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Who We Weren't

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But here is the truth of nostalgia: we don’t feel it for who we were, but who we weren’t. We feel it for all the possibilities that were open to us, but that we didn’t take. Time is like wax, dripping from a candle flame. In the moment, it is molten and falling, with the capability to transform into any shape. Then the moment passes, and the wax hits the table top and solidifies into the shape it will always be. It becomes the past, a solid single record of what happened, still holding in its wild curves and contours the potential of every shape it could have held.
-Cecil Palmer, Welcome to Night Vale

- - -

Ouch. owwie. Motherfucker.

Tony cracked his eyes open, white-hot pain drilling into his skull as he stared up at rectangles of obnoxiously bright blue sky through the HUD. “Son of a bitch.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “What just happened?”

A crackling noise came from the comms. “We won?” Steve said.

Tony wheezed. Jesus, his lungs. His head.

Make a note, gotta stick the landing next time. He hoped the suit was functional enough to make it back to the tower.

“All right, yay! All right; good job guys. Let's not come in tomorrow; let's just take a day.” He panted a few quick and painful breaths. “You ever try shawarma? There's a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don't know what it is but I wanna try it.”

Utter silence.

Tony struggled to lift his head off the ground and looked around. “What? Not a fan?”

Steve’s voice answered, sounding slightly shaken. “Stay put, Tony. We’re coming to you. Natasha, tell medical we’re heading straight over.”

“...And then shawarma after?”

- - -

“I can’t believe this. You mean to tell me I’ve had shawarma, and I don’t remember it? Did I like it?”

“Tony,” Steve chided.

Tony glanced at Steve, then dropped his gaze back to the loaner laptop he was furiously tapping at. The damn thing was freezing up again. He held in a frustrated sigh. The hospital room had grown dark while they waited for results from the CT scans, and the glow from the screen lit up the room. Tony had the display brightness turned all the way down since the lights were making his screaming headache worse.

The others had long since left to grab food, both out of necessity (the recent battle had been annoyingly long) and to avoid overwhelming Tony. Steve was left behind to observe and keep Tony company (had he drawn the short straw or been judged the only one stubborn enough to refuse being thrown out of the room?).

“I know—” Tony said without looking up from the frozen screen, “‘Be serious,’ but I can’t be serious right now because if I acknowledge that I’ve forgotten the past five years I am going to freak out, and I don’t want to deal with anxiety on top of this migraine.” He hammered at the escape key.

“It’s a grade 3 concussion, Tony. Drink your water.”

“Whatever it is, it needs to get off my back and let me work.” Tony muttered. He silently stared at the display for a long moment, pinched the bridge of his nose, and turned to Steve. Tony was sure the nurses gave him the slowest laptop in the building as a punishment for going against their recommendations to rest. He flipped the lid shut, and said in a purposefully light tone, “Hey, five years of news articles are a bitch to get through; mind giving me the highlights reel?”

“What do you want to know?” Steve asked softly.

“Where is — no, wait — how is everyone? Are they all safe?”

“Well, Pepper’s in Japan on business at the moment — we called her to let her know what happened when you were getting your CT scan. She’s…” Steve’s brow furrowed. The chair pleather squeaked as he shifted. “You guys broke it off last year. I was told it was amicable.”

Tony’s jaw clenched as he stared at the ugliest painting of fruit he’d ever seen. There was a grey stain covering up half the apple. “Well,” he coughed, “it was really only a matter of time, right? Everyone’s always saying I’m not really boyfriend material.”

Steve looked uncomfortable. “About that.”

Tony whipped around to face Steve. Ouch, way too fast. He clutched at the bed rail and gritted his teeth through the pain. All the air had suddenly left the room. “Sweet baby Jesus. We’re not—”

“No! God, no.”

Tony raised a silent, judgmental eyebrow. “Wow. Tell me how you really feel.”

“No, it's not like that—”

“I mean, such a strong reaction—”

“—you're, y’know, fine. I just don't think we—”

“—some might even call that visceral disgust—”

“—would work all that well together. As a couple! As a couple.”

Steve’s face burned bright red, and he finally cut off Tony’s good-natured teasing by yelling, “You're dating Bruce!

Tony blinked.

“I'm what now?”

“I don't know when it started, but you and Bruce have been going out for a while now. He's in Brazil, by the way. A friend he made on the run had some sort of family emergency. He didn't really take the time to give us any details before he left. I mean, not the rest of us, anyway.” Steve brushed a hand up the back of his neck. “Haven’t heard from him since, but he mentioned he’d be out of communication for a while. He's due back in a week.”

“Ok. Processing,” Tony says, staring unblinkingly at the wall.

The silence started to weigh heavily in the room.

“...If it helps, Clint says that you two are ‘disgustingly adorable’ together?” Steve offered awkwardly.

“Nope, still weird. Are we still in the honeymoon stage?” Tony wondered. He glanced at the side table for his phone, then said with a small smirk, “Hey, Jay, got any incriminating pictures or text messages on there that might jog my memory? Something to make the captain blush?”

Steve’s face went white.

“Boss?” A tentative female voice with an Irish brogue came from the phone.

“Oh god, Tony,” Steve gasped.

“Jarvis?” A crease formed between furrowed brows. Steve desperately grabbed Tony’s hand for an anchor.

“Tony, there was a fight, a few years ago.”

“No. No no no no,” Tony said.

Steve felt like he was in physical pain. “Jarvis saved everybody, but—”

“Jarvis? Buddy? Come on, now. This isn’t funny.” His lower lip started to tremor.

Tony looked desperately at Steve, willing him to tell him it was all a joke.

“I’m sorry, Tony,” Steve said quietly, heart breaking.

Tony yanked his hand away from Steve, clenching the laptop until the plastic started creaking.

“Out.” Tony breathed. Steve got up and went to the door, pausing at the threshold to look back, concerned.

“OUT!” Tony yelled, throwing the laptop at the wall near Steve’s head.

Steve heard Tony’s uneven breathing break into a single sob as he closed the door behind him.

- - -

Back at the compound, Tony was staring at what he felt was an excessive variety of boxes of protein bars in the kitchen. His wrist was braced to protect it from a major sprain that he took on during the battle. The skin around his eyes still felt tight and irritated, after dealing with the news. He tried not to think about it. The first thing he did when he got to the Avengers compound was to find his rooms and shove his phone into a dresser drawer.

His internal musings (attempted distraction) on the benefits of peanut butter over almond butter were derailed by a harsh grinding noise. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and a shiver ran down his back. Holy nails on a chalkboard, what is that?

“The hell?” Tony looked around the kitchen. He spotted a man standing frozen at the refrigerator, shiny metal arm extended to reach the cereal boxes sitting on top.

“Sorry,” the man winced. He moved the arm back down to his side, which caused the screeching noise to repeat. Tony cringed.

Tony cleared his throat. “You’re Barnes, I presume, going by the obnoxiously noisy metal accessory?” His voice was still a bit rough from earlier (don’t think about it).

Barnes blinked.

“Well, come on,” Tony said, and turned to the stairs. “I think my workshop is this way.”

“What?”

“I mean, they said I designed this place. If I was gonna put a workshop in it — and I did — that’s where it would be.”

“No, I mean why?” Barnes clarified.

“Your arm offends me.”

Barnes pulled the arm into his chest, covering it protectively with his other arm. The motion made more grinding noises. He looked hurt and apologetic.

Tony sighed. “Not like that. You’re in a Stark building with faulty tech. My reputation will be ruined if someone finds out. Now c’mon. Chop chop.” He turned and left the room without checking to see if Barnes followed him.

- - -

“What the hell did you do to this?” Tony sounded almost impressed.

“Uh, I think it’s from holding up part of a collapsed parking structure.”

Tony blinked. “Huh.”

Tony had a panel near Barnes’s elbow open, carefully picking through wires with a set of fine tools. A glowing blue exploded view of the inner workings were displayed in the air above them, and Tony kept referring back to it as he worked. Tony’s wrist brace got in the way as he tried to gently maneuver a kinked wire around a strut, and he dropped the precision tweezers.

“Dammit.”

“You sure you’re up to this? You just got out of the hospital.”

“Trust me, I fix things; it’s what I do. I don’t care how scrambled my brains are.”

He pulled up a few wires with the tool in his good hand, and peered in at the gears, comparing them to the diagram. He poked at the diagram a few times, then flicked it for good measure.

“Bad news, however. It’s a mess in there. Gonna need a few parts I don’t keep on hand. Also, I should probably get this brace off before I try anything fancy… and I feel like Captain Spangles’ll be disappointed in me if I take it off early. We’ll try for tomorrow. I’m sure I can take an Advil and sneak off the wrap.”

“Really, there’s no rush—”

“I told you: reputation!” Tony turned to his notes. “Hey, Jar—”

Tony froze. His breathing became labored, and he leaned heavily on the bench, head down, facing away from Barnes. The tweezers were still in his fist, the metal edges sharp against his palm.

“...Friday,” Tony’s voice was soft and measured. “Could you please order the items on the list? Express shipping.”

Tony didn’t move from the table. Barnes silently let himself out of the workshop.

- - -

Tony flicked through his open and ongoing project files. Little traces of Bruce were everywhere. Notes in the margins in an unfamiliar hand, blueprints done in two different styles. There were green stylized Hulk-fist pillows on Tony’s workshop cot (hey, emergency naps are a vital part of the research process). He even found a few recent co-authored scientific papers. Tony knows himself, and knows his teamwork skills are… lacking. Collaborative work like this is practically a love-note. Still, nothing was triggering any memories. It was so frustrating to have a part of his own mind hidden from him. So much had changed, the world had moved forward, and he felt like he was playing catch up. He tried to get into his files on the most recent Iron Man design and was locked out after three failed password attempts.

Damn it!

Barnes walked through the door just in time to witness Tony violently shoving a keyboard away from him. It knocked into a row of plastic bins, which fell onto the floor. A handful of ball bearings rolled across the room, one touching Barnes’ foot. He blinked at the mess.

“Um.”

Tony reddened. “I just. It’s…” His jaw clenched as he closed his eyes. “I’m having a bad week.”

“Losing time is rough,” Barnes said delicately. “If anyone can understand the frustration...”

Tony eyed Barnes consideringly. His shoulders relaxed a bit. With a sigh, he invited Barnes over to sit.

“I figured we could do this in a few sessions,” Tony said as he twirled some needle nose pliers. “Keep my wrist from being overworked and keep Steve off my back.” He didn’t mention that he had noticed Barnes getting increasingly tense the longer Tony had worked on the arm the other day.

Barnes nodded.

“Today’s just going to be general cleanup and replacements,” Tony said as he rolled a chair over, mumbling as he bit through the tape on a cardboard package. “We’ll wait until tomorrow to start getting fancy. Hey, do you have a genre preference?”

“A what?”

“Never mind. I’ll pick. Hey—,” a deep breath, “Hey, Friday? Can you put on something that says ‘classic 80’s’? You know what I like, I’m guessing.”

“Sure thing, boss.” Friday dimmed the workshop lights slightly, leaving Tony with a focused benchtop lamp to work by.

Tony watched the projection for a moment, curious to see what his AI would pick. As Harrison Ford hiked through a South American jungle, chittering animal noises coming from the surround-sound speakers, Tony huffed out a laugh, an amused smile growing on his face.

“You’re a little shit, aren’t you.”
“I try, boss.”

“Well, enjoy the movie while I work, Barnes,” Tony said, grabbing a multi-meter and popping a panel open. “Let Friday know if you want a different movie.”

“Bucky.” The other man interjected.

“What?”

“...You can call me Bucky.”

Tony blinked. “Ok, then. Bucky.” He seemed at a loss. Without another word, he bent over Bucky’s elbow and started to work.

Some indeterminable amount of time later, Tony started to worry that his hand was more injured than he thought. The wires he was maneuvering kept jumping around as he shook. No, wait. That wasn’t him. That was the arm. Tony looked up to see Bucky spasming in place as he tried to hold in laughter. Following his sightline, Tony was just in time to see the Ark of the Covenant melt a Nazi’s face off.

“Got a dark sense of humor, don’t you?”

Bucky looked a bit sheepish at being caught out. “It’s cathartic.” He looked up at a grumbling noise that (for once) didn’t come from his arm. “Hey, when’s the last time you ate? You’ve been down here for a while.”

“Eh, sometimes I get on a roll; science waits for no man.” Seeing Bucky’s unimpressed look, he amended: “What kind of food do you like? We can have Friday order in some takeout. I’m finishing up here; should be done by the time it gets here.”

“Sounds good.” Bucky settled further into the chair. “Um, Friday? Surprise us?”

“Ooh, bold move. I approve. Go ahead, Fri.” Tony set back into reconnecting the last of the wires, smiling at the faint sound of Bucky humming along to the movie soundtrack.

- - -

The next morning, when Bucky visited for another session, he brought with him a small Iron Man-themed spiral notebook and a novelty pen (the click-top was a small plastic arc reactor). Tony was both amused and curious.

“Turning into a fan? I can relate.”

“...They’re for you.” Bucky shoved the items at Tony’s chest, then quickly stepped back out of range. Tony had to scramble to prevent the items from hitting the floor.

“Okay… you do know I have a multi-million-dollar holographic interface system, right? And that dictating to Friday is a hell of a lot faster than doing things longhand?”

“I just,” Bucky struggled to find the words. “Memories are tricky. They change on you, and you don’t know if...” he trailed off. “Sometimes it helps to write things down — have physical evidence of progress you’re making. Something to prove you aren’t… stuck. Losing things.”

Tony stared at Bucky for a moment, struck silent by the gesture.

“You don’t gotta use it,” Bucky continued, picking at a wrist joint with his nails. “It’s silly. I just thought it might—”

“Thank you.” Tony interrupted. He realized he was warping the spiral binding and relaxed his grip. Clearing his throat, and finally breaking eye contact, he set the notebook and pen on the nearest benchtop. His hand lingered on the cover, unwilling to lose contact.

“Wanna help me and put that arm through its paces? Test out the upgrades? I got an engine needs repairs.” Tony asked, turning back to Bucky.

“You mean free labor?”

“Eh… po-tay-to, po-tah-to. C’mon, we need to fix up Steve’s bike. He says he clipped a corner going too fast, but I think he tried to use it as a projectile again.”

Bucky followed him over to another corner of the workshop, where Steve’s bike currently stood partly-disassembled.

“You gonna need directions? Friday can project a step-by-step for you.”
“You think this is a recent development for Steve? He used to pull this crap all the time in Europe. I got stuck doing roadside repairs. I should be fine.”

Tony had a small smile on his face. Okay, then. Color me impressed.

At Tony’s direction, Bucky started to clean and rebuild the carburetor, while Tony refitted the drive chain and sprockets.

“Hey, Tony, pass me the flathead screwdriver?”

“Think fast.” Without looking, Tony tossed it to Bucky from across the bike.

Bucky was not expecting it.

He barely managed to get a hand up in time to protect his face, but in doing so jabbed his elbow into the gas tank of the motorcycle, setting off a jarringly loud clang of metal on metal.

Fuck!

“Whoa, you okay?” Tony looked up in concern.

Bucky’s eyes were huge as he stared as his arm in shock. “The hell?”

“You’re worrying me, here, Buck…”

“I think I just hit my funny bone. Did you give my arm a funny bone?”

“Oh,” Tony blinked, then grinned sheepishly. “Uh… surprise?”

At that, Bucky cracked up laughing. Tony smiled at the sight.

- - -

Later that night (much later; sleep is for mere mortals), Tony sat on his workshop cot with the Iron Man notebook, one of the Hulk fist pillows resting in his lap. After the first page of the notebook, which had a listing of the events of the last day he could remember living before waking up in the future, he started to write a list of “historical” events that had happened since. Being of scientific mind, it was in chronological order (though, being of Tony mind, it also had a lot of chaotic notes and questions in the margins). Most of the events had come from files he found, or news from the internet, or word of mouth.

His third handwritten list — things he had actually remembered on his own — was pitifully short.

He huffed with frustration and tossed the notebook onto a nearby desk. As he flopped back on the cot, Tony began to fidget with the pen. A button near the top, he had discovered earlier, made the mini arc reactor glow with a soft blue light. Not quite the right shade, but I do miss the glow. He absentmindedly touched the center of his chest. Tony rearranged the Hulk fist pillows, settling them behind his head and wriggling around in the cot to get more comfortable, then pressed the button and allowed the light to focus and slow his manic thoughts. Friday quietly saved Tony’s work and dimmed the room lights. Tony’s breaths deepened as he fell asleep clutching the pen.

- - -

It was quiet in the lab. A week had passed since Tony’s injury, and Bruce was due back in a few hours. The time had flown by — Bucky kept Tony busy with visits and repairs to his arm. Once they figured out that movie background noise gave Bucky just enough sensory stimulation to stay in the right frame of mind, Bucky was able to sit for longer sessions. Two days ago, they had moved on from critical repairs and started in on upgrades (C’mon, Buck, dream big! Want a can opener on there?). The time spent in the workshop had become relaxed, interspersing spontaneous, novel upgrades with work on various side projects (like cooperatively fixing Steve’s bike). Tony even made time to finally fix his poor 1967 Shelby Cobra (What the hell happened, Tony? Looks like something big landed on it. / Yeah… that’d be the Mark 2, Buck-o). All the while, Tony was slowly introducing Bucky to the varied take-out options modern-day New York had to offer. Tony couldn’t remember the last time he had been on such a regular eating schedule. The company was definitely a plus.

Currently, Bucky was upstairs sparring with Natasha and Steve, leaving Tony alone with his thoughts. He felt like a bad boyfriend. Bruce had been away for an entire week (at least, in Tony’s memory) and he barely missed him. Bucky’s quiet energy just filled up the room when he was around, lifting Tony’s spirits and pushing him to do more and invent more outrageously innovative things, just to keep Bucky smiling.

He pulled the Iron Man notebook from under his keyboard and thumbed at the cover. Flipping through the pages, he sighed. He had structured the notes on his relationship with Bruce (the fourth list in the book) like he would a business merger proposal, with an itemized account of how they were awesome together, supporting evidence and benefits listed and annotated. It was just how his brain worked, especially when frustrated and missing half the data.

Why couldn’t he remember?

Flipping absentmindedly through to the back of the book, he noticed with embarrassment that there were 10 full pages of handwritten blueprints — all upgrade ideas for Bucky’s arm. He couldn’t quite remember the last time he did any engineering longhand (the first Iron Man?). The sketches were redundant anyway, since all of the upgrades had been dictated to Friday and added to her servers.

He stared at the exploded diagram for a proposed wrist-mounted laser cannon, gears and power amplifiers neatly drawn and labeled, and thoughtfully traced a wire with a gentle fingertip. The way the wire looped around one of the forearm struts almost looked like a tiny heart. He must have drawn it while working on the power meters; those things were so boring that Tony could diagram them in his sleep.

Tony traced over the heart a few more times, until the cheap ink started smearing.

“Boss?” Friday’s voice startled Tony from his musings. He looked up. “Bruce’s flight just landed; he should be back at the compound within the hour.”

“Oh. Uh, thanks, Fri.”

Tony had a small frown on his face, conflicted and no closer to answers or his missing memories. He hoped Bruce would understand. Tony heaved himself off of his rolly-chair but was only able to take one step towards the door before his foot slipped on a stray ball bearing underfoot. The notebook shot across the room in a flutter of pages and Tony fell fast, cracking his temple against the corner of the table on the way down.

- - -

In the gym, Steve and Natasha were trash-talking and grappling while Bucky took a water break. The lights overhead flashed red twice, and Friday’s voice interrupted.

“Medical emergency in Workroom A.”

Bucky dropped his bottle, water spilling everywhere, and ran directly to the well-stocked first aid kit hanging on the wall of the gym. He tore it from its housing, plaster clinging to the hooks, as Steve and Natasha made their way through the bars of the boxing ring and followed Bucky’s lead into the hallway.

“What happened, Friday?” Bucky demanded, heading to the workshop stairs.

Before Friday could answer, Tony appeared at the end of the hallway, turning the corner and leaning on the wall. He seemed unsteady on his feet and was bleeding sluggishly from the temple.

“Tony?” Bucky was concerned with the dazed look in Tony’s eyes. At Bucky’s voice, however, Tony pursed his lips, squared his shoulders and stubbornly stumbled down the hall, keeping one hand on the wall for stability. Bucky and the others were frozen in shock.

The first aid kit spilled out onto the floor when Bucky let it go in favor of catching Tony, who all but fell into his arms. The sudden weight nearly bowled them both over. Bucky clutched desperately at Tony in an impromptu bear hug, worried out of his mind.

Just then, the front door opened, a very tanned Bruce struggling to enter while balancing a duffle bag and an overstuffed backpack.

Tony turned in Bucky’s arms at the noise, greeting the newcomer with a hoarse “Oh, hey, Bruce,” before turning back to Bucky, grabbing his face and leaning up to smash his lips against Bucky’s.

The kiss was rough and uncoordinated, but full of feeling, and Bucky was left stunned, automatically pulling Tony back to arm’s length with the grip he already had on Tony’s waist. Bucky shot a guilty look in Bruce’s direction, along with Steve and Natasha, who were struck silent in the doorway to the gym. Bucky’s lips were tingling, and his face was flushed. There was no way Tony hadn’t noticed, with the grip he still had on Bucky’s face.

Bruce just looked bemused. “Tony, did you hit your head?”

“Um, yes,” Tony blinked, eyes staying on Bucky. “Yes. Twice, if you want to get specific. I’m okay, though. I think. A little woozy.” His arms fell to rest on Bucky’s shoulders.

“So,” Bruce starts, setting his duffle down by the entryway. “How long’s… this—,” he gestured vaguely at Tony and Bucky, “—been going on?”

“Oh, like, a week,” Tony said easily.

What?” Bucky seemed to be having trouble breathing.

“Congrats.” Bruce came up to the pair, unconcerned with their proximity, and grabbed Tony by the chin, looking at the gash and holding up a finger for Tony to track with his eyes. “Want me to take a look at that cut? Probably won’t need stitches, but you know I worry.”

“Sure. I’ll head up in a bit.”

Bruce nodded. He picked up his bags and started making his way to the elevator, before turning. “Oh, anyone feel like pizza tonight? I’ve been craving—”

“You don’t care?” Bucky interrupted, nearly hysterical.

“Why would I care?”

“They think I’m cheating on you, Green Bean,” Tony said.

“What? Me and you? No!” Bruce looks bewildered at the suggestion. The elevator arrived, and Bruce shuffled on. “I’ll, um, I’ll see you later about that cut.”

“...Why is everyone so disgusted by the prospect of dating me?” Tony wondered aloud. Bucky’s grip on his waist tightened in response.

“So, you and Bruce...” Bucky asked.

“Yeah, the second knock to the head shook some things loose,” Tony joked. “Alas, Bruce is tragically straight. Ours is but a purely platonic (though very awesome) science-bro-ship.”

“Can we try that kiss again, then?” Bucky asked, with a small smile on his face.

Tony grinned up at Bucky, then wrapped both arms around Bucky’s neck, stretching up to meet his lips.