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Ain't That a Kick in the Head

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Maria Hill reviewed the footage of the mission, trying to pinpoint where it’d gone wrong. She knew now, of course… that the lab had been trapped, but she hadn’t known then. AIM had created perfect setup to put Tony Stark out of commission, cause a panic with Stark Industries shareholders, and lower the public’s confidence in the Avengers.

She sighed and sipped her wine as the footage from the Iron Man armor and Barnes’ body cam played out just as it had the first twenty times she’d sifted through it looking for anything new… trying to pin down any leads on how to help Tony recover. Tony’s AI, FRIDAY, had already been through it all too, but Maria kept hoping to find some kind of clue. According to Stephen Strange, there was nothing to do but wait.

She sighed, closed her laptop and finished the last swallow of wine before carrying her glass to the kitchen. This whole situation was so fucked up. What the hell was she going to do? Maria braced her hands on the sink and felt a wave of fatigue and frustration wash over her and tried to keep it together. She couldn’t fall apart now – what if Tony woke up in the night and needed her?

“I can’t do this,” she whispered to herself. The dirty dishes in the sink just felt like the last straw. Macaroni and cheese from a box and chicken nuggets – that’s what she’d fed Tony Stark for dinner – not a vegetable in sight. “I can’t do this,” she whispered to herself again.

From the living room, she heard Bucky Barnes’ low rumbling voice, “Go to bed. I’ll clean up.”

Maria looked over her shoulder, glaring at him. She couldn’t help the fact that Tony wanted Barnes there. She wanted things to be as stable and supportive as possible for Tony, so that meant Barnes stayed. Didn’t mean that she had to like having the Winter Soldier in her home, though.

Barnes folded his arms, “I think I can handle a few fuckin’ dishes, Hill.”

Maria arched her eyebrow, ready to call him out on his language, but the rebuke died before reaching her lips. She just felt so fucking done that she couldn’t bring herself to care. “Fine. Whatever – knock yourself out.”

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

As he washed dishes in Maria Hill’s small kitchen, Bucky Barnes rehashed the day in his mind. Go with Iron Man. Be his back-up. Cover him while he dismantles their lab. Those had seemed like clear enough objectives to Bucky earlier this morning in the Quinjet before the mission. The two of them didn’t often work directly together, though both had apologized to the other privately – Tony for attacking Bucky in Siberia, and Bucky for killing Tony’s parents.

The mission went all right – pretty seamless as a matter of fact. Bucky had to admit they really worked well together. But then it all unraveled at the end…. The too-long stillness after something exploded in the AIM lab they’d been sent to dismantle along with radio silence from Stark sent a spike of adrenaline through Bucky. When the last of the resisting AIM thugs finally dropped, Bucky ran as fast as he could to the lab.

Scanning the room, something had obviously exploded – equipment, papers, and sticky green liquid seemed to coat just about everything in the room. From the damage though, it didn’t seem like a strong enough explosion to kill. Bucky stepped cautiously around the larger pieces of fallen scientific equipment, he noticed a mass spectrometer that’d met the end of its economic life and the empty Iron Man armor, but no Tony Stark.

“Stark?” Bucky tried their comms again. “Anyone getting anything from Tony?” He hated how he could hear the anxiety in his own voice.

After one full circuit around the lab and no sign of Stark, Bucky made his next lap’s examination more painstaking. No sticky green footprints leading out of the lab… Bucky used the end of his rifle to move aside a broken table to avoid touching the liquid with his hands. Finally, on a shelf under one of the tables, he found a very small boy with dark reddish-brown hair and wide dark eyes.

The boy stared at Bucky and his rifle and Bucky noticed the kid’s tear-stained cheeks. Had the kid been crying this whole time, just so silently that even his super-soldier hearing hadn’t picked it up? Bucky slung his gun over his back and crouched down. “Tony?”

The boy nodded and sniffed, but scrambled back when Bucky tried to reach out for him.

Bucky tried again and this kid – he had to be about three years old – flinched away from him and hid in the farthest corner under the table – as far away as he could get without having to get within reach of Bucky’s arms.

He leaned back a bit, still crouched down keeping a visual on Tony. The more Bucky looked, the more he could find resemblances between the boy and the man he knew. Definitely Tony Stark.

Steve’s voice boomed through Bucky’s comm link, “You find him yet, Buck? We’re on our way!”

Shit. “Yeah, I found him. He’s fine. Negative on the assist. We’ll meet you outside,” Bucky’s replies were clipped and to the point. What they did not need were all the Avengers stomping in here to either get turned into kids or to scare Tony even more.

Turning his attention back to Tony, he tried to make his voice sound gentler. When was the last time he talked to a little kid? Probably 1942 – as far as he could remember anyway. “I… guess I look kind of scary with the mask on.” Tiny Tony nodded and Bucky smelled urine.

Shit, shit, shit he was bad at this ‘be less intimidating’ thing. His own fucking teammates were afraid of him – how was he supposed to reassure a terrified three-year-old that the guy with the black mask and high-power rifle was on his side? He took a deep breath, then another.

Trying again, Bucky said, “I wear the mask because it helps me breathe sometimes. When we go outside, I can take it off.” He offered his hand to Tiny Tony who shook his head vigorously.

Fifteen minutes of gentle coaxing later and Bucky was still no closer to getting Tony to come out from his hiding spot. Bucky sat cross-legged on the floor and rubbed his forehead. This stand-off pushed all the buttons for the areas about himself where he felt most insecure. Tony was still crying. Bucky felt like crying too. Killing is all you’ll ever be good for, the voice in his mind whispered.

“I’m sorry ‘bout all this… it was my job to protect you – keep you safe – and I messed up.” Bucky stared at the broken computer screen next to him miserably.

His head flew up when he felt a small tug on one of the straps on his sleeve. Tiny Tony had crawled out and was tugging his arm to get Bucky’s attention. Tony shook his head and tapped his chest.

“What? No way, Half Pint… this isn’t your fault.” Bucky tipped his head, “Did… did you think I was mad at you?”

Tony nodded and a few fresh, fat tears slid down the boy’s cheek.

Bucky swallowed the lump in his throat, “I’m not mad, squirt…” he sighed, “I’m just ready to get out of here. You wanna come with me?” Tiny Tony hesitated, but didn’t bolt. “I could carry you, if you want – so you don’t hafta touch this gross stuff on the floor.”

Tony stood and stretched his arms up. The band t-shirt Stark had worn pooled around the boy. Bucky remembered that gesture from his little sisters and a wave of nostalgia hit him hard enough to nearly take his breath away.

Bucky stood and picked up Tiny Tony easily, wiping the boy’s face with the side of his glove. “This ok, Half Pint?”

Tony nodded again and curled his arms around Bucky’s neck.

“Not gonna talk to me, squirt?” Bucky asked as he carried the boy out of the destroyed lab toward the entrance.

He felt the boy shrug, but Tony still didn’t say anything. Was that normal? Seemed out of character for someone who was so talkative as an adult, but maybe Stark was just making up for lost time….

“I’m gonna call into the lady who’s running this… um… job that we… I?” Bucky sighed with annoyance at his tongue getting tangled at the least convenient time possible. “I’m gonna call my boss, okay? Let her know what’s going on so we can take care of you. You like spaghetti?”

Tiny Tony shrugged again.

This was literally the longest conversation he’d had in the last week that didn’t involve the merits of one firearm over another. Bucky switched to a private comm line. Time to call Hill. “Hill?”

“What’ve you got Barnes?” Hill’s voice was level, but demanding.

“There was some kind of accident in the lab.” Tony looked up, his eyes widening as though he’d been betrayed by someone he trusted. Bucky tried to make eye contact, but Tony just buried his face in Bucky’s shoulder and began that eerie silent weeping again. Bucky could tell because the boy’s little shoulders were shaking. He stopped to hold Tony and rub his back, “Sh-shhh… it’s okay… wasn’t your fault. You’re not in trouble, I promise. Hill’s a nice lady.”

From Bucky’s comm, Maria said, “Barnes, what the hell is going on? Are you two all right – you’re talking to Stark like he’s a child.”

“He is a child, Hill,” Bucky replied. He hadn’t meant to say it so bluntly, but there it was… out in the open. In the silence that followed, Bucky added, “Seems fine otherwise.” To Tony, he asked, “You hurt anywhere, kiddo?”

Tony shook his head, but didn’t look up… or stop crying.

“Barnes, if this is some kind of joke, I swear to God, the deadliest thing you’ll be holding for your foreseeable future will be a spork.” Hill’s voice came through the line crisp and crystal clear.

“He looks like he’s maybe three? Needs a bath an’ something to eat maybe?” Bucky felt like he was failing again. He felt Tony’s head turn just a bit to peek as Bucky spoke to Hill. “Didn’t say if he liked spaghetti. Christ… I... don’t know what the… heck I’m doing here – I haven’t held a kid like this since 1936, Hill.”

“You’re not kidding…” Bucky thought he could hear her say, “Fuck,” under her breath. Hill recovered quickly, though. “Right. Clothes, a blanket…, kid stuff.”

“Bring him a cookie,” Bucky peeked at Tony from the corner of his eye and saw the crease of a dimple from the boy’s smile.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Maria almost decided to forgo a shower, but then as she undressed, she decided it was a slippery slope from ‘I’ll take a shower in the morning’ to leggings counting as pants and driving a minivan full of old French fries and cracker crumbs. The hot water did a lot to soothe the tension in her neck and shoulders.

How had she managed to get through today? How was it only one day? She stood in the shower a few extra minutes just letting the water beat a steady rhythm on her back before rolling her shoulders a couple of times and turning off the water. When had everything just… gone sideways?

Maybe it was when she’d agreed to bring a cookie for Tony to eat during the post-mission flight home on the Quinjet. Maybe admitting that Tony was a small kid who needed a cookie after an exceptionally long (and probably traumatizing) day was where her world turned into… one where the Winter Soldier was washing her dishes and sleeping (did he sleep?) on her sofa.

Maria remembered the end of their private conversation over the comms.

“And a cookie,” Maria agreed matter-of-factly. “What’s your status Soldier?”

“Functional,” was Barnes’s terse, automatic reply.

“I need more details than that, Barnes. Your file says you start to lose ‘maximum efficiency’ after four days without sleep too, but ‘remained functional.’

She’d been surprised when he huffed a laugh, “Better than that, at least. Hit twice – thigh and my side. One’s a graze, the other’s a through and through. I’m fine.”

“Your definition of ‘fine’ and mine are different then, Barnes,” Maria replied. “Medical’s already on-site from when we caught the audio of the explosion on Tony’s armor.”

“Armor’ll need to be retrieved. I couldn’t carry both.” Bucky risked peeking at the boy, who promptly hid his face again. “Recommend a minimum of air filtration masks.”

“Understood. I’ll update the team. Hill out.”

In the debrief room a couple of hours after the medvac helicopter took Barnes and Stark back to the Avengers Compound, Maria had tried to keep the rest of the team’s speculations and complaints to a minimum while waiting for a full report from medbay. A few moments after the meeting started, Nick Fury, Stephen Strange, and Bruce Banner entered the room.

Strange addressed the group first, “My colleague Dr. Banner and I have examined Mr. Stark and determined his case doesn’t involve any magical manipulation.”

Relieved nods and murmurs circulated around the table.

Banner nodded in agreement, “It seems that the explosion in the lab somehow triggered a temporary state that evolves in a direction opposite to that of the thermodynamic arrow of time.” Scanning the room of blank stares and clearing his throat, Banner clarified, “Time went backwards for a bit and Tony was at the center of it. As far as we can tell, we believe his cells will return to their previous condition on their own as the quantum particles involved return to their previous state.”

Strange spoke up again, attempting to explain, “You’ll need to wait it out. He’ll get back to normal on his own, but it will take some time – weeks, maybe months. It’s hard to say since this is a unique case as far as the medical literature goes.”

Clint raised his hand, “I don’t get it.”

Fury nodded to Maria and said, “Go ahead – bring them in.”

Barnes carried Tony into the meeting room on his hip. Tony had another cookie and was trying to share pieces of it with Bucky. Tony’s hair was damp, and he’d clearly had a bath, but might need another one soon, judging by the amount of chocolate on his hands and cheeks. Tiny Tony took one look around the room at all the serious faces and buried his chocolatey face in Bucky’s neck. Barnes stroked the boy’s hair and murmured to him, glaring at the rest of them.

Maria stared at the ceiling of her bedroom. After that, everything had happened so fast. A preschool age child could not stay with the Avengers for safety reasons. Pepper Potts was in South Korea for a technology summit and she and Pepper agreed that rushing back to New York under mysterious circumstances would not help allay any fears about the sustainability of a Stark Industries without Tony Stark at the helm of their R&D department.

Colonel Rhodes’ voice didn’t seem to be soothing or familiar either. When he’d asked to talk to Tony, the boy hid and wasn’t any more verbal with Rhodes than he’d been with anyone else. Apparently, the age reversal process had repressed some of Tony’s memories, so he didn’t recognize Rhodes yet.

She was the only one other than Fury who lived off-site from the Compound and Fury had flat-out refused to care for a preschool-aged child (‘That is why I have employees, Ms. Hill.’). And that was why she found herself on a two-week leave (earning comp time, of course) with a nonverbal three-year-old genius and a super soldier assassin – former assassin, Maria reminded herself – living temporarily in her apartment.

After over an hour of tossing and turning, Maria heard some shuffling around and heard Bucky talking in a low voice, her fridge opening and closing, and then heard the tv come on. Waffling between stubbornly staying in bed, though she wasn’t asleep, and verifying the well-being of the people under her roof, she eventually got up. 2 AM… more time had passed than she’d thought, but maybe that meant she’d gotten some sleep. Maria also remembered to put on some lounge pants and a robe before wandering out into her living room – not typically necessary when one lived alone.

She found Tony snuggled up on Barnes’ lap, a blanket over the two of them, with a small sippy cup of milk, just partially full. The preschooler looked wide-awake and fascinated by the animated dinosaurs on tv. Barnes had his metal arm curled around the boy protectively, head leaning back on the back of the couch, eyes closed.

Unable to resist, she took a photo on her phone and sent it to Natasha, who texted back immediately:

Omg – I think I can hear your biological clock ticking from here
Jk. thats some cute stuff Hill

Chapter Text

Three weeks after the ‘de-aging’ incident, there was still no change in Tony Stark’s condition… age-wise anyway. The preschooler smiled more and seemed to accept Maria Hill as an additional caretaker, though he still preferred Bucky. Clint was teaching Tony American Sign Language – the kid absorbed it so quickly that communicating had become easier and less of a source for anxiety for all of them.

Barnes had apparently missed his calling as a child whisperer. He changed the bedding at night after accidents and soothed the boy when he had bad dreams. Tony, in turn, followed Barnes around like a baby duck. Maria had no idea how many episodes of Sid the Science Kid and Dinosaur Train Barnes had watched, but she’d heard him humming the theme songs when he made lunch one day. He gave her as much space as he could in the small apartment, and all-in-all was a very considerate roommate.

They’d all gone together to do additional shopping for Tony – sheet protectors, more clothes, night-time pull-ups, and toys. Legos had saved their sanity. Tiny Tony had seen the brick toys and fallen in love. He leaned precariously over the side of the cart, trying to grab a box off the shelf and made a frustrated noise.

Maria shot Barnes a surprised, pleased glance and Bucky smiled and said, “Hey, kiddo – remember, you gotta use your words or sign for what you want.”

Tony folded his arms across his chest and scowled, giving Bucky a run for his money on the murder glare. Maria had to look away so her smile wouldn’t give her away as a softie.

Barnes shrugged, “Sorry – those are the rules, Half Pint.”

Tony scowled a little harder, then changing tactics, opened his eyes wide and stuck out his lip.

“Flip the lip – kids who have tantrums don’t get any Legos at all,” Barnes said matter-of-factly. Maria had to turn around to hide her silent laughter.

As she tried to hide how funny she found the whole thing, she heard a soft, heartbreakingly apologetic, “Pwease? I wan’ da wobot.”

Maria turned around, amazed – so much so that she didn’t realize she put her hand on Barnes’ arm. He handed Tony the kit and then added a couple more, plus a kit from the latest Jurassic dinosaur movie. They did not buy all the dinosaurs toys in the store – it just felt like it.

Maria had gone back to work after the third week – strictly administrative, they’d promised her (ha!) – and come home that night to the dinosaurs all wearing what looked like dresses made out of foil. A very excited Tiny Tony babbled something incoherent and she looked at Barnes for help interpreting.

He grinned and said, “They’re robot dinosaurs – they’ve got special outfits so they can fly.”

Tony nodded vigorously and beamed, handing her some kind of pterosaur (which she’d learned in the last several weeks were not dinosaurs, but a different type of prehistoric reptile all together) with a silver foil vest.

Maria kept her questions about why a creature that could already fly needed a special robot suit to herself. Instead, she smiled, “Thank you, Tony! You figured out a great way to help your dinosaur friends!”

Tony’s little face glowed with pride and he hugged her legs and said, “I wuv you, Mawia,” before dashing off to wash his hands before dinner.

Maria stood where the little boy had left her, bags of Chinese takeout still in one hand, foil-covered pterosaur in the other. Her eyes stung and her throat felt tight. She let Barnes take the bag of food and heard him getting out plates. When Tony bounded out of the bathroom, Bucky handed him the silverware and they set the table.

The busyness hustled around Maria with the dishes clattering and the smell of chow mein noodles and moo shu chicken (Tony’s favorite) mingling with Bucky’s favorites: kung pao chicken and prawns with Chinese vegetables. Maria felt so dazed by Tony’s declaration that she didn’t hear Barnes come over. Bucky touched her arm and she jumped and turned, startled. Their lips brushing together was not a kiss. It was an accident.

Barnes’ eyes widened a bit and he stepped back, pointing at the table. “Just wanted to know if you’re gonna join us… You didn’t say anything when I asked before…” He gestured to the table with his thumb again, “I’m gonna… yeah…” and spun on his heel to take the few steps back to the table.

Maria moved and sat at the table, mentally reviewing all the footage she’d watched in the past of Barnes in action, reminded herself that he’d shot Natasha twice, killed Stark’s parents. Of course, he’d been mind-controlled at the time, but he still had all those skills. It didn’t matter at all that he was sitting at her table, head down, poking at his food awkwardly with the tips of his ears glowing red.

She opened her own containers and decided to clear the air, “Sorry about that Barnes, I was just zoning out, I guess. You startled me… it was an accident. Won’t happen again.”

It was a moment before Barnes spoke. “Yeah, wasn’t worried about a repeat, Hill,” he said with a small almost-smile that faded as soon as he stopped speaking.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Of course, it was an accident. That much was obvious. Maria Hill probably knew more about him than anyone else – including Steve, Natasha, and Tony. She looked at everything. Didn’t skim the parts the others felt squeamish about. He remembered their first conversation when the others had decided Tony would stay with her – Maria had gotten in his face and spoken in a voice low enough they hadn’t heard. “Give me a reason to put you away, Barnes – please. I think you’re unstable – a threat to everything the Avengers are supposed to stand for. You’re here because Tony’s attached to you. That’s all.” 

Maria had softened a little bit over the past few weeks and had looked surprised when Bucky had agreed with her when she’d talked about going back to work. He’d said, “Yeah, go save the world, Hill.” 

Truth was, this… or something like it had been his dream before the war and what had kept him going in the pre-Captain America part of his time overseas. A woman at home, rambunctious kids… a lot of guys had bigger dreams. He’d wanted a job and a family and a little place big enough for however many that was. Once in a while, when both were sleeping, he thought the universe must be mocking him with a kid that he loved fiercely, but wasn’t his (wasn’t really even a kid) and a woman who’d snuff him out like a candle if she thought she could get away with it.

Bucky poked at his chicken absently with his chopsticks. He’d make the best of the situation. It’d be over soon enough anyway, and he wanted to enjoy his time here while it lasted.

Across the table, Tony swung his feet and looked between the two grown-ups and apparently decided it was up to him to make dinner conversation. “I can eat dis big noodle,” the boy said, holding a very long chow mein noodle up with his fingers.

Bucky looked up and smiled, “Yeah, I bet you can, kiddo. Use your fork okay?”

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

After nearly two months, Tony had aged a bit, but as far as Bucky could tell, it was just enough to outgrow all the clothes they’d bought a month ago and that Tony’s lisp wasn’t quite so pronounced – that was about it. Maria was having a conversation in one of the Compound’s conference rooms with Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes about Tony’s future.

As far as Bucky could tell, the group upstairs (Maria, Steve, Potts, and Rhodes) didn’t want him to have anything to do with Tony, so he wasn’t going waste this final opportunity feeling sorry for himself. So, he’d brought Tony to meet some real-life robots. Tiny Tony was ecstatic.

“Who builded these wobots, Bucky?” Tony asked.

Bucky smiled and replied, “Smartest guy I know.”

Tony covered his mouth and giggled, “Was it me when I growed up?”

Bucky nodded, grinning. Tony had asked Bucky a few days ago if they were on a vacation because one of his houses had a big box for a TV and Maria’s apartment had a flat screen for a TV. Bucky had worried, but explained vaguely, “Well… the box TV was when you were a kid the first time. Then you grew up – ” and Tony had just tacked on that ‘then he became a kid again,’ like it was perfectly normal. Bucky wasn’t going to worry about explaining the finer points of the ‘thermodynamic arrow of time’ to a preschooler, no matter how smart the kid was.

Then DUM-E rolled over to investigate, Tony hugged his robot friend and then promptly ignored Bucky altogether. Tony scaled DUM-E like a cat climbing a tree and then hung like a sloth from the robot’s arm. Bucky laughed when the bot moved, ever so slowly and Tony held on tighter and squealed with delight.

“Last time I’m putting money in one of those tiny carousels at the mall,” Bucky murmured to himself and sat back to have a beer (there was literally only one in the small workshop fridge) while he watched Tony play.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Maria spent the better part of an hour arguing in favor of letting Barnes stay. “As much as I hate to say it, the guy’s really a positive role model for Tony. He’s easy-going, responsible…, doesn’t let Tony get away with breaking the rules, but doesn’t make him feel bad about it either.”

He also made excellent breakfasts and took Tony with him every week on Saturday mornings to the laundromat so she could sleep in. Maria didn’t feel these would be compelling arguments to Pepper Potts and Jim Rhodes, though. Nor would those reasons be compelling to Steve Rogers, who to her surprise, also argued against Bucky continuing as Tony’s bodyguard (his official role).

“I’m sorry Maria, I just don’t think it’ll be good for him in the long run,” Steve said, frowning. “Getting attached to a kid that’s going to grow up and remember everything that happened?” Steve shook his head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for either of them.”

“I don’t think that’s your call, Rogers,” Maria said firmly. “Barnes is solid enough,” hell yes, he was…. Not the time, Hill, not the time, “To make his own decisions about his mental health and his future. If he wants the job, it’s his as far as I’m concerned.” She folded her arms and looked at Steve, Pepper, and Jim.

Pepper asked, “FRIDAY, can you show us what Mr. Barnes and Tony are up to?”

FRIDAY hesitated, “I’m afraid there’s fire extinguisher foam on my cameras.”

Unperturbed, Pepper suggested, “That’s fine. Just play the audio.”

After a brief pause, FRIDAY said, “Workshop audio on.”

A child’s shriek pierced the quiet seriousness of the conference room and all four occupants rushed in the direction of the workshop below. Rogers took the stairs, jumping over the railings here and there to skip steps, while Pepper, Jim, and Maria took Tony’s express elevator. They all arrived about the same time, their running footsteps echoing down the hall.

Maria had her weapon drawn as they approached the workshop doors. Barnes peered out, wary, then relaxed on seeing them and said, “Where’s the fire?” then looked sheepish, “This about the fire extinguishers? FRIDAY said it happened a lot, that it wasn’t a big deal to clean up…” His gaze flicked to her drawn weapon.

“We heard screaming,” she surveyed the room and saw Tony hanging upside down from one of his robots’ arms, looking frustrated.

“Go! Again! Again! Spin aroun’!” Tony was shouting and wiggling precariously in an effort to get the robot to move and as the bot began to turn in a circle at a snail’s pace, and Tony shrieked with delight.

Maria lowered her weapon and holstered it. Pepper, Steve, and Jim stared at the boy and the robot (Maria wasn’t sure if it was U or DUM-E… she couldn’t keep track which was which).

Tony saw the grown-ups watching and shouted, “Look, Peppah! I have a wobot fren’! I builded him!”

Bucky glanced down, at Maria’s gun, “Right… I can guess how the meeting went. You guys gonna go up to Salem Center to try that school we talked about?”

Maria opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

Nodding, Bucky said, “Yeah, it’s fine. I get it. Even my best friend doesn’t trust me with him… why would his?” He looked down, then across the room at Tony. “Can I get him lunch? Clint texted me that the pizza’s here.”

“Yeah, that’s fine. That’s fine…”

Bucky walked across the floor, “C’mon Half Pint, time for lunch. We’ve gotta get up there or Clint’s gonna eat all the pizza.”

Tony stretched out his arms and let Bucky pick him up. He said, “Clint won’t eat my pizza!”

“Yeah, but he’ll eat mine – and Maria’s too,” Bucky replied, keeping his tone light.

Tony put his little hands on Bucky’s cheeks and peered into his face. “Would dat make you sad?” Tiny Tony asked, concerned.

Bucky smiled, “Super sad.”

Tony hugged Bucky tightly, “I wuv you, Bucky. Don’ be sad.”

“I love you too, buddy,” Bucky said, and Maria could hear the emotion in his voice.

Maria smiled as walked over to where Bucky was holding the boy, and asked Tony, “Is Clint eating my pizza?”

“Yes!” Tony dissolved into giggles and buried his face in the side of Bucky’s neck.

She tried to act offended, but ended up laughing. Maria knew she was the pushover parent in their strange little trio. Where would she be without Barnes? How would she have gotten through these months without him? In a low voice, she said, “Salem Center’s a go for the three of us if you’re still in.”

Just then DUM-E decided it needed a hug from Tony too and swung its arm around knocking Maria off balance into Bucky, who caught her with his other arm, but their lips brushed again, however briefly.

With the others still in the room, there was no time to really think about that. Accidental kisses were the stuff of Korean rom coms set in high schools… not something that happened to Maria Hill, Deputy Director of SHIELD and Nick Fury’s right hand.

“You all right?” Bucky asked, holding her elbow to steady her as she regained her balance on her high heels.

Maria nodded, “Yeah, thanks.”

“You sure about the move and…?” Bucky left the ‘and me?’ unspoken.

She squared her shoulders and pretended not to see the tears in Bucky’s eyes, “I don’t like anyone better for the job.”

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Salem Center was a very… small town and Bucky felt like he stuck out like a sore thumb here. Natasha had sent him a brief file on Maria – nothing too confidential. There’d just been a sticky note on the front that said ‘fair’s fair.’ Maria had spent five years in the Marine Corps and then been recruited by SHIELD? Not bad Hill, Bucky thought to himself. He’d known about her time in SHIELD – more or less – and that she’d been recruited by Stark Industries when Hydra had been exposed within the agency.

Was that really four years ago when he fought Steve on the Helicarrier? It felt like lifetimes ago…. Bucky’s trip down memory lane was interrupted by a call from Tony’s new school, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. “Hello?” Bucky answered cautiously. Hopefully Tony was doing all right with the other kids in kindergarten.

“Mr. Barnes? This is Ms. Friedlander, the nurse at the Xavier School?” Before Bucky could express his inner panic, she went on, “No need to worry – there’s no emergency… Tony just needs some new clothes.”

Bucky chuckled, relieved, “Did he fall down or something?”

“No, he grew a little – I think you and Ms. Hill have been expecting this? I think Monday, he’ll be starting in the second grade. Let’s try a size 7?”

Bucky agreed in the right places and managed not to sound like an idiot, but inside, he felt conflicted. He knew Tony wasn’t a regular kid and would grow up in fits and starts like this, but he’d just sent Tony off to school as a kindergartener for the first time on Monday and next week he’d be going back as a second grader? He closed his eyes for a moment, then went to the store.

The shirts and pants on the rack seemed comically large compared to the handful of new ones they’d bought last weekend. God, just last weekend… Bucky rubbed his forehead and tried not to cry in the kid’s clothing department. Weird how no staff members asked him if he needed any help now that he felt ready to have a breakdown.

Bucky tried to call Steve. Voicemail – out of the country on Avengers’ business. Natasha – voicemail. Clint… was not going to be helpful in this scenario. He hated to call Maria at work when she had so many demands on her time – some with true life and death circumstances.

Really, it was only the certainty that Maria would be upset if he didn’t call her to tell her Tony had grown that propelled his fingers on his phone. Bucky leaned on a display of carefully folded kid jeans and let the phone ring.

“Barnes?” Maria answered.

“Yeah,” Bucky’s voice cracked. “Sorry to bother you…”

“Are you all right, soldier?” she asked, concerned.

He knew that he was just feeling oversensitive right now, but after living with Maria for well on their way to three months, he thought of her as Maria. Not just some SHIELD agent, not as Deputy Director, not even just Hill… it just felt like another barb that she didn’t call him by his name. Bucky shoved those feelings aside – they were pointless anyway. “Havin’ kind of a rough day right now.”

“Do I need to call someone?”

God, she was asking if he thought she needed to send a SWAT team or something. He could feel his eyes sting. Jesus, Mary and Joseph – Steve was right… there was no way he could do this. Bucky pressed the heel of his right palm into his eye as if that might stop the emotions from showing. “I’m calling you.”

“All right, you’ve got my attention, Barnes – what do you need?” Maria asked again, all business and on alert. She was probably jabbing whatever silent alarm button they had on their desks and were tracing his call right now.

Bucky closed his eyes, “Just wanted to tell you Tony grew a little today. School nurse says they’re probably gonna put him in second grade for Monday.”

“Well, that’s good news, right?” The relief was audible in Maria’s voice. “Are you at the store? Going to pick up that blue jacket he wanted?”

“Dunno if that’s something he’d still want right now…. He might think that was for little kids – you know now that he’s seven or eight,” Bucky said, unable to keep the edge of despair out of his voice.

“Oh… that’s true…” Maria sounded less buoyant now.

“I don’t know what size shoes to get, Maria,” his voice cracked, and Bucky brushed at the tears on his cheeks and sniffed miserably.

Maria was silent for a moment before she suggested, “Try flip-flops? Then we can take him to the store over the weekend for more clothes. Oh – and pick up a pair of new pajamas too.”

“Shit, I would’ve forgotten those… thanks. God, I love – ” Love what, dumbass… running your mouth because you’re an emotional dumpster fire… “How you’ve got my back.” Good save, but you’re still an idiot, Barnes.

Maria’s voice sounded softer when she replied, “I love that too – I… I couldn’t be the default parent…. I’m constantly second-guessing myself. Do you think I spend too much time at work? Does Tony think I’m avoiding him? Do you?”

“What? Where the hell did that come from?” Bucky was glad he had the display rack of boy’s jeans holding him up. “You’re the Deputy fuckin’ Director of SHIELD – that’s a huge goddamn responsibility! Now you’ve got a commute and you’ve still been home in time for dinner every night. You’re the bedtime fuckin’ master: bath, stories, songs…. What are you talkin’ about?” One of the other shoppers glared at him and Bucky turned his back to her, but lowered his voice, “Course he doesn’t think you’re avoiding him – it’s clear that you love spending time with him. That’s all he cares about, Maria.”

“Okay… I just…” Maria sighed, “I just had one of those conversations with Sharon Carter – I don’t think she was trying to make me feel bad, but it was one of those, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ conversations.” She sighed again, “They just take so much out of me… make me feel so inadequate… I’d rather deal with another round of DoomBots. With those, at least I can tell whether or not I’m doing a good job.”

Bucky smiled to himself a little, “Yeah, havin’ the only criteria of ‘is it still alive – yes or no’ – definitely makes a job easier.” He paused a moment, “How ‘bout I pick up a bottle of wine and we can watch a movie?”

“Sure, that sounds great. I’ll be home before seven,” Maria agreed, her tone of voice brightening.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

She hadn’t had time to change before dinner, but taking off the high heels definitely was a step in the right direction. Maria hugged Tony and helped him set the table. They chatted about Tony aging a couple of years, but didn’t dwell on the fact since it was something they’d mentioned here and there so Tony wouldn’t be scared when it did happen.

Excited, Tony told them about all the things he knew how to do now and the new projects he wanted to work on with his robot Legos. Maria watched as Bucky asked questions and loved how Tony’s face lit up talking about his ideas… and that Bucky knew the right questions to ask.

When Bucky had mentioned the movie, she’d imagined the two of them together, but apparently, he’d meant the three of them as a family. Turned out that Tony still liked WALL-E and liked the new pajamas with more savage-looking dinosaurs. A warm feeling settled in her chest – this felt right. Maria caught Bucky’s eye and smiled at him over Tony’s head as they watched the movie.

A little later, Bucky draped his arm over the back of the couch so Tony could snuggle in. Was it wrong to shift a little in her spot so that when Maria leaned back, she could feel the cool metal of his fingers on the back of her neck? She noticed that he did a double-take and felt his fingers curl back reflexively for a moment before relaxing again.

Tony was too excited to sleep right away, so it took an extra story and a couple extra songs before he settled down. Maria had tucked him in and kissed the boy’s forehead when Tony asked, “Maria?”

“What’s up Jellybean?” Maria didn’t know how Tony got to be her ‘jellybean,’ but his wide brown eyes and tousled brown hair just seemed to call out for endearments. Maybe it was all the times Tony called Jim Rhodes ‘gumdrop’ that made her think of other small fruit-flavored candy.

“Now that I’m big, do I hafta go back?” Tony asked, his face unusually solemn.

“Go back?” Maria repeated, confused.

“To my mother and father. I don’t wanna go where I won’t see you anymore,” he said, his eyes filling with tears.

“No, sweetheart, you’ll stay here with me and Bucky, okay?” the thought only struck her now that Tony had never asked for his mother or father over the course of the last several months. “Remember, we told you that you were a grown-up who had an accident?”

“And got to be a kid again?” Tony asked quietly hopeful.

“Mm-hmm… well, you need to stay with us until you’re a grown-up again.” Maria felt like she’d dodged a bullet, having come up with a good answer for a tough question.

“When I’m grown-up again, will you still love me?” Tony’s eyes filled with tears looked like dark pools in the shadows of his bedroom.

“Of course I will, sweetie… that kind of thing doesn’t just go away,” the words came out before she’d really thought them through, but they felt true. Maria hugged Tony tightly, “You’ll always, always be my Jellybean.”

“Forever?” Tony asked, sniffling.

“Forever and a day,” Maria replied automatically, unable to stop her own tears.

“Okay,” Tony seemed satisfied and gave her another kiss on the cheek and then let go and snuggled under his covers. “G’night Maria.”

“Good night, Tony.”

She went into her own room and changed into the shirt she’d worn last night to bed and her favorite purple leggings (a gift from Clint, her SHIELD secret Santa, last year). Maria knew the shirt belonged to Bucky because she didn’t own many t-shirts with snarky slogans and definitely none this… cozy. She rationalized the casual swiping of Bucky’s shirts now and then by telling herself that hers weren’t soft or slouchy enough. Feeble excuses, that’s what they were….

As she padded out of her bedroom quietly, Maria ran her fingers through her hair. Hmm… needs a trim, she thought as she pulled it back into a loose ponytail. Reaching the main living area of their little house, she leaned against the doorframe into the kitchen and watched Bucky clean up. Watching the little movements of the muscles in his back and shoulders as he washed the dishes, Maria bit the corner of her lip. Damn... he really was attractive.

Just then, she could see the instant he noticed she was there – all his muscles tightened, back straightened, and shoulders tensed. “Maria?” Bucky asked, hands still under the suds in the sink.

“Yeah, just me,” Maria replied easily. She was sure he had a knife concealed there in the sink, at the ready, just in case. Life would probably always be like that for anyone wanting some sort of future with Barnes. “I didn’t mean to startle you… I was… ah… appreciating the view.” Way to go Hill… you sound like a stalker.

“How ‘bout you appreciate a little closer and dry?” Bucky asked gruffly, tossing her a towel over his shoulder, his posture and muscles sliding back to their relaxed positions.

Maria caught the dish towel and crossed the room in a few steps. Standing next to Bucky, she started drying the plates and glasses. This felt like a domestic version of the stories she’d heard from Steve about Bucky effortlessly charming the ladies of Brooklyn back in the day and she couldn’t help smiling to herself.

Bucky glanced at her, “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing… I was just thinking that this is not where I saw myself a few months ago. You aren’t just the guy in the file.” Maria sighed inwardly at how awkward she sounded – like she was having a drink with a group of coworkers, talking to someone she barely knew, not drying dishes next to the guy she’d been living with for just over three months.

He nodded once and a long pause followed – long enough that Maria didn’t think Barnes was going to say anything else, so when he started to speak, she turned her head and their lips brushed again.

Whatever Barnes had planned to say was forgotten. Instead, he asked her, “How many does it take until it’s not a coincidence?”

She knew her face didn’t flush the way, say, Tony’s did – where he went red from collar to hairline – but her face felt warm and she knew her cheeks were probably pink. “How many accidental kisses?”

Bucky nodded, “’Cause that’s five by my count.”

“Just three,” Maria insisted, realizing after the fact that having a number at the ready wasn’t quite the innocent-sounding thing she’d hoped for.

Shaking his head, Bucky started counting on his soapy fingers, “One: in the elevator at the Christmas party last year, Coulson’s crew all crowded into the elevator and you bumped into me, lips first.”

“That one doesn’t count – it was before all this,” Maria said primly, gesturing to the room with the towel. “There was the one at the apartment.”

Barnes held up a second finger for hers, and then a third, “Where DUM-E pushed you.”

“Okay,” Maria agreed, “Then just now – that’s just four – if you’re counting that one in the elevator. I still say that one doesn’t count.”

“Because it was before all this,” Bucky added, waving the soapy sponge with a dismissive flourish. “Number five was when Tony dropped your phone in the park – ”

“And we both nearly chipped a tooth because we both tried to pick it up at the same time…” Maria finished. “Okay… maybe that’s a little more often than usual.”

Bucky rinsed his hands and wiped them dry on her towel.

“Hey, I was using that!” she said, trying to sound annoyed.

“Were not. You were lookin’ out the window.” He turned around, back to the sink so he could see her better, holding her hand loosely. “Hey – is that the shirt I wore yesterday?”

It was extremely difficult to feign indifference in these circumstances. Maria looked down at the shirt as if just noticing, “Ah… maybe?”

“Pretty sure you don’t have any shirts that say, ‘Totally Not a Russian Spy.’” Bucky’s voice sounded light, but his eyes looked darker than they had a moment before.

Maria’s mouth felt dry until she realized that his eyes looked darker because his pupils were larger, and a tingle ran over her scalp and radiated down her limbs. She licked her lips, “Do you mind?”

Bucky realized he was still holding her hand and let go, shaking his head and clearing his throat, “No, ‘s all right with me.” He glanced back up at her and that smolder still burned in his eyes, “Been a long time since I’ve seen a woman wearing my clothes.”

The way his eyes slowly moved up her body made the space between her legs ache. Managing to find her voice, Maria asked, “You like it?” her voice a shade lower, more intimate than before.

He nodded, not taking his eyes off her, but shifting his gaze between her eyes and her lips. “Mm-hm. Like it a lot.”

Maria leaned closer to him and whispered, “What would happen if I accidentally kissed you again?”

In a soft, low rumble intended just for her, Bucky said, “Your lips are getting really close to mine… maybe you should find out.”

Maria felt his hand rest on her waist, ready to guide her in, but loose enough that she could pull away if she changed her mind, without it being too awkward. She stepped closer, standing in front of Bucky and kissed him, hesitating at first, until he groaned and his lips parted for her.

His lips felt warm with just the right amount of softness under hers. Maria cupped his cheek with one hand, the other curling around the back of his neck. As their tongues tasted the other carefully at first then more deeply, she felt his hands slide around her waist and over her lower back, gently pulling her closer to him until she was flush against him, which drew a much needier sound from her than either of them expected.

Metal arm around her waist, keeping her close, Bucky’s other hand reached up to tug the hair tie from Maria’s hair and the former assassin tangled his fingers in her long dark hair. She could feel the length of his cock hardening against the inside of her thigh as their kiss deepened. Breaths coming in little huffs of pent up desire.

From the other room, came the unmistakable sound of a child vomiting.

They pulled apart just enough to look at each other. Bucky sighed and kissed her again, “You do the bath and I’ll do the laundry?”

Chapter Text

The last of the kids had gone home hours ago and Tony had crashed out in his bedroom after a very successful 10th birthday party with a few friends from the Xavier School and the largest pizza Maria Hill had ever seen.

Bucky had told her everything was all set, she just had to chaperone and make sure no one got hurt. The pizza arrived, the cupcakes Bucky had made the day before were delicious, and the kids played Minecraft and built box forts in the backyard in preparation for the biggest Nerf gun fire-fight Maria had ever witnessed.

The six ten-year-olds made a larger dent in the twenty-four inch pizza than Maria had thought they would. Bucky had only agreed to go spend some time with Steve when she’d insisted that she could handle the party on her own. She led combat troops. She wrangled the Avengers. Maria Hill could handle a few kids.

Maria looked up from her glass of wine and very British mystery show when she heard the front door close. “Hey, I’m still awake. Tony’s out for the count, though. I saved a slice for you,” Maria said loudly enough to be heard, but quietly enough not to disturb the sleeping kid down the hall.

She turned her head to see Bucky, his cheeks slightly flushed and lips much redder than usual. He grabbed a plate and a couple slices of pizza and sat down next to her. Maria could smell alcohol, her forehead wrinkled in surprised confusion, “Are you drunk?”

“Nah, just kinda buzzed,” Bucky smiled lazily and put an arm around her shoulders.

“I thought…?”

Bucky grinned, and Maria happened to notice his tongue was red too. “Nah, Stevie got Erskine’s formula – he can’t get drunk. I got the knock-off. Takes some persistence, but I can still catch a buzz if I want to.”

“Gimme an idea – what kind of persistence are we talking about, here?” Maria asked, slightly amused, if anything. The most she’d ever seen Bucky drink before had been the very occasional beer or glass of wine.

“Four pitchers of Singapore slings,” Bucky said, sounding a little surprised, himself.

The cherry-flavored gin concoction certainly explained the red lips and tongue. Maria tried to sound stern, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. How do you feel?”

Bucky rested his head on her shoulder, “Little buzzed, but otherwise kinda like I drank four gallons of kool-aid.” He made a face, “Ten outta ten, do not recommend.”

Maria couldn’t help laughing, “Where did you even hear that?”

“Boy Wonder,” Bucky grinned, his smile lop-sided in the way that made her heart flutter. “Can I kiss you, Ms. Deputy Director?”

Her voice dropped, “Why so formal, Mr. Barnes?” Maria slid into his lap and felt his hands rest on her waist. “Or should I call you Sergeant?”

“’M only a Sergeant when I’m wearing the hat, Cupcake,” he said, nuzzling her neck.

There may have been some… shenanigans with the extra frosting that led to that innocent-sounding nickname. Maria felt her cheeks pink up. There was nothing even remotely innocent about that nickname, though – one of their inside jokes – and Bucky knew it. And there was no denying he still made an officer’s hat look good whether or not he was wearing anything else.

She kissed him, tasting first second-hand gin, then cherry flavor, and there underneath both of those was the taste of Bucky’s kiss. Maria’s hands slid up his chest and over his shoulders as she leaned in to kiss him more deeply.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

From the kitchen, Tony stood paralyzed in front of the refrigerator overhearing mumbled bits of conversation after Bucky came home. Tony had drunk way more Mountain Dew than Bucky ever let him have and he was wide awake. He’d gotten up to get more pizza for a snack to eat while he finished reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Now he was trapped in the kitchen – without his book – and if he moved around too much, Bucky would hear him.

Then he heard Maria laugh – kind of a weird giggle and Tony peeked to see what was going on. Maria was sitting on Bucky’s lap and they were kissing and murmuring to each other things Tony couldn’t hear. Tony ducked back into the kitchen. Ugh… gross! He failed to repress a shudder of revulsion.

Back against the fridge, Tony slid down to the floor to eat his pizza and try to scrub that image from his mind. Images of his mother – the first Maria – and Howard surfaced. Memories from his first life filtered through from time to time, which was weird, but whatever.

Howard never beat his mother – at least not that Tony knew of, but even still, being sent away to boarding school had been a relief. Being away from Howard’s drunken outbursts and cruel words had felt like a godsend, but also like he’d abandoned his mother to face Howard’s barbed words and backhanded compliments alone.

Tony could remember other times, though, like when he’d seen them getting ready to go to a special event like a gala, his parents had seemed like they loved each other. Howard had laughed and helped his mom put on her favorite diamond and ruby necklace. Mom fixed Howard’s tie and looped her arm in his as they glided out the door, laughing at some joke he’d made. Mom never said anything to anyone about the other times.

Tony picked off the pineapple from his pizza and flicked it into the trashcan. He scores!

From the living room, he heard Maria’s semi-hushed voice, “Bucky – stop! Tony’s sleeping!” and a giggle.

Bucky’s voice replied fondly, “All right, all right. Sorry – got carried away.” Tony heard a kiss sound like when Maria came into the kitchen when they were having breakfast. Still gross, but not super gross.

“You’re terrible, but I love you anyway,” Maria said, and Tony could actually hear the truth of it in her voice.

Bucky chuckled, “I’m great and you love me.” He sounded like he was kidding, then mock-offended, he added, “You just keep me around ‘cause I kill spiders and know how to fix the sink.”

A smile still in the tone of her voice, Maria replied, “Nope – it’s because you cook.”

Bucky laughed out loud, apparently having forgotten that Maria had just reminded him that Tony was supposedly sleeping. In a lower voice, he said, “I’d do anything for you, sweetheart.”

Quietly, Maria said, “I’d never ask you to, honey.” Tony couldn’t quite figure out what exactly they meant, but they both seemed to know what they were talking about.

“I love you too, Masha,” Bucky said after a few minutes of silence. “You know when I first started to like you?”

“No – when?” Maria sounded intrigued.

“When you told me you’d send me into the field with a spork if I was teasin’ you.” Tony could hear the affection in Bucky’s voice as he spoke.

Maria laughed again and Bucky reminded her about Tony being asleep. Tony tuned out their conversation again. Sometimes one of Maria’s friends came to babysit (he did not need a babysitter) and Bucky and Maria went out on dates or something. He noticed them catch each other’s eye sometimes, but mostly they just washed dishes together or other boring stuff. Sometimes Bucky rubbed Maria’s feet while they watched TV. Sometimes he stretched out on the couch, using her leg as a pillow.

The only time he’d ever heard Bucky raise his voice was once when Maria spent a couple of days in the city at the office without calling him. Bucky had to put five dollars into the swear jar when that was over. When he and Maria had noticed Tony listening in, they had stopped arguing to explain what was going on and all three of them had talked the rest of it out as a family – with the new rule that if any of them was going to be out for longer than expected, they needed to call or ask FRIDAY to call.

Tony slid the crust of his pizza slice into the trash as quietly as possible and drew his knees up to his chest, circling his arms around them, deep in thought. What did it say about him that he liked being with his new family better than Mom and Howard? The family that Tony had imagined for himself was a lot more like living with Bucky and Maria than it had in the mansion the first time he’d grown up. Sighing, Tony decided that it didn’t matter too much because of course things would be different the second time somebody grew up. (Duh …)

Interpreting the sound of the TV turning on and otherwise relative silence as an ‘all-clear’ signal, Tony stood up carefully ready to try to sneak back to his room. After waiting for the pins and needles feeling to leave his right foot, Tony very quietly tiptoed out of the kitchen. A commercial much louder than the show they were watching came on and Tony jumped and glanced over to see Bucky and Maria totally making out. Ugh… old people kissing - gross!

He must’ve gasped, because the next thing Tony knew, Bucky looked up and said, “Hey!” Tony jumped again.

Maria looked surprised and embarrassed, “You didn’t see anything! Back to bed!” pointing down the hall toward Tony’s bedroom.

Tony beelined back to his room and jumped into bed, finally free from his kitchen prison. A few minutes later, Maria came in to tuck him in again and to remove the Harry Potter book and turn off his light. “Fool me once, Tony…” she said when he protested about the book. “Go to sleep, sweetie.”

“G’night, Maria.”

As sleep slowly started to work its dreamy magic, Tony dreamt of Minecraft castles, Princess Peach, Link and saving the world from the Ender Dragon with his friends – and then celebrating with a pizza party.

Chapter Text

Bucky trudged back from the store. No sign of Tony or his new best friend, Harley Keener, en route, but the only cashier working at the small grocery store remembered seeing the boys an hour ago. An hour ago. He practiced his deep breathing and tried hard not to imagine the worst. Maria had sent the boys over an hour ago to buy more marshmallows for the candied sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner and neither boy had returned to the kitchen yet. She had promised to text him if they arrived home before he did.

Tony was roughly sixteen this week, so Bucky’s logical mind told him that everything was probably fine – the boys had just gotten distracted somewhere. On the other hand, how often had the un-fucking-likely occurred in his 102 and a half years on this planet? So, he forced air into and out of his lungs, trying to stave off an anxiety attack as he walked up to the house.

Maybe they’d taken a detour through one of the parks or Tony had decided to show Harley the woods at the back of their lot. Bucky decided to take a look around back before going inside and enlisting the rest of their guests (Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, Steve, and Natasha) to help with the search. Peter Parker and his aunt May hadn’t arrived yet.

Bucky walked the edge of their yard and a short way into the woods, listening as hard as he could for sounds of the missing teenagers. Very faintly, from behind him, he heard shouting, “AH! MY EYE! YOU SHOT ME IN THE EYE! I am so getting you for that!”

In one motion, Bucky turned and ran toward their detached garage. Bursting through the door, he was pelted by a barrage of… marshmallows? Gesturing around the garage, the plates in his metal arm shifting when the muscles in his other arm twitched, Bucky yelled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?! Do you know Maria and I have been worried about you two?! Why did you think it was a good idea to come out here without telling anybody?”

The boys stood stock still for a moment. The only time Bucky had ever raised his voice when Tony was around was when he’d burnt his hand on a hot pan and once (maybe twice) while driving.

Bucky struggled to control the wave of conflicting emotions surging through him at that particular moment, “C’mon – explain it to me. Why did you think this was a good idea?”

“Because it’s fun…” Tony mumbled under his breath.

Harley folded his arms in front of him, marshmallow gun tucked under his arm, “Haven’t you ever heard of the whole ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing? One of the cornerstones of our democracy?”

“I caught you in the act – and… Hey! Don’t think you two are getting out of this!” Bucky couldn’t quite believe the way this conversation was trending. “You two were supposed to bring these marshmallows to Maria an hour ago! No call, no text! I thought something happened to you!”

“Pft…” Tony scowled and folded his arms over his chest, mirroring Harley. “Whatever… I’m tired of sitting still and being quiet ‘while the grownups talk.’ Ugh… so boring.”

Harley quirked an eyebrow and glanced at Tony, “‘Boring, boring, boring, Sidney!’” and the two teenage boys giggled at their inside joke.

Bucky rubbed his forehead, “So which one of you is gonna explain to Maria why her marshmallows are all over the garage?”

“How’re you gonna prove it was us?” Harley retorted, challenging Bucky with a glare.

Incredulous, Bucky said, “How am I? What? Are you kidding me? You’re both holding the marshmallow guns! You shot me when I came in!”

“Can you prove it was us? Maybe… we just found everything like this, and the real perpetrator is getting away, old man,” Harley raised his eyebrows, not backing down.

While Bucky stared in disbelief, Tony looked down at his shoes and elbowed Harley, “C’mon, Keener, we’re just gonna get in more trouble if you make him mad.” He sounded so defeated.

Bucky stopped to think and to text Maria that he’d found the boys and studied their marshmallow weaponry a moment while the two teenagers shuffled sullenly. He broke the silence, “Did you two hook up canisters of compressed air to those so you don’t have to blow in them?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah – and this tube here acts as an extended magazine.” Tony pointed out the tube in question, then pointed to a wooden pin and part of a binder clip, “And this is the trigger. You can keep it pulled back for sort of a fully automatic style or short bursts. We’d need more time to get more precise ammunition drops.”

Harley interrupted, “As an aside, admitting we built the marshmallow guns doesn’t mean we’re admitting guilt to the ambush you mentioned.”

“All right, Perry Mason, whatever you say,” Buck muttered, beckoning his hand to Tony, so he could examine the confectionary firearm in more detail. “Bet you could improve this design if you added a pressure regulator and something more like an actual clip. How accurate are these? Done any distance testing?”

“Not yet...” Tony said warily.

Bucky grinned. “So… you two keep proclaiming your innocence… I propose a trial by combat.” Smirking, he continued, “If I win, you two admit your guilt, clean up the marshmallows, and apologize for makin’ nuisances of yourselves.”

“And if we win?” Harley looked at Bucky skeptically.

“If you two win, you don’t have to admit anything, I’ll clean up the marshmallows, but you still have to apologize to Maria for putting her sweet potatoes behind schedule.”

The two boys looked between each other for a moment, “We can take you old man!”

“You can try,” Bucky said, sounding extremely confident in his abilities and taking Tony’s weapon, ducked behind a stack of old tires where a bunch of previously used marshmallows had built up.

Both sides spent a minute or two reloading their respective armaments, Tony complaining the entire time that he’d gotten stuck with an inferior marshmallow gun. Since he didn’t have time to rebuild one on their modified plans, Tony was piecing together a much more basic model. “Ugh.. I’m gonna have to put my mouth on this. Do you know where this piece of pipe has been?!”

“Ew – don’t be gross, dude,” Harley said, wrinkling his nose.

“I wasn’t! You’re the gross one!” Tony snapped back.

“Not too late to confess, kids,” Bucky said, smiling to himself. Just a few more minutes and they’d be glad to go in for a snack and to apologize to Maria.

Of course, that was when the door opened, and Bucky whirled and fired. Undoubtedly, this was exactly what had happened to the boys.

Maria stared at him, remaining remarkably calm for someone who had just been sprayed with dirty marshmallows from the garage floor. She plucked one that had gotten sticky somehow out of her hair, her face a stony mask of professional composure.

Bucky swallowed. Maria’s expression was the same as when one of the Hydra guys they’d captured last year spat on her. Shit. “Hey, sweetheart –”

Maria’s voice cut through the tension in the air like a razor, “Don’t ‘hey sweetheart’ me, Bucky Barnes.” Bucky’s spine straightened automatically at the commanding tone in her voice. “What happened here, soldier?”

“The kids – they ambushed me,” Bucky stammered.

Harley started to protest, and Tony elbowed his friend in the hope of keeping him quiet, but failed. “We didn’t ambush anybody! I have the right to remain silent because anything I say can be used against me.” Harley folded his arms across his chest, apparently oblivious to the danger he was courting.

Maria’s icy blue eyes focused on Tony’s friend. “Sit down, Mr. Keener. I’ll get to you in a minute.” Her eyes settled on Tony. “Tony? I’ve been cooking since yesterday to get all this food ready for our family and friends.” She closed her eyes, breathed, and reopened them, settling the full intensity of her gaze on the teenager. “I want to hear that you, Mr. Keener, and the man who will be sleeping on the couch tonight because he joined in these shenanigans instead of putting a stop to them – did not use all of my marshmallows for this game.”

Tony hesitated, “Um… I can check?” He set down his half-built standard issue marshmallow gun and raised his hands in the air as he walked across the garage to the grocery bags on the work bench. He mumbled to himself and he rummaged through them, “Circus peanuts, Red Vines, chocolate-covered coffee beans… YES!” Tony held a bag of large marshmallows over his head victoriously. “We did not use any of your marshmallows for our game. And we did ambush Bucky. Kind of.”

Harley rolled his eyes, “He deserved it – he didn’t knock.”

Tony handed over the bag of marshmallows, “Sorry Maria. And sorry we made you both worry…” He looked up at Maria and Bucky with large brown eyes.

Maria made a face, “Knock that off. It’s not going to help your case. You and Harley need to get cleaned up before we eat. Mr. Barnes is going to clean up the marshmallows.”

Knowing a lenient sentence when they heard one, both teenagers bolted for the door and Bucky heard the back door slam just seconds later. He glanced in Maria’s direction, “Are you really mad?”

Maria’s shoulders sagged, “I…” She sighed, “No, not really. Not anymore. I’m just really, really tired Bucky. My feet hurt and my hair smells like onions and turkey.”

Bucky set Tony’s marshmallow gun on one of the bins of Tony’s outgrown toys and clothes that Maria had said she was going to donate to charity. He walked over and hugged her, wrapping Maria up in his arms and just held her, this amazing, wonderful, deadly woman that he loved. “I love you.”

“I know.” Maria’s reply was muffled by Bucky’s sweatshirt.

“How about I finish cooking and you take a shower and lay down for a while – or put your feet up and talk with Pepper and Natasha and have a glass of wine?” Bucky suggested and kissed her on the forehead.

“If you’re trying to get out of sleeping on the couch…” Maria leveled those clear blue eyes at him seriously before breaking into a smile, “You might be on the right track.”

Chapter Text

Saturday morning, Maria suggested that Bucky should take Tony sledding as a father/son day – just the two of them. A few hours later, they stood atop a very large sledding hill with two plastic disc sleds. Their earlier conversation came back to haunt Bucky.

“I’m too old to go sledding,” Tony complained.

“C’mon, it’ll be fun!” Bucky had said on the way. Now he stared down the hill and at the plastic disc in his hand. This was a horrible idea.

“I may die if it gets any colder,” Tony whined. “Wouldn’t you rather just get some cocoa or something?”

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Chapter Text

As Christmas edged closer, Tony aged more quickly. As he did so, Tony couldn’t help but notice that Bucky became quieter, more withdrawn. Years seventeen, eighteen, nineteen all passed the first week of December. Tony marveled – he had Masters degrees (plural!) and a physics textbook under his belt! Since he’d aged out of regular classes, he’d been teaching science at the Xavier School, filling in for some of the other instructors when they were ‘out of town.’

Just a few weeks ago, Tony had been asking Bucky about some of the seriously confusing and… disturbing memories that were surfacing about the first time he went to college. He was still trying to put together how he felt about all the sex with random people, binge drinking, and the fact that often Tony 1.0 had just swallowed whatever pills people gave him. What the hell had he been thinking?! Though usually that particular thought was rapidly followed by what he’d been thinking at the time, which was usually even worse than the memories themselves.

Bucky drove him every day for therapy. Bucky went into the room with Tony and the therapist when Tony asked him to, otherwise he waited in the lobby reading car magazines or new recipes in Good Housekeeping. Bucky was there in a way for Tony that not even Edwin Jarvis had been – probably only because Jarvis couldn’t because of Howard… but Tony noticed.

The second week of December, Tony remembered something that happened when he was twenty – a car trip where he and Rhodey had driven all the way from Boston to Disney World in Orlando on a whim. Bucky had listened to the story at the table, commenting and laughing in the right places, nothing out of the ordinary… but after that, he just… kind of shut down. Over the next few days, Bucky hardly spoke to anyone – not even Maria.

The only thing he could come up with was that Bucky was upset about Tony getting older so quickly. Obviously, the guy had wanted a kid and now that Tony wasn’t a kid anymore, he wanted out and was probably just sticking around because of his thing with Maria and out of obligation. It didn’t quite mesh up with Tony’s experiences from these past few weeks, though, but he couldn’t think of any other reason.

At least not until he heard Bucky and Maria arguing. That day Tony had been working in his basement workshop. Apparently, Bucky and Maria had forgotten that the day had been a half-day before winter break.

“You don’t need to tell him, yet Bucky,” Maria urged. “He’s aging so quickly he’ll remember soon enough as it is.” Her voice wavered with emotion, “Can we just pretend we’re normal for once? Just give me Christmas, Bucky – please?”

Tony stood at the bottom of the basement steps ready to come back upstairs, but he couldn’t help listening to their conversation.

He could hear Bucky’s footsteps walk across the floor and come back. Voice sounding broken and ragged, Bucky said, “Christ, Maria – I’m not going to lie to him. I can’t.”

Tony heard a thump.

Maria’s voice shuddered as she spoke, obviously crying openly. “Get up, please honey. God, I’m so sorry… I was wrong. Please? You don’t need to beg. I won’t ask you to – forgive me?”

Tony could hear Bucky mumble something, but didn’t hear the floor creak, so… Bucky was on his knees in front of Maria? She’s crying? What was Bucky lying to him about? Tony’s heart raced. I knew it. Then Tony heard a sound he hadn’t before – the wrenching sobs of Bucky weeping.

The floor creaked softly, and Tony could hear Maria crying while trying to comfort Bucky. Tony’s eyes were wide and stung with unshed tears of his own – both for himself and whatever secret was so terrible that it hurt Bucky that deeply, and out of the remnants of a child’s unwavering faith that their parents know what the hell they’re doing. Something existed in the world that Bucky and Maria wept like that over? Something to do with him. The self-confidence he’d been working on building up lately, wavered.

The weeping in the kitchen was subsiding into wet sniffling and shuddering breaths trying to draw in air, struggling for calm.

Eventually, Bucky said, “I’ll stay here. You’ll take him to New York with you.”

Maria made a small, choked half-sob, “Bucky….”

Bucky’s voice sounded calmer, but no less miserable, “You know I’m right, sweetheart.”

The tears streamed silently down Tony’s cheeks as he listened to Maria break down again, this time Bucky murmuring comforting words to her. “I love you so much… You – ” another sob punctuated Maria’s words. “You are such a good man.”

Tony overheard the sounds from a few tearful kisses, then Maria repeated, “You’re a good man, Bucky. Right now, just believe it because I do – please?”

Tony didn’t hear anything for a while after that. No kissing sounds, no murmuring, just occasional sniffling. Eventually, though, the two got up and left the kitchen. Then Tony heard the bang of the front door and their voices drifting away as they walked toward the path at the back of the property.

>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Tony stared at the package on his closet shelf in his apartment at the Compound for another moment, then closed the closet door again. Not having the tower still stung and he’d been avoiding the Avengers as much as possible since he’d found out that all of them – all of them – had known Barnes murdered his parents and had still let the man get close to him.

His molecules had really kicked into overdrive since last fall, Tony thought bitterly as he stirred the ice cubes in his glass and looked out into the grey late February snow that covered the parking lot. He’d done a few public appearances once he’d gotten ‘old enough’ to show his face, but his memories were changing so fast, that he didn’t trust himself yet to really give the slew of keynote speaker addresses or even attend board meetings, though he’d started keeping up with some of his Stark Industries work over the last month.

The package in his closet was his Christmas gift from Barnes. Tony had put it on top shelf, hoping that if the red paper with gold glitter stripes was out of line of sight, he’d forget about it. So far, that hadn’t happened. He hadn’t spoken to Barnes since December 16th – the anniversary of his parents’ deaths. What was there to say?

FRIDAY’s soft Irish lilt, broke the silence in his apartment, “Boss, Maria Hill’s here to see you. Should I let her in?”

Christ – even FRIDAY had known… “Yeah, fine. Whatever.” Real mature, Stark. He waved his hand, “Go ahead.”

Tony moved from his bedroom into the main living area of his apartment and tried to think of something non-confrontational to say. Opening the door at the buzz of the doorbell, he found Maria wearing a puffy green parka. “Hill – a pleasure as always,” he said, making an effort to play nice.

Maria winced at Tony’s professionally neutral tone of voice, but recovered quickly enough, “Hi Tony. I… I just wanted to give you this in person.” She offered him a white, square envelope.

“I don’t like being handed things. Set it down over there,” Tony said it off-handedly, without eye contact, and gestured to the console table with the dish for his keys and small stack of mail. He forced himself to look at her, “How’ve you been?”

A sad smile hovered and faded on Maria’s face, “About as well as can be expected. We’re cleaning up the house in Salem Center –”

Tony interrupted, “Gonna sell? It’s not a bad idea. Market’s good up there right now – ”

Gently, Maria said, “No… not selling… we’re… not ready for that.”

Tony looked up at the emotion in her voice, “I don’t see what there is to be so hung up about. You got through a major inconvenience and disruption in your life. Get rid of it and move on.” He knew, knew, he was being cruel, but the words just fell from his lips unbidden.

Still standing in the doorway, Maria leaned in just enough to slip the envelope onto the table. “That accident was a major disruption for us all.”

Tony felt like he’d been cut to the quick. Apparently, there were still a few layers of betrayal he hadn’t experienced yet.

Before he could say anything, though, Maria continued, her voice sad, but still strong and sure, “But you were never an inconvenience, Tony. Never.” She swallowed, her eyes filling with tears and voice shaking with emotion, “We loved you Tony. Both of us. We were lucky to be your… caregivers… for a while.”

Tony folded his arms over his chest in a defensive gesture, the muscles of his shoulders felt tight. “Do you still feel that way? The way you’re clinging to that damn house makes me wonder.”

Maria slipped her hands in her pockets and spoke slowly, “We knew from the beginning that you were never really ours, Tony. But we love you anyway.” She sighed, “I… didn’t come to fight or to argue.” Maria squared her shoulders and stepped back into a more professional demeanor. “Thanks for seeing me. I’ll show myself out.”

It was later in the evening when he reviewed the footage again that he noticed her verb tense mistake. Tony hated that part of his heart leapt up happily at the realization. How he could be so happy and angry at the same time made his head ache. In that moment, he wanted to feel something – anything – other than emotions.

He opened the door to his patio and stood barefoot in the snow, the cold biting his feet and icy wind cutting through his t-shirt and jeans. The cold jarred his memory and he remembered complaining when Bucky took him sledding, “I may die if it gets any colder. Wouldn’t you rather just get some cocoa or something?” God, that’d just been a few months ago, but it seemed both recent and old, a trick of his memory since the accident.

Standing there, teeth chattering, Tony remembered Bucky laughing at the whining and admitting he hadn’t considered that since he’d spent more than half of his adult life frozen, maybe going out to play in the snow wasn’t the best idea for him either. That was when Tony had noticed that Bucky was scared, holding both sleds with his human hand so he wouldn’t crush them by accident.

“Well, we’ve gotta get down the hill again for cocoa anyway… Maybe just once? To kick cryo’s ass?” Tony had suggested, not knowing what he was doing or really understanding what he was asking Bucky to do. He’d just been trying to help.

Bucky had said, “I’ll go if you do.” And they’d gone at the count of three. The surprised, delighted look on Bucky’s face had been totally worth it.

Tony’s eyes felt cold inside his head when he blinked and turned, walking back inside. Thirty minutes later, floating in the hot tub, he realized that while he didn’t look forward to being in the water, he’d been able to just step in. No anxiety attack.

He hadn’t even thought about the water – the hot tub was just the most efficient way to warm up after being outside in the cold so long. Tony closed his eyes and tried to remember the associations with water. Sure, there was the waterboarding – thanks, Ten Rings. Behind that, though, he could hear Bucky’s voice last summer – when Tony was nine or ten – teaching him how to swim. “C’mon kiddo, you can do it. I know it’s scary and it hurts when the water goes up your nose. You know you can stand up if you need to. Just try.”

Tony floated on his back in the hot tub after the jets turned off. He felt… distinctly uncomfortable about having his head in the water, but not panicked.

The memories felt distant – they mingled with his memories of being a child the first time around. Of Edwin Jarvis teaching him to ride a bicycle around the same time. Of reading Harry Potter with Maria as the projector lamp sent star-shaped spots slowly moving across the ceiling in their house in Salem Center.

“Open it up, FRI – I wanna see the stars tonight,” Tony said, voice louder than he realized since his ears were under the water and sounding more confident than he felt.

FRIDAY’s reply was muffled by the water, but the shell covering the glass ceiling began to recede, letting the starlight and moonlight permeate the pool area as the interior lights dimmed.

“Do you know the constellations, Maria?” Tony had asked one night when they were ‘camping’ in a tent in their yard.

“Just a few, Jellybean. How about you?” Maria had been hugging him in her lap as they looked up at the sky together.

“I just know the Big Dipper,” Tony had sighed, dissatisfied.

He’d felt Maria’s smile in her voice when she’d replied, “Show me.”

Much later, long after he was supposed to have been sleeping, he’d asked, “Maria, a kid at school said Thor is an alien – is that true?”

She’d held his hand and been quiet long enough that he had thought she wouldn’t answer. “Yes… it’s true. When you’re older, sweetie, you’ll understand space like no one else on this planet.”

Tony hadn’t understood then, as a child, why Maria had sounded so sad when she’d said that. Now, floating on his back, thinking about his trip through the worm hole and his vision of destruction, watching his friends die out in the vastness of space, Tony felt angry and very worried about what would really happen, concerned that the vision might be prophetic. But not afraid.

Above, he found Castor and Pollux, the ‘heads’ of the Gemini constellation. Over there, Tony saw Orion the Hunter, the constellation’s shoulders framed by the stars, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix.

As his eyes moved over the imagined lines between the stars, Tony mourned his childhood’s lost wonder of discovery and exploration. On the other hand, he didn’t feel so alone anymore in his worries about the future – whether the Chitauri might return one day, or that the Earth might face even larger threats from the depths of space. If he’d worked through the panic-inducing terror during his therapy sessions, or just having more positive associations with the things that used to give him anxiety attacks lessened the grip of that fear, Tony couldn’t say.

Sitting up again, Tony sighed, “Shit.” They were good parents… that’s why nobody interfered.

After trudging up to his apartment again, trying to shake the water out of his ears, Tony took a long shower and put on a pair of soft sleep pants and a sweatshirt resembling one of his Black Sabbath t-shirts, but instead of the band’s logo, a large gold ‘X’ stood out in the center, with ‘Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters’ written in a circle of text around it.

Taking a deep breath, Tony pulled down the package from the top shelf of his closet. He closed his eyes and took another deep breath, then opened his eyes and slit the tape on one side with his thumbnail before tearing the rest of the gift wrap off.

Inside the package was the fourteenth edition of the textbook he’d written when he was nineteen, Physics: A Naked Introduction to An Atomy Subject. The university bookstore sticker still on the spine just said ‘Stark, Naked’ and Tony grinned to himself. The pun was terrible, but he hoped it made intro-level physics a little less horrible for college students everywhere.

He opened the book, just to flip through, and found a folded note stuck inside the front cover with Bucky’s familiar, tight, blocky printing:

Tony,

Don’t know if it means much, but I’m really proud of you. I don’t expect anything from you. You don’t owe me anything. The whole goal of raising a kid is to get them to the point where they don’t need you anymore. But if you do need me for anything, I’ll be there, no questions asked.
You’re an amazing kid and an incredible man and I’m so, so proud of you – and I know you were all those things before we ever met.
Anyway, I hope this isn’t a stupid gift. I wish I could’ve been there when it came out, bet you caught a lot of attention for it. ;b
Love you, kiddo.
JBB

Tony snapped the book closed and sniffled, mumbling, “Well, that’s enough feelings for one day,” and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.

Chapter Text

Nearly six months later

Tony came back from a business trip to Tokyo a few days early and expected to see… somebody… at the Compound. Really… anybody… but the Avengers residential side of the Compound was so empty there might as well have been tumbleweeds rolling down the halls.

“FRI? Where is everybody?” Tony asked after tossing his carry-on bag into his apartment and investigating all the common areas.

“I believe they’re all at the wedding, Boss,” FRIDAY replied – a little crisply, Tony thought.

Tony wracked his brain and came up with zilch. He asked, “Wedding?”

FRIDAY sounded almost human when she sighed, “Yes, Boss – Maria Hill and Bucky Barnes are getting married today.”

Indignant, Tony frowned, “And I wasn’t invited?”

“You are on the guest list, though you did not return your RSVP card. Ms. Hill hand-delivered it in February shortly after they set their wedding date,” FRIDAY patiently explained. “It may very well still be on the console table by the front door.”

Mechanically, Tony walked over and sifted through the other mail. He remembered when Maria had come to visit. He’d felt guilty ever since then about blowing her off, but hadn’t quite known how to apologize either. He found the envelope fairly easily as the paper was higher quality than most of the rest. “Well, shit. Can we send something?”

“They do not have a registry and asked that in lieu of gifts, guests make a donation to their favorite charity,” FRIDAY said, with a note of pride in her voice.

“What? There’s gotta be something they want…” Tony grumbled.

Sounding snippy, like she might be on the verge of losing her patience, FRIDAY said, “They wanted the presence of their friends and family today.”

Tony sighed and opened the invitation because he wanted to avoid further antagonizing FRIDAY. “Barton’s farm? Okay… wouldn’t have been my first choice…” He flicked his eyes up to one of FRIDAY’s camera’s, “Well, it wouldn’t – and I know, I know… I’m not the one getting married here. But, it’s not too far. Reception on site… okay…. Okay. Right. Right.”

Tony puffed out a long breath and looked around him. According to the invitation, the wedding would start in about twenty minutes. No way he’d get all the way to the farm by then. But with the time to take photos, he could definitely make it to the reception. Well, probably. He could always use the Iron Man suit if necessary…

“FRIDAY? Let’s donate $50,000 to the World Wildlife Federation, $50,000 to the Halo Trust, and $100,000 to the VFW,” Tony said as he got ready to wash off the stale air of his long flight in from Tokyo. “Gonna hop in the shower… but I’ve got an idea that I’m hoping you can help me with after I’m dressed.”

“I live to serve, Boss,” FRIDAY said, sarcasm hanging from every word.

 

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>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Tony drove in since he needed to bring some equipment with him that wouldn’t transport well with the suit. FRIDAY had worked everything out with Laura Barton so he wouldn’t disrupt the other guests or the happy couple.

Thus, he was trying to be unobtrusive, standing behind a large tree and an outdoor screen that he’d brought along. He wasn’t hiding. Of course, he hadn’t spoken to Bucky since last December and hadn’t talked to Maria since she dropped off their wedding invitation last February. It had been months and the humid heat of this mid-August evening didn’t help his nerves at all.

Instead, Tony tried to focus on the decorating – it was truly spectacular in its simplicity. In a small clearing in the woods away from the noise of the street, tables of different sizes were covered with white tablecloths and decorated with bouquets of lacy wildflowers he’d seen driving up. Overhead, in lieu of electrical lighting, candle holders and small glass jars with white candles inside had been wired up to provide light.

Fireflies flickered between the trees on Tony’s side of the screen and he could hear crickets starting to chirp in the meadows along the Bartons’ driveway. On the other side of the screen, Tony heard the guests chatting and laughing, then the clink of silverware on china. To him, it seemed like something from a modern fairy tale.

Tony wondered if he was going to just trample all over Bucky and Maria’s magical day by showing up unexpected. He tried to justify it to himself – it wasn’t totally unannounced. Laura knew, though, and she had thought it was a good idea and a nice surprise. Shit – she was going through her intro. No more time to run away.

Laura’s bright, confident voice rang out over the general conversational hum. “Hey everybody – I know Steve and Natasha are eager to give their speeches, but first, I’ve got a surprise. And yes – that’s what the screen’s for Clint. Thank you for lugging it up here for me, honey. Love you!”

Tony’s traitorous feet propelled him from behind the screen and maybe it was his imagination, but he sensed a lot of disapproval from the general audience… that consisted of almost everyone he knew. If he didn’t throw up, it’d be a small miracle. Everyone stared at him and the clink of silverware had quieted. Tony patted his jacket pocket for the notecards where he’d written down what he wanted to say. Shit he’d left it on the seat of the car. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

Tony cleared his throat, “I… prepared a very nice speech, very touching. Couple of funny lines. But… I… left that in the car. So… you’ll have to bear with me as I try to wing it here.” He looked at Bucky, who looked white as a sheet, all the color having drained from his face. Maria, sitting next to Bucky, whispered into her husband’s ear and held his hand, touching a finger to the corner of her eye to dab at tears without smudging her makeup.

He licked his lips and swallowed the panic threatening to overwhelm him, “May I first just say I’m sorry? I’ve treated you both shamefully and I… didn’t know how to apologize for it. Couldn’t think of what I could do to make it up to you… what a good peace offering might be. And then even more time went by and all that’s my fault… but I don’t want this to be Tony-confession time. … I did this… For you two…” Christ, he was almost stammering. “To say thank you – and that I wish you both all the happiness you deserve.”

As he stepped aside, Tony started the video he’d created, footage pulled from the Compound’s hallways, his lab, phone videos and pictures that Bucky and Maria had taken, footage of the epic marshmallow gun fight, and Thanksgiving, among others. He’d cobbled it together with FRIDAY’s help. He’d even gotten footage from the laundromat by Maria’s apartment.

He was too nervous to gauge Bucky and Maria’s reactions. A tiny Tony appeared on screen, matching socks while Bucky folded clothes at the laundromat. To Tony’s surprise, FRIDAY had patched in sound to match the song they were singing. Ahhh… the songs of the sixties… to this day, Tony thought of songs like ‘Sugar, Sugar’ and ‘Do Wah Diddy’ as laundromat songs.

Risking a glance toward the bride and groom, Tony saw Bucky had tears in his eyes, hand over his mouth, trying to keep the emotions in. Maria rubbed Bucky’s back, murmuring to him. Next was footage of Maria and Bucky’s accidental kiss in the workshop when DUM-E bumped them. Maria’s giggle was audible as was the kiss she planted on Bucky’s cheek while he chuckled and sniffed.

At that, more people started chatting and people started clinking their silverware against their glasses for the married couple to kiss properly. Tony smiled and clapped along with everyone else.

Their family Halloween costume also got applause and some laughter. Bucky and Maria had dressed up as Gomez and Morticia Addams while Tony, Peter, and Harley had all dressed up as Wednesday Addams-es – forming a creepy set of triplets – for the SHIELD family Halloween party last year. More glass tapping greeted the bride and groom in response to the still photos of Bucky dipping Maria low, with Gomez’s trademark rose between his teeth.

While everyone had their eyes on the screen, Tony tried to slip away. He didn’t want anyone to mistake this gesture as anything but a testament to the newlywed’s love story and the time that the three of them were a family. He’d purposely included mostly images of Bucky and Maria as a couple without him. Tony and FRIDAY had also put together photo books for them with more photos of all three of them as a family. One book for Bucky and Maria… and one for him.

He’d just made it into the shadows when he felt a hand slip through the crook of his elbow. “Going somewhere, Stark?” Natasha’s throaty voice sounded… happy? “I saved you a seat next to mine.”

Natasha walked with him around the clearing back to where she sat with Steve and Sharon. She stopped just before they reentered line of sight of the partygoers. “Thank you for this, Tony. They’ve missed you. All of us missed you.” She tugged the lapels of his jacket and kissed him softly once on the lips before leading him back to the table.

The rest of the night was a blur of music, happy tears, hugs, and a lot of laundromat music with smatterings of big band tunes and more recent music mixed in. Between songs, almost everyone gave at least one speech with pauses for newlywed kisses and cake. Hours later, when the candles began to flicker out, Tony’s heart felt full and happy.

On his way out, Tony tried to shake Bucky’s hand, but the other man pulled him in for a hug. “Thank you for coming, Tony,” Bucky’s voice sounded thick with emotion. “I know…,” he broke off, too overcome with feeling to continue.

Filling the silence, Tony blinked back his own tears, “Nobody gets to pick their parents, right? Ever.” He played with the cuff of his suit, “But if I could, I’d choose you and Maria again.” Voice almost a whisper, he added, “I love you guys… I was such a brat – I’m so sorry Bucky.”

Maria, overhearing their conversation, hugged them both, then kissed Tony on the temple like she had when he was little. “Forever and a day, Jellybean,” then smoothed her hand over Tony’s cheek, “No matter what – I love you.” She glanced at Bucky, “Bucky loves you too, he’s just not as graceful under pressure as I am.”

At that, Bucky coughed a wet half-laugh and hugged both Maria and Tony together in a family hug. “Ain’t that the damn truth.” Then Bucky tousled Tony’s hair and said gently, “Love you buddy.”

If there were any dry eyes at the Barton farm that night, nobody could recall any. After a few moments, though, Natasha pressed glasses of water into the bride and groom’s hands and held a water bottle for Tony. “This maid of honor isn’t letting anyone walk away from this dehydrated.”

Natasha put her hand on Tony’s elbow again and raised an eyebrow, “Walk me back to your car?”

Bucky and Maria exchanged glances, then back at Tony and Natasha. Bucky shrugged and Maria laughed, “Have fun you two – be safe.”

Tony blushed scarlet from collar to his hairline.