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like a cork upon a tide

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Contrary to popular belief, Tony’s a realist.

Okay, fine: Tony’s a realist in some things.

But that fucking counts, so.

For example: Tony is a realist about what’s in front of him, here and now; what’s curled around him, what’s lying next to him, what’s real and not real in this room, in the bed—what it means.

Tony’s a realist about that.

Because Tony’s a catch—he’s not stupid. He’s brilliant. He’s rich. He’s beautiful. He’s witty. He’s generous—sometimes. He’s dangerous. He’s got two out of three for the tall-dark-and-handsome card, and his cars? They more than make up the difference.

That’s not even bringing the suit into the equation.

Point is: Tony’s a hot fucking commodity, and don’t let anybody tell you different.


Here. Now. With the Capsicle on one side and Klondike, his former Soviet-assassin soulmate, on the other.

But here; now: Tony knows what this is. What this means.

And it’s fabulous, right? Better part of a century on ice didn’t do a goddamn thing to slow these boys down in the sack, and Tony wishes someone would have told him earlier that the early half of the twentieth century was this dirty, this fucking imaginative about sex, because hell: he’d have paid far more attention in history class.

But. Point.

The transformation in Steve Rogers once James Buchanan Barnes was recovered? That was something that Tony’s never seen before. And the way they move, the way they breathe like they’re parts of a whole, components that fit just so into a machine that Tony didn’t realize was broken, that was so fucking skilled as it ran at half-capacity that it didn’t even register that something essential was missing: to see it now makes the engineer in him breathless.

To find himself caught between that perfect example of sheer codependent vitality, though; that’s what makes the rest of him breathless, and then some.

It’s not like he’d planned it. Not the first time; not all the times that followed. Tony never expected to settle into a routine that involved three hollowed-out grooves in his mattress; never expected to have Rogers sneak up behind him before the helmet came down to catch his lips and suck, quick before anyone noticed; he never expected to find himself volunteering to trash his own armor in order to give Barnes something safe to wail on—and more than that, he never expected to take a grown man with a metal arm and hold him close until his breathing settled, until he could stand and be steady.

Tony never expected to have someone look at him like that, like he mattered. Like he’d done something unspeakably kind; like he was needed—wanted. More, maybe. Maybe even lov—


Tony’s a lot of things. But that’s never been one of them.

But it’s nice, y’know? It’s a nice thing. Tony likes it. And Tony’s all about the moment, right? So he tries not to dwell on the limitations built right into whatever this is, aside from being nice: because Tony’s brilliant—previously established—and Tony’s a realist.

Tony knows that, when it comes to giving hearts away, his might be free of the metal, but it’s still not prime real estate.

Tony also knows that, between the two men who share his bed: they swapped those kinds of devotions a long time ago.

Tony knows what he is. Tony knows how he fits.

And he’s okay with that. He’s okay, right here, like this. And it doesn’t matter that he’ll only ever be a third wheel, a runner-up, a vestigial piece that’s fine where it is, but isn’t necessary to the larger whole. S’fine.

Because it’s nice, here. Like this; with them. It’s warm.

And if nothing else: Tony’s an opportunist.

He’ll take what he can get for as long as he can get it.


It’s probably a result of that introspection—Tony Stark: genius, yes; self-aware, less so—that delays his awareness of eyes on him, of the decrease in weight, in pressure of the arm pressed against him, draped across his torso until the cool alloy grows warm on contact, and Tony’s used to metal against his chest: it was never something he had to get used to.

Bucky’s eyes in the dark, though: Tony gets how Steve carried a torch for this guy over the course of goddamn decades, ‘cause that gaze does funny things to Tony; things that Bucky can probably feel where he’s pressed against him, where his hand’s splayed wide against Tony’s bare skin, and fuck all, Tony should have thought twice about enhancing those sensors; would have, maybe, if he’d known he was gonna end up here.

But yeah, right: too late now.

Cards on the table.

But Bucky doesn’t say anything, barely moves, barely breathes, and Tony’s fallen asleep like this, woken up like this enough times, now, to read a shift in the status quo, to sense something off in the air, in the way his lungs feels when he breathes beneath the weight of that hand.

“You alright?” Tony murmurs: rough, low because Cap’s still sleeping on his right, curled up and not-drooling, just like Bucky doesn’t talk in his sleep and Tony doesn’t fucking snore, like, at all. Ever.

Bucky doesn’t say anything, not for a while, but as Tony shifts his focus to zero in on the soldier at his left, he can feel the shift in the shape, the give of that body—a body Tony thinks he’s qualified to say he knows, by now; he can feel the catch of breath as it holds, as it spills fast and full, too full; as the metal hand on his chest twitches just slightly, just so beneath his pecs.

Bucky breathes in deep; breathes out slow, and Tony waits for it; just waits.

They’ve taught him patience, if nothing else.

They’ve taught him patience, alongside so much else.

“First time you guys,” Bucky starts, voice gravelly, deep in a way that runs in Tony’s veins thick and vivid, and it’s because of that, that depth and that wild edge, that Tony takes a beat or two to realize that Bucky’s left the idea hanging; that Bucky’s trailed off, biting his lip in that way he’s got that makes Steve look fond but sad—that makes Tony want to reach, to touch, and maybe that’s why they keep him in this, maybe that’s why he’s between them now, because he doesn’t know the difference between before and after: this Cap, and this Buck—these are all he knows.

These are all he lov—

Cares about.

“Lots of first times, Klondike,” Tony smirks a little, and stops resisting the urge to brush Bucky’s hair from his face, stops pushing down the urge to run his fingers down the line of his jaw. “Gonna need ya to narrow it down.”

Bucky frowns, just a little. Tony’s found he doesn’t like it when Bucky frowns.

“Twenty-questions style?” Tony asks, because he’s found that’s a good way to get the man to talk when he’s stuck—it’s a good rope to throw when he’s lost at sea.

“You nearly died,” Bucky comes out with, quick and raw and unprovoked, and Tony blinks.

He did not see that one coming, but okay. First time, nearly died. There are a lot of scenarios that could apply to, true. But Tony thinks he knows which one’s front and center, here: thinks he can figure it out, narrow it to the city, to the date, to the way he’d fallen through an interstellar portal and dropped out from the sky.

Tony thinks he knows where this is going.

And okay, fine. He’ll bite.

“You might have died,” Bucky breathes, and Tony measures the way the hand on him tightens, wants to press, to clench, but it doesn’t—or else, it doesn’t too tight, and Tony’s impressed by that; maybe even proud.

“Cap been talking out of school?” Tony asks, but it’s a half-dig, really; it doesn’t hold water, or whatever. Because Tony remembers that day, remembers lurching back toward the living with that spangly suit there to greet him, those blue eyes made all the brighter for that godforsaken costume.

And who’d a’thunk then, that they’d be here now? Jesus.

Tony’d have lost that bet. No question.

“You know, don’t you?” Bucky whispers, jolting Tony into the present again: Bucky whispers, and it’s a plea and a threat in a way that only this man, this man can deliver: and Tony knows. Of course Tony knows—the diagnostics had been more than clear in the aftermath, and so what if he hasn’t said it, so what if he’s done his best to forget it: so what.

Bucky’s… persuasive. In his way. In his tone.

Those goddamned eyes.

“My heart stopped,” Tony says, and it’s soft: it comes out far too soft, and he’s clearing his throat as best he can while keeping quiet enough to not disturb Steve, because he’s not soft, this is not soft, because it was fine. It was fine, it is fine.

“So yeah, if that’s what you mean. Yeah. Briefly.” Bucky’s breathing stops next to him, a gasp suspended somewhere between inhaling and exhaling as Bucky’s gaze bore into him, hard and full and kinda desperate in a way that eats at Tony; that Tony doesn’t understand.

“The reactor shocked it back,” Tony shrugs, “No harm done.”

And he tries to reassure Bucky, he tries as best he can, but the movement of his shoulders just presses his own arm into Bucky’s chest, brushes close enough to feel the racket of Bucky’s pulse beneath the surface of his chest.

Tony finally looks up, meets Bucky’s eyes as Bucky’s hand stretches, slides over Tony’s heartbeat and holds there, and Tony fucking hates the way the beat picks up; loves the feel of that hand on his skin.

S’a trade off, maybe.


And if there’s anything about Bucky that’s stayed steady through everything, with the hell he’s been through, after all the bullshit: if there’s anything about Bucky that Tony’s figured out is the same, it’s the way he can look at you, see straight into you, and know things. The way he doesn’t waver, when he’s settled on an aim—and maybe it takes more for him to settle, now, than it used to, but it’s still a fact of him, it’s still a trademark.

So when Bucky breaks the gaze and looks down, splays his hand wider, Tony knows this is something bigger; something with more weight.

Tony knows.

“You took it out,” Bucky breathes, low, and it’s weird, now: it’s still weird for Tony to feel pressure against the scar tissue in his chest. It’s still strange to feel the beating of his heart against the skin, against the pressure of a touch against his skin. It’s still strange to hear his own blood pumping above that subtle, toneless whir.

He swallows. He waits through a beat; through too many beats that get faster, that gain force with every moment of silence where Bucky just stills, just stays, just stares at his chest as it rises, as it falls, and Tony wonders if his own heart’s thumping hard enough to see with those super-powered eyes: part sniper and part serum and too close.

“Fifty lifetimes,” Bucky murmurs. “There’s a statement, in the documents.” His eyes flicker up, and Tony nearly jumps at the naked feeling in them—and Tony’d seen the Winter Soldier, Tony’s studied the releases just as thoroughly as Bucky did: different ones, granted, but Tony’s seen the images of a weapon with dead eyes, and if there’s any steam left to the argument that that instrument, that thing was Bucky Barnes, Tony’d dare whoever was spouting that kind of fuckery to look straight in the eyes that just found his, for just an instant, and say that shit again.

“There’s a statement in there that said it could’ve powered your heart almost indefinitely,” Bucky’s words are warm, too close to Tony’s face, to Tony’s neck, to Tony: to the part of Tony that Tony can’t fucking deal with, not here, not now, not like this between two men who are in love with each other and he’s just—

Bucky’s staring, still. Tony swallows; hard.


“Was that true?” Bucky’s tone is almost a hiss: sharp, but his eyes are wide—desperate, and so fucking young.

Tony sighs.

“I don’t know,” he tries to dodge it, tries to sweep it under the proverbial rug, even though Tony doesn’t have any rugs nearby, he doesn’t like rugs—the rugs are always Pepper’s idea, Tony prefers—

Bucky’s still staring. Tony sighs deeper.

“I can’t know if that’s true,” he tries again, tries to switch tactics, tries to cast the question as absurd. “It’s not like I tested—”

“Think we don’t know you by now?”

And Tony hadn’t noticed he was awake, but that’s Steve’s voice: that’s Steve’s hand sliding up Tony’s side, Steve’s fingers lacing between Bucky’s at the center of Tony’s chest, and there’s a heaviness to that touch, there’s a heat there that makes Tony’s heart pound, that makes the air he breathes feel real fucking thin.

“Admitting you don’t know something?” Steve fits his head into the crook of Tony’s neck, and the brush of his lips there, the moving of his mouth: it sends a shiver through Tony’s bones that he can’t mask, cannot deny. “That really isn’t your style.”

“Which means you do know,” Bucky says, and there’s a sadness in his tone that Tony doesn’t like.

Steve nods into Tony’s shoulder, doesn’t look up, and Steve’s eyes give him away, always: Tony doesn’t like that Steve’s hiding them, that he can’t see.

“You couldn’t have gone all those years,” Steve’s voice is muffled, but soft, and his body against Tony’s is small, curled up, and Tony’d been taken aback, at first, by the way Steve made himself tiny, sometimes.

Tony’d been taken aback that Steve had let him see it.

At first.

“You couldn’t have spent all that time with your entire existence wrapped up around that thing and not know every inch of it, every spec,” Steve’s words are getting lighter, harder to hear, harder to feel, and it’s not Tony’s imagination, he’s sure of it: it’s not just in his head that the hands against his heartbeat are pressing tighter, closer.

“You do know,” Bucky murmurs, and it’s not an accusation, but it damn well echoes out the same.

And Tony thinks it should bother him, thinks it should push him closer to that dangerous ledge, that anxious darkness at the edge of panic to have those words, that touch—to have his space so overrun: it should undo him, but it doesn’t.

Not with them.

“Based on the averages,” Tony chokes a little; Tony caves. “Yeah. I know.”

Bucky tenses, swift and entire where he’s lined against Tony’s body, but what stings, what kills is the sound that’s barely uttered, that’s barely audible, that escapes Steve’s throat and hits like acid against Tony’s skin, and Tony doesn’t know what’s bigger, here, what means more, or digs deeper: the fact that Steve couldn’t hold back that whimper, that half-moan of real despair, or the fact that maybe—probably—he could; but he didn’t.

He didn’t.

“Why would you take it out?” Steve whispers, and it’s so soaked in hurt that Tony’s whole frame seizes, a little, with the idea that this man, this monolith can be this too: can ache and crack and crumble at the fault lines like anyone else.

Maybe more than anyone else.

“Could you put it back, d’ya think?” Bucky asks, something like hope starting to shine in those eyes, and if that’s not a reason to have left the reactor in, Tony doesn’t know what is, because it cuts him, they both cut him—hard—and he wonders if they’re paying enough attention to feel it underneath their hands, the way his heart stumbles for it, forget the rhythm its supposed to dance to and moves instead to crash.


And Tony’s the first to rag on them both, the first to call them fossils, to ask about the grandpas: but the truth is, they’re young. They’re so fucking young and like this, here between them, Tony can see that clearer than he can see anything else: they are young, and they are fragile, and they have seen more horrors and known more of the worst things in life—hell. If they’d truly lived their near-century of years, they still wouldn’t be able to take that kind of hurting and call it square.

And in those eyes, with their hope, and that body, curled into him and shivering, just enough: Tony knows it. In the hands upon his chest, above his heart, Tony feels it.

They’re so goddamn young.

“What’s the angle here, fellas?” Tony breathes out, and the words would be cutting if they had any volume, any force to them: any weight. “Why are you so hung up on this shit? If you need a fucking night-light, we can get that covered without sticking a glowy circle back into the middle of my goddamned—”

The best way to shut Tony up is to kiss him like the world’s ending: Steve and Bucky are both real good at that.

But the best way to shut Tony up and make him ache is for Steve to take his mouth like there’s life in there, and Steve’s gotta save it; for Bucky to lean and kiss at the spaces between his fingers where they’re twined with Steve’s, the gaps where Tony’s pulse is wild.

That’s the best way, really.

Tony shuts up.

“You don’t know what it was like,” Bucky says, so soft, so scared. “I used to watch him flirt with death every goddamned day, and you don’t know what it’s like to give yourself, to wrap yourself up in someone and feel them slip away…”

And Tony can only stare as Bucky traces the lines of the scars, runs a finger over those patterns that Tony’s thought meant a step forward, but if it led to this, if it made Bucky look broken again—

“I lost him, once,” Steve adds, breathless, just as cracked down the middle. “I lost this,” and Steve ducks his head, shakes it before Bucky covers his hand and moves their joined grasp across Tony’s chest, across the marks of what used to be.

“I know what it feels like,” Steve finally gets out, finally shapes the words and speaks them, almost audible, still half-unreal against the line of Tony’s neck. “I know how it—”

His voice breaks, and he falls into Tony’s body, rough; ragged—and Bucky’s swapping hands on Tony’s chest to grasp for Steve, to place a hand on Steve’s arm, to embrace Tony in the process and fuck, just, fuck.

“I can’t do it again, Tony,” Steve rasps, a little shaky. “I can’t.”

So Tony breathes: beneath them; between them—Tony breathes where they can’t seem to, where they get stuck, and it doesn’t matter if he’s the third wheel, if he’s superfluous to this thing that these men share, that these men are; it doesn’t matter, because these men have lodged themselves up under the skin of him, pierced through the heart of him deeper than any shrapnel, hold him hostage tighter than any threat of death against his chest and goddamn, but Tony was never gonna be a match for that, for this.

For them.

“The serum,” Tony tries, grasps at straws to make it better, to make them okay: “I mean, we could look into the Hydra files, compare with what we’ve got from Erskine—”

“Wouldn’t risk it,” Steve breathes, and the brush of barely-there stubble against Tony’s skin as Steve shakes his head slow is kind of miraculous, kind of perfect and heartbreaking and damn near everything. “Couldn’t risk you.”

“But the reactor,” Bucky murmurs, thumb stroking back and forth, over and over across Tony’s chest, Tony’s scars, Tony’s fucking compromised beating mess of pulp and blood and feeling underneath the bones.

Lifetimes, Tony,” Steve whispers into the line of Tony’s jaw. “You’re brilliant, you could figure the rest out.”

“‘Course you could,” Bucky nods, and the drag of his mouth with the motion up against Tony’s flesh is almost too much to bear. “So long as this,” and then Bucky’s kissing the skin there, deliberate, mouth moving, lips pursing with every pump of this heart they seem to want, beyond all sense in it, outside all reason; this heart they seem to have completely missed being offered, being given: wholly and stupidly and selfishly—and full from the fucking start.

“So long as this kept going,” Bucky whispers against the very thing in question as it goes: fucking fast and real goddamned strong. “You could do anything,” he mouths there. “The rest would be just...”

Tony swallows, and there’s a burn in his throat, in his eyes as it starts to make sense, here. As it starts to slot into place, what this is.

What this means.

On all sides.

“We don’t have to live forever,” Bucky tells him, purrs it—damn well near prays it straight into Tony’s skin, into his veins. “Just long enough,” he says, begs. “Long enough to make up for all the lost time.”

And Jesus, these two: that’s all they’re made of, it seems.

And if Tony could give them forever, he thinks he might do just that.

“Please,” Steve exhales it, and it’s a choked sound, it’s so soft, so small. “Just,” and the feel of Steve’s breath on him, like that, just now: goddamn.

“Just don’t leave too quick, okay?”

And Tony stares at the ceiling for a second, stares at nothing in the dark, and tries to place the feeling in him, the desperation that somehow manages to seep from these two bodies, two broken fucking souls against his own until he feels it too, like bile and beautiful things, dear god.

“Right,” Tony breathes out, ‘cause Tony Stark’s not particularly self-aware, but he is a genius.

He knows damn well that he’s in love.

“Right, I’ll, um,” and Tony swallows, finally takes the hint to thread his own fingers into the tangle on his chest, to hold the touch of these two idiots, these two marvels to the heart of him and make it plain that it’s theirs, and maybe, just maybe: maybe make it plain that he understands, now.

That he gets it.

He breathes, and his heart pumps hard beneath three hands.

“I’ll look into it.”