“Just imagine having to go to the toilet,” Clint said, starting to see the funny side.
“At least I don't have super soldier hearing,” Tony muttered.
“Wait, can you guys always hear when Tony takes a piss in the armour?” Clint wanted to know. Natasha was rubbing her forehead like she had a headache. Tony could sympathise.
Steve looked pained, but Bucky just looked at him blankly, before opening his mouth.
“Oh, that's what it is.”
Everyone turned to stare at him, seeing as those were his first words since the furore died down.
A blink, then a subtle twitch on the side of his mouth, that could maybe one day grow to be a hint of a smirk, and Tony started laughing.
Shit, but they might be able to survive this.
It was a compromise, if magic can ever be called that.
Bucky asked to be put back in the freezer so as not to endanger anyone.
Steve wanted him on the team even as he was.
Natasha thought they were both mad.
Clint understood mind control, so he was willing to back the guy, even if he needed to be calibrated a bit. Or hit in the head a lot. Same difference, really.
Tony was still struggling with the fact he had had to learn a, that his life had been in danger by Hydra, and b, his parents had been murdered, by Hydra, by this man, and had had to learn it from the info dump Black Widow put online instead of the man he'd called a friend.
Thanks to JARVIS, Tony had been desperately combing through the data to try to keep the dangerous material out of the wrong hands, as well as the Stark Industries proprietary data out of the hands of their business rivals – as a contractor there was stuff there.
He was also a little hurt that two of his team mates had not even considered contacting the man who had helped design the new helicarriers. He had a back door into the system. Most of the drama of the fight could have been avoided.
But no. He apparently still did not have the trust of these people, and yet he was busy fixing their messes.
Clint had a wife and children in a SHIELD provided safe house, and Natasha leaked that info among the rest.
All SHIELD safe houses were compromised. All their undercover agents. All their deals and plans and yes, some of that was Hydra-lead murder and destruction and manipulation, but if they had given him a week, a day, even five minutes of warning… or if not him, the government, the Fantastic Four, Charles Xavier’s people, the U.N., anyone, five seconds of warning that they were going to flood the internet with decades of state secrets, thousands of personnel files, addresses and code words and God knows what else. Because a defected Russian spy and a pumped up recruitment poster decided they knew better.
So yeah. Apparently Tony wasn't in a room of friends, and the person whose hands hand had been around his mother’s throat wasn’t the one he was having trouble looking at.
(There had been a video file. JARVIS had refused to show it to him but he had described its contents. He was pretty sure no one else had had time to get their hands on it, JARVIS had first concentrated on stopping all the files connected to the Stark name.)
(SHIELD had always known.)
So trusting a cocky man in a flashy cape wasn't as hard for Tony as it might have been before all this. So the man was an outsider. So? He felt like one himself.
And there had been files on magic too. Files with contributions from Howard. And Howard wasn't the type to believe six impossible things before breakfast, unless he could make them himself.
“Can't you just,” Clint wriggled his fingers in a wavy motion, “poof the trigger words away?”
“It doesn't work like that,” Strange said in a tone that had ‘idiot’ stamped all over. “It's not…”
“Magic?” Tony couldn't help but suggest and got treated to a baleful glance himself.
“It is not miracles. It has… science to it.”
Tony rolled his eyes. Bruce seemed to be not far behind him.
“How would that work?” Steve asked, shooting his own disapproving glance at Tony, but he found he was growing immune to them.
“The trigger words give control over Sergeant Barnes to anyone who speaks them, is this not so?”
The trigger words had been a nice little surprise, if “nice” and “little” can be applied to something that almost got Tony, Natasha, and Steve killed.
Steve had managed to draw his old playmate out of it again, so there was some hope, but something clearly needed to be done, and as far as Tony knew, true brainwashing on that level belonged in cold war novels and not scientific journals so he was pretty sure there was no known treatment for them. Yet.
Except apparently… magic.
“We can… well, I can redirect that control, to distance the words behind the protection of a person. Someone who can be trusted never to use that power against Barnes, someone strong enough to shield him from them, someone…”
“Yeah, we get it, it’s Steve. How does this work?” Tony asked.
Strange frowned at the interruption of his pompous speech. Steve was perking up like a golden retriever that was going to be taken out for a walk. Or as a Living Legend finally having something concrete to do to help his boyfriend.
Even if that something was fucking magic.
The spell, because apparently spells were a thing that were a part of Tony's life now, was going to be performed right there, right then.
”That's it?” Clint asked, looking around at the common room, the sofas, the big windows, everything mundane – even if luxurious.
”Would you prefer a musty library? That mumbo jumbo enough for you?”
Clint looked like he was considering it but luckily Strange didn't make more of a production of it than he needed to. Or, maybe his hypnotic gestures were just window dressing but it wasn't like Tony was going to ask.
”Get on with it, Mandrake,” he just said, then, ”Oh God, am I the only one old enough to remember that?”
Strange's baleful glance was more of a glare by now.
The spell was visible in the air, coiling around Barnes, a flow of colour that reminded Tony of the blue tint of his holograms, of standing in the middle of the model of vibranium, and the comparison disturbed him.
Then the colours expanded, looping and whirling around everyone in the room, spending no more time on Steve than they did on Natasha, Clint, or Bruce. Then they reached Tony and he was expecting them to move on as swiftly but suddenly the whirls went even more whirly and seemed to form a tornado around him that drew closer, closer, closer, until they were inside him, and...
And Tony was flying through the air, only to crash into Barnes.
”Fix it!” Steve demanded, and Strange seemed to be the one with the headache now.
”There is nothing to fix. The spell did what it was meant to. It tied Barnes to a person it felt fulfilled the purpose of the spell best.”
Tony and Barnes were standing two feet apart, less than the determined safe zone, and not far enough for Tony's – or Barnes's – personal comfort.
One inch too far and they were flung back together, forcefully.
”But the...” Bruce started, then finished by miming the effect by slapping his hands together.
”Ah. Well, yes, that is a side effect I did not foresee,l” Strange admitted.
“But... Tony?” Steve asked, for what must have been the twelfth time and it wasn't like Tony was thrilled with this!
“Show me again,” Strange said, ignoring Steve for the eleventh time. “Stark, if you would?”
Tony gritted his teeth and took a careful step away from Barnes, then another, and there it was.
“Ouch.” Crashing onto a super soldier was never fun out of the armour.
“Did you see? Sergeant Barnes did not move until Tony crashed into him?” Bruce asked.
“Again, now both of you move.”
“Double ouch. Look, if we're going to be performing tests, can we do it a little more scientifically, and preferably with me in the Iron Man armour?”
JARVIS determined the limit of the distance they could be apart was three feet. The velocity of the “pull” back seemed to be equivalent to the velocity going the other way, so a slow step resulted in an almost gentle push back to skin contact, whereas running resulted in bruises.
If only one of them moved, the magic returned him to the starting point, if both, they met in the middle – explosively.
Tony wasn't kidding about those bruises.
Still, as anxiety-inducing as it was to be bound to anyone, the fact it was Barnes didn't seem to cause him any undue stress and, huh, that was a bit of a revelation to Tony, actually. He had feared he might still hold on to his resentment over the way Steve had abandoned everything and everyone else to run after Bucky. And then there was the can of worms that was his parents and not going there. Not now, not here, not with the forced sharing of same space.
And then Clint wanted to know how they'd use the facilities.
Of course there were other problems beyond their toilet habits.
Like sleeping arrangements.
Steve insisted on them using the room Barnes had on Steve's floor in the Tower, and Tony didn't care enough to contest it. He would have been more comfortable sleeping in his workshop but he was the first to admit Barnes probably wouldn't have found it very restful.
Interestingly, Barnes seemed to draw the line at Steve sharing with them, and ordered his friend to his own bedroom almost without a word, and Tony had to admire his Cap-wrangling skills.
“How does that work?” he asked, and Barnes... didn't glare at him. Huh. “Getting him to listen to you?”
Again that almost-a-smile at the corner of his mouth, and Tony found himself smiling back, despite everything.
“So!” he said brightly. “Left or right?”
”Sleep. Which side do you want to sleep in.”
”I... I can... floor.” Barnes gestured at the space next to the queen bed and, just, no.
”First of all, no, second of all, no, third... what, you think I've never gone to bed with people I shouldn't?” Tony asked, gesturing to himself like a showman he was.
”You shouldn't go to bed with people you don't like.” And wow, that was a sentence. They were getting somewhere.
”Well, you know, things happen when you're drunk. Or bored. Or drunk and bored. Or dying.”
Wait, he didn't mean to say that last bit. Could he blame the magic?
Unceremoniously he started stripping off his suit. If he had to waste time sleeping, at least they could get on it. After a second's pause Barnes followed suit. And Tony wasn't looking. Nope, not at all. Not the play of muscles as he raised his arms to get out of the shirt, not the way the light caught on the metal arm, not...
Well, maybe he did, but only to stop thinking about the fact that he had a few decades on the man, and it showed on his body, regardless of the muscle tone, and the scars on his chest underlined the fact he really, really didn't have super soldier healing.
Then Barnes took a step into the wrong direction and was returned forcefully to Tony's side by the magic. Only now when they were skin to skin there was a lot more of the skin. And the momentum of the pull pushed them both down on the bed, and Tony was very much not thinking about the fact that the way their bodies were touching was disturbingly – not – unpleasant.
The forced intimacy should have appalled him, even if not the touch, after all, he was no stranger to one night stands, even if it had been, damn, years. But the silent ex-assassin that ghosted around Steve's floor when he wasn't trying to kill them all was not the person he would have expected to feel this, any of it, with.
By the time this thought had flashed through Tony's mind, Barnes had jumped off like scalded so the feeling was very much not mutual.
And of course the stupid fuck backed out too far, and there they were again.
“Stay,” he growled, and Barnes froze on the bed, half lying on Tony. “Roll left.”
And that left him the right side.
Fun fact, a very determined super soldier could somehow manage to exceed the distance of three feet even on a queen bed with another grown adult.
The third time it happened, this time waking Tony up from sleep, he grabbed Barnes's hand, then scooted closer to the side of the bed and reached down to the floor and picked up the red silk tie he had been wearing.
Barnes stared at him, eyes wide, as he tied the other end around his own wrist, using his teeth to finish the knot. Then he opened his hand for Barnes to present his wrist to be tied.
“That's... not very durable,” Barnes said.
“And what couldn't you tear through with that arm of yours? It's just a reminder.”
Barnes gave him the flesh and blood wrist and Tony wasn't sure if that was a gesture.
Beyond, you know, being literally a gesture oh never mind he was way too tired for this.
Tony woke up warm.
It had been too long since he had woken up to the security and warmth of another human being in his bed.
Security? Memory returned with the feeling of silk around his wrist. Slowly, quietly, he turned until he could see Barnes.
Still asleep, looking... young. Innocent. Face buried into a pillow, mouth slightly open, his unlined face without the weight of his eyes looked so much like the photos from WWII Tony wasn't sure what to think.
There were too many things. This was Bucky Barnes, a Howling Commando, a war hero, a cheeky young man Aunt Peggy told him stories about, a friend for whom Captain America was willing to abandon anyone and anything for, a dreaded assassin who gave Natasha pause, the man who had k... the killer of... the weapon Hydra had used to murd... the thought was stopped, again and again.
The man who was still held captive by the control words deep within his brain.
The control words which – according to Strange – would now not work to anyone but Tony. No pressure of anything.
And in the faint light of the morning the responsibility wasn't because he had this potential hold over the Winter Soldier. No, it was the very real responsibility for the well being and independence of Bucky Barnes, who went to war a young man, and came out of it decades later.
Now, another insistent thought raised its head – what was the safe way to wake up a super soldier for a quick trip to the bathroom?
Steve looked like he hadn't slept a wink during the night. Maybe that affected his temper because the mere suggestion that Tony needed to spend time in his workshop today made him buff up in all of his “Captain America disapproves” glory.
“You can't ask Bucky to spend time in a place that reminds him of Hydra just because you want to tinker!”
“I do have a job, you know. Three, actually,” Tony pointed out. “I genuinely need to get some work done today. Not only for SI, but for Avengers too.”
“Do you have a walk-in freezer down there?” Barnes merely asked, ignoring Steve.
“A torture chair for brainwashing?”
“Let's go then.”
Barnes replied only with a glare which intensified when Steve tried to follow them into the lift.
He was still lowkey fuming when the doors closed to hide the puppy dog eyes of the blonder super soldier.
“Good on you, Barnes,” Tony said, clapping him on the shoulder.
“If I have to hold your hand to piss, the least you can do is to call me Bucky.”
“In that case, you can call me Dr Stark.”
The twitch actually made its way to a one-sided smile, even if it disappeared soon after as they got closer to the right floor. He seemed to be steeling himself and wasn't as sure about his ability to deal with this as he'd made Steve believe.
Tony wanted to reassure him that nothing Hydra had would come even close to his place but why tell when he could show?
“Daddy's home,” he declared brightly and DUM-E rolled to meet them at the door.
JARVIS seemed to know what was needed and some holograms of on-going projects filled the air, the spotlights picking up the suits and the cars.
And then Bucky was grinning, taking it all in, relief and wonder replacing the tension.
Yeah, Tony thought, they really could do this.
The silk tie wasn't really going to hack it in the workshop (Although Steve's face when he saw it had been memorable) so Tony improvised a quick solution with a couple of cuffs and some light chain. Bucky seemed okay with it so apparently Hydra had never resorted to such archaic methods of restraints.
He also seemed happy to be sitting on the floor next to the table Tony was working on, reading stuff on a tablet, good-naturedly allowing himself to be pulled to other spots when needed, and Tony could almost have forgotten he was there if not for the fact that you damn well didn't forget there was an assassin in the room with you, and the lack of possibility for space between them thrummed in the air like a connection, like something as physical as the chain.
“Okay, that should do for now. So what do you want to do?”
“Well, we've spent... eight hours on my job, it's only fair you get a say too,” Tony said, even as he was eyeing the newest Iron Man design longingly.
“I'm good. I don't... do much.”
“Workout? Steve time? Catching up on films and TV?” Therapy? Maybe? But Tony couldn't blame him for not wanting to do that with a billionaire on a leash.
“Now you're speaking my language!” Tony started towards the lift then came to an abrupt stop. “You do mean the series, right? Not the reboot movies? Please don't tell me someone made you watch the reboots.”
Steve tried to join them in the TV room but after a few aborted tries to talk to Bucky like Tony wasn't there, and pained looks at the chain they had forgotten to take off, he gave up.
“Your room sucks, you know,” Tony said conversationally as they lay in bed one night.
“Yeah,” Bucky just admitted. “It's... empty.”
“You can order anything you want in it, you know that, right?”
“Steve did tell you you can decorate any way you want?”
“He may have muttered something about money being no object but... what would I even get?”
“A print or two for the walls? A bookcase? A teddy bear? How the hell should I know what your little soldier heart craves.”
“Why would I need a teddy bear when I have my very own superhero to cuddle?”
“No, wait, what, there has been no cuddling, never, and if there has, it's all due to a magic spell. Entirely.”
“You stick to your story, Stark. One day someone might believe you.”
They moved to Tony's bedroom in the penthouse the next night.
Steve complained, worried how Bucky would do in such unfamiliar surroundings, and... “Jesus, Steve, I'm not your kid.”
By the seventh day they didn't even need the chain to keep side by side. Tony on the right, Bucky on the left, walking, sitting, lying down.
They'd worked through the Original Series, and had moved on to the films.
Bucky loved the one with the whales.
On the eighth there was an Avengers alarm.
“Aliens,” Clint repeated for the third time.
“Could be demons,” Tony reminded him.
“That's not really much better,” Bucky said from his perch on Iron Man's back.
“Less bitching, more shooting,” Natasha ordered.
“They're indestructible, remember?”
No one replied because they damn well knew they couldn't harm the alien demons, just play a very twisted game with them and the portals they appeared out of. Basically all they needed to do was to manoeuvre the things so that they went through a portal because that seemed to close the portal.
Only problem was the portals moved. And the creatures were indestructible.
Hulk had managed one by just picking it up and throwing it through a convenient portal. Hawkeye and Winter Soldier had managed to destroy a ledge one was standing on so it tipped into a portal. Iron Man had chased one towards one, and it had worked. Once. But all of their tricks only worked once.
At least the portals were bright red, and there was no space showing through because Tony was already suppressing so much, he didn't really have room for that panic attack right now.
Iron Man was needed, so Winter Soldier had to join the fight. Bucky donned his leathers with no complaints but Tony knew him well enough by now that he could see he was stressed, uncertain, and maybe even scared about what being in a battle would do to him.
The others called him Winter Soldier on the comms. Tony called him Bucky, and he would, no matter how much Steve complained about it, until Bucky himself told him to stop. And as Bucky was getting better by the day at asserting himself, Tony figured he'd let him know when he was ready to accept the name, or pick a new one.
Iron Man was transporting Bucky to another rooftop when one of the blobs manifested right in front of them, and then a portal appeared just underneath. If they could just tip it over... but Hulk was too far, and no one else was strong enough, even full repulsor power wasn't enough – they had somehow learned to compensate for it after the first time, like to everything they did.
Tony met Bucky's eyes as a thought obviously entered both their minds the same time. Equal velocity meant equal push coming from a source they hadn't tried yet. Quickly they moved until Bucky was touching the creature, then Tony turned, and flew, boot repulsors at full power, with three feet he could not get to full speed of course but... when the bounce back took hold of him he was hurled against Bucky and the creature with enough power to tip it over, and then they were all falling, the demon, Bucky, Tony, and there was a portal they were hurtling to, and was the closure instant? What if...
Groping for any part of Bucky to hold Tony tried to get enough thrust to fly to another direction, any other, to get away from the gaping maw to wherever and...
And Bucky's scream filled the New York day as the portal closed, nanosecond too late.
“He won't stay unconscious for long,” Bruce said.
“How much can he feel of what's left?” Natasha asked, looking at the remains of the metal arm.
“Too much,” Tony said, the scream still echoing in his mind, as the portal cut off the elbow and half of the upper arm. Hydra had wired the hand to his nervous system, directly to his brain, so the pain... it was like someone cutting through bone and skin and sinew without warning, without anaesthesia, and Tony was rubbing his chest without ever realising it.
“Can you save it?”
“I don't know. I know I can build a new one. Better, kinder. Give it an off switch, for something like this.”
“So you need to take the old one off?” Natasha asked, eyes still on the arm.
The red star was also missing, transported to where ever the portal had led. That was almost symbolic, if one thought about it.
“So what better way to do it than now?” Steve asked, looking at Bruce.
“What? No!” Tony exclaimed.
“You said he was going to be in pain! And he won't be out of it for long, not the way our bodies work through medications.”
“No, we're not going to start hacking his arm off right now, Jesus, Steve.”
“Why does he need to be in needless pain? If you cared about him at all...”
The words hurt, a little too much, and a part of Tony was refusing to think about why that was, but a bigger part was concentrating on looking at Steve incredulously.
Everyone started talking at once.
”Cap!” Tony shouted, and the command in his voice quieted even Steve.
Tony walked into his space, trying very hard to keep a rein on his anger because if he got angry, Steve would not listen.
”Think for a second what you're actually suggesting, and who you are suggesting it to.”
Natasha got it, she knew their files. Clint always got it because he knew what it was like waking up not all there. Steve went pale.
Tony stood protectively between Steve and Bucky, and Clint was the one who said it.
”Fuck me, the spell was right.”
Afterwards, when Bucky heard about it, he didn't say, ”how could he?” He didn't say, ”I don't know that man anymore.” Bucky didn't even say ”Thank you.”
He said, ”tell me about the arc reactor.” And Tony did.
While Bucky recovered, Tony worked on his project on a tablet. When Bucky relocated to recuperate on the sofa in the workshop, Tony sat next to him and continued the work with JARVIS helping, and the bots not really helping.
“What are you working on?” Bucky asked, obviously bored with forced inactivity. He had allowed them to sever the arm once he was conscious and it wasn't something he just woke up to, again, so his activities were limited.
“Well, as used to as I am to your limpet-like presence,” Tony started to say, pausing for any commentary but it wasn't forthcoming so he went on, “I think getting rid of the command words in your head for good would be a better option than relying on magic.”
Even with B.A.R.F. it was not fast, nor was it easy, but it helped to go through with it with someone they could trust. Both of them, because while working through Bucky's traumas, they worked through Tony's as well, especially as they overlapped, and it was only possible because they knew the other one would have their back, no matter what.
The day they declared Bucky officially free from the brainwashing was the day he kissed Tony for the first time.
They didn't even notice that the side effects of the spell had disappeared until two days after.
Steve says, ”the safest hands are our own” and Bucky asks, ”who is us?” He's not angry, he's disappointed, because will the man ever, ever learn?
”There won't be Avengers without this,” Tony says. ”At least not in any way I can be connected to. I had this pretty public speech about accountability, you might have heard of it? I will not become a part of another system that – isn't.”
”Ross has ulterior motives.”
”Of course he does. So let's give him just enough rope to hang himself.” Tony's looking at Bruce when he says it, and the man nods, trusting him to be able to swim with sharks without growing a fin, or getting bitten.
Tony hates to do this, he does, but... ”Your family's location was within those files.”
The look Clint throws at Natasha begs for her to deny it.
”No one could tie it to you!”
”I could,” Tony says quietly. ”I scrubbed it as soon as I saw it.”
”Thank you,” Clint says. ”I think I'm ready to retire to be with them.”
”We are obviously not the people to make this call,” Natasha tells Steve. ”We are... compromised.”
”I am not in the habit of standing down,” Steve says.
”Don't you think it's time you learned how to do that? You're losing your team, you're losing Bucky. Can you fit it into that super thick skull of yours that you could, possibly, be wrong?”
Steve is the best man at the wedding. He will, however, draw the line at dancing with Rhodey, in the absence of bridesmaids on either side.
Tony still walks on Bucky's right side, and probably always will.
”So does this mean we need to send Strange a gift basket as a thank you?”
Strange stares at the box with a dubious look. It seems to contain... little robots. Little, flying robots. Little, flying robots that head towards his cape and lift its corners dramatically as he stands and despite himself he starts to laugh.