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I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There's nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began,-
I loved my friend.

- Langston Hughes

 

The vast lobby of the Tower was usually a cool, empty space designed to both intimidate and sooth. Right now, though, it echoed with the excited voices of dishevelled superheroes, stained and blackened by that last incredible explosion. But when Steve tried to focus on Carol's shining smile, or Teddy and Billy's clinging embrace, or Thor - Thor, alive and alight with crackling power, and shaking Maria Hill by the arm in a way only long experience made it possible to identify as friendly - however much he wanted to know what was happening, what he'd missed, what everyone was doing, his eyes returned, again and again, to the sleek glowing form of Iron Man. A new suit and a new shape, but distinctively Tony's work, looking so much more advanced than the world around it, as if it had been pasted into the scene like bad CGI. He hadn't lifted the faceplate yet. The new suit was form-fitting enough Steve knew it was a man, but it could have been Rhodes. If he didn't look about and see Rhodey, he could pretend that it wasn't -

He looked away, fielded a tight embrace from Kate, who was bloodstained and grinning. When she darted away to pounce on Eli, he took a step towards Fury but checked when he saw he was talking earnestly to a small blond boy who was trying to smile. Steve turned away and saw Rhodey, pushing through the crowd with a scowl that kept being overtaken by a smile, a familiar enough expression to direct at Tony Stark, when your delight at his recovery from whatever he'd done to himself overtook the anger at, well, whatever he'd done to himself.

Steve backed quietly out of the crowd, and made it to the stairs. Jogging up the flight after flight to the penthouse was a good cooldown; not that his enhanced muscles need it, but it was a good habit to be in. The endless stairs were soothing enough that when he reached the top, he stared blankly at the closed door for a moment before it occurred to him it might be locked.

But the door opened under his hand; whoever had been last out had been in a hurry. Or perhaps they just hadn't cared any more.

The main rooms were oppressively silent, full of the debris of superhero living without an attentive butler to clean up; subtly different from the mess the Avengers had left back in the day, bloodstains and empty beer bottles and mouldy takeaway cartons. He felt like a ghost, picking his way through the mess, trying not to disturb anything, although he knew the owners wouldn't be back. The scattered wreckage was the ghost, the past, and he was the now.

Up the stairs, and his bedroom was just as he'd left it but for the fine layer of dust. He could believe that Osborn hadn't cared enough to disturb it, but it meant Tony had left things in place, even after Steve was gone, and that meant - what did that mean?

He pushed the thought away. It wasn't running away; he was tired, exhausted, and he couldn't face dealing with the anger that piled up when he even thought of talking to Tony. He sat on the bed, and looked at the phone. He had Sharon's number.

But he'd promised himself he wouldn't lean on Sharon, because Sharon couldn't tell him no right now. Too much guilt, too much pain. She hadn't been able to tell him no then, either, and that - he shied away from that thought. It wasn't his fault, but still. He should have noticed. He'd barely noticed this time, so wrapped up in his own troubles, until Sam had hinted, carefully. Thank God for Sam.

I don't think you want this now, Steve had said gently, and she'd stared up at him, the deep bruised shadows under her eyes making them bluer than ever.

I'm here for you, Steve, she'd said, steel in her voice, and he'd shaken his head and hugged her, hard.

It's okay, he'd said, and given her his best lie. Sharon, I'm fine. I've got people queueing up to take care of me. What about you?

I want - Her voice softened, just slightly. You're sure? Because I think I want to be on my own. To - a lot happened, Steve. She put her head down on his shoulder, speaking almost inaudibly. You're right. I don't want this now.

And of course there was always work for an agent as skilled as Agent 13. Fury had half a dozen jobs for her to pick from and she'd been gone within the hour. Steve'd been allowed her number, though, which meant Fury must be incredibly concerned about one of them. Maybe both.

If he called and asked her to come back -

If he called and told her he missed her -

He'd call tomorrow, when he had strength to share with her.

He put a hand to his head, trying to rub the tension out of his jaw, and tried to think of a next move. A shower sounded good.

The mechanical actions of getting sweat and dried blood off occupied his mind, checking absently for grazes or tender spots that the burn of adrenaline could have drowned out. He decided not to use his old toothbrush, and swilled mouthwash instead, glad to be rid of the dry rusty taste of the fight.

His favourite towel was folded away in the cupboard, blue with white stars - a gift from Jessica Jones - little Dani must be toddling by now - and wrapped it around his waist and sat down on the bed with a Stark Industries t-shirt in his hands and tried to figure out how he felt.

Nothing but tired, draining grey overlaying everything. With the fierce energy of the fight fading, the future looked like nothing but an uphill struggle right now, no clear goals to aim for. Just the grind of rebuilding what had been torn down; the sheer waste of all that death and destruction was heartbreaking. He should make a start, go back down and organize people, prepare for the media - but Hank was there, and Bucky. He didn't want to step on their toes.

Bucky - he'd been smiling. Natasha wrapped round him, the shield back in his hands. Steve missed its presence already, but Bucky needed it more than him. But Bucky had smiled, he'd laughed, and fighting with Bucky at his side, hearing him crack bad jokes, had been like being back in the War. He'd had other partners, of course, Sharon and Sam and Tony, but Bucky had been the first person he'd learned to work with, hand in glove. Stepping back into that had been -comfortable. Easy, like so little was nowadays. Still, Natasha was Bucky's partner now, and Steve would have to - to do something else. Maybe Sam would like a partner again. He'd worry about it later.

Sleep was very tempting. He was wondering if anyone would miss him for a hour's nap when he heard footsteps in the hall, sending a shiver of tension down his spine. For a second, he convinced himself they weren't familiar, but the door opened, and shut, and he could smell burning and machine oil. His fists clenched.

Every greeting that came into his head sounded bitter and double-edged, and he was struggling for words when the bed rocked and Tony collided with his shoulder, almost knocking him over. For a confused moment he thought they were fighting, and that it would be the final straw for his tenuous self control, but then Tony's fingers skimmed over his cheekbones and slipped into his hair. When Steve twisted to look at his face, there was a dark glow in his eyes that brought memories sledgehammering back.

"Hey," Tony said, breath catching, and used the weight of his body to press Steve back to the bed. "Hey. Did you miss me?"

"Tony," he said, stunned, and habit brought his arms up to wrap around Tony's waist, thinner than it used to be. Steve opened his mouth to say something, but the words caught jaggedly in his throat and he could feel his brows drawing together in a scowl.

"I know you're angry, but - " Tony cupped his face, and kissed him, hurried but sweet, and Steve's eyes shut almost of their own accord. "I know, I know, I should give you time - Steve." He kissed Steve again and again, light and tentative, breath quickening, and Steve hadn't realised quite how much he'd missed Tony, his Tony, not the Tony who hated him or the Tony who lay like the dead on a gurney. This, now, cut through the fog of exhaustion, and he rolled them over, pinned him down on his back. Tony actually laughed, arms coming up around his neck, and Steve hesitated.

"Tony, you - "

"I didn't stop my heart this time," said Tony. "Strange said I was only brain-dead; see how I improve? You should be pleased."

"What?" said Steve. "We should - " he pulled back and shook his head, tried to shake sense into himself. "There's so much - "

"Love you," said Tony softly, tightening his grip, tugging him down and Steve's heart hurt. He rested his brow against Tony's and squeezed his eyes shut. "You love me?" Confident, not really a question. He was so damn arrogant -

"Yeah," Steve managed. He'd never stopped, really, just layered on hate and anger, and even then he'd nursed the hope that Tony would come to his senses, come back to him.

And here he was.

"Then you can yell at me later," Tony said, and tilted his head back to bring their mouths together, gentle bite at his lip before the touch of his tongue. Steve pushed aside thought and parted his lips and let Tony kiss him. Impatient as he always was after a battle, Tony tugged the towel away from Steve's hips and wrapped that familiar calloused hand around him. Steve let him, kissed him back and pushed into his hands and dragged at his shirt to feel the comforting slide of skin on skin.

It was easy just to acquiesce, let it happen, his body knew all this as well as it knew combat moves and responded automatically to that knowing touch. Tony's clever fingers inside him, and it had been almost two years since he'd had this, in this room, before it all went to hell. Had Tony known that last time that it was the last time? He covered his face with his hand, panting, wincing at a pain that wasn't in his body, and Tony stroked his belly and murmured softly to him before pulling his fingers free, holding him open and sliding up inside him. Vaguely, Steve knew he should have insisted on condoms, he knew Tony hadn't been celibate, but - he arched his back and cried out as Tony drove in hard, and -

It lasted about thirty blurred, intense seconds and then the world slowly reassembled itself as they settled together into familiar shapes, Tony sprawled on his back and Steve draped over him. He kissed Tony's wrist, the blue trace of the vein through skin that was too pale, skipped the purplish skin inside the elbow, where there were needle marks, but nuzzled into the tender flesh inside his upper arm, the smell of sweat and metal. He shut his eyes, and wondered how long he could get away with not opening them, pretending it was then, not now. He could feel the new artificial heart cool against his skin, the velvet hum of the power nothing like the rough sounds of the old heart.

Tony ruffled his hair and sighed a little, and Steve turned his head and forced his eyes open. Despite the haggard lines and the bags under his eyes, there was a bright animation to Tony's face, and the smile he gave Steve was nothing but happy.

"How long was I out?" he said, combing his fingers through Steve's hair, and Steve frowned.

"Not too long. Just like you planned," and he felt guilty for that little jab, but Tony's lazy smile didn't waver. "When I came back, we fixed you right away."

"Came back?" said Tony. "Where've you been?"

"I mean back," he said sharply, and Tony raised his eyebrows, exasperation shading his expression. Steve's stomach lurched.

If we think of our minds as our body's operating system and Extremis was an upgrade, I did what any good geek would do before installing it.

I backed myself up.

Before installing Extremis.

"Tony," said Steve, and whatever sounded in his voice made Tony's eyes widen. "What's the last thing you remember?"

 

Steve hadn't been surprised to hear that his apartment had been destroyed, somehow. Over the years, he'd forced himself not to get too attached to his possessions. The news that Bucky had put his real treasures away in a safety deposit box had been an unanticipated blessing.

Natasha had almost hijacked him back to this one rather than let him stay at the Tower. The hovering presence of Bucky had made it clear whose will was motivating that, and he suspected the aim was not so much to gain his company as to keep him away from Tony.

Tony had let him go almost nonchalantly, nothing in his breezy smile to betray worry. Steve wasn't sure if that was good or bad - he'd seemed almost unable to comprehend the situation. Steve's disjointed account of it could hardly have sounded convincing, although his distress must have been. Tony had held him tight and whispered comfort until Steve's hands had stopped shaking.

He'd be convinced eventually. He'd always been a man willing to face unpleasant facts. Almost too willing, sometimes.

Bucky prowled past again, skirting around the edges of his apartment like a cat unused to his new home. When the shine of victory had worn off his smile had followed, and his face settled into neutral, empty lines. A face you wouldn't look twice at.

"I can't believe he doesn't remember," he said, patrolling into the kitchenette and then back out. He stared accusingly at the TV, and then turned on his heel and advanced on the window with apparently lethal intent.

"It makes sense, in retrospect. He backed up his brain just before Extremis. Of course he doesn't remember anything after that. He remembers forming the New Avengers... you... and then, preparing for the Extremis." Tony, bleeding out and taking that desperate gamble.

But he'd picked that gamble rather than ask for help, rather than call them, he could have died there and Steve would've gotten a phone call... he pinched the bridge of his nose. He should probably yell at Tony for that, but they'd hashed it out at the time, and, well, Steve had been glad just to have him alive.

"Right." Bucky lost interest in the window and turned on his heel to stare at him accusingly. "So you've forgiven him? Just like that?"

"That Tony's... not even there, anymore. He wiped himself out of existence. I think that's what he meant, when he said he wasn't going to apologize... he can't, now. That Tony killed himself." The Tony who'd - no point in dwelling on it, now, and the marvellous lightness of that thought, of the painful conversations that would never happen, took his breath away. He hadn't realised how much the future was hurting him until it had stopped.

He remembered the terrible tearing pain of that day in the Mansion; he'd assumed that Tony and he would be able to talk it out, but when they'd talked and failed - that had hurt more and been more final than any fight they'd had. And now, miraculously, it was gone.

"And you're happy with that?"

"Bucky, I... " Steve shrugged. Telling Bucky it made him want to sing with joy seemed inappropriate. "I can't change it. I can hold a grudge against a man who doesn't exist anymore, or I can look to the future."

Bucky lifted his chin and scowled at the wall. "We could get his memory back," he said, and Steve pushed away the instinctive No!. He locked his hands together and took a deep breath. Bucky was watching him out of the corner of his eye.

"There's probably ways, somehow, if we look hard enough," he said, in his most reasonable tone. "But how much effort should we go to, if he doesn't want them back?"

"Does he?" Bucky's voice was clipped tight, and Steve could see the tension in his pose. He leaned back into the couch, relaxing deliberately. Bucky's posture softened only slightly.

"I don't know," he admitted, and felt embarrassed at his own weakness as Bucky turned that blank stare on him again.

"You don't want him to have them back," he said, and Steve nodded.

"You think that's hypocritical."

"I - " Bucky cut the sentence off, and turned away, hands linking behind his back. He didn't have any of the little nervous tics he'd had during the War, none of the mannerisms and tricks of speech. Even his accent had flattened, becoming a strange malleable thing that took on the qualities of whoever he was speaking to. "No," he said finally. "But I don't know why."

"Because I'm selfish," said Steve, and the bitterness in his voice startled him. "I wanted you back, and I wanted Tony back, so I wanted you to have your memories and Tony... not. You didn't want your memories back, but I didn't let it stop me."

Bucky walked again, tapped his fingers on the window, trailed them over the wall, poked at the thermostat. Steve watched him, listened to the soft pad of his feet as he passed behind Steve and stopped on the edge of Steve's vision, a shadow.

"Where's Natasha?" Steve said finally, turning his head. Bucky was looking at him with a slight frown, as if Steve was something new and puzzling.

"Gone for drinks with Hill and Potts," said Bucky. His mouth turned down. "She said she didn't want to intrude on my awkward silences."

"You could always talk to me," said Steve, trying not to sound pleading, and Bucky shifted his weight and his glance flicked from door to window as if planning his escape. It hurt to see Bucky so unnerved by his presence, but he tried not to show it. Bucky had enough to cope with without having to deal with Steve's need.

"I thought - I thought there'd be time," Bucky said, still looking at the window. "I thought there'd be time, that I could deal with things, and come to you, fixed. Not the Winter Soldier. And then you died."

"I'm sorry," said Steve foolishly, and wondered how many times he'd feel the urge to apologize for having been murdered.

"No, I. Ah, Steve." Bucky covered his face with one hand, the cyborg hand. "I just want - " He stopped. "I want things to go back to normal," he said very quietly. "And I don't even know what normal is."

After a little while, Steve turned away and put the news on, a swirl of gaudy colours and capes. In the old days his more dramatic fights were rarely filme, but nowadays he was all over Youtube within half an hour. He wasn't sure if it was an improvement.

After a while more, Bucky settled at the opposite end of the couch, poised tensely on the edge of the cushions. He relaxed a little during Thor's grave but good-natured interview, and almost smiled when Luke appeared, covered in bandages and clasping a wide-eyed Dani to his chest. Steve was formulating a conversational gambit based on Dani's undeniable adorableness when Tony's face flashed up on the screen, a stock photo behind a talking head.

Bucky got up and went into his and Natasha's bedroom and Steve watched a news report he could probably have written himself. Remarkable recovery, many evidences Stark was a victim of circumstance, heroic action to defend the innocent... he was taking up residence at Stark Tower again. Steve wondered, absently, if they had a stock report as well as a stock photo for Tony rising from the ashes.

When Bucky reappeared he was wearing something that resembled the Winter Soldier costume, which brought a sour taste into Steve's mouth. He'd hoped never to see it again. The bared arm was far less intimidating now that synthetic flesh covered the metal bones.

He took the shield, too. Steve watched him pick it up, and didn't say anything. Bucky met his gaze for a time that stretched to awkwardness, and then left without saying anything.

 

Bucky was prepared to scale the outside of the Tower, but there was already scaffolding wrapping the lower half of the building, and from there he climbed the cable of a window cleaner's cradle. The cable tore his plastic skin slightly; he'd have to get a glove for it.

He took a guess, and went all the way to the top where Osborn's office had been. Presumably it had been Stark's office first, but Bucky had never seen that. The glass balcony doors were propped wide to the night, and the windows were all open too; it wasn't very warm this high up, so Stark must be expecting him. Bucky couldn't really blame Steve for calling ahead. Steve barely knew him, these days. He drifted forward on silent feet to look inside and saw Stark sitting on a couch covered in papers, two laptops open on the table in front of him. He looked tired but alert, passing papers from pile to pile, occasionally crumpling them and throwing them over his shoulder. He didn't look like a man who'd been brain-dead twenty-four hours ago.

Bucky moved forward to the edge of the light, put his last step down with an audible click, and Stark looked up.

His eyes narrowed, and then he smiled, and put down the file he was holding.

"Come in," he said. "I assume you're not just here to kill me, or you wouldn't be standing in plain sight." Bucky stepped through the door, then turned to walk along the wall, keeping his eyes on Stark. Stark turned to watch him, an expression of interest on his face. It reminded Bucky of the way his handlers had looked at him, searching for signs of weakness or damage.

"So it's Stark Tower again," said Bucky and Stark nodded.

"Yeah. There's a heck of a lot of evidence that Osborn acted outside his remit in seizing it; the public money put into the building was all contracted, all traceable. Why would I have banked on remaining Director of Shield indefinitely?" He paused as if waiting for an answer, and Bucky looked away. "I can't reasonably be blamed for the Skrulls - they'd been infiltrating for years before I took the job. And I'm certainly not to blame for Ultron. As for my own wrongdoing... there's little evidence, and I can't remember." Stark shrugged. "So here I am."

"Did you delete the evidence?" said Bucky.

"Maybe. I can't remember." Bland little smile, saying nothing. Bucky had little chance of recognizing deceit; the man had years of experience in deceiving the people closest to him.

"So you have everything back." And he hadn't lived through the last two years, which might be a better pay off. Stark was still staring at him as if he'd never seen Bucky before. Because he hadn't, not really. Stark had done an almost ludicrous double-take at him when he'd approached him after the battle with a jibe about his shiny new costume. Expecting Steve, and finding Bucky.

A disappointment Bucky was accustomed to seeing.

"You know, Natasha told me I gave you the uniform, let you keep the shield," said Stark chattily, and he turned away, settled back into the couch and and kicked his heels up onto the table.

"Let me?" said Bucky.

"Nat and I go back. Not as far as you two do, but we go back." He glanced back over his shoulder as if seeking a reaction, but Bucky wasn't enough of a fool to be jealous of Natasha's past lovers. Stark smiled. "She told me you took my help. But now you're angry with me. Why?"

"I don't have enough reason?" Stark turned away, and Bucky took a few steps sideways so he could see Stark's profile.

"You were willing to tolerate me after that first time you tried to kill me. But now, the damage I did to you is fixed, and you're angry again. Why?" He tipped his head, consideringly. "I think you're jealous," he said with satisfaction, and Bucky let his lip curl into a sneer. That was a terrible shot; Steve didn't neglect his friends for his lovers.

"I know better than that," he said, and Stark's smirk didn't waver.

"Oh, not like that. Not because I come back, and I just... pick up right where I left off. The armour, my company, the Avengers, and through dumb luck, I've even patched it with Steve, like we'd never been apart." Stark paused, and gave him a thoughtful look. Bucky gave him the blank look of Winter Soldier.

"Well, maybe you're jealous about how easy it was with Steve," he said finally, and Bucky thought about hitting him. "But that wasn't what I meant. You're jealous I can't remember."

"Fuck you," Bucky said without thinking, and his hands shifted on the shield.

"I wonder... Steve didn't blame you, you know. He finds it so hard, the people he loves." Stark's smile faded. It was true, Bucky knew; convincing Steve to give up on the things he loved was almost impossible. Almost. Stark had managed it. Bucky... nearly had. "He hated the thought of punishing Wanda, too. He's always so quick to mercy. I wonder if I thought of that. I wonder if I always planned to reset myself, right from the start. If I went for broke because it didn't matter. Maybe you gave me the idea..." he turned to look down at the scattered papers again.

"Don't you know?" Bucky said, and he shrugged

"How can we know what we'd do? I know what I did. I don't know why. I mean, I remember the SHRA, making plans to handle it... but normal stuff. Not... killer cyborg gods. Not setting supervillains on Spider-Man, what the hell was I thinking? The guy risks his life, risks his family's life, because he believes in me, and I..." Stark stopped, and put a hand up to his mouth, pressing his fingers to his lips as if to keep the words back. He took a breath, and spoke again. "I didn't leave myself messages or notes or private files that explain what I was thinking. If I was planning that, I wouldn't tell anyone or leave any clues." Stark picked out a paper, and tilted it towards him. Bucky's teeth ground at the sight of the familiar headline, announcing Steve's death.

"You walked Steve down the street in chains and a power dampener," said Bucky. "Why?"

"Were you planning to rescue him?" said Stark, and Bucky shrugged. "Fury too, I'll bet."

"You think you exposed him on purpose?" Fury had speculated on that at the time, although Bucky hadn't paid him much attention. Stark won't want him to have his day in court, he'd muttered around his unlit cigar, no smell of smoke to betray their presence but Fury couldn't break the habit. Give Cap five minutes with a jury, they'll be eating out of his hand...

"I don't..." Stark rolled the paper in his hands.

Bucky waited.

"Or I knew that if I left the opportunity, someone would take out Captain America and crush the last opposition, and my hands would be clean," he said very quietly.

"You think you did that?" Bucky said incredulously.

"I can't remember," said Stark. "The last time I saw him alive, I gloated. I went to see his corpse... there's no records. Did I gloat again? I've seen footage of some of the fights, and it might as well have been a Skrull for all I remember. But it wasnt. It was me, I did that, and I... can't even claim to have been brainwashed. It was all me."

"Extremis?" said Bucky, and Stark shrugged.

"I was working with Reed and Hank... apparently Hank was a Skrull, but Reed didn't... then, he didn't notice anything wrong with Hank. Fury thought there was something wrong with me... but that was when the Extremis had been hacked. Steve told me Extremis... well, I don't think he liked it much. I think he'd like for it to be that."

There was a pause.

"I don't think I can blame the Extremis," he said finally. "Maybe it affected my judgment; but it didn't control me. I did those things, and because of that, I can't say what else I did. Maybe I wanted Steve dead, by then. I don't know," his voice went ragged on the last words, his first sign of real emotion, and Bucky watched as he squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away, feeling something like horrified pity. Through all the greying confusion of memory loss and retention the Winter Soldier had suffered, he'd never had to wonder if he'd murdered his lover.

But Stark had done it all to himself, and he had no claim to Bucky's sympathy. He walked silently across the carpet, stopping behind Stark, looking down at his bent head. A blow from the shield, there, and Stark would never be a problem again.

"I should kill you," said Bucky. Stark shrugged.

"Maybe," he said. "I don't know. You won't, though."

"No?" he said. Stark was probably right, because -

"Because then I'd be dead and you a murderer, and you know what that would do to Steve."

"It might be better in the long run," he said, and thought of going back to Russia, losing himself out in the snow. Natasha would visit him, when she forgave him for killing Tony. A year, maybe two. Natasha was pragmatic.

"Yeah. That's what I said, sometime in the last two years. At least I guess I did. I don't remember." Stark glanced up at him, and smiled without humour. "Follow my good example, why don't you."

Bucky gave in to the tension twitching in his body, and began a circuit of the office. Stark returned to his papers, ignoring him completely. There was a framed photo of the Avengers on the desk - Bucky wasn't sure when it was taken, there were several faces he didn't recognise. Cap and Iron Man were front and centre, the Wasp perched on Iron Man's shoulder. Pym had blamed Stark for her death; would he do that again, or take Steve's path?

"Do you want your memories back?" he said.

"Steve doesn't want me to have them back," Stark said. "And you know, maybe I should try, face up to my sins, but in case you hadn't noticed, Steve needs me right now. Sam's worn the hell out, Sharon's worse - "

"And I bet you're glad of that," said Bucky venomously, and Stark winced.

"I can't say Sharon and I ever got on - really, how could we - but I would never wish - " He stopped. "I would never try and break them up, and she's never done that to me. Of course I'm glad she didn't want Steve, so I could step right back in. But I swear, I wish none of that had happened to her, even if it meant she and Steve were together."

"Sure," said Bucky, and then he realised he'd taken the bait, been diverted. "You didn't answer me. Do you want them back?"

"I," said Stark, and he turned back to his computer. "Yes. No. I want to know why I did those things. I don't want to be the person who did those things. But I am, even if I can't remember it."

"Steve - "

"Steve doesn't think so, no."

"And you're letting him - " Stark made an exasperated noise, and slapped his laptop shut.

"If you want us apart, just ask," he said, and Bucky made a derisive noise. "Not me. Ask him to drop me, tell him you can't accept it. And no matter how much he needs me, for you? He'll do it."

 

 

Tony came back from the bathroom and settled down into the bed, pulling Steve close. He'd decided that if Steve wasn't going to be allowed to come to the Tower, he'd damn well set up shop in Bucky's apartment, and see how he liked that.

Not much, it seemed; Tony hadn't seen him at all in the past three days. Natasha had ghosted through yesterday, kissed him on the cheek, and then vanished muttering about a mission.

"I'm starting to get worried about Bucky," said Steve with soft reproof, and Tony shrugged. Steve's skin was damp under his lips, not from their lovemaking, but from his nightmare. He'd choked out Tony's name in his sleep, and looked at him with fear-blown eyes when woken.

In the past, Tony would have known it was a nightmare about losing him, of his death. Now, he wasn't sure. But sex seemed to work as well as ever for reassurance, and it was a form of comfort Tony was expert at.

Looking at Steve's face, so familiar and dear, it was hard to believe he'd lost two years. He'd never been able to imagine what it was like, for Steve and Bucky, to awaken not just to a new world, but to new people, all those you loved gone. In a way, Bucky had even lost Steve, his Steve, and got one ten years older and wiser instead.

Tony had this one, two years older, but that wasn't so much. When Steve was all soft-eyed and welcoming, there was nothing of those two years to be seen. It only showed when he frowned.

"Which costume did he take?" said Tony, practically.

"The Cap one." Steve sighed. "So he's probably..."

"And he took the shield. If he was running, he would have left you your shield." Natasha had told him that Bucky hadn't wanted it; he'd wanted Tony not to have it, sure, but he'd not wanted it for himself. And Steve had practically forced him to keep it. Tony would cheerfully bet his armour that Bucky would bring the shield home again.

"Yeah," and Steve smiled, the little worry line smoothing away. He reached over and turned out the light, and they cuddled together, Steve's fingers bumping down the knobs of Tony's spine, drawing his shoulderblades. Tony put his lips close to Steve's ear.

"How have you forgiven me so easily?" he whispered, and Steve's sigh brushed over his cheek.

"It's... too much effort, Tony. To hate you," and Steve kissed his forehead "I don't want to."

"Maybe I deserve it," Tony said.

"Maybe. But I don't." Final tones, but Tony couldn't stop himself from picking at it.

"I don't know. What I was thinking. At the end."

"I don't know either. But - I was angry, Tony, I won't deny it, but I trusted you."

Tony thought of the tapes he'd seen, himself in armour, talking cool and dismissive to Steve, Steve as angry as Tony had ever seen him.

"You didn't," he said, and Steve gave a quick breath of laughter.

"I trusted you with Bucky, and I trusted you with Captain America. How can you think I didn't trust you, deep down? Even then - even when I thought we'd never be friends again, I trusted you with the most important things I ever had."

"I - " And what had Tony done with that, really? He thought of Bucky, shining and lethal and furious, and didn't want to talk about it. "Where do I come in that list? And Sharon?" he said, trying for a teasing tone.

Steve stroked his hair.

"You honestly want me to answer that?"

Tony rested his fingers on Steve's jaw, felt the tension there. Knew if he turned the light on, Steve would be giving him that direct blue gaze. The most important things, to Steve, were the ones that had been entrusted to his care. His responsibilities. Tony had always wanted to belong to himself.

"No," said Tony. "I'm... I'm good." He felt Steve's smile, and turned his head to kiss it.

 

Bucky let himself in through the window, quiet as he could, but he wasn't surprised when the door to Steve's bedroom opened and Steve appeared, wearing only a pair of sweatpants. Even in the dim light, his relief was obvious.

"Is Stark here?" he said, and Steve nodded. "Figures."

After a moment's silence, Steve sat down on the couch, settling in as if he intended to spend the rest of the night watching Bucky. Bucky drifted idly about, very aware that the suit caught every scrap of light. It was terrible for stealth work; he didn't know why he'd let Tony put him into it.

He did know. It was the design that had been furthest from Steve's. Neither he nor Tony had wanted to see him like that, a ghost dressed as another ghost.

I think you should keep doing this, Steve had said, and then hesitated, as if he had to force the words out. Being Captain America.

"You wanted me back," said Bucky, and Steve nodded, no sign of surprise on his face. Perhaps he'd been waiting for this. "But it was him, not me." Steve frowned.

"What?"

"Him. That Bucky. Not... this." He touched his gloved hand to his chest, to the left of the star, then to his temple. "You didn't want this. You'd wipe away the Winter Soldier, if you could."

"No, I- Bucky, no," Steve sat up. "I figured - I figured if you could remember who you were - "

"Who I used to be," Bucky corrected, but Steve ploughed on.

"You'd be someone - better than the Winter Soldier."

"Cap, the Winter Soldier wasn't me, but I'm him. Part of me." The Winter Soldier had learned strength, had learned grief, and he'd loved Natasha. And he was happy with where he was now, who he was. Who would he be without the Winter Soldier? "I don't want to lose that," said Bucky, sounding surprised even to himself.

"Tony did," said Steve. "But you don't." He hesitated. "It's not - it's different, Bucky, you're not..." He trailed off, then started again. "I - I wouldn't love you more if you didn't have those memories."

"It's not about - " Bucky hesitated,and felt the easing of the grip around his heart. It was about that. Call it childish; but if Steve loved him, he couldn't be so bad. He turned away, stepped towards the window, and heard a little sigh from Steve. After a moment's struggle, he forced himself to turn back and meet Steve's wistful gaze.

He stepped forward, carefully, and knelt down by the couch. He put the cowl back from his face, and then slipped his arms around Steve's waist and buried his head in Steve's side. There was a pause before Steve's fingers slid into his hair.

The concept of personal space didn't mean much when you were fighting a war, and it didn't mean much when you were property of the Soviet Union. Natasha had helped him relearn touching, learn that his body could be kind and tender as well as murderous, but Natasha had her own boundaries. Steve was the only person he'd ever been able to just touch, without question, and know he'd be welcomed. Loved.

Slowly, he felt his body relax, like doors unlocking, and relief passing through them. He was alive. Steve was alive. Steve loved him. He pressed in tighter, and when Steve leaned down to hug him, he scrambled into Steve's lap, grabbing on with both hands and clinging.

"Cap," he said, and didn't bother to keep the plaintive note out of his voice. "Steve. I kept... trying to find you, you know. I kept remembering, and trying to find you, but they'd catch me - "

"I wasn't there," said Steve gently, rubbing his big hands over Bucky's back. "Not for years and years."

"I missed you," he said. "I couldn't remember you, but I missed you anyway. There was a hole in my life without you, and then you were gone again."

Steve made a comforting noise, and hugged him tighter, and Bucky nuzzled into his hair, a few shameful tears lost in there.

"I never stopped missing you, Bucky," Steve said, and Bucky snuffled, trying to maintain a little bit of dignity, not that it really mattered with Steve. "I'm so glad to have you here again. I love you."

"Hey," he mumbled against Steve's neck, breathing in the familiar scent of leather, trying to ignore the smells of sex. It wasn't as if Stark didn't make Steve happy, somehow. He didn't care; he felt a vast tolerance towards all the people he had to share Steve with, because as long as he had his part of Steve, it really didn't matter. "I still don't like Stark."

"Well, you don't have to," said Steve, a laugh shivering in his voice. "Just play nicely."

"If he turns on us again, I will kill him," he said, in possibly the least threatening tone he'd ever used, and Steve shrugged.

"I can't argue that with you," he said, in more serious tones, and leaned back into the couch, taking Bucky with him. "But I think we're going to need him. Him and Hank - they're not nearly as worn down by all this. We're going to need that."

"Hmph," Bucky said, and wriggled a bit, settling himself more comfortably, so Steve could rest his head against Bucky's. "We'll see."

 

Tony reached out, and his hand met cold sheets. When he cracked an eye open, he found closed curtains and an open bedroom door, which meant Steve had gotten up before dawn, in a hurry. There was only silence now, and Tony dressed as quietly as possible, putting his shoes on and smoothing his hair. He wasn't ready to deal with Bucky while looking quite so post-coital. When he stepped out in to the main room he had to bite his lip to hold in a snicker at the sight of Bucky and Steve tangled up together on the couch, Bucky's head nuzzled into Steve's armpit and Steve with one leg thrown over him. He moved closer, and Steve's eyes opened and he smiled drowsily up at Tony, and then looked around him with an adorable air of confusion.

"I'd kiss you good morning," said Tony, "But I feel a little unsafe putting my neck so close to him." Steve's smile widened.

"Funny," mumbled Bucky, and sat up. "Coffee."

"Hello, I'm a guest," Tony said but wandered towards the kitchenette anyway. They could fight while the coffee was brewing, after all. Steve extricated himself from Bucky, who seemed somewhat disinclined to let him go, and vanished towards the bathroom.

"I didn't invite you," said Bucky, following as if he suspected Tony of having designs on the teaspoons.

"Didn't you tell Steve to treat the place like home?" said Tony, gambling on a certainty, and Bucky bared his teeth and turned away. He splashed his face with water from the cold faucet, scrubbing away the marks of what Tony was pretty sure were tears. Sadly, he wasn't on solid enough ground to tease Bucky about crying and hugging. His eyes were still rimmed with red, and his suit was dull. "Here," Tony said, and began to wipe the smudges off the gleaming blue with a cloth.

"You're not my valet," said Bucky, but he stood quietly for it and let Tony bring up the shine.

"You really only need to take a basic level of care with this costume," Tony said, tapping a nail on it. He remembered signing off on the design for this fabric, but they hadn't even reached solid prototype before Extremis. Good to know it had worked. "And yet you still manage to look like a hobo. I know it's not a Russian thing, Natasha always looks impeccable."

"Shut up," said Bucky, and then grabbed Tony's wrist, tight. The human hand; Tony had a reasonable chance of breaking the grip. Of course, they were in Bucky and Natasha's kitchen, which meant that there was probably a submachine gun within arm's reach. He vaguely recalled going into Natasha's freezer in search of vodka once and coming up with a Glock. Still, the odds of Bucky murdering him while Steve was on the premises were low. He raised his eyebrows and quirked his mouth in a fashion he knew was annoying, and Bucky's grip tightened. "I'll kill you," he said, voice dropping into that creepy Russian-accented monotone, and Tony rolled his eyes.

"Sure, Bucky." He caught a fierce look and sighed. "I get it, okay? And I - don't really have a problem with that. After seeing what I did." It was almost a comfort to know that Bucky would be hovering over him like the angel of death, ready to stop him doing that to Steve again. It would probably ruin Bucky's fun to tell him that, though, and Tony was feeling benevolent this morning.

"I know it's in you," said Bucky. "You did it once. You could do it again. I know."

"Well. You would, wouldn't you? You can't just wash away your sins," Tony's voice wavered a little, and he took a moment, a breath, before continuing. "Even if you forget, other people will remember. Emma always says, you never quite live down being evil." Bucky's eyes actually softened just a fraction.

"Yeah," said Bucky, and Tony twisted his wrist, touched a finger to the star on Bucky's chest.

"Brainwashed," he said briskly. "Don't give yourself evil airs. I wouldn't have let you - " he hesitated. "I was worried, when Natasha told me. I was terrified that I'd let you take over the name because I hated Steve and wanted to destroy his legacy, that I'd put a brain-damaged Soviet assassin in his uniform and let him loose. Ow, by the way." Bucky's grip eased slightly. He was breathing hard through his nose. "And I was afraid I was using it to destroy you, to get rid of the things Steve left me."

"And now?"

"I still don't know," Tony said. "I wish I did. I know if it was my plan, it failed. What do you think?"

"I think..." Bucky looked away. "I don't think you - " he broke off as the bedroom door opened Steve stepped out, in the familiar costume Jan had never been able to persuade him to abandon, hair wet and sticking up. Bucky's eyes went soft and adoring, and he let go of Tony's wrist and made a line for Steve.. Tony watched, tolerantly, as Steve squeezed his arm, the worn, muted armour contrasting with Bucky's gloss. Bucky, perhaps, was the Cap of the future, but in Tony's eyes, you couldn't improve on perfection. Steve might be the one thing he'd never tried to upgrade; he'd have to tell him that, sometime. He only realised his feet had carried him in Bucky's wake when Steve turned to him, and smiled, and Tony cupped his face and kissed him, quick but deliberate. Steve shook his head, smiling a little, and Bucky's mouth twisted. And then he laughed, a rusty surprised sound. Steve looked at him, smile spreading wider.

"Our lives," said Bucky, in tones of disgusted wonder. "They're not normal."

"Well, shit, Bucky," said Tony. "Where've you been the past sixty years?"

"Fuck you," said Bucky, almost amiably, and Tony laughed, already starting to form plans for the future.