Bucky, Tony had to admit, was doing a phenomenal job integrating with the team. He didn’t want to use the term reclaiming his humanity, but that’s pretty much exactly what he’d done. From the very moment they all settled under a single roof, Bucky’d been doing what Tony’s therapist would call adjusting (or maybe she’d call this one coping—whatever, he was dealing with his shit and it hardly mattered what a therapist would call it because it was awesome and good and progress). The kid had kept to himself right away, which was understandable. Tony was just kind of impressed he hadn’t gone running for the hills. Although, it made Tony twitchy to know Bucky was in the tower somewhere and he couldn’t help the poor guy, didn’t even know where to start.
On top of that, Steve had withdrawn just enough to fray his nerves down to razor edges. Not that he didn’t see Steve anymore—he still made dinner once a week and turned up to movie night religiously and went for runs and everything else that’s polite, but he’d stopped sitting in the common room for hours on end just to talk to whoever passed through. He’d stopped coming down to the workshop just to draw or bask in the holo-display or whatever it was he usually did. Tony was well and truly shocked the second night they were all back together when JARVIS informed him he’d pulled an all-nighter.
It was after Tony’s second unwitting all-nighter that Bucky finally showed up to populated space. Tony had just been ghosting through for a piece of fruit and was feeling pretty content with the idea of getting some shuteye when Bruce reeled him in with promises of omelettes and bacon and smoothies. Tony relented, mostly because someone set coffee down in front of him, and partly because it had been about twelve hours since he’d eaten anything.
“He lives!” Tony had said that first morning, nearly three weeks after Bucky’s arrival and Steve’s return. It was almost ten in the morning and, if the strangled silence that overtook the room was anything to go by, the first time any of them had seen proof of Bucky since he’d assumedly moved in. Bucky’s eyes cut to him and stayed there, level and eerie, and Tony felt a thrill of fear and an awareness for his own mortality the likes of which he should’ve been used to by then. Never one to be deterred by self-preservation (and always one to spit in fear’s face), he widened his grin and plowed on. “I’ll have you know, my doe-eyed Buckster, dear, I’d half formulated a rescue mission. I didn’t think Steve was ever gonna untie you from the bed, but I figured you two deserved the a bit of a honeymoon phase before the cavalry rolled up.”
Steve stood up so fast that his chair shot a good four feet backwards, grinding terribly across the floor the whole way. His face was just the tiniest bit red, and Tony had made Captain America blush—seriously, Tony could die now knowing he’d lived an accomplished life, this was his legacy—and his eyes were darting between Tony and Bucky like he couldn’t decide if strangling Iron Man was more or less urgent than comforting the Winter Soldier. Bucky’s eyes didn’t stray from Tony’s face. Tony, for half of a godforsaken, regretful moment, actually thought he was about to be murdered in his own home, wearing nothing but his softest sweatpants and an undershirt, but then Bucky smirked, more amused and wicked than predatory, and Tony felt his smile melt into something a tiny bit less frantic.
“Who do you think’s tyin’ who to the bed in this relationship, Stark?”
“Oh, Lord,” Steve said, utterly horrified as Tony barked in laughter. Natasha muttered something in Russian that made Bucky chuckle, and even as Steve fled the kitchen, Tony was making plans in his head to learn at least a bit of the language.
Steve had turned out to be more scared of the prospect of Tony and Bucky getting along than the idea of his and Bucky’s questionable sex life being broadcast to the team. Not that they had a questionable sex life; Tony was sure that if they had a sex life it was a healthy, not-at-all-boring one. He just wasn’t yet sure if there was a sex life at all. Yet. He was sure they would have a sex life eventually and that at some point he was bound to find out about it, and he prided himself on knowing these kinds of things.
Tony and Bucky, in fact, got along like a house on fire. At first, it was all banter and an unspoken competition to see who could get Steve to blush the hardest—which is harder than it sounds. The man might’ve been fair-skinned, but Mr. Peak of Human Perfection didn’t have the most visceral reactions. Approximately two weeks after meeting him, Tony learned that if someone can run for five hours without getting red in the face, they can probably take some embarrassment without blushing too. The disappointment had been crushing, but he’d nearly accepted the fact before Bucky came along. It was easier to get a rise out of Steve with someone around to spill all the juiciest details of his adolescent misadventures.
Tony would feel bad about the uneven playing field if his most humiliating moments weren’t all catalogued in the archives of popular media for the entire world to point and laugh at.
Despite their combined best effort, the spell broke. The spell always breaks, the shine always leaves, the charm always melts or ignites. Tony was quite used to the spark. Hell, he and Steve sent sparks flying within the first twenty minutes of meeting. Mostly now they just simmered, warm and slow, and Tony wasn’t quite sure how he got that lucky.
Bucky, surprisingly, elicited a melting response. From that first interaction, they met each other with fire and quick tongues, all facade and bravado when they spoke. But suddenly it was nighttime and nobody else was awake and Steve was off on this recon thing in Mexico and Tony found Bucky in a limp ball on the couch, and there was no fire to be had. Bucky said, “JARVIS said this is where people go when they can’t sleep, so I came here,” and it was all so quiet and his throat sounded scorched.
“Can I sit with you?” Tony asked.
“Yeah,” Bucky said on an exhale. Tony did, right next to Bucky’s head, but when he put knuckles against the back of Bucky’s neck, the man curled in on himself some more.
“Sorry,” Tony said.
“No,” Bucky said, and Tony was about to ask what he was saying no to when Bucky just groaned and flopped over onto his back. It was dramatic and expressive and Tony had to smile, just a little. Bucky was actually very good at displaying his feelings clearly in action—he glared and gave tiny smiles and smirks and huffs. It rarely meant he felt that strongly, but physical displays were easier than words, and Tony got it. The hardest thing for Bucky was to talk, and specifically to ask. Tony got that too. When Bucky settled back onto the cushions, his head in Tony’s lap, he decided not to voice his question.
“Why are you awake?” Bucky asked. He sounded cranky but curious and his voice was also good at that whenever he does talk.Tony could usually detect the undertones of what Bucky was saying, and it put Tony at ease. Call him a scientist, but he liked to know things. Machines are easier, and he didn’t want to be comparing Bucky to a machine, but he was a person who hadn’t yet relearned the art of continuous casual deception. It was a nice change of pace.
The clock on the cable box told him it was 3:54AM and Tony decided it was a fair enough question. Bucky kept his head perfectly still when Tony tucked his fingers in and rubbed.
“I finally caught up with Spiderman long enough to get his notes from him,” Tony said. “All the stuff on his webs—which isn’t all that time-sensitive, but he also gave me some samples. It deteriorates after a few hours.”
“Suddenly interested in mutant biology?” Bucky asked. His eyes were closed now but he raised an eyebrow anyway.
“That shit’s an engineering miracle,” he said. But since he was feeling incredibly honest here with his fingers slowly working through the tangles in Bucky’s hair, he also said, “It’s flexible and strong and if I could just make it not disintegrate, then there’s gotta be some way to work with it. Could just be another Dyneema, but I can tell after only a few hours with the stuff that it’s not.”
“You wanna use it in armor,” Bucky said. Tony nodded; Bucky’s eyes were open again.
“Maybe make Clint a bowstring with the stuff. Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene is nice, but it’s honestly a mouthful and obviously not perfect—I mean, people keep dying on us. There has to be something better.”
Tony was thinking about the Avengers and about Afghanistan and all the soldiers who’d gotten shot because of him because he made them fan-fucking-tastic weapons but hadn’t done half as much work as he should’ve on actually keeping them safe, and he looked down when he felt Bucky shifting. He looked concerned with his eyebrows pulled together like that, and maybe Tony should have shut the fuck up, but of course he shouldn’t have because that would really be showing his hand.
“If nobody’s in here, you know you can always come and wake one of us up,” he sad in lieu of shutting up. “We didn’t take this gig because we’re particularly picky about our beauty sleep.”
After a couple of seconds, Bucky closed his eyes again and said, “You too, Tony.”
Tony did shut up then. His heart twisted just the tiniest bit next to the arc reactor. He recalled the first time each of the Avengers called him by his first name—eidetic memory and all that, plus the fact that it was always a personal victory to get someone to even think of him as anything but Stark—but Bucky was laying in his lap, relaxed and—melted, Tony thought. Bucky’d melted here, and Tony’s spine was curving loosely against the back of the couch and he was completely unafraid of the Winter Soldier, of the man-made-weapon. He felt content and not quite terrified of that fact. Instead, he set to work untangling Bucky’s hair and anticipated the terror of vulnerability he was bound to feel when he the sun came up.
(It didn’t come. The first thing Tony was aware of was the smell of coffee, and when he opened his eyes, Bucky was literally holding a steaming mug under his nose, black with sugar, and Tony was too grateful to be terrified—at least until he could properly caffeinate.)