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Tony slumps against the elevator wall, ignoring the way the railing digs into his lower back. He closes his eyes and scrubs his hands over his face, breathing out unsteadily, eyes sore and tired, head throbbing under the buzz of the fluorescent lights. It’s late, closer to morning than night, and his feet ache from standing all night and glad-handing with donors. 

 

His fingers shake a little as he works his tie loose so he feels less strangled, throat working as he tugs harder, a tired sob working its way up out of his throat when the tie doesn’t loosen quickly enough. Finally he works it undone enough that he can fucking breathe, heart hammering unsteadily in his chest as a panic attack tries to form. 

 

He shoves it away though, far too tired to deal with the energy it would require to let himself work up to a panic attack. Instead, he shrugs off his jacket and starts working his cuff links off as the doors open on the communal floor. It’s quiet; Nat and Clint are off with Not Dead Agent doing dark deeds in darker corners of the world and Thor has returned to Asgard, leaving the upper part of the tower mostly empty of everyone but Tony and the staff. 

 

He shuffles into the kitchen and opens the freezer, blinking like an owl at the bright white light that assaults his tired eyes. He frowns when he can’t immediately find what he’s looking for, huffing tiredly as he pushes aside the mochi treats Clint loves and the three, no four, bottles of vodka that belong to Nat, and still he can’t find the damn pint of ice cream he’d left down here to avoid temptation existing on his own floor. 

 

“Goddamnit,” he groans, slamming a hand into the side of the fridge as exhaustion and disappointment tangle in his chest and his throat goes so thick with emotion it feels like he can’t breathe. He breathes unsteadily, tears welling as he slams his eyes and the freezer door shut, letting himself slump forward to press his sweaty brow into the cool stainless steel. 

 

Why? Why does every part of his life have to be so goddamn hard?  

 

Most of the Avengers barely tolerate him after Ultron—the fact that Bruce had been right there with him and was equally as culpable seemingly ignored in favor of laying the full blame on Tony’s already overtaxed shoulders. He would have once said they were his friends, a dysfunctional family of sorts, but these days he feels more alone than he ever has. 

 

A sobbing breath shakes its way past his lips and he shudders, rolling his forehead against the cool stainless steel of the fridge as his ribcage shudders and aches, his breathing growing more unsteady by the minute. 

 

Fuck, he can’t stop it, he can’t stop any of it, he’s powerless and weak and—

 

“Tony?” 

 

The low murmur of his name shears through the rising tide of exhaustion and panic and anxiety and he whirls, stumbling back with wide eyes, furious with himself that he’s been caught out. Barnes stares at him from the shadows, his long hair gone, replaced with something more modern, the scruff on his face highlighting his painfully sharp cheekbones. 

 

Concern fills storm blue eyes and Tony can’t for the life of him figure out why. It’s not like he and Barnes are friends. Hell, most days of the month he doesn’t see Barnes unless he decides to review the security footage to catch himself up on how the others are doing. 

 

He tries to form words to tell Barnes he’s fine, but he can’t get them past the lump in his throat and they turn into a weak whine that has him trembling with embarrassment, hands shaking as he turns away, stumbling into the sharp edge of the counter, his gasp of pain as it bites into his hip more of a sob. 

 

Fuck, he really is going to break down here in the fucking kitchen isn’t he? 

 

He sobs at the injustice of it all and lurches away, but doesn’t get very far before his jelly legs finally give out from under him. Instead of collapsing into the hardwood, a pair of strong arms winds around his waist and hauls him upright, air wheezing out of his lungs as he’s pulled back firmly against a broad chest. 

 

“I gotcha,” Barnes murmurs in his ear, guiding him gently till he’s propped against the counter, Barnes’s body bracketing him in and holding him up as his body shivers and his breathing goes shallow and uneven. He tries, he tries so goddamn hard to hold back the tears, but he’s so tired and he just can’t. 

 

He sobs once, hard, and then again, and then he’s weeping and gasping, panicking as his lungs seem to shrivel up and god, he can’t breathe. 

 

“Yes you can, c’mon Tony, take a deep breath,” Barnes orders softly and Tony chokes out a whine, shaking his head because he can’t, he can’t get his stupid fucking body to work. He cried harder, breathing in great whooping gasps, entirely shaken apart as everything he’s been pushing down for weeks (months) comes bursting free from behind the dam. 

 

He barely registers Barnes cursing before he’s being turned around and pulled right into a tight embrace. The entirety of Barnes’s metal hand cups the back of his skull gently, like he’s something precious, something breakable and it just makes Tony cry harder because when has anyone ever treated him with this much care? 

 

“Shh you’re gonna be ok darlin, just breathe,” Barnes murmurs, his other hand rubbing broad circles into Tony’s back, lips pressed gently to Tony’s ear so he can feel the warmth of his breath. “I know, everybody asks so much of you, it doesn’t hardly leave you any space for yourself,” he says softly and a shudder runs through Tony at the truth in those words. 

 

“Yea, they all like to blame you for the world’s problems, but I don’t see them comin up with any solutions.” 

 

That hand keeps rubbing his back as he cries and shakes, the pressure adjusting to press down into his back a little more and he shudders, gasping wetly against Barnes’s neck. 

 

“That’s right honey, let it out,” Barnes croons softly, the fingers pressed against his skull flexing gently and beginning to rub into his scalp. Tony sobs out a weak groan and shivers, the sensory input warm and soft and gentle and everything he didn’t know he needed. 

 

“Seems like you’ve been carryin the weight of the world on these shoulders for a long time,” Barnes murmurs, his hand rising to rub at them firmly. The tension that’s been in Tony’s neck and shoulders begins to melt away and he pants softly, tears beginning to slow as his anxiety and exhaustion ebb slowly away, like the receding tide of the ocean. 

 

He’s sure it’ll be back later. 

 

“Seems like maybe you need someone to help you carry it,” Barnes murmurs, fingers slipping up to massage Tony’s neck and this time he can’t help the shaky groan that escapes him. His face burns red hot because god , what is he even doing? Crying into the shirt of the world’s deadliest assassin? Clinging to the man who’d killed his mother?  

 

“Yea, seems like maybe you need someone to take care of you sometimes, someone you can rely on,” Barnes murmurs, sounding thoughtful as he massages Tony’s neck. His thumb swipes up behind Tony’s ear and then curls along the shell and Tony shoves himself away, heart thundering with too many emotions to name. 

 

This isn’t smart, letting Barnes touch him like this, not when they’ve barely spoken more than a dozen sentences to each other in the eight months he’s been living here. It’s not smart and it’s not safe and he needs to get away. 

 

He holds up his hands to ward Barnes off and backs away, swallowing hard against the urge to cry again, body aching for that sweet tender embrace. “I, I gotta go,” he stutters, “I-I…” His hip clips the edge of the counter again and he gasps at the pain, waving Barnes off when he steps toward Tony, concern in his eyes, lips curled down in a frown and fuck why does he look so sad? It’s not fair, Tony is just trying to preserve his own dignity and Barnes is looking at him like his heart is breaking. 

 

“Thanks,” he mutters lamely, because even if it was confusing as fuck, it was still incredibly kind of Barnes to give him a shoulder to break down on. He scurries away to the elevator, face burning with shame and lets it carry him up to the penthouse. 

 

It’s quiet, now that Pepper is gone. Cold and lonely too. 

 

He’s thought about getting a pet, but he hardly has the time to take care of one, even if it would be nice to have something warm and fluffy to curl up with. Someone who would judge him, who would love him unconditionally and always be happy to see him. 

 

He’s never going to find that in a human relationship, so maybe getting a pet isn’t such a bad idea after all. 

 

Tony is shaky as he undresses and pulls on sweatpants and a hoodie, adding in fuzzy socks too—fuck it, he decides, he needs to contain some of the warmth that Barnes’s hands have left on him so he can sleep. He crawls beneath the cold sheets and shivers, curls into a ball and screws his eyes shut, exhaustion so deep within him it’s like it’s a cancer in his bones. 

 

He doesn’t have the energy for more tears, for anything more than breathing slowly and wishing he hadn’t run away from the kindness Barnes had been offering, confusing as it was. 

 

Someone to rely on

 

The words echo in his head as he falls asleep, and when he does, he dreams of a warm embrace and a voice calling him darlin

 



He thinks about it too much. 

 

About how big Barnes’s hands are, how safe he felt with them holding him, how warm they were against his back. 

 

About that low, soothing voice that had been so sweet and kind, and how it’s lingered in his dreams for days now. 

 

About those words; someone to rely on , and how they made him yearn for that to be true. 

 

Fuck, yearning, like he’s a fucking teenager again, making moon eyes at Sunset Bain in organic chemistry. 

 

He scrubs a hand over his face and ignores the look Pepper gives him, staring determinedly ahead at the presenter, trying and failing to make himself focus on the meeting at hand. 

 

What had even motivated Barnes? 

 

They aren’t friends. 

 

They aren’t even colleagues really—Tony hasn’t been out on a mission with the team in months. Not since Steve had made it clear that Tony really wasn’t welcome. 

 

Iron Man yes, Tony Stark no

 

He swallows down the old bitterness and manages to make himself focus just enough on the meeting that when they ask for his opinion he’s able to give a coherent answer. Pepper gives him a curious look but he’s able to escape having to come up with a lie for his absent mindedness by hurrying to his workshop and locking it down. 

 

FRIDAY turns on his music and he misses JARVIS so badly that it makes his gut clench. 

 


 

“Boss, this level of energy output is unsustainable. By my estimate it will take another three days to breach the hull of that ship.”

 

Tony curses and leaves off using the repulsors, flying off toward the rear of the ship, dodging shots from the cannons as Steve calls out action from the ground. Sam buzzes by, but he’s not able to do much more than Tony, and without Rhodey here, this fight is looking more and more like something they can’t win. 

 

“Hey Tony, those engines of theirs, they look like the ones from the Enterprise,” Barnes’s voice murmurs in his ear, and damn , how did Tony not notice that? Which means… “If you fire into the engines as they’re cycling, it should destroy the ship.” 

 

Tony cracks a grin inside his armor, laughing softly as he flies around and let’s FRIDAY assess the engine. 

 

“Anytime now Stark!” Steve shouts in his ear and he grimaces—he’s not even supposed to be in the field unless it’s an extinction level event and while this is bad, it’s not that

 

His private comm link beeps and he answers it without looking, “What?” he snaps, watching the readout from FRIDAY as she assesses the engines. 

 

“Ignore Steve, you’ve got this,” Barnes murmurs softly in his ear and Tony’s heart lurches at the soothing tone. Shit he does not need this right now. 

 

“I know,” he snaps back petulantly, “but that doesn’t stop him from yelling at me anyway.”

 

Barnes laughs and Tony can hear the smile in his voice, “Yea well, he’s an asshole sometimes, he came by it honestly, his dad was a shit too.” 

 

Tony snorts and calls up the big guns, “Tell Capsicle to clear out any civilians left, I’m bringing this thing down,” he tells Barnes and then flies backwards, missile guidance sending the bombs into the engines right at the top cycle point. 

 

The blast knocks him askew, debris raining down around him in a fiery hailstorm. A huge section of the hull blindsides him, knocking him around painfully inside the armor. 

 

“Tony!” 

 

He hears Barnes’s voice in his ear and then another chunk of debris slams into him and everything goes black. 

 


 

When he wakes up, he realizes he’s in his own bed, in comfortable clothing, and that he’s not alone. He opens his eyes slowly, wincing at the way the low light scrapes inside his skull and leaves it throbbing. Fuck he hates concussions. 

 

“Here, sip this,” Barnes’s voice says softly and then there’s a bottle at his lips and when he peels his eyes open again, Barnes is smiling faintly at him. He swallows down the cool liquid that has a strangely medicinal flavor and swallows, wincing as his head throbs. 

 

“Dr. Cho worked this up for you,” Barnes explains, “Speeds recovery, relieves pain and doesn’t taste like shit,” he jokes, eyes soft as he encourages Tony to drink again. When half the bottle is empty he nods and pulls it away from Tony’s lips. 

 

“Thanks,” Tony scrapes out, voice raw and thick with exhaustion. 

 

Barnes nods and gestures to the bedside table where Tony can see a sandwich on a plate sitting. “You feel like eating?” he asks, frowning a little when Tony shakes his head no, but doesn’t push the issue. 

 

“Why are you here?” Tony asks tiredly, looking away from Barnes’s intense gaze. He feels stripped bare beneath it—he’s never met someone who has made him feel so seen and it’s deeply unnerving. 

 

“Nat said you’re a terrible patient and refuse to stay in the medical wing. Figured I’d stay and keep you company,” Barnes says, and Tony can see him shrug from the corner of his eye, like this whole thing is no big deal. He turns back and watches as Barnes pulls out a book from behind his back, presumably from the waistband of his jeans, and then settles back and flips it open. 

 

His gaze flickers back up to Tony, a tiny smile on his face as he lifts a brow, “You want me to read out loud?” he offers. 

 

Tony opens his mouth to say no, but what comes out instead is, “Sure.” 

 

Barnes smiles wider and nods, wiggling in his chair for a moment before he clears his throat and begins. 

 

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.”

 

Tony closes his eyes because they hurt, and sinks back into the pillows of his bed, swallowing hard around the rush of emotion that’s filled him. He doesn’t understand why Barnes wants to be here, wants to sit by his bed and offer him water and read to him, but he’s selfish enough to not want it to end. 

 

So he pulls the blankets up higher and curls on his side toward Barnes’s voice and breathes slowly, evenly, till he falls asleep and dreams of a soft voice that calls him sweetheart. He’s not sure if it’s a dream, the hand on his brow, but it feels good, comforting, and he drifts deeper, deeper, deeper into the black and dreamless sleep of the exhausted and injured. 

 


 

Tony stares tiredly at the pieces of engine debris filling his shop. Once he’d gotten back on his feet (two days after the battle—Barnes hadn’t let him leave his suite and Pepper had been no help at all in freeing him) Steve had found him and asked him to look over the remains so they could learn more about their now dead enemies. 

 

So far, what Tony has learned is that the metal that formed the hull and presumably part of the interior of the ship is: not of this earth, harder and more durable than vibranium, and has a melting point higher than any known substance on earth. 

 

In short; it’s impenetrable to any weapon he has and if the engines hadn’t been vulnerable points, he’s fairly certain they wouldn’t have won that battle. Worse, everything that he’s found from examining the wreckage indicates that this ship was merely a scout. 

 

He shudders at the idea of more of these ships finding their way to earth and can only hope that he managed to destroy it before they got a message out to their counterparts elsewhere in the galaxy. God, he’s already seen one nightmare descend from space, he really does not need another showing up on his planetary doorstep. 

 

His hands shake as he scrubs them over his face, cursing softly. Goddamnit he used to love space, had even started designing a suit to withstand the freezing temperatures and had fiddled with the oxygen and repulsor system to have the power he’d need and then…

 

Sighing heavily he lowers his head to the work table and exhales unsteadily as the darkness behind his closed lids becomes a tear in the fabric of reality, a legion of ships waiting just beyond. His breathing stutters and he presses his forehead into the table, determined not to break down, holding on to his sanity by bare threads it feels like. 

 

He remembers the suit dying, the aborted call to Pepper, and then everything that came after is a blur. His heart had stopped, and Bruce had jolted him back to life, and he’s always tried very hard not to think about what he hadn’t seen in that void between living and dying. 

 

It swallows him up now, blackness, cold nothingness without mercy or care and he pushes himself away from the table, gasping when his hand catches on the sharp edge of ship debris and slices open. Blood gushes from the wound, red red red and he stumbles back, vision narrowing into dark tunnels and he can’t breathe, god, he can’t breathe, he’s back in space and he’s choking on nothing and he’s going to die. 

 

“Tony, look at me,” a voice demands and he, he knows that voice, even here in the darkness, he knows it. “Tony, look at me,” the voice demands and hands grasp his face, one warm and flesh, the other cool metal. His eyes fly open to find a stormy sea staring back at him, miles and miles of grey clouds and foamy ocean. 

 

“That’s right sweetheart, right here, look at me,” the voice says, “you are safe Tony, do you hear me? You’re safe,” the voice insists. 

 

He sobs, because no he’s not, he’s not safe, no one is, not with what’s coming

 

Strong arms wind around him, pulling him into a firm, broad chest before he’s being moved and is seated in a warm lap. There’s a gentle rocking motion, like the waves against a boat and he leans into it heavily, gasping and shuddering as he cries. 

 

“You’re safe Tony, I won’t let anything hurt you, I promise,” the voice whispers, and he feels warm breath against his temple, lips brushing his skin gently. 

 

The steady rocking continues, and so too does the soft voice, murmuring soft words of reassurance and kindness. He is told how kind he is, how smart and funny and sweet, how his inventions keep them all safe….

 

On and on it goes, the steady rocking, the warmth holding him close, the soft voice in his ear, until finally the panic and fear and anxiety drains from his blood and leaves him feeling more exhausted than before. He’s limp in the embrace Barnes has him in, too tired to protest or even try to pretend like it isn’t incredibly soothing. 

 

Fingers drift up his back and into his hair, scraping gently against his scalp and his eyes drift closed again. He’s so tired that he can’t help the low sound in his throat when the fingers press into his scalp, massaging gently. “C’mon darling, let’s get you to bed,” Barnes murmurs and Tony can’t find the energy to say no. 

 

He sways when Barnes stands, a strong arm around his waist keeping him steady. His legs are jelly and shake as he’s guided to the elevator, his head throbbing from crying, the remnants of his concussion leaving him feeling drained and shivery all over. Barnes keeps a tight hold on him and Tony slumps into his chest, head resting on his shoulder, too bone weary to even try and pretend like the only thing holding him up isn’t Barnes’s strong arms. 

 

The upward glide of the elevator makes his stomach lurch unpleasantly and he’s reminded of the fact that it’s been….too long since he last ate. Barnes guides him out of the elevator and into his penthouse, his vision blurry with exhaustion, feet stumbling along the way till Barnes stops and sweeps him into his arms. 

 

Tony rests his head on Barnes’s shoulder, inhaling the scent of his cologne and shivering faintly at how woodsy and dark it is. In another setting it would be arousing, but now it’s just comforting and warm. Barnes carries him to the bedroom and carefully props him up against the headboard, thumb brushing across Tony’s forehead gently as he furrows his fingers into Tony’s messy hair. 

 

“Hey sweetheart, I need to clean up that hand of yours, where’s your first aid kit?” he asks softly, humming when Tony waves at the bathroom, too tired to speak. He watches through slit eyelids as Barnes’s large form slinks away into the darkness of the suite, disappearing into the shadows like a ghost. 

 

The light from the bathroom hurts his eyes and he screws them shut, whining softly in his throat as his head throbs in time with his heartbeat. The muted glow shuts off a second later and then a few moments later he hears footsteps. “Light hurts your eyes, huh?” Barnes murmurs, “alright, you just rest darling.” 

 

Tony hears the shaking of a pill bottle and then the cool touch of glass to his lips, “Open up darlin, it’s just water,” Barnes encourages. Tony swallows a few sips and then pulls away a little to breathe. “I’ve got some Tylenol for you, okay?” Barnes murmurs and Tony nods, opening his mouth obediently to take them. 

 

Water comes next and this time he drains the glass, panting softly when Barnes sets it aside. He feels the bed shift and then heat along his thigh that’s from Barnes’s body pressed to his and it shouldn’t feel so good, but it does and he wants nothing more than to curl into it and be warm. 

 

“I’m gonna clean that cut and get you all taken care of, ok?” Barnes asks softly and Tony nods, peeling his eyes open to look up at Barnes. The other man smiles at him softly and then takes his hand and lays it on his thick thigh, examining it in the gloomy light before turning to the kit on the bedside table and pulling out wet wipes. 

 

It stings, but Tony’s had worse. Barnes’s brow is furrowed, bottom lip caught between his teeth as he works, dabbing the dried blood away slowly. Tony watches through heavy lids as Barnes applies antibacterial cream and then carefully presses on a bandage, touch incredibly gentle for all his super strength. 

 

He watches sleepily as Barnes cleans up and goes back to the bathroom to put the kit away, eyes growing heavier with each minute that passes. When Barnes returns, he smiles softly at Tony and then goes about removing his shoes and socks before tugging gently at the hem of Tony’s jeans. 

 

“Want these off?” 

 

Tony nods before even considering the implication of the question and then it’s too late to even worry because Barnes is moving efficiently—button undone, zipper down and then two seconds later his jeans are off and being folded neatly. 

 

His limbs are guided under the duvet and then lips press to his forehead and he can hear the smile in Barnes’s face when he whispers, “Sleep well darlin.”

 

Tony forces his eyes open when he hears footsteps; “Barnes?” he croaks, voice raw and broken from crying. 

 

The outline of Barnes’s body is faint in the darkness, but Tony can just make out the way his head turns, the sharpness of his cheekbones like knives in the dark. 

 

“Yea?”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Lips curl into a smile. 

 

“You’re welcome Tony.”

 

Tony sleeps. 

 


 

Tony thinks about it a lot. 

 

That kiss to his forehead.

 

The tender way Barnes had touched him, cared for him. 

 

The way he always seemed to be there to make sure Tony had eaten enough. 

 

The way they joked around on comms. 

 

The way his stomach fluttered when Barnes would smile at him, eyes wrinkling around the edges with his laughter. 

 

They way Tony looked forward to seeing him show up in the shop when he thought Tony had been working too long. 

 

So yea, he thinks about it a lot. 

 

The enormity of it terrifies him, and he lets himself be shipped off to Ghana for a meeting that Pepper has been trying to get him to agree to for weeks, just so he can have some distance from Barnes and his feelings. 

 

Except feelings, much like the chicken pox, don’t just go away when we want them to and damn if Tony doesn’t spend every minute away thinking about Barnes and his brilliant blue eyes and wide happy smile. 

 

Maybe they’re just friends. Good friends. 

 

Maybe. 

 

Or maybe not. 

 



Tony stares at Barnes’s door, wondering what in the
hell he’s doing here. So yea, maybe Barnes has been watching Tony’s back, has been kind and caring, that doesn’t mean it means anything….right? He’s been trying to convince himself of that for nearly a week now, avoiding Barnes upon his return from Ghana, and all he’s really figured out is that he misses the man when he’s not around. It’s disturbing and worrisome and...well, kinda nice if Tony is honest with himself. 

 

It’s been a long time since he’s missed anyone like this. 

 

Before he’s managed to work up the courage to knock, the door swings open and Barnes smirks at him, “Was gettin old waiting for you to knock,” he jokes and Tony can’t help the laugh that bursts past his lips. 

 

“Uh yea, uh sorry, I, I’m not bothering you am I? I can go,” Tony stammers, waving a hand, “I’ll go, you’re probably busy and—”

 

Metal fingers cover his lips and he falls silent immediately, wide eyed as Barnes smirks and shakes his head. “I’m not busy, you’re not bothering me, and you should stay.” His hand drops away and Tony finds himself licking his lips, chasing the taste of metal. 

 

Barnes’s eyes track the movement, pupils widening, before his gaze returns to meet Tony’s. “I was just gonna make some dinner and watch a movie, why don’t you join me?” he offers with a warm smile. Tony nods weakly and steps inside when Barnes moves back to allow him in. 

 

“Thanks Barnes,” he murmurs, kicking off his shoes because if there was one thing Jarvis had ingrained in him, it was that shoes come off inside young sir, or would you rather scrub mud out of a Persian rug? 

 

Barnes pauses for a moment in his path to the kitchen and shoots him a wry grin over his shoulder, “You know, I think if I’m gonna be patchin you up and feedin you, maybe you should call me James.” 

 

Tony’s brows rise and then furrow as he follows Barnes, no, James, into the kitchen. “Not Bucky? ” he asks curiously. 

 

James opens the fridge and pulls out chicken, bell peppers, onions, cream, Parmesan, and bacon. He looks up at Tony as he grabs pots and pans and shakes his head, “Nah that’s just what Stevie calls me. My sister Becca used to, and it just sorta stuck. I prefer James these days,” he says, “it’s more me .” 

 

Tony nods slowly, “Sure,” he agrees, and then just sits there dumbly, unsure of what else to say. 

 

James shoots him a look and then grabs a knife from the knife block and holds it out to Tony, “You any good at chopping?” he asks, and Tony grins, nods. 

 

“I’m Italian and Spanish, believe me, I know my way around a kitchen,” Tony jokes, warmth curling into his lungs when James laughs and nods, eyes bright blue, shining like the ocean. 

 

Things pass easily between them then; stories of James’s youth complimented by Tony’s, teasing over the picture of Tony with two missing front teeth melting into stories about Edwin and Anna and then Passover Seder stories that make James smile sadly as he tells them. 

 

Tony barely notices when James heaps another serving of pasta onto his plate, too intent on debating the merits of Lord of the Rings versus the Chronicles of Narnia. He does notice the way James is smiling at him; fond and warm and soft and it makes him breathless and terrified in the best way because god, how long has it been since someone has looked at him like that. 

 

They settle into James’s huge plush couch and end up settling on watching Battlestar Galactica, a show James has never seen before and is instantly enthralled by. Tony spends the better part of four hours watching James’s reactions more than he does the show, and by the time he’s yawning and leaning heavily into James’s side, any and all of his original hesitance to come here has evaporated. 

 

It’s quiet when James turns the tv off, quiet too, and they sit there in silence for awhile before Tony works up the courage to finally say what he came here tonight to say. 

 

“Thank you for taking care of me,” he murmurs into the darkness, cheek still pressed to James’s shoulder. 

 

Fingers capture his hand from where it rests on his thigh, and he shivers as James laces their fingers together. “Of course,” James replies softly, “Thank you for letting me.”

 

Tony shifts and nudges James’s shoulder with his nose gently, smothering his smile by pressing it into the fabric of his flannel. “Can I ask why?” he whispers, heart thrumming in his chest so fast it feels like it’ll burst from his ribcage like a bird being set free. 

 

He thinks he knows. 

 

He hopes he’s right. 

 

He gasps softly when James lifts his hand and brushes his lips against his knuckles and then turns it over to press a kiss to the fresh scar on his palm. Heat shivers up his spine and Tony shifts, swallowing hard and then dares to lift his head and meet James’s gaze. 

 

Stormy skies peer back at him from above knife sharp cheekbones, gaze bright in the darkness around them. 

 

“I think you know,” James murmurs and then kisses Tony’s palm again. 

 

Tony swallows hard and nods, “Please, say it?” he whispers pleadingly, lips trembling as he speaks, his voice quivering with emotion. 

 

James smiles, takes Tony’s hand, and presses it to his sternum. Beneath his palm is the steady thump of a heartbeat. 

 

“Because I care about you Tony. I have for a while and I can’t seem to stop falling for you,” he murmurs, “not that I wanna stop,” he amends with a grin. “Is that okay with you?” he asks softly, hope in his voice. 

 

Tony nods frantically and shifts, leaning in till they’re just scant inches from kissing. “Please don’t ever stop,” he whispers and James lets out a low sound before surging in and kissing him, one hand still pressing Tony’s to his chest while the other slides up Tony’s back and into his hair. 

 

It’s intense and breathless for a moment before James pulls back ever so slightly and then shifts, taking Tony with him when he leans back. Tony shifts into his lap and sighs happily when the hand in his hair massages gently at his scalp, James’s lips still pressed firmly to his. 

 

Heat suffuses his veins and turns him soft and pliant, going willingly where James’s mouth and hands lead him. They kiss and kiss and kiss until Tony’s lips are abraded and hot and bruised and his heart aches in his chest from how happy he is. James takes breaks to pepper kisses over his face, whispering sweetness as he goes, turning Tony’s insides hot and shivery with need. 

 

Eventually they slow and Tony lays his head on James’s chest, sighing as the other man plays with his hair, the steady thump of James’s heart beneath his ear reassuring. “What do you think the others are going to say?” he asks softly, fingers sliding beneath James’s shirt to brush against his firm stomach. 

 

James shifts at the touch and hums softly. “Don't really care what they think,” he replies. “Only matters what you and I think.”

 

“And what do you think?”

 

“I think I want to keep on taking care of you. I think I want this for the rest of forever, and I hope you do too.”

 

Tony shifts and smiles at him, chin digging into James’s chest. “Sounds good to me,” he agrees, ducking his chin to press a kiss to the center of James’s chest through his shirt. James smiles softly and tugs him up for a kiss, lips curled into a smile the whole time, metal fingers in his hair and the other at his hip, holding him close and safe. 

 

They sink back into the couch together, and Tony blinks away tears of joy—finally, at long last, he’s found someone to rely on.