Chapter 1: Chapter I
“Cap’n! There’s a ship starboard! Two o’ the clock!”
Captain Zemo scowled, snatching the spyglass out of the clutch of his first mate, casting his gaze to the directed position. His scowl deepened as he spied the ship mentioned travelling towards them, swift and menacing. She was small, but agile. A sparrow, compared to his heavy and lumbering Hemlut . “It’s The Vendicatore .” Dread settled heavy in his heart as he recognised her bow, solidifying into something slimy and tight as his gaze settled on her sails. They were blood red, just as he’d been told and foolishly dismissed. He remembered the whispered warnings whispered throughout the seas, warnings of the ship with the blood red sails that sunk and plundered with ruthless and merciless efficiency, proudly flying the flag of Stark; the ice blue material matched the sudden coolness of his blood, the strange, triangular shape as unique as the ship itself. He swallowed, terror turning his palms sweaty against the cool metal of the spyglass. Shoving it at the broad chest of his first mate, he repeated himself, louder and frantic. “It’s The Vendicatore. ” His voice was hoarse, panicked. “She’s come for us.” Every slave trader knew the name; captained by the ruthless and calculating Tony Stark, the man that bathed the decks of slave trading ships in the blood of the crew before sending them to the bottom of the ocean, the name had become a weapon in itself, striking fear into the hearts of any trader.
His first mate’s eyes widened in panic at his captain’s words. “Shall we ready the cannons, Captain?” The man, young, inexperienced and, most importantly, cheap , looked as scared as Zemo felt. It was writ across his face, obvious in the shake of his hands.
Zemo nodded once, squeezing his shaking hands into fists. “Aye. Bring her round to face them, boy. We won’t go easy,” he swore grimly. Uttering a quick prayer to a God he had long ago abandoned, he hurried to the bow of the ship, eyes unmoving from The Vendicatore . She moved with a deadly grace; smaller than his Helmut , she travelled spry and swift, easily maneuvered thanks to her innovative rigging and sails. Word had it that the Captain himself had engineered her; designed her for this deadly purpose.
To be the fastest ship in the water.
His first mate turned on his heels, bellowing at the crew to spin the ship ‘round to face The Vendicatore and ready the cannons. Over the sounds of the men scurrying round the deck, the cracking of the whip to spur his slaves at the oars, she turned in a wide arc, the sails only doing so much to increase her speed as they were raised further, billowing out in the wind. The clunking and thudding of the cannons being moved and loaded rose up through the decking to the captain, comforting and familiar. He had done this many a time, and had always come out the victor. This time would be no different, he told himself, for The Vendicatore was only a ship, and Stark only a man. And nothing was more fallible than a man. (Not Zemo, though- no, he was special . God, no matter his past, would favour him on this day, would see him victor of this battle)
No. He refused to die on this day, with the sun hanging high and bright in the sky, the ocean calm and blue. He refused.
He died anyway.
The sun was shining as they drew closer to their prey; it beat down on them, warming Tony’s skin until he was sticky and uncomfortable with sweat, the familiar sensation calming him, abating his anger momentarily. The sea glittered, reflective and calm and beautiful- Tony had never fancied himself a poet, but the sight of the sun’s rays bouncing off the water as his ship cut through it, easy and swift, was a sight that deserved to be immortilised. It was truly a beautiful day to die, he thought absently as he gripped his sword, watching the destruction begin.
Cannons flew like dark ravens he used to admire as a child, as beautiful as they were deadly. They arced, sluggish and heavy, weighed down by inertia and gravity, smashing through The Helmut ’s hull and main deck, as wrathful as a slighted wife. The Helmut ’s own cannons were soon taken care of, leaving large, gaping holes in its side, vulnerable to the perilous ocean water. It seemed to writhe and dance with the cannons, splintered wooden planks falling into its grasp. The Helmut would soon sink like a stone, damning the men aboard to watery graves, and the realisation brought a cold, determined smile to Anthony Stark’s face. “Board!” He barked, voice snatched away by the howling wind, but his men didn’t need to hear the order. They knew what to do, and they were soon on board The Helmut , swords swinging and heads and hands flying. Screams drifted on the wind, as angry and pained as those that haunted Tony as soon as the sun sunk below the horizon and night fell. The deck was red and bloody by the time Tony himself stepped aboard, head held high and a swagger to his step. Carefully stepping over the corpses, he stopped in front of the kneeling captain, smiling easily. “Helmut Zemo himself.” He tutted, cocking his head to one side, looking the man over critically, obviously left wanting. “What a disappointment.” He sighed, shaking his head sadly as he rested the tip of his sword against the man’s throat. “I expected a bit more of a fight from you, Zemo. This was far too easy.” He tutted, cocking his head.
“That’s Cap’n Zemo,” he spat, saliva landing on Tony’s boot.
The pirate captain sighed. “And to think I was going to let you die swiftly and with at least some dignity.” His intelligent gaze turned sharp as he regarded the man. “Methinks my mind has been changed.”
The Captain snarled. “You may have saved these savages ,” Tony soft sigh went ignored, “But there’s more of ‘em that you’ll never get.” His grin was vicious and cruel; triumphant. They all started as defiant, Tony mused, but they never failed to beg soon enough.
Tony’s grin was as equally sharp. “Maybe, maybe not. Either way, however, you end up at the bottom of the ocean as nothing more than shark food. Maybe you’ll taste better than you look.” He nodded to his first mate, Rhodey- a man as equally ruthless and uncompromising as his Captain-, who tugged a set of keys from the dead man at his feet and stepped towards the lower deck, accompanied by Bruce, the ship’s doctor (more of a witchdoctor, from the amount of time spent on the slave continent) and disappeared below deck. His gaze flicked back to the man at his feet, the slave trader, and felt the fury settle in his heart. “Tie ‘im up and throw ‘im overboard.”
His vicious smile never faltered as Zemo’s wrists were tied behind his back and he was rested against the edge of the boat as his ankles were tied in a similar fashion. Not even when he lifted his ankles above his head and toppled him into the water and watched him sink. And certainly not when the begging and whimpering started.
With a quick glance to where the man had sunk below the ocean’s surface, taken into her grasp, he jumped up, grabbing a rope. “Burn her, lads. Burn her to ashes and everyone on her. No mercy.”
And later, back on his beauty The Vendicatore , with the slaves safely stowed below deck with enough food and water to ease their aching stomachs and wounds wrapped and bandaged, Tony didn't think there was a prettier, more satisfying sight; smoke rose and billowed tall over the wreckage, as free and joyous in the breeze as the freshly freed slaves.
Tony glanced up from the navigation map with a grin. “Now, now, Brucie, I recall quite clearly demanding you address me Tony. We are, after all, friends, are we not? No need for Cap’n on my ship when it’s just us, as you very well know.” His stern tone was belied by the twinkle of amusement in his eyes that had Bruce rolling his eyes.
Bruce offered a small, tired smile, his usually tenseness softened by the light flowing into the room, turned amber by the wooden planks. “Of course.” He hesitated, right thumb dancing across the pads of each finger on his hand. “There's a freed in a bad condition, Tony.” A pregnant pause, the silence swelling in Tony’s chambers until it almost became unbearable. “He's got the King’s Navy’s mark.”
“Shit.” He ran a hand through his hair, profanities spilling from his lips. “ Fuck that's not good.” The last thing the pirate needed was the Navy on his heels. They looked after their own, and if the freed had been taken and sold as a slave, there was almost definitely someone looking for him. “They cannot find him- not here on The Vendicatore, and not on the Great Southern Continent.” Drawing the Navy to where he and his men brought the slaves they freed would ruin everything- they'd spent years building a safe haven for freed slaves, away from the society that had plucked them from their lives and deemed them lesser. He would not jeopardise that; if required, he would leave the slave in the American colonies, or perhaps somewhere in Europe, where he would be able to recover but not draw the Navy’s attention to them.
“I know, Tony, I know , but we can't abandon him either. He'd die, Tony, he'd die .” Bruce spread his arms, helpless.
“Goddamnit!” The urge to give into the violence that always simmered just beneath the surface, close enough to always poke at him, nudge him, seduce him, to raise a fist and slam everything on his desk into the floor was almost irresistible. Clenching his jaw, Tony's fist clenched and relaxed over and over as his mind turned, running through idea after idea, calculating risk after risk at lightning speed. “Okay,” he breathed slowly, eyes meeting the doctor’s. “We haven't seen anything to do with the Navy when we gathered the information for this run.” He dragged a hand down his face. “They might not have realised he'd been on that ship, or even sold.” Bruce shrugged, but remained silent, allowing Tony to think. “So there's a high probability that we can get to the Continent without running into anyone we need to be worried about if he doesn’t recover his health enough for us to deliver him somewhere.” He slumped in his chair, chewing his lip. “And if we do…” he looked to Bruce. “We're just gonna have to take that risk. What's his condition?”
“Bad. He's got several dangerously infected wounds that I'm concerned about, and he might lost his arm. And even without that, he's malnourished and is going to be weak- very weak.” That was an understatement; the poor man had been screaming when Bruce had tried to examine him, passing out from the pain of his wounds.
Tony sighed. “Okay. Take me to him. I want to see him for myself. How long do you think until he recovers enough?.” His face settled into something hard and grim as the doctor merely shrugged, body straightening, shoulders tense and chin held high. “Time will tell then, methinks. If the Lord recognises our mission he should allow us to continue without being found out.”
James woke to fear. A suffocating weight that curled right around his neck like a noose, laced with agony and tightening with each heaving breath, each thundering heartbeat that rattled his chest; thundering like the hooves of stampeding animals on the slave continent, leaving him tender and gasping for breath . His whole body ached and his arm burned with a white-hot agony that dominated his mind, leaving him unable to think, unable to breathe, his mind unable to process anything beyond the pain and primal fear; in that moment he was nothing more than a wild animal, driven by his instincts, the only part of his brain that was functioning, to attack. Danger, danger, they screamed.
His eyes had barely opened before he was lunging at the figure looming over him, panicked mind driving him back to a place where looming figures meant pain pain pain . His fist connected with a jaw with a heavy thud , followed by a grunt at they stumbled backwards, cursing a storm.
He landed on his feet, spinning to examine where he was, eyes wide and panicked. Breathing shallow, his body was ready to flee because he didn’t know where he was ; this wasn’t a cell, wasn’t an auction house and definitely wasn’t where he had been kept below deck on that damned ship. He was stopped from jumping after the figure by a sudden voice, slicing through his panic. “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” The amusement in the voice jarred with the all-consuming fear, leaving James off-balanced and unsure.
Swallowing, he shifted slightly in his defensive stance, eyes flicking between the man he had struck, and the man that seemed to have just appeared at the doorway; he was the one that had spoken, with a rich, baritone voice that seemed to calm the feral beast within his head. “Where am I?” God, it hurt to speak; it felt like he’d swallowed shards of glass. His voice was as rough as he’d ever heard, not like the smoothness of the man’s at the doorway that seemed, somehow, at ease despite the other man having been punched. It was writ into every inch of his body, the easy sprawl against the wood of the ship (he knew he was on a ship- the rocking was unmistakable, even without being able to hear the slight sounds of the ocean), his friendly grin.
The man raised his hands in a peaceful gesture at his frantic tone. “Easy,” he placated, “Easy. You’re on my ship, The Vendicatore ,” James’ eyes widened then, as he took several steps backward in shock, looking around the room as if to confirm that he was actually on the ship he’d always thought a legend. Even in the Navy they'd heard of the ship that rescued trafficked slaves. He’d never allowed himself to hope though, not for a single second on that long, horrific journey. He couldn’t hope for anyone to save him, not even Stevie. For how could anyone even know where he was? He certainly didn’t. “We saved you, and the others on the ship. You needed medical attention, so Bruce, our healer, brought you here,” he gestured to the man he had struck who was eyeing him warily, “Took you in here so he could see to you. You were the one most gravely wounded, poor sod. Most of the others are only malnourished, luckily.”
James felt him relax ever so slightly at the news that most of the others were okay. He'd tried to look after the children as much as he could, especially little Rebecca, an orphan picked up from the streets to be sold into a life of slavery and abuse. He shifted, tensing as memories of his wounds being inflicted surfaced at their mention, the primal fear learned from his abuse seizing him, gripping him tight in its cold, cruel grasp. The man’s sharp gaze caught his fists clenching and unclenching, the pain it caused to shoot up his left arm grounding, and he tensed slightly, as if preparing for James to lose it again. Luckily the God-awful memories lurked just beneath the surface, buried deep within his mind, with only snatches actually clear enough to understand- he didn’t think he would be able to cope if he could remember everything they had done to him, spat at him. “What is your name? Who might you be?” It came out less aggressive than before, which he could see the man before him relax slightly at.
“Captain Anthony Stark.”
Shit , this was the famed Stark? The cruel and ruthless pirate who killed just as easy as he breathed? Who washed many-a ship in the blood of her crew? The vengeful man who’s fury burned bright and hot , just as magnificent as the ships he conquered and burned to ash? He didn’t look how he’d imagined; tall, muscular (like Steve), with a pirate’s lilt to the speech and bloodied fists. Anthony Stark ( Captain Anthony Stark- don’t annoy him, annoyance breeds pain pain pain don't antagonise ) was perhaps the antithesis of his expectations. He was slight, standing a head shorter than him and with a lithe build; less bulky, more slender. His speech was more proper than he had expected, and it definitely didn’t look like he’d just come out swinging from a brawl. He did, however, have a tattoo peeking out of the collar of his shirt, sprawling across the side of his throat, and he fancied he could see something dark covering the back of his hand, but he couldn't quite make any of it out. Part of him was, admittedly, curious as to how much of his skin was inked, covered with art.
A quirk of the lips. “You seem surprised.” He tilted his head, eyes shining with amusement. “Am I not what ye were expectin’? A scruffy, one-eyed scoundrel?” His speech changed, becoming more of a lazy drawl, mischievous glint in eye.
James hesitated before shaking his head, relaxing from his defensive position. If this truly was The Vendicatore , and that truly was Captain Stark, then he was safe. (As safe as he’d ever be).
The wary, wiry man that James had struck- Bruce, Tony provided when he noticed the direction of his gaze- relaxed too, snorting. “He never is,” he commented drily.
James was treated to a grin from the pirate that could only be described as wolfish. “I like to keep them on their toes,” he winked. “If they don’t know what I look like they can’t catch me, canne?”
James offered a weak smile in return. “James Barnes,” he offered cautiously, deciding that he may as well at least attempt to remain friendly with the Captain, especially as he was now, for the foreseeable future, stuck on his ship. First chance you get to reach out to Steve, take it, he told himself. You can’t trust anyone here.
After Barnes had calmed down somewhat and grudgingly allowed Bruce to swiftly change the dressings on his wounds, Tony gave him a brief tour of his ship; his baby, really. She was a marvel that had gotten him and his crew out of more tight spots than he would care to admit. After showing him around the deck and below, he walked him to the crew’s quarters, relaxed and friendly. (He tried not to be discouraged that Barnes was yet to utter anything more than an acknowledging grunt since leaving Bruce’s quarters where there was an impromptu infirmary set up). “Normally I’d keep you down here with the rest of them, but Bruce said we need to keep an eye on you, and that would be easier done if you shared quarters with me, so you shan’t be sleeping here.” He paused then, considering the man before him. “I can set up a hammock for you to sleep on,” he offered, slightly apologetic. “It’s nothing special, but it should be comfortable enough.” At Barnes’ shrug, he sighed, straightening as he allowed his face to become more serious. “We're nearly at our destination, so I need to know if we're gonna run into a friend of yours from the King’s little band of sea rats.” He raised an eyebrow meaningfully. “None other than the people I've saved and the men on this ship know where the Haven is, and I'm going to do everything in my power to keep it that way.” His voice hardened with the threat, eyes narrowing. “We are on a schedule, so if you have no desire to join the Freed on the Haven you will have to wait until our journey’s end to make contact with anyone.”
James swallowed, offering a one-armed shrug (his left arm still sung with agony), clenching his fists to keep his hands from shaking (he couldn't stop them, the sign of weakness). “I was in the Navy,” he agreed, slightly wistful. “Captain’s Lieutenant. He was my best friend, the Cap’n- known him since birth, and I suppose that I know him better than I know myself.” He sighed, gaze dropping to his feet. “He will be be lookin’ for me somethin’ fierce, yeah. Raising Hell, I would wager; doubt that he shall stop until he finds me.” As he spoke, his eyes shifted round the room Stark had brought him to, taking in the hammocks and bunks, the crates of rum, and noting the exits in an unfamiliar bought of paranoia (need to get out, need to be safe )
Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Aye, ‘tis what I feared.” He bit his lip, foot tapping as he thought. “He shan’t be likely to find us whilst we journey to the Haven, but I won't pretend that he remain ignorant to your liberators forever, and so I fear that he shall find my gal eventually.” He clucked his tongue, sharp gaze assessing Barnes. “All I ask of you in return for our care and hospitality is to wait until after we have reached the Haven before you send word to your Captain, should you so desire.”
He raised an eyebrow as he noticed Barnes sudden change in body language. Before, he'd been stood, shoulders drawn in, head bowed slightly, making himself as small of a target as possible (and, God, that hurt something deep in Tony’s heart to think about why, about what he'd suffered), but now his head shot up, eyes wide and frantic as he shook his head with enough vigour that Tony was tempted to clutch it between his hands to stop it flying off his neck before they narrowed in a heated glare. “No!” He practically snarled, breaths coming ragged and harsh; he looked for all the world like a cornered animal. “I will not be confined again, will not become a prisoner to be traded from owner to owner like some common Harlot. I am not owned and you will not order me to do anything. ”
Tony stepped back, scared that Barnes would attack, raising his hands in a gesture of peace. “You are not a prisoner here, Barnes,” he promised, ignoring the sharp fury that grew at the idea of him owning anyone, of anyone assuming that he would take a slave of his own, after all that he had suffered. “But I need you to understand that I cannot drop you off somewhere before we reach the Haven, because then I shall miss the next slaver, and that is unacceptable .”
Barnes’ snarl lessened, but his stance was no less aggressive. “Next slaver?”
Tony nodded. “Yes! I can’t let that ship slip through my fingers, much as I wish to give you what you want.” Cautiously, he lowered his hands. “So, please, calm yourself, my friend.”
Barnes clenched his jaw, hands curling into a fist as he shifted his weight, narrowing his stance from the wide, aggressive thing it had been before. “I want to join you.”
Tony shook his head. “No. You are injured and a Naval officer. You have no business with us Pirates.”
Barnes scowled. “I have business with those who trade slaves, Pirate. I will see them punished, and you will help me.”
Tony sent him a scowl himself, frustrated. “Mister Barnes, I do not appreciate you demanding me about, showing no respect. Pirate I may be, but-”
“Please.” Barnes’ whole body shifted then, weary and pleading. “Please, Stark, I need to do this. I need to see them hurting as they hurt me.”
“A good man would tell you that revenge is hollow and vengeance more so,” Tony mused, sighing. Barnes looked to his feet, all fight draining out of him. “Lucky for you, I am not a good man.” He pinched the bridge of his nose as Barnes’ eyes flicked up to him, wide and disbelieving.
“You mean it?” Hope bled into his demand, into his eyes- eyes that were expressive and beautiful, even after all that he had been through- and Tony nodded once, feeling very strongly that he would soon regret it. “Thank you,” he all but whispered, offering a single nod. “I will not be a burden, I swear it. Thank you , for giving me this.”
Tony shrugged. “Needed an extra man, might as well be someone who knows what he's doing and is good in a fight.” He paused, halfway through turning to lead them back to his quarters where Barnes could rest. “You are good in a fight, I hope.”
Barnes huffed something that was almost a laugh. “I'm damn good,” he promised, and as he walked abreast Tony, his steps were lighter, like a weight had been lifted from him.
Maybe this was what he needed; maybe it was something that would help heal the scars of his mind while they helped heal his physical wounds.
Tony had never been able to deny fixing something that was broken.
Unfortunately, they were ambushed on the way by Clint (who insisted they call him ‘Hawk’ for whatever reason- he was sure there was a story he had probably heard when he was drunk off his face years ago). Tony sighed, waving a hand toward the approaching man. “Barnes, this is Cl-”
“Hawk, me name's Hawk. Pleasure, top of the mornin’, and all that. Who’s this fine lad, then, Cap’n?” Tony scowled at the interruption (he didn't know why he bothered- they could all tell there was no real heat in it.)
“Barnes, one of the ones we pulled from The Helmut . While you’re here, you wouldn’t mind terribly if I asked you to show him to my room, would you? I had better take the wheel, or I fear Rhodey-bear shall have my head.” He rolled his eyes good naturedly at Bucky. “Try and get some rest. I will check on you shortly. Alright?” When he received a small, slightly hesitant nod, he turned to Clint. “And you: behave. I don't want to hear from the others that you've been teasin’ the poor lad, you hear?”
Clint just shrugged, the ass, offering a grin and a wink. “Whatever you say Cap’n,” he sighed, sounding put-upon with a flourish and a bow. Tony just snorted, watching as he led Barnes away, chatting animatedly at the poor fellow.
Once they had disappeared into his quarters, he turned, making his way to the helm where he knew his Rhodey would be steering his baby girl, keeping her on path. He smiled at the sight, resting his hand on his friend's elbow. “I'll take over from here, my friend,” he said gently in lieu of a greeting, taking in the obvious signs of his friend's exhaustion. “Get some good food and rest, there's a good man.” He smiled, embracing his friend, closing his eyes as he revelled in the warmth and love of it before shooing the man away.
Eyes on the horizon, hands gripping the wheel and the freedom of the ocean and her winds whipping through his hair, Tony couldn't have been happier in that moment.
After his years as a slave, freedom was something he had vowed never to take for granted again.
Steve's POV, and we get to meet badass!Natasha!
Pirates were filthy, loud and disgustingly crass; their crude jokes and leers with an edge that made a shiver crawl up his spine put even the boys in the Navy to shame. Steve was no blushing virgin by any means, but he was damn uncomfortable with his recently acquired company.
Pirates . If he never saw one again it'd be too soon. (Scum of the earth, his Pa used to say, and Steve had never found any evidence to dispute his rigid prejudice (one that Steve had long since adopted); his Pa also used to snarl that ‘not every criminal is a pirate, but every pirate is a criminal. Mark my words boy, there ain't a single good un out there. Every pirate has a coward’s ‘eart.’ Steve wasn't surprised to find that he was correct.)
There was something off about them, about how they were barely disciplined (he’d only seen one man get flogged, and that was just fifteen lashes for thievery) and yet they were… organised. There was no better word for it; they got up, did their chores (all the while singing shanties somehow even bawdier and filthier than what the lads in the Navy used to sing with him, which surprised him, even when he knew it probably shouldn’t; roughians with no class couldn’t be expected to behave any differently after all) and work, and then, if they had free time, relaxed with ale and bawdy tunes.
He stepped out of the shared sleeping quarters, pulling a shirt over his head and making his way towards the helm, where the ‘captain’ was stood next to his Helmsman, arms folded and eyes narrowed against the morning sun. “Ar, we'll be pullin’ inter the ‘arbour now, Laddie.” The Captain offered with a nod in lieu of a greeting, eyes firmly locked onto the horizon.
Steve grunted, jaw clenched and lips pursed. Natasha was his last (and dreaded) option at finding Bucky. If she found herself unable to find the information he needed, then no soul alive could. He scowled at the thought, his usual optimism clouded by his increasing failures; he'd used every connection he had gained in the Navy after being discharged (his search for Bucky had become ‘obsessive’ and too consuming and they couldn’t condone it) to locate the ship he’d been taken by, but none of them had come through. All he’d heard was that it had been sent to the bottom of the ocean by some mysterious ship captained by a heroic, slave-liberating pirate.
It’s name was whispered amongst the lands. The Vendicatore. Hopefully Natasha would be able to find it for him; if anyone knew where Bucky was, Steve was placing his money on the pirate Captain.
Steve always felt nervous during the trek from the harbour to the small, unremarkable building used as the headquarters of the secretive organisation Natasha worked for. He had met her whilst on one of his rare periods of leave from the Navy, and they had struck up a deal; a trade of information. He hoped desperately that she would take pity on him and Bucky.
“Captain Rogers to see Lady Natasha.” His curt identification to the doorman earned him a raised eyebrow, but the slight man, wisely, remained silent as he gestured for Steve to step inside, motioning to another servant in eyesight to fetch Natasha.
Taking his seat in one of the plush armchairs, Steve ran his hands along his pants, restless. Nervous energy manifested in fidgeting, and soon he was plucking at the material, leg bobbing and eyes darting across the entrance room. He felt unsettled to his core, sat here waiting while Bucky could be anywhere going through several kinds of Hell. A faint sickness settled in his stomach at the thought; he had never felt as hopelessly desperate, so melancholy, as he did in that moment.
He was pulled from the swirling darkness of his mind, the heaviness of his inexplicable guilt by the curt: “Lady Natasha to see you, Captain.” His head snapped up as he stood to attention.
The voice, coloured by a stiff accent of the Northern part of the continent that reminded Steve painfully of his superiors in the Navy, of what he had lost by leaving the small family his crew had become, brought his eyes snapping to the speaker located at the doorway, accompanied by Natasha herself.
She struck a striking figure, as she always did. Tall, slender and graceful, she was the perfect image of regality. The neckline of her bright and flowing dress, the colour of rubies, precious and rare, dipping low across her clavicle to expose a delicate throat, did nothing to hide her unnatural ease as she glided over to him. The danger she exhibited just by breathing . She had suffered greatly as a child, and from that suffering was borne this cold, unyielding woman who was just as capable of stealing your last breath as she was to seduce. There was an edge to her, a way to her movements that reminded him of some kind of jungle cat that Sam had one told stories of when the nights were wet and cold, their only source of warmth the single fire they all huddled around. She was almost angelic in her beauty. Almost. “Steven.” Her smile was warm and welcoming; maybe even genuine. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” Her voice was calm and soothing as he greeted her, pressing a kiss to each cheek and grasping her gloved hand.
“Natasha,” he managed, sorrow thick in his throat. “Natasha, please, you have to help me.”
She raised a slender, perfect eyebrow, lips pursed into a thin line. “Follow me.” It must be a grave issue indeed if the proud Captain was reduced to begging.
Dread curled low in Natasha’s gut; a serpent writhing within her, churning the very pits of her stomach, chilling the very blood that ran through her veins. What would bring the Captain to her door in such a terrible state in such she had never seen him before? What cruel act had God seen fit to punish him with, she wondered as she led him away from prying eyes, desperate for information. The suspense, the lack of information, a situation she rarely found herself in, unsettled her, thrummed within her brain, feeding her anxieties.
He looked like somebody had died.
He looked truly awful; hair filthy with dirt and grease, and smelling like he hadn’t bathed in far too long. His clothes weren’t faring too much better, either; torn and filthy, they made him look like he had just come off the street, or perhaps more like a raggedy pirate than a naval Captain. And he had called her Natasha , something he only did in private, when they could be themselves, just Natasha and Steve, and had practically clung to her. It was unsettling.
Having led him upstairs to a more private room, she shut the door before turning to him, crossing her arms. “Tell me everything,” she demanded, gaze sharp.
Steve sighed, running a hand through his hair, looking lost. ‘Nat, I… I can’t find him, I can’t. I thought I did, but he was gone and I’m so scared because I lost him again and I-” He broke off with a sob, sinking to his knees. Shining eyes met hers as she stepped closer, bringing his head to her stomach and running a hand through his hair, trying to offer him comfort.
Ah. James, then. She’d heard whispers of his kidnapping, but had hoped that they were born on a falsehood, nothing more than simple rumours.
“Shhh, we’ll find him, I promise.”
He buried his head into her stomach, chest heaving with his sobs. “I need your help, Nat. I need you to find him.”
She frowned, her hand slowing to a stop. “Steve?”
He looked up at her, eyes wide and hopeful. “I heard about this ship, The Vendicatore , and how it liberates slaves. Saves them, but nobody can find it. I can’t find it, but you can!” He was almost frantic now. “If anyone can, you can, I know it.”
She bit her lip absently, considering. “It’s a legend, Steve,” she said gently, sighing when he shook his head, frowning.
“Please. Please, Nat, I’ll do anything.”
She sighed again, hand resuming its motions. “I’ll look into it,” she promised.
His smile was almost as bright as the stars she used to wish upon as a child. “Thank you, Nat, thank you.”
Steve stayed with Natasha while she searched for the information on the ship, mostly silent and vacant. It was like he had become a mere husk of himself since suffering the double-loss of losing Bucky twice.
Natasha just searched harder, her methods becoming increasingly violent as Steve became increasingly hopeless. She couldn’t stand to see her friend- perhaps her only friend- like this. Not when she had the power to do something about it.
It was two weeks before she found anything worthwhile.
“The Southern Continent?” She tilted her head to the side, ever the predator, lips pursed in thought as the man gurgled, head tilted back over the back of the chair he was tied to, slowly choking on his blood. Her sharp gaze pinned him, more painful than any of the torture she’d bestowed upon him. “Can you take me there?”
The man sobbed, snot and blood streaming down his face, dropping to the floor in clumps. Her lips curled in disgust as he remained otherwise silent. “Well that’s a shame,” she sighed, almost regretfully as she raised her blade, prompting him to splutter and cry out. “Wait!” She raised an eyebrow, stilling. “I know where she will be.” When she remained silent, he swallowed, his few remaining fingers twitching. “There’s two slave-traders headed to the Slave Continent, from England.” His tongue darted out to whet his lips as he continued. “He'll intercept them on their journey, probably near the Middle Passage, in two and a half month’s time.”
Natasha smiled, a cruel, satisfied thing that promised pain. It didn't falter, not even as she drew her blade across his throat, ending it all as swift as she'd ensnared him with a simple, suggestive smile.
“The good Captain will be most pleased to hear that,” she told his cooling corpse. “Most pleased indeed.” Her bared teeth glinted in the darkness of the room, a truly terrifying sight.
Steve cried at the news, and didn’t release Natasha from his embrace until long after it became improper and awkward. His tears stained her dress, which irritated her, but she graciously ignored it in favour of patting his back consolingly. “Natasha, thank you ,” he breathed, squeezing her tightly as if to convey his gratitude through constricting her like those long, slender beasts she’d come across whilst in the Slave Continent.
“Yes, well, I promised after all.” Clearing her throat, she stepped out of his hold, shifting uncomfortably. “He is my friend, too, after all,” she added, not meeting his gaze.
Steve laughed once, a wet, joyful thing. “Indeed, and how grateful I am of that fact.”
“Yes, well. Come, now. We have a ship and crew to gather.”
Bucky talks with Clint and considers his future with Tony.
It took the entire six week journey to the Haven for James to regain some semblance of his natural colour and health. Bruce seemed pleased, but Tony was unable to let go of his concern that he was taking too long to heal. “Your arm’s almost healed,” Bruce was announcing, one night three weeks after saving Barnes. “And your complexion is far more reassuring. You no longer look half-dead on your feet, which is a promising sign, my friend.” He beamed as he spoke, earning one in return from the man in question as his wrappings were replaced.
Bruce had taken a liking to their skittish freed, indeed most of the crew had, with James slowly shedding the weight of his time in captivity and becoming friendlier and more open to socialising, though he still had his bad days; times when he would snap, eyes vacant and even sometimes he would just scream and scream, the sound breaking something deep in Tony’s heart because there was nothing he could do to help.
He was helpless, only able to watch, to try to offer some help, some comfort, but nothing seemed enough.
Of course the crew understood it; they all had their scars, their private anguish, Tony especially, and it only served to bring them all closer, to slowly accept James as akin to them.
He bowed his head in thanks, standing from the small, ratty bed and moving to Tony’s side, hands brushing. Tony resisted the urge to smile as the brief contact send something warm burning through him, momentarily devouring his concerns because that was so new; James was only just starting to reach out, to initiate brief snatches of human contact like this.
Barnes had taken to helping out on deck where he could, and sitting in the warm sun when he couldn’t due to his injured arm. Tony felt something warm and uncurl in his chest whenever he saw it, heartened at and proud of Barnes’ improvement. (The delicious bronzing of the skin he was developing under the long hours spent shirtless under the sun’s rays also send something warm zinging down his spine, settling low in his gut). “Alright, Barnes?”
Barnes grunted an affirmative at Clint’s inquiry, hauling supplies over the deck and into the kitchen one-handed, cursing his lame arm under his breath.
“You don't have to, you know,” Tony spoke, voice mild as he regarded their supplies, counting them. “Helping out, I mean. You remain injured, and are a guest on our ship at that. You would not be regarded lesser if you did not do all of this for us.”
Barnes eyed him, silent for a long moment before shrugging. “I want to,” he protested, almost defensive. “I- I detest it when I am a burden. I have never liked being useless. I owe you my life , Stark. This,” he gestured around him, “is the least I can do.” He shot Tony a look of pure stubbornness. Tony smiled inwardly. ‘Sides, I was in the Navy, so I know what I’m doin’.” He looked down at his hands, scowling; he was frustrated at his inability to properly articulate his thoughts and feelings of that moment. Wordlessly, he shrugged again, sagging slightly where he stood.
Tony offered a sympathetic smile, brushing a hand down the man's arm reassuringly, hoping the touch would be welcomed. “I understand, truly I do.” He paused, considering the options. “If you want to help, then by all means help; if you talk with Clint-” he rolled his eyes at Clint’s pointed cough. “Sorry, ‘ Hawk’ here, I am sure that he will be able to direct you to where we could do with another man.”
The man smiled, something small and soft, but genuine. “I shall,” he promised. “Thank you, Stark.” His voice remained hoarse and rough (not that Tony had any desire to complain; on the contrary, he rather liked his deep tambre, with the beautifully rough edge) from disuse. Though he was slowly overcoming the trauma he had suffered, slowly opening to the crew, he still struggled to speak, often going days with nothing more than a few grunts uttered.
He reminded of Tony of how he had been after he had been captured, after the betrayal that still hurt more than he could describe, even after a few years. Emotional wounds had always pained him more than any physical wound ever could.
Tony beamed. “That’s Captain Stark to you,” he winked, ignoring the way his stomach clenched with something other at the sight of Barnes smiling.
Clint- because he was not calling him Hawk, even in his head- snorted. “Don’t kid yarself, Tones. None ‘a us call ye Cap’n, and y’know it, fool.” He said it fondly though, stepping forward to ruffle Tony’s hair, which, rude! He wasn’t that short. Everyone was just unnaturally tall.
Scowling, he shoved the man away. “Fine, fine. Barnes, you can call me Tony, too, then. We’re all friends and equals on this ship,” he offered, shooting Barnes his most charming grin.
Bucky blinked, suddenly flushed, making Tony frown. Was he okay? He hoped it wasn’t an infection; that could easily prove fatal. But no, it couldn’t be, because the wounds had closed over, and were in the final stages of healing. “James,” he blurted, blinking in shock before flushing even more to an almost alarming shade of read. “You may call me James, then,” he added, awkwardly. “Please.”
Tony beamed, joy and pride bursting within him. “James,” he tested, rolling the name on his tongue, liking the way it sounded, the way it felt . “James, I like it.” Clapping the man on his- good!- shoulder, he moved to where Rhodey was ordering everyone about, throwing a ‘check in with Clint in the morning,’ over his shoulder as he went, goofy grin on his face, even when Rhodey rolled his eyes at him and called him a lovesick fool.
It wasn’t love, though. Just… happiness, because he’d come so far. James was overcoming so much, and he was so proud. That’s all he was.
It was a cool night, a gentle breeze flowing over the calm water. James felt peaceful, crowded in a circle with the others, food warm and belly full. With a lazy smile, he leant back on his hands, sipping at the ale as Thor roared in laughter at something. The Viking was a giant; muscular and towering, James had been too terrified to even look at him, but gradually he had gotten to know the man through the others, and see that we was, quite literally, a gentle giant. At least until someone stole his sweetmeats or was consumed by the bloodthirst of battle. Luckily, James was yet to witness the latter.
“Thor, shut it,” Rhodey grumbled good-naturedly where he was half-asleep, hand rested on fist, blinking sleepily at the man in question, looking eerily like a grumpy and tired cat.
Thor just laughed harder. “Nay, my friend. Join our merriment!” He raised his tankard, ale splashing on wood as his arm lurched drunkenly. “Oops.”
James felt himself laugh slightly, catching Stark’s- Tony ’s- eye in time to see the face-splitting grin his laugh earned. Cheeks reddening, he glanced away, in time to see Clint (who, for some reason, demanded he be called Hawk? James was unsure why, but was amused at the scowl he earned whenever he ‘forgot’) jump to his feet, tankard raised high. “It’s a pirate’s life for me, lads!” He cheered, skulling the rest of the drink as the others echoed his words in a drunken slur, raising their tankards in salute. “Barnes! My good man, get your ass over here!”
“Get. Your ass. Here .” With a tispy giggle, Clint gestured him over. “We gotta show you the highlights of piracy, my friend.”
James shrugged helplessly, bemused, eyes flickering to Tony again. Help me , he mouthed, exaggerating a horrified expression. Absently, a part of him warmed and marvelled at his ability to be so playful again so soon after the darkest days of his life.
Tony just smirked, the ass. “Sorry, Barnes, you’re on your own here.”
Rolling his eyes, James stood standing next to Clint, taken aback when the man grabbed his hands, jumping them around the deck in the most un-elegant and uncoordinated dance James had ever danced, singing all the while, the others joining in, laughing as they slapped the wood, thumping their feet.
“ What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
What shall we do with a drunken sailor,
Early in the morning?
Way, hey, and up she rises,
Way, hey, and up she rises,
Way, hey, and up she rises,
Early in the morning!”
James found himself laughing, unrestrained, as he danced, singing along, reveling in the light-hearted atmosphere. Soon, they were all cheering and dancing, singing as loud as their lungs allowed.
With enough ale in him, James also summoned the courage to teach them a few of the Shanties he’d learnt in the Navy with the boys. Leading them through ‘Fish in the Sea’ and ‘Randy Dandy Oh’ they calmed, voices rising high in the night, flowing out to join the ocean noise, blending as one.
They danced through the night, stars shining bright above them, leaving James feeling lighter than he’d ever been. By the time they’d exhausted themselves and their ale, James was soaked with sweat, chest heaving and skin glowing, beaming. Tony laughed, looking just as happy as he took the man’s hands. “Ready to call it a night?” At James’ playful pout, he chuckled. “Come, now. You’ll regret this in the morning.”
James just smiled, stepping closer, close enough for their noses to brush. “Maybe. You’re all drunkards, it’s no doubt I can’t keep up.” Indeed, he felt tipsy and unsteady on his feet.
Tony laughed, a sound as beautiful as anything he’d ever heard, and his mouth suddenly went dry. “My dear friend, it pains me, but I fear that we shall have to keep you from the ale if you get like this everytime. Like a child,” he teased.
James just smiled, gingerly touching the man’s hair, making a curious sound as he found it to be softer than he expected. He felt so light from the rum and ale, free of his nightmares. It was nice. Following Tony’s tug on his wrist, he stepped into the room they’d been sharing (He distantly remembered that first night, when Tony was so gentle, so kind, when he’d explained that this was the largest quarters as it was the Captain’s, and it was best for Tony to keep an eye on him anyway, incase his health declined overnight.) Tumbling into the bed, he tugged Tony to join him. “We can share,” he murmured, falling asleep almost instantly, smile still on face.
That night, he dreamt of pirates, rowdy and free, full of life and joy. A strange longing filled him, twisting and filling something in him he hadn’t realised was empty. Was missing.
“It’s a pirate’s life for me,” he heard Clint’s words echo throughout the dream, compounding that feeling.
“It’s a pirate’s life for me…”
Hawk had him scrubbing the decks the next morning, unsympathetic to his pounding head it the bolts of pain that shot through it when he opened his eyes more than a sliver. “Feels like someone took an anvil to it,” he grumbled, scowling as a certain stain didn’t budge at his rough scrubbing.
Hawk just laughed, unsympathetic, humming a lively shanty- perhaps William Taylor? He’d heard it sung by the lads in the Navy before but couldn’t recall the lyrics with his head throbbing so painfully- under his breath as he worked out their path, keeping one eye on his progress, sporatically chiming in with some mightily unhelpful advice or comments. ‘You missed a spot, James’, ‘put your back into it, man’, ‘you need to scrub harder!’ . What an ass, he thought fondly as he worked. It was the sort of easy, ribbing friendship he had with some of his crew back on Steve’s Patriot . The memory of the majestic ship twisted something within him, making him wince. Steve. God, he missed him. He was eager for the day they reached a land where he could send off a letter to his friend, his captain. He must be beside himself. “You decided what yer gonna do?”
James was pulled from his thoughts by Hawk’s out of the blue question, looking up, confused. “‘Bout what?”
Hawk rolled his eyes, slouching in the chair, tucking his hands behind his head, closing his eyes as the early-morning sun warmed his face. “After we get to the Southern Continent. You gon’ leave us for your Cap’n?” When James paused, face closing off, he sighed. “Look, you gotta figure out what yer want soon, like. If you aint gonna stay on this ship you’d better stop leadin’ on my Cap’n.” There was a hard, ungiving edge to the warning that had a shudder crawl up James’ spine.
“What do you mean, Hawk?” He demanded, impatient. “Stop speakin’ in riddles and get to it, yeah?”
Hawk opened his eyes to shoot him a look. “James, mate, you’d better decide if you’re gonna leave us, like, ‘cause if you keep up whateva you got goin’ with our Captain and leave us? You’ll break his bloody heart. He’s a good man, always worn his heart on his sleeve for the world to see. Had it broken more times than I’d like to count, but he’s still quick to love. Do you understand, James? He cared for you, deeply . So you’d better set ‘im straight pretty damn quick if ya don’t want his love” He leant forward in his seat, dagger in hand. He twisted his wrist, so that it glinted menacingly in the sunlight.
James sat back on his haunches, eyeing Hawk warily. “I don’t got nothin’ going on with Tony.”
Hawk scoffed, biceps rippling as he buried the dagger in the soft wood of the chair. “No? That ain’t the way I see it.”
James avoided his gaze as he scrubbed, harder than was required. “There’s not anythin’ between us yet ,” he conceded reluctantly. “An’ it scares me that there could be.” The admission had his shoulders hunching defensively. After a pause, he spoke again, voice slightly quieter. “You think he could love me? Broken bits and all?”
Hawk sighed, rubbing at his temples, muttering something darkly under his breath that sounded suspiciously about wanting to bash the two of them together. “Look, James, I like ya. I do, but you need to get’ yer ‘ead outta yer ass. That man’s already half in love with ya, of bloody course he’d love you. You really think he cares about you bein’ broken? He’s ‘broken’ himself, and he may be a boat full ‘a things but ‘e aint a hypocrite.”
James gazed at the man, thoughtful. “He’s… the same?”
Hawk shrugged. “Ask ‘im yerself. Ain’t my thing ter tell. But that’s irrelevant. This is about what you want. If you’re just gonna go after yer cap’n then ya need to tell ‘im. But from where I’m standin’? There’s no reason why you have to break his heart. Yer cap’n can come aboard for all I care, but if you say you’re gonna stay, you bloody well better.”
James remained silent, thoughtful. “I don’t want to break his heart.” And he didn’t- in fact, that was the last thing he wanted to do. Learning that Tony could love him only furthered his resolve not to. “I don’t see any way of avoiding that.” He scowled, frustrated. Absently, he recognised how easy it would be to fall in love with Tony, but he couldn’t . Not when his heart was already taken. It wouldn’t be fair.
His mind turned, as it usually did, to Steve, guilt crawling up his spine. Steve. The man he had loved since he had known what love was . It had never happened, though, Steve had never loved him the same way, but part of James had alway held back, waiting, hoping .
He would never be able to stop loving him, and he couldn’t do that to Tony.
Something must have shown on his face because Hawk’s whole body language changed, his face shifting into understanding. “Oh,” he breathed, soft and shocked. “Your captain’s not just your captain, is he?”
James shook his head, avoiding the other man’s gaze. “I’ve loved him for as long as I can remember,” he admitted. “I can’t let Tony love me because I’d love him back, and it wouldn’t be fair to him because I’d never stop loving Steve.”
Hawk shook his head, disbelieving. “What a fucking mess,” he sighed.
James smiled wryly. “My life tends to be.”
“Shit.” Hawk ran a scarred hand through his hair, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes as he regarded James carefully. “You know, you’re a pirate, now,” he started, casual as ever. James flinched, but didn’t dispute the fact. There was no denying the truth; he’d been a pirate since the moment Tony had brought him on board and showed him his world. He’d changed, at a fundamental level, and he knew that he would be unable to leave his time aboard The Vendicatore behind him, even if he did end up leaving her. “And I hate to break it to yer, but we pirates? We ain’t ‘xactly all moral and proper. Don’t care ‘bout bloody decorum and social mores. So, while it ain’t proper , I think I see a solution to your conundrum.”
James raised an eyebrow. “Pray tell, because I really don’t.”
Hawk smirked. “Think like a pirate, mate.”
Frowning, James spread his hands in a ‘ what the hell? ’ gesture. “What the hell?”
Hawk leant forward in the chair, pointing his dagger at him. “Yer still thinkin’ like a proper little man. Stop it. Yer a pirate now, and we don’t care ‘bout bein’ proper. Ain’t limited by society, and neither is our relationships.” He raised an eyebrow meaningfully, but James was still lost.
“Still got no clue what you’re on about, man.” He was about to demand the man to be clearer when he paused, hesitant understanding dawning on his face. “Are you telling me to court them both?”
Hawk nodded, then shrugged. “Long as you talk to them both I don’t see why not. You’ve got a big heart, James, almost as big as our cap’n’s, even though you try to hide it. I reckon there’s enough love in there for the both of ‘em.”
James bit his lip, crossing his legs. “You might just be right,” he conceded. He already felt something for Tony, and knew the other man did for him. There was no point denying that. And he was sure that it would be so easy for that to shift to love, maybe even one to rival his love for Steve. Or match it , he thought absently. Maybe I could love them both equally.
He could imagine it, being with the both of them, and was surprised by how nice it seemed, how appealing. He wanted it.
If Steve could ever love him, though. That was the catch.
But maybe he could. Maybe if he actually confessed, Steve would love him too. But at the very least, he knew he needed to tell Tony how he felt before they went any further.
He hummed, thinking. Tony had said that he’d take James to send a message to Steve after they left the Southern Continent, so it would be so easy for him to, with Tony’s permission, to invite him aboard? They had already discussed leaving the Navy soon, before he was taken, so he was sure Steve would be agreeable. He’d always been a free spirit, anyway, trapped by the rules and regulations of society and its imperfections. A pirate’s life liberating slaves would be something that called to him, a siren’s song he wouldn’t be able to reject.
The idea was appealing, and James found himself excited about the possibility.
He could have both of them.
But was he ready for Steve to see him like this? Scarred, broken and ugly? He’d loved Steve for as long as he could remember, a slow, gentle thing that burned bright in the pit of his heart. He had long learned to shoulder its burden, but he didn’t think he would be strong enough anymore to not fall apart if he met him face to face while in this state.
He’d always been the strong one out of the two, Steve’s rock throughout their childhood and Naval voyages, when Steve’s mother had passed, leaving him an orphan.
To have that turned on its head, for Steve to see him as weak would truly shatter something within James,
But, just maybe, with Tony at his side, he’d be able to cope. With Tony’s strength he’d be able to flex instead of shatter. Because there was something growing within him for the jovial pirate that could match what he felt for Steve. A possibility that he could love him just as strong, admire him just as greatly. And whilst it scared him, it also gave him confidence to be selfish enough to reach out to Steve, to stay with Tony, and have the two most important people in his life here, together.
He contemplated the idea until the sun lowered, washing the sky in pink hues, its last rays sparkling off the water like tiny fairies dancing along its surface.
Humming in acknowledgement, Tony tilted the wheel slightly to the left, bringing the horizon back to level. He’d always preferred being his own Helmsman.
“I- uh-.” James released frustrated sigh as he tugged at his hair. “I want to talk to you, about staying.”
Tony raised an eyebrow, lips betraying him as they curled into a wide beam despite his best efforts. “You want to stay? On our old gal?” With me? “That’s brilliant news. I mean I’d hoped, but I didn't want to assume, I mean-”
James placed a hand on his shoulder, silencing the man’s blabbering, smiling gently. Fondly. “Of course I want to. I have since I got to know you, since everyone on board was so nice to me. I just… I was torn. I wanted to see Steve, but I didn’t want to leave y-everyone. But… I think I’ve found a solution, if you find it within your heart to accept.”
Tony swallowed. “James, dear friend, I would do just about anything to keep you. Aboard!” He added, slightly panicked, eyes wide. “Keep you aboard, I meant!” He viciously shoved down the dread that was crawling up his throat, overshadowing it with his hesitant joy- James said he wanted to stay .
James stepped to his side, placing a hand over one of Tony’s gripping loosely on the wheel. “I think you would,” he agreed, smiling gently, “But ‘tis a sizeable request.” Tony tilted his head in a silent question, turning it slightly to look at the man beside him. “I want to ask him to come aboard, if you're agreeable. Steve, my Naval captain, I mean.” Ah. There was the reason he was so nervous.
Tony swallowed, heart sinking. Of course he wanted his ‘friend’ to be here. He'd settled on board, it made sense. And of course, when his friend arrived, he'd abandon the tentative, precious thing that had been slowly building between him and Tony. Of course he would; who would want Tony? He was just a pirate, with nothing to offer.. He shouldn’t be surprised, Tony reasoned, he shouldn't hope for good things like James.
After all, he destroyed what he touched.
James nodded, mouth pulled in a grimace. “Yes…” It sounded uncertain, and that set off great, big bells within Tony’s mind like a warning. “I must confess, I…” he trailed off, unsure as how to voice it.
“You love him.” Tony’s tone was flat, dead, in a way James had never heard before. Even when he was angry he buyant, soaring with something that was just so Tony .
James nodded, running a hand through his hair. “I do. Unrequited, as far as I am aware,” he admitted softly. Gently. It made something that was almost anger splutter to life with Tony, but he doused it when James added “But I’m so very close to loving you, too, Tony.” He looked so hopeful, so young , it made Tony’s heart ache. “And, well. After everything? I’m a pirate and I feel like I can say a bloody great big sod off to anyone who tries to stop me from doing what feels right , and what I feel for you and Steve? It feels so right, Tony.”
Tony smiled, a brittle, dry thing. “You can’t love two people at once, James.”
James raised an eyebrow. “Can’t I? Who’s to tell us who we can and can’t love?”
Tony bit his lip, shrugging in concedement. “Fair.”
James squeezed his hand. “Hawk said I gotta get my ass outta my head and be straight with you,” he admitted, “Tell you what I want, so this is me trying to do that.” He took a deep breath, taking Tony’s other hand, stepping them away from the Helm, gesturing Rhodey over, who sent him a knowing look. “I want you, and I want Steve, if he wants me, but most of all I want to avoid breaking your heart.”
Tony looked into his eyes, not even noticing Rhodey near them. “You want the both of us?” His tone was more thoughtful now, considering. “You want me to share you?”
James hesitated. “Only if you agree. But… In an ideal world? I would want the three of us together, equals in the relationship.”
Tony raised an eyebrow in surprise, searching his face for hints of deceit and finding none. “Interesting,” he admitted. “I want you too, James, I can’t lie.”
“Could you share me, though?” James looked like he didn’t want to hope but couldn’t help it, and it settled something within Tony, oddly enough. He had come to him, honest and asking. There was no deceit, only truth.
Tony thought that maybe, just maybe, he could try to place his trust in him. After all, Steve might not even love James the way James loved him. “Maybe,” he offered. “But I don’t know,” he admitted, smiling wryly.
James smiled, tentative. “You would be willing to attempt?”
“Of course, James,” he managed, trying to keep a shaky smile on his face. “You know I can't say no to you, my friend.” He ignored how much it hurt. He could do this, for James.
James beamed, a pure, joyous, beautiful and unrestrained thing that stole the breath from Tony’s very chest. “Thank you, Tony, thank you!” He lifted the hand he was holding, bringing it to his lips, eyes shining with joy. It was the most expressive, most open, Tony had seen James. Of course it is, Tony thought, slightly bitter, it’s about Steve. How could I ever compare?
James was going to have his two favourite people in the world with him and he was ecstatic. He felt like he was flying, joy burning bright in his chest. Tony was wonderful, kind and oh so heartbreakingly beautiful. He couldn't resist the quick kiss he pressed to his knuckles, a grossly inferior display of of how he felt. (He could never possibly convey the strength of his appreciation in that moment). It went beyond simple gratitude, and was so strong he feared he would burst with it all.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you.”
It didn’t take them much longer to reach the Great Southern Continent. It was almost scary, actually, how swiftly James had become a part of the crew until he felt like he’d been part of the ragtag family Tony had build onboard The Vendicatore . “We’ll head somewhere North to deliver the message. Then we’re heading to the Middle Passage, by Caracas, so you can tell your friend to meet us there.”
James smiled. “That’s perfect. I’d better send one to Natasha, too. I’ll bet my life he went to her to help him find me, so if he’s scouring the seas she’ll know where he is and send him a message.”
Tony nodded absently, watching Rhodey help the Freeds settle, the rest of the crew leading them off the boat, handing them some supplies as he picked at the hem of his linen shirt. “Right.”
Gently taking one of his hands, James tutted. “You’re gonna tear your shirt into rags like that,” he teased, interlacing their fingers and squeezing the pirate’s hand slightly. The thing between them was so tentative and fragile that he was scared he’d make one wrong move and doom it all before it had even begun. Slowly, so slowly , they had begun to become more physically affectionate, especially since Tony had magnanimously agreed to let Steve aboard should he agree; little gestures of affection that never failed to make something warm burst to life within James’ chest.
Tony smiled slightly as he looked at their joined hands, squeezing back. “I’m so proud of how far you’ve come,” he stated, his suddenness surprising James. “And I’m glad you’re reaching out to Captain Rogers. You’ve told me so much about him…” He glanced up at James from beneath his long, curving lashes, almost shy. Vulnerable. Something stirred within James at seeing the other man so open and vulnerable, insecurities laid bare. Awe.
“Tony, Sweet, I-” he faltered, unsure as how to reassure Tony’s obvious fear that Steve’s presence would change things between them. “There’s something between us, you can feel that, can’t you, Sweeting?” That was another thing they had slowly built to; endearments. James would sometimes use one, usually as they rose, when they were still sleepy and the sun was low in the sky, usually accompanied by a kiss on the forehead; or, Tony would smile over his mug of ale in the evenings, a small, mischievous thing, shooting him a ‘dear’ as they talked and talked the night through.
Tony’s grip on his hand tightened at the casual use of endearments. James resisted the urge to smirk, instead settling for stroking his thumb along Tony’s golden skin.
It was a testament to just how far along James had come, to being his ‘old self’, that he was using pet names, as smooth and charming as he’d led Tony to believe after wistful story after story about the old him. The Before James.
‘After James is just as beautiful and complex’, Tony would always console, when he felt broken and wrong , arm wrapped around broad shoulder, James’ head tucked into the hollow of his throat.
“I do, James, I do .” And he did. Tony had never been short of lovers, but they had been a hollow love, borne out of lust for his wealth or the primal need for comfort After. What he had with James… that was nothing like anything he’d ever had with somebody, and it made him want to cherish it, protect it. It was a beautiful flower; one strong storm and it would be destroyed, mangled, beauty forever gone. More often than not it left him almost breathless.
A fear, deep-rooted within his mind, whispered to him that Steve was the storm that would tear into their lives, uprooting it and destroying the beauty they’d slowly- so slowly - and painfully built with each other, side by side. Together.
“My feelings for you aren’t ever going to change, Tony. No matter what happens with Steve,” James breathed, stepping closer to the shorter man. “Because when I love I love with my whole being, my whole soul . I’m not far off lovin’ you like that, and that kinda love ain’t goin’ anywhere.” His eyes held Tony’s prisoner, demanding his attention, his devotion. All freely given.
Tony had been helpless to love this man since he woke, screaming and in pain, looking for all the world like a lost, scared boy that was trying his hardest to hold himself together.
Tony had always had a weakness for broken, beautiful things.
Not broken, just hurting . The words that were once whispered to him that he whispered to James, on the nights in the beginning where James would wake, screaming, crying, pleading, fear soon turning to anger. You’re not broken, James, just hurting.
Tony wet his lips, pulse fluttering at his throat. “Promise? Promise me,” he demanded, breathy and desperate, eyes wide and borderline frantic. With his hair ruffled by the sea wind, James didn’t think he’d seen a prettier sight.
“I promise,” he swore, glad he could give something concrete to reassure the man that he wasn’t going to leave him. “I swear it, Tony.” He tugged the naval identification bracelet off his wrist- the only thing they hadn’t taken from him, the only thing he had from Before- and slid it onto Tony’s. A physical reminder of this moment, of James’ promise, to reassure Tony when James couldn’t. “Tony, I promise, sweet thing.”
Tony’s mouth was gaping, shocked joy written across every inch of his face. “James…”
“I know this thing that’s between us is so new, that we’ve barely acted on it, but Tony I want to.”
“I- me too, James, me too , oh God ,” he cried, flinging his arms around the larger man, embracing him tightly.
James laughed, feeling like he was going to explode from the pure joy that was rushing through his veins, swift and burning. Like a wildfire.
Maybe he’d combust.
(Not that he’d complain- he’d die a happy man).
Of course James’ mental state was still very fragile, a delicate thing that reminded Tony of a knife balancing on the edge of something narrow. One tiny push and it’d topple into bliss, mind marinating in serotonin and dopamine, leaving James feeling like he was on top of the world. Indestructible. He could easily grow manic, the darkness that lurked in his mind momentarily banished, almost forgotten.
But when his system flushed the chemicals out, the knife fell the other way, deep into the bottomless pit of James’ misery and melancholy. These moments were when the darkness would suddenly sieze him again, leeching his world of colour until he was a husk, either feeling nothing other than the melancholy that consumed him, or anger that burned bright and hot . He’d scream and scream until he was crying, clutching his hair and begging to be held, for Tony to burn through the blackness that swallowed him.
‘My Star,’ he’d cry, ‘ You shine so bright, make it go away.’
Tony’s own heart clenched in empathy, powerless to do anything other than do his best to soothe him, stroking his hair, letting James feel his heart beat, sure and loving ( ‘My Heart’ , he’d murmur, ‘Always so strong .’ ). He’d murmur to him stories of his adventures with the crew, stories of Before. Once, when the cruel hands and dripping blood wouldn’t stop tormenting his Love, Tony had whispered briefly about his own kidnapping. Of the betrayal that still tasted bitter in his mouth. Still made something ache deep within him. Their shared brokenness helped heal something deep within James, helped reassure him that Tony loved him, jagged pieces and all, because he was the same. They were one, borne of the same pain, the same darkness .
James had held him through his tears, both of them sobbing, holding each other on the floor of their shared quarters.
The day James had made his promise, and all through the night, he’d been so happy , that it was inevitable, really, that he’d crash. That the darkness would creep back and imprison him within his agony once again.
“Tony…” It was more of a pleading whimper than anything, (soft but painfully loud in the silence of the night) no matter how much James would deny it later, and it tugged and tugged at Tony’s heart until he was hurting too.
“Oh, James.” Sliding off the bed, moving as quickly as he could to James’ bed they’d brought in that first night, when he was halfway to dead (no no no, don’t think of that, don’t ). “James, mi amore, it’s alright, I’m here, it’s going to be alright.” He crooned sweet nothings, reassurances, into his sweaty hair, holding him tight to him. “It’s going to be alright.”
The bracelet James had given him glinted in the moonlight, almost mocking him. Look at what you had , it seemed to say, but nothing really lasts forever, does it?
The thought haunted him long into dawn.
With the Freeds no longer aboard, the ship seemed emptier, no dark, slim faces warming in the sun, curious to explore the ship. Though many stayed below deck where they felt safe, the loss of their presence was felt keenly by James.
“Just want them to be safe,” he mumbled when Rhodey asked him what got his face all sour. “Hate how people can do that to them, just ‘cause of the colour of their skin.”
Rhodey, a fellow black man that had once been a slave until Tony had freed him in his own escape, nodded. “I know. But James, we’re making a difference. We are ,” he insisted at James’ doubtful expression. “All of these people? They were suffering . But now look at them. They’re happy, they’re free. And our ship is famous because of it; our legend’s spread across the seven seas, James. We are helping , no matter how small. We are doing something , and with things like this? That’s all that matters. All that distinguishes us from them .”
James nodded. “Right.” A weariness settled deep within him as he sighed deeply, hands flexing on the wooden banister that fenced the deck of the ship.
Rhodey rested a hand on the man’s shoulder, the touch warm and reassuring. “One day there will be no difference between men like you and me. One day slavery will be a abhorred thing of the past that we will condemn our generation for.”
James bit his lip, mind drifting back to the men, women and children who had suffered so much. “I really hope so, Rhodey. I really do.”
Their melancholy was interrupted by Tony’s cheerful ‘Am I interrupting?’, and a chaste kiss pressed against James’ cheek. Anxious, the man glanced at Rhodey to gauge his reaction, but he just rolled his eyes.
“Trust me, I’ve seen Tony do much worse,” he reassured dryly, shooting a fond glare at his best friend.
Tony grinned cheekily. “It’s true,” he shrugged, shameless.
James huffed a laugh, hesitantly wrapping an arm around the man’s waist. “Poor soul,” he sympathised, grinning at Tony’s little huff.
“Please. Remember France, after you were that poor woman’s dashing little hero? Scarred me for life, I say.”
Rhodey grinned wolfishly. “How could I forget?” He pressed a hand to his chest, over his heart, dramatically. “Thought I’d died and gone to Heaven that night. The Lord definitely blessed me.”
Tony scowled. “Well he definitely didn’t bless my poor eyes, you rotten sod!”
James snorted. “He let you gaze upon me, did he not?” He smirked, playfully joining their banter.
Tony laughed, gaze softening. “Touche, James. Touche.”
“Stop it,” Rhodey scowled, making exaggerated gagging noises. “Foul beasts, save it for the private quarters.”
“Aw, honey-boo, feeling left out?” Tony cooed, grabbing Rhodey’s cheek, releasing it when he was swatted at aggressively.
“I have never wanted to be left out of something more than I do now,” he said, serious.
Tony laughed. “Come, now. I’ve come to steal James and the helm needs a Helmsman.” Shooing the pirate off, Tony turned to James, grinning brightly. “C’mon. You can distract me while I plan our course.”
James grinned, wicked and full of promise. “Oh?” They hadn’t taken that step yet, had not even kissed, and James knew that wasn’t what Tony meant, but it was fun to tease.
Tony returned his grin, waggling his eyebrows playfully. “What say ye?”
“Whatever you want, sweet thing. Whatever you want.” He didn’t even bother trying to keep the fondness from his voice; it was doubtless writ across his face whenever he so much as looked at his pirate captain.
Winter was fast approaching, and so the days were shorter and the nights longer. Cold winds tore through the sails, wild and strong, propelling them faster and faster along Tony’s plotted route to land.
To where he would contact Steve.
So it was dark by the time the two of them fell asleep, wrapped around each other, warm and safe, and even darker when James woke.
“James,” came Tony’s giddy whisper, drawing James from his sleep like a moth drawn to a flame. “James, my friend, wake up.” There was a smile in his voice, a giddiness he couldn’t conceal. James found his lips curling into an answering smile as he opened one eye to see Tony illuminated in the candlelight, leaning over him, eyes sparkling. “I have something to show you.”
James grumbled as he followed Tony out onto the deck, rubbing at his eyes tiredly. Mid-yawn, he paused at the sight Tony made, all tiredness suddenly dissipated.
Illuminated by the waves of moonlight washing down on him, casting him in an ethereal light that softened him into something gentle and warm, James couldn’t help but think how utterly and achingly beautiful he looked. Eyes lingering on the man’s silhouette, he followed the pirate captain until they both stood, shoulder to shoulder, in the centre of the deck, Stark’s head tilted back to look up to the night sky. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” He asked, hand reaching to hold James’, fingers interlacing as Tony’s face softened into a smile; he was almost glowing in the silver moonlight, youthful and powerful in a way that stole the breath from James’ very chest.
‘You are,’ he wanted to say, needed to say, as they lay down because in that moment his chest felt like it was going to burst, split at the seams like Steve’s jackets used to when he went through his sudden spurt of growth, muscle after muscle growing larger as he grew into his manhood. He could almost imagine everything spilling out, trailing down his body to pool ‘round Tony’s feet, coating them with the pure, vivid emotion that burned bright like a star within him. But he couldn’t; he was no longer the charming young man that had joined the Navy with Steve, silver tongued and handsome. Now, words clogged in his throat, threatening to choke him, before sliding back down his chest, heavy around his heart as everything that remained unspoken wrapped around it like chains. “It is,” was all he could choke out, helpless before the man before him that had somehow managed to steal his heart.
He loved him.
Loved the man stood beside him, the man who showed him the beauty hidden in the world, whether it be hung in the sky by Mother Nature herself, or in the way blood dripping from a blade as sharp as Tony’s wit could get James’ heart thundering heavier and faster than a galloping horse. The beauty that was Anthony Stark was dazzling, and he couldn’t not love him.
The realisation left him breathless, wide-eyes and frozen, hand tightening against Tony’s.
“Hey, you alright there, Sweeting?” Tony’s concerned furrow of the brow and easy use of the endearment tugged at something in James, mirrored in the twitching of his lips.
“Fine,” he reassured. “I just realised something.”
That earned him a single, raised eyebrow. “Oh?” He asked, making an inquiring noise. “Care to share?”
James smiled, something secretive and cheeky. “Maybe someday.” He rubbed his thumb along Tony’s wrist absently, staring at the stars reflected in his eyes. “I think I’m the happiest man in the world,” he whispered, gaze unwavering as Tony’s smile lit up his face.
“Me too,” he agreed, shifting closer, until their entire sides touched and their noses brushed. “So, very happy.”
James smiled, fond and warm, as he reached a hand to cup Tony’s exposed cheek, rubbing his thumb across the soft skin. Slowly, oh so slowly, he brought his lips closer, until finally, finally , they met Tony’s in a soft, chaste kiss.
Tony made a desperate sound that shot straight to James’ gut, tangling a hand in James’ hair, longer now than it had been when he had first come aboard, tugging him in for another, this one more passionate, his tongue swiping across James’ lips, begging for entrance that James freely gave. To Tony, he surrendered. He always would.
Tony moaned, tongue sweeping in the cavern of James’ mouth, hot and passionate, as James tugged him closer until Tony was practically on top of James, his body a length of warmth that sent his head dizzy.
“Tony,” he groaned, “ Tony. ”
Tony pulled away with a chuckle, pressing soft kisses to James’ jaw. “You’re so sweet,” he murmured, nuzzling him now, tongue flicking in his ear.
James huffed. “Tease.”
Tony hummed in agreement. “Waited so long,” he sighed, sounding as happy as James felt. It made his heart flutter and swell with love. “Perfect,” he sighed, dropping his head to James’ shoulder as James wrapped his arms around his waist. “You’re perfect, James.”
“You’re perfect, too, Love,” he whispered, feeling Tony’s breathing slow, until he drifted to sleep, blanketed by the stars, warm and comforted by each other’s presence.
It was perfect .
“I love you,” he mouthed against Tony’s hair, grinning. “So much.”
(He viciously shoved down the anxieties, the doubt. He had known Tony for weeks, and had fallen more in love with him with each one. He’d sunk straight into it, like quicksand; he always did. But this time felt different. Special. His love for Tony felt special, like a precious jewel, no matter how quickly it had developed. It felt so right .)
I was going to wait until my exams were finished, but I need a mid-exam season pick-me-up in the form of all your lovely comments and kudos!
I also wanted to thank you all for the positive feedback, it makes me smile :)
Until next time!
Every day that passed without Bucky by his side was pure agony; it leeched more and more out of him until he was barely a husk. Hollow and paper-thin.
Natasha’s voice snapped him out of his melancholy, drawing his attention toward her so that he was stood, blinking at her. “Natasha?”
“I received a letter. I wager you would have received on, also, but James is a smart lad and doubtless knew that your would be hounding me here.” She passed it along to him, as if she hadn’t just rocked his entire word with a simple sentence.
James, his James, his Bucky, had sent a letter. A letter.
He was alive, free enough to communicate.
With a choked sound, Steve opened the folded piece of paper, eyes roaming over its surface, drinking in the words.
Stevie, my dear old friend, my Captain , it has regretfully been many long, long days since I saw you last, and I have missed you every second of each one. I long for your company, for the warmth of your embrace. I miss you so much my friend, and I find myself beyond impatient for the day we might reune.
I did send a letter to your home, but I thought it best to send another to Natasha. I know you well enough to guess you to be hounding her to help you search for me- if it were me in your position, she would be my first port of call. Doubtless your anxieties of my wellbeing are at a peak, and so first thing is first, my friend:
I am safe . I am okay.
I am onboard The Vendicatore , with Captain Anthony Stark, headed for England. He saved me, Stevie. Pulled me right out of Hell’s clutches on that Godforsaken ship headed God-knows where and kept me safe. Kept me sane.
You’d love him, you really would. He’s wild. A true spitfire, stubborn enough to rival you. Smart as a whip, too, with a mind that never stops. I owe him my life. He’s beautiful. I wager that you shall want nothing more than to draw him when you meet, Stevie. ‘Bout the most beautiful thing I have had the fortune of bearing witness, besides yourself.
I write this as I sit here, at the Great Southern Continent, praying that you head swiftly to London’s waters to greet us, so that I may once again see your face again as I feared I would never would. She’ll be flying a ruby and navy flag, should you need to identify us from the traders. Though, that shan’t be too hard-a job, what with her unique, smaller size. You’ll know her when you see her, should you reach London first. On those long, dark days, it was the thought of you that got me through, dear friend, and so I find myself riddled with anxiety at the prospect of our reunion, scared for your reaction at seeing the man I have become.
But still I hope to see you. That you will join me on Captain Stark’s ship, on our quest to cull the beast that has plagued our society for too long, unchecked and disgracefully accepted. I long to see The Patriot on the Thames’ waters, in all her glory. She would no doubt be the most majestic ship it ever saw. With you at her Helm.
After England we sail for the Middle Passage to intercept a Slaver. And after that, another. And another, until no more of Hydra’s ships remain. Until their power is obliterated and none shall share my pain. Stark, Tony, he insists I call him, knows my pain. He speaks little of it, but he carries a pain I can’t help but relate to. A kindred soul. ‘Tis why he has made it his mission to eliminate slavery. A tall goal, one I fear unreacheable, but I find myself unable to refuse to join his attempts. You’re a good man, Stevie, and I know that you see what good we are doing. I hope you find it within yourself to join us.
Please, Stevie. I find the pain of our separation to be unbearable, but I cannot turn down the chance to do what it right.
I have written and written, but no letter I have crafted seems quite right, so I must content myself with this final one, no matter. I have never been adept at articulating myself, as you well know, so you must forgive my briefness.
I also find myself unable to withhold this confession any longer. The fear that you may not return my affections cannot withhold my words any longer: I love you. I have for as long as I remember, and all those times I thought I may die I could not bare the thought that you would not know. So I must tell you. I must. Steven Grant Rogers, I love you. But I also love Tony, more than I ever thought possible. I know that my feelings for you are not returned, and I have come to accept that, but I need you to know.
A man, wiser in the moment than I ever gave him credit for, said, essentially, that I am a fool to be constrained by a society that rejects and tortures me, and so I find myself unable to subdue my greed. I want you, just as I want Tony. I know in my heart that you cannot say yes to such a foolish wish, but I dream of a day where we may all be together.
With hope and love,
It was all Steve could do not to break down with tears of joy. “He’s okay.” He sounded shocked, even to his own ears, voice hoarse and full of emotion. “Natasha, he's okay and he wants me to meet him in London.” He bit his lip as he reread Bucky’s confession. He loved him. He loved him . The joy that brought was overwhelming- God knows how long Steve carried a secret love for his best friend-, only dampered by this Tony. Steve furrowed his brow slightly. Bucky wanted the both of them? He shook his head slightly, shaking off his worries; he would deal with that when the time came. For now, it was important to focus on the fact that he was alive.
Natasha beamed, stepping closer and running a hand through his short hair. It was a comfort she had started to give since the day he collapsed at her feet, and he was unbearably grateful for her steadfast support. “That's excellent news, Steven. My heart is truly lightened to hear it.”
She looked him in the eyes, taking in how watery they were, how tired . James’ absence had taken a grave toll on him.
“Get some rest and we'll leave in the morning.” When he looked like he was about to protest, she sent him her sharpest glare. “ Rest. ”
He sighed, reluctantly conceding. “Alright, fine. I'll rest.”
Bucky would understand.
Try as he might, Steve couldn't seem to fall asleep. He was exhausted, no denying it, so he should have been out as soon as his head touched the pillow, like the candles he put out every night.
But tonight he just couldn't. His mind was racing, thinking of Bucky, of all the things that could have happened to him, what he could have suffered. And Tony . The thought of this man that had claimed his best friend’s- and the love of his life, if he were to be honest- heart brought a slightly bitter taste to his mouth. How could he compete with the man that had saved Bucky?
He sighed, rolling over and thumping his pillow, mind returning to Bucky.
He was scared, because for the first time his mind wandered to the realm of ‘what if’. What if Bucky had died? The thought alone made his eyes water as his mind ran wild, fantasising. He’d be alone. Never able to talk to him again, see his smirk, get his hair ruffled with an affectionate ‘lout’ thrown at him. Never get to tell, to show , Bucky how much he loved him.
That was what terrified him the most. Bucky never finding out how Steve felt, missing out on what they could have been. He shuddered at the thought. Its okay , he told himself. He’s alive and he loves you too. Somehow he loves you too . The thought brought a slightly goofy grin to his face, as only love can do.
Steve closed his eyes, still smiling. His love for Bucky had only grown since his capturing, becoming more and more impossible to deny. The man was everything to him, and he couldn’t function, couldn’t live without him.
There was no doubt within his mind about going to London to meet Bucky: no force on Earth could stop him. None.
Hold on, Bucky, I’m coming.
It was a week before Steve made it to London, and another before he received word from Bucky that they were a week away.
It was torture.
It physically pained him to be separated from Bucky now that he knew he was out there. That he was on his way to him. The anticipation drew each day out that he spent in London, each hour seeming infinitely, impossibly longer than he’d imagined an hour could become.
Each day was spent restlessly roaming the streets of London, walking along the canals, through Hyde Park; anywhere. It was cool enough to be brisk and leave him rosy cheeked and fascinated with the way his breath came out like a dragon’s fiery breath. Childish, but he had always held a childlike wonder within him towards the world. Bucky said it was what made him such a great artist; his ability to see the good and wonder despite what he had seen. The bloodshed, the famine. The suffering. The world was an ugly place, but it was also beautiful.
The majority of his time, however, was spent by the Thames, standing by Westminster Bridge, eyes never ceasing in their search for a ship carrying the ruby and navy flag of The Vendicatore .
It felt like forever before they were finally reunited.
It was a gray, gloomy day (when wasn’t it, in good old London?), the rainfall gentle and soothing as it pattered down on the bustling city, not slowing it down for a moment. Steve was sat on a small section of grass that was the least muddy he could find, watching the ships pass through the bridge.
But none with a ruby and navy flag.
“Steve!” A man, hanging over the side of a ship- small but elegant, with a sharp bow that Steve could imagine slicing through the ocean as effortless as walking through air- waving a ruby and navy flag, waving, laughing .
Ruby and navy.
It was Bucky.
He was finally here.
There was tears. A lot of them. In fact, Steve struggled to remember a time when he cried as much as he did when he finally- finally - got his arms around Bucky. Nose buried in his hair, longer than when he saw him last, he found himself unable to stop sobbing. Or able to release his friend. His love. “ Bucky ,” he breathed, unable to keep his voice even and free from the emotions that overwhelmed him. “ Bucky you’re here .” He made an awful, wet sound that would usually have embarrassed him- effeminate as his shocking display of emotion was, and for the world to see, as well!- but he didn’t care. Not when it was Bucky he was embracing, when it was Bucky who made a similar, horrid sound and tightened his own arms around Steve.
“ Steve ,” he heard him cry, as emotionally loaded as Steve felt. “ Steve , God, but I’ve missed you .”
Steve could only squeeze the slightly smaller man closer to him, closing his eyes and basking in his presence. The scent that was Bucky . “I’ve missed you dearly, Bucky. More than I ever thought a man could.”
Bucky let loose a wet laugh. “Me as well, I fear. By the Lord, Steve, look at you.” He ran a hand over Steve’s face, feeling the beard he had grown in his period of melancholy, running a gentle thumb over the bags he knew were under his eyes, proof of his exhaustion. Of his grief. “Oh, Steve, it’s okay. I’m here now,” he soothed gently, smiling.
Steve was helpless in the face of such beauty- he truly was. He was but a man, after all! And a man was capable of resistance in the face of temptation for only so long, and Steve was a weak, weak man when it came to one James “Bucky” Barnes.
So, he felt he could not accept blame when he brought his lips to Bucky’s.
Was it not his fault if the Lord made the Devil so much stronger than man?
Steve’s lips were as soft as he had imagined. Kissing him was like awakening; soft, warm, gentle. It was one of the loveliest experiences James had ever had, and he was soaring on his joy.
“Steve,” he moaned, breathless, resting their foreheads together. “Steve, man, God .” Even to his own ears he sounded wrecked. And just from a single kiss.
Steve sounded as equally breathless when he spoke, much to James’ relief. “ Bucky , I’m so sorry, so sorry, please forgive me. I did not mean to be so… bold, and when you have your pirate captain, too. Lord forgive me, I-”
Bucky laughed. “Oh, Steve, you were always so kind. I am shocked, I admit, at your boldness, but… I am glad. I love you, I love you.” He smiled again, something small and wondrous, as he looked at Steve, stepping away slightly. “Tony knows I love you, and he still loves me.” His smile turned fond. “We should all converse- I simply cannot wait for you to meet him, I just know that you shall love him as much as I- about it, but I need you to know that Tony has given his blessing for me to be with both of you, if you find yourself agreeable.”
It all came out so rushed that it took a few seconds for Steve’s brain to register what Bucky had bombarded him with. Blinking slowly, he reached for the man’s hand. Bucky looked so nervous, but hesitant hopeful. “That… ‘tis not done,” Steve finally managed, cautiously. The last thing he wanted to do was upset Bucky- he had just gotten him back!- but the idea of Bucky sharing them both was… so deviant.
Bucky shrugged. “I find myself unable to care about what a society as cruel as ours thinks these days.” It was soft, but Steve still flinched.
“I… I am hesitant to say anything quite yet,” he said, finding himself apologetic. “Come now, let us not spoil this joyous moment. Show me this ship and captain you have told me about,” he made himself sound more confident than he felt, shoving back all of his thoughts and feelings on that matter, instead allowing Bucky to tug him along towards The Vendicatore.
“She’s amazing,” Bucky was saying. “Truly awesome, Stevie.”
Steve nodded absently, making a noncommittal noise as they made their way aboard.
“James! Pray tell, is this the Steve that I have heard so much about?” The voice, oddly smooth and rich for a sailor, pulled Steve from his absent mindedness and directed his attention to its owner. Steve found himself blinking, shocked at the beauty of the man: he was small, wiry and lithe in a way that suggested power, not weakness, with a deliciously olive tanned skin and long, slender fingers and hair that curled by his ears. His smile- as radiant as the man himself- was large and genuine, accompanied by a crinkling of the eyes that Steve couldn’t help but find endearing.
“Aye, indeed it is, Tones,” Bucky confirmed, sending the man a smile of his own.
Tones, Bucky had called him. Tony. This was the Tony Bucky had found himself loving.
Steve couldn't say he blamed him; for a pirate, he was beautiful. But… he had heard of what Anthony Stark did, had heard of the lives he claimed with his sword and weapons while he was in London. He was bad, rotten. He did not deserve Bucky’s love. Not one bit of it.
Steve noticed the man’s eyes drop slightly to where he was still holding Bucky’s hand, but the man remained polite, and his smile only became slightly strained. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Captain,” Tony greeted, making his way towards them and offering Steve his hand. “Might I inquire as to whether or not you plan to stay a while with our crew?”
Steve hesitated as he shook his hand, feeling the hard calluses that spoke of hard work and character. His sharp, artists eye that had served him well as a Naval Captain also noticed several scars on the man’s hand and wrist, creeping up to where his sleeve covered. “I plan to stay as long as Bucky does,” he said firmly.
Tony raised an eyebrow, shooting a curious glance to Bucky. “Bucky? Why, James, I fear you’ve been holding out on me!”
Bucky huffed in amusement. “It’s a long story.”
Tony just smiled. “Please, join me in my chambers. I think we have much to discuss.”
Steve nodded, still holding Bucky’s hand as he followed the smaller man. Indeed they did.
So I really don't like this chapter?
Oh well- my exams are finished! Yay!
Look who's still alive!
Steve was… a lot to take in.
His size alone was a mix between intimidating and mouthwateringly distracting (good Lord, now there was two perfect specimens of the human species he had to act normal around), and his voice. God, that deep timbre affected him almost as much as James’.
Easy , he told himself. Easy.
Instead of allowing his eyes to travel down the man’s form, he shot him a charming smile, offering him a cheeky quip. “I must confess, you are not what I was expecting when James told me you were his Captain in the Navy.”
Ah. A man of few words. Well… Tony didn’t exactly mind the whole mysteriousness of it. He tried again, running a hand through his hair. “James speaks very highly of you, Captain.”
He saw Steve shoot James a soft smile, eyes fond and warm; a complete contrast to their coldness when they looked at Tony. “Buck’s too kind.”
“Buck?” he asked inquiringly. James was, afterall, their common ground.
Steve shifted, shrugging. “‘It is what I have called him for as long as I have known him.” A glimmer of something passed across his face, but it was gone almost as soon as it appeared. “And, please, it is no longer ‘Captain’.” At Tony’s confusion, he elaborated. “I am no longer a Captain in His Majesty’s Navy.” He said it casually enough, but there was an undercurrent of sadness to his tone that belied his cavalierness.
James, it seemed, detected the same sadness, or perhaps he was just shocked, if his ‘Steve?’ was anything to go by. “What do you mean by that?”
Steve’s head dropped as he stared at his hands, interlacing and separating them repeatedly in a nervous gesture that made him seem so young that Tony found himself feeling sympathetic despite himself. Sympathetic! Him! To the man that would steal his James from him! (That was unfair, he knew that. If James left him, if he realised how much better than Tony he could do, then it would be nobody’s fault other than Tony’s himself). “A Naval Captain couldn’t very well spend four months of the twelve searching for a friend, now, could he?” There was a twist to his mouth, sad and self-depreciating, as if it were his fault.
“Well, that seems mighty sad,” Tony interrupted. “I am sorry.”
Steve nodded once in thanks, eyes still on his hands. James moved behind him to place a hand on his shoulder. “Stevie, I’m so sorry.”
Steve shook his head, adamant. “No. Buck, don’t. It is not your fault, it’s no one’s. Simply what must be.” He turned, looking James in the eyes, as he took his hand in his own. “I would much rather have you than any ship.”
James didn’t seem convinced, but let it lie, instead turning to Tony. “Your mind remains the same?” He asked, eyes turning nervous.
Tony nodded grudgingly. He had agreed to this, but seeing Rogers in the flesh made it all so real ; it was difficult to feel adequate and as confident as he liked to appear in the face of his sizeable person. “Aye. My offer remains, and my blessing given.”
Steve’s face morphed into something purely quizzical. “Do you refer to Bucky’s offer for me to join you on board your vessel?”
Tony nodded. “Indeed.” Trepidation weighed heavy within him, but he continued. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself. This was a conversation that was needed to be had; he could live with the consequences. “As well as the offer to court James.” The words sounded stiff and wooden, even to him. They crawled up his throat, thick and sludgy, even when a sizeable part of him wanted nothing more than to shove them back down.
Steve’s eyes widened, meeting James’. “You were truthful.” He sounded shocked, overjoyed. Like he couldn’t believe that he could finally have the man of his dreams.
James nodded, smiling. “Of course. Steve, I love you. I would never lie to you about that,” he swore. “I love you so much, and I would love nothing more than to be with you.”
Steve hesitated as James took his free hand, so that he was holding both of Steve’s. “And Tony? What about him? You said that you love him.”
James nodded. “I did. I do , but...” His tongue, pink and wet, darted out to wet his lips in a display of anxiety that Tony couldn’t help but track with his eyes, even as he felt like his whole world was crumbling around him. This was it. This is when James would decide he wanted Steve, only Steve. When Steve would agree, because who would want to share their partner? Their better half? Certainly not a man as good as Steven Rogers, who went to Hell and back for James. Their love was something that Tony would never be able to compete with. “I love you both.” That hurt. He knew James loved him, it had never been said, but he had known. He loved him, but it wasn’t enough. He shoved down a sob with a visciousness usually reserved for cutting down slave traders, almost missing James’ next words. “I want to be with you both, Steve. Who’s to say that I can’t?”
“Buck...” Steve’s voice was hesitant, hoarse. Like he wanted , needed, but couldn’t. “It isn’t done.” Tony closed his eyes, leaning against the nearest wall as a sudden wave of dread left him unsteady on his feet. His stomach felt like it was devouring itself, and his heart was practically in his throat. This was it. He knew it; Steve didn’t want to share James. And James would cave and end what he had with Tony, leaving him broken and alone.
It hurt to breathe.
"I don’t care. Stevie, I don’t care .” James was practically begging. “I need you both, and there’s no one to tell me I can’t.”
Tony’s eyes snapped open in disbelief, tinged with shock. What? Something like hope began to stir within him, gripping him, leaving him frozen in suspense. Would Steve agree? Could it actually all work out? Something akin to giddiness bubbled to life alongside the burning hope as he finally allowed himself to consider the possibilities. He could be with James and so could Steve and they’d all be happy. Tony would finally be happy.
“Buck… I can’t. I won’t . I won’t share you like some common harlot .”
Tony smiled grimly as he felt his heart sink to his feet, splintering into a thousand pieces, all previous hope doused by the horror that painted Steve’s tone. There it was.
What a fool he was to think he could ever be happy.
“Steve.” James was crying. Silent tears dripped down his face as his eyes shone, and Tony hated himself for finding it beautifully haunting. “ Please. ”
But Steve only shook his head, jaw clenched as he looked to Tony. “He’s a pirate , Buck. I can’t ever let you be with a soul as corrupt as his. The things he’s done… saving a few slaves doesn’t come close to redeeming him.” The bastard didn’t even seem to care that he was breaking James’ heart with each word, didn’t care that Tony flinched.
Not good enough.
You’re pathetic. You’ll never be good enough to make me proud, boy.
You make me sick. Look at you, you disgust me.
“Steve!” James managed to sound offended on Tony’s behalf, with made him smile. James was a good man, which is why Steve is right. He shouldn’t have been selfish. He corrupted everything he touched; he couldn’t let James be the next in a long line.
“James, it’s okay,” he consoled softly, stepping forward and cupping his cheek, thumb wiping away a tear. “It’s okay. He’s right.” And that was the part that hurt the most- he was right. Tony had taken more lives than he could count, with the weapons he and his father had made, and when he slaughtered the men transporting the slaves from one Hell to another. Nothing he would do could make up for that. He was right; he didn’t deserve James, but he had been selfish and wanted . God, had he wanted.
He met Steve’s eyes as James embraced him, burying his face in Tony’s neck, trembling. In that moment he hated Steve. He hated him, for making James cry, for making him hurt like Tony had rarely seen him. Even after everything he had been through, when his night terrors woke him up screaming, he never cried like this. Like he was broken , hopeless. He hated it.
“James, sweetheart, calm yourself,” he tried, voice gentle. “All is right, I promise.’ He pressed their foreheads together, closing his eyes as he breathed in James’ scent, reveled in their closeness, one last time. “Your friend speaks true. I am a bad, bad man that was selfish enough to want you even though I knew I would taint you.” Now he was crying, voice hoarse, feeling their tears mix as they dropped on their clothes and the floor. “I knew it and I was still willing to love you, to let you love me, and he’s right , James, you deserve so much better .” He opened his eyes to stare into James’, lost in their beauty. How had he never noticed the grey flecks? The way they seemed so deep, like an ocean. Beautiful. They were as beautiful as the man they belonged to, and it made Tony’s heart hurt.
“ No !” God, James sounded wrecked . “Tony, no, I can’t lose you, don’t do this. He’s wrong, you’re such a good man and I love you , please don’t do this, please .” He broke into sobs anew, begging and begging, clutching Tony tightly to him.
Tony sighed, drawing James’ arms off him and stepping away, keeping his eyes firmly on Steve, so that the hatred could replace the soul-breaking grief that threatened to drown him. “We’re on a tight schedule so you’ll have to wait until we reach a port after if you wish to leave,” he choked as he all but fled the room, making a beeline through the galley to where he knew Rhodey would be. Rhodey, who was always there for him, no matter what. Rhodey who Tony could always depend on.
Even if he knew he didn’t deserve a man like him.
“Buck…” Steve swallowed as Bucky sunk to the floor, clutching his hair as his sobs became even more violent, wracking his whole frame. “Buck, its for the best.” He crouched in front of his friend, the love of his life, carefully running a hand along his hair. “Hey, come on, you’ve got me,” he smiled, trying for levity. “You always have me, Buck. I love you.” His smile widened. He could do that, he could say he loved him. His euphoria was dampened only by Bucky’s state. “Buck, what’s wrong?”
“Go ‘way.” It was muffled by his face being buried in his knees as he hugged them, but still sounded so angry .
Steve hesitated. An angry Bucky wasn’t always the nicest. “I don’t want to leave you alone on a strange ship with people we don’t know when you’re in a state like this,” he reasoned. “But you know I won’t judge you. He obviously lied to you, and you fell for it. Buck, I’d be upset, too. It’s okay.” He tried for soothing, but Bucky snarled. Actually snarled, face whipping up to glare at him with fury blazing in his eyes. It was enough to make Steve take a step back in shock. He had never seen the other man like this before. Something akin to fear swirled low in his belly; what horrors had been done to him to turn him into this? That he could be so easily tipped into such an animalistic state.
“Piss off, Stevie,” he spat. “You knew I loved him, who are you to say who I can love? Huh?” Each word was spat like poison, like he wanted to hurt Steve. Wisely, he remained silent, letting Bucky get it all out. “He’s a good man , but you wouldn’t know that because you don’t even know him .” His face crumpled, all fury draining away, leaving a harrowing melancholy in its place. “You ruined it,” he cried, hoarse voice breaking. “You ruined it, Steve, he’ll never let me love him now.”
Steve frowned. “Buck, what do you mean? He’s a pirate, he kills people. And I heard he made weapons with his father for the King’s Navy that killed thousands of people!”
Bucky hunched his shoulders. “He’s so insecure, he’s been through so much.” His voice was barely louder than a whisper, and Steve strained to hear it over the sounds of the water. “He hates himself for what his father raised him to do, Steve.” His gaze felt like a damnation as he spoke. “He’s tried to make up for every wrong he’s ever committed. Can you say the same? Can you say that you haven’t taken lives? Or does it not matter when it’s in the name of His Majesty, God Save Him?” He sneered. “I love you Steve but you’re so wrong about him and you were cruel .”
Steve swallowed, shifting his weight. “It doesn’t matter. He's a pirate , Buck. You and I both know that there’s no such thing as a good pirate.” He pointedly ignored Bucky’s vicious ‘ you’re wrong’ , as venomous as the snake bite that’s mark still remained on the ex-captain’s calf. “You don’t need him when you have me. You’ll both get over this. I promise.”
Bucky just shook his head, hugging his knees tighter. “I don’t want to ‘get over’ him,” he rebutted, stubbornly. His sobs had ceased; too angry to cry.
Steve sighed, irritation flaring to life. “Buck you’re acting like a child ,” he hissed. “Think about this for a second. He’s a pirate . I say let’s get off this infernal ship right this instant and make our way back home.” He reached out hesitantly, crouching down again to place a reassuring hand on his friend’s hand. “Buck, let’s go home .”
Everything seemed to drain out of the other man then; he slumped, as if he were marionette with his strings cut. “What for?” he asked, and Steve shivered, shocked at how dull and empty his voice sounded. “We don’t have anything there for us, Stevie.” Resignation, Steve realised, with dawning horror. That’s what this was; he didn’t want it, but had resigned himself to it. Dear God . Was it truly that much of a hardship to go home ? “No Navy, no family.” He raised his head slightly to pin him with a flat, dead-eyes stare. “I got nothin’.”
“You have me, Buck, you have me ,” Steve hissed, suddenly furious. “You have me! I sacrificed everything to save you, and this is the thanks I get?”
“Fuck. You.” Bucky hissed back, jumping to his feet. “Fuck you, Steven .” Fury etched into his very bones, he turned on his heel, striding out of the room, letting the door slam behind him. Steve sighed, running a hand down his face in regret.
“I’m going to kill him, Tones, I’m actually going to do it, I swear to God -”
“Platypus, as much as I love you defending my honour, and I do, do you think that you could, perhaps, be overreacting? Ever so slightly?” Tony asked dryly, wiping at the half-dried tear tracks down his cheeks. “Lord, but I hate crying,” he sighed, sitting on his first mate’s bed. His brother, really, in all but blood.
“No, I think not,” Rhodey hissed. “I’ll skewer them, Tones, run them straight through with my sword.” He mimed it with a sharp thrust of his arm, earning a laugh from the slumped figure on his bed as Tony buried his face in Rhodey’s pillow.
He mumbled something muffled Rhodey assumed to a declaration of affection. “I love you.”
“I love you too, you filthy dipper,” he sighed, rubbing Tony’s ankle affectionately. “But fine, I won’t harm a hair on his head.” After a pause he tapped on his friend’s leg. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Tones…” Rhodey waited, knowing that eventually Tony would spill, like a crack in a ship’s hull that let the ocean rush into the spaces below deck.
“He was right.”
The quiet, soft admission made Rhodey’s heart ache. God, they had been through this very argument until they were both blue in the face and he still couldn’t get it through his thick skull that maybe, just maybe , he wasn’t as bad as he thought. Rhodey rolled his eyes, thinking to himself that nobody would ever hate Tony Stark more than he hated- despised, rather- himself. It was a burning hatred that was fuelled by the hatred of others, like Rogers, and every word against his character that was spat at him lit it up like gasoline; at this point it was practically a bonfire worthy of Guy Fawkes.
“No. No, he wasn’t, and you know it. He saw you with James and wanted to hurt you. Don’t give him the satisfaction.” Rhodey denied firmly. “He saw that you are a pirate and made his assumptions. He let rumours colour his perception of you, and that is unforgivable because he allowed his prejudice against you to blind him to the person in front of him.” He sighed. “Tony, he was wrong , and you can’t take it to heart because he doesn’t even know you. He doesn’t know the man you’ve become, what you’ve done, what you’ve suffered …” Rhodey’s voice turned pained as his mind turned to those long months of their shared abuse, their slavery. The whippings Tony had taken so that he wouldn’t have to. “You’re a good, kind man. I know it, and James does too. In time, Steve will, as well.” He grinned, sharp and wicked. “If not, then I shall run him through with my sword.”
Tony laughed. “My hero,” he lifted his head to look back at Rhodey and batted his eyelashes.
Rhodey grinned. “You bet,” he promised. “Listen,” he continued, growing serious. “What are you going to do about them? Rogers, especially. Because, I, personally, am all for dumping them off at the nearest mainland.”
Tony huffed a laugh, but shook his head. “We cannot make the time to dock at a port and let them make their own way somewhere,” he admitted. “Our schedule is too tight; if we make an unscheduled stop we’ll miss the Ultron .” He sighed. “They shall remain on board until after, if they wish to leave. I won’t force them.”
Rhodey sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Tony…”
Tony huffed, shooting him a glare. “What? What do you want me to do, Honeybear? Toss them overboard? Let the sharks at them?” When Rhodey looked like he was considering it, he rolled his eyes. “No, Rhodey. Just… leave it be, okay? I can sleep with you, and they can have my quarters, and we don’t even have to see each other. It’ll be fine, I promise.”
Unconvinced, Rhody folded his arms, raising an eyebrow. Do you really believe that?
Tony groaned, burying his head in the pillow. No. Not for a single moment.
It was a whole week before Tony saw James again, and when he did he almost wished he hadn’t. He looked awful; like he had been dragged through Hell and back, used as a ragdoll for the hounds of Hell themselves. “Tony.” Even his voice sounded rough, like he had swallowed shards of glass; it was small, like he was trying to make his body, shoulders hunched and chin nearly tucked into his chest. “Tony?”
Tony closed his eyes against the sight, stood in the entrance to the galley. His heart ached to see James so… melancholy, hurting. “James, are you well?”
James laughed, a horrid, wet and empty thing, completely void of anything other than slight hysteria. “No. No, I fear not,” he admitted. “I- I can go,” he mumbled, making to leave, but Tony darted forward to grab the man’s wrist.
“James, I am sorry. I truly am. I didn’t mean to make you upset.” His lips narrowed, eyes softening. “James…”
“No, I’m sorry, Tony. I truly am. I cannot apologise enough for Steve’s words. He was cruel to you . ” He sounded so upset that it was all Tony could do not to pull him into a fierce hug and never let him go. He was such a kind, beautiful man.
(He really didn’t deserve him.)
Tony sighed, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Come now, James. It wasn’t your fault, so you have no need to be so melancholy.” He offered a smile. “You look like you haven’t slept a wink,” he admonished gently, taking one of his hands in his own and tugging him to his quarters. “I fear you shall keel over dead!”
James chuckled slightly, going willingly onto the bed, pulling Tony down next to him. “Please,” he whispered, voice suddenly tinged with desperation. “I miss you so much it hurts . I cannot sleep without you, can scarcely breathe .” He wrapped his arms around the smaller pirate, burying his face in his hair; clutching him tight as if he could pull him into his chest and keep him there forever. “ Tony, my star. ” Tony’s arms had a mind of their own as they wrapped around the bulkier man, offering as much comfort as he could give. (He’d give anything. Everything). “Please don’t take what he said to heart,” he begged, “He was just so scared, he didn’t mean that. Please, Tony, don’t leave me.”
“Shhh,” he soothed. “It’s alright. I’m not going anywhere. I promise. Neither Heaven nor Hell can take me from you if you do not wish me to go,” he admitted. Because it was true. It was one of the truest things he had ever breathed; he was a selfish, selfish man, and he could never deny James a single thing. Even if it broke both their hearts.
A damn fool. That’s what he was.
(They do say a man will do foolish things for love.)
Steve hadn’t apologised.
It had been five days, five long days filled with a painful Bucky-shaped hole, and he hadn’t even uttered a single word about what he had said.
It ate at something within him, leaving him feeling regret so potent that it felt toxic; it twisted his stomach every time he saw Bucky, looking so sad and angry, so alone, and Tony, who put on a brave face but was without that sparkle in his eye, the curve to his grin that Steve had noticed when he first met him. Before. He sighed as he sat on the bed- Tony’s bed, Bucky was kind enough to remind him every time they retreated for the night, still angry enough to avoid him during the day- running a hand through his hair.
Something needed to change, needed to be done, and it was looking like Steve was going to be the one to do it. He just didn’t see why. He was trying to protect Bucky, to stop him from making a grave mistake. Tony was a pirate and a murderer- surely he had heard worse?
He sighed again, deep and heavy.
“Steve.” He was pulled from his musing by the curt addression, the usually warmth with which Bucky would- used to - say his name noticeably absent, and almost frost replacing it.
“Bucky.” He looked up, face twisting as he saw Bucky grab a shirt and move to leave. “No, Bucky, wait.” He lunged towards the man, cradling his face in his large hands. “I miss you. You’ve been avoiding me ,” he accused, eyes turning wounded. “I know what I said about your relationship was… harsh, but please, Bucky, don’t distance yourself from me,” he begged. “Please, I can’t take another day of this, without you by my side.”
Bucky sighed, placing one hand over Steve’s, closing his eyes as he leaned ever so slightly into the touch. It sent something static and potent, much like the bright bolts of light slamming into the earth during a thunderstorm, bolting through his veins. “I miss you too,” he admitted, mournful. His eyes opened slowly, pinning Steve with their intensity. “I miss Tony .” He blinked away the moisture gathering in his eyes, causing it to bead on his eyelashes in a way that was entirely distracting to the ex-Captain. “I know that you have heard bad things about him, but you mustn’t let it colour your impression of him. You mustn’t let others form your opinion of him for you, Steve, you mustn’t. ”
Steve huffed, but nodded once. “Alright,” he conceded slowly. “I know that you… like him, so I will endeavour to be better. For your sake,” he promised. “I shall allow him a chance to prove himself.”
Bucky shook his head. “Steve, he doesn’t need to prove himself to you. He already has to me, time and time again, and that should be enough for you.” He dropped his gaze, muttering a ‘Besides, you’re not the one who loves him, or even whom he loves.’
Steve pressed his lips into a thin line. “But how can you love him, truly love him when you love me?” He asked, frustrated. It was something that had been troubling him for some time now, niggling at the back of his head, eating away at him. “Surely one’s heart is not so large.”
Bucky frowned, as if confused. “Then I suppose mine is larger than most,” he shrugged. “But why do you bring it up now?” His eyes widened in realisation. “Is-is that what this is about?” He asked, disbelief tingeing his tone. “You’re jealous? That is why you do not like him?” He blinked. “Steve, surely you believe that I love you both, damn near equal. Though my love for you differs from my love for him, it is not lesser; in fact, I dare say that my love for him is fledgling, still in its infancy. My love for you is not and is therefore greater at this point in time. So I am unable to see, nor comprehend, any reason for your jealousy or spite.” He sounded an odd mix of bemused and disappointed, but, to Steve’s relief, not angry. He reached a hand to cup Steve’s cheek. “Stevie, talk to me? Like you always used to?”
Steve sighed, shrugging. “I don’t know. I don’t know , Buck. I saw the two of you and found him lacking. He was a Pirate, a criminal , who had killed thousands and thousands of people, most innocent. Buck, you deserve the best, and he’s not it. But you loved him anyway.” His voice had quietened, but Bucky still flinched. “You loved him anyway, even though you could have loved me, a Naval Captain, a good man. What’s so special about him, Buck? What does he have that I don’t?” He was so frustrated , had driven himself halfway to mad stuck in this room trying to figure it out. “Why aren’t I good enough for you when he is ?”
Bucky’s lip curled, a clear display of his anger. “Silence, Steve,” he commanded, voice firm and furious. Steve fell silent, an automatic response to the dominance Bucky practically oozed . Every muscle in his body was tense, a demand to be obeyed rolling off him in waves. His whole body language practically screamed at him, demanded obedience, promising punishment if not given. “You know that you’re good enough. Don’t insult me by pretending we both don’t know that, don’t you dare . You lack nothing. Nothing. So leave your insecurities and your jealousy behind or so help me God himself will not be able to save you.” His face softened, just a hint, as he continued. “You are both good men. You just need to open your eyes and see it.”
Before Steve could do anything, still frozen in place from Bucky’s sudden commanding attitude, he stepped towards the door, clutching his shirt, not even looking back as he exited the room they shared to sleep in.
Steve felt oddly drained, exhaustion suddenly weighing him down. “Well, damn it,” he groaned, flopping back on the bed. “He’s too damn perceptive for his own good,” he grumbled, annoyed that Bucky had figured out his feelings before him, had called him out on it.
He sighed, chest heaving, throwing an arm over his eyes. What the Hell was he meant to say, to do , to that?
(It did feel like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, like their argument had been oddly cathartic.
He had the problem; he just needed a solution. That’s what he’s good at. Solutions. Planning. He could do this, could make it up to Bucky, could overcome his jealousy, his knee-jerk reaction to detest Stark just because . He could .)
James tugged the collar of his tar-stained shirt over his head, basking, for a moment, in the warmth of the sun on his chest, before pulling the clean one on. As his hands, nimble as ever, thanks to Bruce’s care (he had regained full motion in his injured arm and hand, thank the Lord), moved absently in the familiar motion, his mind remained stuck upon his conversation with Steve; like an ant trapped in amber, forever preserved, he was helpless in its sticky clutches.
Running a hand through his ragged hair (it had grown so much, he’d need to get it cut soon), he sighed. Steve could be so… dense sometimes. And jealous. His lips curled slightly into a smirk as he huffed to himself, faint amusement simmering in his gut. Ah, Steve. If only he had learned the art of speaking, they wouldn’t be in this mess.
As he stepped towards the railing that encircled the deck, his eyes caught Tony, lithe body mouth-watering in its grace as he moved on the ropes, all fluid and feline and cutting sass. Beautiful. Catching his eye, he sent him a hesitant smile that sent James’ heart stumbling in his chest.
Smiling in return he jerked his head in a come hither motion, earning him a raised eyebrow.
“Can I help you, Bucky ?” He teased, eyes glinting mischievously in the warm afternoon sun.
James just shrugged, tugging the pirate to his side, draping an arm over his shoulders. “I missed you,” he sighed. He scuffed his foot, resting his head on Tony's. “I talked to Steve,” he blurted, arm tightening momentarily.
Without even having to look down, he knew that Tony's eyebrow raised as he made a soft, inquiring hum. “Oh?” He tensed underneath James’ arm, and he hated it.
“He admitted that he acted rashly,” he elaborated. “Turns out he was a little… jealous.” He rolled his eyes. “The fool,” he mumbled under his breath, feeling Tony puff out a laugh against him.
James considered. “A little, yes. But methinks his mind was clouded with doubts and insecurities- he was a sickly lad, short and as thin as a beanpole. None of the girls even gave him a second glance- compounded by the sight of us .”
Tony hummed, thoughtful. A hand moved to cover the one James had on his shoulder.
“I don't wish for you to think that I am defending him,” he added quickly. “I'm not, only… explaining where he was coming from. He upset you, and that's no excuse for his cruelty, but he is a good, kind man, if hot-headed and impulsive,” he grinned wryly. “You could not imagine the trouble he got us into when we were boys.”
Tony laughed. “I know,” he reassured him gently. “And… I'm glad that I can somewhat understand him,” he admitted. “I know how dark one’s mind can become, how great a burden self-doubts can be.” He squeezed James hand. "I've already forgiven him for what he said, it came from a place of truth and concern after all, but I fear he shall never warm to me,” he admitted.
James hummed, thumb moving in absent circles as he spoke. "I think that he could love you as fierce as only he can. He need only see you. The real you.”
Tony's lips curved into a sad smile. “You and dear Rhodey are the only ones that can, Sweeting,” he reminded gently. “Steve will never get over my past, what whispers he has heard.”
James moved his hand to the back of Tony's neck, frowning. “He will learn to,” he promised. “He can be a fool, but he learns swift enough.”
Perhaps Steve would see through him, but Tony was sure that he wouldn't like what he saw. Wouldn't like his blackened heart, his wizened soul.
Steve was never going to like Tony.
Not at all.
Steve mostly kept to himself as they travelled to intercept the Ultron . Bucky was still cool towards him as he remained adamant that an apology to the captain was unneeded, so he filled his days with shifts at the helm, or reading novels in the quarters he had been given access to.
He missed Bucky terribly, missed his smiles, his warmth, but he was so stubborn and refused to see how much Steve was willing to compromise. He said he was willing to give Stark a chance, was that not enough?
Irritated, he placed down the novel, too on edge to actually read it, and let loose an aggravated sigh. “This was a foolish idea,” he muttered to himself as he cast his mind to Bucky’s letter. “Imagining I could have him, that we could all be happy.”
Life wasn’t like that. Life was cruel, it was bitter. It took, and it took, and it gave crumbs in return. Happiness was an illusion, a fantasy conjured by the naive. And he had been naive, had been foolish, to believe that he could ever be happy. He had been, with Bucky by his side, his crew at his back, but then it had all fallen apart. God had decided he had too much, and had seen fit to take everything away from him.
Maybe it was a punishment.
Maybe it was just life.
He didn’t care, he was bitter and jaded either way. Tired; bone-deep exhaustion that slumber never eased.
He closed his eyes as he rested his head against the wall where he was sat on the bed, grimacing slightly at the smell of brine that assaulted his nose. No matter how long he spent at sea, he always hated the scent of the fish they caught and ate. But, he supposed, at least it meant they would be eating something fresh, free of rot and mould. His stomach, mercifully stronger than that of his youth, was still not iron-clad after all.
“Oi,” came the yell. “Get yer ass out here. You eat the fish, you help prepare it. Cook’s orders.” He scowled- bloody pirates- but obeyed, standing and opening the door.
“I’m coming,” he dismissed, stepping past where the men were seeing to the nets- cleaning and repairing them after the large catch- and towards the kitchen, where the cook was busy gutting the fish.
“Ah, good. Come here and give us a hand,” he greeted.
Steve nodded, grabbing a knife and getting to work on the small pile of fish at the man’s elbow. “I was a captain, you know, and now I’m reduced to being a cook’s assistant,” he sighed. “God, I hate this ship.”
The cook laughed. “Pride will get you nowhere,” he advised. “Steven.”
He jerked, nearly slicing his hand. “How the hell do you know my name?” He demanded in alarm.
He shot him a knowing grin as he worked. “I know everything about this ship and the people on it,” he shrugged. “It’s a, uh, pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mister Rogers. I would shake your hand…”
Steve huffed. “Likewise, Mister…” He trailed off meaningfully.
“Vision. Mister Vision, you may call me.”
He rolled his eyes. “What is it with the names on this ship? Hawk? Vision? Next there’ll be a bloody fellow called Platypus onboard.”
Vision’s lips twitched. “Perhaps,” he allowed. “Captain Stark does enjoy… quirky names.”
Steve huffed as he moved onto the next fish, grimacing at the dirty work. He much preferred eating the food to preparing it.
“You dislike him.” It wasn’t a question, and Steve shifted uncomfortably.
“I do,” he hedged. “He possesses a sordid past, after all.” His shoulders hunched defensively.
“Ah,” Vision hummed. “Tell me something, Mister Rogers. What do you know about this past of his?”
Steve frowned. “He sold weapons that were meant to be for the King’s Navy to the Spanish. The result was the death of thousands of innocent men from England and her colonies. He attacks ships and slays the entire crew, innocent or not. He’s a pirate . He is promiscuous and immoral. He is the epitome of everything I despise in our society.”
“Ah, yes, the weapons,” Vision nodded, appropriately grave. “It is true, he was contracted by the king to create weapons to give fair Britannia an advantage over the Spaniards. It is also true that Stark Industries, the company in his father’s name that he had found himself in control of, sold to the Spaniards,” he conceded. “In that, you are correct. But, and I cannot stress this enough, Mister Rogers, it was not Mister Stark who sold these weapons.” He stopped midway through the fish to look him in the eyes. “I fear that you have misled.”
Steve scoffed. “It is you that has been misled,” he argued. “Stark controls the company, approves each and every expenditure. He would have known, hence he cannot be innocent.”
“No, on the contrary, Mister Stark only designed the weapons. It was his uncle in all but blood who ran the company, who ran the expenditures, who authorised the shipments. He had this power, and he abused it. He abused Mister Stark’s trust, betrayed him by double dealing to the Spaniards, and made sure Mister Stark would take the fall.”
Steve blinked. “I- what? ”
Vision smiled. “It is easier to shift blame than you would think,” he shrugged. “Mister Stark has his reasons for being at sea, but do not doubt that he will not return to his company and wipe out the corrupt and vile infestation Stane introduced, that he will not return to burn down London’s underbelly that sends these ships we liberate.”
Steve frowned. “How do you know this is the truth, though? Surely he would not admit it to you if he were the one who did the deed.”
Vision shrugged. “I cannot make you believe me,” he agreed, “But I am secure in my belief that I know the truth.” He tilted his head, appraising the ex-captain. “Are you?”
Steve looked to his hands as he continued to prepare the fish, remaining silent.
Steve was eating his supper that evening when the man who had introduced himself as Hawk sat down next to him where he was sat watching Bucky and Stark. “Heard you got stuck with Vis.” He snorted when Steve nodded uncertainly. “Poor bugger,” he hummed good naturedly. “He’s… a real character, when you get to know him. Good man, though. Good man.”
Steve shrugged. “Seems very trusting.”
Hawk grinned knowingly, a sharp warning. “Set you straight on a few things, did he?”
“He told me I was wrong about Stark’s double dealing to the Spaniards,” he agreed. “Seems he believes Stark wasn’t to blame.”
“You don’t believe him?”
“I believe that he believes what he said,” he shrugged. “Seems suspicious that Stark wouldn’t know, wouldn’t have anything to do with the company and its business.”
“Is it now?” Hawk inquired. “Even though his parents had just died and he was underage, too young to take control of the company? That his father had been taking advantage of his mind since he was a boy, had him hidden away and designing, far, far away from the actual business of the company, so when Stane was given temporary control it wasn’t suspicious in the slightest to Tony that he kept him in the same role?”
Steve scowled, about to speak, when he was cut off. “But that’s not really what’s bothering you, is it?” He gave him a flat look in the face of Steve’s protests, one that called bullshit. “His sordid past, you called it. You hate his past relations more than his past. His promiscuous nature, was it?”
“He’s a murderer and you think I care about past lovers?!” He was outraged; it felt like an attack to his character and he hated it.
“We’ve told you, you’re wrong about the weapons,” he groaned, frustrated.
“He kills the entire crew. All of them . At least when I kill it’s in King-sanctioned battle.”
“None of those men are innocent.” Hawk’s voice had hardened, but he wasn’t looking at Steve. His eyes clouded, haunted by memories only he could see. “Not the cook, who barely feeds them enough to stay alive, not the doctor who refuses to see to their wounds- trust me, we’ve tried getting some to- and not the captain. Not the cabin boy who brings them the food, not the greedy pigs you call men who man the ship. None of them .”
Steve spent the rest of the night with a strangely uncomfortable feeling in his stomach.
“Ship ahead!” Came the yell, a week later. “Ship ahead! It’s the Ultron !”
Steve glanced up from the book he was reading and ducked his head out of the door to see the crew- Stark’s men- running past, yelling at the top of their lungs. It was chaos.
“Bring round the cannons!” Came the large brute’s cry; large, blond and spoke like he was from some Shakespearean tragedy. “Hawk! Keep watch of her path, there’s a good fellow.”
“Aye,” came the Captain’s grin, cheeky and at ease. “A jolly good fellow!”
Thor- that was his name, was it not?- laughed heartily, swinging his mighty broadsword in one hand, an axe in the other. “‘Tis been too long,” he complained, “A good battle has eluded us for too long, Stark!”
Stark nodded his agreement, his own sword in hand as he caught Steve’s eye. “Rogers,” he nodded, terse. “Don’t suppose you’re any good in a fight?”
Steve shrugged. “Give me a shield and a sword and I’ll be fine.” It would, after all, do him well not to allow them all to be boarded and slaughtered.
“You jest, surely?” Rodes, an ex-naval man himself (Steve recognised the posture, the weariness in the eyes), raised an eyebrow, planting his longsword in the soft wood of the deck, scowling. He crossed his arms, muscles bulging, as he shot Stark a stern, disapproving look. “He’s as likely to kill us, kill you , as he is to fight by our side!”
Steve glared, crossing his own arms. “I resent that. I am a man of my word, and I swore to protect Bucky. If he is fighting, I will fight alongside him. That’s the way it has always been, and is the way it always shall.” His voice was firm, as steely as his resolve. “I refuse to sit out and potentially let Bucky get hurt just because you fear me.” He didn’t sneer, but it was close.
(So he was being a dick; he knew that, but he would be damned if he let them walk all over him and stopped him from doing this.)
“The Ultron ’s a mighty ship,” Stark warned. “She’s equipped to wallop, and she’ll obliterate us, given the chance. Her Captain’s a cruel man who hates me more than anything. He’ll play dirty, use everything he can to sink us.”
Steve shrugged. “He sounds like a bully. I dislike bullies.”
Stark shook his head. “He’s too much of a coward,” he muttered, glancing at Rhodes. “Where’s James? He can stay by his side the whole time. You know we can trust James, and if he’s with Rogers, here, I think we can trust him too. At least with this.”
Rhodes scowled. “Fine. Last I checked he was helping with the cannons.” He threw a glance at Steve. “You’d better get this one a sword. He’ll need it if he’s to be of use.”
Stark nodded. “Here.” He tossed his own sword, plain but well-made and balanced, in an easy arc. Steve snatched it out of the air easily enough, turning it in his hands.
“What about you?” He tilted his head. He would assume that it meant Stark would be sitting this one out, but something in his gut told him that Stark wasn’t that kind of man. That he craved this fight as much as Thor. It almost made him shiver.
Stark’s grin was a feral, dangerous thing. “I’ve got more where that came from,” he assured. “Go with Rhodey. I’ll see you on the Ultron .” Tossing a wink over his shoulder to Rhodes, he ambled away, assumedly to wherever he stored his weapons.
Doubtless he had countless contraptions that could destroy them all, and he’d use it all without blinking.
God, did he even lose a wink of sleep over what he had done? The innocents he had killed?
He ran a hand through his hair, shaking off the thought as he remembered his conversation with Bucky and Hawk and Vision. He had to give Tony a chance, see beyond the person he had created from the tales he had heard.
Turning on his heel, he followed Rhodes, hot on his heel, anticipation at the oncoming battle swirling within his gut. He knew the Ultron was a slaver, the one Bucky had told him about in the letter, and so he found a thread of excitement in amongst the other emotions battling within him.
God, these Pirates must be rubbing off on him, barbarians that they were.
James had heard the cry that they were close to intercepting the Ultron , captained by the man himself. If anyone were able to be called the Devil, it would be Justin Hammer. As soon as he heard, he had run below deck to ready the cannons, hustling along with the crew, pushing and heaving, sweat dripping down his brow by the time they were done.
He looked up at Rhodey's voice with an inquiring grunt, swiping at the sweat beading on his forehead.
"This one insists he stay by your side. Keep an eye on him for us, will you?"
James raised an eyebrow as his eyes moved to Steve. “Stevie? ‘S goin’ on?”
Steve was scowling, sword in hand, as he shot an irritated look towards Rhodey. “He won’t let me fight unless it’s by your side,” he grumbled.
James huffed a laugh, shaking his head slightly. “Of course,” he sighed. “Never one to bow down from a fight, were you, Stevie?” The fool had almost gotten himself killed more times than James cared to admit, or even think about, from his stubbornness and hot-headed nature. “Well come here, then, don’t dally. Make yourself useful, why don’t you!”
Steve grinned. “You know, I was your Captain , Skipper.”
James shot him a grin back, sharp and cheeky, feeling comforted by the familiar banter, the familiarity of having Steve’s back, and Steve having his. No matter what, they would always have each other’s backs when it came down to it, and they would always be able to trust each other. “Aye, but you’re on Tony’s ship now.”
Steve huffed, muscles straining as he helped prepare the final cannon. “Indeed. In amongst the beasts and rabbel; O’ how the mighty have fallen.” Faux horror coloured his tone, but his eyes were twinkling with the spark he only got when he was laughing.
“They’ll fall into the damned ocean if you don’t get moving,” Rhodey yelled over his shoulder, having made his way towards the steps up to the deck, doubtless to find Tony.
James laughed. “You heard the man. Get a move on, lad.”
Steve hadn’t always been tall. Muscled. Before his twentieth year, when he had begun to grow into manhood, he had been as short and slender as a woman; slight and sickly, he had found himself to be invisible. Easily dismissed. No one gave him a second glance, gave him a second of consideration. No. The only thing that had made people really look had been his fists; the sharp bite of bruises and tang of blood had been his old companions for as long as he could remember. He had been so angry. Angry at the world, angry at the treasonous lad down the street who was too full of ale was mouthing off about the King, angry at the girl who had laughed at him when he had tried to approach her, charm her. Anger, though, was an awful thing. It festered, rotted men from within until their souls were hardened with a jaded bitterness.
Steve had grown, though. Had fought and fought, until his height increased and shoulders broadened, and then joined the Navy with his best friend at his side. The anger had never quite left, had simply reduced to a low simmer, but the bitterness had already settled within his bones.
Now, women wouldn’t stop looking at him. Flirting with him, with their bitten lips, large, soft eyes, and soft touches. And at first he’d revelled in it, had let a smile and a small foot crawling up his calf ease that bitterness slightly. Had let it warm him in the darkness of the night, when the demons that swarmed him always seemed to be at their worst.
But they had never really seen him. Not really. They hadn’t wanted Steve Rogers, they’d wanted, lusted, Captain Rogers.
(Bucky had seen him, though. Had been by him since they were boys, had never left him, made him feel like he were less than.)
When the realisation had struck, it had left a bitter taste in his mouth that had really never left. The anger, the bitterness, had returned with a vengeance.
And then Bucky had been taken.
The anger had never run so hot, had never burned so strong. It was like a bonfire in his very veins, like every Guy Fawkes night at once.
And now, boarding the Ultron , sword swinging, ears ringing with his companions’ (temporary or no) bellows and cries as they swung across, metal slicing skin, he let that flame rise, let it guide his hand and fuel his limbs.
The Ultron was ill prepared, for all that Hammer boasted his superior security, and fell quickly. It was almost disappointing, Steve thought as he relieved one man of his head. Men fell, cowards soaked in blood and their own urine as the crew of The Vendicatore rained down Hell like avenging angels; without mercy or hesitation. They slew countless, until the deck was awash in the blood of the Ultron’s crew.
Cleaning his sword on one man’s coat, Steve stood erect, glancing to Bucky at his side. “That was easy,” he commented. “I was led to believe that they would provide at least some resistance.”
Bucky frowned, nodding in agreement. “They were meant to,” he conceded. He bit his lip, eyes roaming the dying fight before them. His frown deepened as he seemed to miss something. “Steve,” he asked, slow in a way that made Steve’s blood freeze. “That’s not Hammer.”
Steve frowned, spinning to view the man beside the captain on his knees before Stark’s second, a sword pointed at his throat. At closer inspection, whilst he bore a resemblance to images of the man he had seen in newspapers, it was not him. His blood ran cold; this was his ship, his trading route that he was so proud of. If he were making such a large, important trade he should be here. His own arrogance and vanity wouldn’t permit him to be absent, surely.
Bucky nodded, clutching his sword so tight that Steve could see what little skin across his knuckles that wasn’t covered in blood turn white. “It feels that way,” he agreed. He caught Stark’s eye, who was lunging and parrying, spinning and playing with his opponent as if they were dancing . Watching him move so effortlessly, with such grace and danger , had something stirring low within Steve’s gut. Something electric and heavy. Bucky motioned him over with a jerk of his head, earning himself a concerned frown from the pirate captain, who simply slid his sword between his opponent’s ribs as easy as a warm knife through butter in a smooth motion that had Steve’s mouth turn dry. Good Lord, he had been toying the man.
Padding his way through the blood and bodies, Stark touched a hand to James’, searching him for obvious injuries. “Are you injured?” He asked, urgent and slightly panicked. “James?” he prompted, when the man simply blinked, almost in a daze.
“Uh, no. No,” he reassured, voice slightly rough. “I just- I- uh-”
“Hammer’s not here,” Steve interrupted when it was clear that Bucky wasn’t going to be much use. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes- Bucky had always been useless when his little pal took attention. Horny bastard.
(Not that he had any stones to throw at the moment. Good Lord, even the blood splattered on Stark’s cheek seemed to highlight his bone structure, adding a hint of danger that made Steve want to sink to his knees and beg ; he may dislike the man, but he wasn’t blind. He was gorgeous , especially now, panting and thrumming with adrenaline.)
Stark frowned, mind obviously reaching the same conclusion as Steve and Bucky. “That’s not right,” he muttered, turning to search the deck. “Something’s not right.” His voice hardened, body straightening from the easy grace to a determined focus. “Get everybody-”
He didn’t get a chance to finish speaking before their world shook, propelling them into the air, ears ringing, skin burning in the sheer heat of the sudden explosion.
Bits of wooden planks battered into him as he fell, stomach swooping. Down and down he fell, like a stone threw by children, he sunk into the ocean’s cold embrace.
He plummeted down into the depths of the ocean, dragged down to its watery depths by the clutches of gravity, everything fading to black.
So this was how he was to die, he thought numbly; in a watery grave at the bottom of the ocean, destined to become fish food.
If he had air, and wasn’t falling unconscious, he would have scoffed.
You just had to follow the Pirates, didn’t you, Buck?
He didn’t know what happened. Why he was wet and crusty with sand. All he knew was that he hurt, in a way that made him think of darkness, cruel fists and the crack of a whip. It sent something bolting through his chest, sending his heart rabbiting. His chest heaved as his breaths became ragged, hyperventilating in his panic as he lay there, drowning in his inexplicable, instinctive fear.
Where was he?
Who was he? Why couldn’t he remember?
Breathe, Sweeting, breathe for me.
He gasped, eyes snapping open and back bowing as he tried to shoot up at the sudden invasion of the voice in his head. It sounded familiar, made him feel warm and safe. Who was it?
Breathe, there you go.
Slowly, his breaths became more even, less panicked. As calm as he could be, he pried open his eyes, wincing at the brightness of the sun, taking stock of himself.
His head was throbbing, and when he pressed his right fingers against his temple, they came back wet and sticky. That was probably why his vision was foggy and his head felt fuzzy and sore. He closed his eyes, groaning, as he wriggled his toes.
Not broken , he reassured himself, as they all moved within his boots, legs twitching. Sore, but functional. That was good. He ran his right hand down his side, wincing as he caught bruises and scrapes, but couldn’t find anything too bad.
You got lucky, he thought, grudgingly.
He tried to move his left arm, but he couldn’t. Oh God, he couldn’t movie it. Pushing down the panic, he turned his head gingerly to the side, sobbing as he saw it trapped underneath several wooden planks (where had they come from?) and tangled in a massive sheet of material and rope. He could see it, swollen and bent at an odd angle, the ropes cutting off the blood supply, turning it an angry red. He could almost see it pulsing. Dying.
Tears stung his eyes as he gritted his teeth, steeling himself before he gave it a vicious tug, pulling it from under the wood, screaming at the pain it sent burning down his arm, straight to his head and eyes. It made his vision darken, but he persisted; using his upper body to move it and pull the rope free, tears streaming down his face.
Oh, God, it looked awful .
Breathe, you’re okay. You’re okay. Always so strong, my heart, it’s okay to let it out.
He nearly sobbed at the comforting voice, the way it seemed to tug him from the darkness that hovered just out of his awareness; the darkness he knew he could sink into, easy as a dip in water, and let it pull him down. Surrender to its embrace.
Not giving up that easy, are you?
He groaned, clutching his head with his good hand against the invasion of the new, strange voice. It hurt , in a way that wasn’t physical, but like it sent a gigantic ache shooting through his heart.
If this is where the Lord intends us to fall, then we shall pass on fighting.
It was bellowing now, both of the voices, sending his head spinning.
GET UP .
“I can’t,” he cried, sobbed, sprawled on his back, chest heaving with the pain. “I can’t .”
Sweetheart, of course you can. Of course you can. You need to. You need to survive.
You’re a fighter. A survivor. If anyone could do this, it would be you, old friend.
“I’m a survivor. I’m a survivor ,” he muttered, gathering his spirit. “I will not give up, I refuse to die here.” Wherever ‘here’ was, but that was a concern for a later time, it seemed. Now, he needed to fight .
“I’m a survivor , and I will survive.”
Everything’s going to be just fine, Sweeting.
Focus on us.
He gritted his teeth, leaning on his good arm and rolled until he was on his knees, braced by one hand, the other hanging useless, sending bolts of white hot agony through his veins with each jostle, with each movement. He swore weakly, pushing up onto his feet, stumbling.
One foot in front of the other.
He just had to keep moving, keep going. Keep fighting.
And figure out how the Devil he got here, and who the Hell he was.
His feet, one secure in a leather booth, the other bare, sunk into the wet sand of the beach, waves lapping at his feet as he stumbled on, focusing only on putting one foot in front of the other. He made his way through the wreckage (did he get here on a ship?), towards the trees, towards shelter.
And stopped dead in his tracks when he saw a man, face somehow familiar, at his feet, cheek bleeding sluggishly, eyes fluttering.
Steve’s whole body ached, but at least it felt whole. He groaned, feeling himself hanging onto consciousness by a thread. By the Lord, he was sore.
Goddamn Hammer; blowing up his fucking ships.
He forced his eyes open as he heard approaching footsteps, uneven and stumbling. Could it be one of Stark’s crew? Stark himself? Bucky? Hope, bright and sudden, burned within his chest, giving him the strength to turn his head, and lo and behold, that stumbling, injured figure was Bucky.
Bucky. Oh, God, his arm. His arm.
“Bucky?” He managed to croak, losing the fight with consciousness in time to hear his lifelong friend, his love, his other half, mutter a confused ‘Who the Hell’s Bucky?”’
He didn’t even have time to acknowledge the dread that instilled within him, deep and curling in his gut, before his world went dark.
Hammer, Tony decided, as he lay draped over a barrel, clutching on for dear life in the choppy water, drifting further and further from the wrecked Ultron and his crew, his James, was a massive dick . Gargantuan, in fact. And a fool. He’d blown up his ship and crew (granted, Tony and his crew had pretty much already killed them all), but the slaves on board as well. (Surely Hammer wouldn’t have put the slaves on a doomed ship. Not even he would waste money so carelessly, surely).
He was going to kill him. He was going to run him through with his sword- well, maybe someone else’s sword. His was probably at the bottom of the ocean by now, damn it- and beat him black and blue.
And maybe burn the corpse.
Cursing Hammer, Tony kicked his feet as best as he could in his position on the barrel, directing himself to whatever shore he had floated to on the current. Hopefully he wouldn’t be the only one to wash up there; he was smart and resourceful enough to survive on an isolated island, but the company could be nice.
And if it were one of the Ultron’s crew, he could always eat them.
(Kidding! He’d never go within ten feet of those foul beasts; he would much rather starve.
And y’know, eating people was weird.)
At least he wouldn’t be covered in their blood, anymore, he mused, weary in the face of exhaustion. He was running on adrenaline, and was due for a nasty crash.
Focus , he scolded himself, feet kicking, and shore getting closer and closer with each minute. Eventually- finally! - he made it, swimming as best as he could the rest of the way, crawling out of the water, gasping for breath. May the Lord remind him to never go for a spontaneous swim again.
He groaned, panting, as he forced himself up, sitting down off the beach in front of a tree to catch his breath, just in time to see a figure stumbling past, looking worryingly unsteady on his feet.
Tony felt his breath catch as he recognised the shape of the figure, the broad shoulders he had many a time rested his head on, the narrow hips he would wrap his arms around, the hair he would run his fingers through. A body he had loved.
There was a noise behind him, as he dragged the unconscious man away from the water and into the shelter of the trees with his good arm. A faint snap, like a twig breaking under a man’s weight. He twirled, instantly on the defensive, all but snarling.
“James! Easy, Love, it’s me!”
That voice- he knew it. He knew that voice. Who was it?
He clutched his head, feeling a frission of pain lance straight through it as he tried to remember, tried to recall the man whose face seemed impossibly familiar.
WHO AM I?
Sailers, his family, hauling the masts, grinning as he stood beside a tall, blond man. Blood, crimson red, painting his fists as he knocked another hot-headed fool on his ass. “Pick on somebody your own size,” the jaunty suggestion to accompany the swagger, the bravado.
WHO ARE YOU?
Darkness, pierced by a single, bright light; it almost seemed to burn through the blackness, forbidding it to swallow him whole as he sensed it wanted to. “My star,” shining bright, protecting. Warm, safe.
Soft smiles, warm hands. Brown curls, sharp eyes. Wit razor sharp, heart of gold. Whispered promises, a flash of a silver bracelet. “Promise me.” “Sweeting.”
He was the voice inside his head. The one who had told him to stand, to fight. But who was he?
He relaxed his hands, looking up to the man from where he had fallen to his knees beside the unconscious blond, whom the stranger’s eyes were flitting too, moving between him and the blond, looking concerned. Scared. His eyes widened as they caught sight of his mangled arm. “Your arm!” He moved towards him, but he ignored him, moving his arm slightly behind his back.
“I am James?”
It sounded familiar, but not wholly right.
He groaned through the confusement, frustrated.
The man bit his lip, offering a single nod. He didn’t move any closer from where he had stopped, raising his hands as he- James?- had snarled at him. “Yes,” he agreed, “But this one,” he nodded towards the blond, “Called you Bucky.” He tilted his head, curiosity blending with concern. “I never knew why,” he muttered, seemingly to himself.
He- James. Bucky - ignored it, instead standing and looking down at the unconscious man. “I know him.”
The man nodded. “You do. He was your Captain.” He lowered his hands, crossing his arms over his chest. “You don’t remember?”
Bucky shook his head. “I- no. Not really. It’s all,” he trailed off, waving his hands around his head, trying to convey what he couldn't describe. “Foggy. Distant.”
The man cursed, running a hand through his hair. “Do you remember me?” His voice sounded oddly choked and hesitant, like he didn’t want to know the answer.
Bucky shrugged. “No,” he admitted, “But I know your voice.” He wanted to cross his arms; he felt vulnerable and hated it. He was scared. Petrified, really. “Who are you? Where are we? What happened ? Why can’t I remember?”
“My name’s Tony,” he provided softly, sorrow cut into the tense lines of his body. “My name’s Anthony Stark, and I’m your lo-friend,” he choked, almost a sob. “I’m your- I’m your friend .”
He took a deep breath as Bucky blinked, regarding him uncertainly, smiling widely, sorrow replaced with a brave, cavalier bravado that made some deep, instinctive part of Bucky ache and long to hold him close and kiss away his sorrows. He stumbled back a step, shocked at the sudden urge that gripped him. Why on God’s green Earth would he want to do that with this man? A man who claimed to be a friend .
Anthony seemed to wilt slightly as Bucky recoiled, before drawing himself up, determinedly looking him in the eye. “I don’t know where we are. Not exactly. You were with me on a ship,” he explained, slightly slower than his normal speech, as if he were choosing his words carefully. Bucky glared, sensing that Anthony was withholding information from him, missing out key details. “And we ended up overboard, drifting. He,” he nodded to the blond- Steve, his mind whispered, his name is Stevie- “Was with us.”
Bucky nodded. Yes. That felt right- distant memories of the man bellowing orders to his crew surfaced, but they felt… odd. Almost as if they were just under the surface of a body of water, not quite reachable. “He was the Captain,” he guessed. “I remember him being my Captain, I think.” He rubbed his temples, grimacing. “I don’t- I can’t recall properly,” he growled, frustrated.
Anthony hesitated. “He was your Captain, but you were aboard my ship. Well, kind of. That’s not important- what matters is that we obviously washed up here together, though where we are I cannot tell you, and I don’t know why you can’t remember.” Pain, real and raw, bled through, sending a visceral sliver of empathetic pain crawl down Bucky’s spine. “You must have hit your head.”
Bucky hugged himself with his good arm, sinking to the floor by Steve’s head, shivering. “Will I ever remember?”
Anthony shrugged helplessly. “I’m not a physician,” he apologised. “I simply don’t know. Head wounds are tricky. Your amnesia could be temporary, it could be permanent. It could be numerous, for all I know. Could repeatedly render your mind blank without warning. I don’t know .”
Bucky didn’t cry.
He didn’t, but it was a close thing.
Instead, he clenched his hand, gathering the overwhelming grief and anger that pierced him, sudden and leaving him choked, crumpling it into a small, horrid ball and locking it deep, deep down, for a later time.
Do not break.
Do not break.
It was a familiar mantra, one that reminded him of hoarse whispers, with darkness and pain his only companions. I will not break. My name is James Buchanan Barnes and I will not break. He found himself mouthing along with the memory, drawing a queer sort of comfort from it.
“I suppose it’s in the Lord’s hands, then,” he managed, swallowing down the urge to scream. His whole body tingled, restlessness urging him to move, to do something. Anything. “We need to get off this island.” He didn’t know much, but that he knew with a certainty he could feel it in his bones. This place wasn’t safe, wasn’t sustainable. “I- I’m from a mainland?”
Anthony nodded, lips pursed in a tense line. His hands were shaking, Bucky noticed curiously. He was panicking, and making an admirable effort to hide it. Perhaps he was as close to breaking, fracturing into two, as he was. It was a comforting thought. He wasn’t alone in his anxieties, then. “We need to see to your arm first, and make sure that he,” he glanced down to the unconscious blond, “isn’t in imminent threat of dying.” His voice sounded a hair’s breadth too tight, too high. “God, your arm- it looks like it’s dying .”
Indeed, it had already swollen massively, turning a deep, horrible purple that turned his stomach. “I think it’s infected,” he managed. It had massive, deep slices from something he didn’t remember, and the bone that peeked out was covered in grime.
“I think so, too.” Anthony’s voice sounded even more strangled. “James, I’m not a doctor, I don’t know how to treat it- a wound like that could kill you!”
Bucky winced as a sudden bolt of pain lanced through him. “It hurts ,” he moaned through the haze of pain, eyes watering. It was all he could do not to scream.
“Hey, easy, we’ll get you sorted, alright? I promise- you’ll be fighting fit in no time, yeah?”
The promise, the gentle touch of Anthony’s fingers on his face eased something within Bucky’s chest, made him want to reach for the man’s hand. Made him want to kiss him gently, whisper soft nothings in his ear.
“Something tells me you’re a man of your word,” he managed, offering a weak grin.“If not a bit of an ass.”
Anthony grinned, eyes sparkling momentarily with something warm and joyous. “Sure am, Sweeting. Sure am.”
Neither of them even noticed the endearment; it felt natural, easy. Bucky was too busy screaming from a sudden flare of pain up his arm that burned like Hellfire itself.
Steve woke to a scream. Garbled, but a scream nonetheless. It shot off every warning alarm in his body, sending him up on his feet in an instant, searching for the threat. His eyes snagged on a form hunched over one propped against the trunk of a tall, slender and oddly bark-less tree.
Stark? What was he doing here? And with Bucky, no less.
Oh, God, Bucky was the one screaming.
"Stark!" He snarled, attempting to leap to his feet, but instead stumbling and damn near falling face-first into the ground. "Get away from him!"
Stark shot him a scowl from over his shoulder. "Come here," he snapped, and it was only the glimmer of fear in his eyes that stopped Steve from socking him in the jaw. "I need you to keep him still." His tone was grave, far graver than Steve had ever heard him be, and it send true, primal fear shooting down his spine, turning his blood cold and dragging his stomach to the ground.
"What's going on, Stark?" He asked, cautiously approaching the two men, one groaning, eyes fluttering, arms pulling against Stark's hold, the other scared, trying to restrain the broken arm. Steve blanched. It looked awful . The bone that bad pierced the skin, normally snow white when he had seen it happen to his men in battles, was dirty with crusted blood, sand and dirt, the skin around it black and swollen.
" Steve ," he heard Stark snap. "I can't hold him- I need you to help. He needs you to help."
Steve just stared, wide eyed and panicked. No. He couldn't. He couldn't. What Stark was asking him to do… Bucky would never forgive him.
"Steve! I need to take his arm or he'll die. Do you hear me? He'll die !" Stark was screaming now, tears cascading down his face, glistening and awful .
But he couldn't lose Bucky.
“There’s got to be another way,” he insisted. “Stark, there has to be!”
Stark shook his head, lips a thin line, eyes haunted with sorrow. “There isn’t,” he denied, voice hoarse. “Rogers, there isn’t . We have to do this or he dies .”
He cursed, falling to his knees and gripping Bucky's shoulder. "Easy, easy," he murmured, determinedly not watching as Stark tied what was left of his shirt around Bucky's bicep, tightening it as much as he could.
"Do you still have my sword?" Starks voice was tense and brittle, like at any moment he'd just snap . "Steve! Do you have my sword?" He repeated, slower, each word emphasised. "I need you to think, Steve. Do you still have it?"
He shook his head. No. No, he didn't- he'd lost it when he was propelled overboard.
"Shit. Shit , okay. Okay," he cursed, gripping his hair. "What- oh." He moved back to where Steve had been lay, fumbling for the dagger he kept strapped across his chest, returning with it, white-faced, hand shaking.
“James, Sweeting, I need you to stay very still,” he crooned, gentle and pained. “I’m so very sorry, but you need to stay very still, Love.” He cradled his face in his hands, eyes watering. “God, I’m sorry, ” he choked, releasing his face and grabbing the dagger so tight Steve could see his knuckles turn white.
“Easy, Buck,” he murmured, straddling his hips and pushing at his shoulders as he bucked, eyes glazed and distant. He was reacting purely on instinct, the pain reducing him to nothing more than a feral animal. Moving a knee to pin his left arm, determinedly keeping his gaze off it, he managed a terse ‘Now’ to Stark, feeling his stomach heave and twist in time with his heart as Bucky screamed . He howled, in rage, in pain, bucking wildly, almost catching Steve’s jaw with his head.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Stark chanted, over and over, with each sawing motion of the knife. “I’m so sorry.”
And then finally- finally - Bucky passed out, eyes fluttering shut and body slumping. Able to work quicker now, Stark continued with renewed vigour, until the limb was well and truly severed from its owner.
Steve barely managed to get off his unconscious form before he lost the contents of his stomach in violent heaves, eyes streaming. “Oh God ,” he moaned, shuddering. “Oh my God.”
When his stomach finally settled, he turned to see Stark sat by Bucky, knees up to his chest, arms wrapped around them as he rocked, crying. “He’s never going to forgive me,” he wailed. “He’ll hate me for life.” He wept, wept for James’ loss, for the loss of what they had, of what they could have had, and for the pain James was doubtless going to suffer when he awoke.
Steve, face grim but determined, hesitated before dropping a hand on Stark’s shoulder. Something akin to respect flitted through him. “It doesn’t matter,” he said firmly, “Because he’ll be alive. And that’s all that matters.”
Because Stark had saved his life. Had saved his Bucky, the love of his life, his rock, his everything. And he couldn’t bring himself to care in that moment if he would hate them, because he’d be alive to hate them, and that was enough. He might lose him, but he wouldn’t lose him, all thanks to Stark. He gritted his teeth against the fresh wave of nausea as he thought about what he had done, what he’d had to do. Stark was a stronger man than him, he realised. If it were just Steve with Bucky, Bucky would have undoubtedly died, his wound turning septic and poisoning his blood until it killed him. His heart broke at the thought. Steve knew that he wouldn’t have been able to bring himself to do that, to sever his arm, cripple him.
Thank God for Stark.
“Thank you,” he choked, overcome with emotions he couldn’t even begin to untangle and identify. All he knew was the steady tattoo of Bucky Bucky Bucky in his heart. “You saved his life.”
Stark, still weeping, though they were silent sobs wracking his frame, moaned.
“You saved his life, Stark.”
He owed him everything.
Bucky woke to agony, true and debilitating.
He groaned, even the soft, inquiring voice too much for his poor head.
“Buck, are you awake?”
He groaned, cracking open an eye to see an anxious, concerned blond head hovering directly in front of him. “Gah!” he groaned, trying to scramble back, instead finding himself flat on his back. “Stevie?” he asked hesitant, recognising the face. It belonged to the blond he dragged from the water, the man that seemed so familiar.
“Yes,” came the choked reply. It sounded like he was crying. “ Yes , Buck, it’s me , your Stevie.” A hand gripped his, tight but reassuring.
He grunted, closing his eyes against the pain as he tried to sit up, grateful when Steve helped him. Panting, he gritted his teeth. “Why can’t I feel my arm?”
He swallowed, taking in Steve’s red, puffy eyes, the tear tracked cut through the dirt, sweat and blood on his face, and cursing. “I don’t want to look,” he admitted, feeling like crying himself. “Stevie, what happened to me? Why can’t I remember you? Why can’t I feel my arm?”
“ Why can’t I feel my arm ?” He screamed, heart racing as he worked himself up, scared beyond belief. “What did you do to me? ”
“It wasn’t him, James.” His head whipped round at the new, tired voice from a figure curled up in a ball on the ground far to his right. “It was me. I did it. I took your arm.”
Bucky started to hyperventilate as he looked down, seeing the bandages around a stump where his bicep used to be. He knew he used to have a full arm, he knew he remembered that. “You took my arm,” he whimpered, feeling the panic lap at his feet, threatening to drag him down into the abyss. “You crippled me,” he snarled, terrified fury blazing in his eyes. “I hate you.”
And he did. In that moment, his hate was a visceral, potent thing that wrapped around his throat, spewing fire. “I don’t know who you are but I hate you,” he snarled. “Damn you to Hell.”
The figure let loose a terrible, high pitched whine, full of pain and grief. “I’m so sorry,” it cried. “I’m so sorry, Sweeting.”
“Don’t call me that !” He bellowed, wanting to jump to his feet, wanting to throttle the man that could do this to him. “ Don’t you dare .” In that moment his panic morphed, twisted into something bitter and burning.
The figure sobbed harder, whining and heaving, trying in vain to suck in air. “I’m so sorry,” he repeated, over and over, voice hitching. He, Tony, Bucky remembered, stood, unsteady on his feet. “I’m so sorry .” He stumbled away, to where Bucky didn’t know, didn’t care.
“Buck,” came Steve’s unsure whisper. “Buck, that’s a little harsh.”
“He took my arm , took my life .” And he did. Without an arm, who was he? How could a man do anything as a cripple? “It was his ship I was on when I lost my memory,” he snarled. “He brings nothing but pain.”
Steve flinched. “I said that to you once,” he said quietly. “And you fought tooth and nail to show me that I was wrong.” He looked down to his hands, clasped in his lap. “I didn’t see how wrong I was until he saved your life.”
Bucky snarled. “I don’t care what he did. He didn’t save me, he damned me.”
He should have let him die .
James hated him. He truly hated him; every time he would so much as look at the man, he would be met with a furious snarl and glare. Sometimes he thought that the only reason he hadn’t killed him was because Rogers was confining him to the makeshift bed they had made. That and the pain rendered him unconscious for the majority of the day. His body needed to heal, and it needed sleep to do that.
“He’s scared and in pain,” Rogers consoled uncomfortably, days, maybe even weeks later, after James had screamed himself hoarse at him when he had accidentally called him Dear Heart; he had been too tired to censor himself, and too used to the endearment to keep it from slipping out as the stars hung high in the navy blanket of the sky, the small fire he had made for them crackling. It was so reminiscent of that night, that he had wanted to cry. He didn’t though, because Stark men were iron and they most certainly did not cry in company. No, he would have to stop being so weak and pull himself together. Burden the consequences of his actions, as he had always tried to do. He deserved James’ hate, he reminded himself, clutching at his arms. He deserved it and more.
So, to distract himself from his self pity, he had offered to fetch more firewood, commenting that “James, dear heart, I fear you shall catch a chill; you look so cold.”
James had simply exploded, a messy, spewing ball of hate and fury; like an angry cat. If he had claws, Tony had no doubt that his face would ve in ribbons after that. His words were vicious and sharp, and had wounded Tony deeply- far deeper than anyone else could. Though, he supposed, that’s what happened when Anthony Stark allowed himself to fall in love and believe he could ever deserve happiness.
“He doesn’t mean it, Stark.”
Tony laughed, humourless and brittle. “Yes he does. And it’s true.” He shrugged. “It’s all true. He hates me, rightfully so. I ruined him, Rogers. Ruined him.”
Rogers clenched his jaw, but remained silent.
And how curious it was, for Rogers to attempt to offer him comfort. Before this mess Rogers was more likely to slit his throat than smile at him, but now here he was, Rogers’ hand on his shoulder in an offer of comfort.
“I’m a bad, bad man,” he confided softly into the night, keeping his eyes fixed above him.
“No, Stark, you’re not," he denied slowly, with great reluctance. "Everything you’ve done is to make him happy, to save him. Even when you knew that it would drive him to hate you. That’s not what a bad man would do.”
Tony smiled sadly. “One act of selflessness does not clean out a lifetime’s worth of selfishness and ignorance,” he reminded him. “I think I’m close to finding a way off this island,” he changed the subject. “I just hope that he might start to heal when he’s no longer burdened with my presence,” he sighed, suddenly weighed down with a weariness so great it made his very bones feel leaden.
“His memories are already starting to return,” Rogers reminded him. “Once he remembers you, once he remembers how he loved you, he’ll forgive you, and I fear he shan’t leave your side.” He tried to lift Stark’s spirits, but could see when he failed. Chest heaving in a great sigh, he moved his hand, large and warm, to the nape of Tony’s neck, rubbing gently. “Get some sleep,” he ordered gently. “I’ll talk to him.”
His feelings towards Stark had shifted in the recent events; seeing Anthony Stark, the real one… it made him doubt himself, his passionate dislike for the man. It left him conflicted, made him want to give the man the break he deserved from Bucky’s anger, and yet a part of him wanted him far away from his childhood sweetheart.
Everything was so confusing .
It was later that night when he made his way over to Bucky.
“The Bucky I knew would never be this cruel,” he noted, crossing his arms, leaning against a tree as he stared down Bucky’s lying form.
A snort. “I’m not that man anymore,” came the miserable response. “Sometimes I’m unsure if I’m even a man anymore- I’m not even whole .”
Steve sighed. “Buck,” he said firmly. “I love you. I do, but I can’t watch you do this anymore.”
Bucky grumbled. “I’m not doing anything,” he protested, glaring at the blond. “I’m just trying to figure myself out.”
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes and I love you. That’s what I always wanted to tell you, all I thought made the world turn. But,” he sat by Bucky’s head, carding a hand through his hair gently. “There’s a man who loves you with everything he is. And he sacrificed that to save your life.” At Bucky’s glare he rolled his eyes. “I’m not guilting you into anything,” he continued, “But you need to stop being so cruel to him, its destroying him. Be angry with him, but don’t hate him.” His hand paused. “You used to love him.”
Bucky scowled. “I don’t remember. I don’t care.” He batted away Steve’s hand. “Just leave me alone, Steve. Just… leave me alone.”
“No, Buck, I won’t because I know you. You may not remember, but I know you’re still the same man. And I know that you hate how angry, how scared you are, so you’re taking it out on Tony because it’s easier . You’d rather hate him than yourself. You’d rather be angry and full of hate than scared.”
Bucky’s silence was agreement enough, and Steve nodded, crossing his arms. “You need to stop, Buck. You’ll never heal if you don’t accept what’s happened, if you don’t at least try to let yourself admit how you feel. You need to stop lashing out because it’s not healthy, its not productive, and its only making everything worse.”
Bucky scowled. “Shut. Up.”
“ Piss off! ” Bucky bellowed. “I don’t need to listen to you! I barely know you! All I know is that I knew you Before! I don’t care what you think, so leave me alone !”
Steve sighed, standing up as he ran a hand through his hair, shaking his head. “Just… think about what I’m saying, before you push him away for good, because I know you’ll regret it. Your mind might not remember loving him, but I know your body does.” He crouched, tapping Bucky’s temple gently. “Your mind will catch up eventually, and when it does, you’re going to regret not listening to me. He doesn’t deserve this.”
“Just sleep on it, alright? You’re angry and scared, and you’re lashing out. I’ve seen it before- we’ve seen it before, and I know how destructive it can be, how much you can lose because of it. You’ve lost your arm, but you’ll lose your future if you don’t stop this.”He straightened, stepping away and sitting by the fire they had made, looking up to the sky.
“Why are you so cruel?” He asked softly. “You create such horrors , and when a good man tries to do something to fix it, you punish him so cruelly? You destroy the one good thing he has? How can that be right ?”
The silence of the night, interrupted only by the crackling of the fire, turned heavy and deafening.
As much as Bucky teased him about never being able to admit when he was wrong, Steve could. When he truly was wrong, and he knew it, he would admit it. He didn’t like it- hated it, in fact- but could admit it.
And, now, he could admit that he had been wrong about Stark. The Anthony Stark he thought he knew, the man he hated so passionately, was not the man he had come to know on the island, and he admitted that to the man himself.
He looked up at him, eyes dead and sunken. He barely ate or slept any more, driven with a single-minded focus to get them off the island. All so that Bucky wouldn’t have to suffer his presence any longer. It made something in Steve twinge, heart ache sympathetically. Bucky had, unfortunately, not listened to Steve that night, and it was taking its toll on Stark.
“I was wrong, you know.” He sat next to the man, nudging him with his shoulder good naturedly, handing him a piece of meat from the animal they had managed to catch for supper that night. “About you,” he clarified at Stark’s quizzical look. “When I first met you, what I said, what I thought, it was wrong, all of it.” He swallowed, watching as Stark tore into the meat, obviously ravenous. God, when had he last eaten? “I never apologised for it, and for that I’m sorry.” He sighed, leaning back on his hands and gazing upwards at the canopy of trees above them. “I’m sorry about a lot of things. About what I said to you, how I believed what other people said about you, about ending up here, Bucky losing his arm, you suffering his anger.” He bit his lip. “I’m so sorry, Stark. You’re a good man, and I’m sorry it took us getting stranded on an island for me to see it.”
The man had worked tirelessly, had taken the brunt of Bucky’s anger and fear without complaint, had taken Steve’s hate without hate. He didn’t deserve it.
He felt Stark shrug. “It is what it is,” he hummed, “But thank you. I appreciate your apology.”
Steve looked to him, smiling softly. “I think I’d like it if you’d call me Steven,” he admitted. “I feel like we’ve become friends these past few weeks. Thrust into this mess together… perhaps there was no other outcome but to become your friend. To see you.”
Stark returned his smile, and this time, it even reached his eyes. “Then I would like you to call me Anthony.” He covered one of Steve’s hands with his own, and despite everything, Steve felt his heart race at the contact. “I am glad to call you a friend. You’re a good man, Steve. You’ve been so kind to me, here.” His eyes, turning sad, flicked to where Bucky lay staring at the sky, steadfastly ignoring them. “I know you’ve tried to talk to him, and I thank you for that.”
Steve sighed, chest heaving with the effort. “He won’t listen to me. Still doesn’t properly remember me. His memories… they’re still foggy, out of reach. It scares him, I think, almost as much as losing his arm has. He’s scared and angry, and he’s taking it out on you so he doesn’t have to be.” He made a frustrated sound. “It’s not right, and I’m sorry. He’ll come around, though. He’ll calm down and learn to love you again.” For some reason he felt the need to comfort St- Tony. Needed to assure him that he’d be okay. “But even if he doesn’t? You’ll have me to stand by your side. You’re both my friends, and I’ll do what I can to fix this between you.”
Tony smiled sadly. “I don’t think this can be fixed,” he admitted. “But…” He looked down to his hands, interlaced. “You still love him?” When Steve hesitated, his lips morphed into a wry twist. “He… he deserves to be loved. Needs it, I think. Needs to be reminded of his value, of his worth. You can do that, Steve, I know you can, and I know you want to.” He shrugged, and Steve swallowed, mouth suddenly dry because it was true . “You shouldn’t let… this get between the two of you.” He smiled reassuringly at Steve, a weak thing that barely disguised the pain in his eyes. “You deserve each other, you’re meant to be together, so be together.”
“But- what about you? You could watch him love another man? Me ?”
Tony pursed his lips, lifting a shoulder in a shrug. “There are two things I have found that bring me happiness, bring me purpose . One is The Vendicatore ; as long as she sails the seas, liberates slaves, will be happy and content. The other is James,” he admitted softly, glancing towards the man in question. “All I need is for him to be happy, safe.” His eyes lifted to meet Steve’s, honest and true. “It’s irrelevant if it is I that makes him happy or not.” He sighed. Steve made a noise, choked and shocked; but of course Tony would do this, would push Steve towards Bucky, because he was Tony and he was fundamentally selfless and self-sacrificing.
“Besides. What we had… this between us? It’s beyond repair.” A single tear traced his cheek, and he swiped at it, annoyed. “Not unless he-” His eyes widened, struck with a realisation.
Steve tilted his head. “Tony?”
“He needs his arm back,” he breathed, clutching Steve’s hand tightly. “That’s it! I need to give him his arm back! When he gets it back, he’ll be able to heal , he’ll be okay!”
Steve frowned. “Tony… we buried his arm. You can’t give it back to him- it’ll have rotted by now.”
“I’m not just a pirate, Steve. Don’t you see? I build things- all those weapons you heard of? I made them! If I can make him an arm…” His eyes went distant, no doubt sketching out the plans in his mind. “I can make a contraption that will act as his arm.”
Steve blinked. “That’s great , Tony. He’ll be so pleased.”
He might even let go of his anger, might forgive Tony.
Tony beamed, lighting up like the sun poking through gray clouds. “I hope so, but even if he isn’t, it doesn’t matter. I can give him back what I took, and that’s all I want.”
Steve didn’t know what to say to that, so he contented himself with patting the man’s hand.
He truly was as marvelous as Bucky made him out to be, if he could pull this off.
A flash of awe and admiration burned bright in his chest, mingling with the respect that had slowly been building for the pirate.
The mumble, thick with fatigue, sent something warm and fond through Steve’s chest as he sat next to Bucky, carding a hand through his hair. “Hey, you,” he greeted, “How are you feeling?”
Bucky pulled a face, grumbling. “Like I got the Devil at my throat,” he admitted. “Hurts real bad, Stevie.”
Steve smiled sympathetically, hand not ceasing in its motions. “Tony thinks he can use some of the plants to make something to help,” he suggested. “Might help you sleep better.” Bucky had been sleeping a lot, but it he could never fall into a deep sleep, and he woke often to the agony.
Bucky scowled. “I’m not taking anything of his. He’s done enough.” His tone hardened, from something soft and sleepy to hard as rock.
Steve sighed, shaking his head slightly. “Buck, we’ve talked about this,” he chastised gently, knowing Bucky would swiftly become defensive and turn his aggression towards him if he scolded him. “Just… let him help. He’s hurting, Buck. He loves you and just wants to help . There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? And there’s no shame in accepting his help.”
Bucky shook his head, adamant. God, he looked so pale in the late afternoon light; he needed a good night’s sleep to help him heal. He was just too stubborn for his own good, Steve thought wryly. Not that he had any stones to throw, he admitted to himself. He could be just as stubborn, but it was just about the most frustrating thing he’d had the misfortune to experience. “And I told you; I don’t love him,” he said, jaw jutting slightly. “I love you,” he admitted quietly, probably not expecting Steve to hear, but he did. He did , and it made him close his eyes against the want and love and protective possessiveness that crashed into him at the confession, nearly knocking him over.
“No, Steve, you don’t understand ! I love you - I don’t even know him! All I know is that he took everything from me, and expects me to love him?” He spat, eyes flashing dangerously. “That’s bullshit , Steve, and you know it . So if you’re here to get me to forgive him? Piss of. Piss off , okay? Because I can’t and I won’t. I won’t.” His temp of the rise and fall of his chest was increasing as his anger and frustration settled, riling him up. “I love you, and I know you love me so why won’t you let me?” His eyes turned pleading as he managed to sit himself up, “Stevie, why won’t you let me?”
Steve opened his mouth uselessly, not knowing what to say, what he even could say. Bucky couldn’t remember , so he couldn’t , as much as he wanted to. He couldn’t- it wouldn’t be right. He’d be taking advantage, using Bucky’s amnesia and ignorance of his love for Tony for his selfish gain, no matter what Tony said, and his brain was whirling, trying to come up with something to say, some way to explain , when it stuttered to a screeching halt when he felt lips, soft and warm, on his own.
Distantly, he recognised the choked, desperate sound as his own, but he didn’t care because nothing mattered. Nothing but the feeling of Bucky’s lips on his own, the way his tongue nudged at him, seeking entrance, the sweet taste of him, the way it felt like coming home . It felt like home, comfort, security and love all wrapped up in one. Warmth, a bolt of lightning, shot through Steve, reducing him to weakness and desire.
He couldn’t stop if he wanted to.
(And he didn’t- God strike him down, he didn’t . Consequences be damned. He’d waited so long .)
(How could anything that felt so good, so right , be bad? All doubts, all reasoning had flown out of his mind the second Bucky’s lips touched his own.)
He might be crying, he didn’t know. All he knew was that it felt so right , so good, and that it had been such a long time coming. He had waited so long .
“Come on, Stevie, you can’t tell me you don’t want to after that,” Bucky murmured against his lips when he drew away, touching his forehead to Steve’s.
Steve blinked, mind reeling. “Damnit,” he sighed, closing his eyes. “You might be right,” he admitted, laughing wetly. “ God , Buck. I-”
“Shh,” he hushed, hand moving to cup Steve’s cheek as he kneeled before Steve. “See? There’s nothing stopping us, sweet Steven.”
Steve blinked rapidly, overwhelmed by the joy, the happiness, and the dread and regret battling within his gut. He bit his lip. “Okay,” he whispered. Tony… Tony had given his blessing. Had thought it what Bucky needed, wanted . He could trust that, at least, if he couldn’t trust himself. “Okay, Buck.”
Bucky’s answering smile was blinding; as bright and warm as the sun.
Tony approached the man, curled up beside Steve, cautiously. “Are you awake?” He asked, pitching his voice low and soft. It felt like he was approaching a skittish animal, not the person he loved most. If he wasn’t holding himself together with a stubbornness only possessed by a Stark, he would have cried at the thought. He cleared his throat, “I have poultice for you. It should help with the pain.”
Silence, filled with a tension so thick Tony felt he could probably cut through it with his dagger, before, finally, “Bring it here, then.”
Tony released a breath he hadn’t even realised he was holding, so relieved . Bucky was finally letting him help. “Alright,” he agreed, creeping forward so as not to wake Steve, whose form, legs tangled with James’, he pointedly ignored because he could feel himself balancing on a knife’s edge, and the sight of that , no matter what he said to Steve, would send him tumbling over the edge. He brought the crushed plants, pasted on a flat rock he had managed to find, to James, hesitating. “Would you like me to apply it for you?”
Tony smiled sadly, not expecting any other answer. “Of course,” he acquiesced, placing the rock by James’ right arm. “If you change your mind…”
“Right. Of course.” Feeling more than a little awkward, Tony nodded, straightening. “Well, then. Sleep well,” he offered, carefully stepping around them and back to the other side of their nightly fire to where his own makeshift bed of leaves lay. “I’ll just be over here,” he muttered to himself.
That night he lay on his back, staring at the stars until his eyes because too heavy to keep open, remembering that night. If he stayed perfectly still, he could almost pretend James, his James, was by his side, beaming and holding his hand. Full of love and joy .
He wished with everything he had that he could make him that happy again.
Even if only for a second.
I don't know whats happening anymore my writing's going downhill but oh well.
I have 12 chapters written, and I'm thinking that after that I might make the rest as a sequel? The thirteenth chapter's end seems like a good end point for this arc. Idk though
I'm really not happy with this chapter but it just didn't want to be fixed so idk. I hope you enjoyed it anyway :)
They had been stranded, shipwrecked on the island, for nearly a month when Steve reached breaking point.
“Tony, you look awful !” Steve gasped, earning himself a scowl as Tony rolled over to glare at him from where he had been sleeping.
“You should see yourself,” he sniffed.
“No, Tony, you look ill. Do you feel well?” He asked, concern flaring bright in his eyes as he brought the back of his hand to Tony’s forehead. Which Tony allowed, but only because he was so exhausted .
“I feel fine, Steve,” he sighed, curling his fingers around his wrist. “Honestly, I’m just tired.” He smiled reassuringly, but knew by the way Steve’s brow furrowed that he had failed. He groaned. Great- you get stranded on an island with a man that hates you, and a man that loves you, and before you knew it the man that loved you hates you, and the man that hates you gets all… concerned and nice .
Steve pursed his lips, but allowed Tony’s excuse. “Come, up you get.” He offered a hand, and helped pull Tony to his feet. “I think it’s high time we all talked.” His tone, as authoritative and firm as Tony imagined a Naval captain’s to be, left no room for argument, and Tony sighed, allowing himself to be pulled by his hand to James, resigning himself to his fate.
Hopefully James wouldn’t kill him.
“Buck, come on, I know you’re awake,” Steve sighed deeply, prodding the ‘sleeping’ man with his foot. “ Bucky .”
The little shit, Tony thought affectionately.
“Piss off, Stevie. I don’t want to talk about my feelings ,’ he scoffed. “Kiss me, or scram.”
Steve rolled his eyes, shooting Tony an apologetic look before bending over and pressing a kiss to the man’s forehead. “Come on. I’ve had enough of you two; I tried to get you to talk to him about how you feel, to explain it, give him a chance to explain himself, but you didn’t so now I’m making you. So get up .”
Tony stood there awkwardly, twisting the James’ bracelet he still wore. He should probably give it back, but even the thought of it send a pang of loss so great through him it made his knees buckle. He truly would lose James if he let go of that promise.
But… looking at Steve, his gentle smiles, how happy he seemed, basking in James’ love, looking at James, the way his eyes softened when he looked at Steve, the way he was constantly touching him… maybe it was time.
Maybe it was time to let him go.
He was pulled from his melancholy thoughts (and weren’t they always melancholy these days) by Steve nudging him. “Tony,” he urged. “I think it’s time to tell James the whole story, don’t you? From the start. This time,” he shot a glare to James, and it made Tony’s lips twitch and heart ache at the ease of it, the familiarity between them, “Bucky will listen.”
Tony heaved a jagged breath, clutching the bracelet tightly as he sat by James’ feet, Steve’s hand on his shoulder a comforting weight. It gave him strength, reminded him of why he had to let go.
The beginning it was.
“Once, there was a boy.” Tony’s voice shook, almost as much as his hands, but he balled them into fists and soldiered on. “He was young, barely fresh into his seventeenth year when his parents passed. They were murdered, and the boy thought he had died with them. The grief… it broke him, made him reckless, careless… he made many, many mistakes, but the one he regrets the most- well, not quite the most,” he admitted, glancing to James’ stump, swallowing through the lump in his throat, “Was letting his uncle take control of his father’s business.” He glanced to Steve. “The weapons business. He trusted his uncle, trusted him enough that he didn’t see his betrayal until it was far, far too late, until he was thrown into a slave factory, sold by the very man who had helped raise him.” He shuddered at the memory, forcing down the anger it still engendered. He would never be truly over that. It was the greatest, most cutting betrayal he had experienced, and it left him bitter and angry , even now.
He recognised the understanding in Steve’s eyes, the regret. It was okay, because he didn’t know- no one did, and that was the problem. Nobody knew how Tony had been exploited, how every innocent murdered by the weapons he and his father had made, sold to the enemy by Stane was pinned to him.
“His father was famous, himself more so, and so his owners decided to enjoy him, rather than traffic him to the Slave Continent. They beat him, whipped him. Humiliated him; stripped him bare until he was close to breaking.
“But… there was another slave they kept him with. A boy, just like himself, and he befriended him. It kept him sane, kept him fighting . It was his friend- the first real friend he’d ever had, really- that helped him escape. Together, they burned the place down, vowing to put an end to slavery, to the trafficking rings that forced people to suffer as they had. So, they ran, gathered a crew and a ship, and hunted for any ship bound with slaves to the Continent.”
“The first one they found… there was a slave being whipped, starving and bleeding, he was dying. It made the boy, now a Pirate captain, furious beyond belief. Before he knew it he had killed every member of the crew; the Captain, who ordered them to be punished, the cook, who fed them the bare amount to keep them alive, the doctor who refused to treat the wounds on their ankles from their shackles. He killed them all, and it felt right , like he was finally doing something right with his life. All his life, he had wanted to help people, and that desire had often been manipulated by those he trusted, twisted into something that resulted in people dying . But here he was, finally helping .
“He took them to a land, a Haven, free of any white man, and helped them build a life there. And then, he set off to save more. He spent years liberating as many as he could, until one day, one day God must have smiled down upon him because he met one slave, as humiliated and hurting as he had been, who still had so much fire in him, refused to break. He stole the Pirate’s heart, wormed his way into his crew, until the Pirate knew that he would do anything for his slave." He dared a glance at Steve and James, and saw the recognition, the realisation.
"His slave stayed with him, told him of his own captain, the man who had led him through battles during his time in the navy before he was captured. He fell in love with his pirate, and they promised to love each other for an eternity; forever." He fingered the bracelet, swallowing. The lump in his throat refused to dissolve, threatened to choke him.
"His slave loved this captain, as well as his pirate, but the pirate was okay with that. He knew his slave loved him, had a heart big enough to love him and his captain, so he allowed the captain aboard his ship.
"But then... things started to go wrong. The happiness and joy he had, the love he had, was spoiled, ruined when they boarded the Ultron , another slave trader. They were caught unawares, stranded on an island where they suffered. His slave, his beautiful, kind slave was injured; with no memory and a broken arm that was swiftly turning septic, the pirate had no choice but to do what he knew he would always regret.
“He took his slave’s arm.”
He couldn’t help the heartbroken sob that spilled past his lips, nor the accompanying tears. “He took his arm, and with it his future, and all hope for ever having a future with his slave.” He clenched his jaw, glaring at his hands that he furled into knuckles. “He would have died ,” he sobbed, meeting James’ steely gaze. “You would have died, I was damned no matter what I did.”
“I couldn’t lose you.”
Bucky listened to Stark’s story, their story. He didn’t remember any of it, falling in love, swearing an eternity to each other. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, felt like he had been robbed.
He would never get that back, that time that had been so cruelly taken.
“You should have let me die,” he muttered darkly, swallowing down the grief, the anger. “You shouldn’t have done that to me.” He licked his lips, looking to Steve for the silent support he always gave so freely. “You had no right . Telling me your sob story? Doesn’t change the fact that you took everything from me. Everything .” He was snarling, a quiet, stone-cold flame of fury licking at his words, hardening it into something cut of diamond. “I’ll never be able to look at your face and not be reminded of what I’ve become,” he admitted, anger draining away to something tired and weary.
“I’m sorry,” Stark offered, equally as weary. “It changes nothing, but I have never meant an apology more than I do now. If there was a way for things to have been different? I would have done it, I would demand God send me back to change it, I swear to you. I never wanted this, James. Never .”
“Now, look,” Steve interrupted, holding a hand up in a stop right there gesture. “I dragged you both here to sort this out, not agree never to see each other again,” he protested, sounding horrified. “You- I- you just can’t !”
Bucky shrugged. “Seems to me like we can.”
Stark nodded, shoulders slumping. He suddenly looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but Bucky shoved down the pity and sympathy the sight invoked. No , he told himself firmly, don’t. It’s not worth it, He’s not worth it.
“Some things cannot be fixed,” he agreed reluctantly. “No matter the heart’s desire.”
Steve set his jaw, determined. “No, no, I won’t accept that, I can’t .” He turned his sharp gaze to Bucky, disappointment softening them and making something heavy settle within Bucky’s gut. Damnit, Steve. “Look, Bucky, surely you would have done the same for me? I know you still do not yet remember all, but you know enough to be sure. You would do the same- would remove my arm if it saved my life, would you not?”
It wasn’t a question- he knew. He knew , because he knew Bucky better than Bucky knew himself.
And he was right. He would do it a thousand times, no matter the consequences if it meant saving his life.
Hell’s gates, he would sever his own arm for the man.
He sighed, deflating. “That’s different,” he tried, and he knew, even without the sharp, knowing look Steve sent him that it was a weak argument, because it wasn’t.
Stark… well, it appeared that he loved him enough to do the same.
He glanced to the man, flexing his hand, fighting to breathe against the sudden and overwhelming emotion that slammed into him like a cannonball, leaving him struggling to breathe.
The realisation made him uneasy, made regret and guilt crawl up his throat until he nearly choked on it. He knew , deep down, that he shouldn’t be angry, but everything in him was hurting, was scared, and it was easier to blame Stark, hate him, the stranger who had caused it all, rather than admit that it was what had to be done. He would have been a dead man no matter what happened, Stark or no Stark.
His silence spoke more than any words he could say ever would, in that moment.
Before anything could be done, before anything could be processed , Stark stood, frowning, motioning them to be silent.
Bucky frowned, saw his confusion mirrored in Steve, who opened his mouth, as if to query why their silence was warranted, when Stark’s eyes widened, something cautious and hopeful lighting within them.
It was typical, really. Just as they were making progress, as it looked like James might be starting on the path to forgiving Tony (or at least reconciling with him) they were distracted.
The island had felt like purgatory to Tony. The place where he was to be punished for every crime, every sin he had committed in his short and miserable life.
Maybe this meant he had finally died.
Maybe it was finally time for this Hell to be over.
He almost scoffed at the thought. As if he deserved anything else. He frowned, listening, sure he could hear something that sounded suspiciously like footfall in the distance.
Had they truly been found? He frowned, listening intently, motioning for his companions’ silence, eyes widening as he heard a voice he would never not be able to recognise.
Rhodey. Could it truly be him?
That… that was Rhodey!
" Rhodey? Is that you ?"
“Tony! Tony you bastard! ”
Tony laughed, a wet, joyous sound, practically sprinting as swift as he could to the sound of his friend’s voice. Of course he came- of course . “ Rhodey. ”
He ran into the man’s arms, pulling his close, burying his nose into his neck.”Oh, God, Platypus you found us.” He beamed, lashes clumped with tears. “You came .”
Rhodey patted his back, grinning back. “You bet your ass I did,” he sniffed. “As if you could get rid of me that easily.” His grin widened, toothy and looking so genuinely pleased to see Tony that he feared he might start sobbing again.
God, it felt like all he did was cry, and he was so tired of it.
He offered a small smile. “I am relieved to see you, old friend,” he sighed, burying his head in his oldest and best friend’s chest. “You sure took your time.”
Rhodey laughed, running a hand through Tony’s hair. “Well, most of the crew managed to make their way to The Vendicatore and we got the Hell out of there.” He swallowed, voice catching. “I didn’t know if you were even alive, Tones,” he admitted. “She was lamed in the explosion,” he winced apologetically, “We limped to the nearest mainland and fixed her up as swift as we could, and I came straight back to look for you. I hoped, I prayed that you had washed up somewhere, and when I saw wreckage from the Ultron… I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved.” He ruffled Tony’s hair to hide from the emotion so thick in his voice. “Had me scared witless.”
Tony managed a laugh. “I missed you too.” He swallowed, gripping Rhodey tighter. “I… I didn’t know if we were the only survivors.”
Rhodey’s headshot up, creased in a frown, just in time to see Steve and James appear, stepping cautiously over the twigs and plants decorating the ‘forest’ floor. “Rhodes!” Steve greeted, looking relieved. “Lord, am I glad to see you. Tony just bolted before he told us what he’d heard- had us scared.”
Rhodey’s frown deepened, keen gaze flitting between Steve and James, who was standing against Steve’s side, looking panicked and overwhelmed. “Tony?” He muttered to himself, glancing down at the man in his arms. “Did I miss something? Last time I saw you two you were at each other’s throats like dogs, not using each other’s Christian names.” He sounded disapproving, so Tony shrugged, hoping to reassure him.
“A lot’s happened,” he conceded. “I… Let’s just get off this infernal island, shall we? I assume you brought the cavalry,” he grinned, forcing his voice to resemble something teasing and playful. “But you know you’ll always be my shining Knight.”
It worked; Rhodey smiled, amusement flickering in his eyes to replace the wariness that Steve brought “Indeed. Though I fear ‘tis beginning to get old,” he said, voice filled with the dry amusement only Rhodey could exude so well. “Come. Let;s get you and your boy, and his boy, home. You can tell me everything later,” he allowed.
Tony nodded, relief making him sag into Rhodey’s form. “Yes. Let’s.”
Bucky was confused, scared, and annoyed. One minute he was talking to Stark, listening to him and begrudgingly acknowledging to himself that maybe he shouldn’t be so hateful and spiteful to the man, but then, but then , the man had just up and left! Bolted like a skittish rabbit, and now, the sight of him in another man’s arms- a stranger ’s arms- made him feel all sorts of confusing things.
Scowling, he watched them talk, not really listening, too consumed with the emotions battling within him.
Who was this man? Why should they trust him? Obviously Stark did, and that rankled something within him. In the presence of the stranger, Stark seemed happier, like he wasn’t weighed down as much by guilt and hate- Bucky’s hate- and he looked so young , so exhausted.
You can’t exactly blame him for not being happy when you’ve been behaving as such, the voice that sounded like Steve murmured in his head, sounding disapproving.
He scowled harder.
“Who in God’s name is that?” He hissed at Steve.
Steve glanced at him, looking guilty and apologetic. “Sorry, Buck. I should have introduced you properly- that’s Rhodes, Tony’s first mate. His best friend. I think-” he hesitated, watching the men interact, “I think he is the slave that escaped with Tony.”
Of course Tony trusted him, then, was so at ease around him. They had literally saved each other’s lives, probably more than once.
Some part of him, in the dark, forgotten corners of his mind, didn’t like it. Didn’t like that his star was so affectionate with this Rhodey, longed for his familiar touch that made it feel safe and warm.
What the Hell? His star ? What the Hell was that about?
“Come on them, posh boys. Time to go home.”
Rhodey’s voice pulled him from his mind, from the befuddlement and shock that he was swimming in. His eyes jerked to the man, and he offered a single nod. If Steve trusted him, if he was so close to Stark… then he would have to trust him, too. Would have to follow Steve back onto that ship, the ship that had ruined his life.
He steeled himself with a deep breath and followed, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, twigs and dried leaves crunching under his leather boots.
My name is Bucky and I would follow Stevie to the ends of the world, he chanted in his head, feeling the truth of it deep within his bones . He was Bucky Barnes and he would die for Steve. He didn’t remember much from Before, not yet, but of that he was certain. He drew his strength from it, remembered when he would follow Steve into battle, the times when he would follow Steve down a dark alley, ending and winning his fights for him.
In comparison to that, walking with him onto the beautiful, deadly ship was nothing.
“James! It’s good to see you, man!” A sandy-haired man greeted him, grinning from ear to ear. “Looks like you finally got those two to sort everything out between then,” he teased. “Glad it only took getting stranded on an island together to do it.”
Bucky blinked at the man, feeling a pungent sense of deja vu. “I- what? Sorry, do I know you?”
The man froze, his smile slipping from his face as his gaze searched Bucky up and down, concern writ across his face. “James?” His eyes snagged on his left stump, and Bucky turned his body, feeling uncomfortable. “James, it’s me. Hawk.”
“Shit,” came the curse, Stark padding over to them, breaking away from where a curly-haired man had been prodding him, watched over by Rhodes. “Hawk, I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to tell you- James hit his head when the Ultron went up. Hard. He can’t recall much, especially not any of us.”
Hawk’s face closed off, only his pained eyes letting Bucky know how saddened he was by the news. “Ah. I see.” He turned to Stark, who was stood beside him. “Are you okay? What happened?”
Stark sighed, rubbing his eyes. “A lot,” he admitted wryly. “Come, I’ll fill you in. Are you well? I didn’t know if you all made it.”
Hawk offered him a sympathetic smile, gently leading him away. “I’m fine. We’re all fine, Tones. Just wanna make sure you are.”
Bucky saw Stark offer a shaky smile that was probably meant to be reassuring. “I’m grand,” he promised. “Just grand, don’t you worry about me.” He looked over his shoulder to Bucky. “James, Steve will take you to his quarters. Bruce will look you over, and then you can get some sleep. We shall discuss what you want to do later.”
Bucky scowled at him for the sake of it, not really feeling it. “Whatever,” he waved dismissively.
The sooner he and Steve could get back home the better.
This ship was not home, no matter what they said.
He didn’t know any of these people, and he certainly didn’t give a damn about them.
“Tell me everything.”
Can't remember if I edited this, oops lol
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Tell me everything ,” Hawk demanded as soon as he had brought Tony to his private quarters.
“When the Ultron blew sky high, the three of us were sent adrift. By some stroke of luck, or perhaps God’s intervention, if I dare be so bold, we all washed ashore that island. I found James with Steve unconscious. He didn’t remember me, barely remembered Steve . I was panicking, hurt and damn near collapsing myself, so I didn’t notice at first, but his arm… it was a mess, Hawk,” he confided, reliving that awful moment. He could still hear his screams, see the way the arm was mangled, the bone . “It was broken, and I could see the bone, Hawk, the bone . It was sticking up, and it was filthy.” He fell on the bed, dropping his head in his hands. “I had to take it, I had to.”
He felt Hawk’s hand drop on his shoulder. “It sounds like it. He would’ve died from a wound like that.” There was no judgement in his voice, and for that Tony was grateful.
“He hated me for it, when he woke. He was in agony, and he was scared. I don’t blame him; he could only just remember his name. Trapped on an island with a stranger and a man you only faintly know? It would have driven me mad,” he admitted. “But he hated me, and it hurt . I understood- I would hate me too, Hell, I do anyway- but it hurt so much.” Silent tears fell from his eyes, and he wiped them away angrily.
“What about Steve?”
“He tried to get him to understand. He saw it all happen, held him down as I did it, and he knew as well as me what would have happened if I hadn’t have done it.” He laughed, a brittle, humourless thing. “Funny, it was ruining James’ life that brought us closer.”
Hawk sat next to him, wrapping him in a comforting hug. “It’s alright,” he soothed, as Tony sobbed, his frame wracked by them. “It’s alright, Tones, I promise. Nobody blames you. You did what you had to do, it’s alright .”
“It’s not because he hates me .” Tony was close to screaming, all the emotion he had shoved down, unable to show rearing its ugly head. “He doesn’t remember me! He doesn’t love me anymore .”
“But you still love him.” It wasn’t a question, and Tony didn’t answer. Of course he did. Of course he did. How could he not? How could anyone not love James? His kind, brave James.
He felt Hawk card his hands through his hair, fingers running over his scalp as he hummed, oddly comforting. “He might remember, given time,” he pointed out.
“I don’t have time. Hawk, he wants to leave. He wants to take Steve and go back to his home.” His sobs, which had subsided, began anew, and Hawk could barely make out his ‘I’m not his home anymore’ through his cries.
“You’re going to let him go.”
He sounded surprised, and that made Tony glare at him. “You think I want to? Do you think that I want him to leave me? Leave us? We’re his friends, his family , Hawk. I don’t want him to go, but I have to let him because that what he wants, what he needs .”
Hawk made to speak, but was cut off by Tony, whose voice was growing louder, more fervent. “He said that every time he looks at me he is reminded of what he lost. He said that, he said that . I can’t be that! I can’t ! I can’t make him suffer that out of selfishness!”
Hawk nodded. “No, I don’t think you can.” He sighed, saddened. “We’ll all miss him,” he murmured, casting his mind to the fond memories he had of the man, of how quickly he had become a part of their rag tag family.
“I know,” Tony agreed morosely. “I know .” He curled closer to his friend, blinking away the last of his tears. It seems he had cried all he could, but the heaviness in his chest didn’t relent, didn’t lessen.
“No.” At Tony’s confused look, Hawk glared at him. “ No ,” he repeated himself, oddly firm for the usually laid back man. “Don’t you dare, Tones. I know that tone, I know it, and I know what it means. It means that you’ve come up with a stupid idea, and I think I know what it is, and no. Don’t you dare , Anthony Edward Stark.” His voice hitched, and broke as he continued. “You can’t leave us.”
“It’s for the best,” Tony argued. “He can build a life here, again. Can find his place, can help free slaves, as he wanted before. Rhodey can take the Vendicatore , as long as she still sails the seas I’ll be content. I can’t be content if he runs away to somewhere he won’t belong anymore, to where he won’t survive , not with only one arm.”
“Don’t. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” His eyes softened as he cupped Hawk’s face in his hands, kissing his forehead. “I’m fix everything.” He offered a lopsided grin. “It’s what I do.”
“You bastard,” Hawk managed, eyes threatening to fill with tears. “You complete bastard.”
Tony smiled softly.
“I’m going to talk to them, alright? Don’t worry,” he soothed, “I’ll make sure I say goodbye.”
And with that, Hawk struck stupid and immobile, he slipped away, grimly determined.
He wouldn’t force James from the home he had made here. He might not remember it, but he knew, he knew , that he would find a family here again, and in time, would remember. He could be happy here, happier than in London struggling to work with his injury.
And he hadn’t lied to Hawk. As long as The Vendicatore was sailing, saving lives, and James was safe and happy? Then he would be content.
Steve suffered through Banner checking him over for injuries with great reluctance; they had been on the island for a month, any injuries he did have had healed in that time with their rudimentary methods. All that was left was a few scars. Nothing urgent.
Bucky was the one that needed healing, he tried to insist, but the doctor was firm. His patience was wearing thin when Tony came barging in, shooing the doctor out.
"Don't leave," he blurted when they were alone, wringing his hands in anxiety. "I mean- I can leave." He glanced to Bucky, guilt and regret marring his attractive features. " You don't have to. Stay, please. The crew is as much your family as my own, I can't let you leave. And… there's a life for you here, one you couldn't get back in the colonies."
Steve frowned. “Anthony, this is your ship, your crew- your life . You cannot leave, surely.”
He shrugged. “For James? I will.”
Bucky shifted, uncomfortable, but Tony had a light flaming in his eyes that spoke of a single-minded determination, and Steve knew that he would not be dissuaded. His mind was made; he would be leaving, no matter what they said, or did.
“For how long?” He asked, saddened slightly. A part of him would miss the man. On that island, Tony was all he had. His support and presence had gotten him through that time, when even looking at a Bucky who didn’t remember him was too painful. What they had been through… it had forged a bond between them, and Steve realised, in that moment, that he would miss him.
Tony bit his lip and refused to meet his eye, and Steve's heart sank because he knew. "You're not coming back."
It wasn't a question, but Tony's silence was confirmation enough.
“I just came to say goodbye,” he spoke, when the silence became stifling. “God be with ye,” he offered, with a small, sad smile.
"I don't know these people," Bucky called out as he stepped away. "So tell me, exactly, how they could possibly be my family."
"You might not remember them, but I know that you don't need to. You made a home out of this ship before, you can do it again- and with Steven by your side I dare say you shall accomplish it at a much swifter pace."
Steve frowned. There was something more to Anthony's melancholy tone, something he wasn't saying but was lying beneath his words all the same.
It wasn't the ship Bucky made a home out of. It wasn't the crew nor the life.
It was Anthony.
Bucky had made a life with Tony and had loved it.
The realisation made Steve's eyes widen, rendered speechless as he watched the man he had come to call a friend leave, left with a striking and visceral sense of wrongness .
This isn't right. None of this is right.
But how do I make it right?
The thought plagued him, held him in its grasp all night, relentless. A pulsating need to fix this, to repair the friendship between the two men because seeing Anthony in such pain hurt.
It was inexplicable but undeniable.
And, truthfully, Steve was tired of ignoring his emotions, of locking them away. It had never done anything for him: in fact, truth be told, it had only served to make things worse.
So, inexplicable or not, he was going to give in to this thing and find some way to get the two men on at least the path to reconciliation.
"I can hear you thinking, Stevie," came the tired mumble into his chest. "Settle, will ya?"
Steve smiled, despite himself, fond and warm. "Sorry," he sighed.
"What's eating you?"
"It's nothing, Buck."
" Stark? For the love of God, Stevie, leave it be . He doesn't want to be here, and, God's truth? I don't want him here either." Bucky huffed, shifting so that he was leaning on his hand, staring down at Steve. "The nerve of him; trying to get us to stay on his ship amongst strangers, and acts as if they're out family? Steve, I don't know them. He is the most vexing man I have had the misfortune to meet."
Steve winced. "He's not all bad," he denied. "You just don't want to admit that, because once you acknowledge that he is human, as emotive and vulnerable as you, it will be harder for you to place your hatred and fear upon him." He raised a hand to stroke along the man's side as he spoke to soften his words. "You have made him a vessel for your fear and anger, your self-hatred, and, darling, it's hurting you and him. It's easier to hate him than to see how scared he is, to admit that there was no other way, that you had to lose your arm."
Bucky scowled. "I don't want to talk about this."
"No. You know what? Why don't we talk about how you feel guilty about hating him and how it took you being stranded on a deserted island with him to see him as a complex human being yourself? How this guilt has manifested in a need to get me to forgive him, when, frankly, its none of your business. Hmm?" His tone was mocking, cruel, and it unsettled something in Steve. Times like this, when Bucky seemed to be spewing hatred and defensiveness, when he lashed out, he didn't recognise the man before him as the love of his life.
"I- that's not- I do not- " he spluttered, face heating.
"It is true, Steve, and you need to stop because I don't owe him anything. You want me to stop hating him? Fine . I don't feel a thing for him- not a goddamn thing."
Steve's mouth gaped as Bucky lay back down.
"So go to sleep, alright? He's going to leave our lives and I won't have to ever see him again so it'll be fine ."
"Where on God's green earth do you think you're going?"
Rhodey's voice cracked through the still night like a whip and the corners of Tony's mouth twitched ever so slightly. "It seems that I am still incapable of escaping your all-seeing eye, then."
"You never could and you never will," came the dry agreement. "And neither will your attempts to distract me. Where are you headed."
"I told you."
"No, you told me you were leaving me your ship as you were running away, but I assumed that you meant it in jest, and, so help me , it had better have been made in jest and this had better not be what I think it is."
Tony paused, raising a single eyebrow. "Well. Then I shall refrain from commenting, seeing as you dislike it when I lie."
“ Anthony Edward Stark .”
Tony winced. Rhodey was furious, if he was using his full name. “Yes, dear?”
“Don’t. Tony, don’t, I beg of you.” Rhodey’s tone became pleading as he stepped towards his friend. “This is foolish and you know it!”
He shook his head. “No, this is long overdue.” He offered a small, reassuring smile. “It’s time I went back home. Steven and James… they’ll be better off here, without me, and I’ll… I shall be able to reclaim the family business, perhaps. Make it something you would all be proud of.”
“No, Rhodey. I… I killed Stane, I removed his foul rot from this Earth but the remnants of him still taints my life- our lives. It is time, old friend, for us to move onto the next stage; with you at the helm, taking down the slavers, and with myself working to remove the damage done by his hand. Hammer set a trap for us, I need to know why , how he knew we’d be there.”
“I won’t let you-”
“I am not asking for your permission.” His voice hardened, eyes flashing dangerously. “This is my choice and you will respect it.”
Rhodey crossed his arms, glaring fiercely. It was usually enough to sway Tony, but tonight it was ineffective. “Fine,” he hissed. “You make this stupid, idiotic decision but do not come crying to me when it backfires in your face. This is an excuse . You don’t want to be around Barnes or Rogers so you’re leaving? Leaving me? ” He was hurt, hurt and angry.
Tony’s face crumbled. “Rhodey…”
“Don’t.” He held up a hand, glancing away. “Just… don’t.”
Tony nodded. “Keep in touch,” he offered, in lieu of a goodbye. Both men hated those, and besides. It was never truly a goodbye with them. “You’re right,” he admitted, staring at the ground. “I am using this as a way to escape, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be done. When I have something I’ll contact you.” He offered a small smile. “It’ll be like old times.”
Rhodey stormed over to him, pulling him into a hug. “Come back. You hear me? You don’t want me to come? Fine. But you better come back to me when you’re done, you hear me?” Rhodey’s voice was thick with emotion. “Because if I hear you died because you nosed around in Stane’s shady underworld? I will raise you just to kill you myself, I swear to God.”
Tony laughed, and if it were slightly wet, neither man mentioned it.
And with that, he was gone.
That's it, guys! Thank you so much for all of your support, kudos and comments, I appreciate you all so much <3
Hopefully this isn't goodbye- I really want to write more of this universe, I completely fell in love with it, as immodest as that sounds lol- so keep an eye out.
Thank you all.
*Also I know I promised Stuckony but it just didn't want to be written, so hopefully, if a sequel does come, I'll get it right in that lol. Sorry, I feel so bad