He’s not expecting company for at least another week. To be quite frank, he’s even counting on that. It’s not that he likes being alone, he doesn’t, but people can be exhausting at the best of times and this is really, really not the best of times.
More often than not, James wakes up before sunrise with the sounds of his own screams echoing, throat raw. More often than not, he stays in bed for the rest of the day and only ever gets up if he needs to go to the bathroom or if he is really hungry.
So when he hears the knocks on the safehouse’s door, he is expecting many things: Steve, here to pester him about emotional health and healing. Sam, here to check him up and see if he is eating properly or staying hydrated. A random person, here for whatever reason people knock on doors nowadays, he wouldn’t know.
What he isn’t expecting is Iron Man: Anthony Stark. He’s heard of him, of course he has, first as The Winter Soldier—the only son of his targets, not someone he had to kill—and, later, as James Barnes—a brain even brighter than Howard’s, according to Steve, and sometimes a personality considerably harder to deal with.
For half a second, James considers not fighting back, he considers standing there and letting Anthony decide his fate. Only half a second, because then he crouches, lightning-quick—something suspiciously like Steve’s voice reminding him someone would miss him—, and takes out the knife he keeps hidden on his boot, points it at his opponent.
He doesn’t attack, because he doesn’t really want to fight, so he waits for Anthony to assault him first. The assault, however, doesn’t come: Iron Man isn’t pointing the gauntlet at him.
“Woah, Elsa, calm down, yes? I’m not here to fight you,” Anthony raises both hands, awkward because of the bulk—the armor was not built for peace signs.
James frowns, thrown, but keeps the knife in place. This guy’s smart , he reminds himself, this might be a trick .
“How did you find this place?” His voice is gruff when he asks. Instead of an answer, there’s a whirring noise, and then they’re face to face, Anthony outside the armor.
James takes a step back, opens his mouth, closes it. He doesn’t lower the knife, because he doesn’t actually trust that the man is powerless outside the suit.
He isn’t dumb.
“Is this how you treat all your guests?” Anthony gestures around.
“You’re lucky I haven’t stabbed you yet. This,” James nods at his hand, “is five star treatment.”
Anthony’s own laugh seems to startle him and it goes away as fast as it appears—James will remember how it made his face light up.
“Why don’t you let me in, murderface?” Anthony takes an hesitant step forward, and when James doesn’t move to attack him, another one, more confident. “Then we’ll talk.”
James considers him, head turned to the side. This whole situation doesn’t read as an attack—Anthony broadcasted his presence, for starters, then left the safety of his armor—which means it’s probably safe enough to let him inside.
“Right,” James nods. He moves to the side, so Anthony can come in, then closes the door on the armor, leaving it outside. As soon as they’re both inside—Anthony throws himself on the sofa, legs spread, while James leans his weight against the door—he asks again: “How did you find this place?”
Even if he doesn’t think he’s in any danger, currently, he still needs to know if his safehouse’s compromised, if he needs to move. He knew that letting both Steve and his new friend, Sam, into the safehouse would make it less of a safe house, but he wasn’t expecting to be found so soon.
At least it isn’t Hydra—that wouldn’t have been fun.
“Popsicle isn’t as subtle as he likes to think he is,” Anthony starts. “It was obvious he was hiding something, so I cornered him.”
“You want me to believe he told you everything?”
“Not exactly,” Anthony grimaces. James senses a story, but Anthony waves his hands around as if dispersing the idea. “But that isn’t important.”
James lets the incredulity appear on his face. “Not important.”
“Your eyebrows are very expressive,” Anthony says. Then he shakes his head. “Right, yeah, not important, because you don’t have to stay here anymore. I was going to invite you to live in the tower.”
“Are you mad?” This time, it’s Anthony who frowns. “You’re inviting the Winter Soldier. To live in your tower?”
“Eh,” he shrugs. “Cap says you’re mostly reformed. And you’re probably not the person with the biggest death count to live in the tower. Bet I beat you.”
James doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. Anthony shrugs, getting up from the sofa, and starts looking around the safehouse, one finger sliding over the wall, his other hand drumming on his leg. For a moment, James is unsure of what to do, but then Tony turns, claps his hands in a hurry up manner. “Happy is waiting outside, and he isn’t happy when I make him wait.” There’s a pause. “No pun intended.”
Life with the avengers is- weird . When he had thought about moving in with a group of people, especially a group of superheroes, he had imagined it would be… busy, noisy, uncomfortable, but in reality he’s mostly left alone to sulk on his own, Steve the only one who actively seeks him out.
It’s more or less like living on the safehouse, except a lot more comfortable. If there is one thing to be said about Anthony— for god’s sake call me Tony —Stark, is that the man knows his luxury, and that he is a good enough man to share it with others, even if the others have wronged him in the past.
James isn’t sure he would do the same, in his place.
He’s sitting in the kitchen, currently, brooding into his coffee. It’s not a good day, he doesn’t have many of those, but it isn’t a bad day either so he’s willing to put himself out there for company for a while. Sometimes Natasha takes him up on it, sits beside him as they drink in silence. Sometimes it’s Clint, who’s a little louder, or Bruce, or—when he’s on Earth—Thor. Often it’s Steve, drawing or painting or talking about the good old times.
This time, it’s Tony.
They’re not interacting, exactly. Tony’s at the stove, humming a song James thinks is vaguely familiar, cooking something that smells surprisingly good. There’s the familiar sound of footsteps approaching—not one James is familiar with, which is telling—and not a minute later a little bundle of energy comes barreling into the kitchen, red-and-blue hoodie and an iron man backpack, straight towards Tony’s legs.
“ Heey Underoos,” Tony says, turning off the stove and crouching down to look the child in the eye. His voice is softer than James has ever heard it.
“Dad!” The boy—Peter, James recognizes him—exclaims, clearly excited. He jumps a little, to which Tony chuckles. “Hi!”
James has been in the tower for a while, and this is the first time he is actually in the same room as Peter. He doesn’t mind, actually—if he were a father himself, he’d also not let children on his vicinity: reformed assassins are not safe around children, after all.
James gets up, chair scratching up against the floor as he moves, and Tony startles, face turning to look at him.
“Sorry,” James says, nodding towards Peter. “I’ll-” he gestures towards the door, moving his metal arm, and is about to leave when Peter jumps from where he is and runs up to him, holds his leg.
“Is that a robotic arm ?” he asks, eyes gleaming with excitement. “Can I see it?”
“I-” James heart starts to beat faster, and he can’t believe he’s afraid of a child, but he is . Lost, he looks towards Tony—and he expects an equally panicked face, at the very least, a my-child-is-in-danger look, a get-the-fragile-boy-away-from-the-assassin posture, but what he sees is smiling, amused Tony.
James slowly lowers his arm, so as not to startle the child. Peter grabs it, heedless of the danger, heedless of anything, and turns it around, slides his fingers over the indented lines. He’s smiling, eyes still gleaming, and James never expected this god-damned arm to have such a tender use as to bring a child happiness.
He feels like a farce, for a moment, but it is fleeting: Peter touches the palm of his hand and James closes his fingers— gently —around his very tiny hand. Peter giggles, and James finds himself smiling slightly in return.
Behind them, Tony just watches, half-ready food still over the turned off stove.
That’s how it starts, mostly—from then on, James finds himself in the kitchen every other day, sitting quietly as Peter does homework or attaches colorful magnets to his arm, Tony either cooking or drawing specs or signing contracts. Eventually, James finds himself at other places: the common room, the training room, Tony’s workshop.
They’re friends, he thinks. More than that, Tony trusts him even when he doesn’t trust himself, with something that he knows is more precious to Tony than anything: James gets proof of that every time Tony lets the boy watch him fixing James’ arm on the workshop, every time he goes on a mission to save the world and leaves James to babysit Peter, every time he encourages Peter to ask him historical questions “a book wouldn’t answer as completely”.
James doesn’t notice it grow—Though Steve does, of course he does, they’ve known each other since they were little boys; they know each other sometimes better than they know themselves—, not until it is a flourishing (delicate) little thing, nestled on his chest, as familiar as the beating of his own heart, as necessary as the oxygen he gets from breathing.
Tony’s standing there—he’s standing there—deformed armor and a piece of jagged metal sticking out from his shoulder, a robot coming at him full speed. Immediately, James knows Tony won’t be fast enough to get out of its way. Immediately, it surges from his stomach and claws at his insides, like panic.
James isn’t there— he isn’t there —and there’s nothing he can do but watch the figure of Tony Stark get hurled across the street, straight through a window. He watches the shards fall to the floor because he can’t watch Tony—suddenly it tastes like anxiety on his tongue.
“ Jarvis ,” he says, a request. He isn’t sure what he’s asking, exactly. Answers. A picture of Tony. A sign he’s still alive.
“I apologize, Sergeant Barnes,” is what he gets. “It appears sir is unresponsive.”
James paces. He checks on Peter. He watches the rest of the battle. He makes coffee, he turns on the television, he calls Steve. It isn’t enough. It follows him around, shadows in his footsteps, creeps itself into his thoughts.
He sits down.
He acknowledges it .
The room is cold, his left leg is numb and this chair is really uncomfortable, but James has shouldered worse so he doesn’t move. Why would he, when Tony himself hasn’t in days .
He watches the rise-and-fall of Tony’s chest—the blue glimmer of his arc reactor through his shirt—and lets the blip of the heart monitor time his breathing. Tony’s fine—the doctors have said Tony is fine—and he should wake at any minute now.
“You should eat something, Buck,” Steve interrupts the stillness, like he can’t take it anymore. James remembers—like he still does in flashes, sometimes—how Steve was never one for silence, for quiet contemplation. It seems the future, the present , has only ever made it worse.
James forces himself to take his eyes out of Tony’s figure and look at him. He doesn’t like what he sees: pale skin and hair sticking out, dark circles under dark circles.
It’s clear he blames himself—clear as day. Once upon a time, James would’ve known how to address this, how to talk Steve out of it, how to make him feel better. He doesn’t, not anymore, so he shakes his head as an answer to the not-question. Then, he thinks better of it: he pulls his wallet out of his pocket, throws it at Steve.
“Bring me whatever you’re having,” he says. Steve opens his mouth to say something, then visibly hesitates. He takes the money, pockets it, then throws the wallet back. James is forced to move his numb leg to catch it. “Punk!” he yells at Steve’s retreating back, who—perhaps not surprisingly—laughs.
Tony wakes up as Steve’s laugh disappears on the hallway.
“Tell me,” he starts, but a coughing fit interrupts him. For a moment—eyes wide and the now familiar feel of panic —James doesn’t know what to do, but then his brain registers what’s happening and he moves, quick, to get Tony some water.
“Easy,” he murmurs as he guides the straw to Tony’s lips. “There you go.”
“I had a joke ready to lighten the mood,” Tony sighs. “It was going to distract you from the fact that I almost died. And you were going to smile, and I would get to see it. Did you know you have a pret-” he stops himself. “They’ve put me on the really good painkillers haven’t they?”
James feels relieved, he feels amused, he feels a little bit like smiling. He smiles, then, there and gone and soft. He feels soft.
“They have.” James raises his hand—the one that isn’t metal—and gently takes Tony’s hair out of his face. He rests his hand at the top of his hair and when Tony doesn’t complain, doesn’t move out of his reach, he starts to stroke it.
There’s silence, then, real silence, and James can’t help but think back to that scene—armor hitting glass and getting out of his sight. He can’t help but remember how contentment became worry became panic became anxiety—how he couldn’t settle. He feels settled, now, Tony safe and sound and awake. Tony alive.
“I was watching you fight,” James admits. “It was not-” he starts to say it was not easy to see you hurt , but thinks it might be too much. “I was worried.”
“I know,” Tony says simply. “You have a very expressive face.”
James frowns. “Do I?”
That doesn’t sound very true—he’s been told the opposite several times by several different people, since the Winter Soldier.
“Not really-” Tony attempts to shrug, but gives up midway with a grimace. James starts to move in to help him, but stops when Tony raises a hand. He continues: “But that’s telling, isn’t it?”
“You’re not making much sense.” James thinks—James says . “Maybe you should-”
“I haven’t seen your murderface in a while,” Tony interrupts him while seemingly changing subjects. “You show it to everyone, even Steve sometimes. Never me. Never Peter.”
James shrugs. Tony mutters something that looks suspiciously like no need to flaunt it like that , which James ignores in favor of unpacking his previous statement.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Tony sighs. “You’re surprisingly oblivious for a supersoldier spy legend- guy.”
Tony’s hand moves to takes James’ metal one, brings it to his lips. Tony kisses his knuckles, fleetingly, then rests the hand above his heart. Suddenly, James understands .
(“So are you and dad dating now?" Peter asks, arranging the colorful magnet letters so they read iron man rules on James’ arm.
"Yeah," James nods, apprehensive, though he doesn’t need to be because Peter says:
"Finally," with honesty only a child his age would be able to muster.
Behind them, Tony laughs.)