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Christmas Gloom (Is Unnecessary This Year)

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The snow is coming down in thick, heavy flakes, slowly but steadily covering the world outside in a soft coat of fluffy white. It’s unusually, eerily quiet, no machines whirring in the background or bots clunking about, giving the night an almost ethereally peaceful touch.

Wrapped in the cosiest blanket he could find, Tony is curled up in one of the armchairs by the lazily crackling fireplace, staring out into the backyard and absently sipping his scotch, trying not to resent his friends for convincing him to come out here, and failing miserably. It would be easier, he thinks, if they were here with him at least, but he can’t begrudge them the time with their loved ones, either.

The decorations Steve had insisted on putting up twinkle and gleam mockingly, as if their sole purpose is to remind Tony that the ones he cares about aren’t here to enjoy the holidays with him. It’s funny, really, in a way that’s anything but; Tony had never been big on celebrating at all, not while his parents had still been around, and certainly not after, not until the others had started getting excited about the idea of spending Christmas together, as a team and family.

And now none of them are around. Well, almost no one is, anyway.

A door opens down the hall, followed by the tired groans of the old floorboards under nearly silent footsteps. Tony sighs, tipping back the last of his drink before reaching for the crystal bottle to refill his tumbler, and drown the sudden flush of uncomfortable guilt that comes with thinking about the other man in the mansion, even more lost and lonely than Tony.

Part of Tony wants to get up, trail the only other sounds of life into the kitchen, but he pushes that thought away before it can take root and grow. Bucky hasn’t exactly been talkative, or even around much since everyone else left. He’s reservedly friendly on the best of days, all hesitant smiles and shy conversation, as if he isn’t sure how to fit into his own skin anymore, and without Sam and Steve here to coax him out of his shell he’s even more withdrawn than normal.

Not that Tony blames him. He’s pretty sure few other people would have come out of that same ordeal as stubbornly determined to find themselves again as Bucky has, and it would be a lie to say that Tony isn’t impressed. And feeling more than a little inadequate.

His own captivity had lasted a laughable three months, but even close to a decade later he hasn’t bounced back yet. It’s pathetic, it really is, how he still wakes up sweat-soaked and screaming more often than not, frantically fumbling for the reactor and panicking all the more when he can’t find it, even though it’s been gone for over three years now.

And then there’s Bucky, a couple months out of the hospital after over six decades of torture, brainwashing, and mind-wipes, and he’s doing, well, not okay, but he’s functioning. Recovering. Tony still hasn’t figured out how to do that, and he’s fairly sure he never will. But despite that, and much to Tony’s own surprise, if he’s being honest with himself, he doesn’t resent Bucky one bit. There’s no jealousy or envy, only a deep, humbling admiration for him and his unbelievable strength.

Which, Tony suspects, is why it has taken him so long to realise that he’s fallen head over heels in love with the man; it’s been hidden under something much more innocent, much less potentially team destroying. Tony sorely wishes it would’ve stayed there, buried deep and difficult to find, because now that he’s aware of it, it’s impossible to ignore.

Tony, contrary to popular belief, isn’t completely useless when it comes to emotional interactions with other human beings, and putting the moves on the guy fresh out of intensive therapy, the best friend of one of his few real friends on top of that, seems like a worse idea than taking a oneway trip through an alien portal with a nuke as carry-on luggage. And that’s saying something.

Having Bucky knock on his workshop door a couple of days after arriving at the tower had been unexpected, but not unwelcome. The arm had been acting up, and Tony’d been more than happy to have a look at it. And somehow, without Tony noticing it, that one visit had turned into regular maintenance sessions that have become, no matter how embarrassed he is to admit it, the absolute highlight of Tony’s week.

Bucky exudes an aura of gentleness and calm that Tony, who’s been telling himself that he thrives off the chaos and manic action his life is filled with, is inexplicably drawn to. It’s an attraction that goes beyond the physical--although Tony won’t deny that Bucky’s beautifully bowed lips and shockingly expressive eyes have featured in quite a few of his dirty fantasies--it’s a craving for just a piece of the stability, of the serenity Bucky has found, the desperate wish to be allowed to share those things with Bucky.

Yeah, Tony has it bad. He’s always known about his addictive personality, he’d just never dreamed about his drug of choice being Bucky’s private little smiles, the ones that appear when he’s passed one of his courses and come another step closer to finally getting his GED, or when a new baking project has turned out to be a success with the team.

Bucky is good, honestly, truly good, and Tony isn’t delusional enough to think that he deserves someone like that as more than a casual acquaintance, let alone a boyfriend and partner.

“Sir,” JARVIS interrupts Tony’s self-pitying holiday pouting, “your assistance is required in the kitchen. Sergeant Barnes has not been reacting to any of my attempts at conversation for the last five minutes, and according to protocol this indicates-”

Tony is out of his seat like a shot, mentally clapping himself on the back for having the foresight to install the AI in the mansion before their visit, hurrying through the hall on legs made wobbly by long hours of sitting around and brooding, the scotch making his vision blur for a moment as it rushes to his head.

Cursing, he blinks and rubs at his itching eyes. If something happens to Bucky, if he gets hurt because Tony was too drunk to help him through whatever is going on, Steve won’t be the only one to never forgive Tony.

The sight of Bucky cowering in the small space between the fridge and the wall, metal fingers twisted into his hair as he rocks back and forth and mumbles erratically, thankfully sobers Tony up enough to not fall flat on his ass when he goes to crouch down a few feet away from Bucky, hands held up placatingly in front of himself to show that he means no harm.

“Bucky?” he asks, proud when his voice comes out more or less steady, and relieved when Bucky’s eyes, albeit wide and scared, do their best to focus on him. “Hey, you’re okay, you’re safe. Do you know where you are?”

Bucky considers that for a moment, chest heaving with barely controlled pants, then his face crumples and he shakes his head, a low whine starting up in the back of his throat as he gives his hair a sharp tug.

Tony reaches out instinctively but remembers that touching might not be good idea right now, hand hovering awkwardly over Bucky’s knee. “Please don’t do that,” he says quietly, which at least gets Bucky to properly look at him again. “Don’t hurt yourself, it’s all right. You did nothing wrong, okay? It’s Christmas Eve, you’re in New York, in the old Stark mansion, and you’re safe. I promise, sweetheart, you’re safe.”

The accidental endearment makes Tony cringe a little, but Bucky doesn’t seem to be bothered. He nods slowly, not fully comprehending yet but definitely less frantic, less tense.

Bucky sighs, brushing the tips of his flesh and blood fingers over Tony’s wrist, but flinching back before Tony can decide where to go from there, staring at his hand in utterly defeated betrayal.

“What happened?” Tony asks quietly, motioning for Bucky to show him his palm. He hisses sympathetically when he spots the blisters, gently cupping Bucky’s hand in both of his, careful not to touch the burn.

“наказание,” Bucky manages to choke out around the sob lodged in his throat, angrily wiping at the stray tear running down his cheek. “No more. Please.”

“I’m not-” Tony starts to say, cutting himself off and taking a deep, steadying breath. “I’m not going to punish you. No one is going to punish you, Bucky, I swear.”

But Bucky is shaking his head, doesn’t appear to hear or understand what Tony’s saying, rapidly approaching something dangerously close to terror. “I don’t want to go back there. I don’t want to go back into the box. Please, I don’t- please.

JARVIS, quick and helpful as ever, projects several pages of what Tony immediately recognises as part of the Winter Soldier files onto the wall behind Bucky, well out of Bucky’s sight. Tony scowls at them. He knows Bucky has given all the Avengers permission to read them, even after the new SHIELD had taken care of the info dump fallout and reclassified everything Natasha put on the internet, but Tony’s been hesitant to take him up on that, only studying the pages dedicated to the prosthetic to get an idea of how it works. Everything else feels too personal, too intimate.

There has to be a reason for JARVIS to show them now, though, so Tony skims the text and glances at the pictures, and immediately wishes he hadn’t. It’s not news that Hydra had been appallingly creative in their attempts to force the soldier’s compliance, but that doesn’t mean Tony wants to know all the intricate details of how they’d hurt Bucky.

One of the designs shows the aforementioned box, made of metal to better conduct heat, and barely big enough for a grown man to sit upright in it. No protection to prevent the person inside from coming into direct contact with the undoubtedly blazingly hot walls.

Tony swallows hard, waving for JARVIS to get rid of the files. He looks over at the table, noticing the baking sheet dropped hazardously onto the counter and the broken cookies scattered everywhere. Bucky must have burned himself while taking them out of the oven. No wonder he’s struggling with staying present.

Meanwhile, Bucky has started rocking again, eyes screwed shut and biting his bottom lip, which does little to muffle the scared little half-sobs he’s trying to hold back. “Too hot, ‘s too hot,” he moans weakly, clearly slipping away again. “Make it stop, make it stop, please, make it stop, please, please, please!”

I don’t know how, Tony thinks desperately, but doesn’t say. Him freaking out as well is the last thing Bucky needs right now. Instead, Tony gets up, forcing himself to ignore the heartbreaking little sniffle Bucky lets out at the loss of contact, and goes to wet a dish towel, then hurries back to Bucky’s side and wraps it around Bucky’s burnt hand, hoping to soothe the sting.

“Here, feel that? Nice and cool, yeah?” Tony asks, but Bucky doesn’t react, keeps staring at nothing and begging for the heat to go away.

Tony sits back, ruffles a hand through his hair, thinking hard. Bucky’s obviously too far gone right now to be reasoned with, Tony needs a way to shake him out of whatever hellish memory he’s trapped in before he can do anything else, something to-

“Yes!” Tony exclaims, jumping up. “Come on, honey, we’re going to take a walk.”

Bucky’s uncomfortably compliant as Tony pulls him upright, though Tony’s grateful for it at the moment. Trying to move a resisting super soldier wouldn’t have ended well for anyone involved. They reach the living room without any problems or interruptions, greeted by an icy gust of wind when Tony opens the sliding doors and guides them both out into the garden.

He leads them off the wooden deck until they’re both standing ankle deep in the fresh snow, his teeth clattering already. Bucky, meanwhile, is blinking owlishly, gazing intently down at where his legs vanish in the snow.

Tony breathes a sigh of relief at seeing that, nudging an elbow into Bucky’s side. “See? It’s freezing, you’re definitely in New York. Hey, you okay? Coming back?”

Bucky nods slowly, closes his eyes and breathes in deeply, filling his lungs with cold, crisp winter air. “Yeah,” he says, very quietly. “Thanks.”

“It’s fine, don’t mention it,” Tony says with a shrug, ducking his head to hide his blushing cheeks. He can’t exactly cover his burning ears without drawing Bucky’s attention, but if he’s lucky for once in his life, Bucky will assume they’re tomato red because of the cold.

They fall into a silence that’s not exactly awkward, but not comfortable either. Tony can’t, for the life of him, figure out what to say or do next, so he just wraps his arms around himself to preserve at least some warmth, waiting.

His patience is rewarded a couple of minutes later when Bucky says, sounding somewhat bewildered but a lot more like himself again, “Didn’t think I’d like winter, the snow, after Hydra. After the cryo an’ all that shit. But I do. ‘S quiet, everything’s muted. Seems less hectic. I like that.”

“Still not a fan of sand,” Tony finds himself replying, startled by his own honesty. He swallows hard before continuing. “Or water, for that matter. Even taking a bath makes me twitchy,” he says, just barely manages to bite back the, because I’m pathetic, his stupid brain wants to add.

He clears his throat, embarrassed. “Anyway. You ready to head back inside, Elsa? Not everyone here is resistant to shitty weather, so how about-” He’s cut of by the snowball bursting against the side of his head, shooting Bucky his best oh no you didn’t look. “Seriously? How old are you, five?”

Bucky grins, a definitely predatory edge to it. “Afraid you’ll lose, old man?”

And yeah, no, that won’t do. Not at all. “You’re going down, Barnes,” Tony yells as he starts running, getting pelted twice more before he can find cover behind the tool shed.

Being the stealthy fucker he is, Bucky has vanished immediately, untraceable no matter how hard Tony tries to spot him somewhere. Grumbling to himself because being an ex-spy is totally cheating, Tony begins building his arsenal instead. Bucky might have the tactical advantage, but Tony has the upper hand when it comes to maths, physics, and how to apply them.

Which doesn’t help all that much when Bucky appears out of fucking nowhere, shoving a handful of snow into Tony’s hair before catching Tony around the waist, sending them both sprawling across the thankfully cushioned ground. Tony wriggles, trying to get free, but only ends up making Bucky lose his balance as well, elbows slipping out from under him. He lands on Tony’s chest with a breathless oomph, bringing their faces within inches of each other.

Tony’s eyes are automatically drawn to Bucky’s lips, parted slightly in a laugh, and follow the pink tip of Bucky’s tongue when it darts out to lick a few half-molten flakes away from the corner of Bucky’s mouth. Once he realises he’s staring, mesmerised and barely breathing, Tony tears his gaze away, but it’s too late, Bucky has definitely seen it if his widening eyes are any indication.

“I-” Tony croaks, not sure if he should apologise or make a joke out of it, which is less likely to get him punched, but before he has the chance to come up with something, anything, Bucky leans in and closes the last bit of distance between them.

It’s chaste, a brief brush of cool, chapped lips, but it’s enough to send Tony’s heart into overdrive and make his head spin. He’s too dazed to kiss back, caught completely off guard, simply blinking up at Bucky when Bucky pulls back with an uncertain expression.

“Did I- was that-” Bucky stutters, starting to sit up, which when it finally clicks for Tony.

Hooking a finger into the collar of Bucky’s shirt, Tony reels him back in, their noses bumping and their teeth clacking before they find the right angle, both of them smiling and snickering into their second kiss. Tony’s fingers find their way into Bucky’s hair, sliding through the loose strands and rubbing at his scalp, while Bucky is bracing himself above Tony with one hand, the other cupping Tony’s face ever so gently, mindful of the burn.

“Are you-” Tony pants between kisses, momentarily distracted when Bucky nips at his bottom lip. “Bucky, wait. Are you sure about this?”

Bucky moves back immediately, frowning. “Yeah, ‘course I’m sure.” He tenses, looking all vulnerable and open all of a sudden. “Ain’t you? I thought, well, I’ve seen you lookin’ but you never did anythin’ ‘bout it, so I thought you were waitin’ on me?”

“Oh my God, you knew?” Tony doesn’t quite squeak it, but it’s a close thing. He scrubs a hand over his face, takes a shuddering breath. “Look, I like you. I really do!” he insists when Bucky begins to look sceptical. “I like you a lot. So much that it’s a little ridiculous, to be honest. I just- I don’t know why you’d like me back. I mean, sure, I’m rich and gorgeous,” he tries to joke, but it falls flat, his voice shaking too much. “But you could do so much better, Buck, why would you settle for me? Shit, I’m an emotional wreck, and look at you, you’re doing so well, I don’t-”

“It’s not a contest, Tony,” Bucky interrupts, not unkindly, simply kissing Tony quiet when Tony goes to protest. “An’ I don’t care, a’right? I like you a lot, too,” he teases, grinning at Tony’s mock-glare. “Steve mighta been the one who brought me back, but you gave me a home. A place where I could feel safe again. When everyone else still looked at me like I was gonna go crazy again any minute, or wanted me to be someone I barely remembered, you went and treated me like a person, gave me the chance to find out who I am without demandin’ a single thing in return. You can’t even begin to imagine how much that means to me, мой солнышко.”

Tony doesn’t trust himself to speak without doing something completely humiliating, like breaking out in tears, nods and tilts his chin up for a kiss in the hopes that it’ll be enough.

Bucky smiles, happy and adoring, and brings their mouths back together. He pecks Tony’s lips once, twice, three times before asking, “Okay?”

“Okay,” Tony agrees, stealing another quick kiss. “If we can get back up now. I can’t feel my nose, I think it’s about to freeze off, and not even a Van Dyke will be able to conceal that.”

Bucky snorts but heaves himself up, then extends a hand to Tony and pulls him up as well. He doesn’t let go once Tony’s on his feet, though, uses their linked hands to tug Tony back inside in a switch of their earlier roles. He sends Tony off to go take a warm shower, and it’s only the fact that Tony’s trembling all over that he acquiesces without making a fuss, and only pouting a little bit.

Frostbite staved off, Tony wanders back into the lounge, stomach doing a funny little flip thing at the sight of Bucky already sitting on the couch, eyes immediately flickering up and softening when he spots Tony. Bucky pats the free spot between his legs, passing Tony a mug of steaming cocoa and wrapping the fuzzy blanket around them both.

Tony leans back against Bucky with a quiet, contented hum, Bucky’s chin coming to rest on his shoulder so Bucky can nose at the sensitive spot behind his ear, and press the occasional kiss to Tony’s neck.

They don’t talk, just watch the snow fall together, warm and happy, neither of them alone anymore.