James walks into the kitchen and the first thing he does is stumble— honest to god stumble, his perfectly-honed assassin coordination be damned— and over thin air no less. He keeps himself upright, just barely, using the kitchen counter as a crutch, mitigating the strength of his metal hand on sheer instinct, but all of that barely registers because he only has eyes for the man in front of him.
Tony is on the phone with someone. He’s leaning casually against the sink, twirling a spoon in a cup of coffee, dressed one of his fancy suits, although the shirt’s top two buttons are undone and the tie is hanging loose around his neck. Tony’s hair is in disarray, likely after he ran his hand through it half a dozen times, his expression is animated, and that pretty little mouth of his is chattering away, speaking flawless, smooth-as-whiskey, rapid-fire Russian.
James swallows hard, mouth suddenly going dry, and he struggles to focus on the actual content of the conversation as his heart rate spikes and his stomach begins to perform elaborate somersaults. He knows that Tony isn’t fond of working with the Russian government, for a myriad of reasons, but he made several good non-political acquaintances when he was over there last year, cleaning up the mess they all left behind in Siberia. He must be talking to one of these people now, something about clean energy, but that’s all James registers because he’s far too enthralled with the man himself to pay attention to anything else.
Admittedly, Tony in any form is a gorgeous sight, but there’s something about Tony and that Russian that makes James’ whole body light up with heat, makes it tingle pleasantly all the way down to his fingers and toes.
An awful part of his mind informs him that it’s because he’s still broken, that he came back as something terrible, monstrous, something other than the charming, good-hearted Bucky Barnes everyone else expected, and there’s still some pathetic part of him that craves orders in this language, that needs someone to tell him what his next mission is, what to do, who to kill—
No, that’s not it, he tells himself, refuses to listen to that dark whisper. Instead, he listens to the Russian falling effortlessly from Tony’s lips.
Of course, James is broken, that much is true, he’s a mess of jagged pieces shoved back together haphazardly and none-too-gently, but he’s certain that this newfound fascination isn’t tied to his trauma. James remembers what their Russian sounded like, the harsh, bark-like orders of his handlers, as sharp as a slap to the face, the slithering monotone of the scientists, like putrid slime crawling out of their mouths.
Tony’s Russian is nothing like that. Sure, his grammar, the word choice, it’s as natural as a native’s, but his pronunciation is just a touch off. Just a hint of an accent, and if James strains to pinpoint it, he thinks it’s Italian, as if Tony’s Italian roots are actually more pronounced like this when he’s speaking something other than English. The words are lyrical, graceful, like poetry, and for the first time, James understands the true beauty of this language.
He gets a little lost in the way Tony’s full lips shape themselves around the lengthy, consonant-heavy words, the way that tongue curls around the r’s like a caress, the rhythmic tempo of the one-sided conversation.
Tony notices him of course, hard not to when James is standing there at the entrance like an idiot, staring. All Tony does however is quirk an amused eyebrow, then offers a genuine half-smile and a wiggle of his fingers in greeting. He doesn’t pause the conversation, a continued cascade of Russian still flowing over the space around them, but he does look away again, back to spooning an ungodly amount of sugar into his coffee.
James can’t look away, doesn’t want to, although he does choose to focus on the butterflies in his stomach instead of the fact that he’s very nearly turned on just from listening to this man talk.
If Tony keeps this up, James might have to say ‘screw it’, abandon the entire elaborate plan of slowly and meticulously wooing this man, and taste that Russian for himself, make it his own, kiss Tony right here and now in the middle of the Avengers Compound kitchen.
Terrible, awful, no-good idea, even if he and Tony have been… dancing around each other for months now, but it took them so long to get here and James doesn’t want to jeopardize all that hard work.
To no one’s surprise, after the pardons first came avoidance, one that would’ve lasted indefinitely, until one night, they stumbled into each other and one sharp word turned into more and more and more, until they were both screaming, sobbing messes, both lashing out, at each other, at themselves, and mourning everything that was ruthlessly ripped away from them.
From that blossomed a tentative friendship, softer, simpler, less burdened. Then, it wasn’t long before they were flirting, circling each other like two orbiting suns, slowly getting closer and closer.
This thing with Tony, it matters and James doesn’t mind taking his sweet time, but Tony’s Russian might be the thing that pushes James to unearth his long-lost bravery and take the final step, fall into Tony’s orbit completely and let Tony’s fire light him up from the inside.
His terribly poetic musings are interrupted when Steve appears at his side and James groans internally, grits his teeth, because Steve’s presence is like a bucket of ice-cold water. He should be thankful for it, probably, because pining after Tony and that beautiful, melodic Russian in broad daylight is bordering on inappropriate, but James is petty enough to just be annoyed.
“Since when does Tony know Russian?” Steve asks casually, voice low, but there’s a sliver of something beneath the words, a reprimand of sorts. Steve, nowadays, has a problem with Russian; he shakes his head and frowns and disapproves every time James slips into it, whether by accident or in deliberate rebellion against the image of a man Steve wants him to be.
Nowadays, James is far less inclined to pretend to be that man just to remain in Steve’s good graces. A lot has happened in the past year, a new home, new faces surrounding him, an entire new life, and his priorities are different from what they were a year ago. Less self-preservation and more self-discovery, which more often than not leaves Steve disappointed with this new, less palatable version of James Buchanan Barnes.
James breathes through his nose, forcing himself to stow away his own hurt feelings; every day it hurts less and less anyways, because now there’s a whole world outside of Steve Rogers and James prefers it that way.
He doesn’t call Steve out on the unspoken accusation either, even though James knows it’s just on the tip of Steve’s tongue.
Tony shouldn’t be speaking Russian! What if it triggers you, makes you uncomfortable? Why can’t Tony think about someone else for a change?
The thought alone is enough to tempt James into rolling his eyes, but he refrains. Plenty of things make him uncomfortable these days, but Tony’s Russian doesn’t even make the list; on the contrary, it’s now at the top of a very different list, one that also includes the way Tony bites his bottom lip when he’s fully immersed in his work; the way he stumbles into the kitchen in the early morning in search of more coffee, sleepy and soft and so damn vulnerable that James just want to bundle him up and hide him away from the world; the way Tony says his name now, James, as if the word finally means something good, as if it brings Tony pleasure to say it.
Of course Tony notices Steve’s arrival too, acknowledges it with a nod and a smile, but it’s nothing like the one he offered James earlier. A mockery, a fake, the same thing he offers the politicians and the media and it hurts to see it so plainly, but it’s worse to see the others fall for it, over and over again. Why can’t they see that the smile never reaches Tony’s eyes, never makes them shine?
It’s one of the many, many things that drive James crazy in this new place, the Compound, with all of them crammed back together in some misguided, useless attempt to promote “unity”. Unity is a fool’s errand when half of these people still treat Tony like he owes them something.
Tony interrupts James’ train of thought when he issues a friendly goodbye to the person on the other end of the line; he places the slim phone down on the counter, trading it for the cup of coffee, and clever eyes watch James and Steve over the rim of the mug as Tony takes a long, leisurely sip.
“Steve,” he finally greets the man verbally, adds a friendly tilt of his head, but his eyes are still cold and James doesn’t know how Steve can handle that gaze, how he doesn’t just shrivel up and weep over losing whatever warmth was once there.
For a fleeting moment, James is terrified that the chill of that gaze will be aimed at him next, but when Tony’s eyes flicker to him, the ice melts and there’s a tiny twitch of Tony’s lips, like he’s trying his best not to smile. The corners of his eyes crinkle though and his expression is genuine again, warm. James wants to melt too.
“Tony,” Steve replies, oblivious— willfully or otherwise— to the silent conversation taking place between James and Tony, “haven’t seen much of you in a while.”
“Been busy. You know how it is, no rest for the wicked, always a mess to clean up somewhere.”
Steve ignores the obvious jibe. “I didn’t, uh— didn’t know you spoke Russian. When did you pick that up?”
Again, the hints of disapproval are there and Tony doesn’t miss them either. He levels Steve with an unimpressed look, as if Steve’s mere presence insults his intelligence.
“Howard was a weapons manufacturer, Steve,” he says, “during the Cold War. ‘Know thy enemy’ ring any bells?” Tony scoffs, then takes another sip. “I had language tutors before I could walk.”
That explanation isn’t actually what Steve’s looking for, and James knows it. Tony knows it too as he stands there and waits for Steve to say what’s really on his mind.
“Maybe it would be better if you—”
“If I what?” Tony interjects without preamble, “Talk on the phone with a colleague, in my own home, in whatever damn language I please?”
Steve sighs, like he’s the one with the right to be annoyed here. “That’s not what I meant and you know it, Tony. You don’t have to be so— so combative all the time. All I’m saying is that you should remember you’re not the only one living here anymore. Please consider Bucky’s history.”
Tony keeps looking at Steve, his jaw clenching, and James almost hopes Tony rips Steve apart for the remark (hell, he’s tempted to do it himself). But Tony doesn’t reply, just shakes his head minutely, like he’s given up on the entire endeavor, given up on Steve (but that already happened, a long, long time ago). He turns to James instead.
“Do you want me to stop?” Tony asks and the question isn’t mocking, isn’t meant to intimidate or belittle. James is certain Tony would stop if it were James asking him to do so.
“Net,” he answers without a shred of hesitation, his own tongue curling around the language that feels like his own now, for better or worse, “mne tvoi Russkiy nravitsya.”
I like your Russian.
Steve sputters next to him, since he speaks a little Russian himself, although not nearly as well as Tony. James ignores him, too enraptured by the way Tony’s eyes light up.
Whether it’s simple delight or joy or outright desire, James doesn’t know. All he knows is that he can’t look away again.
“Nu togda, poshli so mnoi, snezhinka?” Tony says, and doesn’t even spare Steve a glance when he also adds with a flirty wink, “U menya est’ podarok dlya tebya.”
Well then, come with me, snowflake? I have a gift for you.
James’ imagination gets the better of him— fantasies of all sorts of gifts offered alongside that crooning Russian spring up and refuse to leave— but even though he’s certain that Tony’s just talking about another arm upgrade, it makes him want to grin nonetheless. He doesn’t quite manage, still learning how to smile without reservation, still learning to live, so all that appears is a small, private smile he only shares with Tony, but the man doesn’t seem to mind. Tony beckons him with a crook of his finger, and James follows, not bothering to look back at Steve either, who’s likely frowning, at Tony for daring to speak to his Bucky, at James for following Tony around like an obedient puppy.
What Steve refuses to understand is that things have changed and James, in the process of figuring out this strange new world, fell deeply in love. What Steve will never understand is that Tony doesn’t need to ask, doesn’t need to offer gifts, doesn’t need to do anything but be the brilliant, generous, gorgeous man that he is, and James will follow that sweet-sounding Russian, those gorgeous brown eyes, this man… he will follow Tony to the ends of the Earth and back if only Tony will let him.