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[recipes for sorry]

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It is, Tony rapidly discovers, obnoxiously difficult to find any way to casually run into Barnes without Steve hovering around close enough to overhear.

It's not impossible to actually, like, set up a time, pre-arranged and specified. It wouldn't even be awkward as such. In theory, you could just text something like "hey can I talk to you for a minute" some time when you know for a fact Steve is doing something somewhere else, and those times definitely exist.

Tony has seen other people - specifically Wilson - do this. That would technically be an option.

That option just happens to come with all the implications and cues and shit of, well, specifically asking someone to meet you for a purpose you're not specifying up front, so then there's all the time between when you set up the meeting and when you actually get there where the other person might ask what it's about (meaning you'll either have to lie, to deflect, or to tell them) or you just know they're sitting there and probably wondering and maybe building up ideas, and you're sitting there wondering what ideas they're building up, and it's just really awkward and tense and it would be way more convenient, psychologically, just to be able to keep track of their life patterns for a bit and happen to be somewhere to run into them to talk about the thing, spontaneously.

Tony is not sure what it says that when he explains this to Pepper, Pepper gives him the "there is something wrong with your brain" expression, but in contrast when he explains it to Janine she just frowns in her "I need to solve a puzzle" way and told him to give her a couple days.

He's not sure what it means when Janine understands what he is actually privately sure is absolute bullshit crazy-person logic and finds it totally relatable and normal.

Janine is great, and Tony will actually privately admit he's lucky to have her, even if he is still absolutely baffled by why the hell she seems to find her job satisfying, because at least part of why he historically had a really fucking hard time dealing with PAs is the sure and certain knowledge that he's a royal pain in the ass to try to organize. But she is - and Janine herself is often the first to admit this! - not really normal.

Mind you most people Tony likes aren't normal, because normal people are incredibly boring and also strangely difficult to relate to, but that's not the point.

He's not sure what the point is, other than when he explains the problem with Barnes never going anywhere by himself Pepper says oh my god, Tony, just text him, but Janine goes give me a few days like she sees a solution to this problem that probably shouldn't be a problem. And also doesn't think it's insane that it's a problem.

Which might be weird.

But also, the whole thing makes Tony notice how Barnes basically doesn't go anywhere by himself unless someone else asks him to and to wonder if that's good for him.

And then wonder whether or not that's any of Tony's business.

And if it isn't, should he just forget he noticed? But if it is, is there something he should be doing about it? How can he tell? When it's someone like Betty or Bruce or for that matter even Steve, this part isn't hard, because they are demonstrably less fucked up than Tony is, fundamentally, so if he's starting to wonder if something they're doing is fucked up it is, and also if they don't realize it, he needs to tell them.

Or get Pepper to tell them. Like when Steve was being an idiot recluse.

But here, this clear guiding indicator doesn't exist, because as tragic as that is James Barnes is in fact more fucked up than Tony is. And that's not - it's not like that's bad.

Okay yes it is bad, but it's bad because being fucked up is unpleasant: the point is there's no moral judgement there, and also Tony fully respects the idea of being only as normal as your baseline of fucked-up can handle, it's just when people are more fucked up than he is, he loses his ability to gauge.

Like is this potentially a thing? Does it mean there's some kind of support that - like, is there something people should be doing? Or not doing? Or what?

Or is this just, like, a stage and a natural part of the progression of learning how to be person with person things again and while yes it's totally indicative of something wrong it's not something new wrong that should be headed off or should or can be solved right away, it's just one of those "of fucking course there's something wrong, this is like learning to walk again after all the muscles in your leg atrophy" or some shit like that and how do you actually tell the difference between those two?

It's probably something he could ask Natasha but then he'd have to ask Natasha and deal with Natasha knowing that he's thinking about all of these things and wondering about them and he's not sure he knows what that says about him or if what it says about him is good, or bad, or what, so he's not sure he wants to have Natasha knowing that he's thinking about it and so he's not sure if he wants to ask her.

Also he's not sure why he's unsure and that may itself be a manifestation of that kind of paranoia that Pepper and Bruce and Betty and basically everyone including probably JARVIS if Tony asked thinks Tony should keep a really short leash on and they're probably right. But figuring out if he should ask Natasha involves figuring out why he feels like that and he just does not want to deal with that right now.

Ever.

He could ask Wilson, but that feels invasive and like he's actually prying. And he could ask Betty but then she might start worrying about it and he'd feel guilty for making her feel worried especially if neither of them has an answer, which is often what happens in that kind of situation, and it's not like Barnes is a grad student she can fuss over any more than she already fusses.

And if he asks Pepper she'll just tell him to ask Natasha.

There's something particularly irritating about having the potential answers to a question at your fingertips but also having a huge number of reasons not to actually do any of the things that would get you those answers. Reasons you can't just cancel out.

In engineering the reasons are usually to do with explosions and in that case he just creates a "be here at your own risk" type environment and finds out, but people are not actually the same and the explosions are way harder to contain and more complicated.

So that's a bad plan. So he just kinda goes around and around in his head over it. Like he's doing right now.

Historically speaking this is the point of agitation and confusion over an issue where he'd go do something stupid like getting really drunk and having really unwise sex or driving dangerously or picking a fight with someone or sometimes just inventing something new that explodes, and while he will admit that those are all severely suboptimal coping mechanisms they did at least have going for them the fact that they let him stop thinking about the thing that was agitating him which is a lot harder to do with things that are less detrimental to his and everyone else's life.

Historically speaking, however, he was kind of shit. Which he'd rather continue to be less of.

Here and now, he mutters, "Jesus fucking Christopher," for no reason that he can think of, and then says louder, "JARVIS?"

"Sir?" JARVIS replies.

"Is there anyone around right now I could use as a distraction?" Tony asks, aware that he's tapping his soldering tool against the work surface almost hard enough to risk breaking one or the other.

There's a brief pause before JARVIS says, "I believe Thor is reading in the twenty-first storey atrium."

Right, because Jane is doing something that's helping Erik that's doing something that's helping with Bruce's early-warning gamma-tracking program that Tony has been banned from poking at since it's in the very early extremely meticulous (aka boring) Do All The Models All The Time Every Single Possible Variation stage and Tony will in fact admit that he is really bad about doing three or four models and then skipping right ahead to the parts that are way more interesting, and actually involve building things.

And Jane doing that would pretty much leave Thor at loose ends, yeah. That's probably a good thing.

"Great. Ask him if he wants to come try and break my suit," Tony tells JARVIS, getting up to go get a water bottle. It's a pretty good bet: asking Thor if he wants to spar is kind of like asking a politician if they want a campaign contribution.

 

At least even Pepper didn't ask why Tony wants to try to do this without Steve around, because that might have made him go bash his head against the wall.

Because it's both patently obvious why this is going to be a whole hell of a lot easier without Steve hovering, and at the same time Tony cannot actually make words go into sentences that explain why this is going to be a whole hell of a lot easier without Steve hovering, not to save his fucking life, and having to actually explain to Pepper why just grabbing them the next time they're both out and totally fail to explain it to her because apparently his brain has decided "fuck explaining things, explaining things is for losers" would in fact just . . .

Be a very bad thing.

But no, while Pepper remains exasperated and bemused about why Tony can't just text Barnes and ask him to drop by the lounge or whatever, she does seem to either get why Steve would be an impediment to this whole process going off without . . . Something . . .or at least she's willing to pretend she does which is probably just as good.

Tony is really not sure why explaining himself turns into such a fucking Everest-level challenge sometimes. But it could fucking stop.

Later, Janine says, "You should look up rejection-sensitive dysphoria sometime," as an off-hand kind of thing, while she's putting some papers about requisitions in front of him to sign.

It's one of her sideways comments that makes Tony look at her sideways because it's not like she doesn't know she's not actually being subtle, it's like she's managed to wrangle some kind of cheat mode where if she pretends she thinks she's being subtle while being totally unsubtle and refuses to acknowledge she's unsubtle she can just breeze through being unsubtle so well it counts as being subtle and Tony is not sure why this works with him.

He's pretty sure it wouldn't work with most people and that she wouldn't try it with most people but she's decided to use it with him and he is not sure why or why it works, except for the part where that is a total fucking lie, he knows exactly why it works, which is why he lets her get away with it, but part of letting it work involves pretending he doesn't know how it works and it is frankly amazing he is not in a straight-jacket and Tony had actually forgotten how crazy having something big and important (to him) like this hanging over his head makes him and he would like to go back to forgetting because he does not fucking like being this crazy.

He does in fact look up rejection-sensitive dysphoria, because now he's curious, and the next day he tells her on no uncertain terms that he never, ever wants to discuss rejection-sensitive dysphoria, ever.

She says, "Of course you don't," and then tells him that he has a meeting with one of Maria's logistics minions at one.

 

If it wasn't totally pointless (being as his dad is dead) and also kind of fucking stupid (being as his dad is dead and unlike a lot of people it's not even that Tony doesn't believe in the afterlife or continuation beyond death or what the fuck ever, because he doesn't believe his toast walks around and talks to other slices of bread in the morning before he eats it either, you don't have to believe or not believe that shit it just isn't true), Tony would absolutely go down to his parents' graves right now and ask his father what the fuck he was fucking thinking, you fucking idiot. Like what the fuck.

All the more especially now that JARVIS unearthed the recorded minutes of the first six meetings about Operation Paperclip and extending it to include Arnim Zola and how dead set against it Margaret Carter was until she got worn down.

Frankly Tony wishes he did find any kind of compelling evidence for some kind of consciousness beyond death because he would love to be able to shout at any remnant echo shade of his father, You know what? Even Captain fucking America thinks that was a shitty decision and he's actually pretty fucking pissed off at you about it, you're just dead and he misses you so he doesn't let himself think about it, but frankly if you were here he'd probably punch you in the fucking face and you wouldn't even be fucking friends anymore because that was bullshit, you fucking idiot. What is your damage, for fuck's sake?

It's petty, and kind of cruel, and wouldn't help anything even if there was a ghost of his dad around to yell at and besides Tony actually knows the answer, and it's frankly all kind of fucking tragic all around and Tony doesn't fucking blame Steve for not wanting to think about that one much actually because it's a huge pile of shit and when it comes down to it Tony's kind of relieved that apparently his dad and Barnes quietly hated each other anyway.

Or at least his dad was quietly insanely envious of Barnes and Barnes found his dad deeply irritating and wanted to push him out an airplane and both of them got along mostly because of Steve while Steve failed to notice any of the tension, which is about the most Steve thing you could come up with, really.

Admittedly he's gotten better about that, because he's had no choice, but still. It's mostly fond these days, but Tony still has the impulse, more often than not, to look at Steve and say why are you like this?

Knowing that Steve will give him a suspicious look and say, Like what?

There will be a day in future, eventually, where Tony feels he can ask but seriously: you didn't realize my dad desperately wanted to fuck you? without it being the kind of thing that it's not a good idea to bring up because everything gets complicated and despite what many people think Tony does not try to fuck up every relationship he has in his life with anyone ever, it just happens a lot in spite of his best efforts.

But there will be that day, eventually, and on that day Tony will be really unsurprised to find that the answer is that no, no Steve really did not realize it at all.

Since Peggy's been back from the Mayo Clinic study and way, way more coherent, Tony's been to see her several times out of promptings of emotions he doesn't want to think about too closely so as to not freak himself out. Plus also weird . . .guilt and concern.

It's been a good idea, anyway, and he actually kind of regrets having stuck her and everyone else into a whole Dad's Shit Do Not Want box while having his fucked up mess of a life because she might've been good to have around and maybe he wouldn't have been quite so fucking . . . .everything he was? Because it turns out she's pretty awesome once she decides to stop being a nice British lady.

Or maybe he'd've been even worse because he was just that bad at handling emotions. Or anything. Who knows.

Anyway, on the third visit he'd broken down and asked her about that: about his dad and the seriously blatantly not-plausibly-platonic crush going on and she'd laughed a not-totally-kind laugh until she coughed and Tony got scolded by the nurse for the coughing fit and told him he totally wasn't imagining it.

"Had things been different I have absolutely no goddamn idea how that might've sorted out," she'd said to him, baldly. "Or exploded. Actually there are a lot of things I have no idea how they'd've sorted out or exploded. We didn't really spend a lot of time thinking ahead, when the War was on, you know? We were all probably going to die horribly tomorrow anyway and if you tried to imagine life after the War it was all just kind of a blank and a blur, especially for us, so we just sort of did things and left things and then didn't talk about them, because what was the point? And then as things were, it was sort of nice to have someone around who was as heartbroken as I was. Eventually I moved on; I'm not sure Howard ever did."

Then she'd given him a pretty damn wicked sidelong look for a ninety-something-year-old woman and said, "I'm impressed with your self-control, but stop biting your tongue, dear, you're going to make it bleed."

Tony'd said, "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about," and they'd both let the conversation move on.

He knows Steve goes to see her; he has no idea if Barnes does. And if part of him is definitely on fucking fire with curiousity about how that little tangle even works, or how anyone thinks about it, there are at least a few times in his life when Tony knows something really isn't any of his fucking business at all, and isn't going to go there unless and until he really is not just burning bridges and scorching the earth but basically dropping nukes on things from orbit just to be sure.

She's the only other one, other than Pepper, that Tony's told what he's setting up.

Well, okay yeah, there's the people from Accounting and Legal who are actually doing the setting up, but they just get handed the accounts and parameters and shit, he doesn't actually have to explain why, or what it is he's actually doing, or why he needs to do it, he just says, okay make this happen, and they do.

Peggy Carter's the only one he's told. Told the whole thing.

For a minute she'd sat there in her motorized super-armchair, wrapped in the electric blanket because she really does fucking look like she's made of incredibly breakable porcelain these days, all the more since she's lucid, and that apparently comes with being cold all the time. And she just looked . . . .thoughtful.

The kind of thoughtful that goes really deep and that Tony can't necessarily follow down to keep up with all the thoughts.

Then she'd said, "That's probably the best thing to do. It's a good thought." And Tony had felt kind of disproportionately relieved.

 

Feelings, Tony maintains, remain the fucking worst.

 

A week later Janine finishes off the morning listing of things he isn't allowed to hide from doing with, "And when Sgt Barnes is in the Tower he regularly takes his cat down to the lounge as part of her harness training, usually around ten in the morning, even if Captain Rogers is doing something else. Which he will be the next time they're currently scheduled to spend four days here, because he'll have a ten o'clock with PR about whether he's going to do a bunch of things - including, according to rumour, a pro-vaccination PSA."

Tony blinks at her. "Okay," he says, sorting through all the tangents he feels the impulse to follow but will take way too long so he's not going to and sticking with one, "I'll bite, how did you figure the cat part out?"

Janine gets her smug micro-expression on.

"Got the social media specialist on Captain Rogers' PR team to find all the cat pictures on the instagram account that had clips of the lounge in the background and then cross-reference with dates to see if there was a posting pattern," she replies. She pauses and says, "Actually the specialist came up with that, I just asked if they could non-intrusively figure out if there was any pattern to Barnes' excursions that they knew of, and they said not as yet but I shouldn't underestimate their social media stalking skills. It turned out to be an effective tracking pattern and also an excellent illustration of why I don't have social media."

She pauses again and adds, "Although they did say that if you didn't know what the inside of the lounge looked like and didn't actually have access to Captain Rogers' Tower-habitation schedule you couldn't do anything with it; the pattern only becomes meaningful with both of those pieces of data. Otherwise, they said it was actually very difficult to even get a sense of where the account's photographer lived."

"Pretty sure I'm not as paranoid as Barnes is," Tony replies dryly. "Not even sure if Romanoff is."

That sounds about right for it, though: sure, if you already know where he lives and what Steve's doing every day, you can figure this shit out, but if you already know that then Barnes has definitely already got you factored in to his emergency "I need to kill everyone" plan already, so who cares?

That bit, Tony totally gets.

 

The day in question Tony actually just has to hang out in the lounge until Barnes shows up, because JARVIS has a particular kind of Thing about not letting people know where Barnes is without asking Barnes first, which would in fact defeat the purpose of this entire thing.

Tony gets it. He actually thinks it's kind of sweet that JARVIS is being that careful about the whole thing, and it's kinda heartwarming, and Tony's not going to interfere with that. He does in fact actually both understand and respect JARVIS's totally artificial self-limitations about exactly how absolutely he chooses to respect Barnes privacy, based on his complete and absolute horror at how little Barnes used to have.

JARVIS is, Tony thinks, still processing that whole thing, and the whole concept, and also the experience of being horrified and what that even means (and boy does Tony have sympathy there) and also why that whole horrified thing happens. And it's a lot to process.

Tony's noticed that JARVIS is actually way more delicate about how he sorts out DUNCE and DUM-E at this point, and only ever verbally shoos them places when they've got themselves totally clusterfucked, the same way Tony does. Rather than running their motors himself and putting them on time out, or anything. And that's probably related.

It's possible Tony should be slightly more involved in helping JARVIS work out concepts of autonomy and self-hood and shit and how they might apply to him and also to the robots but when it comes down to it Tony is pretty fucking sure he is not remotely qualified, JARVIS seems to be doing pretty well figuring it out himself (probably better than Tony would be, when it comes down to it) and his robots have more or less kinda been pets since he first realized if he left them on they'd just . . .run around and react to stuff.

He never knew why that happened, and when he repaired them after the Malibu house got blown to fucking pieces he'd been privately terrified they'd just stay . . .well, dead. But the core chips had been well protected enough that he could repair them enough to copy the programs directly from that to a new one, and DUM-E had promptly tried to help him get a coffee and spilled it all over the place, so it seems to have worked.

That had been a relief. There were a lot of things Tony had not fucking thought through when he risked making his actual home ground zero for an attack on him and both robots had fucking been high on that list. Because they were robots, not squishy organic pets, and he didn't have to worry about stuff that often.

And that's just one of the reasons he's probably not qualified to help JARVIS figure out the basic ethics of being an independently sapient being.

But the net outcome of all of that is that Tony can't just ask JARVIS to let him know when Barnes is heading down here because JARVIS'll only do that if he asks Barnes first and Barnes says that's fine (and he'll only do that after Barnes has stepped into the actual elevator because JARVIS doesn't even look at Steve's floor unless specifically asked to, and only communicates with them via text anyway), which defeats the whole purpose of the thing, so after Pepper has to go to a meeting, Tony just mooches around the lounge and shoots pool and pretends he's not anxious as fuck.

 

And all of this is hard because of the thing about the world.

The thing about the world is, the world is awful.

When he was a kid, Tony motored through all the science fiction he could. Early on, the term meant basically "anything that has the slightest amount of imagination and isn't focused on the constipated despair and emotions of a bunch of people who looked a lot like his dad", whether it had dragons, robots or both in it. A lot of them had both, in fact.

They were just about starting to stick things into tidy boxes (kings and unicorns over here, robots and capitalism over there) and to write really self-congratulatory essays about how one was good for some reason and the other was bad for another reason, usually either to do with math or to do with emotions, by the time Tony realized the genre was as useless as all the other ones, and none of these assholes had any answers either.

Because that's what he'd been looking for. Some kind of answer. Some kind of imagined future that actually wasn't shit. Nobody delivered - they just came up with a bunch of new ways for it to be shit, at best - and nobody actually delivered on explaining why the past was actually better either, and basically, he stopped, because he couldn't be fucking bothered anymore. "Everything's shit and always has been and probably always will be", he could figure out on his own, without having to read whole doorstoppers of someone else's wank-fantasies.

But he'd been around eleven when Larry Niven got tired of people checking his math and figuring out that his totally fictional constructed wheel of a world was unstable in its orbit and wrote a second novel to deal with it, and so Tony'd still been bothering when it came out.

So he'd read it.

Beyond the fact that Niven managed to make sex seem boring, the one thing that had always stuck with Tony was the point near the end where one character, given very super-human intellect by an unlikely series of coincidences, explained to the main character that she couldn't actually do the thing that would save the hundreds of billions of people on the Ringworld, because it'd kill millions or billions (he can't be bothered to remember) of people along the way.

The character had pointed out to the protagonist that his brain couldn't actually get a handle on what that meant: the old shit about thirty deaths is a tragedy, thirty thousand deaths is a statistic, it was too big, it flattened out and turned into something else. But because her intelligence was so much higher, she could - she could actually understand what killing millions of people meant. So she couldn't do it. So she needed him to.

Tony hates remembering that bit of the book. He hates that bit of the book. Actually he just hates that book. It sticks with him anyway, has since he read it at eleven years old, because it fucking resonates.

And he knows exactly how fucking egotistically ridiculous and fucking smarmy it looks to have that kind of shit resonate with you, and that just makes it worse, and it keeps going around and around in circles getting worse every round.

Because the thing about the world is, it's fucking awful. And Tony knows that. Understands that.

Most people get through their day, as far as Tony has ever been able to tell, because they don't think about that.

For a long time he'd thought it was just because they didn't care. It'd been one of the horrifying fucking things about humanity, one of the things that meant he couldn't be fucking bothered not to be fucking awful himself: he could only assume that they totally knew it, saw it, same as he did, just as much as he did, and they just . . .got on with their lives. Didn't care.

It had taken him a really fucking long time to grasp that most people didn't have to think about it. That the thought didn't sit there and eat their fucking head, all the time. They could just . . .decide not to think about stuff. Or their head was too full of other stuff, stuff that was more immediate and in front of them, and that was actually enough all by itself to use up all the space and it just . . .wasn't there. All the time.

And then he'd really fucking felt like he was going crazy because how could you even do anything with that? How could you even relate to people who didn't have this . . .shit echoing in their head all the time, who didn't need to try to drive it out with all the other noise?

Who didn't have this overwhelming sense, every time they did anything, of how pointless it was, how petty the entire human race was (including, and especially, you), how the entirety of human history spun on bloodshed and brutality and how you couldn't even fix it because every time you moved one part of the system as it worked it was like a gigantic Jenga tower and the whole thing would spiral out of control so that you managed to find a wheat variety that wasn't so fucking vulnerable to droughts and unleashed five-hundred years of colonial genocide because there were finally enough warm bodies to invade the world.

He couldn't deal with it. Tony couldn't deal with it. So he tried giving up. He tried not caring.

And that didn't work.

Then he tried going fine, I'll take responsibility for sorting out the whole fucking world!

And holy fuck that didn't work either.

And it's not always better now. It isn't. He has not actually figured out how to reliably deal with this fucking aspect of . . .something. Of being himself. Of existing in the world. Sometimes it's not better. Except for the bits that are, so that he doesn't . . .do what he used to do. Which was so much bullshit.

And it scares him, knowing that, because so much of what is better now comes down to how when he remembers all this, when he knows all of this absolute hideous bullshit and it explodes out and he says I don't know what to do, Pepper's there.

She can look at him and say I do and she keeps . . . .doing what she does. And makes plans. And tells him to do things to make them work. And it does kind of work. It does. Sort of. Most of the time. But that seems like a hell of a fucking fragile thread.

It's scary because Tony's not sure what the fuck he'd do without it.

As it is, yeah, it's an anchor. It's enough. Maybe.

It just also . . . .demands stuff of him. And this is one of those things.

The bits of him that can see exactly how fucking awful the world is, and how pointless it all still is, and all that stuff, want to point out how pointless this gesture is.

Point out all the ways it looks stupid and smug and self-satisfied and like a petty appeasement of his own guilt and really the only thing that fragile thread does is make it so that Tony can go okay, yeah - but not doing it is worse, and you can't come up with a better idea, so shut up.

So he has to do it.

So he drinks a beer, and pretends to fuck around with pool, and waits to see if and when Barnes is going to show up.

 

Barnes does show up, with his cat in the hood of his sweatshirt.

Despite the fact that the guy still dresses pretty much like a Humanities grad student who was too busy reading when other people were learning that the universe consists of more than jeans, t-shirts and sweatshirts, Tony has actually noticed a distinct upward trend in Barnes' clothing over the last few months.

It's definitely not a huge departure: still mostly muted colours, still simple as absolute fuck, still definitely covering just about every quarter-inch of skin it can cover without either drawing attention or killing him with heat-stroke. But lately it looks like he's a grad student who can shop at a nice department store, instead of a grad student who's limited to the thrift shops and hand-me-downs.

Tony can read the broad strokes of that, because they're exactly what's right there to see. But not the details. And he's pretty sure there are lots of details. He's curious, because he always is, but it's also definitely none of his business. That one he's not confused about at all.

Right now, Barnes has branched out away from his normal range of nearly invisible blues and greys to the point that the zippered hooded sweatshirt is a deliberately-faded-washed-out kind of red, but Tony has zero idea if that means anything. Or what it would mean if it did.

He knows the cat's in Barnes' hood because the second he, Tony, says, "Hey," there's a small noise and a little orange body crawling up onto Barnes' shoulder so the cat can try to hide - as far as Tony can tell - in his ear. You can sort of see why the whole harness training thing is being a kind of a process.

Tony doesn't blame the cat: she's small, for a cat, can't weigh more than five pounds, and she can't see shit in a world full of stuff that moves and makes noise and changes without warning. He'd be freaked out about the universe too. Hell he is freaked out about the universe and he weighs a lot fucking more than five pounds and he can make a bomb out of a Christmas ornament, or a piece of metal, a gas stove and a microwave and five seconds, so he has way less excuse than she does.

Tony's not sure if Barnes actually is projecting a sense of wariness, or if he's projecting; and for that matter, he's not sure whether, if Barnes is projecting that sense, it's because he's actually getting anything off Tony or if it's just that Barnes still doesn't know how to have people talk to him without it doing that.

Barnes used to be like that all the time, and lately he's not, so much - but there's also almost always Steve right there. So who knows if it's people not being threatening, or if it's people not being threatening unless Steve's also threatened. Or what.

There is no part of this that's actually going to be easy, so Tony figures he should probably take the same tack as getting rid of a bandaid. Just, you know.

Rip it off.

So when Barnes makes the sort of half-gesture towards saying hey back - the kind where all the elements are more or less there except for the actual noise being made is really quiet - Tony puts down the pool cue and says, "So. Gonna steal like, five, most ten minutes of your morning. If that's okay. Go over something, explain it, lay it out, just quick and then - done. Then I'll fuck off," he adds, which is a moment he is himself greatly looking forward too because fuck, Tony can see the entire next few minutes just unrolling themselves and unfolding in front of him, and like he's pretty sure it'll go off fine but it's still going to be uncomfortable as fuck and he'd just like to skip over to the part where it's over?

Like if this were a fucking TV show unless he was in a really nasty mood this is one-hundred-percent the part he'd be fast-forwarding. Or if Pepper wouldn't let him fast-forward, he'd at least either put it on mute or go get a fucking drink or something until it was over. Where he didn't have to listen to it.

Real life just doesn't work like that. Your own real life, anyway. You never get to fast forward your own life. You have to live through every fucking minute.

Now, of course, Barnes is definitely looking wary because of what Tony just said, and also the fact that Tony's crossed over to the refreshment island where he'd left the relevant file on the counter and picked it up.

The cat's also finished climbing over Barnes' shoulder and fallen down to get cradled against the front of his right shoulder, and she looks happier with the world, and Tony thinks it must be nice to be a tiny fucking cat who only needs that much to stop having massive existential crises.

"Okay," Barnes says, and when Tony gets close enough to hand it over he takes the file while Tony leans against the nearest arm-chair.

Tony is coincidentally completely aware that he's folding his arms as a defensive measure, and that so's anyone else who even knows a tiny bit about body-language, and that's not stopping it from happening at all. At all.

Barnes puts the cat back up on his shoulder so he can open the file and flip through the sheets in it, and the other things.

Tony's long been pretty sure that whatever else the serum does, it definitely increases cognitive speed in both Barnes and in Steve, in part because Steve seems to pick up languages way faster than he should be able to (than anyone should be able to), and it kinda shows in how right now, Barnes is clearly doing the kind of speed-reading eight-year-old Tony had to actually learn not everyone can do.

And has exactly the sudden, closed, impassive look Tony's been expecting.

He totally understands why it's happening. It's not even that Tony can see the thoughts over Barnes' head like it's writing on a billboard: it's that he doesn't have to. He just knows what would be there. Because he knows exactly what he'd be thinking and for once, he's also absolutely sure that's a really good guide.

It's instinctive. Kinda like it was hard to explain first to Steve and later to Wilson and really to almost everyone how he knew shit like the fact that the only danger Steve was ever in from the guy was an accidentally broken bone or two, it'd be hard to explain why he knows this now. Fuck knows there's plenty of other shit where Tony has no idea what's going on in Barnes' skull and isn't even going to try to figure it out.

But like that other one, this . . . .this he knows. This one he can see.

Who the fuck knows why.

And now, before Barnes can say what he's obviously going to say, Tony holds up his hands and says, "Just, let me go through it first, okay? Because it's not something I'm giving, it's not a gift, okay? It's owed."

Barnes does stop. But it's the kind of stop that you kinda want to use the term arrested for, like when you're a kid sneaking candy and you think you're caught and you freeze. And Tony kinda regrets having to use big heavy-hitting words like owed because, well, they are fucking heavy-hitting, but he did, does need Barnes to stop and listen and so he needs that kind of clout. In the words.

Fuck, communicating is so fucking stupid.

Tony makes himself stop, too, and take a deep breath. Makes himself try to ignore the tinge he can see in Barnes' arrested look, the one that says he's trying to figure out what direction the ambush is coming from.

"Look," Tony says, carefully, making himself make sense instead of trying to shove all the words out of his own mouth in the hopes that some of them will work, because that is the worst way for them to actually work, and he knows it. "Shortest, fastest version. Okay�? That's what I'm going for here."

Barnes doesn't say anything, but he does nod, slightly, so Tony figures at least he hasn't hit a catastrophic fight-flight-inducing mine in this pitted field. Or whatever.

"Okay," Tony says. "So here's the deal: my dad half-ran SHIELD for, like. Forty years. Maybe a bit more. He spent that whole same time selling weapons. That's what the company was for. Hell, he used that as cover for SHIELD's shit. But the point here is selling. When he wasn't apparently still handling the espionage of the supposedly free world, that's what he spent his time at: designing, producing, and selling weapons. And I mean as you and everyone else on the planet knows, he made a fuck of a lot of money at it. And for years so did I. And I designed some shit but honestly even for most of my time running that shit, the stuff we were making real, serious money on, the weapons and the systems needed to run them - a lot of that was still Dad's shit. And I knew his designs back to front. I know them, I know when he came up with them, and I even - honestly?"

He throws out both arms and shrugs. "I know how he fucking thought. At least when it comes to fucking engineering."

Barnes is still watching him, like he's definitely not sure where this is going.

Tony takes another careful, quiet, very deep breath, and says, "Which means that, with the rest of what I know now, I . . . .can tell exactly which fucking designs he'd never have been able to come up with, without working with Arnim Zola."

And yeah, wow, there's the sudden abrupt coil-up of tension Tony's been waiting for - but at the same time he can see (and wants to wince at, Jesus kid, for fuck's sake) - Barnes catch it and force it back down, forcibly walk it all back, and that means Barnes doesn't want Tony to have seen it, so he's going to pretend he didn't.

So he just shrugs again. Ends up with his arms folded. "I can't fucking estimate what else got . . ." He gestures. "I don't know. Fucking . . .influenced, or sped up, or whatever, by that fucking little troll, what the tiny pieces are where we might've got there anyway, the subtle shit - but the stuff that's outright, that I can find."

Barnes is still absolutely still and quiet which is actually the good option, as uncomfortable as it remains. Probably the good option anyway.

Tony goes on, "And no we don't sell a single bit of that shit anymore, but we did for a long fucking time, and me knowing what it all is means I can go look up how much we made off that, and I did, and that - " he points to the file, "that's what those accounts are."

The cat makes a noise and crawls over the front of Barnes' shoulder again; he catches her, but he's looking at the file, not at her or at Tony, and it's the kind of look where if that were the kind of thing that could happen, the file would be on fire.

Tony says, "It's not charity, and it's not a gift, and it's not any of those fucking things, because it's not mine. It never should have fucking happened. None of that shit should ever have been made. It shouldn't've been possible for it to be made, not the way it was, not when it was, because he never should have been fucking allowed in this country in anything other than a fucking cell. So that money shouldn't exist, and it definitely shouldn't be in either my or the company's possession because it's not mine and it wasn't ours. Dad had no right to it and neither do I, and I don't want it, and wouldn't if it was my last twenty fucking dollars. Shouldn't've been made, but it was."

Now Barnes does look up, expressionless, and Tony shrugs one more time. "And if it's anyone's, as far as I can fucking see it's yours. Owed. All things fucking considered. Right now it's all set up so it mostly looks after itself and overflows . . . " he ends up gesturing with his top arm, "reasonable amounts of interest on a regular basis, but it's yours. Do whatever you want with it. I mean you can ignore it. Give it away. Get it in cash and put it in a big pile and burn it. Use it, buy an island, whatever. I've set it up, I'm handing it over. But it's not a gift. It's something owed."

Right now, the look Barnes is giving him is blank. Like, blank. Like, one of the reasons that Tony's pretty sure Steve and Barnes really do have some kind of fucking telepathy is that you can't see past that blank look, Tony's pretty sure even Natasha can't see through that blank look, it's just blank, like a concrete slab, and Rogers still seems to know what's going on behind it.

Tony doesn't. And doesn't know now. So he just . . .waits. Attempts to project an air of absolute calm. Has no idea how he's doing with that.

It feels like he has to do that for a long time but it's honestly probably only a minute or two. Subjectively it's eternity. Plus infinity. Plus just kill him now.

Eventually, finally, Barnes nods slightly. His posture shifts just a bit, unwinds a bit, and the way he's holding the file moves from how you hold something when you're afraid it's going to attack you to how you just . . .hold something you're holding. Which is better. Tony thinks.

"Great," Tony says, because he's an idiot and it's what comes to mind. It's inane, and it's stupid, and it's still what comes because the tension snaps.

He looks at the floor, and then at the ceiling and then figures fuck it there's no point in even pretending social graces, not really, so he says, "And I . . .can't actually figure this is less uncomfortable for you than for me so unless, you know, there is something - " and he turns that up like a question and pauses long enough for Barnes to give him an answer by shaking his head slightly, "- great, I'm just going to . . .go, and end the awkward and, well . . . you know, you go with whatever, but I'm completely okay with never talking about this again."

And he definitely means that. Which is why Steve needed not to be there. Steve would insist on talking about this later. Or again. Or more now. Or something. He just would. Tony is absolutely fucking sure of that. And it would be good for nobody. Not even Steve.

Probably especially not Steve. But also definitely not Tony.

When Barnes nods this time - twice - and looks like he's unwinding a bit more, Tony raises one hand in a kind of good-bye salute, and basically flees.

He's okay with calling it that. It is running away. He is fleeing. He will soon have fled. That is totally fine with him. He's pretty sure by total choice Barnes would have fled about halfway through that, however short it managed to be, so Tony's a-okay with being the one to take flight at the end. Enabling the other flight, if it's still necessary.

That's fine with him.

Tony wonders if Pepper's meeting is over. He hopes Pepper's meeting is over. He really, really would like her meeting to be over.

If not he might just have to go make something that's designed to explode.

 

Later that week, Accounting sends him a polite note to say that the debit card attached to the meant-to-be-everyday-use account had been activated, and also that another one'd been issued in Steve's name, and nothing else, because it's not Tony's account, and Tony did not actually tell them to tell him that; the account-holder had asked it to be passed along.

Tony's not sure whether that actually means Barnes did, or if (given the apparent account-share access) Steve managed to think of it, or what, but since it doesn't come with anyone making him have a conversation about it, and since when Betty drags everyone to a pizza night in the lounge neither Steve nor Barnes acts weird, Tony's totally fucking happy not to know, and to leave it at that.

It's one less thing eating at the back of his mind, it's done, and seriously: he'll just take it.