Tony was going to find a way to protect Steve’s head better.
The helmet was almost indestructible, or so Tony had thought. But it clearly wasn’t good enough. Not when he and Bucky were camped out in the infirmary of Avengers’ Tower, both of them staring at Steve’s unconscious form on the bed between them.
There was ugly bruising covering half his face and several lines of careful butterfly stitches arching across his forehead. He had two black eyes. It was not comforting to know that without the serum, Steve would have probably died when his head hit that wall. Tony had been standing right there, and he’d never forget that sight. Or that sound.
Tony cleared his throat. “You okay?”
“No,” Bucky said, eyes hollow. “You?”
Tony shook his head.
They fell silent. Tony was used to doing most of the talking with Bucky, but he just didn’t have it in him today. The infirmary was dark and quiet, Tony having sent the medical staff home when it became clear that there wasn’t anything they could do for Steve. It was just the two of them, sitting in silence.
They sat there for close to an hour before Steve started stirring. He gave a faint groan, and Tony was out of his chair immediately, leaning over him. Bucky hovered on the other side of Steve’s bed.
“Steve,” Tony said, putting his hand on the side of Steve’s face. “Hey, you with us?”
Steve squinted up at them. “Tony? Why’re there two of you? Oh God, the light.” He squeezed his eyes shut, turning his face into Tony’s hand. “Too bright. Please.”
“FRIDAY, lights at ten percent,” Tony said, and the lights dimmed immediately. “That better, Steve?”
Steve nodded, swallowing. “Thanks.” He glanced over and seemed to notice Bucky for the first time. He smiled weakly. “Hey, Buck. You okay?”
Bucky gave a brief nod.
Tony squeezed Steve’s hand. “You seeing double, Steve?”
“Not anymore,” Steve said. “Just for a second there. I – I kind of don’t feel so hot. But I don’t – I don’t remember what happened.”
“Doombots in Midtown,” Tony said succinctly. “Everyone else is fine. You got thrown into a wall, and you have a severe concussion. The kind of severe where if you weren’t you, you probably wouldn’t have survived it.”
“Oh,” Steve said quietly.
“Have you had a head injury since the serum, Steve?” Tony asked. “Bucky said he didn’t remember you ever having one during the war, and you haven’t had a significant one since waking up.”
“No. Had a couple before, but not since.” He winced. “It’s awful. My head is pounding, and I’m really nauseous.” He was slurring a little, Tony noticed, and his eyes were unfocused. “But s’not gonna last, right? Serum’ll take care of it.”
Tony glanced at Bucky, hoping for some help, but Bucky gave zilch in return. Not even a flicker of expression. Awesome. “It will eventually,” Tony said, looking back down at Steve, “but head injuries are tricky. People can be laid up for months with a concussion. Even if we say that the serum increases your healing ability by a factor of ten, it’s hard to say how long this’ll take.”
“Oh,” Steve said again. He went quiet, eyes sliding shut, and Tony worried for a few seconds that he’d lost consciousness again. But then he opened his eyes and said, “Is there any reason for me to stay in the infirmary?”
Tony shook his head. “Not now that you’re awake. We can move you up to the penthouse.”
It would be good for all of them, Tony thought, to be out of the infirmary and in the bedroom the three of them shared. He was worried about how quiet Bucky was; not that Bucky was ever gregarious, but the last thing they needed with Steve down for the count was Bucky crawling back into the hole in his head labeled Winter Soldier. Granted, they’d managed to undo the more homicidal conditioning, but when Bucky was under stress, he suddenly started lurking in corners and high places. Running silent, Steve called it. Aptly named, because he also stopped talking. A familiar, non-medical environment would help.
Tony let Bucky do most of the work of getting Steve to his feet. He went ahead, dimming lights and communicating with FRIDAY to make sure the elevator was already waiting when Bucky and Steve got there. Steve was leaning heavily on him, and he looked pretty green.
The elevator ride definitely didn’t help with Steve’s nausea, but Steve had more mind over matter than anyone else Tony knew. Tony was pretty sure that anyone else would have been sick, but Steve gritted his teeth and powered through on sheer determination. It was painful to watch, and it was a relief to all of them to finally to get Steve back into bed.
Mission accomplished, Tony went to go get recovery shakes for all of them from the fridge. He grabbed Steve’s usual, then hesitated, remembering how ill Steve had looked. He ended up pulling out the industrial-strength blender from its hiding place beneath the sink. He tossed in a couple of bananas, half a basket of strawberries, and a healthy handful of chopped fresh ginger, along with some spinach for iron and a couple cups of coconut milk yogurt.
While that was blending, he checked in with Natasha over text and was assured that she and Clint were taking care of all the official paperwork for this mission so he and Bucky could take care of Steve.
Keep us updated, Natasha told him.
Will do, Tony replied. He might be up for visitors tomorrow – hard to know just yet how this is going to go.
The blender ground to a halt. Tony tasted the strawberry-banana-ginger smoothie and nodded. Just like he remembered.
Recovery shakes in hand, Tony headed back into the bedroom. It was perfectly quiet inside, and almost perfectly dark. But there was enough light for Tony to make out Steve curled in the center of the bed, alone. It took Tony a few seconds to locate Bucky, but he finally found him crouched in a corner of the room, eyes flicking between the doors and windows.
Tony didn’t sigh aloud, but it was close. He would have to do something about Bucky, but at the moment he was more concerned about Steve. “Hey babe,” Tony said, setting the recovery shakes on the nightstand. He settled himself on the bed. “You need to eat and drink something, replace some of what you lost in the battle.”
Steve groaned. “I don’t think I can keep anything down.”
“I made you a smoothie with lots of ginger,” Tony said. “It should help with the nausea. Sit up and try it? Please?”
Steve didn’t look convinced, but he let Tony help him sit up against the headboard, pillows stacked behind his back. He sipped cautiously at the smoothie through a straw. “That’s really good,” Steve said after a minute, sounding surprised.
“It’s my hangover smoothie,” Tony admitted, “or it used to be, back when I was still drinking. I swore by it. Have as much as you want, there’s lots more of everything that went into it.”
“Thanks,” Steve said, and sipped again. He glanced over at Bucky. “I think Buck’s having a bad moment.”
“I know,” Tony said, very quietly. He wanted to add, But he’s not the one who almost died today, so he’s gonna have to deal, but that wouldn’t have helped. Steve would always feel that Bucky was his responsibility, and that was doubly true when Bucky was suffering. Steve wasn’t in any shape to help anyone at the moment, but that didn’t matter. “I’ll take care of it. How’s your head?”
“It hurts,” Steve admitted. “A lot.”
“We could try painkillers,” Tony said, without much hope. “The doc wrote you a script for migraine medication.”
“It won’t help,” Steve said. “I just want the two of you in bed with me. That’s all the medicine I need.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Sap.”
“Guilty as charged,” Steve said with a shrug. “I stand by it.”
“Yeah, okay,” Tony sighed, looking over at Bucky again. “Drink your smoothie, let me see what I can do.”
Tony grabbed Bucky’s smoothie and slid off the bed. He approached Bucky with a healthy amount of caution. Bucky watched him, face utterly impassive.
“Hey, He-Who-Lurks-Creepily-in-Corners,” Tony said. “You want a smoothie? You need to replace all the stuff you lost earlier.”
Bucky said nothing.
Tony shook the smoothie at him. “Barnes. Drink the damn smoothie.”
Bucky’s eyes slid over toward Tony’s, but they didn’t quite meet them. “You’re standing in my sightlines, Stark.”
Tony stood his ground. “You don’t need to watch the doors and windows. We have FRIDAY and the best security system your own resident genius could devise. Drink your smoothie and come spoon your injured partner.”
Bucky set his jaw stubbornly and stayed silent.
“Bucky,” Steve said quietly, “Tony’s right. We’re safe here. Come to bed.”
Bucky looked at him. For a few seconds, he seemed genuinely agonized. Then his face settled back into its usual resting glower.
“Need to patrol the perimeter,” he said, and shoved past Tony for the door.
“Wait, Terminator,” Tony said, stopping him. He pushed the recovery shake at him. “Drink this. Seriously.”
Bucky didn’t even look at Tony as he swiped it out of his hand.
Tony sighed. He turned to look at Steve, who just looked sadly back at him. He did seem a little better – some of the bruising on his face was starting to fade, though Tony suspected that in better lighting, it’d be a startling array of colors. Tony stripped down and pulled pajama pants out of the dresser. “Sorry,” he said to Steve, as he crawled into bed.
“It’s okay. It’s just...one of those nights. But I really do want you to spoon me,” Steve added with a small smile.
“You got it.” Tony crawled into bed and helped Steve roll over onto his side. He cuddled up behind him, sliding his arm across Steve’s chest. “How’re you doing? Any better?”
“Mmm. That shake helped. Not so nauseous now. Just, my head is pounding.”
Tony stroked the back of Steve’s neck gently. “Sleep, babe. I got you.”
“I know you do,” Steve mumbled.
Tony stayed with him for a while, but eventually he got hungry for something other than a recovery shake. When he was pretty sure Steve was far enough under he wouldn’t wake up, Tony slipped a pillow into his place in the bed and rolled out and to his feet. He headed out to poke around in the fridge and see if by some miracle there was still Chinese food leftover from the night before.
There was, which was shocking. With two supersoldiers around, leftovers didn’t last very long. He hopped up on the kitchen island and shoveled sesame chicken and lo mein into his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. Bucky was nowhere to be seen, but Tony was sure he was around here somewhere.
“You want the crispy beef?” Tony said aloud, to an empty apartment. “Going, going, gone.”
No answer. Tony decided to leave it out on the counter, like food for a feral cat. If Bucky was deep into his own head, Tony wouldn’t be able to do to draw him out before he was ready.
“FRIDAY, tell me if Bucky leaves the penthouse,” Tony said, and went to sprawl on the chaise lounge in the corner of their darkened bedroom, working on his StarkPad until he was ready to try and sleep.
The next morning, most of the bruising on Steve’s face was gone, as was the crispy beef Tony had left on the counter. Steve was still squinty-eyed and wincing in bright light. He sucked down another huge strawberry-banana-ginger smoothie for breakfast and curled back up in bed, listening to an NPR podcast through headphones. Tony left FRIDAY watching over him and went downstairs to get a start on the much better helmet he was going to make Steve so that they never had to go through this again.
And he was going to make one for Bucky, too, while he was at it. Bucky resisted Tony’s attempts to update his battle gear, and Tony mostly didn’t push his luck, but this, he decided, was non-negotiable.
He turned on the heavy metal and worked for several hours, until he realized his stomach was growling. Normally he would have ignored it or had one of the bots make him a shake, but today wasn’t exactly normal. Just a few more minutes, he thought, and then he’d stop to check on Steve and eat something for lunch.
“Sir,” FRIDAY said. “Sergeant Barnes is in the elevator on his way down to see you.”
“Great.” Tony was honestly unsure if he was being sarcastic or not. He wiped his hands on an oil rag and poured himself another cup of coffee from the espresso machine in the corner of the office.
Tony eyed Bucky critically as he came in. He was out of his all-black battle gear, which was a good sign. He was wearing jeans and a blue button down that Natasha had made him buy for the Avengers’ Vanity Fair interview last month, if Tony wasn’t mistaken. His hair looked like he’d washed it recently, kind of fluffy and soft with a little curl to it.
Whatever had happened the night before had passed. Tony let his shoulders lower the last couple of inches.
“Hi,” Bucky said, standing in front of him, hands behind his back.
“Hey,” Tony said. “How’s Steve?”
“Sleeping. The bruising’s a lot better.”
Tony nodded. “And the headaches?”
“Still not great. But no nausea, he says. I made him lunch already – some soup that was in the freezer.”
Tony nodded again. “Good.”
Bucky looked at the mess spread across the table and the hologram floating in mid-air. “New helmet for Steve?”
Bucky sucked in a sharp breath. “I’m sorry about last night. About leaving you to take care of Steve. I apologized to Steve, too,” he added, “but you know him, he doesn’t – he doesn’t hold me responsible for anything. Not like you do.”
Tony frowned, not quite sure what to make of that. It was true that he sometimes felt like Steve was too soft on Bucky. But he didn’t like the idea that Bucky was coming to Tony for the punishment he knew Steve wouldn’t dole out. Tony knew what it was like to be at the mercy of one’s brain chemistry. He was a recovering addict; he also suffered from PTSD and periodic bouts of depression that he’d really only started dealing with in the last five years. He wasn’t going to yell at Bucky for not being fully recovered from seventy years of brainwashing.
“What do you want from me, Bucky?” Tony finally asked. “I’m not going to berate you for something you can’t help.”
Bucky lifted his chin defiantly. “Maybe I can help it.”
Tony raised his eyebrows. “Could you? Because if so, yeah, it was a dick move, leaving me to take care of Steve, leaving Steve when you knew he wanted you there. So. Could you help it?”
Bucky’s chin stayed lifted for a few seconds, until he sagged suddenly with a grimace and a shrug. “I don’t know. I took care of Steve a lot when we were kids. He was always getting sick, and his ma worked all the time. But watching him lying on that bed in the infirmary, not moving – that was different. I didn’t like it.”
“I didn’t like it, either.” It’d reminded Tony that Steve could die. Not easily. But it was possible.
“But you dealt with it. You didn’t...run away.”
“You didn’t run that far,” Tony pointed out. “You stayed in the penthouse. If we’d really needed you, you’d have been there.”
“I was useless.”
“You weren’t useless.” Tony sighed. “Look, Buckaroo, I wasn’t pissed at you last night. Much. Maybe a little, because I was worried about Steve, and I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth to worry about you, too. But I am kind of pissed right now, because you are making this one hundred percent about you and your feelings and your inadequacies. And the reason I can recognize this,” he added, only just realizing it himself, “is that I’ve done this. In just about every relationship I had right up till this one. It is straight out of How to Sabotage Your Perfectly Good Relationship in Ten Easy Steps, copyright Anthony Edward Stark, first edition 1992, most recent edition 2014.”
Bucky stared at him. “You’re talking gibberish.”
Tony decided that short sentences and words of one to two syllables were probably the way to go here. “You freaked out because Steve was hurt. You left because you couldn’t deal with it. Now you feel guilty. You want me to either punish you or absolve you. Got it right so far?”
Bucky nodded slowly.
“Well, I’m not going to do either. You said you apologized to Steve, and now you’ve apologized to me. Apology accepted.”
Bucky shifted from one foot to the other and back again. “So what do I do?”
Tony shrugged. “The only thing any of us can do. Be fucking better.”
“That’s not advice,” Bucky said, frowning.
“It’s all I got. I never claimed to be an expert. In fact, I’m pretty sure I told you both I was terrible at this. I might’ve had my legal team draw up a disclaimer.” Tony pointed a wrench at him. “And you signed it, so no complaints now, Barnes.”
Bucky cracked a smile, just barely. Tony turned back to his workbench and started putting things away so the bots wouldn’t make a giant mess out of everything trying to do it themselves.
“You’re not terrible at this,” Bucky said. “You’re good at it.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve had a lot of trial and error. Mostly error.”
Bucky didn’t say anything. Tony finished putting his tools in their respective drawers and turned to find Bucky watching him with his unnerving, unblinking stare, arms crossed over his chest. Natasha had known what she was doing when she picked that blue shirt out for him, Tony thought idly.
“Come upstairs,” Bucky said at last. “There’s some soup left. And sandwiches if you want one. Literal ones,” he added, “but also I thought we’d put Steve in the middle and cuddle him aggressively for the rest of the afternoon.”
“I like that plan,” Tony said, and followed Bucky out of the workshop.
Tony was sitting at the kitchen island, eating a turkey sandwich and slurping tomato soup out of a mug when Steve shuffled out of the bedroom. “Hey,” Tony said, lifting his head, “he walks, he talks, he lives.”
“He does,” Steve agreed. He was blinking a little in the bright light from the windows, but he didn’t look like he was in pain, just like he’d been lying in a dark room for the past twelve hours. He hitched himself onto one of the stools at the kitchen island. Bucky put his arm around Steve’s shoulders, and Steve leaned into him.
“How’s the head?” Tony asked.
“Kind of mushy,” Steve said. “But better. Sort of like how I remember a hangover feeling.” He looked from Tony to Bucky and back again. “Everything okay?”
“Peachy keen,” Tony said. “You up for visitors? I’m pretty sure the team’s going to want to see you at some point, just to make sure you’re all in one piece.”
“See if they want to come for dinner,” Steve suggested, and reached for Tony’s hand.
Tony let himself be reeled in. He pressed a kiss to Steve’s temple, right where the worst of the bruising had been only a few hours earlier. “Can do,” Tony said. “Bucky and I have a plan for this afternoon, which involves cuddling you.”
“Aggressively cuddling you,” Bucky corrected.
“Aggressively cuddling you,” Tony amended.
“I like that plan,” Steve said. “Can we do that out here? I’m sick of the bedroom.”
“Sure,” Tony said. He put the dishes in the dishwasher like a civilized human being while Bucky and Steve headed into the living room. He texted Nat to let her know about dinner and got popcorn going in the high tech popcorn machine (Oster, because Stark Industries didn’t make a popcorn machine, but Tony had modified it enough that he wouldn’t be driven slowly crazy by its most egregious flaws).
The sofa in the living room was a monstrosity designed to support supersoldiers, gods, and whatever the fuck Clint got up to on a regular basis. There was a double chaise section, big enough even for Thor to sprawl on when he was on-planet. Bucky had stretched out on it and pulled Steve down so he was lying against his chest, cradled between his legs. They’d had sex in a similar position more than once. Tony quashed a flicker of disappointment that that wasn’t on the menu today. Steve looked extremely comfortable, and that was the most important thing. The only important thing.
Except that he was still squinting, like his eyes had never quite adjusted to the light. The windows in the penthouse living room faced west, and even Tony had to admit that it was pretty bright this time of day. “FRIDAY, polarize the windows, please,” he said. The room immediately dimmed; there was still light coming in, but it was less harsh.
Steve smiled up at him. “Thanks.”
Tony shrugged. He sat down on the other half of the chaise and put an arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “FRIDAY, Netflix, but dim the screen. Old or new?” he asked Steve.
“Old,” Steve said, rubbing his cheek against Bucky’s chest like a cat.
“Screwball?” Tony asked, because he knew Steve way too fucking well. Bucky always wanted something with explosions when he was feeling bad – said they were soothing, which Tony didn’t examine too closely – and Steve wanted romantic comedies, either old or new.
“Mmm. The Lady Eve.”
“You heard him, FRIDAY.”
FRIDAY queued up the movie. Tony went and got the popcorn, dumping it in a single large bowl with butter and salt. He balanced the bowl on Steve’s abs where he and Bucky could both reach it.
Steve’s eyes opened drowsily. “My best fellas. This is good.” He yawned. “Just gonna stay here the rest of the afternoon.”
Tony smiled. He sounded so Brooklyn and so 1940s. Tony tried not to be charmed by it and failed utterly. He reached over and gave Steve’s hair a very gentle ruffle. “We’ll be here. Right, Buck?”
He didn’t make a point of it, or at least he tried not to. But Bucky raised his head and met Tony’s eyes, holding them for several seconds longer than was comfortable. “Right,” he said.
Tony took some popcorn. “Oh, by the way,” he said through a full mouth. “I’m definitely building you a better helmet. And you will wear it. Even if it’s ugly as fuck.” Though it wouldn’t be, because Tony believed in form and function, especially when it came to Steve. It’d be a crying shame to mess up those aesthetics.
Steve blinked. “Tony, that’s not necessary. The helmet did its job.”
Tony leveled his gaze at him. Steve glanced at Bucky for help, but Bucky just glowered back.
“Thank you,” Steve finally said. “That’s really nice of you.”
“Damn right it is,” Tony said with great satisfaction. “Oh, and same goes for you, Buck.”
“Wait, what?” Bucky said, while Steve snickered.
“I’m making you a helmet and you’re gonna wear it. No arguments. I know you’ve got this whole tall, dark, and deadly thing going on, but I can work that theme into a helmet. We’re not doing this again.”
Bucky scowled. Steve squeezed his hand. “Just say ‘yes,’ Bucky.”
“This isn’t over,” Bucky told Tony.
“It definitely is,” Tony said. “You just haven’t realized it yet. Now watch the movie.” He stole another handful of popcorn and settled back in his seat.
It took Bucky a few minutes to stop glaring at Tony, but it was pretty hard to stay angry, Tony supposed, when Steve Rogers was asleep on your chest.
“I want to help design it,” Bucky said abruptly, about halfway through the movie. “But I guess,” he hesitated, “a helmet wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Definitely not your worst.”
“That’s a pretty low bar,” Tony said. “But yeah, of course you can help design it. I get Steve’s input on his upgrades all the time.”
Bucky nodded. Out the corner of his eye, Tony saw him look down at Steve and trace, with his flesh hand, the line of stitches across Steve’s forehead. Steve didn’t stir.
Tony kept his eyes on the movie and absolutely did not react.
“Okay,” Bucky finally said.
Tony smiled to himself and ate more popcorn. Mission accomplished.