He could do this. Smile, wave, smooch. Replace the champagne with sparkling water. Give a speech, smooch some more, leave. Simple. He had done this shtick hundreds of times. He had done it dead drunk, after 70 hours of no sleep, even whilst dying, easy peasy. He adjusted his tie again and tried to flatten some of the curls at the back of his neck. Was it too late to call a hairdresser? Probably.
That he was good at it didn't mean he liked it. He hated it. Hated the fake smiles, fake reassurances. He knew the value of those better than anyone. If it was up to him he'd be elbow deep in Mark XVII innards, there seemed to be a lag in the left boot propulsor. He did not want to go out and make nice with team backstab and co. But the public needed to be appeased that their heroes were on good terms again, after that shitstorm last year.
He had worked tirelessly to get the lot of them pardoned. Not because they deserved it, but because he had seen what was coming. To be honest, one of them did deserve it. Barnes had been an innocent party in all of this, dragged into it against his will. Tony had never truly blamed the man for his parent's deaths, but after watching everything FRIDAY could dig up on the Winter Soldier he'd become determined to help him. St--, Cap could go suck on a ghost pepper for all he cared, but Barnes deserved better.
He had secretly worked with Shuri and the Wakandan scientists on the design of a new arm, and he might have given them access to his BARF system. Tony had made the Kitty King swear on his sister’s life that it wouldn’t be revealed what he had done. He didn't want Barnes to feel obligated to him.
A knock on his door. “You're not gonna get prettier by staring at yourself, Tones.”
Tony smiled involuntarily, followed by a stab of self loathing and guilt that always accompanied his interactions with his best friend nowadays. He didn't deserve this beautiful person, but he was much too selfish to keep himself away. Even if Tony found himself playacting at being Tony Stark now for Rhodey as well. Rhodey probably didn't buy it, but he hadn't called him out on it either. Yet.
“Coming dear,” he yelled, and was pleased by the chuckle this earned. He sighed, time to face the music. With a final brush through his hair, he turned and left his room.
When they arrived at the venue Rhodey was first to exit the limo to a sea of flashes going off. Standing tall again, thanks to the braces Tony built and upgraded on a near daily basis. Thinking about that made the nervousness rise again. He was okay with Sam, hard not to be after his heartfelt apology once he was stateside again. Tony wasn't ready to forgive Barton though. Sticks and stones his ass.
Steeling himself, he stood and walked onto the red carpet, press smile firmly in place. A wave here, an autograph there. A quip and a saucy wink for Everhart (he knew he would have to pay for later, but just couldn't resist) and he was inside. He was glad they already did the press conference and obligatory handshake. This meant he could largely avoid his former “teammates” and get away with it.
Rhodey was talking to some high ranking officers who seemed truly happy to see him. Tony made a beeline for the bar and ordered his non-alcoholic drink before he became too tempted to get something else. God knew he would have to restrain himself the entire night.
A commotion behind him made it clear someone of importance had arrived (unlike him, he snorted). The press was in a frenzy by the sound of it, until the large doors closed with a loud thud.
“Fri, you're with me, baby?”
“Sure thing, boss. I've got eyes everywhere and Marks XXI to XXVI are patrolling the skies.”
The soft Irish accent managed to sooth him a bit. Not as much as JARVIS... He resolutely pushed that line of thought firmly into a dark corner of his mind. Well, darker.
Just smile, don't punch, just smile, don't punch. Repeating this mantra he made his way over to the newcomers. The gathered crowd, sensing a spectacle was coming, parted like he was Moses. As if. No one would have followed him to the Holy Land, that much was clear. No, that honor fell to the man in front of him. Captain America was dressed to the nines and looked quite dashing with a beard and his now longer hair all slicked back.
Tony only had eyes for the man to Cap's right however. Sergeant Barnes in the flesh. The last time they met, they were trying to maim each other. On autopilot he started the exercise that prevented him from spiralling into a panic attack. Who knew that being left defenseless in a former Hydra base would count as a trauma? He hated to admit that the therapy Rhodey had forced on him actually worked.
Barnes looked nothing like he had in Siberia. Wakanda obviously agreed with him. Gone was the gaunt look and sickly pallor. With his hair done up in a hipster bun and jaw neatly shaven he looked like a runway model. Except for the way he was clearly uncomfortable, with his shoulders hunched, his eyes darting between all possible threats, leaning slightly into Rogers. It might be the same face, but this wasn't the sergeant renowned for his lady-killing ways.
Tony took a step forward with his hand outstretched, noticing both the centenarians flinch. What the hell did they think he would do to them? Instead of rolling his eyes he raised one eyebrow. “Good to see you, Captain.” Thankfully Rogers shook his hand with the onlookers taking pictures.
They quickly released each other and Tony turned to shake Barnes’ hand, who looked like he was about to be executed. “Sergeant Barnes, glad you could make it.” Barnes mumbled something incomprehensible and Tony squeezed his hand before letting go, feeling something like pity for him. Tony couldn't believe how young he looked.
The doors opened to a senator and his wife, which Tony used as an excuse to leave the super soldiers. He was not fleeing, buttering up higher ups was his job this evening. God, he missed Pepper on nights like this. He missed her all the time, but at these functions her absence throbbed like a sore thumb.
He worked the room alone, smooching and smiling until his jaw ached. He gave Romanov a tight nod when he spotted her. Sam and that ant guy received a handshake. Barton he ignored completely. He was glad Xavier hadn't approved Maximoff for active duty yet, this was about as much as he could handle tonight. Whenever the need to punch someone, or worse, get a drink, was too strong he would go over to Rhodey and his platypus would put a reassuring hand on his shoulder to ground him.
Tony kept a wary eye out for the Captain and his sidekick. Making sure to keep some distance between them. Rogers seemed to relax into his role, being used to attending galas. If he managed to keep a cool head he was actually good at this thing. Barnes, however, hunched more and more in on himself. Smiling politely when someone engaged him, but clearly uncomfortable. At some point he had split away from Rogers and Tony spotted him being assailed by a group who were arguing some point. Barnes looked ready to cry.
Cursing his inability to leave well enough alone, Tony made his way over and slid his arm around Barnes’ waist. “There you are! I've been looking for you, are you having a good time?”
Barnes stiffened in his hold, but managed a stiff nod.
One of the arguers started to speak, but Tony didn't give him the chance, speaking just a little louder. “I would like you to meet somebody, James, care to come with?”
Another nod, so Tony used the hand on Barnes’ back to steer him away. He shot the others an apologetic grin, “Sorry to steal him, you know how it is.”
“Walk like you've got a destination in mind, they will bother you less. They're like vultures, once you stop they pounce,” he whispered and quickened their pace. He grabbed two bottles of water off a tray and guided them to a balcony overlooking the garden.
“Here,” he handed Barnes a bottle and took a big gulp out of his own.
“Thanks Stark, I--”
“Tony,” he interrupted him. “Stark was my dad.” He didn't look at Barnes, staring into the dark garden instead. Beside him Barnes took a step away.
He chanced a look to the side, and saw Barnes was leaning his head on his arms on the balustrade.
“Look,” he sighed, “I don't blame you, okay? I know what they did to you, You had as much agency as a gun that's being wielded.”
Barnes didn't answer, just stood up straight and looked away.
Tony took a step closer and reached out, damn him and his weak heart. “It'll just... it will take some getting used to having you around.”
“Yeah,” Barnes sighed but didn't move away. “Thank you, Tony,” he whispered.
“Meh, you're doing me a favor, I hate these things.”
They stood in somewhat companionable silence, until Cap came to save his bestie and take him home.