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If Bucky Barnes didn’t know any better, he’d say Steve was doing this on purpose.

“It’s just-” Steve grumbled, fingers twitching around the craft beer he held. “It’s just- he’s so frustrating! He never listens! How the hell am I supposed to deal with that, Buck?”

Sitting opposite him on the rickety old table that they’d barely squeezed into, Bucky stared at him, unimpressed.

“Oh, come on,” Steve huffed, slumping in until his shoulders jutted out sideways and his head dipped low. “You tellin’ me it’s my fault? Really, Buck?”

Thing was, Bucky Barnes did know better, and Steve Rogers wasn’t doing this on purpose, but because he was damn stupid. Bucky threw back what little remained of his drink, pulling a face at the taste that assaulted his tastebuds as he weighed up whether or not this was something he was willing to go toe to toe aginst Steve’s bullheaded stubbornness.

Eh, he hadn’t brought the damn punk down a few pegs in a while, so why the hell not.

“Look,” he began, mentally patting himself on the back for being so helpful. His CIA-agent therapist would be so proud of him. If Bucky ever decided to actually speak to him, anyway. “What you seem to keep missin’ is that Tony’s older than you by at least half a decade. He’s fucked up more than you and he’s made up for that more than you. Man has more experiences in his little finger than you do in your whole body. How would you take to that Spiderman guy giving you orders on the field just because of that Spidey sense or whatever of his?”

Steve gave him a horrified look. “But- That’s- that’s completely different!”

Rolling his eyes, Bucky said, “Sure it is, punk. Hell, I never listened to you back them, during the war, and unless you were complaining about it to Morita or someone behind my back I never saw you kickin’ up a fuss ‘bout it. You just don’t like not being the boss.”

Bucky shouldn’t have probably enjoyed Steve’s affronted expression as much as he did.

“I don’t know the guy as much as you,” he carried on, playing with the label on his empty bottle as someone entered the bar. Two people, male, mid-thirties, corporate folks, low threat level. “But from what I’ve seen, guy makes a decision and it’s the right call almost every goddamn time.” He’d have been a great handler.

Steve reared back, face shuttering to a close like a vault door locking in tight. Bucky grimaced a little, the shitty taste in his mouth turning to ash and gunmetal as he realised he’d said that last bit out loud. He knew Steve didn’t like being reminded about Bucky’s time with HYDRA, knew his friend (friend?) didn’t like acknowledging just what, exactly, that meant. But it was the truth.

Tony Stark would’ve made the best damn handler the Winter Soldier could’ve asked for.

Good thing Tony Stark hadn’t been HYDRA, then.

Bit disappointing. But that was the asset talkin’. Maybe. He wasn’t so good at differentiating just who was who on a good day so who knew who exactly found that disappointing.

“Look,” he tried again, pulling himself out of his head and somewhere into Steve’s own. “Instead of fighting the man at every turn, maybe try hearing him out. He makes a different call on the field? Pulls of and does his own thing? Ask him why, don’t just go off on him. I bet you five bucks he’s got a damn good reason. And if he notices you actually paying him attention, maybe he’ll give you heads up before doing what he’s gonna do anyway.”

Steve stared at him, expression still tight, but gave a slow, thoughtful nod. “Sure thing, Buck. You always were better at inter-team relations than me.”

Sure he was, Bucky thought with morbid amusement, his handlers told him what to do, and if he didn’t like what they told him, he killed them. He was way better at inter-team whatever than Steve. Sure.

“You do that,” he said instead, politely keeping his thoughts to himself. “But before that, this place got any actual good beer or what?”

#

Tony Stark was missing. Or, at least, had been missing. For nigh on ten days. But now they had his signal, the steady pulse of it on FRIDAY’s projected hologram conveniently coinciding with the explosion they could see from the eighty ninth floor of Stark Tower.

“That-” Steve started, fingers clutching his shield.

“-is the warehouse district on 85th,” FRIDAY’s cool, Irish voice finished, rapidly throwing up screens after screens of on site recordings that boasted live timestamps. “Sir’s bio-tracker is originating from the same warehouse. The quinjet has already been prepared. Please make your way to the helipad. Now.”

Clint gave the ceiling a worried look at the demand, but Bucky didn’t care. He was already suited up – just like everyone else in the penthouse living room – and he sure as hell didn’t need FRIDAY telling him to move since he’d already done so as soon as she’d given the address, running for the stairs and taking them three at a time, FRIDAY lighting the way for him like the awesome AI that she was.

The others straggled after him soon enough, all of them filing in to the ready quinjet that smoothly rose as soon as the last foot was in, FRIDAY inputting the route and controlling everything remotely from the Iron Man suit she piloted from Bucky’s side.

She didn’t stop him from pacing, said nothing else but a curt, “ETA two minutes,” before leaving him to his worry, and the others left him to it as well. Steve watched him, worried eyes tracking him as he turned in circles, metal arm whirring slightly every time he flexed it.

One minute in, FRIDAY straightened, the whirr of her own metal figure grabbing Bucky’s attention. “Ah,” she said into the stifling silence of the quinjet. “I see.”

Bucky took the one step needed to crowd up against the armour, eyes alight on the blue glow that made up the suit’s eye pieces. “What?” He demanded, ignoring Steve’s warning, “Bucky.” He’d never cared for the team’s suspicion of Tony’s AI’s, of any of Tony’s technology, and he sure as hell didn’t give a shit about it now.

In answer, FRIDAY gently pushed him backwards, only far enough that there was space for her to raise her other gauntlet, the familiar sight of Tony’s holographs lighting up with a video. The same warehouse, Bucky noted, ignoring the presence of Natasha sliding in to peek over his shoulder. Except this time, the warehouse doors were open, and-

Men in yellow suits. Weird yellow suits. Familiar yellow suits.

Bucky hissed, metal arm creaking as he clenched his fists.

He was going to burn AIM down to the ground.

They all but poured out of the still smoking building, scattering in every direction with visible chaos. Bucky could immediately tell none of them knew where they were going, just trying to get away, and shot FRIDAY a look.

The metal suit was too inorganic for expressions, but Bucky could all but feel the eyeroll FRIDAY shot him back.

“I’ve already begun tracking each and every one and reporting their location to Director Fury.” The AI primly told him. “SHIELD agents have already been deployed with Agent Coulson leading them to apprehend the criminals.”

“Good.” Bucky growled. “Tell them I want first lick at whoever the leader is.”

At his shoulder, Natasha went still, no doubt concerned about the possibility of an interrogation making Bucky relapse. Frankly, Bucky didn’t care.

“Of course,” FRIDAY easily replied, “Done and done. We shall now be landing. I can open the hatch for you to jump out, Sergeant Barnes.”

Bucky liked FRIDAY best. Sometimes, he found himself sad he’d never gotten to meet JARVIS, the AI Tony only rarely spoke off, expression soft and sad. Speaking of the late AI, Bucky stepped back as the back of the quinjet began opening, air whipping through from the engine’s strength, and frowned a little. “Vision should be here,” he grumbled, knowing the android would be displeased to know no one had called him. “And Rhodes.” God, Rhodes. Bucky was still a nervous wreck around the man, even after a year of dating Tony. Rhodes terrified the shit out of him.

FRIDAY laughed at him, fully aware of every single time Bucky had made an ass out of himself in front of Tony’s oldest – and closest – friend. He’d lied, he didn’t like her at all. He was going to get Tony to donate her to a community college.

“Already done,” she finally relented, just as the quinjet came to a flying halt and the hatch opened fully. “Now I believe we have a boss to save.”

Damn right they did. Bucky was going to donate Tony to a community college. See how he’d like that. Damn man deserved it after making Bucky lose his shit for ten freaking days.

“I’ll come with,” Steve offered, standing up and following Bucky to the opened end of the ‘jet. The stubborn jut of his jaw and challenging eyes pretty much made it obvious it wasn’t an offer, more like a challenge – just try and stop me.

Bucky couldn’t hold back the fondness at the familiar expression, even as he vowed to donate Tony and Steve to a community college, or, better yet, take a goddamn vacation himself to somewhere nice, like Maldives, with DUM-E. DUM-E never betrayed him. DUM-E was the best.

“We’ll come after you,” Clint put in from behind, his busy hands rechecking his quiver and arrows. “Natasha first. I’ll follow in with Bruce.”

Bruce gave a self-deprecating chuckle as he explained, “Better I don’t turn on this. Tony might need me, not the Other Guy. Though he’d probably say otherwise.”

Wasn’t that the truth. The day Tony Stark didn’t react with unholy glee at the Hulk’s presence was a day Tony wasn’t actually Tony but a shapeshifting alien.

Nodding to show he’d heard, Bucky shared a look with Steve, both of them steadying themselves before they launched off the quinjet onto the warehouse’s roof. They landed easily, the quinjet immediately beginning to circle to find a landing point for the other less enhanced individuals, but they paid no mind. Finding an entrance was just as easy, Bucky’s metal arm doing wonders to rip the fortified door right off its hinges.

“Wow, Buck,” Steve dryly huffed, “You lift?”

Bucky threw him a scathing glare.

“Jeez,” his childhood friend (fucking childhood friend, how the shit was this his life?) complained as they made their way through, taking the stairs down to the warehouse proper, “I’m just trying to get you to be less tense. You’ve been wound up real bad these past ten days, Bucky. I don’t want you suddenly going Winter Soldier on me.”

He’d gone ‘Winter Soldier’ about eight days ago, by his standards, not that Steve needed to know that. Relatively light relapse, all things considered. Nobody had clocked on but FRIDAY. Girl kept him sane with constant chatter. Even his HYDRA conditioning couldn’t stand up to a perky, Irish voice constantly yammering at him about god knew what.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Steve tried, and he did try, even if Bucky knew himself Steve had been tense these past few days, that the whole team had been tense, because despite whatever bullshit they’d thrown at each other before Bucky had come (and when Bucky had come), they still cared for each other, Steve more than most. “I’m pretty sure he’s the one that blew this place up. Kinda his thing.”

He couldn’t help snorting at that. Steve beamed, the little shit, no doubt pleased with himself for it.

They ran into no one on their descent, even as they ran past rooms filled with computers and beakers, chemicals bubbling over without the careful attentiveness of their creators. The whole warehouse had clearly been abandoned, even if none of the work on this side of the warehouse seemed affected by the explosion.

That… that worried Bucky. Worried him real good. But he tried not to think about it. Whatever the hell had happened, whatever the hell was happening, he’d deal with it. As long as he got Tony out of this damn hell hole safe and sound.

The tracker – the bio-tracker Bucky had helped Tony insert into his thigh after a previous abduction – led them to a heavy-set door with a foreboding keypad. Steve raised his shield to hack it off, but Bucky held him back. Setting his metal fingers against the surface, he watched as familiar blue lights snaked down his arm to his fingertips, invading the surface of the keypad and quickly spreading throughout it all, intercrossing lines that made a grid work of blue. A second later, the keypad beeped green, the door rumbling as it slid open, struggling to move the sheer weight of itself.

They didn’t wait for it to open fully, sliding in sideways as soon as a big enough space opened up for them. Bucky led the way, his Stark phone clutched in his hand with the bio-tracker giving him a live feed of Tony’s location. The room – the hangar – was huge, an echoing basement that must have taken up the entire square mile of the warehouse’s blueprint. How the hell this entire place had missed SHIELD’s radar was beyond him, but he was used to the organisation’s incompetence at this point. That, and Tony’s constant griping about them.

“Over there,” said Steve, hurrying forward to the row of-

no.

No.

-Bucky froze.

Eight cryogenic pods lined the far wall, all of them empty save for one. They looked nothing like the one he was intimately familiar with, nothing like anything HYDRA had made, but-

Bucky-

Bucky-

“Bucky!”

-He snapped out of it.

Steve stared him down, expression hard, tense, weary. “I need you to stay with me, Buck.” He said, pleaded, begged. “Tony needs you to stay with me, to stay here. Come on, help me get him out.”

He was right. Steve was right. Bucky couldn’t- he couldn’t-

-don’t think about it don’t think about it tony tony tony tony to-

“Yeah,” he roughly answered, letting Steve lead him to the one- don’t think about it- where Tony lay inside. He couldn’t bring himself to actually look at Tony, to see just what they might have done to him. Couldn’t bring himself to even think of what AIM, far more intellectual than HYDRA could ever be, without the fervent psychopathic tint to world domination, could have created.

He did notice the strange screen at hip level, though. It looked like a diagnostic read out, a string of unfamiliar letters and numbers sprawled across the screen around one, legible word. ERROR, it read, large and stark against the white background of the screen. ERROR, he thought, feeling panic rise in his throat and threaten to choke him, because what on earth could that even mean, what the hell did they do to his Tony?

“Can you do that thing?” Steve demanded, eyes tracking from Bucky’s metal arm to the screen. “Get it open like you did the door?”

Oh, right. The team didn’t know about that. It was new, anyway. Tony had installed it just a few days before he’d gone missing, never to return from the meeting he’d had with some bigwig military brass. It hadn’t taken long for Bucky to realise he was gone, no time at all, as FRIDAY had immediately panicked when Tony’s bio-tracker had suddenly gone offline. God, Bucky had- Bucky needed to replace the good china. Tony liked the good china. He’d be sad that Bucky had punched a hole right through the cabinet and shattered them all.

He’d understand too, since Bucky had thought him dead. But-

“Yeah,” he thickly confirmed, already resting his fingertips against the screen that mockingly screamed ERROR at him. The thin lines of blue moved in gridworks down his arm again, quickly turning the screen a bright green before it crackled and fizzed, sparks flying off it as the pod suddenly let out a hiss of air. The front began sliding off, smoothly sliding into a small opening in the floor that sealed itself up once it’d disappeared.

Tony – naked except for tight, black gym shorts Bucky knew weren’t his – fell as soon as the door was fully gone, knees clearly giving out on him. Bucky caught him though, maybe also shouldering Steve out of the way when the doofus tried to catch Tony himself. The judging side eye Steve gave him was more confirmation than anything else, which, okay, whoops. He’d apologise when he wasn’t half out of his mind with worry over Tony’s unconscious form.

Steve looked up, just as a presence triggered Bucky’s own senses, and they both turned as one, Tony immediately being put to their back to defend him. Natasha slid in, unconcerned by their aggressive posturing, and behind her-

“Thank fuck,” Bucky bit out, “Bruce, come check Tony out.”

Bruce hustled forward, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he dropped to his knees once he’d reached their side. FRIDAY – movements clearly inhuman – glided towards them, the repulsors at her feet and palms a low hum as she floated like Vision.

“No blood,” Bruce hummed to himself, fingers instantly seeking out Tony’s pulse points. “Strong pulse. Breathing seems fine, although-”

Bucky could see it himself, now that Bruce had confirmed his own knowledge that Tony wasn’t dead.

“His breathing… hmmm…” Bruce frowned. “FRIDAY?”

The AI raised a gauntlet, wispy, barely there, blue light scanning over Tony’s body from head to toe and back again. “No injuries of note. Sir is in…” hesitant confusion. “Perfect condition.”

A bit too perfect.

The scars Bucky was intimately familiar with were no more, Tony’s entire chest bare and smooth save for the arc reactor that glowed brightly in the centre. Even the small burn scars and other workshop related injuries Bucky had traced over and over again were missing from Tony’s hands. Tony’s face itself was smooth, characteristic beard missing, and- damn, but Tony looked young. He looked really young. Bucky remembered Tony joking about growing the beard in the first place so people would stop thinking him a baby, but he hadn’t realised just how much truth had been in that, not really.

But as long as Tony wasn’t dying from some internal wounds, Bucky didn’t care.

That’s when the screen – the damn screen that had read ERROR before fitzing out and going dark – suddenly lit up, a threatening alarm beeping out of it as it rapidly repeated ERROR ERROR ERROR before the same string of letters and numbers scrawled across it in warning.

FRIDAY jerked in place, the movement enough to trip Bucky straight into panic, because then-

-Tony started screaming.

His body went tight, back arching, fingers clawing at the ground as his eyes – sightless, the whites too visible – snapped open. They all flinched backwards, Bruce sucking in a harsh gasp at the shock, skin flushing from green to pale white and back again. Bucky- Bucky faltered, for just a moment, but the way Tony was screaming, screaming, tore at him and he was right there in the next blink, grabbing onto Tony’s shoulder, trying to shake him out of him, screaming his name.

“Bucky!” Steve grabbed him back, pulling him away, pulling him away, “Bucky, stop! Look!”

He didn’t want to, god, he didn’t want to, but FRIDAY’s too strong gauntlet gripped him by the metal shoulder and yanked him back. He went, unable to resist, and felt something shatter when he realised, what, exactly, Steve had wanted him to see.

Fuck.” Clint swore, and Bucky wanted to fucking echo it.

The arc reactor, the perfect, blue glow of Tony’s greatest triumph and worst nightmare, was no longer surrounded by perfectly smooth skin. Red seeped out from the metal casing, dribbling down the sides of his chest, pulsing with what Bucky morbidly realised must be the rhythm of Tony’s too frantic heartbeat. The casing wasn’t- the casing wasn’t even, not anymore, a visible centimetre out of place from the immediate skin and the distance visibly growing.

Bruce looked green, but a different green, a green shared by Steve as they both looked two seconds away from hurling.

“The arc reactor is being rejected by the body.” FRIDAY clinically reported, voice dead and robotic just like when she’d first sounded the alarm and told Bucky Tony’s bio-tracker had gone offline. Fear. Worry. Her way of keeping calm.

But what the hell did she mean rejected? Why now?

What the hell had AIM done to him?

“What do we do?” Bucky demanded over Tony’s screaming, pitching his voice louder to be heard over the sheer terror of it. “Bruce, what do we do?”

The arc reactor – the metal casing and all – shoved further out of place, the small dribbles of blood upgrading to thicker rivulets that painted Tony’s chest in red. It was a good few inches out now, the rate of expulsion increasing, all of it visibly rising from Tony’s centre.

“Hold him still,” Bruce finally snapped out of his haze, reaching for one of Tony’s shoulders as Bucky immediately grabbed the other. “Hold him- hold him still.”

But Tony refused to be held still, bucking underneath their grip, brown eyes swallowed whole by dilated pupils. He was strong – strong – but Tony had always been strong, muscles rippling whenever he wore some ratty tank top and clothes that weren’t tailored to make him look slim. Add in fear and the pain Tony was going through? Bucky stopped hesitating and pressed down, using his own strength to hold his Tony still, seeing Bruce do the same on the opposite side.

“Records accessed,” FRIDAY reported, still monotone, still cold. “Analysing. Analysing. Analysis complete.”

Tony stopped screaming.

Bucky snatched his hands back, suddenly terrified for one horrified second that he’d pressed too hard, used too much of his strength and had actually hurt Tony. The clang of metal didn’t register at first, didn’t register at all until Steve’s shocked intake of breath snapped him out of his thoughts, and-

The arc reactor was gone. The hole in Tony’s chest – the gaping hole in Tony’s chest – showed just a peek of white bone before disappearing under pale, slightly red skin. New skin. Growing. Right over the place where the arc reactor had just been.

Bucky stared – they all stared – at where the arc reactor rolled innocuously on the ground by his feet, bloody but whole, larger than Bucky had ever even thought to realise.

Tony’s chest was whole.

“What the fuck,” he heard himself say, words muffled, as if from underwater. “What the fuck, Bruce.”

Bruce looked up at him, expression helpless, lost.

“Vitals stable,” FRIDAY interrupted the tense silence. “Please move aside.”

“Wait,” Steve started, “FRI-”

“Please move aside.” The AI repeated, tone much more firm, easily shoving past them and scooping Tony – eyes closed and body limp, chest completely smeared with blood – up into her arms. “I shall take Boss back to the tower. Please feel free to follow with the quinjet.”

Bucky staggered to his feet, ignoring Steve trying to reach for him as he gripped at one of the Iron Man gauntlets. “FRI,” he rasped, pulling in close so he could see Tony, could see just how young Tony looked, “FRI, I want to-”

“I cannot carry you both,” she interrupted him, not unkindly, “and I wish to get Mr. Stark to safety as soon as possible. Take the quinjet. Two minutes.”

ETA two minutes, she’d said before. Two minutes to the Tower. Two minutes until he could be with Tony again.

He forced himself to let go, forced himself to step aside and let FRIDAY pass him by. “Okay,” he forced himself to say, ignoring Steve kicking up a fuss behind him, ignoring the way Bruce looked uncomfortable and was trying to fold in on himself. “Go.”

The Iron Man helmet stared at him for a pregnant moment, the blue glow of the eye slits drilling into Bucky before they turned off, once, before switching back on. Like a cat slowly blinking at it’s human. She said nothing, turning around and engaging the foot repulsors, somehow easily flying herself and Tony out of the warehouse.

Once they were out of sight, Bucky turned to the others, ears roaring too loudly to hear whatever it was his teammates were saying. Something about how Bucky could just let FRIDAY take Tony, about how he didn’t know, didn’t understand why Tony and AI’s were a bad mix, the same shit they’d thrown at Bucky for the two years he’d been thrust back into the mind space of James Buchanan Barnes and out of the assets.

He didn’t have time for this. Tony was on his way to the tower this second, and Bucky needed to be with him like yesterday. Steve must’ve seen it on his face because he went silent, expression turning sour for a moment before it smoothed out into surrender.

“Let’s just go,” he said, cutting in to Clint’s ongoing comparison of FRIDAY and ULTRON’s personalities. As if there were any. Bucky had seen the security footage of ULTRON’s first appearance, and that AI had been the bastard son of Tony and Loki, brought to life by Tony’s genius and Loki’s sceptre – nothing like FRIDAY.

The team trudged back together towards the waiting quinjet, none of them fazed by the SHIELD agents that milled about around the warehouse’s front entrance. Coulson gave them a nod before turning back to his work.

Steve pulled up alongside Bucky, who outpaced the others with his worry, and gently knocked shoulders with him. “It’ll be okay, Buck.” He said lowly, too low for anyone but their enhanced ears to hear. “I know-” Steve paused, expression flickering to that sour look from before for a split second. “I know we don’t agree on a lot of things-” the continued existence of FRIDAY, for one “-but on Tony? We definitely agree.”

Bucky let himself be mollified, let himself be ushered into the quinjet and onto a seat with Steve on one side and Bruce on the other. But mostly, he let himself be calmed by the utter and complete certainty that the one thing they didn’t agree on, that FRIDAY – and DUM-E and the other workshop ‘bots – would keep Tony safe.

That was good enough for him.

#

What remained of SHIELD promised him he’d be safe here, in this apartment. Steve and Natasha, the only two people to know besides the active director, Maria Hill, equally promised him the same thing, as if Bucky couldn’t protect himself from anyone that was stupid enough to attack him.

Nobody will find you here, they’d said. Nobody knows, they’d promised.

James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes wheeling in one day said otherwise.

Bucky stared, confused, as the ex-airforce calmly navigated the bare minimum of Bucky’s living room, his sleek and silent wheelchair coming to a stop in between the bright lavender coffee table and blue plaid sofa.

“Hello,” said War Machine. “I’m James Rhodes. I believe you know me as War Machine.”

Slowly, Bucky nodded, flesh fingers twitching for something to defend himself with. Rhodes was too calm, too… at ease. And Bucky hadn’t forgotten how his very existence had all but gotten the man paralysed.

“And you’re James Barnes.” Rhodes continued, completely at ease. “You killed Howard and Maria Stark.”

Ah. He had.

Strange that Rhodes found that more offensive than his own paralysed legs.

The ex-colonel gave him a dark look, seriousness drawing age lines across his face. Bucky remembered all too late that Rhodes would be in his mid-forties by now, maybe even pushing fifty. Single, never married, no kids. Stark would be hitting forty, soon enough. It didn’t make sense, why they were friends. Bucky should’ve looked into that.

“Here’s the thing,” Rhodes told him, large, strong hands folding over one another, the demureness of the gesture fake. “I knew them. The Starks, that is. I knew them well. Howard Stark was a piece of shit and I love the irony that it was you that killed him on a dark, lonely highway. But Maria? That woman deserved better. She didn’t deserve her last moments to be you choking her to death.”

Rhodes wheeled closer, a little, just a slight turn of the wheels bringing him ever closer to Bucky. “She didn’t deserve it, and yet you still killed her. Just because she was tied to Howard Stark. And you almost killed Tony.”

Ah. He… actually had.

“So I’m going to give you a warning. Just once. Just to be fair.” Fair?, Bucky mentally echoed. “If you ever attack Tony Stark again, be it directly or indirectly, I’m going to strap you to the chair HYDRA created you in and fry you ‘till you’re a vegetable, ‘till even that bastardised serum running through your veins can’t do shit but keep you in a never-ending coma. And then I’m going to kill Rogers. Choke him in the Arctic like you choked Maria. I don’t care if you think you have a good reason, if Tony himself says you do, don’t you dare touch him. Do I make myself clear?”

He did. Bucky understood perfectly. Except… “You’re in a wheelchair, and you’re baseline human. What can you do, exactly?”

Rhodes gave him a long, considering look. Bucky wondered just how, exactly, Rhodes had gotten himself up to the third floor. This building had no elevators.

He didn’t get an answer, and years later, he’d be grateful for it, because plausible deniability. In the present though, with them both in a dark living room because Bucky never liked drawing the curtains, James Rhodes asked, “Did you kill Edwin Jarvis?”

Bucky didn’t know who that was, so he answered, “No.”

“Would you even remember,” Rhodes shot back, “If you actually did?”

Bucky answered, “Yes.” Because he remembered all twelve thousand, eight hundred and fifty three of his victims (targets, the asset corrected). Wakandan technology did wonders for mental clarity. He wondered if Rhodes and Stark knew he’d been in Wakanda. Guessing from how easy Rhodes had found him in the states, probably.

“Thank fuck,” Rhodes muttered under his breath, too low for any normal human to hear. And then louder, “Good. Then I won’t have to worry about bailing Tony out of jail for murder. Then I’ll leave you to your…” a slow look around the living room, at the tiny open floor kitchen that Bucky could barely squeeze into, at the horrid olive tones of it all, “… whatever.” Rhodes finished, upper lip curled in distaste.

The wheels on his chair made no noise when he moved them, his dark skin blending in with the lack of light filtering through the closed curtains as sunset set in haste. Bucky stood and followed him to the door, politely holding it open as Rhodes wheeled through.

“I’m not going to hurt Stark,” he blurted out, the words pulled out of him without his say so, without his permission. “I never really wanted to.”

Rhodes turned to look at him, a frown pulling at his face as he stared at Bucky’s face, reading him. After a heavy pause, War Machine said, “Then maybe next time you should only do something you actually want to do.” His eyes flickered to the space behind Barnes, to the one-bedroom apartment with the open floor living space and the garish decorations. “And be where you want to be.”

He turned away, dismissing him, making his way down the hallway and to the right where the stairs were. Bucky vaguely wanted to know how he’d get down, but the thought of stepping out of the realm of his apartment (safehouse, the asset asserted) made his nerves spark and frizzle.

He didn’t want to go out.

He wanted to go out.

He wanted solitude.

He was going to go stir crazy in here.

He wanted Steve.

He didn’t want Steve.

Do something he wanted to do? Be somewhere he wanted to be? Was that what Rhodes had done? Pushed himself to walk- no, roll- into the same room as an international murderer and threaten him all for a friend? All for Stark?

What sort of loyalty did Stark inspire from people? Rhodes had stood by him at the airport, in his gunmetal grey suit of armour, right at Stark’s red and gold shoulder. Bucky had seen papers and online articles dated more than a decade ago that showed the two, in the exact same position, always at each other’s shoulder.

Natasha had told him that Stark had no one.

Steve had told him that Stark preferred to be alone.

So just what, exactly, had happened?

He wanted to see Stark. To talk to him. To understand.

Data inconclusive, the asset agreed. Mission; gather more data.

He could do that.

#

The quiet beeps and whirr of the medical bay was familiar, far too familiar if you asked Bucky. He’d thought being enhanced like Steve nowadays meant less hospital time for him, but damn if Tony didn’t end up here more than skinny, asthmatic Steve had.

This time was better than other times, he thought. Tony wasn’t dying, for one. Wasn’t covered in bandages and completely black and blue. Didn’t have any casts on or pins driven into his bones to keep them straight. No, all he had this time was one IV that fed him nutrients, and a little finger cap on an index finger that monitored his oxygen levels.

98% it boasted, beeping happily to Bucky’s right. A whole twenty percent higher than Tony’s usual range.

He held Tony’s hand – the one without the oximeter – running his flesh hand over the strong knuckles, unnerved by the smooth skin that greeted his senses. Tony was all rough callouses, diva on the surface but hardworking – his skin had reflected that just weeks ago, and yet- now-

Tony groaned.

Bucky scrambled into sitting up, straightening his back and leaning in as Tony squeezed his eyes shut before blearily blinking them open. His partner, his fella, stretched, the lean muscles of his chest and abdomen rippling as Tony let loose a luxurious moan, one Bucky knew intimately and had a ridiculous pavlovian response to that he brutally smothered.

When open eyes landed on him, Bucky, for a split second, recoiled, shocked by the icy blue where he expected honey blonde. He recovered quickly enough, not wanting to panic Tony so soon, and focused on everything else.

It wasn’t hard to smile, to express the relief he felt at Tony’s consciousness, or to ignore the eye colour that screamed different at him thanks to the familiar, long eyelashes that dusted Tony’s cheeks. He just knew he looked dopey, just knew he had on the ridiculous face FRIDAY hoarded like diamond to blackmail him into doing her bidding. But Tony just smiled back, sleepy and tired, and shot him a pleased grin as Bucky shuffled a little closer, scooting forward in his Stark-bought comfortable chair.

“Hey, sweetgums,” murmured Tony, his hand squeezing Bucky’s own, returning the thumb caresses with his own. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Bucky huffed a laugh, giving in to the aching need and resting his forehead against Tony’s own, better to avoid the blue of his irises until he could get used to them. “God, Tony,” he breathed, closing his eyes at the swell of emotion, at the worry still nagging at him thanks to the tons of visible changes. “I’m so sorry, so sorry it took so long, so sorry we took so long.”

“Hey, hey,” Tony quickly hushed him, “None of that. You came, didn’t you? And it only took, what, a week? Two? I knew you’d come for me, Buck. Just like last time. Oh, come on now, don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying,” he denied, ignoring the tight sting in his eyes and the small sniffles he was letting loose. He was absolutely not crying. Absolutely not. “And it was ten days. You’ve been in medical for about an hour now.”

Tony perked up at that, face visible now that Bucky had opened his eyes, needing to see his lover’s face, needing to memorise the new eyes, to reconcile them with the person he loved. “Did you guys blow them up sky high? Please tell me you blew them up sky high. Uugh, I hate AIM.”

Snorting, Bucky shook his head, amazed as he said, “You did that yourself. It was the explosion that clued us in to where you were. Saving yourself just like always, huh Tony?”

Tony frowned, and Bucky just noticed that the crinkles at the end of his eyes that Bucky loved weren’t there anymore. So many changes, so much different, just how was he-? How was he going to explain this to Tony? Tell him that, somehow, AIM had deaged Tony at least a decade, if not more, and even changed his eye colour. He didn’t want to think of what AIM would have done with a young Tony, with a Tony that they could mould however way they wanted. Didn’t want to think what else they could’ve changed, how far they would have taken it, maybe to the point that Bucky wouldn’t have even been able to recognise Tony.

“I didn’t explode anything,” the mechanic slowly told him, a deeply considering look about his face. “I didn’t- Buck, I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything, my memories fuzzy but I know they put me in stasis after a while. I didn’t do anything.”

That… was strange. Then who had…?

“FRIDAY,” Tony called, tilting his head back a little, separating their foreheads. Bucky rested his against Tony’s collarbone instead, more than happy with his newfound location. “You pulled all logs from that place? Backed it up before SHIELD got there?”

FRIDAY piped in with an, “Affirmative, boss. I’ve got everything ready for when Bucky decides you’re okay enough.”

“What.” Tony deadpanned, brown eyes fixing on Bucky’s small grin. “Bucky, what. No, god no, FRIDAY Bucky will keep me in bed for months! Just so he could have his wicked way with me! … Actually…”

Bucky’s small grin grew wider, and he gave a pointed little lick of Tony’s deliciously defined collarbones.

Tony meeped.

Regrettably, Bucky forced himself up and away from the sin that was Tony’s body, even with its lack of scars and age. He couldn’t keep putting this off, he had to lay it bare, let Tony in on what all of the Tower’s scanners had confirmed.

“Tony,” he said carefully, bracing himself.

“Toilet.” Tony replied, lowering his legs to the ground.

Bucky opened his mouth, closed it, then dutifully scooted out of the way and rose as Tony stood up on wobbly feet. He gently held an elbow, supporting Tony, ignoring the way Tony’s sleep pants all but hung off the ridiculously defined hip bones, Tony’s happy trail taunting him with the way it looked even darker than usual, even softer.

He helped Tony get to the attached toilet, both of them hunched a little even though Tony straightened out bit by bit, as if testing, one two three, testing to see if maybe, just maybe, anything hurt. The engineer hobbled in, Bucky leaning against the door outside, waiting for Tony to finish and come out, when-

OW. HOLY SHIT.”

He slammed the door open, the sound of something splintering distant and unimportant, and there- Tony stood at the sink counter, staring at his reflection in the mirror. He was smoothing a hand over his face – over his smooth, hairless face – poking at the hard, defined jaw that looked more at home on Steve’s face than Tony’s, running a hand through his hair that looked just that bit fuller, just that bit darker.

Bucky pulled up next to him, breathing a sigh of relief when he realised Tony hadn’t suddenly started bleeding, and then abruptly came to a halt.

Tony spun slowly, a slight turn so he faced Bucky, so Bucky faced him, and then slowly, pointedly, angled his face down.

Down enough that he could actually see Bucky.

And Bucky, in turn, found himself actually raising his own so he could see Tony.

Faintly, Bucky said, “FRIDAY, call Bruce up, please.”

And Tony, previously five foot seven on a good day and now towering over Bucky’s own five foot nine frame, said, “This is weird. This is weird, right? I’m not the only one thinking this is weird? It is weird, right? Definitely weird. FRI, tell Bruce to get up here right the fuck now. Buck, this is weird, right? Please tell me it’s weird and you haven’t shrunk since I last saw you.”

“Oh, it’s weird alright,” Bucky confirmed, still boggling over Tony’s taller self. “It’s damn weird.”

Bruce couldn’t come up fast enough.

#

Tony Stark was a douchebag.

Exhibit A; refusing to let the team meet Spiderman.

Bucky only heard about this through the grapevine, grapevine being Steve bursting in to his shitty little apartment to rant and rave about the latest thing Stark had done to piss him off. Frankly, Bucky didn’t get what the big deal was – Spiderman could make his own decisions, right? The fact that he hadn’t popped up in front of the Avengers himself answered any questions anyway.

Steve didn’t like Bucky pointing that out.

But something about it all stuck with him, festered in the new part of his mind that liked questioning things, that suddenly delighted in the freedom to choose what it wanted to do and do it . Rhodes’ words hung there like a taunt, replaying on an endless loop that drove Bucky damn near close to insanity.

He remembered Spiderman. Remembered the way the web-slinging hero hadn’t seemed fazed in the slightest at blocking Bucky’s metal fist. He was curious – no way to deny it, no reason to. He wanted to know, to see, and so he opened the door with his own hand for the first time since he’d walked into the apartment, and stepped right out.

The sun outside was already beginning to set, not yet fully on its course but damn well close to it. Bucky hunched in on himself and threw his sweater’s hood up, hiding his features as he made his way to the nearest metro he knew off. Getting to Queens was easy – he thought the weird superhero had mentioned it, maybe. Or it might have been Steve. Who knew. But once he reached it he… stopped.

What now? He queried, asking the slumbering presence in his head.

Evaluate mission parameters, the asset murmured back.

He could do that. Goal: find Spiderman. Obstacles: actually finding Spiderman. Suggested strategy: gain the high ground. Literally.

So Bucky did.

It didn’t take long to spot the hero. His view on the roof of an apartment building let him see the red and blue superhero help an old lady cross the road. Amused, Bucky followed as Spiderman bid the lady goodbye and swung off, keeping low as he jumped from roof to roof at Spiderman’s heels. Soon enough, the new superhero stopped on a roof, moving quickly to sit next to another man on the ledge.

Bucky moved closer, keeping far enough away that Spiderman wouldn’t notice him if he was enhanced in more ways than just his strength, and felt his eyebrows climb to his hairline as he recognised who the other man was.

Tony Stark, in a suit without the jacket, holding out a messy hot dog to Spiderman.

He wished he could get closer, close enough to hear what the two were animatedly talking about, Spiderman gesturing enthusiastically like a kid excitedly telling his parents what had happened at school. The spider hero had moved his mask up to his nose, only pausing in his speech to bite into his hot dog and chew, and Stark-

Bucky leaned in closer, confirming that what he saw what indeed what he was actually seeing.

Stark was smiling.

It was small, sure, a soft little uptick of his lips that Bucky wouldn’t have noticed if he’d never seen Stark smile before. The only image he had of Iron Man was that of grief and rage, of the intense focus that had zeroed in on him and attempted to choke the life out of him like Bucky had choked his mother.

But here Stark was, smiling while Spiderman mimed an explosion, whole body swinging dangerously on the ledge of the apartment complex ceiling they were both just hanging out on. And Bucky wondered just how often they did this – met on random rooftops and chatted, how often Stark brought food and fed the kid, and-

-the asset pinged a query.

Dropping to sit on his own rooftop, Bucky frowned to himself as he replayed his own thoughts, wondering what had caught the attention of his programming. Kid, he realised, he’d thought of Spiderman as a kid, but why?

He peeked over the ledge, eyeing Stark laughing as Spiderman hunched in, visibly embarrassed. He remembered back at that airport, listening to the kid talk. He’d sounded young – Bucky had known that already, pretty much all the Avengers had known he’d sounded young – but now he wondered how young.

Which, actually, would explain Stark refusing to let the others near him, if Stark was overprotective. But then why had Stark brought the kid to the airport fiasco?

He slid away, thoughts chasing each other, the echo of Spiderman shouting an embarrassed, “Mr. Stark!” following him along as he made his way to his apartment.

The thought wouldn’t leave him alone though, nor the idea that Spiderman obviously enjoyed being in Stark’s presence, had been casual and almost endearing as he’d spoken to the older man. He decided to go back to Queens the next day, find Spiderman, maybe talk to him himself.

But come next day, Spiderman was struggling to corral a group of criminals calling themselves the Wrecking Crew without hurting bystanders.

So Bucky helped him out.

“Oh my god,” Spiderman breathed, the criminals webbed together and kindly knocked out by Bucky’s lone fist. “Oh my god this is so cool, you’re the Winter Soldier, holy shit, you’re so cool.”

Confirmation, the asset frowned. Spiderman really was a kid.

He waved the kid off as sirens came close, bled back into the shadows of the alleyway he’d come out from and watched the kid web away in a hurry before the cops could arrive.

The next day Spiderman was fighting some green weirdo on a hoverboard, clearly stressed if the way he shouted at ‘Karen’ was any indication. When Bucky helped out (a pebble thrown at one of the exhaust pipes on the hoverboard), Spiderman dropped besides him and said, “Holy shit, thanks man. But, uuuuh, Mr. Stark told me to stay away from you.”

Fair enough. Bucky wouldn’t have wanted a murderer near his spidery protégé either. Not that Bucky listened. Finding whatever weird shit Spiderboy got himself into became something of a habit for Bucky, entertaining enough to get him out of his dark, box apartment and into the sunlight. Spiderman always acted so awed whenever Bucky helped, still trying in the spirit of things to follow Stark’s increasingly frantic orders (“He told me he’d donate me to a city college if I didn’t get away from you, Mr. Winter, I’m sorry thanks for the save bye!”), but it was obvious the kid was strong.

Really strong.

And healed pretty damn fast considering Bucky occasionally still smarted from a hit or two the next day whereas Spideyboy was up and at ‘em. Or maybe it was just youth.

And then:

“You stay away from my Spiderling, Barnes!”

The Iron Man armour landed in front of him with a heavy thump, gauntlets aimed at him, the whine of repulsors powering up setting Bucky’s teeth on edge.

Innocently, Bucky replied, “Who the hell is Barnes?”

The suit faltered, the faceplate retracting to show Stark, staring at him with bewildered suspicion. A little bit of worry too, if Bucky was reading the man right. Worried that Bucky was relapsing, maybe?

But then Stark caught on to Bucky’s ruse, rolling his eyes heavenwards and huffing, muttering something under his breath about dumb super soldiers thinking they were funny. “Stay away from Underoos, Barnes,” Stark warned, pointing a robotic finger at him as his thrusters turned on, the entire armour lifting up and flying off as Stark dismissed him.

Bucky watched him fly away, marvelling at the red and gold armour, at the ease in which Stark moved inside it. He could vaguely remember Howard Stark, standing in front of a sizable crowd with a car at his back. Could remember the expo failing, and Stark cracking a joke as the crowd left for greener pastures.

That was a long time ago.

Bucky left for the apartment.

And then:

He dropkicked one of the HYDRA goons, backhanding him into unconsciousness. Picked up his gun, raised it, fired, once, twice, thrice, three agents dropping, tucked and rolled. The fourth one dropped soon after, and Bucky ducked behind a crate as shots fired upon his last position.

Seventeen HYDRA agents, all ex-SHIELD, and one injured Spiderboy.

He had to get to the kid.

He’d made his way to Queens today as well, despite Stark’s not-so-threatening warning, but had quickly found the Spiderboy wasn’t around anywhere. An old woman had hailed him – immediately setting his instinct on the alarm – said she’d seen Spiderman leave with some strange, suspicious men. All dressed in black, you see. He was the nice young man that helped the boy out every now and then, wasn’t he? Oh, do take care of the boy. He helped her get her groceries up to her floor, such a nice boy.

Bucky had immediately assumed the worst. And he’d been right.

He downed a few more agents, picking them off when the shots died off to allow for reloading. He was about to roll out of his cover, risk getting shot if it meant ending the confrontation sooner, when the familiar sound of repulsors blasted into the warehouse.

Iron Man.

In the cacophony that followed and immediate silence, Bucky ran out, beelining for the downed figure on the other side of the warehouse. Spiderman was weakly applying pressure to his side, right where the blood was most apparent, whimpering when Bucky slid to his knees beside him and took over.

“Damn, you’re a mess, kid.” He breathed, his lone hand pressing against the wound, ignoring the pained gasp. “Didn’t your mama ever teach you not to follow strangers?”

The Iron Man suit landed next to him, the heavy clunk of it shaking the ground ever so slightly. The whir of machinery caught Bucky’s attention, making him look up just as the suit opened like a can of tuna and out came Tony Stark – in nothing but sweats and a ratty tank top. “Help me get him up,” Stark ordered, hooking an arm under Spiderboy’s shoulder and hoisting him up when Bucky scrambled to follow. “Get him in there.”

Bucky – dubious and half concerned he might be doing something wrong here – helped Spiderboy step into the still open armour. It closed around him like casket, the eyes of the helmet lighting up before the entire armour shot into the air, through the open hole in the ceiling Stark had come in through to begin with.

“Where?” Bucky asked, voice leaving him when Stark turned all of his considerable focus on him.

“The med bay, Stark Tower. Dr. Cho’s already waiting. So’s Rhodey.” And he turned around and stalked off, not saying a word when Bucky quickly followed, keeping a pace or two behind.

Outside, a sleek, black car came to a stop, a man in a suit jumping out to open the back door for Stark. Stark slid in without pause, and Bucky-

Bucky hesitated, for a second, then followed after.

The car crawled forward, heading to what Bucky quickly realised was the direction of the tower, the tower Steve called Avengers Tower. Next to him, Stark stared straight, jaw locked and eyebrows furrowed, his intense focus on the partition that separated the back seat from the front.

He said nothing. Bucky said nothing. The ride stayed silent.

An hour later, a petite Asian woman stepped outside to meet them, a tired smile on her face as she announced, “He’ll be fine. The bullet ruptured his spleen and splintered, but as soon as I dug it all out his healing kicked in. He should be fine, I didn’t even have to do a splenectomy.”

Bucky felt a tension he hadn’t even noticed uncoil, setting his tight shoulders loose. Beside him, Stark exhaled, his straight posture hunching in relief. He suddenly looked exhausted, less of the strong, imposing man Bucky had seen, just… tired.

“Thank you,” Stark quietly said, surprising Bucky. “For ignoring me. For being there. I can’t-” the so called arrogant, egotistical, narcissistic genius stopped, biting his lower lip, eyes flickering up to Bucky before looking away, pained. “I can’t lose him.”

It was whispered, low and quiet, heartfelt and sincere.

Stark refused the others to go near Spiderboy not because he was controlling Spiderboy, but because he cared for Spiderboy. And he didn’t trust the Avengers with him.

“You won’t.” Bucky replied, a low promise of his own, one echoed by the programming nestled in the back of his mind. He wouldn’t let it.

They stood there, in peaceful silence, looking into the window at the sleeping Spiderboy, watching over him. Together.

#

“Ah,” Bruce said, eyes locked on Tony’s taller self. “I’d wondered if this would happen.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow, his confusion echoed as Tony said, “Brucie, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do, buddy.”

Bruce’s eyes flickering to Bucky was strange, even stranger when Bucky realised it was Bruce not wanting to explain while he was there. At least Bruce looked apologetic, but he seemed adamant about it. About the doctor-patient confidentiality he so rarely prescribed too because, and he’d repeated it a hundred times, he wasn’t that kind of doctor.

Tony frowned, catching on to the byplay, and folded his arms across his chest. “Spit it out, Bruce. Whatever it is, he can hear it.” Bucky refused to feel warmed by that. Not the time, fickle heart. Seriously not the time.

Bruce pulled a face, hesitantly asking, “You sure, Tony?”

Tony refused to budge. “Just hit me with it.”

Sighing, Bruce conceded, fiddling with his glasses for a bit before taking them off. He stepped further into the room, sitting gingerly at the foot of the bed Tony had been sleeping in, and grimaced reluctantly. “I… I was studying your blood, with FRIDAY’s help.” He began, carefully picking his words bit by bit.

“Go on,” Tony pressed, frown still on his face. Bucky took a step closer to him, gently bumping his shoulder against Tony’s own, enough that the frown eased a little on the engineer’s face. The dark eyes that glanced at him were warm, the shoulder that pressed into his own warmer still. Bucky hid the smile that struggled to stretch across his face, ignoring the way his heart did summer saults in ridiculous glee. Stupid heart.

“Your entire genetic structure’s been altered,” oh right, Bruce. “It’s still the same, or at least, close enough to it that I could see the similarities from records of a previous blood work, but the change… it’s… it’s not normal.” Bruce explained, biting his bottom lip, fingers nervously fiddling with the lens of his glasses. “I’ve- I’ve seen it before, though. A couple of times. All from the same person, really.”

Tony clearly didn’t like what Bruce was saying, and frankly, Bucky wasn’t liking it much himself. “Who, Bruce? Just spit it out already, you’re killing me with the suspense.”

“Steve,” Bruce blurted out, face breaking out into relief as his shoulders sagged, clearly pleased to be able to get this off his chest. “Your bloodwork looks like a carbon copy of Steve’s, except for genetic variables that determine stuff like hair colour and basic features. Tony- I-” the physicist inhaled, shakily. “I don’t know what the hell AIM did to you, but somehow, you have a fully functioning super soldier serum in you. And it’s working.”

Bucky opened his mouth and closed it, shocked into speechlessness. It made sense, he thought wildly to himself, remembering the changes he’d seen in Tony, remembering how he’d just assumed it was something to do with the visible deaging. But- but the serum? That made much more sense. Bucky had beefed up, after whatever the hell had happened to him when he’d first been taken as a prisoner of war, had vials after vials of stuff he couldn’t make head nor tails off injected into him before Steve had come barging in dressed in the American flag.

He was taller, broader in the shoulder, and his jaw was more pronounced. That didn’t even include the super strength and healing HYDRA’s botched version of the serum had given him. Because that’s what it’d been, a botched version. Steve’s- whatever the hell ran through Steve’s veins was the real deal, the genuine article, and Steve could probably wipe the floor with him if Bucky didn’t have seventy years of the asset under his belt.

And now Tony had that. Somehow, AIM had done what HYDRA had only dreamed of doing. Had done what Bruce himself had tried to do, and failed.

“FRIDAY,” Tony finally spoke up, breaking the tense silence that had befallen them after Bruce’s announcement. He was deathly still, body coiled up like a livewire, expression serious. “Lay it on me, baby girl.”

And the room became washed alight with blue holographs.

One flickered to the front, shade lighter than the others, and Tony held a hand out to it and zoomed in. Bucky, from his position at Tony’s side, could see it perfectly – from AIM’s logo on the upper right corner to the report detailed below. He skimmed over it quickly, taking the words in at a glance, and struggled to keep up as Tony flicked through other files, other pictures, zipping past them faster than even Bucky could keep up.

And then Tony went still.

“Is this… FRIDAY, you sure?” He breathed, eyes closing as his nostrils flared, hands curling into fists.

“With the confirmation from your most recent bloodwork and a side-by-side comparison of Captain Rogers’ Boss, I’m sure. Ninety nine point nine percent sure.”

Tony exhaled, slowly, not stopping Bucky as he reached out and flickered through the holographs again, at a pace more suitable for actual consumption. He frowned, reading the reports that detailed AIM looking at Tony’s blood, at trying to find a way to genetically identify his genius and replicate it. At all the things they’d tried – god, for eight days they’d jabbed Tony with concoction after concoction and tortured him – until, suddenly, they’d done something.

Stark’s genetic coda has changed. Further testing required.

And they’d done just that: sleep deprivation, electrocution, forcing Tony to jump through hoops for the basic human right to have a meal. There were video logs that accompanied some of the reports, still pictures in others, and all of it made Bucky sick.

But then-

Incident Report – Stark is in pain. Believes it to be from something new we’re testing on him. We haven’t initiated any new experiment since the last one. This is not us. Shall observe for further data.

And again-

Incident Report #2 – He’s still in pain. Is losing coherency. Suspected mental degradation. Cause unknown. Proceeding to medical examination. Shall observe for further data.

And again-

Incident Report #3 – He’s completely non-verbal. And strong. Doctor Libvon has been summarily released from duty. It took three doses of carfentanil to slow him down. Five until he became unconscious. Further testing required.

And again, and again, and again-

Incident Report #23 – Stark is completely out of it. Suspected mental degradation is all but a certainty, at this point. He doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know who we are, and facilitates between being docile and violently aggressive. We cannot synthesize any more carfentanil. His cell can no longer hold him. This cannot continue. Cutting our losses is advised. We’ve lost him. The world has lost Anthony Edward Stark. As scientists, we can agree that we, too, have lost far more than we were truly willing to lose. Is the pursuit of technology, of knowledge, so important that we would bring an end to the foremost genius of our time? We do not know. Putting him out of his misery is advised. This is no way to live.

No further testing required.

And then- finally-

Log x6fGT8Wq12 - Subject is a loose cannon. Worse than Banner. Putting him in cryo ‘till someone can figure out how the hell to kill him. His genetic code is unstable, we believe that to be the cause of Stark’s own instability. It’s constantly changing, much like Banner’s DNA shifts, yet not as rhythmic. We do not know what it’s changing too, and frankly, we no longer wish to be around it. Stark has rigged the place to blow. We’re putting him in cryo for transport. No more further correspondence.

“You should also see this, Boss,” FRIDAY suggested, voice gentle as she brought up another report, one with schematics and hand written notes. “I believe this was the last experiment they attempted on you before they… stopped.”

Bucky frowned, only able to see that it looked like some sort of ‘pod, similar to the cryogenic pod he’d found Tony in. Bruce’s soft inhale meant something more, though – something like understanding. Tony’s pale face probably meant the same.

“Vita rays,” Tony stated, glancing at Bucky out of the corner of his eyes when Bucky went stiff in understanding, “That’s the goddamn vita ray machine.”

“That… explains a lot,” Bruce spoke up slowly, looking even more nervous than he had before. “Tony, there’s more.”

Tony laughed disbelievingly. “More than me apparently having the super soldier serum in me, Brucie? What the fuck else did they do to me?”

Bruce looked sick, or maybe like he was about to turn into the Hulk. Bucky didn’t like it. He inched closer to Tony, slipping his flesh and blood hand into the crook of Tony’s elbow, gripping it tight for support. Tony’s hand slipped over it, and on a quick glance Bucky could see the white-knuckled grip Tony held him back with. Could feel it too.

“I-” Bruce started, stopped. “I’m just going to show it to you. FRIDAY?”

All the holographs winked out of existence, the blue glow disappearing within a blink of an eye before being replaced by one lone, blue graph. Two side-by-side comparisons of a double helix popped up, scientific mumbo jumbo scrolling beneath. One – blue in colour – was labelled ANTHONY E. STARK, the other – red – a STEVEN G. ROGERS.

They slowly came closer, until one overlapped the other, and-

-a fifty percent match.

Tony’s hand shot out, swiping the hologram till it disappeared, snarling at it in frustration. “No!” He shouted, turning on Bruce, anger alighting his still brown eyes. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! No!”

Bucky grabbed at a strand of blue that still remained, pulling it and shooting one of FRIDAY’s cameras a pleading look. She restored it for him, letting him see it again, and this time he read through it more closely, relieved when FRIDAY included helpful notes to help him.

A fifty percent match, it said. Another image popped up, another double stranded helix in black bracketing Tony’s on the other side; HOWARD J. STARK. That was the other fifty percent, which meant sense, since Howard Stark was Tony’s father. But then what about Tony’s-

“Tony,” Bucky heard Bruce say, tone pleading, “Tony, I swear I rechecked it. Again and again and again. Even FRIDAY’s confirmed it.”

“It’s true, Boss,” FRIDAY agreed, audibly sympathetic. “I can find no traces of Maria Stark’s DNA in you.”

-Mom. How the hell did Tony have Howard’s blood but not Maria’s. Why the hell did he have Steve’s? When-

Bucky froze.

Oh no.

Oh god no.

“I think I might know how.”

Tony spun to him, eyes wide in betrayal. “You can’t seriously think this is true, right? Despite this being the twenty-first century we still haven’t figured out how to make baby’s from two men, Bucky!”

Bucky grimaced apologetically, even as he pinched the bridge of his nose in horrified disbelief. “Except for Howard Stark, apparently.”

Tony choked out a bitter laugh, the blue of his eyes ice cold, a shade or two lighter than Steve’s own. “How the fuck do you figure that, Bucky? How the fuck do both of you think this is possible? Huh? Go on. Tell me how the hell Howard would even have Steve’s DNA to do something as stupid as, what, join with his own and make an actual baby?”

There was no gentle way to say this, not really. Bucky hated absolutely everything as he blurted out, “Spunk.”

Bruce made a high pitched, strangled noise.

“Spu-” Tony spluttered, “What?”

“While he was being prepped to take the serum, Steve told me some of the… samples… the team wanted included, uh, semen.” Oh god, this was worse when Morita found him with his pants down and a Nazi woman. Steve’s face had been burning a bright red when he’d spilled the beans, just as reluctant as Bucky was now. And to think Bucky had laughed back then, damn, life was cruel. “Said the scientists were insistent about it. Howard was a scientist, and the only one to survive that whole mess with the amount of information he had. Not that surprising that he’d have saved some of... uh… that, too.”

Tony stared at him, speechless.

“Whatever happened,” Bruce cleared his throat, body language screaming just how uncomfortable he was. “You still have the serum in you, and, uh, if this is true, which it is, Tony don’t look at me like that, then that means you’ve always had the serum in you, just… inactive.”

“Until the vita rays.” Bucky added helpfully.

Bruce nodded slowly, “Until the vita rays.”

“So now it’s active.” Tony summarised, staring at his own fingers, noticing the lack of the workshop scars he’d always been ridiculously proud off. “And I’m almost half a foot taller.” He inhaled deeply, closing his eyes as his chest expanded, opening them again as he exhaled, body relaxing.

“Ok,” he said, expression determined, hands at his hips. “Ok, here’s what we’re going to do. Bruce, out. Tell absolutely no one what was spoken of in this room. FRIDAY, delete everything. From everywhere. Code Blackout. Effective immediately.”

FRIDAY chimed, “Already done, Boss.”

“The others are gonna be curious,” Bucky pointed out, frowning at Tony. “They’re gonna ask questions, ‘bout why you’re taller, and they’re gonna ask Bruce.”

Tony gave him a belligerent look, knowing damn well Bucky was right, because he turned to Bruce again and said, “Okay, fine. Story time: AIM gave me some fucked up version of the serum. I’m now taller. We don’t know what else is included. Say nothing else.”

“I think Steve should know-” Bruce tried.

Absolutely nothing else.” Tony gritted out, dead serious.

The scientist pursed his lips disapprovingly, but gave in without much of a fight.

“That goes to you too, James,” Tony huffed at him, turning those startling intense eyes on him. First name, Bucky winced internally, Tony was dead serious. “You can’t tell Steve a damn word.”

He shrugged easily, not really wanting to tackle that beast himself anyway. Tony squinted suspiciously at him, not trusting the easy acquiescence, and Bucky didn’t help any with the grin he innocently shot him in answer. He liked fucking with Tony, that hadn’t changed from the first time they’d really met, and if Bucky had anything to say about it, it’d never change.

“Let’s just-” Tony sighed, rolling his eyes fondly at Bucky’s grin, “Let’s just go. I’m totally fine anyway, so enhanced healing is a thing. I’m gonna guess strength and speed has gone up too, but we can test that some other time. We should probably go show the others I’m still totally not dead yet. Has anyone called Rhodey?”

Bucky cringed, just as FRIDAY announced, “He’s just arrived, Boss. Spiderman and Vision are also here.”

“Great!” Tony clapped his hands together, perking up at the idea of his best friend and adopted children being here. And then Tony’s face transformed into wild, ecstatic, pleasure. “Oh my god,” he breathed, awed, turning to face Bucky. “I’m taller than you. I- I might be stronger than you. Bucky, Buck, Buckaroos, do you know what this means?”

Bucky cocked an eyebrow, amusedly asking, “What?”

“Wall sex!” Tony cheered, Bruce immediately groaning from beside them. “Marathon sex! All the sex! With me holding you up! Buck, we have to do this, we have to…” His eyes glittered, the expression in them familiar, even if the colouring was new, “Experiment.”

Bucky burst out laughing, leaning in against Tony’s shoulder, the sound half joyful and half relieved. Tony was still Tony, even with the crystal blue eyes that sparkled like light reflecting off of ice, even with the extra inches and skin as smooth as a baby’s behind.

AIM had failed. The world hadn’t lost Tony. Bucky hadn’t lost Tony.

Thank god for that.

#

Finding out where Stark would be turned out to be far more difficult than hunting down Spiderboy (“I’m Peter! Peter Parker! Thanks, for, uh, like, saving me, and sorry about webbing you and Mr. Falcon back at the airport. Also sorry for always running away after you helped me out, Mr. Stark would get really mad and worried and always check me from head to bottom and get Karen to snitch on me if I didn’t immediately run away every time you popped up, he’s really, like, worried you’ll hurt me, even though you’re, like, super nice! So, uh, hi!”) but the asset liked the challenge.

And once he’d figured it out? Well…

Bucky took to dropping in on Stark every time the man stepped foot outside his tower. Every. Single. Time.

Stark had just finished up with a gala? There was Bucky, bleeding out of the shadows and leaning against his car, asking where a fella could go ‘round these parts for some actually good burger and fries.

Stark coming out of a board meeting? Bucky, sliding in from out of nowhere, remarking on Stacy at the front desk giving him the evil eye. Dame had a mean look, he’d said, ignoring the way Stark had jumped at his presence, he’d have to be careful of that one.

He did it enough times that Stark slowly stopped reacting negatively, stopped cringing away whenever Bucky appeared, stopped staring at him with wary suspicion. His breathing stopped picking up until Bucky worried the man would pass out from hyperventilating so much, and soon, he even started talking back. Little things, at first, a warning that Stacy knew six different forms of self-defence and could suss out a security risk at first glance, how Barnes needed to stop trying to kill Tony by way of a heart attack. A few complaints, here and there of people – his board of directors, mostly – approaching him with concern about the one-armed man constantly seen around him.

“I know you’re there, Barnes,” Stark spoke up one day, signing his last autograph with a flourish as the gala came to a close behind him. “Stop lurking and come out.”

He’d even started noticing him, calling him out before Bucky could creep up on the man and frighten him.

But then Bucky didn’t go, one day. Even though he knew Stark had a press conference and would be finishing up within the hour. He didn’t go anywhere, that day, too busy shivering under the mounds of blankets he’d thrown over himself to block out the biting wind that threatened to pull him under. He shook and whimpered, memory playing tricks on him, thick accents shouting orders in a foreign tongue, needles and injections and the cHaiR-

He didn’t go anywhere that day.

Stark gave him a long, probing look, when Bucky finally mustered up enough energy to slink out of the apartment, to meet him at his car, with his hoodie up and hiding a good portion of his face.

“Let’s go get shakes,” the billionaire decreed, moving to open the door, shoulder brushing against Bucky’s. “I want shakes, you want shakes? ‘Course you want shakes. Come on, racoon eyes,” Tony held the door open for him, beckoning him in, towards milkshakes and no judgement, “Get in.”

And Bucky did.

#

Steve Rogers found out on a cold wintery morning, in New York downtown, when the Hulk, fresh out of smashable Doombots, shoved a yelping Tony into Steve and gruffly told the Captain to, “Protect your son. Tin man stupid.”

Explaining that had been a nightmare, Steve blushing and stammering and so fucking mortified at the knowledge of just what, exactly, had been done with the semen samples he’d been forced to give, and Clint legitimately choking on his laughter while Thor – fresh from his visit with Jane – loudly expressed his concern about not having known Midgardian men could procreate.

Tony stood ramrod straight, equally mortified, only the tips of his ears deep red. Just like Steve’s ears got red when he blushed. Bucky always used to find the scant few similarities between the two strange, but now, with the new knowledge of Tony’s parenting, he found it bizarre.

Bruce apologised profusely for the Hulk’s action, still guilty even after Tony waved him off, not holding it against him. “It was bound to happen,” Tony grumbled, letting Bucky tug him under his arm, hunching in so he could fit his taller self against his partner’s side. “’Least it was ‘cuz of big green, I guess.”

Things didn’t immediately fall into place afterwards. Far from it. Steve, unnerved by the lengths Howard had gone to preserve the serum, took to alternating between outright avoiding Tony or hunting him down to try and talk about it, to try and make sense of just what the hell Howard might have been thinking. Natasha eyed Tony every time they were in the same room, which in turn made Bucky eye Natasha, because he didn’t appreciate the way Tony’s shoulders rose every time she made her presence known or the way Tony no longer felt safe in his own home.

And that didn’t even begin to cover Tony’s attempts to learn his new body. The team, now fully in the know, suddenly had explanations for why the handle to the kitchen door was warped beyond use, or why Tony was actually taller. Bucky was able to get Tony to stop wearing the coloured contacts that hid his blue eyes, was able to get him to believe that they were beautiful, that, “No, Tony, they’re not weird, they’re breathtakin’, doll. Don’t hide them from me.”

And when Tony would forget his own strength and pick up the entire sofa one handed in search of the tv remote? When the media finally clocked on and went insane about Tony’s new height and eye colour, theorising about plastic surgery and weird alien infections and other insanities? When even Pepper was weirded out by the fact that Tony now towered over her rather than the opposite?

Bucky was there, tucking Tony under his arm like before, letting Tony hide away in his workshop, with only DUM-E and the other bots for company, playing referee between him and the world. And Bucky didn’t mind it one bit. He loved being able to help Tony, loved that he could goad the engineer into shoving Bucky up against walls and decorate his neck and chest with hickeys. Loved the fact that his thighs were always sore from wrapping them around Tony’s waist, how Tony would pick him up and just carry him around because they both enjoyed the sheer novelty of it. Tony, who’d throw him over his shoulder and crow about finally getting to be the caveman in their roleplay, Bucky laughing himself sick as he was thrown onto the bed.

It was nice.

It wasn’t all nice though.

That one time Tony had accidentally broken Clint’s arm by just patting it had been bad. The time when Tony, angry from yet another delicate experiment breaking in two because of his own hands, had snapped when Steve just wouldn’t stop pursuing him had been bad. When he’d gotten into a screaming match with Steve, Clint, and Natasha had been bad. Really bad.

Bucky had been certain that that had been it, the breaking point of the already fragile bond that barely kept the team together. Tony had had a lot to shout about, had enough pent up frustration and hurt that the trio had visibly not been ready to hear. They hadn’t reacted kindly to essentially being called backstabbing traitors, but Bucky, somewhat guiltily, thought it was something they’d needed to hear.

He’d been there, when Natasha had used her widow’s bites on T’challa to let Steve and Bucky escape at the airport, rather than stand by Tony’s side and apprehend them. He’d been there, when Steve had lied about knowing who had killed Tony’s parents, right to Tony’s face. He didn’t know what the hell Clint had done, exactly, but he’d been around to hear Clint’s every caustic word about the genius, even now, in the tower, when he enjoyed luxuries from said genius.

For days on end after, the tower remained tense, the air thick with tension, choking Bucky with it. He remained at Tony’s side throughout it, ignoring the wounded look Steve threw him, or the disappointment Natasha tried to guilt him with for supposedly abandoning Steve. He held Tony close in the privacy of their floor, was there to pick the pieces when Tony’s rage boiled over and he punched a hole in the wall, immediately apologising like he wasn’t the one who owned the whole damn building in the first place. When Tony, exhausted, would let Bucky wrestle him into the little spoon and talk about a cold, empty childhood, pinpricks of warmth in the form of one Edwin Jarvis.

About his mom, and how it was fucking him up, knowing that he wasn’t actually biologically hers. About whether Howard would have even told her, if she’d known, or if he’d manipulated her as well.

Tony talked about meeting Rhodes for the first time, fourteen years old to Rhodes’ nineteen, how Rhodes had let some weird, rich kid follow him around everywhere on campus.

About Stane.

Bucky held him close, gritting his teeth as he buried his face in Tony’s hair, inhaling his scent as Tony spoke about how Stane supported him, then betrayed him.

He found out everything he’d ever wanted to know, all the things that had seemed confusing, that had never made sense, like how Tony had met Natasha, first, how she’d double-timed him. About Steve and their first disastrous meeting. Loki, and the image on the other side of the wormhole.

The Accords, and Bucky’s grip on Tony tightened, teeth grinding as he heard everything that had never made sense from Steve’s point of view, determination settling in like a shroud across his shoulder, white, hot anger sparking bright where his programming lived.

Unacceptable, the asset snarled, incensed.

Bucky agreed.

FRIDAY helped him gather all the files, all the correspondences, all the past records of what the Sokovia Accords could’ve been, would’ve been, if Tony Stark – self-serving, egotistical, narcissistic Tony Stark – hadn’t stepped in and compromised. The AI was almost gleeful about it all, bombarding Bucky with more and more data, with more and more empirical proof of every sweat, blood and tears Tony had poured into keeping them all safe, into keeping every enhanced or mutant on this planet safe, into keeping people like Spiderboy and fucking Steve Rogers safe.

He called them all down into a conference room, stared grim faced as the three original Avengers sat down, as they immediately lurched to their feet when the sound of the only door they’d come through clicking shut echoed. On the screen behind Bucky, three video feeds pop into existence, Wanda Maximoff on one – still in Wakanda, which would no doubt get T’challa calling soon enough unimpressed about his country being hacked into – Sam Wilson on another, and Scott Lang on the third.

All accounted for, then.

“Shit,” Clint was saying, arrow and bow in hand, body tense, “FRIDAY’s gone Ultron, then. How the hell we gonna get out of this, Cap?”

He couldn’t believe the nerve of these people.

“Sit the fuck down,” Bucky growled, tapping an annoyed finger on the table. “I don’t have time to waste on you shitheads, so I’m going to make this quick. Sit the fuck down, or I’m going to make FRI gas you.”

They all went still, staring at him with wide eyes.

“Oh,” FRIDAY enthusiastically piped in, “I’ve always wanted to test out the neurotoxins.”

Bucky grinned, feral, as the team slowly began to take their seats.

He ignored the other three behind him, knowing FRIDAY would be transmitting the video of the conference room to them, and began sorting through the files. “This,” he began, throwing them three copies of the original he held in his hands. “Is the first mention of the accords in government circles.”

Steve looked ready to argue, to fight, but Clint’s shocked gasp kept him silent.

“But,” the archer frowned, thumbing through the papers, “this is right after the Battle of New York.”

“Exactly,” growled Bucky, furious. “And Tony only found out after the whole Mandarin fiasco-” of which none of them had been there, he was pissed about that too, “-when the accords looked a little something like this.” He threw them three more files, watching as they parsed it through, knowing FRIDAY was sending the same to the other three.

Natasha’s face went pale, Steve, next to her, stuttered, “They- they can’t do that. This- this is inhuman.”

Holding camps for anyone suspected of being even remotely enhanced, scientific enquiry into figuring out how to control them, how to utilize them, preliminary draw ups of the accords, in fancy words stating that any found to be actually enhanced would lose all human rights, as they would no longer be considered human. And right at the top of the list of the first to be taken, to be toyed with as nothing more than a lab specimen, Steve’s name.

“Tony would’ve been safe,” Bucky told them, voice low and angry. “He wasn’t enhanced or a mutant, even if some were trying to spin his intelligence as suspicious. But he still went in to try and stop it, he still tried to help, to do the right thing, even though it cost him everything.”

Correspondence after correspondence. Tony jetting all over the world to meet with different countries, calling in favours after favours, throwing money he didn’t have because SI was struggling from him being so overworked, at corrupt officials and less corrupt institutes. Tony had run himself ragged trying to first put a stop to the accords before realising it was a loss cause.

And then moving to change it.

“He worked on this for fucking years trying to keep your dumb, ungrateful asses out of the fireworks, working with fuckheads like Ross who he knew had worked with Obaidah Stane to get him killed, all because he had to.” Good, he thought harshly, seeing Natasha and Clint wince, he was glad they at least knew how fucked up that was. “And when he fucking needed you guys to actually do something as simple as fucking read the accords, you all up and betrayed him. Turned your back on him. Proved to the world that you were fucking dangerous and needed to be stopped.”

And Tony had paid for that, had gone missing for days with no one the wiser except the only people he saw on a daily basis. FRIDAY played the video – courtesy of Vision, who was backtracking through South Asia at the moment – and Bucky scowled as the team stared wide eyed at the proof, at the video logs of Tony Stark imprisoned in the Raft at Ross’ hands, bruised and battered.

Bucky still seethed, months later. Getting to him had been a mess, and Ross’ suspiciously subsequent death had only been a balm to that fury, especially since he hadn’t had a hand it in, at all.

He still found Rhodes terrifying, though.

Showing them the rest was easy, making it clear that he knew this wasn’t all on them was easy. Tony should’ve told someone, should’ve told anyone, but it was no surprise that he hadn’t told any of the Avengers. He should have still told Rhodes, at least, but, secretly, Bucky couldn’t blame him. He wouldn’t be surprised if Tony occasionally wondered when Rhodes would betray him as well. Tony was a logical person. He’d been betrayed by everyone. Everyone. Rhodes being the lone exception to that did not make sense.

Bucky was going to damn well try his best to also be the exception.

He left them there once he’d finished, too angry to stick around and hold their hand while they parsed through the veritable mountain of incriminating evidence. Slowly, once they’d calmed down and thought it through, the three, separately, tried to make their amends.

Bucky had raged at Tony as well, throwing pillows at the taller man in his frustration, shooting down all the paranoid excuses Tony shot his way. Tony tried holding on to his stubborn resolve – just like Steve, Bucky mentally snarled – but Bucky kept at it, locking Tony in the circle of his arms in a far too stern hug that Tony could do nothing against. Would do nothing against, because Tony Stark was weak to human contact.

And then, quietly, they apologised to each other, Tony for keeping it quiet, for springing the accords on them, that he hadn’t had a choice after Sokovia, after the whole Ultron thing, that Ross had steamrolled him. Steve, Clint, and Natasha had apologised for- for a lot, Bucky noticed with a grimace, knowing he was going to have his own shouting match with Steve after this, because the damn punk was always so damn stubborn, like father like fucking son.

It would take time, Bucky knew, for the team to heal, slowly. But they would, finally. No more living in the weird half life they had before, where three of them pretended everything was still perfect while the fourth avoided them with everything he had. Natasha, for once, stopped wearing her masks, surprising Steve when she no longer joked, no longer tried to hook him up or everything else she’d done in a careful bid to seem sociable. Her real self was more the Natasha Bucky knew, from his stint as Yasha, blunt with harsh opinions and aloof. More caught up on the small details than the bigger picture.

Clint… avoided Tony for a while, up until he suddenly invited Tony to come down for one of his kid’s birthday. The archer was the most awkward, and the most guilty, and Bucky still didn’t know exactly what the hell was going on there.

He didn’t care about the way Tony would glare at him every time the team awkwardly danced around him. He just beamed at Tony’s expression, as innocently as he could, and kissed a grumbling Tony’s cheek in good humour.

They’d be fine, he thought fondly, watching Natasha whittle away at a piece of wood with a deadly knife, Tony watching, fascinated, from the other side of the living room. It’d take time, he knew, but they’d be fine.

And that’s all he could ask for.

#

“You did not.” Tony denied, even though his voice sounded doubtful, his expression hopeful that maybe, just maybe, he was right.

“I did,” Bucky shot back, internally cracking up at the hopeful look disappearing from Tony’s eyes. “I didn’t know who he was, don’t really know much of my targets, to be honest, but I knew he was a big name. I didn’t even remember until just recently.”

“You-” Tony started, stopped, face pulled into pure, comical horror. “You killed Michael Jackson? You’re fucking with me, why the fuck would HYDRA want the prince of music killed? Barnes, you better not be fucking with me.”

Bucky struggled to keep his face straight as he said, “He had too much influence. HYDRA only targets those that have too much influence. They only want their own agents in positions of power. He might have been approached,” he reasoned, secretly impressed with his own bullshit, “And if he’d refused or turned down the invitation, he would have been neutralised. He had been neutralised. I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you liked him so much.”

Liked him?” Tony spluttered, incensed, “I loved him! He’s a legend! Was a legend! I feel so attacked right now, you fucking killed Michael Jackson! How do you even sleep at night-”

“-Tony?”

They both froze, slowly turning to where the voice had originated from.

Rhodes, dressed in an imposing, gunmetal grey, War Machine armour, stared at them both, expression unimpressed. “So Spidey told the truth, huh.”

Peter. Bucky was going to kill that boy.

“Rhodey!” Tony enthused awkwardly, weakly adding, “You speak with Underoos?”

Rhodes looked pointedly unenthused. “What the hell is he doing here, Tones?”

“You told me to do what I wanted to do.” Bucky blurted out, swallowing thickly when Rhodes’ flat stare turned on him.

“And what is it that you wanted to do?” The colonel frowned at him.

Mind tripping over itself, Bucky heard himself say, “I wanted to see just how far I could keep lying about killing Michael Jackson before Tony caught on.”

Tony’s indignant squawk of, “What the fuck, Barnes, you lying piece of shit, I should have fucking known!” was music to his ears, Bucky turning to Tony with a mocking chuckle as the engineer kept cursing him out.

“You know what?” Rhodes spoke up, interrupting Bucky slapping at Tony’s poking fingers, “I don’t even care. If you two lovebirds want to secretly enact Romeo and Juliet, then that’s your business. I ain’t touching this with a ten foot pole. You,” he pointed at Bucky, the soldier freezing like a deer in headlights. “I’ve got my eyes on you, Barnes.”

Bucky stared, genuinely frightened, as Rhodes turned and left, Tony shouting, “Stop talking to my Spiderling, platypus! I don’t want you corrupting him!”

“I’m gonna let the brat fly War Machine, Stark!” Rhodes shouted back, just before he flew off.

Tony shouted, enraged, grumbling about traitors and donating Rhodes to a community college, then noticed Bucky’s continued silence. “What?” Tony frowned, peering up at his face with his big, brown eyes. Those eyes blinked, slowly, Bucky suddenly noticing just how long the eyelashes were, just how well they dusted Tony’s cheeks. Then glee lit up behind them, eyebrows rising, as Tony crowed, “Holy shit, you’re scared of Rhodey!”

Bucky immediately moved to deny it, to protect his virtue, but-

“He came to the apartment I’m in, just popped in out of fuckin’ nowhere, and threatened me.” At Tony’s lack of understanding, Bucky insisted, “In his wheelchair, Tony! I’m on the third floor!”

Tony burst out laughing.

“Shut up,” Bucky whined, embarrassed. “Or I’ll tell the Starkling ‘bout the way you screamed like a little girl that time I brought you a hotdog.”

Tony choked into silence, turning to stare at him with wide eyes. They really were brown, Bucky thought distantly, like warm chocolate, with streaks of amber that appeared when the lighting was just right. Beautiful.

“Starkling.” Tony repeated, deadpan. And then- “Starkling. Holy- holy shit, that’s so much better than Spiderling! FRIDAY! Change Underoos’ designation to Starkling! James, you’re a goddamn godsend!”

And Bucky- Bucky blushed, mortified at his own thoughts, at the fact that he found Stark’s manic enthusiasm cute, at the way the engineer immediately started bickering with his AI, the song and dance of it familiar, entertaining.

Holy shit, he thought to himself, dazed. Holy shit indeed, the asset agreed, mockingly.

#

Observation: emotional attachment formed.

Bucky grumbled something unflattering under his breath, smiling benignly when Tony shot him a confused look, popcorn halfway to his mouth. They were at a cinema, in the very last row like some awkward teenagers, watching some movie Peter had sworn up and down had been good. Bucky couldn’t say a damn thing about what had happened in it so far, too busy trying to ignore the way Tony watched the big screen with childish delight, sucking the straw of his large drink.

Just Bucky’s luck, to fall for a fella who was way out of his league. Not to mention a fella that had every reason to absolutely loathe him.

Improbable, the asset agreed, almost gently.

Once the movie finished, Bucky followed Tony out of the cinema, mood dampened by his own thoughts. Tony was saying something about the movie, about how the alien eating his friend had been his favourite part, and, distracted, Bucky agreed with a vague, “Yeah, I loved that bit too.”

Then realised they’d been watching a movie about time travel, not aliens.

Tony stared at him, expression grim.

“Look,” he started, lips thin, “I get it if you’re having seconds thoughts about all,” he waved a hand in the air, indicating- “this. It’s fine, if you want to call it quits. You were the one to pop up anyway, you don’t have to keep doing it.”

Doing… what?

Bucky stared wide eyed at Tony, trying to catch up, trying to figure out just what the hell the other was talking about. Had Tony found out about his feelings? Was Tony giving him the rejection talk? Was-

-No, Bucky realised with dread. Tony thought Bucky was having second thoughts about being his friend. Tony had noticed Bucky’s internal conflict, but had completely misread it as Bucky no longer wanting to hang out with him.

Shit, he thought sadly, just how often had people bailed on Tony for him to immediately think Bucky would do the same? As if Bucky could do the same. He was so gone on the engineer his HYDRA programming had second hand embarrassment.

He couldn’t- he couldn’t let Tony keep thinking that, and yet, he couldn’t exactly explain himself, because Tony would want to know what had him so distracted if it wasn’t that, but-

Oh.

He could let Tony know. He could take a leap of faith and-

-Course of action unadvised, the asset grumbled, alarmed.

Fuck that noise, Bucky mentally rolled his eyes, buoyed by the new thought, by the new course of action. You know what they say in the twenty first century?

Don’t you dare, the asset threatened.

YOLO-

-He leaned in and kissed Tony.

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, the part of his history that had been abused and brainwashed by HYDRA gave a long, suffering sigh. Bucky paid no mind to it, gently cupping Tony’s cheek when the engineer didn’t immediately shout and punch him in the face. The lips against his own were still, still parted from whatever word Tony had been saying before Bucky had rudely interrupted him.

He should apologise, he thought distantly, feeling pleased when the lips – and the man that they belonged to – finally began responding, carefully pressing against him. His momma would have his hide if she knew he’d interrupted someone so rudely.

Later, the asset chided him, rolling his own eyes. Mission parameters: Tony Stark.

Bucky’s lips twitched upwards, and Tony- Tony muttered something about just how rude Bucky was, interrupting him like that, making him worry for nothing.

“You gonna make it up to me, James?”

Oh, Bucky liked that. The way Tony said his first name? He liked that a lot. He hummed in thought, pulling back just a scant few inches when Tony closed in for another kiss, keeping them just close enough to breathe each other’s air. “Hmmm,” he vocalised consideringly, eyeing Tony’s warm, brown eyes, his own no doubt reflecting the glint of mirth within. “I suppose I could try. You sure you up for it, though?”

“Oho,” Tony huffed indignantly, “Fighting words, Sabretooth. I’m up for anything. Hell, I’m just up.” He wiggled his eyebrows, Bucky snorting at the horrible innuendo.

“Then let me help you with that.”

And he did. Enthusiastically.

Hours later, when the sun had already begun its ascent into the sky, the darkness receding for daytime, Tony groaned, “Bucky, babe,” as he pushed at any part of Bucky’s rock-hard muscles he could reach. “As much as I’d love to go another round, I can’t. I’m two seconds away from just passing out on ya, sweetcheeks.”

Bucky, sweaty and loose-limbed, grumbled into Tony’s stomach, flesh hand squeezing rhythmically at Tony’s sculpted hips. The past few hours had been some of the damn best he’d ever experienced, Tony was – damn, but there was a reason Tony was always voted most eligible bachelor every damn year – but Bucky wanted more. Bucky wanted more of everything.

“Come on, doll,” he cajoled, throwing Tony that rakish grin he’d come to realise Tony could never let slide. “I know you can do it, baby. Know it’d be worth it.”

Tony groaned, throwing his head back against the pillow, unconsciously displaying the delicious column of his neck. Licking his lips, Bucky slid upwards, sliding his hand along Tony’s chest as he mouthed at a collarbone, then at the point where neck became shoulder. Tony groaned again, the sound different in pitch, and undulated beneath him.

Bucky smothered a laugh within Tony’s arc reactor, the engineer grumbling above him, and set about wringing one more orgasm out of them both.

#

Tony was missing. Tony was missing.

Bucky wouldn’t stand for it.

He found Rhodes, in War Machine, searching frantically for his best friend, found Peter, swinging across the entirety of New York City futilely searching for the man he looked up to, and found Tony, days after, in an underwater prison bruised and battered.

“Hi, Buckaroo,” Tony tiredly greeted him, trying to smile but wincing. “Oh good, you brought the cavalry.”

Vision, the android, fazed through the cell glass, gently kneeling by Tony, helping him up. “Hello, sir,” the android greeted, note of concern audible. “Is there a reason why Sergeant Barnes keeps calling me Starkling?”

Tony had winced at the greeting, the flash of hurt there for a split second before disappearing. And then he’d started laughing, just like Bucky had known he would, letting him take him in his arms once Vision had fazed them through.

“Oh, Buck,” Tony breathed, burying his face in Bucky’s lone shoulder. “What would I do without you?”

Bucky hummed, ignoring the rage that simmered deep below, ignoring the cold certainty the asset assured him with off Ross’ upcoming demise. “Crash ‘n burn, I suppose.”

Tony chuckled, kissing his collarbone, humming himself in reply. “Mmm, remind me to build you an arm. I thought off the most beautiful schematics while enjoying Casa Ross.”

Bucky wouldn’t need to. Tony would present him with an arm the day Ross was brought to trail and found guilty by the International Court of Justice, a reward for all the incriminating evidence Bucky had amassed with the help of a furious Rhodes and a spiteful FRIDAY. And then he’d been found dead, in his cell, a week into imprisonment, seemingly of natural causes.

Bucky swore up and down that Rhodes – the only one who hadn’t looked surprised at the news – had something to do with it. He’d shut his mouth when Rhodes’ had shot him a bland, threatening, smile.

The media never found out about Tony’s stint as a prisoner. And Bucky had assumed Tony had told the team, had assumed FRIDAY or Rhodes would’ve. He hadn’t known back then that Tony would never tell anyone anything, and certainly not the team that had forced him to deal with the general in the first place.

No. Bucky would find that out later. Way later.

But for now, he just enjoyed his new arm, reeling Tony in with the metal fingers, and they both celebrated the only way they knew how.

#

If Bucky Barnes didn’t know any better, he’d say Steve was doing this on purpose.

Thing was, Bucky Barnes did know better, and Steve Rogers was absolutely doing this on purpose, because he was a damn punk who trolled people.

“You better wash that plate, young man, or so help me god…” Steve warned, not even looking up from the spread of his newspaper. Tony froze, just about to ditch the plate he’d eaten breakfast out off into the sink, and threw Steve a greatly unnerved look.

Bucky rolled his eyes, throwing his own exaggerated glare at his best friend, because this was just ridiculous. Ever since the shout out and the slowly repairing bonds, Steve had suddenly clocked on to the fact that, by all intents and purposes, he was genetically Tony’s father, and – naturally – decided to fuck with Tony for his own ridiculous amusement.

Not that Bucky could blame him, to be honest, he’d have definitely done the same in his shoes. This shit was funny. But still.

The way Tony had grown more and more creeped out every time Steve threw him a fatherly comment was hilarious. The way he’d tried to give Steve a wide berth and all but hightailed it out of a room as Steve shouted after him about- “-When are you going to make an honest man out of Bucky, Tony? When am I going to get grandkids? I want grandkids!” was so funny even Rhodey couldn’t help but crack a smile. Especially when the team had found out that, biologically speaking, Tony was suddenly in his early twenties again, and Steve, being in his thirties, was now older than him.

And Steve loved it.

Bucky watched as Steve rattled the newspaper dramatically, shaking it out as if wanting to smoothen out the pages. He could see the mischievous quirk to Steve’s lips, the expression hidden by the newspaper that hid half of Steve’s face.

Tony, on the other hand, still standing at the sink like a deer in headlights, could see nothing but the upper half of Steve’s face, the stern, challenging eyes, and slowly, ever so slowly, turned on the tap and began rinsing off his plate.

Bucky bit his lips to stop from laughing.

Seemingly pleased, Steve returned back to his papers, dismissing Tony, who sagged as soon as the attention was off him and powerwalked out of the kitchen like a man on fire. A man trying to keep his composure while on fire, sure, but still a man on fire.

Bucky coughed. He didn’t laugh. At all.

“There’s an art exhibit I want to check out,” Steve hummed thoughtfully the next day, just as Bucky towed a distracted Tony into the living room where the Avengers lazed about on a rare, work-free, Tuesday.

Bucky grumbled a little, already making it clear he wasn’t stepping foot out of the tower at all today, thank you very much. He’d had a terrible night last night, and felt like shit because Tony had had to suffer with him, even if the genius always seemed weirdly pleased to stay up and help. Tony was a weirdo, that’s what Tony was. Bucky loved him to bits.

Understanding Bucky’s grumble, Steve shot him a pleading look, then slowly threw those dangerous puppy dog eyes at the rest of the team, Clint immediately falling off his seat on a sofa and rolling right out of the room with a shitty excuse of going to visit a dog. Natasha already had a book open, well within it by the thick parts on either side of her fingers, and cocked an eyebrow at Steve, challenging.

And then Steve’s eyes zeroed in on Tony. And lit up.

Oh no, Bucky thought to himself, hands still on Tony’s shoulders as a guide to prevent the still distracted man from smacking face first into a wall. He should stop Steve. He really should.

Buuuttt….

Steve stood up in one smooth motion, eyes glittering with determination. Clint had returned to grab his abandoned hoodie, but had slowed down once he’d noticed Steve’s focus.

Bucky really should stop Steve, but…

He could remember that one time he’d gotten Tony to actually believe he’d killed Michael Jackson, the genius staring at him with horrified betrayal as Bucky had convincingly weaved a tale of just why exactly HYDRA would even want the singer dead. And he could remember Tony’s face when Bucky had broken the illusion, the sheer indignant squawk Tony had let loose and how funny it had been.

Steve was his best friend, his brother, a part of what made Bucky Bucky.

He let go of Tony’s shoulders, leaving him for the wolf.

Steve slid in, timing his approach with Tony who walked on unawares, head stuck in the tablet he was tapping at with a finger.

“Tony!” He enthusiastically greeted, throwing an arm over Tony’s shoulder, the genius startling, head snapping up. “Great timing! How about some quality father-son bonding time? I know exactly what we can do; there’s an art exhibit opening up in an hour downtown, we’ll have a great time, make a day out of it. How about lunch afterwards?”

Tony didn’t stand a goddamn chance. Bucky burst out laughing at the look of dawning horror on his face, at the way Tony couldn’t get a word in edgewise against Steve steamrolling right over him, using his hold on Tony’s shoulder to steer him right out of the room he’d just walked in. They disappeared, Steve’s voice still echoing as the captain detailed – in great detail – everything they’d do, and Bucky knew for a fact Steve would go through with absolutely everything.

Tony was going to get pampered, today. Steve’s way of making amends for past behaviour.

But when Bucky found Tony hiding away in his workshop, fingers anxiously running through his hair, he realised he’d messed up big time. Tony had always looked uncomfortable, downright unsettled, whenever Steve – and the others – had cracked the jokes they’d cracked. Bucky had just thought it was the sudden age reversal that had bothered Tony, from being one of the older members of the Avengers to suddenly being the youngest, but he was starting to suspect it might have been more.

“Tony?” He asked carefully, slowly making his way through the darkened workshop, FRIDAY lighting the way with low, barely there, lights. “What’s wrong, darlin’?”

Tony, sitting on the floor with DUM-E standing protectively over him, peered around the ‘bot at Bucky, beckoning him forward with a hand. Bucky moved faster, sitting down next his lover, and wrapped an arm around Tony’s back, humming in delight when Tony rested against him.

“It’s just-” Tony began, working through his thoughts carefully to verbalise them. “It’s weird, isn’t it? The whole thing with Steve. Why is he doing that? I know I, uh, apparently have half his DNA because Howard was a breathtaking piece of shit, but he has to know that doesn’t mean anything, right? Do you- do you think he feels responsible, or something? Like he has to act like my- like a- a father or something? Just because of the DNA?”

Bucky blinked slowly, burying his face in Tony’s hair, warmed by the familiar scent of metal and gunpowder, and exhaled slowly. “Tony,” he sighed, mentally berating himself for letting the prank go on for so long. “He’s not being serious, he’s actually pranking you.”

Beneath him, Tony went still, then indignantly said, “What.”

Bucky couldn’t help the grin that stretched across his face. “Remember that time I made you think I killed Michael Jackson? Just like that, Tony. Just like that.”

Tony was silent for a split second before he repeated, “What.” And then, more indignantly, “I’m going to murder him.” He suddenly struggled, climbing out of Bucky’s grasp, squawking in protest when Bucky wrapped himself around Tony’s chest and held on with a completely unsympathetic laugh. “Let go, Barnes!” Tony shouted, using a confusedly whirring DUM-E to pull himself forward. “I’m gonna kill you too! But first that two-timing, aw-shucks-ing centurion! This is an insult, Buck!”

“Your face,” Bucky wheezed, struggling to breathe through his laughter, “When he took you to the art museum thing!”

“You’re both just as bad as each other!” Tony shouted, all but dragging Bucky to the elevator, FRIDAY automatically taking them to the common living room.

“Steve,” Bucky gasped when the elevator doors slid open, Tony still grumbling under his breath as he dragged a still octopus-like Bucky along. “Steve, gig’s up. Gotta fess up, ya punk.”

Steve immediately looked contrite, palms rising when Tony pointed a warning finger at him. “Okay, okay, jeez. Couldn’t have lasted long anyway. Gotta admit, it was fun though.”

“Fun!” Tony shouted, throwing his hands in the air. “Fun, he says! Platypus, were you in on this!?”

From somewhere near the balcony, Bucky heard Rhodes laughing, shouting something about payback.

“Traitors,” Tony huffed, finally detangling himself from Bucky’s arms, sitting down on the sofa and pulling Bucky into his lap. He buried his face in Bucky’s back, wrapping his arms around his waist to hug him like a giant teddy bear, and grumbled, “I’m surrounded by traitors.”

“Well,” Steve said slowly, thoughtfully, “There was something I wanted to do, if you’re down for it, Tony.”

Tony stuck his head underneath Bucky’s arm, Bucky laughing at his ridiculous partner, and said, “If it’s getting the media to think I call you Daddy in a completely sexual way then absolutely not. I’m a taken man, Rogers, but I hear Rhodey’s single.”

From the direction of the balcony, Rhodey shouted a heartfelt, “Fuck you, Stark!”

“It has to do with Fury.” Steve pushed on, ignoring Tony’s words, although Bucky cocked an eyebrow at the faint red that coloured the peaks of Steve’s ears. Interesting.

“Interesting,” Tony echoed, suddenly perking up.

“I don’t like how he talks to you,” explained Steve gently, “So I was thinking next time, I’d warn him to watch how he speaks to my son.”

Tony’s expression slowly transformed from interested to awed. “You want to fuck with Fury.”

“I want him to stop treating you so badly,” Steve agreed mildly, eyes twinkling.

“Oh my god,” Tony breathed, squeezing Bucky’s waist in his arms. “You really are a piece of shit like Bucky.”

“Hey,” Bucky mildly huffed, amused despite himself.

“I like it.” Tony declared, eyes wide. “Rhodey!” He shouted, pleased. “Rogers’ is worse than Bucky! We’re gonna Michael Jackson Fury!”

Bucky rolled his eyes, ignoring Steve’s valid confusion. “You’re never gonna let that go, are you? I already said I’m sorry.”

“That was a dick thing to do, Buck.” Steve pointed out, which was a complete and utter lie, since he absolutely had no idea what the hell Bucky had even done. Punk only said it because it’d earn him brownie points with Tony. Tony’s immediate shout of approval just proved Bucky right. And Steve’s butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth’s expression didn’t mean shit to him. He knew Steve was buttering up Tony on purpose. Suck up.

That was okay though, because Bucky knew he’d always be Tony’s favourite.

Even with the Michael Jackson lie Tony had yet to forgive him for.