Bucky hates Mars.
The Maraldi spaceport is loud and noisy. Half the people milling around are tourists, drawn by the races in Arabia Terra and the resorts near Tharsis Montes, poring over their datapads as they plan their short getaways. Vendors and tour guides circle like jackals, excitedly sniffing out the fresh meat to be coerced into buying things they can't afford. And if it isn't the tourists it's the immigrated families wandering around with wide eyes, eager and hopeful that they'll be able to get in on the ground floor of the United Terran Commonwealth's latest planetary success story.
He hitches his pack on his shoulder, weaving his way through the masses as he bypasses the civilian shuttles, heading to the military sector at the end of the spaceport. His flight suit's wrinkled after the day and a half transport from Europa and the subsequent four-hour layover planet-side on Mars; he ignores the dirty looks that a few of the other soldiers, military pressed and parade-pretty, shoot his way.
He's endured worse just from people hearing his name; disapproval for a rumpled uniform doesn't even come close to fazing him.
"You look like shit."
Bucky lifts his head to offer Rhodey a tired smile, lips twitching at the corners. He hadn't even realized he'd reached the orbital station shuttles.
"Good to see you, too, Rhodey. Glad you're not dead."
"I'd say so am I, but Tony's been particularly unpleasant the last month." Rhodey looks at Bucky's left arm meaningfully.
The new cybernetic prosthesis is hidden beneath the long sleeve of his flight jacket. Medical technology these days is amazing, but in order to reattach a limb you have to have said limb. Bucky spent more than a few hours in the Hawkeye's medical bay entertaining the idea of some poor space walker coming across his lost arm.
Rhodey reaches out to take Bucky's pack, which he allows with a grunt. Once, he wouldn't have, stubbornly holding his own no matter how exhausted he was.
He's readjusted how much he values pride.
"He's been unbearable ever since word of the battle reached us," Rhodey says as they walk toward the shuttles. He slants Bucky a narrow-eyed look. "And I ought to hit you for that holo message you sent, but I don't beat up invalids."
"Technically I didn't send it," Bucky points out, knowing it won't really help his case. The message had been pre-recorded, a dead man's switch linked to the chip embedded in his wrist. It was triggered by the shutdown of major vital signs and set to deliver his final messages and wishes to the few people he actually cared about.
When he lost his arm the chip had gone with it, and when he woke up from sedation there had been a dozen messages waiting for him--five of which were from an increasingly distraught Tony.
"Usually he keeps it on an even keel, but after that...." Rhodey shakes his head. "He's swung between manic and domineering, and he's picked a few fights with Command over minor orders. Even the engineers are terrified of him, and he loves them."
Bucky grimaces as Rhodey ushers him into the shuttle with the America's star etched on the side.
Most of the time Tony is the perfect example of a commanding officer: professional and crisp, a model captain deserving of the UTC's Western Sector flagship. He's a brilliant strategist with a natural charm that only amplifies his ability to lead--but that isn't who he is, not really. The UTC knows him for his determination and recognition in battle; Bucky knows him for sly, mischievous smirks and an easygoing irreverence that can scandalize even the roughest spacer.
Regulations have deployment length at eight months, with two months of downtime afterward to give soldiers a break from the black of space. Bucky always spends his leave on the America, and he’s usually able to draw out that playful side of Tony for the length of his stay.
But he's never come back to this before: to a Tony who'd been left alone with his worry and fear; who'd had to listen to Bucky's final words before he'd learned that he was still alive. Bucky's always been able to help Tony regain his equilibrium during rough spots--but he's never been so responsible for those rough spots.
"How have the powers that be taken it?" he asks, slumping down on one of the shuttle's benches as it pulls away from the docking bay.
Rhodey shrugs one shoulder.
"There's been some grumbling, but what can they do? He's one of the major weapons manufacturers, and the public absolutely loved it when he came out of retirement and took a demotion to Captain just so he could continue to 'do his part.'"
Bucky snorts, closing his eyes as he leans back against the bulkhead. The UTC Armed Forces has a knack for spinning stories to suit their needs, and they'd been delighted to have former Vice Admiral Stark back in the service. It didn't matter that he'd only returned because Bucky had begged him to take the America's captaincy, not out of any sense of patriotic duty. Tony had been done with the military and made it clear before he'd left--but that truth wasn't one that the people needed to know.
The fact he'd coerced Tony 'Iron Man' Stark back into the forces is probably the only reason Bucky was never brought up on treason charges.
The America comes into view through the portholes, sleek and majestic and beautiful, and Bucky has to shove down the rush of conflicting emotions as he takes in the living ship, his automatic reaction undiminished even after six years. The shuttle slips into the docking bay, settling down as the outer hull doors close heavily behind them.
Rhodey lifts Bucky's pack pointedly as the shuttle's hatch lowers to let them out. "I'll put this in your room. We're headed to Earth to pick up some diplomat to transfer to Venus, so it's smooth sailing for the next while." His eyes soften. "You didn't see him when he got your message, Buck," he says softly. "He thought you were dead. Just...remember that."
Rhodey ducks out of the shuttle without waiting for a response.
There's a quiet exchange that Bucky doesn't bother to try to hear as he pushes himself to his feet, absently adjusting his wrinkled flight jacket before heading down the ramp. A familiar figure is standing there to greet him, and some of the tension in Bucky's body finally starts to dissipate.
Tony has dark circles beneath his eyes, haggard face belying the cocksure grin on his lips. He's not in uniform, clad in a simple shirt and loose trousers, and his knuckles are white where his hands are clenched at his sides. He doesn't move, doesn't step forward; he just waits as Bucky walks to him, tired and weary.
Sharp brown eyes look him over, lingering on his arm before settling on his face--and the open, desperate relief in his expression has Bucky's breath catching in his throat.
"Hey," he says softly, stopping a few feet away, just out of reach. He doesn't step off the ramp, not yet. The artful, graceful curves of the docking bay intrude on his peripheral vision, achingly familiar and somehow able to radiate a tense stillness, as though waiting for a pin to drop.
"Hey yourself," Tony replies, voice quiet. His shoulders are stiff and set, body held military straight like he's bracing himself for a blow. Like he's still expecting Bucky to turn around and get back on the shuttle, to go somewhere that doesn't hurt him with every wall or floor or keypad he touches.
But Bucky's lost his rank, his pride, and his name--and he won't ever give up what little he has left.
He steps forward, tucking himself against Tony's chest, face pressed into his neck. Tony's arms wrap around him instantly, holding him tight. Bucky lets out a hitched breath as he's engulfed in warmth he hasn't known since his last leave. He only takes a brief moment before sliding his still-human arm around Tony's waist; cybernetic fingers clenching in the front of his shirt as he clings back just as fiercely.
The America seems to sigh around them. It's a long while before Tony's able to loosen his grip, only pulling back far enough to tip Bucky's chin up and brush a gentle kiss over his lips--and Bucky finally, finally feels the peace that's eluded him all these months.
When Tony smiles at him, soft and fond, Bucky is able to smile back without reservation.