Being one of the lead scientists on Project Rebirth changed Tony's life, but not for the reason most would assume.
Turning a small, shivering Steve Rogers into the epitome of human perfection with the flick of a couple of switches was undoubtedly an accomplishment — possibly the biggest scientific breakthrough Tony would ever be a part of — but it wasn't the most important moment of his life, either. There was a rush of joy and adrenaline, yes — awe at seeing what they had accomplished — but that came crashing down with the ear-shattering explosion of a Nazi bomb and the death of Dr. Erskine.
Tony didn't blame the military for scrapping the project after that. There was a war to be won and one soldier, no matter how perfect, wouldn't be able to turn the tide. Besides, Tony was already needed elsewhere, his time far too precious to be spent on a theory that had died together with its creator.
While he would always consider Project Rebirth as one of his crowning achievements, the events that came after it were even more monumental. After Tony and his numerous projects had been relocated to London to better further the war effort, and after he'd dropped off the now much bigger — but no less awkward — Steve Rogers in the middle of an active war zone as a favor to Peggy. Then, when Captain Rogers returned and was given a band of colorful soldiers to command, that was when it happened.
Tony met James Barnes.
Steve brought his newly minted unit to Tony's workshop for weapons and uniforms, and there Barnes was, all handsome and smiling. It was nothing as childish as love at first sight — at twenty-six Tony knew there was no such thing — but there was definitely a sizzle of mutual attraction.
Barnes' gaze wandered appreciatively along the curve of Tony's back — like a stolen caress, existing only because he thought no one was watching.
But Tony definitely noticed.
There was a flicker of cautiousness in Barnes' eyes when he realized he'd been caught, so Tony made sure to smile, throwing in a quick wink for good measure. Barnes relaxed and responded with a slow, wicked smile of his own.
That look was enough to make Tony's heart race, his gut clenching from the warm burst of desire.
"Hey, Buck, come here." Steve waved for Barnes to step closer, then gestured towards Tony. "This is Anthony Stark. He—"
"Dumped your sorry ass out of a fucking airplane, yeah — you told me." Barnes was smirking despite the harsh words, and there was an amused spark in his eyes when he held out his hand in greeting.
"I did give him a parachute first," Tony pointed out, accepting the offered handshake. Barnes' grip was firm and dependable. "And it was Peggy's idea, not mine."
Steve cleared his throat and hastily cut in. "Tony will help you with your equipment."
Barnes was still holding Tony's hand, his head tilting to the side in obvious interest. "So you pilot planes, build almost flying cars, and outfit soldiers?"
Tony grinned. The failed flying car might not be his proudest moment, but he was delighted to hear that not only had Barnes been at the Stark Expo — he clearly remembered Tony's demonstration too.
"What can I say? I have many talents." Slowly — reluctantly — Tony let go of Barnes' hand, for the sake of propriety. Tony could still feel the lingering warmth of Barnes' fingers against his own, however, even after they had let go. "I'm currently designing Steve's new uniform, and will be supplying you boys with whatever weapons you desire, customized to suit your every need."
"That's very kind of you, Mr. Stark." Barnes' smile was breathtaking.
Steve was studying them curiously but Tony paid that no mind — he only had eyes for Barnes.
"Please, call me Tony. I'm going to take very good care of you," Tony assured, delighted to notice the bright flare of hunger in Barnes' eyes.
"I'm sure you will, Tony," Barnes replied, his voice a low, smooth drawl. The way he said Tony's name was positively sinful.
And that, right there, was the moment Tony's life changed forever.
It still took weeks before they found the opportunity to explore the obvious attraction between them. Weeks of subtle glances and playful quips, of sweetly whispered darlings and sweethearts that Tony collected like precious gems. There was just never enough time to do more in between armor fittings, weapons tests, and covert missions, both of them too caught up in the war and their respective duties.
They toed the line constantly, teasing and playful, as if daring the other to be the first one to act. It was a dangerous game to play if they were discovered, but Tony loved it all the same.
And he loved it even more when it finally culminated.
Usually, Tony didn't come with the soldiers when they went out drinking, but the promise of a night in Barnes' company — be it on the other end of a table at a rowdy pub — was enough to persuade him.
The air was heavy with the smoke from cigarettes, music and laughter filling the empty spaces. Barnes was smiling, his usually bright eyes dark in the low light of the pub, his movements confident and relaxed. Twice Barnes declined offers to dance in favor of Tony's company, barely even looking at the hopeful girls before sending them away.
There was a low hum inside Tony's chest, growing stronger the longer the evening progressed. It seemed to resonate within Barnes, pulling them closer together until they were just shy of touching. Warmth was spreading under Tony's skin, his focus narrowing down to just the two of them, shutting out the laughter and voices of the other patrons.
Nothing mattered but the breathless anticipation between him and Barnes.
"I have a two-day leave," Barnes said, the words spoken softly, inches from Tony's ear.
Their gazes met, Barnes' blue eyes full of yearning and hope, and Tony nodded — there was nothing else he could do.
Barnes smiled that crooked, devious smile of his and Tony let himself fall. He'd been falling for weeks, but now he knew that Barnes was there to catch him.
Without another word Barnes rose from their table, his hand trailing along Tony's shoulder as he passed, sending a delighted shiver down Tony's spine. The touch was simple — fleeting, almost — but held an abundance of promise.
"Steve, I'm heading back early," Barnes called over the cacophony of voices, receiving a confirming nod in reply. Tony could have sworn that Steve's gaze strayed towards him for half a beat, but pushed it aside as his own imagination.
Tony waited a couple of minutes after Barnes had left before following. This time he could definitely feel Steve's gaze and offered a casual nod in goodbye. The flicker of amusement in Steve's eyes was so subtle that Tony almost missed it.
As soon as he stepped out onto the dark street Tony forgot all about Steve. The city was quiet and deserted, huddling in fear of nightly aerial attacks. Tony suspected it always would, as long as the war was ongoing.
Tony came willingly when he felt hands pull him into the shielding darkness of a nearby alley. His back was pushed up against the wall, Barnes a source of blessed heat against his front. Fingers buried into Tony's hair, angling his head, followed by warm lips pressing against his. Tony's hands gripped Barnes' shirt, desperate to pull him closer — to feel and taste more.
Barnes' kisses were like fire, igniting a flame of desire in Tony's heart. The warmth seeped into his blood, slithering through his veins and making him tremble. He pushed closer, arching his back, wanting — no, needing — more. The air was vibrating with urgency, a moan of pleasure slipping past Tony's lips. He couldn't get enough of the hot, searing kisses, drawing them out to better appreciate their perfection.
His hand wandered lower, eager and searching, stroking Barnes' hardness through his clothes. Barnes moaned, pushing into the touch and rolling his hips for more friction.
"Jesus, Tony," he gasped in the narrow space between their lips. Barnes trembled from the intimate caress, but soon gripped Tony's wrist to still his movements. "No, wait. Wait, Tony."
A sudden pang of doubt made Tony freeze.
"Not here, darling," Barnes whispered breathlessly, his forehead resting against Tony's. "Too dangerous."
There was truth in that — being caught doing this with another man would mean trouble for them both. For Barnes more so than Tony, who had money and influence to protect him.
Tony swallowed, nodding in understanding.
"My place," he offered. There was no privacy to be had at the military barracks, after all, but Tony's money bought him almost anything he wanted, even in times of war.
"Lead the way."
Tony stole another kiss before pulling Barnes along by his hand. Their fingers entwined, as if they couldn't bear to part from each other. Even something as small as holding hands was dangerous — a forbidden touch when out in public — but that knowledge only sent a thrill of excitement down Tony's spine.
They moved through the city, hidden by the darkness and curling shadows. The beats of Tony's heart seemed to echo in his chest, loud and resonating like church bells. He wanted Barnes with a fervor he had never experienced before — as if he might cease to exist if he were to be denied the warmth and taste of him.
They barely made it inside the door before they crashed together again. Tony wordlessly steered them towards the bed, pieces of clothing falling to the floor in their wake, leaving a winding trail. Barnes' skin was warm under Tony's hands, spanning over strong, firm muscles. Tony wanted to worship every inch of him with his lips and teeth and tongue.
They navigated each other's bodies in the moonlight, hands exploring and learning — memorizing dips and curves, finding where to place kisses and what caress brought the most pleasure. Tony was soaring, held steady only by Barnes' hands on his skin and the weight of his body.
When Barnes pushed inside him Tony's breath caught, his hands finding purchase on Barnes' strong shoulders. It was nothing but bliss from there, each roll of Barnes' hips sending a wave of pleasure through Tony. The moonlight that shone in through the gap in the curtains gave Barnes' skin an ethereal, silvery glow, his eyes dark and full of desire. Their gasps and breathless moans wove together into a harmony Tony knew he would never experience with anyone else.
In that moment, just as his pleasure crested, Tony couldn't help wishing that he would get to keep this forever.
"I think you should call me Bucky." Gentle fingers were tracing nonsensical patterns on Tony's arm, the tip of a nose nudging against his ear. "Or James, at the very least."
Tony smiled, his eyes closed and back warmed by the virtual furnace Barnes turned out to be.
"I can do that," he mumbled, his smile growing wider when Bucky's nose buried in his hair. "I can definitely do that."
Bucky didn't answer but the way he pulled Tony closer, wrapping his arms securely around him, said everything that needed to be said. There was a flutter in Tony's chest — a wave of happiness and excitement and hope — and he fell asleep not long after, safe and protected in Bucky's arms.
They stole what moments they could. Some of them were hurried — fumbling meetings in the dark corners of Tony's workshop or the few secluded places on base — but other times, when Bucky was given leave, they spent hours lazily kissing in Tony's bed.
They still had to be careful not to be seen, always behaving in public despite how much they yearned for each other. It was difficult, some days, when Bucky returned from a mission only to be shipped out again before Tony could be given as much as a kiss. The friendly pats and lingering glances they had to settle for those times were hardly enough to satisfy the longing Tony felt whenever he had to watch Bucky leave.
Despite this, Tony wouldn't change it for the world. The time they shared belonged to no one but them, blissful weeks turning into equally blissful months. So many forces were at play, the war tugging them along, heedless of their protests — but this was theirs.
The moments spent curled up with Bucky, warm and safe, skin against skin — the war couldn't touch those.
Tony knew that Bucky might not return to him one day, but he tried not to think about that. He refused to even acknowledge the possibility, focusing instead on how Bucky's skin felt under his palms and the taste of him on his lips. Tony focused on the good things because he wasn't sure if he could keep going if he lost what he and Bucky shared. Their happiness was a frail thing, but all the more precious for it.
Tony had fallen, irrevocably, and if Bucky wasn't there to catch him, he wasn't sure what he would do.
"You could give Steve a run for his money, eating like that," Tony pointed out over breakfast. Their legs were tangled under the sheet, a tray of food propped up in their laps. Bucky's hair was glowing golden in the morning sun, the light catching in the chain of his dog tags. "You sure you're not secretly a super soldier?"
Bucky paused, a flash of guilt appearing on his face.
"Sorry," he mumbled, putting his fork down.
"No, no," Tony soothed, "don't stop. The food is meant for you. Eat it."
While Tony knew he should feel guilty for the luxuries he could afford when there were others out there barely scraping by, he took immense pleasure in spoiling Bucky — especially with food. Bucky was always hungry, it seemed, perhaps because he had grown up poor and never known what it was like to have an abundance. Or maybe it was simply because of the strain the frequent missions put on his body.
Either way, it was something Tony could fix — and he did so gladly.
Bucky still hesitated, staring down at their breakfast tray.
"Bucky, dearest, eat the food," Tony urged with a hint of exasperation. Bucky gave him a flat look, to which Tony shrugged. "What? You want us to throw it away?"
Bucky frowned, clearly disliking the thought of wasting something as precious as food. "We could give it to someone else," he pointed out, not unreasonably.
"Yes, we could," Tony acknowledged, inching closer and pressing a soft kiss against Bucky's jaw, "but that requires getting out of bed."
As expected, that drew a chuckle from Bucky, even if he had yet to relax entirely.
"You are a bad influence on me, Mr. Stark," Bucky drawled, but there was a smile on his lips.
"Am I now?"
"Yes," Bucky confirmed, his hand rising to tangle in Tony's hair, "the absolute worst."
Tony's, "I can live with that," got swallowed by the proceeding kiss.
Tony never asked if Steve knew. It was obvious that Bucky and Steve were inseparable, having grown up together and faced down countless enemies side by side, but Tony had no way of knowing if Bucky had told Steve about them.
A part of Tony hoped he had, because he was proud to be the one who woke up to Bucky's smile in the mornings, but another knew the danger they would be in. Steve was indescribably loyal and would never betray the man he saw as his brother, but the less people who knew, the better.
Even so, Tony often found himself wishing — hoping — that what he and Bucky shared could be more than just a secret between them. And, had the world been different, maybe it could have been.
Bucky was staring into the flickering flames, his gaze distant — as if he was seeing much further than the fireplace in Tony's bedroom. They lay wrapped up in Tony's bed, as was their habit, Tony's head resting on Bucky's shoulder. The silence was less comfortable than usual, however — thick and unwieldy. Tony had very little patience for existential dilemmas, his fingers toying absently with Bucky's dog tags.
"What's wrong?" Tony asked, nudging Bucky's chin with his nose.
For a moment, Tony thought Bucky hadn't heard. Bucky continued to stare into the fire, until he eventually let out a soft breath — a sighing exhale that sounded alarmingly like a surrender.
Tony waited for Bucky to elaborate, speaking only when it became obvious that Bucky had no intention of doing so. "More than usual?"
"I think it might be ending," Bucky said.
Tony frowned. "That's good, isn't it?"
Bucky remained silent for a couple of beats, until he finally tore his gaze away from the flickering flames, looking at Tony instead. A soft, tender smile spread on his lips, his fingers wandering through Tony's hair. The touch was enough to soothe a lot of Tony's anxiety.
"Yeah. Yes, it is." Bucky averted his gaze, a flicker of uncertainty showing on his face. "But I don't know what I'll do afterwards." There was vulnerability in his eyes, as well as apprehension. "Where I'll be."
"With me," Tony replied without hesitation. "You'll always have a place here with me."
Too late Tony realized that he might have said too much — that he had revealed things better kept safely tucked away inside his heart, unspoken but painfully true. He panicked when Bucky moved to sit up, forcing Tony to do the same. Tony tried to pull away, tense and uncertain, but Bucky's gentle grip on his elbow stopped him.
Without saying a word Bucky took off his dog tags, slipping the necklace over Tony's head instead. The tags came to rest against the center of Tony's chest, two pieces of warm metal, shining in the light of the fire. With a careful tug on the chain Bucky drew Tony in for a kiss.
"Then I'll make sure to always come back."
Tony swallowed and closed his eyes against the overwhelming emotions, his heart thundering in his chest. When he opened his eyes again he was met by the sight of Bucky bathed in the warm, golden glow of the flickering flames, more beautiful than ever.
It took Tony a couple of seconds before he was able to speak again, his smile teasing but fond.
"The point of the tags is that you should be wearing them — not me," he said.
Bucky shrugged. "I don't plan to die."
"Few people do." Tony stroked his thumb along one of the tags, Bucky's hand drifting down to join his. Their fingers laced together, Bucky's breath a soft caress against Tony's cheek when he leaned closer, pressing a kiss to his temple.
"I'll come back, Tony — I promise," Bucky whispered. "You only live once, and I'm not ready to leave just yet."
"Good." Tony ducked his head, hiding his face against Bucky's neck. "I don't ever want you to."
"I'll do what I can," Bucky promised, a soft, sweet kiss landing on top of Tony's head.
Tony stirred when Bucky slipped out of bed. He made a noise of complaint, which turned into a low hum of pleasure when he felt a hand soothe down his bare back.
"Where?" he asked, the words muffled against his pillow. Bucky only left early if there was a mission. Tony knew better than to ask what Bucky would be doing, but knowing where he went made it easier to predict when he would return.
"Austria," Bucky replied, pressing a kiss against Tony's shoulder blade.
"Mmmh... dress warmly."
"I will," Bucky promised fondly. "I love you."
"I love you too," Tony replied, already slipping back towards blessed sleep. He felt a last, fleeting kiss against his temple before Bucky slipped away, leaving behind a lingering scent on the sheets and the dog tags wrapped around Tony's neck.
The moment Tony saw the look on Steve's face, he knew. He could read it in the hunch of Steve's shoulders — like a giant bending under an invisible weight — and the glassy shine in his red-rimmed eyes.
"He fell," Steve choked out, swallowing once, twice — as if he wanted to take the words back. Make them untrue. "I tried— I couldn't reach him in time."
Tony didn't move. He had forgotten how, one hand gripping the edge of his worktable so hard it was beginning to hurt. Steve was still in uniform, his hair a windswept mess and tear tracks painting pale lines on his cheeks. He must have come straight for Tony's workshop, bypassing the debrief and required check-ups in medical.
Steve knew. Bucky might have told him, or maybe Steve had figured it out on his own — he was deceptively clever underneath that innocent façade — but Steve definitely knew. He wouldn't have come otherwise. Steve was delivering the news in person, before the gossip and reports started trickling in, showing Tony the kind of delicacy and respect only a significant other would be given.
"I'm so sorry. I t-tried—" Steve's voice broke, his jaw clenching. Grief shone in his eyes, already bright with tears and regret. His shoulders were shaking under the strain, his carefully maintained posture faltering. Steve — firm, unbreakable Steve — was crumbling.
Tony moved on pure reflex — some latent instinct he didn't know he had. He could barely think, but somehow he managed to wrap his arms around Steve's shoulders and pull him closer. Steve smelled of biting cold and smoke, the leather in his uniform creaking when he clung to Tony in return, shattering to pieces from that simple act of compassion. Steve's face buried against the crook of Tony's neck, warm tears wetting his skin.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I tried. I swear, I tried to save him." Steve's breath hitched, the words spilling from his lips in an increasingly desperate stream. "I'm sorry, Tony. I'm so sorry. I tried." Steve sobbed. "I couldn't save him. Oh God, I couldn't save him."
There was nothing Tony could say — no words that would make it better. There was a hole in his chest, big and gaping, and Tony wasn't sure how he kept breathing. Surely he should have stopped the moment he found out Bucky had?
He didn't cry, even as Steve sobbed against his shoulder. Tony felt numb, unable to react or respond — as if he had simply shut down. As if he could no longer function properly. His skin felt cold — unattached to the rest of him — as if the all warmth was being leeched out, one inch at a time, disappearing into the big black void Bucky had left behind.
Bucky was dead.
Tony's throat closed up, his chest aching. Bucky wasn't coming back.
The dog tags burned against Tony's skin, hidden under layers of clothes.
Tony heard a pained whimper, realizing a second later it had come from him. His fingers gripped the straps of Steve's uniform, holding on from sheer desperation.
Bucky was dead.
When Steve crashed into the ocean not long after, Tony was ashamed to admit that a part of him envied Steve. His fall had at least been short, but Tony's would go on for years.
And this time there was no one there to catch him.
Tony couldn't find Bucky's body. He and the surviving Commandos followed the rough coordinates Steve had given, searching through the canyon, but there was nothing there. Washed away by the river, they told him, or maybe wild animals had dragged the body away and hid it somewhere.
The thought of Bucky being ripped to bite-sized pieces by scavenging animals made Tony throw up.
He stayed on all fours in the snow, dry heaving and gasping for breath, until Dum Dum gently pulled him to his feet and ordered them to head back home.
After three weeks Tony could no longer smell Bucky's scent on his sheets.