“Tell me you’ve had someone look at that,” Steve says, he’s only just arrived in med bay after instructing the Sokovian emergency response services.
Tony looks like he’d gone a few rounds with Natasha — without the care she usually gives him. He’s shirtless; the black fabric he’s using to press down on a civilian’s blood-spurting leg looks like it might be one of Tony’s beloved rock band t-shirts. The lack of it on Tony’s person is the only reason Steve notices the large splatters of bruising across Tony’s side.
Tony does a double-take when he sees Steve, then looks back at the civilian beside him on the floor. Despite the size of the Helicarrier and its medical bay, there just isn’t enough room for injured civilians. “Nah, I didn’t take any major hits, if we discount your Frisbee.”
Tony says it as if it’s a joke, but Steve winces. That… had not been his best moment. “Tony, I’m sorry. That was wrong of me. Listen, we need to do a quick Avengers debrief before the officials show up. . Let’s have a look at your ribs, first.”
A medic comes to relieve Tony. Steve holds out his hand, and Tony takes it, pulling himself up. There’s a red hair band around his wrist — clearly Pepper’s. It’s sweet, Steve thinks, even if he can’t help being more than a little jealous of what they have. On their way out, Steve catches sight of the goose bumps dotting Tony’s olive skin, and automatically strips his uniform jacket off. He offers it to Tony, who stares at it, and then at Steve.
Steve grins. “What, is Tony Stark too cool for the stars and stripes?”
Tony rolls his eyes and allows Steve to throw it over his shoulders. It’s too big on him, but the colours of the nation suit Tony just fine. Then again, everything suits Tony just fine. Steve slams a mental door shut in that thought’s face, and leads Tony into a quieter corner. Steve runs his hands up and down his rib cage. Tony winces, but he doesn’t fall over, and none of the bruises look or feel deep enough to be the results of internal bleeding. His fingers ghost over a blossoming bursts of blue and purple, the evidence of Steve’s shield against Tony’s vulnerable flesh.
“Is this some weird secret plan to grope me? Because seriously, you could just ask.” Tony says with a smirk. Steve pulls away suddenly, ears burning.
“Dammit. And I thought I was being sly. Guess nothing gets past you,” Steve replies, trying to hide his embarrassment. “I’m going to wrap your ribs just in case—“
“It’s a guilt thing, isn’t it?” Tony grabs his wrist. Steve freezes and looks up to face him. “You trusted the words of a couple of kids who’d switched to our side for all of five minutes over mine. And now you feel bad about it?”
Shame blooms violently hot over his cheeks. Steve busies himself with snagging a few bandages from the nearby medical cart and unrolling them. He knows he should apologise for the lack of trust he’s shown Tony. Yes, Tony was the one doing something new and dangerous, for the second time in as many days, but Steve had been the one who’d never given him a chance to explain. And yet, the moment Wanda had said those words, Steve had known them to be the gospel truth. “She said you’d do anything to make things right.”
“That’s wrong, Tony. There are lines you can’t cross.”
“And if we’re all dead because we were too afraid to cross that line? What’s the point of it all, then?” Tony asks. “I made a mistake with Ultron, I know that, that’s on me. Sokovia? The kid we’re going to have to bury? Me again. But creating the Vision was the right thing to do. We would all be dead without him.”
Wanda’s words are etched deep into Steve heart, he can’t forget it.
Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it, where do you think he gets that?
Steve’s eyes search Tony’s face, noting every small expression. Steve has watched Tony fall out of wormholes in the sky, but he’s never seen Tony look so done. Tony, who is bruised and bloody and yet still helping others before himself, and that’s when Steve realises he’s made a grave mistake.
Wanda was right. But she was also wrong.
Tony isn’t Ultron. Because Tony cares. The difference between Ultron and Tony is that Tony cares deeply and profoundly about people, no matter how much he wants to hide it behind walls of metal. The difference is that Tony realised he’d made a mistake and tried to fix it, and Ultron had always believed himself incapable of making mistakes.
Steve had failed as a leader. He hadn’t been able to trust his own teammate in battle. Tony has always evaded Steve’s understanding; Tony twists and turns him around. Every attempt at making sense of the chaos fails. But now, looking at Tony, so lost and dejected, and yet still trying to help, Steve realises: he trusts Tony. And it would seem that that’s something Tony really needs to hear.
“You’re right. I didn’t trust you before. But I do now, Tony. With my life.”
“This isn’t about your life, it’s about the world.” Tony snaps the hairband on his wrist, the action making Steve frown.
“Tony, I don’t trust anyone with the security of the whole world.” Steve pauses to look Tony in the eye, one hand on his shoulder and the other over a roll of bandages on Tony’s lower back. “Not even myself. That’s why we’re a team, Tony. Not just to work together, but to keep each other in check. That’s our responsibility.”
Steve’s never been able to read Tony, but he thinks Tony understands.
Tony’s not sure he should be here.
Clint, despite being the irritating bastard that he is, is a friend, and he had told Tony that he’s always welcome to visit. But this isn’t a visit.
It’s a funeral.
The tombstone tells him that Pietro Maximoff had died at the ripe old age of twenty-six.
Cap’s probably saying something beautiful and inspiring. Tony’s looking at him right now, but his mind’s somewhere else.
Steve had been twenty-six too, when he’d taken the plunge and given up his life for millions.
So this is what war does to people, Tony realises, turning young men and women into martyrs long before their time. This is what Starks do to people. It’s what Tony had sworn to never be a part of again, yet is what he ends up coming back to no matter how badly he wishes this isn’t his life.
“This was never my life.”
That’s what Tony had said, but the truth is, even if Tony hadn’t known about the double-dealing, it was still his name on the bombs. It hadn’t been his life because he’d been too drunk to realise otherwise.]
Tony watches, but he doesn’t sprinkle dirt on the coffin. He doesn’t deserve that right. The others head to the kitchen to talk and share a drink. There is no proper reception, when it’s just the Avengers. Tony heads to the barn to have a look at the tractor. Apparently Laura hadn’t been lying about it being broken.
Fingers twitching, Tony takes his jacket off, loosens his tie, and opens her up. There’s something incredibly soothing about ripping apart her engine to fix her back up, and Tony loses himself in the work. Then the radio’s also a bust, and Tony fixes that too, and that’s when Tony realises it’s Christmas because this isn’t just any dirty old barn.
It’s a dirty old barn full of broken tech.
Tony doesn’t know how long he’s been at it when he finally notices the sound of pencil against paper. Turning around, he finds Steve sitting on a stool to his right, sketchbook on a knee and pencil in hand. Steve stops drawing to look up at Tony.
“Welcome back,” Steve says, grinning. “I was wondering when you’d notice.”
“How long have I been at it?” Tony asks. It’s starting to get dark in here, despite the small incandescent lights that Steve must have switched on.
Steve gets back to drawing, looking up at Tony every once in a while. “Oh, a couple of hours. Thor and the Vision have headed back to Sokovia to help with clean-up.”
“You could’ve called me earlier if you wanted me to fly you back to New York.”
“Nah, there’s nothing pressing we need to do except clean up.” Steve looks up at Tony, tilting his head before getting back to sketching. “And it looked like you needed the break.”
Tony doesn’t really know what that’s supposed to mean, so he ignores it. “Are you… are you sketching me?”
“Yeah. Sorry, I should have asked,” Steve says sheepishly, sticking the pencil behind his ear and shutting his book. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Sketch away, Cap. Like I care.” Tony squashes the need to see the picture like an ant.
Before Steve can open up the book again, Laura waddles in. And he means that in a good way, because she’s honestly very beautiful, like Pepper on a summer evening, hair in a messy bun and—
Nope. Tony snaps the rubber band against his wrist. Not going there.
“Oh my God, Tony, what in the name of… did you tune the piano?”
“It’s possible.” He vaguely remembers wondering what a piano was doing in a barn.
“This belonged to my nana.”
“Don’t be! Thank you!” Laura leans over to hug him tightly, and Tony pats her awkwardly on the back. She pulls back with a smile. “Come on, boys, dinner’s on.”
“No, Laura, it’s alright, don’t let us intrude.” Steve stands up. “We need to get going anyway.”
“Steve, don’t be a moron. You’re Avengers, and that makes you family. Now go wash up. Both of you.” Laura pats him on the shoulder before waddling away.
“Clinton, I approve of your wife,” Tony says later. “She called Steve a moron.”
Dinner is quiet, no one wanting to wake up Wanda who’s cried herself to sleep in the living room. Tony’s fine with that. Not the crying part, the asleep part.
Steve gets roped into reading bedtime stories for Lila much to Clint’s amusement. Steve looks really lost, like he doesn’t know what to do with kids, which Tony thinks is hilarious. Then Steve shuts Lila’s door in his face and Tony decides to stop being a creepy stalker.
They go home with a Tupperware container full of soldier cake, which Tony’s never had before but is decidedly pretty awesome for poor people food. Tony considers setting the jet on autopilot, but then wonders what he’ll do for the next three hours other than aggravate Steve.
Steve doesn’t seem to be in a talking mood anyway. The moment they’ve reached maximum altitude, Steve curls up on the bench with his eyes closed.
It’s when they’ve landed that Tony remembers. He sees the sticker as he turns in his seat to get out, and instead freezes.
JARVIS is my co-pilot.
Not anymore, he isn’t, and God dammit that thought is so pathetically bitter. Tony shakes his head, hoping to clear his mind. Tony’s a futurist; it’s time to move forward.
Tony reaches over and scratches at one end of the sticker. When there’s enough loose for Tony to hold onto, he pulls at it rather vindictively, and ends up with an uneven half, the rest of the now illegible white paper still stuck to the wall.
Tony crumples it up in his hand, biting his lip. There’s no point in tears. He hadn’t cried when his parents had died — had been killed, a treacherous voice in his head reminds him — and he isn’t going to cry now. It was only an intelligence. An artificial intelligence. It’s not even the real Jarvis, who’s long retired and now lives with his son in New Jersey.
Move on, Anthony, a voice in his head that sounds like Obie tells him.
A heavy hand drops onto his shoulder and Tony startles. He shakes off the shoulder and stands up. “It’s fine. The sticker’s Stark-grade. I’ll need acetone.”
“Tony.” Steve’s officially blocking his way now, even if he keeps his hands to himself. “I’m sorry. I forgot. Wanda’s not the only one who lost family. JARVIS—”
“Someone explained to your 20th century brain that he’s just code, right?” Tony snaps. Of all the people, Steve’s the last one he wants to talk to about JARVIS. “JARVIS isn’t—wasn’t really a person. He was just an artificial intelligence. Now are you going to move or what? I need a shower, I smell like the Midwest.”
Steve doesn’t move. Tony turns around, walking around the chair to the other side. Tony’s nearly outside when Steve speaks from behind him. “You and I both know it’s not true. He was your child. And for what it’s worth, I am so very sorry. He was my friend. JARVIS will be terribly missed.”
Tony can’t speak, the grief in his throat choking him, so he just nods and walks away.
Good God, he needs a drink.
The smell of piss surrounds Gare du Nord, and the Soldier wonders when he can tell Dernier off for lying to him about the beauty of Paris. The Soldier stops in his tracks, nearly dropping the pastry he’d found earlier in one of the green bins.
He doesn’t know anyone named Dernier.
Barnes must have, he thinks. And then stops thinking about it before his chest starts aching again. He eats the croissant in three quick bites, pickpockets a few angry-looking people, and then heads towards a youth hostel to book himself a room. The private room and bathroom is worth the extra cash — he can’t risk hurting someone mid-nightmare. He strips, showers, and combs back his hair with his fingers.
The man in the mirror doesn’t look much like the one from the Smithsonian videos. The Soldier doesn’t feel much like the one from the Smithsonian videos, either.
Except this is what the Soldier dreams.
He dreams of a skinny boy named Steve who couldn’t breathe, but loved picking fights. He dreams of carefully stitching up Steve after things got hairy at a HYDRA base. He dreams of the whole world gone mad, and yet Steve smiling at him as if he was the brightest thing in the world.
Sometimes he dreams of killing the Captain. Other times he dreams of kissing him. It isn’t the Captain then, it’s Steve. This man is happier somehow. Sometimes, he’s a sick, frail thing with more strength that one would imagine in his bony fingers. Other times he looks as he does now, big and strong and safe. The Soldier can feel Barnes’ frustration and desire, but for the life of him he cannot tell the difference between dreams and memories.
The church bells sound around the city, telling him it’s nine am and that he doesn’t have a lot of time. There’s no point in dwelling on dreams that may or may not be memories, especially on a Sunday.
There are rules when it comes to Sundays — for one, they belong to God. There’s a muted voice, a woman’s — ma’s — telling him that, and the Soldier wonders why this of all things has remained within him.
The Soldier roots through the duffle bag, trying to find his cleanest clothes and smooths them out. He doesn’t have a suit, but this will have to do. If these are his best, that makes them his Sunday best. He locks up, takes the most important things, weapons and a full-colour brochure from the Smithsonian, and begins the walk.
The Sacre-Coeur is a twenty minute walk that the Soldier manages in ten, and there are flashes of memory here and there. He’s been here before.
A bed of blood.
He throws up in an alley, and nearly considers not going.
But it’s a Sunday.
He enters Mass with the throng of people, blending into the crowd. The bishop preaches in a soft voice, but the multitude quiets, hanging on to every spoken word. He speaks of salvation, grace, and forgiveness.
Afterwards, the Soldier lights a candle, and prays a prayer he memorised long before he ever studied the dead language, and leaves.
He has no particular destination, just one goal: destroy HYDRA. They’re evil, the Soldier gets that now. They’d used him like a knife and then hidden him away when he wasn’t needed. And when he hadn’t known the difference between either side, hadn’t been awake long enough to know anything but obedience, he’d remained an undecided party.
But that’s no longer the case.
James Buchanan Barnes had been a good man. But HYDRA had taken Barnes away and put in something much uglier. They’d made the Captain cry. Both men should mean nothing to the Soldier, a ghost and a mission, but those crimes seem unforgivable, and the Soldier wants revenge.
Public news broadcasts blast the news of Sokovia and the Avengers’ involvement. The Soldier catches one through an open window, and sees the Captain and Iron Man working together. They’re a mesmerising symphony of metal and light.
The Soldier resists the urge to go after them; they don’t need help stopping the robot. Besides, he can’t face the Captain yet. He has his own things to avenge first.
HYDRA would pay.
“The Wrecking Crew? What the fuck kind of a name is that?” Tony asks into the comms.
“Chatter,” Steve says, throwing up his shield just in time to avoid the ball-and-chain the villain is swinging about. It still sends Steve flying, and Tony catches him just in time before messily dropping him back down on the bank’s front porch. Steve looks back up anxiously, Tony’s not that inaccurate. Something must be wrong in the suit. “Thanks, Iron Man. Are you okay?”
“Just peachy, Cap.”
Steve can’t believe this is what his life’s come to. Bank heists in the middle of New York should not be causing a block’s worth of damage, but these guys mean business, and Steve’s got no one but Tony and Clint.
Still, Steve knows the value of his teammates, and there are none as strong or as smart, or as calculated. Yes, it’s the three of them against four super powered villains, and Tony may be the only heavy hitter they have, but they’ll win.
It takes them less than an hour to knock them all unconscious. When SHIELD shows up for clean-up, Steve asks to stay behind to help, but Coulson tells them they have things under control, and packs the villains into prisoner transport.
After Natasha’s data dump, the Avengers had been made aware of Coulson’s return from death. But they hadn’t actually had the chance to meet him. Tony ignores Coulson, which makes sense for Tony, and Clint’s really affectionate with him. Steve doesn’t know the man well, so he stays professional, accepts his apology for the deception and leaves Clint alone with him when he asks. Steve’s curious about a lot of things, not least of all the way Clint’s holding Coulson’s hand, but it’s not their business, so he drags an interested looking Tony back to the Quinjet to wait for him.
Shit hits the fan when they get back to the Tower and find Maria waiting for them. They head to one of the few undamaged briefing rooms. Clint drops into a seat, legs up on the table, and Tony and Steve follow. Maria doesn’t wait for debrief, she just tells them one thing: they need to expand. “We’re too vulnerable. Thor and Vision need to stay in Sokovia to help, and appease the Sokovian government, not to mention the UN. But three Avengers is not enough.”
“Two,” Clint says.
“Pardon me?” Maria asks.
“Two. Listen, I love being an Avenger. I was with Nick from the beginning. But I can’t do this anymore,” Clint turns to face Steve. “Every time I go out, I’m seeing Pietro, and I’m seeing Laura go through what Wanda’s suffering. And I can’t do this to her anymore.”
“Barton, we need you,” Maria says.
“Cap?” Clint’s looking at Steve as if he’s asking for his blessing. Steve doesn’t know how to feel about that. Clint’s older than him, has spent longer in the field than him, and it’s Steve’s he’s looking up to.
“No one’s going to make you stay if you don’t want to, Clint,” Steve says. “We’ll miss you—”
“—no we won’t,” coughs Tony, and Clint grins and flips him the bird.
“—but you’re justified in leaving.”
“Fine. I’ll have exit papers made up. If that’s been dealt with, the US government wants military representation on the team. Which means that Rhodes is going to be an Avenger.” Tony punches the air at Maria’s words and Steve smiles; Tony’s adoration of Rhodey is so poorly hidden that even Maria smiles at that. “Romanoff’s not taking my calls, but we need her back.”
“We need to find Bruce,” Steve points out.
“Tony can do that. We used his tech to keep track of him last, why does Natasha need to run around playing hide and seek? Bring her in, and bring in Sam Wilson.”
Steve’s blood turns blue at the thought. “No.”
“No. Sam’s busy. He’s on a mission and he’s not available.”
“That mission comes second to this. Finding,” Maria glances at Tony, “the soldier is important, but the world is unsafe. The next supervillain that comes after the two of you just might be the last one. So no offense, Captain, but you need to set your priorities straight and act like the leader of the Avengers.”
“Sam’s not coming back,” Steve says, standing up. He’d left Bucky behind once. Never again.
Steve makes it to his own apartment before his feet fail him, and he collapses against the wall, heaving dry sobs with his head between his knees. He can’t fail Bucky. He can’t go searching for him because of the Avengers — that was the whole reason he’d left Sam looking for him, until things calmed down enough and Steve could leave. Except he can’t on good conscience leave the Avengers the way things are.
Steve doesn’t know what to do.
Steve hears the footsteps first, and then the knocking. “Maria please, not now.”
“It’s me, actually,” Tony’s voice drifts through the door. “Can I come in?”
“It’s your house,” Steve rasps. He hates how broken he sounds. His team shouldn’t see him so weak, but he doesn’t know where or how he could rally the strength now.
“Your apartment,” Tony says. He walks in and sits on the floor beside Steve, his back lined up against the wall. “So by soldier she means Barnes, right?”
Steve turns to face Tony. If Tony knows that name, it means he’s read all the information from the data dump. It means Tony knows who had his parents killed. Steve forces the bile in his throat back down. Don’t think about Howard. Don’t think about Howard. Don’t—
“What, did you think I wouldn’t know? Hello, remember that time you convinced our resident murder queen to leak all of SHIELD-slash-HYDRA’s secrets to the world? Of course I knew.” Tony looks at his knees as if the answers to everything are written there. Maybe they are. “I get why you didn’t tell me though. I saw the files, the — the kill orders.”
“It wasn’t Bucky’s fault.” Steve fights to keeps his tone even. Tony has the right to be angry, but Steve doesn’t know what he’ll do if Tony decides to go after Bucky.
“I agree,” Tony says. Steve breathes out. Today really is a day for surprises. “What I don’t agree with is having a perfectly outstanding operative playing catch-me-if –you-can when he’s better used elsewhere.”
“You don’t even know if he’ll say yes.”
“I know I only met the guy once and we were pretty drunk, but he’ll say yes, Cap,” Tony says. “If it’s you who’s asking.”
“I can’t just leave Bucky.” Steve croaks, hating how weak he sounds. It’s not Sam’s decision he worries about, and Tony gets it.
“You won’t. I’ll look for him. Call in Natasha. I’m looking for Bruce, and I can easily add Barnes to the list.”
Steve toys with the idea for a moment. It’s one thing to trust Sam with Bucky. Sam went through hell and back for Steve, damn the consequences or the odds. And he had done it of his own volition. But Tony’s been an Avenger with Steve for nigh on three years now, it’s high time he trusts Tony, no matter how hard the man makes it.
“Okay,” Steve says. “Okay. I’ll call him in.”
“I’ll find him for you, Cap,” Tony says, then stands up. Steve nods. His feet fail him, so he decides to just stay here until after Tony leaves. At the door, Tony pauses. “You were in love with him, weren’t you?”
Steve almost smiles. Of course Tony sees through secrets he’s hidden for more than one lifetime. “I still am.”
Tony decides to let Clint fly the Quinjet to the farm one last time, though he is quick to correct Clint’s every tiny mistake while keeping an eye on his search algorithms. He might understand Clint’s choice, but he doesn’t have to be happy about it. They were bros, dammit.
Halfway through the trip, Clint rolls his eyes, and pulls off a Crazy Ivan. That shuts Tony right the fuck up. Well, it shuts Tony up about that particular topic. Because here’s the thing. Clint’s the man who is about to give up his job to be with his wife. But he’d been holding Coulson’s wrists two days ago with a tenderness only lovers share. So Tony asks in the only way he can. “So, you into zombiephilia or something?”
“Clinton Francis, don’t you what me. How come you’re being all sweet and romantic with wifey, and then holding hands with Coulson like a lovesick teenager?”
Clint gives him a scrutinising look, then laughs. “Oh God. I hate you sometimes. Zombiephilia”
“You love me. It’s okay, love triangles are so last decade. And Laura’s awesome, I doubt she would mind sharing you with me.”
“I don’t know, she already shares me with Phil.”
That stops Tony in his tracks. He’d wondered, but still. “Wait, are you serious?”
“Yeah. Is that a problem?” Clint looks him straight in the eyes.
“No. Actually eww. Yes it is. Agent Agent should not be having sex, with anyone. Ever. Gross.”
The elbow in his bruised ribs is worth it for the look on Clint’s face.
Laura is officially an actual force of nature — Thor better watch out — and drags Tony in for dinner, and then Monopoly. Losing at Monopoly hurts a lot less when he’s losing to an eight-year-old girl who’s taken to calling him Uncle Tony.
Lila’s disappointed at the lack of Steve, but decides that instead, Uncle Tony has to read her bedtime stories. Two Frozen books, something about a hungry caterpillar and a Gruffalo later, Tony tip toes out of the room and shuts the door behind him.
Wanda’s nowhere to be seen. Tony hates how relieved he is at that. He’s Iron Man, he shouldn’t be freaked out by a little girl. But every time he sees her, he sees his friends, dead or dying. He sees Steve.
Okay, enough melancholy, time to say bye and get the hell out of Hickville, but Laura and Clint are playing tonsil hockey in the kitchen. Great. Not that he wouldn’t love to interrupt Clint and embarrass them, but they need a moment together. Even emotionally stunted Tony Stark knows that.
He’s planning to just take a walk and maybe work out if cow tipping is physically possible, but when he stops, he realises he’s wandered to the gravestone.
“Oh. You.” Tony drops to the cold ground, knees complaining. “You’re a fucking idiot, kid. Why’d you go and protect Clint for? We could do without Hawkeye; he’s a smartass and he’s part of the Murder Twins.” He laughs. “And now I’m the fucking idiot, talking to you like your soul or whatever is here. I’m an atheist; the only thing I believe in is the future. I had a friend who once told me, don’t waste my life. Well, you wasted yours. Protecting freaking Clint. Idiot.”
He was just a kid who wanted to fix his mistakes. Tony’s mistakes.
Tony wipes furiously at his eyes. He hates this stupid farm; he’s getting hay fever from just being here. There’s no point in it anymore, he’s speaking to the air, and no one’s listening.
Tony walks back to the house. The little witch sits on the porch bench, and Tony nods in her direction before reaching for the front door.
“I spent half my life terrified of you, and now you’re terrified of me,” Wanda says just as Tony’s turning the door handle. Tony lets go of the door. Then, astonishingly, she laughs. “It’s funny.”
“No it isn’t.”
“A little funny.” Wanda smiles and pats the seat beside her.
Well, here goes nothing. He accepts the seat. “Is this the part when you turn my brain into mush or something?”
“I considered it.”
“Why haven’t you then?”
“You said this was never your life,” Wanda looks at her hands in her lap. “And I saw the truth. You believed it. But also you didn’t. Explain.”
How to make her understand without bringing in all the embarrassing bits? Daddy issues? No, thank you. Only Pepper and Rhodey had truly known him before he’d stopped making weapons. And he doesn’t know how to talk to someone else about it.
“You owe me at least that.” Wanda reminds him. He owes her a lot more, he thinks as he finally starts to talk.
“I was seventeen when Obie — Obadiah Stane — began running Stark Industries for me. When I turned twenty-one, I came back. But I was fine with Obie running things. For fifteen years I did what I wanted to. I made learning bots and weapons in my lab, and then I got drunk and high every night. Obie told me what he wanted me to hear, and then when I realised he was double dealing with terrorists, I stopped him. Stark doesn’t make weapons anymore.”
“So what, you never knew about it, so it’s not your fault?” Wanda asks.
“Never said that, kid. I made those weapons. I was ignorant, but that doesn’t excuse that it was Stark bombs, bombs I built, that killed your parents, or that it was Ultron, an intelligence I awakened, that killed your brother. That’s on me.”
“No. Ultron could think for himself. He killed Pietro, not you.”
“Well the rest was. The rest was my life. I just didn’t know it.”
“Ask me why I let you have the sceptre.”
“Why did you let me have the sceptre?”
“Because I saw inside your head. You were going to make things right, that’s why you made Ultron. I thought Ultron would fix everything. I let you have it.”
“And we were both wrong.”
“Yes. My parents, I blame on your ignorance. My brother,” Wanda chokes on the word. “That is on my arrogance.”
He’s not sure he should offer comfort or not, so he lays his hand between them on the bench. Wanda clutches it tightly.
They don’t speak after that, instead they just sit there. When Clint finds them at midnight, Wanda is asleep on Tony’s shoulder. He offers Tony a bed, but Tony shakes his head, pulls out his phone and gets to work. There are at least fifty e-mails from Pepper that he should reply to.
Tony feels old.
Tony’s alone when he wakes up.
The sun’s not out yet. But he stands up, groans at his aching bones. There’s a white board in the empty kitchen on which Tony leaves them a sketch of DUM-E — then makes himself a reminder to build a learning bot for the kids — and leaves.
Tony’s halfway back to New York City when his searching algorithm starts beeping.
“Sergeant Barnes has been located, sir.” FRIDAY says.
“Alright, let’s take a detour then? France it is. Oh, I could get shoes — never mind.”
“Sir, your armour is not battle ready,” FRIDAY reminds him.
“Honey, it’s a minor flight problem. We’re going after a guy with a metal arm. How bad could it be?”
The Soldier is so used to shooting and letting HYDRA ask the questions after that when he first sees a blob of red and gold at the corner of his eye, he almost empties a round into it. He’d have been justified to do that as well, considering that up until now, he’d been fighting HYDRA agents left to right.
“I’m a friendly!” the metallic voice shouts in his direction. “Stop shooting at me, and let me fucking help you!”
It’s Iron Man.
The Soldier decides to worry later about what to do about one of the Captain’s friends finding him. Instead, they work as a team. The Soldier remains silent, even as Iron Man chats and chats, and soon all the HYDRA agents are incapacitated. Their research is destroyed, and their test subjects are set free.
Afterwards, when the base is burning and Iron Man is calling in SHIELD to take over, the Soldier sneaks away. He makes it out the base gates and nearly to the getaway car he’d stolen, when Iron Man lands beside him, the suit creaking a bit before it lands, which is the only reason the Soldier even hears him from behind.
“I didn’t need your help,” the Soldier tells him, weapon aimed at the suit. He’s not sure how much damage the gun will have, but he’s not just going to stand here and let the suit take him away.
“I don’t give a shit whether you need help. I was in the mood for a French omelette, and to kick some HYDRA ass. You just happened to be here, hold on.”
The Soldier turns around and watches the suit disassemble in front of his very eyes. It reforms itself into the suit again, standing behind the man — Tony Stark. He knows who that is; the Soldier watches the news.
“Okay. There, that’s better. Fuck it’s hot in there. Temperature control broke a while ago. I’ll fix it. Okay, can you please put your gun down now? I mean, you could shoot me if you wanted to. Actually, do shoot me. I’m wearing this prototype vest and I haven’t had a chance to test it out yet.”
The Soldier lowers his gun. Tony Stark is a maniac.
“What, really?” Stark pouts. “You’re no fun. I’m Tony, by the way.”
“I know. I could kill you.”
“You could, I guess. Man, you’re really no fun.” Stark runs a hand through his hair. "Steve says my hand-to-hand is shit. I did a round with him once a couple months ago, I don’t think I’ve recovered yet. Speaking of the good Captain. Wait a second.” He pulls out his phone, keeps the burning buildings behind him, and twists the phone around. “I need a selfie. Can I tell him we met?”
“Do whatever the hell you want,” the Soldier says, still watching Stark. “Stop following me.”
“Wait.” Stark looks up mid-text. “What do I call you?”
The Captain had called him James Buchanan Barnes, Bucky. HYDRA had called him the Winter Soldier, the Asset. He’s not going to lie and be James or Bucky, but he refuses to ever be an Asset again. “Call me whatever the hell you want, Stark.”
“Okay, that’s an open invitation, how about ‘hot metal arm guy’?” Stark asks. The Soldier ignores him and walks towards his car. He’s keeping track of Stark’s movements still, because you never know. Stark seems like a harmless lunatic, but he’s seen Iron Man fight, and knows he isn’t to be taken lightly. It doesn’t matter though. If Stark tries to force him to go anywhere, the Soldier’s going to slit his throat and move along.
“So, hot metal arm guy, I’m going to go get myself an omelette. Can I treat you to one?”
“No.” The Soldier gets into his car, tries rubbing the wires together to start the ignition.
“Don’t like omelettes? How about fondue?”
Something about that sets the Soldier laughing. Fondue. Stark is watching him, his deadly weapon just feet away, but fucking hell, it’s hilarious.
“O-kay. You’re a weirdo.”
“I’m a weirdo? You took your suit off in front of a guy who was holding a gun at you.”
“So no ricocheting bullets would hit you! This is what I get for trying to be a nice guy. Pop the front, let’s see what’s wrong with your car.” Stark tells him. “Or better yet, leave the hunk of junk where it is, get in my baby, and let’s get out of here before Coulson shows up. I’m still mad he came back from the dead and didn’t tell me. We had a connection and everything.” Stark looks up. “Yep, look, they’re here. Hot metal arm guy, I’m going now. You can come or go, it’s a free country. I think.”
“Did you mess with my car?”
“Uh. No. You picked up a shitty car and now you’re blaming it on me? You’re a dick, hot metal arm guy.”
“If you don’t take me directly to the city, I will shoot you in the head,” the Soldier holds up his gun to make his point.
“Fair. Now let’s ditch this ugly outdated thing before it gives me a rash.”
Stark stays true to his word and drives him straight back to Paris. The Soldier stays true to his word and doesn’t shoot him in the head.
He does nick a couple hundred Euros, a pair of fingerless gloves, and a med kit from the car when Stark stops to get gas. After all, he never made any promises not to do that.