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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.

 

Chapter Text

Tony had been in his stateroom for no more than five minutes when there was a knock on the door, and a trio of servants brought in Tony’s trunks. He thanked them politely, and as soon as they left, set to exploring.

His clothes, of course. Some of the things had been rumpled in the hurried packing; Tony shook out a couple of shirts and hung them in the wardrobe. Three or four days, the Soldier had said. He wondered if the styles would be very different, in the Soldier’s home.

Not that it mattered. If the Soldier wanted Tony to dress stylishly, then the Soldier would see it done. A high, desperate sound choked its way out of Tony’s throat and he clutched at his face until he was able to swallow the sob.

No use crying. Nothing could be changed now. Tony would just have to find a way to survive.

He gave up on the clothes and rifled through the trunks, looking to see what other gadgets and gewgaws the packers might have tossed in as they were carelessly stripping Tony’s rooms bare.

He found another journal, a box of pencils, a small pocket toolkit, a sextant, and -- of all things -- his portable writing desk. The ink bottle had been carefully stoppered, but the rest of it had been thrown loose into the trunk, and the bottom half of the trunk was a mess of rumpled paper and sealing wax and pen nibs.

It took him some few minutes to set the thing to rights, smoothing out the thick, creamy paper and tucking everything into the proper compartments. By the time he’d finished, he’d managed to calm himself a little, enough that his curiosity began to glimmer behind the clouds of pain.

He’d only ever been on an airship twice before, and Howard had snapped at him when he’d asked for a look around, not wanting him to get in the way of the airmen.

But the Soldier had said it was all right if Tony explored, hadn’t he? That this was -- or, at least, would be -- Tony’s ship as well.

He didn’t know when he’d get such a chance again; if the Soldier was retiring, then there might not be much travel in Tony’s future.

That almost set off a fresh rush of tears, imagining himself trapped, isolated literally thousands of miles from anything or anyone Tony had ever known, with only his fearsome, taciturn husband for company.

He choked it down. He caught up one of the journals and a fairly fresh pencil, and slipped out of the stateroom to see what he could see.

His stateroom was in the center of a wide corridor that separated his door from the one on the other side. The reception room had been one set of stairs down and at the end of the hall. It made sense that other public rooms would be on that floor. Bedrooms one up. Engineering and the steamroom… probably at the bottom, with command and control on the top.

He wasn't sure if theRed Star had a weapons deck, or sky pilot launch pads. Was it a warship or a pleasure cruiser? He’d been rushed aboard too quickly to really look at it.

The Soldier had been interested in Tony’s schematics. Maybe he would put Tony to work building weapons for the ship. Or... something else. He’d asked after automata, not weapons. Had that been real interest, or just an attempt at polite conversation, knowing who Tony was and what he did?

He’d find out soon enough, he supposed. He looked around the main hall slowly, fixing the direction in his mind, and then set off in search of a hatch that would take him down to engineering.

He wasn't sure how everyone recognized him, although perhaps the crew was small enough that they assumed that the only stranger in their midst would be the Soldier's betrothed. He wasn't saluted, or greeted beyond a casual glance and nod.

More importantly, he wasn't stopped.

A few of the airmen answered questions or offered a brief comment on their work when they noticed his attention.

"Phlogiston regulation charts," one man said, tipping his wax pen in Tony's direction. "First sign there's trouble, using too much fuel."

Tony nodded eagerly and leaned to look at the charts. “How much fuel does a ship like this burn in a day? How do you regulate the flow when you’re slowing for berthing? What kind of--” The questions kept coming, tumbling out of his brain and tripping down his tongue almost faster than the poor man could answer.

"Excuse me," one of the airmen said. "We're doing a barrel shift, here, if you want to watch from the lower rigs." He handed Tony a pair of googles. "Never look directly at phlogiston. You'll go blind before it ever starts t' hurt."

“I’ve heard that,” Tony agreed, pulling on the goggles eagerly. “Where should I stand, to watch? I want to see as much as I can, but of course you mustn’t let me be in the way.”

He let the man position him, and watched the whole process, jotting notes eagerly, drawing quick sketches of the workings in the margins, asking questions the whole time. He got the impression the crew were amused and somewhat befuddled by him, but that was all right; he’d made worse first impressions.

What he could see was that phlogiston --  crystalized particles -- glowed brilliant blue, even behind the smoked glass goggles. And that they were contained, a bare handful, inside the massive, padded barrels.

The empty came out, was filled with sand and then sealed, and the fresh barrel went in. “A dozen crystals, no bigger than your thumb,” one of the crew told him, “will fly a ship this size near five hundred miles. We’ve ten barrels in the hold, but we shouldn’t need that many.”

Another stopped by Tony’s perch to look at his notes. “Your calculation’s off,” she said. “Not bad for just eyeballin’ it. Check out Rasputin’s Guide to Practical Combustion, young engineer.” She ruffled his hair, and then jumped back to her duties. 

Tony beamed and scrawled the title in the margin of his notes, underlining it twice. “Thank you!” he called after her.

He climbed down off his perch and went in closer, now that the changeover was done, to look at the mechanisms more carefully. Somehow, he found himself in the possession of a wrench nearly as long as he was and thicker than his arm, pulling at the bolt that adjusted the main steam valve, with a handful of crewmen looking on, offering advice and instructions.

“Mister Reed!” someone said, and honestly, as loud and raucous as the crew was being while Tony tightened the bolt, they should not have been able to hear. But they did, and everyone went silent at once.

“Captain.” Reed, who’d been introduced as the ship’s engineer, stuck his head out from under one of the fly-bladders.

“His highness seems to have misplaced a passenger, about so tall, brown hair, expected for dinner? Have you seen him, by chance?” The Captain, whom Tony had not yet met, was golden-haired and dressed in blue with red trim, and looked-- more annoyed than amused.

“Oh blast,” Tony swore. He turned the wrench over to the crewman who’d given it to him. “I’m here, Captain! My apologies, I entirely lost track of time!” He scrambled up the ladder to the walkway where the Captain waited. “Is, ah, may I have just five minutes to clean up a bit?”

“Only if you’re not planning on dismantling my ship,” the Captain said. He gave Tony a look, not stern. “The crew seems to like you. That’s well done.”

“They’re, they’ve been very obliging,” Tony said. “Very kind. In the future, I’ll be sure to carry a pocketwatch with me so I’m not late to my engagements, I promise.” Almost, almost, he asked whether the Soldier was very angry with him -- but the Captain was just as much of an unknown. Tony would just have to take his chances.

He gave the Captain a nod and dashed for the passage back to his stateroom. Five minutes with some soap and the ewer got his hands and face presentable. There was a grease stain on his shirt, but that couldn’t be helped. He threw on a jacket that would cover it, mostly, and shoved still-damp fingers through his hair in an attempt to make the mess appear more orderly.

There, that was as presentable as he was likely to get, at least without risking his fiancé’s further disapproval. He emerged from the stateroom and all but ran toward the dining room. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, half out of breath and not quite daring to look the Soldier in the eye.

“I’m told you were up to the elbows in the ship’s guts,” the Soldier said. That voice of his could make the most innocent of remarks sound like a scold, deep and rumbling, the words like sea glass, smooth, and yet cloudy. 

Tony tried not to hunch his shoulders as he slipped into the chair that was obviously his. “Yes, rather,” he admitted. “You’d said I might explore. If that permission doesn’t extend to engineering, I can only beg your pardon.”

“Red Star is your ship, or will be in a few weeks,” the Soldier said. “You’re welcome to do near anything but scuttle it. Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

A ship’s cook-apprentice came in, putting a heavy plate down in front of Tony and lifting the lid. A small plate of cheese and fruit, a bowl of some sort of barley and meat porridge, sliced sausages, two thick slices of bread dotted with butter and jam, and a salad with greens and cut vegetables greeted him.

Well, if he were to be punished for his tardiness, it wouldn’t be with hunger. He admitted privately to some dubiousness about the porridge, but the rest of it looked excellent. “Thank you,” he told the apprentice, and then glanced at the Soldier to see if he’d already started.

The Soldier’s eyes were closed, his hand pressed over his heart, his lips moving silently -- a prayer, perhaps. His tray contained the same type of food as Tony’s, but a larger serving. When he noticed Tony looking, he shrugged. “They say God is in more foxholes than churches.”

“I hadn’t heard that,” Tony said, obediently folding his own hands, “but I’m no soldier, either.”

“I’ve never noticed if it worked, but I’ll tell you -- running from the enemy, or charging into battle. You find yourself praying, even if you know God abandoned you years ago. Horrible dinner conversation. Forgive me, I’ve been aside society for some time now. Eat, drink. Tell me something about yourself. I don’t know what to ask.”

Tony waited until the Soldier began eating, then picked up his own fork to tentatively sample the porridge. “I... I don’t know what you’ve already been told. I can’t claim many decorative accomplishments, I’m afraid -- a little dandling on the pianoforte, but not much else. My passion has been devices and machines, my whole life.” The porridge wasn’t bad, actually, if a somewhat peculiar texture. “I... I built an automaton that can respond to simple commands. Sometimes.” Tony grimaced. “Well, about a third of the time. He’s still a work in progress.”

He froze for a moment, wondering suddenly if Obie would think to have DUM-E shipped to him, or if the thing would simply sit and gather dust in what had once been Tony’s workshop.

Maybe best if it did; Tony had made so many mistakes in the building of it, surely starting fresh would create a more well-behaved automaton. But the thought of leaving DUM-E behind made his chest ache and his throat close. Tony had to blink quickly and look very studiously at his meal for a moment, until he was able to force down a bite of sausage.

“All works are in progress,” the Soldier said. He sopped up a bit of the barley with his bread and gestured with the dripping crust. “The first airborne vehicle was nothing more than a set of silken bedsheets, a firepod, and a very large laundry basket. And look what we have today.”

“The Star is a beautiful ship,” Tony said. “Very elegant, very neat. You must be quite proud.”

“She’s a hell of a bird,” the Soldier said. “Aeronaut’s dream, really. Eradicator class. Little big across the bow, not made for tight maneuvers, but we can launch a full array of one and two-man slippers. She’s-- she’s also being retired. Insight carriers are the newest line.”

“They must be quite impressive, to put a vehicle as lovely as this one to pasture.” Tony cast around for a topic. What did one say to one’s betrothed, bare hours after learning so much as their name. “Where, ah. Where are we going, if I may ask?”

“Home,” the Soldier said. “Pavtlow. Quite a bit west from here.”

Tony’s eyes stretched wide, and he had to put his fork down or betray the trembling in his hand. So far, it was so far.

Stupid. He’d known that; the Soldier had told him it was two thousand miles. But somehow he hadn’t quite put together just how far that was. “Oh,” he said softly. “That’s... I don’t know much about Pavtlow. You’ll have to. To tell me what I should know. So I don’t shame you.”

“Can you drink two glasses of vodka and not fall down?”

“I... can’t say I’ve ever tried, but I expect so, if vodka is not too much stronger than whiskey.”

“Then you won’t embarrass me,” the Soldier told him. He jerked his chin at the server, who brought over a bottle and two glasses. “Come here and sit closer. You can try it and see.”

Tony hesitated, but what could he do? Maybe a strong drink would help smooth away the rough edges of pain and shock and grief. “As you say, your highness.” He moved up the table a few seats, until he was nearly within reach of the Soldier.

The Soldier’s face froze a moment, then the eyebrows went in, like he was angry, or disappointed. But whatever he was thinking, all he did was pour a few fingers of clear liquor into the glass and push it in Tony’s direction, snatching his hand back as soon as Tony reached for the glass.

Tony lifted it to his nose; aside from the sharp bite of alcohol, there wasn’t much fragrance to it. He tried a careful sip.

Its bite was harder than that of whiskey, without the softening of the smoky aftertaste. But it wasn’t as undrinkable as gin. Tony tried another sip, and that one went down smoother. “What,” he wondered idly, turning the glass and watching the candlelight reflect off its edges, “would you do if it turns out I can’t drink two glasses without falling down?”

“Carry you off to bed, I imagine,” he said. He threw his glass practically down his throat, the exhale only slightly exaggerated.

That was... not any of the answers Tony had been predicting. He wasn’t sure if that worried him more, or less. Well, the Soldier had led the way, so Tony took a somewhat larger gulp of the vodka. It went down easier that way, which was a little surprising.

It also, he discovered a moment later, made the alcohol hit harder. The room swayed a little, and a quick check of the lamps suggested that it wasn’t the fault of the airship. He wasn’t ready to fall down yet, but it packed a heck of a kick. Tony set his glass down gently. “Second glass.”

“Well done, Mr. Stark,” the Soldier said, thumping the table with his fist. He refilled the glasses. “Now, all you need to do is scratch your chin while studying a chessboard and we’ll make a Pavtlovite of you yet.”

Leaving aside that Tony wasn’t at all convinced he wanted to be a Pavtlovite, “Do you play chess? I prefer backgammon, but I wouldn’t mind a turn or two of chess.” It would give them something to do, perhaps. Something that didn’t require them to search so achingly for a topic of conversation. Tony downed half his glass in one neat swallow.

“Chess is something even a one armed man can do well,” the Soldier said. He knocked back his second glass of vodka. “Or just as poorly as a man with two. Depends on the man.”

Tony rolled his glass in his hands, looking at the clear liquid. “You do not strike me as a man who lacks competence,” he said slowly, “even with but a single arm. But if you’d care to test my skills, I am of course at your service.”

“Of course you are,” the Soldier agreed, his voice sounding anything but agreeable. He leaned back into his chair. 

 A shiver slid down Tony’s back. “I’m... Have I misstepped?”

“No fault of yours,” the Soldier said. “You must be weary. Can you stand, or shall I lead you off to your room?”

Dismissed, then. It was a relief and a frustration at the same time; Tony felt like he’d not even scratched the surface of the Soldier, was no closer to finding out what sort of man he was to marry. “We shall see, I suppose, when I try to stand.”

The room swung around a little as he pulled himself to his feet, and he had to lean on the table for a moment to catch his balance. But it steadied soon enough. “There. I believe I can find my own way. Thank you, your highness, for the meal and the pleasure of your company.” A bit formulaic, that, but reasonable enough.

The Soldier looked at him, didn’t stand as would have been polite. “I won’t,” he said, “bite you, you know.”

Perhaps it was the drink making him bold; Tony looked back, meeting the Soldier’s gaze directly. “Do I?”

The Soldier thumped himself in the chest, twice, like a salute. “A man of my word,” he said. “I mean you no harm.”

It would be nice, Tony thought, if he could actually believe that. He took a steadying breath, held it for a moment, and then let it out. “Very well.” We shall see. “I will see you tomorrow, I expect.”

“Only if you wish it.”

 

Chapter Text

Tony did not sleep well. He barely managed to doze off before snapping awake again, staring at the dark velvet blue of the night sky on the other side of the windows. It looked so very normal that it was almost unnerving. He closed his eyes, but was distracted by the hum of the machinery on the lower decks, the gentle sway of the craft as it bounced over the clouds, and of course his own thoughts.

The Soldier was a conundrum, gruff and uncouth and yet clearly intelligent. Not unkind -- so far -- but not exactly welcoming, either.

If he hadn’t wanted a husband, why had he signed the contract? Even with Tony’s dowry -- an offshoot of a weapons company that did nothing more useful than tinker with automata wasn’t worth much, at least in Obie’s appraisal.

Of course, it might be in Tony’s best interest if the Soldier continued to be disinterested in him. Let Tony fade into obscurity, just another trophy for the Soldier’s home in Pavtlow.

Pavtlow, of all places. Tony already felt entirely out of place and they hadn’t even docked yet. He didn’t know the language, the customs, the clothes. Who would guide him? His husband-to-be hadn’t seemed to want to talk of it.

He gave up trying to sleep as soon as the sky so much as hinted toward lighting. He threw back the counterpane of the admittedly luxurious bed and made his way to the washroom to try to splash his exhaustion away with a few handfuls of cold water.

He dressed with care, not in his nicest things, but decently enough, though the jacket could be removed quickly and the sleeves rolled if Tony were permitted to put his hands on the craft’s workings again. A journal tucked in his pocket, his pocketwatch wound and on its chain, and a pencil behind his ear, he slipped out into the corridor to see where his roaming might take him.

Not but a moment after he crept up the first flight of stairs, he was greeted by one of the airmen -- he remembered her from the engine room. “Your betrothed didn’t know what your morning drink preference was,” she said, smiling brightly. “But we’ve got morning chocolate, coffee, and good black tea, as well as orange juice, if you prefer it.”

“Oh!” Startled, Tony blinked at her a few times before recalling his manners. “That’s very kind, thank you. I think-- what’s stronger, do you think, the coffee or the tea? I had a... somewhat restless night.”

“The coffee’s not bad, but the tea is likely to punch you in the face if you say something bad about its mum,” she said. “Enough sugar will calm it down to a drinkable beverage.”

“I’ll start there, then,” Tony decided. “If you’d be so kind as to point me to the pot. I admit, I wasn’t expecting anything to be laid, so early.”

“He told us to keep the pot warm all night,” she said. “Come on, there’s always something, if you’d like a bite. Ship don’t stop just because it gets dark.”

“Well, that’s true. If you’re sure it’s not an imposition?” He followed her willingly enough.

“Not at all,” she said. “The White Wolf’s orders, your comfort before everything else, unless we’re actually falling out of the sky. My name’s Shuri, if I haven’t said.”

“Shuri,” he repeated. “Please call me Tony. And I certainly hope I’m not quite that much trouble.” It was an exaggeration, of course, but he wondered why the Soldier would have issued such orders. Trying to make a good impression, perhaps?

Tony snorted at his own fancy. 

“Believe me, we’ve had passengers who would insist on being waited on while we were in the thick of battle,” Shuri said. “You’re no problem. That’s the formal dining area, but here’s where the rest of us eat. You actually got to sit with him last night? How is he? Did he eat?” She brought him to a room the same size as the one opposite, but with several bench-tables and a buffet of trays set up. “Blueberry muffin?”

Tony hadn’t been hungry, but-- “Oh, blueberries are my favorite, thank you.” The muffin smelled sweet and fresh, and the burst of berries on his tongue as he bit into it was the perfect, slightly tart counterpoint to the sugar. “This is divine. And yes, we dined together. He ate... rather an astonishing amount, actually. Does he miss meals?” Shuri seemed almost worried about the Soldier.

“He’s… recovering,” she said. “The fall nearly killed him, and he’s been melancholy. But if he’s eating again, then he’s on the right path. You’ll be good for him, I can tell.” She gave him a thick ceramic mug of tea and pointed out the sugar bowl.

Tony tested the drink first, a careful sip. If they’d been keeping the pot warm all night, it was bound to be bitter, even if it had been refreshed as the crew went through it. But it was fairly mild, almost sweet of its own accord, and only needed a half-spoon of sugar to mask the excess tannin of oversteeping. “Is that where he lost the arm?” he asked carefully. “I’d thought, perhaps, some battle...” The wound must be more recent than he’d thought. No wonder the Soldier was in such pain.

“They made a night raid against one of Hydra’s lightning trains,” she said. “I wasn’t there, but I’m told it was very dramatic. The captain was overjoyed to find him again, after the raid was over. He fell saving a car-load of prisoners.”

“Very heroic,” Tony agreed, helping himself to a second muffin. “It’s too bad he was so terribly hurt.”

“Well, it wasn’t entirely selfless,” Shuri said. “The girls were bound for Hydra’s Red-Room, so of course, command didn’t want them to make it that far. I don’t think the White Wolf would have ignored it, even if command hadn’t given the order. He’s got… convictions about child soldiers.”

“As well he might,” Tony said warmly. The very thought was despicable. “Did he succeed, then? Save them?”

“He did,” she said. “Twenty-six girls -- only two or three would have finished the training -- are all currently being found homes for.”

“That’s good,” Tony said. “That’s... At least he didn’t make that sacrifice for nothing. So it hasn’t been very long, then, I take it.”

“Eight months,” Shuri said. “He didn’t tell you any of this? Well, command thought a pretty young thing might give him something to hold on to.”

That’s me, Tony thought, a hint of bitterness seeping into the tea. “I’m no one’s idea of a good nurse,” he warned.

“Well, that’s good,” Shuri said. “He’s hardly likely to let you take care of him.” 

A few more airmen wandered into the dining hall. One of them waved at Shuri and then brought over a stack of barely warmed flatcakes to smear with jam and some sort of chocolate sauce. The two of them fell into a conversation about engine issues that were thick enough with specialized vocabulary and regional shortcuts that Tony quickly lost the thread. The other airman spent some time complaining about his shift-partner as well, and Shuri gave him all her attention to sympathize.

Tony had probably monopolized enough of her attention, anyway. He gave her a quick, grateful smile as he rose from the table. A quick look around showed an array of bins where used cups and plates were stacked, presumably for the cook’s apprentice to take them away to be washed. Tony dropped off his emptied mug, then went to explore the rest of the public level.

The Red Star was obviously both a warship and someone’s show vessel; there were two rooms that could best be described as situational-strategy chambers, but also a library filled with books and scrolls and maps. There were two parlors -- one completely empty and the other had an ensign, based on his insignia, asleep on a sofa and a book propped open over his chest.

A gameroom, with the promised chessboard. The pieces were magnetized to keep them from sliding around on the board as the ship made maneuvers. A dart board decorated one wall and the panel around it was dotted with holes. A cylinder phonograph, along with dozens of wax records glimmered in one cabinet.

“This isn’t an airship; it’s a floating mansion,” Tony muttered, trailing his fingers over the fine wood of the chessboard’s frame. He considered the board, then set up the pieces and pushed a center pawn forward. The pieces felt fine under his fingertips, cool and polished. He wondered if the Soldier would ask him for a game, later.

He wondered if he would be expected to lose, just to protect the Soldier’s ego and sense of superiority.

With a sigh, he tipped over the white king and left the game room. Maybe the engineers would let him putter around belowdecks until he was summoned for luncheon.

He wasn’t given a lot of time alone; someone always spotted him. He was invited to oversee a routine direction change; the entire steam engine that pushed the floating ship along in the air was shifted to turn the enormous blades. After that, one of the slipper pilots nudged him. “Barnes thought you might want to look at the slipper ships, and some basic pilot instructions? My name’s Sam Wilson, the Falcon wings are under my command.”

“Oh! Yes, if you’re not busy!” He wondered when the Soldier had been issuing all these commands and suggestions; Tony hadn’t seen so much as a glimpse of his betrothed since the previous evening.

“Just planning to do a check-over of the slipper,” Sam said. “Run some drills. How’s your math?”

Tony grinned. “It’s pretty good.” Better than good; he’d outstripped his math tutors before he’d started putting on a man’s height.

“That’s good,” Sam said. “Flying is all about the practical application of math.”

A girl with a thick brown coat and oversized front teeth danced the walkway ahead of them. “Flying’s like being a squirrel-- math on the jump.”

“Tony, Doreen. Doreen’s one of my best pilots.”

The slippers were tiny, one-man crafts designed for short distances and carrying light projectile weaponry. A harness, wings, and an engine not much larger than the ones that powered home sewing machines, run on a combination of aether and pedal power.

“It’s gorgeous,” Tony enthused, running his hands lightly over one wing. “What kind of speeds can you get with this? How much fuel does she burn? What kind of maintenance overhead are we talking about, here?” Questions, questions, questions. He knew he ought to slow down, or even shut up entirely, but there was so much to learn.

“Pilots are not required to be mechanics,” Doreen said, fishing a bag of roasted nuts out of her vest. She ate a handful, offered them to Tony. 

“Which is good, because Doreen here doesn’t think to put the wings out when they catch fire,” Sam said.

“It was only once,” she protested, spilling some of her nuts. 

“And Barnes saved her from getting her fool self killed, too,” Sam said. “I’ll tell you, man jumps out of a perfectly good slipper with no chute, and brings hers down as a team effort.”

It seemed everyone had a story about the Soldier. Had he told them to share those tales with Tony, too? Make him seem a hero? Why? He already had Tony; there was no need to win Tony over. “Very brave,” Tony said aloud. “You must have been quite grateful,” he added to Doreen. The Soldier’s crew was loyal, which wasn’t the worst sign, at least.

“That’s a word,” Doreen said. “I’m not sure if it applies, since he walked around singing Burn it Down for almost two weeks afterward.”

Tony was startled into a laugh. “So he does have a sense of humor.” He clapped a hand over his mouth. It would be a mistake to criticize the Soldier to his own crew, even something so mild. Words had a habit of finding their way back to the ears you didn’t want them to find.

“Sometimes,” Doreen agreed. “He thinks he’s funnier than he is, sometimes.”

“Next time, you get to ride with him in the undersized submersible,” Sam complained. “He’s not funny then, when he takes up enough space for any three normal people.”

“You are not normal, Sam Wilson, I don’t know who’s been filling your head with such lies.”

Or... maybe a little light criticism would pass unnoticed, as long as it could be a joke. Okay. “Submersible?” Tony wondered, pulling the conversation around and away from his betrothed. “On an airship? Why?

“Quite a few missions ago, it was the best way to get into the enemy keep. But honestly, next time, I say we drop bombs from maximum altitude,” Sam said. “They’re very reliable. Bombs always hit the ground.”

“Gravity works,” Tony agreed. “The trick is to make sure they don’t explode before they hit.” He knew a little about that, too.

Sam did a visual inspection of the slippers, with Doreen providing colorful, if not useful, commentary. Finally down to a late lunch. 

Captain Rogers was there, speaking in a low tone with one of the airmen, then gave Tony a rough nod in greeting. “Buck thought you might like some potato cakes, he had the cook make them up for you--” Rogers waved at a plate of what did, in fact, look remarkably like small, dirty potatoes. With a sprinkling of nuts over the top.

“I... Thank you?” Tony glanced around the dining room, but didn’t see the Soldier. “Did he not...” Tony squelched the question. He picked up one of the potato cakes and took a careful bite, not sure what he’d find -- but it was, in fact, cake of some sort, sweet and crumbly, the nuts adding a little texture that made the whole thing quite pleasant. “This is good,” he said, trying not to sound surprised. “I’ll... be sure to thank his highness when I see him.”

The Soldier was issuing a lot of orders about Tony, somehow, without ever crossing Tony’s path. It was a little unnerving.

“He wants you to be comfortable,” the captain said.  Which was apparently all Tony was going to get in the way of an explanation.

Tony enjoyed eating with the crew -- they indulged his many questions and told stories of their service, each more incredible than the last, and if a suspicious number of them featured the Soldier, well, that was only to be expected.

After luncheon, he retired to the library, finding the book that Shuri had recommended to him the previous day and settling in on a cozy chair to absorb its knowledge.

All in all, it was an excellent day -- but when the elegant mantleclock in the library chimed its way into Tony’s attention and informed him that it was nearing the dinner hour, he wondered rather abruptly where his betrothed had been.

They could hardly get to know each other well enough for a lifetime over a single dinner. Was this what the Soldier intended? To keep Tony well, but at a distance?

He’d promised not to hurt Tony. Tony was still wary of that promise, but the crew had spoken with such admiration, and they couldn’t all be lying. Maybe... Maybe it could be okay, no matter how intimidating the Soldier had been on the outset.

Maybe.

Tony marked his place in the book and set it aside, then headed for his stateroom to change for dinner.

 

Chapter Text

“It must be me,” Bucky said, sighing. He was looking out the port-hole, although there was very little to see. The cities and towns had given way to farms, and then the farms to long, empty plains dotted by equally uninhabited forests. 

Well, the forests probably weren’t empty of life -- but bears didn’t exactly set out gas lamps, either. “He seems to get along with the rest of the crew. He’s eager to please, inquisitive, friendly. It’s me that he has issue with.”

“To be fair,” Steve said from Bucky’s sofa, “he doesn’t have to marry any of them. If he cheeses off Reed or Wilson, he only has to avoid them for a couple of days. If he gets you mad...” Bucky could hear the shrug. “You can’t blame him for being a bit cautious. That fierce battlefield reputation of yours is going to be more a hindrance than a blessing when it comes to courtship.”

“I only have that reputation because of the troops I’ve been given,” Bucky said. “You all but held my hand through my first two battles alone. Not to mention just sheer luck. I have a reputation because I keep living. Not because I’ve done anything so amazing. And you know what Fury said. I’m no planner -- I jump in and make shit up as I go. You’re the man with the plan.” Of course, Steve was also the man with the ‘disobeying the direct order’ motif, so it was no wonder he’d not been promoted.

Not that it bothered Steve any. “Did you tell him that? Because I can guarantee that’s not in any of the stories the crew have been telling all day.” He was smirking, the bastard, Bucky could feel it. “You’re not making it any better by hiding in here, you know.”

“If I can’t put him at ease, at least I can not put him on edge by hovering,” Bucky said. “He seems to think-- I don’t know. He acts like he thinks I might strike him, or yell at him. Or expect things from him.” Honestly, the man seemed to think that he was already in disfavor and Bucky didn’t know how to dig himself out of the hole he’d found himself in.

“All that says to me is that he’s learned to distrust those with power over him,” Steve said. “He didn’t learn that from you. Maybe it starts with whoever it was who signed him off to a betrothal and never even told him who it was he was engaged to marry.” Steve was scowling at that; he hadn’t believed it at first, but sometime around mid-afternoon, after having heard a few tales from the crew, he’d come into Bucky’s room to rant about the injustice of that.

“I don’t -- I don’t have any more power over him than any husband has over his spouse,” Bucky protested, “What’s he think I’m going to do, send him to bed without supper?”

“Or worse,” Steve said. “Not sure he knows how much power you do or don’t have, given that he’s still referring to you as his highness, as if you haven’t given him leave to use your name.”

Bucky blinked. Hadn’t-- no, he hadn’t. He’d been too busy being an ass to bother to actually introduce himself. And of course, the whole crew was ribbing him about the title. They weren’t calling him ‘your highness’ out of respect, but to poke fun at him. 

“Buck. You did tell him to use your name, didn’t you?” Steve actually sat up and twisted around to look at Bucky. “Oh my god, you didn’t.” And because Steve was a jerk he started laughing.

“Uh-huh, and what were the first words out of your mouth when you saw Peggy Carter?” Bucky snarked. “I wasn’t… I mean, you’ve met Reed, what’d you think a super genius engineer would look like?” Tony had walked into the room, shy and worried and probably the most beautiful thing that Bucky had ever seen. His first thought -- even before he noticed how very young Tony was -- that he had a mouth that deserved kissing.

Steve snorted. “You signed that contract, thinking you were going to be bound to someone who looked like Reed? Your sacrifice for your country is duly noted.” He chuckled again, and came to stand next to Bucky at the window. “Start over,” he advised. “Go to dinner instead of skulking around your rooms like you don’t actually own the damn ship, and turn on the charm I know you still remember how to use. He’s young, he’s scared, but he’s not stupid.”

“I hear you not saying that I’m the stupid one around here,” Bucky said. “It’s not like I’ve been married before either.”

“So talk to him, pal. Be honest. Maybe if he knows you’re scared, too, he’ll stop thinking of you as the Winter Soldier.”

“I’m not scared,” Bucky complained. “I’m just… concerned that we might not be particularly compatible.”

Steve rolled his eyes and clapped Bucky on the back. “Yeah, okay, Buck. I’m going to go change for dinner. Are you coming, or should I tell your fiancé that you’re hiding from him?”

“You’re such an ass,” Bucky said. He would have shoved Steve under more normal circumstances, but he was still having problems with his balance, and the last thing he wanted to do was knock them both over, and then, worse, having Steve apologize to him or something equally mortifying. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming, whatever.”

“Like calls to like, jerk.” Steve grinned and nudged Bucky in the arm before he broke away and turned toward the door. “I’ll see you at dinner.”

It took him longer to dress than he would have liked. Buttons were still trying, even with the hook that Reed had given to him to help with that. But his waistcoat was nice; he’d bought himself several of them, when Fury had awarded him the title. There were a lot of collected taxes involved in having a title. So he’d gone to a tailor and demanded an entire wardrobe, suitable to his rank, and to his armlessness.

He pulled his hair back into a messy queue. 

Finally. He was as presentable as he was going to get.

So, of course he practically ran Tony down throwing the door open. Fuck.

Tony backed away a couple of steps with a little squeak of surprise. “Your highness! Forgive me, I didn’t mean to block the way.” He had put some care into his clothing, a fine-woven shirt and a blue jacket covered with black and silver brocade. His hair had been slicked into something that was no doubt proper and his cheeks were pink and obviously freshly washed and shaved. Good Lord, but he was beautiful.

He really had not done right by this lovely man, had he? 

“Bucky,” he said, because he still didn’t know what to say, dammit. But at least he could get past this bit of awkwardness.

Tony blinked at him. “I’m-- pardon?”

“My name,” Bucky said. “It’s Bucky. Can-- may I accompany you to dinner, then?”

“Oh.” Tony sounded breathless, those eyes wide. “I... should be honored, thank you.”

“It’s pretty easy to pronounce,” Bucky said. “Even Steve gets it right, once in a while, although he likes to shorten it down even further. Buck. Like the nickname of a nickname. You really can’t go around calling me your highness all the time. Ridiculously cumbersome.”

Tony huffed a little breath of a laugh. “Better to err on the side of formality,” he said. “Especially with the titled. Will you tell me how you came by the name Bucky? It’s not your given name, that I know.”

“It’s silly,” Bucky admitted. He didn’t know that anyone actually knew the story, aside from Steve. He’d known Steve since they were eight years old. “My sister had trouble with my first name -- James -- and my ma didn’t like the way she mispronounced it. Zims. Said it sounded like Becca had swallowed a hive of bees. So, she started calling me Buchanan, which is my middle name. And Becca came up with Bucky from there. So… now that’s what most people call me.”

“That’s cute,” Tony said. “I didn’t know you had a sister.” That was... diplomatically phrased. Tony probably didn’t know much of anything about Bucky.

“Point in fact, I have four,” Bucky said. “Do you want one? They’re cheap.”

“I never had any siblings,” Tony confessed. “I always wondered what it would be like.”

“Loud,” Bucky said. It didn’t seem fair that after losing an arm, he still didn’t know what to do with his hand while he talked to someone. He settled for resting his fingers at the small of Tony’s back, guiding, and obviously with him, without leaving Bucky without quick access to his hand. In case of what, he wasn’t sure, but he’d always discovered that not being prepared for a madman to leap out of somewhere with a gun was the surest way to get one.

Better not be any assassins on his airship that didn’t work for him. Well, technically for Fury.

“With that many, I suppose it must be. Do they live in Pavtlow as well?” Tony’s voice wobbled a bit at the end of that, as if he wasn’t sure that would be a good thing.

“They all live in the city, yes, and the addition of my brother-in-law, and hopefully some nieces or nephews soon. Becca married a few years back, and Katherine -- sometimes Kitty, she's called -- the youngest, is just returned from school. And it’s a very big house, I’m told.” 

“You’re told?” Tony tipped his head to slant a look into Bucky’s face, so quick Bucky couldn’t register his expression. “Do you not know the size of your own house?”

“I’ve never been there,” Bucky admitted. “War and stuff. We didn’t-- I didn’t grow up there. The house came with the responsibilities and the titles and all the medals that weigh down my uniform. I didn’t--” He didn’t quite drag Tony to a halt, but he wanted Tony to understand this about him. “I never had a reason to go home. To make it a home. Now I do.”

Tony looked at him again, curious. Wary, perhaps, but not quite so fearful as he’d been the previous evening. “What reason is that?”

“Someone to share it with,” Bucky said. 

“Oh,” Tony said, and the back of his neck flushed red. “But then-- Well, I... I hope you’ll find it welcoming.”

“I hope, very much, that we… will find it welcoming.” He nodded at the door to the main crew dining area. He did make it a habit to eat with the crew from time to time, and hoped that Tony would be comfortable enough, among his new friends, to eat and relax.

“But that’s--” Tony glanced at the door to the private dining room and then quite obviously decided that he would, in fact, be more comfortable with company. “Very well, then.” He pulled the door open for them, pausing to scan the room before taking the first step in.

The best thing about his crew was that, while everyone knew him and respected him, they were not the sort of people to stand on ceremony. The noise level barely dropped as people glanced up, and then back to their food. Some waved or nodded, and there were a few airmen who still saluted him, altho the snap of their fingers indicated sarcasm more than implied chain of command.

Reed immediately wanted his attention, which was typical of the engineer. Nothing was more important than the airship. As Bucky happened to agree with that sentiment, especially while they were in the air, he ushered Tony into a chair at his side, and then listened to Reed’s concerns over the weather. It was colder, even, than they’d expected, which would burn more fuel.

Tony listened as well, a faint frown tugging at his brows. “But doesn’t the... I mean, you could route the heatsink for the steam around the phlogiston core, and that should keep the cold from affecting the burn rate.”

Bucky didn’t even have to look; he reached out and grabbed Reed by the back of the collar, pushing him into a chair. “After dinner. If you please, Dr. Richards, I should like my fiancé to eat and relax somewhat before you drag him off.”

Tony even looked tolerably amused. “I spent the whole afternoon relaxing,” he said. “If it’s urgent, I don’t mind going down straight after dinner.”

Bucky didn’t quite bother to hide his scowl, although he did sit and rather hoped Tony didn’t notice. He wanted to spend a little time with his betrothed and figure out more than whether he liked coffee more than tea, or a buttered roll with his dinner. At this rate, between Bucky’s not knowing what to say, and Tony’s seeming reluctance to give him any time to say it, they’d be perfect strangers still when they married.

Bucky caught a glimpse of Tony, chatting across the table with one of the airmen, the way his smile lit up his entire face while he talked.

Well, perfect, at any rate.

And Bucky started thinking there would be a lot he might do to get Tony to smile at him like that.

The question was… what?

When that conversation wound down, Tony glanced at him hesitantly, and volunteered, “I meant to thank you for the... potato cakes? Is that really what they’re called? They were delicious.”

“You’re welcome,” Bucky said. “They really are-- Kartoshka. Potato. Because they look like potatoes. Cake, cream, cognac and chocolate. We took on provisions when we left, but if you would tell me your favorites, I will make sure we can get some few things, that will remind you of home.”

“Oh...” Tony’s gaze turned dreamy as he considered it. “I like fruit. Blueberries, especially. Beef wellington. And there are some Italian dishes I don’t... actually know the names for, but I’ll find out.”

Anything in his power -- and these days, that was a lot -- to get Tony to look like that. “Good, good. Whatever you like.” He shifted a little in his seat, planning to pat Tony’s hand, the way he would with any of his airmen or ensigns.

Tony didn’t snatch his hand back, but he flinched a little, as if he’d like to. “Sorry,” he said quickly. “I’m just, I’m not used to... that.”

“No, of course,” Bucky said, hand hovering for a moment, then drawing it back without touching Tony’s skin. “You-- well, you know, it’s… we don’t need to be in a hurry. Or at all, if you would rather.”

Tony opened his mouth, closed it again, and tipped his head to look at Bucky sidelong. “That’s... very generous of you. If somewhat unexpected.”

“I can’t say that I’d find the idea of forcing you to accede to my desires to be-- at all pleasant or charming. If I--” he couldn’t quite bring himself to say repulse you “--the marriage itself is no longer open for negotiations, unless. Well, I shan’t do that. But the rest of it. No one needs to know and I won’t hold you to it.”

Tony looked down at his plate, the back of his neck turning red. “I’m not... I mean, it’s. With time, perhaps? To learn to know one another better.”

“Take as much time as you need,” Bucky said. He could, of course, annul the marriage, but that would mean waiting until after the wedding, and then claiming Tony was no virgin. It would be humiliating, both for Tony and for Bucky, but worse, would probably render Tony unsuitable for a second marriage. No, he’d not offer that unless things were much worse than they appeared.

It would be fine; they could find companionship outside the marriage if they needed to.

Or, Tony could. Bucky found himself watching Tony sidelong. There was something fascinating about him, about the way his eyes were so clever, the way his hands were so graceful.

Bucky didn’t think he’d be looking for anything outside the marriage.

Tony smiled at him, still somewhat nervous, but it seemed genuine. “In that case, I wonder... I found a chessboard in the library. Perhaps you’d care for a game?”

“I’d be honored,” Bucky said. “If you’d care to take a look at Reed’s little problem, I’ll meet you later this evening?”

“It shouldn’t take long,” Tony promised. “In, say, an hour?”

“An hour, then, and be on your mettle,” Bucky told him. He was already signalling one of his airmen-- hot water, clean, pressed clothes, and maybe a shave. He could look better, look… like he was courting. Maybe he could even talk their medic out of a few flowering herbs -- usually used for medicinal purposes, but some of them were pretty.

Courting. Getting to know him better. Bucky could do that.

 

Chapter Text

Tony hesitated outside the library to settle his nerves, as much as they could be settled. The Sol-- Bucky, he reminded himself, and couldn’t resist a small smile. Maybe the name was less absurd in Ussuran, but it was hard to be quite so cowed by a man who willingly called himself Bucky.

Bucky had been both kind and generous, though the offer to delay or even waive consummation of the marriage was more confusing than anything else. Tony couldn’t imagine why Bucky would allow such a thing. Well, maybe he had a preference for women? But then...

Tony shook his head. Bucky was a puzzle that Tony wasn’t going to solve in a day, for certain.

But this piece of the puzzle, Tony could test, and begin to learn its shape. How did Bucky react to being challenged? Would he be angry and offended? Try to downplay the importance of the game? How would he react?

It was a gamble, but Tony had wagered higher stakes before. He took a last breath to steady himself, and pushed through the door.

Bucky had-- done something.

Or maybe several things. He was no longer wearing the thick, furred cloak that kept his missing arm obscured, but instead had a maroon jacket in the modern style, sleeve neatly pinned up. He wore tight fitting trousers, his waist clearly defined by the leather belt, and his hair was somewhat damp, tied back to show off his face, clean shaven.

He had already settled himself at the board, but the empty chair had a tiny nosegay, tied with a red ribbon, laying across the cushion.

Tony paused to just stare. Bucky had been an imposing figure before, but this man was... was beautiful. He swallowed, and somehow summoned a smile as he approached the chessboard. “Is this a Ussuran thing?” he wondered. “Do you dress for chess, more than for dinner?”

“If you are going to fight a war, you must wear a uniform,” Bucky said, giving him that mysterious smile of his, the one Tony hadn’t yet figured out if it meant he was joking, or what.

“Well, I haven’t any uniforms,” Tony said, “so you’ll just have to assume I’m a spy.” He picked up the little bundle of flowers. “Are these for me?” They smelled sweet and just a little sharp.

“Yes,” Bucky said. “Have a seat.” He picked up two pawns, one of each color, and they disappeared into his closed hand. A moment later, with a very different sort of smile, he offered Tony one closed fist to pick from.

Tony tipped his head, somewhere between curious and amused as he slid into the waiting chair. “How...” He shook his head and tapped lightly on the back of Bucky’s hand.

Bucky opened his hand to display the white pawn, which he sat down on Tony’s side of the board, then shook his sleeve until the black one fell into his hand. “Seemed the best way to do it, given that I’m down a hand.”

Tony was startled into a bit of a laugh. “I didn’t see you do that at all. You must be quite skilled at sleight of hand. I should protest the draw, since you knew which one you were handing me, but I’m not foolish enough to readily turn over an advantage.” He began to set up the pieces on his side.

Bucky flicked his own pieces into place, the magnets in the board snapping them upright instantly. “Who taught you to play? It is said you can learn two things about a man, playing chess. Who he is, and who his father is.”

Tony huffed a little at the idea of Howard having enough patience to teach Tony anything like chess. “Our butler taught me the moves and basic rules when I was little. Strategy, I learned through trial and error, at first, and later, from books.”

“Then I know all I need to know about your father,” Bucky said, dismissing Howard with a flick of his fingers, “and that he was unworthy of a son like you.”

Tony pushed a pawn forward. “How can you know that? Perhaps I was the unworthy one.”

Bucky responded, a simple two space push. “Because if he had taught you, perhaps, cards instead, you would have said. It is not the game, particularly, that matters. It is spending time with the child you have created, teaching, and learning something about yourself. He did not do this for you, I can see it in your face. Whatever else he may have been, a good father spends time with his children.”

Another pawn, to threaten Bucky’s. “I learned mechanics from my father,” he said, though a disloyal whisper of his thoughts wondered why he must defend Howard at all. “And somewhat of business. He was not... much for leisure, when he could be working instead.” He shook his head, pushing Howard’s ghost aside. “You have strong opinions about fatherhood. Do you want a large family?”

“I have strong opinions about most things,” Bucky said, and he promptly pulled his knight out, forking Tony’s two pawns. “I like children. And a big family. One might say I have an entire airship’s worth of family, surrounding me here.”

An aggressive player, though Tony supposed he could hardly have expected otherwise from this man. “They do seem to look up to you as... well, perhaps not a father, but an older brother, at least.” He made his move and sat back in his chair.

“They are good crew, every one of them,” Bucky said. He flicked another piece, threatening Tony’s entire front line, it seemed. “Well, perhaps except for Reed.”

“Reed? He seems like a good man, if somewhat... singular of focus.” Tony wasn’t about to let himself be pushed into a defensive game so early. He gave the board a moment’s study, and pulled forth his own knight.

“You understand this is a joke,” Bucky said, and he took one of Tony’s pieces, prompting a flurry of exchanges that made the board suddenly a lot less crowded. “A great number of my crew managed to cross a major -- not an enemy, but a reluctant ally -- who had them all arrested in retaliation for a prank. Reed declared, loudly, and very publically, that he hated every man jack of them, and was only bailing them out under direct orders, and that they could all expect a reckoning at the hand of the bosun. This was a lie, but managed to get them all out of trouble, since our friend the major was expecting them to be whipped. And now everyone declares that they loathe Reed, or at least hold him in somewhat dubious regard.”

“That was kindly done of him, then.” To be honest, Tony wouldn’t have thought the lanky engineer capable of that much subterfuge. “Why him, and not yourself?”

Bucky ducked his chin. “I was one of those in the cell,” he admitted.

Tony grinned. “I should have guessed.” He watched Bucky’s game for several turns. The man was daring, but surprisingly protective, unwilling to sacrifice a piece for only minor gains. Quick, too, rarely considering his moves for more than a moment before making a decisive jump.

Tony found himself enthralled in the game; chess wasn’t his favorite, but Bucky was pressing him hard, offering a challenge he’d rarely encountered. He thought Bucky was enjoying it, too. Still, Tony’s stomach clenched in anticipation as he slid his bishop forward and, “Check.”

“Well done,” Bucky said in a tone that seemed to, in fact, actually mean that, rather than be condescending or forced good sportsmanlike. He moved himself out of check, king going to hide behind the wall of pawns, castling the defense.

Something in Tony eased, then. There was, indeed, a great deal you could learn about a man from his game. He grinned, then and set about planning to take down that wall.

Bucky didn’t scowl, or smirk, or do any of the things that Tony usually expected from an opponent, but instead watched the board, occasionally glancing up as if looking to read the expression on Tony’s face. 

“Check.”

And that was neither gloating nor condescending. Tony began to wonder if Bucky were even real.

It took him a moment’s study to decide how to respond; there were several options, but he was going to have to sacrifice one of his stronger pieces. The question was: which one? He skipped through the possibilities, calculating the next handful of moves for each scenario. Twice, he reached for a piece, then pulled back. Finally, lip caught between his teeth uncertainly, he pushed his queen forward.

Bucky took the bait, and then, a few moves later, blinked once, his grin going a bit rueful. “I concede.” He knocked over his own king. “Very well done, indeed. The midgame flurry usually intimidates. My endgame is still weak, sometimes.”

Tony picked up his own king and rolled it between his palms. “I had to fight for every move,” he admitted. “It’s been a long time since anyone challenged me so much.”

“A good challenge is a great way to learn,” Bucky said. “Is there anything else you’d care to teach me, this evening?”

“I’ve learned a great deal, myself,” Tony said. His eye fell on the little bouquet of flowers, nearly forgotten in the intensity of the game. His betrothed was... courting him, odd as that seemed, given they were already engaged. But maybe that was... okay. He picked up the flowers and traced one of the stems with his fingertip. “What is this one? I don’t recognize it; botany is not my strong suit.”

“Lavender,” Bucky said, going through the bouquet, “Echinacea, camomile and cornflower. Mostly for tea, if I must be honest. It should help you sleep, as well.”

“Well, I can’t say that wouldn’t be welcome.” His previous, mostly sleepless, night was catching up with him; just the thought of sleep made his jaw stretch near to cracking with a yawn. “Maybe sooner than later.” He glanced at Bucky, and looked back down at the flowers. “If you-- would be so kind as to escort me?”

“Of course,” Bucky said, getting to his feet, his eyes slightly wide, looking just a little dumbstruck, as if Tony had suggested something forward.

It wasn’t a long path from the library back down to the cabin level. Which was good, because Tony’s heart was pounding a loud tattoo in his ears the whole way, and he could even pinpoint the reason -- fear or nervousness or even, just maybe, something good.

When they reached Tony’s door, he glanced at the flowers again and then looked up into Bucky’s face with a smile he didn’t have to force. “That was fun. Thank you.”

“Delighted, as always, to be of service,” Bucky said, and gave Tony a slightly exaggerated bow, his mouth brushing the back of Tony’s hand before coming upright, giving him a wide silver-blue eyed gaze.

Tony’s hand felt hot, searing, where Bucky’s lips had brushed, and he all but fumbled for the door latch. “I’ll... I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Sleep well, Bucky.”

“Sweet dreams,” Bucky said, taking a step back to let Tony close the door.

Tony closed the door with a gentle click and leaned against it as if his legs couldn’t hold his weight any longer. On the other side of the door, there was a pause and then a shuffling sound, and then Bucky’s footsteps retreated down the hall, toward Bucky’s suite.

Tony closed his eyes and tried to focus on his breathing, on slowing the sudden racing of his heart. What the hell am I doing?

Was he actually going to let the Winter Soldier court him?

What choice did he have? The contract had been signed; their marriage was inevitable. It would almost certainly be more pleasant if Bucky wanted him. Wanted him willing-- No, not just willing, but eager, wanting Bucky in return.

All the same, he couldn’t help but think this wasn’t the sort of match his mother had wanted for him.

“He’s been kind,” Tony whispered into the darkness of his room. It could still be an act -- they hadn’t stood before the priest yet, after all -- but Tony had gotten pretty good, over the years, at spotting those little flashes of suppressed rage and loathing, and if Bucky was hiding a darker nature, then he was hiding it well.

Tony hadn’t wanted this. Hadn’t wanted to marry, not so soon -- Obie must have started setting it all up before Tony was even half through his mourning. He hadn’t expected to marry, hadn’t thought to move away, certainly not so far away.

And yet... Bucky had been kind. The crew had been generous and indulgent and eager to teach him all the things he wanted to know. And about Bucky. Who, if even half their stories were remotely true, was brave and reckless and funny and smart and--

Beautiful? his mind suggested slyly.

That, too.

Tony pressed his hands over his eyes until he saw lights flashing on the backs of his eyelids, and then made his way toward the bed. Maybe it would all make more sense in the morning.

 


 

Bucky would have thought he’d spend the entire night in some state of restless half-doze, reliving the moment where he thought Tony might have allowed a brief liberty over and over again, until like a warmed wax cylinder, the music came out strained and too soft.

But he didn’t, falling almost straight into sleep, letting the motion of the Red Star carry him off to dreamland.

In dreams, Tony wasn’t shy. He was forward and creeping into Bucky’s stateroom, dressed in some flimsy silken thing, and Bucky was claiming those unspent kisses with rough eagerness.

There was a sound, something like a bell ringing, and Tony started fading away, no matter how Bucky tried to reach for him, and for a moment, he just lay in his bed, blinking sleep from his eyes and cursing as Tony escaped his grasp.

Then it dawned on him what he was hearing.

Alarm bells.

Something was wrong on the Red Star. Something really wrong.

Bucky swore for an entirely different reason, throwing himself out of his bunk and nearly toppling over. It seemed that he was always, always more clumsy. He didn’t always remember his lost arm, and the difficulties it had, until he was forcibly reminded. Or it could have been that the ship rocked, throwing his possessions from one side of the room to the other.

What the hell? 

It wasn’t wartime; he usually kept his stateroom firmly locked down when they expected any fighting. Or weather.

Reed had said something about the weather at dinner, but Bucky had gotten so into the courtship of Tony that he’d--

“Captain!” someone was shouting. 

Bucky struggled into his boots, grabbed his shirt and jacket in one hand, and headed, half-dressed, toward command. “Tony, I need you,” he banged on his betrothed’s door on the way by.

Tony’s door opened an instant later and he came out, hair mussed and pulling on a jacket over his shirt, feet still bare, boots in his spare hand. “What is it?” he asked, raising his voice over the alarms. “What’s happening?” He chased after Bucky, hesitance gone in the face of crisis. No time to be coy when you were all in danger of burning alive or plummeting thousands of feet.

Bucky made it to the command deck. “What’s happening?”

“We’re under attack,” Steve shot back. “Warships, three of them. They’ve got long-range guns, light, but we can’t return fire without getting in their kill box.”

“What kind of guns?” Tony demanded, ducking around Steve to look out the observation window.

They were going to all get a damned good look at those long guns if Bucky didn’t do something, and damn fast. “Launch the Falcon units,” he barked. “Tony, put your shoes on, and get over here and help me.” 

He hated needing help to dress; he could do it, but goddamn it was easier with two hands. Most of his clothes were made for ease of wear, but even so--

Tony left his boots by the window and came over to Bucky directly, picking up Bucky’s shirt by the collar and shaking it loose, holding it out for Bucky to slide his arm into. “Tell the Falcons... See if they can confirm the insignia and name on the lead ship. It’s hard to see from this angle, but...” His lips pressed together briefly. “It looks like the Ironmonger. Obie’s ship.”

Bucky grabbed the in-ship, nearly knocking Tony over, who was buttoning Bucky’s shirt. “Sam, flyby on the ships, I want a report on colors and flags. Peter, get ready to flitter -- as soon as you have Sam’s report, get out of here, head for Pösen, it’s the nearest border.”

Tony’s hands were shaking on Bucky’s buttons, slowing the process, and his face was chalky pale. “It can’t be,” he muttered. “I’m imagining things, it’s some other ship.” He left the top button undone and, somewhat distractedly, tugged at the top of Bucky’s breeches and began fastening those as well.

“Right now, I don’t care if it’s the King,” Bucky said. “Tell Richards I need a Crazy Ivan. All hands, brace for the turn.”

He grunted when Tony pulled his belt just a little too tight. “Thanks. You’re my hands for right now, get a spyglass and get as much of a good look as you can. Weak points, whatever you know. Especially look for the sparks, all guns spark before firing.”

“I know that,” Tony said, almost testily. He snatched up Steve’s spyglass from the table and pressed himself up against the window again, staring out.

The alarm bell changed pitch, and Bucky hooked his boot through one of the floor brackets and grabbed Tony’s belt with one hand. The ship swayed alarmingly and plunged down four hundred feet before stabilizing. Flight bladders, a cunning invention of the last war, and built for unexpected maneuvers. 

To his credit, Tony only staggered a little at the sudden shift, and cursed once before grabbing a handhold. He went back to his study of the other ships almost immediately. “Ha! Those guns are maneuverable, but not that maneuverable; it will take them at least three and a half minutes to unbolt them and change the primary angle.”

He glanced around with a grin, but it slid from his features almost immediately. “Why? Why would he do that?”

Bucky looked down at the man practically in his embrace, that earnest and angry expression. “I can think of a few reasons,” he grumbled. “But my best guess--” He hesitated, because Tony was part of that equation, had always been. “If the Red Star goes down... We’re out in the middle of goddamn nowhere. He can tell any story he wants. Start a war. Who profits from war, Tony?”

He wanted Tony to come to his own conclusions, or even protest and tell Bucky he was wrong, that this was something else entirely. Possible Hydra infiltration of the Shield navy, a mutiny, anything aside from betrayal. For money.

The ship lurched again, and Tony fell against Bucky’s side, graceless, and didn’t move for a moment, stunned. “But he got the company, he has--” Tony shook his head  and pulled himself upright. His expression was nearly blank except for a slight furrow to his brow, the tight bunch at the corner of his jaw. “First you survive,” he said, and it sounded like a quote, “and then you figure out what went wrong. Captain--” He grabbed another handhold, crabbing his way over to Steve. “The lead ship has a patch in her belly that’s weaker than the rest of it. Target that, and you’ll blow out the lower deck. If you’ve got a sharpshooter, you might get lucky and blow the phlogiston barrels.”

“As it happens,” Steve said, glancing around, “we have a sharp shooter.”

“You can’t possibly--” Bucky snapped his teeth around it. “Get us up there, get that ship holed. Come on, Tony. ”

Tony snatched up his boots. “Where are we going?”

“My cabin, first. Outer rails, top of the ship,” Bucky said. “I’m gonna need you to balance me, and help me assemble her.”

Her was the Vetterli-Vitalia he’d taken off a Hydra sniper a few years back, by force. Sturdy bolt and one of the best long-distance weapons yet made. She was in pieces, tucked away neatly under his bunk. 

The ship rocked around as Steve changed altitudes and directions as if they were on some sort of carousel. “Fuck, grab it,” he snapped as the case went sliding across the floor.

Tony lunged and caught it, just barely, by one corner, dragging it closer until he could scoop up the handles. “Go on.” He waved toward the balcony. “I’ve got her.”

The climb from C&C up to the rails was nerve-wracking at the best of times, in calm weather when they were in no particular hurry. The thinnest and quickest of the airmen tended to linger there during combat, their emergency packs filled with silk and pre-threaded needles for small repairs, quick-drying glue, and other supplies to keep them in the air. Too much hot air out of the gas bags, and they’d go down.

There were a few shooter hides along the catwalks and Bucky took them to the one against the nose. Steve would know which side he was on, and get them lined up as best he could. 

“Can you put her together while I get strapped in?”

Tony didn’t answer, just crouched down and opened the case, shifting to keep his back to the wind since he didn’t have any goggles to protect his eyes. He began fitting the pieces together with delicate, knowing hands.

The port guns fired, nearly deafening, but a moment later, the smallest of the airships erupted in flames. Bucky squinted, trying to see if there were men who would parachute down. Three Falcon units zipped by, barely visible against the sky. 

Bucky secured himself in the gun’s nest. This was going to be a shitty shot, but with phlogiston, sometimes all you needed was close enough.

The Vetterli snapped as Tony slotted the magazine. He hefted her gently, nodded, checked the safety, and laid the barrel over the rail as he dropped the stock into Bucky’s hand. He wriggled around, squinting into the wind and then giving up and squeezing his eyes shut altogether. “Where do you want me?”

“Find me that weak spot,” Bucky yelled over the noise of the battle. “And strap the fuck in, don’t need you tumbling off the side without a chute.”

Tony fumbled around until he found a strap and pulled it around himself. “You should be able to see it,” he said. “Bottom of the deck, there’s a spot where all the rivets are iron instead of brass? Makes a shape sort of like an egg. That’s the patch.”

Bucky squinted, then let his awareness narrow to Tony’s hand on his back, the feel of a gun against his shoulder. He could do this. Breathe. 

He’d never quite fired his rifle one handed, but it wasn’t like the tripod didn’t take a lot of the weight, hold her steady. Bucky let the math flow through him. 

“In my bag,” Bucky said, “there’s an anemometer. Can you get a reading?” He was probably going to be doing this by prayers and spit, but unless Steve got way too close to the other ship, some sort of wind reading might help.

Tony rustled in the bag and came up with the device. He propped it on the rail and squinted at the readings, started reciting the numbers for Bucky. The wind slowed a little as they drew abreast of the Ironmonger, but was still brisk.

“How many shots?” Tony asked.

Bucky breathed in. Out. Let his focus narrow. “If I’m just that good, we’ll only need one.”

 

Chapter Text

It was cold out on the platform. Tony could barely feel his fingertips; he wasn’t sure how Bucky was going to be able to properly fire the rifle.

And noisy, the wind howling around them in between the rattle and boom of gunfire and the bursts of larger explosives.

But the cold and noise were welcome. Distracting Tony from the icy void that had opened in his chest in the instant he’d recognized the Ironmonger -- and no matter what he’d said to Bucky or the Captain, there had been no doubt at all about what ship it was -- and the endless refrain echoing in his head of Why? Why? Why?

The Red Star’s alarm bells suddenly were joined with a whooping siren for five seconds. “That’s us,” Bucky yelled. “Steve’s ready to fire!”

Tony nodded and wrapped one arm around a railing, holding himself in place. Tied down or not, he didn’t want to be blown over the side by the jolt. “Good fortune,” he told Bucky.

Obie wouldn’t be aboard the ‘Monger. He’d have arranged things very carefully; Obie always did. Everything arranged exactly so, delicate as laying a trap in a game of chess, or setting up an elaborate fall of dominos.

Bucky inhaled, loud enough to be heard over even the din of battle, or maybe it was that Tony was so utterly aware of him. And it seemed he did not breathe out again. The ship rocked as the port guns fired, and Bucky didn’t seem to move. The Iron Monger’s belly split; not even a full breach, but a crack perhaps no wider than Tony’s hands put together.

Still, Bucky didn’t seem to breathe, his entire being focused on that one spot; Tony could see the hint of shadow beyond it, some crew moving forward already prepared to seal it.

Bucky’s finger tightened on the trigger, so, so slow.

Tony’s chest ached with the air that Bucky wasn’t taking in.

The rifle fired, and Bucky immediately yanked Tony to him, covering their heads with his one arm. “Close your eyes, close your eyes!”

There was a moment of nothing, just long enough for Tony to wonder if Bucky had missed, and then--

The roar of the exploding phlogiston was deafening, the light searing enough to see through his eyelids despite Bucky’s protection. The heat, even from this distance, was palpable, hot like putting his hands too close to a fire. He doubted the crew of the Iron Monger even had time to scream before they were incinerated.

No normal explosion, it went on and on as the phlogiston fed on itself like a miniature sun.

It took Tony a moment to realize that Bucky was screaming. Even longer to realize that he, himself, was also screaming. Bucky uttered a choked noise as he came to the end of his breath, and buried his face against Tony’s shoulder, gasping and shuddering. 

It went on like that, until the explosion subsided, and then neither of them could see anything for even longer, the flashbright had been so terrible.

Finally, small bits of light filtered back in through Tony’s slitted eyes, and he could see; the Ironmonger had fallen out of the sky and was cheerfully burning a great crater in the forest underneath.

“Damn,” Tony said. His own voice sounded like it was coming to him through half a dozen layers of cotton wool, the noise of the blast still ringing. “I hope no one was down there.” The skin of his arms felt tight, like they were sunburned, and when he touched them, they were tender.

“Not likely,” Bucky said, wiping his eyes, which were streaming tears, leaving white streaks down a soot-covered face. “Middle of nowhere, but I bet there’s some really well done venison, still on the hoof.”

Tony laughed at that, and then like a puppet with cut strings, sagged against Bucky’s side, shivering violently as he tried to fight down sudden sobs of grief and betrayal.

“I’ve got you,” Bucky said, struggling to sit up, and then held Tony close, his hand patting Tony’s hair gently. “It’s all right.” It wasn’t all right, of course it wasn’t, but Bucky continued along the lines of nonsense, soothing words and soft touches and gentle rocking. It seemed as much comfort for Bucky as for Tony.

When Tony was finally able to master himself, the air around them was quieter, and when he looked up, the Ironmonger’s sister ships were receding in the distance, fleeing. “He’ll try again,” Tony said through a ravaged throat. “You must remind me, immediately after we’re wed, I must have a lawyer draft me a new will, and have a copy posted to my factors at home at once. Maybe, once he knows he’ll have nothing of me, he’ll leave off.”

“He won’t have you,” Bucky declared, his arm tightening around Tony’s shoulders. “Come, let us get back inside and out of this wind and smoke. Medical; I think we’re both flash burned.”

Inside the Red Star was not much less chaotic than outside, Tony thought, as airmen ran this way, or that, sliding down ropes or scurrying up ladders. Two of the Falcon units came in, carrying a third person with broken wings between them.

“Oh, God, who--” Tony broke away and dashed forward. “How bad is it?”

“He’s fine,” Sam said, “Peter caught him, just as that sonova bitch shot him down. Well, not fine, yes, Riley, I know, you’ve been shot, but it’s just a flesh wound, why are you so whiny?”

“Fuck you,” Riley gritted out, “let’s shoot you and see how you feel about it.” Despite his grousing, though, Tony noticed he had a deathgrip on Sam’s hand.

Tony stepped back and watched them continue to help the man toward medical. “How many,” he wondered. “How many were hurt or-- or killed, because I was on this ship?”

“No one,” Bucky said, firmly. “They were hurt or killed because someone is a murderer. You’re not responsible for their choices. This-- this operation? There would have always been collateral damage because that’s all people like us are to-- people like that. Objects in motion, in their way. Trash. You didn’t cause this, and you’re not responsible for it.”

Tony wasn’t sure he agreed, though he certainly wasn’t above letting the bulk of the blame rest on Obie’s shoulders. He closed his eyes and took a breath, slow and deep. His lungs felt half-burned, probably from the smoke and fumes. “Medical,” he said, recalled to their original path. “And then, gods willing, sleep.”

Not that he would be able to sleep.

The ship’s doctor, whom Tony had not met before, was named Helen. She was a practical woman with a sarcastic sort of bedside manner. She teased Bucky for not having the sense God gave a weasel and going topside with no goggles as she dripped something into his eyes. “Here, you, too. But you probably have more sense than he does. Stings a bit, don’t--” she smacked Tony’s hand, “--don’t rub it. Blink a lot if you have to.”

Tony blinked. And kept blinking as tears welled up and ran down his cheeks.

She handed him a small, plain handkerchief. “Don’t rub. And here; if you need something to rub, both of you are burned.” She handed him a small glass jar of cream. “Smear this where it hurts. And get out of my medical bay, I have serious injuries coming in.”

“What happened--”

“Reed has two broken legs,” she said, “and they’re bringing him up now. Grimm saved his life. That’s the worst one, but I’ve got bullets to dig out and at least four people who were sprayed with shrapnel when the big boat exploded.”

Tony winced. They should have found some way to warn people to get out of the way, or... Damn it. He scooped up the jar of cream and the handkerchief. “Right, let’s find somewhere out of the way.”

“Tony,” Bucky said, as soon as they were back on the third deck. “Tony, there was nothing else we could have done. Your plan saved a lot of lives.”

“Yes, I suppose so.” Destroyed a lot of them, too. “Where are you burned, let me help.” He waved the cream.

Most of Bucky’s arm was pink and swollen, a strip just above his eyebrows, his chin, and for some reason, just above the waistband of his pants, on one hip. “You look like you got blasted pretty good, too.”

“Yeah, we may need to take turns.” Tony dipped a corner of the handkerchief in the cream and dabbed it gently onto Bucky’s shoulder.

Bucky hissed like an offended cat, but just shook his head. “It’s… actually, it kinda makes everything go all numb, which is nice. But also, cold.”

Tony couldn’t help a bit of a laugh. “The famous Winter Soldier is squeamish about a little burn cream?”

“See what noises you make,” Bucky grumbled, mock-glaring. “Bet you squeak.”

“I don’t have a fearsome reputation to uphold,” Tony pointed out. “I can be as squeaky as I like.” He finished with Bucky’s arm and switched to Bucky’s face. “Don’t talk too much; I’ll get it in your mouth.”

“I think that’s the nicest anyone’s ever told me to shut up before,” Bucky said, then clamped his mouth shut before Tony was tempted.

Tony snorted and smeared the cream on Bucky’s forehead and chin, and then realized he would have to put the rest of it on Bucky’s hip, almost intimately low. 

It’s a burn, not a seduction, he chided himself. Stop being so twitchy.

“Right, ah... Just--” He dropped to one knee so he could see what he was doing, pulled Bucky’s shirt up out of the way, and tried to pretend there wasn’t a blush crawling up out of his collar.

Bucky, in fact, squeaked when Tony dabbed cream in that area. “Th--at is not a place that I want numbed,” he complained.

“I’m pretty sure it’s not permanent,” Tony said. “But I can stop, if you’d rather.”

“You may as well finish now,” Bucky said. “I’ll be complaining in the other direction otherwise. Big strong reputation to uphold, my lily white backside. Ridiculous. I’m not anything other than a mortal man.”

“A rather impressive mortal man,” Tony disagreed. He finished and stood up again, handing Bucky the handkerchief. “I’ll hold the jar for you, but I can’t reach the back of my arm.”

“Yeah, I got it,” Bucky said, stepping even closer, if possible, into Tony’s space. He could practically feel the man’s breath on his throat. “It’s not so bad. Like you fell asleep on a really hot day, outside. Might blister in a few days, that’ll be unpleasant.”

“Splendid,” Tony sighed. “Well, at least we’ll match.” He was trying not to think about how close Bucky was, about the heat radiating off Bucky’s skin.

Bucky dabbed a few spots on Tony’s forehead, and then, bringing his attention to it painfully, along the part in his hair. 

“Oh, ow,” Tony complained. “That’s going to make combing my hair difficult.”

Bucky nodded. “Yeah. I didn’t think you’d notice, either, until it was itchy, and then-- yeah, uncomfortable. I’ll get someone to bring you a cool bath, for later. You’ll probably want to soak a bit.”

Tony nodded. “That’s... That’s very thoughtful of you.” Despite all the pain and heartache, he couldn’t help a small, grateful smile. “Thank you.”

"We'll get to the bottom of this," Bucky promised. "Hold the man accountable. I'll protect you. I swear."

Tony nodded, though he mostly just wanted to know why Obie couldn’t have been satisfied with having twisted the entire weapons division out from under Tony’s feet. “We should probably stay out of the way,” he ventured. “Unless you think we can help?”

“More likely to be a hindrance,” Bucky said. “Tomorrow will be soon enough to help, after some rest. It’s been an exciting evening.” He gave Tony a long look. “Do-- er. Do you want to stay? With me, I mean. Sometimes, after combat, it’s nice to know you’re not alone, I don’t mean it any-- You know what I mean?” It was hard to tell if he was flushing, both of them pink as they were.

By all standards of propriety, he should say no. They weren’t wed yet. But the priest’s blessing was mere days away -- a few handfuls of hours. And the idea of going back to his stateroom alone, to stare out the wide windows at the ghost of a ship that belonged to a man he’d once called Uncle... “I’d like that,” he agreed softly.

“You did well today,” Bucky said. “Better than I had any right to demand or expect. Thank you.” He pulled down the blankets over his rack, at least twice the size of the one in Tony’s room and then dug out a couple of extra pillows.

“I’ve always been steady in an emergency,” Tony said ruefully. “It’s when everything’s over that I come apart.” Case in point, his hands, which were beginning to shake.

“For me,” Bucky said with rueful sympathy, “it was always waiting for action where I had trouble. And so much of battle is hurry up, wait, and then a rush of action, before we were hurrying to wait again. Some days, I thought I would run mad before it was over. Here, lay down. Light blanket, so it doesn’t hurt your burns.”

Tony nodded and stretched out, pulling one of the pillows up under his head. He didn’t truly expect to sleep again, but some rest would be welcome.

“It’ll be all right,” Bucky said, leaning over to dim the lamps, leaving the room in half-darkness. “We won’t be caught unaware again.”

“I know.” They’d have a brief reprieve, at any rate. It would take a few days for Obie to hear of the Ironmonger’s failure and figure out his next move. Tony closed his eyes, and tried to see anything behind them but explosions.

Bucky rolled into the rack, settled in. “You know here,” he said, waving one hand lightly over Tony’s head. “It’ll take a while before it rests easy, here.” He moved his hand to indicate Tony’s heart.

Tony sighed. “I know that, too.” He gave Bucky a small smile. “Thank you.”

It was less comfortable to lay down than Tony might have thought, the burns numbed, but still annoying, his skin feeling stretched and tight and like there were individual grains of sand encrusted on his arms. And still, he was utterly aware of Bucky there, less than seven inches of bed between them. The way the man breathed, soft and even, and the little noises the bed made when he shifted.

The smell of ointment and burned phlogiston and something underneath. Bucky’s own scent. The sheets were full of it, leather and cedar.

It was unfamiliar but pleasant, a warm, strong scent that, bit by bit, eased the tension out of Tony’s body and followed him protectively into sleep.

 

Chapter Text

It could not have been that good of a party, Bucky decided, laying in bed, eyes completely closed against the incredible headache that he just knew was out there, waiting for him. If it had been a party worth the hangover, he would be minus his pants and there would be a sultry little minx laying across his thighs.

Instead, there was a wriggly lump snuggled up against his chest, and he could tell by the way his skin ached over his hips that he’d fallen asleep with his breeches on, and shifted just enough that the fabric creases were starting to complain about it.

Also, it felt like someone had peeled his skin off with a butter knife.

And thrown salt on him.

“Ok, doll,” Bucky mumbled, “sure it’s been great, but I gotta report in.”

“R’port t’who?” mumbled his companion, wriggling and shifting to roll over. “Ow, hell, that stings! Where’s that burn cream?” More shifting as the man sat up.

Bucky managed to squinch open one eye. “It’s later than I thought,” he said. Years, almost decades later. He wasn’t in boot anymore, rolling out of his bunk after a late night of drinking and swaining around. No nubile young dancer in his bed, but -- “Tony! Oh, right, sorry, I-- ow.” 

His skin ached, practically every inch of it.

Tony hummed agreement and reached across Bucky for the jar of burn cream. “Hurts worse now,” he grumbled.

“I’d like to go back to boot now, and be falling out of bed post-debauchal,” Bucky decided.

Tony tensed. “I didn’t think it was that bad.” He opened the jar and started smearing cream on his own arm. “Do I snore?”

“Not so I noticed,” Bucky said. Now that he was coming more awake, he did remember being woken by Tony scooching over in the darkness, until he was practically laying on Bucky’s chest. Easy, he’d told himself. No need to frighten Tony with an untimely display. Not that Bucky thought he was capable of making a good show for himself, as sore and exhausted as he was. Eventually, he’d let the sounds of the Red Star carry him back to sleep.

Tony hummed a little, and offered the jar to Bucky. “Coffee. Do you think the crew will be scandalized if I turn up to the mess in yesterday’s clothes? He looked down at himself, clothes rumpled and stained.

“It’s the day after a skybattle. They probably wouldn’t notice if you shaved your head and painted your scalp red and gold. If they do notice, they won’t think worse of you, or me, for what they’ll assume is sharin’ a bit of mutual comfort after we both nearly died.”

Tony nodded. “Right. Okay. Then I’m just going to...” He slithered over Bucky and managed to not quite land on his ass on the floor. “Coffee. And then a bath, if one can be had.”

Bucky groaned and sat up in the bed. “Two coffees,” he said, aware that he sounded like he was whimpering, just a bit. “And I’ll get you a bath here; there’s already a tub in my quarters. Easier to fill it, than find one for you. I’ll put the screen up.”

Tony hesitated, hand on the door, and nodded. “All right. I’ll be back in a short while.” He slipped out of the stateroom, the door closing soundlessly behind him.

Bucky watched him go, then hit the in-ship, calling down to the cabin crew to fetch up some water. He threw his blankets and pillows onto the bed, then pushed the whole thing up and fastened it to the wall, leaving the floor open and spacious. He rarely put the bed away, so he did have to push some of his personal items off to the sides of the room, but he dragged out the tub and the screen just about the time that a troop of younger airmen came up with buckets.

He took a report on damage and injuries -- including his and Tony’s, which were among the ones listed ‘off duty as situation remains stable’ -- from one of Steve’s seconds, ordered repairs to the sail as typical. Steve had everything in hand. It was, after all, Steve’s command. Bucky merely owned the ship. He wasn’t really in charge, no matter how much Steve teased about it.

Tony slipped back in just as the bucket-carriers we’re leaving, two steaming mugs in his hands. He nodded politely to the departing airman who’d held the door for him, then extended one mug toward Bucky.

Bucky took his mug, blew on it a little, then took a sip. Perfect. Heaven. 

Well, probably not, but they’d have better coffee soon, and right now, it was just what he needed. The headache actually started receding by the second gulp. “If I wasn’t already betrothed, I might propose,” Bucky said thoughtfully. “A pretty man who brings me coffee.”

Tony hid a smile and a slight blush behind his own mug. “Thought you wanted to go back to boot and debauchery.”

“Gotta have a partner for that last bit,” Bucky pointed out. And then the thought of Tony, wrung out and naked and sated -- his imagination presented such a vivid picture that it almost took his breath away. 

“Well, I understand that’s one of the benefits of marriage,” Tony murmured. “A guaranteed partner for such things. Not that I’d know.” He took another gulp of the coffee, and glanced toward the screened-off tub. “Shall you go first?”

“Won’t take long,” Bucky said. And it would keep Tony in the room longer, instead of fleeing as soon as he was clean. “There’s one fifth less of me to wash.”

“But the rest of you makes up for the lack, no doubt,” Tony said, and surely he hadn’t meant what Bucky’s brain really wanted him to have meant. Tony took his coffee to Bucky’s desk and perused the books on the shelf as he sipped.

It took Bucky longer to undress than he wanted, disadvantaged because of burns and lack of an arm, but without an emergency, it didn’t seem fair to impose on Tony. Nor would it be fair to Bucky, since outside an emergency, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t react. “I suppose now that I’m to retire, I’ll have time to catch up on all those books I said I would read someday.”

“I’m sure you’ll find some way to fill the hours,” Tony said lightly. Bucky heard the gentle riffling of pages. “This looks rather fanciful. I wouldn’t have guessed you for such light fare.”

All the darkness I need has been right outside the tent flap, Bucky thought, but didn’t say. “A little whimsy’s never a bad thing.”

“No, not bad. I’d just have thought your shelves would be full of histories and strategy.”

Bucky gingerly settled into the tub. His skin ached too much to even consider an actual soaping with a cloth. But he splashed water onto the more obviously dirty parts of him. Especially his face. He’d taken most of the first smoke blast directly; it was a wonder he had any skin left at all, honestly.

Very, very carefully, he wiped down his stump, checked the old wound. Sometimes, under strain, the skin had been known to split; the doctors had stitched it several times, and Cho had told him if it happened again and he got infection, they might need to remove more of the arm. There wasn’t enough there as it was, so he checked. Seemed okay, if tender.

“You want Steve’s bookshelf if you want to read that,” Bucky said. “He considers himself quite the crusader. He never quite had the callousness top brass requires. I don’t think he could ever sacrifice a unit, or order men into a suicide mission.”

“I find myself unable to be distressed by the lack,” Tony said. “And somewhat glad that you’re retired, that it’s not something you’ll have to do in the future.”

“War is like chess,” Bucky said, dreamily, leaning back in the tub and letting the water soothe him. “You sacrifice the right pieces in order to defeat your enemy. But I can’t forget those pieces have homes and families, a mother who will miss them. Dreams of their own, and letters in their packs. That sacrificing a piece is tearing an entire person out of the fabric of the world, and I think sometimes the cloth is worse off for it.”

“Philosophical,” Tony remarked. “And a bit melancholy. Are you like this often?”

“You’ve known me a few days now,” Bucky said. “And you’ve neglected to mention what Steve calls my primary character flaw.”

“What’s that?”

“I,” Bucky said, grabbing a towel and shifting to get out of the tub, “am a romantic. Steve calls them ‘my romantical notions.’”

“Oh, well, I’m afraid I suffer a similar affliction,” Tony said. “A terrible fault in a weapons maker, you know.”

Bucky stopped toweling his hair to consider how horrible that would be; to know you were making the very things that tore the world apart, and yet not being callous enough to think that it was, rationally, a good thing. Sometimes bad men had to be stopped.

Considering what had happened last night, sometimes you looked in the mirror and wondered if you were the sort of man who needed to be stopped.

“Romantic? Or philosophical?” He kept his voice gently teasing; he’d had more conversation with Tony in the last twelve hours than the entire trip all together.

“Both, for my sins. Really, it’s no wonder Obie wanted to be rid of me.” Tony’s voice held an underlying tension that belied his light tone.

Bucky dried himself off, trying not to look at Tony’s shadow against the screen, trying not to imagine if Tony was looking at the screen, or not. Trying not to wonder what it would be like to touch him, to feel his mouth. And cursing himself for being stupid and randy when Tony was obviously grieved. It was ridiculous. He was ridiculous. He tugged clean breeches up over damp skin and left his towel around his neck to absorb drips from his hair. Tony’d seen him half in dishabille before. It shouldn’t be a shock to him.

“I think the water’s still clean enough for you to use,” he offered.

Tony was facing the screen when Bucky emerged, his eyes fixed firmly in a book. The back of his neck, his ears, and his cheeks were a hectic red. “My thanks,” he said, and set the book down. He glanced at Bucky as he maneuvered around the screen himself. His eyes widened and he looked away again quickly.

 


 

Tony knew he should have refused the offer to take turns bathing in Bucky’s quarters. Not out of any particular sense of propriety -- he didn’t think anyone on board would report on him to the priest, or try to shame him -- but because Bucky was a damnably beautiful man and he didn’t know how he’d be able to keep his reactions under control, seeing the man so intimately.

Bad enough he was already wondering just what sort of debauchery his fiancé was missing.

And whether it was the sort of thing Bucky might be willing to teach his new husband.

Tony’s cheeks hurt with the force of his blush and he blessed the screen between them for hiding it as he shed his clothes and stepped into the tub. The water was still quite warm; Bucky must have bathed in water hot enough to boil a lobster. He sluiced off the top layer of dust and ducked under the water to shake soot out of his hair.

“I don’t know about you,” Bucky said, “but I’ll be glad enough to get out of the air and back on solid ground. Must be a first for me. I love this ship, but we’re dreadfully exposed out here right now. And wounded, aside from that.”

“It hasn’t been quite my ideal maiden voyage,” Tony admitted. “How much longer before we arrive at Pavtlow; do you know?”

“Shouldn’t be any later than tomorrow afternoon, unless something particularly unpleasant happens. We will, of course, reach the ground. That much is inevitable.” Bucky laughed, a little self-mocking. 

“Yes, well, I do prefer to reach it at a more sedate speed.” Tony found a cloth and began scrubbing at his skin, wincing as it pulled at his burns. “Though perhaps not too sedate. I hope you won’t think it overly forward of me to say I hope to have our vows done and registered before anything else can go wrong.”

Bucky inhaled, sharp, held it a second. “Some enthusiasm, then? I’m gratified, and relieved. I-- Tony, you know I didn’t want to force you into anything. I’m… I wouldn’t think very well of myself if you didn’t-- want this, at least on some level.”

“I’ll not lie; it was not the manner of engagement that I’d have chosen, myself. And my first impression of you was... well, somewhat intimidating.” That was stating the matter so lightly as to make it float away entirely. “But I’m glad the trip has allowed us to get to know one another somewhat. I find myself...” He paused, considering his words carefully. “Hopeful,” he finally settled on.

“It’s always unpleasant to have someone else make decisions for you,” Bucky said, and he ended up peeking over the top of the screen -- not to sneak a glimpse of Tony, but Tony thought more it was to present his earnest expression to Tony. “I would not-- I would not have signed if I knew you were under duress of any sort. That said, once you are my spouse, you-- will be under no duress at all.”

Tony could almost believe it. “You must have some expectations,” he countered. He rinsed off the soap and reached for the waiting towel.

“Don’t shoot anyone that I like?” Bucky suggested. “Don’t throw food at my mother? She really is a stickler for manners. Talk to me first before you decide to overthrow the government?”

Tony laughed. “I’m not likely to want to overthrow the government. You do that and then they expect you to be in charge and make decisions, and that seems like entirely too much work.” He grimaced at his dirty clothes, but he didn’t have anything cleaner. He pulled on his trousers without bothering with the underwear, and held up the shirt, trying to decide if wearing it back to his stateroom would result in him needing another bath by the time he got there. “So much for expectations. What about hopes? Dreams?” It was hard to believe Bucky would truly be so undemanding, but maybe it at least meant there would be some room for negotiation on... well, most things.

“About you?” Bucky sat down in his chair, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Or about… us?”

Tony sighed and tugged on the shirt, but didn’t bother to lace the collar. “Us. I can’t imagine what kind of dreams you’d have for me that don’t involve both of us.”

“I dream things for lots of people that don’t involve me. I dream for Steve to one day come to his senses and tell Natasha that he’s been in love with her for years. I dream for Peter to be able to get the education he wants and to go on to be a great inventor. I dream for Reed to shut up some day. I would like… I would like you to be happy, and comfortable, and content. It’s sort of horrible living in the same house with someone who desperately doesn’t want to be there. And I should hope that never… happens for you. I don’t want you to feel unwelcome or unwanted, wherever you decide you want to live.”

That was kind. Sweet, really, that he thought so much about his friends and his crew.

“As for us… well, if we’re talking about dreams,” Bucky said, staring up at the ceiling of his stateroom like it might hold the answers to everything in the gentle swirls of wood and brass. “I guess I want what everyone wants. Someone to miss me when I’m gone and to be glad when I come home. Someone who worries if I remembered to eat lunch, and asks me if I slept well over breakfast. Someone who trusts me enough to tell me the silly things they dreamed at night. Who would be happy to go out and fail miserably at something and have a good laugh about it. Someone… someone who knows me. And cares about me anyway.”

Tony couldn’t suppress a smile. “You really are a romantic,” he teased gently. “It’s a very pretty dream, though. I hope it comes true.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, running his knuckle down the side of Tony’s face, slow, like he expected Tony to shy away from him, or lean backward. Gentle enough so it barely stung at the burned skin. “Yeah, I hope so, too.”

Tony swayed forward as Bucky’s hand pulled away, seeking more of that delicate touch like a plant stretching toward a sunny window. For a long moment, he couldn’t pull his gaze away from Bucky’s, seeing the quietly desperate longing reflected in Bucky’s eyes. “Bucky, I...” He swayed again, and barely caught himself short of falling into Bucky’s embrace. “I should...” He pointed over his shoulder at the door, in the vague direction of his own room. “I’ll. I’ll see you for lunch?”

“Of course,” Bucky said. His gaze went shuttered, with a flash of pain. “I’d be honored if you joined me.”

“I...” Tony paused, watching Bucky’s expression, wondering at that momentary glimpse. Had he said something wrong? “I can’t wait.” He hesitated again, debating with himself. But there was no one here to please but himself and -- presumably -- Bucky. Ignoring the heat rising on his neck again, he rocked forward, stretching up onto his toes to brush a quick kiss against Bucky’s cheek. “Thank you.”

“Happy to be of service,” Bucky said, and that moodiness in his grey eyes lightened, a wind to blow the clouds away. “Until later, then.”

 

Chapter Text

Best possible speed had them on the ground somewhat past lunch the next day. The airfield itself was nothing but white snow and a few gas torches stabbed into the ground at intervals. All the airships were deflated and in great hangers, aside from one poor lot of sorry sons of bitches whose job it was to run patrols for the next week. The Red Star’s crew would take a week’s guard in a few months, but for now, once they touched down and got it stowed, they were on leave until after Christmas.

 A whole parade of horse-drawn sleds awaited, all with heated floors and piles of furs. The lead sledge was as white as the snow around it, save for the brilliant red star on the door.

“This is us,” Bucky said, pointing Tony toward it. 

“Pretty,” Tony said, though his teeth were clenched to keep them from chattering despite the spare coat Bucky had thrown over his shoulders. He barely waited for the door to be opened before he was throwing himself in and burrowing under the furs. “I can see this is going to take me some time to get used to.”

“I’ll not ask you if you want to have a swim tomorrow morning, then? It’s quite refreshing.” Bucky cackled at the suspiciously aghast expression. “Truth, the homes are well heated; almost too warm sometimes, and a great many people do not go outside at all until it warms up considerably. But there are great house parties if you’re willing to brace the cold enough to get in the sled and back.”

“We’ll see,” Tony hedged, tugging the furs up higher. “It’s not even full winter yet; how can it already be this cold?”

Bucky took a deep breath and it didn’t sting in his chest. He looked again at his shivering fiancé, and decided not to mention that it would get cold enough that breathing hurt. There was no sense in terrifying him so much that he hijacked the sledge and drove right back to the airfield, bribing the next captain he could find to take him somewhere warmer.

Like hell.

“I won’t let you freeze,” Bucky promised, and then hauled himself into the sled. It was harder to get comfortable -- furs were huge and unwieldy and didn’t take well to being dragged about one handed.

On the other hand, as soon as he was even partly settled, Tony was right there, pressed against his side and all but climbing into his lap. That was definitely nice, and worth a little discomfort. “How long is the ride?” Tony asked as the sled lurched into motion.

“As long as the roads are mostly clear, perhaps an hour,” Bucky said, rocking his hand back and forth. He wasn’t quite sure, really. He’d seen the location on a map, but he’d never actually been there. On the other hand, they weren’t going outside the city and the roads should be well-maintained. Also, sledge horses had cleated shoes; they wouldn’t slide all over the place like ducks on an iced lake.

“An hour,” Tony repeated, more to himself than to Bucky, likely mentally bracing himself for the trip. “An improved wardrobe is definitely going to be high on my list, I can see.”

“There is a reason our national symbol is the bear. When you get a comfortable fur coat, you cannot walk around as gracefully,” Bucky said. He let Tony cuddle in close and gazed out at the snow-covered streets. “Here, put your feet all the way down, the floor is heated, and it will travel up your legs.”

Reluctantly, Tony uncurled until his feet touched the floor. “Oh, that’s nice.” He sighed contentedly, then tugged at the furs again, rearranging them slightly to let the heat drift farther upward before being trapped against them. “Forgive me; I’m complaining, and you’re probably just happy to be home.”

“It’s a big adjustment for you,” Bucky said. “For me, too. The last time I was home, we lived in a much smaller, and very cold, home.” He didn’t mention pissing a scrim of ice off the pot in the morning, or the blisters he’d gotten once for being so cold he’d backed into the stove. “This will be nicer. And we will have hot sbiten as soon as we’re inside, that should warm you right up.”

“Zbi-- Sibi--” Tony made him say it again. “Sbiten,” he managed, though the consonants were mushy and the accent strong. “And what is that?”

“Boiled wine flavored with honey and jam,” Bucky said. 

“Like mulled wine, a bit? That sounds good. Who... Who will I be meeting? Do I need to learn to say hello in Ussuran very quickly?”

“No, we all speak Avalon, with some degree of fluency,” Bucky said. “When the airship was invented it was such an advancement, we all followed in its path-- but all the plans were in Avalon, and all the navigation tools were in Avalon. We learned Avalon to fight better. And now we all speak it. Ussuran is not very fashionable. Even before we all spoke Avalon, the upper classes mostly spoke Montaigne.”

“Oh, Montaigne, I can speak Montaigne.” Tony sounded somewhat relieved. “Still, if I’m going to live here, I’ll need to learn Ussuran eventually. I wouldn’t want your family to think I’m just some useless Avalonian.”

“You could not possibly be useless,” Bucky said, squeezing his shoulders just a bit. “You are Tony Stark.” Believe me, Bucky thought, I’ll find a use for you. He imagined that Tony wouldn’t take too long to find uses for himself, as well. He didn’t seem to have the temperament for being merely a rich man’s arm ornament.

Tony chuckled a little. “Well, I’m sure I’ll figure something out. But I’ve found people tend to underestimate others they don’t share a language with. It can make for some interesting political maneuvers, in business. But I’m coming to join your family, not compete with them.”

Bucky snorted. “You have not yet met my sister. Becca will be inventing new sports and games on the spot, just so she can be better than you at something.”

“Sounds entertaining,” Tony said. “Are you happy to be coming home? Do they know about... me?”

Bucky chewed his lip. “In a manner of speaking, I believe so,” he said at last. Which, admittedly, did not sound good. “Fury wrote to them, on several occasions, and the most recent, he told them of our plans to bring you home. I admit I did not-- pay as much attention to my correspondence as perhaps my mother would have preferred, but you should not be unexpected. Also, there are… well, let us say issues with the Ussuran post. The postman is appointed by the local nobility, and it’s steady income. So a lot of men who are utterly unqualified to find their own pisspot are charged with delivering the mail. And I am the subject of gossip. So, if my address was noted, it might be a letter would be read before ever reaching my mother’s hands. Fury at least can call it a security express and send a note with an armed escort.”

Tony frowned. “That could prove... problematic. Well, I know now not to conduct any business via post; I shall have to hire factors to travel for me. But at least I won’t entirely come as a surprise.” Under the furs, his hands were twisting together, fidgeting restlessly.

“You will arrive as a delight,” Bucky promised. “Everyone will be very happy to meet you.”

Or, at least, they had better be.

Tony tossed Bucky an amused glance, as if he had read Bucky’s thoughts. “I don’t care what sort of honors and titles you earned in your service, I’m quite certain you cannot simply command your siblings or your mother to like me.”

“Well, perhaps not my sisters, but I’ll just make this face at my mother--” He demonstrated the earnest, sincere, you’re hurting my feelings here expression he’d mastered after years of dealing with Steve. “--and she’ll eventually swat me with a dishtowel and tell me to do whatever I think is best.”

“Which, I have no doubt, you would do anyway.” Tony was laughing at him, somewhat, but at least he’d stopped looking so fretful.

“It’ll be fine, Tony,” Bucky said. “If nothing else, you’re someone new who won’t tell the same six stories over and over that they’ve heard since childhood.”

“Well, I suppose that will hold me over for a few days, anyway,” Tony allowed.

 


 

Pavtlow was a beautiful city, utterly unlike anything Tony had seen before. He’d seen drawings of the buildings before, but they didn’t do it justice at all, the bright colors and the unfamiliar smells. Tony was so busy craning his neck to look at everything and asking questions that he nearly didn’t notice when the sled came to a stop.

“Oh, just shoot me now,” Bucky groaned, looking up the street. His family had arranged themselves on the doorstep to what the driver had announced was his home. “By height, Mother? Really?”

Sure enough, five ladies and one gentleman were outside, wearing huge fur hats and brightly colored skirts (or pants) with heavy embroidery and tall, felt boots, and they were standing in order from tallest to smallest, although the women in the middle wearing a strawberry colored dress was leaning over to talk to the man, until the woman between them swatted her and made her stand up straight.

“My mother is trying to impress you,” Bucky grumbled.

“I will be impressed,” Tony promised. “Especially if it will get us indoors quicker.” He shuffled the furs around a little, not quite throwing them off, but getting ready to emerge from them quickly.

Bucky let the footman hand him out of the sled, and then extended his hand to give Tony the same courtesy. “Proctor,” he said, bowing slightly to the man. “How long have you been standing out here?”

“Not long. Your mother hired a boy to watch for the carriage from the bakery. He brought a whole basket of cakes with him, and the news that you were only two streets over. Welcome home, brother.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said. “This is Tony Stark, my betrothed. My brother-in-law, Richard Proctor. My mother, Winifred Barnes. Sister, Rebecca Proctor. Sisters, Emily, Anna, and Katherine Barnes.”

Tony nodded to Mr. Proctor and bowed to the ladies. “Sir, ma’am, ma’am, ladies. It is my most sincere honor to meet you all.”

“Thank you,” Katherine burst out, stamping her foot. “Can we please go back inside now, Mother?” She linked arms with Tony, leaning against him. “I’m numb with cold in places I’m not supposed to talk about.”

Tony grinned at her. “As am I,” he confided. “Please, do show me to the nearest hearth where I can warm myself.”

“You have hardly given me time to plan an event, James.” Bucky’s mother scolded. “Three cavalry officers show up at my door to tell me you’re coming home and getting married and I have a month to plan? You’re very lucky. And I still have had to pay for the tailor to come here, and do the work. I won’t have you looking shabby, James.”

“Mother, I’ve looked shabby my entire life,” Bucky groused, taking up the rear as everyone trooped into the mansion.

“Well, you didn’t do it in front of all of Pavtlow,” Mrs. Barnes snapped, “and I’m not about to have you start now.”

“How, ah... How big of a wedding are we expecting?” Tony wondered. He’d rather been hoping for something very small and without a great deal of fuss, but it didn’t sound as if that were in the cards.

“Ug, let’s not even talk about it, I’ve been making paper bouquets for weeks,” Katherine complained, leaning even harder on Tony’s arm. “Every lady who’s coming has to have one. The whole eastern breakfast parlor is full of them. Because the sunlight won’t fade them out, of course, girls.” That last was said in a mocking tone, probably of Mrs. Barnes.

Behind him, Tony could hear Mrs. Barnes inhale, preparing to scold, and Bucky shushing her.

“A trial, certainly. I’m sure you’ll be relieved when it’s all done and behind you,” Tony murmured. He couldn’t quite help glancing back over his shoulder at Bucky as Katherine pulled him along in her wake.

Bucky was-- smiling. A soft, fond sort of smile that made his eyes seem warmer, his whole demeanor significantly more relaxed. He met Tony’s gaze and winked.

Tony smiled back, and let Katherine tow him around a corner and into a room -- a parlor of some sort. Tony didn’t look at anything closely, too focused on the roaring fire. He extended his hands, letting the heat bake into his bones.

“Katherine, don’t--”

The girl turned around, putting her rear toward the fire and fluffed her skirts, obviously intent on coaxing the hot air around her legs. “He’s going to be my brother in ten days, I think he’ll not go cross-eyed by seeing a little bit of my shin.”

The back of Tony’s neck heated, and he scrupulously planted his eyes on the mantle. “I flatter myself that I’m more of a gentleman than that. But perhaps I should... retire to unpack?” There was bound to be a fireplace in his room, wasn’t there? And fewer headstrong ladies.

“I can show you,” the oldest sister said. “Jaime, you may as well come with, your room’s just through the ridiculously large closet. Why do you get the biggest closet, it’s not like you have tons of clothes.”

“Yet,” Bucky said. “I do not have tons of clothes, yet. And I’m sure your closet is not lacking at all.”

“It’s not,” Mr. Proctor assured them.

Connecting rooms? Tony’s neck wasn’t going to get any less red anytime soon. Somehow, he’d assumed the family would keep them somewhat separated before the wedding. But, well, it wasn’t as if it were going to be called off if they didn’t spend every minute of the next ten days being properly chaperoned. He pushed away all thoughts of the possibility of a nighttime visitor -- of the night they’d shared on the Red Star -- and directed a bow at Rebecca. “Thank you, ma’am, I would appreciate that.”

Down the hall, up the stairs, and down another long hall; their rooms seemed to be at the very end of that wing. “We all decided to stay on this side,” Mrs. Proctor said. “Keeping the southern part of the house closed off, unless we have guests, or you know, it gets warmer. Obviously, you can move if you want to, it’s your house. There’s a charming view on the other side of the building. This is our room-- well, it’s a small suite, bedroom, dressing room, nursery for later, our own parlor, and Mr. Proctor’s study. There’s a similar suite on the other side; the girls share the other bedroom right now, thus the complaints about the closet, but really, they have plenty of room. Mother’s suite. And here you are, at the end of the hall.”

She threw open one door to show off a bedroom richly decorated in sea blue, with a little fence and gate around the bed. A desk, bookshelves, a sitting arrangement, a screened off area for a bath. It was all far more ornate than anywhere Tony had ever lived, seemingly every surface gilded or covered with fanciful carvings and ornate designs. It was gorgeous, in an extremely overstated way that put Tony in mind of Montaigne. But with a definitely Ussuran flair.

He wondered why there was a fence around the bed, but Mrs. Proctor gave him no chance to ask. “Closet here, and at the other end of the closet is Bucky’s room. This is your dressing area here, and on that side is your private sitting room. Also--” she went over to the far wall and pushed. “Look at this. Secret door!”

Fascinated, Tony leaned in to inspect the mechanism that opened the door. “I’ve always wanted a secret door. Where does it go?”

“We’re still exploring all the different passages we’ve found,” Mrs. Proctor confessed. “This one has a private entrance to the hall just outside the dining room so you can take a shortcut to dinner. And if you go the other way when the hall splits, it takes you outside to the blacksmithy. We think it was originally put in there as a fire escape or some sort of people are loose in my house passageway.”

Bucky chuckled. “That will be perfect for my Tony.”

“A direct route to the smithy? I should say so.” Tony peered down the narrow hallway, shivering at the draft, though he was somewhat warmed by Bucky’s phrasing, claiming Tony as his own. “Exploring the place should be entertaining.”

“Katherine has used it twice now to escape tea time visits with some of the neighbors,” Mrs. Proctor went on, “so you might want to get into the habit of keeping your door locked when you don’t want unexpected visitors.” She opened the closet door and showed it to them, really not a closet so much as a room for storing clothing. There were shelves and wardrobes and racks for shoes and chests for jewelry. And a door at the end set into a little wall. “This door locks from either side, and both sides have to be unlocked for the door to open.”

At the moment, apparently neither side was locked, as Mrs. Proctor merely turned the knob and opened it. They went into Bucky’s side of the closet and then through the next door, into Bucky’s room.

It had almost the exact same layout and sense of overenthusiastic ornamentation as Tony’s, except the colors were deep red and rich brown. 

“It’s very... luxurious,” Tony said diplomatically. “Quite opulent. My compliments to the designer.”

“It certainly wasn’t me,” Mrs. Proctor said. “I’ve been very very slowly getting my writing desk set up the way I want it. I bought some writing paper.” She turned to her brother, smiling in a very sharing a family moment sort of way, although Tony wasn’t sure how he knew that. “Kitty had to write on the top four sheets and then throw them into the fire because I couldn't even consider messing them up at all with my chicken scratch.”

That seemed... odd, but Tony had his own oddities, he supposed. And it certainly seemed that, whatever their station in Bucky’s youth, they had more than enough money now, to allow for such luxuries. “I may have to borrow a few sheets from you,” he told her, “so I can write my factor, back home.”

“Do feel free to come and collect some, and pens or whatever else you need,” Mrs. Proctor said. “But I’m probably in the way now. Have a warm bath, change clothes, your personal belongings will be sent up when they get here. Someone will come to get you for dinner, or you can just follow your passage when you get hungry. Unless you’d like to have a tray sent up, we--”

“Becca,” Bucky said, “it’s all right. No one’s going to take away your birthday for not being polite enough. We’ll see you at dinner.”

“Thank you for the tour,” Tony said warmly. “I look forward to further conversation, soon.” He watched her leave, and then realized as the door closed behind her that they were standing in his fiancé’s bedroom, entirely unchaperoned.

Maybe Ussurans didn’t go in for that sort of thing.

“Well, this is hideous,” Bucky said, staring at the bed. “Why is there a fence around the bed? Is someone expecting the sheep to get into the house?”

“I’m quite certain I don’t know,” Tony admitted. “Are there sheep?” He came closer to examine the little gate in the fence. It looked like a perfectly normal gate, except for being in the middle of a bedroom.

“I’m going to get up in the middle of the night and die of a broken neck, tripping over that.” But Bucky was actually looking up at the ornate gold-plated headpiece over the bed. The Shield eagle, but in gold, holding a -- good lord -- serpent in one claw that might well have been inlaid with emeralds. It was rather hideous, honestly. 

“Some redecorating might be in order,” Tony agreed. The colors were nice, but he’d never seen anything quite so ornate. His own room was somewhat more subdued, but not much. He stepped back to consider the gated bed. It almost looked like it was a little stage, the fence setting the audience from the action. As it were.

At least his neck was going to stay warm. “There’s not some tradition about having an audience for the consummation, or something, is there?” Dear lord, he hoped not.

Bucky stopped gazing in horrified contemplation of the ornamentation to stare at Tony instead. “Good Christ and all the saints, why would anyone want a tradition like that? Sounds embarrassing all the way around for everyone involved.”

“I don’t know!” Tony folded his arms around himself. “I was trying to figure out what the fence is for and it just...” He shrugged, cheeks aching with his blush. “I don’t know.”

Bucky took a step closer until he was right inside Tony’s personal space. “If you ever grant me the privilege of taking you into my bed, I swear I am not sharing that moment with anyone else.”

Heat rushed through Tony’s veins, and he wasn’t certain whether he wanted to back away or lean even closer. “I’m pleased to hear it.” It came out only a little breathless, for which Tony was grateful. “I think if I knew an audience would be present, that would be a leading factor in my decision.”

"Mine as well," Bucky said. His eyes flicked from Tony's, then to Tony's mouth and back up. "I believe it is still traditional to kiss the groom. At the actual ceremony."

A smile tugged at Tony’s lips. “I think I can permit that much.” He found himself wondering what it would feel like to kiss Bucky, those full lips, the rasp of stubble on his lip. Would it be tender and sweet? Demanding and insistent?

"Oh, will you," Bucky said and it seemed somehow that he moved even closer, "now?"

The breath caught in Tony’s throat, and it seemed suddenly that he had no idea what to do with his hands. A lifetime of warnings demanded that he demure, that he back away, that he flee back to his side of the suite and lock the door between them.

He stayed put, tipping his chin up to meet Bucky’s eyes. It seemed he was destined to blush for the rest of his days, but that didn’t stop him from wanting this. This moment, with this man... “Yes,” he breathed. “I will.”

"I believe you will," Bucky said, as if he meant to sound teasing -- or even triumphant -- but instead seemed almost as breathless, as nervous, as Tony was. "Tony." His mouth pursed, lips forming a little bow like he was getting ready to ask a question. And then his mouth touched Tony's, lips moved against Tony's. His breath tickled against Tony's cheek.

Pressure and heat against his mouth. 

Without deciding to move, Tony found his hands fisted in Bucky’s coat, clinging tightly. This kiss, this was nothing like he’d imagined, nothing he’d ever read about, and it was everything he’d ever longed for. It was delicate and fiery, passionate and gentle, soft and desperate. “Bucky,” he gasped.

Bucky took advantage of Tony’s mouth opening; his tongue slid along Tony’s lip, and then swept inside of his mouth, tasting, testing. Swept all rational thought out of Tony’s brain in the same moment. Bucky’s mouth went from gentle against his to fervent, not demanding anything, but simply giving more than Tony knew what to do with. 

Bucky groaned, tipping his head a little, encouraging more, deeper. He might have said Tony’s name, as he started a trail of heated kisses down Tony’s jaw, making him lean his head back to give Bucky room, and then mouthed a line on Tony’s neck, his one hand holding fast against Tony’s back, keeping him steady.

Tony let out a sound that was perilously close to a whimper. Heat was washing through him, over him, in waves, leaving him weak-kneed and melting. He curled one hand around Bucky’s neck, fingers twining into Bucky’s hair. How could he feel so helpless and yet so strong? The heated puff of Bucky’s breath found its way under Tony’s collar, teasing at Tony’s collarbone until he was shuddering with the overload of sensation. “Bucky, I-- I don’t, I can’t--”

Bucky pulled back --  not all at once, but like Tony was a decadent chocolate dessert that Bucky was pushing away, but stealing a forkful of despite being overly full. A nuzzle, a taste, a brief press of lip against Tony’s mouth, and then finally, he took a step back, letting air move between them. He searched Tony’s face, although Tony had no idea what he must look like that the moment, then lightly brushed a lock of Tony’s hair back into place. “No regrets, surely?”

Tony blinked in momentary confusion. Of all the things he might have expected Bucky to say to him... “No, of course not. I, I had no idea, I, you...” He couldn’t put this feeling into words, this immense longing suffused with such a sense of peace and calm. He felt, suddenly, like laughing. “Well, maybe a little regret, that the wedding is ten days away.”

“I doubt my family will leave much time for you to pine dramatically,” Bucky joked. “It shall pass before you know it, and we’ll have our whole lives together. And I promise -- I may not be the best person in the world, or even in this house. But I will always do my best. For you.”

Tony brushed fingertips down Bucky’s cheek. “I’m not sure you’re capable of doing any less. Just... Just be with me. That’s all I ask, all I need.”

“Gladly,” Bucky said, and he took another step back, like he needed the distance to keep his hand off Tony. “I’ll-- uh, let you settle in? Thank you-- I… your trust means a lot to me.” He stammered a little, looking at Tony through lowered lashes.

Trust. Yes, that was exactly it. Even if only knowing Bucky for a handful of days, Tony couldn’t seem to help but trust him. And maybe, just maybe, that was a foundation that would be able to nourish and support love.

“It’s... It’s nothing you haven’t earned,” Tony said. He wanted to reach out again, to draw Bucky to him, but he suspected that would lead to, perhaps, more than he was entirely ready for. He took his own step back. “I’ll see you at dinner, then?” 

Bucky nodded, then pointed a finger. “Do not go exploring secret tunnels without me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Tony grinned impishly, then turned and slipped back through the door between their rooms.

 

Chapter Text

There was a decorative bellpull in Bucky’s bedroom, which when he tugged it, summoned a crisp, liveried servant.

Somewhere, Fury was laughing at him.

Bucky’d never been the sort to make a fuss -- he’d grown up practically dockside, with his very own pet rat -- and all these riches looked supremely heavy. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to sleep in that bed, worrying that Shield’s eagle was going to fall on him.

But now he had a servant in the room and no actual-- oh, wait. “Could you please extend an invitation to the captain of the Red Star to join us for dinner tonight? Also, send someone to the market and see what you can do about blueberries? Jam will do if you can’t find any hothouse berries.”

“Of course, your highness.”

Highness. Bucky almost snorted in the man’s face. Technically, he was a duke, and not highness at all, but Usurrans were casual about nobility titles, without really understanding the traditions behind them in other countries. They were handed out based on wealth and prestige. There were so many dukes in Ussura that not even the Tsar knew them all.

Bucky looked around his room again. “I’m home.”

It seemed like utter nonsense. He’d never been here before, how could it be home? He had never touched these blankets, never slept in this bed. Never eaten at this table. In the other room, he could hear Tony moving around.

Well, maybe he was at least close to home.

He took a moment -- or maybe the moment took him -- to relive that kiss, pure and perfect and everything Bucky could have wanted it to be.

He must have taken longer than he meant, because a different servant rapped at the door and then came in. Bucky’s things had arrived, and a few other servants arrived to unload, and then a fifth one to help Bucky dress for dinner.

This was going to get tedious really quickly, Bucky imagined. But at the same time, the valet did get him out of and then into clothes with efficiency, and managed some touch of elegance that Bucky normally lacked for himself.

He admired himself in the mirror, the rich fabrics, and wondered what Tony’s reaction would be. Wondered what Tony would be wearing.

“The captain is arrived, highness,” someone told him. Bucky made the snap decision that he was not about to let his childhood best friend see this magnificently horrible bedchamber. 

“Thank you, I’ll be right down,” Bucky said, “if you’ll offer him something to drink and a place to keep himself entertained?”

“Of course, your highness.” The servant bowed himself out of the room. Five seconds later, someone was tapping on the door.

Bucky glanced at himself in the mirror again. The valet had done something to the sleeve of his jacket that made it look… tidy, somehow. The sleeve was still obviously empty, but it didn’t flap around or anything. “Come--”

“Oh wow,” Tony said, looking Bucky over appreciatively. “That’s very nice on you.” He was wearing the evening clothes he’d worn on the Red Star -- of course, he hadn’t had time to have anything fitted or tailored here, yet -- but it looked much neater than it had on the Star, somehow. Perfectly pressed and hugging Tony’s body in all the right places. “The man who helped me dress seemed to think I should go down on your arm rather than by myself, since I’m a guest of the house for the time being. I have to say, I wouldn’t mind the company.” He angled a sweet, not quite shy smile in Bucky’s direction.

“All right, then,” Bucky said. “Steve’s here, he’ll be joining us for dinner.” Steve didn’t have any family of his own, and unless he was getting someone to deliver express letters that Bucky didn’t know about, it would be a few days before he could get a letter out to Natasha, letting her know they were home.  “You look… lovely.”

That smile widened. “Thank you. So do you. That jacket does marvelous things for your shoulders. And they were rather marvelous to begin with.”

Bucky was just as glad there were a few servants around; he might have needed a trail of breadcrumbs otherwise. This palace was ridiculously enormous. But it didn’t take too long before they found themselves in a small pre-dinner parlor. 

“I’m going to die of all this etiquette,” Bucky muttered. “How the hell does anyone get any work done around here?”

“James,” his mother said, a warning tone in her voice, like she was scolding him for his language choices, which made Bucky want to childishly stamp his feet and swear like the airshipman he was at heart. He caught Katherine’s gaze and winked at her instead. Katherine would know what he was thinking.

Probably. She had been barely off leading strings when he left for war, and his visits back had not been to relax with family, but to confer with spies and plan new battles.

But she grinned back at him, which was at least heartening.

Tony squeezed Bucky’s arm and went to greet Steve with a handshake, immediately delving into the Red Star’s status, and that of the wounded crew, and quickly taking a sharp turn into technical language that Bucky could only just follow.

Katherine was somewhat of a godsend. She sat next to Bucky during dinner -- their mother at the head of the table, and the foot left empty, and Tony was right across from him -- and kicked him in the shin every single time she saw him mindlessly staring at his betrothed and neglecting to answer a question that someone had directed at him.

He probably wouldn’t have gotten through the whole dinner without her invaluable service. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small packet of horehound candies. “Here,” he told her, offering her the packet. They’d done that as children, when Bucky would fall asleep in church, or when Father was lecturing everyone. Back when a couple of sweets was a huge treat and not something they could take for granted.

She didn’t quite squeal in delight the way she had as a girl, but she selected one with obvious enjoyment. “So, big brother, the question everyone has been tiptoeing around -- what are you going to do?”

“I am going to get married,” Bucky said, “and then I am going to redecorate that hideous bedroom you’ve maneuvered me into, and then I shall spend the next twenty years needlessly meddling in your affairs, everything from your current studies to exactly how many inches above the ground your petticoat is.”

She looked both horrified and indignant; across the table, Tony was smirking into his hand. “You most certainly will not,” she challenged. “And what do you mean, hideous bedroom? It’s the height of fashion, I had the decorator especially hired when they said you were coming--”

“Well, that explains it,” Tony murmured. Down the table a few seats, Steve snickered.

“The height of fashion is a little too high for me,” Bucky said. “I’m scared I’ll fall off it.”

“Not that we’re ungrateful,” Tony put in, “but I, at least, am used to something... simpler.”

“And perhaps a little less fashionable,” Bucky said. “I mean, you’ve met me, yes? Fashionable is just… not who I am.”

“Well, that is perfectly obvious,” Katherine said, sniffing with offense. “But I’ll take your bed, if you don’t want it.”

“You may have mine, if you like,” Tony volunteered. “And the fence, as well.”

“Neither of those beds will fit in our room,” Anna remarked, looking very primly into her soup. “Which is why they’re in your rooms.”

Tony looked amused. “Well, before I begin investing in furniture, I shall need proper clothes. Perhaps one of you will consent to show me to the tailor, tomorrow?”

“We’re very rich,” Katherine said. “I still don’t see why the tailor won’t come to us.”

“Because you don’t want to annoy the people making your clothes,” Bucky said. “Unless you intend to be snickered at while attending all the fancy parties. We can suffer a sled ride down to the tailor’s.”

“Also, it’s much easier to look at all the fabric swatches at the shop,” Tony said. “They can only bring so many with them if they have to move it all. And as long as we’ll be going into town--” He glanced toward Bucky’s mother and Richard. “--I must conduct some urgent business; I shall depend upon you to recommend to me a factor who is trustworthy and tenacious.”

“If you’re not one of those ridiculous men that thinks women do nothing but gossip and shop for clothing,” Katherine said, “then you should give Miss Potts your business.”

“Miss Potts,” Tony repeated. “I will call upon her first thing.”

Bucky poked at his food, watching Tony charm and delight everyone. Everything on his plate had been cut up beforehand into small, bite sized pieces, and Bucky couldn’t decide if he was relieved or offended. Maybe just depressed. He kept running face first into his disability. As if he would never be allowed to forget it, not for a single moment.

“Maybe I’ll have someone make me a new sort of fork,” Bucky mused, holding his up as if he’d never seen one before. “Do you think, a blade on one tine, Tony?”

Tony considered it across the table. “I don’t see why not,” he said. “Though you’d still need a way to steady the food if it’s tougher. Hm. I’ll give it some thought.”

There was something validating about Tony’s comment; that he agreed that Bucky needed the extra help, but not in a way that turned Bucky into a subject of pity. Everyone else had hastily changed the subject on prior attempts, or someone had jumped up to fix the immediate problem and leave the longer running issue to fend for itself.

“You’re staring again,” Katherine whispered, kicking him under the table. Bucky handed her the bag of sweets.

Tony glanced at Bucky while Becca was telling a tale of some sort and winked, smiling slowly.

When the dishes had been cleared away, Tony shook his head at the suggestion of a drink. “It’s been a long day. I’m for bed, if I can find my way back to it. Tomorrow evening, I shall strive to be better company.”

Bucky-- wasn’t sure he’d survive if Tony became even better company.

But he also could not follow his betrothed up to bed; even as lax as his mother had been with the rooms, that much would be a trifle too obvious.

One drink, and then Steve would return to his home for the night, and Bucky... would go to bed and pray that the next ten days were the shortest days in his life.

 


 

Despite his exhaustion -- he hadn’t been lying about that -- Tony found it difficult to sleep. The bed was too ornate, the counterpane too heavy, the sounds of the place unfamiliar. He couldn’t stop thinking about Bucky, about those kisses and the way they’d made him want to surrender, to beg for more of Bucky’s touch...

Tony punched his pillow and turned over. Ten days. He could last that long.

It was funny, a little, that three days ago he’d been dreading that moment and hoping to put it off as long as possible.

A step in the hall made him freeze, listening -- Bucky, or one of the servants? The tread slowed as it passed Tony’s door and there was a whisper of sound, like fingers trailing over the wood.

Surely, Bucky wouldn’t come into Tony’s room so late, when he expected Tony to be sleeping? Not... yet. Would he?

Tony couldn’t quite make up his mind how he would react, what he would say -- but before he could decide, the steps continued on, and faintly, Tony heard the sound of Bucky’s door.

They’d been physically closer on the Red Star, their staterooms there being not nearly as large as these. But somehow, it felt closer.

Tony imagined he could almost hear Bucky’s breathing, the rustle of the bedclothes as Bucky climbed into bed.

He was still listening as his eyes closed, and it seemed barely a blink before the morning sun was streaming through the tall windows opposite the bed.

Someone rapped on the door again, soft, light, almost hesitantly. 

Had he been asleep? He must have, but he didn’t remember drifting off or dreaming at all. “Uh. Come in?” He sat up and smoothed out the blankets a little, rubbing sleepily at his face.

One of the liveried servants came in and started rapidly talking at Tony in -- presumably Ussuran -- and shaking out some clothes that would probably fit.

“Ah. Yes, all right, I--” Tony wriggled to the edge of the bed and took the robe the man was holding out. “I’m very sorry, I don’t speak Ussuran... Have you any Avalon?”

The man squinted at him, then shook his head, offered a phrase in-- either Ussuran or maybe Eisen, it sounded pretty harsh, at least. He flapped his hands at Tony, getting him out of the bed and helping him get his new shirt on.

“No? Montaigne, then?” Tony rattled off a request for coffee as he slid his arms into the shirt and started doing up the buttons.

“Coffee!” The servant brightened up again, chirping off another stream of words that included soldat, which was one of a very few words Tony recognized, and then more nonsense. He buttoned up Tony’s shirt, tied the cravat, and then swooped out of the room, only to come back in with a silver breakfast tray including coffee, some sort of flat cake, and a folded letter.

Beloved

Pardon that I must have my sister pen this, even though it is atrocious, but I’m no use with a pen these days. 

--My brother is a terrible person and abuses me horridly!

Called out to deal with an issue with the Star and probably not back until dinner. I’ve sent one of the footmen to help you today. You have an appointment with the tailor, and another with a bootmaker, and then he will take you to meet Miss Potts, who was so kind as to clear her afternoon for you.

--Which is Bucky’s way of saying he’s abandoning you, and you should run awa--

A drip of ink stained the letter before it got back to the subject at hand.

--I am chastened.

I should return in time for dinner, and am counting the hours already.

Yours

J “Bucky” Barnes

Tony couldn’t help smiling over the way the sibling squabbling spilled over onto the page as he sipped from the steaming cup on the tray. The coffee was very strong, but still surprisingly smooth, especially after the dubious quality of the all-hours coffee in the Star’s mess hall. By the time he’d drained the last of it, he was feeling nearly ready to face his errands. Though he hoped that the trip into town would be brief.

He let the footman help him into his coat, and retrieved a small packet of papers from his own trunk. He tucked them, along with Bucky’s note, into his breast pocket and then nodded at the footman. “I wish I knew your name,” he told the man. “It’s going to be difficult to get your attention otherwise.”

The sled was similar to the one they’d rode in yesterday, with the same heated flooring, although instead of horses, this one was steam-powered, assisted with the driver who was peddling to keep the motors turning. Sleeker than a two horse sled, it would probably be more maneuverable on narrow city streets.

“Oh, now that’s clever,” Tony said, walking around the sled twice before finally climbing in and pulling the blanket over his lap. “I shall have to arrange a closer look at that engine.” He glanced at his assigned footman and amended, “Later. When there’s someone who can translate.” Still, he watched the driver as closely as he could during the trip.

It seemed, once they got into the main parts of town, that every inventor and tinkerer who could get some sort of vehicle to run was out and about. Tony saw single rider Great Wheels and velocipedes of nearly every description. Given that it was early winter and most people were wearing very heavy coats and tall, furred hats, it rather looked like a circus parade.

Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to get to the tailor’s, where Tony was ushered inside and allowed to stand in front of a huge fire to warm up.

“Monsieur,” a boy, not more than nine or ten, tugged on his pants leg. He continued to talk in Montaigne, looking around furtively. “Grandpapa does not speak Montaigne, but he does understand it. Your man says you’re not local.”

“No,” Tony admitted, “I am from Avalon. I do speak Montaigne, but not yet Ussuran. Are you to be my translator?”

“For right now, yes,” the boy said. “I cannot leave the shop. But grandpapa wants me to talk with you, so you get what you want.”

Tony nodded. “Very well. Please tell your grandfather that I must have warmer clothes if I am to survive long enough to see Christmas. I shall defer to his expertise on materials, but I need outdoor garments immediately, and at least three suits each of daywear and eveningwear. And I imagine he will need my measurements for the wedding clothes.”

The boy nodded, scurried out, came back in with a colors book. “Here, for your consideration,” he said, and then disappeared again to bring back a tray of nibbles and a glass of watered down wine. Honestly, the way people fed everyone around here, it would be a miracle if Tony fit in his own clothes in ten days.

He took one of the little tastes, to be polite, and dandled the wineglass between his fingers as he flipped through the book of swatches. “This shade of red, I think, for one of the evening jackets,” he told the boy. “And... Oh, I quite like this grey-on-grey brocade.”

Warmed and fed and swatched and fashion-plated, the boy finally took Tony into the back, where he stood on a little platform to be prodded and measured, his choices sniffed at, suggestions that sounded more like orders made through his intermediary, and one heavy felt and wool coat trimmed with fur brought out.

“The man it was made for burned the hem,” the boy explained, “and then returned it. Grandpapa hemmed it up, but then-- it was too short. But it should fit you.” It was rich red with gold trim and black fur around the collar and sleeves and fit like it had been made for Tony specifically.

“Oh, this is perfect,” Tony said, pulling the coat close around him and feeling the fur brush against his jaw. “If all your work is so fine,” he told the tailor, “I shall be the envy of all Ussura.”

Finally, all the measurements were taken, and a pair of felt winter boots were found to match the coat that almost fit when Tony wore two pairs of socks under, and he was ushered to the front of the store again, where another customer was looking at the plates.

“My pardon if you’ve been held up on my account,” Tony said.

“All of fashion rests on the shoulders of tailors,” the man said, his Avalon very heavily accented, but it seemed at least that Tony had been understood. 

“Indeed. But my work here is done for now, so I will get out of your way. A good day, sir.” Tony nodded politely, and went to find his footman.

Getting fitted for boots took even longer; the bootmaker was a fussy man, and made several traces around Tony’s foot in a variety of poses, measured his calf in the same number, checked both sides, and then had Tony walk around for almost half an hour in his sock-feet and did the whole set all over again.

Tony had never encountered such an exacting craftsman -- certainly not for shoes. He hoped the end product would be worth the effort. At least the bootmaker spoke Avalon, at least well enough to do business.

“And finally, the indomitable Miss Potts,” Tony said to his guide.

Miss Potts’ office was on the second floor of what looked like a large warehouse that had been converted; her books were stacked floor to ceiling behind her and there were stacks of paper tied up with string literally everywhere that Tony looked, including the chair she gestured at for him to sit in until she came around to retrieve them. “Excuse the mess, very much, I just had a disagreeable separation from my old partner and had to move in a bit of a hurry,” she said, dropping the stack into another pile. “How can I assist you today?” She tucked a bit of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear and gave him a hasty smile.

Tony launched into a somewhat abbreviated (and yet still lengthy) summary of his situation -- his somewhat hasty betrothal, the severing of his father’s company, and Obie’s attack on the Red Star mid-voyage. “I must act to secure myself immediately,” Tony said firmly. “He may have the piece of the company he’s won, may it bring him no joy. But he cannot have my automata, and he certainly cannot have any of the rest of my inheritance. First and foremost, I must have a will drafted, making Bu-- Lord Barnes my sole heir. Copies must be sent to my factor in Avalon, for safekeeping. I have a small amount of hope that if there is nothing to gain by attacking me, then he will leave over. But in case that is not enough... Well, we have an entire crew who will swear to the ship that led the attack.”

Miss Potts stared at him, her eyes enormous. She had stopped taking notes about halfway through his description, and when he came to a halt, she seemed finally to blink. “Well,” she said, “I shall put a team together immediately. Draw up the documents you need and have them approved with the Tsar himself. And, as I see we will be working closely together for some time, please, you must call me Pepper.”

“Tony,” he returned, offering a small smile. “You must feel free to call upon me at the manor at any time. Speed may be of the essence, here. And when those tasks are done -- or awaiting the slow tread of the bureaucratic wheel -- then I will also need to establish what remains of my company and set up contracts for supply and shipping. But that is somewhat less urgent.”

She flipped through one of her piles, and then filled out a few lines on what looked like a generic contract. “For the time being, this will authorize me to get documentation, to see to matters of legal aid on your behalf, and limited ability to sign for you in urgent matters. Please read and sign it, so I can get to work, and I’ll deliver the essential packets to you within ten days.”

Very straightforward, Miss Potts. Tony approved. He took the sheet and read over it -- he knew better than to sign anything without reading it first. Reached for a pen off her desk, scratched out one phrase and amended it in the margin, initialing the change, and then signed the bottom with a flourish and wrote the date neatly. “There you are, Miss-- Pepper. It’s been a delight; I look forward to working with you again in the future.”

She smiled and offered her hand to shake. “If that will be all, Mr. Stark?”

He took her hand -- she had a good, firm grip. “That will be all, Miss Potts.”

Chapter Text

“If you would,” Bucky said, after the servants cleared the last of the dinner dishes away. “I have some new information, a mission, and a proposition for you-- for us.” He grinned and nudged the leather tube that was resting against his knee. He hadn’t been able to put it aside before dinner and decided to just bring it with him.

Which made him feel rather adventurous, really, in a way he hadn’t since his first days in the King’s military, when he’d thought the war would be honorable and lead him to glory.

Ha.

He’d been much greener, then.

“Have you indeed?” Tony took a slow sip of the last of his glass of wine. “I shall be delighted to hear it.”

“I have obtained the blueprints for our house,” Bucky said, waving the servant out of his way and dropping the leather map-case onto the table. “Here, help me get them laid out. I thought, since even the servants are new, no one really knows what’s here. But I propose that we, starting tomorrow, have a grand winter adventure here in our own palace.”

Tony caught the edge of one sheet and unrolled it across the table. “Having blueprints feels like cheating,” he said, though his eyes were busy on the sketched lines. “Do we know if they’re accurate? Hidden passages are not very hidden if they’re on the official maps.”

“I’m quite sure they’re not accurate,” Bucky said. “This palace was built almost ninety years ago, I’m sure there have been changes made. It’s a good start, however, and none of the rooms are, in fact, labeled, so I don’t know what we’ll find when we open the door.”

“It does sound like quite the adventure,” Tony said, smiling slightly. “Shall I bring a pith helmet and a machete?”

“I thought more like a notebook to make observations in, and perhaps, a picnic luncheon,” Bucky said. “There are a truly ridiculous number of rooms here. We might even need chalk, to mark our way so we’re not Hansel and Gretel, lost in the wood.”

Tony laughed. “I’m sure the valet, at least, would find us in time to dress for dinner. The man is most formidable. But that sounds delightful, actually.”

“Is he not to your liking? The butler said he was the best,” Bucky wondered. Was he going to have to interview all the servants, or could he not take someone’s advice? It was going to be slow going if he had to personally--

“Oh, no, he’s marvelous,” Tony said. “He just has very precise ideas of what is correct, and as we share no language in common, the communication of it is occasionally... lacking.”

“Well, I shall make it part of his duties to both learn Avalon and to assist you in learning Usurran. Surely, between the two of you, you’ll muddle through.” He scanned through the plans. “This is the dining hall, where we currently are. My mother and sisters have been using these two rooms for family gatherings, and this as the main guest parlor. The family sleeping rooms are here on the second floor. Other than that, we don’t know where or what anything is.”

“I shall bring two notebooks and a spare pencil,” Tony promised, his eyes alight with both amusement and excitement. “I wonder what we shall find.”

“Probably nothing more exciting than some old nobleman’s tacky parlor sofa, covered with dust cloths. Monogrammed silver teaspoons. A badly out of tune pianoforte.” And perhaps, a little bit of privacy and an interest in more stolen kisses. But Bucky promised himself he’d behave. At least, as long as he had no encouragement. Let Tony make the first move, if there was a move to make.

Bucky was thirty years old, not a damn teenager. He could wait for the wedding.

Probably.

 


 

Tony rose the next morning feeling unaccountably excited for the “exploration mission.” It seemed somehow both useful and childishly playful, and he was, in fact, looking forward to testing some of his hypotheses about the thickness of the palace walls.

The chance to spend more time with Bucky was not an inconsiderable draw, either. Some of it, perhaps, even alone? His cheeks heated at the thought of more of those sweet kisses.

It seemed Bucky had already spoken to the valet, as the man laid out somewhat rougher clothing, suitable for poking into dusty corridors and prying open hidden doors. And then he pointed to each article of clothing and named it, turning to Tony expectantly.

It took a few rounds of back-and-forth and some truly atrocious accents on, Tony suspected, both their parts, but by the time Tony made his way down to breakfast, he knew the Ussuran words for trousers and shirt and jacket and boots. The valet -- who’d haltingly introduced himself as Happy, and Tony was eager to find out if that was a Ussuran word that happened to sound like a word Tony knew, or if it was a nickname of some sort -- Happy wasn’t quite as quick to pick up the new words as Tony, but he’d managed a few of them.

Bucky was likewise dressed in less formal clothing, with a haversack full of food he could carry on his shoulder that would leave his hand free. The blueprints had been rolled back up and were in their tube in case of need. “And I picked up a clever little thing while I was out yesterday,” Bucky said. “The merchant called it a vacuum flask. Keeps our coffee nice and hot for several hours. Which I’ll tell you, that’s a handy little idea. We’ll see if it’s worth the coin.”

“If it works, I must have a dozen immediately,” Tony joked. “Where shall we begin, then?” He turned to survey the doors that led out of the dining room. He knew the one on the far end led to the kitchens, and the one behind him went back out into the main hall, but there was a third he hadn’t yet seen anyone go through.

“Well, the easiest thing to do is start here, and see where--” Bucky walked over to the third door and put his hand on the knob, “--this goes off to?” 

He pushed into a wide hallway with two benches along the wall, and a set of doors offset and across from them. There was a very dead potted plant at one end of the hallway, the leaves all but dust on the floor around it. One door opened to reveal a fancy little sitting room, very lacy and yellow, with chairs clustered in small groups, and a sideboard, holding a few dusty bottles of cream sherry and cordial glasses. 

“After dinner room,” Bucky said. “The other should be the matching one, for the gentlemen. Scotch and cigars.”

“Any cigars left in there are going to be so dry they’ll burn up in seconds. I wonder if the Scotch is still good. The sherry’s bound to have turned to vinegar.” Tony ducked out of the ladies’ sitting room and went to look at the men’s. He paused in the hall to jot down a few notes and expand his small sketch of the rooms.

Bucky poked into a few of the drawers. Several decks of cards, a board for chess and checkers, along with simple wooden boxes containing the pieces.

One carefully wrapped deck of cards caught his attention, and he painstakingly opened them to discover it was one of those sorts of decks, each card depicting a man, a woman, or a couple, usually in some state of undress, and often very… busy.

Some of the ladies, it seemed, had not been so very biddable and meek. “Nice,” he murmured, flipping over a few of the cards to look at the little drawings.

“What did you find?” Tony wondered, coming back into the room to peer over Bucky’s arm. “Oh!” He drew back a little, then leaned forward again curiously. 

“They won’t burn you,” Bucky teased. “I think some of the ladies got a little saucy after dinner. When they wouldn’t be bothered by the men.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Tony said. His neck and cheeks were charmingly flushed, but he gamely picked up a handful of the cards and flipped through them. “I wonder if one bids by suit, or by body parts?”

“I suspect it depends on what cards you wish to be holding,” Bucky teased. He flicked a few more over, dividing them up neatly, counting. A wide variety of suggestive figures looked up at him, all inviting and eager. “And I believe someone actually stole a few of the cards. There’s not enough to play a fair game. Maybe they built card houses instead.”

“Maybe we’ll find the spares in the gentleman’s room,” Tony suggested.

Bucky put the cards away. He was awkward and it was slow, but he was pleased that he’d managed to do it, and that Tony didn’t offer to help or impatiently pace around while Bucky did it. It seemed a good step, somehow, that they were able to deal with Bucky’s disability without making some sort of… deal out of it.

“Maybe one of these days, I’ll get you to build me an automaton that can hold stuff for me,” Bucky muttered.

Tony paused, head tipping to one side and eyes going glassy, as if he were actually considering it. “That... might be possible,” he said thoughtfully. “I’d have to... No, that would be too heavy. But if... Hm.” He flipped a page in his notebook and jotted several notes.

“I’m kidding,” Bucky said. “If I need a shelf that bad, I can put wheels on one and drag it along behind me like a puppy.”

There was nothing more on that side of the dining room, although there were no windows, either. So they probably weren’t on the outer wall. He couldn’t imagine smoking in one of these rooms; the air would get very thick. 

“I’m not sure I’d know how to look for secret panels,” Bucky said. “But I don’t feel a draft in here, either.”

“Best way is going to be taking measurements,” Tony said. “If we end up with rooms that should be back-to-back but have a three-foot gap between them, there’s probably a passage. If we can get the blueprints updated with fresh measurements, the best places for passages would probably jump right out at us.”

“Well, I hope nothing jumps out at us,” Bucky said. “Although if it does, it’ll probably be a mouse or something.” He consulted the blueprints again. “Through the dining room and past the parlor, let’s see what’s that way.”

There were dozens of rooms; sometimes they had to take dropcloths off the furniture to figure out what the room’s purpose was. Studies and parlors, a breakfast room that overlooked the small garden. A mostly glass room -- quite a bit warmer than the rest of the house -- that might once have had living plants in the tubs along the floor.

“Oh, this could be delightful if we restored it!” Tony exclaimed. His pencil was going to be worn to a nub by the end of the day if he kept on taking notes at this pace. He paused to flash a bright smile at Bucky and then turned in a slow circle. “Shall we have our luncheon in here? Or do you want to finish the wing and then stop?”

“It’s almost like a forest in winter,” Bucky said. He did find a few things, in the direct light, that hadn’t entirely died, and an entire row of suncatchers along the western window. They threw little rainbows onto the floor, and there was a bench to sit on while they admired a view that didn’t yet exist.

The bench was pretty small; they would have to sit close together and keep their lunches in their laps. That decided it. “We can sit here,” Bucky decided.

Tony took the picnic basket and perched on one side of the bench to unpack it, uncovering two bottles of the locally-brewed ale, cold meat pies, and brown-bread rolls. “This is fun,” he said as he began to load their plates. “I knew it would be interesting, but I admit, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so fun.”

“It’s exciting,” Bucky said. “Like some sort of pirate adventure. I didn’t grow up like this, you know. My childhood home was small and cold and we were crowded into a few tiny rooms. This is-- it doesn’t quite feel real to me. I spent my years in the war, as if holding out a cup and trying to fill it with rain. I get so close, and send money home to my mother, my sisters. But my cup, it’s still not very big, and it never got close to full. But one day, more than half of it was full. And I think, now, yes, I have made something, and it’s good. And then Fury dumped a whole bucket of water on my head. I know, it makes no sense, but-- I almost resent it. Wandering around this home that he gave us-- well, I don’t think he knew much about it, just that the Tzar needed a duke for this land, and I was a war hero. By exploring, this way, I am making it my own home.”

Tony hummed, absently uncorking both bottles and handing one to Bucky. “I... grew up wealthy,” he said slowly. “My father, he was a genius. There wasn’t a home in Avalon that didn’t have at least one of his devices. Not a single soldier that didn’t carry a weapon he designed. He was not... not an easy man to please. But I always knew what my path was. Everything led in only one direction: to take over the company when he decided I was ready. And then he and my mother died. And the path that had been under my feet for so long crumbled away into dust.”

He took a long pull from the bottle, and he gave Bucky a small smile. “As you are discovering your home, so I am learning mine.”

“What happened,” Bucky wondered. “That you, instead, are here, with me, instead of there, running your company? Your-- Stane? How did he get it away from you?” He tried not to sound accusatory, knowing that asking questions sometimes could make him feel like how could you have not done better? He didn’t want Tony to feel that way, but he was fighting a war now, that he didn’t understand. At least soldiers he could stand against. This was… something else.

“Ah, well... A trick of timing,” Tony said. He set the bottle at his feet and picked at the crust of his pie with one finger. “I was yet a few weeks shy of my majority when they passed, and he was named my guardian, my inheritance his to control. And I...” He shifted a little, uncomfortable. “I didn’t pay attention. I was grieved, I didn’t care about the company. By the time I thought to give it any notice, he’d already rearranged things. Placed himself at the helm and set about looking for a spouse to take me off his hands.”

“We’ve both been played for fools,” Bucky said. “In addition to being encouraged to retire because of my injury-- there was you to think of. The young Stark heir, in terrible danger, and in need of my protection. Who would be fool enough to try to hurt you while I kept you under my wing?”

He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. And, what was more, he wondered if Fury knew, or if Fury was also a pawn in some game that none of them could see.

“Yes,” Tony said, sighing, but then lifted his chin. “They shall discover that we are both more formidable than they believed. And together... we will make them curse the day of our introduction.” He gave Bucky a sharp-toothed grin.

“I certainly never will,” Bucky said. Without consideration for any of the things that could make a good marriage, Bucky found himself thrown together with what he was coming to consider his perfect match.

Tony’s cheeks pinked a little at the compliment. He took a bite of his pie and leaned against Bucky’s side companionably. “Your family seems to have adjusted to the change well,” he observed when he’d swallowed.

“While I was away, Becca married well,” he said. “Not, you know-- prodigiously well, but good enough. I believe my mother was hoping Mr. Proctor would take the younger girls into even greater circles, long before I ever-- well I can’t say I planned this. Hydra’s general was such a fierce figurehead, his death caused them to scatter like roaches. But I wasn’t thinking about earning a reward, or even winning the war. I confess to thinking only of trying to live through the next few minutes.”

He was well aware of the weight of Tony’s head against his shoulder, the heat of Tony’s leg pressed against Bucky’s. The faint smell of toothpowder and soap. 

He would not have wished Tony’s circumstances on anyone, but-- Tony didn’t seem to have regrets. Together. That was a nice word.

Bucky found himself leaning against Tony, just as much as Tony was leaning on him. It wouldn’t take much, just a tip of his jaw, a willing look in Tony’s eyes.

They were utterly, completely alone, and well out of earshot of anyone who might think to get in the way.

“Tony?”

“Yes?” Tony looked at him. That blush hadn’t faded, and he looked unafraid, curious. Perhaps even eager.

You’re so much, Bucky thought. “Beautiful, brilliant, brave Tony. I don’t think I could have done nearly as well for myself, with a year to court or even seek a spouse. You’re… do you even know how incredible you are?”

Tony looked away again, shaking his head. “I’m not... I’m just doing what needs to be done. But I’m glad that it was you. Even if I was a little terrified, at first.”

“But you’re not scared now,” Bucky said, resting his hand on Tony’s knee. “Are you?”

“No.” Tony glanced up at him again, wide-eyed. “Not at all.”

“Let me,” Bucky said, and it was more than just persuasion, more than just asking. He honestly felt like he might die if Tony rejected him, if Tony didn’t want him. It had been so hard, at first, to even think that someone might want him; not a war hero, but a wounded, angry ex-soldier. Tony softened that side of him, barely seemed to notice his disability. He was just Bucky, as far as Tony seemed to think, and it was Bucky that he wanted.

Bucky hoped so, at any rate.

“Yes,” Tony whispered. “Bucky. Please, I-- I want--”

There were so many things Bucky wanted to say, even if he didn’t know how to put words to them. How precious Tony was, how much Bucky wanted him, not just a warm and willing body, but Tony, specifically. How grateful Bucky was; the house was nothing, the title barely noticeable, the retirement a penance, but Tony. Tony was what made all this worthwhile.

He didn’t say any of that; he didn’t know the words.

But he did know how to kiss, and he leaned in, taking his time, letting Tony get used to his nearness, and then claimed Tony’s mouth.

At the same time, it really seemed like Tony was trying to stake his own claim; his tongue and lips weren’t sure and smooth with experience, but the way he held on was eager, the way he made soft, needy sounds in his throat-- well… it was enough to light Bucky on fire.

Tony gasped and moaned as Bucky explored his mouth, and when Bucky withdrew, Tony followed, licking tentatively into Bucky’s mouth, a soft brush of tongue against Bucky’s teeth and lip. His hold on Bucky’s jacket was white-knuckled, as if he were desperate to keep Bucky from putting even a hand’s width of space between them.

There was something powerful about it, affecting Tony as much as he was, and as much as it affected Bucky. He tugged, light and easy, and the remains of lunch fell, almost unnoticed, to the floor as he urged Tony on, practically into his lap, and then Tony was straddling Bucky’s thighs.

That-- that did it. Bucky rocked up against Tony’s thigh, stropping against him like a needy cat. “Tony-- darling,” Bucky murmured, nuzzling Tony’s mouth, his jaw, tasting the skin of his throat.

“Oh!” Tony sounded startled and breathless but utterly unafraid. His head fell back, allowing -- offering -- inviting -- more kisses, more touch. “Bucky, I... What-- what should I--?”

Anything. Everything. Bucky entertained a brief, heated fantasy about Tony undressed and on the floor. It wouldn’t take long to bring them both to pitch; Tony was inexperienced and it had been a long time since Bucky had last found comfort in a willing body. How Tony would look, messy and satisfied. “Keep hold ‘round my neck, I can’t--” He couldn’t touch Tony and make sure he didn’t fall at the same time. But his hand did wander down Tony’s back, his ribs, rested on his hip. 

Bucky rocked them together and Tony’s arms went around his neck, clinging, and--

“It’s all right,” he told Tony, gently. “I got you, gonna make you feel good, if you’ll let me.” He teased his fingers closer, untucking Tony’s shirt and brushing against the skin of his waist. God, Tony felt good, his skin was so soft, so silky.

Tony shivered at the touch, but his eyes were trusting as he searched Bucky’s face, the pupils blown with desire. “We--” He glanced around quickly. “Here?

“Why not here?” Bucky mused, licking at Tony’s neck. He fastened his mouth on the tender skin of his collarbone. It wouldn’t even be noticed, an everyday cravat would cover it up. “There are a great number of places you can-- feel good, if you want to.”

“Yes, I, but-- Oh!” Tony’s hands tightened on Bucky’s shoulders. “There, that-- yes.”

Bucky let his hand drift, feeling the way Tony’s muscles quivered delicately. “But?” He wasn’t sure he should have said it, he wasn’t sure he wanted Tony thinking of all the reasons he didn’t want this, or they should wait. He could press his advantage, overwhelm Tony with sensation and desire until he couldn’t even think about protesting because it felt too damn good to stop. Still, he waited. He wanted Tony to want it, need it, but more than that. He wanted Tony not to regret it, not for a single instant.

“But,” Tony echoed faintly, “the... the mess?” He shook his head and leaned back to look at Bucky squarely, a faint frown pulling at his brows. “This is... Is this a test?”

Bucky blinked. "What? A test of what? Tony… no, there… there won't be a mess." He gave Tony a heated, knowing look. "No mess… I'll just swallow it."

“You’ll what?” Tony’s expression shifted from uncertain to shocked so fast it was nearly comical.

"You can sit right there, and the worst that'll happen is I get some dirt on my knees," Bucky said, then tipped his head a little. "you… uh, I guess your friends at school never talk dirty. Hired a good time girl or boy? Looked at naughty magazines?" He ran one finger over the panel on the front of Tony's trousers. "I can show you. It feels really good. You'll enjoy it."

Tony shuddered at the light touch. “N-no school, just tutors. I don’t-- Are you sure?”

"Am I sure I can, you know, do it? Yeah. Am I sure you're gonna like it? Yeah pretty sure. But… not if you don't want to. Tony, honey. Not at the cost of your trust." He gathered Tony's hands in his own, kissed the fingertips. 

“I...” Tony searched Bucky’s face minutely, as if he might find some vitally important answer hidden in the length of Bucky’s eyelashes or the dimple of Bucky’s chin. “I trust you,” he said at last, and cautiously, he closed the space between them, claiming a kiss.

Bucky shivered, feeling his mouth tremble under Tony's lips. It meant so much, so much, that Tony trusted him, that it wasn't about obligation or duty. But about Bucky and Tony.

Together.

Tony’s fingers wound into Bucky’s hair, displacing the ribbon holding it back as they curled and tugged. When he drew back, he was breathing hard, eyes half-lidded with pleasure. “I trust you,” he repeated. “Show me?”

"It will be my pleasure," Bucky said, which was certain, and he hoped it would be Tony's, as well. He traced a finger over Tony's buttons. Slid one out of the hole. "Yeah?" 

“Yes,” Tony breathed, eyes fixed on Bucky’s fingers, slowly tracing their way down to the next button.

“There you go,” Bucky said, encouraging. He glanced up at Tony’s face, down at what his hand was doing, back up. He stroked the shape of him through those linen trousers, feeling how hard Tony was behind the cloth. “Feel good?”

Tony shuddered and rocked into Bucky’s touch with a soft moan. “You know it does,” he said, not quite complaining, but brushing the edges of petulance. 

“Just makin’ sure,” Bucky murmured, rocking Tony toward him, letting his weight put more pressure, the heel of Bucky’s hand running down the fabric, knowing, yeah, Tony had him there, knowing that it felt good, that it would feel so good. Too much and not enough, and leaving him wanting more. Another button unfastened, awkward, with some tugging at the fabric, but now there was enough room for Bucky to reach inside. “Kiss me--” He slipped his hand into that opening, twisted-- there. There, he touched soft, heated skin.

Tony’s whole body jerked and he gasped into Bucky’s mouth and made a sound of pure need deep in his throat. “Bucky...” He was grasping at Bucky’s shoulder and neck, hands shaking. “Bucky, please.”

“Yeah, that’s it, honey,” Bucky said. He got his hand wrapped around Tony’s cock, stroked it a few times, helped him get straightened out, because that could not have been comfortable. Thumbed over the head, smearing the beading precome. Perfect, oh, Tony felt perfect under Bucky’s hand, and he was so damn responsive, shivering and mewling and his hands were tight on Bucky’s shoulders. Practically begging for it, which, Bucky had to say, got him all heated.

“Okay, listen, this is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna stand up, and switch. You just tug your pants open a little, just enough, and I’m gonna kneel right between your knees.” 

Tony nodded, pressing his face into the curve of Bucky’s neck, flushed and heated. He tightened his grip on Bucky’s jacket and slid almost gracelessly back, dropping his feet to the floor to stand.

Tony was brilliantly dishevelled, his cock half-out, his face pink and lips swollen, hair a mess. It was delightful. “You look so beautiful,” Bucky told him. “I could just eat you up. Which is, in fact, what I’m going to do.” He could, in fact, almost do it from here, with Tony standing in front of him. But remaining standing while having an orgasm was sometimes difficult, and Bucky didn’t have a free hand to catch him with. Better to stick to the original plan.

Bucky licked his lips, practically salivating. 

“Right, up we go, and--”

Later, Bucky would think it was lucky that his sisters were such hoydens, laughing and squealing with glee as they came down the hall toward the old greenhouse. At the moment, he couldn’t think much beyond damn it.

Tony’s head snapped up and the look in his eyes was panicked. He scrambled the rest of the way off Bucky’s lap, overbalancing and winding up in a small heap on the floor, frantically trying to do up his buttons before the girls appeared.

Fuck.

“Shhh,” Bucky told him. “Easy. Take a breath. You just fell, that’s all. Okay?” Depending which sisters were with Katherine, whose voice was easily three times louder than anyone else’s, it was very likely that the oldest two would know exactly what was going on. He put a hand on Tony’s elbow and gently turned him to face away from the door, giving him time to straighten up. Bucky ground his teeth together and tried to think unarrousing thoughts. It would not be good to be so… flushed… around his sisters, who deserved more respect than that.

He gave Tony a regretful glance.

He should have had more respect for Tony than to put him in such an awkward position. 

Katherine dodged through the door at top speed, and Bucky was fairly certain she didn’t even notice them until she was already halfway across the room, shrieking something more or less unintelligible back over her shoulder. She stumbled to a halt, panting. “Bucky! Tony! What are you doing in here?”

“Having lunch,” Bucky said. “What are you doing in here?”

“Getting away from--”

“HA! Found you!” Anna declared charging into the room with a rather large pillow held over her head. She was quicker to spot them than Katherine had been. “Why is Tony on the floor?”

“I fell,” Tony said. He climbed to his feet and brushed off his trousers. He didn’t look terribly embarrassed or disheveled. “Trying to climb up on the bench to see outside better.”

“Really?” Katherine wondered, her eyes wide. “Bucky didn’t catch you? I fell down the stairs one time, and everyone tells me that Bucky was just-- zoom--”

“Katherine, shut up,” Anna hissed, her gaze drawn to Bucky’s empty sleeve with horrified realization.

Bucky’s stomach dropped several inches and then refused to budge. If Tony had fallen, Bucky wouldn’t have caught him. He was never going to catch anyone, ever again. If it wasn’t entirely unworthy of him, as a brother, as a husband, Bucky might have fled the room, completely overwhelmed with the thought-- 

Tony tucked his arm through Bucky’s. “It wasn’t much of a fall,” he said, dismissing it with a wave. “Are you having a pillow fight? Throughout the entire palace? That seems rather grand.”

“Knowing Kitty, she probably put a frog in Anna’s bed or something,” Bucky suggested.

“She did not,” Anna protested. 

“No, I didn’t! Mother said--”

“Are you sure?” 

Because really, Katherine was always doing things like that. Anna turned her horrified gaze on her sister. “You did not!” But of course, now Anna was worried that there was, in fact, an amphibian between her sheets.

“I didn’t!” Katherine protested, but Anna was hardly going to believe her now.

“The real question,” Tony mused thoughtfully, “is where it might be now. It could easily have hopped into the dressing room, or gotten lost under the nightstand, or--”

Anna’s eyes went round in horror, and she hesitated only a moment longer before dropping her pillow and fleeing.

“But I didn’t!” Katherine repeated, stamping her foot.

Both of his sisters were probably going to kill him later, but it seemed like a good trade. “Are you sure?”

“Maybe, as a gesture of goodwill,” Tony suggested, “you should go help her look.”

Katherine pouted, but picked up the discarded pillow and stomped off with it.

The instant she’d rounded the corner, Tony slumped against Bucky’s side. “That was close.”

“I am so sorry,” Bucky said, easing them back toward the bench so Bucky could sit. He didn’t know about Tony, but his legs were shaking and standing up had been harder than it should have been. 

“You couldn’t have known what they’d do,” Tony said, sitting beside him. He leaned down to retrieve their forgotten and now-ruined lunches.

Bucky put his hand on Tony’s back and rubbed a small circle, soothing Tony. Soothing himself. He was a mess of jumbled feelings; frustration, desire, embarrassment, shame. “Are… are you all right?”

“Of course. A little jittery.” Tony cocked his head. “Are you?

He took a breath, studied Tony’s expression. He didn’t look angry or particularly upset. Not that there was anything normal about their situation, but it wasn’t going to merit a full scale fainting fit. Which was good. Bucky decided to let it pass without further apology. He wasn’t sorry he’d tried to seduce his fiancé. He was more than a bit sorry that he hadn’t yet succeeded. And adding in that they’d both probably be too jumpy to try again for a while. 

“We’re good,” Bucky said, slipping his arm around Tony’s waist and bringing him in to kiss the top of his head. “But I may have to go find an amphibian, so Anna stops looking for an imaginary one.”

Tony nestled against his side for a moment. “I’ll help,” he offered. “Though where you’re going to find a frog when it’s this cold outside, I’ve no notion.”

“We’re in the richest city known to man,” Bucky said. “And there are quite any number of rich people who collect ridiculous things. I knew a man with every sort of tulip imaginable. We can find a frog, if I’m willing to pay enough money for it.”

He laughed, leaned against Tony, and just… was.

I think I might love you.



Chapter Text

Tony stood in the center of the smithy and turned around slowly, marveling. It was perfect, aside from having lain unused for far too long. There was even already a decent stock of materials on hand, though for Tony’s particular projects, there were other items he’d need to order.

And Bucky had waved him in with an easy gesture, promising anything and everything Tony needed. Or wanted.

Thinking of Bucky made something warm flutter behind Tony’s ribcage. How had he gone from fear to adoration so quickly? No one else had ever made Tony feel this way. Not even considering their interrupted tryst, which made Tony feel warm elsewhere, and eager for the next attempt, though by unspoken agreement, they’d limited themselves to an occasional stolen kiss for now.

It wasn’t only that Bucky was beautiful, though he was. He was kind and gentle, not only with Tony but with everyone. Even when he was exasperated with his sisters, he treated them well. He was funny -- Tony didn’t think he’d laughed so much at once since he’d been a small child. And generous to a fault.

Turning Bucky into a soldier had been a terrible injustice, really. He was so much more.

Tony wished he had anything to give Bucky, a gift to remind Bucky of Tony’s affections.

His eyes scanned the smithy workshop again, pieces sparking in his mind’s eye as he considered.

He could make something. Bucky had been interested in Tony’s sketches and ideas, and while he didn’t have the equipment yet for a large automaton, something small and delicate might be a welcome challenge.

Tony considered the available materials again, smiled to himself, and pulled a sheet of copper from its storage rack.

He was well into his work when there was a soft rap at the door, barely audible over working the metal, just enough that Tony looked up as Katherine pushed into the room. She was wearing a heavy canvas smock over her dress, probably to keep it from catching sparks. “Hello,” she said, almost shy. “Is it acceptable if I watch?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “You can even help a little, if you like.” He’d been half her age when he’d first started learning the craft. Though he rather hoped he wouldn’t be as demanding an instructor as his father had been.

“Everyone else is busy today,” she complained. “And my tutor is so cross with me, she told me not to come back until I’d proven I could spend ten minutes in a rational manner.”

Tony sputtered out a laugh. “And dare I ask what drove her to such an ultimatum?” He picked up a smallish sheet of tin and a pair of snips, and drew the shape he wanted on the metal. “Here, you can cut that out for me. Be careful, it’s harder than cutting cloth, and the snips are rather more dangerous.” She would likely botch it, but it wasn’t a piece that needed to be exact, and if it was terribly botched, well, there was more tin.

“I was wondering how insects communicate with each other,” she said, screwing her mouth up as she looked at the shape, and then the snips. She held the sheet carefully in one hand, and then took a practice cut, neatly removing one corner from the metal. “I mean, they must. You’ve never seen a poorly built beehive, have you? They’re all exactly right, perfect little hexagons. That can’t be an accident, can it?”

“I should think not,” Tony agreed. “Though it is likely not a subject that your tutor would have studied much. Perhaps she is merely cross because she finds it embarrassing to not be able to answer a question.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Adults are embarrassed so very easily. You must learn to be charitable toward us when we’re being so plainly irrational.”

“I think insects are very interesting,” she went on, making small motions with the snips, sometimes sticking her tongue out of the side of her mouth while she turned the sheet to keep the snips pointed in the same direction. “Did you know caterpillars don’t just grow wings? I kept a whole bunch of cocoons one time, and I cut them open, one and then a few days later, the next, so I could watch what they do. They actually break down entirely into little pods full of goop. My last tutor said I was disturbed and unladylike.”

“Well, for a certain definition of ladylike that includes what society matrons expect of young ladies, she may have been right,” Tony conceded, grinning. “However, as your brother’s the duke, I very much doubt such opinions will have much sway over your education. As witness: That tutor is gone, and here you are, still fascinated by insects.”

“Bucky says I can study whatever I please, as long as I study, that experts are made from enthusiasm, not exams,” she said. She made another cut and held the piece up. “It’s a little short on one side. I cut the inside of the line, not the outside.”

“That’s all right,” Tony said. “It will still do its job. Thank you. Would you like to do another, or do you think your tutor has calmed herself?”

“I’ll help,” she decided. “Until you get bored or annoyed with me and tell me to go away. Everyone does, eventually. Well, Bucky doesn’t. He just usually goes away instead. Do you think he’ll stay with us now, now that you’re here?”

“I certainly hope so,” Tony said. His heart ached for the child, so resigned to being chased off at such a young age. “I can’t promise to never ask you to leave,” he said carefully, “but I will promise that it won’t ever be because I’m bored of you. And I’ll try to explain the reason, if it does come to that.” He drew out another piece for her on the tin, slightly more complicated. “There’s your next task. That one, if you’re going to be imprecise, would be better cut a bit too small than too large.”

“I’ll be more careful,” she promised. “What are we making?”  

“You must promise you won’t tell your brother,” Tony cautioned. “It’s a gift for him, so he mustn’t find out until it’s done.” He pulled his sketch closer and turned it so she could see the little automaton model of the Red Star.

“Oh, it’s so weensy,” she exclaimed. “I love it! He’ll love it!” She picked up the sheet of tin again, screwing up her expression with determination.

“I certainly hope so,” Tony said. “He’s been very good to me. I’d like to do something nice for him in return.”

“I thought you were the something nice for him,” Katherine commented. “Like a puppy.”

Tony sputtered out a laugh, trying to suppress the heat rising up his face. “Maybe not quite like a puppy,” he said. “He’s something nice for me, too, so we’re squared on that account, I believe.”

“Well, that’s good,” Katherine said. “I’d hate it if you were mean to him. Some people are mean to their partners. One of my friends, her parents yell at each other all the time. It’s very uncomfortable. I’m hoping Bucky will let her come over sometimes, for dinner. We’re supposed to be very rich and important now.”

“Yes, that’s a bad situation to be in,” Tony agreed. “I’m sure Bucky will be happy for you to invite your friends over.”

“Goodie,” Katherine said. She made another snip and laid the piece down. “How do you make it all fit together? I know about sewing patterns, but I’ve never made my own, just copied the ones from the fashion plates.”

“Ah, well, that’s how to start,” Tony said. “Once you’ve copied enough of others’ patterns, you start to see how the pieces fit. A tutor can be helpful, there, to fill in things that aren’t so easily spotted. But you say, oh, these pieces fit together on those seams--” He laid out a row of tin shapes and began fitting the tiny rivets and screws. “--and you know that if you make shapes like that, then when you’re done, you have a skirt. Or, in this case, the belly of a boat.” He held it up for her inspection, and pointed to the bit of his drawing where it would, eventually, fit.

Katherine leaned over to inspect the drawing, then the pieces. “You’re very clever,” she said. “Do you think this counts as spending time in a rational manner?”

“I feel quite rational,” Tony said thoughtfully. “What your tutor will believe, however, I cannot guess.”

“Well, you can tell her I spent time with you, before dinner, when Mother wants a report on my progress,” Katherine said. “But I should go back. If I make her come find me, she’ll be really, really angry.”

“I will be sure to let your mother know you spent your time productively,” Tony agreed. “Come back tomorrow, if you have time; you’ve been a great help.”

Katherine leaned over and kissed Tony's cheek. "I'm glad you've come," she said.

Touched, Tony tousled her hair. “I’m glad to have come, myself,” he returned, and was only a little surprised to realize he meant it wholeheartedly.

"Remember, you have to put in a good word for me before dinner!" And she scampered out of the smithy.

Tony watched her go with a fond smile. He’d never had a sibling; was this what it was like? He could get used to this, he thought. He could have a good life, here.




Five days to the wedding. It was both amusing and disconcerting, how that had become the primary focus of Bucky’s life. The point in time against which he measured all the moments of his life. Would the rest of his life be forever divided into “Before Tony” and “After Tony”?

And still, with everything he had to do -- fittings and legal business, approving the menu and seeing the church, meeting the pastor, not to mention conducting business with Fury (and maybe asking Natasha to do some spying for him) -- he would have thought he would not have any empty periods in which he was merely looking out the window at the snow. 

Except that was exactly what he was doing.

Light footsteps warned him, so he wasn’t surprised when Tony’s hands fell on his shoulders. “Are you looking for something?”

"Just looking," Bucky said. "I don't get loads of time to just… be. But now you're here, I find being to be overrated and also, that I have an empty lap. Come sit down and tell me what's on your mind."

Tony hummed and did as Bucky asked, perching on Bucky’s lap and leaning against his chest, arm going warmly around his shoulders. “Flattery will get you... well, many places, no doubt.” Tony smiled and nuzzled Bucky’s temple. “I was looking for you. I have a gift for you.”

"Do you?" Bucky found Tony to be a good weight for sitting, just light enough not to be uncomfortable, but solid enough that Bucky didn't need to hold him steady. "I didn't get a gift for you."

“I didn’t expect you to. Would you like it?” He sounded excited, and maybe a touch apprehensive.

"You are a gift," Bucky said, very sincerely. "And I would love to see it. I mean, naturally there will be wedding gifts and the like for you, later. I wouldn't want you to think I'm ungenerous."

“Anything but,” Tony assured him, laughing. Tony’s breath puffed warm against Bucky’s face and Bucky was reluctant to go anywhere or do anything that wasn’t this, but then Tony was sliding off his lap and tugging lightly on his hand. “Come on.”

"Oh! Do I finally get to see this mysterious project you've been colluding on with my sister? The tutor came to complain about it." Really, that woman needed to be reminded that usefulness was in the eye of the beholder, and any man who could not see Katherine's worth because of a few harmless interests was not likely to fit into the family anyway.

“The tutor is jealous and embarrassed because she doesn’t know to keep Katherine occupied,” Tony said dismissively. “But yes, you will finally see it.” He smiled mysteriously as he opened the door to the workshop and waved Bucky in ahead of him.

Katherine was waiting beside a table, bouncing on her toes with excitement. On the table was a moderately large... something, covered with a drape that looked like it might have once been a rather elegant lady’s shawl.

Tony squeezed Bucky’s hand and then released it. “At your pleasure.”

"Is this what you're getting up to these days? Learning to tinker?" Bucky winked at his sister. 

"It's interesting! Tony's a good teacher!"

"I'm sure he is," Bucky said. Fast learner, too, and some of the things Bucky wanted to teach Tony… Bucky pulled his gutter mind out of the sewer and back to the matter at hand.

Gently, he folded back the scarf.

It looked like a birdcage, a wide, round one, that had half of its narrow bars removed. Attached to what was left was a tiny track that meandered up and down as it traveled around the inside of the cage. And hanging from the track was a tiny airship of tin and copper and bronze, not much larger than Bucky's fist, sailing merrily along the track. The little propeller at the back of the balloon spun around, and the boat swayed gently on the lines attaching it to the balloon, and a tiny rudder at the stern angled to and fro as the ship moved around the track. When Bucky leaned close to admire it, he realized words had been carved along its prow, naming it: the Red Star. There was a little window at the front of the main cabin, and through it he could see a tiny figure of wire holding the helm.

“I have plans for a scene at the bottom,” Tony murmured, “but they will take more time to complete.”

"That's… astonishing," Bucky managed, so impressed he hardly had words for it.

"I made some bees," Katherine told him, displaying a handful of copper wire insects, "but they aren't really to scale."

"I certainly wouldn't want to fight a bee as big as a man," Bucky agreed.

“They’re quite excellent bees,” Tony said. “Perhaps your next project should be some flowers for them to perch on.”

“This is… this is really amazing,” Bucky said. He peered closer. “How’s-- what’s the mechanism?” It certainly wasn’t steam, either to propel the motor or to inflate the airship’s bladders, but something was moving it along the track, slow and steady.

Tony turned the cage to reveal a hand crank on the back. “This generates electricity, just enough to keep it moving for a few minutes.”

“I saw your sketches,” Bucky said, “back-- when you showed them to me. But there was nothing like this. It’s so… delicate. I’m… this is really just astonishing.” He didn’t know what else to say. “And you made the Star.”

“Well, I wanted it to be something I knew you’d love,” Tony said. “You really like it?”

“I do,” Bucky said. “Love y-- it, I love it, it’s incredible. I’ll be the envy of the entire fleet.”

Tony looked pleased, a happy flush spreading over his cheeks.

“Told you!” Katherine crowed, dancing around.

“It’s beautiful,” Bucky said, because it was, but he was also looking straight at Tony when he said it. Honestly, he needed to get a grip. It wasn’t fashionable at all to be in love with one’s spouse. And even if Bucky couldn’t help that part, he didn’t need to make calf-eyes at Tony all the time. 

The blush darkened a little as Tony met Bucky’s gaze. “I’m glad you like it. I wanted to... do something to please you.”

“Well, it does,” Bucky said. “We shall put it up for display at the wedding breakfast and let everyone admire your work.”

Tony smiled, and reached up to kiss Bucky’s cheek. “I’m glad.”

“Yuck,” Katherine declared. “Kissing.”

Bucky gave his sister a dark look. “One day--” and then, since she was already sticking her tongue out in disgust, decided he might as well push the issue. He looped his hand around Tony’s waist, and leaned in for a much deeper, more serious kiss.

“Oh!” Tony wound his arms around Bucky’s neck and surrendered, leaning into Bucky’s chest. Behind them, Katherine made exaggerated gagging sounds.

It was more than a little difficult to maintain a passionate kiss when they were both trying to suppress laughter, and Bucky found himself grinning against Tony’s mouth, slightly wet, sloppy, and more than a little ridiculous. But Tony was in his embrace, and it was still brilliant and perfect and if Katherine had not been around, it might have gotten out of hand almost immediately. 

“There,” he said, helping to steady Tony. “Adequate repayment for your efforts?”

“No!” Katherine wailed. “I had effort, too!”

Tony laughed into Bucky’s neck, then pulled away to extend a hand to Katherine. “I shall pay you with an extra dessert at dinner, how’s that?”

“That’s acceptable,” she declared.

Bucky just shook his head, watching as his sister was wrapped right around Tony's finger.

Right next to me, Bucky decided. He couldn’t think of anything that he wouldn’t do for his husband-to-be.


Chapter Text

Somehow, it didn’t really seem real. Tony was sitting in his dressing room, the wedding suit laid out for him on one of the benches. There was an enormous three-paned mirror in the room, and with the added one overtop the vanity, Tony could see himself from every angle. Could see himself no matter which direction he looked.

It was a little unnerving and part of the reason why he was still in his undergarments and bathrobe, his hair long since dried from the morning bath.

He took a breath and tried again, untying his bathrobe. But as soon as the cool air skated across his skin, he shivered and pulled it back on. Nope, not ready. Not... quite.

He looked at the shirt, ran his fingers down the fine weave. It would be a pleasure to wear, as soon as he could make himself put it on.

A soft rap echoed against his door. The knob turned. “Tony?” Not any of the voices he’d been expecting. Not a servant, or Happy, the valet-slash-driver, not Bucky.  But Rebecca Proctor, Bucky’s sister. “Do you have a few minutes?”

“Of course,” he said, pulling the robe a little tighter and sitting up, waving her to a chair. “A few, anyway, before I’m in danger of being late.”

“I think they’ll wait,” she said, sitting down and fluffing out her dress to lay neatly over her knees. “For you. It’s sort of all about you, isn’t it? That’s what they kept telling me when I was waiting, just like this, for someone to tell me it was time to stand in front of the priest and become Mrs. Proctor. My mother came in, and I thought it was time to go, but she wanted to talk to me about-- my duties as a married woman. And this morning, when I was having my breakfast, it occurred to me that you’re all alone here. No mother, no father. No aunts and uncles or cousins. That no one was going to come talk to you. Unless I did.”

Tony stared at her for a moment, uncomprehending, and then all of a sudden realized what she was talking about. Oh god. Oh, god. “You-- It’s okay, you don’t really need to. I’m sure Bucky will...” He couldn’t quite finish that sentence, heat flaring up his neck and across his cheeks.

“Probably, he will,” she said, taking one of his hands and patting it like she might do to a nervous child. “Yet, it can be very-- nerve-wracking, not to know what’s expected of you. And he may be gentle, but he may also be very eager and forget that you are not-- used to being with someone else. I thought I was going to straight up die when Richard told me to undress. That he didn’t know what to do with all my buttons and laces, and he was afraid he was going to ruin my dress, so I needed to do it. And then he just sat there, and watched me. I’d never been undressed in front of anyone but my sisters, before that.”

Tony couldn’t help but imagine being in such a position, Bucky sitting back with a hot, covetous gaze as Tony untied his cravat and unbuttoned his shirt... That blush was not going away anytime soon. “I... don’t think Bucky will be able to claim the same excuse,” he offered.

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” she said. “But you should know what-- what to expect. I know, this is dreadful for you, right? Here I am, James’ sister, and soon to be your sister. Yet-- I would much rather have this, now, where we’re both somewhat mortified, than for you to wake up tomorrow and wish you’d never taken this step. To feel regret or anger or sadness about what happens tonight. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

Tony very much doubted he would regret his wedding night, not if their almost-tryst a few days ago was any indication, or the sweet, searing kisses they’d exchanged in the days since. The dark, wanting look that Bucky gave him sometimes filled him with excitement, not fear.

But it was so very kind of Rebecca to think of it, to want to ensure he was prepared. And he was... not frightened, but perhaps a touch nervous. It was nice to have someone here with him in these final moments, to keep him from staring at himself in the mirror. “Thank you,” he said gratefully, squeezing her hand. “You’re so kind, all of you. I’m... I couldn’t be happier, knowing I will soon be part of this family.”

“We’re glad to have you,” Rebecca said. “It’s good to see James-- alive again. His letters, after the accident? Well, we were very worried about him. And it’s such a lot to put on you, but I think you can hold it. I think my brother has a very good partner.” She patted his hand again, and then, “Oh, here.” 

She took a small vial out of her pocket and gave it to him. “The only piece of advice that matters. You cannot possibly use too much.”

He turned it over in his hand, frowning at it. It looked like it was filled with oil of some sort. “What...” An image popped into his head, a gear turning, driving a piston, and he covered his mouth with his hand. “Oh god.”

“Hopefully you’ll be saying that later in a slightly different tone of voice,” Rebecca said. 

“Oh god.” Tony set the little bottle on his dressing table before he could fumble it and drop it. “I am going to be blushing for the entire rest of the day.”

“That’s supposed to be a good look for a spouse,” Rebecca teased. “He should not want to hurt you, so make sure you tell him if it’s making you uncomfortable. Try and relax, if you can. And enjoy it. It can be many things, but love should always, always be enjoyable.”

“I’m. I’m sure it will be,” Tony said faintly. Bucky would make sure of that, he was certain.

“And one, last piece of advice, before I go, and you get dressed,” Rebecca said. “Wash up before you go to sleep. Believe me, you do not want to just wake up like that in the morning, it’s very uncomfortable.”

Tony had taken himself in hand a few times -- several times in the last week, in fact, the more he and Bucky had danced around each other, trading kisses and teasing touches -- and was already familiar with that necessity. “I’ll... bear it in mind,” he managed, wholly unable to look his soon-to-be sister-in-law in the eye.

“Well, I’ll get out of your way,” Rebecca said. “Everything will be fine. Don’t worry.”

“I won’t,” Tony promised, and as he showed her to the door, he realized he wasn’t worried, even a bit. He was going to marry a kind, beautiful, amazing man, and join a loving family, and his life would be wonderful. He grinned at her. “Thank you,” he said again. “I’ll see you in a little while.”

“You’ll be the one in white, I know,” Rebecca said, winking at him. “By the way, brother. You can call me Becca.”

On impulse, Tony leaned forward to kiss her cheek. “Becca,” he repeated dutifully. “Go reassure Bucky I haven’t snuck out the window or something ridiculous.”

He closed the door on her laugh and turned to face the waiting clothes. He was ready to dress.

 


 

Bucky often found himself torn between wanting to hug his sisters so tight that they couldn’t breathe, and simultaneously wanting to find a balcony to pitch them from.

Waiting at the altar with the priest for everyone to decide that Tony was ready to make his appearance, he was filled with the first desire. Katherine had been given the job of flower girl, usually a task for a much younger relation, but she’d gotten it into her head that throwing flower petals around was a job uniquely crafted for her, and she’d not taken no for an answer.

She’d liberated a basket from somewhere and adorned it with the wire bees she’d made under Tony’s supervision, and then filled it with flower petals from blossoms that specifically attracted bees.

Bucky was thinking it was a good thing he was marrying in the winter, where they were in utterly no danger of being attacked by rogue swarms. 

“So?” 

Katherine had skipped back and forth from Tony’s entrance room to the front of the church at least six times, and each time, Bucky felt his heart rate going up. Soon you’d be able to power one of Tony’s automatons from it.

“Not just yet,” she said, then squeaked as someone waved at her from the room. “Well, maybe now.” She darted back to the room, stuck her head in the door. Then she snapped her fingers at the organist. “Play!”

There was a light smatter of chuckles from those who’d heard her, but the organ began its strains.

Anna and Emily came in together, both of them looking entirely too grown up and beautiful in their new finery. They took stately, measured paces down the aisle, but when Bucky caught her eye, Anna winked at him.

“You’re next,” he told her in an undertone, and then lost focus, squinting down toward the room. Becca had, in fact, reassured him that Tony hadn’t bolted for the hills, which, truly, any sane person would do when faced with the bear that Bucky could be in the mornings.

Katherine followed, dropping handfuls of fresh petals and trying (if not entirely succeeding) to walk with grace and poise. She gave up on it a few rows from the front and skipped to Bucky’s side. “Wait ‘til you see!” she whispered, gleeful.

“I am waiting,” Bucky said, “very patiently.”

“Yes, we’ve seen how patient you are,” Emily said. “You’re so patient you’re about ready to rush to the back of the room and carry him out here yourself.”

Bucky was about to retort with something dignified and scathing, but then Tony appeared in the doorway and every other thought fled.

He was beautiful, even moreso than usual, which Bucky would have sworn was impossible. The creamy white brocade of his suit made him look slender and fey, the pale shade broken only by a sash under his jacket of red and silver. There was just the slightest curve of a smile to his mouth, his cheeks were lightly flushed, and his eyes were wide and luminous, fixed entirely on Bucky.

Watching Tony walk up the aisle, his step slow and in time with ancient music, an ode to joy, was the longest and shortest period of Bucky’s entire life. As if everything he’d been through, all the death and the war and the mud and the blood had been payment for a future with Tony. A future that they would make together.

It had absolutely been worth it. 

Bucky reached out his hand as Tony got closer, waiting for him to take it, so they could declare before God, and these witnesses, everything that was in Bucky’s heart, everything he wanted to give to his husband.

“You look incredible,” he told Tony, as their fingers met. “Better than any dream.”

Tony squeezed Bucky’s hand. “This is all better than a dream,” he said. “I could never have dreamed someone like you.” His eyes shone and shimmered as he looked at Bucky, only Bucky, for a long moment before turning to face the priest, Bucky’s hand still in his.

Religious ceremonies were never short. Or interesting. It didn’t matter. He was standing with Tony, and whatever was said, it really didn’t matter. Just the important parts. To have and to hold, to cherish, love, honor and obey, to care for and trust, for richer, poorer, better and worse. Together.

Always.

“In front of God, and these persons present, I, James Buchanan Barnes, take you, Anthony Edward Stark, to be my lawfully wedded husband.”

“In front of God, and these witnesses, I, Anthony Edward Stark, take you, James Buchanan Barnes, to be my lawfully wedded husband.” Tony hesitated, met Bucky’s eyes, and repeated it -- in Ussuran.

Could he get any sexier? Bucky didn’t think so.

Somewhere, behind him, the priest gave Bucky permission, but he couldn’t even care. Right at that instant, God himself could not keep him from kissing Tony.

I think I love you.

He might even have whispered it, right before he tipped his head and took possession of Tony’s mouth.

It probably was not proper to kiss Tony as deeply and as thoroughly as he did.

He did it anyway.

Tony didn’t seem to mind, and everyone else could go hang. When Bucky finally drew back, Tony was panting for breath and clinging to the lapels of Bucky’s jacket. He was flushed and looked delightfully tousled, and he was smiling up at Bucky as if he was the one who’d just had his wildest dreams come true.

“Now we just have to get through the reception,” Bucky told him as the pastor introduced them as Duke and Lord Barnes. “Hmph. Might have to do something about that. I like Stark better.”

Tony tucked his arm through Bucky’s. “The company will retain the Stark name,” he murmured, “but so long as you call me yours, I haven’t a care as to my own name.”

“Absolutely,” Bucky swore. “Husband.”

 


 

The sled was ready for them as soon as they exited the church. The horses were all decked out with harnesses of flowers -- the front horse had, in fact, eaten most of hers, tipping her head around to try to catch the last of them. 

“Come, into the sled, and everyone will drink a toast to us,” Bucky said. “And then, I must kiss you until they stop cheering. Sometimes it can take a while. I knew one couple who was here for a good half-hour at least.”

“What a dreadful prospect,” Tony said drily, letting Bucky hand him into the sled. His stomach clenched and something in his chest startled a swarm of butterflies into sight, which was ridiculous. He settled on the seat and draped the blanket over his lap, holding it up so Bucky could slide under it as well.

Several people in white coats ran around distributing glasses of champagne, and the first toast was made; Steve Rogers, who was Bucky’s oldest friend, stood at the front of the crowd, speaking first in Ussuran, and then translating it, probably for Tony’s benefit, since he might well be the only person in a mile that didn’t speak Ussuran. That was nice. But it was hard to concentrate on the words, even as the crowd laughed, clapped, and cheered.

Finally Steve concluded by raising his glass, draining it to the dregs, which started the rest of the crowd cheering and chanting. “Bitter, bitter, bitter--”

“The champagne,” Bucky explained, and then leaned in to claim the promised kiss.

Tony wrapped his arms around Bucky’s shoulders, letting himself melt into the feel of Bucky’s mouth on his, that wickedly sweet flicker of Bucky’s tongue against Tony’s lips. It was hard to ignore the cheering of the crowd, but after a moment or two, it faded into the background and nothing else mattered in the world aside from the two of them.

The tip of Tony’s nose was cold, and his ears, and his cheeks, by the time they finally died down. Bucky took a shuddering breath and sat back. “Well, then,” he said. “Let’s be off, then. Quick ride around the city, and then back to our palace for the feast. It’s tradition to see some of the sights. In this case, a tradition that works well for you. A young Ussuran these days has seen many of them, but in the older days, young eligibles were kept home until they wed, so being married gives you the first chance to see all the sights. And I already paid your ransom, so that tradition is met as well.”

Tony laughed, snuggling close to Bucky as the horses took off. “What other traditions lie in wait?” he wondered.

“Several days worth of partying,” Bucky said. “We will start with a grand feast tonight, and every single guest room will be filled. Everyone will drink to our health, and put a sizable dent in our larder. We only need to come out of our rooms when we’re hungry, and people will comment on how early or late we get up. Some say it is a sign of vigor if you are out again before morning because I have drained your strength, and some say it is a sign of devotion, if you’re not seen for a few days.”

Tony could feel his cheeks heating, but he had to admit he was looking forward to sharing one of those enormous beds with his husband. “What will they say if we simply demand trays and don’t emerge at all?” he wondered.

“I don’t know,” Bucky said, tucking another blanket around Tony. “I’ll be in bed with you and not listening.”

Tony shivered a little. “Maybe we’ll ask your sister, when all the guests have gone again.” He flashed Bucky a smile. “Aren’t you supposed to be showing me the sights?”

Bucky laughed. “You are the sight.” Then he huffed an exaggerated sigh, very much overly put upon. “If you look out the left side, you will see the Bolshoi Theater-- and of course, half the crew of the Star, who’ve run ahead like hooligans.”

Tony waved at the crew, laughing at their antics. “They’re lovely,” he protested as they passed, twisting on the seat to keep waving.

The sled drove them in a wide loop; sometimes they just drove by so that Tony could admire the pretty buildings and the quaint streets, and sometimes they stopped to have a closer look. A war memorial, an enormous indoor shopping center, a museum, the summer home of the Tzar. And at each stop, at least some of the wedding group had managed to gather there. 

The third time it happened, Tony asked, “Is the route traditional, too, that they know where to go and how to get ahead of us?”

“It’s supposed to be a coincidence. Or proof that our friends are loyal and are running to all the interesting places. But it has long since been one of those traditions to bribe the driver into spilling his plans.”

“It’s fun,” Tony said, and meant it, even if his fingers and nose were in danger of freezing off. On the other hand, he was looking forward to more private celebrations later.

At one marketplace, they stopped for a few minutes and some of the shopkeepers came out to offer a small selection of wares from a tray. “Pick a few things,” Bucky said. “They’re gifts, meant to influence the newly married couple to come back and patronize the shop in full.”

They were small items, nothing particularly valuable or rare. A few tea towels, a matryoshka doll, some ornate buttons, a silver spoon and a tea cup. 

Tony thanked the shopkeepers as best he could in the few Ussuran words he’d coaxed from Katherine as they’d worked together. He was hard pressed to decide whether they were laughing at his appalling accent or charmed that he was learning the language. He tucked each little gift carefully into the sled so they wouldn’t be lost.

Finally, the sled pulled in front of the palace, and the driver helped them both out. Those few guests they hadn’t seen on the tour were waiting to welcome them inside, where the fires were warm and the smell of good food filled the air. Someone -- more likely many someones -- was playing music from one of the larger parlors for dancing, later on.

“If you are hungry, best to come sit to a plate now,” Bucky said. “Everyone will be wanting to talk with you for the party, and truly, I’ve never seen a groom get more than a few bites in between chatting and well-wishers. As I’m one of the newer nobles, well, everyone who could wrangle an invitation is here, to show some sort of support in hopes I’ll support them, later.”

“Sound advice,” Tony conceded. He wasn’t sure if he was actually hungry, though. “Have you been to very many weddings?”

“Quite a lot,” Bucky admitted. “It’s a good way to eat in the winter if you’re poor, and the larger the wedding party is, the more prestige for the couple. Kind of a double victory.”

Tony hadn’t thought of it that way. He’d never been poor. The feast laid out before them was tempting, despite the butterflies still performing acrobatics in Tony’s stomach. Maybe he should have at least a little something. It wouldn’t do to faint during the consummation, after all. He stifled a giggle and made his way to the tables, Bucky at his shoulder.

Bucky wasn’t wrong, either. Tony had barely gotten a plate of food and taken a seat near the head table when people started coming up to introduce themselves, shake Tony’s hand, and make a few remarks. Bucky translated when necessary, but many of the guests seemed to make the effort to speak Avalon, even if their accents were terrible and the articles missing entirely.

Tony quickly learned to shovel a bite of food in his mouth while the well-wishers were speaking to Bucky and to swallow quickly so he would be ready for the next group. Finally, there was a slightly lull as people began drifting toward the dance floor.

“What’s next?” Tony asked. “How long does this go on?”

Bucky did a quick scan of the room. “We should greet everyone, if we can,” he said, “and my mother will signal the musicians when we’re ready to take our first dance. After, we can have some cakes, and then another round of toasts. Those will go on for as long as anyone can stand up and drink. From there, as soon as you’d like to go upstairs, we can.”

“So pretty much immediately, then,” Tony summed up with a wink that was only a little more confident than he actually felt.

“If you wish,” Bucky said, putting his hand on Tony’s knee.

Tony pushed away thoughts of that little vial of oil on his dresser upstairs and stubbornly ignored the heat climbing his neck. He brushed his fingers down Bucky’s cheek. “Everything I want is right here, with you.”

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson staggered into the dining room, then, sweaty and breathing hard and laughing. “Thanks for the run,” Sam said.

“Oh, if you want to call that a run,” Steve returned, then, “Bucky! Tony! We raced all the way to the palace and back while you were taking your tour.”

“You guys like running a lot more than I do,” Tony said, laughing. “Who won?”

“Steve,” Sam grumbled. “He runs like someone’s chasing him.”

“Someone was,” Steve said. “You.”

“Have a drink, sit down, eat something,” Bucky told them. “We’ll pretend you were everything polite and gracious when you came to speak. But for now, I’m going to take my husband to dance.”

Tony took Bucky’s offered hand and followed him to the dance floor. “If there is a traditional Ussuran dance, you should know that I haven’t learned it.” He was only half-teasing; he had no idea what sort of dance they would be doing. They’d never danced together before.

“It’s a modified waltz,” Bucky said, making a face. “Out of courtesy to my injury. I could not hope to dance as Ussurans do. But maybe a few others will put on a show for us, later. Right now, I want only to hold you and listen to our hearts.”

Tony’s heart thumped at the thought; nothing sounded sweeter. “That... I can do that. I’d like that.” 

“It would be nice, sometimes, I think, to have two arms to hold you with,” Bucky said. “But we will make do, won’t we, my husband?”

“We will,” Tony agreed. “Husband.” He turned as they reached the center of the floor and put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder.

The room grew quiet and then the music swelled, and Bucky took his hand and led him into a waltz, never looking away, moving as the music dictated, in time with the beating of Tony’s heart. 

 

Chapter Text

Despite the fact that the party was still going strong -- the ones with steel livers were still drinking, but a great many guests were asleep or drousing in odd corners -- Bucky managed to sneak them out of the downstairs without anyone being terribly aware.

The guests of honor, it seemed, had been forgotten in the contest to drink heavily, dance wildly, and cheer excessively.

And Bucky took them through the dining room and up the secret passage, which probably helped.

Tony pushed through the door into his room, Bucky close at his back, and stopped three steps in, confronted by the stark reality of that wide bed. And however much he’d been looking forward to this, trying to imagine it, he was suddenly... somewhat overwhelmed.

He just sat there and watched me, Becca had said.

What... was he supposed to do, now?

“Your room is slightly less terrifying than my own,” Bucky said, looking up. “I keep worrying that the canopy decor on my bed’s going to crash on my head at night.”

Tony couldn’t help glancing up at the canopy of his bed. “That would be... worrisome,” he admitted. He felt like an idiot, just standing there, in the middle of the room, trying to figure out what his hands were supposed to be doing.

“I keep thinking you can’t get more beautiful, and then you do,” Bucky said, standing behind him and wrapping one arm around Tony’s chest, encouraging him to lean back a little. “Soon enough, I’ll go blind from your brilliance and you’ll have to lead me around the house so I don’t get lost.”

Tony laughed, just a little. “Well, we can’t have that,” he said. “Perhaps I should start wearing one of those hideous vests with the colored stripes.”

“Wouldn’t help,” Bucky said, and he nuzzled at Tony’s ear. “You’re too pretty even for bad fashion.”

“I think you may be biased,” Tony murmured. He tipped his head back, encouraging Bucky to nip at his earlobe, the curve of his throat. This much, they’d done before. He knew how to do this. And any minute, Bucky would... Well, Tony didn’t entirely know, did he?

“Not biased,” Bucky protested. He ran his hand down the front of Tony’s suit, pushing the jacket off his shoulders and letting it fall to the floor. “Proud. I have the most beautiful husband in all of Ussura, and I will spend the next few years at least boring everyone to tears talking about it. I’ll get a miniature of you painted and make the Tzar look at it. People will find me insufferable.”

Tony couldn’t help another laugh. “You are ridiculous,” he said. He turned to face Bucky, tipped his chin to catch Bucky’s mouth in a kiss.

“Frequently,” Bucky said, giving Tony’s mouth, cheek, chin, and jaw a series of soft, nuzzling kisses. “Here, don’t step on your jacket.” He bent over and scooped it up, tossing it onto one the chairs in Tony’s sitting area. “You’ll have to help me with mine, these wretched buttons--”

“Oh. Yes, of course.” Tony smoothed his hands down Bucky’s lapels and went to work on the jacket buttons. When he’d opened the jacket, there was the waistcoat in front of him, too. He hooked a finger in the deep vee of the material and glanced at Bucky. “This, too?”

“This does work better without clothes,” Bucky teased. “I mean, there’s a certain charm to bending over the sink in a kitchen, but for the first time, I think we should both be able to see what we’re doing, yes? Especially--” He waved his stump a little to illustrate his point. “I haven’t touched anyone since this happened.”

“You haven’t?” It seemed a long time. Tony shook his head and began unfastening the waistcoat, as well. It helped ease his mind to have a task, however simple. To do one thing, and then the next, without having to dwell on the final destination, as it were.

That done, he carefully untied Bucky’s cravat and slipped it off. The shirt would be next, he supposed, but his fingers were suddenly shy.

Bucky took his hand, placed a kiss directly in the center of Tony’s palm. His tongue flicked out, teasing at the sensitive skin, and then he kissed each fingertip. Went back and sucked Tony’s index finger into his mouth. Warm, slick heat enclosed Tony’s finger and Bucky’s tongue moved, smooth and slippery, against it.

Tony’s breath caught, and he couldn’t look away. “Bucky...”

Bucky gazed at him, mouth a perfect circle as he slid Tony’s finger out of his mouth. Just at the very tip, he nipped, not hard, just enough to send a zing of heat right down Tony’s spine. “Yes, darling?” And it seemed more like asking permission than answering the call of his name.

“I, I don’t know what...” He swallowed. Bucky wouldn’t hurt him, wouldn’t mock him. “What do I do?”

“Well, you don’t really have to do anything, if you don’t want to,” Bucky said. “But I can see that idea doesn’t hold as much appeal for you as it once did. So-- it really does help if we’re both undressed, or mostly so.” His face went a little pale and his hand went, almost involuntarily, to the stump of his shoulder before dropping. “No one’s seen that who wasn’t a doctor. I-- if you don’t want to see, I can leave my shirt on.”

It helped, oddly, that Bucky was uncertain about something, as well. Tony lifted his chin. “I want all of you,” he said, and resolutely reached for the buttons of Bucky’s shirt.

“Every bit,” Bucky promised. He tried to move his chin out of Tony’s way, which was complicated by the fact that he kept trying to look at Tony at the same time. Finally, the shirt was clear, and Bucky was bare-chested. His stump ended abruptly about halfway down his bicep and the end was scared and shiny. “It’s ugly, I know. They had to pitch me, to stop the bleeding.” He touched Tony’s cheek, and then kissed Tony again, very softly.

Tony returned the kiss, giving it a little heat. “Does it hurt? Should I avoid it?”

“Sometimes it hurts,” Bucky said. “But not like you mean. I can’t…” He took Tony’s hand and placed it over the scar. “I can’t feel you there. If you move your hand, there’s some pressure.”

That was... well, not good, but at least it meant Tony wouldn’t accidentally nudge Bucky’s arm and hurt him. He smoothed his fingers over the too-smooth skin, sliding carefully over the rounded end, and then upward toward Bucky’s shoulder.

There was a noticeable difference, as soon as Tony’s fingers crossed some invisible border. Bucky sucked air, his skin rippled into goose flesh, and the brown, flat nipples on his chest went smaller and tighter. “Oh!” His eyes were wide, and the pupils huge, almost obscuring that silver-blue.

Tony glanced up at Bucky’s face and smiled at how shocked Bucky looked. “I guess you can feel that, then.” He kept going, over the curve of Bucky’s shoulder and then along the delicate edge of the collarbone.

“Yeah,” Bucky huffed air more than said. He stood there, almost unmoving, letting Tony explore and touch and look, trembling minutely. He put his hand on Tony’s hip, as if to keep his balance. 

Tony’s hand slid downward, over the firm muscle of Bucky’s chest. Skirted the nipple, felt his way down Bucky’s ribs, the curiously soft skin over the ridges of bone, and then across Bucky’s stomach. He checked Bucky’s expression, but it was still wide-eyed, lips parted as Bucky drew slow, steady breaths. Tony’s fingers paused over the waist of Bucky’s trousers. “...Shall I?”

“Probably boots first, else this becomes a farce,” Bucky said, seeming to gather the few of his scattered wits. “And,” his fingers toyed with Tony’s button. “I should like to see you, as well.”

Tony’s breath suddenly seemed very still in his lungs. It wasn’t a surprise, and yet... “Yes,” he said. He took half a step back and began working on his own buttons, hands clumsy and trembling. “There’s a bootjack,” he said, feeling foolish. “In the dressing room.”

“Tony--” Bucky’s hand caught his wrist. “You-- if you’re not ready. I know, we’ve not even known each other a month now. There’s. There’s no hurry. Even if you wish it, but not tonight. The party will go on all week before you’re at any risk of having someone claim unconsummated. And I would-- I would never-- want you to do anything you don’t care for.”

“I want it,” Tony protested. “I want you. I do. I’m just a little. Out of my depth.”

“All right,” Bucky said. “Let me get my boots off, and I’ll lay you down on the bed and show you something very nice, until you forget to be nervous.”

Tony reached up, curling his fingers into Bucky’s hair, and pulled Bucky in for a kiss, letting some of his jittery energy bleed out into the warmth of Bucky’s mouth. “I like the sound of that.”

When Bucky turned away to deal with his boots, Tony went back to work on his shirt, and now it was easier, somewhat, without the heat and weight of Bucky’s gaze. He’d managed to bare his chest and wrench off his own boots by the time Bucky returned.

Bucky stopped dead, just staring until Tony was flushed hot and looking away. “Sorry,” Bucky said. “I really can’t help it. Do you not know how-- everything-- you are.”

“I suppose not. You don’t have to be sorry.” Tony was still blushing, but he reached for Bucky’s hand. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the way you look at me, but it’s not... bad.”

“No, not bad,” Bucky said. “Go on, lay down, get comfy.” Bucky loosened the buttons on his trousers so they were barely hanging off his hips, but not yet pushing them down.

Tony climbed onto the bed and stretched out, head craned to watch Bucky. He had to giggle at a sudden memory. “Very different from the last time we shared a bed.”

“Quite,” Bucky said, and then he was all but prowling over Tony, like a big, hungry cat, his eyes gleaming. Before Tony even realized what Bucky planned to do, he lowered his head and licked across Tony’s chest, from his ribcage up, until his tongue brushed over Tony’s nipple.

“Oh!” Tony gasped as sparks of sensation jolted through him, and his chest arched almost as if of its own accord, chasing the feeling as Bucky drew away.

Bucky smiled, slow, sensual. Smug.

And did it again, licking at that tender skin until it ached, and then blew cooler air over it, making Tony’s skin prickle.

“Bucky!” Tony’s hands wound into Bucky’s hair, dragged restlessly over Bucky’s scalp, down Bucky’s shoulders. “Oh, God, Bucky...” That ache seemed to pull at something deep in Tony’s groin, until his cock was full and pressing impatiently against Tony’s trousers.

“Yeah?” Bucky licked his way down Tony’s chest until he was nuzzling at the skin just over the waistband of Tony’s trousers. “Want to see what else I can do with my mouth?”

Tony felt sure his eyes were as round as dinner plates. “That’s-- That day in the greenhouse, you said...”

“Mmmhmm,” Bucky said, his fingers trailing softly up Tony’s leg. “I never did get a chance…”

Tony swallowed hard and nodded. “Yes,” he said breathlessly. “Show me.”

“You’ll have to help me, here,” Bucky said, opening the buttons. “Lift up.”

Tony lifted his hips, and let out a groan of relief as his cock was freed. The nervousness wasn’t quite gone, but the curiosity, the excitement, had overmatched it. A few more tugs, and he was entirely naked, laid out for his husband to see in every detail.

It almost seemed like Bucky didn’t bother to look, now that Tony was bared to him, but instead leaned in and kissed him, hard and thorough, tongue delving into Tony’s mouth, tasting him. Each pass of Bucky’s lip, each sweep of his tongue drove Tony more and more crazy until he was panting into Bucky’s mouth, moaning wantonly.

Which was when Bucky’s hand traced down Tony’s body. From shoulder to arm, down to his fingers, then to his hip. There he paused to look at Tony’s face.

When his hand brushed, palm only, against the length of Tony’s cock, Bucky was still gazing at Tony’s face. Reassuring him, maybe, or just wanting to see the expression when Tony reacted to what his husband was doing.

“There you are,” Bucky said, soft, his hand feather-light over Tony’s cock, brushing from base to crown and back.

That barely-there touch sent fire flooding through Tony’s veins, making him arch into it, a soft whine escaping his throat. “Bucky, oh God, please,” he begged. He still didn’t know what Bucky would want, what he should do, but whatever it was, he wanted it now.

Bucky laughed, low and somehow wicked. "Don't go anywhere," he said, and before Tony could ask where, precisely, Bucky thought he might consider going, Bucky slithered down the bed and ended up cradled between Tony's thighs. He was eye level with Tony's groin. Tipped his head, and then licked up the length, ending with a flick of the tongue over the head on Tony's cock.

Tony nearly jumped out of his own skin. He’d known -- or at least suspected -- what Bucky would do, after the things he’d said that one time in the greenhouse. He’d lost any number of hours since, when he should have been sleeping, trying to imagine it.

He couldn’t have imagined this. The heat of Bucky’s breath and the soft, slick slide of Bucky’s tongue against Tony’s most sensitive and vulnerable skin was like nothing, nothing he could have imagined. “Bucky! Oh, oh, oh-- That’s so good...” Good was a wholly inadequate word, but his thoughts refused to cooperate, to offer up anything like reason.

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed, nuzzling at him. “Try an’ hold still, yeah? Most of the time, breathin’ is a good thing.”

Without any more explanation than that, Bucky shifted again, and then took Tony’s dick into his mouth, sliding hot and wet over it, practically swallowing it whole. Tony could feel the faint suggestion of Bucky’s teeth, the way his whole mouth moved and squeezed as he worked it. His tongue wriggled, slippery and sensual. 

Hold still? How in God’s name was he supposed to hold still under that onslaught of sensation? He fisted his hands in the sheets, his whole body trembling with the effort. And still, his hips jerked a few times, almost as if of their own volition, before he got himself under control again, a desperate whimper curling out of him.

Bucky slid his head back and forth, bobbing up and down. Made a few moaning sounds that sent vibrations down Tony’s skin, settling like fire in the base of his cock. When Tony looked down, Bucky was looking back up at him, his face pink and hair messed, his mouth a perfect circle, stretched around Tony’s cock.

He winked, and a tear clumped in his lashes, sending his eyes sparkling, and when he smiled-- it was more like a stretch and sensation rather than an actual expression.

Tony reached out with one shaking hand to push his fingers through Bucky’s hair. “Darling,” he gasped, “Bucky, how-- It feels so good, I can’t...”

Bucky pulled off with a wet, obscene slurp. “You taste so good,” Bucky told him, his voice hoarse, breath ragged. “You-- I mean, I can… finish you off like that, if you want. Got all th’ time in the world to try everything you might like.”

Tony’s head fell back on the pillow as he panted to regain his breath. “What... What about what you like?” He was petting Bucky’s hair still, he realized, the smallest outlet for the energy building in him. “We’re... we’re partners now, right?”

“More’n partners,” Bucky said. He shifted a little to lay next to Tony, wiping at his spit-slicked chin. “I like you feelin’ good. Seeing you-- like that.” He gestured to Tony’s well-wrung state, wound so tight it felt a miracle that he could even breathe, much less talk coherently.

Tony turned on his side to look at Bucky. “It feels incredible,” he said. “I want... I want to know what else there is. I want you to feel just as incredible.”

“Just watching you trust me like this, I feel pretty incredible,” Bucky said. “But if you want-- I. I mean, you know how it’s supposed to go, right? The basic mechanics?” Bucky took Tony’s hand and folded his own around it, pushing Tony’s hand into a loose fist. He then licked his own finger, and slid it into Tony’s fist. “That’s you, an’ this is me. Like this.” He demonstrated a few times, wet finger penetrating against Tony’s fingers. 

Tony’s cheeks ached with blushing, but he nodded. “Yeah. I have-- Becca gave me some oil.”

“Yeah, that’ll help ease the way,” Bucky said. “You get that, I’ll--” He rolled over onto his back and worked his trousers off, kicking them off onto the floor.

Tony couldn’t help but look as he slid off the bed. Bucky’s cock was thicker than Tony’s, but not so large as to be daunting. It stood plump and firm, bouncing against Bucky’s stomach as Bucky kicked at his trousers. Tony wondered briefly what it would feel like in his hand, and then realized that he would have an answer to that, and sooner rather than later. Blush renewed, he scurried for his dressing table and the little bottle he’d left there.

“Trying to work out how to manage this,” Bucky admitted, biting his lip. “I’m all lopsided, and you’re still wet behind the ears, so to speak. I don’t want to squash you. Hmmm. Tell you what, let’s try this. You lay down, here, scoot all the way to the edge of the bed and hold your legs back, and I’ll stand up. That should get us lined up properly.”

Tony handed over the bottle and tried to position himself as Bucky directed, though it was a little awkward, and more than somewhat embarrassing to be lying there, half-folded over with his ass all but hanging off the bed, but the hot look in Bucky’s eyes suggested that Bucky didn’t find it awkward at all.

Bucky wrenched the cork out with his teeth and spit it in the general direction of the table. It didn’t quite make the mark, but Tony could probably find it later. He tipped it up and poured a drizzle of it over Tony’s cock, and then further, letting it slide down, chilly and slippery. “Hold this, if you will,” Bucky said, and when Tony took the bottle, Bucky put his hand there, gathering up the slippery stuff.

Maybe even better than Bucky’s mouth, his fingers coated in slick, rubbed around Tony’s cock, made a tight fist and let him thrust through it a few times, before moving his hand back, and down. “Here--” he said, pads of his fingers brushing over the opening to Tony’s body. 

Tony’s breath caught a little. “Yes,” he whispered. He kept his eyes on Bucky’s face, serious and focused. Bucky wouldn’t hurt him, would never hurt him. Tony drew a deep lungful of air and let it out slowly. “I’m ready.”

Bucky circled that little hole, finger pushing against the rim. “You’re not,” Bucky told him, “but I’ll help you get there. Back-- back when I had two hands, I’d stroke you while I helped this part along, but I guess you’re gonna have to do that part.” A flicker of pain and frustration crossed Bucky’s face. “Go on, take yourself in hand, let me see you, can you do that for me?”

Somehow, that seemed almost more intimate than what Bucky was doing to Tony’s ass, but he pushed that aside and carefully took hold of himself, a slow stroke, testing. The oil there made the drag of his hand even better than usual, and he tipped his head back, letting his eyes fall closed to focus on the task. Slowly -- he wasn’t as tightly-wound as he had been a few minutes earlier, with Bucky’s mouth on him, but it wouldn’t take long, he suspected, to get back there.

“There,” Bucky said, and his finger slid inside Tony, invasive and strange, almost uncomfortable for a moment. Tony’s body clenched up without his permission, muscles protesting. Bucky stopped moving, his eyes hot and watchful as Tony’s hand slowed.

Tony fought against his own body, frustrated. If he couldn’t withstand even a finger’s intrusion, how would he accept a cock, so much thicker and longer? 

“It will work,” Bucky told him, as if he could read Tony’s mind. “But the first time, it’s slow. Your body has to become used to the sensation, the muscle will relax and let me in.” He twisted his finger inside Tony, which felt even stranger for a moment, and then almost unbearably arousing, the way it seemed to caress his entire rim at once.

“Oh, that’s-- I like that,” Tony breathed, and all of a sudden the finger didn’t feel so big, didn’t seem to be pressing so tightly. “Oh! I think it’s working.” His cock jumped in his grip and he suddenly remembered he was supposed to be stroking it. He dragged his hand down it again, and that sensation tangled with the movement of Bucky’s finger, and it was like a jolt of heat straight into his balls.

“That’s just right,” Bucky said, working his finger inside Tony’s body, thrusting and then twisting again, moving with Tony’s hips, the way his whole body went from fighting it to encouraging it. “It’ll be easier, the more often you do it, until your body aches for it when you don’t have it.” As if to demonstrate, Bucky pulled his finger out, which made Tony feel that ache, right away. “More oil? Want you nice and slick and ready for me.”

“Uh?” Tony had all but forgotten about the oil, clenched in his other hand. He reached it out. “How much?”

“Tip it-- there, that’s good.” Bucky swore and made a face as extra dripped off his fingers like rain and a trickle ran down his wrist. “Don’t worry. Too much is just enough.”

His hand was back on Tony, slicker. “Going to give you two now, get you stretched out. This-- might feel weird, let me know if it actually hurts, all right? Pain is not ideal for right now.”

“For right now?” Tony said, trying to make a joke of it, but then Bucky was pressing into him again and that was, that was very odd, no longer the steady pressure in all directions but a pull and a burn and an ache. “Oh hell,” he gasped, and his whole body tensed up again.

“I know, honey,” Bucky said, and his voice was tight. “Keep on, move your hand, I know it’s hard, but it helps. Wish I could do it for you, make you feel so good, that’s it, there-- up and down, slow, remember how it was with my mouth on you, how hot and wet that was? Gonna make you feel like that for me, if you still want it.”

Tony wasn’t sure it was possible, but Bucky’s voice in his ears was soothing and slowly, he relaxed into it a little, and then a little more. “That’s... that’s better,” he managed, though it still felt very tight. But not hovering on the verge of pain anymore, and that was good.

Bucky did something with his wrist, twisted, turned, and then his fingers were impossibly deep, it seemed, inside Tony’s body, as if seeking something. From inside, Tony could feel Bucky pressing, up and toward Tony’s navel, and then--

“I think-- how’s that feel, honey? Better?” He was rubbing against something inside Tony, something Tony hadn’t even known was there, much less what it was. 

Tony tried to speak and couldn’t. His eyes were stretched wide and he was staring at Bucky as Bucky set off those sharp little lightning strikes of sheer pleasure from inside him. “What,” he gasped finally, “what are you doing?

“Making you feel good?” Bucky asked, his eyebrow going up, but the way his mouth tipped into that smug smirk again, he knew exactly what he was doing to Tony, and Tony might even have been rather vexed about it, except Bucky kept doing it, and whatever it was, it built inside Tony like a wave, hot and fluid and turning all his bones to jelly.

“Yes,” Tony finally agreed. That wave built and built and built, and Tony wasn’t sure it would ever crash, that it could ever tip him over that moment of sheer bliss. “Bucky, I need, I need...” He didn’t know what he needed. Bucky would know, though.

“Last bit,” Bucky promised. “Need you to slick me up. Here, sit up a bit-- I know, I know, it feels even weirder.”

Tony grimaced at the sensation but managed to sit up enough to pour a palmful of oil into his hand and reach down to slide it over Bucky’s cock.

Bucky let out a sound at the first touch and Tony looked up at his face, startled. His eyes were wide and dark and wanting, as if Tony held some vital secret. As if Tony’s touch set him aflame, too. It was a heady sense of power, and Tony couldn’t help smiling. “You like that.” It wasn’t really a question; Bucky shuddered as Tony smoothed the oil over his cock.

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Like everything about you. But especially when you touch me. Hard to even think when you’re doing that.”

Tony stretched forward even further and kissed Bucky, reveling in each shiver and soft moan. It was only reluctantly that he pulled away again. “I think you’re ready.”

“Yes,” Bucky said, and it was more than just agreement, like an affirmation of everything. “Lay back, and try to breathe slow.”

He pressed himself against Tony’s opening, slick and hard, and oh, god, so much thicker than a few fingers. “Breathe, I got you, it’s going to feel fine, honey, just relax.”

“I, I trust you,” Tony said, though it was hard to imagine that something that thick could ever fit comfortably. It wasn’t quite painful, but it wasn’t good, either, and he wondered if he should call a halt. But that felt like failure, like--

“Breathe,” Bucky reminded him, and Tony realized he’d been holding his breath. He deliberately blew it out slowly and then pulled another in. Blew that one out.

Bucky shifted, just a bit, slid another reluctant inch into Tony, and then he was touching them where they joined together, from Tony’s stretched and aching rim, along his own cock, and back down, his face going slack with pleasure. “So good for me,” Bucky said, his eyes slitted to watch Tony’s face. 

That was nice, Bucky’s praise and obvious pleasure, even if Tony wasn’t quite loving it. Bucky smiled at him, and Tony felt that warmth that always started in his chest and spread outward, and it seemed to melt his limbs. With a sudden twitch, Tony’s body relaxed around Bucky. Instead of an almost unbearable pressure, he could feel the slow slide of Bucky inside him, deep in him, and it was perfect.

With a low, guttural groan, Bucky moved, his hips pistoning slow, but it was building. His hand clenched the blankets under Tony, pulling him closer. “Lift your hips a little,” Bucky encouraged him. “Legs around my back, it’ll help you control it--” And Tony wondered what he was supposed to be controlling here at all, until he locked his ankles, and he-- could. He could direct where Bucky’s thrusts took him, and with a little difficulty, managed to line them up just right, toward that spot inside him that had lit a fire inside him.

“Oh! Oh, just there, that’s... God. Bucky.” Tony grabbed at the blankets, needing something to hang on to, and watched the utter bliss on Bucky’s face, better than any drink or drug could possibly be. I think I love you, he thought, an overwhelming warmth.

“Tony--” Bucky managed to say, in between heaving breaths as he worked in Tony, out and in again, thrusting hard, the movement like being rocked on a wave. There were urgent, wet, sensual noises between them and Bucky’s fingers clenched in the bedcovers, holding on.

Sweat gleamed on his chest, outlining his muscles in the candlelight, and his skin went red at his throat, blotchy along his upper arms. “Oh, god, Tony-- please--”

“Yes, sweetheart,” Tony groaned. “Whatever you need, whatever you want, I’m yours.”

“Just you, Tony,” Bucky said. “Just want you, only you--” He strained, his hand on Tony’s hip now, fingers bruising the tender skin and it hurt, but in the best sort of way, a grounding reminder that this pleasure, this action, this love… it was real. “Go on, touch yourself, bring yourself to pitch, honey, I-- I want to, but--”

But he couldn’t touch Tony and hold himself up at the same time, and next time, next time, Tony would find a way to fix that, but for now he just took himself in hand again, a few strokes all he needed to find himself on the edge again, gasping. He matched Bucky’s rhythm as close as he could, so the pleasure built and built and built and-- “Bucky, oh God, Bucky!”

Bucky practically bent in half, finding Tony’s mouth, kissing him furiously, like he couldn’t possibly do anything else, and then he groaned, long and strained, into Tony’s mouth, his hips going still while his whole body went rigid with it. “God--”

And that was a particularly odd sensation, the feeling of Bucky emptying himself inside Tony, but it was also rather nice, and Tony was definitely still a little dazed from his own climax, so he just hummed and curled his fingers into Bucky’s hair. Bucky had such soft hair.

For a long, quiet moment, they stayed right like that, Tony’s thighs aching pleasantly, and then Bucky turned his head. “I,” he said, mouth moving against Tony’s throat, “did not plan this out very well. Now I have to get up.”

“It does seem like it would be difficult to sleep like this,” Tony conceded. He considered it. “That means I have to unlock my legs.”

“Yes,” Bucky said, sounding a bit put upon. “And then give me a push, so I can get up. We’ll make it work. Together.”

That sounded nice, really. Together.

Slowly, they managed to untangle themselves. Bucky’s withdrawal left Tony feeling empty and oddly chilled, but it didn’t last long. Bucky got them cleaned up and repositioned in the bed the right way, and curled close to Tony, pulling the blankets up over them.

Bucky nuzzled at Tony’s shoulder a few times, and then settled in, his nose in Tony’s hair. “Husband.”

 

Chapter Text

There weren’t very many days in Bucky’s life where he could honestly just stay in bed. Retired life hadn’t had much in the way of retirement; there’d been business of the ship to attend, and business of war, and business of wedding. Not much time for laying about, really.

But at least for the next week, until all their guests drank their way through Bucky’s wine cellar and ate their way through his larder, there was nothing else that Bucky had to do, aside from entertain his husband and teach him about the duties of a spouse.

Which, honestly, Tony had been eager and thorough about learning.

Just thinking about it made heat race through Bucky’s veins again. He managed to crack one eye open and look around for his husband.

Tony was sprawled over the bed, limbs outstretched, taking up most of the other half of the bed.

Strange to see Tony so utterly unguarded. He looked impossibly young, sleeping there, hair a wild tangle, the bedsheets bunched up between his legs and thrown over one hip.

For a long moment, Bucky just lay there, watching his husband sleep. The way his eyelids moved from time to time, the soft, sleepy sounds he made. Verging on waking up, Bucky thought.

But there was no hurry. Bucky was well rested, if pleasantly sore, and they had nothing particular that needed to be done.

Well, breakfast, maybe.

Becca would bring them a tray and leave it in Bucky’s room, so they wouldn’t have to venture out into the main parts of the house. A well-known but seldom discussed polite fiction.

Tony’s nose wrinkled -- unfair, how adorable that was -- and his next breath was a little deeper than before, and his eyes fluttered open, slow and sleepy. He smiled when his gaze landed on Bucky, and the nearest hand groped its way across the expanse of bed linens in search of Bucky’s skin. “Good morning, husband.”

Bucky took his hand under the blankets. “Good morning,” Bucky said, “although in fact it might be somewhat past luncheon. How are you feeling, your first day of being wedded?” Bucky wanted to ask if he’d done everything right, if Tony had regrets, or if he was happy, but didn’t know how to say any of that without sounding like he was fishing for a compliment. 

Do you love me?

Tony hummed thoughtfully, taking advantage of the pause to rearrange himself, smoothing out the sheets somewhat and wriggling closer to Bucky, pulling Bucky’s arm over him like a second blanket. “I am feeling,” he said, “like I have learned a great secret. And won a prize. Also, I am sore. And famished.” He flashed a grin at Bucky. “Mostly just... pleased and content. Except for the bit where I’m famished; we should see to that shortly. And how are you feeling this morning? Regretting your purchase, yet?”

“It’s not a great secret,” Bucky admitted. “We just like to pretend that it is, so that a young and innocent spouse will not be so demanding. As for sore, there are buckets for a bath, already heating by the fire, and you might have a soak while I sneak off and see about fetching us a modest meal?”

Not that Bucky wasn’t also sore; his thighs in particular were complaining, but he at least had known to expect it.

“If I’d harbored any doubts, that offer has put paid to the last of them,” Tony said with a quirk of his lip that meant he was teasing. He wormed his way closer. “Will you kiss me good morning, then, before you set off on your quest?”

“Gladly,” Bucky said, and leaned in to do so, only flicking his tongue out to wet Tony’s lip. Morning breath wasn’t an experience for the newly wed.

He pulled himself out of bed reluctantly and stretched, pretending not to notice as Tony eyed him, not quite sure what to make of the expression.

Someone had been thorough, preparing Tony’s room for the wedding night, as there were robes for each of them near the bathtub, along with a pile of plush towels. He tugged his on and headed into the joined closet. If no one had left them a tray, he’d be able to dress there and sneak downstairs.

Behind him, Tony slid out of the bed and started humming a song that Bucky vaguely recognized as one of the bawdier songs that had been played the previous evening. The rattle of the bucket handle and the poker followed Bucky into his own room.

There wasn’t a tray, which at first was a disappointment, but a moment later, Bucky discovered that food had been left in a basket, like a picnic lunch, and that was nice, since he could lift it by the handle and not worry about spilling.

There were also two of his crew members in Bucky’s own bed. Probably they didn’t realize that it was Bucky’s room and had been too drunk to care. That said, Bucky took care to lock Tony’s side of the closet door to keep them from wandering in, looking for a washroom.

“My sister rides to our rescue,” Bucky said, putting the hamper down on the table and opening it to look through the foodstuff. He couldn’t quite help but look at Tony in the bath. He’d pulled the screen in front of the tub, but it wasn’t that big, and Bucky could see around the edges.

Modesty was one of those trappings of society that sometimes faded out with time.

“Becca, I assume,” Tony said, splashing a little as he scrubbed. “If they left Katherine to pack our meal, it would be nothing but cake.”

“If there’s no cake,” Bucky said, unpacking a half loaf of bread, some sliced meats and cheeses, a jug of fruit wine, “I’ll be disappointed, and we’ll be raiding the kitchen in its enti-- ah, here we go. And cake.”

Tony splashed a little more, then got up and wrapped his robe around himself as he emerged from behind the screen. “That looks delicious. Do you want to wash, first? I can probably restrain myself for that long.”

“Oh, can you?” Bucky teased. “Or will I emerge from the bath and not a morsel of sustenance to be found?”

Tony put on an exaggeratedly offended face. “I wouldn’t starve my own husband! Not on the first day of our honeymoon!”

“Probably for the best,” Bucky agreed. “If you kill me now, the will is likely to be contested in court.”

“Exactly,” Tony said. “I must wait at least a month before unveiling my nefarious plot.” He considered the food board and selected a sliver of cheese, taking a small nibble and offering the rest to Bucky.

“Although what you could want with a nefarious plot that required my demise, I’ve no idea,” Bucky said, accepting the cheese and making his own way to the tub. “You already know I’ll let you do whatever you like, and you have adequate wealth and social influence. I’ll hardly be a bother at all.”

Tony pretended to consider it. “I suppose that’s true,” he allowed. “And if you died, your sisters would be terribly sad, and I’d hate to upset them.”

“And you did seem to-- not find the burdens of marriage to be unbearable,” Bucky said. He scrubbed off the remains of sweat and oil and last night’s pleasures from his skin. His hair, he decided, was probably still clean enough with just a quick dunk to get it wet so he could comb it. “Perhaps you might be persuaded to have some use for me.”

“I might be persuaded,” Tony said, nose in the air despite the bright flush painting his cheeks.

“Good to know,” Bucky said, and he couldn’t help but grin, feeling smug and satisfied. He got out of the tub and wrapped the towel around his hips, coming over to pick through the basket of goodies.

Tony started building himself a small tower of a sandwich. “Probably I’ll feel less like committing murder and mayhem once I’m fed,” he observed, and then couldn’t hold his serious expression any longer, laughing so hard he nearly toppled his sandwich. “So tell me, are we expected to put in an appearance today?”

“Not even in the slightest,” Bucky said. He helped himself to a slice of well buttered bread and a wedge of cheese. “In fact, it’s probably best to stay locked in here. The halls and rooms are filled with airmen sleeping off hangovers.”

“Are they?” Tony looked startled. “I never heard a thing. Either this room is quite well-insulated, or I was sleeping very soundly.” He paused, considering it. “Both, mayhap.”

“You did sort of sleep like a log,” Bucky said. “Complete with snoring.” That was a lie, or if Tony did snore, Bucky had been too dead to the world to hear it, but it was the sort of thing a person didn’t know about themselves until they slept with someone else.

There went that mock-offended look again. “And what would you know about it, hm? I seem to recall you being at least as worn out as I was.”

“Ah, perhaps,” Bucky said, giving his husband a quick, sultry glance-- or at least his best efforts. Tony didn’t seem to notice, busy picking through the remains of the breakfast basket. “I could try again, see if I can wear you out?”

“So early in the day?” Tony wondered archly, though the back of his neck and the tips of his ears went pink. “Surely we should pace ourselves.”

Bucky laughed, honestly. Tony was such a delightful creature. “Why? It’s our honeyweek. No one will mind.”

“You make a good argument,” Tony said. “And I am no longer quite so famished, so.” He brushed a few crumbs from his robe and turned toward Bucky, spreading his arms. “Do your worst, then, my husband, and we shall see who wears out the fastest.”

He all but choked on the last remaining bite of his breakfast. “I’ve created a monster,” Bucky said, mock-complaining. “I hope you’ve given some thought to our logistical issue. Last night was quite lovely, but the back of my thighs are a little cross with me. We might try something different, so I don’t collapse in the middle of things.” It was a little embarrassing to admit he was not as good at love-making as he wanted to be, but truth, talking about it now would save having to live with the actual experience later. “We might try-- you on top.”

Tony nodded, though his blush didn’t fade. “I think I can manage that. And it gives me more control over speed and, ah, depth. I’m still rather sore.”

Having drawn his attention to it, Bucky’s dick was a little more eager to participate in the discussion, and it was all but obvious. “We’ll try it that way, then,” Bucky said, rubbing fitfully at the back of his neck. Tony wasn’t the only one who could get painted with a blush.

Tony stepped closer, boldly sliding his hands up Bucky’s chest. “Well, then... Kiss me?”

“With pleasure,” Bucky said, and brought Tony in for a kiss, deep and only a little awkward. The towel fell off and Bucky left it behind as Tony backed toward the bed. It was going to be a lovely retirement, Bucky decided.

 


 

Married life agreed with him, Tony thought as he strode through the streets. It was an odd thing to think, after being so wary of the state in general and Bucky in particular, but it was easy to be happy with Bucky at his side, even if he wasn’t sure he would ever entirely stop blushing.

Still, he’d had a very satisfying meeting with Ms. Potts this morning, and he was meeting his husband for lunch only a few streets away, and the weather was only very cold instead of intolerably cold, and the sun was shining. Bucky had promised that after lunch, they might visit a hothouse to select some plants with which to revive the palace greenhouse, and Tony was quite looking forward to that, as well.

He’d learned a few words in Ussuran, even if everyone talked to him in that language as if he was a small and not particularly bright child. Katherine had even taught him a few curse words, which he’d used later to amuse his husband.

Which is why, when someone reached out and grabbed his wrist from an alleyway, with a rough “There’s the bastard,” Tony was pretty sure he was in trouble, rather than just being accosted by a particularly eager beggar.

Tony backed away, trying to twist his wrist free. “Let go!”

“You don’t want to do that, my fine gentleman,” the man’s companion said. “Not when we went through so much trouble to get a letter for you.”

“Trouble,” the first man said, laughing in a way that held no amusement at all. “Near to bled for it, I did.”

“What sort of letter?” Tony demanded. “Who are you?”

“This one,” the man said, pulling out a grungy little envelope. It was sealed with wax, and-- that was Bucky’s seal! Only two places had that seal; the official one on Bucky’s desk back at the palace, and the one he wore on his index finger.

Tony looked the pair of them over, letting himself catalog every bump and scar. “And who sent it?” His voice came out almost steady; he was proud of that.

“Why, your uncle, fine gentleman,” the second man said. “Seems very eager to see you again, he does.”

Obie. “That’s a change,” Tony said cooly, letting his mind race. “Last time we met, he couldn’t seem to be rid of me fast enough. Don’t tell me he’s come all the way to Pavtlow for a visit. What have you done with my husband?”

“Nothing right now that won’t heal,” the second man said with that creepy laugh again. “Don’t do naught stupid, and you can have him back again, all parts intact. Save those that were already missing.”

Tony burned with fury. How dare they lay so much as a finger on Bucky! He pressed his lips together. “And what do you think would be the smart plan of action, then?”

“Read the letter,” the first man said. “Follow the instructions.”

“And don’t tell anyone,” the second cautioned. 

“Of course,” Tony said. With another wary glance at the men, he carefully detached the seal and pulled the letter from the envelope.

Tony, my boy, the letter started and it was almost as if he could hear Obie, feel the heavy weight of his hand on Tony’s shoulder, hear the unctuous, hearty voice. Obie had practically been an uncle to him; always around, and certainly more willing to spend time with Tony, to act interested in Tony’s hobbies and ideas, than Howard had been. The butler, Jarvis and his wife, Ana, might have been Tony’s foster parents in all but name, but Obie was… his mentor. His trusted advisor. All the way up until the very end when Obie had shoved him on an airship with almost no explanation.

You’ve caused me no end of trouble, recently. But I can be reasonable. I’m sure we can work this out. It might have been better if you’d left the lawyers out of it. There was no need to bring this down on someone else, when it was always between us.

Come in three hours. Alone. Where you said you’d meet your husband for luncheon. And we’ll begin negotiations for his safe return.

O

“Message received,” Tony said, short and sharp for the way his lungs seemed suddenly unable to draw breath. “You may tell him I’ll be there.”

The first man gave Tony a very insincere, mock-servitude sort of bow, and the second just laughed. “We’ll tell him.”

God, what was he going to do? What did Obie want of him? Bucky... Tony shook his head, turned on his heel, and stalked back the way he’d come. Obie had mentioned the lawyers; Ms. Potts was in danger and must be warned. And then... Then Tony would have just under two hours to figure out what he was going to do.

“Uff, you are useless,” a familiar voice cried, shrill and loud. Followed by a somewhat muffled grunt as the police officer in question was kicked in the shins. “I’m not lying, I’m not hysterical, and I will not calm down!”

Tony... knew that voice. He turned toward it as if pulled by an invisible string, darting around a corner to find -- yes -- Katherine, arms folded as she fumed at an officer. “Katherine! What are you doing here?”

“Assaulting an officer of the loo,” she snapped, kicking at the man again. “Will you tell him that I’m not some ditzy female?”

“Leave the man in peace,” Tony suggested, because the more she abused the officer, the less likely he was to be helpful in any case. “Come walk with me and tell me what’s upset you.” He gave the policeman a tight smile. “My sister-in-law,” he explained. “I’ll take care of her.”

“Tony--” Katherine said urgently, “someone took my brother-- your husband! They took him!”

Tony all but stumbled. “Yes,” he said softly. “I know. Why do you know?” He pulled her back around the corner and crouched down to look her in the eye. “What happened?”

“Well, first there was an incident in the kitchen this morning, it wasn’t my fault, not really, but Mama was mad, and I-- thought it might be better if she didn’t see me again for a while, and Bucky said he was going out, and-- so I just rode into town and met up with him. Boy, he was surprised to see me!”

“Yes, I’m sure he was. Then what happened?”

“Well, after he did some business at the warehouse, and at the shipyard, then we went to the bookstore for a while, and I ran into the sweets shop to get some peppermints, and I was just paying for my candy and headed outside when someone threw a bag over his head and tossed him in a carriage! I never ran so fast in my whole life, and I got my horse and rode off after them. I thought I’d lost them, but I was making a double loop, just to make sure they hadn’t turned off, and they had, they did turn off, and I tracked them all the way to where they’ve got him, but then there were so many of them, and I didn’t think I could do anything about it myself, so I came back here, and found this idiot--” She waved her hand dismissively at the police officer. “--who seems to think I ate too much candy and got smacked in the head as a small child or something.”

Tony’s heart raced with fear -- God, she could have been killed -- and hope. “That was very brave,” he told her. “Can you tell me where they took him? And how many men you saw? I’m... I’m going to get him back.” The glimmer of an idea sparked, waiting to be fanned to life or snuffed by the girl’s answer.

“Not too far,” Katherine said. “A few streets down from the shipyard, I thought they were taking him there at first, but if they’d put him on an airship, we’d never see him again!” She started to cry; not huge gasping wails but a shimmer in her eyes and she blotted them impatiently with the collar of her dress.

“We’ve got a little time,” Tony promised her. “The ones who took them, they want me to meet with them in a couple of hours, to ransom him. You know what that is?” He waited for her nod. “Good. So he should be safe until then.” He scrubbed at his face as he thought. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’d go back home if I told you to?”

“I haven’t taken up a job as a scryer,” Katherine said, balling her fists up, “but I would say your chances don’t look too good on that one.”

Despite his terror and anger, Tony chuckled a little at that. “All right. You’d best stay with me, then, where I can keep an eye on you. Come on, we’ll need to pay a visit to the blacksmith.”

 

Chapter Text

Bucky almost laughed at how wretchedly stupid his kidnappers were.

Almost, because they had, in fact, managed to kidnap him.

But they didn’t really seem to have any idea what to do with him, now they had him. First, his only having one hand had confounded them in ways that were truly ridiculous; they couldn’t tie his wrists behind his back. They’d ended up wrapping the rope around him several times until he was more tied up like a rug than a prisoner.

He was also pretty sure as soon as they weren’t watching him, he was going to be able to get out of it.

The problem with that was that someone was paying them a ridiculous amount of money to keep an eye on him.

They hadn’t even searched him -- he still had two knives on him, one at the small of his back, and one in his boot -- and they certainly hadn’t secured him. He was maybe ten minutes away from being able to get out of the ropes.

But they were watching him.

Two years ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated. But two years ago he had both arms, and less motivation for living to retirement. He’d won a lot of battles on being willing to charge in first and make a plan later.

Right now, that seemed like a good way to get killed, and he was going to regret losing out on years and years of marriage.

He hadn’t even told Tony that he loved him.

And Bucky wasn’t going to die with that regret.

So he was waiting. Waiting to see what happened; waiting to get a better idea of where he was. Of who they were. Hydra, maybe? Independent mercenaries seemed more likely. Stupid, local help who wouldn’t take much convincing to do something so utterly against their own interests.

Eventually, Bucky thought, someone would come who would make threats or demands.

In the meanwhile, he was working his knife out of the scabbard at the small of his back. Slowly.

Someone knocked on the door. His watchers were instantly alert, hands at their hilts. Not expecting their employer to knock, then.

The knock came again, followed by a muffled, high-pitched voice. “The gentleman sent me up with lunch for you all!”

Two of the men, the ones who seemed to mostly be in charge, glanced at each other. One of them shrugged, the other took a position beside the door.

Not entirely stupid. But hungry, and just stupid enough to buy it.

Bucky had taken some prisoners in his life, and you didn’t do anything without having arranged it first. Not feeding, not going to the loo, not getting too close to someone who claimed to be ill.

Either the “gentleman” was also an idiot and had sent lunch, or this was someone’s idea of a rescue.

Bucky took advantage of their distraction to move his hand another two inches. He could brush the metal of the hilt with two fingers.

One of the men threw open the door and the second had his sword out, threateningly. 

Swords at least were smart. Close up weapons, not noisy.

Stop admiring your captors, part of his brain argued. 

Don’t underestimate them, the other part snapped back.

Bucky moved his hand again.

The opened door blocked Bucky’s view, but the voice was easier to hear, now. “I can’t push the cart in with you standing there in the way.” Definitely a child’s voice, and... horribly familiar.

Katherine. Bucky almost groaned. He should have known she wouldn’t do something smart, like go to the police.

Which left him in the uncomfortable position of having to back her play, whatever it was. Because if he didn’t, if he betrayed her in any possible way, there was a good likelihood that they were both going to die.

“Really,” Katherine said crossly. “This is quite heavy!” There was a soft grunt and a covered trolley was rolled into the room, Katherine shoving it for all she was worth, as if it were indeed heavily laden.

She looked around quickly and her eyes went round. “Brother!” Her shock wasn’t very well acted, but Bucky’s kidnappers probably didn’t know her well enough to tell the difference. She ducked under the threatening sword and flew at Bucky, literally tackling him so his chair toppled to the ground as she fell on him. She weighed... rather more than he remembered.

“What are you--” He was damned lucky he hadn’t stabbed himself in the kidney with his own fucking knife. On the other hand, the chair wasn’t made to hold one grown man, a mostly grown child, and the punishment of gravity. It splintered as it hit the ground. He got his hand on the knife and started to get to his feet.

Katherine shoved him back down -- when had she gotten so strong? -- and wrapped her arms around his head. “Now!” she shouted.

There was a split second of silence and then the trolley exploded, filling the room and Bucky’s kidnappers with wood and metal shrapnel.

No, not shrapnel. Nails.

“Kitty!” Bucky shouted. Dear God, what in the hell had she done? 

He was drowned out by the screams of the wounded. The air was filled with the stench of gunpowder and burning flesh.

No time for anything else, now. He gave her a quick look over -- she had a cut on her forehead that was probably more decorative than dangerous, even if it was bleeding profusely. “Can you stand? Fight?”

She gave him an offended look. “I am a Barnes.”

He shoved the knife at her and fished in his boot for the second one.

“So am I,” said another voice. From under the wreckage of the trolley crawled Tony, holding what appeared to be a miniature crossbow, pointed steadily at the nearest of the kidnappers. There was soot and grease smudging his face and hands, and his jaw was set dangerously. “That was even louder than I expected. We need to move fast.”

“Are you both crazy?” Bucky demanded. Katherine looked disturbingly happy for someone who was practically covered in horseshoe nails. He plucked one of them, expecting screams and blood, but it pulled free with a soft tink.

“Perhaps,” Tony said. “You can have us committed if you like, but not until after we’ve dealt with Obie.”

“I have armor!” Katherine told Bucky brightly, knocking on her own shoulder. It sounded like hollow metal.

“You have a hole in your head,” Bucky retorted, and then, catching movement out of the corner of his eye, flipped the knife in his hand and threw it, pegging one of his captors in the shoulder and causing him to drop the hold-out pistol. “Tony, do we have a plan to get out of here?”

Tony pointed at the window, then reached back into the wreckage of the trolley and pulled out a length of rope with a grapple tied to the end. “We’ve a small debt to the blacksmith,” he said calmly, unlatching the window and fixing the grapple’s hook in place. “I didn’t have enough cash on me to cover everything.” He threw the rope down. “I’ll go first so I can catch Katherine.” He tugged sharply on the rope and swung out the window as if he’d been doing it all his life.

“You’re insane,” Bucky told his sister. “Both of you.” Or maybe it was just him. Absolutely, he was going mad. This was what going mad felt like. He took the knife back from her before she fell on it or something equally stupid.

“Oh, so you’re allowed to run around doing heroic things, but I’m supposed to just--”

“Katherine!” Tony called from below. “Less arguing, more climbing!”

“Fine, but don’t think I’ve forgotten!” she said. She climbed out the window with somewhat less grace than Tony, then let herself down the rope in quick little sliding jumps.

Bucky scowled, then looked out the window. There was no fucking way he was going to be able to climb down a rope. “Clear--”

No choices.

He didn’t like the idea of falling, he’d had such a hard time with heights since the accident. Even being on the airship had been harder than it needed to be, even though he stayed well away from the rail. 

It wasn’t the same, when there wasn’t gunfire going off to force him to move.

He couldn’t do this.

He climbed out the window gingerly, sitting on the ledge. 

It wasn’t that far.

But it was far enough to break his neck if he landed badly.

A crowd was gathering, drawn by the noise. Tony grabbed someone out of the crowd, a man, and pulled him out, talking quickly. Another. And a third. They came to stand under the window, holding a-- was that a sled blanket? --stretched out between them. “Come on, sweetheart,” Tony called. “We’ve got you.”

He was going to die, that seemed almost a definite outcome. But at least he was going to die running toward something, rather than away.

Bucky took a deep breath, let it out, and jumped.

The blanket folded under him, his weight more than the hands holding it could bear, but it slowed him enough that when he hit the ground, it was only a little jarring, and not a shattering injury. When he looked up, Tony was next to him, one hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“I just-- jumped out a window,” Bucky protested. “After you blew up a warehouse? What part of okay does that relate to, in any way?” Whatever was inside was too big to come out, and rather than saying anything else, he hauled Tony in and kissed him like a blow. Hard and furious and desperate and relieved all at the same time.

Tony clung to him tightly, trembling minutely in Bucky’s arms as he kissed Bucky back, frantic.

“I thought I was going to die,” Bucky said, leaning his forehead against Tony’s. “I thought I was going to die, and that I was never going to tell you--”

“I love you,” Tony breathed. “I know, I’m sorry, it’s the least possible romantic moment but I was so terrified and I thought what if, if something happened and I never got to say it.”

“What? What, no, no, you are not allowed to spoil my big moment by being all over-eager,” Bucky said, huffing. “I was the one tied to a chair, I’m the one who gets to make the big, dramatic declaration. That’s how it’s done in all the stories, and I am not going to let you steal my moment.”

He took a few deep breaths to try to calm his scattered wits, aware that he was acting like a fool, and a lovesick fool at that.   

“Oh, right, yes, of course,” Tony said, and he sounded contrite, though there was a spark of humor in his eyes. “By all means, then, you first.”

“All I was thinking about,” Bucky said, and then paused, waiting to see if Tony was going to interrupt him, “was you. That I hadn’t been scared of dying, not until I had something to lose. I love you, husband.”

Tony’s expression softened, as if he might actually have been surprised by that. “Do you?” He examined Bucky’s face, then pressed another kiss to Bucky’s lips, sweet and searing. “I love you, too.”

Bucky hauled him in for a hug, even more tender and warm than the urgent kisses. “I seem to have heard something about that,” he said. “It’s okay now, we’re okay. We’re okay.” He wasn’t sure who he was reassuring, Tony or himself. “Everything’s okay now.”

“I told you!” Katherine said crossly from somewhere behind them. “I told you I wasn’t some hysterical child!”

Tony broke away with a soft laugh. “We need to go save the constabulary from your sister,” he murmured. “And arrange for some arrests, as well.”

“At some point,” Bucky said, “I am going to want an explanation.” But at the moment, it didn’t even seem to matter. He was alive, Tony was alive, his sister was alive, and even the aggravated constable was alive.

They could figure the rest out later.

Tony didn’t release Bucky’s hand as he went to talk to the policeman, providing a summary of events and showing off a letter he took from inside his pocket. The policeman glanced at Bucky, did a double-take, and assured them that he’d take care of the miscreants.

Sometimes, it was good to be a war hero. At least he didn’t have to explain who he was.

“Your uncle,” Bucky said as they headed back to the sled, “is still on the loose.” Because that seemed to be the take-away from all this. 

“Not for long, hopefully,” Tony said. He was still trembling slightly as he leaned into Bucky’s side, smiling wanly as Katherine proudly described her role in the rescue.

“I think you have far surpassed me for being Katherine’s favorite brother,” Bucky said, then decided to go ahead and drop the bag of bricks on Tony’s foot. “So, explaining what happened to my mother? Is all on you.”

Tony gaped at him, then glanced at Katherine, then sighed and slumped further into the seat. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“Let’s go home,” Bucky suggested.

“Nothing could sound better,” Tony agreed.

 


 

“I am not that kind of lawyer,” Ms. Potts told Tony severely.

“I know,” he protested. “But he was trying to muscle his way into my business, and you’re my business lawyer, so...”

“Also,” Bucky contributed from the chair where he was lounging, chin on his hand, “he doesn’t want to deal with anyone else.”

“That’s true,” Tony agreed. “You know who the good lawyers are, here. You put together the team to prosecute Obie, and I’ll just deal with you!” It sounded like a perfectly reasonable solution.

“I can liaise with your legal team, Mr. Stark,” Ms. Potts said, sounding a little desperate. “But I’ll need your approval on who to hire, and they’re probably going to want to speak with you at least once. I am still working on being accepted in my profession, given that I was born with the unfortunate condition of being female.”

“You do the interviews,” Tony said. “Don’t recommend them for the team if they’re not going to listen to you. I’ll sign off on whoever you want. I can talk to them if they want to talk -- I’m sure someone will need a statement about Obie at some point -- but I’m leaving things in good hands, here.”

She stared at him for a moment. “You-- I need a bonus.” Ms. Potts turned to Bucky as if for support. “I deserve a bonus.”

“Of course you do, right Tony?”

“Of course you do,” Tony agreed. “Also, I looked at the last invoice you sent for services rendered and it’s criminally low. I don’t know if that’s because you’re new or if that’s really what lawyers are paid here but I won’t stand for it. Double the next one, please, or-- maybe I should just put you on retainer?” He glanced at Bucky “Yes? Yes, I like that. What about it, Ms. Potts?”

“It would make it easier,” Bucky decided. “Assuming you agree, Ms. Potts, you’ll be the duchy’s official representative in all matters legal?”

“Of course she agrees,” Tony said. “We’ll need to set aside a suite for you at the palace, of course. You don’t have to move in if you’d rather not, but I imagine you’ll be there often enough to want an actual office and a place to rest. Also, you’re going to love Becca, the two of you are going to be fast friends immediately, I can tell.”

“I feel like I’m being badgered here,” Ms. Potts complained, “for a better paying job and less annoying clients, and yet, somehow I feel like I’m losing.”

“Nonsense. Everything is delightful when you’re working with me. Isn’t that right, darling?” Tony batted his eyelashes at Bucky.

“He’s delightful,” Bucky said, his tone saying exactly the opposite, but in a fond way, which was some sort of vocal talent. Tony wasn’t sure what sort of talent, exactly, but it was one.

“No, really, we’ll let you think about it,” Tony said. “Come up to the palace for dinner tomorrow and you can tell us what you’ve got in mind, yes? And in the meantime, we should get back. It’s been a very long day.”

“It’ll be fine,” Bucky said, reassuringly. “Tony’s more than fair about making sure you get everything you need.” He rolled out of his seat, looking like some sort of large cat that wanted you to know he meant to move out of your way and you had nothing at all to do with his decision.

Tony shook Ms. Potts’ hand once more, then tucked himself against Bucky’s side as they made their way back out to the sled. “I could sleep for a week.” But at least he could sleep, now, knowing Obie was behind bars, where he belonged.

“I’ll let you-- for a few days,” Bucky said. “But then you should probably get up and bathe, have something to eat, and tend to your languishing spouse. He gets lonely, or so I’ve been told.”

Tony rounded his eyes at his husband. “Surely, he’ll be sleeping with me?”

“Sometimes,” Bucky said. “The rest of the time, I have got a load of work to do. This whole retirement thing, I think, was Fury’s way of getting me to stop arguing with him. I might be willing to go back to war rather than discuss the tax code with the House of Lords any longer.”

“There will be no going back to war,” Tony said firmly. “I’ll take up the tax code with the chamber if I have to.”

“You’ll have us arrested in no time flat,” Bucky said. “I dare you to come along one day. It’s murder.”

“Only because you’re trying too hard not to step on anyone’s toes,” Tony guessed. He had no doubt that the politics were cutthroat, but that was a game he knew how to play. It shouldn’t take him overlong to pick up the local variants. “I’ll pack us a picnic luncheon, and we’ll be so utterly in love that they’ll give up and send us back home again.”

“That sounds lovely,” Bucky said. “If I have to call someone out for a duel because they insulted you, you’d better craft me a very nice pistol that I can shoot right handed.”

“Or maybe I’ll simply craft you a new left arm,” Tony returned. He brightened. “With a built-in pistol!”

“That seems unnecessary,” Bucky said. “It’s always a good idea to be able to put the gun down.”

“Hm. I suppose I wouldn’t want you to accidentally set it off in the midst of lovemaking.”

“You do tend to set me off without any help at all from firearms,” Bucky said. He tucked the blanket around Tony’s shoulders. “One day, your blood will get thick enough to bear our winters.”

“Perhaps. Until then, I shall rely on you to keep me warm.” Tony smiled up into Bucky’s face even as he pressed close against the heat of Bucky’s body. “And since it gives me an excuse to be close to you, I’m not sure I’ll ever admit to any such adjustment.”

“You could just admit you like to be coddled,” Bucky said. “Anything you want.” He yawned. Despite his protestation, Bucky looked like he could sleep a week, too. In fact, he looked like it might be a necessity. 

Tony made sure the blanket was tucked securely around both of them. “When we get home, I’m ordering us a tray for supper and we’re going straight to bed,” he decided. “You were kidnapped right off the street; the lords can give you a few days to recover and reassure your new spouse with his delicate Avalon constitution.”

“I don’t know that your Avalon constitution needs to be improved,” Bucky said. “You seem quite vigorous to me. But straight to bed sounds like an excellent plan.”

“We could go straight to bed and I could show you how vigorous my constitution is,” Tony suggested with a wink.

 

“We could do that,” Bucky agreed. “I think I’d like that quite a bit.”