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Winter's End

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“Friday, can we run that scenario one more time? I want to see how the additional shock absorption units interact with the current structure of the braces.”

“Will do, boss. Would you like me to run the necessary calculations to determine the delta in the overall integrity of the model?”

Tony tapped his finger against the cup of coffee in his hands. “Yes, let’s run simulations on all the stress factors, I wanna see how much damage these puppies can take.”

The previously paused classic rock music resumed after Friday’s affirmative response and Tony’s attention shifted back to the holographic simulation. He swiped away the projected outline of leg brace schematics and scrolled through several other project files. God, he had a ton of work on his plate. 

No rest for the wicked, right, Tony?

He spared one brief thought to each project as he skipped over it (reviewing the latest batch of Accords edits, troubleshooting the new reactor models that were introduced in Japan last month, some necessary tweaks to the defensive protocols of the Avengers Compound, and a Starkphone update that he was supposed to have finished for Pepper a week ago), but he finally settled on the file he wanted.

The schematic of the latest Iron Man suit bathed the lab and Tony in bright blue. After zooming in over the chest plate, Tony began to take the hologram apart piece by piece, effortlessly deconstructing the virtual suit. This particular upgrade wasn’t a priority by a long shot, but Tony’s own chest had begun hurting, waves of gnawing, aching pain. The hurt was partly physical (evidence of Tony’s long recovery), but mostly, it was phantom pain, like distant echoes reverberating through his chest, a taste of metal clashing against metal, and the only thing that dulled this particular ache was this - updating the suit designs, adding more protections, finding every potential weak spot and compensating for it. Structural reinforcements, back up arc reactors, insulators—

A sudden chill ran through his whole body, intertwining with the pain. The icy pins and needles forced a tremble into his hand, this time carrying with them a memory of frost-covered floors. He had to clench his fists against the table and close his eyes to hold himself together. 

Don’t think about the pain, don’t think about the damn cold, just focus on the suit. 

Logically, he knew this was his feeble attempt to cope with his experience in Siberia. The betrayal, the fight, the subsequent hours spent in a freezing bunker before rescue arrived. Just like after New York, he was using his suits to deal with the trauma - some irrational drive to make his suits invulnerable, because maybe then he could make himself invulnerable too. 

A childish thought, he was well aware, but at the end of the day, working on the suit did chase away the pain and the chill, so it was better than drowning himself in alcohol.

With renewed determination, Tony focused back on the schematics and got to work.

It was Friday’s tentative “Boss?” that brought him back to reality. Glancing at the clock in the bottom right corner of the holographic screen, Tony realized he spent over two uninterrupted hours on the suit. Huh, he could’ve sworn it felt like ten, twenty minutes tops.

“What’s up, my girl?”

“Colonel Rhodes is requesting permission to enter the lab.”

Tony scoffed. “You can tell Honey Bear that he doesn’t need permission to do anything.”

“I will let him know.”

“Thanks, Fri.” He saw the door to his lab open up. “I mean… he is the boss, after all,” he raised his voice and directed that at Rhodey himself, who entered and skillfully maneuvered his wheelchair through the controlled chaos that was Tony’s lab. 

Calling the man “boss” brought a certain amount of satisfaction to Tony because that was exactly who Rhodey was now - the official US Avengers team leader. Years of military and leadership experience on and off the field, pragmatism, the ability to deal with anyone, from a scared civilian to Villain of the Day to the slimiest politician in Washington, and years of dealing with the worst of Tony’s crap. Yes, Rhodey was perfect for the job.

“Damn straight I’m the boss, Tony, but last time I entered without notifying Friday first, I almost got a face full of fire extinguisher foam, courtesy of your demented robotic children.” 

“Aw, you love Dum-E and you know it. You’ll appreciate his extinguisher skills the next time you’re on fire.”

“Unfortunately, that happens far too often when I hang out with you, Tones.” 

The jab was meant to be a joke, but Tony’s heart clenched nevertheless, especially as the wheelchair finally came into full view when the other man managed to get himself across the lab to join Tony at the hologram table. That damn chair was a constant reminder that people around Tony did get hurt far too often. Even though five months had passed since the “Civil War” (Tony hated the name, but that was the trending hashtag at the time and it stuck), Rhodey’s recovery was still moving at a snail’s pace. The logical part of Tony accepted that his best friend’s body still needed time to heal, but having patience was nearly impossible when all he could see was a great, brave man who sacrificed too much, now confined to that stupid chair. This was exactly why Rhodey’s braces were always number one priority on Tony’s to-do list and he was almost ready to build a working model. Everything else be damned, he would get his best friend walking, running, and flying in no time!

Thankfully, Rhodey seemed to be handling his injuries much better than Tony did, but that was because, in addition to all of his other amazing qualities,  Rhodey also had the patience of a damn saint

“So, what brings you to my humble abode, Honey Bun?” Tony asked before glancing at the clock again. “I didn’t miss our dinner date again, did I?”

“No, no, just wanted to talk, that’s all. You know that spending so much time down here by yourself isn’t good for you, Tones.”

“Hey, I spend time outside!”

Yeah, on your way to and from the Accords Council sessions and SI board meetings.” The disapproval in Rhodey’s voice was as thick as molasses. “You need to lighten your load; not everything is your responsibility. There are people here who can help you. Your life can’t revolve around your work.”

“I swear to god, Rhodey, if you tell me I need to get a hobby, I’ll—”

“Hobbies you have plenty of, what you need to do is rest and maybe— oh, I dunno, have some fun once in a while?” 

Yes, because it was so easy to rest and have fun with the Council and the media breathing down their necks, foreign governments demanding reparations, SI stock fluctuating with every gust of wind, and finding your entire worldview suddenly in shambles (after spending several years in denial, because god, there were so many signs, but Tony had always been good at denying the obvious).

He said none of those things to Rhodey. Instead, a resigned sigh escaped his lips and he gave his friend the best set of puppy dog eyes he could manage in the attempt to end this conversation. “I just have a lot of projects, that’s all. We’re still dealing with the aftermath of everything. Once we pick up the pieces, I’m sure things will lighten up.”

“Speaking of your projects, Tony…”

Ah crap, that was Rhodey’s “we need to talk” face and it never meant good things for Tony, because that face was the inevitable precursor to a stern lecture and plenty of what were you thinking? and oh god, Tony, not again.

“I had an... interesting conversation with one of the Council aides earlier today. Lorraine is her name, I think? Sweet kid, she's gonna go far.” Rhodey had been drumming his fingers against his thigh, but they stopped when he pinned Tony with a steely glare. "And while she was telling me about her masters thesis at Yale, she happened to mention that last Monday, you had an informal discussion with the US Council members regarding— oh, what was it she said? Oh yeah - a pardon?!”

The way Rhodey nearly spat the word out made his less than stellar opinion of the idea very clear.

“See, I knew you weren’t here just to check up on me and talk,” Tony accused petulantly, trying to avoid the subject because this was at the top of the list of crap he did not want to discuss right now. 

“Hey, we are talking,” Rhodey was not backing down. “Seriously, man, a pardon? What were you thinking?” 

There it was. Alright, so it seemed they were having this conversation after all. Tony reluctantly admitted that he probably did owe his friend that much. “If it makes it any better, the Council brought it up first. I just— didn’t disagree with them… And I was going to tell you once it was more than just an idea.”

The disapproving furrow between Rhodey’s brows didn’t budge. “It doesn’t make it better. What you should’ve told the Council is that you won’t have any part in this. Maybe we can’t stop them, and maybe we’ll have to provide your Retro Framing tech for the deprogramming, but you sure as hell don’t have to be personally involved.”

“That’s the thing, Rhodey, I— I think I do want to be involved.” 

“…What?” The word was part incredulous and part angry, and before Rhodey could start in on a righteous rant, Tony hurried to explain further. 

“The Council brought it up first, yeah, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a while now… You know, once I actually had the chance to breathe and think… The tech I have, it may be the only thing that can help him with the deprogramming and I’m the one who knows the tech best… It’s in everyone’s best interest if we get rid of any and all traces of Hydra in his head…” The chuckle that followed was devoid of humor. “Funny, isn’t it, how much easier it is to think logically when you haven’t just witnessed your parents’ death with the killer and his bestest best friend standing a foot away from you?” 

“See, this is exactly why I think this is a bad idea, Tony! How— how can you even think about a pardon after what happened?” 

“We both know what Hydra did to him. God, we saw the files… Those fuckers didn’t spare any details in their thorough documentation. It wasn’t—” Tony swallowed hard, “it wasn’t his fault…”

Rhodey’s expression softened and it was obvious the man was conflicted, but it didn’t take long for anger to overtake mercy. 

“I get that, I do. But what happened in that bunker, that wasn’t mind control, okay? Fuck, Tony…” The name came out sounding like a plea. “You don’t know what it was like… I was the one who had to sit by your bed, while you struggled with every breath because your damn chest was caved in with that blasted shield. I had to listen to those doctors list every fuckin’ thing those assholes did to you… Every bruise, every broken bone… You know how much internal bleeding you had, you idiot?”

Tony didn’t bother hiding the shame he felt in the face of that pain, all that worry he must have caused. “I have an idea…”

“Yeah? Well then, why in the hell would you want to be involved?”

Looking away from the indignation in his friend’s eyes (on his behalf, and it still managed to surprise Tony how much his best friend actually loved him), Tony took a moment to contemplate the question at hand. Why would he want to help? After all, there were still plenty of nights where he woke up covered in cold sweat as the image of his mother’s dying breath— his father’s name on her lips— lingered in his mind for hours afterwards (the other nights were filled with cold blue eyes and the shield coming down, over and over, in an infinite loop, until his mind forced itself to wake up).

Tony didn’t deny that his pain and the betrayal he suffered were real, but in the light of day, away from the nightmares and the bad memories and the bone-chilling cold, it was easier to think more clearly and Tony knew that if he allowed that pain to drive all of his decisions and prevent him from being the better man, it was no better than letting Hydra win. Because at the end of it all, his parents weren’t the only victims that December night and Tony wouldn’t— couldn’t— let Hydra claim another life for themselves. He would do what needed to be done, even if he knew that he might lose a part of himself in the process.

Tony’s voice was quiet, but determined when he answered. “Because it’s the right thing to do. He deserves a second chance, Rhodey…” 

“Oh, Tony…” This time, Rhodey’s gaze remained soft and full of affection. “They never deserved you. You know that, right?” The man shook his head at Tony’s dismissive scoff, but didn’t press on. “Are you sure about this then?” he asked instead. “I know the pardon itself will probably take months to push through, but once it's done and once he's here, it will mean having to see him every day, guiding him through the deprogramming… Are you sure you can handle that?”

“I’m sure, Rhodey…”

He wasn’t sure, not at all, but no one could ever accuse Tony of backing down from a challenge… or of having any actual self-preservation skills. “And if I can’t handle it, I’m sure you’ll be here to provide valuable guidance and snarky commentary, right, Platypus?”

The comment had the intended effect of drawing a smile out Rhodey, despite the man’s best efforts to remain serious. “Someone has to watch out for your sorry ass.” A resigned sigh and then, “It is just one pardon, right? None of the other assholes of the year are coming back?” 

“God, no!” Tony replied immediately. “None of them have the excuse of Hydra screwing with their head for decades. However,” Tony had to caveat reluctantly, “now that Ross is out of the picture, others have been shifting towards more... sympathetic stances on a whole slew of issues. And while I am perfectly happy with Ross rotting away in some dark hole for all eternity, a more humane Council does mean someone somewhere might end up getting the rest of them pardons too, especially if some big scary villain comes along, but I'm sure as hell not going to be the one encouraging them.”

“Oh good,” Rhodey replied sarcastically, “at least you’re not completely crazy.” 

“Nope. Only a little bit crazy,” Tony quipped and flashed the man his patented grin. Neither commented on the fact that there was little feeling behind Tony’s smiles these days.

Rhodey looked up to the heavens with a sigh, probably contemplating how much of a mess this was going to be and asking whatever heavenly deities were listening for some kind of strength, but when he looked back at Tony, he was a man who accepted his fate. “Alright, I’ll settle for a little bit crazy. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… I guess we’re getting Bucky Barnes a goddamn pardon.”

Chapter Text

Murmurs… 

Echoes of mechanical beeping… 

The shuffle of footsteps against the floor…

All the sounds slowly filtered through the darkness surrounding him, the darkness that permeated every part of him, a thick and unyielding presence. It held him down and didn’t let him breathe, but at least the darkness was safe. The noises though... The noises he feared because the bright harsh lights and the cold always followed. 

And where there was light and where there was cold, there was also pain

I don’t want to wake up.

Please, no more pain.

Sometimes, it was fire burning him from the inside out. Sometimes, he was being split open, torn apart into bits. He wanted to scream, but the darkness wouldn’t let him have his breath back, not just yet. 

I can’t do this again.

Please, no more.

As the noises grew louder, every part of his being steeled itself against the cold and the pain, but the chill never came. The darkness receded bit by bit and when he drew the first breath of air, it was warm. The warmth was spicy and sweet, like inhaling the steam of a hot mug of tea.

Didn’t my mother drink tea? Why can’t I remember her?

The next breath was even easier and the outside world, miraculously warm and quiet, coalesced around him. His brain, still lagging, wasn’t sure what to make of everything.

There was a voice now too, somewhere above him.

“Mr. Barnes?”

This voice was different from the other voices - the ones from before.

“Mr. Barnes, are you with us? You are safe. You are in Wakanda.”

There was no barking, harsh tones of German nor the rolling r’s and the cumbersome consonants of Russian. The accent was soft and comforting, like a lullaby.

Did my mother sing lullabies too? 

As he took his next breath of that sweet, warm air, the name that was uttered— Barnes—  finally registered in his mind—

A sudden, raging wave of memories swept over him.

Falling. Falling until there’s nothing but pain. It’s cold, so cold, and he’s in pieces. Hydra is everywhere. Inside his head. Please just let me die. Soldat? Ya gotov otvechat'. Explosions, destruction, and fire. So much blood on his hands. Cycles of darkness and death. The man with the shield—no—Stevie. Flying machines falling from the sky, engulfed in flames. Till the end of the line. Running, away from the destruction but it always follows, like a curse, never leaving his side. 

He was drowning in the memories.

December 16, 1991. Ya gotov otvechat'. Snow. It’s still so damn cold. The soldiers are dead. Stark. Howard? No— Tony. Howard’s dead. Dead again, by his hand. There’s so much guilt and shame, but pain and instinct take over. Fighting in step with Steve, just like old times, but it doesn’t feel the same, doesn’t feel right. Then running, always running. The warmth of this place, but it never reaches the inside of him where everything is still so cold.

“Mr. Barnes?”

With the darkness gone and the memories finally slotted back into place, Bucky Barnes slowly opened his eyes.

Automatically, his mind began to catalog the details of his surroundings, a habit so ingrained in the Soldier within him, it was as natural as breathing. The soft sheets of cotton beneath him. The daylight filtering through the open window. The unfamiliar song of some exotic bird. The room was small, but neat, where everything had its proper place. Medical machines surrounded his bed and the empty cryostasis tank took up most of the space at the opposite wall.

Two doctors, civilian man and woman, stood with King T’Challa on the other side of the bed. The King appeared calm and composed, hands resting comfortably behind his back, but his eyes gave away the tinge of worry that colored his mood. 

While there was no actual pain (and wasn’t that a novel experience), his every limb and muscle seemed to be aching, and Bucky assumed it was the side effect of cryostasis. He never got the chance to experience these aches, because the pain was always swift and overwhelming.

King T’Challa approached him cautiously and smiled.

“Mr. Barnes, my name is T’Challa. We’ve met before, I hope you remember. You’ve been in cryostasis for a while, so you may feel some joint and muscle weakness, but there should be no lasting effects.”

“How long?” The words felt like shards of glass down his throat, raspy and dry. He coughed several times and slowly sat upright so that he could accept the glass of water that appeared before him. The male doctor smiled kindly at him, but immediately backed away to a safer distance. 

Bucky drank greedily. Even the water tasted sweet here. 

“It has been approximately ten months,” T’Challa answered him and cited the exact date, for which Bucky was grateful. Apparently, it was summer time. That explained the comforting warmth that still clung to him. It was also encouraging to know that he didn’t miss another decade or two of his life. 

Sitting fully upright and swinging his aching legs over the side of bed, Bucky felt more like himself by the second (even if he didn’t know what himself really meant anymore).

He glanced over at T’Challa again, who was also standing just far enough away to respect Bucky’s need for personal space. The man was very formal as always, posture perfect and exuding the air of royal authority. From what Bucky remembered of the month or so he spent here in Wakanda before cryo, the man was always clad in a dark, well-fitted suit that probably cost a small fortune. Privately, Bucky thought it was a good look on the man, and today was no different. However, despite the King’s best efforts to mask it, Bucky did notice that T’Challa was tired.

“Mr. Barnes, my doctors would like to perform some scans to ensure that you are recovering as expected. They will need to place some sensors on you, but nothing more invasive that than. Would it be alright for them to approach you?”

Bucky nodded his agreement and the two doctors wasted no time attaching said sensors to his head, measuring his vitals, and whatever else one of the doctors was measuring with a portable scanner in his hand.

The Soldier buried deep inside his mind deemed both of them harmless. Bucky always tried to ignore him, but he knew the Soldier was right, so he paid the two doctors no further attention. Instead, he wondered why no one else was here. He remembered how unhappy and frustrated Steve was with Bucky’s decision to go into cryostasis. It seemed very out of character for him to be missing now. 

His gaze swung back to the King of Wakanda.

“Why did you wake me up? Has something happened? Is everyone okay?”

“Please do not worry, everyone is doing as well as can be expected, and all of your teammates still reside here at the villa. However, there has been a rather unexpected development concerning you and I thought it best to wake you. I—” the King hesitated, “I am sure the presence of your friends would have made your transition out of cryostasis less jarring, but I felt that it would be best to speak to you in private first.”

A few warning bells went up in Bucky’s mind at T’Challa’s words, but he tried to quell any suspicions until he heard what the King had to say. Besides, he did appreciate the privacy. He barely knew any of the others and Steve's presence would’ve been… confusing.  The relationship that had developed between them before Bucky was put under was complicated at best. At times, fueled by memories of a distant life lived, Bucky would be overwhelmed with love and affection for his best friend, that tiny brave kid with newspaper in his shoes, always sporting a black eye and that look of righteous determination on his face. But at other times, he would look at this Steve and see a complete stranger. He wondered if Steve sometimes felt that like too, but it seemed unlikely. Steve never tried very hard to accept the fact that the last seven decades changed Bucky irreversibly.

The two doctors were done with their scans and Bucky let out a mental sigh of relief. He was able to tolerate their presence, sure, but just about everyone, even those who were deemed safe, made him uncomfortable when they were this close. The touching especially made him want to bolt. Thankfully, they were no longer hovering in Bucky’s personal space, focused instead on the test results. Finally, the woman informed T’Challa that everything was “within acceptable parameters” and the King thanked them before asking both to leave.

Finally alone, T’Challa gave him a more genuine smile.

“I’m sorry for being so cryptic. As I said, I wanted to give you some sense of privacy, and now that we are alone…” T’Challa cleared his throat, probably giving himself a moment to find the right words. “While nothing earth-shattering has occurred in the year you spent in cryostasis, there have been some significant developments in regard to the Accords and the overall relationship between super powered humans and the rest of the world. The Sokovia Accords have now been accepted by 124 countries and many of these countries, the United States included, have drafted and passed their own pieces of legislation and formed their own governing bodies to oversee the implementation and the ongoing improvements of their laws and regulations.”

T’Challa went on to elaborate on some of the details, but Bucky’s mind drifted as echoes of memories began to fill up his head. He never got the chance to read the original Accords that set off the fight between Steve and Stark, but in the months that followed that fight, all he heard from the fugitive Avengers was that the Accords (and Stark himself) were nothing but bad news. 

“It’s just a bunch of politicians wanting to control us, Bucky. They want to force us to do their bidding. Keeping all of us from helping those who need it most. Peggy would’ve never agreed to something like this, she would’ve seen it for the lie that it was.”

“Those Accords are garbage, man. They’re what landed us in the Raft! That hellhole of a prison is meant for the worst scum of humanity, and who do they put there instead? A bunch of superheroes! And then Stark has the balls to show up, pretending like he was there to help. I should’ve known the bastard was lying.”

“The Accords were always flawed and no matter what Tony wanted to believe, they were never in our best interest, but he could never see past his ego. I said I supported them, in the beginning, but I was only trying to keep control of the situation. At the airport, when we fought, I knew I was failing. Stark and the others were too far gone and I had to make the decision to let you and Steve go. The Accords and Ross would’ve killed you otherwise.”

“I lost my family because Stark decided to break up the Avengers over those Accords. I haven't seen my wife and babies in months. I still can’t believe Stark betrayed all of us like that, but I guess I should’ve seen it coming after he created Ultron and nearly got us all killed.”

“The Accords were made to keep people like me on a leash. They’re all afraid of how powerful we are and fear can drive people to do terrible things. After all, it’s so easy to manipulate people when they’re scared. And maybe Stark was afraid too. Maybe that’s why he locked me away. But if I ever see him again, I’ll make sure he knows what true fear really is.”

All the voices in his head mingled together and for a second it felt like too much, like his head would explode, but a deep, visceral growl from the Soldier forced his mind back into order. The Soldier always hated the voices, telling him what to do, what to think, who to kill. And while Bucky hated to have anything in common with that shadow of the killer inside his head, he had to reluctantly agree. He wished someone would just let him form his own opinions for once in the last seventy goddamn years.

“Mr. Barnes?”

Oh no. Apparently T’Challa had been calling his name. Bucky clenched his fist several times, an involuntary gesture as he tried to push the Soldier back into that dark corner of his mind.

“Sorry, I just— It just feels like I always have too much noise crammed into my head. Drowns out everything else for a minute. But I’m here, sorry—”

“No apology necessary. It's very likely that you're still feeling the aftereffects of the cryostasis. Do you feel alright now?” 

Bucky’s firm nod prompted T’Challa to continue. “As I was saying, the current political climate in the US has turned far more sympathetic toward superpowered beings than it was a year ago, in large part thanks to the efforts of Mr. Stark and Colonel Rhodes. There have been several great strides toward balancing both the oversight and the protection of superheroes. Of course, no solution is perfect, but I truly believe we are on the path that my father would have been proud of.”

The fondness in T’Challa’s voice and the softness in his eyes at the mention of his father was contagious and caused Bucky’s own lips to twitch upward in the form of a small smile.

Looking back down, Bucky saw that his own hand was now absently running back and forth against the soft cotton of the sheets. Another one of his nervous habits (the Soldier had no tells, but Bucky had plenty), but he learned that feeling the different textures beneath his fingers made things more real and helped him feel more grounded. “I’m glad that things are going swell with the Accords. But how does that relate to me?”

“There was a formal meeting yesterday of the international Accords Council and the US delegates proposed a motion, which had already been approved by the US agency, and was subsequently passed by the full council. I must say, I was surprised to see this particular development, but also very pleased…” 

T’Challa noticed the obvious confusion in his eyes and this time, the King gave him a full bright smile. “As of yesterday, you, James Buchanan Barnes, have been pardoned of any and all crimes committed against the United States of America, and have received permission to return back to the States, in order to obtain specialized help to relieve you of the Hydra brainwashing. If the treatment is successful, you will be reintegrated back into society with all the rights afforded to its citizens.”

Bucky knew his jaw dropped just slightly, an expression so very unbecoming of the Winter Soldier, but dammit, right now he was still just Bucky and he couldn’t help his surprise. 

“I don’t understand. A pardon? They would let me go back home? Just like that?”

“There are some conditions, of course, but they are meant to protect both you and the people around you, and I believe they are fair, given your—” T’Challa cleared this throat awkwardly “—your potential to be a threat. You will be restricted to the Avengers Compound until such time that you are deemed free from the Hydra triggers.”

Well, that sounded fair. “But how are they going to get rid of the triggers? I remember what happened before cryo. No offense, Your Highness, but none of your doctors and scientists knew what to do with my head. The reason I went into cryo was because I got triggered and attacked one of your doctors.”

“Yes, our unsuccessful attempts to help you were rather unfortunate,” T’Challa admitted reluctantly. It was obvious the man saw any sort of failure as a reflection on him as a leader. “But there is promising technology, created and modified specifically for you by Tony Stark himself, that has a very realistic chance of helping you. The conditions of the pardon stipulate that he will be personally involved to ensure that the technology is utilized to its full potential.”

“Wait— Tony Stark? As in— ‘Howard Stark’s son’ Tony Stark?” He didn’t understand. Howard’s son would never help him.

Bucky could still taste the bitter guilt at the back of his throat. The look on Stark’s face— the look of a man betrayed and forced to relive his grief— was still fresh in his mind.

At the time, the fight that followed was driven by adrenaline and instinct. When Stark attacked, the Soldier took over, running on pure self-preservation. At the same time, it was also just so easy to fall back into place at Steve’s side, fighting together as one. That was instinct too.

Later, when he had time to think and time to breathe, he wished Stark would’ve blasted off more than just his arm. Because he did kill the man’s parents. How could there ever be forgiveness for that? 

By the patient look on T’Challa’s face, Bucky assumed he drifted off again.

“Sorry— I just— I don’t understand why Stark would be involved… How can that be a good idea?”

“I understand your reluctance, Mr. Barnes, given your confrontation with the man in Siberia. Frankly, I still don’t understand what possessed Stark to attack you the way he did, but I suppose none of us were in the right frame of mind after what happened with Zemo. But I assure you, Tony Stark has been one of the biggest supporters of the amended Accords and the effort to protect the superpowered individuals. And he’s spent a considerable amount of time augmenting his technology so it could be used specifically by you.”

All Bucky could do was blink at T’Challa in confusion, because Bucky’s reluctance stemmed from the fact that he was the last person to deserve any help from Tony Stark. But then he processed the King’s actual words and it dawned on him. 

T’Challa doesn’t know…

The man didn’t know that Stark attacked because he was forced to watch the murder of his parents. He was forced to see that the man he considered a friend had kept that information from him for years. Any man would have snapped under the circumstances. Frankly, Stark used a considerable amount of restraint - even from their very short interaction, the capabilities of the Iron Man suit were obvious (Bucky also remembered how Stark fought against him with a single gauntlet when they first met). If he truly wanted, Stark could have killed him in one shot. 

T’Challa continued, incorrectly interpreting Bucky’s stunned silence as reticence or fear. “I have spent a lot of time working with Mr. Stark over the past year and I will personally vouch for the integrity of his character. He wants to help. He knows what Hydra had done to you and understands that it is in the best interest of all of us to ensure that no one else can take control of you ever again.”

Bucky certainly didn’t disagree with that, but all of this, it was still too much to process. He was being pardoned? And Tony Stark was helping him get his mind back? Did he wake up in some strange alternate universe? 

A sudden question crossed his mind. “What about the others? Are they getting pardons too?”

“Unfortunately, no,” T’Challa appeared apologetic, but Bucky could read between the lines. While the King was downright protective of him, the man’s opinion of the others had always been far less lenient. “The choices they made were their own and the sympathies of the US government do not extend quite so far.” 

“So if I take the pardon and leave here—”

“There is a chance you may not see your friends again, yes,” the King confirmed, but then gave a noncommittal shrug and looked out the open window to his left, observing the beautiful greenery outside. “It is, however, possible that they will be able to return someday as well. As we face bigger and more frightening threats, desperation may overshadow the need for justice.”

“And what if I don’t take the pardon?” Bucky asked.

“Then you are welcome to remain here with the others. When you first arrived here, I said that I wanted to help you find peace. That promise still stands,” T’Challa replied and turned back to him. The King’s gaze was honest and kind, the same way it had been since their arrival in Wakanda, a fact that Bucky was always grateful for. Part of him didn’t feel that he deserved the kindness nor the safe haven, but T’Challa’s goodwill always warmed some small part of his heart nevertheless.

“However, I truly believe that going back to the US and using Mr. Stark’s technology is the best option for you right now. It is the best chance you have to finally find the peace and freedom you deserve.”

All Bucky could do was nod distractedly. He still needed time to think this through.

“Do any of the others know about this?” he asked.

“No, not yet. I wanted to give you the opportunity to absorb the information first. Form your own opinion before taking any action. But you may discuss this with the others at your discretion. I’m certain they will find out eventually.” Here, T’Challa rubbed his temple. “I will be honest with you, I am not looking forward to their reactions to this. It may be a bit of a mess. Between everyone’s opinion of the Accords and Mr. Stark, and Mr. Rogers’... possessiveness of you,” the word was said with no small measure of disgust, “I cannot see how they will accept the pardon as anything but a terrible idea.”

T’Challa had a point and Bucky let out a resigned sigh. He wasn’t keen on having that discussion just yet either. He needed to make up his own mind first, before everyone else’s voices took over his head. 

This was why Bucky liked T’Challa. Respecting his privacy and autonomy - it may have been a small gesture to anyone else, but to Bucky, it meant the world. 

“Thank you for everything, King T’Challa. I— I have a lot to think about, but whatever happens, I want you to know how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

The King’s answering smile was sweet and warm, just like the air of his homeland, and some small piece of the ice inside of Bucky’s chest gave way to warmth.

***

T’Challa slowly closed the door behind him, silencing the chatter of the voices in the other room. The rogue Avengers were at first surprised to see Mr. Barnes up and about, with said surprise quickly turning to resentment. They were upset that no one was informed earlier, but thankfully, they let the issue go, too distracted by the presence of their friend. When prompted for the reason as to why Mr. Barnes was back, T’Challa gave them a vague answer about the limitations of cryostasis and the need for periodic awakenings. It was a poorly constructed lie, but no one paid any close attention to it. He was certain, of course, that Ms. Romanov easily saw through it, but she was of no concern, at least for now.

He headed to his temporary office here at the villa, having decided to let Mr. Barnes tell the others about the pardon himself. Frankly, T’Challa wanted nothing to do with that particular conversation, but even if that weren’t the case, he was still a king and he had plenty of his own work to attend to.

However, as he sat at his desk, the surface of which was covered so entirely with paperwork, books, various pieces of tech, and several half-empty mugs, that T’Challa was hard-pressed to name the color of the actual desk, he simply couldn’t focus. Instead, his mind kept drifting back to the phone call he had with Mr. Stark a few days ago. 

With a tap, the hologram projector popped up in front of him, displaying Stark’s face, as the man gave him a friendly wave when the connection was established.

“Mr. Stark, I must admit, I was not expecting a call, but it is good to see you nevertheless.”

“Same to you, your Highness,” Stark replied with this patented media smile,“how are things in beautiful Wakanda today?”

The relationship he and Stark developed over the last year was professional, but amicable, and he grew to respect the amount of work, dedication, and genuine care Stark had shown in dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War. The man was nothing like the media-created image of him and it had been a surprising, but pleasant experience to see as the true nature of the businessman and engineer revealed itself.

They exchanged pleasantries, but then Stark’s earlier smile pulled down into a more serious expression. “So uh— Got some interesting news for you, Your Highness… During the last six months, we’ve been doing some negotiating here on the US side, about someone who was involved in our little fight a year ago. We put together a proposal that’ll be put to the full council in the next official meeting and because I’m certain it’ll pass, I wanted to get the ball rolling…”

To the king’s eyes, it seemed like Stark was steeling himself for something.

“Here’s the thing…” Stark paused again, seemingly unable to get the words out. “Friday, this line’s been fully secured, right?” he asked suddenly.

The Irish lilt of the female voice that belonged to Stark’s AI replied in the affirmative and T’Challa suddenly had a growing suspicion he was not going to like this conversation.

“A secure line, Mr. Stark? I think it is time you told me the exact reason for your call,” T’Challa said, trying to impart some level of authority. He was the king after all.

“Right, right, need to cut to the chase,” Stark mumbled out, almost to himself. But then he squared his shoulders and looked back at T’Challa, his gaze resolute. “The US is planning to grant a full pardon to James Barnes and with my help, deprogram the Hydra triggers and hopefully get him back into society once he recovers.”

T’Challa’s eyes widened just slightly, as he tried to make sure his surprise did not show. A pardon for Barnes, including actual help with the Hydra triggers? He didn’t realize the US government was at all sympathetic to Barnes and he certainly didn’t expect Stark to be sympathetic. However, that train of thought was secondary to the fact that Stark had contacted him regarding this issue. What exactly did he know?

Feigning confusion, T’Challa replied, “That certainly is a surprising turn of events, but I am happy to hear it. However, I do not understand why you needed to contact me. If you are worried I will vote against it, I can guarantee you my vote will be affirmative.”

There, that sounded sufficiently convincing, T’Challa thought, but then Stark looked heavenward, took a deep breath, and gave him a rather unimpressed look.

“Listen, T’Challa, I respect you an’ all, you’re a great guy. But let’s cut the crap. I know you’re housing the rogue Avengers. They’ve been in Wakanda this entire time.”

“That is a rather bold accusation to make, Mr. Stark.” 

The man had the audacity to roll his eyes at him. “Seriously? It took Friday less than two days to track them down once I actually decided to look. You may be sneaky enough, Your Highness,” Tony conceded, “but aside from the spies, the rest of those guys are about as subtle as a damn train wreck.” He gave a what can you do shrug. “Honestly, I’m surprised I’m the only one who tracked them to Wakanda so far.”

T’Challa maintained his neutral facade for a moment longer, his mind running through all the potential consequences of admission, but at that point, it was obvious that he had no other choice. He sighed and dropped his head in his hands.

“Very well. Yes, they are here,” he looked back up. “What exactly do you plan to do with this information? You know that Wakanda will suffer the consequences if it is revealed that I provided refuge to known criminals.”

“Yeah, not to be rude, but you should’ve probably thought of that before you let them chill at your place,” Stark’s voice took on an icier tone with that statement, but it softened again with his next words. “Listen, I honestly don’t care about where they are and what they’re doing. We have enough shit to deal with right now without needing to track them down. The US Accords Council doesn’t care about them at the moment, and I sure as hell don’t either. So, unless I think it’s absolutely necessary to avoid some disaster, I’m not going to be the one who spills the beans.”

The knot in T’Challa's stomach loosened a bit, but the worry didn’t fully dissipate.

“How many others know?”

“Just me and Friday.”

“Good. I— Thank you for not revealing the truth. When I offered them a safe haven, I simply did what I thought was right… Honestly, I think my decision was driven by guilt more than anything else, after having falsely accused Barnes of my father’s murder.”

A hint of understanding was reflected in Stark’s eyes. “I guess we’re all just doing what we think is right… And you know, it’s probably better for everyone that they’re in Wakanda under your watch instead of gallivanting across the continents and causing more trouble.”

T’Challa couldn’t help but agree, given what he had seen from the rogue Avengers in the past year. Some of them were certainly more volatile than others.

“Very well. I will relay the information to Barnes. Of course, he may decline and choose to remain here with his team, in which case, I cannot force his hand.”

Tony nodded. “It’s completely up to him. After being Hydra’s puppet for so many years, he deserves that much. Now, because we gotta keep your little secret hush-hush, I don’t want you involved any more than that. Given his Winter Soldier skills, it’s reasonable to say that Barnes would just hear about the pardon through the grape wine. So just tell him to get himself to a US embassy somewhere outside of Wakanda; somewhere that’s not Germany or Russia because they’re still pretty sore about all the damage we left behind. Anywhere in Scandinavia is a good choice. You think he can make his way up north through Europe without making a mess?”

T’Challa inclined his head in a nod. “I have no doubt that he can arrive in one piece. He did spend quite a bit of time in Romania completely undetected.”

“You have a point,” Stark scoffed to himself, almost incredulous. “Can’t believe we’re gonna be releasing the Winter Soldier into the wild just like that. I really hope that’s not going to backfire on us.” He ran his hand through his short hair and gave an awkward cough. “Sorry about dropping this bomb on you unexpectedly, but I’ve never been known for my subtlety.” There was that media smile again, although the expression turned more honest a moment later. “I was serious about keeping this a secret, T’Challa. I wouldn't put your people at risk intentionally.”

Thinking back on the phone call, as well as his other interactions with Tony Stark, T’Challa firmly believed it was in Barnes’ best interest to get the help that the other man offered, but he also knew none of the other fugitive Avengers would see it that way. He just hoped that whatever decision Barnes made would truly be his own. Stark was right, the man deserved that much.

***

Bucky spent the last two days feeling more and more claustrophobic as the others refused to leave his side, spending the time informing him of their lives in the months that he missed. Apparently, he didn’t miss much. Everyone still hated everything to do with Stark and the Accords and none of them seemed to have made any attempts to change the situation they were in, although they sure spent a lot of time complaining about it. Bucky wondered if staying here, in beautiful Wakanda on T’Challa’s dime, made them all complacent. 

Steve in particular always made sure to stay close, in Bucky’s personal space, always touching some part of him - a friendly arm around him, a hand on his knee, sitting just a touch too close. It set Bucky's teeth on edge. Part of him felt guilty for reacting like that; after all, Steve was his friend— best friend, till the end of the line, in some former life that Bucky still struggled to remember— but the Soldier inside him hated the intrusion, and Bucky himself just wanted some space to breathe

When he couldn’t take anymore of the chatter and the complaining and the awkward we missed you so much (hard to believe when it came from people who barely knew him), Bucky decided he put off the pardon issue for long enough. It was time.

Asking Steve to speak with him in private, they ended up in some unused room at the villa. When they settled in at the table, Steve beamed at him (obviously eager to spend the time together), and Bucky took a deep, exaggerated sigh as he tried to force out a smile of his own.

“Listen, Stevie, there’s— there’s something I’d like to talk to you about.”

Chapter Text

Steve couldn’t believe they were having this conversation. After everything they went through, after everything they sacrificed… The edge of the table groaned beneath his hands as they clenched around it when he leaned over and he had to let go, not wanting his frustration to do any physical damage. No, he had to remain calm.

“Bucky, this whole pardon, it’s obviously a trap. It’s a set up. I don’t understand how you can’t see that. Don’t you remember what happened? How we ended up stuck in Wakanda for so long in the first place?”

He knew his tone was jumping back and forth between pleading and frustrated, but it didn’t seem to matter because neither was effective in convincing Bucky, who just sat there on the other side of the table, stiff as a board, nervously running his hand across the marbled surface and refusing to look at Steve. How they ever ended up here, arguing over his ridiculous farce of a pardon, was still baffling to Steve. He started this day off on such a high note, greeted by the Wakandan sunshine on his morning run with Sam, full of enthusiasm and hope for the future. And now, out of nowhere, his best friend made the announcement that he wanted to leave them all behind? 

Steve was sympathetic, he really was. “I understand that you want to get rid of Hydra’s brainwashing. I do too, Bucky! But this isn’t the answer. T’Challa— I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before he finds something. And if he doesn’t, then we’ll go looking for something ourselves!”

“You know that’s not gonna work, Stevie,” Bucky’s murmur was directed at the table. He still refused to look up at Steve. “T’Challa's people tried everything they could and they failed. And we’re fugitives - we can’t run around the world looking for answers. Stark’s tech is my best chance and T’Challa doesn’t think it’s a trap. He said Stark really wants to help.”

Steve barely held back a disbelieving scoff. Of course T’Challa would fall victim to Tony’s charm, it was only a matter of time. He was frankly surprised that the King hadn’t already given all of them up just to get into Tony’s good graces.

“Tony is really good at sweet talking people and getting them to believe what he wants,” Steve said, trying to make Bucky see the truth, but all he got in response was the narrowing of Bucky’s eyes.

“He can’t be that good at it - he didn’t convince you on the Accords.”

“Me and the others spent years with Tony - it’s easier to see through his charm once you know where to look." He released an exasperated breath. "Look, I’m not saying Tony is a horrible man, but even when he does have good intentions, his ego always gets in the way and people end up getting hurt. T’Challa doesn’t have the advantage of experience, he doesn’t know Tony like I do… He hasn’t seen all the damage Tony is capable of, so he can’t possibly know what he’s talking about.”

Finally, Bucky looked at him, but instead of trust or understanding, Steve saw something that looked surprisingly like irritation in Bucky’s eyes.

“T’Challa isn’t an idiot, Steve. He’s not that easily manipulated.”

“He believed that you were a murderer easily enough,” Steve retorted bitterly. 

“I am a murderer, Steve!” Bucky’s eyes flashed with outright fury now. “And even if I didn’t kill King T’Chaka, at the time every piece of evidence pointed to me. As soon as T’Challa knew it wasn’t true, he helped me. So don’t go saying all these things about him, he did more for us than we deserve.”

“I’m sorry, Bucky, you’re right,” Steve tried the pleading, apologetic tone again. “I never meant to imply that T’Challa wasn’t on our side. He’s a good man and I will always be grateful to him. But none of that means he’s right about this…” He paused and slowly sat down, in an attempt to put himself on the same level as Bucky. “Look, it might be true. Maybe Tony really did have a change of heart. But that doesn’t mean he’ll protect you from others. As soon as you get there, they’ll put you in cuffs, lock you in a cell, and throw away the key… or worse. Bucky, I can’t let that happen, I can’t lose you again. Remember, it’s you and me… till the end of the line?” he added with a smile, nostalgic and fond.

There, that softened the icy steel behind Bucky’s gaze just a bit. In moments like these, he almost looked like the man Steve remembered - a man that always smiled and joked around, full of energy and self-confidence, standing proudly by Steve's side as they faced the world. This Bucky was rarely like that; more often than not, he was all rough edges, quiet and distant, but then Steve would get these glimpses, and he knew it was only a matter of time before they could go back to how it was before. Despite everything that happened, he knew that he’d get his Bucky back eventually.

And then it would be just like the old days.

Wanting to take advantage of the tentative lowering of Bucky’s ever present defensive walls, to show Bucky they were always on the same side, he scooted his chair to be next to the man. Facing him, Steve leaned closer and took Bucky’s still moving hand into his own. The immediate tension that ran through his best friend’s frame at the touch broke Steve’s heart, but he didn’t let go, just gave the hand a squeeze to comfort him. Bucky was just stressed. He had to know how much Steve loved him. 

“We’ll figure something out, Bucky, like we always do. I’m so happy that you’re out of cryo and now the best thing we can do is stay together. You, me, the rest of the gang - we’re a team, a family. And we don’t ever leave family behind.”

Bucky didn’t pull away from him, but the strain in his body remained and now there was a sort of disbelieving, almost incredulous look in his eyes. Running his words back in his mind, Steve wasn’t sure what it was he said that caused Bucky to look at him like that. 

“Why didn’t you tell T’Challa about what actually happened at the bunker?”

He also didn’t expect this change in topic. “What do you mean?”

“T’Challa— he doesn’t know that Stark attacked us because he saw the tape of his parents’ murder. He thinks Stark just snapped and went after us—”

“But Tony did snap—”

“Steve, I killed his parents!” Bucky hissed out and Steve felt him trying to pull his hand away.

“No, Bucky, you didn’t, it wasn’t you, it was the Winter Soldier—”

His words were cut short because Bucky finally did escape Steve's grip, jumping completely out of his seat and taking a few steps back. With his back to Steve, his expression wasn’t visible, but his shoulders were hunched and his hand did the clench-and-release motion over and over, which was a nervous gesture Steve didn’t remember his Bucky ever having. 

“I am the Winter Soldier, Steve. I murdered hundreds of people and that includes Howard and Maria Stark. I can remember every detail of that night. The snow falling on the road, how unnaturally quiet everything was… I can still feel the crunch of Howard’s bones under my fists. The look in Maria’s eyes as I strangled her. Did you know her last word was Howard’s name?”

Finally his best friend turned around and looked at him. The guilt in those eyes was overwhelming and Steve wanted nothing more than to comfort Bucky. But when he took a step forward, Bucky took the same step back, refusing to let him come closer.

“None of that matters, Bucky, it wasn’t you,” Steve couldn’t understand why it was so hard for his best friend to accept that. “And that’s exactly why I didn’t tell T’Challa. I didn’t tell anyone because it’s none of their business and I didn't want them judging you for something that wasn't your fault—”

“Wait, you didn’t tell anyone? Not even the other Avengers?”

“No, I didn’t see any reason to.”

“So what? They all think that Stark just went crazy and tried to kill us for no reason?”

God, Steve felt like they were going around in circles. Why couldn't Bucky see, that Steve was just trying to protect him? Everything he had done was to protect the man in front of him, to bring him back to his former self and give them their old lives back.

“They all know Tony pretty well, Buck, they know what he’s capable of. Nothing I say or don’t say would change their opinion of him.”

“Pretty sure Scott never even met the guy, Steve.”

“You know what I mean,” Steve was frustrated, but trying hard to reign it in. It wasn’t Bucky’s fault, he didn’t understand the team dynamics and all the awful things, all the mistakes, that took place before the final confrontation with Tony. Bucky didn’t have the context to understand why the rest of the Avengers were so angry with Tony, why Steve was still so angry with him, even a year later. For breaking up their family, for betraying them and siding with a corrupt government, with Ross. And now he was trying to take Bucky away from him again? No, Steve wouldn't let that happen.

Bucky let out a frustrated sigh and ran his hand through his hair. “This arguing isn’t helping anything. We’re going around in circles.”

Yes, exactly, we’re finally on the same page. 

“You’re my friend, Steve, and I— I know we were real close, before… And you sacrificed a lot for me, more than I ever asked of you. So I wanted to be honest and upfront, make sure we got a chance to talk about this…”

Steve’s smile rose unbidden. This was a welcome change. He took a step forward, wanting to embrace Bucky and forget this whole stupid argument, but he didn’t get the chance because Bucky continued “—But I still want to go back. I need to go back and take the help Stark is offering. I want a chance to be free, Stevie, to figure out who I am without Hydra slithering around in my head.”

No, this wasn’t how this conversation was supposed to go. “Bucky, come on, I know who you are. You’re my best friend, my partner, and— and you just need some time to remember all of that! Going away is not going to help!”

“I’m sorry, Stevie, but I can’t stay and risk losing it again, or hurting someone, all because I wasted this second chance.”

“And I can’t risk them hurting you again,” Steve countered. With a determined stride, he closed the distance between them, and because Bucky was leaning against the dresser behind him, there was nowhere to back away. Steve's hands were sure, but gentle on Bucky’s shoulders, as he rubbed soothing circles, trying to get rid of the rigidity in the other man’s muscles. God, Bucky was so tense, like some frightened animal, and for a moment, Steve hated Tony for putting his friend in this situation. “I’m just trying to stop you from making a mistake,” he pleaded, “I don’t know what they’re going to do to you, but it’s going to be awful. They’ll just use you, like they tried to use all of us… I can’t— I won’t let you leave.”

The stubborn, defiant look that crossed Bucky’s face was both achingly familiar and disturbingly foreign, because it felt like eyes of a stranger were staring back at him from Bucky’s face.

“You won’t let me? It’s my decision to make,” the near-growl was more Winter Soldier than his Bucky and some instinct told Steve to back away, but backing away was never in his nature. 

“You’re just confused. I mean, you’ve been in cryo for ten months! You’re not thinking straight right now and it just means I have to do the thinking for the both of us for a little bit longer. I know what’s best for all of us, I promise.”

Steve felt a touch on his left wrist and almost sighed in relief, because finally, Bucky was initiating contact and realizing that Steve was right. What he didn’t expect was the sudden sharp pain shooting down his entire arm as Bucky’s hand closed around his wrist and crushed with all the force of a super soldier. 

In a single move, Bucky removed the hand from his shoulder and pushed Steve away, only then releasing his grip.

“What the hell was that for?” Steve couldn’t help his indignant outburst. He never expected Bucky to react like that. Holding on to his now throbbing wrist (at least it didn’t feel broken), Steve had to admit that he may have forgotten just how strong Bucky actually was. The missing metal arm and Bucky’s usual tendency to hunch in on himself and take up as little space as possible lulled one into a false sense of security.

“I spent the last seventy years having others do all the thinking for me. I’m not letting it happen again. Not even when it’s you,” Bucky declared, refusing to meet his eyes and still sounding nothing like the best friend Steve knew and loved.

“This is completely different! I’m not Hydra, I’m not trying to brainwash you! I’m just trying to do what’s best for you!”

“Then let me decide what that is! I deserve that much! I just— I just want to—” Bucky didn’t finish that thought, just clenched his eyes shut, almost like he was holding back tears, and took a deep breath. “I can’t do this,” he whispered to himself after another shaky breath, but Steve still heard it. Bucky’s hand was doing that clench-and-release thing again, but a second later, the man headed for the door, putting distance between them. The aching wrist made Steve think twice about following. 

Their eyes met again as Bucky turned around. “Steve, I’m going. I’m leaving tomorrow night, and I’m turning myself in. It’s my decision and even if it’s a mistake, I have to be the one to make it.” 

With that, he walked out, leaving Steve stunned and unable to process what just happened. The fact that Bucky couldn’t see reason just proved how vulnerable his friend was. Tony and the others, they would just take advantage of that, manipulate and hurt him. Why couldn't Bucky understand?

Maybe if he spoke with the others, they could present a united front and convince Bucky to stay. Yes, he should’ve done this from the beginning - he should’ve remembered they were always stronger together. With a determined heart, he left the empty room to find everyone else.

***

As Steve looked around at the faces of his teammates, their reactions ranged from disbelief to outright anger - exactly what he expected after telling them the news about the pardon and Bucky’s misguided desire to leave.

“Okay, so here's what I don’t get - why is he the only one getting a pardon?” Scott questioned, with no small amount of resentment. “I mean, I have my little girl waiting for me at home! Why don’t I get a pardon?”

“Lang, just shut up, okay?” Clint barked back and rolled his eyes at Scott. “I have three kids and a wife I haven’t seen in a year, and at least when you finally got to call your ex, she didn’t tell you to, and I quote, ‘go to fucking hell, Clint, we’re getting a divorce’. Shit, I finally find a way to call Laura after all those months, and she drops that fucking bomb on me!”

Clint jumped out of his seat, a violent motion that sent his chair toppling over to the floor with a loud clatter. He started pacing back and forth, trying to work off the angry, seething energy. Steve wanted to reprimand him, but the stern “language!” died on his tongue. This was a painful topic and Clint deserved to express his disgust with the whole situation.

“And then, the goddamn cherry on top of a shit cake! She tells me that Stark has been helping her with the farm! It’s just like that son of a bitch, throwing his money around and buying his way out of every problem.”

As much as he wanted to let Clint vent his frustrations though, they were wasting time, so before Clint could start in on another rant, Steve stepped around the overturned chair and firmly grasped his shoulder in a sign of solidarity.

“I know that this is hard, Clint. You’re right, you should be with your family right now. All of us should be home right now, instead of hiding out here. And we will be, soon. We know that eventually, they will come up against a threat that they can’t overcome and they’ll come looking for us because they will need us.”

Steve thought back to the phone he sent off months ago. How long he spent agonizing over that letter, trying to explain himself to Tony, to apologize. The phone never rang, not yet, but it was only a matter of time. 

“We will get home, Clint, I promise. But right now, we need to stop Bucky from leaving. We all know this pardon is a lie. They’re just trying to lure him back, to finish what they started a year ago. If he leaves… we might never get him back.”

For a moment, it appeared Clint wanted to offer several more inappropriate expletives, but then he took a deep breath and pulled himself together. “You’re right as always, Cap. Hell, if they get their hands on Barnes, they’ll probably put him in the Raft, like they did with us.”

Scott raised his hand to get their attention. “But didn’t we see on the news, like months back, that Ross went to jail partly because he put all of us in the Raft?” he paused when everyone's unimpressed glares zeroed in on him. He laughed nervously and sheepishly added, “That’s what the news said, didn’t it? Something about all of that being in violation of the actual Accords and a whole bunch of UN regulations or whatever?” 

“You can’t believe everything they say on the news, man,” Sam replied, thankfully much calmer than Clint would have. “Politicians like Ross, they have way too much money and connections to ever get put away for real. I bet he’s probably on some tropical island, sipping martinis all day. Hell, Stark probably drops by too and they laugh over a round of some fancy scotch about how gullible all the little people are.”

Steve didn’t disagree, but they kept getting off topic. “Exactly, men like Ross would love to get their hands on Bucky. And all of you need to come with me and help me explain that to him. Make him see what a mistake it would be to go back there alone.”

“Is it really a good idea for all of us to ambush him like that?” Natasha spoke up, for the first time since he gathered all of them here. “Six against one, not really a fair fight.”

“No, we need to present a united front. Show him that we’re a team, a family, and that we all need to stick together.”

Natasha gave an unconvinced shrug, but didn’t argue her point further. Great, because Steve didn't want to waste anymore time.

With Sam joining him at the front, the whole group headed to Bucky’s room, where Steve assumed the other man locked himself away. Probably brooding or maybe even feeling guilty about hurting Steve. Hopefully not, Steve thought, Bucky was just confused and my wrist barely even hurts.

The door was predictably locked and a tentative knock prompted no response, so Steve didn’t waste time on any more niceties and used his considerable strength to tear the lock out of the ornate wooden door.

“Um… Wasn’t Barnes supposed to be in here?” Sam asked when they all entered and found the room empty.

“Maybe he’s outside in the gardens. Probably just needed some fresh air,” Steve supplied, already heading out of the room, but a pointed cough from Natasha stopped him. She was holding out a piece of paper and he took it hesitantly. His heart clenched for a moment when he saw handwriting that was nothing like Bucky’s familiar chicken scratch, even though Bucky’s name was signed at the bottom.

Everyone,

I’m sorry to leave like this, but nothing I can say will convince you to let me go and I don’t want to fight any of you. Thank you for everything you’ve done to help me. 

Steve - don’t do anything stupid. You know that leaving Wakanda is a bad idea, so take care of the others. I’ll try to call when I get the chance, to let you know I’m fine.

So the tomorrow night was apparently a lie… Steve vaguely registered that Clint caught the note as it dropped out of his suddenly lifeless hand and began to read it out loud, but all Steve could think about was the fact that Bucky was gone. 

This can’t be happening.

“Well, shit, this sucks,” Sam cursed. “What the hell was he thinking?”

“Damn, how does that bastard Stark even have Barnes under his spell?” Clint added with a sneer. “Whatever, it doesn’t matter, we’ll just go and bring him back—”

“You will do no such thing.” 

Everyone turned to face T’Challa at the sound of his voice. The man stood in the doorway, framed by the setting sun behind him and even Steve in that moment could admit that the man looked like a true king. 

“If you decide to go after Mr. Barnes, any and all hospitality on the part of Wakanda will be revoked and you will deal with any retaliation you face on your own.” The man’s already serious expression only turned more severe when his eyes narrowed. “And may I remind you, you are wanted criminals in several very powerful countries.”

Finally, Steve shook off his initial shock. “How could you let Bucky do this?”

“I didn’t let Mr. Barnes do anything. This was always his decision.”

“You told him it was going to be safe! That Tony wanted to help him!” Steve exclaimed desperately. 

“I told him nothing I did not believe to be true,” T’Challa replied, ignoring Clint’s sarcastic yeah, sure. “In the end, it does not matter. Mr. Barnes is gone and within days, he will be back on US soil. All I can do is strongly advise you to remain here and not interfere. But I do promise, as soon as I have any news, I will let you know how he is doing.”

T’Challa paused to narrow his eyes at the large pieces of the broken door that lay conspicuously on the floor. “In the future, please refrain from damaging any more of my property, regardless of how... distraught you may be,” he reprimanded, as if they were a bunch of children, before turning on his heel and walking away. Steve swore his super soldier hearing picked up the King letting out a frustrated “I need a bloody drink,” when he thought he was out of ear shot. 

On any other day, T’Challa’s words would have made Steve feel some contrition at the damage his impulsive action had caused, but he was still too concerned with Bucky’s disappearance. The King’s promise did absolutely nothing to ease the worry building up in Steve’s chest. 

The others around him started talking all at once, throwing out plans to get Bucky back, and Steve was about to throw himself into the discussion as well, but Natasha silenced them all with a sudden, forceful “That’s enough!”

When everyone’s attention was on her, she continued, albeit in a more measured tone. “None of this will work. You can’t forget who you’re dealing with here. If the Winter Soldier wants to disappear, we’ll never find any trace of him.” Her eyes locked with Steve’s. “I’m sorry, Steve, but there’s no way we can get him back now. We’ll just be risking our location and our safety for nothing. All we can do is wait and hope that Bucky can take care of himself if things go bad.”

Every part of him wanted to protest, to run out the door and find his best friend, but as always, just like when they were up against Hydra and couldn’t trust anyone but each other, Natasha was his voice of reason. Steve knew he had no choice but to let this happen.

But when all of the empty promises from Tony and T’Challa come crashing down, when they all fail you, Bucky, I’ll be there for you. Till the end of the line.

Chapter Text

The universe was clearly conspiring against her. A sleepless night spent tossing and turning. Her morning cup of coffee spilled all over her favorite blouse (ruining both her outfit and leaving her decaffeinated). The rest of the morning was spent putting out various metaphorical fires (the supply shipment was late, everyone was behind on their foreign relations training, and no, she didn’t know why the training room was a balmy 50 degrees - although if she were a betting girl, she’d say one of the newbies finally got on Friday’s nerves).

Of course, her new personnel paperwork still hadn’t been signed off by the regional office that was supposed to keep track of these things, and because lagging paperwork had the power to literally cause the entire planet to stop spinning, she spent the rest of the day alternating between pointless phone calls and wanting to bang her head against her desk. Now, to add insult to injury, she was stuck in traffic and she was going to be late and dammit, I should’ve stopped for coffee

Alice Blackwood, former SHIELD agent and current Managing Personnel Director of the US Avengers Compound, released a weary sigh in the face of a never-ending line of cars in front of her and dropped her head on the steering wheel. Most days, her current job had some great perks. Today was not one of those days.

She glanced back up, and no, not even a foot of progress. Her gaze then fell to her hands on the wheel and damn, she didn’t realize she was actually shaking.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a vengeful universe that made this particular day such a mess. No, the real reason was that she was currently on her way to the airport to pick up none other than the newly pardoned Bucky Barnes. Just thinking that name caused her to let out a frustrated growl in a futile attempt to quell her anxiety and the anger that dwelled underneath it.

Over the nearly two decades that she had spent working for the government — first in the Air Force, then with US Intelligence, and finally with SHIELD — she had dealt with a variety of challenging situations, from arrogant douchebags to life-and-death firefights. Handling the current, new, and potential superhumans, as well as the regular, run-of-the-mill humans that manned the day-to-day operations of the Compound? That was a walk in the park. 

So the fact that even the mere thought of dealing with Bucky Barnes sent her blood pressure sky high? Well, that just made her more anxious and quite frankly, she was disappointed in herself. 

Maybe she’d gone soft in the past few years. After all, she hadn’t been an agent since SHIELD fell.

Her sleepless night was spent being so angry - about everything that had happened in the past few years, all the damage done… and now the decision to grant that pardon? Well, it was like spitting in the face of all that damage, all that death... or at least that's what she felt when she let her anger take control. Logically, she knew that Barnes wasn’t meant to receive the brunt of that anger. He was a victim of Hydra and she couldn't hold the crimes of before against him, but there was also no way that she could ever separate Barnes from Rogers. And so every time she tried to close her eyes and sleep, she saw Barnes morph into Rogers and all of the sudden, it was Rogers who was coming back and oh god, Romanov too, they don’t deserve it, there’s so much blood on their hands, and then there was absolutely no hope for sleep, not when she felt like she was drowning in her grief.

But Barnes wasn’t completely innocent either, she would remind herself. She would think back to the way Mr. Stark was in constant pain for months after he came back from Siberia. He never talked about, always avoided Alice’s inquiries, but she could tell that his long recovery from the fight with the two super soldiers pointed to some severe injuries. Stumbling onto rescue mission logs (she was convinced it was Friday’s doing) also made it obvious that Mr. Stark didn’t fly himself home. He couldn’t and he spent hours in the Siberian cold, waiting for help. 

Barnes certainly wasn’t brainwashed then and he and Rogers certainly didn’t hesitate to leave Mr. Stark behind to die in the cold. As she forced her hands to stay still on the wheel, Alice noted wryly that the reason she spilt her coffee this morning was because her hands had been shaking all day. 

You’re a professional, dammit, act like it. Mr. Stark personally asked you to do this. To make sure it’s done right. Do your damn job. It’s not fair, but newsflash, life isn’t fair and—

The loud and persistent honking of the car behind her snapped her out of the self-administrated lecture and prompted her to drive forward. It looked like the traffic was finally moving.

***

“Alice Blackwood, Managing Personnel Director of the Avengers Compound,” Alice extended her hand to the man she assumed was the US Embassy representative that was delivering Barnes from Sweden and into the hands of the US government (which happened to be her hands, unfortunately). The man smiled politely and shook her hand. She apologized for her tardiness, giving the generic traffic was a bear, we all know how that is! excuse, but most of her attention was on the man standing alone, a few yards away from the group (which consisted of several more men, most likely US military). Bucky Barnes was a physically imposing figure, tall and muscular, but here, he stood hunched in on himself, as if trying to make himself inconspicuous, wearing a ratty pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt.

Somehow, it all made him look painfully young. After years of hearing the stories about the Winter Soldier from other SHIELD agents, the image of Barnes in her head was something much more grandiose, but this was a clear reminder that the man was more than ten years her junior (if you didn’t count his decades spent as a brainwashed Hydra agent).

Barnes’ eyes kept scanning the surrounding area, likely on constant alert for any threat, and they finally landed on her. Alice held his gaze and with all the will she could muster, gave him the same dazzling I’m so happy to be here smile that she gave the rest of the group. By the wary look that remained on Barnes’ face, Alice was certain he could see right through her. Ah well, in for a penny.

“Mr. Barnes, I’d like to extend your first official welcome back to the United States,” she addressed him directly, but made no attempt to shake his hand. The man had two feet of personal space around him that screamed “Do not touch!” and it was obvious he wouldn’t enjoy even friendly contact. Frankly, that was fine with her. 

At her words, however, he did incline his head in a slight nod and gave her a soft, polite “Thank you, ma’am, I’m glad to be home.” 

Not wanting to drag this out any longer, Alice confirmed the relevant details of the transfer with the Embassy delegate to ensure all their I’s and T’s were dotted and crossed. Thankfully, the mountain of paperwork that came with this particular newcomer was already on her Starkpad, no paper needed, so she walked away from the group empty-handed, save for the super soldier obediently following her to the car. It made a chill run down her spine to have him at her back, but with another deep breath, she was back in control of her emotions.

“We’ll be taking my car back to the Compound, Mr. Barnes, where I will give you all the relevant details of your stay with us. Now, please don’t worry if you have any safety concerns. I used to be a trained SHIELD agent and this car is one of the most secure in our fleet. We wanted to make as little fan-fare as possible regarding your arrival, and having a whole welcoming committee to greet you would’ve definitely drawn unnecessary attention.” 

Damn, she was rambling to cover her stress. A turn on her heel as she reached the car put her face to face with Barnes who stopped when she stopped. “I’m sure this is all a bit overwhelming, but I hope to make your transition here as painless as possible.”

The contemplative look in Barnes’ eyes, as if he were constantly evaluating her every move, still lingered (and it made her decidedly uncomfortable to be scrutinized like that), but he did manage a small smile. “I appreciate all of your help.” He gave the bustling airport and the shimmering skyline of the city in the background a once-over before looking back at her. “I’m very lucky to be back here.”

Damn straight you are. Far luckier than you deserve. 

With another forced, polite smile and a nod towards the car, Alice took the driver’s seat, with Barnes next to her in the front, and the car was back on the highway in just a few minutes.

***

“And here are your living quarters, Mr. Barnes. Now, usually, our new members, guests, and trainees stay in the West Wing, but for the time being, you will be staying here in the East Wing, which houses the more senior members of the team as well as the senior staff, myself included. It isn’t our standard procedure, but given your—” Alice wrecked her brain for the polite way to say “you’re a trained killer who can literally lose his mind with a well-placed word or ten”, but there wasn’t one, so she settled on “—situation, it’s best that you are housed here first, with team members who can best handle any challenges that may arise.” 

“Now…” she paused as they both walked into his quarters and Barnes took a moment to survey the room. “As bad luck would have it, all the senior team members are out for the day, meetings and whatnot, but there is someone I’d like to introduce you to right now. Her name is Friday and she is responsible for keeping all of us safe and making sure everything in this place runs smoothly. Say hello, Friday.”

“Hello, Mr. Barnes, and welcome the Avengers Compound. If there’s anything I can help you with, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”

As expected, Barnes looked up at the sound of the voice. Alice herself couldn’t get rid of that habit, even after a year. “Friday is an artificial intelligence, or AI for short, created by Mr. Stark. By far the most advanced in the world, on the bleeding edge of AI technology.”

“You flatter me, Ms. Blackwood,” Friday chimed in, “I am really just a rather complex computer system. I was initially designed to be the main user interface for Boss’ Iron Man armor, but have now been integrated into the entirety of the Avengers Compound.”

Barnes still had a confused, but curious look on his face, so Alice tried to explain further. “The way Mr. Stark explained it to me is that she’s a learning machine. The more you interact with her and the more situations and issues she deals with, the more autonomous she becomes.”

“So she learns from experience, just like we do?”

“Essentially, yes. It’s really amazing, to be honest. If I didn’t already know, I don’t think I’d be able to tell she’s artificial,” Alice replied enthusiastically (Friday always fascinated her), but then realized she was discussing Friday’s amazing capabilities with the Winter Soldier, and immediately reigned herself in.

“Now, if you have any questions or need help, she is your best option. She’s always online, so all you have to do is ask. As a side note, that also means she monitors the Compound 24/7. Definite lack of privacy,” Alice shrugged, “but I guess that’s the price you pay for living in a superhero facility. Honestly, you get used to it after a while. And Friday doesn’t judge, do you, hun?”

“Absolutely not. I only judge when someone is setting the training room on fire. Again,” Friday’s voice took on a distinctly put-out tone.

Alice shook her head, taking just a moment to marvel at the fact that an AI system could hold a genuine grudge. “Moving on to the next point - has anyone gone over the terms of your pardon with you?”

Barnes turned to face her and nodded. “Yes, once the, uh— the excitement of my arrival at the embassy died down, one of the delegates there sat down with me and explained how the pardon is supposed to work.”

“Good, that means less work for us now. But to reiterate some important points - until further notice, we ask that you remain on the Compound grounds and not leave them without a designated escort - likely one of the senior team members.” 

Alice took a few steps over to the night stand and picked up a small circular magnetic pin. “This is your access badge that will get you around the Compound. There are sensors at every entrance and if the light’s green, you’re good to go.

“The other key element of your pardon is, of course, your treatment using Mr. Stark’s Retro Framing technology. Now, he will be the one personally overseeing all of the treatment sessions, but he is currently out of the country and won’t be back until tomorrow night, so nothing will begin until next Monday at the earliest. It’ll give both of you time to prepare, and I’m sure you’d like some time to get your bearings straight.”

The response she got from the man was once again a polite nod and a quiet “Thank you, ma’am.” For some reason, this polite and respectful routine was finally getting to her, aggravating her mood and bringing that simmering anger back to the surface. Arrogance and righteousness she could handle, but this solemn, deferent act felt downright insulting. She didn’t need him to be grateful for every little thing! 

God, she knew she was being irrational, but maybe she just wanted to be angry. Or hell, maybe she didn't even know what she wanted anymore. But it didn’t matter, she was almost done and then she could escape back to her office, turn on her favorite TV show, and drown herself in the biggest glass of wine she could find.

“I know this is a lot to take in, but I do live on site and I am available if you have any questions that come up later. But for the time being, is there anything I can answer for you now?”

Barnes contemplated her words for a moment, running through god knows what kinds of scenarios in that super soldier head of his. 

Finally he spoke. “You said you were a SHIELD agent?”

That’s what he wanted to know?

“Oh yes, I’m sorry, I never really gave a good introduction of myself, did I? Yes, I worked with SHIELD for a number of years. Air Force and US Intelligence before that. I’ve been here with the Avengers for only a year, give or take, but not to worry. Unless we’re getting attacked by aliens, any issue that comes up is nothing I haven't seen in my twenty years of experience.”

Barnes walked over to the bed and slowly sat down on the edge, running a distracted hand over the decorative pillow that rested atop the plush comforter. Alice wasn’t sure what else he expected from her when his only response was a quiet hum of contemplation, but then it dawned on her that his only real interaction with SHIELD was during the Hydra fiasco.

“I know me saying this is not evidence enough, but I am not nor have I ever been a Hydra agent. I know SHIELD was infiltrated, trust me, I spent countless sleepless nights agonizing over that, but the agency wasn’t just Hydra agents. Most of us were decent people who were working there to protect our country.”

Okay, so maybe that came out a bit more defensive than she intended, but Barnes gave a more assured nod this time as he looked straight at her. 

“Don’t worry, I believe you. I know Hydra agents and you’re definitely not one of them.” 

“I appreciate the accurate character assessment, but may I ask why?” she asked with a raised brow, expecting some general platitudes. 

Barnes only smiled his weary smile at her and all of the sudden his eyes looked so tired and ancient. “No Hydra agent I’ve ever known had carried so much pain and grief inside them.”

For a moment, her whole body ran cold and she was sure her heart stopped. In the next second however, she was flushed with a burning rage that erupted in her chest and spread through her whole being, down to her fingertips. She was certain her cheeks flushed red as well, but with all the willpower within her, she managed to only raise her eyebrows in feigned surprise.

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to, Mr. Barnes.”

“I don’t need to have super soldier senses to see how much you’re hurting… or to see how much you hate me,” he added reluctantly. “May— may I ask what it was that I did?”

God, the way he asked that - earnestly, with no trace of arrogance or defensiveness. As if he was resigned to the fact that her hate must have been justified. 

She had to look away from him in that moment, even though she knew that would break whatever facade she was trying to maintain. Her hands were shaking again and she could feel the anger choking her. She wanted to scream, but there was still a logical part of her pointing out that the man sitting here wasn’t even the true reason for her anger. A victim of horrible circumstances or a case of misguided loyalty, at worst. No, the true targets of her anger were hiding away somewhere, running away like cowards and never facing up to the consequences of their actions. 

Her training and her logic dictated that she should politely excuse herself and walk away from this until her raging emotions were under control. But the anger inside her still wouldn’t let her breathe. It needed an outlet; otherwise she knew she would drown. 

The involuntary laugh that escaped her next was humorless. “The real problem, Mr. Barnes, is that you’re not even the man I’m truly angry with and somehow, that’s even more frustrating. Because I can’t help it. Because every time I look at you,” she spat out, finally facing him again, “all I can think about are your goddamn teammates, who leave nothing but destruction and death in their wake, over and over, without ever facing justice!”

The sudden outburst finally got some sort of normal human reaction from Barnes. His eyes were widened in surprise and that confused furrow in his brow was back. “You’re angry with— with Steve?”

“Don’t—” she marched right up to him, caution be damned. With the anger-fueled adrenaline pumping through her veins, she could take on the damn Winter Soldier himself. “Don’t you fucking say his name in front of me. Don’t mention him or that redheaded harpy or any of the others for that matter!” 

It was obvious Barnes was genuinely taken aback by her outburst. A small, barely there voice of reason inside her head told her it was because she exploded at him out of nowhere and he probably thought that out of the two of them, she was the crazy one.

It was time to take a deep breath, but she wasn’t done. There was no way she could stop the words from tumbling out of her now. “Do you want to know who your teammates truly are? Because let me tell you, you’re not the only one with blood on his hands… But at least, you don’t strut around, proud of it, flaunting your actions like a god-given, righteous gift to humanity,” the disdain in her voice was palpable. 

She took Barnes’ stunned silence as her cue to continue. “Do you remember the time when you showed up on the scene?” Her question was deliberately casual and she wasn’t expecting an answer. “It was right around the time the whole Hydra infiltration was finally coming to light. Brave Captain America and the courageous Black Widow taking on the entire shadowy organization on their own, saving the world, one righteous punch at a time.

“Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Hydra was exposed and I will probably never forgive myself for not realizing it sooner,” her own guilt was potent and bitter on her tongue, but she continued, “so the Widow did what she had to do, right? Every dirty little secret SHIELD ever had, every piece of intel dumped onto the internet. Finally, Hydra was exposed!” she paused for a moment, tired of her own sarcasm. “But do you know what else happened, Mr. Barnes?” she asked more solemnly instead.

The look of realization in Barnes’ eyes told her the implications of what the Widow did were not lost on him. 

“That’s right. Every piece of intelligence was out in the open, up for grabs by anyone with a basic set of computer skills. It wasn’t just Hydra agents who got exposed. No, Mr. Barnes, it was every single intelligence agent, past or present, good or bad. And most of them were the good guys. They were people who dedicated their life to the service. People who were undercover in some of the most dangerous places on Earth. People whose entire lives depended on the security of that information. They were my colleagues, my friends and— and some of them— they never even got the chance to find out why before someone put a bullet through their fucking head!”

There were tears in her eyes, even though it took her a moment to realize that. In the time since the fall of SHIELD, she never really had the chance to say any of this. Not this way. No one ever gave her a chance to scream and rage and cry. When all of this was over, she knew she would probably pity Barnes for ending up as the recipient of her bottled-up grief.

But there was understanding in his eyes now and she both craved it and hated it at the same time. He didn’t say anything, so she wiped away the stray tear and continued, albeit more calmly. “I was on assignment too. Almost four months spent inside an awful, violent Russian drug cartel. Lots of illegal weapons and prostitution too, the usual deal. I ended up being one of the lucky ones…” She had to wrap her arms around herself because the memories were forcing a chill through the heat of her anger. “Mr. Stark— as soon as he found out about the data dump and what it meant for agents like me, he used every resource he had to encrypt the data. There was no time to pick and choose which data to protect, so he went after all of it, but he did use his tech to pinpoint the information relevant to active agents. If any intel about us fell into the wrong hands, it was basically a death sentence. At the time, all I got was a short message basically saying my cover was compromised and I needed to get out, but later, Mr. Stark told me of the effort he went through trying to contact each and every agent and get them to the closest safe house available. God, he must’ve spent days of relentless, sleepless work to get so many of us out of harm’s way.”

Her voice was hoarse and she had to stop because it was the grief, rather than the anger, that was threatening to choke her this time. 

“Mr. Stark saved my life, but not everyone was as lucky as I was. I spent days at the safe house, mourning one friend after another as the news of their death rolled in. Dozens dead in a matter of hours. Lives and years of undercover work completely ruined. But you know what was worse?” Again, her question didn’t require his response. “It was seeing their faces on TV weeks later, flaunting their actions as something heroic. The Widow was proud of what she did, just— just so fucking arrogant! Of all the people, I thought she’d understand… Just like her, I know sometimes you have to make hard decisions. You make sacrifices for the greater good. But you never act like those sacrifices never happened! Actions have consequences and you face up to them, no matter how good your intentions may have been!

“That’s what Mr. Stark was trying to do with the Accords. In addition to just trying to protect his team by taking control of the inevitable government intrusion, he truly believed that all of us are responsible for what we do, both good and bad. We all have to answer for our actions…

“But I guess some of us never do… Instead, some of us spit in the face of those efforts, spit in the faces of 117 countries who are just trying to find a solution to the chaos…” Alice scoffed, “…All for one man.” She didn’t mean to bring it back to Barnes, but here he was, the catalyst of so much damage during the Civil War. “And then Siberia? I know I don’t have all the details, but I do know you left Mr. Stark to die. His suit was disabled - if Vision and a rescue squad didn’t get there in time, he would’ve been dead within a day.” 

There was genuine shock in Barnes’ eyes which he didn’t bother hiding. Huh, she didn’t expect that. Alice wondered if it was possible that he didn’t know.

Figures that even then, Rogers is the one leaving a teammate behind to die. I should’ve expected it.

Looking down at the floor, all she suddenly felt was exhaustion. The ensuing silence between them lasted only a few seconds, but they felt like an eternity to Alice, and she didn’t expect the thing to break it to be Barnes’ quiet “I’m sorry.”

He slowly began to get up, which caused Alice to stumble a few steps back. She was way too emotionally compromised to maintain any sort of composure around him at this point. When he did stand up, he made no move to get any closer. “There’s nothing I can do or say to bring back the people you lost. And I'm sure my apology doesn’t mean much… but I am so sorry. And the bunker— I didn’t know his suit was disabled, that he wouldn’t be able to leave. That— that whole fight should have never happened.” 

The sincerity in Barnes’ voice and the genuine remorse in his eyes quieted something that used to be sharp and raw inside of her. “I guess someone has to be sorry… but seems like, it’s always the people who have the least to be sorry for that are the ones apologizing…”

Barnes scoffed. “I have so many things to apologize for.”

“Maybe… But— You’re not to blame for my personal grief…” Somehow, it was easier to accept that now that the anger was out in the open and no longer eating away at her from the inside. “It’s not my place to be your judge. I— Oh god—” Reality was finally catching up with her. “This— this shouldn’t have happened. This conversation should have never taken place. I—” she swallowed hard and bit back the tears that threatened to appear again. “I’m going to leave this room now and going to go drown myself in a bottle of wine and if I’m not fired by then, I’ll come back here tomorrow morning as the Director I’m supposed to be and we can try this whole thing over again.”

She knew that she was leaving the super soldier under Friday’s watchful gaze, so nodding to herself, she gave Barnes one last look, and without another word, briskly walked out of the room. Running away was never in her nature, but today, the universe was conspiring against her and it was okay to run just this once.

Chapter Text

“Miss Friday, could you please help me save the latest copy of the Accords to the uh— the Starkpad? And any newspaper articles you think would be useful?”

“Of course, Mr. Barnes. The entirety of the Accords have been saved to your device, as well as detailed notes on the amendments made in the past six months. Additionally, I provided 36 articles from a variety of news sources that discuss the Accords in depth. I hope you find my selection to be representative of the different viewpoints regarding the documents.”

Bucky tapped the newspaper icon on the electronic device in front of him and the aforementioned articles came up on display. He smiled despite himself because all this future technology still amazed him. Research like this would take days in the forties.

“Thank you, ma’am, this is perfect.”

“I am happy to be of assistance, Mr. Barnes.”

Bucky’s response was a distracted nod, as he was already scanning down the articles, deciding which one he wanted read first. The amount of information was overwhelming, if he were honest, but he had a lot of free time at the moment, so why not do something productive with it? And while a part of Bucky (he recognized it as a trait of his former self from before) craved information about the future— the new technology, the cutting edge developments in science, medicine, transportation, you name it, all the things that used to fascinate him— he knew that it was important to understand the context of his situation. Stark and Steve literally went to war with each other over these Sokovia Accords (and him, he had to reluctantly admit). The least he could do was to educate himself and see where he stood on the issue.

After a few more hours, the words began to blend into nonsense in front of him and Bucky knew it was time to take a break. He let himself fall back on the bed, his hand behind his head as he let his eyes rest, and thought back on his first day at the Compound.

After Ms. Blackwood’s rather hasty departure, he remained in the rooms provided to him, not wanting to cause anymore trouble by being somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be. Not that it was such a huge burden. With their sleek and modern design, the living quarters offered plenty of space, while the beautiful decorations and furnishings still made the place feel comfortable and cozy. The quarters consisted of a bedroom, with the massive king-sized bed, dressers, and an oversized reading chair, a small office space with a desk and bookshelves, and finally a very modern-looking bathroom. It took a bit of effort to figure out how to operate the high-tech shower, but then, with its multiple shower streams coming out of the ceiling and the walls, as well as the perfect temperature control, Bucky decided to add it right toward the top of his list of “Favorite Things about the Future.” He wasn’t ashamed to admit that he took way longer than necessary to just enjoy the hot water, letting it run over his body and slowly work the tension out of his muscles. He’d been on high alert ever since he left Wakanda and he needed to relax and unwind.

Frankly, he was thankful to have the rest of the night all to himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he was both alone and relatively safe. When he was on the run, every part of him was in constant combat mode, always scanning for threats and evaluating whether he needed to disappear again. When he was in the relative safety of Wakanda, he never got a moment to himself.

Thinking back to his last conversation with Steve left a bitter taste in his mouth, and although Bucky knew it was selfish of him, he was still putting off that promised phone call while hoping that T'challa would keep Steve and the others from rushing across the ocean to "rescue" him.

He also felt guilty - for lying to Steve and for taking off without so much as a goodbye. He wanted to get better so desperately though and he honestly thought Steve would understand that, but somewhere down the line, they stopped seeing things eye to eye and Bucky had no choice but to run from that disastrous conversation. He spent half of that talk with Steve trying to hold back a very irate Soldier who bristled at each possessive note in Steve's voice, and he was worried that if he didn’t take off, he’d do more than just bruise Steve’s wrist. 

There was no turning back now. Maybe this was the end of the line for them, but Bucky hoped that Steve would someday forgive him and understand why he did what he did.

He planned to spend the rest of that first night enjoying the comfortable bed, but a tentative knock at his door changed that plan. What he found outside was a quickly retreating back (whoever knocked did not want to have a friendly chat with him), a large tray with a full meal, and a box that said “StarkPad” on it in bold black letters. A hastily scribbled note from Ms. Blackwood included several apologies as well as a please eat, and get Friday to show you to how to work all the tech in your room. The Starkpad is an ‘I’m sorry I was a basket chase’ apology gift”.

The food was delicious (he hadn’t had a decent, simple meal of steak and potatoes since— well, since forever) and he did in fact spend the rest of the night quietly conversing with Friday as she walked him through setting up the StarkPad and giving him an AI’s insider view into the world wide web.

The next morning, as promised, Ms. Blackwood was at his door at 7 am sharp and after another round of apologies on her part, they ended sharing a quick breakfast, situated at the smaller table in the kitchen, rather than the spacious dining room.

The woman was more composed that morning, all professional smiles and small talk, and she made a point to insist that her anger was misplaced and it wasn’t fair to take that out in him, especially when he was here to get help. 

Bucky appreciated the gesture for what it was, even though he could see that the woman was still uncomfortable around him. She hid the grief well, but not well enough to escape Bucky's notice, and he knew this was the type of grief she would carry with her for the rest of her life.

However, the anger he saw the day before was muted now, just a shadow of the boiling fury that she tried (and eventually failed) to hold back and he was genuinely glad that his presence gave her a chance to vent that anger and find some semblance of peace. Besides, their conversation left him with several new issues to mull over - about Steve and Natalia, the other Avengers, and about Stark. It was such a glaring contrast - remembering how the others spoke of Stark and then hearing Alice talk about him, her voice always colored by admiration, respect, and a touch of protectiveness.

They parted ways soon after breakfast. While Ms. Blackwood made it clear that he could use any of the facilities in the East Wing (which apparently included a full training room, a pool, and a common room that was infrequently used for movie nights, among other things), his room sounded like a comfortable enough place to settle, and so in Friday’s company, he spent the rest of the day trying to get his head around the current political situation. 

Now, the comforting warmth of the room and the softness of the bed was slowly lulling him into a light sleep, but before he could let himself indulge in an afternoon nap, there was another knock on his door. 

He expected Ms. Blackwood, but when he opened the door, the woman’s formidable frame was nowhere in sight. Instead, there was a younger boy, probably in his early teens, with a mop of brown hair and then there was— huh, it was that kid he fought a year ago, still clad in his bright red and blue costume. Bucky blinked at them for a moment, unsure of what to say, before letting out a tentative “Hello?”

“Hi, Mr. Barnes! I hope you remember me, we fought that one time at that airport in Germany! It was like the coolest fight I’ve ever been in!” the boy in the costume gushed and yeah, Bucky definitely remembered how confused he was when he fought the kid. Whether it was the boy’s over-the-top enthusiasm, the bizarre web slinging powers, or the fact that he was just a kid, that threw Bucky off the most, he couldn’t say.

The other boy scanned him over once, top to bottom, and then gave him the most unimpressed look Bucky had ever seen on a face that young.

“You know, he sounded way cooler when you described him,” he addressed the other boy, “I thought you said he’s supposed to have this awesome metal arm?” 

Between the boy’s expression and that completely unapologetic disappointment in his voice, Bucky had to hold back an amused snort. Who was this kid? 

“Sorry about him, apparently he was raised in a barn,” the spider kid hissed out at his companion. “This is Harley, but you should ignore him, because he has no manners. And I’m Spiderman!”

“Hey, how come you get a secret identity name and I don’t?”

“Because you’re not a superhero.”

Harley crossed his arms and scoffed. “Whatever, I was the one who helped Tony fight off all those AIM creeps.”

“And I was the one who helped Mr. Stark fight— well, him,” Spiderman pointed to Bucky awkwardly as he rubbed the back of his head. Even though Bucky couldn’t see the boy’s expression behind the mask, he could guess there was a sheepish smile there. “And I fought Captain America too! And that weird Ant-man guy.”

Harley rolled his eyes. “Ooh, fighting Captain Jerkface, what an accomplishment.” Wow, this kid was really hard to impress.

Spiderman shook his head. “Never mind that. Um, we knew that the East Wing was going to be empty,” he addressed Bucky again, “so we just wanted to come by and say hello and welcome you to the Avengers Compound!”

Harley’s muttered “I just wanted to see the cool arm,” was not lost on Bucky and this time he couldn’t help his smile. These kids were obviously not scared of him and in their eyes, he was neither Bucky Barnes, Captain America's Best Friend nor Winter Soldier, Fist of Hydra. He wasn’t sure what to make of this conversation, but it was the first bit of levity he had in years, and it left him feeling almost lightheaded. Leaning his right shoulder against the door frame, he looked the two boys over and cocked his head to the side.

“Are the two of you even supposed to be here?”

There was that sheepish expression on Spiderman’s mask-clad face again. “Well…” he drew the word out, “technically it’s just you who’s not allowed in the West Wing yet—”

“And according to Friday, they haven’t updated the access protocols for any of us, so we’re still totally allowed here,” Harley finished. “Plus, Friday likes us, so she won’t tell on us as long as we’re not getting into too much trouble.” 

“Don’t worry, we’re definitely not getting into any trouble! Ooh, I wonder if they’ll let you come train with us soon? That’d be so awesome, we have to show you these things we have in our training room, they’re—”

A loud, deliberate clearing of the throat caused both of the boys to pivot and when Bucky looked up, he got his first full glimpse of Tony Stark since their disastrous fight in Siberia.

The man looked… good.

Bucky admitted to himself that he didn’t have a particularly accurate baseline to compare against, but the Stark he remembered was exhausted and pale, sporting that livid black eye. This Tony Stark had color back in his face, footsteps light and sure as he walked over to the boys, taking off his orange sunglasses in one smooth, practiced move. It seemed like he was coming back from some important meeting because he was clad in a tailored black suit.

First T’Challa and now Stark? What was it with these good-looking fellas in fancy suits around here?

The thought rose unbidden in Bucky’s mind and for a second, he was grateful for the mental discipline that kept him from blushing. That was not the type of thoughts he was allowed to have right now. Sure, Stark was a handsome man (objectively!), but ogling him was not helping anything. Bucky shoved the unruly thought deep into his mind, someplace right next to the Soldier, who’d been uncharacteristically quiet since he arrived at the Compound. The Soldier must be getting bored, Bucky thought uncharitably, so there, let him deal with this.

Stark gave him a brief glance, expression not giving away anything, before his gaze focused back on the two boys who were looking more chagrined by the second. Stark’s brows narrowed in what was supposed to be a severe expression, but the mirth behind his eyes gave him away.

“You,” he pointed at Harley, “are supposed to be in the lab working on your project. I distinctly remember that was the only reason your mom let you stay here for the summer, correct?” 

Harley gave Stark a smile that failed at actually looking innocent, but the man just shook his head and swung his attention to the other boy. “And you, Spiderboy, you’re definitely supposed to be in training right now.”

“Aw, Mr. Stark, you know that it’s Spider-man!”

“Is that so?” Stark just raised one unimpressed eyebrow, a look Bucky was sure took years to perfect. “Because last I checked, men didn’t skip out on their training just so they could come bother our new resident ex-assassin.”

“We weren’t bothering him, Mr. Stark! We just wanted to say ‘hello’ and keep him company!” 

“Well, I’m sure he appreciated the effort. But now, it’s time to say goodbye, so both of you, skedaddle. Don't make me get Alice down here,” Stark threatened. He earned himself two disappointed groans, but both of the kids were already walking away. 

“It was nice to see you again, Mr. Barnes, lets hang out soon!” Spiderman threw over his shoulder as he waved, while Harley just rolled his eyes at the other boy.

“That’s right, keep walking, you troublemakers!” Stark called out at their retreating backs, but again, the strict tone was overshadowed by the fond expression he seemed unable to keep off his face. 

“Sorry about that,” Stark said, still looking in the direction of the boys who just disappeared out of sight. “Sometimes it feels like we’re running a daycare here instead of an elite superhero training facility. So…” the man’s gaze finally turned to Bucky. “I guess we should talk?”

Bucky gathered all of his mental strength and gave Stark what he hoped was a friendly smile. “I’m ready when you are.” 

***

Their talk ended up being a tour of the Compound more than anything, as Stark took him for a walk around the East Wing. Stark did most of the talking, filling in the silence with details behind the various tech they came across and with brief explanations of who else lived at the Compound. The man did ask Bucky some questions, mostly about his trek across Europe and the reception he received at the Swedish embassy.

The conversation was pleasant, polite, and completely devoid of any authenticity.

It was painfully obvious that the interactions between them were forcibly casual. He could sense that Stark was cautious around him (Bucky hoped it was only caution, rather than fear). It was evident in the tense lines of Stark’s body, the way he kept a safe distance from Bucky, and the fact that he refused to make eye contract for more than a few seconds at a time. It was also clear that Stark was not going to address any of the things that happened between them, neither Steve’s betrayal nor the fight nor his parents

Bucky realized he was okay with that. This casual conversation, that amounted to nothing more meaningful than small talk - it was honestly more than he expected. A part of him wanted to offer some apology to Stark, but what would his words even accomplish? Words wouldn’t bring back the people that he killed.

No, this easygoing atmosphere wasn't genuine, but he was willing to keep up the charade for both of their sakes. 

Finally in the kitchen, Stark gestured for Bucky to sit down on one of the bar stools around the breakfast nook as he went around to turn on what appeared to be a coffee making machine.

Before Stark could say anything, a tremor ran through the entire Compound, something that felt like an earthquake. Both Bucky and the Soldier immediately tensed and began scanning for threats, but Stark gave him a dismissive wave.

“Friday, we’re not under attack, are we?” he asked.

“No, Boss, the kids are using modified sonic waves in their training today. Expect more tremors, but I ran all the calculations and there should be no damage to any of the integral internal structures.”

“See, nothing to worry about,” Stark addressed him again, “if there’s any actual threat, Friday would’ve notified us immediately.” After taking a moment to give Bucky a scrutinizing look, he leaned against the granite counter behind him. “So, how’s your stay here so far? Alice get you situated alright? She hasn't scared you into leaving yet, has she?” he asked and in any other situation, Bucky would’ve called his tone a teasing one.

“It’s been an interesting day,” Bucky replied, but didn’t elaborate further. What happened between him and Alice was her story to tell, not his. “I think getting introduced to Friday was the highlight though. She is really something spectacular,” he added, both in an attempt to say something nice to Stark and because Friday was pretty amazing.

The compliment drew a smile out of Stark. “Don’t fall for her charm, Barnes, she’s a heartbreaker. Isn’t that right, my girl?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re referring to, Boss,” Friday dutifully replied. There was a teasing note to her words and once again, Bucky was amazed that she wasn’t a real person.

“I think she’s my favorite thing about the future so far,” he admitted with a shrug.

“Oh, Boss, he is very sweet. And he calls me ma’am too. Can we keep him?”

Stark’s sudden bark of laughter was the most genuine reaction Bucky saw from the man thus far and it was clearly contagious because Bucky realized he was smiling too. 

“Alright, Friday, stop flirting with the ex-assassin, this is getting ridiculous,” Stark retorted, still with a smile in his voice. His eyes were on Bucky again. “So, what else do you like about the 21st century?”

“Well, the internet is really handy. Oh, and antibiotics too, those are swell.”

Stark let out an exaggerated hiss. “Yeah, not gonna lie, we kinda screwed up both of those things. See, the internet is now basically five percent quality content, and 25 percent people being angry at each other.”

“…And the other 70 percent?”

“Porn.”

His own surprised chuckle was unexpected, but Bucky didn’t bother trying to hide his mirth. “Oh. I see. And the antibiotics?”

“Oh, those were great for a while too. But then we went a little overboard with them and now we have a bunch of new super bugs that basically can’t be killed with anything.”

“Huh. So it sounds like while the technology and the science improved, people haven't really changed a bit?”

“Pretty much.”

“Not sure if I find that disappointing or comforting,” Bucky joked and sneaked a glance at Stark. The other man was visibly more comfortable and the smile on his face felt less plastic.

This was good. Maybe they could just keep this levity between them and avoid the darker topics that could break this tentative truce. 

Another tremor ran through the building and Stark rolled his eyes with an exasperated shake of his head. “I swear, if they break my Compound, I will— well, I don’t know what I will do, but it will be painful and humiliating and—”

The loud ding of the coffee machine cut Stark short and prompted a satisfied “Finally, my coffee," out of him. He pivoted and opened the dark redwood cupboards behind him, but then paused and let out a frustrated hum as he took in the contents inside. It took a moment for Bucky to realize why.

The coffee mugs were all on a higher shelf that was just out of reach for Stark, even if the man stood on his tip toes.

Bucky couldn’t help himself. “You, uh— do you need some help reaching those?”

The glare he got in return was a firm No.

“First off, I'm not even that short,” Tony declared almost petulantly and then his gaze swung back to the cupboard, "and second—"

Bucky got to watch as Stark, fancy suit and all, proceeded to hop up to sit on the counter and grab the closest coffee cup he could reach. 

“This is probably Rhodey’s doing,” he grumbled to himself as he jumped back down. “I swear those mugs were on the bottom shelf last week.” He glanced over at Bucky and then back to the coffee cup. “You’re gonna have to get your own if you want some, I’m not climbing back up there again.”

Stark proceeded to fill his mug to the brim and went back to the same spot in front of the still opened cupboard. Bucky absently noted that Stark was probably right about someone rearranging those cups because a lot of them were precariously placed on top of each other and some were on the edge, barely fitting onto the shelf.

Stark took a sip of his coffee and let out a pleased moan, which made Bucky realize that coffee actually did sound good, so he got out of his seat to grab a cup of his own.

Another tremor, this one longer than the other two, drew their attention as Stark held his coffee away from him with a dissatisfied grimace, trying to keep it from spilling on him. The glass cups in the cupboard, jostled by the shaking, made a cacophony of clanking noises as they danced in time with the vibrations. One of the cups caught Bucky’s eye as it moved dangerously close to the edge.

His next move was automatic - an ingrained response of any person when they saw something about to fall. He lurched forward, putting himself right next to Stark, and reached up and over his shoulder to easily catch the large red cup before it shattered against the countertop.

The loud crash of shattering glass echoed in that same moment and Bucky was confused because the mug was obviously still in his hand. When he looked back down at Stark, who was now just an inch or so away from him, he immediately realized his mistake.

Stark was ashen white. It looked like all the blood drained out of his face and he was struggling to get air, gasping with each breath. His hands were shaking. The eyes that just moments ago danced with amusement, were still looking at Bucky, but they weren’t focused on him. It was as if Stark was looking through him and the man looked absolutely terrified.

Shit, shit, shit.

Bucky felt his own heart rate jump and he stumbled back a step, unsure of what to do. “Stark?” he hesitantly called out and was about to reach out to him.

“Mr. Barnes, please step away from Boss immediately and give him at least several yards of space.” 

“What? I don’t—” Bucky looked around confused, but Friday’s harsh “Now, Mr. Barnes!” kicked his brain back into gear and he quickly backed away to give the man room, but he didn’t take his eyes off Stark. He felt helpless and all the guilt from earlier rushed back at the sight in front of him. 

God, how could he do that? He, of all people, should have known better. Hell, if someone jumped out at him like that, they’d get a face full of Winter Soldier fist for their trouble.

As he helplessly watched Stark struggle to breathe, he admitted to himself that this was what he did to people - what the Winter Soldier did, and he wasn't sure he could ever escape that legacy.

***

He couldn’t breathe. 

Oh god, he was being attacked. The Winter Soldier was here, lunging at him, coming for him, and he was going to kill him, just like his parents, he was choking the life out of him— mom, oh god, please no— and that was why he couldn’t breathe, why he was feeling dizzy and clammy, and oh god, he was going to die.

Tony’s vision blurred and darkened again, before being replaced by a sea of white. 

Snow? Siberia? Shit, shit, no, he was in Siberia now and it was Steve who was killing him. He was going to bash his head in with that shield, sever it at the neck like nothing. Or maybe he’d go for the reactor. Was that why he couldn’t breathe? Did Steve break the reactor? Oh god, not the reactor, not again, he couldn’t die like that.

He ran his numb hand frantically over and over against his chest, trying to find the hard, cold casing of the reactor, but there was nothing there.

No, no, the reactor was gone, his heart was fine. No, no, his heart wasn’t fine, because it was still racing and he was wrecked with chills, and goddamn it, why couldn’t he breathe?

Friday’s sweet voice made its way through the fog in his head and Tony almost cried from relief. He wasn’t alone, Friday was here, he wouldn’t die alone in this godforsaken frozen tomb of a bunker.

Her words were an incomprehensible mumble against the roaring in his ears, but finally he could make something out.

“Boss? Boss, you’re having a panic attack. You need to breath with me, please, Boss. Come on, inhale with me for one, two, three…”

Panic attack? Is that what this was?

“You are safe at the Avengers Compound. Exhale now—”

Tony didn’t remember the Compound ever being so cold. But Friday kept counting, over and over, and he tried to draw a breath in time with her voice.

One, two, three…

“Four, five, and hold for, one, two. Exhale now, six, seven…”

Eight, nine, ten.

The next breath was easier and Tony realized that his hands stopped tingling and the tremors lessened as well. The pain in his chest was dissipating steadily.

“Good, Boss, please keep breathing. Your heart rate will stabilize in a minute as long as you keep breathing.”

Finally, his vision slowly cleared and yeah, he was at the Compound, in the kitchen. He had spent countless hours here and it was home and it was safe. He thought he could make out Barnes standing a good distance away, but the details were still blurry and the roaring in his ears hadn’t let up. 

Was Barnes saying something? His voice was nonsense in Tony’s head, but then Friday spoke up again, a severe tone in her voice and Barnes stopped talking. Stopped moving altogether and just looked at Tony. For some reason, Tony’s brain decided that Barnes’ face deserved hi-def resolution, despite the rest of the world still swimming in a blurry haze.

He looks heartbroken.

That was the first thought that swam through Tony’s head, right along the count that he kept up in his head. It was an odd thought, Tony absently acknowledged, but it was no more odd than his next one - that between the guilt and the shame in Barnes’ eyes, the man looked like a lost puppy that just found out it was being taken back to the pound. Tony blamed the bizarre comparison on the fact that oxygen still wasn’t reaching his brain.

With another breath, the roaring finally stopped and while Tony’s heart hammered against his ribcage, it no longer felt like it was going to explode right out of his chest. 

“Boss, are you alright? Are you with me? Your heart rate is decreasing now and your hormone levels are stabilizing.”

Tony mentally noted Friday’s assessment and took a second to survey the scene around him. His cup of coffee was now in pieces and the coffee a brown, offensive stain against the otherwise pristine tile. Barnes was still standing a few yards in front of him, unmoving, with that same sad expression, clutching a large red Iron Man mug in his hand.

Oh, god.

The mug must have fallen from the cupboard during the tremor and Barnes just reached out to catch it. As the cold of his panic finally receded, Tony was flushed with the heat of embarrassment instead.

Did I seriously just have a panic attack in front of Barnes? Over a coffee mug? he thought almost hysterically. This was not how this conversation was supposed to go. Hell, the conversation was going just fine! They were civil and by some unspoken agreement, they both decided to completely avoid addressing the proverbial elephant in the room, and it was all fine! But of course, Tony had to go and have a mental breakdown over a damn cup!

Before he could say or do anything to make this situation even worse, Tony mumbled out a barely coherent “I have to go” and bolted out of the kitchen, heading straight for his lab.

***

Bucky watched Stark disappear down the hall as the man basically sprinted out of the kitchen. A part of him wanted to follow and to apologize, but he knew that would only make things worse. 

He let out a despondent sigh and realized that he was still holding that damn mug. It was an Iron Man mug, of all the things, he noted as he carefully placed it on the counter by the coffee machine. The mug had “I Heart Iron Man” imprinted on it with bold golden letters, with the heart painted on with sparkling golden glitter. It was cute and Bucky would’ve probably teased Stark about it had their conversation continued on as it had.

Things were never simple though and Bucky was lulled into a false sense of security by the ease of their first interaction. For a moment, he let himself forget all the damage he’d done and all the pain that followed him like a shadow. Stark was terrified of him and Bucky couldn’t bring himself to feel like he deserved anything less.

With another weary sigh, he eyed the mess on the kitchen floor and without much fanfare, took a handful of paper towels and got to cleaning up the spilled coffee and pieces of glass littering the floor. 

“Mr. Barnes, I can have the cleaning staff up here to clean that up,” Friday’s voice implored, but he just shook his head.

“No, it’s alright, Ms. Friday. It’s my mess to clean up.”

This whole mess is mine to clean up.

He hesitated for a moment, but decided he needed to know. “Will— will Stark be alright?”

“Boss will be fine, panic attacks are usually not dangerous in and of themselves.” Friday still sounded worried though, but maybe that was just Bucky projecting his own feelings.

“That’s good. Can you— just— please tell him that I’m sorry,” he finally stammered out. He wasn’t sure it would mean much, but he wanted Stark to know. 

***

Lying down on the couch in his lab, surrounded by the hum of his machines and the soft blue light emanating from the many screens, was exactly what Tony needed to finally get his wits back and feel like a whole man again. As his mind replayed what just happened upstairs, he realized he wasn't even mad at Barnes. No, more than anything, he was just embarrassed. He groaned and tossed his arm over his eyes in the hopes that he could just block this whole experience out.

It wasn’t helping.

“Friday, under no circumstances are you to tell Rhodey about this—”

“Uh, Boss…” Friday sounded suspiciously guilty.

“Oh no, please don’t tell me that—”

“I may have contacted him as soon as you had your panic attack.”

Tony let out another exaggerated groan because he was never going to hear the end of it. “Did you at least tell him I’m fine? I don’t want him going all War Machine in the middle of a meeting with the suits and fly here like I’m some damsel in distress.” Oh, he could see it now, Rhodey flying in here, suit and all, to rescue Tony from the evil Winter Soldier. Rhodey would probably enjoy that too, given how vocal he’d been about his mistrust of Barnes.

“I did. He said he won’t leave his meeting early, unless you need him, but he indicated that he did want to talk.” At Tony’s despondent “Ah, crap,” Friday’s voice took on a downright apologetic tone. “Sorry, Boss. I just never saw you have a panic attack like that before and my protocols are to contact Colonel Rhodes when you are in danger… So I just... panicked.”

“Boy, we make quite a pair, don’t we, Fri?” Tony couldn’t help his chuckle. He was hopeless and this whole thing was hopeless, but dammit, he was not giving up this easily. He promised to help Barnes and he was keeping that promise come hell or high water. He just had to figure out how to fix this particular mess before getting started on the rest of it.

The first thing on his list was definitely finding that stupid red mug, shattering it into a thousand tiny little pieces, and blasting the whole thing to smithereens with a repulsor blast or five.

Chapter Text

The hot tea was finally doing its job, soothing the cold in Tony’s chest as he took another generous, fortifying sip. He placed the mug gently back onto the table, not wanting the loud clank of glass against glass to displace the quiet solitude of the kitchen. 

Nightmares were an old friend to him - constant companions for many years now (Tony stopped counting just how many years a while back). The kitchen here at the Compound had become a respite to him, an escape from the darkness and the cold that plagued him most nights.

Strangely, the nightmares tonight were not what he expected. After his panic attack, caused inadvertently by the resident super soldier, he expected his usual laundry list of bad dreams - the murder of his parents, the look on Rogers’ face when he admitted that he knew, then the ensuing fight. Metal hitting metal, over and over, until there was nothing left of Tony. The cold that crept into his dead suit and throughout his whole body while he desperately begged a god he didn’t believe in not to let him die alone.

He expected any and all of those tonight. However, his mind decided to bring back an old classic and so Tony spent the night choking on water. Hateful voices all around him spat violent, foreign words as he tried and failed to tell them I don’t make weapons, not anymore, please just let me breathe. And then, the specter of the arc reactor, cold and heavy in his chest, but there was no more life in it and the shrapnel was tearing his heart to pieces. 

Tony took another sip of the tea, chasing away the shadows of the nightmare. It never did him any good to dwell.

Friday’s quiet chirp in his earpiece informed him that Barnes was making his way into the kitchen and for a brief moment, Tony debated whether to get up and leave, whether he really wanted to face the other man. But it was four in the morning, the kitchen was peaceful and warm, with its softly dimmed lights and the low hum of the appliances, and his mug of tea was still half-full, so Tony decided he didn’t want to abandon his personal safe haven just yet.

As expected, as soon as Barnes turned the corner and saw Tony at the table, he froze and almost immediately started to back away.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize someone would be here. I’ll just— I’ll leave.”

He looked a bit like a spooked animal and Tony took pity on him. “Don’t worry about it. The kitchen’s a common space, you have as much right to be here as I do.” Barnes stopped, but didn't move any closer, so Tony tried to infuse some humor into his voice with a "Looking for a late night snack?”

It fell flat and Barnes kept looking away, like he was trying to examine something particularly interesting on the tiled floor. Finally, the man sighed and let out a quiet “Just had trouble sleeping.”

The loaded meaning behind the words was not lost on Tony. Huh, he thought, apparently I’m not the only one plagued by bad memories tonight. He contemplated his next words and then making up his mind, gestured to the mug in front of him. “You want some tea?”

Barnes wasn't expecting the invitation, if the surprise in his eyes was any indication. He took a beat to respond, but then his tentative nod was accompanied with an almost shy “Tea sounds great.”

Tony took a moment to observe the man as he hesitantly made his way across the kitchen and settled into the chair on the opposite side of the small table. Barnes obviously had just woken up. He was barefoot and wearing a sleeveless black shirt and loose, comfortable sleeping pants, both of which looked new (Tony briefly wondered where Barnes was getting the clothes, but then realized that Alice and Friday must have taken care of this too). It looked like the super soldier spent the last few hours tossing and turning because he was also sporting the most ridiculous case of bedhead, with his long hair sticking out every which way. 

The sight in front of Tony was so unlike the memories he had of Barnes— a imposing, towering figure clad in combat gear, a deadly weapon in his own right— that his internal alarms remained quiet, even when the man was only a table length away. This wasn’t the Winter Soldier. No, here, in the quiet solitude of the late night, there was a vulnerability to Barnes. Tony could see it in the heaviness of his lids, the creases streaked across his cheek, and the way he nervously ran his fingers against the glossy finish of the table top.

Tony realized that he was waxing poetic in his own head and that he was staring at Barnes for way longer than was socially acceptable, so he awkwardly cleared his throat, and got up to grab the other man that promised tea. 

“Do you, uh— do you want the ‘War Machine is my Co-pilot’ mug or the ‘HULK SMASH’ one?” Tony asked over his shoulder and after another examination of their kitchen wear, muttered disapprovingly, “Okay, why are all of our dishes superhero themed? Who keeps buying all of these? Ugh, maybe we are running a daycare.” When he turned to Barnes, the other man was leaning his head on his hand, elbow resting on the table, as he watched Tony.

“I’m partial to that red cup over there by the coffee machine,” Barnes responded softly, some measure of amusement coloring his voice and Tony looked in the direction of the coffee maker. The cup was sitting innocently on the counter, in all its sparkling red and gold glory. Tony glared at it, hoping it would spontaneously combust, but when no fireball consumed it, he just let out a dramatic sigh and grabbed the damn thing, filling it with hot water and dropping in the tea bag before handing it off to Barnes and settling back into his own seat.

“Enjoy that cup while you can because I’m blowing it up for my next science experiment,” Tony grumbled, but Barnes didn’t comment on that bit of petulance. The man just gave him a small smile and quietly observed the tea, letting it brew for a minute.

Needing to fill the somewhat awkward silence, Tony gestured towards the bandaged stump of Barnes’ missing left arm. “Does that hurt at all?” he asked. “We have several doctors and nurses on site, they can take a look at it if it’s bothering you.”

“No, it’s fine. Just aches sometimes,” Barnes admitted, giving a resigned shrug. 

“Well, feel free to go to Medical if anything feels off,” Tony said and then mentally struggled with what he was about to bring up next. “So I, uh— I still have your old arm.”

Tony got a bewildered look in return, so he quickly elaborated. “When Vision came and picked me up from the bunker, he picked up the arm too. Making sure Hydra tech wasn’t lying around for anyone to find, that sort of thing. It’s been sitting in our storage ever since.”

“Oh,” Barnes sounded perplexed at first, but then his expression darkened. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not have it back. I don’t care if it means only having one arm for the rest of my life, I don’t want that thing anywhere near me,” he asserted with no small amount of revulsion coloring his voice.

God, Tony hated drawing parallels between them, but that disgust, that sense of violation was depressingly familiar. He, of all people, knew what it felt like to wake up from near death, surrounded by your enemies, and then have your body augmented, mutilated, forced to exist with this foreign, wretched sense of other. He could still remember the sickening sensation of poor Yinsen’s hands, moving around in his chest cavity during the operation.

Stop dwelling, Tony.

Instead, he focused back on Barnes. “Well, that works for me. Friday and I will make sure that arm is thrown out with the rest of the trash. Probably in some incinerated form or another,” he said and earned himself a grateful look from the super soldier.

Okay, so maybe that was a bit of a white lie. He was definitely getting rid of the arm, but not just yet. He had been avoiding that thing for a year, but maybe now was finally the time to crack it open and see exactly what qualified as a “technological marvel” by Hydra standard. Already, some part of his mind was running calculations and listing possible areas of improvement and he expected an hours-long marathon of science-y, engineering goodness in the near future, but those were all thoughts for later.

He took a drink of his tea to quiet his mind, which prompted Barnes to take a slow sip of his own.

“It’s good,” he said and tried to give Tony another grateful smile. “What’s in it?”

“Ginger and peach. Peppermint too, I think.”

“I take it you like tea?” 

“Ugh, no, I hate tea.”

Barnes blinked at him. “Then this is a weird choice for a late night drink.”

Tony huffed a self-deprecating laugh and thought whether he wanted to elaborate further. “Like any decent person, I much rather have a nice cup of coffee, but there’s— there’s this woman, she’s, uh— she’s amazing,” he revealed quietly, “one of the strongest, most capable people I know. She used to be a close friend of mine and she always used to drink this same tea whenever she was having a bad day, so I, uh— like to drink it too, whenever my day isn’t going so well.” 

A part of Tony’s heart always ached, knowing that Pepper drank that damn tea the most when he was around. They weren’t close anymore, not after everything. More business partners than friends, and Tony wished that he could fix that, get some of their old friendship back, that affectionate easy going camaraderie they used to share. But Pepper was doing so well now. She didn’t need him butting into her life again. Tony still saw her at SI functions and always took a moment to take in his beautiful, capable, sweet Pepper. That was enough.

Barnes didn’t remark on Tony's confession, just took another sip of the tea, before softly placing the mug back on the table. 

“My mother… she used to drink tea too,” Barnes murmured, watching the mug as he slowly twirled it back and forth. “I— I don’t really remember her,” he glanced up at Tony for a second, but then looked down again. “I mean, I know facts about her - her name, where she lived, where she worked. But whenever I try to remember her, there’s nothing there, no matter how deep I dig into my head. I don’t remember what her voice sounded like or what she looked like when she laughed…” 

There was no way that Tony could have stopped those words from resonating with the tender ache in his own chest. Sometimes, he wasn’t sure he remembered what his mother’s laughter sounded like either. 

“Memories are a tricky thing, Barnes,” Tony replied, trying to push away the wave of familiar grief. “Given what you went through, your memory loss is expected, but even healthy people lose their memories over time. Things fade and our brain actually alters our memories, so half the time, we don’t even remember the right things anyways. Trust me, it was one of the most frustrating things I had to deal with when I was building my BARF system—”

“…your what system?” Barnes looked up at him, confused, and Tony gave himself a mental pat on the back. That acronym was a gift that just kept on giving.

“Binarily Augmented Retro Framing system,” Tony clarified. 

“Oh. I thought everyone just called it Retro Framing?”

“Yeah, well, that’s because everyone’s a big party pooper,” Tony gave an exaggerated grumble. “I worked very hard on that acronym, you know, but obviously my genius goes completely unappreciated.” 

“Obviously,” Barnes shook his head, looking like he was trying to fight off a smile. “So, this, uh— this BARF system,” he emphasized, which drew a chuckle out of Tony, “would it bring my old memories back?” 

Tony didn’t miss the tentative hope in the man’s voice and gave a resigned sigh. “It’s unlikely. BARF is designed to deal with specific, traumatic memories, rather than to restore old ones. The way it worked, at least the initial model,” Tony explained, “was by helping you work through the trauma by reliving the bad memory in some altered form. The altered memory is projected around you and the visual is meant to let your brain overcome whatever negative associations connect with the memory.

“When the idea of your pardon came up, I began modifying the system to make it work with your specific situation. The triggers in your head, they’re memories in a sense. A conditioned response to particular words, installed into your brain by Hydra using their favorite tried-and-true method of extensive torture.” Even now, Tony could feel the nausea rise up as he remembered reading through the decrypted Hydra files. Horrific didn’t even begin to describe the fucked up things they did to Barnes - the torture sessions, the Winter Soldier training, the subsequent scrubbing of the man’s mind over and over— Frankly, Tony was impressed Barnes was still a functioning, coherent human being at this point. 

The reminder of what Hydra did to the man soured Tony’s mood and he tried to push the thoughts away, not wanting them to poison the comfortable atmosphere they were both enjoying earlier. A quick glance at Barnes informed him that the other man probably felt the same way.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to bring up the bad memories,” Tony muttered as an apology.

Barnes just shrugged. “So your system - it would help change my responses to those words then? Make it so they don’t have any power over me?”

“Essentially, yes. It’s a lot like what happens to our own normal memories over time. 'Time heals all wounds' and all that. Even painful memories fade and at some point, we may remember the facts of the event, but the pain associated with them loses its sting. That’s what the modified system is meant to do. The words somehow trigger a physical response in your brain— chemicals and hormones and electrical impulses— the same way a particularly powerful memory would. Our goal is to disassociate the words from those physical responses. Alter the memories, let you relive them in a different form, until those words trigger as much of a response as ‘potato’ or ‘coffee cup’— okay, so maybe not ‘coffee cup’,” Tony gave the Iron Man mug a mock glare. “I think we both have had enough traumatic cup experiences.” 

Barnes smiled a weary smile at the teasing tone and pointedly raised said mug in a salute before putting it to his lips and taking another sip. At the sight, Tony’s exhausted brain decided to focus in on those lips in order to point out that they looked full and soft and really, unfairly attractive.

Tony’s next move was to grab his own mug and take a drink in an attempt to distract himself from that image. 

Jesus Christ, Rhodey was right, I do need to get laid.

Tony had to force himself to look away entirely then because his brain remained uncooperative, happily cataloging the rest of Barnes and making a note of the tall, muscular stature, the stupid floppy hair falling into his face, and those brooding, blue eyes— yeah, the guy was definitely Tony's type. 

For the love of god, Tony, you're not Friday. Stop ogling the ex-assassin.

He gave all these thoughts a mental shove, but all they did was mix with his already conflicting emotions regarding the man. It was confusing, feeling resentment, compassion, a shared sense of pain, and a physical attraction, all toward the same person. 

Barnes didn’t seem to notice Tony’s mental struggle and they both settled into a comfortable silence. The quiet was nice, peaceful almost, as they slowly finished their drinks.

After a few minutes, Barnes looked up at him, his eyes still full of that soft vulnerability.

“I’m sorry, Tony.”

Three simple words, yet they carried so much history and pain behind them. But the apology, a delicate tentative thing, still resonated like thunder in Tony’s ears. He didn’t want to talk about this, to bring up all those raw, aching memories and put them on display. He couldn’t. He raised his hand to keep Barnes from saying anything else.

“I— I know you are, I do. But I can’t— I’m sorry, I just— Not here. Not yet.

Barnes nodded his understanding, letting out a weary, soft sigh. “Can I at least apologize for that broken cup?”

Tony couldn’t help his tired huff of laughter. “Yeah, that one is definitely coming out of your paycheck.” 

“Wait. I’m getting paid for this?”

Tony’s snort was decidedly unattractive. “Oh hell, I don’t think either one of us are.”

They smiled at each other then in some simple, shared understanding and the sense of ease between them was back, for which Tony was grateful. Nothing was really fixed between them, not yet, and shitty history aside, just working through BARF and through all the Winter Soldier memories was going to be hell on both of them. So having this quiet, peaceful thing? Maybe it would get them through the inevitable, painful hurdles ahead.

It was odd, Tony confessed to himself. Here he was with the Winter Soldier sitting next to him, but any sense of terror, the grief, the resentment - it all faded back into the darkness of the late night. No, here, in this one quiet, strange moment in time, all Tony felt instead was some new, inexplicable warmth in his chest and he couldn’t help but crave more of it. 

Chapter Text

Being the leader of the Avengers, Rhodey decided as he unceremoniously threw his tie onto the recliner in his sitting room, was not all it was cracked up to be. He promptly collapsed onto the soft, well-worn recliner, right on top of said tie, and began to methodically rub his temples. 

He was fairly convinced that he’d be a lot better at this during an actual crisis, but strangely (and suspiciously), the past year has been relatively quiet on the “villains from outer space” front. Even the run of the mill Earth-made villains were sub-par these days and didn’t require much more effort than some coordinated tag-teaming between himself, Vision, Parker, and occasionally Hope or Strange.

However, contrary to what Tony believed, Rhodey had never been a particularly good diplomat. Sure, he could walk the walk, but he hated it. He was a man meant for the field, for combat, not for a suit and tie and fancy dinners with the politicians. Having to take on more of these endeavors in the past few months to lessen the burden on Tony didn’t do much for Rhodey’s blood pressure, but if it meant that the bags under Tony’s eyes weren’t quite so heavy and the smile on his face was just a touch brighter, well, Rhodey would shmooze the shit out of the entire US government if he had to.

If he were honest though, the best part of these Avengers-related travels was finally getting to come home. Nowadays, home meant hearing Parker and Harley bicker over the results of their latest science experiment in the West Wing common room. It was Alice, stopping by his office with a glass of scotch and letting him vent for just a little while. It was the bowl of fresh apples in the kitchen, the scent of which always reminded him of his childhood, that appeared mysteriously whenever he came back from a trip. He guessed the apples were a coordinated effort between Vision and Friday.

And of course, even before the Avengers Compound, even before all this superhero business, home had always meant Tony. 

At the thought of his best friend, his brother in all but blood, Rhodey opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, heaving an exasperated sigh. Unfortunately, this time around, their home had a new guest who was here barely a week and already Tony was worse off for it. 

He received the panicked message from Friday in the middle of a meeting with several US senators and House representatives and after seeing the words [Boss is having a panic attack, caused by Mr. Barnes] scroll across the screen of his StarkPhone, he wanted nothing more than to walk straight out of that meeting and fly home, diplomacy be damned. However, he waited several agonizing minutes, trying to think of the best way to excuse himself without offending the people who could make their lives more difficult, and was eternally grateful when the next message across his screen was [Boss is OK. Will continue to monitor his condition] to which he responded with a simple [Tell Tony we NEED TO TALK].

Afterwards, when Rhodey was finally free to call Tony, his best friend attempted to convince him that everything’s just fine, Rhodey Bear, would you stop being such a mother hen? Eventually Rhodey agreed not to cut his trip short, but he was absolutely not convinced that Tony had everything under control. He knew from the beginning that Barnes would be a problem and so far, Rhodey wasn’t wrong. 

He felt exhausted after this trip, evident in the sharper than usual pain shooting down his legs. Tony’s custom-made braces gave him the ability to walk again and more, but even with them, he tired more quickly and the dull ache never really went away. Unfortunately, there was no time for rest. Rhodey knew he’d have to deal with their new interloper sooner or later.

“Friday, can you tell me what Tony and Barnes are up to?”

“Mr. Barnes is currently in his quarters reading and Boss is in the West Wing Training Room 5, preparing for the first BARF session with Mr. Barnes.”

Rhodey sat up. “Wait, the first session is today?”

“Yes, Colonel Rhodes.”

“Dammit, I told that stubborn idiot not to start without me,” Rhodey groaned. 

“To be fair, Boss hasn’t actually started yet.”

Rhodey didn’t dignify Friday’s sass with a response (and why was it that all of Tony’s creations inevitably ended up being sassy, sarcastic little shits?). Instead, with all the willpower he had left, he abandoned his warm, comfortable recliner and headed for the training rooms.

***

This particular room had a viewing area above it, separated by glass and meant for observation by both coaches and trainees; it reminded Rhodey of a surgical theater. Usually, the room below was filled with floor mats, training dummies, weapons, and other training equipment, but it looked like Tony had appropriated the entire thing for this new science experiment of his. There was a hologram table that projected multiple screens full of data and images - Tony adjusted something on one of them and then pivoted over to examine the tray of tools situated next to a simple chair that looked suspiciously like one of the chairs from their kitchen. Rhodey could also see multiple holographic projectors placed all around the room.

Tony was obviously in full science mode because he didn’t notice him at all, and that gave Rhodey a chance to observe the other man. His best friend didn’t look particularly stressed, but Rhodey also knew that Tony was very good at putting on an act. He mentally sighed, knowing that at this point, they wouldn’t get the chance to really talk until this whole Retro-whatever session was over. 

Rhodey turned on the audio connection to the training room. “You know,” he said and Tony looked up right away at the sound of his voice, a smile spreading across his face, “I’ve been back for hours and I don’t even get a simple ‘welcome back, oh fearless leader’?”

“Welcome back, oh fearless leader, oh Rhodey, my Rhodey, the moon to my stars!” Tony singsonged back and gave him a self-satisfied grin. He was standing right in the middle of the controlled chaos on the floor, holding a particularly heavy-looking piece of scanning equipment. “Been a little busy here,” Tony added, this time with a bit of a strained huff.

“Apparently. Now put that thing down before you break your back, old man.” 

Tony complied, but not before muttering a petulant “You’re an old man.” He adjusted a few more dials on the hologram screens and then turned back to look up at Rhodey. “So, how was the trip, Honey Bear? Did you play nice with the politicians? I want to hear all about it.”

“Well, no one’s trying to sue us this week, so I guess that’s a plus. But we can talk about that later. What I want to know is why I had to hear it from Friday that you’re here setting up for the first session with Barnes,” he pointedly raised an eyebrow at Tony, who looked away sheepishly.

“Just trying to move things along,” Tony responded and after a pause added, “you don’t have to supervise, you know. It’ll be fine. And hell, we’re just doing baseline testing today.”

Rhodey was having none of it. “Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Just like you were fine when Barnes drove you into having a full blown panic attack!”

“That was an accident! And he didn’t do it on purpose. Actually,” Tony suddenly pointed an accusatory finger at him, “that whole thing was your fault! You’re the one who rearranged the damn coffee cups!” 

Rhodey had to take a moment to respond. “Ok, Vision and I may have moved all the mugs around to mess with the more vertically-challenged among us,” he admitted and it was worth it just to see the priceless, put-out look on Tony’s face, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Ugh, so there was this damn mug and— no, you know what, it’s a long story, and the real point is that Barnes and I are just fine. He’s been here for a week and neither one of us tried to kill each other. Hell, we even had lunch together the other day. We’re basically best friends at this point.” 

Tony was obviously trying to avoid this discussion, but Rhodey could be stubborn too. “Fine. We’ll discuss your panic attack later. And I’m still overseeing this session.”

Tony scoffed as he played around with one of the screens. “Only if Barnes says it’s okay.”

“Since when did Barnes get promoted to being the boss of this place?”

“Since it’s his brain I’m gonna be rooting around in today.” Huh, the glare Tony gave him was actually genuine. Was he really being defensive on the super soldier’s behalf? Rhodey sent a mental prayer to the heavens because he did not have the patience to deal with this today.

This wasn’t unexpected though. Rhodey remembered how stubborn Tony was on some issues when they first began hashing out the details of the pardon and Barnes’ treatment. One of those issues was Tony being adamant that Barnes had as much privacy as possible during these sessions.

Rhodey understood the sentiment, he did. He even sympathized with Barnes on a logical, objective level. The man was a victim, plain and simple. However, logic meant little in the face of the simple fact that Rhodey loved Tony and didn’t give a shit about Barnes. However, he also knew this was important to Tony and in the end, his best friend always did what he wanted, so it was better if he wasn’t forced to go behind Rhodey’s back to so.

“If he’s uncomfortable with me being here, I’ll leave,” he reluctantly agreed.

“Thank you, Rhodey,” Tony’s tone softened and the gratitude that crossed his face and the fond look that followed were worth it. “Speaking of the resident super soldier… Friday, could you call him over? We might as well get this over with.”

While they waited for Barnes, Tony coaxed him into retelling some parts of his meeting with the Secretary of Defense, but before long, the man of the hour finally showed up in the training room. 

The last time Rhodey saw James “Bucky” Barnes was at the German airport, during that idiotic joke of a fight. It was odd, comparing the man before him to the man he saw on the battle field. This Barnes moved with deliberate caution, hesitant and unsure, and didn’t seem to take full advantage of his considerable stature. The man was wearing a plain black shirt with a simple pair of jeans and sock-clad feet. Nothing about his appearance screamed trained killer, but Rhodey supposed that could be the whole point. There was a reason he remained was one of Hydra’s greatest assets for seven decades. 

Tony’s voice broke him out of his observations. “Barnes, I’d like to introduce you to our esteemed leader,” Tony pointed to him, prompting Barnes to look up, “and current Avengers bossman, Colonel James Rhodes, although most of us just call him Rhodey. Or Honey Bear, if that’s what you’re into.” 

Rhodey’s first instinct was to roll his eyes and match Tony’s sass with some of his own, but he ignored the compulsion and instead gave Barnes his best stare-down. The man below didn’t seem particularly cowed, which was frustrating, but at least he responded with a polite “It’s an honor to meet you, Colonel.” 

Tony obviously noted his attempt to intimidate Barnes, because he shook his head with exasperated disapproval. “Alright, so here’s the deal. Rhodey wants to observe the first session to make sure I behave myself,” Tony continued, and by the way Barnes gave Rhodey a wary glance, it was obvious he knew it wasn’t Tony’s behavior that was in question.

“All we’ll be doing today is establishing a baseline. Any memories we pull up will be visible to all three of us, but we’ll only focus on the good ones today.” Here, Tony’s expression turned serious and his tone quieter, although Rhodey could still hear him. “It’s up to you. If you don't want him here, then Rhodey will just have to come visit us later.” 

Rhodey couldn’t help his mental scoff, but thankfully, after a moment of scrutinizing both him and Tony, Barnes nodded his assent.

With that, Tony turned back to his fancy science equipment and once he deemed it ready, he pivoted the empty chair so that it no longer faced Rhodey. Next, he asked Barnes to sit in it, who complied with the same hesitance. Rhodey noted how the man gave a suspicious scan to all the different equipment and tools in the room and it wasn’t hard to see that this couldn’t have been easy for Barnes, given his history. 

Tony adjusted a few more holographic levers, ordered Friday to prepare the scanning equipment and then turned to Barnes, but before he was able to get out whatever he was going to say next, he paused and furrowed his eyebrows at the other man, who was sitting so stiffly in the chair, one would think he was awaiting his last rites. 

“What exactly happened to your hair today?” Tony asked instead, gesturing to the admittedly tangled mess on Barnes’ head that looked like a failed attempt at a pony tail.

“It was getting in my face, so I tried to tie it back,” Barnes mumbled out, and Tony just rolled his eyes.

“You look like a ragamuffin.”

“Okay, I have no idea what that is,” Barnes responded, less sullen than before, and was that— a touch of humor in his voice?

“It means that this,” Tony gestured in the general direction of Barnes’ head, “is a mess, and if you haven’t noticed, we have standards around here.”

“And if you haven’t noticed, I only have one arm,” Barnes retorted and there was a ghost of a smile on his face. 

“Ugh, you can only use that as an excuse for so long, Barnes,” Tony replied with a eye roll and to anyone else, this whole conversation would have looked like a lesson in insensitivity, but Rhodey realized that the two were enjoying this back-and-forth. Barnes was visibly less tense after that brief exchange.

Huh, well, that’s interesting.

Most people didn’t bother understanding the reasons behind Tony’s usual jokes and inappropriate remarks (sometimes intermixed with exaggerated flirting depending on Tony’s mood). Often, Tony used them as a defensive mechanism, but he also used them as a way to test people - to see how far he could push them before they became fed up with him. Most people got frustrated with Tony very quickly (and here, Rogers’ annoyed face materialized in Rhodey’s mind and he gave the image a mental growl). Rhodey was one of the few who, despite what some people believed, didn’t just tolerate Tony’s antics, but downright enjoyed them (as long as they didn’t involve Tony needlessly putting himself in danger). They wouldn’t have been friends for three decades otherwise. 

And based on what he just saw on the training room floor, apparently Barnes also had some level of appreciation for Tony’s smart-ass comments, because not only did he look less stressed, he was actually responding in kind during that little banter. Rhodey couldn't help his internal groan. He always appreciated the people who actually got Tony’s charm, but why did it have to be this particular super soldier?

Tony went on to let out an exaggerated sigh. “I can’t look at this anymore. May I?” he gestured at Barnes’ head again, but made no move to get closer to him. After a beat, Barnes nodded, and Tony walked around to the back of the chair, pulled the hair tie out of the tangles and then proceeded to comb through Barnes’ hair with his hand, carefully gather it all in the back, and tie it back up.

Rhodey watched the whole thing unfold with morbid fascination. Tony’s touch was— dare he say— gentle as he ran his fingers through Barnes’ hair to get a few of the tangles out and Barnes looked completely unbothered by the whole thing. Since when were they this comfortable around each other?

Sweet baby Jesus, what did I miss? I was only gone for five days!

Once Tony was done, he stood back to observe his handiwork. “There, now you look like a presentable adult.”

“Oh good, at least one of us does,” Barnes replied without missing a beat.

“Hey, you watch it,” Tony wagged his finger at Barnes, but he was failing at keeping an amused smile off his face, “I make this look good, okay?” he gestured vaguely in his own direction. The super soldier just let out an undignified snort.

Oh god, were these two idiots actually flirting? Rhodey was about to pinch himself, to see if he was stuck in some terrible nightmare, but then he observed the two further. He saw how casually Tony went back to playing around with his screens and Barnes just resumed his examination of the room, and oh no, this was worse. This wasn’t some intentional effort to express interest. Apparently, this was just a natural manifestation of their personalities when put together in the same room and the two were entirely oblivious to it. And whatever this was, it must have helped build some sort of rapport between the two over the last few days.

All Rhodey could do was continue watching the scene below. Tony was explaining the next steps to Barnes, something about brain and body chemistry and blood samples. Rhodey tuned out most of the details to focus on the interaction between Tony and the super soldier. 

Tony picked up the intricate sensors that were meant to go onto Barnes’ temples and around his forehead. Since Tony was discussing the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, Rhodey assumed the sensors provided the necessary brain activity readings that Tony and Friday would analyze later. 

Tony didn’t move closer though until Barnes gave him an affirmative, albeit shaky, nod. There was no hesitance in Tony’s own movements when he approached Barnes and carefully— gently!— placed the sensors onto the other man’s head. Barnes was attentively watching Tony’s every move, but Rhodey had a hard time interpreting the expression on his face. Was it anxiety, resignation, or— trust?

Finally, Tony was sitting down in his own chair on Barnes’ right so he could insert the needle for the blood draw and although Tony’s next words were quiet (and clearly meant just for Barnes), Rhodey was still able to hear the reassuring “If at any point this gets to be too much, just let me know.”

Too busy with the medical equipment, Tony didn’t see the super soldier’s eyes soften when Tony let out a sympathetic hiss as the needle went in, even though Barnes gave zero indication that it had hurt at all. And yeah, that was definitely trust that Rhodey saw earlier. 

Well, fuck me sideways, this could be a problem.

Between what he just witnessed and the fact that yes, Rhodey was well aware that Barnes was exactly Tony’s type, he had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Because Tony— well, Tony had a tendency to pick up strays. Whenever he saw someone broken and helpless, Tony would develop the most fierce need to fix everything. Even though he denied it, Tony basically ended up adopting Parker and Harley, two boys without father figures (and it was still both downright hilarious and heartwarming to watch Tony, the man who never expected children of his own, try to parent two teenage boys). Hell, it even happened with Banner and Alice. Dr. Banner was an outcast who didn’t believe anyone would ever accept both him and the Hulk, and before Tony offered her the job at the Compound, Alice spent the time after the destruction of SHIELD in a dead-end job, struggling with depression and what was likely severe survivor’s guilt. 

And goddamn it, but Barnes was the perfect candidate to satisfy Tony’s need to rescue people, even given their complicated history. 

Above all things though, Rhodey was a realist, and he knew that this thing, if it ever developed into anything at all, would most likely just blow up in everyone’s face, and then it’d be him left to pick the pieces of Tony’s heart.

Rhodey focused back on the training room floor and watched Tony let out a satisfied hum when Friday informed him that all the equipment was operational.

“Alright, I need you to think of a neutral memory,” Tony turned to Barnes, “the clearest one you can find. Something mundane, that doesn’t bring any strong emotional response, good or bad. Oh, and don’t startle when images start to appear around you. It’s just the most technologically advanced virtual reality hologram system in the world, no big deal.”

Finally, it was time to flip the switch and in a few moments, the room around them transformed into a busy street, filled with rushing people and old cars. Obviously one of Barnes’ memories from the thirties or forties. Tony asked him what the memory was while simultaneously typing away on his holographic keyboard and monitoring the various outputs on the screens. 

“It’s— It’s the street I used to play on when I was a kid,” Barnes replied distractedly, as he sat up straighter and gaped at the images around him. “This— this is incredible. It looks real,” he remarked and scanned the entire scene again before looking at Tony, who just gave a shrug. 

“Let’s just say I’m pretty good at what I do.” 

Barnes didn’t argue and just went back to observing his own memory. For a few minutes, all three of them listened to the sound of the bustling virtual street. Tony was engrossed with the multitudes of screens in front of him and Barnes was drinking in all the details. Finally, Friday informed them all that she completed the initial round of scans.

“Just what I like to hear,” Tony rubbed his chin as he examined some part of the readings that came up in front of him. He turned to Barnes. “Alright, lets focus on a good memory now. Something that made you happy, excited, satisfied— you get the picture. Just find whatever’s clearest in your mind.”

Barnes dutifully closed his eyes in concentration and Rhodey watched in impressed fascination (but when was he ever not impressed by Tony?) as the holographic scene shifted around the two.

There was another crowd of people, filling the room with the background noise of excited chatter, and this time, the scene was painted with brighter colors and electric lights. There were fireworks in the night sky and a large neon sign that read “…of the Future” in bold, black letters. The first word was blurry, as well as all the faces in the crowd, an indication that Tony’s system didn’t bother reconstructing those parts of the memory. 

A younger version of Barnes, clad in his military uniform and hands resting casually in his pockets, was laughing jovially as he walked through the crowd and down a flight of stairs. Tagging reluctantly alongside him was—

Ah, shit. I hate it when I’m right.

Rhodey saw him at the same time Tony did, if Tony’s suddenly stiff posture were any indication. A projection of pre-serum Steve Rogers, wearing an ill-fitted suit over his skinny, hunched shoulder and sporting a sullen look on his face, followed the younger Barnes. The smaller man rolled his eyes when Barnes gave him a friendly shove.

“I don’t see what the problem is,” younger Barnes spoke and their Barnes opened his eyes at the sound of his own voice and proceeded to watch the memory, not bothering to hide his amazement and shock. Apparently, he was also too distracted by the scene to take notice of the effect it was having on Tony.

Typical.

“You’re about to be the last eligible man in New York. You know there’s three and a half million women here?”

“Well, I’d settle for just one,” mini-Rogers responded with a sideway glance at Barnes.

The holographic Barnes was oblivious to the look Rogers gave him; instead, he just smirked and gave a wave to two beautiful young women standing by a stone monument. “Good thing I took care of that.”

For a moment, Rhodey’s mind couldn’t settle on any one particular thought. He was amazed by yet another piece of Tony’s incredible tech, fascinated by the bizarre dichotomy between the pre-serum Steve Rogers and the version Rhodey was familiar with (the same was also true for the two versions of Barnes - the contrast was jarring), and the strained look on Tony’s face as the man watched the scene unfold had Rhodey worried. Unsurprisingly, he decided to focus on Tony.

A tinny voice echoed through the room. “A greater world. A better world!” and the scene shifted in blurring colors as Barnes and the two women ran excitedly toward a stage. Rogers followed them at a more sedate pace, looking almost annoyed. 

All three of them— Barnes, Tony, and Rhodey—  simultaneously drew in a sharp breath at the sudden cheery announcement that rolled through the room.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Howard Stark!”

What the hell? Is Barnes deliberately screwing with Tony?

But no, apparently not, because their Barnes finally realized his mistake and quickly stammered out a guilty “We can turn this off, I didn’t meant to bring up Howard—”

“No, it’s fine,” Tony cut him off, all previous good humor gone from his voice and just like that, whatever tentative truce Barnes and Tony had developed in the past few days was gone. “Can’t stop now. Don’t wanna screw up the readings.”

In the face of Tony’s cold, flat monotone, all Barnes could do was sit back in the chair, stiff and contrite, and they all watched Howard Stark’s performance on the stage, all the way through to the end when the floating car collapsed in a sea of sparks and prompted a carefree laugh from the younger Barnes. 

Rhodey had known Tony for several years before Howard and Maria’s deaths, but he had only met Howard a few times and Tony purposefully never talked about his parents back then. But watching this younger version of Howard now? It was so painfully obvious how much father and son had in common - the flair for theatrics, the drive to be the first and the very best, the unashamed flirting and the knowing, self-assured glint in their eyes. Rhodey could only imagine what Tony must have been feeling as he watched this young, carefree version of his father smile and banter with the crowd, while being literally a few feet away from the man who killed him. 

Rhodey had to swallow back the desperate urge to shut this whole thing down, drag Tony away, and hide him somewhere safe - from Howard’s ghost, from Rogers and Barnes, and from the rest of the goddamn world.

Thankfully, Friday’s announcement that she had the necessary information saved Rhodey from following through on his ill-conceived rescue attempt. He let out a sigh when all the images faded away and hoped to god that they were done.

Without another word, Tony re-focused his attention on the screens, while Barnes hunched in on himself in the chair, running his hand nervously against his jean-clad thigh.

“Well, I think we all had a fantastic time, how about we call it a day?” Tony delivered that cutting, sarcastic remark in the direction of the holoscreens, still refusing to look at Barnes, who looked guilty as hell. Good.

“I’m sorry,” he began, “I didn’t mean to bring that memory up, I didn’t think— and it was the clearest thing that came up—”

“Don’t,” Tony halted Barnes’ jumbled attempt at an apology, eyes still on the screens. “Whatever it is you want to say, just— don’t.”

Barnes’ quiet and tentative “I just want to make things better,” did get Tony’s attention, but when he finally looked at Barnes, he was furious.

Better? My parents are dead, Barnes. They’re dead because of you and now I just got to witness the ghost of my murdered father in vivid, technicolor glory, while getting the bonus of watching you and your best buddy Steve fucking Rogers laughing it up. Just like you guys did in Siberia, right? Stupid, pathetic Tony, he’s always such a joke. Was Siberia a fun, happy memory too? Maybe we should bring that up next!”

“No, that’s not it at all—” Barnes tried to plead with him, but Tony didn’t let him finish. Instead, he headed straight for the door, throwing out a careless “I need time to look at the goddamn data,” over his shoulder. 

Rhodey watched the super soldier curl in on himself and grip his hair in frustration with his one good hand, undoing all of Tony’s earlier work. 

“Funny, isn’t it, Barnes…” Rhodey remarked casually, and given the sudden flinch, the super soldier must have forgotten that Rhodey was still up here. “Funny how seeing your own dead father conjured up by the man who murdered him might change a man’s mood?” 

“I didn't mean to hurt him…” Barnes whispered and Rhodey rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, no one ever means to hurt Tony, do they? I’m sure Saint Rogers didn’t mean to keep the truth from Tony for years either and I’m sure he didn’t mean to beat the shit out of him at the bunker. Well— maybe he did. After all, he was just protecting his one true love, wasn’t he?” 

If it were possible, Barnes looked even guiltier now and Rhodey almost felt sorry for him. Almost. 

“Listen, Barnes, I don’t like you,” Rhodey decided he was done with being subtle, “and I sure as hell don’t trust you. And let’s be honest, if it were up to me, you wouldn’t be here. The only reason you’re here, getting this help, is because of Tony. I get that you went through hell and back, I do,” Rhodey paused to lock eyes with the man below, “but you’re not in hell anymore. You’re here, in Tony’s home. And you’re only here because Tony is a better person than either one of us deserves.” 

Rhodey mulled over how best to phrase what he wanted to say next, but he decided to make it simple. “I’ve been at Tony’s side for longer than you’ve been alive, and no, your assassin years don’t fucking count. A year ago, I saw you and your pals come this close to taking him away from me. I almost lost him. I’m not letting it happen again.”

Making sure to channel every bit of his protective fury, Rhodey gave Barnes one last look. “So you better watch your step around him, because unlike Tony, I won’t give you a second chance.” 

***

Why is it, Bucky thought in bitter and resigned despair as he slowly made his way back to his room, that everything turns to hell whenever I’m around? I must be cursed. Doesn’t matter where I go, I just make thing worse…

Or maybe he was just finally paying for all of his sins. Bucky wasn’t sure anymore, but when he collapsed onto his bed and curled in on himself, all he wanted was to just disappear. The world would certainly be better off for it.

The guilt he was feeling warred with the after-effects of his memory because when he thought back to the images of the Stark Expo, of him and Steve, everything inside him was overtaken by a powerful wave of nostalgia and longing. God, that memory felt so clear now, after that session, as if it had just happened yesterday, instead of seventy years ago. It must have been the result of Stark’s tech, because the emotions attached to that memory were no longer dulled or inaccessible. His excitement at seeing the Expo, the apprehension about the war and wanting to make the best of his last night… The well of affection he had for that smaller, vulnerable version of Steve…

He felt all of that so keenly now and he wished he could have all of that back so desperately that he wanted to weep. In that moment, he would have given anything to go back, to turn back time and erase the last seven decades. He wanted to be that happy young man again who, even in the face of a deadly war, was able to laugh and enjoy life with his best friend. He just wanted to go home.

Suddenly, Bucky realized what he needed to do. Stark gave him the go-ahead days ago, but he had been putting it off for one reason or another. Now though, with the glow of the memory still fresh in his mind, it was finally the right time. 

Without preamble, he found the StarkPad and connected it to the large television screen, just like Friday had taught him. He activated the secure line set up by T’Challa and Stark and waited for it to go through.

When the connection finally came online and Bucky saw the surprised expression of his friend on the screen, another wave of wistful, nostalgic affection threatened to overwhelm him.

“Hiya, Stevie.”

Chapter Text

Bucky wished that before he made this call, someone would have told him that it took exactly ten and half minutes for nostalgia to wear off completely.

He squashed down the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose in frustration as Steve’s image on the television screen continued laying out the plans for Bucky’s escape from the Compound and their subsequent rendezvous. Apparently, they were all going to go on the run again. Fantastic.

“Steve,” Bucky finally had to interrupt, “I’m not leaving the Compound and you’re not leaving Wakanda.”

Steve’s image made a frustrated noise, something between a growl and a groan. “Bucky, no, you can’t stay there. You called me, obviously upset, and I’m not about to sit on my hands while they do god knows what to you.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you - they’re not doing anything to me. Yes, I was upset—”

“Yes! Probably because Tony said or did something insensitive, like he always does! He’s just blaming you for everything, isn’t he? Or worse!” suddenly Steve’s face was overtaken with dread. “God, are they keeping you locked up? Starving you? Hurting you?”

“No!” Bucky exclaimed in frustration. “Jesus Christ, Stevie. M’not locked up. How the hell would I be calling you if I was locked up? And no one is hurting me. I just— had a bad day and I thought calling you might make me feel better.”

It didn’t.

At first, when he saw Steve on the screen, who first appeared surprised and then instantly worried, Bucky’s heart swelled. The past many decades made him forget what home even felt like and he thought, for one desperate moment still fueled by the warm echoes of the Stark Expo memory, that maybe this could be the answer. Just him and Steve, like before. But then, that yearning for the past, all that wistfulness— it was quickly overtaken by reality.

Bucky should have remembered how their last conversation went, but apparently nostalgia also gave you some impressive blinders.

The first part of the phone call consisted of Steve first reprimanding him like some child for leaving without letting them finish their conversation. Then Steve proceeded to pepper Bucky with questions - what happened, why didn’t he call earlier, why was he upset, what was Stark doing to him. Bucky tried to reply and explain his situation, but after a few failed attempts at getting even a word in edgewise, he quickly realized that Steve wasn’t actually hearing what he was saying and was instead filling in the gaps with his own answers.

Because apparently, according to Steve, the Compound was nothing more than a prison, Bucky was being horribly mistreated, and leaving everything behind to run away together was their only option.

God, Bucky hated being talked over, to have his words ignored like this. With a mental growl that matched the Soldier’s as he stirred to life in his head, Bucky acknowledged that at the very least, this phone call was putting things back in perspective again and forcing him to come out of that depressed, morose fog.

He let out a breath. “Steve, I’m serious. I don't want to leave here. Getting my head straight is just turning out to be a lot of work— no surprise there— and all I wanted was to see a familiar face.”

Steve’s eyes softened a fraction. “Of course, Bucky, you know I’m always here for you. But I should be there with you! You shouldn’t go through something like this alone.”

Maybe not, but Bucky honestly didn't think Steve was the right person to help him through this particular hell and he couldn’t help but think back to the way Stark interacted with him before that stupid memory. He recalled all the silly jokes and ridiculous comments that Stark always made, somehow at just the right time to distract Bucky from his anxiety. The way Stark never acted entitled to Bucky’s personal space and always asked before approaching him. Even the way he inquired about Bucky’s favorite foods when they had their lunch together a few days ago and then asked Friday to make sure the foods Bucky mentioned were picked up on the next grocery run. 

How Stark, despite everything, took him into his home and spent his own time, energy, and money to help Bucky.

Bucky didn't realize how much he appreciated all of these gestures, big and small, until it was all gone. Stark’s cold, furious look, infused with so much hurt, materialized in Bucky’s mind and the man’s last words rolled through his head like thunder. Bucky wondered dejectedly whether those words were something Stark said in the heat of anger or whether they were the truth of how Stark truly felt about him.

“—ucky? Buck, are you okay?”

Damn, apparently Steve was calling his name. It was odd, he realized, he hadn’t lost track of his thoughts like that in a while. 

“I’m here, I’m here,” he hurried to reassure before Steve started planning another righteous rescue attempt. “And I understand you want to be here to help me. But we both know that’s not possible. So please, just hear what I’m saying - I’m okay and everyone here has been real nice to me - much nicer than I deserve.”

“Don’t say it like that, Buck, like they’re doing you a favor. Because you have nothing to apologize for,” Steve cut in with his usual speech whenever Bucky voiced his desire to make up for the terrible things he did. He knew Steve meant well, but telling him it wasn’t his fault never helped. Somehow, it just felt like taking another bit of his autonomy away - by trying to separate him from the actions that he did in fact commit (and remembered down to the last horrible, bloody detail).

God, it was like he and Steve were back at square one again. However, before Bucky could decide whether he wanted to continue this familiar argument or just cut the call short, several other faces appeared on the television screen. Apparently, the rest of the runaways decided to join Steve on the call. 

Natalia stayed in the background and just gave him a brief nod. By the way Barton, Lang, and Wilson stumbled into the view of the camera while letting out uncharacteristic fits of giggles, Bucky assumed they were all drunk.

And then Wanda appeared on Steve’s right and Bucky thought she might have been saying hello or asking how he was, but he couldn’t hear her over the sudden roar of the Soldier in his head. The immediate flood of rage and violence that overtook him at the sight of that woman made Bucky physically flinch and he had to use every bit of his willpower to push the Soldier back, lest that need to kill made him punch the television screen. Or worse.

He never understood why the Soldier reacted to Wanda like this, but it had been the same way ever since they arrived in Wakanda and Bucky finally had a chance to spend some time around her. He eventually had to avoid the woman at all costs because the Soldier hated her. All that Steve told him about her was that her parents were killed by Stark’s weapons and even though she was initially fighting against the Avengers, fueled by the need for justice, she eventually switched sides and helped them defeat Ultron. Bucky knew all about the need for second chances, so he didn’t hold Wanda’s past against her, but any time he was around her (and especially if she was using her bizarre magical powers), the Soldier pushed so much harder against his mental defenses, as if she were a threat, an enemy, a mission to kill

Bucky swallowed hard and gave a strained “Hello, everyone.” Thankfully, Natalia was, as always, more perceptive than Steve, because she quickly pulled a confused Wanda away and Bucky could hear Natalia off-screen, asking the other woman to join her in the kitchen. 

“Hey, is that Barnes on the screen?” Barton slurred out as he made his way over to Steve. “Did you convince him to get his ass back here yet?” he addressed Steve first who said something about Bucky being stubborn, but then Barton looked into the camera as he took another drink from his bottle. “Yo, Barnes, come on, didn’t you have enough of Stark’s shit yet? It’s been— what? Two weeks? I bet you’re wishing you never left, huh? Did they introduce you to the Raft yet?”

“I’m fine, actually. Thanks for asking,” Bucky replied coldly, fueled both by the Soldier’s wrath and by his own dislike of this belligerent version of the man. Sober Barton was difficult enough, but drunk Barton made Bucky want to punch the man. Repeatedly.

“Ha, he’s fine, Steve, isn’t that cute?” Steve tried to push Barton away, but it was obvious he didn’t want to use his super soldier strength on him. “What, happy to be there then? Is Stark being so good to you? Don’t you worry, just give it some time. He’ll stab you in the back like he did the rest of us.” 

Bucky clenched his fist, feeling the need to defend the man. “Stark has been nothing but kind to me, Barton, especially given that he has no reason to be,” he replied with narrowed eyes.

Barton suddenly let out a drunken cackle. “Ooh, I know what this is,” he singsonged, “I know! Did Stark turn you into his boy toy already? Wow, putting out on the first date, Barnes, are you really that easy?” 

Steve’s indignant and embarrassed “Clint!” echoed through the room at the same time Bucky’s whole body stiffened. 

Clint wasn’t done apparently, even though Steve had him by the shoulders and was trying to push him off-screen.

“Yeah, it’s obvious why he doesn’t wanna come back, Steve! He’s too busy getting on his knees for Stark! Ha, I bet he just came back from having that bastard’s cock in his—”

Steve finally shoved Barton away with a loud crash and what must have been a rough off-screen landing for the archer. There were groans and shuffling sounds, but then it appeared Wilson and Lang were dragging him out of the room, although Bucky still caught the yelled “Hey, is my Laura there too? Is he fucking her too?

Steve was still on screen, hiding whatever embarrassment he felt with a hand over his eyes. 

“I’m so sorry, Buck. Clint— he’s been going through a rough time. But he shouldn’t have said any of those things about you.”

“He shouldn’t have said any of those things about Stark either. Or his own wife for that matter,” was Bucky’s stiff reply. He wasn’t even sure how to feel at this point. Shocked? Embarrassed? Resentful? Honestly, Barton’s accusations didn’t even offend him (although they did inspire his mind, which had the worst possible sense of timing, to conjure up a very vivid image which he promptly shoved into the darkest corner of his mind). 

“Bucky, Tony is a self-identified playboy. He will basically sleep with anything that moves. Nothing anyone says can ever tarnish his reputation any more than he already did himself.”

That, however, did finally focus all of Bucky’s emotions down to one— anger— and with it, a strange sense of clarity descended.

Nostalgia was for fools and whether he liked it or not, the past seven decades had left a permanent mark on all of them.

“You know,” Bucky began casually, “I may not remember everything about our lives, but I do remember how much you hated bullies. Always getting into fights with guys bigger than you, all because they were talking shit about someone who couldn’t defend themselves.”

He paused and Steve gave him a confused, tentative nod, as if prompting him to continue.

“So when was it that you became the bully, Steve?”

It took a second for Steve to respond, as he blinked at Bucky, trying to process the question. “I don’t understand, Buck. What are you talking about?”

“The way you talk about Stark, the way you let the others talk about him. It isn’t just criticism or differences of opinion. It’s bullying, plain an’ simple.”

“Bucky, no, you don’t understand. Tony isn’t some victim, he’s—”

“What, Steve? He’s what? Your friend, your teammate? Because that’s what he was until you lied to him and left him for dead.” 

“I did all of that to protect you!” Steve exclaimed suddenly, then ran a frustrated hand through his hair, forcing himself to calm down, but ultimately failing. “Everything I did was for you - because I love you!” 

Bucky felt almost guilty that the only thing he felt in the face of that declaration was a strange sense of sadness.

“The man you love has been dead for seventy years, Steve.”

Because just like Bucky could never have that old Steve back, Steve could never have his old Bucky back either. They were basically strangers now and they would always end up here - arguing and feeling frustrated because they saw the world so differently now. 

There was still warmth within him, for the Steve from his memory. Another memory rose unbidden - Bucky standing by Steve’s side at his mother’s funeral. He remembered telling Steve then to the end of the line

But Bucky couldn’t dwell on that tempting, wistful image of the past anymore. It was gone and that younger, happier Bucky Barnes was dead. All that was left was the here and now. For better or for worse, the present was all Bucky had.

Maybe this was the end of the line then.

“Come on, Bucky, don’t say that. You’ll be your old self again. Isn’t that the whole reason you left to get treatment?”

For a moment, Bucky wanted to correct Steve, but suddenly, all he felt was exhaustion.

“I think this conversation is done,” Bucky said quietly instead.

“Bucky, no, we need to talk this through!”

“Talk what through? We’ll just go around in circles, never hearing each other. I’m tired of fighting, Stevie.”

Steve was about to say something in reply, but for once, it was Bucky who spoke over him.

“I'm sorry and I hope all of you will be okay. Take care of everyone, please. If I have anything to say, I’ll—” Bucky paused for a second, “I’ll send the message on through King T’Challa.”

Then he cut off Steve’s desperate “Bucky, wait!” with a simple press of the red “End Call” button on the StarkPad. The room was finally engulfed in silence.

Bucky made his way over to the bed and slowly sat down. He didn’t feel as morose anymore, but he certainly didn’t feel any better either. The anger finally made room for the rest of the emotions fighting for control within him - resignation, loneliness, feeling uncertain about the future, even mourning the life he just accepted were gone forever. The ever present sense of guilt just surrounded all of that in a bitter-tasting fog.

The Soldier was still restless in the back of his mind, but between the flashes of violence and anger, he could almost feel the Soldier laughing, as if mocking Bucky for being this confused, pathetic mess of jumbled emotions. 

***

Bucky spent the next day and a half keeping to himself and only leaving the room to get food from the kitchen while making sure he didn’t run into any of the other Compound residents on his way there. His heart gave a strange lurch at the sight of the bowl of fresh plums sitting on the counter that wasn’t there just a few days ago.

To pass the time, he picked up an old habit that he developed when he was on the run in Romania and trying to piece together his broken mind. He found paper and a pen in the little study of his quarters and spent hours writing down every memory he could think of. Good memories, bad memories, random details that were probably meaningless in the grand scheme of things. He wanted to commit all of it to paper. It may not have been as flashy and technologically advanced as Stark’s system, but physically writing things down had its own unique effect of giving his memories form.

It was late in the afternoon the next day and he was in the middle of a particularly straining writing session, detailing a brutal and bloody Winter Soldier training where he ended up killing the other soldier (it was his first of many), when Friday’s voice interrupted to inform him that Stark wanted to see him for another BARF session in the same training room.

Emotionally raw from the writing, Bucky didn’t feel like he was in the best mental state to relive more memories, but he was also glad that Stark was still willing to continue the sessions and Bucky wasn’t going to let that generosity go to waste.

***

When he entered the room, Stark was facing away from him, focused as usual on all of his screens made out of light. Colonel Rhodes was nowhere in sight and Bucky had to admit that he was grateful. He didn’t necessarily blame the man for the things he said, but Bucky felt too emotionally exhausted to handle another guilt trip.

He cleared his throat awkwardly to announce his presence. Stark turned around, gave him a brief glance, and with his own version of stiff awkwardness, gestured toward the chair.

“So, uh— just like last time. Take a seat, I’ll get you set up, and we’ll, uh— get started.”

Taking the offered seat, Bucky observed the other man. The earlier cold fury seemed to have dissipated, but now in its place was this awkward attempt at professionalism and neutrality. It reminded Bucky of how Alice behaved around him the morning after her emotional breakdown, although she was much better than Stark at faking a happy, everything’s fine smile. Stark just fidgeted in place, obviously uncomfortable, and refused to look Bucky in the eye. With a hesitance that wasn’t there the first time around, Stark asked him if he could approach and then placed the same sensors around his head. The devices felt cold and sticky against his skin and gave off small currents that felt like static when they connected, but there was no real pain or discomfort. 

Stark inserted the needle for the blood draw with the same stiff movements and then made a hasty retreat over to the table with the screens. After a brief examination of images that from Bucky’s vantage point looked like brain scans, Stark rubbed his hand across his eyes in frustration. 

“I’m not gonna lie, Barnes, this, uh— this is gonna suck,” he began to speak and Bucky was inexplicably glad that the cold in his voice still hadn’t returned. “But we’ll have to do this— today, tomorrow, it doesn’t matter— we’ll have to start dealing with the memories of Hydra, of what they did to you. I don’t know how to fix something if I don’t know what the problem is first.”

Stark actually sounded apologetic and Bucky wanted to say something to show he appreciated the sentiment, but nothing sounded right in his head. There was just too much tension running through him at the moment - from his writing exercise, from the earlier call with Steve, and from what happened with Stark the other day. 

All of that, combined with the fact that he would now have to face another memory of Hydra, made him vibrate with anxiety and if he were honest with himself, he was scared. Usually, whatever memories he had of the Hydra bases, the memory suppressing machine, the training - it was all locked away deep in his mind and he used a considerable amount of his energy actively ignoring their existence. But he just relived one of these memories on paper and now he was being asked to pull another one up and relive it in much more vivid detail. Bucky wasn’t an idiot, he knew this was coming, but that didn’t make any of this any easier and he desperately wished that Stark would make one of his jokes right now and remind him that he wasn't alone in this. But Stark was still stiff and unsure next to him, so all Bucky could do was just take a deep breath. 

“What do I have to do?” 

Finally, there was eye contact and Bucky wondered whether it was really sympathy that he was seeing in the other man's eyes. “Just like before, find the clearest memory you have and focus in on it,” the man’s voice wavered just a touch. “If you can, find something that relates to how they programmed the triggers because that’s where our focus needs to be.”

Bucky’s answering nod was shaky and anxious, but he didn’t bother hiding how he felt.

“Don’t stop the memory until you have the information you need, Stark, even if it’s— unpleasant for me. It’s— it’s only fair.”

Bucky wasn't sure what emotion crossed Stark’s eyes at his words, but then the man just went back to his screens and gave him a quiet “Ready when you are,” so Bucky clenched his fist, squeezed his eyes shut, and reached deep inside himself. He dove into the revolting, suffocating darkness and pulled on the strongest sense memory he could find. As the memory filled his head, his veins, every part of his being, he knew his hand was shaking and already sweat was rolling down his brow. As the decades-old phantoms of his screams suddenly echoed through the room, loud and obscene, he knew what he would see when he opened his eyes.

There was no training room anymore. There was only the Hydra base, awash in green, sickly shadows, and he was surrounded by the same four doctors that always handled this part of the programming. He could remember their faces with clarity - ugly frowns and calculating eyes. Never a shred of sympathy or regret. He was restrained, strapped into the chair as they laid him flat and forced an apparatus onto his head that felt like red hot iron when it latched onto him. He kept screaming. Every time they did this, he would struggle, try so hard to break free, but the men around him would just laugh as the restraints grew tighter. His hopeless, pathetic attempts to escape just amused them. 

His screams went on, desperate and terrified like a wounded animal, until they were muffled down to a helpless whimper when the doctors forced a mouth guard between his teeth. One of the men had a book in his hands and he walked over to stand in front of the chair. The man’s face held no outward emotion, only a critical eye as he observed the scene in front of him. To them, he was nothing more than a mission for the glory of Hydra. Nothing more than a science experiment, a lab rat.

For a moment, the world around him stood still, but before he had a chance to even catch his breath, bolts of electricity ran through his head, his body, down to his very fuckin' soul and then all he could think about was pain.

“Zhelaniye.”

Another bolt of electricity. Everyone looked on and took notes as his body convulsed violently and tears streamed down his face, his desperate screams muffled by the plastic in his mouth.

“Rzhavyy.”

His head was on fire. His body was on fire, every part of him was alight in flames, turning him to ash. His body arched as the electricity ran through it once more and then kept convulsing under the strain and all he wanted was death, but all he could think about was—

“Semnadtsat’.”

Needles— sharp, red hot needles all through his body, every organ, every bit of him raw and bleeding, all of him being eaten away by acid from the inside out. There was so much pain, and he strained against it, clenching his fists. He kept screaming and choking on that gag, desperately clinging to the remaining bits of sanity as the rest of the world blurred behind the cascade of his tears. He wouldn’t let them—

“Rassvet.”

Electricity rolled through him, over and over, relentless and unyielding, and then he was empty. There was nothing left inside of him, neither life nor death. He was a vessel, ready to be filled and— 

“—come back to me! James!”

Who the hell is James?

“James— Fuck, fuck, you have to snap out of this!” 

He clung to that voice with all his might, hoping that it could keep him from drowning as the next wave of electricity hit. 

Someone touched his hand and touch had always meant pain, but this— this was gentle and sure and all of the sudden he was desperately clutching the hand that held his and then he was looking straight into the eyes of—

“Tony…”

The name was a desperate plea and then in the next heartbeat, everything flooded back. 

But he never had a chance to take a breath and put the jagged pieces of himself back together, because the Soldier roared within him, every dark instinct, every sharp edge, it all flooded his veins. The Soldier pushed back against every mental defense, desperate to get out, and Bucky could suddenly taste that insatiable urge to silence all the voices around him, to destroy, to kill, to kill every last one of them

He pulled away from Stark because all he could do was clutch at his head and scream. 

“I can’t— turn it off, please! Please make them stop! I can’t—”

“Everything is off, James, I promise. I turned everything off. It’s just us here, just you and me.”

So the voices were in his head then. Maybe his head was filled to the brim with the voices and they were trying to drown him out with those words until there was nothing left of Bucky. Of James. 

But Stark’s voice, all strong, reassuring notes infused with concern— concerned about him? No, couldn’t be— was slowly beating the old voices back, but the Soldier still remained, still pushed against Bucky’s mental walls over and over, relentless, threatened, and enraged. Bucky felt like he was straining just to keep himself from blacking out.

“James, is there anything I can do?”

Bucky clung to those words because this voice was real and as long as he wasn’t alone in his head with the Soldier, maybe he could come out of this in one piece.

“Just— please— please keep talking.”

He heard the quiet, humorless “I don’t think I’ve ever had someone ask me that,” but Stark heard the unspoken request, what Bucky so desperately needed, because in the next moment, the man began to speak, still in that soft, measured tone.

“Did I ever tell you the story of how I met Harley? You see, it all started with a less than graceful crash landing in the middle of frozen Tennessee…”

Stark told him the story of his slow trek across the snow, dragging the Iron Man suit behind him. He told him of the stolen poncho and how his first interaction with Harley was being shot at with a potato gun. How Harley was hard to impress even back then and how that boy never did get Stark that promised sandwich. He told him how that boy, too smart and too brave for his own good, helped defeat the bad guys and helped Stark realize who he was - a mechanic who could fix anything.

Bucky desperately hoped Stark could fix him.

There was no way to tell how much time had passed, but eventually, with Stark’s voice slowly soothing the raw ache within him, the raging chaos and the Soldier in his head subsided and when he no longer felt like there was violence and death running through his veins, Bucky opened his eyes. 

Stark was sitting on the floor in front of him, worry and exhaustion warring in his expression. When he noticed Bucky open his eyes, the man let out a long, drawn out sigh, as if he’d been holding his breath this entire time, and slumped against the leg of the table behind him.

“Okay, that did not go as planned at all…”

Bucky just shrugged dejectedly, still curled in on himself, and Stark continued with another exhale. “Fuck, you were lost to the world there for a minute— or twenty. The projection shouldn’t have affected you that badly… Hell, it should have actually prevented you from losing touch with reality. I, uh—” Tony looked around at all the equipment in the room, still somewhat breathless, “apparently I have still have a lot of work to do.” 

Bucky didn’t know what else to do except give the other man a shaky nod. Every part of him was aching, physically and emotionally, and all he wanted was to be alone.

“Can I leave?” he croaked out hoarsely.

“Yeah…” Stark replied, still too exhausted to get off the floor. “Listen, Barnes. The system— it just needs some tweaks so that we can counteract whatever goes on in your head. I, uh— I promise I’m gonna figure this out, okay?”

Bucky walked away with a strange, singular thought that Stark’s words felt like an apology.

Chapter Text

The early morning fog was just beginning to dissipate as the sun slowly made its way up, illuminating the green below in the soft light of dawn. There was something refreshing about these quiet morning hours and whenever Tony needed to clear his mind, he would often find himself here, outside the Compound, taking a stroll along the path that wound its way through the expansive property. Of course, he rarely actually woke up for these walks - more often than not, he would have already spent the entire night awake and would then promptly collapse into his bed once the walk was over.

Today was no different. He spent the night in the lab, going over the terabytes of data that Friday pulled from Barnes’ head and trying to figure out the next step in the BARF therapy. Ever the perfectionist, he hated admitting, even to himself, that he overestimated the readiness of his upgraded BARF system - or more accurately, he underestimated the sheer chaos that was Barnes’ head. At this point, Tony was working on finding a way to modify the man’s memories so that viewing them would begin to disassociate the triggers (instead of making him lose touch with reality like he did in that last disastrous session). Unfortunately, the data collected was being uncooperative and every time Tony thought he was making a breakthrough, it always ended up leading him to another missing variable instead.

Thinking back to that revolting memory of Hydra’s reprogramming brought back the same nausea that felt like acid in the pit of his stomach and Tony physically grimaced at the sensation. He stopped and tried to take a deep breath, hoping the fresh air would dislodge the sickening feeling. It helped a little and he resumed his walk.

More than anything else, that memory reminded him that Tony Stark, genius, billionaire, etcetera, etcetera, was also an insensitive ass. He noted wryly that Pepper, among other people, would probably back him up on that assessment.

He regretted what he said to Barnes in that first session almost as soon as he left the room. Once the red fog of his anger lifted, the unnecessary cruelty behind his words became glaringly obvious. Hell, he didn’t even really mean what he said. He had a whole year, after the revelation at the bunker, to come to terms with what happened with his parents and to accept that Barnes was as much of a victim as they were. But when he saw his father, juxtapositioned against the images of both younger and older Barnes, something inside him just snapped. In that moment, he just wanted to hurt Barnes, in the same way that he was hurting at the sight of his father.

Well, no one could ever accuse him of being well-adjusted. 

He may have felt bad about his words before, but then he got to experience, in vivid detail, just a fraction of the hell that Barnes went through in the hands of Hydra, and— well, then he really felt like shit about the whole thing. 

It was one thing to read about the reprogramming sessions in the Hydra files, but it was a completely different thing to watch them unfold in front of you. He could swear Barnes’ desperate screams still echoed in his ears for hours afterwards. He remembered the holographic image of Barnes convulsing from the electroshocks, face streaked with tears and he remembered their Barnes, suddenly lost to the world as his mind was engulfed in the memory, begging over and over for them to stop… begging them to just let him die.

Tony shut everything down as soon as he realized that Barnes went under, but turning off the tech didn’t bring him back right away. The other man was lost, choking on his litany of Please stop and his body was beginning to convulse from electricity that wasn’t there. Desperate and terrified, all Tony could do was to keep calling out to him.

Fuck, Barnes, you need to shake this off, please! You need to come back to me! James!

He didn’t even realize that he grabbed a hold of Barnes’ hand, but it seemed to have done something because in that moment, there was finally recognition in those terrified eyes. 

And then Barnes begged him to just keep talking, as if Tony’s voice could actually beat back whatever hell was tearing his mind apart. Tony wasn’t sure if he was really what Barnes needed in that moment, but he wasn’t going to argue. Instead, he infused every bit of calm he could into his voice and told Barnes about all of his and Harley’s misadventures from years ago.

It seemed to have worked, but even though Barnes was finally coherent, he still looked like death warmed over and promptly ran out of the training room with barely more than a word or two. 

That last session served as a sharp, brutal reminder of what the man had suffered. Tony’s pain seemed less potent by comparison and he wanted to apologize for what he said, but for the life of him, he couldn’t find the right words. Plus, Barnes had been actively avoiding him for days now and Tony didn’t want to use Friday to invade the man’s privacy.

Tony couldn’t quite believe it himself, but he had to admit that he wanted to get back that tentative truce and that easygoing thing that the two of them had started to develop before everything went to hell. It was a pleasant surprise, finding out that Barnes didn’t have as much in common with Rogers as Tony had initially thought.

On the contrary, the differences were striking. Barnes matched Tony’s snark with his own and laughed at the jokes that Rogers would’ve found incredibly annoying.

Why can’t you just grow up, Tony? No one here has time for any more of your wisecracks

No, Barnes actually enjoyed their banter, didn’t seem to judge and internally criticize Tony’s every move, and appeared genuine in his desire to use this second chance to rebuild his life. During their lunch, Tony nearly choked on his food out of surprise when Barnes casually mentioned that he read through the latest draft of the Accords and had some questions he was hoping Tony could answer. In general, the man seemed to have a curious mind, which was always a plus with Tony, and already he could see glimpses of the man’s fascination with science and technology. Unlike Rogers and the rest, he didn’t act entitled to Tony’s time or efforts, never demanded more than he was given.

And while Tony had repeatedly reminded himself this super soldier was absolutely off-limits, there was no denying that the man also a damn pleasure to look at.

Nice, Stark, just accuse the man of murdering your parents and then proceed to hit on him. Smooth. I’m sure he’ll appreciate the whiplash.

As he was making his way around the loop of the path, Tony noticed someone in the distance, jogging towards him.

Well, speak of the unfairly handsome devil…

Tony watched as Barnes slowed down when he saw Tony. The man hesitated for a moment, but after probably deciding that it would be way more awkward to turn around and run away, he approached Tony at a more sedate pace.

Seeing him out here, in jogging gear, brought back another sharp memory of Rogers, who used to go on these same runs around the Compound, almost always at this exact time. The memory was bitter, tinged with the ever-present taste of betrayal, but Tony squashed it down. Barnes wasn’t Rogers and it was high time for Tony to stop equating the two.

“Good morning, super soldier,” he called out with a mock salute, trying to infuse some cheerfulness into his voice. “Training hard, I see?”

Barnes was finally close enough that he wouldn’t need to shout his reply. “Just a run. Helps clear my head a little,” he said, wiping a bead of sweat off his brow.

Tony noticed that the man looked better than the last time they saw each other. There was color back in his face and the shadows under his eyes weren’t quite as pronounced. Tony’s brain, as unruly as ever, also promptly noted that the super soldier was glistening in the light of the early dawn, and that apparently it was all very attractive and something that Tony should absolutely pay all of his attention to. Tony didn’t necessarily disagree with that badly timed thought, but he did try to focus on the rest of the situation instead.

Because Barnes’ reply was still awkward and it was obvious he didn’t know how to behave around Tony. Which was bad, because Tony wasn’t sure how to behave around him either. God, they were both just walking disasters, weren’t they?

But Tony had to try.

“I’m making my way back to the Compound. You, uh— you wanna keep me company the rest of the way?”

After a beat, Barnes nodded and then joined Tony at his side and matched his slower stride. 

“We’ll have to move at my old man pace, if you don’t mind. I’d absolutely jog with you, but ya know,” Tony shrugged, “not a fancy super soldier.” He followed that with an exaggerated groan. “Ugh, I’ve been out here ten minutes and my feet are already killing me.”

Barnes waited for a beat or two before replying, a small smile on his lips. “I’d offer to carry you back to the Compound, Stark, but ya know,” he shrugged his left shoulder. “One arm.”

God, Tony swore he could’ve kissed the other man in that moment, with how grateful he was that Barnes replied in kind, that he wasn’t rejecting Tony’s olive branch. Maybe he wanted to fix this thing between them too.

“Eh, just toss me over your right shoulder and carry me back like a caveman,” Tony quipped and then let out a bit of an undignified cackle. “Can you imagine Rhodey’s face if you just brought me into the Compound like that?” 

“I have a feeling that he’d probably just try to shoot me.”

“Yeah,” Tony couldn’t help his laugh. “Sorry about him. Rhodey has a protective streak a mile wide. But I swear, once you get to know him, he’s basically just a big, soft teddy bear.”

Barnes’ smile grew as he shook his head and replied, “I’m pretty sure that doesn’t apply to me.” 

A brief silence fell around them then as they both slowly walked down the path. Tony watched their steps synchronize and he wanted to just continue with this easy banter, but he knew there were some more important things he had to say. He owed Barnes that much.

“Listen, Barnes, I, uh—” he began, but the words were stuck in his throat. God, why was apologizing so hard? Tony wished he could just fight some aliens instead, but no wormhole in the sky opened up to save him, so he had to continue. “I shouldn’t have— I shouldn’t have said what I said to you. It was unfair and cruel and just a shitty thing to say.”

Tony stopped and turned around when he noticed that the super soldier stopped walking. He wasn’t sure how to interpret the expression on the man’s face, so he just let the rest of his words tumble out. “I don’t blame you for what happened to my parents. That’s— All of that is on Hydra, not you. Our last session made that abundantly clear. And so, I— Jesus, I’m not good at this.” Tony ran a frustrated hand through his hair and then looked straight at Barnes, who was still giving him a strange look. 

Finally, with a deep breath, “I’m sorry for the hell that you went through and I’m especially sorry that I added to that hell in some way.”

Barnes’ expression changed with those words and it was a smile that, while small and tentative, was open and real, and it matched the sudden softness in his eyes.

“Thank you and— it’s okay. I’m sorry that I hurt you with that memory,” Barnes said, sounding genuinely remorseful, and now there was definitely a lightness in Tony’s chest that he didn’t expect. He hoped he wouldn't start swooning like some schoolgirl in the next minute.

He let out a long breath after the next few beats of silence turned decidedly more awkward. “Okay, good. I’m glad that— that we’re okay.” He started walking again and Barnes obediently followed. 

“So now that we have that awkward heart-to-heart out of the way, I have a much more interesting topic to bring up.” Tony had been thinking of a way to cheer up their resident broody ex-assassin and hoped that this next part would do the trick. He gave the super soldier one of his more mischievous smiles. “How would you like to take a day trip with me?”

***

Bucky felt a distinct desire to fidget under Stark’s scrutinizing gaze. 

“Please tell me that’s not what you’re wearing.”

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

“It’s a ratty shirt and jeans. Frankly, I’m worried we’re gonna get escorted out by security as soon as we step foot into Stark Tower.”

Okay, maybe Bucky did feel a bit underdressed, especially when standing next to Stark, whose clothes were always immaculately put together even when he was casually dressed. Even now, the man looked good, clad in sneakers and jeans, with a dark blazer over a shirt emblazed with the NASA logo. 

The plan for today, according to Stark, was to make a stop by Stark Tower in Manhattan for a brief meeting with the SI CEO (the illustrious Pepper Potts, as Stark described her) and then spend the day enjoying the city. Bucky had to admit that the offer was tempting. A part of him was worried about being out in public again, but Stark assured him that you're with Iron Man, Barnes, how much safer can you get? With everything that happened in the past two weeks, Bucky had to admit he was going stir-crazy and any anxiety about being out in the open was overtaken by the excitement at the prospect of doing something normal for a change.

In the face of Stark’s scrutiny, all Bucky could do was give a helpless shrug, which prompted the man to roll his eyes and head straight into the walk-in closet attached to the bedroom. Inside, there was almost an entire wardrobe now because Friday had gotten carried away in her enthusiasm and purchased him half a department store. It was frankly intimidating. What did he need so many shirts and shoes for? 

Stark seemed to be right at home however, examining the different pieces and grabbing the items that caught his interest. Finally, he came back out and tossed several of them at Bucky.

“Here, a decent dress shirt. Dark blue, it complements your eyes. Undershirt, always important. A nice, new pair of dark jeans. You get to pick between sneakers and dress shoes. Ooh, and sunglasses for that extra fun, assassin-spy mode.”

Bucky came out of the bathroom a minute later, wearing the pieces Stark gave him. Thanks again to Friday, everything fit perfectly and the shirt already came with the left sleeve trimmed.

“Buttons are a bit of an issue for me, Stark,” he said while the other man was evaluating his handiwork with a hand on his chin. Truth be told, Bucky could have managed the row of small buttons himself, but then he remembered how surprisingly nice it felt when Stark offered to fix his hair, the way the man fussed over him and how those careful, clever fingers felt brushing through his hair, and so Bucky hoped that—

“May I?” Stark asked after a moment of contemplation and yeah, Bucky had to admit he was definitely beginning to develop a positive association with those two simple words, if the pleasant heat that spread through his body was any indication. His nod prompted Stark to approach and begin to slowly and methodically fix the row of buttons. 

Having Stark right next to him gave Bucky the chance to take the man in more closely. The spicy, crisp smell of his aftershave. The small, numerous scars scattered across the man’s face and the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. The way he bit his lip in concentration, trying to fix one of the more stubborn button. And those brown eyes themselves… which then looked up at Bucky with mirth, accompanied by that one perfectly raised eyebrow.

Bucky flushed, realizing he was staring at the man for a second too long. 

He took an awkward step back and coughed to clear his suddenly dry throat. 

“So, how do I look? Good enough not to scare the civilians away?”

There was still a teasing glimmer in Stark’s eyes and Bucky was hit with the realization of just how much he missed it.

“You’ll do just fine, super soldier.”

***

The green tree tops of Central Park were a welcome sight after the thirty minute walk through the busy streets of Manhattan and Bucky felt himself smile at the familiarity of it. At least the park hasn’t changed as much as everything else had.

The meeting at Stark Tower turned out to be surprisingly short, which made Bucky suspicious as to whether it was really the reason for their trip into the city. After Tony made a big production out of introducing Bucky to an exasperated, but very polite Ms. Potts, the two of them briefly discussed some inter-Atlantic contract, the details of which Bucky ignored in favor of observing the interaction between the two. It didn't take long for him to realize that Ms. Potts must have been the woman Stark mentioned over their first shared cup of tea.

Both he and Stark were ready for lunch after they left the Tower and Bucky followed an enthusiastic Stark to the best damn curry you can get in NYC, you'll love it, Barnes. The restaurant owner greeted Stark like an old friend, lamenting that she missed having him visit, now that the Avengers no longer lived at the Tower. Lunch was spent over friendly conversation, with Stark indulging Bucky's every question about the many things he had missed in the past seventy years. Bucky also learned that he did, in fact, love curry.

Unfortunately, as soon as they left the restaurant, another business emergency arose and because Tony refused to go back, dead set on taking Bucky to Central Park, he had to spend most of their walk on a conference call with Ms. Potts and the rest of his executives.

Bucky didn’t pay much attention to the details of Stark’s discussion because watching the man's face go through a rather impressive range of emotions during the call made for much better entertainment. There was annoyance, which manifested itself in exaggerated eye rolls and exasperated groans, then a look of concentration and a furrow of the man’s brows when he actually began to take the conversation seriously. At some point, Bucky had to stifle a laugh when Stark turned to him and mouthed a pleading I hate these people, Barnes, help me.

The leisurely walk also gave Bucky the opportunity to reflect on the first half of his day and he couldn’t help the warm, light feeling that blossomed in his chest. It felt almost foreign in some way, but he was quickly getting attached to it.

Stark apologized.

The man had every right to stand behind his words, to punish Bucky for his past crimes, but he didn’t. Instead, he was the one brave enough to take the first step - to apologize and to find a way to reconcile things between them.

After that awful second session, all Bucky could do was run away and hide himself from the rest of the world. He spent hours in bed, unmoving, trying to put back together all the jagged pieces inside him. Eventually, once he felt like he wouldn’t crumble into those broken fragments, he let himself shower and eat. Both helped him feel more grounded in reality, but even after he felt better, he still didn’t think he could face Stark. He didn’t even know how he would begin a conversation with the man, given everything that happened in the past few days.

But it seemed like Stark saved them both because in the end, he found the right words when Bucky couldn’t. There was a courage in that which Bucky honestly envied.

They finally entered one of the beautiful, tree-lined paths and he noted that just like the city streets, the park was bustling with people, children and adults alike, enjoying the summer weather. 

He heard Stark let out a relieved sigh beside him as he placed his phone back in his pocket. “Jesus, glad that’s over. Word of advice, Barnes, don’t ever run a multi-billion dollar company.”

Bucky couldn’t help his eye roll. “Mm-hmm, being rich and powerful, that all sounds pretty terrible.”

Stark deflated a bit at the comment. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Old, rich white guy complaining about his money. I’ll shut up.” 

“I thought Ms. Potts ran your company anyways?”

“She does, and I mostly just deal with the fun stuff,” Stark replied, “you know - making cool new gadgets, revolutionizing the clean energy business, that kinda thing. But I still have a controlling interest in the company, which means any big decisions have to go through me. Hence, the need for that unnecessarily long phone call with a bunch of other old, rich guys— and poor sweet Pepper, bless her heart.”

Stark took a moment to stretch his arms out as they continued walking and to take in the beautiful scenery around them. It gave Bucky time to digest what Stark had said and realize that the man actually had two full-time jobs on his hands. He was involved with Stark Industries in at least several different capacities and he was also an Avenger, who not only had to fight actual threats, but also deal with the legal and political side of the superhero business.

Bucky wondered all of the sudden where exactly Stark was finding the time to also work with him on the BARF sessions and he realized he wasn’t sure if he ever actually thanked the man for the time and energy he was expanding on him, on top of Stark’s already extensive list of responsibilities.  

Before Bucky could find the words to do exactly that though, Stark spotted something in the distance and his face brightened up with a smile. 

“You know what we need now?” Stark looked back at him and winked. “We need ice cream. They had that back in your day, didn’t they?”

“Of course we had ice cream. I’m from the forties, Stark, not the Dark Ages.”

“Coulda fooled me, old man. Come on!” Stark motioned him over to an ice cream stand, and Bucky soon found himself with actual bowl full of ice cream because Stark insisted he try every flavor that sounded even remotely unfamiliar. Stark only ended up with a few generous scoops on a cone and because Bucky couldn't actually eat his share while they walked, they found themselves on a bench overlooking the green park grounds. 

Between the ice cream, the beautiful view, and the many families around them enjoying the warm summer day, Bucky realized that this was the most normal, the most fun thing he had done since— well, since that night at the Stark Expo. It was a heady, addictive feeling, he realized, to feel this content, if only for a little while, and it scared him because it meant that going back into the shadows of his memories, of his past, would be that much more painful later on.

But he fought back against these dark thoughts because he wanted to focus on the present and at least for this one moment, the sun was still shining, the children around them were laughing, and Stark himself appeared comfortable and relaxed as he looked over the scenery and took great delight in enjoying his dessert. Bucky watched as the man’s pink tongue darted out to catch some of the vanilla ice cream that was melting down the cone and he had to look away then, suddenly flushed again, when he realized the direction his thoughts were taking. 

Bucky was beginning to detect a pattern when it came to these errant moments of impropriety, but he refused to give anymore thought as to what they actually meant and instead focused on something that had him curious ever since he saw Stark and Ms. Potts interact together. 

“Would you mind if I asked you a personal question, Stark?” he began, looking over at the man. Stark met his glance briefly, before going back to observing the people walking by.

“Nothing wrong with asking a question. But I reserve the right not to answer.”

That sounded fair. “Were you and Ms. Potts ever— uh—” he wasn’t sure all of the sudden how to phrase the rest of that.

Thankfully, Stark took pity on him. “If you’re asking whether Pepper and I have ever been in a relationship - yes, we were together for a few years.” The man deflated a bit and let out a groan. “Were we really that obvious in there? I thought we were being pretty civil with each other!”

“No, it’s nothing like that,” Bucky assured him. “It was just the way you looked at her. It’s obvious you love her. But there was also tension between you, the kind you don’t have with someone who’s just a friend.” 

Stark just slumped further. “Is this a super soldier thing?” he pointed an accusing finger at Bucky. “Because you are way too perceptive for your own good. Ugh, between you and Rhodey, I’m never going to get away with anything.” 

“I’m not sure," Bucky huffed out a laugh, “maybe I’ve always been good at reading people.” He hesitated with his next question. “So the two of you— you’re not together anymore?” 

Here, Stark’s voice took on a more wistful tone, and Bucky thought he could hear a note of sadness there too. “No, we’re not together. Haven’t been for a while, actually. Pep— she’s amazing. Strong and capable and kind. She’s an incredible woman who’s gonna take the world by storm— and me?” Tony just gave a shrug. “I’m a human disaster in a tin can. She always deserved better.” 

Bucky wasn’t sure he agreed with the man's assessment of himself, but he kept that particular thought quiet. He also wondered whether the other man was aware that Ms. Potts held the same wistful fondness in her eyes too whenever she looked at Stark. 

When Bucky didn’t say anything else, Stark decided it was his turn to ask. “So, what about you? It seemed like you were quite the ladies man back in the day, at least based on the memory we saw. Did you have to leave a girl behind when you went off to war?” Stark cringed all of the sudden, a second after he spoke. “Sorry, shit, that probably wasn’t the most sensitive question I could’ve asked.” 

Bucky just shook his head. “No, that’s alright.” He took a moment to contemplate whether he wanted to be honest with Stark.

“I, uh— I was actually more sweet on the fellas back then than I was on the girls,” he finally confessed, and he saw Stark sit up straight in his peripheral. 

“Huh, is that so? Wow, the forties were more exciting than I realized.”

“They really weren’t. It wasn’t something we could even talk about back then,” Bucky recalled, although once again, his memories were just facts in his head. He couldn’t remember how it all felt, those secret meetings and stolen kisses in dark alleys. “It’s better now, isn’t it?”

Stark shrugged his shoulder. “It’s definitely better than you remember, but eh, still a work in progress.” Suddenly, Stark’s eyes widened and he looked straight at Bucky. “Oh my god.”

“What?”

“Did— did you and Rogers—” he sputtered suddenly, unable to finish the thought.

It took a second for Stark's words to sink in and then Bucky was struggling not to choke on his spoonful of ice cream. “What?! No— Why would— he was like a little brother to me!” Then Bucky realized the other implication behind Stark’s words. “Wait, since when is Stevie even into men?”

“Well, since—” Stark started to count on his fingers, “four— five? About five years ago?” He shrugged. “At least that’s when he told the rest of us.” 

Huh, well that was a bit of a surprise. Just as he was deciding how he felt about that, Bucky suddenly had his own moment of realization. Oh god, it made sense, given the way everything was so emotionally charged between Steve and Stark last year. He couldn’t help the incredulous look he gave Stark. “Were the two of you together?” 

Of course, he said this just as the man was about to take a bite out of his own waffle cone and now it was Stark’s turn to choke on his food.

He gave Bucky an affronted look after he finally finished with his coughing fit. “Seriously? Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not the gender thing, men and women, I’m into both, but seriously? Me and Rogers? How did you even come up with that?”

“Well, with everything that happened last year— it was just— it was all so personal between the two of you!” 

“Well, yeah, we were teammates for what— six years? And he decided to throw it all away. And trust me, if anything was personal, it wasn't because of me. It was personal because of you.” 

Stark’s suddenly harsher tone made Bucky realize that he inadvertently brought up what was possibly the second worst topic he could think of.

Great job, Barnes. Just mention his dead parents too while you’re at it.

“Shit, sorry, I shouldn't have brought this up, I just—” Bucky stopped his poor attempt at an apology when he saw Stark deflate and wave a dismissive hand at him. He watched the man lean forward and rest his elbows on his knees.

“No, no, it's my bad, I shouldn’t have gotten worked up about it either,” Stark said and let out a sigh as he watched himself twirl the small remaining piece of his ice cream cone between his fingers. “We’re two grown men. We should be able to talk about Rogers without being at each other’s throats. Hell, we both have a history with him, can’t really avoid it forever. Now, don’t get me wrong,” Stark looked at Bucky and pointed the waffle cone piece at him, “if I ever see Rogers again, I will probably punch him in his stupid, perfect teeth, but he’s not here and I’m sure as hell not gonna let him ruin our good time.” 

Stark sat back up then and gave a disbelieving head shake, followed with a look of exaggerated disgust. “Ugh, I think that was literally the most mature thing I’ve said all month.” He squinted his eyes at Bucky and then popped the rest of the ice cream in his mouth. “I hate being an adult,” he purposefully said that with his mouth still full, and Bucky couldn’t stop the helpless chuckle that escaped him. Somehow, this situation went from potentially disastrous to ridiculous in a matter of seconds. 

Bucky took a moment to look over the horizon and noted that the sun was slowly setting. There was still something that he needed to say to Stark, so maybe now was his chance to be brave and find the right words.

“I, uh— I wanted to thank you,” he began and Stark gave him that patented single raised eyebrow.

“For what? The ice cream? Well, you're welcome. That was some damn good ice cream.”

“No, not— well, yes, the ice cream too. But I meant— Thank you for everything.” Bucky kept his eyes on the park in front of them, not quite brave enough to look at Stark while he said this. “For making the pardon happen, for all the time you're spending on helping me. You opened your home to me and offered your help, even though you were the one person who had every right to tell me to go to hell. I just—” He hoped his words conveyed just how grateful he was. “Thank you for giving me a second chance.” 

Stark didn’t respond right away and when Bucky glanced over at him, he noticed that the other man actually looked somewhat uncomfortable, almost flustered, as if he didn’t know what to do with Bucky’s gratitude. Finally, the man stammered out an awkward “Yeah, don’t worry about. What else are genius billionaires for?” and then proceeded to fidget with the cuff of his sleeve while he pretended to observe a family of four nearby. 

The reaction was an odd one, given Stark’s usual confident attitude and Bucky wondered whether it was because Stark didn’t expect Bucky to thank him or whether the man was just not used to being thanked like this.

The sun was almost entirely swallowed up by the horizon now and Stark slowly stood up, letting himself enjoy another long stretch, followed by a yawn, before putting his hands on his hips and looking down at Bucky.

“Alright, super soldier, we need to head back. There’s a slight possibility I haven’t actually slept in the past day and a half, no big deal, but if we don’t get moving now, you will have to carry me back.”

Bucky just gave the other man a smile and stood up, taking his own brief opportunity to stretch out. 

“That sounds good. Oh, and thank you for taking me with you today. This was amazing,” he watched Stark’s reaction and yes, there was that odd mix of flustered confusion again as Stark stammered out a “No problem, I, uh— I needed someone to keep me company anyways.” Bucky made a mental note to look into this further. 

However, determined not to let any awkwardness settle between them again, he gave Stark his own version of a mischievous smile as they began to make their way out of the park.

“Now here’s what I would really like to know, Stark. Please explain to me which one of you 21st century geniuses decided it was okay to demote Pluto.”

Just as Bucky expected, Stark spent the rest of their walk back giving him an impassioned lecture on planetary classification and it was becoming increasingly harder for Bucky to deny that he asked that question just so he could enjoy listening to the other man’s voice.

***

Bucky could already smell the soothing herbal scent of the tea before he even entered the kitchen. Friday informed him that Stark was here, waiting for him, and Bucky realized that between this and the earlier trip, they spent most of the day together. It was a strange thought and one he would have had a hard time believing just a few days ago, but he wasn't one to complain. Maybe my luck is finally turning good after seventy year, he noted wryly to himself.

Stark was sitting at the small table, the steaming mug of tea at his side, but his eyebrows were pinched in frustration and he was glaring at his StarkPad. When he looked up at the sound of Bucky’s footsteps though, his features softened and he gestured toward the familiar red mug, already sitting on the table only a seat away from Stark.

Bucky sat down and took a long, grateful drink of the tea, enjoying the heat as it went down and spread through his whole body, mixing together with the pleasant warmth that hadn’t left him all day.

Stark’s disgruntled hum however drew Bucky’s attention away from the tea and back to him.

“You seem frustrated,” Bucky said and Stark just let out a defeated sigh.

“Yeah, just a little bit,” he confessed. “I’ve spent the past several days going through the data from our sessions and it’s just— it’s useful and it’s what I expected, but it’s not enough.” Stark stopped and tried to give Bucky a smile, although it wasn't very convincing. "Listen, don't worry about it, let's not ruin a good day with boring shop talk.”

Bucky frowned. “If it relates to my treatment, I'd rather know now if there are problems. Is your system not working how it's supposed to?”

Stark hesitated for a moment, but then let out an exhale and ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Well, the next step is to use the system to modify your memories in a way that disassociates them from the physical responses they cause, basically the exact opposite of what happened in our last session. But the way those damn triggers work—”

Stark got himself worked up again because he stood up and paced back and forth a few times before leaning on his hands against the back of his chair. “Fucking Hydra. I hate saying anything nice about those sadistic bastards, but they were pretty clever in the way they went about your programming. The way the triggers affect you, it’s unique and incredibly complex on a physical level, and I’m just not sure that I can figure out the right configuration for the BARF system without knowing exactly what each individual trigger does to your brain and your body.”

As the implication behind Stark’s words suddenly became clear, the earlier warmth dissipated in an instant as the numbing, cold tendrils of fear made their way up Bucky's spine. He swallowed hard, suddenly unable to move or speak as he stared wide-eyed at Stark.

The other man was about to say something else, but then he must have seen Bucky’s terrified expression.

“No, Barnes, listen— We’re not even going to go there, okay? I’ll figure something out. Maybe I just haven’t spent enough time looking at what we have or maybe I just— I just have to find another way…”

Stark trailed off and by the defeated, remorseful look on his face, Bucky knew that since Stark hadn’t already found it, there would be no other way. Somehow, he finally found his voice, despite the icy chill of dread in his chest.

“You have to activate the triggers.”

Chapter Text

When Rhodey let out a resigned, frustrated “Damn it, I’m not gonna win with you, am I?”, Tony wondered whether, after all these years, he had finally become this good at convincing Rhodey to let him do things, or whether Rhodey just had enough of Tony’s shit and given up altogether.

Tony was leaning towards the latter.

They spent the last hour arguing over the next step with Barnes. Unsurprisingly, Rhodey wasn’t sweet on the idea of activating the triggers and potentially unleashing the Winter Soldier onto the world. Tony hated the idea as much as Rhodey did, although his distaste stemmed more from that terrified look on Barnes’ face when the man realized the only path forward was letting them take away his autonomy.

Ironically, it was initially Tony who was trying to tell Barnes that they should try something— anything— else. But Barnes wasn’t convinced, likely because Tony himself wasn’t really convinced - deep down he knew that this was their best chance. A part of him though, one that surprised even Tony himself with the strength of its conviction, wanted to spare Barnes this additional pain. Maybe it had something to do with having to watch the man relapse and relive that revolting, horrifying memory of the Hydra reprogramming. Or maybe it was the exact opposite. Maybe Tony was feeling protective because he got to see Barnes content and smiling that day at the park and Barnes deserved to be happy as much as anyone else did. 

But none of that mattered. How Tony felt didn’t matter. He looked at the data every which way and the data didn’t lie. This was the only real path forward. Without understanding the triggers, they could spend months— hell, years— going around in circles without any progress.

Rhodey was apparently willing to take that risk as long as Tony wasn’t put in the line of fire. Tony appreciated the sentiment. Hell, in the past year especially, he had developed a keen appreciation for the love and support Rhodey had always given him and a part of Tony hated that he was worrying his best friend yet again, but what other option did they have? There was no way in hell he was going to give up on helping Barnes. 

“You know, Tones, our esteemed elected lawmakers would not be very happy if they found out you were trying to reactivate the Winter Soldier.”

Tony just snorted and got up to refill his cup of coffee (even though Rhodey seemed to have finally acquiesced, Tony didn’t see this discussion ending any time soon). “Well, when they signed the pardon, they did basically give me carte blanche when it comes to Barnes’ treatment. Serves them right for not reading the fine print carefully enough.”

“Not everyone has an army of lawyers like you do, Tony.”

“Luckily for us,” Tony retorted and settled back in his seat opposite of Rhodey. “If it weren't for my army of lawyers, we’d probably all be here licking Ross’ boots right now.” Tony took a sip of his coffee, letting the scalding heat seep through him. “Putting that son of a bitch away is still one of the best things I ever did.”

“I hate Ross as much as the next guy, Tony, but don’t change the subject. Activating the Winter Soldier is dangerous. We both know what he’s capable of when he’s in that state.” 

Tony was well aware. He still had the gauntlet with the bullet hole to prove it. “Listen, we’re going to take every precaution. The most secure room in the compound, total lockdown, Friday will be on standby with so many tranqs that Barnes will sleep for a week. There’s no way he’s getting out to cause trouble, okay?”

“Sure, okay, I’m glad Manhattan isn’t going to have a vengeful Hydra assassin on their hands. I’m sure that’ll make the politicians very happy, but you know what’s not making me happy?” Rhodey made sure to give Tony a second to absorb his disapproving look. “It’s the fact that it’s going to be you who’s gonna be sitting in that room with him.”

“Who else would it be? Because I don’t see a whole lot of people lining up for a chance to hang out with the Winter Soldier.”

“Let me do. Hell, let Vision or Strange or the goddamn pope do it, I don’t care.”

“Nah, there’s no way I’m letting any of you hog the spotlight!” Tony knew he was being flippant, but he didn’t want to start this argument over again. “This is my project, my system, and hell, if I let any of you amateurs anywhere near my scanning equipment, it’ll probably end up on fire or something.” 

Rhodey scoffed. “Are you even taking this seriously? You’re acting like this is some fun science experiment for you,” he declared and Tony suddenly felt a lot more defensive.  He didn’t want to argue, but here they were.

“You know better than anyone I’m not just doing this for shits and giggles, Rhodes,” Tony argued back, his words more resentful now. “You think this is easy for me? I’m going to have to go in there and stare into the eyes of the man who killed my fucking parents! And I don’t mean Barnes! I mean the actual goddamn Winter Soldier!”

Great, now he was shouting at his best friend.

The guilt that crossed Rhodey’s face dissipated Tony’s anger pretty quickly though. “I know that, Tones, and that’s exactly why I don’t want you to do this. Let’s find some other way or get someone else who can step in. I mean, why— why do you want to be involved?”

Rhodey’s question echoed the same sentiment from months back, when they first discussed the topic of the pardon. Just like last time, Tony took a second to contemplate the question, but he realized the answer wasn’t just about second chances and doing the right thing anymore. Because when Tony asked himself why, all he could think about was the image of Barnes from a few days ago, smiling and enjoying himself in sunny Central Park, before that image inevitably morphed into the screaming, broken man begging for death at Hydra’s hands. 

“Because I want to help him get his life back.”

There was some sort of realization in Rhodey’s eyes that Tony couldn’t quite interpret, but the other man didn’t say anything, just let out a resigned sigh and dropped his head into his hands.

“I get that, I do. But I’m still not comfortable with you going in there by yourself, with no back up.”

“You know that’s not entirely true. There’s more than enough safety precautions. Barnes will be restrained, I’ll have my suit on standby and Friday will be my eyes and ears. But I’m not letting anyone else into that room. This is going to be hard enough on Barnes as it is, I’m not going to make a spectacle out of it. ”

When Rhodey just groaned, Tony tried to explain further. “Come on, this isn’t easy for anyone. God, I can’t even imagine how Barnes must be feeling - he’s prepared to give up control just like that, all of his autonomy… In a place where he probably feels he has no allies. Imagine how vulnerable he must feel. What if that poor guy is thinking that I’ll take advantage of him when he’s in that state? Maybe order him to go kill Rogers and the rest of his runaways buddies? There’s no way he trusts me enough to be comfortable. Hell, maybe if Rogers were here, Barnes would at least feel safer, having someone he trusted doing the procedure.”

Still resting his chin in his hands, Rhodey looked up to give Tony a strange look. “Oh, believe me, Barnes trusts you.” 

Tony wasn’t sure what Rhodey was trying to imply, but he quickly brushed off the comment. It wasn’t important. He needed to convince Rhodey (hell, maybe he needed to convince himself) that this wasn’t going to turn into some great, big disaster.

“Rhodey, it’ll be fine. No one else needs to be in there. We just need to keep it clean and simple. Hell, I bet it’ll all be over in five minutes.” Tony was about to take another sip of his coffee, but realized he probably didn’t need more caffeine, given how keyed up he already was, so he put the mug down with a clank

“We both watched the recovered surveillance from when Zemo activated the Asset in Berlin,” Tony said and then added with a disgusted scoff, “that fucker, probably thinking he was so smart with that e-bomb. Thank god I was paranoid enough back then to have Friday run back up surveillance. Poor girl got her circuits fried a little bit too, but she managed to come through in the end.”

Rhodey just gave a tired huff of laughter. “Barnes should probably send her a gift basket. Her surveillance tapes were the main driver behind the pardon. I don't think the politicians would’ve come around quite as easily if they didn’t see what Zemo did to Barnes with their own eyes.” 

“I’ll be sure to let him know,” Tony replied with a smile, but he couldn’t hold on to that smile for very long in the face of Rhodey’s still worried expression. “But like I was saying, we both saw how the triggers work. The Asset is basically a passive entity in that state with no will of his own, he’ll only respond to commands. So while Friday gets all the readings she needs, all I have to do is keep my mouth shut for a few minutes.”

“I hope you realize you’re instilling zero confidence in me by saying that, Tony,” Rhodey obviously was not impressed with Tony’s attempt to alleviate his worry. “And what about after? How are we deactivating the Asset?”

Tony had the good graces to look chagrined. “Er, Friday and I are working on it?”

All Rhodey could do was groan again and lean back in chair, arms crossed. He looked heavenward for a moment and then looked back at Tony. “If you really feel that strongly about making Barnes comfortable, fine, you can go in with him alone. But Vision and I will still monitor the whole thing from outside. We’re on standby the entire time. Anything goes wrong— and I mean anything— we’re busting in there and doing whatever’s necessary to keep you safe. Is that clear?”

Rhodey was in his full “I am the goddamn leader, fear me,” mode and his tone brokered no argument, but Tony knew a victory when he saw one.

 “Square deal.”

***

Barnes opened the door a few seconds after Tony knocked on it. It was obvious he was trying (and failing) to hide his anxiety when he attempted to give Tony a welcoming smile and it came off more as a grimace.

It had been two days since Tony informed him that they didn’t have the necessary data to move forward and they haven’t really spoken to each other since then. According to Friday, Barnes spent most of his time in his room, reading or writing, or outside on the Compound grounds during his morning runs. Tony let the man have his space, knowing that facing this decision must have been hell for him.

“Hey there, super soldier. Can I come in for a sec?” Tony attempted his own smile and hoped his didn’t fall quite as flat. 

Barnes just replied with a quiet “Of course,” and then went back inside to sit on the edge of his bed. Tony took a moment to give the man’s quarters a once over (noting that Barnes was basically sitting here alone in near darkness) and then promptly took a seat next to the man. They weren’t quite close enough to touch, but Tony was close enough to see just how stiffly the other man held himself. It also didn't escape Tony that Barnes kept distractedly running his hand against his jean-clad thigh over and over. Given the fact that this was a man with the self-control of a trained assassin spy, these outward signs must have pointed to Barnes being close to a full blown anxiety attack.

Tony did the only thing he could think of and promptly let himself collapse fully onto Barnes’ bed. He gave a contemplative hum as he made a show of feeling the bed out.

“How is it that your bed is more comfortable than mine?” Tony pulled out his best pouting expression. “That’s just not fair, Barnes. I mean, it’s my Compound! Maybe I’ll need to come sleep in here from now on,” he finished with an exaggerated wink at Barnes, who let out a huff of laughter, as expected. He always seemed to find Tony’s more ridiculous behavior amusing, and Tony was more than happy to oblige.

“You’re welcome to have it, Stark,” Barnes replied, but then his eyes grew darker again as he shrugged. “Don’t have much use for it anyways. Haven’t been doing much sleeping lately.”

Damn, okay, so that only worked for one short minute. Barnes’ comment reminded Tony that both of them had their fair share of nightmares.

He sat back up and rested his elbows on his knees, mirroring Barnes’ position. “Yeah, preaching to the choir there, Barnes. Thankfully, sleepless nights usually mean I actually get some of my work done. Honestly, Pepper and Rhodey don’t appreciate just how much tech my sleepless nights have produced for them.”

After a beat, Tony acknowledged that all of his jokes were falling flat because the super soldier was still looking straight ahead with the same defeated expression. Tony let out a long sigh and gently knocked his knee against Barnes’ to get the man’s attention.

“Hey,” he said when Barnes finally looked at him. “We don’t have to do this, you know.” 

Barnes contemplated those words. “Do you think you’ll be able to find another way to continue my therapy?” Before Tony could answer him, Barnes implored, “Be honest with me, please. Don’t give me platitudes. I know you mean well, but— I just need the truth.”

Tony gave himself a few moments to think. “No, I don’t think I’ll be able to find the right configuration for the system without the data,” he admitted finally. “At least not for a very long time. And none of the decrypted Hydra files have anything close to what we need.”

Barnes looked away, staring again at the space in front of him. “Then we have to do this.” 

“Yeah…” Tony watched himself nervously tap his sneaker-clad foot against the soft carpet. “I guess what I really meant was that I wish you didn’t have to go through this. I know that this must be hell. No, actually—” Tony grimaced, “I don’t actually know, I can’t even imagine.”

Tony met his eyes when Barnes finally looked back at him and that vulnerable, overwhelmed look on the man’s face made Tony’s chest feel tight with sympathy and regret. 

Barnes dropped his gaze again, watching Tony’s still anxiously tapping foot. “I just wish you didn’t have to be in the room with me,” he said quietly.

Tony felt his stomach drop. Damn, he should have expected that, he did expect that, but knowing that Barnes didn't trust him didn’t make the sudden, sour discomfort in his chest any easier to handle. But of course Barnes didn’t trust him. He had no reason to. Hell, Tony’s former teammates, people who he spent years living and fighting alongside with - even they didn't find him trustworthy enough, so why the hell would Barnes? 

All Tony could do was attempt to swallow around the lump in his throat. “I understand where you’re coming from. You’ve no reason to trust me. And if you want, I can get someone else in there, someone who—”

“What? Someone else? No!” Barnes interrupted suddenly, shaking his head and putting a stop to Tony’s ramblings. “No, that’s— that's not what I meant at all,” he continued, albeit quieter, and then turned to face Tony fully. “I— I do trust you. Hell, you’re probably the only person I can handle being in that room with me.”

The honesty behind Barnes’ words made Tony suddenly feel off-balance as he stared at the other man in confusion. He wasn’t sure what exactly he’d done to deserve that kind of trust (and what exactly Rhodey saw that made him suspect it). 

Barnes continued. “Even thinking about letting someone say those words and turn me— turn me into him makes me want to run,” he swallowed hard. “Run so far away that no one would ever find me again. But I know I can’t run away from this forever. And I think I can go through with this… if you’re the one in there with me.” 

“Yeah, okay, then I’m not going anywhere, I promise,” Tony reassured, but he was still unsure what Barnes meant with his initial statement. When he asked him, Barnes just shrugged.

“I just meant that it’s not fair for you to be the one to deal with this. I’ve caused you so much pain already… and I very clearly remember what happened between the two of us last time the triggers were activated.” 

God, Barnes looked so guilty and Tony felt the urge to alleviate that somehow. “Well, what happened is that you kinda kicked everyone’s ass. Not gonna lie, it was pretty badass—”

“I shot you!” Barnes spoke over him, guilt warring with anger. “I shot you and if it weren’t for your tech, you’d be—” Barnes took in a ragged breath, unable to finish that thought. “I don’t want him to hurt you again.” 

Without realizing it, Tony reached out and placed a hand on Barnes’ right shoulder. “Hey, hey, it’ll be fine, alright? We’re taking precautions. Nothing is going to go wrong.” He felt Barnes slump a little underneath his hand. “I’ll say the trigger words, we’ll activate the Asset—”

“The Soldier.”

Tony gave Barnes a quizzical look, who just shrugged again. “I call him the Soldier.”

“Huh,” Tony contemplated it for a moment. “You know, I like that better. Saying ‘the Asset’ over and over makes me feel like I’m going over the quarterly financials with Pepper or something,” he joked and Barnes let out a huff of air, the closest he could manage to a laugh.

“How are you planning to deactivate him?” Barnes asked and Tony rubbed his neck sheepishly.

“Friday and I are working on it. How did you turn him off in Berlin?”

“Pretty sure I just got hit on the head real hard.”

Tony couldn’t help his laugh. “Ah, yes, that's the preferred way of shaking off mind control around here.” At Barnes’ confused look, Tony just waved him off. “Long story, never mind. Well, hopefully Friday and I can do a little better than give you another concussion. Honestly, I don't think that head of yours can take anymore damage.”

“Just do whatever is necessary, okay?” Barnes insisted, ignoring Tony’s quip. “Do whatever you have to do.” 

Tony’s hand was still on Barnes’ shoulder, so he gave it a comforting squeeze and tried to put every bit of confidence and reassurance he had into his next words. “I promise I won’t let anything bad happen to you, okay?”

The look Barnes gave him was gratitude and desperation and fear all rolled into one and Tony’s heart ached. 

***

When Barnes walked into the room that Tony set up for this session, he looked like a man walking to his own execution. Tony hated the fact that he was feeling like the executioner in this case, but he kept telling himself that this would be over quickly. Nothing would go wrong and they would come out of this with the final variables needed to solve the equation of Barnes’ head.

“Friday said it was time?” Barnes asked as he neared him, all coiled tension and anxiety, and Tony just replied with a simple nod. Usually, he’d crack a joke at a point like this, but it was obvious from his earlier attempts that it wasn’t the right approach, not this time. He didn’t think any amount of levity would help lighten the other man’s mood and Tony didn’t want to cheapen what Barnes was going through with a stupid joke.

Tony directed Barnes to sit in the chair in the middle of the room, in front of which was a simple desk with Tony’s own seat next to it. Barnes slowly lowered himself into the large metal chair bolted down to the floor. Tony bitterly thought it resembled some caricature of a throne and he hated it because it reminded him of the restraints Barnes was in when Zemo activated the Soldier and worse, it also reminded him of that damn chair that Barnes was strapped into at the Hydra lab. Tony swallowed hard against the rising tide of nausea and tried to steel his nerves. This wasn't about him.

This time, their room was a much smaller venue - it was actually the first room at the Compound that was built to house the Hulk, before Tony decided it wasn’t spacious or luxurious enough for Bruce and he built him a much better one in the basement. However, Barnes and him didn’t need space and a nice comfortable bed. They just needed a place that would keep the rest of the world safe from the Winter Soldier, although Tony kept reminding himself that this was all just unnecessary precaution.

There was still scanning equipment scattered around the room, but no holographic projectors. Friday was on stand-by to fire everything up and collect data throughout the whole process. 

“I, uh— I need to place the sensors on your head again. I was also able to borrow a piece of nifty equipment from a doctor friend of mine. She works in medicine, on the cutting edge of nanotechnology, and the device she gave me can give us blood, hormone readings, all that good stuff, without needing to poke more needles into you. I, uh— I thought you’d appreciate that, I’m sure you feel like a pin cushion at this point.” Tony knew his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Is it— is it okay if I start?” He also couldn’t remember ever being quite this hesitant and inarticulate, but he supposed it was because he was trying to be careful and sensitive to the whole situation, two things which he had never been particularly good at. 

Barnes just inclined his head in assent, still all rigid tense lines as he sat in that godforsaken metallic trap of a chair. Tony noted that the man’s fist was clenched tight and there was a slight tremor running through his whole body. God, Barnes must have been on the verge of panic.

Not wanting to waste anymore time, Tony approached the man and attached the sensors to his temples and across his forehead, as well as the blood analyzer around his bicep, trying to be as gentle as possible with his movements, hoping it would make this whole thing feel less like some Hydra lab about to resurrect their Soldier. 

The nanotech device was a long thin strip, roughly the width of a matchbox and a fourth of the thickness, that looked like simple white plastic that attached itself to the skin. However, inside, the device housed some of the most impressive nanotechnology available, meant to take and analyze minute samples of blood via a barely-felt penetration of the skin and muscle; it would then send its results directly to Friday. Additionally, Tony was hoping this device would help them with the deactivation of the Soldier. It was a bit of a Hail Mary, but they would cross that bridge when they came to it.

Next came the less savory part of this whole process. By the resigned look on Barnes’ already anxious face, Tony guessed the other man knew it was coming too.

“I’m sorry about the restraints. Unfortunately, I was having a hard time getting this past Rhodey even with all these precautions.”

Barnes shook his head. “No, this— this is good. I want you to do whatever you need to keep me from hurting anyone,” he gave Tony a meaningful look, “from hurting you.

Tony kneeled down next to him. “Hey, what did I tell you before? Nothing is going to go wrong, okay? All that’s going to happen is I say the trigger words, Friday records everything that happens to your body and to your brain. I say absolutely nothing else, just observe, and then we shut the whole thing down.”

Barnes looked like he wanted to say something else, to protest some part of Tony’s explanation, but then he just closed his eyes, sat straight against the chair, and placed his arm into the unlocked restraints. He gave Tony a shaky, but resolute nod.

“I’m ready.”

God, the amount of sheer will that Barnes must have needed to say that, given that every part of the man was screaming the fact that he did not want to do this. 

One by one, Tony locked in the metal restraints - a set around Barnes’ forearm, one set across his torso and two over his shoulders. Tony felt bile rise up in his throat when the final restraint clicked into place around Barnes’ throat. 

“I’m sorry, Barnes.”

Tony watched the other man swallow hard against the restraint. “Can I ask you for something, Stark?” There was a quiver in the man’s voice.

“Of course.”

“Can you— can you call me James? Please?”

A memory of their last session surfaced in Tony’s mind and he recalled the way that name seemed to have dragged the man back from that Hydra nightmare. Prompted by the images of that night, Tony cautiously placed his hand over Barnes’ and the man clutched it in his own immediately, squeezing it tight. The gratitude in his eyes made Tony feel like he finally did something right.

“Of course. But you have to call me Tony. Seems only fair,” he replied with just a barely there smile and watched Barnes try to reciprocate, but the man looked to be on the verge of tears and Tony knew he shouldn’t be dragging this out any longer.

He gave Barnes’ hand— no, James’ hand one more tight squeeze before letting go and walking over to take his own seat.

“Friday, initiate lockdown Omega, Code Black. Authorization Sierra 5 0014 81.”

The AI hesitated. “Boss?”

“Please follow the command, Friday,” Tony ordered sternly.

At James’ questioning look, he explained, “The lockdown is to make sure this room is secure from any and all threats.”

That was enough for the other man who, Tony assumed, thought the explanation implied the lockdown was to keep the Winter Soldier in if anything went wrong.

That was half true. This version of the lockdown also happened to keep everyone else out - which included keeping dear old Vision from phasing through the walls. 

A few months back, Tony spent weeks trying to convince Strange to let him in on some of the mystic secrets that could help him counteract the powers of the Infinity Stones. Tony was self-aware enough to admit that his desire, his need to create something that could defend against that type of magic was driven primarily by the witch - he never wanted himself or anyone else in his life to be vulnerable to her destructive red magic ever again. 

Like any scientist worth his salt, Tony hated magic— or at least the fact that it came with hand wavey explanations, but he needed to find a way to protect himself and others and if it meant turning to the mystic arts, then so be it. Despite Strange’s initial reluctance, Tony was nothing if not persistent and he finally wore the man down, convincing Strange to give him enough information to get started. Unfortunately, progress was slow and currently, Tony could only get the anti-magic barriers to work on a larger scale (and even that was touch-and-go for longer than a day or two), but they would do just fine in this case and help keep the resident android from interrupting.

Tony didn’t regret his decision, but he mentally cringed at the sour taste of guilt when Friday informed him that the lockdown was in place. Rhodey didn’t actually agree to this particular detail and Tony hated lying to his best friend (even by omission). But in his gut, Tony knew he only had one chance to do this right and he would just face the fallout later. James trusted him and he wasn’t going to let him down - which meant Tony had to control this whole process, start to finish. To make sure they got the right data, to make sure nothing was disrupted… and to make sure James came out of this in one piece. He couldn’t afford the others barging in here and making things worse somehow. Hopefully though, everything would go just right and no one would even realize that Tony initiated this particular version of the lockdown.

He looked at the man in front of him. James' posture was strained and expression anxious, but he was also so very vulnerable. Terrified beyond words as he prepared to give up his free will yet again. 

This is why I initiated the lockdown. He’s my responsibility and I can’t take the risk of anyone hurting him.

Tony knew the trigger words by heart, having memorized them last night as he rewatched the Zemo tapes. Tony’s Russian consisted of not much more than the basic set of pleasantries as well a wide range of swear words, but he thought he managed the pronunciation of these ten words and phrases well enough. 

“I wish I could just rattle off these words and get it over with, but Friday needs time to collect the data on each one. I’m sorry I have to drag this out.”

James just gave a slight nod and whispered, “It’s okay, I understand.”

Tony wanted to say something else, but the right words just wouldn’t come and he knew he’d just be stalling anyways.

He had to accept that it was time.

“Zhelaniye.”

Longing. The first word felt foreign and cumbersome on Tony’s tongue and he wanted to cough around the sudden dryness in his throat. He watched James swallow hard, his hand clenching over and over on the side of the chair. Friday was in silent mode now, only communicating with Tony through his earpiece. Tony breathed a momentary, mental sigh of relief when she informed him that they were getting readings. A lot of readings. Barnes’ whole physiology was lighting up like a Christmas tree. When she gave the go-ahead, Tony moved on to the next word.

“Rzhavyy.”

Rusted. Tony knew he stumbled over the consonants. He waited and wished Friday would just hurry up.

“Semnadtsat’.”

Seventeen. James drew in a ragged breath and clenched his eyes shut. 

“Rassvet.”

Daybreak. One single tear ran down James’ check and the gasp of air he drew in bordered on a sob. Tony refused to look away, no matter how much this was breaking his heart.

“Pech’.” 

Furnace. Tony wished he could reach out to James, take his hand into his own again, find some way to communicate that he wasn’t alone. But James was locked in his restraints, too far away, and Tony had no choice but to continue.

“Devyat’.”

Nine. James opened his eyes, meeting Tony's gaze as another tear made its way down. 

“Dobroserdechnyy.”

Benign. Tony learned yesterday it translated literally to good-hearted and he thought that was a better fit. The man in front of him had never been benign, but his heart? Tony was ready to admit to himself that the man’s heart must have always been good. 

“Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu.” 

Homecoming. Tony mouthed an ashamed I’m sorry and James whispered his own sorrowful I know.

“Odin.” 

One. James closed his eyes once more, completely uncaring that his face was wet with tears now. Another ragged, powerless sob wrecked his frame.

The last phrase. Freight car. Tony imagined James falling into the cold abyss from that train during the war and understood why this was the last word. The beginning of the end for James Buchanan Barnes. 

“Gruzovoy vagon.” 

Tony waited one, two, three beats before uttering the final “Soldat?”

When the man in front of him opened his eyes again, those cheeks still marred with the tracks of his tears, it was no longer James looking at him. It was the Winter Soldier.

“Ya gotov otvechat’.”

Ready to comply.

Chapter Text

“Soldat?”

“Ya gotov otvechat’.”

[Ready to comply. Translated directly as: I am ready to answer/respond.]

Tony noted Friday’s translation that filtered through his ear piece as he sat unmoving, looking at the Winter Soldier in front of him.

As soon as he said that last phrase, the change in James was instantaneous. All the tension in his face slipped away and he looked straight ahead, right at Tony. Every emotion, all that panic and grief that Tony saw in James’ eyes just seconds ago, it was all gone. The tear tracks still visible on the man’s face made for an almost obscene contrast against that empty, neutral expression. 

However, Tony noted that the Soldier wasn’t a lifeless zombie by any means. His gaze was deliberate as he watched Tony. There was intent, but it was neither friendly nor hostile. 

[Boss, my scans continue to pick up readings from Mr. Barnes. His body and brain chemistry have shifted significantly and I am still cataloguing the changes. Should I continue?]

Tony and Friday developed a simple code to communicate in moments like this. One tap of his pointer and middle finger meant yes, two taps for no.

He tapped once on the table and observed as the Soldier looked down at the movement of his hand and then looked back up, his expression unchanged.

Ya gotov otvechat’,” the Soldier repeated in that same monotone. It was strange, Tony absently noted, that the Soldier’s Russian lacked the heavy accent one would expect. 

Another several excruciatingly long minutes passed by in silence as Tony waited for Friday’s update and it gave him more time than he wanted to examine the gambit of emotions that were running through him.

The man sitting in front of him… This was the man who killed his parents. 

The cold, dark December road flashed before his mind’s eye and in crystal clear detail, he remembered the image of his father, beaten to death. The image of his mother, as the hand of the man before him curled mercilessly around her throat and crushed

Tony could suddenly feel grief, anger, and fear all rolling through him in waves. He clenched his jaw to the point of grinding his teeth down in an attempt to center himself because he was not going to look away, goddamn it. He needed to face this. This was his chance to literally face his parents’ killer.

And as he looked over that lethargic, empty expression once again, he realized, with painful clarity, that this wasn’t James. 

He also realized just how much of what James felt came through in his eyes, his expressions, his body language, because now, Tony desperately wanted to see something— anything— 

But there was nothing. Only simple, forced compliance and—

[Boss, I have all the data I need.]

Oh thank fucking god, Friday, not a moment too soon.

Tony let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He was right after all - without a command, the Soldier was nothing more than a passive entity and everything went as he expected. He took just one more second, just one last chance to stare into the eyes of the weapon Hydra used to kill his parents, to burn this image into his head, so that the next time he saw James, he’d know where to look for the differences. 

[Boss, should I initiate the shutdown protocol?]

Ah yes, his and Friday’s brain child for shutting down the Winter Soldier. While Tony had another backup plan, it was even less reliable than this idea, which was already a bit of a long-shot.

He tapped his fingers once against the table. 

It was obvious when Friday activated the protocol because James went completely stiff, drew in a sharp pained breath, and then his eyes rolled to the back of his head and his entire body went slack.

The shutdown protocol that Friday and Tony came up with was all about chemistry - Tony jokingly called it the Cognitive Recalibration Cocktail. It was a precise blend of various drugs, created by Friday, synthesized and delivered by the nanotech device on James’ arm. The goal was to find just the right mixture of chemicals to perfectly counteract the physical changes that James underwent as a result of the triggers to become the Winter Soldier. The dose of course had to be several orders of magnitude larger than anything standard to counteract the resistance of the super soldier physiology. Since Friday was the only one currently in possession of all the data collected, Tony didn’t actually know the exact composition of the cocktail she used, but it seemed to have worked. God bless Friday and god bless nanotechnology.

At this point, James’ body should be able to filter out the chemicals with relative ease, avoiding any permanent damage, and his body chemistry should stabilize and settle into its normal pre-triggers state. 

Hopefully. Tony had to admit to himself that all of this was way more art than science, but desperate measure and all. He supposed that if the Soldier woke back up with his now predictable Ya gotov otvechat’, Tony would just have to hit him over the head once or twice, but he was keeping his fingers crossed. 

Tony spent a few silent minutes observing the man before him, but eventually he couldn’t stand to look at those restraints any longer. That damn Hydra memory kept playing on repeat in his head and all he could think about was James tied to that chair, desperately struggling as he screamed. So mind made up, Tony was by the other man's side in just a few short steps and he began undoing the restraints with a vicious satisfaction. He had to admit they did at least keep James from falling forward and cracking his head against the table when he lost consciousness, but there was no purpose to them any longer and Tony wanted them off the man now. He gave each metal restraint a hateful glare before releasing the locking mechanisms. Maybe he should incinerate this stupid chair once this was over. After all, he hadn’t blown anything up in a while. Yes, he decided, they were definitely blowing it up in the lab later as a way to celebrate. 

Finally, James was free and Tony made one terribly unsuccessful attempt to carry the man over to the small cot in the corner (originally meant for Bruce). He gave up when he could barely even lift James out of the chair.

“Damn heavy super soldiers,” Tony muttered as he observed the unconscious man. He supposed he could put on his suit and carry him that way, but Tony decided it could wait a few minutes. 

He gave James’ slumped form one last look, saying a brief mental thanks to whatever gods were listening (he hoped it wasn’t Loki) that things ended up going well, before proceeding over to the scanning equipment to begin shutting everything down. He was in the middle of powering down the holoscreens when a sudden, loud crash reverberated through the room and Tony had only enough time to turn around at the sound before he was slammed viciously into the nearby wall. 

His vision exploded in a sea of stars as the pain at the back of his head momentarily overtook every one of his senses. He groaned and tried to move, but a heavy pressure on his throat stopped him in his tracks.

As the world around him finally came back into focus, he realized he was staring into the eyes of a very conscious Winter Soldier, who had him pinned to the wall with his forearm pressing down against his throat. 

Shit, shit, shit. 

Apparently, things did not end up going well. Tony could feel the cold tendrils of a panic attack begin to make their way through his body and the edges of his vision began to darken, but he pulled on his remaining willpower to push it all away. He couldn’t afford to go comatose now, he couldn’t

As the panic miraculously began to recede, Tony noted humorlessly that while he apparently could control it in the heat of danger, he couldn’t do it in the middle of his own damn kitchen. Figures

[Boss?? Boss, do I need to lift the lockdown? There are more readings now, new data, his physiology changed again, but— I'm not sure what’s happening. I’m scared, Boss. Do I lift the lockdown?]

Tony took just a moment to contemplate his current situation. He wasn’t dead yet, so that was obviously good news. The Soldier’s expression didn’t give much away, although his eyes were actually alert and alive now and the initial, potent rage that Tony first saw in his expression was replaced by a more calculating look as the Soldier’s eyes scanned and scrutinized Tony. The forearm across Tony’s throat wasn’t pressing down hard enough to significantly constrict his breathing either. Rather, it felt more like a reminder, a warning, that if he made the wrong move, all the Soldier had to do was push to crush Tony’s very fragile windpipe. 

Tranquilizers and drugs obviously didn’t work. A spooked Soldier would probably kill him well before Tony’s suit had the chance to assemble. And if he lifted the lockdown and everyone stormed in here, trying to rescue him— well, hell, that wasn’t going to make things any better either. The Soldier might still end up killing him. On top of that, Rhodey would shoot first and ask questions later and Tony feared with a heavy weight in the pit of his stomach, that if Rhodey had the chance, he would go for the kill shot. 

Tony realized he couldn’t let that happen. 

There was still one more thing he could try to end this, but Tony noted that the Soldier didn’t bother ripping off any of the scanning equipment still attached to him and what if this was their only chance to get a better understanding of what was going on in James’ head? How could Tony afford not to get every useful bit of information out of this? 

And if he were honest with himself, there was also a part of him (the one that needed to take everything apart and see how it all worked) that was morbidly curious about what the hell was actually happening because none of them expected this going in.

Well, I never did have a good working relationship with my self-preservation instincts. 

His arms were still at his sides (he didn’t even bother trying to pull the Soldier off himself), so he tapped his fingers twice very gently against his thigh so as not to draw the Soldier’s attention to the movement.

He knew Friday would obey and would also be perceptive enough to continue the scans and get all the data available until he told her otherwise. 

Either way, I come out of this dead, Tony thought and he almost wanted to laugh. Either the Soldier kills me… or Rhodey does. 

Well, it was time to push away any fear, any remaining grief, and just do what Tony Stark did best. Talk.

“Uh— Hi there, stranger. Come here often?”

The Soldier’s eyes narrowed at the sound of his voice and it was a strange dichotomy yet again - this wasn’t exactly the compliant Fist of Hydra who killed his parents on a simple command, but it wasn’t James either. The arm against Tony’s throat was a constant pressure, but thankfully the Soldier didn’t feel the need to push harder. 

After the next scrutinizing look (Tony was really beginning to feel like some lab specimen being examined), the Soldier cocked his head to the side.

Vi ne Geedra.” 

[You are not Hydra], Friday’s translation came through his earpiece.

“Nope, not at all. Those guys are a bunch of dicks—” Tony stopped suddenly, belatedly realizing that maybe the Soldier expected him to be Hydra? Ah crap.

The Soldier examined him critically for one more moment, but then finally some form of recognition flittered across his eyes as he locked them with Tony’s. 

“I do know you,” the Soldier said and then his face transformed as he gave Tony an actual smirk. This was nothing like James’ soft, shy smiles though - this was sharp, dangerous

“Tony Stark,” the Soldier crooned, his eyes never leaving Tony’s. “You're the one trying to save me. The man made of iron and light who wants to slay the Hydra in my head.” 

Tony swallowed hard, feeling his Adam’s apple bob against the heavy, solid mass of the forearm pressed against him. “That’s, uh— that’s me. Although no one had ever stated that quite so— poetically…” Tony trailed off, unable to interpret the look the Soldier was giving him when his eyes narrowed in contemplation.

“I fought you. In Berlin.”

“You almost killed me.” 

Almost means I didn’t want you dead.” The Soldier trailed off for a moment, glancing down. Whether he was looking somewhere in the vicinity of Tony's lips or just at his arm over Tony's throat, he couldn't tell. But then the man glanced back up. “I had a mission to kill you, before… but it was terminated. They sent someone else,” the Winter Soldier declared, his tone almost casual. Tony couldn’t help the surprised deer-in-the-headlights look that he must have given the Soldier when he heard the words. 

Because that was hell of a bomb to drop! Hydra wanted to kill him? When? Why? Why didn’t they?

All questions for later. He had more pressing matters at the moment. 

“Well, I’m glad Hydra failed to kill me, big guy. Gotta tell you, love the whole ‘living to see another day’ thing.”

Then, before Tony even knew how to react, the Soldier leaned even closer, pressing his whole, larger body against Tony’s, his forearm never leaving Tony’s neck. His face moved closer as well and for one bizarre moment, Tony was convinced the Soldier was going to kiss him.

Instead though, the Soldier just leaned over his shoulder and with his lips right next to Tony’s ear, he whispered, “I’m glad they failed too.”

Still unable to get his bearings straight with the entire goddamn super soldier pressed up against him, Tony couldn’t manage a single word and the Soldier took that as his cue to continue.

Ya huchoo jit’ toje.

[I want to live too]

Okay, so they were back to the Russian apparently. Thank god Friday was in his ear. “That’s— uh, that’s great. Glad we could agree on that,” Tony stammered out. He was relieved that, at the very least, this entire situation was more bewildering than terrifying so far. Oh, he was sure he’d have the inevitable emotional breakdown once he was back in the safety of his lab or his room (or his new shiny coffin, if Rhodey had any say in it), but right now, he was holding himself together surprisingly well.

Ya huchoo bit’ svobodnim.” 

[I want to be free]

The way the Soldier whispered those words, that barely there caress of his breath against Tony’s ear, felt downright intimate, sensual, and even though this wasn’t James, it was still his body, and Tony couldn’t help the shiver that ran through his own. Tony tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t deny he was curious as to where exactly this was going. He did wish though that the Soldier would stop whispering his weird-ass, cryptic messages into his ear. 

“I want to kill them all.”

Okay, shit, never fucking mind, cryptic was just fine. Tony stiffened and his body jerked involuntary when he heard the words, but the Soldier pressed down on his throat just hard enough to get Tony to stop moving. Still refusing to leave Tony’s personal space, he just shushed him and gave him a quiet, playful “Tiho, tiho, moyo solnishko.” Friday supplied that the Soldier just told him to be quiet, but frankly, Tony was more affronted by the fact that the Soldier also just called him his little sun. 

Tony Stark had been called many things during his long, adventurous life, but that was a new one. 

“Hard to be quiet, buddy, when you just told me you want to kill everyone.”

Finally, the Soldier pulled back, but only far enough to lock eyes with Tony as he delivered his reply with a smile that Tony could only describe as part devious and part vicious.

“Not everyone. Only those who reek of Hydra.”

Tony’s eyes widened in surprise for the second time. Apparently the Winter Soldier was just full of revelations. 

“Sounds— sounds great to me,” Tony stumbled over his words and tried to give the Soldier a smile. “We’re all on the same page here. I hate Hydra, you, uh— you hate Hydra. Your pal James Barnes, he hates Hydra. And he wants to live and be free too, I bet.”

There was a knowing smirk on the man’s face and it gave Tony a strange sense that the Soldier was aware of things that Tony couldn’t even begin to guess at. 

The Soldier drew closer again and gently ran the tip of his nose against Tony's cheek, causing him to shiver again and okay, Tony was sure he was gonna get kissed this time, but the other man stopped short, leaving just enough space between their lips for him to speak.

“I am James Barnes.”

Tony felt like he stopped breathing. The only thing he knew for sure in that moment was that he was going to have so much shit to think about after this situation, he wasn’t going to get any sleep for days. 

[Boss, I’ve gotten all the possible readings I can. There’s nothing else. Please, can we end this?]

Poor Friday sounded desperate. Tony briefly wondered if he should try to get any more earth-shattering secrets out of the Soldier, but this was getting too intense, even for him. Plus, the Soldier was still too close, their lips just a hair breadth apart, and the man was now giving him a look that Tony was not appreciating at all - part curiosity, part hunger, and yeah, Tony was pulling the plug on this. No goddamn Winter Soldier was kissing him today.

Well, time for the ace up my sleeve. God, I hope this works. Do Hydra files get peer-reviewed?

He swallowed hard and thought back to the trigger words that one of the Hydra files indicated should shut the man down (although apparently their success rate left much to be desired), but all he managed to get out was a “Toch—” before said Soldier suddenly lifted his arm away from his throat and clamped his hand over Tony's mouth, pressing him back into the wall with his whole body. Tony’s hands flew to the hand on instinct, but he had no chance getting it off. 

“Clever, clever Tony Stark,” the Soldier actually cooed with mirth in his eyes and then huffed out a laugh when Tony tried to jerk out of his grasp. He shushed him again, still close enough to let his forehead rest against Tony’s. “Tiho, solnishko. It’s okay. I won’t let anything happen to you. I won’t let Hydra touch either one of us. Not ever again.”

Before Tony could even process what that was supposed to mean, the Soldier leaned in again, lips right against Tony’s ear. “Because there is only one mission now. I will kill them all,” he whispered and this time, nothing about this felt even remotely intimate or playful because his voice lost those earlier teasing notes, turning vicious and vengeful. Tony had to clench his eyes shut, because the violence behind that tone made him terrified. Every sense he had zeroed in on that voice and even Friday’s translations were nothing more than static in his ear.

Odin za odnim, they will all die at my hands, slowly, brutally. I will take them apart until they know nothing but pain, until they suffer how I suffered. Until they suffer how we suffered. Ves’ mir boodet v krovi etih svolochey. They will beg for mercy as they choke on their blood, but there will never be any mercy. Only death.”

He pulled back then to look at Tony, who finally opened his eyes. “They will all die. No ti i ya, my clever Tony Stark,” the Soldier smirked and pressed his forehead to Tony’s again, “we will live.” 

For one terrifying, confusing second of silence that dragged out into eternity, all Tony could do was stare into those eyes - alive and uncontrolled, filled with both a vicious violence and a possessive, protective hunger that Tony couldn’t even begin to interpret. 

Then, the Soldier closed his eyes and placed a barely there kiss on Tony’s forehead before whispering, “We will be free, moyo solnishko,” and finally letting go. He took several steps back and gave Tony a self-satisfied smile, as if daring him to use the trigger.

Tony didn’t hesitate. 

Tochka zamerzaniya.

As soon as Tony said the words (and Hydra probably thought they were being so goddamn clever using freezing point as the shutdown trigger), the Soldier’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and his body collapsed to the floor, slack and motionless. Tony didn’t even attempt to catch him, frozen to his own spot by equal part fear and shock. 

He watched the prone body for what he assumed was no more than a minute, not letting himself make a single move. But then, finally, the body stirred.

“…Tony?” a very groggy, disoriented James Barnes called out and then let out a pained moan, as he tried to lift himself off the floor.

Oh thank god.

Tony let out the breath he was holding and then felt his legs promptly give out from under him. He slid down the wall and collapsed in a heap of uncoordinated limbs on the floor. 

“What happened?” James asked, looking around in confusion, probably still trying to get his bearings straight. His eyes landed on Tony.

“Just, uh— some complications,” Tony breathed out and oh boy, everything was turning dark and cold and there was that panic attack he’d been pushing away the entire time. “Friday, cancel the shutdown please,” he managed to croak out, before he had to go back to struggling through each breath. 

It took no more than a second or two before the doors to the room were flung open and Colonel James Rhodes himself burst into the room, looking like an avenging angel. Tony realized that in this case, it was probably the angel of death.

“Tony, what the actual fuck?” Rhodey began shouting before he even got across the room. “What in the hell did you think you were doing?!” Each word was punctuated with a step, which finally brought Rhodey right next to Tony. 

“We, uh— has some— technical difficulties— no big deal,” Tony barely managed to get the words out.

“That is it, I am going to kill you,” Rhodey pointed to Tony and then swung his attention to James, “and then I’ll kill you,” he seethed and poor James just looked more dazed and confused. Rhodey was back to pointing at Tony again. “And then I’ll find a way to bring your sorry ass back from the dead just so I can kill you again, hoping that maybe it’ll sink in the second time, because you’re a goddamn idiot!”

“Rhodey, Honey Bear—” Tony had to catch his breath after every few words, “I will take all of that into consideration, but can we— can we not yell at the guy— about to have a massive panic attack?” 

The message was thankfully received because all Tony heard next was a muttered expletive and then Rhodey was kneeling in front of him and taking his face into his hands. Despite the anger he could see in Rhodey’s eyes, the touch was gentle and it was already helping Tony feel more grounded. 

“You goddamn idiot, do you realize how much you scared me?” Rhodey whispered and when Tony just shrugged, he pulled Tony into a crushing hug. 

Tony’s face was squished into Rhodey’s shoulder, so he was only able to get out a muffled “You’re squashing me, Rhodes.” Rhodey’s response was to just hug him tighter, so Tony stopped squirming and let himself enjoy the embrace, which did actually help push the panic back. From the vantage point of Rhodey’s shoulder, he watched Vision first give him an uncharacteristically resentful look before holding out a polite hand to James, who used it to lift himself off the floor. The man was looking less dazed now, but the confusion was quickly being replaced by fear.

“I don't remember anything. I— I need to know what happened! Did I— did I hurt Tony?” he looked stricken at that realization and Tony felt the immediate urge to reassure him. He burrowed himself out of the comfort of Rhodey’s shoulder so that he could at least speak clearly. 

“No one was hurt, nothing happened, everything’s fine,” he insisted, but then he felt Rhodey push him away and hold him at arm’s length.

Nothing happened? Are you kidding me right now?”

Apparently Tony’s attempt at an innocent smile was not working at all because Rhodey stood up and turned to James.

“You wanna know what this idiot did?” he pointed to Tony. “He locked all of us out, so that when you went all Winter Soldier on him and attacked, we were stuck outside watching the whole damn thing like some shitty movie!”

James went ashen white. “I did what?”

Okay, Tony needed to put a stop to this before it was their resident super soldier having the panic attack. He was fairly certain his legs could support his weight now, so using the wall as a crutch, he slowly made his way into a standing position. The world around him spun a few times, but all in all, not too bad. He had hangovers worse than this.

“I’m fine, James. Not a bruise on me.” His throbbing head promptly reminded him that wasn’t entirely true. “Well, I might end the day with a killer headache, but other than that, I’m fine.

James wasn’t anywhere near convinced and he was on the verge of panic again. “Please tell me - what did I do?”

Tony tried to find the words to explain what the hell just happened, but realized he didn’t actually know himself what the hell just happened

He sighed. “Alright, this might be easier with visuals. Friday has everything on video. Probably a lot better than whatever explanation I can come up with. Friday, be a dear and give us a projection with the recording. Start when the Soldier was activated the first time.”

For the next few minutes, they all watched in silence as the events Tony had just lived unfolded on the holographic screen before them. The footage itself was only a few minutes long, which surprised Tony because the ordeal felt like forever

James watched the whole thing with increasingly terrified expression on his face and he physically flinched when the Soldier overturned the table and charged at Tony, slamming him into the nearby wall. When the video was over, Tony wasn’t sure what to do or say, so he tried for reassurance.

“See? It worked out fine. We got exactly the data we needed. More, actually! And hell, the Soldier was gentler with me than some of my former teammates! At least he didn’t lift me off the ground by the throat. Trust me, not pleasant—”

“You shouldn’t have done this,” James interrupted him, his voice suddenly furious. “You shouldn’t have taken off the restraints. You should have shut the Soldier down as soon as I attacked you. You should have let them stop me!”

“James, it’s fine—”

“I could have killed you!” 

The devastated declaration echoed through the otherwise silent room like thunder and the look in James’ eyes — anger and guilt and fear— left Tony feeling off-balance. 

James drew in a sharp, jagged breath and it looked like he wanted to say something else, but instead, he just turned on his heel and walked straight out the opened doors. Tony called out to him and tried to follow, but Rhodey grabbed him by the arm. 

“Let him be. Besides,” the look on Rhodey’s face turned decidedly murderous, “we’re not done talking.”

Tony looked back toward the entrance and he realized he felt guilty. What the hell kinda day did they just have that he was the one feeling sorry for things? Didn’t he keep his promise though? He kept James safe! He kept all of them safe!

But all Tony’s mind could think about was a constant loop of James’ tears as Tony said the final trigger words and James’ devastated expression when he watched himself attack Tony. Over and over, two different expressions of terror and grief.

Fuck. Tony didn’t think that there was a cup of tea in the world big enough to fix this.

Chapter Text

Peter loved this particular spot on the roof of the Compound because it was always secluded and had the best view of both the grounds and the setting sun, which still had a ways to go before it disappeared below the horizon. He smiled, enjoying the warm sunshine on his face as he sat on the edge, his feet dangling over the side of the building, before reaching into the bag next to him. He rooted around for a moment and finally found what he was looking for with a satisfied “Aha!” 

He unscrewed the lid of the jar he pulled out, stuck a spoon in it, and handed it over to the man sitting next to him.

“Try this one. That’s definitely the best one!” 

The man accepted the jar and placed it carefully between his knees to keep it still and then proceeded to put the generous scoop on the spoon straight into his mouth. Peter couldn’t help his grin when a look of curiosity on the man’s face turned into one of delight. 

“Oh wow, this is amazing,” Mr. Barnes said around the spoonful still in his mouth and Peter tried to hide his laughter. Giving the spoon one more quick lick, Mr. Barnes placed it down and picked up the jar. “Nutella,” he read the label, “I assume it has nuts of some sort?”

“Hazelnuts! Apparently it was invented because there was a shortage of cocoa after World War Two,” Peter replied and reached into the picnic bag again to grab his own jar of the chocolate spread. 

Mr. Barnes just gave a curious hum and then busied himself with another spoonful, prompting Peter to do the same. For a moment, they enjoyed their dessert in silence, looking over the vibrant green of the Compound grounds. Peter wondered, absently bouncing his foot against the concrete wall, what the grounds would look like during fall or winter and he hoped Mr. Stark would let him visit during his school breaks. Or maybe even on the weekends.

Unfortunately, Peter would have to wait to discuss any of his future visits until everyone was in a better mood.

Things at the Compound had been... tense for the past week. Or at least they were with the East Wing residents. Life in the West Wing seemed to be going as smoothly as ever, with the hustle and bustle of people coming and going - some here for training, some on assignments with the government or even the UN. Most of them weren’t even aware that a big, rainy cloud settled over the East Wing. 

Peter wasn’t entirely sure what happened a week ago - mostly because everyone still treated him like a kid and never bothered to tell him anything. But he accidentally stumbled onto Mr. Stark and Colonel Rhodes in the middle of a really intense conversation and the two men were so focused on their argument (well, one-sided argument, the Colonel was doing all the talking) that it took minutes for them to realize that Peter was even there. Before they became aware of his presence though, Peter got the gist of the situation - Mr. Stark did something dangerous and so goddamn stupid, Tony, honestly, I’m impressed you can still surprise me with how fucking reckless you can be (Colonel’s words, not Peter’s). Apparently whatever Mr. Stark did happened while he was trying to help Mr. Barnes (Peter only knew that Mr. Barnes was here to get help with the awful things Hydra did to him). 

The Colonel seemed absolutely livid with Mr. Stark.

You could’ve died, Tony. Do you understand me? Can you take even a goddamn second to think about how I felt? I had to stand there and watch, helpless and terrified, thinking— is this— is this the moment he decides to snap your neck and kill you? Am I gonna have to carry my best friend out of that room in a body bag? And all because you decided you knew better than the rest of us. Is that it, Tony? You don’t trust us?

Mr. Stark just stood there, letting the Colonel yell at him. He looked contrite and guilty, and Peter wasn’t sure how to feel because he had never seen Mr. Stark like that. 

It was at that point that the Colonel noticed him and in the sternest voice he had ever heard from the man, Peter was told to please leave, Peter, this is a private conversation. Usually Peter would put up a fight, ask to be included because he wasn’t just a kid anymore, thank you very much, but he obeyed without an argument for once. The tension between the two men was palpable and Peter knew this wasn’t the place for his usual comments and quips.

Ever since then, each time Peter visited the East Wing, it felt like everyone was just stressed and withdrawn, and no one wanted to engage Peter in conversation or hang out with him. He didn’t see Mr. Barnes or Mr. Stark at all. According to Friday, Mr. Stark had been locked away in his lab the entire time, and everyone’s visiting privileges were temporarily revoked. Mr. Barnes spent most of his time hiding away in his quarters.

At first, Peter let it go, telling himself it really wasn’t any of his business, but after a few days, it frankly felt like everyone was just moping about. If Peter were honest, adults could be pretty dumb sometimes. How did yelling at each other and then hiding away actually fix anything? 

And really, Peter couldn’t think of a problem that couldn’t be helped (even if just a little bit) with some food and fresh air.

So Peter took matters into his own hands (he would’ve recruited Harley, but the other boy was with his mom and sister for the week), and because Peter couldn’t even reach Mr. Stark at the moment, he decided he would start with Mr. Barnes. So, he grabbed a big picnic bag, raided the large West Wing kitchens for any dessert that he thought Mr. Barnes might like (he had to consult with Friday several times on whether something was invented before or after 1944), and after he was satisfied with his haul, he headed over to the East Wing.

Thankfully, Mr. Barnes opened the door when Peter knocked. The man was momentarily confused and Peter had to stifle a laugh because, that’s right, Mr. Barnes had never seen him without his mask on before. But Peter decided that the man was totally cool enough now to know his real identity, so he introduced himself again, Hi, I’m Peter Parker! You may have seen my work as Spiderman! and Mr. Barnes’ face lit up in recognition as soon as he heard Peter’s voice. 

At first, Mr. Barnes was reluctant to spend time together, telling Peter that he wouldn’t be very good company. It was obvious the man was tired and stressed, what with those dark shadows under his eyes. However, that only made Peter want to help more, so he put on his best puppy dog eyes and asked Mr. Barnes, could you hang out with me just for a bit? I mean, it’s been so lonely without Harley, and I could really use the company! Please, Mr. Barnes? I even brought us snacks! 

The man finally acquiesced and followed Peter to his favorite spot on the roof. It may have taken a little bit of time (as well as a whole assortment of candy and chocolates), but just as Peter suspected, sunshine and sugar did their job. Bit by bit, Mr. Barnes relaxed and even began to engage in conversation with Peter (at first, Peter had to do most of the talking, but he didn’t mind). 

They ended up spending over three hours here on the roof, just talking and taking in the view. Peter hadn’t brought up anything about Mr. Stark and instead stuck to safer topics. He told Mr. Barnes all about his training here at the Compound and about the science experiment that had been put on hold because Harley was away. Mr. Barnes even listened to Peter talk about a girl that he really liked and hoped to see again once school started up in a few months. 

Finally though, they were down to their last two jars of Nutella and Peter thought it was safe to bring up the thing that happened days ago.

“So, um— Mr. Barnes? Can I ask you something about Mr. Stark?” Peter tentatively began. 

“Sure. But you do know you don’t have to call me Mr. Barnes, right? I’m fine with just Bucky,” the other man said and then cocked his head to the side. “And I may not have known Tony for very long, but he doesn’t seem to be the type to insists on formalities either.”

“Oh no, he definitely isn’t! He asked me to call him Tony several times now, but I, uh—” Here, Peter let out an awkward laugh. “I may have accidentally called him Dad in one of the meetings a little while back and— No, don’t laugh, Mr. Barnes!” 

The other man was failing to hold back his mirth, despite Peter’s glare. “Sorry, Peter, I can’t help it. I’m just trying to picture how Tony reacted to that.”

“That’s the thing though, he didn’t even react!” At Mr. Barnes’ raised eyebrow, Peter elaborated. “So we’re in a meeting with everyone and he just says,” Peter tried to mimic the man’s deeper voice, “Great job on that mission, Peter, I’m proud of you, and I just say— Oh man, I just accidentally say Thanks, Dad, and Mr. Stark just goes on to the next item on the agenda like nothing happened. But then we both realize everyone’s just sitting there, staring at us!” 

“I wish I could've been there to see that.”

Peter let out a groan. “No, it was already bad enough! Miss Van Dyne just bursts out laughing, the Colonel is sitting there with the biggest grin on his face, and Mr. Vision— oh my god, he just says I didn’t know you formally adopted Peter, that’s great news, Tony. I think at that point, both Mr. Stark and I just wanted the ground to swallow us whole. And then of course they had to tell Harley and everyone else. So yeah,” Peter made a face, “I’m just sticking with Mr. Stark for now, to be safe.” 

Mr. Barnes gave him a nod. “Yeah, I get that, and you can call me whatever you’re comfortable with, Peter, I don’t mind. I just wanted you to know you didn’t have to be so formal. Although, I suppose,” the man made a point of looking thoughtful, rubbing his hand against his chin, “I am technically one hundred years old, so I guess I am old enough for you to call me Dad too if that’s what you really—”

All Peter’s indignant “Mr. Barnes!” got him in return were pearls of laughter and even though Peter was only a little bit mortified, he could admit it was actually really nice to see the other man laugh so freely.

“I’m sorry, Peter, I shouldn’t be making fun of you for that," Mr. Barnes shook his head, but he was still smiling. "It’s really no big deal. I mean, my memory is crap, but even I remember calling some of my teachers mom once or twice. It happens to everyone.” He took a deep breath, trying to get his amusement under control. “You were trying to ask me something about Tony?” 

Peter realized he did in fact get side-tracked from his initial question. “Yes, I was just wondering… A few days ago, something bad happened between you and Mr. Stark, didn’t it? Mr. Stark did something really irresponsible?” 

Almost immediately, Peter saw Mr. Barnes’ earlier good mood drain away as the man deflated. “It’s really nothing you should worry about, Peter. You’re just a kid and that whole situation— it just—”

Mr. Barnes stopped when he saw Peter shake his head vigorously. “Why does everyone keep telling me that? So what if I’m a kid? That doesn’t mean I don’t understand things!”

He stopped suddenly and flushed with embarrassment when he realized he just inadvertently yelled at Mr. Barnes, but thankfully, the other man didn’t seen to be mad. He just looked tired again, like there was some great, big weight on his shoulders.

“No, you're right, I shouldn’t have brushed you off like that,” Mr. Barnes leaned forward to rest his elbow on his knee and Peter watched the man rub his eyes. 

“The thing that happened with Tony—” he began and then let out frustrated sigh. “Tony did something he shouldn't have and he put himself in a lot of danger.”

“He did it because he was trying to help you, right?”

“In a way, yes,” Mr. Barnes said and followed it with a disapproving grumble. “I do think Tony thought that he was helping. But it wasn’t worth it. None of it was worth him risking his life like that. He could've gotten really hurt. I just— I don't understand why he did what he did.” 

Peter contemplated Mr. Barnes’ words for a few moments, as he leaned back on his hands and took in the setting sun.

“Well, I haven’t known Mr. Stark for very long either,” he admitted, “but I do know that he spends a lot of his time doing things for other people. For example, did you know that he takes the time to spar with both me and Harley? And he even helps us with our summer homework, even though I’m sure that must be really boring for him.” 

Peter looked over to see Mr. Barnes watching him in contemplation. He turned back to the sunset and took a moment to think back on all the other things he noticed living at the Compound. “Somehow he always knows when the Colonel’s legs are hurting more than usual and he makes adjustments to the leg braces to make them more comfortable. And I’ve seen Mr. Stark spend hours trying to help Mr. Vision cook whenever the other man looks like he needs a little cheering up, and trust me, Mr. Stark is terrible at cooking. Oh, and of course he builds all of our stuff for combat!” 

Here, Peter couldn’t help the excitement that seeped into his voice. “Like my suit, which is so great! I can’t even imagine how much time it must have taken Mr. Stark to program all the cool things it can do! He works on the War Machine suit too, of course! And did you know that he either made or improved all of the cool gadgets that the other Avengers used? Like the Widow Bites or Hawkeye’s ridiculously awesome exploding arrows? Or Redwing? You know that cool little flying guy that the Falcon used? Oh man, I bet Mr. Stark probably even built some crazy, cool secret features into the Captain America suit, like he did with mine and—”

Realizing that he was totally gushing like some crazy fanboy, Peter covered his face in embarrassment. “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Barnes, I didn’t mean to get carried away like that. I’m just— Well, I’ve always been a big Avengers fan, even before I got my powers,” Peter admitted sheepishly and when he looked over at Mr. Barnes, the man was giving him an indulgent smile. 

“It’s okay, Peter, I like hearing about all of this. I still have a lot to learn about everybody here.”

“Okay, that’s— that’s great then, I can definitely tell you all about everyone,” Peter nodded, but then paused and furrowed his eyebrows, “Um, where was I going with all that again?”

“Tony builds things for people?” Mr. Barnes supplied with a huff of laughter. 

Peter was sure he was blushing, still a little embarrassed, but he continued. “Right, yes. I just think that the things Mr. Stark builds - it’s his way of showing people that he cares about them, you know?” 

Or at least that was what Peter wanted to believe because it gave him a warm, fuzzy feeling in his chest to think that he could be part of that small group of people that Mr. Stark cared about and looked after. 

For a moment, Peter had to stop because he wasn’t sure he had the right words for what he was trying to say next. But then he thought back to that image from so many years ago, the image he saw on TV when he was just a small kid - Iron Man carrying that nuclear missile on his back and flying it into the portal, away from New York and all the innocent people. The amateur video taken by some thrill seeker on the battle-ridden streets of New York and played on every news station didn’t capture what happened later, so all Peter remembered was being so scared when he saw Iron Man disappearing into the wormhole and never coming back.

“Mr. Stark tries to take care of everyone around him, even people he doesn’t know or might never meet. That’s what being Iron Man is about to him. But I think sometimes, he’s so focused on helping everyone else, that he forgets to take care of himself as well.” 

Gosh, he probably really did sound like a stupid kid to Mr. Barnes, Peter thought suddenly, but when he looked back at the other man, his expression was softer and there was a look of understanding on his face. So maybe Peter was saying the right things after all?

“But I think that happens to all of us, you know? Sometimes we all forget to take care of ourselves. A few months ago, I— uh, I was on a mission. Not a big one,” he had to clarify, “since I’m not allowed to go on those yet. Just a small one. But I did— well, I did something really stupid. I didn’t listen to the Colonel’s command because I thought I saw a better opening and decided to do my own thing.” Here, Peter could feel his cheeks warm in embarrassment again.

“Let’s just say I didn't save the day. The Colonel and Mr. Vision did get the bad guy, but I ended up doing a lot of property damage and giving myself a small concussion.” He turned to give Mr. Barnes a sheepish grin. “Now I can usually just shake off most bumps and bruises, kinda like you, I’m sure, but that one was bad enough that I was knocked unconscious and I had to spend a day in Medical. Mr. Stark was furious.” 

Peter could still feel his ears burning in shame from the lecture Mr. Stark gave him that day.

“He told me how disappointed he was in me, that I didn’t listen. He told me that maybe all of them were just wasting their time training me since I was just going to ignore all of it anyways. And at first, I didn’t understand. I thought Mr. Stark was mad because of all that damage I did or maybe because I disrespected Colonel Rhodes. But then I realized—”

You could’ve gotten yourself killed with that, Peter, what were you thinking? Can you imagine how we’d feel if something happened to you? If we lost you? 

“I realized that he was mad at me because I was careless and put myself in danger. He was scared because I got hurt. And I think I finally understood that when he gave me this tight hug and his voice— I remember it shaking when he said Peter, don’t ever do that to me again. So I think— I think it’s important to be reminded sometimes that what happens to us matters to other people. Maybe Mr. Stark just needs a reminder like that too…”

Suddenly at a loss for words and feeling self-conscious, Peter stopped talking and fidgeted with his empty jar of Nutella.

He heard Mr. Barnes let out a soft exhale. “I wish it were as easy as that, Peter… I wish I could just go find Tony, give him a great big hug, and tell him never to do it again because I care about him.”

Peter took only a moment to think that over. “Well, why can’t it be that easy?”

When Mr. Barnes just gave a tired huff of laughter, Peter deflated. “Yeah, I know, I’m just a dumb kid,” He let out a sigh of his own. “I guess I just want everyone to get along. But I’m sure I don’t know everything, so maybe it isn’t my place to give advice like that.” 

Mr. Barnes shook his head then and gave him a fond look. “No, actually, I think you are right, Peter. Maybe us grownups do make everything more complicated sometimes. I think you’re smarter than all of us put together, kid,” he finished with a wink. 

Peter preened under that warm praise and he matched the smile that Mr. Barnes gave him with his own.

The sun had almost set then and the hues of red and orange were turning into shades of purples and blues. There were still training drills Peter knew he had to finish before the end of the day, so he soon parted ways with Mr. Barnes, who didn’t let him leave until he thanked Peter for the food, the company and the advice. The man stayed on the roof, watching the sky darken and Peter hoped that his favorite spot could provide Mr. Barnes with some peace of mind. He still wasn’t sure if anything he said helped with the thing between Mr. Barnes and Mr. Stark, but he hoped that the softer, less overwhelmed expression on Mr. Barnes’ face was a sign that Peter’s efforts helped. Even if only a little bit. 

Sometimes, adults just needed a push in the right direction. Well, that, and a jar of Nutella never hurt either. 

***

The sky was rapidly turning darker as Bucky took in the world around him and he noted with brief disappointment that there would still be too many lights on the Compound grounds to be able to see the stars with any clarity once night finally fell. A wisp of a memory fluttered through his mind - him as a child, fascinated with stars and space. Always looking up at the sky, wondering what was out there. Wondering what the stars up there were like, those bright distant suns.

Moyo solnishko…

Those words, the Soldier’s words, suddenly echoed through his head and at first, Bucky wanted to push them away because he refused to let the Soldier ruin this moment of peace, after days and days of struggling with him in his head. But the Soldier didn’t fight back or beat against his mental walls, just stayed quiet and let that term of endearment lead Bucky’s thoughts inevitably back to Tony

The Soldier couldn’t have picked a better term for him, Bucky had to admit. How else could he describe that man but a bright, shining sun? Tony and his offer to help was the light cutting through the darkness of Bucky’s memories and his past; he was the source of warmth that Bucky felt when for the first time in so long, he finally let himself feel content. But get too close to Tony Stark and apparently you can burn yourself on the intensity of those flames. 

Bucky stopped that train of thought with a mental eye roll at his own sudden bout of poeticism. Maybe the Soldier’s apparent penchant for dramatics was rubbing off on him. Taking a deep breath to steady his mind, he thought back to the last few days. 

He wanted to say that they felt like hell, but Bucky had intimate knowledge of what actual hell felt like, and this didn’t quite make the cut. But the last few days were spent alone, away from everyone, as he struggled to deal with everything. It felt a lot like those initial few months after he rescued Steve and then ran - when he finally settled in Romania and desperately tried to figure out who he was. Back then, his head was filled with fragmented memories, bits and pieces that didn’t make much sense, and alongside those jagged pieces of himself, there were so many voices. Telling him what to do, how to feel, who to kill

They were fragments of Hydra still festering in his head, but they slowly settled into a quiet hum at the back of his mind, and Bucky realized that it may have been the Soldier who pushed it all back. Because as Hydra’s voices receded, his presence made itself known.

Now, the only voices in his head were the Soldier’s and his own, but somehow it didn’t lessen the discord and the confusion because there was still so much conflict raging on in his head.

The first time he watched the video of what happened, still standing in that room with everyone else, most of the details frankly didn’t even register for him. All he could focus on was that loud crack as Tony’s head slammed into the wall. That moan of pain that followed. That abject fear on Tony’s face as the Soldier rattled off his death threats in his ear. The fact that all the Soldier would have had to do was push just a little bit harder and—

The first time he truly let himself picture what could’ve happened, he found himself on the bathroom floor, dry heaving over the toilet. His body didn’t care that there was nothing in his stomach but acid and bile. That image, it was too much, too overwhelming.  

Waking up in that room, disoriented and groggy, with the first thought in his head to look for Tony and then seeing his body right next to him on the floor, lifeless and still. Neck at an obscene, unnatural angle because the Soldier snapped it in his rage and those dead eyes, staring at Bucky… That suffocating realization that there was nothing he could do, that it was too late, that Tony was dead and it was his hands that killed him. Tony, that bright shining sun, that just seconds ago looked at him with warmth and care in his eyes… Gone.

Bucky had to take another deep breath and he clenched his eyes shut. A second breath, a third, then a fourth. He eventually lost count of how many he needed before he finally felt centered enough to open his eyes again.

The sky was dark before him. 

And now that his mind was focused on Tony, yet another roiling conflict of emotions presented itself. Because on one hand, he was so angry. He was infuriated with the man for what he did, for the risk that he took with his own life. Bucky wasn’t sure whether Tony’s actions were driven by a desire to help him or just by some strange destructive sense of curiosity, but it didn’t matter. God, how could he have been so selfish? Didn’t he realize it would have been Bucky (not to mention the rest of Tony’s friends) who would’ve been left to deal with the fallout? Bucky could admit to himself that Tony’s death would have possibly broken him for good. And the fact that all of this was yet another way in which his autonomy was ignored… Thinking about it all left him raw and hurting inside for days now.

But on the other hand, thinking about losing Tony also filled him with an overwhelming need to see the other man - to make sure with his own eyes that the man was still alive. That his heart still beat, that there was still breath in his body. Not being able to see Tony in the past five days actually physically hurt, but he just couldn’t face the other man, not with that anger still boiling in his chest. Instead, he would speak to Friday, whenever the need to see Tony became too great.

“Ms. Friday? Is Tony still in his lab?”

“Yes, Mr. Barnes.”

“Is he alright?”

“…I’m sorry, Mr. Barnes. My protocols currently forbid me from disclosing any other information regarding Boss.”

“But he’s alive?”

“…Yes, Mr. Barnes.”

Friday actually sounded remorseful every time she was unable to answer Bucky’s question and he didn’t hold it against her. On the contrary, he appreciated her patience and letting him ask those same questions over and over, just to give himself some semblance of peace. 

In the meantime, as he waited for his anger to settle, he spent the days watching that video over and over in an attempt to understand what the hell actually happened in that room. After losing count of how many times he had seen the footage, he still wasn't sure whether he had any answers. 

Once he was able to push the Hydra memories away and put some parts of himself back into place, Bucky was made aware of that dark, violent presence in the back of his head. The Soldier. He always assumed it was the manifestation of whatever Hydra did to him over the past seventy years, whatever killer instincts they may have installed into him. 

But over time, as Bucky slowly pieced his identity back together, it felt like the Soldier took on a life of his own and that fact was made perfectly clear five days ago when he became an autonomous force in Bucky's body, with his own desires and motivations. Seeing that only made things more confusing. 

Bucky supposed that he should at least be grateful that Hydra was the real target of the Soldier’s wrath and his reaction to the memory weeks ago made more sense now. After Tony pulled him back to reality, Bucky was overwhelmed with the Soldier’s urge to kill, and at the time, he thought it was an indiscriminate desire, but looking back on it now, it was obviously focused on the men in those white coats who tortured him, who ripped his soul out of his body and replaced it with their own will.

It was hard to disagree with the Soldier on that point because Bucky hated them too. But it was the vicious, vengeful violence that came with the hate that terrified him, because Bucky didn’t want to kill anyone, he didn’t want to find vengeance. He just wanted to find peace

Didn’t he?

He wasn’t sure of anything anymore, but Bucky refused to believe something so dark could be a part of him.

He also couldn’t understand the Soldier’s reaction to Tony. Was it Tony's efforts to undo Hydra's damage that kept him alive? Or was it Bucky’s growing affection for the man (not to mention the physical attraction he always tried to ignore) bleeding through into the Soldier? Whatever it was, the Soldier seemed enamored with Tony. After the Soldier finally recognized him, his entire demeanor changed, turning into something more playful, intimate. God, the way he used his body to crowd Tony, to hold him down… He kissed Tony! And even if it weren’t a real kiss, it was still tender and private and every time Bucky saw that exchange, it made him even more irrationally angry, filling him with an unyielding desire to tear the Soldier away from Tony, to stand between them, to protect Tony… Of course, then the remnants of his logic would point out that there was no them. It was his own body that held Tony down and his own lips that touched him in some twisted mockery of gentleness…

I am James Barnes. 

No, the Soldier was wrong. He was lying. Bucky wouldn’t— couldn’t accept that the Soldier was in any way a real part of him. It was Hydra’s doing, some remains of the countless reprogramming sessions that coalesced into the Soldier in his head. He hoped with something that bordered on desperation that as he continued his therapy, the Soldier would fade and then disappear completely when the triggers no longer held power over him. 

But for now, all Bucky could do was attempt to ignore the Soldier, even if it was becoming increasing harder to do so as they both seemed to bleed into each other more and more. 

And on top of it all, now Bucky had to worry about Hydra possibly coming after Tony. He had no recollection of an order to kill him, but he supposed the Hydra scientists would have wiped his memory after the mission was aborted early. He also had no knowledge of who they may have sent in his place, not that it really mattered. Every time he even thought about some Hydra agent coming here to lay their filthy hands on Tony, it became impossible to tell apart the Soldier’s protective instincts and his own.  

A cool gust of wind pulled Bucky from his dark thoughts and reminded him that it was getting late. Even though all these conflicting emotions were still weighting him down, at this moment he did actually feel better, at least when compared to the past five days. Peter was truly a godsend and Bucky made a note to spend more time with the kid and to thank him again later.

Just getting the chance to enjoy normal for a few hours, to feel the warmth of the sun on his face and the sweet taste of sugar on his tongue, to listen to Peter’s cheerful voice - all of it made the darkness in his head feel less oppressive. And what Peter said about Tony and the way he spoke about him (all that open affection with a touch of hero-worship, it was downright adorable), it also worked to soften the hurt and the anger that he felt when he thought back to what the man did. 

Bucky realized his desire to see Tony was finally stronger than the anger and maybe if they finally had a chance to just talk, they could figure out where they stood. It helped last time, when Tony reached out and apologized. Tony’s courage helped put down the first building block for whatever it was that they had between them— friendship, trust, affection? Bucky wasn’t sure how to define it, but even the thought of losing it made his heart clench. 

Maybe it was his turn to be brave and reach out.

Suddenly determined, Bucky jumped back down to the roof and made his way back into the Compound.

***

“Ms. Friday? Is Tony still in his lab?”

“Yes, Mr. Barnes.”

“Is he alright?”

“…I’m sorry, Mr. Barnes. My protocols still currently forbid me from disclosing any other information regarding Boss. Unfortunately.

“That’s okay… Actually, could you, uh— could you ask him if it would be alright for me to come down to the lab to see him?” 

“Yes, Mr. Barnes, I will ask Boss right away.”

Friday sounded almost hopeful, at least to Bucky’s ear. He spent the next few minutes in silence, sitting in the kitchen as he waited for Friday to respond back. After several more minutes, he felt himself deflate, realizing that there would be no chance that Tony would want to see him now. After what the Soldier did, Bucky hoped like hell that it wasn’t fear that was keeping Tony away. 

Assuming that Friday was just too polite to tell him his request was rejected, he was about to head back to his quarters when her voice, genuinely cheerful this time, rang through the room.

“Boss would like me to tell you that you have permission to come see him. Would you like me to provide you with directions to the lab, Mr. Barnes?”

Bucky swallowed hard against the sudden dryness in his throat. It was time to be brave.

“Lead the way, ma'am.”

Chapter Text

Walking into Tony’s lab felt like walking into all of his childhood science fantasies rolled into one - or at least the ones Bucky could still remember.

There were holographic projections everywhere he looked - schematics, rows upon rows of data, images and words. Tables bursting with tools, unfinished parts, pieces of metal and machinery scattered on every available surface. And the walls - they were lined as far as Bucky could see with the Iron Man suits. Each one different from its brothers - some sleek and built for speed, others bulky and tough. Some were battle worn and some brand new. All shared the same red and gold flare and the familiar blue glow in their chests. 

Bucky carefully made his way through the controlled chaos, making sure not to bump into or disturb anything. The slow pace also gave him the opportunity to take everything in. Knowing what he did of the man, Bucky already recognized that this lab must have been Tony’s safe haven, his sanctuary, and he didn’t want his presence to somehow violate that, regardless of any anger he may have felt at the moment. And he also couldn’t deny that being surrounded by this incredible display of science, of the future, put him in a state of awe. It was beautiful.

As he came around the corner of one of the tables housing unfinished pieces of an Iron Man suit, he finally saw Tony. The man was sitting on a bar stool, hunched over a large table, the surface of which was covered with glass that displayed rows and rows of holographic data. From his vantage point, there was no way for Bucky to see exactly what Tony was working on.

When Bucky neared him and tentatively called out his name, the other man finally turned around and the first thought that crossed Bucky’s mind was that Tony looked exhausted. There were dark, vicious circles under his eyes and the lines in his face looked more prominent against the pale skin. Tony’s usual perfectly styled hair was untamed and it was obvious that the man must have been running his hands through it constantly. A sea of coffee cups were scattered around Tony on the glass table as well as on every other surface surrounding the man. 

“Hey there, Barnes. You, uh— Friday said you wanted to see me?”

“I did. I just— I wanted to see how you were doing.”

Tony gave an attempt at a carefree smile, but all it did was highlight the man’s exhaustion further. “I’m peachy keen. You know,” he cleared his throat uncomfortably and shrugged, “just trying to get some work done.”

Bucky swallowed against the lump in his throat. So they were back to the awkward attempts at neutrality then? That didn’t work particularly well for them last time. However, before he had a chance to even find the right words to address Tony, he saw movement in his peripheral vision and tensed up, instantly on high alert. But when he finally pinpointed the source of the movement, he realized it was a— 

“Is that a robot?” he couldn’t help his surprised question as a machine of some sort rolled its way over to him while making a series of clicks and beeps in different pitches. Its long arm, which ended with a mechanical claw, tentatively reached out towards Bucky. At the same time, he saw Tony jump out of his seat and rush over to him.

“Dum-E, hey now, don’t just ambush people like that! Personal space, buddy, we talked about that! Remember how some people don’t like you bothering them?” 

The robot lowered its arm dejectedly and it made another series of lower pitch beeps.

“Sorry about him, he likes visitors,” Tony said and than gave the robot a glare. “A little too much.” 

Bucky glanced at Tony for a second and then shifted his gaze back to the sad-looking robot.

“Is it— is he alive?”

Tony gave a grunt. “Depends on one’s definition of alive. He’s an artificial intelligence, same as Friday. Just a lot more rudimentary. First one I ever built actually.”

Bucky took a second to observe the robot. “So then, he’s aware of what goes on around him? And he learns, just like Friday?” 

“Yup, something like that. Although apparently he hasn’t learned that people don’t like him invading their personal space.” There was that glare again, but Bucky realized he’d seen it before. It was the same mock glare Tony gave Harley and Peter on that very first day of Bucky’s stay at the Compound. There was no real heat behind it. On the contrary, Tony’s eyes couldn’t hide his affection, just like they didn’t when he looked at the boys.

That warm fond look, hidden behind the seemingly stern words put everything in a different context all of the sudden. Because this little robot that Tony built with his own two hands and breathed life into? In so many ways, it was Tony’s child

Everything else be damned, Bucky couldn’t help his smile in that moment. “It’s alright— if he wants to approach me, that is. I don’t mind.” 

Tony let out a resigned sigh after beat, but then gestured in Bucky’s direction while addressing the robot. “Fine, have at him, Dum-E. But don’t come crying to me when he decides you’re being an annoying little brat and he wants to sell you for scraps.” 

The robot seemed to have ignored that last part and instead beeped cheerfully at Bucky as the mechanical arm extended toward him again. The movement was slow and gentle though, so it didn’t put Bucky on edge, and he watched with open fascination as that arm moved closer to his face, and then carefully took a lock of his hair into its mechanical claw. The little robot didn’t pull on it, just proceeded to move his metal appendage through it, like someone running their hand through his hair. Then, he decided the hair no longer fascinated him and the arm seemed to have focused on Bucky’s missing left limb. It circled the stump of his arm one, twice, before letting out a string of tentative clicks and focusing on Bucky’s right arm (he realized that in the middle of the robot’s claw was a camera of sorts and he wondered if that was how the robot could observe him).

“Oh no, I think he’s bonding with you because you both have one arm,” he heard Tony’s exasperated moan and Bucky had to laugh. 

“Finally, I don’t have to feel so alone anymore,” he joked back before asking, “Is it alright if I touch him?”

“Knock yourself out. See those clear strips along the arm?” Tony pointed out. “They’re touch sensitive, so he’ll be able to feel you.” 

Not needing anymore prompting, Bucky reached out and carefully ran his fingers along the clear glass, which lit up under his touch in a rainbow of colors. The robot chirped happily in response. 

“This is— this is so incredible,” Bucky knew there was awe in his voice and maybe this wasn’t the reason he came down here at all, but he couldn’t help himself. Tony’s creations never ceased to amaze him. 

Tony watched the robot bump his metal claw against Bucky’s arm and rolled his eyes in mock frustration. “Why is it that all of my tech starts flirting with you, Barnes? First Friday, now Dum-E. Traitors, the lot of you!” 

“Maybe it’s because I’m nice to them,” Bucky suggested, “I mean, you call this poor fella ‘dummy’. He doesn’t seem all that dumb to me.” 

Bucky saw Tony fail to stifle a laugh. “No, that’s his actual name. D-U-M and E.” When he saw Bucky’s unimpressed face, the man looked indignant. “What? I was only nineteen, give me a break.”

“Wait, you made him when you were only nineteen?” 

Tony just nodded and then came over to brush his hand carefully over Dum-E’s other touch sensitive panel. “Yup, this guy has been with me for a while now. You’re an old man just like me, huh, Dumbo?”

Dum-E just cooed and moved his mechanical arm away from Bucky and over to Tony so he could gently place his claw onto Tony’s shoulder in much the same way a dog would with his head.

“Alright, alright, I forgive you for liking Barnes more,” Tony gave him a quick pat. “Now scram, pal, mommy and daddy need to talk.” 

Bucky watched Dum-E obey and roll between the many desks and piles of metal, chirping happily the whole way. When the robot was out of sight, Bucky looked back to see Tony slowly walk back over to the desk, completely ignore the bar stool, and promptly slide down onto the floor with an exhausted sigh, leaning against the nearby wall. 

When he saw Bucky’s confused look, Tony just shrugged. “Floor’s more comfortable.”

Probably because the man looks like he’s about to pass out, Bucky thought. Tony really did look like he hadn’t slept in days. He was dressed in a simple well-worn white top streaked with oil, and old ripped up jeans. Without Tony’s usual flare, the perfect fancy clothes, and with that exhaustion marring his face, Bucky realized he had never seen Tony look quite so small and so vulnerable as he did in that moment. That realization carried with it a wave of affection threaded with a sense of protectiveness and Bucky hated that he couldn’t tell whether it all came from him or from the Soldier (or both). However, he couldn’t deny his need to be closer to the man any longer, so without preamble, he walked over and sat down on the floor as well, on the man’s left. Their shoulders were just a hair breadth away from touching. 

Tony gave him a tired smile. “Told ya the floor’s more comfortable,” he said before closing his eyes and resting his head against the wall behind him. 

Taking a deep breath, Bucky tried to decide on what he wanted to say. He settled on “I have a dilemma, Tony.”

When the other man looked back up at him, he continued. “I know that given our history and everything that’s happened, I probably don’t have any right to be angry with you.” Bucky paused and made sure he was looking back at Tony. “But I am angry with you.”

Tony blinked at him once, twice, before dropping his head and letting out a dejected sigh. “Nah, you’re totally allowed to be angry with me.” Bucky watched the man’s shoulders slump. “Hell, everyone else in the compound is angry with me, you’ll be in good company.”

After a beat, Tony continued while distractedly picking at one of the threads in his ripped jeans. “Rhodey just yelled at me for like five hours that day and I haven’t seen him since. Every time I walk into a room and see Vision, he just gives me this really disappointed, sad look and then just phases out of there. Even Friday’s been cold with me.”

“I have no idea what you’re referring to, Boss,” Friday’s voice echoed through the lab and it did sound decidedly cold. “I am simply here to follow your every order, even if it means having to watch you put yourself in grave danger and forcing me to experience a wide range of confusing and quite frankly unpleasant human emotions.”

Tony gave him a look and gestured vaguely at the ceiling as if trying to say See what I mean?

Bucky didn’t bother hiding his exasperation. “You realize, Tony, that it’s all because these people love you, right? They’re all angry with you because they were worried on the count of you coming this close to dying.”

The other man just shrugged and returned his gaze to the floor.  

“Why, Tony? Why did you do it?”

There was a beat of silence before Tony answered. “Because I wanted to get every bit of information out of that miserable experience so you wouldn’t have to go through it again? Because I wanted to find out what the hell was actually going on?” Finally, he gave a sad chuckle and looked at Bucky. “Because I’m a reckless idiot?”

Tony looked genuinely remorseful and that sad expression on the man's face mixed with the stark exhaustion in his eyes softened something inside Bucky.

“I just— I promised you that I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you," Tony tried to explain, "so I thought, the only way I can do that is to have everything under my control. And when the Soldier attacked me, I knew letting the others in would’ve just put you in harm’s way. You were my responsibility, Barnes.”

Bucky took a second to contemplate Tony’s words, but instead of commenting on them, he just decided to remind Tony. “It’s James, remember?” 

Tony let out a puzzled hmm? and then followed it with a distracted, tired nod. “Yeah, no, I remember. Just thought I lost my first-name privileges, that’s all.” 

The notes of insecurity behind that reply softened the anger in Bucky’s chest even further. God, why was it so hard to stay mad at this man? Still, he had to figure out a way to understand what happened.

“I appreciate that you were trying to protect me, although I don’t agree with it when it’s me who’s attacking you…” When he saw Tony about to argue with him, Bucky didn’t give him the chance. “But why didn’t you use the shutdown trigger right away? You had no way of knowing that the Soldier wouldn’t kill you at the first opportunity.”

Here, Tony looked up at the ceiling of his lab before taking in a long, deep breath and letting out a tired laugh. “I think there are some thing that you outta know about me, James. One,” he began counting on his fingers, “is that I have zero self-preservation skills. Ask anyone. Two—” 

Tony paused to let out a big yawn and Bucky watched as Tony’s bent left knee first bumped against his own and then stayed resting against it. He realized that Tony was so out of it with exhaustion that he wasn’t even aware of this small physical connection between them.

“—Two is that all those places where my self-preservation instincts were supposed to be?” Tony finally continued, “That’s where I put the large, colorful collection of my self-destructive tendencies. And three,” Tony’s sleepy eyes focused on Bucky’s face, “whenever I see something or someone bigger and badder than me, I get the irresistible urge to poke them with a sharp, pointy stick. Sometimes literally.” 

At Bucky’s disbelieving look, Tony just scoffed. “What, you don’t believe me? You think this Winter Soldier deal was some new thing for me?” He gave a tired laugh. “Did anyone ever tell you about how we got invaded by aliens a while back?”

Bucky hesitated. “I have a general idea of what happened.”

“Right, so this alien invasion was led by this Asgardian Norse god— yeah, those apparently exist, so get used to it. His name was Loki and he was batshit crazy, with daddy issues for miles. Unfortunately, also happened to be powerful enough to snap me in half with his pinky finger. So, this guy decides to strut right into the top suite of my Stark Tower. I fly over— let’s just say the Iron Man suit had seen better days— I take the suit off, and I walk right in there, completely unarmed. And guess what I do?”

“…I don’t want to answer that.”

“I offer the god a drink.”

Tony laughed at Bucky’s pained groan of frustration. “Hey, I was trying to stall him! I needed to reach these two bracelets that would activate my shiny new suit. So I talked to the god. We laughed, we cried, he tried to poke me with his Glowstick of Destiny, I may have told him he couldn’t get it up in the bedroom, he got very upset and tossed me out the window, and then finally I—”

“Wait, he did what?”

“…Tossed me out the window?”

“Of Stark Tower?”

“Yup.”

Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Continue.”

“See, that’s the best part though!” Tony’s chuckle was part amused, part sleepy. “There I am, falling faster and faster, just watching the ground get alarmingly close. The suit finally starts assembling around me, comes together literally yards away from the ground, I fly up, say a witty one-liner, and blast that bastard right in the face with a repulsor.”

There was actual pride in the man’s voice as he retold what would’ve been a terrifying experience for anyone else and Bucky wasn’t even sure what to say, but apparently there was more. 

“The first test flight of my suit? I flew so high, the whole thing froze over and I plummeted to the ground. Almost died.” A pause. “A few years back, I gave my home address in Malibu to a bunch of terrorists.” Tony paused again for dramatic effect. “Let’s just say I no longer have a mansion in Malibu. Oh, oh!” Tony suddenly pointed his finger at Bucky. “You were there! Remember how I went up against the infamous Winter Soldier with nothing but a gauntlet and my Armani three-piece suit?”

All Bucky could do was groan in defeat. “Okay, okay, I get it. How are you even still alive?” he asked, shaking his head at Tony in disbelief, who just gave a careless shrug and had the audacity to wink at Bucky.

“Partly my charming personality and my dashing good looks. Also a shitton of luck, I think. And I have a few amazing people still around who pull my ass out of the fire now and then.” 

What could Bucky possibly say in the face of all that? “You, Tony Stark… You are crazy. And that’s coming from a guy who has a Hydra assassin living in his head.” 

“Yeah, not gonna lie, James, your alter ego is a bit of a drama queen,” Tony snorted and Bucky just made a disgusted noise.

“I don’t even want to think about the damn Soldier… At least after five days, he’s finally quiet now… But I guess he’s always been calmer whenever you were around,” Bucky acknowledged absently, almost to himself, but then gave Tony his full attention when he realized the other man was blinking at him in confusion.

“…What do you mean ‘finally quiet now’?”

“I mean he’s finally not beating against the inside of my skull, trying to convince me to go kill all of Hydra or whatever it is he wants to do.” 

Tony frowned, still not understanding. “You mean, he’s always around? Not just when the triggers are activated?”

“Well, yeah. Ever since Romania. He’s like this dark thing at the back of my head.” 

He watched Tony let out a frustrated, defeated groan and drop his head against the wall, although he pulled away immediately with a quiet, pained ow. He must’ve hit the same injured spot from when the Soldier slammed him against the wall, Bucky realized, and he let out his own sympathetic hiss, about to reach out to cradle’s Tony’s poor head in his hand. But he caught himself just in time and just let Tony rub his own hand against the sore spot.

“I’m sorry I— the Soldier— dammit it. I’m sorry we hurt you.” God, there were too many people living in his head.

“It’s okay, I fly around in a tin can, this isn’t my first concussion,” Tony brushed off the apology with a smile and then sighed. “I’m not sure if it would’ve made a difference, but I probably should’ve been aware that the Soldier was a constant presence in your head.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”

“Nah. It’s my bad, not yours.” This time, Tony rested his head gently against the wall. “Maybe this is why an engineer shouldn’t be dabbling in psychiatry. Hey, Fri?” He called out, “Please schedule a time for me and Dr. Jekyll over here to sit down and go over everything that’s going on in his head.” With a look over at Bucky, he added “Probably a good idea before we continue the rest of your therapy.”

“Probably,” Bucky acknowledged, but he wanted to get back to his earlier point. “My issues don’t make you any less crazy though. Why do you feel the need to risk your life like that all the time?” He couldn’t help the note of incredulity in his voice.

Tony just smiled back at him, unrepentant. “Not sure if I have an answer, but at least now you and Rhodey finally have something in common. Your complete disbelief and exasperation in the face of my admittedly questionable antics.”

“So— so if I ask you never to do what you did again? Would that be entirely pointless?”

Tony sighed, more contrite now. “I’m not sure this old dog can learn a new trick. I just— I did what I thought was right and I don’t know if I can promise that I won’t do it again.” Before Bucky could say anything though, Tony gave him a look that was so full of guilt and sorrow that any words Bucky had were stuck in his throat. “But I also know better than anyone that good intentions don’t mean shit when someone ends up getting hurt. So I am sorry that instead of helping you like I’m supposed to, I just seem to keep hurting you.” The next part was barely a whisper. “And I’m sorry that I broke your trust.” 

In the face of that regret and sadness, Bucky realized that his anger was almost all gone and instead what he really wanted to do was just comfort the man. To reach out and smooth out the wrinkles that formed between Tony’s brows as the man frowned. He wanted to see if his touch could wipe away those dark shadows under the man’s eyes. But he had no right to do so.

Instead, he leaned just close enough that their shoulders now touched. “It’s okay. I do know that you didn’t do any of it to hurt me. I just—” How could he find the right words for this? “People just keep making these grand gestures for me… These sacrifices. And every time it happens, every time someone puts themselves on the line for me, I just— I feel like I have nothing to give in return for those grand gestures. I have nothing to give back and I wish people would just—”

Bucky stopped and looked over when he heard Tony let out a quiet hiss. “Yeah, about that… Do you have room for one more grand gesture? Like a little tiny one?”

Instead of clarifying in the face of Bucky’s confusion, Tony got up and grabbed something from his desk. It was his StarkPad and he tapped the glass screen a few times before settling back down next to Bucky, their shoulders again touching as Tony leaned against him. With the StarkPad on the floor between them, Bucky watched as blue light burst out of the device and coalesced into a hologram in front of them. It was a detailed schematic of—

Bucky’s breath got caught in his throat.

Tony must have interpreted his silence negatively because he fidgeted nervously next to him. “I don’t, uh— don’t plan to use any of the parts from the old one. Tossed that piece of scrap metal just like I promised. Technological marvel, my ass. This one, uh—” he gestured toward the hologram. “Completely brand new. I’m building this bad boy from scratch myself. Gonna be a one hundred percent Tony Stark original.” 

Still at a complete loss for words, Bucky tentatively sat up and reached out to touch the hologram. He didn’t feel anything underneath his fingers, but the projection of light moved under his touch and he tilted it this way and that to see all the different angles.

“An arm?” he finally managed to croak out. He looked back at Tony, bewildered. “For me?”

Tony gave him that same tired smile. “Do you see another one-armed super soldier around here?” 

Bucky looked back at the hologram and swallowed around the lump in his throat. 

I just think that the things Mr. Stark builds - it’s his way of showing people that he cares about them, you know? 

Peter’s words from earlier that day echoed through his mind and Bucky wasn’t sure how to deal with the sudden achingly sweet warmth that blossomed in his chest.

The arm in the schematic looked similar to the one he remembered, all metal plates moving in tandem, but he knew with certainty that this arm would be nothing like the old one. No, this one… It would be crafted with the hands of the same man who was already trying to put the pieces of Bucky Barnes back together.

Tony, the clever, brilliant, crazy man who was already helping Bucky’s mind become whole was now also making his body whole. 

My clever Tony Stark filtered through his mind as the Soldier stirred within him, and for once, Bucky didn’t push back, because the words carried with them a swell of undeniable affection tangled with gratitude and heat. He didn’t even care if some of that was the Soldier bleeding through. In that moment, there was no way he could feel anything else for the man next to him. He leaned back, making sure his shoulder was snug against Tony’s. He looked down at the man and realized that Tony still seemed nervous. Did he expect Bucky to reject this? To be unhappy with it? Because nothing could be further from the truth. 

For a brief moment, he remembered Tony, flustered and uncomfortable when faced with Bucky’s genuine praise and gratitude, and he wondered once again what type of reactions Tony must have gotten in the past to make him act this way. 

“I don’t know what to say, Tony, other than thank you. But— you don’t have to do this. Not for me. I mean, you already have so much on your plate, I can’t possibly expect you to work on this—”

“Okay, none of that now, super soldier,” Tony interrupted suddenly, although Bucky didn’t miss the touch of pink across his pale cheeks. “Listen, really, you’re doing me a favor,” he gestured toward the hologram which still took Bucky’s breath away. “This— this is the kind of projects I live for. Okay? I feel giddy just thinking about getting my hands dirty and starting to build this baby up. This arm is going to be badass.” 

Tony wasn’t lying. There was genuine excitement in his eyes and another wave of affection flooded Bucky. For one brief moment, he wished that he could just pull the other man closer to him, embrace him, something.

But it wasn’t his right. So instead, he just said a quiet Thank you, Tony hoping that those simple words carried with them everything that he felt in that moment. 

He let a few seconds of silence pass between them as they both observed the hologram. “Well, now I’m really having a hard time being angry with you,” he finally said.

“In my defense,” Tony huffed out a breath of laughter, “I started working on this little beauty days after you arrived at the Compound. So I’m not just showing you this to get out of the dog house.” He paused for a beat. “Well, maybe a little bit.”

Bucky didn’t say anything, just watched as Tony’s smile suddenly turned mischievous. “You know,” the other man said, “I think I do know something you can do for me in return for this marvelous arm.”

“And what's that?”

“You can go get me a sandwich.”

“A sandwich?” Bucky had to repeat in disbelief, but he knew he was smiling too. “Do I look like Harley to you?”

“Well, with the way that kid refuses to get a haircut, yes, I’m starting to see a resemblance,” Tony raised his eyebrow at Bucky’s long hair for emphasis. “Now, go get your ex-assassin butt upstairs, make me the best damn sandwich you can manage, and then come back down and we’ll go over all the specs you want for your arm. We're gonna—” Tony’s next words were made less impactful by the big yawn that escaped him, “—gonna do some serious science down here.”

“You can barely stay awake, Tony. When was the last time you slept?”

“I’m fine. I don’t need sleep. But do you know what I do need?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky finally stood back up and shook his head as he muttered to himself, “Really, a sandwich?”

Tony just laughed at him, still sitting on the floor. “Do I need to write it down for you, super soldier?”

Bucky didn’t rise to the bait and instead began to make his way through Tony’s lab. He had to stop half way and turn around though. “You are ridiculous, Tony Stark. Ridiculous and crazy.”

As Bucky turned back and continued walking, he heard Tony’s cheeky “You finally get my charm, Barnes!” follow him out of the lab.

***

“Tony?”

Calling out the man’s name didn’t prompt a response, so Bucky carefully made his way through the labyrinth of Tony’s lab, this time carrying with him a plate of sandwiches and fruit. When he made it over to Tony’s large desk however, he realized why the other man wasn’t responding.

Tony was fast asleep, head resting on his forearm as he was slumped over the glass surface. When Bucky came closer, making sure to soften his steps, he saw that the schematics of his arm, particularly the intricate details of the metal hand and myriad of specifications and data that went along with it, were projected right under Tony’s hand, as if the man dozed off half-way through pulling up the information. 

Bucky placed the glass plate carefully onto the clear surface of the desk and then took a second to observe the other man. Under the blue lights of the lab, Tony still looked exhausted and pale, but the veil of sleep also made him look younger somehow. The features of his face appeared softer and the lines between his brows and in the corners of his eyes, carved by age and hardship, were less prominent. His lips were barely parted as he let out slow, even breaths.

And seeing Tony here, alone and asleep in the middle of his cavernous lab, wearing nothing more than his sleeveless shirt and old jeans, Bucky was reminded once again just how vulnerable and fragile the man actually was. It was very easy to forget sometimes that Tony Stark wasn’t in fact made of iron. He wasn’t enhanced in any way, the way Bucky and many of the other superheroes were. Tony wasn’t a super soldier or a trained spy. He didn’t even have formal military training. He was just a man who refused to stand down in the face of evil. Who went toe to toe with gods and monsters (and brainwashed assassins), using only his intelligence and wit. 

He also knew that Tony Stark was the type of man who would bristle at the mere idea of needing someone to protect him, but Bucky couldn’t help his instincts even if he tried. Not with the Soldier practically purring in his mind at the sight of Tony like this. 

He looked over the man again and when his attention was drawn back to the schematics of the arm projected under Tony’s sleeping form, a sudden, awful thought struck him. As his mind reflected back on what Peter inadvertently told him about the other Avengers, Bucky realized that Barton, Wilson, possibly even Steve… They all used the weapons that Tony built for them to fight against him in Germany. They used the weapons Tony built with his own hands to hurt him and his allies. And dammit, he knew that the fight at the airport was about him more than anything else, and he should feel the burden of this guilt more than anyone, but he also couldn’t help but feel so angry on Tony’s behalf all of the sudden. He couldn’t imagine what that kind of betrayal must have felt like. 

And in that moment of clarity, he made a promise to himself. It didn’t matter what would happen between him and Tony in the future. Whether they would remain friends or allies, eventually part ways, or somehow end up on different sides of the battlefield (although Bucky couldn’t even imagine a scenario where that could ever be true again). It didn’t matter. He vowed to himself that he would never use what Tony built for him against the man. 

That sweet, warm ache in his chest infused itself with the now ever-present sense of protectiveness that came from the Soldier and Bucky knew that this time, he wouldn’t be able to resist reaching out to touch Tony. So he let himself have this small moment. As gently as he could, he ran his thumb back and forth across the arch of Tony’s cheek, again wishing he could erase those dark shadows under his eyes, to erase all the burdens that weighted the man down. He watched Tony’s nose crunch up just a bit, barely a twitch, and then the man’s face smoothed out again in restful sleep. Bucky’s fingers carefully followed the planes of Tony’s face as he tucked a few stray curls behind his ear and then tenderly carded his fingers through his hair. Without whatever product Tony usually used, it was soft and silky and god, it felt amazing under Bucky’s hand. He wanted to keep running it through Tony’s hair, he wanted to trail his fingers down along the exposed column of the man’s neck, he wanted more

He pulled away suddenly as if burned, heat warring with shame in his belly. God, what was wrong with him? He had no right to Tony and he shouldn’t have invaded his space like this. For a moment, he wanted to blame this on the Soldier’s influence, but he knew he’d only be lying to himself. His attraction to Tony wasn’t something new.

Swallowing hard, he tried to focus back on logistics of the situation in front of him instead. The way Tony fell asleep wouldn’t be comfortable for very long and likely leave the man with a sore back come morning. 

“Ms. Friday,” he called out, trying to keep his voice as soft as possible, “do your protocols allow you to tell me the last time Tony actually slept?”

“They do now, yes,” she replied, thankfully observant enough to keep her own Irish lilt quiet and gentle. “Boss last slept approximately twenty seven hours ago, for three hours and thirty four minutes, before being woken up by night terrors.”

Bucky realized that Tony probably wouldn’t appreciate Friday sharing this information with him, but he needed to know. For once, he wanted to be the one to take care of Tony.

“And before that?”

“Boss has slept on and off, for no more than four hours at a time.” 

“Is this usual for him?”

“Unfortunately, Boss struggles with chronic insomnia due to frequent night terrors, but the insomnia has been particularly acute in these past five days.”

God, was this all because of me? Bucky thought guiltily. Was it the remorse over what Tony did keeping him awake? Or worse, was it the experience with the Soldier that left Tony shaken? But Bucky was perceptive enough to know when people were uncomfortable around him and Tony didn’t seem to shy away at all when they talked earlier. On the contrary, he had no problem sharing his personal space with Bucky.

So maybe it was the many other traumas the man lived through keeping him awake. It didn’t matter in the end, the poor man still deserved a restful sleep.

Not for the first time, Bucky wished he had both of his arms. Unfortunately, the only way he could carry Tony now was under his arm or over his shoulder and either way would jostle the man too much and wake him up. He frowned, trying to think of how to make the man more comfortable.

“If I may, Mr. Barnes?” Friday’s quiet voice pulled him from his thoughts and he looked up. “There is a couch approximately four yards to your left, behind the soldering station. Boss sleeps there frequently. He seems—” she hesitated for a second, “he seems to get the least rest in his own bed, so he often falls asleep here in the lab. I believe if you wake him now and direct him to the couch, he may have an easier time falling back asleep… and hopefully getting some rest.”

Despite her earlier coldness with Tony, there was tenderness in Friday’s voice now and Bucky felt happy that there was someone else worried about the man. Taking her advice, he carefully placed his hand on Tony’s shoulder, ignoring how nice and warm the man’s skin felt under his fingers, and tried to gently shake him awake.

“Tony? Wake up for me. It’s time to get up for a second.” 

The man let out a soft groan as his eyes blinked awake slowly, lids still heavy with sleep. “Whazzatnow?” Tony slurred as he tried to raise himself up on his elbow, head still drooping. “Is it time for science already?”

“No, Tony,” Bucky couldn’t help his smile. “Science can wait, you need to sleep. Come on, get up, and I’ll take you to the couch.” 

Despite the grogginess, Tony still somehow managed to give him a sleepy glare, even as he complied with the command and began to stand up. “Science waits for no one, James…” 

Finally on his own two feet, Tony blinked up at him for a second and then promptly dropped his head onto Bucky’s chest, who froze at the movement, unsure of what to do with the half-asleep engineer suddenly leaning against him.

“So tired…” Tony mumbled out and then just rubbed his forehead against Bucky. “What are you super soldiers even made of? Marble?” he added in that same sleepy tone. “Swear to god, must be marble.”

“I’m— sorry?” was all Bucky could manage, too distracted by the energy it required to ignore his own desire to pull the man even closer to him.

“S’okay, I like marble,” Tony’s soft reply didn’t help Bucky at all, but he finally steeled himself, and with his hand on Tony’s shoulder, he tried to steer the man toward the couch. Thankfully, Tony was entirely compliant under his touch and when he finally saw the couch in front of him, the man didn’t need any more help to promptly collapse onto it and curl in on himself. There was a ratty old blanket nearby and Bucky grabbed it, draping it over Tony, who was already falling back asleep.

Finally satisfied that the man was comfortable, Bucky lowered himself onto the floor next to the couch so he would be eye-level with Tony. He watched the man blink his sleepy eyes at him a few times.

“I’m just gonna take a break for one tiny second,” Tony whispered, “and then— then we can do some science…” he trailed off, as he closed his eyes for the final time and let out one long breath, his whole body finally relaxing back into restful sleep. 

Bucky remained where he was for a few minutes, letting himself take in every detail of the man in front on him and enjoy the peace surrounding them. Even the damn Soldier was quiet, satiated by the fact that the man he was so enamored with was safe and sound next to them. Or maybe it was Bucky himself who was comforted by Tony’s presence, he wasn’t sure anymore. In this moment, he didn’t particularly care enough to find the distinction.

A part of him wanted to stay here forever, in this quiet beautiful lab filled with Tony’s lovingly crafted creations. This sanctuary where everything seemed so much simpler and the rest of the world, with its nightmares and its pain, faded away.

However, Bucky was self-aware enough to realize that sitting here and watching Tony sleep all night ranked up there on the list of creepy things he probably shouldn’t be doing, so reluctantly, he stood up. 

But as he took another look at the man, a memory from days ago raced through his mind. A soft press of lips against Tony’s forehead, a play at tenderness and affection, tainted with violence and fear…

The Soldier knew what Tony felt like underneath his lips, but Bucky didn’t, and it wasn’t fair. So before he allowed himself even a moment to think, he just kneeled carefully next to Tony, leaned over him, and following the siren call of that need inside him, softly pressed his lips to Tony’s temple. One, two, three beats, before he forced himself to pull away. 

Tony slept on, lost to the world around him.

Ignoring the heat in his belly and the ache in his chest, Bucky stood up again and finally walked away. The sense of emptiness and cold he felt replacing the warmth inside him as soon as he stepped over the threshold of the lab didn't surprise him at all. 

Chapter Text

The soft mechanical whir was barely audible as the leg braces adjusted themselves to compensate for Rhodey’s long strides as he briskly walked through the hallway of the Compound. He tapped the glass of his StarkPad a few times, getting a particular sense of satisfaction as he tapped the green “Send” button, finally done with the email he was rereading as he walked. Debriefs after any mission were always a pain in the ass, but at least he didn’t have to be physically present for this one. 

Rhodey stopped short when he rounded the corner and entered the kitchen, his eyes narrowing a fraction. There was a super soldier sitting in his favorite seat. 

He observed Barnes for a second and noted that the man basically looked like the human equivalent of a rubber band about to snap. Barnes was tapping his foot anxiously against the floor, a fast staccato that matched the equally nervous movement of his fingers as they twirled what looked like a small switchblade. Where the hell did he even get that? 

For a moment, Rhodey contemplated whether he wanted to say anything.

Technically, every chair in the kitchen was identical, but Rhodey’s chair had a better view of the terrace outside, and it didn’t have a weird wobble, and dammit, it just felt right. Rhodey was a man of habit and that was his damn chair. But was it really worth the possibility of getting stabbed by a fidgety, on-edge super soldier?

Yes. Yes, it was.

So he took a few steps forward and stopped with his arms crossed in front of Barnes.

“You’re in my chair.”

Barnes didn’t look up at him. Rhodey watched the man’s jaw clench as both his hand and foot continued the anxious motions. That damn knife was making Rhodey nervous too. 

“That wasn't just me stating a fact, Barnes. So how about you move?”

“And how about you go straight to hell?”

Rhodey wanted to roll his eyes at the muttered words, but instead he kept his expression neutral and just began a mental count. He got to three when, as he expected, he saw Barnes’ shoulders slump and the man’s face contort with blossoming guilt.

“You wanna run that by me one more time, Sergeant?” 

Barnes was already moving out of the seat and into the one next to it. “I apologize. I— shouldn’t have said that.”

“Damn straight,” Rhodey agreed and sat in his chair, moving it back a bit to give his legs room to stretch as he leaned back. Barnes was hunched over the table in his new seat, elbow on table as he now nervously ran his hand through his hair. Thankfully, he abandoned the switchblade when he moved.

“Therapy going that well, huh?” Rhodey asked, although he already knew the answer. The other man just gave him a noncommittal grunt. “It’s gotta be going spectacular, based on what I’ve been hearing. I mean, snapping at me, I understand. We’re supposed to hate each other, right? But come on, man, you snapped at Parker the other day?”

Oh, Barnes definitely looked guilty now as he just dropped his head on his forearm and hid his face with a pained groan. Good. Rhodey wasn’t here to coddle him. 

“Should we get a puppy for you to kick next?”

“I apologized to him right away,” Barnes mumbled into the crook of his elbow. “He— he just kept asking over and over whether I wanted to spend time with him and—”

“Yeah, the kid’s overeager. I get it. But luckily for you, he also doesn’t have a bad bone in his body, so he probably already forgave you for yelling at him.” 

“God, that poor kid apologized to me and then just told me to come find him when I felt better.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Parker alright. And you know what? You must be one lucky son of a bitch, because I’m feeling like a nice guy today too. So I’ll let this little incident slide. But think twice before snapping at me the next time, Sergeant.”

Finally, the man had the good graces to look him in the eyes and nod. “Yes, sir.”

Rhodey took another second to observe the man and then let out a sigh. “You look like hell, Barnes.”

“Feel like hell, sir.”

“Yeah, pretty sure the entire Compound is well aware of that. I thought Tony said you can take it slow with viewing all your memories.”

“Yes, but he also said that it wouldn’t hinder the therapy if I watched them more frequently.”

“Great,” Rhodey grimaced, “so you’re purposefully putting yourself through hell by watching all your gruesome memories of Hydra— memories, by the way, that no sane person should even see once, but you’re watching over and over, sometimes dozens of times. All because you’re impatient. And then the rest of us get to deal with your terrific mood.”

Barnes sat up and fidgeted in his seat, obviously still guilty. “I just want to get better,” he whispered.

The man in front of him painted one hell of a sad, dejected picture and even Rhodey couldn’t keep up the hard-ass routine for much longer. He surveyed the man once more, taking in the pale skin, the dark circles under his eyes, and the strained, tense way he held himself. 

Rhodey mentally groaned at what he was about to say next. While he would never admit this to Tony, there was a slight possibility that he was actually a bit of a mother hen. 

“When was the last time you even ate?”

Barnes just looked at him and— oh good, he and Tony even had the same facial expressions. Just like this confused I have no clue what you’re talking about look, as if food was some foreign new concept they were hearing about for the first time.

Finally the man managed a response. “Uh— not sure. Haven’t really been hungry lately.”

“Yeah, the super soldier with the metabolism of a hummingbird, not hungry. Sure.” When Barnes just gave a despondent shrug, Rhodey couldn’t stop the actual, physical eye roll this time. He looked to the heavens, muttered a “God save me from stubborn idiots,” and got up to see what leftovers were in the fridge.

“Well, looks like there’s plenty of Thai from yesterday, so I guess you’re eating that,” he commented over his shoulder and grabbed the heavy white takeout container. Something resembling noodles, he noted as he opened it. Good enough.

As he made his way over the microwave, Barnes was already attempting to protest. “You really don’t have to do that, I can—”

“What did I say about me being a nice guy today, hmm? It happens very rarely. It’s like a— like a solar eclipse. Appreciate it.

With a quiet yes, sir, Barnes went back to staring at his fingers, which began to tap out a nervous staccato against the glass surface now that they no longer had a knife to occupy them. Rhodey stuck the food into the microwave and while that warmed up, poured himself a cup of coffee. He had a feeling he was going to need it.

Barnes had been getting progressively worse ever since he started his therapy in earnest about a week ago and frankly, given what the man had to do, it wasn’t surprising. Rhodey knew that if he had to sit there and watch his worst memories over and over, he’d be crawling out of his skin too.

Tony took about two weeks after they activated the triggers to go over the data collected in an attempt to figure out the game plan for Barnes’ therapy. Thankfully that whole debacle wasn’t a waste of time because Tony finally ended up cracking the code.

Rhodey sat through multiple explanations of Tony’s plan, usually over coffee or dinner, as he listened to his friend talk in that same excited manner he approached all of his new projects. Some of what Tony tried to explain did make sense. The rest of it didn’t. Rhodey was a damn rocket scientist, not a neurosurgeon and while neither was Tony, that man did have a knack for picking up new specialities overnight. 

Although apparently, Tony did also end up reaching out to some of the best and brightest in neuroscience and psychiatry, most of whom he already knew after he spent months collaborating with them on the initial version of the Retro Framing system. Barnes was only referred to as John Doe in these consultations, but apparently poor Tony got more incredulity than help from them anyways. Apparently even the best of the best were stumped by Barnes’ unique brain structure. No surprise there.

Using all the data Tony pulled from Barnes and combining that with the recommendations from his colleagues, Tony was finally able to write the necessary algorithms needed to modify Barnes’ memories - everything from the Soldier training, to however the hell they implanted the triggers into his head (mostly via torture apparently, fucking Hydra), to the actual crimes Barnes was forced to commit under Hydra’s control. 

The modifications to the memories were subtle enough that Barnes would not even notice the changes as he rewatched the memories. According to Tony, it would be the subconscious part of the brain that would pick up on these subtle tweaks and begin the process of disassociating those memories from the physical responses they prompted in Barnes.

Frankly, it all sounded like some sci-fi nonsense to Rhodey, but then he would remember that he flew a mechanical suit of armor while battling fire-breathing jackasses and bug-themed idiots who grew ginormous, so he just accepted that this was his life now. 

Before Barnes could dive into his memories however, they all had to make sure the Winter Soldier wouldn’t be making a comeback. Surprisingly, both Rhodey and Barnes were adamant that someone in addition to Tony be involved in working out the details of the therapy. Given that Tony’s primary issue had always been giving Barnes privacy and autonomy, Tony had no choice but to agree (either way, he would’ve been overruled two to one). 

The first major issue was making sure that the memories of the triggers themselves wouldn’t actually activate the Winter Soldier. Despite Tony’s very loud protests, Barnes voluntarily went back into that room and was once again strapped into the chair, this time with Rhodey present. They projected a memory of another Hydra programming session that Tony modified with his algorithms and they all listened to the Hydra goons say the triggers as they tortured Barnes.

God, watching that was hell. Rhodey had to admit to himself that after witnessing just a fraction of what Hydra did to the man, it was harder to remain entirely cold and unaffected. Tony’s change in behavior when it came to Barnes made more sense now, given that he already had a taste of this horror.

Barnes himself suspected that the memory wouldn’t activate the triggers, and surprisingly, he was right. Apparently the words had to be said by a physical presence - they even tested the theory by having Friday say the words, which resulted in the same, sane, non-homicidal Barnes giving them an I don’t get it either shrug, still in his restraints. 

Tony’s rants of this makes no sense, sound waves are sound waves, Rhodey! Hydra science is bullshit, this is worse than magic! were amusing to watch, but thankfully, this also meant that Barnes could view these memories without going full sociopath, which in turn meant that he could begin the process of disassociating the triggers. 

Then Barnes spent the first official day of therapy alone in a small private room down in the basement, trying to recall every relevant memory of Hydra, while Friday and Tony recorded and catalogued them. Then came the modifications based on the algorithms. The tweaks to the memories served both to build the desired disassociations and to prevent the man from being sucked into the memories and losing touch with reality.

The hard part came next, unfortunately. Now that the projections of the memories were ready with the proper modifiers, Barnes had to view these memories over and over. Tony still monitored the results of Barnes’ physiology to ensure that the results were headed in the right direction, but Barnes viewed the memories in private, now that both Tony and Rhodey were comfortable that he wouldn’t slip back into them.

And despite Tony’s advice, the man had his mind set on binge watching all of Hydra’s greatest hits, leaving the rest of them to deal with him acting like a damn moody teenager. No, scratch that, they had actual moody teenagers living at the Compound. Barnes was far worse

The microwave announced that the food was ready with a loud beep and Rhodey dropped the container unceremoniously in front of Barnes (he even got him a fork, because Rhodey was a super nice guy today), and by the time he sat back down in his chair, Barnes was already digging into the food with something resembling gusto.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. Not hungry, my ass. He’s as bad as Tony, I swear. God, these two idiots are made for each other, aren’t they?

He let the man have a few minutes to eat as Rhodey himself enjoyed the familiar soothing bitterness of his black coffee. It gave him the time to marvel at this situation because frankly, if someone had told him even a month ago that he would be sitting here with the damn Winter Soldier and making sure the man ate— well, he’d tell that person to go straight to hell with that nonsense.

But life had a weird way of working out and leave it to Tony to create some nice bonding experiences for them. Rhodey thought back to the Soldier debacle.

I could have killed you!

He remembered how odd it felt, hearing those words from Barnes and realizing they carried in them the same desperation, anger, fear that Rhodey himself felt in that moment. It left him feeling off-balance, to share that strange moment of solidarity with Barnes, but he mostly brushed it off. 

Then, Rhodey had to get involved with the actual therapy and hell, no one was cold-hearted enough not to feel some sort of sympathy after watching the nightmares Barnes lived through. 

However, before the whole therapy business even began, probably a few days after Barnes and Tony reconciled (and Rhodey and Tony reconciled, because dammit, he loved that man too much and giving him the silent treatment for five days probably hurt Rhodey more than it did Tony), Barnes found his own way to endear himself to Rhodey just a little bit further.

***

“Friday, can you pull up the itinerary for the Summit? I know I have to present sometime midday, but I’d really like to make it to Dr. Cameron's lecture.”

“Of course, Colonel. The schedule is on your computer. The Cameron lecture is at—”

“Mute for a sec, Friday,” Rhodey halted the conversation when he saw Barnes standing at the entrance of his office. Rhodey usually kept his door open while he worked, in case anyone in the Compound needed to see him. Apparently today, someone did.

He mentally groaned. Did it really have to be Barnes?

“Can I help you with something, Sergeant?”

The man seemed hesitant, but he steeled himself as he took a few steps into the office. “May I speak with you for a few minutes?”

Dammit. Rhodey hoped this would be a quick thing. He wanted to say no, but he did promise Tony that he’d play nice with the resident super soldier, so instead he just gestured toward the open seat on the other side of his desk. 

Once Barnes sat down, he squared his shoulders and looked straight at him. “I want you to tell me about Tony.”

Rhodey just raised an eyebrow at him. “Okay…” he made a point to stretch the word out. “Well, his blood type is O+, he’s a Gemini, and one time at a gala event, he got so drunk that instead of giving his speech, he tried to karaoke ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and I had to drag him off the stage as he bellowed Turn around, bright eyes.”

By the disgruntled look on Barnes’ face, Rhodey guessed that wasn’t quite the information the man was looking for.

When Barnes quietly told him exactly that, there was no way Rhodey could stop his eye roll. “Then be specific, Barnes. I’m not a goddamn mind reader.”

Barnes took a second to think. “I want to know more about Tony and the other Avengers. What their relationships were like, how— how they treated him. I heard a lot about Tony from them,” he paused for a second and grimaced, “probably a lot more than I needed. So now I want to hear about him from someone else.” 

“I hope you don’t expect me to give you some neutral, objective picture of the last several years.”

“No, that’s not what I’m looking for,” Barnes replied, shaking his head. “On the contrary, I’m talking to you for a reason. I know the others gave me a biased picture of him and frankly, not a very flattering one. I’m also learning very quickly that it wasn’t a particularly accurate one either. So I think it’s only fair that now I hear from someone who has always been on Tony’s side. Out of all the people here, that’s you, Colonel.” Barnes shrugged. “And maybe, somewhere in the middle of all that, I’ll find that neutral, objective picture.”

Rhodey contemplated the man for a second. He still didn’t trust Barnes, probably never would completely, but then he thought back to Barnes’ desperately shouted words, to that one moment when their biggest shared fear was losing Tony, and decided that maybe the man deserved a chance. Just one though.

Besides, this particular conversation wasn’t going to be much of a burden. After all, Rhodey had been dying for someone to ask him about how the assholes of the decade treated his best friend. 

So he talked. He told Barnes about how SHIELD first forced their way into Tony’s life. How Agent Phil Coulson threatened to taser Tony (a man with a goddamn electromagnet in his chest) while they dared to invade Tony’s home, keep him there against his will, and fuck with his property (Tony was livid that they shut down JARVIS and he spent days making sure those security flaws were never exploited again). Rhodey also mentioned how SHIELD injected Tony with the lithium dioxide without his consent and he thoroughly enjoyed Barnes' displeased scowl, given that this was a man who knew all about one's bodily autonomy being violated.

He told the story of how Tony first met Romanoff— no, no, Natalie Rushman— when she was undercover and lying her ass off to him, so she could monitor him for SHIELD (egging him on as the man was dying and spiraling out of control). Certainly, that colored the rest of their relationship and it honestly wasn’t such a big surprise that in the end, Romanoff turned her back on Tony and sided with Rogers. She never believed that Tony was worth her time.

Iron Man - Yes

Tony Stark - Not Recommended

Rhodey still wasn’t sure whether SHIELD gave that assessment as an attempt to play on Tony’s insecurities or whether they were really so blind as to not realize that the only thing that made Iron Man great was the man inside the suit. 

While he wasn’t present for the Battle of New York, Rhodey later heard all about it from Tony (and even more so from JARVIS) and he passed some of those details onto Barnes now. How Steve Rogers, after knowing Tony for all of two seconds, decided that the man was nothing without his suit, that Tony wasn’t the guy to make the sacrifice play. That he knew guys with none of that worth ten of you. It was interesting watching Barnes, as the man came to the same realization as Rhodey did looking back on those words now - that Rogers must have been thinking of Barnes himself when he said that to Tony. Life sure did have a way with irony though, given that now it was Tony who was saving Rogers’ precious best friend. 

He made sure to point out that Rogers was wrong. Tony was willing to die to save New York and to stop the invasion. He would’ve died if it weren’t for the Hulk and yes, Rhodey also made a point to mention that it was Tony’s treatment of Banner—acting like every part of Banner mattered to Tony, man and monster— that endeared the Hulk to him in the end. 

Bruce Banner was far lower on Rhodey’s shit list than the rest of them. He left Tony too, but at least he had an excuse. After what happened in Johannesburg, the man couldn’t even stand to be in the same building as the witch and Rhodey could understand that, given that it was the same reason that ultimately forced Tony to leave his own Compound too. 

Rhodey didn’t tell Barnes any of that, however, because he refused to even mentioned the witch’s name. Not here, not in the new, rebuilt Compound that no longer held traces of her temper tantrum. A story for another day, perhaps. Maybe someday Barnes would hear about what his best friend’s pet witch did to both Banner and Tony. 

Instead, without bothering to hide the resentment in his voice, Rhodey told Barnes that after the Battle of New York, SHIELD still treated Tony as nothing more than a consultant - one who, by the way, was being severely underpaid. Forget about any profit margin, they were paying Tony below cost (if they paid at all) and any sane businessman would’ve called bullshit on that long ago. But Tony didn’t. Because he saw this as his chance to do more - to help protect the world on a scale bigger than what Iron Man alone was capable of.

And in part, it was also because Tony desperately wanted to see the Avengers as his family. Rhodey kept this part to himself as well, but Tony’s insecurities were the biggest reason why the Avengers were able to take advantage of him for so long. Because behind all that self-confident, downright arrogant bluster, behind that charming smirk and that swagger, Tony was just a lonely broken man, struggling with trauma and a slew of self-doubt, who desperately wanted to have people in his life who trusted him, who loved him (even though he would then always try to push them away as he inevitably self-destructed). 

It hurt sometimes, knowing that Rhodey’s friendship wasn’t enough, but he never begrudged Tony his relationship with the Avengers. Tony deserved more than just one friend. Hell, Tony deserved all the friends in the world. 

Unfortunately, Tony always had shit luck with the people he decided to trust. 

He explained how excited Tony was, planning and building customized suites at Stark Tower— no, Avengers Tower— for all the Avengers after the Battle of New York. Rhodey made a point to tell Barnes how much care and effort (and money!) Tony put in, trying to build a place that these people could call home.  

And how, in return, they all acted like everything that Tony gave them was nothing more than him paying his dues for being part of the super secret boy band. After all, he was a billionaire with more money than god, right? Housing and paying for the Avengers, providing them with cutting edge tech, cleaning up after all their messes - it was the least he could do. 

In some ways, Rhodey had to admit he was partly to blame for everything that happened to Tony in the past few years because he let Tony and him drift apart during that time. Rhodey was busy with his own career and trying to decide what he wanted to do next with his life and Tony seemed so busy with his new Avengers family that Rhodey just let him be and they didn’t see each other as often as they should have.

But they’d still have frequent phone calls and while Tony never actually complained outright, Rhodey would watch his best friend —exhausted, sleep deprived, sometimes still injured from a battle— still working away on his endless list of projects for Stark Industries, for SHIELD and for the Avengers. 

He remembered the offhanded comments and jokes Tony would always make. 

“Cap gave me an earful again today about ‘falling in line’. He was probably right, I made a bad call. And, he’s the boss, right? I just pay for everything. And design everything. And make everyone look cooler. Well, except for you, Honey Bear. I can’t work miracles.”

“Hey, don’t look at me like that, Rhodey. I don’t need to be in medical, okay? This isn’t my first bump on the head. I was just a little out of it, didn’t pay attention to where I was flying. Hard to focus when you’re seeing space portals everywhere…” 

 “I swear, if Clint bitches about his arrows one more time— you know, I should sneak a dud in there. What do you think, Rhodey Bear? Maybe an arrow that just explodes into pink glitter?”

“I’ve just been— fuck, I’ve been exhausted, Rhodey. Pepper wants to move the launch of the new StarkPhone up by two months. Fury’s on my ass about that upgrade for the Hellicarrier. Frankly, I don’t think what he wants is feasible under the current laws of physics, but apparently I’m supposed to have it done by next week.”

“Rhodey, you need to come visit soon. I just— I need— poor Dum-E needs company. No one likes him here at the Compound and he’s been getting fidgety. You need to come by before he decides to focus all of his robotic neediness on me.” 

Rhodey could read between the lines. Tony was exhausted, lonely, suffering from PTSD. And the others either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Rhodey wasn’t sure which option was worse.

And even though Tony never said this out loud either, Rhodey knew that every time Tony had to make weapons for one of his Avenger buddies, another small piece of the man’s heart broke because he promised himself he would never make weapons again. But this was for the greater good. He was putting these weapons into the hands of the people he trusted, so it was okay if another part of Tony withered away under the guilt. Of course, none of the Avengers ever bothered to even acknowledge it.  

Tony gave all of himself away to others. His home, his money, his resources. The man gave these people his trust and his friendship. All he got in return was mistrust and subtle, but constant reminders that he would never be good enough to measure up to the rest of the shining heroes (which really meant he would never be good enough to measure up to Rogers).

Every scrap of affection and acknowledgement Tony ever received from them, he had to earn. But god forbid if Tony ever made a mistake, because then he was raked over the coals for it (and sometimes, it didn't even have to be Tony's mistake for him to take the blame). Because Tony Stark was nothing more than a narcissist with an ego problem who didn’t play well with others. He didn’t deserve any more than what he got.

He didn’t even deserve to know the truth. Rhodey looked Barnes straight in the eyes because he wanted to see the guilt when he told him about Rogers blaming Tony for Ultron (conveniently forgetting about both Banner and the witch), calling him out for teammates keeping things from him, when at the same time, he already knew about the fact that Barnes was the one who killed Tony’s parents. 

Some stellar teammates indeed.

And Rhodey knew, better than anyone, that Tony was not a perfect man. He was flawed, just like the rest of them. He made mistakes, he lashed out, he pushed people away. But Rhodey was also certain that the other rogue Avengers told Barnes about every single one of Tony’s flaws, ad nauseam, so it was only fair that Rhodey focus on Tony’s better qualities. So he did. He emphasized the man’s generosity and his sense of protectiveness over his newfound family. The fact that the man felt guilt and responsibility more deeply than anyone Rhodey had ever met. The fact that this was a man who spent a good part of the last decade trying to atone. To find some form of absolution for his own mistakes (and the mistakes of so many others who let Tony take the fall for them).

Rhodey had so much more to say, but he had to stop himself when he realized it had been over an hour since Barnes entered his office. The man’s reaction to Rhodey’s words— well, frankly, it surprised him. Aside from a few clarifying questions, the man just sat there and listened. Honestly, Rhodey expected him to jump to the others’ defense, particularly when Rhodey spoke about Rogers and his treatment of Tony. But Barnes didn’t say anything, not even a token protest to defend his best friend’s honor.

Rhodey hoped that maybe this meant there was hope for Barnes after all. 

Because Rhodey wasn’t an idiot. He could see the way Tony looked at the man. Tony was already half-way to giving everything he had to Barnes, the same way he did with the Avengers. He already gave the man a new home. He offered his help, as well as his vast resources and technology. And Rhodey knew about the plans for the new arm too (oh yes, Tony and him still needed to discuss that potential safety hazard). Already, Tony’s friendship, trust, and growing affections were being offered to Barnes on a silver platter.

Rhodey wished that none of it was happening because frankly, he was scared that history would just repeat itself. That Barnes would take everything from Tony, drain him dry for all the things Tony offered so freely and then he’d leave. Once Tony was no longer useful, he’d leave him in the dust while he ran back into Steve Rogers’ waiting arms. 

Rhodey dreaded that moment with every part of his being, but there wasn’t much he could do to stop it. All he could do was stay at Tony’s side, and just like last time, help the man pick up the pieces of his shattered heart. At least this time, he’d have Harley and Parker, and the others who now made this Compound their home, to help him put Tony back together. 

“So, did you find any of that neutral, objective truth you were looking for?” Rhodey finally asked, as Barnes leaned back in his seat, observing his hand as it absently twirled a pen. 

The man gave a tired huff of laughter after a moment’s thought. “I’m realizing that maybe the only truth in all of this is that there is no objective truth.” He finally looked up at Rhodey. “But there are some things I am sure of now. Tony Stark is a good man. And you were right the first time we spoke,” Barnes said as he got out of his seat, “he’s a better person than either one of us deserves.”

Without another word, Barnes just gave him a tight smile, inclined his head as a silent form of thanks, and walked out of the office. 

Rhodey watched the man leave and desperately hoped that this time, things would turn out differently. 

*** 

Rhodey shook the memory off as he took another sip of his coffee. Barnes was half way through his food and eating it at a more sedate pace now. The man glanced at Rhodey for a second, seemingly hesitant, but then just looked back down at his food. 

“If you want to ask something, just do so. Remember, I don’t read minds.”

Barnes just nodded, distractedly picking at the noodles on his plate. “Has— has Tony been doing alright?” 

“Don’t you see the guy like every day?” Rhodey frowned, “The two of you go over your therapy results daily, right?”

“Yeah, we do,” Barnes nodded, but then developed a frown of his own, although this one was more regretful than anything else. “But I try to limit my time around him.” Now Barnes looked downright sad. “The way I am right now, just being so goddamn on edge all the time… The last thing I want is me losing my cool and snapping at him. He doesn’t deserve that, not after everything he’s already done for me.” 

Huh. Well, that explained why Tony had been moping around lately too. Apparently his favorite pet project was actively avoiding him. 

“Well, as far as I know, Tony’s fine. Keeping himself busy with your therapy, plus last I heard, Stark Industries is working on a big project in Asia, so Tony’s probably got his hands full with that too.” 

When Barnes just nodded and then dejectedly continued picking at the food in front of him, Rhodey heaved a sigh. “You really should take Tony’s advice and just take it easy. You’re not going to get better overnight, Barnes.”

Hell, he may never completely get better, period. One didn’t just get better after the kind of trauma Barnes went through. Whether it was physical or mental, some wounds never healed completely and all anyone could do was learn to cope with them. But it wasn’t Rhodey’s place to say any of that. He wasn’t Barnes’ damn therapist.

Instead, he just said “Now, I’m not your mother, so don’t listen to me if you don’t want to, I don’t care. But running yourself into the ground isn’t helping anyone. You’re just making yourself miserable. You have time, Barnes. Use it.”

“I know that, I do,” the other man nodded and looked at Rhodey with those damn sad, tired eyes. “But I just— I need to get Hydra out of my head. I want to finally live my own damn life. I just— I just want to be free.”

Rhodey tensed at those words, but it was obvious Barnes didn’t even realize he was echoing the Asset’s sentiment. Not for the first time, Rhodey wondered just how much separated the hesitant, tired, guilt-ridden man sitting in front of him from the sociopathic killer who attacked Tony. He swallowed hard and tried to push the thought away. Hopefully the therapy would deal with this very issue as well.

Apparently done with the conversation, Barnes slowly stood up and took the remainder of his food back to the fridge. Rhodey watched him hesitate for a moment, before finding whatever words he was looking for.

“I’m sorry again that I snapped at you. I’ll try to— I’ll try to avoid everyone while I’m going through this. These are my issues, no one else here should be dealing with them. But it’ll be over soon enough and then— then everything will be fine.” 

With a shaky nod, as if trying to convince himself, Barnes turned on his heel and left. Whether back to his quarters or to his memory viewing room in the basement, Rhodey wasn’t sure. 

He took another sip of his coffee, then grimaced, realizing that he let it get lukewarm. Walking over to the sink, he dumped the remains down the drain and then leaned against the counter. God, he hoped this whole therapy business would be over soon. And he sure as hell hoped Barnes’ insistence on getting through seventy years of hell in a month’s worth of time wasn’t going to blow up in all of their faces. 

Rhodey heaved a sigh. He just wanted his damn Compound back to normal. 

Chapter Text

The door behind him slammed harder than he anticipated and Bucky flinched at the sudden loud noise. Taking a breath, he looked around his quarters. He thought briefly about getting into the shower as his gaze passed over the bathroom, but instead, he just let himself collapse onto his bed with a sigh. He knew he should be doing anything but this, letting himself lie here and wallow, but there was no energy left in him for anything else. 

Three weeks of therapy behind him and today felt more like that first rough week. Unfortunate, given that the last two weeks proved to be dramatically different from the first.

Ever since Tony began working out the algorithms, the man came to the conclusion that they were going to need someone else involved in the process - someone who actually had more relevant experience in dealing with a victim of severe trauma than a genius engineer (but an engineer nonetheless). He told Bucky as much, who reluctantly agreed, but he didn’t believe Tony would ever find anyone, given their rather restrictive criteria. 

They needed someone who was competent enough to handle Bucky’s complicated case, trustworthy enough not spill any of this information to the press (or worse, one of Avengers’ many enemies), and actually willing enough to deal with this whole unsavory situation.

However, this particular Venn diagram did finally come together in the form of one Doctor Fatima Vance, who arrived at the Compound at the tail end of the first week. 

According to Tony, she was well respected in her field and she was one of his collaborators on the original BARF system. More importantly, unlike some of Tony’s other collaborators who focused primarily on theory or research, she had spent most of her career as an actual practicing therapist and was one of the first to use Tony’s BARF system in her own practice.

The first time Bucky met her, he noted that she struck an intimidating figure, despite being dressed in a simple conservative dress and heels. He guessed that she must have been older than both Tony and the Colonel, but her shrewd, clever eyes and the confident, graceful way she carried herself, with her beautiful black curls bouncing on each measured step, hid her age well. As Bucky quickly learned, all of that matched her tough, no-nonsense attitude.

She took all but one look at him, noting how tense and exhausted he was, and proceeded to admonish Tony right on the spot.

“You begged me to be a part of this, Dr. Stark, despite my initial reluctance. And yet, I arrive here only to find out you already started the Retro Framing sessions without any sort of sign-off from me?”

Tony had the decency to look properly chastised.“I understand, Fatima, but James and I didn’t want to waste time—”

“By the look of the poor man, I say that’s exactly what you’ve been doing this past week.”

Bucky felt the need to defend Tony. “Dr. Vance, I was the one who insisted on getting through as many memories as I could—”

God, how could a single glare from the woman stop him in his tracks like that? Bucky had a suspicion it was because her eyes matched the distant, faded memory of his mother’s. 

“Mr. Barnes, I understand your desire to expedite your therapy. However, under the terms of the pardon, you are a ward of Dr. Stark and he is ultimately the one responsible for your well-being. And while I am all for properly informed patients who have autonomy in their treatment, you have zero medical experience and it is up to us,” she gestured between herself and Tony, “to decide what the best course of action is. Well,” she paused, giving Tony a scrutinizing look, “really, it’s up to me, because as brilliant as you are, Dr. Stark, this is not your field of expertise.”

Before Tony could say anything in protest, she silenced him with a simple hand gesture. Apparently she had the same effect on Tony as she did on Bucky. “I will be the first to admit that I myself am woefully out of my depth when it comes to this superhero, super villain, magic and monsters deal. And I will defer to your expertise when it comes to the Retro Framing therapy and the deprogramming of these brainwashing triggers. However, it would do no good for Mr. Barnes to finally be free of the triggers, only to find himself in a catatonic state because he needlessly tortured himself with his own memories.”

Tony let out a weary sigh and gave Dr. Vance an apologetic look. “You’re absolutely right, Fatima. James is my responsibility and I will fully admit I dropped the ball on this.”

Dr. Vance’s expression softened a bit in the face of Tony’s genuine sentiment. She sighed. “Well, at least you're smart enough to know when you’re wrong,” she admitted and Tony’s expression turned into his more mischievous, flirty smile. 

“See, this is exactly why I’ve missed working with you. As always, you keep me humble, Fatima. It’s good to be reminded that sometimes I’m not actually the smartest person in the room.”

All that got in return was an exasperated “You are well aware that flattery will get you nowhere with me, Dr. Stark. Now, since I am in fact here, when I could instead be spending time with my grandchildren, I would appreciate if we got right down to business.” She turned to look at Bucky. “I apologize if our first introduction was brief, Mr. Barnes. We will get a chance to get further acquainted once I get a better understanding of what we’re dealing with.”

Tony later told Bucky that the two spent hours down in the lab going over all the information and Dr. Vance helped draft a new schedule for the therapy with a significantly longer timetable. 

At first, Bucky bristled at the idea. All he wanted was to get this over with and dammit, he already lived through those awful memories! He could handle them as a mere spectator!

But after two weeks of the revised schedule, with no more than two sessions per day, the difference in his mental state was so pronounced that Bucky had no choice but to admit to himself that “slow and steady” was a much more palatable approach. Actually feeling like a human being again won over any remaining impatience and desperation he may have felt about wanting to get both Hydra and the Soldier out of his head. 

However, Dr. Vance had even more to say about Bucky’s previous approach.

“Keeping yourself isolated and letting yourself dwell on the memories is the worst thing you can do. Focus on productive activities of self-care that ground you back to this reality. Take a shower. Eat. Read a book or watch a funny movie. Go outside. And most importantly, try to engage in social interaction with the others around you. Even if you have to take small steps, the most important thing is to shift your focus back to the here and now.”

So now, after leaving a session and feeling that raw ache of the memory fresh in his mind, Bucky tried to follow Dr. Vance’s advice and attempt to find his way back to reality. 

He tried to eat regular meals and let himself indulge in dessert. He asked Friday to help him compile a list of interesting, light-hearted books and movies and she was more than happy to oblige.

Bucky also sought out that recommended social connection. He re-introduced himself to Vision and they soon found that they had more in common than they thought, given that they were both still trying to figure out the strange new world around them. By the end of week two, Vision asked Bucky to join him for a cooking session and they had a strange, but genuinely fun bonding experience trying to figure out a recipe with spices and ingredients neither one of them had ever seen before. Both watched with amusement as Tony and the kids politely pretended to enjoy the results of that cooking experiment.

Bucky also took it upon himself to seek out Peter, handing him a jar of Nutella when he found him as a silent form of apology for his earlier outburst of anger. Of course, Peter’s response was just to tackle him in a great, big hug and all Bucky could do was hug the kid back and marvel at how amazing it still felt to experience simple touch like that and know there was no ill intention behind it.

Eventually, Peter convinced Bucky to actually spar with him and it soon turned into a regular thing, given that they made an interesting match for each other. Bucky was one arm short and all of his real fighting instincts were locked away with the Soldier, which put him on equal footing with Peter, who had plenty of raw power, but still had a lot to learn about fighting technique. Harley took to hanging out with them during these sparring sessions too, usually cheering Bucky on and trying to distract a very frustrated Peter.

Even the Colonel wasn’t spared in Bucky’s quest to follow Dr. Vance’s advice. Bucky would join the other man in the kitchen from time to time and they would enjoy a cup of coffee together. Rhodes would usually be focused on some Avengers business on his StarkPad, while Bucky was engrossed in whatever book he was reading and they wouldn’t even say more than a word or two to each other. However, the sense of shared company was still nice, and it always warmed Bucky’s heart when the Colonel would refill the bright red Iron Man mug with more coffee without ever being asked. 

And of course, there was always Bucky’s bright, shining sun. Bucky wasn’t even sure anymore why he was trying to avoid Tony in the first place (because he was trying to be selfless, to keep that damn darkness inside him away from Tony), but once Bucky gave into the need to be around the other man, he realized Tony was just as eager to spend more time with him. 

Since Bucky always woke early and Tony always stayed up ridiculously late, they ended up making a habit of walking outside the Compound together at dawn, enjoying the early morning peace and quiet. They tried to have meals together, sometimes joined by the other residents of the Compound. 

More often than not though, Bucky found himself down in Tony’s lab, usually coming there with an offering of food and coffee. Sometimes, he would listen to Tony’s excited science babble and even if most of it went over Bucky’s head, he loved it anyway because Tony’s presence and voice soothed Bucky’s nerves like nothing else could. Every part of him felt at peace in that lab. 

At other times, they wouldn’t talk, too focused on their own thing, but even then, Tony would wink at him as he looked over or give him a playful shove as he walked by on his way to grab something from the other side of the lab. Small, but meaningful connections that made Bucky’s heart sing. He knew he was becoming increasingly dependent on the man’s presence in his life, but he refused to overanalyze it and instead let himself indulge in Tony’s company.

Dr. Vance was responsible for most of this, saving Bucky and Tony from their own brand of foolishness, but Bucky soon found out that her primary reason for being at the Compound was actual, traditional therapy.

Mental health was not a topic that was ever discussed in the forties, so Bucky had no idea what to expect from his first session with Dr. Vance. He assumed there would be a lot of intrusive questions about the events of his past or his feelings, but after the doctor gave a brief description of her training and experience, all she did was ask Bucky if there was anything he wanted to talk about.

Bucky didn’t really have anything he wanted to discuss, but he also knew this woman was taking the time out of her life to help him (and Tony was likely paying her a lot of money to be here), so not wanting to waste her time and Tony’s generosity, he started with easy topics. He talked about the Compound and his time here, which morphed into a discussion of how it felt to be confronted with the entirety of the 21st century (it was both exhilarating and overwhelming). 

However, somehow that conversation ended up with Bucky trying to articulate how confusing it was to deal with others’ reactions to him. He tried to explain that any time his past was brought up around people like Steve, they would try to convince him that it wasn't you, Bucky, it wasn’t your fault, you have nothing to feel guilty about. And any time he would try to apologize (primarily to Tony, but Bucky left that part off) he was told it’s okay, forget about it, it’s no big deal, life goes on.

Neither response ever gave him any sense of peace or closure and it frustrated him because he had no words to articulate what it was that he actually wanted from others.

And because he learned from his mistake with Tony, Bucky ended the session by telling Dr. Vance about the Soldier, struggling to explain what it felt like to have that dark presence in the back of his head that seemed to oscillate between violent bloodlust and possessive, lustful hunger.  

Aside from a few clarifying questions, Dr. Vance spent the session taking notes and Bucky remembered liking the fact that she used a regular pen and paper, just like him. Everyone else at the Compound used computers and Bucky just couldn’t get the hang of typing quickly on a keyboard, so he always preferred the traditional method. 

At the end, Dr. Vance put her notes to the side and gave him a friendly smile.

“I appreciate all the effort you put into this conversation. I know it can’t be easy opening up to a stranger. Unfortunately, I don’t have any clear cut answers for you, not after one session. Sometimes, we get answers after putting in a lot of hard work. Sometimes unfortunately, we never find a perfect solution. 

“As for the Soldier - it could very well be some remnant of what Hydra did to you that neither myself nor Dr. Stark understand yet. The Retro Framing therapy may cause it to evolve or even disappear entirely. However…” here Dr. Vance paused and made sure she had Bucky’s gaze, “I want you to be aware that there is a possibility that the Soldier is simply your mind’s way of coping with the trauma you experienced. That those dark instincts are just as much a part of you as the man sitting in front of me right now. Perfectly healthy people who never suffer trauma still can have moments of insatiable lust or a sudden desire to hurt someone for something as trivial as chewing their food too loudly. But we control these urges because we strive to exist in a civilized society. Everyone has good and bad inside them, Mr. Barnes. And you cannot go through what you have and expect to remain completely unchanged by it.”

Bucky wasn’t sure what to do with the doctor’s words, but he still hoped that the former rather than the latter of what she said was true.

Other sessions followed and Bucky knew it would take time for him to open up, but he thought that someday he might be ready to tell Dr. Vance more. Someday he might be ready to talk about how violated and powerless he felt in the face of what Hydra did to him. How it felt to remember every single one of his kills. How it felt when the triggers were activated and everything else in the world ceased to matter, blurred to dull grays and shrouded in a fog that tasted like ashes, with only the mission offering some sense of completion… of purpose

Someday he hoped he would be ready.

In the present however, even with the slower pace, the BARF therapy was actually working. Both Dr. Vance and Tony were optimistic that Bucky’s physical responses to the memories were already beginning to change and that in fact, some memories were already completely disassociated. Bucky knew it was true because it felt as if there was a barrier between him and the memories now. The horror associated with them felt distant. It finally felt benign.

Unfortunately for Bucky, he didn’t have just one or two or three memories to work through. There were seventy years worth of memories, so he had no choice but to gather all the patience he could find and keep going. Slow and steady. He had to be content with the fact that there were more good days now. 

Until today. The memory on the schedule today was meant to be viewed two or three times, at most. He viewed it at least two dozen times now, losing count sometime halfway. Dr. Vance was in Boston with the grandkids and Bucky knew she would be unhappy with him once she came back. He didn’t care.

He was well aware that he was doing this to punish himself. 

Help… Sergeant Barnes? 

But I can’t— I can’t and there’s blood, there’s so much blood against the snow—

No, he couldn’t think about that. Not right now. He needed a break from the crushing guilt, if only for a moment.

Usually, when he was feeling this vulnerable, he’d seek out Tony, but he wasn’t sure he could face the man right now, so Bucky just closed his eyes and tried to breathe, knowing that he needed to find a way to ground himself. However, every thought in his head kept coming back to Tony and so, just this once, he willfully pushed his guilt away so he could let himself selfishly sink into the warmth of a memory from a few weeks ago.

***

The medical equipment surrounding him still set off Bucky's mental alarms, but thankfully, the medical facility at the Compound was empty at this late hour. 

Well, with the exception of him and Tony. They’ve spent almost two hours here now, sequestered in a small private room while Tony worked on carefully removing the remaining pieces of the old metal arm in order to prepare Bucky for the new one. 

Tony was successful in removing the larger part already, but now the engineer paused to scrutinize additional scans of Bucky’s left shoulder in order to remove the smaller slivers.

The small break gave Bucky a chance to observe the man and reflect on everything the Colonel had told him yesterday.

Some things that came up didn’t surprise Bucky, given what he had already deduced from Tony’s behavior. However, it was the extent of the awful treatment by the other Avengers and SHIELD that baffled and downright infuriated him.

He could still remember his blood running cold when he heard Rhodes tell him about SHIELD injecting Tony against his will with some substance. Oh, the Soldier seethed within him, knowing intimately what it was like to have their body violated to serve someone else’s purpose. 

But that was only a small piece of a much larger picture painted with brush strokes of constant mistrust, disrespect, and a lack of any gratitude, affection or camaraderie on the part of the other Avengers.

Bucky genuinely couldn’t understand it. Even based on his limited interactions, he knew all of them were capable of care and trust. Wilson and Steve had a close friendship. The same was true for Natasha and Barton. Even Lang never bothered to hide how much he loved and missed the daughter and friends he left behind.

Steve obviously loved Bucky himself; hell, he was willing to set half the world on fire in his misguided attempt to help him. And Steve was always gentle and caring with Wanda, who he treated like a little sister.

These were all people capable of love. So what was it about Tony that turned them all away from him? He simply couldn’t wrap his mind around it because there was no way for him to reconcile their behavior toward Tony with the man in front of him. Said man was currently donning a fresh pair of gloves, almost ready to continue the work on Bucky’s shoulder. When Tony turned and saw Bucky looking at him, he gave him a playful wink and gave him a cheeky “Dr. Stark will be with you momentarily.”

Honestly, Bucky had half a mind to call up Wakanda and demand answers from Steve and the others. However, the last conversation was still fresh in his mind and it served as a reminder that he and Steve couldn’t hold a conversation anymore without it devolving into an argument. Somehow, Bucky didn’t think bringing up Tony would make things go any smoother and frankly, he was sure the others would just give him the same song and dance. 

Tony betrayed them. Tony was arrogant and selfish. Tony never owned up to his mistakes. 

Never trust a Stark.

Were they all even talking about the same man? None of it made sense, so in the end, he decided the only thing he could truly trust was his own instincts.

Bucky watched as the other man moved his chair over to be right next to him again and carefully picked up where he left off, removing the last traces of Hydra’s handiwork from Bucky’s body. 

This is what Bucky could trust. Experience. The proof of what Peter and Rhodes had told him about Tony was evident in the culmination of Bucky’s interactions with the man. His generosity and his sense of responsibility. The desire to do the right thing, even if it meant taking his parents’ killer into his home. 

All he had to do was think back to Tony’s jokes made in effort to alleviate Bucky's anxiety. The ice cream in Central Park. Tony’s genuine words of apology. The schematics of the arm. The sleepless nights Bucky knew Tony was spending trying to figure out the BARF therapy. The warmth behind those brown eyes. 

The proof of it all was right in front of him.

Said proof let out a disapproving grunt as yet another chuck of metal was removed from Bucky’s left shoulder.

“Dammit, James, I knew I should’ve insisted that you go to medical right when you got to the Compound. There’s inflammation in the tissue of your shoulder everywhere! How does that even work? I thought you super soldiers couldn’t get infections.”

Bucky just raised his right shoulder in a shrug, careful not to jostle his left.

“I’m the wrong person to ask, Tony. I’ve no idea what shit Hydra pumped into me. Don’t even know if it’s the same stuff that Steve got. All I know is that my shoulder always hurt like that, it’s no big deal.”

“Really? Being in pain - no big deal?” Tony repeated and stopped to give Bucky an affronted look.

Bucky just shrugged again. “What? It’s not like Hydra ever cared that I was comfortable. All they cared about was that I was functional.” 

“Well, last time I checked, I wasn’t Hydra,” Tony grumbled as he went back to checking over Bucky’s shoulder and removing another piece, causing Bucky to let out a pained hiss. Instantly, Tony pulled away and rubbed his hand up and down Bucky’s back in some attempt to soothe the pain.

“Shit, sorry, this isn’t going to get any easier, unfortunately,” he sighed and grabbed another tool from the tray next to him. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to let an actual doctor do this - you know, one who actually knows what they’re doing?”

Ugh, even thinking about letting someone else touch him, especially the scarred area of his mutilated shoulder, made Bucky sick to his stomach. “I’d rather not, if we can help it. You seem to be managing it just fine, right?” He tried to give Tony his best pleading look and it was obviously working because the engineer just slumped and gave a sigh.

“Well, I’m doing my best, but ya know - I’m not that kind of doctor. Huh, this must be what Brucie Bear must have felt like,” he muttered to himself, but then paused and frowned at Bucky, “Is this— is this why you never went to medical in the first place? You weren’t comfortable with the doctors looking you over?” 

Bucky gave him a nod after a moment.

“But I thought T’Challa’s doctors worked on you just fine. Even tried to help you with the triggers before you went into cryo.”

“They did, but back then, I was either too out of it to even care or I was just desperate enough. And I still didn’t let them anywhere near my shoulder… Just wasn’t a big deal. It hurts, that’s all…” Bucky trailed off when he saw Tony’s knowing look. 

“And a bit of pain is obviously not enough to let some stranger root around in your body, I get it,” Tony finished Bucky’s thought and ran a distracted hand across his chest, making Bucky wonder whether Tony even realized he was doing it. “Trust me, I get it. Took me years to let an actual doctor anywhere near my arc reactor.”

Between what he had heard mentioned by others and from what he read on the internet, Bucky had a general idea of what happened with Tony in Afghanistan. But he still had so many questions and he hoped that maybe someday Tony would be comfortable enough with him to share something so personal.

But today was not that day and Bucky kept the questions to himself. Instead, he tried to give Tony a smile. “It’s really not that bad. Just keep doing what you’re doing, Tony. I trust you.”

The small smile that crossed Tony’s own face at those last words brought with it that same sweet, warm ache in his chest that Bucky associated with Tony now. The other man, satisfied with whatever tool he had, went back to pulling back the metal pieces, painstakingly trying to get to the scarred and infected flesh beneath.

“Honestly, I get making super soldiers invulnerable to drugs,” Tony grumbled as he worked, “but making you immune to painkillers too? Seems like an intentional design flaw.” He leaned over to catch Bucky’s eyes. “Can I at least offer you a glass of scotch or something? I know alcohol doesn’t do anything either, but it’s the principle of the thing.”

“Nah, it’s okay. Always hated the taste, so if I can’t get drunk, why even bother?” 

“Well, let me know if there is anything that would help,” Tony said and went back to his work. “Probably better this way anyways, ‘cause I’d have to raid Rhodey’s stash if you wanted something and he’s very protective of his liquor.”

Bucky’s curiosity perked up. “Do you not drink?” 

For a moment, Tony didn’t respond and Bucky turned to face him. He watched Tony look away and grimace. “I, uh— used to have a bit of a problem,” he cleared his throat, “and by problem, I mean I was, uh— I was an alcoholic.” The man tried to give a careless shrug, but the guilt in his face was obvious. “But I’ve been clean for years, so no need to worry.”

Bucky could see how much even that admission cost Tony, so he didn’t press further. Instead, he just gave him a soft “I’m glad you’re doing well, Tony.”

He watched Tony’s hands shake minutely, but the man steeled himself and just went back to his work with a shaky breath. 

“Can you tell me more about the new arm?” Bucky asked, hoping to distract the man from whatever dark thoughts clouded his mind. The other man did actually look up at Bucky and gave him a confused hmm?.

“Well, we never got a chance to discuss the details of the arm on account of someone falling asleep, so maybe we should do that now,” Bucky said, trying to keep his voice light. Thankfully, Tony seemed to have perked up just a bit, grabbing onto this new conversation topic like a lifeline.

“Hey, I was perfectly good and ready for a serious science fest. But someone took so damn long with my sandwich that I had no choice but to take a nap.”

“Sorry, definitely my bad, my sandwich-making skills obviously need work. Hydra’s education is really lacking,” Bucky tried a smile to go with his joking response. “But now you’re awake—”

“—And still sandwich-less!”

“—So I thought it’d be great to go over those details you promised.”

Tony pulled particularly hard on a piece of metal suddenly and Bucky suppressed his flinch entirely this time, even though it hurt like hell. As much as he enjoyed having Tony fussing over him, he realized it wasn’t fair to make the man feel guilty on his behalf.

To distract himself from the pain though, he asked instead “So based on the schematics, it looks like you went with a similar design as the old arm, right?” 

Tony nodded and took a second to grab some kind of bottle from the tray. “This is gonna sting, sorry,” he said before applying the liquid straight to the scarred flash. Definitely antiseptic, if the smell was anything to go by. Obviously trying to distract Bucky too, Tony went on. “Even though it physically pains me to say anything good about Hydra, the old arm had a good basic underlying design, although obviously, I’m making a ton of improvements. Now, as far as how the arm looks, we have several more options here in the 21st century and we could go the synthetic skin route.”

Hmm, an arm that looked like a real one. Bucky contemplated the idea for a second. “Would you recommend it?”

“Well, it’ll look real enough, but honestly, it kinda gives me the creeps. And you’ll still a metal base underneath, so your arm will never feel soft or pliant like real flesh. And, uh—” Tony seemed to hesitate for a moment, prompting Bucky to look at him. “I know we probably have very different tastes in aesthetics, but—”

Bucky suddenly had to stifle a laugh because— he couldn’t believe it, was Tony Stark actually blushing?

“Yes?” he prompted and yeah, that was definitely a blush across Tony's cheeks. 

“Just saying that the metal arm looked really cool,” the man mumbled and even though Bucky heard him perfectly well, he couldn’t help himself.

“Sorry, I didn’t get that. What did you say?”

Tony have him a mock glare. “The arm was awesome, okay? Even when we were still kinda hating each other, I still thought it was badass. If all my suits aren't a giant clue, it's obvious I have a thing— you know— for metal—” Tony stopped abruptly and looked to the ceiling with a groan. “Oh my god, I can’t believe I just said that. I’m starting to sound like Peter.” 

Bucky let out an amused chuckle. Honestly, after thinking it over, having his metal arm back would be less jarring than having something that looked like real flesh, but didn’t feel like it.

Besides, if this was the kind of reaction he could get out of Tony just by talking about the arm… Well, he decided keeping the metal arm for that alone sounded like a worthwhile investment. 

“Well, I appreciate the compliment, Tony. Between you and Peter, I didn’t realize my arm had this many admirers,” Bucky joked and thoroughly enjoyed the way Tony groaned again in embarrassment and still refused to meet his gaze. “Okay, I say we keep the old design. I’m used to it anyways.” He decided to take pity on Tony and change the subject. “Would it have the same level of strength?”

“Well, more, actually, unless you have a problem with it? Although, I mean, why have a metal arm if you can’t punch through walls and stop bullets with it, am I right?”

Bucky let out a genuine laugh at Tony’s cheeky tone, but he took a moment to think this over too. A part of him wished he could just have an ordinary prosthetic without any additional power, but in the end, could he ever really just be normal? The rest of him was still super powered and maybe this time around, he could use the extra strength of the metal arm to do good. To protect instead of hurt.

He felt the Soldier stir within him and suddenly his mind was overtaken with an image of some faceless Hydra agent, barging into the room and attacking Tony, grabbing him around the neck, putting a gun to his head. Then everything morphed into Bucky tearing Tony away, putting himself between Tony and the threat, and then beating that nameless agent senseless with the metal arm, over and over and over, waves of vicious satisfaction rolling through him at every broken bone he felt beneath his fist. He was stepping over the dead body now and pushing Tony against the wall, running that metal hand gently over Tony’s body, over and over and over, to make sure he wasn’t hurt, to make sure his solnishko was all in one piece, before trailing possessive kisses down his neck, loving the moan that escaped Tony as the metal hand trailed lower—

Bucky physically shuddered at the taste of lust mixed with violence on his tongue, and he had clench his eyes shut and take a few labored breaths to steel himself and push the Soldier back. 

“You okay?” Tony obviously noticed his suddenly tense posture and shortness of breath. “Dammit, I’m hurting you, aren’t I? That’s it, I’m calling Dr. Cho, she’s—”

“No, Tony, it’s fine!” Bucky stopped the man from reaching for the phone by grabbing Tony’s left wrist. His fingers felt Tony’s pulse spike beneath them at the touch and this time, he had to fight back his own desire to just pull Tony flush against him.“I’m fine, just, uh— just had a bit of a flashback.”

Crap, wrong thing to say because now Tony looked even guiltier. Bucky tried to placate him, finally forcing himself to let go of the man. “It’s not a big deal, really. Traumatized Hydra assassin here, remember? I lose track of my thoughts sometimes, it’s part of the package.”

After a brief moment of scrutinizing Bucky, Tony let out a defeated sigh and seemed to have acquiesced. “Fine, fine. But I’m serious. Let me know if this gets bad. I don’t want to sit here torturing you.”

“I will, Tony, and you’re doing great. Dr. Stark has very gentle hands,” Bucky tried to give him his own cheeky smile, which prompted Tony to just roll his eyes at him and go back to his work. 

With Tony’s attention back on his shoulder, Bucky mentally groaned. What the hell did the Soldier even want from him? Bucky already said he was going to keep the metal arm! There was no need to throw vivid imagery at him (fuck, way too vivid) to prove a point.

In the end, he told Tony to keep the enhanced strength and the other man gave him a satisfied smile. “See, I knew we’d be on the same page about that. Good thing too,” Tony cleared his throat, “because I already got the material for it. I’m planning to make this bad boy out of vibranium.”

That sounded familiar. “Wait— T’Challa’s country exports that, right? I remember the King talking about it briefly.”

“Yup, the few mines of vibranium out there are all in Wakanda, so they have exclusive rights. And believe me, they charge through the nose for it—”

“Tony, you really didn’t have to—”

“Hey,” Tony stopped his protest with a gentle shove, “none of that now. T’Challa and I worked out a deal. I gave him a, uh— a piece of vibranium back that I had lying around and in return he gave me just enough raw vibranium for your arm. Although, to be honest,” Tony leaned over and gave Bucky a wink, “I think he just did it because he likes you. That kitty cat has a soft spot for you, super soldier.”

“T’Challa is a great man,” Bucky agreed with a smile, “I owe him a lot for his help. So if it’s vibranium, that means it’ll be just as heavy as the old one, right?”

That was one of the things Bucky didn’t miss at all - having that chunk of metal always throwing him off-balance, pulling painfully on his scarred flesh. He supposed he could manage though. 

Tony’s excited tone pulled Bucky out of that train of thought. “Here’s where Hydra’s crap science has nothing on 21st century Tony Stark science! To you, the arm is going to feel no heavier than your real one.”

Bucky had to turn to look at Tony with disbelief. “How is that even possible?” Tony’s answering grin and the warmth in his eyes made Bucky feel like he was going to melt inside. 

“Magic, James. And by magic, I of course mean pure, unadultared, badass science. So, the way it works…”

Tony’s voice was downright giddy as he explained something about nanotechnology and rebuilding the wiring between the arm and the sensory and motor neurons, but then he stopped suddenly in a middle of a sentence and awkwardly cleared his throat. 

“I, uh— whoops, got a little carried away there.” Bucky saw the man shrug in his peripheral. “Sorry, I know no one wants a boring science lecture to go with their cool tech.” 

The abrupt change in Tony’s demeanor made Bucky’s heart clench and his thoughts were immediately back to all the things the Colonel had told him.

How many times was Tony just as excited to explain some amazing feat of science only to have someone dismiss him or ignore him? Or worse, tell him that no one had time for his boring science lectures? How many times did he pour his heart and soul into some new creation only to have someone take it without even a thanks, Tony and then later tell him they found it lacking? 

Bucky decided he was not making the same mistakes as the other Avengers.

“Well, it’s my arm, right?”

Tony nodded, a bit confused. “Pretty sure it is.”

“Then I should know how it’s designed and built. And maybe I won’t understand every part of it, but that’s okay.” He made sure to turn his head just enough to catch Tony’s gaze. “So tell me everything.”

The touch of surprise on Tony’s face and the small, genuine smile that followed made Bucky feel like he was bathed in sunlight. 

***

Bucky tried to hold onto that smile for as long as he could, but then pleading eyes, oh god, Tony’s eyes, blood against the snow, a shuddering final breath overtook it and he was tasting nothing but guilt once again. He had no right to even think about Tony, not after— not after what he did. A new memory kept replaying in his head over and over now, no BARF system required, and Bucky felt like he was drowning in it. 

He took a deep breath and thought about whether he should get into the shower after all, but a knock on the door stopped that train of thought. 

For a moment, he wanted to ignore it, but then he heard Tony’s “It’s me, James. You’re late for our dinner date,” and he knew that he couldn’t reject the man, even if he wanted to. So he opened the door and tried to give Tony a semblance of a smile.

“I’m not sure I’ll be good company tonight,” Bucky said as he walked back to the bed and sat on the edge. “Not really feeling well after today’s session.”

God, this was harder than he thought. He could barely even look at Tony right now. Because when he let himself see those warm brown eyes, the planes of Tony’s face, it all morphed into someone else, someone who looked just like him and—

No, he wouldn’t let himself think about it.

“Yeah, about that…” Tony grimaced and leaned against the door frame. “I’ve been looking over the latest results and it does seem like your progress plateaued a bit. Also, you watched today’s memory way more than you should have. Fatima is going to have your head for that. And I— well, all I see on my side is ‘Soldier Mission memory #21”, so I don’t know what it is, but the readings on it haven’t shown improvement at all. For some reason, the disassociation modifications aren’t working.”

Bucky felt his heart rate spike. No, no, no. He didn’t want to think about this, but that memory— 

Guilt, guilt, guilt, until he was drowning in it as the blood splattered against the snow.

“Now, one thing we can try is to have someone present in the room with you. Having another presence there grounds you further in this reality and separates you from the memory. Either Fatima or I could probably go in there with you—”

“No!” Bucky didn’t even realize he shouted his protest until his own voice echoed back in his ears. Clearly, he was giving Tony a terrified look because the other man tried to appear placating.

“I know it’s bad, James, these memories are awful. But whatever it is, neither one of us are going to judge you—”

“No, you can’t be in there with me.”

“James, you viewed that same memory dozens of times and the results haven’t budged, so our current strategy obviously isn’t working. It doesn’t matter what it is, I promise I—”

“It’s your parents, okay?” Bucky’s voice broke on something that resembled a sob and he hunched in on himself, clenching his hand in his hair. “It’s the memory of me murdering your parents,” he forced himself to say, even if his voice was no more than a whisper.

Guilt, guilt, guilt, nothing but guilt as he stood on that dark road and hated every part of himself.

God, he wanted to cry because Tony didn’t say anything for a few moments and Bucky was sure that if he looked up at the man, he’d see hate in his eyes. He couldn’t face that, not after knowing how warm and caring those eyes could be. 

He didn’t look up, but he did hear Tony let out a long, measured breath after a minute of silence.

“Well,” the man’s voice seemed calm, but Bucky could hear the undercurrent of tension, “maybe it’s finally time for both of us to face that memory then.” 

He forced himself to meet Tony’s gaze and all he saw was a pair of terrified, but resolute brown eyes looking back at him.

Chapter Text

The only thing that Tony wanted was a goddamn drink. God, he could already taste it, the smooth burn of hard liquor running down his throat, warming him up from the inside out. Fucking tea had nothing on the sweet taste of whiskey on his tongue.

He saw his right hand shake against the surface of his work table, as if trying to reach out for some phantom glass, and he had to clench his fist shut. 

No. As much as every fucking part of him wanted a drink right now, he couldn’t— he wouldn’t

What he told James down in medical weeks ago was true - Tony Stark was a damn alcoholic, but one who actually managed to stay off the liquor for several years, trying so desperately to be better for his newfound family. 

What he kept to himself however was the fact that Tony Stark also had quite a bit of a fall from the proverbial wagon.

Roughly one year ago. 

Serves me right for getting massively drunk while I was hopped up on a pharmacy’s worth of painkillers after getting my chest caved in, huh?

And now, even though he desperately wanted something to dull the fear inside him, he couldn’t let himself fall again.

Because all he had to do was think back to the devastated look in Rhodey’s eyes as the man watched his best friend lie in a hospital bed for the second time in days

He just had to think back to the quiver in Vision’s voice as the android told him I'm very glad I found you when I did, sir. God, he called him— no, fuck, don’t think about JARVIS, not right now. 

He had to think back to Peter’s heartbroken tears. That poor kid who already lost so much— his parents, his uncle— realizing he almost lost someone else. Crying for Tony even though he barely even knew him back then. As if Tony Stark, monumental failure of the year, was something worth crying about. 

No, the need for alcohol paled in comparison to the pain of the people he loved. He’d always be a reckless idiot, he knew that, but alcohol didn’t help save the world or rescue innocent people. All it ever did was selfishly dull his own pain. 

But the temptation was overwhelming. Because even the mere thought of facing the memory of his parents left him fucking terrified and physically shaking, desperately wanting something to make that fear go away.

But they didn't have a choice and there was no more time left.

***

“No! Tony, I can’t— I can’t ask you to go in there with me! There’s got to be another way. I’ll— I’ll keep watching the memory until it all works, I don’t care—”

Tony ran a shaking hand through his hair. “If it hasn’t worked yet, it doesn’t matter how many times you watch it. You need something else to ground you—”

“Well, what about Dr. Vance? Or Rhodes? It doesn’t have to be you!”

Oh god, Fatima. Tony felt his stomach suddenly drop. How did he not realize this sooner?

“Fuck. No, no, no,” he muttered to himself, suddenly on the verge of panic, as he paced back and forth in front of James, who was still sitting on the edge of the bed, frightened and tense. “No one else knows about my parents. Rhodey’s the only one who knows, but he’s at the Summit. He’s on the other side of the world, he’ll be gone for days. Fuck, and we can’t let— If Fatima finds out that you— that you were involved in my parents’ death—” Tony’s pacing suddenly stopped. “She'll petition to have you transferred out of my care.”

Tony saw all the blood drain out of James’ face. “What— but why, I don’t understand— you said we could trust her!” 

“We can!” Tony realized he was shouting and he pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes to stave off the panic. Fuck, how did this night devolve into disaster so quickly? How did he miss this? “Think about it, James. What psychiatrist in their right mind would let me be in charge of you? I have a conflict of interest, I have every reason to— to take advantage of this situation, to hurt you, to—”

“But you’re not!” James let out a shuddering breath, those pale blue eyes pleading with Tony. “You’re the only reason I even have this chance to get better. You’re the one putting my life back together…” The last words were barely a whisper.

“She won’t see it that way.”

Fuck, how could Tony have overlooked this? He had been so focused on ignoring everything that happened with his parents, just so he and James could both have the chance to finally move on from that awful night, that he didn’t think this whole therapy thing through. Maybe a part of him just hoped that James would work through the memory like the rest of the others. Just like Tony, Fatima didn’t normally have access to the actual memories and once it was disassociated, no one would care to take a second look.

But now, with James unable to overcome this one on his own— she was due back early tomorrow morning. She would demand answers. In her eyes, it would be necessary to know what the memory was to figure out a way to get past it. And then—

She would do what was best for her patient, for James, and get him far away from Tony.

God, Tony was just the fuck-up of the year, wasn’t he? How could he possibly think that he’d be the right person to do any of this? He kept messing this up, again and again. Maybe it would be better if someone else took care of James—

“Tony, no, please! You— you can’t mean that…”

Fuck, did he say that last part out loud?

By the heart-stricken look on the other man’s face, it appeared that yes, he did. 

James finally stood up and carefully approached Tony, although Tony wasn’t sure who was the frightened animal in this particular scenario, James or himself.

“You can’t let them take me away— where would I even—”

“You’d become a ward of the state, possibly under Fatima’s care, until you’re well enough to have your full citizenship back,” Tony swallowed against his achingly dry throat. “Same as now, more or less. Only— without me in the picture.”

James shook his head desperately. “No— No! I’ll run! I’ll disappear off the face of the Earth if I have to—” 

“No, James, come on, this is your one chance at getting your life back—”

“That I only have because of you!”

“I’ve been fucking this up every step of the way,” Tony countered, sudden clarity descending upon him. Having those words said aloud hurt like hell, but they were true. Even though James kept shaking his head, trying to protest, Tony just continued. “I lost my temper with you during our very first session. I— I took you to goddamn Manhattan without proper security. Fuck, the whole Soldier debacle. And then when we started the therapy, I let you run yourself into the ground. Even now, the one memory that’s holding you back is—” Tony couldn’t say it aloud again. Instead, he just took another shuddering breath. “Everything I do, I just— I’m hurting you, James.” 

He watched as the other man hesitantly stepped even closer before slowly reaching out and curling his hand around the junction of Tony’s neck and shoulder. He felt the hand give him a gentle squeeze before James closed the distance between them and dropped his forehead to Tony’s.

“Tony… How can you not know that you’re the only thing keeping me together half the time?” the man whispered and then let out a watery laugh, looking away. God, were those tears in his eyes? “Do you know that Dr. Vance keeps saying that the Soldier is a part of me? Well, I can feel him right now and that part of me wants to tear the whole world apart at thought of leaving here… Of leaving you. I’m no saint either. I keep hurting you. I keep fucking up too. So maybe— maybe we can just be broken fuck-ups together? But please, Tony,” James clenched his eyes shut and with the man this close, Tony was able to see as one single tear rolled down his pale cheek. “Please don’t let them take me away from you.” 

God, how selfish was it of Tony to want James all to himself too? What did that say about him? Fatima would be right to remove James, for his own good, because Tony was nothing more than a broken, miserable failure who—

But then those blue eyes turned to him, begging him, and he knew he would never be strong enough to do the right thing. James was his responsibility, James was his—

“Okay, okay,” Tony nodded, grabbing onto the man’s right wrist and giving it a squeeze. “Then we go back to the original plan. I view the memory with you until we hit disassociation.” 

“But— your parents—”

“I know, but there’s no time. We don’t have a choice. It’ll be fine. I’ll— I can handle it.” He nodded again, trying to convince himself. “We’ll get through the memory and no one will ever have to know about this. Okay? That whole damn night… It’ll just stay between the two of us.”

James gave him a shaky nod, hope and gratitude warring with fear in his eyes, and for a moment, all Tony could think about was how close they still were. All he had to do was move just a little bit closer and James’ lips would be on his own—

No. Tony Stark was a monumental failure, but even he wasn’t this big of a fuck-up.

Instead, he pulled away from James’ touch entirely and took a few more steps back before asking the other man to give him a little bit of time before they had to face this hell together.

***

He was holed up in his lab for almost an hour now, trying to find enough strength to face the memory of his parents’ death.

Tony hadn’t seen that cold dark road since the bunker. He had the video, but all he did with it was hand it to Rhodey with a simple “That’s what happened in Siberia,” and Rhodey didn’t need much more explanation than that. Tony didn’t show the video to anyone else and he never bothered to watch it again. It only took that one time to sear all the details into his brain.

It was foolish really, convincing himself that his parents would never come up between him and James and that the two of them could just keep on pretending as if that night had never happened. Because now that memory was coming back to haunt them in the worst possible way. 

Facing that night terrified Tony, but somehow, the idea of losing James was even more overwhelming. God, how did that man manage to get into all the cracks of Tony’s broken heart already? 

Now that he had his little epiphany about his failures in all this, a part of Tony knew that the right thing to do would be to let James go, to let someone better take care of him. But all he had to do was think back to those pleading blue eyes and Tony knew that the only thing he was going to do was make another stupid decision in a long line of absolutely stupid fucking decisions. 

That was his nature. 

He took in an unsteady breath. He could do this. After all, wasn’t it time to finally face this? Decades have past since his parents died. Wasn’t it time to let go?

Acknowledging that as true didn’t leave Tony any less terrified. 

“Boss?” Friday’s voice was gentle, but it sounded like a gunshot in Tony’s ears and he physically flinched. 

With another shaky exhale, he finally responded. “I’m here, Fri.”

“It’s time, Boss. You asked me to remind the both of you? It’s— time for you to meet with Mr. Barnes. In the memory room?”

The memory room. That was what Friday had taken to calling it. Tony preferred the torture chamber himself, and right now it felt like the execution chamber more than anything else. 

But how was it time already? Didn’t he tell Friday to give him a full hour? He needed more time to be ready—

The desperation in his dad’s eyes as he begged the man to help his wife. His mom’s dying breath, an echo of Howard leaving her lips. 

He was wrong. He was never going to be ready to face that again. 

But in the end, he forced himself to stand up and walk out of the lab. There was no time. He had no other choice. One step, then another, until his legs carried him all the way down to the basement. 

James was already inside the small room, standing with his back to Tony in the middle of the empty space, surrounded only by the holo-projectors. Tony could see the BARF equipment was already around his forehead and temples. 

The man seemed to be ready, but when Tony walked over to stand by his side, he could see the hunch in those tense shoulders, the anxious movement of his hand, clench-and-release, clench-and-release, over and over. James’ whole body was shaking minutely with tension. 

So neither one of them was ready then.

Tony reached out and hesitantly placed his hand on James’ right shoulder, trying for some semblance of comfort. “We’ll be fine. Just— just a memory, that’s all. Water under the bridge, right?”

All he got in response was James clenching his eyes shut and giving him a shaky nod that wasn’t even remotely convincing. 

But they had no other choice and there was no time left to waste. Fatima would be back at the Compound in just a few short hours and Tony couldn’t even let himself think about the possibility of this failing. 

He let go, severing that small connection between him and James and asked Friday to activate the system, the words tasting like ashes on his tongue.  

The projectors whirred to life, indifferent to the tragedy they were about to recreate, and it only took seconds for the image of the dark, December road to coalesce around them. The power of the BARF system transformed James’ memory and gave both of them an outsider’s perspective to it, making it feel like he and James were standing on that road together, destined to witness the horror about to take place and helpless to stop it.

James was still and silent next to him, nothing but that coiled, desperate tension. He knew what was coming as well as Tony did, but it didn't stop both of them from flinching in unison when the Winter Soldier appeared out of nowhere, attacking the car on the road with effortless precision and strength. Tony felt himself struggle to pull in a shaky breath, the tell tale sign of an approaching panic attack, as he watched the car crash against the tree, his parents still inside. He tried to breathe though, in and out, in and out, because he could do this. They had no other choice.

The Winter Soldier dragged his father out of the car. Breathe, Tony, in and out.

“Help my wife… Please… Help… Sergeant Barnes?”

Tony was sure he heard a broken inhale that bordered on a sob from James at his side, but he didn’t dare to look away. He couldn’t look away, even if it felt like a piece of him died every time that metal fist connected with his father’s face. One, two, three— Tony stopped counting. His father’s skull was cracked now and there was blood painting the white snow crimson red beneath him. 

James clamped his hand over his mouth, stifling a whimper, and they both watched the Soldier drag Howard’s lifeless body back into the car, and shoving him back into the driver’s seat. Accident, they said. Howard killed when his head crashed into the steering wheel.

Tony remembered always hating his father for this. Because, until a year ago, the only thing he believed was that the accident had to be his father’s fault. Was Howard drunk when he drove? Or was he just careless on the icy winter road? Careless enough to cost Tony his parents. His mom.

But none of that mattered. He couldn’t even begin to think about that resentment— because now his mom— beautiful, graceful, brilliant Maria Stark— was terrified as she watched the Soldier reach toward her.

The hand— the flesh hand of the man next to him that was gentle and warm against his own neck only an hour ago, oh god— coiled around her throat and crushed

His broken “Mom, no, please…” coalesced with her final Howard… into one desperate, hopeless plea of mother and son. 

Tony realized there were tears in his eyes. 

The Soldier left his mother’s lifeless body where it was and strode over to the trunk of the car, finding the super soldier serum he was tasked with retrieving. He pointed a gun at the security camera, effortlessly made the shot, and then quickly disappeared into the darkness.

The dull grays, blacks, and whites of the memory whirled around them, as it restarted itself. The car was driving down the road and his parents were alive again, only to die once more. 

Tony vaguely remembered telling Friday to keep playing the memory until James’ results showed signs of disassociation. Obviously their first attempt failed.

The car crashed again, causing Tony to flinch once more, even though every second of this goddamn memory was already scorched into his very bones. 

His father was dragged onto the cold, snowy road. Snow that would soon be covered in spatters of blood. 

“Help my wife… Please…”

But I can’t— Dad, I can’t and there’s blood, there’s so much blood against the snow—

Howard Stark was dead again and his wife watched with abject fear as her killer approached. 

You killed mom. You killed mom. You killed mom!

It was the only thing running through his mind all of the sudden and Tony realized he was wrong. He couldn’t handle this. He couldn’t. Because as he watched his mother die again, there was suddenly so much grief and anger and hate inside him that he felt like there was nothing else left of him.

The world shifted again. Third time’s the charm. 

The car violently skidded off the road into the tree and Tony felt the first tear run down his face at the same time he heard a broken, powerless sob next to him. Tony took in two short, labored breaths and finally, he found the strength to look at James for the first time since the memories began. The hand against the man’s mouth was failing in its attempt to stifle the sobs that were nevertheless escaping him. James was crying. 

“I’m sorry, Tony,” he heard at the same time as his father begged “Help my wife… Please…”

“You killed them…” Tony realized he said out loud the words echoing in his head on an endless loop. His father’s skull shattered again under the force of the metal fist. “You killed Mom!”

“I know—” Another broken sob. “I killed them both… It’s all my fault.”

His father was dead in the driver’s seat, leaning against the steering wheel, lifeless eyes staring into nothing. 

“I never had—” Tony’s own voice was shaking, “I never had the chance to tell them I loved them again. I never had the chance—”

His own pained sob stopped him from finishing the rest of that. He never had the chance for anything. What more was there to say? 

“I’m so sorry, Tony, I’m sorry,” James kept repeating between his broken gasps for air, choking on his tears now. 

As Tony’s mother gasped for her own final breath, James slowly collapsed on his knees next to Tony, still stammering out a broken litany of apologies.

The world around them shifted. Howard and Maria Stark were alive again.

Watching the car crash into the tree for the fourth time, Tony thought that maybe he was actually dead. Maybe this was hell and his eternal punishment for all of his sins was to watch over and over as his parents died, while their killer sobbed on his knees at his feet. 

“Help my wife… Please… Help… Sergeant Barnes?”

Dad, I was so young. I wish I had the chance to understand you. To help you understand me. Maybe then we could have—

His father’s blood stood stark against the gleaming white snow.

No, mom, please. Not you. Anyone but you. I loved you so much and I was so fucking alone— I was always so alone after you were gone.

God, there was nothing inside him but misery and bitter loathing and he couldn’t even breathe around it. This was never going to end, he would be here forever, watching his mother die over and over. It felt like his own heart stopped, turning lifeless and cold under the sheer weight of that hate.

But as he saw his mother take that final breath for the fourth time, expecting that hopeless, tragic Howard…, it wasn’t his father’s name that left her lips. It was his. 

Tony…

It was odd, watching his mother die in front of him, while her tender, melodic voice echoed in his ears.

Tony… My dear, sweet boy.

Some part of him could almost picture her suddenly, alive and warm and happy. The crinkle at the corner of her eyes when she smiled. The depth of love as she looked at him with those warm brown eyes. Mom always smelled liked the roses from the garden and her touch was always gentle, a tender caress of Tony’s head or across his baby-soft cheeks when he was a little boy.

Maria Stark was dead in front of him, but Tony could almost feel her delicate hand against his face.

I love you so much, Tony. But it’s time for you to find peace.

“Mom,” he choked on his words. “Mom, no, please don’t leave me.” 

It’s time for you to let us go.

Her voice was always the one thing that soothed Tony to sleep when he was little. Sweet, tender lullabies as she rocked him to sleep in her arms, smelling of roses and love. 

My brave passerotto. I always knew that you would fly.

Tony clenched his eyes shut and inhaled a shuddering breath, feeling something inside him shift. He could still hear Maria’s singing and that soothing melody coalesced within him, pushing away the festering darkness and instead filling him with that sweet, tender scent of roses that carried with it his mother’s love. With another breath, that momentary haze of hatred cleared and he could feel his whole heart again, beating against his chest and reminding him of all the tenderness, affection, need he felt for James.

It’s time, cuore mio.

The broken, desperate “I’m sorry, Tony, I’m so sorry…” united with the echoes of Maria’s lullaby and Tony finally opened his eyes to look down at James, who was still on his knees. Ignoring the whirl of the images around them, Tony slowly lowered himself next to the man and reached out to take James’ face into his hands and tilt it up so he could see those heartbroken blue eyes. The trails of tears were wet against his palms. 

“I’m so sorry, Tony. I— I killed them both. I’m sorry.”

So much guilt and pain behind those eyes. So much suffering. They’ve both been through so much hell. 

Let go, Tony.

“I forgive you.”

James just shook his head, a broken "What? No, no— I don't deserve it—” escaping his lips, ending on a miserable, keening whimper.

So Tony just said it again. “Yes, you do, and I forgive you, James. I forgive you.”

“Tony, I took them from you—”

“I know. And I forgive you. I forgive you for Mom and Dad.” Each time, with each breath, it was easier to say.

In the memory surrounding them, Tony's parents were dying again, but he refused to look away from James.

“There were— there were so many others— I killed them all—” James’ face crumbled as he sobbed, “I killed a little girl— I couldn’t leave witnesses— and she was— she was so tiny—”

The rest of that confession was lost in helpless, inconsolable tears.

A part of Tony still knew that James was no less a victim in this horrible nightmare than his parents or that little girl or anyone else the Soldier killed. But by the desperate way James now clung to Tony’s left wrist and that heartbreaking hope in his eyes each time he heard Tony’s words, Tony realized that this was what the man needed.

Absolution.

“Maybe it’s not my place, but I forgive you for the rest of them too. Fuck, for everything. For Mom and Dad, for Siberia, for— for everything. I forgive you, James.” 

The memory restarted itself again and they both turned to witness it, but this time, they stayed kneeling next to each other and Tony's hands remained firm and sure against James’ tear soaked cheeks, as the other man still clung to his wrist like a lifeline. 

They both watched Howard and Maria Stark die for the sixth time. Desperate pleas for help. Metal against flesh, blood against snow. A final, dying breath.

It still hurt, like a deep ache in his belly, to watch his parents die. But instead of hatred and hell boiling inside him this time, only his mother’s voice and the feeling of James’ face against his hands stayed with him.

It’s time for you to find peace.

Images blurred again, but instead of the same dark road, all that appeared around them was the dimly lit room, as the holographic projectors quietly powered themselves down. 

James let out another helpless sob and Tony didn’t question his instincts. He just pulled James towards him and wrapped his arms around him, letting the man hide his face in his shoulder. He felt James clutch the back of his shirt in a desperate, unyielding grip as he wrapped his own arm around Tony. 

James’ whole body shook against him as broken sobs wrecked his whole frame, one after another. 

“It’s okay, just let it go. Just let go, James,” Tony whispered quietly as he gently took off the BARF equipment, pressed his face against the man’s temple, and slowly began to rock him. “It’s alright, you’re not alone anymore.”

A desperate inhale of air and then, for the first time in seventy years, James Barnes finally let himself weep.

As James clung to him harder, pressing himself closer and trembling as he cried, all Tony could do was hold him tighter and continue to whisper soothing, comforting nonsense. By the blurring of the room around him, he knew he was still crying too. He tried an inhale of his own, still barely able to breathe, and managed to let out a broken, shaky exhale before closing his eyes and letting the tears silently fall. 

Tony realized the last time he cried like this was— was when Rhodey found him drunk out of his mind back at the empty mansion, weeping in the dark corner of his father’s office. Rhodey took him into his arms back then too, and rocked him through the tears, whispering some soothing comfort into his ear as Tony bawled and let his grief overtake him.

“Shh, it’s alright. I’m here. Everything’s okay,” Tony murmured as he felt James’ body shudder with another sob. Tony desperately hoped that he was providing some sense of comfort to the man, the same way Rhodey did when Tony felt like his whole life shattered into pieces. Tony drew his own comfort from James, his warm, heavy weight against him, and he realized in that moment that his own heart was now so intertwined with the man in his arms, that it would kill him when he would be forced to let go. 

And he knew with certainty that someday he wouldn’t have a choice but to let James go. Not now, not yet. Not when James still needed him. But someday—

Those clever blue eyes, that soft teasing smile, that curiosity and wit… The gorgeous planes of that face and the angles of his body… Even that darkness inside James… None of it was Tony’s— Bucky Barnes will always belong to Steve Rogers, Tony, never forget that— and he knew someday he would have to let go.

But not right now. Because right now, James was still in his arms and he needed Tony’s comfort and reassurance. He still needed Tony. 

So Tony stayed on the floor of the dark room with James as the man’s quiet sobs and Tony’s litany of murmured comfort blended into a quiet echo around them. Two broken men, finally letting themselves have a chance to grieve for the pain they were forced to suffer. For the lives they never got a chance to live. 

Eventually, Tony felt the body in his arms slowly relax as the broken exhales became fewer and fewer. Without a conscious thought, Tony pressed his lips to James’ temple as he carded his hand through the man’s hair, trying to infuse some comfort and tenderness into his touch. 

“We’ll be alright. We’ll get through this, okay?” he whispered and felt the man give him a small, shaky nod. Tony pulled him in just a little bit tighter and he felt James do the same, that grip on the back of Tony’s shirt never losing its desperate strength.

Finally though, with a smaller, softer sob followed by a quiet sniffle, James slowly pulled away, although Tony’s hands were still around his shoulders and James’ own hand just moved its grip to the front of Tony’s shirt. The man’s red-rimmed, tired eyes looked at Tony, but it wasn’t the guilt and the pain playing across those blue eyes anymore. There was a softness to them now, as exhausted and as watery as it was.

Tony tried to smile, although he knew stray tears still escaped his own eyes. Gently, he moved his hands back to James’ face and tenderly wiped away the tears marring those cheeks. James let go of the shirt and instead took a hold of Tony’s left hand, turning his face into it and pressing a soft kiss into Tony's palm.

Tony swallowed back the roiling emotions inside him when he felt James’ lips against his skin, knowing this wasn’t the right time nor place. There would never be a right time or place, Tony. You’ll have to let him go.

“Everything will be alright, James…” Tony’s voice was gruff with tears and he cleared his throat before continuing. “But for now... just go back to your quarters… rest for as long as you need. I’ll take care of everything here. I promise no one will take you away.” Not yet. Not when you still need me. “And when you, uh—” Tony took another deep breath and was thankful it didn’t break on a sob this time, “when you’re ready to face the world again, come find me. I think we could both use some tea.”

James nodded against the hands still on his face and tried to say something, but Tony just shook his head.

“Later— we’ll talk later. Right now, we just— we both just need to rest for a bit. Okay?”

This time, James stayed silent, but his expression carried so much gratitude and affection behind it that Tony felt his heart skip a beat. He wasn’t sure what to do with any of it, but he knew that this didn’t truly belong to him, so he just tried to smile again and let his hands fall.

He watched as the man slowly made his way up, barely able to stand on his feet, and quietly headed out of the room. Before he crossed the threshold though, James turned around and mouthed a silent Thank you, Tony before turning around and leaving. 

Tony let himself sit in silence for a few minutes once he was alone. But finally, he had to know.

“Friday? How did that last memory go?”

“The results from Mr. Barnes after that sixth and final viewing of the memory indicate that all physiological responses to the memory are now within the acceptable parameters. The memory has been disassociated, Boss.”

Tony let out a long, weary breath. “Good, good… Friday, erase every record for this memory, except for the first three viewings from earlier today. Doctor the records to make the third viewing reflect the results of this final one. Mark it as disassociated.”

One stupid decision after another. Maybe this was why people didn’t trust him. Hard to trust the guy with an all-powerful AI who could manipulate any digital data at will.

But this was for James. This night would stay between him, James, and Friday. No one else.

“Erase any and all surveillance for this room after that third viewing and replace it with images and audio of an empty room. Back up the records for this memory on our private server, but then set up a bug on it in the BARF system. If anyone other than myself attempts to view the actual memory, erase it.”

He huffed a humorless laugh. “I mean, technology malfunctions all the time, right, Fri?”

“Only if we want it to, Boss. I’ve taken care of everything you asked. All of this— it will keep Mr. Barnes with us, right?”

“Yeah, baby girl. James isn’t going anywhere.”

Not until he chooses to leave.

Tony listened to Friday acknowledge that fact with a happy “I’m glad, Boss,” and then he let himself fall back onto the floor, feeling exhausted and empty inside.

Empty except for the echoes of his mother’s lullaby and the phantom touch of James’ lips against his palm. 

And as he stared at the dark ceiling, feeling the last of his tears run down his temples, he let himself say a final goodbye to Mom and Dad. He lay there alone and finally, for the first time in so many years, Tony Stark just let himself breathe.  

Chapter Text

“Come on, Peter, back on your feet! I know you can do better than that!” 

The kid just groaned, lying on the padded floor of the training room. “I'm too tired, Bucky,” he whined, but then raised his head just enough to glare at the man. “How is it that you manage to beat me so many times?” he asked, not bothering to hide the petulant tone. He dropped his head back. “You know, if I had my suit for hand-to-hand, I’d totally win all the time.”

Bucky huffed a laugh and walked over to Peter, extending his hand. “Yeah, and if I had my left arm, I’d probably do a little better too.”

Peter took the offered hand and used it to lift himself off the ground. “Yeah, that’s a fair point,” he conceded sheepishly, “but still, why do I have to fight without my suit and my web shooters?” 

“Because you won’t always have those. And you want to be a real Avenger someday, don’t you?” 

“More than anything!” 

“Then no more of this whining, kid," Bucky said, but then softened the words with a wink. He took a few steps back. “Now, come on, try to land a real punch this time!” 

Peter shook his head, laughing at Bucky’s teasing, and not wasting anymore time, lunged forward with renewed vigor. Bucky couldn’t help his own smile as he easily dodged the first punch, but then had to actually pay attention to dodge the second one. For all the whining, the kid really was getting better.

***

“So how is your therapy progressing, Mr. Barnes?”

Bucky shrugged and went back to looking over the recipe book in front of him. “Going as well as expected, I guess. More good days than bad for sure, and BARF is getting easier too. Can’t believe it’s been over a month already.” He looked up. “Oh, and please, just call me Bucky already.”

“Hmm, ‘Bucky’... I just find it such a strange nickname for someone named James Buchanan Barnes.”

“You can blame Stevie for it. Don’t remember when he came up with it, but it just— stuck, I guess. Not that you have any room to judge. Your name is the Vision.” 

The android smiled that small, peaceful smile of his. “Touché, Bucky.” 

Bucky let out an amused chuckle. “Okay, yeah, that does sound weird coming from you. Alright,” he tapped the book for emphasis, “what are we trying to make again?”

“A pear, chocolate, and walnut crumble.” 

After flipping through the pages, Bucky held the recipe book up to the android. “This one?”

The android confirmed with a simple nod, before heading over to the pantry to pick out the ingredients. Bucky examined the picture and gave a curious hum.

“That does look good actually. Do you— do you think Tony will like it too? I know he doesn’t have as big of a sweet tooth as me or the kids.” 

Vision was back at the counter, hands full with a bag of pears, flour, and sugar. “Oh, I am certain Tony will love it. He seems quite enamored with everything you make, if I’m not mistaken.” The android paused for a second and then looked at Bucky with a smile that, for Vision, looked downright mischievous. “Well, except for our first attempt at making crème brûlée.”

Bucky couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him. “Tony’s face was priceless. We handed him a custard that didn’t set—”

“—covered with sugar that was so burnt it was black.”

“Hey, in my defense, I didn’t know that torch had that much fire power!” 

“I just can’t believe Tony actually ate it. I know I’m still learning about ‘humor’ and ‘pranking’, but I thought we made it obvious we were only joking with him.”

“Nah, he knew we were kidding, but I think he saw it as a challenge. He just looked me straight in the eye with the most serious expression on his face,” Bucky recalled, still laughing, as he began pulling out the mixing bowls, “and just chugged the runny custard and then chewed his way through the burnt sugar.” 

Vision handed him the flour and sugar and began examining the recipe book himself. “Well, it certainly was entertaining to watch. Now thankfully, there are no torches involved in this one, so we may have another successful dessert on our hands. Let us see…”

He began reading the steps of the recipe out loud and Bucky followed along, first measuring out the flour, then the sugar, into the bowl in front of him. He really was hoping that Vision was right and they would end up with something delicious because it always gave him a thrill to come down to the lab and see the satisfied look on Tony’s face when he would taste something else that Bucky made for him.

***

The images flittered back and forth through Bucky’s mind, interwoven with delicate, shining strings of gold and he struggled to hang on to the images for very long. Was he dreaming?

No, Bucky Barnes didn’t dream. Not since he fell. 

There were no dreams now. Only memories. Flashes of blood, echoes of pained screams, shadows of cruel faces… Nothing but memories of death. 

But maybe these were memories too? These weren’t filled with the familiar cold though. No, the memories gently cascading through his mind now were warm and soft, full of light and sugar-sweet.

Bucky wanted to smile, but he realized he couldn’t move his lips. Couldn’t move any part of him, in fact. For a moment, he thought that maybe he needed to worry, but any sense of panic was suddenly soothed as the shimmering gold tendrils filled all the aching parts of his head and he sunk back into the comforting warmth.

***

“Say it, James.” 

Bucky raised his eyebrow at the engineer.

“Say it. Or I’m keeping it all to myself.”

“You’re gonna graft a third arm to yourself?”

“Hell yes! No one here appreciates this beautiful creation anyways. Besides,” Tony looked up from his work and gave Bucky a self-satisfied grin, “I would rock the three-arm look.” 

Bucky rested his chin on his hand, unable to help the smile that stretched across his own face. He wished he could see Tony’s eyes, but they were obscured by the goggles he was currently wearing.

“I’m sure you would look just swell. But I think you’re missing a very big downside to your plan.”

“And what would that be?”

“Extra arm means Ms. Potts and the Colonel would expect extra work from you.”

Tony made a disgusted noise and scrunched up his nose. “Ugh, wait, you’re right. Pepper would just expect three StarkPhone updates instead of two.” He shook his head. “Never mind, you can keep your arm. But I still want to hear you say it, James! It would please me.”

“Fine,” he acquiesced with his most put-upon whine, “it’s a beautiful work of art, Tony.”

“What was that? Sorry, must be going deaf in my old age.” 

The smug expression on Tony’s face would’ve come off as arrogant to anyone else, but Bucky knew better. “The arm is a magnificent work of art that should be in a museum and you’re the greatest genius of the 21st century. Maybe even the 22nd century. Did I miss anything?”

“Nah, I think we got everything covered,” the man waggled his eyebrows at him, which looked downright ridiculous with those goggles still on, and went back to whatever delicate work he was performing on the wiring of the arm. Said masterpiece was on the workbench between Tony and Bucky, and it looked essentially complete, although Bucky assumed there was still a lot of internal work to be done. Seeing it now, an actual arm made of metal, electronics, and whatever other pieces of tech Tony managed to cram in there— well, it still took Bucky’s breath away. The whole experience of getting to see Tony build the arm from scratch over the last several weeks had been exhilarating - to see all the parts, all these feats of engineering and science, come together in this one cohesive project.

Of course, the fact that it gave Bucky all the excuses he needed to spend as much time down here at the lab as possible was probably the best part of it. 

Tony leaned back finally, putting the delicate sharp tool in his hand down and letting himself enjoy a big stretch. He then pulled the goggles up over his hair and ran the back of his hand across his forehead in an attempt to wipe away some of the sweat (instead, he just managed to leave a streak of oil behind and Bucky marveled at just endearing he found the disheveled, exhausted, oil-streaked mess in front of him). 

“God, this wiring is giving me a headache. It’s one thing to rig up all the connections for my suits, but to get a cybernetic prosthetic hooked up to an actual human brain—” Tony reached out to run his hand over the metallic edge that would connect to Bucky’s shoulder. “It’s complicated as hell, but it’s also so damn fascinating.” Here Tony’s eyes lit up with that “science is amazing” sparkle that Bucky loved so much. “I know your old arm had some ability to sense heat, pressure, texture— really rudimentary though. But this baby’s sensory input capabilities will be so much more sophisticated and refined, that they will make all those piece of shit Hydra engineers weep in envy as they rot in hell.”

Bucky shook his head in exasperation and wondered whether it was him or the Soldier who most appreciated Tony’s very vocal vehemence against Hydra on his behalf. 

He decided it was probably both. 

“So when do you think it’ll be ready?”

Tony tapped his fingers against his chip in contemplation. “I’d say— two weeks?”

Wait. Bucky must not have heard that right. “Two weeks? But that’s so— that’s so soon!” 

“You said it yourself, super soldier. I’m the greatest genius of the 21st century. Plus…” Tony drew the word out and his expression turned decidedly sheepish, “I may have also been slacking on some of my other work. So if Pep goes after me for not reading the Asia contracts yet, I’m telling her it’s all your fault. On the plus side, we can schedule surgery as soon as I’m done!”

Bucky hesitated for a moment. “…You’re including some sort of kill switch in it, right?”

Tony blinked owlishly at him. “What do we need a kill switch for?”

“Tony, there’s no way I’d be done with my therapy in two weeks! The triggers— they’re still going to be a problem!”

“Aw, come on, James, you’re in one of the safest places on Earth. What could possibly happen?”

“Do you want that list alphabetically or in the order of stupid involved?”

Instead of answering that, Tony just gave him his best-looking pout. “But this is a work of art, James! We can’t ruin art with things like kill switches!” 

Despite the fact that a pouting Tony would have convinced Bucky of just about anything else, he was not going to budge on this.

“Ms. Friday, could you see if Colonel Rhodes—” he ignored Tony’s indignantHey!” and continued “—is available to come down to the lab for a moment? Tell him Tony is about to make a questionable decision, please.”

Friday chirped a happy “Will do!” before Tony had a chance to protest, so the man just glared at Bucky instead.  

“Oh, that’s just not fair! Bringing Rhodey Bear into this is cheating!”

“I play to win, Tony.” 

It only took a few minutes before the Colonel was making his way through the lab. He announced himself with a “Is Tony Stank making questionable decisions down here?”

Tony groaned as Rhodes appeared around the corner. “Dammit, I was hoping you forgot about that!” 

“Like I’d ever forget about that. That little nugget was the highlight of what was an otherwise hellish week of physio,” Rhodes responded and came over to stand next to Bucky, arms crossed and facing Tony. “Alright, what is he up to now?”

“Tony says the arm will be done in two weeks and—” Tony’s “Tattletale!” was also ignored “—and he refuses to put in a kill switch, which is absolutely necessary, since, as you know, my therapy won’t be done in two weeks.” 

Both Rhodes and Bucky turned to look at Tony, whose eyes just widened and he jumped off his stool and pointed an accusing finger at them. “Oh no, no— you two even have the same expression on your faces right now! No, no, no, we’re not having this ‘team up on Tony to make him do the responsible thing’ deal going on!” 

“Sorry, Tones. Either you build safety features into the arm that lets Barnes, Friday and myself disable it… or the man doesn’t get an arm.”

Bucky nodded along. “You heard the Colonel. I don’t get an arm. And it’s a really nice arm, Tony.” That last part was accompanied with Bucky’s best set of pleading eyes. 

Tony just glared at them. “Hate you. Hate you both. Why do I even keep the two of you around?”

“He cooks you food,” Rhodes pointed at Bucky, who mirrored his gesture.

“And the Colonel deals with all the politicians you hate.” 

After a few moments of giving them accusing glares and drumming his fingers against his thigh, Tony finally acquiesced. “Fine, fine. But as soon as Fatima and I sign off on the triggers, I’m getting rid of any and all kill switches, understood?” Tony’s expression turned decidedly more serious. “This arm is a damn prosthetic,” he muttered quietly, refusing to look at them now, “it wasn’t meant to be some kind of a goddamn leash.”

Those quietly spoken words suddenly put Tony’s reticence in a completely different light and Bucky couldn’t help the swell of affection in his chest. Even now, however misguided the sentiment may have been, Tony was still trying to take care of him, to protect him.

It made him realize, not for the first time, just how lucky he was to have this man in his life now.

***

Tony…

These memories, filled with soft smiles, teasing words, and warm brown eyes, were definitely Bucky’s favorite, even if he couldn’t hang on to them for very long. The tendrils of gold inside his head made him feel like he was floating, but there was no fear and no pain, so he thought back to Tony and let himself sink again into the inviting warmth of his memories.

***

“Are you sure we don’t have any other options?”

“I ran through your results backwards and forwards. Initially, I thought we’d have something that would work, but apparently your resistance to drugs is even stronger than Cap’s—” Tony stumbled on the word, but continued a second later as if it didn’t happen. “And, uh— I’ve looked into every form of anesthesia available to 21st century science. None of it will put you out.”

Bucky noticed a long time ago that Tony almost exclusively referred to Steve as “Rogers,” but sometimes, when Tony was too focused on something else, he would let a “Cap” slip and it always broke Bucky’s heart. Because even now, after everything that happened, there was still so much fondness and nostalgia left behind that nickname. Despite everything, it was obvious that Tony used to love Steve (all of the Avengers, really), probably still did, and that just made all those past betrayals even more unforgivable.

Tony heaved a sigh next to him and threw a few more popcorn kernels into his mouth. They were on the couch in the common room for a two-person movie night (the rest of the Avengers proved to be elusive and the kids were with their respective families), but they got so side-tracked with the conversation that they haven’t even had the chance to pick out a film.

“Can’t I just stay awake during the surgery? I'm sure I can handle it.”

Tony’s lips thinned into an unhappy grimace. “No and no. And that’s not me trying to say you’re a wimp or anything. But the surgery for your arm is going to take 20 hours, James. It’ll be excruciating.” Again, there was that unconscious nervous gesture of Tony’s hand running across his chest. “I know a thing or two about being operated on without anesthetic,” he said quietly, staring off into the distance, “so there’s no way in hell I’m gonna sit there and torture you for 20 hours.” 

Before Bucky could say anything, Tony shook himself out of that sudden dark moment and continued in his normal tone. “Not to mention, your assassin alter ego might not react positively to all that pain. Imagine if he came out to play just as we’re trying to attach your arm.”

“Fair point,” Bucky conceded and let out a sigh of his own. “So no other options then?”

“Well, we can postpone. I’ll keep looking into other drugs, other methods of putting you out. But I’m not gonna lie, there’s zero guarantee that we’ll find something.” 

Dammit. Bucky really wanted his arm already. “So then what you’re telling me,” he said as he stole a few popcorn pieces from the bowl in Tony’s lap, “is that the only thing we’re left with is magic?”

As expected, Tony's reaction was the usual exaggerated expression of disgust (although honestly, the way Tony scrunched up his nose like that was cute more than anything else). “I know, I hate myself for even considering it. But yeah, at this point, science is failing us.” The man dramatically clutched at his heart. “Oh god, that hurt to say. I think— I think my heart just broke.” 

Bucky felt a little better in the face of Tony’s theatrics, but everything about this still left him apprehensive. “I just— the thought of someone rooting around in my head like that... I’m sure you understand why I’m reluctant?”

Tony gave him a more solemn nod. “I know it’s not ideal. All I can tell you is that I trust Strange, otherwise I wouldn’t even be suggesting this. He’s, uh— well, he can be a bit of an arrogant dick,” Tony admitted with a laugh, “Rhodey describes him as having all of my worst qualities without any of my charm to make up for them, but despite that, he’s actually a decent guy. And I do trust him. For what it’s worth, I, uh—” Tony hesitated for a moment, “I actually let him dig around in my own head once.” 

Bucky’s curiosity was peaked. “What? Why?” He watched as Tony drummed his fingers nervously against the bowl of popcorn.

“A few years back— before all of this,” Tony gestured vaguely between himself and Bucky, “during the Ultron thing, I, uh— I had someone fuck with my head using magic and it, uh— it had some long-lasting effects on me.”

Bucky tensed. “What do you mean ‘long-lasting effects’?”

“Night terrors,” the man replied simply and then scoffed. “Because I didn’t have enough of those already, right?”

The shadow that crossed Tony’s eyes as he said those words— part fear, part pain, and part resignation— made Bucky’s jaw clench in anger. He knew that this wasn’t the right time, but he was definitely going to get more details on this later - the who, the what, and the why. For informational purposes of course.

Not because the Soldier was putting together a literal hit list in his head, starting with anyone who dared lay a hand on his clever Tony Stark

Bucky certainly wasn’t planning on killing anyone, but he supposed there was no harm in keeping a list of everyone who should stay the hell away from Tony. So he just left the Soldier to plot his revenge and focused his attention back on the other man.

“Anyways, the topic came up at some point and in an uncharacteristically generous gesture, Strange suggested that the night terrors could be due to residual magic and offered to look inside my head in an attempt to remove it.”

“Was he able to help?”

“No, he wasn’t… but not because he didn’t know what he was doing!” Tony was quick to clarify. “It’s just— well, there was no magic left in my head. It was just my dumb, broken brain doing what dumb, broken brains do.” Tony gave a careless what can you do? shrug, but Bucky could see that this topic weighted heavily on the man. Yeah, he was decidedly okay with the Soldier putting whoever did this to Tony right at the top of that hit list.

Tony shook off these dark thoughts too however and turned his body a bit to face Bucky more fully. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t easy, letting Strange use his magic mumbo jumbo powers on me, given that I already had someone with magical powers fuck with my head before. But I trusted him and I can only tell you that I trust him now to keep you safe too. For what it’s worth.”

It was worth a whole lot, Bucky had to admit. Tony trusted this man and Bucky trusted Tony. The math was pretty simple.

“So he would use these magical powers of his to keep me under?”

“More or less. He compared it to anesthesia, but apparently a lot more pleasant. The spell, or whatever— god, I hate myself for even saying the word— is supposed to put your mind in a ‘pleasant, calming dream state that would prevent the patient from experiencing all external stimuli’,” Tony was obviously mimicking Steven Strange.

“What about the Soldier?”

“Strange is aware and said it shouldn’t be a problem. I wish I had more details, but ya know— fuckin’ magic. No one ever wants to give me an explanation of how it all works.” 

Well, what other choice did they have? And if Tony trusted this man… But still, going under left Bucky apprehensive for more reasons than one.

“I just— I haven’t been fully knocked out like that since cryo in Wakanda,” he grimaced, trying to find a way to explain. “The Soldier— I don’t think he ever actually sleeps. Even when I’m sleeping, there’s always some part of him— of me— that’s alert, that can bring me back to full awareness in seconds. And being knocked out— to be unaware of my surroundings— I’m just scared that—”

That I’ll wake up back in Hydra’s hands and all of this was nothing but a cruel dream. 

Tony seemed to have picked up on what Bucky couldn’t voice (of course he did, somehow Tony always knew what Bucky needed) and the man’s smile turned softer.

“James, listen. I’ll be there the whole time. The entire 20 hours, running the whole damn show. Strange will be there too. Hell, Rhodey is probably going to mother hen from a distance somehow. And Peter and Harley will demand updates from Friday every fifteen minutes because apparently you’re their new favorite person now,” Tony teased and rolled his eyes in good humor, but then his tone settled into that reassuring softness again. “And when you wake up, the first thing you’re gonna see is my exhausted, sleep-deprived face.” The teasing smile was back. “I’ll even hold your hand, it’ll be just like in the movies!”  

Bucky couldn’t help his huff of laughter. Between the uncertainly and the apprehension and the magic, he was still scared, but none of that mattered because above all else, he trusted Tony.

***

Magic…

The word seemed relevant somehow, but try as he might, Bucky couldn’t hang on to it for very long. Everything still shimmered around him, inside him, like a protective sea of gold that kept the darkness at bay. And as long as the darkness and the cold couldn’t touch him, he knew he was safe and there was nothing to worry about.  

***

Tony was seated on the bed, cross-legged, sipping at his mug of herbal tea. Bucky leaned against the headboard, facing Tony, and nursed his own cup. There was a tray of food between them, but for now, it was left untouched. 

They didn’t say much to each other, still raw from the excruciating (cathartic, liberating, freeing) experience last night, but Bucky drew strength from Tony’s presence and hoped that the other man felt the same way. 

His mind flashed back to the session. He knew the whole thing must have only taken minutes and they couldn’t have been in that room for more than a half an hour, but it felt like eternity. 

Shame, guilt, so much self-loathing… and then all of that overcome by gratitude, absolution, and relief. Thinking back to Howard and Maria’s death now felt less painful somehow. It still hurt, but the guilt no longer threatened to rip him apart from the inside out. A part of Bucky knew it was because the BARF system did its job and altered the actual physical responses of his brain to the memory. But he was also certain that, more than anything else, it was Tony who shifted everything inside him.

I forgive you, James. 

Bucky knew better than anyone that words wielded immense power. The triggers, those simple unassuming words, imprisoned and enslaved him for decades.

And now, four simple words gave him absolution. Freedom. Peace.

Last night didn’t fix everything, far from it, but Bucky couldn’t deny that things felt different somehow. Lighter. More hopeful. 

Forgiveness— true forgiveness from someone who had a right to give it— was a kindness and a mercy that Bucky never believed he deserved.

But Tony believed him worthy. And that would have to be enough. 

And now sitting here, with the man so close to him (just as exhausted and drained as he was, but still smiling whenever their gazes met), there was so much undeniable affection and tenderness inside Bucky that it felt like his heart would break into a million pieces because it wasn’t big enough to hold all of it in. He honestly didn’t think he still had the capacity to feel something so good so strongly.

Thinking back to his breakdown after the memories were over, Bucky thought he’d feel ashamed, spending god knows how long crying in Tony’s arms. Maybe some form of pride would rankle at being so vulnerable and so weak. But all he really felt with Tony in that desperate moment of emotional release was safety.

It was strange that Tony— fragile, vulnerable, perfectly human Tony—who Bucky felt fiercely protective over, was the one making the super soldier feel safe. But he supposed it wasn’t about physical strength in that moment.

No, it was about the fact that he knew, with complete certainty, that Tony wouldn’t judge him, that he wouldn’t hold that moment of vulnerability against him, and that it was safe to let go. It was safe to grieve and let himself feel the loss of everything that was taken away from him all those years ago.

But looking at the man in front of him now, Bucky knew that what he gained was quickly overshadowing anything that he may have lost.

***

Tony… His Tony…

Bucky hoped the shimmering golden sea around him would keep bringing more memories like this one and when his mind sank into the warmth again, he wasn’t disappointed. 

Dodging the curious claw from an eager Dum-E with a “We’ll play later, buddy,”  Bucky made his way through the lab, carrying a plate of pastries in his right hand and a cup of coffee in the left, the sheen of the metal arm reflecting the bright blue lights of the holograms scattered around the lab.

Wait, that wasn’t right. Bucky was certain he wouldn’t have a memory of himself in the lab with the metal arm…

Tony had his back to him, engrossed in soldering some delicate part of the Iron Man boot. Bucky announced his presence by placing the plate and the mug on one of the desks behind Tony with a soft clank and the engineer acknowledged him with a “That better be my coffee, babe.” 

And Tony definitely never called him that before either.

Bucky approached Tony and without any hesitation, wrapped his arms around the man from behind, pulling him flush against his chest. With a soft press of lips against the man’s neck, Bucky murmured a teasing “I think the coffee can wait, don’t you?”

This wasn’t a memory, Bucky realized. No… This— this was a fantasy. Deciding that was just as good, he let his mind fully immerse itself in the images before him.

“I know what you’re trying to do, James, but I seriously do have work,” Tony said, but Bucky also noticed that the man made no attempts to pull away from his touch. He pressed more soft butterfly kisses up and down the exposed neck and shoulder and his hands quickly found their way under Tony’s thin shirt, fingers skirting gently against the warm skin of the man’s stomach.

As he suspected, as soon as Tony felt the cool metal of his left hand against his skin, the engineer abandoned whatever tool he was holding and dropped his head back onto Bucky’s shoulder with a low moan.

“Babe, seriously, there’s work—” he still tried to protest, but all Bucky had to do was let his metal hand trail just a little bit lower. He ran his fingers, just a barely there touch, against the front of Tony’s jeans and the man was suddenly putty in his hands.

Tony let out a throaty, breathless “Fuck, James…”, voice already an octave lower, and Bucky reveled in it. God, he loved how easily Tony fell apart under his hands. Sometimes all it took was a simple touch, just a gentle caress of his fingers to make Tony incoherent with need. 

Feeling Tony press himself even closer against Bucky’s chest and straining to get some pressure from the metal hand still mercilessly teasing him with feather light touches, Bucky also realized just how perfect Tony’s body felt against his own. They were made for each other. 

Tony let out a breathless “I swear to god, you better not stop—”, but of course as soon as those words left his lips, Bucky pulled the metal hand away and wrapped it back around Tony’s waist.

“But I thought you had all that work, doll?” Bucky murmured in Tony’s ear with a huff of indulgent laughter and the man let out a needy whimper. Taking some pity on him, he returned his attention to the inviting, exposed skin of Tony’s neck. God, he could kiss the man like this forever, but he realized very quickly this wasn’t enough. He wanted Tony’s lips on his. 

He pulled away just far enough to turn Tony around so he was facing Bucky before stepping back between the man’s legs. Tony didn’t waste any time, his hands already skirting across the planes of Bucky’s chest, with one finding its way into Bucky’s hair while the other took hold of Bucky’s flesh hand. Bringing their intertwined hands to his lips, Tony placed his own tender kisses against Bucky’s skin, over and over, never breaking the connection between their eyes.

So much affection, tangled with need and desire, in those brown eyes. So much love. For a moment, it felt like the whole lab around them was flooded with warm, golden light and Tony himself seemed to be glowing. It felt like magic

Somehow, that seemed important, but not important enough, because Bucky still wanted his kiss. So he pulled their joined hands against his chest, cradled Tony’s face in his metal hand and closing his eyes, pulled the man closer to finally erase the distance between them.

But instead of Tony’s soft, full lips against his own, all Bucky felt was an icy cold. His eyes flew open in fear, but there was no more Tony. No more lab. No more golden glow.

There was only darkness, merciless and cold around him, and he was helpless, unable to do anything but fall, fall, fall…

***

Murmurs...

Echoes of mechanical beeping...

The shuffles of footsteps against the floor...

Bucky felt the darkness around him slowly ease back, bringing him back to a state of sluggish, barely coherent awareness.

It was cold.

He felt his own breath hitch in his throat as sudden panic overtook him. His heart thundered in his chest. No, no, no.

There was light filtering through the darkness now and where there was light and where there was cold, there was also pain, pain, pain. 

No, no, no. He couldn’t be back in cryo, he couldn’t be back in Hydra’s hands. Those memories, they were real, they were his life now! Please, please let it all be real—

They were— they were going to wipe him again— take away everything from him!

Tony— Tony was real and oh god, no, please don’t take Tony away from me!

However, before Bucky could even attempt to gather enough air in his lungs to scream, he became aware of a firm, but gentle pressure around this right hand. Someone else’s hand— warm, so warm— against his own.

Someone was holding his hand?

Through the haze of his panic, he could finally begin to make out words. But there was no German, no Russian… None of the cold, ruthless tones of the scientists or his handlers...

“There you go, James, just keep breathing. Everything’s fine. You’re safe.”

Tony...

It had to be Tony. Bucky would recognize that voice anywhere, the deep soft timber that soothed every part of him and always, always made him feel safe and whole. It had the same effect now and Bucky tried to keep breathing, following the instructions of Tony’s steady, measured tone.

“You're doing great, James.” For a moment, there was a pause and then, “Strange, seriously, what are you even doing? His heart rate is through the roof! I thought the magic was supposed to soothe him as he woke up!”

“Get off my back, Stark,” another voice responded, strained and exhausted, but Bucky didn't care about it. He just wanted to hear Tony again. “Being in his head for 20 hours wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Just— just give me a damn second.”

The second passed and then, suddenly, the gold shimmering threads were back, flowing through Bucky’s mind and wrapping themselves around the panic and the fear, disintegrating all of that icy cold darkness and leaving behind nothing but a mist of golden light. 

Everything was warm and soft again and Bucky wanted to smile. Surprisingly, his body actually obeyed this time and he felt the corners of his lips stretch upward. 

Finally, he felt brave enough to open his eyes.

Tony was looking down at him, expression filled with warmth and affection mixed with a touch of worry. Bucky realized that with the golden light surrounding the man, the flakes of gold in those pretty brown eyes were all the more evident. 

“Wow, okay, now you’ve just made him loopy, Strange,” Tony said with a chuckle, looking somewhere over Bucky’s head, but then those mirthful eyes were back on him. “Thank you for telling me I have pretty eyes, James, that’s a new one for me.” There was a teasing smile on Tony’s face and Bucky decided he didn’t even care that he was announcing some of his thoughts out loud. Tony’s eyes were pretty and the whole world should be made aware of that fact. 

“The euphoria will wear off soon, give him a moment or two. It’s— difficult to gauge how much magic is needed.” It was that second voice again. Stephen Strange filtered through Bucky’s mind as he realized the man was sitting behind him, hands hovering by Bucky’s temples. The Soldier within him, who was also slowly struggling through the golden haze, marked the voice as Ally.

Despite the Soldier’s own sluggishness, that part of him already began the near automatic process of cataloguing the rest of their environment. All exits and potential escape routes, mapped. One, two, three— nineteen people in total scattered around the large room. Equipment, with its incessant beeping and whirring. Medical equipment.

Bucky was in a surgery room. Did he get hurt?

“You still with me, super soldier? How are you feeling?”

Tony’s voice drew Bucky’s attention back to the man, causing Bucky’s smile to return as well. “Feel woozy. Like— Like I have cotton stuffed inside my head.”

“Good cotton or bad cotton?”

Bucky hummed. “Good? Feels like golden, soft cotton. It’s fluffy.”

Tony’s own smile grew wider and he let out a cackle. “Hear that, Strange? Your magic is fluffy.” Another pearl of laughter and Bucky wondered what it would be like to feel that beautiful smile on Tony’s face against his own lips.

He took another deep breath and the tendrils of gold— magic, he realized now— slowly recessed. The world around turned colder, sharper and the golden glow surrounding everything dissolved into the duller grays of reality. However, the golden specks in Tony’s eyes still remained and even without the feel-good effect of the magic, Bucky realized that he still wanted to kiss Tony.

Thankfully, this he didn’t say out loud.

Tony was still talking to Strange, mostly teasing the man about the magic and how exhausted he currently looked. The sorcerer was sniping back at Tony, but Bucky could hear the undercurrent of fondness beneath the seemingly annoyed responses. 

Finally, Strange told him that the spell was completed and Tony’s attention was back on Bucky.

“You back with us now?”

Bucky gave him a careful nod. The magic may have disappeared from his head, but he still felt out of sorts. 

Tony looked away for a second at something on the other side of the hospital bed and Bucky wanted to look over too, but he had a hard time taking his eyes off the man, still needing to assure himself that everything around him was real.

“Alright,” Tony said as he squinted at something. Probably one of his holographic screens. “Try and move your hand for me.”

Bucky obediently flexed his right hand around Tony’s, taking a moment to enjoy the warmth of the hand against his own. Tony’s hand gave its own returning squeeze before the man huffed out a laugh and looked back at Bucky.

“No,” he shook his head, smile turning indulgent, “your other hand.”

My other—what?

Finally, he tore his eyes away from Tony to look down at his own body and— 

There, clear as day, was the metal arm, lying at his left side. Attached to him.

Memories flooded back - conversations about the surgery, meeting Strange, the preparations… 

“Just try to focus on your body as a whole and your brain will catch on quick,” Tony said. Bucky swallowed hard and trying to follow Tony’s instructions, closed his eyes, concentrating on every part of his body and then narrowing that focus to his left side and—

His eyes flew open a second later, inhales suddenly erratic, because his whole mind was flooded

Data, so much data. Sensory inputs, touch, pressure, temperature, texture, calculations of force—

“Easy, easy. I know it’s overwhelming, but you just need to ride it out for the first few seconds. Your brain is more than capable of processing all the data. Just give it time to adjust.”

All Bucky could do was listen to Tony’s voice and use his grip on Tony’s hand to ground himself. He forced his body to take a deep inhale and by the time he let out a slow, steady exhale, the flow of information felt more like a steady stream instead of a crashing wave. Tony was right. With each breath, the information was finding a place for itself in his head, slotting itself like puzzle pieces back into one cohesive whole. 

“You good?”

“Yeah, just—” another measured exhale, “—a lot to take in.” 

“I bet. You’re doing great though. Now, think you can move a finger for me?”

Bucky concentrated on the new data flowing through his head and focused on taking control of it, bending the information to his will. Another exhale and then— one, two, three, he tapped his left pointer finger against the scratchy sheets of his hospital bed.

The realization that he could actually feel that the sheets were scratchy— that alone felt incredible, already dwarfing anything the old arm was capable of. 

He looked back up at Tony who had a satisfied grin on his face as he watched the movement of Bucky’s finger.

“That’s my cyborg super soldier! Alright, now you can do the rest of them?”

Another second of deliberate focus and then Bucky’s metal fingers were carefully tapping out a staccato against the bed. Already he could feel the difference between this and the old arm. The flow of data, despite the initial shock, felt much more natural and he could sense so much more. Even the way the arm physically felt against his shoulder was different - the weight of the metal didn’t pull and didn’t irritate his scarred flesh.

Tony let out an actual Whoo! and grinned at Bucky. “Passing the first test with flying colors! Now, we have roughly another thousand to go— seriously, James, you’re gonna get so sick of me— but for now… how are you feeling? How’s the arm?”

Bucky didn’t respond right away because— how did he feel? He wasn’t sure he could find the right words. How could he explain that he was finally whole again and that it all felt right? That this arm, crafted by Tony’s own hands, was now a perfect part of him?

He couldn’t even begin trying to put any of that into words. So instead, he looked back down at the arm for a moment, then turned back to Tony and gave the man his best deadpan expression.

“Eh,” he shrugged his right shoulder, “the Hydra one was prettier.”

He thoroughly enjoyed the expected theatrics, as Tony dramatically clutched his chest and hissed an offended “How dare you!” at him. However, the indignant expression soon cracked and Tony dissolved into a fit of laughter in the face of Bucky’s own amused smile. Somewhere above him, he thought he heard Strange let out his own quiet and tired chuckle.

“Alright, alright. I’m just gonna pretend you’re still high on magic and let that one slide,” Tony winked at him and then looked back over at Strange, jumping straight into a conversation about the readings they were getting.

Bucky tuned out most of the details, instead focusing back on the arm and the new sensations flowing through his body and his brain. As he slowly got the hang of moving his metal wrist, Tony was still chattering excitedly at Strange above him and Bucky couldn’t help his small smile. The arm was amazing, but what really made his heart sing was the fact that even now, Tony still hadn’t let go of his right hand. 

Chapter Text

Looking out onto the lush, tropical greenery of Wakanda reminded Natasha of how much she actually missed the hustle and bustle of a big city. It was odd, given that she had never been a “big city girl” and she made a point never to get attached to any one particular place, but some part of her still missed New York. 

Maybe because it was the place that came closest to ever feeling like home.

Natasha grimaced just enough to stop herself from rolling her eyes. This place was clearly having a bad influence on her if she was being this maudlin. 

She decided that likely, it wasn’t some bizarre longing for New York she was experiencing. Instead, it was just restlessness from staying in one place for so long.

Maybe that was why home was never a concept she ever had the pleasure to truly understand. 

While she was at SHIELD, her missions took her around the world and gave her just enough fast-paced action to satisfy her need for movement. The same was true with the Avengers, where Natasha was the first to volunteer for any of the overseas missions. 

After the end of the “Civil War” —boje moi, what a stupid name— she spent several weeks on the run, before finally finding her way to Wakanda, where T’Challa reluctantly welcomed her, after a pleading Steve finally wore him down. Honestly, she almost pitied the King. It was obvious the only reason he gave them refuge in the first place was because of his guilt for falsely accusing James. However, James was gone now and it was even more painfully obvious that T’Challa thoroughly regretted having the rest of them here. Luckily for them, he couldn’t kick them out now without risking implicating himself and facing the wrath of the international community for harboring criminals for the past year. Natasha gave a mental shrug. They all made their beds, including the King, so in the end, she didn’t feel sorry for him nor for taking advantage of his less than enthusiastic hospitality.

Not long after James went back into cryostasis, she did take off again, trying to recover some of her old contacts and assess the damage done. The results of her inquires weren’t stellar, but at least it satiated her need to be on the move.

Now, however, she had been back in Wakanda for months and she was going stir crazy. Natasha took a sip from the glass in her hand, enjoying the crisp, cool taste of the local beverage, and surveyed the picturesque grounds of the villa again. She supposed she could leave again, meet with the few allies she still had left. In fact, maybe it was time for her to find Tony and have a nice private chat with him, to see where he stood on everything after a year. Hell, with the right approach (and with Tony’s mental state just the right amount of vulnerable), Natasha could work that conversation to her advantage.

She wondered briefly if she could still get in and out of the Compound without leaving any trace that would incriminate her. Likely, given what she knew of Friday’s security protocols. Unlike the rest of her teammates, she actually paid attention whenever Tony used to babble on about his work. 

Unfortunately, she had to accept that leaving now would probably do more harm than good because the unique form of exile here in Wakanda was not doing anyone any favors.

The stay here seemed to have impacted Clint worst of all and he spent the last several months spiraling out of control, to the point where Natasha was becoming increasingly fed up with the string of drunken fights she had to break up between Clint and the few Wakandan guards stationed at the villa. But she cared about the idiot and she didn’t want to leave him here alone in his misery.

Additionally, Natasha was usually the only one who could talk Steve out of his attempts to be an Avenger again. Anytime he saw a news piece about a terrorist attack or civil war erupting somewhere on the globe (hell, even a few natural disasters made the list), he was always rearing to go, declaring that they were all still Avengers and needed to be out there, helping innocent people.

Admirable, really, but so goddamn stupid. They had no tech, they had no weapons other than the ones they arrived with (Steve didn’t even have his shield), they had no transport, nor any other resources. They would have to steal from T’Challa if they wanted to have anything on hand and between running off to play heroes and stealing from him, Natasha was certain the King would just take the risk and bar them from Wakanda for good. 

Which would be the least of their concerns if they got caught during one of these “rescue” missions.

Finally, given the atmosphere at the villa for the past few months, even if Natasha had Steve convinced they couldn’t go back to being Avengers just yet, she was certain that if she were to leave now, Steve would be stoved away on the next plane out of Wakanda in some crazy, misguided attempt to rescue his best friend, with the rest obediently following their hero into the fray. And unlike her, them breaking into the Compound would be about as subtle as a stampede of elephants.

Natasha hated being the sole voice of reason sometimes.

She took another long sip of the fruity beverage, needing the icy cold drink to counteract the heat of the Wakandan summer, then shook her head once she placed the glass back onto the windowsill in front of her. It had been just over two months since James left, without so much as a goodbye, to head back to the States. In all that time, he called Steve once, about a week after James arrived at the Compound. Natasha didn’t get a chance to stay for the phone call, realizing she needed to drag Wanda away from the computer screen when James’ eyes developed that Winter Soldier glint (she never quite understood his reaction to Wanda, but she supposed James, more than anyone, had a right to occasional bouts of irrationality). However, she heard plenty about the phone call afterwards. Long story short, Steve was convinced that Tony was up to no good and filling James’ head with all sorts of lies. 

Whether that was actually true or not, Natasha didn’t particularly care. She barely knew this James Barnes and only spent those first two months around him. He was withdrawn back then and didn’t seem all that interested in making friends. However, he and Natasha were amicably polite to each other and maybe given time, they could have developed some sense of camaraderie, built on shared pain of what was done to them in the Red Room, but even that alone wasn’t enough to establish any real friendship. 

However, Natasha did care about Steve, and more importantly, she cared about whether Steve (and inevitably the others) took off like a bunch of foolish children and got themselves arrested. Or worse. 

Given the current political climate in the US and the mix of opinions on the Accords Council, there was actually a chance they might all end up going back to the States sooner rather than later. Legally. Welcomed back as prodigal sons and daughters, rather than handcuffed and thrown in prison like criminals. It was becoming possible—likely— that they could be going home in just a few months’ time. 

But not if Steve did something stupid like leave behind him a long string of crimes and then get caught on his way to rescue his precious Bucky Barnes. 

With a sigh, Natasha pulled away from the window and headed to the common room. Might as well check on everyone to make sure no one was getting any bright ideas today. Natasha had to admit that sometimes she felt like she was stuck here herding a bunch of stubborn, impulsive cats. 

***

She walked into the common room to find Sam in a recliner, typing away on the computer, while Wanda and Clint lounged on the couch next to him, watching the television. Turning her head, she noted that Steve was puttering away in the adjoined kitchen, probably putting together some food to bring back for everyone. 

Clint noticed her first. “Hey, Tasha! Come to join us for another rousing round of ‘What’s on TV today’?” 

She gave him a small, exasperated smile. “Yes, because more of this ‘sitting around doing nothing’ is exactly what we need.” 

“Eh, nothing else to do,” Clint shrugged and carelessly flipped through the channels. “Man, even in Wakanda, one thousand channels and nothing on.” 

Making her way over, Natasha perched on the arm of the couch, situating herself between Clint and Sam. “Have you watched the voting results from the last US legislative session?”

Clint just gave her a disgusted grimace and she wanted to roll her eyes at him so badly. She resisted.

“Why would I watch that boring shit, Tasha? Last thing I want to see is a bunch of old politicians doing whatever shady shit old politicians do.”

“Except some of these old politicians are also on the US Accords Council and their voting history can give us a good indication of which way they might lean on upcoming issues.” Honestly, this wasn’t rocket science. “Not to mention, a handful of them are up for re-election.” Here, she gave Clint a meaningful glare. “And the current president has been very pardon happy.” 

Clint withered a bit under that glare. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. But it doesn’t make it any less boring.” 

“She is right though,” Sam finally piped up, stopping the click clack of his typing for a minute. “About the President and the pardons, I mean.”

“So you’re thinking they’ll be willing to give us pardons too?” Wanda asked, finally interested in the conversation. 

“It’s becoming more probable,” Natasha explained, “the majority on the Council that has voted down two of the motions to amend the Accords and consider any sort of pardons is growing smaller. Two of them are fairly weak in their position and could be swayed if the public opinion changes or if some new Big Bad shows up. Two are up for re-election next year, but we already know they’re running against staunch Captain America supporters and if they think their districts will favor their opponents—” Natasha stopped when she heard Sam let out a disgusted snort.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. All Stark has to do is throw some of his money around and boom, he has whatever majority he needs on that Council. Hell, that’s probably why the majority has held for as long as it did.”

Natasha didn't necessarily agree, but it wasn’t her job to correct him. Ever since his little excursion to the Raft, Sam was unwavering in his mistrust of Tony, always ready with a theory about how Tony was using his money and power to manipulate some part or another of the current political climate. Honestly, it was silly. Tony wasn’t paying off the politicians and Thaddeus Ross was not on some tropical island collaborating with him on an evil plan to keep the real superheroes down. 

Once you knew where to look, Tony was an open book and after Afghanistan, all that remained was a broken, miserable man who desperately kept trying (and often failing) to right the wrongs of his past. Paying some politician under the table would feel too much like the shady weapons dealing of his company and Tony would choke on his guilt at the mere idea.

All that self-loathing and insecurity, as well as that never-ending guilt, were the exact things that made Tony so easy to manipulate. One or two perfectly timed words and you could make Tony dance like a marionette on strings.

It was the reason why she started out on Tony’s side last year in the first place. The government and the UN were coming after them whether the Avengers liked it or not and staying on Tony’s side ultimately gave her the necessary influence over him to steer that whole Accords boat exactly where she wanted it.

She wasn’t a fool. Unlike some of the others, she was well aware that between his legal, political, and financial resources (not to mention the sway he held over the public), Tony was the most important chess piece in the whole game. 

Unfortunately, T’Challa’s involvement proved to be an issue (that was a mistake on her part, as much as she hated to admit it), then things with James escalated far quicker than she anticipated, everyone around her made one stupid decision after another, and when everything finally just went to hell, she was forced to choose between Tony and Steve. 

All her life, Natasha had always chosen herself first, before anything or anyone else. That single fact made her the survivor that she was. Unfortunately, at the apex of the Civil War, neither choice was particularly advantageous to her, so she had to go with her gut.

In her defense, she never actually wanted to actively hurt Tony or to see him get hurt. There was no malicious intent on her part - she just didn’t care enough about Tony to lessen the damage done.

On the other hand, she did care about Steve and ever since their experience with Hydra and the fall of SHIELD, whatever moral compass she did have always pointed to him now. So in the end, it wasn’t a particularly hard decision to make. 

She tuned back into the conversation and as Sam was trying to explain the pardon process to a confused Wanda, Steve came up to them with a few bowls of popcorn and chips.

“Hey, Nat,” he gave her a warm smile, “I’m glad you finally joined us.” Setting the bowls on the table in the middle of the room, Steve sat down next to Wanda. “Anything new come up in your research, Sam?” he addressed the other man, who gave a shrug.

“Let me see… Well, Rhodes spoke at that international Summit in Tokyo a few weeks back…”

Sam had taken to tracking anything and everything he could find on the internet related to the Avengers activities back in the US. The task gave him something to do and had the added benefit of keeping them all informed on what their former teammates were up to.

He squinted his eyes at the computer screen, scrolling through something. His mouth pulled into a thin line. “Of course, the reactions are nearly all positive. Everyone’s gushing about his stoicism and resilience and how competent of a leader he is. Man, I respect Rhodes an’ all, I mean, his only real flaw is that giant blind spot he has for Stark, but damn, it’s so frustrating that somehow he can do no wrong with the politicians or the public.”

Now that, Natasha didn’t disagree with. Ever since Rhodes took over as the head of the Avengers, the public’s view of the superheroes had shifted as well and while it took some time after the Civil War disaster, the public (particularly in the US) was now firmly back on the side of the New Avengers. Apparently it helped to have an older, experienced, and well-respected military leader (who before anything else was also completely human) at the helm of a superhero brigade. Although, Natasha did have her suspicions that both Tony and Potts were also working behind the scenes to make sure any Avengers-related press was nothing but cheers and praise. 

Sam continued. “Here’s something else... Stark Industries unveiled some industrial arc reactor project in Asia. Potts did all the talking, but Stark was there with the rest of the corporate suits.” 

“Anything else?” Steve asked hopefully and Natasha almost felt bad. She wasn’t even sure what Steve was looking for. A picture of Tony standing in Central Park holding up a sign that said I want you back, Steve? No, he probably wanted James to be the one holding the sign. Maybe one that said Save me, Steve.

Sam hummed in contemplation as he clicked and scrolled through his research. “A couple of missions, nothing earth-shattering. Apparently it’s been pretty quiet on the super villain front.” 

“Lucky for them,” Clint snorted. “If anything big showed up, they’d get their asses handed to them without us there. I mean, who’s even on the roster anymore? Stark, Rhodes, that spider kid. Pretty sad when you compare it to what it used to be.” 

“You’re forgetting the Vision, the Wasp, and Strange,” Natasha had to correct him. “Not to mention the other trainees at the Compound and all the sorcerers who work with Strange.” It still felt weird talking about magic as if it were normal. “And even though T’Challa is not officially an Avenger, I’m sure he’d show up for an alien invasion.” 

Clint just grumbled something incomprehensible at her, probably hating to be corrected. Natasha wanted to sigh. She cared about the man, probably more than anyone else here, but he needed to stop acting like a child. God, they needed to get back to the States and Clint needed to get back to his family so he could return to the normal (and much more endearing) version of himself.

But at least he was sober today.

“Let’s see…” Sam jumped back into the conversation, “There’s this obscure blog I found, run by some crazy fangirl. Doesn’t really have a big reach, but apparently she’s obsessed with Stark and tries to get candid pictures of him whenever he’s in New York.” He scoffed. “Definitely the stalker-type, but at least it gives us some info. Doesn’t look like she has anything recent though…”

“Probably ‘cause Stark’s been holed at that Compound for the past two months. Doesn’t even make any of his grand, flashy public appearances anymore,” Clint said and Steve’s expression grew darker at the words. Probably thinking of the many ways Tony could be torturing poor, precious Bucky with all that extra free time, Natasha thought in exasperation. 

“Oh, here’s something recent!” Sam exclaimed and moved closer to the screen. “She saw Stark in Central Park with a friend, about a month and a half ago… Here she’s gushing about Stark’s NASA shirt for like three paragraphs— what is wrong with this girl?— and oh, looks like she managed to snap a picture of—”

Sam’s eyes suddenly widened and Natasha leaned over just far enough to see the screen.

Huh. That’s— interesting.

“What? What is it?” Steve was on his feet and almost to Sam’s side when the other man just shut the lid of his laptop with a guilty, deer-in-the-headlights look.

“Um, it’s nothing, Steve,” he tried, but it was so unconvincing, it was downright embarrassing.

“Sam, please, it’s obviously something. You know how I feel about secrets. That’s not what this team is about.”

Sam basically withered under the patented Steve Rogers I expect better from you glare and he slowly opened the laptop back up. 

Natasha watched Steve’s face turn white and then flush with two spots of red across his cheeks when he saw the grainy, zoomed-in cell phone picture. Obviously both Clint and Wanda saw the same reaction because they jumped to their feet to see what was on the screen. Wanting to see the details again, Natasha leaned back over. 

For a moment, there was silence before— 

“I fucking knew it! This is exactly how Stark operates!” 

This time, she did roll her eyes. “This isn’t a sex tape, Clint. They’re just eating ice cream.” 

“It’s— It’s Bucky,” Steve barely managed, unable to take his eyes off the screen. 

Indeed it was, with Tony no less. The two of them were settled on a bench in what looked like Central Park. Natasha briefly wondered exactly who let Tony take a brainwashed super soldier out in the middle of New York, but in the end decided that this was actually right up the man’s alley. Tony was never known for his good decision making skills. 

But based on the picture, as grainy as it was, James actually did look better. He seemed at ease, clean shaven and dressed in a set of fresh new clothes, and the expression on his face— well, Natasha would’ve called it fond, but the man was looking at Tony after all, so that couldn’t have been right. The same could be said for Tony, actually. There was a smile on his face and it looked like he was in the middle of recounting some story or another (that man did always like the sound his own voice) and he looked suspiciously comfortable, given that he was sitting no more than a foot away from his parents’ killer. 

“Ugh, even looking at Stark’s face makes me sick. Look at that murderer, sitting there, enjoying himself. He should be in jail and we should be back home,” Wanda declared with disgust, hands clenched at her sides. Weird statement to make (and that was ignoring the murderer comment), since Wanda never even had a proper American visa, but Natasha wasn’t going to be the one to point that out. Especially not with those red sparks erupting from the woman’s fingertips. Wanda’s hair-trigger temper only got worse as a result of their exile here and Natasha didn’t want those magical powers anywhere near her. 

“But why is— why is Bucky out with him like that?” Steve stammered out and Natasha finally decided to take pity on him.

“That’s a good sign, Steve,” she said. “It means Tony doesn’t have him locked up in some dark basement. Bucky looks uninjured, there are no restraints, and he’s obviously allowed some mobility in and out of the Compound. All good things,” she tried to emphasize. Anything to stop Steve from running off on a rescue mission. 

“Hey, guys, what’s up?” 

Natasha looked over to see Lang saunter into the room and grab a handful of popcorn as he approached.

“What’s everybody looking at?” he popped a kernel into his mouth and made it over to stand next to Clint and Wanda. “Hey, is that Stark? Oh, and that’s Barnes too, right?” He leaned closer and squinted to see the picture better. “Wow, Barnes looks a lot better than the last time we saw him. Huh, you know, they kinda look like they’re on a date or something.” He threw another piece of popcorn into his mouth, oblivious to the four pairs of eyes glaring daggers at him. “You know, hate to say something nice about a Stark, but they do actually look good together. Huh,” he shrugged, “good for them, you know? It’s tough for gay couples out there.” 

Boje moi, she was surrounded by idiots and that realization certainly didn’t do anything to lessen her desire to get the hell out of dodge. Natasha pointedly cleared her throat, which prompted Lang to look up from the picture just in time to see the four sets of eyes burning hate into him.

“Was— was it something I said?” he stammered and backed away, sheepishly rubbing the back of his head. He never really did fit in with any of them, Natasha thought, even after a year of living together here at the villa. 

“They’re not on a date, Lang,” she stated firmly, but apparently that wasn’t convincing enough because Steve was pale again and shaking his head at the screen.

“I knew something like this was going to happen. Tony— he’s manipulating Bucky somehow. Taking advantage of the fact that Bucky’s vulnerable right now, confused about who he is.” Steve met Natasha’s eyes, who was shaking her head. “Come on, Nat, you know how Tony can be. Maybe this is his way of getting revenge for everything. Fill Bucky’s head with lies and turn him against us.” 

There was so much nervous tension inside Steve that he began pacing back and forth. “That last phone call makes sense now, that’s why Bucky was so cold with me. I mean, he called me a bully! Where else would he get something like that? Tony probably told him all these awful, untrue things about us and with no one there to contradict Tony— Oh, poor Bucky is probably so confused and— and he must be so scared to be there all on his own—” Suddenly, Steve stopped the panicked pacing and squared his shoulders. “That’s it. I’ve waited around for too long. Bucky needs me and I can’t just sit around and wait until Tony completely destroys him.” 

Natasha desperately wanted to point out that James looked anything but destroyed in that picture, but she knew that wasn’t the right tactic here. Steve already interpreted the picture the way he wanted (that his Bucky enjoying ice cream with Tony on a sunny day could only mean that he had been brainwashed again). 

Instead, she said “Steve, how do you think this rescue mission will go? Are you going barge into the Compound and carry Bucky away into the sunset in your arms? Pretty sure Tony’s crazy AI and an army of Iron Man suits will have something to say about that.”

“I have to do something, Natasha!” the man exclaimed, running a trembling hand through his now slightly longer, blond hair. “Bucky hasn’t called me in almost two months! Yeah, T'Challa says he speaks with him regularly, but Bucky should be calling me, not T'Challa! The only reason he wouldn’t call is because Tony isn’t letting him! God, things must be worse than I thought.” Steve’s voice trembled on that last sentence and Natasha felt sorry for him. She really did.

Apparently the resolute, determined Steve Rogers was back though. “I’m going to go get Bucky. He was always with me to the end of the line and I won’t fail him. Even if it means going up against Tony again.”

Natasha may have felt sorry for Steve, but she was not going let him ruin their chances of getting back home. She jumped off the arm rest, approached Steve and with her hand gentle and comforting on his bicep, she tried to give him the most reassuring look in her repertoire.

“Steve, you can’t be the one to go. You’ll put your safety and the safety of everyone here at risk.”

“But Natasha—”

“I’ll go.”

The man stopped in the middle of a word and blinked at her. She didn’t feel like waiting for him to stage another protest.

“I’m the only here with the means to get back to US undetected and with the skills necessary to get in and out of the Compound, even with Tony’s security measures.” She put on a smile that she knew would look self-deprecating and gave an easy shrug. “Infiltrating one of the most secure places on earth and getting past Iron Man himself? It’ll be fun.”

Thankfully, it looked like her approach and the echoes of the words she spoke to Steve during the Battle of New York were actually working because Steve’s expression was more contemplative than panicked now.

“Are you— are you sure, Natasha? I can’t ask something like this of you.”

“I’m sure, Steve. Bucky is my friend too and I care about him. I want to make sure he’s okay just as much as you do.”

“And if he isn’t?”

“Then I promise I will get him out of there and bring him back to you.” 

There was gratitude and affection blossoming on Steve’s face now and he gathered her into his arms. “I don’t know what I would do without you, Natasha.” 

“Let’s hope you never have to find out.” 

More gratitude followed, as Steve sang her praises and while Clint made a weak attempt at a token protest— Tasha, it’s too dangerous, you shouldn’t go alone— Natasha didn’t have to try very hard to convince him otherwise. 

She walked away from the group with the excuse that she had to plan her next move and in the privacy of her room, she wanted to shake her head at herself. Was she really so desperate for an excuse to get out of Wakanda that she had just offered to go rescue Bucky Barnes?

Apparently so. 

Ah well. She could make this work to her advantage. Maybe she would get that chat with Tony after all. 

It’ll be fun.

Chapter Text

Bucky let himself have a nice, long stretch, still marveling at the fact that he could stretch out both of his arms now, before collapsing back on the many pillows resting against the headboard of his bed. He started out with two when he moved into the Compound, but after making an off-handed remark to Friday that he liked having extra pillows, more mysteriously appeared the next day, along with a variety of extra blankets. Friday was, as always, far too good to him. 

He made himself comfortable against the soft pillows, dressed down in just his henley and jeans, and reached over to the nightstand to grab the book he was currently reading. 

Today’s BARF session still left him mentally exhausted, which wasn’t unusual, even if the therapy was still progressing as expected. A good number of his memories were dulled now, faded to the background, which made a significant improvement in his overall mood and even lessened some of his nightmares. They didn’t go away entirely and likely never would, but the fact that there was any difference at all was still remarkable. He never thought he’d ever have any freedom from the horrors of his past, but once again, Tony’s tech (and Tony himself) did not disappoint. 

Unfortunately, the triggers themselves were slow to yield to therapy, but that was expected as well. Unlike his other memories, which only prompted an expected, natural response to trauma, the trigger words were specifically designed to induce a deliberate reaction from Bucky’s mind and body. Overcoming that took a lot more effort, but both Dr. Vance and Tony were hopeful. It was only a matter of time. 

Thankfully, a nice dinner with Vision, Peter, and Harley (that almost resulted in a food fight between the two boys) already helped shake off most of the cobwebs of his memories still clinging to his mind.

Unfortunately, Tony couldn’t join them for the meal as he had been mostly MIA for the past several days and Bucky hadn’t seen more than a few glimpses of him. Now that Tony was done with Bucky’s arm, apparently Ms. Potts wanted all of Tony’s attention back and the man spent the last few days jumping back and forth between corporate meetings in Manhattan and locking himself away in the lab in order to revolutionize the consumer electronics market— again! 

Bucky couldn’t deny he missed the man’s presence, but he supposed it was good to spend some time apart. At some point however, he would have to check on Tony to make sure the man wasn’t running himself into the ground. As much as Tony actually loved food when it was in front of him, he had a tendency to forget during his work marathons that regular meals were a thing that humans needed. 

Remembering that they were actually expecting guests tomorrow for breakfast, Bucky realized he would have to coax the engineer out of the lab then for sure, so deciding he could wait until morning to see the man, Bucky opened his book and let the words on the page carry away the remainder of the darker memories in his head.

However, he didn’t get more than a few pages in before Friday’s tentative “Mr. Barnes? I think I may require your assistance with something…” prompted him to look up.

“How can I help you, ma’am?”

“You see, my usual protocols— well, they instruct to contact Colonel Rhodes, but he is currently out of town. When that is the case, I mustn’t contact anyone else… but I am worried that my protocols may be incomplete or inadequate—”

She hesitated again and between the worry and the uncertainty in her voice, Bucky himself was already on high alert.

“What’s going, Friday?”

“Boss had— he had a night terror. Not a rare occurrence, as you may know, but it usually takes no more than a few minutes for him to recover. However, it has been over twenty minutes and his vitals have only worsened. Shallow breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure— it isn’t a full fledged panic attack, he’s lucid, but I’m worried—” 

Bucky was already on his feet and heading out the door toward the elevators. “Can you tell me where he is?” 

“Down in the basement. The corridor to the left of the entrance to Boss’ lab.” 

Bucky figured as much and willed the elevator doors to close faster in front of him.

***

As Bucky’s long strides carried him closer and closer toward the lab, he heard Tony before he actually saw the man.

“Goddamn it, Friday,” there was a tremble in the man’s voice, “why is it still so fucking cold in this hallway?”

“I’m sorry, Boss, the temperature is already up to 91 degrees Fahrenheit. I can keep increasing—”

“No, no, don’t. Shit, it’s all in my head, I know, I know—”

Bucky finally rounded the corner and stopped abruptly, taking in the scene in front of him. Tony was on the floor, his bent legs in front of him, hunching in on himself as he sat against the corridor wall. His arms were wrapped around himself and the man was shaking so badly that the tremors going through his body were visible even from Bucky’s vantage point. Tony’s eyes were clenched shut and his whole face was contorted in either discomfort or outright pain, Bucky wasn’t sure.

He didn’t approach closer, just quietly called out Tony’s name, trying to keep his voice gentle. Tony still startled however, looking up at him with frightened, glassy eyes. 

“James, what— what the hell are you doing here?”

“Friday— she told me you needed help—”

“Fuck, Friday, I specifically told you not to—”

“I’m sorry, Boss, I only wanted to help—”

“Mute!” Tony barked suddenly, before going back to his short, labored breathing. Bucky frowned, taken aback by the anger in Tony’s voice. He had never heard Tony be so short with Friday before. 

“Tony, it’s not Friday’s fault. She was just trying to take care of you—” he tried to reason, but Tony’s glare was turned on him now and he stopped short.

“I don’t need anyone taking care of me, okay? I’m not—” another shudder ran through the man and Tony’s arms wrapped themselves tighter around the trembling form, “I’m not some fucking charity case. So— just go.” 

“Tony, please—”

“I said fucking go!” Tony raised his voice suddenly and the vehemence behind those words almost made Bucky flinch. “I don’t need anyone— I don’t need you here.”

Bucky felt hurt blossom in his chest in the face of the cold fury in that harsh tone. The memory of Tony’s parents aside, the man hadn’t spoken to him like this since the Stark Expo memory and he thought that, after everything they’ve been through, that they were past this kind of anger and resentment.

He was about to say something back, his own sharp words bubbling up in his throat, but then another tremor made its way through Tony’s body, forcing the man to curl in on himself even further, his pained “Fuck…” swallowed up by a whimper.

With sudden clarity, Bucky realized that this wasn’t some display of Tony’s loathing towards him. Tony wasn’t angry. He was scared

Tony was desperately trying to protect himself, to keep others from seeing him like this. Given the past betrayals and the dismissive attitudes of others, Bucky couldn’t really blame him for being this reluctant to let himself be vulnerable with anyone.

Bucky wondered for a moment whether Tony believed that being the one to push people away first hurt less than waiting for them to leave him. But dammit, Bucky wasn’t just anyone and it was a good thing he could be a stubborn bastard too because he wasn’t going to be pushed away that easily.

He wasn’t going to be pushed away at all. 

Taking a few steps forward, he let himself slide down to the floor on Tony’s left, just far enough to give the man some space. 

He watched Tony give him another glare, but now that he knew where to look, he could see nothing but fear and exhaustion behind those eyes.

“That is literally the opposite of what I just told you to do,” Tony said through gritted teeth, trying to steel himself against the tremors. 

“I’m not big on following orders nowadays,” Bucky kept his voice light on the retort, but then dropped back into a more serious, measured tone. “Tony, if you really don’t want me here—”

“I really don’t wan’t you here.”

“—then I’ll leave. I’ll go get someone else—”

Tony shook his head desperately. “No! Don’t— don’t you dare drag anyone else into this—”

“Then, please, Tony,” Bucky wasn’t above begging, “please let me help you. Don’t push me away.” 

Tony didn’t say anything, just hid his face in his bent knees and let out a sound that was dangerously close to a sob as his body kept shaking from the cold, despite the stifling heat of the corridor.

“Do you really think that I would— mock you for this? Hold it against you that you’re— that you’re human like the rest of us? Come on, Tony…” Bucky let his exhale carry the name, “you saw me at my lowest, when I was a complete wreck and I trusted you then. I knew without a doubt that all you would do was hold me together until I wasn’t falling apart anymore.” His next words were a whisper as he looked at the man next to him. “Please, let me do the same thing for you.”

There was no response from Tony for a full minute, making Bucky wonder if maybe he wasn’t going to out-stubborn Tony after all, but then the man gave him a small, timid nod and Bucky sagged against the wall in relief.

“What can I do to help?”

“I’m just— I’m so fucking cold. I know that it’s all in my head, and it usually— just goes away, but I can’t shake it this time,” Tony replied and rubbed his hands against his biceps as if to emphasize the point, although it didn’t seem to do much.

“Rhodes is the one who usually helps you when it gets this bad, right?” Bucky asked and got another tentative nod from Tony. “So what does he do to help you?”

“He, uh—” Tony hesitated and Bucky watched as some sort of internal struggle played out on the man’s face. Finally though, Tony seemed to have made a decision when he looked away and responded with a whispered “He holds me…” that Bucky only heard because of his enhanced hearing.

God, why did this man insist on breaking Bucky’s heart again and again? Because seeing how much it took for Tony to admit something as simple as that— it was heart wrenching. Hell, Bucky was a traumatized ex-assassin and even he didn’t feel this much hesitance when asking for simple comfort. Hell, if he woke up from a nightmare and Tony was there with open arms, Bucky wouldn’t hesitate to let himself be enveloped in that embrace.

But maybe that was because none of his many defensive walls were present any longer when it came to Tony and he supposed if it were anyone else but his favorite engineer, he’d hesitate too.

He had to try though. All he wanted was to make Tony feel better, and Bucky hoped he wasn’t about to cross some line and ruin everything.

“Would it— would it help if I did the same?” he suggested, keeping his voice quiet and casual, like it was no big deal. “I always did run a little hot.” 

Again, Tony hesitated to give any response, but when he looked back over at Bucky, there was so much longing in the man’s gaze, that Bucky felt his heart seize again.

Please, Tony, just let me take care of you.

Thankfully, as if Tony heard Bucky’s silent plea, the man finally gave a noncommittal shrug that was as close to a yes as Bucky was going to get and then slowly, like a spooked animal, scooted over to be next to Bucky. With those same timid movements, he rested his head on Bucky’s chest and curled in on himself a bit, his arms still wrapped around himself.

Bucky was beyond any sort of hesitance at this point however, so he promptly wrapped his right arm around the man, pulling him closer, and used his metal hand to maneuver Tony’s head under his chin, before letting the metal arm rest comfortably against the man’s hip. 

Tony was still entirely stiff against him, tremors wreaking havoc on his body, but then he slowly began to relax, bit by bit, before his body finally went slack and he let himself lean fully against Bucky, who just tightened his embrace.

They stayed like that for a few minutes, Bucky listening to Tony’s shallow inhales and counting the seconds between each tremor, thankful that they seemed to be slowing down. He let his cheek rest against Tony’s soft hair, inhaling that sweet, spicy scent that he noticed so long ago and now knew to be the man’s shampoo. Tony probably showered recently, maybe before trying (and failing) to get some sleep. A part of Bucky reveled at having the man so close to him, but the rest of him just wished it was happening under better circumstances. 

Finally, Bucky was the first to break the silence that settled around them. “Does it help to talk about it?”

He felt more than heard Tony give a questioning hum against his collar bone.

“About the nightmares, I mean,” Bucky tried to explain. “I know sometimes— for me at least— putting everything into words just makes it worse. Makes it more real, you know? But sometimes it helps to share with someone else because then you don’t feel as alone. I guess I’m just saying— if it would help, I’d listen.”

He felt Tony nod, but the man didn’t say anything, so Bucky let it go. Instead, he just let his right hand draw soothing circles against Tony’s bicep and shoulder, trying to infuse comfort into his touch. He was probably a bit rusty (comforting people was never in the Winter Soldier’s repertoire), but Bucky wanted to believe that this was a lot like riding a bicycle. You thought you’d forgotten how to do it, but it all came back to you once you gave it a try.

The lights in the corridor were already dimmed and thankfully it seemed Friday turned the temperature down without prompting because Bucky didn’t feel like he was sitting in a sauna anymore. The quiet atmosphere, as well having Tony so close to him, was lulling even Bucky himself into a more relaxed state, but he was brought back to full awareness when he heard Tony’s quiet whisper.

“I see all of them dead.” 

The ominous words almost made Bucky tense up, but he deliberately kept his posture relaxed, his fingers never stopping their soothing motions against Tony’s skin.

“What do you mean?”

“My dreams— night terrors, I guess— I’m in space, I think— I dunno. But it’s dark, only light coming from some distant nebulas, and it’s always so goddamn cold. And I’m standing there— surrounded by wreckage— everything around me destroyed. And then I see— I see them—” Tony’s breath hitched and his body shuddered again. Bucky didn’t hesitate, just reached out and cradled Tony’s face in his metal hand, letting his thumb gently caress Tony’s cheek.

“S’okay, everything’s fine,” he whispered into the man’s hair, reminded momentarily of when their roles were reversed and Tony was comforting him

After a moment, Tony seemed to have collected enough willpower to continue. “Everywhere around me, I see everyone I care about, everyone I love— all of you are dead. And all I can do is just stand there, completely helpless and alone.”

It was obvious Tony didn’t realize his slip, and Bucky hated that in the face of Tony’s misery, there was no real joy in knowing that he included Bucky with the rest of the people Tony loved.

“Is that the nightmare?”

“No,” Tony shook his head softly, “the real nightmare starts when one of you opens your eyes and— you just look at me with those dead fuckin’ eyes and say You could’ve saved us. You ask Why didn’t you do more? Why didn’t you stop this? and I just stand there and there’s nothing— there’s nothing I can do— as the fucking aliens— they just destroy everything—”

Tony let out an actual sob this time, burying his face in Bucky’s shoulder as if trying to hide himself away from the world. All Bucky could do was continue his gentle ministrations.

“It’s okay, Tony, it’s just a dream—”

“No, you don’t understand—” Tony protested and tried to push himself away, maybe in an attempt to look at Bucky, but Bucky just tightened his hold and gently let his metal hand guide Tony’s head back to rest against his chest. 

“Shh, s’okay... Just let yourself rest, Tony.”

“You don’t understand,” the man continued quietly even as he let his body crumple against Bucky once again, “it’s not just a dream. This fucking— this vision was crammed into my head and it left me so fucking terrified that I tried— I tried to protect everyone, I swear that’s all I was trying to do— I just wanted to stop something like New York from ever happening again— but I failed—” Tony was near incoherent at this point, struggling to pull in any air into his lungs, “I failed everyone and all I did was create a monster…” 

Tony was shaking again and for a few minutes, the only sound that filled the corridor was Tony’s shallow inhales and Bucky’s quiet words of comfort. Eventually though, Tony was finally able to pull in a deep breath and slowly exhale and Bucky thanked every one of his lucky stars when, instead of still keeping his arms around himself, Tony slowly reached out to wrap his right arm around Bucky’s waist, gently gripping the soft material of the henley. 

As Tony silently let the embrace soothe him, Bucky took the time to contemplate what Tony had just told him. He assumed this was about Ultron. Bucky desperately wished he had more information, but all he had to work with was what he heard from the Avengers in Wakanda and what he gleaned from his conversations with Peter and Rhodes. 

As they tried to catch Bucky up on everything that happened since the Avengers formed, regaling him with the tales of their victories, Steve and the rest were very quick to point out that the responsibility for Ultron rested squarely on Tony’s shoulders. Tony was irresponsible with his creations, he was secretive, and everyone paid the price for his mistakes. 

Given what he now knew about the relationship between all of them and Tony, Bucky basically had half a mind to either ignore everything they had told him or just assume that the opposite of whatever they said was true. And maybe that was a bit vindictive or unfair, but Bucky hardly cared at this point.

The Colonel didn’t give him many more details either, but he made a point to say that while Tony was in fact trying to create a peacekeeping program that would safeguard the Earth from future attacks, Tony wasn’t the only one involved in the chain of events that ultimately led to Ulton’s creation. Rhodes briefly mentioned Banner, the Avenger and scientist Bucky had yet to meet, and then he hedged the rest of his explanation, only saying that one of their enemies at the time was also involved in essentially forcing Tony’s hand.

So maybe he didn’t have all the information about what happened back then, but he wanted to believe he knew enough about Tony himself to truly mean what he said next.

“This is about Ultron, right?” he asked to confirm and felt Tony nod against him. “Well, I’ve seen the things you create, Tony. Beautiful, amazing beings that grow and learn and love. And it doesn’t matter what else happened back then - I know you’re not capable of creating a monster. You just aren’t.” Tony tried to protest, but Bucky refused to let the man talk badly about himself. “You can’t take all the responsibility onto yourself whenever bad things happen. There were others involved too and even if you did make any sort of mistake back then, you’ve more than paid for it.”

Seemed like that was the story every time. Everyone else got to move on with their lives, while Tony was left behind to pick up the pieces and pay the price for everyone’s mistakes. 

Then, something else that Tony said made its way through Bucky’s mind, bringing with it a memory of a conversation from weeks ago.

“Wait. When you said this was a vision— was this what you meant when you said someone screwed with your head using magic?” 

After a moment’s hesitation, Tony gave a small nod and Bucky demanded to know who it was that did this, but all Tony responded with was a simple “It doesn’t matter, James. It’s not important anymore.” He sounded defeated. Resigned. 

Reluctant as he was to do so, Bucky untangled himself from Tony’s embrace and pushed them apart, but only far enough so that he could see Tony’s face. “Of course it matters, Tony. Someone hurt you.”

“It’s fine, uh— just not a big deal. Don’t worry about it,” Tony whispered, refusing to meet his eyes now. 

Bucky didn't understand why Tony would hesitate to tell him about this. Did he think Bucky would react negatively? The only thing that could possibly— 

“Wait— It wasn’t— it wasn’t Hydra?” 

Tony cringed a bit and moved his head side to side. “Eh, yeah, technically— at the time, they were Hydra, but—” Tony trailed and his eyes widened when he looked back at Bucky. “Err, James, you’re looking a bit more Winter Soldier than Bucky Barnes right now.”

Oh, Bucky had no doubt of that because in that moment, the Soldier was livid.

He could feel that darkness, that righteous fury, pushing back against his mental walls and it was increasingly harder to stop the Soldier from bleeding through into every crevice of Bucky’s mind. Hell, maybe Bucky himself didn’t want to stop some of that anger from seeping into his very bones this time.

Because apparently it was Hydra who dared lay their filthy hands on Tony. They forced themselves into Tony’s head, just like they did Bucky’s own, tainting that beautiful mind with their foul stench. They forced Tony to relive his worst nightmare, the death of his loved ones, over and over—

He was going to kill them for touching a hair on Tony’s head, he was going to kill them all, rip them to shreds—

The red haze of bloodlust receded a bit when Bucky felt Tony’s steady hands on his face and he heaved a shaking breath, trying to use Tony’s touch to ground himself back to reality. 

“Hey, you need to come back to me, James. And, uh— if the Soldier is paying us a visit, I’d at least like a warning this time.” Tony didn’t sound particularly concerned though and Bucky wondered, almost hysterically, whether that was because he trusted Bucky’s control that much or whether this was just Tony’s usual brand of recklessness.

“No, no, I’m fine—” he assured Tony and shook his head, even though he didn’t actually feel fine as he was struggling and failing to push the Soldier’s wrath away. His hands just clutched Tony closer to him. “I just— I can’t even think past the anger— What they did to you—”

“Is long in the past— It doesn't matter—”

“How can you say that? You’re still having nightmares! It’s still hurting you!”

Tony just shrugged that same resigned shrug and said a quiet “I have a lot of nightmares. What’s another one?” 

It only made Bucky more furious. God, he could feel the violence filling his chest, thrumming through his blood like a poison, but for once, he actually wanted to embrace. Own it. Hell, everyone kept telling him the Soldier was nothing but his repressed instincts. His own darkness, repressed in order to deal with his trauma.

Everyone has a dark side, Mr. Barnes. 

Oh, he could so clearly imagine finding whoever did this and ripping them apart piece by piece. Slowly, brutally. Until they suffered how Tony suffered. Until they knew what it felt like to live out their own worst nightmare. He would be their worst goddamn nightmare.

He would paint the world in the blood of these bastards. 

Bucky clenched his eyes shut, suddenly terrified of his own thoughts because these were the Soldier’s words. This was the Soldier’s hunger for vengeance, and wasn’t this everything he didn’t want to be anymore? He swore to himself that he wouldn’t hurt anyone anymore, that he wouldn’t kill anymore. But god, did retribution taste sweet on his tongue. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was never going to be the good person he wished he could be. 

His eyes opened to see Tony’s concerned expression as the man watched him carefully, but there was no fear or mistrust in those searching brown eyes. Sudden sense of gratitude warred with the festering anger in Bucky’s chest because how could he be worthy of that much trust? All he could do in the face of that was try to redirect the Soldier’s instincts - from the need to kill to the need to protect. So, despite the bloodlust still in his veins, he cradled Tony’s face in his hands and pulled him back in, pressing their foreheads together. He felt Tony’s own hands rub his shoulders in reassurance because of course Tony was trying to comfort him, even when Tony was really the one who needed it.

“I’m not letting any of them touch you ever again,” Bucky growled, his chest heaving with another shaking breath, and dammit, this position felt too familiar all of the sudden, like some phantom sense memory. He had no conscious recollection of the time when the Soldier fully took control, but as he gently ran the tip of his nose against Tony’s cheek, the man’s face still framed in his hands, Bucky could almost feel what the Soldier must have felt, to have Tony pressed against the wall, to have their lips just a hairbreadth apart... just like they were now.

Oh the Soldier knew wrath well, but he seemed to know lust even better and all he wanted to do in that moment was remove that little bit of distance between Bucky and Tony once and for all. To make Tony his. To know what those lips would feel like against his own, what Tony would taste like on his tongue. Bucky wanted to feel every part of Tony against him, to make Tony come undone under his touch so completely and thoroughly than any traces of nightmares would be wiped away with pleasure. God, he wanted Tony so badly

But he couldn’t— 

This time, Bucky put all of his willpower behind trying to push the Soldier back. He was supposed to be here comforting Tony, not fantasizing about the man. God, what was wrong with him?

To avoid the temptation, he pulled away and guided the man’s head back to crook of his neck, Tony willingly following the gentle pressure of Bucky’s hand. He tried to take a deep breath, desperate to focus back on protectiveness rather than anger or lust.

“If any Hydra scum show their faces here ever again,” he whispered, “if anyone decides to come anywhere near you, or the kids, or anyone else here, they’ll have to go through me. I will rip their throats out, solnishko, and I’ll—”

Both Tony and he tensed at the slip of Russian and Bucky clenched his eyes shut. Damn, damn, damn, apparently he was still unable to speak anything but the Soldier’s words.

“Shit, sorry—” Fuck, he shouldn’t have let the Soldier bleed through so much in the first place. “The Soldier is still—" he swallowed hard, “closer to the surface than I’d like him to be,” he admitted with a shaky exhale. God, the last thing he wanted was to scare Tony away.

However, after a moment, he felt Tony settle against him again and give his shoulder a comforting squeeze. “It’s alright, you’re fine. You’re in control of it. Just breathe. Besides, that part of you isn’t all bad. Seems to like me at least,” he tried to joke.

You have no idea how much, Tony.

The humor in Tony’s voice, however, made Bucky feel a little bit more like himself on the next exhale. 

“He’s, uh— yeah, he’s a little bit protective.” 

“Well, I don’t blame him— nor you— for hating Hydra, honestly. I’d want to stab them in the face too if I had to go through what you did. Just, uh— just give me a heads up if you decide to go on a Hydra murder spree, okay? My attorneys like at least a few days notice and we'll need to get you an alibi— oh, Friday’s really good with falsifying all sorts of records—”

The nonchalant way Tony said all of that startled an actual laugh out of Bucky. “This isn’t funny, Tony!”

“It’s a little bit funny.”

Apparently, Tony was all he needed to get the Soldier under control because it finally didn’t feel like he was drowning in that cloying darkness anymore.

“I’m not planning on raiding any Hydra bases anytime soon, I promise.”

“Oh good,” Tony huffed out a laugh, warm puff of air against Bucky’s collar bone. “In that case, we’re just fine. Well, except for the fact that the Soldier insists on calling me a little sun. I mean, come on, what is with that?”

Bucky realized he was actually smiling. “It’s a common term of endearment in Russian,” he tried to explain. “Besides, it could be worse. He could’ve decided to call you zaychik or kotyonok instead.”

Tony looked up at him for clarification.

“Little bunny. Kitten,” he translated and Tony’s groan made his smile wider. 

“Okay, yeah, never mind, I’d much rather be compared to a giant, flaming ball of nuclear fusion rather than something small and fluffy.”

“Oh, I dunno. I mean, you are kinda fluffy,” Bucky ruffled Tony’s hair for emphasis and actually, genuinely laughed at Tony’s indignant expression. The man glared at him and jabbed him in the ribs in retaliation, but Bucky just pulled him in closer and settled them both back against the wall.

“You’re a terrible person, James Barnes, and you should be ashamed of yourself,” Tony grumbled, but he was relaxed and pliant against Bucky, who was still smiling.

“I’ll take that into consideration,” he quipped back and let out another slow exhale. His next words were more serious though. “I’m sorry I lost it like that. This wasn’t supposed to be about me. I was here to help you—”

“Hey, none of that now,” Tony cut him off. “Honestly, worrying about you kinda snapped me out of my own funk. I’m fine— or better, at least.” As always, Tony was trying to reassure him. Bucky should’ve expected this. “And it’s okay to be angry sometimes, James. Hell, it’s okay to hate sometimes. I know I have moments like that too. There was this guy I fought once— he kidnapped Pepper and tortured her— injected her with this awful substance that could’ve killed her… Trust me, sometimes I fantasize about ripping that bastard apart too and I almost wish he were still alive so I could do just that. I guess what I’m saying is that— it’s okay to let yourself feel these things sometimes. What ultimately defines us aren’t our thoughts, but our actions. How we choose to act on our feelings.” 

Tony trailed off and Bucky considered the man’s words for a moment. Maybe Tony was right, but given what just happened, letting the Soldier— that darkness— come up to the surface felt more dangerous than anything else. Not to mention, it felt like the dark corners of his mind were beginning to fill more and more space in his head each time Bucky let it bleed through.

The Soldier was finally back in his own corner though, so Bucky just focused on Tony’s warm weight in his arms instead, thankful that he was in control of his own mind again.

They stayed like that for a few minutes and at some point, Bucky realized Tony was beginning to doze off, so he carefully sat up and pulled them apart.

“Come on, Tony, it’s time to get you to bed. Hopefully you can get some sleep this time.”

It was easy to get Tony back up on his feet, but when Bucky tried to pull Tony along toward to the elevator, the other man began to shake his head.

“No, no, I won’t get any sleep in my room anyways. Don’t think I’ve gotten even one good night in that damn, uncomfortable bed. I’ll just— I should probably just go back to the lab, get some work done.” 

Taking in Tony’s heavy-lidded eyes, Bucky was absolutely sure the man would just pass out at his desk again within minutes of starting said work. He contemplated the situation for a moment and after coming to a decision, he wondered whether it was still the Soldier’s boldness inside him that was responsible for what he was about to suggest next.

“Well… Remember that one time when you said that my bed was more comfortable than yours?”

He trailed off when Tony looked up at him with narrowed eyes, but there was a hint of a smile on the man’s face. 

“Are you trying to get me into your bed, Mr. Barnes?” 

All Bucky could do was give an innocent shrug.

After a moment, Tony just sighed and slumped against him, clearly letting his exhaustion make the decision for him. “You could at least buy me dinner first,” he grumbled, even as he let Bucky’s arm around his shoulders steer him toward the elevators.

“Didn’t I make you dinner a few nights ago?” Bucky said, which just earned him an amused laugh and tired “Touché. I’m all yours then.”

Chapter Text

Tony collapsed on top of the comforter as soon as the bed was in front of him and by the time Bucky came back from the closet with the biggest extra blanket he had, Tony was already half-asleep, curled up on the left side of the large king-sized bed. Bucky unceremoniously dropped the blanket over Tony, covering him entirely, unable to help his laughter when Tony grumbled a “Damn it, James,” as he pushed the blanket back off his head and tried to make himself more comfortable. 

Deciding he could spend the night reading in the recliner on the other side of the room, Bucky grabbed his book from the nightstand and made his way over to the soft, comfortable chair. However, he didn’t even get through one full page before the distinct sense of being watched forced him to look up. Tony’s sleepy brown eyes were scrutinizing him. 

“Go to sleep, Tony.”

“Are you seriously gonna sit there like that all night?” Tony asked instead, trying to blink away the sleep in those tired eyes. 

Bucky frowned. “Oh. I mean— Do you want me to go into the study? Or I guess I can just read in the common room—”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” Tony interrupted him and then stirred beneath the blanket and began to sit up. “I’m not gonna kick you out of your own bed— I’ll just go, it’s fine.”

Bucky closed the book, leaned his chin on his hand, and gave the man an unimpressed look. “Tony, you can barely stay awake. Just rest. You need it a lot more than I do.” He gave a careless shrug. “With the serum, I can go for days without sleep.”

Tony scoffed and narrowed his eyes at him. “Yeah, yeah, just keep reminding me that I’m old and weak. Must be nice to be a fancy super soldier.”

“I’m not saying that you’re old and weak,” Bucky countered, but then his smile turned mischievous. “I’m just saying that you’re— fragile and delicate.” 

“Oh, keep talking like that and we’ll see who won’t be getting a cool new arm upgrade,” Tony threatened, but at the present moment, there was nothing even remotely threatening about the man.

“You can’t upgrade on perfection, Tony.”

The engineer’s eyes narrowed further. “Flatterer.” 

Bucky responded with a shameless grin, but then his smile softened as he watched Tony just sit there on the bed, wrapped up in that giant fluffy blanket, blinking sleepily and looking far more adorable than any grown man had any right to be.

Tony was watching him too, but after another moment, he obviously decided to take Bucky’s advice because he finally let himself collapse back onto the bed. “Fine… Just— just come sit on the bed at least. That way I won’t feel as bad.” He burrowed his way deeper into the pillows. “Don’t you worry, Barnes, your virtue is safe with me.”

Bucky was able to just barely hold back a snort because it definitely wasn’t his own virtue he was worried about. God, with the way Tony looked, all soft and warm and sleep-mussed, in Bucky’s bed— well, neither he nor the Soldier needed any convincing to come join him. Even if Bucky was only going to stay up, keep watch, and read his book while Tony finally got some sleep.

He did exactly that, sitting up on top of the comforter and stacking up the pillows behind him so he could lean against them, but as he tried to open his book back up, Tony apparently decided he was awake enough for conversation.

“Whatcha reading there?” he inclined his chin towards the book. Bucky showed him the cover. “Mmm, Cosmos, Carl Sagan. That’s a good one. Friday’s pick?” When Bucky nodded, Tony’s face lit up with a smile. “That’s my girl. How are you liking it?”

“It’s really great. I think I remember that I used to love looking up at the stars. Always wondering what was out there, you know?”

Tony’s smile dimmed. “I, uh— when that book came out, I was at MIT already, so it wasn’t really the science that impressed me… but it was the way Sagan always talked about it all— I liked that he saw science with enthusiasm and hope. I think it helped me focus on the work that I was actually passionate about— you know, robotics, AI— I never really cared about the weapons side of things, but of course that was the empire I was destined to inherit. I, uh— I used to like looking up at the stars too…” Tony swallowed hard and his voice dropped to a whisper, “but now when I look up at the night sky, I just don’t see hope anymore…”

He trailed off, his gaze distant, and Bucky wondered whether he was seeing that portal from New York. Bucky couldn’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like, what Tony must have seen as he flew that nuke into some strange, distant part of space. Ready to die to save the world.

Bucky’s heart seized then, a sharp ache in his chest, realizing that he could’ve lost Tony before ever having had the chance to meet him. He wanted to say something to comfort the man, despite the sudden lump in Bucky’s own throat, but then, as always, Tony just shook off that darkness and instead narrowed his eyes at the paperback in Bucky’s hands.

“Although, you do know that you can have any book ever on your StarkPad, right?”

“Yeah, I know,” Bucky replied quietly, pushing away his own dark thoughts, “but I just like to feel a real book in my hands,” he admitted. “But Friday said these weren’t that much more expensive than the digital ones—”

Tony’s sleepy glare stopped him short. “Book prices? Really? Billionaire here, in case you forgot. Pretty sure I can buy you the whole Library of Congress if you wanted it.” Tony's eyes turned downright calculating for a moment. “...Maybe I should buy the Library of Congress, actually. Hmm, need to discuss with Pepper.” His gaze was back on Bucky. “But seriously, you’re in casa de Stark now. We don’t worry about things like that around here.”

Bucky appreciated the sentiment, but he just gave Tony a shrug. “Just because you have a lot of money, doesn’t mean I’m entitled to any of it. Hell, I already feel bad as it is. I live at the Compound, eat your food, use all your tech. Not to mention the therapy and the arm!” He frowned, realizing, not for the first time, just how much Tony had given him already. “Thank you, by the way. Again. For everything. It all must be costing you a fortune… Feel like I should be getting a job already just to pay you back.”

The familiar flustered expression on Tony’s face when Bucky thanked him was expected, but the amused snort that followed wasn’t. 

“Yeah, well, you’d definitely be the first one to do that,” Tony muttered, but then grimaced, as if realizing what he just said. “But uh— really, just don’t worry about it. You, uh— don’t need to pay me back for anything. And hell, jobs are for squares—”

You have a job, Tony.”

Exactly. And see how much fun I’m not having?” He scoffed. “Spent the last three days in Manhattan and what do I have for my troubles? More work. So enjoy being a free man, James—” Tony suddenly hesitated and his expression turned contemplative. “Well, unless you actually want a job. I mean, once we get you triggers-free, you’ll be your own man. You can go out into the world, get a job, find a nice girl to settle down with, have 2.5 kids… you know, that whole American dream deal.”

When Bucky just raised an eyebrow at him, Tony’s smile turned sheepish. “Right, right, sorry. It’s ‘find a nice fella and marry him’ in your case. It’s legal now, you know.”

Bucky hummed. “Right, because all sorts of fellas are clamoring for a night with the legendary Winter Soldier… who still needs to see his therapist twice a week and might go crazy if someone mentions Hydra within half a mile radius of him.” He cringed. “Not to mention, getting that job might not be so easy either. You know, with all that education I have… from the thirties.” Saying the words out loud made Bucky realize that he really didn’t have much to offer someone, did he? An ex-assassin with a broken mind and no way to make a living for himself, with no real place in the modern world…

“Never too late for that either, you know,” Tony added quietly and when Bucky looked at him in confusion, he clarified, “getting an education, I mean. You can always go to college, get a degree.”

“Oh, didn’t know we had a time machine to go get all my old school records.”

Tony let out a huff of laughter at his sarcasm. “Well, that is one option… or I can just buy whatever college you pick a nice new library or something. Everyone always says I do nothing but throw my money around to get what I want. Might as well put that reputation to good use.” 

Bucky was prepared to say something in protest (because why did Tony insist on just offering him more— it was already too much, how could Bucky even begin to repay him for any of it?), but then Tony just shook his head and pulled the blanket tighter around him. “Anyways, don’t worry too much about it for now. It’s just an option, that’s all. It’s good to have options…”

He trailed off with a shrug, letting out a soft exhale and giving Bucky a smile. It was small and tired, but so genuine and full of affection that Bucky was pretty sure those were actual butterflies he was feeling in his stomach all of the sudden. What was he, a lovelorn teenager?

But he still let his eyes follow the contours of Tony’s face for a moment, taking in every line, every scar… Even exhausted and half asleep, Tony was still gorgeous and Bucky wanted nothing more than to map out every one of those details, every beautiful imperfection, with his lips and oh god, the urge to kiss Tony was damn near irresistible again, even if that desire was softer, more tender this time. The Soldier may have wanted to claim Tony, to possess him, but all Bucky wanted was to see the man happy.

He still forced himself to look away, running distracted fingers across the pages of the book in his lap. He tried to change the subject. “Did you, uh— ever think about settling down? Having kids, that whole thing?”

Tony took a moment to respond. “When I was younger, I acted like I was deathly allergic to serious, committed relationships. Something like marriage didn’t even cross my mind. Too busy being the notorious playboy Stark. But uh— then I got older and wiser and for a while, I really thought Pepper and I were going to make it. Bought a ring and everything once, actually…” Tony looked down, expression turning forlorn, and he distractedly picked at the embroidered pattern on the comforter. “But the night I wanted to propose, we got into a huge fight. Over something really stupid too, but we still ended up not talking to each other for days. And after that, no moment ever felt right again and before long, Pepper broke things off.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Bucky’s sentiment was genuine, despite the pang of jealousy at the image of Tony and Ms. Potts together. It was obvious, even now, how much Tony must have loved her. 

“Yeah, me too… Although I honestly don’t regret that Pepper ended it. I think she did the best thing she could have for herself. She deserved to be happy and I just— all I did was make her miserable. I was reckless, I forgot simple things like anniversaries. I just wasn’t a good boyfriend. Not to mention, I have enough emotional baggage to fill a mid-sized airport—” Tony stopped himself and let out a weary sigh. “Pepper is better off without me. I just— I just wish the two of us could go back to being friends, you know? We were so much better at that than we ever were at being a couple.”

As always, Bucky hated hearing Tony speak so poorly of himself and he wished he knew how to make Tony see that none of those things were true. That Tony was caring and selfless and he made everyone around him better off just by being there. Tony was amazing, but Bucky honestly didn’t think the man would listen to anything he said right now. He hoped that maybe someday he’d find the right words to make Tony believe though.

He also remembered how Ms. Potts looked at Tony with the same soft longing that he could hear in the man’s voice right now and hoped that the two could someday reconcile. He may have felt some jealously at the affection that laced Tony’s words when he spoke about the woman, but that didn’t matter. This was about Tony and the more good people he had in his life, friends or otherwise, the better. And if Tony was happy, Bucky would be too. “What about kids?”

“Oh, that’s a definite no for me. I mean, can you imagine? Tony Stark - a dad? I would be such a questionable role model,” Tony laughed, trying to make his words sound like a joke.

Bucky wanted to argue this point too, because he could in fact imagine it. Tony was already a parent and a role model. To Peter and Harley. To Friday and the bots. Hell, sometimes Tony acted like Vision was his own kid too. Tony was already a father in all the ways that counted and he was doing just fine with it, but there were obviously deeper issues here, and unfortunately, this wasn’t the right time to convince Tony that he’d make a good parent either. 

“Well, I think you would be one of those really cool dads, you know? You’d let your kids eat all the dessert they want and stay up past their bed time because you spent all night down at the lab building fun gadgets with them.”

Bucky was speaking from experience, given that he just described an actual night at the Compound a few weeks ago. Somehow, Tony and the kids got it into their heads that Bucky needed to figure out his favorite flavor of ice cream (apparently his experience in Central Park wasn’t sufficient), so of course every possible flavor had to be ordered. Bucky was pretty sure they were just using him as a convenient excuse to eat a ridiculous amount of ice cream, but he dutifully tried every flavor they put in front of him (to everyone’s disappointment, Bucky liked plain old strawberry best). 

Afterwards, his three favorite scientists put their sugar-fueled energies to good use at the lab, trying to upgrade Peter’s web shooters. Unfortunately, everything somehow went wrong and all three (along with an entire workstation) ended up covered in the sticky web, all of which was promptly covered by fire extinguisher foam, courtesy of Dum-E. Bucky caught the whole beautiful disaster on video and then had Friday send it to every one of Tony’s friends. Twenty first century technology was awesome.

It was actually a habit of his now, to record the life around him on his StarkPhone as a way to remember everything, and he was pretty sure his frequent mass emails filled with pictures and videos of Tony and the kids were one of the reasons Rhodes downright tolerated him these days. 

Tony just snickered at the description of his parenting. “Like I said. Questionable role model. I would—” he was interrupted by a big yawn and Bucky finally let himself look back down at Tony, taking in the heaviness of the man’s eyelids as he tried to keep himself awake for this conversation.

“I think it’s time to get some rest, Tony,” he said quietly and gave the man his own genuine smile. These days, smiling came much easier too, especially around Tony, and wasn’t that a marvel in its own right.

The engineer narrowed his sleepy eyes at the suggestion for a moment, but then shuffled around under the blanket to lay back down and make himself more comfortable. Apparently the man wasn’t capable of sleeping like a normal person however because he ended up curled up diagonally across the bed, with his pillow and his head resting right next to Bucky’s hip. 

Clearly, fate was testing him and Bucky was currently in no shape to resist a tempting invitation like that. So, with that same boldness that he swore belonged to the Soldier rather than himself, he reached out his right hand and gently began carding his fingers through Tony’s soft hair.

He felt Tony still under his hand.

“Whatcha doing?” the man asked quietly and Bucky’s hand stilled as well.

“Helping you fall asleep?”

For a moment, there was silence, but then all Tony did was exhale softly and relax again. “Well, I didn’t say stop,” he grumbled and— well, who was Bucky to refuse this man anything? 

His fingers resumed their careful, tender movements, gentle caresses back and forth against Tony’s hair, once in a while straying to brush against Tony’s temple. Watching the motions of his hand soothe Tony to sleep, Bucky marveled at this one singular moment in time between them because it served as tangible proof of how far they’ve come. This hand, that killed so many—I’m so sorry, Maria— was now providing comfort, tenderness, safety to the one man who had every right to be scared of him, to hate him. But Tony Stark never did anything by the book, did he? Instead, he just laughed in the face of expectations. He gave Bucky a second chance - to be free, to live, to atone. He made Bucky feel whole again, after years of living a half-life.

He felt Tony’s breathing settle itself into a slower rhythm after a minute and the man’s whole body relaxed completely and finally gave itself over to sleep. Bucky’s hand still continued its soft caresses.

He was alone with his thoughts now and he reflected back on the conversation they just had. It was easy to see just how much Tony had given him in these short few months. It may have all started with a second chance, but it ended up turning into so much more. Tony gave him a home. A family

And even though Tony didn’t seem to expect anything in return, Bucky realized that while he didn’t have all that much himself, he would be willing to give everything he had to the man next to him. Every part of himself.

He knew didn’t want to go out into the world and cobble up some semblance of a new life. He wanted to stay here, at Tony’s side, and build on the life he already had at the Compound. Bucky wanted to explore and learn new things with Vision, to see Peter and Harley grow into amazing young men, to feel that sense of awe every time Friday did something else remarkably human, to become better friends with Rhodes and Strange and Alice and everyone else who was now a part of Tony’s life. He wanted the chance to prove himself and support the efforts to protect the world in any way he could. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t want to be a hero again, instead of the villain he was forced to become. 

He wanted to bring Tony coffee in the morning and see that surprised smile because of course Bucky knew by now that Tony secretly liked two teaspoons of sugar in his first cup of the day. He wanted to watch the man invent the future in his lab and build amazing creations. He wanted to hold Tony through the nightmares, take care of him whenever he was hurt after a mission, protect him from the inevitable threats that would come for him.

He wanted to see Tony happy. More than that, he wanted to make Tony happy. He wanted—

All the feelings and desires tumbling through him in that moment suddenly coalesced into simple, clear words inside his head and his first thought was that it really shouldn’t have taken him this long to realize it.

He was in love.

Bucky Barnes was in love with Tony Stark. 

After letting that revelation sink in for a moment, his second thought was that he didn’t feel nearly as terrified in the face of that realization as he thought he would have been.

After all, what else could he feel for Tony but love?

He watched his hand continue its soothing motions, even though Tony was now lost to the world in deep sleep. Honestly, the tender gesture was as calming for Bucky as it apparently was for Tony. It felt right.

Unfortunately, now Bucky needed to decide what to do with his sudden epiphany because frankly, the need to be closer to Tony, so much closer, was becoming a constant sweet ache and he knew he couldn’t ignore it for very much longer. He wanted to kiss Tony, to touch every part of him, to make him feel good and god, it had been so long since he had given anyone genuine pleasure, maybe he’d forgotten how to after all this time, but dammit, he sure as hell was willing to try.

Even now, all he wanted was to lie down next to Tony, to wrap his arms around him and pull him in closer, until Tony was flush against him and there was no more space between them. 

But he couldn’t

Well, at least not yet.

He supposed the real question now was whether Tony reciprocated any of these feelings and given their interactions, Bucky was, at the very least, hopeful. 

He and Tony had become a lot closer (evidenced by their current situation), but Tony seemed to be an affectionate man by nature and he didn’t shy away from touch. On the contrary, he seemed to crave it, although he often wasn’t the first one to initiate it. A term Dr. Vance used once in their session to describe Bucky himself—touch-starved— filtered through his mind and he wondered whether that applied to Tony as well. 

The other residents of the Compound seemed to be at least partly aware of this because they all indulged Tony’s need for physical closeness. Whether it was Rhodes or Vision or the kids, they always had an arm around Tony, or a comforting hand on his shoulder. Friendly shoves, leaning against each other for comfort, ruffling each other’s hair. There was no shortage of hugs at the Compound either and hell, Bucky distinctly remembered one time when Tony gave Rhodes the most exaggerated kiss on the cheek (before asking Rhodes to elope with him in Vegas) when the man announced that he managed to get Tony out of attending some meeting in Washington DC.

These same casual, platonic gestures of affection slipped over into the relationship between Bucky and Tony as well, once the two were more comfortable around each other. The real question now was whether all of that was nothing but friendly interactions or whether there was something more behind that affection on Tony’s part (because there was certainly more on Bucky’s part, there was no denying that now).

He supposed he could just ask Tony, but after a moment’s thought, he physically cringed because, yeah, that couldn’t possibly be the most awkward moment in the whole hundred years of his existence.

Hi, Tony! Remember me, the brainwashed ex-assassin? I know we share the most complicated history possible and I really don’t have a whole lot to offer you, but while you were sleeping in my bed, I realized I may be head over heels in love with you. And now I can’t stop thinking about you— about kissing you and touching you and possibly spending the rest of my life with you. Oh, and by the way, my crazy alter ego— Dr. Vance calls him my “Id”, you may know him as the Soldier— well, all he really wants to do is bend you over the nearest surface and make you come with my name on your lips, but that’s really neither here nor there. So, how about it, Tony? Would ya like to go steady with me?

Yes, that would go over so well

At the very least, Bucky needed to test out the waters first. Maybe start with being a little more deliberate and a little less subtle in the way he behaved around Tony. Then he could gauge the man’s reaction and if Tony responded positively, then maybe Bucky could find enough courage to put his feelings into words. The Soldier promptly informed him that all of this could also be accomplished by just pushing Tony against the nearest wall and kissing him so thoroughly that he couldn’t possibly misunderstand the message, but Bucky decided to leave that for Plan B. 

Plan A, on the other hand, could start tomorrow. Bucky smiled despite himself because there was suddenly a lightness in his chest and it felt suspiciously like hope. Whatever it was, it felt amazing and Bucky was not keen on letting it go.

Carefully, so as not to jostle Tony awake, he shimmied down into a more horizontal position and let his right arm rest around Tony’s back, with Tony’s head resting in the crook of his arm. They weren’t quite touching, but for now, this would have to be enough because starting tomorrow, Bucky was determined to figure out if there could be more.

With that thought warming him from the inside out, and knowing that the Soldier would stand guard over them both, Bucky let Tony’s quiet, measured breathing lull him into his own light, but restful sleep.

Chapter Text

The soft, shy smile on James’ face, contrasted perfectly against the heat behind those blue eyes, was just the invitation Tony needed to let his lips map out the beautiful expanse of bare skin before him. He began his explorations of that gorgeous body with the man’s neck, loving the way James tilted his head to give Tony even more access. After a long row of unhurried kisses, he gave just one playful love bite, which drew a pleased moan out of the man beneath him. Tony felt the grip of the metal hand in his hair tighten just a touch. 

Moving down lower, he lavished gentle, worshipful kisses on James’ scarred left shoulder. They were both damaged in their own way and all Tony could do was try to soothe those past hurts with his tender ministrations now. Following the planes of James’ body, Tony’s lips left a trail of kisses down the man’s chest, making sure to give extra attention to each dusky nipple as they pebbled underneath his touch. Tony’s name escaped James’ lips, a breathless, needy exhale, and it was music to Tony’s ears. The super soldier was still too quiet, too reserved about communicating his pleasure, but in this, Tony was willing to have patience.

As his lips made their way down to that glorious set of abs (really, there should be temples built in their honor and Tony would be their most devout worshipper), Tony felt James’ right hand on his back, careful but firm touches, trying to flip them back over in an attempt to take back control, but as much as Tony loved being at James’ mercy (especially when there was that glint of the Soldier in the man’s eyes and oh god, it was so baddirtywrong that he found it as hot as he did), this time around, he was the one running the show. Still supporting himself on his arms, Tony shifted back up, making sure to place a few more kisses on those beautiful pecs before finding himself eye level with James and tenderly kissing the arches of both cheeks.

“Shh, sweetheart, just let me take care of you, okay? Just let me be the one to make you feel good tonight, baby. Please?” he whispered, placing more kisses up and down his lover’s jaw. After a moment, Tony felt the grip of the metal hand relax as those cool metal fingers trailed down, causing a shiver of pleasure to run down Tony’s spine. As he saw James give him a nod, eyes dark with arousal and lips parted just enough to let out short huffs of air, Tony’s smile turned decidedly satisfied and he didn’t waste any more time. All he wanted to do was to make James feel so good tonight. After everything the man had suffered, he deserved to feel nothing but pleasure and if there was one thing Tony Stark knew better than anything else, it was how to give someone pleasure

He made his way back down, mourning for a second that he was skipping over those delicious abs, but Tony was a man on a mission. He left just one soft kiss on James’ navel, then let his lips travel even lower, and fuck, James was already so hard, erection straining against the front of his jeans and Tony reveled in the fact that it was all because of him. He loved that he could make James react like this and just the fact that James felt this way about Tony? It meant everything.

The lights around them turned brighter for a moment and just as Tony was about to unzip those jeans and get on with making James forget about everything but his own pleasure and Tony’s talented mouth, the images before him began to shift and slowly dissolve into the light as the intensity of its brightness overtook everything else.

Tony groaned, throwing his arm over his eyes, as he desperately tried to hang on to the images in his head. He was mostly failing.

Goddamn it, really? Why did his dumb brain decide it was time to wake up right before the good part

All Tony really wanted was to go back to that dream for just a little bit longer, but reality was already coming back in bits and pieces whether he liked it or not. Shifting focus to his actual body, Tony realized he was actually half-hard himself and dammit, he deserved some sort of happy ending. He decided there were just enough images left in his head of tantalizing skin, soft smiles, and lust-filled blue eyes, but as he shifted onto his back to give himself better access, Tony realized the bed beneath him didn’t feel quite right. It wasn’t the cold, uncomfortable bed in his quarters and this certainly wasn’t the lumpy couch in the lab.

“Friday, where the hell am I?” he mumbled, still covering his eyes with his arm as he absently scratched the blunt fingernails of his other hand across his stomach.

“You’re in Mr. Barnes’ bed, Boss.”

Tony sat up rim-rod straight, eyes wide open and completely awake. “I’m where now?” he yelped and frantically looked around. Yup, he realized, these were definitely James’ quarters and James’ bed and oh my god, did he spend the night sleeping under a giant, fuzzy Iron Man blanket?

“What the hell happened last night?” Tony muttered to himself, but Friday took that as her cue to respond.

“You had a night terror, Boss, and I, uh— I may have disobeyed a very inadequate set of protocols and asked Mr. Barnes to help you. The two of you came here to rest and after a brief conversation, you both fell asleep. Mr. Barnes has been up for approximately three hours and fourteen minutes now. He is currently in the kitchen.”

As Friday’s words filtered through Tony’s head, he was beginning to remember the rest of the night as well. The god-awful nightmare, being unable to shake it off, and ending up alone in the hallway. James finding him there, sticking around despite Tony’s usual shitty attitude, and oh dear god, did they actually spend an hour cuddling on the floor together? Tony let out an audible groan and let himself fall back onto the bed. 

Yeah, they definitely cuddled. Then the Soldier made a brief appearance—note to self, do not mention Hydra around the poor man— and it wasn’t just dream-Tony who felt ashamed for— for being taken with those glimpses of the Soldier. Because for those brief few moments, with the way James looked at him and the way he clutched Tony to him, it felt like Tony was the only thing in the world that mattered to the man. It was a heady, addictive sensation and Tony hated himself for craving it because he knew James didn’t want anything to do with the Soldier (even though the Soldier was James, at least according to every test and scan done so far).

A voice in his own head, one that resembled some obscene mix of Howard and Obie, whispered that neither James nor the Soldier really cared about him; that part of James hated Hydra and would have been willing to protect anyone with that same fervor. There’s nothing special about you, Tony.

I know guys with none of that worth ten of you.

Great, now he had Steve echoing in his head too. Splendid. 

Tony grimaced and tried to push away the voices by recounting the rest of the evening. He and James ended up talking—oh god, how exhausted was he that he just straight-up asked James to come join him on the bed?—and Tony also recalled being far more candid with James than he probably would’ve been in the light of day. It felt so easy though, sharing those parts of himself. Even talking about his relationship with Pepper didn’t hurt quite as much. 

And then James just told him to get some rest and—

Tony was pretty sure he was physically blushing as he lay there staring up at the ceiling. Sweet lord, he fell asleep while James was literally petting his head.

This was bad. 

This was so very bad because all of that was everything that Tony wanted and he was just on the right side of exhausted last night to let himself indulge in it. He craved that affection and tenderness, he craved James more than he craved alcohol on his darkest days. Shit, he was just replacing one addiction with another, wasn’t he?

Tony was well aware that he was this close to just giving in and letting himself fall down this rabbit hole. If this went on any longer, he wouldn’t be strong enough to resist all the things he felt for James. How could he when he was— no, he couldn’t even think it, he couldn’t—

Fuck. Just be a man and own up to it, Stark.

He was in love with James. 

Iron Man was in love with the Winter Soldier. How the hell did that even happen? Why didn’t someone get into a time machine and warn him that putting his signature on that damn pardon would turn his whole life upside down?

Rubbing the palms of his hands against his eyes, Tony let out another pained groan because admitting that to himself in plain English only made the ache in his chest sharper and he cringed. For once, it wasn’t actual physical pain nor the phantom aches from that blasted shield. No, this was an ache of being so close to having something you wanted so desperately and knowing that you shouldn’t ever, ever let yourself have it.

Denial was no longer working though. Tony knew he was nearly ready to just say fuck it and hand James his whole heart—god, hand every part of himself on a silver platter—and he would be so fucking happy with any scrap of affection James might throw his way.

He swallowed against the bitterness in his throat because he knew that this was exactly what happened with the other Avengers. While his feelings for them were familial, the story was the same. He gave them everything, tried so hard to be exactly what they all wanted him to be, but it was just never good enough. God, there were times when he was almost ready to beg for the affection, loyalty, love they so easily shared with each other. But Stark men were made of iron, Stark men didn’t beg, so he just tried to be better. He tried and tried and tried…

And failed. 

A part of him knew that it was unfair to compare James to the others. Hell, that single comment about paying Tony back put James ahead of the others by a wide margin, although Tony intentionally failed to mention that actually paying him back would’ve been a nearly impossible task (the arm alone cost millions of dollars already). Honestly, Tony barely even knew what to do with James’ simple genuine gratitude because all it did was trigger a compulsion in Tony to just buy James more things. Probably not the healthiest response to people saying “Thank you,” but Tony Stark rarely did healthy.

James was a good man. A great man, who had come so far in such a short time, trying to be someone better each and every day. James was intelligent in his own right, sense of humor razor sharp, and he kept Tony on his toes, matching his teasing and snark without ever making Tony feel like he was falling short of some arbitrary standard. The kids already loved him. Hell, even Rhodey was warming up to him. 

James was a man who saw Tony at his worst and offered comfort instead of derision. A man who made Tony’s weak, old heart skip a beat every time James smiled, every time those clever blue eyes would look at him with warmth.

The actual physical attraction went without saying and Tony tried to push away the thought that he was even attracted to James’ darker side, far more than he should be. He’d take every part of James, Soldier and all, in a heartbeat.

God, he could wax poetic about James all morning long, but he had to be honest with himself. He had to face the fact that anything between them would just end up hurting them both. Maybe they would get to enjoy a few months, but Tony knew, better than anyone, that it was only a matter of time before the rest of the Avengers were back, and just like last year, they’d all be forced to pick a side.

Oh god, it’s like we’re some fucked up version of “Romeo and Juliet.” 

Frankly, Tony was still mostly in denial about the fact that any day now, their illustrious government would sign off on the pardons. He knew it was inevitable though and as much as he hated to admit it, it was probably for the best, as far as the rest of the world was concerned. The past year was relatively quiet on the crazy overpowered villains front, but Tony saw what lied beyond the portal. He knew something was coming for Earth sooner or later and they would need all hands on deck to defend against it. But honestly, he couldn’t even begin to fathom how he would deal with having all of them back, probably living here at the Compound—oh god, what a fucking nightmare— and having to pretend like the past year never happened.

However, he wasn’t in denial about who would be James’ choice once Steve was back here in the flesh.

Tony imagined for a moment, standing there next to Steve in front of James. Him, an old, scarred, broken mess of a man standing next to the all-American hero, that perfect specimen carved out of goddamn marble and righteousness… Everyone had always found Tony wanting when compared to the great Captain America, so who was he to think that it would any different with James? 

Not to mention that this was James, not just some random guy off the street. No, Tony had to go and fall in love with goddamn Bucky Barnes himself, Steve Rogers’ bestest best friend, their love and friendship transcending seven decades worth of war, ice, and Hydra. Love that was literally enshrined in a damn museum (the Smithsonian still refused to take down the Captain America exhibit, even with the man technically being a wanted fugitive). 

And while Howard mostly regaled him with stories of Captain America when Tony was a kid, there were also plenty of stories about Steve and Bucky. Inseparable on and off the field, best friends in life and in death.

How the fuck was he supposed to compete with that? 

That thought startled an actual bark of laughter out of him. It was a humorless, hopeless sound that went perfectly with the sharp ache in his chest.

That was the problem. He couldn’t compete with that. Hell, Tony wasn’t even sure he could be in the same room as Steve, so in the end, James would be forced to choose and he would choose Steve. Everyone else did. 

Would it even be a hard choice to make? In his darkest moments, when insecurities, old and new, were the loudest things in his head, Tony wondered whether James spent his phones calls with Steve counting down the days until he was free of the triggers. Free of Tony. His common sense would pull him back and point out all the evidence to the contrary, that James really did care about Tony and seemed happy here at the Compound, but would that be enough? 

On the other hand, maybe this whole debate was pointless because what if Tony was actually misreading the whole situation in the first place? What exactly made him think James was actually interested in him? Sure, they were close and it didn’t take very long for casual, affectionate touches and words to become second nature between them. But maybe that was because James spent the last seventy years being tortured. The poor guy was probably starving for basic human contact and here was Tony, misinterpreting the whole thing. 

Something even more depressing suddenly dawned on him and a sourness joined the bitter taste at the back of his throat. What if he tried to act on his feelings and James reciprocated because of some misplaced sense of gratitude or worse— some sense of debt, thinking that Tony expected this as some sort of payment for helping him? 

Dammit. Now his mood was definitely rotten. Ugh, and this morning started out so well too. 

Tony realized he should probably get up at some point, but the bed beneath him was too comfortable. Unfairly so, really. It was warm and soft, it smelled like James and honestly, Tony could just die in this bed and be okay with it. 

“Hey, Fri?”

“Yes, Boss?”

“Sorry I yelled at you yesterday. I shouldn’t have. I’m— I’m proud of you, baby girl. You thought and acted on your own accord and probably ended up saving my butt.”

And then promptly landed it in the bed of the man I’m in love with, but let’s not talk about that. 

“I consider it my most important function to ensure that you are well and cared for, Boss. I just— I just wanted you to be okay. Can we update my protocols to include Mr. Barnes as one of your emergency contacts? Just in case something like this happens in the future.”

All Tony could do was let out a weary sigh and close his eyes in the face of that question. He really shouldn’t—

“Yeah, that's fine. You can add him, Fri. But only if Rhodey’s not available.” 

James was still a friend, right? They were still allowed to help each other.

Tony finally forced himself to sit up and let himself have a long stretch. Despite his dark thoughts, he actually felt surprisingly good physically. God, this was probably the best night of sleep he had gotten in— hell, in years

“Fri, how long did I sleep?”

“Seven hours and twenty three minutes.”

Tony’s eyes widened. “Holy— no wonder I feel weird. I think my body’s going into shock,” he muttered to himself.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he took stock of his body. His back ached less, the knots in his neck loosened up a little bit (he really was overdue for a nice massage though), and hell, his mind was so alert, he didn’t even need his morning coffee—

No, that was lunacy. He always needed coffee. 

Finally forcing himself out of the bed, Tony headed into the bathroom and finding a new toothbrush still in its package, he quickly appropriated it. Brushing his teeth gave him the chance to contemplate his next steps.

Well, it was simple, really. All he needed to do now was just— just act around James the same way he would act around any other good friend. They could still be amicable and joke around. Maybe even a nice, comforting pat on the shoulder every once in a while wouldn’t hurt. 

Yes, that was the plan. Platonic, casual, and appropriate interactions. He could do that. He would be a responsible adult— first time for everything— and make the right decision for both of them. 

After spitting out the last of the toothpaste, Tony tried to tame his hair with his hand, quickly gave up, and not wanting to make a trip back to his quarters, decided his sleeveless top and long pajama pants were sufficient. This was his compound, he could walk around barefoot and half dressed if he wanted to.

As he walked past the bed though, the phantom sense of James’ careful fingers running through his hair chose that moment to flitter across Tony’s skin and he physically shuddered. His brain had the worst sense of timing apparently. He promptly ignored the memory of that tender touch, along with the ache in his chest and the heaviness in his heart, and headed for the door.

As soon as he swung the door open however, he was hit with a cheerful chatter of voices mixed with the clatter of plates filtering down the hallway. Definitely coming from the kitchen, Tony decided, and wandered over to investigate.

***

Tony stopped short when he turned the corner and the kitchen came into full view.

“What is— what is going on in here?”

A happy chorus of “Tony!” sounded from the four people in the kitchen. Harley and Peter were in one corner, trying to mix something that resembled batter (the flour was everywhere but in the bowl at the moment), Vision was at the stove, peacefully mixing something in a pot, and James was standing at one of the counters, cutting up strawberries. Tony had to bite back a groan at just how good James looked this morning, hair pulled back in a loose bun, wearing jeans, sneakers, and a black t-shirt that oh so perfectly accentuated those glorious biceps. Tony didn’t remember James ever wearing a shirt quite that snug before, but while those tight shirts were just annoying when Steve used to wear them, they looked like god’s gift to mankind on James.

Tony then took in the apron James was wearing and died just a little bit more inside. Kiss the Cook. Yeah, life definitely had a shitty sense of humor. 

He made his way over to the breakfast bar that overlooked the entire kitchen and sat himself down in one of the barstools. “Seriously though, what are you guys doing?”

“We’re making a breakfast buffet, Tony,” Vision responded with his usual serene smile. “We have plenty of fresh fruit, jams, syrups… The boys are making pancakes, I will be making french toast—”

“And I’m stuck making crepes,” James cut in. “I watched a video on the Youtube though—”

“It’s just Youtube, Bucky.”

“Sorry, on the just Youtube,” James’ smile turned into a mischievous grin when Harley groaned in defeat behind him, “I watched how to do the flip and I’m sure I can pull it off—”

“Oh, can you teach us how to do it too?” Peter chimed in and James turned to give the boys a mock glare.

“Well, I would, but then you two had to go and make a big ol’ mess over there. Come on, there’s more flour on you than in the batter! How does that even work?”

The two boys just grinned unrepentantly at the man and went back to flicking flour at each other instead of measuring it out.

Tony just sat there and blinked at the whole exchange. “…I have so many questions right now,” he muttered and then frowned as he took in the veritable pile of fruit James was cutting up. “This is way too much food for just five people though. Even factoring in teenage boys and super soldier appetites.”

Both James and Vision first glanced at each other and then gave Tony an unimpressed look.

“You forgot, didn’t ya?” James asked and Vision shook his head, some fondness coloring his voice.

“You really can’t blame Tony, he has been working very hard these past few days.”

“Forgot what exactly?”

“We have guests coming over today,” James responded and then carried the cut up berries over to a tray with another pile of prepped fruit. Tony took the moment to think, trying to remember who exactly was supposed to be coming over this morning, while simultaneously trying to remind himself that staring at James’ magnificent backside when he turned around was absolutely not allowed behavior anymore— but seriously, it wasn’t his fault! Who let James wear jeans that tight-fitting?

However, he apparently got a little too lost in thought because all of the sudden there was a super soldier right next to him. James just appeared on his left side and oh— there was definitely a super soldier arm now casually draped over the back of his barstool, snug against Tony’s exposed back and shoulders. 

“Hi?” Tony barely managed to squeak out as he looked up at James who just tilted his head at him. 

“Hi there. Did you sleep well?” James' voice was soft and soothing and Tony’s breath definitely did not get caught in his throat at the smile he was graced with.

“It was— better than expected,” was all Tony could string together, brain still trying to work out why there was a very warm, very solid super soldier standing so close to him. 

“I’m glad to hear that,” James said and then reached out his metal hand to gently tuck a few of Tony’s curls behind his ear. “Anytime you need a good night’s sleep, Tony,” he whispered and winked, “my bed’s all yours.”

Before Tony could even begin to say anything in response to that, James addressed Vision. “I think we’re supposed to take that off the heat now, Viz, and then—”

Whatever else James said turned into white noise in Tony’s head because suddenly his entire existence narrowed down to James’ right hand tracing lazy figure eights up and down the back of Tony’s arm. Tony vaguely remembered James doing something similar last night, but it was different then. Last night was just about comfort in the face of nightmares. This— this was casual and unprompted, in broad daylight in the middle of their kitchen! James was still chatting with Vision, but his hand just continued on with its gentle caresses, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

A simple touch like that had no right to feel so good, but oh god, it felt amazing and Tony couldn’t help the soft exhale he let out, his brain ready to just melt right out of his skull. But at least he didn’t outright moan.

On top of that, James was still standing so close that Tony could actually smell that the man was already freshly showered, hints of his shampoo mixing with the scent of metal and vanilla. Somehow, James always smelled like vanilla now. Maybe because he spent so much time in the kitchen baking nowadays, Tony wasn’t sure. 

And the way Tony’s skin lit up with electricity along every inch of where James’ arm was pressed against his back and shoulders—

This was it. This was how the Winter Soldier planned to kill him. Forget guns and grenades and knives. James was going to kill him with gentle touches and with that intoxicating scent and with the amazing way the heat from his skin permeated all through Tony— and why wasn’t anyone else in the kitchen paying attention to the master assassin currently turning Tony into puddle of goo?

James was still speaking, but now he was looking back down at Tony instead of Vision.

Oh god, Tony was supposed to respond, wasn’t he? 

“Whazzatnow?” he managed, really hoping it sounded like actual words.

James was smiling serenely at him, no hint of mischief or any other diabolical Winter Soldier intentions. Just his usual sweet smile that somehow still made Tony weak in the knees even though he was sitting down

“I asked if you wanted some coffee,” James replied and Tony’s brain finally perked up because, yes, coffee. Tony definitely needed coffee. 

“Coffee— that sounds— great,” Tony swallowed and tried to gather his wits. Come on, Stark, complete sentences. “Thanks, James.” Close enough.

“Of course,” James’ eyes crinkled at the corners as his smile grew, but instead of walking away to get said coffee, he leaned down just far enough to whisper in Tony’s ear “Don’t worry, the two spoons of sugar can be our little secret.” 

Or at least Tony assumed those were the words because all he could really focus on was the shock of arousal that shot through his whole body when he felt the soft huff of James’ breath against his ear. Tony’s brain supplied memories of the Soldier once doing the exact same thing and then every thought just promptly fizzled out into static. 

Thankfully, James finally pulled away (although not before slowly and deliberately dragging his right hand across Tony’s back and shoulders before finally letting go). 

Now that every one of his senses was no longer assaulted with James, James, James, Tony was able to suck in a breath of air, his world slowly coming back to normal. 

Okay, get it together, Tony. Shit, what was I supposed to be doing again? Right, right, be a responsible adult.

There’s just something weird in the water this morning. That’s all. Something that only affects former Soviet assassins, maybe? 

Tony used the reprieve to observe the four in the kitchen for a few minutes (James turned on the coffee maker, the kids were throwing blueberries at each other, and Vision was frowning at a cookbook), but the intermission didn’t last long.

“We’re here!” a familiar voice sounded behind Tony, accompanied by delighted squeals. 

Chapter Text

“We’re here!” 

Laura’s familiar voice filled the kitchen, accompanied by delighted squeals. Tony turned around in his chair, suddenly wishing he made the trip back to his quarters after all and at least put on some damn jeans

“Wait, what— Why are Mama Agent and Tiny Agents in my kitchen?” 

Cooper and Lila chose that moment to climb onto the two barstools next to him and trap him in the middle of a hug, accompanied by a harmonized “We missed you, Uncle Tony!” 

Laura approached at a more sedate pace, carrying a sleeping Nate. “Tony, we had this planned for weeks. You know, we all get together for brunch before the kids start school again? You forgot, didn’t you?” 

Tony’s eyes widened as things finally started to come back to him. “Oh my god, May and the Keeners are coming too, aren’t they?” he blurted out. Laura gave him a slow nod, obviously trying to fight back her amusement at his expense. Lila gave him a quick smooch on the cheek as he ruffled both hers and her brother’s hair and then the two kids sped off to greet Peter and Harley in the kitchen. "Um, Friday? Help daddy out. What’s the ETA on the rest of the extended family?”

“Mrs. and Ms. Keener will be arriving in approximately 35 minutes. Mrs. Parker is making the drive over as well. ETA approximately 43 minutes.” 

Laura took the now empty seat next to Tony. “Well, at least Friday is on top of things,” she joked as she gave Tony a one-armed hug, little Nate trapped between them.

“Hey, I made Friday, so I feel I should get at least part of the credit,” he winked at the woman, “and in my defense, Pepper has been non-stop with SI stuff. New product launch in two months, and the board’s freaking out while the shareholders think the world’s on fire. So you know, business as usual.” 

Laura rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Oh, well, if it’s Pepper’s fault, I guess I can forgive you.”

“I am sorry though, really,” he tried again, putting on his best innocent grin. “How are things at the farm? Everything running smoothly?”

Laura’s smile was softer this time. “Everything’s great, Tony. The helper bots are amazing, as always, not to mention the actual people you hired to assist.”

“Good, good,” Tony replied, running a gentle hand across Nate’s tuft of hair. “Why is Tiniest Agent so sleepy this morning? I distinctly remember him being wide awake and ready for action at ungodly morning hours.” 

Tony learned that fact quickly enough over the four months Laura and the kids spent living at the Compound. Usually Uncle Tony was the only one still awake at sunrise, so he found himself calming a fussy Nate more than once while the boy’s mother got much needed sleep.

After that initial introduction to Laura when the Avengers went into hiding on Clint’s farm, the next interaction between her and Tony was him reaching out to her, worried that Thaddeus Ross would use her to get to Clint after the breakout at the Raft. Ross turned downright rabid in his efforts to get intel on what happened during that little Houdini disappearing act; Tony had a feeling it involved a lot of help from Natasha and one Miss Sharon Carter, but he never bothered to actually verify his suspicions.

That phone call with Laura went about as well as expected though when she promptly told him to go to hell and hung up on him. Honestly, Tony didn’t even blame her for it, but he had to at least try.

A week later, however, Tony received a distraught call in the middle of the night, Laura terrified and asking for help, because someone was on the farm, trying to get into the house. She and the kids hid in the basement while Tony and Vision made the frantic flight over. For once, luck was on their side because it was only an initial scout and by the time the rest of Ross’ men got there, the scout was knocked out cold and Laura and the kids were safe on the plane back to the Compound.

Ross knew it was Tony who got Laura out, but he could pursue neither Tony nor the family using any legal means and there was no way in hell the man was getting into the Compound. 

The family was safe, but Laura was distant and wary at first, accepting Tony’s help only out of sheer desperation. Over time though, mistrust turned into tolerance, which then turned in friendship and before Tony even knew what happened, somehow he found himself adopted by the whole family.

Laura gave him a tired shrug as she adjusted Nate in her lap. “He wasn’t feeling well last night and his fever kept him up—”

“Wait, is he sick? Do we need to go to medical? ‘Cause we’ve got doctors on site right now—”

Laura shook her head. “No, no, the fever broke very early this morning and he should be alright now. It’s just a bug going around. Unfortunately, it left us both with too little sleep.” Before Tony could protest, she continued. “I’m fine, don’t you dare tell me I shouldn’t have come. Besides, we both took a nap on the flight over. At least your pilot remembered I was coming,” she laughed. “We really have missed you coming by the farm, Tony.”

“Sorry, I know. It’s just— the last few months have been— busy,” Tony admitted and they both glanced at James in that moment, who was mixing flour and sugar in a bowl on the far side of the kitchen.

“Yeah, I bet they have been,” Laura looked back at him meaningfully and Tony frowned.

“Listen, he’s— not what you expect, Laura. Don’t let Clint’s actions color your opinion of him. James is here to get help and he’s actually a really great guy and I just—”

“Tony,” she stopped his ramblings and her voice dropped to a whisper, “I’m a grown ass woman. I’ve come to terms with the fact that the only person responsible for my idiot ex-husband’s actions is my idiot ex-husband. He’s the one who decided to run off because his precious Captain America came calling. I’ve supported Clint through everything, I knew what he did at SHIELD was important— but he was retired, for god’s sake. He promised that he was done and then he just—” Laura’s lips pressed into a thin line as she stopped herself from saying anything else. “Today is a good day. We’re not gonna ruin it by talking about this. And I promise I will judge Mr. Barnes,” she glanced his way again, “on his own merit. Now, since you haven’t been around to help on the farm, you can start making up for it with this—” Laura stood back up and then promptly shifted little Nate’s sleeping form into Tony’s lap. The engineer squawked in surprise, arms wrapping around the boy on instinct.

“Laura, wait— You know I don’t do well with— babies scare me, Laura!” he pleaded, but she was already walking away.

“Good thing he’s a toddler then, Tony!” she threw over her shoulder and headed toward James. 

Tony glanced down at Nate who was jostled by the move just enough to blink his big sleepy eyes at him. 

“Hey kiddo,” Tony whispered, “are you having a really weird morning too?” he asked and Nate just reached out to squish Tony’s cheeks in his chubby little hands, muttered something that sounded vaguely like “Hi, Uncle Tony,” and then promptly cuddled up into Tony’s chest to fall right back asleep. 

Tony adjusted the boy in his lap to get a better grip on him and then rested his chin on top of the little head. “S’okay, that’s how I feel without my coffee too, bud,” he added, running an absent hand up and down the boy’s back. 

He had to admit that he missed having Nate’s small warm weight in his arms. It felt nice, although he was still a little worried about boy’s earlier fever. Maybe he should sneak him down into medical anyways, just to make sure he was okay now. 

As he contemplated that, Tony also kept his eyes on Laura and James, who were having a quiet discussion at the moment. James’ shoulders had the familiar I feel guilty for everything hunch to them and Tony narrowed his eyes, ready to step in if necessary, but then Laura gave James a small but genuine smile and patted him on the arm. Tony couldn’t hear what she said and his lip-reading skills were crap, but it looked like an It’s okay and when she said something else, James responded with a nod and some of the tension in his shoulders drained away. A moment later, Laura was calling her kids over to introduce them to the man. Tony was not surprised one bit when Lila’s eyes lit up at the sight of the metal arm. She was his tiny engineer-in-training and her little pink soldering iron down at the lab got plenty of use back when the family stayed here. 

Tony exhaled a relieved sigh. Good, good. He really needed all of his favorite people to get along. 

Minutes later, James approached him with that promised cup of coffee.

“Everything alright?” Tony still felt the need to ask, but James just gave him a reassuring nod before quietly placing the mug on the granite countertop of the breakfast bar. 

Tony just barely managed to keep himself from letting out another startled squeak when James’ arm went right back around him, like that was its rightful place now.

“And who’s this handsome young man?” the super soldier looked down at Nate with a smile.

Tony valiantly ignored the heat of James’ skin against his own. Complete sentences, Stark. “This is Nathaniel, the tiniest of Tiny Agents. Don’t let this angelic facade fool you though. He’s usually a little hellion, but apparently he wasn’t feeling very well last night,” Tony added quietly and without even thinking about it, placed a soft kiss on top of the boy’s head. Nate smelled nice too, he noted absently, some sweet scent of kid shampoo probably. 

Tony watched James reach out and with utmost gentleness run his metal hand across the boy’s chubby cheek. For a moment, Tony forgot to feel flustered and distracted by whatever the hell was going on between him and James, entranced by the tenderness behind that gesture instead. Tony built every part of that arm with his own hands, knew all of its capabilities intimately, and it still amazed him that something that could stop bullets and crush diamonds could be gentle enough to caress a little boy’s cheek without even waking him.

It wasn’t lost on Tony that it was really a perfect metaphor for James himself.

“He’s quite a sweetheart, isn’t he?” James said softly and Tony smiled at the wistful fondness in the man’s voice. 

“You say that now, but wait until this little rascal is awake,” he joked and looked back up at James. Tony's breath stuttered to a stop as he realized he never wanted to look away from the softness and the love behind those blue eyes— 

Thankfully, before Tony could do something terribly stupid (like give up on all remaining pretenses of propriety and just kiss James right here in the middle of the kitchen), James’ attention was diverted by Harley and Peter. The super soldier cringed when he saw the two of them at the stove.

“I better go make sure they don’t burn the kitchen down.”

“Yeah, those two do have a tendency to set things on fire,” Tony agreed. None of them were getting pancakes if those two were in charge.

James pulled away (but not before giving Tony’s shoulder a firm squeeze), but after a few steps, he turned around and gave him a scrutinizing look. 

“What?” Tony couldn’t help but ask, feeling self-conscious all of the sudden.

James just shook his head. “Nothing. It’s just— fatherhood looks good on you, Tony.”

With that, James just continued walking away as if he didn’t just cause all of Tony’s brain functions to come to a screeching halt. Tony was definitely about to demand that James come right back and explain himself because you can’t just walk away after saying something like that!, but by the time Tony’s brain actually came back online, James was already in the middle of explaining to the boys that less was more when it came to firepower in the kitchen.

So Tony had no choice but to just sit there, blinking owlishly at the general chaos before him and accept the fact that this was the most bizarre morning of his life.

However, he only had a few minutes to contemplate his life choices.

“What on God’s green Earth is happening in my kitchen?”

This time when Tony turned his head, he was greeted with the sight of his best friend, flanked on both side by Hope and Alice. Both Rhodey and Hope were wearing casual t-shirt and jean combos while Alice was in her usual immaculate business suit and heels, StarkPad in hand and bemused expression on her face. Tony suddenly felt even more underdressed.

For a moment, he wondered whether they invited Hope too and he just forgot about it, but it came back to him a second later that she and Rhodey were both in Washington DC last night and must have just gotten back.

“Our kitchen has been invaded, Rhodey! You need to come save me!” Tony responded with his usual theatrics. Thankfully, the general noise level was basically a lullaby for little Nate, who was peacefully sleeping through the commotion. 

As the three approached the breakfast bar, Tony gave Hope a pleased smile. “Hope, darling! It’s been too long. You are looking as beautiful as ever and can I just say that you’re officially my new hero? The way you ripped apart that reporter in the last Pym Tech press conference? Oh god, I’m still getting chills thinking about it.”

She shook her head fondly at Tony’s gushing, but still leaned over to give him a quick peck on the cheek. “Oh, you smooth talker, you. I just very politely told Peterson that if he pulled any of that sexist crap again, I would end him.” Her hand brushed gently across Nate’s hair before she took a seat on Tony’s right.

Tony gave her a wink. “I can watch you eviscerate idiots all day long,” he said and smiled at her answering, pleased grin.

Rhodey stopped behind him then and rested his hands on Tony’s shoulders. Tony dropped his head back against Rhodey’s chest and looked up at the man. “I missed you too, buttercup. How was DC?” 

Rhodey let out a sigh. “Same shit, different day. Good news - we’ll be able to push through the Accords amendment that Strange wanted on magic usage. Bad news - pretty sure Senator Harris is going to cave the next time pardons are brought up.”

Hope made a disgusted noise. “I swear that man’s spine is made out of wet tissue paper. Just the fact that they’re even considering letting all of them get off scot-free and just come back like nothing happened—” 

Alice, who was leaning on the back of the chair on Tony’s left, downright growled. “Well, what else can you expect? The same thing happened after SHIELD fell. Romanoff and Rogers barely got a slap on the wrist before going on their merry way." Her voice dropped to a furious whisper. "God, some people have their heads so far up Captain America’s ass, they’ll let him get away with literal murder.”

Hope let out a snort. “I just don’t get it. What is it about Rogers that has people so enamored with him?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s all that patriotism and those baby blues and that aw, schucks demeanor,” Alice responded sarcastically. Tony felt like he was watching a tennis match between the two women as he looked back and forth between them. He realized suddenly that not all of his brooding thoughts from earlier this morning were accurate. Not everyone chose Captain America over him and it was unfair to the people around him to have thought otherwise. 

Alice continued with a shake of her head. “God, is it terrible of me to hope Dr. Banner resurfaces one day just so the Hulk could punch Rogers and the rest of his idiot brigade right in the face? Not that I would be here to see it,” she shrugged dejectedly, “given that my resignation letter will be signed and sealed before the proverbial ink on those pardons even has the chance to dry.”

Tony finally decided to step in. “Alright, alright, let’s just leave my poor Brucie Bear out of this and let’s not get hasty with any resignation letters there, Director. This Compound would fall apart without you in two days. Three, tops. Most importantly though, the two of you are breaking this kitchen’s most cardinal rule right now - we don’t talk about those-who-must-not-be-named within its hallowed halls. This is a holy place. Besides,” he gave both of them a meaningful look, “the idiot brigade is going to come back. It’s happening whether we like it or not. It’s not worth raising your blood pressure over.” 

Alice acquiesced with a grimace while Hope just let out a frustrated sigh and then proceeded to steal Tony’s still untouched cup of coffee. 

“Tony’s right,” Rhodey finally chimed in. “No use worrying about it now. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

“Can’t we just burn the bridge before they get to it?” Hope lamented and took a sip of the coffee.

“Burn the bridge while they’re on it?” Alice suggested, her expression turning vicious and Tony had to hide his smile in Nate’s hair. Okay, so maybe he was enjoying this a bit too much, but that could be his little secret.

“Ladies, let’s save that, uh— that enthusiasm for when they’re actually here,” Rhodey reprimanded, although his own tone was amused. He then raised his voice so he could address everyone in the kitchen. “You know, all I’m seeing is a bunch of sugary nonsense. I sure hope there are some bacon and eggs in this for me.”

Harley perked up at Rhodey’s words. “On it!” the kid yelled out and bounded over to the refrigerator, but after a minute of scrutinizing the contents, he let out a frustrated groan. “Why are there no eggs and bacon in here?”

“Oh, I must apologize,” Vision responded, as he carried a platter of jam and syrup over to the table, expertly dodging Cooper, who dashed in front of him, “we used all the eggs a few days ago. We were experimenting with meringues.” He frowned. “Can’t say we used any of the bacon for that, however.”

“That’s okay, West Wing kitchens should have plenty,” Harley exclaimed and ran over into the hallway, but then darted back a second later. “Wait, how many should I get? One— two packages— no, wait,” the boy’s face turned downright devious. “I’ll gonna get all the bacon and eggs.” With that declaration, he sprinted back down the hallway, with a “Cooper, come help me!” echoing behind him.

Tony shook his head at Harley’s antics, admitting to himself that he was going to miss the boys' shenanigans. They were both starting school next week, but at least there were always weekends and holidays to look forward to.

Alice let out a sigh next to him and began to pull away. “I should— probably get going. I still need to approve all the requisition forms for the final supply order and—”

“No, come on, join us for breakfast!” Tony insisted, realizing this was the first time he had seen the woman in a while, given how hectic the last few months had been. He made a mental note to stop by her office in the next few days to catch up and then tried to remember what kind of gifts she liked. Shoes? Wine? Guns? Eh, he’d get her all three. 

The woman gave him a self-deprecating smile. “This really seems like a family thing, Mr. Stark, I don’t want to intrude—”

Before Tony could counter that, Rhodey beat him to the punch. “Hell, you’re as much a part of this dysfunctional family as anyone else, Alice. You’re welcome to stay.”

“Yup, Rhodey’s right,” Tony chimed in. “If we hate on Rogers together, we eat breakfast together. Sorry, Ali-cakes, you’re stuck with all of us now.” 

The woman just laughed as she gave the chaos in the kitchen a scrutinizing look. “I suppose I could stay.” Her nose scrunched up in mirth. “I mean, someone should really go help poor Mr. Barnes over there.”

Tony followed her gaze and let out an undignified snort. Poor James was trying to make the crepes while Lila had her scientist face on, poking and prodding different parts of the metal arm, each time asking James if he could feel it. Peter was perched on the counter next to them, eating the crepes instead of helping to make them, all the while laughing at James, who dutifully responded to every one of Lila’s questions. The man seemed perfectly at ease with the kids though, probably more so than he had ever been surrounded by adults.

“I think he’s doing just fine,” Tony said, unable to keep the affection out of his voice. 

Hope took another sip of Tony’s coffee and then walked over to Alice, draping an arm around her shoulders. “Come on, let’s go say hi. I haven’t actually been properly introduced to our new resident assassin who, I must say, cleans up so well. So introduce me, Director.” 

The two women walked over to the now very crowded stove and soon got the kids and James engaged in conversation, leaving Tony and Rhodey at the breakfast bar. 

“How is this our life, Rhodey Bear?” Tony had to ask the other man.

Rhodey’s response was to let out a contented chuckle. “I’ve no idea. Feels good though, doesn’t it?” 

Tony took a moment to contemplate that question and take in everything around them. The happy chatter, the smiles. Everyone safe and sound, getting ready to enjoy a meal together.

It was so simple, but only a year ago, something like this would’ve have felt like an impossibility.

A year ago, when Tony was still in complete hell. Rhodey was paralyzed, Vision was heartbroken, and Tony— well, Tony was just broken. Physically and emotionally. The Accords were barely in their infancy, with so much work still ahead and a desperate sense of urgency because any delay meant more time for Ross and his lackeys to sink their dirty claws into the whole process. That bastard turned downright belligerent after the Raft breakout and he was foaming at the mouth, trying to take Tony down completely. Attempting to undercut him at every turn, badmouthing him and the Avengers to the press, incessant phone calls, day and night, and countless threats against Tony and the few people he had left on his side, including Laura and the kids. Back in those days, it felt like there was no clear end in sight. Tony just worked and worked and worked, trying to get through each hour without falling apart. Getting through one day felt like a herculean feat. He had no real hope for the future.

But then, somehow, things began to fall into place around Tony, one small puzzle piece at a time. Alice was hired to take care of the Compound and suddenly neither Tony nor Rhodey were burdened with the day-to-day minutia of running the place. Strange showed up out of nowhere one day and offered his support and his signature on the Accords. Then, a ground-breaking announcement by Pym Technologies and Hope, saying that they fully supported and stood by the new revised Accords, the New Avengers, and Tony Stark himself. Unprecedented, given the past animosities between Hank Pym and Howard Stark, and it had the media in a frenzy for weeks, but it meant the world for the rebuilding efforts.

Then finally, Tony unearthed just enough incriminating evidence to take Ross to trial and that fiasco was all over the news for weeks as well, but surprisingly, thanks to one Christine Everhart and her powerful media presence, that worked decidedly in the Avengers’ favor. 

He and Christine had developed a love-hate relationship over the years and while a few of her pieces actually praised Tony, that woman also had plenty of scathing articles about Tony and the Avengers under her belt. However, ever since Gulmira, Tony had taken her criticisms seriously and as much as he hated being served the metaphorical humble pie, she had valid points more often than not. 

However, this time around, Christine decided to focus the full extent of her wrath on Ross and her article went viral at the same time #IStandwithIronMan began trending (and Tony still remembered how surreal it felt to see people actually rally behind him instead of against him).

The people’s hero, she described Tony, that moniker usually accompanied by two photos: Iron Man flying the nuke into the portal in New York, and Tony Stark, standing somber and formidable, as he testified against Ross in court. There were none of his usual jokes and inappropriate comments that day. 

Iron Man risked life and limb, time and time again, protecting people from threats bigger than all of them, while Tony Stark fought for accountability and transparency and exposed real criminals like Thaddeus Ross. 

Honestly, Tony thought the whole thing was ridiculous, but damn, that woman could spin a message better than anyone he knew and good press was exactly what they needed to turn the tide in their favor.

Time kept marching on, and before long, Rhodey could finally walk again. Vision smiled more and more, Peter and Harley became a constant presence in their lives, and sometimes Tony would spend days helping out on Laura’s farm, surrounded by the peace and quiet of nature, disturbed only by children’s happy laughter.

And now…

The sudden tight ache in his chest at the mere thought of how far they’ve come damn near forced tears into Tony’s eyes and all he could do was give Rhodey a shaky nod and hide his face in Nate’s hair. Rhodey’s mother hen senses clearly went off because he gave Tony’s shoulders a comforting squeeze, reminding Tony that he wasn’t alone.

“We’re just fine, old man. And this time around, I’ll move heaven and earth to make sure we stay that way.”

Rhodey’s words prompted Tony to look up, just in time to see James’ concerned expression, as their gazes met for a moment across the kitchen. James mouthed a silent You alright? and all Tony could do was give him a smile, hoping it was reassuring. 

So maybe his life wasn’t perfect. Some new Big Bad was bound to show up sooner or later, the old Avengers were probably coming back, and Tony was still crazy in love with a man he couldn’t have.

But looking at the people around him, Tony knew he had so much more than he ever deserved. 

So yeah, he was definitely alright.

Chapter Text

Closing the utensils drawer with his hip, Bucky leaned against the counter and stuck a generous spoonful of Nutella into his mouth. The chocolate tasted like bliss on his tongue and he savored the sweetness, absent-mindedly observing the dark kitchen around him.

Bucky didn’t bother to check the time when the nightmare woke him up, but he guessed it was around three in the morning by the angle of the moonlight streaming through the window. He sighed and indulged in another spoonful.

The nightmare was certainly a surprising and unwelcome visitor tonight, he thought dejectedly. On any other night, it would’ve been expected, but the last time he fell asleep next to Tony, he had an amazing night of sleep. Unfortunately, even Tony’s presence didn’t seem to chase away his past entirely.

After that night six days ago, Bucky wasn’t sure whether Tony would ever join him again, but tonight, a grumpy and exhausted engineer showed up at his door around midnight, wearing his sleep clothes and a disgruntled frown.

“…I can’t sleep. I have this dumb meeting with a bunch of UN delegates tomorrow and I need to be at the top of my game, but I just can’t sleep.”

All Bucky did in response was look up from his book and raise a prompting eyebrow. He already knew that Tony rarely asked for help - drawing attention to it in any way was likely to send the man running, so it was best to just let Tony keep talking instead. He did wonder however if there was more to Tony’s request because he’d seen a sleep-deprived, possibly delirious Tony effortlessly dazzle and wow an entire conference room full of journalists.

“I tried my bed. Too damn cold. I tried the lab. Too many distractions.” Tony’s tired eyes narrowed at Bucky. “I’m a scientist, James. I need data. And a sample of one is never sufficient. So I, uh— I need further samples to see if the last time I fell asleep here was an outlier or whether there’s some variable here that makes a difference. Friday says that your bed is the same make and model as mine, but I think her code is faulty—”

“My code is just fine, Boss.”

“Shh, no one is perfect, Fri.”

Bucky wanted nothing more than to gather Tony up in his arms right then and there and keep him in his bed forever, but he learned pretty quickly that the best way to handle Tony’s rare moments of vulnerability was to act like nothing of importance was actually happening.

So he simply scooted over to his side of the bed, looked back down at his book, and gave an easy shrug.

“Sure thing. But if you start snoring, I’m kicking you out.”

He heard Tony’s scoff as the man walked over to the bed. “I don’t snore.”

“Glad to hear,” Bucky replied simply and when Tony sat down, he pointed to the blanket carefully folded at the foot of the bed. “Your Iron Man blanket’s right over there.” 

He did look up then in order to fully enjoy the way Tony slowly turned to him and graced him with what would’ve been a hateful glare if it weren’t for the small upward twitch of Tony’s lips. Bucky’s response was an unrepentant grin. 

Despite the glare, Tony nevertheless crawled over to grab the blanket, before turning himself into a fuzzy red-and-gold cocoon. 

“Why the hell do you even have this thing?” Tony muttered as he settled in, trying to inconspicuously move his pillow to be closer to Bucky’s hip. Bucky tried and failed to keep the satisfied smile off his face. “I didn’t even know our Iron Man line made blankets… Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice that you’re wearing a Stark Industries shirt either. What are you, our marketing department?” 

“This is all Friday’s doing, I just wear what she buys me,” Bucky explained, failing to mention that he never actually asked her to stop. Tony’s various reactions to Bucky wearing Iron Man merchandise never failed to be entertaining. “I guess she just loves her Boss so much that she wants to see him everywhere.” 

“A very accurate assessment, Mr. Barnes,” Friday chimed in cheerfully and Tony just grumbled at them both as he tried to make himself more comfortable. 

Silence settled between them, but after a few moments, Tony quietly spoke up. “For this to be an acceptable sample, I, uh— I need to have all the same conditions as last time. You know, for proper science.”

Bucky was torn between being amused by Tony’s roundabout way of asking and feeling sad that Tony still wasn’t comfortable with him to be straight-forward in what he wanted.

“Well, who am I to stand in the way of science?” he said quietly as his right hand reached for Tony’s head. All it took was just a few minutes of careful, gentle caresses and Tony was out like a light, surprising even Bucky with how quickly the man fell asleep. It felt amazing knowing that something about his presence made Tony feel comfortable and safe enough to let go and let himself relax so easily.

Bucky fell asleep not long after that, his mind drifting off with Tony’s calming presence at his side, but apparently the peace only lasted for a few hours before the nightmares came back in full force. He woke up in a cold sweat, unable to breathe, lying almost entirely still, except for the tremor in his flesh hand. With the images of blood on his hands and the screams of his victims echoing in his ears, it took him a few moments to remember where he was and then a few more to remember that this time, he wasn’t alone in the bed. There was a part of him then that wanted nothing more than to wake Tony up, to beg the man for comfort— please, please help me remember I’m not that man anymore— but logic overrode that selfish desire. Tony needed sleep and it wasn’t the man’s responsibility to deal with Bucky when he was like this. 

So as much as it pained him to leave behind Tony’s sleeping form, he pressed just one tender kiss to the engineer’s temple and carefully got himself out of bed, heading into the kitchen.

Since nightmares were a frequent enough occurrence, he learned a few tricks to help himself ease back into reality and shake off the lingering memories. If he felt claustrophobic, he would go outside and look up at the night sky. If he had an excess of the Soldier’s violent energy thrumming through him, he’d go down to the gym and let the reinforced punching bags feel the brunt of his anger. At times like tonight, when he felt nothing but guilt and melancholy, the sweet taste of sugar helped. 

If he were honest with himself though, it was his new happier memories that helped push back the nightmares more than anything else. Before he came to the Compound, his head was filled with nothing but remnants of Hydra and his time in Romania. None of it was positive, not really. The only real beacon of good back then was Steve, as faded memories of his best friend slowly began to resurface, but even those were soon tainted by an unsettling feeling of looking at Steve and seeing a stranger instead of his old friend.

So when nightmares inevitably plagued him back then, he had no pleasant memories to focus on instead. 

Thankfully, that wasn’t true anymore, so ignoring the echoes of his past still rattling around in his head, Bucky focused on something more enjoyable instead. His ongoing execution of Plan A seemed like a pretty good choice.

He couldn’t say it was a complete success quite yet, particularly given that their time together was limited by Tony’s demanding schedule. Sometimes Bucky hated how much Tony actually worked, but he learned very quickly to squash down any selfish desire to bodily carry Tony out of the lab whenever the engineer spent too much time down there. Tony wasn’t some child who was just being stubborn. He was a grown adult with so much responsibility on his shoulders that frankly, Bucky wondered sometimes how he even dealt with all that pressure. His company depended on him, the Avengers did too, and hell, the whole world depended on Tony to do his job well.

So instead, Bucky just tried to support that when he could, even if it just meant bringing Tony’s meal down and asking if he could help in any way. Unfortunately, Tony rarely needed the extra assistance, but he did take Bucky up on his offer a few days ago, asking for help with some heavy lifting. Plainly obvious that he was just indulging Bucky, given that the man had an army of Iron Man suits who could’ve done the work, but Bucky didn’t hesitate to take that opportunity to show off and flex a muscle or two. The heated looks Tony threw his way when he thought Bucky wasn’t paying attention were absolutely perfect. 

Surprisingly, Bucky actually found himself somewhat employed as well. Before Peter and Harley went back home, they apparently told Alice how much they loved their sparring sessions with Bucky and the woman promptly appropriated his skills to train some of their more trustworthy recruits. She even asked him to help on the shooting range, although Bucky didn’t have the heart to tell her that he wasn’t sure he could actually teach someone to shoot well, given that so much of what he did now was pure instinct. He was willing to try though. 

So, he and Tony were busy, but nevertheless, Bucky’s current mission to woo the man showed promising results. Not to mention, the playful words and the soft touches were reminding him just how much fun it was to actually flirt with someone.

He had vague recollections of being called a flirt and a ladies man back in the old days, but really, girls liked him because they felt safe with him more than anything else, since he was never really interested in making aggressive passes at them. Girls were sweet and fun to spend time with though, and since flirting with them was what society expected back then, he kept female company more often than not.

Flirting with Tony took a lot more effort, especially given their unique situation, but it was also a lot more satisfying and Bucky was careful, from the very beginning, to make sure nothing he did made Tony uncomfortable. There was a world of difference between being simply startled by a soft touch and actually flinching away from it, and thankfully, it was never the latter with Tony. Instead of being uncomfortable or stiff, Tony outright melted under Bucky’s ministrations, all soft exhales and relaxed muscles. 

Given Tony’s tendency to tease and flirt with everyone (the level of shamelessness depending on the person and Tony’s mood at the time), the flustered reactions to Bucky’s touch or off-handed flirtations were surprising, but Bucky hoped that just meant the reactions were actually genuine. Most of Tony’s flirtatious comments were usually nothing more than a way to make someone more comfortable in an awkward situation (or to make someone uncomfortable if Tony disliked the person and felt particularly petty). 

Honestly though, Bucky couldn’t complain. A blushing Tony Stark was quickly becoming his favorite thing in the world. He remembered a night from a few days ago and couldn’t help the smile that blossomed on his face.

As much as Tony tried to introduce him to various pieces of popular culture, Bucky’s education in film was still severely lacking because instead of watching the actual movie, he and Tony usually ended up distracted by conversation instead. Friday already developed a habit of gradually turning down the volume, keeping the movie on only as quiet background noise.

The engineer, currently sprawled on the couch with his sock-clad feet in Bucky’s lap, let out a groan as he tried and failed to get more comfortable.

“Damn missions. I think every part of me hurts,” he whined, rubbing his shoulder. Bucky gave his ankle a comforting squeeze. 

“Fires in California, right? Friday kept me up to date for the most part.” Tony gave him a nod, before closing his eyes and trying to relax. “Is this something the Avengers deal with a lot? I thought you guys only handled things like aliens and Hydra.”

Tony gave a tired shrug. “Yeah, that used to be the case when we were working with SHIELD, which liked to keep everything ‘hush hush’ and only called on us for the more ‘end of the world’ type stuff. But now, we’re not just a super secret boy band of superheroes and spies anymore. We’re a legitimate organization, everything’s above board. Hell, we’re so legit now, our accountants file tax returns and everything.” Tony opened one eye to give Bucky an amused look. “You wouldn’t believe the tax breaks superhero-ing can get you.” He shifted his shoulders around, trying to find a comfortable position, grimaced when he failed, and closed his eyes again. “We go where we’re needed and not surprisingly, there are a whole lot more fires and people trapped in avalanches than there are crazy aliens.”

“But the Avengers don’t actually work for the government, do they?”

“Nope, we’re an independent group now. While plenty of angry people on the internet will tell you otherwise, the Avengers don’t belong to any one political party or any one country. That’s why T’Challa never made the official roster. Conflict of interest an’ all.” Another small shrug. “I know that may sound hypocritical, given that the core team are all US citizens and I’m sure you’ve noticed that we’re neck deep in US politics, but that’s why the UN’s involvement was so important. While the US Council has some power over what we do here in the US, the international Accords panel helps us deal with affairs everywhere else. The Avengers belong to the whole world and while not every country likes a bunch of Americans charging across their borders— some never will— maintaining that independence, to the extent possible, gives us the ability to help out the biggest number of people.”

Tony blinked his eyes open and lifted his head so he could look at Bucky. “Think of us as— international policemen and firefighters and the SWAT team, all rolled into one, but not on any government’s payroll, US or otherwise. Plus, with a whole lot more fire power to back us up and now a unique set of rules and procedures to consider and follow.”

Bucky contemplated that for a moment. Tony’s explanation provided more context to all the reading he had done on the Accords and frankly, he found himself agreeing with the way the process was structured now. The need for accountability on all sides made sense, given that each Avenger, in their own right, had more power than some countries’ whole militaries. It was very easy for someone to abuse that kind of power without proper checks and balances. 

“Thanks for explaining that. Helps to hear it from the source.”

Tony gave him a tired smile. “Thanks for actually taking the time to care.” 

“So, how does Iron Man save the good people of California from wildfires?” he asked, infusing some levity into his tone. A part of him was genuinely curious, but the rest of him just wanted to keep Tony talking so he could enjoy listening to the man’s soothing, deep voice. 

“War Machine and I used modified sonic blasts to contain the runaway fire, driving it away from the residential areas, and then eventually extinguishing it. The Wasp and Viz were helping the local authorities with evacuations. Strange— was taking a nap or something, I dunno,” Tony grinned, poking fun at his friend. Strange and Tony were an interesting pair together, usually throwing insults at each other left and right, but never with any real bite to them. “There weren’t a ton of people in the area, but a handful still got trapped behind the firebreak and needed help.” 

“Did anyone get hurt?”

“Other than some minor smoke inhalation and a bit of property damage, no. Successful mission, all in all. Unfortunately, the ventilation system in the Iron Man suit isn’t well suited for dealing with that much fire and smoke over an extended period of time. And with the sonic blasts, it’s a lot of repetitive motions, which gets strenuous after a while with all that heat.”

“Are you sure you don’t need to go to medical then?” 

“No, no, I’m not so much injured as just stiff as hell. I can’t even turn my neck without it hurting. I spent all day yesterday hunched over my work bench, dealing with tiny circuit boards, and today consisted of firefighter duty and a roundtrip to the West Coast in the suit.” Tony let out a sigh, looking up dejectedly at the ceiling.“I’m getting too old for this shit, James. I just hope Rhodey is suffering just as much because maybe this will finally convince him that we do need a full-time massage therapist on staff.”

Oh, there was no way Bucky could pass up this opportunity. He gently pushed Tony’s feet off his lap, causing the engineer to let out a surprised yelp, and turned to sit on the couch facing Tony.

“C’mere,” he beckoned with his hand and Tony eyed him suspiciously. “Just come here and sit with your back to me.” 

Tony did sit up, but made no move to get any closer. His fingers drummed against the arm rest. “Is this a trap? I feel like this is a trap.”

“This is definitely a trap. You’ve foiled my evil plan to work some of the kinks out of your back, oh no,” Bucky deadpanned with an eye roll, trying to keep his voice as casual as possible, despite his own nervous energy because dammit, all he wanted was to get his hands on Tony already.

After a moment of deliberation, as if struggling through some internal battle, Tony finally shrugged and then hesitantly scooted over to sit between Bucky’s legs, one of which was bent and leaning against the couch and the other resting on the floor.

For a second, Bucky mourned the fact that Tony was wearing a shirt, so there was little access to skin, but he could work with what he had. He carefully took ahold of Tony’s shoulders and slowly began to rub circles into the spots beneath Tony’s neck. 

“Jesus, Tony, your back feels like one big knot…” Bucky worked over one particular hard spot when he said that and Tony groaned in pain, arching away from the touch. 

“Ow, ow, that hurts— I thought this was supposed to feel nice—”

“Of course it hurts,” Bucky gently pulled Tony back to him, “I have to work through all this tightness first. Then it’ll feel better. You really shouldn’t let it get this bad.”

“I’m a busy man—”

“Who sleeps on a lumpy couch—”

“That’s where all the genius happens!”

Instead of responding to that, Bucky dug his fingers deeper into Tony’s shoulders and the engineer’s excuses just tapered off into another pained whine. He didn’t offer any more protests though, other than an occasional quiet ow, so Bucky continued his ministrations, focused on finding the tight spots in Tony’s back and neck and applying careful pressure to work out the stiffness in the sore, abused muscles. 

Bucky was quickly realizing however that this was going to backfire on him because with the object of his desires sitting so close, how was he supposed to focus on Tony’s stiff back when all Bucky wanted to do was to wrap his arms around the man and remove all this unnecessary space between them? 

His hands slowly worked their way down Tony’s back, thumbs following the curve of his spine and Bucky let himself imagine what it would be like to let his hands drift down further and rest on Tony’s stomach, pull him in close and feel the man’s back flush against Bucky’s chest. What it would feel like to nuzzle that exposed neck in front of him and plant open-mouthed kisses on the warm skin to soothe the aches away. 

Bucky swallowed hard against his dry throat, thankful Tony couldn’t see the small tinge of blush that crept across his face. He forced his hands to move back up to Tony’s neck and shoulders. If he let his fantasies go any further, the Soldier would probably just take over, as impatient as he was, and solve all of Bucky’s problems (unfortunately by creating much bigger ones).

It absolutely did not help however when, as Bucky finally felt a knot give under the pressure of his fingers, Tony let out another groan, this one laced with pleasure rather than pain.

“Oh my god— ah, okay, that feels so much better—” Tony’s words turned into an outright moan.

“Told you it’d feel good eventually,” Bucky muttered, valiantly trying to concentrate on the movement of his fingers rather than the blossoming heat in his belly. His hands pressed deeper still, finally making headway in loosening up the tension in Tony’s back.

“Fuck— yeah, okay, your hands can definitely work miracles,” Tony let out another quiet moan, head lulling to the side, and then his voice dropped even lower. “…Well, of course they can, I made one of them…” 

Bucky smiled despite himself and pushed away the nagging desires demanding more, choosing instead to simply focus on Tony’s warmth beneath his hands and the way Tony became even more pliant and relaxed with every touch. He was making Tony feel good and there was a certain amount of pleasure to be had from that alone.

A comfortable silence settled between them, the quiet murmur of the television soothing them both into a calm, relaxed state. Bucky slowly softened his movements, from a firm massage to gentler, tender caresses. He honestly never wanted to stop, but he knew he had to (otherwise resisting Tony would soon become impossible), so eventually he trailed his hands down Tony’s arms and then pulled away, but not before leaning forward and placing one small kiss on Tony’s clothed shoulder.

“How does it feel now, sweetheart?” he murmured, the endearment unintentional, even though it felt like the most natural thing in the world on his lips. He watched Tony carefully. The man didn’t answer for a moment, hand gently running across the soft cushions of the couch with a hint of nervousness.

“It’s, uh—” he hesitated, but then experimentally tilted his head side to side. “Oh wow, wait— that actually does feel a lot better.”

“Told ya.” 

Tony finally turned around to face Bucky, gently swinging his legs over and tangling them with the one Bucky already had resting over the side of the couch. There was a faint hint of color across his cheeks and Bucky fought the urge to bite his lip, taken by how good Tony looked just then.

“Thanks, James,” Tony whispered almost shyly.

“Of course,” Bucky replied, his own voice whisper soft. Anything. You can ask me for anything, Tony, and it’s yours. 

To Bucky’s surprised elation, Tony reached out and with utmost gentleness tucked a few out-of-place strands of Bucky’s hair behind his ear. The way the engineer looked at him in that moment, with some unnamed intensity that almost resembled want, if Bucky was daring enough to hope, made Bucky’s own heart skip a beat.

The moment was over far too quickly though, and Tony coughed awkwardly and jumped off the couch.

“I, uh— probably should go review the footage from the mission before the debrief,” he said, rubbing the back of his head. “Thanks for the, uh— the back rub. It felt— it felt nice.”

Bucky let out an exhale, trying not to dwell on Tony’s abrupt departure and the resulting awkwardness. He slumped against the couch. “Go, go. Maybe I’ll finally get to watch the film with you out of the way.”

Thankfully, the teasing tone clearly worked because Tony’s posture relaxed a bit and he rolled his eyes with a smile before walking away.

Unfortunately, that was the biggest obstacle Bucky had run into so far. Despite the fact that Tony responded beautifully to him, the man rarely reciprocated or initiated any of the affectionate gestures and the few times he did, he behaved as if he had just caught himself in the act of doing something he wasn’t supposed to do.

Bucky wondered whether Tony’s reluctance stemmed from the fact that until Bucky was officially triggers-free, Tony was still technically his caregiver, at least on paper. And while Bucky didn’t see it as a problem at all, someone like Tony, who wore responsibility and duty like a well-worn suit, would probably feel like he would be taking advantage of the situation.

If that was the reason Tony was hesitant, Bucky would have to disabuse him of that notion promptly and plainly because Tony taking advantage of Bucky was the furthest thing from what was actually happening here. Bucky trusted Tony with his life and he knew Tony would never knowingly hurt him.

Ugh. Bucky knew he just needed to talk openly to Tony, but even thinking of saying those words out loud…

I like you.

I want you.

I need you.

It was easier said than done and it left him nervous just thinking about confessing his feelings to Tony. Even so, he still couldn’t stop smiling. Here he was, his biggest worry being the guy he was sweet on rejecting him, when only a little while back, he spent his days worrying about Nazis frying up his brain and forcing him to kill. 

What a difference a few short months made. 

He accepted the fact that he had no right to complain about his current situation and was about to indulge in his final spoon of the hazelnut spread, but his hand stilled, halfway to the jar, as instincts buried deep within, both the Soldier’s and his own, flared to life. His sensitive hearing picked up the near silent footsteps, still several yards down the hallway, and because his mind had long ago catalogued the footfalls of every person living or visiting the East Wing, his hackles were up instantly. 

Whoever this was didn’t belong here.

Chapter Text

The near-silent echoes of the unfamiliar footsteps put Bucky on instant alert.

Whoever this was didn’t belong here.

They’re a threat. We eliminate threats, the Soldier whispered in his head as the sounds continued, but Bucky pushed him back. This was probably some trainee or politician he had never met before.

The Soldier’s disdain was palpable. Sneaking down a dark hallway at three o’clock in the morning? Don’t be an idiot.

Bucky wanted to roll his eyes. Well, what exactly was he supposed to do? He was about to open his mouth to ask Friday who this was, but the Soldier hissed at him to remain silent. Do not give away your position. This was likely all an overreaction on his part, but Bucky couldn’t help it but listen to the Soldier. There was something about the sound pattern, about those steps, that set his teeth on edge. 

For a moment, he thought about reaching for one of the knives sticking out of the wooden block on the counter, but he quickly dismissed that idea too. He couldn’t just ambush whoever this was with a knife or any other real weapons—

You are a weapon.

Coming to a decision, Bucky silently placed the spoon in his hand down and with the same soundless movements, tiptoed over and backed himself against the wall, with the steps of the foreign presence echoing closer in the hallway on the other side. The adrenaline coursing through him was making it difficult to stand perfectly still, so Bucky reluctantly allowed a small opening in his mental defenses for the Soldier to bleed through. A second later, Bucky could feel his breath steady and his senses sharpen. 

That was one of the more annoying things about the Soldier. While he took the anger and the bloodlust with him, he also kept a tight hold on all of the fighting instincts ingrained into Bucky’s mind and body - both by the military and by Hydra. Pushing the Soldier back meant pushing away all that training, all those abilities and skills that made Bucky Barnes a war hero and the Winter Soldier a master assassin. Bucky hated giving into the Soldier in any way, but already the adrenaline was being used to hone his senses and increase his strength, instead of leaving him a shaking mess. 

Unfortunately, the extra leeway didn’t make the Soldier any more compliant. He still kept pushing at the remaining mental walls— strike now, defend your home, they’re a threat— but Bucky just tried to placate the Soldier with logic and kept himself still. What were the odds someone dangerous would actually invade the Compound under Friday’s watchful eye? Slim to none. Bucky accidentally attacking some poor UN delegate who flew in late and was probably heading for Rhodes’ office? Much more likely.

One, two, three— the steps grew closer and louder, although Bucky realized that was mostly attributed to his sensitive hearing. A regular person would have missed these soft sounds entirely. 

Which meant those steps were far quieter than they should have been and their guest was making an effort to remain undetected. His instincts— and Bucky couldn’t even tell what was the Soldier and what was simple gut feeling anymore— it all screamed at him even as he tried to ignore it— shit, he would get into so much trouble if he were wrong— but it was nearly overwhelming— threatthreatthreat— as if his subconscious knew something about their intruder that Bucky didn’t.

Damn it all to hell. 

He may not have trusted the Soldier, but Bucky did always trust his instincts.

One silent step put him right at the edge of the wall and when his senses pinpointed the intruder right behind him on the other side, he waited one more second for them to take the next step—

He reached out, leading with his flesh arm and trying subdue rather than injure, which proved to be a mistake because his opponent— smaller, more agile than he expected— expertly dodged his grip. Both in the hallway now, they were in almost total darkness— where the hell were the emergency lights lining the walls?— and at any other time, that wouldn’t have mattered. But between the darkness, his instincts and training locked away, and the ever-present struggle to keep the Soldier under control, each of Bucky’s movements were just a fraction of a second off, but it was more than enough for his obviously enhanced adversary to dodge him at every step. Bucky was able to block a surprisingly strong fist with the metal of his arm, but the next second, his opponent lunged to strike, the movement graceful and deliberate, going for a vulnerable pressure point at his neck and—

Fuck, he knew that move. He taught that move. 

Just barely able to dodge the attack, Bucky used the momentum to finally get a grip on the intruder. He shifted his center of gravity, swept their feet from under them, and they both tumbled down, but even before they hit the ground, Bucky knew the only reason he was able to pin them down like this was because they— no, because she let him.

There was just enough moonlight filtering through where they landed to illuminate the shock of red hair, but the knowing, self-confident smirk on her face certainly confirmed it.

Romanova Natalia Alianovna. 

For a beat, neither one of them moved, but then Bucky let up, stumbling back into the kitchen away from her. He took a shuddering breath, his chest heaving, as he tried to steady himself. Knowing it was the Black Widow somehow made the Soldier even angrier and it wasn’t helping Bucky’s mental state at all. He viciously shoved the Soldier back. 

Natalia, as graceful as ever, stood up as well, but unlike him, she appeared perfectly calm. Barely a hair out of place, steady breathing, seemingly unaffected by their little scuffle. She was clad in her black, skin-tight combat suit, including a gun at her hip and the Widow Bites around her wrists. 

“Friday?” Bucky quietly called out the AI’s name, but just as he expected, there was no response. There was no way the Black Widow would have gotten this far had Friday been operational. 

Shit. Why was she even here? She was a goddamn criminal, did she want to end up in jail? He knew he needed to apprehend her, he needed to do something, but he had no way to contact the others and it was obvious he wasn’t in his best fighting form at the moment. The only thing he could do right now was get her to talk until a better opening to strike presented itself or until Friday came back online. 

“What did you do to her?” he addressed the woman, not bothering to hide the anger in his voice.

“James,” Natalia raised her hands in front of her in a placating gesture. The way she said his name grated on his nerves. “I’m not a threat. I’m not here to hurt anyone, so no need to go all Winter Soldier on me, alright?” she assured him, a small, self-deprecating smile gracing her lips. “Kak ti, zayka? Vse horosho s toboi?” she asked in a softer, more affectionate tone.

The Russian that rolled off her tongue, asking him if he was doing okay, only gave the tension already running through Bucky a sharper tinge of mistrust. Did she really think that would endear her to him somehow? Any Russian part of him was forced into existence by Hydra, not nature, and while he didn’t mind the Soldier’s soft whispers of Russian in his head— words of desire, longing, and need— whenever Tony was around, he had no affinity for it when it came out of Natalia’s mouth. Not to mention, he was not her goddamn bunny.

It was also obvious that, despite her placating words and posture, there was no hint of actual fear in her eyes. She didn’t perceive him as a threat at all and given his less than stellar performance just moments ago, he wasn’t surprised. It rankled at some iota of pride he had left, but he ignored it. This wasn’t the time.

“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” he replied, his English deliberate. Swallowing hard, he had to clench his flesh fist to stop it from shaking. Goddamn adrenaline. Goddamn Soldier. And goddamn Romanova, for that matter. “I won’t ask again, Natalia. What did you do to Friday? And why the hell are you here?” 

She straightened up, placing her hands on her hips, stance as casual as can be. There was even that same friendly smile to go with it. “Friday’s been— temporary shut down. Tony should really check on his security protocols.” Oh, hearing her say Tony’s name was even worse, and the Soldier’s distaste mixed with Bucky’s own frustration.

“You realize you’ve put the entire Compound at risk by shutting her down?”

Natalia gave a careless shrug. “Her security is still active on the Compound grounds. She just has a hard time keeping track of what’s going on inside the building right now.” 

She sounded smug and Bucky’s jaw clenched in anger, but before he could demand more information, demand to know how she incapacitated Friday, Natalia continued. “As for your second question, I’m mostly here to check on you, actually.”

What?

“Excuse me?” he blurted out, his tone incredulous because honestly, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You— you shut down Friday and broke into the Compound so you could— check on me? What the hell does that mean?”

“Steve is worried sick about you, James. We were all worried about you. And when you hadn’t called Steve in months—”

“I speak with T’Challa every week. He said he updates all of you on my condition regularly.”

“Steve doesn’t trust him. He needs to hear from you—”

“Steve needs to work on his trust issues. He’s— he’s not my keeper.”

Here, her eyes narrowed in disapproval. Obviously wanting Bucky to think she was upset, otherwise she would have never let that much emotion show. 

“Wow,” Natalia drew the word out, making it sound like she was reprimanding him. As if he were a child. Both him and the Soldier wanted to roll their eyes at her and damn her for putting them on the same page. “Steve sacrificed everything for you and this is how you repay him?” 

She began to slowly walk around the kitchen, running her hand over the counters and the appliances, as if mapping the place out with her fingers. Bucky didn’t budge from his spot, following her movements with his eyes. She glanced at him once and then continued. “You run off at the first opportunity and then— what, just forget about him? He’s worried sick about you, you know. He barely sleeps, barely eats—” She stopped and leaned against the counter next to the open jar of Nutella. “Actually, you should be thankful I’m here, James.”

“Thankful that you forced your way into the Compound?”

Natalia scoffed. “Thankful that it’s me and not Steve knocking on your door right now. I think Steve and the others would be a lot less subtle about it and I’d like to believe that you wouldn’t want to see any of them in jail, would you? So I offered to come check on you because Steve was beside himself, thinking you’re being tortured over here.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Do I look tortured to you, Natalia?” 

Oh, he knew exactly the picture he painted at the moment. Sleep-mussed hair. Pajama pants slung low on his hips and the Stark Industry logo on his black shirt made even more prominent by the moonlight reflected on it. Spending his sleepless night by indulging himself in a late-night snack. Not to mention the shiny new arm. 

He looked unharmed, healthy, and perfectly at ease, right at home here at the Compound. A fairly accurate assessment, he had to admit.

Natasha took a moment to scrutinize his appearance and obviously came to the same conclusion. “No, you don’t. I guess I understand why you’d want to just forget all about your old life. Seems like you’re being downright pampered over here,” her tone was deliberately casual again, but it still sounded like an accusation. Bucky watched with narrowed eyes as she dipped her finger into the Nutella jar and brought a scoop of chocolate to her mouth. The pleased noise she made at the taste just made this whole situation even more obscene somehow. 

“God, I miss this stuff. Did you know Nutella’s not exported to Wakanda?”

Her tone was so laid back, so unaffected, and it reverberated in Bucky’s ears like nails on a chalkboard. How dare she act like this was her home—

Another scoop on that dainty, slender index finger. “They’re really missing out.”

Natalia wasn’t welcome here. She invaded Bucky’s home. Tony’s home. Then she hurt Friday and put the people living at the Compound at risk. And now she was talking shit about things she knew nothing about and waltzing around here, like she owned the damn place? There was such a sense of violation to the whole thing and Bucky was suddenly seething. It was almost an unconscious decision, but instead of pushing the Soldier back like he was supposed to, he let his next exhale inject some of that familiar, burning wrath deep into his veins instead. He unclenched his right fist, knowing it would no longer shake. 

“I’m glad you’re doing well though, for what it’s worth. You may have moved on, but we still care about you,” Natasha finally remarked, licking away the last of the chocolate on her finger, “and you should really call Steve. After everything he’s done for you, you owe him at least that much, James.”

“Don’t call me James.”

She smirked as she retraced her steps back through the kitchen. “Then don’t call me Natalia.” As she walked past him, heading for the hallway, Bucky reached out and grabbed her wrist, halting her movements.

“Fine, Natasha. Where do you think you’re going?” 

“I know you probably mean well, Bucky,” she threw back and made a show of trying to pull her arm away, but it was obvious she wasn’t putting any effort behind the attempt yet, “but this doesn’t really concern you. Let’s just call this— Avengers business, okay?”

A thick fog of possessiveness settled deep at the core of his anger. “You’re looking for Tony, aren’t you?”

“Like I said - it’s Avengers business,” Natalia gave him a coy smile, like they were sharing some sort of secret. Bucky wanted to wipe that smile off her face. “Just a few things I’d like to discuss with the resident genius. You wouldn’t happen to know where he is, would ya?” The question was obviously rhetorical, another coy little jab at him, and Bucky didn’t bother responding. “Honestly, I’m surprised he wasn’t down at the lab. Late night hours like these were his best working hours back in the day.” Her tone was laced with wistfulness, but it was impossible to tell whether there was any actual sincerity to it. Bucky doubted it.

Images of Tony flittered through his mind then— the man he loved, soft, unguarded, and so vulnerable as he slept in their bed at this very moment— and he could feel himself teetering on that intoxicating, sweet edge of bloodlust, rage and power. Suddenly, letting the Soldier bleed through into every broken crevice of his mind sounded like a great idea because shouldn’t they both protect the most precious thing in their lives?

And then his imagination conjured up a crystal clear picture of what it must have looked like when Natalia— no, Natalie Rushman— plunged that syringe into Tony’s neck against his will—

He didn’t let go of his control entirely. He was still Bucky, he was still Tony’s James, but as the darkness usually kept at bay seeped deeper into his blood, into his very bones, he was once again the man who spent the last seventy years being carved and molded into the perfect weapon. Ignoring the unsettling sense of whole flittering on the edges of his mind, he focused on the Black Widow instead. Because she would not be speaking to his solnishko tonight. 

“I don’t have a choice, Natasha, I’m gonna have to stop you,” he asserted quietly, with just a touch of nerves he no longer felt bleeding into his voice.

“That’s sweet, really, but how exactly are you going to do that?” Natalia countered. The look she gave him was still devoid of any fear. On the contrary, it was almost pitying. She glanced down at his hand around her wrist and back up at him. “With the way you fought just now… You can’t tell me you didn’t notice that I controlled that entire exchange between us.” She quirked an eyebrow at him. “There’s not much Winter Soldier left in you anymore, is there?”

Bucky didn’t deign that with a response, but he did let his jaw visibly clench and his lips thin. Signs of frustration he knew she’d notice.

She continued with a shrug and when her hand pulled against his grip this time, he let her go. “That’s not a bad thing, James. That means that the Retro Framing, the therapy— whatever it is you’re doing here, it’s working.” Her expression turned regretful. “I mean, if I had the chance to get rid of the Black Widow, I’d probably take it too.” Lies, all lies. “But it does mean that I will kick your ass if we try this again. I’m just here to talk to Tony, not to hurt anyone. I don’t want to hurt you either, but I will if I have to.”

He looked away, making sure to appear contrite. In his peripheral, he saw her turn back towards the hallway leading to the living quarters of the team.

Turning one’s back on the Winter Soldier? That only ever ended in blood.

“Natasha, wait,” he called out quietly, desperately, a perfect quiver in his voice. She looked back, taking in the hunch of his shoulders, the way he refused to look at her. “I— you were right,” he mumbled out, take an unsure step toward her. “These past few months have been— god, they’ve been overwhelming and I shouldn’t have ignored Steve… But seeing him is always so confusing… I never know how to feel… Because he’s my Stevie, you know? But he’s different than what I remember. I still can’t even think straight half the time… Still trying to figure out who m’supposed to be…”

He knew exactly who he was supposed to be. 

“And no one would’ve held that against you. You’re recovering. Steve would’ve understood that you’re not one hundred percent yourself. We all would have.” 

How nice of her to pretend to care.

Another step closer and he was able to place a hesitant hand (metal, that never shook even when the Soldier wasn’t in control) on her shoulder. “I’ll call Stevie, I will… but I need to find the courage to do that first. Gotta find the right words to apologize for being a punk, right?” He sounded oh so self-deprecating and thoroughly enjoyed when she smiled at him. She obviously agreed. “For now though, when you go back to him… can you give him a message for me?”

Natalia turned to face him fully and the reassuring “Of course” just barely made it past her lips before it was swallowed up by a pained gasp as the metal hand closed around her shoulder, hard enough to make her bones creak. 

He smiled viciously. “Sorry, zayka.” 

Using the tight grip on her shoulder, he swung Natalia around and threw her to the floor, and as she scrambled away, he stalked forward, ignoring her stunned “What the hell is this, Barnes?”

“I lied. The message— it’s for you. But you’re welcome to pass it on to the others as well.”

The Widow quickly recovered her fighting stance and taking the offensive, she lunged, but this time, she wasn’t fighting a man whose most powerful half was locked up in his mind. No, she was fighting the Winter Soldier now and in a perfectly choreographed reversal of their previous exchange, it was the Black Widow now falling just a half of a second behind.

The Soldier took control, blocking each one of her hits, still moving forward with every step and backing her into a corner. Obviously desperate, she swung her right fist at him, the near-silent sizzle of electricity his only warning as she tried to jam her charged weapon into his neck, but the vibranium of his arm stopped her Widow Bite in its tracks and his body flooded with satisfaction as he watched shock flitter across her eyes when her weapon did nothing but crackle uselessly. His sweet, clever Tony made absolutely sure that electricity wouldn’t hurt him again. 

To make sure Tony’s gorgeous work didn’t go to waste, he used the Widow’s moment of confusion to grab ahold of both her wrists—

“No, stop! What are you doing—”

— and then crushed until he felt the metal and electronics around her wrists crumble and bend under the sheer force of his strength. 

Everyone always seemed to forget that he was a goddamn super soldier. His metal arm wasn’t the only enhanced thing about him and just like its vibranium twin, his flesh fist had no problem destroying its target.

Natalia gasped in pain, as sharp pieces of the destroyed Widow Bites embedded themselves into her skin and she pulled viciously against his grip, landing several painful kicks on his shins and thighs, but the adrenaline coursing through him dulled the sharp flairs of pain. Swinging her around once more, he pushed them both down again, making sure she ended up pinned underneath him as they crashed onto the floor and the Widow’s skull made a satisfying crack as it bounced against the immaculate kitchen tile. She may have been agile and nimble, oh so cunning and shrewd, but here, he had the advantage of sheer strength and size, supplemented by decades of repressed rage.

Any attempt at throwing him off was cut short when he pushed the metal of his left forearm against her throat. He let go of her other wrist as well and she tried to swing her left fist at him, but even the Black Widow couldn’t fight against instinct, against the basic need to breathe, as he pushed down harder and her hands desperately began to claw at his arm instead, trying to pull it away, even as her nails struggled to find purchase against the smooth metal.

He pushed harder still, the whisper of gears shifting inside his arm music to his ears as the mechanisms perfectly adjusted to the change in force and bore down with the full weight of the metal.

Another incredible, beautiful feature of his new arm— spasibo, solnishko moyo, radost' moya dorogaya, for making me whole again— were the numbers running through his head at this very moment, telling him exactly how much pressure he’d have to apply to crush the fragile column of the Black Widow’s throat.

He wasn’t going to cross that threshold. No, Bucky Barnes wasn’t a killer anymore and Soldier or not, he was still in control… but she didn’t need to know that.

A little bit more pressure wouldn’t kill though and he leaned forward, letting the Soldier speak their next words. After all, he was the one with the flair for the dramatics.

“Here’s the message, moya Chernaya Vdova. Stay away from what is mine,” the Soldier growled, his smile turning sharper, crueler, as he watched her struggle uselessly. He let all the bloodlust, all the latent rage created by decades of hell, bleed into his eyes and oh— there it was, that flash of genuine fear in her widened eyes. Barely there, blink and you miss it, but on the Black Widow, it amounted to down right terror. Finally, she understood who she was up against.

His whole body was still pressing her down, but his weight and his strength were no longer necessary to keep her from escaping. Oxygen deprivation was quite an effective way to neutralize a threat.

He moved closer, letting the tip of his nose run gently against hers. Mockery of gentleness. He wanted to laugh. Her pathetic attempts to remove the weight on her throat were getting weaker, so it was almost impressive that she still had the wherewithal to maintain those flares of anger in her eyes. But this was the Black Widow after all. He trained her well. Despite that anger though —oh, how she must want to kill him in this moment— that pretty little hint of fear was still there. She couldn’t hide that from him anymore. Even the mighty Black Widow was not above the primal, visceral fear of death. 

“You wanted to know where Tony is?” he asked and leaned in further, his lips brushing against her ear as he whispered “I’ll tell you where he is, Natashechka.” He let out a satisfied huff of laughter against her skin. “Oh, you should see what a pretty picture he paints, sleeping peacefully right now… in my bed.” 

He felt her stiffen underneath him even more and it thrilled him to imagine the conclusions she would draw from those words. After all, what he said was true. Tony was his. Even if his sweet, clever Tony rejected him, even if there was never anything more between them, Tony would always be his to protect. 

Although he supposed, her twitch may have been nothing more than a final struggle for oxygen. Pulling back just far enough to see her face again, he smirked. Her lips were turning blue. Better get his message across before she lost all ability to think coherently.

“He’s mine. And you— all of you will stay away from him. Any of you so much as look at him wrong and I will tear you apart until there's nothing left of you but blood and guts. Do you understand me?” He watched her gasp for air. “I said, do you understand me?” he outright hissed and finally— for her sake, really— Natalia gave him a tiny nod, eyes clenched as she uselessly gripped his metal arm. 

It was almost time to let up, let the woman breathe, but he gave it a second more, wanting the message to sink in.

Come near me or mine again, Natalia, and you won’t live to regret it.

Bucky eased back just a fraction, struggling against the Soldier now, who just wanted to end this once and for all. Luckily for Natalia, Bucky was still in control —barely, but just enough— and the Black Widow would not die tonight. She’d bruise and be in pain for days, but there won’t be any permanent damage. To appease him however, Bucky let the Soldier delight in his handiwork for one more moment before—

“James!”

His head shot up and— oh, there was Tony. The Soldier crowed —sweet, beautiful Tony, his gorgeous darling— but all Bucky could focus on, in dawning guilt and shame, was the activated gauntlet on Tony’s right hand. Tony hadn’t raised his arm yet, but was he— was he about to point that repulsor at the Black Widow? Or Bucky?

“Stand down, Soldier. Let her go.”

Chapter Text

Tony was going to start wearing his goddamn suit to bed. And if not the entire Iron Man suit, then at least a lovely three-piece Tom Ford. With a pair of loafers and a tie.

Because stumbling into his kitchen in nothing more than his pj’s and one measly little watch-turn-gauntlet (thank god he at least wore that to bed every night) to find the Winter Soldier choking the life out of the Black Widow on Tony’s kitchen floor? Not Tony’s idea of a good time. 

He only caught the tail end of James’ hissed proclamations, something about blood and guts, which sounded a whole lot like Soldier speak and just confirmed Tony’s initial reaction of shit, shit, shit.

“James!”

James— the Soldier?— looked at up at him and a frankly impressive range of emotions crossed the man’s face. Expressions that Tony couldn’t even begin to interpret, but if he had to try, it began with confusion, made a stop at guilt (or fear, it was hard to tell), and then settled on something resembling a pleased leer and— yeah, this was definitely more Soldier than James. James didn’t leer.

Fucking shit.

Tony only spared a brief second to contemplate whether he really was a morally bankrupt person, given that the loudest internal alarm going off in his head kept screaming Protect James!, even though the man in question wasn’t the one currently in need of protection. However, Tony did have James’ mental state to worry about and Natasha dying would be bad for everyone involved, so he definitely needed to put a stop to all of this now.

“Stand down, Soldier,” Tony tried to infuse as much calm and authority into his voice as he could, hoping— praying— that this would work. The gauntlet was active, but still at his side, because he really didn’t want to shoot James. Hell, didn’t even know if he could. But the Soldier liked him a little bit, didn’t he? Maybe just enough to listen? “Let her go.”

For one seemingly eternal second, James— the Soldier— stared back at him while Natasha made some weak attempts at struggling beneath him, but then the man’s eyes narrowed, as if annoyed with the whole situation, and then— finally, he pulled his forearm away from Natasha’s throat.

Tony gave an audible sigh of relief and watched the Soldier stand back up to his full height, arms crossed over his chest, putting Natasha between Tony and himself. The Soldier’s calculating gaze first fell to the super spy currently trying to pull in air through her nearly crushed throat, and after he spent a few seconds glaring death at the woman, his eyes found Tony again, scanning him up and down appreciatively, lips curling into a satisfied smirk— shit, Tony definitely remembered that smirk.

“You alright?” Tony asked, giving into his worry. “Are you hurt? Did she use the triggers?” That last thought sent a chill down Tony’s spine, but his fear retreated when the other man responded with a sardonic look and a wider smirk.

“Of course I’m alright. No injuries and no triggers. Trust me, she would’ve been dead by the second word. Sweet of you to worry though, kotyonok.” 

Oh thank god. Tony hoped this meant the man was still James, just with the Soldier a little too close to the surface. That nickname was also familiar and yeah, sure, Tony could be kitten right now. He worked with less before. “And what about her? Is she gonna be alright?”

The smirk was now joined by a careless shrug. “She’ll live. No permanent damage— well, not to her throat. However,” the Soldier’s tone dropped from nonchalant to terrifying on the last word, perfectly matching the sudden cold fury behind his eyes, “if she reaches for her gun, threatens you, or tries to hurt you in any way, I’m putting her through a wall. She so much as looks at you wrong and I will finish what I started.” 

Okay, rolling his eyes at the whole alpha male posturing was probably not the right response to the current situation, but dammit, it was tempting, so Tony was very proud of himself for keeping his expression neutral. This whole thing was equal parts ridiculous and dangerous… and yet Tony also couldn’t help the flare of satisfaction, of heat curling deep in his belly, in response to hearing someone being that unabashed in their protectiveness of him. But he was definitely keeping that to himself because so not the time, Tony, you have a “situation” on your hands.

“Thanks, big guy, I, uh— I appreciate the back up. Just— just let me do all the talking for now and we’ll see where that gets us, yeah?” he said, keeping his voice even, because if his tone wasn’t panicked, he wasn’t panicked, right? 

After a beat, the Soldier let out a frustrated noise, as if keeping his ominous threats to himself was an outright chore, but he did finally give Tony a resigned nod. 

At least it was a good sign that James apparently showed some sort of restraint. God, Tony was morbidly curious as to what exactly went down between him and Natasha, but Friday was obviously down — and that was a whole separate fucking issue, because what the hell happened to his sweet girl?— so there was likely no security footage that captured the Winter Soldier vs. Black Widow showdown.

Speaking of their little intruder…

The woman had already lifted herself up on one arm, the other gingerly rubbing her rapidly purpling throat. She was wheezing, desperate shallow inhalations. Tony also noted that there were trickles of blood running down her hands from her wrists and he mentally cringed at the destroyed state of her Widow Bites. A small part of him mourned the tech— he spent weeks perfecting those!— but mostly it was just sympathy. By the stilted, pained movements of her hands, it was obvious she would be walking away from this with some serious damage.

Tony gave Natasha another minute to gather her wits and true to her reputation, it didn’t take long for the woman to regain most of her composure, although she hadn’t yet made an attempt to get up off the floor.

“Not that it isn’t great to see you an’ all, but I gotta ask,” he finally spoke to her, “what the hell are you doing here, Natasha?” 

Her gaze met his, but she didn’t say anything for a few moments, still struggling to breathe. Shit, it must’ve hurt a lot. “I wanted to—” was all she managed before needing to cough around the abused tissue of her throat. “I needed to see you, Antosha,” she finally continued, despite the hoarseness in her voice.

Between the way she was outright pleading with her eyes and the nickname from the old days, from those rare times when she felt affectionate enough to use it… There was a lump in Tony’s throat and it tasted suspiciously like nostalgia. 

He cocked his head to the side. “Not sure I understand what you mean by that,” he admitted. The old memories that overtook his mind softened his tone against his will.

The Black Widow looked almost vulnerable in front of him. It was unsettling. “I mean that—” Another raspy cough. “You were right about everything, Tony. Everything worked out just like you said it would and I should’ve trusted you.” She sounded sincere. “The biggest mistake I made was leaving your side and I just needed to come see you, to tell you that I’m sorry…”

Her gaze lowered to the floor and she had to pause for a second. It was obvious that speaking even that much was painful. “I just wanted to come home…” she whispered hoarsely. “And you were the one who gave us all a home, Tony… You were our home.”

There were several moments of silence between the three of them. Tony hadn’t taken his gaze off Natasha, but he could see James at the edge of his vision, standing guard over the woman like a silent shadow.

Whether Tony liked it or not, Natasha’s words seeped into his mind, making themselves right at home in the midst of that sweet taste of nostalgia. Longing

While Tony was always desperate to prove himself to Steve back then— I am not just the suit. I am worth something. I am not just my father’s son— Natasha came in at a close second. Tony wanted to show her, in any way he could, that Tony Stark should be recommended too, not just Iron Man. And while the Black Widow was never one to show outright affection frequently (at least not with him), Tony believed— hoped— that they became close, in their own way. Her weapons were upgraded first and there was always a bowl of her favorite imported Russian sweets in the kitchen. She was one of the few people, who listened to his techno-science babble and she’d call him Antosha and mishka, and—

The lump in his throat turned into shards of glass in his chest— like shrapnel in his heart— and a part of him was almost disappointed that after everything, these people could still make him feel this way. God, he used to love them all so desperately. Still did and he hated the fact that he probably always would. Tony was a sentimental idiot like that.

But as he looked at Natasha, so contrite and regretful, literally on her knees in front of him, he felt that sweet longing turn into bitterness at the back of his throat. It was so painfully obvious he was being played, but he realized, with no small amount of embarrassment, that this whole thing— it would have absolutely worked. Natasha’s execution was flawless, perfectly tailored to prod every one of Tony’s soft, tender spots, to take advantage of Tony’s myriad of issues and insecurities— she knew him well after all. There was nothing wrong with her current strategy.

The only thing off was the Widow’s timing.

Because if she had come to him like this in those two or three months after Siberia, if she had shown up with apologies and You did the right thing, Tony on her lips… Oh, she would’ve had him eating out of the palm of her hand. He would’ve done anything for her, he would’ve prostrated himself before her, just to hear that simple You were right. She would’ve had him hook, line, and sinker. 

But now…

Now, all he had to do was think back to the hell all of them went through to get to present day. All that relentless, desperate work. All he had to do was think about the people who stood by him not only when life was sunshine and rainbows, but also when life was complete and utter shit

With something akin to nervousness, he glanced back up at James. The soldier may have fought the Widow initially, but they had a complicated history, didn’t they? And maybe he’d take her side now— but then warmth flooded Tony when James locked gazes with him and gave Tony the most incredulous, offended look, mouthing a silent Is she fucking serious right now? and despite that frankly intimidating Winter Soldier stance of his, Tony had to fight back a smile. James was on his side— hell, the Soldier too— and Tony couldn’t even begin to examine the enormous implications of that. Not right now.

He swallowed back that lump and pushed back the memories of what he used to have. There was some catharsis, some power in finally being able to admit that his old life was gone and more importantly, that he didn’t need any of these people anymore. Not Steve. Not Natasha. None of them. Because for once, he wasn’t alone to face the uncertain future.

“You have no idea what it means to hear you say that, Nat,” he responded quietly and Natasha looked back up at him, hopeful. She was smiling even, despite the fact that she was still wheezing through every breath. “There’s just one thing that’s bothering me though…” he continued as his own smile turned sharp.“Why wait so long to come home? I mean, we really could’ve used your help— oh, say, a year ago? Gosh, a super spy would’ve come in handy when I was desperate to put Ross away and that sneaky little brain of yours? Would’ve been great for dealing with all those shifty politicians. But I’m sure you were doing something super important with your time back then.” 

Tony’s obvious shift in tone prompted a similar shift in her expression and hopeful morphed into confused in record time. Tony was almost impressed that she was still trying to keep up the charade. She was about to say something, but Tony didn’t let her start in on whatever platitudes she was ready to throw his way.

“Actually, wait, no, I do get it. Much easier to come back now and reap the benefits of everyone else’s hard work, right? The Accords are all wrapped up in a neat little bow, the Avengers are an actual, functional organization. Do you know we have a chain of command and lawyers now, Natasha? Seriously, we’ve got lawyers and PR managers and accountants— it’s fucking amazing, lemme tell you.”

“Tony, I don’t understand why you’re saying this,” she pleaded again. “I wanted to come back, but things weren’t as simple as you make them out to be.”

Tony knew he should feel anger, indignation, anything— but all he was left with was a weary exhaustion.

He was so fucking tired of the lies. 

“Natasha, just cut the crap, okay? This whole pitiful routine isn’t working and frankly, it’s unbecoming of you,” he said, wanting to put an end to this sham of a conversation. “I don’t care why you’re here. Maybe you had noble intentions for breaking into my home, maybe you didn’t— doesn’t matter, you’ll lie to my face about it anyways.”

“I did want to see you and this was the only way I could do that,” she insisted again, but this time there was definitely an angry, annoyed flavor to her tone. So much for that earlier supplication.

“Yeah, well, when someone changes all the locks, take that as a sign that you’re not welcome anymore.”

“This was my home too. I have just as much right to be here—”

“Not according to the great state of New York.”

Natasha downright glared at him now. Thank god, because Tony was fed up with the masks and the lies. Some bit of honestly behind her expression was actually refreshing. 

Apparently, she was also tired of sitting on the floor (keeping herself in that vulnerable, submissive position in front of Tony clearly didn’t have the effect she intended), so she slowly stood up, careful not to make any sudden moves as both James’ icy stare and now Tony’s gauntlet followed her. When she straightened up, James said something to her in Russian, voice every bit as cold as his eyes. She turned her glare on him for a moment, threw back a few angry Russian words of her own, but then her attention was back on Tony.

“Maybe you should cut the crap then too. Whatever you think, whatever you feel, it doesn’t matter. It’s won’t be long before the pardons are granted and we get to come back home. Our home. The world needs all of us, Tony, you can’t deny that—” she stopped herself and let out a derisive noise. “Well, maybe you can. Are you going to let your ego get in the way again and stop the pardons from being signed?”

“Hmm… A petty, selfish asshole… That does sound like me, doesn’t it?” Tony threw back, the levity in his voice deliberate, although it didn’t do much to keep the painful shards of self-doubt from crystallizing in his chest. For now, he ignored it all. He could wallow in self-recriminations on his own time. “We’ll see. I gotta confer with all my evil, corrupt politician friends first. See what the Evil League of Petty, Selfish Assholes wants to do.” 

She scoffed. “Is everything a joke to you?”

“Funny things are.” 

God, the deja vu. It made his skin crawl. Is everything a joke to you? How many times had he heard that? Even sweet Pepper had thrown that back in his face before. One of the many reasons Tony so desperately, selfishly clung to James because he was one of the few people who hadn’t judged Tony for using his humor to fucking cope with the shit life kept throwing at him.

“You haven’t changed at all, Tony.”

“Neither have you.”

For a moment, her eyes narrowed in scrutiny, some idea working through that super spy brain of hers, and then she looked back at James, who was definitely channeling the Soldier because he snarled at her and spat something in Russian when their gazes locked. Natasha didn’t respond this time and after a few seconds of a super spy stare down, she turned back to Tony with a look of outright disgust. 

“You know, whatever else I thought of you, I didn’t think you’d sink so low.” 

Tony raised a questioning eyebrow. “Okay, what did I do now?” 

“Is this your way of getting back at Steve? Taking away the one thing that means the world to him? He was just doing what he thought was right, Tony!” 

“A lot of criminals think what they’re doing is right. Doesn’t make them any less— criminal-y.” God, his vocabulary skills sucked when he was under stress. “But I’m still confused as to what exactly you’re accusing me of.”

“This!” she exclaimed, pointing back at James, who just gave her hand an offended look. The way his nose scrunched up in disgust looked so much like James that Tony was beginning to get whiplash from how fast the man was switching between Winter Soldier and Bucky Barnes

This has a name, Natasha. Very rude to refer to him that way,” Tony retorted, still not sure what she was trying to imply.

“Barnes came here to get help, to get better, and what do you do? Turn him into your personal guard dog? This isn’t better! You’re not helping him recover at all, are you? What, did you use the Retro Framing to manipulate his programming? Felt like it’d be fun to have your own Winter Soldier at your beck and call? News flash, Tony, it doesn’t really count as love if someone’s brainwashed to love you.” 

Tony tried to keep his expression neutral, but god, did those words hit too close to home. How many sleepless nights did he spend, doubting every one of his actions, wondering if what he was doing for James was the right thing? Wondering whether he was helping or hurting the man, whether he should’ve stepped back and let someone else handle the therapy. Whether he really did somehow manipulate James into caring for him… And while he didn’t actually want any of the things Natasha was accusing him of, Tony did hate himself for being fascinated— enamored, Tony, be honest for once in your life— with that darker part of James. But in Tony’s defense, he was enamored with every part of James at this point, so he wasn’t sure where that left him. 

However, before his thoughts could spiral out into their usual train wreck of self-hate, his attention was pulled back to James when the soldier let out an angry, rumbling growl. “Okay, that’s it, I am sick of listening to her talk,” he declared. “She says one more word about you and I’ll make sure she doesn’t speak again. Just let me neutralize her, so we can get on with our lives.”

Natasha raised an accusatory eyebrow at Tony, silently saying See what I mean? and Tony just shrugged, using jokes as his last line of self-defense. As always. “So the man has a temper. Didn’t you used to date Bruce? You should know better than anyone not to go around poking traumatized super soldiers. Don’t blame me for whatever you did to piss him off.” He watched her scowl at him and realized all he wanted was for this conversation to be over

He weighted his options. As satisfying as putting her in jail would have been, she wouldn’t stay there for very long— shiny pardons for all, yay— and involving actual law enforcement meant bringing down a whole lot of unnecessary scrutiny onto himself, onto the Compound, and most importantly, onto James. While his lawyers could certainly spin the self-defense angle and Tony wouldn’t hesitate to take the fall and claim he was the one who fought and injured the Black Widow, any potential threat to James and his legal status, not to mention the rest of the Avengers, was not a risk Tony was willing to take. Hell, he also didn’t need the Council questioning Tony’s competence once they found out that Friday was somehow incapacitated.

And Natasha was a smart girl. She certainly wouldn’t go blabbing to either the police or the press about any of this because she would just be incriminating herself. Plus, someone had to keep the rest of the runaway dunderheads in line, so… He knew what he needed to do next, but oh boy, was he going to catch hell for it. A mental sigh escaped him. Rhodey was going to kill him.

Before that, however…

“I know you’ll probably be your stubborn, uncooperative self, but I gotta ask. What did you do to my baby girl Friday?”

Natasha’s blossoming smile was mocking. “You’re a genius, Tony, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

“I’m sure I will,” his words were light, but then he dropped all pretenses of levity. “But if we get attacked while her security is down, I won’t need my guard dog over there to come find you and personally rip you to shreds.” 

She ran a hand across her bruised throat absently. “I won’t be very hard to find. Federal prison, right?” she spat the words out.

“Nope,” he popped the p and gave her his best media smile in response. “I’m actually gonna let you go, Natasha.” 

If it weren’t for the situation at hand, it would’ve been comical to watch two super spy assassins give him identical wide-eyed looks of shock.

“What? Tony, no!”

For the moment, Tony ignored James’ outburst and incredulous, angry expression. He focused on Natasha instead.

“Why would you do that?” she asked, suspicion dripping from her voice. 

“A fortune cookie told me to,” he replied with an easy shrug and something about Natasha’s building annoyance was almost satisfying. “So given my act of kindness, I want you to crawl back to Wakanda—” her eyes widened just a touch more and Tony could no longer help his own eye roll. “Did you seriously think I didn’t know where all of you were? For fuck’s sake. I knew from day one.” Seriously, whatever his many other faults may have been, the fact that he was a genius was a fairly undisputed fact. And yet, people still underestimated him?

“Why didn’t you come after us then? Or give us up to the authorities?”

“Eh, been busy. Binge-watching Netflix is a full-time job. Did you know they have all the old Star Trek series up? Amazing.” Oh, Natasha looked so annoyed right now. He wanted to laugh. “As I was saying though, I want you to go back to your cushy little life in Wakanda— oh, and by the way, T’Challa was an excellent choice for a new sugar daddy— and tell your jolly band of misfits that if any of you show your faces anywhere, without those fancy pardons, you will all end up in some place that’ll make the Raft look like the fuckin’ Four Seasons. My generosity is a one-time deal. So, keep them all in line for me, would ya, my dear?”

“You can’t treat us like enemies forever, Tony. You need to get over this grudge! We need to work as a team—”

“You have until I get Friday back up to leave the premises,” he interrupted the beginning of her sanctimonious lecture. “So— three, four minutes tops? I suggest you start running.”

“Tony, you can’t just let her go!” Oh, James was definitely unhappy with Tony’s decision. Chest heaving, fists clenched, eyes blazing with fury. Tony was going to have a very irate Winter Soldier on his hands, wasn’t he? Lucky Natasha. Tony didn’t have the option to run away and hide.

“This is for the best,” he locked eyes with the man and tried to infuse authority into his voice again, but it fell flat in the face of that anger and Tony tried for sincerity instead. “Just— trust me, okay? Please, James.”

The man contemplated Tony’s words for a moment, jaw clenching in frustration. He uncrossed his arms and suddenly grabbed Natasha by the forearm. Tony stiffened, thinking for a moment that James would attack her, but all the man did was drag her in closer, despite her attempts to pull away, and lean in to whisper harsh words of Russian into her ear, all the while never breaking eye contact with Tony. 

Tony gulped. He didn’t understand a word of those whispers, but they certainly weren’t declarations of love and friendship and the way the Soldier looked at him promised none of those things for Tony either. Crap. He kinda missed the appreciative leers and being called a kitten.

Finally, the Soldier let Natasha go, pushing her away from him as if she were diseased. She threw one angry scowl back, but then cautiously began to walk past Tony towards the hallways.

“Tick tock, Natasha. Friday will be a lot less merciful. She has a ‘shoot on sight’ kind of policy for intruders and I’m pretty sure she’ll have a bone to pick with you.”

She looked like she really wanted to say something else, to either him or James, Tony didn’t know, but her survival instincts (and basic common sense) overrode that desire and in the next moment, Natasha was sprinting away and disappearing into the darkness. 

For a beat, Tony stood still as he watched her retreat, but then his body slumped as he let out a tired sigh and his gauntlet transformed back into a simple watch. “Okay, what in the everloving hell happened here? I mean, I wake up, come here to get a glass of water and then—” 

Whatever else he was meaning to say got swallowed up by a startled yelp when all of the sudden there were hands on him, pushing him into the nearest wall and before he knew it, there was a whole lot of Winter Soldier pressed up against him.

Ah crap.

Chapter Text

“Okay, what in the everloving hell happened here? I mean, I wake up, come here to get a glass of water and then—” 

No one could blame Tony for the startled yelp he let out when all of the sudden there were hands on him, then his back hit the nearest wall, and before his brain could even process anything, there was a whole lot of Winter Soldier pressed up against him.

Thankfully, there wasn’t a forearm across his throat this time, so small mercies an’ all, but the Soldier was a solid wall of muscle, keeping Tony trapped between him and the wall, which meant they were touching everywhere and— oh god, the thin cotton of their clothes left nothing to the imagination. Tony’s cheeks flared with heat, despite the situation at hand. 

The super soldier was leaning on the metal forearm propped above Tony’s head, but the flesh hand was warm against Tony’s cheek when those steely blue eyes zeroed in on him, heavy with intention, as the other man gently nudged his nose against Tony’s.

“My clever Tony…” the words were a heady exhale against Tony’s lips and it sounded like supplication, like a prayer laced with undeniable need. Tony’s brain couldn’t quite focus on the nuances behind the Soldier’s tone however because that look in the Soldier’s lust-blown eyes— oh, Tony remembered that look too, it was the I’m two seconds away from kissing you look, and dammit—

This wasn’t how he imagined their first kiss at all.

“Buddy, hey… Can you, uh—” His own breathing was shallow and Tony felt his chest press up against the Soldier’s on every inhale. “Some space would be good, yeah?” 

Miraculously, the Soldier did pull away, but only far enough to comfortably catch Tony’s gaze. The thumb of his right hand traced the arch of Tony’s cheek, and even though the gesture was tender, Tony’s unhelpful brain promptly supplied him with the calculations for the amount of force that was necessary to crush Natasha’s Widow Bites. The force this very hand was capable of. 

There was something wrong with Tony that this particular thought didn’t scare him. All it did was send a thrill of need down his spine and the only thing he wanted to do was turn his face into that palm, to place a soft kiss—

Damn it, damn it, damn it. No.

This wasn’t the right time and these were not the right circumstances.

Tony was about to say something responsible— so, so responsible— but his breath stuttered to a stop in his throat when the Soldier leaned in again and placed a kiss on Tony’s right cheek. Those soft lips followed the line of Tony’s jaw and the Soldier’s breath ghosted over the shell of Tony’s ear. The memories of the Soldier’s cryptic whispering from so long ago filtered through the near static in Tony’s head and he half expected to hear something similar this time as well—

“Why the hell did you let her go?” the Soldier growled and the contrast between the tender press of lips against his jaw and the naked, raw anger in that tone made Tony shiver again.

“I, uh— It’s for the best, okay?” Jesus, how was he expected to think straight in this position? “Her being in jail wouldn’t have changed anything—”

The Soldier’s face was back in Tony’s view and the hand on Tony’s cheek gently tilted his face up so Tony had no choice but to keep eye contact. Oh no. Definitely a little bit less lust and a bit more wrath in those icy cold eyes

“She’s dangerous and she deserves to be punished for the things she did and said to you.”

They were still pressed so close together that Tony swore each of those furious word reverberated through his own chest. 

“I’m pretty sure she won’t be getting into—” Tony had to stop and draw in a long breath because his body was still getting the best of him. He was definitely failing at this whole serious conversation thing, wasn’t he?  “—into any more trouble after that number you pulled on her. I mean, shit, you destroyed her wrists—”

“I should’ve done more. The way she spoke to you…” The Soldier’s lip curled in disgust as he snarled. “I could’ve ripped her to shreds for you… All you had to do was say the word, solnishko moyo…”

Pretty sure that’s the first time anyone used that pick up line on me.

“That’s sweet. Really sweet, seriously. But glad you didn’t. We definitely don’t need her dead—”

“Then she should be rotting away behind prison bars!”

Tony tried for levity. “Come on, can you imagine her in orange? It would so clash with her hair—”

It wasn’t that he was particularly afraid of the Soldier— he probably, definitely should’ve been, but he wasn’t— but when the metal fist suddenly punched the wall right above Tony’s head, denting and cracking the plaster beneath its force, Tony couldn’t help his startled reaction. He flinched.

However, in the face of Tony’s recoil, the change in the other man was instantaneous. As soon as he realized what he did, the anger in those hard eyes melted away, giving way to rising guilt.

“Shit, sorry, I’m sorry,” he mumbled, pulling away and pressing the heels of his palms against his clenched eyes. James— because there was no doubt this was James now— crumbled in on himself while his whole body began to shake and he stumbled several steps back, but Tony was determined not to let him get too far. If he weren’t afraid of the Soldier, he sure as hell wasn’t afraid of James. He pulled him back and keeping one arm around James, guided the man’s head to rest on his shoulder. James’ next words were a huff of warm air against Tony’s exposed collar bone. “Please don’t be scared of me, sweetheart, I’m sorry… m’never gonna hurt you. Couldn’t even if I wanted to…”

Tony was definitely getting whiplash now, but finally, he seemed to have James back, so for the moment, he swallowed back his own apprehension and worry. Instead, he gave into his need to comfort the other man and reached for the nape of his neck to give it a reassuring squeeze before gently carding his fingers through the soft, silky hair. “S’okay, you’re fine. We’re all just a little on edge right now…”

James let out a sigh against his collarbone and wrapped his arms tentatively around Tony’s waist, pulling Tony back in. There was still heat between them, but it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as before and so Tony continued his soothing ministrations

Honestly, he wanted nothing more than to stay just like this and talk James through his little Soldier high like last time, but shit, they just didn’t have time. “James, you, uh— you back with me? How bad is it this time? Are you like 90% Soldier? Fifty fifty?”

James lifted his head to catch Tony’s concerned gaze. Those baby blues were still partly guilt-ridden, but the razor-sharp edge of the Soldier never disappeared. “The Soldier’s still— there, he’s close to the surface, but it’s not something I can really quantify,” he whispered his answer. 

“Okay, um—” Tony tried to find the right words. “Do you feel like stabbing people? Going on a murderous rampage?” Okay, not his best words, but Tony was on a tight schedule. “Or maybe pushing me into more walls? Because don’t get me wrong, I love walls as much as the next guy, but there’s a time and a place…”

He trailed off, his lips stretching into a smile because the glare he was getting from James was part affronted, part amused. That was a good sign. 

“Not gonna lie, still kinda want to stab Romanova—”

“Don’t blame you there—”

“But no,” James shook his head and pressed himself back into Tony, mumbling a muffled “don’t wanna stab people,” into the crook of Tony’s neck. 

“Okay, so if I send you to go get Rhodey, would you be okay?” He felt James nod against him. “Even if he’s cranky? Because, lemme tell you, that man does not like his beauty rest disturbed.”

“I‘m not completely out of control, not anymore,” James replied, tone almost petulant, but instead of pulling away, he just wrapped his arms tighter around Tony’s waist. “But I don’t want to leave you, solnishko.”

Okay, so Tony was still a little sun and that didn’t instill all that much confidence in him but dammit, this would have to do. They couldn’t waste any more time. “You’re just going down the hallway. I’ll be right here, Friday’s access panel is just on the other side of the kitchen. But surprise, surprise, I didn’t bring my phone to the assassin showdown, and I need Rhodey and Alice to start on a physical sweep of the property while I get Friday up and running. If the Compound has been under shoddy security— or worse— for this long, we could be dealing with bigger problems than Natasha.” Carefully, he pushed his hands against the super soldier’s shoulders and the man pulled away, albeit reluctantly, a frown firmly in place, which Tony countered with a reassuring smile. “I just need you to tell Rhodey that Natasha was here. You can tell him I let her go, that’s fine, I’ll deal with the fallout. Can you do that for me? Please?” 

James gave a tentative nod, before letting out a sigh, and Tony got to witness the remaining traces of reluctance, guilt, and anxiety slip away to be replaced once again with the determined, calculating expression of the Soldier. 

The arms around Tony’s waist found their way back up as the Soldier cradled Tony’s face in his hands again. That scrutinizing look, threatening either painful death or the most thorough kiss of Tony’s life, was back too, but before Tony even had the chance to panic or protest again—

“I’ll be back.” 

Without another word, the Soldier pulled away entirely and headed in the direction of the living quarters, leaving Tony feeling strangely bereft, with all that warmth pressed up against him suddenly gone.

“Yeah, okay, Terminator…” Tony muttered as he watched the man’s retreating back, realizing a few seconds later that his brain got distracted by the impressive view. In his defense though, the super soldier was doing his so called murder strut (Tony was intimately familiar with it from the traffic cam footage of the attack on Fury and from Berlin) and while this whole night was just one thing after another from the list titled What the Actual Hell?, the most ridiculous one by far was the fact that somehow, that strut looked even more impressive when James was doing it barefoot in his pajamas

Certainly served as a reminder that the man didn’t need guns and a black leather combat suit to be a threat, but in Tony’s case, instead of being properly terrified, he just found the whole thing way hotter than he should have. He shook his head even as he hurried over to Friday’s access panel.

Jesus, Stark, can you not think with your dick for five seconds? We’re in the middle of a crisis here and you’re getting distracted by those glorious thighs. For fuck’s sake. Friday first, ogling the resident super soldier later— maybe. Dammit, I’m failing at the whole “responsible adult” thing, aren’t I?

It didn’t take more than a few minutes for Rhodey’s booming— and very cranky— voice to echo down the hallway. Alice’s softer, but no less authoritative tone followed close behind and the two, with James and Vision in tow, soon appeared around the corner. 

“Tony, what the hell am I hearing? Romanoff was here, you had her on the ropes, and then you let her go?” 

At least his Rhodey was nothing if not predictable. Tony let out a weary sigh, not  looking away from the hologram in front of him, his hands continuing to swipe back and forth between the holographic renderings of Friday’s various systems as he examined them for signs of damage. 

“Can we table the Responsible Life Choices lecture until tomorrow? Kinda busy at the moment,” Tony said. He did finally look over at Rhodey, who had his arms crossed and his disapproving glare firmly in place. “Plus, I did have my reasons, Rhodey Bear. Contrary to popular belief, I do actually know what I’m doing.” 

Rhodey looked desperate to say something else, but Tony was spared that righteous lecture when Alice began issuing orders, asking Rhodey to lead the Beta security team to do a sweep of the building, while she and Vision took the Alpha team around the Compound grounds. Given her dislike of Natasha, Tony was sure the woman was mad at him too, but thankfully, she was in combat mode right now. All the lecturing could wait until tomorrow.

She was already back on her phone and firing away commands to her security team as she briskly walked away, Vision silently floating after her, and Tony waved Rhodey away when the man sighed and told him he was heading out too. With everyone else now gone, James came over to lean against the wall next to the access panel, arm crossed and tension running through his whole body. He stared at the floor for a moment, but then closed his eyes and dropped his head against the wall. 

“You alright?”

For a second, the only response to Tony’s question was a pained, frustrated growl that tapered off into a groan.

“Yes? I don’t know— no, not really,” James finally said, probably aware that his words didn’t actually explain anything. “I just— I’ve never let him bleed through this much… I’m not sure where I end and he begins, and it’s all— too much, to be honest. He doesn’t want to go back into his own little corner, not until—” he inhaled a shuddering breath and his pleading eyes turn to Tony. “He just needs— I need—”

Those desperate blue eyes watched Tony as he shut down the hologram with a flick of his wrist. He turned to face James fully. 

“I wish I could focus on helping you, James, that’s all I want, but—”

“No, it’s fine— I’m fine,” James shook his head, looking away as he obviously tried to regain his composure. “Did you, uh— did you fix Friday yet?” 

Tony hated that James was forced to deal with this on his own, that Tony couldn’t just say screw it and prioritize James over everything else, and he cursed Natasha for putting them in this situation. 

“Not quite yet,” he had to admit, “but I do have the potential issues narrowed down. Natasha’s smart, but she’s not a tech genius, so there was only so many ways she could’ve taken Friday out. Unfortunately, it looks like I have to go down to the server room in the basement to get this fixed.” 

James’ flesh fingers drummed against his leg nervously. “Can I— can I go down with you? The Soldier’s not keen on— having you out of his sight right now.” 

Hmm, being locked up in a small server room with James and the Soldier while all of their security was down. Tony briefly wondered where that ranked on Rhodey’s Shit Tony Should Not Do list, but since that list was nearly identical to the Shit Tony Has Definitely Done list, Tony just gave James a reassuring smile. “Of course. All three of us can head down.” He grinned at James, who was torn between glaring at Tony and rolling his eyes.

However, he obediently followed Tony and the two of them quickly made their way down, taking the stairs in lieu of the elevator in case other systems in the Compound were down too. Tony spent the entire brisk walk valiantly ignoring the way James was practically plastered to his side, having no qualm with keeping a possessive hand on the small of Tony’s back. Over the past week, James had definitely stepped up the whole affectionate gestures thing— Tony was still trying to figure that out— but between this and what happened earlier, the Soldier apparently amplified all of those tendencies ten-fold.

Who knew that all the Winter Soldier really wanted was for someone to cuddle with? Yeah, that made perfect sense.

How was this Tony’s life again?

The door to the server room— or a vault, rather, surrounded by feet of reinforced concrete— was tucked away in the dark corner of Tony’s lab behind a pile of discarded Iron Man parts, half of which were black and gold (Tony was going through a phase). While Tony began to enter his access credentials, which required codes, retina scans, and DNA, James was a solid presence behind him, observing over Tony’s shoulder as he typed away at one of the few physical keyboards in the whole Compound.

“Romanova said she came down to the lab first… when she was looking for you,” James mentioned off-handedly and Tony stopped what he was doing to look back at the man and groan in defeat. 

“Dammit, no… Now I’m gonna have to fumigate the whole place,” he whined, even as he resumed his typing. “I guess the lab was her best bet though… I would’ve been here if I hadn’t been— you know—”

“Sleeping with me?” there was a playful, suggestive tone to those words, and Tony focused on the screen in front of him instead of his rising blush. Tony Stark, unable to process simple innuendo. Oh my god, my playboy reputation is in tatters.

“Yeah, that. I do wonder though how things would’ve gone down if I actually were here…”

“I’m sure you would’ve handled her expertly,” James replied and now that voice dropped down to a huskier whisper, hints of the Soldier coming through, “but I’m glad she ran into me first. No need for you to dirty your hands, darlin’.”

Tony was equal parts relieved and disappointed when the heavy steel door finally slid open because with the way James— the Soldier? Tony was going crazy from the whiplash— was whispering all these things into his ear— 

He gulped and slid between the access panel and the other man, hurrying inside. James followed closely behind and the door shut automatically behind them. A second later, Tony was rubbing at his arms because he began to shiver in earnest, no whispered innuendoes required.

“Shit, I always forget how fucking cold it is in here,” he muttered. Forget the suit, he was going to start wearing a goddamn parka to bed. With fuzzy boots and one of those tall Russian fur hats. Not wanting to spend any more time than necessary down here, Tony hurried over to the panel where he could access the entirely of Friday’s mainframe, which required more certifications of his credentials. When the system began to process the information, he paused and glanced at James.

The man walked through the room at a slower pace and gave it a scrutinizing once-over, taking in the several long rows of floor-to-ceiling servers. There were no natural light down here, just the dim overhead fluorescents and the constellations of the multi-colored pin pricks of lights adorning every piece of tech inside.

“Would it be possible to increase the temperature?” he inquired as he made his way over to firmly plant himself in Tony’s space yet again.

Tony shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. This is the optimal temperature for all the tech in here and for the arc reactor right below us that powers the whole room and it’s best not to mess with it. I just— I don’t usually come down here in my pj’s, you know?”

The quiet beep and the blue spherical hologram that sprung to life between Tony and the access panel, drew their attention and Tony tapped a few spots on the surface of the sphere to activate the expansion protocol, before turning back to James.

“Okay, are you ready for something cool?” Tony couldn’t help his grin and when James quirked an inquisitive eyebrow, Tony responded by throwing his arms out to expand the holographic projection until the sphere occupied a good half of the room, with them at the center. James, wide-eyed, spun around to take in the swirling whirlpool of countless images and text that surrounded him.

“This is Friday,” Tony explained, his own voice reverent. This rendering of her reminded him of a small galaxy and to someone like James, that metaphor was likely even more accurate, since all he saw was a beautiful, but chaotic collection of bright blue code, symbols, and lights. But to Tony, there was a pattern to the chaos, although even he didn’t know every nook and cranny of Friday’s inner life. She grew and expanded every day and there were some corners of her existence that Tony hadn’t had a chance to see yet.

He only gave himself a moment to remember the bright golden sphere that was his JARVIS. Just one moment to let that familiar ache to settle in his heart. He was disappointed to learn over the last few years that the grief never truly went away. There were some days when he wouldn’t dwell on that loss at all, too distracted by the present, but then there would be moments where the mourning was so raw and so fresh that JARVIS’ death might as well have been days ago. Tonight, his moment of grief fell somewhere between fond remembrance and quiet melancholy. 

“She’s beautiful,” James remarked, although there was now a noticeable strain in the man’s voice, despite the positive sentiment.

Tony examined him with a critical eye, not missing how his flesh hand kept up the nervous gesture of clench-and-release. “You hanging in there?”

“Barely. Wish I could’ve met this side of Friday without the Soldier fighting me for every thought— he just— he refuses to stand down—” James groaned, eyes shut and hands clenched into fists. “He just wants—”

“Whatever it is, we can figure it out, okay? You seem lucid and in relative control, those are good signs,” Tony tried to reassure. “Is he feeling like some vengeance right now? I can’t condone beating people up, but we have a great training simulator, I could definitely whip up some holographic Nazis for you.”

James shook his head at Tony’s offer. “No, he— that’s not what he wants—”

Tony turned around to examine Friday’s inner structure because the quicker he fixed this, the quicker he could focus on James. That didn’t mean he couldn’t work and talk at the same time. “Well, do you know what he does want? Which primal instinct does he need scratched? If it’s not violence or anger, then maybe food, drink—”

Tony was almost proud he didn’t let out another embarrassingly high-pitched noise when all of the sudden James’ arms wrapped around his waist from behind, pulling Tony right into the super soldier’s chest. He couldn’t however hold back the full body-shiver in reaction to the warm puff of air against his neck.

Right. The Soldier just wanted an encore. Somehow Tony kept forgetting about the most basic of instincts. Sex. 

“This— This is what he wants,” James whispered against his skin and the arms around Tony tightened in their embrace. Tony bit back a moan when James began to plant soft, feather-light kisses along his exposed neck and shoulder between every other word. “You’re the only thing that calms him down… the only thing that grounds him. He wants to know that you’re here with him, that you’re safe… Ya huchoo znat’ cho ti moi, solnishko.

“Okay, see, I didn’t quite get that last part—” Tony had to pause to draw in air because holy hell, how was he already this undone by something so simple? It may have been freezing in this room, but he was on fire at every single point he and James touched. “But it sounded really nice, whatever you said. But, uh—”

“Please, Tony,” James outright begged, his own voice breathless, and that did nothing but further encourage Tony’s unruly libido. “Please say that this is okay. God, I just— I just need to hold you right now and—”

“No, it’s— it’s fine. This is fine,” Tony swallowed against his dry throat and tried to blink away his own haze of lust. Dammit, he couldn’t lose focus just yet. “Anything in the name of mental health, right? Just, uh— let’s take it down just a notch because I do need to concentrate on Friday, okay? That sound doable?”

James nodded, their cheeks rubbing together when the man propped his chin on Tony’s right shoulder. “Could you talk me through what you’re doing? If that’s okay? Your voice helps too…”

The whispered request rang loud and clear in Tony’s ear and he didn’t hesitate to give his own nod. Talking was something he could definitely do and it could distract him from the fact that James was currently pressed up against him and it felt like the best goddamn thing in the world.

“Well, this lets me manipulate Friday’s programming at will without her being aware of it. She says it makes her feel weird whenever she’s awake for the modifications. She has a hard time finding the right words, but by the way she describes it, I’m pretty sure she’s actually just ticklish.”

Tony could feel the rumble of James’ quiet laughter against his back and it made his own breathing easier.

“You feeling a bit better?”

“Bit by bit. Soldier’s still— everywhere in my head, but he’s— happy for the moment.” 

Tony nodded his approval absently as his hands pulled up and zoomed out a large schematic.

“Is that the layout of the Compound?”

“Yup. See how all the security markers are flashing a very angry red? Actually, a lot of our other systems are down too. Fuckin’ Romanoff, what the hell? I think she just crashed the entire system, there was no finesse to this at all.”

“She said the grounds were still under surveillance, but it looks like—”

“She either lied or didn’t know what she was talking about, yeah.” Tony glared at the map in front of him, trying to piece together what could’ve trashed Friday’s system so badly. Natasha’s work was like a bull in a china shop, where the china was his poor Friday, unfortunately. 

It didn’t take Tony’s brain more than a minute of silence to eliminate the few viable suspects and after rooting through Friday’s seemingly endless code for a few more minutes, he found the culprit.

He groaned, hating to be proved right yet again. “Damn it… Well, good news, I can fix Friday. Bad news, I’m reminded once again why it’s bad to trust spies.” 

When James asked what he meant, Tony tried to explain as he worked on rebuilding the corrupt code. “So if you haven’t already noticed, Friday’s code is vast. Like stars in a galaxy vast and with a program this large, there are bound to be imperfections. Think of it like our bodies. Trillions of cells, all working together, but sometimes, there are mutations and while most of those remain harmless, if something does go wrong, it could crash the whole system.” He couldn’t help his chuckle, despite the roiling anger in his chest. “Friday is always so annoyed every time we find some stray piece of code that doesn’t necessarily do anything, but god forbid you manipulate it or take it out. I just tell her Welcome to being human, baby girl. Same thing with the code I’m working on right now. Natasha must’ve gotten some hacker’s help— she’s gotta know at least half a dozen black hats out there— to target this string of code in particular and just rip it apart, causing Friday’s whole system to crash.”

“Isn’t this a major security flaw?”

The sigh Tony let out signaled both his frustration and building exhaustion. “Only in theory. Because Friday is such an extensive program, the chance of someone stumbling onto one of these flaws is literally astronomical— as in, someone would have to spend a hundred thousand years digging through Friday’s code before finding it by chance. The only way to exploit it is to know exactly where to look and I’m literally the only one who knows Friday’s code that intimately… well, except for this one dumb line of code…”

Tony spared a moment to acknowledge the fact that he was having this whole discussion while securely wrapped up in James’ arm. At least it made the sting of yet another betrayal just a touch less painful. He continued, although his tone was laced with resignation now more than anything else.

“This particular code is from when I was just beginning to create Friday’s core structure. I remember getting so frustrated because I couldn’t fix the code, no matter what I did. I finally ended up forcing myself to leave the lab to clear my mind. I wondered into the kitchen— it must’ve been the middle of the night— and Natasha was there. She noticed I was in one of those moods, as they called it, and usually everyone ran the other way because no one wanted to hear me rant about tech for an hour, but she actually stayed. Even handed me a cup of coffee— decaf, the damn spy— and then she just listened.” Tony closed his eyes. Nope, betrayal still stung like a bitch, didn’t matter whose arms were around him. “Fuck, she even asked me to show her how the code worked, where it was… And like the dumbass I was, I showed her everything, all the details because it felt so good to have someone listen for once. I was the one who handed her the keys— fuck, it’s all my fault, James, I put everyone at risk here—”

“Stop, Tony, none of that is true,” James cut off Tony’s guilty ramblings and brought his right hand up to settle on Tony’s chest, likely not even knowing it was the same spot where the arc reactor used to be. His forehead was resting against Tony’s temple. “If she didn’t know about this code, would anyone else have been able to exploit it?”

Tony shook his head.

“Then all you did was trust someone who was your teammate, who was supposed to have your back. Romanova is at fault here, not you.”

“I just— I just want to understand why they keep— keep turning on me. Is there something so fundamentally flawed about me that—”

“Tony, no. Don’t you even dare finish that sentence. I don’t— I don’t know why they act like this with you— I’ve wondered this myself and I don’t have a good answer and it makes me so goddamn angry—” If it were possible, he drew Tony in even closer against his chest. “But they don’t matter. God, none of them matter and none of them deserve you. You, Tony— you’re worth ten of them.” 

All Tony could do was close his eyes and exhale a shaky breath in the face of that sheer conviction. He was sure James had no idea the significance those words carried, but fuck, it sure felt like absolution. 

Soft lips were again gently, tenderly exploring his skin and everything inside Tony was on fire once more, but thankfully, he was still coherent enough to put the finishing touches on the string of code. All the systems needed a reboot now and Tony realized things were about to get just a touch more intimate.

“To reset Friday, all the systems need to be shut down first, which cuts all the power in the room for a few minutes, so, uh— hope you’re not afraid of the dark?”

“Not when I have you to protect me,” James whispered in his ear, the Soldier back in his tone again and Tony wondered if he needed to worry that he could now pick up on these distinctions.

The hologram around them dissolved into thin air and one by one, all the pieces of tech inside turned off. Within a few seconds, they were engulfed in total darkness, only the quiet, constant hum of the arc reactor below the floor filling in the silence around them. 

Every one of Tony’s other senses turned sharper in the same instant his sight was taken away. James’ quiet, steady breath against the nape of his neck, the chill of the room contrasting with the blazing heat where their bodies were pressed together.  And touch— god, they were touching everywhere. Lips on his flushed skin— soft lips that Tony fantasized and dreamed about all the goddamn time— and James never stopped the absent movements of his fingers, although his right hand now trailed back down, tracing the planes of Tony’s stomach once before it found its way underneath Tony’s shirt and repeated those same movements against his skin.

“James…” Tony wasn’t sure what his own needy exhale meant. Was he supposed to be telling James to stop? Because every part of his body was adamant that was the worst idea ever. 

“None of them deserve you, Tony. My darlin’ mechanic, my clever Tony, solnishko moyo…” As those sinful lips continued to spill a nearly worshipful litany of endearments, the hand on Tony’s stomach moved up, tugging the shirt up with it, to splay possessively over his heart and its metal twin took its place, a firm pressure against Tony’s abs, causing him to let out an audible moan. He couldn’t help it. That cold metal against his heated skin— it was amazing and he could feel that familiar, rising heat in his belly. Shit, he was already half-hard, there was no denying that, and just from this— how could James make him feel so much with nothing but simple touch— and thank god— thank god it was pitch black in the room because his thin cotton pants would do nothing to hide his arousal, and wasn’t he supposed to be responsible adult?

His own left hand settled over the cold vibranium. Those perfect metal fingers kept up their gentle movements, tracing lazy patterns over his skin, and Tony was definitely planning to gently pry that hand away, he had every intention to do just that, but then James moaned a breathless “Need you, Tony…” into his ear and all Tony did was press that metal hand into his skin even harder, never wanting to let go, at the same time as James rocked his hips against him—

There was no mistaking the line of heat against Tony’s backside and the realization that James was just as hard as he was, that he wanted this just as much, finally caused every one of Tony’s thoughts to fizzle out into static, leaving him unable to do anything but feel. Tony’s right hand found its way into James’ hair, the firm hold making James outright purr against his skin. He nudged his nose against Tony’s cheek and then his lips were peppering kisses down Tony’s jaw.

“Let me make you feel good, sweetheart, please…” Tony let out a needy whimper as their joined hands dipped just below the waistband of his pants, making James’ intentions perfectly clear. “Please say yes, Tony…”

Oh, how he wanted to. Tony didn’t think there was anything he wanted more in that moment. And why couldn’t Tony just say yes? Why did he have to deny himself pleasure and happiness, over and over, all in the name of being responsible? His heart would always break in the end, so what did it matter if just this once, he just let himself feel, just let his fantasies finally take form, consequences be damned?

Yes, yes, yes ran through his mind on a loop, but he couldn’t even form words anymore, capable of nothing more than needy exhales, as the entirety of his existence narrowed down to those lips on his skin, the hard length pressed up against his back, and his own building arousal. All he wanted, all he needed was for James to finally touch him, in all the ways Tony had dreamed about— all those baddirtywrong moments shoved to the dark corner of his own mind in the name of the greater good— and all he had to do was guide that perfect metal hand lower, just a little bit lower and—

“I’m back, Boss!”

Friday’s cheerful voice and the sudden flood of bright light felt like getting doused in ice cold water and it startled yelp out of Tony as he lurched forward, scrambling out of James’ embrace. 

“Systems are beginning to come online and I, uh— did I interrupt something?”

Tony was about as graceful as a newborn calf as he took a few more steps, legs shaking under him. He leaned one hand against a server box, trying to catch his breath. His whole body was still tingling with the potential of pleasure, but in the glaringly bright fluorescent lights, his mental faculties were coming back online too, mind flooding with realizations and implications and shit, shit, shit, nothing got rid of an erection better than mortification laced with guilt and self-recrimination.

Oh my god, how did I let it get that far? What the hell was I thinking? 

“I, uh— I need to get over to the access panel on the— on the other side of the servers,” Tony addressed James, but didn’t dare look back at the man. Nodding to himself, Tony stumbled over and turned the corner, putting a whole solid, floor-to-ceiling row of servers between himself and James. He didn’t really need to use this particular access panel, but honestly, he needed space to think right now. His legs finally gave out, turning to jelly all of the sudden, and he let himself slide down onto the floor, leaning against the wall and facing the bright blue screen of the access panel which informed him that Friday was already running diagnostics. That’s my girl. At least she knew what she was doing. Unlike Tony.

“Friday, you’ve been out of commission. Few hours, at the longest. Prioritize your security protocols. Once diagnostics on those are complete and security is back up and running, check the rest of your systems and start bringing everything else back online. Critical, then non-critical, but I’m sure I didn’t need to tell you that.”

“Correct, Boss, I’m already on it. Diagnostics have revealed no issues thus far and I’m getting reports from Ms. Blackwood and Colonel Rhodes. Both note no intruders nor any breaches in physical security during the time I was non-operational.”

Tony let out a relieved breath. At least the universe was generous enough to let him have one good thing in this entire clusterfuck of a night. The last thing they needed were Hydra agents staging a sneak attack.

The next few minutes were spent in silence and Tony was thankful for the opportunity to finally catch his breath. He wasn’t flushed and keyed-up anymore either, which unfortunately meant the chill of the server room quickly settled into his muscles and joints. Tony brought his knees up against his chest and wrapped his arms around them, trying to conserve some of his body heat. Resting his chin on top of his knees, he absently observed the diagnostics on the screen in front of him— everything’s good so far, thank god— but his mind was mostly focused on the man on the other side. God, what the hell was wrong with him? Natasha’s words filtered through, loud and clear in Tony’s head, and he cringed. Fuck, he was basically taking advantage of James! The man wasn’t in his right mind— for all intents and purposes, he was high, and there was Tony, thinking with his dick, forgetting about everything other than his own selfish desires and needs!

He should’ve taken control of the situation, he should’ve stopped it— and if James came out of this hating him, for taking advantage of him in such a vulnerable state, then Tony would absolutely deserve it, although it terrified him to think of losing what he already had with James. He swallowed back the guilt. Maybe if he apologized—

“All security on external Compound grounds has been brought back online and I am 78% complete with the diagnostics of the security protocols for the interior Compound structure. So far, no additional issues and no security flags to report on.”

“You always give me the best news, Fri, that’s why I love you,” Tony responded. At least he had Friday to alleviate some of his other worries. Too bad she didn’t have anything reassuring to say about the rest of his disastrous life choices. 

“It was the Black Widow who corrupted my code, correct?”

“Yup. Remember that faulty line of code buried on your Theogony sequence?”

“The part of me that you wanted to christen the primordial goop?”

“That’s the one,” Tony couldn’t help his quiet chuckle. While Tony preferred to use rock bands, pop culture references, or anything that sounded sufficiently ridiculous for his naming conventions, Friday loved all things mythology, so she usually just ignored Tony’s terrible suggestions. “Use the protocol we developed a while back to build a firewall around the code, so Ms. Rushman can never touch it again.”

“Done and done, Boss. While I continue diagnostics, I feel obligated to inform you that Colonel Rhodes is currently using quite the colorful language to describe how irate he is with your decision to let the Black Widow go.” 

“Oh, I bet he’s all sorts of irate.”

“While I will always defer to your judgment, Boss, I have to admit that I myself am disappointed that she was allowed to leave. I really would have liked to— oh, what is the phrase the boys always use? Oh yes. I would have liked to wreck her shit, Boss.”

Tony burst out laughing at the same time he heard an amused snort on the other side of the servers. “What kind of terrible things are those two hooligans teaching my sweet girl?” Tony managed to ask through his laughter. “Don’t let Rhodey hear any of you talk like that around him!”

“We are very careful not to use these sorts of— expressions around Colonel Rhodes, Boss, I assure you.”

Tony shook his head fondly. “Rhodey’s such a hypocrite. He has the filthiest mouth out of everyone at the Compound.” 

After Friday proudly confirmed that fact as true (apparently she and the boys kept a running tally and everything), Tony let her focus on the rest of the diagnostics. The silence didn’t last long however when Tony’s hearing picked up the shuffling noises in the quiet space and moments later, James appeared around the corner. He gave Tony a brief glance, before settling in next to an adjacent wall, several yards away from Tony. His position mirrored Tony’s as he curled in on himself and his knees were apparently a much more fascinating subject than Tony because he refused to look back up now.

Tony observed him for a few seconds, heart clenching with guilt, because the man looked uncomfortable and upset and nice fucking going, Tony, why do you ruin everything you touch?

“You, uh— you alright?”

James nodded, watching his fingers drumming out a silent staccato against his knees. “The Soldier—” he cleared his throat, “we had a talk. He’s back in his box. ’s just me now.”

“Good, that’s— good.”

Awkward silence followed and Tony didn’t want to think of the possibility that they could be going back to that polite, distant professionalism from so many months ago.

“James, I fucked up so badly—” 

“I am so sorry, Tony—”

They both stared at each other for a few moments, trying to process the other’s words. James was the first one to finally speak again.

“Tony, what are you talking about? I was the one who ‘fucked up’. I let the Soldier loose like some rapid dog, didn’t even try to stop him from laying it on Natalia and then— then I— I practically assaulted you just now!” He buried his face in his knees after that outburst and groaned. “I don’t even know how you can stand to look at me…”

Honestly, looking at James was the only thing Tony was capable of as he blinked owlishly. “Um—” he tried to gather his thoughts. This honestly wasn’t what he expected. “James, I should’ve been the one— I was supposed to be the responsible adult here! You didn’t know what you were doing—”

Two narrowed eyes looked up at him from their hiding place. “I knew exactly what I was doing, Tony. The Soldier’s all me, right? ’s what everyone keeps telling me. And I was in control this time. I just— let myself get lost in those feelings. Anger, vengeance, all that power… all that lust.” He swallowed audibly on that last word. “I’m so sorry, Tony, this was never how it was supposed to be, I shouldn’t have forced you to—”

“Hey, alright, let me stop you right there,” Tony interrupted because the abject guilt in the other man’s voice was breaking his heart. The last thing he needed was James believing he did something wrong, so this was one misconception Tony needed to clear up right away. “You didn’t force me to do anything, okay? I wasn’t exactly—” he had to clear his own throat, “unreceptive to what was happening…” The words were too close to an admission of Tony’s true feelings, but he pushed away his own fear, letting his need to comfort James kick back in (there was a slight chance he was actually the biggest mother hen of them all). “You didn’t do anything that I wasn’t— that I wasn’t okay with… Trust me, I should’ve stopped you, but not because I didn’t want— all of that. I should’ve stopped you because you weren’t yourself.”

“I was myself, Tony, I told you. In all the ways that mattered at least. I didn’t— not want that either.” Those blue eyes turned pleading. “So… you’re not angry with me?”

“Of course not. Honestly, thought you were gonna hate me.

“Tony, I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again in case your hearing’s bad. You’re the only thing that keeps me from falling apart when this kinda stuff happens. You’re always the one trying to put me back together, so why would you think I hated you?”

Tony shrugged. “Because I always think the worst of myself?” He took in James’ disapproving look and his own lips stretched into small smile. “Okay, so, to make sure we’re on the same page… I definitely don’t hate you… and you don’t seem to hate me?”

“Obviously.”

“So we’re both okay?”

“Mostly,” James shrugged, but there was now a smile on his face too. “I mean, my shins are a little sore from where Natalia kicked me with her dumb boots, but I think we’re okay.”

Surprisingly, some of Tony’s guilt was already draining away, which was a miracle in its own right because Tony hoarded his guilt like a dragon hoarded gold. 

But maybe, just this once, he could let himself have something good? Even if it was just for a short time. “So if everything’s okay, why are you sitting all the way in the corner over there?”

James’ shy shrug made him chuckle and he lifted his left arm up and beckoned the man with his hand. “Just c’mere already, would you? It’s freezing as hell down here and I don’t have my trusty superhero blanket, so you’ll have to do.” 

Having Tony’s approval was apparently all James needed because he wasted no time in crawling over and planting himself firmly next to Tony, whose arm wrapped around the man’s shoulders and pulled him in even closer. Tony guided James’ head with his other hand to rest on his shoulder and the super soldier went slack against him, letting out a contented sigh against Tony’s collar bone when he settled in, with his arms around Tony’s waist as well. 

Tony wasn’t sure why they kept finding themselves cuddling on the floor like this, but this time, their positions were perfectly reversed, so at least the situation lended itself to some poetic symmetry.

There was a minute where neither one of them said anything, content to watch the screen before them while they both warmed each other up. Tony marveled at the strange dichotomy of his reactions to James. Earlier, all it took was a simple touch to create fire and electricity and desperate need… but this— this was a different kind of intimacy. Soft and unhurried, with no demands or expectations. It was soothing and safe.

Strange that he could experience both with the same person over the span of ten minutes. Insecurities and doubts flared up, whispering into Tony’s ear that this would obviously blow up in his face, that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he would go down in flames and drag James along with him… 

He tried to ignore it all and let the heavy, comforting weight of the vibranium arm across his stomach ground him. Without thinking, he began to trace lazy patterns across the cool metal, mapping out the thin grooves between the plates with the pads of his fingers. He knew James was watching the gentle movements.

“I, uh— I thought you were going to hate me…” James finally spoke. His voice was barely above a whisper, but the server room was quiet, so Tony didn’t have any trouble hearing the words. He frowned.

“I swear we just established that we’re good—”

“No, I didn’t mean now— I meant— when you found me, holding Natalia down. I saw the repulsor and all that ran through my head was— he’s going to shoot me, isn’t he?”

Tony knew this was serious talk time, but he couldn’t help his amused snort. “You seriously thought I was gonna shoot you over the Black Widow?”

James responded with a small shrug. “I think it was less about her and more about the fact that I let myself give into that need for violence… I thought you’d be disgusted by what I let myself turn into…”

Tony let out a slow, drawn out sigh. These types of emotional one-on-one’s were never his forte, but this one was unavoidable, not to mention fairly important. He let himself card his hand gently through James’ hair and strangely, the words came easier than he anticipated.

“I know you hate it when Fatima and I say this, but the Soldier is a part of you. And accepting that, letting yourself connect with that isn’t a bad thing. I only hate the fact that you were forced to do so, that it happened when you felt threatened and when you were alone. Honestly though, you don’t give yourself enough credit.  You nearly went full Winter Soldier on her and you still showed considerable restraint. Honestly, she was lucky she ran into you. I mean, if it were Rhodey or Alice in the kitchen, they would’ve just shot first and asked questions never.”

“Their approach sounds tempting.” The words were meant as a joke, but James’ tone remained serious. “The Soldier— he’s settled now, but it doesn’t mean I’m still not absolutely furious with what she said and did to you.” James pulled away so he could properly look at Tony. The metal hand found its way up to settle against Tony’s cheek. “You do know that what she said was a lie, right?”

“She said a lot of things.”

James’ eyebrows drew together and his nose scrunched up in distaste. “Well, come to think of it, everything she said was a lie, but I specifically meant what she said about me. About my programming.”

Tony wanted to say something, he really did, but the words just got stuck in his throat. Because there was no denying he still felt guilt and apprehension about Natasha’s words, about his own decisions and intentions. Apparently his expression gave that away.

“Tony, no, you can’t believe her for a second! You’re not controlling me or manipulating my feelings or whatever else she was spouting.” Tony tried to turn away, the intensity and the raw honesty behind those blue eyes too overwhelming, but the metal hand gently nudged Tony’s face back. “I know what being brainwashed feels like, okay? I know what it’s like to have every part of you ripped out, to be unmade. I know what it’s like to be under someone’s control, so please don’t insult me by giving any weight to Natasha’s bullshit.” 

Another sigh and Tony couldn’t help but lean forward and press their forehead together. “I’m sorry, I know… I just worry sometimes that— I don’t want to hurt you, James.”

“And you haven’t, Tony. Please stop doubting yourself. I—” James let out a nervous breath. “I care so much about you…”

As if suddenly made shy by his own admission, James pressed himself back into the crook of Tony’s neck. The metal arm trailed back down Tony’s chest until it found Tony’s hand and metal fingers intertwined with flesh.

“We, uh— we should probably talk about this—” Damn, when did Tony Stark begin to stumble over his words? “About us, I mean. Maybe— maybe not today, not tomorrow… but when the dust settles a bit and we feel more up to it, yeah?”

“I’d really like that,” James replied and Tony smiled, even though he knew he’d have an existential crisis later when it fully sunk in that he just agreed to talk about his feelings with James. “Sorry you didn’t get any sleep, by the way,” the super soldier added and Tony groaned because oh yeah, he forgot it was four in the morning and he had a hell of a day ahead of him.

“Ugh, don’t remind me. The Compound is going to be full of UN delegates in a few hours and here I spend the night before arguing with fucking super spies…” He leaned his head against James with a sigh. “It’s okay. I’ll manage.”

“Is Friday almost good to go?”

“Yeah, probably ten more minutes of diagnostics and reboots.” 

James nodded and stayed still for a few moments, but then finally extricated himself from Tony’s embrace. This time, he used both of his hands to carefully cradle Tony’s face.

Unsurprisingly, James looked tired after the night’s events, but his expression was soft and affectionate and the earlier sharp lines of the Soldier were completely gone. 

Before Tony had time to react, James leaned in and pressed just one soft kiss to the corner of Tony’s lips before whispering “I’ll go get coffee and breakfast started for you, then. Okay, sweetheart?”

Even though the last part was a question, James didn’t give Tony time to respond, choosing instead to get back up, although he did look back with one more smile before he disappeared behind the servers.

Tony wondered whether this was what Friday had experienced. One small, simple thing, but it had the power to short-circuit the entire operating system.

Thankfully, his brain did come back online faster than anticipated and Tony tipped his head back to lean against the wall, eyes closed in contemplation.

Logic, past experience, and all of his insecurities screamed at him not to go down this path. Therein lies nothing but heartbreak and pain. But his heart— his weak, old heart held together by tape and safety pins— it sang a different song and the two conflicting sides intertwined into a strange sort of melody that left Tony simultaneously hopeful and utterly lost.

Chapter Text

Thank you for taking my call, King T’Challa. I know it’s out of the blue, but I had a favor I wanted to ask you.”

“Not a problem at all, Mr. Barnes, I am always happy to hear from you. Now, what is it I can help you with?”

“Could you let me know when Natasha arrives back in Wakanda? I’d like to speak to her when she does.”

“…Oh. I was not aware she had left.” A weary sigh. “I really wish she had refrained from doing so. Coming and going like that puts all of them in danger.”

“Oh, I’m sure whatever it is she’s doing, she’ll be very discreet about it.”

“I certainly hope so.” Another sigh, followed by a grimace. “I know these are your friends and I hope you do not think ill of me for saying this, Mr. Barnes, but I must be honest with you, I’ve had more than my share of regrets about giving them refuge in my country.”

“I wish I could make up for all the trouble they’ve caused you. I know they’re there in large part because of me, so I can’t help but feel responsible.”

“No, please don’t. We’re all grown adults, are we not?” A rueful smile. “I suppose we all have to live with the consequences of our choices, myself included. But I apologize, I did not mean to turn so self-pitying. As for your request, I often utilize Mr. Stark’s AI to communicate with him regarding various business matters, so I can send you a message through her whenever Ms. Romanoff arrives. Would that work?”

A seemingly innocent grin. “That would be perfect, Your Highness. I really appreciate it.”

***

The click clack of Pepper’s Louboutins followed her down the hallway of the Compound as she made her way over to the common room. She spent the last twenty minutes chatting with Alice, using the opportunity to catch up with the woman and exchange a few bits of gossip, but now it was finally time for her to see Tony.

Pepper had visited the Compound before, mostly in those first few months after the “Civil War”. Tony was so swamped with work back then that he simply couldn’t find the time to come out to Manhattan, so bringing the SI work here was Pepper’s only way to check up on him. They were both still uncomfortable around each other, their break-up too recent, but the simple act of seeing the man alive, if not all that well, soothed some small part of her frayed heart, even if the rest of her still ached because it was obvious Tony was hurt, betrayed and alone, and she wasn’t brave enough to reach out and bridge the distance between them. Distance that, if she were honest with herself, had been there long before she told Tony it was over.

She failed him back then, it was easy to acknowledge that now. He needed someone— anyone— to support him, to tell him that he did the right thing, that he was a good man and so very important to them all, but every time they were together, her conflicting emotions would threaten to overwhelm her and the only way she could cope was diversion. She’d talk about contracts and product launches and quarterly projections, while the chasm between them grew and grew. 

Unfortunately, even as things slowly began to come together for Tony and the New Avengers, the relationship between him and Pepper remained strained.

She didn’t regret breaking up with Tony, it was easier to admit that now too. It was the right thing to do for both of them, even if it hurt like hell. What she did regret however, deeply and truly, was letting their friendship fall into ruin, especially when Tony needed her most. She wondered whether at this point any attempt at reconciliation on her part would be too little, too late. Would Tony even let her try? 

Pepper didn’t think she would blame him if he rejected her olive branch today, but enough was enough. She had to try. When Jim called her last night to let her know Romanoff infiltrated the Compound looking for Tony, Pepper couldn’t shake off the singular, dreadful thought of what if I had lost Tony last night? She wasn’t in complete denial about the nature of Tony’s line of work. The risk of losing him was always high, but something about Romanoff’s late night visit left her unsettled. She could just imagine that woman, sinking her dirty claws into Tony, using her super spy tactics to hit him where it hurt. Those bastards— everyone of them, not just Romanoff— sure knew how to hurt Tony without ever lifting a hand. 

So with that thought firmly in mind, she canceled all of her appointments and meetings for the day and drove herself over to the Compound.

Even if today ended up being business as usual for her and Tony, nothing but amicable politeness and awkward conversations, this would at least give her the chance to see him safe and whole.

Friday informed her that Tony was currently asleep in the common room, but that she was certain he would like to see her, so that was Pepper’s current destination. She couldn’t help but imagine an exhausted Tony, sprawled across one of the couches, passed out and dead to the world, completely uncaring that he was crumpling and creasing some suit worth thousands of dollars. Lord knew she had found him just like that more times than she could count. 

She heard the murmur of some program on the television and softened her steps, hoping to catch a candid glimpse of the man before she had to wake him up. 

When she reached the common room, Pepper stopped short, greeted with a sight she didn’t quite expect, including another person she didn’t expect to see there. It was obvious Mr. Barnes heard her footsteps because he was already looking up at her when she rounded the corner. For a moment, when their eyes met, a shiver ran down her spine, fueled by some primal fear. She was looking into the eyes of a predator. A killer. But then she blinked and all she saw were those same gentle blue eyes she remembered from their first introduction, now accompanied by a small smile. 

She blinked a few more times to make sure she wasn’t seeing things and when his kind expression didn’t change, she hoped that it wasn’t her limited knowledge of the man— former brainwashed assassin spy— that was somehow coloring her perception of him. 

“Ms. Potts,” the man acknowledged her, his voice hushed, “I didn’t realize you were stopping by the Compound today.” She noted absently that he looked much healthier than the last time she’d seen him.

“A bit of an impromptu visit, but I see Tony is taking his mid-afternoon nap,” she remarked fondly as she walked over closer, giving herself just a few extra seconds to take in the full scene before her, which frankly left her— confused, if not outright suspicious.

Mr. Barnes was sitting up at one end of the couch, while Tony was lying across the rest of the space, facing away and curled up under a bright red and gold blanket— was that their Iron Man line?— with his head resting on the pillow propped up in Mr. Barnes’ lap. The former assassin had his right arm settled almost possessively on Tony’s waist, while his other hand— huh, metal arm— was carding careful fingers through Tony’s disheveled hair.

This was far too— intimate and it left her with a lot of unanswered questions all of the sudden. The green-hued spark of jealousy at the sight was promptly shoved to the back of her mind.

“We’ve had an eventful week so far and Tony’s been dealing non-stop with the UN delegates for two days straight. I think the meetings are over now, but after I finally got him to sit down and eat, he just crashed.”

“Well, now I just feel like I’ve come at a bad time. I should let him rest,” Pepper said, but Mr. Barnes gave her a reassuring smile.

“He’s been passed out for a few hours now, so he’d probably be waking up soon anyways. And I’m sure he’d love to see you.” With that, Mr. Barnes leaned over and ran the thumb of his right hand over the arch of Tony’s cheekbone. Pepper quirked a suspicious eyebrow at yet another overly affectionate gesture. 

“Tony? Can you wake up for me, sweetheart?” Oh, there were endearments too. Huh. “We have a visitor who’d like to see you.” Mr. Barnes’ words, a touch louder now, prompted Tony to scrunch up his face and curl in on himself, drawing the blanket tighter around him.

“If it’s another Russian spy,” he mumbled sleepily, smacking his lips, “please tell them to go straight to hell.” 

Mr. Barnes let out an amused laugh. “No more spies, I promise, and I don’t think Ms. Potts would appreciate me telling her to go to hell.”

As soon as her name left Mr. Barnes’ lips, Tony shot straight up, blanket pooling around him, and he frantically began to look around. “What, Pepper—” his eyes landed on her. “Oh my god, it is Pepper.” He tried to get off the couch and stumbled, still tangled up in the blanket, but Mr. Barnes’ steady hands were there to make sure Tony didn’t face-plant in his attempt to stand up. 

“Easy, Tony. Ms. Potts isn’t going anywhere.” 

“Sorry, I may not actually be awake yet,” Tony said, blinking those sleepy eyes, looking like an adorable, ruffled owlet. As handsome as Tony was in a tailored suit, Pepper always loved seeing him like this - dressed down in a pair of old jeans and a faded, well-worn band t-shirt. His sock-clad feet— of course Tony was wearing Hulk socks— were bright against the carpet when he finally stood up and straightened out, shaking off most of the sleep still clouding his head.

“Pep, what are you— I mean—” Tony was stumbling over his words now as he hurried over to Pepper. Her heart clenched when he obviously went in to hug her, but then stopped himself and awkwardly placed his hands on her shoulders instead. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see you, but did I— wait, was I supposed to be at SI today? I swear I was free and clear for the next few weeks.” He suddenly looked panicked. “Is SI okay? Are you okay? Did something—”

“Tony, everything’s fine,” she stopped his ramblings with a smile and placed her hand over his. “I just wanted to stop by, see how you were.” 

“Oh. Uh, okay, that’s— that’s great. Come on, come sit,” he ushered her over to the lounge chair next to the couch while he plopped himself back over in his original spot and settled in, crossed-legged. Pepper had another thing to add to her What is going on between Tony and Mr. Barnes? list because even though the couch was large enough for at least four people, Tony chose to sit close enough to the other man that his knee rested against Mr. Barnes’ thigh. 

A part of Pepper knew exactly what all of this meant, but she tried to ignore that particular revelation and focused on Tony instead. 

“Honestly, I just wanted to make sure you were okay, Tony. Jim called last night and told me about your— spider infestation and let me tell you, he wasn’t very happy that you let her go. Honestly, I’m not so sure I’m happy either.”

Tony groaned and dropped his head back against the couch. “Pepper, not you too! Why is everyone mad at me? Even this one’s mad at me!” he pointed at Mr. Barnes who just nodded. 

“I’m so mad at you, Tony,” he confirmed, but Pepper noted there was no actual anger behind those words. “Wait…” his forehead crinkled in confusion. “Who’s Jim?”

Tony looked at him like he had two heads. “…Rhodey.”

Mr. Barnes remained confused for a moment, but then his eyes widened in realization.“Wait— Isn’t Jim short for—”

“Oh my god,” Tony crowed, unable to hold back laughter, “are you just realizing you’re both named James?” 

“No! Well, maybe but— but literally no one calls him that here!” was Mr. Barnes’ indignant reply before he hid his face in his hands. “Oh my god, you even introduced him as James Rhodes on that first day. This is mortifying.”  

Tony finally turned to look at Pepper, eyes sparkling with mirth. “Pepper, I’d like to reintroduce you to James Barnes, the greatest assassin Mother Russia had to offer.” He bumped his shoulder against the other man, who was now sporting a blush. “No wonder we kicked their ass during the Cold War. Hey, maybe I should start calling you Jim too?”

“Please don’t.”

“Oh, wait, no! I’ll just call you Bucky like everyone else!”

Mr. Barnes groaned. “Oh my god, that’s so much worse. Why does it sound so ridiculous when you say it?” 

“Because an assassin named Bucky is ridiculous,” Tony teased and got playfully shoved for his troubles. 

Pepper hadn’t seen Tony laugh so freely in years and it made her smile, even as her heart ached for very different, very selfish reasons. “Really, don’t feel too bad, Mr. Barnes. Tony’s nicknames tend to stick so well some of us forget our own names. Did you know my name is actually Virginia? My own mother calls me Pepper, that’s how bad it is.” 

The man offered her a grateful smile and Tony fondly shook his head at them both.

“And I know that was your attempt to change the subject, Tony,” she waved an accusing finger at the man, “I still want to know why you let Miss Super Spy go. Jim told me you had her apprehended.” 

While she was speaking, Tony’s expression turned serious and he let out a sigh by the time she finished.

“Listen, Pep, it was the right decision to make in the long-run. I mean, what would throwing her in jail have accomplished?”

“Well, for one, it would’ve given me immense satisfaction.”

He gave her a pointed look. “Other than that though… The president and a large portion of our elected officials have it set in their mind that it’s time for the runaways to return. They want us all to show a united front and hold hands, singing kumbaya. You know, show the American people that we overcame our differences and are now ready to defend the homeland.”

“I’m well aware what the current sentiment is, Tony.”

“Then you know as well as I do that they’ll want the full set— you know, collect them all, Avengers edition— and just pardon her anyways. Not to mention, I didn’t want the rest of them to see her in cuffs on the news and come running. They staged one rescue, I’m sure they’re just itching for another one. I don’t need that headache in my life.”

Pepper knew she was scowling. “Well, they try to break her out and just end up in jail themselves, so what? The public opinion of them isn’t all that positive to begin with and if they mess up badly enough, that could force Washington to rethink the pardons. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to protect them, Tony.”

She didn’t mean for her words to sound so accusatory, but apparently they rang true because Tony looked away, refusing to meet her gaze.

“Tony! They don’t deserve it! I mean—” she spared the super soldier one glance, “no offense, Mr. Barnes, I understand they’re your friends, but you have to see it from our point of view. Unlike you, the rest of them had no excuse! Frankly, I’d be happy if they never set foot on US soil again!”

Surprisingly, Mr. Barnes didn’t seem to disagree, if his expression was anything to go by, but Tony was more hesitant, running a distracted hand along the blanket in his lap. When he spoke, his voice was somber. “We’ll need all of them, Pep. After what I saw through that portal… We’ve been lucky this past year, no bad guys the New Avengers couldn’t handle, but now— I can’t put it into words, but I can feel it in my bones. Something’s coming. Something big.” He finally looked up and Pepper cursed herself for starting this conversation in the first place. Tony’s eyes were haunted and she instantly missed the earlier levity. “We both know I could stop the pardons if I really wanted to. I have more than enough political and popular goodwill right now… but this is for the greater good. If— when something big hits, we’ll need everyone. And I’m willing to deal with them being back if it means more innocent people end up getting saved. An alien shooting at Captain American or the Falcon is one less alien shooting at a civilian…”

Why was it always Tony who ended up sacrificing his happiness for the greater good? “This is why they didn’t deserve you…” she whispered, words she should’ve said a year ago. “I just wish there were another way. It kills me that they won’t face any real consequences for the hell they put you through…” Tony obviously wanted say something else, but she stopped him, realizing this was not the conversation she wanted to have with him. Especially with Mr. Barnes here. Those bastards were still his friends, for better or worse. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring all of this up and ruin everyone’s good mood.” A sigh escaped her lips. “I still wish Romanoff would’ve ended up in jail though.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I think me letting her go is going to drive her up the wall. She’s gonna wonder - was it a power play? Was I trying to show her that their fate is in my hands? That I could take them down any time I wanted to? Or maybe it’s the opposite! Maybe I’m just too weak and still have a soft spot for her! We were teammates for years after all and maybe I just couldn’t see her in jail!” Some of his earlier humor was obviously back because Tony made an exaggerated pitiful expression to go with that statement. “But here’s the thing. She’s never going to suspect that more than anything, I just didn’t want to deal with the damn paperwork. I mean, we’d have to file a report with the local authorities, there’d be cops crawling around everywhere, the Council would want a debrief. We both know how much I hate paperwork.” 

“I’m well aware,” Pepper assured him, propping her chin on her hand, “and I suppose at this point, what’s done is done,” she conceded and watched as Tony let himself have a big stretch before jumping off the couch with a grunt.

“My point exactly, Pep. Now, I know it’s rude to interrupt, but I need caffeine,” he announced and gave them a sheepish grin. “You’re welcome to talk amongst yourselves until I get back. Or just shout.” With that, he headed off to the adjoining bar area, which nowadays housed non-alcoholic drinks and a large variety of snack food. Pepper was glad to see that Tony didn’t return to his debilitating drinking habits.

She turned to Mr. Barnes, suddenly feeling more awkward without Tony’s presence as a buffer, but she wasn’t a successful businesswoman for nothing. She could hold a polite conversation with anyone. “Mr. Barnes, I feel I’ve been rude in not asking you about your stay here at the Compound. I hope everything is going well?”

The smile on his face was definitely brighter than anything Pepper could remember from their first meeting. “Everything is going really well, ma’am, thank you. I have nothing but good things to say about my stay here.”

“Tony and the rest haven’t driven you up the wall yet?”

Mr. Barnes answering pearl of laughter was endearing, even Pepper had to admit that. “No, not at all. In fact, I find myself missing Peter and Harley now that they’re not here every day.”

“Oh, that’s right. School’s back in session, isn’t it?”

“Yes, so unfortunately, it means there’s no one here to distract Tony with shiny science things—”

“I heard that!” Tony shouted from the bar and Pepper shared an amused look with Mr. Barnes.

“And what about your therapy? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“I don’t mind. I mean, it’s the whole reason I’m here, isn’t it? To be honest, the recovery process has been challenging, but I couldn’t have done it without having so many people in my corner here, helping me—”

“See, this is him being modest,” Tony’s voice interrupted again. Apparently the coffee maker was up and running because he sauntered back to lean over the couch next to Mr. Barnes. “As far as BARF is concerned, the results we’re getting are exceptional. Hell, at this point, I think we’re mere weeks away from completing that part of the therapy.”

“I think that has more to do with your tech than it does with my brain though,” Mr. Barnes countered with a smile, but then gave a noncommittal shrug. “Either way, everything is so much better than I ever expected. I can’t really complain.”

“I’m really glad to hear that. And the new arm certainly looks great too,” she couldn’t help but remark. “I’m guessing Tony’s work as well?”

Tony decided to respond, giving both of them a pleased grin. “Of course. Like I’d ever let anyone else build fancy tech for him.” 

Pepper thought back to some of the pictures of Mr. Barnes from the various public and private files she reviewed in the past year and the next question left her mouth before she had a chance to think it through. “No red star on this one though?”

She realized she put her foot in her mouth when the light behind Mr. Barnes’ eyes dimmed. Before she had a chance to backtrack and apologize, Tony cut in.

“Of course not, Pep! This isn’t 1980’s Soviet Russia. God bless America an’ all that! Isn’t that right, James? We’re goddamn patriots in this house!”

Mr. Barnes looked over his shoulder at Tony. “Does that mean I should have the American flag painted on my arm?” There was playfulness in his voice again and his lips parted in a mischievous grin when Tony groaned.

“Oh god, please don’t. I won’t call you Bucky if you stay away from the red, white and blue.” 

“Sounds like a deal.”

Tony’s expression suddenly took a swerve into leering territory and— oh no, that was the face that preluded all of Tony’s inappropriate flirting. Pepper mentally cringed because most people couldn’t stomach Tony’s particular brand of teasing. “But I think Pep does have a point, you do need something on your arm,” he said and— oh dear, there was the eyebrow waggle too. “And since I built the thing, how about we go with the only accurate thing and paint a big, bold Property of Tony Stark on it?”

Pepper expected flustered embarrassment or irritation, but all she saw instead was that same teasing grin and a scoff. “You know you can’t afford me, Stark.”

“Oh yeah? What do cyborg super soldiers go for these days, hmm? Maybe a cup of coffee?”

Mr. Barnes made a show of contemplating the offer. He hummed. “You throw in some of those pastries from yesterday and I’m all yours.”

For a moment, the two just looked at each other, Tony leaning over on his forearms, Mr. Barnes turned away from Pepper so he had a better view of Tony and— well, Pepper might as well not have existed. Mr. Barnes looked at Tony as if the engineer hung the sun and the moon and all the stars in the sky. There was an undeniable affection there. And the way Tony looked at him…

Pepper recognized that look and she wasn’t sure whether the flair of pain in her chest was due to jealousy or a keen sense of loss. It was the same way Tony used to look at her, back when their relationship was still new and amazing and they felt like they could conquer the world together.

God, did she miss Tony. This Tony. Sweet, playful Tony who smiled and joked around, who was kind and affectionate, with none of the masks and none of those sharp edges that usually cut everyone around him so deeply. This was the side of Tony that she loved most of all. The other sides of him— those darker, damaged parts— she was never strong enough to love. 

His voice filtered through her thoughts. Apparently Tony was calling her name. 

Chapter Text

Tony’s voice filtered through Pepper’s thoughts. Apparently he was calling her name.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” she asked, clearing her suddenly dry throat. The ache in her chest ebbed and flowed, memories and regrets and mistakes mixing in with the gratitude for this simple glimpse of a happier, healthier Tony. 

“I asked if you wanted one of those fancy lattes you always drink?”

“Oh… Um, yes, that would be lovely, Tony. Thank you.” 

Tony walked back over to the bar, although he kept up a conversation with Mr. Barnes, but Pepper tuned that out as well, trying to gather her wits and settle the conflicting emotions swirling inside her head. 

The two of them had to be together. Pepper couldn’t see any other explanation. Tony was an affectionate man, but this went far beyond the intimacy of a close friendship. She tried to imagine Jim calling Tony sweetheart and almost laughed. 

She wondered what exactly happened between these two in the last three months. When she last saw them together, Tony was friendly toward Mr. Barnes, protective even, but this… This was rather unexpected, given their volatile history (although she supposed a lot of that could be blamed on Rogers). She didn’t know Mr. Barnes well enough to say whether he had a lot in common with Tony, but it didn’t escape her notice that he was very much Tony’s type. This couldn’t have been just about the physical though because Tony seemed genuinely happy, there was no denying that. He hadn’t smiled like that in years.

It didn’t take Tony long to bring all of them their drinks. The latte he made for her was delicious and she was surprised to find a sprinkle of cinnamon in it. Just how she liked it. Strange, how he could remember little details like that, but forgot about bigger things like anniversaries and birthdays and trips. She tried not to dwell on it.

The three of them enjoyed their drinks over light, casual conversation for the next quarter of an hour, Tony breaking into a spiel about his Compound being taken over by politicians for the past two days, with Mr. Barnes supplying helpful commentary on the rest of the shenanigans Tony (along with Peter and Harley) had gotten into during the last few months. At some point however, Friday interrupted their conversation to remind Mr. Barnes that he was needed at the shooting range and he gracefully bowed out, assuring Pepper in his usual polite manner that it was a pleasure to see her again and that he hoped she would visit soon. With that, he left the common room and Tony scooted over into Mr. Barnes’ now empty spot and patted the space next to him.

“C’mere, Pep, I feel awkward having this conversation with you all the way over there.”

She didn’t hesitate and promptly settled in next to Tony, the soothing scent of his cologne bringing back fond memories.

“So how is everything in Pepper world? I feel like we haven’t had a chance to catch up in so long. Oh, by the way! I saw that you, my illustrious, brilliant CEO, were on the cover of Forbes again. Both gorgeous and intimidating as always. I walked by a newsstand last time I was in Manhattan and I was tempted to buy out every copy.” God, Pepper missed that flirty, easygoing grin of his. “You know, I might still do that actually. And then just hang that cover up all over the Compound.”

Unfortunately, that smile didn’t belong to her anymore, did it? “I’m flattered, Tony, really, but I think your boyfriend would have a problem with that, wouldn’t he?”

Tony nearly choked on his sip of coffee and he looked at her, wide-eyed. “My what now?”

“…Your boyfriend. Mr. Barnes?” 

“Umm… James and I— we’re not— we’re not really together, Pep.” 

Tony’s words said one thing, but his eyes certainly said another. “Tony, it’s okay if you are. I know it’s probably awkward to discuss this with an ex, but I wouldn’t hold this against you—”

“No, no, that’s not it. I would tell you— but the thing between James and me— well, it’s kinda a thing, but not like an official thing—” Oh, Tony stumbling over his words was a dead-give away. This was not a man who got tongue-tied easily. “I mean, I care about him— a lot, and he’s important to me, and he just gets me, you know? And god, he’s gorgeous— But our history’s so complicated! …even though I do feel like we’re worked through that, there’s still all these issues since he’s—” Tony stopped himself when he realized he was rambling. There was a faint blush streaked across his cheeks. “It’s complicated.”

“It sounds complicated, and given who the two of you are, it probably is,” she conceded. “Honestly, I don’t know Mr. Barnes that well, so I’m not sure how good the two of you would be for each other, but Tony, I’m not blind. Something obviously happened between the two of you since the last time I saw Mr. Barnes—” 

Tony snorted. “A lot of things happened.”

Yeah, Pepper was very curious about that, but for now, she ignored the remark. “I can see the way you two are with each other. I can let the teasing and the joking go, you’re the same way with Jim, but you were sleeping cuddled up in his lap. He called you sweetheart! And the way you two look at each other—”

“What way is that?”

“Like you’re in love,” she put it as bluntly as she could, even if it hurt. “I know, because there was a time in my life when I saw that look in your eyes every day.” She swallowed back the guilt and the regret and the damn jealously. Come on, Pepper, you’re better than this.

When Tony looked away, expression uncharacteristically shy and uncertain, Pepper placed a hesitant hand on his cheek to tilt his face back. “Are you in love with him, Tony?” she asked. Tony met her gaze, but didn’t say anything and she wondered whether he would answer at all, but then finally he gave her a sad smile and nodded. 

“Yeah, I think I am…” his voice was hoarse, holding back some tidal wave of emotions and Pepper felt a little bit like that too, if she were honest. Her next words were difficult— painful— to say, but it wouldn’t have been fair of her to keep silent.

“Then I’m not sure what’s stopping you from being together because I guarantee you that man looks at you like you’re the center of his universe.” 

“Pep— it’s— it’s complicated. God…” he groaned, defeated, and leaned sideways against the couch. Pepper’s hand slid off his cheek and found Tony’s hand instead. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to smile or cry when Tony held her hand just as tightly as she held onto his. “I know that we both have— feelings for each other and sometimes I do just want to say screw it and dive into this headfirst—”

“I don’t see a problem with that. That is your style.”

Tony’s lips quirked up into an actual smile for a moment at her teasing remark, but it didn’t take long for them to pull back into a frown. “But James isn’t just anyone and— he’s great, he really is, but… For once, I’m actually trying to be responsible and not get caught up in what I feel or what I want. Every time I think it through logically, every time I look at the facts— I can’t help but think that James and I together would end in disaster for both of us…”

“Tony, why?”

He gave her a pointed glare. “You know exactly why.”

It took her a few seconds to understand what Tony wasn’t saying and then she was flushed with anger more than anything else. But not at Tony, no. “You mean because of him?” 

“Yes, because of him. You know as well as I do, that as soon as he comes back, everything’s going to hell in a hand basket.”

“Tony—”

“There’s just too much fucked up history between us! He’ll— he’ll swoop in here with his stupid heroism and his stupid jawline and— and I’ll lose James and I just can’t— and it wouldn’t be fair to James either! The last thing I want to do is to hurt him, you know? So I just have to— I have to be the responsible adult— everyone keeps telling me I can’t always have what I want, right? This is what’s best for both of us… ”

Pepper listened up to this point, letting Tony vent. She gave him a few second of silence after he stopped. “You done?”

“…Yeah.”

“Good. Now, were you trying to convince me or to convince yourself with this impassioned little speech of yours?”

“…I feel like you’re mocking me.”

“A little bit. Because I cannot believe that you’re still letting Captain fucking America dictate your life like this!”

“Language, Ms. Potts,” Tony tried to admonish, but Pepper’s glare intensified and his expression turned sheepish in apology. “I do have a point though, don’t I? I mean… Best friends since childhood. …inseparable on both schoolyard and battlefield. You know how it goes, we all had a field trip to the Smithsonian in middle school— well, I had mine because dear old Dad dragged me there when I was four, but the point stands.” 

“Do you really think he would leave you because of Rogers?”

Tony’s response was a long, drawn-out exhale. “I think he’d try his very best not to hurt me, because he does care about me, I know that. God, I do know— but in the end, all my hang-ups and all my issues will force him into choosing, and then…” he trailed off with a shrug, as if Mr. Barnes choosing Rogers over Tony was the inevitable universal truth.

“If that’s the case, Tony, if you think that this is a bad idea, then you’re sending that man some very mixed messages.”

Tony’s groan meant he understood exactly what she was saying. “I know, I know. God, Pep, I’m so fuckin’ conflicted… Every time I’m alone, it’s so must easier to convince myself that this can’t work… but then as soon as James shows up, with those pretty blue eyes of his and those nicknames, and oh my god, all that casual touching, I just—”

“Can’t help but swoon and fall into his arms like a blushing damsel?”

At least that drew out a petulant glare. “A very manly version of that, but— yes. More or less. He’s funny and charming and so damn smart and he actually gives a damn about me— and have you seen the biceps on that man?” That last part was an exaggerated whisper and if it were possible, Tony’s blush grew a deeper shade of pink. “And he’s been through so much and I envy how well he’s dealt with it and he’s good with the kids—”

“You really are ridiculously head over heels for him, aren’t you? That— that’s actually adorable, Tony. And he seems to make you very happy, which is wonderful,” she tried to infuse confidence into that last part, but her own regrets made her voice shake instead. “The two of you— you could— should— make this work.” God, she didn’t know it’d be this hard to accept that Tony had moved on.

And of course, the man was far more perceptive than anyone ever gave him credit for. “Pep… Hey, you alright? Shit, I’m sorry, we don’t have to talk about this. I know things have been complicated between us and talking about some guy I like probably isn’t helping, is it?”

“No, no, that’s not it,” she shook her head. Her traitorous lips were pulling down into a pained frown. “I’m really happy, Tony, that you felt comfortable sharing this with me, but I just miss this— us just talking and spending time together and—”

There was a quiver in her voice and moisture in her eyes and dammit, she promised herself she wouldn’t cry. The sniffle that followed betrayed all those promises. 

“All I’ve ever wanted was for you to be happy and I feel like I’ve hurt you so badly and I just— I’ve missed you so much—”

Tony’s turned wide-eyed in the face of her outright sob. “Pep, what? No, no, no, please don’t cry! You know I don’t know how to react when people cry!” Contrary to his words, he pulled her into his arms without hesitation and she went willingly, her own arms holding on to him for dear life.

She missed this too. Tony’s strong, sure embrace was always where she felt safest. The rest of the world could been going to hell, but Tony always felt like home.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled into his shoulder, unable to hold back another sniffle. His hands were gentle in her hair. “I didn’t mean to break down like this— I just miss this so much and I thought — I thought I ruined whatever chance we had at rebuilding the friendship we had…”

“Of course you haven’t, Pep, what are you talking about? I was the one who screwed up everything under the sun when we were together. I don’t blame you for running in the other direction.”

“Tony, no, please don’t say that.” All she wanted was to stay in his arms, but she needed to see his eyes when she said this. “I loved you— still do— but our relationship— we just weren’t right for each other.”

Tony’s rueful smile made it easy to predict his next words. “Because you’re amazing and deserve so much better than an alcoholic with panic attacks who flies around in a metal coffin?”

Her hands found his cheeks, fingertips mapping out that immaculately groomed beard as they caressed his jawline. “Because I wasn’t strong enough to love those parts of you. Looking back at it now, it’s easier to see that— that being with you wasn’t healthy for me—” before Tony’s insecurities could take hold, she hurried to finish the thought, “—but I wasn’t good for you either. Tony, you deserve someone who will love all of you. And I suppose if anyone understands all the horrible things you’ve been through, it’d be someone like Mr. Barnes, wouldn’t it?”

“He’s been through a lot worse,” Tony conceded, but didn’t address anything else Pepper said.

“I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened between us. We were both imperfect people, both of us made mistakes, and— and please don’t hate me for saying this, but we were always so much better off as friends and I wish we could just go back to that—”

Pepper found herself back in his embrace, Tony’s arm tightening around her. “That’s all I want too,” he whispered hoarsely into her hair. “I just want one of my best friends back.”

There were definitely tears running down her cheeks now, but for the first time in a long time, she had some measure of hope. Tony held her, offering nonsense words of comfort and after a few minutes, his ministrations gave her enough strength to finally compose herself. She wiped at her eyes, trying to smile.

“I must look a mess. Mascara’s probably everywhere—”

“You look perfect,” Tony cut her off and wiped away the last of her tears with his thumbs. “But you know I always hate seeing you cry.”

She nodded. “I know. But maybe this was just overdue. I spent over a year, wanting to mend things between us and never being brave enough to do so.”

“If it makes you feel any better, that’s basically what I’ve been doing the whole year too.”

“Sounds like we’re both really bad at this, aren’t we?” Pepper joked through a watery smile and Tony responded with his own. It was small, with familiar hints of sadness, but a smile nevertheless. “But no matter what happened before— you will always have me in your corner, Tony. You know that, right?”

“I’m beginning to realize that.”

“I’m serious. It doesn’t matter if it’s the press or the politicians or if I have to stab Rogers in a dark alley… I’ve got your back, Tony.”

Tony’s chuckle was music to her ears. “I would pay so much money to see you go up against Cap. You’d put the fear of god in him.”

“And I’m here if you just want to talk to someone about your little super soldier crush too. I know it’s complicated, but you can’t let your past control your future. You deserve to be happy and this is the happiest I’ve seen you in a very long time. I know there are other factors, but it’s obvious Mr. Barnes has a lot to do with it too. So I say screw Rogers and screw history. Fight for him.”

“How come your passionate speeches are always so much better than mine?” Tony was obviously deflecting and Pepper had to shake her head. 

“Did a word of what I just said get through that thick skull of yours?”

“Excuse me, my thick skull is a valuable asset in the field!” he quipped back, his affronted tone making Pepper laugh despite her best efforts to remain stern, “but I do hear you, I do. I’m just— I’m scared, Pep. The way he is around me, the things he says, it— it terrifies me.”

“Why?”

“Because it makes me feel like I matter to him. Like I’m worth something to him. And if I let myself have that, only to lose it—”

Tony trailed off, but Pepper heard the unspoken words loud and clear. It would break me. 

One good thing about those damn pardons? It’d give her the opportunity to shove her stiletto right down their throats for breaking Tony so thoroughly that the man was afraid of being loved by someone else. She also made a mental note to have a lengthy discussion with Jim about his plans for Rogers and the rest of his brigade. Tony would not be hurt again. Not on their watch. 

“There will always be risk, Tony, in any relationship, but I’ve never known you to back down just because something is risky. You look risk straight in the face and laugh, while the rest of us are having heart attacks on your behalf.”

A hint of a smile meant her words were finally getting through. “I did promise him that we’d talk about— about us…”

“Then talk! Tell him how you feel and then let that man carry you off to bed to make sweet, passionate love to you!” She ignored Tony’s indignant reaction. “And ask Friday to send pictures because the two of you together? Oh god, that is going to be glorious!”

“Ms. Potts, this is scandalous!”

“I’m a simple woman, Tony. And two gorgeous men like you together—” 

“You’re gonna have to use your imagination,” he grumbled, but her teasing obviously worked because Tony was outright grinning again. She leaned her head against his shoulder, snuggling into him, and his arm went right back around her.

“Fight for him, Tony. Don’t let others take this away from you.” She paused for a moment, savoring the fact that she could finally have this again. “I’m really glad I came by the Compound today.”

“I am too.”

***

The taste of tomato, oregano, and basil burst on his tongue and Bucky nearly let out an outright moan. He was certain he must have had this combination of spices before, there were plenty of Italian immigrants living in the surrounding neighborhoods, but after seventy years of tasting nothing but ash, it felt like he was experiencing every flavor again for the very first time. 

The tomato sauce was perfect, the pasta was almost ready, and Bucky hoped Tony was ready too. The meetings with the UN representatives spilled over into the days following Ms. Potts’ visit as well, so he had only seen brief glimpses of the man (there were also plenty of text messages, all centered around the same theme of oh my god, save me, I hate bureaucrats), but they were supposed to share dinner tonight and Friday assured him that Tony’s schedule was specifically cleared for the occasion. 

Bucky knew he was smiling like a loon as he was stirring the sauce, but he couldn’t help himself. Okay, so this was definitely not a date, they’ve shared plenty of meals before, and there were no candles or flowers— he snorted, imagining how Tony would react if he handed him a bouquet of flowers— but he still couldn’t help the low buzz of nerves and excitement. He was trying to woo this ridiculous, gorgeous, amazing man, and dinner could even lead to them finally talking (among other things, if he were that insanely lucky), so his nerves were acting up. No help from the Soldier this time either. They weren’t on particularly good terms ever since the Natalia debacle and the bastard was shoved to the darkest corner of Bucky’s mind for the duration of the night. Not for the first time, Bucky hoped both Dr. Vance and Tony were wrong and that the Soldier problem would take care of itself along with the triggers. 

His hearing picked up Tony’s familiar footsteps, but when he turned around to greet the man, Bucky frowned, taking in Tony’s appearance.

“You— you look like you’re dressed for work.” Specifically avenging work, since Tony was dressed in the form-fitting under-armor he wore underneath the suit, Iron Man briefcase firmly in hand.

If that didn’t confirm Bucky’s suspicion, Tony’s own displeased pout did. “I am dressed for work,” he said as he came over closer and then unceremoniously dropped his forehead to Bucky’s chest, the action accompanied by a low groan. “SI emergency from hell. I have to fly to the airport and meet Pepper there before we get on the jet.”

“The jet to where?”

“Beijing.”

Beijing?” Bucky repeated incredulously. Dammit, but what about his tomato sauce? And their not-date? “But— I don’t— when do you leave?”

“In like five minutes,” Tony mumbled against his chest. “I’m sorry.” He finally pulled away to look up at Bucky. “Trust me, I don’t want to go. It’s a disaster.”

“What happened?” Bucky knew his tomato sauce was going to burn in about two minutes, but it probably didn’t matter at this point.

“We have this huge contract with a company in China— clean energy, clean air, that whole thing— but the CEO is a piece of work. Honestly, I’d never do business with him if I had a choice, but his family is influential and so he’s influential and getting a foothold in China is nearly impossible as it is—” Tony rubbed the bridge of his nose to stop his rambling thoughts from spilling out. “Long story short, the CEO is a goddamn drama queen, and not the fun kind, and if we don’t go over there to kiss ass and soothe fragile egos, we’ll lose the contract and then the stock will plummet and then no one will be having a good time.”

“Can’t someone else go?”

Tony looked regretful. “I wish. But I’m the face of the company and if I don’t go, it’ll be taken as an insult and we’ll definitely blow the whole contract then— but even if I didn’t have to go, I still would. That bastard is a sleaze ball and there’s no way in hell I’m letting Pepper deal with him on her own. Not saying that she couldn’t handle him alone, just saying that she shouldn’t have to.”

“Sounds like you have to go then.”

“Yeah, sounds like I do. I’m sorry,” Tony apologized again. “For what it’s worth, whatever you’re cooking, it smells amazing.”

“Homemade spaghetti and meatballs,” Bucky admitted with a half-smile, which prompted Tony to let out a dejected whine as he dropped his head back onto Bucky’s shoulder.

“No, don’t tell me that… I hate you for making me leave spaghetti behind. Why would you do that to me?”

Bucky ran his hand through Tony’s hair in apology. “Do you know when you’ll be back?”

“Couple days at least, a week or two at most.” 

But that was way too long for Tony to be away! Oh, this night just kept getting worse and worse, wasn’t it?

To salvage something out of this whole mess, Bucky hesitantly wrapped one arm around Tony’s shoulders, pulling him in closer, while his metal hand settled against the small of Tony’s back, because— he could have this now, couldn’t he? His answer seemed to be a resounding yes by the way Tony practically melted against him with one long exhale, his hands resting on Bucky’s hips.

“I know we were supposed to— you know— talk and stuff…” Tony said the word as if he was uttering some ancient curse and Bucky bit back a smile.

“S’okay. There’s no rush. ‘m not going anywhere, I promise,” he said into Tony’s hair, trying to commit that familiar scent to memory before he had to let Tony go. The Soldier (who apparently could not follow simple directions and stay back) promptly supplied him with at least five different ways to tie Tony up and keep him nice and cozy here at home.

Tempting— so tempting— but life wasn’t always perfect and Tony had a lot of responsibilities on his hands. The man’s hard work kept the lights on around here and it wouldn’t do to be ungrateful. 

“And I promise I’ll be back in time for the last rounds of the BARF therapy, okay? I know Fatima’s going to be flying in too and I’ll make sure I have all the time I need to go over the results. I’m going to be damn sure we’re ready before we even think of testing the triggers again.”

“I know you will. I trust you, Tony,” Bucky said, completely honest in his sentiment. It still felt unreal. There was a good chance he’d be free of the triggers in just mere weeks.

“Boss?” Friday’s voice cut through the momentary silence that settled between them. She ignored the disgruntled, incomprehensible noise Tony let out and continued. “Miss Potts would like your ETA. She’s already on her way to the airport.”

“Just tell her I’m leaving right now,” Tony responded after a beat, not bothering to hide his grumpy tone, and slowly extricated himself from Bucky’s arms. The kitchen felt instantly colder without Tony’s warmth snuggled up against him. “Keep an eye on this place for me, would ya? God knows, I’m the only thing keeping this place from falling apart.”

“I thought that was Alice.”

“…Wait, yeah, you’re right. Never mind, you’ll be fine!” The levity in Tony’s voice was a bit forced, but he was obviously trying to smile through his reluctance. “But I’ll— I’ll text you, yeah? I’ll need to have someone to keep me from going crazy over there.”

With that, Tony made an awkward, aborted move to reach out for Bucky again, but then decided against it and forced himself to walk away, but before he could take more than a few steps, Bucky was the one to reach for his hand.

“Tony, wait!” 

The man stopped, his own fingers curling around Bucky’s.

Kiss him, just kiss him already, dammit!

Bucky was certain it was both his own mind and the Soldier chanting that nonstop in his head, but no, no, he couldn’t— this wasn’t the right time, he wanted that moment to be unhurried, so he could take his time and savor it. Dammit, he hadn’t kissed anyone in seven decades— sex, yes, but he tried not to think about those godawful memories— and he wanted the proverbial fireworks and the magic and— he wanted it to be perfect.

So instead, all he did was pull Tony back into a crushing hug and whisper a “Come back soon, sweetheart,” into Tony’s hair before placing just one kiss on his cheek and letting him go. The man looked dazed for a moment, accompanied by that touch of blush that Bucky was so completely in love with by now. 

“Yeah, I’ll, uh— I’ll be home before you know it,” he stuttered and with a distracted nod and a final glance in Bucky’s direction, Tony turned away and headed out, leaving Bucky standing alone in the kitchen, with nothing but the slowly burning tomato sauce for company. 

He went over to turn off the heat before all of his hard work was completely ruined (he wasn’t hungry anymore, but his metabolism wouldn’t care that he was sad and pining in about an hour) and then settled in at the table to stare despondently into the distance, letting himself indulge in a couple of minutes of brooding. 

But no more than that. He had plenty of things to occupy his time here at the Compound and the less he focused on Tony being gone, the faster time would go by. Besides, he waited seventy years for that man— he didn’t know he was waiting for Tony, but dammit, it felt like his whole life was leading up to this— so he could wait another couple of weeks.

His mood brightened up just a bit when he served himself a plate of the pasta (his metabolism took less time than anticipated) and snapped a picture of the food, before sending it to Tony along with a text message. 

Never mind, glad you’re gone. Now I have all this delicious pasta to myself. 

Tony responded only a few seconds later and Bucky couldn’t help his smile, warmth spreading through him down to his fingertips, when he saw Tony’s answering message, followed by a string of tiny angry faces.

oh, this means war, barnes! watch your back, i know where you sleep

Chapter Text

Unsurprisingly, the driver chose to focus on the road instead of engaging in conversation, so the drive upstate from the airport had been a quiet one.

It was already September and the lush greenery that zoomed past them was beginning to gain its first notes of golden hues, but the weather was still relatively warm for this time of year. It felt chilly nevertheless.

Because there was no more heat waves, humidity, and monsoons. No more dirt roads and miles of mountainous slopes keeping civilization at bay. No more solitude disturbed only by rare conversation in the local dialect that always twisted his tongue in knots. No amount of practice erased his heavy accent. 

Now there was the hustle and bustle of New York again, its famous skyline with the prominent silhouette of the Tower— Stark again, not Avengers— front and center. The never-ending flow of information and the 24 hour news cycle. People, so many people. The whole world was loud and bright again, uncaring for anyone’s need for peace and quiet.

Somehow, it was both achingly familiar and foreign all the same.

They were out of the city, but with each passing mile marker, the Avengers Compound was drawing closer. A representation of the best that the modern world had to offer, with all of its technological marvels, and meant to be a home for the world’s superheroes, young and old.

Home.

Was that where Bruce was headed?

He wanted to laugh bitterly at the thought, but he didn’t think the driver would appreciate him bursting into semi-crazed laughter in the back seat. The poor woman was already as polite as Bruce expected anyone to be around him, even if the fear behind her eyes was hard to miss. 

Bruce wasn’t sure where home was, or if he ever even had one, but the Compound didn’t even make the qualifying rounds.

The faraway corner of India where he spent the last several years after he ran— and ran and ran— didn’t count as home either, but he wasn’t looking for one. He just needed an escape. The village was remote by every definition, both geographically and culturally, making the rest of the modern world inaccessible to Bruce and making Bruce inaccessible to the rest of the world. 

It was exactly what he wanted.

Before, whenever he ran, he would worry whether SHIELD or Ross would end up finding him. This time, a good part of the first year was spent wondering whether Tony would be the one attempting to bring him back instead. A wholly different sentiment, and sometimes, in his weakest moments, Bruce would spend sleepless nights imagining Tony showing up out of the blue, with that familiar charm and banter, that smile that always lit up the room, telling Bruce it was safe to come home again.  

But time marched on and no one showed up. While a small, lonely part of him ached, the rest of Bruce appreciated it, knowing that this was Tony’s way of respecting his decision to leave. 

Looking back, running was a coward’s way out, but no one had ever accused Bruce Banner of being brave. Running was his specialty at this point and after Johannesburg, after that witch forced the other guy out and forced them to kill

This time, his loss of control was made even worse by the fact that he spent the years before Johannesburg finally accepting that part of himself. He was learning to harness the anger, to channel it into protecting the world instead of ripping it apart—

The Hulk growled, unhappy with this train of thought, but Bruce just told him to shut up. Not a good time to get riled up, pal.

Want to see Tin Man. 

I know. We’re almost there.  

After Sokovia, Steve made the unilateral decision to invite both the Falcon, the Vision, and the Maximoff woman to join the Avengers. Given that they had no formal process for that sort of thing back then, Steve’s decision overrode anyone else’s opinion to the contrary and while no one had a real problem with Wilson or the android, that couldn’t be said about the witch… 

Bruce remembered how Tony’s hands would always shake whenever she was around and that glassy look in his eyes was the same haunted look Tony would get whenever he spoke of the portal to the far side of space. The casual use of her magical powers would often force Tony into making any excuses he could to leave the room as fast as humanly possible. 

Out of the two of them though, Tony was certainly the stronger one because in Bruce’s case, being in the same building as her was unbearable. The Hulk was on edge constantly as her magic seeped into their very blood like some putrid red poison, egging on the anger, the rage, the urge to destroy. None of Bruce’s usual relaxation techniques worked and he struggled to stay afloat. The Hulk’s cage at the Compound— the Playroom, Tony called it teasingly— was used three times in the span of one week.

And yet somehow, Maximoff was still the one painted as the victim. 

Barton’s and Steve’s words rang high and clear in his head, even after all this time.

Tony is such a drama queen. He’s a grown adult, why can’t he just stop overreacting? He’s like some spoiled brat who’s not getting his way, I swear.

She’s just a kid who’s had a rough life. Everyone deserves a second chance. You got one, Banner, so why doesn’t she get one?

Wanda is an Avenger now, and I don’t regret that decision. She has a good heart and she’s one of us. I want you to welcome her to the team. And while I never expected Tony to make this easy and fall in line, I expected better from you, Dr. Banner.

Bruce tried, he really did, even if he didn’t actually believe that Hydra volunteers who showed no remorse for their actions deserved a clean slate. 

However, it took less than two week for him to realize that nothing would change. Steve and the others didn’t seem to care about Tony’s panic attacks or Bruce’s slow descent into near-madness. No, you move, they all but told him, so Bruce did.

His only regret back then was leaving Tony alone to deal with the rest of the Avengers. To deal with the witch. But Bruce just wasn’t strong enough to stay for Tony’s sake, no matter how much he cared about the man.

So Bruce ran even further this time. 

Luckily for him, he’d always had a knack for picking up languages, and his medical skills, however rudimentary, were a valuable commodity, so it didn’t take long for him to settle into a quiet life of relative solitude, living on the outskirts of a community that lived on the outskirts of the world. No internet, no newspapers, no connection to the rest of humanity. 

Until about a week ago, when another foreigner, this time from England, stumbled onto the village. Rather than running away from the world, the poor guy was a thrill seeker, an adventurer, and most importantly, an idiot who was hopelessly lost. The man was also injured and needed several days of rest, so he stayed with Bruce in his humble one-room home. It was almost surreal to hear English after so long, but it was even more jarring to be caught up on the real world news. 

The man gave him a quick rundown of the major events - new tech and new world leaders, natural disasters and pop culture phenomena. Bruce listened with half an ear, but he couldn’t stop his curiosity from perking up when the man began to talk about the Avengers. Bruce tuned back in and boy, oh boy, he was not disappointed. 

The Sokovia Accords. The Civil War. The Avengers, broken. Some scattered to the wind as fugitives from the law, others left to pick up the pieces.

Bruce wasn’t sure what he felt in that moment when he found out that Tony was working on these so called Accords with Thaddeus fucking Ross. Anger, but that was his default emotion. Heartache and disappointment maybe. Resignation. Hate.

That lasted all of ten minutes however because his oblivious English friend was about to turn Bruce’s whole world upside down.

“So Tony Stark was left to lead the remaining Avengers after this Civil War?”

“Sure did, although I think that other man— What was his name? Oh yes! Rhodes— took over later. Stark, that poor sod, already had his work cut out for him. Don’t usually follow American politics much, but the whole world had their eyes on Stark and the Accords. And that trial? I tell you, it was a bloody fiasco! Better than prime time television.”

“Which trial?” Oh god, was Tony in jail?

“That Ross fella. Man, what a wanker. No offense, but you Americans sure know how to pick ‘em.”

Bruce’s heart stopped. “What did he—” he swallowed hard, not daring to hope, “was he charged with something?”

“Oh yeah, I reckon he’ll be spending the rest of his days in jail. Now, what was it that they got him for? Well, embezzling government funds for one. Abuse of his position, or whatever the legal mumbo jumbo is, but all of that was small peanuts. The real kicker were the human rights violations! Illegal experimentation, trafficking, I think they even tacked on some manslaughter charges. Guy was a real monster.”

Bruce was pretty sure his lungs stopped working too. “Did, uh— did someone named Banner ever come up in the trail?”

The other guy— his name was Lance, Bruce kept forgetting— eyed him suspiciously. “You sure are nosy about this Avengers business. I don’t recall any Banner, but the trial was almost a year ago, so my memory could be wonky.” 

Later, after Bruce packed up his meager belongings and made a desperate track through the thick jungle back to the nearest city with internet access, he learned that Bruce Banner was never mentioned during the trial. Somehow Tony managed to find enough evidence to put Ross behind bars without ever having to drag Bruce’s name through the mud. He wondered if Betty was secretly involved in the whole thing, even if her name hadn’t come up either. 

It was still hard to believe though.

Ross was in prison.

Bruce wasn’t sure whether he wanted to laugh or cry when he read the long list of charges— there were also violations of the Accords, unauthorized use of the Raft, the list went on and on— and found out that of all the stupid things, Tony even got the bastard for massive tax fraud. Only got the asshole an extra five years, but it sure as hell resonated with the public. Human experimentation sounded awful to everyone, but the idea was a nebulous one, far removed from the daily life of an average American. But tell them about a politician stealing their hard-earned tax dollars and you had an incensed public on your hands, vying for blood and justice. 

He spent two days in front of a computer in a local library, foregoing food and sleep in order to absorb every scrap of information he could find. So much happened in his absence. It was overwhelming, but he couldn’t stay ignorant any longer. 

On day three, he sold everything he owned and scrounged up just enough money for a ticket back home. The first half of the long international flight was spent gathering courage and practicing, over and over, the things he wanted to say to Tony.

You were doing the right thing. I think I would’ve agree with you. I agree with you now.

You were trying to protect everyone, the way you always do. 

I’m sorry I spent ten minutes of my life hating you for working with Ross. I shouldn’t have doubted you.

I’m sorry I left you alone with them.

I’m sorry I ran. 

I missed you like crazy.

The second half of the flight was spent panicking because there was a good chance Tony actually hated him. Bruce left him too, so what made him any different than the rest of the Avengers who turned on Tony?

When he arrived at Newark airport, thrust back into the chaos with nothing but his half-empty backpack and the shirt on his back, Bruce also realized that he may have been an idiot who didn’t think any of this through. Did he even know how to contact Tony?

After convincing a very sweet old lady to let him borrow her Starkphone, he tried the one number he had committed to memory - one of Tony’s personal lines. There was a good chance the line was disconnected long ago and he spent a few tense seconds listening to the dial tone, but desperation turned into hope when he heard a voice on the other end.

Friday.

She sounded nothing like he remembered. That once rudimentary AI program went and became human in his absence and his heart did a strange, painful lurch. He missed out on seeing her grow up.

The AI was rightfully confused at first, but after asking Bruce a series of questions obviously designed to confirm his identity, she informed him that a vehicle was sent to pick him up. Bruce wasn’t sure who she conferred with while playing a game of twenty questions, it could’ve been Tony or Rhodes or someone else entirely, but he was glad he wasn’t rejected outright. 

A mental prod from the other guy pulled Bruce out of his recollections and back into reality, where the Compound was already within sights. Whatever excitement he felt at seeing Tony was quickly overshadowed by nerves. He had no idea how this was going to go down. For all he knew, he could end the day locked up in the Hulk cage.

It was a chance he was willing to take.

The driver dropped him off at the entrance of the Compound and he was left standing there, unsure what he was supposed to do, but it didn’t take more than a minute for a woman he never met before to make her way through the doors, alone.

His first thought was that the woman, whoever she was, was attractive. His second thought was that she also very obviously military and he mentally groaned. He may have had a type, but he learned his lesson with Natasha, thank you very much

To her benefit, the woman didn’t actually resemble the super spy all that much. Long blond hair, pulled back in an obvious hurry, a more muscular frame than Natasha, and taller too. Taller than Bruce actually, especially with those high heels she wore to match her business suit. If it weren’t for the gun at her hip, she could’ve been mistaken for a secretary or a businesswoman by anyone else, but Bruce saw military elsewhere too -  in the way she carried herself, in the way her eyes scanned him as she made her way over. He spent a lifetime running away from people like just her, it was a sixth sense at this point. 

Having finally crossed the distance between the entrance and where Bruce stood awkwardly with his backpack hanging limply at his side, the woman graced him with a bright smile and thrust her hand out. 

“Alice Blackwood, Managing Personnel Director of the Avengers Compound,” she introduced herself and darn, her green eyes were pretty too, despite the open wariness lurking there. At least he didn’t see fear. “And you must be Dr. Banner of course. I’ll admit we didn’t quite expect you, but it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

“It’s, uh— it’s nice to meet you too,” he took her hand in his and shook. “Sorry I couldn’t send in my— my RSVP,” he tried for a joke, but stumbled over his words instead and the Hulk just laughed at him. 

Puny Banner always awkward around pretty girl. 

At least it was a good sign that the other guy didn’t perceive her as a threat. 

Her answering smile was genuine enough, but there was no hiding the tense way she held herself. It was refreshing actually, that she either couldn’t or didn’t bother to hide the fact that she was guarded around him. Living around spies and never knowing what was real got exhausting quickly.

“It’s no problem. This is the Avengers Compound, we deal with the unexpected on a daily basis.”

“Is, uh— Is Tony here?”

The woman’s smile dimmed, but only a bit. “I’m sorry, but Mr. Stark is currently overseas for a Stark Industries trip. He’s not scheduled to return for a few more days, but he said he’d love to get on a call with you once you’re ready. Now, I’m sure you’ve had a long trip yourself, so let’s get you all squared away.”

Even though squared away could’ve just as easily meant stick you in the Hulk cage, he followed the woman into the building, caution be damned.

They didn’t end up in the basement. Instead, she led him to her office, modern and immaculate just like the rest of the Compound, and Bruce awkwardly settled into one of the chairs in front of her desk, holding his backpack in his lap. He felt out of place, his clothes raggedy and himself dirty from days of travel, but the woman— Alice— didn’t pay any attention to his less-than-stellar appearance, instead having a conversation with Friday about security protocols for him. They took a sample of his blood to confirm identity— Friday assured him the sample was incinerated as soon as tests were performed, standard procedure— and after the AI gave Alice the all-clear, the woman took her place behind the desk, typing away on her computer. He noted she kept rubbing her temples absently, likely trying to stave off an oncoming migraine.

“I apologize for all these procedures and precautions. I usually have a bit of warning whenever we have new arrivals, which gives me the chance to take care of these little details beforehand.”

“I don’t mind,” he responded honestly, knowing that his sudden arrival must have complicated her day. He was still apprehensive however, especially with Tony absent, so he tried to get to the point. “Can I ask what’s going to happen to me?”

She frowned, not taking her eyes off the screen in front of her. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“With the Accords and everything— am I allowed to even be here if I haven’t signed? I, uh— let’s just say I’ve been out of the loop for a few years and I’m not sure what I’m walking into. If you know anything about my history, you can understand how that’d make me uncomfortable.”

Some sort of understanding crossed her eyes when she glanced over at him. “Oh, I see. Well, all I’m doing right now is making sure you’re properly documented in our system for security purposes. It’s really more of a formality, you were a former Avenger after all and Friday verified that you’re not some Hydra clone, but we’re responsible for the safety of a lot of people here, so dotting all of our i’s and crossing our t’s keeps us out of trouble. You will have guest access for the time being, so parts of the Compound will be restricted to you, but I already received both Mr. Stark’s and Colonel Rhodes’ permission to set you up in one of the East Wing quarters.”

Bruce swallowed back the rising hope. This was a lot more welcoming than he expected. “What about the Accords?”

“I’ll be honest, I wasn’t planning on bringing them up with you at all. The whole process is much more complicated than a simple signature and if you’ve been out of the loop, as you said, it’ll be important for you to familiarize yourself with the documents before making any sort of decision.”

“And what happens if I don’t sign?”

“Nothing, technically,” she shrugged and took a moment to finish her work, before turning back to give Bruce all of her attention. Now that they were this close, he could see the heaviness under her eyes, hidden somewhat by concealer. “But if you ever decide to go— avenging, you’ll be treated like any other private citizen performing an act of vigilante justice. You won’t benefit from any of the protections afforded by the Accords nor from our extensive legal team.” 

“I don’t have to— register?” The word felt dirty on his tongue.

“No, you don’t. Mr. Stark was adamant in including amendments that protected superpowered individuals from exactly that. If they choose to remain a private citizen, they have the same right to privacy as anyone else. Of course, there are definite benefits to coming forward, we offer protection, education, training, you name it, as well as considerable resources, legal and otherwise. That’s what having this Compound is all about, really. And of course, the Accords are just one of many steps on the path to becoming a full fledged Avenger.”

That made Bruce pause. “Who decides that now?” 

“The senior team members, although the Accords Council has some veto power if two-thirds disagree. A person needs a majority vote to become a standard-tier member. However, no one moves up in rank to senior leadership positions without a unanimous vote from the entire senior team.”

“Wow, that’s— that’s different,” he couldn’t help his surprise, thinking back to Maximoff.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto. 

Hulk not Toto. Don’t want Kansas. Want Tin Man.

Tin Man isn’t here. We have to wait.

“Sounds like I still have a lot to learn about the new— everything,” Bruce admitted and tried to smile, although it was probably as awkward as the rest of him. “I’m sorry if I caused you any problems with my arrival.” His hands fidgeted with the strap of his backpack. “You seem— stressed.” 

It only took a moment for her professional facade to crack as she heaved an exhausted sigh.

“Let’s just say we’ve had a bit of an— eventful week. Compound swarming with politicians for the past six days, which means extra security in place and of course no one knows how to use their access badges properly. Which would’ve been fine, but we started this lovely week off with an uninvited visitor. One of your former comrades actually.”

“What? Who?” 

“The Widow.” The name was spit out like poison.

Bruce’s eyes widened. “Natasha was here?” His incredulous tone made him sound like an idiot, he was sure, but this was unexpected. What the hell was Natasha thinking? More importantly— “Isn’t she considered a fugitive? Is she—”

“In jail? No, unfortunately not. Mr. Stark decided to let her go,” Alice answered, the derision in her tone impossible to miss. For whatever reason, she was not a fan of Natasha. However, the distaste quickly flipped back to cheerful professionalism. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude. My opinion on the matter is entirely irrelevant. Now, your quarters are currently being set up, so while we wait, do you have any other questions for me?”

Bruce did and they spent the next however long chatting, although Alice carried most of the conversation. She gave him more details on the Accords as well as the operations of the Compound and Bruce’s mind kept cataloguing all the differences between now and before. He couldn’t help but marvel at how much had changed over the span of just one year. Leave it to Tony Stark to turn what was once a rag-tag team of superheroes—volatile, bound to explode, did explode— into a legitimate, world-wide organization ready to protect humanity.

He also found out that Alice was indeed former military (plus US Intelligence plus SHIELD - Bruce’s instincts were never wrong), and when she mentioned undercover work, her animosity for Natasha suddenly made more sense. While Bruce wasn’t much help during the SHIELD data dump (he was never much of an information systems expert), he remembered the grueling nights Tony spent getting agents to safety, as well as the days and nights that followed, Tony wrecked with guilt over the people he failed to save.

***

After Alice showed Bruce to his quarters, he spent a good amount of time cleaning himself up before taking the video call with Tony. Seeing the man again— alive and well and smiling at Bruce like old times— was like a punch to the gut, guilt and regrets making him want to curl up in the corner somewhere, away from Tony’s affectionate gaze. But Tony just kept smiling, despite his obvious exhaustion (it was the middle of the night in China after all). He just kept joking and talking a mile a minute, making grand plans for them to spend time in the lab, going over all of the recent projects Bruce had missed out on. Tony was acting like Bruce had never left, like Tony was never abandoned by someone who was supposed to be his good friend. Like they could just pick up right where they left off. Bruce loved Tony for it, he really did, but somehow, it just left him feeling guiltier. Tony always forgave so easily, but did Bruce even deserve it? Shouldn’t someone be yelling at him?

The next morning, someone did.

Colonel Rhodes never disappointed. 

After giving himself a brief tour of the Compound (this wing was obviously remodeled because nothing looking familiar), Bruce ran into Rhodes in the communal kitchen, right around dawn. Colonel was pressing buttons on some high-tech looking coffee maker and Bruce extended his hand as he approached.

“Rhodes, it’s good to see you again—”

The man turned around and graced Bruce with a frankly impressive glare, ignoring his hand entirely. “First, it’s ‘Colonel Rhodes’ to you. Second, just because Tony’s welcoming you back with open arms doesn’t mean I’m happy to see you here, Banner. As far as I’m concerned, you’re on the same shit list as the rest of them.”

Oh good. This was the welcome Bruce expected. Thank god, because up until now, all the niceties and the forgiveness felt equal parts like a strange dream and a cruel practical joke everyone was in on except Bruce.

Still, he couldn’t help the urge to defend himself.

“I understand your animosity, Colonel, and I regret leaving, but you can’t compare me to the others. I didn’t betray Tony, I didn’t fight him in some German airport! I wouldn’t have—”

“Yeah, you would have,” Rhodes’ tone brokered no argument. “I know how you feel about Ross and if you knew that slimy bastard was involved, one of two things would’ve happened. You on the first plane outta here or you siding with good ol’ Captain America.”

Alright, so maybe the Colonel had a point. It was easy to say that he would’ve sided with Tony now, when the end results were so obvious - Ross in jail and the Accords a working, living document designed to make the world safer for both humans and superheroes. Hindsight was a gift the rest of them didn’t have.

“Fine, that’s a fair point,” he conceded, “I can’t know with complete certainty how I would’ve reacted. But what’s done is done. I wasn’t here for the Accords and this ‘Civil War’, and when I left, I wasn’t trying to hurt Tony—”

Rhodes actually growled. “You know, people keep telling me that, and yet, Tony still gets hurt. Weird how that works, huh? But let’s say that’s true. Maybe you didn’t go out of your way to stab him in the back. But don’t think for a second that you’re that much better. All of Tony’s generosity, everything he gave you clowns— you took and took and took some more. And then, at the first sign of things going south, fuck Tony, right? Every man for himself—”

“I was losing my mind! The witch, she—” 

“Then you should’ve moved to a different goddamn state! Fuck, as if Tony wasn’t suffering! He lasted all of two months at the Compound before he had to leave too. We both had to move back to my old place and that man slept on my couch for three fucking months because he couldn’t sleep alone without waking up screaming from nightmares!”

Bruce swallowed back the guilt. He wasn’t aware Tony eventually left too. Shit. Driven out of his own Compound while the rest, including the woman who hurt Tony in the first place, just kept enjoying Tony’s money and property. Yeah, he could see why Rhodes was furious on Tony’s behalf. 

The Colonel also wasn’t finished. “Tony considered you a friend. A close friend. Fuck, so close that it had me jealous. But you—” Rhodes pointed an accusatory finger at him. “What did you do? Instead finding some sensible solution, you had to fuck off to god-knows-where, leaving Tony behind to deal with Sokovia, to deal with the Ultron fallout, to deal with every one of those fuckers blaming him for something that you had just as much involvement in! They treated him like some villain, as if Tony wanted to destroy the world!”

Bruce sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, trying to remain calm. The other guy didn’t see Rhodes as a threat— Bruce would’ve never come back if he couldn’t handle getting yelled at— but hearing how the others treated Tony was making both him and the Hulk a little— angry. That anger, mixed with Bruce’s own guilt, didn’t make for a tranquil state of mind.

“They shouldn’t have blamed Tony. There were a lot of factors that contributed to Ultron being born, but Tony— he never had any malicious intent. Ultron was meant to be a system to protect the world. Hell, I agreed with Tony’s intentions, I was helping him with it—”

“Yeah, I know all that. Preaching to the fuckin’ choir. But the others didn’t care. They were so adamant in their ‘Tony let a monster robot loose on the world’ bullshit that they had Tony believing it at the end! Why do you think he was so gun-ho about the Accords? He was atoning. Again, again, and again - for shit that was never his fault! He was—”

Rhodes stopped himself, nostrils flaring and chest heaving, but he took one deep breath, obviously trying to hold himself back. Maybe he finally realized he was yelling at the Hulk in the middle of the kitchen. Either way, Bruce had to hand it to Rhodes. The man had some serious balls and despite being on the receiving end of the man’s ire, Bruce was actually glad that Rhodes was here now. There was no doubt that Tony was better off for having this man actively involved in his life again.

“I can’t change what happened, Colonel. We all made mistakes when it comes to Tony, yourself included—” Rhodes’ glare intensified, but Bruce ignored it. “I don’t expect you to trust me. Hell, I’m glad you care enough about Tony to have this conversation with me. Don’t trust me. But at least give me a chance. I don’t want to run. Not again.”

Rhodes didn’t say anything for a few beats, choosing instead to scrutinize Bruce with dark, narrowed eyes. Finally, he shrugged and turned back to the coffee machine, which had a full pot by now. “Well, you might get that chance sooner rather than later. I take it you know about the pardons coming down the pipeline?”

“I know enough.”

“Then you know the rest will be back here, including the witch. Now, I’m going to do my goddamn best to keep those assholes away from here. Away from Tony. But this is the Avengers HQ, so running into them will be unavoidable. Worst case scenario, some of them will end up living in the West Wing, probably because most of their asses are broke and have nowhere to go and the Washington suits will force us to play gracious fuckin’ hosts. So, just think about it. Are you ready to deal with all of that? Because I sure as hell don’t need you here if you’re just going to take off again when something doesn’t go your way.”

Bruce had to bite back a bitter remark - him going insane from Maximoff’s magic was a bit more than something not going his way. He understood what the Colonel was trying to say though. Tony didn’t need a friend who kept running out on him.

“I know words and promises won’t mean a thing to you, so I won’t bother. I’ll just let my actions speak instead and we’ll see if I can prove you wrong, Colonel.”

The man let out a sigh, some of his tension draining away when he took his first sip of the coffee. The steel in his gaze remained however. “For Tony’s sake, I hope to hell you prove me wrong, Banner.”

***

Bucky was in the middle of writing out the scattered details of another hazy memory— good one this time, the warmth of his grandmother’s kitchen and the sweet smell of baked bread— when his Starkphone let out a quiet ping

Given that it was just shy of six o’clock in the morning, that couldn’t have been either of the boys (neither Harley nor Peter would wake up this early on a weekend even if the world were on fire), so that left his wayward engineer. 

Bucky smiled when Tony’s name on the screen confirmed that.

omg, i hate these people. i hate schmoozing. i need the winter soldier to kidnap me asap. extraction protocol activate!!!

Bucky was torn between amusement at Tony’s whining and sympathy. The poor man had been stuck in Beijing for two days now and apparently the situation with the Chinese businessman has gone from bad to worse to slightly better. 

As he was typing away his response, Bucky left the desk and his notebook behind, instead letting himself fall back onto the much more comfortable bed (even if being in said bed made him miss Tony just that much more).

Sorry, the Winter Soldier has his therapy session in two hours. Rain check? 

It was obvious Tony wasn’t paying attention to whatever late-night soiree he was attending with their business partners because his reply followed seconds later.

UGH, why do i even bother keeping you around if you’re not up for a simple kidnapping?

It’s all the food, the back rubs, and the perfect way I make your coffee, remember?

shit, you’re right. you’re lucky you’re so damn amazing at everything

better not be making coffee for anyone else while i’m gone

Bucky knew he was giving his phone a sappy smile, but he couldn’t help it. It felt so good to have Tony finally reciprocate these affectionate words and gestures. He really didn’t mind when Tony shied away from them before, when it was just Bucky reaching out and testing the waters, but Tony actually flirting back? It was heaven.

Maybe he should sent Natalia and the Soldier gift baskets for acting as catalysts for all of this. While he didn’t know— didn’t care— what Natalia liked, the Soldier was easy to please. Dead Hydra agents or Tony.

Dead Hydra agents and Tony.

Bucky rolled his eyes at the demanding bastard, but then frowned a second later. Did this count as rolling his eyes at himself? He didn’t want to know the answer to that, so he focused back on his conversation with Tony.

I only make coffee for handsome engineers with pretty brown eyes. Haven’t seen mine around lately though. 

A minute passed and Bucky bit his lip. Was that too much? It was so hard finding that balance with Tony, with everything between them still in some sort of limbo. Thankfully, Tony’s next message came through before Bucky had too much time to overthink his words.

damn it, james, now the guy across from me thinks i was smiling like a sap at HIM

you are a hazard to my reputation

Sorry, honey.

He wasn’t sorry at all. Still smiling, he reread Tony’s words, running his thumb absently across the glass screen, wishing he could be touching Tony instead. There was a benefit to the text messages though. Tony seemed far more comfortable with their flirting in electronic form and Bucky was going to savor every last bit of it.

menace

but seriously, i’m going crazy over here. didn’t realize i’d miss home this much. hope to be back in a few days though

oh yeah, did you meet bruce yet??

Haven’t seen him around yet. Been busy myself. I’ll be sure to say hi soon.

you’re gonna love him. brucie bear is awesome.

Personally, Bucky thought the number of little red hearts Tony added after Banner’s name was excessive, but he didn’t comment on it. 

you guys are gonna get along like a house on fire, haha. he loves to cook too AND you both have angry alter egos!!

Tony, ‘angry alter egos’ is not something people should bond over. 

well then you guys can meditate and do yoga together, idk. whatever it is bruce does.

i CANT WAIT until i get that man back into my lab tho. so much SCIENCE to catch up on

Okay, so maybe Bucky was pouting just a little bit at that message and he knew he had no right to be jealous, but in his defense, this was Tony Stark he was talking about. Anyone would get a little bit possessive (or in the Soldier’s case, a lot possessive) when all of the sudden all these old flames resurfaced in the span of one week.

First Ms. Potts— Pepper, she asked him to call her Pepper— with her surprise visit. She and Tony apparently reconciled and Bucky was genuinely happy for them both, he really was. There was no denying that Tony was over the moon about having Pepper back in his life and he absolutely deserved to have another person in his corner. But Tony and Pepper had a history and what if their reconciliation led to something that rekindled that history? What if Pepper decided to win Tony’s heart back?

And then there was Banner showing up out of nowhere! 

That man was a bit of a wildcard. Every time Tony spoke of him in the past, it was with undeniable fondness. There was a pretty close friendship there, at least before Banner took off, but was there ever anything more?

How was Bucky supposed to compete with a successful CEO (who also happened to be the woman Tony nearly married) and a brilliant Avenger who could challenge Tony intellectually in all things science?

The Soldier interrupted his moment of self-pity with a very blunt Stop thinking about it and make him yours already, but Bucky just tried to ignore him. Jesus, no concept of romance with that guy.

Before he could respond to Tony’s last message, his phone pinged again.

so i thought i’d have to defend pepper’s honor on this trip, but NOPE. the CEO keeps leering at me and he keeps making these dirty jokes, but passes them off as a language barrier thing.

he speaks fluent english!!

god, i hope i was never this slimy. i had class when i flirted!

Instead of pouting, Bucky was outright glaring at the phone now. Even in China Tony wasn’t safe from would-be admirers? Maybe Bucky spoke too soon about that “extraction protocol”. He could skip therapy for a worthy cause. 

uuuuuugh, he’s sitting right next to me and he’s trying to play footsie. FML

OMG, his hand is brushing up against my thigh

Bucky typed out the first thing that came to his mind.

KILL HIM

Realizing this was probably in bad taste, given who he was, he hedged it with his next message.

Okay, maybe not ‘kill’, but definitely break his arm off.

But this was Tony, wasn’t it? Tony was the one person who didn’t mind Bucky’s occasional nonchalant comments (it took him a while to come to terms with it, but strangely, making jokes about his past actually helped him cope with it better).

Never mind, changed my mind. Kill him or I will. 

Tony didn’t send another message for three long minutes which Bucky spent simultaneously panicking about going too far and mapping out the best way to get to Beijing undetected. Thankfully the ping of his phone stopped his mental inventorying of how many weapons he could carry on his person.

sorry, read your message, burst out laughing, started choking on my drink. good news, he’s not bugging me anymore. bad news, pepper is now glaring. i gotta get off the phone

we’ll video chat tomorrow

tell fatima i said hi

Will do. Try to get some sleep tonight, okay?

I miss you, Tony.

The next message came a few minutes later.

miss you too, james

Chapter Text

Despite the jarring experience of being back in the chaotic whirlwind of civilization, Bruce had to admit that the sheer abundance and variety of everything was hard to complain about. Given that the Compound was the residence of one Tony Stark, futurist and self-proclaimed hedonist, this place was a perfect example of that.

The impressive rainbow-colored collection of tea— some of the most expensive brands in the world, all ethically traded— drew an actual smile out of Bruce when he came back down to the kitchen, hours after his conversation with Rhodes, and he didn’t waste any time heating up the electric kettle, while browsing through the news articles on his brand new Starkpad. He remembered Alice laughing when she gave him the tablet, saying that she was giving these away like candy and he wasn’t sure what she meant, but her eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled and all he could focus on was the warmth that blossomed in his chest in turn. 

Electricity, the internet, and people actually smiling around him. He missed all these things too.

He was about half-way through his cup— chai with blackberry and cinnamon— when someone else joined him, proving Bruce’s long-standing theory that the Avengers of all creed always ended up congregating in the kitchen.

The man stopped short when Bruce came into his line of sight and it took Bruce a moment to recognize him. After all, he had only seen the few pictures Steve managed to find from the forties, but the metal arm really should’ve been a dead giveaway. 

Barnes.

There was a moment of silence between them, giving Bruce the opportunity to note that Barnes seemed on edge, what with the nervous tension evident his movements and the way he kept clenching his fist— the flesh one— in agitation.

“You’re Banner, right?” the other man spoke first, voice deep and rough, the strain behind it making Bruce watch him even more carefully. He had no idea what to expect from the man. Both Alice and Tony told him he wasn’t a safety risk, only here to get help— and boy, was it a surprise to find out Barnes was living here— but tortured POW or not, Bruce had no reason to trust him just yet. This was a master assassin after all, with several dozen confirmed kills and who knew how many others. 

The Hulk only gave a low, annoyed grumble at the other man’s presence, so apparently the jury was still out on whether Barnes posed an actual threat.

“I’m Dr. Banner, yes. And you are Bucky Barnes, I take it?”

“That’s what they call me,” Barnes inclined his head and cleared his throat. “It’s nice to, uh— to meet you.” There was a moment where Bruce was positive Barnes would run in the other direction, but instead, the man mumbled out a strained sorry and hurried past Bruce over to the refrigerator. Or freezer to be exact. Bruce followed him with his eyes, not moving from his spot at the table, and the tense, uneasy behavior of the ex-assassin spurred Bruce’s imagination, giving him a bizarre mental image of the man pulling out some semi-automatic weapon out of the freezer and trying to shoot Bruce.  

Best of luck to him there. 

However, when Barnes shut the door and turned around, there was no weapon. Instead, there was a pint of strawberry ice cream, which he opened with one shaking hand and went to the other side of the kitchen to grab a spoon from the utensils drawer. The first spoonful drew an actual sigh of relief out of Barnes as he leaned his hip against the counter and proceeded to indulge in the dessert.

Bruce watched the whole thing with something akin to confused fascination. The infamous Winter Soldier was in the kitchen to get some ice cream?

“You, uh— you alright?” he couldn’t help but ask, pushing his glasses up in a nervous gesture of his own.

Barnes looked back up at him, almost startled, as if he had forgotten Bruce was even there, and if Bruce didn’t know any better, the man looked embarrassed. Could assassins even feel embarrassment?

“I’m alright, yeah.” The man found his ice cream more fascinating than Bruce as he scraped at it absently with the spoon. “I just, uh— just had one of my therapy sessions, that’s all.”

Oh. Well, now Bruce felt a little bad about his earlier assumptions. He didn’t know the horrid details of what Barnes went through, but he knew enough. It was Hydra after all, who were collectively even more cruel and sadistic than Ross and his lackeys were. Therapy in any form must have been hell. 

Honestly, good for Barnes. Every single one of the Avengers, Bruce included, probably needed years of therapy, but they were all too stubborn and distrustful to ever get that kind of help. 

“I see. Do you need me to leave?”

He was about to get out of his seat, take his news and tea back to his quarters, but Barnes stopped him.

“Nah, s’alright. The kitchen’s for everyone. I just need to— settle my nerves a bit.” He raised the ice cream in his hand, the gesture almost sheepish. “Sugar usually helps a bit after my BARF sessions—” 

“Wait. Your what sessions?”

That drew an actual smile— small, but real— out of Barnes and it was fascinating to watch the man’s face transform into something softer, younger. It was also suddenly easier to think of him as a recovering victim rather than a killer and Bruce wondered what Barnes looked like happy, with a full, carefree grin.

“B-A-R-F. Binarily Augmented Retro Framing.” 

“Oh. Oh, wait, I remember that.” It took a second, but it was all coming back to Bruce. “Wow, Tony actually got that to work? It was only an idea back when I was still here.”

“Works well enough to fix my broken head.”

“Fascinating. So Tony was able to resolve the neuron connectivity issue with the hippocampus, huh? Oh, he was working on the prefrontal cortex too, wasn’t he, after that new research on memory retention came out? How did he manage to perform the actual memory extraction though? He must have found a way to separately map out every neural pathway— and the holographic integration with the memories must be eons ahead of what I saw last—”

The flood of words stopped and it was Bruce’s turn to flush with embarrassment when he realized he had gotten carried away. Barnes was watching him with a raised eyebrow, but there was amusement coloring his features.

“You sound a lot like Tony,” he remarked with a huff of laughter, his tone the warmest it had been since the conversation began, “I can see why you two get along.”

“Sorry about that. Tony always finds the most fascinating projects to work on, I can’t help but get excited.”

“S’okay, I don’t mind,” Barnes shrugged and stuck another spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. At this rate, he’d be done with the pint in no time and surprisingly, the sugar seemed to be working. Already Barnes looked more at ease. “Every other word out of Tony’s mouth is about science, you get used to it pretty quickly. Just don’t expect me to answer most of those questions. I know the general idea behind it and Tony loves to explain the nitty-gritty of all of his projects to me, but I’m not a genius like him. Most of it goes over my head.”

“Don’t feel bad, half the things Tony says go over my head too. And I have several doctorates. That’s just the way Tony is,” Bruce added and watched as something in Barnes’ eyes softened even further, his lips pulling apart into a fond smile. 

Bruce was still putting the puzzle pieces together, but Barnes and Tony were certainly not enemies anymore. Not even reluctant allies. They were on first name basis, Tony’s eyes practically lit up when he mention Barnes to Bruce during that first video call and Barnes’ entire demeanor changed when they began talking about Tony.

Bruce had some theories, but there was still more data to be gathered. He was a scientist after all.

“I am sorry though, I didn’t mean to pry. I’ll save the rest of my curiosity for Tony.”

“He’ll enjoy that, I’m sure. Been telling me non-stop about dragging you down to the lab as soon as he gets back.”

“I think he just misses my documentation skills. I was always the one who got stuck writing everything down while he got to play with chemicals and explosives.” His own expression grew fonder. “Does Tony still practically live down at the lab?”

Barnes hummed his agreement around the ice cream. “Pretty much. It’s either the lab or the garage or the kitchen with him.”

“Sounds like things haven’t changed a bit.” It wasn’t exactly true, but there was a certain comfort in seeing these glimpses of their past lives. The good ones, at least. “So, how long has the Compound been home to you?”

“About four month, give or take. What about you, you planning to stick around or is this just a temporary visit?”

“I’d like to stay long-term,” Bruce said, wanting— hoping— his words would hold true.

“Good. I’m sure Tony will appreciate that. It’s obvious he’s been missing you. You two, uh— you were close? Tony can’t seem to say enough nice things about you.”

Bruce was hoping his blush wasn’t visible. He still found it overwhelming that Tony hadn’t given up after all this time, that he spoke of him with affection, rather than derision. “We bonded after the Battle of New York. Found we had a lot in common. And let me tell you, Tony sure knows how to seduce a man with half a dozen floors of R&D space.”

“The two of you were together then?”

Of course Barnes had to ask that just as Bruce took a sip of his tea, forcing it to go down the wrong way.

“Oh no, no,” he hurried to assure once he was able to breathe around his undignified coughing fit, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply anything. Purely platonic science love affair between us, I promise. Don’t get me wrong,” he knew he was babbling, but this wasn’t the first time someone assumed there was a thing between him and Tony and he still didn’t know how to handle it gracefully. It never helped that Tony was always so tactile with Bruce, bless the engineer’s well-intentioned heart. “Tony is a great guy. Great-looking guy, even, but I’m, uh— completely straight. I mean, if guys like Tony Stark or Captain America don’t do it for you, you must be straight, right?”

Barnes was obviously holding back his smile. “Sure, that sounds like a good theory, Doc.”

The Winter Soldier, trying not to laugh at Bruce making an idiot of himself. Fantastic. 

You suck at first impressions, Banner

“Anyways,” Barnes stopped to throw the empty ice cream container in the trash, putting Bruce out of his misery, “I should probably get out of your hair. It was good finally meeting ya though. I’m sure we’ll see plenty more of each other.”

“Likewise.”

Barnes crossed the kitchen to leave, but before entering the hallway, he turned back around.

“Oh, just one more thing. Tony— like I said, he seems real happy that you’re here. And that’s great, he deserves that more than anyone. So, let’s keep it that way, yeah? Because as long as Tony stays happy, you and I won’t ever have a problem.”

The smile Barnes gave him then— sharp, dangerous, lethal— was nothing like those earlier shy smiles and it sent shivers down Bruce’s spine. Barnes disappeared around the corner without another word, but Bruce could still feel the unspoken threat lingering in the air.

Huh. So he did get to meet the real Winter Soldier after all.

Metal Arm threaten Puny Banner.

Ah, there was the Hulk. Was he napping this whole time or something?

Pretty sure he was just telling us not to hurt Tony.

Hulk like Metal Arm. Had good point. No hurting Tin Man. 

Wasn’t planning on it, pal.

The Hulk grumbled something incomprehensible in return and let Bruce get back to his tea. 

Thinking about it, Bruce shouldn’t have even been surprised. He didn’t expect the former assassin to threaten him on Tony’s behalf, but Tony befriended the Hulk. It’d only make sense that he would somehow befriend the Winter Soldier too. 

Tony’s Home for Wayward Killers, that was a more appropriate term for this place. Bruce shook his head as he took another sip of his now cooled drink. The Avengers life was downright bizarre sometimes, but he had to admit he kind of missed it.

***

Sprawled across his bed, Bucky blinked up at the ceiling in his room for a few moments and then let out a snort. 

Oh god. Did he really just threaten the Hulk

Well, more accurately, the Soldier threatened the Hulk, while Bucky kept trying— and failing— to reason with him. 

Keeping all of our limbs intact is beneficial for both of us, idiot!

Bucky appreciated the sentiment, really— this was about Tony’s happiness, after all— but he’d also seen videos of the Hulk. The Winter Soldier may have been an impressive force in his own right, but even he would come up short when going head-to-head with a green wall of rage and muscle that could probably chew through Bucky’s vibranium arm.

But at least he now had confirmation that Banner wasn’t going to be a threat to Bucky’s and Tony’s growing romance. Bucky would take his victories where he could.

Despite the elation prompted by that revelation, both him and the Soldier were still far too restless and Bucky attempted one deep breath to push the darkness back before they made any more questionable decisions together, but the memories from the BARF session still clung to his mind and the roiling anger refused to subside. 

The Soldier was always dragged to the surface after BARF, but usually Bucky would seek out Tony, who long ago rearranged his schedule to make sure he was available after therapy as often as possible. Tony’s presence, his voice and gentle touch, those smiles and the simple words of reassurance… The Hydra handlers would’ve been so damn jealous of how effortless it was for clever Tony Stark to subdue the infamous Winter Soldier.

Bucky sometimes wondered whether Tony was aware of the extent to which he had power over him now. Every part of him. For all of Bucky’s physical strength and extensive training, Tony Stark could break him with ease, there was no use denying that now. He could shatter Bucky with nothing more than a hateful look or a carefully chosen word. 

That sort of vulnerability should’ve been terrifying. After all, Tony was a man who was neither perfect, nor righteous, nor always kind, but if there were one thing Bucky knew as truth, it was that Tony Stark was inherently good. It was that steadfast sense of goodness that guided this man to be better, to keep trying, despite having every reason (and every capability) to burn the whole damn world down. 

If Tony Stark ever decided to give villainy a try, he would have the whole world under his thumb within a day and the rest of them wouldn’t even know it unless he wished it so. But Tony was good— so, so good— and Bucky trusted the clever, strong hands that held his heart and after spending a lifetime in a pit full of vipers, it felt incredible to have this simple ability to trust again.

So it was usually Tony’s everything that carried Bucky back to reality, but with the thousands of miles currently separating them, he had to resort to less effective methods of replacing that sense of violation and grief— and anger, always so much anger— with some basic pleasure. And while the ice cream was sweet and filling and even the conversation with Banner was decent, none of it was enough—

God, he wanted Tony. Just Tony.

He rolled over on his side so he could reach for his phone, which he left on the nightstand before heading over to his session with Dr. Vance. It must’ve been past two in the morning in Beijing now, so Tony should’ve been asleep, but maybe looking through their earlier messages would help.

To his surprise, he found more than a dozen messages from Tony when the screen lit up. He must have sent these while Bucky was in his session. 

He made himself more comfortable, snuggling deeper into the pillows, and began to scroll through the messages.

i’m free! finally! jesus, that was a long night of pointless ass kissing

thankfully, i think we’re rehashing the contract tomorrow, which means pep and i get to go home in a day or two

i want my coffee, my lab, and my super soldier

preferably all at once

God, it was this easy for Tony to make his heart sing. Just a few simple words. There was no doubt that if— when— Tony started saying these things in person, it would be Bucky’s turn to be flustered and weak in the knees. 

My super soldier. Bucky bit his lip, trying and failing to keep a sappy smile off his face, reveling in that small hint of possessiveness. Damn straight he was Tony’s super soldier.

The next batch of messages was sent a few minutes after the first.

ah crap, that’s right, you’re with fatima right now

and here i thought you were ignoring me

but that’s impossible. i’m tony stark 

Of course there was a smiling face with the sunglasses at the end of that last message. Tony was worse than the boys when it came to using these little “emoticons” and Bucky kept having to learn the meaning of new acronyms every day. He also wondered what exactly the man had against capital letters.  

heading to the hotel room right now. nice place, pepper picked it

the whole city is nice actually. wish i had the chance to see more of it. visit for pleasure instead of business, you know?

maybe we need a vacation

scratch that

we definitely need a vacation

what’s a better way to celebrate being triggers-free than getting the hell out of dodge for a while?

well, i can think of a dozen better ways, if you know what i mean

wait, is that too forward?

shit. that’s too forward

Friday, erase the last three messages!

[Sorry, Boss, I don’t have administrator access to Mr. Barnes’ mobile device.]

Fri, you have access to everything!

[Privacy protocols you set up yourself. Nothing I can do, Boss.]

betrayed by my own tech

where did i go wrong?

where did they all learn to be so stubborn?

oh, that’s right

from me

shit

just

just ignore everything i say

i haven’t actually slept in like 30 hours. i can’t be held accountable for things!

Bucky was outright grinning now. The sleep-deprived version of Tony’s flirting was bolder and his ramblings that much more entertaining. Not to mention, Tony being forward should absolutely be encouraged, in Bucky’s honest opinion.

but umm…

seriously, anywhere you want to visit? 

maybe somewhere warm with a nice beach. i can enjoy a fruity drink in the sand while you go splash around in the water. your arm is waterproof, btw!!

have you ever even been to the ocean?

because if not, we need to rectify that STAT

oh, btw, wanna see my fancy penthouse suite?

The next message was a video and that confirmed Bucky’s earlier suspicion. Tony knew Bucky would see all of these right after therapy, so the long, rambling string of messages and now the video? It had to be his way of helping Bucky through the after-effects of the BARF memories. Even this far away, Tony was still taking care of him.

God, he loved this man so much. He still didn’t believe he deserved any of this, all this care and affection and love, but they’d have to pry it from his cold, dead hands. He was never letting this go.

When he pressed play, the video expanded to take over the entire screen and a beautiful suite came into view, the camera a bit shaky as Tony walked and spun around to let the camera take in the entire room.

“Hi, James! Fancy place, huh? Bet you’re jealous!” Tony’s voice came through the speakers and something eased deep within Bucky’s chest, both him and the Soldier drawn in by that deep, familiar timbre. “Pepper is staying in a nicer suite, if you can believe it.” 

The camera panned across a set of floor-to-ceiling windows, with glittering lights of the city bright against the night sky. “That is my awesome view. Still can’t beat the penthouse in New York though. I need to take you up there sometimes.” There was an almost drunk-like quality to Tony’s tired voice and if Bucky didn’t know any better, he’d suspect Tony knocked back a few drinks at that business gathering, but he’d seen a sleep-deprived Tony more times than he could count by now. 

A large bed, covered in beautiful burgundy linens, appeared on the screen. “And that’s where I will spend the night tossing and turning because I hate sleeping in hotels.” 

The view flipped and suddenly Tony’s face came into view, although he was too close to the camera.

“Whoops, that’s not attractive at all,” Tony laughed and pulled the camera back so that it captured all of him from the waist up. “Note to self, front-facing camera, not a flattering angle. Hmm, another note to self, design an even better front-facing camera.”

Contrary to Tony’s self-deprecating words, the view was just fine. The man was clad in a perfectly tailored suit, bright red tie against a white shirt, and even the exhaustion behind his eyes couldn’t take away from how gorgeous he looked. Bucky greedily drank in every detail.

Tony sat down on the bed, but then the video turned into a shaking mess of images until finally everything stopped and the view settled on one half of the bed. Tony, who was nowhere to be seen at the moment, must have propped the phone up on the opposite side.

“Gimme just one sec!” he could hear Tony’s voice in the distance and after a little bit of wait, the man reappeared, all but collapsing onto the bed. His arms went around one of the pillows, pulling it close to his chest as he curled in around it. Bucky could only see him from the waist up, but Tony’s suit was gone, leaving him in a thin white undershirt.

Oh god, was Tony undressing just then?

Bucky’s mind promptly supplied him with several tempting images, mostly of Bucky peeling Tony out of that suit himself, but he pushed all that away for the moment so he could focus on the video instead. 

Tony snuggled deeper into the pillows around him. “Jesus, what a long day… Thankfully, Pepper is the biggest badass out there and handled all the business details like a pro.” He let out a big yawn. “Really, I was just here to charm everyone and look pretty. But uh— yeah, I just wanted to say hi— or goodnight— or good morning? What time is it over there? Doesn’t matter. Umm… I know you usually hang out with me after therapy, but I’m here and you’re there and I’m not sure if this is helping at all, but I just thought I’d ramble at you… and if the Soldier’s giving you hell right now, tell him I said to behave.” Tony tried to give the camera a stern glare, but the sleepy smile ruined the intended effect. “Anyways, hope you’re doing okay. Make sure to eat and don’t sulk in your room by yourself… Take care of yourself, okay?” he added in a low mumble, his eyes blinking slower and slower.

Just go to sleep, sweetheart, I’m fine, Bucky thought, wishing more than anything that he could reach out and run his hand through Tony’s hair to help the man fall asleep. Why couldn’t Tony just be here, right next to him, so Bucky could draw him into his arms and feel the man’s breath settle into that slow, comforting rhythm of deep sleep against his own chest?

“Alright, well, I’m actually about to pass out, so I hope I haven’t said any more questionable things, I’m already gonna have to spend tomorrow morning trying to convince Friday to destroy the evidence.” There was a huff of laughter and Tony half-hid his face in the pillow. “ And I was serious about the beach too, you know… We should go… Anywhere you want, James…”

Tony seemed to hesitate, as if wanting to say something else, but then all he did was reach out for his phone and the video ended. That was the last message and Bucky spent the next few minutes looking at the darkened screen, gathering all his scattered thoughts in order to figure out what he really wanted.

It wasn’t all that difficult. He knew what he wanted. As soon as Tony came back— no, as soon as that man stepped out of his Iron Man suit, Bucky was dragging him away, sitting him down for a very mature, adult conversation about feelings and intentions, and then he wasn’t going to let that man out of his sight (or his bed) for the foreseeable future. 

For once, the Soldier and he were on the exact same page and he let himself picture every little detail of how it would all go.

How it would feel to hear Tony call out his name in elation, to sweep his wayward engineer into a tight hug and finally have the man close again. Anticipation, joy, and relief all swirling within them both, a restless but heady energy.

Bucky imagined tracing his thumbs over the planes of Tony’s cheeks, sweeping over the shadows underneath those brown eyes that would look up at him with affection. He knew Tony would be tired, between the jet lag and the terrible sleeping hours he must’ve kept in Beijing, but no matter. He would finally be home and Bucky would be there to take care of him.

“You look tired, sweetheart,” he stated the obvious, smiling indulgently when Tony rolled his eyes.

“International trips full of idiots will do that to you,” Tony said and then crinkled his nose in disgust. “I need a shower.”

Bucky refrained from making a comment about joining him and instead began to pull Tony along toward the living quarters. 

“A quick wash will definitely make you feel better. Are you hungry?”

“Ugh, no, flights like that always make me nauseous.”

“How about I get you some fruit? That might help settle your stomach. Tea maybe?”

That earned him a glare. “The first thing I’m drinking after I’m back is not going be tea, James. I’m gonna lose my coffee privileges.”

“Of course, what was I thinking? Silly me. But coffee can wait—”

“Blasphemer.”

“—you need rest, not caffeine, honey.”

Tony was still glaring, but with a grumble, he accepted his fate and headed off to his own quarters while Bucky made himself busy in the kitchen.

Of course Tony would collapse in bed— Bucky’s bed— right after the shower, as exhausted as he would be, and Bucky could almost feel Tony’s hair, soft as silk, and still slightly damp, beneath his fingers. 

“If you keep doing that, you’re gonna make me fall asleep, you know,” Tony finally said after a few minutes of Bucky’s ministrations, but when Bucky pulled away, the petulant notes in the man’s tone made a comeback. “No, that wasn’t me saying ‘stop’!”

“You need to eat something and then you can sleep,” Bucky countered and reached over to grab the bowl of fruit. “Look, there are even blueberries and raspberries in here!”

Tony was attempting to glare at Bucky, but the twitch of his lips betrayed him.<