Tony Stark didn’t trust magic. Rogers and the others thought he opposed any plan that even tangentially relied on magic because he hated being shown up by something he didn’t understand. Stark and his ego, you know.
No, Tony didn’t dislike magic because he didn’t understand how it worked and it hurt his fragile pride. He disliked magic because he didn’t understand how it worked and no one else seemed to either. Tony was an engineer and a businessman; he knew every action had a reaction, and everything came at a price. Magic was the same. There were always consequences to using magic, and there was always a cost. The problem was you could never be sure what the repercussion of a spell might be, and you could never be sure of the price, or who would end up paying it. There were too many inconsistent variables and just the thought of it made Tony want to scream.
The hell of it was, even Stephen Strange agreed with Tony half the time.
So, when Loki smirked at Rogers in the middle of a battle and told him he would give Rogers what he wanted most in the world, the mind of his old friend back, Tony had a very bad feeling. When Loki winked at Tony over Rogers’ shoulder, Tony knew somehow, someway, this would affect more than Rogers’ old friend and it wouldn’t be Loki paying the price.
After Loki vanished, taking the surprisingly vicious, twelve-foot stuffed animals he’d been using to terrorize the patrons of Central Park with him, Rogers led the other Avengers to the quinjet at a run. They were in the air in moments, presumably speeding back to the Tower and Rogers’ bestie. Tony left them to it. Instead, he took a leisurely flight around the park to make sure the first responders had everything well in hand.
Since Thanos’ defeat, and Loki’s aid in said defeat, Loki’s sentence had been commuted to banishment to Earth by Odin. Presumably he was meant to be learning a lesson in humility … or something. As far as Tony could tell, though, Loki seemed more a punishment for Earth, and the Avengers in particular, than the other way around. At least Loki seldom directly did any real harm these days. He had a nasty habit, though, of tricking the Avengers into creating their own problems.
Satisfied that nothing more serious than a sprained ankle and a couple of destroyed fountains had occurred, Tony returned to the Tower and his workshop. He knew he wouldn’t be welcome in the common areas and had no desire to see Rogers and the presumably no longer brainwashed Barnes celebrating, anyway.
Tony had hoped fighting side by side again with the pardoned Avengers, first against Thanos and later against the two-bit villains that seemed to spring up every other week, would help smooth over his strained relationships with the team. None of them seemed willing to even try to meet him halfway, though. Oh, they were happy enough to have Iron Man’s support in the field, but otherwise Tony was faced with only cool disdain and barbed comments. Even now, after everything, it was Iron Man yes, Tony Stark not recommended.
Not for the first time, he wished he could have kept the now pardoned Avengers out of his tower. With tensions still high after Thanos’ attack, however, the public needed to see their defenders providing a united front. They could have moved back into the Avengers Compound, but Rhodey and Vision and the rest of the New Avengers were there now, and Tony was unwilling to subject them to the drama involved in dealing with Rogers’ team. Better for Tony to endure whatever they felt was his due than to inflict them on Peter or Kamala.
He had even tried to make his peace with Barnes. Time and distance and a metric ton of research into the origins of the Winter Soldier had given Tony some perspective. Tony knew what three months under the Ten Rings had done to him; he couldn’t even imagine what it would have been like to be in HYDRA’s hands for decades. He’d been willing to extend the olive branch to Barnes, let him know that Tony understood, even if he couldn’t quite forgive yet. It was hard to have a conversation with a man who immediately left any room you entered, though. The only time Tony interacted with Barnes was to perform necessary maintenance on the new arm, and even then, Barnes pointedly ignored Tony’s chatter while a fanatical guard dog in the shape of Rogers watched over Tony’s shoulder. Never let it be said Tony couldn’t take a hint.
Tony spent most of the next few days in his workshop with FRIDAY and the bots. Without a call to assemble, he only left to catch a few hours of sleep or grab something to eat when exhaustion or hunger began to affect his work. He knew he was isolating himself, and that FRIDAY was sure to rat him out to Rhodey and Vision soon, but for now he just didn’t have the fortitude to deal with other human beings.
On his third day of blissful seclusion, FRIDAY announced a couple of rather unwelcome visitors to his sanctuary.
“Boss,” came FRIDAY’s lilting voice, “Rogers and Barnes are at the door.” Tony smiled slightly at FRIDAY’s continued aversion to addressing Rogers by either his first name, or as ‘captain’. Romanoff accused Tony of being petty, but he had nothing to do with FRIDAY’s choice of address. He was rather touched, actually, that his youngest AI’s insistence.
Tony set down the soldering iron he’d been using and sighed. “Did the icicles say what they wanted?” he asked.
There was a pause, then FRIDAY answered, “Apparently, Barnes’ prosthetic is causing him considerable pain. Rogers is rather insistent that you look at the arm now.”
Tony frowned. He had worked on Barnes’ new arm less than a week ago. How could the arm have been damaged? Barnes only joined the Avengers in the field when a situation was dire because there was always a danger of the Winter Soldier’s programming being triggered. Loki’s murderous stuffies hadn’t required Barnes, and that had been their only call to assemble.
“Yeah, let’m in, FRIDAY.” Tony stood to face the workshop entrance as the doors opened.
He was not at all prepared for the man who walked in behind Rogers. Tony was so used to the grim, dead-eyed assassin that stalked his tower, seeing Barnes saunter in and look around the workshop with unconcealed curiosity and delight was jarring. He was holding his metal arm to his chest, and there were definite signs of pain in his body language, but a corner of his mouth was twitching up into a smile like he couldn’t quite hold it in. When he caught sight of Tony, Barnes eyes lit up in excitement.
“Is this your place? This is amazing!” Barnes said.
“Uh, yes?” Tony responded uncertainly. “I mean, yes. Welcome to Oz?” He wondered what exactly had been in the last smoothie DUM-E had made him.
Rogers moved to put himself slightly between them and addressed Barnes, “Bucky, this is Tony Stark, Howard’s son and a … teammate.” Tony stiffened at the mention of his father, that Rogers felt he had the right to speak about him so freely, but kept a firm rein on his anger. Something was going on here and Tony wanted to know what it was.
When Rogers turned to Tony, there was an edge of warning to his voice. “Tony, Loki’s spell erased Bucky’s memories since his fall from the train. It’s as if he stepped right out of 1945. The Winter Soldier is no longer a concern.”
Anger welled up in Tony. So now that it the Winter Soldier had been erased from Barnes’ head, he was supposed to pretend everything that the Winter Soldier had done had been erased, too? It was obvious Rogers was being economical with the truth again. He certainly hadn’t told Barnes about murdering Howard and Maria, and Rogers expected Tony to keep silent as well. Tony might have been willing to call a truce between himself and Barnes, but ignoring the death of his parents, of his mother, was something else entirely.
He was about to flay Rogers alive with the scathing comments that had been building behind his teeth for months now and throw the both of them out of his workshop when he noticed how still Barnes had become. He was watching Steve intently, face carefully blank, and it hit Tony that Barnes knew something important was being kept from him, knew that his best friend was lying. Tony was forcibly reminded that Barnes had been an accomplished sniper and operative well before HYDRA. Well before Captain America and the Howling Commandos, even. He was almost certain that Rogers, on the other hand, had forgotten what that meant.
An ugly, bitter part of Tony wanted to show Rogers’ precious Barnes exactly what he had done as the Winter Soldier, what Rogers was hiding from him. Tony knew every kill now, every horrible order carried out on HYDRA’S behalf. All it would take would be a word to FRIDAY and the room would be filled with the hundreds of deaths caused by the Winter Soldier. Rogers wouldn’t be able to stop him.
Tony glared at Rogers for a long moment, battling with himself, before taking a deep breath and banking his anger. It burned to be unleashed, roiling under his breast, but with months of practice he ignored it. As much as it had galled him to admit, Barnes hadn’t been in control of his actions as the Winter Soldier. Tony wasn’t going to strike out at Barnes in his fury at Rogers. He wouldn’t be the one to draw him back into the feud between them, especially when Rogers was obviously keeping his old friend in the dark.
Turning away from Rogers, Tony consciously relaxed his posture, pasting on his fakest, most brilliant press smile and waving Barnes to a stool near a workbench. “You’ve come to see the wizard! I understand your metal arm is bothering you? Well, let’s see what we can do about that.” Barnes looked quickly from Rogers to Tony, face wary for a moment, before nodding and taking a seat. “It must have been quite a shock to wake up in the future with a cyborg arm,” Tony absently rambled as he collected the tools he’d need and sat across from Barnes, still shaking slightly from pent-up emotions. “Worse parts to wake up to find missing, though.”
Tony startled when Barnes let out a bark of laughter. He was accustomed to Barnes’ stoic silence and cool disregard during these sessions, and it was bewildering to look up and see the amused mischief on Barnes’ face.
“Isn’t that the truth,” Barnes said with a smile and a wince of pain as he laid the metal arm on the bench between them. “It’s like a dime novel. All I need now is to rescue a princess on Mars and battle dinosaurs on a deserted island.”
Tony snorted. “Bite your tongue. Someone will hear you and we’ll be up to our ears in velociraptors and little green men before you know it.” He called for DUM-E to bring him a desk lamp and couldn’t help but be amused as Barnes followed the bot’s progress with fascination. Tony felt a troubling pang as he watched. He had spent little time with Barnes, but from what he had seen there had not been much of this animated man left after HYDRA. Tony wondered at the difference. Before Loki’s spell, had this Barnes simply been gone, destroyed by HYDRA’s brainwashing? Or had he been buried under too much pain and guilt to surface? Tony remembered how everything had tasted like ash after Ultron and Sokovia, how it had taken most of a year after the betrayals of the Avengers’ ‘Civil War’ to feel anything like normal. Tony wasn’t sure what to do with the unexpected sympathy he felt for both versions of Barnes.
“Aww. I guess I won’t be riding out after a band of cattle rustlers, either, huh?” Barnes asked, looking away from the bot as it returned to its charging station and back to Tony. He had a surprisingly effective set of puppy-dog eyes.
Tony shrugged as he adjusted the lamp to illuminate the arm better, uncomfortable and trying to ignore how surreal the situation was. “We’ve got plenty of wannabe evil overlords, if it makes you feel better. We even have our own hardboiled detective, although I’d watch my step there. She could break the both of us in half without even trying.”
Rogers circled around to stand behind Barnes and crossed his arms, looking disgruntled at the byplay between the two men. “That’s enough, Tony.”
Rogers was in fine form today, Tony thought with a mental sigh. He glanced at Barnes, only to see Barnes rolling his eyes at him in commiseration. Tony had to cough to cover a laughing fit. He shook his head and decided to get down to business. “So, what exactly seems to be the problem, Tasty Freeze?”
Barnes smiled in relief and was about to answer when Rogers interrupted with a suspicious scowl at Tony. “The arm is hurting him. You told me the arm looked fine. Has Bucky been in pain this whole time? Have you …”
“I,” Tony responded pointedly, noticing the sharp-eyed Barnes observing the exchange with concern, “have been suggesting full scans of Barnes’ arm for weeks now, ever since our last fight with Doom. You refused. Without those, the only way for me to know if something was more than superficially wrong would be if Barnes said something didn’t feel right. He didn’t.” Granted, before his magical Asgardian cure, Tony doubted Barnes would have asked Tony for help even if his arm was on fire. The point still stood, though.
Rogers looked less than convinced at Tony’s response, but luckily, and bizarrely to Tony’s mind, Barnes jumped in before more could be said.
“Maybe whatever this fellow Loki did to my head messed something up in my arm?” he asked quickly.
“That,” Tony said, pointing a finger at Barnes, “is an excellent question. If Loki’s magic,” he grimaced at the term, “had some effect on your brain, it may have affected the rest of your nervous system as well. Hopefully we can make some adjustments to help, though. Now, can you describe to me what you’re feeling?”
He opened the panels on Barnes’ arm with practiced ease as he listened to Barnes outline the painful sensations he’d been experiencing. It turned out to be an easy fix, a few sensors whose sensitivity were turned up far too high and that were returning more noise than signal. It bothered Tony that those settings had been in place since Wakanda, though. Had Barnes been suffering since his new arm was installed? The Wakandans would never have left the settings so high if the man had expressed any discomfort, and it was possible that Loki’s spell really had affected more than Barnes’ memories, but Tony had the uncomfortable feeling that Barnes had simply remained silent.
As soon as Barnes’ declared himself pain free and his arm was sealed again, Rogers tried to hustle his friend out of Tony’s workshop. Much to Rogers’ frustration, though, Barnes kept getting sidetracked on the way by Tony’s projects. Tony watched, entertained, as Barnes moved from a worktable covered in prototype arrows for Barton, to a hologram displaying the new StarkPad, to DUM-E who had come out of his charging station to greet him, each time neatly sidestepping Rogers’ attempts to herd him towards the door.
When he was finally ready to leave, Barnes thanked Tony profusely for putting his arm to rights and allowing him to look around. Tony waved him off and, in a fit of what must have been insanity, invited him to come to see him in his workshop again. The look of impotent outrage on Rogers’ face where he stood behind Barnes made it worth the questionable invitation.
FRIDAY finally tattled on him to Rhodey and Vision after another couple of days of solitary work, and Tony readily agreed to Rhodey’s suggestion to come to the compound to ‘consult’ for a day. After the supersoldiers had left, Tony hadn’t been able to stop brooding about Loki, magic, and the price for Barnes’ recovery, and was happy to leave those thoughts behind for a while.
Tony was greeted warmly by the New Avengers when he reached the compound, especially Peter and Kamala. The friendly reception was a needed respite from the chilly atmosphere of the Tower these days. He spent time with Rhodey and Vision, helped Peter with his new project, and generally made himself available and useful to the New Avengers. Dinner was large and raucous, as many members who did not live at the compound were there for a weekend of training. Most moved to the large common room for a movie night, but Tony took the opportunity to ask to speak with Stephen Strange in private.
“I assume you want to ask me about your erstwhile leader’s old acquaintance,” Stephen said as Tony shut the door to the conference room behind them. He sat in one of the chairs around the table and swiveled to face Tony.
Tony took his own seat and nodded, “I haven’t spoken with the others at the Tower, but I doubt they’d view my interest with anything but suspicion.” Tony rubbed a hand across his face before leaning forward. “Can you tell me what happened to Barnes? Is it permanent?”
Stephen smirked before replying, “You know, Tony, magic is not bound by the petty rules of mortal science …”
Tony huffed and rolled his eyes. “Stephen, I swear to god, I will repulsor you in the face.”
His smirk widening into a true smile, Stephen chuckled. “Honestly, Tony, Loki’s power is so far advanced from anything any human could hope to achieve, there is no way to know. He has been studying magic for longer than the most ancient scrolls in our library have existed. Even with much of his power bound by Odin as it is now, we have little hope of understanding what he has done. Only an accomplished mage from another realm could answer your questions.”
“Great,” Tony bit out. “And Thor hasn’t made an appearance since Thanos was defeated.”
Stephen shrugged, “I do have another suggestion.” At Tony’s gesture to continue, he added, “I would urge having a CT scan performed. He had several taken while in Wakanda, I understand, that showed the slowly healing damage HYDRA had done. Significant changes in the results could indicate that structural changes or neurological repairs have occurred due to Loki’s spell and are more likely to be permanent. Otherwise, if the spell did not make any such changes …”
“The spell didn’t actually correct anything and would be easier to come undone,” Tony finished.
Stephen nodded, “Exactly.”
“You already recommended this to Rogers?” Tony asked, although he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.
Stephen smiled ruefully. “I did. I even offered to put them in touch with Christine discreetly. Rogers did not seem enthusiastic about the idea.”
“And people call me paranoid. Well, he’d be dead set against it if I brought it up,” Tony said. “I doubt he’d listen to Rhodey or Vision, either. T’Challa, possibly.” He looked to the side, thinking. The pardoned Avengers, and Barnes in particular, were in a gray area when it came to some parts of the Accords. Any external action had to go be approved by the Accords Committee, but Rogers and the others had demanded internal team decisions be left to the pardoned Avengers themselves. That included decisions about who was fit for duty. The Committee had conceded, not wanting to start another conflict between the Avengers so soon after the battle with Thanos.
If something like this had happened to any of the New Avengers, though, a full medical workup and psychological exam would have been required. For the member’s own safety, and that of their teammates and civilians, they would not have been allowed in the field until the medical personnel had cleared them. There would have been no way a recommendation by Stephen Strange, an expert in both magic and neuroscience, would have simply been ignored.
“I suppose asking James Barnes himself is out of the question? They are his brain and his memories after all,” Stephen suggested.
It was on the tip of Tony’s tongue to reject the suggestion outright, but he reconsidered. Barnes had been friendly with Tony, despite Rogers’ obvious dislike.
“Maybe,” Tony said thoughtfully. “I can’t imagine Rogers would leave me alone with Barnes long enough to bring it up, much less convince him, but maybe. What worries me more is why Loki did what he did. I doubt it was out of the goodness of his heart.”
“He does take a malicious glee in making the lives of your team miserable,” Stephen agreed. “You do a good job of keeping him out of mischief elsewhere, at least.”
“Gee, thanks, Stephen,” Tony responded, glaring halfheartedly.
“My pleasure, Tony,” Stephen replied with a grin.
Three weeks later, Tony stormed into his workshop, disgusted with himself, his team, the world in general. He shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket with angry, jerky movements and tossed it carelessly onto a workbench. His tie quickly followed. The bots came to attention, beeping in concern as Tony paced the length of the workshop. Tony waved them off.
“It’s fine, I’m fine,” he said, even as he continued pacing, hands clenching and unclenching. FRIDAY, bless her electronic heart, locked the workshop down without being asked, making the windows opaque and playing Metallica at full blast. The familiar, steady beat of the music and sense of security, of being surrounded and shielded from the rest of the world, slowly allowed Tony to regain control.
There was no reason to be aggravated, not when everything had gone just as Tony had expected. Under different circumstances it might even have been an enjoyable evening. The charity gala, a fundraiser for an admirable relief organization, had taken place without difficulty. Not a supervillain to be seen. Tony, charming and entertaining the attendees, had flirted and schmoozed large donations from wealthy patrons. Even his usually precarious dance with the media, who were always probing for some vulnerability or scandal, had been so boring as to make Pepper proud.
Tony slumped onto a stool and ran his hands through his hair. No, what had eaten away at his patience was dealing with the rest of his team. He was so tired of pretending to the world that everything was fine, everything was forgiven. That the taste of betrayal didn’t choke him as he grits his teeth and smiled for the cameras.
He sighed and removed his cufflinks, pushing the arms of his dress shirt up to his elbows. Putting his head in his hands, he just breathed for a while. God, he was tired.
He was just considering trying for a few hours of sleep when FRIDAY lowered the volume of the music.
“Boss, you’ve got a visitor,” the A.I. announced.
Tony groaned. He really was not up to dealing with any of the inhabitants of the Tower.
“FRIDAY, light of my life, I am not interested in listening to another word from Rogers or any of the others tonight. Whatever they want, tomorrow will have to be soon enough.” He’d pay for it tomorrow, smug comments about childish behavior and unreliability, but right now he just didn’t care.
“It’s Sergeant Barnes. Without Rogers, I might add,” FRIDAY replied.
Tony looked up and blinked. That was surprising. Barnes had visited the workshop a few times since his arm had been fixed, friendly and inquisitive as the first time, but always accompanied by Rogers. Honestly, it did Tony’s heart good to see Rogers having to make nice with Tony while glaring at him in warning whenever Barnes wasn’t looking. Not that he thought Barnes missed the animosity between them. There were too many quick deflections and well-timed quips that kept things between Tony and Rogers from escalating to be accidental. Tony wondered how many times Barnes had run interference for Rogers to be quite so good at it.
He weighed how angry Rogers would be when he found out Tony had talked to Barnes alone against Tony’s curiosity over what had brought Barnes down here, and decided, fuck it.
“Yeah, OK,” he told FRIDAY. “Turn off the music while you’re at it.” Just then the rest of her earlier statement caught up with him. “Wait, since when have you called him …” FRIDAY opened the doors before he could finish his question.
Barnes strode in, looking serious, only to come to a sudden stop when he caught sight of Tony, his eyes going wide.
“What?” Tony asked, looking down at himself, “is there something on my face?”
Barnes shook his head quickly, and cleared his throat before saying, “Uh, no. Just, uh, not your usual getup for the workshop, is it?” He seemed a little flustered, looking everywhere but at Tony.
Tony shrugged, “Came here as soon as we got back from the party. Had to say night to the bots.” He looked over to their charging stations and called out, “You missed your Pops, didn’t you, boys?”
Enthusiastic beeps came from DUM-E and U, while Butterfingers played a sound like someone blowing a raspberry.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Seriously, the sass. Where did you boys learn that from?” he joked.
“It’s a mystery, Boss,” said FRIDAY impudently.
“Well, you, uh, you look swell,” Barnes said when Tony turned back to face him, then winced, his whole face going red.
Tony frowned, “Are you OK, Popsicle? Is your arm bothering you?” He hopped off the stool and took a step towards Barnes, intent on the mechanical arm.
“No, no. It’s fine,” Barnes said quickly, raising his arms in front of himself.
Tony looked at Barnes quizzically, but let it go. “Then what brings you down here, Pudding Pop? And without your patriotic shadow?”
That seemed to sober Barnes up. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. When he opened his eyes, the serious look was back.
“I needed to talk to you,” Barnes replied, “and I didn’t think you’d really talk to me if Steve was here.”
Tony had a bad feeling about whatever Barnes had come to see him about. He wasn’t disappointed.
“Mr. Stark, do you know what happened to me? I don’t just mean with this guy Loki. I mean since I fell off a train in 1945. Do you know what happened to me?” Barnes paused before asking, “Do you know what I did?”
It was Tony’s turn to look away, uncomfortable. “Listen, I might not be the best person to talk to about this,” he tried.
Barnes crossed his arms and glared. “Yeah, well, there seems to be a lot of that going around. Everyone seems to think it’s up to Stevie, and Stevie just tells me it doesn’t matter anymore. Bullshit.”
Tony sighed. God damn it. Rogers really was going to kill him this time. “Let’s sit down for this, alright?” Tony took his stool again and waited for Barnes to sit across the workbench from him. “What has Rogers told you?”
“Not much of anything,” Barnes said, getting angrier. “None of the other bastards here will tell me, either. I know that I was captured after I fell from the train, that someone did things to me, made me do things, but no one will fucking tell me what I did!” He sat there, breathing heavily, daring Tony to try to bullshit him.
Tony leaned his elbows onto the lab bench, clasping his hands in front of him and trying to think of something to say. Three weeks ago, Tony would have reveled in telling Barnes every sordid detail about his time as the Winter Soldier. Now, the idea made him ill. Despite himself, he was coming to like this man, his humor and his cleverness. He didn’t want to be the one to tell him this. If he was in Barnes’ place, though, he’d want someone to tell him the truth.
So, he told him. He told Barnes what he’d learned in his research about the Winter Soldier, how he had been found half dead in a snowy ravine, kept alive only by the serum HYDRA had already pumped into his veins. How he had fought even as HYDRA had tortured him, how he kept fighting until HYDRA had put him in the first chair. How they had wiped him from his own mind, trained him, and sent him to kill. How they put him in cryosleep when he wasn’t needed, and planted trigger phrases in his mind so that even out of HYDRA’s grasp, he was never free. How a grieving man had framed him, and used him to tear the Avengers apart.
When Tony ran out of things to say, the two of them sat there in silence. Barnes was staring at the workbench in front of him, but Tony doubted he was seeing the disassembled Widow Bites.
“How many?” Barnes asked without inflection. When Tony didn’t answer, he looked up and asked again, “How many?”
“Over one hundred and fifty successful missions. HYDRA didn’t record the civilian casualties,” Tony told him quietly.
Barnes swallowed hard, then nodded, jaw clenched. “You have the files, records? I want to see them.”
Tony hesitated, before saying, “Barnes, it makes for some really unpleasant reading.” When Barnes didn’t back down, Tony sighed and picked up a Starkpad from a nearby workbench and handed it to him. “FRIDAY, please download all information I have on the Winter Soldier onto that StarkPad. Everything I have on Barnes before Loki’s spell, including Siberia, and add a full complement of security measures, highest level. No one accesses it but Barnes.”
“Yes, Boss,” came FRIDAY’s uncharacteristically somber response.
“Do you know how to use that?” Tony asked once FRIDAY indicated the download was complete.
“Steve’s been showing me,” Barnes said, running a finger along the side. “God. No wonder you were glaring daggers when Steve brought me down here the first time.” Tony tried not to react, but Barnes must have seen something in his expression. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”
“Barnes, …” Tony began, not knowing what to say.
“Please, just tell me. I need to know,” Barnes pleaded.
Tony nodded and closed his eyes. He couldn’t look at Barnes when he told him this. “The Winter Soldier was sent to kill my father, Howard Stark, on December 16, 1991. My mother, Maria Stark, was in the car with him at the time. The mission parameters specified there were to be no witnesses left alive. The mission was successful.”
When Tony opened his eyes, it was to Barnes regarding him with horror. “And Steve brought me here, to where you live?” He gestured to the workshop around him, “To your home? Does he know?”
Tony couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice when he said, “He knows.”
“Jesus, it was me. I did those things,” Barnes muttered. He covered his mouth with a trembling hand, looking near to tears.
Hearing the honest guilt and grief in Barnes voice, emotions Tony knew inside and out, Tony found he could finally let the last of his own anger go.
“Barnes, you did everything you could. You fought them every step of the way. Even as the Winter Soldier, you fought them every time they waited too long to put you back in the chair. They had to fry your brain almost daily and put you in a fucking freezer to keep you down. There was nothing else you could have done.” Saying it, and believing it, Tony felt something inside of him ease.
Barnes only shook his head. Finally, after regaining some of his composure, he asked, “That man who came to examine me, Strange, he wasn’t sure if my memories were gone for good. If they’re not, if they come back, the trigger words will be back, too. Won’t they?”
“They might,” Tony agreed. “Dr. Strange suggested you have a procedure called a CT scan performed. It would use X-rays to make an image of your brain. It might give us a better idea of what’s going on, but there are no guarantees.”
Barnes nodded, rubbing his eyes. “Let me think about it,” he said as he stood up with the StarkPad. He wavered for a minute, as if not sure what to do with himself, before straightening his shoulders. “Thank you for telling me, Mr. Stark. I’ll get out of your hair now. I won’t … I won’t bother you again.”
Before Barnes could turn towards the door, Tony stopped him with a hand on his arm. When Barnes looked at him, a question in his eyes, Tony said softly, “I’m not angry at you, Barnes, not anymore.”
“You should be,” was Barnes’ devastated reply. Gesturing to the StarkPad, he continued, “You all should be.”
“If I’ve learned one thing from all my mistakes, Barnes,” he said gently, “it’s that you don’t get to decide when someone else is ready to forgive you. My offer stands. You’re still welcome down here anytime.”
Barnes blinked back tears before he gave Tony a shaky smile, “Okay. Thank you. Think you could see your way to calling me Bucky? No one’s called me Barnes since Basic.”
“I’ll call you whatever you want, Snowflake, if you keep Rogers from murdering me in my sleep for spilling the beans,” Tony responded with a grin. “And call me Tony.”
“Alright, Tony,” Barnes … Bucky said, smile firmer. He slipped from under Tony’s hand and waved when he reached the door.
Tony watched as the door shut behind Bucky, and felt freer than he had in years.
A week later and Tony had not yet been confronted by a wrathful Steve Rogers. Tony could only assume Bucky wasn’t ready to discuss the Winter Soldier with Rogers yet. That wouldn’t last much longer, Tony was sure. Bucky had visited the workshop a couple of times since the night of the gala, Rogers once again his surly shadow, and even Tony had noticed how subdued Bucky was. Whether Bucky was ready or not, there was no way Rogers was going to stop driving Bucky crazy until he knew what was wrong. Then the explosions would start.
Until then, Tony had other things to worry about. Resignedly, he stepped off the elevator onto the team’s common floor and began looking for his quarry. He usually avoided this place like the plague. As far as he was concerned, the less time he had to spend with his teammates, the better. Hope had asked him for a favor, though, so here he was.
It would have been nice if Tony had been able to catch Lang alone. Lang by himself wasn’t so bad. Being unceremoniously dragged into a conflict he didn’t understand and then exiled for a few years had apparently rubbed some of the shine off his Captain America hero worship. Receiving a tongue-lashing from a furious Hope van Dyne upon his return hadn’t hurt, either. Left to themselves, Lang and Tony could carry on a civil conversation.
The rest of the team, not so much. Romanoff and Wilson ignored him when possible, and spoke to him with contempt when it wasn’t. Barton and Maximoff despised him and had no qualms about saying it to his face. Rogers ran hot and cold, talking about respect and team unity one minute then ignoring the team belittling and ostracizing Tony the next. Tony’s only consolation was knowing he wasn’t the only one who hated keeping up the charade of friendly camaraderie in public.
Of course, because Tony’s luck was just that bad, everyone but Rogers and Bucky were present in the large TV room he found Lang in.
Barton was the first to spot him. “Just turn around and run back to your precious Accords Committee, Stark. No one here is interested in getting their ass kissed by you,” he called with a smirk.
Tony rolled his eyes, “Wow, Barton, that almost hurt my feelings.”
Catching Lang’s eye, Tony waved the oddly shaped package in his hand. “Delivery for you from a Cassandra Lang via Hope van Dyne.”
Lang’s eyes lit up and he bounded over to Tony like an overexcited golden retriever. Tony handed him the wrapped bundle quickly before he could be run over. “Cassie!” Lang said joyously, petting the package and smiling. “She said she made me something in class. Will you thank Hope for me, Mr. Stark?” he asked, looking up from the package only briefly.
“Sure thing,” Tony agreed, already turning on his heel to leave.
Behind him Wanda called out, “The great Tony Stark, reduced to errand boy.”
“Just making myself useful, Maximoff. You should try it,” Tony replied.
Tony had almost made his getaway when suddenly the door to the TV room flew open and embedded itself into the wall. Striding into the room, fury etched on his face, Rogers snarled when he caught sight of Tony. He grabbed Tony by the front of his shirt and slammed him into the wall, Tony’s head colliding painfully. Tony tried to activate his gauntlet, but Rogers was too fast, grabbing Tony’s wrist and squeezing it with enough force that Tony could feel the bones grinding together. It was all Tony could do to bite back a scream. He could see their teammates behind Rogers, out of their seats, but no one moved to intervene.
“I knew you were a petty man, Stark,” Rogers growled, pushing Tony harder into the wall, “but to do this to Bucky … this is a new low, even for you.”
Sam stepped forward, voice placating, “Steve, calm down, man. Tell us what he did.”
“He told me the truth when I asked him to,” Bucky said from where he had appeared in the doorway. “Put him down, Steve. Now.” Bucky’s voice was hard and dangerous. It was the closest he had sounded to the Winter Soldier since Loki’s spell, but Tony knew it was all Bucky.
Rogers turned his head towards Bucky, but did not let go of Tony. “Bucky, no! Those things were done by the Winter Soldier. He had no right. It wasn’t you.”
Bucky laughed derisively. “Those things were murders, you ass. Done by my own hands. It was me. I deserved to know and you should have told me. Now let. Him. Go.”
Rogers’ tone turned soft, pleading. “I don’t know what he told you, Bucky, but it was HYDRA. It wasn’t you.” When Bucky remained unmoved, Rogers’ turned angry again. “Did he tell you he tried to kill you? He knew it wasn’t you, but he didn’t care. I had to …”
Suddenly Rogers was on the floor holding his nose, blood streaming from beneath his hand, Bucky standing above him like a vengeful god. Tony slid to the floor and cradled his wrist. He felt dazed. Maybe he’d hit his head on the wall harder than he’d realized.
“He’d just found out I killed his parents, killed Howard, killed his mother,” Bucky said in a low, deadly voice. There were gasps from the others, but Bucky ignored them. “Do not lie to me, Steven Grant Rogers, and tell me you wouldn’t have done the same thing if someone had laid a hand on your mother. And then you left him, we left him, hurt and stranded, in fucking Siberia, in a HYDRA base. That wasn’t the Winter Soldier, that was me.”
Bucky backed away from Rogers. “You’re not the little guy I knew from Brooklyn, not anymore. I may not remember being the Winter Soldier, but if you or anyone else on your team so much as touches Tony, I’ll make you wish it was the Winter Soldier you were dealing with. Understood?” Bucky sent a final glare at Rogers and the others, then turned to kneel in front of Tony.
Bucky held his arms out to Tony, but didn’t touch him. “Tony, hey,” he said gently, “Let’s get you out of here. Is it okay if I help you up?” Tony blinked for a few moments, looking at Bucky’s concerned face, then nodded when the question finally registered. Bucky frowned at the delay, but reached out and carefully helped Tony to his feet. Tony stumbled slightly before Bucky steadied him with a hand on his elbow and led him out of the room and to the elevator. Just before the elevator door closed, Tony could hear raised voices behind him.
“FRIDAY? Are you there?” Bucky asked as the elevator began to move. He let go of Tony’s elbow and slipped his arm around Tony’s shoulders.
“Yes, Sergeant Barnes,” came the quick replay. Tony flinched at the worry in her tone. His poor girl.
“Can you tell if Tony’s alright? I think he may need a doctor.” Tony opened his mouth to argue, ignoring Bucky’s stern look, but FRIDAY answered before he could.
“I agree, Sergeant. Boss’s vitals are within acceptable limits, but I cannot determine the extent of his head injury or damage to his wrist without further scans. I can notifiy Colonel Rhodes of the situation and he can send a team to retrieve Mr. Stark and bring him to the Avengers Compound for medical treatment.”
“What?” yelped Tony, then cringed when his head protested. More quietly, he said, “No, no. Don’t call Rhodey. Do not call Rhodey.”
Both FRIDAY and Bucky tried to protest, but Tony just talked over them.
“If we call Rhodey, then he’ll have to report Rogers to the Accords Committee for assaulting a subordinate.”
“I really don’t see the problem,” FRIDAY responded tartly.
Bucky looked unhappy, but nodded in agreement. “You need a doctor, Tony. Steve shouldn’t have done that to anyone, much less a teammate. That would never have flown in the Howlies. He’ll just have to take his lumps like everyone else,” he told him.
Tony tried to roll his eyes, but that just made the pain in his head spike. He settled for squinting at Bucky instead. “Listen, that shit is public record. If it gets out that Rogers and I are fighting to the point someone was sent to medical, all the crap I’ve put up with for months will be for nothing. The Committee and I got those pardons through by the skin of our teeth. There are plenty of people who would like nothing more than to see all of you in prison, and plenty more who want this team disbanded and to leave superheroing to the New Avengers and other established Accords teams. Can you imagine how Rogers would react to that?”
Tony rubbed his forehead. “If Rogers and the others decide to give the middle finger to the Accords again and strike out on their own, there are going to be a lot more people involved this time. I’d like to think everyone on the other teams would stay loyal to the Accords, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The whole Captain America thing seems to override a lot of people’s common sense. There really would be a war then, not just the backyard brawl it was three years ago.”
There was silence until the elevator came to a stop. Bucky helped an unstable Tony into his workshop and onto the couch Tony kept in the corner. It was lopsided and grease-stained, but it was Tony’s favorite piece of furniture. FRIDAY secured the workshop behind them and DUM-E and the other bots rushed over to check on Tony.
“Easy, boys,” FRIDAY said when the bots got close, “Pops has had a rough day of it.” The bots beeped worriedly, inspecting Tony with their cameras, then zoomed off in several directions as DUM-E started the blender, U retrieved an ice pack, and Butterfingers located a blanket.
Bucky gave Tony a look. “They have to do this a lot?” he asked. Tony shrugged as the bots each brought him their contribution. It appeared to be Bucky’s turn to roll his eyes.
Taking a seat next to Tony, Bucky regarded him worriedly. “I understand why you don’t want to let Colonel Rhodes know, Tony, but you’ve still got a lump on your head and your wrist is swelling,” he said as he took the blanket from Tony, unfolded it, and wrapped it around Tony’s shoulders. The move took Tony by surprise. He wasn’t sure when the last time there had been anyone but FRIDAY and the bots to take care of him when he was injured.
In the face of Bucky’s obvious concern, Tony relented. “Listen, FRIDAY can scan my wrist to make sure there’s no serious damage, then you can wrap it. FRIDAY will be monitoring me the whole time. If I get worse, I will call Rhodey.”
Bucky considered for a moment, then nodded. “Alright.”
It was a matter of minutes before his wrist was scanned, wrapped, and the ice pack applied. Bucky stood awkwardly after helping Tony back to the couch. When he looked at the door of the workshop with apprehension, Tony realized Bucky probably wasn’t any more eager than he was to face Rogers and the others anytime soon.
“You want to watch a movie or something?” Tony asked, waving Bucky to take a seat. “I don’t think I’m going to get any work done tonight.”
Bucky sat and smiled at Tony with relief. “That’d be great, Tony.”
Bucky turned out to be a Humphrey Bogart fan, so they settled in to watch The Maltese Falcon, which Bucky remembered seeing, and then The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Big Sleep, both of which had come out after the war. Somewhere in there they made a trip to the penthouse to forage for dinner. It was honestly the most fun Tony’d had in a while. Tony realized he’d fallen asleep during the last movie, his head on Bucky’s shoulder, only when Bucky tried to rouse him.
“I’m up, I’m up,” Tony mumbled drowsily, rubbing his eyes.
“Sure, you are, sleepyhead,” Bucky teased, smiling. He stood, allowing Tony to stretch out on the couch. “I guess I should head back,” he said unhappily, “Steve’s probably waiting for me.”
“Ugh,” Tony commiserated. He thought for a moment, then turned his head to look at Bucky. “You’re sharing with Rogers?” Tony asked. At Bucky’s nod, he continued, “The top twelve floors of the Tower are all residential. I think there’s at least one no one’s claimed yet. Is that right, FRIDAY?”
“Yes, Boss. The one just below the penthouse is still open. There are clean linens in each room, and I can have the kitchen stocked tomorrow.” The A.I. sounded pleased. Tony wondered why. He’d worry about it later, though. His head and wrist hurt, and he was quickly falling back asleep.
“You don’t need to do that, Tony. And I need to face Steve at some point.” Bucky sounded hesitant, but slightly hopeful, too.
“Fuck Rogers. He can wait until tomorrow,” Tony grumped, closing his eyes. He yawned and settled deeper into the cushions. “I like you. Should have your own place. FRIDAY’ll show you.”
Bucky chuckled and clasped Tony’s shoulder briefly. “Okay, Tony. Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow. Sleep well.”
Tony murmured an assent, vaguely registering FRIDAY bidding Bucky her own farewell. He was asleep moments later.
The morning after Rogers slammed Tony into a wall found Tony sore and irritable and redesigning the gauntlet so Rogers’ trick wouldn’t work a second time. Bucky came to check on him in his workshop, which Tony appreciated, then, because he was conscientious that way, left immediately to face a hopefully calmer Rogers. The conversation must not have gone well because Bucky returned not an hour later, fuming. Tony took one look at him, declared them both in need of a distraction, and had them dressed in jeans and hoodies and out the service entrance of the Tower in record time. They walked the couple of blocks to Bryant Park and then spent the morning pretending they had nothing better to do than sit on a bench and enjoy the crisp autumn day.
Otherwise, the next few weeks were tense for everyone involved. Tony’s relationship with Rogers was at an all-time low, obviously. Rogers considered Tony’s actions callous and cruel and accused Tony of taking advantage of Bucky’s confusion. When Tony reminded him that Bucky was a grown-ass man who could make his own decisions, Rogers just glowered and told Tony to stay away from Bucky. He sounded so much like an irate father from a teen romance, Tony could only stare incredulously.
Things didn’t seem to be going well between Bucky and Rogers either, which Tony was sorry for on Bucky’s behalf. They had been friends since childhood, and everyone knew the lengths they had gone to for each other. Being at odds with Rogers was obviously tearing Bucky up. Tony gave him credit, though. Rogers seemed to have built up in his head some idealized version of the Bucky he remembered, expecting Bucky to act a certain way, but the real Bucky was not interested in following the script. The dichotomy had thrown Rogers for a loop, and he didn’t seem to be handling it well.
There appeared to be some weird tension going on between the other team members as well. After the last debacle, Tony had scrupulously avoided interacting with the team outside of missions and debriefings. Even on official Avengers business, though, it was obvious some split had occurred with Romanoff and Wilson on one side and Barton and Maximoff on the other. Tony had no idea what had happened, and frankly wouldn’t have cared except both sides seemed intent at drawing him into the middle of it. Romanoff and Wilson had, suspiciously, begun treating Tony like an actual member of the team, asking his opinion during debriefings and listening to his suggestions on the field. That in turn seemed to goad the other two on to ever more hateful comments to Tony. Whatever was going on, Tony wished they’d leave him out of it.
In the midst of that powder keg of a situation, Bucky began visiting Tony in the workshop late at night when neither of them could sleep. At first, they just shared space in silence on those nights, Tony working on one of a thousand projects while Bucky read quietly from a StarkPad, each trying to keep their nightmares at bay. Tony was never very good at keeping quiet, though, and soon began to talk to break the stillness. Inconsequential things at first, a humorous story here, a favorite movie quote there. When Bucky responded in kind, without judgement, Tony shared more. Before he quite knew how, he found himself telling Bucky about Afghanistan and Yinsen, about palladium and Extremis and wormholes, about Ultron. In turn, Bucky told him about how scared he had been when he was drafted, about what he had seen and friends he had lost in the war, about Azzano and the horror that followed.
One night, after Bucky mentioned he had thought of becoming a mechanic after the war, Tony asked if Bucky wouldn’t like a project of his own to work on. A couple of days later, Tony wheeled a rough looking 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA military motorcycle into the workshop. As Bucky ran an appreciative hand over the bike, Tony listed all the work that needed to be done to get it running.
“I know it sounds like a lot,” Tony said, trying to mask his nervousness at how the gift would be received, “It’s had a rough life, but it’s still got a good heart. Bit of love and care and it won’t let you down.”
Bucky gave the bike a final pat and then regarded Tony with more warmth than he thought a beaten old bike deserved. “Applies to more than just the motorcycle, I think,” Bucky said after a moment.
“What?” Tony asked, confused.
Bucky shook his head, grinning. “Nothing, Tony. You just took the words right out of my mouth. Thank you, I’ll take good care of it,” Bucky assured him. Tony thought he might have missed something, but brushed it off at Bucky’s obvious excitement to get started.
At Bucky’s request, Tony contacted Stephen Strange again. With the help of Christine Palmer, they arranged a time to have the CT scan done at Metro-General at a time when the Radiology Department was normally closed. The CT scanner and associated equipment were intimidating, and Bucky looked ready to bolt before they even started, but Tony and the others talked him through the process and helped keep him calm while the technician attempted to complete the scan. After three attempts, the technician finally called a halt to the procedure.
“There was some sort of interference that disrupted the CT scan,” Christine explained later. “And due to James Barnes’ prosthetic, an MRI is out of the question.”
“That doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything from the attempt,” added Stephen. “If we assume the presence of magic is causing the interference, the high level of interference indicates an active spell rather than the remnants of one. It is likely the memories are still present, but are being repressed.”
“How long will it last?” Bucky asked with concern.
“As the spell caster, that depends on Loki,” Stephen answered regretfully. “If a spell caster wishes it, a well-executed spell could last for millennia, or it could be undone in a moment.” No one looked pleased at that assessment.
“God damn magic,” Tony muttered. Stephen just shrugged philosophically.
“Holy shit,” Tony heard over the com as he buzzed the head of one of the ‘dinosaurs’ below, trying to keep them distracted while the rest of the team landed in the quinjet nearby.
“I warned you,” Tony replied. He swept around the group of five large, bipedal creatures in a loose arc, working to contain the animals without startling them. Luckily this portal hadn’t opened in the middle of New York City like Reed’s were want to do, but there was still a decent-sized town not far away.
“Holy shit,” Bucky said again, voice filled with awe. Tony smiled behind his faceplate. Since Loki’s spell, his favorite missions had become the ones where Bucky joined them. He was cool and competent, surely, and a crack shot, but he wasn’t as jaded as the rest of them to the insanity that was their lives. Bucky’s reaction to meeting Ben Grimm had been hilarious.
“You wanted to fight dinosaurs on a deserted island. Granted, we’re in a corn field in Iowa, but there are five Tyrannosaurus Rex look-alikes from another dimension. That should count.” Tony made another low pass over the beasts when the sound of the quinjet touching down drew their attention. They immediately returned their focus on him, their giant jaws snapping only a few feet below him. He felt like he was taunting the world’s most dangerous cats.
“Chatter,” barked Rogers. Tony could hear the quinjet engines shut off over the com and the sound of movement as the rest of the team gathered their gear and exited the plane. “Dr. Reed said the portal those students opened would close on its own within the hour. Our best bet is to herd the animals back through the portal before that happens.”
“How are we going to herd five T-rex’s? Those things must weigh over ten tons a piece!” Barton exclaimed.
“Actually, I think they’re Giganotosaurs,” mused Bucky. “They were larger than the Tyrannosaurus Rex, could run over 30 miles per hour, and would hunt in packs. That must be why they all came through together. We should record everything so scientists can study the footage.” There was silence for a few moments before Tony heard an irritated Bucky ask, “What?”
Tony just grinned wider. He was going to give the American Museum of Natural History such a big donation after this. That had been another excursion with Bucky when the Tower became too stifling. Bucky hadn’t left the Fossil Halls for hours.
“Iron Man, you have them pretty entertained,” Wilson pointed out. “Could you lead them closer to the portal? We could surround them from behind while they’re paying attention to you, then throw everything we’ve got at them to scare them back through the portal.”
“I could do that,” Tony agreed.
“Okay, we have a plan. Iron Man, once we’re in position start leading the animals to the portal. After we’ve forced them through, Scarlet Witch, I need you to use your powers to place a field around the portal so nothing else comes out,” Rogers commanded.
“Yes, Captain,” replied Maximoff.
A few minutes later everyone was ready and Tony began to taunt the supposed Giganotosaurs in earnest. Slowly, the giant creatures were goaded to follow him closer and closer to the portal. Everything seemed to be going to plan until one of the huge beasts abruptly swung around to face Maximoff’s position where she and Wilson were approaching the pack’s left flank. Tony realized that her magic must have caught its attention when the red of Maximoff’s powers flickered again and the large carnivore was suddenly racing towards her at full speed with a roar so loud Tony could feel it in the armor.
“Falcon, get Scarlet Witch in the air!” yelled Rogers. “Everyone else, fire! Get the animals through the portal!” Just in time, Wilson grabbed Maximoff and launched them out of reach of the irate beast that had charged her. The rest of the team were able to force three of the Giganotosaurs through the portal, but a fourth veered off to join its packmate in chasing after Wilson and Maximoff. When the two creatures realized the fliers were now out of their reach, they wheeled around towards the next closest members of the team, Rogers and Bucky.
“Shit,” breathed Tony, before speeding to put himself between the two men and the last of the pack. He landed a few dozen feet in front of his teammates and used his repulsors to turn the enraged animals aside. It didn’t do much damage through the thick skin of the Giganotosaurs, unfortunately, but he certainly had their attention. The two beasts began to circle him, snarling, and Tony had to turn to keep a repulsor pointed at each animal.
Suddenly, a familiar whine sounded by his ear and with a clang Rogers’ shield struck the head of one of the Giganotosaurs. The great beast stumbled, but Tony didn’t see it. In that moment, all he could see was that same shield raised above his own head and the certainty he was going to die by Rogers’ hand. Tony was frozen by the image for only an instant, but it was long enough for him to be struck by a massive tail and sent sprawling almost twenty feet from where he’d been standing.
It took long seconds before Tony could get air back into his lungs. As soon as he was able, he got to his knees only to see the two beasts bearing down on him. Tony only just had time to get his feet under him and propel himself into the air when the two animals converged on the spot where he had just been.
“Iron Man, are you okay?” Tony heard Bucky yell through the coms.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said breathlessly as the two remaining Giganotosaurs paced agitatedly below him.
“Everyone else?” asked Rogers. Tony heard affirmatives from the rest of the team.
“Now what?” Tony heard Barton demand. “We still have two of those fuckers left, and the portal is starting to close.” Tony looked up and cursed when he saw that Barton was right. The portal was noticeably smaller than it had been before.
“Alright,” Tony announced, “Round Two.”
“What? There’s no time to get everyone in position!” Rogers shouted.
“Just stay out of the way. I’m coming in hot.” Tony sent a couple more repulsor blasts at the two beasts to make sure he had their attention, then dove in between the two and started racing towards the portal. He flew low to the ground and zigzagged in front of the creatures, staying just beyond their reach as they chased him. Just before he hit the quickly shrinking portal, Tony banked hard to the right. The Giganotosaurs, unable to change direction fast enough, stumbled through the portal. Maximoff created a field around the closing portal, and the team waited anxiously until it had disappeared completely.
Once Maximoff released the field, Tony sagged in relief in the armor. That had been a little closer than he liked. Bucky seemed to think so as well if the expression on his face was anything to go by when he looked in Tony’s direction.
Tony opened the faceplate to give Bucky a reassuring smile, then sighed when he saw Rogers marching towards him, a severe expression on his face. Tony nearly groaned at repeating this song and dance again.
“What the hell was that, Iron Man?” Rogers demanded as he came to a stop in front of the armor.
“What the hell was what, Captain?” Tony asked wearily. “There wasn’t time to get everyone back into position. You said it yourself. We needed to get the last two creatures through the portal before it closed and there wasn’t time for anything else. It worked, didn’t it?”
Rogers gestured emphatically to where the portal had been. “It wouldn’t have been necessary if you’d done your part correctly the first time! Scarlet Witch could have died if Falcon hadn’t gotten to her in time. You were supposed to keep the animals occupied!”
“I tried!” Tony exclaimed, frustrated. “Scarlet’s magic set one of them off for some reason.”
“Don’t try to blame her for your fuck up,” Barton sneered.
Tony spread his arms in exasperation. “I’m not blaming anyone. It just happened. If we ever find ourselves dealing with giant carnivores from the late Cretaceous period again, we’ll know better!”
“Everyone, calm down,” said Wilson. “I saw it too. The T-Rex thing was after Scarlet Witch as soon as she started using her powers. Nobody’s at fault.”
“Not to mention we’d both be dinosaur chow if Iron Man hadn’t helped us,” a displeased Bucky threw in, pushing himself between Tony and Rogers. “Back off, Captain.”
A look of hurt betrayal crossed Rogers’ face. Tony wished he felt some satisfaction at the man’s plight, but all Tony felt was sad. Rogers had turned his back on so many people to save a piece of his past, and now, no matter how tight he tried to hold on, it was slipping through his fingers.
After a moment, Rogers clenched his jaw and turned away. “Wheels up in five,” he shouted as he strode angrily towards the quinjet. The rest were quick to follow, leaving Tony and Bucky alone in the field. Bucky closed his eyes and sighed. Tony wished he could say something to help, but that had never been his strong suit. He fell back on distraction, instead.
“When we get back to the Tower, I am ordering buckets of fried alligator from that Louisiana Creole place a few blocks over,” he declared.
Bucky snorted and gave Tony a grateful look. “Revenge on their cousins for trying to eat you?”
Tony nodded. “Damn straight, Frosty. Also, we’re watching Primeval when we get home. No, wait, the end of season two is super depressing. We’ll watch Jurassic Park, instead. You’ll love it.”
“Yeah, okay,” Bucky agreed, amused. He glanced back at the quinjet, and some of his good humor faded. “I better catch up with the others. Cap is angry enough he might just leave without me.”
Tony frowned. “He would never leave you,” Tony insisted. No matter what Tony may think of Rogers, that was one thing he was sure of.
“Sometimes it feels like he already has,” Bucky said quietly. He shrugged, then began jogging towards the quinjet. Tony watched until Bucky boarded and the team took off, then lowered his faceplate and made his own way home. Bucky’s parting remarks ran through his head the entire trip.
Still unnerved for no reason Tony could identify when he landed, Tony distractedly told FRIDAY to make their food order as the robot arms removed the armor. Walking into the penthouse, he frowned at the darkening bruises on his arms and lifted his shirt to check the damage to his torso. He wasn’t worried about breaks or internal damage, FRIDAY would have told him if the armor had detected any, but he scowled when he saw the interesting shades his chest and stomach were already turning. He was going to be one unhappy camper tomorrow morning.
He jumped when he heard a gasp behind him.
“Jesus, Tony,” hissed Bucky from the doorway, “you look like you went a few rounds with Jack Dempsey.” He approached slowly, looking at the extensive bruising with concern. “You sure you’re okay?” Bucky asked, raising a hand to hover over Tony’s damaged side.
Unaccountably embarrassed, Tony quickly lowered his shirt and shrugged. “I have no idea who that is,” he admitted, “FRIDAY assured me I’ll live to fight another day, though.” Tony tried to add some levity to his tone, but Bucky only seemed more upset.
“You almost didn’t, Tony,” Bucky whispered, pained. “You put yourself between those creatures and us, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so brave, but then you were hit. You came down so hard and didn’t get up, I thought …” Bucky stopped, unable to finish.
“Hey, hey,” said Tony, stepping further into Bucky’s space. “Look at me. I’m fine, everyone’s fine. No need to worry.” He reached up and rubbed Bucky’s shoulder, trying to soothe the clearly upset man.
Bucky swallowed and nodded, closing his eyes briefly. When he opened them, looking determined now, Bucky gently took Tony’s hand in both of his. Tony shivered when Bucky lightly stroked the inside of his wrist.
“I’m going to do something now I’ve wanted to do for a while,” Bucky said quietly. “Please don’t punch me.”
Tony blinked at the request. “Bucky? What …?”
Before he could finish, Bucky leaned forward and gently pressed his lips to Tony’s. It was only for a moment, but Tony felt his heart suddenly beat wildly as Bucky broke the kiss and leaned back.
“Oh,” breathed Tony, staring at Bucky with wide-eyed surprise. It took a little while for Tony to process the fact that Bucky had just kissed him. Holy shit. Bucky was looking nervous, and Tony realized he was waiting for Tony to respond one way or another.
“Wow, okay. I need you to do that again, right now,” Tony declared. Bucky laughed, looking relieved and happy, and moved in for another gentle kiss. They stood like that, alternately kissing and smiling at each other like loons, until FRIDAY reluctantly interrupted them.
“Uh, sorry, Boss, Sergeant Barnes. Your food’s arrived.”
Tony sighed, leaning his head against Bucky’s shoulder. “Right, right. Buckets of alligator. Damn it.”
Bucky just chuckled and kissed his cheek. “Come on, Doll. I think I was promised dinner and a movie?” he asked, running one hand down Tony’s back, while still holding Tony’s hand in the other.
Tony studied their joined hands, something warm filling his chest, and lifted them to kiss the back of Bucky’s hand. He loved how Bucky’s cheeks turned pink at the gesture. “Yeah, Buttercup. Sounds like a date,” he said with a grin.
The next few weeks were filled with a sweet, simple happiness Tony hadn’t felt in years. Not much changed, Tony still worked all hours in his workshop, Bucky often joining him to read or work on the motorcycle. Now, though, there were cheek kisses and handholding while watching TV, hugs and warm smiles. It was all ridiculously sappy and Tony loved it.
Tony smiled to himself as he manipulated the hologram of the new Spiderman suit. It was early afternoon and he’d already had a productive day. He and Bucky could totally play hooky. Maybe they could go to the Rose Center to see the planetarium; they’d watched an episode of How the Universe Works the other day and Bucky had been entranced.
He glanced towards where Bucky was working on his motorcycle, only to find Bucky watching him with a smirk. Incredibly, Tony felt himself blush at being caught.
“Something on your mind, Tony?” Bucky asked, eyes alight with mischief and something more. He stood from the crouch he’d been in and began stalking towards Tony.
Tony had to clear his throat before he could speak. He and Bucky hadn’t progressed further than middle-school age appropriate signs of affection. If the look in Bucky’s eyes was anything to go by, that might be changing very quickly.
“Just thinking I might be finished for today,” Tony said, trying to be smooth and probably missing by a mile. “What do you think?”
Bucky hummed when he stopped in front of Tony, gently pulling him off his stool and placing his hands on Tony’s hips. “I think that sounds like a swell idea, Doll,” he murmured before pulling Tony in for a kiss. Tony sighed happily, angling his head to deepen the kiss and winding his arms around Bucky’s back. Tony moaned when Bucky snuck his hands under Tony’s shirt, fingers dipping tantalizingly below the waistband of his jeans.
They broke the kiss eventually, both of them breathing heavily, and Tony took the opportunity to leave a trail of kisses up Bucky’s neck. Bucky let out a quiet, “Oh, fuck,” when Tony gave his earlobe a gentle nip. Tony let his own hands wander and things were definitely getting interesting.
Which was when the alarm to assemble sounded.
“Son of a bitch,” Tony groaned as they extricated themselves from each other. “What’s going on, FRIDAY?”
“Sorry, Boss,” FRIDAY said, amusement in her voice, “but there are reports of Loki being spotted in Central Park again.” Both Bucky and Tony tensed at the mention of Loki. This was the first appearance the alien had made since affecting Bucky’s memories.
“Am I being called out with the team?” Bucky asked, sounding torn. Tony didn’t blame him. Bucky hated it when the team was dispatched without him, but Loki was unnerving even under normal circumstances. Knowing he had blocked decades worth of your most painful memories on a whim was pretty alarming.
FRIDAY paused for a moment, before responding. “Not at this time. Loki has yet to make any aggressive advances. You will be contacted if your presence is deemed necessary.” Bucky looked unhappy but resigned to the situation.
Tony gave him a peck on the cheek before moving towards his most recent armor. “We’ll be back before you know it. FRIDAY can bring up the team audio and visual feeds so you’ll know what’s going on. Right, my girl?”
“Sure thing,” she said, and a holographic display showing the requested data sprung to life nearby.
“Stay safe, Tony,” Bucky called out as the armor swiftly took form around Tony.
Tony gave him a cocky grin just before the faceplate came down. “Always, Snowflake.” He was in the air, keeping pace beside the quinjet, moments later.
The team arrived at an evacuated Central Park to find Loki, in full battle armor, sitting near the Bethesda Fountain and eating a gelato with apparent relish. Tony wondered briefly if the self-proclaimed god had finally snapped completely. Cautiously, the team surrounded Loki’s position, but he continued to ignore them until Rogers stepped forward.
“Loki! You are under arrest for crimes against Earth! We are here to take you into custody!” shouted Rogers.
Loki only sighed dramatically and vanished the remains of his dessert, then leaned back on his bench to look insolently at Rogers. “Really, Captain. Don’t you get tired of being so self-righteous all the time? And on such a lovely day, too.”
Rogers clenched his jaw in irritation. “Do you intend to resist arrest, Loki?”
“If we must,” Loki replied, rolling his eyes. “Man of Iron first, I should think. I can’t have you spoiling my plans today.”
With a flick of his wrist, something small flew towards Tony and stuck to the chest of the armor. He was surrounded by Loki’s telltale green energy for a moment, then all power to the armor was cut off.
“Damn it,” Tony growled. He had been working with Stephen Strange to make the armor hardened against magic, but Loki must have had a new trick up his sleeve. The armor was completely immobile and, with even the coms disabled, he was deaf and blind to what was going on outside. Quickly he activated the releases that would open even an unpowered suit, an addition since Siberia, and pushed himself into the open.
Around him was chaos. The rest of the team were fighting a dozen or more of Loki’s clones. One noticed Tony was free and made to stab him with a long knife, but disappeared when Tony repulsored it with his watch gauntlet. Tony hated it when Loki brought out the clones; they were each almost as dangerous as the real thing, and kept popping up until the real Loki was hit hard enough to break his concentration. It was like a demonic game of whack-a-mole.
Finally, Rogers got a lucky shot in with his shield that hit the real Loki, causing all the clones to vanish. Sprawled on the pavement, Loki grinned defiantly up at the approaching team until Rogers roughly pulled him up and fastened a pair of Asgardian shackles onto his wrists that would nullify his powers.
“Captain! How boorish. Is this any way to show your appreciation for the favor I did for you?” Loki asked in feigned outrage, “I was even going to offer to make my work permanent.” When Rogers’ only response was to drag Loki roughly towards the quinjet, Loki’s smile turned sly. “Or perhaps it isn’t quite what you imagined? Old friends can be so troublesome sometimes. It’s as if they aren’t the same people we remember at all.”
Rogers stiffened and rounded on a smirking Loki. “Not the same … what did you do to Bucky?!” Rogers demanded.
Loki looked at him with exaggerated innocence. “Why, Captain, do you not take me for a man of my word? I did just as I said I would, I restored the mind of your dear friend. He is as he was. Surely you can tell.”
“No, you’re lying,” Rogers said with growing conviction. “I should have known, Bucky would never act this way if he was in his right mind. Whatever you’ve done, undo it.”
Tony felt his blood turn to ice. “The hell. Rogers, are you insane?” Tony asked incredulously. “You want Loki to unleash seventy years of brainwashing and torture in your best friend’s brain?” He started to move to intercept Rogers, to do something to stop this, when he found himself held fast by tendrils of red magic.
“Don’t pretend that you care, Stark,” Maximoff scoffed, her power flickering around her upraised hand. “Loki will remove his spell, and Bucky will remember and want nothing to do with you, just like the rest of us.”
“Oh, but you’ve caught me,” Loki mocked, holding up his shackled hands. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Rogers looked torn for a moment, before resolve filled his face. “We’ll do this at the Tower where we can hold you.”
“Captain …,” Wilson began, sounding uncertain.
Loki laughed. “Truly? You wish me to remove my spell?”
“I want you to reverse whatever you’ve done to Bucky to make him act this way,” Rogers said with a glare.
“Ah, Captain,” Loki replied, his grin turning sharp and triumphant, “you do not realize what your choice will cost you.”
Suddenly Loki disappeared, the shackles falling to the pavement with a metallic clang.
“Shit,” said Barton. “It was one of his clones. He tricked us.”
Tony fell to his knees when Maximoff abruptly released him. With a sickening sense of déjà vu, he watched Rogers lead the team to the quinjet at a run and then take to the air, leaving him behind.
It took precious minutes for Tony to pry Loki’s device off the armor, and several more for critical systems to power up. The armor hadn’t even connected to FRIDAY by the time he was in the air. It was a dangerous, stupid move, but all Tony could think of was getting to Bucky.
Central Park being so close, it took only minutes for Tony to reach the Tower. His heart fell when he found the workshop empty. “FRIDAY, where’s Bucky?” he called.
“Boss, I’m so sorry,” FRIDAY said, upset. “Something happened when Loki’s clone disappeared. I asked Bucky if he was okay, but he wouldn’t answer me. He just … he left the Tower. There was a confrontation when Rogers tried to stop him. I don’t know where Bucky went, I can’t find him on a camera anywhere. He’s just gone. Boss, I’m sorry.”
Tony sank onto a stool, overwhelmed. “It’s okay,” he said after a few shaky breaths. “It’s okay, FRIDAY. He’ll be fine. It will all be fine.” Tony wasn’t sure if he was trying to reassure FRIDAY or himself, but he was probably doing a bad job on both accounts.
Tony was living in a haze of grief and worry. It was as if Bucky had vanished into thin air. No one had heard from him, and despite hacking every camera in New York, FRIDAY couldn’t find any trace of him after he’d left the Tower. Tony kept telling himself that Bucky was more than capable of taking care of himself, he was a trained assassin and supersoldier for crying out loud, but Tony’s mind just kept coming up with ever more frightening scenarios.
He was in a meeting with Pepper when he finally heard something about Bucky. Pepper glared at him when his phone started blaring a ringtone at top volume, but Tony knew FRIDAY wouldn’t have let it ring unless it was an emergency. He scrambled to get the phone out of his suit pocket and felt adrenaline rush through his system when he saw FRIDAY’s message.
BOSS, SERGEANT BARNES IS IN THE WORKSHOP
“Shit, it’s Bucky,” he told Pepper, already out of his chair.
Pepper’s eyes widened. “Go, go. We can finish later.”
Tony sent her a grateful smile even as he rushed out of the office. He made it to the workshop door at breakneck speed, but paused before going in.
“How’s he doing, FRIDAY?” he asked, still catching his breath.
“Not great, Boss,” came her worried reply.
Tony nodded, then walked cautiously into the workshop. He sighed with relief when he caught sight of the Bucky sitting at one of the workbenches. He looked rough, shoulders bowed and arms wrapped tightly around himself, but he was alive and healthy. Tony would take that small miracle and be grateful for it.
Gingerly, Tony took the seat across the workbench from Bucky, studying his face. All the humor and mischief, the joy Tony had come to associate with Bucky, was gone. The man in front of him looked haunted and lost, broken in ways Tony couldn’t even imagine. He continued to stare straight ahead, ignoring Tony.
“Bucky?” Tony asked quietly. For several minutes there was no answer, only silence.
Finally, without looking at Tony, he whispered, “I remember … I remember everything. Every murder. I see them, hear them, every time I try to sleep.”
“Bucky, I’m so sorry,” Tony said, knowing it was inadequate.
“I can’t believe Stevie …,” Bucky stopped, as if he couldn’t even bring himself to give voice to what had happened. “He just … I don’t understand.” Bucky gave a watery laugh, looking at Tony with heartbroken eyes. “I’m HYDRA’s monster again, Tony. I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Bucky, you’re not a monster,” Tony said, leaning forward. “You’re not. If you were a monster, you wouldn’t care.”
Bucky shook his head. “When I’m the Winter Soldier, I don’t care, and I could be that thing again at any moment. I can feel the triggers in my mind, waiting for the moment the words are said.”
“Bucky, we’ll figure it out,” Tony offered before a thought occurred to him. It took a moment before he could make himself continue. “I mean, if you want my help. You didn’t … I know you didn’t like me before. Certainly didn’t trust me. The Accords Committee can find someone to help you …”
Tony stopped when Bucky shook his head slightly. He took a deep breath, then asked, “Tony, do you know why I couldn’t stand to be near you after we were pardoned?”
“I mean, I assumed it was because I tried to kill you? And whatever the others had told you about me,” Tony answered uncertainly. “I’m sure they had plenty to say on the subject.”
“They did have a lot to say,” Bucky agreed with a half smile that soon faded, “although I don’t think what they told me had the effect our teammates intended. No, it was because you escaped where I never did. The Ten Rings wanted you to build them weapons, and instead you build a fucking flying suit of armor and made yourself into a hero.” He gestured with his metal arm. “Look what I did, Tony. Look what I allowed HYDRA to turn me into. I couldn’t stand to be near you and be reminded that I should have been able to do something.”
Slowly, so Bucky could stop him if he wanted, Tony reached out and took Bucky’s metal hand in his own. “I was lucky, Bucky, and I had help. It wasn’t the same. The Ten Rings was child’s play compared to HYDRA. You fought, and you fought, until they made you forget why you were fighting. It wasn’t …”
“Don’t say it wasn’t me,” Bucky said angrily. “Steve is always saying that. Why does everyone say that? It was me.”
“It was you,” Tony agreed, “but it wasn’t your fault. They took away your agency, Bucky, your ability to choose.” Tony stretched across the workbench with his other hand cupped Bucky’s cheek. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Bucky closed his eyes, tears beginning to run down his face. That was the last straw for Tony, who rounded the workbench in moments and put his arms around Bucky. Bucky hugged him back, holding on for dear life, and cried into Tony’s shoulder. Tony just rubbed soothing circles on Bucky’s back, his own eyes shiny with tears. Eventually Bucky calmed and took a step back, but continued to hold Tony’s hand in his own.
“I’m not sure what to do next,” Bucky said, wiping his eyes with his other hand.
“I might have an idea about the trigger words, at least,” Tony said. “It’s your choice, and there are no guarantees, but it might help.” Tony looked away, guilty. “I thought of offering when you came to the Tower, but, well, I didn’t think Steve would allow it and I thought you hated my guts. I’m sorry, I should have given you the chance to decide anyway.”
“Tony, hey.” Bucky pulled gently on their joined hands until Tony looked back at him. “You didn’t owe me anything, Tony. You still don’t. But if you’re offering, I’m interested.”
Tony nodded, then brought their joined hands up and kissed the back of Bucky’s hand. “I’m offering, Bucky,” meaning more than just the technology.
Some of the light came back into Bucky’s eyes. “You sure, Tony?” he asked softly.
“I’m sure, Buttercup,” he said, and smiled when Bucky leaned in for a kiss.