To say shit had hit the fan with the whole Project Insight debacle would have been the understatement of the century, in Tony’s opinion, but that didn’t make it any less accurate a description.
Besides the figurative fall of SHIELD, there was also the literal fall of three entire helicarriers into the Potomac to deal with, as well as Natasha’s SHIELD info dump and, oh yeah, Steve’s assumed-dead best friend being very not-dead, and a HYDRA assassin to boot.
It’s the last two things specifically, though, that make Tony realize just how big a shitstorm they were dealing with. Because while he knew things with HYDRA were bad, he hadn’t realized how bad - not until he opens a file on the Winter Soldier, and sees James - his James - staring back at him.
He’s with Pepper and Bruce at the time, and they don’t understand why he goes white as a sheet, or why he runs to the nearest toilet and throws up. And he can’t explain it, not really, because how is he supposed to explain that James Buchanan Barnes - war hero, Steve’s childhood friend, the brainwashed fist of HYDRA - also happens to be Tony’s college sweetheart?
The answer is he can’t - not without opening a whole new can of worms - so he doesn’t. Instead, he keeps looking at the pictures and reading the files, feeling sicker and more horrified with every new detail. James had been Tony’s first love, his first real relationship, his everything, at one point in Tony’s life. To know that all of this had happened to him - had been happening to him, back when Tony had known him - makes Tony’s stomach roil in guilt and horror.
He throws everything he has into helping Steve find Bucky. He can tell the others are confused by his obsession, but Steve is both too polite and too grateful for the help to say anything.
Even so, Bucky is a highly-trained assassin who doesn’t want to be found. It’s six months before they get any solid leads, and two more before one of those leads turns into an actual sighting and a location.
Tony offers to go, but Steve turns him down, saying it would be best if they stuck to people Bucky might recognize, like himself and Natasha. Tony agrees, even if a tiny voice in the back of his head wants to argue. He’s read the files on the mind-wipe; if Bucky couldn’t remember Steve - a man he’d grown up with, and who hadn’t aged a day - than he definitely wouldn’t recognize Tony, a boy he’d known for only a few months, and now thirty years older.
So Steve and Nat take off, and Tony doesn’t hear from them for six weeks. He drives himself crazy in that time - drives Pepper crazy, for sure, since she still doesn’t know why he’s so upset - and considers going after them anyway, but, somehow, he holds himself back.
When he finally gets a text from Steve, he nearly cries in relief.
We found him.
Despite Steve’s assurances that Bucky knows who he is and is no longer a danger to anyone, he still doesn’t want to bring Bucky around to the tower.
“I don’t know if he can handle it just yet,” he tells Tony over the phone, sounding tired and weary. “He’s still… he remembers me, mostly. From before. He’s okay with me. And he recognizes Nat, from the bridge. He’s not really okay with her, actually, but she’s still… familiar. A known threat, I guess. But if we throw too many people at him at once…” He sighs, which comes out as static on Tony’s end, and gives Tony a moment to feel insulted that Steve is using some sub-par phone with crappy speakers instead of a StarkPhone.
“Tell me what you need,” Tony says, swallowing a plethora of mixed emotions and mentally adding ‘new phone’ to the top of the list.
He sets a place up for them in New York - partially so Steve and Natasha will be closer to home, and partially because Steve thinks the city might help with Bucky’s memory - and makes sure it’s as discrete and secure as possible.
They figure Sam’s background working at the VA might be helpful with Bucky’s recovery, so he joins them after the first few weeks, trading places with Natasha. Steve says Bucky is immediately more relaxed, though whether it’s due to Sam’s more easy-going personality or because he simply couldn’t bring himself to let his guard down around Natasha, Steve doesn’t know.
“Probably a little of both,” Natasha says when Tony tells her what Steve said. She doesn’t seem all that upset about it, though, and when Tony points that out, she shrugs. “I don’t blame him - I didn’t let my guard down around him, either, which was probably setting him off even more.” She sighs, then, showing wariness for the first time since the whole ordeal had started. “It’s one of the reasons we couldn’t bring him here - he still can’t be around people without assessing their threat level, and the tower is filled with people who are nothing but threats. Steve thinks he just has to get used to us, but it’s going to be a long time before he can be around people. Especially people like us.”
Tony doesn’t know what to say to that, so he offers her a drink, which she accepts.
Truth be told, he’s guiltily relieved. These last few months had given him a lot of time to think about it, and the more he had, the more panicked he’d become at the thought of coming face to face with Bucky again. He knows he’ll have to, eventually - Steve and the others can’t stay away forever - but for now, at least, he’s happy to have the safety-net of distance.
It’s enough to know that James is safe.
Unfortunately, Tony’s safety-net is short-lived.
Despite Natasha’s assessment, it seems like no time at all has passed when Steve suggests bringing Bucky back to the tower.
Tony really doesn’t know what to say. The thought of seeing James again is both a dream and a nightmare. He still can’t look at pictures of Bucky without remembering his voice, or his scent, or the way one side of his mouth would crook up more than the other when he smiled. But he can’t say no, either, because the tower is the safest place for Bucky, and Tony would be damned before he let anything else happen to him.
So he gives Steve the go-ahead, puts on his press-smile, and finds himself sitting in the common room of Avengers’ Tower, watching the elevator doors with trepidation and a strong drink in his hand.
When they finally open, Tony feels as though the air has been sucked out of the room. And then Steve, Sam, and Bucky step out -
The sight is like a punch to the gut.
Bucky - James - hasn’t aged a day. His hair is the same - though perhaps an inch or two longer - and the stubble Tony always used to make fun of is still firmly in place. His walk is a little less sure than it used to be, but the stride hasn’t changed, and neither has the barely-concealed, coiled strength in his limbs.
Tony feels hot and cold all at once, the familiar sadness and anger and yearning fighting for control, but he brushes it all aside.
Introductions are made, and Tony tries not to freak out too much when Steve finally gets to him.
What do you say to a guy who shattered your heart into a million little pieces, and doesn’t even remember it?
Not a damn thing, Tony decides, as Steve claps a hand to Tony’s shoulder and says, “And this is Tony Stark, our resident genius.”
It was a long time ago. Tony has had time to heal and, more importantly, he knows now that it wasn’t Bucky’s fault.
So even though he knows it’s going to hurt like hell, Tony is completely, 100% fine with pretending it never happened, and that everything is okay.
That is until Bucky looks up with haunted eyes, smiles sadly, and whispers, “We’ve met.”
Nothing else. Just two little words, and Tony is back at MIT, falling in love with the man who would break his seventeen-year-old heart all over again.
28 years ago…
Tony jogged up the sidewalk, his mind a million miles away as he juggled his coffee and the bag of books he was supposed to have given Rhodey… yesterday? It might have been the day before, he couldn’t quite remember - time always flew by when he was holed up in the robotics lab. All Tony knew was that Rhodey had been expecting the books, needed them for an exam or something - again, Tony couldn’t remember the specifics - and that he was going to be royally pissed that he still didn’t have them yet. And while Tony knew it was irrational to think Rhodey would stop speaking to him over a few missing books, there was always a part of him that feared he was one screw-up away from ruining the best friendship he’d ever had.
In any case, Tony was distracted, which - combined with his lack of sleep and the darkness of the early (or late - Tony really needed to start wearing a watch) hour - had been a recipe for disaster anyway.
So when disaster struck in the form of Tony plowing straight into someone standing on the street corner in front of him, Tony - and the man he plowed into - were the only ones who didn’t see it coming.
Tony yelped as he bounced off what felt like a brick wall of muscle, his (thankfully lukewarm) coffee flying out of his hand as he stumbled back, his foot slipping off the curb, and -
A hand jumped out and grabbed hold of Tony’s forearm, yanking him against a solid chest and away from the street just as a bus went whooshing by, honking angrily.
Tony sucked in a sharp breath, heart pounding in his ears, and looked up at his savior.
“T-thanks,” he stuttered, shaking as the implications of what had almost just happened caught up with him.
The man - the same one Tony had run into - scowled down at him, Tony’s coffee dripping from his hair. He opened his mouth - likely to chew Tony out for smacking into him - but paused as he took in Tony’s pale face, eyes flickering in surprise.
“Are you alright?” he asked in a tone much softer than Tony had expected, grip tightening around Tony as he pulled him further away from the street.
Tony swallowed and nodded, face flaming in humiliation. “Uh-huh, jus’… jus’ gimme a minute…” Tony mumbled, unable to look the guy in the eye. A hand slid under Tony’s chin, tilting his head back and forcing him to look up.
“Are you injured?” the man pressed, frowning as his eyes scanned over Tony. “Why were you running?”
Tony squirmed and shook his head, uncomfortable with both the physical contact and the intensity of the man’s gaze. He pushed at the guy’s chest, relieved when he immediately let go and took a step back.
“No, I’m fine, I mean-” Tony grimaced and ran a hand through his hair, which made him realize that he’d spilled coffee all over himself, too. “I’m okay, I was late for something and I wasn’t paying attention. I’m really, really sorry.”
The man cocked his head, brow pinched. “What are you doing out so late?” he asked, throwing Tony off. “Do your parents know where you are?”
Tony huffed, some of his embarrassment fading in favor of irritation. “I’m not a child,” he replied testily, bending down to pick up his book bag. “And even if I was, my folks certainly wouldn’t care.”
The man looked skeptical. “You’re small,” he said, as though that settled everything. “You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“I’m not small,” Tony snapped, yanking his bag over his shoulder and over-balancing from the extra weight. The man immediately reached out and steadied him, then scowled down at Tony’s bag as though it had personally offended him.
“I can handle myself just fine, thank you,” Tony hissed, pushing the man’s arms away.
The man sighed, but didn’t reach for him again. “You still shouldn’t be out here by yourself,” he said, frowning at Tony. “You’re an easy target, and there are people that could hurt you around.”
Tony snorted. “Like strange, shady-looking men on street corners?” he pointed out, raising his eyebrows and making a show of looking up and down the street.
The man cocked his head, eyes going strangely distant before he shook his head and focused on Tony again. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, crossing his arms and glowering at Tony. “But I could, and no one would be around to stop me.”
Tony blinked. “That… really doesn’t endear me to the point you’re trying to make,” he said warily, hiking his bag a little higher on his shoulder.
The man frowned harder at him, then seemed to come to a decision. “Go home,” he said firmly, uncrossing his arms and glaring at some point over Tony’s head. “I won’t bother you, and neither will anyone else.”
It sounded like a promise, though Tony didn’t know how the latter could be.
“Oookaaay…” Tony said slowly, taking a step or two back. He looked over his shoulder to see if the guy was actually glaring at something in particular, but the only things behind him were the buildings across the street and the street itself. When he turned back around the man was watching him, his mouth in a thin, disproving line, like he’d expected Tony to follow his order right away and scurry on home.
It grated on Tony, mostly because he’d always hated being told what to do. If he hadn’t needed to get to Rhodey, he probably would have sat down on the curb for a few more minutes just out of spite.
“Whatever,” Tony huffed. “Thanks for the, uh, save. And your concern,” he added tartly, turning around and stomping up the sidewalk.
He stopped when he’d gotten mostly up the street, and when he turned back around, the man was gone.
Rhodey was indeed pissed when Tony finally got to him, though not for the reason Tony would have thought.
“What the hell were you thinking, running around in the middle of the night by yourself?” Rhodey demanded as he yanked Tony inside and steered him towards the couch. “Do you have any idea what kind of weirdos hang around the streets at this hour, looking for an easy target?”
“I got your books,” Tony said lamely, holding out his bag once Rhodey was done man-handling him. Rhodey took it from him and dropped it on the other end of the couch, then glared at him.
“Screw the books, Tony! What if you’d ended up dead in a ditch somewhere, or in the back of some creep’s van?!” he snapped, running a hand through his hair and visibly trying to calm himself by taking a deep breath. “Why are you all wet?” he added in a more even tone, frowning as Tony ignored his rant and made himself at home on the couch.
“Huh? Oh, spilled my coffee,” Tony replied, pulling his damp shirt away from his skin and trying not to shiver. “Speaking of, do you have any more? Or maybe something to eat?” He thought he might have had a candy bar at some point in the last nine or so hours, but couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten anything else, and now that the adrenaline from his near-death experience had worn off he was starving.
Rhodey sighed in resignation. “You know where the fridge is,” he grumbled before he stomped off. He returned a second later to toss Tony one of his MIT hoodies, which Tony gratefully sank into after peeling off his stained shirt.
Rhodey settled on the arm of the couch and jiggled his leg, watching Tony with a troubled expression. “Seriously, Tones, don’t do that again. It’s dangerous - they found some guy’s body in an alley not far from here a couple of nights ago. Next time just call me or something, okay?”
Tony yawned and waved him off, the hoodie’s combination of warmth and comforting Rhodey-scent making him sleepy. “Mmm-hmm, sure. Just take your books, will you? Since I risked life and limb to get them to you.”
Rhodey snorted and rolled his eyes, but tugged Tony’s bag towards him and started digging through it. Tony closed his eyes and zoned out, only to jerk back awake a second later when Rhodey said his name.
“Wha…?” he mumbled, sitting up and squinting at Rhodey, who held up two books and frowned at him.
Rhodey sighed and put the books down, looking torn between exasperated and guilty, for some reason. “I said these aren’t all the books I asked for,” he said, pulling Tony’s bag back towards him and rummaging through it again. “You’re missing one.”
Tony scowled at him. “Uh, yes they are. You asked for that handbook, and the thermodynamics one, and -”
“And Mechanical Vibrations, which is not here.” Rhodey said patiently, letting go of the bag when Tony yanked it over.
“Yes it is! I remember putting it in there, I specifically -”
There was a knock on the door.
Tony and Rhodey both froze and looked over at the door, then each other.
“You expecting anybody?” Tony asked while Rhodey got up to answer it.
“No,” Rhodey replied, peeking through the peephole. “You’re pretty much the only person I know who shows up in the middle of the night without calling first, outside of an emergency.” He stepped back and frowned, then cautiously cracked the door open.
“Huh,” he said, pulling the door open further. He bent down and picked something up, then turned around and held it up to Tony.
Mechanical Vibrations by J.P. Den Hartog.
“Huh,” Tony agreed when Rhodey dropped the book into his lap, idly noting that the cover was damp with coffee stains.
Despite what Rhodey might have thought, Tony really did have a sense of self-preservation, which was why he told Rhodey all about street-corner guy, and promised to keep an eye out for gruff, muscular possible-stalkers in the future.
So when Tony actually spotted said possible-stalker sitting on a bench across the street from him two days later, stomping across the street and confronting him probably wasn’t his best idea, even if he did make sure there were plenty of other people within shouting distance before he did so.
“Did you follow me the other night?” Tony demanded as soon as he was in front of the man, crossing his arms and trying to make himself look as intimidating as possible.
He blinked up at Tony. “Yes,” he said, and went right back staring across the street while Tony spluttered. “Did you know those two men have been following you for two days?” he added, tilting his head across the street.
Tony floundered. “I… what?” he asked, turning towards the area the guy had indicated. There were indeed two men standing there, loitering around the coffee vendor Tony had just visited. When one caught sight of Tony staring at them he elbowed his partner and turned around, though not before Tony got a good look at his face - and realized that this was the fourth time in the last two days that he’d seen it.
“They were following you the other night, too,” street-corner guy continued, eyes never leaving the two men. “They stopped when the car that was with them had an… accident.” Tony thought the guy sounded almost smug when he said it, but his expression didn’t change, so Tony figured he was imagining things.
“I… see.” Tony said, swallowing, hard, and collapsing on the bench next to the man. This wouldn’t exactly be the first time something like this had happened - Howard made a lot of enemies, and there would always be people who looked at Tony and saw a quick ransom payday - but it was the first time since he’d been on his own at MIT. He’d balked when Howard had suggested a security detail - it had only been Obie’s interference that had prevented one - but…
Oh, God, what if these guys had seen Tony with Rhodey, and did something to him?
“Relax. They can’t hurt you if you’re sitting here with me,” Tony’s new companion said gruffly, eyes flickering briefly over to Tony.
“They can hurt my friends,” Tony replied bitterly. “And prove my dad right. God, this is just…” He shook his head, digging his nails into his thighs, then looked up sideways at the man. “Wait… is that why you followed me the other night? You saw these guys and just…”
What? Decided to follow them and exact vigilante justice if they did do something to Tony? That made no sense, and besides - who thought like that?
The man shrugged without looking at Tony. “I wasn’t doing anything else important at the time,” he responded, and then, after a second’s pause, “And besides, you forgot your book.”
Tony laughed, and thought he saw some of the blankness fade from the man’s expression.
“Oh, well, I guess chivalry isn’t dead,” Tony snickered, wiping his eyes and grinning at the man. Then something occurred to him. “Hey, are you a cop or something?” Because the guy kind of had that air to him. It reminded Tony of some of the military types his dad and Aunt Peggy used to hang around.
“…or something,” the man agreed, his tone all but dead.
Tony guessed he’d hit a sore spot on that one, so he just nodded and went back to staring across the street at his would-be kidnappers (or whatever they were).
“I guess I should go flag down a cop or something, then,” Tony said, watching as the two men tried to inconspicuously blend in with the crowd of people getting or drinking coffee around the little vendor. Of course, they’d probably want to call his parents, which meant he could kiss his freedom goodbye, but there wasn’t really anything else he could do about it.
“I’ll take care of it,” the man said, turning and looking at Tony fully for the first time since Tony had sat down, and leaving Tony to stare at the brightest pair of blue eyes he’d ever seen.
“Okay?” Tony found himself saying, feeling sucker-punched by the intensity of the man’s gaze.
The man’s expression flickered. “Go find your friend. They won’t follow you,” he said, turning his attention back to the men.
Still feeling a little punch-drunk, Tony nodded and stood on shaky legs. Rhodey should have been getting out of class right about now, and the way over there was pretty public.
“Uh…” Tony started, not sure what to say in this situation.
The man returned his gaze to Tony.
“They won’t follow you,” he repeated firmly, eyes glinting dangerously.
Tony believed him.
When Tony walked out of his twelve o’clock lecture the next day, the street-corner-bench guy was leaning against the wall just across the hall, his arms crossed.
“They won’t bother you again,” he said calmly when Tony approached him, uncrossing his arms and putting his hands into his pockets instead.
Tony didn’t ask who the ‘they’ was.
“Thank you,” he said instead, because that seemed like the kind of thing he should say.
The guy nodded, once, and then turned to leave.
“Wait!” Tony blurted, grabbing on to his arm. “I mean, uh…”
The man stopped and looked down at Tony patiently, leaving Tony to once again marvel at how blue his eyes were.
“Can I… buy you a cup of coffee?” Tony asked, insides going all squirmy under the man’s gaze. It made Tony feel naked, like the guy was taking Tony apart and analyzing him piece by piece, and yet…
Tony found he didn’t mind.
The man frowned uncertainly. “I… alright. I suppose that would be acceptable,” he said finally, glancing up at the passing students and then back again.
“Uh, great!” Tony said, stepping out of someone’s way and smiling enthusiastically. “So, uh, is now good? Of course now is good, why else would you have… okay, let’s go.” he babbled, belatedly realizing he was still holding onto the guy’s sleeve and dropping it.
Another crowd of students started to pass by, brushing past Tony and inadvertently pushing him into the man (good grief, Tony was going to have to get his name soon). In one movement, the guy had Tony turned and pressed against the wall, chest-to-chest, with his body a barrier between Tony and the crowd.
“You okay?” he murmured roughly into Tony’s ear.
Tony thought he might have squeaked. “I-I’m good!” he gasped when he found his voice again, and while the man’s eyes stayed serious, Tony thought he saw a corner of his mouth twitch up a fraction. “Oh, I’m, uh, Tony, by the way.” he added, because that seemed like something someone who had him pinned against a wall should know. “What’s your name?”
The man blinked, his expression going eerily blank, then looked up and down the hall, as though he was looking for something or someone among the throng of students.
“James,” the man mumbled finally, not looking at Tony. “My name is James.”
James wasn’t much of a conversationalist, mostly speaking in grunts and monosyllables, so Tony did most of the talking.
It didn’t occur to him that James might have found his babble annoying until they were halfway through their coffee and he caught James staring at him, a confused furrow between his brows.
“I’m sorry, you’re probably sick of hearing me talk,” Tony said, ears going pink under the other man’s scrutiny. Rhodey often told him he could talk over people for hours without ever shutting up, and while he always said it with fondness and amusement, almost everyone else Tony talked to found it annoying.
“No, it’s… nice,” James said carefully, like the word was unfamiliar on his tongue. “I… people don’t talk to me, like this. I - I like it. It’s, it’s nice.” he repeated with an aborted shrug of his shoulders.
Tony blinked, not sure what to make of this information. “Huh. Okay,” he said, jiggling his leg and deciding to take a gamble. “Guess we’ll have to do it more often, then.”
James cocked his head, the furrow back in full force. Tony grinned at him encouragingly, though inwardly he was feeling apprehensive. He’d only just met James, but for some reason the thought of never seeing him again made his shoulders feel tight.
“Maybe,” James said finally, looking down at his cup and twisting it in his hands. “That might be… nice.”
Tony beamed. “Great!” he said, clinking his cup against James’s. “Oh, and, uh, just so you know, I don’t usually get into this much trouble, despite what you’ve seen the last few days.”
James didn’t quite believe him, if his derisive snort was anything to go by.
It became something of a thing, between the two of them. James would randomly pop up during Tony’s day, spend a few minutes or an hour with him, and then leave just as oddly as he came. They got coffee two or three times a week, which eventually evolved into lunch one afternoon when Tony’s stomach had growled and James all but dragged him into the nearest sandwich shop, muttering about growing boys and their appetites.
From then on James almost always showed up with a snack of some sort in hand - an apple, a candy bar, a doughnut or pastry to go with Tony’s coffee - and while Tony wanted to be insulted by the implication that he couldn’t take care of himself, he was too busy feeling touched that someone besides Rhodey cared enough to make sure he ate.
At some point it became a regular occurrence for James to walk Tony home or to class, too, especially after dark. This led to Tony inviting James in a few times (so long as Rhodey wasn’t around, because Tony did not want to hear that lecture anytime soon), which led to James hanging around longer, which eventually led to James tagging along when Tony went down to work in the robotics lab, which finally turned into James simply showing up in the robotics lab with a snack at four in the morning, expression still blank but exuding a very distinct vibe of exasperation.
Tony never thought to ask James how he always seemed to know where Tony would be or when to catch him by himself. It didn’t really matter, in the end, because soon Tony was seeing him just about every day, and the whys and hows sort of slipped his mind.
“Marry me,” Tony demanded when James appeared in the robotics lab with two steaming cups of coffee and a box of jelly-filled doughnuts one late (early?) night.
He thought James’s eyes looked a little clearer and less blank at that moment, but then thought it was probably his imagination. The crooked smile he gave Tony definitely wasn’t imagined, though, and neither was the way James’s hand lingered on Tony’s when he passed him his styrofoam cup of coffee.
“Sorry, kiddo, but I ain’t the marryin’ kind,” James said, leaning back against the counter and then blinking in shock, as though surprised by his own reaction.
Tony laughed and bit into a doughnut, a warm, pleasant feeling bubbling up in his chest when James chuckled and smiled into his coffee.
Tony wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought that might have been the night he truly fell in the love with James.
Over time, James started talking more. His expressions became more open, too, with every meeting and conversation, his voice becoming less of a monotone and more… alive.
It made Tony want to just sit and drink him it, letting James’s words wash over him and memorizing his expressions.
“What are you smilin’ at, punk?” James asked on one such occasion, mouth twitching up in amusement.
Tony blushed and ducked his head. “Nothing,” he said, and busied himself by unwrapping his sandwich. “Just thinking.”
Tony caught James watching him sometimes, a wistful, longing expression on his face, though he always schooled it into something neutral when he caught Tony looking.
Tony thought he knew what the look meant - he was pretty sure he sometimes wore the same expression when he looked at James, after all - but was too afraid of being wrong to ask.
Their first kiss was on a Wednesday night, two and a half months after their first meeting.
They were hanging out in the lab again - Tony because he’d been determined to make some headway on a project he’d been stuck on for weeks, and James because he said he liked watching Tony work (and making sure Tony ate and slept) - when something James said gave Tony an idea, and Tony - too excited and sleep-deprived to filter his emotions or his response to them - threw his arms around James’s neck and kissed him.
James made a noise - of protest or surprise, Tony didn’t know - but before Tony could panic and move away two strong arms were wrapped around him, practically lifting him off the ground in their haste to pull Tony closer.
Tony groaned and tangled his fingers in James’s hair, heart pounding in his chest, because James wanted this, him, too, and -
James gasped and ripped his mouth away from Tony’s, eyes wild and more than a little panicked, before he gulped and locked eyes with Tony, expression guilty.
Tony’s stomach dropped. “Don’t,” he said hoarsely, and tightened his grip when James looked like he was going to back away. “Just… don’t, please.”
“Tony,” James sighed, though he didn’t pull away entirely. “I can’t. You know I can’t.”
“Why not?” Tony demanded, blinking rapidly and stubbornly willing the tears that were trying to well up to go away. “I know you want to, you… you kissed me, too! And I see the way you look at me, sometimes, when you think I can’t see. And I… I feel the same way,” he choked out in a rush, breath hitching. He knew he was bordering on hysteria, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t lose James, he couldn’t, not if James wanted him as much as Tony wanted James.
James closed his eyes and took a deep breath, swallowing hard. His eyes softened when he opened them again, his own breath hitching at whatever he saw in Tony’s face.
“You’re so young,” he whispered sadly, running his right hand up the side of Tony’s neck to cradle his cheek.
Tony flushed. “I’m almost eighteen - legally an adult. And I’m an adult in every other way that matters,” he protested, shivering when James’s thumb started tracing the blush.
“You’re a baby,” James replied, his eyes serious but his tone teasing, just enough to take the sting out of the words.
“You can’t be more than ten years older than me,” Tony said stubbornly, reaching up to hold James’s hand against his cheek.
James’s eyes flickered, a mixture of sadness and confusion and something else Tony couldn’t quite place.
“Doesn’t matter. You’re still too young to be tyin’ yourself down, let alone to someone like me,” he said, tugging his hand away and stepping back.
Tony was having none of that, though, and held fast to James’s hand, pulling it up to his mouth and kissing his palm. James shivered but didn’t pull back, his eyes dilated, which only emboldened Tony further.
“I know what I want,” he said firmly, stepping into James’s personal space until they were chest to chest again.
James licked his lips, his left arm curling around Tony’s waist. “Doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” he warned hoarsely, his eyes fluttering shut when Tony moved his hand into James’s hair again.
“Neither is coffee or doughnuts. Doesn’t mean I love them any less,” Tony replied before standing on his tip-toes and slowly, carefully kissing James’s jaw.
Tony physically felt James’s resolve crumble as he shuddered and backed Tony against the countertop, and if Tony was unable to argue his point further, well.
Their second kiss? Even better than their first.
“My bosses won’t like this, you know,” James told Tony later as they walked hand in hand back to Tony’s place, biting his lip nervously.
“So don’t tell them,” Tony retorted, too happy to let a thing like reason get in the way of things. He’d pieced together that James worked some kind of security, something high-up and probably private, though he would always clam up or change the subject if Tony asked him about it.
“They’ll find out,” James said, squeezing Tony’s hand in warning and pulling him away from a patch of uneven sidewalk.
“So don’t let them,” Tony replied, grinning and curling under James’s arm.
James huffed and ruffled Tony’s hair, but his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
They were on making out on Tony’s couch, Tony straddling James’s lap, determined to take advantage of Rhodey’s absence.
“We’re not going any further,” James warned, pulling back to suck in a few lungfuls of air and frowning at Tony, completely ruining the effect with his red and swollen lips.
“Uh-huh,” Tony agreed, and slid his hands under James’s shirt.
“I’m serious, kid,” James hissed, grabbing Tony’s hands and holding them out in front of him. “We can kiss, but that’s it. Capiche?”
Tony scowled. “Not a kid,” he replied petulantly, and tugged his hands free.
James sighed. “Then don’t pout like one,” he said, reaching up to run his thumb along Tony’s lower lip and chuckling at Tony’s expression.
Tony scowled and considered biting James’s thumb in retaliation, but decided against it.
“What’s wrong with your left arm?” he asked instead, poking at James’s left shoulder.
James startled. “What… what do you mean?” he asked, his expression going eerily blank, and making Tony wonder if he’d made a mistake mentioning it.
“Your left arm, it’s… harder, than your right. And you never take your left glove off,” Tony said carefully, fidgeting nervously. He’d also thought he’d heard some strange noises coming from it a few times, but thought saying so might be pushing his luck. “Look, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but you don’t have to hide it from me, either. If that’s what you’ve been doing,” he added, trying to make it sound as nonchalant as he could.
James remained very pointedly silent, which made Tony swallow a little bubble of panic.
“You know what? Never mind. Forget I said anything,” Tony said quickly, and leaned in to start kissing James again.
James stopped him with a hand to his chest, his expression going soft and exasperated when he saw the panic on Tony’s face.
“No, it’s just…” James started, then huffed and kissed the corner of Tony’s mouth. “Stop freaking out, you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said, running soothing circles over Tony’s sides with his thumbs. “I was just hopin’ you’d never notice, and I’m just tryin’a figure out how to tell you without you freaking out… more.”
Tony relaxed, and looped his arms around James’s neck with a ‘hmph’. “There’s nothing you can tell me that will make feel differently about you,” he said, leaning in and pressing their foreheads together.
James smiled sadly. “We’ll see,” he said softly, pulling back and lifting his left hand between them. His eyes flicked briefly between it and Tony, and then he took a deep breath, and peeled his glove off.
While James watched him with bated breath, Tony cocked his head and tried to understand what he was seeing. It almost looked as though James was wearing another glove, this one metallic, and Tony couldn’t help but reach up and touch it.
“It’s a prosthetic,” James said quietly, just as Tony came to the same realization. “My whole arm is. It, uh, stands out, so I keep it covered up in public, and most folks tend to…” He trailed off as Tony ran his fingertips over it, throat clicking as he swallowed. He was staring at Tony expectantly - waiting for his reaction, Tony guessed - so Tony shrugged and gave him one.
“Neat,” Tony said, and pressed forward to kiss James again.
James pushed him back by his shoulders, eyes wide and shocked.
“Neat?” James repeated hoarsely, blinking at Tony in disbelief.
Tony shrugged. “Yeah, neat. Can we go back to kissing? Because we’ve only got another hour or two before Rhodey comes back, and- mmph!”
The kiss James silenced him with was rough and deep, lacking any of his usual finesse. In one smooth movement he flipped them over, pinning Tony to the couch with his weight, and making Tony dizzy with the sudden assault of sensations.
“You’re amazing, you know that?” he mumbled against Tony’s mouth between kisses, voice thick with emotion.
Tony started to laugh, the sound ending in a gasp when James kissed his throat.
“Well, it’s about damn time somebody said it,” Tony said breathily, hands fisting in the fabric at the back of James’s shirt before James shut him up by kissing him again.
“Love you,” Tony mumbled sleepily into James’s shoulder, burrowing further into James’s side.
James’s fingers combed through Tony’s hair, his breath a soft sigh against Tony’s forehead.
“Love you, too, squirt.”
Nearly seven months to the day Tony met James, Tony woke up in the middle of the night and found James sitting at the foot of his bed, watching him with wide, fearful eyes.
Tony startled and glanced at the clock, which said it was 2:30 AM.
“James?” he asked as he sat up, wondering if he was dreaming. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry,” James said softly, his whole body shaking with fine tremors. “I shouldn’t have come.”
Tony blinked and rubbed his eyes, confused, and now a little frightened. James was still watching him, though, his breathing rapid and panicked, so Tony kicked the covers back and held his arms out. James settled into them willingly, relief flashing across his face before he buried it in Tony’s neck.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, still trembling, while Tony shushed him and racked his brain to figure out what was wrong.
“Sorry for what?” Tony asked, running his fingers through James’s hair.
James whined and pressed in further, nosing up until his mouth was at Tony’s temple.
“I won’t let them pull us apart,” he whispered into Tony’s hair, making Tony’s stomach swoop unpleasantly.
“Let who? James, you’re scaring me,” Tony gasped, moving his hands up to cradle James’s face and forcing him to make eye-contact. He was shocked to find James’s eyes bloodshot and puffy, as though he’d been crying, as well as a fading bruise on his right cheek.
“My bosses,” James croaked, sliding his hands up to clutch at Tony’s wrists. “T-they found out about you - about us - and the job I came here to do is finished, and, and -”
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. They can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to,” Tony soothed, pressing a light kiss to James’s lips.
This was apparently the wrong thing to say, however, because James just started shaking his head frantically. “No! No, they can, you don’t understand, and if they come to you, I -” He shuddered and drew Tony closer, sucking in big gulps of air.
“I don’t want to go back,” he whispered brokenly, in that moment sounding smaller and younger than Tony.
Tony swallowed and wrapped his arms around James, pulling his head to Tony’s chest and running his fingers through his hair. “Then you don’t have to,” he promised, rocking them back and forth and kissing the top of James’s head.
Tony had no idea what the hell was going on, or what power James thought his bosses held over him, but surely it couldn’t have been as bad as James seemed to think it was.
James whined again, his arms clutching at Tony in a grip that was almost painful. “What if they come looking for me? What if they find you? What if -” He shivered and pulled back, eyes huge, then tugged Tony down for a kiss.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered again when they broke apart, resting his forehead against Tony’s. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Tony gulped and squeezed James’s shoulders, trying to figure out which scared him more - James’s words, or his sudden calm.
“Okay, yeah, I - let’s… let’s go to sleep. You look exhausted, and we can figure things out when we wake up, okay?” he said, running his hands up and down James’s back. “Maybe things won’t look so… bleak, in the morning. Yeah?”
James swallowed and nodded, eyes closing in resignation, and let Tony help him pull his shoes off.
A few minutes later they were both under the covers, James curled around Tony as though he were a giant teddy bear.
“I love you,” James whispered in the dark, breath warm against Tony’s ear.
“Love you, too,” Tony whispered back, reaching for his hand and tangling their fingers together.
It was the last thing Tony ever said to him.
James was gone when Tony woke up the next morning.
Tony’s eyes, Bucky notices, are the same.
Sure, there’s a few more lines around them, and they look a little more world-weary than before, but otherwise they’re exactly the same. Wide, brown and liquid, and so damn beautiful… Bucky could get lost in those eyes. Did, once upon a time, and he wonders if Tony remembers that.
“What do you mean, you’ve met?” Steve asks, at the same time Tony whispers “You remember me?”
The others start talking, too - asking questions, or otherwise muttering amongst themselves - but Bucky ignores them - and Steve - and keeps his eyes on Tony instead.
“You were hard to forget, kid,” he tells him, doing his best to keep his voice from cracking.
Those gorgeous brown eyes widen, then flick up to something over Bucky’s right shoulder.
Steve clears his throat from behind him, and then places a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “Buck?” he asks, eyes moving from Bucky to Tony and back. “What’s going on? What did you mean when you said you’d met?”
Tony is the one who answers. “We… met while I was in college,” he says, turning away from Bucky and giving Steve a pained smile, all without actually making eye contact. One of the Avengers Steve had introduced to Bucky, Rhodes - who could only be Tony’s Rhodey - starts swearing vehemently.
“HYDRA mission in, uh, ‘87, I think. They left me out too long, and I, uh…” Fell in love, rebelled against my programming, and killed three handlers before they put me back on ice, Bucky doesn’t say. Instead he watches Tony, watches Tony watching him with those bright brown orbs, wide with remembered pain. “They… kept me on a shorter leash, after that. Decided long missions were too dangerous.”
He wants to reach out and touch Tony. Wants to tell him he’s sorry, and that he wishes he could have changed things.
He opens his mouth - to say those things to Tony or to explain things further with Steve, he doesn’t know - but before he can say anything a disembodied voice starts speaking.
“Sir, Miss Potts is calling. Shall I inform her that you are busy?”
Bucky’s mouth clicks shut as everyone startles, and someone - Bucky thinks his name is Clint - hisses something about someone named Jarvis’s lousy timing.
“No, J, I’ll take the call in my workshop,” Tony says, shoulders falling in barely-contained relief. “I, uh, will be downstairs if you guys need me,” he adds, making a break for the elevator and completely ignoring Steve and the others’ calls for him to wait.
The second the elevator doors close, everyone turns to Bucky.
“Fucking hell, you better not be the James,” Rhodes growls, eyes flashing dangerously.
Bucky can only laugh without humor.
“So, you and Tony, huh?” Steve says hours later, long after the whole story has been worked out of Bucky and Rhodes, and everyone else has left Bucky and Steve alone.
Bucky nods and hugs his knees to his chest, staring out at the New York skyline. The sight is breathtaking, but Bucky isn’t seeing it, really, so much as using it as excuse to avoid looking at Steve.
“That’s why you didn’t want to come back here, isn’t it?” Steve asks after a few seconds of silence, lifting his own legs up onto the bench seat they’re sitting on and tapping Bucky’s leg with his foot.
Bucky swallows and nods again, unable to answer verbally. He knew Steve had been telling the others he didn’t think Bucky was ready, but truthfully he’d thought Bucky had been ready for weeks. It had been Bucky who had said he couldn’t do it, which had started around the same time he’d remembered the name that went with the brown eyes that haunted his dreams, and connected it with Steve’s Tony.
Steve sighs and taps Bucky’s leg again, though it’s more in solidarity than anything else. “I just can’t believe Tony didn’t say anything… he had to have recognized you. Though this does explain why he was trying so hard to help find you.”
Bucky startles and finally looks at Steve, who’s wearing a worried expression, though for once Bucky doesn’t think it’s for him.
Someone clears their throat, and Bucky and Steve both look back to find Tony standing by the elevator, hands in his pockets and rocking on the balls of his feet.
“Uh, hey,” he says, and while it’s aimed at Steve, he’s looking at Bucky.
Steve surges to his feet. “Tony!” he says, making it over to Tony in just a few strides and, to Bucky’s surprise, enveloping the man in a hug.
Tony looks surprised, too, his expression almost comical before he takes a deep breath and gives in to the hug, arms reaching up to hesitantly return the gesture.
Steve whispers something into Tony’s ear and then lets go, giving Tony a pat on the shoulder and then making a beeline for the elevator.
The doors click shut before Bucky can call after him. The silence in the room once he’s gone is thick and oppressing.
“Well, that was subtle,” Tony says, clearing his throat again.
Bucky snorts in spite of himself.
Tony smiles faintly at him, then shuffles closer. “So, uh…” he starts, then huffs and runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I got nothing. You?” he asks, plopping down in Steve’s seat.
Bucky shrugs and leans against the glass, content to just watch. Despite nearly three decades, Tony still has the same pent-up energy he did when he was seventeen, never holding still, even when he’s sitting (like now).
Thirty percent chaos and seventy percent perpetual movement, Bucky remembers one of Tony’s professors saying.
“It’s good to see you,” Bucky says without thinking. Tony startles in surprise.
“Uh, yeah, I - you, you too,” Tony murmurs, biting his lip. Then he laughs nervously. “Well… who knew, huh?”
Bucky shrugs again, and wants to scoot across the seat closer to him.
Tony’s mouth twitches. “Wow, you’re just as talkative as the first time I met you,” he says, then winces. “Sorry, sorry, that was - how much do you remember? Uh, I mean about -”
“Everything,” Bucky says, and finds himself moving a little closer anyway. “Do you still keep terrible hours, forget to eat, and drink too much coffee?”
Tony’s laugh is fragile but genuine, and Bucky wants nothing more than to run his fingertips over those laugh-lines.
“Yeah, among other things,” Tony says, and if he notices Bucky’s sudden proximity, he doesn’t say anything about it. “I… a lot has changed. But that hasn’t.”
Bucky nods and, because he can’t fight the impulse, puts a hand on Tony’s knee.
Tony’s face twitches, a micro-expression Bucky thinks others might have missed. “I have a girlfriend, now,” he says out of the blue, in a tone Bucky thinks is supposed to be casual.
“I know. Stevie… Steve said.” Bucky replies, doing his best to keep his grimace to himself. He removes his hand from Tony’s knee, though, and imagines he sees Tony’s face flicker in disappointment.
“Pepper,” Tony says, chewing the inside of his cheek, like he used to do when he was nervous. “Her name’s Pepper. She’s, she’s great. You’ll like her.”
I’ll try, Bucky doesn’t say. “I’m sure I will,” he says aloud.
The look Tony gives him is unreadable, but Bucky tries to smile at it anyway.
Despite his best efforts, Bucky ends up meeting Pepper a few days later.
Bucky thinks it’s the most awkward first meeting of his life, at least partially due to both Tony and Steve’s hovering, though a good deal of the blame goes to Natasha, who bores holes into the side of his head with her stare.
“Mr. Barnes, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Pepper says, smiling and shaking his hand without hesitation.
“Uh, same,” Bucky replies, feeling big and clumsy with her smaller hand in his. “Tony’s said nice things about you,” he adds, though his mouth tastes like cotton.
Pepper’s eyes become warmer as they move over to Tony, who goes from looking slightly anxious to smiling hesitantly.
“I’m sure,” she says wryly, letting go of Bucky’s hand and then nodding to Steve and Natasha. “I’m sorry I can’t stay, I’m running a bit late. But please let me - us - know if you need anything,” she adds, indicating herself and then Tony.
Bucky nods numbly, not really sure what to say, though he can’t help feeling a little relieved as Pepper starts to walk away.
The feeling vanishes when she stops in front of Tony and kisses him, a quick goodbye peck on the lips before she leaves. “See you later,” she murmurs softly, for Tony’s ears only (damn Bucky’s enhanced hearing), before disappearing into the elevator in a soft click of heels.
Tony coughs and rubs the back of his neck, smiling sheepishly. Bucky can’t help but notice traces of Pepper’s lipstick on his mouth.
“I guess that means you’ve finally met everyone in the tower,” Tony says, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Well, everyone who lives here right now, anyway. I -” He pauses and looks over at Steve, then snaps his fingers. “Oh, right! Your arm. Steve said something about it not working right - or at least, that’s what I think he said, it was hard to tell through those crappy speakers - but I can take a look at it if you want. Or not, it’s all up to you. Do you have a StarkPhone? I can get you one. Those speakers aren’t crappy - stop glaring at me, Steven, I sent you a perfectly good phone and you didn’t even use it!”
Bucky blinks and then sighs, the tension draining from his shoulders as Tony’s familiar babble washes over him, even if the words themselves make no sense. Natasha catches his eye and smirks, which is the most he’s gotten out of her since they’ve met. He gives her a hesitant smile back, and then some of Tony’s words catch up to him.
“I - wait, you can fix my arm?” Bucky asks, interrupting Tony and Steve’s (friendly - Bucky can tell neither is really angry) argument.
Tony huffs and cocks his head at him, then throws a hand over his heart. “Can I fix his arm, he says… of course I can fix it, I’m a genius, remember?” he sniffs, turning to Steve and shaking his head.
“I dunno. I remember you blowin’ a lot of stuff up…” Bucky says, unable to hide his grin when Tony’s mouth drops open.
“Lies, all lies,” he informs the others, though even he can’t keep a straight face as he says it. When he turns back to Bucky some of the sadness in his eyes is gone, replaced with a tiny spark of hope.
Bucky knows it’s not much, but it’s a start.
There’s a knock on the door about a week after Bucky meets Pepper, and while Bucky is unsurprised that Rhodes waited until Steve was gone to pay him a visit, he is surprised by the giant meat-lover’s pizza and the six-pack he brings with him.
“Olive branch,” he says at Bucky’s questioning look, face contrite. “I think I owe you an apology.”
“What for?” Bucky asks, and lets him in.
Rhodes sighs and sets his offerings down. “Busting your chops the other day, when I found out about you and Tony,” he replies, crossing his arms. “I know it wasn’t your fault, but…” He makes a face. “Tony was inconsolable for weeks after you left. I knew he’d been seeing someone - knew he hadn’t wanted to tell me about it, either, for some reason - but I didn’t know how serious it was until after you left, and he just collapsed on my bed one night, drunk off his ass and bawling his eyes out.”
Bucky winces, throat closing up at the mental image.
Rhodes glances over at him and sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Look, I’m not trying to make you feel bad,” he says, grimacing. “I’m just saying… I know now why it happened, and that it wasn’t your fault, but…” His eyes harden. “There’s still a part of me that remembers my broken little best friend crying his heart out, and wants to put my fist through your face for doing that to him.”
“If it makes you feel better, you still can,” Bucky offers, going for levity and missing by a mile. The thought of Tony, his Tony, being hurt - and knowing he was the reason - makes it hard to breathe.
Rhodes frowns. “Nah, man, like I said - it wasn’t your fault. And it was crappy of me to take it out on you.”
Bucky shakes his head. “No, I’m glad. I - you’re a good friend,” he tells Rhodes, and motions for him to sit down. “I probably would have done the same for Stevie, back in the day. Regardless of the circumstances.”
“Gotta look after our idiots,” Rhodes agrees with a genuine smile, and offers his hand.
It becomes the first real friendship Bucky makes since coming to the tower.
“I’m not sure how I feel about this new bromance,” Tony says some time later, pointing at Bucky and Rhodey with his mug. “I feel as though it can only end in pain for me.”
Rhodey huffs and rolls his eyes, then tosses Bucky a drink from the fridge.
“For once I agree with Tony,” Steve says warily, eyes darting between the two. “I - how did this happen?”
“Do we start calling you ‘The Jims’ now?” Clint chimes in from his spot on the counter. “Because that kind of sounds like an all-female rock group from the 80’s.”
“You’re just jealous ‘cause you can’t join the band,” Rhodey replies, clinking his bottle against Bucky’s. “AKA, team dumbass-stop-doing-that-before-you-get-hurt,” he adds, pointing at Tony, who is trying to climb the countertop in order to grab the cookies hidden on the top shelf.
Bucky has to stifle a laugh at the duel looks of horror on Steve and Tony’s faces.
It’s nice to be part of a group again.
Once they get over some initial awkwardness at the first session, Bucky starts looking forward to tune-ups on his arm.
For one, it reminds him of those long nights in the robotics lab, and he loves seeing Tony in his element and watching him work.
For another, it’s the only time Bucky can spend with Tony without any lingering tension in the air. Or, well, tension on Tony’s part.
“Eh, sorry, these wires are really crossed,” Tony says, bent over the arm and leaning so close, Bucky can feel the heat from his body. He’s put on a ton of muscle compared to his teenaged self, and Bucky can see every one of them flex under his tank top. “Let me just -” He moves around until he’s hunched over in front of Bucky, his shoulder brushing Bucky’s chest, and makes a little ‘aha!’ at whatever the new angle lets him see. “There! I - oops, sorry, sorry! Did you feel that?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says softly, closing his eyes and inhaling the scent of Tony’s shampoo. “I felt it.”
“Uh, Buck? What are you doing?” Steve asks, wide-eyed, when he walks in on Bucky trying to jam a screwdriver into his elbow.
“Nothin’,” Bucky replies, humming in satisfaction when the screwdriver finally grinds in, and he hears a few things pop. “Somethin’s broken, is all.”
“What the hell did you do to this, Barnes?” Tony demands at dinner, staring in horror at the mess of Bucky’s metal elbow. “This is going to take hours to fix - Jesus, it doesn’t hurt, does it?”
“No,” Bucky says, ignoring the look Steve gives him over Tony’s shoulder. “Something was sticking, and I tried to fix it. Can you…?”
Tony nods and waves his hand, while behind him Steve’s look turns pitying. “Yeah yeah, I can do it now - but, fuck, don’t do that again. I think you made things worse.”
“Probably,” Bucky agrees, and pointedly avoids Steve’s eyes as he follows Tony out of the room.
Tony walks into the kitchen while Steve and Bucky are eating breakfast, oblivious to his surroundings as he talks on the phone.
“Uh-huh, yeah, okay, I’ll see you then, Pep. No, of course I’m not just saying that. Uh-huh. Yeah, I promise. Okay, ‘bye. Love you,” Tony says before hanging up, and the spoon in Bucky’s left hand snaps clean in half.
Steve helps him hide the evidence before Tony sees, slipping the pieces into his pocket just as Tony peaks over the refrigerator door at them.
“What was that sound?” he asks around the cheese stick he’d just popped in his mouth.
“Nothing,” they both say, a little too quickly.
Tony squints at them suspiciously, then shrugs and closes the refrigerator door.
Steve turns to Bucky as soon as Tony leaves, wearing his sad face. “Buck…”
“Leave it,” Bucky tells him, and stabs at his eggs viciously.
“You only had one robot before,” Bucky says, watching Tony’s bots zoom around the workshop.
Tony looks up from the butter knife he’s trying to pry out of Bucky’s forearm, face smeared with grease. “Huh? Oh, oh hey, you remember Dum-E?” he says, breaking into a smile.
“I remember a metal arm on wheels poking me with a pencil,” Bucky replies, making Tony smile wider.
“Heh, yeah, that was Dum-E… U and Butterfingers, the other two, came later. In fact, I was working on U when we were… you know.”
The bots stop what they are doing and wheel over, apparently drawn by the mention of their names. One of them - Dum-E - beeps inquisitively and pokes Bucky’s bicep. Bucky whistles and pokes it back, which makes the other two beep shrilly and poke him as well.
Bucky grins and looks over at Tony, who is watching him soft, awestruck eyes. “They like you,” he says, voice a little thick.
“They’re amazing,” Bucky replies, grinning as they all start beeping at each other indignantly, reminding Bucky of a bunch of kids squabbling for attention. “Like puppies, or your little metal babies.”
Tony sucks in a sharp breath and sits down, wearing an expression Bucky can’t read.
“Yeah, I guess they are,” he says, and squeezes Bucky’s forearm.
Dum-E chooses that moment to poke Bucky in the side with a pencil, and Tony laughs so hard, he falls out of his chair.
“You should say something to him,” Sam says, startling Bucky.
He’s been watching Tony and Pepper sitting at the bar, miserably noting how easy they are together. Tony’s hand is on Pepper’s lower back, and Pepper has been constantly touching Tony for the last half-hour, with a brush to his arm here, or a hand on his leg there.
It’s second nature to them, easy and done without thought, but Bucky is hyper aware of it all the same.
“I can’t,” Bucky says, rather than deny anything. “They’re happy. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Sam purses his lips. “It’s your decision,” he sighs, and doesn’t push it further.
“Please stop breaking your arm when you want to come down to the workshop,” Tony says tiredly when Bucky appears in his lab with three nails sticking out of his metal shoulder. “Seriously, you don’t have to shoot yourself with a nail gun if you want to hang out. All you have to do is ask.”
Bucky opens his mouth to protest, but shuts it when Tony crosses his arms and glares at him.
“When did you figure it out?” he asks sheepishly instead, sitting down in his usual chair when Tony points at it.
“Well, I had my suspicions with the butter knife, but it was the thing with the blender and then the spork that gave you away,” Tony replies, then grimaces at Bucky’s shoulder in dismay. “Sweet Tesla, you did a number on it this time…”
Shamefaced, Bucky looks down at his lap. They sit in relative silence for a few minutes while Tony works, which is only broken after Tony gets the first nail out.
“So, you wanna tell me why you thought maiming yourself was easier than just coming down to say hi?” Tony asks around the screwdriver in his mouth, already starting on the second nail.
Bucky swallows nervously. “Didn’t want you to think I was… I dunno. Looking for something else,” he says carefully, shrugging his good shoulder.
Tony freezes and looks up at him sharply, but Bucky looks away before he can make eye contact. The chair squeaks as Tony stands up, and then a callused hand is touching Bucky’s chin, gently but firmly forcing him to look at Tony.
“You’re serious,” he says after scanning Bucky’s face, brow knitted pensively.
Bucky scowls back, but can’t bring himself to pull away from the touch.
Tony lets go and sits down, then runs a hand through his hair. “We… we can be friends without things being weird,” he says carefully, picking up his tools and returning to Bucky’s arm.
Bucky grits his teeth, then lets his shoulders drop in resignation. “Not if one of us is still in love with the other,” he says tiredly, and Tony yanks his hands away as though he’s been burned.
“I, what - how?” Tony demands, dropping one of his tools and glaring at Bucky in a way that’s both desperate and accusational. “I didn’t, I haven’t been - I haven’t even told anyone, how could you…?”
Bucky’s eyes widen, at first because of Tony’s reaction, but then he works out what Tony is actually saying, and -
“Tony,” he says gently, cautious, tentative hope blooming in his chest. “I was talking about me.”
“I - what?” Tony asks, looking like a deer caught in the headlights.
Bucky feels a slow smile spread across his face, and has to bite his lip to suppress it. “I was talking about me,” he repeats slowly, carefully reaching over and taking Tony’s hand.
Tony blinks owlishly at him, so Bucky elaborates. “I’m still in love with you,” he breathes, and squeezes Tony’s hand. Tony sucks in a sharp breath, eyes widening, and Bucky ignores the open panels on his metal arm so he can reach up and cup Tony’s cheek with it. “And you’re still in love with me, apparently,” Bucky adds, feeling slightly giddy.
Tony sucks in another, shakier breath, then closes his eyes and nods.
Bucky shudders, because this is months of dreaming and wishing come true, but when he leans in he’s stopped by Tony’s hand on his chest.
“I can’t,” Tony whispers, his eyes damp when he opens them. “God, I’m sorry, James, but I - this doesn’t change anything,” he says, tugging his hand out of Bucky’s grasp so he can cover his face.
Bucky gapes at him, uncomprehending, before understanding hits him. “Pepper,” he says hollowly, swallowing and putting both of his hands back in his lap.
Tony chuckles humorlessly, peaking at Bucky from around his fingers. “Pepper,” he agrees, smiling sadly. “I’m sorry, but I - just because I’m still in love with you, doesn’t mean I stop loving her, either. And we… I can’t just… I’m sorry,” he repeats, sighing and slumping in his chair.
Bucky tries to muster a smile. “No, I - I shouldn’t have…” He swallows and looks down at his feet. “It’s been a lot more time, for you. Of course you’d move on, and love o-other, other people.”
Tony makes a noise, and when Bucky looks up it’s to find Tony staring at him incredulously.
“I,” he starts, then leans forward and shakes his head. “Did you know Pepper is the first proper relationship I’ve had since you?” he says, chewing the inside of his cheek again.
“She must be special,” Bucky replies, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. It isn’t Pepper’s fault, or Tony’s.
Tony’s mouth twitches, eyes shining. “She is, in fact, but that’s not why it took me over twenty years to settle down with anyone,” he huffs, before turning somber again.
“James, you said I’ve had more time than you, but here’s the thing: I never got over you,” he says, shaking his head and smiling dolefully. “The reason I’m still in love with you is because I never stopped being in love with you. Even when you left and it hurt and I told myself I hated you, I was still in love with you.”
He sighs and takes a deep breath, then squares his shoulders and looks Bucky straight in the eye. “The reason I haven’t had any other relationships is because, after you, I could never bring myself to take the chance with anyone else.”
“Until Pepper,” Bucky croaks, because he thinks that’s important.
Tony’s face softens. “Until Pepper,” he agrees, then reaches over and places his hand on Bucky’s knee. “But you have to believe me: from the time you left to the time I opened that HYDRA file, not a day went by where I didn’t wonder what happened to you. I think a tiny part of me still expected you to come back, eventually, and, well,” He spreads his hands out. “Here we are.”
Overwhelmed, Bucky lets out a watery little laugh. “Here we are,” he agrees, and wipes his eyes.
When Tony sits up and pulls Bucky into a hug, Bucky can’t help the little sob that escapes, but he muffles it in the space between Tony’s neck and shoulder.
“You were my first love, James Barnes,” Tony whispers, voice wobbly.
You are the love of my life, Bucky wants to say, but instead he just holds Tony tighter.
Bucky walks into the common room later that night and finds Pepper curled up on the couch with Tony’s head pillowed against her chest, whispering softly and playing with the hair at the nape of his neck.
He immediately starts to backtrack, but before he can make it to the hall Pepper looks up and spots him. Her face flickers in surprise, but he puts a finger to his lips and points back to the hallway before she can speak. She smiles and nods in understanding, eyes oddly sad.
Bucky thinks all of this would be easier if he could just hate her, but he can’t bring himself to hate anything or anyone that makes his Tony happy.
Pepper and Tony both leave for Malibu the next day, citing business on the West Coast. Bucky knows it’s a lie, though, because Tony doesn’t meet his eyes when he tells everyone.
Bucky’s chest aches. He wonders if this is what it had felt like for Tony when Bucky had left him.
“I love him,” Bucky tells Natasha, when she walks in on him working his way through Tony’s wet bar.
She sighs and steps around the empty bottles, scooping up a half-full bottle of vodka on the way, then sits down beside him. “I know,” she says sadly, taking the bottle out of his hand and putting it with hers.
“He loves me, too,” Bucky adds, because that’s the most important part.
She sighs again, and pulls his head down to her shoulder. “I know, Yasha. I know.”
There’s an old, ratty MIT hoodie in the workshop, which Bucky promptly steals when no one is looking. It smells like grease and burning metal and - most important of all - Tony.
Steve doesn’t comment when he sees Bucky wearing it, even if he does look sad.
Rhodey raises his eyebrows when catches him in it one day, but at Bucky’s pleading expression he just shrugs and says, “No, it’s okay - Tony stole it from me.”
Two weeks after Tony leaves, Chicago gets attacked by a bunch of vicious, venom-spitting monkeys.
Bucky doesn’t go with the Avengers when they head out - he still doesn’t feel comfortable enough to fight with them yet, and besides, even he draws the line at poisonous monkeys - so he and Bruce wave everyone else off as they load into the quinjet, Clint grumbling all the while.
“Stupid mad scientists and their freaking experiments. Just, FYI, if these things can fly, I am DONE, okay? Done -”
They return two hours later, looking slightly traumatized but no worse for the wear, though they don’t come alone.
Iron Man drops down next to the quinjet and wastes no time peeling off the armor, which is covered in odd, green stains. (“There are some things man wasn’t meant to see,” Rhodey mutters ominously when Bruce questions him about it, sporting a stain of his own on his chestplate.)
Bucky half-expects him to take off as soon as he replaces the armor, but instead he sticks around for dinner, and even smiles tentatively at Bucky from across the table.
And even though it makes Bucky’s throat tight and his chest twinge, he’s still happy to see Tony again.
Tony comes and finds him huddled near the edge of the roof after dinner, watching the sun go down.
“Hey,” he says, hands in his pockets and shivering when the wind picks up. “Aren’t you cold?”
“No,” Bucky says, even though it’s a lie. Lately, he always feels cold.
Tony nods and sucks on his teeth, then steps a closer. “Can we talk?” he asks hesitantly, eyes pleading.
Bucky swallows around his dry throat and nods, even if he thinks it’ll probably make him feel worse. “Yeah, okay,” he says, and, before he can stop himself, adds, “Are you staying, or are you going back to Malibu later?”
Tony startles, like he doesn’t expect the question, then makes a face. “Yeah, I - I don’t think I’ll be heading back there for a while,” he says, biting his lip.
Bucky nods and hugs his arms to himself. “That’s… that’s good,” he says carefully, and looks back out over the city. “I missed you,” he adds, because it seems safer to say if he’s not looking at Tony.
“Yeah,” Tony says softly, and when Bucky looks up it’s to find him much closer than before, staring at Bucky with gentle, yet pained, eyes. “Me, too.”
They stand in silence for a few seconds, Tony fidgeting uncomfortably, before Bucky finally cracks and lets out a strangled laugh.
“What are we doing here, Tony?” he asks, turning to face Tony fully. “We’ve already established how we feel, that you can’t -” He stops himself by taking a deep breath and clenching his fists. “I can’t -”
“Pepper and I broke up,” Tony blurts out, then winces and runs a hand through his hair.
“I, you - what?” Bucky stutters, brain coming to a halt.
Tony’s swallows, mouth trembling, but he lifts his chin and looks Bucky straight in the eye. “Pepper and I broke up,” he repeats, watching Bucky’s face carefully. “We… earlier this week, actually. I - we - thought that might be, be better. For both of us.”
Bucky feels like he’s stepped out of an airplane, free falling without a parachute.
“Why?” he demands, gut clenching in a mix of tentative hope and breathless panic.
Tony’s breath catches. “Because I’m in love with someone else,” he says, eyes big and liquid. “And she agreed that it wasn’t fair to any of us. Her, me, or…” He slowly reaches out, and carefully places a hand on Bucky’s chest. “…You,” he whispers, face inches from Bucky.
It takes every of ounce Bucky’s self-control not to close the distance and press their mouths together. Instead, he takes one step closer, pushing right into Tony’s space and trapping Tony’s hand between them.
“Are you sure?” Bucky gasps, pressing their foreheads together and clutching at Tony’s shoulders as though they’re his lifeline. “We’re not the same people we were before. I’m - I’m not really the same James you fell in love with, and you, well… you were basically just a kid,” he admits, because there’s still a part of him that feels guilty about that.
“I was before I met you,” Tony corrects, the corners of his mouth turning up. “Funny how falling in love and getting your heart broken can make you grow up.”
Bucky can’t help the little chuckle that escapes him, and finally wraps his arms around Tony, eyes fluttering shut when Tony reaches up and tangles his free hand in Bucky’s hair.
“I’ve been in love with you since I was seventeen years old,” Tony murmurs, breath ghosting over Bucky’s lips. “I don’t care if we’re different, now. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I know what I want. And what I want is you, James Buchanan Barnes.”
Bucky doesn’t know which one of them closes that last millimeter to slot their mouths together. All he knows is that, for the first time in decades, he’s right where he belongs.
And it is different, so very different - Tony has a beard now, for one - but at the same time it’s so familiar, and right, and -
Like home, Bucky thinks, and laughs giddily into the kiss.
Some time later…
“Love you,” Tony mumbles sleepily into Bucky’s shoulder, burrowing closer and throwing a leg over his thighs to keep him from moving.
Bucky huffs and combs his fingers through Tony’s hair, his breath a soft sigh against Tony’s forehead.
“Love you, too, sweetheart,” he whispers, and presses a kiss to Tony’s temple. “And I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”