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James Barnes was a hard man to surprise. This was, at least in part, a necessary requirement for the job, as he generally had to be able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances at the drop of a hat – meaning he had to foresee as many ways a plan could go sideways as possible, always. Usually, that was not a problem.

Nevertheless, every half-way decent tactician knew that, no matter how perfect the plan, there were always the little things you couldn’t control, the things you couldn’t foresee, no matter how good you were.

It was always the people, in the end, and this particular incident was no exception.

The job itself had been fairly unremarkable. James had been contacted by an old acquaintance for a favor. His price and other demands were met without complaint or pointless attempts at hackling, which James appreciated. Not that he would have tolerated anything less, but, well. 

One would think at a certain point in one’s criminal career people would take you serious without having to blow out their kneecaps first. Sadly, James had not reached a stage were idiots stopped testing his word yet. And considering he was one of HYDRA’s most successful operatives, he suspected it wasn’t a lack of reputation that was the problem.

His current client had treated him with the professional respect [read: barely hidden terror] James expected, and that was really all that mattered. That and the sum of money he had received this morning far outweighed the worth of the target’s continued life as far as James was concerned. The payment was even high enough that James had returned to New York – a city he had taken great pains to avoid since the Stane Incident, for many reasons – to get it done within the demanded time frame.

He was a professional, after all. It helped that he didn’t plan on staying beyond the necessary forty-eight hours he needed to finish this.

“Huh,” a voice spoke up from right behind him.

James had a handgun aimed at the soon-to-be-dead witness before he’d fully turned around – though he realized that the voice was, in fact, familiar before he reflexively pulled the trigger.

Not that the realization necessarily made him want to pull it any less.

“Y’know, I’d thought it was you. Didn’t really believe it though.” The utter menace that was a fifteen year old Tony Stark chirped.

He was grinning.

James still hadn’t lowered his gun.

“The temptation to shoot you is real,” he informed the boy with a blank face.

If possible, Tony’s grin widened. This wasn’t entirely unexpected – they had come a long way from where they’d started, with Tony swearing to kill him and James very pointedly not shooting him – but that didn’t mean it made James any less suspicious.

To call whatever they had a friendship would be a great stretch. The closest term might be mutual agreement, and even that didn’t really seem to cover ‘going through ridiculously elaborate plans to get the kid killed that give him just enough time to pull some impossible stunt and save himself at the last possible moment’. James couldn’t remember when the kid had stopped spitting his name like a curse – actually, that was a lie. It had been Siberia. 

Many things had changed in Siberia.

Not the most important ones though. James was still one of the best assassins of an internationally operating terrorist organization and Tony was still SHIELD’s youngest spy – which couldn’t be legal, the kid was fifteen, but it wasn’t James’ job to protect the innocent so what did he care. It sure wasn’t like anyone else made a fuss.

In other words, with Tony prancing in here like he owned the damn place – which was entirely possible – James should probably book it. The client wouldn’t be happy, but James preferred to avoid SHIELD’s containment cells whenever possible. The view alone was atrocious.

“I didn’t call anyone if that’s what you’re worried about,” Tony said.

Yeah, the kid’s sense of self-preservation was exactly as awful as James remembered it. He considered the possibility of the little Stark lying, checked his watch and decided he would take the risk. Finishing a job was always preferable.

His equipment was ready, but James went through another check anyways. It payed to be thorough.

“Watcha doin?” Tony asked in an obnoxious voice that made James want to shoot him a little. Or a lot. Hard to tell with the kid sometimes.

“Bird watching.”

“Har, har. You know, you should leave the sarcasm to me, we both know it’s my strong point.” 

Tony, in an effort to prove once and for all that curiosity would indeed get him killed, leaned over James’ shoulder to peer through the window and down the street. 

Absently, James wondered whether the boy knew that he’d killed for lesser offenses. Irritating was Tony Stark’s natural state of being, it was difficult to tell sometimes if he was doing it on purpose or not. He pushed the thought aside, tensing when he realized that his target was approaching, walking down the street at a brisk pace. Just on time too. 

If it wasn’t for Tony’s presence, everything really would go smoothly. Fucking people.

Resolving to handle Tony after he’d finished his job, James focused on the matter at hand. Meaning that about 80 percent of his attention was on adjusting the sniper riffle, whilst 20 percent were observing Tony out of the corner of his eye, waiting for the kid to make a move. For all the easy banter between them, Tony didn’t make a habit out of watching James commit murder.

It was because he was keeping an eye on the kid that James noticed the exact moment Tony figured out who his target was.

Usually, you couldn’t get the kid to shut up even if you tied him up on a chair and threw him in a swimming pool – don’t ask – which was why it was such a jarring experience when Tony suddenly froze by his side. James could have sworn he wasn’t even breathing, but he had other things to worry about. His window of opportunity was limited.

“Is that-”

“Yes.”

It didn’t surprise James that Tony had recognized the target. He certainly had a habit of knowing people he definitely should not know.

Slowly, Tony blew out a breath in a unnerving, hissing sound.

“Do it.” There was something cold in that voice that James hadn’t heard in over a year. Something ageless and brutal and unforgiving.

James fired.

Tony didn’t look away.

The target stumbled, fell. James rose from his crouch and began to pack up his equipment in a flurry of practiced motions. He didn’t have to wait for the ambulance, he already knew he hadn’t missed.

Tony still hadn’t moved from his spot at the window, staring down at the chaos on the street three floors down.

James paused in the doorway, even though he knew he shouldn’t. His training told him to get away now, but the kid still hadn’t moved.

“Tony,” he called out, then trailed off. What was he going to say? I was gonna kill him anyways, your order didn’t do shit? That was the truth, but it also wasn't the point and they both knew it.

Tony turned around before James came to a decision one way or another. He was pale, but his eyes were dry and he looked– calm. 

“This one’s on me,” he said, a shadow of his usual sarcastic smile on his lips.

And James could say many things in response – I told you to get out. This isn’t a world for children, you don’t belong here. Stop taking credit for my hit. – but there was nothing he could say that would undo what Tony didn’t do and they were both all-too aware of it.

Sirens were approaching. 

James’ eyes narrowed. That wasn't the ambulance and it definitely wasn't ordinary police. That was–

I didn’t call anyone if that’s what you’re worried about.

James’ glare could have frozen the sun. Tony smiled winningly, lifted both of his hands to stress his current, unarmed state. What kind of agent follows a suspected assassin unarmed into an unknown building without back-up anyways?

“Oops?”

“Fucking brat!” James growled and took the stairs two at a time. 

It’s always the people.