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An Unempty Nest

Chapter Text

The Asset stands in the Smithsonian Museum and stares at a wall full of pictures. He recognizes the man central to all the pictures. He shifts, letting his face reflect off the glass. It's the same face, younger then, with happiness sometimes and sorrow others. Emotions. Things he once had and may have again.

He has no purpose here. He has no purpose at all. His handlers are dead. His mission failed. But the name spoken by his target still rings in his head. Bucky Barnes. James Buchanan Barnes, as the wall tells him. Born March 10, 1917, almost a century ago. He knows he is not a century old physically. His time on ice slowed his aging, the same as his last target, Captain America. Steve.

His flesh fingers spasm, twitching toward the glass. There are pictures there showing Bucky and Steve with their arms tossed over each other's shoulders, grinning at the camera. They were friends. They fought in the war together, first with the 107th and then as the Howling Commandos. Bucky had been presumed dead. So had Steve, and yet here they are in this strange modern day.

He doesn't remember the pictures. He has no association with what their contents hold or the inscriptions detailing his former life. All of that has been wiped away, replaced by the Asset.

But he is no longer the Asset. He is James Barnes. He is Bucky. He will remember and there is only one logical place to start.

He needs to talk to Steve Rogers. Luckily, Bucky knows just where to find him.

Chapter Text

"Excuse me, sir," JARVIS announces in the lull between songs, "but there is a group of metahumans in the lobby."

Tony bangs his head on the suit's chest plate. He stumbles two steps back, almost falls, and accidentally throws a wrench at Dummy. "What!?"

Highway to Hell starts but JARVIS softens the volume to be heard over it. "The additional members of the Avengers Initiative are in the lobby, along with Samuel Wilson and James Barnes. Mr. Wilson is a former Air Force pararescueman who test piloted the EXO-7 Falcon, and Mr. Barnes is-"

Tony's heart lodges in his throat, choking off his breath and make the room spin. He chokes out, "Wait, who?" Dummy nudges Tony's desk chair against the back of Tony's legs and he sinks down into it before he falls. Dummy rolls him over to his desk and whirs with worry until Tony puts a hand on Dummy's main joint.

"Sergeant James Buchannan Barnes. Born January 7th, 1920. Served as a-"

"I know who Barnes is." The words come out sharper than he intends. He drops his face in his hands and scrubs his face. He hasn't had enough sleep to deal with this. "Fuck."

James Buchanan Barnes. Comrade of Captain America and hero of World War II. Tony sits back and stares up at the ceiling. His fingers absently trace over the arc reactor and the space where his soulmate's name used to be. He'd always thought it was a joke. Like, someone named their kid after the real guy, not that he's destined for some man out of time.

Was destined. No longer. He doesn't have a soulmate. His soulmate is supposed to be dead because Tony doesn't deserve happiness.

Did Rogers know Barnes was alive? Tony's going to guess not because that seems like the kind of information that he'd share.

"They wish to speak to you, at your convenience. Security would like to know where to direct them, sir."

"On screen."

There are indeed five people standing in his lobby, scaring the hell out of the Stark Industries employees who are just trying to pass by on their way to and from their afternoon appointments. Barnes looks nothing like the clean-shaven, proper soldier from his dad's photos. Tony can still see a shadow of who Barnes used to be, but Barnes looks worn and haggard now, destroyed by whatever he went through to end up in the modern day. He's still handsome in a hot biker kind of way, with maybe a touch of brooding poet. He could be devastating if he put in a little effort grooming.

Tony's been pinned to more than a few mattresses by men like that. Big, muscly men who had no job tossing Tony around and taking what they wanted, with Tony's permission.

He doesn't quite believe what he's seeing. He's a man of science. He needs evidence. He needs proof. "JARVIS, is that really...?"

"Initial biological scans indicate a seventy-nine percent match. Recorded data inconclusive for further evaluation."

Bucky Barnes and his impossible, should-be-dead, perfect face are eighty-odd floors below him. Alive and in his time. Shit. Barton and Romanov are down there too, flanking Rogers, who's directing his American-as-apple-pie smile at one of the receptionists. The poor receptionist looks so out of his league and the other receptionists have all made themselves busy somewhere else. Tony should have JARVIS send down a gift basket. Maybe some soothing chocolate and tea.

Barnes and Wilson linger awkwardly in the waiting area, avoiding the very comfortable—Tony would know, he's passed out down there a time or two—couches meant specifically for situations like this. Instead they stand, constantly shifting on their feet and looking around like they know how out of place they are. Or like they're scanning for threats. What trouble did they bring to his doorstep? He swears, if someone destroys his building again....

At least they're not in uniform. Tony's pretty sure security would faint. So, social call then? Did he miss a memo? He's been deep in R&D. Surely Pepper would have come to drag him out if there was something important he had to do. She'd tell him if she knew James Barnes was alive.

"Did Fury call?" Tony asks. "I feel like this is a situation where I missed a call." He can't stop staring at Barnes.

"You have no missed calls, sir."

One of the elevators opens, spewing out Happy Hogan, who takes one look at the assemblage and pales. Happy's steps falter, but he blusters forward the like professional he is.

Fuck. Tony pushes a hand through his hair, uncaring of the grease staining his fingers. It's probably all over his face by now anyway. What the hell are they doing here? And with luggage? Did SHIELD kick them out?

"Open a line to Happy and notify Bruce to meet me in the conference room on eighty-four." Tony waits until he hears Happy connect.

"Yeah, boss?"

Tony does not want to deal with this right now. He's been living out of his lab specifically to avoid dealing with anything that's not a robot. A fucking impossible soulmate is squarely in the realm of things he's avoiding. "Get them out of the lobby. Show them to the conference room on my private floors."

"But their badges..."

Tony rolls his eyes. "The Avengers do not need visitors' badges, Happy. Just show them up. You can make badges later. JARVIS will send you all the relevant info, but I want to pick the headshots." Once the call disconnects, Tony releases the sigh he's been holding in. He leans back in his chair and stares up at the ceiling. "You got any clue about this, JARVIS?"

"There appears to have been an incident at SHIELD." The screens around Tony fill up with pictures of Captain America fighting Barnes on a freeway, a crashed Hellicarrier, and Agent Romanov—looking more like Natalie Rushman, legal assistant, than a secret agent—testifying before Congress. There are reports from every news station, both television and online. It's on all the social media, everywhere. He stares at Fury's obituary and shakes his head. He doesn't quite believe it, because it's Fury. He'll have to send JARVIS digging. He avoids looking at the other obituaries. He doesn't want to play 'did I meet that agent.'

"Well, shit." There is, apparently, a lot of news and somehow Tony missed all of it. He's a little overwhelmed. SHIELD disbanded? Fury's dead? Government conspiracy? Leaked documents? HYDRA? "A little heads up would have been nice. How did I not see this?" He'd pulled some SHIELD data during the Chitauri incident, but not this.

"You have not yet rescinded the media blackout set two weeks ago."

Two weeks ago? Tony frowns. What the hell happened two weeks ago that made him put up a blackout notice? He asks JARVIS that exact question.

"I believe, sir, that you did not want to see mention of Mr. Stone during his press tour."

Tony gags. Ugh. Eww. No. Down that road lies madness. "I still don't, but you can let the rest back in. And get me a copy of those leaked documents. I want everything SHIELD had and then some. Work backward from Fury's supposed death. If he's not in the ground, I want to know."

"The documents are already saved to your secure drive, sir. Indexing will take a few days due to the volume of data, unless you would like to divert processing from other tasks."

That earns a fond smile. He grins up at JARVIS's closest ceiling camera. "You are a marvel, JARVIS. Have I ever told you that?"

"On several occasions, sir."

"Well, you still are. Don't reprioritize. Much as I'd love to get my fingers in there, Pepper will kill me." Tony thumps his hands on the armrests as he pushes himself out of his chair. His good mood dampens as he realizes the state of his clothes. Tattered jeans and a t-shirt with a hole cut out for the reactor aren't his usual business attire. "I don't suppose there's time to go change?"

"Your guests are already waiting in the conference room. Dr. Banner will arrive momentarily."

"Fine. Whatever." Tony snaps on the bracelets to call the suit, not expecting to need the suit but he's feeling cautious. He's wary of being near people with super-strength and large swaths of windows. "At least I won't be the only one in lab chic."

Bruce beats him to the conference room. He's wearing a dress shirt and khakis under his lab coat. Tony narrows his eyes and stalks over to stab a finger in Bruce's chest. "Traitor. You changed." He pokes Bruce a couple more times for good measure, because he's mad and not at all because it makes Bruce laugh.

Bruce swats him away. "I don't know what you mean."


Someone clears their throat and Tony turns. The only one not staring at Tony like he's grown a third head is Romanov. Tony can't quite regret that he'd let his guard down enough for Romanov to have seen him like this. He hadn't expected Natalie Rushman to be another Pepper. There's no one like Pepper, but he'd had this brief stirring of hope before she'd revealed herself as a secret agent and snuffed that out.

Tony sighs and takes in the motley crew. He can't say that they look like normal people outside of their uniforms. None of them are normal, but they could pass on appearance alone. Everyone except Barnes, who looks every inch the soldier he used to be. He's fully aware that he's staring. Barnes is staring back, but not in the 'holy shit I just met my soulmate' way. There's hostility and a promise of violence. Barnes is wary, like he's expecting to have to defend himself from Tony, which is just ridiculous.

"So," Tony says, forcefully tearing his eyes off Barnes. He turns to the other unfamiliar face in the room. "You must be Wilson." Wilson's grip is politely firm. No hand-crushing power plays here. "I see you brought luggage. Going somewhere?"

Rogers blushes and casts a quick glance at Romanov. "Um, well, I remembered the offer you'd made after the Chitauri incident...."

Tony blinks. After the Chitauri? What had he...? Oh, yeah. At the shawarma place, he'd invited the whole team to come stay in the tower if they needed a place to crash in New York City. Only Bruce had taken him up on that. That'd been almost a year ago. He hadn't put an expiration date on the offer. He'd just assumed after months with no contact that they weren't interested. They probably weren't, really, just desperate for a place to stay after whatever the hell happened with SHIELD.

"Is that still okay?" Rogers asks. He looks uncertain, which is a very strange expression for Captain America to have, and he keeps glancing at Barnes in a way Rogers probably thinks is subtle but is the complete opposite. Judging by the footage of Rogers and Barnes fighting, Tony guesses that hadn't started out on the same side of this whole mess. There's probably some ex-SHIELD dickheads looking for Barnes or Rogers or both.

The smart move would be to say no. What comes out is, "Oh, yeah. Sure." He isn't a complete dick. Sometimes. Mostly he's curious and a nosy motherfucker and Barnes is standing right there like some impossible time-travel anomaly. They can stay. It's too quiet with just him and Bruce anyway. All the empty space reminds him of growing up in the mansion, which is a time period best left forgotten.

"JARVIS, can I get a map of the tower?"

Barton jerks his feet off the table as a 3D hologram of the tower appears in the center of the conference table. Wilson looks awed. Romanov doesn't even look up from her phone. Barnes doesn't take his eyes off Tony. Seriously, he doesn't even blink. It's creepy.

Does he know? Does he have Tony's name written somewhere on him? How long has he been looking for an Anthony Stark?

It doesn't matter. He's too old for some whirlwind soulmate romance. He's used goods. Barnes doesn't want him. Won't want him, if he knows what's good for him. Tony certainly isn't interested in Barnes. Not at all.

"So," Tony says, stepping up to the hologram and sliding his showman's mask into place. "You can pretty much ignore the first seventy-five floors. Um, unless you want food. There's a restaurant on two and cafeterias on twelve, twenty-nine, and forty-three."

JARVIS helpfully zooms into the upper section of the tower. "Top ten are primarily Stark Industries research, which is just a whole lot of nerds playing with potential explosives. Best not to startle them. Something might explode."

He waves that section of the tower away and zooms in on his personal levels. "Speaking of explosions, Bruce's lab on eighty-eight and my workshop on eighty-seven." JARVIS helpfully highlights those floors. "Eighty-six holds the hanger and related storage areas. I think I put some equipment up there should Avenging occur. JARVIS has the inventory. There are two Quinjets available for use."

Barton leans forward. His interest piqued when Tony mentioned explosions, but it seems there's something even more interesting than impromptu fireworks. "How do you have Quinjets, plural?"

Tony rolls his eyes. "Who do you think built half of SHIELD's tech and fixed the rest? That reminds me." He looks at Wilson and points at a suspiciously shaped bag. "If that's what's left of the only remaining EXO-7, bring it to my lab so I can destroy it. I designed that but someone took liberties. I can make better."

He frowns. "I suppose with SHIELD gone, I need to go hunting down tech again before it ends up on the black market. JARVIS, start a trace from SHIELD's servers and wipe any proprietary Stark Industries documents you come across. I want to know who accessed those files and how long they had it. Also, track any tech that wasn't destroyed with SHIELD. If someone has it and they're not supposed to, I want it back."

"It will be done, sir."

"Is Jarvis your assistant?" Rogers asks, looking very confused. "I mean, I don't mind if you want him here to take notes." Wilson seems about as confused. Romanov is already familiar with JARVIS and has presumably filled in Barton. Barnes, staring, still.

Tony smiles up at the ceiling. "You want to do the honors, babe?"

"With pleasure, sir." The hologram of the tower moves to the side and a slowly revolving column of old news articles and video clips about Tony's scientific achievements takes its place in the center.

Tony rolls his eyes. Drama Queen.

"I am an artificial intelligence, Captain Rogers, built to assist Mr. Stark with whatever he requires. I manage and maintain all of Mr. Stark's personal properties, including this tower. I also assist in research and production of Mr. Stark's inventions. During your stay at Stark Tower, you may consider me a virtual personal assistant. If there is anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable, you have but to ask."

"That's a computer?" Wilson asks. He's got that wide-eyed amazement that Tony can never get enough of. No one looks at him like that anymore.

Rogers frowns, though it's not directed at Tony. "Wasn't that the name of-"

Tony cuts Rogers off before they can go down that unhappy road. "Yeah, whatever. Anyway, if you need clothes, groceries, take-out, whatever, just ask J. If he can't do it, he'll send someone out to do it. We have interns for a reason."

He waves the old articles away and starts pointing out areas of the tower. "Eighty-five is the penthouse but there are other bedrooms accessible through the public elevators. Eighty-four has more suites, plus a communal area with the main kitchen, a bar, entertainment areas, and, obviously, this conference room. Two of the suites are for Rhodey and Pepper when they're in town. Pretty easy to figure out. They have names instead of numbers. JARVIS will have maintenance do the same once each of you pick a suite. Or a couple. Go nuts, no one's using the space."

"Eighty-three through seventy-six have a bunch of empty apartments, so pick whatever you want and let JARVIS know what you need for furnishings. Some of the sections can be made secure. Talk to JARVIS." He glances at the very small array of baggage. "Also clothing or whatever. We have a preferred moving company that has clearance for the tower. Bruce's rooms are on, what? Seventy-four?" He looks at Bruce for confirmation.

"Seventy-nine," Bruce says with a fond smile. "You set up the meditation room there, remember?"

"And this is why we have JARVIS. The gym is on eighty-two and the pool is on seventy-seven. There should already be reinforced equipment in the gym, but if something breaks, just let me know and I'll replace it. If you need weapons storage, there's a secured locker on eighty-six that I can grant you access to and two more on eighty." Jarvis displays a 3D diagram of each floor, highlighting the features Tony mentions.

"Happy's going to want to talk to you about badges and security codes, which you'll need to get in and out of the secured areas of the building. There's are two private entrances that require codes, and you'll need that if you take either of the Quinjets out." JARVIS zooms out to a whole view of the tower. The two private entrances are marked in red.

"Impressive," Barton says. His eyes are fixed on the hologram, likely memorizing everything.

"Impressive? That's all you have to say?" Wilson asks. He gestures to the hologram. "Look at this, man. It's amazing." He turns to Tony. "Are you sure you're okay with us staying here and spending your money? I mean, we can find somewhere else. Just, damn..."

Tony blinks. He's only met one person hesitant about spending Tony's money and that's Rhodey. Bastard still manages to steal the check when they go out. He shrugs. "Yeah. It's fine." There's something about Wilson that reminds him of Rhodey. Must be an air force thing. There's an easiness to Wilson that Tony feels like he could fall into. They could be friends.

Tony glances at Romanov. He's thought that before and look how that turned out. He knows better. He's always known better, but the tiny part of him that hasn't been completely crushed by Howard and the paparazzi and Obie wants to reach out.

"I like you," Tony announces, making all of them stare. "I'm keeping you. JARVIS, dig up the EXO-9 plans and move it to my work folder."

"Yes, sir."

Wilson is stunned. "There's a nine?"

Tony shrugs. "Rhodey was on the warpath about underage drinking that month and I wasn't in the mood to climb out the window again. I was bored."

Clint's face moves through a complex series of emotions—confusion, horror, disbelief, and resignation. "Wait, you've had those designs since college?"

Wilson's mouth hangs open. Yeah, so much like Rhodey in the early days.

Romanov's face is blank but she's looking at him like she wants to dissect him. It reminds him of when she was pretending to be his assistant. Barnes looks at him like.... Tony has no idea. Like a mannequin? Like something unnaturally still and creepy?

"Can I get cool things too if I act impressed with all this?" Barton waves his hand at the hologram.

Tony rolls his eyes. "I don't need your false adulation. I get enough of that from the press. Just tell JARVIS what you want. Oh, JARVIS, give these guys access to the floor plans and security stuff. Umm..." He tries to remember what the access levels are. "Whatever level Happy is. I don't care. Use your judgment."

"That is level seven access, sir."

That sounds about right. "So, that's about it unless you want a tour?" He doesn't want to give a tour. He wants to go hide in his lab again. This is the most people he's ever had in his personal space and he's not sure if he's going to like it. Tony and people do not mix well. This is why he has Pepper, but she's in Malibu and he can't ask her to fly back so he can ignore the people he invited to live with him.

"We'll be fine," Romanov says, standing. "Go back to what you were doing. Your attention is already there."

Tony shrugs. She's not entirely wrong. Tony's brain is always working on some idea, no matter what else he's doing. Even when he's fighting, he's thinking of countermeasures and improvements. "Sounds good." He waves over his shoulder as he heads back to the elevator.

He is absolutely not running from Barnes's creepy stare.

"Mr. Stark?"

Tony pauses. It's not Barnes, but it's bad enough. He turns. "Captain Rogers?"

Rogers rubs a hand over the back of his head. "I was wondering..." He glances at Barnes. "We were wondering if you could take a look at Bucky's arm. I kind of damaged it."

Romanov's snort and eye-roll suggest that 'damage' is an understatement.

"Right," Tony says. He can't tell which arm Rogers is referring to. He remembers seeing metal in the footage, but he'd assumed it'd been some kind of power armor. "It's mechanical?"

"Yeah," Rogers says. "HYDRA made it."

"Well, then it'll definitely need some upgrades. Swing by the lab and I'll hook you up." He's only ever invited Bruce down to his lab. Before that, only Rhodey and Pepper had access. This sudden altruism feels strange. He doesn't do well with strange people in his space. He doesn't do well with people in his workshop at all, and he's had a rocky history with these ones.

They saved the world together. Some of them. That should count for something, right?

Rogers nods. No one moves to follow Tony, so he supposes that's more of a 'do it later' request. Tony nods back and uses the silence as his cue to leave. He has projects he needs to finish.

He's supposed to have the projections done on the StarkPhone improvements by now. If they aren't too cost prohibitive, he can probably make the same improvements on the StarkPad. Rhodey does a lot of work using those. Maybe Rhodey needs a more durable model. Something that can take a hit and still function. Fall off the Empire State building without a scratch. That'd be a hell of a publicity stunt. The military will scoop that up in a heartbeat and Rhodey will get a little cred for getting more StarkTech in the military's hands.

He steps into the workshop, mind swirling with ideas. He forgets all about Barnes and soulmates and names written on skin that no longer exists. He has too much work to worry about a soulmate that doesn't want him.

Bucky follows Steve down to the eightieth floor. Romanov and Barton disappear in the stairwell, seeking out some other floor. Wilson wanders ahead, peeking through rooms, likely trying to find the best option. Steve stops at the first door they come to next to the gym.

"Is this all right?" Steve asks as Bucky follows him inside.

Bucky glances around. They are in a room with a couch, two chairs, and a TV mounted in the wall. There are two bedrooms linked off it, minimal furnishings visible through open doorways. Steve obviously intends for them to stay here, in these adjoining rooms.

He wanders through the space. There are tall windows in the bedrooms. They look out over the strange form of a city he once knew. He runs his flesh fingers over the not-glass. It's transparent but thick. He presses his metal palm flat against it and exerts a small amount of pressure. It does not crack. It does not yield. He is pleased.

"It is tactically sufficient," Bucky says when he returns to Steve.

Steve rolls his eyes. "But do you like it? We don't have to share. I think Banner said there are single suits down the hall."

Should a fight occur, it would be advantageous to have Steve nearby, both for his enhanced fighting skills and his knowledge of the other occupants of their shared space. "It is tactically sufficient."

Steve sighs. "Yeah. Okay." Steve has two duffels and his shield. Bucky has the clothes Steve loaned him. "Um." Steve looks around before finally, reluctantly looking at the ceiling like Stark had in their meeting. "JARVIS?"

"Captain Rogers. Sergeant Barnes."

Steve shakes his head. "Just Bucky and Steve, please."

"As you wish. How may I assist you?"

"Um." Steve looks Bucky over. "We're going to need some clothes for Bucky. Toiletries. The basics. I have an account, but I think SHIELD froze it."

"I shall inform our legal department to investigate the matter. Until such time, Mr. Stark has authorized usage of his personal fund." The TV flashes to life, showing a 3D rendering of Bucky with a list of measurements. Bucky moves closer to read them. They seem accurate. He has no idea what the numbers should be or what they were before, so he doesn't question JARVIS's readings. "Would you care to choose your wardrobe or have one of our personal shoppers select items for you? A card can also be issued, should you wish to make purchases outside my system."

The 3D rendering flips through different styles of clothing. None of them include tactical gear. None of them spark recognition. "I don't care."

Steve shakes his head. "Just some basics for now, please, JARVIS."

"I shall have a selection delivered to you shortly."

Steve hovers at Bucky's side. "Is there anything you want? Tony's being really generous, and I don't know his limits but I'm sure there's something-"

"Guns." Steve blinks. "Knives." His tactical suit had been unsalvageable after the Potomac. "Tactical vest. Fatigues. Kit."

"Whoa." Steve holds up his hands. "I'm sure we can get you all that stuff..."

"Mr. Stark will need to approve such purchases. Shall I notify him?"

"Not yet, JARVIS, thanks." Bucky frowns at Steve, who frowns right back. "You don't have to fight anymore, Buck. Not if you don't want to. How about we work on getting you back to you before we worry about all that stuff?"

Bucky considers. The Asset would not approve. The Asset would not stay in such a conspicuous location. The Asset would not allow personal attachment. Bucky is no longer The Asset. "One knife," he concedes. Steve grins. "And a vest." He looks down at the jogging shoes borrowed from Steve. "And new boots."

"Of course, sir," the AI says. "I shall make arrangements."

Steve pulls Bucky into a tight hug. "It's so good to have you back."

Bucky doesn't correct Steve. He isn't back. He isn't the person Steve knew. He might be, eventually. That's the plan, at least. If he stays with Steve, he might remember who Bucky Barnes was. Maybe then he will understand the gaping void inside of himself that aches for something Bucky does not remember. Maybe he will remember who once filled that void.