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These Sleepless Nights of Ours

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For once it wasn’t nightmares driving Tony through the halls of the Compound at the haunting hour of three-thirty in the morning. The reality was a little more mundane - jet-lag, time zones, and a generous, drool-worthy nap on the flight back to the States (there really was no better sleep aid than complicated legalese). So Tony was wide awake from his nap, his brain was several time zones away, and his body was too keyed-up from the travel. Getting into bed and trying to sleep would’ve still been the rational thing to do—but nah, sleep was for the dead—and tinkering in the workshop would’ve been Tony’s preferred way to spend an early morning, but sleep or no sleep, Tony knew he needed something to relax him. If he stuck around the workshop, he would only get more worked up over projects, deadlines, and that one hologram of his latest suit upgrade currently sitting in the corner, uncooperative and infuriating.

His blood pressure spiked just thinking about it, so no, the combination of high-strung restlessness and jet-lag would only lead to Tony passing out during the team meeting scheduled for noon after Cap’s return from his reconnaissance mission and no one wanted that. Tony couldn’t take another patented Steve Rogers lecture about good sleeping habits, he really couldn’t.

To Tony’s surprise, the hallways of their private wing were empty this morning. The Avengers were a restless, sleepless bunch (Steve very much included, the well-meaning hypocrite), so it wasn’t rare to spot one or two hanging out in the kitchen, nodding off to a movie in the family room, shooting up a storm at the firing range, or getting an early start on their training.

Tony reminded himself that most of his team was out today. Business, family, missions, you name it, and as far as Tony could remember, only Bucky was around, which meant Tony would be haunting these halls alone. 

Bucky tended to avoid Tony most days. It was understandable really, and Tony tried not to take it to heart. Bucky used to avoid most people who weren’t Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson and although he’d warmed up to the team now, he was still recovering, still getting used to being his own man and carving out his own destiny—and living with the piping hot mess that were that Avengers probably didn’t make that any easier, but at least Bucky got to see that dysfunctionality came in all shapes and sizes and he wasn’t alone in his struggle to overcome the ghosts of his past.

One of those ghosts were Tony’s parents of course, but Tony had long forgiven Bucky for his role in that tragedy. Steve’s decision to tell him as soon as possible—while Steve was still in his hospital bed, water-logged and bleeding, but too frantic and guilt-ridden to care—meant Tony had the space and the time to process and grieve, to decide on his own terms what path to take.

He never could stand still for long though, so while he ‘coped’, he dug up every Hydra file on the Winter Soldier, studied every carefully documented detail, spent sleepless nights piecing the horrifying puzzle together, and by the end of that gut-wrenching journey, his resolve to find—and rescue—one Bucky Barnes had become nearly as strong as Steve’s.

Tony couldn’t think of a better way to screw over Hydra than by finding their greatest weapon, taking him home, and putting him through therapy.

Things were better now and Bucky was no longer spooked by his own shadow. He had tea with Bruce, sparred with Nat, had progressively more convoluted shooting competitions with Clint, and snarked with Sam on a regular basis (and with Steve he had whatever bonding sessions Brooklyn boys from the thirties needed—baseball probably, Tony didn’t judge). 

Everyone played their own role in Bucky’s recovery. Everyone except Tony, unless of course one included paying for the fancy building and the cool gadgets and all those therapy bills, but there wasn’t much Tony could do about the rest of it. Bucky always turned strangely tight-lipped and polite around him, never sat next to him during movie nights, certainly never sparred with him, and acted like the end of days had arrived every time Tony did anything remotely nice. 

The longest they’ve spent around each other was the initial arm maintenance session, one Tony spent fixing some impressive damage and frankly appalling construction flaws—damn Hydra seven ways to hell, really—and one Bucky spent trying to pretend he was a statue.

Contrary to popular belief, Tony could take a hint. He did rub people the wrong way sometimes (Steve from a few years ago could attest to that), but he just wished Bucky wouldn’t look so spooked every time Tony was around. They did the whole ‘apologies’ song and dance, Tony reiterated he had no intention of going all man-hunter on Bucky and exacting revenge, so he wasn’t sure what else there was left to be done.

He supposed there was no use worrying about that tonight. Tony wasn’t sure having company would help settle his nerves anyways, even if he did feel a little lonely wandering the darkened halls by himself.

He stopped at the kitchen first, spent a good minute or two bathed in the light of the refrigerator as he examined its contents, then wandered over to open and close a few cupboards. Despite the ample offerings, nothing caught his attention.

He should’ve made himself some herbal tea—well, according to Bruce and Natasha anyways, the heretics—but drinking grass water made Tony wanna wrinkle his noise and reach for a cup of coffee. Hot chocolate sounded tempting too, but all that sugar would only wind him up more.

In the end, he left the kitchen empty-handed and decided to venture outside. The night was clear and quiet and when he stepped out, the cool, fresh air settled nicely against his skin. On a gorgeous night like this, the stars would’ve been visible overhead had it not been for the full moon and the lights of the Compound, but Tony didn’t so much mind the light pollution these days.

The garden was a new addition, a group project let by a few plucky Compound employees who quickly roped in many others—several Avengers included—to help them get started. It now sprawled over several acres of land, planted with vegetables, spices, berry bushes, and even a small, budding orchard. In a few years, it would be even more impressive and Tony hoped—prayed—they’d all stick around long enough to see these plants flourish.

The air was sticky sweet with the scent of night-blooming flowers planted in neatly pruned patches along the path. Tony could never remember the names—he wasn’t one of the Avengers getting his hands dirty here, he just liked to hang out and enjoy the scenery—but he didn’t need names to appreciate them. He carefully traced the petals of a few flowers as he walked by, letting the general quiet of the night soothe him. 

Tony ended up getting lost in his thoughts, too busy examining the pretty plant life, and it took him a second to realize someone was out here with him. It took him another second to realize it was Bucky.

Tony froze, panicked, and darted behind a lilac bush, wincing at his own flustered move.

Smooth, Stark, real smooth.  

Super soldiers usually heard you coming from a mile away, so this was going to be embarrassing for everyone involved and Tony struggled to decide what would be less awkward - revealing himself and walking over like he didn’t just duck for closest cover at the sight of Bucky or sneak back to the building and pretend he was never here. 

Neither choice avoided the awkwardness because Tony did have to live with the guy—and not only that, Tony really did want more than the few carefully spoken words Bucky had offered so far. Tony wasn’t above admitting that Bucky Barnes had everyone beat in the looks department around here—yes, even Thor, but Tony could also admit to his own bias for gorgeous brunets that could benchpress him with ease—but attraction aside, he just wanted to get along with the newest member of the team. These people were his family—dysfunctional disaster of a family, but family nonetheless—and he wanted Bucky to be comfortable here.

One minute behind the lilacs turned into two turned into three, but there was still no gruff voice calling Tony out on his questionable antics, so maybe Bucky didn’t notice him after all. With as much care as he could muster, Tony tip-toed in the other direction, hoping to sneak away and save face—

His heart dropped when he heard the distinct sound of a sob. 

He froze again, eyes skewed shut, and when a shuddering breath followed that heartbreaking sound, Tony cursed every godly pantheon he could remember.

Bucky was out here crying and neither Steve nor Sam were here to help, and oh god, this was mortifying in a way Tony could not have imagined. He did not have a good bedside manner—really, he didn’t, no matter what Rhodey said, because on his good days, Tony Stark was a charming asshole, but an asshole nonetheless—and maybe the smartest thing would’ve been to leave Bucky alone and let him deal with whatever this was on his own, but Tony found himself unable to walk away. For all his questionable life choices and dick moves, he couldn’t just ignore someone in pain, even if it wasn’t his place to offer comfort, even if he was the last person Bucky wanted to see. If nothing else, Tony couldn’t leave without offering to help first. 

He ignored the little voice in his head calling him a ‘damn mother hen’—Rhodey was wrong—and with gritted teeth, he opened his eyes and turned around.

Sneaking up on crying assassins was probably a bad idea too, so Tony called out Bucky’s name before he got too close, but Bucky still startled, straightening out of his hunch to stare at Tony. The streaming light from the full moon highlighted his already pale skin and did nothing to hide the shimmer of tears beneath the lashes.

“What— What are you— doing here?” Bucky looked around, as if just realizing he was out here in the gardens, and hastily—harshly—rubbed his eyes to hide the evidence.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” Tony said as he approached, hands up in that universal ‘I’m harmless, I swear’ gesture. “I was just walking around and happened to see you.”

“I wasn’t— sorry, I didn’t think—” Bucky began to get up. “I’ll go.”

“Hey, hey, no, you don’t have to leave,” Tony hurried over and tried not to hover. “I was just worried, that’s all. Do you need me to get someone? Steve’s supposed to be on radio silence for a few more hours, but I bet I could get him on the line—”

“No, please, that’s— that’s the last thing he needs. M’fine, wasn’t gonna—” Bucky didn’t finish as another sob cut him off. He tried to muffle it into the back of his hand and his eyes squeezed shut, more tears running down his scruffy cheeks. “Jesus, sorry, dunno what the hell’s wrong with me.”

Tony’s own panic meter was already going off the charts—the Winter Soldier was crying—and now it broke altogether, along with any shred of common sense that was left in between the jet-lag and Tony’s normal state of low-level exhaustion, and before he knew what he was doing, he dropped down onto the bench and drew Bucky into his arms.

Bucky went perfectly still—and Tony did too because he was so going to get punched, there was going to be a super soldier fist-sized dent in Tony’s face any second now—but instead of pushing Tony away, Bucky moved closer, so tentatively at first that Tony wasn’t sure what he was doing.

“Hey, you’re alright,” Tony whispered and that, apparently, was enough for Bucky to wrap his arms around Tony until he was outright clinging to him, face buried into Tony’s shoulder where Bucky tried to hide his rapidly increasing sniffles.

“You’re okay, come on now, it’s okay, just let it out,” Tony soothed, hands already rubbing up and down Bucky’s back—and yeah, okay, maybe Rhodey was right, Tony did go into full mother hen mode sometimes, but he couldn’t help it! He was the guy who hugged orphaned babies when he couldn’t sleep and brought boxes of abandoned kittens back to the Tower, and tried to talk every would-be villain into going to therapy, and now there was a crying super soldier with no one to comfort him, so really, Tony was left with no choice here. 

There was another heart-wrenching sob and Bucky clung even harder, so Tony began to rock them both, kept talking more soothing nonsense, and tried not to think about how holding Bucky like this was… not awful at all.

That probably wasn’t the right thing to think about when a grown man was so miserable he was driven to tears in the middle of the night and now sought comfort from a man he barely knew, so Tony tried to think chaste, friendly thoughts and if he wrapped his arms around Bucky a little tighter and let his head rest against Bucky’s—well, the night was a little chilly.

They stayed like that for a while. Tony’s babbling nonsense tapered off to a few soft encouragements, but Bucky remained silent, his only contribution those broken sniffles that stabbed Tony straight through the heart. The hold on Tony never loosened though, with Bucky attempting to mold himself even closer into Tony’s body somehow, like he wanted to disappear entirely into the embrace, so Tony just kept holding him, determined to be here for however long Bucky needed him. Emotional episodes like this were never easy. 

The quiet also gave him some time to think and admit to himself this wasn’t how a rational person with an inkling of self-preservation would’ve handled this. Surprise-hugging crying super soldiers who didn’t like you very much? Noble, but stupid. Tony was lucky his head was still attached to his shoulders, but he supposed that was true on any given day of the week.

Besides, his instincts weren’t always wrong and Bucky looked like he just needed a damn hug and Tony had two perfectly functional arms and he was very good at hugging and if he could help one person feel slightly less shitty about their life tonight, then the night wasn’t a waste after all.

So this was… okay. Better than okay, in fact, even if Tony didn’t know what hell he would do after the hugging and the crying was over, but just like he did with most things in life, he planned to wing it.

The sniffling began to wind down and the shaking settled, Bucky growing heavier and steadier in his arms. Tony rubbed his shoulder blades, gave a little scratch up and down his spine, everything he knew he appreciated when he sought refuge in Rhodey’s or Pepper’s arms when life became too much. It was a nice change of pace to give a little bit of this comfort back to someone else.

“You’ll be okay, Bucky, I promise. Whatever it is, you’ll work through it.”

“Sorry,” came the sniffly reply, muffled into Tony’s shoulder and followed by another shuddering breath. 

“What for?”

Another sad sniffle before Bucky replied, “Got your shirt all wet.”

Tony chuckled at the mournful tone. “Aw, that’s alright, I got lots of shirts. I don’t mind donating one to a good cause.”

He felt Bucky move, so he loosened the embrace and let go, ignoring how chilly the night air really was without the press of another body. 

Bucky still wouldn’t meet his eyes, but at least he wasn’t running away, which Tony considered a victory, but the way Bucky sat there, still despondent and weary, cheeks stained with tears… It broke Tony’s heart and he didn’t care anymore, he went with those pesky instincts again, knowing full well he was probably stepping over lines and boundaries and so getting clocked in the head, but reaching out and wiping away the tears with his thumbs felt right and Bucky responded with a shuddering sigh, eyes falling shut, leaning into the touch, like this was the kindest thing anyone had ever done for him and jesus, how touched-starved was he?

Probably even more touch-starved than Tony, who was always touch-starved, even when his friends indulged his neediness readily—his excuse were those decades of pesky childhood neglect, but he stopped feeling shame over that a while ago.

“There, you’re alright,” he kept saying, not sure which pain he was trying to soothe away. In the end, he didn’t need to know. With Bucky’s face dry, he tucked the long strands of hair behind his ears, then trailed his hands down and gave the broad shoulders a squeeze.

A tiny part of him—the one that tried to be responsible—kept piping up about propriety, about keeping his hands to himself when wayward, grumpy—and gorgeous—super soldiers were concerned, but Tony rarely listened to that little voice and it was even harder tonight, especially when he got to watch Bucky melt a little bit more with each touch.

Bucky nodded distractedly at Tony’s reassurance, as if to remind himself that he was, in fact, alright, and pulled in another wet sniffle. He seemed to be feeling better though, and he didn’t scoot back to put distance between them. Tony watched him rub the palm of his hand into his eye and let out a big, tired whoosh.

“Sorry,” Bucky mumbled again, but at least this apology was a little less heartbreaking. He almost sounded chagrined. “Jesus, that wasn’t exactly what I planned on doing tonight.” 

“To be fair, does anyone plan to have a good cry in the gardens at four in the morning?”

Bucky worked himself up to a wet chuckle. “Suppose not. Just… Didn’t realize I had all that in me. Hell, don’t remember the last time I cried like that.”

Maybe that was meant to be a throw-away comment, but Tony’s heart just broke a little more instead. 

“A good cry once in a while is good for the soul, or so I’m told. It’s the body’s way of releasing all the pent-up stress, make room for something— I dunno, something better.”

Bucky shrugged, then finally let his eyes wander in Tony’s direction. “Suppose you’re right… Just didn’t think I’d, uh, I’d have company.”

“Sorry, I know, I sort of just ambushed you, if you want me to go—” Tony went to get up, but sat right back down when a metal hand slid over his knee.

“Please stay,” Bucky said as he rubbed his fingers over Tony’s jeans—the touch seemed subconscious, but that didn’t stop Tony from wondering how that hand would feel in all sorts of different places. 

“No, yeah, of course.”

Bucky pulled the hand back into his lap before Tony’s imagination got the better of him. “Just… Give me another minute, yeah?”

“Take as long as you need.” 

They sat in silence again, Tony studying their surroundings while Bucky gathered his wits, and the whole thing was surprisingly comfortable. Had anyone asked Tony yesterday how awkward it would have been to sit with the Winter Soldier, post emotional breakdown, in the middle of the night, and not even talk… He’d declare it ‘excruciatingly awkward’ and something to be avoided at all costs. 

And yet, here they were.

“I gotta say,” Bucky said eventually, long after Tony had lost track of the minutes, “this isn’t exactly how I planned to talk to you either.”

Tony flashed him a cheeky grin. “No? Are you sure?”

“Damn sure. I was thinking something like coffee, you know? Not blubbering like a baby and ruining your shirt.”

Wait, the Winter Soldier had been thinking of inviting Tony to coffee? Since when?

Tony wanted to prod at that further, but he supposed he should give the ‘responsible adult’ thing a try first.

“Speaking of the, uh, the thing that just happened… Is it something you want to talk about?” When Bucky looked at him like a startled deer, Tony hurried to explain. “It really doesn’t have to be me, but it helps sometimes, to talk it out with someone.”

Bucky rubbed the back of his neck and Tony would’ve bet good money there was a blush creeping up over those cheeks, invisible in the dim moonlight. 

“Well, my therapist might need to hear about this, that’s for sure, but uh… Don’t even know what I’m gonna tell her, to be honest. Wasn’t anything real bad that started it. Hadn’t even been a bad day. It was a good day, actually, but everything—good, bad, everything—just got to be too much all of the sudden.”

“Well, that happens too. Happens to people who haven’t gone through what you have, so I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.” 

Bucky nodded and Tony was heartened to see him steadier and more clear-eyed. There were no more tears, no more tremors, and Bucky seemed to be sporting that sort of emotional relief you only got after a good, cathartic cry. 

A breeze blew by and Tony shivered, wishing he would’ve grabbed a sweatshirt before heading out here. He eyed Bucky and while the thin T-shirt he was wearing hugged all those muscles beautifully, it probably did little to protect him against the chill.


Surprise hugging did work well the first time, didn’t it?

Before common sense could catch up to him, Tony placed his palm over Bucky’s back, right between the shoulder blades, and rubbed to warm up the spot.

Bucky tensed, but it wasn’t more than a second before the muscles began to relax, tension melting away.

“Sorry, I’m a little touchy tonight and you looked cold.” Tony could confess to that, at least. “Rhodey would say it’s because I’m a huge mother hen, but don’t believe a word he says, he’s a slanderer.”

That earned him the first hint of laughter, which Tony counted as another victory. 

“I dunno, Rhodes might be right, you’re real good at this.”

“Ha, you’re hilarious. I was just in the right place at the right time, that’s all.” And I don’t know how to keep my hands to myself, apparently. “I’m sure this would’ve been better if it had been Steve or Sam—or hell, even Nat. You’d think with all those knives, she’d have a prickly disposition too, but she’s surprisingly good with these sorts of things. But anywas, I know you don’t really like me, but I’m glad I was able to—”

“Wait, what?”

“I just meant, I’m glad I was able to help.”

“No, no,” Bucky furrowed his brows and actually looked at Tony this time. “The part about me not liking you. What are you talking about?”

Tony opened his mouth, closed it, and tried to figure out the best way to explain this without making everything horrendously awkward. “Err, you avoid me all the time and when we are in the same room, you always keep your distance. You only ever say what needs to be said—with the others, there’s banter, there’s joking, you let them touch you.” Tony pointedly ignored that he was touching Bucky right now. Semantics. “Every time you come down to the workshop, you look spooked, and I know the arm has a ton of shitty associations, I get that, but I’ve seen you with Bruce and Helen and you don’t look like you wanna bolt or die a swift death just for it to be over when you’re with them. So I gotta assume it’s me you don’t like.” 

Instead of awkward but gentle letdowns or terse confirmations or anything Tony would’ve expected, Bucky’s expression grew distressed, so Tony kept talking because he didn’t know what else to do, and his words began to run together as he racked his brain for a solution.

“Um, it’s not your fault though, I totally get it. History and bad memories and I know I have a bad reputation too, I’m a total asshole and I don’t play well with others, don’t share well either, and—”

“Tony, Tony, wait.” 

Tony clicked his mouth shut again, but only because his brain screeched to a halt at that ‘Tony’ part. Had Bucky ever called him by his first name before?

“Tony, I— I don’t ‘not like’ you.”

“Yes, you do ‘not like’ me. How else would you explain everything I just mentioned?”

If possible, Bucky grew even more distressed, but instead of fresh tears, he muffled a groan into his hands.

“Oh god. Oh god, Sam was right.”

Tony gave him a consoling pat on the back because while his confusion had reached new levels here, Bucky did sound distraught and it was never good when Sam was right. Sam was the Rhodey to Bucky’s Tony and Rhodey being right about anything was always bad news.

Of course, Rhodey was still right about almost everything anyways.

“Care to share with the class?”

Bucky peeked over his fingers. “He told me I should stop being an idiot and just talk to you.”

“Look, Sam probably means well, but you don’t have—”

“Tony, no, you don’t understand.” He sat up and turned to face Tony better. “I want to talk to you— but I just— I haven’t been able find the right words.” He grimaced and his gaze grew distant, falling on whatever flowers were behind Tony. “I’ve wanted to talk to you—really talk to you—for a long time, but I was so terrified of screwing things up. What if I said something stupid? What if I offended you somehow? What if I opened my mouth and you decided I was an idiot? You’ve been so kind to me, you’ve done more than anyone could’ve asked of you. All of you have, but you— you had no reason to help me, after everything.”

“Hey, I thought we established that’s water under the bridge. I forgave you long before I met you.”

“I know and it’s that, right there, that’s what makes being around you so intimidating… I wanted you to like me.” That confession was so timid. “I’m not sure I’m even a functional person yet—random crying spells certainly don’t play in my favor—and if I struggle talking to the grocery clerk down the road, I sure as hell can’t talk to the kindest, most intelligent, best-looking man I’ve seen this side of the millennium.”

Oh. Well, that was—that would’ve be very nice had it not been for all those self-hating words and the insecurities Bucky had just confessed to, pulling at Tony’s heartstrings.

“Seems to me you’re doing the whole ‘talking to me’ thing just fine now.”

Bucky snorted and pursed his lips in a pout. “Doesn’t seem as tough after I already wept in your arms like a child. Couldn’t get much worse, right? All this time, I just wanted to impress you and I thought I still had time, but apparently all I’ve been doing is making an ass out of myself if the only thing I’ve managed to do is make you think I hate you.”

Tony probably needed some time to process everything Bucky had told him—there were some preconceived notions here and several conclusions that needed to be flipped on their heads—but just like sleep, all that thinking could wait. There was a sad, now-pouty super soldier who needed Tony to make it all better because as far as Tony was concerned, Bucky Barnes was no longer allowed to look so despondent in Tony’s presence.

He scooted closer and stretched his arm out to wrap it around the broad shoulders, giving them both more warmth where their sides pressed together.

“Trust me, you’ve already impressed me. For you to be brave enough to be here, to work so hard to build yourself a new life. Anyone in your position could’ve said ‘screw this, I’m done, let me wallow in my misery’ and I’m not sure anyone would fault them for that. But you’ve been doing so well and I know everyone here is so proud of you. I don’t think Steve has stopped smiling since you got here. It’s been months of that smile and frankly I’m getting a little concerned.”

“Give it another month or two,” Bucky said with a huff, “Stevie’s forgotten all about what a pain in the ass I can be. That punk’s been running amok without me watching his back for these past few years, so once I get my head on a little straighter, I’ll be making up for lost time.”

“Well, would you look at that? I also happen to be a giant pain in the ass who likes to keep Steve Rogers on his toes. We are going to get along just fine.”

Bucky looked over and this close, Tony could appreciate every detail of that pretty face bathed in moonlight. Good lord, who thought it was okay to frame those gorgeous steel-gray eyes in those long lashes? Criminal, really.

“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Tony.”

“It’s okay, you didn’t. I honestly just thought you didn’t like me.”

“And yet you still tried to help me.”

“Seemed like the right thing to do. Plus, surprise hugs can be, err—can be surprisingly helpful, you know?”

The metal arm behind him moved tentatively to wrap around Tony’s waist and when Tony leaned into the embrace, it settled into a steady weight on his hip.

Tony tried to tell himself not to get used to this, but when did he ever listen to silly advice like that?

“You’re a good man, Tony.”

“I do try. Occasionally. When the planets align just right.”

“The stars must’ve been very good to me then.”

Tony smiled and watched the flowers sway in the mild breeze, studied the way their colors looked so different in the light of the moon, paler, more ethereal. 

“You doing a little better now?”

Bucky nodded. “I think so.”

“Did you want to head back in?”

“No— not yet. I’d like to stay here a little longer. If that’s alright? Unless— if you were planning to go—”

“Nope, nope, I’m perfect right where I am.” Tony couldn’t really think of anywhere he’d rather be—okay, a white lie, Hawaii and Paris and maybe even just his bed all sounded fantastic, but only if he got to take Bucky along. “It’s a nice night.”

“It, uh—yeah, it sure is.”

Tony could feel the conversation start to slide into awkwardness, but no part of him wanted to go back to those polite greetings and averted glances.

“By the way, if you haven’t noticed, I love talking. That’s basically all I do. Ask Steve, I don’t shut up. I also say all sorts of dumb things myself—again, ask Steve. So, you know, if you ever feel like talking to me again, just go for it. I promise it’ll be the best part of my day.”

There, that was appropriately open and honest, but playful and light-hearted at the same time, right?

“I’d really like that. Thank you, Tony.”

“So no more darting out of the room when I walk in, okay?” Tony snickered when Bucky let out a noise that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a groan or a whimper. “What, you didn’t think I would notice?”

“Sam is never gonna let me live this down.”

“What Sam doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“Oh, he’ll know. He always knows. But to answer your question, no, no more of that. I really didn’t think you were paying that much attention to me.”

Tony cocked a dubious brow. “Err, have you seen yourself? Do I need to find you a mirror so you could appropriately appreciate your whole ‘broody Brooklyn boy’ aesthetic that’s got everyone charmed?”

Bucky’s flustered little smile was a very nice look too, Tony decided. He’d have to compliment Bucky more often.

“Well, I know now. God, I used to be good at this too, you know, this whole ‘flirting’ and ‘charming’ thing, but now all I seem to do is make an awkward fool of myself.” Bucky shuddered as he let out a sigh, remnants of tremors from his earlier cry running through him. “I swear it’s like learning to be human all over again.”

Tony guided Bucky’s head to his shoulder and let him curl into Tony’s body just a bit more. With Bucky closer, Tony could finally get his fingers through those surprisingly silky-soft strands of hair, brushing through it with easy, slow strokes.

“You have all the time in the world, I promise. You’ll figure it all out and we’ll be right here with you.”

Tony wondered if all this raw sincerity would push Bucky too far again—Tony had to blink the sting out of his own eyes—but Bucky seemed to be alright now, content to stay cuddled up against Tony. 

Eventually, Bucky did say, “I’m sorry if I’ve kept you up. I’m sure the last thing you need is to lose more sleep.”

“Eh, I’ll sleep when I’m dead, Buckaroo. Don’t tell Steve I said that though. I swear he goes through a full heart attack every time I even think about making some fatalistic joke.”

Bucky hissed in sympathy. “Ooh, you too? All I said was ‘Can’t I just go back into cryo instead?’ when that punk decided to spend a perfectly good morning running laps around the Compound and he acted like I threw myself on a damn grenade. It’s hypocritical, you know. My memories may be a scrambled mess, but I do know he used to be a mouthy little shit who was plenty familiar with dark humor.”

“Leadership has been bad for him, clearly. He’s too busy taking care of us, he forgets how to be any fun himself.”

“That’s karma right there, that’s what that is.”

Tony snickered, his smile making the corners of his mouth ache. Given his keyed-up, exhausted state and this early hour, everything was probably funnier that it really was, but poking fun at Cap never got old and he was doing it with Bucky now and honestly, things could not get better.

Tony’s wily, hyper-focused mind promptly reminded him that Bucky called him ‘best-looking’ just a few minutes ago and oh—maybe things could get better.

“So, uh,” Tony jumped right in because self-preservation was best saved for daytime hours and people who had less fun than him, “about that coffee you mentioned…”

Bucky seemed to hesitate. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

“You did, yeah.”

When Bucky’s shoulders drew tighter beneath Tony’s arm though, Tony wondered if he’d misinterpreted.

“Look, I know I flirt like I breathe and you are absolutely, undeniably gorgeous, but coffee could just be… coffee. An outing between friends. I really would like that too.” That, at least, was entirely true. He loved his family and he already loved Bucky, even if those feelings would have to remain platonic.

“And what if… What if I wanted to ask you out to dinner instead?”

Tony’s stomach promptly flip-flopped. “Dinners are great too.” 

The response wasn’t immediate, but Tony was a patient man when he wanted to be.

“Give me a little bit to— to feel like I won’t burst into tears at random again,” Bucky said, his self-deprecation followed by a shake of his head. “Probably some things I gotta work through before I can be good company, you know? But if you’re willing to wait a little longer, I’d really like to take you out to coffee—and to dinner—someday.”

Tony almost blurted out that he’d wait forever for Bucky, but that was probably way too cheesy and likely the jet-lag talking. Better not make any dramatic confessions at four in the morning. 

“Take all the time you need. I’m in no hurry at all.”

“Thank you.”

“In the meantime though, my offer still stands. I like talking and I like talking to you, so if you dart out of another room, I swear I will follow and tackle you with another surprise hug. Don’t tempt me.”

Tucked against him, Tony could feel Bucky’s body shake with laughter. “That is terrible incentive. I’d have to leave every room if that were the case. No, this right here,” he added and nuzzled into Tony’s shoulder, “would work exceptionally well as a bribe. This is… really nice.”

“Mmm, careful, Barnes, keep talking like that and you’re gonna get hugged on sight from now on.”

“You really don’t know how threats work, do you?”

It was Tony’s turn to laugh; he shifted a little closer and let his body slump against Bucky’s. The exhaustion was definitely catching up to him, but sleep could always wait. This had to be the best sleepless night of his life and he didn’t want to waste a moment of it.

“You wanna go inside and I’ll make us both some hot chocolate? We’ll use the fancy stuff and I know where Natasha hides the tiny marshmallows. This way we can get wired on sugar by the time Cap comes back from his mission.”

“Oh god, he’ll kill us both.”

“Perfect. That way we’ll finally get some sleep.”

They both snickered, punch-drunk on exhaustion and all that frightful honesty from earlier and maybe just a touch of giddiness over this new, wonderful thing Tony could already see forming between them.

It was Bucky who let go first, but he didn’t hesitate to extend his hand when he stood up and Tony didn’t make him wait long before he laced their fingers together and led them both home.