“You did what?”
Tony stops at the voice. He knows he shouldn’t technically be in this part of the compound, shouldn’t know that T’challa is harboring Barnes and the rest of the—not the Avengers, not any more. The…whatever they are. But he couldn’t face trying to sleep, not with his nightmares coming back with a vengeance, only this time it’s not just dust and dirty water, the portal and the sucking void, it’s falling and when he finally opens his eyes on the ground it’s to Steve’s face and the shield coming down, over and over. He knows it’s a problem—he needs to sleep, especially with Ross on his back and himself running all over the globe trying to wrestle the Accords into something acceptable—but the last time this happened, the whole PTSD-nightmares-and-panic-attacks thing, well, that had just gone so well, hadn’t it? So since he doesn’t have a workshop here to hide in, he’s wandering the compound of the royal family of Wakanda. He is technically their guest.
“Jesus, Mary Mother of God.” Barnes sounds weary, and Tony can imagine him pinching at the bridge of his nose.
“Buck—” Steve cuts off with a yelp, and Tony edges forwards. Through the open door he can see Barnes, evidently having just smacked Steve upside the head, now pinching his ear, hard enough that Steve is leaning over slightly to try to alleviate the pain.
“Steven Grant Rogers, you mighta been born about a hundred years ago but you are obviously still a child. You never did know when to stay out of a fight, but this ain’t back alley scuffles anymore. You think just because you have a museum exhibit and a fancy uniform, you can take on a hundred and seventeen countries? You went to art school. We’re not fighting the war anymore, Steve. There is no great enemy that’ll give you the license to waltz into any country you like and do as you please just because you think you’re right. That’s over with, and you gotta get that through your thick head. God knows I’ve been tryna do the same. So if you want me to stay outta cryo and go to therapy, then you’re going too.”
“Ow, Bucky. You didn’t see, though, some of the things that were in there. They weren’t treating us like humans—”
“I know that. Which is why you are going to sit down like a civilized adult with those politicians and fix them. You can’t solve every problem by hitting it with a goddamn shield.”
Tony’s jaw is hanging open.
“I couldn’t let them kill you,” Steve pleads.
Barnes looks away from him, the expression on his face painfully familiar. “That’s not the point. And anyway, I can take care of myself.”
Then he sees Tony hanging around by the door, and Tony has a moment of blind panic. “You are also going to apologize to Stark,” he says, loud enough that Tony knows he means right now. He stays frozen to the spot as Barnes drags Steve over to the door before letting go of his ear.
Steve straightens, rubbing at the side of his head, and blinks at him. “Tony,” he says, as if he’s surprised Tony is here, like he didn’t think Tony would actually go through with working to change the Accords like he’d said they should right at the beginning. A bitter taste rises at the back of his throat, but his heart is also pounding fast enough to run right out of his chest, and he tries not to remember Steve slamming the shield down right over it.
“Steve,” he chokes out.
Barnes has his one hand on his hip, face set and staring Steve down. There’s no getting out of this for him, and Tony’s feet are still stuck to the floor.
Steve scrubs his hand through the back of his hair. “Look, I… I’m sorry. About what happened. I wish it hadn’t had to end like that. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about your parents. I thought I was sparing you, but I guess I was really sparing myself. I hope you—”
Barnes smacks him. “Don’t finish that.” Then he turns to Tony. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have let it go as far as it did. I understand if you don’t want to have anything to do with me after this.”
It takes a moment for Tony to get his throat to form sound again, and when it does it’s pathetically bare, without any of his usual brash confidence. “I guess I should also apologize—”
“I don’t accept,” Barnes says loudly, talking over him.
Tony nearly flinches. He’s exhausted, and suddenly on the verge of tears.
“I don’t accept because you’ve got nothing to apologize for. Not to us, anyway. Maybe to that spider kid for getting him involved in a fight with trained professionals twice his age.” He smacks Steve again.
“Ow, hey, what was that for?”
“That’s for dropping a jetway on said kid.”
Bizarrely, hysterically, Tony wants to laugh.
Steve really does start coming to Tony’s meetings in Wakanda about the Accords. They agree on a lot of what needs to be changed, if not always how and to what degree. Tony leaves it to T’challa and the others to argue Steve down as to how much global political leaders are willing to allow. He tries not to talk much to Steve at all, keeps himself on the opposite side of the room, avoids him before and after the meetings. He doesn’t think he could handle being in a room alone with him. The worst part about it is that they actually get things done. Sometimes it takes a day or two before Steve grudgingly backs down to a compromise, and Tony thinks that that’s probably thanks to Barnes’ influence behind the scenes or else the therapy, but they do make progress politically. Personally, Tony is still scared of Steve, spends the meetings struggling through the signs of an impending panic attack and the time afterward actually panicking. He can hear Howard’s voice sneering at him about it. Stop crying. Stark men are made of iron.
He doesn’t see Barnes at all. But after a couple of weeks, he musters up the effort to contact the Royal Science Institute of Wakanda to make sure the electricals in his arm had been capped off properly so that they weren’t sending bad data to his brain. He’d picked up the rest of the metal appendage along with the shield when he’d finally been rescued from Siberia. The virtuosic engineering and some morbid desire to have both of the things that had nearly killed him made him keep it. Now, slowly, when he’s in the right sort of sleeplessly fatalistic mood, he starts to pick it apart, reverse engineer it. It really is an incredible piece of biotech, although Tony doesn’t want to think about the procedures that must have gone into attaching it. He doesn’t want to sympathize with Barnes. And anyway it’s easier not to think about the arm as a once-living piece of a person, to just view it as a piece of technology. When he gets the electrical hookups to fire in the right pattern to close the hand into a fist, he has to rush into the bathroom to throw up.
Once he’s completely disassembled and reassembled the arm, once he has an intimate and exact understanding of how it works, the natural next step is to build his own. That’s always been what he’s done. Take stuff apart and then improve it, make a better version because he can. It remains an academic exercise until he has a completed prosthetic sitting on his worktable, made with lightweight titanium alloy plating and carbon fiber microelectrodes. Then he’s not sure what he’s going to do with it. Scrapping it completely is out of the question. To put off having to deal with it, he asks Pepper why Stark Industries doesn’t already have a line of prosthetics. When she informs him that they do, actually, he sends his notes off to the relevant department with the demand that they use them to revolutionize the field. Then he scrapes together what information he can get from the HYDRA info-dump and the Wakandan scientists about the implants in Barnes’ shoulder, and goes about adding on parts to the arm he’s got so that it could be installed as a functional replacement. Purely hypothetically, of course. If he also happens to find out that Barnes has so far declined other prosthetics, that’s his own business. It’s not like he has a reason to be in Wakanda anymore anyway, now that the Accords meetings there have finished up.
And then, all of a sudden, he does. The Accords have been finalized and ratified, and all the trials have gone through, and the Wakandan fugitives can go home. Tony wonders if they’ll appreciate how much work and money both he and T’challa had put in to make sure they could, or if all they’ll see is the conditions. In the end he doesn’t go to Wakanda, lets them find out the news another way. He keeps track of them anyway. Lang and Clint have their families, but Sam also goes home. Wanda goes to live with the Bartons. Tony hadn’t lived in the New Avengers Facility except in the weeks after the whole…thing so he could help Rhodey, but the empty buildings where they used to be had made him miserable, so Rhodey had eventually moved himself into the Tower for Tony. Which was still not great with the Avengers and the guilt and the hurt in his mind, but it was better. With nowhere else to go Vision had accompanied them, but now he moves out to join Wanda. That leaves Steve and Barnes, who rent an apartment in Brooklyn. Sometimes Tony thinks it would be easier if he could just let them all go. At least maybe he wouldn’t be reminded of how alone he is.
When he does finally contact Barnes, it’s in a fit of pique. That arm’s been sitting in his workshopp for months, and he’s tired of seeing it. He leaves a voicemail, only slightly drunk, late at night. To his surprise, Barnes texts back. He arrives in person three days later. Tony hadn’t been sure what he was going to do when Barnes got there until he saw the feed from the security camera at the front desk. He’s dressed in a battered jacket and jeans, with a Cubs hat pulled low on his head. With the missing arm he looks like any scruffy veteran who could have walked in from the street. He’d even come in from the entrance to Grand Central underneath the Tower, probably took the subway. Tony gives the go-ahead to send him up to the lab.
They stand in awkward, uncomfortable silence while Barnes stares at his old arm, a complicated mix of emotions on his face. He reaches several times as if to touch it, but never does. Finally, he turns to Tony’s model.
“You made this?”
“Yeah. Uh, it’s titanium alloy, light enough not to strain your shoulder and back like the other one. I improved the inner mechanisms too, not that you’re probably interested in all the details. There’s also a covering, synthetic, that’ll make it look like a regular arm and not, you know, metal. That’s optional.”
“Why are you showing this to me?”
“I told you it’s been sitting around and I’m tired of it. It’s yours if you want it.”
Barnes looks directly at him then for the first time, deeply conflicted. He looks like he wants to say yes, but what he actually says is, “I don’t do so well with doctors these days.”
Tony will never know why he let the words slip out of his mouth, it’s not like he needs more self-flagellation, but he offers, “I could install it for you. Just promise me you won’t try to kill me with it.”
It’s the wrong thing to say. The air between them is suddenly thick and heavy, viscous in his throat and heavy in his lungs. Barnes’ eyes cut away.
“I don’t… I don’t do that anymore. I’m trying…not to do that anymore.”
The words are bitter on his tongue, but he can’t stop. “Yeah, how’s that working out for you.”
Surprisingly, Barnes’ voice is also bitter when he mutters, “It’d be better if I wasn’t living with Steve.”
Tony blinks. “Wait, what?”
Barnes rolls his eyes, glancing back at him before he goes back to staring at the corner of a workbench. “Steve wouldn’t be Steve if he wasn’t a stubborn asshole who doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. The day he passes up a fight is the day he dies. Me, I haven’t been okay since I was captured in fucking 1943. I just want it all to stop.”
Tony’s hand goes up to tap at his sternum, a habit he hasn’t had for years now. “Yeah, I get that.”
Silence descends again as Tony attaches the new prosthetic. There’s nothing he can do about the socket or the plating in the shoulder, so those stay as they are. They’d require surgery anyway, and Tony doesn’t think Barnes would go for that any time soon. Barnes watches him intently the entire time, and Tony tries to go as quickly and painlessly as possible. He can’t help glancing up repeatedly, though. From this distance, he finds himself resenting Barnes’ stupid pretty face.
“What do you want me to do with the old one?” he asks when he’s done as Barnes is carefully rolling his shoulder, flexing the fingers on his new left hand.
“Alright.” Tony stands, intending to take the old prosthetic to the junk pile, but doesn’t make it farther than that.
Barnes is looking steadily up at him, face inscrutable. Just when Tony’s about to say something because it’s starting to get uncomfortable, he asks, “Do you ever wish things had been different?”
“All the time.”
“Bad question. Do you ever wish we had met differently?”
Tony looks back at the stupid pretty face of the stupid broken man sitting in his workshop wearing a ridiculous piece of his technology. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”