Our brokenness summons light into the deepest crevices in our hearts.
—Shauna L. Hoey
It had been four months since the day he'd pulled Captain America out of the Potomac River. To be specific, it had been four months, one week, and six days.
He'd gone to ground for a few days immediately following the events that had landed him in such a position, admittedly afraid to rear his head to anyone—because he hadn't been sure who to trust. He hadn't known much of anything in those few days, his mind a ravaged mess worth little more than its ability to keep him at least a few step ahead of those who were after him. And even then, he hadn't had many options that his… former handlers hadn't known about, or that any of the rest of those after him couldn't track easily. He'd been lucky that they had mostly been focused on each other and on salvaging whatever they could of the absolute havoc that had been released upon the intelligence community and the world at large.
And James Buchanan Barnes hated luck. Or, at least, he hated having it be one of the major players in what kept him alive.
But James Barnes had survived. He kept on surviving, one day, then another, then another, until he realized that he could remember.
And then he wished he hadn't survived.
So many dead at his hands. So many victims who had suffered because of him. It had all come back to him, a slow trickle to start but the memory recollection growing steadily stronger, exponentially stronger, as each day passed. Until he remembered everything. Every person he had killed, every life ruined of those who had survived, every political target, business rival, contract kill, and those whom his handlers just plain didn't like. There were also those who hadn't been his targets, but were simply incidental, collateral damage… lives taken just for the sake of the success of the mission. Those who had just been in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
He remembered every one of them within two weeks of the events in Washington, D.C., the serum obviously healing whatever it was in his brain that had been suppressing it all. Suppressing every last one of them, and depriving them of at least being remembered by the one who had carried out their deaths and the destruction of them and all they held dear.
They deserved better.
And then… well, then he set about the only damn thing he could: setting things to rights.
As much as someone could when they were responsible for killing people's loved ones.
The first thing Bucky Barnes decided on his own—after decades of having no choice in anything he did, even when it seemed like he was being given options—was that he had to live. If he gave in, if he died, that would be unfair to those whose lives had been forever changed by the Winter Soldier. He had to live because otherwise he was cheating them out of justice, taking the easy way out… and he had to live so that he could make Hydra pay for what they had done.
Not to him, though they had done plenty… no, they needed to pay for the way they had played God with the rest of the world, they way they had stomped on people with no concern for their wants, needs, desires, as if they were merely ants beneath their feet…
And he was the best man for the job.
Hydra's Fist. The perfect weapon to destroy with, and the perfect weapon to be destroyed by.
He'd woven himself into and through every last crack that had been started by the leak of S.H.I.E.L.D.—and thus Hydra's—files, using the chaos to use the codes he still had access to to collect as much information as he could, finding what he hadn't already remembered, and accessing the servers and data banks that hadn't been connected to S.H.I.E.L.D. He'd used the chaos caused by Black Widow and Captain America—because at that time he'd still been unable to process or accept that his Steve had been alive, and little Natalia, too—to gather what he needed, lock others out, and then… well, then he started to systematically destroy Hydra from within while others were focused on getting at them from the outside.
It certainly helped that his goals lined up with theirs, and that he could make a difference while he was at it.
He forged wills, drained bank accounts and delivered duffels of money in the dark of night, arranged for certain Hydra faithfuls to be thrown into jail lock, stock, and key, and killed others when there were no other options and they were too dangerous to leave alive… He arranged for certain government documents to be mysteriously 'lost', or in some cases 'found' again, helped set up new identities for a number of families, and had even personally escorted one wife and daughter of a man he'd been ordered to kill out of their country and into another where they would have far more protection and freedom than what they'd been experiencing. He raided Hydra supply warehouses and distributed the food back into the surrounding communities who had been practically enslaved by Hydra in their selfish efforts to be prepared for anything. He had broken into labs, jails, and other facilities all around the world, releasing prisoners who had been left to rot, forgotten in the destruction of Hydra and the scientists' selfish desire to preserve their own lives at all cost. He had released them, made sure they were safely away, and then destroyed experiments and wiped file after file, burning the paper and computers when he was done… and then buried the facilities under as much rubble as he could, in the smallest pieces he could manage.
He had pointed trustworthy, uncorrupt—or as near as could be managed—law enforcement organizations in the direction of what bases didn't need to be wiped clean off the map. Had compiled file after file onto flash drives and delivered them directly into the homes of prosecutors if he had the opportunity and time for it… Sometimes human justice could be far harsher than vigilantism, and he took possibly too much—or not enough—pleasure in delivering the evil men of the world into the hands of the vengeful just around the world.
There were other victims still who were harder to help. Many whom he didn't know how to help—not adequately enough. There was so much still he didn't understand about this world his mind had finally become aware of, despite his body carrying him through the decades. And most of those things he didn't understand very well had to do with the body and mind—things that didn't have to do with killing, maiming, knowing exactly how to hurt in the most effective way possible, or driving someone insane with grief, with the crumbling of their world, with paranoia, or a whole host of other awful things.
He had been taught to destroy… not to care or to rebuild. The only thing he had cared about was Hydra, the mission, and the maintenance of his body… his weapon.
But he tried. He still tried. He had to. So what he didn't know, he tried to learn. Or he at least learned enough of in order to know who could help those whom he couldn't help directly. He drained the rest of the Hydra accounts by wiring money—vast sums of it—to the medical charities and research groups and universities that could do the most good. Who used their money the most wisely for the good of the people whom they represented. Cancer research, battered women's shelters, innocence projects, mental health—especially shell shock… PTSD, that is—research, dementia and Alzheimer's, and the care of those with it, neurological research for those whom had survived severed brain injuries… the list went on and on. Those whom he or Hydra had affected, and whose problems couldn't be solved simply by throwing money directly at them. Those problems that needed someone to look at the big picture… and those people, countless millions of them, whom Hydra had used and discarded when they were no longer willing or able.
People whose lives he hadn't necessarily ruined… but whom he had affected incidentally, simply by dint of being a—vastly successful, unfortunately—part of Hydra.
He worked his way quickly through Hydra, working around the ground gained by those working to dismantle Hydra from the outside, knowing that if he didn't act fast, Hydra would be able to gather themselves, just enough of them, enough to reorganize, bide their time in safety and secrecy… and eventually emerge again, stronger than ever.
He couldn't allow that to happen. And, while he hadn't quite managed to get at everything in four months… he had worked through the list of those whose lives he had directly impact.
All except for two.
In four months, he had worked through a list of names which had numbered in the hundreds, and through communities and organizations and countries who represented millions of others.
In four months, he had whittled his list down to two names.
And here he was, sitting on a bench outside of Stark—no, Avengers—Tower, finally ready to deal with them both. Hopefully both, but he'd settle for striking Anthony Edward Stark off of his list… even if he couldn't ever strike James Buchanan Barnes off of it.
But he'd worry about himself afterwards—he knew he was just as much a victim as all the others, even if he was still alive, had been given a second chance at life when so many others hadn't. For now… well, there was a reason he had left Tony Stark to last. There were multiple reasons. But chief amongst them was the question: what could you ever do for or give a billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist, superhero?
The answer? You gave him the man who killed his parents.
"What's up, J?" Tony replied, putting a little bit of concentration towards it. When JARVIS spoke up unannounced, it was usually for a good reason.
"It is with ninety-eight percent probability that I have located James Barnes, sir," JARVIS announced.
At that, Tony had to set down his welder before he dropped it and caught fire to the whole shop. He had not been expecting that. "Damn, J, good work. Give me the details."
JARVIS paused before saying, "Well, sir. I must admit it was nothing that I did."
Tony tossed his work goggles onto the bench and pulled down the handkerchief he'd tied over the lower portion of his face, letting it rest, sticky, sweaty, and hot against the skin of his neck. "How so?"
Instead of responding verbally, JARVIS simply pulled up footage from what appeared to be just a few minutes ago… in the Tower's lobby. It showed a man with short-trimmed brown hair and a well-groomed beard who was wearing nice, but casual, clothes—jeans, blue shirt, and an open leather jacket—with a pair of Aviator sunglasses rounding out the whole look. Honestly, Tony wouldn't have recognized him whatsoever if JARVIS hadn't already told him who he suspected the man to be, but it took the man removing his sunglasses and peering up into JARVIS' camera, face unobstructed, for Tony to be sure that this was the one and only James Buchanan Barnes, lost super soldier, former prisoner of war, and the insanely competent Fist of Hydra.
"I have taken the liberty of allowing him up to the fifth floor conference room, sir," J announced, switching feeds and speeding up the video to show Barnes nodding in response to something JARVIS had obviously said to him, getting into the elevator at the back of the lobby after slipping his sunglasses back on, and then walking towards the conference room as JARVIS directed him.
"Would you like me to alert Captain Rogers?" JARVIS asked as Tony threw off his gloves, grabbed a rag, and started walking towards the elevator.
Tony didn't even pause as he replied. "Yeah, J, thanks. But please don't let him arrive before I do. Give me a head start of a minute or two?"
"As it pleases," his AI replied as the elevator doors closed around Tony.
Tony narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brows as he stared at his own reflection in the shiny surface of the elevator doors. Not that he truly saw anything in the reflection, but he was aware, in the back of his mind, that he was doing it, just like any other time he was presented with a conundrum that fascinated.
He'd never doubted that they would find him. Barnes. Bucky, rather, according to Steve, though Tony had always thought that was a rather ridiculous nickname. James, then. He'd call him James instead, until or unless the man asked him to call him otherwise.
But really, he'd always known they'd find him eventually. One way or the other, one place or another… dead or alive. He'd promised Ro—he'd promised Steve that he would help as long as Steve wanted to keep looking, and there was no doubt in Tony's mind that Steve would never stop.
Despite all odds—though the ridiculousness of all the Avengers' lives probably made this situation that much more likely to occur than the average person's—the man had made his way into the future, into the present, and he was here to stay.
They'd help him one way or another.
When he exited the elevator, Tony immediately turned to face the stairwell and elevator… and waited.
No more than a minute later, a large blond blur came jumping out of the arriving elevator as fast as the doors would open—and then drew up abruptly before he could slam right into Tony. He'd been counting on that.
"Cap," he said, lifting his hands and spreading them, palm out, just enough to get the message across that he wanted Steve to wait just a little bit before passing.
Steve took a deep breath and staggered back just a little. He lifted one hand and drug it down his face, taking a moment to compose himself just a little bit more. After a few steadying breaths, he asked, "Is it really him?"
Steve let out whatever air was remaining in his lungs in a choked exhale. His body language told Tony that the man before him was near the end of his rope, but the light in his eyes, the way they practically shone with unshed tears… that was telling. And Tony was glad to see it.
"I know you want to go in to see him right away, alone," Tony started, hating the mere fact that he had to breach the topic and be the responsible one here. "But the last time you both saw each other he was trying to kill you."
"Keyword: was," Steve replied snarkily, but not with nearly enough heat for Tony to believe much of it. But his shoulders slumped, just a little, and Tony knew that Steve was seeing reason.
It helped that they'd sort of beat it into his head over the past four and a bit months. If they ever caught up to Barnes, Steve—or technically anyone, but Steve especially, the recklessly brave idiot—was supposed to wait for at least one other trained individual, Avenger or not, before engaging with him.
But Tony could tell that if they didn't go in together, and soon, Steve would go in all by himself, open-armed and pretty much vulnerable. So he checked to make sure his bracelets were where they should be, that they were powered up and ready to be activated, and then he turned sideways and gestured with a sweeping arm towards the door at the end of the main hallway. "Thataway, Cap. I'll be right behind you. The floor's been cleared because of construction for weeks now, so we're all clear on that front, and JARVIS has the rest of the team upstairs on alert, even if he hasn't told them why yet."
Steve could only nod once, firmly, as he stepped past Tony and made his way down the wall, Tony on his heels just like he promised, and heart beating just that little bit faster…
As they opened the door they were greeted with the sight of James Barnes standing just to the side of one of the large, recessed windows, the sun glinting off the metal arm he'd exposed, jacket slung over one of the conference table chairs. His face was part in shadows, but as he shifted just enough to see them both with one eye, body casually angled towards them, Tony was struck by how… just damn, he was striking. There was nothing else that came to mind in that moment for Tony, despite his intellect, but only a small portion of it was because he was attracted to the well-dressed and fit figure in front of him—hell, who wouldn't be? No, as much as he'd love to ogle the eye candy in front of him then and there, he had a job to do, and that job was to be on point and back up his teammate who was emotionally compromised by the master spy, assassin, ghost story, etcetera, who stood before them both.
Nope, definitely not the time to be slacking off.
"Bucky," Steve breathed out, whisper-soft, breaking the tension of the moment.
And with that, they were holding onto each other, tight, tight, tight, as if they never wanted to let go again, and just that nearly set Tony's eyes to tearing up. Almost, but not quite. The emotions were readily apparent, however, and Tony suddenly felt like a third wheel. Except he couldn't leave; this third wheel had to stay right where he was and make sure that good ole Captain America didn't get stabbed with a nail file or something.
Christ, he should have called Natasha to take his place, but it was too late now. She and the others were on standby upstairs, ready to be called into play, but there was no way they should introduce more than one stranger at a time to the brainwashed fugitive. Liable to set him off on a streak of paranoia, Nat had said, and the look in her eyes was as haunted as they ever got for her, so Tony didn't question her wisdom one iota. One new face at a time; that was that.
So Tony just stood there, by the door, one hand clasped around the wrist of the other and thumb pressed against the activation switch of his bracelets, trying to listen just enough so he could make sure of Steve's safety, but not enough that he felt like a voyeur. It was hard enough as it was; he'd felt the itch to turn his back on them ever since the moment they first hugged. But he couldn't, even if he felt useless as a bodyguard—which he did. Damn it, he really should have called Natasha to take his place.
But… Tony could admit he was curious, and that alone was enough of a reason for him to put himself into potentially dangerous situations. He'd spent the last four months working on other projects as well, sure, for SI and for the Avengers, but some of his work day had been set aside for personal projects, fun things to unwind or divert his attention or to excite and entice his mind. And increasingly, that time had been spent focused on finding the Winter Soldier, on finding one James Buchanan Barnes, war hero and posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart. Which had then morphed from wanting to solve a puzzle and help out his teammate… and into fascination all on its own merit.
Tony Stark had become fascinated by everything he read about the man—books, articles, academic papers big and small, museum entries—and had been simultaneously horrified and delighted by the information released in the S.H.I.E.L.D.-is-really-Hydra leak. Four months in and he'd barely made a dent in the info that JARVIS had flagged as possibly of interest to him and his research. So much still to read, and that was just the unencrypted stuff. Hydra had sure as hell loved to document the sick way they dealt with their Soldier… and most of it was hard enough to handle, let alone experience firsthand. That took serious strength, and it seemed Barnes had it in spades.
So, um, yeah.
Tony Stark might have a bit of a crush on James Barnes.
He wasn't quite sure what to do with it, though. This sort of fascination was… quite different from the other bouts of fascination he'd had with others. The closest he had come to this was how he'd felt about Pepper. But, since that hadn't worked out… maybe it was a feeling he should ignore. At least for now. It had brought him nothing but heartache in the past.
Plus, it wasn't like he really knew the true James Buchanan Barnes. The man behind the legend, the propaganda—both for the Howling Commando and the Winter Soldier. The man behind the sick, sick documentation kept by his captors and torturers.
The man Steve Rogers had been willing to throw everything away for if the other Avengers hadn't consented to helping Steve get him back.
He had no claim on the man. He had no right to think of him like that. It wasn't right—Barnes didn't need the added complication of Tony Stark eyeing him the way he wanted to. Nobody did, because he was nothing but—
"Tony." Steve's voice intruded on his thoughts, and Tony jerked back, startled. He'd fucked up; he'd been too lost in thought and hadn't been doing his damn job. As he focused back into the present, he realized that Steve was standing beside him, Barnes just beside him and slightly to the side.
When Tony was more aware of his surroundings, he blinked at Steve and tilted his head just a little. "Yeah, Cap? What's up?" He'd become pretty good at covering up his lapses in attention over the years, but he had to admit that this was a damn shoddy job, this time.
Steve frowned just a smidge, but then the corners of his mouth quirked up into a smile, and he stepped to the side, allowing a clear view of his best friend. "Tony, I want to introduce you—at least, formally introduce you—to my friend Bucky."
Tony couldn't help but to respond to Steve's smile with one of his own, and he pulled his right hand from off of his other wrist, from off of its resting place on his homing bracelet. May as well start off on the right foot; it wasn't like he thought that Barnes was still under Hydra's control, not really, based on what they'd been able to glean from the sightings and tips and wakes of destruction they'd encountered during their search for the man. The man was doing his best with the cards he'd been dealt, and the Avengers could make up the difference. That's what they'd all agreed upon when Steve had come to them for help—of course it had been after he, Nat, and the new guy, Sam, had put three helicarriers in the Potomac and put Steve in the hospital… he was never ever living that one down. Ever.
So Tony stuck his hand out—slowly; he wasn't an idiot, Nat—and met James Barnes' eyes straight on. Then he waited, trying to be patient while the man gave him an assessing glance, head to toe, before he too stuck his hand out and carefully gripped Tony's hand with his own. It wasn't a limp grip, not like those people who shook hands like their hands were dead fish. No, it wasn't limp, but Tony could tell that the man was being careful of his strength. Which was rather considerable and breathtaking, honestly.
"Bucky Barnes," the other brunet said, voice even and assured as he squeezed Tony's hand once more. They both let go at the same time, hands falling back to their sides, and Tony resisted the urge to grip his hand with the other in order to preserve some of the heat of the exchange.
Okay, so maybe it was a little more than a small crush.
"You can call me James, though if you like," Barnes continued, shooting a mock glare at Steve who simply responded with widening his grin. "I know some people think the nickname is ridiculous, and half the time I do too, but this one over here gets away with it." He pointed at Steve, but a smile of his own broke through the dour expression he was trying to put on.
Tony thought it was absolutely wonderful to see them together like this, reunited again at last, after all these years, after facing and surpassing nigh-insurmountable odds… it was amazing, frankly. He was glad that they were getting to smile with each other after so long; after Steve had thought him dead when he woke up in this century, after seeing his friend fall from the train on their final mission… after four months of searching for his friend after having seen him for the first time in such awful and traumatic circumstances… Yeah. Yeah, they deserved this.
It was going to be a long road ahead of them still, filled with lawyers, grand juries, hopefully not a trial of any sort, and sorting through way too much info—painful info—that absolutely could not ignored, so that they could do right by Barnes and everything he had done for this country… and everything that had been done to him. Nothing in the world could make that up, but they would damn well try.
"Tony Stark, at your service," he couldn't help but to say. He nearly regretted it when he saw the flash of… sorrow? guilt? In Barnes' eyes at that, but the other man ran one hand—the metal one, Christ it was beautiful—through his hair and shot him an easy smile in response. "What do you need right now?" Tony asked. He could be serious, he could get to the point, see Rhodey? "We have plans in place for you. Contingencies. Things that need done. But for now we'll focus on the short term. We don't want to throw too much at you; that's the last thing we want to do. We have a place set up for you in Steve's apartment, if you'd like to at least start with that?" Tony stopped himself from rambling any further. It would scare him off, he was sure.
Something crossed Barnes' features when Tony fell silent, but he couldn't quite decipher what exactly it was. But it didn't look too… good? At least as far as he could tell.
Steve caught on, as well. "Buck? What's up? What's wrong?" He didn't get more than that out before Barnes lifted his hand in an implicit request for silence, a frown tugging at both their features now.
The silence reigned for a few long moments before Barnes turned towards Steve and said, "I was always gonna come back to you, Stevie, you know that, but I had more than one reason for showing up here, and for showing up when I did." He paused and glanced away from Steve just enough to catch Tony's eyes for a moment before his gaze returned to Steve. "I remembered everything within only a few weeks of D.C. But I knew I couldn't come back right away; not with so much hanging over my head. I know I could get help from you, from the Avengers, your friends, but there were things I needed to do on my own before I even thought of coming back here. Things I needed to make right. Wrongs that had to be corrected. People who needed dealt with, handled, or repaid, however I was able to accomplish those things."
He took in a deep breath, and Tony could tell the man was rattled, but he gave him his space to say his piece, reaching out to place his hand briefly on Steve's shoulder to remind him not to interrupt as well, before dropping it back to his side. This time he returned his grip to covering the homing bracelet on his wrist. He couldn't help it; it was just… habit. Self-preservation. A hunch.
An assassin looking unsettled about two feet away from him was a little… not good. Yeah. Not so good.
Barnes exhaled, and turned towards Tony. Tony did everything he could not to flinch for the button on his bracelet as he did so. He managed, but only just. There was something… something very different about the man who was standing in front of him now compared to the one whom he'd watched embrace Steve and talk amicably with, big smiles and big gestures, for nearly ten minutes. Definitely something different. The Winter Soldier hiding just beneath the surface, perhaps.
Yeah, he really should have had Nat go in his place.
The silence was nearly permeable, but it was soon cut by Barnes inhaling once more, loudly, and the mask of the Soldier dropped just enough to make Tony loosen up just a little. Then, Barnes spoke, slowly, as if he were trying to get the words just right. "I've been tracking down the family of my… of Hydra's, but also my victims, I can't escape that, okay?" He shot a glare at Steve which stopped the blond right in his tracks, jaw shutting with an audible clack. "In any case, these last four months, well, a little less, but it was since right after I remembered everything—" Here his expression pinched as if he were in pain, and Tony just… he wanted to reach out and lay a hand on his shoulder and just tell him that they were there for him now; that they would help fix everything as best they could.
"Well," James continued after swallowing a little more forcefully than normal, "I knew the ins and outs of Hydra for the most part. S.H.I.E.L.D. too. So I was able to act fast, and I had to, if I was going to be able to make a difference. And with everything going on, and some of the… not so good ways I knew I was going to go about handling this mess, I didn't want to involve any of you, though I was well aware that you were keeping the welcome mat out for me. It was for me to do; it was my choice."
He took another steadying breath, but the blank mask that pulled over his face upon the exhale was probably scarier than anything else he'd seen from the man in person so far. It was… it was like he was working up to tell them something horrible, and what topic could make the Winter fucking Soldier act like that?
That was the scary part.
"The main thing I was trying to accomplish was working my way through the list of my victims and seeing who was related to who—"
Tony had a bad feeling about this.
"—and doing what I could to make it up to them. Not that I really could. But I did the best I could, at least for now. I plan to revisit things later, again, if I get the chance. If I'm not thrown in the deepest black site the U.S. has to offer, tomorrow—"
Tony had a really bad feeling about this.
"—after what I have to say next." A deep breath, and both Tony and Steve were staring at him, wide-eyed, a little slack-jawed, at this point. They both knew something was up. Something… wrong. "I made it through my list two days ago. Well, all except one—okay, two, technically, but one can wait. But I made it through and then was left with a conundrum." He glanced from Tony to Steve to Tony again, and this time met and held Tony's gaze. "The conundrum of what someone like me could ever do for a billionaire like Tony Stark himself."
Another deep inhale for Barnes, but Tony couldn't breathe. Tony couldn't do anything to stop what he knew was coming. He couldn't. It was impossible. He was frozen shut, ribs feeling like they were collapsing in on his lungs, heart stuttering…
He couldn't do anything to stop the words coming out of Barnes'—the Winter Soldier's—mouth next. Even if he never spoke them aloud, they were there between them, unspoken but entirely too clear.
There was no going back. "Just say it," Tony whispered. "Please, just say it."
A beat, and a gleam of compassion was mixed in with the utter sadness filling the man's eyes.
That was almost worse than anything else.
Another beat. Then…
"On December 16th, 1991, I carried out and completed the assassination of Howard and Maria Stark upon Hydra's orders, as contracted by one Obadiah Stane. The secondary objective, the assassination of Anthony Stark, was incapable of being completed that night, and was called off the next day in lieu of other avenues being explored.
"On December 16th, 1991… I killed your parents."
Yeah, no. He was absolutely not dealing with this here.
Without a word, he turned around, threw the door open, and practically ran for the elevator, telling JARVIS to contact Pepper and anyone else who needed to be contacted with his declaration of emergency leave.
He saw a lot of booze and zero people in his immediate future.
That was about all he could handle for the next… well, who knew.
Tony certainly didn't. He couldn't tell much beyond the white noise filling his brain.
Bucky didn't see Tony Stark for days after that. And, really, it wasn't like he blamed the man for it. The reaction he'd received had actually been one of the better possibilities he'd calculated, in fact. Leaving without a word, not trying to kill him, no cops or feds showing up to haul him away—and he'd have gone without a fight. He would have, but he still preferred this option.
And yet… he didn't know what to do with himself now. Didn't know what to do except wait for Tony to appear and yell at him or beat him or throw him off the Tower roof or anything. Being ignored didn't really sit well with Bucky, but he'd been trained—both by the armed forces' sniper training and by the Red Room and Hydra—to be patient. To wait. To see if a perfect opportunity would present itself.
Plus, he thought with a hint of sweet amusement at the memories, growing up as the best friend to Steve "I'll happily punch a Nazi in the face any day of the week and storm Hydra bases by myself" Rogers gave him plenty of practice in being patient.
But even still, not knowing when the axe would fall was nearly driving him up the wall. Being on edge, looking around every corner carefully, back against the wall, aware of all exits and where everyone was at all times… it was wearing thin. Even if this was who he was now, there was that added layer of anxiety and nerve-wracking awareness that came from being an enemy of Tony Stark.
So he tried to focus on other things, because otherwise he'd just freak everyone out by staring too hard at the elevator or the stairs leading down a flight and a half to Tony's workshop, part ready to flee, part ready to accept whatever was coming, part ready to fight back, no matter how much he deserved what Tony was dreaming up for him.
No, he had no right to be so familiar. Stark it was, then.
Bucky found his gaze wandering to Steve, who was sitting on the other end of the long couch, legs curled up under him, hardcover novel in hand. Sci-fi. As if that was surprising. Even waking up in a new century hadn't curbed his enthusiasm for the classics as well as modern permutations of the genre. Steve had been reading little excerpts to him all day, the parts that he thought Bucky would find interesting, and that was the closest to relaxed he'd been over the three days he'd been here. It reminded him of the old times, before the war had even started, when they would read to each other in the dwindling evening light or the early morning just after dawn. It didn't matter how many times they read the same books, each time there had always been something to offer from the experience. Each time there had always been a feeling of safety.
He had been happy to find out that memory hadn't just been a figment of his grasping and terrified mind. There were some memories he wasn't too sure were real, or were nightmares seared into his mind's eye. There were some memories he was still uncovering, as well, like the day after he'd arrived and the Tower and he'd eaten some taffy and it had reminded him of a time when he was younger and he'd eaten a whole bag of sweets and had been sick for days afterwards. In the days when his pa had still been alive and he, his mother, and his sisters had been able to live fairly well. Certainly a lot better than after his death and the debt collectors had come calling.
Bucky shook his head a little to displace that memory. It was a bittersweet one, not all bad, but he'd… rather not think of his parents right now. His sisters. Family who had been taken from him naturally unlike the way that To—Stark's parents had been.
But also… not.
He knew it. Steve knew it. Steve was sure that Tony knew it, also. But it was still so hard to move past that thought. Past everything his hands had done. Hydra may have pulled the trigger, so to speak, but he had still been the one who had been there with them, with the countless—no, he knew exactly how many—others when they'd died. He'd been the one who had to see the life drain out of so many eyes, see the blood, the carnage, the features of those he'd choked to dea—
"Buck?" Steve's voice was quiet but it was enough to snap him out of the spiral he'd been in.
"Sorry," Bucky said instinctively, but looked up to catch Steve's eyes on him, where he had obviously been curling into the corner of the couch, tighter and tighter, with the progression of his thoughts.
Steve's eyes were full of compassion, with layers of happiness at having his friend back, and anxiety because he didn't know how to fix things for said friend. Steve had never been a good fixer—especially not after he broke things in the first place, but they were things that needed breaking anyway—but he'd always been a great supporter.
And that's what he'd been doing these last few days. After Bucky had told Stark about his parents, Steve had said nothing. Bucky had been worried for all of ten seconds before Steve had pulled him into a hug that was even tighter than the one when they'd first seen each other. Even though Steve had still said nothing, Bucky could understand everything that his best friend wanted to say but couldn't. For the first time since—well, for the first time in a long time, Bucky felt more at peace with himself than not. It didn't wash away anything, it didn't absolve him, but he knew that his friend was there for him. He knew that he didn't have to do this alone any longer, though he'd had to do everything these last four months on his own. But everything else that was to come? No, he wouldn't be alone for that.
Steve had then stepped back and asked JARVIS—who Bucky now knew but had been pleasantly surprised about at the time—if Bucky was allowed onto any of the Avengers floors, to which the A.I. had replied that he was allowed on any of the Avengers floors as long as he was accompanied by a member of the team, willingly, he'd added with what nearly sounded like a threat and probably was, but that he could remain on Steve's floor unsupervised except for the security measures JARVIS had in place on said floor.
Steve had seemed a little surprise at the permissions allowed to Bucky, but JARVIS had responded without being asked, "Sir allows me to operate with a certain amount of discretion. While I have heard everything Sergeant Barnes—" Bucky had nearly jumped out of his skin at hearing himself referred to as such again after so long. "—has said since his arrival, I have concluded, with my knowledge of the files I have seen in the S.H.I.E.L.D. leak, and the trail Sergeant Barnes—" The second time wasn't as much of a shock, but it still felt… weird. "—has left in his wake the past four months, that he is not an immediate threat. My knowledge of human behavior and psychology has led me to the assumption that Sergeant Barnes is here to reclaim some semblance of a normal life.
"To that end, I am allowing Sergeant Barnes these permissions, but within the restrictions I have set, and will closely monitor him from this point forward. But Sergeant Barnes is allowed to come and go from the Tower as he pleases. He will not be held." The 'for now' might have just been in Bucky's head, but he was pretty sure he was correct on that count.
As they stepped into the elevator that first day, JARVIS had informed Steve that Tony and JARVIS had compiled a list of already-vetted lawyers and psychologists/psychiatrists in the New York City area, ready to go for whenever, if ever, Bucky found his way back to them, or them to him. Steve had told JARVIS to send them to his personal computer, but hadn't spoken another word on the topic since.
He could probably tell that Bucky didn't know what he wanted to do. He'd come here to throw himself on Stark's justice, and had been left hanging. He couldn't move on, move forward with his life—if he still had one after all was said and done—until Stark decided what to do with him. Until then he was… stuck.
But Steve didn't push. It seemed like the future had given his friend some new level of maturity and empathy. Better social skills. Bucky would smile at the thought if he wasn't so grateful for the fact.
So Steve had taken charge. They'd talked, he and Bucky, about things great and small, though they avoided—for now, Bucky knew—the darker topics. They worked on catching up, they joked, they read together, watched TV… and then Steve had decided to take Bucky out into the rest of the Tower on the third day. This morning.
The rest of the Avengers had been there, watching TV and reading together in the communal lounge. When Steve had exited the elevator, they'd all turned to greet him—they'd all been so warm and welcoming that he had nearly crawled out of his skin to escape it all. Because he didn't deserve that. He didn't deserve warmth. Or welcoming. He didn't deserve the good things. But then he'd looked at Steve's happy, but still worried, face, and then he'd looked back at each of the Avengers in turn… and he'd tried.
No one had mentioned anything to do with Stark, and Bucky had immediately picked up on the topic. Surely, Steve must have warned them, and Bucky had felt mildly annoyed at the time. But he'd also been a little grateful, truth be told. The others knew nearly everything there was to know about Bucky, and a good portion of what there was to know about the Winter Soldier—when Natasha had looked at him a certain way, lips pursed, he'd had a flash of someone much younger, fighting against him, with the same shade of red hair… he'd have to ponder that resurfacing memory some more, at a later time.
But after a while, he'd become exhausted from too much company, as well-meaning as they were, and Steve had all but dragged him back into the elevator and down to his floor when Bucky had tried to prove he could last just that little bit longer.
"Bucky." This time Steve's voice was louder, and he snapped his eyes open to find his friend hovering just out of easy reach on the cushions to his right.
He'd zoned out again.
"Sorry," he mumbled, then grimaced when he realized a moment later that he'd already said that.
But Steve, bless his soul, didn't say anything about it. He simply sat back on his leg, which was crossed underneath him, and asked, "Are you okay?"
"I don't know?" he found himself answering, more question than statement at this point.
"What can I do for you? What… do you want to talk?" Steve asked, awkwardly.
"I—" Bucky started. He closed his mouth with a click right after, however. Steve slid a little closer, but remained quiet, waiting for Bucky. After everything that had happened to him, Bucky had found it hard to talk like the way he remembered being able to before. He couldn't find his words as easily anymore, his speech was slower, and he took time to think of how he wanted to phrase things. When he did speak, it was with fewer words and with way less embellishment. Steve had commented early the second day that his accent was gone, too, and he'd looked wistful as some memory played in his mind.
Bucky could remember how he used to be… but it was better not to think like that. It was better to avoid the feeling of unbearable loss at what used to be, better to avoid the anger that filled him at what these people had taken from him, better to avoid the deep sadness that flooded him for what Steve had lost with him. For the people he'd lost, the people who had lost him…
He pulled himself forcibly out of the spiral, and tried to put… something into words. Something he wasn't quite sure how to define.
"What do I… what do I do about… what do I do next?" he asked finally. It wasn't quite what was in his head—what do I do about Tony, what do I say to Tony, how do I make it up to Tony, how can I live, how can I move past this, who am I, why am I here, why, how, what, why why why me—but it was close enough.
Except not. But it would do for now.
Steve bridged the remaining distance between them and pulled Bucky into his arms. Immediately the voices which had been screaming in his head quieted to a murmur, and he was more clearly able to think. Steve had always been there for him, and he for Steve. Always.
But he needed to be able to stand on his own again. Fully. Stand on his own and not be the Soldier, at least. Stand on his own and not be broken.
"Sergeant, if I may?" JARVIS' voice intruded before Steve could answer his unanswerable question. "I would not normally interrupt, or even… meddle… in my creator's life in such a manner, and he may rue the day he wrote my final line of code for this, but I believe there are some things that would be of value for you to see and read."
Bucky closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened them again as he pushed back from Steve just a little. "Sure, JARVIS. Whatever you think is best."
"I have sent the information to one of Captain Rogers' tablets. You may view it there. If you have need of me, for clarification or anything else, just call my name and I will assist you if I can."
"Thank you, J," Steve said softly, then reached for the tablet computer that was on the coffee table in front of them both. He didn't even hesitate before handing it over to Bucky. "I'll leave you to it. If you need anything, I'll be right here, but I also won't be bothered if you want me to leave, or if you leave for the privacy of your room at any time. Just… know I'm here, okay?"
Bucky smiled, a little lopsided but genuine, in thanks.
Then he pulled up the first file in the directory JARVIS had helpfully opened on the tablet, and began to read, watch videos… and understand.
He thought he had known Anthony Edward Stark before… but it was nothing compared to this.
Tony knew he was being an asshole. He knew it, everyone else knew it, even JARVIS knew it. The big shocker was that he was aware of the fact—well, to others it would be a shock. But Tony Stark was a hell of a lot more aware than people gave him credit for.
But so sue him; he had every right to be an asshole right now. There was an ex-Hydra—maybe—agent in his Tower, who had killed his parents, and nothing had been done to address that fact.
Which, well, was kind of his fault. But at the time, he'd wanted nothing to do with the man or anything remotely connected to him.
Thus him hiding in his workshop—as was predictable for him; he really should change his patterns, but that was too much effort...—and drinking himself into a stupor for nearly two days. The third day he'd realized that the alcohol was just making everything worse and so he'd dried out, instead throwing himself into the stealth suit designs he'd been working on for the better part of two months now. So much to do, so many things stealth could help him with.
The fourth morning he had to surface from his shop to get some food—his stash of snacks had been reduced to nil—and that was when he saw him. Him. He looked up from the couch, where he was sitting beside Steve and Natasha, when Tony stepped out of the elevator. And the look in his eyes, the way his features shifted seconds after meeting Tony's gaze, pierced right through him. It felt like they saw through him, straight to his soul, straight to a part of him which Tony was not in the least comfortable acknowledging, and it was as if he understood.
So much in a glance. Too much.
Tony threw himself back into the elevator before the doors could finish closing, narrowly avoiding getting his leg caught in it—as it was, he had a rip in the back of his pant leg, though he barely acknowledged it before moving on to other more important things. Like getting the fuck out of Dodge.
Because there was way too much to unpack in that briefly shared look, Tony called for his suit as soon as he stepped into the workshop, and then blasted into the sky as soon as the windows were drawn back far enough.
He needed to let go, just for a little. Since alcohol hadn't helped, and he wouldn't touch drugs again with a ten foot pole, flying it was. It had been too long, in any case.
It helped. It helped some, at least. Weaving through the New York skyline, slowing down as he came abreast with tourist helicopters and waving briefly at the passengers, and then flying high, high, high… Stopping before his breathing would start to come too quickly at the nightmarish memories that floated always on the edge of his awareness.
By the time he made it back to the Tower, maneuvering himself through the window entry, his mind was still. For the first time in days, his mind was calm and he felt… stable. At least for a little while. He knew it wouldn't last forever, but it was enough to give him space to think. Enough for him to evaluate what he needed to about what he now knew. About what to do about their newest… guest.
And about what to do with his current unwelcome guest, waiting for him in his workshop.
Clint waited patiently, quietly, as Tony got out of his suit, splashed water on his face and washed his hands, and then finally headed over to where Clint was sitting.
For long moments, neither of them spoke. Neither of them moved, though Tony was feeling the desire to tap against the arc reactor that was no longer there—a comforting habit he wasn't sure he'd ever get rid of.
Clint was the first to do anything, silently offering an iced coffee to Tony, but then giving in and saying, "What, I'm a trained spy, I know about your secret indulgence of vanilla iced coffee every once in a while when you feel like shit." He gave Tony a lopsided smile, and Tony couldn't help but to return it, even if his answering smile was a small one, as he reached out and accepted the drink.
"Thanks," Tony said after a moment.
"No problem, man." Clint settled in a little more on Tony's worktable, and then said, "I'm pretty sure you can guess why I'm here. Well, maybe not the specifics, but at least the general topic. The man in question."
Yep, Tony had figured that out from the get-go. But he didn't respond, instead taking his first sip of the sweet, cold coffee.
Clint wasn't bothered by the non-answer. He and Tony had figured each other out in the nearly two years since the Avengers had moved in after the Battle of New York. They'd both learned the tells of the other, and figured out each other's patterns and habits—for the most part.
"I killed people while controlled by Loki."
Tony startled back at the way that Clint had just dropped that into the conversation with not a hint of inflection. What a way to set the tone for the rest of this conversation. All of a sudden, Tony felt the intense urge to flee again. To take his suit and just go, for days, weeks, months, somewhere where no one could reach him.
But then he looked a little more closely at Clint's face, noticing the slightly widened eyes and the way Clint's nostrils were flaring. They were Clint's tells for when he was extremely upset but trying to hide it, and Tony had only seen it a handful of times. Each time, Clint had been incapable of using his spy tricks to hide his true feelings. Each time, Clint had revealed something of great weight about his past; something that he had told very few people.
Tony had been honored by the trust Clint had put into him each of those times. Yes, they'd become good friends, but sometimes… well, sometimes there were things people wanted to hide from nearly everyone.
Tony knew that too well.
So when Clint spoke, he sat up and listened. He let go of the last dregs of wanting to act like an asshole, sat up straight—though he still kept slurping at his coffee because, well, coffee—and waited patiently for whatever Clint was going to say next.
See, he could be nice.
Clint eyed him as Tony settled back, as he decided to listen, and when he was done shifting, Clint started up again. "You know me, I don't talk about my feelings much, even to Nat and Phil, and what happened leading up to the Battle of New York was… rough. It took me a long time to open up to someone, and I'm still struggling with what I did. What I was forced to do."
Ah, yep. Clint was definitely going for that angle. He wasn't entirely comfortable with the parallel Clint was making, but he shut his mouth and listened anyway. Listening didn't mean he had to heed the man's advice; not at all.
It was practically Tony's life motto.
"When I came out of the fog, I was horrified. But I didn't have the time to wallow in it; I had a job to do," Clint continued. "We banded together and took out the threat, sent… Loki on his way, started to assist with cleaning up the city, and weeks went by like that. I was too busy to think. I threw myself into the work, taking on more than I probably should have, but it kept the thoughts at bay, the ones I knew were lurking, waiting to catch me unaware. And then, finally they did.
"Loki had me for three days, Tony. They had him for seventy years. And I definitely can't say I know exactly how Bucky is doing—" Tony clenched his jaw. "—but I do know that I was a mess. And if I was a mess, after only three days, with my hazy memories of my actions under Loki's control, with the few people I killed compared to him… I can't imagine that. I don't want to, really. But I do, too, you know? Because that guy… my heart breaks for him, what little I have left of it." Clint huffed out a weak laugh.
"I just… Look, Tony, I don't even really know what to say to you. And yeah, I know what happened, as you've already guessed." Tony had. "And I can't even begin to get how you feel about that. It's not right of me to assume anything about the situation. But what I do know, is that that guy is hurting. He's not okay, and needs help. Not the lock-him-up kind of help, but honest to goodness therapy, and a hell of a lot of it. Because he, like me, was just a weapon to those assholes who turned his life—or death, rather—into a living hell. He had no control over it, and you know as well as I do, from all those files we've both looked over, that he fought, and he fought hard. It took them a decade just to get Bucky to a state where he was useful and wouldn't throw off his handlers, and even then they had to use him for short missions only. He kept throwing them off, time and again, and they had to refine their methods, over and over, to keep him under their thumb.
"You know as well as I do that he never wanted any of that. He would rather have died than do what he did, and you know he tried to end his life multiple times over the decades. I can guarantee you that he wishes he could kill himself now, especially. But he could never do that to Steve, and if he's anything like me… he probably thinks that he'd be doing his victims a disservice. That he deserves to suffer for as long as possible, for their sake, rather than take the easy way out.
"But hell, Tony…" Clint ran both hands through his hair, and then caught Tony's gaze. Tony felt a little ridiculous with his straw wedged between his teeth, so he lowered his cup to his lap, cradling it with both hands. "He's just as much a victim as everyone else. I'd argue, in fact, that he was actually more of a victim. Instead of death, whether slow or fast, cruel or not, or living life with the loss of loved ones, or even some of those other victims like those who lost their livelihoods, their money, their reputation… Instead of all that, Bucky had to suffer for decades at the hands of those who controlled every aspect of who he was, tortured again and again, experimented on, kept in a fucking cryochamber of all things, like a doll that was only brought out for special occasions. Fuck, it's so messed up. And then, now, he has to go through it all again, relive it all in his memories, and relive the fact that it was his hands that caused all of this destruction, even if he was just the weapon wielded by someone else.
"He's got a lot that the courts will try to make him answer for, but I for one will be backing him up one hundred percent, and I know the others will do the same. But Tony?" Clint stood up and placed a hand, slowly, on Tony's shoulder. Even still, he couldn't help the slight wince as the hand touched him, but he stayed still instead of running for the hills. Progress, he supposed.
"Tony," Clint continued after a moment. "This doesn't mean we're not backing you, too. You're our friend, and we've known and liked you longer than Bucky. But there's room for him, with us, as we all move forward, without you being left by the wayside. Just… maybe give him a chance? He's trying to wipe the red out of his own ledger, just like Nat, but I know that this time it's a… lot more personal. I get that. But… let him try to make it up to you, even if he really can't, even if he really isn't at fault, if just so he can stop moping around the Tower. And Steve, hell, he's almost worse.
"Just… think on it, okay?" And with that, Clint squeezed Tony's shoulder and walked back out of the workshop.
Whatever Clint had done when, the evening before, he'd announced, 'I'm going to go kick that stubborn dumbass' ass!' had worked. Whatever it was he'd said to Tony, it had obviously done something to get the man to come out of his self-imposed exile. Because the next morning at breakfast, less than a week after Bucky had showed up and just sort of… stayed… well, Tony had shown up.
Bucky didn't tense up but he went very quiet, very still, as the other man sauntered into the kitchen. He was very casual about it, but the way that he ignored everyone else, who stared at him in surprise and stopped nearly everything they were doing, showed just how much of an act it was.
Bucky wasn't quite sure what to do. But after a moment, Nat began to dig back into her bowl of oatmeal and apple slices, then another moment later Clint took a large, obnoxious slurp of his orange juice, Bruce snapped his newspaper back into an upright position, Steve walked to the fridge and grabbed another carton of eggs, and Thor offered a warm smile and a hello to the engineer from where he was leaning against the counter.
Tony hesitated, just a little, but smiled back at Thor. "Hey, big guy. Good morning." And with that, the tension was broken.
Well, some of it at least. Bucky wasn't quite sure where he stood in this dynamic, let alone with Tony himself, on a personal level. But he was willing to try and act normal, keeping quiet and a little out of the way like he had been these last few days. He slowly reached down for his coffee mug and lifted it to his lips, taking a small sip, then another, and another, until he realized that he was using it as a sort of shield. Didn't mean he stopped, however. But he was at least aware of what he was doing.
Bucky watched as Tony weaved around Thor and Steve to reach the coffeemaker, patting Bruce on the back as he went, and Bucky kept his eyes on the shorter man as Tony poured himself a large mug of coffee and then practically dumped half a bottle of liquid vanilla creamer into it.
No one batted an eye, so neither did Bucky.
A few more minutes passed in near-silence, Nat and Clint play-arguing in whispers about whether mandarins or clementines were better, Steve smiling gently to himself, looking more relaxed than he had in days as he whisked up some eggs and poured them into the pan, Bruce turning a page in the newspaper and then looking slightly startled at something he read, Thor just enjoying himself where he sat, and Tony—Stark, he had to remember—standing there with closed eyes as he slowly sipped at his coffee.
It was… nice.
"So," Tony began, setting his mug down on the counter beside him with a clink that indicated it was already empty. Everyone slowly stopped what they were doing to look at Tony, including Bucky, who set his own half-full mug down on the breakfast table. Bucky looked up again and found Tony's eyes boring into his own, but he didn't look away; they simply both held each other's eyes, but it didn't feel… weird. Instead, there was a hint of anticipation in the air.
"I'm not the best at words in these sorts of situations," Tony continued, moments later, after everyone had stilled. "So I figure I'll just go and say it." A pause. "I didn't know what to make of what you told me days ago, about my mom and dad. I didn't know then, but I do now. And what I make of it is that you gave me closure. I didn't know that their deaths were anything more than an accident, and this was a shock to me, and probably will take me a long time to process, but it's also… good. It's good to know. To know the truth. So… thank you, um, James. As far as I'm concerned, you had nothing to do with any of this. As far as I'm concerned, that weapon has been destroyed. As far as I'm concerned, you're welcome here in my—our—home."
Tony blinked and looked away, but Bucky could tell it wasn't a sign that he as lying. It was just that he was… nervous, it seemed. Bucky could understand that. Hell, Bucky was amazed that Tony was even saying what he was saying, let alone practically throwing out the welcome mat. He'd expected to be thrown out, even if he was forgiven, or close to it. He hadn't expected… this.
And there was more. Tony added in, "And hey, I heard from a star-spangled birdy that you like sci-fi stuff and tech, so, um, feel free to come down to my workshop sometime, whenever you want, um, if you want to that is, and JARVIS will let you know if I'm available or not. Yeah?" before making his way towards the kitchen doors.
Bucky didn't know what to say. He had some idea what that invitation meant, coming from Tony, but the way that everyone was looking between Tony and him just confirmed that it meant a whole heck of a lot. He didn't know what to say, but he knew he had to say something.
"You can call me Bucky, if you want," Bucky blurted out rather gracelessly. Steve could barely repress a snort, and Bucky shot him a mock-glare before straightening out his features as Tony turned to look at him over his shoulder.
"I'd much rather call you 'hot stuff', because that's a hell of a lot more accurate," Tony responded shamelessly. He grinned, and it was pure and true, the remaining tension falling off of his shoulders, and then he walked out and turned the corner, out of sight.
Not before giving Bucky a wink and a head to toe glance that would have been surreptitious if he wasn't in a room half filled with spies and assassins.
Bucky could feel the tips of his ears heating up, and he found himself wishing desperately for the long hair he'd had months ago.
"Here, here!" Thor announced with gusto a moment later, and Bucky could feel himself reddening down the back of his neck—and even more so when they could all hear Tony cackling as he approached the elevator.
And Bucky found that not all of the blushing was just out of embarrassment… though, as the kitchen burst into smiles and some laughter, embarrassment was definitely a pretty decent portion of it.
Bucky had been pretty sure Steve would try and check on him in person within two hours of Bucky going down to Tony's workshop for the first time. He would have lost that bet, however, because Steve didn't pad through the doors until hour nine, well past midnight. Go figure, the man wasn't a complete mother hen.
Bucky's eyes zeroed in on a faintly bruised portion of skin, redness like a rash around it, just above the collar of his shirt. Steve hadn't mentioned anything about a lucky lady or gent, had given no indication of it whatsoever, but that was a damn hickey. Huh, well, apparently Steve had gotten a lot better at being surreptitious than the ninety pound ball of in-your-face he'd been when they were younger.
Carefully keeping his expression neutral—he'd have time to observe and pester Steve later—Bucky greeted Steve with a whisper he knew the man could pick up easily. "Hey."
"Hey back atcha," Steve whispered with a small smile. He nodded his head at Tony and smirked—rotten bastard that he was, Bucky thought fondly. "Whatcha got there?"
Bucky looked down at the engineer, resting partly on Bucky's shoulder, and partly on the workbench in front of the both of them, who had fallen asleep mid-demonstration of something to do with clean energy… something. He'd have to ask Tony—"Call me Tony or I'll spray paint your arm pink!"—again some other time.
"I switched his coffee with the decaffeinated crap. He had no clue because of all that vanilla stuff he puts in it. I offered to get it for him." He smiled back at Steve like the little shit he apparently still was, feeling finally like he could let go of the past seventy years. Let go, but never forgot. Move forward and remember, not wallow. At least a little bit. A little bit at a time.
Steve snorted rather loudly, then snapped his hand over his mouth as they both held their breaths to see if Tony would wake up at the sound.
Nope, out like a light.
"Oh my god… you did? Seriously? Bucky, you're…" Steve couldn't stop grinning, and Bucky felt his own smile growing bigger. "I need to remember that trick for next time he needs to sleep," Steve finally said after a few moments. He tilted his head just a little, body language changing suddenly, but smile still in place. "Or, y'know, we could just keep you around. There's a position for 'Tony Wrangler' ready to be filled, and I have a feeling you'd be really good at it. From, y'know, what I can see and all that." He gestured to the fact that Tony had turned just a little and smooshed his face flat against Bucky's chest.
Bucky looked down at Tony, who a little less than twenty-four hours ago Bucky was sure wouldn't ever forgive him for his parents' deaths, and thought about the easy repartee they'd fallen increasingly into as the hours passed that evening, and found that that prospect… appealed to him. It appealed to him greatly, in fact.
Bucky was just about to say something meaningful, right there on the tip of his tongue, about finally allowing himself to move on, finally allowing himself, the final victim of Hydra's Winter Soldier program, to have the happiness he deserved, and that he could see it here, with them, all of them… when Steve just had to open his mouth and say, slyly, "Plus, if we need him to get some sleep we could just put him in bed with you. I have a feeling that neither of you would mind that very much at all. Though then there's the question of if you'd get any sleep at all, so, hm, maybe not..."
Then he ran off. The asshole. He ran off while Bucky blushed harder than he had since he was eight and stole a kiss from Clara across the street. He ran off, and Bucky came so close to just dumping Tony and taking off right after Steve and giving him a playful beating.
Well, Steve wasn't wrong, he realized. And how could Bucky argue against the truth?
It didn't hurt to dream, he supposed, and so Bucky settled Tony more comfortably against his chest, and allowed himself the luxury of dreaming of a better future for himself for the first time in seventy years.
By simply stating the truth, we open conversations about grief, which are really conversations about love. We start to love one another better. We begin to overhaul the falsely redemptive storyline that has us, as a culture and as individuals, insist that there's a happy ending everywhere if only we look hard enough. We stop blaming each other for our pain, and instead, work together to change what can be changed, and withstand what can't be fixed. We get more comfortable with hearing the truth, even when the truth breaks our hearts.