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The Roommate Situation

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Bucky was almost asleep when he heard the key turning in the lock. He held his breath -- please be alone please be alone please be alone -- but when the door opened, he heard a feminine giggle and Rumlow's dark chuckle. Bucky swallowed a groan and pulled a pillow over his head. He couldn't believe he once thought Rumlow's deep, gritty voice was sexy.

Well, okay, maybe it was sexy, but not on Rumlow, because over the last three months, Bucky had learned to hate Rumlow with every fiber of his being.

When Bucky had mustered out of the Army, he'd come back to New York because that was where Steve was, and he'd taken the first job that had come along, with a private security firm, because work was work and the skills he'd picked up in the Army didn't have a lot of applications to civilian life. But he hadn't been able to move in with Steve because Steve's two-bedroom apartment was already so overcrowded they were probably breaking some sort of health code. And living in the hostel had been eating up Bucky's meager savings pretty fast, so he'd been kind of desperate for a place to live.

It had been Bucky's boss, Pierce, who'd hooked Bucky up with Rumlow. Rumlow worked for Hydra Securities, too, on a different squad and shift from Bucky, and Pierce had heard he needed a roommate.

Rumlow's place was a studio, but he'd made it sound very reasonable when they'd met for beers to talk it over. "Look, we'll hang some sheets to mark off private spaces for our beds," he'd said, and at the time, that gravelly voice had hypnotized Bucky so he was only half-listening, really. "We can split up the chores -- I hate washing dishes, never do 'em, so if you take that, I'll take sweeping up. Only fair, since the cat's fur kind of gets everywhere anyway. You're not allergic, are you?"

Bucky had shaken his head dumbly, watching Rumlow's throat work as he swallowed from the longneck bottle, and they'd talked about the rent, which wasn't too bad considering what part of town it was in, and also that it was right in front of a bus stop and only a block down from a subway station.

"Oh, and once in a while I bring a date home. You know how it is, right?" Rumlow had said. Bucky had been about to say something about working out a signal so he could clear out for a few hours when Rumlow continued, "We can get pretty loud, but really, if it's bothering you, just yell or something and I'll get out the gags."

Bucky had laughed, only a hint uneasily. "And hey, if you wanna bring someone over, too, go for it," Rumlow finished, his eyes sparkling with amusement.

It hadn't been until after Bucky had been locked in to the lease that he'd learned that Rumlow hadn't been kidding about the gags. And that "once in a while" was Rumlow-speak for "several nights a week" and that "get pretty loud" had apparently been code for "intense BDSM scenes, heavy on the S/M."

Bucky wasn't averse to a little kinky bedplay from time to time, but he didn't really consider himself part of "the scene". Still, he was pretty sure Rumlow was ignoring a lot of the usual safety rules and that proper aftercare should involve more than tossing his partner a washcloth and a bottle of lotion and telling them there was water in the fridge if they wanted a drink before they headed home.

He was three months into a year-long lease, and Bucky had already bitten his tongue so many times he was pretty sure he was going to lose it entirely.

This one was turning out to be the sort who ramped up to screaming almost immediately rather than trying to be stoic for a while first. Bucky pulled the pillow more tightly around his ears, but it didn't help. He looked at the clock -- it was almost 2, and he had to be up for work at 6. Fuck.

Bucky sat up and pulled on the jeans he'd left on the floor, then reached for a t-shirt, not bothering to look at what was on it. He grabbed his keys and wallet and was out, timing the slam of the door perfectly with the crack of Rumlow's hand (Bucky shuddered at the realization he could identify that) against his date's flesh and another squeal.

He headed out into the dark, praying that someone at Steve's was awake to let him in.

***

"Again?" Steve was still rubbing sleep from his eyes as he padded into the kitchen where Bucky was waiting. Clint's dog, laying under the table, lifted its head and whined hopefully, but dropped back down when Steve walked past the food and water bowls without picking them up. "This is, what, the second time this week?"

Natasha, who'd let Bucky in, graced both of them with a wordless glare for the hour and went back to her bunk in the converted hall closet. (All the Harry Potter jokes had already been made; Natasha's revenge had been swift and terrible and kind of hilarious for those who were not part of the collateral damage.)

"Third, actually," Bucky said around a yawn. "Tuesday's was early enough I just went out for a couple hours."

Steve opened the fridge and pulled out a couple of bottles of orange juice, tossing one to Bucky. "You gotta tell him to knock it off, Buck. It's a dick move, especially in a studio. You need your sleep."

Bucky cracked the top on the juice and drained half of it in one long gulp. "It was sort of part of the agreement," he argued reluctantly. "You could just come over and break his face for me?"

Steve snorted and threw his bottle, already empty, into the recycling bin. "Do it yourself," he said. "I'm not getting arrested again and losing my job because you're too much of a pansy to tell off your dick roommate."

"You're a bouncer, you're expected to have a bit of a record," Bucky argued. "And I've tried to tell him off, but he always... twists out of it. Everything he says seems so reasonable when he's saying it. I can't figure out how he does it."

"He's a slippery fuck," Steve agreed, more in solidarity with Bucky than because he knew Rumlow, but Bucky appreciated it nonetheless. "You know I'd let you move in here if there was any way to fit you in, but--"

"Yeah, I know," Bucky agreed, finishing off his juice. Steve's apartment was a two-bedroom on paper, but they'd somehow managed to cram five regular tenants in -- Steve and Sam in the bigger bedroom, which was the only one that would fit two beds, Clint and Pietro sharing the small bedroom, and Natasha sleeping in the closet. And Pietro's sister, Wanda, worked as a nanny for an uptown family and crashed on the couch on her alternate weekends off.

Steve shrugged. "There's literally nowhere we could put you, unless you want to fight Lucky for the spot under the table." The dog's head lifted at the name, and Steve reached down to scratch its ears, smiling tolerantly.

"If something doesn't change soon," Bucky sighed, "I may actually consider it. But I can have the couch tonight?"

"Sure thing, Buck." Steve clapped him on the shoulder. "I'm going back to bed. I think Pietro's out the door at 5:30; leave him a note and he'll wake you up on his way."

"Thanks, pal."

***

Bucky roused a few too-short hours later to an ungentle shove on his shoulder and a lightly-accented voice saying, "Get up, sleep is for the weak." He opened bleary eyes, but only caught a glimpse of the gray-and-blue courier's uniform as Pietro slipped out on his way to work.

Three hours of sleep felt almost worse than none, somehow. Bucky sat up and stretched, then went into the kitchen to splash water on his face. When he turned around, Natasha was standing in the doorway.

Bucky jumped about three feet and barely clamped his teeth on a startled shout. "Jesus, woman," he complained, remembering at the last minute to keep his voice low for those who worked late shifts and were still sleeping. "Gonna give me a heart attack."

Natasha smirked and stepped past him to reach into the cupboard for a mug. "Better than coffee for getting your blood pumping in the morning."

"You are a terrible person," Bucky returned.

"And yet, you're willing to come here rather than sleep in your own actual bed."

Bucky groaned. "I've got to do something about Rumlow."

"I could kill him for you. Make it look like an accident and everything."

If Clint or Sam had said it, Bucky would've known it was a joke. With Natasha... he wasn't so sure. No one was entirely certain where she worked or what she did, and she always gave Steve her share of the rent and bills in cash. "I'll let you know if things start looking that dire."

"I've heard things about Rumlow," she said, her voice dropping even lower. She frowned into her cup of water. "I'm not sure whether to believe them, but... be careful, James. Don't let him talk you into bed."

Bucky snorted. "No chance. If he was going to do that, he should'a done it back when we first met, before I found out what an asshole he is." He stretched again. "I'd better get moving if I'm going to get my spare uniform out of my locker at work," he said. "Thanks for letting me in last night."

"Mm. It's Wanda's weekend off this weekend, so you'll have to figure something else out if he does it again," Natasha warned him.

"Right, thanks for the heads-up. Maybe I'll hook up with someone who can take me back to their place."

The look Natasha gave him was skeptical. Bucky hadn't hooked up -- or even had a date -- since he'd moved to New York, despite Natasha's fervent efforts to set him up.

He shrugged and grinned. "Miracles do happen."

She stood up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, sisterly. "All the time," she agreed. "But you usually have to work for them."

***

Rumlow came home alone that night, thank fuck. Bucky was sitting on the couch, mindlessly watching TV, already half-asleep. "Dude," he said, "not cool."

Rumlow dredged up a half-sheepish look. "Didn't know she would be such a screamer," he said. The tone was apologetic, but Bucky had been bracing for this all day, and it wasn't an apology.

"I've gotta be up at 6," he pressed. "I know your shift starts later than mine, but seriously."

"Man, if you'd seen her ass," Rumlow said, "you'd know there was no putting that off. That ass was begging for it. But I'll try and mostly stick to the weekends, okay?"

Bucky sighed. It was the best compromise he was likely to get. "Yeah, whatever. I'm going to bed."

It wasn't until he was half-asleep that he realized that meant Rumlow was even more likely to bring a date home on a night when Bucky had nowhere else to go. Like tomorrow.

Fucking hell.

***

Sure enough, Bucky went to sleep in an empty apartment on Friday night and was jolted out of a sound sleep by the sound of the door slamming open. He didn't even bother looking at the clock. It felt like he'd only been asleep for an hour.

Rumlow's voice mingled with that of another man's, which was interesting, because Rumlow's dates were almost exclusively women. This guy must be really something. They were both slurring and laughing and shushing each other excessively, too, so they were drunk off their asses, which meant as soon as they actually got started, they'd forget about being quiet.

Maybe they'd just fuck. Rumlow was a douchebag and an asshole of the first water, but Bucky was pretty sure he wouldn't want to risk really injuring anyone. Would he?

"Tighter," Rumlow's date hissed. So much for that faint hope. "Tighter. Y' promised you'd make me feel it."

The sound of flesh on flesh echoed through the apartment with a crack! "Shut up," Rumlow growled. "Worthless piece of shit, you don't get to tell me what to do."

Bucky grimaced, but bit his tongue. Again. Maybe the guy got off on being put down. There were people who liked that, right? The guy wasn't protesting it, anyway, and it wasn't any of Bucky's business. He pulled the pillows over his head. Maybe it would be a fast scene.

It wasn't a fast scene.

The guy wasn't particularly loud, not like the woman from the other night. On the contrary, he mostly just grunted through impacts, occasionally letting slip a soft whine. But that stoicism was just serving to irritate Rumlow, apparently; even through the pillows' muffling effect, Bucky could hear the sound of the impacts got faster and harder, until Bucky was flinching with each one. Rumlow was getting more and more frustrated and angry and verbally abusive.

After what seemed like hours, Bucky pulled the pillows from his face in frustration and yelled, "Oh my god, will you shut up already?!"

"Hear that, you little bitch?" Rumlow growled, panting. A drawer opened and closed. "You're making too much noise."

It wasn't him I was talking to, Bucky thought, but if Rumlow was putting his things away, it didn't matter.

"No," the other guy said suddenly. "No, put that-- gags are a hard line, I told you, I said they-- No. Stmmmnnnngffff!"

Bucky could ignore shit that made him uncomfortable, he could deal with Rumlow being an asshole, but that was a clear and obvious "no", and if Rumlow was ignoring that-- Bucky saw red.

The sheet that blocked off Rumlow's "room" ripped half out of the ceiling when Bucky threw it aside. Rumlow's back was to him, his date's -- victim's -- body obscured by Rumlow's broad torso as he knelt over the man, both of them struggling.

Rumlow started to turn at the sound of the ripping sheet, a cruel smirk plastered on his face. "Hey, pal, I know--"

He didn't get any further, because Bucky punched him right in the mouth.

Rumlow rolled over and staggered to his feet. He was a big guy -- bigger than Bucky -- and Hydra Securities wouldn't have hired him if he hadn't been a solid fighter, but Rumlow was still half-drunk, and Bucky was both dead sober and blindingly furious. Bucky's next punch landed on Rumlow's face again just as he'd started to straighten, and then Bucky rode him to the floor, fists landing as precisely and mechanically as if Rumlow had been a bag at the gym.

Eventually, Rumlow stopped trying to sit up or throw Bucky off, and Bucky stopped throwing punches. He realized he was sitting on Rumlow's chest, panting for air. Shit, he hadn't lost it like that since... Well, for a long time.

The guy on the bed whimpered, and Bucky startled and turned to look at him. The guy's eyes were blank and glassy, and he wasn't really struggling anymore, just whining around the gag occasionally, and Bucky was pretty sure that was a bad, bad sign.

He scrambled off Rumlow and up onto the bed, and started to work the gag out of the man's mouth. "Hey. Hey guy, look, we're going to get rid of this thing, okay?" Shit, this thing was huge. "Come on, give me a sign you're hearing me, buddy."

Bucky threw the gag on the floor and gently rolled the man's head so Bucky could look into his eyes. If he was focusing, it was on something that wasn't in this room, for sure, and his pupils were pinpricks. His breath was fast and uneven, and now that Bucky was touching him, it was obvious he was trembling all over.

"Fuck, shit. Okay, buddy, hang in there just a minute longer, I've gotta get you out of these fucking ropes..." Bucky looked around, but didn't see any scissors within reach. What kind of moron was Rumlow, anyway? Trick question, obviously: Rumlow was every kind of moron. "I've got to, I need to... Shit, I'll be right back, okay?"

Bucky kept talking, even though he was fairly sure the other guy couldn't really hear him, as he darted for the little kitchenette area and rummaged in a drawer for a knife. He brought it back and cut through the tightest ropes as quickly as he could, and then went to work more gently on the looser ones, trying to avoid touching the fresh welts and bruises while not looking at them too closely.

By the time Bucky finally got all the ropes cleared away, the man had curled into a fetal ball and was shivering like a captive rabbit, breath hitching as he tried not to sob.

Bucky sighed and tossed the knife away, then found the guy's clothes on the floor. "Come on, buddy," he said, trying to make it soothing, though fuck only knew how well he was managing. "Let's get dressed, you'll feel a little better when you're dressed, okay?" He managed to coax the guy into uncurling just long enough to get his boxer-briefs on. "You got a name, buddy?" No answer.

The pants were skinny jeans tight enough to have been painted on, and there was no way they were going back on while the guy was in this state. Bucky emptied the pockets onto the bed -- wallet, phone, a couple of different valet parking stubs -- and leaned over to poke in Rumlow's dresser until he found a pair of sweats. They'd be laughably big, but a hell of a lot more comfortable than jeans.

By the time he'd wrestled the sweats over the guy's legs and hips, the guy had shifted so his head was on Bucky's leg and his arms wrapped around Bucky's thigh like it was his best teddy bear. "Hey, no, that's--" Bucky sighed and dragged the blanket up over the guy in what was probably a vain attempt to stop the shivering.

He grabbed the guy's wallet and found the driver's licence. "Anthony E. Stark," he read. The address was in Manhattan, and the picture on the driver's license showed a handsome, well-groomed man with just a hint of devil-may-care smirk, and Bucky supposed it more or less matched the tousled, red-eyed wreck in his lap. "Is that you?" he asked, and brushed his fingers gently through the damp tangle of the man's hair. "Anthony?"

Bucky was rewarded with a single, jerky nod. "Tony," he corrected in a whisper.

"Oh, hey, you can talk again," Bucky said. He kept running his hand over Tony's hair. "That's good. How you feeling, Tony?"

Tony was quiet for long enough that Bucky thought he might have passed out, but just before Bucky had made up his mind to ask again, Tony managed, "Hurts. Dizzy."

"Yeah, I just bet. Not going to throw up or anything, are you?"

Tony shook his head.

"Anything hurt bad enough you think you need to go to the hospital?"

Tony shook his head again. "No hospital. Just wanna go home."

"Police, maybe?" Bucky suggested. "You could press assault charges on this fucknut; I'd bear witness for you."

Tony jerked a little, as if in surprise, but then shook his head again. "No. Can't have the... No."

"Okay." Bucky grimaced; he'd been hoping Tony would let him call either an ambulance or the police, but he knew well enough there were reasons to avoid both, and he didn't want to push unless it looked like Tony was injured more badly than he let on. "Right, here's the plan, Tony. We're going to finish getting dressed, and then I'm going to call a cab and get you home, okay?"

Tony was still for a moment, then he took a deep breath and pushed himself upright, shrugging off the blanket. "Sure thing." He reached for his shirt and started pulling it on with exaggerated care. Bucky was surprised he was still drunk; he should've at least started to sober up by this point. He must have been hovering on the edge of passing out when Rumlow had brought him home.

Which only made Bucky want to kick the still-unconscious Rumlow in the balls. Instead, he dashed back behind his own sheet long enough to pull on some clothes, then came back to find Tony trying -- not very successfully -- to get to his feet. Bucky slung one of Tony's arms over his shoulder and heaved him up, and let Tony lean on him while they made their way out to the street.

The good news was, it was only one in the morning, so there were plenty of cabs. The bad news was, it was Friday night (well, Saturday morning), so it took forever to find a cab that wasn't already occupied. By the time Bucky got one flagged down and got them into the back seat and reassured the driver that Tony wasn't going to throw up, Tony had started shivering again.

Bucky pulled Tony's wallet from his hands and showed the driver's license to the driver, keeping his thumb over the name and picture. "Take us here."

Tony pulled on Bucky's arm. "Tell 'im t'drive easy, not fast," he said. "Pay 'im cash. In my. My." He waved vaguely at the wallet, frowning like he'd forgotten the word.

When Bucky looked in the wallet, it was well-stocked with cash -- nothing smaller than a fifty. Bucky gave Tony a long look, but Tony had tucked himself into the corner of the seat and pulled his knees up to his chest and wasn't looking back, so Bucky peeled out a few bills and relayed the instructions to the suddenly-agreeable driver before finally sitting back.

"Cold?" he asked as the cab pulled out into the traffic.

Tony shrugged.

"Cold," Bucky persisted, "or is it-- I don't remember the name. Aftershock?"

Tony shrugged again. "Don' matter," he mumbled into his knees. "Just wan'... home."

"We're on our way," Bucky said. "Hey, come here." He reached out and gently put his arm around Tony's shoulders, hesitating to be sure Tony wouldn't throw him off, and then pulled Tony against his side.

Tony sighed as he slumped into Bucky's warmth. "Gotta name?"

"My friends call me Bucky." Tony seemed like he needed a friend.

"Bucky. You mus' think I'm a... an idiot, Bucky," Tony said. "Pervert an' a. An' a idiot. T'let him... do that."

"I don't think you're a pervert," Bucky said. "And everyone makes mistakes. Though maybe going home with a guy for the first time while you were drunk wasn't the smartest move." He squeezed Tony a little tighter as he said it, to try to take the sting out of it.

Tony laughed, harsh and bitter. "That was th' plan. Wanted t'get hammered, an' then nailed." He laughed again, and it wasn't any lighter this time.

Bucky shuddered. "I'm not judging, man, but he could've really hurt you. And not in the good way."

"Wanted it to hurt," Tony sighed. "Thought if it hurt, maybe I'd feel."

Bucky frowned. He'd said something like that to Rumlow, too, hadn't he? "Feel what?"

Tony shrugged again. "An... anythin'."

"What does that mean?" Tony didn't answer. "Tony?" Bucky carefully lifted Tony's chin to confirm what the sudden lack of shivering had made him suspect: Tony had passed out, or possibly just fallen asleep.

Well, at least the fare was already paid. Bucky leaned back in the seat and kept Tony tucked against his side for warmth, and frowned over their brief conversation.

Wanting pain to cut through numbness didn't sound like healthy masochism; it sounded more like a guy Bucky had known back in the service who'd burned out and thought pain was the only thing left that he was capable of feeling. Like PTSD, or depression.

Maybe it was just the booze talking; Tony was pretty drunk. Bucky chewed on his lip and looked down at the man sleeping against his chest, fine-boned and well-groomed, long lashes hiding the bruise-dark circles under those gorgeous eyes.

Lock it down, Barnes, he scolded himself. You're about the furthest thing there is from a white knight.

But Tony was warm and trusting under Bucky's arm, and it had been a long time since Bucky had held anyone like this. He wasn't hurting anyone if he let himself pretend, for a little while.

The cab crossed all the way into Manhattan and finally pulled up in front of a tall, shiny building that Bucky was pretty sure he should recognize, but he was too tired to figure it out. He nudged Tony into a vague sense of wakefulness, at least enough that he could shuffle his feet while Bucky supported him.

Bucky headed for the big glass doors in front of the tower, but then realized Tony wasn't just veering to the side out of inebriation; there was a small, hidden door on the corner. Bucky let Tony steer them toward it, curious. Tony laid a hand on a plate at the side of the door and it opened to show a tiny, neat room that was too small to qualify as either a lobby or a foyer -- the word that Bucky couldn't quite shake for it was "mudroom". Directly across from them, warm yellow light spilled from what looked like a glass-walled elevator.

Tony pulled Bucky into the elevator and immediately slumped against Bucky again.

Bucky looked at the walls as the doors closed. There were no buttons. Or panel covers, that Bucky could see. The elevator started to move. "Uh, Tony?"

"Nn?"

"Where are we going?"

"Nn?" Tony opened one bleary eye just as the elevator reached the tenth floor. The exterior wall changed from concrete and steel to more glass, revealing a swiftly-receding view of the city. "Home," Tony answered, and slumped more heavily against Bucky.

"How does the elevator know where to go?" Bucky asked, already suspecting the answer.

"On'y two stops," Tony sighed into Bucky's shoulder. "All the way up, an' all the way down."

That's what Bucky had been afraid of. He looked back down at Tony's wallet that he still had in his hand. Anthony E. Stark.

"This is Stark Tower," he said, suddenly catching up with that nagging sense of familiarity.

"Tha's the one," Tony agreed. Tony fucking Stark. Who owned Stark Tower. Who had ended up in Bucky's fucking apartment with Bucky's fucking roommate begging to be fucking hurt.

Fucking hell.

***

Tony's penthouse was really nice.

Bucky thought that, as they emerged from the elevator into an immaculately-decorated living room easily twice the size of Bucky and Rumlow's studio, and then he mentally kicked himself four or five times, because of course the penthouse was nice; it was a penthouse.

Bucky felt sort of nervous about walking on the pristine carpet in his old, scuffed-up work boots, but Tony was stumbling and staggering toward the couch and still had Bucky's arm in a death-grip, so Bucky followed along. The couch was white leather, and Bucky really didn't want to touch that, but Tony threw himself down on it with ease, and once again, Bucky was dragged along.

It wasn't until Bucky had recovered his balance and sat up that he saw the coffee table -- or rather, the remains of the coffee table. It had once been some kind of dark, highly-polished wood and glass; now it was kindling and jagged shards. "Oh, fuck," Bucky breathed. "Tony, did you do this? What happened?"

Tony opened one eye and looked at the mess. "Mm? Oh. S'what I do. Break things. Obie said that, once. Perfectly good company, and I was tearing it apart for my own..." Before Bucky had registered the sudden clench in his jaw, Tony lunged forward and slammed both fists into the center of the fragments, where one part of the table was still vaguely recognizeable.

"Shit! What the--" Tony smashed into the glass again, and then again before Bucky was able to grab his arms and restrain him. He was a lot stronger than his slight frame suggested. "Jesus, Tony, stop! You'll hurt yourself! Stop it!"

Tony slumped at once, moment of rage apparently spent. He let Bucky pull him back onto the couch and check his hands for damage. The side of one hand was cut, a thin trickle of blood sliding down his wrist to stain his shirtsleeves. "Doesn' matter." Tony pulled his hand free, waving both in drunken illustration. "It'll heal. Getta new table. New, but different. It's what always happens. Everything goes. Furniture. Tech. People. Before I even heal, there's a new one. The same, but different. All 'cept Pep and Rhodey." His voice caught, just a little, and he folded his arms across his chest. "Dunno why."

Tony was staring at the wreckage as if he half-expected it to animate and reassemble itself in front of him.

Bucky bit his lip, then stood up. "Come on, Tony," he said, trying to keep his voice light.

Tony's eyes turned, slowly, upward. "What?"

"Come on," Bucky repeated. "You can't want to sleep on the couch. Let's go to the bathroom and clean up that cut, and have a glass of water, maybe find a few aspirin, and then get you to bed."

Tony let Bucky pull him off the couch, and pointed the way to the bedroom suite and the bathroom, and sat obediently on the toilet seat, his gaze watery and unfocused, while Bucky rummaged through the cabinets and drawers for the first aid kit. He didn't even wince when Bucky cleaned out the cut on his hand and applied antiseptic ointment. It had already stopped bleeding, and Bucky wondered if Tony would even remember it in the morning. Tony hesitated, however, when Bucky offered him a glass of water and a handful of aspirin.

"Why?" Tony's eyes met Bucky's for a moment, then skated off and dropped again.

"I'm sure you've been drunk before," Bucky said dryly, "don't tell me you don't know how necessary water and aspirin are to keeping that hangover manageable."

Tony sighed. "Jus'... Put 'em down." He nodded at the edge of the counter. "I can', I don'... like being handed things." Bucky's eyebrows raised, but he set the glass and pills on the counter like Tony asked. "Tha's not what I meant."

"I know," Bucky admitted. "But you're still half-drunk and you're apparently in a headspace where the concept of human decency is hard to grasp and I'm not sure you're even going to remember this in the morning, so I'm honestly not sure how I could answer that question in a way that would satisfy you."

Tony looked at Bucky again, his gaze sharper than Bucky would've thought possible for a moment. Then he went slack and unfocused again and reached for the water and aspirin. "Yeah," he said. "Okay. Save that one f'r th' mornin', then."

"Whatever," Bucky agreed, taking the empty glass back and setting it by the sink. "Come on, let's get you tucked into bed."

Tony let Bucky lead him back to the bed and pull off his shoes and socks. He was still wearing Rumlow's baggy sweatpants, which ought to be comfortable enough to sleep in, so Bucky left that alone. "Do you want to keep your shirt on to sleep, Tony?"

Tony shook his head and held up his arms like a sleepy toddler, which was surprisingly cute, but also useless, since it was a button-down shirt. Bucky snorted and crouched in front of Tony to undo all the buttons and help him get his arms out of the sleeves. Bucky's hands brushed over Tony's arms, and Tony shuddered. "You okay?" Bucky asked. "Did I hit a bruise or something?"

art by tanzenlicht

Tony shook his head and leaned into Bucky, thwarting Bucky's attempt to check Tony's arms for injuries left from the ropes. "Feels good," Tony mumbled into Bucky's neck. "Nice."

Bucky worked the shirt the rest of the way off and dropped it on the floor, then pulled the covers back and half-coaxed, half-lifted Tony onto the bed. When he tried to stand up, though, he found Tony's arms wrapped around his waist. "Hey, leggo."

"Stay?" Tony asked.

"Tony..."

"Please?" Tony was all but pleading.

And hell, Bucky thought, it wouldn't exactly be a hardship, would it? Tony's sheets were clean and soft and his bed was probably a hundred times more comfortable than Bucky's own. Not even mentioning that Bucky's bed was back in the apartment where he'd left Rumlow, who was going to be pissed when he woke up.

Not that Bucky couldn't deal with a pissed-off Rumlow, but he didn't necessarily want to do it tonight. He could sleep here, in a more-than-spacious bed, with a rich, attractive (if drunk) guy, and deal with everything else... later.

It was well past 2 AM by now. Putting off everything until later sounded like a fantastic idea, really. "Yeah, okay," Bucky said. "Scoot over, then."

Chapter Text

Tony woke slowly, and from long and painful experience, kept his eyes closed and his body still while he took stock.

He tried to recall the previous night, and mostly dug up the flashing lights and pounding noise of clubs, the sharp bite of alcohol, and the feeling of loathing whenever anyone looked at him admiringly. Everything after that was a blur, and everything after that was black. So it had been one of those nights.

His temples and the base of his skull were throbbing. His eyes felt scratchy behind their lids. The inside of his mouth felt like it was thinly coated with glue and it tasted even worse. His muscles ached, even lying still. So yep: hungover.

It didn't seem to be quite as bad as it usually was after a blackout night, though. That was something. He might be able to get through the day once he'd had half a pot of strong black coffee. And maybe some toast.

Tony opened his eyes slowly, ready to close them again if the morning light tried to split his brain open.

There was a man sleeping next to Tony on the bed. Tony didn't recognize him, but that wasn't altogether unusual. And holy smokes, he was hot, even slack-jawed and tousle-haired in sleep. Tony took a moment to congratulate himself for having done a spectacular job on the prowl, even blackout drunk.

Then he realized that they were in Tony's bed. Tony's bed, which was in Tony's bedroom, which was in Tony's apartment. And that, that was weird, because Tony never, never, never brought his pickups back to his own apartment. It was a hard and fast rule that he'd never violated before. If he picked up someone who didn't have a place they could go, Tony got them a hotel room. Always. What the hell had happened?

Tony rolled over so he could sit up, and hissed in surprise at the fiery pain that cascaded down his back. He flopped back onto his belly, eyes squeezing shut as he gritted his teeth. What the fuck had happened?

"You okay?"

Tony's eyes snapped open. He had apparently woken his guest. Open now, the guy's eyes were stormcloud grey, the brow between them wrinkled slightly with worry. "Uh," Tony managed. "I've been better, to be honest." He pulled his elbows under him to drop his face into his hands, and even that much movement hurt. He focused on breathing, trying to recall morning-after protocol from the host's perspective. "Give me a few minutes to pull myself together, and I'll get you a ride home."

"Sure," the guy agreed. "How much do you remember?"

"Not a damn thing," Tony said. "Sorry, I know I'm not supposed to admit that. If it helps, I assume you were amazing. You wouldn't by any chance know what the fuck I did to my back, would you? Did someone throw me through a window or something?"

The guy winced and sat up, rubbing a hand over his face. He appeared to be fully dressed, which was another odd thing. For that matter, Tony seemed to be wearing pants, too. This was getting weirder by the minute. Tony was not in the habit of taking gorgeous people to bed and not getting naked. "Okay," the guy said, not looking at Tony. "Right. Uh. Short version. My name's Bucky. I'm... not actually the guy you went home with last night. That was my roommate. He brought you back to our place and you guys were..." The guy -- Bucky -- waved vaguely, almost as if he was embarrassed to say "fucking". Tony probably shouldn't find that cute, especially while still hungover.

"Anyway," Bucky continued, still not looking at Tony, "after a while you told him no and he ignored it, so I knocked him out and got you out of there. Brought you back here and put you to bed."

Tony frowned in confusion. Nothing in that summary explained why Tony's whole back side hurt.

"I know it wasn't cool for me to stay," Bucky said defensively, apparently misunderstanding Tony's frown. "But you kind of insisted, and I admit I didn't really want to go back and have it out with my roommate right then. I swear, nothing happened."

"Yeah, whatever," Tony said impatiently. "But what happened to my back?" He wriggled experimentally. "It goes all the way down to my--" A memory flashed: a musty pillow under his face; rough rope wrapped around his wrists; a cruel, mocking taunt; the copper taste of blood on his tongue; the flare of reddish-orange pain on his skin as the short lash made contact. "Oh, hell. I didn't let him fuck me, did I? Tell me it didn't get that far. He was not a good choice."

"Not that I'm aware of," Bucky agreed, looking cautious again. "Memory coming back?"

"Not much, just little flashes." Another: the taste of leather in his mouth, tongue shoving at the obstruction without success, breath coming in a harsh whistle as he twisted and writhed, desperate to get free, haze of panic closing in as that memory elided into another, older--

Tony flinched violently, lurching away from the distant past and shaking himself back into the present. He looked down, and now that he was looking he could see the marks, reddish bruises around his wrists. The ache in his shoulders, he realized, was probably less from the hangover and dehydration and more from having strained his muscles pulling at the bonds. He groaned and dropped his head again. "Fuck. Okay. Right. Getting a clearer picture now." Through main force of will, Tony pushed himself upright to sit on the side of the bed. He was wearing sweatpants that he was relatively sure did not belong to him. He hurt, but that was what he'd wanted, wasn't it? It was no more than he deserved. "Thanks," he said softly. "For..." Rescuing me. Bringing me home. Telling the truth. "Everything."

"Just trying to be a decent person," Bucky said. He slid to the other side of the bed and started putting on his shoes. "You probably want me out of your hair, so uh... I wouldn't normally impose on you for that cab, since you were the victim here and all, but I think I'm out of a roommate now, so my budget just got a lot tighter."

Tony couldn't explain the sense of dread he felt at the thought of Bucky leaving -- he didn't even know the guy -- so he shoved it back and hid it behind a grin. "No trouble at all. Let me just, you know, get dressed first. I mean, not that I have to be dressed to call a cab, I just--"

"It's fine," Bucky said. "Take your time, I'm not working today or anything. Take a shower, change of clothes, whatever you need to feel--" He broke off with a grimace, as if he'd belatedly realized there was no good way to end that sentence. "I'll just wait out there." He pointed toward the living room.

"Yeah, that's... that would be great, thanks," Tony managed. He stayed on the side of the bed, watching until Bucky had left the room, carefully closing the door, before he finally made himself stand up and go into the bathroom and look in the mirror.

His back and ass and thighs were a mess of welts and bruises, but it didn't look like there was any broken skin, thank goodness. He brushed and gargled the nasty fuzz off his teeth and tongue, then hesitated briefly before turning on the shower. Rude as it was to keep Bucky waiting, he desperately needed to wash away the funk of the clubs and some heat to ease the ache in his muscles. He hissed as the water sluiced over the bruises and welts, but then, blessedly, the pain began to ease.

Tony kept it quick, mindful of his unintended guest, and then dressed in the loosest, softest things he could find in his own closet. He found his phone on the dresser, along with his wallet and some parking claims. He wasn't sure how they'd ended up on his dresser, but he suspected the answer was currently wandering around his living room examining the expensive bric-a-brac the designer had insisted on. He scooped up the phone while stuffing everything else in his pockets.

His thumb hovered over the button on the screen that would call his personal driver. There was still cash in his wallet; he could just give Bucky the fare and let him go hail his own cab.

The thought had barely formed before Tony was wincing in anticipation of one of Pepper's "Tony Fails At Being Human" glares. No. No, Bucky had gone to a lot of trouble to help Tony and take care of him, for some reason; the least Tony could do was give Bucky a reasonably comfortable ride back to... well, wherever it was Bucky wanted to go. He thumbed the button.

Happy picked up the phone on the second ring. "Mornin', boss," he said cheerfully. "You're up early for a Saturday."

"Trying a new thing," Tony said glibly. "Gotta say I'm not much liking it so far." He waited for Happy's polite laughter and then said, "Got a passenger for you. Can you have a car waiting out front in ten, fifteen minutes?"

"You got it, boss." Happy almost managed to keep the surprise out of his tone, which was why Tony paid him the big bucks.

Tony disconnected and headed out into the living room. The smell that hit his nostrils as he opened the door obliterated all thought, and he made a beeline toward the kitchen. "Did you make coffee?" The pot was almost full and the smell promised an extra-strong brew, just the way Tony liked it.

"It's a near-universal requirement for dealing with hangovers," Bucky said, sounding amused. "I thought it might not be a bad idea."

Tony poured a cup and gulped down a scalding swallow with a sigh of bliss. "Maybe I'll keep you after all," he sighed.

Bucky laughed, amid an odd tinkling noise.

Tony took another gulp of coffee and said, "Car'll be here in ten minutes."

"That's fast," Bucky said. "Thanks." That was followed by a loud crashing noise, and Tony looked around in shock. Bucky appeared to be sitting on the floor in front of the couch. What the hell?

Tony edged around the side of the couch for a better view. Bucky was kneeling on the floor, using a dustpan he'd found god knew where to scoop up the shattered shards of the table Tony had destroyed the previous night in a fit of pique. Bucky was dumping the glass bits into a wastebasket that he'd apparently dragged in from the kitchen.

"What are you doing?" Tony said in surprise. "Don't, don't do that, I have people to do that. You'll hurt yourself, come on, get up, get out of there. Are you hurt, did you hurt yourself?"

Bucky looked up with a grin. "I'm fine, Tony. It's not a big deal. What were you going to do, just walk around it until the cleaning service came in and found it?"

"Uh." That was more or less exactly what Tony had planned, inasmuch as he'd thought about it at all. "Yes?"

Bucky laughed and used a small brush to scoop up and brace another bunch of shards. "That's not very kind to the cleaning service, is it? At the very least you should warn them what's waiting so they can come prepared to deal with it."

"Trust me," Tony said, leaning against the wall and sipping his coffee, "my cleaning service always comes prepared for everything, with me."

Bucky snorted, though the sound was almost covered by the crash and tinkle of the glass falling into the trashcan. "You shouldn't just live around the edges of a mess like this, though," Bucky said. "You could get hurt."

"I could get hurt if I tried to clean it up, too," Tony pointed out. "You're making me nervous, come on, get out of there."

Bucky gave him an exasperated look, but stood up, pointedly leaving the dustpan and brush right by the pile of glass. He brushed off the knees of his sweatpants and picked his way across the carpet and out of the glass-shard area. "At least if you get hurt cleaning up the mess, you can say it was in a good cause," he pointed out. "Or if it's too big or dangerous to clean up yourself, you should call the professionals right away. Don't let it just sit there."

Tony sighed. "It literally happened last night; it's not like I've been living with it for weeks or anything."

"That's fair, I guess." Bucky said. "What did that table ever do to you, anyway?"

Tony tensed, but Bucky just looked curious. Tony sighed and looked away. "A few months ago, I found out that my-- that one of my chief advisors has been undercutting me, making unauthorized, illegal sales and recruiting key members of my Board of Directors in preparation for a takeover. I confronted him and gave him the option to retire gracefully rather than face prosecution, if he'd give up the dirty Board members. He didn't even blink." Tony's headache throbbed, and he gulped his coffee. "He was like a second father to me. I trusted him. They trusted him. He has no concept of loyalty or..." Tony forced himself out of the familiar ruts of the rant.

"There was an article in Wall Street yesterday about it," he said instead, trying to keep his voice steady. "Him and his cronies all 'retiring' in a batch like that... That sort of thing causes a flutter in business circles. There was some speculation in the article about what had happened, but of course I can't say anything. My hands are tied. And he'd given them an interview and let them infer that I'm the bad guy, that I'm..." Tony could feel his hands curling into fists again. "And I have to just sit here and take it, because he accepted the offer, and I'm following the god damned rules..." He swallowed hard, feeling the ache in his jaw that meant his teeth were probably grinding hard enough to be audible. "I got mad, took it out on the table."

Pepper, every time they'd had this conversation, always sighed and said something sympathetic and weary about the nature of corporate business. Rhodey usually clapped him on the shoulder and urged Tony to just grit his teeth and muscle through the transition phase. Like it was a minor medical procedure or something. Bucky, who didn't know any of the players involved -- not even Tony, really -- and didn't seem to be well-versed in the ways of business, probably wasn't going to make heads or tails of that explanation.

Bucky frowned, and Tony braced for confusion or disdain. "That completely sucks," Bucky said. "No wonder you were so pissed."

Deep in Tony's gut, something gave out with a painful twang, like a rubber band snapping against some internal organ -- and then, like a popped balloon, Tony felt deflated, drained of pain and anger, as if those simple words had given him permission to feel all that hurt and betrayal and fury -- and simultaneously stripped away his need for them. Tony felt, for the first time, validated. He stared at Bucky in amazement.

Bucky didn't seem to notice Tony's sudden revelation. "Guess I'd better get down there for the cab," he said.

No, don't go! Tony didn't say it, but he wanted to. He made himself smile instead. "Yeah," he agreed, even though Happy would patiently wait at the curb for an hour. Instead, he spread a hand, wordlessly inviting Bucky to step into the elevator that led back down to the ground floor.

"Oh, hey, you don't have to come see me off," Bucky said when Tony followed him in.

Tony shrugged as the elevator doors closed and they began to descend. "Need to give my driver the valet stubs so he can pick up the car anyway," he said, trying for nonchalant.

"Your... driver. Right. I keep forgetting."

Tony tried not to curl in on himself at Bucky's tone, because he'd heard that tone before, of course, he was used to it, it didn't bother him any more. It was a tone that came from people who weren't accustomed to the wealth Tony had grown up with. Usually the subtext was envy. Or resentment. Or avarice. Tony had heard all of them, a million times over.

Tony snuck a look at Bucky, trying to identify which it would be this time. But Bucky was just... watching him. Calm. A little intent, but more curious than anything else. As if Tony was a piece of a puzzle that Bucky had not previously realized was missing.

Tony wasn't sure what to do with that, so he turned to face the door again.

Happy was waiting a careful two steps away from the elevator doors when they opened, ready to help however he might be needed -- to carry bags, to prop up the inebriated, to tactfully pry off the clingy. None of those were needed for Bucky, who was awake and not even suffering a hangover and seemed perfectly content to walk out of Tony's life entirely now that he'd done his good deed.

Tony tried not to feel abandoned as Bucky introduced himself to Happy, shook hands, and explained in a suddenly broad Brooklyn drawl where it was they would be going. Happy asked a few questions back to clarify, and Tony -- not at all petulant -- leaned against the wall to wait, then had to bite back a hiss of pain as the pressure reminded him of the bruises still decorating his skin.

Bucky and Happy both turned to look at him.

"So, hey, Hap, while you're going to be over that way anyway," Tony said, leaping into the interlude as if he'd manufactured it on purpose, "I left the car last night." He fished the two valet tickets from his pocket. "One of these two places, I expect. After you drop off Bucky here, you think you could locate it and arrange for it to come home?"

"You got it, boss," Happy agreed, letting Tony drop the tickets into his broad hand. He tucked them carefully into the breast pocket of his jacket, then gestured toward the waiting car. "Ready, sir?"

"You bet," Bucky said. He glanced at Tony and hesitated, as if he was trying to decide if he wanted to shake Tony's hand, or hug him, or--

Tony cut off that line of thought with a simple wave. "Thanks again," he said. As if Bucky had just come over to help move furniture or something.

Bucky's mouth flattened and he nodded sharply, and turned toward the car, and Tony tried to fight the sense of yearning as he watched.

Happy hurried ahead to open the door for Bucky, which Bucky laughed at. He had a nice laugh, Tony thought, and then immediately quashed the thought.

Bucky put a hand on the top of the car and started to get in, but he glanced back and caught Tony's eye, and stopped. His head tipped slightly as he studied Tony, face impassive.

Tony didn't say anything. What was there to say? Don't go, I'll miss you? Ridiculous. He didn't even know Bucky, really.

"Or," Bucky said, pitching his voice to carry across the wide sidewalk to where Tony was still standing, "you could come with me. Hang out, meet a couple of my friends, and pick your car up yourself when you're ready to go home."

Nonsense. Tony was a businessman and an inventor, wildly successful and far too busy even on a Saturday to just go "hang out" with the friends of someone he'd only just met. Who even still said "hang out" after college anymore, anyway?

"Schedule's clear, boss," Happy put in from far closer than he had been a few seconds ago. Somehow, Tony had moved to the middle of the sidewalk without even noticing.

"How do you know my schedule?" Tony asked. He looked at Bucky. "How does he know my schedule?"

Bucky grinned and shrugged. "I am not the guy with the answers here." He folded into the car with an innate grace that Tony could only admire.

"Ms. Potts gives me your schedule each night for the next day," Happy said patiently, as if he'd explained this a thousand times before. Maybe he had. Tony did have a tendency to let unimportant details like that slip away. "She said you were clear today."

Happy was still holding the car door open, watching Tony with the straight face that meant he was trying not to smile. "I see you smirking," Tony told him as he climbed into the car. "You're fired. I mean it this time."

"You bet, boss," said Happy, having learned more than a decade ago not to take Tony's threats seriously. "You want me to put the privacy partition up?"

"So very fired."

***

The apartment building to which Bucky directed Happy was in relatively good repair, only a few blocks away from the strip of clubs and bars where Tony had started the previous night. He bid farewell to Happy and promised to call if he needed a ride home, then followed Bucky up the steps, fighting down a strange twinge of uncertainty. He met strangers all the time, and charmed the pants off them (literally, in some cases). This should be no different.

Bucky punched in the code for the door and pulled it open. "I'm over all the time," he explained. "I practically live here, really, except for sleeping." He pushed into the stairwell. "Come on, we're only on the third floor, it's not worth waiting on the elevator unless you're carrying something heavy. Or," he added judiciously, "injured."

Tony followed Bucky gamely; two sets of stairs was hardly arduous. "Does that happen often? The injury thing?"

Bucky, already halfway up the first flight, glanced back over his shoulder with a grin. "Well, Steve's a bouncer and he's been known to interrupt muggings if he spots them, so he's got some variety of injury more or less constantly. Clint's kinda accident prone if he's not paying attention to what he's doing. Pietro's usually too fast to get clipped, but every once in a while his luck runs out and a taxi tags his bike. Sam works over at--"

"How many people are in this apartment?" Tony interrupted.

"Uh. Five, most days. Except for every other weekend Wanda crashes on the couch, so I guess six, today."

"That... seems like a lot," Tony said. "All in one apartment?"

Bucky shrugged and kept climbing. "Well, their work schedules are staggered; that helps. And they're all friends. Won't say they're not occasionally sick of each other, but it beats being alone, right?"

Tony couldn't say; he hadn't shared a living space with anyone since his parents had died.

Bucky pushed out into the third floor hallway. Tony followed him past a few doors, and then he stopped and knocked. "I have the code, but not a key," he explained. "Landlord controls who gets keys. Wanda doesn't have one, either. I'm still not sure how Nat talked him into giving her one."

The door was opened by a stunningly gorgeous blond with shoulders wider than the door frame. He beamed at Bucky with the guileless joy of a golden retriever. "Bucky! You're late. I was starting to think you got called into work or something."

"Had a weird night," Bucky said, greeting his friend with a hug. "Tell you all about it in a bit. This's Tony. Dragged him along, hope it's cool," he said in a tone that obviously expected no objection. "Tony, this is Steve."

"Of course," Steve said, offering Tony a massive hand to shake. "Any friend of Bucky's is welcome here."

Tony put on his best smile. "Thanks," he said. "But don't let me get in the way if you're busy."

Steve grinned and stood aside so Bucky and Tony could edge past him into the apartment. "Not yet, anyway. Gotta go to work later, but there's always someone here."

"That's right, Bucky said you were a bouncer," Tony said.

Bucky leaned on the back of the couch, which was occupied by a thin, dark-haired woman and a sandy-blond man, both fiercely invested in a video game. "Yeah, Steve's the head bouncer over at the Shield."

"I've been to the Shield a few times," Tony said, looking Steve up and down a few times. "Don't remember seeing you there."

"They don't let me on the door line very often. Apparently I'm a sucker for a sob story and I don't ask high enough bribes." Steve grinned and rubbed at the back of his neck. "And inside, you shouldn't see us unless you're causing trouble. So you must not be much of a troublemaker."

"Why would I go to all the effort of making trouble when I can just wait for trouble to find me?" Tony wondered, and was pleased when Steve chuckled at the joke. He took another few steps into the room and looked around curiously.

The living room furniture consisted of a worn sofa/loveseat/armchair set that probably dated back to the eighties and a cheap entertainment center in a wholly different style that looked like it had been recovered from a Dumpster -- it was covered with scratches and dings and, on one side, what looked like about fifty sparkly hearts-and-rainbows stickers. Some scrapes and dried glue splotches suggested someone had tried to clean the stickers off but then quickly given up.

The walls were that boring off-white endemic to rental apartments, but someone had penciled a mural on the wall containing the door and had just begun to paint it in -- it looked like a scene lifted out of a comic book. On the opposite wall was a dartboard; a set of darts with purple fletching were clustered at the center, and several other sets were stuck into the backboard. The carpet was trodden flat along the main areas of use and sported several suspicious-looking stains. Tony's interior decorator would probably already be going into conniptions and insisting that every single thing in the room be removed and, preferably, incinerated.

Tony, on the other hand... kind of liked it. It was ugly and comfortable and homey in a way that Tony couldn't quite put into words, even in his own mind. The pair on the couch were muttering invective at each other, bodies twisting in their unconscious efforts to control their vehicles on the screen, and occasionally kicking at each other in an attempt to distract.

Bucky elbowed him. "That's Natasha," Bucky said, nodding to a pretty redhead sitting sideways in the armchair with a book in her lap. Tony hadn't even noticed her until Bucky pointed her out.

"Hi," he said when she looked up. "I'm--"

"Tony," she finished. "I heard before." She smiled, the kind of smile that made Tony want to return it, even if he wasn't sure why. "Good to meet you," she said.

"Likewise." Tony was about to ask what she was reading when the woman on the couch let out a whoop of triumph and the man started cursing vehemently.

"You are a cheater!" he accused, swinging a lazy backhand in her general direction and missing by a mile. "I am the champion, you are doing some kind of voodoo magic shit to beat me!"

"Or maybe," she returned, laughing, "you're just not as good as you think you are." She had a hint of accent that Tony couldn't place.

"Fuck you, I'm every bit as good as I-- Oh, hello, new guy," the man said, noticing Tony for the first time. "Who are you?"

"I'm Tony."

"Clint." Clint reached up to offer his hand and Tony took it. "And the voodoo magic bullshit queen over here is Wanda. So, you play darts, Tony?"

"Once in a while?" For bar games, Tony preferred pool and billiards, where his superior understanding of geometry was an asset.

Clint grinned. "You play darts for money, Tony?"

"Clint, no." That came from Natasha.

"Dammit, Nat--"

Natasha pointed at Tony. "Do not play Clint for money. Ever. At any game. Especially darts."

Steve, settling onto the loveseat, laughed and nodded in rueful agreement. "No one ever beats Clint at darts--"

"Except me," Bucky threw over his shoulder, crossing the room.

"Except Bucky, once in a blue moon," Steve continued agreeably. It had the air of an oft-rehearsed interjection. "Betting on darts is how Clint's able to pay his share of the rent while only working part time delivering pizza. Don't play him for money."

"How about cards?" Tony asked innocently. He had an eidetic memory and a head for statistics; he'd learned to count cards in middle school, about the same time he'd learned how to drink whiskey.

Natasha narrowed her eyes at him, appraising. "Your funeral," she said with a shrug.

"So, Tony, who do you belong to?" Clint asked.

"Uh, myself?" Tony looked around, but Bucky had disappeared. Tony tried not to panic; it wasn't like he'd left the apartment. He was probably just hitting the head.

"He came in with Bucky," Wanda said absently. She was using her controller to spell out a high score name of CLINTSUX. She hit the save and smirked at Clint.

"I do," Clint told her solemnly. "Very, very well."

"Ewww, I don't want to know that!" Wanda yelled. "That's my brother you're talking about! Steve! Make him stop!"

Steve laughed, wholly unsympathetic, and Tony sagged in relief when he heard Bucky's laughter, too. He followed the sound and found himself in the kitchen, where Bucky was searching through the refrigerator. Bucky smiled at him. "They treating you okay in there?"

"I guess so," Tony said. There was small table in the kitchen, set against the wall with three chairs around it. It seemed to be more of a de facto mail sorting station than a place for eating meals. There was a dog lying under the table, a medium-sized mutt with tawny fur, one ragged ear, and a missing eye. Tony bent down and offered his hand; the dog sniffed at him and then gamely licked his knuckles.

"That's Lucky," Bucky supplied. "In theory, he belongs to Clint. In practice, he mostly just stays in the kitchen and begs for snacks. I know he looks a bit rough, but he's a good boy, hardly ever barks, wouldn't hurt a fly. Aren't you? Aren't you a good boy?" Bucky bent over and rubbed between the dog's ears; Lucky responded with a few happy beats of his tail against the floor.

"Guess you forgot to include him in the population count," Tony joked. "The other two are out working?"

"Probably," Bucky agreed. "Sam is, for sure. Pietro doesn't usually work Saturdays, but he might be covering someone's shift. Or he might be at a race. Either way, Sam'll probably beat him home." Bucky set a bottle on the counter. "Beer?"

"Thanks." Tony took it, and found an opener near the sink. "How do you keep it all straight? I can't even keep track of my own comings and goings; I've got a whole person who has to do that for me."

Bucky laughed as he took the bottle opener from Tony to use on his own bottle. "Your life is probably a little more complicated than ours. And I don't actually keep it all straight, I'm just guessing. It's not like there's any need to orchestrate anything, here, except maybe to make sure someone's home to take delivery when the pizza arrives."

"True," Tony allowed. He followed Bucky back out to the living room, where Clint and Wanda were apparently engaged in a rematch. Bucky flopped down next to Steve on the loveseat, propping a leg on Steve's lap and laughing when Steve shoved it back off.

Tony hesitated, torn between disturbing the gamers on the couch or sitting on the floor, but before he could decide, Wanda kicked Clint and they both carefully scooted over to make space for Tony. He sat gratefully.

"So tell me about this crazy night of yours," Steve said to Bucky, and Tony froze.

"Oh, god, I don't even know where to start," Bucky groaned. "Uh. I punched Rumlow out?"

"You what?" Steve looked downright gleeful. "Well, it's about time! What happened?"

Bucky grimaced and carefully did not look in Tony's direction. "He ignored a clear no and stepped over a hard line, and I maybe saw a little red."

Steve's face turned thunderous. "He did what?"

"So I punched him out and got his date out of there before he could come to. Haven't gone back. Guess I'm gonna need a new place to live."

"Fuck that," Steve said. "If anything, he should be the one who gets kicked out. I knew he was kind of an asshole, but crossing hard lines... Damn it. I want to go punch him myself, now."

"I'm in!" Clint said, even as he contorted his body in an effort to get his video game character to move faster. "Take me with you."

"No," Bucky said firmly. "Do not gather up the crew and go punch Rumlow, Jesus; he will have no compunction at all about having you all arrested."

"Gosh, none of us have ever been arrested before," Clint said, dry as the Sahara.

Natasha stood up, setting her book carefully on the arm of her chair. "Tony, would you help me, please?" She left the room without waiting to see if he would follow.

"Uh." Tony glanced around the room, but everyone else was still absorbed in arguing about whether they should go out to beat Rumlow to a pulp. Even Wanda had gotten into it, arguing that her brother would surely want to join in and that they should wait for him. It was kind of touching, really, even if none of them knew it was Tony's nonexistent honor they were trying to avenge.

Tony got up and followed Natasha. He found her in the hall bathroom, which was small but neater than he would have expected for an apartment with five (sometimes six) residents. She opened the medicine cabinet, then pointed. "There, on the top shelf, the brown bottle with the cork."

Tony took down the bottle. The cabinet was mounted high, but not so high that Natasha couldn't have reached it if she'd stood on her toes. When he turned around to hand it to her, she was already offering him a folded washcloth.

"What?"

Natasha's expression was calm as she continued to hold out the cloth to him. "It's an old home remedy," she said. "Sort of like IcyHot with a topical anaesthetic built in. Numbing and healing. Good for bruises, welts, other minor surface injuries."

Tony's heart stammered in his chest. "I don't know what you--"

"You're moving like you're hurt," she said. She cocked her head toward the living room, where the discussion was still ongoing. "I won't tell. Do you need help?" She smiled, just a bit. "Or would you rather I get Bucky to come assist?"

"No," Tony said quickly. Jolted into action, he finally took the cloth she was still holding out for him. "I can do it."

"Good," she said, still smiling. She left the room before he could answer, closing the door soundlessly behind her.

The stuff in the bottle smelled pungent, but when Tony gingerly applied it to a sensitive stripe on his upper thigh, it didn't hurt at all. Instead, it left behind a tingling cool sensation that made him sigh in relief. It took him a while to get the stuff on all the places that hurt -- a second set of hands probably would have been quicker, but also about twenty times more humiliating.

Finished, he rinsed out the cloth and dropped it into the hamper in the corner of the room, then stood with his hand on the doorknob for what seemed a ridiculously long time. She'd said she wouldn't tell the others, but... it probably wasn't hard to piece together, was it?

He couldn't hide in the bathroom all night, though. He'd been humiliated before; what was once more? Tony took a deep breath, pasted on his show face, and went back out into the living room.

Natasha didn't even look at him when he came back out, her nose buried in her book which, Tony saw as he passed, appeared to be written in Cyrillic. Bucky glanced up and grinned, but no one else seemed to particularly notice his return. Tony relaxed, just a bit.

The seating had rearranged in his absence; Wanda and Steve had traded places, and Tony's former seat on the couch had been taken over by a newcomer who was sprawled across the cushions in what Tony easily identified as a "just home from work and doesn't want to move" position.

"Hey, Tony, this is Sam," Bucky said when Tony pulled up, unsure where to sit now.

Sam looked over at Tony and waved tiredly. "I'll be excited about Bucky making new friends in a few minutes," he promised. "Right now I just need a juice. Someone go get me a juice."

"Get it yourself," Steve said tartly. His tongue was stuck out of the side of his mouth as he took his turn at the video game.

"All out, anyway," Clint said. He kicked Steve, who kicked back. "Ow! The fuck, man?"

"You started it," Steve muttered.

"The hell you mean we're out of juice?" Sam demanded. "There were three bottles in there when I left this morning!"

"Had the last one with lunch," Clint said distractedly. "Shit shit shi-- Yes! Eat my dust, Rogers!"

"God dammit," Steve growled, hunching over his controller like he was going to intimidate it into working better.

"Barton, you son of a bitch!" Sam snapped. He yanked the throw pillow out from under his elbow and smacked Clint on the head with it, hard.

"You don't-- fuck, you made me crash again, you asshole!" Clint said. He threw the controller on the table and turned to glare at Sam.

"You drank my damn juice!" Sam snapped. "One thing, you shit--"

They seemed to be getting intense; Tony edged back toward the hallway. He didn't, he couldn't get into the middle of this, the anger was practically palpable. It wasn't directed at him, but he could feel his heart racing in response, a steady tattoo of run away run away run away run away.

"You okay?"

Tony looked up, startled, to find Bucky across from him, one hand held out hesitantly. "I'm. Fine, I'm fine," Tony managed. "Just wanted to, uh--"

"You look a little pale," Bucky said. "Want some water or something?"

God, no, to get to the kitchen for water, they'd have to go back through the living room, the fight, drawing attention-- "No," he said quickly. "No, I'm good, I'm fine, it's just a bit... Do we want to clear out, give them some, you know, some space?"

"Them? Oh, Clint and Sam?" Bucky leaned out so he could see into the living room. "They're fine, they'll sort it out." He must have seen the doubt on Tony's face. "Really, they will. Fights happen, they'll get over it."

"That didn't look like a 'sort it out' kind of fight," Tony said.

"Tony, it's juice. Sam's just tired and grouchy, it's not--" The slam of the front door reverberated through the apartment. "There, see? Clint's gone to buy him some more. It'll be fine. Don't your friends ever squabble over stupid shit?"

Tony could count his friends on one hand, with fingers left over, and were rarely in the same room at the same time aside from formal or official occasions. And when they were, they were more often than not united in trying to talk Tony down from some manic notion. He couldn't entirely figure out how to say that, though, at least not without sounding completely pathetic. He just shrugged.

"They're not fighting now, anyway. Come on back into the room." Bucky smiled encouragingly.

Tony couldn't figure it out, why it mattered, and couldn't put the question into words, either. He pinched at the bridge of his nose for a few seconds, then nodded. "Yeah, fine, sure." He let Bucky pull him back into the room and nudge him into Clint's vacated spot on the couch between Sam and Steve.

"Sorry about that, man," Sam said, offering a hand. "I'm not like that, really. Ask any of these guys. I don't care if someone mooches my stuff, it all comes around eventually, I'm not in a hurry. But after a day like today, I get home, I really want a nice cold juice to wash down that taste of anger and bitterness at the back of my throat, you know?"

Tony knew exactly about the taste of anger and bitterness at the back of his throat, though he was more accustomed to trying to wash it away with whiskey. He wondered if juice worked any better. "What do you do?" he asked.

"I work for a crisis center for battered women and kids. Not first-line -- most of those women don't want anything to do with any kind of man, you know? But the kids usually aren't as skittish, so I help with them a lot, keep them in crayons and Band-Aids while their moms are with the counselors. Or since I have some medical training, I'm in the clinic sometimes. Wherever I'm needed, really -- job training, the kitchen, whatever."

"Wow." Tony tried to imagine it, tried to imagine spending every day facing down the results of humanity at its very worst and trying to repair that damage. He couldn't even comprehend how that might feel. If anyone deserved a drink at the end of a day... But Sam just wanted juice. "Wow," he said again.

Steve chuckled. "Yeah, Sam gets all the points for most awe-inspiring job. But how many points does he get at CartKart? Zero. He gets zero points at CartKart."

"Go to hell," Sam said, without heat. "I am the boss of CartKart."

"No, I am the boss of CartKart today," Wanda corrected, amused. "And Steve is in second place." She paused, and her smirk grew wider. "One more high score and we can knock Clint off the leaderboard entirely."

"Hand me the controller," Sam said. "Let's do this thing."

Despite goodnatured ribbing ("How are you this bad? Did you have to take classes to learn how to be this bad?") it only took three games for Sam to get a score high enough to put him on the leaderboard, in third place. He was just entering his name and bitching about how the name slot wasn't long enough for him to fit "EAT MY DUST CLINT" when the apartment door opened again and Clint came back in, a plastic grocery store bag in one hand and the other arm around the waist of a tall, slender man with hair dyed platinum-blonde.

Clint took one look at the leaderboard on the screen and slumped. "Aw, game," he whined. "I take it back, Wilson, this is my juice now. Go get your own."

They broke into squabbling again, this time much less heated. The new guy -- Tony replayed what he'd been told about the apartment's occupants and concluded that it must be Pietro, Clint's boyfriend and Wanda's brother -- ignored them and walked over to kick the side of the loveseat where Bucky and Wanda were sitting. "Get up, get out," he said. He had the same gently lilting accent as Wanda and was wearing a Quicksilver Couriers uniform, which explained Bucky's earlier comment about him occasionally being tagged by a taxi.

Bucky got up without protest and made his way over to the couch, where he fell into the slender gap between Steve and Tony, forcing them to rearrange themselves to make space. Tony ended up lightly squashed between Bucky and Sam; the couch was not meant to hold four full-grown men. For an instant, he felt trapped and claustrophobic, and then the feeling faded and it was... warm and surprisingly comfortable. Wanda, however, apparently didn't want to leave her seat. She and Pietro started arguing and mock-wrestling as he tried to lever her out of the loveseat.

Clint finally handed over the juice to Sam. He watched the siblings squabbling for another few seconds, then stepped over and solved the problem by plopping down on Pietro's lap.

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"Oof," Pietro complained, even as his arms wrapped around Clint's waist. "How much pizza do you deliver, and how much do you eat?"

"Oh, shut up," Clint said, and leaned in for a kiss. Tony looked aside and tried to ignore the ache under his sternum.

"I am right here," Wanda groaned. "You two are disgusting."

"I tried to get you to move," Pietro pointed out, grinning.

"They're like this all the time," Bucky observed to Tony, not bothering to lower his voice.

"The lovebirds, or the siblings?" Tony asked, following suit.

"All three of them," Sam put in. He held out the remainder of the six-pack of juice, dangling it by the empty loop. "Anyone want some juice?"

"I'll take one," Steve said, snagging the pack. "So, that's Pietro, which means I think you've met everyone who lives here, now. Pietro, this is Tony--"

"Tony Stark," Pietro said, looking past Clint at Tony. His lip curled in the faintest sneer. "I know who you are."

Tony blinked in surprise, and blinked again when he realized that he was surprised. He'd actually been enjoying himself. He'd let his guard down. He'd let himself think that these people didn't know or care who he was or what he'd done, that he had a chance to enjoy time spent with people who were friends -- not his friends, but people willing to be themselves with each other and in his presence. No masks or guards or false smiles, just genuine affection and appreciation that he could pretend to be part of.

Well, he'd had a couple of hours. It would have to do. His mask slammed back into place, smooth and automatic. "And on that note," he said, standing up, "it looks like it's time for--"

A hand grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked, and Tony flailed and fell back onto the couch, barely suppressing a yelp. "What the fuck?"

"Screw that," Bucky said, glowering. "You're my friend, you can stay. If Pietro has a problem with you, he can speak up like a goddamn adult or he can shut up and fucking deal with it."

No no no, Tony wanted to say, God, no, don't stick your neck out for me again, I can handle this, I'm used to this. Tony had been hated for a long time and for a lot of reasons; he'd long since learned to ignore its sting. And then, wait, back up, what did you mean, I'm your friend?

None of it actually made it out of his mouth, though.

Pietro glared back at Bucky, but when he spoke, the words were obviously meant for Tony. "Some of us," he said carefully, disdainfully, "work for a living. Some of us depend on tips. So when some of us are contracted for a cross-town rush delivery and manage to beat the deadline despite a fire, six blocks closed for a movie filming, and an accident involving two tour buses, some of us expect better than five percent."

"Wait," Tony said, brain suddenly fully engaged, whirring in calculation. "You did a drag-drop to SI and only got five percent? When was that? Do you remember who signed the receipt? Because there's a-- We have a policy for courier tipping and five percent is, it's an insult-- you should've gotten better than that for a standard delivery, never mind a rush job, a rush should've been twenty-five!"

"Four months ago, now. I complained, and was told the policy was five, across the board," Pietro said, looking at Tony directly now through slitted eyes. "An edict from on high, it was said, Mr. Stark. Others were told the same thing. So Quicksilver no longer does business with Stark Industries."

"From on-- son of a bitch, I will..." Tony stood up again, and this time Bucky let him go. He had the phone out of his pocket in a flash, pacing as well as he could in the crowded confines of the room as he thumbed the screen. "Pepper," he said as soon as she answered. "Pep, I know it's Saturday, I know, but I don't have a computer on me and I need you to check on something."

"Tony, can't this wait for--"

"Just quick, Pep, I swear it'll only take a second. Before O-- Before he left us, did he make any policy changes? Like in the last, oh, six months or so?"

Over the phone, he heard Pepper's low sigh and the sound of keys tapping. "Policy changes all the time, Tony. What are you looking for?"

"Tipping and gratuities," Tony said. "I'm being told, right now, that Quicksilver broke their contract with us because we had a new policy to stiff the damn couriers."

More tapping. "They didn't actually break it, they just failed to renew," Pepper corrected. "And... yes, I'm looking at the most recent policy now, updated five months ago. It was justified as a cost-saving measure."

"How much do you want to bet the new contract went to someone he has ties to, and that their fee structure is inflated to make up for the reduction on tips?" Tony muttered in frustration, running his free hand through his hair in frustration. "Look, the damage is done, not much we can do right this minute, but make a note; I want a full cost benefit analysis done. By someone we trust, Pep, okay? Business is business, but there's business and then there's cheating people who are trying to make an honest living."

"Okay, Tony, I'm making a note and we'll get the ball rolling first thing Monday, okay?"

"You're the best. Oh, hey, as long as you're going to be sending the analysts into a tizzy anyway, have them work up a model for employing in-house couriers at key locations instead of contracting it out. Call it an extension of the mailroom, maybe. Then we can make sure the money's going where we want it to go."

"I don't know, Tony," Pepper hedged, "the legal team is going to have some things to say about--"

"I'm not saying do it, I'm saying do the analysis. See this? This is me trying to play nice with the Board instead of just sweeping in and making changes this time, but I need you to help me out here so I have numbers to argue with. But I swear to god, Pepper, if Daniels argues with me on the five percent bullshit then I'm going to make his wages tip-dependent."

She was silent for a moment, but Tony could hear the scratching of her pen on the other end, so that was all right. Finally she said, "Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"

"That'll be all, Ms. Potts," he said, smiling fondly, and hung up the phone.

He'd forgotten there were other people present. When he turned around, he found himself pinned by seven pairs of round eyes. "What? I got something on my face? There a house rule about going outside to talk on the phone? What?"

Pietro was the first to recover. His eyes slitted suspiciously. "If you think you can so easily purchase my good graces, Mr. Stark--"

"Oh, for fucksake," Clint groaned.

"Pietro, you asshole," Bucky started.

"Is that what you think this is?" Tony snapped. "You're wrong. You couldn't be more wrong. If I tried to buy out everyone who hated me, I'd have gone broke a decade ago, and millions of people would still hate me. No. That's not what this is." He held up the phone that was still in his hand. "This is me, trying to right a wrong that happened when I trusted someone I shouldn't have. Three months he's been gone, now, and every day -- every fucking day -- I still find a new way he fucked my company over. So you're welcome to hate me because you got stiffed. That's fine. I should've had my finger a little more firmly on the pulse. But you don't get to tell me I'm trying to buy you off now just because I'm trying to fix my mistake. That's not what this is."

Pietro's eyes seemed less narrow, and his silver-bleached head was tipped slightly as he considered Tony thoughtfully. Finally he nodded, once, and reached out a long-fingered hand. "All right," he conceded, "Stark."

It wasn't "Tony", but it wasn't "Mr." either, and the hateful sneer was gone; Tony would take what he could get. He clasped Pietro's hand, felt the jolt of surprise at the way their calluses caught and scraped, and smiled. The courier obviously hadn't expected the wealthy industrialist to show evidence of actual labor.

The rest of the conversations in the room slowly resumed. Tony went back to the couch and this time felt no hesitation in dropping back into the narrow space between Bucky and Sam. Sam grinned at him, and under cover of some apparently long-standing and not terribly serious argument between Clint and Natasha, Sam muttered, "Pietro can be prickly if you don't handle him just right, but he's a good guy at heart. Good read, man."

Sam offered Tony a bottle, apparently in congratulations. Before Tony could figure out how to explain about his handoff aversion without coming across as a neurotic -- though he couldn't put his finger on why it mattered -- Bucky reached out and took the bottle from Sam, cracking the lid for him and wedging it between Tony's knees with a faint wink.

Sam immediately started to mock Bucky for the lack of smooth in his "game", but Tony felt dizzy with gratitude. Such a little thing, but Bucky had remembered, and he had stepped in to help before things could become awkward.

Mouth suddenly dry, Tony picked up the bottle and lifted it to his lips. It wasn't until he nearly choked on the first swallow that he realized it was orange juice rather than beer. Bucky laughed and pounded him on the back, and Tony thought about protesting, but didn't.

Instead, he settled back into the cushions of the tattered couch, both sides warm with the press of another person's heat, and let the rise and fall of familiar, familial conversation wash over him as his thoughts began to spark.

He'd spent the last few months turning in circles, he realized. Obie's betrayal had been such a shock, and so far-reaching, that he'd had no idea how to even begin to repair the damage. In the midst of the wreckage, how did he even begin to consider repairing the vessel?

But correcting that single policy -- dragging it out of the shadows and insisting on shining a light on its wrongness -- that had been simple. A no-brainer. Cathartic, even. The feeling of clean relief, the joy of having taken a step that was undeniably right made his blood fizz with the need for more.

He could do this.

He could -- he would -- get his company back.

He was tapping on his phone, making notes and lists of things to check, when Bucky flopped down next to him with a grin. Tony hadn't quite realized Bucky had gotten up. He looked around, slightly dazed. Sam had been replaced on Tony's left by Wanda; she was folded onto the cushion and had tucked her feet under Tony's thigh, her attention focused on her cellphone as she idly scratched Lucky's ears. Clint and Sam were playing darts; Clint was blindfolded and appeared to be winning anyway. Pietro and Natasha were kibbitzing the match, Natasha rolling a set of darts in her hands, apparently planning to play the next match. Steve had disappeared.  

"You look happier," Bucky said, smiling.

"I'm just working," Tony said. "Which, uh, sorry, I've been told that's not the thing to do when there are people around. I just wanted to jot a couple of things down and got a bit caught up."

Bucky shrugged. "No skin off anyone's nose here. We're not exactly eating off the formal china or anything. Speaking of which, noodles?" He held up a Chinese takeout box.

Tony took it and looked inside. Smelled like beef lo mein. He wrapped his hand around the chopsticks stuck in the box and shoveled noodles into his mouth. They were only slightly warm, which meant he'd probably been distracted for far longer than he thought. "Whafoo?" He swallowed and tried again. "Where'd the food come from?"

Bucky laughed. "You paid for it, like, almost an hour ago."

Tony cringed. "That long?" He checked the time on his phone; he'd been working for a couple of hours at least. And now that Bucky had mentioned it, he did vaguely remember shuffling his wallet out of his pocket at some point and handing over a credit card without bothering to look up. "Whoops." Bucky was still laughing, though, so Tony just tucked his phone into his pocket and said, "Well, at least tell me I tipped well?"

"I heard that, Stark," Pietro said, but he was smiling lazily as he said it.

"Ignore him," Wanda said absently, not bothering to look up from her phone.

"Tell me why I let you sleep on my couch, again, sister?" Pietro grumbled.

"Because I'm older than you," Wanda said. She looked up, caught Tony's eye, winked, and looked back down.

"Twelve minutes is not--"

"Am I gonna have to leash the two of you?" Steve said, coming back into the room from the hallway. He'd changed his clothes and was now wearing tight jeans and a pale shirt with the Shield's slightly ridiculous logo printed on the front. It was at least two sizes too small for him, tight enough to accentuate every one of his extremely impressive muscles.

"If anyone's putting a leash on Pietro, it's me," Clint said, and was smug about the innuendo for about half a second until Pietro leaned over to smack the back of his head. "What?" he protested.

Steve chuckled as he pulled on a pair of fingerless leather gloves. "Time to go to work," he said. He cocked his head at Natasha. "You coming by later?"

"Not tonight," she said. "Maybe later in the week. Tell Maria and Peggy I said hi, though."

"You got it," Steve said, smiling just a bit. "You kids play nice, now."

"We promise not to burn the place down, Mom," Bucky threw back.

Steve sighed. "One of these days, I'll at least get to be the Dad."

"Everyone should aspire to a few unreachable dreams," Sam observed philosophically. Steve flipped him the bird before sweeping out the door.

Tony grinned and leaned back against the couch. "I like your friends," he told Bucky.

Bucky grinned. "Thought you might."

Tony hoped that meant he might be allowed back, sometime.

Chapter Text

Bucky leaned against the side of the building, watching Tony and feeling the bass of the music inside thrum in his bones.

Tony was trying to explain his predicament to the parking valet, all too-bright eyes and waving hands. He seemed like a completely different man than the one Bucky had rescued the night before. That man had been not only drunk but lost and hopeless, sad and brittle even after the booze had worn off. This man was confident and charming, had life and purpose and a really cute ass--

Bucky shook himself away from those thoughts and pushed upright. "Tony," he said, coming up to the valet station and giving the attendant a sympathetic grin, "the man does not care about your epic life journey, or whatever. Shut up and give him the parking stub and let him check if they still have the car or if they had it impounded for, I dunno, belonging to an obviously crazy person."

"No fun," Tony complained, fishing in his pocket for the claim ticket. "None at all. I'm writing you out of the will."

The valet took the ticket with a relieved glance at Bucky and scurried off into the garage proper. "That's too bad," Bucky said. "I was really looking forward to that set of antique teapots you were going to leave me."

"Tea trays," Tony corrected, lips curving into an unwilling smirk. "Wouldn't want you to get above yourself, there."

"Who knows?" Bucky mused, "maybe one day I'll be able to work up to the teaspoons."

"Nah, we had a maid when I was ten or so who stole all the teaspoons."

Bucky cracked up laughing, and was about to answer when an engine gunned and growled, and Tony turned toward the ramp to the garage with an expectant, delighted look that most men would reserve for the sound of their gorgeous girlfriend's sexy heels clicking on the floor. Bucky considered teasing Tony about it, but then the car rolled into sight and Bucky momentarily lost the power of speech.

He'd known Tony was rich. He'd spent the previous night in Tony's spacious and luxuriously-appointed penthouse apartment in the building that Tony owned, for fuck's sake. But somehow that hadn't really registered with Bucky the way this car did, a Maserati sport model with sleek, exotic lines that Bucky couldn't identify (and therefore might not be technically street-legal).

Despite having spent the last day waiting for its owner in a garage, it looked utterly immaculate. Not a single scratch on the deep red paint, not even a tiny sign of wear. Not a single dead insect on the windshield, or a smear of oil in the wheel wells. The tires barely looked like they'd touched the ground. What Bucky could see of the interior was just as perfect. It looked smug, like it was a showroom centerpiece, and it knew it.

Tony handed the emerging valet a wad of bills and clapped him on the arm, then grinned across the roof of the car at Bucky. "Well?" he said. "Get in."

Bucky almost didn't want to open the car's door for fear he'd leave fingerprints. "I, uh. Are you sure this is a good idea?"

Tony looked at Bucky over the rim of his ridiculous sunglasses. "Giving you a place to stay while you sort out the details with your less-than-worthy roommate? Seeing as it was my fault in the first place, yes, I'm pretty sure this counts as a good idea, actually."

"I mean, I just..."

"Hey, if you don't want to stay in the Tower, that's fine. Manhattan is a bit out of the way for you, I get it. We can find a hotel to put you up in, if that's easier. Just get in the car."

If Bucky hadn't been already looking, he would've missed the flash of hurt in Tony's eyes. Not entirely confident, then, and that, more than anything, eased Bucky's sudden attack of nerves. "Nah, the Tower's fine," he said, and opened the car door. There was no back seat, of course, but the floorwell was plenty spacious enough for Bucky to stuff in the duffel of clothes and essentials he'd retrieved earlier, when he'd been certain Rumlow would be out.

The seats were upholstered in leather, of course, soft as satin. The weather was fine, but Bucky would bet money that if he wanted them, there were seat warmers and individual environmental controls and luxuries he couldn't even think to look for.

The instant he had his seat belt fastened, they shot forward, and even from the passenger's seat, Bucky could only admire the vehicle's responsiveness. He wondered what it felt like behind the driver's wheel.

It must have felt pretty good, because Tony drove like a maniac. Bucky had encountered a fair number of aggressive drivers in his time -- including Steve, who only drove rarely but started cursing out other drivers before his butt even settled into the seat -- but Tony drove like a Formula One racer being chased by a herd of hungry velociraptors. Bucky tried not to grab at the door handle too obviously. "Are we in a hurry?"

Tony laughed, delighted. "What would be the point of owning a car like this if I didn't take advantage of its engineering?" He glanced over at Bucky as he downshifted and slithered across three lanes. "Relax, would you? I've only had three accidents in the last ten years, and one of them was on purpose."

"Why the fuck would you have an accident on purpose?" Bucky demanded. "Isn't that kind of a contradiction?"

"Demolition derby," Tony said. He tapped the brake, swung behind a freight truck, and then shot forward again. Bucky was pretty certain he'd never been in a ground vehicle that was capable of this kind of speed and acceleration. "It was a celebrity drivers thing for charity."

"Jesus."

"--take the wheel?" Tony finished. "No, thanks, I've got it. You can just take a little nap until we get there, if you want."

"I'm not even blinking until we're parked and the key is out of the ignition," Bucky shot back, though he could feel a grin tugging at his mouth. "This is worse than the damn Cyclone."

"If by worse you actually mean way better," Tony said, laughing.

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Somehow, they made it to the Tower without either crashing and dying in a ball of fire or being arrested for going more than twice the speed limit. "You're some kind of demon," Bucky accused as he slid out of the car, surreptitiously making sure his knees weren't going to fold on him before he let go of the frame and stepped away.

"And?" Tony prompted, smirking as he tossed the keys to a waiting Happy.

Bucky glanced back over his shoulder at the car's low, ethereal silhouette. "And I can't wait to go again," he admitted.

The elevator Tony led him to wasn't the express one they'd used before, but then, they weren't going to the penthouse. The doors opened on a hallway that looked like the main hall of a stylish, uptown apartment building. Tony led Bucky to a door, seemingly at random, and flipped open a panel to enter a code. He had Bucky lay his hand against a palmprint reader, which flickered green. "There you are," Tony said, opening the door with a flourish. "It'll only open to your print for as long as you stay."

The apartment was small but elegant. Tony stood in the middle of the living room and watched, almost nervously, as Bucky wandered around, touching things and opening cabinets at random. The kitchen was already stocked with a small array of drinks and nonperishable snacks. A laminated sheet on the counter explained how to order out for groceries and other sundry supplies.

"We keep a number of apartments like this in all our major facilities," Tony explained. "For employees who have to be on location for more than a week or so. It's cheaper than putting them up in a hotel. If they're going to be on-site for more than a month, we have--" Apparently realizing he'd babbled into the realm of pointlessness, he bit his lip and fell quiet.

An information sheet at the desk in the living room provided the residence's mailing and delivery address and information on connecting to the wifi. Another sheet on the coffee table explained the controls for the entertainment center.

The bedroom was tiny, but the bed itself was enormous, nearly filling the space. The sheets were soft and cool and smelled like falling snow. There wasn't room for much other furniture, but there were a couple of shelves bolted to the walls, and a flat-screen TV mounted across from the bed. The bathroom was nearly as big as the bedroom, boasting a jacuzzi that would easily seat four. Bucky dropped his duffle in the corner of the bedroom and made his way back out to the living room, where Tony was waiting. "This is really nice," he told Tony. "Thank you."

Tony looked relieved -- as if Bucky might have complained about anything that wasn't arguing with Lucky for space under Steve's kitchen table. "It's not one of the VIP suites," Tony confessed. "If you need more space--"

"This is more than enough, really," Bucky interrupted.

"Great. I just, well. So. I guess I should leave you to settle in. I mean. If you're tired, that is. I'm not, but if you are--"

"I'm not that tired," Bucky said. It was only a little bit of a lie. He was tired, but not so exhausted that he didn't want to spend more time with Tony.

Tony smiled brightly; it nearly broke Bucky's heart, how starved for friendship Tony seemed to be. "Good, great. You want to come up and have a coffee or something?"

Was that coffee, or coffee? Bucky wondered. He didn't ask, though -- he'd be okay with either outcome, he thought. So he just nodded and followed Tony back out to the elevator, and hence up into Tony's penthouse apartment.

Bucky hadn't expected to be back here, certainly not so soon. He'd gotten the impression that Tony didn't let many people into his space. He didn't say anything, though, just followed Tony into the kitchen. Tony didn't make coffee, though Bucky remembered from that morning that there was an elaborate coffee machine that appeared to be capable of nearly the variety of a coffee shop. Instead, he opened the fridge and took out two bottles of water.

Bucky accepted his bottle with a smile of thanks and followed Tony back to the living room, curious to see what would happen next.

Tony flopped down onto the middle of the sofa and lifted one foot as if he were, out of habit, going to prop it on the coffee table before remembering that it had been broken. All trace that it had ever existed was gone -- Tony's cleaning crew worked fast, Bucky guessed. He wondered if they would bring a new table the next time they came. Tony just made a disgruntled face at the empty space that was not propping up his foot and then stretched his arms out along the back of the couch and tipped his head back with a sigh, though his eyes remained open, staring at the ceiling.

Oddly, Tony didn't have a full set of living room furniture like they had in Steve's apartment, even if Tony's sofa alone probably cost more than every stick of furniture at Steve's place combined. There was just the sofa, and the space where the coffee table should have been. The walls held elegant bookshelves containing books Bucky doubted had ever been opened and some decorative items, and a cabinet that Bucky guessed hid a television, but there was nowhere else to sit.

Bucky guessed Tony didn't do much entertaining here.

So he sat next to Tony, ignoring the hand that remained draped on the back of the sofa, right by Bucky's ear, and sipped his water carefully, wondering what came next.

Tony didn't move, either to drink his own water or to make a move on Bucky. He just stared at the ceiling. Every so often, his fingers twitched, but they didn't create any gestures full enough for Bucky to read.

"Are you okay?" Bucky asked.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah. Fine. Still processing the day," Tony said. He didn't sound like he was trying to suppress a panic attack or anything else that would turn his "fine" into a lie, so Bucky just nodded.

After a moment he said, "Can I ask what's probably a dumb and really intrusive question?"

Tony moved for that, rolling his head to look at Bucky inquisitively. He was smiling, and it looked genuine, even if it was small.

"Why did you really do it?" Tony raised an eloquent eyebrow and Bucky flapped a hand at him. "Go home with Rumlow, I mean. You're not dumb--"

"Thanks for noticing."

"So why, even drunk, did it seem like a good idea to let some other drunk guy you'd never even met before take you home? For the express purpose of smacking you around? How was that a smart plan?"

"Ah." Tony's head rolled back until he was staring at the ceiling again. "It wasn't smart. It was, in fact, deliberately dumb."

Bucky threw up his hands. "Why?"

"Because I--" Tony stopped and wrapped one arm over his eyes, leaving the other stretched out toward Bucky. He took a couple of deeper-than-normal breaths, as if bracing. "That guy who screwed me over? He was... highly-placed. He'd been planting his cronies in top positions -- veeps, corporate officers, members of the board of directors. I told you some of this before, didn't I? For the last three months, since I found out what was going on, I've been rooting them out. Trying to keep it quiet, for the sake of the stock, but the media eventually figured out something's going on."

Bucky bit his lip. "You really don't have to--"

"Still have to keep it quiet," Tony went on, as if he hadn't heard. "If the stockholders find out how badly he was going to screw us all over, then SI is done for. I could scrape by -- not all my worth is tied up in the business -- but how many people would get hurt in the collapse? Thousands, for sure. Maybe tens of thousands. SI employs a lot of people, and we have some manufacturing plants that support whole towns. There's a ripple effect that--" He stopped and swallowed, throat clicking drily. "Anyway, all the media knows is, I'm cleaning house. Little bit ruthlessly. They call me names. Cold. Callous. Pitiless."

Bucky wondered if SI's employees, at least, knew how much their CEO actually cared, or if they, too, bought into the media's slander. "Tony, you know that's just--"

"Media hyperbole, I know," Tony sighed. "Been filtering it all my life. But so many of those people... I had no idea. I'd been on retreats with them, played golf with them, met their families. I never thought of them as friends, precisely, but... I was having to harden my heart to deal with it. Not letting myself care too much. Between that and the media circus..."

"Were you punishing yourself? With Rumlow?" Bucky asked quietly. "Is that why?"

Tony didn't answer. He didn't move, except for his mouth compressing into a thin line.

Bucky hesitated, then curled his hand around Tony's wrist where it rested on the back of the couch. Tony flinched and began to draw away, and Bucky tightened his grip -- not enough to actually stop Tony from withdrawing, but enough to say, don't go.

"I just," Tony said, voice soft and raw, "I just wanted to be able to feel something again. Anything."

He'd said that the previous night, too, still drunk and half-panicking from what Rumlow had done to him, but from what Bucky had seen, Tony was anything but unfeeling. If anything, he seemed to feel more keenly than was prudent for a man in his position. How many times did a man have to hear he was a monster before he started to believe it? Dozens? Hundreds? "Tony," Bucky breathed. "I'll make you feel, if that's what you want. Without the pain and the fear."

Tony looked at Bucky again, eyes shadowed and liquid.

Bucky supposed he ought to be nervous, ought to be second-guessing himself, wondering whether he was reading everything wrong, but he had no doubts. All he felt was a shiver of anticipation and the rising heat of desire. He leaned in and brushed Tony's lips with his own, then slid closer and did it again.

art by auripigmentum

Tony's fingers slid along Bucky's jaw and then curled around his neck, carefully holding him close when he would have pulled away, so Bucky stayed, teasing at Tony's already-open lips, tasting their sensitive inner edges without quite accepting their invitation, pulling back whenever Tony tried to deepen it.

After a moment, Bucky wrapped an arm around Tony's waist to pull him onto Bucky's lap, pushed the other hand into Tony's hair, fingers twining in the messy curls even as Bucky nosed down Tony's jaw and neck, testing with to lips and teeth and tongue.

Tony's reactions were glorious, soft noises of wanting, hands that moved as if on instinct to Bucky's most sensitive spots, hips rolling confidently even as he let Bucky take command of his mouth.

"Jesus," Bucky gasped when they finally parted for air, resting his forehead against Tony's. He squeezed his eyes shut, knowing that if he saw Tony's pleased, knowing smile, he'd lose all control. "Tony."

"Yes," Tony muttered, one hand fisting in Bucky's t-shirt as the other slid up under it, tracing the knobs of Bucky's spine. "Whatever you want, yes. Just... stay. Please."

Everything goes, Tony had said the previous night. Before I even heal, there's a new one, and his voice had caught, just a hint there of a confused and wounded child.

"Shh." Bucky cupped Tony's face in his hands, making the next kiss slow and sweet and gentle. "It's okay. I'm not going anywhere."

Tony groaned, “Bucky, god...” He attacked Bucky’s mouth, devouring and hungry.

Bucky let himself enjoy it for a moment -- Tony’s tongue was wicked and clever, like something straight out of one of Bucky’s hottest dreams -- but then pulled away. "What's the rush?" he asked, only half-teasing. "Thought you wanted to feel."

Tony sat up and twisted around to straddle Bucky's thighs, kneeling up and looking down at Bucky, his hands on Bucky's shoulders. His thumbs traced the lines of Bucky's clavicles, and his palms rolled over the curve of Bucky's shoulders. "Damn right I want to feel you," Tony said. "Let's get started."

Bucky laughed, settling his hands on Tony's hips. "A quick fuck isn't feeling," he said, looking up into Tony's face, letting Tony see how earnest he was despite the smile still tugging at his lips. "You could find a quick fuck anywhere you went in this city. I offered to make you feel. You gonna let me?"

Tony tipped his head to the side slightly, studying Bucky's expression. Bucky met his gaze steadily and pretending not to see the vulnerability and fear showing through the cracks in Tony's armor. "All right," Tony said finally, and if Bucky hadn’t been watching, it would’ve seemed entirely carefree. "Your show, you drive. Safeword?"

Bucky leaned up to kiss Tony again, long and slow. "Tell me to stop and I'll stop. I'm not domming you. Not like that, not tonight. That's not what this is." Bucky gently nudged Tony to stand and caught his hands, pulling him along toward the bedroom.

"No?" Tony let Bucky lead him, corner of his lip quirked with amused suspicion. "What is this, then?"

Making love, Bucky didn't say, because he wasn't sure yet whether Tony was the sort of guy who would mock such a sentimental phrase. But he wondered if Tony had ever been with someone who didn't think of sex as a business transaction, trading the illusion of intimacy for money or power or bragging rights. Had Tony had ever taken a lover who had treated him with reverence, or even real kindness? Not often, at any rate. "It's a team effort. If I'm driving," Bucky answered, steering Tony toward the bed, "you're holding the map."

Tony snorted, even as he tipped his head back for Bucky to nibble at his jaw. "Who uses a map anymore?" he asked. "I've got a GPS." At Bucky's nudge, he sat on the side of the bed, wincing at the pressure on his bruises.

Bucky started unbuttoning Tony's shirt, gently pushing aside Tony's hands when they rose to help. "GPS just gets you there as fast as it can, though," Bucky said. "If you have a map, you can take the scenic route, stop at a few roadside attractions, even pick a new destination."

Tony shook his head and leaned back on his hands. "That's it, I'm declaring it; this metaphor is now officially dead."

Bucky laughed, and Tony grinned back at him. "Okay, it was stretching a little thin," Bucky admitted. "I'm just saying, I have some plans, here, but if you don’t like them, or have ideas of your own, you can just say so."

"Plans to make me feel," Tony said dubiously, though he shifted easily to let Bucky slide the shirt off.

"Plans to make you feel," Bucky agreed. He reached for the button of Tony's jeans, and Tony smirked.

"Thought you weren't in favor of getting there fast."

"I'm not," Bucky said. "But like I said: plans. Unless you want me to hold off?"

"What? No, no, it's fine." Tony lifted his hips to let Bucky work the baggy jeans off, leaving him in a pair of red boxer-briefs. “You’ve already seen everything I’ve got. I was just, you know..." He shrugged and looked away.

"Giving me a hard time?" Bucky finished for him. "That's okay, I like that. I mean, you met my friends. But since I don’t know all your tells yet, I had to check." Tony met Bucky’s gaze again, his eyes dark and wondering. As if Bucky needed more evidence that most of Tony’s past lovers were not very thoughtful of him. Bucky nudged Tony's shoulder and Tony obligingly lay back on the bed, squirming around to put his head on the pillows. Bucky climbed up on the mattress and straddled Tony's thighs.

Christ, Tony was beautiful: olive-tinted skin and expressive eyes, glossy dark hair and toned, wiry muscle. He lay still, watching Bucky look at him, his expression curious, waiting. "You know," Bucky said, "if you don't want--"

"I'll stop you," Tony interrupted. "I'm sober this time, Sergeant Safe-and-Sane. Completely sober, as much in my right mind as I ever am, and 100% willing. I will tell you to knock it off if you do something I hate, I promise."

There was a lot of ground between "willing" and "wanting", and Bucky wanted to think he'd be stopped well before he got all the way into "hate" territory -- honestly, he preferred at least a check-in as soon as it got to the point of "could feel better than it does" -- but Tony's impatience felt more like eagerness than wanting to get it over with. So he kissed Tony instead of arguing, enjoying the way Tony's facial hair prickled.

Tony's hands closed on Bucky's shoulders, tentatively at first, and then tighter as Bucky drew out the kiss, barely flickering his tongue into Tony's mouth, teasing. Tony's head lifted, chasing the sensation, and Bucky slid to the side, avoiding the deeper kiss in favor of nuzzling up under Tony's jaw.

Tony dropped back down to the pillow with a huff, his hands now moving restlessly over Bucky's upper arms and shoulders. "You're trying to kill me," he accused, but his head was tipping back to give Bucky easier access to the sensitive skin of his throat.

"Not part of the plan," Bucky said, chuckling.

"You want to let me in on this plan of yours?" Tony tried rolling his hips up.

Bucky caught the heat and pressure of Tony's erection in the hollow of his hip and pushed back against it. Tony's breath caught at the sensation and Bucky's mouth closed over Tony's again, teasing that breath back out into a moan as Tony rutted against him. "Well, part one was to get you wound up a bit," Bucky said, and added smugly, "Mission accomplished."

"Yes, well done, I'm-- Oh, god, no, don't stop!" Tony whined as Bucky sat up again. "Why?"

"Because everything feels just a little more intense when you're aroused," Bucky said, purposely misinterpreting the question.

Tony pulled a pillow over his face. "So far I am not convinced this plan will involve less pain," he accused. Bucky could just see his pout under the edge of the pillow. "I'm dying, here."

Bucky pushed the pillow out of the way just enough to to catch Tony's pouting lip in his teeth and suck on it. "No one in recorded history has ever died of blue balls," Bucky pointed out. "And I'm not going to leave you hanging. I'm just drawing it out."

"Hmph," Tony grunted, but Bucky thought he saw a suppressed smile. "What's the rest of the plan, then?"

"I'm still working out the details," Bucky admitted. "But in broad strokes, mostly just spoiling you."

Tony pushed the pillow the rest of the way off his face to look up at Bucky in flat disbelief. "Spoiling me."

"Mm," Bucky agreed. "Take my time, take it slow. Make you feel good. Get you good and relaxed."

"I thought you wanted me wound up," Tony argued. His shoulders were hunching defensively again, his mouth tightening into something belligerent, almost angry.

"That too." Bucky traced a fingertip across Tony's compressed lips, then down his chin and throat. He laid his hand flat over Tony's sternum and smoothed it down Tony's torso, admiring the feel of Tony's muscle and skin. "Pull you up as tight as a bowstring, and then bring you back down until you're limp as a rag. Over and over." He stroked down Tony's chest and stomach again, meeting Tony's eyes with a wicked smile. "I've got all night."

Tony's pupils were dilated but his mouth was still set mulishly. "Why?" he asked.

Bucky kept stroking. "Why, what?"

"Why anything," Tony flung back, a shrill note of panic underlying the frustration. "Why did you rescue me from your roommate? Why did you bring me home instead of just pouring me into a cab? Why did you stay? Why did you take me to see your friends? Why this? I don't... What do you get out of it?"

And that was the heart of it, wasn’t it? How sad was it, how wrong, to be stuck in a situation where you couldn't just meet someone and make friends with them without having to consider what they wanted from you? Bucky stopped touching Tony, sitting back on his heels and dropping his hands to his thighs. He wanted Tony -- Christ, but he wanted Tony -- but more than that, he wanted Tony to believe that he wasn’t here for any kind of payout. "I got Rumlow off you because he was being an entire bag of dicks and stopping him was the right thing to do. I stayed because you were kind of freaking out, and it would've felt like kicking a puppy to just turn you loose after all that. I kind of have a habit of taking care of people who get in over their heads -- Steve wasn't always a brickhouse -- so I guess there was some of that in there, too."

Tony was watching him closely, but the unhappy hunch of his shoulders was slowly melting. Bucky took a breath and continued slowly, selecting his words with care. "The rest of it -- inviting you to hang out with us, and, and this -- is because I really liked talking to you this morning, and you seem like a good guy, and you're the first person I've met since I came back to New York that I actually wanted to get to know better, aside from people who were already friends with Steve. And -- don't get mad -- you seemed a little... lonely, maybe. So I thought I'd take a chance or two."

Tony's mouth wasn't nearly so tight now, and the almost-frown had disappeared from between his eyebrows, so Bucky smirked and added, "Also, not to put too fine a point on it, I don't know if you know this, but you're kinda smoking hot."

Tony sputtered out a laugh that lodged warmly in Bucky’s sternum. Bucky leaned over, planting his hands on either side of Tony's head. Tony didn't tense back up, just looked up at him with a warm half-smile. "I'm getting that you probably end up mostly sleeping with people who want you for your money or because you're famous or something like that," Bucky said. "But that's not me. This is its own reward."

Tony wrapped his hands around Bucky’s neck but hesitated before he pulled Bucky into a kiss. "So you're not doing this because I'm putting you up?"

Bucky stared at Tony in surprise. "Is that what you thought it was? Really?"

Tony shrugged. "Not... entirely," he said. "I mean, I'm not blind; you were kind of eyeing me up before I even made the offer. And I didn't think... No one who was after the money would have suggested spending the day in someone else's crowded apartment." His brief smile lit his eyes like the sun. "But the whole slow seduction 'spoiling me' thing is a little off the beaten path, you have to admit."

"I like making people feel good," Bucky said. "And trust me, I'll be getting plenty out of this, too."

"Yeah?"

Bucky kissed him again, humming in appreciation when Tony responded, heated and slow. After a moment, Tony's hand slid into Bucky's hair, and Bucky moaned encouragingly. Tony finally seemed to be relaxing into the moment, letting himself touch and explore without pushing to taking things to the next level. This was going to be amazing. "Trust me," Bucky panted when they broke, "I'm getting plenty of enjoyment out of this, too."

"Yeah, okay," Tony rasped. "I can see that."

Bucky sat back, rolling to the side. "On your stomach," he suggested.

Tony's eyes narrowed briefly, then he moved, squirming over onto his stomach and shoving his pillows out of the way. "I feel like I should remind you that neither of us is naked yet."

"That's true," Bucky agreed. "Lose the shorts, if you don't mind?"

Tony hastily shucked them and tossed them onto the floor. Bucky suppressed a cheer for having finally got Tony undressed, but openly stared. Not in the least shy, Tony struck a pose. Tony’s cock was as pretty as the rest of him, flushed dark and hard against his belly. Bucky’s mouth watered. Patience.

"What about you?" Tony asked. Bucky was still fully -- if somewhat shabbily -- dressed in the t-shirt and track pants he'd grabbed the previous night.

"I'll get there, don't worry." Bucky picked Tony's jeans up off the floor. He was sure he'd felt, as he'd been working them off-- Yes. He fished in the pocket and came up with a small bottle. "Ah-ha, thought that's what this would be!"

Tony, back on his stomach but propped up on his elbows to watch, actually flushed. "She said I could have it," he said.

"Yeah, that's how Natasha makes friends, by offering wound-care and her weirdly effective homeopathic remedies. That, or she tries to hook you up with a date."

"Must be tough if she meets someone who's already in a relationship and doesn't get injured often," Tony observed.

"Oddly enough, not an issue we've encountered," Bucky said, grinning. "Flatten out; I'm going to put some more of this stuff on you."

"Oh, god, yes," Tony said, willingly dropping the rest of the way down to the bed. "It was kind of a pain to get it on myself, earlier, but it really worked. It's probably got some kind of bizarre secret ingredient that will give me cancer or melt my brain or something, doesn't it?"

"Probably," Bucky said, chuckling. He dribbled a little of the thick liquid into the small of Tony's back and used one hand to spread it around. Most of the welts on Tony's skin had already faded, thank god, though the bruises would take a few days more. Bucky carefully massaged Natasha's concoction into them, trying to pay attention to the way Tony hissed or twitched when he touched sensitive spots.

He kept his touch as impersonal as he could as he spread more ointment over Tony's ass, but Tony actually wiggled a little and said, "It's okay, I know it's a fabulous ass, feel free to lavish upon it all the attention that it so richly deserves."

Bucky sputtered out a laugh. He spread his hands as wide as they could go over Tony's ass cheeks and squeezed like a professional rubber duckie tester, making Tony yelp indignantly. "Stop squirming, brat," Bucky said.

Tony laughed but subsided, resting his head on his folded arms. He fairly hummed while Bucky worked in the liniment, then let out a sexually-charged moan of pleasure when Bucky's knuckles dragged up either side of his spine, pressing in deep against the knotted muscles. "Really? I could just hire a masseuse, you know," he mumbled into his elbow.

"I know," Bucky said, digging into Tony's neck and shoulders. "But when was the last time you actually did?"

"Uh."

"That's what I thought. Shut up and enjoy it."

"You're awfully bossy for someone who claims they're not domming me."

"If that's what you have to call it to relax and just enjoy yourself, go ahead." Tony snorted but finally stopped arguing, trading quips for soft grunts and groans. Bucky kept kneading, and little by little, the steel cords of Tony's muscle began to soften and ease.

"There you go," Bucky said, trading the deeper massage for long, light strokes. God, he thought he could keep this up for hours. What with all the time Bucky spent crammed into the close quarters at Steve's, he hadn't realized just how starved he'd gotten for the intimacy of honest, skin-to-skin touch. How much worse must it be for Tony, who didn't even seem to have the rough and casual affection of friends? It was oddly tempting to just soothe Tony down into sleep and then curl around him, soaking in the warmth and reveling in the closeness.

But each time Bucky's fingers trailed down to the small of Tony's back, Tony's hips rolled up to meet the touch, eager to tempt it lower. And Bucky would be lying if he said Tony's appreciative moans hadn't affected him. So after a moment he stripped off his t-shirt and leaned over to ghost his lips over the dip between Tony's shoulder blades.

Tony's breath stuttered, and then he shuddered and relaxed even more. "Oh, fuck, yes," he sighed.

Bucky did it again, and then again an inch lower, working his way slowly down Tony's spine in kisses and soft nips. As he reached the swell of Tony's ass, Tony twisted, half-rolling and reaching for Bucky to draw him up into a kiss. Tony's fingers wound in Bucky's hair and they were breathing hot and fast by the time they separated.

"Pants," Tony gasped when they separated. "Off. Please. I want to feel you."

Bucky flopped back onto the bed, pulling Tony over him. "Take 'em off me, then."

Tony touched two fingers to his forehead in a flippant faux-salute and slithered down the bed to mouth at Bucky's stomach, hot and wet, as he worked his fingers under the elastic of Bucky's pants and started easing them down, a sweet tease that made Bucky shiver with pleasure.

Bucky lifted his hips so Tony could slide the pants off. "Son of a bitch," Tony cursed, "have you been wandering around all day without underwear?"

Bucky pushed his fingers into Tony's hair. "Is that a problem?"

"I feel cheated," Tony said, mock-pouting as he finished pulling off the track pants and dropping them on the floor. "I would've been fantasizing more about getting you naked if I'd known."

"And yet you still wound up getting me naked," Bucky pointed out, utterly failing to hide his smile. "I think you're doing okay." Tony's hands seemed to be everywhere at once -- on his thighs, over his stomach, sliding up over his chest and his shoulders. Bucky was already feeling a little drunk on the sensation.

"You look entirely too happy for a guy who's not even getting jacked off," Tony said.

"It's been a while," Bucky admitted. "Just being touched like this feels amazing."

"Yeah?" Tony trailed lazy fingers down Bucky's arm, back up to the shoulder, then repeated on the other side. "How is it a guy as hot as you has not been able to find action in New York City?"

"Haven't really been looking that hard. There was my living situation to consider."

"Point," Tony conceded. "That guy is kind of fucked up, you know that?"

Bucky opened an eye that he hadn't realized he'd closed. "Can we not talk about Rumlow right now? Please?"

"Yeah, that's fair, sorry." Tony grinned. "Let me make it up to you."

"And how do you-- Oh my god." Tony had sucked two of Bucky’s fingers into his mouth. His tongue danced across the sensitive pads of Bucky's fingertips. "Fuck," Bucky swore fervently.

Tony chuckled wickedly before he teased the tip of his tongue into the valley between Bucky's fingers, which turned out to be an erogenous zone Bucky hadn't even known about. Bucky was downright squirming before Tony pulled off with an obscene slurp and a grin.

"Holy fuck," Bucky said. "That was... What was that?"

"Call it an opening argument," Tony said. He considered Bucky's hand, still held lightly in his grasp, then circled his tongue lightly around the pad of Bucky's ring finger.

Tony was watching Bucky watch Tony's mouth, but he couldn’t look away. "Opening argument for what?" he managed.

"Argument in favor of you letting me put my mouth on your cock," Tony clarified. He sucked in the finger, just the one this time. There was enough suction to make the blood tingle in Bucky's fingertip, which only intensified the sensation when Tony’s tongue flicked against it.

It was a pretty damned convincing argument, Bucky had to admit. It was all too easy to imagine that same steady pressure and tormenting touch on the head of his cock; it jumped eagerly against his belly. On the other hand, "Kind of defeats the purpose of saying I'm going to spoil you tonight, though." Bucky recovered his hand and rolled them over. "If nothing else, I want to try this for myself."

Tony lifted his own hand with a smirk and a flourish. "Be my guest."

Propped on his elbows, Bucky wrapped both hands around Tony's wrist. He nuzzled into Tony's palm, breathing warm and dragging his tongue along the lines. He felt slightly foolish -- Tony was watching him with warm amusement, apparently unaffected by Bucky's ministrations.

Then Bucky bit down gently on the meaty base of Tony's thumb, and Tony jerked and shuddered, his eyelids fluttering closed. "Shit," he murmured fervently. "Yes."

"Ah-ha," Bucky said. He nibbled at the sides of Tony's fingers, scraping his teeth over their pads, biting down and sucking hard on a fingertip to increase the sensitivity before easing over the tender spot with his tongue.

Tony hissed in pleasure. "Shit, ah, yes, that's the-- Oh, Jesus." When Bucky finally stopped, he was gasping for breath, his hips rolling as he rutted against Bucky's thigh. "Fast learner," he accused.

"When properly motivated," Bucky agreed. He leaned in to brush his lips over Tony's again. They opened easily, and Bucky teased at them, licking and nipping, before accepting that invitation to explore the rest of Tony's mouth. Fucking hell, but Tony was a good kisser, with nothing to prove and everything to offer.

Bucky savored the way Tony's hands were moving, each touch more heated and frantic than the last, as he mouthed a path down Tony's jaw and neck. When he reached Tony's collarbone, he sucked at the soft skin at the hollow there until Tony was gasping. "Marks?" he asked, dimly aware he was half-begging.

"Oh, fuck yes," Tony groaned. His fingers carded restlessly through Bucky's hair. "Not-- Not over the-- Not visible in a dress shirt," he finally managed. Bucky nodded his understanding; Tony needed to be able to go to business meetings and not look half-debauched, even if some part of Bucky purred happily at the idea.

The collarbone was perfectly safe territory, though, so Bucky went back to sucking and nipping, worrying at Tony's skin until it was welted and bruising and Tony was arching up into it with a whimper. Bucky kissed the mark, soothing it with his tongue and breath. He pulled back to look and a hot tendril of satisfaction snaked through him.

Tony was all but writhing. "Shh," Bucky said, stroking his knuckles lightly down Tony's face and neck. "I've got you, just relax."

"You're the one who got me all worked up!" Tony protested.

"I did say I was going to do that," Bucky pointed out. "Slow breaths, now."

"I didn't think you were being serious," Tony grumbled, but he tried to breathe in time with the long, rhythmic slide of Bucky's hand neck and across his chest.

As soon as Tony's breathing seemed less labored, Bucky leaned down and caught Tony's nipple in his teeth, not biting hard, but holding it firmly enough that Tony's sudden intake of air didn't dislodge him. He changed position, lying flat on top of Tony so his weight pinned Tony to the bed as he nipped and teased.

It wasn't long before Tony started rolling his hips again, seeking friction in the slide of his cock against Bucky's stomach. Bucky reached for Tony's other nipple, rolling it in his fingers. Tony was responsive here, too, pressing into Bucky’s touch and gasping out soft, breathy moans. Tony’s fingers tangled into Bucky’s hair again, hands clenching and unclenching, pulling just hard enough to set Bucky on fire with wanting.

He backed away and echoed Tony’s whimper with a groan of his own, tormenting himself nearly as much as Tony. He kissed his way down Tony’s ribs, licking and biting, pausing occasionally to simply nuzzle and breathe in Tony’s warm, masculine scent.

Bucky’s lips found the jut of Tony’s hipbone, and the way Tony’s breath caught made Bucky pause, lavishing attention on the spot, mouthing and scraping his stubble across the delicate skin.

“Oh, god, if you keep that up,” Tony gasped, “I’m gonna come.”

“Yeah?” Bucky teased. He dragged his tongue down the vee of Tony’s hip, stopping just short of the dark curls. “Well, I can’t allow that, can I?”

Tony whined a little in the back of his throat as Bucky pulled away, stroking one hand smoothly up and down Tony’s leg, soothing.

“You’re so responsive,” Bucky marvelled, watching the way Tony shivered when he dragged his hand up toward Tony’s hip, little squirms and twists, trying to direct Bucky’s movement. “I don’t know why you think you need pain to feel.” Tony’s eyes were on his face, wide and dark and vulnerable in a way that made Bucky want to find every last irresponsible fuckwit Dom who’d hurt this beautiful man and destroy them. To let them know that Tony deserved so much more. To make Tony understand that. To take Tony into his arms and protect him, please him, possess him...

Bucky drew a hard breath and looked away from Tony’s face. Not tonight. Not for a good while, at least. Tony might think he didn’t need to fully trust his Dom, but Bucky sure as hell needed Tony’s full trust before taking on that role.

That didn’t mean he couldn’t fantasize about it, though, or use it to his advantage. He stretched out next to Tony, on his side, head propped on one hand while he let the other drag across Tony’s skin in lazy loops and spirals. “I bet you’re pretty in subspace,” Bucky said. “So responsive, and so expressive when you let yourself go. Hitting you would be such a waste if you didn’t actually enjoy it. If it was me...” He trailed off, momentarily overwhelmed by all the possibilities.

The look Tony turned on Bucky was bright and hot. “If it was you?” he challenged.

Bucky looked Tony up and down, consider the options. “Sensation play, I think,” Bucky said thoughtfully. Tony’s eyebrows lifted, but he didn’t protest or look distressed, and Bucky grinned.

“Ice and heat is always a classic,” he said. “Get a piece of ice and drag it all over you--” He trailed two fingers in wide, looping circles all over Tony’s chest to demonstrate, dipping down onto thighs already taut with anticipation. “--make sure to get your nipples nice and hard.” Bucky pinched gently at Tony’s nipple and pretended not to notice the way Tony’s breath stuttered and shook, the way Tony’s back arched into his touch. “And then follow it up with something nice and warm for contrast.” He leaned in to cover Tony’s nipple with his mouth, breathing hot over the pebbled skin.

Tony groaned and arched higher, begging wordlessly. “Mmmm,” Bucky hummed happily. “Or maybe a little rough/soft? Drag my stubble all over your stomach, inside your arms, until it’s red and tender, and then soothe it with something really soft -- velvet, or ultra-soft plush, or--”

“Fur?” Tony suggested in a not-entirely steady voice. “My mom had this fur stole when I was little, before fur got to be déclassé. I remember thinking it had to be about the softest thing I’d ever felt in my life.”

Bucky beamed. “That sounds perfect,” he said. “Exactly the right kind of sensation.”

Tony laughed a little, wriggling closer to Bucky. He trailed his hand over Bucky’s shoulder and arm, not quite idly, but not trying to hurry things, either. “That sounds... good,” he said. “Sexy and kind of fun at the same time.”

Bucky shifted his arm under Tony’s hand, skin sliding against skin until he could lace his fingers between Tony’s. “Yeah,” he said, and didn’t let himself comment on the fact that Tony sounded surprised, that Tony had somehow managed to get to this stage of life without ever discovering that the best sex was fun. Instead, Bucky rolled quickly and sat up, straddling Tony’s thighs, using his grip on Tony’s hand to pin it to the bed. “You know what else could be fun?” he asked.

Tony’s eyes had gone wide and dark. “God, I hope you’re about to say fucking me.”

Bucky laughed and leaned down to kiss Tony again. “Well, that too,” he murmured into Tony’s mouth between quick nips and teasing darts of tongue. A roll of his hips made their cocks slide together and oh, that felt so good. Whatever he’d told Tony, Bucky didn’t think he could drag this out too much longer -- it had been far too long. “But I was going to say, edging’s always been a particular favorite of mine.”

Tony lifted his head in a bid to capture a deeper kiss and whined when Bucky pulled away, just out of range. “Isn’t that what you’re doing to me now?” It came out like a complaint, and Tony pouted just a bit, enough to make Bucky want to suck on that lip again.

“Nah,” Bucky said with a grin. “This is just... ebb and flow. Dial it up, let it recede, dial it up again. For proper edging, I’d have to get to know you a lot better.” He rolled his hips again just to hear Tony’s moan, and began nibbling delicately at the skin under Tony’s ear, letting his breath tickle Tony’s neck with warmth. “I’d have to learn all your responses. Every twitch. Every groan. Every catch of breath, every squeeze of muscle.” He punctuated each short phrase with a kiss or a lick or a drag of teeth. Tony’s free hand was moving restlessly over Bucky’s back and arm, almost frantic with need.

“S-sounds like a lot of work,” Tony managed.

“It is work,” Bucky admitted. “But it’s worth it, god. So worth it.” He lifted his head to capture Tony’s gaze. “You’re worth it,” he said. Tony’s eyes flicked down and to the side, not really believing Bucky’s sincerity. Bucky didn’t push it -- you couldn’t force that kind of trust. Instead, he tucked his face back into Tony’s neck and dragged his teeth on Tony’s earlobe.

“Once I know all your reactions, I can pull you right up to the edge and keep you there. No relaxing between waves, no real slowing down, just barely enough up-and-down to hold you balanced right on that knife’s edge, where it feels like there’s fire in your veins and you’re shaking with need and it feels so good it hurts. And you’re begging but you honestly don’t know whether you’re asking me to let you come or just. Keep. Going.”

Tony was shivering, breath coming in short gasps. Bucky rolled his hips again and Tony strained upward against him, desperately searching for more friction. Bucky growled and thrust roughly against Tony’s stomach, their cocks dragging together like the best kind of torture. “And in the end it doesn’t matter which one you want, because I’m the one who decides how long it lasts, and I’ll keep you dancing for me as long as I want. Hours, maybe.”

Tony outright wailed and his leg wrapped around Bucky’s to give him the leverage to rock upward into Bucky’s weight, meeting each thrust. His hand was gripping Bucky’s shoulder hard enough to leave bruises, and god, god, Bucky didn’t think it had ever felt this good before.

“You like that idea, doll?” Bucky rumbled into Tony’s ear.

“God, yes,” Tony whimpered.

Bucky dropped his voice even lower and thrust against him faster, harder. “You think you’d feel that, baby?”

Tony choked out something like a sob, and pushed his face into Bucky’s neck. “Bucky,” he gasped, “Bucky, fuck, please, god, I’m--”

“You want to come?” Bucky asked. God, he was closing in on it fast, himself.

“Please,” Tony gasped. “Please, yes, oh god.”

Shit, shit, Bucky was close, and fuck it was so good, so sweet... He groaned into Tony’s neck. “Are you feeling, Tony?” he rasped. “You know who you are and who you’re with and what you’re doing? Are you here with me?”

“Bucky!” Tony was straining against him, movements jerky and desperate.

“That’s it, baby,” Bucky managed. He worked a hand between them and wrapped it around their cocks, right on the edge of too tight. “Come on, then, come for me.”

Tony thrust hard into Bucky’s grip, each breath ragged, once, twice-- He stuttered, threw his head back, and wailed as he came, wet heat blooming between their bodies.

It shot down Bucky’s spine like electricity. “Oh, god,” he groaned. “Tony, god.” Heat like fire bloomed in his balls and rushed through his whole body. “Shit shit shit sh--” His breath was gone and there was no way to drag in a new one, every inch of his body consumed by that fire. He was only dimly aware of Tony’s voice, words incomprehensible but encouraging.

Oh god. He could feel himself teetering on the brink, a moment that stretched on and on until he didn’t think he could stand it any longer. “--got you,” Tony was saying, mouth moving against Bucky’s skin. “Let it go, sweetheart.”

So Bucky did, one last rock of his hips and he tipped over, the rush of orgasm washing over him in bright waves until he was spent and panting. He barely managed to catch his weight on his elbows so he wouldn’t squash Tony. “Oh my god,” he croaked.

“Likewise,” Tony said, his chest still heaving with a desperate bid for oxygen.

Bucky managed, somehow, to roll off Tony and flop onto his back. They lay there for several long moments, chasing their breaths.

Tony made a soft, sad noise.

“What is it? What's wrong?” Bucky asked.

“I never did get my mouth on you,” Tony said mournfully.

Bucky sagged with relief; he'd thought something was wrong. “There's always next time,” he said philosophically, then mentally cursed.

Tony seemed more like a one night stand kind of guy than a relationship guy. Bucky had been kind of hoping to change his mind, but blurting out an expectation of doing this again was definitely not the way to win him over.

Tony snorted. “Next time, huh?” He pushed up on his elbow to look down at Bucky.

Bucky winced, but there was no point in trying to take it back; Tony was too smart for that. “If, you know, you want to. Not just sex. I mean, sex is good, it’s great, it was amazing, but I kind of meant--”

“Can I take you out?” Tony asked. “On a date?”

Bucky’s babbling stopped short, like he’d run into a brick wall. He stared at Tony. “I... didn’t think you were really the dating kind,” he admitted.

“I’m not,” Tony said. “At least, I haven’t been, not for a long time. So you should probably know, before you answer, that I’ll probably fuck it up, and sooner rather than later. But you’re... You’re so... I think I’d like to try. If you want to.”

The warmth that blossomed and spread through Bucky’s stomach was nearly as satisfying as the orgasm he’d just had. “Yes. I want to try that, Tony. I’d love to.”

 

Chapter Text

Never let it be said that Tony Stark didn't know how to celebrate. He'd been meaning to add a stretch limousine to the corporate fleet anyway -- for impressing clients (and/or intimidating competitors), and providing transportation for investor meetings, and surely Pepper deserved to travel in style when she was in town. Hell, it was worth the cost of the damn thing just for the looks on everyone's faces when he pulled up in front of Steve's building in Brooklyn.

Even in a limo, it was cozy, with all eight of them piled in -- Steve was wider than Natasha and Wanda put together, and neither Clint nor Bucky would ever be described as "slender" -- but Tony had spent the last half-year learning that cozy was something he loved, so he leaned into Bucky's side and didn't worry too much about the way his thigh was pressed against Wanda's. Across from him, Pietro and Sam were bickering cheerfully about who should get to sit next to the window, and Clint was already poking curiously into the mini-fridge.

When he realized that most of them had never been in a limo before, Tony poked at the intercom button for the driver's compartment. "Give us the scenic route," he said. "Half an hour or so, no rush."

"You got it, boss," Happy said, and the intercom clicked off as the car pulled into the street.

Steve stretched up to look at Tony over Bucky's head. "Okay, so are you going to tell us what, exactly, we're celebrating, now that we're en route?"

Tony rubbed his hands together gleefully. "So, so many things," he said. "First out of the gate, I know you guys don't really follow business news, but my ex-CFO gave an interview last week that implied he had walked away from SI last year because I was dating a man."

"I saw that article," Natasha said. "Some of those quotes felt like they were taken out of context. And we all know you hadn't even met Bucky when Stane left, and you hadn't been seeing anyone before that for at least a year. Who was controlling the spin on that interview?"

"You," Tony said, pointing at her, "are terrifying."

"It's mostly a matter of public record," Natasha pointed out.

Tony shrugged in acceptance of fact. "It happens the interviewer and I have some history."

"Is that rich-person code for 'we had a one-night stand once'?" Sam asked.

"Yes, actually," Tony said.

"Wait, wait, wait," Bucky said, flicking through the screens on his phone. It still gave Tony a weird, visceral thrill to see Bucky holding tech that he'd designed. "This article is by Christine Everhart. I thought you said she hated you."

"She did," Tony said, grinning. "But I've been trying to mend some fences, and I think I've got her up to merely heavy distaste now. And even when she couldn't stand the sight of me, Christine has always been a consummate professional. She'd never let her personal feelings get in the way of either a solid story or her career. We brokered a deal with her -- well, okay, Pepper brokered the deal -- to spin this interview in our favor in exchange for early-exclusive news on our next three breakout releases. Christine may not like me, but she approves of SI's new direction, and she's smart enough not to bet against me."

"So she made it sound like this Stane guy is a homophobe?" Clint said.

"Oh, he is," Tony said, grinning toothily. "Though he's usually smart enough to keep it behind his teeth in front of shareholders. She must have been pushing him hard to get him to say what he did, even out of context. I sent flowers the day the article came out."

"Okay, but I thought the corporate world was pretty conservative," Clint said. "Bunch of middle-aged white cishet Protestant guys, and all. Doesn't making him a 'phobe bolster his standing, really?"

"The fact that he is one, maybe, in some circles," Tony agreed. "The fact that he let it interfere with business, and then actually said something in a public forum? Not so much. It's bad business -- and worse, bad politics. The more progressive companies aren't going to want anything to do with him now. And the less progressive ones that might welcome him with open arms, well, they're all behind the times in more ways than that. None of them have a prayer of competing with me in the technical field. Christ, at this rate he'll never be able to break away from Hammer. So that's celebration item the first."

"What's second?" Wanda asked, reaching across the space between the seats to accept the drink Clint was offering her.

"As of yesterday," Tony said with relish, "the last of Stane's stooges is gone. At least, as near as I can tell, everyone he personally hired, promoted, or spoke to regularly has been carefully detached. And I'm talking about top brass, Pietro, so you can put your 'defender of the oppressed' face away."

"You're certain they were all complicit with him?" Pietro demanded anyway.

"No," Tony said honestly. "But the odds made it likely, and even if they weren't, they were all old-guard sorts of people who disapproved of the company's new directions, so they weren't going to last long with us anyway. I promise, they all got generous severance packages.

"And third, moving on to more personal reasons to celebrate," Tony continued, "it's not official yet, but a little bird tells me that there is a promotion in the offing for my minion of doom-and-gloom here." He grinned at Pietro, staring at him now in disbelief.

Pietro's eyes widened, and then narrowed. "I am not your minion," he grumbled reflexively, "and you promised when I took the job that you wouldn't interfere--"

"No interference!" Tony protested. "I got you into the interview loop, and that was it. Actually getting the job, and impressing your boss, whoever that is, enough to pick up a promotion in only three months, that was all you. I only even know about it because Pepper's got an alert set up to keep an eye on fast-track candidates, and she recognized your name. You earned that all yourself. In all sincerity, and with as little condescension as I'm capable of: well done." He lifted his drink -- where the hell had that come from? -- in toast.

Everyone else followed suit, and Clint hugged Pietro tightly, whispering into his ear. Pietro's neck was bright red, and his expression uncharacteristically soft.

"And," Tony said, turning to Bucky with a slow smile, "saving the best for last: six months."

Bucky looked startled. "Has it been that long?"

"To the day, gorgeous," Tony affirmed.

Bucky caught Tony's hand in his and laced their fingers together. "I didn't realize it was a thing. I didn't get you anything," he said.

"Lame," Wanda pronounced. "Boys are so pathetic. I'm giving up on the lot of you and going to date a robot or something."

"That's all right," Tony said to Bucky, ignoring her. "You can make it up to me in sexual favors." He grinned as he pulled Bucky closer for a kiss, revelling in the playful groans of disgust and complaint.

Tony's phone buzzed in his pocket. He ignored it and kept kissing Bucky.

The phone kept buzzing.

"That's a heck of a vibration," Wanda observed, since it was pressing against her leg. "Answer the phone, Tony, or I'm going to make it part of my robot boyfriend." Pietro groaned and Natasha laughed.

Tony broke away from Bucky to point at Wanda. "SI phones are just that sexy," he told her with a straight face, cackling at the roll of her eyes even as he contorted to fish the phone from his pocket.

"Where the hell are you?" Rhodey demanded, even before Tony could say hello. "We have been at this club, holding down this VIP table you reserved and drinking booze on your tab, for like an hour, and-- No, you know what? I am at a VIP table with three beautiful women and drinking booze on someone else's dime, forget I said anything, take your time, I'm goo--" He broke off with the sound of a scuffle and a faint protest.

"Tony?" Ah, Pepper had confiscated Rhodey's phone. Tony cackled.

"Hey, Pep. We'll be there any minute, I promise. Happy just wanted to stretch his wheels on the limo."

"Which is Tony-speak for you wanted to show off to your friends. Get over here before Rhodey starts trying to demonstrate the physics of airplane lift for Peggy using cocktail napkins and the toothpick from my martini garnish -- oh wait, too late for that."

Tony laughed again. "As soon as we can, I promise. Tell Peggy and Maria that more interesting company is on the way."

As he tucked the phone back into his pocket, Steve said, "Did you say Peggy and Maria?"

Tony grinned. "I did."

Steve groaned and dropped his face into his hands. "Why would you do that to me? I work with them! Peggy's my boss. She'll know I was lying when I called in sick."

"Got news for you, punk," Bucky said, patting Steve's shoulder with exaggerated false sympathy. "She already knows. You're the worst liar, like, ever."

"Also," Clint put in, "she knows about your crush. So this is your big chance to actually ask her out!"

Steve's neck was nearly as red as Tony's favorite car. "I can't ask her out! She's my boss!"

"Which is precisely why she's been waiting for you to ask," Natasha said. "You two have been dancing around this for months. Now that you're finally going to see each other somewhere that isn't work..."

Tony leaned back into the warmth of Bucky's arm and smiled, listening to their friends tease Steve and looking forward to showing them all a good time.

***

The center of the dance floor was packed tight, bodies not so much dancing as jumping in time to the music, one huge mass of cathartic movement. The closer to the edge of the floor you got, the more the dancers clustered in distinct groups, the center mass giving way to clusters of friends, some of whom were actually trying to dance, and then the darker edges gave way to a constellation of couples (and trios) engaged in what looked more like foreplay than dancing.

The music thumped through Tony's bones like a heartbeat and it was impossible to see much through the strobing colors. The room was hot and smelled of alcohol and sweat and arousal; Tony hadn't lost himself in this sort of sensory overload for months and months, but it felt good to let the vibrating rhythms dictate his movement, to let his eyes fuzz into impressions of color and light, to relax into the safety of Bucky's hands on his hips and Bucky's chest against his back.

Clint and Pietro were grinding against each other nearby, and Sam and Wanda and Pepper were near enough that Tony could occasionally catch snatches of Pepper's laughter over the music, or feel Sam's arm brush his own. Rhodey and Peggy and Steve were up on the VIP balcony, deep in conversation. Every time Tony glanced up at them, Steve had scooted a little closer to Peggy. Tony couldn't tell if Rhodey was actually interested in Peggy himself, or if he was just offering Steve a little incentive. Natasha had been talking to Rhodey earlier, so anything was possible. Natasha was at the bar now with Maria; they had been there for at least an hour. Tony was pretty sure they were either having a drinking contest or trolling the pickup artists. Maybe both.

The music shifted, and Bucky pulled Tony around so they were face to face. Tony draped his forearms on Bucky's shoulders, and Bucky's hands found their way into Tony's back pockets. Slender arms wrapped around Tony's waist from behind, and he tipped his head back to see Pepper. Grinning, he kissed her cheek. "Having fun?" he asked.

"Yes, actually," she said into his ear, the syllables dropping carefully between the thumps of the music. "We should do this more often."

"That can be arranged," he promised.

Pepper let go of him and caught Wanda's arm. The two ladies picked their way through the crowd toward the restrooms, and the shifting crowd pushed Sam into Tony's back.

"Don't damage the goods, man," Sam called back over his shoulder.

Tony leaned back against Sam briefly. "Stop trying to feel me up, Wilson, and go get your own."

Bucky pulled Tony back against him. "Yeah, Wilson, go get your own. Not my fault you couldn't hold the ladies' attention."

"Harsh," Sam observed, but Tony could feel him laughing.

Bucky grinned and pulled Tony closer still, nuzzling at his neck just under his ear. "I'm proud of you, Tinman."

Tony opened his mouth to protest that he hadn't done anything particularly praise-worthy, but Bucky, knowing him too well, said, "Don't argue with me," and nipped at his ear.

Tony huffed out a laugh. "Yeah, okay," he said. They werecelebrating, after all. He melted into the music again, and the feeling of Bucky's breath on his skin, sweat rolling down his back in the best way.

"Well, well, well," said a voice Tony didn't recognize. A man stepped into their already-minimal space, interrupting their movement.

Bucky looked up with a frown, and his eyes narrowed. "Rumlow. What the fuck do you want?"

As if the name had opened a door, Tony suddenly remembered where he'd seen that face before: leaning over him, impatient and angry and threatening, reek of whiskey thick in his breath. Tony's heart began to pound in remembered fear, but he set his jaw. Trouble, this was going to be trouble. Fuck, he didn't remember Rumlow being so big.

"Goddamn coward," Rumlow growled. "Ran like a baby, didn't you?"

Tony scanned the dance floor, and finally caught Clint's eye in the shadows. Help, he mouthed, gesturing toward Rumlow with his eyes.

Clint looked at Rumlow, and at Bucky, and then tugged on Pietro's collar and started speaking urgently into his ear.

"--ran out on our arrangement," Rumlow was saying. "So the way I see it, you owe me for your half of the rent that you skipped out on. And maybe you think you can get your little boy-toy here to write a check, but I don't think that would teach you the lesson you need to learn."

Rumlow was leaning into Bucky's space, all but ignoring Tony, and Bucky wasn't backing down, either, his hands curling into fists at his sides, lips pressed together angrily.

"Order comes from pain, after all," Rumlow sneered. "You ready for yours?"

Suddenly, Rumlow staggered back, and Tony saw Sam had a hand fisted in Rumlow's black t-shirt. "Man, shut the hell up," Sam snarled.

"You going to make me?" Rumlow taunted. He leaned into Sam's space. "You and the coward and the poor little rich boy there? Come on, I'll take all three of you."

"You boys making friends?" Steve said, shouldering through the crowd. Clint and Pietro were at his shoulders. "Who's this guy?"

Rumlow looked at Steve through slitted eyes, measuring. Steve could handle himself, Tony knew, but his stomach tightened at the memory of the strength in Rumlow's arm.

"Rumlow here seems to think I owe him some pain," Bucky said.

"That can be arranged," Clint said easily. "I'll hold him, and you punch."

Pietro looked over at Clint in exasperation. "That's what you're going with? Really? Mulan?"

"Mulan kicks all kinds of ass," Clint said. "Don't diss Mulan."

"I'm not dissing Mulan," Pietro said. "If you were even half as cool as Mulan--"

"Hey!"

Steve ignored the squabbling with the ease of long practice, keeping his eyes locked on Rumlow, his folded arms showing off muscles on top of muscles. "You cheated Bucky," he said, and his voice really shouldn't have been audible over the noise of the dance floor, but it was. "And you hurt Tony."

"Hey, news flash," Rumlow snapped, "the little pervert asked for it. Not my fault he couldn't take it and chickened out."

"That's true," Tony said before Steve could argue. "I did ask for it." His heart was racing, but he had spent most of the last year mired in corporate politics, and his poker face had gotten pretty good. "But in the moment I changed my mind and said 'stop', that consent ended." Tony smiled toothily, drawing strength from the warmth of Bucky's hand on his back. "I could have charged you with assault and battery for everything that happened. I've got a witness--"

"Your boyfriend," Rumlow snarled.

"Who was a complete stranger at the time," Tony said, keeping his voice low and smooth, "and who will testify that my consent was clearly and explicitly withdrawn. One of the advantages of being a 'poor little rich boy' is that I have a crack team of lawyers at my beck and call, and they would happily have exploited every legal loophole to see to it that you be put away for a very long time. You're lucky that all I did was have them extract Bucky from the ridiculous terms of your lease.

"So I think you're going to walk away, right now, and never speak to either of us again. If you do, you're going to find out exactly how much pain we owe you, one way or another." Tony gestured at himself, and then at his friends, who had closed ranks to form an imposing wall of righteous fury.

Rumlow stared at Tony, then looked at the rest, his jaw working.

"Oh, wait." Tony fished in his pocket for his wallet and shuffled out a twenty. He stepped forward, keeping his eyes on Rumlow's, and tucked the bill into the front pocket of Rumlow's jeans. "There. That'll cover the sweatpants I took. Now we're square." He stepped back and waved -- deliberately imperious and insulting -- toward the exit. "You may go now."

Rumlow wanted to argue, Tony could tell. For an instant, Tony thought he would ignore the six-to-one odds and start swinging anyway, but then he rocked back on his heels, spat at Tony's feet, and turned for the door.

They watched him go, impassive until he'd pushed through the door, and then Clint burst into laughter. "That was awesome," he gasped. "Oh my god, that was perfect."

Bucky laughed and pulled Tony into his arms. "Badass," he agreed.

"I wonder if I could bribe the club security to give me a copy of the tape," Clint mused.

Tony snorted, breathing hard and trying to back away from the edge of hysteria now that the moment of crisis was past, thankful for the solid weight and warmth of Bucky's embrace.

"Security feeds have no audio," Pietro pointed out, rolling his eyes.

"Doesn't matter; if the angle's right, I can just read his lips," Clint said.

Steve was typing into his phone, squinting at the screen through the strobing, swirling lights.

"What's that about?" Bucky asked suspiciously.

"Nothing," Steve said innocently, tucking his phone back into his pocket. "Come on, there were a couple more of those crazy drinks I wanted to try before we call it a night."

"Jesus, Rogers, can you even get drunk?" Sam complained, but he clapped Steve on the arm and led the way back toward the balcony. Clint and Pietro followed behind them, still squabbling fondly.

Tony let Bucky steer him toward the stairs, but as he looked over the room he saw Natasha slipping through the crowd toward the door, tucking her phone back into her pocket as she went. Later, he theorized, she would join them again, cool as ice and smooth as satin, and Steve would buy her a round. And if she happened to have bruises on her knuckles, she would just smile and say that she'd had to punch the tampon dispenser in the ladies' room to unjam it or something else equally as unlikely.

He watched until the door had closed behind her, and then leaned happily into Bucky's side and continued up the stairs, forgetting Bucky's ex-roommate entirely.

It was a night to celebrate, after all.