When Bucky emerges from the lab, feeling wrung out and smug as fuck about it, Steve is sitting on one of the couches in the living room, reading from a tablet. He looks up, and immediately both flushes bright red and gives him the ultimate disappointed face. Normally, Bucky would feel awful about that, but the endorphins are currently cancelling out all of his shame.
“That was quick,” Steve says, sounding slightly strangled.
“We’re men of action,” Bucky says breezily. “What can I say?” Even his new arm feels well-fucked. The future is fantastic.
“Yeah, well,” Steve mutters, going even redder. Bucky despairs of him, but takes pity anyway.
He lifts the new arm and manages a little wave. It’s a bit unsteady, but Tony is scheduling the neural surgery for next week, so it’s all good. “So what do you think?”
Steve focusses, and then he’s on his feet, all embarrassment forgotten. “That’s…? Wow. Tony wasn’t kidding when he said he could do better than SHIELD.”
“You saw what SHIELD was gonna give me?”
“Yeah,” Steve says absently, taking the metal hand and turning it over to inspect it. It’s still absolutely strange that Bucky can feel his grip; it’s nowhere near as exact as having real nerve endings, but he can feel the pressure and warmth and get a fair reading from it. “It was impressive, but nothing like this. I guess I’m not surprised, though.”
“The guy knows his bionics,” Bucky agrees.
Steve looks at him knowingly. “Hm,” he says.
Bucky doesn’t actually ask until they’re both sprawled out on the floor of the workshop, having slid off the table at some point during the proceedings. He briefly considers tugging his trousers back on, and then decides that dignity can wait. “You gonna tell me about that lantern in your chest?”
Tony doesn’t react for a long second, but then eventually he shifts, one hand coming up to tap on the glass. “Life support,” he says briefly. “Got hit by some shrapnel, near my heart.”
Bucky winces. He’s seen how those kind of wounds work.
“This keeps them from moving. Big ol’ electromagnet, powered by a generator I invented. It’s fairly ingenious. Very impressive.”
He snorts. “So I guess I can trust you with a silly little thing like an arm, huh?”
“I’d say so, yeah,” Tony replies, quirking a smile at him.
Bucky watches him for a second, and then rolls over and up to sling a leg over Tony’s hips and settle on top of him. Tony’s hands automatically land on his thighs. “Hi there,” he says.
“Why me?” Bucky asks, not lightly, but without pressure. He wouldn’t mind if Tony’s answer was as shallow as his pretty face, honestly, but he can’t help but be curious.
Tony stares at him for a long moment, and then he looks off to the side. His hands stay still, though, which is encouraging. “Dad used to show me all of the newsreels of you guys,” he says. “It was pretty much the only thing we could stand to do together.”
Daddy issues, Bucky thinks to himself. He just nods and waits, though.
“Cap was my hero, obviously,” Tony continues, his off-handedness a little too deliberate, and Bucky is pretty sure that Tony’s never told anyone this, ever. But he can relate, so. “But I thought, you know, I could never be like Cap. Cap’s just…”
“Impossible?” Bucky suggests.
Tony huffs and smiles crookedly. “Yeah. I mean, I dreamed of meeting him. But, I guess, you were real? And funny as hell. And a crack shot. And then when I was hacking the SHIELD database—“
“—and you suddenly just appeared out of the blue under thirty layers of security, black-bagged all to hell, I just thought…I just thought, fuck it.”
Bucky laughs. It’s more than he expected, really. He grins and shifts his hips, enjoying the way it makes Tony’s gaze turn predatory. “I like your initiative, Stark.”
“Whoa, someone’s armed and dangerous,” says a voice from down the hall, followed immediately by the sound of a sharp smack and a plaintive, “Ow!”
“I’m embarrassed to know you,” a female voice reprimands, at which point Bucky looks up to see two people in SHIELD uniforms approaching from the hallway. The man is muscular and rough around the edges—undoubtedly a field agent—rubbing the back of his head, looking unrepentant. As for the woman…well, all Bucky gets a chance to register is that she’s a looker, and she has the bearing of someone who can break a man into pieces at the drop of a hat.
Steve sighs, letting go of Bucky’s arm and gesturing. “Bucky, this is Clint and Natasha, part of the team. Guys, this is Sergeant James Barnes. He’s staying with us.”
“Nice to meet you,” Bucky says.
Clint waves at the arm. “That Stark’s doing? I knew there had to be a reason Fury actually let you out of lockup. Do you know how long I was in the bowels of that building last time I came out of undercover work, let alone spat out into a new century? Consider yourself blessed, dude.”
Natasha rolls her eyes. “What he’s trying to say is ‘welcome’.”
“I figured,” Bucky says dryly. He looks at Steve. “Who else is on this crack team of yours?”
“There’s Bruce; he’s usually in the SHIELD labs, but if you run into him, try not to aggravate him, he has a bit of a hair trigger,” Steve lists, “And there’s Thor. He’s…”
“He’s the God of Thunder,” Clint interrupts, “It’s enough for a guy to feel inadequate, I’m telling you.”
Bucky raises an eyebrow, but Steve just shrugs in agreement. “Okay, colour me impressed,” he says finally.
“And then there’s Stark,” Natasha finishes, “But you’ve met him, of course.”
Bucky can’t suppress the smirk. “Yeah, we’ve met,” he says.
Natasha’s gaze sharpens on him. “Ah,” she says flatly. “Of course.”
Clint looks between them. “Am I missing something?”
“Nothing you need to know,” Steve says.
“He’s sleeping with Stark,” Natasha says.
Steve splutters. Bucky decides to go with it. “Just did, in fact,” he offers.
Clint’s face goes through a series of contortions that ends in a shrug and his putting one fist in Bucky’s direction.
Bucky tilts his head, and Steve sighs, again. “He wants you to pound it.”
“Fist of booty-acquisition approval,” Clint says, “Hit it.”
Before Bucky can make sense of that, however, an alarm sounds over the house intercom. “Apologies for the interruption,” JARVIS says smoothly, “But I’m afraid Director Fury is in need of the team’s assistance. Coordinates and intel will be downloaded onto the quinjet’s console.”
“Right,” Steve says, all business in a split second. “Everyone on the roof in three. We’ll need to pick Bruce up from SHIELD on the way.”
“I’ll get him,” Tony says, coming up the stairs, half-in, half-out of the suit. Bucky watches in fascination as the plates roll and lock into place.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” Steve counters, “We want the Hulk at the scene, not en route.”
“No fun,” Tony clicked his tongue.
“I don’t think it’s flashy enough, Stark,” Bucky says, but his voice is a little raspy.
Tony grins. “Wanna watch the action? We can drop you at SHIELD.”
“I don’t think Fury will—“ Steve starts.
“Hell yes,” Bucky says.
“Wasting time,” Natasha interrupts. “Where’s Thor?”
Steve steps in. “Thor’s at Jane’s apartment, so he’ll be meeting us at the site. Let’s move.”
Bucky races Tony to the roof, Steve in the lead, Natasha and Clint less than a pace behind.
“Ya’ll need to get to 58th and 4th yesterday, and what the fuck are you doing here, Barnes?” Fury demands, with enough resignation for Bucky to take it as encouragement.
“Taking in the sights, sir,” he says, and then adds, “If it’s all the same to you, sir.” He’d passed Bruce Banner for a split second as he’d leapt off the quinjet on top of SHIELD headquarters, and had managed to shake off security for about half a floor before being intercepted and brought to Fury’s central observation room, which was where he wanted to be anyway.
Fury growled deep in his throat. “Jesus, you’re worse than Stark. Fine, you can stay. Business as usual, everyone, I want all eyes on location.” There’s a scramble of agents and technicians. “What’s our ETA?”
“Three minutes, sir,” one of the agents reports, stepping forward and giving Bucky the side-eye.
He nods politely at her. “Ma’am.”
She looks over his head at Fury with a raised eyebrow, and Fury rolls his eye in answer. She shrugs. “Agent Hill will do.”
The three screens out of the twenty surrounding the room have been on and showing what looks at first to be a random assemblage of explosions, but the rest of the screens begin flickering to life one by one until there are about as many angles on the same scene as one could ever want. The explosions, too, resolve into something recognisable—a street corner, a massive corporate assemblage of skyscrapers, and robots that appear to be dressed for a cult meeting.
“Motherfucking Doombots,” Fury says, like that explains everything. Agent Hill nods, looking exasperated, so Bucky guesses that it does.
Over the radios, or whatever they use for communications these days, Cap says, “Right, Hulk will take the lead and clear us a site; Widow, you’re with me. Iron Man, take Hawkeye to wherever he needs to be for point, and then you're on aerial.”
“You got it,” Tony confirms.
“You need to build a fucking handle on your suit, man,” Clint complains.
“Yes, fucking up the aerodynamics of a flying suit is exactly what I need to do, Barton, great idea.”
“Chatter,” Cap reminds them, and then in the background there’s a growing whoosh of the belly of the jet opening up.
The quinjet arrives on the scene in sight of the cameras, and the first thing Bucky sees is Bruce as he throws himself out without any chute or anything, and then halfway to the ground something happens, and then he’s green and huge.
“Holy Christ,” he says compulsively.
“That’s the Hulk,” Hill says absently. “Don’t, under any circumstances, upset Dr. Banner.”
After him, the others spill out, Cap with Natasha, and Tony swooping out with Clint on his back, the two of them making a graceful arc before Clint makes a rolling dive onto the top of a nearby building and almost immediately begins shooting down the robots with a bow and arrows.
The impact of the arrows themselves seem to make little difference. Half a second later, however, they detonate, and that makes a hell of a difference.
Bucky starts to take a liking to Clint.
The Doombots are destructive, but they’re also a bit comical, and as the Avengers fall into rhythm, Cap’s order against chatter starts to be taken less and less seriously.
“That’s seventeen for me, beat that!”
“Hulk smash twenty!”
“I AM SORRY FOR THE DELAY, MY FRIENDS! ALLOW ME TO ASSIST YOU.”
“That’s Thor,” Hill says.
“Yeah,” Bucky says faintly, watching lightning spill across the sky, controlled, apparently, by a gigantic blonde fella with a hammer. “I got that.”
The Doombots keep coming, but they also keep getting smashed up. It would be entertaining, were it not for the massive property damage and the civilians fleeing the scene. It’s bizarre watching from the screen, all of the sounds slightly muted for the sake of the analysts taking readings and monitoring the situation, but Bucky tries to keep track of everything, ignoring the overwhelming presence of too many moving pictures all at once.
“Iron Man, you got a lock on any central control?”
“Workin’ on it, Cap, but there might be more than one. The behaviour’s just a little too erratic to be a single algorithm.”
Tony is making intricate loops around the buildings, clearly scanning for signals or transmissions of some kind while also blasting away at the bots with what look like miniatures of the power source in his chest. Bucky automatically starts looking for patters too, old instincts kicking in. After a second, he blurts out, “Patch me in.”
“You see something, Barnes?” Fury asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah. Patch me in.”
Hill presses a series of buttons and says, “You’re on.”
“Ton—Iron Man, there’s a bot moving south, slightly apart from the others at your five o’clock, he’s got a weird pendant thing.”
Tony spins in the air, focussing precisely and then making a noise in his throat. “Good eyes, Barnes. I’ll take a look.”
He dives, a long shallow trajectory that puts him nearly parallel to the street and keeps him in the bot’s blind spot, blasting his way through. At the last second, he twists and latches onto the bot by punching straight through a chest panel and clinging.
That particular bot is definitely not like the others. It thrashes, grabbing hold of Tony and wrenching at him with a shriek of metal and electrical equipment. Tony curses up a blue streak but holds on.
“Iron Man, status!” Cap barks.
“Fuck, fine, just, give me a second, this thing is complicated—fuck!”
There’s a crackle over the comms, followed by a feedback whine that has everyone in the room wincing. There’s too much debris and dust billowing across the screens to see much, but Bucky catches a quick glimpse of Tony still going head to head with the control bot. He must do something right though, because all at once a whole bunch of the other bots falter, like they’ve encountered a glitch.
The rest of the team takes advantage of the lapse with destructive glee, but there are still far too many to take down.
Through the static comes through two quiet, carefully-placed words from Tony. “Shit. Okay.”
Bucky feels his grip on the control panel in front of him go painfully tight, and is absently glad that the metal arm isn’t surgically attached yet, otherwise he would have no doubt crushed the entire keypad.
“Iron Man, what’s your status?” Cap shouts.
“All good, Cap,” Tony says, and Bucky knows exactly what that means.
“Fuck that!” he barks into the console, “He’s lying, Cap, he’s about to do something stupid.”
“Shut up, Barnes!” Tony snaps.
“Damn it,” Cap mutters. “Thor?”
Iron Man explodes out of the cloud of dust, clutching a mass of torn up electronics to his chest and heading straight up like an arrow into the atmosphere.
“MAN OF IRON! ARE YOU IN NEED OF AID?”
There’s a hiss and crackle over the comms.
“Stark,” Bucky growls.
“Yeah okay,” Tony says, breathless, half-drowned out by his velocity. “Fifteen more seconds and then I’m letting this sucker go, and Thor, you blast it with everything you got.”
“You need clear time!” Cap shouts, “How much, Iron Man?”
“Doesn’t matter! Just do it! Dropping now!”
Tony tosses the bundle into the air, and as he speeds away Thor calls down lightning onto it in a roaring crash.
There’s a moment of silence, and then a burst of light that immediately shorts out every screen in the control room.
Fury makes an inarticulate sound of rage in his throat. “Get this shit back online, people!” he orders, “And if they’re out for good, get me satellite imaging, give me fucking cell phone footage, give me some fucking eyes on!”
“Fucking hell,” Bucky mutters.
There is complete chaos and radio silence for two agonising minutes. Then finally one analyst calls from the far corner, “Director! We have eyes on the perimeter, and all bots appear to be down!”
A collective sigh of relief is uttered, followed immediately by Fury shouting for security and clean up teams on site. The chaos turns into frantic but orderly movement, with Agent Hill taking charge and calling in support.
Fury spares Bucky a glance. “Well spotted,” he says.
“Sniper,” Bucky replies shrugging.
Fury snorts, and then roams the channels. “Captain, report! Do you copy? Report in immediately.”
A pause, and then, “Sir, everyone is safe and accounted for except Iron Man. Thor’s tracking him down now.”
“Of course,” Fury snarls, and then, off-comm, “Fucking Stark is going to be the death of me.”
Bucky doesn’t reply. But he does think very uncharitably that Steve was right as usual, and that Tony is in fact, a menace.
A stupidly heroic menace.
In retrospect, that does seem to be a theme in Bucky’s life.
It’s a bit hilarious having their positions reversed—Tony in a hospital bed in the bowels of SHEILD, Bucky coming by to visit. But Steve is looking constipated in anticipation of having to give the what-the-hell speech to Tony yet again, so Bucky offers to go with.
It actually translates to Bucky going in while Steve hovers in the hallway because, “I don’t know, Bucky, but you actually seem to get him, and I really am not in the right temper to do this just now.” Bucky’s pretty sure the last time he’d seen Steve this frustrated was when Jacques fell for a Nazi spy masquerading as French resistance and nearly got them all blown to pieces out the back of a Vichy whorehouse.
In any case, Bucky goes in, and they look at each other for a second before laughing at the situation, though Tony makes more of a wheezing noise than anything else. Bucky rolls his eyes and snatches the water glass on the side table, handing it over. “You’re an idiot,” he says. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
“Easy,” Tony replies, once he’s taken a few sips of water, “That controller was rigged with enough explosive to level five blocks. Casualties would be unacceptable, even with evacuations. Moreover, it was incredibly unpredictable because Doom likes to bifurcate his signals with magic—have I mentioned to you how much I hate magic?—and so if I triggered any self-destruct spells by accident in addition to everything else, it could have been disastrous. So, up into the atmosphere, no harm no foul.”
“No planes?” Bucky raises an eyebrow.
“Scanned for it. Sent out a message to the control towers. I wasn’t even close to 30,000 feet yet anyway. JARVIS gave me all possible scenarios.”
“And you couldn’t, I don’t know, have tossed it to Thor to take care of it and gotten some distance before getting caught in the blast radius?”
Tony looks at him like he’s nuts. “Thor’s not expendable.”
“Thor is a god. I’m pretty sure he could take it.”
“Wasn’t willing to take that chance. Not without better odds or better data.”
Bucky stares at him, and then yells over his shoulder, “You’re right. He’s impossible.”
Steve appears in the doorway, arms crossed, and wow, that disappointed face is worse than any Bucky has ever received. “Stark,” Steve starts.
“Think as a team, report more frequently, stop, collaborate and listen, I got it, Cap,” Tony snaps. “I was acting in the best interests of the team, okay?”
Steve visibly collects himself. “You do realise you’re part of the team too, right?” he says. “Anything that ends in you dying is not in the best interests of the team.”
Bucky watches Tony’s reaction, and it’s kind of, well, awful.
It’s more than clear that Tony doesn’t believe Cap at all.
Steve must see it too, because he just shakes his head and says, “You’ll be debriefed when they let you out. In the meantime, try and get some rest.”
“Everyone else is okay?” Tony asks.
Steve pauses, nods assent, and sees himself out.
Bucky nudges Tony with his hip. “You’re pretty fucked up.”
Tony looks up at him and smiles ruefully. “Now you’re getting it.”
The whole team is granted some down time for a few days after the Doom incident, so while Tony recovers and complains and designs narcotic-induced mechanical monstrosities on the one Stark tablet he’s allowed in the medical centre, Bucky settles himself more thoroughly into the Avengers mansion. He seems to have gotten blanket approval for his good eyesight, which helps, and after the first 24 hours or so wherein most of the Avengers pretty much just eat and sleep and make non-verbal noises at each other, they start talking to him in passing.
Clint discourses on the state of movies in this century, something about godfathers and a farce on an airplane and ‘yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!’ Thor offers him poptarts out of the largest box he’s ever seen, but he can’t quite stomach the sheer quantity of artificial flavours that involves, so he politely refuses.
Maria Hill comes by once with paperwork for everyone, and grants him a very small smile that Bucky guesses means she approves of him, though probably only on a probationary level.
“Stark must really like you,” Natasha says one morning, peeling a hard boiled egg with the sort of aggressive meticulousness that makes Bucky think of knife work.
Bucky cocks an eyebrow in inquiry, and she nods at his arm. He looks down at it. It’s currently engaged in holding a fork delicately between three fingers. Tony had to push back the bionic surgery because with him away from the workshop he can’t finish the final arm and prep it for grafting, so Bucky has been getting used to manipulating the net of electrodes on his shoulder to make the arm he has do simple things like wave and pick up a cup of coffee without shattering it. He marvels at it, really, because even when the muscle movements he’s trying to control feel jerky and uncoordinated, the arm makes it all look deliberate and smooth.
“Why?” he asks. “He builds stuff for all of you.”
She shrugs, tilting her head. “Takes him a while to get it right, though,” she says, “To get the tech to fit the user. Clint’s had five bows in the last month and he’s just beginning to really fall in love. That,” she nods at the arm, “Near perfect on the first try.”
“Huh,” Bucky says, and tries not to think about it.
Colonel Rhodes shows up a few days later and goes into some highly controlled hysterics about Bucky’s return to the land of the living, which Bucky can’t help but find endlessly funny.
“Sir, with all due respect, I don’t think you understand. We used to study your technique back at the Academy. There are pictures of you and the Commandoes all over West Point, diagrams of your ambush stratagems. I just, I—it’s a real, real honour, sir.”
“You need to stop calling me ‘sir’,” Bucky says. “Barnes’ll do, since I hear you’re Stark’s friend.”
Rhodes closes his eyes. “You’ve met Tony. Of course you’ve met Tony. I apologise on his behalf for everything.”
Bucky tilts a smile at him. “I’ve got no complaints, actually.”
Rhodes stares at him. “Then I should buy you a drink,” he says. “For achieving the impossible.”
Bucky gets drunk in the modern world for the first time with Colonel Rhodes, plus Clint and Natasha, because they were in the house at the time and wanted out. Natasha slams back vodka like it’s water, Clint opts for tequila and starts singing country songs halfway through the evening, and Rhodes buys rounds of whatever anyone else calls out at random, which leads to some truly unholy drinks being distributed to their table at inopportune moments.
Most of the night is blurry at best, but at some point Bucky distinctly remembers Rhodes slinging an arm around his shoulders saying, “I respect you, man, for just being you, you know, but I love you, see, because you understand the meaning of bein’ in Tony’s orbit, you know? It’s like, it’s great, but goddamn he breaks my heart more than any woman I’ve ever been with.”
Bucky is vaguely amused, through the misery of the next morning (he wakes up in SHIELD, which…what?), by how he managed to accrue all the warning signals about Tony after he’d already thrown in his lot with the guy. That had probably been Tony’s intention all along, but really, it was an unnecessary precaution. Bucky’s always had a tendency to look at danger signs and then plough right past them. Sure, it’s gotten him into trouble a few times, but often enough, the end game’s worth it.
“You look hungover.”
“You need to talk quieter. Have some damn sympathy.”
Tony mimes zipping his lips but doesn’t stop smiling. Bucky slumps onto the edge of the hospital bed and momentarily considers just draping himself over Tony’s calves, but then remembers that one of his ankles is twisted, and refrains. He lists to the side instead, propping himself up on his elbows so he’s facing Tony at the foot of the bed. “So your friends are kind of nuts,” he says. “I think I like them.”
“They’re not really my friends,” Tony says. “Natasha spied on me for SHIELD and stabbed me in the neck, and Clint’s just kind of an asshole.”
“I met Rhodes.”
“Okay yeah, Rhodey’s good people.”
“He had some interesting things to say about you.”
“Don’t believe any of it. Except for the tragi-comic disco debacle of ’97—that definitely happened and I have pictures to prove it. For a brother, he has very few moves.”
“I really don’t know what you just said.”
“Never mind, hardly matters. How’s the arm?”
“Functional. Get better so it can be better.”
“Sir, yes, sir.”
“I do get it, you know,” Bucky says, “Why you take the hits.”
Tony blinks, but his expression doesn’t change. He’s great at defence; it’s lucky that Bucky’s best at offence.
“Steve doesn’t get it, because he doesn’t know what it’s like not to be good. But what you’ve gotta understand is, being good doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not you’re important. You don’t have to be good to be invaluable.”
Tony stares at him for a long second. Then he says, “You’ve got a strange gift, Barnes. You say shit like that, and I don’t automatically want to punch you in the throat.”
Bucky smirks. “That’s ‘cause you know exactly what kind of noises you like to hear from me, and they ain’t wheezing and coughing.”
“Oh come on, I’m bedridden,” Tony complains. “Not fair to say things like that when I can’t follow up.”
“Like I said. Get better so it can be better.”
Tony salutes. Bucky makes a move to leave, but his hangover catches up with him again. He makes a face.
“If you hurl on me, I’m gonna have to hurt you,” Tony warns.
“Won’t.” He squeezes his eyes shut.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, you’re pathetic. Giving me pep talks on a morning after, what were you thinking? Come here. Slowly.”
This is how Bucky finds himself snuggling on a hospital bed. It’s a ridiculously tight fit, but Bucky’s pretty sure he will actually hurl if he attempts to get in a taxi to get back to the mansion, and he’d really rather not. They manage to arrange themselves without jostling Tony’s ribs or Bucky’s head too much, and once they’ve settled it actually feels pretty damn good.
He’s not even aware of time passing until he opens his eyes to find Steve sitting in the visitor’s chair wearing an odd expression. He shifts just enough to get a look at Tony’s face, but he’s dead asleep, so he settles back down and before murmuring, “Hey Steve. You looking for me?”
“Yeah. Natasha told me where you were. I didn’t expect…do you want me to go?”
“Nah, it’s fine. My headache’s gone I think, so if you wanna grab a bite…?”
“Sure.” Steve looks relieved that they’ll be leaving Tony’s company, conscious or not.
Bucky extracts himself from the hospital bed carefully, and follows Steve out and up to the headquarters’ canteen.
“So,” Steve says reluctantly, “How’s Stark?”
“On the mend. I’m surprised he hasn’t started climbing the walls, honestly, but I’m betting the nurses are keeping him pretty sedated most of the time. Don’t want to deal with him otherwise.”
“Mm,” Bucky says. Then after a second, “You don’t have to ask after him for my sake, you know.”
“I—“ Steve stops, seems to reconsider, and then says, “He’s my team mate, I ought to ask after him. But I guess, I don’t know, maybe I’m a little frustrated that you’ve apparently seen something in him that I haven’t.”
They grab sandwiches and coffee from the buffet line and sit at the far corner of the concourse. Bucky takes a tentative bite of his ham and cheese, and when he doesn’t feel nauseous, takes a couple more. Then he tilts his head. “I think your eyesight’s fine,” he says. “Stark’s probably the problem. But I guess that’s not helpful unless he’s gonna change at some point.”
Steve wolfs down one sandwich and starts on another; Bucky wonders how long he waited for him to wake up. After a few minutes, Steve says, “It’s not as if he isn’t capable of change. His file says as much. But changing one’s principles is one thing; changing one’s nature is completely different. I don’t know. You don’t need to worry about it.”
“If it’s the difference between him getting himself killed and not, I kinda do,” Bucky says dryly.
Steve looks at him. “You really do like him, huh?”
Bucky shrugs. “Yeah, I do.” He studies Steve for a moment, and then asks, “How are you doing, anyway?”
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”
“I think you asked me more than enough while I was still holed up in SHIELD.”
Steve snorts, and then manages a crooked smile. “I’m better now that you’re around,” he says quietly, looking down at the table.
He’d said that once before, when Bucky had first woken up. Bucky can’t tell whether he sounds more sincere this time around, or less.
“Would you want to go back?” he asks. “If you could?”
“Would you?” Steve counters.
Bucky considers. “I dunno,” he says. “I mean, I miss the people—I miss us, you know? Dum-Dum and Jacques and the rest of those bastards. But I look around, you know, now, and it’s not bad here. It’s complicated, but so was before, just in different ways. I guess it’s always complicated, really. No worse and no better. Still people bein’ people.”
“People with more super powers,” Steve points out.
He shrugs. “Still people. Zemo had plenty of power. He was crazy, but he was people, and so’re the clowns you have to bash nowadays. At least, I assume the guy running all those Doombots was,” he adds, frowning.
Steve chuckles. “Yeah, Doom is people, of a sort.”
“There you go. So I guess I don’t mind either way. You’re my only family, and you’re here, so I guess I’m content to stay.”
There it is, a genuine Steve Rogers smile. Bucky hadn’t realised just how much he’d missed it.
They finish their lunches, and Bucky keeps Steve company while he fills out mission reports. It feels almost like home.
Tony claws his way out of the medical ward in less than a week by being too obnoxious to keep down. Along with developing another prototype for Natasha’s wrist darts and expanding trouser material for Bruce, he immediately sets to work on preparing the arm, the final draft where the one Bucky’s wearing is a mere prototype.
He ambushes Bucky at all hours in the mansion with new improvements and attachments to swap out according to circumstance, and if it’s the middle of the night when that happens, Bucky pulls him into bed and doesn’t let him go back to the workshop until the next morning. It works out well—they both have nightmares, and they tacitly agree to wake each other when it happens, and not talk about it.
There are two Avengers emergency call-outs of middling seriousness that leave Bucky staring at the screens JARVIS puts together, one finger on an extra comm just in case he spots anything. He tries not to interfere with the team dynamic, but he doesn’t like being on the sidelines at all.
He goes to the firing range at headquarters, managing a handgun one-armed, and blows off as much steam as he can sparring with Steve, which only helps somewhat because Steve is far too conscious of the limitations of the artificial arm.
Fury somehow gets a hold of Tony’s schematics, and several days later he calls Bucky into his office.
“I already know all of the field experience that you have listed in your file. What’s been left out?”
Bucky takes the thick dossier and flips through it. “The fun stuff,” he says finally. “Espionage.”
Fury grins. “Good.”
Bucky tries not to feel too much anticipation about that.
The day of the operation Tony wakes him up with a blowjob and a half-mad grin, and Bucky’s pretty sure he should feel nervous about undergoing an entirely untested surgical procedure that will latch a hunk of metal onto his body for life, but what he’s mostly feeling (through the post-orgasm haze) is a jangling, savage sort of expectation.
“Still sure about the bare metal?” Tony asks, as Bucky reaches down to return the favour. “No skin grafts at all?”
“None,” Bucky affirms. “Besides, that’ll make changing out parts and stuff a lot easier, right?”
“True, but I’d be the one to worry about that, not you.”
“Nope, I’m good. Just metal. Maybe a paint job at some point, if I’m feeling fancy.”
“Red and gold?”
“Fuck you, Stark.” He twists his wrist sharply.
Tony exhales in a shaky rush, and says hoarsely, “All right, all right. Just metal.”
They don’t do a lot of talking after that.
When they emerge, Steve and Bruce are at the kitchen table, Steve looking like he’s making a concerted effort to not be anxious and failing. “Relax, big guy,” Tony says breezily, “I flew in the best surgeons the world’s got to offer for this thing. Barnes is gonna be fine. Better, in fact.”
“He doesn’t need improvement,” Steve says, a little testily.
Bucky slides in between him and Tony with a glass of water—no food allowed, per the surgeons’ instructions. “Don’t need it, sure. Want it? Absolutely.”
It is at this point that Steve actually has the audacity to use the cow eyes on him. He doesn’t say a word, either--just turns them on him like a goddamn laser of woe.
It’s a really good thing that Bucky inured himself to that shit, back when Steve was tiny and the look was even more deadly than it is now. Unfortunately, Tony has no such defences, but considering how he and Steve get on about as well as cats and dogs do, Bucky doesn’t think it’ll matter.
Tony, however, makes a small noise in his throat. “I don’t—Steve, I mean, look, you know I’m gonna be watching the whole time, you know? It’s gonna be fine, I'm going to—“
“Oh my god,” Bucky says. “Shut up, Tony, get a grip. Cap, put that damn face away, I swear to Christ. You are not my mother, god rest her soul.”
“I’m not doing anything!” Steve protests.
“That is such a lie,” Bruce says from across the table. “You didn’t even look at me and I felt like I was being a terrible person.”
“Is that your actual superpower, you just frown Nazis into submission?” Tony peers at him. “Because seriously, I need to bottle that and sell it to antiterrorism groups.”
“I hate you both,” Steve mutters.
"Come on, Cap, I’ll let you supervise too, so long as you keep the hand-wringing to a minimum,” Tony says.
“Don’t I get a say in this?” Bucky demands.
“You’re going to be knocked out and medicated up to your eyeballs. I didn’t think you’d care either way.”
He sighs. “Fine. What’d you say, Steve?”
Bucky suspects that that was what Steve had been going for all along, considering how quickly he agrees. Bucky should really know better by now.
Bruce just shakes his head at them.
Steve is pacing in the living room a half hour before they’re about to leave for the hospital. Bucky comes in while pinning the sleeve of his jacket up—the old arm is coming off as soon as he goes into surgery, so he figures he’d best just leave it at home. He raises an eyebrow. “Why are you so stressed about this, Steve? I feel like I should be the one acting up in this scenario.”
Steve stops wearing a hole in the floor and sighs. “You know Fury’s going to try and recruit you after this, right?”
Bucky snorts. “Well, yeah. That was pretty clear from the way he called me in to ask me about my field experiences.”
“He called…? Oh. And you’re okay with that?”
“Would have told him to stuff it if I wasn’t.” He narrows his eyes. “Are you saying you don’t want me in the field, Rogers?”
“No! No, I wouldn’t presume—“
“Good. Because if that were the case, we’d’ve had some strong words.”
“It just seems like you haven’t been given that many choices since you woke up,” Steve says quietly. “About what you want to do now, I mean.”
Bucky exhales very slowly. “We talkin’ about me or you?”
Steve gives him a chastening look. Bucky isn’t swayed. “I’ve had more than a few opportunities to bow out,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about me, Steve.”
“Have you?” Steve asks, a flicker of confusion in his expression.
Bucky casts a quick look back at the hallway leading back to Tony’s bedroom. “Yeah,” he says. “I have.”
Steve cocks his head. “Tony offered…”
“Right before I got out of medical. Knowing him, I coulda probably disappeared and had at least six months head start on SHIELD if they decided I was worth tracking down. So yeah, I’m here because I want to be. But I mean, come on, Steve, when have you ever known me to turn down the good fight?”
“I guess that’s true.” Steve smiles, looking far more at ease, and then his eyes go a bit thoughtful. “I should thank Tony for that, I guess.”
Bucky looks at him suspiciously. It clicks.
“You’re thinking about giving him the talk, aren't you? While I’m in surgery? That is low, Rogers.”
Steve doesn’t even have the good grace to look repentant.
“He does has a reputation, you know,” he says.
“So do I," Bucky says, affronted.
“No buts, Steven. I can fight my own battles."
Steve sighs. “Fine.”
“We ready to rock and roll, gentlemen?” Tony says, coming into the room. He looks up from buttoning his cuffs and looks disappointed at their blank faces. “Right. Remind me to create a history of music playlist for you both. Shall we?”
Steve looks at Bucky, and Bucky quirks a smile. “Let’s do this.”
Bucky drifts into consciousness with the never-comforting feeling of deja vu. It’s only slightly mitigated by the painkillers in his system. He feels solid though, and mostly well.
Surgery, right. Nothing combat-related. He breathes a little easier.
He hears a shuffle of footsteps and turns his head to the side, expecting Tony or Steve, but what he gets instead is the dark silhouette of Fury standing in the doorway.
“How’d it go?” Bucky asks, voice scratching a bit.
“Perfectly, and it’s a damn good thing, too.”
He feels his stomach drop. “What’s happened?”
Thirty-four hours ago:
“So how’s this going to go?” Steve asks. Bucky went into the OR less than five minutes ago, and he’s already wringing his hands. Tony never should have fallen for the cow eyes. He takes a breath.
“Right, well, the first thing that goes in is the neural interface—the chip in his head that will translate his mental signals to a digital language the arm will recognise in addition to his muscle movements. That’s been done before; or at least, something similar’s been done before. It’s brain surgery, but very small brain surgery. After that, they’ll move to the shoulder, grafting the base alloy first onto his skeleton, then the nerve endings and muscle tissue. When he comes out, he won’t have the entire arm on yet,” he warns, “Just the base of it that is actually fused to him. We let that heal up a bit, and then the arm itself can be popped on.”
“How long does he have to go without?” Steve frowns.
Tony shrugs. “The doctors say at least two weeks. My guess is he’ll be demanding it within five days.”
Steve snorts. “You’re probably right.”
They’re standing at the observation window while various doctors and nurses bustle about, rechecking the monitors and equipment.
One of the surgeons looks around at his associates, and then nods. They set to work.
“Here we go,” Tony says quietly.
Steve just makes a small noise of anxiety.
Tony looks at him and huffs. “You know I’d never endorse this if I wasn’t sure of it, right?” he says. “This is for him.”
“I know that. I do. I just…he jumps into things so easily, like everything’ll be fine just because he wants it to be.”
“This isn’t exactly off the cuff, Rogers.”
“Maybe it just feels like it to me,” Steve admits. “He’s only talked about it to me in passing.”
Tony abruptly feels like a heel. At this point, he doesn’t actually dislike Steve anymore. They do still grate on each others’ nerves, but Steve’s gotten better at not talking about Howard and rolling with Tony’s brand of terrible humour and sarcasm without taking it personally. And Steve is kind of funny, when he’s not yelling about teamwork and responsibility, funny enough that Tony doesn’t always feel backed into a corner by his mere existence anymore.
Plus, he’s Bucky’s best friend, and Bucky has excellent taste, so.
As a result, Tony’s tried to make an effort not to snap at Steve quite as much, and be a bit gentler about his more antiquated affectations (though seriously, if he wears pleated grandpa khakis again, Tony is breaking into his room and burning all of them). And he sees it now, how Steve has been quietly tolerant of Tony barging in and inviting Bucky, his childhood friend, into Tony’s life and Tony’s bed, of all things, a thing Tony would have been surprised at anyone being okay with, no matter what era they’re from. He’s done nothing to keep Bucky to himself in a situation where that would be exactly what Tony would do, and instead he’s just been…generous.
He says haltingly, “Well, he can tell you all about it when he comes out, right?”
That earns him a small smile. “Sure.” Then Steve adds, “He probably just thinks I’m not comfortable talking about it. I’m not…technology’s still a bit strange to me.”
“It doesn’t show,” Tony says honestly, because Steve’s been impressively adaptable, taking to cell phones and the internet with, if not enthusiasm, at least with competence. Though he supposes that, by contrast, Bucky has thrown himself rather gleefully into technology’s trappings, carrying around a tablet to look up unfamiliar words and pop culture references as they appear. Steve deals with technology the way he deals with most of the modern world—amenably, but only out of necessity.
“Thanks, I think.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “I do owe you a proper thanks, actually. For being good to Bucky. He’s probably adjusting better than I have because you’ve been with him.”
“If that’s implying at all that I’m a well-adjusted person, I’m gonna have to disagree with you on that,” Tony says, because he doesn’t really know what else to say. “But, uh, you’re welcome, I guess? He didn’t really need my help. I just—“
Steve’s phone goes off. After fumbling with it for a second, he answers. “Director, what is it?”
Tony curses under his breath as Steve puts the phone on speakerphone. Fury’s voice blares out. “I need both of you to get to the meatpacking district right now. Rogers? We think it’s Zemo.”
Tony locks gazes with Steve, who’s gone pale with anger. “I’d call bullshit, but I’m guessing from your expression that Zemo’s cheated death before.”
“Unfortunately,” Steve growls. “We’re on our way, Director.” He hangs up. “My suit’s in the car.”
“So’s mine,” Tony confirms. They both glance at Bucky on the operating table.
“He’ll be disappointed to miss the action,” Steve says, and then they run.
“Zemo?” Bucky says in disbelief. “Fucking Zemo is back?”
“So it seems,” Fury says grimly. “And what’s more, he’s taken Cap and Iron Man.”
Rage has a calming effect on Bucky, it always has. This time, it comes down on him like a wash of cold air, stealing his breath for an inexorable minute, his nerve endings sizzling. Whatever fuzziness the pain meds had imposed on him disappears, leaving him staring at Fury while the whiteness of the hospital turns piercingly bright to his gaze, metal edges and glass glinting like knife edges.
“SHIELD and the rest of the Avengers are looking for them, but I’m thinking they could use another specialist,” Fury continues, raising an eyebrow.
Bucky cranes his neck to look at his shoulder, currently swathed in bandages, and feeling the pull of more around his head as well. “How long do I have to wait, you think, before I can tear these off?”
“Doctors say a week at absolute minimum,” Fury replies, “However, SHIELD may have an alternative.”
Bucky nods. “Get me out of this damn bed, then.”
The solution is not quite the super soldier serum, but it definitely packs a punch.
Agent Hill comes in with a slim black briefcase that holds a syringe and a vial of a fluorescent liquid that she proceeds to extract with efficiency. At Bucky’s questioning look, she says, “Temporary enhanced healing factor. We’ve never been able to make it last more than a few days, but it’s useful for getting agents back out into the field if they’re really needed.”
“And you haven’t been making a mint off of it, why?”
“This?” she says, holding up the vial, “Costs about fifty-six thousand dollars to produce.”
He whistles long and low. And then promptly yelps when she sticks him without any warning. “Watch it, would ya? Christ, that stings.”
“Man up. Now, you should start feeling the effects in about ten minutes or so. You’ll be good to go in six hours. Sign your release papers.” She gives him the clipboard to put his name on.
Ten minutes later, sitting in a SHIELD town car wearing the jeans and black shirt he’d gone into the hospital with, he starts to feel it—a strange tingling, itching sensation at the top of his skull and around the entirety of his empty shoulder. Superseding that, however, is a creeping, blinding pain that goes from a dull roar to a full on screech through his nerve endings.
He hunches further and further forward in his seat until he’s curled entirely around himself. Finally, he can’t suppress a groan of pain, and manages to ask through gritted teeth, “Fucking hell, is this normal?”
Agent Hill watches him and says, “Side effect of the healing factor, I’m afraid. It makes the user pretty much immune to pain meds. Don’t worry, since you’re healing at an accelerated rate, the pain will pass just as quickly.”
“Thank fuck for that.”
He manages the rest of the car ride in agonised silence.
The mansion is deserted when they arrive; all of the Avengers are either at SHIELD sifting through data or out searching. Bucky goes straight down to the lab with Hill in tow. The pain has faded enough for him to move quickly, the itch of healing flesh coming back to the forefront.
“I feel like I should tell you in lieu of Tony that you’re only allowed down here because it’s an emergency,” he says.
“I’ll remember that,” she replies dryly.
“JARVIS, I’m gonna need your help here.”
“Certainly, sir. Any resources I have are, of course, at your disposal.”
The door to the lab slides open and Bucky heads straight to the far corner, where he knows Tony keeps all of his work on the arm. He thinks briefly about how he had expected to do this with Tony the first time, put the new arm on and take it through its paces, probably end up jumping him halfway through again, and then pushes the thought savagely aside. Not the time.
“JARVIS, I need the model with the most firepower that’s been finished.”
There’s a pause, and then JARVIS replies delicately, “I have been programmed for Master Stark’s orders to take precedence, and I’m afraid the model I think you would find most useful he expressly asked that I hide. It was, I believe, meant to be a surprise.”
Hill makes an impatient noise.
Bucky thinks about it for a second, and then says, “Right. JARVIS, in general, where does Tony keep surprises?”
“I think you’ll find that he has a habit of putting surprises of particular importance in the cabinet to your left, sir.” If he wasn’t an AI, Bucky would swear there was relief in his voice.
He heads over to the cabinet and pulls it open. He exhales in a rush. “Tony, I think I love you.”
Hill comes up behind him to look. “I am,” she says reluctantly, “Duly impressed.”
Bucky takes it off the rack where it’s been hanging, feeling the weight of it. It’s a bit heavier than the prototype, but then again, there was reason for that.
“We’ll get that fitted on when we get to headquarters,” Hill says. “Come on.”
He nods, and says towards the ceiling, “Thanks, JARVIS, you’re a pal.”
“Bring him home safely, Sergeant,” JARVIS replies. “If you please.”
“Will do,” Bucky mutters.
The arm is…fucking amazing.
Bucky and Hill come into the control room, where they find Fury, as well as Dr. Banner, Clint and Natasha. Bucky carries the arm tucked under his real one, and realises belatedly that he must look a sight—they hadn’t bothered to take off the bandages over his shoulder or around his head yet.
He also realises, however, that no one is looking at that. Everyone’s looking at what he’s holding.
Clint stares for a second, and then intones, “What hath science wrought?”
No one complains when Bucky sucker punches him as he walks past. “What’ve we got so far?” he asks, as Clint wheezes.
Natasha graces him with the smallest of smiles, and then she’s right down to business. “We got the call just after you went under. We’ve been tracking someone we suspected to be Zemo for months now, though we’d had no concrete evidence. Just evidence of organisation, the usual. Then two days ago, we reported a massive power surge not dissimilar to that emitted by the Moonstones, in a warehouse not far from where we’d gathered most of the reports of Zemo from. We put two and two together, and launched an investigative assault.
“Unfortunately, it was a trap. The source of the surge was a warp in space-time, such that when we arrived on the scene, while we were ambushed by Zemo’s men, Steve and Tony got sucked into the warp, which closed just after them. No doubt Zemo’s on the other side with them.”
Bucky blinks slowly. “A…warp? So that means, what, precisely?”
Hill takes a piece of paper and makes an X on it. “A warp means that you could be standing here,” she points at the X, “And take one step through the warp, and end up over here,” she indicates the opposite end of the page. “The warp folds everything up, so distance becomes meaningless.” She folds the paper, putting the X on top of the second spot.
“Then they could be anywhere,” Bucky says blankly. “How the fuck do we even start?”
“Well, thankfully,” Natasha says, “We have a god on our side who’s accustomed to travel via wormhole.”
“He’s looking now,” Clint says. “Between him and the SHIELD scientists analysing the energy traces at the warp site, we’ll hopefully get a lock soon. In the meantime, we’re scanning Zemo’s old haunts. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
That makes Bucky breathe a little easier—having a plan is good—but that only means that the anxiety that’s been building in his chest ever since he woke up has more room to make itself known. He’s…he’s fucking scared, okay, because basically the one person he’d absolutely die for (fuck, has died for) and the best person he’s found in the modern world are both missing and no one knows where or what’s happening to them.
It must show on his face too, because Natasha purses her lips and says, “We’re going to find them. Soon.”
He swallows. “Guess I better get this on, then,” he says, raising the arm slightly.
“This,” Clint says, “I have got to see.”
Bucky ends up sitting on a table in the corner of the control room away from most of the analysts’ prying eyes, with Natasha deftly slicing through the surgical bandages with a razor blade she just happened to have on her person, because of course she does. As she peels away the tape, Bucky watches as his shoulder slowly comes into view with a strange, belated nervousness.
Natasha raised her eyebrows at the pink, but mostly healed skin. “Serum?” she says.
“Not fun,” she observes, clearly speaking from experience. Bucky wonders what the hell she came up against that put her out of action and was serious enough for her to be thrown unceremoniously back out at it.
She prods at his shoulder. “Hey,” he says, “I can feel that.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Look at where I’m poking.”
He does. Oh. Her finger is resting just beyond the point where his shoulder turns, along a neat seam, into gleaming metal. It curves precisely in imitation of a shoulder joint, and then below that are a series of articulated parts where the arm is clearly meant to latch into place. He sweeps a hand over the whole mechanism, and feels a buzz of sensation in answer, though somewhat oddly displaced, like touching one’s elbow and feeling it on the palm.
The sensation of a whole arm, waiting for its physical complement.
He breathes, in and out, twice. Then he says, “All right, let’s put it on.”
Natasha nods. “How do I…?”
Bucky remembers Tony showing him all of the blueprints in bed, the catch and lock of it, the automatic powering on triggered by the slide of mechanisms into place. He’d gleefully described it as a “flex and slide, Bucky, you know the one” and then Bucky had had to tackle him into the pillows. He licks his lips and says, “Hold it up, the top of it tilted down. There’s a groove over the top of my shoulder where it should align with the inside of the arm. When you feel it catch, rotate it down so the rest of it can lock into place.”
She nods again, and does as instructed, wielding the thing like it weighs nothing.
He can feel it engage even before it makes the satisfying click of it catching, a frisson of feeling and awareness that only increases as Natasha rotates it down. He sucks in a breath, and watches in fascination as the plates slide and settle into place.
After a long pause, he thinks, move. Actually, he doesn’t even think. He just moves.
The arm flexes, curves of carbon fibre muscle and the faintest hiss of parts shifting under the chassis. More boldly, Bucky lifts the hand for inspection, flexing it, watching it move.
He’d thought the prototype fit when he’d tried that on. This…this was a whole new level. Tony’d been right—he didn’t have to think, he just had to do, and it was all there, not precisely natural, not like his real arm, but comfortable, the sensory feedback coherent and smooth. If he’d gotten this in the first weeks that he’d come out of the snow, Tony never would have had to do the hologram trick with his clenched dead arm, he would have just opened the fingers of this one, and it would have rung true.
There’s a low buzz of awareness somewhere along the top of the forearm that he doesn’t recognise. Curiously, he concentrates, and flexes.
A louder whir answers him, and an unfolding of…oh man, no wonder Tony’d saved this one as a surprise.
“Son of a bitch,” he breathes.
Tony fucking Stark built him an arm with missiles.
Natasha says decisively, after a moment, “That is sexy as hell.”
Bucky tears his eyes away from the arm to grin at her. “Sorry darling, I’m afraid I’m spoken for.”
It’s another eight hours before they find them.
Eight hours, and then Thor’s voice booms over the comm link. “COMRADES, I HAVE FOUND EVIDENCE OF A SECOND GATEWAY. METHINKS THE VILLAINOUS ZEMO RESIDES CLOSE BY. WILL YOU JOIN ME IN BATTLING THIS FIEND AND RETRIEVING OUR COMPATRIOTS?”
“Get a lock on his location,” Fury snaps.
Natasha answers the comm. “Thor, we’ll be there as soon as we can. Can you tell us the situation?”
“AYE. HIS FORCES ARE MANY AND HIS WEAPONRY POWERFUL. I MUST STAY VERY HIGH IN THE EARTH’S SKY IN ORDER TO STAY UNDETECTED. WE SHALL NEED ALL OF OUR STRENGTH AND WILE TO CONQUER HIM!”
“Specificity is not his strong suit,” Clint mutters.
“We’ll get eyes on as soon as we can,” Fury promises.
They’re not in the best of shape, any of them—Bucky’s still feeling lingering twinges from life-altering surgery, no matter how good the serum is, and the others have been mostly awake for the day and a half since Tony and Steve were taken. Still, they all snap to attention now, cagey like wolves. Even Banner is strung tight, keeping it together only with even breathing and checking his pulse every few minutes.
“We’ve got a lock,” Hill reports. “Outskirts of Bonndorf, in the Black Forest.”
“Of course it’s Germany,” Bucky mutters. Like he didn’t have enough terrible memories of the place.
“Four and a half hours to get there if we punch it,” Clint says. “We should move.”
“I’ll have back up arranged if it gets bad,” Fury says, “But they’ll be at least an hour behind you even with local help, so don’t be needing it any sooner than that.”
Clint raises a finger. “Can I request one immediate back up?”
“I second that,” Natasha says.
Fury looks between them. “He’ll meet you at the jet,” he says, leaving Bucky wondering who, exactly, the immediate back-up could be. “If you cause any international incidents, I’m demoting all of you to janitorial staff,” he adds, “Now get going.”
The quinjet is eerily silent on the inside, its consideration for the long-term comfort of hair-trigger superheroes a characteristic that again separates Tony from the rest of his fellow industrialists. Bruce stakes out a corner away from everyone else to sit down and meditate, Clint lays out his equipment and goes through it with methodical calm, and Natasha immediately lays down for a nap across one of the padded benches along the outer wall of the plane, the top of her head barely brushing what could only be the back-up’s thigh.
Bucky turns to Clint. “Who’s that guy?”
Clint smiles thinly. “That’s Agent Coulson. Our more immediate boss.”
“He’s our back up?”
“Don’t be fooled by the paper-pusher exterior. Guy can kill you with baked goods.”
Bucky raises his eyebrows. “Noted.”
Agent Coulson looks at him with a mild bureaucrat’s blankness. “I apologise for not introducing myself earlier,” he says, “I’m afraid I’ve been working with the Avengers in a more administrative capacity of late. Had I known you’d be joining us so soon, Sergeant, I would have touched bases with you.”
Bucky just sort of approximates a shrug of ‘I guess it’s okay if they say it’s okay’, while not even hiding that it gives him an excuse to be more gestural with his new arm. In the hours between putting it on and getting Thor’s message, all sorts of other goodies have made themselves known—concussive blast capacity similar to repulsor tech in his palm, a retracting knife blade in his first finger, and thin spool of what Natasha identified as adamantium alloy cable wound up in his wrist, was just the beginning of what Tony had built in.
It makes something in his chest go tight and tender, because every single one of those damned features is just him all over, a perfect portrait of his preferences in combat. Tony’s never even sparred with him, and he already knows this stuff, knows Bucky inside and out it seems.
When they destroy Zemo and get Steve and him back, Bucky’s gonna take Steve out to a movie, and then stay in bed with Tony for at least three days straight.
He flexes his wrist back and forth, back and forth, the mechanisms never tiring.
Zemo’s lair is deep in the forest outside of Bonndorf, away from any wayward roads or paths, in what looks like a natural clearing with a cabin on its edge. Hardly ostentatious for a super-villain, but Fury reports strange energy readings around the place, so Bucky’s guessing the true face of the building is well-cloaked, either by magic or something else entirely.
Thor swoops in and lands inside the quinjet when the pilot lowers the ramp a fraction. He doesn’t look tired at all, despite apparently having been in the air for at least half a day, but he does look solemn and just slightly worried.
“THERE ARE FORCES PROTECTING THIS AREA THAT I DO NOT RECOGNISE,” he says, “I FEAR HE MAY BE USING POWERS FROM REALMS I KNOW LESS OF.”
“Other branches of Yggdrasil?” Coulson says, like this is a completely normal question to ask.
“THAT MAY INDEED BE THE CASE, SON OF COUL.”
“Great,” Clint mutters.
“You’re going to have to operate on the down low,” Coulson says. “Natasha, take the lead, get eyes on the ground, let’s find a chink in the armour.”
“Got it,” Natasha says, “Thor, can you take me down?”
“CERTAINLY, MY LADY.”
They prepare to depart out of the open belly of the plane once more when from down on the ground, there’s a resonant shudder, a rumble of earth.
“Oh,” Natasha says, sounding surprised for the first time Bucky’s met her.
Everyone crowds the ramp to look.
The air around the cabin has begun to shimmer, like it’s encased in a soap bubble. Every couple of seconds, it flickers out entirely, and then the cabin isn’t a cabin, it’s a ruined castle with charred towers and blackened buttresses layered over with soot. Bucky blinks, looks again, and shakes his head.
“How much you want to bet that Tony and Cap are behind that little malfunction?” he asks.
“No bet,” Coulson says. “New plan. Frontal assault, and with any luck Cap and Iron Man will be on their way to meet us. I’ll tell the pilot to aim for gaps in the force field. Get ready.”
“Well,” Clint says, “This’ll be fun.”
The pilot’s good, as could be expected of a SHIELD agent. Bucky catches a glimpse of her when Coulson goes up to the cockpit—a crop of black, curly hair beneath her headset and an unfazed expression. She swings in on Coulson’s instructions, cutting down towards the ground in a steep dive that will afford them a modicum of surprise before all hell breaks loose. In the belly of the plane, all of the Avengers (except for Thor, because, well) have to cling to the strapping strung along the sides to avoid getting tossed.
“We’re going to pass through the forcefield in T-minus two minutes!” Coulson shouts against the roar of the engines getting pushed to full capacity. “Get ready.”
“Oh, I am so close to ready,” Bruce mutters. He’s clinging tightly to a strap, and his skin is tinged green.
The jet cants left in reaction to a flicker in the forcefield, and then a hard right.
“Here we go!” the pilot shouts over her shoulder, and then all of them feel a shudder run through the plane, through them, as the plane passes through and pulls up sharply. Bucky’s stomach lurches. The loading ramp begins to descend again, Thor standing right at its edge, Natasha gripping his armour in preparation for descent.
“How’re the rest of us getting down there?” Bucky shouts.
“Leave that to Nancy,” Clint says, jerking his head at the pilot. “She’s ace at it. Get ready to jump.”
“Jesus,” Bucky mutters. None of them are wearing parachutes. This is definitely a level of craziness the Commandoes would appreciate.
Thor shoots a glance at Natasha as the ramp comes down fully, his eyebrows raised. She looks down at the clear, unwavering view of the crumbling castle, and nods.
They leap off the ramp, Thor flying in a tight loop.
Bruce is next; he’s halfway to Hulked out even before he jumps.
Clint and Bucky line up, shoulder to shoulder.
“Ready?” Clint asks, grinning.
Bucky flexes his wrist, feeling cables go tight, titanium shifting. He bares his teeth. “Born ready.”
Nancy brings them low, nearly scraping the bottom of the ramp on a spire, and that’s where they jump, landing hard and rolling until they hit the crumbling edge of the parapet. Bucky catches himself with his new arm and has to grin at the only distant sensation of scraping as his hand goes tight on the rubble and holds.
“This is my stop,” Clint says, “See you on the flip side.”
Bucky nods, and unfurls the cable from his wrist, securing the telescoping grappling hook it ends with on the parapet and then belaying down.
Thor is making the biggest ruckus, with Hulk close behind; there are guardsmen pouring out of the castle walls and opening fire to no avail. Natasha, in contrast, makes her way silently across the grounds, sticking to the shadows, killing anyone in her path with ruthless efficiency.
Bucky opts for the middle ground. There’s a control tower off the left of him that probably contains a fair amount of equipment and surveillance—it’ll make a pretty big bang, he reckons.
He aims with his arm, there’s a click and whine of machinery, and then a near silent discharge, the recoil sending him swaying on the cable.
The missile breaks through the glass of the towers largest window and then two seconds later detonates spectacularly. There are shouts of alarm from below, and Bucky rides the heat of the explosion all the way down to the first wall.
There are soldiers waiting for him. He takes them out, and doesn’t feel rusty at all.
Natasha meets him on the ground. “Most of the complex is underneath,” she says. “And according to one of the climate control stations I just found, Hallway B of Subbasement A is on fire.”
“Lead the way,” he answers.
Hallway B, Subbasement C:
“Jesus fuck, you’re heavy,” Tony complained, wincing as a jet of flames flared out between a set of monastic pillars. Seriously, could super-villains be more cliche?
“Stop trying to undermine my self-esteem,” Steve manages, his throat is tight with pain.
“Oh good, you’re sassing me again, means most of your blood is back.”
“I’m still bleeding. Also, we need—“
“Your shield, I’m aware. We also need my goddamn armour. Come on.”
Bucky and Natasha run into trouble as soon as they reach the first sub-floor. The guards open fire, and it’s not with machine guns.
“Shit,” Natasha says evenly as they dive behind a reinforced wall. “What are those?”
“Pretty sure the last time I saw stuff like that was when Red Skull had the cosmic cube,” Bucky says through gritted teeth.
“You guys get that? Take care,” Natasha says into the comms, and gets affirmation and invectives in return. “I do hate when villains share resources,” she sighs. “Right, do you have any shielding mechanisms in that arm of yours?”
“I imagine so. No idea if it’ll work on those things though. Only thing that worked last time was Cap’s shield.”
“Right. I’ve got flares, we’ll use those first. You go through, I’ll go up and over. On three?”
He nods, flicking his wrist in preparation.
She flings the flares down the hall, and Bucky squeezes his eyes shut against the flash before pivoting out from behind the wall and firing, Natasha just behind and then overtaking him as they reach the guards, launching herself from the wall and across, arching over and disarming them. She grabs one of the guns and tosses Bucky a second.
They sprint down towards the stairs at the end of the hall and down.
Another explosion rocks them tumbling into the stairwell, accompanied by a roar of anger from the Hulk somewhere above ground. And then, more distantly from beneath them, a familiar voice saying, “Well, that sounds reassuringly like the cavalry.”
“Tony!” Bucky charges down the stairs.
“Barnes? What the hell—?”
“Shit, Cap, what happened do you?”
“What’re you doing here, Buck?”
“This is lovely and all,” Natasha interrupts, “But we should go.” She tosses two comm earpieces to Cap and Tony, and Tony has to help Cap with his. Steve looks worryingly pale, for all that he’s standing mostly upright. There’s a thick improvised bandage over one of his thighs, and it’s begun to turn pink.
“Yeah, few things we’ve gotta take care of first,” Tony says. He does a double-take. “Barnes, is that—?”
“Best present ever, I was duly surprised, I’ll thank you later,” Bucky says. “What needs doing?”
“Armour, shield,” Tony lists, gesturing, “And shutting down Zemo’s wormhole capabilities, which are currently powered by a moonstone and stabilised by my gauntlet repulsors.”
Clint swears colourfully down the comm line.
“Thor, can you sense where the most concentrated foreign power is coming from?” Natasha asks.
“BY MY RECKONING IT IS CENTRAL WITHIN THE COMPLEX, BUT ALAS I CAN BE NO MORE EXACT THAN THAT.”
“He’s learning about exactitude, that’s a start,” Steve says.
Tony tuts at him, which is…unexpected. “Save your strength, sass master.”
“‘Sass master’?” Bucky echoes.
“Long, irritating story,” Steve manages.
“Story later, mission now,” Natasha says testily. They’ve all been making their way towards what is a central courtyard at ground level, but underneath is an expansive complex of laboratories in the subbasement. It’s quieter down here, away from most of the frontal assault laid down by the Avengers’ heavy-hitters, but hardly less dangerous for all that. There are scientists ranged around, hurriedly compiling data and wiping their machines, some of them already filing into lines flanked by guards for evacuation.
“Cleaning house?” Bucky suggests.
“Indubitably,” Tony agrees. “We should stop them.”
Natasha makes a noise in her throat; she’d gone up and around into the rafters just above their heads for a closer look, and now she lands again next to them. “We can do all of that with what’s in this room,” she reports. “The moonstone and its setup are at the far wall. So’s your shield, Cap. And so is Zemo,” she finishes.
“Plan?” Bucky asks, because that would be a nice thing to have right now.
“You’ll go in with Natasha,” Steve says, more steadily and taking charge. “First priority is my shield—Tony, we’ve no idea what state your armour’s in, so I want you behind the front lines for as long as possible, no arguing—and the shield can probably do a lot towards disabling the moonstone. Bucky, you know how to use it—do so until you can get it back to me. Also, I think we’re going to need backup.”
“On my way,” Coulson says, from out of the blue. Bucky’d forgotten he was around.
Steve brightened. “Agent Coulson, good to hear from you.”
“Coulson is totally your favourite, don’t even lie,” Tony grumbles. “You are so straight-edge.”
“Right,” Bucky says, looking at Natasha, “You ready?”
“Same as last time?” she counters.
“Same as last time.”
They go in sprinting.
The plan works…barely.
Steve is back to bleeding profusely by the time they get back to the quinjet, Tony is wheezing and his armour, while retrieved, is mostly in pieces, many of them left in the wreckage. Clint is grimacing through a long, shallow knife wound to the shoulder that Natasha is rolling her eyes at and patching up at the same time, and Hulk is back to being Banner and passed out with exhaustion. Even Thor looks tired, choosing to travel on board rather than fly alongside.
Zemo escaped. Of course. SHIELD's clean-up crew promises to look for any clues as to where he's running to, but no one bothers getting their hopes up. Coulson has a brief conversation on his phone with what sounds like the German chancellor, and then hangs up with a sigh.
He surveys them all, looking dusty and ruffled himself but on the whole exactly as he started out, which has to be superhuman in itself. He says briefly, “Seeing as we have enough of a med bay here to take care of injuries sustained, there’s no rush getting back. We’ll take the long route, and you can all rest up before debriefing on arrival.”
A couple of them manage nods. Most of them don’t react at all.
Bucky finds himself being used as a pillow by Steve in the med bay while Tony puts surprisingly neat stitches into Steve’s thigh. “Where’d you learn how to do that?” he asks, after a while.
Tony looks haunted for a moment before his expression smooths into concentration again. “Yinsen. He had to patch me up a couple times while I was in Afghanistan. Nothing this bad, but enough to learn.”
“You’re a natural,” Steve says, managing to suppress a wince. Being immune to painkillers was a bitch and a half.
Tony gives him a quick smile. “Engineer. I’m used to doing delicate work with important material.”
Bucky studies them both. “You gonna tell me what went on in there?”
He definitely doesn’t miss the way they make communicative eye contact. “It’ll be in the report,” Steve says finally.
“We had some bonding time,” Tony says dryly.
Steve glares at him, which for Bucky is assurance enough. Tony ties off the suture on Cap’s leg and straps a bandage on top with unapologetic speed, because it means that as soon as it’s done he can curl into the part of Bucky’s lap that isn’t occupied with Captain America’s head.
“Hi,” he says, “You look good.”
Bucky raises the metal arm to trace the curve of Tony’s jaw. “Thanks to you.”
“I told you already, Barnes, you don’t need me to clean up good.”
“But apparently I do need you to save your sorry ass.”
Steve peers up at him for a long moment. “You were right,” he says blearily.
“H—mfgn.” He barely manages a wave.
Bucky raises an eyebrow at Tony. Tony shrugs.
“Horse tranquillisers. We keep ‘em on board especially for him.”
“And for you?”
“Scotch and soda’ll do me fine,” Tony says, leaning into his shoulder. “Or, y’know, just the pleasure of your company.”
Bucky runs a hand through his sweat-soaked hair, and allows himself to breathe. “Yeah, that’ll do just fine.”
There’s a slim red-headed woman waiting for them on the landing pad alongside Fury when they finally arrive back at SHIELD. As the ramp lowers, Tony brightens as he spots her. “Pepper! It was totally not my fault this time!”
The woman apparently known as Pepper sighs deeply. “Which was, exactly? Missing the board meeting for the fifth week in a row, or getting kidnapped by a supervillain?”
“Strangely enough, both,” Tony replies. “Be proud of me, this is totally progress.”
“Stark,” Fury growls in warning, just as Pepper sighs again and says long-sufferingly, “Tony…”
Coulson steps forward, which instantly diffuses the situation. “Sir.”
“Situation’s handled, I take it?” Fury says.
“Chancellor Merkel sends her regards.”
“Right. Captain, we have agents ready to help you to the med bay. You too, Hawkeye.”
“Aw, man,” Clint says, and Natasha smacks him again, albeit with slightly more gentleness.
Tony slings an arm around Bucky’s shoulders as they come down the ramp after Steve heads off towards medical. Pepper raises an eyebrow at them both. “Are you going to introduce me, Tony?” she says archly.
“Pepper, Sergeant James Barnes. Barnes, this is my better half, though at this point only corporate-wise, Pepper Potts.”
Bucky looks her over and says, “Are you sure the women haven’t gotten more beautiful over the past seventy years? Because I ain’t seeing any evidence to the contrary here.”
Pepper flushes, her smile for him a little softer than the one she directed at Tony. “Pleased to meet you, Sergeant. Are you a new addition to the Avengers Initiative?”
“I don’t know if that’s been decided yet, ma’am,” Bucky replies.
“You will be if you want to, and if you don’t that’s fine too,” Tony says firmly.
Bucky shoots him a grateful glance, and he doesn’t know what his face looks like in that moment, but somehow it makes Pepper make a very soft oh noise.
“If you need anything from Stark Industries, Sergeant, you just let me know,” she says warmly. “Anyone deemed worthy of Tony’s slightly more endearing qualities deserves all the help he can get.”
Tony sticks his tongue out at her.
Things are…kinda different after all that, Bucky notices.
For one thing, Fury now seems to count him as a permanent part of the team, which is not something that Bucky necessarily wants, all told. He reports for duty, sure, but his real strength isn’t in this sort of show-stopping hero work. He’s always been more interested in stealth, in the coordinated strikes carried out by the Commandoes and all that that had entailed.
He mentions this to Natasha, and she nods in understanding. “Sometimes, it sticks in your blood,” she says. “I’ll talk to Fury.”
Bucky kind of wonders if the only reason Fury’s in charge is because Natasha isn’t interested in taking the job. Then again, Fury does seem to have a preternatural skill for herding superheroes, which is about as easy as herding bad-tempered cats, so maybe Natasha’s got nothing to do with it. Either way, a week later Coulson tosses him a dossier over the kitchen table and says, “You and Barton are going on a field trip. All right with that?”
Bucky flips the file open and scans it. “Surveillance and covert ops? You like me, you really like me!”
“You’ve got twenty-four hours before you’re due off,” Coulson says. “Use them wisely.”
“Oh, I will.”
He goes down to the workshop and leans against the glass door as it closes. “Stark.”
“Barnes,” Tony drawls, “What can I do you for?”
They’ve reached the point where Tony automatically shuts off the welding torch when Bucky comes up to him, pushing back his chair from the metal sawhorse he was working with so that Bucky can straddle him, draping his arms over his shoulders.
“I’ve got a mission from Fury,” Bucky reports, as Tony’s hands drift to his thigh and the metal arm, fingers teasing at the plating. “You got anything on tap for stealth work?”
“For you, anything.” Then Tony frowns a bit. “He sending you out alone?”
“Nah, I’m riding with Barton.”
“Barton gets you all to himself while I’m all by my lonesome? This is massively unfair.”
“Maybe he’d let you come along if you weren’t such a flashy cowboy.”
“You can be pretty flashy yourself, you just don’t know it.” But Tony snags a tablet from a nearby counter and pulls up some menus. “So, what’re you looking for?”
Bucky grins, and starts a list.
There are other things that are different, too, but Bucky isn’t around to notice some of them until later.
The mission lasts two weeks, consisting mostly of being cooped up in dark, cramped hideouts with occasional bursts of bloody close-range violence, and by the time it’s done, Bucky’s taught Clint the dirtiest songs from the front that he can remember, and in retaliation Clint has exposed him to the most horrendous country ballads imaginable.
They call a truce over Wu-Tang, and by the time they’re done, well.
They arrive back at the mansion, fresh from debrief and still covered in a saboteur’s blood. Clint is muttering rhythmically, “Behold the bold soldier, control the globe slowly, proceeds to blow swingin’ swords like Shinobi…” and Bucky’s cackling with the hysteria of exhaustion and the thrill of a job well done. They stumble into each other as they walk, too used to being shoulder-to-shoulder in the confines of ventilation shafts and narrow rooftops, comparing best shots and trashing each others’ weapons of choice.
“My god, we’ve created a monster,” Tony says, deadpan.
Bucky grins proudly, “Apparently, Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.”
Steve, sitting on the other couch with a paperback, says plaintively, “It’s like I don’t even know you any more.”
Clint claps him on the back, “It’s team bonding! You should be supporting him, Cap.”
Steve, oddly, cuts a questioning look at Tony, who shrugs. “I mean, they could do a lot worse in their choice of soundtrack,” he says.
Steve rolls his eyes at that, but says more levelly, “Nice trip?”
“Successful,” Bucky replies, ruffling Steve’s hair—it’s a habit he’s never quite managed to break, even though it’s only Steve’s lowered position on the couch that’s allowing him to do it without standing on tip-toe now. Steve makes the usual disgruntled noise, ducking away. “Fury’s happy, we’re happy. Hey darlin’,” he adds to Tony as he saunters towards him.
“Okay first, I’m not a dame,” Tony says, holding up a hand, “Secondly, you stain these couches, you pay for them.”
Bucky looks down and notices the blood. “Share a shower with me?” he says, after a pause.
“TMI,” Clint groans.
Tony just flashes his teeth and puts his tablet aside. It almost makes Bucky forget the way Steve looks at Tony as they leave the room.
Bucky had read the reports Steve and Tony had both turned in after they’d all gotten back safely. Zemo had wanted the repulsors to stabilise the moonstone and give it enough power to shift an entire city, which was definitely something no one wanted him to be able to do. He’d stripped Tony of his armour and had taken Steve along for the ride unexpectedly—Cap’s presence in the Avengers hadn’t exactly been hidden, but it hadn’t been advertised a great deal yet either. Then, according to the reports, while in captivity Tony had cauterised Steve’s wound, booby-trapped the repulsors to malfunction after a certain interval, and then they'd broken out and busted up the generator in charge of maintaining the illusion-bubble-thing just in time for the rest of the team to arrive.
SHIELD is calling the bubble thing a ‘holographic disruptor field’ and the research department is having a field day with it, but whatever, Bucky calls it like he sees it.
Anyway, that still means that there was definitely a large chunk of time where Steve and Tony were apparently locked up together in Zemo’s ridiculous castle lair that neither of them were particularly forthcoming about. And now Steve…apparently looks at Tony to check things about Bucky.
Bucky doesn’t give it too much thought at first. He’s too busy being relieved, and weirdly proud, that Steve got to see Tony in a positive light.
And Tony is being plenty distracting all by himself, anyway.
“Seriously, it’s like you’re trying to kill me, coming in here all buddy-buddy with Clint and blood on your face—“
“You implying something about Clint? Because I don’t think he’d be entirely averse—“
“Fuck no, but you can’t deny he looks good in that vest SHEILD’s put him in—fuck!”
He slaps the shower wall with the flat of his hand and tries to brace himself further. Bucky finds the strung-tight tendon in his neck and bites down, tasting scalding water and skin. Tony keens.
“Good,” Bucky says into the sharp line of his jaw, hardly recognising his own voice, “Because the list of people I’m willing to share with is very, very short.”
He’s not even sure Tony hears him over the spray of the shower. Tony doesn’t answer in any case, just tightens around him and fuck.
It hardly matters anyway, right? Right.
They don’t leave the bathroom for a while yet.
Life continues on in its surrealist fashion; or at least, that’s how it seems to move for Bucky. He gets in the habit of going to the Avengers meetings just so he can annoy Fury and interrupt to ask about modern words and references so that Steve doesn't always have to file those questions away to look up later.
The Avengers fight giant snails on the Jersey shore, monsters seemingly conceived by Dr. Moreau in the Bronx, and Doombots in Times Square (again). Bucky goes to Istanbul and Rio with Maria Hill, and then Sudan with Coulson and a guy named Sitwell who’s secretly hilarious and isn’t too bad on point.
Tony keeps building things for him—for everyone on the team, obviously—but especially for him.
“You don’t have to buy me with shiny stuff, you know,” Bucky says to him at one point. “I’m kind of a sure thing at this point.”
And Tony smiles at him, pleased and almost disbelieving, like Bucky’s said something profound. “I know.”
He begins to settle in. The first time he catches himself calling the mansion ‘home’ he nearly walks into a lamp post in surprise, and Steve just looks at him with a wry sort of smile.
He doesn’t say anything, in fact, until they’re a few blocks further up, headed towards Harlem. The two of them have taken to walking the boroughs, touching on the familiar spaces, filtering in small sections of the newness at a time. Steve says, “I’ve started thinking of it that way, too.”
“Yeah?” Bucky looks at him. “I mean, it shouldn’t feel like that, right? There’s nothing homey about it.”
Steve shrugs. “Home is where my friends are. You know that.”
“Even when they’re all under Tony Stark’s roof.”
Something Bucky doesn’t recognise crosses Steve’s face, and then melts into a very small smile. “Sure,” he says, like he’s committed. “Why not?”
“Okay. What happened in that damn castle anyway?” Bucky asks, because finally he can’t not. “You and Tony have a talk or something?”
Steve shoves his hands in his pockets. “We had a few. We had some…misapprehensions to work out.”
It’s very clear to Tony that Zemo hadn’t been expecting Steve. He snarls inarticulate rage and says, “You still linger here, Captain, after all this time?”
Tony’s immobilised, caught in some sort of bullshit forcefield that JARVIS is trying urgently to get reads on and producing absolutely nothing. He throws himself at the barrier, over and over as Steve batters through a whole group of goons, but even Captain America can’t take on fifty well-armed soldiers, not in a closed space, not when one of them has what looks like a high-powered stun gun that he jabs straight into the gap between Steve’s cowl and suit just as another fires a gun that produces a beam of power Tony’s never seen before.
The beam is clearly an accident; it sears through the top of Steve’s leg in a glancing blow before entirely vaporising another soldier in its path. Zemo shrieks for ceasefire, but it’s Steve who crumples to the ground.
Tony doesn’t even realise he’s shouting, screaming, until Zemo looks straight at him.
He walks straight up to the force field, cocking his head. “Hm,” he says. “You know, I often imagined Captain America’s death as being the sweetest imaginable thing. It even felt that way, when he buried himself in the ice. I’m beginning to question my previous feelings, however.”
Tony forces himself to silence. Takes gulping, shallow breaths. More than half a year working with Captain America and he’s never seen Steve go down like that, and it makes something in his brain go still with fear. He tries to shove it aside.
“Methinks a far sweeter revenge,” Zemo continues, watching him steadily, “Is using him.” And then, to the guards, “Put them both downstairs.”
And then Tony feels more than sees the forcefield around him contract, closer and closer until the buzz of it is deafening, overwhelming, and then he feels nothing, nothing at all.
He awakens with the feeling of a bad hangover, his muscles sore like he’d wrenched them all out of whack, his head pulsing. He risks trying to raise his head, and immediately regrets it.
He groans against cold, damp concrete. Armour’s gone, then.
It’s Steve. He sounds…not good. He sounds scared.
Tony cracks his eyes open and it’s only his own protesting body that prevents him from sucking in a sharp gasp.
Steve is sitting in a pool of his own blood.
Tony makes himself get up. “Jesus Christ, Steve,” he croaks, crawling over to him on hands and knees, “What…?”
“It’s not healing fast enough,” Steve says unsteadily, “Something about those guns. The one thing the serum does is regenerate blood fast, but the other stuff not so much. So.”
He’d been smart enough to tie a tourniquet, but not strong enough through the blood loss to tie it tightly enough. He’s too pale, his eyes big in his face, and he’s scaring Tony half to death. Tony thinks disjointedly, Steve didn’t come all the way here to bleed out on the floor of an old enemy’s fucking dungeon, before he forces himself to concentrate over the sound of the static in his own head.
“Okay,” he says, “Okay,” and then he kneels up when he reaches Steve and ignores how the shins of his undersuit immediately soak through with blood. Mustering his strength, he twists his fingers around the ends of the tourniquet and yanks hard, pulling it painfully tight around Steve’s thigh.
Steve makes a strangled noise in his throat, but doesn’t move.
“How long was I out?” Tony asks.
“Not long. Fifteen minutes, maybe. Can’t be totally sure as I was out myself for a while.”
“Okay. Good. If you start to lose feeling in your leg, tell me. I think maybe I can cauterise the wound if I can rig something up to the arc reactor. What’ve you got on you?”
“Tony,” Steve says, brow furrowed, “Are you okay?”
“I’m sore all over, but I’m not the one who’s bleeding out. Let’s see, I think I’ve got some wiring tucked in somewhere—“
“Tony, your hands are shaking.”
Tony looks down. So they are. Doesn’t matter.
“If you’re doing any sort of delicate work with my leg, then it does,” Steve says.
Tony pauses. “I said that aloud, huh? Well, I stand by it. Once we have a plan, I’ll be fine. I’ve worked in worse conditions than this, it’s fine.”
“The real plan,” Steve says, “Should be figuring out how to get out of here with my shield and your armour.”
“Can’t exactly do that when you’re bleeding out enough plasma to keep Keith Richards in transfusions for the rest of his life,” Tony snaps. “Let me fix this first. I’m gonna fix this. You're gonna be fine.” His heart is beating too fast against his ribs now. This scene is too familiar. He’s knelt over too many bodies. Steve can’t be one of them.
Steve looks at him, really looks at him. Then he says, “Okay. Okay, Tony,” and he lets Tony work.
After an interminable time in isolation, Zemo reappears in front of their cell, and Tony is almost one hundred percent sure that knows what’s coming. His dread becomes a freezing, searing presence in his throat.
“The suit,” Zemo says, nostrils visibly flaring beneath his hood. “Give me the codes to access its power.”
“Not gonna happen, Zemo,” Steve snarls, but he sounds weaker than normal. Tony has his doubts, too. Even with his wound mostly cauterised (spare wires hooked up like light bulb filaments to the arc reactor do the trick, with Tony never daring to tell Steve just how fucking dangerous that was), Steve is healing too slowly to be much good in a fight, and any strain could easily reopen his leg. Tony himself is stripped to the waist, the torso and sleeves of his undersuit sacrificed for bandages. He feels far too vulnerable, and worse, far too worried about Steve to be anything but helpless.
Zemo clearly doesn’t miss this, either; his gaze darts between Tony’s bare arms and Steve’s strapped up leg, and the way Tony has insinuated himself slightly in front. He makes a gesture with one hand, and a laser sight appears, in perfect focus, directly between Steve’s eyes.
“The codes, Stark,” Zemo says evenly.
Tony meets Steve’s eyes; Steve stares at him in confusion for a moment, but then apparently reads enough on Tony’s face to have an idea of what Zemo is threatening. He squares his jaw. “Don’t do it, Tony,” he says. “I’ll be fine.”
Tony squeezes his eyes shut, and then opens them again. He touches Steve’s knee. “No, you won’t,” he says. And then, to Zemo, “Seven-four-foxtrot, Nine-two-lima-whiskey-victor.”
“Oh yes,” Zemo demurrs, “This is far more satisfying.”
He leaves in a swish of cloak.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Steve says.
“Forgive me if I value your life over my armour,” Tony snaps, and then immediately looks away. This has really not been a good day for his brain-to-mouth filter. But seriously, what did Steve think he was going to do?
“That’s not what I meant,” Steve says, and it takes Tony a second to realise that his tone is a little different, a little softer around the edges, and so he risks looking back at him. Steve watches him with sharp eyes, but he’s not frowning like he usually does at Tony. “I just meant that maybe we could stall him a while.”
Tony looks down at his hands, and then lets out a breath. He did the right thing, then. Even in Steve’s eyes, he did, and that…that’s important.
He doesn’t allow himself to consider why.
He looks at Steve, and says in an undertone, “Who says I didn’t?”
Steve’s eyes widen just a fraction, but it’s enough for a fiercer glint to come through. “Good,” he says, just as quietly but fervent, “Good.”
Tony settles himself, shoulder to shoulder with Captain America, leaning against the cold stone wall, just avoiding the pool of congealed blood that sits just off to the side of them, now. He very carefully doesn’t look at it.
“How long until he notices?” Steve asks.
“Six hours, give or take,” Tony murmurs. “Long enough for him to think it’s working, but not enough to get enough power through to do any real damage.”
“I think I saw a generator on the floor above us,” Steve muses, “I came to for a couple moments while they were dragging us down here.”
“Think it’s important?”
Steve gives him a dry look. “Would I mention it if it weren’t?”
“Oh, you are not allowed to sass me when I’m the one that bought us time,” Tony hisses.
Steve gives him an innocent look. “I don’t know what you mean.”
He narrows his eyes. “We’re going to have strong words about this later.”
“I tremble at the thought.”
Tony rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. He hopes Zemo doesn’t have any cameras around to pick it up.
Unfortunately, six hours is a long time to wait when you’re stuck in a barren cell that goes from just chilly to outright cold, night bringing in an insidious temperature drop.
“You’re cold,” Steve says, after a while.
Tony cuts a glance at him. “Well, yeah,” he says blankly. “Kinda underdressed, here.” He gestures at his bare torso.
“You should take my jacket,” Steve shifts, trying to shrug out of the top half of his uniform. Tony makes a tutting noise and pushes his shoulders back against the wall to still him.
“You’re still recovering from blood loss and and trying to knit your leg back together. You need the warmth more than I do. It’s fine.”
Steve’s jaw tightens. “Stop sacrificing. You don’t need to.”
“I don’t sacrifice anything!” Tony snaps. “History clearly demonstrates that I am not a sacrificing type. Don’t worry about it, Rogers, I’m fine.”
“You know, the more you say it, the more I don’t believe you.”
“And there you go, sassing me again. This is unacceptable.”
“Tony,” Steve sighs, “Please just stop.”
Tony subsides, but not before muttering, “You started it.”
He stares down at his hands for a long moment, ignoring the goosebumps on his arms in favour of algorithms. He reviews the gauntlet protocol he’d programmed in a moment of drunken self-awareness, which is basically the best state to be in while designing fail-safes and backup plans. He may be a futurist, but part of that is always knowing that in the end, there will be something or someone who will be capable of taking away everything from you, and will do so.
He is startled by the warmth that descends around him in the form of weight and the smell of leather. “I said I was fine,” he says, but even he can’t altogether hid the way he wriggles into the confines of the jacket.
Steve nods, and says, “Put your arms through the sleeves before they go cold.”
Tony obeys, grudgingly. He feels strange and off-balance, though, wearing the stars and stripes.
“Three more hours, that’s all,” he says aloud, because he’s been keeping track, of course.
Steve nods. “Not long at all, then,” he says. He wraps his arms around himself, like that will shield off the cold just as well as leather and reflective plating would.
Tony makes a tutting noise in his throat and, without thinking, throws an arm around his shoulders, the folds of the jacket surrounding them both. Steve swallows, and after a moment, leans into him too, hunching down to fit comfortably beneath Tony’s arm.
“I’ve never liked the cold,” Steve says, several minutes later. “Before the serum, winters in Brooklyn were bad enough without also being not much more than skin and bones. And then after, going to battle in winter, it was still awful. Too many people dying of exposure, with bad equipment and not enough intel. It’s always awful.”
“It’s the way your bones start to ache,” Tony says, surprising himself. “Makes you feel weak. That’s why they turn down the thermostat in interrogation rooms. Body feels weak, tells the mind that it’s weak too.”
Steve shoots him an unreadable look. “I take it you know that from experience?”
“Yeah,” Tony says, and he’s again surprised by how easy it is to say it. “Yeah, I do.”
They fall silent.
“Then why’d you try to refuse my jacket?” Steve asks, with an open curiosity that Tony’s pretty sure he’s never been on the receiving end of before.
He shoots Steve an incredulous glance, and then abruptly turns away again when he realises how close together their faces are. “I’m not stupid,” he says, “I know what latitude you went into the Atlantic on. I hate the cold, sure, but put me in water, and I’ll be begging you for whatever help you can give me. Cold’s the least important source of my issues. ” He shrugs. “I’m guessing it’s a little higher on your list, though.”
He can feel Steve’s gaze on him, but he refuses to meet it with his own.
“Three more hours?” Steve asks, after a long, long moment.
“Yep. Two hours, forty minutes, more like.”
“We can do that.”
Tony exhales, watching his breath mist in the air, and says, “Yeah. We can.”
Bucky can picture Tony quite easily, drowning in Cap’s jacket, the two of them huddled. It makes something in his chest go tight, but he doesn’t know what emotion to assign to the feeling—not jealousy, never that, but something fierce, a gladness that Tony could make Steve talk about anything at all beyond the team and the mission, but also something a little more twisted up in his instinctive possessiveness of Tony as his partner, and Steve as his best friend.
He’s so caught up in trying to sort it all out that he almost doesn’t realise that Steve is still talking.
“You know, when I said I didn’t see something that you were seeing in Tony, what you said, that wasn’t right at all,” Steve is saying, which sounds like it should be judgemental but the way he’s smiling means it isn’t, at all.
So Bucky asks, “How d’you mean?”
“You said it was probably Tony’s fault, that my eyesight was fine. But that wasn’t true. You just didn’t realise what it was you were seeing that I wasn’t. Tony, he’s…he’s like you, in that way. Neither of you realise how amazing you are. You just give and give and you never stop, even when it hurts, and you make that choice every day. The only difference is that you know that that’s worth something. Tony doesn’t. Not yet.”
And Bucky doesn’t reply, because what the hell could you say to that?
Again, though, he isn’t given much chance to think about it, because apparently there are aliens invading Manhattan.
As they do.
He goes in with the Avengers and apparently it’s his turn to take a hit, because he’s blindsided halfway through drowning a secondary ship in the Hudson by a rogue fucking laser cannon that knocks him clean out.
He comprehends the vague and all-too-familiar sensation of falling and then the entirely unfamiliar impact of water before there’s nothing.
When he comes to, he’s in the Helicarrier, he’s missing his metal arm, and Steve and Tony are arguing in the corner of the room.
“You said you built the arm with shielding—“
“Of course I fucking did, do you think I’m stupid? It has to be activated—“
“This wouldn’t even have happened if you hadn’t gone off plan—“
“The plan wasn’t fucking working—“
“Shut up, both of you, or you’re leaving,” Maria Hill snaps.
Bucky opens his eyes and sees the both of them looking shamefacedly at the floor. “Gentlemen,” he croaks, “You can’t fight in here.”
“This is the War Room,” Steve and Tony both say with him, because the whole team had watched it weeks ago in a moment of hilarious and unexpected solidarity. Tony grins crookedly at him, and Steve’s at his side immediately.
“How’re you feelin’, Buck?” he asks, a portrait of worry, and Bucky manages to reach over and pat his hand.
“Crooked. Bit floaty. What happened?”
“We won,” Tony says, “But I had to fish you out of the river. Be glad I waterproofed the suit or neither of us would be in good shape right now.”
And Bucky can see the haunted shade in both his eyes and in Steve’s, and knows the source of them too. He’s sure he’ll have one to match when whatever they have him flying high on wears off.
Falling. Water. Falling.
What a mess.
“‘Bout my arm?” he says.
“Took the brunt of the laser,” Tony says briefly, wincing. “Pretty much slag. I’ll build you a better one, automatic shielding, it’ll be like eyes in the back of your head.”
“I know you will,” Bucky murmurs. He’s already feeling sleepy again. These are great drugs.
“Get some sleep,” Steve says, “We’ll be home soon.”
Bucky nods, and just before he goes under again, he hears Tony say, “I’m sorry.”
And Steve, sounding weary and old but also grateful and firm, answers, “Don’t be.”
Several days later, when he gets back from medical, Bucky finds out that Natasha and Clint run a mean insomniac’s poker game.
He stumbles on it in the middle of the night when he gets up to get a drink, because the painkillers have fucked up his sleep schedule like nothing else. He finds a whole group all sitting at the breakfast table, mostly in darkness except for the tasteful pendant light overhead, and they all look up when he comes in.
He blinks and squints at them. “Coulson? The fuck are you doin’ here?”
Coulson just looks at him flatly. “What does it look like, Barnes? I’m playing cards.”
Maria Hill smiles at him. There are a couple of people around the table he doesn’t recognise—two ladies with dark hair, one petite and slim, the other also petite but curvy in all the right places.
The curvy one looks at him over the top of her horn-rim glasses and says, “Who’s the eye candy and why aren’t we friends yet?”
Clint, surprisingly, flushes. “Barnes, meet Darcy. She once took out Thor with a taser. Darcy, James Barnes.”
“I’m also Phil’s PA, so don’t mess. And that’s Dr. Foster,” Darcy says, jerking a thumb at the woman next to her. “Astrophysicist for SHEILD and Thor’s girlfriend.”
“Call me Jane,” Dr. Foster says.
Bucky’s pretty sure he’ll never get used to the type of company he’s keeping nowadays.
“Nice to meet you both.” He scratches the back of his neck, and realises belatedly that he’s wearing Tony’s pyjama bottoms and is sporting an impressive hickey. He decides not to care. “Mind if I join?”
Natasha smiles. “I’ll deal you in. Don’t be surprised when we take you for everything you’ve got, though.”
Bucky slides into one of the empty chairs and grins. “You say that now, but…”
“Yeah…” Clint drawls, “Don’t speak too soon, my friend.”
Maria Hill, as it turns out, is the one to destroy them all with a series of monumental bluffs followed by a full house.
When Bucky finally gets back into bed at four, lighter by sixty bucks and an SI assault magazine, it’s to Tony muttering imprecations at him even while curling back around him.
“Where you been?”
“Poker,” Bucky says, tangling his legs up with Tony’s.
Tony makes a disapproving noise. Bucky snorts.
“Don’t blame me for getting disbarred. Not my fault you bet your cars and get pissy when you lose.”
“Not listening. Too many words. Early. Sleep.”
“Hill bluffed you into oblivion, didn’t she?”
“Maybe,” Bucky replies, wincing.
“Don’t trust ‘er. Means trouble. Also, still no fair.”
“Go back to sleep, Tony.”
Poker means gossip, though, so while the weird sleeping hours last, Bucky gets in the habit of going back. He starts winning, too, which cheers him up significantly.
It’s also how he hears about all of the missions he hasn’t been on.
“Man, you should have seen Cap and Tony when they first met,” Clint says at one point. “That wasn’t even frenemies, that was straight up mutual antipathy.”
“It was not an auspicious start,” Coulson affirms. “Call.”
“Functioned fine in costume, that was enough for me,” Maria says, waving a hand dismissively while throwing in her chips. “Though the yelling was a bit much.”
“Thank god for the pudding,” Clint says.
Maria, Coulson and Natasha all make agreeing noises. Bucky looks around at them. “…Pudding?”
“Sentient pudding,” Natasha says. “It was…messy.”
Jane makes a face.
“But, Tony saved both Cap and his shield from drowning in it, so,” Clint shrugs. “Things were a little more functional after that.”
“And of course, we have you to thank for the rest,” Maria says dryly.
“I ain’t done anything,” Bucky protests.
Natasha rolls her eyes and Clint snorts. “You’re Cap’s best bro and you’re banging Stark,” he says. “You’re like Switzerland, only better.”
“Ooh, I didn’t know that,” Darcy says, eyes going big. “Hot. Also, call.”
“Seriously?” Clint says.
Darcy gives him an incredulous look, and then turns back at Bucky. “Stark’s, like, super awesome in bed, right?” she says. “He has to be.”
Bucky is…honestly a little shocked, which he didn’t really expect, but like most things he’s encountered in the 21st century, he decides to just run with it. “I’ve got nothing to complain about,” he says. “But I still think I didn’t do anything. Between Tony and Steve, I mean.”
“Definitely underestimating yourself,” Maria says, shuffling absently after Natasha claims all of the chips from the round. “Cap would never look at Stark the way he does now without you buffering in the outset.”
Bucky stares at her for a long moment, but she doesn’t look up, just starts dealing again.
He’s pretty sure she’s got it wrong. He doesn’t really know what to think about it, either.
Jane, thankfully, chooses that moment to ask a question about Texas Hold’Em, and the group lapses back into discussion of the game.
He starts paying attention, after that. His sleeping hours remain strange, but that just means that more often than not he’s sharing more conscious hours with Tony than usual, and so he gets in the habit of going down to the workshop whenever he has free time.
Tony builds and talks, and enlists Bucky as a tester for his prototypes, and between that and the databases JARVIS has at his disposal, Bucky is most definitely never bored.
Steve comes down, too.
At first he does so on the pretence of looking for Bucky, calling him out to take one of their city walks or to grab lunch, but increasingly it’s to bring Tony sandwiches when he’s forgotten to eat, and to look at both of them disapprovingly when it’s past midnight. He comes down to curl up on the ratty couch shoved off to the side that Bucky sometimes naps on (and sometimes jumps Tony on) and props a sketchbook on his knees, filling the pages with Tony’s machines, and Bucky’s face.
He draws Tony as well, always in motion. Bucky only catches a glimpse of one of those pages, but it’s filled with light and dynamism, hands reduced to smudged-out blurs, like Steve is trying to capture the essence of futurism on the page.
It’s…romantic, is what it is.
Steve catches him looking at the sketch pad, and quickly turns the page, shoulders hunching.
Bucky doesn’t say anything, pretends not to notice.
“Hey Barnes,” Tony says from the middle of the room, “Get over here, I got something to show you. Rogers, you too.”
Bucky goes over to him, Steve trailing behind, and finds yet another arm sitting on the worktop. He’s been using his low-impact, high-articulation model since his last battle-ready one got lasered, and this new one looks halfway between the two extremes—light and detailed, but also clearly packing some heat.
“Said I’d give you a better one, right? Here you go. We’ve got,” Tony touches various contact points inside the shoulder joint to demonstrate, “Fully automatic fire from the outer forearm, high calibre fire alongside, plus your favourite spy accoutrements from the missile-launcher arm, I remember how much you loved those. And finally,” he pauses dramatically, and then says with a flourish, “A fully automated defence system.”
The arm emits a burst of blue light that expands into a wide convex surface, sending blueprints scattering across the table. Steve makes a noise of surprise.
Tony taps the surface of it, and it sparks beneath his fingertips. “Highly controlled electromagnetic field projected into a surface. It’ll repel almost anything, save maybe a nuclear warhead. Try not to get nuked. Yeah?”
Bucky manages, through the grin that’s threatening to split his face in half, to grab Tony by the waist and pull him in.
“So can I try it on?” he says against Tony’s mouth.
“Absolutely. Here, Steve, you should see this so you know how to help.” And Tony goes through the motions of helping Bucky out of the old arm and into the new, checking through the contact points and deftly manoeuvring through the click and slide.
Steve watches with rapt attention through the whole process, and then also as Bucky flexes the new arm, unfolding and refolding each of the weapons. Finally Bucky projects the shield out, and laughs out loud when Tony throws a wrench at him and it bounces off like a rubber ball. “Fuck, Stark,” he says, feeling both giddy and safe, “You’ve really outdone yourself.”
“Yeah,” Steve says suddenly, startling them both. He sounds hushed and maybe even a little reverent. “It’s really incredible, Tony. It’s amazing.”
Tony gives Steve a strange, open look before saying, “Thanks, Cap. Means a lot.”
And Bucky experiences a strong, sudden wave of conviction that he’s losing Tony to Steve.
But then he thinks about it, as he looks down at the new arm and watches the joints bend and rotate, and realises that Tony hasn’t done anything at all to make him think or feel like that. All this time, in the workshop and on missions, Tony has been completely normal (well, as normal as he can be).
Steve is the one tumbling, head over heels, and Tony has been nothing but Bucky’s all this time.
It’s at this point that Bucky has the automatic, fleeting thought that hah, he’s never been able to deny Steve anything, he’d give his other arm (and his head, and his heart) to Steve, if he asked.
Except, perhaps the thought isn’t quite so fleeting. Particularly when it resonates with a second, far more dangerous one: Might as well give in and share, really.
“Anything wrong?” Tony asks, startling him out of his thoughts.
Bucky swallows, glances between him and Steve, and tries to smile. “Nah. Everything’s perfect.”
He’s gonna need to think about this.
The thing is that, a long, long while ago, when they’d first taken up with each other, they had talked about Steve.
But not in the way that Bucky’s thinking of talking about him now.
“You loved him, didn’t you?” Tony asked one day, after a truly spectacular beginning-of-the-weekend marathon of sex, which seemed to Bucky to be the opposite of the right time to talk about it. But then again, Tony was proving to be a master of balancing between being endlessly amazing and endlessly frustrating, and so maybe he found he was too much in credit and needed to accumulate some debit post-haste.
Bucky regarded him evenly, and waited. It was always better to wait with Tony; he couldn’t bear the silence.
“Steve, I mean. Like, I’ve seen the newsreels. And you, you were there for him before he was Cap. And he saved you. And it’s all very romantic; hell, it should still be very romantic, it’s all sacrifice and war drama and please, just say something before I dig myself deeper into this hole, goddamn you, Barnes—”
“Yes,” Bucky said, taking pity on him. And it was odd, because it was the first time he’d ever admitted anything of the sort aloud. But it felt perfectly fine. Tony didn’t wince, didn’t shy away or even look sad about it. He was absolutely neutral, and that was perfect.
“He was my brother,” he elaborated, “But…he wasn’t just that. He was special, too. You know, right? I always thought it was real stupid, the way people didn’t notice that. It’s so obvious. But I saw it first. And he…I dunno, Stark. What do you want me to say?”
“Whatever you feel like saying, I guess,” Tony said. He looked away in the afternoon light, sun turning his skin a pale warm umber through the tinted windows. “I mean, do you still…?”
Bucky swallowed. “I don’t know how to stop,” he confessed, too quietly. He chanced a glance at Tony, and couldn’t read a thing off of him. “Does that…?”
“No,” Tony said quickly. “I, uh, no. It doesn’t bother me, or anything. I guess I just…wanted to know? And not in the self-sabotaging way—Pepper will tell you that while I’m very good at self-sabotage, I’m also kind of the least jealous person ever; it’s not part of my programming, I guess, probably something about never really believing that I was owed much of anything when it came to, you know, people things, because I mean, I’m hardly going to deserve anything on that front. But I mean, also, I know…I know how that works. Still loving someone, even when it’s just not happening.”
As usual, it took a couple seconds for Bucky to digest that, the quick tripping that Tony did over his own soft spots, which Bucky suspected he did just to try and harden them, even though they weren’t the sort of things that ever could be anything but tender. But then he got through it, sifting through the baggage, and said, “I ain’t going anywhere.”
Tony turned on his side to look at him.
“I am,” he said slowly, “Really glad to hear that.”
And that had been that, really. Tony hadn’t been lying when he said he wasn’t the jealous type—Bucky kind of figures that with his kind of childhood, Tony would either cling tight to things or just consider their loss an inevitability, and while the decision, conscious or unconscious, to go with the latter is kind of heartbreaking, it means that they’ve sort of already put the Steve issue aside, and it’s oddly comfortable.
The only thing is, at the time, Bucky still had no idea what Tony really thought of Steve.
But now, maybe? He’s beginning to get an idea.
He decides to bring it up…subtly.
“So have you noticed Steve lately?”
“Hm? Hard to miss,” Tony says from under the Zonda. “What with his blonde and big and shiny-ness.”
Bucky rolls his eyes. “I mean around you. How he is.”
Tony emerges to give him an incredulous look. “Uh. No? He doesn’t look like he wants to put me in time-out all the time, I guess, which is definitely an improvement. Is that what you mean?”
“It’s a start.”
“If this is a play-nice-because-he’s-my-best-friend speech, save it. I’m doing my best.”
“I know you are,” Bucky says, lying down so that he can knock shoulders with Tony under the car. “I think it’s working.”
“How do you mean? Cap willing to breathe the same space as me? Because that at least I’ve noticed. Though I’m pretty sure he’s just doing it for your sake.”
Bucky sighs. “You’re pretty dense sometimes, Stark.”
Tony just stares at him, and when he doesn’t elaborate, goes back to adjusting the fuel lines. Eventually he says, “It’s easier now, you know.”
“What is?” Bucky asks.
“Dealing with him. You’ve, uh, been good for him. When he first came out, he was brittle. Now he’s better. So, uh, thanks for that, I guess.”
So much for subtle, then.
On Tuesday, Bruce emerges from the lab with a troubled expression that immediately has everyone in the vicinity in high alert. “Um,” he says, polishing his glasses, “Where’s Tony?”
“In the lab, as usual,” Bucky responds, “Why?”
“I need to check some results with him. Also,” Bruce looks at Thor, “Would you be able to recognise other machinery that’s been influenced by a moonstone?”
“That would depend upon the extent to which the moonstone was involved in its makings,” Thor frowns. “Why do you ask me this?”
“Just a theory, at this point. I need to verify with Tony first.”
“What’s going on, precisely?” Steve asks.
Bruce looks down at his hands, “I’ve been looking at the wreckage of those magically enhanced doombots. You know, the ones that Tony and Thor had to sucker punch with lightning a few months ago?”
“You think a moonstone was used to make them?”
Steve glances back at Bucky, who can feel his own expression drawing tight. “I wouldn’t have expected Zemo and Doom to have a lot in common,” Steve says slowly. “Not enough to collaborate.”
“Could just be different moonstones,” Clint suggests.
“There’s no use speculating,” Bruce cuts in, “I just have to check the data, and then get Thor to look at it afterwards.”
“Okay,” Steve says, “That’s fine. Let us know when you find out anything more.”
Bruce nods, and heads towards the opposite wing of the house, under which Tony’s lab was housed.
He doesn’t emerge, and neither does Tony, for about thirty-six hours.
Steve practically orders Bucky to bring them food, like Bucky wouldn’t have done that at some point, honestly, Rogers, but Tony barely manages to look up to kiss him when he goes down, and Bruce only grunts in acknowledgement.
“Progress?” Bucky asks, with zero expectation of garnering a response. He opens a carton of noodles and places it strategically in arms’ reach on Tony’s lab table.
“Mmf,” Tony says, which could have been an answer or just a noise of interest at whatever he was looking at on the holograms in front of him.
“Twenty-five percent and climbing,” Tony says over his shoulder. Bruce makes a noise of concern and says, “Shove it over?”
Tony makes a sliding motion and the graph flies over to Bruce’s workstation.
“I’m gonna go,” Bucky announces, wondering why he’s bothering. “Try not to accidentally explode the house or anything.”
“Pfft,” Tony says dismissively, waving a hand.
Bucky rolls his eyes, and beats a hasty retreat.
“Are they alive?” Clint says, as he reemerges from the lab.
“Reduced to science and grunts, but alive,” Bucky replies. Steve clenches his jaw slightly, and then sighs.
“So no update?”
“Not that I could parse,” Bucky says, “But you’re welcome to go and check for yourself.”
“No,” Steve sighs again. “I’m sure we’ll find out what the deal is soon enough.”
It wasn’t that soon, unfortunately. Another six hours, and Bucky resorts to dragging Tony out of the lab and forcing him to sleep, with Clint and Natasha doing the same to Bruce, and while they’re both passed out, Coulson calls and then Bucky finds himself drafted into another espionage mission with Natasha.
Steve sees them off from the helicarrier, promising that he’ll tell Tony what’s happening when he finally wakes up.
“Be careful, Buck,” he says over the roar of fighter jets.
“You know I always am,” Bucky shouts, and Natasha links arms with him.
“I’ll take good care of him, Cap,” she says with a sliver of a smile.
As they board the plane, he says, “You’ll take care of me, huh?”
Her eyebrow twitches. “Last time we were out, I may have gotten a text from Tony stating that, should I bring you back any less whole than you are now, he will make a point of staring at my cleavage during every team meeting for the foreseeable future. Seeing as you’re tolerable company and I’d rather not have to stab him? Yes, I will take care of you.”
Bucky laughs, throwing back his head.
When they return, tired and with sand stuck to the both of them in places Bucky doesn’t really want to contemplate, they find that the mansion has been emptied of its occupants, and that everyone has congregated instead within the second subbasement lab of SHIELD headquarters.
Standing in the centre of it all are Tony and Bruce, who are in turn surrounded on all sides—though at a safe distance—by a terrified and fascinated ring of scientists.
The Avengers are all standing in the doorway when Bucky and Natasha find them.
“What’s going on?” Bucky asks.
“Welcome back,” Steve says. “They’re, uh, testing the veracity of the moonstone.”
“Veracity?” Natasha says, eyebrows rising. “They think it’s a fake?”
“Tony’s convinced. Bruce is willing to be convinced,” Clint says. “The rest of SHIELD is unconvinced, and about sixty percent sure that what they’re doing will overload the moonstone and send us all to kingdom come.”
“Business as usual, then,” Natasha says dryly.
“Business as usual,” Clint confirms.
“Okay!” Tony says, “It’s time to prove to all you bastards that I’m right, as per usual!”
Steve rolls his eyes. Bucky snickers.
The scientists remain both skeptical and fearful for their lives.
Bruce flips a series of switches, and with a flourish Tony cranks up the power on some sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a machine, at whose centre sits the moonstone in question.
A blue glow gathers in a halo around the stone, flickering and sparking as a hum starts up, some sort of deep resonant grind and pulse that Bucky can feel in his marrow.
“If that thing’s a fucking brown note player, Stark is off the team,” Clint mutters, barely audible above the heightening rumble of machines.
“You need to break yourself of your TV Tropes addiction, Barton,” Natasha says.
The hum just gets louder, the light more searing. For an interminable second, it beams out enough to engulf Tony and Bruce so that all that’s visible is a wall of white in the middle of the room.
Steve takes a breath, shoulders bracing, like he’s ready to crush the whole thing with his shield if anything goes wrong.
A high-frequency whine picks up over the bass rumble—
—Then there’s the distinct tinkling sound of breaking glass, and the whole thing just…stops.
Bucky blinks, once and then several times to clear the spots from in front of his eyes. His ears, he’s pretty sure, are ringing, though not bleeding, so he supposes that’s a plus.
“Hah!” Tony says, sounding like he’s under water. “Suck it! Science wins again!”
“Indeed,” Bruce says, taking his glasses off to rub at his eyes. “I didn’t think it would be that flashy.”
“Great science is always flashy!”
“You want to tell me what the hell you’ve found out, now that half my staff have wet themselves?” Fury growls from behind the Avengers in the doorway.
Bucky barely manages not to flinch. Fury is more of a ninja than he previously supposed.
“The moonstone’s a fake!” Tony crows. “It’s a knock-off. A cheap imitation. It’s got a sticker with ‘Made in China’ stamped on the back—“
“It’s manufactured,” Bruce cut in, to everyone’s relief. “Almost definitely by humans. Thor confirmed for us that Doom was definitely using one for his robots, so we wondered how both he and Zemo managed to acquire one. This explains it. It also explains why both Doom and Zemo have been using them, but using them badly—with moonstones being made, they’re easier to get a hold of, but far more unstable than the originals. That’s why Zemo needed Tony’s repulsors to keep his from failing.”
“Also, we’ve broken this one,” Tony adds.
“Also, we’ve broken this one,” Bruce confirms.
Fury takes a long, cleansing breath, and lets it out in a huff. “Any chance of you identifying these humans in question?”
“Not yet,” Tony says cheerfully. “But do you know what this means? It means that we’re dealing with a supervillain black market. How awesome is that?”
“I don’t know if ‘awesome’ is the first word that comes to mind,” Steve says dryly.
“Right,” Fury says, sounding like it is taking great effort to not do something violent. “Widow, I know you’re fresh off the last op, but I need you on intelligence. Any contacts that you might have. You’ll have SHIELD behind you, obviously.”
“Sir,” Natasha nods, and slips away down the hall.
“The rest of you…” Fury starts, looking around at the relieved but still shellshocked scientists, at the remaining Avengers standing in the doorway, and at Tony and Bruce looking triumphant around their assemblage of equipment and the cracked (and faintly smoking) moonstone, “Get back to work, for chrissakes.”
“Up high, Banner,” Tony says, and Bruce politely slaps his hand.
“Can we go back to the mansion now?” Clint whines.
“I, for one, am in favour of that,” Bucky says, “I need a shower like you can’t believe.”
“Barnes!” Tony says delightedly, finally tearing himself away from the machinery. “You’re back! Today is delightful!” His arms may actually be flailing.
“Okay, what,” Bucky says, raising his eyebrows. “Is this still just a science high, or…?”
Steve sighs. “I don’t think he’s slept more than a few hours since you left. There have been at least two crates of Red Bull delivered to the house, and there are miniature robots wandering around the first floor now.”
“You should have just told him where you were going,” Steve admonishes gently.
“I never tell him where, why should I—oh.” Bucky flinches. “Shit.”
Right. Tony never asks where he’s going, because he hacks the SHIELD servers to find out. Which is never a problem, except for how Bucky has been in Afghanistan for the past few days.
Bucky is a terrible person.
And indeed as Tony gets closer Bucky can see that the manic gleam in his eyes offset deep bruised circles of exhaustion beneath, and he’s sporting more stubble than usual. “Hi,” Bucky says cautiously.
“Hi!” Tony says, grinning. “You’re back! Did you see the awesomeness of what Bruce and I just did? You totally did. It was groundbreaking and amazing and SHIELD scientists need to man up. Yes.” But then he slides in close and kind of rests his forehead on Bucky’s shoulder. “You’re okay,” he murmurs into Bucky’s jacket.
Steve gives Bucky a look. Bucky sighs.
“Yeah. I’m just fine, Tony. Let’s go home, huh?”
Three days before:
Tony has no idea how he got here, but it may have had something to do with the twelve cans of Red Bull scattered around him and the three different laptops strung together on the floor like the worlds most dysfunctional and lonely LAN party.
Fucking Afghanistan. Tony is going to kill Barnes when he gets back.
When. Never if. Never that.
He sifts through the pile of circuitry and wiring until he finds what he actually managed to create in this particularly bad engineering blackout.
Finally he finds it in the centre, hidden beneath a crumpled blueprint and a stack of transistors.
She beeps and tilts a little to the side, nearly overbalancing on delicate wheels.
Tony blinks, trying to clear the sandy feeling from his eyes, and says, “Hi there, short stuff.”
There’s a whir and click behind him, and then Dummy is craned over his shoulder. Short Stuff toddles forward a few inches, forgets that she’s still tilted over to one side, and overbalances.
Tony catches her with one hand and sets her upright again. “Careful,” he admonishes, and she titters, an ungraceful but oddly charming wobble. “You’re gonna be a heartbreaker, I can tell,” Tony murmurs. “Not like this hunk of metal behind me, am I right?”
Dummy makes a protesting noise, but she just wobbles again, waving her one arm in a gesture that manages to be both bashful and pleased.
“Huh?” It takes a second for Tony to identify the voice as someone else actually in his workshop, and another for him to realise he should respond in something other than a grunt. “Oh. Uh. Captain…Steve. I’m totally working on something awesome for the Avengers. Yes.”
“Really?” Steve says, sounding oddly strained, “Because it kind of looks like you’re building a baby robot.”
She squeaks in indignation, and Tony calms her with a couple of fingers across her arm. “He didn’t mean it, darling. He’s just saying you’re young.”
He looks back at Steve. “Um. I can explain?”
Steve doesn’t seem to have heard him, though. Instead, he’s coming forward and then crouching next to Tony.
Short Stuff regards him with a wary set to her arm. After a second, Steve holds out a finger to her. “Hello, miss,” he says earnestly. “It’s nice to meet you.”
She squeaks, seizes his finger and shakes it. Tony manfully tries to suppress a terrible noise of adoration and only partially succeeds. Steve looks no better, his smile gone all soft and gooey around the edges.
“Aw, you’re lovely,” he says, all 40s charm, and Dummy makes a whirring noise of agreement. Tony is definitely, definitely not charmed.
Short Stuff obviously is though, the way she wiggles again. Traitor.
“Guess you’re gonna have to come down and visit us more often, huh?” Tony says, half-joking, but only half.
Steve turns to look at him. “Do I need an excuse for that?” he asks. His gaze is steady on Tony now, and Tony has to pat Short Stuff again just to distract himself from the sudden warmth he feels.
“No,” he says, a little too honestly, “I guess not.”
Steve smiles at him, broad and bright.
“Did you know where he was going?” Tony hears himself say. He sounds small, and shit, maybe his tiredness has reached confessional levels, which is never good. He should stop.
“Who, Bucky? No, he never tells me anything about his ops. I’m convinced it’s his way of showing me he’s all right nowadays,” Steve says, a little dryly. “Why, do you?”
“Yeah. He’s, uh.” Tony definitely should stop talking. “He’s in Afghanistan. Kunar region.” Shit.
Short Stuff rolls up closer to him, resting her arm on his thigh.
“Okay,” Steve says slowly, and then a second later, “Oh. I…god, sorry. Kunar, that’s where you…? I didn’t even…Christ, Tony, are you okay?”
Tony is all set to say, “Of course I am! I’m awesome, as usual!” except that what comes out instead is a wide gesture to the chaos of the workshop and, “Do I look okay?”
Steve looks at him, a strange expression on his face, partly sympathy but partly something else that takes the sting out. “I know it’s not going to help,” Steve says, “But he’s doing something completely different to what you were doing over there.”
“You’re right, definitely not helpful,” Tony snaps, and then winces. “Sorry.”
“He used to scare the shit out of me on ops,” Steve says quietly. “I mean, it didn’t even make sense, I was always the one being an idiot, throwing myself into danger, but somehow it was worse with him, because when he acted it was with total control, and I just thought…I just thought, what if that isn’t enough? What if something happens that he can’t control?”
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Tony says, because he can’t help it at this point, fucking hell, he really is in the confessional zone, this is awful and he feels just awful. “Fuck, I don’t…Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“I…don’t be. I’m glad I’m not the only one worrying this time,” Steve says. He settles on the floor next to Tony, and Short Stuff wheels herself over to chirp at him. He pats her cautiously, like he’s afraid she’ll break, which is sweet, really; Tony’s not used to other people treating his bots like they’re valuable.
“So,” Steve says, after a long moment. “You going to build more of these?” he strokes his fingers along Short Stuff’s base, and she chitters away, with Dummy chiming in over their shoulders every once in a while.
“Probably,” Tony says. “But I’ll try and make ‘em useful this time. First round’s always the quirky ones, after that they fall into place. And I, uh, need something to do.”
Steve nods. “Okay. Is there food somewhere in your future at this point?”
Tony grimaces. “How about no.”
Steve sighs. “Okay. Just…be careful. Please.”
“I’ve done far worse,” Tony says, waving a hand. “Don’t worry about me, Cap.”
He hears Steve sigh again, and then there’s an almost interminable moment when Steve leans into him, shoulder-to-thigh on the floor of the workshop, before they both seem to realise what they’re doing and shift slightly apart.
Tony has no idea what to do with that, so he puts it all in a box, and files it away.
It takes four days, three broken robots (Clint goes after them for target practice until Tony tartly informs him that he is attacking conscious entities, what the fuck is wrong with you, Barton, after which point Clint takes to keeping them perched on his shoulders while walking around the house, which is maybe even weirder), and then two terrifying tequila and poker nights, before anything gets done. And really, Bucky means anything.
Because without Natasha around to be the strategic eye-roller of the group, and therefore the loudly silent voice of sanity, the mansion takes on a slightly manic character, particularly because until she acquires the intelligence to track down this apparent moonstone-making group or individual, the rest of them are pretty much benched.
At first, Bucky makes sure that Tony sleeps for at least twelve hours, and then forces an omelette down his gullet when he wakes, which allows him to ask about the several miniature robots that are, indeed, fumbling around the first floor.
“Cleaner bots,” Tony mutters, still only semi-coherent due to coffee withdrawal. “And uh, security-ish. I dunno, man, I was bored and you weren’t there and so I made some things. First one’s named Short Stuff.”
“She’s the cute squeaky one, right?” Bucky says, thinking of the one that tends to follow Steve around, with Steve acting like it was possibly the most adorable thing to ever happen to him.
Bucky would never admit it aloud, but it really was kind of sweet.
“That’s her. She likes Steve possibly more than is healthy.”
“So let me get this straight. You were worried and got lonely so you made some friends,” Bucky translates. “And then they fell in love with Steve.”
“S’happened before. Well, not the Steve part, but you know. And it’s only Short Stuff who likes him. The others are far more rational. Prob’ly cause I was actually out of the blackout stage of insomniac programming for them.”
And isn’t it interesting, Bucky thinks, that in his blackout, Tony made a robot that follows Steve around like a lovelorn puppy. “Stark, I don’t know what to do with you sometimes,” he says.
Tony offers him a smile that’s verging on a leer. “I can make several suggestions, if you’re all out.”
And well, Bucky is desert dust-free, and Tony is mostly lucid and recovered from his apparent freak-out, so, yeah.
“Suggestions are absolutely welcome.”
But finally, Natasha shows up bearing SHIELD dossiers and a grim expression.
“We’re up, everyone,” she says at the breakfast table, where they’re all nursing hangovers except Bruce and Tony, due to their exclusion from poker night, and Steve, due to his Steve-ness.
Bucky makes a sound of protest.
Clint points at him without lifting his head from the table. “What he said.”
Steve scans through the dossier and nods sharply. “We don’t have to act immediately, so you can relax, Clint. However, we are on deadline, so use the time you have to get ready. This looks extensive.”
“They’re dangerous,” Natasha says. “They’ve got a lot of resources due to their trade with the moonstone. It’s going to be on a par with Zemo’s lair.”
“Fun,” Bruce says.
“What’s their deal?” Tony asks, not bothering to look at the file.
“They’re calling themselves The Suppliers,” Natasha says dryly. “Three guesses what they do.”
“Not exactly creative types, then?” Clint comments.
“Not in the name department, but definitely in other areas, it seems,” Steve says. “It’s not just moonstones they’re manufacturing. It looks like they’re a more experimental, magic-based offshoot of AIM.”
“I hate magic,” Tony grumbles. “Possibly more than I hate AIM.”
“We know,” Bruce says.
“Even by pure incident of their profession, they’re going to be armed to the teeth,” Steve observes. “We’re not going to be able to play a straightforward strike. I’m tempted to have us spearhead SHIELD forces rather than going in alone.”
“Clint and I can infiltrate,” Natasha says, “If you want to do a Trojan horse scheme.”
“If that’s what you’re doing, I want in,” Bucky chimes in.
Steve looks at the three of them, and then at Tony. “What kind of horse can you build for them?” he asks, raising an eyebrow. “Or better yet, what can you build for them to bring in with the horse?”
Tony grins. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“Hey, so I had a thought.”
“You tend to have a lot of those. What’s so different about this one?”
“You’re hilarious. Come here.”
Bucky obliges him. Tony had been working hard on the preparations for the strike against The Suppliers, while Bucky had been alternating between using the dart board in the workshop for knife throwing practice and going to the gym to train with the rest of the Avengers. This is the first instance that Tony’s actually talked to him, being otherwise occupied with delicate circuitry or buried in a chassis of some sort or another, so Bucky figures it’s important this time.
Tony says, “So I was thinking after the whole laser thing, that it would be a good idea to be able to do field repairs on your arm, in case something happens to it and the fight’s not over. Just to make sure it doesn’t become a hindrance or anything.”
“Sounds reasonable. So?”
Tony twitches slightly, looking away. Bucky, who had leaned himself up against the table facing Tony as he sat in his chair, bumped knees with him. “So?” he repeated, quieter.
“So, there should be some way of remotely accessing it. Not to use, but to stabilise it. Maybe through JARVIS.” He pauses, and at Bucky’s silence he twitches again. “I thought I could give Cap the codes for it.”
Bucky thinks on it for a second, and then pushes off the edge of the table to take up a more customary position, straddled across Tony’s lap. “Sure,” he says. “You’d have the code too, right?”
“I don’t have to,” Tony says quickly. “I can have JARVIS write up an encryption, you don’t have to put up with me having—“
“You should have it,” Bucky interrupts. “Steve would need to know all of the technical stuff, wouldn’t he? To remotely access and then fix things?”
“JARVIS would do most of the work for him,” Tony says.
“You should have the code,” Bucky repeats firmly. “I trust you.”
“I’m scaring the shit out of you,” Bucky guesses, watching him.
“No,” Tony says absently, “And that’s what concerns me.”
“You’re not gonna break me, you know.”
“I do know. And that’s kinda the thing, isn’t it? Um. So.”
“Yes to remote access,” Bucky says. “Yes to you and Cap having access codes. But so help me god, if someone hacks that access and I hurt someone accidentally, I will bury you, Stark.”
At that, Tony smiles faintly. “Understood, Sergeant.” And then, after a pause, “The, um. The feeling’s mutual, by the way.”
Bucky already knew that. But hearing it is nice, all the same.
There’s a soft tap on the glass of the lab door, causing the both of them to turn. Steve is just beyond, red-faced and averting his eyes pointedly. Bucky extricates himself from Tony’s lap as Tony says, “Let him in, JARVIS, no point in standing on ceremony. What can I do for you, Cap?”
“I wanted to check in on how the plans are going,” Steve says, stepping in. “But I can come back later?”
“It’s fine,” Tony says, and Bucky nods agreement. “I’ve got most of it down, it just needs to be cut and assembled. You want to see the blueprints?”
Tony walks them through it, and while Bucky’s seen most of it already, having hung around for a bit of the process with Tony’s constant conversation with JARVIS to accompany the creation, it’s always something to see Tony walk an audience through his work.
“Like you planned, our three double-Os will be going in through this chink in the complex’s security, once Natasha cons one of the guards out of his security pass. After that, though, they’ll need to both mark their progress into the building and set traps for whatever guard reaction there will be when they’re caught. Because they will be caught,” Tony says darkly, “I know they’re the best, but this security’s too tight. I’m sure you agree, Cap.”
“I do,” Steve confirms, glancing at Bucky, who just nods as well. Steve had laid out his projected views of the security that would be in place, the manpower involved as observed by Natasha, and it is a fairly impossible setup.
“So they need to get far in to start laying down the charges, but if they get caught early on, they need to be just as effective, and get out safely,” Tony continues. “So first, here’s your horse and soldier’s swords.”
Bucky whistles. “Where’d you get the design for their uniform?”
“Natasha’s surveillance, plus a healthy dose of research and consultation with a woman I know who works in couture. Stunning lady, she…never mind. Now, built into the uniforms are percussive rounds, a telescoping set of bow and arrows for Clint that include all of his favourites, and all the storage Natasha needs for her usual. Barnes, all your stuff’ll be in your arm, as usual. Figured you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not in the least.”
Tony continues, “Along with, are charges for disabling the main tower security here and here,” he pulls up the building’s schematics, “And a series of tracking and hacking servers that will break into the security room from the inside. They only need to get past the first outer ring of rooms for them to work, so unless something goes drastically wrong, we’re good.”
“And if something does go drastically wrong?” Steve says.
“Well, I’m not the strategist, Cap. But they’ll be able to at least retreat back with the armaments they have and blow a hole in the first couple of walls once they’re out.”
“All right, good. I’ll put together emergency protocols tonight. How long until we’re green?”
“Eighteen hours, give or take. Plus another couple for last minute tests and briefing.”
“Good. Nice work. If everything else is on schedule, we’ll be on mission by tomorrow night.”
Steve moves to leave, and Bucky blurts out, “Tony’s programming an extra feature. For my arm.”
Steve goes still, and so does Tony. “Oh?” Steve says, carefully neutral.
“It’s only a failsafe,” Tony says quickly, “If something needs to be fixed in the field, it can be done remotely, with help from JARVIS.”
“You put JARVIS in his arm?” Steve raises his eyebrows.
“Not always,” Bucky says, “Just with a passcode. Enter the code, and JARVIS can do a shut down, or isolate the malfunction and try to fix it.”
“Tony will have the code,” Steve says, nodding.
Tony makes a small noise of protest, but Bucky just nods and says, “You, too. I want both of you to have them.”
“I don’t—” Steve looks discomfited. “I don’t know enough about the mechanics. You don’t need my help.”
“JARVIS is taking care of all the mechanics,” Tony dismisses, “It’s just a matter of giving him permission to work. You’ll be in the best position to judge whether it’s necessary, given that you’re leading the group, so.”
“He thought it should just be you with the codes,” Bucky says pointedly, “I strongly suggested it should be both of you.”
Tony sends him a look, eyes narrowed, and Bucky just tilts his head and raises his eyebrows. Steve looks between the two of them, and then suddenly he looks hunted.
“Okay,” he says slowly, “If that’s what you want.”
“It’s what I want,” Bucky confirms. “I want the three of us on this.”
“Barnes,” Tony starts.
“If you’re okay with that,” Bucky interrupts, looking at Steve.
Steve gives him an exasperated look, and then turns to Tony, who nods, his expression softening slightly.
“All right,” Steve says eventually. “I’m okay with that. But be careful.”
“Good,” Tony says, clapping his hands and dispersing the tension in the process, “Then that’s settled.”
Steve shakes his head, as if to clear it, and takes a step back. “I guess I’ll see you both later?” he says, backing away towards the door.
“Later, Steve,” Bucky says, and Steve seems to barely restrain himself from outright fleeing. Bucky watches as he disappears up the stairs.
“What,” Tony says evenly, as soon as he’s gone, “The fuck was that?”
Two days earlier:
Bucky is sitting in the living room, halfway through sorting through all of the intel on The Suppliers with Natasha and Clint, when there’s a door slam from downstairs followed by the distinct stomping of Captain America making a frustrated exit/entrance.
“Oh boy,” Clint mutters.
Steve stalks through the living room towards the opposite hallway, Short Stuff falling in at his heels, squeaking alarm. Bucky, Natasha, and Clint all watch as several other cleaner bots fall in behind Short Stuff like a line of ducklings and then disappear down the hall.
The corner of Natasha’s mouth twitches.
“You’re up, James,” Natasha says.
“He probably doesn’t—“
He rolls his eyes, but gets to his feet. “Don’t get too far ahead,” he says, “I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Uh huh,” Clint says. “Later, Barnes.”
Bucky catches a glimpse of one last robot sliding in past Steve’s door just before it shuts and waits a moment before knocking.
“Yeah,” Steve says from inside. He sounds tired.
Bucky pushes the door open slowly, to give the robots a chance to scuttle away. Short Stuff is sitting on the bed next to Steve, risking toppling over with every movement she makes. Hard Day’s Night is playing softly from the speakers in the ceiling. Steve’s apparently been stuck in the sixties, music-wise, since he woke up.
(Bucky’s gotten up to 90s grunge, and is enjoying it immensely. But then again, he’s always been the one to throw himself into teenage rebellion first, in all its forms. Steve’s all for rebellion, sure, but he has to be convinced that the change is good, first. And while Tony can certainly go on and on about how overrated the Beatles were, there really isn’t anything wrong with them, per se. Not that Bucky can see, at least.
He does prefer Abbey Road to Help!, though.)
Steve looks at him, and sighs. “It’s fine,” he says, “There won’t be any problems when we’re in the field.”
“Good,” Bucky says, “Though I will point out that you’re the captain here, so I would have trusted your judgement on that anyway.”
Steve looks at his hands.
“He’s still getting to you,” Bucky observes.
“No,” Steve says quickly, wincing, “No, it’s not that. I just…we were talking about the Suppliers, and I asked whether they could have gotten hold of repulsor technology if Zemo managed to salvage them from the castle, and he just got defensive about it, like it would somehow be his fault if that happened, and it was like we were back to square one.”
“Square one wasn’t a good time,” Bucky prompts, when he hesitates.
“It’s always one step forward, two steps back with him.” Steve looks at him, pained. “Buck,” he starts, and then stops, looks away. Bucky hasn’t seen him this tied up in knots since they were kids. “You don’t know what it was like, at first,” he says finally.
“You guys didn’t click, I heard,” Bucky starts, but Steve interrupts him.
“We didn’t…we had words. I said awful things to him. And it wasn’t all his fault, but—“
“But Tony’s as good at finding soft spots as Clint is at targets,” Bucky says, nodding. If the frostiness with which Tony had greeted Steve the first time Bucky had seen the two in a room together had been post-Pudding Incident, Tony must have really twisted the knife at some point.
Steve shrugs. “I’ve tried to apologise, but—“
“Let me guess,” Bucky says, “He cuts you off and changes the subject.”
Steve looks down at his hands, and nods. “I don’t think he’s forgiven me. God knows he’s got the right not to. I was—I was so alone, and so angry with, with everything and everybody, the whole situation, and I took it out on him.”
Bucky sighs. “People always forget that you’ve got a temper.”
“Why would they have known in the first place?” Steve says quietly. “Everybody who would have were long gone.”
Bucky thinks fiercely that he would give almost anything to have been thawed out just those few months earlier. He doesn’t say that though. “If I were to guess, I’d say that Stark’s not ignoring you because he doesn’t forgive you. Chances are, he thinks there’s nothing to forgive.”
“How could he—he can’t have believed me,” Steve says, turning to look at him, horrified. “Could he?”
“I don’t know what you said,” Bucky says, holding up his hands, “And granted I haven’t known Tony that long, but I’ve had some painfully embarrassing conversations with Rhodes that lead me to think that Tony will forgive anyone almost anything, generally because he operates under the assumption that he’s the one who fucked up in the first place.”
Steve stares at him for a long moment, and then looks away.
“It can’t have been that bad,” Bucky says.
“It was unfair,” Steve says, and Bucky winces. Steve admitting to having treated someone unfairly is a bad sign.
After a second, Bucky walks forward and gently picks Short Stuff up off the bed, depositing her in Steve’s lap so he can sit beside him, their knees barely touching. Short Stuff whirs contentment when Steve pats her.
“Why are you so hung up on this?” Bucky asks quietly.
Steve closes his eyes. “I think you know,” he says.
Bucky sucks in a breath. It sometimes blindsides him even now, how brave Steve can be about the smallest and largest things.
“I’m sorry,” Steve starts, but Bucky puts a hand on his knee and he stills.
“Don’t be sorry,” he says firmly. “Though I’ve gotta say one thing.”
Steve chances a look at him and waits.
“You’ve got a type, Rogers.”
Steve chokes out a laugh, half surprise and half amusement, and his shoulders come down just slightly.
“I don’t think Tony’d be averse, either,” Bucky adds musingly.
…And there go the shoulders back up again. Damn it.
Steve says sharply, “He would never do that to you.”
Bucky holds up his hands. “I’m not saying he would.”
“Then don’t—,” Steve stops, and runs a hand through his hair. “Just don’t. I’m not getting in the way of you two. You’re good together, it’s stupid to even speculate.”
“Okay,” Bucky assures him, “Okay, then I won’t. Don’t worry, Steve.”
He won’t speculate, but he’s certainly not going to ignore the way Steve visibly clamps down on whatever he’s feeling, and that it looks really fucking painful to do so.
Bucky takes a breath. This should be interesting. “I was just offering some commentary.”
“On what, precisely?”
“I’m not blind,” Bucky says, as gently as he knows how. “I know what I look like when I look at Steve. You look just the same nowadays. And what I’m saying is, I’m okay with that.”
“Why the hell would you be okay with that?” Tony demands.
“Because he likes you. And you’re good for him.”
Tony scoffs, but it’s a mask. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Barnes,” he drawls, “But I’m a difficult man to like.”
“You’re right,” Bucky says, “I haven’t noticed.”
Tony looks momentarily stunned, but recovers quickly and says with frightening seriousness, “Barnes. If you’re implying somewhere in there that I’ve settled for you, I’m going to kick your ass. While wearing the suit.”
Bucky stares at him for a long second. He…hadn’t mean that. Had he? He’s pretty sure he has more confidence than that.
There might’ve been a tiny part of him that thought that.
It must show on his face too, because Tony takes on a fierce expression as he steps forward and slides a hand around the back of Bucky’s neck. “Goddamnit, Barnes,” he says quietly. “We gonna have to talk about our feelings now? Because we just got done with that, like, ten minutes ago, and it’s definitely not how I was planning on spending the rest of my time with you before we go off again to blow some shit up.”
“No?” Bucky says, still maybe a little unsteady. “We don’t have to do that.”
Tony is taking shameless advantage of his momentary lapse to derail them, but Bucky can’t quite bring himself to mind. “Okay, good, then I’ll just summarise,” Tony says to him, “I don’t need Steve. I want you. End of story. And now, if we’re good, I’m going to fuck you into the mattress. We good?”
He laughs out a breath. “Yeah, we’re good.”
Much later, when they’re lying crumpled over each other, Bucky says, “You totally missed my point, by the way.”
“I wasn’t saying you should replace me with Steve,” he says carefully. “I’m just saying that maybe he should be…an addition?”
Tony is silent for a very, very long moment.
But then he says, “I don’t…my point still stands, Barnes. I mean, I’m not saying I’m not tempted, because seriously, there are threesomes and then there are threesomes, but I…it’s not a good idea.”
“Why?” Bucky says, tilting back his head to look at Tony.
Tony avoids his eyes, though, and doesn’t answer, and eventually they both drop off to sleep.
It’s not until much later that Bucky realises that Steve never let him get to the real point either. Double damn.
When he wakes again, it’s still just before dawn, the light barely making dove grey touches on the walls. Tony is awake but unmoving, so Bucky evens out his breathing again, preparing to go back to sleep.
“I couldn’t answer you, before,” Tony says quietly, minutes or maybe hours later.
Bucky doesn’t react, just waits.
“I could’ve. I had an answer. But I couldn’t,” he continues, confiding. And then, even more quietly, “If I could have you both, I think I’d count myself the luckiest man in the universe. And I’d walk through fire to keep it.”
Bucky doesn’t make a sound, but something that had been curled and knotted up tight in his chest seems to release.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again, you complete bastard,” Bucky says, and bites down on Tony’s lower lip hard enough to draw blood. Tony doesn’t even flinch, just leans into it more while trying to walk backwards down the hall towards the bedroom, Bucky’s hand tangled up in his shirt.
This is how it starts.
Well, not quite. If you want to be realistic, it started the second Bucky opened his eyes in the 21st century.
And if you want to be pedantic, well, it definitely started the evening before.
The evening before:
The Trojan horse had been ready by the afternoon: a massive truckload of electrical supplies and arcane bits and bobs piled up in crates, and then sitting tucked between them are Clint, Bucky, and Natasha, dressed as the nightshift at The Suppliers’ warehouse.
“You guys comfy?” Tony asks, as he surveys the inside of the truck, already half-wearing his armour.
“As comfy as we can be when our asses are crammed in between things that blow up and things that can turn us into frogs,” Clint remarks.
“I’m very comfortable, thank you,” Natasha says.
Bucky just flourishes a lazy salute.
“See, that’s what I like to hear,” Tony says, waving at him and Natasha. Then he points at Clint. “You lose, Barton.”
“Fuck you, Stark.”
“You wish you could tap this.” He grabs the two doors on the back of the truck and pulls them together. “See you on the flip side, babe,” he says, winking at Bucky, and then slams the doors shut.
“You guys are just precious,” Clint says into the ensuing darkness.
“I have heat-seeking missiles built in, Barton,” Bucky says, not bothering to hide the smile no one could see but Natasha at least could certainly hear. “Don’t tempt me.”
The ride to the warehouse is uneventful, punctuated only by chatter on the comms, mostly between Tony and Bruce (with occasional interjections from Clint), who are busy speculating about what else The Suppliers could be working on.
“Why the hell would you want to turn people into werewolves? That’s like, domestic terrorism or some shit. And talk about plans that could backfire on your ass.”
“Definitely likely to backfire. Next.”
“Stop watching the Star Wars prequels, Bruce, it’s not good for you.”
“It’s like a train wreck, I can’t look away. Besides, I like to finish the full sets of things.”
“There were prequels to the Star Wars movies?”
“No, Steve. No, there weren’t. They don’t exist. Never look for them.”
The truck hits a pothole, sending Bucky sprawling across a box of fertiliser. “Hey, watch it,” he says.
“Sorry,” Agent Williams, the SHIELD operative at the front of the truck, says over the comm while not sounding particularly sorry. “Also, shouldn’t you guys be radio silent?”
“Physically impossible,” Tony says, “At least for Clint and I.”
“It’s like you really get me,” Clint simpers. There’s a shuffle in the dark that Bucky has no doubts is Natasha elbowing him in the ribs.
“We’re heading off road,” Natasha says. “Fifteen minutes until contact.”
“How did you…? Never mind,” Agent Williams mutters.
Bucky rotates his wrist, taking comfort in the nearly silent whir of hydraulics, the minute clicks of various weaponry unfurling and retracting in their casements. It’s become part of his pre-mission ritual, which Tony revels in whenever he sees it.
“Ten minutes,” Williams says. “Checkpoint is now visible.”
“Radio silence for real now,” Steve says. “Get ready. Remember—get as far in as you can, but don’t expose yourself to unnecessary danger. You’re going to get found out. But as soon as you are, no heroics—just retreat as quickly and destructively as you can. We’ll get the rest.”
“Our turn to bring the party,” Clint comments. “Got it.”
“Locked and loaded, Cap,” Bucky confirms. “Going dark now.”
The comm goes silent. The truck hits another bump, and then it slows, gradually at first, and then after long minutes, grinds to a halt.
“Here we go,” Natasha murmurs.
Bucky closes his eyes, listening for Troy’s gates opening for them.
It could have gone a lot worse.
It could have gone a lot better.
Bucky contends that it would have gone perfectly, if they hadn’t found out that magical knock-offs and occult tech wasn’t the only thing the Suppliers were supplying, because of course it wasn’t. They just had to have a side business of human trafficking, didn’t they?
They’re three layers deep inside the compound when Clint slips through a side door, comes back out with a dark, tight expression on his face, and turns on the comms only to say, very low and succinctly, “They’re supplying people. There are kids in there. Fuck this shit, we’re taking it all out right now.”
Bucky gets the briefest blast in his ears of Tony saying, “Motherfu—“ and Steve saying, “Hawkeye, wait—“ before Natasha shuts Clint’s comm off.
“Idiot,” she says. “Now they’re really going to come down on us.”
“Cap had to know,” Clint replies, but he’s clearly adjusting his plans as well; Bucky surveys the corridor they’ve touched down in and constructs a route in his head.
“Okay, I’m heading down and out,” he says, “Pretty sure I can get maybe ten, fifteen of them out through the tunnels—“
“Not happening,” Natasha cuts him off, “Best chance is to barricade them in, keep them safe until after we’ve taken the complex out.”
“And risk another Agadir? No fucking thanks,” Clint snarls.
“There were only the two of us then, not three,” Natasha snaps back. She presses her lips together, and then relents. “Fine. Then I say we do it like Budapest.”
“What the fuck is Budapest?” Bucky says.
Clint stares at Natasha. “Fucking Budapest,” he says, “That’s the worst idea ever. Let’s do it.”
“Don’t worry,” Natasha says, a truly terrifying grin turning up one corner of her mouth. “I won’t take you through the floor this time. I’ve got the equipment to add on the Italian Job, anyway.”
“Jesus fucking Christ save us all,” Clint says distantly, and then seems to snap back into action. “Right,” he says, “Budapest, side of a damn Marky Mark movie. Got it. I’ll take the guardsmen and fill the Captain in.” And then he’s heading down the corridor, deeper into the complex.
“Budapest?” Bucky repeats, and Natasha grabs his arm.
“Budapest,” she confirms, “I hope you’re good with a garrotte. Also, maybe a machine gun.”
Bucky scoffs, and unfurls the adamantium cable once more. They sprint for a side passage, away from where they majority of the Suppliers’ forces would be pouring from.
“Right,” Natasha says as they run, “Budapest runs like a plumber’s scam. You ever do one of those?”
“Tunnel under, blast out? Sure,” Bucky replies. “What’s so special about that?”
“What’s special,” Natasha replies, turning a swift corner and then slamming them through a fire door and up a flight of emergency stairs, “Is that we start three floors up rather than down, we bring an audience with us, Clint’s the canary, and that with a little luck, we end on Claire de Lune.”
“Oh my god,” Bucky says, understanding only half of that, but that’s more than enough to get the gist. “You’re actually going to get us killed.”
“That depends entirely,” she says, “On whether or not your boyfriend really loves you enough to retrieve us halfway through.”
“How the fuck did you pull this off before with just Clint?”
“We eventually had backup, and Clint was roofied with PCP for most of the mission. He gets very creative under the influence.”
“We’re actually going to die.”
“Eh, we’ll be fine. Bust this, would you?”
Locked door, ridiculous keypad. Bucky focusses, and then points at it with his metal first finger. It turns to slag.
“Still sexy as hell,” Natasha observes, kicking the melted door open. “What else have you got? Also, turn around, we’ve got company.”
Bucky curses and manages to take out a fair number of minions with a spray of defensive fire. They shouldn’t have even bothered with the damn guard uniforms; Natasha looks like she’s craving her usual black leather even as she disables a series of security spreads on the wall and renders a few more guards unconscious.
“Leave a few for the chase,” she instructs, “We need the illusion of getting cornered.”
“Then we should run,” Bucky says, and they do.
There’s a crackle of contact over the comms for a brief second on their way to the third floor. “Goddamnit, Cap’s going in to get you,” Tony says, voice obscured by static. “I’m—“
“Damn it,” Bucky snarls.
“I didn’t specify which boyfriend, I suppose,” Natasha says, and Bucky is going to kill her when this is over, kill her in the face.
“Don’t let Thor or Hulk come in, they’ll get the civilians killed,” Cap says through the static, several minutes later. “And Iron Man, don’t you dare—“
“You finish that sentence and I’ll end you,” Tony snaps.
“Mommy and Daddy are fighting,” Clint whispers under a burst of distant gunfire, and Bucky can’t suppress a burst of hysterical laughter in the middle of garrotting an officer. Natasha’s snatching the Uzi out of the man’s hands and checking the clip like he’s gifted it to her, and then they’re on their way again. Bucky can here the thunder of steps behind them as they go up, and up.
“Hostages secure,” Cap reports, “Hawkeye, get them out of here.”
“Easier said than done, Cap,” Clint replies, because apparently they’ve all given up on the whole radio silence thing. “I take them out of here now and they’re going to get picked off like flies. We’ve got drones in this joint, and I don’t like the look of them.”
Steve curses like Bucky hasn’t heard him do since they’d been in foxholes, but then Tony’s cutting through.
“Let me at them, Cap, I can take care of that,” he says. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll light them up.”
“Iron Man, stand down,” Cap answers, “You come in here with firepower and they’ll light the whole place up.”
“Like they’re not moving towards that already?” Tony counters. “Cap, they know we’re here, we’ve got no stealth left, let’s give ‘em what we got.”
“We do that, and we have no evidence,” Coulson cuts in, sharp and exact like a whip-crack, and clearer than any of them over the static. “You take witnesses, you disable perpetrators, you do not let this place end up a pile of ash, do you hear me?”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Tony mutters. “At least let me kill the drones, though, come on.”
“Right, new plan,” Cap says, “Thor? Guard the skies, zap the drones when you see them. Hulk? Guard the perimeter. No one escapes here, but no one dies either, you got it?”
“UNDERSTOOD, CAPTAIN,” Thor confirms, and Hulk makes a noise of grumbling assent.
“Rest of you, let’s disable this place. Yes, Iron Man, that means you can take the drones.”
Tony hisses the verbal equivalent of a fist pump and seconds later Bucky starts hearing some very distinctive explosions.
“We’re going from the bottom up,” Natasha reports, “Send us anyone who looks like they want a good chase. We’ll strand them on the upper floors.”
“You got it,” Cap replies.
Without warning, Tony cuts through on the comm. “Uh, guys? I think we might have a problem.”
Bucky grits his teeth, and can feel Natasha tense at his side. “What is it, Iron Man?” he asks down the comm. “What’ve you got?”
Tony stands in the doorway of the central storage depository. The doorway is…glowing.
“Fucking moonstones,” he breathes.
“Iron Man, report!” Cap barks.
“Well, it appears that this complex is a lot more extensive than we could have predicted,” Tony says carefully.
“How much more extensive?” Coulson asks.
“What the fuck, Stark,” Clint says.
“They’re using their own moonstones,” Tony explains, “To give themselves as many stashes as possible. I just, uh, stumbled onto one. Hang on, I’ll go in here, get a GPS reading and send it back—“
“Don’t you dare, Tony!” Cap shouts, and wow, Tony’s pretty sure that’s the first time Cap’s ever used his real name on a mission.
“You got any other suggestions?” he replies. “Because otherwise we’ve just got to trust that these things stay stable long enough for us to walk through them, and even then, these guys’ll have ready-made backup storage that they can get right back to whenever the legal system spits them back out.”
“You got tracking bugs on you?” Natasha asks.
“Only a few. Can improvise some more.”
“Do it,” Cap orders. “Put a couple in the storage space, find as many others as you can. The rest is a job for SHIELD.”
“Aye aye, Cap.”
Tony fishes a tracking capsule out of some plating along his ribcage and throws it through the doorway. It crackles as it passes through.
“You guys got that?” he asks, looking doubtfully at the sputtering, blinking tab that’s now lying on the ground twenty feet inside the doorway.
“Barely, but yes,” Coulson answers. “Find as many more as you can. Preserving the staff is now paramount; they might know more than they’re letting on about the other locations. Move, Avengers.”
“Moving,” Clint says. “In fact, rather constantly.”
“This is the worst sting ever,” Tony remarks.
JARVIS pings a drone coming up behind him, and he explodes it with a well-placed miniaturised mortar round.
Further up the complex, there’s the growing sound of running feet and shouts. “Your cat and mouse game’s about to get more interesting, guys,” he remarks.
“We noticed,” Bucky says tightly.
“Keep focussed, guys,” Cap says, with a sigh, even as they all hear the distinctive crunch of vibranium against body armour.
Tony blasts off.
Bucky and Natasha acquire a veritable army behind them. That is, if you’d define an army by a whole barrage of drones and officers who are doggedly chasing after them with the full intent to kill them dead.
“Where are we even going?” Bucky demands, in between dodging machine gun fire and sprinting up flights of emergency staircases. Natasha is the one with the floor plan completely locked into her memory, and they’re spiralling upwards and over, upwards and over through passageways of storage and offices and stairwells that are all blurring together in Bucky’s mind. At the centre of every hallway, Natasha has dropped a flattened disk of C4.
“Top floor,” she calls back, “A helicopter will meet us, and the captain’s on board.”
Bucky could just feel their pursuers’ pace and interest pick up at that pronouncement.
“No, seriously,” he tries again, “Where are we going?”
“Don’t ruin the surprise,” Natasha says.
They keep running.
Over the comm, it sounds like complete chaos, even more now that Tony’s started leaving tracking nodes in all of the moonstone doorways he comes across, which are alarmingly numerous.
“One more on this hall,” he announces. “And uh, I think there’s support coming through? Possibly Navy affiliated or trained. Not that I’d know, just, uh—“
There’s a blast of static in their earpieces, followed by Clint cursing.
“Just got them, thanks! Definitely Navy! Goddamn, I do not like these guys,” he shouts, “Douchemobiles by land, and douchecanoes by sea!”
“We have incoming apparently by way of a freighter in the Pacific,” Coulson adds helpfully. “SHIELD has those from the outside, but between that and getting the hostages out, we’re short on manpower.”
“Exactly,” Tony confirms. “Hawkeye, I’ll be on your six in thirty seconds.”
“Be careful, Iron Man. Bucky, Black Widow, what’s you’re status?” Cap asks.
“Get ready to catch us,” is all Natasha says.
“Shit,” Tony says suddenly, cutting across the comms and derailing a shot Bucky was taking at a drone. He growls and readjusts.
“Come on, Stark,” Clint yells into the comm. “I needed you over here five minutes ago!”
“I’ve gotten a little caught up, precious, but that’s not—shit, what—oh godamni—“
His signal cuts off in a hiss of static.
“Shit,” Steve says fervently. “Someone get a lock on him, now.”
“I WILL ENDEAVOUR TO FIND HIM, CAPTAIN,” Thor says.
“On your seven,” Natasha says, and Bucky ducks just in time to avoid another burst of gunfire. He throws an answering round back over his shoulder with a flick of his arm.
“CAPTAIN, I MUST REPORT THAT IRON MAN IS NOT TO BE FOUND. HE HAS ENTIRELY DISAPPEARED.”
Bucky freezes. “What?”
Tony shakes his head to clear it. Then looks around. The doorway he’d been unceremoniously thrown through winks out of sight like its being slapped shut with wet concrete, leaving him in a nondescript basement full of unlabelled wooden crates that no doubt hold a whole host of unpleasant accoutrements.
“Motherfucker,” he says blankly. “JARVIS, location?”
“It appears that we are currently in Dubai, sir.”
“Motherfucker. I officially hate moonstones. Make a note, JARVIS.”
“Duly noted. Recalibrating communications with the team now. We should be back online in two minutes, twenty-eight seconds.”
“Good. And in the meantime, what’s gonna happen if I attempt to blast through the ceiling of this godforsaken basement?”
“According to my scans, sir, you would emerge unharmed, but may disrupt one of the main highways, and therefore cause significant civilian damage.”
“But everyone here is filthy rich, right? So I’ll just be wrecking up overly expensive imported Benzes and Ferraris, right?”
“Not a wholly inaccurate assessment, yes, sir.”
“Awesome. Boot repulsors at maximum, JARVIS.”
“They’re closing in,” Bucky remarks, electromagnetic shield at maximum, which is basically the only thing standing between him, Natasha, and complete annihilation.
“Good, audience is a go,” Natasha says, spreading cover fire, “We’re almost there.”
“Here.” She kicks open a door and launches herself up one more flight of stairs, which then open onto a roof pavilion. “Time for the kick.”
The sound of at least sixty guns cocking echoes through the walls of the pavilion.
“Excellent,” Natasha breathes, like they’re not about to get more holes in them than swiss cheese.
“There is nothing excellent about this,” Bucky hisses.
“That’s what Clint said. He was wrong too.” She draws off her back two Uzis she’d collected off of their collection of garrotted officers. “Hulk? In fifteen seconds, I want you to come up to the roof. And smash.”
“We’re on the roof!” Bucky protests.
“Not for long.” She presses a detonator on her belt, and the building trembles beneath them.
Then she aims the gun at the floor at their feet.
“Oh fuck,” Bucky says.
“Cap, get ready to catch us,” Natasha repeats.
“On my way,” Cap promises.
“Oh fuck,” Bucky repeats.
Dull bursts of sound shake the floor beneath their feet.
“I always felt a certain kinship with Kate Beckinsale,” Natasha says, as the floor crumbles in a semi-circle around them. It lurches beneath them as she hits the halfway mark around the circle of fire she’s drawing around their feet.
It’s going to give way any second. And then they’re going to fall.
“HULK TO SMASH,” the Hulk announces. Bucky can hear his footsteps resonating as he climbs the building.
“Natasha!” he hisses.
“It could go faster if you helped,” she observed.
“Goddamnit.” Better to fall through an open hole than a sliding gash. He opens fire, following the circle around their feet.
“Brace yourself!” Natasha says loudly.
“I was braced years ago, sweetheart!”
“Wait, don’t—!” Coulson says suddenly.
The floor gives way.
It figures that even in freefall, Natasha would look completely composed, braced against the circle of floor tile and concrete.
As the floors begin to pass them by, though, and the sound of the Hulk smashing through the troops they’d lured to the roof begin to reach them, she looks up suddenly and her eyes reflect nothing good.
They smash through the third floor and Bucky catches a blur of Cap rushing through busted doors to throw himself forward as Natasha launches herself off the circle of flooring they’re standing on and runs to barricade whatever doors she can find.
Bucky endeavours to do the same just as a soldier just behind Cap takes aim and fires.
Pain blooms suddenly in Bucky’s thigh. That is not fucking stopping him.
He propels himself forward on his functioning leg, not expecting the other to do much, and catches more than just the edge of the flooring, claws himself forward just as Steve past and grabs his forearm. But where Bucky finds solid ground, Steve finds open air.
There’s a burst of fire over both their heads; Natasha is covering with ruthless efficiency while Clint is still covering the bottom floors and distracting the cavalry. Bucky catches Steve’s gloved hand just as Steve looks down at the chasm below him and his eyes widen.
“Uh, guys? I think we could use some help here.”
Bucky looks over the edge. “Fuck. No way.”
“I can’t retrieve you guys and keep enemy fire off you at the same time,” Natasha says tightly.
“I AM OCCUPIED WITH THE OUTSIDE FORCES, CAPTAIN, FOR THEY WIELD TERRIBLE AND UNRULY MAGICS. ”
“Little tied down here, Cap,” Clint reports.
“Uh,” Bucky says slowly, staring down beyond where Cap’s legs dangle, beyond where his gloved hand grasps Bucky’s forearm. They’re hovering over…nothing good.
So this was what Coulson was yelling about.
“Moonstone?” Bucky asks, almost evenly.
Steve chances a look down beyond where his feet are dangling. “Moonstone,” he confirms. He doesn’t betray a modicum of what he has to be feeling, with that abyssal darkness just beneath him.
“Don’t fall,” Coulson says over the comm, and fucking hell, he sounds concerned now. “It’s a vortex meant to destroy this whole complex in case of emergencies. We’re working to shut it down now.”
“You do that,” Bucky says through gritted teeth. He doesn’t even flinch as Widow lets an empty gun clatter to the ground near his head and opens fire with a second one. He swings his metal arm forward, and clasps Steve’s wrist with it. “Do the override,” he says, meeting Steve’s eyes. “I’m not letting go of you.”
Steve stares up at him, eyes wide, and recites the code. JARVIS sounds in Bucky’s ear. “Sirs? How can I be of assistance?”
“No matter what my brain says,” Bucky says, “Do not let me let go of him.”
“Sir, that’s an extremely risky—“
“Do it. Do it until we’re both safe.”
“Yes, sir.” And Bucky feels the hydraulics tighten, the grip of his hand coalesce into something unforgiving in its firmness around Steve’s wrist and hand. Steve winces, but doesn’t protest. If either of them slips, this will kill them both.
Bucky doesn’t care, not at all.
The abyss swirls below them as Natasha covers them.
“Some help, someone,” Bucky mutters into the comm.
Faintly, unevenly, he gets an answer.
“I’m on my way, gents.”
“Do what again, exactly?” Tony inquires, almost rhetorically, but betrayed by a hitch in his breath and the way he sways forward. “Save your life? In a very dashing and dramatic fashion, I might add.”
Bucky growls. This is familiar ground.
“Don’t be an idiot again,” Bucky insists. “At least give us some warning before we hear it from JARVIS.”
“Physically impossible,” Tony retorts, “And that’s why you love me, right?”
And that’s the first time Bucky admits it for real.
Tony has never flown so fast in his life.
“JARVIS, we’re covering a third of the globe. Scan for moonstone signatures, help SHEILD out a bit while they’re floundering. But for god’s sake, put the rest of all power towards getting us back there now.”
“Already on it, sir, and have pinpointed three more holding locations for the Suppliers.”
“Good. ETA on the original warehouse?”
“Fifteen minutes, sir.”
“You hear that, guys? I need fifteen minutes.”
“What? Where are you, Tony?”
“Currently over Greece. Why?”
“Gr—just get here. Get here yesterday.”
Tony can feel his hearing narrow into just the dull roar of wind against his helmet. “…What the hell’s happened?”
“We’re severely outnumbered,” Clint says, “SHEILD is occupied with ground forces and clearing hostages, Thor is tied down with a whole bunch of Doom rejects on the outside of the building, and I’m…well. We’re a little compromised here.”
“I can hold them,” Natasha says, “Ten minutes, tops. And then I’m out.”
“Hear that, JARVIS?” Tony mutters, “Give it everything. We need to be there now.”
“Your interaction with the moonstone has made that a risky proposition, sir—“
Much farther before:
What Bucky doesn't know is this—the day he was picked up out of the mountain snow, Tony was browsing the SHIELD alert system. The second Bucky’s face was defrosted enough to get face recognition up and running, Tony knew.
As a result, the third and most miserable fight Tony and Steve ever had? Was over him.
The Wednesday after the alert, Steve came in to the mansion white-faced and hard-shouldered, and shoved a page of classified file in tony's face.
“Did you know?" he demanded, so quiet it was almost a hiss.
Tony looked at the page for less than a minute before his lips thinned. That was more than enough for Steve.
“You’re a bastard," he spat.
"I didn't know he was alive," Tony said, but he had already flinched, and that was as good as a confession.
“He’s my best friend, the only person I had then and the only one I have now and—“
“And what?" Tony snapped, recovering. "I thought he was dead, Steve. And god knows how well you've been dealing with trying to let go of the past without something like this cropping up, so what the fuck difference should a day make? You think I wanted to be the one to break the news to you, the one to put you right back in the 40s like it was yesterday--"
“It was yesterday for me, Stark," Steve snarled, “And the next time you make a call like that without thinking of the consequences for anyone but yourself, I will personally see to it that you are off his team."
Tony stared at him. "Excuse me?" he asked blankly, even as he could feel the colour rising to his face. “Who the fuck do you think I was thinking of, Rogers? And I repeat, I thought he was dead. Who wouldn't? He's not like you. He's not a fucking super soldier.”
Steve's jaw was clenched so tight Tony could see it in he straining muscles in his face. He seemed to coil for a long awful second in which Tony almost expected to get punched.
Then he repeated, low and cutting, “He was my best friend. Is my best friend. Do you even understand what that means?”
“Wouldn’t my therapists like to know," Tony sniped, and he could hear his voice go flat and hard even as he felt the rest of his body go numb. Rage was always a great focusing point for him. “And maybe you should go and demonstrate what friendship means to little old me by getting the fuck out of my house and visiting your improbably alive brother-in-arms instead."
Steve reeled like he'd been struck. “Stark—“
He’d left, just as pale and stiff as he’d entered.
And Tony had sat for long, long time looking at the file page Steve had slapped down in front of him. It was fairly sparse, just a fragment of what was no doubt an extensive and exciting dossier.
James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes
Sergeant, 107th Regiment
POW at HYDRA encampment, recovered by Captain America
Recruited as special agent for sabotage and assault team, working alias “The Howling Commandoes“…
There followed commentary on his condition when they'd found him, and then a comment from a shield psychiatrist, scrawled at the bottom:
Exhibits signs of PTSD exacerbated by his altered timeframe, possible consequences of which could include depression, withdrawal, anger disorder, and refusal to engage with the outside world. Further observation and evaluation is strongly recommended.
Finally, Tony balled the sheet up in his fist. It was pretty clear that SHIELD psychiatry hadn't done shit for Rogers, at least from where Tony was standing.
And just like Tony would tell him later, Bucky had always been real to Tony.
Tony knew that it was often his place to ruin things, especially when he tried to fix them. Pepper was proof enough of that.
But when things were about to go to shit all on their own, well.
He was pretty good at getting out of dark places.
Tony flies, breaking the sound barrier and more, streaking faster and faster, and watches with detached concern the way the reactor’s power level dips lower and lower.
“JARVIS, make a note,” he says breathlessly, “Moonstones and arc reactors don’t mix.”
“Please stop talking, sir,” JARVIS says, and man, Tony hates it when even his AI sounds worried.
“Faster,” he murmurs. “We need to go faster.”
The suit presses forward. They’re over the Atlantic.
Not long now.
“You need to understand too, you know,” Tony murmurs, hands scraping up Bucky’s ribcage and pulling him in by the shoulder blades. “Losing the both of you, like that? Not happening on my watch. You’ve earned a dubious honour, Barnes, James, you’re important now, important to me, so get that through your noggin before you go lecturing me about risks.”
“Important, huh? Got it.”
That’s about as close as Tony’s going to get to admitting it too.
It’s pretty damn close, to be fair.
Bucky’s leg has started to really, really hurt.
Natasha makes a surprised noise of pain somewhere behind him and the gunfire falters.
Steve’s hand spasms around Bucky’s metal wrist, and the leather slips, just slightly.
The vortex is strengthening. Steve’s wrist could dislocate any second now.
They’re out of time.
“Get to safety, Tasha!” Bucky yells over his shoulder. “We’ll be fine.”
It’s a lie, and they both know it. But Natasha’s smart, and she’s hurt, and Bucky can shield himself for a good couple of minutes with the electromagnetic field.
She runs, bloody shoulder hunched.
The Hulk roars outside in time with lightning crashes from Thor’s hammer. Drones whiz overhead, pursuing SHIELD planes and exploding in the sky.
Bucky can’t pull Steve up without risking wrenching his whole shoulder out of its socket, and Steve is strung out too far below. They’re in an awful reversal of what happened before, and they both know it. Bucky can feel the bones in Steve’s wrist creaking beneath his fingers, but JARVIS won’t let him give way, and as debris from Natasha’s fight hails down on his back and the smell of burning ozone assaults his nose he knows they're neither of them in 2012 right now, they're right back in the 40s again, right back in their shared worst memory.
And then they’re jarred back out of it by the best possible voice, for all that it’s breathless and frantic.
“JARVIS, override fifty-six oh-niner Echo Lima, disable his shield now, I need to grab him! Barnes, you better brace for impact, this is gonna hurt like a motherfucker. You too, Cap.”
Tony is here.
The shield dissipates over Bucky’s arm, and Bucky looks down just in time to see Steve, dangling over the gaping maw of the vortex, flash a wondrous, terrified grin, and to reflect it right back at him before getting bowled over by what feels like a semi truck.
He’s coming away, up off the floor, Steve still clinging on, and fucking Christ it hurts, Bucky is going to hurt everywhere when they touch down again, but—
Tony is here. And he catches them both.
Bucky breathes, and holds tight.
“Don’t think I’ve forgiven you yet.”
“…Let me make it up to you?”
"You can start."
Tony clears the warehouse, wind whistling in their ears, the pull of the vortex gradually get weaker beneath their feet. Bucky clings to Tony’s front, the metal suit bracing and warm, and Steve is still there, they both still have him, Bucky’s arm is still locked tight around his wrist.
"Nice to see you, Iron Man," Steve shouts from below, and if he sounds shaken, no one's going to call him on it.
“You too, Capsicle. Miss me, darling?" Tony adds to Bucky, still sounding breathless.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Bucky says. “Where the fuck were you?”
“Ended up in Dubai. I think I owe some Saudi princes some new sports cars. It’s cool, I’ll take them shopping for it, we’ll have fun. Hey, nice work on the complex, it looks nice and destroyed. Also, was that a singularity you were hanging over, Cap? Because seriously, I’d like to take a look at it before SHIELD shuts it down if that’s the case—“
“Sir,” JARVIS cuts in, sounding stern.
“Yeah,” Tony breathes. “Hey, we’re almost in the clear. Where’s the rest of the team?”
“I’m clear,” Natasha reports. “Coulson’s retrieving Clint now.”
“I HAVE NEARLY DISPATCHED MY FOES, COMRADES! THE TIDE HAS SURELY TURNED IN OUR FAVOUR.”
“Hulk giving bad men to Eyepatch!”
Tony snickers. Bucky has to force himself not to do the same, just for sake of his battered ribs.
“We’ve cleared the entrance gate and secured a perimeter,” Maria Hill announces over the comm. “Iron Man, you’re cleared to land outside it. Pacific imported forces have been dispatched back to their ship. Teams Delta and Beta are clearing all other moonstone doorways now.”
Tony had slowed his flight significantly to avoid obliterating Bucky and Steve on impact, and now he slows even further, readjusting his course for the largest concentration of SHIELD forces outside the Suppliers’ complex. There’s a slight tremor that Bucky feels through the plating that he assumes is evidence of a weak flight stabiliser or something.
They land somewhat ungracefully, JARVIS finally relinquishing Bucky’s hold on Steve and leaving him to land first, staggering a couple of paces before getting his bearings again. Then Tony sets down as gently as he can even as he wobbles, and it jars Bucky’s leg just enough for him to hiss.
“You’re hurt,” Steve notices, jaw going tight, “You should have said something, I’ll get the medical team—“
“No need, I’ll get them over here,” Tony says, and between the two of them, Bucky gets eased to the ground with as little further jostling as possible. Steve follows him down, so that Bucky ends up with his shoulders in his lap, which is really only marginally comfortable, but probably an improvement on just being flat out on the ground.
Steve frowns at Tony over Bucky’s head. “Are you alright, Tony? You look pale.”
“Right as rain, Cap. You stay with him. Be back in a jiff.” Tony clasps Bucky’s shoulder before straightening, and then takes off with a stuttering repulsor burst to track down the staff.
Bucky looks up at Steve, whose pained, worried expression is visible even from beneath his cowl. “Your wrist okay?” Bucky asks in concern.
“My wrist—? Jesus, Buck,” Steve chokes, looking back down at him, “That hardly matters, you saved my life. How’s your breathing, is this comfortable?”
Bucky made a weak dismissive motion with his metal hand. His real one was way too tired. “'Mfine. You caught me, I'm good. You might have a broken wrist, excuse me for finding that important.”
“Don’t worry about my wrist,” Steve says firmly. "And I'm pretty sure you were the one who caught me."
"Tony caught us both. We're even."
"Yeah," Steve says, sounding slightly choked. "He really did."
“Stop worrying,” Bucky mumbles, feelings his eyelids droop.
“You know me,” Steve smiles crookedly, “I always worry.”
Bucky snorts, and feels sore down to his bones all of a sudden.
“Sergeant Barnes? Sergeant Barnes, we need you to stay awake.”
Bucky blinks to find one of the med team leaning over him, with Tony standing off in the background. He looks as though he’s listing to one side slightly. Steve is still hovering close, but the wrist that Bucky had hung on to stuck in a brace, and when did Tony get back here exactly?
“You passed out from blood loss. Also, shock,” the medic says shortly, “Hold on for just a few more minutes and we’ll have you strapped up.”
Bucky loses track of things for a little while.
By the time he next starts to regain focus, and the soreness in his ribs and legs has receded to a dull roar, the rest of the team has apparently been patched up too, and after escaping the med team they all congregate just outside the combat zone, their part of the mission done, but forced to wait on SHIELD to get transport freed up enough to take them all home.
“Shoulda brought the quinjet,” Tony observes. “Whose idea was it to take a truck here?”
“Yours,” Natasha says dryly.
They watch SHIELD agents load up duffle bag upon duffle bag of hazardous magical and technological material. Bruce and Thor are apparently fine, as per usual. Bucky’s got a crutch, strapping on his leg, and a blanket slung over his shoulders, Natasha’s got a bandage around her neck and chest, and Clint seems practically swathed in plaster, despite all of his various injuries being superficial (or so he claims). Still, he supposes that for tackling a group of maniacs who thought a self-destruct button should house a goddamn black hole, they did pretty all right.
Steve just looks tired, his shoulders slumped even while he continues to watch the action carefully for signs that they may need to step in and help. Bucky has a vague recollection of him talking to Bucky while he was half-unconscious on the ground, but he can't remember what it is that he said.
After a long second, Natasha starts whistling Debussy.
“Claire de Lune?” Steve says, frowning.
“Ocean’s Eleven?” Tony cuts in, even more incredulous. “That’s what you were going for?”
“You have to admit, it kind of works,” Clint reasons. “Infiltration, everything going nuts, and then walking out with duffles full of fun stuff.” He waves at the SHIELD agents. Then he seems to take a second to think. “Wait, so Steve’s Danny, obviously, which makes Tony Rusty—“
“Hey, I have a way better wardrobe than Rusty. Ted Nugent’s got nothing on me.”
“Thor is Reuben, Bruce is Basher, and Coulson is Livingston,” Natasha lists. “Maria is Frank Catton, Fury is Saul, and Nancy and Agent Williams over there are the Malloy twins, in lieu of Darcy and Jane being not here. You,” she prods at Bucky, “You don’t fit. But you could probably be Toulour.”
“He’s a bad guy!” Bruce protests. “Also the sequels were terrible, why are you recognising that they exist?”
“Says the compulsive watcher of sequels,” Clint snorts.
“He’s a magnificent thief, and a very good dancer,” Natasha says firmly, ignoring the second question entirely. “And who knows what might have happened if SHIELD hadn’t unfrozen him first?”
Bucky tries valiantly not to be pleased, despite not knowing what the hell she was talking about.
“What does that make me?” Clint demands.
“That makes you Linus, Barton,” Tony says breezily. “Have fun with your boring striped college shirt.”
“Hey, Matt Damon’s hot, I got no beef with that. He’s Jason fucking Bourne.”
“Who does that make you?” Bruce asks, pointing at Natasha. “Julia Roberts?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Natasha says, smiling slightly. “I’m the Amazing Yen.”
“Boom. Nailed it,” Tony says. “Also, you’ve thought about this way too much.”
“The trilogy was the only thing worth watching on TV when I was stuck in a hotel room for three days in Vietnam,” she replies. “These things happen.”
“I am so confused right now,” Steve says finally.
“Right there with you, pal,” Bucky says, bumping shoulders with him.
The rest of the Avengers all stare at them.
“Right, we’re watching the first one when we get home,” Tony states. “No discussion.”
There’s a pause, in which everyone mostly just nods in acquiescence, which is suddenly cut short by an urgent beep from the Iron Man suit.
“Sir, you have twenty seconds before emergency power is engaged.”
This time, everyone swings back around to look at Tony.
“Oh damn,” Tony says, almost absently. “I could have sworn I had more time than that.”
“Are you going to need a new reactor?” Bucky demands.
“Jesus, Stark,” Clint says. “You’re an idiot.”
Tony opens his mouth to protest—
—And then abruptly passes out.
Bucky growls, as Steve takes charge and calls Coulson and the medics start to rush over, “We are having a long talk after we fix this, Tony.”
Because goddamn are they ever.
And that’s how it starts.
There’s a helicopter ride, and frantic calls to Pepper, but finally, finally, it really is over.
The team is ordered home by the medical staff, who look like the last thing they want in addition to all of the patching up of their own agents from the fight are hovering superheroes, and so they end up waiting for Tony to get out of his check-up in the living room, napping in intervals and watching the sunrise.
The wait is pretty much the worst, despite the life-or-death portion of the evening being officially over with.
They’ve all played this sort of game at some point or another, particularly Clint and Natasha, who just sort of collapse onto one of the massive leather sofas and crumple into each other. Bucky would call it adorable, except for how he’s pretty sure they’d be able hear him think it, and then he’d be running from two assassins on a bum leg, and no one wants that. The rest range around in varying stages of exhaustion and restlessness, because Tony might be one of the more abrasive members of the Avengers, but without him the group is definitely incomplete. Bruce is passed out on one of the love seats and Thor seems content to stand and slowly destroy a massive package of Pop-Tarts. Around him are several of Tony’s cleaner bots, gleefully chasing after the spray of crumbs he inevitably rains down upon him.
Not for the first time, Bucky wonders how this is his life.
Steve sits rigidly on the second couch, elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped, eyes looking at nothing.
Bucky settles beside him. “We’ve already seen him. He’s fine, they’re just checking him out.”
“I’m going to kick his ass when he gets back.”
A sliver of a smile, quickly gone. “Good.”
“You held us together, Cap,” Natasha says sleepily, “Even when you were about to be sucked into a black hole. Good job.”
“It wasn’t a black hole,” Steve says, ducking his head. Bucky ruffles his hair, mussing it even further than it already was, and then he keeps his hand there. Steve leans into it.
“Sorry about going off-book after the hostage thing,” Clint adds. “I get, uh, strong feelings about that.”
“I probably would have, too.”
“We were definitely with you on that,” Bucky confirms.
“Maybe a little more warning next time?” Steve suggests, and even while exhausted he hits the right tone between chastening and understanding.
Clint grimaces and nods.
“That seems to be the theme of the night, yes,” Natasha says firmly.
As if on cue, they hear the rumble of a car pull up at the front of the mansion, signalling the arrival of Tony with Happy in one of the SI company cars.
He enters the house looking banged-up but generally in good spirits, and promptly receives a punch in the shoulder from Clint, a slap from Natasha, a glare from Steve and disappointed looks from both Thor and Bruce before they all file out, and then it’s just him and Bucky, and:
“Don’t you ever do that to me again, you complete bastard.”
And now here they are. Tangled up in each other while Bucky attempts for what feels like the fiftieth time to derail Tony’s most infuriating tendencies.
“Do what again, exactly? Save your life? In a very dashing and dramatic fashion, I might add.”
“At least give us some warning before we hear it from JARVIS.”
It’s a really good thing Bucky’s gotten to nearly Pepper Potts’ level of navigating Stark logic, or they could do this all night. He chases it along for a while and then decides to switch tactics.
“You gave us all heart attacks, including Steve.”
“Steve was fine! You are totally lying.”
“Steve was not fine.”
“Of course he was fine! Why wouldn’t he be, it was just a small—“
Bucky puts a finger directly on Tony’s mouth. “No.”
It was agreed that Bucky and Steve should fly ahead with Tony, mostly through a lot of glaring on Natasha’s part. So now they’re in a requisitioned helicopter with Iron Man laid out in the centre of the floor, his head propped up on the undamaged side of Bucky’s lap, and it’s too loud to talk. Not that either Bucky or Steve have anything to say.
Bucky is not quite panicked, but he’s pretty sure it’s because he’s completely tapped out of adrenaline by this point. Mostly he’s just looking down at Tony’s unconscious face while a running commentary of idiot, I’m dating an idiot, how could he think, I’m going to kill him, idiot, idiot, please be okay knocks around his brain.
Steve, on the other hand, looks completely panicked, and is clearly beyond the reach of logic because he’s stripped off his gloves and cowl and is pulling his hands through his hair, over and over, leaving it all a bird’s nest of blond tufts, and it would look ridiculous were it not also for the way his hands tremble visibly every time he tries to put them back in his lap.
Pepper meets them halfway, in a landing field in upstate New York, and Bucky has never seen anyone move that fast in a pair of stilettos before.
“I’m going to kill him,” she hisses, violently flipping her suitcase open.
“Get in line,” Steve says stiffly. He turns to Bucky. “How do we get the chest plate open?”
“Ask,” Pepper says, checking the new arc reactor, “It’s by voice recognition.”
Bucky nods. “JARVIS, can you—?”
“Indeed, Sergeant. Voice prints for James Barnes, Pepper Potts, and Steve Rogers all recognised.” There’s a shifting of plating and the weak whir of machinery in answer, pulling back the chest plate. Tony doesn’t react except to frown slightly, his breathing laboured. The reactor in his chest flickers.
Steve makes a pained noise and grabs the collar of Tony’s undersuit, ripping it clean down the front.
“I keep telling him to add a damn zipper, and he never listens,” Pepper mutters.
“I’ll make it happen,” Bucky says grimly. “Shall I do the honours?”
“Do,” Pepper says, “I’ve got smaller hands for the second part. Which he promised me I’d never have to do again, the bastard.”
“Okay,” Bucky breathes, “Okay.”
Steve shuffles back to make room.
For all that they’d talked through and worked with Bucky’s arm, Bucky had only done this once. And it hadn’t been nearly this upsetting that time around.
His hands are shaking too, now, but he reaches down and presses, turning the reactor until it clicks and comes free, and the gaping hole it leaves behind is something he never wants to see again.
Pepper covers it quickly, fitting the baseplate of the new reactor in with deft fingers. Its glow flares as it connects. She pulls away just as fast.
Then Tony coughs, and tries to roll to the side only to be stopped by the open chest plate. “Fuck, that smarts,” he splutters. “What happened?”
Steve stands abruptly. “I need some air.”
Tony tracks his exit from the helicopter, and then looks between Pepper and Bucky. “Something I said?” he suggests.
“You owe me so many shoes,” Pepper growls.
Tony deflates. “Oh.”
Bucky shakes his head. “We are having strong words about this later,” he repeats.
It takes a long time for Steve to get back on board.
“You’ve gotta trust us to save you too, Stark.”
“I do,” Tony says, vulnerable for a bare second. “All the time. And only when I have to.”
Bucky sighs, and rests his head on Tony’s shoulder for a second. “Fucking hell, Tony.”
“You know I made the right call, don’t you?” Tony says quietly. “It was the only call. Situation like that, reactor gets last priority.”
Bucky exhales. “It was the only call, just this once. But then you tell us when its over, as soon as its over.”
“I forgot. Or, I guess I thought I had more time?”
“And we’ve established that you’re an idiot for that.” Bucky pulls back and prods Tony’s forehead with a metal finger. “It’s never the right call if it’s gonna get you killed. It’s not fair to any of us. You hurt other people when you do that. Including me. Including Steve.”
“Barnes,” Tony warns. “I told you, we’re not going there.”
Bucky makes an impatient noise.
“I know he’s important to you,” he says lowly, “Just like he’s important to me. So don’t hurt him.” He decides to go in for the kill, because he’s sick and tired of this. “You’ve probably done it enough already.”
And he thinks maybe, because of how Tony’s breath hitches, that he finally gets it this time.
“I’m sorry,” Tony says eventually. He sounds unsure, but sincere.
So Bucky rewards him by tilting forward to kiss him lightly, lightly because he can already feel this picking up fast and they’re still only half-way to the west wing where several of the bedrooms are situated.
“Let’s move this,” he says.
“Yeah,” Tony agrees, “Lead the way.”
Coulson gives them a week’s leave after that, and for the most part the whole team recovers well. Thor goes to see Jane, and poker night resumes, perhaps even more hazardously because the participants’ various injuries make them all especially stiff, thereby erasing many of their tells.
On the other hand, Maria had been on the ground the whole time and didn’t have a scratch on her, so they finally manage to out-bluff her. To be fair, she loses with fairly good grace when Natasha takes possession of her non-SHIELD issue bowie knife.
“You can’t even fit that on your uniform,” Clint protests as Natasha gives the knife a pleased look.
“You of all people should know not to issue a challenge to her like that,” Coulson says mildly.
Natasha confirms this with a sliver of a smile and a quick rise of her eyebrows that makes Clint carefully shift his seat further away from her.
“Dear god,” Darcy says, looking at her with wide eyes. “Teach me your ways.”
“Patience, grasshopper,” Natasha replies.
Bucky makes a mental note to start treating Darcy with the same caution as he generally does Natasha.
They all sleep for extended periods and end up shuffling like zombies around the house, loading up with coffee at odd hours and watching infomercials when they end up waking at night instead of morning.
Tony retreats to his workshop, as usual, and Bucky only joins him sporadically, still somewhat irritated with him, preferring to spend more time with Steve. Steve clearly remains uncomfortable with what he admitted to Bucky before the whole Suppliers thing blew up in their faces, so Bucky tries his best to act like it never happened. He tries to reinstate their city walks, which probably isn't the best call, given the sorry state of his leg, but he didn't like having to take recovery time before, and he definitely doesn't now with all these damn metahumans around, so he finds himself trying to go entirely without. The second time he and Steve go out though, they come home with Steve half-carrying his weight.
“We’re not doing this again until you’re completely healed up,” Steve says firmly, hauling him up the steps to the mansion.
“Gimme two days, we’ll try again,” Bucky says, trying to suppress a wince. "It was a through-and-through, should be fine."
"Uh huh, sure," Steve says, and Bucky scowls.
Steve must tattle on him to Tony too, because that evening, Tony emerges from the workshop, announces that he is suddenly exhausted, and basically pins Bucky to the bed octopus-like for as long as he can humanly manage.
Bucky would normally protest, but he supposes his leg is a bit sore.
Just a bit, though.
“I know you’re still mad at me, and that’s fine, but I am not above bribing you with blowjobs to get you to stay in bed for another twelve hours,” Tony says to him, half-awake, limbs still wrapped haphazardly around Bucky’s torso and legs.
“You fight dirty, Stark. I like it.”
The dismantling of the Suppliers’ global network has revealed itself to be a long and arduous task, but it's one mostly characterised by requiring enough paperwork to deforest a small country rather than punching more things into submission. So when the Avengers' break is over, their new assignments are mainly filling out forms without bitching about it, at least not in Coulson’s presence.
Tony finds Steve buried in such paperwork—apparently yet another after-action report for yet another involved country, Jesus, Tony hates bureaucrats—and plants himself in the doorway, hands shoved in his pockets, waiting to be noticed.
Steve looks up almost immediately, and raises his eyebrows in expectation. “Hi, Tony.”
“Hi,” Tony echoes. And then, after a second, because it’s best to get it out quickly, “So what can I get you?”
Steve frowns at him. “What?”
“I’m buying Pepper shoes, as usual, and I’m giving Bucky—um, never mind. But I haven’t gotten you anything. What do you need? Art supplies? Have you tried prismacolour markers yet? They’re apparently super awesome.”
“I mostly work in charcoal,” Steve says slowly. “Why are you getting Pepper and Bucky things?”
Tony waves a hand vaguely in dismissal. Unfortunately, that stopped working on Pepper years ago, on Bucky months ago, and Steve, apparently, has also become completely immune.
“Tony. Why do you want to buy me things?”
Tony huffs, and tries to look at everything in the room except for Steve. “Well, uh, look. It’s been brought to my attention that I kind of…worried you? With the whole thing with the,” he taps the arc reactor and shrugs.
Steve blinks. And then says dryly, “Yes, generally it distresses me when someone on my team suddenly collapses in impending cardiac arrest.”
“Exactly!” Tony points at him. “Someone on the team! It could be anyone! Bucky doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Steve narrows his eyes. “Yes. But it was you. And it’s you rather often, Tony, or have we not had this conversation about you throwing yourself into danger at least five times in the last six months?”
“Pfft.” Tony rolls his eyes, and pushes himself out of his slump against the doorjamb. His clearly totally justified. Though also maybe, just a little disappointed. But obviously that doesn’t matter. But as he turns to retreat and set about getting some of those fancy markers, Steve’s voice stops him.
“Tony,” Steve says carefully, “I was worried. I was really, really worried. And really wish you wouldn’t take risks like that, especially when it could have been solved by just telling us the truth sooner.”
Tony sucked in a breath. Yeah, Bucky had definitely made that clear. “In my defence, I really did just forget for a second there,” he says, but it sounds weak even to his own ears. “What with being glad everyone’s okay.”
“Everyone but you,” Steve points out.
Tony shrugs again, and tries to steer things back on topic. “So do you want to try prismacolours? You’ll need good thick paper to go with it, stuff with a grain and—“
“I’d prefer you just didn’t scare me like that again,” Steve says.
“But that’s not permanent,” Tony protests, “Markers are permanent. Heh, literally. Come on, Steve, just let me do this, and I’ll leave you alone, okay?”
“You don’t need to leave me alone,” Steve says, and then immediately flushes. Tony stares at him. That’s…new. Now looking thoroughly flustered, Steve hastens to add, “Are you apologising?”
“I don’t apologise,” Tony says automatically, but he keeps watching Steve, who’s looking away from him now, back down at the report on his desk, though now with a sort of knowing smile playing at his lips. And yeah, Tony’s maybe being a bit transparent—he does apologise, or at lest he tries to sometimes, though rarely about things that really matter—but the smile is uncomfortable also, maybe wistful? And Tony’s pretty sure that his attempt at apology is not the most important part of this conversation anymore, though maybe it should be for entirely different reasons.
“How far are you with your paperwork?” he asks abruptly, stepping forward to look over Steve’s shoulder to his desk. “You’re on France already? Jesus, no wonder Coulson’s lovestruck over you. You’re taking a break, you still haven’t seen Ocean’s Eleven, or the Italian Job, and my god, with Clint and Natasha in the house how the hell have we not had a heist movie marathon yet? This is happening right now, come on, Rogers.”
Bemused, Steve casts a look at the stack of forms and reports on his desk, and shrugs. “Paperwork never has been my favourite,” he says.
“Join the club,” Tony says, clapping him on the shoulder, and propelling him away from the report.
They watch all of the Ocean’s movies, and both versions of the Italian Job, with Natasha offering a scary amount of trivia and Clint a scary amount of critical knowledge on scams, theft, and general superspy shenanigans. Bruce bemoans the terribleness of Ocean’s Twelve while also being able to quote passages from it, and Tony has to stop the first film to rant for a good ten minutes about how letting an EMP loose on the entirety of Las Vegas would be the worst thing to happen ever and good god, does Hollywood ever do its homework?
Bucky and Steve both just manage to ignore all of this and enjoy the flashy suits and Michael Caine shouting about only blowing the bloody doors off.
“Next time, we’re doing espionage movies,” Clint pronounces. “Because ya’ll haven’t lived until you’ve seen Nat have an aneurism over that shit.”
“We do that, and you’re buying me all of the vodka,” Natasha replies.
“Way to live up to the stereotype, Romanova,” Tony says, and gets a jab in the ribs for his efforts. “Ow, goddamn it, woman, you’re a menace.”
They devolve into a discussion of the greatness of Le Carre adaptations and the terribleness of Swordfish, and Bucky contents himself with slumping between Tony and Steve, leaning into the latter to avoid the violent gesticulations of the former.
“I guess we’re gonna be watching all of the latest pictures with running commentary,” Steve observes.
“Could be worse,” Bucky replies. “We could stumble blindly into whatever ‘Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever’ is instead.”
“That film is banned from this house,” Natasha says venomously.
Bucky smirks, and feels the shaking of Steve’s shoulder beneath his head as Steve tries manfully to suppress his laughter. Tony looks over at them, and his expression shifts into something speculative and warm.
Bucky only catches it for a brief moment, but he holds onto it for a while.
They ease back into action slowly, tasked with local emergencies and occasionally clearing out yet more of the Suppliers’ caches when SHIELD wasn’t sure of its welcome. Clint gets sent off on a last-minute mission and comes back with ripped stitches that lead to Natasha verbally flaying Fury in the middle of the helicarrier which will never, ever not be the hottest thing Bucky has ever seen.
Which is totally okay, because Tony is in full agreement with him.
So is everyone else.
“Wow,” Steve says under his breath, as Natasha strides away towards the elevator, various agents fleeing in her wake.
“I’ll say,” says Bucky.
“I’m saving that to the JARVIS’s servers,” Tony remarks. “You’re all welcome to play it back at your leisure.”
“Awesome,” Clint says faintly, when they tell him that at the med wing. He slips back into his vicodin-induced nap with a smile on his face.
Bucky remains on leave for the longest, given that his leg’s pretty important and he’s still not officially a team member. Still, in the end he gets called out too.
“Come on, Barnes,” Sitwell says with alacrity, which is rich considering he rarely comes out from inside the surveillance van. “Time to buck up.”
“It’s a good thing I like you,” Bucky replies, “Or I’d be fucking you up right now.”
Sitwell offers him a sunny smile. “Save it for the terrorists. They’re way punnier than I am.”
“I had better be goddamn authorised for deadly force for this mission,” Bucky growls.
While he’s gone, Tony’s first reaction is, as usual, to retreat to the workshop for as long as humanly possible. Obviously this was not reserved for Bucky-less situations, but those certainly encouraged it. This time around, however, he finds himself emerging with a flash drive full of new protocols for Short Stuff and ideas for fixing the oven that keeps burning things for no reason. Also, that massive package of prismacolours came in the mail the other day, so he should give that to Cap.
Two of those imperatives are covered by a trip to Steve’s room, which Tony tries to not give too much thought to.
“Tony,” Steve acknowledges, and Short Stuff beeps at him from his desk.
“You are so spoiling her, letting her up there.” He goes up and pats her with one finger, which she makes a smug burrr noise at.
“She likes to see what I’m writing. I think she might be learning?”
“She’s made to learn,” Tony replies. “But I thought she could maybe use some extra capacity for that?” He waves the flash drive at Steve.
Steve frowns. “It’s not gonna change her, is it?”
“Not personality-wise, no,” Tony says, though he can’t help smiling slightly at Steve’s concern. “It’s just to make her smarter. I figure, she’s spending so much time around you, she might as well be able to appreciate more of what you’re doing.”
“What about the rest of the bots?”
“They’re happy doing their thing,” Tony says dismissively. “Most usually are. But like I said before, the first one is always a little quirky. But who am I to get in the way of that? I just thought…yeah. Give her whatever tools she needs to be happier.”
Steve smiles at him in a way that makes Tony warm inside. “That’s nice of you.”
He shrugs. “I built her, just following through.” Then he remembers. “Uh, got something for you.”
He puts the package of markers on the table. Steve huffs.
“I told you you didn’t have to get those for me.”
“Too late. They’re here, no take-backs.”
“You really don’t have to buy my forgiveness, Tony.”
“I can try,” Tony blurts out. And then he busies himself with grabbing Short Stuff and soothing her enough to insert the flash drive to her central motherboard. “Come on, babe, you’re gonna be fine, just let me do this one thing, it won’t hurt a bit, and then you can hang out with Rogers all you like. Though really, I mean, you already do that, but really, who can blame you, right? Right.”
Short Stuff whirs at him, but allows him to hook up the flash drive and makes clicking noises as she downloads the extra data. Tony steps back, shoving his hands back in his pockets. He doesn’t look at Steve.
“If she ever needs anything, or something breaks, just bring her down to the workshop. She should socialise with Dummy and You anyway, maybe give those hunks of junk something to aspire to. So, uh, yeah. Anytime. Standing invitation.”
He can feel Steve’s gaze on him, and refuses to meet it. “Thanks, Tony,” Steve says, sounding a little tight, which Tony doesn’t entirely understand the cause for.
He beats a hasty retreat anyway. Rogue ovens wait for no man.
He doesn’t see Steve watch him go, and then remain looking at the empty doorframe for several minutes.
They could have stayed in that sort of stasis forever, really.
Except sometimes Tony is a bit delirious, Bucky is a bit blind, and yeah.
So it doesn’t, in the end.
When Bucky gets back after a week of surveilling and thwarting terrorist plots, sticky and sore and desperate to get rid of the high the op has left with him, it’s to find the mansion enveloped in pitch darkness. According to Coulson, the rest of the Avengers had apparently just spent the last fifty-six hours in New York’s lesser-known underground passageways, and everyone is more than a little light sensitive, and definitely a lot in need of extended rest.
Even so, Tony comes out to meet him when he gets the alert from JARVIS, and the light of the arc reactor shows that his eyes are already dark with expectation, taking in Bucky’s ruffled hair and the spatter of blood on his sleeve.
“Honey, I’m home?” Bucky offers.
Tony growls, and jumps him.
“I haven’t slept in three days and I am still getting in you as soon as fucking possible.”
“Got you beat, I’ve been awake at least sixty hours. Also, more than okay with that plan.”
“Don’t turn on the damn light, my eyes—“
“You’ve got the reactor—“
“Yeah, and I was ready to make a shirt out of blackout material just to shade it a bit. What floor are we on?”
“Dunno, I just pressed a button on the elevator and hoped for the best.”
“Oh fuck it, there’s like eighty extra bedrooms in this place, come on.”
They progress slowly down the hall, shedding Tony’s t-shirt and belt and Bucky’s leftover arsenal of whatever isn’t in his arm, taking plenty of time shoving each other against the walls.
“Fuck, what is this belt buckle, a goddamn finger trap?”
“Can fire a plasma gun but can’t open my fucking belt, what’s wrong with you, Barnes?”
“Pot calling kettle, piece of work—“
Tony fumbles at a doorknob and they fall through as it gives way, Bucky already insinuating one leg between Tony’s, only to hear a strangled noise once they’re inside.
They both freeze against the bedroom wall.
Tony recovers first. “I’m guessing we beat the odds of finding an empty one?”
“I think you did,” Steve says, sounding hoarse.
Bucky looks over his shoulder, awful surge of guilt and embarrassment crashing over him before being immediately replaced by a distant sort of buzzing in his ears when he gets a good look at Steve.
In a span of seconds, Steve has gone from pale surprise to wrecked, his whole frame folding inwards even as he’s poised to bolt.
Bucky tries to think of something to say, something to ease the tension in the room, but there’s nothing.
Tony’s breathing hitches against him.
“Steve—” Bucky starts.
“I’ll leave,” Steve says quickly, gathering the sweatshirt he’d clearly been about to put on.
Shit. No, he can’t do that, damn it, Bucky can fix this, he can. He tries again, sucking in enough breath to make the words come out sharp and determined.
“No, Steve. Wait. Please. ”
And he looks back at Tony, whose face has gone entirely blank except for a high flush along his cheeks and the dilated black of his eyes. He strokes his thumb along the cut of Tony’s hip, and looks at him steadily.
“You remember what I said?” he murmurs, “About an addition?”
Tony’s eyes go even wider, and then he shoots a glance at Steve.
It takes a second, but Bucky can see the change, the moment when even Tony can fully read the expression on Steve’s face. “Oh,” he breathes. “I didn’t—“
“You’re an idiot,” Bucky says, for what feels like the millionth time. He waits a second for Tony to digest, watching his face as he processes, analyses, takes it all apart and puts it back again. Steve doesn’t move, pinned in place by Tony’s gaze.
“Yes?” Bucky asks Tony, trying to read what he’s thinking.
Tony finally tears his eyes from Steve, and he nods, almost imperceptibly at first, a tiny jerking motion that slowly gets more resolute.
“Yeah,” he breathes, “Yes, god yes, if he—“
“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. He exhales, and then looks back at Steve, who’s still waiting, watching them like a cornered rabbit, frozen and strung tight, ready to leap for the door even as a flush appears high on his cheeks and spreads.
“Steve,” Bucky says, and falters. Damn it, he feels like he’s been waiting for this forever and now he’s choking. He tries again, doing his best to keep his voice low and even, “Steve…stay. If you want to.”
There’s a moment of still, stunned silence.
“…What?” It comes out a whisper.
“You heard him,” Tony says a little louder, but he sounds wrecked too. “He wants you here. We want you here, with both of us.”
“What?” Steve repeats, clearly not processing. “You can’t possibly mean that.”
“I do,” Bucky says, “I damn well do, and you know I say what I mean, Steve, you know I don’t lie to you.”
“Steve,” Tony says, sounding unsteady, “Surely you know better than I do that Barnes here is a regular font of brilliant ideas.”
Steve’s eyes dart between them, his panic, if nothing else, rising. “Why?”
“Why the fuck not?” Tony demands, to Bucky’s surprise. “We both want you, fuck, Barnes has since he first set eyes on you, and I—jesus, Steve, you can’t have missed how I—I mean, it’s one thing if you don’t want to be here, and if that’s the case, then you don’t need to leave, we’ll go, both of us right now, just—“
“God, no,” Steve says, clearly without meaning to, his cheeks flaming.
“Then,” Tony says, the grip he has on Bucky’s hair tightening. “Stay. Just…you can stay.”
Steve stumbles back a couple of paces, his back hitting the wall. “You don’t want this,” he says softly. “That’s not…why would you?”
“Why would—? For fuck’s sake,” Tony mutters. He turns a dark gaze over to Bucky, clearly expecting him to take up the slack. Bucky swallows. He’s never been good at this.
“You heard him, Rogers. I wanted you ages ago. Before Erskine. You must’ve noticed.”
“Maybe I was too busy dealing with all the dames you were throwing at me,” Steve says, brittle and smiling crookedly, and Bucky flinches.
“And really, how many times have you saved me from my own damned stupid self?” Steve asks, almost rhetorically. “Double digits for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was triple. How could you possibly, after all that—“
“That’s enough,” Tony growls, and Steve, miraculously, goes silent.
Bucky can barely make himself breathe. He hadn’t thought for one second—goddamnit, he’s an idiot. He doesn’t deserve—
Tony squeezes the back of his neck hard, and then slips out from between him and the wall, his expression steady.
Steve looks down and away from them both, his jaw tense. Tony makes an inarticulate noise in his throat, but he just keeps moving, and walks very slowly over to Steve.
Steve doesn’t look at him either, but his shoulders come up slightly, like he’s expecting a blow.
Tony looks at him for a moment, and then says, “And I thought I was the one with the low self-esteem issues here.”
“You are,” Bucky says.
“You wake up in the future and you read psychology books?” Steve mutters.
“Gotta read something,” Bucky shrugs.
They’re all still for another moment, and then Tony reaches out and curls his fingers around Steve’s wrist. Steve sways forward slightly. “Okay, so you’re still the little guy inside that we all forget is there,” Tony says. “Fine. I get that.”
Steve closes his eyes.
“That’s not the only thing bothering you,” Tony says, “Is it?”
Bucky sometimes forgets how smart Tony is, especially with people. Social mores might escape him, but he’s smart with problems, because he has a library of his own. And now he has Steve in the centre of the room, and Steve could run, but he doesn’t, of course he doesn’t, he doesn’t even flex his wrist in Tony’s grip. He looks over Tony’s shoulder at Bucky, and Bucky stops breathing altogether.
“You don’t need me here,” Steve says, very quietly, “Why should I get in the way of what you have?”
Bucky exhales. His throat’s gone all tight, but he manages, just as quietly but sharp like a left hook, “Fuck you, Rogers.”
Steve flinches. Tony tightens his grip around Steve’s wrist, and shoots a chastening look over his shoulder at Bucky, and Bucky knows what that means—he has to say it this time, use words and not just heroics, because they’ve all done that one time or another, and now’s not the time, not when Steve’s being so stupid—no, not that, when Bucky’s been so stupid, and goddamnit, he really wishes someone could have just told him, ages ago, reminded him of what he, of all people, should know.
Luckily, when he really thinks about it, he’s had these words ready for years, kept them down and hidden in boxes tucked away, sure, but real and present since he was fifteen and starving and Steve was tiny but still incredibly goddamn beautiful, inside and out.
“You think I don’t need you?” he says, slowly because it hurts, “I need you every second of every day. I needed you when you were a shrimp who didn’t know what the word ‘no’ meant, and I needed you when you came out of the damn science lab a head taller than me. I needed you when I woke up here, in this crazy time, and I need you right now, as a friend and as a brother, and a hell of a lot more than that if you’d let me. You told me I couldn’t understand what you were missing in him,” he points at Tony, who only barely avoids flinching, “But you miss exactly the same thing about yourself, and we’re both stupid for never telling you—Steve, you’re the best person I’ve ever known, and I’d be an idiot for not wanting you, then and now. So fuck you, and get this through your head: I need you, and I want you.”
“Hear, hear,” Tony murmurs.
About halfway through, Steve had started actually looking at him. He stares now, eyes wide and shattered and honest enough that it makes Bucky’s heart hurt, though that’s nothing new, when it comes to Steve. Steve swallows, adam’s apple bobbing, and then he steps around Tony, pulling his wrist from his grip.
Then he reaches forward and kisses Bucky.
And all Bucky can think is, finally.
It’s almost painful, because Bucky’s wanted this for, god, for so long. So long he’s forgotten just how much he wanted, does want, and it’s like those carefully sorted boxes and glass jars are breaking apart in his chest, warmth uncurling low in his belly because Steve is here and whole and his face is just the same as when they were small and Bucky knows down to his bones that even if Steve had still been small, he’d still kiss this exact same way, with this concentrated care and nearly sentimental focus.
Steve kisses him like it’s a precious sort of privilege, and Bucky just wants to drag him to the bed and never let him leave.
When he finally breaks away, breathing hard, Steve says, “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
Bucky raises his eyebrows. “Back then? Why do you think, dumbass? We couldn’t have. And you had Peggy.”
“I would have risked it,” Steve whispers. “If you’d asked me to.”
If Bucky’s brain wasn’t already thoroughly short-circuited, it would be now.
“He’s just all sorts of perfect, huh?” Tony murmurs, having come up behind Bucky while he’d been otherwise distracted. “Took me a while to get that, but consider me caught up at this point.” He traces a line with this lips along the curve of Bucky’s shoulder and up against the side of his neck. Bucky shivers, and Steve makes a strangled noise in his throat.
“Thought about us, have you?” Bucky asks Steve, but his voice has gone all ragged, so it doesn’t sound sly at all, just curious and intent.
“A lot,” Steve admits, and one of his hands that had been cupped around Bucky’s hip bone slides back to catch at Tony’s ribcage. Tony sucks in a breath against Bucky’s throat.
“Do you really think we can…?” Steve asks, low and tentative.
“Yes,” Bucky says, because fuck it, proximity fucking with brain function or not, he’s sure now, absolutely sure.
“I think,” Tony says carefully, “That it could be a train wreck of epic proportions. But I want to try. I really, really do.”
“I want…” Steve starts, and then hesitates.
“What do you want, Steve?” Tony asks, low and serious in that rare way that always reminds Bucky of why he trusts him.
Steve responds to it, too; he brings his gaze back up and looks at Tony squarely. “I don’t just want this once,” he says. “I don’t think I could do that. I want this for…for as long as you’ll have me. As long as you’ll both have me.”
Bucky exhales, and smiles. Tony’s expression doesn’t change at all, except to match Steve’s gaze and nod firmly. “Good,” he says, “Because that’s exactly where this is going.”
And Bucky watches as Steve and Tony continue to look at each other, studying one another’s expressions while their bodies are strung tight at his front and back. He realises that they haven’t even touched each other yet, not really.
“Go on,” he murmurs.
“Yeah, okay,” Tony says, just as soft, and reaches over Bucky’s shoulder to fit his fingers around Steve’s jaw and pull him the scant inches forward to kiss him.
The sound that Steve makes is…well, Bucky wants to hear it a hell of a lot more. It comes from somewhere deep in his chest, a possessive rumble that would have Bucky’s hackles rising if it were anyone but Steve making it.
Tony kisses differently when it’s Steve, Bucky can tell—not proprietary at all, at first sort of wondering and delicate, and then slowing with exploration, licking deep into Steve’s mouth while lingering with his teeth on his lower lip. His hand is big on Steve’s face, ring and pinky fingers hooking under his ear and fitting against his hairline while his thumb strokes the dip just beneath his cheekbone, and Steve’s eyes slip shut like he can’t take the overstimulation, his whole body tilting into the kiss as Tony presses it forward.
Bucky finds himself fascinated, strangely satisfied because Tony is so clearly taking Steve apart, motion to motion, the drag of his mouth undoing him with skill and something far more visceral, and Steve is just unwinding, going lax against Bucky’s chest in a slow, drugged slump that Bucky responds to by sliding his hand up Steve’s back, following the dip of his spine upwards and spanning his palm flat on the ripple of his shoulder blade as he moves his opposite hand up to cup the back of Tony’s head, bringing them both closer together, closer against him, because at this point, he’s not ashamed to be greedy, not at all.
Tony pulls back just slightly to press a chaste kiss to the corner of Steve’s mouth, and Steve’s answering exhale is shaky, the hand he still has on Bucky squeezing compulsively, reminding Bucky that he can contribute far more, if he wants.
And yes, he wants. He wants a great deal.
Tony is tight against his back now, betraying everything in the arch of his pelvis against Bucky’s backside, his fingers now laced with Steve’s over Bucky’s hip. Bucky covers their joined fingers with his own and dips his head under Steve’s jaw and murmurs, “Maybe we should move this to the bed?”
“Definitely in favour of that,” Tony says, half-muffled by Steve chasing his mouth with his own.
“If you’re sure,” Steve says, but his grip on Tony’s hand is tight beneath Bucky’s fingers.
“We’re sure,” Bucky confirms.
“We’re talking about it later,” Tony corrects, “But right now? Absolutely sure.”
“I just…haven’t actually done this before,” Steve confesses.
Both Bucky and Tony go still.
“This in particular?” Tony asks, after a second. “Or all of it?”
Even in the dimness of Steve’s bedroom, Steve looks tomato-red. “All of it,” he admits.
Tony sucks in a breath and shoots Bucky a look. “Did you know that?” he demands.
Bucky shrugs, albeit somewhat unsteadily. “I suspected.”
“Dear god,” Tony says, “You’re both going to kill me. Get the fuck on the bed, Rogers, we’re throwing you into the deep end of the pool.”
It takes some manoeuvring, but they make it work.
Bucky and Tony had been easy, even when they’d first started, a strange slide together of two people who knew another fucked-up soul when they saw one and then found to their delight that they both liked things that went boom, too. By day, they worked around each other’s damage by sheer instinct, because they saw it in themselves first; and by night, they were just the same, feeling out each other’s likes and dislikes with a studied and experienced eye, never lingering on the things that didn’t work, always moving forward, carving new territory.
Steve, though, Steve’s not like them at all. Bucky never had a problem with the jagged edges between them before because Steve had been there for every break and tear, but this is all new, and Tony’s here with them.
They make it work, though.
Steve is big, bigger than either of them all over, and Tony takes it in stride but Bucky isn’t precisely used to it, okay? But there are three of them together now, so it’s okay, Steve’s hands massive on his hips, Tony’s legs slung back around his.
Tony fits just right against Steve’s front, which means that Bucky fits too because from where he is in the equation he can watch and so can Steve, and Tony likes an audience, particularly when the audience is up close and participating. And Steve just…
He isn’t easy, because he’s Steve for god’s sake, but he…
He fits them both.
It’s clear even in the way he physically holds them, Tony curving to the bow of his spine, Bucky folding forward, knees up around his shoulders and arms braced back against the headboard, Steve’s hand reaching across and around to mould to and support the arch of his lower back.
Tony talks through all of it, because of course he does, he always does, and Bucky’s used to it but Steve isn’t, so Bucky talks back for the both of them, reading Steve, watching his flushed face and talking, taking liberties with the occasional statement of, “Fuck, just like that, do that again, you should see his face when you do that, Stark, fuck,” and Steve is red from his face to his navel, and it’s better than perfect because it isn’t perfect at all.
None of them last very long. None of them mind.
“Practice,” Tony says eventually, between gasping breaths, Bucky’s face mashed into his shoulder, Steve’s leg and arm slung over his torso. All of their feet are inextricably tangled. “I vote for lots of practice.”
“Strategically sound,” Steve agrees in a mumble, sounding like he’s run about ten miles at top super-soldier speed.
“Can’t believe you can handle that many syllables right now,” Bucky grumbles. “We’re gonna fix that.”
“Later,” Tony says.
“Later,” Steve agrees, and Bucky cracks an eye open momentarily just in time to catch the small, wondering smile that Steve curls against Tony’s neck, before he slips down into sleep.
When Bucky wakes up next, it’s to find himself facing the window, his head on Tony’s arm, the side of Tony’s ribcage flush to his spine. His feet are still tangled with Steve’s though.
Tony shifts, a nearly untraceable twitch.
“I’m gonna fuck this up,” he says to the ceiling, so quietly Bucky almost don’t hear him.
“No, you won’t,” Bucky says, turning over and rolling his eyes.
“No, you won’t,” Steve says, and he cups his hand around the back of Tony’s head, thumb pressed against the hinge of his jaw. “We won’t let you.”
There’s really no hiding it the next morning. Natasha and Clint are already in the breakfast area with Thor and Dr. Foster when they get there, and despite all of them managing a fairly uncomfortable but encouraging discussion followed by a thorough shower before leaving the room, well.
The rest of the team were more than accustomed to Tony or Bucky looking less-than-pristine, but Steve?
Bucky doesn’t bother stifling the growling, possessive feeling in his chest that manifests as a leer at Steve’s seemingly permanent red face and the bruised mark in the shape of Tony’s teeth just along the edge of his jugular. Never mind the fingermarks Bucky definitely left on his hips this morning.
Tony, of course, is equally incorrigible, if not more so. As Bucky pours coffee he lays a smacking kiss on Bucky’s cheek and then lands a loud slap on Steve’s ass, causing him to yelp and then immediately glower.
Breakfast at the table pauses.
Tony steals Bucky’s coffee and saunters forward to plant himself standing at the head of the table.
Clint breaks the silence, because of course he does. “There are so many different comments I could make right now, I don’t even know what to go with.”
Bucky tips his head to one side, raising a second mug to his lips, and makes a ‘bring it’ gesture with his metal hand. “Top two, go.”
“Are you building a harem? Because if Natasha’s in, then so am I, and I’m bringing Darcy.”
Natasha swats him on the arm, which he winces at, but ignores. Dr. Foster slaps him on the back of the head, which clearly surprises him, because he squeaks, and then cringes when Thor warns him away from retaliation with a well-placed look.
“Good suggestion, but no,” Bucky snorts. “Next?”
Clint recovers enough to narrow his eyes at Tony. “Does Tony have a magical dick, or something? Because you and Rogers, I get, but—“
Bucky grins over Steve’s spluttering. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”
Clint sighs. “Despoiling a national icon, and all I get is snark. Fine, be that way.”
“For the record, the answer to your question is a resounding yes,” Tony says. He takes a slurp from his coffee.
After a second, everyone else does the same.
Then Natasha breaks the silence again.
“I’ve put the Night Fox in a threesome with Danny Ocean and Rusty,” she says slowly. “I’m going to need something stronger than coffee.”
Bruce, who had just exited the kitchen, promptly spits tea everywhere.
Bucky, in between bouts of hysterical laughter, looks up to see Steve, who is clearly torn between joining in and trying to project leaderly disapproval while holding up a gasping and cackling Tony.
Steve meets his gaze, and his repressed smile relaxes into something wide and bright and genuine. The arm he has around Tony’s shaking shoulders tightens.
Bucky goes up to them both, setting his coffee cup down on the table before shoving one hand in the back pocket of Tony’s jeans and curling the other beneath Steve’s chin to draw him in for a light, smiling kiss.
“Wait ’til we tell Coulson,” he says against Steve’s lips.
“Taping it, recording it, saving it in Blu-Ray,” Tony says. “It’s gonna be the best thing to go into the Avengers archives yet.”
“So glad we could contribute,” Steve says dryly.
“Worth the wait?” Bucky asks him. He’s not referring to the past weeks, or even the past months.
Tony looks up at Steve too now, expectation and caution warring on his face.
Steve just looks at them both, and nods.
“Yeah,” he says quietly, “I’d say so.”
Tony beams at him.
Bucky’s always had excellent instincts. And as usual, he’s completely right—the future’s a fucking great time.