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Eleven, twelve, thirteen

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Okay, this looked bad.

Or very good.

Tony wasn’t sure, but he sure as hell wasn’t  ready  for it.

“Are you sure there is no other way?” he asked Laura, hope thinly veiled in his voice.

The woman dared to give him a condescending look. “He’s your soulmate, Tony, I’m sure you two will be able to handle being in the same room for a night. This house is big, but not big enough to give the usual luxurious environment for a whole team of superheroes,” she said, and her tone was annoyingly patient, and Tony got the feeling that she was using this same tone to deal with her kids too. Tony hated when he was treated like a child even back when he had literally been a child.

Laura sighed. “Please be reasonable, Tony. I can’t make any exceptions or the others not included would riot, and who else do you want to share a room with?”

Tony sighed. “Fair.” It was an interesting thought experiment, though. “Imagine me and Steve in the same room.”

“Nope,” Laura said quickly, “veto. You have 50-50 chance to either have the time of your life or to kill each other. Both of those options probably include wrecking the house in the process.”

Tony pouted. “You know us too well.” He caressed the number eleven on his wrist. A friendly reminder that they were superheroes - with such remarkable danger levels associated with them. They faced way more than this inconvenience oftentimes. Plus Tony’s number on James’s wrist was a twelve, and to their current knowledge that was the highest level of any humans. Tony was among the very few absolutely lethal, most influential, and most dangerous people of the world.

But fuck him if he didn’t dread the night coming.

*

James didn’t seem happy either.

To be fair, he never really seemed happy. He still had the annoying habit of concealing his feelings, which was totally understandable in his case, but didn’t make Tony’s life any easier.

Of course he knew that James—Steve called him Bucky, but to everyone else he was simply James at this point—liked him. They were pulled towards each other, they enjoyed each other’s company, they understood each other on a fundamental level. The connection between soulmates was rarely clear-cut or easy to define, and could work very differently for different people and couples. In Tony’s and James’s case, they calmed each other down a bit. James said the world seemed calmer, simpler around Tony, the waves in his mind less threatening, the static noise less loud. Tony experienced it a bit differently: he also felt calmer and lighter around James, but in his case, instead of simpler, the world seemed more exciting. When he was around James, the thrill of discoveries burned brighter, the enthusiasm of experiencing everything around at its fullest shone more brightly. Like in many other aspects of their lives, they fit together in this as well, like gears in an engine, filling in the blanks and touching in the best mechanism to make the machine move forward.

James caught Tony’s lingering stare, and he gave a tiny nod and a smile. The smile was pale like a winter morning, small and fragile still, but it was progress. James seemed to smile more as time went on, even if it always remained uncertain and hesitant of a gesture.

Tony smiled back, he couldn’t not.

It was okay. It was his soulmate. They had met four months ago already, and got to know each other in the meantime. They held hands sometimes, they sat next to each other during movie nights. They had a casual kind of intimacy between them, coming from their time shared. James trusted Tony with arm maintenance, and Tony trusted James too.

So why did sharing a room felt like being back in university, nervous as hell before a date? He wasn’t even dating James, for fuck’s sake!

*

The children went to bed and the adults took out the drinks. (It was Clint’s house, and Clint had a very clear rule: no one ever was allowed to drink any alcohol in the presence of a kid, unless they wanted to spend the night in the shed. Tony toyed with the idea of bringing out a beer during dinner, but he’d felt it too disrespectful to actually do it.)

He was quiet during the evening, and James of course didn’t miss it. He sat down next to Tony, their thighs touching, and seemed genuinely worried. “You okay?” he asked, quiet enough to not alert anyone else. Tony met his eyes for a moment, and as usual, he got breathless just by that, because James seemed so earnest. It seemed like he really, truly cared for Tony - not the genius, not the engineer, not even the soulmate, but  Tony himself.

And if there was one thing Tony couldn’t handle, that was genuine affection.

“I’m not drunk enough for this,” he mumbled, jumped to his feet and fled to the booze cabinet.

*

He couldn’t postpone the inevitable forever, and after a few hours of the whole team spending the evening together, chatting away and cracking jokes and teasing each other mercilessly, everyone retreated to their respective rooms. When James noticed that Tony started to blink for too long times, and his head lolled forward a few times, James excused themselves. His palm was dry and warm, and covered Tony’s hand as he led them to the room on the first floor, the large window overlooking the adorable scenery of the corn fields and the little shed where the machines were kept.

Tony really wasn’t drunk enough to do this. He wasn’t drunk at all, honestly, he probably wouldn’t even have a hangover in the morning with the amount of water he drank with his alcohol. Clint didn’t keep any hard-hitting shots, just beer and wine, and Tony’s liver was used to process far more alcohol than that.

Sadly.

He’d really have appreciated if he could just pass out to save him from having to deal with this, or if he could be brave and drunk enough to simply ask James out or something. But he wasn’t.

And James’s self was still so fragile after what happened to him, Tony didn’t want to mistreat him, to use him. Even if James was gorgeous, and funny, and wonderful, and his soulmate, and among the very, very few people who really seemed to give a shit about Tony, that didn’t mean that James would want anything more than friendship. And Tony wasn’t sure James wouldn’t say a false yes out of obligation if he asked.

This train of thought was definitely pointless. The bottom line was, Tony couldn’t initiate anything more than this with James. It wouldn’t be fair to the man. 

He wasn’t even sure if it were fair to accept  if  James initiated more than the friendship they seemed to form during the months. He wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t be some kind of twisted gratitude from the guy, or like the imprinting of a duckling, gripping to the first genuine human interactions he had in a long time.

“I’m not drunk enough for this,” the words slipped out of his mouth again before he could think them through.

James’s face turned carefully neutral, before he forced a fake smile on.

“That’s okay, Tony,” he reassured. “Is this about the room?”

Tony nodded, unable to untie his tongue and explain the situation better. James should understand. He understood Tony so well usually. And yep, James was nodding too.

“It’s okay, I’ll sleep in the shed, no one even needs to know if you don’t want to,” James said. “If they see me there I’ll say I couldn’t sleep or woke up early and went on a walk, no problem.”

And James, true to his words, turned around sharply to leave, and Tony absolutely couldn’t let that happen. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him  so much —maybe because of the edge of a soldier in the movement, maybe because of the faint bitterness in the tone. Maybe he was just afraid.

He was ranked twelve on the danger scale of human beings, the higher number he had ever heard of before, but the thought of spending the night alone in a room knowing that James sentenced himself to spend the very same night in a shed broke his heart and made his chest constrict with terror.

He grabbed James’s wrist, as if he wanted to touch the visible proof of their connection despite a fabric separating their skins. “Stay.”

*

It was awkward as hell.

They stayed on their respective sides of the bed (it was just a queen sized bed, what the hell, Tony had a bigger bed for himself alone at home, and now he had to spare), backs to each other. Tony nested himself into this position first and James followed suit, and now Tony was barely holding himself back from the old habit of chewing his nails, and he laid as motionless as he could and wondered if the sun would ever rise or would he be trapped in this situation forever.

He wanted to turn around. He wanted to unfold himself from the nervous knot he tied himself into, he wanted to rest his head on James’s chest and listen to the man’s heartbeats. But he couldn’t.

He couldn’t force James into that situation.

*

An eternity later, James groaned and turned to his back. “Sorry, I can’t lay on my side,” he admitted in an almost shy whisper.

Tony turned halfway back to glance at him, frowning. “Then why did you try?”

James stared at the ceiling. “Didn’t want to bother you.” The murmur was so quiet Tony nearly missed him.

“You don’t bother me,” he hurried to say, “ever.”

James nodded and carefully moved his shoulder to work out the cramp of it.

Tony turned back to his original position, his heart beating wildly in his chest. He shouldn’t read too much into that, but it was really adorable that James didn’t want to bother him…

*

Tony wasn’t sure when he got tired enough of his speeding thoughts to fall asleep, but it felt a lot. James was already sleeping peacefully next to him.

Tony was pretty sure that he fell asleep on his side of the bed laid out on his stomach, a position he would regret in the morning.

He had no idea, however, when or how he ended up rolled on his other side, stuck to James’s side like superglue made sure of it, a leg lazily thrown over the poor man’s crotch and an arm over James’s chest, the other one folded uncomfortably under themselves without any kind of blood circulation in it left.

He had no idea how to get out of the situation either without waking James up and making everything horribly embarrassing. He was afraid that with the slightest movement he’d rouse James. Which would be bad because on the one hand, who wants to be punched with a metal fist first thing in the morning, and on the other hand, James seemed to be sleeping peacefully, a rare occurrence, and Tony would die first than to disturb that.

*

The sun was rising. The room started to warm up, making the situation even more uncomfortable. Not to mention that Tony was practically hugging a human furnace, because James was running hot, like supersoldiers did. Tony started to sweat, enhancing the superglued-feeling. James was breathing evenly, barely even twitching in his sleep. Tony simultaneously dreaded his awakening and couldn’t wait for it. 

These moments were great. The chance to examine James, to guiltily enjoy the closeness, it was a gift.

But also, Tony would fucking die because of the state of his arm once he got to move. Also he needed to pee. Dammit.

*

He was pretty sure he figured out the solution for a future remote-controlled suit commanding system. He just hoped he wouldn’t forget it by the time he got a chance to quickly sketch it down.

How the hell was Bucky still asleep? Tony had never heard of him sleeping this much, the supersoldier usually spent his days on very little amounts of sleep, three hours here and there and as seldom as he could afford.

Tony couldn’t keep track of time to save his life, but it had to be hours by now, right?

James would wake up soon.

And discover that Tony somehow worked himself into this position during the night.

You know what, the more the merrier , Tony figured he was a huge fan of James staying asleep a bit longer.

Just until he came up with a way of explaining this...

*

Without any warning signs, James wrapped both of his arms around Tony and groaned as his arm was jostled by the embrace. “I can hear you thinking bad thoughts.”

“Really?” Tony didn’t dare to peek up. He blushed. He couldn’t remember the last time he blushed, he thought he trained this reaction out of himself properly, but here he was, face hot.

There was no need to react that intensely to a simple half-awake hug.

Also, they were superheroes: telepathy, accidental or not, wouldn’t even register as weird in their world.

“No, I mean, not  literally .” The eyeroll was audible in the answer, Tony swore. “But it’s still true. And I’m really sorry but I have to go to the bathroom, don’t run away until I get back.”

Tony knew of the famous last words Steve and Bucky exchanged before Bucky was shipped out to England, so really, James should’ve known that a warning like that never had worked.

It didn’t take to being a genius to figure out what the sudden and urgent dash meant. Well, technically it could mean two possibilities, and honestly, Tony wasn’t sure which was the scarier one.

Option one: James had been awake the whole time, waiting for Tony to pull back to avoid the awkward situation of waking up to him clinging like a baby octopus. Ugh. In this case, his words meant a hidden scolding for keeping James pinned to there for this long unnecessarily.

Option two: James needed a quick escape of the situation, and his apology was nothing more than politeness.

Tony was mortified, and used the opportunity to get out.

*

He should’ve gone anywhere else but the shed, but where else? He wasn’t the type to run into a corn field and get lost in it. The tools and equipment laying around in lovely, haphazard piles soothed his nerves.

Of course it made that much easier for James to find him, but not like there was any place to hide from the Winter Soldier, right? Tony still briefly considered crawling under the tractor.

Then he squared his shoulders.  Fucking twelve , he reminded himself. He had defeated alien armies. He had fought alongside gods and monsters, against gods and monsters.  He had a Youtube channel and he read the comment section.

He wouldn’t run away from his soulmate.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” he cut forward, not allowing James to speak first. “It was really inconsiderate of me. To force you into that situation, and I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable, it won’t happen again. In my defense, I was asleep, therefore had very limited control over my actions, but then I should’ve move away before you woke up, if you were asleep at all which I’m not convinced of. I have no excuses, other than it was nice, and you should definitely forget that I’ve said that. Anyway, I’m sorry, I know you didn’t consent to this, and you’re rightfully angry at me, please forgive me if you can, I won’t bother you until then, I should’ve done that in the first place, I mean not bothering you. With me. And this. I’m sorry,” he finished his ramblings with an exhausted huff. At first he was looking at James, posturing like he did for cameras, but to the end he was leaning to the tractor and touching his forehead to it, eyes closed and shoulders hunched.

It hit him, really hit him in those moment, while he said it out loud, how much he hated the mere thought of James being angry at him, how much he’d miss their casual interactions if they were to have a break in their friendship. He didn’t realize, at least not consciously, how much James had started to mean to him, and how much he’d grieve if he’d lost James.

There was a light touch on his wrist.

“Look at me,” James asked, and his tone wasn’t angry. It was quiet and soft. Tony refused to look up. “I liked you being that close to me, that’s why I pretended to be asleep.”

Shame wasn’t a strong enough word for what Tony felt. Humiliation and mortification was closer, but still not quite there. He had forced James to pretend to be asleep for fuckton of time and…

“Wait,” Tony said, “you-- liked it?”

“You would have noticed the opposite, you stupid genius,” James said, still in that soft voice, and Tony had to finally look up. James was still in his pajama pants and an oversized t-shirt that hang loosely on his frame, hiding the finely sculpted muscles underneath. He didn’t look like a brainwashed assassin. He didn’t look like someone who would rank eleven on Tony’s wrist.

He looked like someone who just woke up, hair ruffled and his face creased, and he looked like someone who had a good night. Maybe not a good sleep, but he wasn’t grumpy, which alone was truly a miracle in his case.

“Can we maybe start this over?”

Tony wasn’t sure what James meant, but he nodded anyways. Not like he could deny much when James asked, and not just because it was so rare to happen.

Instead of talking, though, James pulled him closer by the wrist, his free hand came up and cupped Tony’s face. Tony’s breath hitched.

“Hi Tony, I had a good night,” James started, quiet and blushing and visibly insecure, but just as much determined too. “I wanted to share my joy over it properly. May I?”

Tony nodded again, smaller this time as James’s hand held him, and he didn’t want to lose the contact.

James leaned down, and kissed him. 

It was slow and cursory and clumsy, but it also was sweet and genuine. James didn’t linger, and didn’t use his tongue, and didn’t do anything fancy, really. He just brushed their lips together, then sucked in Tony’s lower lip, gently nibbling on it once, then let it go.

James leaned back, face red with the blood rushing under his skin, and Tony could feel his pulse even through just their palms touching, with their fingers intertwined.

“Wow.” He rarely was speechless, but right now, no words came. He wondered how could someone be as beautiful as James was in these moments. “I wish you had joy more often to share.”

And James smiled, bright and beautiful. “It can be arranged, I hope,” he said, “if you’re willing to help.”

“I am, I  so  am,” Tony barely stammered out before James leaned down to kiss him again, more confident this time.

*

They held hands when they walked back to the house. No one batted an eyelash on that, since it wasn’t the first time; however, they looked over when James allowed Cooper to climb to his lap, and the kid’s first question was about James’s wrist.

“What thirteen means?” he asked.

Everyone froze, including James.

He slowly turned left, trying to catch Tony’s gaze, but Tony was busy staring at his own wrist. 

It also read thirteen. James’s number jumped two digits, while Tony’s went up one, and now they were even.

In every sense of the word, Tony supposed.

The silence stretched, and he finally snapped out of it and looked up, nodding to James’s direction.

“I’m not sure myself, Coop,” James slowly answered, not taking his eyes off of Tony, and that woke up butterflies in his stomach. “But I think it means your uncle Tony should call me Bucky from now on.”