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I'll Just Hold Onto That For You (Your Heart)

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Tony parks his bike out front, laying it gently on the bike rack. The sky is blue, the wind's on his face, his laptop's charged, Tony's in a good mood. It's Spring Break, and he's just been dying for a cozy, peaceful morning at his favorite cafe, the Lionsgate. The cafe's his favorite for a reason 

"Hey, Tony!" Clint calls as soon as Tony steps inside. The bells jingle softly above him, and he turns to the fellow brown-haired man with a smile on his face.

"Sup, Clint. How you doing?" Tony greets, nodding at the other waiters and walking over to the counter. Clint shoots him a friendly grin and cocks an eyebrow. 

"Same order?" Clint asks, taking a pen and flipping it, catching it deftly with one hand as Tony nods. Clint moves behind the counter, lithe and agile in his brown Lionsgate apron. "Your hoodie looks cute," he adds, pouring Tony a mug filled to the brim with his favorite, black, black coffee. Black like scorched earth is how he likes it. He hands the mug over to Tony, who takes it and sips the liquid, closes his eyes like he's having a religious experience, and sighs in contentment.

Clint snorts. "Jesus, Tones, at least try to hide the boner." Pauses, then tells Tony, "You're burning your tastebuds right off."

Tony takes another long sip and feels the magic happening. "Sorry. I sometimes forget how distracting I can be for you." 

Clint scoffs, rolls his eyes, ignores the suggestive comment with practiced ease. "I forget you've probably burned the nerves off your poor tongue since you were around four."

"Aw thanks," Tony replies with a teasing smirk. "Might wanna reign in the crush you obviously have going for me there. Why are you so concerned about my tongue, Barton?" He asks, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

Clint holds a hand to his heart, looking offended. "Excuse you, you'd be lucky to have me. And kindly fuck off about the tongue. I don't need any more nightmares featuring you."

"I've already got you, sweetcheeks." Tony stares back for a moment, then turns on his heel and sways his hips, glancing back and being absolutely smug as fuck about it when Clint's dark eyes go predatory. "You make me coffee. I've dated for less," he says, smiling with his teeth. "You dream about me, snuggle muffin?"

Clint laughs, flips him off, and turns to serve another customer who's currently eyeing them with a lot of uncomfortable confusion. Tony notices it right away, of course, the spark of interest in the eyes as the stranger clears his throat and turns his body away to the counter, shoulders stiff. Well. Someone needs to release some sexual tension.

The cafe's almost empty this early in the morning, and Tony loves it that way. All he needs is some AC/DC blasting through the speakers but Clint will probably asphyxiate him for that, so he refrains from upsetting the man who makes him coffee. Clint's been his friend ever since he started the semester at MIT, and found the gem that is the Lionsgate cafe. On the first day, Tony accidentally ordered a latte, tasted absolutely no coffee, demanded coffee, Clint argued there in fact was coffee, and no he was not about to give Tony a refund, and Tony declaring he would not leave the premises without coffee, and that resulted in Clint making a furious bet with Tony that if the security cameras were to show Clint pouring him the fucking coffee Tony would have buy Clint's pizzas for eight consecutive days. 

They became friends right away. As soon as Tony finished buying eight pizzas, lectured Clint about the dangers of eating so many pizzas and Clint threatened to poison every cup of coffee he would ever make for Tony in the future. 

Tony makes himself comfortable in his favorite corner, at the back of the cafe, surrounds himself with large windows that let through rays of soft sunshine. He takes out his laptop, fires it up and immediately starts working on the prototype for body armor that's light, compact, thick enough to endure multiple bullets but without restricting mobility or speed. While making it look good as hell. Which, Tony thinks with a satisfied smile, is definitely one of his fortes. His professor's gonna lose his mind when he launches the prototype. Tony's been aching to finally get through the droning seminars and pass over to the part where he actually gets to build things. He takes another long gulp of the sweet, black coffee, actually feels the neurons and synapses in his brain firing (yeah, he learned some shit from Bio class) and the mitochondria powering up for his cells. 

Tony takes the mug, tells it in a soft whisper that he'll remember it forever, and downs the rest of it.

A disgusted noise from across the room makes him look up. 

Clint rolls his eyes (the guy does it so much Tony's worried it'll roll right back into his skull one day) and holds up a freshly brewed coffee pot. "Come get your fucking refill," he yells. "I can see the empty cup from here."

Tony jumps to his feet, joy in his heart and grins wide and happy. "You're a goddamn national treasure," he tells Clint, greedily pouring the black liquid into his now empty mug. Clint sighs, loud and exaggerated. 

"I know. The plan is to have you die in two years when the caffeine spreads to your heart," Clint says with a shrug and takes the pot.

Tony makes a low, mournful noise in his throat, gazes up at Clint through his thick eyelashes and makes grabby hands at the pot. Clint pauses, narrows his eyes like he doesn't trust Tony to touch the coffee pot with a ten-foot pole.

"Fuck," Clint grumbles and glares at him. There's no real heat in it though, so Tony doesn't worry and instead takes the pot, blowing a kiss and a wink in response and carefully makes his way back to his table with the pot in one hand, and the refilled mug in the other. "At least take a muffin so your stomach doesn't commit suicide." Clint says grudgingly. 

Tony turns, beams. "I never knew you cared," He saunters over to the counter, gets himself a boxfull of muffins thrown at his chest for his trouble. 

"Asshole." Clint mutters after him.

Tony flips him off without looking and plops himself down on his favorite plushie chair, slinging the laptop towards his knees and hunching down to do some work. He's in the middle of explaining how long strands of fiber made of a super mindblowing metal shit can interlace to form a thick net that's enough to stop a bullet from a game rifle when in his peripheral vision, a low, steady thrum of energy tingles in the back of his neck.

Tony glances up, barely in time to leap out of the way when a motorcycle crashes through the window, shattering glass with the kind of noise that should be illegal this early in the morning, and tumbles across the cafe's previously white tiles, ending up near the door in a whir of spinning tires and machinery that Tony's hands itches to fix. Clint stands, uncertain and lost in the middle of the destruction, apron untangled and towel in hand, mouth agape.

The previous occupant of the motorcycle lies a meter away from Tony, clad in black combat gear and Tony can see the sleek outline of a Ruger poking out from a sheath on the guy's hip. Then, the guy shifts, and Tony's about halfway there to fainting and screaming because he has a metal fucking arm, glinting and looking all kinds of badass. Tony can't look away from the absolute beast. The guy looks up, dazed, blood trickling down the side of his face. He looks out of it, and completely wrecked and when the guy sees his motorcycle strewn on its side with half the gears hanging out, he looks fucking pissed about it and Tony decides then and there he's got a thing for angry, pretty brunets with blood on their faces, a metal goddamn arm, and molten fire in their blue eyes. 

"Fuck," Tony says, casually, like this is an absolutely mundane sight to see on a Saturday morning. 

 

 

 

 

A/N: Next chapter will be up soon

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony wobbles to his feet, and then his legs do some unnecessary bullshit where they collapse beneath him and he's left down on one knee. He looks at what used to be his favorite table and chair, and sees shattered wood and what looks like the remains of his laptop. And his coffee. Someone's gonna pay for that. This is officially the worst morning of his life, and apparently he must have said all of it out loud because motorcycle asshole turns to look at him, a little bit dazed and a lot flabbergasted. 

Once Tony gets to his feet and stays on them, he half stumbles half hops to where Clint is still standing, shocked. 

"Dude, snap out of it," he tells Clint and reaches behind the counter to grab the kitchen torch that Clint likes to use to decorate cups of fancy Starbucksian coffee. "Call the cops, and find something to defend yourself with." Clint looks at him, mute, and nods. He ambles to the phone-box, and Tony doesn't have the time to call him out on those fucking bambi-steps of his because motorcycle asshole clears his throat from behind. 

Tony whirls, holds the torch and points it at the incredibly attractive brunet. God. Tony's already getting a hard-on for that metal arm of his. "Hold the fuck right there, murder muffin," because Tony's got no filter when it comes to his mouth and he'll be damned if he starts now. "What's going on?"

Motorcycle asshole looks like he's trying to swallow a grin, and instead plasters on a pathetic serious face. "Sorry, didn't mean to drop by like this. But it's about to get pretty dangerous in a few minutes, so you better tell that boy with the apron on he'd better find somewhere to hide, and somewhere real good." Then he pauses, gets to a crouch, and starts dusting himself off. Tony's staring at him, incredulous, and ready to start blasting off some flames when the guy adds like an afterthought, "You too, if you wanna keep your head." 

"Aw, thanks,"  Tony says, voice sharp and flat. "Real considerate of you." Like Tony's the kind of person to listen to an asshole who destroyed his favorite coffee shop, and just trashed weeks of research on his computer. He's about to hold motorcycle asshole responsible, and he has no qualms about using the torch to do it. Tony glares at motorcycle asshole right in the eye as the torch comes on with a hiss and a pop. He may have a gun, and an arm that can probably crush Tony's throat in four seconds but Tony's got coffee in his system and no fucks left to give.

The guy winces, holds up both hands placatingly. "I'm Bucky. Bucky Barnes. Please, listen to me. Get behind the counter, now." There must be something he knows that Tony doesn't, because a note of urgency rises in his voice as motorcycle asshole gets to his feet, looking a little wild around the eyes. He takes the Ruger out in a smooth motion, handling it expertly, and Tony makes a noise of distress. 

"Put that gun down," he says, a little scared, mostly pissed, and absolutely not about to back down. He steps closer, and is in arm-length's distance to motorcyle asshole, who watches the whole thing with a bit of confused admiration in his eyes, like he doesn't know what to do with Tony. "Clint! Did you call the cops yet?" Tony yells, not taking his eyes off the brunet. There's a bit of shuffling behind the counter, and the pitched sound of something small and metal hitting the tile floor. Clint audibly gulps, and Tony tenses up. Motorcycle asshole is still holding the damn gun and acts like a cornered animal, eyes flicking from left to right. 

"Yes, yes," Clint says, slowly. Tony waits for him to continue. "Um, I'm not an expert or anything, but I think Bucky's right on the getting the hell out of dodge, because I think, I think I'm looking at a grenade."

"Don't give him the honor of his name," Tony snaps. He looks down at motorcycle asshole, motions with the torch to get in front. "Names are reserved for humans who don't destroy coffee shops." 

Barnes returns his hard stare, but moves forward anyway in light, quick steps that completely undermine the broad shoulders and bulky muscles. He peers over the counter, hisses, grabs Clint by the front of his shirt and shoves him towards the entrance door of the cafe. "They're already here, and you're fucked," he tells them, and Tony gapes at the audacity. The brunet ignores that, grabs Tony with his metal hand and pushes them both behind him. Tony takes a second to lower the torch and glance outside, and the street's quiet. A little too quiet. No cars, no pedestrians, and Tony exchanges an uneasy look with Clint, who's been a little quieter than usual. Understandable, Tony thinks with a mind-shrug. Then returns to glaring balefully at Barnes.

"Then get us unfucked, murder muffin." Tony says sweetly, blinking with faux-innocence when Barnes turns to narrow his eyes. Clint chokes. 

"How'd I miss the nickname phase, already?" Clint asks, loud and interested.

Barnes opens his mouth, probably to promptly tell Tony to kindly shut up, but doesn't get the chance to, because a second later there's a fucking explosion inside the cafe and Barnes is ducking, going low and yanking Tony and Clint to the ground with him. Smoke billows, tendrils snaking to the ceiling and clouding the air with thick, grey mist. It's hard to breathe or even blink now, and the air feels hotter, like the whole world is collapsing on itself and trying to envelope them all in it

Tony drops, heart hammering in his chest and bile suddenly in this throat, because Barnes was telling the truth, and Tony's never been face to face with the kind of life-threatening bullshit Barnes probably goes hand in hand with. Tony crawls behind the counter, pressing his spine against the cool stellate. His breaths are coming out too fast, too quick and Clint isn't in a much better state, fear tight around the corners of his mouth and eyes. Tony closes his eyes and tries to calm his heart before it fucking explodes because bullets are burying themselves into the cafe walls, deafening gunfire is in the background, and the screech of tires outside on the street signals new arrivals. 

Barnes grits his teeth, and Tony watches as the brunet vaults over the counter, making a run for a big black bag crumpled in the center of the cafe. Tony peeks over the counter, sees two black cars parked on the street, and spots two men inching their way closer to the shop, guns drawn and in similar black combat gear that Barnes is in. Then movement from the second car, and Tony realizes there are two more men, and with a sinking feeling in his gut he knows Barnes is outnumbered. The men are clearly tracking Barnes, who fires off warning shots that hit on the hoods of the cars and close enough that the two men decide to wait them out, and settle in position near their cars.

A hand tugs on his shirt, and Tony glances back. Clint shakes his head, frowning. "You're not going out there. I know you, that's your productive face, and you're not fucking going out." Clint sounds stressed, calmer than before, but looks intent in a way Tony's not really used to seeing. 

Tony conjures up a half-assed grin. "My productive face looks a lot like my bedroom face. How do you know I'm not planning to have a wild fuck in the broom closet right now?" Clint rolls his eyes, and Tony stares back, gentle and firm. "Hey, I'm gonna be fine. Stay here." Without waiting for a reply, Tony makes a scrambling sprint right past Barnes who looks like he can't believe his own eyes and ends up behind a pillar, away from the line of sight, with the bag clutched tight in his hands. 

Barnes laughs something a little high-pitched, amazed and relieved. "What's wrong with you?"

Tony lets himself breathe, then winks back, shameless. "People have said I'm an actual human nightmare." 

"Not compared to me you're not," Barnes throws back just as easily. "I'd make you look like a fucking daydream. Not that you need any help." he shrugs and Tony's absolutely delighted. Barnes is a regular Shakespearean goddamn tragedy, and wears it like a badge of honor. 

"Stop flirting and please focus," Clint says beseechingly from behind the counter. "Lives are at stake."

That seems to sober them up, and Barnes tells Tony what to do in a low voice that they can only hear.

Barnes keeps an eye on the men outside, while Tony rifles through the contents of the bag. He slides an assault rifle over to Barnes, who takes it and asks for some ammo which Tony quickly provides. Barnes aims the rifle, shoots through a car door and Tony kicks the black bag to him, trying his best to push down the coil of panic that abruptly grows every time he hears a gunshot. The car sets off a shrieking alarm, and while Barnes arms himself with all terrors in the bag, Tony sits with his legs curled up and eyes fixed right on the brunet.

He doesn't want Barnes to die, he realizes. He hopes they all get away safely, and he wants to get to know Barnes a little better, maybe make fun of his murder strut, and kiss the hell out of him.

Yeah. He wants to kiss Barnes. And maybe get some time alone with that gorgeous arm of his. 

A garbled shout outside draws Tony out of his thoughts, as a body falls behind an open car door. He whips his head to stare at Barnes, who cocks the gun again and aims, firing clear, precise headshots that have the men clambering to find adequate cover. Tony tries not to be completely charmed, when Barnes crosses the entire cafe and steps over broken glass to single-handedly take down another man with the handgun in his metal hand. Barnes shoves the handgun into his waistband and goes to town with the assault rifle instead. The men try to return fire, but Barnes moves too quick for that.

One man shoulders to the front of the group and lunges at Barnes, and Tony feels his heart jump a little when Barnes pulls out a glistening knife from nowhere and goes for his opponent, knocking the man back with his metal fist and shoving the man to his knees, and in a swift motion draws the blade across his throat. Barnes pulls the body up and uses it as an armor, plunging forward like a death machine.

He's beautiful, dancing on a deserted street in all his black geared glory, muscles rippling underneath the body armor and blue eyes focused with a sharp glint in his eye as he takes one well-aimed shot after another, throws the gun on the ground and goes hand-to-hand with the two remaining men. 

Tony tears his eyes away from the fight to look for Clint. "Clint, come here, it's okay. I think."

A head of tousled brown hair pops over the counter, and once Clint reassures himself Barnes is definitely taking care of any and all dangers, he unsteadily walks over to where Tony is crouching. Clint drops to the floor, eyes a little too bright and glassy, and Tony leans over to take one of his grime-covered hands. He holds it close, and squeezes. 

"It's okay," Tony says softly, the way he talks to Clint after a night of too many whiskey shots and too many beers, a night when Clint needs someone to ground him so he doesn't drown at sea. Tony smiles fondly, and Clint returns a small smile gratefully but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Barnes is a regular Florence fucking Nightingale at taking care of people."

Boots crunch over glass behind him and Tony whips around, immediately shielding Clint with his own body. Barnes looks back at him, a smug smirk on his devilishly handsome face, unwinded and head high. That face is doing all kinds of things to Tony, and he's not proud of it. Tony clears his throat, reaches behind and pulls Clint up with him. He eyes Barnes cautiously, and makes a throaty noise of approval.

"You uh, what exactly are you?" Tony asks, peering around Barnes to see four crumpled bodies on the ground. The pavement has splatters of blood on it and Tony swallows, and actually feels a little sick. He's never seen a dead body before. It's oddly unsettling, the way their heads look wrong on their shoulders and their bodies are a little too flat, lifeless and strewn carelessly the way children leave their toys on the ground. Barnes is watching him with the kind of wariness you have when you approach a lion's cage, like he doesn't know how Tony will react. 

"It's not important," Barnes says and Tony believes him. The brunet takes Tony by the wrist and leads him out onto the street, ducking out of the ruined coffee shop. Clint trails behind them uncertainly, assessing the damage with calculating eyes. Tony's glad to see that look back on his face, because it means Clint is coming back. Tony shakes his wrist free of the brunet, not that he wouldn't love to stay in contact with the totally hot assassin, but there's (unfortunately) more pressing matters at hand. 

Tony blinks, and after a moment's pause, heaves a theatrical sigh. "How the fuck am I gonna go about my life now?"

"It's not over," Barnes says, glancing around the empty street quickly. "They'll have called for backup the second the first man went down. They're coming, and we need to get out of here." Barnes doesn't wait for Tony's reply and calls Clint over, who went from looking displeased to full-on furious. "I've already sent a comm to my own team, they're on their way now. In the meantime—" Barnes doesn't even get to finish his sentence when two more SUV cars round the corner, tires skidding on the road and Barnes bites out a curse, manhandles Tony and Clint back towards the two black cars behind them. 

"Fuck, fuck, go. Go and hide, and don't come out." Barnes snaps, already moving to cover them, guns cocked and ready in his hands. 

Tony's panicking now, can feel the fucking high blood pressure chasing after him so Clint takes charge and bundles Tony towards the nearest car and Tony makes a sound in his throat that sounds a lot like Bucky, and then they're enveloped in a cloud of smoke and red sparks and he barely registers Clint yelling grenade, but they're thrown hard to the pavement and Tony rolls onto his back, eyes stinging, chest constricting because he can't get any damn air  inside his lungs and there's a throbbing in his skull, dull and loud, and becoming louder and louder and the edges of his vision swim black and stars dance across his eyes and Tony lets the crushing black tide envelope him until the whole world's silent, and Tony knows nothing anymore. 

Chapter Text

Bucky woke up this morning and expected the plan to go along smoothly.

He woke up at 6am, with a clear goal and mission in mind. 

He woke up with Steve, the big oaf, wrapped around him in a tangle of limbs. 

He woke up, got dressed, told the punk he'd be back in time for a late lunch, and set off to work. 

Bucky, however, made a fatal mistake. He hadn't factored Tony Stark into the equation, and got fucked in the ass for it. 

And now, with frightening clarity, he knows he won't make it back in time for that late lunch.

***

Bucky leaps onto the black car, muscles tense. He tells himself not to panic, and it's hard not to, when you're staring at a group of trained soldiers who are pointing guns at your face like you're a thin, innocent blonde who's walking alone in the middle of the night and the creeps start paying attention with bloodthirsty grins on their faces. But they threw a fucking grenade at him, and Bucky hasn't seen Clint and Tony yet after he sent them behind a car but he knows they could be hurt. Mercy is out of the question for these fuckers. 

Tony and Clint are civilians, who don't deserve to catch bullets with their faces, and Bucky can't let them become another unfortunate set of collateral damage that is seen all too often in his line of work.

And, if Bucky's being honest, the thought of Tony in danger makes his heart climb a little higher in his throat. It would just be a shame if Steve didn't get a chance to meet the destructive whirlwind that is composed of Tony, and so Bucky makes a promise to himself, that Steve will. 

And Bucky never breaks his promises.

"Come get me, you fucks," Bucky mutters, low and dangerous, aiming the gun directly at the driver.

The air is sharp with smoke, blood and death and it's instinctive, the way Bucky eyes the men inside the oncoming cars, checks to see how many rounds of ammo he has left, and calculates if by the time he takes down three, whether the other three will be met with his knives or his fists. The world settles to a still calm all around him, and Bucky shuts it all out, until all he's left with are the men he's going to kill.

A monster awakens in the pits of his belly, hungry and dark, and Bucky isn't about to chain it back.

Until a familiar Jeep flies into the side of the first black car, sending it crashing into an electrical pole with a sickening thud. The second black car skids to an unruly stop, tires screeching as it tries to reverse, and the Jeep's doors are thrown open. And then the four people he knows best in the world leap out, weapons drawn and crackling energy fills the air. 

Bucky laughs, loud and relieved, because his team is here.

Steve gets out, all suited up and starts ordering the team in position. He pauses, looks across the street, and his eyes locks with Bucky. Bucky, who's making his way to his team, fast and light, and comes to a stop beside Steve and wants nothing more than to kiss him. But he knows he can't, not yet, so he's all business when he talks to Steve. 

"Hey," Bucky says and claps a hand onto Steve's shoulder. "About fucking time you got here." 

Steve smiles back, and Bucky can't take his eyes away from the brilliant blue. "Sorry, we were preoccupied." Steve looks over Bucky's shoulder and snorts, unsurprised. "Looks like you gave 'em hell, sweetheart." 

Bucky doesn't need to look back at the bodies behind him to know what Steve's talking about. "I have no idea what you mean by that," he says brightly, and Steve laughs, fond and amused. It's a surprise, and a good one, when Steve reels him in by his black jacket to kiss him, deep and dirty and absolutely perfect. Then he pulls back, pats Bucky's jacket down with composed vigor, and smiles. 

"Goddamn. You have too much influence over me," Bucky says with a pointed look at Steve's lips.

Steve grins, bright and warm and repeats, "I have no idea what you mean by that." 

Bucky leans forward, presses his forehead to his best friend and lover. "Now who's the one talking bullshit." Bucky rasps, dark and promising, notes how Steve shivers with a curling satisfaction in his stomach and then straightens to gaze past him and see Wanda, who waves after taking down a man twice her size with a series of vicious high kicks and upper cuts. Pietro, her brother, beats back another goon with accurate strikes and the goon soon ends up with a slit throat and a broken jaw. Nat, the most experienced of them all, is locked in a fight with three, a menacing whirlwind. She throws a dagger at the nearest one, leaps and wraps her thighs around another's neck and swings them both down. She jumps back to her feet, diving for the last man whose face is the embodiment of regret. Bucky whistles appreciatively, and Nat flashes him a quick smirk. 

But Bucky doesn't have time to join the fray. "I've got two civilians back there," Bucky says and takes Steve's hand and pulls him away, falling into a jog back to where he left Clint and Tony. His palms are a little clammy, Bucky realizes with a start. He's nervous. Doesn't want to find Clint dead, and moreso Tony. Steve shoots him an anxious look but stays silent. 

Bucky finds them sprawled on the road behind the black car he pushed them behind, and makes a noise of distress when he sees Tony, on his back and dark hair flat across his face. Bucky rushes to his side, presses two fingers on Tony's neck and hopes for a pulse. He finds one, and sags in relief, but it's not as strong as it's supposed to be. Bucky gazes at the boy's face for a moment, and lets himself appreciate the fact that Tony is alive. He looks to side, and Steve is crouched over Clint, brows furrowed.

"Anything?" Bucky asks, nervous. He cradles Tony's face with his hands, and pushes the dark curls back from Tony's forehead. Tony is pale, body lax and Bucky bites his lip, worried when he finds blood, warm and sticky at the back of Tony's head. 

Steve nods, rocking back on his heels. "This one's fine, unconscious, but fine. What happened?" He asks, edged with concern.

Bucky shakes his head. "I was doing some recon at the warehouse, where the weapons drop was supposed to be happening, but there was a shoot-out, and they saw me. Must've mistaken me for somebody important because next thing I know I'm being chased on my motorcycle by two black cars, and then they shoot out a tire and I crash into that coffee shop," Bucky says, jerking his head backwards to the abandoned cafe. "and I met these two."

Steve clears his throat, reaches out to touch Bucky's hand gently. "Are you okay?" 

Bucky turns to stare down at Tony and says to Steve quietly, "He saved me."

Steve's eyebrows tickles upwards. "That pretty boy? He looks too cute to be brave," Steve comments with a chuckle.

"Well, he is." Bucky shrugs, and slides his metal hand under Tony's back, and hefts him up, bridal-style. "Braver than a lot of people I've ever known." Tony is light, suspiciously light and warm in his MIT hoodie and Bucky holds him close, cradling him to his chest with cautious care. It's strange, Bucky thinks with a wry chuckle. Because if Tony ever found out Bucky held him bridal-style, Bucky has a feeling Tony would let him know exactly how undignified it was in spirited, sharp words.

"Must be special," Steve tilts his head and regards Tony with an inquisitive look. "to have piqued this much of your attention." Steve leans down, takes Clint and slings the boy over his shoulder, grunting with the weight. Bucky stares. Steve rolls his eyes. "What?" 

"Handle that one with care, punk. I know my ass is a distraction but looking at it for more than thirty seconds can cause irreparable damage to your eyes," Bucky teases and turns, tightening his hold on Tony and striding back to the jeep. 

Steve sighs behind him. "Your ass isn't the sun, Buck, and you can't just say that," tagging along after Bucky grudgingly, right hand curled around Clint's waist to keep him on his shoulder. Bucky risks a glance back, and is pleased to see Steve's cheeks are rosy. Being with Bucky since they were kids, you would've thought Steve would make his peace with Bucky's brazenness by now. 

"It is 'cause you can't live without it." Bucky calls back, wiggling his hips to cement his point and walks over to meet the rest of his team, who all peer at Tony with curiosity in their eyes. Natasha approaches first, unwinded and calm, and takes a good look at Tony.

"Bucky," Natasha says, measured and even. He lets her look him over, because he knows she needs it. Once Nat is satisfied, she reaches forward to touch his shoulder with a hand. Bucky returns the touch, and they both breathe in silent unison for a moment. Natasha's breath is warm, and Bucky tells her with his eyes, we'll talk later. She dips her head in acknowledgement, gives him an easy smile, asks, "Hospital?"

Bucky shakes his head, ducks inside the open Jeep and lays Tony down on the backseat delicately. "Nope." 

Steve catches up a moment later, and sees Tony inside. "We gotta get both of them to the hospital," he declares, tone serious. 

Wanda slides into the passenger seat, smirking smugly at her brother's crestfallen expression. "Bucky said no." She tells Steve, who raises his eyebrows even higher to look expectantly at Bucky. Pietro sidesteps Bucky to take the brunt of Clint's weight, and stands off the side, waiting.

Steve must see something in Bucky's face because he hurriedly says, "We're not taking them to base." and makes a face at Bucky like he's waiting for an agreement. Bucky wrinkles his nose, because of course Steve knows him so well he can guess what Bucky plans to do. 

"Yeah we are. I'm not leaving without Tony." A pause, "and Clint, of course." Bucky looks at his team, each in the eye. "We've got doctors back there. Good ones." 

"They're civilians," Steve tells him, and Bucky rolls his eyes and tries to swallow the no shit, Sherlock on the tip of his tongue and instead settles for an impatient sigh. 

"Yep, and I'll take care of Tony myself. Promise," Bucky says with a drawl, and squares his shoulders, daring any of them to argue back. No one does, and Wanda and Pietro exchange confused looks. Natasha's eyes are narrowed, trained on Tony, and Steve is standing with his arms crossed. "C'mon. Tony's bleeding from his head, Clint's knocked out, and I'm not risking their lives for another moment arguing a moot point." Without waiting for an answer, Bucky climbs into the backseat, taking Tony's head and shifting his body until he's half in Bucky's lap, half on the seat itself. 

Steve is staring hard at Bucky, and after a moment, seems to come to a conclusion. "I'm your commander, Buck." He says softly.

Bucky stares back, resolute. "I know, Stevie."

Steve rests a hand against the car door, and Bucky's a little worried at what the look on his face means. He doesn't want to go over Steve's head, knows usually Steve's word is final, but their team's never been anything if not honest with each other. And Bucky knows he made the right call. Right now, Tony's the concern. 

"He saved your life?" Steve asks, eyes searching.

Bucky nods, a little tighter.

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose, looking like he wants to give Bucky a swat on the head, and gestures at Nat. "Alright. Let's go, Nat, we've gotta get out of here before the cops show up." Steve finally says, waits for Pietro to sit next to Bucky before getting in. Nat opens the driver's seat, revs the engine and the car jolts, a low hum starting.

The car moves, and Bucky settles back against the leather seats, and glances down at Tony's sleeping face. 

"You're gonna be okay." He whispers gently, touching Tony's soft cheek with the pad of his thumb. He doesn't miss the curiosity in Steve's eye as the blond sneaks careful glances at them.

***

Bucky sits, a cup of coffee in his metal hand, oblivious to the heat. His eyes are on Tony, whose head is bandaged and sleeping peacefully, tucked into white sheets. The color's coming back to Tony's face gradually, and Bucky finds himself staring at Tony's soft, pretty face more often than not. The nurses have changed Tony into a white hospital gown. With growing insist and with Steve's help, they even had Bucky checked over for injuries and changed into something comfortable; sweatpants and a hoodie.

Tony's going to be alright, the usual doctor at base had said, but he needs a couple days of rest and take it easy. The doctor, Felix Werner, was definitely surprised at having a civilian to treat. Bucky had not provided an explanation, but one glare from him sent the doctor running along. Bucky had listened attentively to the doctor's diagnosis, hand on the foot of Tony's bed. Steve lingered in the doorway, a little hesitant to come in, arms crossed across his chest. The rest of the team had dispersed, probably to clean up and head to a briefing. 

Thirty minutes later, and Bucky decides to sit with Tony for a while.

Steve is still in the doorway, face looking like someone's kicked his puppy and Bucky can't deal with another second of Steve's little sighs. 

"Just come in, Stevie," Bucky says, impatiently. "I know you're curious."

"I put Clint in the adjoining room so they don't freak out, and Nat's with him." Steve tells him offhandedly, still not looking at Bucky's face. He might have to take some personal offence to that soon, but he knows Steve, so he just listens. "Um. I can go." Steve offers, eyes downcast. 

"Jesus fucking Christ," Bucky groans and leans over to pull Steve down. "I want you here." Bucky says, softly, tips Steve's chin up and draws him in for a sweet, simple kiss. Steve makes a small happy noise that has Bucky feeling all warm and tingly, and wastes no time in sliding his hands down to grab at Steve's waist, down to his ass. Steve coughs, embarrassed, and Bucky throws him a sly smirk. "Stop sulking. I'm sorry I went over you back there," he says, honestly. 

Steve shrugs a little, gives him an indulgent look. "It's okay. It must have been important, and I trust you." 

Bucky grins, running his fingers through Steve's blond hair. "Kind of, you'll see why soon."

"Hurt me a little bit, though," Steve murmurs and pushes back, capturing Bucky in another deep, open-mouthed kiss. "The way you cradled Tony like that."

"Mhm, shoulda asked you to join in, my bad." Bucky rumbles back, nosing down Steve's neck and drawing in the familiar musky, alpine-woods with a hint of strawberry scent. God. Steve is warm, sparking passion down his spine, and Bucky arches into Steve's touch on his shoulders. "He's pretty, isn't he?"

Steve pulls back, a smile hooking up the corners of his mouth and hums in agreement. "He is."

"You gonna warm me up, darlin'?" Bucky breathes into Steve's ear, and tracks an eye to the door. It's closed, and the curtains are drawn. Not that he'd give a single fuck about someone seeing him kiss Steve. He can't help himself when he's around Steve. He's never been good at hiding himself from the people he loves and who loves him back, and Steve knows it.  "I'm feelin' a little bit cold in this room."

"Well maybe that's 'cause you're on that chair on not on my lap," Steve teases back, eyes hooded, dark with desire.

"Stevie," Bucky gasps, and pretends to be shocked. "How fucking dare you. Buy a fella dinner first, would 'ya? 

Steve rolls his eyes, and leans in for another kiss when someone clears their throat.

Bucky sits up, already grinning, and Tony stares back at him, accusing and scandalized.

"Fuck's sake, murder muffin," Tony says, alive and annoyed and all kinds of tangles in his voice, "Have some fucking decency for the guy who's literally three feet from you in a hospital bed, will you?" 

Steve shoots to his feet, blushing, shuffling his feet and Tony's eyes snap to Steve, and his eyes widen even further. "Who's this? What the hell is a fine specimen like you doing knocking boots with a ragdoll like Barnes?"

Bucky shakes his head. "You had a concussion, doll, so I'm gonna forgive that last word because you're obviously delusional and still recovering." he tells Tony and steps closer to the bed. Tony, for his part, is working his jaw up a furious storm and seems like he's about to bust out an eyeball. "I got your ass back to a doctor. No thanks needed." Bucky smirks and tilts his head. Steve coughs in his throat, looking like all he wants is to be somewhere else but Bucky's got a pretty firm hold on the front of Steve's shirt. 

"Where's Clint?" Tony asks, narrowing his large dark brown eyes. "This doesn't look like a hospital." Tony scans the room, quick and calculating. 

"Your, um, friend is in the next room. He's okay," Steve assures Tony hesitantly, and smiles uncertainly. Bucky tries not to roll his eyes. Steve is always so polite. Tony is squinting at Steve suspiciously, like he thinks Steve is somehow responsible for all the bullfuckery of this day. 

Bucky snorts. "Tony, this is Steve Rogers. My boyfriend, and the up-and-coming head of the Carter crime family. I'm sure you've heard of it from the news." Bucky tells Tony bluntly, because he's not the kind of person to talk around important matters. Steve makes a sound of horror and stares at Bucky incredulously, and Tony's eyes gets a little bigger, face paling. "And the next time you plan on interrupting a fantastic make out session, it's actually mandatory to join in. Twenty-first century rule," Bucky explains with a dismissive hand. "Millennials, and all that. It's as normal as having threesomes."

Steve looks constipated, and Bucky holds back a laugh when he sees an eye start to twitch. 

Tony gulps, and blinks. "So. The blond hunk named Steve is a fucking mobster, you're a horny, out-of-control assassin." Tony looks at him for that and Bucky beams, with the kind of toothy smile that can clear a bar full of soldiers in thirty seconds. "And I'm not in the hospital," Tony says faintly, with a realization. "I'm not in the fucking hospital." It sounds like Tony's come to a conclusion.

Tony looks a little wild around the eyes, and Steve winces in sympathy, shuffling about like he wants to appease Tony personally.

"No," Bucky says, chipper and bright. "I guess not. We're somewhere much bigger, better, deadlier, and a hell of a lot more fun than your frat boy and alcohol-infested dorm room at MIT. So buckle up, doll. It's gonna be a bumpy ride."

 

Chapter Text

His mother always told Tony, to always give them the benefit of the doubt. 

His mother's usually right. And Tony listens to her. But in this case, Tony will absolutely fucking not give them the benefit of the doubt.

He wakes up, and it's like a thirty-pound safe box dropped square onto his face. His whole skull throbs, Tony can't even string a chain of thoughts together and from the waist up, his whole body aches like a bitch. Tony blinks, tries to focus on the ceiling. It's hard, but after a while, Tony reaches up and tentatively touches the back of his head, only to find it wrapped with white gauze. Concussion, Tony recalls vaguely. Clint. Grenade. Barnes. Panic shoots up his throat, heavy and high and Tony tries to move his head, looking for Clint, or Barnes, or anybody familiar. But no one's there.

Tony sniffs at the air, and it doesn't smell quite like the hospital. Maybe it's a private room. He still can't hear all that well, the sounds are a little muffled, so he waits.

Tony inhales a breath, long and deep, forces his heartbeat to slow. Fear paralyzes you, Tony tells himself, stretching his fingertips experimentally. Don't let fear cloud your judgement. Be calm and observe your surroundings. 

Tony blinks in relief when the sounds begin to come back slowly, little by little, and then voices at the end of his bed snag his attention.

He elbows himself up, and can't believe his damn eyes. 

It's Barnes. 

Barnes and a wide-shouldered, muscular man, making out, the air taut with uncharted sexual energy and broken occasionally by conversation between the two men. Tony's about to have a fucking heart attack, and he looks around wildly, knows it's not a hospital. Clint's not with him, and two objectively handsome men are going at it like bunnies at the foot of his bed. 

Oh, hell no. Tony's not going to take anymore of Barnes' psychotic bullshit.

So he clears his throat loudly, glaring daggers into Barnes' broad back. He waits till Barnes finished playing tango with the blond's tongue and sits up, a grin spreading on his face. The blond in question darts to his feet, blushing red, and Tony doesn't bother spare him either. "Fuck's sake, murder muffin," Tony says, alive and annoyed and with all kinds of tangles in his voice, "Have some fucking decency for the guy who's literally three feet from you in a hospital bed, will you?"

 

 

 

"You fucking kidnapped me." Tony says, deadpan and flat. He stares at Barnes unflinchingly. 

"Well, technically," Barnes tries to argue his case with a Cheshire shit-eating cat grin on his stupid face. "Technically, I brought you here to save you. Doctors, they were here to keep your brains inside your pretty little head."

"If you have to get technical about it," Tony replies scathingly, arms crossed from his sitting position on the hospital bed. "Then you've got a pretty strong case going against you." Then, as an afterthought, because Tony feels like being an ass today, "Well then, Barnes, if the doctors are here to keep brains inside heads, then what happened to you? Botched medical experiment?"

The blond, Steve, who instantly becomes Rogers in his head makes a strangled noise, like he's trying to choke in a guffaw. Tony eyes him for a moment, and Rogers immediately composes himself again, spine ramrod straight. The guy's probably military trained, Tony thinks, watches the way Rogers is standing, stiff and guarded. Barnes is entirely different. 

Barnes, for his part, is sitting on the floor by Tony's left side, metal arm propped against the bed, relaxed and completely at ease.

"C'mon doll," Barnes says with pleading eyes. "Don't be like that. Doctor says you gotta eat somethin', rest up, and you'll be back on your feet in three days, tops." Barnes turns to Rogers for help, who keeps lingering behind the brunet uncertainly, looking a little like a lost puppy. Tony thinks it's kind of adorable, and banishes the thought immediately. Right now, Tony doesn't know what to make of the whole situation. And it's not helping, have two incredibly attractive men by his bedside, eyes wide and hopeful. 

No. Tony refuses to think they're adorable.

"All I know is," Tony decides to say, softening his tone. No need to be harsh and get on their bad sides. "that I wake up in a place that is obviously not a hospital, with a horny assassin and an infamous mobster, and my friend's gone. How do you explain this bullshit?" 

Barnes makes a thoughtful face, like he's finally seeing how when things, spelled out like that, can look a little questionable. "Okay, Tony. You got me." He stands up, stretches languidly like a cat, and Tony swallows, looking away and coughing. "I'm going. Enjoy yourself." Barnes starts out the door, leaving Tony and Rogers staring after him in confusion and surprise. 

Rogers looks alarmed, and pauses to say apologetically to Tony, "Your friend's just in the next room, I promise. We can go see him soon. My friend's taking care of him. I'm sorry, but I'll be right back," and rushes after Barnes. 

Rogers is definitely the sane one. 

Tony sighs, and decides it's time to play a little desperate. "Okay, Barnes. Come back. I am not going to wander around this deathtrap alone." 

Barnes pokes his head in the doorway, eyebrows raised. "I'm sorry, Barnes?"

"Bucky," Tony grits out, teeth clenched. The guy is definitely testing his limits. "Bucky." He says it again, letting the name roll of his tongue. It's kind of nice. And sort of worth it, just to see the expression of happiness spread over Barnes'—no, Bucky's face. 

"Aw, look, Stevie, we're already bonding." Bucky says with a self-fulfilled smirk, and winks shamelessly at Tony. "First-name basis. What a fucking day," Bucky comments, plopping down on the seat opposite to Tony, and smiles. Tony closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. God, the guy is a human nightmare. An attractive, horny, out-of-control assassin with a dirty smirk. It's like the heavens are having a hell of a time, screwing with his life in ways unimaginable.

Rogers starts up, looking like he's forgotten something. "Tony," he says, hesitantly. "Can I call you that?" At Tony's mystified nod, he continues. "I completely forgot to ask. Are you thirsty, or hungry? I can get you something," he offers with a small smile. 

Tony's mouth drops open. "What the fuck," he says. "What the fuck, Bucky. This guy has manners that would make my grandmother swoon, what the hell happened to yours?" 

"I've got a lot of other things that could make your grandmother swoon," Bucky replies, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Stevie there can vouch for me."

Tony laughs, short and wry. "Somehow, both of your credibility points are a little low." Then remembers, and smiles sheepishly at Rogers. "Thank you," he says awkwardly. "And yeah. A glass of water would be nice." Rogers looks relieved now that he's been given something to do, and bolts out the door like a deer from oncoming headlights. Tony watches him leave hastily, and looks back at Bucky. "So, you guys boning or dating?"

Tony's never been one to dance around important matters. And he knows, the easiest way to find out what exactly is going on, is through Bucky. Bucky, who's a little loose with his tongue and easy to talk to. But Tony also genuinely wants to know more about him. After all, the guy did save his life. In the cafe, and in whatever this place is, Bucky has saved his life more than once. And Tony owes a debt.

A Stark always pays his debts.

Bucky holds his hand over his heart in a gesture of mock betrayal, and squints at him. "Wow. I call it making 'love'," he says pointedly. "Because I'm a delicate person, and there are many, many other ways to describe Stevie's and I's relationship, but boning is not one of them." Tony's familiar with deflection, and it's a tactic he himself employs often when he gives an answer that's not an answer. It's a welcome challenge, that Bucky isn't an open book.

"Okay," Tony says, playing along. "Who'd have thought you were a gentleman when it comes to love?"

Bucky chuckles, shoots Tony an amused smile. "When it comes to love, Tony, I'm your Albert Einstein. Your regular Stephen Hawkings. Show me a man I cannot win over, and I'll give you my damn arm." He wiggles his metal fingers at Tony, making his point.

"Your confidence is swaggering," Tony tells him. "And that's disgusting," Tony shoots back, pretending to gag. "The fuck would I do with your arm?"

Bucky's eyes brighten instantly, and Tony realizes with a gut-sinking feeling he's just stepped on a bomb. "Well, Tony, remember when I was talking about twenty-first century millennial customs and—"

"Hey, asshole, I don't want to know about your disturbing, murder-muffin fucking fetishes—"

Rogers strides in, pauses, Tony's drink in hand, and closes his eyes. "I can't believe there's two of them." Rogers takes a pillow from Tony's bed, and chucks it at Bucky's face, and Tony breaks off mid sentence to laugh at the expression of shock on Bucky's face. It's hilarious, the way Bucky stares at Rogers in personal offence like someone kissed his mother and spat in her face. Tony admires the challenging glint in Bucky's eye, the kind of challenge that kittens have when they swipe at shadows with soft claws and mewls. It's painfully obvious that the brunet assassin has a weakness for Rogers, and for once in his life, Tony sort of wishes he has a bond like that in his life. Tony's not the type of person to lay his heart on his sleeve for everyone to see, but when he loves, he loves hard. 

Tiberius Stone is a name that swims in the back of Tony's mind, in the dark pool he never dares to venture into. Every moment with Ty was like walking on hot coals in a trance. Tony had loved him, bared his heart and soul open, and Ty had crushed it underfoot without a second glance. It was bliss, for a short while, but Tony still ended up with burns on his feet and thorns jagged in his heart. It's a sorry sight, to see a man left behind by a loved one, and an even harsher sight, to see them build walls up so high their own mother can't see through sometimes. 

But Tony doesn't mind. 

No, he doesn't mind at all. He protects himself with flippant words and the kind of smile that lights people up from the inside, and is more full of life than anyone he's ever met. 

"Tony?" Rogers draws him sharply from his thoughts, pulls him back in, and Tony blinks and stares right into Rogers' cornflower blue eyes. 

From the corner of his eye, Tony sees Bucky watching him quietly, intent and observing. It's times like these he can totally see why Bucky can be eerie, and such a successful assassin. "Yeah, thank you. Thanks." Tony says awkwardly, taking the glass of water Rogers offers and taking a long, slow sip. It's delicious, and Tony gulps the liquid in, downing the cup in seconds. Rogers is looking down at him with curious eyes, and Tony raises an eyebrow. "Yes?"

"Oh, sorry," Rogers says bashfully, averting his gaze. "Didn't mean to stare. It's just, you seem pretty calm with the fact that Bucky's an assassin and I'm a," he trails off, searching for a word. "A mobster, like you said. I'm a Carter."

It's cute. Rogers is agonizingly polite, says sorry like a child says mama, but the truth to Rogers' inquiry is that Tony doesn't let himself dwell too long on that particular fact, because once he does, Tony's brain is going to explode from the bullfuckery of the statement. So Tony puts a smile on his face, and blinks innocently at Rogers. "I thought you were a Rogers, Rogers."

"No, I am," Rogers intones with a nod. "I took my mother's name. The Carter crime family used to be lead by my aunt Peggy, but when her daughter didn't want the position," Rogers lifts a shoulder in a shrug. "I was volunteered." Rogers' voice goes a little hard, mouth a little thinner, and Tony doesn't think it was by Rogers' choice. "We're not," he continues, faltering a little bit. Bucky stands, and Tony watches inquisitively as Bucky touches Rogers' shoulder with his own, like standing support in camaraderie. "We're not bad people, Tony. I'm sorry if you're afraid of us, but we're not going to hurt you. I know what the news say," Rogers hurriedly adds, like he's worried Tony will start shouting obscenities and accusations. "And some of it's true, but some of it is completely not. But honest, I'm trying to make the family better. Trying to do better, hurt less people."

Then Rogers twiddles his thumbs. "Call me Steve."

"I don't think you're going to hurt me," Tony says carefully, folding his hands into his lap. He's not scared. "And you don't have to prove anything to me." he holds his palms open, and takes a breath. "From what I've seen, Bucky is a good person, and he saved my life," he charges on, points a finger at Bucky, who's smirking like the president just kissed his feet. "Don't make me regret saying that. And you're an obscenely polite crimelord. I'm not in any position to judge whether your organization or your family is evil or whatever. I'm not going to narc on you guys to the cops, either. I owe Bucky there my life. I'm just a kid," now his voice is soft, and Tony struggles to say the rest. "I'm just a College freshman with a serious coffee addiction. I'm just grateful you haven't killed me yet." And for that, Tony looks Rogers right in the eye. 

Rogers makes a noise of horror and shakes his head vehemently. "I would never harm an innocent." And Tony believes him, because no one says anything with that much conviction without believing it with their whole mind and body. 

"He's right. Sounds cliche, but we only deal with the bad guys." Bucky shoots him a flirty smile, leaning on the wall with his arms crossed. "And occasionally, with mouthy, pretty, floppy-haired college freshmen, but that's just an occasional side thing." 

"I will have to object to be being referred to as a 'side thing'," he tells Bucky, and slowly moves into a sitting position with his legs dangling off the bed. "I have taken the Carter family situation completely in stride, and the assassin as well, but I've got to ask," Tony says with a questioning look at both of them. "Am I going to have to tick 'kidnapped and held prisoner' off my bucket list? And, you better let me see Clint." Ends that with a statement, because it's non-negotiable. Rogers says that Clint is right in the next room with a friend watching over him, but Tony will relax when he's got his friend back at arms length.

"Of course, Tony," Rogers assures him immediately, and that's the moment Tony's brain makes the transition from Rogers to Steve, and it never quite goes back. 

Steve shares a meanginful look with Bucky, who turns to Tony, a smile curled on his lips. "Nope," he says, popping the 'p'. "You can leave. Say the word, and we'll have someone drop you off at your boring, lonely dorm room, and back to your droning college lectures. But you sure you want to? Doctor's orders dictate at least three days of rest..." Bucky trails off, sashays to the door, hips rolling. Tony can't help but look, because Bucky does have a fantastic backside. Steve looks like he's trying to hold back a laugh, and watches Bucky with an amused smile. "And I promise, I fucking promise, that you won't regret it. You might learn something new in that pretty head of yours."

It's an enticing offer. And Tony loves to tempt fate, taunt at it with both hands tied behind his back, a sword tipped down his throat. 

And honestly, he knows whatever this is, he's not done with it yet. There's nothing pressing back home, nothing that requires his urgent attention, and Tony's never been one to shy away from an adventure that's likely to leave him facedown in the mud, destroyed and absolutely craving for more

And Bucky's eyes are wide and hopeful, and Steve is studying Tony like he's something he doesn't quite understand yet. 

So he meets their eyes, head-on, and shows off a toothy grin. "Then I'm down for it. Three days, till this shitty head wound stops hurting."

 

 

 

 

They let him go to Clint. 

Clint's awake, squinting suspiciously at everyone who takes one step into his room. Tony settles on the bed, scans him for injuries. "Hey," Tony says, quietly. "You alright?"

"Yeah," Clint grumbles, reaches up to part Tony's hair away from his head. "You look like shit."

"I know," Tony says. He thinks he might need to lie down soon. He definitely feels like shit. "You're not so pretty yourself."

Clint looks past Tony's shoulder, sees Steve and Bucky locked in a quiet conversation by the door with a redhead Tony remembers seeing in the room with Clint. He assumes it's the friend Steve had mentioned. "What the hell was in that coffee, Tones?" Clint asks, softly. 

It's a loaded question, Tony thinks. One he doesn't know how to answer. "What did the redhead tell you?"

"No reason we should believe any of it," Clint says. "But her name's Natasha, and she said that the blond over there is Steve Rogers, head of the Carter crime family. And the man with him is Bucky Barnes, second-in-command and assassin." He gives Tony a long look. "Are we captives, Tony?"

He shakes his head, rubs at his face. "No, we're not. They told me I could leave, just say the word." Tony feels uncomfortable, anxious now, because he doesn't know how he's going to get Clint to agree to any of it. Or even understand, without sounding batshit crazy. "But I've decided to stay here for three days, doctor's orders. At least I know they'll treat me here, and if I go back... Clint, I'm in college. Money's tight."

"Doctor's orders?" Clint echoes incredulously. "Are you fucking with me? Did they drug you?" Clint moves, and Tony puts a hand on his chest, and gently pushes back. "You can't stay, Tony, this is serious. It's not about your head injury, goddamn, I'll give you the money to get it treated. No, actually, maybe we'll make them, because it's because of them you've got a head injury. Fucking ridiculous. We saw Bucky kill at least four guys, who knows what they could be capable of."

He can't think of a thing to say to Clint, doesn't know how to say what he feels because it probably will come out garbled and a fucking mess. "Clint, listen. I'm staying," and doesn't bother trying to explain. "Just give me three days. And then we'll get back to our normal lives." 

Clint's face folds up, and Tony winces. "Do you want to stay here because our lives back home are normal?"

Tony doesn't expect Clint to pick up on that. But it's not a shock, barely anything gets past Clint. "Well, are we really needed back there?" he asks, throwing his hands up. This is making him question his own decisions. "I mean, I want to know what kind of life Bucky and Steve has, and it's just for three days..." he trails off helplessly, risks a glance over his shoulder and finds Bucky and Steve watching them, patiently. 

The redhead, Natashais gone. 

Bucky decides to step in, and calls out helpfully, "You know, you don't have to stay, Clint. Tony's right. We'll drop you back at your place if that's what you want." 

Tony looks back at Clint, and hopes with both fingers crossed that Clint says no. 

Clint heaves a sigh, glares at Tony. "Fuck. Fine. I'm not letting you stay here alone. You're not a cat, and curiosity is not going to kill you. Not while I'm here watching your back." 

Steve flinches, and it's subtle and Tony nearly doesn't catch it, but he mouths sorry to Steve anyway. Clint seems resolute in his opinion, shoulders tense. The air is taut with tension, but Steve has his head high and isn't about to back down. 

"Are you guys hungry?" Bucky asks, cutting in smoothly and Tony nearly crumples in relief. He shoots Bucky a grateful smile. "Come on, Clint, we're not that bad. I saved your ass, remember? Give us a chance." Bucky steps forward, face open and relaxed. He's trying to make Clint feel more comfortable, and it's sweet. It is. 

Steve hangs back, but still offers Clint a smile. "We do have a pretty good canteen, and today's menu is roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and steamed carrots." 

"It's smart," Clint tells them after a beat, "Trying to lure me in with food. And it's working. But I've still got my eye on you two, so don't start fucking with me and Tony."

Bucky rolls his eyes, offers a hand to Tony, and he takes it, sliding to his feet. "I'll gladly take up that option with Tony," he says and winks. Clint looks faintly baffled, and opts to narrow his eyes. 

Tony groans, and shakes his head. "Bucky, I'm not going to—" then he sighs, exasperated and loud, a little dramatically. 

"Is he always this horny?" Clint asks, squinting at Bucky, who smiles winningly. Tony gives Clint a hand in standing up, not that it's needed. 

"Yes," Steve informs them in a brisk tone, and moves towards the door. "It's like a disease. Tony, I'm glad you're staying for a while. Clint, we're not going to hurt you. I'm in charge here, and you're safe, I promise. Like Buck said, give us a chance and we just might prove you wrong. Now let's move, everyone. The canteen fills up quick, and well, there a few people I want you to meet."

There's a lot riding on Tony's head now, he thinks. Clint's involved, and he hopes to God that he's made the right decision.

Because if there's one thing Tony's promised to himself, is that if there's gonna be blood on his hands, it will only be his own. 

Chapter Text

It's easy to see why Bucky is so enamored by the spirited, lively brunet. 

It's because they match each other so well, word or word, insult for insult, like puzzle pieces. 

Tony's all soft curves fitting in Bucky's hard edges.

And it should make him a little bit jealous, Steve reflects, the way the two brunets walk alongside the other, teasing each other good-naturedly. It should set off some predatory instinct inside him, seeing Bucky brush his shoulder against Tony, to see the soft smile Tony tries to hide whenever he looks off to the side. Clint walks by Tony, a little stiffly, scanning their surroundings with suspicious eyes.

All it does, though, seeing them together, is make him curious. It's completely unprecedented. Tony wakes up, flustered and confused and Steve can see the fear in those doe brown eyes, and yet Tony agrees to stay. Steve doesn't need anyone to tell him it's a bad, shitpoor idea, but he also doesn't let anyone tell him what to do. If Tony's a mistake, then he's Steve and Bucky's mistake.

Every agent, every employee in the hallway stares at them when they walk by. They shoot dubious, confused glances at Steve and Bucky, because it must be as clear as day that Tony and Clint are civilians. Who are not supposed to be roaming free in the hallways.

Steve chases them all away with one hard look. They go scuttling, heads ducked, and Steve's stressed again, because he wishes it could all be that easy. 

He feels a headache coming on.

It's going to be an absolute nightmare, dealing with his siblings, Sharon, and Peggy herself, and explaining what the hell they were thinking, bringing civilians into their operations. The thought of the many long, emotionally exhausting conversations he will invetiably have because of this decision makes him a little tenser, and Bucky notices.

His best friend hangs back to match his pace, looking halfway between concerned and worried. "Stevie, it'll be okay," Buck says, reaching out with his metal hand and gently grasping Steve's shoulder. 

It's familiar and a comfort, so Steve leans into the touch. "Yeah," he says. "You're right. I can deal with Peggy. And once she's on board, the rest will back down."

"Definitely," Bucky agrees. "No one's ballsy enough to challenge you about it upfront. And," he says, shrugging. "The place is big. Tony's only here for three days. Maybe they won't even find out."

"Sure," Steve snorts, rolling his eyes. "Our luck, though, that this place is filled with super spies." 

They round the corner to the canteen, and Tony and Clint stop short. Tony looks nervous, shifting about. 

"Stop acting suspicious," Bucky tells him. "You shuffle your feet one more time and one paranoid super spy inside might decide to blow your brains out."

Steve sighs, and Bucky's eyes widen, like he's just now realizing how winding someone up like Tony and Clint might go horribly, with no prior experience to dealing with things Steve and Bucky has to on a daily basis. A civilian like Tony might just decide to have a panic breakdown. Bucky holds his breath, and so does Steve. 

Tony takes a deep breath and closes his eyes for a second. "Is this a good idea?" then immediately follows that with, "It's a good idea. Shut it, everyone."

Clint rolls his eyes. ''This is Tony talk for 'Reflecting Regretfully on Decisions' and reassuring himself."

"It's just food, Tony," Bucky interrupts quickly. "You know, the thing that our bodies need to survive?"

"My body doesn't need food," Tony says, petulant. "It needs coffee, something I've gone too long without. One more hour without it, I'll fucking combust."

"At least some things don't change," Clint chuckles, pats Tony on the shoulder and moves past him into the canteen. Bucky follows him, telling Steve in an undertone he'll watch out for Clint. Tony stares after them, then looks at Steve for advice. Which he really shouldn't do, because Steve's brain is too cluttered to be able to help. But he's a leader here, he's in charge, so he's gotta start acting like it. 

"Come on, Tony. I'll guide you." Steve says, and leads Tony inside. Curious looks follow them, but it's definitely admirable to see that Tony pays them no mind, striding past with his head high and eyes fixed on Steve. He does it with more cool grace than Steve would admit to expecting, but he's already come to the conclusion Tony's full of unexpected surprises.

They make their way to the coffee machine, and Steve tells him, "This is a brand new machine my friend Sam ordered. It's great, and we imported South American coffee beans too. There's also fresh milk, cream, and sugars, if you take it that way," and he gestures to the small station beside it. 

"Wow. Not one sexual innuendo in that whole sentence," Tony observes, amused, pressing buttons on the machine expertly, and one second later, pure black coffee drains into the mug. Steve watches the entire thing with wide eyes. The way Tony takes his coffee violates his entire presumption on the legal limit of caffeine intake an adult can consume. "Were you born with perfect manners or was it a life skill you saw Bucky lacked and decided to pick up along the way?"

Tony downs the rest of the mug, refills it, stares Steve right in the eye. Steve laughs. It's startling how quick of an accurate impression Tony has formed of them. "In my position, I'm expected to be able to talk deals and have a calm head. Manners just come with the territory," he shrugs. "Sometimes, being extremely polite to crime lords have a way of intimidating them."

"Really," Tony says, mystified. "So if I ever get kidnapped by a mobster boss all I have to do is rough him up with some manners and talk nice to him, and he'll let me go?"

Steve shakes his head, a smile curling on his lips. He wonders, for the first time, if Tony has a boyfriend who's anxiously awaiting his return. Then abruptly, realizes it's something he'd rather not think about. "If you ever get kidnapped by a mobster," Steve decides to say instead, "Which I highly unrecommend, then—"

"Oh yeah," Tony's nose crinkles in a smile and it's adorable. "I'll be sure to give it one star on Yelp reviews and leave a scorned comment."

"If you're looking for ways to die," Steve tells him, "There are many easier ways than that."

"Yelp, really? I thought mobsters were supposed to be hip and in trend." Tony looks up at him, dark brown eyes warm, and it pulls Steve in like a moth to a flame. He should really ask Tony if he knows how magnetic he is. Here, it might not be a good thing, and he's already receiving a lot of attention. It won't be long till Steve's family gets word of Tony's stay,

"Well, what can I say," Steve says in a hushed whisper. "Mobsters are extremely sensitive to social criticism on websites like Yelp." He nudges Tony's shoulder, and directs him to the growing lunch line. "Go stand for a plate before the food runs out," he teases. Tony gives him an indulgent look, smiles cheerfully, and saunters away, grabbing a plate and waiting his turn. 

Steve leans against the coffee station table, keeps an eye on Tony, distractedly, and tries to strategize. Peggy is going to be appalled if the family discovers a civilian in their midst under Steve's nose, and the end of he story is: and then I had to ship Tony out in a body bag to avoid a public scandal, again. Peggy might even deem him unfit to become her replacement, and choose, God forbid, someone like Damien to take Steve's place. He would be less worried if Sharon, Peggy's own daughter, would accept the holy mantle, but like him, Sharon's more interested in making her own way in the world, without the weight of belonging to a notorious crime family on her back. 

"Hey, Steve," Natasha says from behind him, and Steve turns around, smiling at the sight of his old friend. 

"Nat," he says, and offers her a mug. "Coffee?"

"I would," she replies, taking the offered mug. "But you're blocking it."

Steve huffs in embarrassment, and steps aside. Nat smiles fondly, dumps two creams and one sugar in her coffee. She gives him a long, assessing look and then says, casually, "So, I take it that you've allowed the civilians to stay?" 

It's her way of asking, what the heck are you doing, Steve, and he knows her well enough to answer honestly. "Maybe I'm looking to expand into the beds and breakfast business," he answers with an easy shrug of his shoulders. "You were with us on the rescue. Bucky wouldn't leave them behind."

"That's hardly an excuse," she says, sipping her coffee. "Barnes has a thing for cute strays. But yeah, they're definitely something."

"How do you figure?" Steve asks, raising an eyebrow. "You didn't spend any time with him."

Nat gives him a look of pure disappointment, and Steve winces. She's always been good at reading people, knows how they are before they even open their mouths. Nat's always been one of those people who can disquiet someone with just a stare, and not for the first time, he's so relieved that she's on their side. His side.

"Don't think I haven't noticed Tony's exactly Bucky's type, and..." she tilts her head at him wordlessly, teasing, and chuckles softly when Steve makes a face, but feels his cheeks warming anyway. And he absolutely does not mention it, because that would be incriminating himself.

"Nat," he protests. "It's not like that. Tony's.... Tony. He's only here for three days."

She lets out a breath, stares off into the distance. "Sure, Steve." Then her tone drops, becomes serious. "But make sure you win the game you're playing."

"I will." He says, sure and clear. Steve knows that Nat's with him and Bucky on this, no matter what. He's not alone.

"Come join us," Steve invites, and decides to head to Bucky, who's sitting with Clint and Tony on the far side of the canteen. The canteen is quieter than usual, tension lacing the air subtly. After all, Clint and Tony are outsiders. And the Carter family has no business with outsiders. Steve makes a mental note to meet his Aunt Peggy directly after he gets Clint and Tony settled in for the evening, and make sure every member of his team is accounted and cared for. 

Nat pads silently behind him, green eyes scanning each table full of agents. She's a solid presence, and Steve feels more at ease, knowing her and Bucky are with him on this one. Bucky grins as soon as they near the table, and Tony and Clint glance up. Steve waits till Nat slides into a seat next to Clint, who shuffles to make room, and then he takes a seat next to Tony, who gives him an endearing smile and picks up his spoon to continue . 

"Damn, punk, you forgot your plate." Bucky says, gesturing to the empty space in front of him. "C'mon. You're 220 pounds, you burn through calories like a sex addict burns through porn."

"Buck, we're eating," he scolds. Tony smothers a laugh, and Bucky smirks, satisfied. "S'okay, I'm not hungry anyway," Steve waves a hand, flippantly. He is. But he wants to stay here, talk to his friends a little more. Lunch is nearly over, and after this, it's about to get busy. 

"Lies," Tony says, and smiles, lazy and crooked. "I'll get one for you. You didn't exaggerate about the roast chicken." 

Steve opens his mouth to refuse, because he can tell Tony's famished and not even half way done with his own plate. He watches as the smaller brunet stands up and walks to the lunch line, and then turns to look at Clint, who looks blissfully unaware that he's alone in the midst with three very dangerous people.

"So," Clint says, placing his cutlery on the plate. "I have questions." He glances to Nat, and it's strange, because Nat's also focusing on Clint. With people who aren't them, the family, Nat's not the type to give just anyone her full attention. Steve wonders, for a moment, if when he assigned Nat to guard Clint's room that they got to talking, and it's why Nat hasn't gone against him on the decision to bring in civilians yet. 

Nat cocks her head, takes another sip from her mug. "Ask away."

"Who were those guys that shot at me, Tony and Bucky this morning? And what exactly do you all do, just enough details for plausible deniability, please." Clint says, folds his hands on the table and waits.

Steve raises his eyebrows at the last bit, and it's not wrong. Clint and Tony do deserve an explanation to what happened to them. "The men that shot you, was from a rival family. They work for Alex McCullough, who's been giving us some trouble." He's purposefully vague, and Clint nods along, listening intently. "Bucky was there to do recon, and spotted him. Thus the chase. You were unfortunately in the crossfire."

"This is why the people have negative views on us, Steve," Nat says. "Sometimes civilians get caught in the crossfire. And there are casualties."

"It's something I've been trying to prevent." Steve says ruefully. The guilt's always been heavy on his chest, target on his back, the moment he was forced to take the mantle after Sharon disavowed it. If you get technical about it, a crime family is a crime family. They do illegal things. They hurt people, kill people. Steve's never been able to sleep soundly a week without at least a few nightmares, and sometimes he wishes he had less of a conscience. 

Just so things would be easier. 

But he has responsibilities, a duty to his family, the people he works with, and the people who's been with him since he was a child. Steve was raised a leader, trusted to be a leader, and he'll damn well do his best. 

"Steve is our leader," Nat tells Clint evenly. "Bucky and I work with him, sort of his second-in-commands. We have a bigger team, but you haven't met them. We do all kinds of things."

"Steve's a good leader," Bucky says softly, and looks grim, a shadow on his face. "He's always tried his best for us, for his family. But in our line of work, I can't deny we've hurt people. But unless we can fucking help it," Bucky's jaw tightens a notch. "never innocents."

"Mobsters with a conscience and moral fortitude," Clint says, perplexed. 

And it gains a unanimous nod around the table.

Tony clears his throat, and shuffles into his vacant seat. "What did I miss?" he asks, promptly sensing the atmosphere with raised eyebrows. He gently slides the plate across and Steve takes it, smiling gratefully. He begins to cut into the chicken, suddenly ravenous once he gets a whiff of the roast chicken. 

"Just some explanations I wanted to know." Clint says simply. "Nothing that concerns you, airhead."

Tony gasps, feigns betrayal. "Why, Birdbrain, you're being rude. Gotta show our dear Captain we normal folks also have manners."

It looks like Tony has an unhealthy obsession with his mannersSteve thinks, charmed, and slightly concerned with Tony's priorities in life. He leans over, mouth open to tell Tony what they've been discussing when a heavy hand grasps his shoulder, and Steve looks up to see his close friend Sam Wilson. Sam's brows are furrowed, which usually means something is wrong. 

"Everyone, this is Sam. He works with us." Steve says quickly, glancing expectantly up at his friend. 

"Steve," Sam says, voice low. "Someone ratted you out to Erik. The family knows you've brought them in. Peggy's asked to see you."

It's not a surprise but it's enough to send his shoulders snapping into a stiff line. He meets Bucky's gaze across the table, and mouths, Erik. 

"Tell him to get fucked," Bucky suggests, while Steve sighs and rubs his temples. "Tell him I said to get—"

"Bucky," Steve says. Bucky looks away, jaw clenched, eyes narrowing. Erik is a sore subject for all of them, and Steve directs his eyes heavenward, feeling exhausted already. If Peggy's asked to see him, then either she's already waiting for him to argue his case or she already has her decision made, and Tony and Clint could be in danger. 

"Bucky, too," Sam adds, a small frown on his face. "Apparently she wants a personal briefing on the recon mission you did, and what went wrong. She thinks McCullough is involved." 

Bucky rolls his eyes, and his metal fingers twitch, like he wants to wrap his hands around something and twist hard. "That's bullshit. It had nothing to do with us."

Steve works his jaw, tries to plan another approach. He knew Erik would find out, but not this soon. "Buck, you're coming with me," he decides. Bucky nods grudgingly, fingers flexing harder. "Nat, find Wanda and the three of you take care of Clint and Tony." he says, eyes trained on Tony. The brunet looks worried, dark brown eyes wide and eyebrows crinkled. Steve wants to make it disappear. 

Bucky looks at him, sends him a sidelong glance. "Stevie, you sure?" 

He's asking if Steve thinks Tony and Clint will be safe. 

"Bucky," Nat cuts in gently, places a soft hand on Bucky's metal one. "I've got them."

If anyone can protect them here, it's Natasha. 

"I'll find a safe place for them," Sam agrees, crossing his muscled arms across his chest. "To make sure it's a good fit, Clint why don't you come with me? I can answer any questions you have."

Tony frowns. "Is it a good idea to split me and Clint up?"

"Yeah, I'm here to watch Tones' back. He's absolute shit at it." Clint says, eyes Sam warily. 

"We'll get you back to each other within an hour or two. This will give us a chance to know you better." Nat promises, tucking a strand of red hair behind her ear. 

"That's a good idea," Steve says, standing up. The rest of the group straightens. "Sam, Nat, we'll meet up later once Buck and I gets things sorted out."

Bucky blows out a breath, and Steve looks right back. The group disperses, Sam leading a cautious Clint away who tousles Tony's hair affectionately before following, and Nat getting up to lead Tony away. Steve reaches across and snags his shirt back, and Tony yelps softly in surprise, stumbling back. Steve chuckles, tries to hold back a smile at the show of adorable clumsiness. Nat looks back, eyes glinting in understanding and steps away, waiting to the side.

"Hey, it'll be alright. Nat will keep you safe." Steve says, towering over the smaller brunet. For his part, he tries to make himself smaller for the sake of looking un-threatening, and Bucky snorts behind him. 

Tony blinks slowly, and then heaves a little sigh. "If it's this much trouble, I'd be happy to leave," Tony says uncertainly. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all."

"Doll," Bucky says, sauntering up. "Now what was our deal? Remember, three days? Can't ditch us before then." a smile hooks up the corner of his lips. 

Steve laughs. "That's true. Now you wouldn't want us to think you weren't a man of your word, right?"

The unease falls away from Tony's face and he smiles up at them, and Steve's heart skips a beat. "I did say that," he teases back. "And I am a man of my word. Can you guys really handle this? I don't want to be a trouble. I won't be." Tony says fiercely, eyes bright, expectant. 

"We can handle it." Steve says, confident and wonders if Tony really trusts them with his life, because that's exactly what he's doing. Then he wonders if Tony even knows it. "Right, Buck?"

"Till the end of the line." Bucky says, and gives Steve an absolutely predatory grin.

 

 

Chapter Text

They've marched Steve and Bucky down to Peggy's private office, and Bucky almost takes it personally that there are only three guards positioned inside the room, and two outside, eyeing Steve and him with distaste and suspicion. They stand tall, chest puffed, like they think they can take Steve and Bucky down if it really comes to it. 

So, just to be a little shit, Bucky flexes his metal arm, letting the machinery whir and stares at them in the eye.

They look away quickly at that, or an eye twitch betrays their discomfort because there's something fundamentally wrong with hearing metal where flesh should be. It used to bother him, the skittery looks and incredulous expressions, or whispered gossips and taunts at his missing limb replaced with metal. 

How it was so damn unnatural.

He tried to hide with long sleeves and jackets, but then Steve happened, and Steve told him to stop being scared and face up to the bullies. Steve put his hands on Bucky's shoulders, said it right to his face, honest and sure. 

Steve had always hated bullies.

The guard standing by Peggy's desk is definitely a bully, Bucky thinks, twirling his favorite knife absentmindedly. There's that mean glint in his eye, the type that likes to lord their own power over others. The knife slips smoothly between his fingertips, blade glimmering. The guard seems personally offended by the sight, and Bucky smirks.

"Stop antagonizing the guards, Buck." Steve whispers with a tense sideways glance. 

"I'm not," Bucky hisses back, but puts the knife back in his holster anyway. The guard seems placated, and turns to stare at another bright spot on the wall. 

Peggy clears her throat. She's a formidable woman, with dark brown hair pulled into a neat bun and clever, shrewd eyes, and a wicked mouth. She's what Bucky's mom would have been like if she'd lived. "Gentlemen," she says. "If you would focus."

Bucky sniffs, looks down. "Sorry," he mutters. "What are we here for, ma'am?"

Peggy's eyes flicks up, trains on his face. It takes another long moment before she says, "Why don't you brief me on what happened this morning, Sergeant Barnes?" 

He wonders if he should lie, just to save face that he was outed by a couple of rookie agents. But then he remembers the last poor fella who lied to Peggy Carter, and ended up in a ditch with two black eyes and a broken arm so it's an easy decision. "Well," he begins, clears his throat a bit. "For the past month we've been working up detailed accounts of McCollough's breach of territory. Reports say he's been crossing into our territory, trying to hoard supplies, contracting new suppliers and discouraging others from buying."

Steve tries to help, bless him, "We were gathering—" and shuts up the second Peggy shoots him her signature really look. 

"Anyways," Bucky continues, digging inside his mind. He's always been shitpoor at remembering stuff, like what he had for breakfast, but Peggy's staring at him, unimpressed, and it's a little stressful. "I received intel yesterday evening that a weapons transaction was occurring this morning, in our jurisdiction. So I went for recon, maybe to get some names and faces, just to observe."

"Observe," Peggy repeats wryly, thumbing through a stack of paperwork on her desk. "You normally get near-riddled with bullets when you observe something?" 

Steve's jaw is jumping, and he knows it's a sign Steve's worried. Bucky's going to have to draw the conversation out so Steve can get whatever it is that's in his head all sorted out. Ah, he thinks, the things you do for love.

"Not usually," Bucky admits, running a finger down the side of the leather handle of his knife. "Standard recon. No monkey business. All the guys there were normal rookies, though, none of McCullough's typical henchmen. Not pro, but not amateur. Four guys were selling the merch, y'know, guns, grenades, whatnot. There were only three on the buyer's side, wearing some kind of weird black-get up gear, looks kinda high-tech. " he says, and Peggy's got this weird look on her face that flits across but vanishes a second later. 

"The three men who were buying, you said?" Peggy asks sharply, snagging a pen and jotting something down on a notebook. "Did they have a red crest of an eagle on their shoulder?"

Bucky thinks, then nods. "Yeah, yeah I think I remember seeing that. Why, is it important??"

He looks to Steve, whose face is intrigued. "Red crest of an eagle?" Steve muses. "I've never seen it before."

Peggy drops the pen, jaw notched a little tighter. Bucky shifts on the edge of his seat, mystified. It must mean something, if it's got Peggy all wound tight and hard. "How did they find you?" she asks, intently focusing on him. It's disconcerting, but he shrugs it off. 

"I was up on a beam near the ceiling of the warehouse," Bucky says slowly, unsure. He hasn't thought about his recon mission at all. Not since Tony and Clint happened. "I don't know exactly what happened but someone pulled a gun, shot one of the suppliers, and I was about to get out when someone saw me." It's replaying in his head, the man in black pulling a Glock and shooting point-blank at a supplier. The supplier crumples, panic spreads, and Bucky's already moving, out the skylight he came in. Then he hears a whiz, and a thunk, and the same man wearing black is crouched opposite to him, guns drawn. "It wasn't messy. I got away, but they chased me." 

Steve frowns, looks at him. "You were on a beam and the buyer's goon was good enough to get the drop on you?"

"He got up fast," Bucky says and lifts one shoulder in a shrug. "I fought him off. I don't know. I didn't get to see the aftermath below."

"Did you identify any faces?" Peggy asks. "We need names. If they're not with McCullough, I need to know if there's a new player in the game, and if it means trouble."

"None," Bucky says, taps the metal of the blade. "But I remember seeing the man in black, the one who caught up. I knocked the gear off his head, and I can probably produce a sketch if you really need it. McCullough knows better than to fuck with us," he adds solemnly. "But if he's partnered with a new player and is making a move, we need to shut it up before word gets out."

Bucky is, after all, very good at shutting things up. 

"We need to approach this diplomatically," Peggy says, with emphasis. "No violence, no black ops. Not yet. This is new intel, it will take a few hours or a day to verify, and until then, I don't want any squabbles." She glances to Steve, raises an eyebrow expectantly. 

It's disappointing, Bucky thinks. He would've liked to show them just how much they shouldn't be fucked with. But it's not his decision, and ultimately, it's Steve and Peggy who has the final word. Bucky's just along for the ride. 

Steve looks aggravated, and Bucky shuffles to press his shoulder against his for a moment of silent support. Steve shoots him a grateful smile, and Bucky's glad to see the tension bleed out of his shoulders, even if it's just a tad. He worries about Steve sometimes. The guy stresses about anything and everything he can't fix, piles on the troubles of the world on his back, but Bucky doesn't have the heart to tell his best friend and boyfriend that he can't be everywhere all at once. 

And that he can't save everyone. 

 

He doesn't see that kind of optimism in the world anymore, so he thinks he should just let it be. Steve's a better leader for it.

"And if it is McCullough?" Steve asks, apprehensive. "We can't afford to let him off easy. We've already got the Zola and his boys on our back. If they come looking for allies to push us out, McCullough would be a prime one."

"Zola's an asshole," Bucky says simply and Steve hums in agreement. "And he won't go after us, because the Carters don't do dirty business. He has no chips to play at our table." Zola's been a thorn in their side for years, greedy and a slimy bastard who benefits from the poor, and from filthy money. It's everything Steve hates about their side of the world. Bucky's always dreamed of putting at least three knives in Zola's back, after his botched money deal with the latest street scum that cost the lives of some neighborhood kids, who just happened to be at the wrong place in the wrong time. 

Steve had been furious, and wanted Zola to pay retribution to the kids' families. 

Peggy, on the other hand, had also shared Steve's hatred for the man but insisted Steve stand down, as they had no right to overstep into Zola's boundaries without sparking a war between the two groups. 

"If Zola's involved," Steve says slowly, and leans forward, elbows on knees. "You can't stop me this time."

"We don't know that." Peggy replies, and softens her tone. "I know he's done enough damage. But remember, Steve, don't be reckless. I taught you better than that."

"Don't worry, Ms. Carter," Bucky decides to jump in, and grins. "I'll watch out for Steve. Meanwhile, what do you want us to do?"

Peggy nods in answer, her eyes resting on Bucky's face. "Good. Right now, I'm going to get this intel verified, and we'll reconvene to discuss the next measures that should be taken. I want your team to run up on any leads you may have at this point, or train."

Steve's already on his way to standing up, but Bucky knows better. Peggy clears her throat, and fixes them both with a knowing stare.

"I know about the two civilians you brought in." she says, almost inquisitively. "Erik informed me."

Steve plops back down on his seat. Bucky looks away, fidgeting. He can't tell what Peggy wants to hear, or what she's thinking. Her face is calm and blank, waiting on their response. It must be a good sign she hasn't told Steve off, though, so Bucky's got his hopes. 

"Yes," Steve answers evenly. "They're here for a few days, and once we make sure they're safe and cared for, they'll return to their homes." Then he frowns, and tells her with an edge to his voice, "Erik has no business in the civilians."

Peggy entwines her hands on the table silently. "I'm not going to reprimand you like a child," she says. "You know better than that. And you know how Erik is. As next-in-line for my position," She pauses, then continues quietly, but not any less sure. "You need to be able to handle the family. And if those civilians are a mistake, then it's on your head, Steve."

It's exactly what Bucky was expecting. Peggy won't tell you what you're doing is a shitpoor, absolute clusterfuck of an idea, but she'll warn you, and she'll be happy watching on the sidelines if it blows up in your face. She's charming that way. 

"I know." Steve says. "I can handle it, I promise."

Sometimes Steve is so sincere Bucky kind of wants to whup him upside the head.

Bucky's been silent for a while now, so he says, to lighten the mood, "It's been a rough day," and pats Steve consolingly on the shoulder. "Steve finding out he's a brand-new mother to a pair of pesky boys. It's hard, being a single mom in today's world." He tells Peggy conspiratorially. 

"You've got your hands full with this one," Peggy tells Steve dryly, but she's got a smile hooked on her lips. She stands, straightens her blouse. "By the way, what are the names of these two civilians? They must be special." 

Bucky laughs, smiles. It's a fair question. He and Steve aren't known to bring in strays. "Tony Stark and Clint Barton."

Steve's eyebrows shoot up, and Bucky tells him smoothly, "I pulled their files when they were in the hospital."

Steve does not look surprised.

"Tony Stark?" Peggy echoes, distantly. A strange expression flits across her face, caught off guard in a way Peggy never is. "I see." She says, softer, and her gaze drops to the desk, corner of her mouth pulled tight. It's a tiny detail, a change in her posture that would be completely unnoticeable to someone that's not Bucky or Steve. 

"Peggy?" Steve ventures, cautious. 

"Well." She pats down her pencil skirt, gives them an easy smile Bucky knows is a diversion. "Steve, I'll be expecting you tomorrow morning. Good day, gentlemen." 

Bucky wonders if there's more Peggy's not telling them. He wants to ask, of course, but he also wants to leave with his eyeballs in his sockets. 

However, it's a clear dismissal from Peggy, and Steve says, "Of course." prim and proper as ever.

"Have a good day, Ms. Carter." Bucky says, mock salutes, and together he and Steve head for the door.  

Once the door to Peggy's office clicks shut, Steve turns to him and gives a little sigh. "Well that went better than expected," he says and carts his fingers through his blond hair. "No reprimands whatsoever."

"Erik, though," Bucky says, glances back at the shut door. "Was Peggy being weird?"

"Nope," Steve answers, clearly distracted. It's no use trying to make use of him when he's like this. "We should check up on Sam and Nat and how they're doing. I'll deal with Erik tonight." He leans against the wall, crosses his muscled arms. 

Bucky smirks, steps closer, just to see Steve's eyes track from his eyes to his lips. "I'm sure they're fine. Nat can handle all three.'" He's nose to nose with Steve, and there's a hitch in Steve's breath. Even after all these years, it's adorable how Steve can still get so flustered.

"But what about Tony, and Clint?" Steve protests, straightening. He's not much bigger than Bucky, but he's got broader shoulder. But Bucky's got more muscles, so he counts it as his win. "We really should..." he trails off as soon as Bucky gets right in his face, and presses his lips to Steve's cheek.

"You were sayin'?" Bucky murmurs, nosing down Steve's neck. Steve shifts, hot breath on Bucky's chin. Bucky continues his way down Steve's throat, leaves slow, gentle kisses that have Steve making small, satisfied noises. 

"Buck," Steve breathes, low and guttural and catches Bucky in an open mouthed kiss. It's deep and dirty, makes Bucky's chest coil in all the right ways, and Bucky slides a hand down Steve's broad chest, palming over Steve's pants and eliciting a soft moan. Then, just because he's a dick, he abruptly leans back and puts a full foot between them.

"Yeah." Bucky says. Steve pulls back, eyes wide. "You're right," Bucky beams and turns around, back to the blond. "We really should check on our precious cargo." 

"You're a fucking tease," Steve growls, shoulders Bucky into the wall and takes a bite at his throat. His hands are gentle, but fierce, and lights every part of Bucky's skin on fire. 

It's so damn nice, Bucky almost gives up, but then he remembers they're making out four feet away from Peggy fucking Carter and he dodges the next kiss and dances away, back towards the way they came from. "Don't swear, Stevie," he calls and waggles his hips seductively. "It's unbecoming on a blond American dream like you."

 

 

 

Bucky's chased Steve away, to deal with Erik, because it's a problem that they cannot afford to let fester. 

Erik is a shithead, no doubt, and Bucky knows trouble is the guy's middle name.

They cannot afford having a loose canon in the family right now, and much to Steve's dismay, he's stuck on Erik-watching duty.

Bucky made sure to promise Steve he's going to have all the fun. Steve had narrowed his eyes, promised retribution, and Bucky had made a completely inappropriate comment about BDSM punishment that got Steve blushing and hurrying on his way.

So right now, Bucky is perched in a secret room above the training center Natasha and Tony are in. It's not stalking, Bucky tells himself, it's observing. He needs to know if Nat's already traumatized Tony, or it's a work-in-progress. He half hopes to see Tony running to him, arms stretched, grateful and happy to see Bucky return. It'd do wonders for his ego.

If Nat could hear his thoughts, she'd tell him to go get a damn golden retriever. 

But Nat seems taken with Tony, because she barely shows anyone how she throws her knives. 

From his vantage point, Tony seems carefree and relaxed, and Bucky can't stop looking at the way the brunet smiles and laughs. It's intoxicating. Bucky considers dropping from his perch and scaring the shit out of Tony, just to see the cute brunet gasp and perhaps, hopefully, tumble to the ground. 

Nat says something, gives Tony one of her small smiles that are only reserved for people like Steve, Bucky and their whole team. Tony laughs, squeezes Nat's shoulder, and Bucky almost falls out of his fucking seat because Nat doesn't even try and break Tony's finger. It's unfair, Bucky thinks. Tony is worming his way into everyone's heart. He makes a mental note to plant some kind of skunk perfume on Tony so everyone knows to back off. But Steve would probably give him some righteous speech about boundaries and Bucky absolutely does not feel like a Steve-lecture mood right now.

Nat tosses Tony some boxing gloves, steps out onto a soft mat. Bucky tenses, but he watches with interest. To his knowledge, Tony's not practiced in combat anyway, but Nat's got a good idea, giving Tony some basic skills. She's going easy on him, leaving her face unguarded and body relaxed, posture open. Tony looks nervous, but slips on the gloves anyway.

Then he sees Tony's right hook, and it's a national disaster. He throws a right hook exactly the way someone who's never thrown a punch in their life would throw a right hook, and Bucky almost goes down there to show him. 

Nat rolls her eyes, teaches Tony, and they're in a friendly discussion where Tony undoubtedly says something charming and Nat chuckles, when the gym doors clang open, and in walk three very familiar men. 

Bucky stiffens, prepares to slide down to Nat's side. Nat turns, shoulders snap into a straight line, and Tony watches, inquisitive. 

It's Erik, the slimy bastard, and two of his loyal minions. 

Where the hell is Steve? Knowing Steve, Erik would never get off scottfree in just twenty minutes.

Bucky smiles to himself, hand going to the knife by his belt. Erik stops a few meters away from Nat, which is probably a sane decision, and cocks his head in that special way Bucky knows means he's about to piss someone off.

And he strides out of his super secret room, and makes his way down to the gym, already itching to knock Erik's teeth in because there's no way he's about to let Nat have all the fun by herself. She's already getting all the lucky breaks in life, Bucky will not give her the satisfaction of one more. 

He made a promise to Steve about fun, and he's damn well going to keep it. 

 

Chapter Text

Okay," Tony says, places his hands on his hips, assesses the guy who looks like he's been sucking on a lemon. "Who invited the tragedy rendition of Napoleon Bonaparte without the funny hat?"

"Tony," Nat says under her breath, but there's a small smile on her lips. "Leave it to me." She moves forward, lithe, but there's some tension in her shoulders that Tony notices.

She stops a couple meters away from the men. Tony doesn't follow, instead peers over her shoulder in order to unashamedly observe. The guy in the front is solid, angry-looking, the way you'd expect someone to look after they found out their mother got them baseball gloves instead of porn magazines for their thirteenth, malicious birthday. He looks remarkably like Steve, but shorter and significantly more squat and I'm-going-to-bash-your-face-in-er. Tony quietly assumes Blond Potato is Steve's brother. Tony tip toes, catches sight of two more men behind the hunky alpha, looking bored and distant.

"I presume that's the little stray Steve picked up." Blond Potato drawls lazily, watches Tony like prey. It makes Tony's skin crawl.

It reminds him of Tiberius.

"What are you doing here, Erik?" Nat says evenly, tips her head. "Steve's been looking for you."

"My brother may be in line for the 'throne'," Blond Potato--excuse him, Erik, says, and flashes his teeth in a horrible parody of a smile. "But he's not suited to actually doing the dirty work necessary." He shrugs. "I'm here because I'm curious."

Nat scoffs, shakes her head a little. "We've all heard that line before. Back off before you do something you regret."

"What," Erik frowns, hand to his heart. "I'm hurt. Is this how you treat family? I just wanted to say hello," he says and strides over to Tony, taking a wide berth around Nat. His bodyguards follow quickly, putting themselves between Blond Potato and Nat. Nat, who's obviously trying to suppress the pleased smile Tony has no doubt means she wants to punch him in the throat. Nat backsteps, stands right by Tony. It's sweet, and Tony doesn't need the support, but he's grateful for it anyway.

Erik comes to a stop in front of Tony. "Well you're definitely prettier than I imagined," he muses and his hand comes up, hovering a few inches away from Tony's cheek.

It's nauseating and Nat looks ready to come to his defense, hand already going to her knife but Tony touches her hand with his. He shakes his head, and Nat doesn't look happy about it but she retreats.

Tony raises an eyebrow. "I try not to be so direct with these things, but fuck you. I don't know who you are, but I'm not looking for trouble."

Erik chuckles. "Feisty, too." The edge of the blond's fingertip brush over his skin. "Steve always did like mouthy brunets."

Tony mentally gags, because that's a disgusting thing to say about your own brother. "Are you from Alabama?" He asks sweetly. Erik's brows knot together in brief confusion, but then a pair of familiar black combat boots thump to the floor and Tony smiles wide.

"Put your fucking hand down," Bucky says from behind them, voice calm, but all kinds of dark. "Or I'm going to tear it off and shove it in your throat."

"Already coming as the knight in shining armor, Bucky?" Erik tuts, but lowers his hand and slowly steps back. "I didn't know your hero complex was this severe."

"The only thing that's going to be severe is your amount of blood loss that's going to happen in thirty seconds if you don't clear out." Bucky tells Erik, and places a protective arm around Tony's shoulders to gently pull him back. Tony tries to hide his surprise, and he'll be mortified if he finds out later that he blushed, but Bucky's arm is a welcome, warm weight on his shoulders and Tony relaxes into the touch. Nat exchanges a glance with Bucky, eyes asking a question. 

"Buckaroo," Tony says happily and makes grabby hands at the master assassin. "I missed you."

Erik's dark blue eyes glimmer, mouth hooking into a thoughtful and majorly creepy smile. "Well. Tony, aren't you the charmer."

"I'll teach you for free. Call it charity for the needy." Tony tells him, and relishes in the surprise that crosses his face for a second. 

"How's tonight, my room?" Erik purrs. "I'll mind your head injury."

Tony opens his mouth to deliver a retort, when Bucky audibly snarls, metal arm whirring. "I'm not going to fucking warn you again, asshole."

Erik's bodyguards immediately react to the threat, one of them drawing his handgun. Tony swallows nervously, because after going most of his adult life without seeing a gun, the sight of the weapon being drawn still makes his heart jump a little. Nat tenses, but before she does anything Erik sighs and waves his hands. "Gentlemen," he declares, annoyed. "Calm down. We're here to talk, not to fight." Erik shoots a cold stare at both Bucky and Nat, and Tony narrows his eyes, irritated. This guy has a lot of nerve, he decides. He'll have to ask Steve later about what role Erik plays in the family.

"Talk, huh?" Bucky says with an indulgent look at Nat. 

"Erik's full of surprises." Nat agrees, starts unwrapping the cotton from her hands. Tony looks down, realizes he still has his boxing gloves on, and pulls them off quickly, embarrassed. Bucky chuckles softly next to him, tells him it's a good look, and Tony meets his soft gaze to smirk proudly. 

"You all know what I want." Erik says, cuts through any sort of gentle moment between them. "I want Steve out."

"That's not going to happen." Nat says, looking affronted. Tony wonders if Erik is on a suicide mission, provoking Nat and Bucky like that.

Bucky's metal arm drops to his side. "You're still on about that bullshit?" He rolls his eyes. "Give it up, fuckface. The decision was made years ago."

Erik's face twitches, like he's about ready to start swinging. "You hold a lot of sway over my brother," his eyes rest on Tony, a predatory glint in his eye. "We both know it's not what he wants."

"Don't pretend like you're being selfless for Steve," Bucky snaps, moves forward a step. The bodyguards crowd around Erik immediately, and Nat watches with a disquieting, displeased expression on her face. "You're a psychopath, and even Peggy sees it. She'll hand it down to anyone but you."

Erik's blue eyes flash, rage hardening the lines of his face. "I am better than Steve." Tony's eyes drop to the blond, and he can't help but be innately horrified at the prospect of Erik assuming leadership of a crime family. He knows enough to recognize that this is a long, bloody issue in the family that strangers really shouldn't be privy to know.

Not for the first time, Tony wonders if he made a mistake staying. 

Nat says, quietly, "No, you're not. And you're not going to make us turn on Steve." And it's loyalty, in her voice, in Bucky's solemn eyes that Tony sees that they really are Steve's family, with him to the end. It's heart-rending, and absolutely sweet, the bond between all of them. A small pang of jealousy nags in his chest, and Tony looks away, down to the floor.

A family is all he ever wanted. 

"No one will back you." Bucky adds, and presses closer to Tony, as if sensing distress. Bucky looks at him for a second, and asks quietly, "Are you okay?" and Tony nods, smiles, softens a little bit at Bucky's warmth. And for a moment, Tony's nothing but charmed by that, the sheer unmitigated sweetness of Bucky Barnes, but then he remembers this whole mess could easily blow up in his face and he winces, ignores the concern in Bucky's blue eyes.

"Steve's people are few, and far between." Erik replies smugly. "The perks of growing up in the crime underworld, Tony," he says, circling closer like a lion cornering its prey. "instead of having a doll to play with, you have a gun." He pauses, comes to a stop dangerously close to Tony, and Bucky's muscles shift, hiding Tony behind his bulk. "And you learn, quickly, that loyalty is nothing. Anyone can betray you, and anytime. The trick," he says, and Tony's blood runs cold. "Is to make sure you do it first." And he makes a gesture with his hands, that go poof.

Tony's not staying silent. "Well excuse me if I don't take life lessons from an angsty David fucking Copperfield." 

Bucky laughs at that, and leans in to whisper in Tony's ear, "Careful there. You're cute when you're snarky." Tony shoots him an exasperated look, but chuckles anyway.

"Loyalty isn't nothing, Erik." Nat says, and she sounds bored. Like she's explaining how B comes after A in the alphabet to a two-year-old toddler. "It's how our family thrives. It's how we survive. If you can't recognize that, then you'll never be a leader."

"Don't waste your breath, Nat." Bucky says. "The guy must be deaf if he doesn't get it yet."

"Your  family?" Erik scoffs, taps the side of his face with a finger. "Don't kid yourself, Romanov. You're nothing but a goddamn licensed contractor, and you'll turn on us the second you have the chance and someone pays better. You, and every other shithead we employ, will never be one of us. Another thing you learn, Tony," Erik swivels to smile amicably at him. The candor of his psychopathic openness knows no bounds, Tony thinks. "Money buys. People will do anything for a drop of that golden blood."

Nat's nose crinkles, like Erik's personally offended her. "This is over," she says, an edge to her voice. "If you're not leaving, we will." She takes Tony by the hand, starts walking towards the door, and Tony follows hurriedly. 

"It was a delight to meet you, Tony!" Erik calls after them, and when Tony looks back, the man is wearing a smile and waving. "I'll be seeing you real soon."

"Come near him," Bucky stops on their way out and turns. "and you're a dead man." He doesn't wait for an answer before nudging Tony out the door, flesh hand resting securely on the small of Tony's back.

Something warm and happy pools in his stomach at that, and Tony struggles not to like the feeling. 

"That was Steve's brother?" Tony asks, almost incredulously. He has a whole new respect for Steve now, and whoever raised him. 

Nat hums in agreement. "Erik's...been through some things. But he's a brat, for sure." She keeps her tone level, but doesn't say anything more.

"It's fine," Bucky says and waves his hand flippantly. "Forget about him. He's not our problem."

It doesn't take Tony more than a few seconds to argue that Erik indeed is their problem, but he doesn't want to push. So they leave Erik behind, and immediately the tension dissipates. While the encounter wasn't completely forgotten, Nat and Bucky try their best to retain the normalcy. 

Nat tells him about some of their team while they walk through hallways, and not for the first time, Tony marvels at the size of the compound. Bucky notices, and steers the conversation away from the team and instead tells him about the compound itself, and how it's the main building where the operations of the crime family are organized, planned, and where the highest-ranking members reside. 

After a while, they take him to a spacious room, and Tony suspects it's a coffee lounge. So he makes himself a cup of black, and sips it religiously. Bucky's already sprawled on a lush leather couch, changed into a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie. He looks incredibly comfortable and cozy, and Tony tries not to think about how cuddle-able Bucky looks. 

Nat hovers in the doorway, an amused smile on her face. "Tony," she says and takes one of his hands. He chuckles when he hears Bucky's indignant squawk behind them, and Nat ignores it with practiced ease. "I was called to train some new recruits. You'll be safe here with Bucky."

Tony frowns, makes a protesting noise. "Don't go. You're a badass spy master and you're so pretty you make me swoon. And you're equipped to deal with Bucky, don't leave me defenseless with him." 

"I'll leave him with strict instructions to leave you in one piece," Nat says with a soft huff and her eyes crinkle in a smile. "I'll see you tonight for dinner, and don't worry about your friend Clint and Sam. They're having fun, and Sam will probably bring him in here before dinner."

"Fine," Tony says, a little more dramatically than he planned. "Thank you, for today." He adds, sincerely, and gives Nat his best grin. 

"Of course." Nat says with a fond look, lets his hands drop, and moves out the door. 

"What, no farewell for your favorite assassin?" Bucky yells, throws a pillow at her retreating form. Lightning fast, Nat catches it single-handedly, without looking. She smirks, chucks it back, and disappears out into the hallway. Bucky groans, falling back into the plethora of fluffy pillows still on the couch. Tony laughs in surprise, impressed and utterly in awe of the normalcy of the situation. 

What would his parents say if they knew their son was getting friendly with the mafia?

"Doll," Bucky whines, and pats the seat next to him and blinks adoringly. "C'mere."

Tony rolls his eyes, and says, "I'm tired."

Fuck. He really is. 

"Then come be tired with me." Bucky replies, with more feeling. And what the hell, things could be worse than snuggling up to one of the most dangerous men in Manhattan, decked out in casual attire and sporting handsome smiles. All the days' events kind of hit him in one blow, nearly buckle his knees, and Tony finds it in himself that there's not much resistance left. So he pads to Bucky, legs aching, and flops onto the seat next to the muscular brunet. 

"Mhm," Tony mumbles and curls up, head in the crook of Bucky's shoulder. Personal space has never been a concept Tony's given two shits about when it comes to people he likes. The soft fabric of Bucky's sweater mush against his cheek and Tony sighs, melting in the comfort and feeling of another person around him. Bucky smells like alpine woods, and the crisp smell of fresh cookies in the oven. Bucky shifts, and Tony burrows in closer, feeling lighter and peers up at the assassin. 

Bucky looks back at him, eyes soft and curls a hand around Tony's waist. It's not as strange as he thought it would be, cuddling up to a complete stranger. But Bucky doesn't feel much of a stranger anymore. He yawns, and suddenly finds himself exhausted, body pleading to sleep.

"How's your head, doll?" Bucky murmurs, careful to give the wound some space and places a pillow under Tony's chin.

"S'alright," Tony slurs, eyes drooping. God, what he'd give to sleep right now. "Won't Steve be mad?" he says into Bucky's shoulder, registering the soothing movements of Bucky petting his hair gently. Steve, who's obviously Bucky's boyfriend or partner and best friend, and under normal circumstances Tony would back the hell off but Bucky's so warm. 

 He faintly hears Bucky's snort. "Oh, trust me, sweetheart. You're completely fine."

"Wha's 'at supposed t'mean," Tony grumbles and rolls onto his back, squints at Bucky. "I'm not being mushed into a Stark ham special 'cause your blond polite hunk of a boyfriend gets pissed."

"Will you just go to sleep?" Bucky says, and rolls his eyes good-naturedly. "I can drug you." He offers playfully when Tony makes a face. 

"I really should be alarmed by the amount of threats you make per day," Tony says, closing his eyes. Fuck it. If Bucky's going to murder him in his sleep, so be it. He whole-heartedly deserves that shit by letting himself be vulnerable in such a compromising position. "But I'm going to pass out now."

Bucky laughs again, and says something Tony doesn't hear, because he's already drifting off to sleep.

 

 

 

 

"Is that Tony?" Steve says, a smile in his voice.

Bucky shifts a little, and it nudges him slowly awake. "Yeah. He's adorable like this." Then pauses, and whispers. "Don't ever let him know I said that."

Steve laughs, and Tony lets out a soft groan, scrunching his eyes. "He is. And he'd hold it over your head forever."

Tony wakes a little more, opens his eyes to the sound of the leather couch dipping with the addition of a new weight. He cracks open an eyelid, and it's Steve, lowering his full weight slowly onto the couch. Bucky's head is turned, and opens his free arm to the blond. 

Tony prepares to sit up, when Steve says, "Is he asleep?"

"Yeah," Bucky says, checks Tony's face with a gentle touch and glances knowingly at the blond. "What's wrong?"

Tony decides to stay still, closes his eyes for extra measures and relaxes into Bucky's comforting hold. "I've just gotten reports of two unidentified, blank plated cars sitting outside Tony's and Clint's apartments." Steve says quietly, voice grave. Tony tries not to stiffen, listens harder. "They were tracked an hour ago."

Bucky makes a displeased noise, tightens his hold on Tony's side. "Son of a bitch. Already? How would anyone know?"

"I've been trying to figure that one out, too." Steve tells Bucky. It's clearly serious enough to have them both worried, and Tony holds his breath, calculates the odds.

Even if someone had escaped from the soldiers who had attacked them in the morning from Bucky, all they would have had to go on would be glimpses of Tony and Clint's faces. Even then, it's highly unlikely they would have been outed this fast. 

"McCullough might have found out through his men." Bucky ventures, carding his fingers through Tony's hair. "I didn't kill them, just knocked them out or injured them. Some of them may have fatal wounds," Bucky says as an afterthought.

Steve lets out a breath, clasps his hands together. "No, it's good you didn't kill all of them. We don't need a war. Honestly, I don't know how they found out it was you, because you always wear that mask when on the field." He taps his fingers on the table, and Tony silently agrees when Steve mutters, "Something doesn't add up here."

"But McCullough doesn't have eyes in our territory, and even if he did, because I don't trust that fucker, there's no way he could identify Tony and Clint this fast and put people on them." Bucky says, and a quick peek tells him the brunet is frowning. "The only way he could've known this fast is..." 

"Someone in our circle leaked the information." Steve sighs, sits back. He doesn't sound surprised. 

"Fuck," Bucky breathes. "A traitor?"

Now he doesn't know much about the mafia or crime families, most of his surface knowledge is definitely from the Sopranos or from TV shows. But Tony knows with absolute certainty, that having a traitor in the equation-- never ends well for anybody.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Steve, wake up!" 

Hands grab him by the shoulders, and acting on instinct, he strikes out hard and fast, hits flesh and someone grunts and the grip loosens. He slips to his feet, throwing the blanket from the bed and rolling to his feet, fists already up.

"Steve," Bucky groans, and Steve blinks in the dark, squinting to see his boyfriend. Bucky is crouching a few feet away, a hand pressed to his jaw. "Calm the fuck down."

Steve winces, drops his hands and crosses over to his boyfriend, and gently takes his face in his hands. "Sorry," he mutters and tilts Bucky's jaw to see the forming bruise. "You know I get startled." Trying to convey as much regret as he can, he presses a soft kiss to Bucky's cheek. 

"Listen here, you spooky little shit." Bucky says, noses Steve's face back. "I was working all night, and--"

"You didn't come to bed," Steve agrees, voice tilting on a whine. After the day they'd had, all he wanted was just to curl around Bucky in bed and fall asleep to the scent of alpine woods and sharp mint, wrapping in comforting duvets. "I missed you, sweetheart."

"No, listen." Bucky says, with more force and feeling in his voice. Steve stills, looks into Bucky's dark blue eyes. "I cashed in a few favors and I know who the buyers were. Or, at least one of them."

 Steve pulls back, blinks. "What? Who is it?" Bucky looks tired, bags under his eyes. Steve extends a hand, settling his palm on Bucky's shoulder and tries to push all his calming energy into the touch. If Bucky, who values his sleep more than Steve values his morning runs, the information must be damn important. 

"The men I saw, buying the gear at the warehouse. That's where I thought I should start," Bucky says, sitting heavily on the crumpled bed. "I couldn't get any face ID, so I started thinking... what if those men weren't actually the owners? I thought, what would run-of-the-mill soldiers be doing wearing such high-tech tactical gear?"

Steve frowns, thinks along. It's a valid question. "They were loaned the gear? Or stole it. But why go through that trouble for a couple of weapons?"

"Right," Bucky says and a smile curls on his lips. "I think they were borrowed. And in our world, who are the people we go to when we want others to do our dirty jobs?"

"Mercenaries." Steve says slowly, glances up at Bucky, eyes wide. "How could we not see this?"

"Because I'm a fucking genius, babe." Bucky purrs, leans over to kiss him softly. Steve sighs into the kiss, hand trailing down Bucky's muscled, solid back. "But it's not over," Bucky says and his eyes are bright, but Steve groans. Bucky rolls his eyes. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but focus, Steve."

"Buck," Steve grumbles. "Such a tease. Now that you've figured it out, can we just go to bed for a remaining three hours?" He asks with a mournful stare at the alarm clock. 

"If," Bucky says, ignoring him and grabbing his hands. 'If those men were mercenaries, then they'd have to belong to a pretty good one to get that kind of tech loaned. You know, with histories and confirmed kills and everything. So, I cross-referenced with the mercenaries we've employed over the years..."

"Did you find them?" Steve asks, narrowing his eyes.

The mercenaries they employ are efficient, good at what they do. Peggy's always told Steve, if he wants something done fast and dirty, they're the people you go to. But Steve's been trying to steer the family away from that. He thinks of Erik for a second, how hard it is to make any goddamn change when your own brother is actively fighting back. 

"No, there's no way of knowing exactly which. I contacted Carlston. He's agreed to meet me tomorrow for lunch, tell me what's the word on ." Bucky says, grinning. 

"Really," Steve says and raises his eyebrows. "Carlston replied at two in the morning?"

"He's either fucking someone," Bucky shrugs and smirks. "Or killing someone. You know Carlston."

"Most likely he's just cleaning up after his four-year-old daughter's coloring books." Steve rolls his eyes, and climbs back into bed, stuffs his feet into the duvets. "Come on. Let's go to sleep. I'll let Peggy know in the morning, and  you have a meeting in six hours," Steve says and swallows back a sigh of sadness at the time ticking away on the clock. "The clock is taunting me." Steve mutters, shoving his head into his pillow.

Bucky laughs, and the bed dips when he clambers beside Steve. "Sorry, babe. Want me to give you an apology blowjob?" He teases, nuzzling into the back of Steve's neck and Steve leans into the warm touch, and breathes out a little quick at Bucky's hand sliding down.

"Buck," Steve chuckles, takes the pillow and softly whups Bucky with it. "The only boner I have right now is for REM sleep." He takes the blanket, and brings it up to his chin.

"Stevie," Bucky snorts. "That's very indecent of you to say, you American poster boy for decency."

"Mhm," Steve hums non commitedly as Bucky burrows under the blankets. 

They lie in bed together, breathing in each other's scents. Steve closes his eyes, then blinks up at the ceiling. Bucky 's weight is familiar and warm at his back, breathing softly through his nose. It's crazy, Steve thinks. The day they've had. Yesterday, he went to sleep like this, and woke up this morning like it was every other day.

He had a plan, meetings with the family, maybe talk Peggy into taking a relaxing spa day, push forward legitimate business deals and attend a few meetings overseeing the whole Carter operation. Perhaps find a way to keep Erik occupied and out of his deals. 

And then Bucky went on a recon mission, and everything changed. 

Steve turns to his side, nudges Bucky gently in the back. "Hey," he says softly. "What are we doing?"

Bucky snuffles, shifts to crack open an eye to glare at him. "What do you mean, what are we doing? We're doing sleep. I thought we were doing sleep." 

"No," Steve murmurs, and stares into an empty spot on the wall. "I mean with Tony. Tony and Clint. What are we doing?"

"Where did that come from?" Bucky asks, turns on his side to face Steve, eyes glinting in curiosity. "We're not doing them. Clint, I'm glad. But Tony," he says and lets out a low whistle. "Not doing him makes me sad."

"I'm sure he's sad too." Steve says dryly, and goes silent. He hasn't truly thought about it, how absolutely preposterous the whole thing is. Turns out, his brain doesn't want to think about it either. His brain is stating a disclaimer that it's not responsible for most of Steve's idiotic decisions, and Steve relates to that on a spiritual level. 

"Stop thinking," Bucky advises around a yawn. "Fucks your shit up. It's scientifically proven." 

"Oh yeah?" Steve gives a soft laugh at that, blinks slowly at his drowsy boyfriend. "Those sketchy medical trials your friends do aren't scientific, Buck."

"No," Bucky says and sniffs haughtily. Well, as haughtily as he can manage with bags under his eyes and tangled hair with a blanket snuggled up to his nose, leaving only his dark blue eyes blinking incomprehensibly at him. "No, what I'm saying, Steve," Bucky emphasizes dramatically. "Is that our line of work isn't really suited to thinking. Once you think about it, it all sorts of unravels. Our whole operation. It's a shitshow." He tells Steve, says it like he's telling Steve nutella doesn't go well with mustard.

"You're a proven intellectual marvel." Steve tells him, and discovers that when he gets real close to Bucky, he kind of smells like unwashed sweat. Bucky nods, eyes already closed.

But hey, love is love. So he wraps his arms around the brunet and pulls him close, and tries to close his eyes to get two or three hours worth of shut-eye.

He gets about five minutes of silence before Bucky grumbles, and squints at him in the dark with the kind of offense people get when they've just gotten a thinly veiled insult. "You're a fucking furnace, Stevie, I love you but unfold from my physical body." 

"You broke your record of four minutes," Steve says and laughs. "I love you too."

And that's how the remaining early morning goes, with Bucky plastered to the wall because it's cool, and Steve ending half on his side and half splayed on his boyfriend and completely suffocating Bucky in heat.

 

 

 

 

 

Tony ends up staring at him, blurry and half-awake. "What the fuck," he says, doesn't even look conscious enough to look mad about it.

"I have so much planned for you," Steve says and leans against the doorway. "Bucky told me you're a mechanic, a talented one. You're from MIT so you must be that good. And we have a few labs downstairs for some research development..." He trails off, looks at Tony for an answer and smiles, bright and happy. "Come on."

There's a silence that stretches on unnecessarily long, and Tony regards Steve with a special blend of confused and mad but not knowing why. "What?" Tony finally says, and squints hard at Steve like he's a bug splashed on his windshield.

It's getting increasingly hard to not find Tony's rumpled spare pajamas and a bed-hair intoxicatingly cute. Steve crosses his arms across his chest, stares at the smaller brunet fondly. 

"The fuck is this horseshit," Clint yells, muffled from his face in the pillow. "Tones, tell your blond jacked up boyfriend to get the fuck out or I'm gonna start throwing lamps because that's the only weapon in here they left us with."

"He's not my boyfriend," Tony blusters, immediately whipping his head so fast Steve winces and immediately feels bad about admiring how Tony's eyes get wide and big, shakes his head quickly. "He's not, he's not even," and then increasingly panicky, "What are you—"

"I'm not," Steve adds and steps inside the still dark room. "And I'll calmly ask you not to throw that lamp, thank you very much, it was a limited edition from IKEA—"

Clint swears, takes his spare pillow and throws it at the general direction of nowhere. "Fuck IKEA, I'm going to shove it up Sweden's ass and once I'm done it's going up yours, so get out! I need to sleep. Tones, I am withholding caffeine from you if you do not get blond barbie out of this room right the fuck now." 

Steve closes his eyes, breathes out and tries not to smile. Bucky would have loved to be here. Bucky would have had a field day. 

"Clint, you little shit," Tony hisses and turns bodily to face the general direction of a Clint-shaped lump under the covers. "That's actually not up to you because you're not a goddamn barista anymore, you evil birdbrain—"

Clint's head pops up, and Steve braces himself for the rage. Instead, Clint glares at Tony, and then at him with bloodshot eyes, brown hair sticking up all over the place. He narrows his eyes, and tells Tony in a level voice, "I'm going to call MIT, and I'm going to report a fucking out-of-school harassment and a restraining order—"

"Your word against mine, shitface, I'll see you in court—"

"Up we go." Steve says and strides inside, to the foot of Tony's bed just in time to stop Tony's sleep-muddled failed scramble off the bed to lunge at Clint. He wraps his arms under Tony's arms, and bodily heaves him out of the bed and out the door. Clint shouts something after them, and Tony shouts right back, and Steve's starting to regret his decision in ever opening the dreaded 7th gateway to hell that is Tony and Clint's room. 

He closes the door shut behind him, and they stand in the empty hallway and plops Tony back on his feet.

Tony, who's lighter than a feather and is staring up at him with huge, long-lashed eyes and a pouty scowl on his face. Steve really wishes Bucky was here. Bucky wouldn't have been able to contain himself from gushing at the smaller brunet.

Then, on second thought, it's a good thing Bucky's not here.

Tony places his hands on his hips, glowers at Steve. It's like a fluffy kitten flashing tiny claws, and Steve tries not to melt. Be strong, he tells himself. "What the hell was that?" Tony asks, and eyes him suspiciously.

"I'm sorry," Steve says honestly. "But its almost eight, and I knocked a few times...and then there was this guttural noise and I was worried something was wrong and no one was answering so I forced the door in. I should've waited till you were awake to start telling you the plans for you today," Steve says as an afterthought and shakes his head regretfully. "Sorry."

Tony's silent for a moment, and then glances up at Steve and sighs. "I can't even be mad at you for waking us up. Not when you're so polite about it. Sorry for Clint's yelling, and mine, and that guttural sound is Clint's moan, which completely sounds like a goddamn donkey so it's understandable, but that only happens when he wakes up before ten AM."

"How does he keep his job, then?" Steve asks with a long, impressed glance at the closed door. 

 "I ask myself that everyday. I think he does too." Tony tells him with a long-suffering eye roll.

Steve shrugs, and purely on impulse, leans over to pat down the adorable cowlick tufting out from Tony's rumpled bed hair. Tony blinks up at him, surprised and a hint of a blush on his cheeks. Steve gulps, and moves his hand away. "It's a pretty big cowlick." He says helplessly, because there's nothing else to say without sounding like an absolute idiot.

Bucky would have died laughing.

Tony smiles, soft and sweet, and Steve feels something hook in his belly and tug. He drops his hands to his side, because he's not used to feeling nervous, and then says, "Well, do you want to hear about the plan for your day?"

"Yes, yes, of course," Tony says and laughs a little. "You said something about labs? Mechanic, right?"

Steve shrugs and nods, delighted when Tony's smile becomes bigger. "Yeah, we have a few. Mostly weapons testing and stuff, but definitely room for mechanic. A very talented engineer who operates the lab downstairs would be happy to have you work with him for the time being," Steve says and chuckles at the size of Tony's joyful expression. "His name's Happy."

"I would love to," Tony says and grins. "But is it allowed? I mean I'm just here for like three days... I don't want to bother your engineer or anything. I'm happy to just stay out of the way. Give me some Jenga. Yeah,  I'll go nuts. I'll do things with Jenga you've never seen before. I can get Clint in on it too. Give Clint a Rubik's cube, it'll take him years."

Steve feels almost obligated to stop Tony's rambling, and so he decides to make a placating gesture with his hands, a move that Bucky always scoffs at. "Jenga? Tony, what are you on about?" And because he can't help it, he smiles back at Tony. "I'm not giving you Jenga. You'd be bored in five seconds."

Tony looks briefly surprised, and then laughs. It's a sweet sound, makes Steve's hands go all lax and his chest all warm and soft. Tony's face lights up when he smiles. "I've known you for like a day, and you already know me better than my parents," he teases.

He shrugs, and gazes at Tony for a moment, marveling how well Tony can pull off messy hair and pajamas. "It doesn't take a genius to see how smart you are."

"Aw, shit." Tony says, and shakes his head, tousling his dark brown hair even more and grins up at Steve. "Careful there Captain Underpants, you're gonna make me swoon."

"You make it sound like a threat," Steve says and pauses, shoves his hands into his pockets. "You need to make better threats." 

He really hopes Tony doesn't find this conversation mortifying.

He clears his throat. "I can, uh," He nods over his shoulder. "Go. I can go. Wait for you to get ready."

Tony doesn't seem to notice how sweaty his palms are getting. "Yeah, you could go." he says, with a smile and a shrug. "Or you could stay."

Steve chokes a little, because he can't believe Tony hasn't run away yet. "Stay? Stay. I could wait. I'll wait right here and take you and Clint to breakfast." 

"Stay," Tony says again and nods matter-of-factly. "I am painfully aware how civilian-esque Clint and I are, and we are two potentially insane emotionally immature adults in an illegal crime family base, so yes. I'd like you to stay."

Oh. Of course Tony wants you to stay. He needs you.

It's a little pinprick to his heart, that Tony doesn't want him to stay. 

"Sure," he says, and is horrified it comes out a little squeaky so he tries again. "Sure. I'll be here."

"Thanks." Tony says, shoots him a sweet smile. "We'll be right out." Then he takes a step towards the door, and pauses. "So about Jenga?"

"No Jenga."

"Fuck. I'm being a good person and not being selfish. I'm happy to stay out of the way."

Steve raises his eyebrows. "I appreciate it. I do. But you don't seem like the type of person to like 'staying out of the way'," Steve echoes, and waves a hand when Tony tries to interject. "I already talked to Happy, and he'd appreciate a little help. I've already talked to Nat about Clint, so don't worry about him. And Tony," he says a little lower. "I haven't said anything to you and Clint, because I don't want to worry anyone but it might be dangerous for you anywhere but here right now."

It's a risky move, he thinks.

Telling Tony that McCullough's men have been running surveillance on his and Clint's home might be terrifying, the prospect of your home, a safe haven, has been compromised and invaded. It might make the fact that they're civilians seem even more daunting. And he doesn't want Tony, or Clint, to be scared for their lives.

It's not fair, Steve tells himself. 

Tony tilts his head, eyebrows furrowed. "Oh, dangerous? What do you mean by that?" He asks, tentatively, and shuffles his feet a little, eyes dropping for a brief second. "Do Clint and I have to stay here longer?"

It's cute, Steve thinks, amused. He learned how to lie at the age of four, and how to detect it after the age of six. As a Carter, it's really not a shock. So he finds it adorable, how Tony actually tries to bluster his way through and act innocent about it. "But you know that already, don't you." Steve says with a small smile.

He expects Tony to start blundering, to try and reassure Steve in a slightly panicked tone that he doesn't know what Steve's talking about, but no.

He should really stop being surprised about it, when Tony does the exact opposite.

"Alright," Tony says, sounding cautious. "You got me. I heard when I was taking a nap with your murder muffin. The bad guys totally know who Clint and I are, which shouldn't be possible this fast, but since they know, we can't go home."

Steve lets that settle for a few seconds. Tony's more observant than both he and Bucky thought, and whether or not it can become a problem, he'll have to keep an eye on this. 

"You're right. But we can talk more about this during breakfast, because the hallway is completely expository and you're in your pajamas."

Tony looks down at himself, eyes widen a little like he's just realized it, and then looks back up at Steve. "Absolutely, Steven. Of course. I will return in ten minutes."

"No one calls me Steven except Peggy when she's mad."

"Tough fucking luck, snookums. But fine. When I'm done with your name, you'll be wishing for Steven."

 

Chapter Text

Bucky doesn't expect the huge six-foot-four guy to crumple to the floor. A guy his size should be able to withstand a good, solid right hook. 

But then again, Bucky thinks as he retracts his metal fist and shakes it, the gears whirring back. Maybe not a solid right hook out of metal. 

The plan is simple: drive to Carlston's personal cafe and work shit out until he leaves with a definite answer of the whole situation, and then head back to the base to hopefully make out with Steve and annoy Tony to the point of no return. 

When Bucky's plans fail, it's usually because of some circumstantial bullshit that is no way under his control or because someone let him leave the base without double-checking his plans. But this time, it's because of the simple, bland idiocy of some people.

He really tries not to get mad when two more guys come at him from behind, but Bucky figures if they have enough sense to come from behind, they're at least better than the six-foot-four redneck squirming on the floor. The soldiers coming at him aren't stupid or careless or poorly-trained, but Bucky's better, and his guns are better. It becomes a matter of knocking all the stragglers out and not getting himself shot anywhere inconvenient in the process. 

"I'm telling you," Bucky says, kindly, as he takes the but of his gun and slams it into one soldier's neck, letting the body slide to the floor. "Carlston knows I'm coming. Just call him."

He rolls his eyes when another one yells out something in garbled Slovenian and charges, whipping out a gun and aiming. 

Bucky takes two steps forward, ducks, swipes his leg under the soldier, barrels up and forward and into the soldier, driving them both back a full meter. The soldier hisses, Bucky sighs, and then in two quick moves has the soldier in a chokehold and Bucky's letting down another body. Plenty of time to react when another goon tries to take him by surprise, and Bucky whirls around and delivers a vicious uppercut, a couple pulled punches to the guy's ribs and then kick him to the curb. The two soldiers are groaning, blood on their faces, and Bucky stands above them, smiling grimly. 

"Gentlemen!"

Bucky turns. Carlston, the bastard, is standing behind him, and he's holding a gun with a displeased frown on his face. 

"What," Bucky says. "the fuck. Carlston. Nice of you to show up fifteen minutes late."

"Those were my five personal guards, Mr. Barnes." Carlston says, aggrieved. "This is not what I had in mind when you called me asking for a peaceful meeting. Now I need a new team, and you almost got yourself shot."

"Not what I had in mind, either," Bucky tells him, makes his way over to the smug son of a bitch and kicks one groaning soldier in the guts for good measure. "Next time tell your guard dogs to back down. And I would get a new team, for the exact reason I didn't get shot."

Carlston cocks an eyebrow, and brings the gun up and points it at Bucky, clicking the safety off. "I could finish the job right now."

"I wouldn't do that." Bucky says, flashes a little teeth. "We both know I'm your favorite representative of the Carters."

He's a nice guy, ask anybody, but business is business and right now all he is, is a notorious assassin mafia second-in-command with a fancy metal arm. 

"That's because the standard is low," Carlston sniffs but tucks the gun into his waistband anyway. He didn't click the safety off, and Bucky stores that little tidbit into his mind just in case. "Most of the Carters are either insane, or close to it."

"Real cute," Bucky gives a little shrug. "I'm offended you think I'm sane."

"How is Peggy Carter?" Carlston asks, gestures to an empty seat in the 90s themed cafe. "She hasn't been by in a while."

Bucky takes the offer, slides into the seat and thinks for a moment. "She's peachy. Been giving off more work to Steve." Carlston's a sneaky shit, so Bucky should probably think about the things he says during this meeting. If one questionable thing gets back to Peggy, he knows it's absolutely not above her to take away to new set of tactical knives they've introduced into the armory. 

And it'd be a damn shame if that happened. 

"Ah, Steve Rogers." Carlston settles on the opposite seat, seems to mull it over for a moment. "He's the blond, decent one? I've heard he's been trying to turn the family upside down." He holds up a hand, making some sort of gesture, and Bucky glances around to see the barista, cowering behind the counter, looking petrified. "Two Scotches. On the rocks, please."

The barista immediately scrambles to the liquor cabinet, hands shaking, and Bucky almost feels bad for him, so he calls, "Thank you." but only succeeds in making the poor kid tremble even more. 

"So, Mr. Barnes." Carlston says, examines Bucky carefully. "What can I do for you?"

"You're a smart man, Carlston," Bucky muses and leans back on the seat. "You must be up to date to what's been going on."

Carlston gives him a little bit of a flat look, reassessing him. "As vague as usual, Mr. Barnes. Carters keeping you on a tight leash?" Says it in a pitying voice, like he's some kind of charity case with no mind of his own and Bucky could take the butter knife lying on the napkin and bury the damn thing in Carlston's throat, or his wrist, and be done with this whole mess, but he thinks that would definitely be one hell of a waste for the whole trip over here.

"Tight enough that I don't increase the fatality rates from last year." Bucky says, smiles wide and dark enough Carlston gets the message to stop fucking around. 

The Winter Soldier's fatality rates are well-known in the underworld, and Bucky's never been one to discourage vicious rumors about the efficiency of his work. 

"I take it you want to know about the mercenaries who were sent to pick up a load, am I right?" Carlston asks, looks at him with a blank expression. "They tailed you, almost killed you, and you left with two brand-new playthings right off the street."

"Yeah," Bucky says, with a sharp nod. "Exactly. I went to the drop for recon, saw a couple of new guys I've never seen. Red eagle insignia. High-tech gear."

"Red eagles?" Carlston repeats, and it's only then that Bucky reads something off Carlston's face, can tell he knows. "Rogues. I took them in, gave them a chance, but they thought they could do better." Carlston grits his jaw, mouth a little tighter. "So they left. Decided to make their own group, and now they're backed by Zola."

"You're shitting me," Bucky says, falls back and tries to hide his surprise. "Zola?"

"Zola," Carlston shakes his head. The barista scurries over, places the glasses on the table and at Carlston's nod, hauls ass out the door. Bucky watches him go, and still feels a little bad. "Goddamned asshole. But I've been hearing things, and they tell me the rogues have been getting plump on Zola's feeder."

"What's his play in this?" Bucky asks, levels a stare at Carlston. "Zola's always been a piece of shit, but a weapons transaction in Carter territory? No way he'd be that confident to take us on."

"Maybe he knows something you don't," Carlston counters and takes a thoughtful gulp of his scotch. "Zola may be an asshole, but he's a smart one. I'd be careful."

"I need solid intel," Bucky says and leans forward, expectantly. Some part of Bucky is reeling, at the knowledge Zola has resurfaced after a year of being underground, and that he's making a move just when Steve is about to assume power. "I need names."

Carlston blinks, looks past Bucky's shoulder briefly. "Of course you do," he says and laughs about it a little and takes a piece of paper out from his suit, slides it across the table and tilts his head. 

Bucky raises an eyebrow, takes the paper and flips it over. 

Niki Rosten is scrawled in messy handwriting on the paper. 

"Who's this?" Bucky says, takes his untouched drink and downs it in one swig. 

"She's in charge of the rogues. Find her, you find them. You find why they were there, and what Zola paid them to do," Carlston pauses and when he smiles, the hairs on Bucky's neck stand up. "But one thing you should know."

"What's that?" Bucky says. He's curious, about this Niki person. Who's important and dangerous enough for even Carlston to know about. 

"She's McCullough's daughter." 

Bucky's mouth screws up into something ugly. He shakes his head, thinks a little about what exactly that means, and shakes his head again. This just got a whole lot fucking harder, says the little rational voice in the back of his head. Peggy is going to hate this, and Steve is going to hate this even more. "Fuck."

"Fuck," Carlston agrees with a wry smile. "Indeed. I wish you best of luck."

"Thanks," Bucky says and slides out the booth, takes the piece of paper and stuffs it into his jacket and pats down his jeans, tucking the hilt of his favorite gun into his waistband. "I appreciate this."

"Did you really take in two civilians?" Carlston suddenly asks, with the kind of tone that's designed to piss people off.

Bucky decides to flip him off. "Shut your fucking mouth." Bucky says, and starts walking to the door. 

"Tell them to swing by if they're pretty!" Carlston yells at his retreating back, and Bucky shakes his head, laughs.

"Over my dead fucking body, Carlston, and you have a daughter."

"I could get a babysitter." Carlston replies, and Bucky turns to see him shrug innocently. 

"You're a goddamn menace." Bucky says, and walks out the door.

 

 

 

 

 

From one mess to another, it looks like this day is just fucking messy.

Bucky strolls right into the gym, because that's where the first newbie recruit squeaked out where Steve was after Bucky waved a knife in front of his face.

Steve and Natasha are in the middle of the empty room, on padded mats, with Clint and a strangely grime-covered Tony standing a few meters away.

When Bucky steps inside, Tony whirls around with grime in his tufty, curly hair and a smile that makes his heart skip a little beat. "Murder muffin! Buckaroo! You're finally back." 

Steve and Natasha turn as one, and Bucky raises an eyebrow at the group. "Fighting without me? I'm betrayed." He says and chuckles at Tony's feigned gasp, and Steve's laugh and Nat's eyeroll. Clint just sort of squints at him, and Bucky squints right back.

Steve breaks off, walks right over in long strides and presses a quick kiss to his lips. "Hey, sweetheart," Steve says lowly, blue eyes glowing and earnest. Bucky's always been in danger of getting lost in those blue eyes. "How was the trip?"

Bucky kisses back briefly, and leans in to whisper in Steve's ear, "Good. I've got a name."

"Great," Steve smiles and runs a hand through his tousled blond hair. "That's great, Buck. We'll go through it later. Come on, join us." And because Bucky can't ever resist it when his boyfriend asks him anything, he follows Steve back to the group.

"Bucky," Nat says in greetings and nods. "Good to see you. Got what you needed?"

"Nat," Bucky smiles. "I always do. Finished with the recruits already? Seven came in and four went straight home?"

Nat rolls her eyes, crosses her arms over her chest. "Five went home. Not even with any broken bones," she adds with an incredulous little toss of her red hair. "Just some bruises.

Steve gives a low whistle, shakes his head. "Must've been one hell of a bruise."

"Must've been one hell of an internal injury." Clint mutters under his breath.

Nat shrugs, steps forward and snaps her fingers in front of Tony. "In my day," she tells him. "We used to work to get where we are. We didn't quit. Not even when it got tough, not when we broke a few bones, we still got up."

"This pep-talk isn't making me feel better," Tony says with a little bit of whine in his voice as he reluctantly takes up stance. "Please let me go back to Happy, the man's a fucking wizard. I'm helping him with this energy circuit that's supposed to power a really cool blue-energized weapon, and—"

Nat throws a punch, a really soft one, at Tony's face and Bucky almost tries and stops it because Tony's still talking like the idiot he is but is completely shocked when the brunet sidesteps, ducks and puts his fists up to his face and throws a right hook which is infinitely better than the first one Bucky's seen him throw. 

Nat blocks the hook, responds with a low jab to Tony's underbelly and Bucky watches earnestly as Tony jumps right back, curls falling into his face and eyes bright with focus. Goddamn, if Tony looks this focused when he's fighting, Bucky could think of a hell lot more to occupy Tony with to get that look in his eye. 

Clint makes an approving noise, and says, "Go for her throat or her knees, Tony!" then a second's pause, and says, "Maybe just her knees." 

Tony gives a short laugh, dodges another flurry of blows from Nat and gets at least two of his own in. Bucky shares a look with Steve, who has a secret smile on his face that completely acknowledges how Bucky's internal organs are screaming at him to take Tony back to their room. 

"Good," Nat says as Tony does this adorable high kick thing with his left foot and she blocks it expertly. "But never take your eyes off the enemy." Tony gives a startled squeak as Nat pulls back on his extended left foot, uses it to turn Tony's weight and momentum against him and gives Tony a little push backwards. 

Tony yelps from his place on the mat, stares up at Nat with a shit-eating grin on his face. "That is such a Bruce-Lee thing to say," he announces with a smug wink. "You guys have the same nose and punch and everything. Are you guys related?"

Nat gives him an unimpressed look, but pulls Tony up anyway and says flatly, "Bruce Lee is a distant relative. My mom's side."

Tony stares back, wide-eyed. "No."

Nat continues to stare right back unflinchingly, and Tony's mid freakout is interrupted by Clint's guffaw from the side. "Oh, you fucking gullible bastard. You're smart enough to build a goddamn rocket into space but you believe this shit? Tones," Clint says and grabs Tony by the back of his neck and shakes him. "You're like Bambi. You'll just cease to exist on your own."

"Excuse you, asshole," Tony shoots back and turns in Clint's grasp. "I'll have you know I am nowhere as thick as orphaned Bambi and I do not have a white fluffy butt with a tiny brown tail."

"No, your ass is all grey hairs because of all the—" Clint starts to say, and is cut off mid sentence when Tony launches himself at his friend and they both go down in a tangle of limbs and garbled shrieks, and Clint yells from behind a mop of Tony's grimy brown hair, "Hey there are at least three master assassins in this room will one of you get this maggot ass off my back?"

"No," Bucky calls back down gleefully. "I fully support Tony. Tony, try and sound a little manlier when he grabs you like that."

"I'll make sure to grunt like a caveman whenever I am physically touched." Tony agrees and disappears underneath Clint's flailing arms. 

Steve sighs, shoots Bucky a fond look. "Come on, guys, break it off. Bucky's had a busy morning, Tony, tell him about your time with Happy," Steve tells the smaller brunet as he climbs to his feet. 

"Happy?" Bucky asks, swiveling to look at his boyfriend. "You got Happy to take an apprentice?"

Tony blows his hair away from his face, frowns at them. It's supposed to come off as threatening, Bucky faintly registers, but the only thing Tony's achieving is coming off as precious. "I'm not an apprentice. Just a helper. He's so nice, he lets me work with him and I actually get to work with metals and fires and gears..." he trails off, looking a little lost. "It's great. The kind of raw work I never got to do at MIT."

Nat nods, pats Tony on the back with a small smile. "I sometimes forget how sharp you are, kotenok."

Bucky raises his eyebrows at that, glances at Nat curiously, and looks away before he gets caught staring at the master Russian spy who can kill with her thighs. 

Tony smiles at her, wide and happy. "And once I finished working with Happy on his new electrical circuit, Steve came and got me and we visited Clint and Nat. Clint was shooting arrows, and he's fucking good at it. Right, Nat?" 

Clint clears his throat, shifts on his feet a little and Bucky chuckles at the subtle display of shyness. "I knew it. Saw you had a thing for arrows the second I caught you staring at the armory in the gym yesterday like a horny bird, trying to hide your fucking boner." Bucky says, and claps Clint on the shoulder heartily. "That's great."

"Buck," Steve scolds lightly. "We don't call people horny birds."

"If the shoe fits," Tony says, and then he starts laughing.

"Dick." Clint says, makes an aggravated noise in the back of his throat, but he's smiling anyways. 

"He's not bad." Nat says with an exasperated smile. "Better than some recruits."

"From you, I'm going to take that as a fucking compliment." Clint tells her with a proud tone.

"Well you should, she meant it as one." Bucky agrees with a hum and puts his hands on Steve's broad shoulders just because he can. 

"I'm confused as how to respond," Clint admits and stares beseechingly at Steve, who downright laughs about it. "There's no Wikihow on accepting compliments from mobsters."

Tony sniffs, still laughing, tries to hide a smile behind his hand. "You know they let anyone edit those articles, right? You could just be one of those unnamed bald divorced guys hunting for a weakness. You were born for it." he adds with a convincing nod. 

It's dangerous, Bucky thinks distantly. How comfortable they're all getting, to the point where they can just all kind of laugh and poke around with each other. How comfortable Nat is, to give Tony endearing nicknames in Russian and for Steve to let himself go and open in a way he never really is when they're at the compound. It's scary how well Tony and Clint fits into their little merry band of miscreants, how well they click. It shouldn't be happening, he knows, it should be over in less than four days. It really fucking should. He, Nat, and goddamn Steve, most of all, shouldn't be getting used to this. They all know that.

But the longer he spends with them, the less reason he sees not to enjoy having them around, while they're still here.

Steve pulls him out of his thoughts with a hard tug on his sleeve, and Bucky snaps back to attention. 

Steve has his phone in his hand, and he's looking worried about it. "Buck, she just landed two hours ago. Here, in New York."

"Who?" Bucky asks, searching Steve's blue eyes. 

His boyfriend's face is tight, mouth pulled in a line. "Sharon. She wasn't supposed to be back for another week, which means it was Peggy. Peggy called her to come back."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Shit," Tony says, crashing onto the ground, wind knocked out of his chest from the mini blast that rolled out of the compressed detonator. "That was fun, huh? We're having fun?"

"Yeah," Happy says and looks down at the smaller brunet on the grime-covered floor. "Yeah, your arm is probably broken in about two places."

Tony shrugs, grins up at the larger man. "Definition of fun, cheeseballs." 

"Steve's gonna rip me a new one if you don't get back to him in one piece," Happy mutters and leans down to pull him up.

Tony takes the offered hand, jumps to his feet and brushes the dirt off. It does nothing for the smudged white tank top he's wearing, and Tony frowns down at it, because honestly if he has to do his own laundry here he'll just have to wear it inside-out. Lazy shit, some inner voice in his head whispers accusingly and Tony internally scowls back. 

"So," Tony says and reaches across the workbench to heft the gun in his hands. The gun is heavy, metal cool against his skin and he shifts it around to examine it more closely. There's some kind of energy in the metal, thrumming against his hands. "What'd you make this with?"

Happy takes the dirty rag from his apron and wipes it across his face, squints at Tony. "Trade secrets, kid. If I tell you I'll have to kill you."

"Don't have to oversell it, Happy." Tony says, peering inside the glass vial lodged inside the gun. "I'm already sold. This is beautiful."

Happy snorts, opens up a large meaty palm expectantly. "You like weapons, kid?"

"Not particularly," Tony tells him, shrugs and places the gun into Happy's outstretched hand. It's a beautiful piece of metal, he thinks, but he knows better than to pry about that glass vial inside and the energy coursing through it. "I like electronics. Softwares, gadgets, power systems. I built an energy circuit for MIT once, put it inside a car and powered it without fuel."

"MIT, huh?" Happy asks, tosses a welding mask to him and gestures to the electrical board and circuit system they were working on in the morning. "You one of those pretty polished up kids with a trust fund?"

Tony snaps the welding mask on, blinks at the larger man through the smeared visors. "No," he says, softer. "Worked my ass off for it. Got a scholarship, been doing jobs on the side as an electrical engineer. Had to lie about my age and my experience but hey," and shrugs, "I get the job done so they don't complain."

The welding torch comes on with a hiss and a pop, and he hunkers over the workbench in order to get a closer look at the thin sheets of metal. 

"Didn't think boys like you came any other way other than pretty 'n polished." Happy observes, a tint of approval in his voice. "You're good with metal, I'll give you that."

"How'd you end up working for the Carters?" Tony asks, keeping his eyes on the soldering metal. Sparks are flying, bright and red off his mask. The torch feels comfortable in his hand, and he knows exactly how to use it. 

Happy laughs a little, leans against the bench and watches him. "You ask a lot of questions, kid."

Tony smiles grimly underneath the mask, shakes away the drop of sweat trickling down his forehead. "Don't learn nothing new unless you ask questions. What seventh grade teaches you, hm."

He briefly glances up, and Happy's staring off to the side, looking a little distant. It's not hard to see that the man doesn't talk a lot, is the kind to keep things to himself. It reminds Tony of his own father, those little snippets of a tall, silent Howard in a crisply pressed suit floating in the back of his head. But he doesn't like to think of Howard, so Tony forces himself to focus on the piece of metal and mess of wire smoldering in his fingers. 

"Ten years ago, I was in a pretty bad patch." Happy says, and his face is open, folds his hands together loosely. "Ran with the wrong crowd, got screwed over. They left me with a gut wound and a dislocated shoulder."

"They helped you, didn't they." Tony murmurs, lets the welding torch fade and sets it down on the bench and snaps up the welding mask onto his forehead, hair sticking up. He compiles the metal and wires absently, and glances up at Happy.

"They did," Happy says with a chuckle. "Steve was barely a man, a kid just like you. Probably even younger. Stumbled upon me in that dark alley, and did what his mother told him never to do in these parts. He helped a bleeding man in an alley."

Tony takes a stool, slides onto the seat and wipes his hands on his pants. "Sounds like Steve."

Steve, who's always too good for his own good. It's not a surprise he started young. 

"I got fixed up, was about to go on my way. Thank the golden prince of the Carter family, try and leave with my head on my shoulders," and Happy shakes his head at that, a small smile on his lips. "Steve insisted on seeing me out, pissed his family off. It wasn't so good back then, a rough time for the Carters. Steve had a target on his back."

Tony's eyes widen, and he can't ignore the little prick in his heart when he hears it. "Did someone hurt Steve?"

Happy tilts his head, shows his neck, and there's a pale scar outlined on the slope of his collarbones. "Bomb went off. A small one, and I covered Steve. After that, I don't know how, but they offered me a job here. I became part of the family." And then he gestures to the workshop around them, and there's a glint in his eye Tony recognizes as a man who loves his work. 

Tony's quiet for a moment, and then he says almost thoughtfully, "Your life changed when you met them."

His sure as hell did.

Happy moves towards him, and places his hand gently on Tony's shoulder. "Don't be scared, kid. They're good people." And Happy means it, every word he says, and Tony blinks at him. Happy's face holds, earnest and open, and he can't find it within himself to argue otherwise. 

"I think I can handle it," Tony says, offers Happy a smile that shows more confidence than he's feeling. "Yeah. I've got this."

"Sounds like bullshit to me," Happy tells him and sounds almost affectionate. 

"You know me so well," Tony says and places a hand to his heart, sniffles dramatically. "Papa, can I use that testing chamber over there?" He asks, and gestures behind him to the series of cubes that stand off to the side. They look like glass, but probably high quality polyester. "I tweaked some of your microelectronic explosives this morning, want to test it out."

"You be real fucking careful, Stark," Happy tells him and moves off to the side, heading towards a series of switches on a panel of complicated looking buttons. "If you get blown into bits I'm not cleaning up the pieces."

"Get Clint to do it," Tony calls over his shoulder and busies himself with locating one of the chips inside the small, metallic explosive. "He's not expensive and looks good in a maid outfit. Two dollars an hour should do it for him."

He goes, stands outside the farthest glass cube and touches the panel, the polyester warm against his skin. It smells chemical, feels a little hot where the panels are bonded. 

That's expensive, he thinks, but everything about this place says expensive.

"Your friend looks accident-prone. I'd hate to depose two bodies in one day." Happy says, hits a switch, and Tony watches as one panel of the testing chamber slides back into the wall. Clean, neat and precisely engineered. Some kind of mechanical plaything back there, Tony thinks, and his fingers itch to examine it. 

"I'm going to do an impact test first, then maybe a thermal sensitivity test. I wanna know how it reacts to at what range the explosive is capable of detonating under a stressful thermal confinement." Tony says, squints around the room for something to test the impact of the explosive against. 

"Impact machines are around somewhere at the back," Happy replies and stands at Tony and peers down at him. "You know a lot about weapons for an average civilian, kid."

It's kind of undignified, being at least a foot shorter than the other man, because Happy completely takes advantage of the height difference to treat him like he's a kid.

"Not my first time tinkering," Tony says and shrugs, makes an unflattering face. "My dad and I used to go at it in a makeshift work garage." 

"Your dad?" Happy asks, slow and a little wary, like he doesn't know if he should. 

Tony gets a little tense, then, and gets up to look for the impact machine, because talking about his father always gets on his nerves. "Yeah. Howard Stark, original asshole since 1917."

"Shitty father?" Happy nods, and doesn't ask about it any further. 

He can't ignore the relief that spreads in his chest.

"I'm going to the bathroom," Tony says and snaps off the welding mask and places it gently on the table, wincing at the sight of his grime-covered hands and at the bed of his nails. "Need to clean this up before we do the test."

Happy takes the explosive from him, flicks it into a line of metal explosives on a prepared metal plate, and clicks it into place. "Go ahead, it's out the door to the right down the hallway. I'll find the impact machine."

Tony slides over the workbench, pokes Happy on the shoulder because he's brave like that, and on on his way out blows Happy an air kiss, grinning. "Toodles, Papa."

"Yeah, yeah," Happy says gruffly and tosses a rag at his retreating figure. Tony laughs, because the older man's mouth is twitching like he's trying not to smile. "Out."

Tony leaves the workshop, through a series of steps and a door that checks his palm, retina and voice before it lets him out. When Happy first brought him down to the lab, he had stared at Happy, incredulous, and Happy had shrugged, looking cagey and persecuted. "Security against brats," Happy had said shortly, like that was a completely reasonable justification for locking down your basement like it's hiding nuclear launch codes and a truly life-ruining porn collection.

He goes down an empty hallway, and since it's near ground level of the entire compound he knows the silence and sheer inactivity is normal. Tony wanders for a moment, looking like an idiot, and then finds the bathroom when it's nestled close to the elevator at the end of the hall.

Tony opens into the bathroom, and spends a second just staring around. "Holy shit," he says, dumbfounded, because the bathroom is palatial in its own right. Marbled floors, fancy sinks, and a truly expensive-looking roll of velvet toilet paper. "Man, gotta be Happy someday."

He turns on the tap and crystal clear water comes rushing out, and he rubs his fingernails under the water, trying to get the dirt and grime out.

The door clicks open behind him. 

"I'm almost done, Happy." Tony says and scrubs a little faster, eyes fixed on the running grime in the sink. "You go ahead with the tests if you want." It's cute, that the older man came to find him. Tony opens his mouth to make a joke about them really being father-and-son, but there's silence, instead of Happy's gruff retorts, and Tony slowly raises his eyes up to the mirror.

A man, clad in a black mask and attire looms behind him, and Tony only has a split second to think when he sees the flash of metal and the man draws a knife.

Tony glances around, wildly, and reaches behind him to grab the handrail holding the small towel behind and yank it off as a makeshift weapon, and holds it out shakily.

His heart thrums hard and heavy against his chest, like it's trying to fly out if his ribcage, and Tony swallows back the lump of terror growing in his throat. The man smiles, sharp and wild, and Tony narrows his eyes, trying to gauge whether he can make a break for the door. 

"Back off," Tony says and hates himself for sounding scared, for having that little tremor in his voice. His hands feel cold, and the metal stark against his skin. "Who the hell are you?"

The man stares at him, silent. Then he moves, and is on him in a heartbeat, and Tony yells out something garbled, throws hard punches the way Nat taught him and for a moment the man looks surprised like he didn't expect Tony to fight back and Tony takes that precious second to bring down the metal rail, flimsy and weak in his hands onto the man's back but his assailant just grabs it out of his hands like a piece of paper and flings it to the side.

Shit, Tony thinks, panicked and loud in his mind. He backs himself up against the counters, fear coiled in his gut.

"Hey, asshole," Tony says, out of breath and holds his hands up and takes a trembling breath. He will not give this man the satisfaction of seeing him scared. "Let's talk this out." He eyes the metal container of soap on the sink, and grabs it, hoping he can get close enough to get at least one hit.

The man shakes his head a little, eyes Tony with a lazy disregard that suggests he'll enjoy tearing out Tony's throat, and that he'll be yawning with boredom while he does it. Faintly, Tony thinks it reminds him of the kind of look Howard used to give him.

Tony kicks out at the man, wild and uncoordinated, just as the stranger stalks forward. It's too quick, the whole thing, and the blood is rushing in his ears, because his kick is easily blocked and Tony can't fucking breathe for a moment when the man responds with three vicious jabs to the gut, almost enough to bring Tony down to his knees.

God, he wants to get down on his knees.

The masked assailant throws him against the sink, and he slams back into the marble and groans from the stabbing pain that just explodes in his lower back, and tries to struggle up, but his legs are failing him. 

His legs tremble with the effort of keeping up, and Tony glares weakly at the man, and tries to regain his balance with a trembling hand grasping the counter. 

"You don't fucking belong here," The man hisses in his ear and yanks him forward by his torn up shirt and knees him in the gut, and then slams Tony's head down on the bathroom floor.

Tony makes a sound in his throat, pained and shocked, his vision spotting for a moment at the blunt contact with the cold marble.

Blood, somewhere in his head registers, there's blood in his mouth.

He grits his teeth, tries to blink against the seering agony that slices across his back and his head, tries to get back up. 

"Go back to where you came from, you and your fucking friend. You're nothing but civilians, and you shouldn't be here. It's not right. Steve's grown soft," and the man spits, snarls in rage. "He's grown weak. I didn't believe it at first. I thought he was a good leader."

"Steve..." Tony splutters from the metallic tang of blood trickling from his lips. It's in his throat, heavy and thick and Tony decides he hates blood. "Steve's good."

"No," the man growls, voice dark and furious. "He's not. Not anymore. I'm not the only one who thinks so," he says, and there's a little laughter in his tone. 

It's sick. "Hey," Tony tips his chin and tries to draw in a breath. It's not getting into his lungs, and he gapes for another. "Does the Geneva Convention know about this?"

It's stupid, he thinks in hindsight, goading on men like that. He gets a kick in his ribs for his trouble and tries not to moan from the pain. 

"Steve's weak. You're proof it's true." The man snaps, pointing at him and whirling around towards the door. "Your ribs are probably broken, that's why you can't breathe."

Damn. Tony tries to glare at the man, but only succeeds in squinting. "W-well, Florence fucking Nightingale, why don't you tend to me?" 

The stranger snorts, hand on the doorknob. What's he waiting for?

Tony decides to stop making the effort to talk, because honestly his neurons are probably fried from all the pain and he can do nothing but lay there, on his back, his head spinning out of control and blinks up at the man lingering above him, trying to remember the lines of his face. 

And he hates it, hates this helplessness taking over his body, that he can't even find the strength to life his arms. 

Tony's eyes roll to the back of his head, and the ceiling is suddenly so fucking bright. So bright it hurts, and then the ceiling is gone, and he freaks out, but then his vision flashes back and the white is blinding.

Tony stretches his fingers, wants to get up. Needs to get up. He knows he has to.

Happy. Where's Happy?

"Hey asshole," Tony croaks, lids drooping as black creeps in at the edge of his vision. "At least...'least turn off the fucking light." It's so goddamn bright, he thinks. The least this guy could do. He turns his head to the side, and there's a dull, throbbing pain in the back of his head he ignores.

The man becomes nothing but a shadow, silhouette blinking in and out. 

The man tips his head back to smile at him, teeth flashing as he flicks his fingers in a mocking wave. "Night night, baby Stark."

The last thing Tony sees, is the door clicking shut. 

 

 

Chapter Text

They're sitting in a board room, all of them.

Sharon is seated opposite of him, staring him down with her arms crossed.

Bucky is sharpening his knife, languid and slow, eyeing the guards behind Sharon with distrust. 

Nat's jaw is tight, her eyes intent and focused on all three. 

Steve sighs. The tension in the room is palpable, rigid and coursing throughout the room. He knew it wasn't a good idea, bringing up Zola, and his impending leadership. He's about to open his mouth, calm everyone down, when the doors to the board room burst open and an agent, looking panicked and scared rushes inside, and it sets off a chain reaction. 

Sharon scowls, whipping around. "This is a classified meeting, agent, what's your—"

The agent, who Steve recognizes as Tom Jensen, a seasoned officer, ignores Sharon and turns to face him, eyes wide. "Mr Carter, sir, there's been an incident, involving the young Stark, Mr. Hogan sent me to tell you—" Jensen says more, mouth moving, but Steve is already standing up, his heart stopping in his chest.

The sharpening of Bucky's knife grinds to a jarring stop. 

Nat jumps to her feet, fires off questions, "What? What happened?"

"You better come quick, Mr. Carter," Jensen says quickly, eyes swinging from Nat to him. "Mr. Hogan says it's pretty bad."

"What the fuck happened?" Bucky snaps, voice taut, and grabs Steve by the neck, pushing him out the door. Nat follows behind, working her jaw, and Sharon is moving around behind them. He stumbles, mind racing, and all he can hear is Tony is hurt. Tony is hurt.

Tony is hurt. 

"Steve!" Nat says, sharp and cuts through his thoughts. "Pull yourself together. We have to get Tony."

"Steve," Sharon says, eyes narrowed, but falls silent at Nat's harsh glance.

Bucky's shoulders are quivering, a sign he knows means that the brunet is worried and angry. It's something he doesn't see often, and Steve blinks back to focus, and his heart roars in his ears. Do something. Take charge.

"How badly is he hurt?" Steve says, forcing the whirlwind to the back of his mind and staring straight ahead. He's needed, Tony needs him, and he will not fail Tony. They're moving fast, almost running, and attracting concerned glances along the way. Down the hallway, to the next, he vaguely registers Bucky telling him to turn left. 

They're headed to the medical wing. 

Jensen is brisk, ahead of them, and answers curtly. "I haven't seen him, sir, but Mr. Hogan seems to be very furious."

Bucky snarls next to him. "Fucking hell, what happened? Who the fuck dared?" 

Nat looks between the both of them, green eyes glinting. "We'll find that out later," and there's something dark in her voice, promising pain. 

Tony's hurt, and Steve wasn't there. He wasn't there to stop it, and he wasn't there to help.

The guilt weighs, massive and unbearable, in his gut. It's going to bring all of him down with it. Nat touches him softly on his shoulder, and Steve turns to her, saying everything with his eyes. She nods. 

They're at the medical wing, and Steve locks eyes on the first doctor he finds. "Tony Stark, Happy Hogan, where are they?" And the nurses and the doctors must see something in him, in all of them, because there's fear in the air and no one says anything  for a split second.

Bucky twitches beside him. He's about to explode.

A man in a white coat steps forward, gestures them to follow him. "Mr. Stark? He's in room 204. They're stabilizing him." The doctor, wise man, knows exactly who they are and leads them down the corridor, points to the room 204. 

The door swings open, and Happy strides forward, blood dappled across his shirt. "Steve, Bucky, thank God you're here. Tony was attacked in the bathroom—"

But Steve's not listening, because when he catches sight of Tony, that's where he goes. 

He reaches the brunet's bedside, sees the tubes, the breathing mask settled on Tony's face, and the bandages wrapped around his head. And there's so many things he wants to do, but he slowly falls to his knees, eyes fixed on the brunet's lax face.

Tony's pale, eyes shut, eyelashes resting against his cheeks. Steve reaches forward, heart breaking, and runs his fingers through Tony's forehead and his hair. "Tony?" He says, softly, and rests his fingers against the brunet's cold cheek. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. You'll be okay. I promise." 

Tony doesn't reply. He doesn't even open his eyes. 

Bucky crouches next to him, eyes dark with fury. "Tony," he says, voice cracking. "Fuck, Steve, fuck. How, how the fuck did this happen? Can anyone tell me anything?" and he turns, on his feet, favorite knife in his hands. Steve blinks, gazes at Bucky distantly. 

"Buck," he says, flatly. "Talk to Happy. See what he knows." 

Happy's in the corner, arms crossed, mouth pulled tight. "We were working down in the lab. Everything was fine, and then Tony went to go to the bathroom, while I looked for something to complete our experiment. He took a while," and Happy grits his teeth, eyes straying to Tony's prone form in the hospital bed. "He took a while, so I went to look for him. I found him on the floor, blood around his head, and I wrapped it with my shirt and called for help."

Bucky's staring at Happy, eyes narrowed. "You let him go alone?" and there's misplaced anger in his voice, and Nat notices it too because she steps in front of Bucky, stares right into his eyes. 

"Buck," she says, a warning in her voice. "It's not his fault." 

Happy blinks, glances up at the ceiling and down again, fists clenched. "No, it is. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I should've been there." 

"No, she's right," Steve says, voice dry. He feels small, and he feels helpless. How can he protect anyone, his family, when he can't even protect Tony? "It's not Happy's fault. It's mine. I asked him to stay. I let him stay, when I fucking knew it was stupid, and now he's hurt, because of me."

Bucky glances at him, eyes hollow, then back to Tony. The muscled brunet's shoulders sag a little. 

"Steve," Nat says, voice hard. "We are not playing the blame game. Tony's hurt, and it's our job to figure out who is responsible, and it is our job to fix this." She moves, lithe and smooth, over to the door and waves in the doctor who's been lingering outside the entire time. "We need to know everything. So get your head on straight, Carter." She takes Steve's chin in her hand, looks right into him. "Alright?"

Steve stands, facing the cautious doctor. He breathes in, settling his heart, his frantic mind, and focuses on one razor sharp thought. How to help Tony now. "Doctor, how is he?"

The doctor introduces himself as Jerry, and holds out a clipboard. "He's stable, which is very good, considering his state when he came in had us worried about internal bleeding. But he doesn't," the doctor says hurriedly, when Bucky's head snaps up sharply. "We have him on a drip, sleeping meds, a breathing incubator until we know for sure the condition of his ribs and lungs. He's sustained a minor concussion, could have been worse if there was a second impact but there wasn't, so that's very good news. We've treated his head wound, and waiting on X-Rays to determine whether the damage to his ribs are severe."

Nat nods. "Thank you, doctor. Please make sure he's in no pain and comfortable."

The doctor dips his head, and takes that as his cue to leave.

With every passing second, there's more rage coiling up in his gut, tight and raring to break free. His shoulders are tight, and Steve takes another deep breath in order to resist losing control. He can't. This is his mess, and he will fix it. 

Bucky's knife is out again, twirling in his hands, fast and dangerous. "I'm going to flay the person who did this," he says, fury barely concealed in his voice. "I'm going to rip their throats out."

Nat lets out a breath, and there's a sadness in her gaze. "We have to make this right." She moves to Tony's bedside, leans down and brushes her fingers against the brunet's hair. "Kotenok," she murmurs softly. "We will get you justice."

"This was someone from the inside," Bucky says, voice low. "Just like how McCullough put men on Tony and Clint's apartments. This was someone we know."

"They're trying to send us a message," Steve says, stares at Tony's sleeping face. "Sending me a message." The realization is sudden, hits him like a wave of cold water, and he reels from it. "This is for me."

Nat squints at him, and a spark of understanding dawns in her eyes. "It's because Tony's connected to you. Everyone's been talking about it, about us bringing in civilians. Many are unhappy." 

"This is a protest on your leadership?" Bucky asks, blue eyes like ice.

There's nothing soft or calm about the way he stands, shoulders squared, metal arm glinting, the Winter Soldier bleeding through the cracks. 

"I'm taking over soon. They all know it." Steve says, and eyes his two most loyal friends in the world. "I think it's someone closer than we know. Someone who has the power, and the pull."

A growl rumbles in Bucky's throat, and his metal fingers flex, machinery whirring. "I think I know who he is. It doesn't surprise me, that fucking coward," he spits. "Using an innocent civilian to make his point instead of directly to our faces. Fucking cunt."

"We can't let him think we suspect him," Nat tells him quietly. "We need to let him think we're going after someone else."

"Maybe some random agent who thought he knew better, felt like Tony is a threat." Steve says, and shakes his head. He shouldn't have to pretend, pretend like he doesn't know whose fault it is Tony's lying in a hospital bed, in pain. He shouldn't have to pretend like he doesn't know who put the terror in Tony's eyes, the terror he must've felt when they came for him. 

"Let's tell him to get fucked," Bucky suggests, and Nat rolls her eyes in good humor. "Let's tell him that, only without words, and with the tip of my very handy knives."

"Plan B," Steve agrees and his mouth twitches. "Alright. We play this slow. No one else comes to harm. Just between the three of us, yeah?"

They nod.

"Sharon," Nat says, reminding him. "What are you going to do?"

Steve grits his teeth, looking away. "She can wait. I'll ask Peggy to field any questions for now. This is a priority. I'm going to find Tony's attacker."

"Steve, be careful," Nat warns, her green eyes searching. "We have to proceed cautiously. Whoever did this, they're expecting you to retaliate. You don't want to play right into their hand. People don't expect you to fight tooth and claw for Tony. If you do—"

Bucky whirls on her, then, teeth flashing, and snaps, "What are you saying? You don't think we should find who did this?"

Nat faces him, calmly. She's always been the more rational one, out of the three of them. 

"I want to find the attacker as much as you do, Buck," Nat says steadily. "But there are deeper and darker things at play here."

Steve raises his head, suddenly feeling a wave of exhaustion threatening to sweep over his bones. He wants to sit down, next to Tony's bed, and shut everything away. But he can't do that, and the heavy weight of his duty burdens on his shoulders. 

"She's right, Buck." Steve says, voice quiet. "But if I let this go unpunished, I'll look weak. Tony was clearly and officially under my protection, so is Clint. They're both in danger now, and if I do not respond, it'll seem like I have no control, or authority over them or anyone else. Then they'll stop listening to me."

Bucky jams his knife back, into his belt, and glares balefully at him. "So what? Are you going to do something about it?"

Steve clears his throat, tries to tamp down the feelings of anger, anger for himself, for Tony, and horror, because what kind of monster would attack an innocent civilian? What kind of monster, would leave Tony, sweet, smart, kind Tony, lying on the floor in his own blood? 

Bucky is looking at him, expectant, like when Steve gives the command, he'll unleash the Winter Soldier. 

Nat is standing next to him, silent and trustworthy, at his side. 

He is the leader. 

There will be no mercy for the one who hurt Tony. 

He turns, kicks open the door, stalks into the hallway. Jensen is standing with a group of agents, all under his command. They're part of an elite group, and Steve himself trains with them, so he knows they can be trusted. 

"Jensen," Steve says, and everyone turns to face him. Expectant. "I want two guards. Posted by Tony's door, day and night. Find ones you trust. Send two more to me, and I want them with the other civilian, Clint Barton, at all times. The rest of you, I want you looking at security footage, anywhere near the lab, I want to know who the hell did this."

Bucky steps forward, flashes his teeth in the parody of a smile. "I hope I don't have to convince anyone to work very hard.

Nat touches him on the shoulder, and tells him softly, "I'm going to find Clint. Make sure he's alright and tell him about Tony."

Steve nods, and then turns to face the people in the halls. "This will not go unpunished," Steve says, raising his voice.

He feels the eyes of his agents on him, and hope anyone involved is also listening. "This was an attack against my leadership, my authority, and I will not let this happen again. That young man was under my protection. And I know some people here question my decisions, and your concerns are valid, but I will not have innocents harmed in order to make a point. If you have a problem," Steve rakes his gaze around the room, and not one person meets his eyes. "You have it with me. Only me."

"This was the work of a coward. Make no mistake," Steve says, voice dropping into a snarl. "I will find the person responsible."

He hopes, that this will reach whoever orchestrated the attack. He hopes it's enough, that this shows the world that Tony is theirs. Theirs to protect, and theirs to defend. 

The agents disperse, quickly, expressions nervous. Jensen turns and gestures two men behind him, and at Steve's permitting nod, they move to stand sentry outside Tony's door. It's not the first time Steve has shown this much anger, because the last time he did, things went south real fast. 

"Steve," Bucky says, and Steve turns to see his best friend's face tightened and creased in a scowl. "I need to do something. I need to get my hands on someone," he explains, tense. Bucky's metal arm is whirring again, restless, and there's a certain wildness in the back of his eyes Steve knows too well. 

Steve frowns, motions Bucky to the hallway, out of sight from any prying eyes. "Is the Winter Soldier close?"

Bucky lets out a forced breath, blinks up at him. "Yeah," and there's an apology in his voice. "Just, seeing Tony..." and he trails off, looking distant. 

"I understand, sweetheart." Steve says softly, leaning in close. He needs the comfort, the closeness only Bucky can bring. "You don't need to be sorry."

"Sometimes he's right there, at the back of my mind. Just waiting to come out." Bucky breathes, fingers flexing. 

Steve watches his best friend carefully, trying to find markings of the Winter Soldier. He had learned to, after years of being by Bucky's side during the intense therapy sessions that left Bucky shaking and sweating, needing to be helped out before he went through an episode, after the night terrors that had left Bucky in terrified tears more than once. He had been through it all, endured the suffering with his best friend without batting an eye.

"He's a part of you, Buck," Steve tells him, presses a kiss on his forehead. "You're in control. Okay? You're in control." 

Bucky sighs, hand going to the strap that holds his knife. "I need to distract myself. If I stay here I'm going to go insane."

They all need something to distract themselves when things goes sideways.

With Nat, she always goes to her room, for about an hour, turns off the lights, and doesn't come out for at least an hour.

To keep his own cool, Steve always heads to the gym and stays there until the rage is burned out. 

With Bucky, he needs a physical distraction, needs the adrenaline of a thrill, a hunt. 

Steve racks his brain, trying to think of something. Bucky's blue eyes are shadowed and his shoulders hunched, and he knows how close the Winter Soldier might be if Bucky's this wound up.

"You came to me yesterday with a name from Carlston, something about the Rogues, and it could be connected to Zola." Steve says, taking a hold of Bucky's shoulder and staring into his eyes. "You remember? You said you had a name, a lead."

Bucky looks up sharply and nods, blue eyes flashing. "Niki Rosten."

"Will you be okay by yourself?" Steve asks, fretting. He doesn't want Bucky to lose control out there. "Maybe I can send a team with you. Or Wanda, Pietro."

But Bucky shakes his head, and says, "No, Stevie. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. I'll be back in a few hours." Then, his eyes straying past Steve's shoulder, he murmurs, "Look after Tony for me."

"Call if you need help," Steve says and touches Bucky's cheek before the muscular brunet leaves, shoulders a little less tight.

Steve watches Bucky go, chest feeling hollow, unable to ignore the fear wrapping around his gut and the sense of foreboding crawling on his skin, raking shivers down the back of his spine. He swallows back his feelings of unease, and runs a hand through his unruly hair.

He watches till he loses sight of his best friend, and wonders if he made the right choice.

Chapter Text

It doesn't take him long to get what he needs from the mechanic flailing gracelessly in his grasp.

Bucky doesn't want to kill him, really, he doesn't. But the Winter Soldier is close, his icy fingers gripped around Bucky's throat and he's telling him to snap, snap that neck. It'll feel good, the Soldier whispers in his ear, fingertips trailing over the hollow in his collarbones. Bucky quivers ever so slightly, desperately drawing for a breath but it seems like the air is trapped in his lungs, convulsing and writhing.

It's unattainable, and Bucky's throat closes, vision flashing white. 

Do it, soldat. 

Do it.

A smile, ruthlessly cold, stretches in a tragic imitation of the Cheshire Cat grin on the Soldier's face.

"Pl-ease," the mechanic chokes, words coming out spluttered with drops of blood on the floor. "D-don't kill me, I'll tell you a-anything—"

Bucky shudders again, clawing himself back into the present. He looks down, briefly, and his chest is heaving, knuckles turning white from where they're gripping the mechanic's head. The mechanic,  suspended between Bucky's legs like a fallen fawn whimpers, eyes wide and glittering with unshed tears and the struggle resumes again.

The Soldier curls his lip at that. Pathetic. Clinging to a life not worth living, and the Soldier tuts. Why even bother, hmm?

All life is precious, Bucky replies tartly, and the Soldier snorts. 

Bucky tilts the mechanic's chin up, and forces his voice to work. "You're sure this is where she lives?" He rasps, raking his eyes over the address written on a small piece of paper the mechanic had quickly scrawled on when Bucky's hands first wrapped around his neck. 

The mechanic nods frantically, saliva dripping off his lips. "Yes, yes, I wouldn't lie, I fucking promise, I swear to God—"

God means nothing to me, the Soldier murmurs, blue eyes growing paler in the darkness. Bucky breathes out shakily, blinks, and the Soldier's closer now, silhouette so close to him he feels the glint and the sharp cold of metal touching his skin. The Soldier's calm, measured breaths, rising and falling beneath him, behind him, in him. 

"I know who you are," the mechanic says, voice shattering in pieces. "The Winter Soldier, I wouldn't lie. That is where Niki Rosten lives. I swear it."

He's lying, and the Soldier makes a noise in his throat, a pleased purr. Why not just kill him and get it over with? Steve would be delighted at finding a corpse you left behind. Imagine Tony's face. He'd be fascinated. 

Steve won't let me get away with cold-blooded murder, Bucky retorts, angry at the suggestion.

No, he wouldn't, would he? Maybe it's time to—

"No," Bucky snaps, and lets go. 

His metal fingers loosen around the mechanic's throat, and the poor man scrambles away so quickly he's surprised he doesn't twist his ankle. The mechanic is still on the floor, watching him with terrorized eyes and paralyzed limbs. He can smell the fear radiating from the hunched figure. The silence is deafening, and Bucky straightens, and the Soldier fades away in a drumming heartbeat to nestle somewhere in the shadows. 

"Please," the mechanic says again,  eyes wavering from side to side. No doubt looking for something to defend himself with. There's a wench, lying to the side, forgotten in the struggle next to the hood of an expensive Ferrari, clearly stolen since the plates are tossed to the side. But the mechanic doesn't risk it, thankfully, and so Bucky doesn't have to kill anyone today. 

Yet. "Don't tell anyone I was here." Bucky rasps, and forces himself to move, move towards the glaring garage door. 

He doesn't have to look back to know the mechanic will listen. 

Bucky stumbles out of the washed out garage, pulls down the metal sheet behind him and it drops to the floor with a resounding screech. The sunlight is suddenly blinding, and Bucky shakes his head, trying to focus despite its glare. He takes out the piece of paper and squints at the address, wildly scrawled. 

He glances up, peers around, and the street is eerily empty. There's no one around, which is mildly suspicious given it's still daylight. 

There's a few cranking noises from inside the garage, and Bucky eyes the door from his peripheral vision.

It didn't take him long to find the mechanic, after working through all known records of Niki Rosten, he'd come to the conclusion that in her free time, she dallied among car dealers. A car thief, and a talented one at that. And there'd been records of her purchasing several vintage classics, and only one referral listed as the dealership. The mechanic had blabbed almost immediately, that she was a frequent customer, and after a few minutes Bucky had gotten her address.

Briefly, Bucky entertains the thought of remarking to Rosten, once he's found her, that she should really get a reputable dealer. 

Because if the majority of the people she's worked with is as boneless as the mechanic, he really does wonder exactly how she's managed to stay alive until now.

The address is only a few blocks from the mechanic's dealer garage. That's good. That means she's sloppy, because everyone knows living near anyone who knows where you are, who you are and especially someone who works for you is a mistake, a mistake that can get you killed. 

So Bucky gets on his motorcycle, swings right up, and suddenly Tony flashes into his mind, Tony who when he first saw Bucky's motorcycle grinned the biggest grin and told him that he'd love to show that motorcycle a good time, in his workshop, and winked. 

Bucky had flirted back, asked if the motorcycle's owner could have a good time too, and reveled when Tony's eyes grew a little bigger and smile a little delighted.

He breathes out sharply, and can't stop himself from seeing Tony's bruised, swollen face, pale and unmoving against white, empty sheets. The parting of Tony's lips, blood trickling from the edges of ghostly pink. Unseeing eyes, cloudy and grey, staring up at nothing. He has to physically ground himself, in order to convince himself Tony isn't dead, that he's alright, back at the compound with Steve. 

Ah, death is all around you isn't it?  The Soldier murmurs gleefully in his ear, and it's so soft, Bucky nearly loses it to the wind. 

Bucky shivers, heart thudding against his chest and he knows that if he stays there for a moment longer, it's another moment the Soldier grows a little larger and a little more there in his mind so he revs the engine and as the vehicle springs to life underneath him, he loses himself in the stream of gas and pure, unadulterated noise.

And he's almost there before he knows it, zooming through the streets, the wind whipping at his hair, and nearly runs over an unassuming pedestrian walking on the sidewalk who yells out an outraged "hey!" and then, "I'm walking over here!"

Bucky shoots a quick look back and an apologetic smile, in partnership with a held up hand in the universal gesture of 'I'm sorry' and chuckles to himself at the thought of Steve having to explain to Peggy how Bucky directly caused the death of some poor bastard on his way to the local bagelshop during one of his excursions. 

Yes, Peggy, I know Bucky's supposed to be under my supervision but I don't know, he just left, yes, went up and fucked right off, and yes, I know he's had a troublesome history but really, what can we do? Return him to the shelter? 

Peggy's resounding gasp of horror loops in his mind.

He absolutely pictures himself replying in a neat, sincere little tone, I just made a guy's bank debts and mortgages disappear. I saved him from an ugly divorce that would've left him with only his shoes 'cos his wife is a bitch and she took the TV and his goddamn Playboy magazines. 

Honestly, I saved him from a soulless life. 

Steve, the self-sacrificing moron, would offer himself up on a stick the second Peggy's eyebrows furrowed in the middle in blatant rejection of Bucky's reply. 

I'd never hear the end of it, Bucky thinks fondly, imagining Steve's disgruntled but soft look he's so used to being on the receiving end of. 

He ends up on the corner of Niki Rosten's street in a minute and a half, and the apartment building is tall, solitary-looking, grey and washed out but not as half bad as he would've expected. But then again, she is McCullough's daughter. It's more of a surprise she isn't living in a lavish penthouse instead. 

Knowing McCullough, he'd even have a statue of himself (sucking dick) doing a preposterously offensive pose of himself stationed somewhere, in full view of tragic visitors. 

No wonder Rosten chose this bourgeoisie bullshit. 

Bucky moves quickly, parks his motorcycle somewhere that won't be seen, and only takes the essentials with him; his favorite Walther handgun, two rounds of ammo tucked in his waistband, and the FNX-45 flashy golden gun Natasha gave him for last Christmas as an inside joke. He's got a grenade clipped to his belt, and at least two of his most practical tactical knives resting comfortable in the small of his back. 

Then he strides to the building, debates whether to just shoot the lock on the damn thing if he puts a silencer on his gun but then the door clicks open, and a woman with frazzled red hair stumbles out, looking disarrayed.

She glances at him, aggravated and expectant. "Oi, you goin' in?" The woman asks in a harsh British accent, and it sounds like Mary Poppins gone all 50 shades of wrong. 

Her hand goes to the scruffy handbag hanging off her thin, scrawny shoulder and the other hand bracing the door open. Bucky watches her eyes flicker from side to side in the scared, jittery way animals do when they sense a predator is near, and feels a stab of pity. 

Bucky regards her slowly, wondering whether to tell her not to be scared. No, ma'am, I'm wearing the type of black gear hitmen do on TV but I'm really not dangerous, and these bulges in my jackets are really packets of Sour Patches and not guns. 

Really, ma'am. Swear it. Scout's honor. 

He never joined the Scouts. He can see her skeptical raised eyebrows already.

"Yes, thanks," he says at last, and and shoulders his way through the open door, ignoring the weight of the woman's stare on his back. 

At least she can always say plausible deniability, Bucky tells himself. 

There's only two stories, and Bucky checks the paper with the address again, and it says, Mail: 2B. 

He makes it up the stairs in doubles, quiet and fast, in under a minute. 300 calories gone just like that, Bucky thinks in satisfaction. Denial is a powerful tool. 

The door to 2B looks much, much older than its neighbors, the wood cracked and sporting at least two patches of mould, or whatever else it is. He has to suppress a shiver at the thought of the contents inside the apartment. Leaning against the door, he presses his ear against the cold wood and listens for any signs of movement inside. 

Alright, he grew up on CSI. 

In one single breath, Bucky whirls on his feet and kicks the door down in one powerful sweep of his leg, and that crackpoor shit of a door slams onto the ground, splintering and Bucky strides inside, the Walther gripped firmly in his hands and eyes tracking each corner. 

The apartment is empty, and Bucky surveys the place. The curtains are drawn, and the only light comes in from a tiny kitchen window on his right, and literally the entire room is a mess. Magazines, files, documents piled on the floor, clothes strewn on the couch, and since the living room is tiny Bucky peers into the bathroom, and wrinkles his nose at the smell. 

"What a fucking slob," Bucky says out loud to no one in particular, and nudges a small pot of cactus away from a bowl of unfinished cereal. On the floor. Cactus and Cereal? This Rosten character is odd. 

This is a whole new level of messy, kinda unhealthy, and obviously it's not only McCullough's crime business he can't raise properly. 

"Hey!" A man shouts, slamming open the bedroom door. "Who's there?" There's a gun in his hand, and Bucky vaults over the couch and strikes heavy and hard at his knee, wrenches the man's gun away with his metal hand and with a pained screech the man falls to his hands, and Bucky knocks him unconscious with the butt of his own gun. 

"Ricky? What's going—" A tall, broad-shouldered Australian with a buzzcut stomps out, and sees the body hanging limply from Bucky's arms. Expression contorting, he raises the gun and fires, three rounds, and Bucky's already pushing the unconscious man in front of him, and hisses in displeasure when the bullets bury themselves in his heavy charge. 

Blood splatters onto his boots and Bucky makes a noise of displeasure, and drops the now dead man to the floor. 

"You just killed your friend," Bucky comments, and the Australian drops his gun, brandishes a silver knife. Bucky pockets his own gun and takes an upright boxing stance, tac knife held in his right hand. 

The Australian strikes first, expertly driving the knife in vicious twirls in the space between them that Bucky has to consciously side-step, and Bucky dodges in time to punch, with his left hand, straight into the Australian's chest. Right in the center, between the ribcages, a weak spot that when pushed collapses and at the same time d his drives his knife across the Australian's abdomen.

The blood wells, black and tinged with metal from the wound but really, Bucky's made sure it's missed all his vital organs. In a swift motion he swipes with his leg and the Australian topples to the floor, knife clattering to the side, hand to the wound in his belly, groaning in pain. 

The Soldier smiles at that. 

Bucky drops to a couch, metal hand around the Australian's throat. "Let her go," he intones, and glances up towards the open bedroom door, where another man stands uncertainly, his back to the wall, clutching a gun pressed to the side of a woman's head. 

"What do you want with her?" The man holding Niki Rosten snaps, and Bucky notes the tremor in which he holds the hand that decidedly means these aren't professionals. 

He motions to the Australian struggling beneath him. "I won't kill your friend, if you let her go," he says again, lazily. 

There's indecision in the remaining goon's eyes but already Bucky can tell what he'll do. 

So when the man reacts, takes the gun from Rosten's head to point at him, Bucky's already made peace with another death. The Australian's eyes are bulging from the metal hand choking him out, saliva frothing at the edges of his mouth.

Rosten reacts, driving her elbow into her captor's gut, and launches herself out of sight in the identical moment Bucky whips out his Walther, closes one eye in persistent aim, and presses the trigger. 

The man topples to the floor, dead, and his shot goes wry, into the drywall instead of in Bucky's skull. 

Then there's a click of a safety going off behind him, and Bucky turns around, slowly (theatrically if he's being honest) and right into the barrel of a gun.

Niki Rosten is attractive, wavy dark brown hair pulled up in a high ponytail, auburn eyes sharp and bright. In spite of the bruises on her wrists and superficial cuts on her face, he can immediately see she's not an amateur, the way she holds her gun, it's sure and calm. He'll have to move slowly, maybe talk her down. She's also...tall, and Bucky's eyebrows tickle upwards at that. 

"I thought you'd be taller," he says, because it's the first thing that runs through his mind. Nice, the Soldier snarks in his mind, slow-clapping. Bucky scowls. 

Rosten narrows her eyes and gestures to the broken door strewn around her feet, and the three—no, two dead bodies on the floor. "I thought you'd be more polite." 

"I feel like we're already bonding." Bucky says, truthfully, and grins a little. 

"You need better friendships then," Rosten shoots back, deadpan, and motions with a small tip of her head. "Put the gun down." 

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours," Bucky returns calmly, and raises his pinky finger in an effort to show his intentions of peace. Really, the UN would be proud. Steve would be proud. It must be effective, because Rosten follows the movement and lowers her gun slowly, and Bucky does the same until the guns are both hanging by their sides. 

I like how we're just ignoring the very dead men in your apartment, Bucky thinks dryly. 

Rosten arches an inquisitive eyebrow. "Bucky Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier, and Steve Carter's little right-hand man. Fitting," she adds, eyes trailing to the left metal one. "It's a pleasure to meet your acquaintance. And just in time, too."

"A sense of humor," Bucky acknowledges with a tip of his head. "Did not learn that from your father." It's nice, to see Rosten's mouth quirk up in something that resembles a smile. She takes a wary step back, and Bucky commits the small details to memory; the way her finger's flexing on the gun, firing it is in the forefront of her mind. Bags under her eyes, she hasn't slept and there's a little fidgety stance in her left leg that implies a loss of focus and perfect form, and he can use that. "Pissed a couple people off, have you?" 

"Just the normal amount," Rosten murmurs in response. She touches her bruised wrists, wincing slightly. "I won't ask if you know who I am, because there's no other reason you would be here," Rosten says, brushing it off, and Bucky shrugs in agreement. I like her. She gets right to the point. "Are you here to talk or to make a point?"

And by that, she's asking if they're negotiating a deal or if he's going to kill her.

"To talk," Bucky says honestly, and blinks. "I'm here for information. About your father, about the Rogues, and well, I've gotten reports of demonic activity in the city increasing by the name of Zola."

"He really is a piece of shit," Rosten surmises with a dry smile. 

"Which one, your father or Zola?"

"Yes." Rosten replies, and Bucky lets out a bark of laughter. 

"Can't argue with that," Bucky tells her and draws his long finger against the base of his gun, trailing on the cool metal. "Listen. I really don't want to hurt you, or anyone today. But my friend's hurt, and we think this goes a shitload deeper than we thought. I would like to leave here today with...substantial news."

"We," Rosten repeats and leans back against the wall. Her hold on the gun is a little tighter, and Bucky shifts his position a little, so he can duck for cover if they start shooting. He hopes not. "You and your blond boyfriend, and that posse of an assassin and two civilians?"

He doesn't ask how she knows. "Yeah." Her body will be a bitch to hide, if it comes to that. 

"What do I get from this?" Rosten asks, sounding relatively bored. But he can tell she's a bit flustered, her stance becoming slightly more fidgety. 

Your life, Bucky thinks silently, and just blinks at her. 

She understands. 

Rosten stays quiet for a second, and when she talks, it's slow and measured. "I'm assuming you want to know about the Rogues, which is how you found me." She takes a breath, like it's physically painful, and Bucky frowns in faux-sympathy in honor of their newly forged bond. "My father and I aren't on the best of terms," she begins carefully. 

"I joined the Rogues a few months ago. Mostly ex-military, never escaped the battlefield. I became their, well, leader. We were backed by Carlston, and we worked for him. Pay was good, job was easy, we went in and out on standard mercenary jobs. But then the jobs started getting botched," and Rosten's auburn eyes flash dark for a moment, as if reliving some particularly horrifying past. "And we lost two. Two good men. I left, after that, with my team, and Zola was waiting in hand with a check, bigger and better than what we had with Carlston."

It's always the same story with these mercenaries. Erik's been saying the same for years, how fragile the bond is between mercenary and hire. They go where the money goes, and Erik referred to them simply as blood hounds. 

Bucky waits patiently for Rosten to finish. "So we started working for Zola, and a few days ago, some of my team went on a drop-off, important stuff, Zola neglected to give us the details but it was clear, transport it safely."

She cocks her head at that. "You were there. One of mine nearly got you."

"One nearly did," Bucky concedes. "I really must meet them. Fantastic skills."

"What a compliment," Rosten chuckles softly. "Straight from the Winter Soldier himself."

"You were alone here. Where's your team?"

"I've been on my own for a while," Rosten says and there's something off about the way she says it, razor-sharp beneath a calm tone. 

Bucky itches to ask. "Does Zola know you're McCullough's daughter?" He wonders if Rosten really is telling him the truth. It's not uncommon for mercenaries to talk, since their loyalty is mostly unbounded, but in Rosten's case he suspects the opposite. "He must have."

Rosten rolls her eyes, theatrically in response. "Of course. But I don't make it a point to run around telling everyone that. My father's not," and she hesitates. "Beloved in this city. He's passionate like that," and there's a tremor of bitterness in her voice. "Never does anything half-assed."

"In our line of work, half-assed gets you killed," Bucky tells her solemnly. "Thank you for cooperating." It sounds hard in his mouth, rocky and chipped, cutting his tongue in different places. 

Rosten eyes him delicately, and finally says, "You're going to kill them, aren't you? Or you're going to stop them somehow. My father's long been an enemy of the Carters, and Zola's resurfaced after years of inactivity. I've read the reports, I know Peggy Carter will take the opportunity."

"Two birds with one stone," Bucky says carefully, because he is talking about the girl's father, after all. "And if you still work for Zola, I'm sure we'll cross paths again on the field."

One of us will probably end up dead. 

"Do you have a father?" Rosten suddenly says, and then laughs sharply, "That was a stupid question."

It throws him off, though, just for a second and Rosten immediately catches on to it like a moth to a flame. He regains his footing, and then lifts his shoulders in a shrug. Interesting tactic. "I did," he says, quietly. "I don't remember much, but he was there at one point."

"Then at another point," Rosten continues, and takes a step forward. She's a meter apart from him, and they're staring at each other, blue eyes meeting auburn. "He wasn't."

"Asking questions like that, you must've been in therapy at one point." Bucky remarks, and she obviously takes his silence to her question as a 'yes', because she looks satisfied. He flexes his metal fingers. He really should wrap this up, and get back to the compound, to see Steve and Nat, to see Tony. God. He really wants to see Tony. 

"I want to help," Rosten says, sure and firm and just like that she's flipped the table on him again. The amount of people to do that in a timeframe of just five minutes is very rare, and he regards her with a lot more than interest. 

"What," Bucky echoes, dumbly. Really. What.

"I want to help," Rosten repeats and stares at him earnestly. "Take my father down."

"Yeah, bullshit," Bucky says in faint wonder and moves towards the door—okay, hole in the wall that used to be a door. I'm going to have to send a check to the landlord for that, he thinks grimly. 

"Barnes." Rosten says, voice steely. She takes ahold of his shoulder and it's enough to stop his way out the door—excuse him, hole. "I'm serious. You can trust me. I want to help."

"I absolutely can't," Bucky protests, and really looks at her. Fuck. She's serious, she really is. "Why?" he asks, right into those auburn eyes. They don't waver. 

"He killed my mother," and it's so simple, that phrase, coined into their world like a brand of vengeance and honor and Bucky stops in his tracks. Rosten stares at him calmly, like she's already expecting a cheerful 'yes' and they'll be on their way. "I'm afraid I won't let you leave without bringing me to your compound."

"Alright," Bucky complains and leans on his heels. "That's just page one out of the Double-Agent Spy Manipulating Tactics handbook. I've studied that handbook." I made templates out of that handbook.

"I'm going to kill my father," Rosten repeats again, and marches in front of him like a petulant child. "With your help. And your team's. Here," she says and holds her wrists out behind her like a trophy. "You can even cuff me."

"That will do absolutely nothing."

"It will. Just let me talk to your team. I can convince them, to let me help, and I've got information you guys don't have and no, I won't tell you, and trust me, I can contribute to whatever you've got going on. Zola, my father, the Rogues. I'm your way in."

"You're also their way in," Bucky retorts and his hackles are flaring, and the Soldier paces in the back of his head, a low growl thrumming in his chest. She's lying, the Soldier hisses, and a white flash of fangs. You can't bring her.

"I may be," Rosten accepts his venomous protest with ease. "And it's understandable why you're suspicious. But once you, and your team, hear what I have to say—you'll believe me." She turns fully, and with the gun still in her hand, she takes my metal one and slips the gun into my fingers. "I want to take him down."

Bucky chooses that moment to wipe the blood off his tac knife on his pants. "Why should I believe you?"

"These men," Rosten says after a pause. "Were here because Zola thinks I'm a threat. Because my father thinks I'm a threat."

"You expect me to believe you want to kill your own father?" Bucky challenges, plays with his knife a bit more. It doesn't faze her, and he's not surprised. 

"No, I expect you to believe a girl wants to avenge her mother's death."

Bucky narrows his eyes, and really, he already knows what he's going to do and the Soldier grunts in displeasure. "Well. We've already bonded over daddy issues. Maybe it's time for the whole dysfunctional family group therapy."

Rosten's mouth curls up into a pleased smile, and it looks eerily similar to the way Nat smirks after a neat little headshot. "Then lead the way, Barnes."

 

Chapter Text

Tony is on his side, arms curled under his head and his knees pulled up to his chest, in a fetal position. It says something, he thinks, that even in his nightmares he's trying to protect himself, from whatever unknown danger is lurking in the dark. 

He's not shivering, which is strange, because it feels like he's lying in cold, icy water. It's an inch to his elbow, freezing and oppressive in its silence, but it's water and Tony tries to convince himself it's just water. 

And no one's afraid of water, right?

If this is somehow a twisted version of a wet dream, he really needs to evaluate his sexual desires. Because hey, don't they say that dreams are your body's way of expressing some subconscious thought or want? 

Maybe it's sleep paralysis. But that would involve actually being awake. 

And he doesn't know if he's awake, or in some trippy version of Inception. 

The floor feels hard beneath his skin, slate and metal like the kind they put cadavers on in the hospital, which is not that great of a comparison to make when you're alone and everything is pitch black, and the only sound you can hear is the drip drip drip of water. Where's it even dripping from? There are so many glitches in this dream.

If I'm going to have a nightmare, he thinks with increasing anxiety, at least make it a good show. 

He can't move, which he finds out the hard way in the beginning, so all he can do is lay there, telling himself to keep breathing, trying not to swallow his own tongue from the terror of being paralyzed. Which is really easy to do, by the way, swallowing one's own tongue in a fit of terror is probably America's third leading cause of death. 

It really isn't good for him, alone in the dark like this, because when Tony's left with his brain alone for too long, it starts to make horrible decisions. 

Like imagining how the Middle Ages invented so much torture they probably had a torture guy—Torture Master—and probably, in a race to create the most agonizing, fear-inducing torture technique for street creds, must have created something like 'The One Where Your Tongue is Pulled Out by Metal (wood? Because Middle Ages?) Tweezers' when really they could have just stuck their poor prisoners in a room similar to the one where Tony is currently passing away in and hope they swallow their own tongues which he kind of, God forbid, feels himself doing

God, please let me wake up. 

I promise I'll never step on ants again. I'll start recycling. Save the turtles. I'll save all of them. I'll stop jaywalking.

I'll eat all my fucking vegetables.

Just, just please let me wake up. I can't stand this. 

Tony bites the inside of his mouth, willing his throat to work so at least he can scream his frustrations. A truly healthy coping mechanism, his brain supplies dryly. 

Then he closes his eyes, opens them, and his mouth opens in a shriek that catches in his throat, does something scared and twisted in his chest that leaves his heart in ropes because Tony's staring right into his mother's face. 

His mother is laying right opposite, and looking straight back at him. 

"Ciao, piccola." His mother whispers, smiling.

And Tony's transported back to when he was three years old, playing with his toys on the lavish Prussian carpet on the wooden floors, next to the crackling fireplace. His mother sits in the corner, on her favorite leather armchair, alone (because Howard never bothered to show his face and was probably drinking somewhere) sipping a white martini with three olives, exuding the sophisticated air Tony had become so accustomed to from even such a young age. On her graceful, porcelain neck rests opaque, irregularly large pearls that on many occasions Tony has sneaked out to play with. The room is dimly lit, classical music trailing the air to the scent of roasted pinewood, and Tony remembers a row of pictures on the fireplace, of his mother and father together, smiling in a way he hasn't seen in so long with their arms entangled and hands entwined. Of his father, posturing in the same confident, neat, stiff way he does in front of cameras and baring his teeth in the glimmer of a handsome smile.

He has his arm around a woman, and she looks almost military in her strong, sharp stance. She's almost the same age as his mother, and she has sleek dark brown hair (just like his mother), brilliant hazel eyes that seem to pierce into the photo (it looks familiar). Her ruby red lips are upturned into a small, knowing smirk, like she's enjoying some private joke with the camera in some parody of breaking into the fifth wall that Tony has never been privy to. 

His mother never, ever, speaks of that picture. 

In fact, most of the pictures on the fireplace are layered in a fine coat of dust, proof that no one has touched them for months—or maybe even years.

Maria Stark would bake at night, when most of the house (by that he means the house staff, because that's who lived there. Not him, not his mother, and definitely not Howard. It wasn't home.) was sound asleep. She would be boiling a pot of hot chocolate, Tony's favorite, as if she knew that soon her son would creep downstairs in exhaustion, unable to sleep but unable to stay still in his bed. Chronic insomnia's a bitch, Tony thinks to himself. 

It crippled him then and it crippled him now. 

Then his mother would give him a gentle smile over the counter, hand over the mug of hot chocolate (before it turned into whisky somewhere before his seventeenth birthday) placing her martini on the table and beginning to hum an Italian lullaby, reaching forward for her son. Tony remembers stumbling to his mother with unsure, clambering steps, and her hands are always outstretched, always there to catch him. 

"Mamma? Mi sei mancato," Tony whispers back, flashing back to the present, and he can feel his eyes welling with unshed tears and he can't stop shaking. So he looks to his mother, listens to her soft breathing, tries to yearn for some comfort that this is, in fact, real. 

"Mom," he says again, panicked. He knows it's a dream, he knows it. But his eyes are tricking him, deluding himself to the image of Maria Stark and everything he's pined for in a decade, and he can't bring himself to stop. His brain is lying to himself, dastardly convincing, and he can't stop it. Fuck. "Mom, I miss you so much," Tony gasps, like he can't get enough breath in his lungs to make it one more second. "Mom—why'd you...why'd you leave me? Why'd—"

And he chokes on his own words and his breath shudders along with his whole body, fracturing his heart into a million shards because his mother's there, and the last time he was this close to Maria Stark was on her deathbed when she was frail and sick, and he was barely seventeen, young and terrified of going on in a world without his mother (she'd been his anchor), and she couldn't breathe without coughing, and when she took her last, agonized breath, some part of him had died. 

He reaches for her, blindly in the darkness as his fingertips tremble with the ache to touch, and feel the presence of his mother, and that phantom piece of himself he had lost alongside Maria Stark. 

Maria Stark looks lovely as she has ever been in her prime. Her silky dark brown locks are reminiscent of Tony, and her large doe-eyes are mirrored in the face of her son. She smells of freshly minted peonies blooming in the summertime, and it's been years since Tony's smelled that scent. 

Mamma always did love summer, Tony thinks in wonder and he smiles a smile full of heartbreak, of love, as her hand folds into his outstretched one and Tony nearly chokes from the wave of emotions that seem to well in his throat. He's crying now, the tears rushing down his cheeks, leaving sticky, hot trails that burn with shame and burn with fear. 

Don't let this end, he pleads to whatever gracious entity is watching over him and his mother. Please don't take her away from me again. 

"My son," and her breath is long, cool and soft as it winds over his shoulders, trailing itself around his neck and encasing him in a comforting warmth that seems to calm his bursting heart. It's unreal. Please let this be real. Tony stares unblinkingly at his mother as her smile turns bittersweet and she says, "Tony, be careful, il mio bambino."

She reaches out and the moment her fingertips touch his cheek, caressing his skin in the loving, tender ways mothers hold their newborn babes, a swirling cloud made of black rears directly behind her, looming in its awful entity and Tony shouts, tries to warn her but it envelopes itself rapidly over her prone body, enfolding her in a wave of inky blackness that swarms from her feet until it's up to her neck and Tony screams, and this time he can hear himself and it's loud and it's raw. 

"Tony!" and it's the worst sound he's ever heard, because she screams for him. 

Maria Stark's brown eyes are wide, and her mouth is opened frantically as the waves of blackness crawl their way up her chin, her cheek, and Tony screams again in desperation of no, no, no, not this again, wildly scrabbling to get closer to his mother. 

But he can't move. 

Tony can only watch, numb to the point where he can't even feel his feet, as the blackness fills Maria Stark's mouth and floods over her face, until he can't see his mother anymore and she disappears from him for the second time, and he's too late to save her. 

And then he wakes up. 

It's a rude awakening, one that leaves him in a trembling, stupefied mess. Tony gasps, eyes snapping open, blinking wildly as he tries to regain his footing as the hazy impressions around him begin to fit into focus, and the world that's spinning out of control around him fades away to the corners of his whitening vision. 

He's left staring up at the white hospital ceiling, and the loss of his mother all over again is still so heavy it clings to him like a shadow, like something he won't ever shake off. His heart is beating chaotically in his chest, and it's just now Tony realizes how much he's been sweating, as he stares desperately around the room, searching, searching for something already long gone. The panic that had seemed so overwhelming before ebbs down reluctantly, as if its his body's way of apologizing to him. 

"Tony?" Clint says in amazement, and his voice sounds faraway and faint but his hold on Tony's hand tightens, and that's what brings him back. "Tony? Buddy? You with me?"

I'm awake. 

I could be dead.

He gasps at the thought, stark and deadpan as the memories come into focus. The attempt on his life—or violent assault—in the bathroom. The cruel laughter that suffocated the air as the man who attacked him drove fists into his body, into his ribs. His head slamming into the marble floors with a sickening thud. Happy's desperate struggle to revive him, staunch the bleeding, his pale face. Tony hesitantly reaches up to the back of his head, fingers shaking, and feels nothing but tender skin, nothing at all compared to the damage he had felt there before, thick blood pooling underneath his head. No blood, his brain reassures him as his hands trail to his ribs, and he winces at how tender the bruises are, contusions of black and blue splotching over his skin. 

"Tony," Clint says, regaining his attention. His friend sounds wrecked, and he's not looking much better. There's rings of lilac around his eyes, proof of sleepless nights, and his hair mussed as Tony's ever seen it. "God, you're okay." And then Clint barrels forward and envelopes him in a hug that rattles his bones, and Tony tenses for a split second before relaxing into the hold. "I was so scared," Clint mumbles, hazel eyes cloudy with exhaustion. "They said you'd be okay but—" and he chokes off, shaking his head. 

"I-I'm okay," Tony manages to force out, and Clint just blinks at him sadly, his hold on Tony's hand turning tight. It's a testament to just how worried he was for Tony. 

Tony's blurred all over, struggling to make sense of now. His heart in his throat, Tony can't seem to stop trembling all over. Mamma, he thinks desperately, and then tries not to let Clint see the tears in his eyes as he remembers his dream, which seems like an awful, miserable eternity ago. "Y-yeah, yeah, I'm—" God. His throat feels parched, quenched dry, and Tony arches his back to sit up, trying to find some semblance of comfort in this hospital bed. 

It's okay, he consoles himself, scrunching his shaking hand into a fist. It's just a nightmare. You've had tons of those. You're okay. Just a nightmare. 

"It's been three days," Clint remarks softly, eyes pinched in wariness like he thinks Tony will throw a fit or panic at how long it's been. How they've stayed for a week now, with Steve and Bucky, and how dangerously innocent the 'adventure' had begun, and now it's different. 

Tony sucks in a breath, and tries to soothe his distressed mind. The dream, no matter how gripping it is, is forced to the back of his mind. Because Tony's had more than enough practice with keeping what's killing him on the inside, far far away inside. 

Clint shuffles closer, concerned, waiting for Tony to get his shit together.

Then Clint squints at him with faint disdain and hands him a cup of water, changing tactics to exclaim airily, "You smell like shit, y'know." And he smiles a watery smile, like he's trying to offer Tony some comfort to ignore or mask the fact their little 'adventure' is now irreversibly fucked. 

Tony laughs, and the dream fades away to lurk at the back of his mind and he blinks thankfully at his friend. The two identical Clint faces he's been seeing merges into one, and Tony uses it to distract himself.Thank God. No one wants to see that. He takes the cup of water from Clint and sips it gingerly, blinking blearily at him, who makes a face to cement his point. 

"I smell like shit?" Tony says, downs the rest of the cup with a slight wince as the cool water works its way down his sore throat and into his bruised lungs. "Well you look how I feel, birdbrain."

Clint conjures up a laugh that's a little strangled, but that's okay. They're both recovering. "You need a shower. Like, seriously. You stink to the high heavens."

"Hey asshole, been too unconscious to shower, sorry." Tony rasps indignantly, and tries to raise a hand, only to find there are tubes connected to it. Ew. There in the flesh of his forearm is an IV, feeding him a constant supply of liquid, which is running from a bag hooked on a steel hanger. Bravely, he grasps the tube, feeling the adhesive pull on his skin, and as he tugs harder, the whole thing pulls free with a bit of blood and a spurt of a clear, sticky fluid. 

"I don't know if you're supposed to do that," Clint tells him in a mildly judgmental tone, eyeing the fallen tube with something akin to disapproval and takes the empty cup of water, setting it on the floor. 

Tony wrinkles his nose, rubs the puncture on his forearm. "I hate hospitals," he grumbles, shooting a suspicious glance at the door. "Three days, huh."

"Three days."

Then he properly notices his friend. 

"Clinton, did you grow a beard while I was down?" Tony says after a long, careful pause, eyes wide as he takes in his friend's comical appearance. Clint reels back like he's been slapped, and promptly turns a little bit red and Tony guffaws, staring at Clint because this is wild. "Everytime I walked into the cafe with something even remotely resembling a beard, you give me shit for it. And now you grow one? Clint!" 

Tony takes another look at Clint, laughs because he can't help himself, then instantly regrets it. He splutters at the stab of sharp pain in his ribs and presses a hand to it, raising his eyebrows expectantly. 

Clint's left eye twitches, betraying his stress. "It's not a fucking beard, Tony, it's...stubbles."

"Stubbles." Tony repeats, dumbfounded. 

"Yeah, Tony, stubbles," Clint complains, voice pitching in a whine. 

Tony laughs some more, then coughs as his lungs heave painfully. "Like hell it is. Let it grow a couple more millimeters, and they could be in the Museum of Wolverine's Totally-Not-Sideburns Sideburns." 

"They're stubbles. I haven't had time to shave."

"Honeybuns, you don't have anything but time."

"God, you're such a bitch after your beauty sleep."

Tony gasps in mock despair, eyes twinkling. "That would imply I need it, Legolas."

Clint scoffs, takes the fallen tube and pokes him with it, and Tony yelps as a little more sticky fluid trickles out. "Beauty sleep wouldn't work. You would need Plastic Surgery to even come close to fixing," and Clint makes an especially offensive open-handed gesture at Tony that translates to that.

"I'm a sick man, and I'll be filing a complaint of harassment." Tony declares, making a theatrical show of looking for a nurse button that'll call one in. 

Clint snorts, leans in extra close and whispers, "Harassment would actually require me putting in the effort to pay attention to you." 

"You would know your fair share about harassment complaints, wouldn't you?" Tony says deftly, smirking in victory as Clint's eyes narrow (a sure sign he's winning) and then breathes out slowly, because damn, his body's starting to hurt.

He doesn't have to look at himself to know that there are bruises mostly around his ribs and chest, and bandages wrapped around the worst parts. There's gauze wrapped around his head, but miraculously it doesn't hurt. His back is sore, and his chest is sore, and Tony wants to curl up and revert back to a fetus if it means it'll get rid of all of these uncomfortable pricks his body keeps making in protest anytime he moves. 

Clint quiets down too, and they just end up staring at each other in the midst of some awkward yet comfortable silence that Tony will feel the need to end soon. 

"I'm glad you're okay," Clint says softly and there's a spark of guilt in his hazel eyes. "You really had me worried there, Tones. Thought you weren't gonna make it out in one piece."

Clint never lets himself be vulnerable, and it completely melts Tony's heart to see his friend this way, so he takes one of Clint's hands and at first it hovers in mid-air, and Tony's right eye twitches. 

Fuck me. Not good with this feelings shit, Tony thinks rapidly, and decides to say, "Parts of me don't feel too good, but I am decidedly whole. Which is nice, considering I failed second grade math. I'm alright. Who's gonna keep you busy and making your life hell if I'm not there, right? You're my coffee-machine. I'll always come back."

And because it's all he can do, and for a second he hates this feeling of helplessness, Tony squeezes Clint's hand firmly in comfort.

"Beaten up, nearly died, only you can not freak out about that." Clint cracks a smile and clears his throat, and tries to brush the sentimentality off. He offhandedly comments, "And you do have an unhealthy attachment to all things coffee."

"I really do. One could call it an addiction." Tony admits, shooting Clint a sheepish glance.

"Tony, that's exactly what it's called, you cocky little shit."

They grin at each other, big, stupid smiles and Tony tips his head, tries to lure the conversation away to something that's been bothering him since the moment he woke up. "So..." he begins, clicking his jaw uncomfortably. Clint watches him, apprehensive, as Tony continues, "Where's Bucky, and Steve? I know they're—" and he flushes, at how he must sound like, and it's the one thing he hates most about himself. 

Tony closes his eyes, can almost hear his father breathing, the tang of smoke and cigar heavy on his breath. Howard always said, Starks were lone wolves. Independent creatures, made of steel and iron and destined to roam alone. 

So why does he feel like an abandoned pup?

He's only a troublesome, weak civilian Bucky had the bad luck to encounter and be saddled with. He's a burden, and Steve and Bucky have no duty whatsoever to remain by his side, and so Tony tells himself that from now on he'll stay out of the way, try to stay alive with Clint, and then go home. If they make it that far. The guilt weighs in his throat, heavy and prickly. "I know they must be busy...but—"

"What's going on?" Clint fills in for him, eyes knowing. Tony falls silent, nodding, eyes falling to the white duvets wrapped around his torso. "What's the last thing you remember?"

Tony breathes out, and says as neutrally as he can, "I remember some dickhead beating the shit out of me, and I literally don't know what happened next. Passed out? And then, I assume, was brought here to recover?"

"Basically the gist of it," Clint surmises with a helpless shrug. "Yeah. I was called down as soon as you were admitted, Nat—I mean Natasha," he fumbles, eyes flashing. "Natasha got me down here, and well, it was really bad...Like I said. I was worried you wouldn't make it out in one piece."

"Just some bruised ribs," Tony supplies weakly, and coughs. "Nothing too much," he finishes and tries to grin. Clint returns the grin hesitantly, but Tony can see the weight of the situation in the back of his friend's eyes.

"You know," Clint begins slowly, the way he does whenever he's about to make a point. "It was weird. Steve was here the whole time. He sat in that chair," and he motions to an uncomfortable, small-looking visitor's chair that's in every hospital room. "For hours. Natasha had to drag him away to get showers, and food... and sometimes, he wouldn't go." And at Tony's wide eyes, Clint cracks a rueful smile. "Bucky was here too. He looked stressed, worried, and he stayed here for as long as he could, but he disappeared sometimes. The guy scares me sometimes. Really fucking awkward when was here, too."

Jesus. Tony can't believe his ears.

At the knowledge that Steve and Bucky had stayed, had been with him when he had been unconscious, Tony can't seem to stop the smile spreading across his face. There's some hard ridden, unfathomable sense of relief that floods through his body, crashes through his chest, makes his shoulders sag, and it's a little pathetic, he thinks in disgust, that just knowing they had stayed with him could make him so happy. He's never wanted anyone to suffer on his account, but hearing that they care, that they worried... the feeling is almost addictive in its warmth and curls of bliss. 

"Tones," Clint begins uncertainly, his voice low, like he's worried someone will overhear them. "I don't know if you've noticed but," and he gives a little sigh that gets Tony's nerves pulsing with nervous energy. "Fuck. I'm just going to be blunt. Do Steve and Bucky," and then he looks lost, searching for words. "I don't know, like you somehow?"

Tony stammers out a breathy laugh, hopes it's enough to conceal his shock at the question, and has to gather himself to answer. "What? No, Clint," and he's shaking his head firmly, please believe me, trying to convince himself at the very same time. "No, of course not. Jesus. No way."

"Come on, Tones," Clint offers a small smile. "You can't tell me you don't notice the way they act around you." And then he rolls his eyes heavenward, with excessive drama (or so Tony thinks) and sighs again. "Bucky flirts with you, outrageously, any time you're in a span of two centimeters around him. Steve, that polite, perfect bastard, he blushes like a schoolboy around you, and honestly he cares a lot. Even I can tell."

Am I that obvious? The question causes a pang in his chest at the thought of how obvious his affections for Steve and Bucky must be, those little smiles he sends them whenever they say anything, the nicknames he calls them affectionately and when they ask if he does it to all his friends (no) he tells them yes as flippantly as he can. He wonders if it's so obvious that Clint's mentioning it, and then the horror that dawns on him when he wonders if Steve and Bucky can tell the tiny, tiny, non-existent, really minuscule crush Tony's developing for them. 

"Bucky," Tony says, and winces at the way his voice comes out a little higher and stressed out than usual. Not great for building a strong case, Tony. "Bucky flirts with anyone and anything. He'll flirt with a trash can and ask for its number. He'll flirt with a rock, and probably also get a reaction out of it." Clint mumbles something that sounds like 'he doesn't flirt with me' and Tony ignores him, stumbling over his words to say, "Steve, Steve's just," perfect. "you know, Steve. He doesn't have a mean bone in his body. He's funny, sweet, and—"

"Oh my god," Clint interrupts, breaking into a wide beam. "You have it so bad for them."

Tony's jaw drops in outrage, and he glowers at his friend. "I don't. It's not possible. Fuck off. You started this, asshole."

"Alright," Clint relents, holding his hands up in the universal signal of 'I give up'. "Alright. Well, Steve's out getting a coffee right now, and Bucky is... God knows where, so I can't ask them directly." and then at Tony's distressed blabbering of no you can't, Clint grunts in defeat. "Fine, I won't. Jeez."

"Just," Tony waves his hand, takes deep breaths to get his heart rate back to normal. "Just forget it. You are poisonous to newly recovered patients." Tony adds, shooting his friend a salty look. "Anyways, you were telling me what's going on?"

Clint gives him an irritating, shit-eating smile, which is his way of saying 'no way in hell I'm going to forget this' in response to Tony's weak attempt at diverting the conversation away from Steve and Bucky's completely platonic feelings towards him.

"Well according to the doc, you had a minor concussion, some fucked up ribs, and bruises. We couldn't find the bastard who did it, or maybe they did and they're just not telling me, but basically this room," and Clint waves his hand to the door. "And this whole floor is under real-tight security. They're really pulling out all the stops in order to keep us safe. Like I couldn't even get a cup of coffee without feeling the gaze of at least four guards on my back with their rifles aimed at me. Like it's air tight. Like Katy-Perry's-plastic-bag-wouldn't-make-it-drifting-through-here tight."

Tony, in a fit of generosity, decides to look past Clint's scandalous accusation and chuckles. "How eloquent you are with words, Mr. Poe."

"Oh, sarcasm," Clint sighs. He seems to do it a lot now. "I see your brain's already recovering from that mini concussion. Shame."

"You should've told the guy who beat me up," Tony jokes lightly, settling back onto the pillows with a huff of breath. "He didn't finish the job. Shit mercenary if I ever saw one."

Clint frowns, like Tony's said something particularly offensive. "Don't say that, you idiot," he tells him tightly. "Don't even joke about it."

"It's how I deal with the shit that happens to me," Tony replies stubbornly. He can say whatever he wants about what's happened to him. "You know that."

And Clint, bless him, knows him well enough not to argue. "Do you remember anything from the attack?"

Tony licks his dry lips, his irritation bleeding away. "Not really. I remember it was a guy," he says unhelpfully. "He was dressed in all black. Nothing to mark him with, no tattoos, nothing. But he had," and Tony squints, trying to chase a snag of a memory that flits around in his head. He thinks back to the attack, to the sound the guy made when Tony tried to defend himself with the bathroom handrail. "He made this sound when I got in one hit on the back of his knee. I didn't hit him that hard," he continues, thinking intensely. "But he made this noise, pained."

"Like he'd been hurt there before?" Clint asks, hazel eyes sharp. 

"Yeah," Tony nods, suppressing the slight shiver that courses through his body at the re-living of his memories. "Exactly. I'll tell Steve when he comes back."

"Mhm," Clint finally says after a long pause, and he sounds distracted. "I didn't think we'd get hurt in this," and there's a horrible sadness to his eyes that Tony can't stand looking at, mainly because he also detects pity in there. Sadness and pity, like it's their shared fault and Clint is silently apologizing to him. "I thought we'd be okay. Three days, and done. We'd go home, go back to our shitty, hourly wage lives. And now, we've been here around a week. It's fucking crazy," he says, and shakes his head in disbelief. "It's crazy."

Tony lifts his shoulders in a half-hearted shrug. "It is," he agrees. "Two college boys, just trying to get through life in one piece, and we end up here, of all places." And he barks out a laugh, because it's fucking crazy, some kind of cosmic joke where they could end up dead, or in the news, for God's sake, because Peggy Carter and her crime family is in the FBI's most wanted list. They could end up in jail. 

And yet he wouldn't change a thing. 

No matter good or bad, Bucky and Steve completely changed his life. 

"This is going to be one hell of a story when it's over." Clint says, and the look on his face suggests he's going to have a hell of a time telling it. 

"I pity your grandkids. I'll establish a refugee camp for them."

"Tony, you have DUM-E and U for kids. You have no standing in this argument." 

Then the door to the hospital room clicks open, and both swivel around to stare at the same time. 

It's Steve, whose mouth completely falls open (he'll deny this) and spreads into a positively radiant beam. "Tony!" And he sounds ecstatic, really, way more happy than he should be. Tony swallows stiffly, and the heat in his cheeks and chest grows, and a surge of shaky, uncertain desire going straight to places where it shouldn't, because Steve shouldn't be looking at him like that. With so much relief and admiration in his gaze, like Tony's just hung the stars and the moon for him. Steve rushes in and places the coffee haphazardly on the edge of a waiting seat where it balances itself precariously, and then to Tony's bedside, babbling ten different things at the same time. "Are you okay? I'm so happy you're awake, I was so worried, Tony, are you in pain?"

Clint lets out a startled squawk as the 240lb man clambers to Tony's side, and throws Steve a malevolent side-eye. "You're like a big, happy-go-lucky but gun-carrying golden retriever," he tells Steve dryly with faux malice and hurries off Tony's bed before Steve can get a swipe at him. "I'm getting a coffee." He announces, winking at Tony who gasps because what is Clint doing, leaving him alone with Steve in this state. Clint waves cheerfully, mouthing 'you owe me' and vanishes out the door.

What a dick. The blood rushes to his ears, tinged with hysteria and a whole lot of panic and suddenly Tony's paranoid if he's blushing. 

Steve is right next to him, holding one of his hands, and Tony can't deal with that dumb, stupid smile on his stupid, pretty face. He can't defend himself from it. Something inside him is blazing with glee at having the blond so close. "Tony? How are you feeling? The doctor told me he had you on some pain meds, a little morphine, so that should keep the pain away for a little while. Honestly, wasn't expecting you to wake up this soon but I'm so glad you did—"

God, he hopes he's not blushing. 

Steve is, as usual, perfect. Blue eyes earnest with worry, hands soft, brushing Tony's outstretched hands while his mouth moves a mile a minute, like there's not enough time and air in the world to sustain what he needs to say and Tony decides he cares too damn much. 

Tony gazes at the blond, and he can't ignore the fluttery feeling he gets inside his chest when Steve finally pauses and stares at him expectantly. "Hey," Tony finally makes out. Wow. Yes, Tony. Yes. Be more speechless. That'll help. It's like every single cell of his body is frozen in place, body locked down in paralysis. 

Why can't I catch a break?  Tony thinks ruefully, and smiles weakly at Steve. 

Steve grins, leans closer as if to inspect Tony carefully and once satisfied, replies gently, "Hey. How're you feeling?" 

"I'm, uh, feeling okay. I'm a little stiff. A little watery. I mean I'm thirsty. Not for water, for coffee. I would like some watery coffee—Damn. No, yeah I'm fine and you don't have to worry." And Tony's flushing again, wants the ground to swallow him whole at how literally pathetic and schoolboy-with-a-crush he's being. He really hopes he's at least doing it well. Steve's lips are twitching like he wants to smile, and Tony's guts drop a little more in a brief moment of panic. 

"I was so worried," Steve murmurs, with a real smile on his face, born with excitement and delight at having found Tony's functioning well, like he was afraid the beating would have turned him into a vegetable. "But you must have so many questions. I'm sorry I wasn't here when you woke up," he says, disappointed and sincere and Tony's gawking at how caring and polite the guy is. It's quite unreal. With a whole planet of Steve's, he bets global warming wouldn't even be a problem. "But I, well, had a job to do."

"Well, of course," Tony says quickly, and shrugs to show how nonchalant he is. Or tries to be. "You're a mafia boss."

Steve seems to pause at the choice of words, but nods in assent anyway. "Yeah. Had some things to oversee, some people to keep in line," and he sounds meaningful laced with an ominous threat that sends a shadow over his beautiful face for a moment. "Whoever did this is going to be punished. We're in the process of tracking them down." and he continues, sounding lighter and more cheerful, blue eyes twinkling. "You must have so many questions."

"I did," Tony says, still enthralled by the blue of Steve's eyes. "But Clint answered them. He said, uh—" and he blushes, and Steve's looking at him like he can see everything he's trying to hide, how hard his heart is pounding. It's not, anymore, though. Tony's got it all under control. "He said," Tony repeats, treading carefully. "You were here? Like you, and Bucky visited me. You, you guys talked to me." and Steve looks relieved as Tony shoots him a crooked smile. 

"I was here," Steve answers, and then thankfully looks completely unaware of how lost Tony feels. "Bucky, too. We watched over you." And then adds hurriedly, "Not in a creepy way, of course, just a protective way, I guess. Bucky's not here now, he's out, but he'll be back soon."

"Yeah," Tony nods, and there's a pang in his heart that goes off at Bucky's mention. "Okay. Well. I'm going to confess. I lied. Didn't hear a damn thing you said, if you talked to me when I was sleeping. I'm sorry. Also, sorry to Happy if I like, messed up his bathroom floors because honestly they're pretty fucking great and I know blood can be a hassle to get off some marbles, and jeez, I remember his face, I hope he's not mad—" Tony's rambling now, and the words flood out of his mouth like they're unfiltered (which they are) like the link from his brain to his mouth is direct and there's no stopping him. 

Except there is. Because Steve leans forward in Tony's mid-ramble, and kisses him. 

On the lips.

Tony feels the hands around his neck, soft and bracing, he tastes the hint of chocolate on Steve's lips and senses the heat that comes off both of them in waves. It's...everything Tony could have ever thought he would ever feel, rolled in one tight ball and fighting for space in his chest with his heart. A single kiss for a single second, and with Steve, it's gentle, slow, and soft. He smells like sandalwood, like crisp mint, and Tony breathes it all in, flooding his chest with a caveful of butterflies but the warmth is unmistakable, curling around Tony and enticing him to come closer. Steve is comforting, his lips are tender, achingly tender on his and it feels lovely and Tony's heart has actually stopped right in his chest and—

"Oh my god," Tony gasps out, yanks himself away and the full weight of it comes crashing down, his body protesting in pain as he moves too fast and too far. His ribs send a new wave of pain down his body and Tony grits his teeth against the awfulness. 

Steve pulls away, blue eyes huge with concern. "Tony," he says in a voice dripping with want and need and husky from their kiss, and fuck, their kiss. "Did I hurt you? Are you okay?" And he's so caring, so focused on Tony that it pisses him off, and it sends a new blaze of anger that Steve just doesn't see what's wrong. 

"Fuck, Steve, Bucky." Tony says, and the name feels venomous on his tongue, all shades of ugly torment and despair at having kissed another man's boyfriend. Bucky's. "BuckyI can't. Not to him, fuck, Steve, I can't do this to him, why did you? Oh God—"

Bucky, sweet, brave and wonderful Bucky, who saved his life numerous times over and is Steve's boyfriend and best friend and Tony will die first before he's even touched the precious, rare love they have for each other. He won't ruin it. He can't. Until now, he's never allowed himself to even entertain the thought of touching either of them, he ignores the warm feeling in his chest that explodes whenever one of them are near him, and he definitely tries to shut off his brain when the two make an appearance in his dreams.

All of this must show on his face, because Steve's face softens in understanding.

He reaches for Tony, and Tony would love nothing more than to fall into his arms but he's already pulling away, gathering the blankets up, like it's some sort of protection against what he's irrefutably done. The horrible, horrible thing he's done, and his heart clenches in pain, and it's become such a constant, familiar feeling that throbs but doesn't hurt and he feels numb to it now. 

He won't ever be able to face Bucky. 

I deserve this. 

Steve looks appalled, and vehemently shakes his head. "Tony, it's okay, he knows, Tony, he knows. He wants it too." Steve is saying, desperate to convince Tony, still so careful like he's a newborn foal that will skitter at any loud noise. Steve inches closer, and his face is so open and honest Tony, for a split second, lets himself dare to believe those words. "Tony, he wants it too. He wants you, too."

It's quiet. Tony stares into Steve's eyes, and Steve stares right back. There's nothing in there, in his face, but sincerity, the same bold, blue sincerity that has always been there throughout Tony's stay. When he'd promised Tony he didn't regret taking him and Clint in, when he vowed he'd protect them. When he'd been unconscious, he'd heard Steve's low whispers, comforting and a presence he'd been somewhat aware of, but it was enough. Because Steve is here now, and he doesn't have to be. 

But all this logic, that Steve could be telling the truth is swept to the side with the leaps Tony's brain makes. Because even if Steve cares even just a little bit, there's no way that's true, it doesn't even make sense, and Tony's mind is in full blown fix-this-shit autopilot. He doesn't want this to end, doesn't want to go back home where he can't wink at Bucky and say stupid, stupid shit that gets him Bucky's beautiful, delighted lopsided smirk that does a million things to his heart, or away from Steve's cornflower blue eyes, that crinkle when he smiles and the way Steve can't stand anything happening to anyone he loves, ever, even if it means he'll have to be there to stand behind them at all times. 

God. I don't want to go back.

Steve frowns now, searching Tony's face for an answer he can't give. 

Bucky knows? He wants what? What does Steve want?  

Tony thinks about the kiss, because really, it's all he can think about.

He wants to do it again, explore Steve's lips a little more, run his hands over—fuck, no. His head is spinning, literally, and Tony has to hold himself still with one hand trembling on a pillow. Steve is watching him like a hawk, worry all over his kicked puppy-dog face.

"Goddammit Steve," he croaks and rubs a hand over his face. If this is a dream, he'd better wake up now. "A man's gotta recover from his previous injuries before you drop a shrapnel bomb on him like that."

Steve's face crumples sharply, and then folds over in a rushing mask of neutrality and wavering calm that Tony would have believed if Steve's hands hadn't been wavering. "You don't? Oh, Tony—" and he swallows, thickly, pulling away. "I made a mistake, didn't I," and he laughs to himself, and the sound crushes Tony's heart. "I'm sorry," Steve says, and he sounds so sorry that Tony nearly reels. Steve's blue eyes are shroud in guilt and sadness, and he tells Tony in a quiet voice that just aches with despair, "I shouldn't have done that, of course not. I'm sorry, Tony, that was a total overstep of boundaries. I'll leave now if you want." 

Steve's already turning away, ready to walk out, and Tony doesn't know if his heart can handle that, too.

"No, wait," Tony says, barely a whisper, and hates himself for sounding so weak in that moment. It curdles his blood, makes his ears go hot, and it's everything Howard Stark would be repulsed by. "Stay. Please." 

Steve freezes, and immediately edges himself closer to Tony, till they're in breathing distance of each other. It's not close enough.

"Tony?" Steve ventures, posture hunched. It's not a stance that is usually associated with Steve, connotes vulnerability and for him Tony's sure it's like laying down on a battlefield, weapons buried, like he trusts Tony not to carve him open. 

Tony pulls his knees up to his chest, in a flimsy gesture that makes him feel small. "Why'd you kiss me?" He asks, voice trembling. He violently tells his voice to stop shaking. 

"Because I've wanted to, for as long as I've met you," Steve answers honestly and spreads his palms open, face-up. "You have no idea what you do to me. When Bucky and I heard you were hurt, we..." and he shakes his head, his emotions are clear for Tony to see. The blond looks up again, blue eyes swimming with distress. "We were so scared. Tony," he shakes his head. "We've never felt like that for anyone else before."

Tony's hands are shaking ever so slightly, and he scrunches them into fists. "What do you mean, we?  You and Bucky?"

Steve cracks a smile, watery and tentatively. "Yeah, Tony, me and Bucky. He's been smitten with you ever since you two met. The first sentence out from your mouth, you weren't scared. You called him 'murder muffin', and that was it for him. You should have seen him that night, the first night you were here. He said, 'this is going to be something'." He glances at Tony, and whatever he sees must appease him, because he barrels on. "And you know what? He was right. For me, it was when you woke up, and you didn't waste a second in letting us know you were not dealing with any bullshit we might throw your way."

"If what you're telling me is bullshit, I don't think I can survive that." Tony warns, nausea churning in his gut, and Tony has no doubt that if he doesn't resist it he'll drown in it. So he tries to relax. He really, really tries, but it's like every sense in his body is dialed up to eleven and turned specifically to Steve, who chuckles.

"Definitely not bullshit," Steve reassures with utter fondness. "I mean it. I wish Bucky were here," Steve murmurs with a pleading glance to the door. "He could explain this much better than I could."

"So, what, you like me?" Tony asks, suddenly feeling a sharp prick of something akin to anger. It happens sometimes, when he doesn't understand something important. So he stares at Steve, deadpan. "You don't even know me but you want to have one passion filled threesome night with me, is that it? You want, what, a fucking easy booty-call, or something? And I'm an easy target?"

Steve's eyes go wide like Tony's just slapped him. "No. No, Tony, Christ, no." Steve rushes to say, shaking his head vehemently. "That's not it at all," and the hurt in his blue eyes is enough to make Tony lower his guard. "You're not that at all to us, you're so much more. I know how crazy it sounds, and how unconventional. But we know you enough to really, really like you, and enough to know we want to know you more. We want to...keep you." And he blushes. 

Tony tries not to let the absolutely adorable blush deter him from finding out what exactly is going on. 

"Keep me?" He says, and doesn't mean to sound so incredulous. 

Steve winces, and lets out a little pained sigh that Tony completely relates to. "Ah, no. Bad choice of words. But Bucky and I, we want to see if you, ah, I don't know," and there's so many tangles in his voice Tony second-hand feels the struggle. "See if you're interested? If you like us, too?" then after a frantic search for words, Steve blurts out, "We want to ask you out." 

What the fuck is happening. This can't be his life. 

"You're telling me, that two mobsters who are leaders of America's most wanted crime organization, want to ask me, a stray civilian you picked up, out? On a date?"

Steve shrugs, giving him an abashed smile. "If the shoe fits," he says mildly. 

"I'll take that shoe and beat you with it, Rogers, because I... this is crazy." Tony's going for aloof, which is extremely hard to pull off whilst his heart is in the throes of seizing, but he gives it his best shot. Because no way he's going to let Mr. Perfect Blond see him have a heart attack because of his completely absurd date proposal. 

Steve gestures at the space between them. "This is really not the way I wanted you to know," and he winces, although this time in good nature. "But it's true, Tony, every word. Swear it to God. Boy Scout's honor."

"Well," Tony sniffs and shuffles his hands with mild irritation. "I believe you joined the Scouts. You're lucky I believe you, because Bucky, who I know for a fact must have been kicked out of the Boy Scouts, would not have pulled that off."

"So," Steve says and shoots Tony a sly little side glance. "You're okay with the kiss?"

"You kissed me."

Steve has more self-control than he does, and merely gives a little sigh. "You kissed me back," he reminds Tony, voice playful but a little high-and-mighty.  

It annoys him, when Steve uses that tone—it's the kind of tone parents use with their petulant, tantrum-throwing kid, who doesn't know left from right. 

"This is crazy," Tony says again, resolving to cross his arms in a completely non-petulant way. 

Steve brushes a hand through his hair, lips twitching, but he stays silent, almost thoughtfully, and the paranoia creeps up every second because Tony keeps waiting for him to say something. What's he thinking? What is he thinking, asking me out? That's just...

"I can tell you don't believe me just yet," Steve says finally, blue eyes resolute. "But I'll show you. Bucky and I will show you, just how much we want you."

Tony clears his throat, draws up the blankets with forced-to-be-still hands, and draws in a breath. Time to be brave, he tells himself. "Steve, you have no idea how you and Bucky make me feel." Steve looks delighted. Tony rushes on, because if he doesn't he'll never say it aloud.

"When I see you and Bucky, my palms get all warm and sweaty. I feel nervous, in ways I haven't ever felt before, and God knows how often I've come close to the idea of kissing either of you. But I can't. Because you two," and his voice cracks a little bit, and Tony raises his eyes to the ceiling because he can't trust himself to look at Steve. "Because you two, what you have is so good. It's precious, it's rare, it's so fucking special, and...

"I would ruin it." Tony says, raw and unhinged. And there it is. 

It's years of his self-loathing, deprecation, and hate all piled into one basket. He holds his breath, not daring to look at Steve because now Steve knows the truth. It's true. Tony is a mess, he's a mess in his relationships. He's always fucked it up, one after another. Steve and Bucky don't deserve that from him. God, they deserve the best. Each other. 

They... they're too good for him.

He tries to ignore the sinking feeling in his gut, the shame burning in his cheeks at having admitted it, and the yawning emptiness that has suddenly engorged itself in his chest and is trying to swallow Tony whole. 

He feels like he's lost something, which is stupid.

Because it's not like he ever had it to begin with, right?

Steve's fingers are soft, and they smell like rose petals (which really should be illegal for men like Steve) when they touch Tony's face. "Tony," Steve says, and he sounds slightly amazed. "There is more chance of my Aunt Peggy dressing up with those poor women in that infernal show 'Dance Moms' in a slutty, leopard-printed leotard that they like to terrify their viewers with than you ruining a relationship. Especially a relationship between Bucky and I." And he's smiling, blond hair falling over into his face.

"You haven't the slightest idea how far my destructive tendencies go," Tony says, rushing to convince Steve why dating him is a really bad idea. "The 'T' in my name stands for toxic. I can't sleep at night. I work on my robots and will probably forget you even exist, I drink their poisonous smoothies where DUMM-E pretends fruits are only suggestions, and I play AC/DC to the point where my neighbors move out. I'm unbearable before my morning coffee, and I don't share it, you're gonna have to wrestle for your coffee.

"I'll forget what you're allergic to, and then attempt to feed it to you. I break things, almost fanatically, and I'm just a terrible boyfriend in general. I'll forget your birthday, you can't hand me things, and I really can't stand it when people leave me because of abandonment issues and I'm scared I'll die alone—"

And for the second time in that afternoon, Steve kisses him.

"I'm beginning to think this is the only way to shut that genius brain of yours up," Steve murmurs against his mouth, and snakes his hands up into Tony's hair, and the kiss is messy, open-mouthed and desperate. Tony falls back into the pillow and Steve follows, kissing his lips, then his neck, then brushing his lips over Tony's stubbled cheek. 

Tony can't catch his breath by the end of it. "That's cheating," he says, breathily.  

"Tony," Steve says, taking his hands like a sap. "I know you've probably already closed your mind off to what could be. But I haven't, and I know Bucky won't either. Please, if there's even a chance it could work, don't you want to try?" 

Tony narrows his eyes, trying to clamp down on the happiness in his chest that just explodes from having Steve in such close proximity, right after their kiss. Steve's kiss. "Your puppy-eyes are manipulative."

"You're deflecting." Steve replies, smiling cornily. 

"It won't work, Steve." Tony says, as firmly as he can, because he won't give in. It's the best for everyone, even if it means he'll end up back in his tiny MIT dorm room, spending the rest of his days trying to forget Steve and Bucky. "I can't see why you think it'll work."

There's a little sparkle in Steve's blue eyes. "Because I'm a romantic at heart, old-fashioned that way, you see, and I'm a firm believer in if you like it, put a ring on it."

"A marriage proposal in the same day? Aww, snookums, I'm swooning." 

"I want you to give us a chance, Tony." Steve announces, his shoulders snapping in a straight line that translates to 'mission mode: I must complete.' "You don't have to say yes. Just say you'll give us a chance. There's no harm in trying, right? "

And against his better judgement, and his whole brain screaming no, Tony makes a bad decision. "Alright," he says thoughtfully. "Destructive tendencies be damned. I'll give you a chance."

Steve's whole face breaks into an overjoyed grin. He really is just a giant, trigger-happy golden retriever, Tony thinks in realization. 

"This is serious, right? Because if this is some shitty joke, I fear I might die a brokenhearted man." Tony says, because he needs Steve to reassure him that this isn't, in fact, some massive cosmic joke the universe is playing on him. 

"Tony. Will you stop with that? Do I look like the kind of man who jokes about datin' a fella?" Steve intones with a raise of his eyebrows.

"No, but then you don't look like the kind of man who goes around kissing men who aren't his boyfriend." Tony grimaces the second the words leave his mouth, and he raises his eyes to glance at Steve, dread thudding in his chest, and opens his mouth to apologize. Wow, Tony, at it again huh! Only three minutes into this, and already destroying it. 

But, miraculously, Steve just laughs. "Then I guess you're just extraordinarily special, Tony. Because when my boyfriend hears about the amazing, wonderful man I kissed today, he's going to keel over. From jealousy. Because I got there first."