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When We Were Smaller

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Bucky still falls apart a lot. He can’t even predict the things that will set him off – the flutter of a woman’s scarf in the wind, the mingled smell of lemons and fried dough, the clop of horses’ hooves, the gritty feel of cheap rest station soap – but it’s been a month since he’s done any violence or even much damage during one of his episodes. Mostly, he just comes to himself wedged into the tightest corner he could find, shaking and sobbing. A couple of times, there have been people with him, concerned strangers trying to talk him through the panic attack.

Maybe, he thinks. Maybe he can come in from the cold, now that he’s more certain that he won’t try to kill anyone. He finds a public library and uses their computers to send a message: I want to go home. The cipher he uses on it is seventy-five years old, easily broken, and serves as his signature.

Five hours later, he’s in Steve’s arms and they’re both sobbing unashamedly.

Steve takes him back to Stark Tower, or Avengers Tower, it’s called now, and introduces him to the team – well, those who are in residence, anyhow. Steve tells him that Thor and Hawkeye and the Scarlet Witch are out gathering data for an important mission. Bucky nods his understanding. He used to scout ahead for the Howling Commandos, once upon a time, after all.

Iron Man, also, is absent, but that is even easier to understand, Bucky thinks, recalling with sickening clarity a brief glimpse of Howard Stark’s frightened and furious expression as his sleek black car tumbled over the side of the road.

***

There is a small boy, no older than five, sitting at the table when Bucky comes to dinner. His hair is tousled and dark and in need of a trim, but he is remarkably still and quiet for his age, only his darting eyes giving any indication of a child’s natural energy.

Bucky carefully takes the furthest seat, not wanting to frighten the child. “Who’s this?”

The Black Widow sits next to the boy, and he gives her a timid smile that she returns warmly. “This is Tony,” she says. “We’re… taking care of him for a while. Tony, this is Bucky. He hasn’t been well lately, so be nice. Don’t play any tricks on him like sneaking up on him and surprising him, okay?”

Tony nods his understanding and tucks into the plate set before him by the Iron Patriot (Bucky liked the name “War Machine” better). Tony eats quickly and quietly, speaking only when spoken to, and from watching the other Avengers’ expressions, Bucky thinks he is not the only one unsettled by Tony’s unchildlike behavior. He seems to trust the Black Widow most, accepting help when she offers it and leaning toward her when the conversation occasionally grows boisterously loud. But he always straightens again quickly, as soon as he notices, and never actually asks for help, struggling along with utensils too large for his tiny hands until she notices.

The facade cracks briefly when the Falcon asks him about a robot – a toy of Tony’s, from what Bucky can tell – and Tony’s face lights up. He begins to excitedly detail the toy’s functions and capabilities, waving his arms with vigor to demonstrate its movement. After a few moments, he hesitates and stutters to a stop, looking uncertainly around the table. The little hands suddenly tuck under Tony’s thighs, and Tony’s eyes fall to his plate. “Sorry, you’re, uh, prob'ly, prob'ly not that– I mean, that’s kinda baby stuff to you. Sorry.”

Falcon, who had been listening with apparent enjoyment, actually, looks frustrated now, and a little sad, and so do several of the others – Iron Patriot and Steve most particularly. The adults trade looks around the table. “Well, maybe after dinner you’ll show it to me,” Falcon says gently. “I’d really like to see it.”

Tony does not seem encouraged. “If you want,” he says dubiously to his plate.

The Avengers are looking at each other, clearly at a loss. Bucky wonders why Tony doesn’t believe that they like him, because they’re obviously all fond of him.

“Psst,” he hisses, before he even knows he’s going to. Tony glances up, startled, and meets Bucky’s eyes. The others are looking, too, but Bucky’s focus is on the child. “You like robots?” Tony nods, expression cautious. Bucky strips the glove off his left hand and pushes the jacket sleeve up past his wrist, exposing the mechanical arm, and holds it up, wiggling his fingers. The whirr of the servos is loud in the sudden silence.

“Bucky,” Steve breathes. He sounds choked again, but Bucky doesn’t look at him, can’t, because the boy’s eyes are round as saucers now, fixed on the glimmer of Bucky’s arm.

“Is that real?” Tony asks, and Bucky feels a sudden warmth of pride for having provoked the kid into asking a question, into natural curiosity.

“Sure is,” Bucky says, easy and smooth. “You can have a look later, if you want.”

Tony’s eyes dart up to Bucky’s, cautious and judging, and then he looks at Black Widow for – permission? No, confirmation, Bucky realizes as the Widow nods solemnly. This kid, Bucky suddenly understands, has endured a lot of broken promises already in his young life. Bucky vows, feeling the weight of eyes on him, that he won’t add another to the list.

***

The bed in Bucky’s guest room is very comfortable, probably more comfortable than any bed he’s ever had in his entire life.  Which makes it especially frustrating that he can’t sleep on it.

Finally, he gives up, throwing off the covers and standing. Steve had said Bucky could call on him any time, for any reason, but it feels wrong to interrupt Steve’s sleep for this – there’s nothing wrong, at least nothing Steve could help. Bucky pulls on a t-shirt and makes his way back to the common area, hoping to find a book or a radio or a computer – something to pass the time with until morning.

The room is dark, but there’s a small shadow leaning against the glass, face turned out toward the glittering city below. If it’s late for Bucky, it must be doubly so for a boy Tony’s age.

“Whatcha looking at?” Bucky asks softly, hoping not to frighten.

Tony startles anyway, turning to face Bucky and backing away a few steps, even though half the room is already between them. “Sorry,” he gasps. “Sorry, I didn’t– I’ll, I’ll go back to–”

“Hey, kid, calm down,” Bucky says, holding up his hands and not coming any closer. “You’re okay, you’re not in trouble. Not with me, anyway.”

Tony glances at Bucky’s left hand as it glistens in the dim light, and then looks back at Bucky’s face, measuring. He must be reassured by what he sees there, because he relaxes a little. “I couldn’t sleep,” he says plaintively.

“Me either,” Bucky says, and Tony relaxes a little more.

He eyes Bucky’s arm curiously. “How far up does it go?”

Bucky grins. “All the way up to the shoulder. You want to see?”

“Can I?”

“Sure.” Bucky turns on a lamp and sits down in the chair, laying his arm palm-side up on the arm of the chair. He doesn’t take off his shirt, because he doesn’t want to give the kid nightmares with his scars, but he pulls up the edge of the sleeve a bit to show off the shoulder, and opens the maintenance panel in his wrist.

Tony creeps closer, hypnotized. “Wow,” he breathes, peering into the maintenance space. Bucky wiggles the fingers slowly so Tony can watch the mechanism shifting inside. “That’s so cool.” Tony stretches out a finger, then snatches his hand back, eyes wide and clutching it to his chest as if it had moved without his permission. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay, you can touch it,” Bucky says. “Go ahead.” He knows enough about how his arm works that he can fix anything the boy accidentally breaks.

Tony reaches again, and stops, fingertip a hair’s breadth from the metal. “It won’t hurt you?”

Bucky’s never been asked that before, and it makes his breath catch. He wants to hug the kid, but that might be weird, so he settles for ruffling the messy dark hair with his human hand. “Nah, I can’t really feel it,” he promises. “Just be careful.”

“A’ course,” Tony says and slides his fingers over the seam almost reverently.

He’s surprisingly delicate, and shockingly clever – his questions dive straight past “how does it work” and “what’s that” and into complex queries about the tradeoffs of strength and fine manipulation, into longevity of the parts and the need for a lubricant for the moving parts that won’t adversely affect the relays and circuit boards.

While the arm is open, Bucky notes that one of the trunk wires is getting loose. Tony runs from the room, and is back a moment later with a watchmaker’s repair kit – how the kid knew where to get his hands on that, Bucky has no idea – and he watches raptly while Bucky carefully inspects the exposed metal for corrosion, then tightens the tiny screw holding the wire in place.

After Bucky seals the panel back up, he takes Tony into the kitchen and makes hot chocolate for them both, heavy on milk, a recipe for comfort and sleep. They drink it sitting on the couch, Tony curled against Bucky’s side and playing idly with his metal fingers, and half an hour later, the boy is asleep. Bucky smiles and curls his arm around the small, warm body and settles in for his role as a pillow.

It’s the first time, he realizes, that the arm has brought joy and comfort rather than destruction and fear. He hadn’t realized that was even possible.

***

Tony seems to have decided that Bucky is his new favorite, surpassing even the Black– Romanov and Rhodes, the two former favorites. In fact, three days later, Rhodes departs to aid the others in their search; apparently the needed data is proving elusive. Bucky doesn’t ask; he’s grateful the Avengers have welcomed him to their home, but doesn’t fool himself that he’s part of the team.

Bucky’s attention is mostly swallowed by Tony, anyway. Steve says something to Bucky about their youth, babysitting Bucky’s younger siblings, but this isn’t like that. Bucky remembers caring for his brother and sisters from a sense of duty, tinged with frustration and annoyance – he loved them, of course, but mostly he remembers thinking that they were in his way.

Tony is not at all in Bucky’s way; in fact, Bucky finds him fascinating. He’s far smarter than the average five-year-old – hell, he’s smarter than some of the adults Bucky knew in the Army. Bucky loves listening to him explain things, even things Bucky already knows, just because the kid’s point of view is so unique. He carries K-8, his robot toy, with him everywhere, like a normal kid would carry a doll or a blanket – it’s about the size of a small housecat, and Tony built it himself. His reserve evaporates like mist in the morning sun after that first night, and he’s revealed to be cheerful and affectionate and surprisingly tactile. Bucky, who hasn’t been kindly touched outside of medical necessity, can’t seem to get enough of the boy’s clinging and clambering.

About two weeks after Bucky’s return, Steve takes him aside one day after lunch. “Thor’s coming back this afternoon,” he says softly, “and he’s bringing a couple of experts who might be able to help us. But I’d rather Tony not… He’s so shy, and Asgardians are loud, even when they’re all in agreement. It would be helpful if you’d take Tony to the park or something for a couple of hours while we talk to them.”

Bucky wonders if Steve just wants them out of the way so they can discuss classified mission details, but he doesn’t ask. It doesn’t really matter, either way. Steve helps him pack a bag with snacks and juice and K-8, and gives Bucky directions to the nearest park, only a few blocks away.

The park is small, but it’s not heavily populated, which Bucky appreciates for several reasons. Tony eschews the playground equipment and instead starts constructing something out of rocks and leaves. Bucky watches, amused, until a chill runs down his spine that says his subconscious has registered an anomaly. He looks around with narrowed eyes and almost immediately spots the van that’s driven past three times now. “Tony.” He stands, deliberately placing himself between Tony and the street. “It’s time to go.”

Tony looks up at the sharp tone in Bucky’s voice. “Is something wrong?”

Bucky knows he should say something reassuring, but he can’t. There’s a sharp pain in his neck and everything is blurring. The last thing he sees is the suddenly alarmed expression on Tony’s small face and the ground rushing up to meet– black.

***

When Bucky comes to, they’re in a cell. His head hurts like nobody’s business, and his shoulders ache because his wrists have been lashed together behind his back. He’s not naked, but he’s been stripped down to his boxers and undershirt.

Tony is huddled into the corner furthest from the door. He’s not crying, but his eyes are wide and wet and his breathing is far too fast. He’s clutching his robot to his chest.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around, though. “Tony?” he whispers, rolling onto his side and sitting up on the hard concrete floor.

Tony gasps and crawls over to him in a three-limbed scramble, one arm refusing to drop K-8. “Bucky! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t–”

“Hey now, hey, take a breath, Tony, okay? This isn’t your fault.” Bucky tugs on his bindings, but they don’t break. Worse, there’s a loop around his neck that he hadn’t noticed before, and it tightens. That’s not rope, it’s steel cable. He probably could break it with the metal arm, but he’d break his real arm in the process, if he didn’t choke to death first. “Shit.”

Tears are running down Tony’s face now, and he’s biting his lip to keep from sobbing.

“Tony, hey, kiddo, you’re gonna be okay, I promise,” Bucky says. He forces himself to relax so the loop on his neck eases up. “I promise. Okay?” Tony sniffs and nods. It’s shaky, but Bucky will take it. “You think you can get me untied?”

Tony shakes his head without even looking. “They said if you got loose then they were gonna have to kill you,” he whispers. “They almost shot you at the park, right in the head. They only didn’t ‘cause I made a fuss and they were in a hurry.” Another few tears spill down Tony’s cheeks. “I thought they’d just leave you, but they brought you too. It’s my fault. I’m sorry, Bucky, I didn’t know they’d bring you too! I’m sorry, I am! I’m sorry!”

“Hey, Tony, hey, c'mon.” Damn it, Bucky wants to pull the kid into a hug, and he can’t move his arms. “You did exactly right, okay? I’m glad they brought me. I’d hate to think of you having to go through this all alone. Anyway, better captive than dead, right?” He babbles until Tony manages to catch his breath and stop crying again.

Finally, Tony calms down a little, and Bucky says, “All right, so I can’t get free right now, but at least you’re okay. We just have to hang tight for a while, and pretty soon Steve and the others will come and get us. Okay? You know who Steve is, right?”

Tony nods. “Capt'n America,” he whispers. “Do… do you think he’ll come?”

“Of course he will,” Bucky says, and he doesn’t doubt it in the slightest. “Why wouldn’t he?”

Tony shrugs, not looking at him. “Capt'n America is important,” he says.

Jesus Christ, if Bucky ever finds out who taught this kid that he wasn’t important, Bucky is going to sock the asshole in the jaw. With the metal fist. “You’re important, too,” Bucky says firmly, which is the best he can do for now.

Tony looks doubtful, but he doesn’t argue. He leans against Bucky’s legs, which Bucky finds more comforting than it probably should be.

They’re quiet for a while, long enough for Bucky to feel the ache in his shoulders and neck from the awkward strain. He’s had worse, though. Eventually, Tony says, “Wish I had my toolkit.”

“Planning some more upgrades for K-8?”

Tony shakes his head. “There’s a little radio transmitter in his head,” Tony says absently. “I was gonna make it so he could talk to– uh. Anyway, if I had my toolkit, I could boost the signal enough to get through to a local police band. I don’t think we’re actually out of New York, or at least not very far. But the batteries in K-8 aren’t strong enough for that kind of boost. I need another power supply.”

“You need a power supply?” Bucky said, mind racing. “What else?”

“Uh, a little extra wire would be good, but I could strip that out of the body.”

“Okay.”

“Huh?”

Bucky grins, and twists his metal arm in its binding. “Arm’s got about six separate power supplies in it,” he says. “If you can reach one of the maintenance panels, you can pry a couple out.”

“But then you won’t be able to use your arm!” Tony draws back a little, looking frightened.

“I can’t use it anyway, as long as I’m tied up like this,” Bucky points out. “See if you can reach the wrist panel, if the cable isn’t covering it up; the fingers draw more power than anything else but the shoulder.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” Bucky twists his arm a little further. “Can you reach it?”

“Y…yeah. Yeah, I think so.” There’s a soft whirr that makes Bucky’s stomach churn from association. He reminds himself that this isn’t maintenance. It’s not Hydra, it’s Tony, and it’s to speed their rescue.

He can’t feel pain in the arm itself, but when the power supply comes out, there’s a warning jolt that shoots up the arm to resonate in the stump of his shoulder, and it feels like the most intense case of pins and needles of his life. He grits his teeth and hopes it will fade after a few minutes. “Take wire, too, if you need it,” he says. Tony looks at him sidelong, judging, then nods. Bucky feels a tug when Tony yanks out the wire, but thankfully, no new alarms or warnings.

Tony glances at the heavy steel door to the cell, then scoops up K-8 and scoots around so Bucky’s body is between him and the door. “If I sit like this, do you think they’ll think I’m just being a crybaby?” he asks.

Bucky checks the angle of Tony’s body and the hunch of his little shoulders. “Yeah, probably,” he says. “Hey, Tony?”

“Yeah?” Tony is chewing on his lip as he tries to loosen a screw on K-8’s chassis barehanded.

“You’re a smart kid. I’m proud to know you.”

Tony looks at Bucky for a long moment, his face so still that Bucky hasn’t the slightest idea what’s going on in his head. Finally, he draws a deep breath and says, “It’s not a smart idea unless it works,” and bends back to the task at hand.

Metal fist, Bucky thinks. Right to the jaw.

***

There’s no way to know whether Tony’s modifications to K-8 are actually successful. The radio does appear to be transmitting, but they can’t tell if the boost from Bucky’s power cell is enough to get the signal through the concrete and steel walls that surround them, not to mention whatever is surrounding their cell itself.

An hour after Tony finished putting the toy back together, a slot in the door opens and a tray of food – it looks like canned stew – slides in. It’s barely enough for Tony; nowhere near enough for Bucky. Tony insists on sharing it anyway. Bucky makes up a lie about his serum reducing the amount of food he needs and pretends to be satisfied after a couple of mouthfuls. For a miracle, Tony buys it – the kid obviously hasn’t been paying attention to how much Bucky eats at mealtimes.

Nothing else happens for a while. Tony, exhausted, eventually curls against Bucky’s side and falls asleep.

Bucky is nearly on the verge of dozing off himself when a vibration through the floor jolts him awake. And then another. He lays his ear against the floor, and manages to pick up the faintest roaring sound. Another vibration shakes the ground, harder now. Bucky glances up at the ventilation grate. There’s no proof that their captors are able to gas the cell, but he’d rather not take that chance.

“Tony. Tony, sweetheart, wake up. Tony!”

Tony stirs sleepily, then snaps upright in sudden fear.

“Tony, I’m right here. I need you to untie me now, Tony,” Bucky says. Reassuring-but-urgent is a hard line to walk.

“They’ll kill you,” Tony says, shaking his head so hard his face is a blur.

“They’re all already busy,” Bucky says. Another mini-quake. “Feel that? I’m pretty sure that’s our rescue party. Untie me, and let’s go meet them.”

Tony nods obediently, and yanks at the ropes. “I can’t,” he whimpers. “It’s too tight!”

“Okay. It’s okay, we’ll manage somehow.” Bucky rolls onto his knees and stands. “Get back against the far wall.” Tony does, eyes wide with fear and– anticipation? It’s hard to read, but Bucky doesn’t think there’s time to sort it out. He nods, then turns toward the heavy steel door.

He kicks once, and it does no more than rattle in its frame.

He kicks again, leaving a small dent. His heel aches, bone-deep, from the force of the impact.

Bucky thinks about their captors, the possibility that they’d rather kill the prisoners than let them be rescued, and looks again at Tony’s wide, trusting eyes. He turns back to the door, grits his teeth and balls his fists behind him, and kicks. The door flies open, bounces against its hinges, and swings back, but before it can close again, Bucky’s put his body in the gap.

There are no guards in the long hallway. There are probably cameras, but if someone is watching those, they’re already screwed. “Come on, Tony,” Bucky hisses. “Stay behind me, you understand?”

“I understand.”

“Good.” Bucky edges down the hallway carefully. His foot hurts, but he doesn’t think any of the bones are broken. Doesn’t matter if they are; there’s no stopping now. The other cell doors are closed and windowless, like theirs; Bucky cannot tell whether they are occupied. There’s another quake, definitely bigger this time, and he can hear the roar even above his own harsh breathing. The lights flicker, and Tony’s breath stutters. Christ, if the boy panics now… “You’re doing so well, Tony,” Bucky whispers. “I’m so proud. You’re being so brave.”

“I am?”

“As brave as Captain America,” Bucky says.

“No one’s that brave,” Tony says.

“You are,” Bucky promises, creeping up on the door at the end of the hall. “He’ll tell you himself, as soon as we get out of here. I mean it.” He hears the explosion, this time, before the floor shakes. On the other side of the door, Bucky can hear muffled voices raised in alarm. “Okay, I’m going to go through this door. I want you to stay right here until I tell you it’s safe, you got it?”

“Do I have to?”

“Stay here, and don’t look,” Bucky reiterates.

Tony drags in a shaky breath. “Okay,” he says on the exhale. “Be careful.”

Bucky flashes him a grin, and then kicks the door open. This one goes easier than the cell door, thank goodness.

There are six guards. Three of them are clustered around a bank of monitors, and the other three are dragging furniture to barricade the other door on the far side of the room. Idiots, Bucky thinks in the split-second as they turn to face him. Do they think a few extra cabinets and desks is going to stop Captain America or any of the Avengers?

Six guards would barely be worth thinking about if he was wearing his armor and had the use of his arms. With his hands bound together behind him and wearing nothing but his underwear… it’s going to be dicey.

Tony is behind him, waiting. Failure is not an option.

For an instant, he wishes he could turn back into the Winter Soldier. The Soldier would have faced these odds without flinching.

He doesn’t have time to flinch; two guards are already drawing a bead on him. He kicks out to the side, knocking the nearest guard on the monitors into the other two. While they disentangle themselves, he flips across the room. It’s harder to do without the counterbalance of his hands, and a bullet pings off his metal shoulder. He knees one man in the groin, and again in his face when he instinctively curls around the injury.

He shoulders that man into the next, but the guard side-steps, trying to bring his rifle into line. Rifles are slow and clumsy for close-in work; Bucky head-butts that man in the face, fragile nose and eye socket collapsing under the force of Bucky’s thick skull. Steve will never let him hear the end of it.

The guards at the monitors have drawn their side-arms now, and those are much more nimble. Bucky leaps back across the room and spins into a roundhouse kick that manages to knock one out and another over. The crack of a shot is deafening in this small space, and a spike of pain erupts in Bucky’s side. It’s not near anything critical, though, so he ignores it to kick the fallen guard in the head. Two guards left. He ducks and rolls, not daring to stand still long enough to present a target.

Another explosion roars, and the quake this time is strong enough to send the two remaining guards staggering for their balance. Bucky, already on the floor, sweeps the nearer one off his feet and then kicks him in the face. One left.

The barricaded door explodes inward and a monster bursts into the room, roaring in fury. Oh, shit, that’s not Steve, that’s the Hulk.

Tony screams in terror, and the monster turns toward the sound with a grunt, dark eyes narrowing.

No! Bucky dives for the doorway, intent on keeping the creature from Tony. The guard fires, and the bullets glance off the Hulk’s hide. Two of them ricochet into Bucky. His hide isn’t so tough, but he plants his feet. The Hulk is turning to face the guard. “Get back, Tony,” he snaps, keeping his eyes on the Hulk. Those bullets weren’t standard slugs, he realizes, and the world is swimming again–

Black.

***

Bucky is practically an expert at waking up in unknown circumstances, at this point.

There’s a mattress of some sort under him, which is a nice change from the last time. And his arms are no longer twisted unnaturally behind him. The antiseptic smell and quiet hum of machinery suggests he’s in some sort of medical facility. Maybe that’s good, because every breath hurts, and he can feel the pull of skin that means he’s been shot, several times over. He can hear someone breathing in the room with him, but it’s slow and steady: sleeping. If they’re a guard, they’re a bad one.

Bucky cracks a cautious eyelid. That’s Steve in the chair across from the bed; there’s no mistaking those shoulders or that halo of blond hair. Steve is slumped and dozing.

Bucky takes a slightly deeper breath, feeling his skin ache and stretch around the wounds, but there aren’t any catches in his lungs, or the sudden tight knot under his skin that means there’s still pieces of bullet inside. They must have cleared it all out while he was under. That’s a relief.

“Steve?”

Steve snaps awake and is at Bucky’s bedside in an instant. “You’re awake!”

“I know that, dumbass,” Bucky grouses. “Tell me something new.”

Steve grins and doesn’t even try to hide the way his eyes are filling with tears. “The Hulk likes you, apparently.”

“In that he didn’t stomp me into paste while I was out?”

“In that he carried your sorry ass back out of the compound and wouldn’t let anyone else touch you. Not even me.”

“I’m not sure if I’m sorry to have missed that, or relieved,” Bucky admits. “Is the kid okay?”

“What?”

“Tony,” Bucky says. “How’s Tony?”

“Oh,” Steve says. He gets up and crosses the room to pour a glass of water from a pitcher. “Tony’s just fine. He says you were a real hero, in there.”

Bucky carefully shuffled into a sitting position, and took the glass. “Ah, he’s seeing it all through rose-colored glasses,” Bucky says. “Kids say all kinds of stuff. He’s the real hero. He knocked together that signal–” Belatedly, Bucky realizes that his mechanical arm is fully functional. He twists the wrists and wiggles the fingers. “Did he put me back together while I was out?”

Steve grins. “Sure did. He’s got some ideas for improvements, too, but I told him that had to wait until you were awake again.”

“That’s because you are a stick in the mud, Steven,” a new voice says. A man strolls into the room, smirking at Steve. “But I’m told that our patient is finally awake, so improvement may commence!” He turns to Bucky and winks.

Bucky nearly chokes on his breath; the man is gorgeous, not tall but well-built, wiry and well-groomed, moving with confidence in his own skin. There’s a circle of light in the center of his chest, shining right through his shirt, and Bucky would be curious about that except that his smile is even brighter, and seems to promise all sorts of things that Bucky never even knew he wanted.

“Did you have JARVIS monitoring the whole time?” Steve demands.

“Of course I did, Goldilocks. What’s the use of an omnipresent AI if you’re not going to take advantage of it to spy creepily on your friends?” The man turns his grin on Steve, but pushes forward to stand by Bucky’s bedside. “How are you feeling?” he asks, suddenly serious, as if Bucky’s health is important.

“…Like I got shot,” Bucky says. “Who are you?”

The man looks startled, and then, impossibly, hurt, though he covers that quickly with another smile, this one wider but somehow less bright than the first. “I’m the ex-four-year-old you’ve been spending all your time with these last few weeks,” he says with nonchalance that Bucky is entirely certain is false.

Bucky blinks, and then stares. “You’re Tony?” he demands. “But you–”

Tony’s head cocks to the side. “Did no one tell you that I’d been reduced to childhood?” he asks. “How long was it? Two weeks, three? God, I hate magic; I remember everything, but the timeline is muddled.”

“Three weeks since you were, ah, de-aged,” Steve agrees. “Though Bucky came home four or five days after that.”

A spark lights behind Bucky’s eyes. “You’re Tony Stark,” he chokes. “You’re Iron Man.”

Tony grins at Steve. “See?” he says. “Totally the most popular–”

“Tony,” Steve says sternly, but Bucky recognizes that fond tone. “It’s not a popularity contest.”

“Says you,” Tony says. He tips his head the other way, examining Bucky curiously. “You really didn’t know it was me?”

“I really didn’t,” Bucky says. He feels dazed, like someone hit him in the back of the head with a board. “I’m, I’m sorry.”

“What on earth are you sorry for?” Tony says. “I kept you up all night and turned you into my own personal teddy bear and bored you to pieces talking about my obsessive adoration for robots. You were, you were fantastic.” He throws his arms up and paces around the small space the hospital room has to offer. “You took care of me and pulled me back together when I was freaking out about the kidnapping.” He whirls on Steve. “No laughing; I was four, I think I was allowed a little panic–”

Steve holds up his hands defensively. “I’m not laughing.”

“And you!” Tony is back to pointing at Bucky. “It’s like someone gave you a Guide to Tony Stark’s Psyche, I swear, with the ego-petting and the praise and the… the, Christ, you told me I was as brave as Captain America, for fuck’s sake, it’s like I had a huge red flashing button on my forehead.” He covers his face with his hand. “Oh, shit, I’m never living that down.”

“Tony,” Steve says. He puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder, and even through the daze and pain, Bucky can see Tony stiffen, but Steve doesn’t let go. “You were brave. You have always been brave. I’ve never doubted that.” He squeezes Tony’s shoulder, then releases him. “I’m going to go tell the others, since they don’t have JARVIS spying for them.”

“Steve,” Bucky tries, sudden panic clogging his throat. “I–”

Steve leans over and squeezes Bucky’s arm as well. “I’m glad you’re okay, Buck. Try to get some rest. I’ll be back soon.”

Don’t leave me with this Tony, Bucky wants to protest. This Tony is handsome and funny and caring and generous and has every reason to hate me… But Steve is already gone.

Tony leans his thigh against the frame of Bucky’s bed and crosses his arms with a sigh. “Well. Nice to be able to welcome you aboard officially, now that I’m back to myself,” he says.

“I really am sorry,” Bucky tells his hands, folded in his lap. “I swear I didn’t know it was you. I wasn’t trying to, to influence you, or befriend you under false pretenses, or–”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Sparky,” Tony says. “Where’s this coming from? What’s wrong?”

Bucky doesn’t look at him. Can’t answer. He spreads his hands helplessly, and finds himself looking at the metal hand. The hand that he let the child Tony disable. That the restored Tony, apparently, fixed. Why? A sense of fair play, perhaps.

Tony’s hand appears in his vision, cupping the metal one, closing around it and turning it over. “This is about the Winter Soldier, isn’t it?”

Bucky flinches. “Tony– Mr. Stark, I–”

“Bucky.”

Bucky can’t help but look up at that bereft tone. He’s not sure what he’ll see, but warmth and concern are a surprise. “I’m sorry,” he says again, helplessly.

Tony looks at Bucky for a long moment in silence. Tony doesn’t, as Steve always does, leap to assure him that he’s blameless for the Winter Soldier’s atrocities. But Tony holds Bucky’s gaze until tears well in his eyes from the strain. Finally, Tony nods, once. “I understand,” he says. “It’s done.”

Bucky swallows hard, and Tony’s grip tightens on his hand. “I would change it if I could,” Bucky says.

Tony nods. “I know. I have my own past to live down. I know. But the man who was Hydra’s weapon is not the same man who befriended that child. That man was patient, and kind, and gentle. And trust me, I am well aware that I was not an easy child to get along with.”

Bucky huffs in sudden understanding. “Howard, you ass,” he growls. He closes his metal fingers carefully around Tony’s. “You were a great kid,” he says, as sincerely as he knows how.

Tony almost flinches, barely a twitch, and then smiles, and it’s back to the bright and beautiful smile he’d shown when he first arrived, the one that makes Bucky’s heart trip. “You’re a good friend,” he says.

Bucky takes a quick breath, and feels suddenly lighter. “Tony, I… Thank you.” He smiles into those warm eyes. “I told you Captain America would be proud.”

Tony sputters, and laughs helplessly. “Why did I let you into my Tower, again?”

Bucky grins. “You’re a smart guy, I’m sure you’ll figure it out eventually.”