he hoped his words wouldn’t fail him.

“I meant everything I said. I am thankful,” he began, choosing the words carefully. Baring his soul like this, it was terrifying, but he wasn’t a damn coward. “How can I not be thankful? You’ve done so much for me. 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’m grateful, yes, but at the same time, I look at you and I— God, Tony, I do want this. And you.”

Tony’s expressive face couldn’t hide his inner struggle. Tony wanted this too, but he was holding himself back and causing himself distress in the process. All because he was trying to protect James.

“See, that sounds good on paper, but you’re also telling me exactly what I want to hear and how can I be sure if—”

“If I mean it or if I’m just saying it keep the nice things I’ve been given.” James finished flatly, sparing Tony from having to say it.

“Exactly. Even though that sounds awful too because it’s like I’m implying that you can’t think for yourself.”

“No, I know you’re not. You’re just… You’re 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, he stood up, thankful that Tony didn’t try to move away again. There was no flinch, no step back, nothing but that same pained expression, almost all of it guilt, now that James could see it in a different context. “Forget about protecting me for a minute. Just tell me… Do you want more than what we have?”

He was putting his fate into Tony’s hands all over again, but that trust was rewarded when Tony nodded.

“I do, yes.” 

James smiled and how could he not when this was the answer he wanted to hear? The only thing playing against his elation was the regret that he couldn’t just kiss Tony right here and now.

Tony was right, as difficult as it was to step back and look at the 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 more nefarious, like manipulation or greed?

Of course Tony 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.

If only Tony knew how much stronger James had become in these past few months, because of Tony, but he supposed there was no rush. For once, he could think about a future for himself, 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 to be with him. Whatever he and Tony could have together, James wanted them to have it as equals.

“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 those unsteady breaths and the flush dusting across his cheeks, Tony was having similar struggles with his willpower.

“Time, yeah, uh—” Tony visibly swallowed. “That’s all I want. I— I wasn’t rejecting you.”

“I know that now. I’m sorry it took me a second to understand what you were doing, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised…”

“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 that tightly wound tension began to slip away. His shoulders slumped, the lines between his brow softened, and he swayed a little, still drawn to James. Risking another moment of boldness, James reached out and drew Tony against his chest and a wave of relief washed over James when Tony sank into the embrace and two arms came up to wrap around his waist.

“I just don’t want to hurt you,” Tony whispered. “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. He gave Tony a comforting squeeze, relishing the press of their bodies.

“Can you promise me something?” he asked and 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… I need you. I don’t want to lose this.”

Tony sighed, but made no move to pull away. “I’m not sure I could give up any of this even if it was the right thing to do…”

“Isn’t the right thing whatever makes us both happy?” 

Tony offered a hesitant nod and although neither said anything else, they remained where they were for a while longer, content to hold each other close. Well, mostly content, because James still wanted one simple kiss, so after a minute, he pressed his lips to the crown of Tony’s head and whispered, “You make me happy, Antosha.” 

So let me prove that to you so that I can make you happy too.

Chapter Text

No matter the clichés, movie nights were sacred at the Compound. They were less a ‘team-bonding’ exercise—arguing about the scientific feasibility of starships hurdling through space 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.

Instead, movie nights meant indulgent, unhealthy, delicious take-out and enough popcorn to bury a small child. There were snacks and candy; cozy blankets and soft pillows; and at least an hour spent arguing about the movie they were 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 times. In their chaotic lives, familiarity was a welcome friend and an old movie also gave everyone the chance to whisper, talk, argue, or outright pass out without missing any crucial plot points. With a house full 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. 

Of course, not everyone always made it and tonight the theater room did look a bit sparse, with at least half the team out on various business. From his spot on the couch at the back of the room, Tony could see a recently returned Vision sitting in one of the seats closer to the screen, head propped up on his fist as he idly flipped through a book. The android was intent on taking periodic trips to see the world in order to find ‘inner peace’, but as Tony had expected, each time he only came back with nothing but more souvenirs and a massive slideshow of selfies to add to his collection. 

Ever the busy woman, Hope was furiously typing away on her cell phone, but at least she was dressed for the occasion, clad in fuzzy pajamas and with her long hair pulled back into a messy bun. Rhodey’s spot a seat over was empty, but his voice could be heard from the adjoined kitchenette where the industrial-sized popcorn machine merrily popped the kernels, filling the room with the mouth-watering smell of salt and butter.

Unable to resist any longer, Tony gave his surroundings a wary glance and satisfied that no one else was around, he abandoned his spot to patter over into the kitchen (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). 

He engaged in some friendly bickering with Rhodey and Bruce while studying his popcorn options; he amended his original plan to get regular, boring popcorn and made a bee-line for the caramel corn instead, his sweet tooth singing its praises. 

Dumping several bags into a giant bowl, Tony carried it all back and to his delight, he found James already sitting in his designated seat right next to Tony’s. A bright smile blossomed on James’ face when he spotted Tony with 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’ arrival—mostly between Tony, the brats, and Loki—to determine who would get the honor of sitting with James and explaining to him the wonders of modern pop culture. Peter and Harley 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 also had a sneaking, displeased suspicion that James’ good looks had something to do with it too. Loki was a surprisingly loyal partner, but he flirted with the same ease as he breathed, which Tony found infinitely annoying (Rhodey said it was because Loki simply did the whole ‘natural flirt’ thing better than Tony, but Rhodey was a traitor with terrible taste, so the jury was still out on that one).

The argument ended on a mutual agreement to let James choose and Tony almost felt bad about going along with it so readily. It was a terrible strategy—on everyone else’s part—but he felt no guilt as he watched James enter the theater, look around, spare no more than a wave for everyone else as he settled those pretty eyes on Tony before coming over to ask if the empty seat next to him was taken.

Everyone else should’ve known that Tony was undeniably James’ favorite, but if they didn’t know it then, they knew it now. After all, James had been at the Compound for a few months now and had become a familiar and welcome sight, with even Hope and Carol warming up to him. There were no more wary glances, 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 Hope and Peter (none of which Tony knew about until after the fact)? Who could resist those smiles that grew just a bit brighter each day and somehow still managed to catch Tony off-guard? 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 and convinced half of the Avengers to help him. They ended up turning their kitchen into a veritable pastry shop that filled their entire wing with the scent of vanilla and strawberries and chocolate and everyone went to bed that night satisfied and full of sugary sweets. 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 more than that. This was the kids whining to James about their summer reading, this was Rhodey giving Rogers and his crew the run-around with even more determination now that another family member needed to be protected and it was Loki and Stephen spending nights weaving stronger defensive 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 his late-night talks with James that Tony suspected were much more than simple discussions of favorite tea flavors.

It was so undeniably good to see his family come together like this for someone else; Tony savored every moment of camaraderie and acceptance, knowing intimately how vital these interactions were, how it changed your perspective on life and on your own self-worth.

Who would have thought, just a year ago, that Tony and James would both end up here, a part of the same family? 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. He 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 yet, so he was keeping the super soldier all to himself tonight for as long as he could.

Of course, that had nothing 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 James’ blanket and worm his way underneath it, refusing to accept that it wasn’t big enough for two. Finding another blanket would’ve be such a hassle though and besides, they could make this work. It just meant Tony had to sit all pressed up against James. 

James watched Tony’s burrowing and wriggling and general fussing with a fond sort of look and he didn’t move to get away, which left them pressed shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, cozy and warm, and this definitely 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. He tossed a few kernels of the sweet corn into his mouth. 

“You cozy over there?” he asked.

James’ answer was to press their palms together under the blanket, fingers intertwining.

“Cozier than I would’ve been with Loki,” he said teasingly, giving Tony’s hand a squeeze. Tony swore that every time James did this, took these small, bold steps to draw Tony in, to pull them both closer to something so tempting and exciting and terrifying, Tony’s entire being flipped upside down all over again. 

He smoothed a thumb over the top of James’ hand as silent encouragement.

“Well good then,” Tony said, deliberate in keeping his voice light. “Oh, and good luck getting your hand back, by the way. I’m holding onto it until further notice. 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. I am very protective of my popcorn.”

James held onto Tony’s hand tightly and tilted his head to see Tony better, lips stretching into something 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 the fantasy spun out of control, Tony plucked a kernel from the bowl, held it up between three fingers, and presented it to James.

It was meant to be more of their usual teasing, but oh—that was not what it turned into as James wrapped his lips around Tony’s fingers, a hint of tongue brushing over the skin, and 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 licked his lips. “Mmm, caramel with a hint of popcorn.” His eyes were bright as he smirked and drawled in unapologetic Russian, “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 there too, in that husky Russian no less, which was irresistible in its hard-won confidence, a reflection of James growing more comfortable in his skin day by day, and if Tony didn’t know any better, he would say he was being seduced—

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 popcorn into his mouth and made obnoxious moaning sounds to let James know what he was missing out on. If nothing else, the ridiculous display made James laugh.

Everyone else began to file back in, so the unabashed flirting had to be put on hold, and soon Friday started up the next movie in the queue. For the past month, movie nights were devoted to iconic Disney films and today they had another handful of classics. Tony was looking forward to James’ open curiosity and wonder again, the way James 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 video Peter insisted on showing him last week where a tiny gray kitten booped just like that and fell asleep where it sat. 

James went from seductive and sexy to sleepy-kitten adorable in the span of an hour and Tony decided that it was absolutely criminal for one man to wield that much power. 

They hit their first interlude between movies soon after and while some of the others moved around, stretching and going back into the kitchenette to restock on snacks, Tony sat and watched James as he blinked open his eyes, squinting at the overhead lights as they 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, so he could rub at his eye with the heel of his hand while his mouth stretched around an idle yawn. “Didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

“I know Disney movies aren’t all jam-packed action, but—”

“No, no, that’s not it,” James wiggled around to get more comfortable as he sat up, 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 wasn’t exactly reassuring. “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 the whole Maximoff thing that’s still bothering you?”

“I am better,” James insisted. He was fully awake now, fingers playing with the blanket in his lap. “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 will the nightmares away with his touch alone. “Yeah, I get that, trust me. So is it just the nightmares then?”

“Mostly,” James said, but his one-armed shrug wasn’t convincing, and when Tony didn’t let the point drop, James sighed. “Sometimes I can’t shake off the need to be on full alert. It’s so deep inside me that I can’t— I can’t just—”

“You can’t shut your brain off and relax?”

“Something like that, yes. But 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 part rueful, part sympathetic. “All my best ideas come from the days-long inventing binges, and those come from my brain refusing to shut up and shut down, yeah. But,”  he added pointedly, “I also remember feeling like hell after those.”

“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 difference 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 him. 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, but going by the look James gave him, he didn’t need Rhodey to point out the hypocrisy. “I’m just saying, I don’t want you surviving on bare minimum. The whole point of bringing you here—”

“Was to keep me safe from Maximoff.”

“—Was to get you better. If something is bothering you, there’s no reason we can’t try to fix it.”

The others were coming back and 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 to, obviously. I just wanna help.”

The volume in the room picked 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 James close 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 hum, trying to formulate an appropriate response when his mind merrily pranced down some very inappropriate roads.

He tilted his head, barely able to see James’ profile, 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 surprised oh wasn’t particularly eloquent. “So your mind, it, uh, it associates me with safety then?”

“Makes sense to me. When you’re around, my mind stops running a mile a minute, stops detailing every threat, stops treating every suspicious noise as a threat. But when I go back to my room and lie down… Everything’s cold and dangerous… Even when I know it isn’t. I’m sorry,” James cut himself off with a tired exhale. “It’s not a big deal. Please don’t worry.”

“Hey, you live in my house now, I’ll worry if I want to.”

“Hey, you two,”  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 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, the look unmistakably fond, then waved a dismissive hand at them 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. His words came out a bit breathier than intended and it may have been the intimacy of this whole thing, but James’ nod seemed a bit shaky too. “But let’s take advantage of right now, hmm?”

James glanced at him, clearly confused if that adorable furrow between his brows was any indication, so Tony decided actions spoke louder than words. His left arm found its way around James’ shoulders, then with his hand cupped over James’ head, he pressed it down to rest against him.

James’ body went stiff at first, as if he didn’t know what to do with the gesture, but then the tension vanished and he sagged against Tony. Perhaps the 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 it emanated, and he nearly shuddered when James angled his face so that his nose pressed against Tony’s neck. At that point, Tony couldn’t have been able to say what the hell was happening on the screen if someone had a gun to his head. 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 let his eyes fall shut.

“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.

“You don’t have to protect me,” he said 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, as if seeking Tony’s warmth too; close, so close, and then as if they weren’t already pressed together underneath that blanket at every available point of contact, 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 running inside him, or maybe from the simple mortification of having half of his family and friends in the same room, happily watching the film with no apparent awareness that Tony was currently having the life snuggled out of him by the Winter Soldier.

And what a way to go.

He didn’t die though, not at all. He gave into instinct instead, began carding his hand through James’ hair, hyper aware of every motion and every contact point at first, but as minutes ticked by, as James’ breath slowed and evened out, the caresses became more and more automatic, turning into absent, natural gestures as if Tony had been soothing super soldiers to sleep his entire life. 

Tony let his head rest against James’, drawing in a slow breath and with it the mild, pleasant scent of whatever hair products Friday deigned to order James. His fingers wanted to keep moving, so they trailed down to settle on the impressive curve of James’ broad shoulder, and kept up their absent ministrations with even greater care each time his fingers would skirt over that line where metal used to meet flesh.

At some point, Tony made a genuine attempt to drag his attention back to the movie, but that was a partial success at best. James’ presence wasn’t actually stressful; on the contrary, after that initial shock to his system, Tony found himself relaxing again. It was comforting to have someone so close and there was no movie good enough to keep his attention when he had James in his arms.

When the movie ended, Tony could see that at least some of his companions succumbed to sleep too. Harley and Peter both passed out a while ago and were now being poked and prodded by a long-suffering Loki; after some grumbling Tony couldn’t decipher, the boys managed to stand upright and shuffled out of the room, not sparing anyone a second glance. Tony hoped they were heading for their respective rooms because he had found them both on more than one occasion snoozing away in random locations around the Compound in ungodly contortions. Ah, to be that young and flexible again.

Hope was too busy with her phone again to pay Tony much mind and going by the frown on her face, Tony suspected she’d been talking to Scott Lang tonight. The man had been in contact with her for some time now and although Tony didn’t know the details, he came to recognize the distinct thin line of her lips anytime Lang’s name came up on the phone. Whatever they were working through wasn’t Tony’s business however and he trusted Hope enough not to put the Avengers in danger as she dealt with unfinished issues between her and her ex.

Viz offered Tony a serene wave, not perturbed in the least, before he ushered a half-asleep Bruce out of the theater

That left Rhodey, who wasn’t so keen to ignore Tony and the sleeping super soldier pressed up against him. After turning off the screen and throwing away a few empty bags of popcorn, Rhodey took the stairs up and stopped just before Tony’s couch, head cocked to the side, arms crossed, eyes studying the scene before him. Evaluating. 

The only indication that James was aware of anything was a tightening of his arm around Tony, as if James’ mind had perceived something amiss, but once he made sure Tony was still there and safely in his embrace, James’ brain deemed the rest unimportant.

Or maybe Tony was just projecting, hard.

He looked up at Rhodey and cocked an eyebrow.


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, but his eyes darted between James and Tony.

Is he worth it?

Tony’s hand curved more possessively around James’ shoulder.


Rhodey’s eyes narrowed, 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 and decided to let Tony be Tony. It was that small shake of his head and that huff, defeat and incredulity and something altogether softer and fond, all rolled into one little huff. 

Rhodey walked away with a parting wave and Friday, without needing to be asked, dimmed the lights as Rhodey passed the threshold and the sliding doors closed 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 between the reclined back and the footrests, the couch was practically a bed in itself, so it wasn’t such a bad spot to catch those much needed z’s. 

He relaxed against the plush material, buried his nose into James’ soft hair, pressed a kiss to the same spot—just one and he knew James wouldn’t hold it against him—and let his eyes fall shut, hopeful he’d find his own 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 he be?

With a half-hearted swipe, he sent the hologram into the ether of Friday’s convoluted, but admittedly effective filing system and turned in his seat to let himself stretch, relishing in the way his joints loosened up with the movement. A big, unashamed yawn escaped him and he smacked his lips, then scratched a hand through his beard, idly considering his options. It wasn’t late, per se, at least not by normal people’s standards, but he hadn’t slept all that well the last few nights and it was starting to catch up with him. The couch in the workshop was lumpy, but convenient. His actual bed was much better for his spine, but the suite here never did manage to feel like home and the trek upstairs felt daunting right now.  

Of course, there was a third option on his list of sleeping arrangements.

It was almost a week ago that Tony had woken up in the middle of the theater room, sometime nearing noon, next to a cuddly and well-rested super soldier. 

A mind disoriented from an overabundance of sleep processed sensory input slowly and made decisions at an even more sluggish pace, so at first, the delight of having a warm body to snuggle up against was all that concerned Tony and he may have let out a happy hum while pulling James closer. When their brains did catch up with reality and they both realized they were all but wrapped up in each other, arms and legs intertwined, with James’ breath tickling Tony’s neck and Tony’s hand splayed possessively over James’ thigh and Tony’s body being just on the right side of aroused…

Well, that was when things got a little awkward, because Tony was not a well-adjusted, perfectly rational adult who could handle these sorts of situations with grace. No, instead of grace, he laid there, now completely awake and staring at an equally startled James, and instead of worrying about impropriety or James’ perception of this, his first real worry was that James looked so kissable, but if he just up and kissed James right then and there, that would be a terrible first kiss because they both had awful morning breath, what with the popcorn and the skipped tooth-brushing.

No, worst first kiss ever, even if he really did want to kiss James senseless. James, and his dumb, messy hair and the soft, unguarded expression, and the curve of his nose and the bow of his lips and he was just so warm

So yes, instead of being suave or respectable or anything resembling cool, Tony may have laid there and obsessed over the tiny details that made up a sleepy, disheveled James Barnes, which didn’t help the situation, certainly didn’t help the arousal heating up his blood, and the only option left at that point was to untangle from one another other awkwardly, make fumbling excuses for the entire thing, and flee the scene.

Thankfully, the awkwardness was a temporary affair. After the lives they’ve led and the shit they’ve been through, neither Tony nor James had room for embarrassment, especially over something they both had enjoyed. Things went right back to normal and they saw each other for meals, arm updates, and discussions about James’ future goals. Mostly though, they saw each other just because they wanted to.

The night spent in each others’ arms wasn’t brought up again, but that didn’t mean Tony wasn’t thinking about it; that was some quality sleep right there, no two ways about it, and while being snuggled up with your crush wasn’t exactly a panacea for trauma and nightmares, it sure as hell didn’t hurt either.

And Rhodey did always say Tony should get more sleep, right?

“Hey, Fri, is our resident super soldier still awake?”

“He sure is, Boss.” Her tone mimicked the one she used when asked about Tony’s questionable habits.

“What’s the longest stretch of sleep he’s gotten in the last five days?”

“Longest is three hours and fifteen minutes, although the nightly average overall is approximately 25% higher. Sleeping pattern has been irregular, which is not conducive to overall health.”

“So you keep telling me, baby girl.”

Tony hopped off his seat, listening to Friday give him her usual sass about how worrying over Tony’s life choices ate up all of her processing power; he took the opportunity to stretch out his arms this time, then his back and shoulders, twisting his torso back and forth. A few things creaked, but all things considered, he was doing well for an old man. He was overdue for a sparring session with Hope, actually; without their respective suits, they were well-matched and their training together usually left him sore and bruised, but wiped out in all the right ways. As much as he whined about sparring, he secretly loved working up a sweat since it was one of the few things that calmed his overactive brain. 

He wondered if he could convince Hope to let him spar with James next time… There was an idea. Tony’s mind rolled that image around, remembering what it was like to spar with a super soldier—painful and frustrating, mostly—but this time, his thoughts took a massive detour about two seconds in when he pictured James pinning him down on the mat, sweaty and smirking and smug, with all that gorgeous muscle pressing down on Tony, and—

Tony willed his libido to settle and decided to stick with Hope if he wanted an actual workout instead of an inappropriately timed boner.

As he surveyed the workshop, Tony considered his options again and what he wanted was clear. He wanted to crawl into bed with James, to snuggle up against him again, to feel that strong arm holding him close, to have James whisper his name in that husky tone that made Tony’s toes curl…

He wanted a lot, but it was the motivation behind it all, the why’s and the should he’s

No, he had to stop thinking like that. If he truly wanted this—this friendship, relationship, unabashed love, whatever the words he chose to describe it—if he wanted any of it to work, Tony needed to stop being a damn coward. 

Because so far, it had been James reaching out, asking, risking. God, the reserve of courage that man had to possess to keep making himself so vulnerable to Tony’s whims, to face the possibility of rejection so willingly. Because every touch, every kiss on the cheek, every “Please, Tony…” and “I like what we have,” could’ve been so easily thrown back in his face. 

Tony had to start taking some risks here too.

Far more awake now than he had any right to be, Tony left the workshop with a determined stride, stopping only to grab the blanket from the couch.

James was on the cusp of giving up for the night, the vocational opportunities of the future overwhelming after hours of research, leaving him wiped out and on the wrong side of intimidated, but before he even had the chance to power down the tablet, Tony appeared at his door, dressed down and clearly exhausted, carrying a blanket that looked suspiciously like the old, ratty one from the workshop.

The smile at the sight came unbidden, a reaction so natural now that it took James an actual moment to realize he was smiling at all. 

“Hi. Did you need me for something?”

“No, not really. I was just checking with Friday to see if you were still awake.” Tony tossed the blanket at James and he caught it, letting it settle in his lap to cover up the bright screen of the tablet. “And since you are, I’m thinking we need to start up Insomniacs Anonymous.”

Tony gave him a pointed look and an unsubtle arched brow, but James matched that with an unimpressed look of his own. 

“You have no room to judge, zaika. I know for a fact you haven’t been sleeping either.”

Tony sauntered over and plopped down on the edge of the bed, bouncing a little on the plush mattress. “And that’s why we need a super exclusive club just for us.” 

James pushed the blanket off to the side and put the tablet away on the night stand. “And what will we do in this exclusive club?” 

He played along, his tone light and teasing, but inside he was all nerves again. Tony being here late at night, in James’ bed of all places… Another night together, even when it was the simple act of sleeping next to each other, was a temptation James had no plans to refuse, but if Tony were to hesitate again, to change his mind… 

There was only so much push-and-pull a man could take, and for all that he appreciated Tony’s respect for him and his boundaries, it was driving James up the wall. 

“Well, we wouldn’t sleep, obviously,” Tony began, then paused to crawl over and unceremoniously collapse on the empty part of the bed, moving around to make himself comfortable as he snagged a spare pillow and curled around it. “Sleeping would defeat the whole purpose of the club. Ironically though, I am suddenly dead tired.”

James looked down on him, bemused, and it must’ve been his own confusion that made Tony hesitate—a damn feedback loop between the two of them at this point—because the playfulness faded and Tony started moving away.

“Ah, shit, I made this weird, didn’t I? I can leave, I’m sorry— oomph—” 

Tony let out a heavy breath as James pushed him down, not giving him a chance to sit up, let alone flee. No, no way he was letting Tony out of his sight again, not when the man willingly offered his company—and in James’ bed. He leaned over, one good arm bracketing Tony in.

“Tony, you can’t tease a man like this.” He was close enough now that he could count each one of those pretty, long lashes. “A good night’s sleep is worth its weight in gold, you know.”

“Does it now?” Tony asked, throat bobbing on a swallow.

James propped himself on his elbow and it put him even closer to Tony, the tips of their noises almost touching. Some of James’ hair fanned out over his face when he moved and Tony was the one to tuck it away.

“Would you like to stay, Tony?”

“I think it’ll be good for both of us, yeah.”

James’ eyes dropped, unmistakably, to Tony’s lips. “Would I get a kiss goodnight out of it?”

And there was that uncertainty again, written clear across Tony’s face. 

“James, it’s not that I—”

“No, shh, it’s alright,” James interrupted softly, then pulled Tony upright so that they were sitting up, still facing each other. “I shouldn’t have pushed.”

“God, that’s not even close to pushing. Hell, given my reputation, everyone knows I’ve never been good at waiting—or discretion, for that matter, or being subtle or tactful, so it’s reasonable to assume that—”

“Don’t. Don’t do that. You know I don’t care about that. Reputations are usually more fiction than fact anyways.”

“Eh, mine’s pretty on point.”

“So’s mine,” James deadpanned, “and yet here you are, alone, in my bed. Weaponless.”

“What can I say? Your reputation as a good-looking, gentle assassin precedes you.”


“I know, I know, I should get to the point.” Tony paused to brush his hand up and down James’ arm and some of James’ nerves settled at the touch. Even this was enough, the fact that Tony was always so gentle with him…

Before, James would’ve read this hesitation as some aversion to James himself, a disgust at something inherently unappealing about him—and there was plenty there to disgust and appall and repel. But that couldn’t be true, not here, not anymore, not when Tony had never shied away from these tender gestures.

James caught Tony’s hand and brought it up, his lips tingling when he brushed them over Tony’s wrist, right across the pulse point.

So maybe this wasn’t exactly enough, but he’d take what he could and keep working on getting that heated look out of Tony— yes, that exact look he received right now and James could almost hear Tony’s heart speeding up. He would keep coaxing this desire out until Tony had no choice but to give in to it.

Tonight though, Tony still resisted. “I’d like for us to just sleep, if that’s alright. I really am tired and I know you are too.”

No matter what he wanted, James wouldn’t have been able to deny that request.

“On one condition.”


“With my shoulder as it is, I do better on my back, so I think it’s only fair if you’re snuggled up to me this time.” 

Tony’s easy laughter softened the tired lines around his eyes. “Fine, fine. Is this you trying to tell me you prefer to be the big spoon?”

“Well, I am bigger.”

“Hey, I happen to make a fantastic jet pack.”

James had to think for a second to make sense of the reference and was rewarded with an image of Tony pressed up against his back, arms and legs curled around James. Truth be told, that position had merit too.

“C’mere then,” James said and pulled Tony down, giving him no time to find another reason to protect James from some imagined impropriety. Tony landed with a huff, but to his credit, he made quick work of getting comfortable again, this time in the crook of James’ arm, pulling with him both the blanket he brought along and James’ own comforter.

Friday dutifully turned off the lights when prompted and they were plunged into comfortable darkness where they quickly found comfort in this new position, as if their bodies already knew how best to fit together. This time, it was Tony throwing a leg over James, then a possessive arm around his waist, face smooshed into James’ good shoulder.

“Is this alright?” James asked and earned himself a muffled hum. He took it as approval and wrapped his arm around Tony, relishing the opportunity to do so.

The Russian slipped out without much thought, a murmured “Good night, my treasure,” but there was no more shame attached to these slips; the endearments came easier too, carried a different weight than the ‘sweethearts’ and ‘honeys’ he could’ve uttered in English.

“Good night, James.”

James smiled. He hoped to work his way up to it. One day, he’d sweet-talk Tony in every language available.

Rhodey cradled his cup of coffee, blew on the steam, and took a steadying sip as he enjoyed the early morning on their patio. Quiet moments like these didn’t come around often, not at the Avengers Compound, so when they did, he savored each one.

The sun was just visible above the horizon, rays of light scattering over the hills; the birds were chirping their pleasant tunes and while everything around them still stubbornly clung to the greens of summer, there was already a pleasant chill in the air, heralding the onset of fall. 

Of course Rhodey managed a full three sips before the sliding door opened with a soft whoosh and a disheveled Tony Stark pattered onto the patio, pajama-clad, barefoot, and sporting the most ridiculous birds’ nest on top of his head.

It was so damn adorable and so familiar—for a moment, Rhodey was a college kid all over again—that he didn’t begrudge the interruption. Well, not that much anyways. 

Tony blinked his eyes at him slowly, murmured a soft “Morning, Sour Patch,” then walked over to lean heavily against the railing. He appeared entranced by the Compound grounds too, but Rhodey doubted Tony was seeing much behind those droopy eyelids. The sleepy gaze soon gave way to an outright yawn, then a stretch, which was followed by Tony doing a weird, little wiggle that Rhodey suspected was meant to loosen up his spine (because Rhodey certainly didn’t need Tony wiggling his behind at him for any reason other than a bad back).

Tony was rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand when Rhodey took another sip of coffee and said, “Is it bad that I can’t tell whether you just woke up or whether you’re coming up from the workshop after an engineering binge?”

Tony snorted, but didn’t offer an answer, just to be contrary. 

“I’m assuming it’s the former,” Rhodey continued, amused by his friend’s state and endeared by the genuine vulnerability he was lucky enough to see. “I was looking for you last night, wanted your thoughts on that ridiculous proposal to have the Avengers at that convention—I mean, really, do we have to stamp it across our foreheads that the organization is meant to be nonpartisan?” He waved away his own tangent with a lazy hand when Tony finally looked at him. “Point is, I asked Friday where the heck you were and she said you were ‘indisposed’ and ‘not to be disturbed’. I had to assume you were passed out under a workbench like last time.”

“No, no,” Tony yawned again, scratching at his stubbled cheek, “I just slept with James last night.”

Rhodey choked on his coffee, which suddenly went down all the wrong pipes. “Excuse me?

“Oh god, that wasn’t—”

“Tony, no—”

“Definitely not what I meant—”

“You can’t just say things like that! And at six in the morning no less! I do not deserve this.”

Tony was gesticulating wildly, now completely awake and five kinds of mortified. “Oh god, that came out wrong. No, that is not what happened.”

Rhodey wiped some of the coffee off his chin. “No? So you didn’t sleep with Barnes?”

More nonsensical hand-waving. “Well, yes— well, no, not like that. Just… literally slept with him. Next to him. In a bed. With both of us sleeping. ”

Rhodey cleared his throat, trying to get the coffee out of his windpipe. “Well, you’re sure more articulate than usual this morning.”

“Oh stuff it, Sour Patch,” Tony grumbled, then dragged a chair over and sagged into it. “Nothing happened, okay?”

The sullen tone, the mopey expression - Rhodey didn’t need more to know Tony wasn’t particularly happy about this lack of… activities.

“Well, at least you two didn’t pass out in the theater room like last time. Beds really are better for your neck, you know.”

Tony remained unimpressed. “You’re about as funny as I am articulate. It’s not a big deal, okay? We just, uh, we sleep better when someone else is around apparently. It’s a trust thing, a safety thing, whatever, I don’t know. The point is, that was like six hours of solid sleep for both of us. So, you know…”

“A damn near miracle,” Rhodey finished and it was mostly sincere. Figures, he thought. Here was Rhodey, spending decades trying to get Tony to sleep like a normal human being, and all it took was a doe-eyed pretty boy to get him into bed. “So, just sleep then? Really?”

“Yup.” Tony was on the edge of outright pouting and Rhodey had to hold himself back from rolling his eyes.

“And nothing more?”


God, was Rhodey really going to have this conversation with him? Apparently. 

“And why not?”

Tony’s head shot up. “Excuse me?”

“I said, why not? You had a good-looking, perfectly willing guy in your bed, who you’ve been nursing a crush on—oh, going for an eternity now—”

“Hey, just because I have a reputation—”

“Nuh-uh, nope, that’s not what I’m talking about this time, so don’t get huffy, it ain’t cute.” Rhodey leveled Tony with a stern look, which softened when Tony grumbled something unintelligible and slumped against his arms on the table. “Look, you have feelings for him, right?”


“And by the way you’re pouting like a teenager right now, they’re not just ‘take him to bed’ sort of feelings. I mean, my god, I thought you pining over Pepper couldn’t be worse, but yet again, you prove me wrong.” Tony opened his mouth, probably to argue the point, but Rhodey pressed on. “Barnes obviously has a thing for you. It’s not even a thing anymore, it’s a cheesy dime novel romance and he’s the smitten maiden on the cover just waiting to be ravished. For the love of God, have you seen the way he looks at you?”

“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? Something wrong with Barnes?”

Tony flicked a drop of dew off the glass table top, gaze growing distant. “Nothing wrong with James, trust me. I just… I don’t want to hurt him.” 

Rhodey kept his commentary to himself this time, letting Tony mull his own words over without pressure. 

Just as Rhodey expected, Tony continued after a minute without needing the prompt. “He’s been through hell and a lot of that had to do with others manipulating him, in the worst possible way. Even this side of the century, he ended up with Maximoff’s fingers in his head. This is the first time he’s had a real break, he’s putting his life back together and— and I don’t want to ruin that by throwing my stupid feelings into the mix. And what if— what if he’d only reciprocate because he thinks he has to?”

Rhodey sipped his coffee, rolling the bitter taste around on his tongue before answering. “Do you think his feelings for you aren’t genuine then? That it’s self-preservation?”

“No, no, that’s not it.” Tony scowled at the table and groaned. “I don’t know. Well, no— he’s told me as much, I just… No, I don’t know.” 

He trailed off and this time Rhodey took over.  

“I do agree that this is probably his first opportunity to get his head on straight. For someone like him, having free will, the ability to make choices, that’s a big deal.”

“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.”


“But true. He’s been here for a few months now, he’s not following you around like a lost puppy anymore. He’s made friends, he’s working on getting an education, hobbies, all those things. Hell, he’s even considering doing the whole therapy thing, which makes him a less stubborn pain in the ass than you, since that took you years.”

“Wow, the barrage of insults just doesn’t stop.”

“Shut up. You know I love your dumb ass. Even when you’re being a pain in mine.”

Tony’s shy smile was reminiscent of their early days too. “You’re a pain in the ass,” he parried back, as clever as always, but then sighed and deflated again. “So… You don’t think I would— I dunno, take advantage of him?”

“If anything, you’ve been uncharacteristically cautious— and that’s not a bad thing,” Rhodey hurried to add. “Because yes, you’re dealing with a guy who’s been brainwashed and tortured and abused six ways to Sunday. I’m sure Barnes appreciates that caution more than anyone. But if you two want—whatever it is that you two want, let Barnes decide where his boundaries are. Don’t pretend to know what he needs, let him tell you that himself.”

Tony sat up a little straighter as he listened, tapped his fingers in an uncoordinated rhythm against the table; he began nodding to himself, obviously processing at first, and even though it started out slow and unsure, that nod quickly morphed into something determined. 

“Huh… Maybe you’re right.”


Finally there was a hint of that fighting spark in Tony’s eyes. “I’m sorry. You’re always right.”

“Damn straight I am.”

Tony took a resolute breath, then let it out slowly, looking like he discovered the meaning of the universe itself. “I think I needed to hear that from someone else, actually. Because in my head, everything you just said sounds like justifications to get what I want, you know? But coming out of your mouth, it just sounds so… reasonable.”

“I’m glad I could help. I guess? Although I didn’t actually do this for you.”


Rhodey’s lips twitched as he struggled to maintain his faux-serious expression. “Nope. I just want all this damn sexual tension gone from my Compound, so just do what needs to be done—in the privacy of your rooms—and please, for the love of all that is holy, let this tension settle before I lose my damn mind.”

Tony stood up and the tentative smile turned into a familiar, wicked smirk. “If you think me and James finally kissing and touching and having hot, kinky sex everywhere—”

“I swear to God, Tony, I am going to kill you.”

“—is going to reduce tension… Oh ho ho, you’re in for a world of disappointment.” He laughed as he walked away, just like the obnoxious little brother he’d been for the past three decades. The parting gift was another one of Tony’s triumphant smirks and then he was gone and Rhodey was left to his solitude and his coffee. He let his gaze settle back on the greenery beyond the balcony, taking in the beautiful blue of the clear skies above him.

Tony had made a lot of mistakes throughout his life; those same mistakes were often thrown around as proof, both by enemies and well-meaning do-gooders alike, that Tony Stark was simply no good. The thing many often forgot—or outright ignored—was that everyone made mistakes; if someone hadn’t, they were either a liar or a coward who never took a single risk in their life, so it weren’t the fuck-ups that defined someone, but rather what one did with them afterwards. 

Tony, for all his flaws, had never given Rhodey a reason to doubt his innate goodness, and these past few years had given him proof of Tony’s true character in spades. Even with Barnes, when Tony literally brought the man in from the pouring rain, Rhodey didn’t doubt for a second that Tony did so for the right reasons. 

Hell, his own concern had been whether it was Barnes manipulating Tony into giving him protection, funding, and care, not the other way around.

Sure, pulling Barnes away from Rogers was probably the biggest form of payback Tony could achieve and it would’ve been a downright sinister move if it were done on purpose, but really, all it took was one minute around this pair to dispel that notion as a possibility, let alone a reality. 

The way Tony looked at Barnes, the gentle way he handled him, the care and worry oozing out of Tony every time they were together. The smile Tony began to carry around whether the super soldier was so much as mentioned. 

It was sappy and ridiculous and so damn genuine that Rhodey was willing to kiss Barnes himself just to thank him for bringing that extra bit of light back into Tony’s eyes.

And Barnes, for all his fucked up past and less-than-stellar associations, had proven himself to be a good man too. He was someone willing to put in the hard work to make amends, who apologized without making excuses, who learned and adapted and grew. The man was blossoming before their very eyes and since Rhodey wasn’t made of ice, thank you very much, there was a genuine pleasure to be found in seeing Barnes so eagerly embrace this second chance. 

So Rhodey hoped that these two, for all their stubborn idiocy, would find their way to each other. Like all relationships, this could eventually go pear-shaped, but Rhodey liked to think there was potential for success here too.

Because goddamn it, Tony deserved to be happy, and for that matter, so did Barnes.

Of course, Rhodey deserved to live in a home free of these ridiculous shenanigans and grown-ass adults making googly eyes at each other over the dinner table—oh, and free of early morning discussions about your best friend’s sex life (or rather, lack thereof), but he was willing to make sacrifices too if it meant two knuckle-heads finally finding their own slice of joy.

Chapter Text

Dum-E’s answering hum matched the tune of Tony’s own absentminded whistling as Tony passed by and gave the bot an encouraging pat on the chassis. Dum-E, bless his mechanical heart, had moved on from smoothies to sandwiches—picking up habits from certain super soldiers, no doubt—and was busy piling on salami slices on toasted wheat, but while the exercise was great for his precision work, it was not particularly great for anyone’s stomach, at least not when Dum-E reached for his beloved motor oil instead of the mustard.

Still, a humming Dum-E wildly swinging around a slice of salami was a sight to behold and served to brighten Tony’s mood even further. 

He settled back on the floor, in the middle of what someone might call a summoning circle made out of disembodied hands and feet. Thankfully, the shiny gold-titanium alloy making up each body part turned this scene far less morbid and the circle only had the power to summon one casually-dressed, oil-smudged Tony Stark.

His quiet humming continued, some nonsensical mash-up of melodies swirling in his head, and as he tinkered with the suit parts, the busy work gave his thoughts the room to meander.

Tony had never been one to overanalyze his moods, but if he had to find the right word to describe what he felt, it’d be peace, the sort that went beyond the simple contentment and comfort fostered by the familiarity of his workshop and Dum-E’s industrious puttering.

This warmth settled deep in his limbs, this sensation of rightness, could all be traced back to one simple conversation and really, Tony should’ve spoken to Rhodey weeks ago, but 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 possessed the rarest jewel of them all - plain old common sense. Tony lacked that last one—occasionally—but Rhodey always did have his back.

Let Barnes decide where his boundaries are. Don’t pretend to know what he needs, let him tell you that himself.

The same thought had crossed Tony’s mind before, but the words in his head felt like clever-sounding rationalizations that would absolve Tony of any responsibility for James’ well-being and sanity. 

Hearing Rhodey say them however put things in a different perspective. Rhodey was an outside party, far removed from the emotional, irrational, incredible whirlwind that had been Tony’s burgeoning relationship with James, and even though Rhodey would prioritize Tony if push came to shove, he had no real ill will towards James anymore. 

In fact, since James’ arrival, Rhodey had taken a real liking to him; the apology went a long way, as did James’ general demeanor, and then there was that knowing look on Rhodey’s face every time James would accompany Tony to Medical when his own steady hand wasn’t enough or when James would wait to eat until Tony joined him, which encouraged Tony to eat at regular meal times because Tony was worried about James not eating enough (it evolved into a strange game of trying to out-mother-hen each other and Tony wasn’t sure anymore who was winning).

And now, with Rhodey’s stamp of approval and the realization that there were no more excuses, no real reason to hesitate… It made Tony giddy.

For god’s sake, Rhodey had called Tony cautious. A true first in Tony’s reckless and colorful history, but 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, but sometimes Tony needed a reminder that his worldview could get skewed by his own insecurities. 

Or as Rhodey would so eloquently put it, Tony needed to pull his head out of his ass.

Choosing to leave these musings for later, Tony lost himself in his work, hands expertly taking care of the damage sustained by the suit in the latest battle, and the pleasant trance of familiar work lasted about an hour before Tony got pulled back to reality by 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 him). 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 from his face, to James bringing Tony his afternoon cup of pick-me-up java, presenting it with a smile, the haunted look nowhere to be found.

James sauntered over, the swing of his hips even more tantalizing than the promise of coffee, and Tony didn’t bother looking away. He let himself get his fill, but without the usual flare of guilt, 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. “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 top of one of the benches. “We both know that nickname sounds sweeter in Russian. Besides, 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 opened a container, picked it up, and presented its contents to Tony.

Tony’s gasp was only partly exaggerated. “You made me the cookies again?”

“Mm-hmm. 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 James and the cookies.

“Hey, no, give me those!” He let out a whine when James 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, but contrary to his words, he continued to hold the box out of Tony’s reach. Bright, clear eyes shined with mischief, defying all natural laws and making James even more gorgeous. “Salad and fruit first, then coffee, then cookies.”

“Fine, fine, you mother hen,” Tony conceded, then immediately lunged for the box, but James effortlessly moved out of the way, backing up as Tony chased after him. “James, no, give me those or I swear to god!”

Of course that came out more more petulant than threatening and James kept laughing, kept moving, until Tony had him cornered and James had no choice but climb onto the couch while 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 his prize, 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 and struggled to crawl over James, toppling him over, but even flat on his back, James still held his arm up and 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, distracted by his own fits of laughter, wildly reaching out, trying to wriggle out of James’ hold. Thighs of steel indeed. “I’m getting those cookies, you can’t stop me!”

“S’that so? Not sure you deserve these anymore,” James said, clinging to the box and shaking with laughter, but he had nowhere to run now and Tony stretched and stretched and finally snatched the box out of his hand.

“Ha! Victory!” he 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, but instead of a silly smile or a fond eye roll, he was presented with James, breathless and flushed beneath him, lips parted as his chest rose and fell.

James’ eyes, their icy blue darkened by the widened pupils, met Tony’s, and Tony became acutely aware that he was straddling James’ thigh while his own settled between James’ legs. His whole body flushed with heat while his mind flooded with possibilities and he wanted to know what would happen if he pressed in just a little bit closer, leaned in further, let his own heated flesh press against James. What would James look like with those first, mounting spikes of pleasure coursing through him?

James hadn’t looked away, still laid out beneath Tony, not moving, not trying to get Tony off him. Willing and waiting for Tony to do… something. 

Without taking his eyes off James, Tony moved the box of cookies from one hand to the other and placed it on the floor, his prize all but forgotten. There was something far more tempting that needed his scrutiny and he held himself up above James, bracketing him in with his hands.

“You should’ve known you wouldn’t win against me,” Tony murmured, and anywhere else, those words would’ve been playful and easygoing, but today they were heavy with promise, said 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 still sounded breathless. “Not very smart of me to stand between you and your sweet tooth, hmm?”

“No, not at all.” Tony leaned in, the tip of his nose barely brushing over James’. The long dark hair was in disarray after their short tussle, spilled out over the pillow; Tony’s hand played with a few strands and found a lock to wrap around his fingers.

“After all, I do have an affinity for sweet things,” Tony added, captivated by the sight before 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 need inside him, warming his blood, drove him closer and he nuzzled his nose against James’ cheek. The brush of skin against skin prompted James to move and his arm slid down over Tony’s side to rest on his hip. It didn’t linger, moving up and down in gentle strokes over Tony’s back before dragging the hem of Tony’s shirt up with one careless move, and—oh, there was more skin-to-skin now with fingers skirting over the sensitive part of Tony’s lower back, shooting sparks of electricity up his spine.

“Oh, that’s perfect, James…” Tony exhaled, surprised and delighted, the words spilling out before he could catch them. It wasn’t what he planned to say, it wasn’t sexy or romantic or suave, but did any of that really matter? So maybe James made him incoherent with need, so what? 

Maybe it was finally time to stop fighting that need.

“Love hearing my name like that,” James remarked, the tone almost casual, but there was nothing casual about the hand dragging itself over Tony’s back. “You were the first to say it without— without judgment, and I wanted to be that man, to be James, for you.”

Sentiment this profound should’ve clashed with the unabashed lust coursing through Tony, but it only added to the moment, intensified everything that sat so heavy, so sharp in Tony’s chest, making it ache in the most exquisite, delightful way. It was desire and tenderness and hope, all rolled into one singular wave of emotion.

“James…” he repeated the name just to see those eyelashes flutter, taking the opportunity to memorize the way they fanned over flushed skin. “Love the way you make me feel.”

“Tony,” James keened, pleaded, and added 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?

James opened his eyes and yeah, Tony had seen that look before. 

His hand buried itself in James’ hair, needing another point of contact.

“Say my name again, sweetheart. I wanna hear it.”

“Tony, lyubov’ moya, please…”

As if the begging wasn’t enough to drive Tony out of his mind, James was going to kill him with those damn Russian pet names that spilled forth from those kissable lips with so little effort.

“You know what else I want, James? Even more than hearing that pretty little mouth of yours say my name?” 

“Tell me, Tony. Anything, anything you want.”

Their lips weren’t close enough to touch, not yet, but their breath mingled together into shared warmth. “I really, really want to kiss you right now.”

James shifted up, just enough to let their lips brush against one another. 

“Please…” he said again and even a saint wouldn’t have been able to resist that, but Tony… Oh, Tony was no saint at all and he threw all that uncharacteristic caution to the wind, let his eyes fall shut, and slotted their lips together.

James’ lips moved against his without hesitation, soft just like Tony imagined them to be and although the scratch of stubble was unfamiliar after so many years, the contrast became his favorite thing all over again. He shifted to better support himself above James, breaking the kiss only to come right back, and all of this, the taste of James’ lips, the hard body beneath Tony’s, that big hand splayed possessively over Tony’s exposed back, it was intoxicating, magnetic, and although the kiss remained chaste, gentle brushes and soft pressure, it was so damn good after a year of going without, and Tony may have let out a needy moan, wanting more.

But still, there was something holding him back from letting go entirely, from letting himself be selfish and take

He broke the kiss, the need for air a paltry excuse, but there were things he needed to say and he needed give them both the space to breathe, even when pulling away made every inch of his body protest.

“James, honey,” he said, the words a hoarse whisper, “I want you so badly I can’t even 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 begged, but he would, he’d pull away and force himself to behave.

“Nothing would change,” Tony struggled for the right words swimming in a haze of lust, “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—”

He gasped as the world shifted and Tony found himself flat on his back, staring wide-eyed at James 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 equaled either. For all he knew, two plus two equaled James and the delectable weight of his body, one James didn’t bother to keep off Tony as he pressed into him from groin to chest. Tony attributed his sudden inability to breathe to that pressure as well.

James leaned in, a reversal of roles, lips brushing over Tony’s in the same way, and this wasn’t fair, not fair at all, to tease Tony like this when he couldn’t even think straight—

“Tony, solnishko, you have to stop trying to protect me. I can take care of myself.”

“I know that, I do, I just—”

James shushed him with another peck, the exhale of air brushing against the corner of his lips when he pulled away.

“You won’t hurt me, I promise. The things you’ve done for me… I’m stronger because of you, Tony. Don’t take that away from either one of us.”

He was kissing Tony again, pressing in, urging him on, and when the hand holding his wrists let go, when it trailed down 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 it didn’t matter. 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 ended up in James’ lap, knees on both sides and pressed into James’ thick thighs. 

As if breathlessness ever stopped him before. Tony dived back in, first for a proper kiss, but unable to resist everything else for too long, he abandoned James’ lips to kiss his jaw, then trail down lower, planting open-mouthed kisses on the column of James’ neck while Tony’s hands explored every dip and curve he could reach. 

“God, I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long,” he managed between the kisses and felt more than heard a pleased hum work its way through James’ body. Tony pressed in closer, rocking their hips together and hiding his resulting moan into the sweet spot behind James’ ear.

“How long, Tony? Tell me.”

“Too long.” It was cliché and predicable, but so, so true. “Don’t know when, but maybe— oh god, I think it was that second time 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 Tony’s lips and they shared another kiss, frantic energy simmering just below the surface, pushed back for a moment as they savored the touch. “Didn’t know how you’d react, what you might think. Still thought, ah—” James was interrupted by a nip to the taut muscle between his neck and shoulder, 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?”

Tony pulled away to lick his lips, to enjoy how they tingled all over. Kissing was far superior to talking, but James was a man of few words and when he did have something to say, Tony knew it was important. He gave James his attention, taking this moment to study him, and he had to admit that the pause in festivities was hardly a burden if it meant Tony got to see the results of his work. Flushed cheeks, kiss-swollen lips, 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,” Tony said, “not even last year, when everything went to hell. I was angry and hurt, but so much of that was about everyone else… And then, when I finally met you—the real you—I’m not sure I ever stood a chance.”

The hand on Tony’s back urged him closer 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 his neck.

They were still so close that the shared air between them was warm, infused with their familiar scents.

“I don’t know when things changed for me,” James whispered, “when I went from appreciating your kindness to— to just wanting you. I dreamt about it, you know, about what it would feel like to touch you and kiss you.”

“And? How does reality compare?”

“Fantasy doesn’t 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, pressing at the seam, asking for permission.

James responded in kind, parting his lips to let Tony in, to finally let Tony taste that sweet, sweet mouth and James was right, reality had fantasy beat. No imagination, no matter how active, could conjure up something so visceral, so simple in its pleasure.

Tony deepened the kiss, taking control again, and James gave in easily, letting them both fall back on the couch with Tony on top and the shift pressed their bodies together again. Tony let himself tumble into the sensation, ready to test the waters; he wanted to push and to prod until they both got what they needed and his hand darted down, fumbling for the zipper of James’ jeans.

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 something now, so Tony stopped and brought his hand back to sweep careful fingers over James’ face.

“Honey, 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.

“All of this is so, so good, but it’s been a while, you know?” James continued, offering a huff and a crooked smile, all of it hardly sufficient to describe the endless deprivation he suffered. “I didn’t think I could feel like this again, not after everything…” He paused and Tony brushed a strand of hair out of James’ face while he waited, willing his lust to settle, letting patience and deep-seated affection take back control. “But you— you are so damn tempting, sweetheart. I just need time to adjust. I know the old Bucky used to be a suave, sly dog, but I’m not sure I have his charm anymore.” 

James smiled and the fact that Tony could just kiss that shy smile, that he was allowed to, that he was encouraged to do so? He couldn’t think of a better high.

“I’m a quick learner at least,” James added and Tony did kiss him this time, pleased by the fact that tenderness came just as easily as desire. They both could use some tenderness in their lives.

“Whatever you want, James, you’re in control here,” he said between kisses, “just keep talking to me, okay? That’s all I’m asking for. Because it’d kill me if I ever did something you don’t want.”

“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 when to speak up.”

One more kiss because Tony really couldn’t resist. “That’s all I want, sweetheart.”

“That’s all you want? Really?” James asked and this more playful slant of his lips was so damn kissable too. Tony assumed this would remain a constant dilemma—so many smiles still left to taste—so it was a good thing they had their whole lives ahead of them.

“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 to crawl into your lap and kiss you.”

In lieu of an answer, James’ hand dipped lower, to skirt beneath the waistband of Tony’s jeans.

“Oh, honey, you are terrible tease,” Tony exhaled, head dropping to James’ shoulder and eyes falling shut on a shiver.

He heard James chuckle. “Sorry. Just exploring the new territory.” 

James splayed his hand over Tony’s back and used the leverage to draw Tony back into his lap when he sat up and maybe it was the restless energy from all these rediscovered sensations that drove James to keep moving, to shift and touch and explore, but Tony couldn’t complain. Like this, they were pressed together and his arms could wrap around James’ neck again to keep him close.

“Don’t ever apologize. I’m all yours to explore, babe.” 

“Sorta see the merit of that second arm though,” James added absent-mindedly; his flesh hand traced a straight line up Tony’s spine, then down to rub circles into Tony’s lower back. “So much of you to touch. One hand’s not nearly enough.”

Tony’s imagination ran wild at the reminder of the nearly completed metal arm sitting right here in the 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.”

“Maybe. After all, you are quite—” James’ hand dropped to give Tony’s ass a light squeeze. “—the handful.”

Tony couldn’t help it, he snorted unattractively and muffled the rest of his mirth into James’ shoulder. Good god, apparently neither one of them were the suave, sweet-talkers their reputations purported them to be, but Tony couldn’t imagine wanting anything other than this. 

“You are such a dork, I cannot believe you.” Tony was still smiling when he sat up, adding a little wiggle to get more comfortable in James’ lap and earning himself an unsteady inhale. “Just terrible. Leave the puns to me, gorgeous, would you?”

“Please, your puns are no better than mine.”

Tony huffed, amused and untroubled, despite the adrenaline still pumping through his veins. His heart refused to slow down, but the rest of him was warm and heavy and he let his forehead drop against James’, content to let silence settle.

James broke it first.

“I wanted this for so long now,” he whispered, “and I’m not sure how you’ve managed to be so patient with me. God knows it drove me crazy some days, not being able to touch you, but when I think about it, about the way you’ve cared for me since the beginning… I don’t think I can ever thank you enough for waiting.”

“You don’t have to, James. God knows I’m not usually known for my patience.”

“Coulda fooled me.” James adjusted his hold, sliding his fingers into Tony’s hair and kissing him again, languid and undemanding, savoring each brush of their lips. “I would’ve given you anything, Tony. In those early days, you could’ve asked me for anything and I— I was so wrapped up in you, so grateful for every shred of kindness, that I wouldn’t have hesitated to give you anything you wanted just to keep hold of it.”

The husky whisper, the press of their bodies, the way James kept brushing his hand through Tony’s hair, unable to keep still, did nothing to quell the heat still pooling low in Tony’s belly, but above the thrum of arousal, Tony registered James’ words as confirmation that he did the right thing after all. Knowing that, living through the results of his good decisions, didn’t make the possibilities of how it could’ve gone wrong any less terrifying.

“You knew all that,” James added, no hint of accusation in his voice, “you knew you could’ve had any part of me that you wanted.”

“I did. But James, I wouldn’t have wanted things to go like that, I swear.”

“I know,” James soothed, kissing him again, kissing away the worry in Tony’s voice and Tony hoped James would never stop kissing him like this. “You’re a good man. Kind and generous and selfless. You don’t have it in you to use someone like that. You put others first.” James brushed his hand over Tony’s cheek, the thumb tracing lines, the tenderness of his touch overwhelming. “But now… I’m yours, Antosha. Anything and everything, it’s yours, if you’ll have me.”

The only appropriate response to such an offering was a kiss meant to steal James’ breath away. It was Tony’s to claim, after all.

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 the arch of his back, a languid stretch releasing sleep-heavy tension. Tony wiggled his shoulders, stretched his neck, and snuggled back into the comforting warmth next to him. He had every intention of falling back asleep, but the light filtering through the windows tugged at his eyelids, tugged and tugged until Tony had no choice but to blink open his eyes and lift himself up on his elbows. 

It took a moment for his brain to catch up, but 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. He still slept, undisturbed by Tony’s movements, chest rising and falling on even breaths. A few unruly strands of hair fell across his 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 early. He let his eyes trace the planes of James’ face, 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 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. Carefully, he propped himself up 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 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. Their relationship, like any other, had every opportunity to go belly up and knowing his own tendency to self-sabotage, it wouldn’t be his parents’ death nor the fight in Siberia that would break them apart. 

No, Tony could screw this up all on his own, no help required. 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 might get the best of him, or his partner could 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 this to last. Who knew that the Winter Soldier was the final piece of the puzzle Tony had been missing? 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, 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 his 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 studied James’ peaceful expression.

Because James trusted him too, didn’t he? Even with the super soldier’s finely honed instincts, James remained asleep, 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 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 (the 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), this older and wiser version 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 his own possessiveness skirted the same edges of Steve’s obsession with ‘Bucky’, the same one that proved to be so disastrous for all involved one year ago. 

Tony wasn’t exactly keen on comparing himself to Steve, but he had to admit that there were similarities. Still, there was a world of difference between protecting your loved ones and being an idiot. 

Steve broke every damn thing in his path (up to and including Tony); he acted 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, 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, body twisting on a good stretch before lying back down while slow-blinking baby blues settled on Tony.

“Morning, sunshine,” Tony said with an extra cheery smile and James wrinkled his nose, mumbled something in Russian as he shifted onto his right side to face Tony. The Russian sounded like a order to go back to sleep, then another muffled “Still early…” and James buried half of his face into the pillow.

Tony huffed. James had a point, sure, but Tony was awake now and everyone knew he couldn’t be left 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 another muffled reply. James was fully awake now, that sweet little half smile giving him away, and despite the grumbling comments, 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 awake a little earlier than usual. I think my body is still adjusting to this whole ‘seven hours a night’ nonsense 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 the nudge eagerly. He slid closer and his head found its place in the crook of James’ right shoulder while Tony’s limbs wrapped around him, turning Tony into a convincing octopus. 

James’ hand began carding through Tony’s messy hair.

“This alright?” he whispered and Tony nodded against him. 


Tony’s whole body sang, having craved this sort of intimacy for so long, and now 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, and it 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 James 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 to keep Tony’s lips right where they were, and that slight pressure 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 still quiet, and their bodies remained heavy with vestiges of sleep, so Tony kept his affections unhurried and gentle.

There may have been another lazy kiss or two and they stayed just like that, wrapped up in each other, 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, tonight Tony was not an attentive viewer. There were lions on the screen, that much he knew, but the rest of his considerable brain power was occupied with drifting thoughts that remained 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.

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 so many to choose from). The fact that Tony himself was in a prime position to show off that shiny new tech and 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, and 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.

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 away with a muttered apology. James was easily mollified, even more so with a quick peck to his lips, and his attention was back on the lions again (or leopards now, as it were).

Tony snuggled back into James’ chest, delighted when the arm around him drew him closer.

Okay, so their relationship dynamic was always going to be weird, but they were taking things slow for a reason and James wasn’t exactly helpless. A well-trained, highly intelligent assassin spy who survived for years on his own didn’t need Tony to treat him like glass. 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. Tony didn’t even get 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 and it was awesome’ 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 and an undeniable case of sex hair (no actual sex required) and 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 tonight 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, all bashfulness forgotten, 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 insufferably smug that Tony wanted to get up and punch him, Loki snapped his fingers and a crisp twenty dollar bill materialized out of nowhere. He handed to Peter who did a little dance as he clutched the money and beamed.


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 panicking.

He supposed that made sense. Ever since that first introduction, James had forged a strange friendship with these two. Now, Peter made sense. That kid could befriend both Godzilla and Mothra in two seconds flat and have them singing kumbaya on the third, 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 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 made him appear even more smug and how was that even possible? “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, it’s 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 this look on his face lately, you know? Like a 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 made Tony feel like a teenager caught by his parents with his hand down his date’s shirt.

And yes, he did want the earth to swallow him and James whole, but there was also a small part of him, just a tiny one, that relished this irreverent, silly, 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 a 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 turning 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 behind his hand. “I am so glad the entire Compound has been discussing our love life over drinks and appetizers at the closest happy hour.” 

“They do have a point, Tony,” James said and turned to him; Tony groaned louder. “We did fall asleep in the theater room, remember?”

“And you call each other all those cute nicknames!” Peter supplied.

Loki chimed in 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.”

“Oh, always so full of promises, Stark.” The god didn’t let Tony get another jibe in before he took Peter by the shoulders and began steering the boy out through the other entrance. “Now, let’s leave these two love birds alone—”

Love birds? Where did you even learn that?”

“—and you, young man, you need a filling dinner after your training. 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 said, but he didn’t sound so sure and Tony twisted around to better face him.

“Whatever you want, James, that’s what we’ll do. We can keep doing what we’re doing, it doesn’t matter. I just want you to be 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, 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 mixing.

“M’not letting you go, James. I want this. Hell, I want everything, and that includes letting the world know 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, kotyenok?”

“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 he 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 neck. “I’ll tell the whole damn world if that’s what you want. I’ll buy a banner.”

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 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, okay?”

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.

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. “After a long day of work, getting to come home to such a pretty sight? Sign me up.”

“Mmm. Is that what I am?” 

James was already up and 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 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 to his 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 himself. Tony would’ve loved nothing more than to have James 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 these things would take time. They’d work their way up to that level of comfort and in the meantime, this reverent treatment was enjoyable too.

Tony made a show of standing up on his toes to give the tip of James’ nose a loud, exaggerated kiss, then laughed when James wrinkled his face and tried to fight the smile that wriggled through his put-upon expression.

“How was your day, gorgeous?”

“Quiet, mostly. How was yours, kotyenok?”

“Oh, you know. Work is work. Made my rounds, sat through the Board meeting, made sure no one was messing around 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 even 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 with 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 for the subject.

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. Whenever James chose to open up about his whereabouts as well as his new associations, they’d be ready to deal with the backlash 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, thoroughly, 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 flush against James’ body and held him there.

They kisses for a good minute and it was James who pulled away first, blue eyes bright and eager. 

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 some extra fussing.

“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 brushed over Tony’s left side and it was distracting enough that 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. 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. 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 real and lasting. 

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. “That and that sweet ass of yours.”

“You are so romantic.”

In lieu of words, Tony let his hands explore, tracing a path up over that row of buttons again, then letting his fingers brush up over James’ neck and up over 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 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 waist kept him steady when James leaned in and pressed their foreheads together and Tony’s eyes fluttered shut.

“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?”


“You’re not nearly as broken as you think. You don’t need to be fixed, you just… You 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 techniques, but at the end of the day, it’s not about molding yourself to fit somewhere or someone else, it’s about 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 onto humor as a shield against the emotionally charged atmosphere. There was no response from James, not right away, but he still held Tony close, 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.” Tony pulled away to clear his suddenly dry throat—it certainly wasn’t the string of tears he was blinking away, no sir. The moment was over, but they both needed air and a chance to gather themselves. “ And for what it’s worth, 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, 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. Humor did help sometimes.

“Veterinary science sounded interesting actually, or— what did Friday say 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 could, with less risk to yourself and to others.”

“It does sound fitting.” James perched on the arm of the sofa and watched as Tony poured his drink and took 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. Monsters don’t feel guilty, they don’t apologize, they don’t make amends.”

James nodded, 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 at 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 and watched James exhale and part his lips. “All gorgeous six feet and 250 pounds of you, with a tiny, itty bitty kitten in your hands. Let me tell you, it makes my heart do this weird pitter-patter thing and I’m sold.” James was trying not to smile, but Tony could see he was also distracted by Tony’s wandering hands. “I’m serious, James, that way lies world domination. Grown men and women will swoon.”

James tugged on Tony’s shirt to pull him closer. “Do I need a tiny kitten to make you swoon?”

Tony kissed him and didn’t let go 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 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. 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 could 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, which meant they were going to Central Park come hell or high water or Thor himself raining down thunder, lightning, and torrential downpours in all his broody, godly glory.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case and the day was beautiful, so they found themselves strolling down a familiar path, filled up on delicious food truck offerings and finishing off their meal with their ice cream cones.

Friday preserved some of their privacy, using a disruption field to keep pesky cameras and listening devices at bay, but the park itself was always busy and Tony couldn’t give into the urge to hold James’ hand or link their arms together or wrap his arm around James’ waist and pull him close, or 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 would have 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 and the more rumors, the harder it was to tease the truth apart from the lies.

Tony didn’t need to worry about being seen out 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 they were now having an affair and Tony was cheating on Rhodey (apparently, they had been married since their MIT days). The other leading theory was that Tony was a 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 it 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 met a stranger’s face. It was still disconcerting, even though Tony was starting to get 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, a simple polyethylene plastic arm that had limited adjustability and was worn mostly to fill out 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 could 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 complications arose when they tried to attach the new arm and they learned that James’ body wasn’t as ready.

With the old metal arm gone, the super soldier healing actually dampened some of the neurological pathways and Tony’s own attack on James didn’t help either, triggering further healing factors 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 on another favor with Dr. Cho, who had been staying away from the Avengers ever since Ultron; the project piqued her interest and she was now working with James to facilitate his physical healing, using a modified version of the Cradle to 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 past misdeeds. 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, that dragged out the process. Before, he’d look in the mirror, see that icy blue glow, take a shallow breath, and remember 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 else 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, the 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 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.

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. “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 instead James only 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, kotyenok, 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 however, his eyes never leaving 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… Good lord. 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, only mollified when James offered 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, expression wistful. “Thank you for this, Tony.”

“For the ice cream?”

The words prompted a soft laugh. “Sure, yes. For the ice cream, for the day at the park.” James kept his eyes on the path as they continued their walk, but Tony kept his eyes on James. “Each day that I’ve known you, I’ve been better off for it. You do know that, don’t you?”

Sometimes this sort of sincerity was the most terrifying thing and Tony admired James’ endless courage.

“I know. Really, I do.”

“You deserve to hear that. 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 Russian slipping between his lips, and Tony didn’t have the chance to ask what was wrong before a familiar voice rang out behind them.

“Tony! Wait!”

Tony’s stomach dropped and just like that, the good feelings vanished.

Chapter Text


The name echoed behind them and hearing Steve’s voice for the second time was somehow worse, a confirmation that Tony didn’t hallucinate the first shout, that he didn’t imagine the hairs at the back of his neck standing on end. He had 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; his blood pumped, 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 into 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.

Because it wasn’t only resignation he saw, but fear as well, and now Tony’s blood began pumping for an entirely different reason. Far easier to ignore his own shitty memories when he could focus on the righteous anger instead, the need to protect as it roared within him. Steve was not going to hurt James again, not on Tony’s watch.

Tony forced himself to take a deep breath, using the brief reprieve to marvel at this strange role-reversal. After all, one year ago, Steve was the one protecting this man. 

Strange, how life worked out sometimes, how quickly things changed. 

“Boss, I’m so sorry for the delay,” an apologetic Friday chirped before Tony could say anything, loud enough for both of them to hear. “I was on top of the aerial scans, but I haven’t been scanning the park visitors. You told me not to, if you recall, because it would violate 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 meant Tony and James had 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 breathed a sigh of relief. 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 the conversation 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 put himself face-to-face with James. He tried to offer a reassuring smile and gave his arm a comforting rub, but even through the cotton of the button-down, Tony could feel a tremor run beneath his fingers.

“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 him. “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, and focused back on James. “I think I have to. You know how stubborn Steve is. I think it’s time.” 

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, he needed to say the things that had been festering inside him for months, to face the man who lied to him, 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 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 does decide to throw a punch or two—” Tony could practically hear James grind his teeth and he wished he hadn’t invoked 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 Avengers. All of them could handle the worst and many of them have, but now, with a true family to watch their back, they never again had to face the world alone. 

Tony’s instincts urged him to send James away however, 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 was an adult, 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 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, conflicted and hurt, but then he whispered a defeated, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this, not yet,” and the meek apology, the guilt, it broke Tony’s damn heart.

“You have nothing to be sorry for. Go, please. 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 the rumors. 

Besides, the internet would be alight with something else entirely in a few short minutes. 

“I got this,” Tony repeated, a whisper meant just for them. “Just wait for me at the Tower, sweetheart, okay?”

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 them away from James and faced his unwelcome guests.

“Rogers,” Tony addressed him as Steve approached down the tree-lined path, his pace slowing down. 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 a minute 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. God, he used to care about this man, so damn much, so long ago.

As Tony tried to find the air that left his lungs, his eyes scanned the two in turn 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 his affinity for too-tight shirts and khaki pants.

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 Steve’s maudlin assertion. Tony 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, 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 now and safe

“My date,” Tony filled in the awkward blank, then threw in 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. “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 said and 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. I deserve that much.”

The only reason Tony’s jaw didn’t outright drop at the sheer audacity wrapped around that statement was his finely honed ability to keep his masks firmly in place. However, he could feel his own words growing sharper with each pass of this conversation and people were beginning to give them looks, so he grit his teeth and silently waved Steve and Natasha over 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 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 the 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, pointing to a modicum of self-restraint, and Tony supposed Steve 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 the shouting began.

“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, reaching 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, he 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, as he wondered, was it selfish of him—vindictive, even—to keep denying Steve his own second chance? Tony got one, after all. James and others did 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.”


A reprimand, as if Tony were a child, and he haven’t heard his name said that way in so damn long. Funny how it could sound so differently on someone else’s lips.

Steve barreled on 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 you want me to grovel or—”

“I wanted you to stay away from me. That’s what I wanted. 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.

“Just drop this whole ‘I 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, to both of us.” 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 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 times 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.”

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 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. 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. A pragmatist at her core, 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 so we can avoid the mistakes of our past. These days, that means more than just beating each other bloody in the ring. Every Avenger is required to study law, to be well-versed in global, socio-political issues, protocols, chain of command. Ethics.” Tony flashed them both a mocking 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 Tony’s 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, 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 when only a year ago Steve was ready to throw away everything to oppose them. Well, that and to save Bucky.

Tony blinked and an unexpected clarity descended on him, 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 that infamous 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 had that— that criminal Loki put up spells,” Steve nearly hissed. “She was hurt the last time she tried to enter the Tower, Tony, and I don’t understand how—”

“Steve, that’s enough,” Natasha cut him off, 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 had betrayed him 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 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 badly? Answer me that.”

Steve didn’t, not right away, 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, the soft tone of her voice 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, a 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 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 he did spot a bench nearby; mistrustful of his now shaking legs, James made his way over and all but collapsed onto the metallic seat as he curled in on himself, elbow digging painfully into the meat of his thigh while his fingers raked 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. He left Tony 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, some rational part of him reminding him that Tony didn’t need his protection, but that didn’t help either. Just meant he was a useless coward to boot.

He heard a whimper and for a moment, his addled brain was convinced there was a distressed puppy nearby in need of attention, but reality settled back in and he realized it was him making that pathetic noise. He swallowed it back and let it join the shame, then forced another uneven breath into his lungs.

His eyes drifted to the gravel under his feet and he tried counting the bigger rocks, tried to describe their shape and colors to himself. It was a habit he picked up during his time on the run, in those early days when he’d wake up and not know who or what he was.

He wasn’t sure it was working though because he was still plagued by the questions. Why did he run? Why was he so damn scared of this confrontation? If it came down to it, if they truly posed a threat, he could take out both Steve and Romanova—

But it wasn’t their power that scared him, James realized. He was afraid that facing them now would change him right back into that pathetic excuse of a man, the one who didn’t care enough 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 back into that cloying, relentless depression. 

But was running away with his tail between his legs any better? 

James 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, so 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 the guilt trips pretending to be reminiscing, just waiting for something to happen, for someone to end his misery and Tony could do better, he deserved so much more

“Are you alright, young man?”

James jerked his head up, eyes blinking away tears he hadn’t noticed before, and saw an older man watching him in concern a few feet away. The threat assessment was automatic—not listed as a person of interest under neither HYDRA nor SHIELD, no weapons detected, body language cautious, but nonthreatening—and as James studied the man, he also noted the neatly-combed thin, white hair, a thick mustache to match, and a 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.

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 with one measly sentence?

The old man tilted his head. “You just looked like you could use a helping hand, that’s all.”

James wanted to laugh. He probably did make for a pathetic sight, enough so that random strangers wanted to help.

“Just… had a bad moment, that’s all.”

“Well, we all have those, no shame in that.” The man smiled and James tried match the expression, failed, and then gave in and outright frowned.

“May I sit?” the man asked and gestured at the empty spot next to James, seemingly undeterred by the scowling. “Afraid 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 was already nodding and the old 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 watched the park and its visitors with the same pleasant smile.

“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 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. I 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. What a contrast from the last time someone 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’re wonderful, and they said, ‘go, just go, I’ll take care of it’ and I— I did. I left. 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.

But the man next to him only let out a hum, a simple, curious sound, and continued to observe the busy park.

“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 my responsibility too, but—” James scrubbed his hand over his face. “I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with this problem.”

“Well, sometimes we really aren’t ready to face our fears and that’s alright.” The man paused to wave at a kid walking by. The boy waved back enthusiastically, then skipped away to join his parents. “Sometimes, we’re just not ready 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, is 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 a soreness or an ache. “Courage is knowing that something else is more important than whatever it is you’re afraid of.” 

As he processed the words, James 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. His freedom, the ability to choose how he lived his new life. 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.

His lungs expanded as they should on the next inhale and his resolve strengthened. 

“Thank you,” he said 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 began to regain control over his thoughts, 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 repeated, heartened that his voice came out 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, the sun was just behind the older man, framing his head like a halo.

“I think you’ll be just fine, son,” he said and reached over to pat James on the shoulder with a light, reassuring touch. He withdrew his hand and slipped it into the pocket of his pants. “And be sure to take of that special person of yours too, alright?”

“I will.”

James watched him leave, taking 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 when the man turned the corner and disappeared from view.

A tap behind his ear summoned Friday. “Is Tony alright?”

“He is unharmed, but unsurprisingly, there are already indicators of mental stress.”

Her displeasure was palpable and James wasn’t surprised either. Steve had the ability to coax a headache out of a damn saint. 

The idea to simply march back and pull off the proverbial mask was still too much to contemplate, but James knew he needed to go back. He needed to make sure Tony was alright and if he weren’t, if something were to happen… 

This time, James would make the right choice.

“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. On the one hand, he was baffled that they’d have so little remorse as to make the demand in the first place after everything that went down last year. 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 already told Tony was at best a flimsy attempt to save face). 

On the other hand, did they even think this would work? Tony, the decent but fallible human being, would turn them down because it wasn’t his business to look for ‘Bucky’, but that no good Tony Stark, the selfish, self-obsessed, dangerous killer they claimed him to be would not hesitate to use this as an opportunity to finish off what he started in Siberia.

Funny how Tony wasn’t so evil after all, not when they needed something from him.

Steve was still standing there, trying hard not to look like a defiant, stubborn man ready for a fight, while Natasha still wore her perfectly neutral and highly unreadable spy expression, and after a breath and a dry swallow, Tony decided his one allowed second of being amazed by the audacity—and the stupidity—of his former co-workers was over. 

And when the surprise, the bewilderment, the hurt, when it all vanished… It was replaced by clarity and the whole mess became that much easier to enjoy.

Because this was Tony’s triumph and oh, it tasted so sweet.

He promptly burst out laughing.

“Wow, this I did not expect,” he said and 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,” Steve 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 to his chest as the last of his laughter bubbled up to the surface. “Oh wow, I really 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, coiled inside him, made his limbs tingle for a wholly different reason than 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 in 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. “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 was not nearly noble enough to deny himself this vindication. He couldn’t stop himself from savoring every little morsel of this turnabout and with James safely back at the Tower, it was easier to slip further down this 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 misunderstanding and Bucky got spooked and he bolted and we, uh, haven’t been able 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 and when Steve shot her a warning glare, she met it with her own set of daggers.

“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, but that’s neither here nor there. So, the Winter Soldier ran away again. 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, morphing back into a neutral mask, but in Tony’s opinion, that sharp, cold neutrality only made Natasha look angrier and more dangerous.

Steve looked away and rubbed his face, scraping his palm over that damn beard. “It doesn’t matter how it happened. All that matters is—” He let out a frustrated noise and focused in on Tony. “Bucky is out there, alone and 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, with anyone else, that helpless look, the outright begging, it would’ve incited pity, sympathy, some smidgen of positive emotion. 

But not here, not right now, and not from Tony.

“I know that with our history,” Steve continued, oblivious to Tony’s thoughts, “and everything that happened last year, things are 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 that one lie.

“I’m not sure you have me convinced. 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 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 arched 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. “This was the only violent outburst he’s had since… well, 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. Right? Honestly, I don’t blame him. Me and Bruce get the same way. Weird, huh?” 

Usually, pulling the wool over people’s eyes by 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 tongue just to keep those words from spilling over.

The last thing he needed was these two getting any more suspicious of him.

“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 loving caresses and passionate 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 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 in 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?”


“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 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.”

Tony flashed him a thousand-watt smile. “Guilty as charged, asshole.”

Steve snarled right into Tony’s face now that they were standing 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 here looking for me in the first place?”

“Because I was hoping you’ve changed. You— I thought a year was enough time for you to get over this—”

“Get over this? Believe it or not, pal, this isn’t about Barnes. I know he was a victim, 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.” 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 was remember James’ stormy blue eyes, the 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 on Steve’s path to 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 money, and use it to 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 was the one to look away first.

More silence followed until Tony scoffed. “Yeah, 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 bellowed, overtaken by a 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 else when Steve’s eyes met his again and all he could see was that damn, endless stubbornness.

“He killed my mother,” Tony hissed, “and you lied to me about it.”

Tony swore they were both right back in that bunker. The same look, the same defiance, the 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-lived. It always was. 

Anger and pleasure and vindication, it all bled away and all Tony wanted was 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.”

“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 to his 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.” Tony knew it was a 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 bit more—”

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

I sure as hell do, and the temptation to say that 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 away, putting his back to Steve, “I don’t know a damn thing.”

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 one step before a big, heavy hand closed around his bicep, hard enough to hurt, and wrenched him back around. 

Several things happened at once. 

Natasha shouted Steve’s name, Tony’s gauntlet materialized over his other hand that 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’s heart hammered away in his chest.

Chapter Text

Steve reached for Tony to grab him and in that brief instance of time, James was the Winter Soldier all over again. The Asset—the weapon—preoccupied, to the detriment of everything else, with his singular mission.  

Today, that mission belonged to Tony—the Asset belonged to Tony—and even as his heart stuttered to a stop, his mission drove every other part of him forward.

Protect. Defend. Annihilate the threat.

A snap of the proverbial fingers and his heart jolted 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.

Steve obeyed when James ordered him to let go, saving James the trouble of breaking the hand that touched Tony, and now, having given away his presence, James had no more reason to hesitate. He marched across the grassy expanse and even in this, the Winter Soldier was present, the ghost story lingering in the long-forgotten swagger of his steps, in the steadfast confidence of knowing his mission was righteous.

Later, he would give himself the chance to reflect on the fact that this was the first time in decades that ‘righteous’ had been defined by him.

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 here, the chances of it going smoothly were nil.

James didn’t want things to get physical again, but he also didn’t miss the wince Tony tried to hide when 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 Steve’s hand after all and it was also enough to put aside his own private hurt. 

He killed my mother, Tony had said earlier and James’ heart tore in two as he began to doubt all over again whether he was worthy of the love Tony had offered him, but there was no time for that sort of soul-searching here and he knew it would fail regardless—and when it did, when he’d fail to find his worth, he’d seek Tony’s mercy again, turn to his kind touch and gentle reassurances and steadfast love for proof of his absolution.

There were three pairs of eyes watching him, but James only met Tony’s wide set as he pushed past Steve and put himself in front of Tony, shielding him from the other two. 

“Jay—” Tony swallowed the rest of the name as he caught himself. “Why are you— you’re still here? I thought— 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 ears.

To make his point clear, he turned to glare at Steve and the murderous expression must’ve finally reminded Steve why someone was glaring death at him.

“I’m sorry, that wasn’t— I shouldn’t have done that,” Steve mumbled and rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand, as if he were fighting off exhaustion. The hand slid back down over a beard James didn’t remember. “We were just having a conversation and our tempers… They got the best of us, that’s all. I’m sorry.”

James’ eyes narrowed into slits. The sound of that ‘sorry’ was familiar, reminding him of all those apologies Steve would throw his way back in that moldy apartment. Steve would apologize for calling him ‘Bucky’, for entering his room without knocking, for trying to force a friendship between James and the others. He’d apologize and look contrite and then do the same damn thing all over again the next day. 

James’ anger bled out into disappointment, which promptly turned into a headache. 

“No use lying to me. Friday had me patched into the audio and I’ve heard more than enough of this so-called ‘conversation’ to know what happened here.” 

He looked back at Tony and that righteous fury roared right back to life. Tony was still pale—paler than even a moment again and with his brows pulled together, a bead of sweat glistening on his temple, and his eyes wide as he peered up at James, he looked outright scared.

“We’re done here,” James declared, driven by a protectiveness that was new to him, but he accepted it with little reserve, even if he did try to channel to break something into words first. “The two of you need to go.” 

“I don’t be mean to be rude, but this is a private conversation and frankly, whoever you are, it isn’t any of your business. This is between me and Tony.” Steve tried to look past James to catch Tony’s eye. “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 quickly learned, and he was ready to repeat himself one final time, to make it clear Tony wasn’t going to put up with this any longer—the audacity of these two, demanding his help like this—but he was stopped by a tentative touch at his elbow as Tony went around and placed himself at his side. 

“Hey, it’s alright.” There was another brush of fingers along James’ bicep before Tony pulled away.

“Tony’s right, we all need to let cooler heads prevail, everything’s fine. We haven’t had a proper introduction, by the way. I’m Natasha.”

She extended her hand, but James didn’t take it, just watched as her arm dropped back at her side while she frowned. He wanted to laugh, waiting for her to ask the real question on her mind. 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, and there was now a gaggle of onlookers gathered around them too, some trying to take pictures and others chattering away about the spectacle. The people shielded him from the Widow’s scrutiny, but James knew the audience did not bode well for Tony and his public relations crew.

Something Tony clearly understood because he observed 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 slumping as if all of world’s worries were dropped onto them, but he transformed the very next moment, straightening back up again, hands sliding behind his back, and his smile turning 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, he addressed them. 

“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!” 

“Where’s Captain Marvel? She’s my favorite!”

More shouting, more murmurs, now more excited than worried, especially as Tony continued to beam at the crowd, rocking on his heels like a kid. He was the perfect picture of ease, except James could see the way Tony’s right hand clung to his left wrist like a vice.

A younger man at the front, barely into his twenties by the looks of him, crossed his arms over a broad chest, and grinned at Tony while tilting his chin at Steve. “Is that guy bothering you? Do you want me to take care of him for you? Frees you up to go get a drink with me, handsome.”

Good lord, James had forgotten all about the strange nonchalance of New Yorkers. 

Tony’s smile didn’t waver. He shrugged playfully and gestured at himself. “I’m sorry, son, but you gotta be over thirty to ride this ride.” A ripple of laughter went through the crowd and Tony waited for it to settle 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 it 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 waved a hand at the young man from before. “Whatever it is, it’s way more exciting than what Steve and I are discussing.”

Tony made shooing motions at the crowd, laughing amicably, making a few more teasing comments, waving at some of the kids, everything people expected from the easy-going, extroverted, and eccentric billionaire.

Thankfully, it seemed to have worked and the crowd 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 his attention back to James and the others, and watching the way Tony took off that proverbial mask, watching that flirtatious, cheeky smile morph right back into the exhausted, tense frown, was like being dunked into ice-cold water. 

“Damn it, I should’ve done that earlier,” Tony muttered, clearly frustrated with himself. His eyes darted between the three of them, landing on Steve last before they dropped 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, I went about this the wrong way and 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 visibly reeled himself in again. “Friday, put the field back up. Clearly the good Captain 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 clearly meant to coax James to come along. James didn’t need to be asked twice and he turned to follow, but neither managed more than a few steps before Steve was marching up to them.

He was reaching for Tony again, but his time, Tony wasn’t alone and James turned swiftly around to stop Steve with a splayed hand on his chest before he so much as touched Tony.

“Don’t,” he growled, but the menacing tone seemed to have lost its power because Steve refused to back down now.

“Get out of my way,” he ordered instead, then tried to shove James’ hand away. “This isn’t about you.”

“Rogers, what the hell?” That was Tony, already back at 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 when he addressed James, “they’re not worth it. Let’s just go.” 

Steve didn’t listen through and neither did James. 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.

Steve, now frustrated and angry and forgetting yet again about his superior strength, shoved back at James with both hands, hard enough that a normal person would’ve been knocked to the ground. James only swayed, so Steve shoved him again, rearing for a fight, and this time one of his hands hit 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 swayed, hanging limply in its sleeve, and Steve took a step back as he eyed that plastic hand as if it had 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 steer him away from the others. “We’re leaving, now.”

But James knew it was already too late. Romanova was putting it all together, 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 her 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 and the panic from earlier clawed its way up his spine 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 Tony get hurt again.

“We don’t have to do this,” he heard Tony whisper, as if he’d read James’ mind. “Let’s just go home, okay? We have nothing to prove to anyone.”

“Romanova has it all figured out. Only a matter of time before everyone else knows.”

“Probably,” Tony didn’t disagree. He sounded resigned and when they locked eyes, James’ resolve only strengthened. Tony was pale, uncomfortable, and 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 and glanced at the surrounding area. “I know this isn’t… ideal, but I think it’s time.”

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, the explosive anger from moments ago 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, sepia-toned memories of a skinny, sick kid who depended on him.

But that kid was long gone. He no longer existed and neither did the bright-eyed, hopeful young man that used to stand at his side. 

“B-Bucky?” Steve stammered and it was like they were right back on that bridge again, but this time around, 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.”

His voice was quiet, thick with emotions, and after decades of wearing a muzzle, he was still getting used to the sound of it, but even this part of him Tony found a way to appreciate.

Sometimes, on the nights when Tony’s nightmares were keeping him up, he’d ask James to read something aloud as he tried to fall back asleep. What James read didn’t matter, because it was his voice Tony found soothing. Tony always said it made him feel safe.

Protectiveness surged again and this time it was joined by something darker, something almost vindictive.

Here was Steve, cajoling, begging, demanding that Tony help him. They all wanted help from the same man they tossed aside, treating him like the enemy for as long as it was convenient. 

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 out of those thoughts, his 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 said more than enough. 

“So that night, when you ran, you went to Tony,” Romanova mused aloud when Steve fell silent. Her one moment of real shock had already been 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 all high and mighty when it came to the truth. After all, she knew about the Starks too, same as Steve. 

“How could you not tell me?” Steve seemed to have found his voice again. “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 and it took James a moment to register that the accusation was aimed at Tony. 

“Steve, it’s not like that, he didn’t—”

“Did he threaten you? Force you to come with him?”

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 building crescendo of chatter and he took a gulping breath to steady himself. 

Tony ran a hand through his own 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.

Romanova added her own stern set of reprimands. “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’s even been, so why don’t you listen to him? And calmly this time.” 

After a drawn-out moment, Steve 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 before, 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.


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. I’m not a child. I had a right to privacy.”

“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 the vitriol, but he resisted the urge.

“So then, when you left,” Romanova continued her 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. When he was at his most vulnerable, he trusted Tony to help and that trust had 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 and you tell me you couldn’t trust me? What—” Steve pressed a fist against his mouth before forcing it to drop back down. “What more can I do? What could I possibly do?”

“You could’ve believed me about Maximoff and—”

“She wasn’t trying to hurt you! That was misunderstanding and—”

“—you could stop talking over me at every turn! How about that?” James nearly shouted, shoving every bit of his remaining conviction into the words. “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 fists 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 have to work on, I know this, and 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 eased. James wasn’t happy with Steve—between the lies about Maximoff and his treatment of Tony, there were a canyon’s worth of issues standing 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 with the words, as if he’d believed them all along.

“I know and 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 are rarely easy.” There was a tiny hint of a smile trying to break through on Steve’s face. “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… I’m glad you had some place safe to stay in the meantime though. You do look great, by the way.”

The compliment, tacked on at the end like that, made James’ insides squirm and all he could do was give an awkward, tight-lipped smile. His eyes sought out Tony, an automatic gesture borne of a need to find his source of comfort, but James couldn’t help but frown 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 and James got to watch Tony flinch before quickly schooling his expression and shifting his posture into a picture of nonchalance.

“We don’t have to go back to the apartment,” Steve continued, not paying anyone else any mind. “We can stay somewhere else—anywhere you want—until we get this all figured out. We could get our own little apartment somewhere, just like the old days.” Steve brightened up, as if the idea sparked a new measure of hope in him. “I’m not sure we can afford a place in Brooklyn anymore, but we can go somewhere else, move somewhere, just the two of us, so we can get to know each other again and understand how we’ve changed, just like you said. No more stress, no more drama, no one there to bother us. Just all the space and time we need to heal.”

In some other world, in some other lifetime, an offer like this might’ve been tempting, might’ve been wanted, but here, it made James’ body 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 painted in James’ head.

This offer meant trading the life James had built for something else. Saying goodbye to his time with Peter and Harley, to Friday and her steadfast support of James’ scholastic endeavors. No more Happy and Rhodes and their friendships formed over greasy food, fast cars, and stories of Tony’s reckless hijinks. There would be no more Pepper and her no-nonsense attitude, no more of her 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 sleepless nights where James would get lost in the 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 in the circle of his arms. Every little gesture of love, every small gift that somehow suited James 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 anywhere 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 any of this, but even if we do fix it, 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 in the most spectacular fashion.  

Once Steve stopped willfully ignoring what was right in front of him, things came together remarkably quickly, and his eyes stopped their frantic dance and settled Tony. “You two were walking through the park and you said… 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.”

Chapter Text

Tony and I are in love.

Those words were more significant than anything James had uttered before and they came with little effort, startling even him with their ease. 

“And no matter what, I’m staying with him.” 

This part wasn’t so difficult either and truth be told, none of this should’ve been a challenge, this simple utterance of truth, but some part of James still ached and it wasn’t so much the way Steve’s face contorted with pain, but rather knowing that he should feel some shred of sympathy here and finding himself empty of it.

Things had changed so drastically, but James wasn’t sorry, he refused to be, and Steve had no right to look at him like that and stir up this latent guilt.

There were still plenty of doubts in James’ life, insecurities and nightmares and guilt, his constant companions, but this… This he knew. He deserved his chance at happiness and choosing that, choosing Tony as his new life, wasn’t a betrayal to Steve.

Before today, James still harbored some willingness to mend fences, even after Steve had chosen to believe a former Hydra agent over his supposed best friend. James didn’t know why that willingness lingered, other than echoes of old loyalties and guilt over the things Steve had given up to save James, but today had erased even that scrap of potential forgiveness. Today had shown him, unequivocally, that the vision Steve had for their collective lives would never make James happy.

Because it was Tony who’d shown him what happiness could mean. From safety to family to love, all of it had its roots in Tony. 

“This isn’t how I wanted this to go down,” James added and nearly cringed at the apologetic tone his words took on despite his refusal to capitulate to Steve’s betrayed expression. It still slipped out, this perpetual guilt that sat heavy in his chest, even when the subject in question wasn’t owed an apology. “I’m building a life here, Steve, and while the relationship with Tony is new, the friendship isn’t.”

“Right, yeah, I got that,” Steve bit out and cleared his throat. His nostrils flared again, jaw pulsed, and he looked to be on the verge of tears, but his eyes remained dry. “Heard you loud and clear before. You know, when you told me about the part where you’ve been talking to Tony for months behind my back.”

“James is an adult,” Tony cut in, “he doesn’t have to report his every move and acquaintance to you.” 

“Bucky and I never had secrets, we used to share everything—”

“‘Used to’, Rogers, past tense.” Each word grew harsher and Tony was clearly at the end of his rope, giving up on the pretense of civility. “But he’s not the same guy you used to know. Hell, you’re not either, so you have to get past this— this fixation on the past. Accept the situation and get some help. Hell, I’ll pay for the therapist myself if I have to—”

“Don’t patronize me. I’m not ‘living in the past’ like you all seem to think. All I’m trying to do is protect him!”

Steve pointed at James at the same time Tony scoffed and muttered a sullen, “Whatever, you’re right, you’re peachy keen.”

Both appeared ready for more shouting and accusations and pointed jibes, and watching them scowl at each other, feeling the anger between them crackle like electricity along his skin, James was overcome with a sudden, bone-deep exhaustion.

He should’ve realized from the beginning there would be no simple solution to this. There was never going to be peace between them, it just wasn’t possible, and maybe it shouldn’t be possible, not after all the hurt and betrayals and trauma, and since he was the one to draw the line in the sand the first time, the one who chose where his loyalties sat, he had to be the one to finish this.

“When I was on the run and wanted nothing more than to be left alone, you followed me come hell or high water,” he said to Steve, thankful that his voice held steady. He couldn’t waver, not right now. “But when I actually needed you, Steve, you chose to trust someone else.” 

James looked to Tony and took in that wariness again, the way it permeated every line of Tony’s body, in the way his right hand clamped around the left bicep like a vice, in the tight line of his lips, and the simple, desperate desire to be back at the Tower nearly overwhelmed James. He wanted to be back up in the penthouse, just him and Tony, wrapped up in the safety of each other’s arms, oblivious to the rest of the world, protected and happy and loved.

James met Steve’s eyes and chose the simplest way to deliver the truth.

“Unlike you, Tony chose me.”

The neutral mask Steve kept trying to pull over his hurt expression cracked. “You know that’s not true,” he bit out. “You can’t say that, not when you never gave me the chance to explain, to understand what happened. How was I supposed to know—”

“By listening to me, that’s how! I’ve had reservations about Maximoff from the beginning, but you never listened and that’s on you. She wanted to turn me into her puppet and she was one of them, Steve! She was Hydra and you lied to me about it.” 

“I’m sorry that I did, but I swear, I just wanted to protect you both. And I didn’t know that she wanted to hurt you, but— but I do now and we can’t just let something like this ruin everything between us. Bucky, please. We have our whole lives ahead of us!” 

It was as if Steve hadn’t heard a damn word, but how could he, over that anger building inside him? James could see it plain as day, anger rising up, up and out, spilling forth and clouding Steve’s judgment.

“We both made our choices—”

“And out of all the possible things, you chose Tony? I still can’t believe this.” Steve shook his head, clearly incredulous, and thrusted an accusing finger in Tony’s direction without even sparing him a glance. “Don’t you remember he tried to kill you?”

“And we almost killed him! I think that makes us even, don’t you? Leaving a man behind to die in enemy territory.” James scoffed, disgusted with himself at the mere reminder. “We should be ashamed. Tony had every right to beat us both bloody in that bunker.”

“He’s the one still holding this— this grudge against all of us, refusing to cooperate, to—”

“He doesn’t have to cooperate!” Now James was shouting too, his own anger boiling over. He realized his fist was clenched and shaking and he forced his fingers to unfurl. “He could’ve killed us both, but he didn’t, and now all Tony wanted was to be left alone and you couldn’t even do that.”

From one moment to the next, something twisted in Steve’s expression, the pain from before taking on a hue James didn’t recognize and he wondered if the old Bucky Barnes would’ve known what this meant. Perhaps some long-buried part of him still did because the shift set his instincts on edge. 

“And what does Tony want from you?”

 “What do you mean? He doesn’t ‘want’ anything. We figured things out and moved past our issues. One thing led to another and—”

“Bucky, come on, are you really that naive?”

That actually stopped James short. “Excuse me?”

“Steve, don’t say something you’re going to regret,” Romanova stepped in, “you’re just lashing out, so let’s just—”

“Oh come on, Natasha, you don’t see it either?” Steve pulled his arm roughly out of her grasp. “He’s just using you, Bucky. This whole thing is nothing more than a ploy to get back at me.”

“The hell are you on about?” James demanded and took a step closer to shield Tony, not liking that wild look in Steve’s eyes. Steve was not going to touch Tony ever again if James had a say in it, and if Steve so much as twitched in Tony’s direction right now… Well, the Stark media team would have one more thing to smooth over with the public because even though he knew Tony could defend himself too, seeing Steve look at Tony with so much unbridled vitriol made his every protective instinct howl. 

Tony stood stiffly next to him, eyes glued to Steve, likely keeping track of that explosive anger too.

“That’s it, isn’t it, Tony?” Steve continued, each word made of thorns and bile. “I thought I knew what you were capable of, but this is low, even for you. Did you—what, woo Bucky to get your revenge?”

“Rogers, just shut up for once in your life, please—”

“Because what else could it be? You couldn’t possibly love him!” Steve took a step closer. “You nearly killed us both and I can’t imagine you so much as touching the man who killed your parents. No, you’d be too disgusted, so this is all just a ploy, a way to pull Bucky away from us, to kidnap him and fill his head up with lies—”

“That’s enough!” Something in James snapped and he wrapping his hand around Steve’s collar, dragged him closer so they were face to face, their noses nearly touching. “Enough,” he repeated the word in a growl, his eyes mere slits of white-hot fury. He squeezed his fist until the collar of the shirt tightened around Steve’s neck. “You lost your right to speak to him and you just lost whatever chance you had of fixing things with me too.”

“B-Bucky, he’s lying—”

“Stop it. Stop saying that. Tony is not manipulating me. He’s the one who saved me and I will sooner die than leave him.” 

He let of Steve roughly, shoving him away, and he turned to Romanova next, ordering her in clear, unapologetic Russian to take Steve and herself home.

He wasn’t sure how seriously the Widow took the threat in his voice, but she did spring into action, likely as eager to get herself and Steve out of here. There was a crowd gathered again, people gawking at Steve and James, others a flurry of fingers across the glass screens of their telephones, and James spared one brief thought for the nightmare of rumors and the press circus that would certainly follow. He didn’t have the energy to spare much more than a sliver of guilt though; he’d make his apologies to Tony, however many were needed, later.  

Right now, there were still some good-byes to be made and James stood his ground, head held high, keeping an eye on Steve while Tony remained safe at his back. 

“Steve, come on,” Romanova wrapped her arm around Steve’s forearm again, tugging at it with actual force, abandoning her coaxing gentleness from before. “Barnes made himself perfectly clear. This isn’t a battle you’re going win.” 

Steve’s legs followed Natasha’s pull, taking a stumbling step backwards, then another, but his eyes remained on James.

“I’m not going to give up on you. I brought you back once and this is no different. He’s using you, Buck,” he said and shook his head, disbelief still written clear across his face. “This is nothing more than revenge and once Tony’s satisfied, he’s going to throw you out, or worse. Bucky, please, I don’t want to see you get hurt again, you don’t deserve to be used like some pawn—”

“Attention, please!” Friday’s voice rang out, startling all of them and cutting Steve’s diatribe short, bless her mechanical heart. “The Colonels are on their way, ETA one minute and thirty seconds.”

“Great,” Romanova muttered and shut her eyes on a wince, “the last thing I need is Captain Marvel involved again. Steve, we’re leaving, now.” 

This time Romanova put all her strength to work and wrenched Steve away, pulling him alongside her, but he still managed to throw one last look over his shoulder.

“Doesn’t matter what else happens between us, I’ll always be here for you, Bucky.”

Those eyes, they clung to James, pleading, begging him to follow, but James stood his ground, so Steve’s eyes, within them every drop of his devastation mixed so dangerously with anger, turned on Tony.

“I hope it’s worth it. I hope getting your revenge, hurting me, it’s worth all the lives you’ll destroy in the process.”

That seemed to be the end of Steve’s accusations; the two picked up their pace as they made their disgraced escape and while there were a few people who followed them with shouted questions, Romanova must’ve served up her deadly Widow glare because no one was brave enough to actually stand in their way.  

The few people who lingered around James and Tony began to disperse as well and James paid them no mind beyond another cursory sweep for threats. Tony stood in the same spot, face pale except for two flushed spots of pink on his cheeks. His wary eyes followed the retreating figures as they grew smaller. 

“Hey, Fri?” Tony asked, his voice unnaturally flat. “Are Rhodey and Carol actually on their way?”

“They could be,” Friday replied, then let out a convincingly human huff. “But no, they are staying put as asked and monitoring the situation from the Compound. I just thought you needed some help getting them to leave.”

“Sneaky girl,” Tony said, but even that little tease didn’t have its usual affectionate notes. “Thank you, Friday.”

“Tony?” James tried, gentling his voice and placing his hand on Tony’s shoulder. Tony startled, as if he’d forgotten James was right there with him, and seeing that wide-eyed, fearful look hurt more than anything Steve could’ve done to James. “Are you alright?”

Tony certainly didn’t look alright, far from it, and James scolded himself for the inane question, but before he could take it back, Tony gathered himself and nodded.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” 

But his gaze remained distant and James’ throat tightened, the lump in it growing thorns. Tony must’ve been so angry over this, this whole spectacle played out right in the open for everyone to see, and the accusations Steve threw in Tony’s face… My god, the gall of that man. 

But it was all because of James, wasn’t it? If James hadn’t been a part of Tony’s life, Steve’s pursuit would’ve lacked this particular brand of viciousness.

If Steve messed this up somehow, if he ruined James’ chance at building something great with Tony just as they were taking their first steps into this new, beautiful thing…

James blinked, Tony’s voice interrupting his spiraling thoughts, and he realized Tony had asked something.


At least Tony’s eyes were on him now, scanning up and down as if looking for injuries, and at this point, James couldn’t tell whether the crease between Tony’s brows was due to worry or anger or fright. 

“I asked if you were okay?”

“M’fine,” James said, complicit in his own little white lie, same as Tony. He wouldn’t be fine until this whole awful thing was behind them and he was back in Tony’s arms, somewhere warm and quiet and safe. 

Tony gestured at him awkwardly. “Do you need help with the prosthesis?”

James looked down and realized the left sleeve was still awkwardly hanging at his side. He shook his head and gave a half-hearted attempt to fix the thing himself, tucking the prosthesis back against his side as best he could so it’d be out of the way.

“We should get back to the Tower,” Tony said while James was putting himself back to rights, but instead of looking at James, Tony was surveying the park, scratching at his goatee distractedly. Eventually, he sighed in defeat and reached for his pocket and even from James’ vantage point, it was clear the Starkphone was already flooded with notifications. 

“Fuck…” Tony muttered under his breath as he scrolled through the messages. “Well, that’s Pepper and Happy and Peter and… Oh, look, the entire RP squad is at the Tower waiting for us. Fan-fuckin’-tastic. Fri, I assume Boss Man and Boss Lady know we’re fine?”

“Yes, they do. The Colonels do want to speak with you both, but I am told that can wait until you return to the Compound. I am also currently monitoring internet activity and trending topics. There is already substantial curiosity about your fight with Rogers and as well the presence of Mr. Barnes, specifically as it relates to you.”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ll have to clear that up ASAP. And let Minerva know we’re on our way. I’m sure she’s just dying to see us. Minnie, she’s, uh, she’s my PR guru,” he explained to James, “you’ve met her briefly, I think.”

“I do remember her. She seemed sweet.”

“She is very sweet and she’s also a master in taking the story everyone is talking about and presenting it in a new, better light, which we desperate need right now. Saved me on multiple occasions, even before I cleaned up my act.” 

“I’m sorry about this. All of this, Tony. I— ” Might as well start in with the apologies now. “I should’ve held my tongue, done things differently—”

“Hey, no,” Tony said, shaking his head, “I gave you the green light, didn’t I? Just didn’t think it’d devolve into… this.” He reached up to squeeze James’ good shoulder, but even this gesture was painfully hesitant and lasted only a brief, insubstantial moment. 

“Should’ve known though, right?” Tony kept talking as they began to walk. “We were the ones who got into a fist fight in a damn airport parking lot last year.” He huffed without humor. “What else did I expect? At least there’s no property damage this time and no one is bleeding.”

“I’m still sorry, for everything.” They picked up their pace, dodging the crowds of people, the park still busy and bustling with life. “Angry or not, Steve should’ve never said those things and I didn’t help matters either. Just kept on goading him.”

“Steve is responsible for his own fuck-ups, James.” Tony sighed then and quietly added, “We all are.”

There was such a profound sadness infused into those words that it left James off-kilter, unsure how to soothe this unknown melancholy away. He supposed the best thing for was to keep walking. Get away from here. Get home. 

“I don’t want you to worry, though, okay?” Tony continued, the sadness traded in for artificial cheerfulness. “About the whole media, PR thing, I mean. We’ve been thinking about your introduction since the beginning and this is a bit earlier than planned, definitely not as smooth, but I’ve done much, much worse and come out relatively okay, so you’re going to be just fine. People love an underdog story, a hero overcoming steep odds, redemption, that whole thing. We don’t even have to spin the narrative, you got all those pull-at-the-heartstrings angles in spades, for better or worse.” 

“Tony, I’m not—” James picked up his pace to stay at Tony’s side who was now moving at a near-jog. “I’m not worried about my reputation. If anything, it’s your reputation I don’t want to see tarnished.”

Tony’s laugh was hollow and that too hurt to hear. “Trust me, there’s nothing anyone can do to my reputation that I haven’t done myself.”

James didn’t really agree; he may not have been raised in this century, but he had adapted to the new technologies well enough and he’d seen what the world thought of Tony. Sure, Tony Stark had plenty of enemies and nay-sayers, but that could be said for any person who stood in the spotlight since the day they could stand at all. There were other people however—better people, in James’ biased opinion—who regarded Tony as a hero and a role model. They respected Tony for his intelligence and expertise, admired him for his efforts to improve their collective futures, and most importantly, they trusted Tony to protect them, to honor their interests when it mattered most.

James didn’t want to ruin that reputation in any way, but he supposed it was all out of his control now. He had to trust the people in Tony’s life to deal with the mess he created. 

Damn Steve and damn his dramatics. They were having such a nice day and James was just getting used to having nice days and now it all went to hell.

Doubt flooded him without warning, made more profound by Tony’s silence as they kept up their brisk pace down the crowded streets of Manhattan. 

He shouldn’t have revealed himself, he should’ve kept his mouth shut, should’ve let Tony handle this, but no, he just had to play the hero, had to prove to the world and to himself and to Tony that he wasn’t a sniveling coward who couldn’t stand up for himself and the man he loved. 

As if Tony needed his protection.

Damn James’ own dramatics too.

The worst part was that Steve got the last word in after all, leaving everything in the wake of that conversation tainted with the bitterness of his accusations. 

James knew that everything said in those final moments were words of a wounded, angry man who was losing something important to him. It didn’t matter that this something didn’t exist—Bucky was gone, he was dead and gone and James wanted to scream it from the rooftops just to be heard—because the pain Steve felt, that rejection and loss, was no less real. James thought back to Steve’s wild-eyed look, replayed those words in his head, the way they spit on every kindness Tony had granted James, corrupting every selfless act into something wicked, and he wanted to tear Steve to pieces all over again.

The pedestrians were dodging them now and James knew he was likely projecting a Winter Soldier scowl in everyone’s direction. He kept close to Tony, as close as he could given their pace, but he denied himself the urge to draw the man’s hand into his own.

Tony obviously wasn’t happy, but James couldn’t get a read on his mood beyond that. There was anger there certainly, along with exhaustion, but then there were those glimpses of sadness too, something heavy weighting Tony down, and James couldn’t puzzle it out. He supposed it could be unresolved issues between Steve and Tony—they used to be friends after all—but he couldn’t be sure and guessing was a fool’s game.

They needed to talk and James needed to understand where they stood. The most terrifying thing to him was uncertainty.

He swallowed hard, pinpricks of pain sliding down his throat as it tightened again. The thought of losing Tony was terrifying and it wasn’t so much his dependence on Tony that frightened him. James had survived on his own before and he could survive again, but that was the inconvenient thing about healing. With time, with love and care and room to breathe, getting better meant survival was no longer enough. He didn’t just want to survive, he wanted to thrive and be happy, to enjoy each new day as it came instead of going through the motions and wait passively until life decided something needed to change.

His thoughts began to spiral again, into something dark and wretched. These days, it would’ve been Tony helping James to escape that vicious spiral, but Tony was still distant, now too busy conferring with the head of PR on the phone and sporting a scowl of his own as he marched down the sidewalk. To cope with the anxiety, James forced himself to focus on their surroundings and let himself slip into the Winter Soldier mindset, just a little bit, prioritizing vigilance and threat assessment and keeping himself a silent presence at Tony’s side.

They were dragged away into a meeting as soon as they entered the Tower and were separated altogether soon after. Tony was with Pepper, hidden behind the closed doors of her office while James remained in a conference room with Minerva and her team.

The pace of activity was frenetic, although James noted no one was particularly panicked as the team conversed among themselves, looping James in at appropriate times. There was an interview scheduled with some respected journalist, one Christine Everhart and from what James had gathered, she was tough, difficult to manipulate into presenting some flattering spin and steadfast in her desire for facts and a fair narrative, but he was assured that she and Tony had a long history and her integrity and lack of agenda (at least when it came to smearing Tony’s name) would play in their favor.

They didn’t ask much of him. Don’t scowl at the audience, speak clearly and honestly, but don’t offer more than necessary to answer the question posed. Avoid any controversial topics unless brought up directly. Play up the puppy dog eyes if possible. 

There was more, a whirlwind of details that James struggled to catalogue over the steady thrum of anxiety, but eventually, with said details stored on his Stark tablet for later review, he was freed from the scrutiny of the PR team. 

James ran into Tony just before getting into the elevator to go back up to the penthouse. Tony was clearly in a hurry, walking briskly from one meeting to another, but he stopped when he noticed James and walked back a few paces to meet him at the elevator doors.

“Minnie finally let you go?”

“Yes. It’s… a lot, to be honest. They know what they’re doing, but I don’t want to screw this up.”

There was a tired smile on Tony’s face and his hand came up to smooth out the creases between James’s brows, the touch so gentle that James nearly wept.

“You’re going to get wrinkles if you frown so much,” Tony murmured, but even this moment was over too quickly when Tony let his hand drop abruptly. “This, uh, this whole thing really isn’t a big deal. Everything’s going to be okay and like I said, I’ve done much worse. My PR team had to deal with the Iron Man announcement, my drunken birthday party while I was dying, the Stark Expo exploding, and last year’s parking lot brawl. Trust me, they’re all very pleased they get to deal with someone upstanding and generally well-behaved for once. We’ll make sure you’re protected, James. No one’s gonna harass you about this.”

“That’s not—” James ground his teeth in a flare of frustration. “You know that’s not what I’m worried about, right?”

And there was that sadness again and it killed James to see it on Tony’s face. “Yeah, I know. But there’s nothing to worry about. No matter what, you’ll be just fine, James. I promise, okay?”

With that cryptic promise—one that sounded too much like a goodbye—Tony headed back down the hall while James waited by the elevator.

The automatic doors opened a second later, but James remained where he was for several minutes, not knowing what to do with himself. 

They needed to talk, if only so James could understand where he stood with Tony and what he could do to mend whatever hurts were inflicted today.

He sighed, his body sagging with exhaustion as the air escaped him, and pressed the elevator button again. He’d go up to their bedroom, take a shower, maybe order some food since Tony wouldn’t think to eat in the midst of this chaos, and then wait for Tony to find him.

Chapter Text

The steady pitter-patter of rain should’ve been soothing, but the sky overhead was a dark, ominous gray, the wind howled amongst the treetops, and the lake next to the Compound matched the roiling fury of the sky with its own tempestuous waves. 

Well, this is just fitting. 

James scowled, letting the uncharitable thoughts bounce around his head as he scanned the grounds, then let his forehead thump against the window. His eyes fell shut and he tried to focus on the sensation of cool glass against his skin, on the sound of rain, on anything but those coils of anxiety, barbed and vicious, writhing around in his chest, but the effort was mostly futile.

How quickly a day of sunshine and fun could be taken away.

A storm, descending out of nowhere, its rain thick and violent and dreary, not even a flash of lighting or a rumble of thunder to break up the darkness, and Tony, avoiding James. 

It took little time for James to realize that he hated the avoidance most of all. He could take yelling and insults and all manner of disappointment and guilt trips. Hell, he’d welcome a punch to the face at this point, if it meant breaking the silence.

The dinner James brought with him after Happy dropped him off—Tony flew back to the Compound later—sat cold and untouched and Tony didn’t stop by at all, not even a text message, not a word, which was entirely out of character for a man who texted James dumb jokes and cute cats when they were in the same room. Friday kept telling James that Tony was ‘otherwise occupied’ and did not want to be disturbed, even though it was now well past midnight and there were no more meetings and no more excuses and no more reasons to keep away from his own bedroom.

Unless Tony wanted to stay away. That thought tore James into pieces, some part of him already mourning and the other scolding him for having the gall to think he had any claim to Tony’s time and space to begin with. 

With half-lidded eyes, he watched the glass as it fogged up from his exhale. He lifted a listless hand to draw his finger across the condensation for a lack of something better to do. 

He knew today was a disaster, but had it really been bad enough to have angered Tony this much?

Of course it was, James sneered at his own wandering doubts—the disaster of it all grew and grew the longer he thought about it, the longer he obsessed over each detail, and he could no longer tell what was truth and what was anxiety, but— 

You don’t get to escape the repercussions, Barnes. 

Steve was there today because of James. He sought Tony out to find James and he hurt Tony when Tony refused to help and then James had to go and place the proverbial cherry on top by making his dramatic reveal for the whole world to see.

Which led to Tony and a whole team of experts spending the rest of their day putting out fires and making sure their little ‘adventure’ in the park didn’t end up smearing anyone’s name.

James could’ve done this a thousand different—betterways and he chose the one that caused Tony the greatest amount of trouble. 

Worthless, his mind whispered, you never changed, did you? A burden, that’s what you were and that’s all you’ll ever be.

He knew his mind wasn’t always objective, that it wasn’t always honest, but now with both the stress and the guilt magnified ten-fold by Tony’s avoidance, it was hard to argue with that cruel voice in his head.

James knocked his forehead against the glass twice, then sighed. This silence was going to kill him and he needed to break it, even if it meant incurring more of Tony’s ire. 

“Friday, is Tony still unavailable? I’d like to see him, unless he wants to be left alone.”

“The privacy protocol is still up, so I cannot ask, but I suppose I can still see…” Friday paused to let out a thoughtful hum reminiscent of Pepper. “He doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything, if I’m being honest, and he does appear to be—hmm, I want to use the term ‘sulking’, the Colonel is quite fond of that one, but no, that doesn’t seem right—I have the Boss’ moods catalogued, you know, but I may have to do further research on this one. Regardless, there is already ample evidence to suggest that you, Mr. Barnes, are a consistent benefit to Boss’ well-being, so yes, I think you should visit him. He’s down in the workshop.” 

Friday, ever a sweetheart, truly meant well, so James didn’t have the heart to tell her that Tony’s current bad mood was attributed to James’ own unfortunate choices. Instead, he just nodded. “Thank you, I’ll do my best to make him smile again.”

“Much obliged, Mr. Barnes.”

James supposed his best was all he could do and so without letting himself garner more doubts, he headed out of the room. The rain kept falling, rhythmic patterns of never-ending droplets, right alongside the thrum of anxiety that beat in time with his pulse. 

James spent an awkward minute in front of the sliding glass doors—one partially opened with the rest of the glass blacked-out—wondering whether he should knock or have Friday announce his arrival or just come in. He never needed permission to enter Tony’s workshop before, but this was different and the last thing he wanted was to make things worse

Before his thoughts could spiral entirely out of control, James knocked softly against the glass and cautiously entered the space.

“Tony?” he called out, keeping his voice as steady as he could and he turned the corner to find Tony sitting on the couch, a holographic screen hovering in front of him, but Tony flicked it away with a practiced hand when he turned to look at James.

The ball of stress in James’ gut grew thorns when he noted how unwell Tony looked. Dark bags carved beneath his eyes contrasted against pale skin, hair unkempt, having lost its more stylish, purposeful wildness from before. Long gone were the fashionable tee and jeans too, replaced with Tony’s worn-down lab attire. Tony had one leg tucked against his chest and arms wrapped around it, his chin hooked over his knee. Exhausted and wary, Tony looked worse than James felt.

“I wasn’t sure if you were, uh, if you were busy,” James said as he came closer. “Friday said you had a privacy protocol up, but I was hoping we could talk?” 

Tony blinked at him, as if James had said that in some alien language, and it took a second for Tony to shake himself out of that odd reverie; he nodded as he unfolded his body and dropped his foot back down to the floor. 

“Yeah, yeah, of course, I, uh, I forgot I even asked her for the blackout.” He gave his eyes a violent scrub before adding, “Jesus, these meetings all day, I swear they wouldn’t end. Minnie— well, I love her and I need her, she’s my hero, but she is relentless and now she’s got it in her head that we can use the incident today to shore up some support to strike down that amendment proposal from last month. If you remember, they’re trying to argue the new clause will promote ‘diversity’, but all it does is circumvent the vetting process we’ve fought to put in place so they could reinstall someone like Rogers back on the team without any checks and balances.” He looked around the workshop before setting his gaze back on James. “But that’s neither here nor there, sorry, I’m babbling. What time is it anyways?”

Tony’s movements and the meandering words, there was something off about them too, as if they were on a one-second delay. It could’ve been attributed to the hectic day and the late hours, but James had seen Tony exhausted and this wasn’t it, not exactly. 

“It’s just after one.”

Tired eyes blinked up at him again. “…In the afternoon?” 

A sliver of anxiety transformed into worry. “One in the morning, honey.”

He watched Tony frown, first at James, then down at the floor. The hand scratching his goatee dropped back into his lap. “Oh. Well, shit, I didn’t even realize… And with the storm outside and all the running around… Jesus, I thought it wasn’t even dinner time yet.”

James dragged over one of the boxes usually used as a footrest and pushed it over to sit by Tony. Not directly in front of him, just off to the side, close enough to have the conversation, but leaving enough room so that he wouldn’t crowd into Tony’s space. That thought hurt too, given how little space they needed between them on their good days. He tried not to dwell on that yet. 

Tony watched him, and James watched him in turn, and although no spy training was needed to see that Tony was very much not fine, James couldn’t actually pick up on what was wrong. It was just like before, with that cryptic ‘everything will be just fine’ that Tony had given him. James couldn’t read him today.

There was exhaustion and a wariness here, yes, but where was the anger James expected? The accusations, the reprimands? 

Tony didn’t look ready to lay into him. On the contrary, he looked ready to keel over and pass out.

The worry grew stronger. “I take it you didn’t eat dinner then?” It was difficult to keep that question from sounding accusatory, but Tony didn’t seem to be paying much attention to  anything, let alone James’ tone. 

“Umm… I know I grabbed a cup of coffee from one of the admins and some almonds and once Minnie released me from her PR fury, I flew over and then came down here, just to, uh, to take a breather, and…” Tony looked around the workshop again, frowning. “Lost track of time, I guess.”

So, nothing but coffee and a handful of almonds to fuel half a day’s worth of stress and meetings and whatever else weighed Tony down. Fantastic.

“Did you want to eat then? I could bring you something or—”

“No, no, it’s fine, I’m okay,” Tony waved a hand, then swayed a little, which only rang more alarms. “You wanted to talk about something?” 

A part of James was itching to pretend that everything was fine, to go along with the instinct to take care and get Tony to the nearest kitchen to be fed and then wrapped up in the softest blanket available and get bundled off to bed. It was so tempting, to take this readily available excuse and avoid everything else, to keep the anxiety and worry and guilt bottled up, but then James looked at Tony again, really looked, and he realized how important this was to him. How important Tony was to him. If they didn’t deal with this now, it’d only get worse, like a festering wound left uncleaned, and the thought of putting their fragile new relationship in even more danger… That terrified him more than any vulnerability ever could.

Dinner and a warm bed could wait a few more minutes.

“Yeah, I just wanted… Tony, I was…” he started, but his mind chose that moment to fill up with static and he swallowed convulsively, begging the words to come back. “I wanted to know…” It took several long moments, which Tony bore with his usual patience, before James finally decided to stick with a blunt, “Please tell me what I did wrong.”

The words sounded pathetic to his own ears so who knew what they sounded like to Tony, and James kept his eyes pointedly on the floor as the rest of his words tumbled out. “I don’t know if it’s the fallout from what happened today or— or Steve bothering you like that in the first place or— god, maybe it was me, acting like a damn fool, making declarations, like I have any right to say that we were in love—”

“James, what are you talking about?”

James looked up, startled by Tony’s incredulous tone, to be met with clear confusion.

“I know a lot of things went wrong today,” James tried to explain, hating that he couldn’t just be coherent for once, “and I know I messed up something somewhere—that’s no surprise—but Tony, please, I can’t— can’t deal with the silence. Anything’s better than you avoiding me. Yell if you want, I don’t mind, but—”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Tony interrupted and it took a second before confusion turned into dawning horror. “You thought I was punishing you for something? God, James, no, I wouldn’t—” Tony groaned and hid his face in his hands. “Fuck, great, just great. And I thought I couldn’t fuck this up any further…”

Before James could question those muttered words, Tony straightened up to look at him, weary eyes pleading for something.

“That wasn’t what I was doing, James, I swear. I’m— I’m an idiot and a tired idiot at that and I lost track of time because—” Tony gestured wildly at his own head. “Well, because there are too many things up in here and I’m a mess and I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. I mean, today was a clusterfuck, sure, but all you were doing was rolling with the punches. That was Steve’s show—fuck, my show too if you want to get real, but you—” His expression crumbled further. “God, even if I was mad at you, I wouldn’t ignore you just to punish you. Howard did that enough times to my mom, to me. I know how it feels.”

He reached out for James, but the movement was stilted, as if Tony realized half-way that he shouldn’t be touching James, and the result was an awkward pat on the knee instead of a strong, comforting grasp James could’ve expected at any other time. 

Tony’s hand retreated back to be tucked against his belly while James kept staring at Tony with his own bewildered expression. 

He was a sniper and a spy and a super soldier and he picked up on things pretty quickly—quicker than most—but this? This was the opposite of what he expected and whatever this was, he couldn’t make any sense of it.

“Tony, are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” the reply came instantly, but Tony betrayed himself by the tremble in the hand he used to wave the question away. “I just needed some time alone and I didn’t realize it’s been hours and hours. I’m sorry.”

James’ brows knitted together. “You don’t have to tell me, because you have the right to your privacy, but something is obviously wrong here and I just… I want to know how to fix this.”

This time Tony didn’t reply right away and it gave James a moment to think about whether he should push the issue further. What he said was true, Tony had a right to his own space, to his own thoughts, and he didn’t owe James an explanation, but at the same time, this involved James too and there was something else here, something other than mere stress from the day’s events. James could see it in Tony’s features, in the way he struggled even now to decide whether to tell James what was on his mind.

“Tony, sweetheart,” he tried, unable to stomach the silence, “whatever it is, I’m sure we can figure it out. We’ve been through so much and—”

“Steve was right.”

James was caught mid-word and he closed his mouth with a click before his frown grew even more severe. “I’m not sure what that means, but I can guarantee that nothing Steve blathered on about today was ‘right’,” he assured, but Tony was already shaking his head. 

“No, he was, James, he— he was right. Fuck,” Tony whispered harshly and rubbed the heel of his hand against his thigh over and over. “You deserve better than either one of us, better than this whole damn mess and the fucked-up soap opera we’re all stuck in somehow—”

“Tony, what are you talking about?” 

It took James a moment to realize Tony had asked him the exact same thing not even two minutes prior and with an edge of hysterical befuddlement, he wondered how the hell they ended up on such different pages in so little time.

James cursed Steve and Romanova and that entire damn group for forcing them into this.

“Steve was right about me and revenge,” Tony whispered then and from one moment to the next, James felt his insides grow cold. “That’s what I’m talking about. He said I was using you to get revenge on him and he was right.”

“I don’t understand.”

Their eyes met, just for a brief second. Not long enough to understand, but just long enough to see the raw guilt Tony was trying to hold back.

“That’s how this whole thing started,” Tony continued, voice quiet and forcibly measured. “It was just a passing thought after I got your letter. You know, ‘ha ha, wouldn’t it be funny if the Winter Soldier was on my side instead of Steve’s?’ Talk about payback, right? So much of what happened last year wasn’t about the Accords, it was about you, and to see Steve lose the one person who means more to him than everything he left behind… It was an awful, cruel thought, but Friday and I, we joked about it, how we’d lure you to our side, made up steps—” The frenetic energy kicked back up as Tony gestured the holograph back into existence with a sharp wave of his hand and swiped the screen in James’ direction. “I had a damn project file for it and everything, like some fucking third-rate villain.”

Tearing his eyes away from Tony, James numbly pulled the hologram over so he could swipe through its sections and the first thing that caught his eye was the order for his cell phone. Iron Man limited edition. Super soldier-proof. A list of features Tony wanted installed into the software to make one-handed use easier.

Beneath it, a whole section on an algorithm Tony wrote to hack into the ordering system of the online store James had used. James’ measurements next to that, shoe size, five different brands of sneakers, with a scribble next to one declaring it ‘not nearly enough gold, Fri, this is a travesty’. 

“I swear, James,” he heard Tony repeat in a pained whisper, “I swear it was just a silly thing Friday and I did, it wasn’t— I dunno why, maybe thinking about it like this was my way of compartmentalizing, to deal with my anger with Steve, to deal with my conflicting feelings for you, but it wasn’t some evil plan to manipulate you. Everything that’s happened between us, everything I’ve ever said to you, it was the truth.”

James’ eyes skirted over to a log of text messages, most of them from James to Tony, talking about the pain in his left shoulder, with scribbles in Tony’s tidy scrawl next to several of them.

James slid a finger through those notes to reveal file after file, likely pulled from the wreckage of Hydra, compiled and analyzed to synthesize a new batch of painkillers that would work for someone with James’ botched version of the super serum. 

There was a whole separate file on the other side of the screen, one James couldn’t access from this interface, titled ‘Operation Charmed and Dangerous’.

“Honestly, I thought you wouldn’t even answer me. Why would you, you know? But then you did and then we met and I was— you were— god, you were you and I swear I was gone on you that very first night. I couldn’t have seen this coming in my wildest dreams…”

In the corner, in the same scrawl, were the steps Tony had mentioned, each adorned with a checkmark.

Step one - shiny new tech

Step two - don’t be a dick

Step three - call him by his actual name

There was no step four and there didn’t seem to be anything in the file about James’ life after he arrived at the Compound. James’ eyes trailed up to the title. 

‘Project Dark Side’, it read and an echo of Peter’s voice in his head informed him it was a Stars Wars reference.  

“I should’ve said something sooner,” Tony kept talking, likely because James hadn’t offered a word in return. “You’ve been manipulated and used for so long and to add to that… But there was so much going on at first and then I’d think, well, it’s not a big deal because it was just a passing thought, just a joke, but then I’d wonder if I was making up excuses and maybe it was a big deal and today— today, Steve reminded me that I’m no saint and it hit me that I don’t want to lose you, that it’d kill me to lose you, but I’ve been lying, and that’s the worst thing I could do and you’ll leave— you have every right to leave—”

Tony’s breath hitched and it wasn’t quite a sob, more of a struggle to pull in air, and Tony fell silent, trying to regain his breath, the back of his hand pressed against his lips as if to stop himself from talking.

James watched him carefully, the hologram momentarily forgotten, and Tony succeeded on his second try to take a deep inhale, but his glassy eyes still stared straight ahead.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Whatever you choose to do from here, I’ll support you regardless.”

Those words were said with a fatalistic sort of finality, contrasted against the anxious energy that thrummed through Tony’s body. Hands wringing between his knees, his foot tapping out an uneven rhythm, every tell on full display. 

James glanced at the hologram again. Forget ‘understanding’, he was still working on believing everything he just heard.

“Tony, you…” he said without meaning to and even in the periphery of his vision, he could see how the words made Tony flinch. Tony, who sat hunched in on himself on the same ratty couch where they had their first kiss, now distraught and repentant and out of his mind with exhaustion, waiting for a verdict, waiting for James to say… 

You lied to me.

You betrayed me.

You used me.

“You… really don’t see yourself the way I do, do you?”

Tony lifted his head slowly, brows drawn together. “What?”

Of all the ways this conversation could have gone, of all the ways it could have gone wrong… 

Coming into this, James expected some pain, but this ache in his chest was unexpected, unbearable…

“All of this… You really thought that I would…” 

No, those words, they weren’t enough. He pushed the hologram aside and shifted to the edge of his seat and his leg stayed pressed against Tony’s when they bumped against each other. James needed more though and he reached out to brush his fingers against the back of Tony’s hand. 

“Do you want to know what I see when I look at you?”

Chapter Text

“Do you want to know what I see when I look at you?”

James let the words settle between them, the weight of them on his shoulders, the importance of them an ache in his chest, and his throat tightened when he swallowed. He knew whatever he said next would determine the rest of this journey, his and Tony’s, and was he really the right man for the job? He, the Winter Soldier, James Barnes, who months ago was content to stay silent and alone in his head, to wither away into nothingness?

His pause was meant to give Tony a chance to respond, but all James received was a frown, just a narrowing of Tony’s eyes and a tilt of his brows, and it was enough to make it clear—painfully clear, James’ heart reminded him as it seized at the sight—that Tony obviously didn’t know what James was about to say. 

How could he doubt James’ next words?

It hurt to see this uncertainty, and not because Tony doubted James. This crazy thing between them, it was still so new and unexplored and James understood that. Not that long ago, he was still a wildcard, a stranger, an enemy, but Tony had always been so self-assured and so strong and to harbor this sort of doubt at all…

“I see a man who offered mercy to someone who nearly ruined his life.” The words, in the end, seemed to have found themselves. “I see someone who didn’t hand out platitudes, but offered kindness—real kindness—and who helped without asking for something in return. Anyone else in your shoes, they would’ve looked at my letter and ignored it, spat on it and let me wallow in my own misery because I deserved nothing better, but you— you reached out—”

“Because it would hurt Steve if—”

“If what? I was treated like a human being?”

Tony’s mouth closed with a click and his eyes returned to his lap when he shrugged.

“With everything that happened,” James continued when Tony stayed silent, “Steve did get hurt, yes, but a punch to the gut would’ve hurt just as well and would’ve taken a lot less work on your part.”

Tony huffed, the sound of it hollow. “I guess I’m not one to half-ass things, huh?”

James’ lips twitched, a valiant effort to muster a smile, but it was difficult to indulge in banter when there was so little humor in Tony’s voice. It was still such a shock to see Tony so anxious.

“No, you definitely don’t ‘half-ass’ things. I knew that before I even knew you. But Tony, look… Whatever Steve’s going through right now, that’s on him. He’s hurt not because you’ve… manipulated us, no. He’s hurt because… He had his little toy soldier taken away.” 

The words burned, like a line of heat and shards up his throat, and James could admit to himself that the accusation was harsh, but Steve wasn’t the only one hurt here. Steve claimed and proclaimed and declared that he loved James, a love so profound that it transcended time and space and death itself, and yet, since coming back out of cryo, James didn’t feel all that loved. He felt like a possession, a pretty little shell meant to have something—someone—else inside it.

Steve wasn’t Hydra and he wasn’t cruel; there was a good chance he didn’t even understand the extent of the harm he was causing, didn’t intend to cause said harm, but sometimes intent wasn’t everything and when Steve looked at James and wanted Bucky each time, it hurt all the same.

“Steve had every opportunity to make this right. I didn’t want to push him out of my life, not until he forced my hand. Imagine— imagine him being happy for me. Imagine Steve saying, ‘I’m so happy you’re well and I respect your decision to stay with Tony.’ Would you keep me and Steve apart then?”

Tony let out another weak laugh and swiped the back of his hand over his nose. “Rogers pulling his head out of his ass? I’d be over the moon.” 

“Yeah, I thought as much. Even if you did have a nefarious plan here, Tony, it wouldn’t have worked if Steve hadn’t been so goddamn stubborn. He was unwilling to change and if he feels like doling out the blame, I’ll willingly take it. But you, Tony, you…”

How could he convince Tony that this thing—their thing—looked so different from the outside looking in?

“You look at me and you worry that you’ve led me astray, but if you were to ask anyone else in the world, anyone other than you and Steve, they’d tell you a different story. You really don’t see that?”

“I…” Tony frowned again. “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Ask your friends, who have been far kinder to me than I deserve, ask a random man on the street, ask the damn President, anyone. Ask, if there really is a victim here, who would it be and they wouldn’t bother with me, honey, no, because they’d point right to you.” 

Tony’s expression grew appalled and he shook his head, his features coming to life with incredulity. “Me? What— No, no, no, you know that’s not true, and if anyone even thinks that you’re—”

“No? Is that not what people would see? The Winter Soldier, without money or allies, worms his way in the good graces of one Tony Stark—”

“James, I know you would never—”

“Tony,” James held up his hand and Tony fell silent. “Let me say this. Please?”

James tried to keep the words kind and was rewarded when Tony grimaced self-consciously, nodded, and did not say anything else. James placed his hand back on Tony’s knee, anchoring them to each other, and despite the ache in his chest, James still felt a glimmer of warmth spark inside him. Even now, Tony was putting him first. How many people had spoken over him, time after time, day after day, until James gave up on the words?

“Ask anyone without an agenda or the desire to hurt you. Ask and they’ll tell you about Tony Stark, who is generous, who always tries to see the best in everyone, who took this pathetic stray home and protected him. Ask anyone who isn’t trying to get me back and they’d tell you it must’ve been that no good Winter Soldier who seduced Tony Stark into bed, not the other way around. That man, that murderer, who lied and cheated and toyed with this good, kind man, to get him right where he wanted him, wrapped around his little finger for money, protection, and resources.”

By the look Tony was giving him, he was clearly not impressed with James’ version of the story either, but despite the obvious disapproval etched into his frown, Tony didn’t interrupt until James stopped to raise a challenging brow.

“You and I both know you did none of those things,” Tony said, voice full of conviction, a startling contrast to the words Tony used to speak of himself. Always ready and willing to defend others, but so easily giving into doubt when it came to his own heart.

James had to swallow and breathe through an overwhelming surge of protectiveness, woven into the urge to make things right, and it took another breath before he could speak again.

“And how do you know that, Tony? How do you know I wasn’t using you this whole time?”

“Because our entire time together, you hadn’t asked for a damn thing. You never demanded anything, not money, not ‘resources’,” Tony added the air quotations, while each word grew in its certainty. “The one thing you asked for was help when that damn witch nearly took you out. That’s it. You never acted entitled, you— hell, you’re still reluctant to take the things I offer freely. You haven’t made one suspicious move your entire time here and you can ask our friends, ask the damn President, ask anyone who’s spent more than five minutes with you and they’ll tell you the exact same thing I just did.”

James wanted to smile, if only because Tony said exactly what James had expected.

“Actions speak louder than words, don’t they?”

He watched Tony swallow, the earlier confidence falling away when confronted with the fact that this was true for Tony as well.

James pressed on ahead. “You said it yourself, you couldn’t have predicted any of this. I could’ve easily thrown that phone away. I could’ve ignored it. I could’ve offered a polite response back and never cared about the rest. You couldn’t have known I would answer and you couldn’t have known that when I did, we would spend a month just talking.”

“But you were so vulnerable back then,” Tony said, the words a weak whisper again, as if they were a confession of yet another sin. “It was obvious from your first letter that you needed something, a— a friend or an ally. You were…”

“At the end of my rope, yes. I was in a bad place, Tony, I won’t deny that. But I’m not an idiot either. I’m not naive, I’m not stupid, and I don’t like to be treated as such.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to imply that,” Tony said, so contrite that James’ chest constricted all over again. The anger in his words wasn’t meant for Tony and while James’ first instinct was to brush away the apology, the words in his mouth no longer felt right.

So instead, James pulled his hand away from Tony, just long enough to drag his seat closer, crowding into Tony’s space. To his relief, Tony didn’t scramble back or shy away; he turned to James instead, still so vulnerable and every bit of his fears laid bare in his eyes, so much so that James wasn’t sure he could say what he needed to say. 

Sometimes touch said what words couldn’t though, so he brought his hand up, first to ghost his knuckles over Tony’s cheek, then down to cup his face and pull Tony in until their foreheads touched.

Tony’s eyes fluttered shut and even like this, James could feel the first sliver of tension draining away from them both. 

He closed his eyes too, took a deep breath, focused on how Tony felt against him, and used the reprieve to choose his next words. 

As always, it was best to go with the simplest truth.

“I know what it’s like to be used. I spent decades living at the mercy of manipulators, liars, and monsters. I know what it looks like, I know how it feels to be have someone twist you inside out to satisfy their needs. I’ve never felt that with you.”

Tony laid a hand on his thigh and the pressure and warmth of it eased the echoes of horror rattling around in his head. James brushed his thumb over the apple of Tony’s cheek, a back-and-forth caress that soothed his nerves too and he hoped it did the same for Tony.

“I learned not to trust someone’s words long ago. Sometimes…” He swallowed, fragments of memories cascading down and down, threatening to overwhelm him, but Tony’s presence kept him grounded in the here and now. “Sometimes there were missions that would go wrong, take longer than expected, which meant keeping me out of the Chair and out of the freezer for too long. My mind would heal and I’d start to question what I was doing. Without the Chair… My handlers would resort to words. Some were better at it than others, and Pierce was the best of them all, but it always came down to pretty little lies used to pacify me. You’re a hero, they’d tell me, you’re changing history, changing the world, saving it. They’d tell me I was doing so well, such a good little soldier…”

Tony’s hand twitched, as if it couldn’t decide whether to pull away or grab on and James heard a wet sort of sniffle, but he wasn’t brave enough to see the confirmation of Tony’s distress.

“They’d tell me I was needed, that I was someone’s savior, and then beat me half to death as soon as we were back at a base, just to take all that power back. They’d tell me everything I needed to hear, treat me like a person, and then, once the mission was over, they’d toss me back into that Chair and listen to me scream.”

“I’m so sorry, James,” Tony whispered and his words sounded wet and sticky with grief too.

James shook his head, gently, not wanting to pull away from Tony, covetous of every bit of proximity, protective of the closeness he realized could be so easily lost to misunderstandings, insecurities, and all this damn pain.

“Even with Steve… He’d tell me, it’s just a matter of time, a matter of want… If only I wanted to be Bucky bad enough, I’d turn back into that man. The man he wanted and when I’d say— I’d say, I don’t want that, I can’t be that man anymore, I’m just me, he’d find the gentlest way to tell me I didn’t know what I wanted. He’d tell me we were best friends, closer than brothers, soulmates… Every pretty word I’d be desperate to believe, but then he’d turn around and ignore what I wanted. He— he told me he loved me in the same breath he lied to me about Maximoff. I stopped trusting people’s words long ago and no matter how depressed I was, how lost, I was never naive.”

“I know, James. I never meant to imply otherwise.”

“I know. I know because your actions speak for you far louder than words ever could. You have never given me a reason to doubt you.” 

James stopped, overcome with a sudden wave of emotions. Gratitude, affection, love. How could Tony ever think James would look at him, at everything that happened between them, every act of kindness, every moment of friendship, and see nothing but a monster plotting to destroy him?

“Why do you expect others to see the worst in you, Tony?”

Tony laughed, a pained, hopeless sound, and pressed in a little closer as he whispered, “Past experience, mostly.”  

Protectiveness and fury followed love. James brushed the back of Tony’s head as he nuzzled his cheek, savoring each touch. He allowed himself another caress and gave the back of Tony’s neck a reassuring squeeze when Tony let out a barely audible sniffle. He kept his hand there, steadying and just on the edge of possessive.

How easy it was to forget, with everything that happened in the last few months, with his own problems clouding his mind, that Tony had his own fair share of hurt and betrayal. James didn’t know everything, but he knew more than enough. Howard Stark and Obadiah Stane. Fury and Romanova and their little ‘assessment’. Not one other damn person willing to take the blame for the debacle with Ultron. Now Steve and the other Avengers, who took everything Tony offered without hesitation, bled him dry, used him, and then, when Tony needed them most, turned against him.

He was hardly coherent back in that warehouse, struggling to shake off the remnants of the triggers pulsing in his skull, but he could still remember Wilson’s words.

“No, he won’t believe us.”

That day, Steve and Wilson chose to trust a stranger over their teammate and friend. One more slap in the face, one more back turned, one more lie in a long line of lies and betrayals. 

Some part of James wished he knew Tony back then. He wished he could’ve done something, anything, to keep himself from hurting this man, but the past was long gone and all he had was today; he supposed even now, he was still learning about the man Tony was. 

James had been equal parts awed and impressed by Tony since the beginning, by his strength, his will, and his ability to take control in a crisis. He was the one who was strong enough, patient enough, kind enough to put James back together; the others, they mattered too and their friendship was precious, but at the core of it all, it had always been Tony.

It wasn’t until tonight, until just now, with Tony so despondent and scared because of something so small, that James realized there’d be times when Tony might need to be held together too. 

The realization didn’t take away from Tony’s strength; on the contrary, it turned a strong, formidable superhero into a stronger human being, someone who hurt and bled and fell apart, same as James, who made mistakes and harbored doubts and maybe, in these moments of weakness, someone who needed James too, almost as much as James needed him. 

“When I fuck up,” Tony rasped, the whisper breaking James out of his thoughts, “people always assume the worst. I was worried, I guess, because I thought that you’d doubt me too once you found out. That everything I’ve done, everything we’ve done together, would suddenly look like a trap or a— a way to draw you in and keep you here. I should’ve told you earlier, said something, but maybe I wasn’t brave enough, I don’t know. I kept telling myself, why rock the boat, it was just a passing thought, not a big deal.”

“And it wasn’t. You’re allowed to have your own private thoughts.”

Tony pulled away, enough to get a better look at James, but not far enough to dislodge James’ hand on him. “I’m allowed to be a vindictive, spiteful ass?”

“You’re allowed to be human. You think I don’t have awful thoughts? Some nights, the only way I fall asleep is to the images of my Hydra handlers decapitated and in pieces.”

“But that’s different. God, after everything you’ve been through, no one would blame you for that. Hell, most people wouldn’t blame you for making those fantasies a reality.”

“And what, you’re telling you haven’t been through enough? Tony, the fact that Steve—and me, for that matter—the fact that we’re both still alive is a testament to your mercy.”

Tony responded with a doubtful grimace and James had to wonder how much of this was actually sinking in. From personal experience, he knew it took more than one impassioned speech to overcome the guilt and self-hate. It’d take time and James prayed he’d have that time to help Tony, the same way Tony had helped him.

“I know what I feel for you is real,” Tony said, avoiding the comment James made about Steve, and James chose to let that deflection stand. “I know what’s in my heart, but how do I go about proving that to you? That’s what I was panicking about, I think… I can’t just— can’t prove to you—”

His voice caught and James shushed him gently, fingers carding through Tony’s hair again. He brushed a kiss over the apple of Tony’s cheek, because he needed this tenderness nearly as much as Tony did, and the words found themselves once again.

“You can though, sweetheart, and you have… Everything you’ve done is proof enough. You have to understand, Tony, abusers and monsters, they don’t do what you’ve done. They take and take, they see a crack in your defenses and slither their way in until there’s nothing left of you but what they want you to be. They— they don’t buy their victims shoes and spend days researching pain killers. They don’t take them home and introduce them to their friends. They don’t find them doctors, they don’t hand them a list of therapists and schools and draw up independent bank accounts and passports and— and they especially don’t say ‘no’ when their target is begging—begging and aching and ready, Tony—to get on their knees for them.”

Tony huffed, but no amount of self-conscious humor was enough to mask the unshed tears in his voice as he said, “Trust me, ‘no’ was the last thing I wanted to say that night.”

“But you did, because you wanted me thinking clearly. You put my safety above your own needs and Tony, people who want to use you don’t do that. They make sure you can’t think without them, can’t function, but everything you’ve done for me, it only… It only made it easier for me to leave you.” 

The truth behind the words hit James just as he said them aloud. He always knew Tony made him comfortable, that everything about Tony made him feel safe. There were no alarms going off, not even in the beginning, and James accepted that as simple fact. Now, with the evidence of everything Tony had done for him, that silly little project file coupled with every vivid memory of the past several months, James had the words to explain why Tony had been the safest, most welcomed, most craved presence in his life.

“Everything you’ve done gave me the strength to be on my own. Not just to survive out there, but to move forward, to live. You gave me access to doctors and medicine and education, never denied my autonomy and freedom. I have people who treat me with nothing but kindness now, who care about me and you… Tony, you reminded me that I’m worth something…”

A tear slid down his cheek, making James realize he was the one actually crying, and it was Tony who reached out to swipe it away. 

“You’re worth everything to me, James.” 

Overwhelmed by it all, by every gesture of kindness, by the profound sense of love James had for this man, James clung to Tony, only certain in that he needed him. 

“I love you, Tony, I love you so much and I want to be right here with you, for as long as you’ll have me.”

Tony understood, he always knew what James needed, and wasting no more time on words, Tony pressed their lips together, the kiss turning desperate and inelegant quickly. It broke on a hitch in Tony’s breath and then it was Tony clinging to James, wrapping his arms around James’ neck. James followed the wordless command, sliding off his seat to settle in on the couch, as close as he could next to Tony, wrapping his arm around Tony’s waist as Tony pressed into him, plastered to James’ side now, with one of Tony’s arms around his neck, the other slung over his stomach, clinging to James’ shirt just below the stump of his left arm. 

A sniffle followed, muffled into the crook of James’ neck where Tony hid his face, and James allowed him the privacy, content to hold onto him with the same shameless desperation. 

“I got you, sweetheart,” James soothed, “we’re alright, I promise.” 

There didn’t seem to be any more tears, from either one of them, but it was obvious Tony needed a moment and James let them both slip into silence. 

They sat like that for a while, surrounded by the familiar peace and quiet of the workshop. Quiet enough that James could still hear the rain beating down against the building, but the sound had lost its ominous overtones now, turning back into a soothing tap-tap-tap, the rhythm of a rainy summer.  

Tony’s warm breath against his neck was thankfully steady and tension kept slipping away with each passing minute, even if each one felt like hours, time stretching itself out as the nerves and the adrenaline of their earlier panic receded. 

James focused on Tony and the way his body relaxed, muscle by muscle, losing that frenetic, anxious energy from before, and the sensation of Tony sagging against him, letting James hold his weight, was a balm to his own soul. Scrubbed raw by his own short-comings and preconceptions, it finally found its steady ground again and unsurprisingly, his steady ground had always been Tony.

The hand gripping James’ shirt loosened its hold and trailed down to settle on James’ waist, fingers now idly playing with the fabric instead of holding on for dear life, which James took to mean Tony was ready to talk again.

He was proven right when Tony shifted around some more and then, face still pressed into James’ shoulder, whispered, “I’m such a mess. Jesus christ, I’m so sorry about all this. You have a million things to worry about, you shouldn’t have had to deal with this too.”

“Being here for you is not a burden.”

“I am so proud of you though, do you know that?” Tony went on and James didn’t call him on this deflection either. Self-deprecation had never been cured in one night. “You have come so far, you’re so strong, you’re doing so well… and I’m sorry I put you through this.”

“I’m strong because of you,” James countered, certain that with someone else at his side, he wouldn’t have managed a fraction of what he had said tonight. “And you have nothing to apologize for.”

“Feels like I do,” Tony protested. After a moment’s thought, he added, “If nothing else, I’m sorry that I made you feel like I was punishing you by avoiding you. I promise I will never do that to you, not even when we’re actually fighting.”

James didn’t expect an apology for that misunderstanding either, but he knew what it was like to need someone’s forgiveness, so he pressed a kiss to Tony’s temple and whispered, “Thank you, I appreciate that.”

Tony nodded, satisfied. “Still, you can’t deny I’m a damn mess. So much for well-adjusted, huh?”

James’ huff was almost amused. “You want to know a secret?”


“I came down here convinced that you were furious with me, that you were done with me, planning to kick me out and never see me again after what happened today.”

James couldn’t tell whether Tony let out a snort or a sniffle, but he did feel the arms around him tighten as Tony nuzzled his neck.

“Oh good, so we’re both idiots then.”

The words were almost playful and James couldn’t exactly argue with them.

“That’s okay though,” Tony added, then pulled away from his hiding spot to cradle James’ right cheek, tilt his head, and kiss James on the other cheek, then again on the corner of his lips and James nearly went cross-eyed trying to look at him, not wanting to miss a single glance. “As long as you’re my idiot, I think I can deal with that.”

James smiled, and it felt like an eternity since his last one, even though it hadn’t even been one single day; this smile belonged to Tony, who laid rightful claim to it as he kissed James again and this time the press of his lips felt like coming home. 

There was no desperation here and none in the kisses that followed. Now Tony kissed him with his signature determination, the same will that James had always seen in him, that self-assured confidence that James admired and craved. The fact that he now knew that beneath this powerful presence lied a vulnerability, a soft underbelly that Tony spent so much energy hiding from others to protect himself, only made James love him more.

Tony didn’t need James to protect any part of him. He was already so damn strong, so resilient and brave and nothing could keep him down for long, but maybe he didn’t always have to be so brave and resilient alone. Maybe that was the thing about relationships. They didn’t need to protect one another, but together, when they took care of each other, they were both better for it. 

With Tony now entirely in his lap, James shifted so he could lie back and Tony willingly followed, straddling him and diving back for another kiss. One hand was buried in James’ hair, the other unable to find rest, tracing the curve of each muscle it encountered, every inch of skin it could find.

“I want to stay, Tony,” James said when Tony released his mouth to pepper kisses over his jaw and down his neck. James knew he couldn’t leave any more room for misunderstandings. “I love you and I want to stay.”

“That’s what I want too,” Tony whispered against him. He pulled back to sit up and smiled as he brushed some of James’ hair out of his face. His eyes, as they followed the movement of his fingers, held unfettered warmth and it reminded James of their first kiss. Tony above him just like this, gazing down with that same sweet affection that never failed to leave James on the right side of breathless. 

Affection and love and desire, and back then, James had no reason to doubt any of it. There was no trace of doubt in his heart tonight either.

“You, writing that letter,” Tony murmured, “was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. And having you in my life…” He leaned in to kiss James sweetly. “I’m so happy to have you here with me. I love you too, James.” 

Today, leaving things unsaid could’ve led to their ruin. It could’ve torn them apart, destroyed this beautiful thing, and James had never been more thankful for the ability to say what he felt without interruptions and judgment. Right now though, with Tony solid and warm and perfect above him, claiming his lips for a deeper, more thorough kiss, James found himself content to let their actions speak for them once again.

Chapter Text

Tony held his breath until his lungs ached and only then did he let the air out slowly, methodically, hoping the rhythmic breathing would help get his overstimulated mind to calm down. He took another breath, careful not to make any noise, since the man sleeping next to him needed all the rest he could get.

They both had one hell of a day, followed by an even more emotionally exhausting night, but unfortunately instead getting some much-needed rest, his mind decided to keep doing the equivalent of running around in circles and screaming incoherently. 

Tony supposed it wasn’t all bad. Any night that ended in a make-out session on the lumpy couch in his workshop couldn’t be considered a loss. 

Those kisses, the frantic touches that accompanied them, were tainted with a desperation, some driving need to prove to each other that their feelings were true, that everything they had discussed could be backed up by something physical, something real. 

Tony’s roaming hands—and they only shook because he was overwhelmed by utter relief—did manage to get James’ pants undone and pulled down around his knees and then Tony got to wrap his hand around him and talk James through each deliberate stroke, tell James how amazing he was, how much he meant to him. 

Gorgeous and perfect and mine.

Despite any fabled super soldier stamina, it didn’t take long to coax James into an orgasm and Tony was right there to watch him fall apart, to admire that picture-perfect crescendo of pleasure, the exposed column of his throat as James threw his head back, the way his lips parted on Tony’s name, each shallow breath and each delicate tremble of his body, all beautiful and intoxicating. Tony remembered pressing his forehead against James’ neck then and listening to those shuddering breaths, to the way James kept whispering Tony’s name, over and over.

And then, from one moment to the next, despite the arousal, despite wanting James so badly he couldn’t think straight, Tony was overcome with an exhaustion so bone-deep and all-consuming he wasn’t sure he could move a single muscle ever again.

James, ever a gentleman, murmured something about reciprocating, but Tony knew they both needed to rest. Later, he whispered as he left one final string of tired kisses against that chiseled jaw, because they had a ‘later’ now.

One of them messy and sated, the other barely able to stand, they somehow managed to drag themselves up to their bedroom, wash up, and collapse into bed, still wrapped up in each other. James fell asleep quickly and Tony hoped he could follow suit, but while his body felt like a lead weight, his thoughts kept swirling, on and on and on.

Tony shifted his head as carefully as he could to feel the rise and fall of James’ chest beneath his cheek. Tony closed his eyes, trying to match his own breathing to that steady rhythm.

Unfortunately, no amount of conscious breathing could stop him from imagining the numerous ways things could’ve gone wrong tonight and that was the thing about an overactive, genius mind. It could multitask with the best of them, process an enormous amount of data, let you do things like pilot a flying suit of armor and miniaturize arc reactors in a cave, but leave it unsupervised for two seconds and it promptly launched itself into an IMAX-theater, surround-sound presentation of 101 Ways You Could’ve Screwed This All Up just to spite you.

Tony wanted to groan at the futility of trying to breathe through his anxiety, but he refrained from making a sound and tried not to fidget as James took another steady breath.

I’m lucky he’s here at all. 

The thought slithered its way into Tony’s head and settled in, sharp edges cutting into the sweeter memories. James could’ve left. James could’ve done what most others have done and turned on Tony. Treated this one misstep, one imperfection, one mistake, as a sign that Tony was rotten, straight to the core, no redeeming qualities, no sense in giving him another chance, pathetic and worthless and not to be trusted—

Tony clenched his eyes shut and ran his fingertips over James’ shirt where it bunched up over his waist. The material was soft against his fingers, each little crease a physical sensation that grounded him in the moment.

James could’ve left, but he didn’t.

But there was always a chance something else would’ve driven James away, right? Tony’s inability to communicate, his idiotic tendency to push people away for their ‘own good’. It was so easy to imagine James, with his own guilty conscience, convincing himself that he wasn’t worth the love Tony had for him. James could’ve take Tony’s silence as rejection. He did, in fact, and the memory of James’ sad, pleading eyes, that dejected ‘Please tell me what I did wrong’, made Tony’s heart ache in the worst possible way. It took all of his willpower not to move, even though his mind kept screaming at him to get up and pace, to go and blow something up, to do something, anything.

Tony curled in just a tiny bit closer to James. He wasn’t leaving. Intrusive thoughts or not, he wanted to be here and his mind just needed time to get over the latent anxiety, to process everything that happened and everything that was said, and put each new revelation into its own little box until the world made sense again. 

There were so many different ways Tony could’ve messed this up; he could’ve deflected and lied, he could’ve pretended everything was just fine; he could’ve lost James so easily, but instead, the path they chose lead them here.

James told him, with no caveats, no qualifiers, no hesitation, that he loved him.

Tony’s arm tightened around James without permission, a physical reaction to the intrusive reminder that he could’ve lost that precious moment, and before Tony could do anything else, James let out a grumble, the lines around his eyes going tight before those eyes fluttered open and a hand came up to card through Tony’s hair with slow, lazy movements.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you,” Tony whispered. The screaming thoughts in his head slowed just a fraction, placated by the gentle touch.

“S’alright. M’a light sleeper, zvezda moya,” James said, voice rough and thick with sleep, the Russian making Tony shiver. “Plus, you think too damn loud,” James added with a sleepy huff and Tony matched it.

“Sorry. I guess you’ll have to get used to that.”

“Sure will. Good thoughts or bad thoughts tonight?”

Tony considered the question. “I’m not sure. Still working through some nerves, I guess. And maybe a little maudlin? I think I’m turning into a romantic sap in my old age.” he added, a smile catching his lips. Yeah, that sounded about right. Had James not woken up, Tony was certain his thoughts would take all of three minutes to turn into a weepy mess of ‘Oh god, he actually loves me.’

Laying there, pressed against James, surrounded by the heat of their bodies, was heavenly and by all accounts Tony should’ve let himself revel in the sensation and rest, but something in Tony urged him to shift and turn, to prop himself up against James’ chest. 

James’ sleepy eyes blinked and a curious brow arched Tony’s way; Tony winked back, then smiled when James’ hand, bereft of access to Tony’s hair, found his thigh and resumed the soothing strokes from before; Tony was thankful, as each touch quieted more and more of the buzzing thoughts.

“Did you want to talk about it?”

Tony shrugged. “Not sure there’s much to talk about. Just… thankful that you’re here. With me.”

His therapist would tell him that it was possible that the ‘romantic sap’ inside was there all along, that Tony had always been a soft-hearted, kind thing who just wanted to be held and loved. A little boy who craved affection. A young adult who wanted stability and a home. A man who just needed to be heard and seen for who he truly was. 

Rejection, fear, and hurt, however, those built up walls and it was easier to pretend to have no soft spots, to be irreverent and callous and glib, than it was to face yet another slap in the face, metaphorical or otherwise.  

Tony supposed that in the end, it always came down to trust. The number of people Tony trusted, truly, unequivocally, had always been woefully small and it was cut right in half just a year ago. The number grew again, somehow, despite Tony’s caution, despite his best efforts to shut himself away from the world and his insistence that he would never trust again

Peter, Carol, and Hope. Stephen and Thor and the damn god of Mischief. Now the Winter Soldier himself.

Maybe he really was a soft-hearted thing.

Opening yourself up to someone was terrifying, but with each sign that the trust was well-placed, it got easier, and with James, Tony had more signs than he ever deserved, more that he could ever hope to return and how could someone love him this much, even at his lowest and most insecure— 

A hand came up to cradle Tony’s face and he turned into the touch.

“There you go again, thinking so loud. I can see those thoughts painted right across your face.” 

Tony nuzzled into the palm. “You can’t tell a genius to just stop thinking, babe. Doesn’t really work like that.”

It was meant to be a joke, but it was also the truth and sometimes Tony desperately wished that his mind would simply stop, just for a moment, just to give him a break.

“What are you thinking about, sweetheart?”

The fingers massaging Tony’s temple felt heavenly too and his own hand settled just above James’ heart. The thought of talking about this made him self-conscious, but he thought back to everything James had said earlier, the courage it took, and Tony decided it was only fair for him to try too. 

“With everything that happened tonight, I can’t help but think of all the ways it could’ve gone wrong.”

“But it didn’t go wrong.”

“Thanks to you.” Tony swallowed, his throat turning dry. “Knowing me, I would’ve just wallowed in self-pity and guilt over essentially nothing until the world crumbled around my ears.” 

“Somehow I doubt that.” 

The faith James had in him was a heady brew, but it was also intimidating and Tony had to consciously remind himself that it was okay—great, even—to think he was capable of rising up to meet these expectations.

“So maybe we both acted like idiots today,” James added and his small, private smile softened the words, turning an accusation into their inside joke. “But we figured it out. I think that… I think we trust each other enough so that when we do make mistakes, we can fix things again. It isn’t that I expect you to hurt me. I don’t.” Gentle fingers in Tony’s hair drove the message home. “It’s more that…” James paused, weighing his words, finding the right ones. Tony was content to wait, knowing whatever James would say was worth hearing. Tonight had shown that beyond any doubt. 

“Neither one of us is perfect,” James continued eventually, “and we’ll make mistakes again. Knowing our crazy lives, these mistakes can be big… and they will hurt. But after everything we’ve been through, I think we can handle anything. Even our own imperfections.” 

Tony had intimate knowledge of how far from perfection he fell. However, he was still Tony Stark and this time his indignant huff was exaggerated for proper effect. 

“Are you implying one of us isn’t perfect? James Barnes, the audacity of that statement!” 

He couldn’t keep up the theatrics for long, his expression betraying him and James laughed too, knowing full well this was Tony’s way of covering up his fears and dispelling emotional moments. Tony could feel that laughter against his palm, a rumble in James’ chest alongside the steady heartbeat, and in that moment, a certain kind of gratitude overwhelmed Tony, one he had experienced few times before. This gratitude existed in the heavy weight of Rhodey’s arms around him and the sound of Rhodey’s steady steps down the halls of the Compound. It existed in the sight of Pepper, burning bright red with fury and life, and in Happy’s smile, the man bandaged and bruised and demanding the television remote.

This moment of gratitude was more subdued than the rest. No dramatics, no life-and-death fights, no crazed villains. Just two imperfect men stumbling their way through past hurts and their own imperfections. 

“What was I thinking? You are perfect, solnishko.” James’ eyes softened and oh, that must’ve been Tony’s heart skipping a beat and making him feel all lightheaded. “Perfect just the way you are.”

Tony decided he really needed to stop letting his thoughts wander into these saccharine sweet, emotional territories, so to distract himself from even more maudlin declarations of love and fate and togetherness, he leaned in to capture James’ lips in a kiss. There was no heat here anymore, no high-strung tension. They were both too exhausted for that, scrubbed raw by emotions, but the kiss was still sweet and served as an affirmation of the other’s presence. 

They pulled apart slowly, only when they were both satisfied. 

“We should probably try to sleep. We had a long, long day and the days ahead aren’t likely to get any shorter.” Tony’s forehead wrinkled as he mulled that over. “You know what we need? A damn vacation.” 

“That does sound nice. Somewhere warm maybe? I haven’t been to a beach in… Good god, a life-time. Blue skies, sandy beaches… You, in some cute little swimming trucks.”

“Mmm, trying to get me out of my clothes, soldier?” Tony joked, but already he made a mental note to book that vacation as soon as possible. Easy to forget with their own little bubble of personal dramas about the rest of their unsavory issues and if he could do nothing else, Tony could help make up for everything that had been taken from James.

James leered at him, although the effort was mostly ruined by his sleepy eyes and a major case of bed head. “Maybe I am trying to get you out of these clothes,” he said and the hand that settled back on Tony’s thigh traveled up higher. “You know, I don’t think I will feel good about life until I get my hand on you and reciprocate. S’only fair, Tony.” 

The thought of that perfect body pressed against him and those soft, hot lips mapping out his skin, was tempting, but Tony knew those little indulgences would have to wait.

“Later, babe,” he said again and placated James with another quick kiss. “We’re both exhausted, we’ve been through a lot and trust me, I’ve had more than my fair share of ‘life has me too fucked up to think straight’ sex and it’s never as enjoyable in the bright light of the following morning.

James grumbled, whether about all that sex Tony used to have or the lack of it now, Tony couldn’t tell, but then James kissed him again and all was forgiven.

“Tomorrow then,” James said, his breath hot against Tony’s lips and enough of a distraction that Tony didn’t bother to point out it was already technically ‘tomorrow’. “I want to have my hand on you, I want to touch you and kiss you and I…” His breath caught and the hand on Tony’s thigh tightened. “I want to make you feel so good,” James whispered in Russian and Tony almost gave in right then and there.

“Bossy little thing, aren’t you?” Tony said when he could speak again. “I think I could get used to that and— and when we’ll go on that vacation, whatever you wanna do, we’ll do.”


“I promise.” Tony pulled himself away and sat back up. “And you get to pick where we go too because as far as I’m concerned, anywhere other than here sounds perfect. After a day like today… I mean, jeez, between Steve and the fight and our fight…” He shook his head. “We really don’t half-ass things, do we?”

James tried to match Tony’s smile, but it gave way to a frown too quickly.

“Tony, about what happened at the park…”

James shifted beneath him as he tried to sit up, hand pulling away to prop himself up on his elbow and Tony almost reached out to help, the instinct automatic, but James managed just fine on his own, his core strength alone making up for the missing arm. Still, Tony pulled over a pillow and sidled back next to James when James sat back comfortably. Tony’s traitorous hand, uncaring of their need to get back to sleep, began tracing lazy lines over the abs hidden beneath James’ shirt. 

“Now you’re the one thinking loud thoughts, babe,” Tony quipped, but the frown on James’ face didn’t budge.

“I know that you don’t blame me for what happened,” James began and Tony didn’t need to hear more to know this was James’ guilt kicking in again. He bit his tongue and let James speak despite his own mental protests. 

“That confrontation,” James continued, “it was still my fault. I’m the reason Steve gave you hell and I can’t help but feel responsible for it.”

“Steve’s a big boy and he can take the blame for his own fuck ups.” 

James shrugged, unconvinced. “I guess I’m thinking about all the things I could’ve done too. I could’ve— could’ve at least gone to him first to avoid bringing the trouble right to you.”

“James, there is no way in hell anyone would have expected you to go back there.” The mere thought made Tony’s skin crawl.

“Then I should’ve called or met him somewhere else or— explained everything somehow. And I shouldn’t have been so damn dramatic about the whole thing either.”

This was clearly a serious matter, but Tony couldn’t help his chuckle. “You know, Rhodey would say my dramatics are rubbing off on you.” 

The humor helped disperse some of that dark cloud that had settled over James. “Yes, you are clearly a terrible influence.”

“Guilty as charged.”

The banter didn’t deter James entirely however. “Throwing Steve off his game like that though, that wasn’t the right move. I don’t know much, but I do know that. It only makes him more stubborn and he digs his heels in, doubles down on his shit, even when he’s clearly in the wrong.”

This part Tony couldn’t contest, since he had several years of the Steve Rogers experience too. Not nearly as many years as James, but his own memories were more recent, more clear, and no longer tainted by a rose-tinted vision built up from other people’s idolatry. They could’ve delayed Steve finding out, sure, but there was little they could’ve done to change his reaction. 

“James, listen to me. Steve… Well, he’s still Steve and this situation wouldn’t have gone any smoother had you done something else. Imagine you calling him again.” Tony made a mock-serious face as he held one hand against his ear in an imitation of a phone. “Hello, Steve? Yes, I just want you to know I’m living with Tony now— yes, Tony Stark, the genius, philanthropist, billionaire with a fantastic butt— Oh, what’s that? You want to stage a rescue and break into the Compound? Even though I’m doing just fine? Well, is there anything I can say to convince you not to cause an international incident and land you and your buddies in jail again? No? Are you sure? Oh well, that’s that, I suppose. See you when you get here!” Tony ‘hung up’ the phone and arched a brow. “I swear I’m not trying to make light of this situation, but you can’t tell me that’s not how that would’ve gone.”

“Okay, fine, so you may have a point.”

“I always have a point, babe, get used to it.” 

“I guess I just hated seeing you deal with that. I heard the way Steve talked to you, how damn pushy he was. You were so angry, obviously still hurt by the whole thing, and he just kept pushing and lying and trying to manipulate you… It wasn’t right.”

Tony remembered the taste of that anger too well, the indignation so clear in his mind, and the things he said back there…

His own guilt reared its ugly head again and settled sour in his stomach. “James, you know I didn’t mean any of what I said, right? About you, I mean.”

“I know,” James replied, but there was a sadness to that quick answer and Tony hated knowing it was there because of him.

“I was trying to hurt Steve, not you. And had I known you were listening… No, no, you know what, that’s no excuse.” Tony shook his head, mostly at himself. “I shouldn’t have said those things either way, but I was lashing out, I was going for Steve’s soft spots… but you know I’ve forgiven you, right? For mom and dad, for the fight at the bunker? I swear to you, none of that is sitting in here anymore,” he said as he tapped his fingers right above his heart. “Steve brings out the worst in me and I was just being an ass.”

James tugged on the front of Tony’s shirt in lieu of an answer and Tony leaned in for another kiss, this one just as soft and unhurried as before. With each press of their lips, the guilt eased back.

“I do know,” James said when he let Tony go, “and you had a right to be angry. It did hurt to hear, I won’t lie, but I know now that it wasn’t about me.”

“It wasn’t, I swear, and I would never, ever use what happened against you. God, if I ever fuck up so badly that I bring up your past just to hurt you… You punch me in the face, walk away and never look back, okay? Don’t ever let anyone use what you went through to hurt you, especially not me.”

“You won’t, sweetheart, I know you won’t. I trust you.”

Trust Tony to get all hot and bothered by that, of all things. Tony’s face grew hot, his breath catching, and he was glad he wasn’t upright, certain his knees would’ve gone weak with renewed relief.

“How did I get so lucky with you, hmm?”

James’ response was another kiss, then a soft, “Let’s gets some sleep, love,” and Tony was fully on board. He moved around to burrow back into the crook of James’ arm, but shifted too hard onto his left arm and inadvertently hissed in pain.

“Are you alright?” James asked, already sitting back up, his hand hovering at Tony’s side and Tony let out a whine, less to do with the actual pain and more because there was no reeling James in when he went into full mother hen mode.

“It’s nothing, just, uh, just my arm…”

“Your arm?” James repeated and a second later recognition crossed his face. “Oh, Tony…” He sighed and gestured at Tony’s arm. “May I see it?”

Tony’s first instinct was to protest because he was fine, hardly anything to make a fuss about, but his arm did hurt, if he were honest, and James would only feel guiltier if Tony pulled away now. And if Tony were truly honest, that soft-hearted, fragile part of him wanted to be fussed over by the man he loved. So with resignation that was mostly an act, he nodded and let James pull up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal an ugly ring of bruises around his bicep.

James focused on the arm, but Tony never looked away from James and he got to watch as his lips tightened, eyes narrowed, and a flare of Winter Soldier crossed his face. A blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but Tony saw it just fine and he couldn’t help the shiver that ran down his spine. 

“Penny for your thoughts, soldier?” Even his own voice was a little rougher.

The muscle in James’ jaw jumped. “Just trying to pick the most efficient way of breaking Steve in half,” he muttered as he continued to examine the bruising. 

The edge of protectiveness in that gravelly voice wasn’t so unpleasant either and it certainly wasn’t fear it incited in Tony. Instead, Tony’s propensity for liking dangerous, beautiful things was a likely contender, but that was a soul-searching hour best left for another time.

“It’s really not that bad. I get banged up worse every time I get in the ring with Hope.” 

The sharp edges of the Winter Soldier morphed back into James’ softer features as careful fingers skated along the bruised skin. That tenderness remained even when James looked up to give Tony an unimpressed glare. 

“I’m aware, I’m the one who has to keep nursing you back to health after each training session.”

Tony couldn’t help it, he chuckled. A sleep-mussed, grumpy Winter Soldier complaining about Tony’s propensity to get bruised was a sight to behold. “You’re cute when you frown, you know that?”

James was fighting back a smile, trying to remain stern and failing, and he went back to his examination lest he show that Tony’s antics were getting to him.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m real cute.” James gently prodded another tender spot. “Doesn’t seem serious enough to warrant Medical, I suppose.”

“See, I told you, not a big deal.”

Tony was ready to roll his sleeve down and get back to the cuddling, but James kept his hand on him.

“Does it hurt?”

“No, it’s, uh…” Tony’s instinctive need to downplay the pain fizzled out in the face of James’ earnest blue eyes. “Just aches a little, that’s all.” 

Soft baby blues turned determined. “Alright, let me get something. The med kit’s still up here, isn’t it?” James asked, already out of bed and shuffling over into the bathroom.

Tony didn’t bother responding. James would find the kit himself (and if it wasn’t up here, he’d be certain to go and find it elsewhere), so all Tony could do was accept his fate and let himself enjoy the fussing with grace.

After all, he thought as he listened to James open and close cupboards in the bathroom, this was what they did for each other, wasn’t it? 

Tony was perfectly capable of putting some cream on his own bruises (whether he would was a different issue entirely); he was a grown man and contrary to popular belief, he could take care of himself just fine. He didn’t need James to help, not with the careful bandages and mid-afternoon cups of coffee, not with his sweet “Let’s get you to bed, Tony” wake-up calls when Tony passed out in the workshop, and certainly not that earlier hint of protectiveness on Tony’s behalf.

But damn it, it all tasted sweet and Tony couldn’t help but get addicted to the effortless back-and-forth they’ve stumbled into. There was no judgment between them, no keeping score, no ulterior motives or favors to ask in return for the care. Just simple, kind gestures rooted in love.

Some people would tell you that was how a family was supposed to operate in the first place, but Tony was still learning that lesson too. Certainly James hadn’t been the first to love him without reservations, but years of self-sufficiency beaten into his psyche, the mere thought of needing help or comfort being met with derision until Tony himself believed it to be a weakness… Well, it all took just as long to unlearn.

Tony sat up as James reappeared with a familiar container of salve and when James settled back on the bed, Tony reached for the container, opened it, and held it out for James, who dipped two fingers into the clear substance and began applying it to Tony’s bruise.

It was a familiar routine by now, one that Tony cherished even more tonight after having come so close to losing it. 

“Hey, James?”


“Thank you for trusting me.”

James paused and tilted his head to watch Tony. “You trusted me first.”

The racing thoughts were quieter now and accepting those simple words wasn’t as difficult as before. “Yeah. I guess I did.”

Satisfied with the answer, James hummed and went back to coating Tony’s bruise with the salve; the medicine already began to kick in, tingling sensations giving way to numbness and taking with it most of the pulsing ache. 

Tony should’ve let James finish before interrupting him again, but there were still three more words that wouldn’t leave him alone, demanding to be spoken.

“I love you,” Tony whispered into the quiet of their strange, early morning and when James stopped again, this time to look up at Tony with a smile and whisper his own, “I love you, too,” the rest of Tony’s frenetic, anxiety-fueled thoughts slowed and the world began to make sense again.

Chapter Text

Steve ignored the way the door slammed against the wall as he stomped inside, but the sight of their apartment, this tiny, unkempt space that had never managed to feel like a real home, did drain away some of his fury. His steps faltered. 

Not all of the anger was gone though, not by a long shot, and the desire to break something still pumped through his veins, hadn’t eased since Bucky had—well, shattered Steve’s heart seemed like an understatement, but Steve couldn’t find a better word to describe it. 

He collapsed onto the couch, head in his hands, and even this super soldier body felt too small now, faltering under the pressure of the awful, dark thing swelling inside him. 

A click of the door meant Natasha had actually bothered to shut it as she trailed in behind him. Steve didn’t so much care if the whole neighborhood heard him.

There were murmurs and shuffling and Steve tilted his head to see Sam and Wanda reemerge from their rooms and when they spotted Steve, they both stopped, crammed together in the tiny hallway that led into the living room and adjacent kitchen. 

Two wary sets of eyes watched Steve, probably waiting for an explanation, but Steve wasn’t sure he could manage a word without screaming, so he offered them nothing and his gaze slid away, over their room, over the boxes and piles of clothes and paperwork and stray cups, to the balcony window. 

They hadn’t had much time to spare for cleaning, too consumed by the search for Bucky. 

Again, and maybe that was all Steve was good for these days, looking for his long-lost buddy who didn’t want to be found. After all, Bucky was perfectly fine this time too, even better than before. Instead of a shoddy apartment in Europe, he was busy playing house with Tony.

It didn’t even surprise him. Bucky was still so vulnerable after his years of torture, so susceptible to manipulation, and to end up in the hands of someone like Tony?

Oh, Tony.

That man could sell poison and make you think you were drinking the elixir of life. Steve didn’t need the sordid details, he could picture it all just fine. Tony filling Bucky’s head with pretty little lies, distracting him with shiny baubles, throwing his money around, making Bucky believe his ‘new life’ was something more than a gilded cage, something other than a way to get back at Steve.

The fury inside him pulsed with renewed pain, a sour burn down his throat, a heat crawling up his skin. His headache pounded in time with his pulse and usually, Steve would’ve made an effort to tamp down the emotions. Anger meant a lack of control, it meant Steve struggled to remain rational about a situation, to see all the angles, but he couldn’t bring himself to be rational today, not about this. Not about Bucky.

Ironically though, all Steve could think about was Tony. Tony, who took away the most precious thing in Steve’s life, who warped Bucky’s mind so badly, he became unrecognizable. Tony, who still dared to play the victim in all of this.

Some twisted part of Steve’s psyche wanted to rip Tony apart and it was this same part that regretted not hitting a little harder a year ago.

The Steve of tomorrow might feel shame for these thoughts, but today, Steve let them burn through him without sparing a thought for control.

“Is everything alright?” Sam finally asked and Steve forced himself to look back, to watch Sam arch an eyebrow, but the gesture was aimed at Natasha, so Steve didn’t bother.

“Not exactly,” Natasha answered when Steve refused to speak up. He sported every tell of a man ready to blow and Natasha wished she didn’t have to be here to see the explosions, but she had to keep an eye on him, keep him from charging into the Avengers Compound and getting himself arrested.

She didn’t exactly have anywhere else to go either.

She walked into the kitchen and plucked a chocolate-covered peanut out of a bowl and popped it into her mouth; the others still watched her, studying every casual movement, and she took her sweet time, savoring the crunch and the sugar, then propped a hip against the counter, keeping the distance between herself and the others.

Her eyes met Sam’s again when he asked, “Care to clarify?” 

“We ran into James at Central Park a few hours ago.”

Sam’s quizzical expression cycled through surprise first and quickly hit disbelief. “Wait— James? Barnes, you mean? You actually found him?”


“He’s in town? Did he come back?”

“Bucky never left,” Steve interjected, disdain oozing out of every word. “Apparently, he’s been with Tony this whole time.”

Natasha heard Sam sputter, but this time, she kept her eyes on Wanda, whose face didn’t bother with disbelief and headed straight for outright fury and only Natasha’s training kept her from flinching when a thrum of magic crackled around the room. 

“Wanda, take a deep breath,” she ordered. The magic sparked again, so she tried to soften her words. “You’re in control here. You control your magic.”

Cajoling and praising always seemed to work best with her and Natasha hated it. It was like dealing with a child—a child who could kill them all with a flick of her wrists—but the sweet-talking did keep the tantrums to a minimum. Kept the rest of them safe too. 

She let out an imperceptible sigh of relief when no more magic coiled out of Wanda’s fingers, even if her face did remain stony with anger.

Wanda rarely bothered to hide her emotions and Natasha wished she could let her mask slip like that just this once, to let out the despondent sigh sitting trapped inside her.

She sure bet on the wrong horse here, didn’t she? 

Sometimes, in the privacy of her own thoughts, she let herself wonder. What if she had stood her ground in the airport? What if she got to stay at Tony’s side? What if she had told Tony about his parents, long before Germany and Siberia?

Of course, these were fantasies, indulgent and irrelevant. Tony didn’t trust her—Barnes trusted her even less—and she didn’t bother assigning blame. She acted like the Black Widow she was trained to be and now she reaped the consequences.

“So, Barnes and Stark—and you did mean Stark, right? They’re hanging out now?” Sam attempted to restart the conversation, purposefully neutral in his question, and Natasha was grateful for it. “I didn’t even realize they knew each other beyond the—you know, everything that happened last year.” 

“Oh, they don’t just ‘know’ each other. No, it’s more than that. Apparently they’re in love now.”

Steve really wasn’t helping, Natasha decided when she had to watch Wanda’s scowl deepen.

“Come again?”

“They’ve been talking for months behind our backs,” Steve continued, “and when Bucky ran, he ran right to Tony.”

“Huh, wouldn’t have pegged them for ever becoming friends—definitely not anything more—but isn’t it good that they’re getting along? That Barnes had a safe place to go when—”

“He was safe here!” 

There went the first explosion. Steve was up on his feet, his expression thunderous, his control slipping. “He was safe. Everything would’ve been fine, but now— now Tony has his hands on him and Bucky doesn’t want anything to do with me. He didn’t even bother talking to me.”

“This is obviously Stark’s influence,” Wanda said, “Bucky was so scared when he ran and Stark must’ve been tracking him. He was probably manipulating him for months, lying to him, isolating him from us. We both know he’s very good with words.”

Steve kept nodding as Wanda gave him everything he wanted to hear, but Natasha met Sam’s eyes and they shared a silent moment of solidarity.

Natasha had never trusted Wanda—she trusted Steve, who in turn trusted Wanda—and neither she nor Sam were comfortable with what happened to Barnes. After all, the threat of something similar happening to them was still present in the glow of her magic.

“What were they doing when you saw them?” Sam asked and Natasha could see him walking the tight line of trying to suss out the truth without stepping on any toes.

“They were strolling through the park. On a date.” Steve spat the word out, but it didn’t seem to have the intended effect on Sam, who appeared more contemplative than disgusted.

Natasha couldn’t help but remember the Steve who went against SHIELD and who trusted her when they could trust no one else. Looking back on it, she knew it was ego that painted those memories a rosy, attractive red, and in reality, they could’ve trusted others—Tony and Bruce and Rhodes—and they could’ve resolved that crisis without the casualties, without the destruction.

They didn’t and to this day, there was a considerable number of former SHIELD agents who would sooner see her dead than lend a helping hand.

So many choices, so many bets, and Natasha seemed to have had the worst luck, but there was no use crying over spilt milk.

She tracked Wanda when she moved to stand next to Steve.

“This isn’t your fault,” Wanda soothed, using a familiar saccharine tone, like nails on a chalkboard to Natasha, but like catnip to some of these men. “You know how Stark is, you know he corrupts everything he touches. Without you there to protect him, Bucky didn’t stand a chance.”

Sam ignored them both. “Natasha, what was Barnes like? Was he doing better?”

Way to put me on the spot, she thought uncharitably, but no sooner than she reached the end of that thought, the hot, bitter shame flooded her. Was she actually afraid of speaking her mind?

All eyes—Wanda’s eyes—were on her though and for one heartbeat, Natasha was that young, broken girl again, carved into a monster, parts of her torn apart, torn away, and she could still feel those memories shoved back into her head in all their blood-spattered, technicolor glory.

It was here, in this moment, standing in their shitty little kitchen with a sink full of coffee grounds and dirty dishes behind her as she fought back a shudder that she realized how badly she strayed, how far she let everything get out of her control, and how many times she trusted Steve over her own instincts. 

For a long, selfish moment, she allowed herself to feel envious of Barnes and his cushy, safe new life with Tony.

Her throat was dry, but she refused to clear it. An amateur tell of anxiety.

“More than anything, James looked healthy. I didn’t see anything that rang an alarm.”

“Really, Natasha? How can you even say that?”

She bore Steve’s anger without flinching. “I can’t get inside his head, so I look at what I know. Those big bruises under his eyes went away, he was dressed nicely, cleaned up. He’s been taking care of himself and when we saw them—when we thought James was a stranger—they were walking together, eating ice cream. Laughing. And when we spoke to James,” she held up a hand when Steve tried to open his mouth, “I didn’t see any sign of coercion.”

“Nothing seemed off?”

“Sam, he was with Tony, how far off does it need to be for you to start worrying?”

They both ignored Steve’s interjection and when Natasha shook her head, the answer was meant for Sam.

“No, nothing I could see. I’ll admit that both Barnes and Stark are masters of subterfuge—one’s an assassin spy, the other’s been wearing masks since he was five—but I didn’t see anything suspicious. They were just out in the park, enjoying the day like everyone else.”

Steve shook off Wanda’s hand on his shoulder and began to pace. “You don’t know him, Natasha. None of you know Bucky!” His wild glare swept the room. “He was sick, he was still recovering—”

“Steve, why can’t you admit that he’s doing better? Even if it’s with Stark—”

“Sam, he’s not doing better! He couldn’t possibly be!”

Sam’s own patience must’ve been running short because he didn’t try to correct Steve’s assertion again. Steve, however, took that to mean acquiescence. He stopped and squared his shoulders.

“What we need to do is rescue Bucky,” he declared.

Sam gaped, clearly not expecting that, but Natasha, who did expect that, wanted to groan and disappear. There had to be some corner of Moscow that didn’t have both SHIELD and Hydra agents alike waiting to kill her, wasn’t there?

“Rescue him? Steve, man, I get it, you’re in love with the guy, but this is crazy! If he doesn’t want to be here—”

“No, I’m not discussing this further. You weren’t there—”

“Natasha was! She says he’s fine!”

“—And clearly none of you care enough to see past your own selfishness.”

“Excuse me? Are you seriously calling me selfish right now?”

Natasha wished she could enjoy the indignant bite in Sam’s voice. Hell, her favorite pastime was watching idiot men beat each other bloody until they were all but incapacitated and Natasha could swoop in and take what she wanted.

This mess however, this wasn’t fun, no matter the angle. 

She was watching someone she considered a friend spiral into madness, about to make another decision that would lead him to ruin. 

“I think you need to cool off, pull your head out of your ass, and then come back here and discuss this like a damn man,” Sam growled and for once, Steve didn’t respond with an equally macho-filled rebuke. 

“Fine,” he snapped instead, almost petulant, and stomped through the hallway, shoulders held in that same hard, stubborn line. He ducked into a room and slammed the door with fervor, the whole apartment vibrating with the force of it once again. Natasha could feel the tremble in the heels of her feet.

Steve’s anger didn’t worry her though. That she could handle, but she couldn’t help the way her entire body went cold when Wanda turned to look between them, her languid movements a contrast to Steve’s electric, out-of-control energy.

“You two need to think long and hard about this,” she said, perfectly casual in her delivery, right until the room crackled with magic again. “Think about what’s best for all of us and what’s best for you. Decide how much you actually care about Steve, about Bucky, about our little family. Because I don’t think now’s the time to make any wrong decisions.”

She walked through the room, right past Natasha, and out through the front door and Natasha’s logical side knew she couldn’t let Wanda wander the streets alone like this, she needed to keep an eye on her, but the scared little girl inside her, whose skin still tingled with magic, couldn’t move from her spot.

After an eternity, her paralysis lifted, enough to look back at Sam, and she knew, without needing a word, that he was just as scared as her.

Sam was no spy and he didn’t have the soft gait one would want when sneaking around, but luckily his roommates were too distracted by their own secretive whispering to pay him any mind and so here he was, sitting outside their window on the fire escape at four o’clock in the morning, freezing his ass off, and eavesdropping. 

Oh, Riley would’ve kicked his ass if he knew, but Riley wasn’t here—only a big chunk of Sam’s heart that was missing—and so Sam was alone with his questionable life choices, listening to Wanda and Steve plan their ‘rescue’. They began well before sunrise, probably to avoid nosy roommates, but the joke was on them, Sam hadn’t slept a damn wink.

At first, there was talk of bypassing Compound security and disabling the forcefield that kept Wanda out. They scrapped that quickly, mostly because they had no idea how to get that done. Sam could’ve told them the idea was ridiculous about two seconds into the conversation. 

He also could’ve told them any other plan to ‘rescue Bucky’ was foolish, and selfish, and bordered on actual, bonafide kidnapping, but apparently he was the selfish one here and his opinion didn’t count for much these days.

Then there were talks of Steve getting into the Compound himself. Sam and Natasha were brought up as potential trojan horses, but quickly dismissed. No surprise there. 

And now, they were trying to find a way to draw Barnes out instead and admittedly, that was their best bet, to approach Barnes when he was alone, outside of the Compound’s stringent security and Stark’s watchful eye. 

The real issue at hand, however, was James Barnes himself, their ‘fair maiden in distress’, and the possibility that said fair maiden didn’t want to be rescued from the fearsome dragon at the top of Stark Tower in the first place. 

A breeze blew by and the damp air crawled down the back of Sam’s shirt, making him shiver. His ass was growing numb from sitting on cold metal and he was trying to fight off a sneeze and his good friend was planning to kidnap a man and this was just a miserable disaster all around and Sam was so close to giving up and crawling back down, but the whispering began to taper off, so he stayed put.

“We’ll make this work, Steve,” Wanda said and Sam could almost picture her hand on Steve’s cheek. So reassuring, always there to say just what you needed to hear—well, if you were Steve or Barton, of course. She tried that tactic with Sam once, back in their early days at the Compound, realized it didn’t work on him, and had been treating him as inconsequential ever since.

At least until that crackle of magic in the living room yesterday. 

The chill that ran down Sam’s spine this time had little to do with the cool, wet morning. 

“All I want is for all of us to be happy and I hate—” Steve’s voice broke. “God, I just hate that everyone keeps painting me as the villain for that. I just want Bucky to be happy. Hell, I want Tony to be happy too, but why does it have to be at the cost of my happiness? Am I doomed to be the martyr, to sit and watch the people I love go on with their lives without him?”

Sam tried not to pity anyone, but here, he thought he might just pity Steve. The guy got dealt a bad hand, but Sam really thought Steve was coping. When they first met, Steve was making an honest effort to accept his fate and get to know the new world around him. He was learning it, interacting with it, becoming a part of it. 

Maybe things would’ve turned out alright had Barnes not shown up on the scene, but he did and for Steve, everything else gave way to that one, singular mission. Get Bucky back. 

Maybe Sam should’ve recommended Steve some better therapists, but too little, too late, he supposed. 

Lost in his own thoughts, he missed whatever platitudes Wanda offered and when he tuned back in, the two were planning to walk down the street to grab a bite at the 24-hour diner. There were sounds of shuffling steps, then the door opened and closed.

Then, silence.

Sam counted in his head and let out his breath on the ‘eight’. 

He really should move, he told himself, but the energy seeped out of him on the exhale and he slumped against the cold brick, ignoring the way it dug into his neck and shoulders.

His one minute of peace was cut short by a noise somewhere below him, startling him back upright and wide-eyed, but his panic receded when he spotted Natasha making her way up the stairs.

She smiled when her head appeared in his field of vision, walked up onto the platform, and sat down, leaning against the railing perpendicular to the wall. Her boot-clad feet dropped unceremoniously on top of his outstretched ankles. 

She didn’t say anything and so Sam didn’t either. He listened to the blare of sirens off in the distance, the splash of water against the tires of an impatient taxi. The buzz of a big city, full of life, full of people, even this early in the morning after a rainstorm, and yet Sam had never felt more alone, on this godforsaken, damp staircase. Even Natasha’s presence hardly grounded him.

He watched drops crawl down the metal railing. 

“You know,” Natasha finally spoke, “it’s usually a good idea to bring a jacket when spying on your wayward friends. Or you could be like me and spy from the comfort of our dark, cramped hallway.”

Sam grunted, something between laugh and a scoff, and Natasha met it with a sardonic huff of her own. She didn’t speak again until Sam looked at her. 

“What are we doing here, Sam?” she said.

“Freezing, mostly.”

His deflection earned him an eye roll, but Natasha did scoot over and without fanfare, Sam lifted his arm so she could burrow into his side. Her head settled against his shoulder while his arm settled around her smaller body and the warmth was a welcome reprieve. Maybe like this, Sam felt a fraction less lonely. 

It didn’t hurt that Natasha was a beautiful woman of course, but they had always been strictly platonic. She had about twenty feet of personal space around her and had no interest in romance and Sam knew better than to get tangled up in a one-night stand with the Black Widow.

Their late night talks, the casual touches when no one was looking, the glances across the room. All of this, it was just… comfort. Two lonely people, stuck in a shitty situation, led here by their own choices. Some they stood by, some they regretted. 

“When I was in there yesterday,” Natasha whispered, the first to break their silence again, and Sam’s stomach clenched when he heard the tremble in her voice, “when Steve was losing his mind, and you asked me about Barnes, I realized I was scared. I realized I was scared to say what I felt, that I’ve been scared for months, and I felt so damn ashamed. Somewhere along the way I let myself turn into a coward.”

“I don’t think it’s cowardice, Natasha. At this point, it’s self-preservation.”

“But at what point does self-preservation become cowardice?”

The question hung in the cold, wind-swept air and as she waited, Natasha absently tapped her boot against his ankle. Sam watched another rain drop hurry down the metal bar of the railing. 

“It’s cowardice when we let others get hurt.”

A concept so simple, every five year old could tell you about it, but it didn’t feel so simple in practice—or maybe it was and maybe Natasha was right. Maybe they were just cowards.

She hummed and this time, it was Sam who found himself spilling his soul.

“When this all started, I thought I was doing the right thing. The Accords, they just didn’t sit right with me. Some parts still don’t, if I’m being honest. Getting the government involved, guys like Ross—and we both know, a lot of guys in Washington are exactly like Ross—it’s dangerous. Rule and regs, those things are important, I get that, I was in the military, but when they don’t work, it’s usually the little guy that gets screwed over. Guys like Stark, even when they have the best intentions, they end up fine when shit hits the fan. They have money, resources, friends in high places to protect them, but everyone else doesn’t and I was worried we weren’t thinking about the long-term implications. But then I’ll admit, Jim and I talked about it later and he brought up some good points too. When we rush into a country guns blazing, wearing red-white-and-blue, we become the aggressors. I mean, shit, Lagos… Lagos was bad.”

“We made mistakes.” 

“And we didn’t own up to them. That’s where the problem was and it’s so easy to see now, but back then… I trusted Steve and when he went against the Accords, I stuck with him. He’s always so damn sure of himself, you know? Just follow that guy, you think, and you’ll end up in the right place. So I followed, but instead of fighting for people’s rights or protecting our political leverage or anything that would’ve been right… I ended up fighting someone else’s fight. It was never about the Accords.”

“He was going to sign them, you know,” Natasha murmured. “He practically had the pen in his hand, but then he found out about Wanda’s, uh… confinement, blew up at Tony, and walked out.”

Sam wanted to laugh. It wasn’t even surprising anymore, but it rankled at the remainders of his pride all the same. 

“Steve… isn’t a bad guy, but all he cared about—still cares about—is Barnes. And now…” And now, Sam was estranged from his former colleagues, his reputation was in tatters, not a dollar to his name, sitting on this damn fire escape and slowly freezing to death. “And now I feel like I’m following him straight into another fight that has nothing to do with us and everything to do with the one guy he can’t live without.”

Natasha shifted against him, probably as cold and uncomfortable as he was, and he rubbed her arm to warm her up.

Another siren blared a few blocks away, a crescendo of honks cutting through.

“When did we become followers, Sam?” Natasha asked when the street went quiet. It was a good question, but Sam was afraid he didn’t have a good answer. 

“You know, I keep thinking about Stark. I was never his biggest fan, but I keep thinking, the way Steve talks about him sometimes, the way Wanda does… He can’t really be that bad, right?”

“He’s really not. Tony’s complicated, but he’s never been cruel.” 

“But maybe this isn’t even about Stark anymore. Hell, Natasha, if you and I are afraid, that means…”

“We let this things get too far.” 

“Right. Do you think Steve and Wanda will try to follow through with this? Even if we refuse to help?”

“Yes.” She didn’t even hesitate. “Steve has nothing left to lose and Wanda… I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I understand her anymore, what her motivations are, but I think she believes she’s invincible and at the end of the day, if she wills it…”

“So shall it be. Yeah, I guess it’s hard to think about consequences when you’ve got those fancy, phenomenal cosmic powers at your disposal. But she isn’t all-powerful… is she?”

Sam belatedly realized neither one of them would truly know and unsurprisingly, all Natasha did was shrug, so Sam changed the topic and asked the one question that mattered at this juncture. 

“So Barnes was really okay when you saw him?”

He felt her nod. “Like I said, he looked healthy and before we confronted them, before we realized it was James, he and Tony were talking, laughing, trying to steal each other’s ice cream. It was actually kinda cute.” Her boot rubbed his ankle again. “He looked happy, Sam. They both did.”

And that was the crux of it all, wasn’t it?

He wanted to ask Natasha what they should do, but even as he opened his mouth, the question felt asinine.

“We have to act fast then,” he said instead, skipping over the moral quandaries and the dissection of loyalties and lamenting of friendships that long crumbled into dust.

With a soft groan, Natasha sat up to look at him. 

“You’ll have better luck than I would. My word’s not worth much these days.”

Sam’s groan wasn’t quite so delicate. “I knew you were gonna say that,” he grumbled and she met his obstinance with a smile, a hint of playfulness beneath the soul-deep exhaustion that permeated them both. 

“Sorry, Wilson, you’re drawing the short straw.”

“Yeah, yeah.” He gave her a good-natured shove and before he had the time to change his mind, he forced his body back up on its feet. The stretch felt good, his bones creaking to remind him he wasn’t so young anymore.

Natasha rose with more grace, unbothered by their less-than-cushy set-up. 

“Let me know how it goes.” She squeezed his hand in both of hers, sending a chill down his spine—damn tiny women and their skinny, freezing hands—and walked away, a staccato of footsteps down the fire escape. 

Sam allowed himself another look at their neighborhood, at the wet brick of the surrounding buildings, the drawn curtains, the occasional pigeon, sitting puffed up and displeased on the electrical wires heavy with raindrops. The sky hung low and gray above them.

He decided this scenery was as good as any and pulled out his cell phone, sending a quick prayer up into the air, hoping the number in his phonebook would still reach the right person, but with each dial tone, that hope began to fade—

“It’s four o’clock in the goddamn morning, Wilson.”

Sam couldn’t help the pang of longing, but he ignored it, closed his eyes, and held the phone tighter. “Sorry, didn’t think this could wait.”

There was an unmistakable groan on the other end of the line. “This better not be a social call.” 

“It’s not. Listen, Jim, I need to tell you something important. It’s about Steve and Wanda.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, you.” 

Before James could turn around, two strong arms snaked around his shoulders and a scruffy cheek pressed up against his, and he sunk into the embrace with a sigh.

“You’re finally home,” he whispered, wishing only that he could purr to communicate his pleasure when Tony nuzzled against him. 

“Sure am. Watcha reading, handsome?”

“The news, mostly. Have a handful of decades to catch up on, didn’t you hear?”

“Hmm, well, that sounds pretty boring. How about instead you join me on that bed over there? I promise we can pretend to watch the news while we make out.”

James chuckled at the mock-serious offer and twisted around so he could take a proper look at Tony. His amusement quickly morphed into a pout. “You’re still in your suit and tie. Why are you in a suit and tie? You were at the Sanctum.”

“Hey, you know how it is over there. Strange strutting around in those damn, billowing robes, Loki is just… Well, he wears an entire leather department on his person half the time, whips and chains included, so I dunno, I felt underdressed!” Tony shrugged and mirrored the pout, but his didn’t linger. “Also, you say that like I can’t be naked and ready for you in two seconds flat. A suit’s never stopped me from doing exactly what I want before.”

Any clever response James could’ve made was lost when Tony leaned in and kissed him properly. The soft groan that escaped him was all he could manage and he let Tony angle his face to slot their lips together better, let Tony kiss him deeper.

He hoped he’d never get tired of this. No matter how much time he spent memorizing every sensation, the scrape of Tony’s goatee, the warmth and taste of his mouth, he hoped it would always be like this, that spark deep down, right at the pit of his belly, ignited by Tony’s touch and fueled by anticipation and love.

When they pulled apart, James needed a moment just to gather his wits, but Tony seemed quicker to recover, already giving him a critical once-over. 

“Did you have dinner yet?”

“No, not yet. Was hoping I could wait for you. Missed you.” 

The talking was nice, but the kissing was better, and maybe James was only trying to distract himself from the dark cloud hanging over them, but dammit, distraction or not, he wanted more, so he threaded his hand through Tony’s hair, uncaring of the styling product that coated his fingers, pulled Tony back and kissed him again. He wanted Tony close, he wanted to feel him, to know this was real, that no one had taken his new life—new love—away yet. 

The answering groan when James tightened his grip just so was music to his ears and maybe Tony didn’t mind the distraction either, but to make sure Tony wouldn’t get some crazy idea to escape or talk about dinner again, or worse—talk about the myriad of reckless, rushed plans being drawn up at the Sanctum, experiment after experiment, science and magic and creations James had no way of understanding coming to life in a mad scramble to find their weapon—James twisted both himself and the chair around and pulled Tony into his lap.

Tony broke the kiss to let out an adorable, startled noise, arms going back around James’ neck for purchase. He shook his head, laughing at the antics, before settling in to give James a coy look.

“Why, hello there, gorgeous. Fancy seeing you here.”

“How was your day at work, honey?”

“You know how it is, all work and no play.” Tony bumped their noses together. “Wow, look at us, this is just so domestic. I think I could get used to this.”

James didn’t comment, choosing to kiss Tony instead, hoping the press of his lips, the tremble that ran through him, the desperate grip he had on Tony’s waist, translated into the gratitude ready to burst out of his chest.

Domesticity. It used to be just another fantasy, something to soothe away the loneliness, a way for James to pretend in the dark of the night that he was worthy of something like this.

Now it was all right here, it was his, enthusiastically offered and readily accepted. 

And yet, someone was still out there, planning to take it away. Someone he once considered his closest friend.

It hurt, more than James cared to admit.

Tony squirmed in his lap to get a better grip and made indignant huffs between kisses as he tried find his balance. Confident Tony had it covered, James let go to remove the sunglasses perched on Tony’s nose. He deposited them back on the desk and like this, Tony’s eyes were clear and vivid and James could count the specks of gold in the whiskey-warm brown. 

“I was serious about dinner, you know, you shouldn’t be skipping meals,” Tony said, fussing again, as he always did, and James couldn’t find it in himself to mind. “You craving anything specific?”

“You can choose. You’ve never steered me wrong before.” 

“Hmm… In that case, I think we both deserve some comfort food tonight.”

Like this, he could also see the smile slip off Tony’s face, the weight of their current predicament settling into his features, and James couldn’t help but let out his own weary sigh. It didn’t escape Tony’s notice. He shushed James gently and began to rub his shoulders.

“Hey, it’s going to be okay, I promise.”

“How? She’s— Tony, the powers she has—”

“We’re working on it, you know we are.” Tony didn’t stop the comforting motions, hands kneading the tension away, but he didn’t divulge any more and James wasn’t sure he wanted to ask for the details. “And I know this hasn’t been easy. Hell, it wasn’t even a day or two—it was hours between us having our— our thing, with the feelings and the confessions and the soul-baring and whatnot, and Rhodey showing up on our doorstep to drop the proverbial bomb. We haven’t had a chance to breathe.”

“And you’re the one who’s been dealing with it all, the fallout, the interviews, the security detail, all the days and nights you’ve spent at the Sanctum. That’s been you, Tony, and I’ve been sitting here, I haven’t done a damn thing—”

“I know, sweetheart, I wish you didn’t have to be cooped up—”

“It’s not about that, I don’t care that I can’t go out. I just feel useless. I can’t help, I can’t protect you, I’m nothing—”

“Please don’t finish that sentence.”

James didn’t, not with the finger pressed to his lips and not with the kiss that followed and it was hard to argue, hard to think, when Tony kissed him like this.

“You are not useless,” Tony whispered into the small space between them, “but we both know this is outside your wheelhouse. I need you, James, and more than anything, I need you safe so I can focus. This whole mess, it needs to end once and for all, and I will not let her touch you. I swear to you, love, they will never hurt you again.”

The conviction in those words, the hint of power lurking behind them, it made James shiver, and although he loved every iteration of Tony, every beautiful, breathtaking aspect of him, it was possible James had a preference for Tony just like this. Self-assured, powerful, in control of the situation, and ready to tear apart anything that threatened them.

It almost made James forget, just for a second, that Steve had ignored every word James had said, twisted it all so badly that he was out there now, planning to stage this ‘rescue’. It almost made him forget how terrified he was to face Maximoff again, how that terror doubled at the thought of Tony facing her.

And yet, there was something so novel, so intoxicating about having the ability to entrust his safety, wholly and unequivocally, to Tony’s hands and know that the trust was well-placed. 

“I love you,” he whispered, the only thing he cared to say, the only thing he needed Tony to know in this moment. He never wanted Tony to doubt his love again.

And when Tony whispered his own, “I love you, too,” when he kissed him and held on to him while James ran his hand up and down Tony’s back, it was easier to see past the upcoming storm and James vowed that they would both have their day in the sun, someday, somewhere, just the two of them, alive and in love.

Right now though, a distraction still sounded perfect. He licked his reddened lips and looked at Tony from beneath his lashes. “Think that earlier offer’s still open?”

“It sure is,” Tony simpered, but then his eyes narrowed playfully. “But don’t think this is getting you out of a proper dinner, gorgeous.” His hands dug pleasantly into the meat of James’ shoulders before coming up to cradle his face and press them together, forehead to forehead. “Just let me take care of you, okay? Make you feel good—make us feel good—and tonight we can forget about all this.”

“And tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, we’ll fight to see another day.” 

Tony trailed a hand down, tugged at James’ shirt as he gracefully jumped back up to his feet, and James stood up with him, letting his body follow wherever Tony would lead.

Tony’s eyes, when they looked at him, were full of that same conviction, that unwavering strength that made James weak in the knees, and James found himself breathless, even like this, even more so when Tony traces his thumb over James’ bottom lip, the touch both a tease and a promise.

“Do you trust me to take care of you, James?”


New York was a hellhole. Dirty, cramped streets, the smells, the blare of alarms, the honking and the shouting, on and on and on, the noise never ceased. The people were somehow worse. Too many, hordes of them hurrying up and down the streets like rats, and sometimes, when her emotions were left unchecked, her magic would seep though the tips of her fingers, outward, without her volition, to brush against other minds, letting her hear the whispers of their thoughts, mundane and colorless, a mindless sea of smart-phone-ruled cattle. 

Wanda ducked into an alleyway and wrinkled her nose at the sight of trash piled up in one corner and literal rats rustling about, upending the used paper cups and the rotting refuse. 

She missed Sokovia every day. She missed the expanse of her haunting forests, so thick that noise ceased to exist if you ventured deep enough, the rolling hills that came alive with wildflowers every spring, the small cities, modest and struggling to keep up with the rest of the rapidly ascending world, but retaining something each lauded metropolis lacked - a soul. 

She missed it with a yearning only surpassed by the ache and the emptiness left behind by Pietro’s death. 

He’d always been her steadying force, wiser by those eternal twelve minutes, with his easy-going nature a balance to her careening emotions. Her heart ached at the thought that she was the older one now. 

Pietro was gone, but she wasn’t alone and she refused to let her new family fall apart too. 

Unfortunately, bad luck seemed to follow her. First, there was Barnes and his inability to stay still and do as he was told, then Steve’s broken heart, now Clint…

Still with the kids, don’t know when I’ll be back.

That was the only message he sent her this week, dismissive and curt, and Wanda knew, she just knew without needing the confirmation, that his estranged wife was forcing him into an ultimatum.

She hoped Clint, who had been like a mentor to her, like another older brother, wouldn’t cave like that traitor Lang, who took off at the first opportunity to play the little lap dog for his woman.

Wilson and Romanoff were another issue entirely. She wished they could understand they were all kindred spirits, tossed aside by the world to fend for themselves, but if they took their obstinance a step too far, if they strayed, Wanda would have no choice but to teach them a lesson in loyalty.

Loyalty—the sort that didn’t waver at the first sign of conflict and challenge—was hard to come by these days. Despite her own disgust for this place and this city and these people, their circumstances were only a hiccup on the way to greater things. She lived in poverty before, in anonymity, in literal cages back when Hydra still didn’t trust her and Pietro to play by their rules. 

Those Hydra sadists were no better than snakes, but they were a powerful means to an end and they gave her powers grander than anything they could’ve have dreamt up in those little torture chambers they called laboratories. 

The power of control, reality and mind, all hers for the taking. She could hear that power sometimes, whispering to her in the quietest parts of the night when reality distorted naturally just before twilight. The whispers were nonsense, a language she didn’t understand, but she listened and they strengthened her will.

These circumstances were temporary, but her powers were eternal and if the others chose cowardice, if they chose betrayal, so be it. She was all Steve needed. She would be the one to get his life back on track. 

She kicked viciously at one of the rats and it scurried out of the way with a squeak. Blasting it with magic would’ve been more satisfying, but it was better to fight that temptation.

Her magic would have the chance to come out and play soon enough.

Another alleyway, another pile of trash, and now a drunk passed out next to it. She shuddered and hurried along, following the call of her magic.

They were close, she could feel it in the tingle down her spine, in the heat beneath her fingertips.

No need for Steve to put himself at risk. All she needed was permission and that glorious anger pulsing through his veins. She basked in its raw power, channeled it into her very core, and made it her own.

Lucky that one Bucky Barnes and Tony Stark were wandering the streets of Brooklyn in the early morning hours with no one to watch their backs.

Poor Barnes. He just needed help to break out of his cage—her help—and like a beacon, his pain called out to her. 

Her powers, the same ones she honed when she broke apart his mind to achieve control—he fought back, resisted, screamed, and it was simultaneously heartbreaking and beautiful, pain and destruction in its most raw and pure form—these powers would help him now, bring him back to his former glory. He’d be that smiling, happy man again, the one Wanda could always picture whenever Steve spoke of him. She wanted to see them together and in love like they were meant to be.

All she was doing was bringing two soulmates back together and if that happened to coincide with her own happiness? With the honey-sweet taste of revenge? Well, two birds with one stone, as they said.

Her magic sparked, a thread connecting her to their minds—the connection frayed now, imperfect, shredded by time and space, tasting bitter on her tongue, but still there—letting out a trill as it vibrated on its own magical plane and she followed it eagerly, hungry and ready to let her powers free. 

She turned the corner, crouched down on the fire escape, and watched them from above. They walked side by side, hand in hand, exiting some decrepit, little building and heading down the sidewalk. A glance at the faded sign above them informed her they were leaving a food bank.

How quaint, Stark throwing his money around, dragging hungry, impoverished children into a photo op to be splashed across the internet by his rabid sycophants. Dragging Barnes here as another pretty prop must’ve been the icing on the cake. 

Stark said something she couldn’t hear, but she could see him grinning at up Barnes, who returned the smile shyly, looking at Stark as if he were smitten. 

It was sickening and the magic roiled inside her, calling on her to act. The red thread between her and their minds pulsed again, corrupted and out of sync, but its pull was still strong, and her magic whispered to her in its babbling, alien language. She didn’t know the words, her mind unable to wrap around their enormity, but she could feel their reassurances and she knew her victory was guaranteed.

The smile that split her face felt so good. Stark’s unholy hold on Bucky Barnes wouldn’t be the only thing broken today.

Her eyes followed them as they rounded the corner and disappeared behind another block of buildings that led out into a parking lot, mostly likely where one of Stark’s fancy cars had been parked. The early morning hour meant the block was all but empty, too early for the usual hustle and bustle of this dirty, overcrowded city.

Her feet followed them, her magic carrying her through the air from fire escape to fire escape, roof to roof. Silent, graceful, like a wolf following its prey. 

Their leisurely pace allowed her to get ahead of them. Both remained unaware of her presence and she could hear their voices now, chatting about their plans for the day, something about a dinner with the team. 

They would never have the chance to follow through with those plans. 

She descended from the shadows and landed in their path and the way they both froze only to take a stumbling step back, the way the shock blossomed in their wide eyes and was followed by fear… It was glorious and it was familiar. Life had a funny way of coming around full circle, didn’t it?

She smiled and waved, but didn’t move, not even when Barnes did, putting himself in front of Stark, hand already aiming a gun at her.

“Stay back,” he snarled and truly, it was adorable he thought regular bullets would work on her. 

“Good morning, boys. Did you have a nice trip into town?”

“I said don’t move, witch.” He brandished the gun and took another step back, forcing Stark back with his bulk. Covering Stark with his own body, protecting him. 

Pathetic, to protect something so unworthy.

“Do you really think that gun will work on me, Bucky?”

“It ain’t Bucky, it’s James, and I sure as hell can try shooting ya first to find out— Tony, no, for the love of— Would ya stay back?” 

Stark, who never listened to reason, left the protection of Barnes’ shadow to put himself squarely at his side. Wanda watched him place a hand on Barnes’ forearm and push it down.

“Put the gun away, easy now,” he soothed and Barnes predictably obeyed. She expected no less. Stark had months to turn Barnes into his own little pet and Barnes was so very susceptible. 

Stark may not have had her abilities, but his powers of persuasion, of manipulation and sweet-talking, rivaled her own. Well, at least when it came to the weak-willed and brainwashed.

Stark kept his hand on Barnes, but he looked to her. “Good morning, Wanda. Fancy seeing you here.”

“Likewise, Stark.”

“I wish I could say it was a pleasure, but we both know I’d be lying.”

“It’s as if you read my mind.”

Stark shared a look with Barnes and despite the obvious protest on Barnes’ face, it was Stark who took the step forward. “Listen, Wanda, I don’t want this to end up messy and we both know it will. So I’m giving you one more chance to turn around, to pretend you were never here. Leave, don’t come back, and the three of us can go on with our day, in one piece.”

The sheer audacity of this man, to use that sweet-talking, sensible nonsense on her. 

She couldn’t help it, she laughed. “Do you take me for a fool? You, without your suit, without your army of willing sycophants, you are nothing. Neither of you can stand up to me and I am within arm’s reach of everything I want. Why would I leave?”

Stark shrugged. “Well, let’s see. About twenty of my suits are already on their way. The entire New York Sanctum, including one uncaffeinated and very cranky Sorcerer Supreme—they’ve already been notified. They’ll be here in minutes and whatever you might do to me, you’re not walking away from this the same way you came in.”

“Oh really?” Her smirk grew, then grew wider still when she got to watch both Stark and Barnes flinch, their eyes wide like frightened animals. Her magic gathered and before Stark could so much as take a breath, she raised her hand and pointed it at the building to her left. “New York, it’s pretty crowded, isn’t it? How many people do you think live in this building?”

“Wanda, don’t do this.” The fear in his voice made the magic in her trill like a songbird. “They’re innocent people, they are not a part of this.”

She mimicked his earlier shrug. “I don’t want to hurt anyone, but you’re not leaving me much of a choice here, Tony. Call off your reinforcements, call off your pet sorcerer, and let’s settle this like it was always meant to be settled. You and me and no one else.” Her eyes darted to Barnes. “Well, Bucky can watch, I guess. I’m sure deep down he’ll appreciate seeing you torn to pieces.”

Stark didn’t answer and she was long out of patience, so she flicked her fingers out to make the magic roar, the sphere growing bigger and brighter, and there—there was that beautiful desperation she was looking for.

“Don’t, Wanda, please.” Stark held his hands out in supplication, swallowed visibly as his chest heaved. Finally, he nodded. “Friday, you heard her. Everyone stays back.”

“But Boss—”

“No one needs to die today.”

“There, that wasn’t so hard,” she said. Her hand trailed down, but the magic remained, pulsing, swirling between her fingers and crawling up her bare arm, a caress of unlimited power against her skin. “For once, you did what you’re told, Stark, I’m almost impressed.”

“What do you want from us?” Barnes demanded. “Why the hell are ya doing this? Just let us be.” 

He was already so shaken and he shrunk in on himself when their eyes met, face scrunched up with a frown, every inch of his body screaming out his terror. She almost felt bad. It was truly a pity he had to be so afraid of her.

“I’m just trying to help you, Bucky.” 

His bitter laughter wasn’t particularly attractive. “Right, right, because this ain’t about you getting your hands on my head.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, really, I don’t.” Her eyes flicked to Stark. “But perhaps I do want payback. For my parents, for my country. For Pietro.”

“I get the need for payback, I really do,” Stark tried to placate her, but no amount of sympathy was going to work, no amount of understanding was going to erase his name from the memories of a terrified little girl, not when those bold, black letters were seared into her soul. 

“If you want me,” Stark said, “that’s fine, but please, leave James out of this. Let him walk away. Haven’t you hurt him enough?” 

“Oh, you don’t know the first thing about pain, Stark!”

The vivid image of his name drove her magic outward in a fantastic explosion. It knocked both men off their feet, Barnes hitting the dirty pavement with a pained oomph and Stark’s body colliding with a wall. His head slammed into the brick and he keened in pain as he slid down, his crumpled form twitching and struggling to get up.

Each leisurely step put her closer and her eyes did not stray from her target. She watched Stark groan.

“Not so tough without your suit, are you?”

A quick glance to her left confirmed that Barnes was trying to lift himself up on his elbow; she sent another wave of magic straight at him and he whimpered when it hit him, curled in on himself as it sunk into him, and stayed down like a good little soldier.

She kept walking towards Stark.

“No, please, don’t hurt ‘im,” Barnes still tried to bargain, the stubborn bastard. “Take me if you want, but spare him, I beg you.”

These two really were pathetic, weren’t they? 

Stark’s eyes fluttered opened, unfocused as he tried to look up at her, and he groaned again when she leaned in and grasped his chin, pulled his lax form up with her nails digging into his skin.

Whatever pathetic pleas Barnes offered next, she ignored. She squeezed Stark’s face harder until he cried out and her magic fed on that sound, thrummed, ready and willing.

“You’re going to pay for what you’ve done,” she hissed, and trailed the fingers of her left hand over his temple, letting them slide through the blood trailing down from a fresh, vivid wound. She let the magic course through her own blood, her bones, her very soul, and watched it pour out of her fingertips to wrap around his head. Nothing stopped her this time, no mysterious protections to push her back, nothing that kept Stark’s soul shielded from her will. 

“Are you ready to see hell, Stark?”

“Oh, princess,” he gasped weakly, struggling to breathe, “I’ve already been to hell.” His eyes fell shut, then opened lethargically, but she couldn’t help but let her own gaze trail down to the strange quirk of his mouth.

“Is that so?”

“Yeah and it turns out,” he rasped and she watched that mouth twitch into a smile, “hell just doesn’t agree with me.”

He rushed forward, dug both hands into her temples, and when she screamed, when every bit of her magic rushed back inside, all she could remember was Stark’s glowing blue eyes.

Chapter Text

Every inch, every cell, every atom—everything inside him trembled at a frequency he couldn’t comprehend. At least, that was the closest approximation Tony could find to describe the sensation of the magic coursing through his body, his hands, his fingertips—and straight into Wanda.

He could feel the heat of her magic too, sharp like broken glass, lashing out, cutting into him. 

“Let go of me!” she screeched, her face twisting with rage, and she dug her nails into his wrists, but the intricate runes carved into him—the back of his hands, wrapped around his fingers and wrists, going up and over his forearms and biceps—quivered bright blue and she shrieked in pain, letting go as if burned.

Tony gritted his teeth, felt them protest and creak, but he swallowed his own pained cry. The energies clashed, their powers reverberating through his whole body and it burned, her magic burning into him again, his own borrowed powers lashing out with no direction—no, no, no, too much, it was too much, he couldn’t do this

On sheer will, sheer stubbornness, Tony forced his conscious mind back into cohesion, and tried to remember what Strange had told him.

“Why can’t we just carve these runes into a life model decoy or something?”

“Because this magic requires flesh. It requires blood, bones, a soul.”


“Don’t make that face, Stark, you’re in too deep now. The Stones are sentient and this is living magic, it responds to your will. If you’re afraid, it will feed on that fear. If you’re angry, it will amplify your fury, but if your will is strong, it will obey, so guide it with your heart.”

Fuck Strange and his cryptic nonsense and Tony would certainly let the sorcerer know how useless that advice was in the thick of things, but right now Tony had nothing else and as his body trembled with the force of the energy coursing through it, as his mind struggled to keep itself from unraveling, Tony thought about his heart. 

His heart was his family. His heart was his friends and his kids and it was James and so Tony shoved aside his fear of failure and focused on the memory of James’ smile this morning, sleepy and soft and trusting, before he snuggled back into Tony’s side. He summoned the images of Peter and Harley, of Rhodey and Pepper, of James in the rain, in tears, begging for help. He focused on the memory of the fire burning in chest and the vow he made to protect those he loved. 

The quiver of blue went still, as if listening, and Tony listened too. Its echoes were familiar, like a long-forgotten lullaby, a comforting hum that had soothed him to sleep for so many years. The lullaby had been amplified, carved into something more powerful, imbued with magics that should’ve clashed with earthly sciences, but Tony was beginning to understand that the similarities were greater than the contradictions. 

The melody was being distorted by something other now, something that didn’t belong in a frail human body even as it tried to worm its way in, to seep into spaces inside Tony didn’t know existed, but the melody wrapped around Tony’s core and urged him to ignore the poisonous whispers.

It kept him protected and as it absorbed the images in his head, fed on the emotions in those memories, it grew brighter, pulsed again, and Tony could barely hear Wanda’s screams over the pounding of blood in his ears as the magics collided.

His hands shook. There was no air in his lungs and it wasn’t pain, it wasn’t fire that seeped into his skin—

Focus, focus, focus. 

He could still see her terrified eyes as they widened. 

“What are you— This isn’t possible—” She choked on the words. Her hands shook nearly as badly as his when she raised them again, tried to pull his hands away, but they were kitten-weak as she pawed at his wrists.

He willed the magic to wrap around her, to overwhelm the source of her power and with another scream, Wanda’s legs gave out and she collapsed to her knees. Tony followed, never letting go of his grip on her head.

“How is this possible?” She gasped for air. The whole world trembled along with them, coming apart at the seams. “What have you done?”

Somehow, Tony still managed a smirk. “We found a way to stop you.”

“I don’t— this can’t be—” 

“This is what happens when you throw science and magic into a blender, princess. A drop of Extremis to stabilize, some ancient Asgardian spells to pump up the power, and exactly 3.24 grams of Badassium to end this once and for all.”

Her body was nearly slack, held upright by his grip, immobilized by the war of magic brewing inside them, but her brows drew together and with their faces so close, with the rest of the world turned into a blur, Tony watched her confusion turn into understanding turn into fear. He saw the exact moment she realized he wasn’t going to let her walk away from this.

“Please, don’t do this. Don’t— don’t kill me.”

“Oh, how quickly you change your tune.” 

The magic under his control slipped, like a wily eel between his fingers, and distantly, he registered blood trickling out of his ears and down the side of his face. 

Focus, damn it. 

He needed focus more than he needed banter. He clung to the image of James and his family, internalized it, let it become a part of him, and the blue of the magic surged, wrapping around the core of Wanda’s magic even tighter, compressing it down from all sides.

Tony imagined a star, a massive red supergiant. No matter how grand, no matter how overwhelming in its power, the nuclear fusion of a star, if it ever reached iron, would inevitably fail in the most spectacular way. When the core of that star reached its tipping point, the star collapsed under its own gravity, its own enormous size its demise and in his mind’s eye, Tony watched the scarlet of her magic reach iron and fail.

In the world tethered to the physical, where his ears bled and his stomach twisted into knots, and his hands burned from the runes which served as the conduit for the magic, his eyes tracked a tear running down her face.

“I don’t want to die,” she whispered, her voice breaking, and she had a right to be scared. If Tony pushed hard enough, if he willed it, the magic would burn her from the inside out until nothing remained.

The magic responded to that knowledge eagerly, coaxing him on, the power and the pull of it intoxicating. It reminded him of his first flight, that exhilaration and freedom wrapped up in possibilities and power.

Tony swallowed and focused on his trembling, glowing fingers digging into Wanda’s head and spared one moment to look over her shoulder. In the sea of blue, a pair of grey-blue eyes met his and he could see the wordless “Do you need me?” reflected in them. 

Tony shook his head.

He knew—without knowing how, without understanding the power that coursed through him, but he knew, the way he knew when an equation was off, when a line of code was broken—that if anything interfered now, none of them would walk away in one piece. It was up to him to finish this, to use this power he willingly accepted into his body.

He knew about power. He knew the taste of it, the appeal, the addiction. He also knew how far you could fall when you inevitably flew too high.

It took a moment to realize he was crying too, tears gathering between the lashes. His eyes met Wanda’s. 

“You’ve caused us so much heartache and pain. You’ve killed and destroyed without remorse. You’ve threatened innocent lives and you nearly destroyed an innocent man.” He pushed the magic deeper and she whimpered, a shared pain that reverberated through his own bones. 


He could taste her fear and he could still hear the whispers. They grew in their intensity, agitated, frightened, then waning as the blue crackled and grew even stronger.

Tony knew he’d never have all the right answers. All he could do was follow his heart. 

“I told you, no one is going to die today. I’m sorry that my negligence and my arrogance cost you your family. I’m so sorry. I will take those mistakes to my grave.” The magic pulsed brighter. “But are you willing to do the same? Are you willing to admit and live with your mistakes?” All he could see were the red of her eyes bleeding into the blue that matched his own. “My mercy begins and ends here. If you ever come near James again, if you so much as think of harming anyone I love—or anyone at all—there will be no guilt, no sympathy strong enough to stop me. I won’t need magic, I won’t need my tech, I will kill you with my two bare hands. So this is your one and only chance.”

The whispers fell silent and Tony's world erupted in a blinding blue supernova.

Consciousness, no matter how appreciated, wasn’t always pleasant.

“I… hate… everything.”

At least, that was what Tony had meant to say, but all that came out was an unintelligible grumble, mostly because everything hurt, his vocal cords included. Eventually, he twitched one eyelid, then another, and when his body begrudgingly complied, Tony opened both eyes, only to squeeze them shut again. 

“Why is everything so bright? Someone please turn off the damn sun,” he mumbled and that, at least, sounded vaguely like English.

He gave himself another minute, using it to check up on the rest of his body—it felt like the Hulk teamed up with another Hulk and went to town, but at least every limb was accounted for, and when he opened his eyes again, the light was no longer searing his retinas. The details came into focus slowly and it took a moment for everything to stop spinning, but when it did and when the details sharpened, Tony registered James’ face above him, framed by the bright blue sky and the circle of the buildings overhead.

“Oh, splendid, you’re still alive. I was beginning to worry.”

Tony wanted to roll his eyes, but that much disdain would’ve taken far too much effort.

“How long?” he croaked.

“You were out for a minute at most.”

“Felt a lot longer.”

“I do not doubt it.”


“The defensive spells held. Barely, what with the light show you put on, but everything is intact. Even if these buildings weren’t empty, anyone inside would’ve been startled, but otherwise unharmed.”

Oh, thank god, Tony thought and sagged back against the ground. Sure, his body felt like every cell vibrated out of alignment and turned inside out, but it meant everything else went off without a hitch.


“Unconscious, barely alive. Alive nonetheless.” There was definite spite to those words. “That was masterfully handled however. Her magic is destroyed—”

“You can’t destroy energy. First law of thermodynamics—”

“Oh, semantics, Stark. It’s scattered through the void, made harmless, destroyed.”

Tony did roll his eyes this time, despite the nausea sweeping through him as he tried to sit up. A hand on his shoulder helped him stay upright.

“Ugh, dammit.” Tony spat on the ground and scrunched up his nose. “Everything tastes like rotten coconut, what the hell?” He glared at his trembling hands, the runes wrapped around them still glowing blue. “I’m not doing this ever again.”

“Come now, never say never. Watching you was a treat.”

Tony glared harder, this time at his companion, and when he was certain he didn’t need the support of both arms, he shoved the smirking face away from him.

“I hate you. I hate all of this. Am I dying? Oh god, I hope I’m dying.”

“Oh, please, you are not dying. Stop being such a drama queen.”

“Takes one to know one, asshole.” Tony scrubbed a vicious hand over his face, every part of him miserable and achy, but at least he remained upright and his brain felt less and less like runny scrambled eggs. He even managed another poisonous glare. “For the love of god, would you take off my boyfriend’s face already? It’s creeping me the hell out.”

The smirk widened and good lord, that did not look right on James’ beautiful features.

“Ugh, you’re a dick, go away.” Tony shoved weakly at Loki’s chest just as a shimmer of green ran over the body and took James’ visage with it. “Thank you, now was that so hard?”

“‘Hard’ is one way to describe it, I suppose.”

“Oh god, I really do hate you.”

Ignoring Loki’s insufferable Cheshire grin, Tony groaned again and wrapped an arm around his middle, curling in on himself. Yeah, breakfast was a bad idea. Breakfast for the next week was going to be a bad idea. “Go make sure our witchy witch isn’t gonna wake up, would you?”

“Trust me, she will be out for a long time.” 

Tony peered over Loki’s shoulder—who was still hovering, good grief, Tony needed space—and he spotted Wanda’s prone form a few yards away. She looked eerily pale and Tony could see a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth. She didn’t look particularly alive, so he’d have to take Loki’s word for it.

The sight of her—still alive, apparentlyleft him torn. What were the odds this would come back to bite him in the ass? When didn’t these things come back to haunt him? 

He had the power to wipe her from existence, but he just couldn’t do it—he didn’t want to. When push came to shove, Tony was willing to get blood on his hands, but maybe, if he was given a choice, he’d always revert back to that soft, pathetic thing he was deep down, too merciful, too weak to follow through.

Howard would have been so proud. Tony used Howard’s fancy Tesseract-based element to channel magic through his body and still managed to fail.

Because despite all the pain, all the horror she’d incited, Tony still wanted to help. When was the last time someone offered Wanda real help, something that didn’t feed into her delusions, that didn’t validate her every action, good or bad?

And then there were the whispers too. He remembered them, not from the Hydra bunker nor his vision of death and destruction, but from that day on the Helicarrier and his first fight with Steve—first of many. He had no way of knowing what these whispers were now, if the magic of the Mind Stone had influenced Wanda somehow. Certainly, there was no magic involved when she volunteered for Hydra and maybe the Mind Stone couldn’t corrupt something that was never there, but Tony didn’t know, couldn’t know for sure…

So he let her live and only the future would tell if that was the right decision.

Both he and Loki looked up when sparks of gold shimmered into existence and they watched the sparkling ring expand to grant them a view of the Compound. Not a second later, James stepped through and murder strutted so impressively in their direction, even Loki was smart enough to get out of the way before James could shove him aside. 

James collapsed to his knees, his shaking hand reaching for Tony, and his eyes were already darting from point to point, studying every inch of Tony’s body, lingering on the wound at the side of his head, observing the trickle of blood from his ears with fierce determination. He brushed the fingers over Tony’s trembling hands first and the runes hummed a gentle melody at the touch.

Tony was certain he was the only one able to hear it.

“Oh, sweetheart…” James whispered and the worry nearly twisted Tony’s heart inside out.

“I’m okay, I promise, just a little queasy.”

James didn’t appear to be convinced. He gently turned Tony’s head next to better see the wound before letting out a shaky sigh.

“We’ll need to get that looked at, make sure you don’t have a concussion, and treat with antibiotics to avoid infection.” His tone was almost clinical, like this was another run-of-the-mill mission that resulted in a few bumps and bruises, but Tony knew him too well. He could see the tightly coiled tension, could feel the tremble of the fingers ghosting over his bruised, bloody temple.

“James, honey, I’m okay,” Tony tried again and he was, he could already feel his body recovering, but Tony could also imagine this in reverse, if it were James playing the bait, and he couldn’t begrudge him a single moment of worry.

“C’mere, babe.” Tony opened his arms and that was all the permission James needed to draw Tony into a clinging embrace, holding him tightly, head buried in Tony’s shoulder.

“Never, ever do that to me again,” James rasped. Tony realized all of James was trembling too, so he brought a hand to brush through his hair.

“I know, that was awful, but it’s over now, I promise.”

“Having to watch you without being able to do a damn thing…”

The hold on him grew tighter and Tony let out a pained huff, which was enough for James to draw back, already breaking into apologies.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t meat to—”

“Hey, hey, you’re alright.” Tony cupped James’ face with one hand, appreciating the familiar set of his features. So much nicer than the mess Loki had made of them. “I’m just a little sore, that’s all.”

“Do I need to take you to Medical?”

“Maybe later. I just need… just need you right now.” Tony kissed him tenderly, hoping it would soothe that worry away—hoping poor James couldn’t taste the damn coconut still lingering on Tony’s tongue. “Can you just hold me for a little while longer while I gather my wits? Pretty sure I’d be like a newborn calf on my feet right now.”

James did, wrapping his big arm around Tony again, tightly enough to feel secure, but easing on the super soldier strength to let Tony breathe. Truth be told, Tony needed this just as much. Banter and whining aside, if he let himself think too long about what just happened, he’d be reduced to terrified tears too. 

So Tony just tried not to think and while he and James clung to each other, Tony watched Strange and Loki, who stood where the portal had initially materialized, giving Tony and James a respectful amount of space. 

They murmured something to each other and Strange threw a glare at Wanda, the look steeped in every bit of disdain Strange had in him—and he had a lot, Tony could testify to that—and when the disdain turned into garden variety annoyance, Strange waved the hand wearing the Sling Ring to surround the unconscious body with ropes of gold.

Tony breathed another small sigh of relief.

Loki whispered something Tony couldn’t pick up—in his defense, his ears still rang from that magic he had to pump through his body, no big deal, just a regular Wednesday—but whatever Loki had said, it earned an eye roll from Strange, far more fond than it had any right to be. Strange said something like “Are you alright?” if Tony’s lip reading abilities held up, and Loki nodded, smiled, and leaned in closer.

“Oh my god, babe,” Tony whispered into James’ ear, “Strange and Loki just kissed. In public. Oh my god.” He tried to make his incredulity sound appropriately ridiculous. “This is like watching mom and dad make out at the dinner table.”

He definitely saw Strange’s glare in full definition—someone had the ears of a fruit bat—but the glare was worth the soft snort he felt muffled into his shoulder.

Unfortunately the comment did draw the head wizard’s attention to them.

“I still cannot believe you went through this, Stark. Mixing that botched Extremis formula into the arc reactor core—”

“Botched? Excuse me, I fixed it!” 

“Using that to get those runes tattooed into your skin, so you could control it—untested, unverified, and of course you,” Strange pointed at Loki, “enabled him every step of the way!”

“Hey, it worked, didn’t it?”

“I must agree with Anthony, the plan went off flawlessly.”

“Yes, but only because the two of you have the most ridiculous, incomprehensible good luck.”

“The Norns smile upon those who seize their destiny, darling.”

Strange’s next eye roll was far less fond. “Stark is not a magic user, had never been a magic user, and to trust the whole operation on him was foolish at best and—”

“And yet you allowed it to continue.” That was James, who pulled away just enough to turn and look at the two. “Don’t act like you weren’t in that lab with them, Strange, carving those damn things into Tony’s skin.”

“I had to supervise the foolishness!”

“Hey, hey, can we not fight about this?” Tony interrupted; the last thing he needed was this nonsense alpha male posturing. He already had a headache, thank you very much. “Trust me, I didn’t want to do this either, alright? I’ll trust my life to tech any day, but magic? Hell no, but we all know it had to be me.”

Strange huffed, but didn’t offer a counterargument because he knew Tony was right. Hell, they were all there, in the workshop, at the Sanctum, scrambling to figure this out, to find a way not only to defend against Wanda’s magic, but to curtail it, suppress it, neutralize it so she couldn’t hurt them again.

“We tried it with you, Stephen—but the rock around your neck didn’t like that at all. We tried it with Viz, same thing, since he’s literally the Mind Stone. Reindeer Games over there didn’t work because the runes kept fading too quickly, but they did keep on me. Why? Because my life is one giant cosmic joke and because after having the reactor sit in my chest for years, I happen to have Badassium literally running through my bloodstream. Is anyone surprised though? I am the literal embodiment of Badassium.”

“Oh, would you stop calling it that? You never got the patent, Stark.”

“Only because the committee is holding a grudge!”

“Still, this whole thing is ridiculous and frankly, as the Master of the Mystic Arts, I am offended this convoluted plan even worked—”


All of them fell silent at the growled demand and it was a silence Tony did not appreciate because James chose that moment to slip his hand under the curve of Tony’s ass and heft him up, causing Tony to let out the sort of startled noise he preferred not to make around people like Strange and Loki. Lord knew they didn’t need more blackmail material.

He scrambled to hold on—unnecessarily, James would have never let him fall, but it was hard to fight instinct—and he clung to James like a koala while James turned around with Tony in his arm to glare at Loki and Strange.

“I’m done listening to you discuss how you expected Tony to fail,” James said and it was probably inappropriate to think his threatening tone was incredibly sexy. “You two were perfectly willing to let Tony play the bait. You were willing—gleeful like schoolchildren—to let him use this ‘untested, unverified’ magic to bring Maximoff down, and he did. Tony did what you couldn’t do.” He took a step forward. “Now, how about you make yourself useful, take Maximoff to her holding cell and report to Rhodes with the details, hmm? Oh, and I would appreciate a portal back to our bedroom because I just had to watch the man I love risk his life and if we’re not home in five seconds, I’m taking his pants off right here in this dirty alleyway.”

“Oh my god, babe, that was so hot.”

“Good lord, I do not need to see this.”

“Stephen, darling, let’s not be hasty!”

The portal shimmered into existence despite Loki’s protests and James marched towards it without another word, with both Strange and Loki stepping out of his way again—no one could say they weren’t smart—and before they disappeared through the portal, Tony had just enough time to shout, “Great job, guys! Drinks are on me! We’ll celebrate tonight—erm, scratch that, tomorrow! I think I might be busy tonight!”

The portal closed on Stark’s cocky grin and Stephen threw Loki a weary look.

“Do you think they’re more or less insufferable now that their relationship is out in the open?”

“Oh hush, I think they’re adorable,” Loki said and Stephen ignored him in favor of letting his magic lift Maximoff’s prone form up into the air.

“God, I don’t even want to think about all the ways this could’ve gone wrong.”

“Then don’t.” Stephen turned to glare, but he was caught by surprise by the serious look on his lover’s face. “Everything went off beautifully, Stephen, and yes, some of it was luck, but it was also your knowledge of the Stones, the Vision’s knowledge of our enemy, my knowledge of runes—”

“And Stark’s preternatural ability to pull off the most insane plan on moxie and spite alone?”

“Precisely, yes. It also helped that I’ve had my own dealings with the Mind Stone and Maximoff didn’t notice the misdirection, mistook my own suffering for the pain she had inflicted on Barnes. Anyone with half a brain would’ve sensed the difference, but Maximoff was arrogant, careless, and played right into our hands.”

“The crazy ones usually do.”

“True, and with all of us working together, this couldn’t have gone any other way.”

“Yeah, except you forget that magic is unpredictable. Living magic even more so.” Stephen looked down at the girl again and sighed. “You and Stark are insane. I’m insane. Sometimes I wish I could go back to doing surgery, like a normal idiot.”

Loki indulged this moment of whining with a kiss to the cheek and Stephen had to admit the way those long fingers brushed reverently over the gray at his temples did help ease some of the tension gathered at the base of his neck. 

“Cheer up, beloved, we have a victory to celebrate.”

“No, we have a debrief to get to and a former witch to take to Medical before her vital organs give out.”

Loki harrumphed. “Let them give out.”

“I took an oath, you know.”

“So have I and you don’t see me following through on any of them.”

Stephen glared, but god help him, the gesture lacked any heat. Damn Trickster had him wrapped around his little finger. “This is exactly why we’re never getting married.”

“Never say never, darling,” Loki simpered, “I’d look fantastic in a wedding dress.”

Stephen shook his head, tried not to think about that mental image, and looked around instead. His lips curled in disgust. “We just had to pick the worst, most disgusting part of the city too, didn’t we?”

“Isolated, abandoned, no civilians to put in danger. Was that not Anthony’s request for our little trap? Besides,” Loki added after giving their surroundings a critical once-over, “I think this place has character.”

“Ugh, you’re insufferable.” Stephen used the Sling Ring to summon a portal back to the Compound. “Just for that, I should make you sleep on the couch tonight.”

“You charmer,” Loki cooed, unapologetic as ever as he followed on Stephen’s heels, “as if you’ve ever been able to keep your hands off me.” 

Chapter Text

The rooms materialized around them as James stepped through the portal and the silence of their quarters was jarring, but Tony attributed that mostly to his still-ringing ears.

James stopped in the middle of the foyer with Tony still in his arm and Tony’s grin turned wicked when he saw James looking a lot less threatening and a lot more flustered in the privacy of their own home.

“That was amazing, babe,” he teased his boyfriend. The Winter Soldier getting all shy about that incredibly sexy display? Downright adorable.

“That was… out of character, mostly.” James chewed on his bottom lip and Tony tapped it gently to get him to stop. “I’m not usually that forceful with people.”

“No, that was fantastic. Never apologize for being awesome. Plus, it’s Strange and Loki. They need a good threat every now and then, otherwise they get too uppity.”

“Just got sick of them talking about you like that. As if you failing was just another outcome written out on paper, some thought experiment, instead of something real, something—” Any trace of amusement faded and James finished with a harsh whisper, “Something I’m not sure I would’ve survived.”

Tony pressed their foreheads together and cupped James’ face, brushing his thumbs over a scruffy cheek and wishing that whatever residual magic left into those still-glowing runes could soothe away the worry.

He supposed magic wasn’t the only tool at his disposal, so he whispered a soft, “We’re alright,” and was prepared to repeat the reassurance a dozen more times. He couldn’t imagine having to watch James do what Tony just did—mostly, pump himself full of science-boosted magic and play a tasty morsel of bait—and frankly, James was handling this remarkably well. If it had been James coming out of this with shaking hands, a head wound, and a body battered by forces they could barely comprehend, Tony would be dragging him into a bed, putting their entire quarters on the highest level of lockdown, wrapping himself around James like a damn octopus, and not letting him out of sight for the next month.

So Tony could do nothing but appreciate how careful James was with him and he didn’t complain about being carried all the way through their study and only allowed to stand on his own feet when they reached the bedroom. Even then, James couldn’t seem to let go and Tony leaned into the embrace with the same urgent need, just as desperate to remind himself that they were both alright—and maybe there was something about the way he fit so perfectly tucked against James that soothed Tony too.

“Do you need Medical?” The questioned was almost reluctant, as if James was torn between never wanting to let go and knowing he needed to check anyways.

“I think I’m okay, actually.”

“What about your head though?” James gently separated them to examine Tony’s temple again and Tony tracked the way worry flared in those baby blues once more. “You took a pretty hard hit. Even if there’s no concussion—and that’s a big ‘if’—you should get the wound treated.”

“On any other day, I’d agree with you, I’d definitely need stitches, but uh… I think it healed.” Tony prodded the blood caking his hair himself, body tensing in preparation for pain, but there was nothing other than the tenderness of newly healed flesh. There was no new bleeding, no swelling, and he didn’t have any of the usual signs that came with a too-hard hit to the head—he flew around in a tin can, he was an expert at spotting those.

James followed Tony’s hand, frowning at the dried blood. “It healed already? How is that possible?”

Tony grinned and clicked his tongue. “Magic, baby.”

“Please, you would never be satisfied with that answer.”

“Alright, alright, you got me there. When did you get to know me so well anyways?”

“Well, it so happens, I’ve got this massive crush on you, so I think about you all damn day. Can’t help but get to know you.”

Their adrenaline-drunk giggles commingled as they pressed back together, forehead to forehead.

“Wow, how lucky, I happen to have a crush on you too.” 

“Lucky indeed.” They swayed together and enjoyed the moment, but Tony could practically feel every inch of James vibrate and it took no more than a minute for James to let out a defeated sigh, kiss Tony’s cheek, and pull away to duck into the bathroom with a murmured, “Give me a moment.”

He called Tony in a few minutes later and he found James by the sink, armed with a clean towel and a determined look on his face.

“Sit.” He pointed to the closed lid of the toilet and Tony obeyed, getting settled while James got the towel wet under the faucet.

Tony would never admit it, but this had become the best part of any mission, this attentiveness and gentle treatment that left Tony tongue-tied, loose-limbed, and floating, all tension melting away under James’ touch.

It took a moment for him to realize James had spoken.

“What was that, sweetheart?”

“I asked if you really think it’s the magic. Don’t get me wrong, I’d sleep better at night if I knew your bruises could heal faster, but it worries me, all those things you did to make this happen.”

“No, no need to worry about anything.” That wasn’t exactly true, the chances of something going wrong were always present, but James needed reassurances, not a dissection of probabilities. “I think it’s the Extremis, actually. In its pure form, it can regrow limbs within minutes—of course, it also makes you explode, so win some, lose some. The stable formula loses some of the efficacy, but I guess I’m still getting the benefit of accelerated healing until the runes fade in a few days. Nifty, if you ask me. Tingly, too.” Tony gave James a cheeky grin. “Although I’m not really physically stronger, so I feel like I’m getting the raw end of the deal here.”

“You stopped Maximoff, sweetheart. You’re strong enough.”

“If you say so.”

James gave him an indulgent look, but didn’t try to wrestle with Tony’s self-deprecation today, and Tony was content to watch James as he continued to fuss, running the towel under warm water.

“Do you think you’ll try to make any of this permanent?”

“Well, I know Loki is itching to get the runes to stick so he could paint himself blue head to toe and I’m sure we’ll explore this further—if it works on Mind Stone-adjacent magic, maybe it’ll work on the other magical rocks too, you know? It’d be really nice to have something in our back pocket the next time some alien douchebag comes knocking.”

“That makes sense, but I was asking about you.”

Tony hummed, giving himself a moment to think. That part was tougher to answer. “I’m… not sure I’m comfortable pumping myself full of Extremis.” Tony had seen what it could do; he’d seen the fire, the explosions. The echoes of Pepper’s screams still haunted him and if nothing else, those memories made him cautious. “Accelerated healing on demand is nice, sure, but I might pass the formula off to Helen instead. She could do a lot more with it and hey, maybe I’ll get to enjoy the end results anyways.”

“And the magic?”

Tony remembered the pull of this power too.

“As a last resort, I’m willing to do this again, but barring an actual apocalypse—or someone I love being directly threatened by magic no one else can stop—the wizard boyfriends are free to the whole thing. I’ll just stick to being a baseline smart-ass with a metal suit.”

James tilted Tony’s chin to wipe away the blood that had trickled down his cheek. “We both know you’re so much more than that.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll keep being the handsome, baseline smart-ass.”

“Much better.” The grasp on his chin turned into skimming fingertips along Tony’s jawline, back up over his cheek and across his temple, all feather-light touches that sent shivers dancing across Tony’s skin. He closed his eyes, let James explore to his heart’s content, but they fluttered open again when he heard something hit the floor and the sight of James on his knees—oh, it did things to Tony, made his brain go haywire in a brand new way. 

James tugged meaningfully on the hem of Tony’s shirt.

“I know you have all these fancy powers right now, but could I just— could I make sure you weren’t hurt anywhere else?”

James was all but pleading for Tony to indulge him and Tony wished he wasn’t so tongue-tied that he couldn’t explain that James taking care of him was a privilege, not a burden.

Tony took his shirt off without complaint and James continued his explorations from there, tracing each muscle, giving each curve and each dip the steadfast attention of a super soldier on a mission. At some point, he used the damp towel to wipe Tony’s hands—he must’ve used them to brace himself during the explosions and they would’ve been covered with scrapes, but today, there was only dust and dirt to wipe away.

Tony sunk into the sensation of being taken care of again and let himself float, eyes closed.

“I think I’m starting to see the benefit of getting that metal arm on me sooner.”

Tony hummed sleepily. “Why’s that?”

“For one, this would be a lot more efficient with two hands.” The warm towel slid over Tony’s shoulder and trailed down the curve of his bicep. “We both know you’re more than just one handful, Tony.” James winked at him when Tony opened one eye. “I need two hands to take care of you properly.” 

“I dunno, I’m feeling pretty well taken care of already.”

The towel brushed over the spot on his chest where the reactor used to be, now no more than a nest of scars, and Tony’s breath stuttered to a stop. “It will never enough, Tony. We won today, but this won’t be the last time you put yourself in danger—comes with the job, I know, I’m not blaming you—but when something like this happens again, I want to be strong enough to be useful.

Those words were enough to pull Tony back to reality. “James, sweetheart, c’mere.” He waited until James scooted closer into the vee of Tony’s knees and Tony cupped both cheeks so James wouldn’t get any ideas of looking away and not listening. “You don’t have to turn yourself into a weapon again to be useful. If you never pick up another gun, if you never use that beautiful, shiny arm for anything other than manhandling me around the Compound, I will not think any less of you. Never.”

“I know, I know you’d never ask, but I’m the one who gets to make that choice now. I can choose to fight and that makes a difference. I’d do anything to protect what we have. I know nothing is ever certain, but if there’s something I can do…You can take care of yourself, but I’d like to be there, by your side.”

Tony’s throat was not growing thick with emotion, it wasn’t. The last thing he needed was to get all misty-eyed, thinking about how brave James was, how strong, how much he loved Tony.

It was something Tony still needed to wrap his head around, but it humbled him all the same, to know that yet another incredible person had seen enough good in him to plant themselves at his side.

He cleared his throat to chase away the pesky pinpricks of gratitude. “Well, uh, if that’s what you want, we can get Helen on the phone and see if we can speed things up. Maybe she can put that Extremis to better use. Not gonna lie, sure would love to see you all strong and gorgeous and badass with that shiny arm.”

James tossed the towel into the sink and leaned in, hand propped on Tony’s thigh, brushing the tip of his nose against Tony’s cheek as his voice dropped to a raspy whisper. “I don’t think I’m the one who deserves those monikers, Tony. Strong. Gorgeous. Badass.” He punctuated each word with a kiss to the apple of Tony’s cheek, tender and sweet, but not enough to feed the heat quickly pooling in Tony’s belly. “I hated seeing you in danger, that doesn’t change, and I’d take your place in a heartbeat… But I’d be lying if I said seeing the way you handled that power wasn’t the most incredible sight I’d ever laid my eyes on…” 

Tony shivered when the hand on his thigh began to rub up and down, skirting just below where Tony wanted it.

“You were gorgeous,” James continued and his lips touched every inch of Tony’s neck, down to his collarbone, playful nips at the meat of his shoulder, and this was— this was worship. It was the only way Tony could describe it. “You were incredible and seeing you glow with that power… I’m not sure I had ever been more turned on.”

James was intent on driving Tony out of his mind, but two could play at that game.

There were still remnants of magic strumming through him, a mostly harmless quiver just beneath his skin, and Tony lifted his hand, the tiny runes spiraled around his fingers and wrist now glowing. He watched James go perfectly still and Tony took that hungry look as permission to touch, to drag his fingers down the row of still done-up buttons of the pretty maroon shirt James was wearing, back up to trace the curve of James’ neck with the back of his fingers, skirting over his Adam’s apple, feeling it bop on a swallow. Tony grasped James’ chin and James let out a shaky moan, panting, nearly trembling beneath Tony’s touch.

This playful display of power was intoxicating, but it had nothing on the way James let his lips part when Tony traced them with his thumb and when Tony prodded further, James eagerly welcomed that thumb into the heat of his mouth, and that right there was power, because Tony would’ve given him anything in that moment, anything his heart desired.

“God, James, you’re gorgeous and you’re perfect,” he whispered, entranced by the sight. He mourned the swirl of that tongue when James pulled away, but then there were fingers circling Tony’s wrist and the tug that came next, the promise in James’ eyes when he stood up, had Tony’s heart hammering away again.

“I want to kiss every rune on your body, every part of you,” James declared, “and I’d like to do it on a proper bed.”

Tony could do nothing but eagerly follow and he let himself fall back on the bed when James pushed. James crawled over him and made himself home in Tony’s lap so he could sit up and take hold of Tony’s hand again, lavishing each knuckle with its own kiss.

“I can never thank you enough, for any of this,” James whispered and that right there was more powerful than any sensual touch, any magic. The raw gratitude of it all had Tony blinking away the sting of tears.

“You don’t have to thank me. I wasn’t going to let her hurt you again. Never again,” Tony emphasized and he would’ve said more, would’ve reminded James that Tony was no saint, that this was the right thing to do, nothing more, but it was difficult to dwell when James and his touch drove every thought out of Tony’s mind.

Every thought except one, but Tony wasn’t sure there was anything powerful enough to make him forget how much he loved James.

James followed the runes all the way up to the curve of Tony’s shoulder and continued the gentle cascade of murmured praise between each press of his lips.

“You’re amazing.” 

“You’re brilliant.”

“You take my breath away and I’m so lucky to have you.”

“Wanna keep you all to myself.”

Tony’s body may have been fully on board from that touch alone, arousal accentuated by the hum of the runes in the most delicious way, but it was those simple words that left Tony wrecked. It was too much, to see James look at him like he was worthy, but at the same time, it wasn’t enough, would never be enough, and Tony hoped he’d never get to a point where he’d take this love and devotion for granted.

“Mine,” James whispered, drawing ragged, warmth breaths over Tony’s shoulder, “you’re mine, Tony, and and I’m yours for as long as you’ll have me,” and Tony couldn’t take it anymore, he gripped the front of James’ shirt and pulled him in for a proper kiss, lips and tongues crashing. 

“You’re going to be the death of me, gorgeous,” Tony whispered without thinking, too caught up in the moment, and he huffed his displeasure when James broke the kiss.

“Wrong choice of words, sweetheart.”

Semantics, Tony wanted to say, and the thought of sounding exactly like one smarmy Trickster made him grin. “You make my brain not work good when you’re like this,” he tried to explain—with the appropriate level of eloquence, of course—and thankfully James kissed him again, licked into Tony’s mouth eagerly, with a dedication that made Tony arch off the bed and into that hard, lovely body, had his toes curling in the sneakers still on his feet.

James didn’t let him up until Tony was panting for breath.

“I think that big, genius brain of yours can do anything it wants. So… try again?”

James was wrong, Tony’s brain was absolute mush for the second time in one day and it took Tony several seconds to even remember what he was supposed to be trying, but who could blame him, what with the expert way James used his tongue? All Tony really had on his mind was the borderline illegal amount of clothes still on their bodies.

You’ll be the death of me. 

Tony supposed that really didn’t fit here, did it? Ironic, maybe, given they almost were each other’s demise.

“You— you make me wanna live, James, which I think is even scarier,” Tony answered, too high-strung and exhausted and head-over-heels in love to be anything but honest. He watched James’ lips curl into a soft smile. “I just want to be good enough.”

James sat up again and guided Tony’s hand to his shirt and Tony didn’t need more encouragement to unbutton and slide it over James’ shoulders. James leaned back in, rolled them both over until Tony was on top, and when he beckoned Tony down for another kiss, expert fingers began to tease at the zipper of Tony’s jeans. 

“You’re already good enough, Tony, but let me prove it to you here, just in case.”

Not for the first time today, Rhodey’s hand twitched for his cell phone, but he resisted, leaving it to rest in his coat pocket. He studied Carol’s expression instead and it was obvious she couldn’t care less about hiding her distaste for the scene before them.

“So, she really is baseline human now?” she asked.

“Apparently. The whole wizard squad signed off. I even asked Wong to come in and confirm.” 

“Oh good. I’m glad it wasn’t just Strange and Loki. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a riot at parties—”

“But Strange can’t see past his own nose sometimes and Loki is Loki?” 

“Something like that.”

Rhodey huffed, already exhausted by the day’s events without having seen a single minute of action. Being out there, fighting the good fight, that was easier, he decided, than being stuck behind a desk and waiting for news. He scrubbed a tired hand over his face and motioned for Carol to follow him; they headed out of Medbay, leaving the sight of Maximoff’s glorified ‘holding cell’ behind. 

“There are days I still wonder how the hell we ended up with the would-be conquerer of New York on the team.”

“There were extenuating circumstances to that mess and he is repentant—occasionally—and it never hurts to have that sort of power on our side. Plus, like I said, fun at parties.”

“I know, I know,” Rhodey said and Carol looked too damn amused by his near-whining. “Just wish he didn’t have to be a complete menace about it.”

Carol gave him a good-natured grin, still mostly unaffected by the day’s events, walking confidently beside to him, her hands slung behind her head. She’d seen worse, he supposed, and their little squabbles down here on Earth had nothing on whatever space battles she had to fight. Since Rhodey was over here actively trying to forget about his best friend’s latest attempt to get himself killed, one would think her easy-going attitude would be grating, but as always, her confidence helped him breathe a little easier.

They kept walking until they reached the common area and got in line for the coffee bar, waving away several attempts to let them cut in line. Sure, they outranked every person in this building, but it wasn’t polite to take advantage of that—well, at least not too often. There were days Rhodey needed his triple shot of espresso even more than Tony and most people learned to recognize those days by the look on his face and swiftly got out of the way.

“You’re going for the macchiato today, aren’t you? With extra syrup.”

He tried to give Carol a withering glare when she smirked at him knowingly, but it was half-hearted at best. It was a long day and he was tired, feeling every one of his almost fifty years, and the espresso would just send him bouncing off the walls. Lord knew the Compound didn’t need another Tony Stark on their hands.

“I think I hate that you know me so well.”

“You like to indulge after a stressful mission, but only when it’s successful. If something goes wrong, you punish yourself by getting plain old tea.”

“Wow, that was… uncomfortably spot-on, please cut it out.”

She shoved him playfully—forgetting her strength as always, so Rhodey had to brace himself to stay on his feet.

“Hush,” she said, “it’s so spot-on because we’ve been friends for a long time. So just get your cup of syrup and maybe we can work it off at the gym later. You need to let this mission go. Everyone’s fine.”

“I just— I swear Tony does this on purpose,” Rhodey muttered with no small amount of petulant exasperation. “I can’t believe I miss our MIT days. At least that was just alcohol and parties and terrible one-night stands—still regret not punching Ty Stone in the throat, by the way.”

“You and me both. Unfortunately, those days are long over. Now it’s alien portals and magical runes.”

Carol knew him well enough to understand his weariness without needing his sour expression, but he couldn’t help but make it anyways. She refused to let him wallow though and when her hand gave the back of his neck a squeeze, he deflated with a sigh, melting into the touch as she massaged out some of the tension.

“I guess I shouldn’t complain. One less magical threat on the streets.” Rhodey glanced to his right, back the way they came, in the direction of their newest unwanted guest. “Just feels like a damn waste, you know? With what we know is coming, we could’ve used a powerful player like her. I mean, Tony and I can fly around in our suits all day, but when it’s alien armies we’re up against, a little bit of ‘phenomenal cosmic powers’ goes a long way and—gah, watch where you poke, woman!”

The jab to the ribs didn’t hurt, but he was ticklish, damn it, and when he turned to glare at Carol, she was grinning impishly, entirely unapologetic. It reminded him all over again how much he’d missed her. 

She clicked her tongue and shook her head. “I can’t believe you’d say that while I’m standing right here. I’m all the phenomenal cosmic powers you’ll ever need, Colonel.”

“Fair enough, Colonel.”

The Scarlet Witch would’ve been a powerful ally, that much was true, but Rhodey knew having a team member you could trust was worth more than any magical power.

By the time they reached the counter, their drinks were already waiting for them, Colonel R and Colonel D adorning the cups in someone’s loopy hand-writing; they thanked the baristas and appropriated an empty table by the stories-high glass wall that afforded them a beautiful view of the courtyard. 

Carol sprawled in her seat without preamble, propping her combat boots on an unoccupied chair and giving herself a long stretch. With the way she and Tony both scrawled over any given surface they occupied, Rhodey swore they were both cats in another life, but he couldn’t deny she looked comfortable when she finally took a sip of her own sugary concoction. Really, she had no room to judge Rhodey’s coffee preferences. At least a macchiato was dignified. Her drink was a coffee-flavored milkshake. 

Still, he may have let out a satisfied sigh of his own when the caramel and the sugar hit his tongue. 

So distracted by his ‘cup of syrup’, he didn’t realize he reached for the phone again, this time going as far as unlocking the thing and absently tapping his thumb next to the ‘Call’ icon. When he heard Carol snort, he startled and looked up guiltily.

“Oh, just call him already, would you?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I was checking for updates from Strange.”

Unsurprisingly, she rolled her eyes. “Oh please. Strange doesn’t text, he portals in so you could see his sour face in three dimensions. Come on, you’ve been thinking about it all afternoon. Call Wilson, tell him everything went off without a hitch. Hell, if you’re feeling generous, thank him for giving us a heads-up. It made a difference, didn’t it?”

Rhodey looked back at the phone as he slid it absently back and forth on the table. 

“Listen, Jim, I need to tell you something important. It’s about Steve and Wanda.”

“Sam, if this is another way to sneak past our defenses on pretenses of wanting to play nice—”

“They’re planning to hurt Barnes.”

“…Excuse me?”

“Hurt or— or kidnap or whatever, I don’t know. I just… I know it’s bad. Steve’s not thinking straight at all—hell, he may have finally lost it, and Maximoff is gleefully jumping down the rabbit hole with him. They both have nothing to lose and I’m afraid something bad is going to go down. And if they’re going after Barnes, chances are, Stark’s going to get caught in the crossfire too.”

“Jesus christ… Okay, let me just— let me think for a moment. Are you safe?”

“Don’t worry about that, okay? Just—”

“Sam? Are you safe?”

“Not really. Let’s just say Nat and I are both gonna be fish food if Wanda finds out about this call.”

“Damn it.”

“I’m sorry. I’m serious, Jim, for everything. I shouldn’t have gotten involved in that damn fight, I should’ve said something sooner, I should’ve—”

“Sam, don’t. Just— just tell me everything and we’ll figure this out and the rest… We’ll deal with the rest later.”

“I guess we could’ve still outnumbered her, overpowered her—”

“Never did see a magic that could stand up to a photon blast to the face.”

Rhodey pointedly ignored that. “We might’ve won, but the early warning did help, yeah. We had the chance to plan, to use the element of surprise to lure her right where we wanted her.”

“I don’t disagree, which means you should call him,” Carol ordered before hopping gracefully out of her sprawl and back onto her feet. With her drink in hand, she stopped to give his shoulder another squeeze before walking away. “And when you’re done, join me in the training room, yeah? I think we both have some tension to work through. Don’t be late!”

Don’t be late. He shook his head and smiled. She had no right to say that after disappearing into space for years, but it sure as hell didn’t stop her.

The phone in his hand was heavy and he spent a good minute staring at the contacts list, but he made up his mind before long and left the table to walk outside, both for the sake of privacy and for some much-needed air. 

He brought the phone up to his ear and it took a moment to connect, just enough for him to wonder how Sam must’ve felt as he made that call. What would Sam have done if Rhodey didn’t pick?


Another coil of tension eased and maybe he was too much of a sentimental fool these days, but if Tony was allowed to take the entire damn olive tree and toss it at his mortal enemy before dragging him back into his home and falling all sorts of stupid in love with him… Well, Rhodey was allowed to feel genuine relief. Tony was safe, Barnes was safe, Sam was safe, and maybe it didn’t all have to end in tragedies and regrets. 

“Yeah, it’s me. I got some good news.”

Chapter Text

Sam wadded it up the hastily scribbled note and threw it back on the counter.

“Well, I was gonna say I didn’t take Steve for a runner, but I suppose that’s not the best choice of words, is it?”

Natasha pulled the note back to her, flattened it out, and scanned through the words again. Steve was fine, it said—a damnable lie—and he wasn’t going to do anything reckless—also unlikely—and most importantly, it was best not to look for him.

“He can also be surprisingly stealthy,” she added. They should’ve seen this coming when Steve reacted to the news about Wanda by going pale and eerily silent and excusing himself to his room. They prepared themselves for an explosion, but the explosion never came. 

He disappeared in the middle of the night instead, while Nat was out and Sam was asleep.

“I just hope he