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The Skies Below Us

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“I’m doing this for your protection,” Obie said, warm but stern. He threw an arm around Tony’s shoulders and tugged Tony to the far side of the room, away from where the movers were packing Tony’s things. “Without your father at the helm, the sharks are going to smell blood. Things are going to get nasty. Howard would’ve wanted to know you were being taken care of, no matter what.”

Tony couldn’t argue with Obie. It had always been hard, but these last days, with the shock and the grief and the confusion that had followed his parents’ deaths, Tony felt like he was barely skimming the surface of reality most of the time. “I just, why doesn’t the name follow me?” The company was being split: the larger part would remain under Obie’s leadership; one small division to go with Tony as his dowry.

Dowry, of all things.

Obie snorted. “Ask anyone on the street,” he challenged. “What does Stark Industries do?” He raised his eyebrows at Tony expectantly.

Tony sighed, rubbing his forehead against the throb of an oncoming headache. “Makes weapons,” he mumbled. “But we could change direction! I’m the Stark, shouldn’t I get--”

“You won’t be a Stark for much longer, Tony,” Obie interrupted. “It’s better this way. You’ll see.”

“Sir?” One of the various pages and servants that always scurried around the manor house poked his nose into the room. “There’s a dirigible requesting berth. Captain says he’s here for--” He tipped his head in Tony’s direction.

Panic gripped Tony’s heart in an iron fist. “But I’m not-- My things aren’t even packed yet!” He gestured at the movers.

“We’ll send your things along as soon as we can,” Obie promised. “Go on, now, boy. Don’t want to keep your fiancé waiting.” He patted Tony’s arm and strolled off, chewing on the end of his cigar.

Tony stared after him in despair. He wasn’t even going to see Tony to the door, apparently. Why, why? “But...”

The page coughed discreetly. “This way, sir,” he offered, as if this wasn’t Tony’s house.

Well, it wasn’t, not anymore, was it?

Tony hesitated a moment more, then snatched up the journal from his desk, clutching it to his chest like a lifeline, and followed the page on shaking legs.

The dirigible was enormous, barely fitting. Two rope-monkeys slid off the gondola to attach a rope bridge to the deck. “His highness, the Winter Soldier, invites you aboard the Red Star.”

His highness? Obie hadn’t said anything about that. The Winter Soldier sounded familiar, but Tony couldn’t quite place it. Tony chewed on his lip a little, holding his journal tightly in one hand, before clambering across the rope bridge.

The inside of the gondola was ornate, luxurious, everything that money could buy. The couches were inviting to sit upon, the tapestries lovely to look at. It was slightly too warm; the steam room that must drive the vehicle would surely be vast.

Tony looked around, taking it all in. Provided for, Obie had said. This certainly seemed to fit that bill. But what did his future husband want from him? Besides-- well. Tony swallowed hard. “Where should I...?”

“I thought Mr. Stark was the head of the automaton department,” a deep voice said. The man who spoke was deep in the shadows in a chair that faintly resembled a throne. “This is practically a child.”

Tony whirled around, startled. “I’m nineteen,” he said, lifting his chin. “And I’ve been building automata since I was seven.” 

“I was fighting the Hydra War when you were seven,” the man said, “and that’s a claim. Do you have an example of your work?”

Of course he didn’t. His best work was at the factory, in his own workshop; there were a few small pieces in his room -- his former room, now -- at the manor, being packed up with who knew what little care. He stared at the shadow of a man for a moment, helpless, then suddenly jerked himself into motion. He opened his journal, flipped through the pages, and held it up, spread open to a schematic he’d sketched. “I don’t have anything with me but this.”

“Come here, then,” the man said, gesturing with one hand, “and let me see.” 

Closer, Tony saw a man with dark hair tied back messily, wearing a huge cloak of thick velvet, and dressed all in black leather. Black was an exceptionally expensive dye. He leaned heavily to the right, his arm down on the thick side of his chair. His face, still in the shadow, was sharp-featured, with a cleft chin covered in a scruff of beard that could have been fashion, or could have been negligence.

At his side was a hand-help phase cannon, the barrel almost big enough for Tony to stick his entire hand inside. 

Tony inched closer. “Who are you?”

“James Barnes,” the man said with a rumble. “You’ve probably heard of me. Leader of the Howling Commandos. The White Wolf. Commander of the Thunderbolts Armada. The Winter Soldier. Stop me when something sounds familiar. I handed the entire southern continent over to Fury in the last war.”

Tony felt the blood draining from his face. This man was a legend, a literal terror on the battlefield, every bit as ruthless as the wolf for which he was named. Rumor said he would split a man down the middle rather than step aside. And Tony had demanded his name as if he were some commoner. “I-- I’m sorry, I didn’t...”

"Let me see your designs," the Soldier said, voice a little less harsh. "Christ, did no onetell you?"

“Tell me what?” Tony managed not to squeak and counted that a victory. His hand shook only a little as he handed over his precious journal, loathe to part with it but seeing no choice.

“Who you were going to marry,” the Soldier said. He took the journal, glancing down at the schematics, turning it to read Tony’s notes. “This is an improvement over the Bain model motivator, yes? More energy efficient, by a factor of... twelve, if these calculations are correct.”

“In theory,” Tony said, “though I’m not entirely certain about whether that core will hold up to the pressure, so it remains to be tested. If I have to make it sturdier, then it may only be a factor of eight.” He took a slow breath. “Who... who is it that I’m meant to marry, then?”

The Soldier carefully arranged Tony’s bookmark and handed the journal back to him. “You’ll get the opportunity to test it. And now you’re makin’ me do this the hard way. But there’s no going back, not for you, or for me either. Contract’s signed.”

Uneasy suspicion curled in Tony’s gut. “You mean... You.”

The Soldier leaned back in his chair and laughed, a soft, barely audible sound. “I wish you could hold that expression long enough to set a daguerreotype. So much for my inflated ego, no?”

Tony clutched his journal close. “I don’t... I don’t understand,” he whispered. “Why?”

The Soldier snorted. “Politics. Money. Soldiers still follow orders. It was… suggested that I take a companion for my retirement. You were the best option, all things considered. Come closer, I won’t bite you.”

Tony edged a little closer, willing his knees to stop their trembling. “Are you... retiring, then?” He almost flinched; it was a stupid question. The Soldier had said so; was Tony questioning him? “I-- I mean, I’d not heard that.” He wondered what the Soldier’s other options had been, and pushed the thought away.

“No, Fury thinks it’ll hurt the country’s morale,” he said. He ran his tongue over his teeth a few times, sucking air, and then, “People don’t like their heroes to have flaws. You’re supposed to die in battle, don’t you know? Not come home-- broken.” He shifted, pushing the cloak off. His armor was missing a sleeve-- and that wasn’t all that was missing. His arm was gone, the stump of his shoulder neatly wrapped.

“It’s not so bad,” Tony said, and it almost wasn’t a lie. “Lots of soldiers come home with missing limbs or worse.” Questioning again, and if Howard were here, he’d have already boxed Tony’s ears for him. “Sorry. Does it... does it pain you very much?”

The Soldier let himself slump back in the chair, looking at Tony through the curtain of his hair. “You know, I think you’re the first person who’s asked me that,” he said, soft. There was something intimate about that gaze, like the Soldier was actually seeing Tony for the first time. “Yeah. Yeah, it pains me. A lot. Almost all the time.” 

Tony had to drag his gaze up from that bandaged stump. “I’m sorry to hear that. Is there... is there anything that would help?” Surely, for this man, all the doctors in the country were at his disposal.

“I’m told that you will,” the Soldier said. “Assuming I don’t terrify you so much that you jump right off the gondola. I wouldn’t advise it. Nasty fall. And there are two dive-and-rescues onboard, so I’d get Sam to catch you. Speaking of--” He gestured to someone on the far side of the room.

“His things are aboard,” a page said. “Some will have to be ground shipped-- flammable systems--”

“Yes, yes. Let’s get out of here, I hate being in the city.” He turned back to Tony. “Assuming you’re staying aboard? At least for a while?”

Tony swallowed, fingers tightening on his journal until the knuckles were white. “As you said, your highness, the contract is signed. There’s no going back.”

*

Bucky took the Stark heir -- an apparent genius, according to Fury -- to one of the staterooms on the outside of the craft, giving him a good view. “It’s close to two thousand miles from here to my home, three or four days, assuming we don’t run into bad weather. Your trunks of clothes are already here. I’ll have someone come get you for meals. Otherwise, feel free to explore the Star, she’s as much your airship as mine, or will be.”

He all but closed the door in Tony’s face in his hurry to get away from questions, to stop having to think about what he was doing, and to get back to his own stateroom, where he promptly barred the door and threw himself onto his sofa.

What the hell was Fury thinking?

This was a child, no fit spouse for a war veteran with severe shell shock and a permanent disability.

All right, so Tony was nineteen. Didn’t change the fact that he looked barely out of the school room -- and terrified of Bucky, no less.

Bucky wasn’t that much older, not really. He had been seventeen when they’d lied about their age, he and Steve both, and joined the Army. But ten years and three campaigns in the southlands could change a man.

“That bad?” Steve asked. He was lounging in a chair by the window, where he had presumably been looking at the scenery before Bucky came in.

Bucky did not allow himself to jump out of his skin. Even with Steve, he couldn’t admit that weakness. Not right now. The men still needed him to be strong.

“I met him. Fury’s prize.” Taking care of the Stark heir was one of the deals that had gone along with the weapons contract for the airships. The fleet needed new weapons, now even more than before. Hydra was going to rub them out, if things got much worse. 

The worst thing about Hydra was their numbers. Limitless, it seemed. They’d been pushed back and pushed back until the southlands were clear, but everything across the river was still Hydra. And it wouldn’t take them long to come boiling back up the mountains, bristling with guns. Ready to kill and spread their ideas. Conversion by the sword.

Hail Hydra.

“That’s what we docked for,” Steve agreed mildly. “What’s wrong with him?” He stood with leonine grace and came to join Bucky on the sofa. “Spoiled rich brat?”

“Worse,” Bucky said. “He’s as green as a peeled switch, and scared out of his mind. No one even told him-- what’d they do, just shove him aboard without a word of explanation?” Even worse than that, before Tony had really seen Bucky, or realized who he was, Tony had been completely and unconsciously beautiful. Angry and brave and stern and somehow soft at the same time. A comforting place for Bucky to lay his head. To rest. Someplace, someone, to call home.

Steve frowned. “Why wouldn’t they tell him? Maybe he just wasn’t paying attention. He signed the contract, didn’t he?”

Another worry. “I saw a signature,” Bucky admitted. “Don’t mean it was his. Or that he read what it was. I don’t suppose it matters. It’s a political arrangement at best. He needs to be protected and provided for. We’re taking him as far from the front lines as it’s possible to be.” He might want to take Tony a coat, later. Carleon had a temperate climate. Didn’t mean that Tony had anything for the weather where they were going. He’d seemed too warm in Bucky’s reception lounge.

“Well, then I reckon he’ll be grateful, once he gets to know you a little, however it happened.” He patted Bucky’s good shoulder with clumsy affection.

“Gratitude is a poor feast to start a marriage with,” Bucky said. He stood and poured himself a tumbler of vodka. He considered the liquid in the heavy glass and swallowed it without tasting it. “I don’t know what’s to be done, though. Everything’s prepared as soon as we’re home.”

He missed home. Cold and clear and merciless. The winter didn’t tell lies or pretend to be anything it wasn’t. The halls of his castle were warm and full of light and love. Or so his mother said. He’d never actually been there. Ma and the girls had moved in a few years ago when Fury had granted him all the land around the castle, and a fancy title that meant nothing to go with it.

Retire. Grow fat and lazy and have many fat babies.

Steve scowled. “I don’t like Fury using you for his own ends like this,” he said. It was a refrain that had been sung many times before. “You should get to marry who you want to marry, not be traded around like some trophy.”

“Is it ever any different, from being sent to war? Shouldn’t we pick when we get to die?” Bucky knew he was being dramatic. Understated, because that was his way, but dramatic, nonetheless. Marriage wasn’t supposed to be death, no matter what some of the poets said. Not the end of everything, but the beginning of something.

He just wasn’t sure what he wanted, now that he wasn’t going to fight anymore. 

He didn’t know if he knew how to lay down his gun, to turn swords into plowshares. To have a husband and a family, and to be… at peace.

“You’re not at war anymore,” Steve pointed out. “This is supposed to be your reward, not a whole new campaign.”

“Some reward,” Bucky said. “He’s a frightened child. And I’m a monster-- he doesn’t want this.” Bucky took another gulp of vodka. It had never mattered what Bucky wanted. He didn’t even know what he wanted.

Steve studied him for a long minute, until Bucky was having to suppress the urge to squirm under that too-knowing gaze. “You going to break the contract, dump him off again?”

“Obviously not,” Bucky said. “Too much is riding on this arrangement for me to just-- have a case of the reluctant bridegroom.”

“Well, then, there’s only one thing to do,” Steve said. “You need to show him that you’re more than your fierce reputation.”

“Yeah, yeah, my reputation. Let’s hear it for Captain America,” Bucky said. “I’m not the only one retiring. Why isn’t Fury sticking you with some ridiculous debutant?”

Steve smirked at him. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I assume it’s because Fury has more sense than to try to pawn some unsuspecting person off on you,” Bucky joked. The vodka had warmed him, a little. Loosened him up. Maybe he’d track down his new betrothed and see if there was more to Tony. Scratch the surface, so to speak. “Go on, I can handle this. I’m a grown up and everything. Go, I’ll see you again entirely too soon, I expect.”

The look Steve gave him was dubious, but he nodded and stood up, stretching heroically. “Will I see your blushing new groom at dinner?”

“Not tonight, but tomorrow. I should like a chance to get to know him before I overwhelm him with new people,” Bucky said. “I told him I’d send someone to fetch him, when it was time to eat.” Tony would want to eat, right? Maybe Bucky should send himself-- or would that be too much? He sighed. This was probably just going to be more trouble than it was worth.

But those designs… Bucky’d seen a few others, sent to him by a courier. Tony could be the answer to Bucky’s problems. And maybe a few of his dreams, as well.