“Oh, hey,” says Clint to Thor when they’re in the schawarma place, drifting happily between stuffing their faces and sleeping on the table, “I nearly shot you once. In New Mexico.”
“Ah,” says Thor, “the fight in the rain? That was a good battle, while it lasted.”
They actually toast each other with their beers. Briefly Natasha looks like she’s got a headache coming on, and then she just looks amused.
Tony settles more comfortably into his chair and gives a small – very small – almost totally unnoticeable – sigh of deep and heartfelt content. There’s only one thing missing, but that’s in DC and won’t be back for a good couple hours, so he gets to enjoy this moment while it lasts.
Which, going by the way muscles he never realised he even owned have been whining at him for the last couple hours, isn’t going to be much longer.
As it happens, Nick Fury all of SHIELD and a demigod can't stop Pepper Potts from getting exactly what she wants when she wants it, which was a thing Tony could have told them before they tried to keep her out of his hospital room.
She runs at him - it's lucky he's not actually hurt, because oomph - and there's kissing, and Tony's enjoying himself hugely until he realises her face is wet.
"Pepper - Pepper!"
"You called me," she says, shaking. "You called me and I didn't see, I didn't notice, I was glued to the TV hoping and hoping I would see you while you were calling me and there was a nuke..."
There's more kissing, which Tony takes control of, kissing her nose, her wet cheeks, her eyelids, her trembling mouth, deep and firm and drugging, and under his hands the tension slides out of her slowly - if she's still shaking she's (they’re) doing it for another reason entirely, crowding close to his chest. Her fingernails scrape in the hair at the back of his neck.
If he'd been feeling tense himself, poked and prodded and shut up in here, that evaporated when he heard her voice in the corridor.
"I made it out," he says at last against her mouth. "I made it out, and you're here now, and screw the rest."
Pepper laughs. "I've noticed the habit you make of coming back to me." Her voice barely even shakes. She kicks her shoes off and climbs into his lap properly, wraps her arms around him.
"It's a good habit," says Tony into her hair.
"One of your few."
"Crap," he says, feeling indignant. "I do that thing you like in the shower!"
"That's a habit?"
"I'll make it one," he promises, just to hear her laugh, and it works.
“I said some pretty awful things to you,” says Steve before he leaves.
Tony’s surprised to find that the grip of Captain America’s hand takes all the sting out of the memory of his voice. “I said some back,” he says.
Steve smiles. “I guess we’re both as artificial as each other.”
“Hey,” says Tony. “My father…”
And stops, because: what? Sorry I’m not him? Sorry you don’t recognise me? Sorry he wasn’t alive to welcome you, sorry it wasn’t him that found you seventy years ago, that he failed in that one project he set himself, the only personal debt Tony had ever known Howard Stark to acknowledge holding to another human being?
Steve looks away, and the sunlight glints on his hair as his face goes distant. Tony was in a genuine all-out battle just the other day for what was really the first time in his life. For Steve, that was nothing – higher stakes perhaps, but nothing substantially different, in the logistics and the mindset, from what he already knew.
“Howard was a good friend in a lot of ways,” he says. “In some others, not so much. He loved a thrill, but he never had the patience for the front line.”
Back to Tony, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, and the implication was very clear: you do. “I won’t say it was fun, I’ve never been that far gone,” he continues, smiling ruefully. “But it was good to fight, to do something again… and to have people at my back, people that I trust… that was good.”
Tony understands that, inside out and backwards.
They’re not so different, him and Cap.
Rhodey calls and has a heart attack at Tony over the phone; it’s seriously adorable.
Anyway, the only one of them who actually meant to move into the Tower with Tony and Pepper was Bruce.
(This is not to say that Tony and Pepper hadn’t meant to get them to move in.)
"Look, it'll be easiest for you and safest for everyone else," says Tony reasonably.
"I don't need to worry about government grants to pay for the repairs, either."
Bruce grins - in spite of himself, and ruefully. "Yeah." Nick Fury's eventual reaction re: The Helicarrier And What Happened On It was a sight to behold - or not, at least not unless you were doing it through binoculars. Agent Hill spent a lot of time rolling her eyes and being reasonable that day, and in consequence Tony has begun to call her Pepper Two, "only not literally Pepper, because the additional benefits, because the arc reactor's one thing but the family jewels are way more important, but Pepper-like, very Pepper-like".
"Come on," Tony says now, "you can have your own floor."
Bruce sighs. He's distantly surprised to discover that he has gained some sort of Mystic Insight into the way Tony's mind works over the last few weeks, or maybe it's just logic talking.
"You want me to move in so you'll have someone to play with in the workshop," he says.
"Science, it works and is awesome," says Tony, grinning hugely. "Well?"
"Fine," says Bruce. "But I want a lock on my door - all my doors - that you can't get past, or at least a promise that you won't try."
Tony lays a hand over his arc reactor and looks solemn. Bruce is fairly sure he'll crack up laughing if he has to watch the Stark Serious Face for very long.
He doesn't exactly have much stuff to move in, but one day Pepper eyes up the latest signs of wear and tear on his shirt and offers to drive him over to the storage locker where SHIELD is keeping all his things from Before, and then asks irritably what he's been doing with Tony's paychecks anyway?
"Paychecks?" says Bruce. "TONY! I'm not your employee, you lunatic."
"Sure you are!" Tony hollers back. "That bot that's going out next week is having your name on it! Anyway, you're not pretty enough to be a kept man."
On the list of things Bruce hates about Tony, his ability to make him laugh at any given moment is pretty high up there.
"Don't worry about it," says Pepper, "strictly speaking, I'm your boss."
So: Tony Stark is a habitual insomniac workaholic with a taste for wine, women and song that would have ingrained in him the habit of sleeping late and seldom even without the workaholic thing; Clint Barton is having something like PTSD. Together, They Fight Crime!
Which isn’t actually all that far from the truth.
Barton's been spending more time at the Tower lately than his brand new but only semi-official position as Tony Stark's SHIELD liaison necessitates; coming across him now, in the kitchen with a tablet's glow the only light source in the room and the flickering faces of dead men and women passing across the screen, it's not hard to work out why. Only an idiot wouldn't have known before.
Tony snaps the light on. Clint's body jerks and his hands flash to his sides, looking for weapons he doesn't carry when in the Tower.
"Sorry," says Tony.
Clint sighs. "No. It's OK. How come you're still up?"
"Inventing things," says Tony. "Retro-engineering the space caterpillars and the alien flying chariot. I might give one to Tasha."
Success: Clint smiles.
They drink in silence, the tablet between them, dead men staring out of photographs, their names surely branded into Clint's mind by now.
"So I'm now a permanent house guest, for which I apologise," says Clint at last.
"The more the merrier," says Tony.
Clint raises his eyebrows.
"Steve said, before he left... it was good to do something worthwhile, with people at your back that you trust. He was right."
Clint shifts on the bar stool, props his chin on his right fist and tightens his grip on his coffee cup in his left hand, precise archer's fingers wrapped around the white china. Tony has a thing for people's hands, and all of the Avengers have excessively attractive ones, or at least attractive to him, although admittedly not to the extent that Pepper's are. Creators and killers both always have the perfect hands.
(That's the kind of morbid sentiment he gets from reading one too many crime novels - and having one too many women tell him he has perfect hands himself.)
"Yeah, he was."
It takes Tony a moment to segue up Clint's remark with his own earlier one. When he determines the baseline has been sufficiently established he taps a finger on the edge of the tablet.
"The agents from the helicarrier."
Something like anger flashes across Clint's face, though it might be helplessness, or self-loathing. Tony has a hard time telling those things apart. But then Clint sighs.
"I don't remember it," he says. "I knew 'em, Tony. I knew 'em all. Not all of 'em well, but some of them for years. I gave the orders that put them in the ground. I pulled -"
"Loki pulled," says Tony sharply. "He used you like a doll, or a programmed robot."
"That doesn't make it easier," says Clint quietly. "I killed so many, and the one thing I remember above all the rest is my own pain at being manipulated."
"Mind-controlled. You don't think that makes a difference?"
Clint pulls a wry, dry, sarcastic face.
"Well, OK, so it doesn't. I can sit here and make up excuses for the two decades I spent creating things that killed countless thousands of innocent people for the rest of the night, but that's not gonna bring 'em back to life."
"Killing myself doing the morbid brooding thing isn't going to do that either."
"Ahhh, you sound like Tasha. She calls it having red in her ledger."
"The only thing that works is balancing it out," says Tony.
Of course even that is not enough. But you have to pretend, or you go crazy.
Clint takes a gulp of coffee, eyes going unfocussed and drifting over Tony's shoulder to stare into the darkness beyond the kitchen lights. "It might take me a while to work out how," he says at last. "I can't even go to their funerals, Tony, I can't. And Phil's gone too, and I..."
Tony puts his own coffee mug down and runs both hands through his hair. "Yeah." Mention of Phil still coils tight, aching pain in his throat and chest. Is this the first time you've lost a soldier? Steve asked on the helicarrier, all dispassionate and calm, like it was normal, and the awful realisation that: yes, for Captain America, it was fucking normal, or at least had become so since waking up, had not sunk in until the other man had already left New York. Tony just hopes that Steve, wherever he's wandering right now, has found his own way to deal with that.
He watched the security vid in a fit of morbid self-recrimination and wild, mad hope that maybe Fury had been wrong - but of course he hadn't been. Where is my disadvantage?
You lack conviction.
"You think we've got the conviction for this?" says Clint. Tony's head jerks up. Clint's mouth is twisted and his eyes are shadowed; he's seen the footage too.
Tony wonders. Coulson thought they did, and died. Fury thinks they do, and walks that fine old line between protecting them and using them. Maria Hill thinks they shouldn't be needed at all.
Tony lacks a lot of things, but he's beginning to see how those are balanced out by others, far more important.
"I don't know," he says, and thinks of Tasha steering that chariot, and Bruce driving through the rubble towards them, and Thor fighting a war that, when you got right down to it, was never his to fight in the first place, and finally of Steve, wound furiously tight and seconds away from snapping yet still standing his ground. "But I know a couple people who do."
Clint catches his eye; for the first time since Tony's known him, he grins. "Funny. That's what I was thinking too."
Thor shows up on a Thursday three months later and manages to smile when Tony points this out, but otherwise he's grim and looks tired. Pepper offers him coffee, which Bruce makes, and they sit around Tony and Pepper's kitchen island together.
"Loki has been sentenced," says Thor, halfway through his third cup.
"Ah," Tony says quietly.
"He will not stay that way. I know my brother. Our father and mother persist in believing - but I will not delude myself about him." He pauses to think about this. "Anymore."
"It's not necessarily a delusion," says Bruce quietly. "Everyone -"
"Oh, yes," says Thor, gloomily dismissive. "But even if there is some part of Loki left that's still my brother, he chooses to ignore it."
"You need to find yourself an evil Emperor to get electrocuted by," says Tony. "Would that even work on you?"
And that's how Thor was introduced to Star Wars. Clint comes home in time for Empire and then calls Tasha; she brings the schwarma, and in a move that surprises absolutely no one, proclaims Darth Vader her favourite.
"Nice," says Pepper to Tony.
He shrugs. "You know the best way to get over the betrayal of someone you loved?"
She's perched on the end of a desk in the workshop, and crosses her legs at the knee, smiling and waiting for him. He cups her face in his hands and steps in close.
"Find some people to hold on to who love you back," says Pepper. "It's working for you, Tony, it really is."
He laughs, and they kiss, and everything's perfect.
Two weeks later, Steve. He blows in one morning like he's arrived with the wind off the sea, hair a mess, unshaven and smiling.
"That make you feel better?" says Tony, like they've only just seen each other, like he's referring to a shower or a cup of coffee or a drink instead of a nearly five month roadtrip into basically nowhere, on his own, in a time that doesn't belong to him.
"Yeah," says Steve, not even hesitant about admitting it. "Yeah, it kind of did. You know, I've crawled across battlefields from Normandy to the USSR, but I'd never seen the Grand Canyon."
Tony sighs. "Russia, Steve," he says. "It's just Russia these days."
Steve laughs, and stays for lunch, and talks - ostensibly to Thor, who asked the question, but really to all of them - about the Grand Canyon, and the Great Lakes, and California and the Midwest and God knows what else; he talks about people and places with the same interested affection and admits getting into a fight - one bar fight, OK Tony, just one, which actually shows incredible amounts of self-restraint on my part, you don't even know - with some awful bile-spewing redneck in a town whose name he doesn't remember, and shows them his sketches and apparently has developed a fondness for photography as well, and then he talks about Europe and the war and Tony finally hears all his Dad's stories about Cap and the Howling Commandos from the man himself, and it is awesome.
Pepper observes his fanboying, but is too nice to say anything except, "You'll stay over, won't you Steve?"
Jane Foster is dreamy and googly-eyed and starry and dreamy and Pepper hires her on the spot: or rather, she tries to hire her on the spot, but Jane doesn’t really notice, because that’s the sort of person she is. Then, almost as an afterthought except not because that was the plan all along (Tased. A. Demigod.), Pepper hires Darcy and appoints her the new me, except without the eventual benefits because if you so much as look at him sideways I won't even bother with a taser, although in all fairness even if you did he wouldn't look back.
It takes Tony a couple weeks to realise what happened there. There's a couple days when he wanders the Tower in a state of shock and horror because PAs who aren't Pepper are a) bad and b) superspy assassins who stick him with needles and eat all his nachos. Then he comes out of it, because Darcy does eat his nachos (at Nat's express invitation), but there's no evidence of needles and she greets the Board of Directors in jeans and Converse and an Iron Man t-shirt, which gets her so many points from him he can't even put it into words.
Pepper doesn't even pretend to care what Darcy does to the Board.
Meanwhile, Jane, Tony, Bruce and Selvig spend a lot of time in the lab, and Thor brings them coffee a lot and creates an awkward moment by saying “I am not sure how that would work in Asgard, Doctor, Loki is more knowledgeable than I about –“ and Tony and Bruce both have to bite their tongues on finishing that sentence with suggestions like supervillainy or taking over the world.
They work around it.
The Tower doesn’t get crowded. People are in and out of Tony’s space every single fucking day, knocking things over and changing things round, turning music up or off, watching TV, taking photos of the city from his balcony (OK, that’s just Steve), going grocery shopping, turning various kitchen appliances into Weapons Of Mass Destruction and teaching Thor poker, which he’s amused by because when Asgardians play for money they usually do so with more violence; more than one person has walked in on Tony and Pepper… being Tony and Pepper in various parts of the house. There’s a constant thrum of background noise, an underlying hum of people.
When Rhodey comes by – twenty-four hour stopover before he goes to DC – he gives Tony a very strange look.
“Imagine!” says Tony merrily. “I’m doin’ OK.”
Strange, oddly wistful flicker in his friend’s eyes. “How come,” he asks at last, slowly, “how come it works now but not before?”
Tony puts his glass down. “I don’t know,” he says. “It just does.”
This is a lie. It is the biggest most shameless untruthful lie Tony Stark has ever told to anyone: Rhodey, the Board, Stane, his investors, his parents, himself.
(He doesn’t count Pepper because he genuinely cannot recall an occasion when he deliberately lied to her; she mentions the thing with the palladium poisoning and that leads into an argument about lies by omission and – yeah, not the point.)
It’s a lie, you see, because Tony loves Rhodey – Rhodey has stood by him for years while Tony was dealing with some seriously serious stuff, and a variety of problems both personal and professional (but mostly personal). However, all of this seriously serious stuff was – without exception – Tony’s stuff, and Tony’s alone: for the most part he even brought them on himself.
But this, this thing with SHIELD and Loki and actual battles and Earth-domination-wanting aliens and superheroes and God knows what else – well, behind Rhodey, out on the balcony, Steve is reading Lord of the Rings and Tasha and Thor are wearing speculative looks and discussing something Tony doesn’t ever want the details of and this is not just Tony’s stuff. It never was.
And Tony Stark likes being a part of something bigger than himself. That’s a truth no one but Pepper Potts has ever guessed at before.
So it’s been nearly a year, and Nick Fury almost likes them, and the Tower has officially become Home, and even Bruce has occasional days when he actually and genuinely trusts SHIELD.
And then this happens:
Phil Coulson comes out of his coma.
Instantly all hell breaks loose at SHIELD because some idiot kid runs into Fury in the corridor, apparently, and blurts out that Coulson's awake before he realises that Tasha is standing right there listening and she punches Fury in the face.
One hell of a lot of yelling later, Coulson's installed in a room in the Tower, Clint has a broken hand, Tasha is suspended, Tony is hugely amused, Thor is righteously angry, Bruce has locked himself into the gym where things are less breakable because goddammit he hates being manipulated, this is shit and he hates it and it makes him furious and no no no, and Steve is chewing Fury out like the man's a grass green idiot recruit and wow, apparently even Fury is just a little bit cowed by Cap because he lets Steve finish before he throws him out of his office.
"Well, it worked anyhow," says Phil, sounding weak but self-satisfied.
"You're all here, aren't you?"
"I fucking well am now," says Clint. "Fury couldn't pay me enough to set foot back on that base."
"He will eventually, I'm not employing you," says Tony.
"You're not employing Thor either," Clint points out. "Or Steve."
"Yeah, but they're, like, taller than I am," says Tony, grinning. "And," he adds when Clint looks at Tasha and opens his mouth, "they're not Nat. Neither are you."
Bruce never trusts Fury again after that. He hovers, for a couple weeks, on the edge of taking that duffle from under his bed and just leaving, knowing that the Avengers would not just let him go, they’d punch anyone who tried to come after him – it’s called a coping mechanism, he’s fucked up, they understand this, but Betty does not, or if she does she chooses to ignore it because she throws his glasses across the room angrily and wants to know whether he trusts these people or not – not Fury, you idiot, not SHIELD, but the people with whom he’s sharing a Tower and a job and a life and a goddamn coffee maker, and you know what you don’t even need to answer that, I know you do, so why are you letting one manipulative asshole take that away from you Bruce, and in any case you are thirty years too old to be defaulting to running away from home as a coping strategy.
The dining room falls into a brief and slightly embarrassed silence until Tony says, “She’s probably not wrong about that last one at least,” and Betty rounds on him and says, “I’ve noticed everyone else’s in this room tends to involve blowing things up, Tony, I’m not sure that’s an improvement,” and Steve says, “Look, let’s just… finish dinner and talk about this later, OK?” and the upshot of it all is that no one leaves, and everyone’s particularly nice to Betty for a couple days, or a week or three. Especially Bruce.
Natasha never moves in. Well, she sort of does but sort of doesn't. She's away a lot, even in her free time, Clint thinks she goes back to Russia sometimes but even he and Phil, who've known her longest, aren't really sure. But whenever she comes back, she checks with the Tower before she ever goes to SHIELD.
That totally counts, says Pepper to Tony comfortingly.
"I literally cannot get drunk," says Steve.
"That sucks," says Tony. They're in the workshop. Tony has a beer in his hand because he's thirsty, rather than because he’s looking for a buzz, and Steve is turning the prototype half-finished shield he’s had for decades over and over in his hands.
"You have no idea. Couldn't even drink the memories away when Bucky died."
Tony has to put his beer down quickly before his hands clenching can squeeze the can. Kids, remember: Steve’s not so much repressed as fresh out of leading an elite team of soldiers through the biggest most horrific conflict in human history. You'd think it would be obvious, but people continue to forget this sometimes.
Now imagine himself at eighteen, not being able to drink away just his parents' funeral.
No, thank you.
"Drugs?" he says cheerfully. "Weed?" Hasn’t he had this conversation with Bruce? Hmm.
"I wouldn't have thought so." Steve sounds a little amused.
"Not wanna try?"
Steve looks at him. "Not anymore," he says thoughtfully. "At first. At first I sort of wished I could go back into the ice... or that I'd never come out of it in the first place, that I was still dr- still there."
dreaming. Christ, if he was conscious, even a little...
Tony decides he needs a buzz after all, but of course there isn't anything stronger down here. Banned from the workshop on Pepper's orders.
"But you're OK," he says, and isn't sure if he sounds like a friend being firm and comforting or a kid wanting to be told that Captain America is still as awesome as ever.
"Yeah." Steve spins the shield in his hands so that the light catches on its edges. "Yeah, I am. Doing something worthwhile... that helps."
"Did the Grand Canyon?"
Steve's laugh is deep and usually startled, like he forgets how to use it sometimes, forgets he has one at all. "I told you it did."
Tony climbs up on his workbench and swings his feet like a kid. "Didn't say how."
"Oh... the usual generic reasons. Permanent stuff, things that don't change, things still being worth it. You?"
"This place. Building things... building things makes the most sense of all. Building things that you can use to do something worthwhile..."
Steve nods. He looks down at the shield again, and Tony takes a sip of beer, and they'll never be OK, you're never totally OK, Tony knows this from up-close-and-personal experience, but what Steve will be and what Tony is is OK enough to get by, and OK enough to do something worthwhile.
And, finally, OK enough for this: silence and companionship and ease between them in a home that Tony's built, surrounded by friends.
The day he and Steve go on a pizza run and Steve says laughing that sure he'll be best man at Tony and Pepper's wedding if they ever get round to it and it gets into the media and Tony's stock shoots up liek whoa is kind of the best day of Tony's whole life.
"He wasn't at your wedding, asshole," he says cheerfully to his father's photograph. "Beat you out. Made you look."
Not that they do get round to it, and anyway he’d really have to give the top spot to Rhodey, no question and Steve knows it. But it's the principle of the thing.
And then one day Natasha gets home from one of her trips and calls a Tower Meeting. They gather in the kitchen, because that's where the coffee machine is.
Or rather, the most frequently used of all the various coffee machines in the Tower.
"So this sounds urgent," says Bruce. "Urgent and ominous."
"It's kind of both," says Nat. "I've... been looking for someone, on and off, over the years; someone who meant a lot to me before SHIELD."
The others look at each other, and look at the folder in her hands, and look at each other again.
"Then you have now found this person?" asks Thor gently.
Nat nods. Her fingers clench on the file briefly before she puts it down on the table. To Tony's eyes she's humming with tension, which Tasha never does. "Fury won't. That is, SHIELD won't. They have... they have other priorities. But I've got red in my ledger, and I owe him a debt."
Clint shifts in his seat. He's no longer the only one of them who knows Tasha well enough to understand what "owe a debt" is her shorthand for.
"I'm not doing this very well," she says and takes a breath. "It's making me nervous. But you've read my file and you know what I was. I guess that means you have a pretty good idea of what he -"
"Tasha," says Bruce. "Of course we'll help."
"OK," says Steve, and takes the folder. "Let's get to planning."
He flips it open, and the coffee cup in his left hand falls to shatter on the floor, face gone white in an instant.
"Is this a joke?"
Nat hauls off and punches him in the face; Steve reels back from it but of course not even Natasha, deadly as she otherwise is, can really damage him with a single punch. Everyone else is on their feet with a yell of surprise; chairs topple, Clint has a hold of Nat, who's yelling angrily, Thor pushes Steve back with a hand on his friend's chest; Steve's self-control is noticeably rattled, hence the yelling back. Bruce dives for the file. Tony jumps on the table.
"Knock it off!" he bellows. "Knock it off, I thought we were over this kind of thing."
Nat shuts it. So does Steve. Everyone else is too astonished to speak.
Bruce breaks the silence. "Winter Soldier," he says, reading from the file.
"His name is Bucky and I watched him die so how fucking dare you," snarls Steve.
"Die?" says Nat. She's as white as Steve is.
"In World War Two, Nat, before you were born!"
"Are you sure?" Bruce asks quietly.
"Sure!" Steve rounds on him, moving quicker than Tony's ever seen him move. "I grew up with him. We were close as brothers - he's all the family I have."
Present tense, present tense, Steve still does that and it breaks Tony's heart every time, just like it used to kill him when he himself used it of his mother and Stane would look at him sharply and he'd realise -
"He trained me," says Tasha clearly. "In the Red Rooms. He helped me... it's complicated, it was always complicated. He was one of the only good things I had in that place. But I never knew his name. I don't think he ever knew his name."
Steve is still white, but he's calmer. "They can do that."
"They did it to me," says Nat. Clint's still touching her, his hands on her upper arms, but it's a comfort now and not a holding-back. Tony's still standing on the table, looking around at his friends.
"No more punching? Because I will get the suit I swear and blast you all out of those windows."
Nat draws a breath. Steve relaxes as well.
"God, Tasha, I'm sorry," he says. "You - seeing the photo." He swallows hard. "It was my fault, see, I couldn't catch him -"
Thor's hand moves from his chest, pressing him backwards, to grip his shoulder in comfort. Nat shakes her head and then herself; Tony's never seen her so vulnerable.
He climbs off the table, slowly.
"You guys," says Natasha. "You guys and him. You - you're all."
All I've got.
More than I ever thought I needed.
I won’t lose any of you.
Tony does not need her to say it to hear it. Nor do any of the others.
Steve rights his chair and falls into it; puts his head in his hands.
"I really, really need to get drunk," he says.
"There isn't much time," says Bruce abruptly. "According to this they move him on a regular basis."
"Then we had best hurry," says Thor. "Steven..."
Steve raises his head. "I'm OK."
Tony turns his best Pepper-Imitation Pointed Glare on Nat, who almost smiles.
"I'm sorry I hit you," she says to Steve.
He laughs and shakes his head, holding a hand out for the file. Bruce gives it to him.
"It’s OK. Nat, will you tell us what you know?"
That... takes a while. And vodka. Lots of vodka.
Finally, Bruce says, "OK. So we need - we need some kind of a plan."
"We need to know where this facility is first of all," says Steve. "Terrain, defences..."
"Feed it to Jarvis," says Tony.
Thor is studying the file thoughtfully. "Your script is still strange to me," he says, "but these numbers - a date? Next week?"
He points at a page drawn from the back of the file, holding it out to the others.
"Next Friday," says Clint. "They're -"
"They're waking him up," says Nat quietly. "There's a mission."
"That's perfect," says Steve. "No, listen. They wake him up - they know how, they can do it without hurting him. We let them, we go in afterwards and get him out. How much time would we have?"
Nat pushes her fingers through her hair. "Twenty four hours. Tops. They'll explain history, upgrade the cybernetics... don't forget he's done this before, it's not like when you woke up, Steve, he'll find it far easier to adapt. And we need to spring him before the mission. I know the Soldier, I know what he can do. He'll find a way to carry it out, we have to get his memory back before that."
Bruce steeples his fingers, laces them together, puts his glasses on, rubs at his chin. "That won't be easy."
"He trusts me," says Nat.
Clint shakes his head. "Tasha - no. He trusts Black Widow."
"Then I can be her."
"You said he helped you."
"We – we’d talk..." she pauses, staring over all their heads. "We talked about - having our memories back. What we'd give for that. I said I didn't think I wanted it..." Her hands clench into fists. Red in her ledger, thinks Tony, red in all our ledgers. "He laughed at me. He said: maybe I had friends, family, parents. Maybe there were people I loved and couldn't remember..."
Steve's turn to clench his hands. Tasha sees, faces him.
"Love is for children," she says. "That's what I told him. I remember him laughing. No wonder the world's going to hell in a handbasket, he said. I guess he was right."
"We'll get him out," says Steve. "Whatever it takes, we'll get him out."
"Steve," says Bruce quietly, "there's something else we haven't figured out yet."
Everyone looks at him.
"The Soviets, the KGB did this to him - to both of you."
"Yes," says Nat simply.
Bruce draws a breath. "Then who's keeping him like this now the KGB doesn’t exist in that form anymore?"
Twenty six years since: gasp cough try to scream and claw it back choking around the tube, threshing and flailing in the wet sticky not-water you’d think he’d be used to this by now but he isn’t and there’s a name clawing to the forefront of his mind, green eyes and a smile like summer, Tasha Talia Nat darling love all the things he never called her but could have maybe in another place and time and life and he knows – Christ, Jesus motherfucking Christ, they drag the tube out of his throat like it’s nothing and he’s almost crying with that pain alone – he’ll be punished if he calls for her she’ll be punished if he calls for her and then the snick of the needle sliding into his skin and back to sleep, at least for a little, at least on the surface.
Twenty six years: the longest yet. It doesn’t take him long to realise that this is partly because they might be the same personnel as the last time but they’re getting their orders from a whole different organisation:
something’s different though they try to hide it but they’re not as good, not as powerful, not as
they’re not as convincing anymore they’re not convinced themselves they’ll never convince him
It was a miscalculation on their part.
For some reason, that makes him feel even better than if he’d broken out of it all on his own. They messed up and they broke their own toy.
There’s a German word for it (Schadenfreude) but he’s from fuckin’ Brooklyn and he’s been fighting the Nazis for years and he’ll be fucked if he starts falling into their lingo now. He knows who he is…
… well, almost. He almost knows who he is. He knows there’s a guy he loves like a brother, a team who’d never let him down. He knows there was a mother, a father, brothers and sisters (or were they cousins, or just friends), illness and poverty. He knows he wore the symbols of a country he’s since been taught to hate, and that he loved it once and truly.
After that, he knows there was darkness, and death, (and red red hair on his pillow, smiling eyes above him) and blood, so much blood on his hands (he won’t think about that, he can’t, he can’t, too soon and too much, he can’t.)
Details are a little wobbly. Stuff like, you know, his name.
(-ame, -ame, it sounds like -)
But the basics, oh, he’s got the basics, and even when he was loyal, even when he was proud to serve their cause, even following their every order…
Even then he hated them.
So that makes it easier, when they wake him up, and they screw up the dosage, and the memories come bleeding back, like drops of blood
like paint, like that tray of paints he had, the brush swirling in the jar, and how the colours would mix and flow and flood together, so that you could hold it up to the grimy light of their apartment and smile to see them
in the water, cloudy discolouration spreading and spreading until everything they leeched out of him is settled firmly back where it belongs.
Here’s your first target. Rumour is that he and his associates are six. But the only name we have for certain is this one. We expect you can extract the information on the others from him in due course.
The Winter Soldier studies the file, the photograph, with forcibly dispassionate eyes. He’s underground and locked away. They’ve updated his prosthetic, briefed him on recent events, subjected him to the usual invasive medical checkover.
They’ve messed up the drugs.
They want him to torture and kill Howard’s son.
The man who was the Winter Soldier is aware that while he recognises the name and the face and hears an echo of the voice, he himself never knew Howard that well, not as well as another did. But fuck if he’s gonna kill the guy’s kid for a bunch of dumbass terrorists who can’t even get their dosages right.
Oh, he’ll go to New York, he supposes. It’d be easiest. At least, the whipsmart whipquick streetwise Brooklyn kid thinks it would be easiest, don’t he and – he and the other know the streets of their city like the backs of their hands? Even the soldier is amused by the notion, confident: battle-clever, foxhole-patient, wetwork-practiced, he can do it.
The other side, the ruthless death-dealer, thinks it’s foolishly ostentatious and dangerous. Well, it kind of is.
But he’ll go to New York, and he’ll tell the target: I was sent to kill you, Mr Stark.
If this Tony kid is anything like his old man, the first thing he’ll do is laugh.
Question is, why do they want him dead?
Other than the rather terrifying possibility that he is, indeed, something like his old man.
The man who was the Winter Soldier decides it’s time he took a little trip – a walkabout – the 50 cent tour, like the times he and the other rode the wooden escalators in Macy’s and spent half a day on top of the Empire State Building.
Two dead in his rooms duck left turn they brought him this way. Settle the gun in his hands, breathe deep and slow. Remember that all they did was build on what was already there: this, the dim light, the gun, the quick silent footsteps, the racing heart and dizzy-steadying rush of adrenaline: this was already his.
He sees no one else; there’s a problem maybe, someone calling distantly, it does not sound like Russian. Doors, armouries, blinking lights, an empty mess hall, officer’s quarters, a briefing room.
The banner that hangs on its wall bears neither a sickle and hammer nor a swastika.
Crunch of footsteps; he spins, three men behind him, “Scheisse, was macht der hier –“
“Knall ihn ab!”
And an explosion rocks the very foundations of the facility they’re in, sending everyone staggering. As the HYDRA agents die the man who was the Winter Soldier scrambles upright and says out loud: “Steve, finally, what kept you?”
Too late he remembers that seventy years after the last time he saw Steve’s face, Steve is almost certainly dead.
Idiot punk-ass kid. What did he have to do that for? The man who was the Winter Soldier remembers no briefings on, no mentions of Captain America after the War ended. The logical explanation is that Steve died before it was over: damn him, why? He’d like to believe – he’d give his flesh-and-blood arm to believe – that Steve just dropped off the map, that he went to England with Carter and got hitched and the two of them spent their lives in some rambling mansion in the countryside, peacefully raising a pack of children, one of whom would have been named James.
But that life was not in either of their natures, and the man who was the Winter Soldier knows it, even while he’s carving his way through thugs and fools, searching for exits, or maybe just explanations, he doesn’t even know anymore –
- wait, James?
The realisation that it’s his own name carves through him like a knife-stroke and he finds himself standing in the middle of a dim, anonymous corridor with a gun in one hand and a knife in the other like a useless shell-shocked recruit fresh off the boats. There’s a guy loading a rifle and pointing it at him, so that James shudders and has to force himself to react, to move, to look for –
A shot, and the rifleman goes down, not dead but flailing, and a redheaded woman in black hits him in the face and then shoots him through the head.
James, James, my name is James.
Bucky. Everyone used to call him Bucky. Buchanan, that was it. James Buchanan Barnes.
Then his eyes refocus and he’s staring at the woman who just saved his life. She’s watching him near-impassively, one eyebrow crooked, and he begins to smile at the sight of her: green eyes, her eyes are green, green, and he knows the way she smiles when she hovers over him in the dark and he has his hands on her hips and her hair is falling around their faces, a curtain to shut the world away from them.
(Tasha Talia Nat darling love.)
“Hello, solider,” says the Black Widow, and smirks.
“Hello, beautiful,” says Bucky Barnes in a Brooklyn accent he had forgotten belonged to him, feeling a grin stretch his own mouth into a shape it hasn’t worn in seventy years, edged with sudden happiness.
They’re still standing there grinning at each other like idiots over a pile of corpses when Steve comes around the corner, and
and Steve feels like a kid again, a scrawny sickly kid who doesn't like bullies and is anxious about food and money and school what happens after they’re too old for the orphanage, looking to his best friend for a steadying hand, a presence at his side. Bucky is older than he is - or rather he looks older than Steve, maybe around thirty, or even thirty-five, instead of twenty-six; the hair at his temples is prematurely grey, and even under the trenchcoat Steve can see the outlines of the bionic arm.
"I thought you were dead," says Bucky hoarsely, and it's ridiculous and stupid and naively optimistic but the sound of his voice alone is enough to prove to Steve that whatever they did to him in the past, he clawed his way out of it: this, without a shadow of a doubt, is Bucky.
Steve grins like a lunatic, barely aware of anything else in the world.
"I thought you were smaller," he says and then they're hugging, and yeah: still not used to being taller than Bucky, and God help him please he never will be.
"Jesus wept, Steve," says Bucky into his shoulder. "I don't even know..."
"Shut up," says Steve, "crisis later, we're going home, come on, I'm taking you home."
Bucky laughs, and it's both dry and torn and awful and joyously helplessly happy. "Home," he repeats, a whole world of longing in the word. Then, sharply: “You cancelled the lease on our apartment, you fucking idiot.”
Steve is still grinning, and thinks he won’t ever stop again.
“I got a better one,” he says.
All right Stark, you’re an adult and a grown-up and a responsible super-hero slash genius philanthropist inventor, you are not jealous of Captain America’s childhood friend.
You have his fucking action figure. When you were seven you wanted to be him.
This is not jealousy, this is geeking out. Oh crap.
"Tony Stark," says Tony smoothly, shaking hands, "it's a pleasure to meet you, Sergeant Barnes –"
"– he had your action figure when he was a kid," says Steve.
Goddammit. Oh well. Tony sighs. "You can't embarrass me, Steve, it's physically impossible."
"Tony Stark," says Barnes. “It’s possibly an awkward time to bring this up” – somewhere not far away, something explodes again: the corridor shakes and billows of dust drift down from the ceiling – “but they wanted me to kill you.”
Tony laughs. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
For God’s sake the look he’s getting from Barnes right now is downright fond, which is sort of creepy yet totally awesome.
“And he laughs,” says Barnes. “Definitely Howard’s kid.”
After that there’s running and shouting and a couple more dead people and a Norse God, what the fuck, but that’s kind of nothing to the horrifying déjà vu of standing on a walkway over an impressive hangar bay with Steve and facing a man who ought to be so much more than dead.
“Captain Rogers!” says Schmidt. “I thought you might come back for the good Sergeant. Again.”
“Somehow I don’t think you were counting on me bringing backup,” Steve says, dry as dust.
Schmidt’s eyes flick to where the Hulk has just thrown a jet plane across the hangar and glares.
“Yeah,” says Steve, amused. “Get that a lot, actually.”
“OK, can I please shoot him now?” Bucky demands irritably.
Schmidt draws on them faster than Bucky’s eye can actually follow, and next thing he knows Steve’s on top of him and the shield is on top of Steve and Schmidt apparently had a getaway plan.
“I’m pretty certain we’ve wrecked his entire operation right here,” says Natasha comfortingly.
Bucky eyes her sideways. The Natasha he remembers has two modes: Black Widow and… and, well, The Winter Soldier’s Lover, not to put too fine a point on it and he hopes he’s not sounding conceited. This Natasha is something else, a strange amalgamation of the killer and the girl who used to laugh when she was in his arms as if she’d just discovered how: stoic, competent, but openly caring, if you know what Nat’s idea of open looks like. He likes her instinctively, but he’s not sure he trusts her.
On the other hand, she and Steve treat each other like brother and sister. His two favourite people in the world love each other, which is so much more than he’d hoped for in that awful half-hour back there when he’d assumed Steve had to be dead.
“He’ll show up again eventually,” he says.
“Like a cockroach,” says Steve, “he’s obviously unkillable.”
“Well,” says the archer guy, Barton, “I know a couple people who fit that description just fine.”
“I will concede that it might be something of an advantage,” says Banner, tottering with exhaustion and wrapped in a blanket. No, wait, that’s Thor’s cape.
“God, and it’s only taken you like a decade,” says Tony and wraps a comforting arm around the other man’s shoulders.
Not until they’re on the plane Steve and his friends came in on and several hours away from that particularly nasty corner of Mother Russia does Bucky find a moment quiet enough to even start to process what’s happened to him.
He sits on a bench in the back while the others sleep and Tasha and Steve fly the plane and watches helplessly as his hands begin to shake. That’s when Tony sits down next to him.
“You holdin’ up?”
Bucky appreciates it that he doesn’t ask if he’s OK.
“No,” he says. “I’m rearranging my whole mind in here.”
“Yeah. Nat and Clint can both give you tips with that.”
He barks a laugh. “Well, OK then. Let me just take a couple days, maybe get psychoanalysed. God Almighty, Stark, I can’t even tell you – some of the things I’ve done, they’d give Natalia nightmares, let alone you.”
Tony’s silent for a heartbeat. “It doesn’t make a difference in here, you know. The only one of us who’s not got some shade of red in his ledger is Steve, which is why he’s the one in charge.”
Bucky blinks. “So you’re doing this because of guilt?”
That had not occurred to him.
“I spent twenty years letting a man run my company who used it to manufacture and indiscriminately sell the deadliest weapons the world had ever seen to some of the most ruthless bastards who’ve ever lived short of the guys you used to tussle with,” says Tony baldly. “I made a game out of creating machines that inflicted death on countless thousands of innocents. A game. I didn’t even have the common decency to take it seriously.”
He does not, Bucky realises, look as much like Howard anymore.
“So yes, to answer your question. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons: I feel guilty, and I want to expiate that. I want to find a way to make amends for what I’ve done, but that’s not ever going to happen, so the alternative is this: I fight. And I keep fighting. And every now and then I walk away knowing that I’ve saved a life instead of ending it. That’s all. That’s all I got. And I all can do with it is hope to hell it’s enough, because if it isn’t I’m out of options; but it is, Barnes, or it is for now. Somehow, improbably, it… works.”
The man has a backbone of iron and a mind and will like a steel trap. Somewhere in Bucky’s mind a small dry voice is devoutly thankful that he and Steve are on the same side. Then he becomes aware of the implicit offer in Tony’s words.
“And your bosses, they’re gonna be OK with this. They’re not gonna want to run tests or experiments or put me in lockdown or take the arm apart or try me for war crimes, which by the way I would be guilty of, oh no. Your SHIELD people are gonna let me walk away back to Brooklyn and get a nice little apartment somewhere and every now and then go on” – he waves a hand, still shaking, in front of Tony, trying desperately to keep the hysterical laughter out of his voice – “road trips or whatever with you guys, to crush evil wherever we find it?”
“Excuse you?” says Tony incredulously. “Excuse you, my bosses, is that what you said, it is isn’t it, it really is, did you miss something when we were introduced, it was a little loud in there and you’re, like, ninety, so I will accept for the moment that you might not have heard me right, let’s try this again: Hi, Sergeant Barnes, nice to finally meet you, I’m Tony fucking Stark.”
Bucky stares at him for so long his eyes start to water and he realises he’s not actually breathing and then, with a ragged, angry, hopeless gasp, he starts to laugh, and carries on laughing from the bottom of his soul until suddenly Steve’s right there and then he’s crying.
Natasha stays in the cockpit. He loves her all the more for that.
Bucky thinks he sleeps, but it is hard to tell. One moment he’s shaking apart with guilt in Steve’s arms the way Steve used to shake apart with asthma and cold in his, and the next he’s upright and they’re landing; it’s more a blur than a blackout, and his mind feels empty and calm again as the jet begins the descent.
When Natasha slides her hand into his, he squeezes it and lets himself smile.
Pepper is waiting for them when they get back to the Stark Industries airfield. Tony swaggers off the jet exaggeratedly, because they met like this on another airfield once and joked about the job market and neither of them really want to remember that; she moves to meet him and he dips her and kisses her extravagantly.
Clint wolf-whistles; Bruce, Nat and Thor are laughing. Bucky says something that makes Steve shout with laughter. Tony ignores them, he's got more important things to do, like keep his balance and hold her tight and taste the lemonade she's been drinking - really, really, he hates lemonade - and kiss along the curve of her smile. He's careful not to muss her hair. She hates that. When they stand up again her arm stays round his waist.
"Welcome home –“
“Allow me to introduce you to the future Mrs Stark, Sergeant Barnes,” says Tony, grinning.
The future Mrs Stark doesn’t so much as blink, which is why she’s the future Mrs Stark.
“Pepper Potts, CEO Stark Industries.”
Barnes takes her hand and smiles with easy, crooked charm. “It’s a pleasure, ma’am,” he says, all Brooklyn voice and Forties grace, even beat to Hell and near-swaying with exhaustion, pale and tear-stained, and suddenly Tony realises that the few times he’s seen Steve deliberately try to be – well, suave, usually at some party he’s been dragged to where he’s feeling awkward and out of place – the person he would imitate in an attempt to hide that was always, always Bucky Barnes.
Pepper looks at Tony. Tony looks at Pepper.
“Oh God,” she says.
“And now we’ve got two,” he says merrily.
“No,” says Natasha.
“Both of you, no.”
Barnes – puzzled but amused – opens his mouth to say something but Coulson’s regulation black SHIELD-issued James-Bond-style-enhanced car curves around the corner of the hangar just then and makes straight for them.
"Urgh," says Nat.
"You have got to be kidding me," mutters Bruce.
"I didn't realise we were in such dire need of a babysitter," says Clint.
"I did," says Steve, straight-faced.
"At least he can be counted on as a friend," Thor points out.
"Depends on your definition of the word," says Tony instantly, "it's his fault I ever had the misfortune to run into any of you people."
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," says Tasha.
Pepper rolls her eyes. “I know he does,” she says.
“You have got to be kidding me,” says Coulson. “Fury will – and excuse me for a moment ladies and gentlemen if I fall into the vernacular, but Fury will go fucking apeshit.”
“Yes,” says Steve, sounding cheerful. “I know.”
“Our common consensus is that as the tally currently stands it would appear no more than Director Fury deserves,” says Thor.
Not even Coulson can argue with that.
So Bucky Barnes moves into the Avengers Tower, and Natasha’s trips away get slightly less frequent, and then it turns out that of the lot of them he’s the only one besides Bruce who can cook, so it’s a good thing they went to get him, really.
And Tony wants it established right from the word go that this situation is not his fault, by unspoken mutual Avenger-wide consent any open doors found in the Tower are considered an invitation to enter without reservation, this became a Thing after the third or fourth time someone had wandered into Tony's lab and found him and Pepper in various stages of undress and making out, it's in the House Rules that a closed door shall not be trespassed beyond but an open one is fair game, Natasha is aware of this, so why she's not bothered to close this one while she and Barnes have the awkward state-of-their-relationship talk is beyond Tony's comprehension -
- except it's sort of not, because if she has forgotten to close the door...
This is Tasha he's talking about.
Oh wow, she loves him.
OK, so it is Tony's fault that he pauses outside the door and listens in.
"...remember all of it?"
"I think so. It's hard to tell. Yesterday Steve brought some prank up that happened when we were twelve... I didn't remember it at all, but I remembered scrubbing floors as punishment for it. That sort of thing."
"The doctors all say it'll just take time."
"Voice of experience, Widow?"
Silence for a moment. Tony should not be listening to this.
Tony needs to know if Barnes is ever going to snap, if they're going to kill each other over bad memories and brainwashing. Clint and Bruce will both understand. Thor will. Even Tasha will when she stops to think about it. Steve won't. He'll put all his faith in Bucky Barnes - in the man he considers his brother - and ignore the ugly possibilities, because anything else would be disloyal.
So it's up to Tony.
"Look," says Bucky at last. "You and Barton."
Yeah, a lot of people have wondered about that.
"Are you jealous?" Tasha sounds dry as dust, but Bucky actually laughs.
"Talia," he says. "I don't even have the - the peace of mind right now to tell you I love you."
By the sound of it, Tasha's stood up. "Well, when you do," she says, "come and find me."
"I won't -"
"Get in the way?" Tony knows that voice: it's Nat's don't-let-them-see-how-amused-I-am voice.
"Yeah, I suppose."
"Oh! You're adorable. You and Steve - gorgeous."
He doesn't answer. Tony can imagine the way Tasha's face softens, if you know what to look for; how her stance eases, her sharpness retreats.
"James, listen. If Clint taught me anything... just get your own mind back, James, before you start worrying about anything else. Let alone the state of my relationships. Your own mind, and your own memories, and something like peace, or balance at least... it's not impossible. Not even after what they did to us. I won't claim it will be easy but you have Steve, and me, and Tony, and everyone else. It takes time... it takes having a purpose, something that's worth the effort. But let me know when you find it. I'd... I'd like that."
Coming from Natasha Romanov, that is as near a promise as makes no difference. Tony hears a shift of denim on the leather sofa, a quick indrawn breath, but Barnes doesn't speak again, and Nat shuts the door behind her when she leaves the room.
Tony leans against the wall and raises his eyebrows at her.
"Love is for children, but you owe him a debt."
Nat is not surprised to see him; while there's a tightness at the corners of her mouth her eyes are calm, and he knows she does understand - would probably have called him an incautious fool if he'd left. She raises her hand from the doorknob, palm down, fingers spread, wiggles it a little. Maybe. Sort of.
"How does it work?" she asks. "Being that type of childish."
Oh boy. That really is one hell of a loop that Barnes has thrown her for, isn't it? Nat of all people ought to know how utterly unqualified Tony Stark is to answer that question. He's fairly good at the superficial relationship questions, all they are is a matter of observation and imitation - does Pepper appreciate this? If yes, repeat. If not, remove from list of possible actions - that's just science, just lab experiments, just mechanics, but this isn't just anything: a woman he respects, whose friendship he values, is asking him to tell her how falling in love works when Tony's pretty sure all he knows about it is nothing, except that Pepper makes his whole life better just by existing, and that making her happy makes him happy, and that he's hers, completely, for as long as she wants him.
"More or less the same way as being an Avenger does," says Tony, "except with more sex."
Tasha starts laughing. Then, for the first time ever, she lets him hug her.
So life goes on, and world-threatening emergencies happen, and Tony runs R&D with cheerful nonchalance and makes a lot of money and invents lots of things and occasionally forgets to close a door, and eventually Steve comes into the kitchen one evening and says, "I feel like I ought to be taking both of them outside and into an alley somewhere so I can threaten them if they hurt each other," and Clint, who has been eyeing the whole production with an indulgent air of suppressed but very present amusement, leans over the counter and puts his forehead on his crossed forearms so the sound of him laughing his ass off doesn't reach Tasha in the other room and Tony grins and says, "Weddings, I love weddings, drinks all round! Everybody raise your glass if you've got one and see me if you haven't -" and Pepper says, "Oh, Tony, save it for ours."
"In your defence," Tony says afterwards, "you were a little drunk."
Pepper turns her head into his shoulder and yawns against his skin. "Not that drunk."