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When it finally hits, comprehension wakes Steve from a half-doze in Sam's guest room, leaves him lying there stiff as a board, staring up at the dark ceiling as the lights of passing cars draw patterns on the blinds. He's barely off the painkillers, and it's tempting to blame the ugly place his thoughts have gone on the fuzziness in his head. He needs clarity, a second opinion, and he fumbles his phone off the nightstand and dials with his heart in his throat, not knowing if his call will be picked up or not.

"Isn't it past your bedtime, old man?" Natasha asks on the third ring, her voice a shade too neutral under the teasing tone. He wonders if she knows what he's going to ask. If she's wondering which thing he'll ask and whether she'll be able to answer.

"Zola," he says, deciding to skip the pleasantries altogether. "He implied Howard was murdered."

"I think he did more than imply," Natasha mutters.

"The assassin they sent," he gets out, throat closing as this fresh new horror becomes real in the asking.

There's only silence on the other end of the line until Natasha breathes in slowly. "I'll see what I can find out. But it's something they'd do. As a test, or just because they could."

God. Of all the things Hydra's done, it seems silly to get hung up on this one thing, but it's personal in a way that even sending Bucky after him just...isn't. Of course they'd send a supersoldier to take down a supersoldier--and he's going to kick himself forever for being too caught up in the newness of his altered life to see what was staring him right in the face from the moment he pulled Bucky out of that lab. But Howard...Howard had been a friend. A civilian. Smart as hell, but no match for the man they'd sent to kill him. They'd done it for spite; that seems plain enough, only....

"I have to talk to Tony," Steve realizes aloud, stomach twisting. "Before he finds it in the SHIELD files."

"That information may not even be in there," Natasha cautions him. "And even if it is, Stark's not going to dig through that mess himself. He'll have JARVIS do it, and if it's something JARVIS thinks might hurt his creator...."

Steve shakes his head unconsciously. "It needs to come from me. Even if it wasn't...wasn't Bucky, his dad was murdered. I can't let him go on thinking it was an accident."

"And you don't trust JARVIS' judgment?"

He knows Natasha, knows she's pushing for some reason known only to her, waiting for him to break and backpedal now that she's thrown trust into the ring. He just doesn't know why.

"I do trust him," he says, taking a deep, slow breath and reminding himself to stay clearheaded. "But what if something happens? It's not like JARVIS can duck if trouble comes his way." He frowns, suddenly rethinking his assumption, just because it is an assumption. "Can he?"

"I can tell your mind's made up," Natasha says, not answering that last question. "You know Tony's not going to be happy about this, right?"

"Would you be?"

"No frame of reference," she reminds him ruefully. He hears the faint clink of glass on glass; she might have just poured herself a drink. He can't say he blames her. "Just...be careful, all right? I know he's your friend, but you might be giving him more than he can handle."

The line goes dead before Steve can ask whether she means Tony or Bucky.

***

It's not that Captain America is the last person Tony expects to call him up for a confab out of the blue; it's just that Captain America is the last person Tony expects to call him if the world isn't actively ending at the time. And it's not like they're not kind of, sort of, friends now, like the kind of friends who sort of make the rest of the world think they're sworn enemies. Only rumor has it that Cap's actual best friend is alive and well, so Tony's pretty curious to know what's brought Steve to his doorstep, not even a week out of the hospital. Finding the elusive Sergeant Winter, most likely; it's what he'd do in Steve's place.

Steve's moving gingerly as he steps out of the elevator into the New York penthouse, not like he's still hurting but like he's suddenly afraid all over again that he's going to break something if he looks at it. It's a bit disappointing, because Tony had thought they were past that, but he's willing to pretend it's the hospital thing instead.

"Hey, long time no see," he greets Steve with an easy grin, going to meet him just in case he's going to need to get a shoulder under the guy. "Come on in, have a seat--please. You sure you should be up and around? I thought I was the only one allowed to check myself out AMA."

"I'm fine," Steve's quick to say, shaking his head with a hangdog look like he's halfway to apologizing for that. "And...maybe I should stand?" He doesn't sound certain, but it still draws Tony up short.

"Well. Nothing good ever came of that," Tony says, rocking back on his heels. He narrows his eyes suspiciously at Rogers' grimace. Ever since he got the call, part of him has been braced for anger, accusations--how can he have been so deep into SHIELD's files and never noticed they were a Hydra front?--but Steve looks like he's gearing himself up for a confession, not a confrontation. "Wait. Are you breaking up with me? You seriously got off your death bed just to break up with me? I mean, granted, it's not you, it's me--"

Steve blinks at him owlishly, proof positive that his head's not in the game today. He'd usually rise to the bait, but instead he just says, "I wasn't on my death bed."

Tony frowns. "Wait, are you breaking up with me? That's cold, Rogers. Usually I at least get a first date out of someone before they kick me to the curb, but--"

"Tony," Steve says, too steady and too sorry, and for a minute Tony's heart just stops. Has something happened? It can't be Pepper--he'd be having this talk with Happy, and he'd be the one apologizing--and if it were Aunt Peggy, he'd have gotten a call from the care facility. "Listen. I'm not sure where to even start, so I'll just...what do you know about a scientist named Arnim Zola?"

"You want a history lesson?" Tony asks, momentarily thrown. "Hydra scientist, captured in World War II by a guy you might recognize. I'm guessing he was tried as a war criminal after that, but...."

Steve shakes his head. "He was recruited. Into SHIELD."

"Wait, what? Into--who the hell thought that was a good idea? Bringing a Hydra--shit." Steve's apologetic look morphs into alarm as Tony's cheeks prickle, all the blood rushing from his face. "Tell me this isn't another thing my dad fucked up and that SHIELD didn't create the Winter Soldier."

Steve freezes, eyes enormous. Tony can sympathize, he really can.

"Didn't think that far, did you?"

"I...that's...." Steve's mouth works soundlessly until he shakes himself, chin going stubborn. "I don't know whose idea it was to recruit Zola," he says, voice firming as he goes, "but I doubt your dad had anything to do with it. SHIELD...I don't know. Zola didn't have much time to brag, so he pretty much just stuck to the highlights."

Tony arches a brow. His memory on this subject is actually pretty fuzzy--after he'd soured on the whole Captain America Story, he'd tried to forget as much of it as he could--but nothing he remembers had ever suggested Zola was a child prodigy. "You mean you talked to him? Recently? Wouldn't he have been...dead?"

Steve snorts, mouth twitching in a humorless smile. "You'd think. Only apparently being a genius with access to enough technology means--" Steve catches himself all at once, mouth closing with a snap. "Actually, I'm not sure I should be telling you this part."

"What? No. I mean yes! Damn it, Rogers--"

"He--look, don't ask me how, but he...uploaded his brain? Into a computer the size of a bunker."

Tony stares. Clearly Rogers is having him on--he has to be, because seriously--only he's wearing that look he gets when he thinks technology has personally betrayed him by making the future a shittier place instead of a better one, and also no flying cars. "When the hell was this?"

"Sometime in the Seventies, I think."

The half-hysterical laugh that escapes would be embarrassing if it weren't so patently called for. "The Seventies? How is he at Pong?"

"No idea," Steve says shortly, the irritation he usually shows with Tony's maybe-on-purpose over-referencing of pop culture drowned out by the sobriety of a mission report in progress. "But he was enough himself to have created an algorithm that would have killed millions of people. I only met him briefly a handful of times, but...that was a real person in there, just like your JARVIS, and everyone always said he was a genius."

JARVIS is entirely silent, but Tony's warmed by the acknowledgement on JARVIS' behalf, nearly distracted from the rest of Steve's message. "Huh. Every bad thing I've ever thought about you? I take back half." That wins him a smile, wan but real, only the smartass remark he's learned to expect doesn't follow. Clearly they're not done here yet. "So if this isn't about my dad, what did Zola say that's got you so spooked?"

Steve shifts uneasily on his feet. "That's...just it. He said some things while he was trying to keep us busy, or maybe he just wanted to gloat. I don't know. But...Tony, your dad...when he died. It wasn't an accident. Hydra had him killed."

That...can't be right. His dad was a shitty drunk; it was only a matter of time before the booze and the cars intersected in ways that got him killed. Only if Steve's been talking to Hydra's cheap knockoff of an AI--cheating, that's what Zola is--then....

"I think we need to revisit the sitting down thing," Tony says in a daze, stumbling over to the nearest couch.

"I--"

"Jesus, Rogers. Sit already, would you? You're sure about this?"

"Yes," Steve says, hesitantly sinking down into the overstuffed cushions of Rhodey's favorite chair. "I'm sorry. I know that's got to be a shock."

"I...yes? Kind of? I mean, go dad for pissing off the creeps inside his own organization, but...he's been dead a long time. How he died doesn't...really change that." God, his mom, though. Collateral damage still, just not his dad's. It's an odd thought, that maybe this one thing he doesn't have to hate Howard for, except that his dad always did have a wider fallout circle than most.

Steve nods tightly, but there's clearly more building up behind his teeth. His eyes flicker as he considers his next move, but the struggle is brief; when Steve steels himself, Tony reflexively follows suit. "The thing is...I don't know for sure. Zola didn't say anything outright, just tossed out this grainy photo, there and gone. I couldn't even make out who it was supposed to be, but...."

"You think it was Barnes," Tony blurts, surprised that he's surprised. The signs were all there; he should have seen it coming.

Steve winces. He looks like he'd love to argue the point but can't quite bring himself to do so. "It's something they'd do," Steve admits. "To see what he remembered, or...just to hurt. Because they could." Steve shakes his head, mouth tightening. "Look, I don't have a clue how to make this right. I'm going after Bucky, and I'll bring him home if I can, but I'm not asking you to be okay with that. I can tell you it wasn't him, not really, but they were your parents. I just thought you should hear it from me."

Tony nods automatically, mouth glued shut. He notices in some quiet corner of his mind that Steve's careful not to ask if he can do anything for Tony, and that's...that's good. That's probably for the best, because some tiny, angry part of him would love to ask for Barnes' head on a platter. Not so much for his dad's sake, but his mom's only mistake had been being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The rest of him is just numb.

Rogers shifts, mouth twitching like he wants to keep talking, spout platitudes or excuses or whatever his old-fashioned sensibilities are calling for, but in the end he stands with a small nod of his own. "I'm sorry," he says, so painfully earnest Tony can't even doubt him.

Tony waits until he's gone to ask.

"JARVIS? Was that in the newest dump?"

"Yes, sir," JARVIS replies, subdued. "As it seemed a particularly sensitive topic, I was waiting for a more opportune time to disclose it."

Tony barks a humorless laugh. A more opportune time? And when the hell would that have been? After Rogers returned the prodigal son to the fold? After Tony got to know him, the single one of his dad's old war buddies he's never particularly wanted to punch in the face? Hell, is JARVIS protecting Barnes?

And what does that say about what JARVIS found in those files if JARVIS is?

"Excuse me, sir. Miss Romanoff is requesting entrance to the penthouse."

"Christ, of course she is. She knows too, doesn't she?"

"I couldn't say, but it seems likely."

"Right. Fuck. Let her in, then. Let's get this over with."

It's hard to tell when Natasha is truly bothered by something. She wears confidence like an armored suit, and when she does look wary, he's always half-convinced she's playing to his ego. There's nothing coy or soft about her mannerisms today; she stalks in like she's going into battle, chin up, eyes determined, and it hits him like a brick to the head that she's not playing this, playing him. She's got a thick file tucked under one arm, and whatever she's bringing him, he can tell it's important. To her.

"Look," Tony begins, hoping to derail her before she starts, "if you're here to lobby on Barnes' behalf--"

"Steve talked to you, then?"

"Did you not see him on the way out?"

Romanoff shrugs, mouth tightening. "I wasn't sure he'd go through with it."

Tony snorts. "Yeah, well, this is Rogers. Truth, justice and being a big damn martyr."

The ghost of a smile tugs at the corners of Natasha's mouth, but her eyes remain serious. "What will you do when you find him?"

"Barnes?" Tony stalls, wanting suddenly to be out from under that level stare. "Who says I'm looking? Did I say I was looking? Because it seems like Cap's got that covered." She arches a brow; Tony grits his teeth. "Does it matter to anybody else that he killed my fucking parents?" bursts out of him before he can wall it up, the anger that's been on a slow boil in the pit of his stomach finally spilling over.

"I killed a lot of people's parents when I was with the Red Room," Natasha says without flinching. "Just like him."

Right. The red in her ledger he's always given her a free pass for, because it's a tiny drop in a great big bucket compared to his own.

He opens his mouth and snaps it shut. He wants to point out that this is personal, but wow, way to devalue all the other lives they've collectively ruined between them. Then again, he's only human.

It's not fair to say that Natasha's eyes soften, but there's understanding there where before there was only the willingness to fight. "The man who killed your parents," she says quietly, like she's imparting a secret, "wasn't the man Steve knows. But I knew him."

Tony starts. That's...unexpected.

Her mouth twists wryly. "He helped train me, actually. He was...." She trails off, shaking her head, but Tony can see it all: admiration, professional respect, and a deep sadness edged with something wistful. "He was good to me. As much as he could be, with what they left of him."

She hands over the file she's carrying without even a token game of tug-of-war, and Tony takes it with an uneasy flutter in his gut. There's no way he's going to like what he reads, but if she's not even worried about what he's going to do with the information, then he's really not going to like it.

She looks like she's got one more thing left to say, and he knows, knows that if there's anyone who can make him change his tune, even when he knows it's coming, it's Natasha. Instead she gives him a tiny smile and turns to go.

He lets her get halfway to the elevator before he calls after her, helpless frustration seeping through his even tone. "Who the hell is this guy that he's got you all fighting for him?"

He knows the answer even as he asks the question: it's James fucking Barnes, pinup boy and certified saint, out of whose ass the sun doth shine, so sayeth Captain America.

Natasha just tosses a wry look over her shoulder and asks, "You think we wouldn't do this for you?"

"Gah," he yells, not even bothering to wait until she's out of earshot, because he hates it, hates it, hates it when she does that. The cool, calculating Black Widow he can handle.

Natasha treating him like he maybe, almost, sort of matters to her?

"Is she trying to give me feelings?" he demands of the empty air as the door whisks shut on her smug little smile.

JARVIS hums, pointedly noncommittal. "I'm sure I couldn't say."

***

The thing is, he doesn't know. Not when he sits down and reads the file, letting JARVIS work his magic in the background. Not when he gets up an hour in, goes straight to the bar, and pours himself a shot he vomits back up not five minutes later. Not after weeks of screaming nightmares, memories he's usually able to bury brought too close to the surface with every page he turns. Not even when he gets off a Quinjet half a year later and drives into a cramped, bustling city, heading straight to one of the poorest sections of town where people are crammed into tiny, dingy tenements that...actually, probably feel a lot like home, now that he's thinking about it.

He doesn't know what he's going to do when he confronts Barnes face-to-face, but he knocks on the apartment door anyway.

Listening for the sound of shattering window glass or the cock of a gun, he's surprised to hear a slow, heavy tread across creaking floorboards instead. Not exactly the level of stealth he expects from a master assassin, but maybe Barnes is having an off day. Maybe he's got the wrong apartment. He's going to feel so much better about this entire thing if he's got the wrong apartment, because Barnes was way too easy to find. Relatively speaking.

The security chain scrapes in its groove as the deadbolt is thrown, and then the door's swinging wide on a tall, broad figure that looks like five miles of very intimidating rough road. Barnes' hair is still long, his face still scruffy with a few days' worth of beard, and while it's clear he's seen a shower pretty recently, he's unkempt in a way that suggests he's just going through the motions because it's what a real boy would do. Tired eyes stare at him in confusion for a long moment before a flicker of recognition sparks, dim and fitful.

"Sergeant Barnes?" Tony asks, surprising even himself by offering up the rank, not the name.

"Usually," Barnes replies in a gravelly voice, eyes searching Tony's face. "Stark?" he asks hesitantly, like he's just not sure, or maybe not sure which.

"The one and only," Tony says with a too-bright smile and watches Barnes take that like the hit it is, unflinching.

Barnes nods, throat working against a dry swallow, and lets go of the door handle, taking a step back. "Did you want to come in?"

He knows it's stupid, but this isn't the dead-faced murderbot he'd steeled himself to confront or the ruthless killer he'd been prepared to put down. When Tony moves to follow, Barnes actually turns his back, taking two steps towards the tiny kitchen nook with a pensive frown like he's trying to decide whether to be a good host or to remember how it even goes. Barnes' shoulders stiffen almost imperceptibly when Tony shuts the door behind himself, but they droop again as if maintaining wariness is too much of an effort.

There's something desperately not right here, and Tony finds himself doing what he always does when handed a problem he doesn't understand: he opens his mouth and stalls for time.

"So, hey, nice place you've got here. Very, uh...not secret-dungeon-hideoutish at all. Gotta admit, I was expecting an abandoned warehouse, booby-traps, some kind of arsenal, but, uh...yeah. This is much homier. I mean, I'm a little surprised you let me in--do you open the door for just anybody?"

"Sometimes," Barnes says with a faint little smile that doesn't reach his eyes.

Sometimes.

Jesus.

Right. Tony knows what he's dealing with now, at least, and that...that is not going to fly, because he's been there, he knows, and he's not equipped to just leave someone in a place that dark to sink or swim on their own.

"Yeah? Well, it looks like it's your lucky day. I sure hope you're happy to see me, Barnes, because I sure as hell know someone who's going to be happy to see you. Maybe you remember him...big guy, thinks a shield is an offensive weapon, weird fetish for red, white and blue? I mean, not that I'm one to talk about weird fetishes, but--"

Barnes drops his head, shaking it minutely. "I can't," he says thickly, eyes on the floor.

"Can't...what? See Steve? Because if this is some sort of guilt thing, like a 'sorry I tried to kill you' thing, believe me, he's over it. Or if it's the other kind of guilt, have you googled us? Hate to say it, but you're going to fit right in. Or--"

"Programming," Barnes rasps out, going so tense the gears in his left arm whirr softly. Tony looks, because metal fucking arm, even though it's covered by the long sleeve of Barnes' dark hoodie, then firmly tells himself to focus.

He frowns as he runs Barnes' terse statement past his inner cryptographer once more. "Like...Steve was your last mission, so if you see him again, you're going to revert back to the Winter Soldier and literally beat a path to his door?"

Barnes hesitates but shakes his head. "There's...trigger words. I hear 'em, and...I can't...I shouldn't even be around people. I shouldn't be here at all."

"Hey," Tony says sharply. "First of all, you should be around people--the right people, because we're going to fix this. Second--"

Bucky barks a humorless laugh. "Just like that? You're just going to wave your magic wand and make it better?"

"No, because magic is bullshit," Tony grumbles, pulling a face. "Seriously, why would I have a wand? I'm Tony fucking Stark." Barnes fails to look impressed; Tony wonders if his dad ever had that look aimed at him, and just picturing it warms the cockles of his heart. "Anyway, did I say it was going to be easy? No. Do I think that's going to matter? Also no, because here you are. You beat that programming once; of course you can do it again."

Barnes stares at him like the very idea is exhausting. It probably is; his eyes have the bruised look of a man who's been awake for too many days, which for a supersoldier translates to too many weeks.

"You might as well bow to the inevitable," Tony says with a lopsided smile when Barnes remains silent. "Any argument you make, I can talk circles around."

He's left himself open for a quip at his expense, but Barnes just shakes his head and asks, "Why?"

Tony shrugs, shoving his hands in his pockets. He doesn't let his eyes drift from Barnes' resolute stare. "Because people I trust have a good feeling about you, and I don't like to let them down. Pretty sure that's something we share." It's not the only thing they share, but maybe he doesn't need to tell Barnes that on the first meeting. If Barnes is as smart as they think he is, he can probably figure it out on his own.

Slowly, like he's already thinking better of it, Barnes nods. That's good enough for Tony.

"Great! So let's pack up, by which I mean you pack while I supervise. Trust me, you do not want me near your breakables. I'm more the guy who brings the beer and pizza anyway. Well?" he prods when Barnes hesitates. "Shake a leg, and I can have you home by dinner."

He doesn't miss the wistful look that crosses Barnes' face, there and gone. He knows what it means, though. Home is seventy years from here, and even Tony can't bring that back. And that's fine, because he's not even going to try.

Bigger and better is more his style anyway.

***

Bucky knows what he's doing isn't smart. It's not just that he's breaking cover, stepping under the microscope that is the Avengers' sphere of influence; he might as well be calling Hydra HQ to arrange his own pickup. It's that he's patiently dogging the footsteps of the son of a man he's killed, who has every reason to want him dead.

But that's just it. It's Howard's kid, and Bucky owes him this, whether it ends in a bullet in his back or the pipe dream Stark's offering. The thing is, Bucky almost believes him--believes Stark's sincere about trying to help him, anyway--and that's....

He's been going crazy cooped up in that little apartment, hunched over his notebooks and trying desperately to wrest his brain back under his own control. It's just hard to keep going, keep trying, when he knows it's never going to amount to a hill of beans. Even if he gets back every vanished memory, beats the nightmares and shakes off the ghost in his head that makes him lose time and turns the guy in the mirror into a stranger, he's still going to be stuck right where he is, keeping his head down and praying he won't be noticed.

He'd give a lot to know he's safe to walk around without ten little words hanging over him. To be able to get out there and maybe make up for some of the damage he's caused. He's got to at least try.

He doesn't really get it himself, but while he can't always claim he wants to live, he's never not too stubborn to die. Maybe he picked that up from Steve.

The sudden ache in his chest has him bowing his head, his arms squeezing tight around the backpack that holds his notebooks. From the driver's seat of his flashy car, Stark looks over at him curiously, posture open and relaxed. It's ridiculous, and it's on the tip of Bucky's tongue to lecture the idiot about letting strange assassins in under his guard, but just the thought of opening his mouth leaves him feeling exhausted. A lot of things do these days.

"How're you doing?" Stark asks when Bucky doesn't look up. "We're not far from the airstrip, and there's food on the Quinjet if you're hungry. Well. Shitty food. Upscale MREs, really. I could run us through a drive-through--"

"'M fine," Bucky says, but it doesn't seem like enough. "I'm sorry," he adds. Lifting his head feels like trying to roll a boulder uphill, but he needs to look Stark in the eye for this. "About your parents."

A muscle in Stark's jaw jumps, but his voice is even when he asks, "You remember them?"

"All of them," Bucky admits. The backs of his eyes sting briefly, but he breathes through it.

Stark keeps his eyes glued to the road as he digests that, a question building behind his teeth that breaks out before long. "Can you--why? Why did you--I mean, Hydra, I get it, but...what were your orders...exactly? I just...did they tell you who was in that car, or...?"

Bucky shakes his head. "They just said 'no witnesses'. I think...it being Howard was just a bonus. They were mostly interested in the serum."

Tony's head whips towards him sharply, dark eyes boring into his own. "Serum? You mean like the supersoldier serum?" Bucky nods, surprised though he can't say why. Somehow he'd just assumed Stark had known all this. "One that worked?" Bucky nods again. "Jesus. And he... Jesus. That sonofabitch," Stark snarls, facing front again and slamming the heel of his hand against the steering wheel.

Bucky stares, alarmed. "Is...that a problem?"

"I'll say it's a fucking problem!" Stark snaps. He's furious, and it ought to be setting every warning bell in Bucky's head to ringing, only Stark doesn't seem to be angry at him. "The one thing every government and terrorist cell in the world would kill to get their hands on, and that asshole was just driving it around with my mom in the car? What the ever-loving fuck?"

Stark's hands clench on the steering wheel, relaxing only to tense again. Bucky wracks his brain for anything he can say or do to make this better, but he can't come up with a single thing.

Just when the silence in the car becomes oppressive, Stark shakes himself abruptly, taking a deep breath he lets out all at once. "Fuck. Look. I don't blame you, you know," he says, darting a glance at Bucky. "I know more now about the Winter Soldier program than I ever wanted to, and I know it wasn't you in the driver's seat."

"It should have been," Bucky grits out bitterly before he even knows he means to speak. "If I'd just--"

"Oh, hell, no," Tony cuts in before he can really get started, sharp but not unkind. "Do not even get started down that road, because it's a dead end, believe me. Like, hey, what if I hadn't been such an asshole most of my life? Maybe I'd have gotten to know the guy who ended up saving it before we got stuck in a cave together. Maybe I'd have noticed where my company's weapons were going, or maybe they wouldn't have left the warehouse to begin with. Of course, then there'd be no Iron Man, and while I'm not saying we'd definitely be hailing our alien overlords right now, I will say the New York skyline would never have recovered.

"You can't second-guess this stuff," Stark says firmly, glancing over at him again. "What happened, happened. It's where you go from there that matters."

Bucky drops his head, slumping down an inch or two in his seat. He's been telling himself the same thing, or trying to. It mostly sounds selfish coming from himself, like he's letting himself off too easy, but it sounds different in Stark's voice.

"I just...don't want to hide anymore," he says to the dashboard, chin tucked to his chest. "I want to pay back what I owe, but I can't do a fucking thing if I have to keep worrying when Hydra's going to come along and take back their gun."

"We'll fix this," Stark insists. "You have my word."

Bucky looks over at him, searching Stark's face. He's got a strong profile, a pugnacious jut to his chin that reminds Bucky of Steve and deep grooves framing his mouth that could be from laughter or a smirk. He's got Howard's cocksure air of competence, but something tells him this Stark--Tony--has had his certainty in himself shattered a few times already.

And he means it. What he's saying. The promise he's holding out.

Bucky takes a deep breath. He already knows he can't do this alone, that he's not safe in any sense of the word. If Stark hadn't come along, he might have just kept spinning his wheels, praying Steve would for once in his life leave well enough alone, but now....

He's never been one to let his pride swallow him, and if there's one thing life's taught him, it's to take the hand when it's offered and hold on tight.

"I'll trust you for it," he says, and Tony stills, sags, a burst of unhappy laughter escaping him.

"Jesus. You might want to reserve judgment on that, Barnes. I didn't even know myself whether I was here to kill you or not until you opened that door," Tony confesses, like Bucky's going to hold that against him.

Bucky eyes Tony sidelong while Tony fidgets behind the wheel. The change is subtle, but Bucky's good at reading people. Always has been, but years of staying one step ahead of his handlers and his targets have perfected the skill to an art. There's a livewire tension thrumming through Tony that wasn't there before, a half-panicked look in eyes just a hair too wide. It's the look of a man who's bitten off more than he thinks he can chew, and somehow that sets Bucky at ease like nothing else could.

Tony's just as terrified as Bucky is, and that says he's smart. But it's not lost on Bucky that Stark didn't get spooked until he had someone relying on him, and that...that's a kind of fear Bucky understands.

"Guess I'll have to make sure you don't regret it," he says, casually turning his head to watch the streets fly by, leaving Tony to pull himself back together in peace.

Bucky just hopes he can deliver on that promise. Tony seems like an interesting character, as stupidly brave as his old man and twice as honest, and Bucky doesn't want to be the one who can't hold up his end of the deal.

***

It takes three days for Rogers to shut down the latest Hydra cell he and Wilson stumble across, and Tony spends every single moment second-guessing himself. Not over Barnes; not exactly. Mostly over coming clean about why Steve needs to finish up quick and get his ass back to New York. Steve isn't stupid; he'll know exactly why Tony was looking for Steve's bestie in the first place, is probably going to storm the tower in the dead of night to break his buddy out before Tony can do something nefarious.

Tony's half right. Steve arrives in the middle of the day, charging in like he'd cheerfully bowl over every obstacle in his path, but he doesn't even notice the clear glass doors of the workshop sliding open before he reaches them. It's plain he's got only one thought in his head, and the way his smile goes incandescent when he lays eyes on Barnes is going to keep the guilt machine purring for a good long while. Tony's never seen Steve this happy, and he came pretty close to never seeing it at all.

"Buck?" Steve asks, voice breaking on the name, eyes full of hope.

Barnes had tensed when Steve came bursting in, on the verge of bolting from the wheeled office chair Tony dragged in and threatening to overturn the flimsy folding table where Tony's laid out his tools. Most of the tension ebbs out of him when he realizes who it is, but Barnes' lingering hesitation gives Tony time to close up his arm, newly tracker-free.

"Hey, Steve," Barnes says softly, peering up through his lashes with his head ducked low. It's a startlingly vulnerable look from a man who's been as stoic as a machine since Tony first sat him down, JARVIS' warning of an activated signal from Barnes' arm still ringing in both their ears. Tony had known objectively what Barnes looked like under the softening layers of flannel shirts and hoodies, but it'd taken real effort not to react when Barnes stripped down to jeans and boots and icy obedience, a scarred juggernaut that moved as he was told and stared grimly into the middle distance without reacting to anything. Tony's uncomfortably certain that it's not entirely Barnes he's been working on for the last hour or so.

Now, seeing the Winter Soldier thaw the minute Steve Rogers steps in the room, Tony feels strangely out of place in the middle of his own workshop, the more so when Rogers practically lunges for his friend and Barnes rises to meet him. They're an instant tangle of clutching arms, Steve's fingers digging deep into the cut muscles of Barnes' back, one hand lifting to cup Barnes' nape to tuck his head more firmly into Steve's neck.

That looks like Tony's cue to see himself out, leave the lovebirds to their reunion, only the minute he rises, Steve opens his eyes, blinks back manly tears, and zeroes in on Tony instantly.

"Tony," he says hoarsely, reluctantly turning Barnes loose.

There's no time to dodge before Rogers is on him.

"Wait!" Tony tries to yelp, only to find his protest muffled against a ridiculously broad chest. It's like being hugged by a grizzly bear, and he's pretty sure his feet actually leave the ground at one point. "JARVIS!" he wheezes, flailing a little in Steve's hold. "Deploy Jaws of Life!" A mechanical whirr and click at his back has him struggling twice as hard to pry himself loose. "I said Jaws of Life, Dummy, don't you dare--!"

Amidst the chaos of Steve jumping back as a fire extinguisher is set off at their feet, an unfamiliar laugh, rusty and low, distracts Tony from delivering a well-deserved scolding. It's Barnes of course, but not only is the man laughing at them without a speck of shame, he's smiling. It's a quiet sort of smile, a little worn at the edges, but the raw gratitude lurking just behind his eyes makes it--

Tony slams a lid on his reaction thanks to long practice and shuts that thought down quick. Barnes is a lot of things--attractive, yes, fine, but also recovering, loaded down with baggage, and probably taken--but irresistible is not one of them.

And then Barnes turns that smile on Tony alone, mouth quirking up just a fraction more at the corners, and Tony knows he's fucked.

***

Bucky's seen a lot of fighting, from Brooklyn to the war, his training under Hydra's control and an endless string of missions, but he can safely say he's never been this busy in his life. There's robots everywhere, like there's an evil assembly line rolling off more of them by the second, and while a tiny part of him is quietly losing its shit because army of robots, what the fuck, this isn't exactly the time to ruminate on the weirdness of the future.

He ducks a robot someone smashes his way, catches the next by the face left-handed and heaves, slamming it down onto its fellow in a shower of sparks as metal grinds on metal. Panels crumple, bent struts locking the two robots together under the force he torques into the throw. A bullet through an optic lens shorts out the one on top, and a brutal stomp detaches the other's head from its neck.

He whirls about as red fire licks past him, but the kids are holding their own, Pietro speeding past leaving blue ghost trails and shattered machinery in his wake as Wanda rips robots apart with the power of her mind or something. There's no wand on her either, but magic is manifestly not bullshit, and Bucky makes a private note to mention that to Tony. Later. Assuming he gets any time to shoot the breeze after this is all over.

They shouldn't be here--Steve, Sam, but especially him--and not just because Sokovia was a Hydra stronghold until just the other day. Every nation in the world wants a piece of him, and he'd give it to them if he didn't know he'd be in Hydra's hands within the hour of his surrender. It's not fair that Steve and Wilson are stuck under the crosshairs with him, but some idiots are just too loyal for their own good. And what were they going to do when Tony called--say 'sorry, we're a little bit wanted so we're going to sit this one out'? Not when Bucky's pretty sure he knows why Tony was messing around with a creepy mind control scepter in the first place. He'd have come alone if it'd come down to it, only look how well sneaking off on his own worked the first time.

He fires off another clip, thanking God and Tony for whatever his bullets are jacketed with, because they slide through metal like a hot knife through butter. Ultron's up above them somewhere, floating around with JAR--with Vision squaring off against him. The ancient stone walls of the church rattle around them, raining dust as more robots fling themselves through shattered windows and the open arches where stout wooden doors once stood, but he's pretty sure the ranks are thinning out at last.

The machine they're guarding, the one that's going to turn this chunk of the city into a homemade extinction event if they take their eyes off it for one second, hums cheerfully away, untouched. Bucky's frankly afraid to get too close to it, because with his luck he'll trip over Barton, bump into that thing, and kill them all.

There's a break in the fighting as Vision shoots some kind of laser beam out of his forehead that drives Ultron back and out of the church--and he'd give a lot to know how that works, light translating to physical force, is pretty sure Tony could tell him, only now's not the time--

Ultron crashes to the pavement outside, braced on one knee as Thor and Tony add lightning and repulsor beams to the onslaught. Bucky catches glimpses of Ultron's frame crisping as he struggles to stay upright, and even the fodder robots falter as their creator is knocked down a peg. Barton fires off a good dozen explosive arrows while the things are distracted--Bucky still can't believe this guy is fighting off a robot army with a bow--and Bucky's nice enough to kick a few robots Hulk's way, because he's starting to look bored.

The robots get shredded like tissues as Hulk lumbers out of the church, fixes his eyes on Ultron, and--

"Aw, fuck," Bucky groans as Hulk smashes a fist into Ultron that sends him literally flying, way, way off into the distance. Where they can't get at him.

"Wait," Tony says after a half-beat of weirdly expectant silence. "He gets a pass on the potty mouth and I don't?"

"The day you meet a sergeant that doesn't swear whenever the fuck he wants," Bucky says, deadpan, "is the day I stop being proud of the Army." Actually, it's a habit he picked up on the docks, but he'll blame the Army, sure.

"They'll try to leave the city," Thor warns as the remnants of Ultron's army begin to scatter, retreating fast and leaping off the edge of the shattered city-island to take flight.

"We can't let them," Tony says urgently, "not even one. Rhodey--"

"I'm on it," Rhodes says over the comms, streaking across the sky in a flash of silver as he moves to intercept.

Beneath their feet, the ground shivers faintly, and Bucky has to push away a rush of vertigo. The ground around him may look solid, but he knows in his bones that there's nothing between him and a mile-long drop but a few thousand tons of dirt and concrete held together by experimental tech and a prayer, and it's their job to bring this floating heap of rock back down.

"We gotta move out," Steve says, glancing around at the rest of them as Vision soars off to give Rhodes a hand. "Even I can tell the air is getting thin. You guys get to the boats; I'll sweep for stragglers. Be right behind you."

"What about the core?" Barton asks, glancing back at the still-humming machine over his shoulder, and seriously, how is he not out of arrows yet?

"I'll protect it," Wanda offers, stepping up with a determined look that's a match for Steve at his skinniest. Bucky's sure as hell not going to argue with her. "It's my job."

And speaking of which....

"Right. I'll handle mop-up," Bucky says, starting for the door.

"Buck?" Steve asks, staring after him with a start.

Bucky just manages not to roll his eyes. Save him from big damn heroes.

"What do I bring to this team, Steve?" he asks patiently as he breaks into a jog, following the trajectory of Ultron's impromptu flight, and...huh. They entered the city from roughly that direction.

He hears a snort over his earpiece. "Besides a pretty face?" Steve fires right back, amused. It's just like old times, and Bucky's not even going to try to play it off like he hasn't missed that.

"Yes, Steve, besides a pretty face." The streets are quiet, at least. Nothing stirs, which is a good damn thing, because he doesn't have time for small fry, and running across a civilian right now would be a moral dilemma he doesn't need.

"Uh...I think it was...fore...? Man. I always forget this one."

"Okay, lovebirds--" Tony cuts in impatiently, voice strained.

"Forethought, Steve," Bucky corrects him, caging a laugh. He's a little surprised at Tony of all people getting bent out of shape over a little banter, but they are kind of busy here. "I bring common sense and forethought to this team, Steve."

"Well, it sure isn't class," Wilson offers like the punk-in-training he is.

"Pfft," Bucky scoffs. "Romanoff brings the class. You goons are spoiled for class. Don't even talk to me about--"

Wait. He does recognize these streets, and if Ultron got flung this way--

"Buck?"

See, and this. This right here. This is why he couldn't stay away despite the triggers still lurking in his brain, why he's so fucking pissed at Hydra, SHIELD, the whole fucking world. They threw the well-meaning idiots at his back together and told them to go out and save things, but no one ever taught them to function as a unit, not even the ones who know better. Rhodes has an actual life and an actual command to worry about, and Wilson's still too starry-eyed, pun intended, over the whole Captain America thing to really put himself out there.

He doesn't blame Hulk for making that punch. The guy sees an obvious solution that involves his fists, and he takes it. But the others--someone ought to be trying to channel that force, and it's not like the big guy's going to listen to Bucky.

"Buck, report," Steve orders, all trace of humor gone.

He slows as he enters the rubble-strewn square where they parked the Quinjet, pulling his rifle from his back. "Ultron's trying to get airborne," he warns, voice going flat as he stills, sights, and takes the first shot. The bullet snaps Ultron's head around as it slams into the side of his skull where some of the outer plating's been boiled away, but it barely staggers him. "Button up the Quinjet if you can do it remotely."

"Got it, Sergeant," FRIDAY says quickly as the boarding ramp begins to close.

Ultron turns away from him, gathers himself like he means to sprint for the jet, so Bucky fires again, and again, and again. Sparks fly from something in Ultron's neck, and one red optic cracks and goes dim, but Bucky's pretty sure he only made the bastard angry.

Lucky for him, that's exactly what he wants.

He gets off another few rounds as Ultron lets irritation get the better of him, abandoning strategic thinking in favor of charging Bucky full-force. There's something wrong with Ultron's thrusters, enough to limit him to sputtering, ungraceful accelerations, but that's enough to close the distance fast. Bucky lowers the rifle from his shoulder and uses it as a club as Ultron reaches for him, slamming the stock into the fucker's chin as he twists out of the way.

It doesn't do much, and the rifle's ripped out of his hands in the next instant, but then the dumb bastard takes the time to crack it in two in a pointless display of strength. Bucky's already moving, slamming metal fist and booted feet into leg joints, spinal strut, heat-blistered panels, looking for structural weaknesses. He's strong enough to rock Ultron off-balance, and the missing optic makes Ultron slow to react when Bucky keeps to that side, but Ultron's not going to just hand him that advantage without a fight.

"Falcon," Steve begins, voice ruthlessly steady. "Get to the square--"

"I got this," Bucky interrupts, meeting Ultron's remaining eye with a smile full of crazy. He can play the intimidation game too, only his way doesn't waste any time. "He's falling apart as it is. Worry about the civilians, and pick me up when Stark starts working his magic."

Tony huffs. "How many times do I have to tell you I don't do magic?"

Bucky ducks a sweeping blow and blocks another with his left arm. "What's that line about sufficiently advanced technology?" he asks, just to hear Mr. Science Fiction himself sputter. He has to spin aside fast as Ultron aims a downward punch at his left shoulder like he means to rip metal from flesh. It's not the first time someone's tried that move, but Ultron's got the strength to pull it off.

"Clarke's third law? How did you--when did you--?"

Bucky reluctantly tunes him out, concentrating on the fight in front of him. Ultron's fast but heavy, needs a split-second more time to build up the momentum for those devastating punches. Bucky wasn't lying when he fobbed off the backup Steve offered; the team's done a number on their would-be robot overlord, and Bucky's hammered a few new cracks into the armor by himself. He can take this guy if he's fast and careful, can keep him busy if nothing else. He knows Steve, knows he'll wait until the last of the civilians are on the rescue ships and not a moment later. If Bucky hasn't finished the job by then, Steve will come looking.

He manages not to react beyond a hard puff of breath as huge metal fist crashes into his side, knocking him ass-over-end into a controlled roll. That's...two ribs cracked, probably, but thankfully they're on his right. The ones on the left are metal-reinforced, and they're a bitch to reshape if they get dented.

He's on his feet before Ultron closes the gap between them, slips under a casual backhand to slam his left hand into Ultron's chest plating, hook his fingers in deep and haul back with all his might. Metal gives way with a whine, and Ultron stops in his tracks, looking down at his chest in shock and clapping a hand over the place where Bucky just ripped away a big chunk of his armor.

"That wasn't very nice," Ultron growls, both hands clenching into fists.

"I'm not really a nice guy." Ultron's looking at him like he just became a problem, when before he was just a nuisance.

"Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes," Ultron says, taking a purposeful step forward. "Code name: Winter Soldier. The Fist of Hydra. Asset."

"I also answer to Bucky, Jerk and Sweetheart, but not on the first date." He tries to hide the shudder that wants to crawl down his spine. He knows about the little red book, but did any of that information ever make it to a computer? If Ultron knows how to activate the Soldier, he's screwed.

Ultron tilts his head in a mockery of curiosity. "Why haven't they put you down?"

That's a dumb question to anyone who's ever met Steve Rogers, but that doesn't make it a bad question. "Got me," Bucky says with a shrug, purposefully bland. "Guess I'm just useful that way."

Ultron stops fucking around after that.

The blows they trade come hard and fast, and while the serum Bucky's got may not have made him the pinnacle of perfection, he can take a hell of a lot of punishment even before his training kicks in. He uses everything he's got, empties clip after clip into weak points, strikes in close with knives that Ultron laughs at until his right arm goes dead, circuitry cut. Ultron clips him a few more times, leaves him pulling a hip that wants to collapse on every stride and sets even his hard head to ringing, but he rips away more pieces of armor, seemingly at random, every chance he gets.

The thing is, Ultron's a robot and Bucky's used to fighting humans. He doesn't know for certain whether Ultron's electronic brain is actually in his head or maybe somewhere safer, like the core of his body. Bucky's got eyes, though, knows a thing or two about mechanics, and though his own rusty brain says heart when he sees what he's uncovered in Ultron's chest, he doesn't really care what it is. There's hoses coming out of it and circuitry wired into it, and while he's got no chance of punching through the armored thickness of Ultron's skull, he can still do this.

He rams his fist into the holes he's torn in Ultron's chest and digs deep, metal fist closing around the weak point he thinks he's spotted. It's round, a bit bigger than a softball, and--hot, Jesus, so intense his arm registers it as an extreme danger and sends warning shocks up through his shoulder and straight into his spine. He's probably melting his fingers to slag, but he doesn't turn loose; he pulls, rips, feeling cables give way with a snap, but just as he's about to wrench the device free, Ultron's good arm closes like a vise on his left bicep.

Too many things happen at once, so fast it all becomes a blur. Another cable pops, snags on his wrist, and pumps so much current through him, he feels his arm lock up like a steel brick. It hurts, so bad he can't even draw breath to scream, and his head's a staticky mess of misfired thoughts. Ultron's hand clenches spasmodically, and Bucky doesn't even register it at first, the way metal ripples and folds as fingers dig into seams, deeper, both of them struggling now to get away from each other and succeeding with a terrific heave in opposite directions.

Things...part ways. The hard ball in Ultron's chest is pried loose seconds before Bucky's arm gives way in a crackle of sparks. Bucky hits the ground on his ass, head swimming, staring blankly as Ultron lists sideways and goes down, dropping--

That's. That's his arm. The interlocking plates from his fingertips to halfway up his forearm are melted and warped, and the ragged end is spitting sparks, and...and that's his arm.

He looks down at his left side and-- He makes a noise. And strangles it off quick. He's not supposed to make a sound.

It hurts, though. It hurts. It hurts like he just lost it, like the wound's still fresh, and that's...there's something he's forgetting.

Someone's shouting at him over the headset, several someones, words he recognizes but can't quite translate. Falling back on habit, he opens his mouth and is relieved to find the correct language emerging.

"Target down," he reports, rocking forward to get his remaining hand under him, pushing himself to his feet. He sways drunkenly for a moment before cautiously approaching the motionless robot, needing to be sure. Kicking the useless slag of his old arm aside, he drops to one knee, grunting softly when his hip protests the move.

Mouth flattening as he hooks his soft, human fingers into the heat-blistered scrap of Ultron's face plate, he pulls until it shears away. The machinery inside pings softly as it cools in the thin, frozen air. He draws one of his few remaining guns and blows the labyrinthine circuitry to shards.

"Mission accomplished," he announces, and that's...that's good. He always--doesn't always. Doesn't always accomplish his missions. That probably shouldn't leave him with such a profound feeling of relief. "Asset compromised."

"Asset?"

"Oh, fuck."

"Falcon--"

"Nonono, do not send Falcon, Cap, I repeat, do not send Falcon," a voice he knows protests. "Falcon's got no goddamn armor, and Sergeant Winter's not going to listen to him anyway.

"Look, Soldier. I need you to get in the Quinjet. Do you understand? Get in the Quinjet," the familiar voice insists. "I'll have FRIDAY fly you to the helicarrier, and then I'll look you over. Okay? Whatever's wrong, we'll fix it."

Fix him, yes. That's...that's Stark, and he fixes things. Fixes him. He just needs to report to Stark.

"Understood," he says, climbing wearily to his feet once more. There's a jet not far from the downed robot, and the boarding ramp drops invitingly as he staggers that way. He hesitates when he realizes there's no pilot--has this Friday abandoned their post?--but things go grey before he can report the dereliction of duty. He just...needs to find a place to sit, wait for retrieval, and until then--

"--wired right into his central nervous system, and that's on top of being electrocuted to hell and back. I'm not surprised he regressed; it probably feels like he got his arm chopped off and got stuck right back in that fucking chair all over again."

There's someone hovering over him, another fidgeting restlessly in the corner of the room. The one hovering is doing something to his shoulder, and there's a thin streak of terror under the fury in that one's voice. The fear bothers him, but the anger doesn't. Tony's got a temper, but Tony's never taken it out on him.

Wait. Tony?

He blinks his eyes open, only to see Steve stand abruptly away from the wall he's been leaning against, folded arms dropping to his sides as the worry on his face mixes with hope. "Buck?" he asks, which makes Tony start, dark eyes flicking over from whatever he was doing to Bucky's shoulder to search Bucky's face. "Are you all right? Do you know who we are?"

He's lying on a half-raised hospital bed, somewhere with bright white walls, no windows, but he's not restrained. Steve's there, and Tony, so neither being brought into custody nor captured by Hydra seem likely. His tac suit's gone, traded for scrubs, maybe by the same people who wrapped his ribs. His left arm hurts like fuck, and when he glances down at it, he understands Tony's panic completely. What had he...?

"Ultron?" he asks, clawing recent memories back to the surface.

"Gone," Steve's quick to assure him. "Every possible host body's been destroyed."

"The city?"

"The civilians were all evacuated. We, uh...had to blow up the section of the city that went airborne."

Well, shit. Nobody's going to be happy about that, Bucky knows that for a fact.

"Buck? You know who I am," Steve presses gently, "right?"

Bucky gives him a puzzled look. He's way too tired for this shit. "You're a punk," he grumbles, only to see Steve's eyes light up in relief. "The hell?"

Tony clears his throat, tipping his head back down to peer into Bucky's arm. "You, uh, slipped a little back there after you got yourself disassembled," he explains while Steve's still hunting for words. "Got a little frosty on us."

"Shit," Bucky breathes, the pain in his arm suddenly forgotten. "Did I hurt anyone?"

Steve snorts. The smile he aims at Stark is wry but fond. "No, Tony had you well in hand. Seems like you're better at listening to him than to me."

"You're just used to me working on you," Tony says without looking up, shoulders hunching fractionally. "Made sense to have you come to me."

Right, because Tony...Tony fixes things. He remembers thinking that, not for the first time, and...huh.

There's no part of him that doesn't agree with that thought, no part that doesn't trust Tony, same as he would Steve.

"Nah," Bucky says, trying to lighten Tony's strange mood. He almost seems nervous, like he's afraid of stepping on Steve's toes. "You're just not a--"

Tony carefully lifts something up with his screwdriver, finesses a tiny pair of cutters in, and something clicks off inside Bucky's shoulder that makes all the pain vanish in an instant.

"--punk," he finishes breathlessly. "Oh, thank fuck."

"That got it turned off?" Tony asks, looking up at last.

"Yeah," Bucky says, feeling strangely off-kilter without the pain to anchor him. He can feel the absence now, the missing weight of the arm's familiar bulk, so much a part of him these days that even the cold chill of metal against his bare side no longer registers as alien. "Can't feel a thing."

Tony breathes out a heavy sigh, concern and frustration twisting his face into a scowl. "Wonderful. Well. I was saving this for a 'congratulations on your pardon' gift, but since I still haven't gotten you the one, I'm a little behind on the other. By which I mean I've got a new arm in development for you; it's just not done yet."

Bucky starts. "You were making me a new arm?"

"Am, Buckaroo," Tony corrects him, darting a glance at Steve. "I've still got a ways to go on it, but this?" He waves a hand at Bucky's left side, mouth tightening before he tugs on a reassuring smile. "Temporary setback. Give me a month or two, some testing--"

"That...might be a problem," Steve says, rubbing uncomfortably at the back of his neck. "We weren't exactly quiet about being here, and they're already scrambling to bring us in. Fury's hiding us for now, but we need to move as soon as Bucky's able."

There's not one bit of resentment on Steve's face when he delivers the news, not that Bucky's surprised--not at the confirmation that trouble's closing in or that Steve's going to stick by him, even through this. Bucky's tried to cut Steve loose once before, and the look Steve gave him when he and Wilson intercepted him on the way out of the tower has kept him from trying again. So far.

Tony's jaw clenches as he nods once. "Right. Okay, so we'll step up our game on my end. We can still do the testing when it gets to that phase; I'll just have to meet you somewhere, is all. Do you have somewhere safe to go?" he asks, glancing past Steve as someone raps twice on the door.

It opens before an invitation is called, and Bucky's not too surprised to see Fury slip in. They're on Fury's turf, wherever they are, and Bucky knows he owes the man, but he can't shake an uneasy flutter in his gut at the casual way Fury invades the place, like Bucky's got no say in the matter and never has.

"Cap," Fury says shortly, glancing once around the room. His eyes don't linger on Bucky any more than they do on Tony, but Bucky gets the feeling that neither of them are exactly Fury's favorite person. "I think I've got a solution to a few of your problems. There's someone you want to meet."

Steve hesitates, eyeing Fury uncertainly before squaring his shoulders. "Who?"

"Someone who feels they have their own debt to pay over the Ultron fiasco," Fury says, eyes flicking to Tony and back.

Tony's spine stiffens, but his smile remains polite. "Go on, Cap. You can fill me in later, if you think I need to know."

Steve grimaces, but nobody in this room is stupid. What Tony doesn't know can't get him brought up on charges of treason; Steve's not going to give him enough rope to hang himself with.

"I'll be back," Steve says instead and follows Fury out.

Tony snorts. "That's your line," he says, turning back to Bucky.

"I think it's both of ours," Bucky says with a faint smile, "considering."

He startles a quiet laugh out of Tony, who goes back to fiddling with what's left of his arm, only this time it seems like he's taking things out. Neatening up the ragged mess, from the looks of it. Bucky's content to let him tinker.

He doesn't want to wreck the equilibrium Tony's found just now, but guilt won't let him stay quiet. It may not be directly his fault, but indirectly he's cost Tony too many people already.

"Hey, um...for what it's worth, I'm really sorry," he offers, right hand fisting in the sheet when Tony looks up with a jerk.

"What about?" He sounds honestly confused.

Bucky hunches his undamaged shoulder awkwardly. "JARVIS. I know he's been with you for years--"

Tony blinks once before his face clears. "Wait, you think JARVIS is--no. Nonono. JARVIS is a program."

Bucky frowns. He knows Tony likes to think he's allergic to emotions, but does he think Bucky doesn't get it? "That doesn't make him less of a person."

Tony's laugh is both startled and delighted. "What is it with you grandpas, anyway? Okay, you're right, but see, that doesn't make him a human person, either. Humans? We're pretty singular. One of a kind, limited edition. But if JARVIS wanted to copy himself a few hundred times, the only thing stopping him is storage capacity. I mean, sure, the copies would link back to each other so there's really just one main JARVIS in the end, but so long as a single copy exists, so does JARVIS."

Bucky gets that--destroying copies is what they were doing to Ultron and his drones--but he's still puzzled. "I thought the copy Vision--uh, used--I thought that was the last one."

"The last installed copy," Tony says with a nod, "but we back everything up. Daily. You'd have to nuke three vaults, a private server farm, and a secure storage facility from orbit before you could take out JARVIS. It just takes so long to reinstall him manually, I haven't had a chance to get started on it yet."

That...is a load off his mind, and it gives him a stupid, warm feeling in the pit of his stomach when Tony shares his relieved smile without teasing him for it. "Guess I need to read up more about this computer stuff," he says, "unless you can point me at a tutor to give me a head start." Is that a dumb thing to say? It sounds pretty dumb, because when is he even going to see Tony next? The months he spent in the tower before he had to run have spoiled him.

It makes Tony grin, flattered, so maybe it's not that dumb after all.

"I might know a guy," Tony says, only to purposefully school his face to seriousness a moment later, hunching over again to peer into Bucky's shoulder. "It's not going to be much longer," he says, abruptly changing the subject.

"Hey, do what you need to do," Bucky assures him, tilting his head to the left. "You're the expert."

"No, I mean--well, yeah, this too. Definitely using a stronger alloy this time around," he mutters as he peels away a crumpled plate with a wince. "I'm using gold-titanium for the suit, but with all the vibranium lying around from Ultron's science project, I might be able to salvage us both an upgrade."

"Vibranium?" Bucky frowns, distant memories surfacing. "I thought they used it all in the shield."

"Only all of what Dad had access to. Most of it comes from Wakanda, this tiny little country in Africa. It doesn't leave the country often, but when it does?" Tony shakes his head. "If I'd known it was on the market again, I'd have been tempted to cut a deal myself.

"Anyway, no," Tony says again, visibly wrenching himself back on track. "I mean this. Dodging your fans in law enforcement, having to sneak around to get a date with my gorgeous tech. I mean, come on, you just helped save the world! That and I've got an ever-growing army of lawyers and PR minions, and we've only got the greatest love story of all time working in our favor."

Bucky arches his brows. Love story? Wait, does Tony think--does he mean Bucky and Steve? It's sort of weird, honestly, because while Tony wouldn't be the first to get that impression, it's only the second...no, third time Bucky's not going to have to punch somebody in the face to keep Steve from getting jumped in some alley because of it.

"What's The Fifth Element got to do with anything?" he asks instead of arguing immediately, sounding Tony out.

Tony's face goes utterly blank for half a second before a genuine howl of laughter all but doubles him over. "Jesus," he sputters breathlessly, slapping a hand down on the edge of the mattress as his other arm curls tightly around his stomach. "You--"

"I mean," Bucky drawls judiciously, "while Steve certainly is--"

"Perfect!" squeaks out of Tony on a gasp.

"--he doesn't need me to show him what love is. He's aces at it," Bucky explains with a shrug. "He just hasn't found the person he wants to settle down with yet."

Tony sits back in his chair, shoulders still shaking, and tips his head to eye Bucky curiously. "So you're not...?"

"Oh, I am," he says, taking his courage in hand with a grin, "about half the time. Just not with Steve." As weird as it is to know he's probably not going to be judged for this, it's just as strange to volunteer the information on his own hook. There's a weightless flutter in the pit of his stomach that's maybe sixty percent nerves, but the rest is a cool shiver of relief. It's the first time he's ever straight-up told anyone besides Steve, who's in the exact same boat. He's not about to out Steve along with himself, though. People tell him that's rude, but he remembers when it could be deadly, thank you very much.

"Huh," Tony says, digesting this new information. "That's...unexpected. The way he acts...I mean, if it's one-sided--"

Bucky rolls his eyes. "What did I just say?" he chides, shaking his head. "You don't get between Steve and the people he loves. You'd think a factory full of Hydra assholes would've been the first clue. Doesn't mean we've gotta be knocking boots, though."

"Fair enough," Tony says with a grin, "but you're going to make a whole lot of historians cry."

Bucky opens his mouth and closes it again. Tony can't possibly mean.... "Historians?"

There's no knock this time before the door opens, so of course it's Steve. His face is lit up with excitement and hope, but there's something pensive lurking in his eyes that deepens when he glances at Tony. "Buck? If you're ready, we're moving out ASAP. Got a guaranteed safehouse; we just need to be there before anyone catches up with us."

Tony cups the still-ragged mess of Bucky's arm with one hand, chewing on his lower lip. Bucky can't feel that touch at all with what's left of his arm turned off, not even as pressure, and he misses that. Not just the arm itself; the contact, warm and competent. "I'd rather have a chance to cap this off," Tony says, "but you're not in any danger. If it becomes a problem, just give me a call, and I'll talk you through removing what's left from the shoulder port--or I'll come to you. Either's good."

"Thanks, Tony," Bucky says, accepting the help of the hand at his back as he sits up, his cracked ribs still tender enough to lodge a protest. His balance is a bit off, but he's trained for this; he remembers how to compensate well enough. "I hope you get JARVIS back up and running soon," he adds, tossing Steve a reassuring smile when Steve starts, wide-eyed.

"I'll let him know you're counting the days until you hear him again."

"You do that," Bucky says, swinging his legs out of bed. His hip still hurts--hell, everything hurts--but there's one twinge that surprises him with its depth. All teasing aside, he does miss JARVIS, has lost whole days to questioning the AI and devouring every tangential scrap of information JARVIS fed him, but he misses Tony even more. He misses Tony now, and he hasn't even left the room.

"Thanks, Tony," Steve echoes Bucky, holding the door open like he honestly thinks Bucky's going to walk out just as he is: barefoot, in eye-catching white scrubs, not a single weapon on him. Either they've got one hell of an escort waiting, or they're in seriously deep shit. "I'll find a way to contact you, okay? Just...thank you. For everything."

As Bucky's hustled out of the room, he hears Tony mutter, "Quit breaking up with me, Rogers."

Bucky halfway wants to laugh, only Steve's parting words really did sound weirdly final.

"Okay, punk," Bucky grumbles, keeping his voice low as he scans the area. The walls out here are steel, the lighting bright but utilitarian, and there's a faint but steady vibration under their feet. Are they still on the helicarrier? "Who have you been talking to, and where are we going?"

"I just had an interesting talk with the crown prince of Wakanda," Steve confides, right hand settling high on Bucky's back as he stumbles in surprise.

"The country with all the vibranium?"

"Wow," Steve says, impressed. "You really have been reading up on things. Anyway, yes--T'Challa was sent to track down the vibranium Ultron's supplier stole, and it led him here; just not fast enough. Apparently they've got stockpiles of the stuff, but they never sell it outside their own borders. For it to have been used to wreck a city, well...the prince felt he owed a debt to the man who took out Ultron and wouldn't take no for an answer."

"What?" Bucky nearly stops in his tracks, and only Steve's firm hand on his back keeps him moving. "He doesn't owe me anything."

"They have closed borders, no extradition agreements with any country anywhere, and from the sounds of it, their technology would make the rest of the world think they'd spent seventy years on ice," Steve says with quiet urgency. "Look, Buck...I trust Tony. I know he's not going to give up on bringing us all back home. But this is our best shot at keeping you out of Hydra's hands until then."

"But--"

"Please. Just...listen to his offer. That's all I'm asking."

Bucky sighs. "Can his amazing technology do anything about my fucked-up brain?" he asks instead of arguing.

"I might be able to help with that."

Bucky starts as Wanda joins them from a side-corridor, like she's been lying in wait. Her brother hovers nervously at her back, like he's ready to snatch her up and bolt the fuck out of here, but Wanda meets his eyes with an anxious, earnest smile. The wrong word could slice it right off her face, but he likes Wanda. She reminds him so much of Becca it hurts.

"You mean with your...?" Bucky lifts his hand and sort of twiddles his fingers, which makes her laugh.

"Yes," she says hopefully. "With that. What I've done with this power so far...." She shakes her head tightly and lifts her chin. "I want to do better."

Bucky can't honestly say he wants anyone else mucking around inside his brain; too many people have left their muddy footprints all over the place as it is. But Wanda...she's a good kid, and he's seen the way her own countrymen flinch away from her, even in the midst of an evacuation. They don't trust her, but he can; his stupid, stubborn brain's come back from worse.

"You and me both," he says, and damned if she doesn't light up, grateful and relieved, like he's doing her a favor.

"So we're going to Wakanda?" Pietro asks, trying on an uncertain smile as his shoulders lose their tension. Bucky's not even surprised; of course Pietro would stick by his sister, and it's not like Wanda's going to be able to do anything to Bucky's head from halfway around the world. It's dangerous for them, though; if word gets back to the powers that be that the twins are helping him, they'll be fugitives too.

Pietro looks to Steve, and Steve looks to him.

It's his decision, but he's not really sure what choice he has. A tired, lonely part of him just wants to go back to the tower, let the world take care of itself. He knows it's not that simple, even if he does feel an unexpected pang when his thoughts drift to the man they're leaving behind.

He shrugs instead. "Hey, I'm following you, remember?" he says to Steve, who looks like he's one more sappy comment away from breaking down or going on a hugging spree. "So go on. Lead the way."

***

Tony doesn't watch them go. Steve has the most spectacularly awful poker face he's ever seen--seriously, he'd like to get it bronzed, maybe hang it in a gallery--and he'd bet half his company that wherever he's dragging Barnes, it's to somewhere better than a little shack somewhere off the grid. Tony doesn't honestly want to know more details than that; what he doesn't know can't come back to bite anyone on the ass.

He's still sitting in the same uncomfortable chair in that windowless little room in the medical bay when Natasha comes to find him.

"Coast is clear," she says when she peeks in, assessing him coolly before she slips in the rest of the way, shutting the door behind her. "You all right?" She arches a brow. Her face doesn't soften, but her eyes do.

Tony laughs, short and sharp. "Actually, I'm pretty sure I'm screwed," he admits. A wry grin tugs at his mouth, because if you can't smile when you're totally fucked.... "Sokovia. This whole thing. That was me." He lifts his hands, spreads them wide, and lets them drop back to his knees with a slap. "There's no possible way I can spin this, and I just let--" Barnes, fuck, he needs to get it together. "I let those idiots walk out of here thinking I could play the hero card on their behalf and get them home."

Natasha tilts her head. "Why can't you?"

"Because I fucked this up!" Tony snaps, pulse throbbing in his temples. "I thought I knew what I was doing, and I fucked up! And you know the sad part? We need him. Ultron. We are really going to need him, only after today, that is never going to happen."

"Well, I guess it's a good thing we have Vision instead."

"God." Slumping forward, he laces his fingers together, elbows braced on his knees, and bangs his forehead a few times against his white-clenched knuckles. "He's only one person, Romanoff."

"And you were hoping for Skynet."

"I so was," he admits with a choked-off laugh. "It would have been awesome."

She snorts in amusement and doesn't point out that he's being paranoid. Irrational, maybe. He knows that part of his drive to create Ultron can be laid squarely at the feet of Loki's crazy scepter, that Maximoff had a hand in it too, but he can't help feeling that he's right. They've been lucky, but luck can run out.

"So," Natasha says, folding her arms as she leans back against the door. "That's it, then? You're giving up?"

He probably ought to take offense to that, only the way she says it, like it's a legitimate and viable option, reminds him who he's talking to. She'll stand and fight if she knows she'll win, but she has no qualms at all about bowing out gracefully, only to hit you when your back is turned. Results are what matters.

Tony huffs a laugh. "Giving up?" he scoffs. "What's the point? If they're going to crucify you anyway, bring your own hammer and take a few with you."

Natasha's grin is a beautiful thing: mostly teeth, all approval.

He carries the memory of that grin with him into the next Congressional hearing, only to find out that people don't really want to talk about Barnes anymore. They've got a much wider focus now, and the terms they set--accords is the term he keeps hearing bandied about in quiet corners--are frankly draconian. He won't deny that there's a part of him that wants to give in, just hand off all that stress and guilt and soul-crushing responsibility to someone else, but he can't quite bring himself to trust the kind of people who'd want it.

Trust, it turns out, is the sticking point, what's threatening to send half the world's enhanced population underground and drive the rest right into the arms of the first extremist group they can find.

"Look," he finally snaps in the middle of a summit, the summit that's supposed to decide everything. It's probably the most important meeting in his life, but that's it, he's done listening to world leaders bicker like children over how fair it isn't that this little group got the best toys. And yeah, he gets it; he's the one percent of the one percent--he gets that having the toys at all is a huge bone of contention--but they aren't talking about fancy cars or a summer house, here. The ability to save lives isn't a game, but that's what these assholes are reducing it to.

"The problem you're refusing to listen to is really very simple. They don't trust you," he states as plainly as he knows how, sweeping a glance through the vast conference room to meet as many eyes as he can. "And I've got to say, not one of the provisions you've set down in these accords of yours are going to convince anyone you're trustworthy."

"Well, Mr. Stark," an American senator--typical--pipes up with a smarmy smirk, "if they're not willing to meet us halfway--"

"Oh, no, no," Tony cuts him off sharply. "Now, see, I can meet you halfway, sure. But, ah, here. Right here," he says, flicking his finger at the floor between them. "Let's say half the room--your half--is good, old solid bedrock, while I'm stuck playing Floor is Lava. I step out to meet you, and ffft!" He mimes a small explosion with the same hand as the senator narrows his eyes, smile going fixed. "Not that great a deal from my end, if you see what I'm saying."

"Well, I guess it's a good thing you have a suit."

"Ah! But I won't, will I? Or if I do, I'll be too afraid to admit it just in case you take it away and then ask me to meet you halfway again. That's the whole point of the accords as you've written them. You want me to take all the risks, but you're not even close to convincing me I won't get burned."

"It's a circular argument, Mr. Stark," the representative for France says wearily. He actually feels a bit sorry for her; she's been fighting as hard as he has to come to an actual agreement with the enhanced, any kind of agreement at all. "You say we can't be trusted--that we won't be trusted," she corrects herself before he has a chance to jump in, "but you've yet to put forward a situation in which trust could be achieved. If you have no solid recommendations for us, I'm afraid we can't--"

"Wait," Tony breaks in, the germ of an idea tickling at the back of his head. It's probably going to get someone killed--who is he kidding, it's going to get him killed--but.... "You're actually interested in fostering trust? Because yeah, I can fix that right now. You want the enhanced to buy into this registry of yours, to give up final say on when they can and can't use their powers? Hand it over to the one guy who's never in his life turned his back and let a bully have their way. Give it to Steve Rogers, and I guarantee you that people out there will change their tune overnight."

Pandemonium erupts, and all Tony can do at first is just let them talk. It's a madhouse: everyone turning to their neighbors, reaching for their phones, shouting across aisles. Tony surveys the chaos he's created and finds it good...especially when he spots a pair of green eyes in the spectator pen, a soft sweep of red hair, the perfect bow of Natasha's lips curving up in a satisfied smile.

He's still signed his own death warrant, but hey. You win some, you lose some.

As it turns out, he's half right. It's getting to be a habit.

"I oughta kill you," Bucky grumbles into the latest burner phone that evening. He doesn't sound like his heart's in it, at least. "Do you have any idea how much work you just made for Steve?"

"He can handle it," Tony insists, flopping back onto his hotel bed while tugging his tie free of his collar. "He's a big boy. I mean. I'm just assuming, but--"

"Don't even go there," Bucky groans.

"Spoilsport," Tony accuses, trying not to let on how thrilled he is that Rogers' junk is off-limits where Bucky's concerned. "Seriously, though, how's he really taking it?"

"You know Steve," Bucky says with a snort. "Worried he's going to mess up because he's 'just a guy from Brooklyn', secretly pleased as punch that you think so highly of him."

"Who, me? I just didn't want to get stuck with the job myself. You know I prefer to delegate."

"Uh-huh." Bucky's voice drips disbelief, but under that he sounds...fond? "You know he's just going to dig in his heels and argue every point until things end up back at status quo, right?"

"Actually, I'm counting on it."

"Of course you are." He doesn't even sound surprised. "Anyway, how've things been?"

"Busy," Tony says, gusting a sigh as he toes off his shoes, scrubbing his fingers through his artfully styled hair until it sticks up wild but soft again. "I haven't had nearly the kind of time I would have liked to work on the arm, I'm afraid--"

"Oh."

Tony stops. That's not a disappointed 'oh', and call him crazy, but he's pretty sure he'd rather have Bucky disappointed in him than hear the next thing out of Bucky's mouth.

"Uh, the place we're staying...they've got some really solid engineers here. And I know you've been busy--I mean, I'd've been fine with waiting," Bucky's quick to add, earnest and humble, like seeing him wearing something Tony created wouldn't practically have been porn. "But we, uh...didn't get that option."

"Hydra?" Tony asks, deciding not to mention the completed prototype sitting in his workshop, only waiting for the testing he hasn't been able to arrange.

"Yeah," Bucky says glumly. "Turns out I'm actually safer to be around when I've got two arms to punch with. Good news is: my brain's fixed. Bad news...actually, I guess it's good news too. Someone found the book," Bucky says, voice thick.

Tony temporarily forgets how to breathe. That's literal nightmare fuel, shared over too many three AM meetings when neither of them could bear to go back to sleep. How the hell is that good news?

"It's fine, though. He, uh...he's not a problem. Anymore," Bucky amends with a grimace Tony can hear in his tone. The soft chuckle that follows is a bit of a surprise. "Our, uh, host has these bodyguards. I mean, I thought Carter was impressive, but these ladies? I'm scared to tip my hat and just as scared not to."

Tony's able to join in this time when Bucky laughs, but Jesus. He's been careful not to look too closely into where the others might have gone to ground, though what JARVIS and FRIDAY have puzzled out in excess of his requests he'd rather not know. But how do they expect him to help if he doesn't even know where to aim it?

That's assuming they need him at all, because it sounds like--and this may not be fair, but it really sounds like he's been....

"So," he says, dragging the word out to an indecent number of syllables. "New arm, huh?"

"Yeah." Bucky sounds more thoughtful than excited, not half as enthused as Tony would have expected. "It's not too bad. Lighter than the old one, at least. Works the same, so...there's that."

Tony is not going to seethe with professional jealousy. So what if getting a new arm to function the same as the old one is a feat of engineering comparable to making a suit of armor that can fly?

"Well, all that sounds great, but I'm not really hearing the love. What, does it look like they scavenged it off Dummy? Does it make weird noises? Whatever it is, I'm sure it can be fixed."

Bucky huffs a quiet laugh. "It looks fine. Just like the old one, in fact. Steve sketched it out for them."

"And...what? Did you want it to look different? Synthetic skin, maybe? I mean, we can do synthetic skin if you want--it's actually pretty easy. Just say the word."

He can't believe he's sitting here hoping Bucky's dissatisfied with his fucking arm, for Christ's sake, but there it is. He wants to be the one to make this better. He wants to make it very clear that Bucky can come to him.

"Nah," Bucky admits sheepishly. There's a quiet rustle over the phone like he just shifted in embarrassment, maybe ran a hand through his hair. "I'm kind of used to the way it looks. And, uh...it really freaks people out when it does the--"

"The ripple!" Tony blurts out with a grin as Bucky's helpless, half-shamed laugh escapes. "God, I bet you've made people shit their pants with that." It's not what happens in Tony's pants when the plates of Bucky's arm shift and resettle, but Bucky maybe doesn't need to know that. Probably doesn't, in fact, because Tony's been paying attention, and if Bucky's been dropping hints that he'd like Tony to pay more attention, then one of them is seriously off their game.

"One or two. Dozen," Bucky says, letting a hint of smugness finally show through. "Seriously. The arm's fine. Just...wasn't expecting things to go the way they did, is all."

"Story of my life," Tony says ruefully. "Anyway, you ready to come back home?"

"What?" Bucky asks after a beat.

"Well, they can hardly expect Rogers to do his job if he's on the run; the pardon's sort of implied. And since there's no way he's coming back without the rest of you...sounds like the perfect time to give things a little push. So? What do you say?"

"Yes," Bucky says instantly, breathlessly. "Hell, yes."

Tony grins. "That's what I thought."

***

It's not easy. There's a media circus to wade through, because of course there is, interviews and evaluations that have Bucky hovering on the edge of raw panic for weeks on end. He keeps a lid on it because he knows Tony's somewhere waiting in the wings, keeping a finger on the pulse as the pardoning process grinds on, and also that T'Chaka is not a man with whom to fuck. The Wakandan king had taken one look at their rag-tag band and practically adopted them on the spot, granting them dual citizenship before they left and making it perfectly clear that he can and will take back his people if they aren't properly appreciated in the lands of their birth.

Only once did Bucky dare to ask him why. T'Chaka, ordinarily a stern-faced, imposing figure whose sheer presence far outstrips his stature, had smiled a private little smile and said, "You look like a cat person, Sergeant Barnes."

Well. Fair enough, but it still seems like a pretty flimsy excuse to go to all this trouble.

When they're finally released out into the wild again, Bucky just assumes they're going back to the tower. He even settles in for a nap in the car Tony sent, because his nerves may be shot, but he's got Steve on his right and Wanda on his left, Pietro in the passenger seat, and he couldn't be safer if he built himself a bunker.

When Steve jogs his shoulder gently under Bucky's head some fuzzy stretch of non-time later, Bucky blinks his eyes open and frowns in confusion when he realizes they've left the city entirely.

"Where are we?" he asks as he sits up, the foggy shreds of half-recalled dreams evaporating as wariness kicks in. He's no stranger to waking to unexpected conditions, but he's never thrilled when it happens.

"Our new home," Steve says, a touch ruefully.

The building they roll up to is a giant glass and steel box, surrounded on all sides by empty green fields. The wall around its base is solid, offering no view of the grounds to the casual visitor, but the sides are sloped towards the building, and he's not quite sure how he feels about that. There's a landing pad just inside the wall, a Quinjet hovering as its landing gear deploys, and that alone would mark the place a hell of a lot busier than he's really looking forward to. As the car coasts to a stop and he climbs out after Steve, over the engine noise from the jet, he can just make out a drill instructor calling off orders to the accompaniment of marching feet.

This...is definitely not what he thought he was coming back to. Not at all.

"Welcome to the new Avengers' compound," Steve says, offering up a bright smile Bucky can see right through. It helps to know that Steve's torn as well. "I guess the property was just sitting, so Tony had it refurbished as a base of operations. It gives us a lot more options equipment-wise, and even though SHIELD's officially been disbanded, that would've been a lot of talent to lose. This gives us better support, gets us away from some of the media scrutiny--"

"And keeps us from trashing the city if something goes wrong," Bucky cuts in, not bothering to curb his cynicism. He's already resigned to living the rest of his life under a microscope; the world could at least do him the favor of not bullshitting him about it. "So...what? Are we supposed to keep to the grounds? I thought they waived the parole thing."

"What? No," Steve protests, wide-eyed. "You're not--we're not prisoners, Buck. We can come and go as we please--Tony moved a whole fleet of cars in; you can see for yourself."

His gut clenches. They may be able to leave, but they're still cut off out here, a million miles from anywhere, and who cares if they have Tony's cars? They don't have--

He stills as the realization takes hold, that it's not the distance from the rest of the world that's hollowed him out with disappointment: it's the distance between him and one man. And that's...that's crazy; considering what he's done to Tony, it's practically obscene, and he should be grateful to be stashed here out of the way. Maybe it'll give him time to get his head on straight if he doesn't see Tony for a--

"Hey, what are we just standing around for?"

Tony stands at the entrance to the building, propping one of the big glass doors open one-armed. He's dressed down for the occasion in a dark t-shirt under his suit jacket, like he could button up for the press or head straight to the workshop, but he looks...good. Tired, a little thinner, like he's had too many long nights and not enough successes to energize him.

Bucky wants to make him soup, wrap him up in a hug, and drag him straight to bed. Because reasons, as the kids would say.

He maybe panics a bit, and then the habit of nearly twenty years kicks in, because Steve is right there. Instead of doing the sensible thing and pulling on his poker face, Bucky grabs Steve's arm and turns to him with wide eyes that scrawl protective concern across Steve's big, dumb face. Which doesn't last. He sees the moment Steve gets it, understanding jolting through him as his eyes go as huge as Bucky's...and then he grins.

Bucky scowls and grips his arm harder. No, this is not fucking great.

Goddamn punk.

Tony sighs theatrically and turns to Wanda. "So did anybody else get any of that? You guys are twins--you can translate, right?"

"No comment," Wanda says as she tries to cage a smile, her eyes dancing with mischief. Pietro just looks confused, but to be fair, he'd been watching the Quinjet crew disembark, not them.

"Whatever. See if I show you the secret handshake," Tony grumbles with a lofty sniff. "Anyway, come on--let's get you set up on the security system, and then I'll show you around a bit. We got the living areas set up first thing," he says as they all start filing past him, Steve last only because he pushes Bucky ahead of him, like he thinks Bucky's going to pull a disappearing act rather than face Tony. He's not wrong, but it still smarts. "If you want anything added or changed, just let me know--between my workshop and Bruce's lab, we've been keeping the contractors pretty busy, so they'll probably jump at the chance to put a skylight in where nothing's likely to explode."

"Workshop?" Steve asks, still beaming like an idiot. His arm twitches like he wants to dig an elbow into Bucky's side, but Tony's right behind them, so he refrains.

"Yeah, well. I know I said I was going to tap out as Iron Man--"

Bucky starts. When the hell did he say that?

"--but someone needs to come up with the awesome toys, and it's more convenient to do that where you guys are. You didn't think you were getting rid of me that easy, did you?"

"No," Bucky blurts without thinking. At least his face feels cold, not hot. "Just...you had such a great setup back at the tower...."

Tony shrugs, but he looks pleased. "It is pretty sweet, isn't it? But I put in a workshop anywhere I plan to spend a lot of time. Just gives me an excuse to shake things up, try something new."

Bucky smiles hesitantly back, not sure whether he's more relieved that Tony's still going to be around or worried he's going to make an absolute idiot of himself.

Then Tony glances at the metal hand peeking out from Bucky's jacket and hoodie, and he's reminded all over again that he's the most ungrateful louse that ever walked the earth. He knows the neural connections he'd already had installed are what made the whole thing possible. T'Chaka's scientists had gushed for days, thanking him for what it'd mean for others in his position. He still can't imagine the time and expense that went into creating his new arm, and all the while he'd been thinking wistfully of the time he was giving up with Tony.

That...should have been his first clue, yeah. He'd blame having his brain frozen on the regular, only according to Steve and several ex-girlfriends, he's always been a bit slow in that department.

He doesn't really think about it. Embarrassment makes him aware of the arm in ways he usually isn't, and his right hand lifts to cup his left shoulder automatically.

"Right," Tony says brightly, stretching his legs a little to get ahead of the pack. "So FRIDAY's in charge of this facility, with JARVIS acting as backup--or, if you're super-invested in having your very own Jeeves, he can be designated your primary contact. Offices and training areas are in this section of the building--"

The moment Tony's back is turned, Steve nails him with that elbow after all. Bucky glares at his encouraging grin and reminds himself that killing Captain America would definitely send the rest of the world the wrong impression.

He lets Steve corner him later, while they're all settling in. He knows it's inevitable, so he might as well roll with it. That doesn't mean he has to let Steve lead the conversation.

"What did he mean?" Bucky asks as soon as Steve closes the door to Bucky's room. "About tapping out as Iron Man."

Steve draws up short, visibly derailed from the brutal teasing he was gearing himself up for, and just looks solemn. "You know he and Miss Potts broke up, right?"

"I didn't know they were together," Bucky admits, an icy trickle of dismay settling in his stomach.

Steve hunches a shoulder. "I'm...not actually sure they were by the time he brought you in. I didn't find out myself until just before Sokovia, but...I guess Tony tried to give up being Iron Man once before and realized he just couldn't quit."

"And she didn't want to be a superhero's girl?" Bucky hazards a guess, unwillingly sympathetic. It's no different from being a soldier's sweetheart, really, and he's seen too many men devastated over letters from home to think Miss Potts is alone in that fear. It is scary, and Bucky understands all too well the urge to cut a good thing loose before it can turn rotten. He's not going to think less of her for making a different choice than the one he hopes he would have in her place.

"In a nutshell." Steve pauses, tilting his head, but the devilish light goes out of his eyes, replaced by understanding. "He really doesn't blame you, you know. For his parents. We wouldn't be here at all if he were holding a grudge."

"Maybe I blame me," Bucky mutters, dropping his head.

He hears Steve coming closer but doesn't look up until Steve's hand lights on his shoulder, steady and comforting.

"Maybe it's time you learned not to," Steve says kindly, then doesn't let him get away until he's been thoroughly hugged.

***

Tony's spending too much time at the compound. It's not like he lives there--okay, he has a room there, just off the workshop and just for those nights he's been working late enough that he's not safe to drive. He does go back to the tower, doesn't make a nuisance of himself, and still.

He misses the days when he could wander out of the penthouse at any time of the day or night and be reasonably certain of company in short order. He can't prove it, and JARVIS will never admit to it, but he suspects Bucky asked JARVIS to alert him whenever Tony was safe to interact with. It's the only explanation he has for why Bucky was always just there.

It'd be different if Bucky weren't so easy to be around. He's surprisingly easygoing, though he takes no shit from anyone. He's helpful because that's the kind of person he is, not because he sees it in terms of a deal, goods and-or services in exchange for friendship. He is definitely not hard on the eyes, although every time Bucky rubs at his shoulder in Tony's presence, Tony sort of dies a little inside. It's possible the arm hurts, except that Bucky looks self-conscious about it now, and that's...not something he ever was before. It keeps Tony from outright asking if Bucky needs help, because Bucky knows he could come to Tony...right?

It doesn't help that Romanoff corners him the day after they all move in, gives him a frankly terrifying peck on the cheek, and says, "Keep it up, Stark, and I may just have to admit that I like you."

"What," he says on autopilot, "like in public and everything?"

She smirks at him, kisses his other cheek, and saunters off leaving him wondering which thing exactly he's being rewarded for. All of it? Not really likely. But considering the last favor she asked of him is currently checking out the gym two levels down, he has to wonder if he's maybe doing something right there.

He really hopes he's not fucking up, at least, because he's really tired of getting things wrong.

***

Bucky's not really looking where he's going, so lost in thought his surroundings are nothing but a vague background of threat/not threat, but Steve's hunched posture on the couch in the common room speaks right to his hindbrain. He waits until Steve lifts his pencil from the page before flopping down beside him, grabbing a throw pillow and hugging it to his middle. He's aware that he looks like an emo teenager from one of Parker's shows and couldn't give less of a shit.

Steve just takes one look at him and grins, shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

Bucky huffs. Punk.

Curled up on the facing couch, Natasha looks up from her tablet, arches a brow, and thoughtfully lays the tablet aside. Fuck. He needs a distraction, quick.

Glancing at Steve's sketchpad, he opens his mouth and then closes it, frowning. It's an old-fashioned sailing ship--a frigate, maybe?--but according to the name sketched in on the port bow--is that even where names go?--it's the Lemurian Star.

"Didn't you and Natasha have a mission on that ship?" he asks, leaning into Steve's left arm for a better look.

"Mm-hmm," Steve says, sketching in a lithe figure creeping up the side of the ship on a rope.

Bucky tilts his head. "Only the pirates look like Royal Navy."

"They are."

Bucky grins. "You're the pirates? Wait. So how come Natasha has the fancier hat?" he can't resist asking. "I mean, if I understand how pirates work, wouldn't that make her the captain?"

"Please," Steve scoffs without looking up. "It's Natasha. Of course she'd have the fancier hat."

"My hat would be very fancy," Natasha says, deadpan.

Of course it would. And while people were busy thinking she was a doxy playing at pirates, she'd be slitting their throats.

Some days he's so proud of her, he just wants to hug the stuffing out of her. Not because of what he taught her, but because she used it to get herself out.

"So," she says, undistracted, "still pining over Stark."

She doesn't even do him the courtesy of framing it like a question, so Bucky just hugs his pillow tighter. "'M not pining over Stark."

"Oh," she says simply, then settles in to stare at him very, very intently. She even leans forward a bit, resting her elbows on her knees with a frown.

"What?" Bucky demands. "Do I have something on my face?"

"No...just--I think you might have a little bark coming in," she says, running a finger along the side of her own neck. "Right here. From all that pining."

"Can you at least pretend not to know all my secret hopes and dreams?" he growls. Really, it's a growl. Not a whine.

"I don't think I'm that good of an actor."

"Lies," Bucky mutters, elbowing Steve carefully when the asshole cracks up. "And I'm not pining. Just...his birthday's coming up--"

"Really?" Steve asks through his laughter, holding his sketchbook safely out of the way. "Is it just me, or does the air smell awfully green and fresh in--"

"--and it turns out a fucking billionaire is a hard man to shop for," Bucky plows right over him. "I mean, you know that saying about the man who has everything? What am I supposed to do if that's true?"

"Oh, I don't know," Natasha says, sitting up with a smile. "You could always just tie a big red bow around your--"

"Natasha!" Bucky yelps, his face flaming hot.

"--arm," she finishes innocently. "What?"

"You're horrible," he scolds, scooting down further into the couch cushions until he's practically sitting on his spine. "Why do I talk to you people. Why."

"Are you still pining over Stark?" he hears almost directly overhead and looks up to find Wanda grinning at him from over the back of the couch.

"No," he grumbles. "Just stumped for a birthday gift."

She reaches down and pats his shoulder--the right--and says, "Just ask him to dinner. I promise he'll love it."

Bucky sighs, tossing aside his throw pillow as he heaves himself to his feet. "I'm going to go hang out with Wilson," he announces to the room at large. "He mocks me for other things, you know."

It's true; Wilson is an absolutely stand-up guy who communicates solely in trash talk and never brings up Tony at all unless Bucky does first. Bucky tries desperately not to, because then Wilson puts his serious face on, and that just makes their whole relationship weird.

They're ragging each other mercilessly on the treadmills in the Avengers' private gym when Wilson looks over at him and out of the blue says, "You know, Steve's got this list of all the movies he's missed. You should ask Tony to show you a couple of his favorites."

Bucky nearly flings himself right off the treadmill when he tries to stop dead in his tracks. "You people have the worst birthday ideas."

Wilson lights up at that. It figures. "Birthday? Now we're talking! So here's what you need to do--"

"No," Bucky says flatly. "Whatever it is, no. No, I'm not asking him to dinner, and no, I'm not tying a ribbon around anything."

Wilson arches a brow. "Was that Natasha's idea or Hill's?"

"Hill?"

"Nah, you're right. Natasha'd let you think it's your own idea. Hill would've just put you where she wanted you and tied the bow on herself."

"I'm going back to Wakanda," Bucky says faintly. Hill. Jesus fucking wept.

"And pine from afar?" Wilson asks with a smirk. "But you're just getting the hang of pining from anear."

"You're no longer my favorite, Wilson."

"Can I get that in writing?"

He thinks he's maybe in the clear after that, only Pietro decides he's going to mooch around in Bucky's room that of all nights and watch him clean his guns. That's suspicious enough--Pietro usually pesters Clint--but he's looking awfully superior for a kid who wasn't even a gleam in his granddaddy's eye the first time Bucky had a date end in more than a kiss at the door.

"Sit," he orders, rolling his eyes, and dumps a few of his spares in front of the kid when Pietro slumps into a seat at his worktable. "Learn."

Pietro blinks at the guns and then up at Bucky. "But...I can outrun bullets."

"So?" Bucky asks, taking a seat across from him and staring the kid down until Pietro picks up a gun and turns it gingerly over in his hands. Bucky's not crazy; the three he just foisted off on the kid are all unloaded. "Look, someone gets lucky and you break a leg, you're screwed. And hey, you may not think you need them, but some of the rest of us do. Wouldn't kill you to know how to reload for someone with all that speed you've got."

"Oh," Pietro says, chastened but suddenly interested. "How do I...?"

"Well, first you're going to want to get into the habit of not pointing that at anyone," Bucky says with a wry smile, nodding at the barrel that's aimed roughly at his left shoulder. The joke's on the kid; a bullet's going to ping right off if it hits him there. He just wouldn't want the kid to get caught with the ricochet if that were to happen. "Unless you mean it, of course, in which case, go for chest shots. You're more likely to hit your target that way."

"Ah. Right."

Bucky manages to keep his grin to himself. They try hard to look scary and tough, and they are, but the kids can't help that they're fucking adorable.

After a few minutes of fumbling, Pietro figures out how to eject the empty clip. "Good job," Bucky says warmly when Pietro looks up with a grin of triumph. "We'll make a sharpshooter of you yet."

"Well, I do have a pretty good eye," Pietro says as he sets that gun down and picks up another. "Enough to see what's right under my nose, at least."

Bucky sighs loudly. "Are you here to bend my ear about Tony? Because if you are--"

"I just want to know why you're dragging your feet," Pietro interrupts, mouth twitching over his own choice of words. "He likes you. You like him. This should be easy."

Pietro's not the first to assure him he's actually got a shot with Tony, but he might be one of the few not to realize there are complications to that. "Yeah, maybe, assuming he actually is interested and not just flirting, like he does. And in a parallel universe where I didn't actually kill his parents."

"Mm," Pietro hums, eyes on his hands. "You mean like how he killed ours."

Bucky stares. That's...actually the first he's heard about that. He'd known the twins had a bone to pick with Stark, but not what; Steve had known, hadn't thought it was a problem, and that'd been good enough for him.

Pietro looks up with a tight little smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Well. It's not like he just decided to one day. And I know I should blame the person who gave the orders, but for a long time...it was his face I saw on the weapon that murdered them, because he didn't even...try. He could have stopped it, and he didn't."

Bucky swallows hard as the rims of Pietro's eyes go red from tears held ruthlessly back. "How did you get past that?" he has to ask, his voice a dull croak.

Pietro shakes his head, jaw clenching as he masters himself. "I realized it didn't matter. If it hadn't been him, they would have used someone else. And seeing how hard he fights now, I know he would have fought then, too. He just didn't understand that he should."

Bucky wants to point out that that's the kind of fighting you should always understand, only he's not going to give Tony less leeway than he gives himself. "Have you told him that?" he asks instead, because Tony's always been generous, enjoys watching people enjoy themselves, but he gets that vicarious payoff from a respectful distance when it comes to the Maximoffs.

Pietro awkwardly hunches a shoulder. "We're here, aren't we?"

"I'm not sure that's good enough," Bucky says gently, even though he understands. God, does he ever.

Pietro looks up with a tiny little smirk, a spark of challenge lighting his eyes. "So why don't you show me up, old man? Go talk to him yourself."

He knows when he's been played, but Pietro has a point. It's not that he thinks Tony hasn't forgiven him--Bucky's here, isn't he?--he just hasn't been able to see how until just now. Maybe that kind of forgiveness isn't so unusual. Maybe you just have to have a big enough heart.

"Fine," he mutters, pushing his chair back and pointing an admonishing finger at Pietro. "But don't think you're getting out of this lesson."

"I'm not waiting up for you," Pietro warns, grinning.

"Smartass."

He heads for the workshop because it's not that late, and Tony's probably still here. He might be in the lab, though, talking with Banner, or on the phone with a business partner, or...he's a pretty busy man, actually, and--

"Sergeant Barnes?" FRIDAY asks as he reaches for the button to stop the lift taking him down. "The boss is in his workshop if you were heading that way."

He has to laugh a little, dropping his hand and letting his chin rest on his chest. "It's a conspiracy, isn't it?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she says in her best imitation of JARVIS. It's actually pretty good.

Tony's right where Bucky expects him to be, doing something brilliant with a diagram that floats before him like magic. Which is still not bullshit, no matter what Tony says.

As the glass doors hiss open, Tony looks distractedly over, and the way he lights up hits Bucky right behind the ribs once again. "Buckster! Get in here and take a look at this thing," he invites, turning back to his model. "So I was thinking about that scene in Star Trek--"

"Which one?" Bucky asks, because he's aware there's a million of them, and that's just the movies.

Tony turns back to him with a wounded look. "You've been watching Star Trek without me?"

"Huh? No--I just...figured you'd already watched them all--"

"Of course I have," Stark waves him off, appeased. "What kind of role model would I be if I hadn't? Anyway. New Trek. That scene in the new Trek, and by the way, I want to hear no more bitching about flying cars."

Bucky suddenly realizes exactly what he's looking at, his eyes going helplessly wide. "You built a hoverbike?"

"Built? No. Can I fabricate one to these specs? Absolutely. I just need your input on the paint job first, and we're good to go."

"Me?" Bucky asks, startled. "You're making it for me?"

"Who else? I mean, I'd make Steve one, but he'd just abandon it somewhere so he can fight mano a mano with the supervillain of the day. So? What do you say? Are you married to the red star design, or do you want something else on the tank?"

"Red--oh," he says with a jolt, realizing he hasn't actually shown Tony the arm since he got back. It's just a little embarrassing, having Tony see it, because it's not Tony's work, and it should have been. "No, I don't have that anymore." But Tony should know that, shouldn't he?

"Oh, yeah? So what did you get? Wait, don't tell me," he says with a sly grin, rocking a little on the balls of his feet as he slides his hands into his pockets. "It's the shield. It is, isn't it?"

Bucky stares. "That would be so weird," he says, vaguely disturbed. "I mean, I love the guy, but...."

"Huh. I guess the papers would kind of have a field day. 'Captain America leaves his mark on boyfriend's arm; public pronounces them superhero married'."

"Why do I talk to any of you?" Bucky groans. "Superhero married?"

Tony cracks up. "Wait, that's what you're taking away from this? Okay, now I gotta see. Come on, Buckaroo--give up the goods," he orders, waving a hand at Bucky's left arm.

"Uh...okay?" Bucky says, reaching for the hem of his Henley. "But, um...it's blank," he says, voice slightly muffled as he pulls soft, well-washed cloth over his head. "I thought you knew that."

When he can see again, Tony's frowning, brows crumpled at a puzzled tilt. "Why would I know that?"

"Be--" Something's not adding up. "Because I...had them send you my files?" he says, hoping he's just jogging Tony's memory and that Wakanda's scientists didn't withhold the information out of professional rivalry. "You did get them, right?"

"I thought those were your medical files," Tony says, standing straighter all of a sudden.

"Well, yeah, those are probably in there too," Bucky says with a shrug, "but it's mostly to do with the arm. I mean, not that you probably even need them, but, y'know...if something gets broken, or, um...."

"You still want me working on your arm?" Tony blurts out and promptly looks horrified at himself.

Yeah, that's not going to stand. No way.

"I never wanted anyone else to work on it," Bucky says bluntly. "I wanted to wait, but I didn't want to put anyone else in danger. And I know that makes me pretty ungrateful, because a lot of people put a lot of effort into helping me, but...you wanted to know why I wasn't excited about it?" he asks, reminding Tony of a conversation they had a few months ago. "That's why. It may be a miracle of modern design, but it's not yours."

He knows he's said way too much there, but Tony looks absolutely staggered and not disgusted with him at all. "Is it my birthday?" Tony asks hopefully, surprising a chuckle out of Bucky.

"Man, if you knew the trouble I've been having trying to come up with something you'd want," he admits, shaking his head.

Tony's smile is fragile, wary, but the hopefulness doesn't fade. "Really? Because from where I'm standing, the answer's pretty obvious."

Tony's looking at him, and he isn't looking away.

"Is this going to involve me tying a bow on anything?" Bucky has to ask, reminded suddenly that he's still got his shirt in his hands by the way Tony's eyes track appreciatively over his chest, not even catching on the scars.

Tony grins. "Why don't we go find one, and then we can find out?"