They're not that different, he and Barnes.
Not when Barnes' life seems like a distorted reflection of his own. Except where Tony has spent decades consciously boarding himself up from the storms of existing as he is, Barnes didn't have the luxury.
Barnes had broken free of the shackles Hydra had placed on him in exchange for his name, and the world clamors for it.
"We can't protect him here," T'Challa tells Tony, his brow furrowed, but his expression somber. The king hadn't wanted it to come to this, that much is obvious, but Tony can't tell whether it's because he's grown fond of having the Winter Soldier as a house guest or if it's because his only option for aforementioned house guest is Tony.
He thinks it might be a combination of both.
"There's too much going on on top of all the media coverage," Shuri says grimly. "Yasha can't stay here, not with them around too."
And there's no trading off, unfortunately. Tony has some self-preservation. And from the way Barnes is twitching, Tony doesn't doubt Barnes shares the sentiment.
"He won't be any trouble," T'Challa assures. "The triggers are no longer in effect."
"Course not," Tony says, his smirk lazy. "If there was anyone that was gonna crack that encryption it would've been the princess." Shuri preens. "Thanks for keeping your end of the bargain, all things considered."
T'Challa's returning smile is thin, tired. But Barnes' head has snapped up like he's scented blood in the water. "You...you sent me here?"
At that, Tony scoffs. "Please, I'm not even allowed there until everything's calmed down." Then, "Once the triggers were activated I knew I didn't have the tech to deal with it so I asked someone smarter."
"You're welcome," Shuri declares, and while it only crosses Tony's mind to be worried that Barnes hadn't known that -- he might've felt betrayed by the fact that it wasn't only T'Challa's sense of justice that had extended an offer of safety to him -- Tony can't find it in himself.
Betrayal only comes from friends, and Tony and Barnes aren't.
They aren't friends when Barnes arrives to the Compound less than a week later.
They aren't friends when Tony shoots down the military trying to claim Barnes as an active service member. They aren't friends when Barnes protects Tony from an assassin attempt not twenty minutes later. And they aren't friends when, after being in the midst of a media fire storm, a hasty retreat back to the Compound, and an anxiety attack of epic proportions from a guy who's been living in survival mode too long to be anything but dangerous when pushed too far, when it happens.
It being wrapping Barnes up in an experimental web-shooter for Peter, and activating Dark Night protocols for Barnes to come down from the panic.
Between Barnes' ragged breathes, he asks through his teeth, "How did you...?"
"It's a lot," Tony replies softly, more intimate than it has any right to be, even if they've got a whole room between them.
"Everything." Barnes' breathing is starting to calm, but his whimper sounds wounded, edged with a confusion that's tinged in anger so Tony elaborates, "The world is too much; too bright, too loud, too insistent. Sometimes it helps to make things...smaller so it's just you."
"And you," is the guarded reminder that rings with a silent question, why.
In the dark, Tony's lips curl in the corners. It shapes his words in the parody of a smile. "You think you're the only one with issues?"
Barnes replies with a gusty exhale. "Can't imagine you'd want to make yourself small."
"I'm a larger than life kind of guy," Tony allows with some humor. "But even I gotta get back to the basics."
To that, Barnes doesn't say anything, but Friday 's already pinged Barnes' heart rate, and it's calm enough that Tony feels comfortable enough to ask, "I'm going to turn some of the lights back on, alright?"
He waits, and after too many seconds, Barnes hesitantly replies, "Okay."
The lights are brightened slowly, the black out blinds peeking just a little bit at the hems to let the outside world in. It's a gradual process, and through it Tony tells him things: that this section of the Compound is only for Avengers and Avengers in training, that the only Avengers around besides them at the moment is Bruce who's in his lab, that this room can only be accessed by them right now so it doesn't matter where Bruce is but Tony thought Barnes would like to know that. He also tells Barnes that he has the Iron Man suit on -- the one Tony had used to get them back here -- but that he won't use it. He tells Barnes that he knows Barnes has several blades on him, and that Tony doesn't mind, but if Barnes could not use them on him when he cuts Barnes loose, that would be nice.
"I'm not gonna hurt you," Barnes says in reply, and he sounds steadier, the edge of hysteria smoothed.
"Didn't think you would, just thought I'd do my due diligence," and at that Barnes chuckles.
By the time the curtains are all rolled up and the lights switched off in difference to the sunshine streaming in, Barnes isn't as cagey looking. Tony telegraphs his movements and kneels in front of Barnes to start working off Peter's web-shooter with a localized laser from his watch.
They'd come almost directly from the tarmac of the Compound to a Congressional meeting, and up close, Barnes smells like an approaching winter storm and warm leather.
"Whenever this happens Shuri usually tranqs me."
"And when she doesn't?"
Barnes licks his lips, blue gaze flicking to catch Tony's. "Deprivation chamber."
"I've got that," Tony says. And there's something complicated happening on Barnes' face, such that Tony's brow furrows in confusion. "Unless you prefer not to?"
With his hands still behind his back, and Tony leaned over to let his arms loose, Tony sees the way Barnes' fingers twist anxiously. Carefully, Tony sets his hand on Barnes' shoulder and is rewarded with a wide-eyed stare this side of hopeful.
They're not friends when Tony asks, "Barnes, what is it you want?"
They're not friends when Barnes sucks in a breath and asks quietly, "Could you..?"
And they're not friends when Tony considers him, and the sense of steadiness Tony himself feels, and says, "Yeah, okay."
They aren't friends, but they could be.
Though Tony would like to state, for the record, that it was not his intention. He has enough friends, and he can certainly do without the Rogues' brand of friendship. But. Barnes isn't technically asking for it, and he isn't technically with the Rogues anyway. So. So it's only half way to a bad idea which means Tony's missed the bus and gone Full Dumbass.
At least that what Rhodey says.
It's not like Tony's getting his wires crossed here. There's nothing sexual about what he and Barnes do.
Even on the occasion that Barnes needs -- wants, begs -- to be tied up, what mostly happens is that Tony makes the world smaller. He shuts down all the lights and encases Barnes in darkness. He creates the newest generation of noise cancelling headphones, makes alcoves around the Compound, builds him blanket forts, and doesn't bat an eye when Barnes wants to hide under Tony's workshop bench.
They don't even touch when Barnes needs these things from Tony, though Tony almost always talks. Sometimes when the darkness doesn't help, that seems to. It's kind of ironic given how often people shut him out or ignore him when he does, but Barnes clings to Tony's voice like a lifeline.
And it's. Different. For a lack of a better word.
He doesn't get to help people like this.
He's such a disaster on every level, it's not like anyone would trust him to. Sure, they go to him when they need the world saved, but this is a little too. Personal. A little too intimate.
There's a lot of trust involved in what's happening, and Tony. Isn't used to it.
That doesn't mean he doesn't like it though. Who doesn't feel special at the thought of being charged with something important on the basis that they don't trust anyone else to do it but you?
It doesn't occur to Tony how much he actually likes it though, until Barnes graduates from "no contact" to "all the contact" around the same time the Rogues are brought back.
Rogers tries to shake Tony's hand and then just pales and. Doesn't.
In fact all the Rogues look a little fidgety now, the Witch included.
And at first, Tony thinks Rhodey's radiating pissed off Mama Bear vibes which rude, you're the one who made me do this in the first place, Gumdrop! But then he realizes it's actually Barnes, doing a very impressive impersonation of a vengeful spirit hovering at Tony's shoulder.
Tony thinks it's some latent protective quality brought on by helping Barnes out, but then Barnes starts getting touchy, and suddenly it's a Thing.
Whether it's just standing at Tony's shoulder, or tugging him gently about with a hand on his back or hip.
Tony assumes it's a reminder to the Rogues that Barnes is on Tony's side now, and no shit talking will be tolerated.
The one time Rogers tries to talk to Barnes, and Tony's name comes up, the conversation deteriorates onto itself. There's a dent in the wall as evidence to that fact, as well as a trend on some app where people body check each other to the tune of "Whatcha say" as the screen goes psychedelic. Apparently it's vintage meme culture, you know, out of respect for their age because Friday's always watching, and the internet is her playground.
Shuri is clearly a massive influence in this pop culture moment.
T'Challa sighs like he is the absolute furthest from being surprised.
Nonetheless, internet fame aside, Tony's. Glad. He's happy, actually.
Tony has another friendship to claim that isn't just built off superhero work or for professional purposes, and it's. Good. Barnes doesn't take more than Tony gives, and Barnes doesn't make insensitive jokes about Tony's many failures in life as a person, and. It's good. They're good.
Graduating from casual touching to full on cuddling just seems like a natural progression of things, really.
Barnes needs to be grounded, fiddling and twisting in his seat under Tony's arm one day, and it just. Made sense to give him a hug. Especially since the room had already been dimmed and Friday had silenced the television.
With a breath that warms Tony's chest, Barnes shifts in his arms before he's pulling Tony on top of him entirely.
Tony's only response to this arrangement is to pet his hair and make soothing noises around Barnes' little whimpers because. Tony's tired, and Barnes is warm, and despite the Super Soldier muscle definition, Barnes makes a great pillow.
Later, when Rhodey walks in on them, he shakes his head and refuses to be involved which, joke's on him, is a terrible idea because Barnes gives the best hugs. Tony would know. He's had Rhodey's hugs, after all.
And. Because Tony hadn't said no, it happens again and again.
When Barnes eventually gathers up the courage to slink into Tony's room, draped in shadows and dressed in his favored pajamas, Tony doesn't react any more than to flip the sheet up to invite Barnes into his bed; the natural progression of things.
With some help, the pillows are arranged into a veritable fort that Barnes makes himself home in and adjusts just enough that his head ends up in Tony's lap. Tony merely hums, pretends to still be distracted by his Starkpad, and reaches out to soothe his fingers through Barnes' hair. "Long day, Wonderland?"
"Hmm," is Barnes' reply, eyes already slipping shut beneath Tony's attention. He always goes soft whenever it's just the two of them. He already doesn't talk much, but Barnes goes outright nonverbal like this.
Tony would be worried, but Barnes only seems quietly content.
It's expected, really, now that Tony knows Barnes a little better. Despite his murderous magnetism and terrifying reputation, Barnes is even more of an anxious mess than Tony is, and talking means there's always the possibility he can say the wrong thing so Barnes avoids it.
Tony respects it because he understands it, and he doesn't think Barnes gets that a lot. People either see him as the Winter Soldier or "Bucky, Captain America's side-kick". No one ever sees him just like this.
The thought has Tony muffle the sadness threatening to blow his chest open because. Tony's a state onto himself, there's no denying that, but he's never been alone, not truly.
Tony had Ana and Edwin Jarvis, and he had Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, the bots, his AIs, Yinsen, Harley, Peter. Even when he was too deep in the pit of his worst impulses to realize it, he's always had someone to care and to see him for who he is.
And in this moment, Barnes has Tony.
It's a realization he holds, cautious but persistent in his palms, like a bird not meant to be caged but wanting to be held anyway, Tony does his best to comply.
Weaving Barnes' hair into as loose braid, Tony tells him quietly, "You're not alone anymore. I've got you. You're safe with me."
And if it were possible for Barnes to melt, he would've. His sigh seems to dispel the remaining tension he'd been holding in, and he squeezes Tony's hand in his as if to prevent Tony from leaving.
As if he would.
As if he ever could.
With a kiss on his temple, Tony promises, "I'll be right here, darling. I'm not going anywhere."