It’d been a lifelong thing, Tony’s love for Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.
Ever since he’d been a child, they’d been there for him. They’d been his heroes and his friends; they’d looked down at him from his posters and told him not to listen to his stupid dad, that they’d beat him up if they ever saw him. Bucky’s shining eyes had given Tony confidence and made him feel brave, and Cap’s warm smile had been safe- more like home to him than anything else he knew.
He’d grown up on their stories. Tales of their heroism; how they’d gone and saved towns, put themselves in danger for a passing stranger, done anything and everything they could to fight for justice and liberty. Tony had used to imagine them saving him. Pathetic, he knew, but still. He’d only been a kid. A lonely, desperate kid who just wanted someone to care. And those two heroes who’d smiled down at him from the poster in his room for twelve years of his life had just seemed fitting. No one cared about people more than they did.
Of course, he grew up and snapped out of it eventually. Captain America and Bucky Barnes were both dead and gone, and would probably have treated him the same as everyone else did even if they weren’t. Tony Stark was not a person who would ever be worth their time. He’d been told that enough times by Howard. At fourteen, angry and bitter and looking for something to blame for the lack of love he received from his family, he took it out on those two characters. Ripped down their posters and threw away the action figures, the rare collectibles. Trashed some of Howard’s stuff too, in a fit of pique. It’d been a stupid idea. His dad had gone absolutely nuts.
But even when he’d declared he’d hated the two of them- even when he’d assured everyone that those idiots were nothing more than pimped up wartime propaganda, it was still those two heroes he thought of when he was sat curled up in the corner of his room, wondering if there was anyone in the world who gave a damn. And he hated nothing more, but the thought still managed to bring him comfort anyway. He thought about how Bucky would have wiped the tears off his face and told him a joke, how Steve would have held his hand and told him that they both loved him. More than anything. More than anyone.
It had been his go-to comfort source. And then later, when Tony had grown up a little, when he’d started realizing that there were certain body parts that seemed particularly interested in the two soldiers, Tony would very often lose nights to different sorts of fantasies about them. Purely physical, of course, because he still hated them. But they were hot, and he was horny, and that was that.
(He didn’t think he could hate them if he tried. Hating them would never make it feel as good as loving them did.)
But yeah. Basically, Tony had been in love with their legacies, with their kindness and their faces and their bravery for his entire life. He hadn’t bothered trying to tamp it down. They were dead and gone, and it didn’t matter.
And if he still came back to the thought of them when he was well into adult-hood, bored on a Saturday night and looking for some entertainment, well… no one needed to know about that.
Of course, Tony had never in his wildest dreams expected to end up living with them.
Such was the nature of his life, he supposed. It’d been Cap first- pulled out of the ice that everyone had thought he was laying dead and frozen in, apparently not any of those things. The serum had kept him in stasis for all those years, and of course, as soon as he was up and walking SHIELD had him on the front lines, fighting Demi-Gods in his ridiculous suit that sparked up a myriad of ancient memories. They hadn’t gotten off to the best start, what with a lot of Tony’s lingering resentment shining through and then Steve’s touchiness from- y’know, losing everything he’d ever loved- it had just been a disaster, really. But they’d managed to work things out in the end, and Tony had invited Steve to stay at his tower with the team a few weeks late. From there, it’d all just spiralled.
Tony somehow managed to become one of Steve’s closest friends. They went out for movies together, fought like one unit when they were on the field, and the time they shared very quickly became the best parts of Tony’s day. Of course, the real life embodiment of him was just as easy, if not easier to love than the fantasy version had been, and Tony resigned himself to quietly and wholly loving every aspect that made up Steve Rogers, knowing that he would never have a chance, but being unable to stop wishing anyway.
And then, if Steve hadn’t been enough of a miracle on his own, Bucky Barnes had showed up a year later.
Broken from years and years of torture at the hands of HYDRA, he was not the same man that Tony had seen on the posters. He was volatile and violent, haunted by memories he couldn’t hold onto, and enslaved by the horrors of what he’d done.
Steve had immediately dropped all areas of his life to try and nurse him back to health.
Tony hadn’t even seen him for almost three months. Which he had expected, really. It’d never been confirmed, of course, but Tony had read the papers and the accounts, and he’d known what he’d read had been more than just friendship. It’d been clear, right from the start, that Steve and Bucky were in love. Had been their whole lives. Whatever tentative little thing he’d been building up with Steve was nothing in comparison. Now Steve had any semblance of Bucky again, Tony was unlikely to even get a second thought.
And he was okay with that. Bucky deserved happiness just as much as Steve did. They deserved to be reunited, and if there was anyone who could help Bucky Barnes come back it was Steve Rogers.
Of course, when Bucky was more stable, Tony didn’t hesitate to invite him to stay in the tower with them. Set him up with the best psychologists he could, gave him everything he could possibly want. Bucky would look at him with a sort of bewildered sense of gratitude every time, and sometimes he’d pat Tony on the shoulder in thanks. Tony tried to pretend that the sensation of it didn’t make him weak at the knees. Didn’t make him obsess over Bucky’s hands and where else he wished they’d touch.
He was stupid. His brain hated him enough that not only had it made him hopelessly in love with one supersolider, but instead, made him love two. And as Barnes had gotten better; when he’s started smiling more and looking at Tony for longer, it had just gotten worse. Tony knew that he and Steve were together. Had been from the very start, and would be until the very end, no doubt. But God, every time he saw those icy grey eyes fix on his own, he wanted… he wanted so many things. And Steve- Christ, when Steve smiled at him or brushed the hair away from Tony’s eyes absently, the weight of his love just crushed him.
And then he’d lean in, peck Bucky’s cheek as he went off for his morning run, and reality would sink back in. It always did. Ever since he was a child.
He wanted what he couldn’t have. And that was okay. That was just… life.
By this point, he was used to being heartbroken.
The mistake came on a Sunday morning.
Steve and Bucky were teasing him over breakfast; Steve fresh and damp from his post-run shower, and Bucky in nothing but his boxers as he always was when he came down for breakfast these days. Tony’s eyes, as usual, were drawn to the messy way Bucky had thrown up his hair, and the strands of hair that fell lose around his shoulders, floating lazily in the air as he twisted and moved. He especially loved Bucky’s hair- the length, the softness, the way it curled at the ends. Then, a few moments later Steve passed through his line of vision too, and suddenly Tony was caught on the way the little droplets of shower-water curled around his neck and dampened his grey shirt, how he could see the outline of his muscles through the thin fabric, the way his hand lingered against Bucky’s waist as he passed the other man by. It had been this way for years; Tony was fine-tuned to them to the point where he hardly even noticed he did it any more. But sometimes, on days like these, it was… it was hard to ignore. What with Steve and his ridiculously warm smile that had no place being present at such an early hour of the morning, and then Bucky’s complete comfort around the two of them despite the lack of almost all his clothing.
Tony was only human, dammit, and these two were… they were something else. They were perfect and beautiful, and so out of reach. An unattainable level that Tony couldn’t get to.
So he pushed out the thoughts and just concentrated on smiling. That was mostly a reflex action by this point in his life. “You know, you can’t actually just walk into my home, take my plate and steal my bacon. That’s theft and I will throw you onto the streets for it, Rogers.”
Steve pouted at him, giving Tony his best puppy-dog eyes as he hurriedly stuffed the slice of bacon into his mouth. “But you always make it so well,” he mumbled with a sigh, before poking Bucky in the stomach, “this idiot ends up burning it to a crisp, and me- well, I just can’t cook for shit.”
Tony continued to glare. “I don’t care if you’re starving and on your last legs, you can’t abuse your superstrength by stealing bacon from me. It’s not allowed.” He pointed a finger over to Bucky and then clicked commandingly. “Bucky, tell him it’s not allowed.”
Bucky paused, looking between them both with a small blink, taking a second in order to zone back into their conversation. “Well,” he began, raising his hands, “on one side, we have Steven, my lovely boyfriend who I love and is my boyfriend.” Steve beamed up at him happily, and Tony instinctively pushed down on the little clench in his heart that rose up. But then Bucky turned his eyes onto Tony, and his hand settled gently over the top of Tony’s hair, brushing through his bedhead lightly. “But on the other hand, Tony is very helpless in the morning. Plus he owns the bacon supply. I need friends in the right places, Rogers, sorry.”
Tony concentrated very hard on the dramatically exaggerated look of betrayal on Steve’s face as opposed to the tantalizing sensation of Bucky’s hand in his hair. Sometimes they both just did this. Little touches. Ones that could almost be mistaken for intimate. Tony knew that was just how they acted, and everyone had touched a lot more during their time, but still. It was… hard, sometimes. To deal with the level of affection they showed him so easily. It made his heart hurt, knowing that it wasn’t quite real enough for him.
He rolled his eyes and huffed, looking up at Bucky. “Who says I want either of you?” He asked pointedly, before standing up from his chair and heading to the sink where he put his plate. “Maybe I just keep you around to be my bodyguards, huh?”
There were two twin gasps, and he held back a smile. “Tony Stark, are you saying you’re using us just for our young and athletic bodies?” Steve asked in mock horror from directly behind him.
“Are you saying you don’t appreciate me telling you knock-knock jokes every evening without fail?” Bucky added, and when Tony glanced around at them both, he saw the man had a hand on his bare chest, looking like a kicked puppy as he stared at Tony’s back.
“What about when I force you to wake up at six and train with me, Tony? Do you not appreciate that?”
“Or when I teach your bots how to play fetch and then set them loose on you while you’re in the middle of working- does that mean nothing to you, Stark?”
“This is a betrayal, ain’t it Buck?”
“I cannot believe-“
“Alright alright, shut up,” Tony rolled his eyes and sighed exasperatedly, running the plate under the sink, “you guys know you’re my everything, come on.”
It was a good few moments later that Tony noticed the heavy silence that had filled the kitchen. He could admit, he was still tired, and he didn’t function well in a morning, so it took him a while to realize why.
When he did, the plate slipped out of his hands and shattered into the sink. He froze up, blood draining instantly from his face.
“I-“ he began, not daring to turn around and face them, “I mean, you know you’re my best friends, right? That’s what I- that’s… I meant it like that.” It was pathetic. Feeble. He could hear it in his own ears as he spoke, and really, he was Tony Stark and he couldn’t think of a better save than that? What in the damn hell was wrong with him?
No. No no no no no. He couldn’t have just ruined two of the best friendships he’d ever had in the space of a few seconds. No. No, how could he have been so stupid-
“Tony,” Steve began, his voice suddenly a lot more quiet, serious.
Tony felt his heart tearing. He knew what was going to come. We don’t want you. You’re our friend, Tony, but it’s never been like that. You’re old. You’re not our type. We already have eachother.
He didn’t think he would be able to bear hearing that.
“I’ve, uh- I’ve got to go. Just remembered…lab. Work and stuff, I’ve left it too long, I need to-” he didn’t bother finishing the sentence, they already knew it was a blatant lie. Turning tail and then keeping his eyes firmly on the wall, he pretty much ran from the room, the sounds of Bucky and Steve’s voices lingering behind him. He kept going, walking and walking and walking, mind numb with shock and panic.
He wasn’t sure whether he truly grasped the gravity of what he’d just said. Those words- those stupid words were unable to be misinterpreted. Fuck, if he’d have just said love, then he might have been able to pass it off as friendship. But no- he’d gone full out. ‘You’re my everything’ – God, how ridiculously needy did that sound? What the fuck had he been thinking? Well, quite obviously only dumbass thoughts, that was for sure. Because now his two best friends knew he was in love with them. Now his two best friends who were in love with one another, who were perfect for eachother in their ageless beauty and super strength, knew that their clingy buddy was pining after them.
He cursed loudly, hand pressing repeatedly against the elevator button in front of him. JARVIS, bless him, got the message and opened the doors rapidly, allowing him to hurry inside and then snap at JARVIS to shut the doors. He felt lightheaded and sick to the stomach.
Three seconds. And he’d just ruined two of the best relationships he had in his life.
He turned and watched as the doors shut swiftly- catching the shadow of what looked like Steve’s blond head as it swung around the corner. There was the tiniest millisecond where their eyes met across the corridor; Tony’s fear with Steve’s shock. But then the doors locked together, blocking Steve’s face from view and just leaving Tony’s washed out reflection in the chrome surface that the elevator was made of.
He dropped his head into his hands and looked down in misery at the floor until he arrived in his workshop. He’d fucked up, and he’d fucked up bad. And you know what a Stark did when they fucked up bad?
Tears threating to prick at the back of his eyes, he yanked open the cabinet and pulled out a bottle of vodka.
The worst thing was that, in his heart of hearts, he knew that it wasn’t the fear of rejection that had stopped him from asking, all this time.
Because he hated himself, okay, and that was just… it was a given. He didn’t think he was worth their love, and he knew that he didn’t deserve any of it. Bucky didn’t need someone as fragile and temperamental as Tony sharing a bed with him, and Steve shouldn’t have to deal with his sharp tongue when he got angry and needed an outlet. That was why it hadn’t worked with Pepper- why it would never work with anyone. He wasn’t the kind to be able to have relationships like that.
But, self-loathing aside, he was also a very, very clever man. He knew what interest looked like; he’d grown up seeing it, feeling it, showing it and being shown. He knew what attraction smelled like in the air. And there were times; times when Bucky would stare at him or Steve’s hand would linger on the small of his back as he passed, and Tony would think ‘I know you want me too.’ He would usually chalk it down to projection, to hopeless fantasizing, but in his heart of hearts he knew that it wasn’t. He knew what he could see, and even if his conscious mind denied it, his subconscious held on to it. Deep down, a part of him was aware that they thought about him too. Maybe even in the same way that he thought about them.
And maybe that was worse.
Worse, because no matter how much they wanted eachother, Tony knew it wouldn’t work. Couldn’t work. Tony… God, Tony loved them. He loved them way too much to be able to do casual sex. To just be their bit on the side. Hell, if they offered that up, he probably wouldn’t be able to say no to it seeing as he was a masochistic bastard who would take whatever scraps they gave him- but it would probably kill him, if he was being honest. Fucking them, kissing and tasting and touching and feeling them, and knowing that at the end of it they’d go back to one another and leave him behind was just… not something he had the guts to even think of.
But anything more? A relationship? That would be even more bittersweet.
Because if there was one thing about Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes that made them so close, it was their shared immortality. Okay- so maybe not immortality, per se… but they didn’t age. Not in the way that normal humans did, anyway. They would still be young and healthy in ten, twenty, thirty years time. For ever and ever, they would have each other.
And then there would be Tony.
Tony, who was already too old for either of them. Tony who had to dye his hair black every few weeks to prevent the grays from shining through. Who had crows’ feet starting around his eyes and a million aches in his joints from doing what he did every day.
What happened if it worked, hm? What happened if they stayed together? Would they watch him grow older, weaker, less beautiful, and slowly lose interest in what they’d once had in the beginning? Or- if, in the one in a million chance that they stuck around for that long- would they love him until the very end, and have to watch him grow old, wither away, die whilst they remained young forever?
No. Tony could never do that- not to himself or to them.
It couldn’t work. Bucky had Steve and Steve had Bucky, and they belonged together. Tony didn’t fit into their equation. And it was the big elephant in the room that no-one liked to discuss, but even once the rest of the Avengers had long since withered away and died, Steve, Bucky and Thor would all be left young. That was their curse. But it wasn’t Tony’s.
And God, he did not want to live forever, not by any stretch of the imagination… but sometimes he wished he could just live long enough. Long enough to keep up with them, just for a little while.
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t, and it hurt more than anything.
With a drunk laugh, Tony took another long swallow of the vodka before flopping down onto the couch he was sat on. He was too tired for this. Too tired, even, to take that extra mile of masochism and pick up his phone to check all the messages that he knew Bucky and Steve must have sent him. Even he knew that trying to text those two men whilst he had a bottle of vodka running through his system would only make things worse, and he’d already fucked up quite enough for that day, thank you very much.
He buried his face into the cushions, curling up like a child. The couch smelled like Bucky’s cologne, and there were ink-stains on the leather from where Steve had left his pens. It was awful and haunting and it still felt like home anyway.
He swallowed down the familiar sense of longing, and shut his eyes.
The next day he kept himself holed up in his lab, avoiding all calls, texts and notifications, and mostly just wallowed.
He was hungover and bitter. Trying to think of a solution, a way to make this right again without permanently damaging his relationship with the two other men. He knew that probably involved him leaving his lab and actually talking to them, but… well, he was building up to that part. For now, he was still a little too scared of what they might say in response.
He rolled off the couch to take some aspirin and brush his teeth, then looked at himself in the mirror with a slightly disgusted grimace. He probably needed a shower, unless he wanted to smell like a homeless alcoholic. At least the water would be cold. It might perk him up a little.
He loitered under the spray for twenty minutes before declaring himself unable to achieve a higher state of cleanliness, and then slowly towelled himself down. He felt like shit in more ways than just the physical sense. The hangover probably wasn’t helping much, though. “JARVIS, remind me that Vodka is a terrible drink and I should never drink that stuff again.”
“If I remember correctly, I told you that exactly seven times last night before you told me so very eloquently to ‘shut the fuck up’.”
Ah. His AI was still pissy with him then. He looked up at the ceiling; a habit picked up from, surprise surprise, Steve and Bucky. The guilt stung at him, as it should. JARVIS was good to him- too good. “Sorry, pal” he said softly, “thanks for trying to look out for me anyway. Know I don’t deserve it from you.”
JARVIS responded immediately. “You are my creator,” he said simply, “and above that, you are the closest thing an artificial intelligence like myself will ever have to a family. You deserve happiness and safety, sir. Nothing less.”
Tony blinked, looking back down to the floor quickly as a lump formed in his throat. It was a comforting thought, to know that when everything else could abandon him, he would still have JARVIS. The one true constant in his life.
“J?” He asked quietly once the moment had passed, towelling off his damp hair and looking at the desk where some of Bucky’s prototype weapons were strung.
“Have… have they said anything?”
JARVIS, of course, knew exactly who and what he was talking about. He was one of Tony’s oldest friends, after all, and if he’d have had a set of lungs, he probably would have sighed through them. “Well, they are currently sat waiting outside your lab, as they have been ever since you ran in here and put yourself into blackout mode. You could, if you felt like it, simply ask them.”
Tony jerked. “What?”
“They are currently sat waiting outside your lab, as they have been ever since y-“
“Okay, no need to repeat, I heard the first time,” Tony snapped in annoyance at his dry-humoured AI, lurching forward a few steps before freezing up in the middle of the room. “Fuck, what do I do?”
“Would you like me to help you, sir?”
Tony faltered. “Yes? You always know what to do, J.”
There was a moment where nothing was said, and then… “whoah, wait, JARVIS! ‘Help’ did not mean opening th-“
He froze up, staring dead-on at Bucky as he sat outside in the corridor, watching as the doors slid open in front of him. A second later, the same name was spoken on a different pair of lips, and Steve jumped quickly to his feet, looking at Tony with wide, genuine eyes.
He swallowed. “Hi,” his voice croaked awkwardly and he rocked back on his feet, looking down at the floor.
Nothing was said. The three of them simply stood in a heavy silence, whilst Tony internally begged for Magneto to suddenly burst through the doors and declare war or Doom to teleport in and kidnap him, or just something to stop this horrible awkwardness-
He was halfway through his own fast-paced escape plot when Bucky moved. Like lightning through the corridor, he was in front of Tony in seconds, eyes heavy and serious as he looked down at Tony. His face was awfully close, and his hands were coming up, they were- they settled under Tony’s jaw, tilting his head up softly so he was looking at him.
Tony blinked up at him in confusion and then, to make things even stranger, he watched as Steve drew closer too, his right hand extended. Tony looked at it, bewildered as it curled around the back of his neck gently, Steve’s thumb stroking across the short hairs at the back of his neck. He stepped sideways, drawing close to Tony’s side, and his heart instinctively sped up a few notches, breath catching in his throat. They were so close.
“Tony,” Bucky murmured, looking deep into Tony’s eyes, “tell us we’re way off-base here and we’ll stop, okay?”
“But you said we were your everything and then ran off before we could answer you,” Steve continued for Bucky, his hand tentatively linking with Tony’s own until their fingers were entwined loosely together.
Tony’s head turned, looking up at Steve, an inch from his face. He felt suddenly like there was no air in the room. All thoughts halted; all he could feel was the two of them. He knew what this was. He knew what this signified.
“What… what were you going to answer with?” Tony breathed, eyes flicking between the two of them. His heartbeat had rocketed straight up from ‘fast’ to ‘two seconds away from cardiac arrest’.
Steve and Bucky both shot one another a quick glance, similar to the ones they gave eachother when they were thinking of a plan. Tony felt like every muscle was locked in place, frozen as he waited. And then, barely half a second later, they both struck in tandem. Bucky surged forward, hands moving under Tony’s arms and hoisting him into the air like he weighed nothing. Their mouths crashed together messily, every one of Bucky’s touches so full of desire that it felt as if it burnt a mark straight into Tony’s skin. He kissed back immediately and enthusiastically, feeling Bucky walk them both backward and head toward the desk. Meanwhile, Steve’s hurried footsteps walked behind him, hands curling around the back of Tony’s waist and pulling him forward encouragingly. Bucky stopped moving when they eventually reached the desk and, rather than feeling the cold metal underneath him, he realised that Steve had hopped on first, hands wrapping securely around his waist and pulling him up tight so that Tony’s back was pressed against his chest.
He ended up sandwiched between the two of them, Bucky pushing forward, hands bracing against the desk as his tongue licked into Tony’s mouth, and Steve sucking bruising kisses across Tony’s neck, his large hands pressed into each side of Tony’s hips.
Tony, meanwhile, was currently just focusing on trying to breathe as his senses exploded around him. The taste of Bucky’s kiss, the feel of Steve’s teeth scraping across his neck- it was everything he’d ever fantasized about. He gasped loudly, unable to contain the full-body shudder as his head tipped backward, resting against Steve’s shoulder whilst his eyes fluttered shut. Reaching out his hands desperately, he curled one around Bucky’s neck and then rested the other on the top of Steve’s thigh, hearing in complete delight as the man underneath him made a soft noise in the back of his throat and kissed him harder. “Jesus,” Bucky whispered against his mouth, and Tony felt rather inclined to agree.
“Tony,” Steve’s voice vibrated against the sensitive skin under his ear and made him shiver again, “Tony, we’ve both wanted you ever since we met you.”
“Yeah,” Bucky agreed, pushing forward another inch. Tony yielded back, hearing Steve let out a proper moan that time as his ass pushed against Steve’s cock. “Saw you and just thought, fuck, you’re so fuckin’ gorgeous, you know? Wanted to put my hands all over you-“
“Wanted to kiss you every single time you smiled at me,” Steve added, biting the shell of Tony’s ear, “you got no idea what you do to us.”
Tony pushed upward, rolling his hips forward and making the two of them both gasp as his ass ground down against Steve’s lap and his tongue licked across Bucky’s bottom lip. He couldn’t think, couldn’t speak- all he knew was that a lifetime of desire was bubbling to the surface, and he had to get it out. He had to. Even if he could only have it once, even if this could never be a permanent thing that he got to keep. He could still… he wanted to…
But at the end of this, he was going to have to stand up and walk away. From them. From whatever they were offering to give him. Would he be able to do that, after being quite that intimate with them?
He didn’t think he could.
Heart sinking and throat drying up, he pushed gently at Bucky’s chest. “Stop,” he whispered, and Bucky pulled off instantly. Steve follow suit, pausing and then sitting back a little.
Tony slid off Steve’s lap, landing on the floor with a silent thud. He looked up at Bucky for a moment and then turned to Steve. They were both staring back in confusion and the first vestiges of worry. Tony wished the world would just swallow him up. He was a fucking bastard, stringing them along like that and then just letting them down.
“I can’t do this,” Tony said softly, shutting his eyes, “I’m sorry, this isn’t… I’m just sorry. I want something I can’t have and-“
Of course, it was in that moment that all his hopes and prayers were answered. A few minutes too late, mind you, but answered all the same. Because suddenly the Avengers alarm began to whine loudly throughout the room, and all of three of their heads hot up. Steve hopped off the desk quickly. “JARVIS, situation?”
“Wrecking Crew have arrived on Wall Street, Captain.”
Tony nodded numbly, looking away. He could feel both of their gazes on his back as he hurried off in the direction of his undersuit. “Okay,” he coughed, trying to ignore the way his neck was still stinging from Steve’s teeth, “okay, let’s suit up.”
The other two said nothing. Tony waited until he heard their footsteps begin to hurry off through the workshop before he turned, watching their backs run off in the direction of the armoury.
All he could do was sigh, and wish of a situation where he could just, for once in his goddamn life, get what he wanted.
The last thing Tony could have expected was to see them both stood by his bedroom door the following night, shuffling nervously in their pyjamas as they looked at Tony from the threshold and smiled nervously.
They hadn’t talked since the previous morning in the workshop when they’d kissed. The mission with the Wrecking Crew had been messy but fast, and after that Tony had run off to SI, and Steve & Bucky to the gym before any of them could even so much as hold eye contact. It had felt wrong; unnatural to be avoiding them like that. They were his best friends. He hated the thought of this being their reality now.
But, apparently not. Because here they were.
“Hey Tony,” Steve started, looking at him earnestly, “can we talk?”
Tony opened his mouth, pausing on the beginning of a word. “Uh…“
“Please,” Bucky said imploringly, mistaking Tony’s pause for unwillingness.
Tony bit his lip and then opened the door further, gesturing them inside. What did he really have to lose any more, after all? He’d already fucked things up. Might as well just go all in now. “Make yourselves comfortable,” He mumbled, feeling the warmth of their shoulders as they brushed past him.
Neither of them did; just stood in the middle of his room and then turned to face him. He looked back. He wouldn’t shy away from their gazes- they didn’t deserve that.
“So,” Steve began, clasping his hands together, “we think a few wires might’a gotten crossed yesterday, and we wanted to clear it up.”
Tony’s brow creased, but before he could respond, Bucky stepped forward. “When we said we wanted you, we didn’t just mean your body,” he explained, hands gesturing at Tony. “We meant…”
“We meant everything,” Steve finished softly, looking deep into Tony’s eyes, “all of it. We want to be in a relationship with you. To wake up with you in the morning and kiss you at night.”
“We want to call you ours,” Bucky told him, fingers curling gently through Tony’s hair and then tucking it absently behind his ear. Tony just stared at them both, stunned. He’d… well, he can’t say that he’d expected that, that was for sure.
They must have thought that was why he’d backed off yesterday. Which, to an extent, was true. He didn’t want to just be their bit on the side. He wanted to be theirs as much as they, apparently, wanted them to be his too.
For a wonderful, beautiful second, he imagined what it would be like to say yes.
To just… do it. Do what he’d wanted for so long, and see where it went. Allow himself the happiness that would invariably come with their love, with their touch. Tony had craved that for so long.
“I want that too,” he whispered quietly, feeling so very vulnerable as the two of them looked at him, hope just about to begin glimmering in their eyes again. He hated the fact that he was about to crush that hope in three more words: “but I can’t.”
Yeah. He watched, miserable, as both their faces fell. “Why?” Bucky asked, blinking, “is it because there’s three of us? We don’t- we don’t have to be public about it if you don’t feel comfortable with-“
“It’s not that,” Tony told him stiffly, turning away, “I just can’t, okay? So I think it’d be better if you just-“
“But if we want you, and you want us, why would you stop yourself?” Steve asked, and Tony heard him step forward. “This… Tony, this would make us all so happy. You know it would.”
“God, Tony, we’re in love with you, you know that right?” Bucky blurted, and fuck, wasn’t that an absolute knife to the gut, “we wouldn’t hurt you. We wouldn’t ever hurt you, not intentionally. We’d treat you the way you deserved. ‘Cause you mean everything to us too.”
Tony felt like he couldn’t breathe again. His eyes were getting hot. “I know you’d treat me well,” he whispered, “you’d treat me so well.”
“Then I don’t understand what’s-“
“Because I age and you don’t, guys,” Tony told them, voice low and shaky as he looked up. There was a long silence, Bucky and Steve both just looking at him in slow understanding. “I’m a human. I’m going to get old. Fuck, I already am old. And what happens if this works, and we last for years? When the age gap grows and grows? What if I have to sit there and watch you just- just stop loving me, lose interest, start to hate touching me-“
“Tony, we could never do that,” Steve said imploringly, hand reaching out- but Tony stumbled backward, shaking his head.
“Even if you didn’t, that doesn’t change the facts,” he whispered, “it doesn’t make me able to live in the same way you do. And I can’t… I won’t do that. Not to myself, not to either of you. It’s not fair on anyone. I won’t put myself through the pain of watching the people I love slip away from me. I just can’t. You know that I’m right, too, even if you don’t want to say it.”
The two supersoldiers looked at him, their eyes heavy. Tony hated himself. Hated what he was doing, hated that he was essentially saying ‘this is your fault’. But there was no other way. He was masochistic on a good day, sure, but not even he would be able to go through the pain of watching himself slip away from the two people he loved most as his bones stopped moving properly, as his brain began to lose its edge, as he withered away. It would kill him faster than any other disease could.
“Please,” he kept his eyes fixed on the carpet, “don’t ask again. Just… leave. Please.”
Steve made to move forward, obviously not done trying to fight, but Bucky put a hand over his chest and shook his head slowly. “Let’s listen to him, Stevie,” he murmured, swallowing as he looked at Tony with a small, sad nod, “he needs some space.”
No, he wished he could say, not from you. Never from either of you.
Instead, he nodded back once and then turned his back, hands fiddling awkwardly along the edge of his desk. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I’m just… sorry.”
There were a few seconds of silence, and he imagined how Steve would probably be thinking of the hundreds of counter-arguments he could attempt, and how Bucky would just be resigning himself to disappointment once more. That was Tony’s fault, too. All of it, his. The heartbeat that was just a fraction out of tune with the others, the life that simply didn’t fit correctly. That was the story of his life.
Eventually, he heard the door shut softly behind him, and he felt somewhat as if the two men had carried his soul right away with them as they left the room.
It took a while to get back to what they’d all used to be.
The awkwardness had lingered terribly for a while, biting chunks into Tony’s heart every time he was in the room with one of them. There was a tension in the air that never seemed to lift, and for months none of them had known quite what to say; the memories of what had almost happened that night still at the front of all their minds. Sometimes Tony wondered if things would have been easier if he’d just fucked them. Maybe that would have ended all the ‘what-if’s’ that seemed to linger these days.
But he knew that it wouldn’t have made anything easier. He was glad he hadn’t, in the end. He would never have been able to live with it. Live with knowing what it was like to have them, and then have it taken away so quickly by forces he couldn’t even control.
Aging was a part of life. Or- aging was a part of everyone else’s lives. Just not the two people that Tony loved.
God. How lucky was he, huh?
The rift that formed between them after that was horrible and lonely, and Tony spent many a night getting far too drunk and far too maudlin thinking about all the things that Steve and Bucky were probably busy doing whilst he sat and wished. There were some nights where he thought it would never end, that this was it. That he’d ruined two of the best friendships he’d ever had, broken irreparably.
But it healed. As most things did: tentative at first, but gathering momentum over the weeks, until eventually becoming what it had once been again. Steve, Bucky and Tony all managed to be in the same room without awkwardness. They smiled and patted one another on the back. Tony looked away when he saw the two of them kiss, because he knew that seeing it would hurt too much. He got used to the old routine.
There were… instances, of course. Where the feelings would resurface; during lonely nights where Bucky would find Tony and just cling on tight in an embrace too intimate for a friend, or when Steve would get a little too tipsy on Asgardian mead and whisper about all the things he wished he was able to do whilst he stroked Tony’s fast-greying hair. Forgotten the morning after, because it was easier than voicing the same old reasoning behind their inability to be together in that way. But still. It seemed none of them ever quite let go of the feelings. Months went by, and then just as Tony was starting to think that maybe they had given up, they’d just… do something else. Act in a way that let Tony know they were still there, in some way or another.
Months turned to years, and their attitudes never shifted. Not when Tony’s beard started to turn greyer too, not when he realised his eyesight was fading and he needed glasses. They still looked at him the same; half-longing, half-sadness. Tony didn’t really understand it. He was fifty now, and they were both still only in their mid thirties. Still young and fighting fit, going out to battle every day and coming back injured, only to be fine the day after.
Tony, on the other hand, was starting to feel it.
The wounds didn’t heal so fast, these days. His bones ached. He was tired all the time, and needed more sleep than he’d ever used to. Wearing the suit was becoming harder and harder, and he knew it. They all did. No one wanted a hero who wasn’t fit enough to fight.
He was aware that soon, he was going to have to give the armour up completely. Hand it down to someone new and retire himself. It was a thought that made him ache more than any of his joints did, but ultimately it was not about him. It was about this planet. And he wasn’t enough to protect it any more.
Of course, try telling the universe that.
“JARVIS?” Tony bolted upright in bed, rubbing his eyes as he heard the alarm sound, “Fuck, what’ve we got?”
“I am not entirely sure,” the AI responded as Tony leaped out of bed and then headed for the elevator, “some form of silicon-based lifeforms that are settling out in Times Square. They are using explosive devices and some form of nanotechnology.”
Tony groaned. He hated nanotechnology that wasn’t his own. Very annoying stuff. “For God’s sake- what’s the rest of the team’s status?”
“Preparing for takeoff, sir.”
Tony growled as he hurried to get the suit and then follow behind the Quinjet. He was always the one who scouted first in order to take account of the situation, and seeing as they knew absolutely nothing about what was coming down to greet them, he figured his job was probably pretty important that night. Never mind that he’d pulled something in his knee that hadn’t quite loosened up just yet. He would deal with it just fine.
Shooting off into the night sky, he waved cheerily at Natasha who was flying the jet and then sped forward, doing a loop of the square and checking out what was beneath him with a small frown. Definitely alien. Definitely weird. Definitely dangerous. That… was pretty much all he was getting.
Eh, he thought as he dived down and then made to land in front of them, that was good enough for him.
The fight, as it turned out, was far more brutal than what he’d been expecting, however. For beings half the size of a human, they were lethal and violent, and there were enough them to almost overwhelm the Avengers, SHIELD and the Fantastic Four combined. The nanotech they used was sporadic and unpredictable; linked to their brains to create any weapon they so desired. A tricky thing to deal with when you only had half a second to decide whether to duck or counter.
The Avengers were holding their own though. Battle-weary and knowledgeable in this sort of matter, they all quickly worked out a way in- through the mothership which pyschinetically linked all the stupid goblin men together. It was Tony’s job to shut it down whilst the others remained holding perimeter and drawing attention away, so he quickly evaluated the scene and looked for the fastest way in.
It took less than ten seconds for him to work that out, get in there and then blow the system to kingdom come. Quite a decent effort, if he did say so himself.
Of course, he had made one fatal error. There always was, in shit like this. You’d think Tony would be a little more prepared for it by that point in his life. But there you go. Some things you just don’t learn.
He turned around and saw an enemy sprinting into the ship to check the damage they’d heard, and Tony, tired and sore and ready to just go home, simply assumed that now his links were all gone, his weapons could no longer be drawn. Which was right. To an extent.
Unfortunately, Tony didn’t consider the weapon that he had already summoned, before the link had even been broken.
He fired his repulsor at the face of the small alien gremlin at the same time the small alien gremlin lurched forward and shoved a metal blade straight through his chest.
The result was a large chunk of metal, sticking out perhaps an inch underneath his heart, and the owner of it somewhere on the other side of the room, rather charred by an electromagnetic pulse of energy to the face.
He looked down in mild surprise. He’d have thought that would hurt more. Maybe it was the shock though. It’d happened before. Pain didn’t feel like pain when it was at that point, because your body knew it was going to die anyway, and so it didn’t bother to hurt any more-
He was going to die.
“Shit,” he murmured, falling to his knees and then letting his eyes roll into the back of his head.
Bucky was just starting to wind down and let himself relax a little when Rhodey commed in. His voice was breathless and panicked, too uncharacteristically loud to be anything but a severely serious situation, and Bucky knew at once that it was going to be bad.
He had no idea how bad until the first word that slipped from Rhodey’s mouth was ‘Tony’.
He looked to Steve, who looked straight back, face falling in sudden fear. They were both sprinting in the direction of the locator signal before either of them even knew they were doing it; leaping over rubble and bodies, frantic with worry. Rhodey was rattling off things- things that didn’t make sense, like ‘Tony’ and ‘through the heart’ and ‘not breathing’. Those were words that didn’t belong together, and Bucky didn’t understand why Rhodey was saying them.
Then they reached the scene. Then they saw Rhodey shakily spraying a sheen of nanobots onto the huge bloody gap in Tony’s chest. Then they both realised that this wasn’t a joke.
“Oh my God,” Steve choked, lurching forward like a man possessed. He dropped to his knees, leaned over and pressed his ear against Tony’s mouth like he expected him to just magically start breathing again. Meanwhile, Bucky just stared. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t talk or speak or even hear.
All he could do was look at Tony. Tony, laying lifeless on the deck of the strange alien spaceship, eyes shut, face grey. There was a puddle of blood. He was lying in it.
It didn’t feel real.
Not Tony. Tony was… Tony was the constant. The glue of the team. He was the one they both had but didn’t have, the one that they had always just assumed, one day, they would be able to call their own. He didn’t belong on the floor, bleeding out. That had always been someone else’s job. Bucky’s, maybe.
Fuck. He really wasn’t breathing.
He felt a pull, a smack on the chest as Steve whispered that Bucky needed to breathe, please, he couldn’t lose him too. Eventually, Bucky complied, if only to stop the inconsolable look of grief on Steve’s face. He realized they had moved; how long it had been he didn’t know. Some time, probably. They were in a different place. Whiter. Cleaner.
Tony. Fuck, Tony, Tony Tony Tony. Where was he? Bucky knew he was on the operating table, some part of his hazy mind had recalled that bit of information as it had been spoken to him. And he was with the woman- Helen Cho. She was clever. But was she clever enough to save him? Bucky needed to know. He needed to see her.
He walked forward- and was stopped.
With a snarl he smacked the hand away, but it was strong. Stronger than him. Steve. He held on.
“You can’t go in there,” Steve said in a choked-off voice, swallowing down a lump in his throat, “Buck, you can’t, it won’t help.”
“She needs to fix him,” he growled, “she has to. I have to convince her to-“
“Distracting her won’t… it won’t raise his chances Buck, come on,” Steve begged, tightening his hand and then pulling Bucky in. He resisted for a second; but Steve was warm and home, and right now everything was seconds from falling apart. He needed something to hold on to.
He sunk his head into Steve’s shoulder. “He can’t die,” he whispered somewhat hysterically, “he can’t, Steve, I love him, he can’t just-“
“He won’t,” Steve pushed out adamantly, “you know he’s strong. Brave. Nothing kills him- how many times has this happened before, yeah? He’ll pull through. He always does.”
Bucky had the feeling that Steve was trying to convince himself just as much as he was trying to convince Bucky.
They stayed there in the bleak hospital waiting room, locked in one another’s arms as Tony sat in another room with Helen Cho, his life hanging in the balance. Bucky was vaguely aware of the presence of others; the team, Pepper, Rhodey. But they weren’t important to him. Not just then.
Tony had to live. He had to. Bucky hadn’t kissed him in two years. He’d never forgotten that day, and he was just waiting for another chance to do it again. Tony had to come through and deliver.
Bucky refused to think about what he would do if it turned out he never got the chance.
Steve waited with Bucky in his arms for two hours, before he heard the sounds of the door opening.
Breaking apart rapidly, he was in front of Doctor Cho in a flash. “Is he going to live?” He croaked, feeling the words like bile on his throat, “please, please, is he…”
She looked up at him, something grave on her face. “I need to speak to Mr. Rhodes before we decide anything,” she said softly, placing a hand on Steve’s shaking arm and then turning to look at Colonel Rhodes, who was sat rigid in the hospital chair.
“What for?” Rhodey asked tightly. His face was ashen.
She bit her lip and then shut her eyes, looking around the room. “We should probably be alone for this, but I know he considers all of you family, so I doubt there is much to lose.” Her breath shuddered to a halt for a second, and then her gaze fixed itself firmly to Rhodey. “He’s dying,” she said simply, and just like that, the bottom dropped straight out of Steve’s world.
He stumbled backward, as if shot. Behind him, he felt Bucky go completely and utterly still. And around the room, everyone else just gasped. Cho, however, wasn’t done talking.
“He’s dying, and no medical procedures can save him. There’s a rupture in his heart. He’s going into cardiac arrest every ten minutes. We can’t keep up with him. His body… it is not strong enough to keep up either.” She took a small breath, and her eyes flicked over to Bruce for a moment before continuing. “But… but I know something that could, theoretically, heal him.”
“Do it,” he heard Bucky growl immediately.
“That is not your choice, Mr. Barnes-“
“Like hell it isn’t-“
“Bucky,” Natasha said warningly as Steve placed a shaking hand over his chest. Steve could feel his laboured breathing under his palm.
“What is it that you want to do?” Bruce asked quietly, watching her with his tired eyes. He seemed so battle-weary, so worn. He looked the way Steve felt.
Cho looked at him for a moment, and then licked her lips. “Extremis,” she murmured softly, and the other scientist’s eyes widened in disbelief, “I know, I know- it’s a risk. A huge one at that.”
“But- but the work you did on it was purely hypothetical-“
“It’s the only chance he has,” Cho interrupted him, her voice solemn.
Silence fell immediately around the room, heavy and stagnant. The only chance. Steve had no idea what this Extremis thing even was, but going by the look on Cho and Bruce’s face, he figured that it wasn’t a normal procedure.
But it was the only chance.
“I’m his health power of attorney,” Rhodey murmured, mostly to himself, “you’re asking me to choose?”
Bucky made to move again, this time rounding on Rhodey, but Steve stopped him once more. They didn’t have time to deal with Bucky’s panicked aggression right now.
Cho looked to him with a small nod. “The procedure is… painful. It will be terrible, and there is a large chance he won’t make it through the process. Shock could kill him. And if the virus is to be sustained inside him, it needs a power-source. A very, very powerful one. The arc reactor will have to be refitted into his sternum. Perhaps not as far deep this time, but… it’s the only way I can think of with the time we have.”
Steve blinked in shock, hand automatically tightening around Bucky’s. He felt scared. Scared in the way he had been when he was little; like everything was crushing down around him and there was no way to avoid any of it. Scared in the way that could only be fixed by one specific person. The person who was sat dying in that operating room.
Oh God. Steve was going to be sick.
Rhodey turned his head to the two of them, stood like razor-rods in the middle of the room and clutching one another with grey faces. He licked his lips.
“We have to try,” Bucky whispered to him, voice barely even powerful enough to cross the room, “we have to. It’s Tony.”
Steve, had he been a more selfless person, may have tried to offer the counter-argument. Said that it was a risk that might not even pay off, that may just hurt him more. And Steve even opened his mouth to attempt speaking the words, he really did. But in that moment in time, trying to argue against something that seemed to be the only option Tony had for survival was just nonsensical. His heart wouldn’t follow what his brain asked.
Steve was not going to try and argue against saving Tony’s life. He couldn’t.
So instead, he nodded his head in agreement, and then looked at Rhodey imploringly. The man looked back, face washed out and pale- but then he too, nodded his head once. “Do it,” he told Cho firmly, straightening up his back, “do everything you can.”
“Please,” Bucky told her, “please just save him. Please.”
Cho looked at the three of them sadly, and then tucked her hair behind her ear and coughed. “I’m going to try very hard, Mr. Barnes,” she told him with a firm, professional doctors voice. Steve sniffed and wiped his face, pulling Bucky away so he didn’t try and go after her as she turned her back. He wasn’t thinking straight in that moment; he would follow her all the way into the operating room if he didn’t have someone holding him back.
He turned his head to Bruce, question evident in his eyes. “What’s extremis?” He asked, somewhat afraid of the answer he would get.
Bruce looked at him seriously, and Steve didn’t feel any more reassured. With a small swallow and lick of his lips, Bruce slid the glasses off his face and rubbed at them nervously.
“Well. Not to sound dramatic, but I think you’re going to find out very soon.”
He felt like he was dying.
His body was on fire. Burning up. He should have been dead. The blade had gone through his heart. He should have been dead. Why was he not dead?
Oh God. Everything hurt.
He was screaming and he could feel it. It hurt his throat. He was burning. He wanted to be dead. Why couldn’t he just be dead? Fuck, maybe he was. Was this hell? He couldn’t see. Couldn’t hear. His entire being just revolved around the agony.
“-need to stabilize-“
“Is he gonna-“
“Fever is rising, quick, get the-“
“Never seen anything like this before, Christ-“
“We got a spike, grab the defib, crap, his body is going to give out before the process can-“
“Come on, Tony, for me. For us.”
“Yeah. For us, sweetheart, you can do it. I know you can.”
He clung onto the sound of the voices that sounded like home, and forced his heart to beat.
Bucky could admit, he had known Extremis was going to be bad. He just hadn’t known it would be that gut-wrenchingly agonising; not only for Tony to go through, but for everyone else to watch.
He writhed and screamed on the table. His muscles tore with the strain. He cried, begged, whimpered like a wounded animal. They had to put the reactor back in while Extremis was still working through him, so he hadn’t been anesthetized either.
That had been the worst part, Bucky thought. Making him relive that trauma.
Then, after whatever virus it was had ‘settled’, something had started to grow around him. A cocoon of some sort- grey and thick. Cho had assured them it was part of the process, that this was just his body reprogramming itself, but it had still been almost unbearable to watch. Surely Tony wasn’t able to breathe under all that?
In under an hour, there was no visible part of his body that remained. Bucky had to leave the room. He couldn’t stand to see Tony in that state.
In sixteen hours, there was still no progress. He watched blankly as Steve paced a mark into the hospital floors, sparing regular glances over to the operating room. In there, they could see the muddy shell that surrounded the person both of them had loved for years as he hung in the balance between life and death.
Bucky curled his hands into sharp fists and tried not put them through a wall. This hospital was important. This hospital was Tony’s only chance.
- 18. 20 hours.
- A whole day.
28 hours. 29. 30.
The monitors beeped, just once, and all weary heads jerked upward at the speed of light, pointing their gazes at the source of the noise.
Movement. Brain waves or muscle contraction or something, but that was enough. That was all they needed. The doctors rushed forward whilst Cho and Bruce hurried inside, talking science and numbers with wide eyes and pale faces. Everyone was so tired.
Bucky, however, had never felt more awake in his whole life.
He reached out blindly and then felt Steve take his hand a second later, wrapping their fingers together tightly enough to turn his skin white. Their spare hands pressed against the transparent glass, watching the doctors work to pull Tony out of whatever coma the Extremis virus had forced him into. No-one even knew whether Tony would be the same when he came out. Whether he would remember, or whether he would degenerate rapidly, or whether the process would have turned him insane.
Or maybe, just maybe, it would go right.
“He’s gonna make it,” Steve murmured, reading Bucky’s thoughts as he pulled his hand closer and then rested his mouth against Bucky’s hot temple, “he will. It’s Tony. He’s survived worse odds before.”
Bucky just nodded, unable to make his mouth work properly. Steve had always been the more optimistic one of the two of them, ever since they’d been kids. But Bucky had been hardened by the things he’d seen, what he’d been through. He knew the statistics. Knew the chances of things ever going right and staying right in his life. God, he hadn’t even been able to ever properly have Tony, not in the way he’d wanted. And now… now he probably never would. Because Tony had been stabbed through the heart and then injected with a foreign virus that Bucky could hardly understand at all, and there was no way that he would be coming out of this one alive.
Which was why, of course, he was so very surprised when Tony did.
The Doctors called them all up a few hours later, whilst Steve and Bucky were leaning on each other and catching up on some precious minutes of rest. They were awake almost instantaneously of course, and as soon as they both caught the look on Doctor Cho’s face, something terribly similar to hope flared up under Bucky’s sternum.
“Well?” Steve asked, jumping to his feet, “is he… did- did he-“
“Is he okay?” Bucky cut in, asking the more general question with sharp eyes, looking for a change in their features.
There was none. Cho’s face was just… relieved. Happy. “See for yourself,” she murmured tiredly, stepping to the side and then gesturing to the door that led to Tony.
Immediately, six sets of feet jumped into standing position. Rhodey barged past them all, and it was only supreme self-restraint that let Bucky allow him to do so- but he followed shortly after, hot on his heels and gripping tight enough to Steve’s bicep that he was sure it would bruise. They all piled into the room, Bucky’s sharp eyes searching instantly for the familiar-
“Hey, guys,” Tony croaked, looking at them all with a face at least ten, possibly fifteen years younger, “how’s things?”
The whole room ground to a halt. Bucky felt Steve’s arm reach wildly for his shirt, holding him as if to check whether this was reality or whether he was just seeing things. Bucky curled his fingers through the gaps in Steve’s, giving his silent assurance as he blinked rapidly.
Tony was… he looked fine. Tired, but fine. Well- if Bucky was being honest, he looked better than fine. His skin was clean; free of scars or marks or the telling lines of age. His hair wasn’t flecked with grey any more. His muscles were suddenly even more defined than they had been before. God, even his eyes looked somehow brighter.
And yet he had almost been brain-dead a day ago.
“Tony,” Steve said dumbly, stepping forward with a small shake of his head, “Tony, are you okay?”
In response, Tony sat up. Bucky’s eyes went down; down to the huge gaping wound that should’ve been smashed over Tony’s chest, but was impossibly absent. All they could see was the perfect circle of the arc reactor, back where it had been all those years ago.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve felt this good in twenty years,” Tony muttered as he looked down at his arms. There was a moment where he just stared, fingers brushing lightly along the line where he’d used to have a scar less than 2 days ago. “So… Cho told me Extremis worked. Very well, in fact. That’s nice. I’m glad I’m not dead.”
Bucky felt as if he could hardly even breathe. He wanted to step forward, put his hands all over Tony and check whether this really was him. Whether this was still the Tony that they’d all known and loved. He looked so… young. Younger than either he or Steve had ever seen before. It felt wrong. People didn’t just do that- what kind of thing did Extremis have to be to actually make someone regress in age? Bucky had seen people freeze their aging, slow it down, but never turn it back.
Bruce and Cho and the rest of the doctors had done their tests, however, and by all accounts it looked as if he was completely fine. The marks were gone. Evidence that Tony had almost died 24 hours ago were gone.
But Bucky still remembered. He didn’t think he would ever forget, for that matter.
When Tony’s gaze caught with his own, he saw the way the man’s face softened. That, at least, hadn’t changed. He always seemed to have a particular little look, just for Bucky. “Hey, soldier,” Tony said with a smile, “like what you see?”
Bucky tried to think of words. Words that sounded normal and not ‘I thought you were going to die and I would never get to see you again’. They seemed a little too morbid, considering they were celebrating the fact that Tony hadn’t died. “I miss the gray hair,” he blurted instead, and then couldn’t help but crack a weak smile at Tony’s look of surprise.
“Really?” Tony said incredulously, a hand rising up to his head, “gray hair made me look old.”
“Gray hair made you look hot,” Steve corrected with a wry rise of his eyebrows, stepping forward and then reaching out a hand as if he was about to touch Tony’s face, before remembering that the whole team was in the room with him and hastily pushing it down again. He blushed crimson at Tony’s small grin and the rest of the room’s stifled giggles. “So- uh- care to explain what the hell just happened?” He asked, changing the subject swiftly, “because I for one am very confused.”
Tony almost laughed; but upon seeing the look of barely shrouded fear that was still marked on Steve’s face, he sobered up and then looked around the room. Everyone else seemed to be as curious as Steve. Well- except Bruce, of course, who was at least semi-aware of the process.
Tentatively, Tony’s fingers twitched and then rose, curling very lightly around Steve’s in comfort. “I’m fine,” he murmured, “I just went through a- ah- a biological reprogramming. It’s confusing. There’s… computer code in me now. It healed my injuries and also did a few other nifty things.”
“Like?” Natasha asked.
A second later, her phone buzzed. Tony gestured for her to pull it out, and with a small look of confusion she obliged- and then gaped in surprise. She showed the phone to everyone- a single text from Tony that read ‘like this’.
“Like I said,” Tony shrugged, “part computer. Ish. Uh. It also appears to have taken off a few years of my age. And according to Cho, that’s going to- uh- that’s going to stay that way. I’m probably not going to age much at all over the next decade or so.”
The room’s eyebrows all lifted in unison, and then Rhodey hit him on the arm. “Fuck you,” he said, a fond smile on his face, “Stark, we agreed if we found the secret to eternal youth we’d share.”
Tony smiled, glad that at least Rhodey seemed to be acting somewhat normally about it all. “Platypus, believe me, that’s not a process I’d wish on any man. I know beauty is pain, but damn, they didn’t mention the torture.”
At the sudden silence, Tony cringed. “Too soon?”
“You’re an asshole,” Clint responded with a roll of his eyes, jerking his head over to Bucky and Steve, “some people are still pretty traumatised by watching you nearly die for three days.”
Tony’s eyes turned on them, and Bucky felt every muscle tense in response. It still barely felt real. He didn’t dare believe in it in case it was suddenly taken away like a dream.
He looked down and watched the way Tony’s fingers squeezed tighter around Steve’s. “I’m okay, soldiers,” he said, voice uncharacteristically gentle, “really. You know me.”
Steve nodded shortly and Bucky copied, but it seemed that Tony still wasn’t convinced. He looked around the room, nodding once. “Can you just give us a minute, guys?” He asked everyone, gesturing to the door. The team looked between the three of them in mild confusion for a second but then agreed, slowly backing out of the room with hugs and pats to Tony’s shoulder.
A few seconds later, it was only Bucky, Steve and Tony.
“So,” Tony began, “uh… hi.”
Steve said hello back, but Bucky simply stepped forward, drawing closer and closer until Tony’s face was close, touchable. He extended his flesh fingers and placed them softly over Tony’s cheek, feeling the warmth there, the soft skin, the lack of any age that had been on his face before.
“You’re young,” Bucky murmured, “and alive.”
“That I am,” Tony responded, tentatively raising a hand and then pressing it down against the back of Bucky’s palm, “I promise. I’m fine now.”
“You weren’t before,” Bucky whispered, feeling Steve’s presence draw closer on the other side of the hospital bed, “you… I thought you weren’t gonna- and-“
“I know,” Tony murmured, his eyes sorrowful, “I’m sorry for putting you through that. But all you need to know is that I’m better now. And if Extremis works in the way we theorized it to, then I should be- I should be stronger than I ever was before. And…” Tony suddenly looked a little nervous as he looked away, down at his feet as he licked his lips. “And I- uh- I think my aging process has been slowed down dramatically, if not… if not stopped completely. Which is. Which is definitely- uh- something.”
It took a moment for either Bucky or Steve to catch on. But when they did, it took the air right out of their lungs.
“I’m a human. I’m going to get old,” Tony had told them two years ago- the reason for why they couldn’t be together. “I won’t put myself through the pain of watching the people I love slip away from me.”
And now… now he didn’t have that problem.
Tony’s fingers tightened around each other their hands, a questioning sort of hope in his eyes.
Bucky and Steve turned and glanced at one another, a silent conversation exploding in their heads. It lasted only a second, of course- the answer was obvious. It always had been, from the moment both of them had laid their eyes on the man.
Slowly, Bucky slid onto the bed and then himself down, turning so that his face was inches away from Tony’s. His hand remained pressing down into Tony’s cheek. A second later, he felt another dip in the bed- Steve, this time. Tony’s head turned in surprise, apparently shocked that both of them seemed to have made up their minds so fast.
“Are you sure?” Tony whispered, looking back and forth between the two of them, “you know, just because I don’t age any more doesn’t mean I’m not still a complete ass when I want to be.”
Bucky shrugged, dropping his head forward and pressing his mouth gently down upon Tony’s shoulder. “Luckily, we love your ass,” he responded, and then smiled at the answering little laugh he got from it.
Steve nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, definitely. And even if it’s not that sort’a ass you're talking about- we’ve still known you for years, Tony. We knew what you’re like. We still love you for it.”
“Anyway, you know as well as we do that your attitude doesn’t hold a candle to Steve’s when he’s hungry,” Bucky added with a small grin, and then deflected the small smack Steve tried to throw at him in return for it. Tony looked between the two of them with a helpless beam on his face- as if he genuinely couldn’t believe this was actually happening.
Bucky didn’t really see why. It wasn’t hard to see that the two of them had been hopeless for Tony for years and years now.
“I do miss your gray hair though,” he said with a small pout, moving his mouth closer to Tony’s ear as he whispered, “although I gotta say, being younger and fitter definitely has some perks.”
Tony looked up at him, face slowly turning pink with understanding. He didn’t get the chance to respond, however, because a second later Steve had rolled closer too, pressing against his side and then caging him in with his arms. He smiled down at both Tony and then shared a small look of understanding with Bucky.
They both knew they were going to have a lot of fun exploring this.
“Well, we’re not doing it in a hospital, that’s for fucking sure,” Tony managed to choke out eventually, although he didn’t take his hand away from where it had found itself, wrapping across the back of Steve’s neck.
Bucky just waggled his eyebrows and pushed his nose against Tony’s neck, letting his teeth scrape just under his jaw. “You said you were completely fine,” he started, “now do you actually mean that, or are you just doing the thing where you say you are to get out of the hospital bed and back into your lab?”
“No no, definitely most certainly 100% fine,” Tony said hurriedly, heartbeat starting to rise underneath Bucky’s mouth, “fit as a fiddle. Healthy young male in the prime of his life- permanently, it seemed- could probably sprint a marathon right now, in fact.”
Bucky and Steve paused, turning to look at one another. Then they both grinned in unison. “Good,” Steve said, sitting up suddenly and taking Tony by the waist to pull him along, “do you fancy coming home with us, Tony?”
Tony looked between the two of them for a second, before clearing his throat and sitting a little straighter. “You know what,” he said, “I’ve had a very long week. I think I would… I would like that a lot, thank you.”
Bucky felt something tighten and then snap in his chest; a longing that he had kept down for so long, finally bubbling up to the surface. He laughed in delight and happiness, relief and love, and then leaned in to kiss Tony before he could stop himself.
Tony kissed back, and it had been two years in between the first and the second kiss, but Bucky personally thought it was very much worth the wait.
He slipped off the bed hurriedly, breaking away with a smack. “I’ll inform the others,” he declared, “Steve, start the car.”
Tony laughed at Bucky’s excitement, leaning against Steve’s chest and watching as Bucky clumsily scrambled out of the room, sparing glances every few seconds back toward the people he loved. The past 48 hours had been an impossible roller-coaster of emotions. Bucky was pretty sure he’d need to sleep for a week after this.
Then again, he thought- looking back once more to Tony and Steve, now rather… preoccupied on the hospital bed- it didn’t seem like he was going to be sleeping much at all, possibly for the rest of his life.
And you know what? He was absolutely fine with that, thank you very much.