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Acts of War and Other Bedtime Stories

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“Sir, there is a man on that roof.”

“Think he’s looking for me or someone else? We aren’t the only heroes in town anymore, Jarv.”

“This area is predominantly abandoned and you’ve flown over this building several times in the last three days.”

“Ambush then?” Tony asks, more interested in the data the HUD is feeding him than he was a moment ago.

It’s late enough that Tony expects the arrival of dawn before he makes it back to the tower. He’s easily spotted against the night sky. The repulsors and arc reactor are hardly subtle. It’s a risk to stop and slowly rotate to find the stranger on the roof.

He doesn’t have backup. The Avengers didn’t work out and Tony is alone. He can’t afford to handle this politely. New York had left Tony with a pile of new anxieties and the events of the last week, culminating in the downfall of both SHIELD and hopefully Hydra, have left Tony with a healthy new dose of paranoia. Sniper, he should be thinking, threat and tactical advantage-

“It appears to be Sergeant James Barnes, Sir,” Jarvis cuts in to Tony’s mental soundtrack, keeping him from spiralling.

“The guy Cap killed SHIELD for?” he asks over the taste of aborted panic. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you didn’t answer my question.”

“That is hardly an accurate-”

“Yeah, well, Steve can have an accurate summary of his actions when he calls me and-” Tony cuts himself off before he can hear bitterness in his words. “Let’s see what the man wants.”

“Should I even mention that this is a highly questionable decision?”

“Could I stop you?”

“May I also suggest that we alert Captain Rogers?”

“Let the man talk first, J. Captain America’s got a hard on for this guy and no one needs to see a December/December romance. Got anything else for me?”

“I suspected this might not be the first time Sergeant Barnes has followed you. Camera footage has confirmed.”

“So Cap’s long lost boyfriend is a stalker, bet the history books don’t say anything about that.”

Tony lets himself sink slowly to the rooftop, Jarvis scanning for weapons and hidden threats. At the all clear Tony snaps the face plate up. Barnes is apparently unarmed. Heh.

“So, Tony Stark really is under alla that,” James Buchanan Barnes says and Tony’s transported to a dimly lit study, old interviews playing on repeat while Howard swears and pushes a stack of papers off his desk. The whiskey on the ledge tilts precariously-

“I guess you don’t get out much,” Tony can feel himself quipping back, glad he’s always been quick to run his mouth. “Been in the news, I’m kind of a big deal.”

“That a Stark thing then? Howard always thought well of himself too,” Barnes drags a hand over his face. “Gavno, I’m sorry.”

“No need. We’re big fans of mocking Howard around here.” Jarvis can confirm for him later if that was Russian Barnes just casually dropped. “Could use fewer suggestions that he and I have anything in common though.”

His face tics and he hopes Barnes can’t see it. “Should we be waiting for your James Lord? He hasn’t been returning my calls.” Tony walks over to the edge to look down. He can’t check all the walls, he doesn’t want to leave Barnes out of his line of sight that long. But he wouldn’t leave it past Steve Rogers to be working on his dramatic entrance.

“My who?”

“Blond guy, yea high,” Tony flicks the gauntlet over his head to indicate Steve’s approximate height. “You guys had a rager over the Potomac?”

“Steve,” Barnes says, not enough inflection for Tony to parse. “He doesn’t know I’m here. I’d, uh, appreciate it if you didn’t tell him where I am either.”

Having cleared this side of the building, Tony hops up onto the ledge, swinging the legs of the suit. Everything about Barnes is tentative, his posture doesn’t retain any of the military perfection that Rhodey wears, that haunts Steve. He doesn’t stand like he’ll block out the sky as he had in the footage from the bridge. Tony’s at a loss.

“So what could you possibly want from me then? Is this about Howard? Is it the Arm? Cause, I gotta tell ya, I don’t care about the former. That arm though… we could definitely work something out there. Looks heavy, is all that weight being supported by your spine? Not to brag,” Tony says, flexing the gauntlets, “but we can do better.”

“I,” Barnes looks down at his arm. He squints at it and then at Tony.

“I don’t know?” he says, and then, “You don’t care? About your father? So you know, then?”

“Jarvis, where are we on the SHIELD files?” Tony says in an undertone, hoping but not sure that Barnes won’t hear him.

“We’ve been prioritizing identification and extraction of agents under compromised false identities.”

“Let's dig up some extra bandwidth, I need grandpa’s files torn open. Get me everything.”

“Sir.”

Tony swings his attention back to Barnes. “If there’s anything I need to know about Howard other than how he was a shit husband and father, you’re going to have to share with the class.”

“I… I killed him. I came,” Barnes’ metal hand clenches. Tony's attention splits in two directions, processing the likelihood that Barnes is right and this isn’t some fucked up game, and handling the over the top emoting. Very Macbeth.

“I came to find you. To say, I’m sorry. Howard, he… you don’t like him, I guess. I- But I killed him and I’m sorry.”

Well, that’s enough of that.

“Nope.” Tony says.

He’s barely standing before the helmet slams down and the repulsors in the boots engage. Rocketing into the sky, he tries to keep his tone even. “Jarvis, tell Steve he has to come pick up his mess. Make sure he sees it. Hack a newspaper if you have to.”

“Sir, is there anything-”

“Just get me the files, J. Let’s find out if it really was the one-armed man.”

------

“Sir,”

It’s the third time Jarvis has called for him this hour. The frequency is increasing. He’s been here a while then. Tony rocks his swivel chair back and forth, considering. He doesn’t know if he’s ready to answer, ready to rejoin the land of the functioning.

Should he be worried that an impending breakdown over his mother’s death -more than twenty years past- has apparently subsumed his anxieties over the wormhole?

“Yeah, Jarvis?” Tony says, because he needs to say something. He doesn’t see what’s in front of him anymore, but the texture quality of the air shifts. Tony knows that means the video has looped again.

“Captain Rogers responded to your messages. He went to the rooftop. He has reached out to you seventeen times. If his pattern holds, he will call again in fifty-three minutes. Sir, he would like to know what you and Sergeant Barnes-”

“Yeah, yeah, he lost his Bucky and now he needs me to help get him back.” Tony runs his hands over his face. His eyes burn and his cheeks scratch at his palms in a way that suggests he’s been ignoring personal grooming for too long.

Getting his feet under himself, Tony stands up and kicks the chair away. It’s exactly as much violence as he’ll allow himself.

“You know what he should have done? He should have called me about the Helicarriers. Would have been a lot easier.”

“So you’ve said, sir.” It’s uncommon for Jarvis to sound so soft, but Tony can’t be sure he isn’t projecting. “Sir, Miss Potts has also-”

“Right, cut the feed.” Without waiting for Tony to finish, Jarvis pulls the video from the air. There isn’t anything more Tony needs from it. He knows every step now. When the car slams into the tree. How the seconds tick by where nothing new is shown. The Winter Soldier entering frame. The camera’s last shot as he struts up to it and ends it.

“Find me the Winter Soldier.”

-------

Tony feels like an asshole as he touches down on the roof. All his genius and this is the best he can come up with. It’s the same rooftop he found Barnes on that first night. It’s taken some superficial damage since he was last here. Someone, a friendly local super soldier, Tony just isn’t sure which one, has taken out their anger on the concrete.

There’s no reason for Barnes to come back and there’s always the chance that Steve is still waiting. Tony's gamble is more likely to be useless than to do anything productive, but here he is anyway, out of ideas.

Apparently if Sergeant James Barnes does not want to be found, he won’t be found. At least not in the time Tony will give it.

“Guess you were right about the style thing, Cap,” he says, reaching for anything other than the bitter twist tugging the corner of his mouth south. “It’s time for the light show Jarv. Let’s see who we can pull out of the woodwork.”

A second later, Tony is staring up at an enormous projection of the arc reactor painted across the sky. He doesn’t stop there, with barely a pause Jarvis has All Along the Watchtower blasting into the night.

Tony allows the music to filter back into the suit, let’s it flood into him, this could take a while.

Jimi’s just singing about the hour getting late, a coincidence that has a wave of exhaustion rolling over Tony, when he realizes he’s looking at another rooftop where a figure is picked out against the night. Has he just arrived or is he waiting to be noticed? Unwilling to put up with anyone’s dramatics but his own, he tosses his arms wide, somewhere between the universal hand motions for ‘I’m all alone, no one else is here,’ and ‘what the fuck.’

Barnes starts running then, using the momentum to launch himself from one rooftop to the next. It’s an elegant landing, a tight tumble of limbs and that bionic arm digging into the concrete roofing.

Tony hadn’t considered that he might not be the most dramatic bitch on this rooftop. He cuts the speakers and slips the faceplate up.

“I don’t get it,” he says. Barnes’ feet are under him now, his face still obscured by his hair. “Why tell me? I didn’t know, you could have gone about your life. Why? Why tell me?”

All he has is static in his head, answers to questions he didn’t ask, and emotions he doesn’t want.

“I didn’t know,” Tony can’t help but repeat. “You didn’t have to tell me, but you did, you opened your big brainwashed assassin mouth and now what? Now you want to hold your peace?”

He should have left his face covered. What was he thinking? His vision is narrowing and he can’t seem to get enough oxygen. Jarvis says something and Tony ruthlessly hauls himself back to focus on Barnes.

“You killed my mother,” he says, raising his hand and letting the repulsor whine to life.

Barnes goes from what Tony is classing ‘accidental looming’ to a half crouched defensive position. There is a knife in his hand.

“Jarvis, weapons?” Tony asks, stepping back, raising his other arm, faceplate slamming down.

Barnes winces, his face too expressive for his past, for what he’s done to Tony. Like he can hear what Tony’s thinking, his features blank, the lingering tension of thoughts and personality disappear. Barnes residence, available to let.

“I detect several handguns on his person, the currently visible knife, and the arm, which may obstruct further detection.”

Barnes stands up and… waits. Tony’s viscerally reminded of a hard reboot, waiting for the cursor to blink.

Time passes like it’s dragging its way across his skin, he and Barnes stare at each other.

“You’ll have to do it soon,” Barnes finally mumbles, the first hints of something readable coming back into his posture. Defeat. Tony thinks. Acceptance, surrender. The last few minutes wash over Tony. He has absolutely no handle on what’s going on.

“I know you told Steve. Last time,” Barnes clarifies. “He’ll be back now. Soon. Probably.”

The light show and the music. Tony hadn’t been picky about which super soldier he found tonight. Maybe he should have been.

“Jarvis, keep an eye out will you?”

He can’t keep still, he has to pace, the boots of the suit thud into the rooftop. Barnes never moves, doesn’t even flinch. “Do you know why they died?”

Tony knows it’s a stupid question as it leaves his mouth. Most people don’t get a why, they get a fire or an earthquake or a weapon with his name down the side.

“I don’t,” Barnes hesitates, “there was… something in the trunk. He had it and they wanted it?”

Barnes’ hand travels halfway to his face. He drops it when he’s done speaking, his features pulled tight. Tony can’t help but run over the possibilities. Pain as a manifestation of guilt? He’s only a reluctant student of the soft sciences. Difficulty with recollection? A mechanical system to dissuade recall?

Tony isn’t even sure what he’s looking at is human anymore. Who gets to make that call? What is left of the guy that only Steve has been around long enough to remember? What could be left after something like Hydra took a grapefruit spoon to his mind?

“Okay,” Tony says. He means to take off immediately after that, leave Barnes to his drama. If Steve is coming, and he is coming, then Tony may have delayed Barnes long enough for Steve to catch him. Steve will have his best friend back and Barnes will hopefully get the help he needs and Tony… Tony will go back to worrying about holes in the sky and what’s coming.

“Okay?” Barnes says like he can’t follow a one-word sentence. Like there’s a hidden meaning there.

“Yeah, Okay! What do you want from me?” Tony splays his arms. “You killed my parents, you were a sock puppet at the time, I hate you, I hate what happened. Everything sucks.”

The torrent of what that means wipes Tony away. More than just his parents' deaths, more than Bucky Barnes running around with Hydra’s hand up his ass. He’s alone again. Pepper’s gone, Rhodey’s away, the Avenger’s didn’t work out. Tony and his trauma and his bots haunt the tower, never resting, never sleeping, never okay.

“Okay!” Tony thinks he kept his voice under control for most of that. The suit is warning him about the increase in his heart rate. His breath scrapes its way out of his throat. Commendable, he self critiques like he’s been doing all his life, reflexive. That last okay, a little explosive, a little dramatic. B-.

It wasn’t okay, of course. Nothing was okay. If he could just-

Fuck. If he could just sleep.

“Jarvis,” Tony mumbles and takes another few steps towards the edge of the building, sagging a little more with each step. The suit will hide it. “How long have I been awake this time?”

“Fifty-seven hours and thirty-two minutes sir.” Right, the Stark family murder marathon.

The suit picks up the tinkle of broken roof tiles. Barnes must be moving.

“Only Stark still standing,” Tony says without turning his head, “you want to finish the job?”

“Are… you okay?” Barnes asks him like he hasn’t heard how Tony just weaponized his own parents’ deaths. Or maybe, Tony thinks, the bitter film of self-recrimination on his tongue, like he deserves it.

What is Tony’s life that James Barnes, a man who should have been dead for over fifty years, who’d had his mind remodelled like a Malibu show-home, who had murdered Tony’s parents, was checking to see if he was all right.

What is Tony’s life that he doesn’t have anyone else to do that?

“I’m fine,” he says. What else is there to say? “I’ve been, y’know, working through some stuff.”

“You still going to kill me?”

Tony, fuck his entire life, smiles at that. James Barnes is officially more fucked up than Tony Stark. That is a fucking relief.

“Well, I wouldn’t recommend eating my cooking. You… are you running from everyone or just Steve?” An idea is forming that he has no explanation for.

The silence lasts so long he doesn’t think he will get a response. But Tony doesn’t turn his head, uses the information on the HUD to distract himself long enough to wait Barnes out. “Steve and the Widow and his bird friend.”

“I can work with that. Nat might come around sometimes. But, I’ve got extra beds if you want one.”

“… What?”

That at least is a tone Tony is intimately familiar with. Everyone he’s ever known has asked that same question in that same what-the-fuck-is-happening voice at least once.

“Yeah, I don’t know either. It’s a lot, right? What you did. But… they’ve been gone a long time now, my parents. And let’s face it. I was probably better off for it? That’s fucked up but, hey, so am I.”

Tony is not making his point. “It’s- I get it. Okay? On an intellectual level. That you didn’t… you had no choice. I don’t know if that’s why you came here. To hear me say that. Or if you really were going to let me kill you, but, uh, I was never… I wouldn’t.”

Tony winces, what is he even saying.

“Anyway,” he tries to rally, “I’m a billionaire and you are a homeless war vet. Let me thank you for your service. Steve probably won’t come around unless he figures out you’re there. Best hiding spot in the city.”

Tony shrugs in the suit, it’s an exaggerated affair, but he thinks the hint of nonchalance should cut the weird desperation of the moment in half. Probably. Maybe. He made his best pitch, anyway. His own personal episode of Shark’s Den.

“I… Okay?” Barnes says. His hand is up near his face again, features collapsing until they abruptly smooth out.

“I’ll take payment in time with your arm,” he says, pounding his way across the rooftop.“Watch the paint job.”

Tony shoves his shoulder under Barnes’ metal one and feels the metal hand clamp around the neck of the suit. He gets it. It’s the easiest place to grab, but fuck if that doesn’t set off some alarm bells.

“You know where we’re going?”

“Not unless you’re taking us to your ugly tower.”

“There’s no place like home.” Tony says, focus elsewhere. “Try not to shoot anything when we get there, the platform will spin up to remove the suit, Jarvis tells me you still have guns.”

“Who’s Jarvis?”

-------

They make touchdown with little fanfare. Barnes doesn’t say anything on the way over. Tony has a small meltdown with Jarvis.

“Sir, is this wise? I cannot imagine-”

“When have you ever known me to do anything wise?”

“If you’ll only let me-”

“No, nope. We aren’t calling anyone. We already gave Steve his shot. The tower is big. There’s plenty of room for him to get lost. You can watch him. It isn’t like I’m likely to be vulnerably sleeping a lot, anyway.”

“In that case, I would like permission to activate panic protocols should I deem them necessary.”

“Yeah, fine, you can maintain access to all the cameras but his private areas.”

“… as you say.”

He sets them down and Barnes removes his hand from the back of Tony’s neck. He can’t help but go a little weak-kneed in response. He survived. Everything is fine. Billionaires probably have lots of dealings with shady assassins.

Just because this is Tony’s first time doesn’t mean it's anything out of the ordinary.

“Okay,” Tony says, once he’s finished with the catwalk. “Jarvis has significant misgivings about all this. So… prepare yourself for some hostilities.”

Barnes tips his head at that, Tony can’t tell if it’s curiosity or alarm. His face still hasn’t moved since the rooftop.

“Jarvis is your...?”

And wasn’t that delicious? Barnes apparently had enough of a grasp on the present to suggest that Tony might be dating his very male sounding AI.

“You hear that Jarvis?” Tony asks as he enters the penthouse, Barnes in tow. “Barnes here wants to know if we’re dating.”

“Heaven forfend, sir. Looking after your non-romantic affairs is already enough to tax my impressive capabilities.”

“You flatterer. See if I don’t give you a body after that.”

“Jarvis is your… house?”

“Eh, kind of.” Tony responds, familiar ground, familiar topic. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Just one pet assassin with memory issues. Like bringing home something designed by Steve Jobs.

“Jarvis is my AI, or well, is an AI, we still haven’t fully pegged how autonomous he is. Or, more accurately, we have, but he is the scale. Bit hard to pinpoint where personhood begins when you are the only thing caught in the liminal space.”

“Hydra would disagree.”

Ooh, conversational minefield one. Good going, Tony.

“Wow, okay,” Tony says hands spread defensively. “Probably the worst thing I’ve said tonight and I’ve already threatened to kill you. So, the grand tour.”

Tony puts Barnes behind him and tries to get things back on track.

“I’m likely to do more of that,” he confesses, leading his procession of one. “Foot in mouth, kind of my thing. That’s the kitchen. I figured you could take a room down that hallway, I don’t care which, just listen to Jarvis if he objects.”

“Jarvis, did you order us anything?”

“Of course, though your request for ‘make it greasy and fast’ did not inspire much confidence.”

Tony winces. “Give him a week and Jarvis will probably like you more than me.”

“I should think not, sir.”

“You do love me.”

“Surely two days would suffice.”

“Divorce, Jarvis! Di-vorce. Downstairs is the lab, I- well, live there, basically. Television, interactive Stark table, try not to plan any assassinations on it-”

Tony’s about to move on when Barnes interrupts quietly. “I don’t do that anymore.”

“Right…” Tony smack his hands together. “I did warn you.”

He doesn’t know where to take this anymore. He spins in a slow circle looking for inspiration. Barnes never looks away from him.

“Umm… the Avengers still have access, not that they ever use it. Jarvis, warn the Sergeant if Steve or any of the others get the urge to drop by.”

“Of course, sir, should we establish protocols for Colonel Rhodes and Miss Potts?”

“Uh… yeah, best to warn them I guess?” Tony catches the look of dismay the swoops across Barnes’ face before it’s return to ruthless stoicism. "…In a few days. Barnes too, you can tell him when they are on their way up.”

There’s no help for it.

“Rhodey and Pepper are going to know you’re here,” Tony says in an undertone, though he can’t quite fathom why, only Jarvis can overhear them. He has to shrug when Barnes tenses up.

“Sorry, Inverno Incognito, thems the rules.”

“But not today,” Barnes says. If Tony knew him better, he might be able to guess what that tone of voice is. All he can do, as it is, is stare into Barnes’ eyes. If there wasn’t so much nothing there, Tony thinks, it would be terror.

“But not today,” Tony agrees and knows somehow that he will regret it.

Jarvis has apparently ordered them fried chicken for dinner. Was it dinner?

“Jarv, what time is it?” Tony says around a mouthful of chicken. There are swipes of grease on the interactive table and Barnes has to keep eating with his head tipped to the side to keep his hair clear. Tony needs a distraction. Barnes eats like he might never get another chance.

“It is 4:14 AM sir. May I take this opportunity to suggest that you and your guest turn in for the evening? You have a flight to Tokyo in the morning.”

“You’re leaving?” Barnes asks. There’s a look that goes with that. Tony has no idea what it means though. He’s going to have to program Jarvis to read former-assassin-face. It’ll come in handy with Natasha.

Barnes has said nothing since Tony promised to keep him a secret, listening in silence as Tony described the other floors of the tower and the access he would have. Unless he was suspiciously glaring at the floor to ceiling windows, his eyes rarely strayed from Tony. Despite that, something seems to startle Barnes every time he looks back. Leaving streaky fingerprints on the Stark Table, Tony shorthands his concerns to Jarvis.

Seeing that Barnes is still waiting for an answer, Tony says, “I- no?” He doesn’t even remember a trip in his schedule. “Jarvis cancel that. What am I supposed to call you, anyway? Do you still use your old name?”

“Sir, Miss Potts will-”

“Fix it.”

Barnes waits patiently for Tony and Jarvis to stop. “… The old names are fine,” he finally answers. “I don’t have any others. I don’t… want to be what they made me.”

“What does that mean? James? Jim? Please don’t say Bucky.”

That gets him an actual smile. He can’t be sure, but Tony thinks that smile is directly from the distant past. His father’s old war reels had a James Barnes that smiled like that.

“But it’s my name.”

“Hey, if you’re sticking with Bucky just because Hydra made you an assassin -we’ve got options! What do you want to be? I could make you a trapeze artist, with your bone structure model isn’t out, you wanna work security or-”

“No,” Barnes says, his voice low and flat and dark, like Tony has never heard it. He doesn’t move, tries not to breathe. Barnes’ hand is back by his head, greasy fingers hovering but not making contact. “You gotta honeypot in this place?”

Tony stares.

“Bagno? Ubornaya? Bathroom? Badezimmer?”

He gestures down the hall.

Once Barnes is out of the room he whispers, “How many languages was that, J?”

“By what measure are we counting, sir? I detected English, German, Italian and Russian. Honeypot appears to be a military term fallen out of use since the 1940s.”

He doesn’t know what to do with that. It’s not like Barnes’ service or later imprisonment and abuse is a secret to Tony. “Help him out if he takes a wrong turn. You keeping a tally of how many times I say the wrong thing?”

“That is our standing arrangement.”

“I think offering to make him something else counts for two, don’t you?” Tony presses the heels of his hands against his eyes until he sees constellations. They burn with a three-day fire and he has a full body ache from how desperately he wants to sleep. “What am I doing?”

He sighs, “Keep an eye on how often he does the head thing too, we might have to take steps if there’s something wrong in his attic.”

No one makes it to bed that night. Which is normal for Tony and maybe Barnes too, if the way he never flags is any indication. They just… talk. After his return from the washroom, Tony feels like he’s sitting next to a different person. Barnes, definitely more of a Bucky with that easy slouch and the mobility suddenly returned to his face, wants to talk cars and technology. He’s an engaged participant through most of it and doesn’t tune out when Tony leaves his time-locked understanding behind. It isn’t until the sun comes up, popping their bubble of hazy half-light and cautious camaraderie that Tony realizes he’s talked himself hoarse.

Barnes excuses himself to the washroom again. The Stark table expands and contracts in Tony’s vision, he means to look away, wait for Barnes’ return. It’s nice, he muses, having someone else around who’s afraid to sleep.

He can’t remember everything they talked about, the Bugatti Veyron experiments had made a big impact. Something he’d said at some point had pulled that smile from the 1940s out again. Tony’s trying to remember what, when he realizes his face is pushed into his own greasy fingerprints on the table and sleep claims him.

-----

Tony wakes up half sprawled on the couch, there’s a blanket tossed over him he’s never seen before and Pepper is staring down at him with a very familiar look on her face.

“Why aren’t you on a plane right now?”

“Jarvis,” Tony half coughs, body curling oddly as he tries to lever himself into a sitting position. He may have lost the use of his left leg, he’ll definitely need some further testing on that.

“Sir believed he was not needed in Tokyo, and as he brought home the brainwashed, former assassin, former war hero, Sergeant James Barnes, last night, he made the executive decision to cancel the trip.”

“You what? And you… you just let me come in here? Where is he?” Pepper looks around the room. “Do you have a death wish? Jarvis, lock down mode now, please.”

“What? No. Jarvis do not.” Tony lurches forward, his still sleeping leg tripping him up.

“I’m sorry, sir, you did give Miss Potts override authorization in the event-”

“No, nope, you watch your- speakers. Rewrite that right now! I didn’t bring him home to lock him in, it’s not-”

“Tony! He is a killer! You’ve seen the news. Hydra had him,” she whisper-shouts at him. Why are they whispering? “They had him for decades and you saw what he did on that bridge, how can you have him here!”

“Wait,” Tony says, chasing after her because he doesn’t know where she is going but he probably won’t like what happens when she gets there. “He needed a place to stay. And you know, I know you know, that what he did on the bridge was nothing.”

She gives him a look. The pinched one. Like he’s out of his mind.

“Okay, not nothing. Just… there’s worse. You know there’s worse. I can do worse. Obie, Hammer, all of that was worse. He just had the one bridge and no choice.”

He tilts his head to the side, granting the point, “And my parents.”

What?” And wow, that is a Pepper voice he’s never heard before. He can’t remember the last time that happened.

The ground underneath him feels very precarious, he needs to make this count. “You said it yourself, Pep,” Tony, leans hard on the endearment, voice as soft as it’s ever been. “They had him.”

Oh,” Pepper says, her eyes wide. Afghanistan is in that ‘oh’ and everything that happened after. Tony can hear it. Pressing her hands into her cheeks she breathes steadily for a moment. “Listen to me, Tony Stark. Okay? Look me right in the eyes.”

She moves her hands from her face to his. “You do not have to do this. Even if he wasn’t responsible, you do not have to forgive him.”

Pepper stares at him for a long moment. Tony isn’t sure what the right thing is anymore.

“You really don’t have to worry about this.” He says, somehow unable to stop the car crash he can see happening in real time. “I already had a melt down about it.”

“You what- is that why I haven’t been able to get ahold of you for three days? What do you mean you had a meltdown? Jarvis, what is he talking about?”

“Sir, learned the nature of his parent’s death on March 13th. He then returned to the tower where he spent three days watching the video of their murder. Last night at 2:11 AM, after suffering through multiple despondent episodes, sir went to the rooftop where he originally met Sergeant Barnes, threatened to kill him and then invited him home. After a dinner of fried chicken and light conversation, Sergeant Barnes carried sir to the couch and retrieved a blanket for him.”

“He what?” Tony and Pepper ask in unison.

“Jarvis, where did you say Sergeant Barnes was?” Pepper asks, marching towards the elevator.

“I am authorized to announce your approach. Upon learning of your arrival, Mr. Barnes fled to a ledge on the roof out of sight of my cameras.-”

“How did he find that?” Tony can’t help interrupting. “He hasn’t even been here twelve hours.”

“-Though he seemed quite alarmed, I do not believe he has attempted to climb down the building.”

“He better not-!” Tony starts, but Pepper speaks right over him.

“Thank you, Jarvis, please have one of the suits meet us on the roof. I want several others prepped in case the Sergeant should become a problem.”

Pepper turns to face him, the elevator doors sealing them together, Tony wishes he’d thought to try escaping earlier. The ride up is gruelling. Something has settled into Pepper’s eyes that Tony can’t stand to see. The only relief comes when she turns away from him and takes that look with her.

Jarvis has done as asked and by the time they are stepping around the foliage to see Barnes sitting on the edge of the roof the M9 is there.

“Barnes,” Tony says, too little warning, too late to stop this, insufficient to the task. “I have Pepper with me, she wanted to meet you.”

Barnes tenses up. He’s not ready for this. It’s too soon, Tony shouldn’t have let this happen. It was only yesterday that Barnes had allowed himself to go anywhere with anyone. Why can’t Tony ever do anything at a normal pace?

Pepper approaches the ledge and Tony… lingers. The suit can keep Pepper safe and Tony will… make it obvious that he isn’t blocking any escape routes.

Barnes stays sitting, Tony can’t tell if it’s deliberate, if maybe he’s doing that to make himself seem like less of a threat to Pepper. Pepper talks to Bucky, using every inch of her height advantage, her face is frozen and her arms are crossed and Tony can’t tell what’s happening.

“Jarvis.”

“Sir, I would much rather have you angry with me than Miss Potts.”

Defeated by his own creation.

At some point Barnes pulls his legs up to his chest and Tony has a minor heart attack. It’s absolutely that he’s going to fall. In no way, does it have anything to do with how someone as giant as James Barnes should not be able to make themselves look so small and vulnerable.

Tony thinks it must work on Pepper. She’s been known to hold extreme grudges on his behalf but they are still speaking and Barnes hasn’t been talked off the ledge.

The look on her face when she returns suggests she’s not as forgiving as Tony might have thought. Putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder she propels him towards the tower and, Tony assumes, out of Barnes’ hearing range. Her face collapses as soon as they are inside.

“He asked me if we had somewhere to put him. I think I’m-” Her hand flaps. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Her face mottles and he can see her willing back the urge to vomit. A sickly bent smile works its way over her face. God, she’s beautiful, and too smart for his shit by half, she’ll know what to do. “He says you have no sense of self preservation.”

The look she settles on him then- there’s too much pity in her eyes, too much knowing. Tony needs to make a graceful exit yesterday.

“So, you’ll handle that Tokyo thing right? Jarvis, make sure Miss Potts has everything she needs.”

“Tony, I’m not done.”

“Sorry! I can’t hear you,” Tony says, walking backwards towards Barnes. He’s yelling over a wind that’s barely there but he’s hoping she’ll let it go. Let her assume that he’s going to talk to Barnes. He’ll climb into the suit and abandon them both to avoid that look from her.

He spooks himself long before he’s at the edge of the tower. He isn’t such a huge fan of falling anymore either.

Sitting next to Barnes, Tony lays out his plan. “I’ve been digging baby SHIELD agents out of the mess your bestie created when he and Nat dropped all SHIELD’s secrets on the web. You still into that kind of stuff?”

Barnes looks down at his arm. There’s a very obvious shear in the upper metal plates, something ticks that Tony can hear with his normal human ears and the urge to fix it is almost palpable. Finally, Barnes works his fingers open, one by one, and then repeats the pattern in reverse to close them.

He holds the arm up for Tony to look at, “Payment for stay, right?” Tony can’t help but grin. This was a stupid idea, but so many of Tony’s best ideas start out that way.

-----

They don’t go directly to the workshop. Pepper’s told Jarvis that Tony should be prodded to eat and Barnes must have the same metabolism as Steve because he doesn’t even question it. Just heads straight to the kitchen with Tony in tow.

“What is going on here? Not even a full day and already I’ve got a mutiny on my hands?”

“Sir, last I checked, you were not a captain, and this is not a ship.”

“Hey, rude, if Steve gets to just call himself a captain, I can too.”

Barnes laughs. Tony startles at first, the sound a horrible rasp before it rolls into a rich, pleasant husk.

“It’s fuzzy,” Bucky finally says, hiding his head in the cupboard, He’s definitely been looking too long at what Tony is sure is just different kinds of fake sugar.

“Do you know how many times we abused that? I couldn’t tell you. Not anymore. But I do remember this one time. Peggy, fuck, she had a pair of brass ones. None of us neanderthals could have pulled it off. But we were with the American troops, and she walks up with her red lipstick and her British accent and tells this Colonel that ‘Captain America’ had need of these two vehicles and some resupply besides.’ I swear it shouldn’t have worked. I’d been chewed out so often and so hard by officers with a lot less metal on their chests. But she just thanked him for his assistance as easy as you please and walked away with his keys.”

Somewhere in the middle of that story Barnes had forgotten to keep his face concealed and there was a soft look there now. “I don’t remember too many things like that.”

Tony files the memory and that fact that there is a memory away. In the split second that took, Barnes’ face has turned pensive, his metal hand tightening on the cupboard door.

“Tony, I wanted to apologize again-”

“Jarvis?” Tony calls, talking over him, because he hasn’t forgotten, will never forget, but he is all about moving on lately. “Whenever Barnes here -seriously, can I not just call you James- whenever he gets that look in his eye or starts in with apologies, I am going to need you to blast some tunes for me.”

“Sir, are you sure that’s wise?”

“You know the stuff.”

Lips tugging down at the corners, Barnes opens his mouth to say something and Tony holds a finger up in the air, ready to wield Jarvis at the least provocation.

“You have no food,” is what he eventually comes out with. Tony knows that his life is fucked up. It’s too soon and too little and there should be a gulf between them, but Tony can’t help it. He laughs anyway.

Tony gets them delivery. Pancakes. So many pancakes.

Barnes stuffs his face and Tony worries briefly that he’ll never stop, that he should have ordered more. It’s a close call, but finally Barnes is licking off his fork, chasing every last drop of maple syrup and Tony can’t look away.

“What?” he says, noticing Tony staring. “S’good.”

Looking uncomfortable, he shrugs. “I’ll probably be weird about food. Even before Hydra, there was the war, where food tasted like shit, and before that was the recovery, where food tasted… well it tasted like shit and there was never enough. So, that...”

He points with his fork before putting it aside and tapping it infinitesimally into straighter and straighter lines. “I liked that. Do you ever eat fruit?” he asks.

To Tony it feels like a non sequitur but after he’s given it a moment’s thought he realizes that fruit might be amazing to some like Bu-Barnes.

“I’ll have some sent up.” How much can fruit cost, anyway? Probably not more than like ten dollars a banana.

He’s not sure what’s supposed to happen now. He’ll fix the arm down in the workshop, of course, but he and Barnes are already spending more time together than anticipated. Vague ideas of dropping Barnes off and just… stocking food while the Winter Soldier squatted in his building had been most of what Tony expected. This is… better. Unexpected. He can’t decide what else it is, worrying and nice at the same time.

-----

They head to the workshop, and Tony pretends he doesn’t hesitate at the door.

It’s nothing. He’s fine now. He decided he was fine like eight hours ago. His hindbrain needs to get with the program. There’s no reason for Bu-Barnes to know that Tony spent forty-something hours in that room watching him kill his parents over and over again.

Keying the door open, Tony sweeps them both into the room and kicks Barnes a stool. “Jarvis? Scan ‘im.”

He snags a precision electromagnet and uses it to point. “Sit there. Don’t touch anything. I should probably ask- they did this, right? Sometimes? Work with the arm?”

He shifts the mobile tool rack into motion. Better to have everything in one place. The inside of the arm is foreign territory and Tony can only guess at what he’ll find inside. “How terrible was it and what would you prefer I not do?”

With a wave of his hand the lighting in the room changes, the overhead lights flick off as the low non-directional ambient light kicks in. Another gesture and the lights mounted to the worktable Barnes is standing near flick to life. “Also, does anything hurt? Either right now, or when they would work on it?”

He realizes he isn’t getting any answers and turns to find Barnes looking like a deer caught in the headlights.

Logically, he knows that Barnes has all the skills needed to make Tony gone, eliminating him in a way no one would ever expect or be able to prove. James Barnes is a man to be feared. In this moment, however, he looks lost and overwhelmed. It tugs at all the parts of Tony that aren’t made of anger and resentment.

The murderer of his parents has some awfully soft instincts waking up in him and that is just inconvenient. Tony wants to resent this state of affairs, but, faced with Bucky’s hunching shoulders, he concedes that he’s never seen someone who looked like they needed a soft blanket and a time out more than the former Winter Soldier.

“Right, you sit down there,” Tony says and goes to retrieve the blanket he usually leaves over the back of the shop couch.

“Take that off,” he points at the shirt and hands Bucky the blanket. He hopes the implication is clear. Not comfort. Just practicality. He’ll be cold without his shirt, therefore he’ll need the blanket. That’s just… that’s just logic.

Bucky does as he’s told… slowly. Too slowly. Abort, Abort.

“Wait-” He throws a hand up palm out startling Bucky who jerks to a stop. He has no plan for what to say now. Wait-

When did Barnes become Bucky? No. That is… no. Tony had a plan. It was a very shit plan, but he’d explicitly planned to fix the supersoldier best friend of Steve Rogers and then give him a safe place to… to find himself or whatever he needed to do before he went back to his estranged- something. Boyfriend?

Ninety-three floors, there are ninety-three floors of unused space in the aftermath of New York. That is plenty of room for a brainwashed, former assassin to be not where Tony is, and not on Tony’s mind, and not Bucky when Tony needed him to be… Barnes. Because he’d forgiven the Winter Soldier. He’d had his little cry, made up his mind, and said the words. Tony is… good. Done.

He’d had a plan, had one and now… now there is just Bucky with his giant eyes and Tony doesn’t know what to do.

A hand lands on his shoulder, startling him out of his thoughts. It’s Bucky’s flesh hand, that’s… that’s probably important. Meaningful. Is that nice?

“Are you okay?” Bucky asks.

Apparently that’s all Tony needs, because his mental spiral continues but the desperate sheen wears off. Why is Tony constantly the one between the two of them who is falling apart? Bucky is the worst. Tony had plans.

Admittedly, he’s already retreating to backup plans. Piece of cake. All he has to do now is not be an emotional, lonely wreck. That is a thing he can do. Why is Bucky’s hand on his shoulder so distracting? Are all people that warm? He spins away with sudden force slapping his own hand over the place Bucky’s had been.

“Right, okay- you, ah, I asked something but then you didn’t answer and I just kept pushing. I do that. Should we work on the arm today? I didn’t mean to offer you an ultimatum on the roof. I just…” he sags against a workbench, tries to play it off as intentional.

“The Avengers were a good idea okay? But we’re not, any of us, very good at being team players and I thought Steve would be the glue, but he’s out there looking for you. Not your fault, by the way. Just in case, you know-”

Tony waves his hands about. Even he doesn’t know what he’s trying to communicate with them.

“So, I was thinking I could make another… There’s this kid in Queens. He’s going to need some help, the shit he’s been getting up to, but he might be able to help us as well. I was thinking that with him and probably Maria Hill, I think Pepper said she was going to interview to work at SI. Why do that when you can run a team of superheroes?” He tails off, running out of steam.

“Anyway, I thought that… and if you weren’t doing anything else.”

“Tony…” Bucky tries again, “you never actually answered me. Are you okay? Is it me? I know I- I’m not supposed to apolo-”

“Jarvis!” Tony calls out.

I’m Broken screeches into the workshop. Pantera, nice, the 2003 remaster, Tony’s thinking as the world abruptly falls down around him.

A moment ago, Bucky had been standing in front of him, an open sorrowful look swamping his face, making Tony twitchy. Now, he’s crashing backwards, knocking things from every surface he contacts, the arm out in front of him as if to fend something off. He trips backwards over DUM-E, whose come to inspect the fuss, and stays huddled on the floor, trembling, face hidden, arm still out.

Oh fuck.

-----

Oh god.

Tony did this.

“Stop the music!” He snaps. Bucky twitches at its absence, or maybe at Tony’s tone of voice. “Lights.”

What has he done? What can he do? Prisoner of War, Tony castigates himself, even if he hadn’t been brainwashed, sound as an instrument of torture is common, what the hell had he been thinking?

Shit. Bad plan time.

As far as bad plans go, this one is a doozy. Bucky thinks he’s being threatened. Tony can -maybe- trick him. A little. Into thinking he isn’t.

This will work for sure.

Tony shoos DUM-E back into the recesses of the shop, no need to have terrifying semi-sentient machinery around to mess things up, and sinks down onto the exposed concrete. Rotating slowly, he makes a production of presenting his back to Bucky. Now it’s mostly waiting. Mostly. He also painstakingly edges his way closer. Several minutes pass, but, eventually, his shifting and wiggling has him pressed against Bucky’s outstretched arm with nothing untoward happening. One of the bots’ charging stations beeps and Bucky twitches. Tony only has a half a second to fear that Bucky will crush him in reaction, before he’s being pulled into the protective circle of Bucky’s arms.

Which, from a practical standpoint, is about half of what Tony had been aiming for. He can just… chill here, sit tight, while Bucky waits for the world to come back to him. He can even get some work done on the arm- no. Jesus no.

“Jarvis,” Tony risks a whisper, Bucky’s arms tighten then relax. “No more loud noises around Barnes. Make sure I don’t make this mistake again.”

Tony pets Bucky’s arms, noticing that he’s humming something, he loses the tune the minute he does. Bucky tenses up against him again. “Shh, Hey there, Winter cuddle bug. We’re doing great, you’re doing great. Are we ready for talking? I think it’s my turn to apologize. I didn’t mean to startle you like that.”

Tony tries to crane his neck around even though it isn’t likely to be very useful with Bucky’s head tucked against his spine. “How are we doing? I can’t see your face anymore. I didn’t properly account for that flaw in my plan. Remind me when we’re done here to ask what you need, so when this, hopefully never, happens again, I’ll know what to do better.”

“Bucky?” Tony tries, because if there’s a time to give in to the inevitable and use his stupid nickname that time is now.

“Hey, hey, Bucky, you are doing all right. Easy there. Just easy.” Bucky shudders briefly before his weight slumps into Tony.

“Right. Well, that’s enough for one day. You still with me there Grandpa Winter?” Bucky nods his head. It isn’t the engagement Tony wants, but it’s progress. Way better than he’d had a minute ago.

“Awesome, outstanding, we are doing so good.”

He waits to see if Bucky will say anything before slipping back into calming babble. “Whatever you need, We’ll work it out. No more loud unexpected noises from Jarvis, okay?”

Bucky nods again. He then shifts around slightly and hauls Tony bodily into his lap. It’s unclear if Tony is being protected or if he’s human teddy-bearing. It could be both.

They spend some time in that position. Tony talking soothingly, Bucky petting him. Until finally Bucky let’s go and starts to apologize before jerking to an almost painful sounding stop.

Right. Well, there’s a terrible lesson to have taught. “Shit. Bucky, no.” He shifts around so he can see Bucky’s face for what he’s about to try.

“Okay, here, go ahead, I want you to hold my hand. Can you do that?” Bucky shifts his left hand, so it is holding Tony’s, Tony doesn’t give him a chance to use the flesh one. “Here’s what we are going to do. I want you to grip there. Tight. You got it? Tighter. C’mon supersoldier, I know you’ve got this in you.”

Bucky does as he’s asked, looking just to the side of Tony’s face the whole time.

“All right, now I know I’ve been arguing for the opposite, but I made a mistake. This is all on me. So, if you can, if you can trust me just enough, I want you to get that apology out. Just the one time.”

It’s a terrifying gamble, but Tony wants Bucky to know that if he gets startled, he can crush Tony easily. “It’s a test, I know, but nothing bad will happen.”

Tony sucks in a deep breath, really feeling the metal of Bucky’s hand against his fingers. “There you go, if you say it and anything goes wrong it’ll hurt me. Don’t worry, Bucky. We can do this.” Tony risks more, because, well… because.

“Together.”

Bucky’s hand gets even tighter, Tony dismisses his worry, even if he ends up with something broken, he fucking deserves it.

-----

“Sorry?”

It’s heartbreaking how his voice rises as at the end. Like he isn’t sure. He might not be, he has nothing to apologize for. What the hell had Tony been thinking? Not just the music, but telling Bucky, someone like Bucky -he’d read his file, for days he’d read the file- He sharply cuts off that line of thought, he knows as much as anyone who hadn’t been there can know.

“Okay, so here is what will happen from now on. Except for reprogramming Jarvis, because I’m sorry but that’s always going to be just for me. Anything I can do, you can do. That is explicit permission. You want to… I don’t know, watch porn from Japan, you got it. You want to order take-out from India, that can be worked out. You want access to the house or permission to be an asshole or I dunno… you wanna wander around nude,” Tony gestures in invitation, “Maybe don’t take me up on that one, Pepper hates finding me naked. But who knows she might like it better on you.”

Tony winks at Bucky.

What is he doing? Is he flirting with the monster who killed his parents? Is he adopting a broken World War Two vet?

“Tony, I need… I don’t understand why you’re doing this. Why are you being so… nice? But I need you to know how…”

Tony needs to remember to ask Bucky about his head, he’s doing the hand things again.

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t have stopped it.” Bucky continues, “But I wish it hadn’t happened. And you played it off, you said you were better off. But I took your family Tony. I’m sorry.”

Tony doesn’t know how he’s the one who ended getting his hair pet but it’s put a surprised, hopeful look on Bucky’s face and Tony isn’t going to do anything to compromise that.

“Okay, Tasty Freeze, pay attention all right? I know… Actually, I don’t know, you were a POW for longer than I have been alive, what even is your frame of reference for someone accepting an apology? But… maybe I’m too broken to be the right kind of hurt. You changed my life. You stole my mother. But… my life was already shit. And, more importantly, but tell that to my emotions -which if anyone asks, I don’t have- You didn’t have a choice.”

Tony’s grasping for anything he can to make this clear. “Mens Rea and Actus Reus!” he blurts so loud he’s practically shouting even though he and Bucky are scant inches from each other. “That’s fancy legalese for the intent to do harm and the means to do harm. You have plenty of means terminator, but you couldn’t form the intent. You had to have it implanted in you.”

Somehow they’re still holding hands. He makes a swirling motion with his free one. “I don’t… Fuck. I do not blame you.”

“I don’t think you can just decide that, Tony.”

“Fuck you, I am the boss of me. I can do what I want… just don’t ask Pepper.”

Bucky’s smile looks more like an accident happening on his face than something Tony can relate to joy, but he is pulling himself together. Tony hopes they’re out of the woods.

“Okay, ‘Dude, Where’s My Arm’,” Tony says lightly smacking against the metal plates. “If the arm isn’t causing you pain, we’ll fix it tomorrow. Then we can talk about the… I don’t know Avengers 2.0. You don’t have to decide anything.”

Tony is going to leave it at that but he feels like he needs to push just a little harder, just a little more. “You don’t have to decide anything ever if you don’t want. Carte blanche. New rule: You can only be fucked over this much by life,” Tony gestures vaguely towards Bucky’s crouched form as though it’s a height index chart, “before getting to do whatever you want for the rest of it.”

“Sure, Tony,” Bucky says. And then he does the first thing to make Tony believe he might actually be hearing him. “I want pancakes for dinner. And I want to watch that movie you quoted the day you brought me here.”

Tony can work with that.

“Sure thing, Buckaroo.”

-----

Things change after that.

The first time Tony leads them back to the workshop Bucky looks around the place like he’s never seen it before. Wariness and resignation- maybe Tony should have waited- burn slowly away as Bucky watches the shop wake up.

The blue light of the airborne blueprints tint the world in a hazy soft light before the non-directional lights drown them out. The lockdown slats peel back letting in New York at night. A sea of light holding back the darkness.

“Welcome back Mr Barnes,” Jarvis greets as DUM-E beeps awake. The ancient bot might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Watching Bucky and DUM-E meet-

Tony’s life of cyclical disaster has allowed him to point with self-assured accuracy to the moments when things change. The moment he realized Howard would never be proud of him that started his downward spiral the summer before he started at MIT. Rhodey dragging his underage ass out of a frat party he’s glad he doesn’t remember. Hiring Pepper as the start of an almost even keel in his life. Afghanistan. Steve. The Hole.

Now there’s this. Tony doesn’t know what it’s changing, but watching Bucky hold the arm he considers a weapon still so that DUM-E can grip at him with his claw settles into him with almost prophetic weight.

The bots are an undeniable hit. It’s clear that Bucky means to be standoffish and keep himself out of the way, instead, it’s like a dam breaks. Bucky has questions and Tony answers.

“What’s his name? How much can he lift? How smart is he?” Bucky’s questions drop like coins into a still well, lapping against the emptiness Tony has become too accustomed to.

“There are two?!”

“Three actually.” Tony says and goes to make proper introductions. Pretty sure, all the while, that this is what hopelessly charmed feels like.

Bucky metastasizes into life around the tower quickly after that.

They work together after a fashion. Bucky smiles around the penthouse, hauling Tony to breakfast, terrorizing him with his attempts at learning to cook. Neither of them will have any teeth left if this keeps up, Bucky’s sweet tooth is voracious. He remembers Steve declaring the future was too sweet, Tony will stop comparing them, eventually.

The plates he makes to repair the superficial damage to Bucky’s arm get tucked away. Bucky is spending time in the workshop. It’s unclear if he’s making a point or if he actually likes to be there. Regardless of his reasoning, Tony finds he can’t bring himself to jeopardize that.

A week of twentieth century education and laughter in the workshop turns into movie nights and confessions.

Bucky remembers Steve and his sisters, he can’t recall his mother’s face. He remembers everyone of the deadly tasks Hydra used him for. Without knowing why, Tony spills his history with Rhodey, how he failed Pepper, the joy-and cost- of being Iron man.

Fifty-eight days go by, Tony only marks them because suddenly he’s brought up hard by the knowledge that he is likely the only victim Bucky can apologize to.

-----

“Jarvis, what am I looking at?”

“Sergeant Barnes felt it necessary to try liberating DUM-E. I believe he now understands why that endeavor was not advisable.”

Tony can see how Bucky’s shoulders sag in defeat. He’s got to be able to overhear Jarvis from this distance, has definitely heard Tony ask.

When he finally turns from the elevator he’s scrubbing, to look at Tony shamefaced, it’s the best single moment Tony’s had in three months. For a dizzying, delightful moment, he thinks he might die from laughter.

The first burst of it smacks against his eardrums like he’s been living in silence. He’s still got work to do. He can’t go out like this. But damn, if his heart fails, he won’t regret the manner of his death at least.

His laughter must be infectious, or maybe virulent, because Bucky’s shoulder’s dip, and then start jerking. Eventually Tony can hear Bucky snorting as he tries to keep it in.

Tony let’s the laughter really take him, feeling they way his abs protest and his face starts to hurt. He slumps against the wall in self-defence, losing the battle against gravity. With the ground inexorably rising to meet him, he gives in entirely and sprawls across the carpet.

It isn’t long before Bucky’s falling to his knees beside Tony and flopping ungracefully next to him.

“Uh uhn, no, you did this, that mess is your responsibility,” Tony says through the laughter residue.

“I just thought he might like to see a little more of the world he’s livin’ in. Wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.” Bucky sounds almost like he’s pouting.

“Yeah it was,” Tony says, suddenly serious, craning his neck to look at Bucky on the floor beside him. “Otherwise you would have asked Jarvis and he would have helped you out.”

“What even happened in there? Was it the fire extinguisher? I need to hide those better.”

“Don’t hide the fire extinguishers. You need those in plain sight for when you up and explode yourself.”

“Hey! Of the two of us, who is a) covered in fire retardant, and b) clearly on the wrong end of a failed experiment.”

Tony prods at Bucky with a toe, “So?”

Bucky’s quiet for a minute before he groans, “The elevator dinged when we got to the floor and he, maybe, freaked out. A little,” his voice rises defensively at the end.

There’s no hope for Tony after that. He hadn’t fully recovered from laughing in the first place and now he’s lost to a cascading series of giggles that eventually drive Bucky back to his task.

Tony feels cleansed. Everything else he was planning to do today gets back-burnered. Grabbing a tablet and one of the island chairs, he sits himself just outside the elevator where he can unhelpfully point out when Bucky’s missed a spot.

“Jarvis,” Tony asks when Bucky’s almost done, “does Bucky know that the cleaning staff will take care of that?”

It’s the first time Tony’s seen Bucky ready to murder someone since the footage from the bridge.

Tony runs.

“Jarvis!” He calls out breathlessly, though he hasn’t run more than a few steps.

“I’m afraid you’ve brought this-” Bucky flesh hand settles on Tony’s shoulder like an inexorable certainty. Tony freezes. “-on yourself, sir.”

After that there’s no way that Tony can resist getting the foam out of Bucky’s hair.

“I could have told you it would end like this,” he says. Bucky’s head is in Tony’s lap while he sits on the couch in the living area. With his back pressed against Tony’s shins, Tony can slowly work out the remnants that have dried stiff. Tony tries not to be distracted by how unexpectedly soft Bucky’s hair is.

Things like this are dangerous, he knows. He shouldn’t be interested in Bucky, not after the way they met, certainly not after the past they shared. Probably also, because Bucky was Steve’s, right? You don’t just wake someone up out of brainwashing by being a passing acquaintance.

Which means, at the very least, barring literally all the other ways in which this can never work, will never work, Bucky has to talk to Steve.

Spectres of Bucky’s first day in the workshop haunt him at the idea. Nothing Bucky doesn’t want. Ever.

He refocused on his task. He might not mind whiling a day away playing with Bucky’s hair, but he suspects Bucky will get fed up with it eventually. A wave of serenity settles over Tony too quickly for him to properly dodge it. His instinctive suspicion fails to rise. This is nice. Worries about overstepping can wait. Besides, as far as Tony can tell, Bucky’s content with his life for now. If that means Tony for breakfast, the bots for lazy afternoons, and eventual diabetes from Bucky’s dinner preferences, Tony’s not going to argue.

“You’re a mess,” Tony can’t resist saying, safely hidden behind Bucky where his secrets can’t be seen.

“You already knew that,” Bucky says. His tone is soft and almost sleepy. Tony’s afraid he’ll never forget it.

-----

If Bucky’s bored enough that he’s staging prison breaks for Tony’s bots, maybe he needs some hobbies. Tony tasks Jarvis with making this happen. The penthouse starts to collect coffee table books. How-to guides, books and magazines proliferate everywhere. An entire hall closet is lost to yarn. Tony has yet to see the yarn ever used.

June comes and Bucky graduates from cooking to baking. When Tony walks in on what looks like a murder scene, Jarvis helpfully informs him that the red velvet cupcakes have been somewhat delayed and that a new stove will be delivered in two days.

July brings unseasonable rain and with it Bucky relearning to draw. His records list him as left-handed. If that was ever true, he’s ambidextrous now.

The scraps of drawings Tony discovers DUM-E hiding one day start out strong if utilitarian and end in angry ragged lines across the page. After that, Bucky starts closing himself in his room for infrequent periods. Tony is alarmingly concerned but Jarvis refuses to spill the beans. Almost three weeks pass before Bucky lets slip that he’s working remotely with a therapist.

Hank Pym’s name is on the news and before Tony can figure out why -the old hack- old footage of the Iron Man suit getting knocked for a loop during the battle of New York plays. Bucky watches the news clip avidly. After the cut Bucky looks at him speculatively. August is Bucky ‘retraining’ his body. Tony is not given the opportunity to decline.

September is a raging dumpster fire. Tony travels, a lot. When he’s not on the road or in the skies, he’s buried in the lab. If he didn’t keep waking up in his own bed, he would have wondered if Bucky was even still around.

October…

October.

-----

“Sir, it seems Captain Rogers is no longer content with leaving messages. He’s in the lobby.”

“Send him packing, J,” Tony doesn’t look up from what he’s doing. Doesn’t dare try to find Bucky. If he wants Rogers here he can say so, or go out to meet him on his own. Hell, he can extend an invitation.

The silence that follows is oppressive. He absolutely cannot flub what he’s working on. That is the only reason that the traces on the circuit board expand until they take up his entire field of view. It has nothing to do with how much effort Tony is putting into not looking at Bucky.

Tony ages a thousand years in the time it takes Bucky to finally shift. The scrape of his boots on the shop floor audible even through the music, Tony is so hyper aware.

The shop door opens and closes.

Tony just about collapses. “What’s happening?” he asks, flinging himself back in the chair, circuit board forgotten and destroyed besides.

“Sergeant Barnes appears to be heading to the elevator,” there’s censure in Jarvis’ tone. “Captain Rogers will arrive at the penthouse soon. You did not wish me to cause bodily injury in my efforts to dissuade.”

A breath escapes him, explosive like he’s fresh from combat.

“Sergeant Barnes is exhibiting acute signs of stress.” Something about the pause that follows seems significant. “He requests your presence.”

Tony makes it to the penthouse level quickly, but not quickly enough to talk to Bucky before the elevator chimes its arrival.

Bucky’s placed himself just out of sight to the side of the elevator. Perfect for six-year-olds playing hide and seek or assassin’s with jobs to do. He’ll be visible if Steve takes even one step into the penthouse.

So Tony slips into the space left by the elevator doors as soon as they pull open.

And there he is. Steve Rogers. It’s been over a year since the wormhole and months since SHIELD fell and Steve went AWOL taking Natasha and whoever the hell Sam Wilson was with him.

Tony knows this could cost him any chance of friendship with Steve, but he'd promised nothing Bucky didn't want ever.

“I’m sorry, the tower’s closed today, but I’m sure if you come back next week we could arrange something.” The skin around his neck pulls tight, but he puts on his most affected customer service smile.

It seems to work. Steve stops eyeing the way Tony suspiciously fills the doorway, pulls his gaze back from searching over Tony’s shoulders. He looks tired when his attention finally settles.

“I know you know why I’m here,” Steve says. He doesn’t just look tired, he sounds like he’s lived every one of the years he spent asleep in the ice. “I know that I owe you an explanation, maybe even an apology, but I just-”

Steve visibly pulls himself together. “He came to talk to you. What did he want?”

Tony’s going to have neck problems after this. He resists the nearly overpowering urge to look at Bucky again.

“He came to talk to me about my dad.” Tony shrugs, nonchalant. “They were colleagues you know. Brainwashed assassin… my dad in the business of needing to be assassinated.”

Tony watches Steve realize that he knows, confirming that Steve knows. And oh that shouldn’t hurt like it does.

“Funny how dad’s old business partner found the time to tell me when my friend didn’t. Jarvis, revoke Steve’s access to the tower. You know how he can get it back.”

One of Steve’s hands flicks into the gap of the closing doors, holding them back. “I need to know he's safe, Tony. I-”

Tony’s in his own pain. He should he be used to the shock of betrayal by now, the startling array of flavours it comes in. Wishing a thousand times for things to have happened differently won’t change anything, but he knows what worrying about Bucky Barnes is like.

“Goodbye Steve,” Tony cuts him off, voice too tender, too understanding. “Try not to worry so much, he survived seventy years with Hydra. What else could be a danger to him?”

The tension relaxes out of Steve’s arm. Tony hasn’t seen that slope in his shoulders before. “How can I get it back? When does Jarvis let me back in the tower?”

The doors close on Steve as he’s asking. Steve could make problems, of course. Tony pictures it out, the elevator doors buckling, a little shear stress, torsion curling them into the penthouse.

Tony is about to move them briskly along, snap Bucky out of whatever mood this has put him in, try to salvage the day when-

“You don't like lying to him,” Bucky says, tone unreadable. He eats up the distance between them with his long confident strides. He must be feeling better then.

“I didn't lie.” It’s the truth. Tony gestures a screen into the air. It's empty but he can’t stop staring at it anyway. “I may have orchestrated events, a little, so that he never made it inside. Never asked a question I wouldn’t want to answer.”

He may have orchestrated himself right out of a friend too. It’s only now, in the aftermath, that he realizes his pulse is racing, narrowing his vision, making his mouth useless and dry.

Bucky waves the screen away. There’s so much happening in his face, Tony could never hope to interpret it. They stare at each other for a minute, but then Bucky’s shoulders take on an uneven cant and a smile that’s equal parts frown happens on his face. “I’m not supposed to apologize, but Jarvis never accidentally tortured me for sayin’ thank you.”

It was worth it, Tony decides. Everything he’s just done. He doesn’t examine too closely why, but he needs Bucky to feel safe here, so this is just what Tony has to do. Still, a retreat to the workshop is in order.

“Tony,” Bucky calls after him, and despite his desire for a hasty withdrawal, Tony turns back. “How does Steve get his access to the tower back?”

“It’s your home too, Buck-a-boo,” Tony says and flees before this can get any more revealing.

“Jarvis?” he hears Bucky ask.

“I believe sir means that Captain Rogers may return at your discretion.”

-----

Bucky finally enters Tony’s lab with the express purpose of allowing Tony to look at the arm. The last time they tried this it had gone so monumentally wrong that Tony turns into a fumbling mess. He hasn’t ever been this awkward, not even in high school. Of course, Tony’s awkward teenage years hadn’t happened until after he’d left high school, so maybe that didn’t count.

Tony’s two seconds from meltdown mode, but Bucky’s easy, relaxed, smiling. He hops up onto Tony’s worktop and it freaks Tony out. With steady hands, that he knows should be shaking, Tony sets his precision tools out next to Bucky thigh and then stands there staring at them.

If Bucky’s acting for some reason… Maybe seeing Steve again shook something loose and Bucky’s ready to move on. That… that makes sense. A fully functional appendage will make moving on a lot easier. Still, he needs Bucky to be sure.

“You know you don’t have to do this, right? And if you do, we don’t have to do this here, we can head up-”

“Tony, I’ve been here for nine months tomorrow, did you know that?”

“Jarvis?” Tony asks and then plows past any confirmation that Jarvis might give. “Wow, that’s… wait, is it November? Your birthday isn’t in November is it? That would be… I had plans.”

“Tony, my birthday was months ago. I didn’t even remember it. What do you mean you have plans?”

“What? No, it’s a birthday,” Tony says, “Everybody should have plans on their birthday. Even if they just ignore them. In fact, electing to ignore birthday plans is practically a must at some point.”

Tony taps against one the metal fingers while trying to drag himself into the mindset to work on Bucky’s arm. The mechanics are not his worry, Tony is ready for that anytime - all the time - but making sure that any of the horrors he might find behind the plating don’t reflect on his face could be a delicate dance. Prepping for the horrors of Bucky’s non-consensual body modification is the final confirmation for Tony. Bucky might be almost what killed his parents, but he isn’t who.

“All right Buckaroo what are we doing here?” he says working his way up the plating. “I haven’t seen the join, not in any detail, but we probably have options, this can be a cleaning and recalibration- We can take the arm off, we can start work on a new one.”

Bucky snorts. His eyes snap to Bucky’s face. He looks… smug, happy.

“If you think I ain’t seen the screens for the new arms you’ve been designing, you’re crazy.”

“Rude,” Tony says, poking Bucky in the thigh with a precision screwdriver. Bucky’s eyes crinkle at the edges. Tony tries not to sound breathless when he finishes, “you are not supposed to use me forgetting you’re in the room against me.”

“Tony, that is damn near a description of my job before you found me.”

That isn’t accurate. Tony hadn’t found Bucky. It gives Tony ‘in out of the cold’ vibes so he doesn’t usually push.

“All right Bucko, I am fingers deep in you here, I think it’s about time I ask.”

Bucky tenses, by the time Tony’s done speaking he is solid as a rock on the table.

“Hey,” Tony prods him again. “What’s up, soda pop?”

“You, ah, what did you want to ask?”

He doesn’t look uncomfortable, which is a relief, but his eyes never stray from Tony’s either.

“Well, nothing, if you’re this paranoid about it. Whatever you think I was going to ask, I need to figure out so I never do.”

“No!” Bucky says, with more urgency than Tony thinks the situation warrants. “What… what were you going to ask me?”

Tony taps the screwdriver down a series of connections in Bucky’s arm, he’s stalling, eventually looking Bucky in the eyes Tony takes the gamble.

“I was only going to ask why you always talk about coming here, like I found you. That is factually inaccurate.”

“Oh.” Bucky deflates and Tony… Tony can’t help but think Bucky has something that he wants Tony to ask.

That means he has a whole new mystery to solve. Because if there is something Bucky wants, and he isn’t telling Tony… The next step of, ‘only what Bucky wants, only when Bucky wants’ apparently includes, ‘even the things Bucky can’t or won’t admit that he wants.’

Tony is three levels deep in an elaborate plan to figure out what that is when he’s derailed by two things simultaneously.

First, Tony’s mind rolls out the idea that maybe he could just ask Bucky directly. This isn’t shot down by Tony’s instinctive reaction to vulnerability because Tony has tuned back in to - second- what Bucky is saying.

“It… I know that if you wanted someone to sit down and give like… a court account of what happened that it wouldn’t say that… but that’s just how.” He makes a frustrated noise. “I don’t really know what I was doing. They pulled me out. Kicked the frost off the gears and sent me out to kill Steve.”

He swallows heavily. “I… I remembered him. It… it made something, some last piece of me maybe, struggle to come back. But then… fuck, I hate this memory, I don’t know why this one specifically. Maybe because it’s the last one, the last time.”

Tony watches as Bucky takes a deep, hopefully steadying, breath. “Do you know I kept nothing to myself? I never lied, never even tried. I told them everything always. There was no desire to hide anything because… them knowing was inevitable, but also… an empty thing… I wasn’t meant to keep any of the things I knew.” Bucky sucks his lower lip into his mouth. Tony can’t stop staring.

“I told them… Told them about Steve. That I remembered him, and, they… wiped… me again. Tried to put it away. Told me I was wrong.”

The workshop isn’t a quiet place. The server room hums, the bots and their stations beep, the overhead lighting buzzes. The industrial fans add to the din and the air compressors occasionally sound like a jet taking off. Tony holds his breath through it all, waits in silence while Bucky finds his way back.

“I believed them,” he says and looks away.

Shaking himself onto a new topic Bucky says, “I told my head shrinker I hadn’t left the tower since I got here. She asked me if I was afraid.”

Tony doesn’t know what to think about that. He isn’t sure he realized. “Are you?” He can’t help but ask.

“I don’t- everything got better after I got here. This place is the best place I can remember.” Bucky heaves his shoulders into a shrug, the arm an awkward weight that doesn’t respond. “Maybe I am.”

“Maybe I just like being here. With you.” Bucky’s leaning towards him, his features are soft, that easy rhythm from earlier suffusing him, making his smile mischievous.Tony is frozen. He can’t afford to move his body, he needs all his brainpower to process what’s going on.

Tony… he can’t. This isn’t real. Not with what Bucky just said. Because, well, that explains a lot doesn’t it? Whether he thinks so or not Tony has made Bucky a prisoner. Of course, he’s going to look at Tony like he hung the moon.

“Bucky, no,” Tony says. He can appreciate the effort Bucky puts into keeping his disappointment to himself. It’s almost flattering. But the dead way it makes Bucky look terrifies him. It reminds him of the roof. Tony’s been this kind of blind before. He knows where this is going. Bucky doesn’t want to leave, thinks that he wants Tony because he doesn’t know to want something different. That’s… workable. Tony can fix that.

Several hours later, arm session one is down. Project ARMed and Dangerously Attractive is a go. And the seeds of Project at ARMs Length have been planted.

-----

Sometimes, when it’s late, Tony will stumble out of the workshop and find Bucky on the couch. He never knows if Bucky is waiting for him or if he just needs to be in that exact spot. He’s surprised to see Bucky tonight though, after their encounter in the lab, Tony would have thought he’d make himself scarce

“I remember them all, you know,” he starts before Tony is even properly out of the elevator. It must be a bad night. “I was thinkin’ that was the worst part- before. It isn’t. The worst part is-”

He takes a minute before he talks again, his voice hasn’t changed but Tony thinks he’s picking his words carefully. “The worst part is, I can’t tell who’s who. Not always.”

The index finger on his metal hand ticks back and forth. Left then right.

“Real or not real?” he says.

The hand curls into a fist as he stares at nothing. “Saw Peggy’s face last night. She couldn’t breathe right, blood was leaking out of her neck. I knew her, saw her get hurt some, even though she wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the fighting.”

He smiles, “No one could tell Peggy what to do.”

The smile wears thin. “My first thought, when I woke up sweating, wondering if Jarvis has been listening to me scream, is: did I do that?”

Tony reaches out before he aborts the movement. He settles for sitting down on the couch, close enough that Bucky can reach out if he wants to.

“I know it wasn’t me, that one. Still don’t know if I was there for anything like that, or if I just got lucky.” His voice ticks up on that like the joke is real. He has his hand up near his face, gesturing to his head. It’s not like Tony’s seen before, the absent-minded motion that makes Tony worry he’s in pain.

“Jarvis wouldn’t leave you alone like that. Just so you, you know, know. His cameras are off in your rooms but he can hear you and he wouldn’t- He helps me like that. Sometimes.” Tony grimaces giving away the lie. Everybody’s bleeding their darkness out tonight he guesses. “More than sometimes.”

“You?”

Tony shrugs. “It’s not like-” you, Tony wants to say. His time in Afghanistan, his nightmares of the hole. Tony was only held for a few months comparatively. It’s nothing like what Bucky went through. Tony isn’t lying. But it’s nice, Tony knows, not to be alone in everything. On top of all that, maybe this is what’s keeping Bucky here, in the tower, trapped with Tony. He’s afraid to leave.

“I was going to say it’s not like what you went through,” Tony shrugs, out of respect for the sheer magnitude of Bucky suffering, maybe, or it might be self-protecting prevarication. “But that’s not up to me. You are definitely winning the abducted and tortured Olympics. Gold medal, by the way. Steve said you were an over-achiever.”

Tony gets stuck there, scrabbles to continue. He tried this once, with a therapist. It might be time to try again.

“Afghanistan,” he finally manages to get out. “I was, showboating, fuck I hated those things.”

The sickly smile that twists Tony’s face is familiar, almost press ready. “Hated myself really. They kidnapped me during a fake attack. That sounds stupid. The attack was real. They miscalculated, and I got to see my name down the side of the ordinance that did this.” He taps the arc reactor.

“They were called the Ten Rings. They fed me, when they wanted too, needed my mind so they couldn’t play that card too hard. The torture drowning was a highlight. The terror of the hole in my chest, the battery getting in the water. Yinsen-”

Tony shrugs. “I made it out, but it should have been him.”

Bucky waits while Tony looks for a way to proceed in his stained hands. “I almost had all that behind me. Then I flew a nuclear warhead into space. Nearly died. The army we fought in New York…” He stops, doesn’t want to end up having an episode right here.

“Anyway. Trying to push through it, you know, the Avengers and planning for what’s co-” Tony stops. Bucky will see right through that. More than anyone else he can think of Bucky will see the lie. Worse. The need for it to be true.

It’s all he’s got though, this goal, The Plan, and Bucky. But he has to let Bucky go.

“What I was trying to say,” Tony pauses to make eye contact, to hold Bucky’s eyes with his own as long as he can manage. “Was that you worry about it a lot. I can’t say our experiences are similar. But I don’t think that will ever go away.”

Bucky looks defeated. Tony rushes to finish, “What I can say, is that-”

Tony cuts himself off, rubs his hand across his mouth. He has to get this out. “That weight you carry? It could crush you but it won’t. You’re like Steve, I can see it every day. Whatever knocks you down, you get back up. There’s no-”

Tony waves his hand in the air, “Nothing they could do to you that would break the good at your foundation. All the shit they put in you will peel away. And you’ll still be there. I can’t even imagine that kind of strength. You don’t fail and you never stop. And even if you do, when you do, you get up, you keep going, you’re still here because-” Tony shrugs helplessly. “Your bones are good, Barnes.”

Hopefully that’s enough. The confused frown that follows Tony out of the room doesn’t leave much room for that hope.

-----

Night confessionals and pep talks are all well and good, but Tony decides, what Bucky needs is some exposure therapy.

They go to Central Park.

Tony wants to die a little inside at the touristy nature of it but Bucky hasn’t been since the 1940s so that makes him a kind of tourist. Tony’s also going to have heart palpitations like the heroine in a bodice ripper over how good Bucky looks in direct sunlight. He has been doing the world a grave disservice allowing Bucky to stay all cooped up in the tower. His eyes are bright and engaged, and Tony isn’t sure how he knows, but they aren’t paranoid alert.

You’re welcome, he thinks smugly at the girl who just jogged into a tree. He would take pity on her but New Yorkers should be better than that.

It’s… easier. He finds himself thinking during a lull in his See The World pitch. Tony’s is selling his point like he was born to it, which he was, Bucky seems determined not to hear him.

Still, the easy feeling doesn’t vanish. He’d glad-handed for the restoration of New York, donated personally, pointed the Maria Stark foundation toward those hurt the most. But… coming out the other end? Maybe it’s the recovery, or Bucky Barnes keeping the loneliness at bay, but things seem… Good.

The things on the other end of the hole in the sky are still a problem, but Tony has hope, the first few steps towards a solution, and… all around him, New York just keeps on being New York.

Doable. That’s what it is, somewhere along the line, maybe even on the ride over, Tony mentally categorized things as doable again.

“Buy me an ice cream and I’ll tell you about the time I had to rescue Steve from a tree.” Bucky’s voice breaks into his musings. He looks tentative, hopeful. Tony realizes he’s been staring at Bucky.

“You’re on. You are, in fact, underselling. I would have bought you an ice cream truck for that. Maybe Haagen Daz if you’d played your cards right.”

Bucky laughs, teeth flashing, his eyes startlingly blue. The November air has bitten a flush into his cheeks and Tony’s helpless but to rest his eyes on the soft lines where Bucky’s eyes crinkle from smiling.

It’s so easy.

Oh.

Fuck.

Fucking oh. This isn’t some passing infatuation Tony has, he’s invested. He’s… shit. No. He-

He’s in so much trouble.

-----

It’s the third time Tony has emerged from the workshop to find Bucky staring at nothing on the balcony instead of ensconced in the couch that has ostensibly become his. He isn’t expecting it because it’s the middle of the day and moody Bucky encounters are a nighttime phenomenon.

“-don’t think he wants me around.” Tony’s missed the details, but it’s clear from the tone of voice that Bucky must be talking about Steve. “I barely remember how to be human, how am I supposed to be Bucky Barnes?”

“If I may?” Jarvis asks.

“Yeah,” Bucky sighs. The gleam of his arm flexing draws Tony’s attention. He shouldn’t be here, this isn’t for him. Turning away, he almost does the right thing, but Jarvis hasn’t announced him and he can’t help but wonder why.

“My existence is difficult to express. It is in fact a subject of great debate. However, putting aside questions of my autonomy and personhood, at my most basic level, I am merely lines of code. My greatest vulnerabilities lie in that code being breached. Sir has built what defenses for me he can. I need the shell of his protection because what you commonly refer to as Jarvis can be wiped away.”

“Never thought I’d have anything in common with genius tech from the future,” Bucky says. Tony can only see the broad sweep of his shoulders, the way his hair slips off his neck when he looks down over the railing. He deserves more than what he’s getting, than what he can get from just Tony and Tony’s lonely tower. The thought twists something in Tony’s chest, but Tony’s very familiar with wanting to be enough.

“Allow me to say,” Jarvis picks up, “for both your own pains and those you were forced to visit upon sir, I am gravely sorry that you did not have anyone who could do the same for you.”

There’s no response from Bucky this time.

“But I also believe, if you asked, you would find the opposite. Those you care about will see you. You were a victim, Sergeant Barnes, of a grave injustice, your personhood was wiped away. Whether or not you are who you were, I have ample evidence that you are wanted as you are.”

“You taking polls or something?” Bucky asks, disbelieving. That kind of self-doubt is an old companion to Tony.

“You do not live under my roof alone, Sergeant Barnes.”

His vision narrows and his scalp pricks with sweat. He’s about to be outed by his AI, is that why Jarvis hasn’t announced him? Amidst his growing panic he wonders if Bucky can hear the rebuke in Jarvis’ tone, or if that’s all for Tony.

Bucky shifts, his skeptical gaze sweeps over the balcony doors. Tony is going to get caught.

“Sir and I have watched you rebuild yourself into something much valued in this household.”

With perfect precision his emotions careen from panic to guilt. He should fix this. He isn’t sure when he took on the responsibility of Bucky Barnes. It was probably when he didn’t turn him to paste against that rooftop. Now that he’s done it though, this is his responsibility. He takes a lurching step forward before he’s swinging aggressively around. Even if that is true, this is a private moment that Tony is not meant to see. He’ll figure out a way to reverse engineer himself into a conversation like this with Bucky later.

“You have always had the power to cause great harm. You have chosen not to. If you forgive the hubris, I would propose that we are friends.” Tony takes that like a hit to the solar plexus. Jarvis, his baby, taking care of stray assassins and making friends.

That’s it. He’s heard too much, he’s almost safely away when-

“Tony?”

Right. Of course, supersoldiers, super hearing.

“In the flesh,” he says stepping fully onto the balcony, feeling like he’s breaching something off limits. “I, uh, I guess you know I heard. But, Jarvis is his own AI. That’s all from him.”

Maybe he’ll see that for the apology it’s meant to be. The cautious smile he levels at Tony makes the hair at the back of his neck stand up in alarm.

“I’ve still got that borscht in the fridge if you’re hungry.” He takes the reprieve, even if it unsettles him that Bucky is apparently okay with what Tony just overheard.

——

Tony presses his head to the fridge door now that he has several walls between Bucky and himself. What the fuck is he doing? Bucky needs fewer longing gazes and more something than he’s getting from Tony.

“J? I know I restricted you from his private spaces. But he isn’t like… staring longingly at the ninety floor drop is he?”

“Sergeant Barnes shows no signs of suicidal ideation that I have been able to detect.”

There’s something about the way Jarvis ends that -some judgement he can’t quite grasp- that prompts him to ask-

“But?”

“His behaviours are not dissimilar to those exhibited by you, sir. I suspect, if you will forgive my saying so, that the sergeant is lonely.”

-----

Bucky’s cooking has improved to the point where Tony is wondering what it would take to make a self-adjusting suit. His waistline can’t take this and he isn’t looking forward to the first time the side panelling won’t close. Even so, he’s sitting in the kitchen, waiting, while the smells of something mouth-watering and Indian tempt his nose. He can feel the siren song of the workshop but Bucky has recently refused to feed him unless he comes to the kitchen in person.

“No one could figure why he ended up back at camp naked,” Bucky’s telling him. His hair is pulled back out of the way.

Yesterday Jarvis had shown Tony a still of his face captured while he watched Bucky walk out of a room. Tony is going to get caught with that same lovesick look because he can’t stop staring at the places where Bucky’s hair catches on his neck. He keeps his hands firmly out of the way lest they follow through on his errant thoughts and brush back the loose strands falling from his hair tie.

“When we finally got him to say something, god, Tony you would have loved it, he looks down his nose at me. And Dernier’s… well I guess the history books would know, but he’s short, okay? So he’s looking down his nose at me, I don’t know how and he says, I am French. That’s it. Like that explains everything. Two seconds later, he’s flicking his fag at me and marching out of camp bare-assed before me and god. Vive la France!”

He’s smiling and mercifully putting Tony out of his misery by pushing his own hair back. “I can’t tell if that’s real. But there’s so much detail.”

Maybe Tony can do something about that. Retro-framing would be-

“Sir, Miss Potts is calling.”

“Let her through Jarvis,” Bucky answers, and Tony’s chest does not warm at that. It’s just two of his favourite people interacting. No big deal. It certainly has nothing to do with how at home Bucky seems. “She owes me thirty bucks for betting that Tony wouldn’t leave the shop for lunch and I intend to collect.”

Tony’s about to object when Pepper’s voice fills the air. “Is Tony with you?”

Tony hasn’t heard that voice from her in months. Things have been remarkably even-keeled both with SI and in their relationship since Pepper first met Bucky. Speaking of - Bucky sets down everything he’s doing, arm whirring softly as his fist clenches. He also knows that this is a bad news call.

“Yeah, Ginny, what happened?”

Ginny? That’s- no, Pepper had turned in resignation papers the one time Tony had tried that nickname with her. He will focus on that - someone owes him an explanation - as soon as they figure out what’s bothering her.

“Lay it out for us, Pep,” Tony says when she seems to need further confirmation.

“Steve Rogers was just in my office. He is apparently still looking for you, Jamie, and-”

Jamie? Tony doesn’t have time for his brain to bluescreen. Things are always urgent when they involve Steve Rogers-

“And he ain’t got no reason to be pestering you about it unless he’s figured something out.” Tuning back in, Tony thinks Bucky is… taking this well?

“I’ve handled tougher cases than Steven Rogers,” Pepper says, something miffed in her tone before it slides towards thoughtfulness. “Though I didn’t like the look on his face when he left. I’m not sure what I could have said but he might know something.”

Tony says nothing, watching Bucky for any sign that this will be a repeat of the last time they had to deal with Rogers. It’s almost like the first few days he was in the tower. Nothing shows in his face.

It’s a relief that his voice doesn’t change when he promises to cook for Pepper the next time she visits the tower, nor when he says goodbye. Tony adds a late, “You did good,” before the line goes silent.

“You didn’t have much to say,” Bucky says as he plates something that smells like spices and heaven.

Tony shakes his head. “Wasn’t my place. You decided what you wanted to do about Rogers last time. It’s your choice this time too.”

Bucky grunts. He slides Tony’s meal across the counter to him. Silent, and maybe pensive, Bucky stabs his fork into his lunch. It’s not Tony’s place-

Still-

Jamie?”

-----

After Pepper’s call that afternoon, Tony prepares for a long night. Just in case, he works late in the shop. It’s nearing two in the morning when Jarvis alerts him to Bucky’s presence in the living area. He should probably regret that they have a routine for this but tonight he’s grateful. It makes the first step easy and he’ll take all the easy he can get since they are finally going to talk about the giant Steve Rogers in the room.

He makes them something warm to drink in the kitchen. Coffee for Tony. Hot cocoa for Bucky. Bucky stares down into the marshmallows as soon as Tony delivers the mug.

Bucky waits. It’s an effective tactic, Tony’s never met a silence he didn’t want to fill. Taking his own seat on the couch he puts it off as long as he can.

He doesn’t bring his parents up. Ever. For obvious reasons. But, Tony thinks, it’s been almost long enough that he might be able to paint his reaction to Bucky’s confession in a little better light.

“He was always disappointed.” Tony doesn’t clarify, all roads lead to Steve Rogers but Howard’s is the shadow they can’t escape. “In how the war ended, in never finding Steve, in the way his life turned out. He was disappointed in my mother, of course. I don’t know who he wanted her to be, but she wasn’t. She spent her life constantly living up to a woman whose name she never knew.”

He shrugs, “That I never knew, anyway.” Shifting, he angles himself ninety degrees towards Bucky.

“The shadow he held over me was usually a lot more obvious. Sometimes, sometimes it wasn’t, I couldn’t tell if it was Steve’s- Captain America’s- shadow or his own.” Tony isn’t sure why he made the correction, it isn’t like Bucky doesn’t know who Steve is. But it seemed important just then, for Bucky, and maybe for Tony too, to acknowledge that it was Captain America who Howard saw, never his son, never Steve Rogers. Especially not the one who came out in Bucky’s stories. A Steve Rogers who failed at almost everything he ever tried but never gave up.

“The way you describe Steve… I wonder if Howard even knew him.”

“He didn’t.” There’s an unexpectedly vicious undertone in his voice. “I’ve always… I wonder sometimes too, you know? He was a bit of a prick during the war but he- the way you…”

The couch creaks as Bucky slumps bodily into it. He flings the arm away from himself, it rests in the space between them. A few more minutes of staring into his cocoa and he downs it in one go.

Tony sets his coffee aside, he hasn’t finished, but it can wait. For some reason, breaching the space between them is easier when he has Bucky’s metal hand to reach for. He’s worked on that arm, ensured the plates move freely, had his hands all over it. Familiar territory. It’s not comfort, precisely, Bucky can’t really feel what Tony’s doing, but he traces over the articulating joints in the fingers, feels the soft hum of the motors.

“I know you’re awake and restless tonight because you are going to talk to Steve. But if there was something you wanted to know-” Tony stops and says exactly what he means. “Howard isn’t standing between us.”

“Fuck,” Bucky sounds restless, looks restless. Hips shifting, he turns to match Tony’s ninety degree rotation.

“Did you know I got drafted?” Bucky starts again, abruptly, Tony doesn’t dare look, his voice is suddenly closer, quieter. “Once we all became big war heroes, they changed that detail. Said I volunteered.”

Bucky flexes his metal fingers, carefully, one after the other, until they’re resting over Tony’s. The silence stretches until he finally gives in and meets Bucky’s eyes. “I don’t usually get to make my own choices,” he says, eyes lingering on Tony’s mouth.

It’s almost unnoticeable, the time that passes. Neither Bucky nor Tony moving. The metal fingers of Bucky’s hand sap the heat from Tony’s fingers.

“Steve was an idiot,” Bucky finally says, his smile is fond, his eyes far away.

Tony must react somehow because Bucky snaps back to the present. “He was,” he says defensively, “they sure made a big deal about his tactical genius, but he wouldn’t have needed it if he wasn’t constantly charging into danger half-cocked. He was always getting us into the worst shit. If he hadn’t been so clever and born with a goddamn horseshoe up his ass- Well, he’d never have made it out of his ma’s house but you know what I mean.”

“Well…” Tony equivocates. “You would be the one to know about the horseshoe business. No one will argue with that here.”

Bucky smiles, then he frowns… “Wait… Tony, you’ve said things like that before, do you think that Steve and I...?”

Tony coughs, “Ha, what? No. I. Why would you-”

“Why are you acting so squirrelly? The internet says that it ain’t a big deal no more.”

“It isn’t! Really! I just wouldn’t…”

“You know that he ain’t… standing between us either, right?”

“James Lord,” Tony mutters.

“You’ve said his name before,” Bucky scrunches up his face, chasing the memory. He pulls the metal arm back. “Jarvis were you there when-?”

Jarvis hops right in once prompted. “During your first meeting, Sir alluded to Captain Rogers being your James Lord.”

“What did he mean by that?”

Like Tony isn’t even here. Wonderful. He’s created a monster.

“I believe sir was suggesting that Captain Rogers was your… companion in more ways than just friendship.”

Bucky’s face twists, then twists a little further. “He’s my brother!”

Tony can’t help it, he laughs, Bucky sounds so offended. The laughter overtakes him and he tips back on the couch.

Bucky toes at him. “I can’t believe you. I thought-” He trails off and Tony really really wants to see the look on his face so he can try to piece together what Bucky thought. But he can’t.

“Your face,” is all he manages, wheezing helplessly at the ceiling.

“Ugh, Jarvis, I’m going to try sleeping again. Not like it will be possible with that image in my head. Make sure Tony doesn’t die choking on his own tongue.”

“He hasn’t managed it yet.”

“Not for lack of trying, I’ll bet.”

Tony thinks he’s alone for a brief second before Bucky stomps back over to him. It’s the first time he’s ever heard him move. Tony’s marvelling over having broken Bucky’s stealth assassin behaviour when he’s suddenly leaning over Tony.

Bucky’s lips are about to descend onto his own. There’s no mistaking that. He can’t even begin to quantify the sheer amount of want that crawls its way up his throat. Bucky hesitates, no, he’s teasing, holding himself just above Tony. A sound starts in Tony’s chest at the realization, as desperate as he is, a twisted mix of desire and denial. He’s surging up to take what Bucky’s offering before it fully escapes his throat. He’s lost. Things have barely started, Bucky warm and close, his metal hand twisting in Tony’s shirt and then the kiss is ending.

“Tomorrow,” Bucky says and pads away on silent feet.

“Fuck,” Tony says to the ceiling, or Jarvis, or any Asgardians who might be paying attention.

-----

Tony has three thoughts in under three seconds. First. Jarvis should have warned him. Who created him anyway? They were going to have words. Second. That is Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers in the penthouse, two feet from Bucky and closing. One foot. And they are hugging. Arms thrown around each other, backslapping, Bucky leaning in, that’s… good. Good.

Third.

Third…

Tony remembers thinking that Bucky had metastasized into his life. Spread into every aspect until he was breathing Bucky on every inhale.

But it’s not like that at all, is it? The ache in his chest, that makes him desperate to check that the arc reactor is still working, that’s shrapnel. Bucky exploded into Tony’s life, embedded himself into Tony’s flesh like the pieces still fighting to kill him every minute of the day.

Tony knows with a sudden finality that everything is about to change. This was always coming, he reminds himself, it will be good for Bucky. Tony will just… go back to the bots and the hole in the sky and weekly checkups from Pepper like he’s an ageing relative.

His intention to move along and set aside his burgeoning occupation as a peeping-Tom is interrupted. Bucky and Steve pull halfway apart, though they don’t let go of each other, Bucky’s arm stays over Steve’s shoulder, Steve’s around Bucky’s waist. Bucky is beaming.

Steve… waves of all things, a tentative single motion through the air. He meets Tony’s eyes like he’s facing a firing squad before- “Tony, I’m glad you’re here I wanted to-”

“Dum-E needs me,” Tony says, turns and walks out. He shouts back down the hall, “Glad to have you back Steve, get a room.”

A noise like Steve is dying follows him down the hall. “Does he think we’re...?”

Bucky needs to reunite with Steve and that’s what he’s doing. Tony is, any minute now, going to be extremely happy for him. He just needs a second to be absolutely miserable for himself.

The balcony doors open at his approach. Tony hadn’t realized he wasn’t pointed at the workshop, but, fresh air, that’s… he’ll take it.

There’s nothing between Steve and Bucky besides deep friendship. But despite what happened yesterday, it doesn’t prove that he wants Tony in that way. Or even wants Tony in his life. Now Bucky’s horizons are larger. He isn’t the only thing in Bucky’s life anymore, he holds no illusions about how he’ll hold up to a whole wide world and all the people, super and otherwise, in it.

Tony works on that thought, because if he can decide to be over his parents' murder, he can decide to be over Bucky. This is a good step for Bucky. Whatever was keeping him from reaching out to Steve, clearly, the healing for that was done, or on its way or whatever. With Steve back in his life he’s breached a barrier, ready to be more, move on, move away.

-----

“Stark!” Uh oh. Tony’s in trouble. “Where do you think you’re going?” Bucky asks loping up behind him.

Tony has an answer for that, he does. It would just be awkward to explain so he pulls up short and… says nothing. The secret to keeping his foot out of his mouth, he’s learned, is complete silence.

“You were just going to what? Toddle off, while my best friend and I, who you probably still somehow believe I’m hiding a relationship with, got all cozy and reacquainted?”

“Well, it did look pretty cozy,” Tony shrugs awkwardly. Anything more than that and he’s back in too revealing territory.

Bucky sighs. Tony feels a small twist in his stomach at that.

Bucky’s become a lot more comfortable using his bulk recently, and he seems more than willing to put it to use now. He backs Tony up into a corner and Tony wonders how deeply he’s managed to offend this time.

“I’m going,” Bucky says, and it’s clearly the beginning of a longer statement but it’s such a terrifying beginning that Tony feels it latch onto his face. Bucky stops talking immediately.

“Tony, no,” he says, “I’m not leavin’! Jesus. I could tell you I love you and you’d find some way to convince yourself that I meant Jarvis, or my dinner, or that guy who delivered your take-out last week and stole your shoes-”

“He didn’t-”

“That’s what you wanna argue about?” Bucky shoves both hands into his hair, tilts his head back and tugs. Tony’s sure this is all very trying for him, but Tony is very confused and has some questions and with Bucky all in his space and spread out like that he’s having trouble lining them up.

“Do you?” he finally gets out. Bucky drops his hands and stares at him. Even Tony is lost for a minute, trying to drag the purpose of that question to the forefront of his mind. It had been the first thing waiting to leap out of his mouth and Tony couldn’t remember what it was in reference to.

And then his mouth is moving and Tony is an idiot. No! Not that question. “Do you? Love me?”

Bucky sucks his lower lip into his mouth, tongue curling over the top. He eyes Tony, lip making a wet sound as it’s released.

It’s very shiny.

“I’m going,” Bucky begins again, taking Tony’s hands firmly in his own. “To kiss you now.”

Tony can hear himself swallow. Bucky presses a thumb into each of Tony’s palms, pushing them slowly back and up, pinning them to the wall.

“Are you?” Tony asks when nothing else happens. There’s a defensive mile of snark in it. This is, maybe, starting to look like the thing Tony pretends he doesn’t think about, never wishes for, and absolutely isn’t dreaming of.

Bucky leans in until his mouth is hovering over Tony’s, their noses slide against each other. “I’m waitin’ on your consent Stark. Kissin’ you was only supposed to be step one, but at this rate-”

Tony lurches forward. As much as he’s able to, anyway. His arms stretch taut behind him and his chest brushes against Bucky’s and they are kissing.

Fucking finally.

“What,” Tony asks, mouth full of Bucky’s bottom lip. It isn’t fair how much thought he’s put into exactly this, how often Bucky pulls this very lip between his teeth. Now it’s Tony’s turn

“What are the next steps?” he manages to finish.

Tony’s never paid that much attention to kissing. Made sure he was good at it, of course. His ego wouldn’t let him be anything less than stellar. Everything about this moment though, every slick glide, teasing tongue flick, and gentle press of teeth is consuming. Bucky kisses like he has a secret, taunting Tony into figuring it out. He melts.

There’s a liquid heat running down his spine, and a shock of goosebumps, like cascading champagne bubbles across his scalp.

The kiss changes and Bucky is pushing into him, like he’s telling Tony something, forcing him to pay attention. If Tony had felt like Bucky was taking up all the room in his life before, he’d been wrong. This, this is what it feels like to have your everything caught up in someone else. Tony loses track of time, he loses all sense of where he is. All he can focus on is how warm Bucky is, how eager, how he looms into Tony’s space in the best way.

He can remember thinking once, when they’d been in the workshop and everything had been tentative and terrifying, that Bucky had the skills to make Tony gone. This way, with his mind fuzzing on elation and the damp press of Bucky’s mouth over his, this way was better. Past Tony was so right.

“Yes, okay, yeah. More. More of that. Bedroom? No bedroom? Are we waiting?”

Bucky laughs. Tony loves that sound and there’s no hidden rasp in it and suddenly Tony’s in the air.

“Rude assumption but good instincts, yes, this works for me.” Tony wraps his legs securely around Bucky’s waist and drops his lips back onto Bucky’s.

“More.”