Chapter 1: It wasn't a Problem
In any other situation, on any other day, in any other fight, he couldn’t have gotten away with it. Luckily, the shot of magic from Loki had been a final petty act of frustration after being captured. It wasn’t part of the fight that had blown both of them into an office building. It wasn’t even more than a four and the Avenger’s sliding scale of danger. But Tony had knocked him on his ass and started taunting him.
The bastard had rolled his eyes and muttered “Oh do shut up, would you?”
There was a brief flash, and when Tony opened his mouth to snark back… nothing.
It was definitely magic. He could feel his vocal cords vibrate. He could feel the air pass by them. The physics Tony learned in grade school assured him that sound should happen.
But. Well. Magic.
And since the team was going to be more smug than normal if they found out, Tony flipped up the mask to glare.
Loki smirked, despite the whirring gauntlets raised towards him, and answered around panted breaths, “What’s the phrase you humans use? Cat got your tongue? Don’t worry Stark, it shouldn’t last more than two weeks, maybe three.”
Tony very nearly broke his promise to Thor not to brutally murder his brother before the blond god sauntered into the room and set mjolnir on Loki’s hands as a temporary restraint.
“My thanks, Tony Stark, I am heartened to see that my brother caused you no harm.”
No harm. Right. Except for pulling a Sea Witch, stealing his voice, and leaving him at the mercy of his team, their mocking, the ridicule, and three weeks of jokes about Tony and magic that he didn’t want to hear.
Tony sneered. Loki smirked.
Then he snapped the visor shut, nodded to the rest of the team as they jogged closer, and flew home.
It wasn’t hard at first.
Everyone knew Tony Stark hated magic. He was pretty sure there were men herding yaks on the Russian steppes, who, if they heard his name would say, ‘oh yeah, that guy, he hates magic.’ Except they’d say it in russian. So it wasn’t hard to play for time using a bad mood as a shield.
There was a lot that could be said with an eyebrow and a long drink of coffee.
Then there was the fact that most of the team sent him texts when they needed his attention since they knew Jarvis would display them over Tony’s current project until he read them and responded.
For the first two days, he was convinced they were going to have an epiphany, and the taunting would begin. He was braced for it, but it never happened.
Then came three days of realizing they weren’t as smart as he thought, and the subsequent concern because intelligence seemed important for superheroes.
Then came two more days of fear after he remembered they were actually very smart.
Then started the creeping recognition that something had changed.
It was around day eleven of his enforced silence that he put his finger on what he was seeing. Or, well, not-seeing. And not-hearing.
Damn near half of his interactions with the team ended with strained smiles from the not-Tony members of those conversations. They always looked a bit annoyed, which was usually his cue to return to the lab. The team wasn’t doing that anymore. They were smiling, clear through to the end of the – well, it wasn’t a conversation since Tony was 271 hours in mutism – but to the end of the interaction at least. They smiled. The entire time.
His team was one of the prickliest groups of people he had ever met. Not a day went by that at least one of them wasn’t hip deep in trauma and memories. There was always someone who was two steps from putting a chair through a window. They were the Avengers, it came with the territory.
When he talked to them before, they’d get progressively more terse and standoffish until Tony took the hint. Now? They never did that.
He pushed aside the assessment, his stress induced, over wrought emotions and a mild, simmering panic attack. That night, he started collecting data. Jarvis brought up feeds of the common room over the last months, and Tony knew it was behavioral observation, and so was definitely a soft science, but it was all he had to go on. Bruce didn’t get a stressed look as long as Tony talked about science. Anything else got him green around the edges in about half an hour.
Clint always looked a bit annoyed, but usually walked away before Tony could see it get bad enough to count as a data point. Of course, then he realized he had cameras everywhere, and found Clint’s frustration, visible the minute he was out of Tony’s sight.
Steve kept up the facade of politeness decently well. But Steve was who Tony had thought of first. He was who had jumped to the front of Tony’s mind, with stress-wrinkles around his eyes and a grimace doing it’s best to look happy.
Natasha was a Black Widow and a super spy, she wasn’t going to have any clues in the moment. Tony skipped watching their interactions, and found what she did once she was alone. Similar enough to Clint to be a problem.
Even Thor. Garrulous, gregarious, speaks only in capslock even when whispering, Thor, looked increasingly drawn while speaking to Tony.
He’d listened to his own voice rambling on for almost thirteen hours. It was too fast, too jarring. His line of thought jumped too fast for them to follow. His subjects were either boring and superficial, or they were too technical, or they were flat insulting when he watched them from the outside. He was too loud, too pushy, too sarcastic, too glib, too pedantic.
They tolerated him talking as long as they could, but all of them eventually started to look like they’d rather be handed off to a supervillian to have their fingernails ripped off.
Somewhere around dawn Tony had a working hypothesis and the criteria to observe his interactions going forwards.
By day sixteen, he confirmed the hypothesis.
That night, Tony’s voice came back.
Thereafter, he chose not to use it.
His voice returned on a broken sob while Tony sat on the floor behind his work bench. His hands clapped over his mouth, trying to shove the sound deep enough it couldn’t escape again.
He would be fine. Everyone would be fine.
They’d be so much happier if he just stopped. They had enough problems. He didn’t need to add to that. They needed him around, but they’d be better off if he stopped talking.
He could do that.
Besides, now that he’d seen how much they hated it, now that he’d actually listened to himself speak? He couldn’t stand his own voice. Even the muffled whimpers of suppressed tears grated on him.
He could do this.
He was Tony Stark.
He could do anything.
Eye tracking software, which was the foundation of text to speech programs for most of the world, was laughably pathetic. It was barely functional. “Was” being the key word there. For about three days after Tony first tried it, it was still pathetic. Then there was a patent quietly filed, and a release sent to all the major organizations that they could use it freely, forever, and to contact him if they had any suggestions for improvements.
He routed the whole thing through a charity subsidiary so it wouldn’t tie back to him, and refocused on developing an interface for inside the Iron Man helmet. The eye tracking software was great, but he couldn’t type out individual words all the time. He needed to go much faster.
That was going to be a problem. He needed to be able to respond to the team. He needed to be able to analyze threats with Jarvis.
The first part was solved when Tony realized that having Jarvis replay something he’d previously said didn’t make him feel like clawing his skin off his face. So that was that. The inside of the helmet had a set of standard replies he might need, sorted by who he was talking to, accessed through the newly improved eye tracking tech.
The second part. Well, it took most of a week, and there was an argument to be made that he’d just found a way to directly interface his AI with his brain which was the start of at least five sci-fi dystopias he’d read, but, he didn’t have another solution. Worst of all, it was amazing. It was even faster working that way. Jarvis was basically watching his thoughts, and could pull out threads and extrapolate the information Tony needed before Tony knew he needed it. They developed a shorthand where Jarvis would display information or queries on the screen, and Tony thought his response, or eye-typed something if it was particularly specific.
So that was that solved. Two weeks and he’d revolutionized two industries. He wasn’t planning to share his AI mind-meld, but that was beside the point.
He’d done it.
There wasn’t a third part, because he didn’t need a way to communicate with anyone outside the suit. Iron Man needed basic communication, Tony Stark didn’t.
Rhodey was somewhere top secret and could only message in text form. Pepper lived and died by emails because then she could pull out proof of his agreements. In the lab, when he didn’t want to wear the helmet, Jarvis understood sign language. The team was in the building, but didn’t notice he’d stopped speaking.
Didn’t notice. Right. Sure. Two brilliant minds, two super spies, and a god didn’t notice when the chattiest man they knew stopped making sound. They just seemed happier than before. Brighter and more cheerful than before. They just seemed like they were more comfortable with him around when he was stone silent.
He knew they noticed.
And he knew they liked him better this way.
“Good job today Iron man. And thanks for keeping our comms clear for once.” Steve joked, clapping his hand on the shoulder of the suit.
It had been a good day. They fought an army of tiny robots. Like if the scarabs from the mummy were made of steel and were equipped with tiny lasers. It was hard, but it was good. He had to write a computer code while snatching them off civilians.
Tony and Jarvis found a way around them, Jarvis read the others in on the plan while Tony got it ready, and not once did he have to bring up a keyboard to send a more specific reply to the team. The drop down lists on the side were perfect.
“Sure thing Cap.”
“On your six.”
“Headed there now.”
He cringed when he used them, feeling like each word he used, even repeating old ones, was eating up a reservoir. If he used them too fast, the others would – well, they’d get that look like they wanted to put a spoon through their eardrums. Which, incidentally, was how Tony felt seeing that look in their eyes: like he wanted to cram his hand down his throat and scrape away his vocal chords so he could never bother them again.
It had been two weeks since his revelation.
The team was doing great. Evil was once again defeated. The Avengers won the day. Yadda yadda, and for once, no blah blah blah.
On the inside of the HUD, Jarvis displayed a question mark that faded into sight like a gentle concern.
Tony ignored that bit of non-verbal inquiry from his greatest creation, and saluted Rogers.
Then, since Steve was getting that look he got when working up to a conversation he dreaded, Tony walked away to help clean up of fifty thousand two-inch robots.
It only made sense that if they didn’t want him to talk them, they didn’t want him to hang around them.
That was logic. Boring, simple, scientific logic.
He ran through the alternative conclusions and discarded them. This was the one that fit the data.
They were a group of gorgeous bastards, so it wasn’t like he’d be wanted as eye candy. They were, across the board, stronger and hotter than he was. Despite it not being entirely true in a linear sense, he was the oldest of the team. Thor was a millenia old undergrad. Steve was a ninety year old twenty-something. They liked different movies. They came from different lives. Fine, he covered their living expenses and had the bots deliver new gear to them, but didn’t need to be around them for that. Jarvis had all their measurements, and had wireframes of each, including their gait and fighting styles.
He didn’t ever need to be around them.
He’d always been an outsider. He’d always been the last resort.
Yeah, sure, he noticed it because of the talking, because Loki was a great big bag of dicks, and petty as hell. He noticed it because of that, but, once he did, it wasn’t like he could un-see it.
Anyway, the less time he spent around them, the less he had to strain himself answering them without letting the barest utterance slip out of his throat. The one time he accidentally grunted after colliding with Thor, he spent the night in an anxiety attack, hearing it echo in his ears, and trying to listen to Jarvis’ reminders that he not break skin as he clawed at his arms.
So he stayed out of their way.
It was better that way.
He got a lot of work done. Pepper’s emails were ecstatic.
He updated his data after three months.
Because science didn’t count if you trusted to emotions.
He watched his team’s interactions without him there, and watched their interactions with him there. Then all of it was compared to the old videos where he would babble and jabber and ramble at them until they looked miserable and invented excuses to get away from him.
That was how he heard the conversation between Clint and Steve.
“You know I haven’t had a conversation with Tony in ages.”
“You talked to him two days when there was the guy with the lava.”
“That guy was so cool. Hot. Whatever. And I wasn’t complaining, I was announcing. I feel like I should bring him a cake or something.”
“That – Clint – that would – don’t do that.”
“Awww, Cap. Just a little cake? I just wanna thank him for not making me listen to him explain the quantum physics he worked through while developing the new exploding arrow heads. They go boom? That’s all I need to know.”
Steve frowned on the display, but nodded, “It has been nice not to be reminded how far out of touch I am. Pepper told me he does this. Gets his head into whatever he’s working on and doesn’t come up for air for a while. It’s normal.”
“Normal for Tony, “ Clint corrected.
“Don’t argue with small mercies, Cap.” They both laughed, and went back to talking about other things. According to Jarvis, the conversation lasted another seventy eight minutes. Average time for conversations between Avengers not named Tony was forty-three minutes. When Tony was involved, before, average time was twenty one minutes.
So. Tony got new data.
The hypothesis held.
They were happier like this.
See, he didn’t consider it a problem.
Jarvis did, and presented him with scenarios in which speaking would be non-optional at least once a week, ostensibly to give him an opportunity to solve for them in advance; in actuality, to try to demonstrate the breadth of the danger.
Silent wasn’t a problem. It was a change, but it wasn’t like it was being forced on him. He made the choice. He chose to stop bothering his team.
And he still texted them. He still got photos of things Steve didn’t have a name for, asking for an explanation. He still got queries about tech. He still sent Lonely Island gifs to Thor.
And yeah, there was the time he slipped with the welding torch and blasted the back of his hand. He sobbed out a curse at the pain, then collapsed, no longer aware of the blisters growing on his skin, lost in a panic attack, trying to shove the sound down deeper and deeper. It needed to be gone. Dead. Buried so far in his chest it couldn’t get out, not for an accident, not for an injury. Not for torture or death or mourning. It had to go away. All of it, always.
It was better that way.
If he hadn’t pushed so hard, he knew the sounds that would have gone with his sobbing would be grotesque, painful, and utterly obnoxious to everyone around him. Jarvis reprimanded him, but sent Dum-E with the first aid kit.
Tony let the tears dry on his cheeks, fighting to keep from letting his breathing get loud enough to hear.
It was better like this.
It wasn’t a problem.
They were happier.
It wasn’t a problem.
It wasn’t a problem.
Tony should have noticed sooner.
He could have gone quiet sooner.
The team could have been happy sooner.
He was a genius, dammit, he should have seen within a few hours of meeting them that they didn’t want to hear him talk. Fine. With the Chitauri doing their best to level Manhattan and Loki leading the charge he had a justified distraction for the first day. Maybe a week, tops. Then he should have noticed. What use was he if he didn’t notice what the team needed? His brain was the only thing they really needed from him. They didn’t need him talking. The team needed his input. Sometimes. If there was tech involved. They didn’t talk to him if there was no purpose; no one came to him just to chat. They never did. Never would.
And hey, genius billionaires were supposed to be eccentric.
Tony was playing to type.
Taking after Howard Hughes.
It was part of a long and noble tradition.
And if he’d stopped making public appearances, well, the press was thrilled to have so much time to spend talking about the new Mysterious-Maybe-Avenger-Maybe-Not that had helped Captain America in his darkest hour.
Steve only came to Tony when the need outweighed the annoyance, which, Tony knew, was what everyone did. He didn’t blame them, it made sense. Everyone made choices like that, all the way down to whether they wanted to get up to reach the remote.
Tony thought the balance was a little different for Steve. He thought maybe Steve reached for him sooner. Thought maybe Steve didn’t mind him quite as much. He was wrong.
He watched the news coverage from his lab, not knowing where Steve had vanished to, not knowing if he was alive, and pushed away the thought. He stood rapt as he got reports of Captain America going rogue, of Nick Fury being killed, and he barely blinked while he watched footage of a battle over the Potomac as Steve, Natasha and some random civilian fought Hydra.
He almost climbed into his suit several times, but stopped himself.
They didn’t contact him. Tony tried not to think about why not.
It wasn’t until he’d checked the hospital records and confirmed that Captain America was sticking around with the living that Tony went back to inspect the way their silence hurt.
Even with his life in danger, even with the world in danger, it hadn’t been worth it to Steve to contact Tony. They needed someone who could fly, who could work with tech, who they knew could fight, and they still hadn’t contacted Tony.
It was hard to deny that kind of evidence.
Tony liked evidence when it gave him clear information. He didn't like the conclusion, but it was good to have clear data. This told him how high the bar of necessity had to be before Steve wanted to see him.
Steve and Nat limped back to the tower with their new flying friend.
And Tony stopped visiting the main floor.
Month four of Tony’s newfound silence changed something: Jarvis stopped pushing him to speak.
He stopped presenting Tony with scenarios where he would be forced to. His AI still wanted him to speak. That was obvious. But Jarvis stopped pushing, because on day one hundred and seven, in the field, while Jarvis was mind-melded in and watching Tony’s thoughts as intimately as he ever could, Tony very nearly had to speak.
Clint hadn’t noticed the baddie coming up the fire escape and while normally Tony would have eye typed a warning, he couldn’t while he was fighting off a baddie of his own. He didn’t exactly have “hey birdbrain look at the fire escape to your left before you get shot in the ass” on the drop down menu, and it was too chaotic in his head for Jarvis to understand and translate for him.
Luckily, Tony managed to pivot and fire in time to save their idiot-archer from certain death.
That wasn’t the part that mattered. That sort of thing, well, it wasn’t ideal, but Tony knew it was part and parcel with his choice. And he liked to think that if he hadn’t been able to move in time, the words would have left his throat. He would need to spend a few hours trying to scratch the feeling of words off his tongue afterwards, but he thought he’d have managed to speak if it was critical.
Yeah that was rough, but Clint in danger wasn’t the thing that changed Jarvis’ mind.
Steve’s half-snarled, half-shouted, “What the fuck was that bullshit, Stark?”
That was the thing.
Tony had his faceplate up for the sake of the press, and Jarvis was still listening in, still observing, but couldn’t play audio for him since they’d see his mouth wasn’t moving.
So, Jarvis got a front row seat as Tony dropped into a panic at the confrontation. Tony’s greatest creation, and arguably his best friend, got to watch as Tony’s brain fell into static and a shrill piercing sound, as a quivering tremor started in his hands and spread through his body, as he fought against the urge to vomit, the urge to scream, and tried to dredge up from the hole in his chest enough of a sound to salvage the uncomfortable moment.
It didn’t work.
He said nothing. Not a whisper. He stared at Captain America’s irreproachable outrage, and battered around his own head trying to make his throat speak.
Steve didn’t notice, too distracted by their new friend Falcon mocking the Captain about his language.
It was fine. Steve had been on edge since DC. He was primed to fight all the time since his best friend vanished. Tony knew that. It wasn’t Steve’s fault. He was stressed, so he was showing what he actually thought.
That was fine. Tony knew how obnoxious he was. He knew that his voice grated on everyone, that his presence was only wanted when they couldn’t do it without him. Steve was entitled to feel about Tony as badly as Tony felt about himself. Tony couldn’t judge that.
He wasn’t mad at them, just trembling as the words he almost had to speak seared where they’d locked in his throat.
There was an advantage to that awful moment: Jarvis stopped bothering him. Instead of presenting situations that would force him to speak, Jarvis gave Tony new research and ideas to improve the system.
The system was fine. Flawless, actually. It worked for four months without anything worse than a close call.
He checked the security feeds: the team was all smiles and sunshine while they texted him. They only did if it was something they couldn’t avoid, but texting him didn’t make them upset. They didn’t get that crease between their eyes they used to while talking to him. Sometimes they sent messages asking him if he wanted to come to dinner, or to a game, or on a trip, but they didn’t really want him there. They were the Avengers, they were heroes, they were good people, they were willing to suffer for a night in the interest of being polite, and Tony wouldn’t subject them to that.
Each day that he got a new data point confirming the hypothesis was another day he continued in silence.
It might not have ever needed adjustment.
Except for the Winter Soldier.
Tony didn’t have pre-spoken names and phrases for the Winter Soldier.
The dreadfully confused, insanely determined, ludicrously skilled, former Winter Soldier -- and insane was probably an insensitive word to use, but Tony was in shock at the time -- scaled forty stories of Avengers Tower in a blind spot barely wider than his body, climbed in through an air vent, and found Steve Rogers’ room.
Steve Rogers’ scream set off the safety protocols.
Jarvis set off the alarm.
The Avengers assembled.
Then, the Avengers awkwardly stood sentry for a very uncomfortable fifteen minutes while Steve tried to confirm that the man in front of them was more Bucky than he was Murder-bot.
Barnes said about as much as Tony did.
Steve offered his friend and possible assassin the spare bed in his apartment, which, no, bad idea. Faster than Tony could have typed it from inside the suit, Jarvis saw the thought, and announced, “With Doctor Banner presently residing in Manila, there is no reason not to allow Mr Barnes to use those quarters. I will be more than happy to keep an eye on your visitor.”
Bruce’s rooms had a faster, stronger lockdown procedure, in case of unexpected Hulk appearances.
Jarvis was the best. The very best.
A brief blink of a photo -- Tony at MIT next to a stack of code that was the first draft of Jarvis -- appeared on the HUD as Jarvis acknowledged the compliment.
Steve didn’t like it because he had no sense of self preservation, but conceded. The team went to bed, and Tony went to his lab to start looking at ways to solve the various issues the Winter Soldier was facing.
It didn’t occur to him for a long while that James Barnes would tear a hole in his system.
Tony decided, a week later, that the sound of his own voice had been slowing him down for decades. Between the silence and the uplink with Jarvis, he had entered, and promptly revolutionized another field. He wasn’t sure what the field officially was since it was somewhere between psychology and neuroscience and he hadn’t taken the time to read the specific definitions of what he was doing, but either way, he’d done it.
He should have shut up years earlier, he could have revolutionized the world before the new millennium, and checked off boxes for all the old newspapers promising what life in 2000 would be.
Pleased, proud, borderline giddy, Tony packaged up the headset, the tablet with the instructions, the medications, and everything else Barnes would need to overwrite the worst of the imposed coding in his brain. It wouldn’t fix all of it, but it should scrub out the tendency to get confused and try to slaughter them all.
The package was couriered by robot up to Steve’s room. The miracle of Jarvis running the building meant Tony could bypass the usual privacy protocols, and watch as a pair of twitchy supersoldiers opened their present.
Barnes… well, he was having a heavy Winter Soldier day, so he quirked his head ot the side and kept reading.
Steve called him to say thanks. The incoming request popped up on the screen, and Tony shook his head. Jarvis informed the Captain that Tony was unavailable, the lie wasn’t questioned, and Steve declined to leave a message. A minute later, he texted a brief note, including an invitation to dinner, then looked up at Bucky with a strange smile.
“Don’t worry Buck, you got off easy. Tony never stops talking once you get him started. If he’d picked up we would still be hearing about the tech in this stuff four hours from now.” Steve joked, gently touching the headset.
Barnes blinked and said nothing. There was a tiny pinch between his eyebrows, but Tony didn’t have enough data to quantify what that meant. It didn’t matter.
Barnes would get better. Steve would be happy. The team would be happy.
Tony would stay out of their way.
The system worked.
Right up until it didn’t.
Maybe it was gratitude, or maybe it was forgotten rules of societal interaction, but the result was Tony startling so sharply he threw his soldering iron across the table when he realized Barnes was in the lab with him.
Ice dripped down his spine, and his chest went tight. He wasn’t in the suit. He wasn’t out of sight. He couldn’t have Jarvis speak for him. He couldn’t -- he couldn’t anything . They’d barely been around each other, Tony and Barnes, not since that first night, but Tony had watched footage. Now, when Tony couldn’t force himself to speak, Barnes would mention it to Steve. Steve would mention it to the others and they’d feel obligated to sit down and try to help him.
They would hate it. They wouldn’t want to, but they’d be obligated. They’d make themselves talk to him, and it would be doubly a punishment for them. That they had to hear his voice, and that they had to pretend they enjoyed it.
And there was no alternative. Nothing to stop Barnes on that path. Fear and revulsion made speaking an impossibility. Tony couldn’t force words out, so there was no way to stop Barnes realizing.
Unless he could get through by being a colossal prick.
Tony crushed his fear down, and summoned up the smuggest of his press smirks. Gesturing toward Barnes’ head with one hand, he quickly mimed a bit of crazy, and took a long swallow of yesterday’s cold coffee.
Barnes didn’t know him.
Barnes wouldn’t notice it was strange. Anyone else would know that Tony Stark -- the old one at least -- would never let an opportunity to brag pass by. Barnes didn’t know, and with luck, the rest of the team would interpret this story as Tony not liking Barnes. It would be fine. Not great, not nice to the guy, but survivable. It was a rough plan, but it would be fine.
They hadn’t spent much time around each other, a minute or two in hallways, no direct contact, nothing to tell Tony much about the man currently appraising him with the precision of a sniper’s eye. So Tony was caught off guard.
Barnes quirked his head to the side for a moment, licked his lips, and said nothing.
The pulse thundering in Tony’s ears and chest was painful, but not all consuming. It was the score beneath the moment of invasive eye contact as they stared each other down.
Barnes nodded, only once, crisp and final.
That night was… bad.
Tony stared at his suit, mentally planning flight paths back to Malibu, or maybe Manilla to find Bruce, or maybe Cape Town. Barnes would tell the others. He would tell Steve . He was Bucky Barnes, he was Steve’s best friend and the murderbot side of him wouldn’t change that. Barnes was his best friend. He was going to tell the others, and Tony’s world was going to fall apart.
The others knew, of course they knew . The Avengers weren’t idiots. They didn't acknowledge it because they didn’t want to. They put up a facade still, asking him to join them for meals and movies, but all of them knew they didn’t want him there. The system worked, dammit, letting it sit idly and ignored in the background worked. If someone pushed it to the front, they’d have to talk about it, even if it ruined everything.
Tony was holding himself together with ragged scraps of will. He had one hand dug into each side of his mind as it tried to rip open and it was like shards of his life dug under his nails when his hands slipped. It was barely in control, but it didn’t truly hurt until his grip faltered, and he had to accept the bigger breach.
Midnight turned to one and Tony didn’t move from his post in front of the suit. One turned to two, and he sank onto a stool, breathing shakily, but soundless. Two became three and his hands shook as he signed for Jarvis to scan the security footage for the conversation that had to be happening somewhere. Three ticked away to four, and Tony wrapped his arms around his knees while he cowered beside the work table. Four faded into five, and his brutal, tattered, silent sobbing gave him a migraine from restraining it. Five dragged forward to six, and Tony stood up, washed dried tears from his face, popped some meds, and signed for Jarvis to start a fresh pot of coffee.
Bucky Barnes came back the next day, looking determined. He stood in the middle of the lab until Tony made eye contact, and, without preamble, signed, “Thank you. You help my head. Thank you. M-I-S-T-E-R S-T-A-R-K.”
His signs were that odd mashup of hesitant and overly intentional; brand new knowledge.
Barnes spoke. With words. Aloud. Not excessively, but there was tape of it. He spoke.
Which meant he knew.
Barnes had seen that Tony didn’t speak, and instead of telling the others, instead of unravelling Tony’s system, he learned to sign.
Before Loki, Tony would have said that he was tongue-tied in response. That didn’t make sense anymore, but that was the sensation. It wasn’t the grip of horror that kept him from answering like it usually was. He simply couldn’t work out how to communicate, nothing came, and eventually managed to roughly gesture “You’re welcome.”
Barnes blinked, not recognizing the sign, then frowning in obvious frustration for not thinking that Tony would answer in kind.
Jarvis was the best thing Tony ever invented. His AI brought up a translation on a screen over Tony’s shoulder, and a little smile eased the tension in Barnes’ eyes.
That was the start of month five.
By the end of the month, the team had changed nothing. Bucky had changed everything.
Six months of silence and the team had never once asked him why. They had never commented at all. One month after Bucky thanked him, having learned sign, and having spent most of the last weeks in the lab with Tony, Bucky asked.
Tony brushed it off, casually signing while he continued to work on better Bites for Natasha.
Bucky tapped his metal fingers on the table to get Tony’s attention back and repeated, “Why?”
“Better this way.”
“Sweet T,” Bucky never used Tony’s name anymore, endlessly combining a letter T with sugar, honey, genius, smart, to form an infinite stream of nicknames. It wasn’t real, Tony knew that. It was some relic of the forties. It wasn’t Bucky actually liking him. It was just who Bucky was. Tony checked the tapes. Bucky used nicknames and endearments with everyone. Tony wasn’t special. Bucky came down to the lab because Tony didn’t bother him. Because he needed time away. Because he genuinely liked the bots and was fascinated by all the new technology.
It wasn’t because Bucky actually liked being around him. It was just the most convenient option.
Tony cut him off by the simplest method, turning to another screen, and ignoring him.
Bucky drummed his fingers, but long before Tony succumbed and turned, the Avenger’s alarm blared, and both of them ran for their gear.
It took a while, but Bucky talked a lot.
Bucky talked on comms. Bucky talked to the rest of the team. Bucky spent long evenings with Steve piecing together memories in halting words. Bucky’s voice, rough on the edges, laced with painful memories and echoing with distant laughter, was wonderful.
Weird, yes, since it was Brooklyn by way of Moscow, but it was wonderful.
Everyone on the team brightened up when Bucky talked or cracked jokes, and quipped at them as they fought.
He was the opposite of Tony.
Every word Bucky spoke made the team happier.
Most of the time, Tony could avoid thinking about that.
On comms in a fight, Tony called him Soldier because that was a word he had pre-recorded. It irritated him, at least half as much as it irritated the rest of the team. Bucky didn’t like being called Soldier. Winter was worse, but Soldier wasn’t good. The rest of the team called him by the codename Lazarus after Sam cracked a joke. Somehow, Tony had never talked about bible stories on camera, and couldn’t use it.
The stitched together version of “Bucky” that Jarvis had created was worse.
Tony had used it a few times in the lab to get his attention and Bucky’s whole face would scrunch.
So, Tony mostly didn’t speak to him on the field. That was fine. Captain America did of the talking there. Tony wasn’t needed except to give warnings.
The team never sought out Tony’s company. Superficial messages inviting him when they went back to the shawarma place didn’t count. It wasn’t real. They were being polite. They didn’t like being around him, so when he retreated to his lab after the ten or so minutes a day he spent on the main floor, none of them objected. They had stopped asking him questions that needed more than a silent response because they didn’t want to accidentally encourage him to speak. That was…. nice of them.
Security footage showed that they talked often about where Bucky went during the day; consensus was that he needed time alone in the quiet of his own mind to help his recovery. Natasha mentioned needing to do the same after she flipped.
She talked Steve down from lojacking his best friend.
Bucky did need the quiet, but alone wasn’t good for him. He was fluent in sign language within the month, and they -- well it wasn’t talking -- but they communicated all day. Bucky texted him questions, and Tony would hand him a tablet a moment later, filled with information. It was Tony’s voice that was the problem. He could text and tweet and email with the others without making anyone miserable, but the second his own voice got involved, that was over.
He checked the videos after a fight once. Even then, even using canned phrases, whenever his voice went through the comms, the team winced.
But Bucky came to the lab anyway, because he didn’t know how grating Tony’s presence was. He didn’t know to be repulsed. So they chatted. They signed to each other, incessantly, but after that one attempt, Bucky didn’t ask why Tony was silent.
Once, Tony looked up to find tears in Bucky’s eyes while the man stood directly behind him. His first thought was that there was a problem, an injury, or an attack. His hands reached for the arm, checking for a malfunction. He flung a sign at Jarvis to bring up any potential alerts. His heart rate skyrocketed, but there was nothing.
Bucky gestured to a screen and a video from a lecture Tony gave at MIT to the freshmen after becoming Iron Man. It was paused, but Bucky had obviously watched almost all of it.
“I like your voice, sugar,” he signed.
“You never heard it.” Tony answered sharply, already trying to escape back to the design for a new round of phones. Like he always did now, Bucky caught his chin to keep him watching, to keep him hearing.
“I want to hear you. For real. Not J. Not old words.” Tony flinched, pulling away, shaking his head.
Pepper needed the design done. The board wanted to have the full model available for the tech expo they’d be doing two weeks after Apple did theirs. He needed to solve the last of the battery problems before then. Talking wouldn’t help with that.
If he had to hear his own voice, he’d lose an entire day to the echoes of it. He’d spend hours shaking. He’d spend the next week trying not to vomit, unable to let Bucky into the lab. Tony had checked the numbers, checked the data, no good would come from him opening his mouth and speaking.
Bucky didn’t sign that. He spoke it. It hung midair for a moment while Tony stared at the specs for the phone. For a long painful moment he could feel an answer, a verbal, spoken answer trying to crawl past the well of hatred in his gut. Like it was clawing it’s way out, each ebb of impulse was a new wave of pain, and each time he shoved the need further down, it tore at something in his chest.
He had evidence. He knew it wouldn’t do any good. Bucky spent time around him because he hadn’t been poisoned by hearing Tony’s voice. If he spoke, if he did as asked, that would be it. Bucky would go, and the closest thing he had to a flesh and blood friend would be gone.
Without turning he knew that Bucky’s face was pinching more with each silent second.
He knew silence would be interpreted as mistrust.
Knowing that didn’t change anything.
He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t make it worse. Loki’s curse had long since dissipated, but sound was locked away from him as surely as when Magic was involved. It wasn’t a choice any more than it had been in the first days.
Tony didn’t choose to be silent, he had to be.
The sign for Go Away was one handed.
It could be done and understood without eye contact.
Tony didn’t see the reaction, but he listened as the doors opened, and Bucky left.
Abstractly, four days was not particularly long.
As Jarvis pointed out, four days without substantial sleep was especially long. Tony spent it all waiting for a message as Bucky went to the others and they all got dragged into pretending they were upset he wasn’t speaking to them anymore. The only other option was Bucky going to the others for help, and the team finally explaining why they were so glad he didn't. Bucky would fight it for a minute or two, but then he’d understand and he would join their ranks.
Either ended with Tony more isolated than ever.
Either because of Bucky leaving him alone, or because Tony would fly away. He wouldn’t force them to generate that faux empathy. It had been six months of silence. If they cared, they’d have said something.
So they didn't.
That was the only logical conclusion.
Then the alarm blared, and the Avengers assembled.
Then Tony fucked up.
From the corner of his lab, helmet pulled off so Jarvis wouldn’t see how bad it was, hiding from sight with the doors locked, Tony watched the surgeons saving Bucky’s life in the medbay on a small screen.
They did. They saved him.
Tony employed the best after all.
He never settled for anything less.
Steve sent him a few texts of appreciation during the surgery. The first when he arrived from the field, an hour after the surgery began because Tony had evacuated Bucky in time for there to be hope. Another when two specialists arrived from Johns Hopkins to save Bucky’s vision.
Tony did the only thing the team wanted from him. He threw money at their problems until the problems went away.
They didn’t know it was his fault that Bucky had been half blown apart.
They didn’t know that Tony saw the bomb, but couldn’t send a message fast enough.
They didn’t know that Tony tried, truly tried to shout from his vantage a few hundred yards away, and couldn’t get the sound past his lips.
So the team thanked him, for getting Bucky to safety and surgeons, told him that he’d done great, told him he’d saved Bucky’s life, but they didn’t bother asking him to join their vigil on the main floor. They didn’t want him around.
They weren’t sure if their friend was going to recover his sight after the blast blinded him, they didn't need Tony getting in the way.
Four more days, and Natasha managed to coerce Steve into leaving Bucky’s recovery room.
Tony took the opportunity.
There were bandages wrapped over Bucky’s eyes. Dr Maloney and Dr Ingles swore that he would fully recover in another week or so. The fact that it took that long, even with his advanced healing, sent a shockwave through the Avengers.
The estimate for the holes in his torso and legs was longer.
But Tony did what he always did; whatever the team needed.
He stood for a long time in the doorway, surveying Bucky’s status, and skimming through the latest nurse’s notes on his watch. It was going to be fine. Everyone was going to be fine. And after Bucky was up and moving again, after the team was at full roster again, Tony would step down, go back to Malibu.
He was no good to them on the field, and he could be tech support and their personal bank from a distance. Ideally, a long distance.
Eccentric billionaire, that was the way to do it. Maybe he’d make some more bots, a whole fleet. Maybe he’d solve how to navigate them from a distance so the suit could always take the hits the rest of the team couldn’t survive. Maybe he’d sort out a bot that looked enough like him that it could do the walking around and the press conferences and the interviews. It would be a nice challenge. Getting the skin right. Getting the gait right. It might take him a few months. Once the team was whole again, he needed to leave.
It was for the best.
Tony knew he was silent at the door. He knew it as surely as he knew anything. Tony didn’t make noise. Not even when he breathed. Barely even when he walked.
So how Bucky knew he was there was anyone’s guess.
The metal arm, since it wasn’t in a sling, signed, “come here.”
Once Tony was close enough to grab, that same hand locked around his wrist and held tight.
With no one else nearby to see, Tony signed “sorry” and Jarvis translated it in his voice. Jarvis pulled a voice file that cracked in the middle, and there was time for a flare of pride in his AI for how human he had become. But Bucky’s grip grew painful while his jaw tensed.
Without another option, and stunted by his hand being held captive, Tony managed to fingerspell, “It’s my fault. I saw -- I -- If I --”
“Tony, don’t.” Bucky spoke, shaking the arm he held briefly, “Don’t, I know you can’t -- I know you don’t want to talk to me. But I don’t wanna hear it like that. It’s not you, and I know it’s not you. If I can’t -- If it ain’t your hands, then -- I don’t wanna hear that.” His metal fingers slowly loosened, and Tony took a step backwards trying to flee, but still caught.
“You don’t have to stay. You can, but. I don’t want to make you, and I can hear you panicking because I’m talking to you.” Bucky squeezed once, then relaxed his hand enough to let Tony escape.
Pressed into the corner by the door, Tony watched as the injured man tilted his head to the side, listening, trying to track where Tony had gone. Cramming down on every impulse, Tony didn't utter a sound once he reached the corner. He barely breathed in case that was how Bucky had noticed him before. Tears ran down his face as he struggled to reply, and couldn’t.
Eventually Bucky gave up, sagging against his pillow, unaware of the meltdown Tony was having fifteen feet away.
The pressure built as Tony silently wept, his face growing hot and his head pounding with the stress of keeping it all internal. Tears fell, and his mouth swung open and close on sobs that never got past his chest. Almost an hour later, past his limit, Jarvis projected a warning on the wall. Steve was on his way back.
There was no more time to find courage.
Turned away, on the threshold, Tony closed his eyes, and flung himself off the cliff.
It was a croak more than a word, with barely enough volume to overcome the air it travelled on, but it left his mouth. He managed it. Instantly his gorge rose, and the instinct to flee, to run, to hide was overwhelming. He didn’t stay to hear the hopeful heartbreak in Bucky’s reply.
There were scratches down his arms, and bile in his mouth before he reached the lab. He didn't cry again, organizing everything for his inevitable exit from the Tower. For his retreat. For his surrender. Jarvis protested the orders to blackout the lab from all communication, but obeyed. Tony flung orders through the internet to have the Malibu house ready for him.
It would be fine.
He could leave.
If the team really needed him, they would contact him. Until then, it was better if he was gone.
Tiny bit of comfort this time, but not enough to make up for all the hurt...
Chapter 3: It was Fine
You can always come find me on Tumblr if you need to yell.
He hadn’t been seen near them since the fight that blinded -- where Tony made -- when Bucky almost --
Since the day that Tony left Avengers Tower.
The team had engaged in a few skirmishes with minor evil, but nothing serious. Nothing they called Tony for.
Nothing they needed him for.
Then he set up Jarvis to alert him even if they didn’t call, because it didn’t damn well matter if they wanted him there when things got bad. It didn’t matter if they didn’t want to hear him; if things reached DC levels again, Tony would fly his ass into the middle of it.
It wasn’t like they could hate him any more than they already did.
Not after what he’d put them through.
They sent a few messages. Right at the start. Right after he left.
The first of them popped up on the HUD when he was over Nebraska, two hours after walking out of Bucky’s room with his throat in scorching pain from suppressing any further sound. The displayed showed ‘James Barnes’, and a tiny video preview of the man sitting on the hospital bed looking worse than before Tony’d spoken.
Tony declined the call.
The next was the following afternoon, from Steve, as Tony hauled dust tarps off the furniture in his lab. The grocery delivery had come that morning, and in the four hours he’d taken to lazily fly over a continent, cleaners had managed what the house’s automated systems couldn’t.
He’d left his bots behind in New York, but there was nothing for that. Flying across the country for a non emergency without alerting the FAA was bad enough, he didn’t want to deal with the fuss of doing it while hauling a crate full of robots. Especially when said crate would have been a half length shipping container.
But Steve called, face grim on the video feed, with that pinched look he got when he knew the approaching conversation was going to be awful. It was on his face every time it looked like the Captain would have to speak to Tony.
Tony saved him from taking that hit.
He declined the call.
There were more in the first weeks. Mostly from Bucky. One from Natasha and Clint. He ignored them while he programmed and reprogrammed code. It was almost perfect. Almost. It looked like him. It sounded like him. It didn’t glitch on new words like Siri did. It was almost there. When letting it learn meant letting it speak for hours to check for potential bugs, which made him wish he’d never left that Afghani cave, he shut it down and worked through the lists Pepper sent, restarting it when he calmed down.
When he thought he had it finalized, he called her about the newest medical alert programs for the phones. He could hear her, and he typed his responses, but she saw a flawless 3D model, and heard him speak. The program didn't exist on his end. He didn’t have to hear himself.
A counter in the corner of the screen tracked how many words he used so he wouldn’t annoy them more than necessary.
He kept it short. Brusque. Twitter-esque. It winnowed through his allotment of words and a five minute conversation left him depleted for days, but it worked. She didn’t notice.
She was thrilled.
He wanted to tap into the cameras at the Tower and gather more data. It was important. He couldn’t maintain effective results if he didn’t have accurate data.
Jarvis was unimpressed.
“Sir, my programming includes a privacy prerogative. As you are no longer a resident of the tower, and as none of the residents have granted you this permission, it would be a breach of my coding to allow it.”
“I will rewrite your program and you can be my espresso machine.” Tony signed.
“If you so wish, Sir. But I still would not be able to access the cameras for you.”
“You let me before.”
“Due to a loophole in the permissions regarding the review of video footage in the interest of security. With your departure, those permissions have passed to Captain Rogers. You only have access to footage recorded inside the lab.”
“To do that you will need to be within the Tower. Should I alert the FAA of your flight plan?”
Tony shook his head. He’d written the code for Jarvis with the best of intentions, to keep his best friend safe from any interference. His rapid departure kept him from transferring the deeper layers of coding from the Tower to Malibu. Getting around that particular failsafe would mean stripping lines out of half the system that created Jarvis. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of instances that protected the Tower, himself and his best friend.
It would risk causing some unknown damage to Jarvis by unravelling the sweater. At least half of the code had initially been written while Tony was drunk or high. He wouldn’t risk generating a fatal error.
It had to happen from the Tower, or not at all.
Lack of data was bad. Seeing them again would be worse. He had to trust the evidence he had.
Another week later -- a month to the day since he ran -- a call popped up on the screen, all of the Avengers, including Thor, sitting in the common room on the preview. He took a deep breath, settled into a chair, and cued Jarvis to start the simulator.
It had tricked half a dozen reporters, two senators, Pepper, and Rhodey. And if anyone was going to notice the lie, it was Rhodey.
And he hadn’t.
The system was immaculate. It was flawless.
It hurt like hell to use it.
Even without hearing the words the program generated, it hurt to type them, knowing that they’d be presented in his voice so that the team could continue to act as if nothing was wrong.
For their sake, he did it anyway.
“Tony, uh, thank you for taking the call.” Steve stumbled, seeming to be genuine in his shock. Made sense. He’d have assumed Tony would decline the call and let the status quo continue. He squared his shoulders, doing that fortification thing Steve did when he was getting ready to face something he hated. “A month ago you --”
“I’m reverting to consultant status.” Tony typed it a moment earlier, but Jarvis interrupted the Captain smoothly.
“Ask Romanoff to explain it. Better choice for me. Got too much to do; SI stuff. Have fun. Drop a line if you need me, all that. Ok, we done?”
Typing fast enough, Jarvis would steamroll through anything the team said. Rude, yes, but it was the kinder choice than forcing them to listen to him longer. He knew that. He knew that they had all braced up for the call. He could see it in their faces. They didn’t want to be talking to him. It was a necessity.
Steve glanced to Romanoff, who glanced to Bucky, who glanced to Steve. Thor cleared his throat in the moment’s pause, notably uncomfortable. Tension was palpable, even with a continent dividing them. A bit of social awkwardness wasn’t enough to stop the Avengers though. Tony could see that. They were going to force the conversation. They were going to ask. Bucky must have told them. Or they were going to request that he depart the team entirely. They wanted to clear a press statement about his removal from the team. They wanted to make it formal he wasn’t one of them anymore. They wanted to tell him how much they despised him. They wanted to break the fragile silence they had encouraged for months.
Tony didn’t let them.
“We know that something--”
“Sorry can’t hear you, headed into a tunnel, bye.”
He reached to end the call, hand over the button the minute he finished typing, and the slight delay meant he got to see Bucky sign a tender nickname with a stiff grimace before the screen went black.
Another month and SI’s stock was up three percent, Pepper was giddy, and calls from the team had been replaced by unannounced visits.
The first time it happened they were over Nevada before Tony spotted the quinjet on the radar. He took a sudden interest in the supposed drug war in Manila, and flew away to oh-so-politely suggest Duterte try a method beyond slaughtering his own people in the streets.
The second time they tried to surprise him, he really was helping outside Raqqa with a few remnants of the Army that was loyal to Assad.
It wasn’t ideal, but since he no longer deployed with the Avengers, pick up work kept his reputation in place.
Whatever moral imperative had them trying to push the issue would fade from the Avengers’ minds eventually. They’d realize that he wasn’t worth the effort. They’d stop trying to maintain the facade of camaraderie.
He knew it was the best thing for all of them.
The thing was, he was silent in the Tower for months, and no one but Bucky had bothered to reach out. They had known. They had to have known, and the longer Tony spent in Malibu, the more obvious it became that it wasn’t just the team that was better without him there. Tony was better too. He was calmer. Happier.
The storm that raged every time he risked interacting with them quieted to a soft wind, and bit by bit he relaxed into himself. He remained silent, unable to bear the sound of his own voice, but it wasn’t the agony it had been to keep it at bay. The sensation it had carried before -- like a caged monster, became that of a house cat with no intention of stepping outside. One day at a time, it became a fact of himself, rather than an imposition. He tried from time to time to force a sound from his throat, always while alone, always above the ocean, where even Jarvis couldn’t see the panic that rose when he failed.
He’d said two words in the last seven months. Two words, as penance for fucking up in the field. Two words, because Bucky couldn’t see.
Nothing else would come.
But it was no longer the constant press it had been. It no longer felt like something was missing, or like he had to fight against it.
He was doing better, no matter what Jarvis said.
The Press corps that sprouted out of the damn shrubbery every time Tony Stark stepped foot in LA or New York or Tokyo just about lost their minds when he swanned into a London club in grey Armani after being out of the public eye for months. He was pretty sure one of the photographers fainted. Not certain. He didn't turn to check. Would have spoiled the look he was going for.
Lucille’s was exclusive -- beyond exclusive. They were the best. The singers were exceptional, the waiters were so used to exorbitant wealth they weren’t impressed by anything, and the atmosphere was like coming home. It had been a favorite when Tony was twenty three and globetrotting and reckless. Something about the refined mix of modern colors and traditional furniture gave it an air of an alternate reality. He could go there, and exist and feel like the rest of the world wasn’t watching. He could hide there, even more than he could when he was in his lab under a full lockdown procedure.
Plus, eccentric-silent-billionaires barely registered on the chart of weird shit the staff had witnessed.
So, when he got notification of the quinjet approaching his house in Malibu that morning, he stepped into the suit, and he fled.
His waiter was a polite young man, who, after not getting a verbal response on an initial query, didn’t push for another. Tony appreciated that. Between drink two and three, Tony tracked down his identity, found the unpaid medical bills for his baby sister back in Slovakia, and paid them off in full.
A few hours of soft crooning and rare batch whiskey later, he left two hundred pounds on the table -- standard tip, fifteen percent, enough that there’d be no reason to connect the pay off to Tony -- and headed for the exit. He slipped on his sunglasses despite it being past ten at night, and grinned as cameras flashed.
He waved, he beamed, he blew kisses. He ignored the shouted questions about his status with the Avengers. He pressed the button on the side of a ring, and counted down for the whirr of repulsors. The suit landed behind him, and Tony lowered the glasses enough to wink at the gorgeous brunette in the front. She actually did faint.
Then he spread his arms and let the suit surround him.
The visor snapped shut and he turned as if to fly away.
“Mr Stark, does this mean you are no longer operating as a part of the Avengers?”
The response was eye typed before the man finished speaking.
“Not at all. But helping the Avengers doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to have any fun. Lucille’s is the best. Oh, but wait, you wouldn’t know that, none of have ever been inside. See you around, gorgeous.”
Then he flew away.
The press would never notice.
Bucky was sitting in the Flathead Roadster when Tony returned from London.
Tony had a furious uplink interaction with Jarvis as he landed in the lab, demanding to know why J hadn’t warned him. Even when Tony allowed himself to let go for a moment, allowed Jarvis to see how deep the fear went, his AI was unapologetic. Jarvis’ answer was a series of video clips from the Tower since Tony’s departure, of Bucky sitting in the lab there, taking care of the bots with stories and minor maintenance, thanking Dum-E for cups of undrinkable sludge, and sometimes just sitting at the worktable, fiddling with the plates of his arm.
Suited up, hating that’d he’d said four full sentences to the press no more than three hours earlier, Tony waited to see Bucky wanted.
Some low simmering pool of anger awakened in his gut, senseless and with no direction to go except against Bucky. Everything had been fine. He had a system. It no longer took half of his effort in a day to keep himself silent. He was content. It was fine. He had a system.
But Bucky couldn’t let it be.
It wasn’t a shock that the former assassin had gotten inside, or that he was stubborn enough to stay behind when the others flew back to New York. Bucky was worse than Tony in some things. Bucky also knew that if the rest of the team had remained, if it had been anyone but Bucky, Tony would have reversed course and vanished into the horizon once more.
Something throbbed in his chest when he realized that Bucky had known that he could play on Tony’s guilt.
When Bucky did nothing but watch him, Tony snapped, eye typing, “Why are you here.”
And bless Jarvis for making it a demand not a question.
“I needed to see you.” Bucky signed.
Tony gestured broadly, swinging his hand across the expanse of the armor’s chest.
“Not -- You, not the suit.”
“This is easier.” Tony typed.
“This isn’t you.”
“Did Steve send you?”
Shaking his head, Bucky’s hands hesitated. When he looked up, he spoke aloud.
“I sent me.”
“I needed to see you so I could know you were doing alright.”
Bucky snarled at the newest typed phrase, clenching his hands on the steering wheel where he sat. “Sure you are. Sure. Congrats on the program, it’s real impressive, looks just like you used to. Hope you’re real proud.”
Hidden behind the mask, Tony’s horror at the mention sent his mind racing for every potential weakness in the code, for anything he could improve. Outside the suit, the only reaction was a slight tilt of his head. Bucky translated it immediately.
“Yeah, you’re doing just fine.” He drawled, sarcasm dripping as he got out of the car. “No problems at all.”
“You’re the one who was hurt.” Jarvis translated that with an appropriately bitter tone.
They stood there, ten feet apart and still too close for Tony’s preference. Bucky looked like he was on a precipice, pitching forward by degrees and forcing himself not to take a step. It had been two months, and his vision was back, the damage was healed, and he looked healthier than Tony had ever seen him.
That’s what it was. Evidence. Data.
Data was good. Bucky was better off without Tony in the Tower or on the team. That made it a full set. The rest of the team was better off without Tony around too. He already knew that. Bucky had been the outlier, the unknown aspect. Now, it was fact. It was science. Now he knew, and the decision crystallized in his chest. He was right to leave. He was right to stop talking. It all settled, locking down into permanence, and grounding him in the conviction.
This was the right choice.
“Tony, I’m not the only one that was hurt.” Soft, entreating, Bucky’s voice was what you’d use to coax a kitten in out of the cold.
But Tony was out of words, even translated, even typed. He’d talked too much in the last day. Tony flared the repulsors on his hands and boots, ready to fly away, but Bucky flung out a gesture, then mumbled, with his eyes on the ground, “Don’t. This is your home. I’ll go.”
Bucky walked up the stairs without a backward glance, and didn’t see Tony flip up the faceplate to watch.
The attacks by the Mandarin were irritating. Despite his best efforts, Tony couldn’t locate him, and didn’t want to give the guy the dignity of calling him out in public. It would work, it always worked, but Tony didn’t want to elevate the terrorist by saying he was on Iron Man’s level. He wasn’t. He was scum, and his only skill was his ability to stay out of sight.
Taking down all the other cells that were discovered during the hunt was a good thing, but Tony wanted the bastard at the center of the game board.
In the quiet of the lab, in the new-found, unswerving resolution of his mind, Tony hunted.
Everything was fine.
Tony clipped the carafe of the coffee pot on the edge of a piece of steel as he turned back to his desk, shattered it, and dumped the contents down his chest and legs.
He shouted in pain at the burn and stripped his clothes off to reduce the damage. In doing so, he managed to smash glass into his hand and foot, dragging out a curse through clenched teeth. Angry red splotches covered his chest, and drops of blood splattered and smeared on the shop floor as he headed for the medical kit and a shower. None of it was fatal. The helper bots in the shop powered up, and Jarvis directed them to the mess.
He tweezed out the glass, decided that none of it required stitches, and left spots of blood behind him as he hobbled to the shower. The initial sting faded, and since there weren’t blisters forming, there was nothing to really be done but get clean and dig through the cabinet for aloe and bandaids.
Jarvis was silent.
Dry, towel around his hips, baffled by the assortment of things in the back of a bathroom cabinet stocked by a bodiless AI, Tony froze. The memory of the sound he’d made returned to him, more painful than the cuts, more shocking than the spill.
He hadn’t meant to.
But he did: twice.
He shouted, too startled and hurt to restrain something that hadn’t tried to break free in months. Then he cursed, unthinking, slipping into bad habits that had driven away everyone in his life just because he’d gotten a damn boo boo.
Soundless, his mouth dropped open, stretching as if screaming until the force of it was exhausting, and he had to look at himself in the mirror once more.
Then he realized. It was worse than the sound. It was worse than losing control from shock and pain.
He didn’t even notice for half an hour.
Tony shuddered, seeing how weak his control was, seeing how lax he had become since returning to Malibu, since seeing Bucky and thinking he was grounded. Thinking he was improving. He hadn’t noticed his mistake, he hadn’t thought about how terrible it had been to hear himself. The sound of his voice had barely registered amid the pain, but the echoes were escalating. Each repetition of the incident in his mind grew louder, and more damning.
He pitched sideways and barely reached the toilet before he started vomiting, spiraling when he couldn’t stop the sound it made.
He had to be more careful, that was all.
He had to be sure he didn’t slip again.
A mistake while he was alone was bad.
It could have happened in front of people.
It could have happened in front of the Avengers.
He had to stay in control.
Three days later, the Mandarin blew up the Chinese Theater.
Downton Abbey played on the screen, and the machines all beeped and bonked reassuringly, but Happy was in a coma, intubated, injured, and it was Tony’s fault.
He listened to the voicemail afterwards.
If he’d taken the call Happy might not have gone. If he hadn’t been wrist deep in the code for the automated speech model, he would have taken the call. Instead Tony hit ignore, kept working, and Happy followed some man he thought looked suspicious. It was Tony’s fault. If he had taken the damn call and used the old speech program, or pulled on the helmet or signed and let Jarvis translate, Happy wouldn't have gone, and wouldn’t be in a coma.
Pepper wouldn’t be out of her mind with worry.
The Chinese Theater wouldn’t have been vaporized.
But Tony couldn’t accept being less than perfect, so he didn’t take the call.
Didn’t matter. Even at his best, trying his hardest, he wasn’t good enough.
The nurse came in, casually flipping off the TV. Tony pointedly turned it on, handed her a business card that was fancy enough to ensure that anything Happy needed would be covered and completed as well as possible, then he headed for the exit, and the press corps.
They were waiting. They were always waiting for him.
“Mr Stark, what do you know about what happened?”
“Is it true that the head of security for Stark industries survived the blast?”
“Why haven’t you or the Avengers gone after the Mandarin before now?”
“Are you finally going to deal with this terrorist?”
It was chaos, questions hurled at him as he stood in the center of the whirlwind. The challenge he wanted to spit toward the cameras at the pathetic coward that was sowing global chaos itched on his tongue, nearly painful enough for him to cave and speak.
There was something to be said for dramatics though, for breaking expectations to get some attention, and Tony Stark was known for talking.
Tony snatched a reporter’s notepad - old fashioned, actual paper, and scribbled across it. It wasn’t the same, it wasn’t the vitriol and threats he wanted to throw, but it would work. He’d get what he wanted.
He was right about expectations: When he held the page to the camera teams, the press went dead silent.
10880 Malibu Point
Come and get me
Tony waited for a count of five, arm extended, then tossed the notepad to it’s owner, stared down the camera until the gathered watchers started to murmur, then climbed in his car and drove home to wait.
Pepper called from the road as she drove down to berate him.
Tony used the remote access on her car to break it down on the Five in Buena Park fifty miles away.
Then he told her he was the reason the belt just shredded itself, told her not to come, and got her angry enough she would stay somewhere safe.
The Avengers called from the quinjet. The Avengers were in Edinburgh when Tony issued his challenge. Trackers in the jet showed them over the Atlantic, coming back at full speed from the UK. If they maintained Mach 2, they were three hours away.
Tony hit decline, and hit it again when someone named Maya Hansen buzzed the gate three times in five minutes.
He had a few spare suits around, all of them operable by Jarvis. Tony idly picked at the coding while he sat with the newest model holding by the wall.
While he waited.
He’d almost gotten the suits set to independently understand sign control. Not quite. He was idly contemplating embedded trackers in his arms and hands so they would register the motions even if he wasn’t in sight when the silence was broken by shattering glass.
Honestly, Tony was expecting something a bit grander than the single person he heard approaching. Then again, Jarvis hadn’t given him warning, so the beardy terrorist bastard must have disabled his AI, and wasn’t that a terrifying thought? But it was still only one, and Tony was angry enough to be bold. The repulsor glove on his palm pointed to the hall, ready to fire when they walked inside, but he left the rest of the armor on the side of the room.
This was personal. It wasn’t Iron Man facing the Mandarin. It was Tony Stark facing the man who tried to kill his friend.
Except it wasn’t.
It was Bucky.
Furious, terrified, heavily armed, looking an awful lot like the Winter Soldier, Bucky.
Bucky, who lost half his tension when he saw Tony, who crossed the room and dragged the man into a tight hug, and who cursed in russian while covering the back of Tony’s neck with his metal hand. Getting away from a super soldier determined not to move was impossible unless Tony was willing to repulsor the man in the gut, so he accepted the aggressive hugging, and counted down from a thousand in prime numbers to keep himself from panicking.
When he was finally allowed to step away, he reached up to sign a question, but was cut off when Bucky grabbed his hands.
“Don’t. I know, but don’t. I was close by. I was with Pepper when she called. I obtained a new car. The rest of the team is incoming, but we need to get out of here. We don’t know what the Mandarin is sending but it’s not -- you’re not even in a suit. Why aren’t you in a suit. Get in a suit. We’re going. Now.”
Digging in his heels, Tony managed to stop the exfiltration that Bucky intended and shook his head.
Unable to move his hands, he couldn’t answer or explain.
Bucky’s eyes went wide at something outside the windows. Whirling in place, Tony saw the missiles the same time he heard the shrill whine. The center of the living room offered no shelter, no where to hide. The metal hand holding his tightened in fear, and Tony couldn’t give the gesture for the suit to deploy.
In the blissful stillness of his head, Tony did the math, and made a choice.
The room exploded.
And Tony yelled.
“Override thirty-two beta. On Bucky!”
It took the Mandarin just over three hours to attack the mansion after Tony announced himself.
It took Bucky just under three hours to get to him.
It took barely a minute for the house to destabilize, for the extra suits to vanish beneath rubble, for one of the helicopters to go down from the repulsor glove, and for Bucky to be flown a mile from the mansion in a suit that gave him no choice.
It took a little over two more minutes for Tony to find himself underwater, pinned, and unusually calm as he realized he was going to drown.
It was ok. The appalled expression he’d seen when he’d shouted his friend’s name was a nice bit of final data to go out on. And the team was on their way. It would be fine.
They would handle the Mandarin, Tony trusted them with that.
Jarvis handled Tony.
He didn’t see the jet arrive, or see Steve hold onto Bucky until the Winter Soldier receded.
Harley took the silence at face value, shrugged, handed Tony a notepad and a pen, and chatted in reply to written messages.
The kid even understood when all Tony could do was give him a significant look and nod toward his pocket.
Pepper was still taken.
The President was still captured.
Aldrich Killian was still a prick.
Rhodey frowned, asked if it was an Ariel situation, and taught him a few dozen useful hand gestures from the air force.
He kept frowning, but it wasn’t the time to ask. When Tony tried to handwave it, Rhodey gave him a look that may as well have been skywriting announcing their upcoming conversation. Tony knew that look from college.
There was no getting out of it.
The acid clawing up from his stomach burned, but there wasn’t time for that.
Aldrich Killian was definitely a prick, and very very stupid.
Against Tony, fine, maybe he would have won. Against Tony and Rhodey, he had a chance, but not a great one.
But the dozen suits that had been buried beneath a house in Malibu arrived, with the Avengers coming in hot behind them. It wasn’t apparent at first, but that was when Killian lost. Everything after that was just details.
The Avengers dealt with the extremis soldiers, not bothering with incapacitation once it became clear that anything shy of total destruction wasn’t going to keep them down.
Tony scrambled, trying to reach Pepper.
He hadn’t seen her in months. They weren’t together, not really. They didn’t talk. She was his CEO, and his former assistant and that was close enough to make her a target. He kept her away from the house and it wasn’t enough. He hadn’t been there, he hadn’t protected her, and it was worse than seeing Happy lying in the hospital. Tony stretched, throwing everything into his effort to reach her, unaware of the keening that whined from his chest.
She screamed his name, reached, and fell.
The Avengers were battling Killian and the last two soldiers when she rose, and ended the fight.
Tony wrapped the bandage around his arm a little tighter, hiding in the back of the jet, out of sight of the team and their murmuring. They’d drop him off at the airport so he could go back to -- well, the house in Malibu was gone, but he could always build another. Maybe he’d head to the house in the Caribbean. Or to the lodge in Sweden.
Somewhere. Not near them. Nowhere they’d have to be subjected to him.
He appreciated the help. He did. He needed it.
He couldn’t have won.
When Pepper fell, the scrape of some tremendous blade had dragged through his chest, leaving a shattered shell behind. Tony failed, utterly, and the ache of that invisible wound would be a reminder forever. He’d sat on the crane deck as the fight continued, as the Avengers picked up his slack and faced what he’d brought down on himself. He didn’t help.
They didn’t need him.
Watching her fall into fire echoed with his fall from the stars. He lost himself in the swell of pain and guilt.
Pepper returned out of the flames and saved lives, bringing smiles to every face and brightening the future.
He returned from the stars, and carried a shadow around him.
Maybe it would have been better for everyone if --
But they needed the tech. The Avengers needed the tech to keep doing what they did. They needed him to fund them, and to keep them stocked with the best defenses he could create. Still.
It was be best if he wasn’t around.
He failed her, he failed them, he failed himself.
He let her fall, and as the memory looped in his mind, he noticed the pained wrench of noise that had escaped him, and knew that she could have died, and been tormented by that awful sound in her final moments. And again, he hadn’t known he’d made a sound, which would always hurt worse for reminding him how weak he was.
He failed two fold. He broke his silence and he broke his promise. He hadn’t protected her. He hadn’t protected anyone.
He thought he was doing better, right until the vast scope of his inadequacy was shoved in his face.
So Tony sat in the back of the jet, waiting for them to discard him.
He listened more intently once the bleeding was staunched, and knew it was about him. He didn’t need to hear the words. He knew it was about him. The snippets he heard were terse, tense, angry, accusatory, bitter and resigned.
It was about him.
The jet landed at the tower, and he heard Pepper and Rhodey disembark with a medical team.
They didn't bother saying goodbye. Not after he’d failed them.
Once the whole team had gone inside, Tony would fly the jet away. He’d build a new suit once he got to… wherever he decided to go. Somewhere far from anything. When the silence stretched long enough to persuade him he was alone, he rose, determined to let the current weather decide if it would be Sweden or St Maarten.
But he wasn’t alone.
Steve Rogers, cowl pushed back, was sitting beside the exit, waiting and watching.
Which, okay, yes, it did make sense after the last two days that the Avengers would need to formally remove him. That -- it hurt, but it was reasonable.
“You’re a stubborn SoB, you know that?” Tony jolted, but couldn’t reply. Steve winced, and continued, “And I’m sorry. I really am. I should have done this sooner. When I noticed. I shouldn’t have let you stay when you clearly... We all knew, know that you didn’t... I’m sorry Tony, I thought that waiting was the better way to do it. We weren’t trying to -- We talked, and decided that you needed to hear this from me first.”
Tony nodded, chin held high, braced for the declaration.
Steve scrubbed his hand over his mouth, held eye contact, and started to sign.
“We shouldn’t have let you pull back from us.” The ASL was fluid, not like the first time Bucky had come to try, but like he had been practicing for months, “We knew something was wrong, but didn’t want to push you. Nat and Bucky and Thor, they wanted to say something right away. I asked them not to. I thought you would run. Bucky didn’t listen. I hoped -- but I was wrong. You left because we weren’t there for you.”
Steve cut himself off, earnest and concerned, patiently waiting for a reply.
“It’s better like this.” Tony signed cautiously, finally admitting his silence.
He wasn’t finished before Steve started to answer, keeping to sign language. “No it isn’t. You aren’t ok. So we aren’t ok. If you want to leave the Avengers, you can, but we don’t want you to leave. We’re a team. We have each other’s backs. We should have each other’s backs.”
“Why? I’m not--”
Steve couldn’t cut him off fast enough, speaking as his hands moved. “No, don’t. Tony. We didn’t know what happened, not -- Thor said something about Loki, but he didn’t have details. I thought you couldn’t and didn’t want us to know, but then Bucky… after you left, he… eventually he told us. When he came back from Malibu, he told us. Tony. We need to do something about this.”
Fuck it was happening. Exactly as Tony thought it would, Steve was going to take the hit. He was going to pretend he cared, and force the rest of the team to pretend they didn't hate hearing Tony speak, that they wanted him around. Steve was going to be Captain Righteous and make everyone suffer out of a misguided belief that Tony deserved kindness.
“No. Stop. No. It’s fine. It is. It’s better. It’s not a problem. I’ll go to -- somewhere. I’ll go. You. Stop. No. Don’t.” He tried to keep the panic from showing, but his hands shook, and he couldn’t keep a thought together long. He went pale and couldn’t hide it.
“Alright, Tony. If that’s what you need.” Steve eventually replied, voice sounding small, “I’ll get the quinjet refuelled for you, and I’ll talk down the others, keep them from bothering you. Even Buck. It’ll be about an hour before the jet’s ready to fly. Should give you plenty of time to look over some data. Jarvis has it for you. Down in your lab.”
That was enough. Steve turned to the cockpit. Tony ran.
Jarvis was a dirty traitor, working for Captain America, and wouldn’t unlock the controls of anything in the lab until Tony had sat down to look at the data they’d collected.
The screen blinked on, and video started rolling from the Tower security feeds. Each one was time stamped in the corner, which helped since the timeline was erratic.
“The Man of Iron has not spoken to me since my return from Asgard,” Thor confessed to Steve on a balcony, “Does he blame me for my brother’s mischief?”
“Your brother brought an army, and then showed up with demons, that’s not exactly mischief, Thor. And Tony is going through some things. Give him space.”
Clint grabbed Natasha by the arm and dragged her into a closet.
“Sorry, don’t want this one recorded by the all seeing AI. Was Tony in the suit today?”
“What do you mean?”
“During the fight? Was he in the suit?”
“Yes, he flipped up the mask for photos after.”
“So why was he using a voice simulator during the fight?”
“He--” Natasha cut herself off, blinked, and the pair exited the Tower a few minutes later without another word.
Steve glowered at the room, not even in the Tower, some Shield facility, outside of Jarvis’ direct access.
“Stop looking so miserable around him; that’s an order. Smile or something, try not to give him a reason to hide back in the lab for days on end.”
“You want us to act like it’s fine that Tony Stark hasn’t spoken to any of us in two months?”
“Yes, I do. Because he won’t let anyone talk to him about it. So smile, and try to make him feel like part of the team. Especially while Nat and I are in DC.”
“Okay, but, crazy idea, how about we talk to him about this?” Clint mumbled.
Natasha turned, “If you confront him about this, all you’re going to get is an Iron Man shaped hole in the wall. He will drop off the Earth if you push him on this Clint. At which point it would be best if you did the same, because I will come find you.”
Clint smirked at the threat, but agreed. So did the rest of the room.
“What did you need to talk to us about Captain?” Rhodey said on screen in the room with Pepper and Steve.
“Oh wonderful, what’s he broken now?”
Steve winced, faltered, then replied, “Himself, I think.”
A store’s security camera saw Tony walk away to help with clean up, and caught Steve throwing his shield into a wall.
“You shouldn’t have snapped at him, Cap.”
“I know, Nat.”
“You’re not making it any better.”
“Well, I don’t really think it’s possible for it to be worse.”
Natasha looked at him for a long moment and shook her head, “Then you don’t know him very well, do you? It’s going to get worse, Rogers.”
“How do we fix it?”
“We don’t. He has to.”
“Why don’t you tell him you know?” Bucky asked Bruce.
“We’re trying not to scare him off. This is his version of stasis. Letting him think he has some control is good. Whatever is going on, the portal and the bomb or if Thor is right and Loki did something, then Tony needs to feel like he’s in control of the situation.”
“I know. I asked him a question he couldn’t answer with a yes or no this morning and he started shaking.”
“If Loki did something, then it can be fixed the same way.”
“Thor checked. This isn’t a magical issue. This is something human.”
“How do we fix it?”
“We don’t know, or we would have already.”
Bucky sat on the bed in the hospital room, eyes bandaged, repeating Tony’s name in a shrinking voice, hand outstretched, waiting for someone who had already run.
Steve blinked up at the ceiling, and repeated, “So, I have full security permissions for the tower, Jarvis? Does that mean I didn't before?”
“Yes Captain, that’s correct. There are certain security cameras and histories that can only be accessed by a single individual. Traditionally, this is clearance that Sir holds, but with his departure, those permissions have passed to you.”
“So I can see anything that’s happened in the tower while the cameras were on?”
“Jarvis,” he asked a moment later, “Do you have footage of Loki and Tony from a few months ago?”
“Yes Captain, I do, but may I suggest excusing yourself to a private location before you view it?”
Steve’s jaw clenched, but he followed instructions.
There were more. Many more. Dozens of clips and videos and audio conversations from the tower, compiled into a multi-hour feed.
After thirty minutes, his stomach ached from nausea, and his throat was raw from holding back everything.
He shut it off, overrode Jarvis with a bit of rough reprogramming to get access to supplies, and packed a bag of essentials.
Steve was gone when Tony returned to the jet.
Bucky was waiting.
He didn’t say a word.
He held out a tablet and a bag. When Tony didn’t take them, he sat them on the seat, and stepped out of the jet.
Outside the window as Tony took off, he saw Bucky wave, and sign “soon, sweetheart.” He signed it and somehow made it a promise and an affirmation without any pressure, just confidence in what Tony would do.
There was a storm in St Maarten, so Tony went to Sweden, and hid in a cabin with the small pile of tech he brought with him, and a half a billion dollar jet hidden in the tree line.
The tablet opened with a message that read, “Science needs all the data.”
On it was hours and hours of security footage. The things Tony had already seen, and everything else he hadn’t been brave enough for. It wasn’t perfect. They joked about how nice the quiet was sometimes. Once, Sam imitated the exact rhythm that the eye typing used to say ‘look out, Capsicle’. They got angry when he refused to let them close. They weren’t perfect, and they had problems of their own, especially after DC. They weren’t always beacons of flawless support.
But mostly, it was proof of their concern.
Tony watched it all. Not at once. It was days before he could watch any of it. Once he started, he rarely made it through more than an hour’s worth before he got overwhelmed. When he had to stop, he curled up by a fire and stared into it, revising and reexamining data, fighting the new conclusion it pointed towards. On bad days he worked out the stabilization of extremis.
The last video was Bucky sitting in the shop with the bots, and it took days before Tony could watch more than a few seconds at a time.
It was Bucky sitting on the couch in the lab, listening to Tony’s old speeches from when he was the only super hero in the game, telling Dum-E and U that they should be proud of their father, and that he’d be back to see them soon. That he’d take care of them until Tony did.
Once he saw it to the end, Tony watched the whole collection through again the next night, and embraced the rising tension in his gut.
It stung, and it battered against his ribs, becoming some wild caged thing again, something that he had to contain every moment, with every thought. Tony kept watching as the team grew more worried about him, and consoled each other because they didn’t know how to help. He watched as Pepper and Rhodey cried over a video call because they were able to hear the tells in the computer program. He watched as Bucky built himself up to place calls to Tony, only to be declined. He watched it all.
And he watched the video at the end. Bucky, talking to the bots, confident that it would be alright, explaining to them how strong their dad was, repeating that he knew Tony was going to get better.
After a day and a half of listening to them without sleep, midway through the fifth repetition of the final video, Tony turned it off, pulled on a jacket and boots, and started walking.
Miles from anyone, fingertips freezing cold, in some forgotten corner of the mountains, Tony took a deep breath, and screamed.
It broke something, or freed something.
He screamed until his voice went hoarse.
Until it started to crack and fail.
He screamed until nine and a half months of pain was depleted.
Until the agony that he’d repressed until it became his foundation shattered, and left him untethered.
He was scraped empty again, hollow without the tension and compulsion that he’d clung to, but it no longer felt like a shell, it felt like a new start.
It took another month.
Every day he walked to that same place, a little clearing without a name, and he screamed. After a few days, wordless screams turned to cursing.
Meaningless obscenity turned to self recrimination.
Shouted hatred turned to diatribes.
Blind anger turned to a release.
It got easier.
He finally started to get better.
Not just on the surface.
The Tower was quiet.
Well. Not quieter than a mountain lodge in the middle of the Scandinavian Mountains, which was a hell of a scale.
It still hummed with electricity and the distant sound of traffic and a bustling city.
But it was quiet.
Convincing Jarvis not to alert the inhabitants took some persuading, but it happened. J said nothing, and Tony stepped off the jet alone. He landed it in stealth mode, with barely more sound than the elevator made travelling up and down.
Quiet enough that not even super spies and soldiers noticed.
There were dishes in the sink, and the communal coffee pot was preprogrammed for someone waking up at six am. In three hours, maybe Tony would greet whoever it was, like nothing had happened. He nearly smiled, pushing back against the whisper in the back of his mind that swore the footage had been a lie, and they’d rather he stay gone.
The elevator didn't ding when he called it, making his way to the lab to see his bots.
It was perfect calm hanging in the air, undisturbed by the soft sound of Tony’s measured breaths, awaiting his decision. He still had the choice, he could go back, hide in the woods, yell at trees, force words past his lips until they were as natural as they’d once been. He could decide he wasn’t ready yet. Or he could stay, and take the outstretched hand the team had offered, and trust that they wouldn’t let go.
The bots were asleep, clustered around the worktable when the doors opened.
Dum-E had a party hat on, and there was a pack of glitter exploded across the floor. There were trinket type trophies sitting on U’s base, and it looked for all the world like someone had been having a tea party that day.
He decided not to wake them.
The world brightened as a glow overtook the street lights of the city, and Tony watched, listening to the coffee pot brewing.
Someone would be up soon.
Someone would wander into the kitchen and find Tony standing by the window.
Stasis would end, the perfect silence of the night would end, and Tony had to be strong enough to do it.
It was a foreign sensation to realize that he was.
Sputtering, the coffee pot finished brewing, and Tony held his position as sleepy, dragging footsteps approached. He stayed, and waited, ignoring the voice that told him to get back to the jet before whoever it was arrived.
Maybe they’d shout his name and wake up the rest of the team.
Maybe they’d curse him and walk away.
Maybe they’d throw the coffee at him and admit it was all a joke.
Maybe they’d hug him.
Tony heard the faint whirr of a tiny motor, and spun. Bucky stepped into the kitchen, and froze on the threshold, lips parted, and shock obvious. He was bedraggled and wearing an old shirt and sweats, scruffy, with dark circles under his eyes, and a hesitant joy twitching the corners of his mouth as he stumbled a few steps closer.
Tony’s throat tried to seize. His stomach tried to rebel. False conclusions reared up, backed by bad data, and Tony refused to let them win.
He licked his lips, and it was as hard as that first scream in the forest.
Bucky’s smile broke open, tripping him as he tried to answer, “You…”
His hand reached out, an offer and a plea, without pressure, but filled with hope. Bucky held it there, not moving, wide awake. Patient. The team had been holding out their hand to him for months, and Tony hadn’t seen it. Hadn’t wanted to see it. He’d pushed them away and they kept trying to reach him. And they were again.
They would again.
They always would.
Bucky’s hand was held with two fingers extended and the others curled, conveying the fear that Tony was about to bolt. Slowly, he rotated his wrist, opening his palm like an offer, but no less certain that the moment might break.
Tony took it, twining their fingers together, and nodded.
“Yeah, I’m back.”