The first thing he sees, when he opens his eyes, is a dame. She’s tall, taller than he is by a few inches, with glowing green eyes. Literally. Her eyes glow until he feels like he’s falling into a bottomless pit of green, but it’s not scary. If anything, he feels like he’s at peace for the first time in a very long time. Nothing hurts and no one’s afraid and the green feels like it’s inviting cooperation, not demanding it. He gives in gladly, opening up so that the green can run through the burnt paths of his mind.
Yes, mortal. Be not afraid. I am not here to harm you at this time.
It’s a warning as much as a comfort, and so he is not at all surprised to be faced with Tony Stark the next time he comes to. The woman is standing to Stark’s right, arms crossed. They’re both staring at him. He stares back, at once bewildered but calm. Neither one of them feels like a threat, and, since he’s still confined to the cryogenic pod, he can’t hurt them either.
“Barnes,” Stark says finally. His voice is muffled by the glass. “You with us?”
“I told you,” the woman says. She locks eyes with him – her eyes are no longer glowing – and opens her mouth.
He panics when he recognizes the code words, spoken in flawless Russian, that always foretell the Winter Soldier; he’s hurt so many people and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone else. Panic sweeps up his throat and makes it difficult to breathe: his heart beat pounds until it’s all he can hear. He waits, waits for the blank iciness to sweep over his mind and wash away every pathetic scrap of self-awareness that he’s managed to claw out of Hydra’s grasp –
It doesn’t come.
When nothing happens for several seconds, he slowly realizes that he’s so tense his jaw aches. His nails have sliced into his palm. Blood drips from his fist. But he’s awake and aware. He hasn't fallen into the cold, murderous rage. He looks at the two of them in astonishment, hardly daring to believe, and is greeted by two satisfied grins.
“Congratulations. You’re officially no one’s puppet,” Stark says in Russian, then switches over to English. “If you promise not to punch me, I’ll let you out.”
He’s nodding before he processes that may not be a wise idea; the woman touches the lock and it melts away seamlessly, allowing the glass to be lifted.
Stark shoots his companion a glare. “Was that necessary, Loki?”
“He’s out. What more do you want?”
“Not having to foot yet another bill would be a start.”
“You’re very high maintenance.”
“I’m high maintenance, Mr. ‘my childhood home had gold floors’?!”
He takes a step out, ignoring their squabbling. The air is humid, especially after the coolness of the pod. His skin flushes and he begins to sweat immediately. His throat is painfully dry, even though his mouth tastes oddly sweet: like coconut, or maybe mango. He’s not sure how he knows what those two tastes are. He can’t remember trying either fruit.
“I’m just saying, I also slept upon gold sheets,” Loki says primly. She smirks when Stark groans, and then winks at him like they’re sharing a private joke. Stark’s whole face softens to the point where he has to hide a grin.
“Gold sheets would be ludicrously uncomfortable, Babe. Admit it, you like my sheets more.”
“Only because you’re in them.”
Stark leers at her. “I can be in them all the time.”
“Um,” he says, and they both go quiet and look at him. The renewed intensity is terrifying and he unwittingly staggers back a step, nearly ending up on his ass. He’s only saved because Stark grabs his arm.
“Come on, Bambi. Sit down before you fall down.”
“My name isn’t Bambi.”
“I know it isn’t –” Stark stops abruptly, eyes narrowed, then blows his breath out in frustration. “James. I’m not calling you ‘Bucky’.”
“James,” he agrees, voice croaky and hoarse, because it’s as good a name as any when his thoughts still feel muddled and the ground feels like it’s shifting underneath his feet. He doesn’t remember having this much difficulty after Hydra unfroze him, but then again they offered considerably more incentive to start moving quickly: none of his handlers hesitated to punish.
James sits in the proffered chair.
“Could you…” Stark wiggles his fingers at Loki. “A drink?”
“I’m not your maid,” she sniffs, but her fingertips go green and a glass of water appears in Stark’s hand.
“Drink this.” Stark shoves the glass into his hands, and then, while he drinks, adds, “So, Rogers doesn’t know we’re here. I’d like to keep it that way, especially in regards to my boyfriend. T’Challa says you’re welcome to stay here while you’re recuperating. Alternately, I have plans in the works to grant you admittance back into the U.S. When that goes through, because I’m me so of course it will, you also have the option of coming back with us.”
“Your boyfriend?” James repeats blankly.
“That’s what you got out of what I just said?” Stark complains.
“Well, of course. I am the most attractive thing here.” Loki does a little shimmer. The air seems to shift around her; when it settles, a man looks back at James and smiles coyly. James recognizes him, sort of, the way you’d recognize someone who once walked past you on the street. It’s a vague recognition that has no real value.
“I don’t know who you are,” he admits.
Loki swells up in indignation, but Stark just laughs. “Good. That’ll put a pin in her ego.”
“Excuse you,” Loki begins.
“Let it go, Reindeer Games. He didn’t mean it like that.” Stark looks back at James. “I’m working on getting him asylum, too. It’s a much slower process. So I would also appreciate if, outside of where I say it’s safe, you stick to calling her Lucky.”
“Why?” James asks, baffled.
“Why Lucky? It’s easy to remember and he likes to constantly remind me that I’m a lucky guy.”
“Damn right,” Loki mutters.
“No, I mean… why are you helping me?”
The smile slides off Stark’s face. His eyes go distant. “Hydra killed my mother. I’ve had enough time to come to terms with that. I don’t regret beating your ass, because even if you didn’t want to, your hands are still the ones that killed her. But I am glad that I didn’t succeed in killing you. And you don’t deserve to live with what they did for the rest of your life. That’s not fair.”
“Such an interest in fairness,” Loki says quietly, but not unkindly. He trails his fingers up Stark’s arm. Sparks leap off his fingers. Stark blinks and looks back at James.
“So yeah, I’m still pissed as fuck at your partner. But you? Not so much. It’s a work in progress, but I like to think I’ve come pretty far.”
“Steve’s not my partner,” James mumbles, finishing the water. His head feels a little clearer now, but not by much. He watches Loki and Stark exchange significant glances, but lacks the energy to figure out what the looks mean.
“I don’t think he knows that,” Stark says finally. “Pretty sure he’s spent the last two years running around the world trying to figure out a way to help you in between dodging the government. Of course, had he just swallowed his pride and asked me…” He trails off.
“Two years,” Stark confirms, a flicker of pity flashing across his face. “It took me a while to configure the B.A.R.F. machine to be able to help, and I was still at a loss for removing the actual code words until Loki showed up. And honestly, it took me even longer to trust him.”
“I keep telling you I’m trustworthy!”
Stark snorts. “Sure you are.”
“You trust me with the most important part of you,” Loki points out, openly eyeing Stark’s crotch.
“That’s not the most important part, Sweetheart. That’s just your favorite part.”
“Incorrect. My favorite part is more south than that.”
“You do like being on top.” Stark’s smile is quick and dirty. “So, bottom line is, you’ll have a few days to get yourself together and then we’ll talk. Sound good?”
“Yes?” James says, because that seems to be the answer they’re expecting.
"Good." Stark hesitates a moment, like he wants to say something further, but in the end he just turns on his heel and leaves.
"Am I really free?" James asks quietly.
Loki tips his head down, looking up through his eyelashes. "You are. Human minds are easy to root through once you understand what you're looking for, and I learned that lesson a long time ago. I could have bent you to my own will, should I have desired."
"Why didn't you?"
"I had no desire to," Loki says, as though the answer is obvious. He draws a symbol in the air; between one blink and the next, James is back to looking at the pretty dame with the long black hair. She - he? - winks at him and saunters out of the room, leaving him alone.
But not for long. A woman comes to the door and looks at him. "I am Nakia. His highness has requested that I help you to a room where you may rest and regain your strength," she explains. "Do you require aid?"
"Please," he whispers. The last few minutes have been exhausting, and the thought of standing and walking is nearly more than he can bear.
"Of course." Nakia walks briskly to his side and lets him stand of his own volition, but she is quick to offer an arm when he wobbles unsteadily. She is strong and sturdy beneath his weight, and she doesn't seem bothered by the fact that he can only walk at a snail's place. It seems to take hours before they reach the room that Nakia points out to him. James is pathetically grateful to collapse on the bed, his knees folding beneath him before he gives them permission.
Nakia nods. "Do you have need of anything else? Food? Water?"
"I just want to sleep," he admits.
"Then sleep," she says. "I have been charged with watching over you."
The thought is far more comforting than it should be. James is asleep before his head hits the pillow.
The next three days are spent either sleeping or eating the light broths that Nakia brings to him. It's only on day four that James feels well enough to get up and shower. He feels slightly more human as he pulls on the shirt and pants that were left for him and follows Nakia out of the room and down several halls, winding up in a conference room of some sort. Stark, Loki and T'Challa are already in the room, having a quiet discussion that ceases the instant James passes through the door. Nakia bows to T'Challa and then backs out, shutting the door behind her.
"Sit down, Bambi," Starks says, jerking a thumb at an empty chair. "We need to talk."
"Are you breaking up with me?" James asks, and he doesn't know where the question comes from, it's just there.
Stark looks unexpectedly delighted. "Sorry, I'm taken. But maybe -"
"Do not finish that sentence, Tony," Loki says, narrowing his eyes.
"You're the light of my life, Babe," Stark says quickly, blowing Loki a kiss.
"We are here," T'Challa says, looking like he's keeping himself from rolling his eyes through sheer effort, "to discuss what you plan to do, Mr. Barnes."
"I... what?" James says, confused.
"This is for you." Stark pushes a box closer. "Go ahead, open it. I promise it won't explode."
"Though not for lack of trying," Loki mutters.
A little perturbed, James opens the box. "What's this?" he asks, lifting out a pair of glasses. The frames are thick and weirdly heavy.
"It's called the Binary Augmented Retro Framing. B.A.R.F. for short," says Stark. "In layman's terms, it's an implant that will connect with your hippocampus. Through it, you can project memories and alter them. It's meant for therapeutic uses. I thought you might find it helpful. I'm sure you have plenty of memories you'd rather not deal with, but it's better to work through them." As though sensing James's disbelief, he adds, "It's safe. I've used it, or something very similar, extensively. I wouldn't be sitting here otherwise."
"Thank you," James said, meaning it. If what Stark says is true, perhaps some of the horrifying things he sees when he shuts his eyes can be laid to rest. He can't think of anything he wants more.
"It's nothing," Stark mutters.
"You are welcome to stay here. I can provide you with the best therapists my country has to offer," T'Challa tells him. "You have asylum here. I will not ask you to leave until you feel ready."
"It'll probably be another two months before James Barnes is safe to come back to New York," Stark adds. "But... Lucky here can make you look like anyone he wants." He drives an elbow into Loki's side, who huffs. "No one would be the wiser should you choose to return now, but it would mean that you're a lot more restricted. I'd ask that you not leave the tower without Loki or me." His eyes are sharp.
It feels selfish to ask when Stark has given him so much already, but James makes himself to do it. "And... a therapist?"
Surprisingly, Stark's face lightens a little. "The best money can buy," he promises. "Or perhaps T'Challa would be willing to lend us someone."
"Of course," T'Challa says. "I have someone in mind already. Are you sure this is what you want?"
James swallows. "I don't want to be dangerous to anyone anymore," he admits. "But I... I wanna go home."
Home. As though that means something. The word makes him shiver deep inside, where the heat of Wakanda can't touch. Home used to mean Brooklyn. It used to mean Steve Rogers. Both of those things are out of reach now, and James isn't sure if that's a bad thing or not.
"That is your decision," T'Challa says. "Come. I will introduce you to your therapist."
The therapist turns out to be Nakia. She smiles politely at his surprise and says demurely, “His highness thought I would be the best choice. I graduated top of my class, but I’m capable of keeping the situation under control should something go wrong.”
Translation: she can kick James’s ass if he loses it. Looking at her and remembering the strength in her arms, James doesn’t doubt it for a second.
Three days later, James and Nakia join Stark and Loki by Stark’s jet. Loki paces slowly around James, then grips his arm hard. A chill passes over James’s skin. He flinches and shivers. Loki, now female, lets go and backs off with a smug look. Nakia, eyebrows raised, fishes a compact out of her purse and opens it to show James his new reflection. He’s not sure if he likes the new face staring back at him, but at least it looks nothing like James Barnes.
“Take this. Memorize it. Don’t lose it,” Stark says, handing over a set of papers. James flips through them, realizing it’s a full set of identification papers for James Carter.
“A false identity, Mr. Stark?” Nakia asks, smirk tugging at her mouth.
“It’s only false if you don’t believe,” Stark says with a wink. “Pepper pulled those together for you,” he adds, looking at James. “At least this way, you can go out in public and not have to worry about being mauled. It’ll do until the government comes to a decision on James Barnes.”
“It’s not like it matters. I don’t remember being James Barnes,” James says. It’s the truth now that he has the space from Steve to understand it. He barely remembers anything from his time before Hydra. Usually it’s nothing more than flashes that should mean more than they do. Barnes feels like a different person; one who died a very long time ago.
Stark and Nakia exchange looks, but all Stark says is, “Then it should be easy to pretend you’re someone different. Let’s go.”
James pretends to sleep on the way back. It’s a long time to spend laying down with his eyes shut, but at least that way no one bothers him. He’s pretty sure that Stark and Loki spend most the trip having sex in the bedroom (because of course Stark’s jet would come equipped with a bed in a separate room), and Nakia opens up a book and reads. It’s peaceful if he ignores the occasional moan.
The return to New York is best described as overwhelming. James is not ashamed to admit he spends the first several days holed up in his bedroom. FRIDAY is a masterpiece and Nakia is a saint and between the two of them, he manages to keep from ‘freaking out’, as Stark would call it, too badly. They don't start working with the B.A.R.F. just yet, but knowing it's there as an option when James is ready is comforting.
He doesn’t venture outside again for at least two weeks, and even then it’s only because Loki shows up in his bedroom and says, “I wish to partake in Midgardian confectionaries.”
“Then… go?” James says.
Loki just stands there, staring him down. “You will escort me.”
“Come,” Loki commands, pointing to his side, and after a moment James gets up off the bed.
The first step outside makes his stomach crawl. It helps when Loki slides his hands through James’s arm. And when he catches a glimpse of them in a store window, he realizes they look like a couple. A random couple. Just a brunette woman and a blond man out for a walk to a bakery. No one would ever peg them as the Winter Solider and the God of Mischief.
Bit by bit James relaxes, and by the time they make it to the bakery he’s unwound enough to select a cupcake for himself. Loki orders half a dozen croissants and a dozen doughnuts to go and they walk back out into the sunlight, James eating his cupcake and Loki sipping from a complicated drink that, when James tries it, makes his teeth ache from the sweetness.
Stark laughs when he sees them come back and steals the box of doughnuts.
It’s good in a way, seeing Stark smile, and James ruins the moment when he says, “I’m sorry.”
The smile drops from Stark’s face.
“I just – I wanted you to know. That I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Stark says quietly.
“I’m sorry anyway,” James says, because he is, he desperately is.
“I’m building you a new arm,” Stark says, completely out of the blue.
“You’re – what?” James stares.
“The old one was shit,” Stark says defensively. “And I figured… this has potential. Between Rhodey’s legs and your arm, Stark Industries can go the way of prosthesis. It’s an interesting field actually –” And he launches into a stream of pure science that makes James’s head spin. Loki’s grinning though, so he figures that it’s a positive sign. So he steals a doughnut and when Loki doesn’t smite him on the spot, takes that as a win.
The arm isn’t nearly ready yet, but James is okay with that. He lets Stark take a bunch of scans and then retires to his room. He has a session with Nakia the next morning and they talk about the arm. She guides him into admitting that the thought of another arm is frightening (he killed so many people with the Winter Soldier’s metal arm), and then gives him some exercises to work through.
Exactly two days later, shortly after Nakia returns to Wakanda for a brief visit (and he later reflects that the timing is too perfect for it to be a coincidence) James is woken out of a sound sleep by the sound of an alarm. He bolts upright, terrified, and nearly falls on his face getting out of bed. “FRIDAY, what’s going on?” he yells.
“I’ve detected intruders. Please proceed to Boss’s workshop.”
James heads out of his room, heart pounding. His immediate thought is that Hydra’s found him somehow, and how he would rather die than go back to the chair. So when someone dressed in black shows up, he swings automatically. Fear gives him an edge, but the other man is overwhelmingly strong. And then, over the sound of the alarm, someone starts yelling.
“Buck! Buck! It’s me!”
And he recognizes the voice.
“Steve? What the fuck?” He rips off the mask, and sure enough. It’s Steve.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Steve says urgently.
“What?” James says blankly.
“Steve, be careful. He might be mind-controlled.” James vaguely recognizes the speaker as Clint Barton. There’s a woman with them too, Wanda Maximoff.
“I’m not mind-controlled,” James says. “FRIDAY, cut the alarm!” As the alarm obediently winds down, leaving a startling silence behind, he demands, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Rescuing me?” James repeats dumbly. “How did you even know I was here?”
“Wanda is an expert at dismantling illusions,” Barton says proudly. “Natasha recognized the name ‘Carter’ on Stark’s flight manifest and thought it was sketchy. She got footage of you at the airport and walking downtown. With… him.”
“I assume you mean me,” Loki says from behind James, and Barton flinches.
James turns, not surprised to see that Loki is in his male form and Stark is in the armor, and is oddly relieved by their presence. Stark lets the faceplate of the armor snap up. He looks furious.
“I don’t suppose any of you care how many laws you’re breaking right now,” he says. “Of course you don’t, considering you’re already fugitives.”
“At least we’re not kidnappers,” Steve says coldly. “Or working with a mass murderer.”
Stark snorts. “That’s rich, coming from you.” He looks pointedly at Maximoff. “There are more than a few lives on her hands, Cap.”
“How dare you compare Wanda to him?” Barton snarls, bringing an arrow up.
“That’s enough!” James barks, wanting to de-escalate the situation. “Steve, you should not be here. I don’t need your help.”
“Stark kidnapped you, Bucky! He’s planning to kill you! This is his way of getting revenge!”
“Because I give everyone I hate a room in my house,” Stark mutters, rolling his eyes.
“I’m pretty sure Tony has no such plans,” James says wearily, and it’s only when Stark gives him a surprised look that James realizes what he said. Tony. Yeah, that’ll do. “He helped me. Took the code words out of my head and gave me a life back.”
“It’s a trap!” Steve insists. “He tried to kill you before.”
“I killed his mother, Steve. He watched the video footage of that happening. He reacted in the moment. Can you blame him?”
“Wait, what?” Barton says. “You didn’t say anything like that.”
Steve flushes. “That’s beside the point. He still tried to kill you when it wasn’t your fault.”
Coming from Tony, James can stand to hear that. Coming from Steve, he can’t. “Stop saying that!” he snaps. “You keep saying that it’s not my fault like that’s going to make everything go away. You telling me it’s not my fault just makes me feel even worse. Just because Hydra was behind the wheel doesn’t mean it wasn’t my hands. I need to acknowledge what I did. I can’t ignore it. Sticking my head in the sand like you do just makes everything worse!”
Steve looks stricken. “But… you were brainwashed. It’s not – ” He stops abruptly, biting his lip, and it doesn’t take a genius to guess what he stopped himself from saying.
“Being brainwashed isn’t an excuse,” James says slowly. “I don’t want to keep running away. And I don’t want to fight anymore. I like it here.”
“That’s Loki talking,” Barton says. “Do it, Wanda.”
Her hands glow with a red light. Tony flinches, perceptible even through the armor, going white. But before James can decide how he’s going to react, Loki is suddenly standing in front of Maximoff. Barton yelps, scrambling to get away; Loki smiles, cool and distant, and grabs Maximoff by the wrists. And even at a distance, James can tell how tight his grip is.
“That’s enough of that, Witch,” Loki says.
“What – how are you –” Maximoff struggles, or tries. Loki looks bored with how little effort it takes to subdue her.
“Your magic is a pittance compared to mine. I am a god, and you are nothing.” He lets go and Maximoff staggers back. Her hands shake as she stares at them, but nothing happens.
“My – my magic. Oh god, Steve, my magic.” Her voice cracks, bordering on hysteria.
“What the fuck did you do to her?” Barton yells.
“I returned her to her natural Midgardian form, before she was mutated by outside forces,” says Loki. “You should be grateful.”
“Grateful?” Maximoff shrieks.
“Yes, grateful. Clearly you didn’t know how to use magic properly. My teacher would have done much worse.” Loki releases her wrists and takes a step back, almost but not quite blocking Tony from view. James is pretty sure that it’s not his imagination when he sees a gauntlet grab onto the back of Loki’s shirt, and he knows that there is definitely background information he’s missing.
“I’m not being mind-controlled. I’m not brainwashed,” James says into the silence, which is otherwise broken only by Maximoff’s hyperventilating. “You shouldn’t be here. I would’ve contacted you if I wanted to see you.”
Hurt flashes across Steve’s face. At one time that probably would’ve affected James, but all he feels is frustration when Steve says, “Buck, you don’t get it, he’s lying to you –”
“Stop calling me that! I am not Bucky Barnes!”
“See? You’re forgetting yourself again,” Steve gasps, taking a step towards him.
“No, I’m not. I know who I am and it’s not who you want me to be. Bucky Barnes died a long time ago when he fell off a train. I might have the same face, but I’m a different person. I don’t even remember being him, and frankly at this point I don’t want to. I would be just as happy being James Carter for the rest of my life. At least no one tries to make decisions for him, or tries to change who he is!”
“That’s… I’ve never done that,” Steve protests.
“All you can talk about is how things used to be,” James says, suddenly weary. “And you’re trying to make a decision for me right now. You didn’t even ask if I wanted to be here. You broke into my home – Tony’s home,” he amends, “because you decided that I wasn’t safe here!”
“Which, like I said, effectively means you’ve broken the law,” Tony says in a hard voice. “Good luck explaining this one to the cops, Rogers.”
“What?” Steve says blankly.
The only answer he gets is in the form of glass shattering. Something small rolls into the room; gas and smoke start spewing out. James recoils, panic hammering through him as he sees Maximoff and Barton go down. Hard, metal arms go around his waist and practically lift him off his feet; recognizing the armor, James shoves away the urge to fight his way free and lets Iron Man carry him out of the room.
“What’s going on?” he asks when they’re free, throat aching. The door slams shut behind them – FRIDAY’s work, no doubt – and the armor gently sets him down on the ground.
“That’s SHIELD,” says Tony, voice modified by the armor until the faceplate slides up again. “I’m sorry, James. I had to call the Accords council. I didn’t have a choice. If it was found out that I’d been harboring a fugitive –”
“It’s fine,” James says, holding up a hand. He doesn’t need Tony to feel guilty about this. “I meant what I said. I’m really tired of people making decisions for me.” He stares at the wall, wishing he could see through it because he can’t help wondering what’s happening on the other side.
A part of him loves Steve. It’s coded into his blood and bones, and it’s pretty impossible to ignore that. But he doesn’t know if he likes the man that Steve has become. In James’s experience, people who are convinced that they’re right and refuse to even entertain the idea that they might not be right typically tend to be the very thing that a young Steve Rogers once hated so much. A bully.
At the very least, James meant what he said. Steve didn’t listen to him once while they were on the run together. He was convinced that he was making the right choices. And James has done a little research into how this whole mess started with FRIDAY’s help. It’s galling to think that everything could’ve been avoided had Steve just opened his damn mouth and had a conversation.
The door opens. Loki strolls out, the smoke magically dissipating around his female form. On his heels is a woman dressed in a black uniform, gas mask tucked under her arm. Her eyes skate straight over James and go to Tony.
“Your assistance is appreciated, Mr. Stark,” she says.
“It’s Tony, Carol,” Tony says. “Do you have everything?”
James steps closer to her. She gives him an aside glance but says nothing as he peers into the room. He’s just in time to see several black-suited men and women hauling Steve to his feet. They’re not treating him roughly, just firmly, as they pull his arms behind his back and slap handcuffs on him. Steve looks utterly bewildered.
“Bucky!” he screams, catching sight of James. “You don’t understand! He’ll kill you! You need to get away from him! Stark is a horrible person! You can’t trust him!”
“Such lies,” Loki murmurs, mouth unexpectedly close to James’s ears. “I hope they put him into a hole in the ground.”
“Is this your doing?” James asks on a whim.
Loki looks him in the eyes. “I may have allowed Romanov to more easily find the flight manifest,” he admits shamelessly. “When we were walking downtown, I allowed the illusion to thin for a few seconds. No one else would’ve caught it, just the witch. I suspected that the captain would immediately concoct an ill-advised plan, though I did not foresee him overreacting quite this spectacularly.”
“He was trying to protect me,” James says, and then, “But he would have been caught eventually anyway. I don’t think Tony was willing to negotiate for him.”
“No,” Loki says immediately. “The time when Tony would have stood with them is long past. I have learned a thing or two about burning bridges, as Midgardians say, in the past. Once burnt, they are not easily re-built. Particularly when one of those parties refuses to believe he was the one holding the matches.” He tips his chin up, eyes glowing briefly, and Steve’s struggling stops as he immediately collapses.
There’s a lump in James’s throat that prevents a reply. Instead, he remains quiet as Carol steps past him and begins directing her team. He turns away as she shuts the door, just in time to see Loki approaching Tony. Very slowly, almost tenderly, Loki leans in to press a fleeting kiss to Tony’s mouth. Some of the shadows in Tony’s face lighten at the kiss, and he gives Loki a small smile in response.
“I hated to do that,” he says softly.
“I know. It needed to be done.”
“I just wish…” Tony trails off, and James understands.
He knows what it’s like to have so many regrets that you can’t give voice to any, less the dam break irreparably.
The armor seamlessly melts away from Tony, and he steps free with a shake of his head. "I guess it's done now. I could use a drink now. Or better yet, a doughnut. We got any left, Love?"
"No, but I could be persuaded to get some," says Loki. He's gone in the next breath.
"What?" James looks around.
"Doughnut?" Tony says, looking straight at him. And maybe it's just James and the weird night he's had, but it feels like he's offering a lot more - and better yet, it feels like if James were to say no, Tony wouldn't treat him any differently. It's a good feeling.
"Sure, Tony," he says with a cautious smile. "I'd love one."
Tony slings an arm around his shoulders. "Doughnuts it is. Come on, you can help me make Loki's cocktail. He's an asshole if you don't get it just right."