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Dig No Graves

Chapter Text

”Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." Confucius




He had been keeping a close eye on SHIELD for awhile now. There were signs of corruption that Fury either didn’t notice or wasn’t concerned with, but SHIELD knew far too much about him for Tony to be comfortable with them slipping on down the morality scale. So he took to hacking them every couple of months or so, just to make sure there wasn’t anything concerning.

One time he found the video of his parents’ murder.

It was buried beneath a hundred other insignificant files, all of them quarantined from the rest of the SHIELD servers. The information had been downloaded from an enemy base, and he doubted even SHIELD knew about it yet. Then again, he wouldn’t put it past them to have known all along and kept it from him.

Tony’s had a lot of worst moments in his life. There was the phone call about the crash. There was waking up in a dark cave with a battery rigged up to his chest. There was Obadiah’s parting grin as he turned away with Tony’s heart in his hands. There was falling through a hole in the sky, sure he would be dead before he even hit the ground.

This would be added to the list, somewhere in the middle. He had just sat there, not understanding what he was seeing, as the killer ran them off the road, beat his father, and then calmly strangled his mother, before shooting out the camera.

Then Tony saw red.

He didn’t sleep for nearly a week, searching through every last piece of data, calling in every favor he had. He was even desperate enough to reach out to Natasha Romanoff, but she didn’t know much. She did give him a name: The Winter Soldier. She said he was a ghost story. But she’d seen him, once. He was the only one to ever shoot her, which is terrifying enough.

The strangest part was that he had assassinations attributed to him throughout fifty years, but the description of Natasha’s shooter from 2008 perfectly matched the man he’d seen from 1991.

The search led him down the rabbit hole.

The corruption he’d been tracking in SHIELD seemed to come to a head, like the entire organization was wound through with a poisonous thread. They had connections to assassinations attributed to the Winter Soldier, and they had benefited from his father’s death. He found snippets of information that seemed to imply the man was kept in cyrostasis, which explained his lack of aging.

Then there was Hydra.

The first time he found the reference to Hydra, he dismissed it. But it kept coming back to them, and they didn’t seem to be the footnote in history that everyone thought they were.

Eventually, he slept. Then he woke up, and started again. It took him two months, all in all, to track Hydra activity and power usage through the entire United States and finally pinpoint where the Winter Soldier was likely being held.

He didn’t ask for back up, because he didn’t want anyone to try and stop him from what he planned to do.

This was personal, anyway, and he didn’t want anyone to interfere. As satisfying as it might have been to shoot his way through the base, he couldn’t risk drawing the attention. So he rigged up knockout gas to their ventilation system, waited ten minutes, and then went in through the front doors.

Everyone was passed out wherever they had been standing. They wouldn’t wake up for hours.

Tony pulled his tablet from his suit, and pulled up Jarvis. “Where is he?” he demanded.

“Based on the power grid, there is a room two floors down using an inordinate amount of energy,” Jarvis said calmly. “Certainly enough to power a cyrostasis chamber, Sir.”

Tony nodded, heading to the elevator and then door, following the energy signal into the room. It was large, with a huge clear cylinder sat center stage. A man was inside of it, frozen still, with brown hair to his shoulders and a metal arm. Tony clenched his hands into fists, and forced himself to step closer.

He could shut the power down. He could fire a bullet straight through the glass. He could make sure that the man that killed his parents never woke up.

But with that mask on, he couldn’t be one hundred percent sure that he had the right man—and it felt a little too much like it would be murder, if the man wasn’t able to fight back.

“Gotta wake him up,” Tony decided, heading towards the controls.

“Is that wise, Sir?” Jarvis asked, in a tone of voice conveying quite clearly how unwise he thought it was.

"Almost definitely not," Tony said. “I’m going to do it anyway."

He started the sequence to wake up the soldier, and the glass rose up with an ominous hiss. Tony backed up, watching as the man was revealed without any barrier between him. His eyes were still closed, but he was clothed in a thick, black jumpsuit, with no sleeves so his metal arm was in full view. The mask covered almost half of his face and lent him a sinister look.

Tony swallowed and waited for him to wake up, raised a hand to keep his repulser at the ready.

Then the soldier opened his eyes. He blinked them open suddenly, glancing to the side in confusion, and then he pushed himself forward and collapsed into a heap on the floor.

“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Tony decided. The man had fallen forward and caught himself on his arms, and he seemed too unsteady to raise himself back up. “This is so awkward. Am I seriously going to have to wait for you to fully defrost before we can fight to the death?”

There was no response, and Tony frowned as he looked at the mask he was wearing. It seemed more like a muzzle than anything. He wondered if he could even speak with it on.

“Hey, take off the mask," Tony told him harshly.

He didn't expect the man to listen, but he immediately lifted his shaking hands to undo the straps and allowed the mask to drop to the floor between them.

He hadn't been wearing the mask when he killed his parents, so he recognized his face at once and knew he had the right guy—but there was something off. The blank emotionless stare he had seen in the surveillance video was replaced by a look of confusion and pain.

"Are you my new handler?" he asked. He spoke with perfect diction and no trace of an accent, despite the fact that all the intelligence he had received indicated the Winter Soldier was Russian.

But then one could never tell when it came to assassins and spies. Natasha only ever had an accent when she wanted to, and she had plenty to choose from.

“I’m not your handler,” Tony snapped, and crouched down to meet him in the eyes. “You killed my parents, asshole. You killed my mom.”

The soldier caught himself on his hands again as he lost his balance. The strange suit he was wearing rippling with the movement. He looked up, his hair falling into his eyes, and watched Tony curiously.

"Your parents were targets?" he asked, before nodding vaguely. “Then you require a mission report?"

"No! God, fuck, no, I know what happened, caught the live and in color recording,” Tony snarled, his heart stuttering at the thought of hearing this murderer recount the details once again. “Do the names Howard and Maria Stark mean anything to you?"

"Are they my targets?" he asked, looking up at him with confusion.

Tony sat back on heels, staring at him in disbelief. "You're a few Fudgsicles short of a well-stocked popsicle cart, aren't you?"

The soldier watched him blankly. "I do not understand your commands. Please restate."

"I'm here to kill you, Terminator," Tony said slowly, "does that compute?"

The soldier looked up at him with wide blue eyes and no expression. "Okay."

Tony froze. "Okay," he echoed. "I tell you I came here to kill you and your response is 'okay'?"

"I am being decommissioned," the soldier said, and for one horrible moment Tony thought he actually seemed relieved. "I understand. I will comply."

Tony stumbled to his feet and backed away from him, his heart pounding with dread, as it truly began to sink in that there was something terribly wrong with all of this. "Hold that thought," he told him.

He set his tablet atop the Hydra computer so Jarvis could begin accessing them remotely.

"Jarvis, search for their files on the Winter Soldier," he said, keeping one eye on the guy, even though he was still shivering and looked more like a wet and miserable kitten than a threat. "This guy is supposed to be the most dangerous assassin alive, find out what the hell's wrong with him."

“There are no records referencing the Winter Soldier, Sir,” Jarvis reported after a brief pause. “However, based on available information, I am able to extrapolate that he is the man they refer to as the Asset. He was captured, not recruited, and has been a prisoner of war since at least some time in the 1960s. He withstood torture and conditioning attempts for a number of years before they decided they would need to erase his memories in order to implant proper conditioning. It appears that even then their methods were not permanent, so they added an additional layer of control by embedding him with activation trigger words, and began to wipe his mind before and after missions before returning him to stasis."

Jarvis had called up a number of archive recordings on the monitors, mostly of the soldier being strapped to a chair and then subjected to some bastardized version of electroshock therapy. There was no sound, but he could tell he was screaming every single time. “Jesus, stop,” he said. “Jarvis, stop it.”

The videos all blinked out at once. Tony's hands had started to shake, and he felt like all the air had left his lungs. He glanced back at the soldier, but he showed no reaction to Jarvis’s words. They might as well have been discussing the weather.

"He isn't what we thought, sir," Jarvis said, his own voice vibrating with every bit of emotion he was capable of. "He is not a willing participant nor a supporter of Hydra's ideology. From what I can gather, he fought against them every chance he had...the mission, with your parents, the trigger words were used. It is unlikely he had any real understanding of what he was doing."

Tony caught himself on the console, trying to steady his breathing, before he glanced back at the Winter Soldier. He was still shivering, and hadn't moved. He looked lost and resigned, apparently just sitting there waiting for Tony to murder him. Tony was pretty sure he was going to throw up.

"How sure are you, Jarvis?” Tony asked.

"There isn't any doubt, sir," Jarvis said. "Their records are quite...extensive, and highly disturbing in detail. I'm afraid we've yet to find the person truly responsible for your parents' murder."

Tony laughed brokenly, letting his head fall against the console. "It can never be simple, can it?" he asked, before steeling himself for what he knew he had to do. "Make a copy of their database and then wipe it."

"Sir, SHIELD will likely wish—“ Jarvis began.

"SHIELD didn't get here first,” Tony said. “Finders Keepers, Jarvis, them's the rules."

"Sir?" Jarvis said hesitantly. "Surely you are not considering—“

"We can't trust SHIELD. We've known that for awhile," Tony said, running a hand down his face. "Trust me, if there was someone else I could pawn him off on, I'd be doing it."

“It may be that what happened to him is through no fault of his own," Jarvis said hesitantly, "but that makes him no less dangerous. We are not equipped to give him the care that he needs."

"We're talking about a man that's been a prisoner or war, brainwashed and tortured, for fifty years at least,” Tony said. “Who's equipped for that?"

"You do make a valid point, sir," Jarvis agreed reluctantly.

Tony snorted, picking up his tablet, and folding it back into his suit. “Once we’re clear, call SHIELD to come do clean up,” Tony said. “We’re gonna blow this room though.”

“Do you think that’s prudent, Sir?” Jarvis asked.

“Yeah, I actually do,” Tony said. He stepped passed the Winter Soldier, who followed him only with his eyes, without moving another muscle. He slapped a detonator onto the stasis pod. “We can’t be sure SHIELD didn’t know about this place. This may buy us some time.”

The solider looked up at him with a furrowed brow, considering him, and Tony wondered how much of this he actually understood.

"Okay, new plan," Tony said, kneeling back down in front of him. "I don't really get my jollies from murdering brainwashed torture victims. So, you know, no decommissioning for you."

The soldier pressed his eyes shut for just a moment, sucking in a shaky breath before he forced them open again. Rather than looking relieved, he looked almost terrified. "What is my mission?" he asked, and his steady voice did not reflect any of the emotions Tony could see racing through his eyes.

"We're going to get you the hell out of here,” Tony told him firmly. "That's the mission."

Chapter Text

Tony was glad he'd brought the helicopter in case there was anything he needed to bring back with him, because carrying a half-frozen super assassin in his arms through the night sky would be entirely new levels of awkward. He hadn't exactly planned on bringing home his parents' killer at all, but Tony was adaptable if he was anything, so he dutifully pulled the man along with him to the waiting helicopter.

He also climbed out of his suit after they both got inside, which was maybe a risk he shouldn’t have taken.

But he had to strap the soldier in, and the fingers of the Iron Man suit weren’t dexterous enough. He made a mental note to fix that, and then tried not to notice when the soldier flinched back from him slightly, as though expecting to be hit, even though Tony was weaponless and suit-less and the soldier could probably have pulled him apart like string cheese.

Tony briefly considered adding more charges to blow that entire base sky high, along with everyone in it.

Instead he just hit the detonator for the cyrostasis room. Hopefully SHIELD wouldn't be able to figure out what had been in there, and if they already knew, hopefully they'd think the soldier was inside when it blew. Either way, it should buy him some time to figure out what the hell he was going to do with the guy.

The soldier looked down at the straps Tony had tightened around him, glancing out the window carefully. "What year is it?" he asked, his voice so quiet that Tony almost missed it.

"It's 2014," Tony said.

The soldier frowned, looking like he was concentrating. Tony suspected the year didn't actually tell him much. He wasn't sure when he was last out, and from the sounds of it they hadn't let him keep any of his memories in any case.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Tony told him, as he reached for space blanket from his emergency kit.

"Why not?" he asked, his voice lacking any real emotion.

"I just wouldn't. If I'd known—let’s just say that I thought you were someone else," Tony told him after a moment. The soldier tugged at the seatbelt, and Tony gently reached out to still his hands. "Leave the straps alone, okay? It'll take us about an hour to get back to the tower."

"Okay," the soldier said, not bothering to move as Tony carefully placed the blanket over him. His apathy was disturbing, but Tony figured it was probably a blessing in disguise. He didn't know how he'd get him home if he freaked out or started fighting him, and he was sort of past the point of being able to leave him behind.

He turned away and moved to the pilot’s seat, silently signaling Jarvis to keep an eye on their guest. The ride home seemed to take a lot longer than the hour he'd promised, though the clock only read fifty minutes later when he finally landed on the roof of the tower.

From Jarvis’s periodic updates, he knew the soldier had hardly moved at all. He turned around and stepped back towards him. He was looking out the window, utterly still, his eyes somewhere very far away. Tony pulled the space blanket off and then placed a hand against his flesh arm to test the temperature of his skin.

The soldier jerked, startled, reaching up to rip the thick seatbelt straps apart like they were made of tissue paper, and then stumbled back away from him.

“Hey, hey,” Tony said softly, holding up his hands as the soldier fell back against the door of the helicopter. “Sorry, that was my bad. Just wanted to make sure you were warming up.”

The soldier swallowed hard, then nodded vaguely. “I am recovered,” he said, unconvincingly. “I am mission-ready.”

“Yeah? Well, gotta be honest, Rambo, you don’t look it,” Tony told him. “Let’s get inside, okay? Maybe get you out of that weird suit? You look like you belong in an anime movie. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anime’s cool.”

The soldier just blinked at him.

“Tough room,” Tony muttered. “But seriously, can we go inside?”

The soldier carefully got to his feet, examining the door. “We are at a new base?” he asked. “I was transferred?”

“Sure, new base,” Tony said. “Welcome to Stark Tower. Known as Avenger Tower to some, but it’s not really. It’s still Stark on all the paperwork. They never have to know.”

“You’re Stark,” the soldier said, eyes shifting to examine him. “Son of Howard and Maria Stark.”

Tony went still. “You remember them?” he asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” the soldier said, looking at Tony like he thought he was the one that was confused. “You told me about them at the previous base.”

“Right, of course,” Tony said, and shook his head. “I guess I never did a proper introduction, huh? Tony Stark, at your service. Welcome to my humble abode. It’s much nicer from the inside, I promise.”

The soldier took the hint, and pushed open the door, before dropping to the concrete landing with far more grace than he’d had when he exited the cyrostasis chamber.

Tony followed him out, before starting towards the doors and carefully not looking behind him. “This way,” he called. The soldier followed docilely along behind him. Tony was pretty sure Rhodey would legitimately kill him if he ever found out about this.

Tony opened the door, and held it open for the soldier. He stepped inside, trying to hide his curiosity in his eyes behind the wild strands of his hair. It was getting harder and harder for Tony to reconcile this man with the scarily efficient assassin he had watched kill his parents on that footage.

“This is not like the other bases,” the soldier said hesitantly, taking in the large expanse of glass windows. “Usually I’m underground.”

“I don’t like being underground, or in dark places, or, you know, caves, especially,” Tony explained, the tone of his voice pointedly light. “Sort of built this place just to see how high I could get.”

The soldier tilted his head at one of the windows, making an aborted motion to reach out to touch the glass, before turning back to look at Tony. “I don’t like dark places, either,” he admitted.

“See? Things in common, already,” Tony said. He clapped his hands, and the soldier startled back, clenching his hands. Tony pretended not to notice that, too. “Let’s get you cleaned up, okay?”

He decided to take the soldier to his own bathroom because it was the biggest, and why the hell not. It wasn’t like there were any lines he wouldn’t cross, at this point. “Jarvis, lights,” Tony said, and the entire penthouse came to life.

The soldier didn’t seem startled, though he did glance around at the walls. “Jarvis is a computer?” he asked quietly. “You spoke to him at the other base, too.”

“Yeah, took the travel size with me,” Tony said, surprised that the soldier had figured that out on his own. He was starting to think he understood pretty much everything, and it was just his reactions that were off. If he recalled Tony’s conversations with Jarvis and his accusations about his parents from when he was barely conscious out of cyro, then there was no way he was going to miss anything now. Tony made a mental note to watch what he said.

“In your suit,” the soldier said, glancing back at him speculatively. And yep, there it was. He was definitely more aware than his dispassionate disposition would imply.

“That’s right,” he admitted. “I’m Iron Man.”

“Then you are a known enemy of Hydra,” the soldier told him, frowning slightly. “Have I been traded or stolen?”

Tony sighed, because he had just reminded himself to watch what he said. He supposed that had always been a futile plan anyway. He’d never been good with filtering himself. “Finders Keepers?” Tony tried. “Okay, look, here’s the thing, you’re not actually a possession, you know, so you can’t be traded or stolen at all. You do know that you’re a person, right?”

The soldier glanced back at him. “I am a weapon,” he said.

“You look pretty person-shaped to me,” Tony told him. “So let’s go with you’re a person.”

“What purpose do you have in mind for me?” he asked, looking suddenly wary.

Tony noticed him eyeing the exits, and the way he took a half step back. This was the guy that had run Natasha Romanoff off the road before she could see him coming, and then shot straight through her to kill his target. Tony was pretty sure he couldn’t stop him if he wanted to leave.

He probably should have kept the suit on, but what was done was done. He tossed the soldier a grin, instead. “Well, first, I think you should take a shower,” he said. “You’re kind of dripping Hydra base all over the place, and I just had the floors replaced. Little known fact: Norse God bloodstains are next-to-impossible to get out.”

The soldier’s eyes moved back to him, but his stance had relaxed. “You are the strangest handler I have ever had,” he told him.

“That’s okay, because you’re the strangest assassin I know, and I know a few,” Tony told him, before turning towards the hall. “Shower’s this way.”

The soldier followed him, hesitantly entering the bathroom and checking his surroundings like he expected to find something horrible there instead of an empty shower stall. Tony couldn’t really blame him. Hydra accommodations left more than a little to be desired.

“‘I’ll need to get you some new clothes,” Tony decided. “I think we’ll need to put that suit you’re wearing in my incinerator. I’ll be right back.”

He stepped back out of the hall and started towards his room. “Jarvis,” he called. “Scan him for trackers.”

“Already done before we left the base, Sir,” Jarvis said, in a tone that was unnecessarily disapproving. “There were none.”

“Right, okay, should have thought of that,” Tony admitted. “Little busy babysitting the trained killer, though, if you’ll forgive my lapse.”

“That’s why you have me, Sir,” Jarvis told him, sounding vaguely smug.

Tony snorted, and pulled an old Black Sabbath shirt from his drawer along with some new underwear and a pair of grey sweatpants. It would have to do for now. “Jarvis, scan our guest for his sizes and go have fun on your favorite online stores,” he said. “Buy him a new wardrobe. I don’t think my stuff is going to fit him all that well.”

“Of course, Sir,” Jarvis acknowledged.

Tony headed back into the bathroom to find that the soldier had already stripped completely, and had placed his suit neatly folded on the toilet seat. “Woah, okay, so you're not shy,” Tony said in surprise, pulling up short. Then he paused, assessing, because the soldier wasn’t the only one that could be shameless. “Not that you've got any reason to be. You’ve sort of got this cyborg-Adonis thing going on, it’s nice. You’d fit right in on the cover of a Sci-Fi Romance novel.”

The soldier just stared at him. It was actually a depressingly familiar reaction to his rambling, so he decided not to let it unnerve him. “I sort of thought you’d be covered in scars,” Tony admitted.

“Wounds heal,” the soldier said gruffly.

“Yeah, but they usually leave a mark,” he pointed out.

The soldier furrowed his brow. "Not on me," he said. "Only on my shoulder, because the anchor points keep reopening the wounds."

"What?" Tony cried, dropping the clothes on the counter and stepping forward. He'd be lying to say his fingers weren't itching to check out that arm, but he'd thought he'd shown great restraint. This changed the timetable. “Are you in pain?"

"It's not enough to impede my functioning," the soldier assured him, and then, seemingly confused by Tony's concern, he added hesitantly: "I am fine."

“Right,” Tony said, running his eyes across where the metal shoulder blended into his skin. It was a cross between a hack-job and an actual work of art, and he sort of felt queasy for admiring Hydra’s handiwork.

Still, there was no denying it was incredible—especially if it was as old as the records implied. But he wasn’t going to push his luck by trying to get a look at it tonight.

So he pulled his eyes away, and stepped forward to turn on the water in the shower. He tested the temperature before standing aside so the soldier could step in, apparently entirely unconcerned with his audience.

Tony was slipping back towards the door to give him some privacy when the soldier’s voice had him halting.

"It isn't cold," he said, his voice full of amazed wonder.

“What? Yeah, why would— “ Tony turned around, confused for a moment before he realized that his handlers would never have cared for his comfort. “Christ, hey, no, this isn't punishment, okay?” Tony said quickly, as he took a worried step back. “This isn't...it's just a shower, you can have the water as warm or as cold as you like."

The soldier adapted easily enough, grabbing the shampoo bottle to quickly clean his hair and then his skin. At least it seemed he’d been taught basic hygiene, Tony thought before pulling his eyes away. He let himself fall back against the wall, and pressed his eyes shut for a moment.

“This is so far from how I imagined this day ending,” Tony muttered to himself.

“Because you were going to kill me,” the soldier said.

Tony looked up in surprise, unsure how he had managed to hear that. “Well, yeah,” he admitted. “But in my defense, I thought you were a cold blooded assassin at the time.”

"It's okay," the soldier told him earnestly. “I wouldn't have stopped you."

"Yeah, and why is that by the way?” Tony asked, stepping closer with narrowed eyes. “You seem even less skilled at self preservation than me, and that's saying something. Here's a tip—even I've got this one figured out—don't volunteer to let someone kill you. Pretty easy general rule to follow."

The soldier pulled his eyes away, turning to watch the water. “I don’t want to fight anymore,” he said, and he sounded broken.

Tony reached past him to turn off the water, and then wrapped him up in a large fluffy towel. "I wouldn't make you fight," he promised. "You can live and not fight. Or so I've heard. Still sort of working on that one, myself. But it's a work in progress."

He reached back to pick up the stack of clothes, and handed them over. “Get dressed, okay?”

“Okay,” the soldier said.

Tony waited out in the hall, even though privacy at this point was sort of just an empty gesture, as he’d pretty much seen all there was to see. He was still curious about the expanse of unmarked skin—was the man that good that he was never injured, or had his statements been literal, and he simply healed?

“Jarvis,” he said thoughtfully, “is there anything in those files about the solider being enhanced?”

“Yes,” Jarvis answered at once. “He has increased strength, speed, and healing. From Hydra’s repeated simulations and testing, I would estimate that he is on par with Captain Rogers in power.”

Tony hung his head. “Would have been good to know, buddy,” he said.

“Yes, my apologies, Sir,” Jarvis said. “I’m sure had I taken the time to fully brief you on the massive amount of information you requested that I sort through, you would have surely seen reason and not brought him here.”

“Touché,” Tony said wryly. “You’re getting a little too good at the sarcasm.”

“I have learned from the best, Sir,” Jarvis said primly.

The soldier carefully exited the bathroom, looking around warily. The sweatpants were a little short and the shirt was almost Steve Rogers levels of tight, but not quite, because despite his muscles the soldier was lean like they’d been staving him.

“I have done as you requested,” the soldier informed him.

His hair was wet but looked cleaner, and he looked almost harmless in the t-shirt and sweatpants, like he was someone one might run into at a Laundromat. Not that Tony had ever actually been inside of a Laundromat.

“Great,” he said, falsely cheerful. “Great with the getting dressed. Now if you’ll come with me, I’ll show you to your room.”

The soldier frowned at him, but followed when Tony started down the hall.

“You know,” Tony said casually. “I never got your name.”

"I don't have one," he said, as he reached down to tug absently at the shirt.

"Well, that's not going to work," Tony decided. "What would you like me to call you?"

"Soldat," he answered crisply.

"Yeah, no," Tony said. "How about Bob? I think I’ll call you Bob."

Bob shrugged. "Okay."

Tony had entire floors sitting unused in the tower, and one of them had been for the Hulk. It probably made a lot of sense to take Bob there, and put him in lockdown. Except—except isolating him somewhere alone seemed cruel in a way Tony was uniquely qualified to understand, so he stopped at the closest guest room to his master suite, instead.

He’d built it for Pepper when he’d started having night terrors and she’d stopped being able to sleep in the same bed, but then she wasn’t sleeping here at all, and it sort of just sat there. It might as well get some use.

Jarvis had already turned on the lights, and Bob stepped in ahead of him, cataloguing the entire room. He seemed bemused as his eyes landed on the large King size bed. “This is my assigned cell?” he asked warily.

“I mean, I wouldn't call it a cell, considering it's nicer than a five star hotel room,” Tony told him. “Also, you're not my prisoner. You're my guest. I guess you're sort of my patient too, even though I'm wildly unqualified to help you. But needs must, am I right?

“I don’t understand,” Bob told him, sounding utterly lost. “What do you require of me?”

“I just want you to get some sleep,” Tony told him. “We’ll talk more in the morning, okay? We’ll figure it out.”

“Sleep,” Bob repeated slowly, looking back at the bed. “You require me to sleep?”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Is that okay?”

“I understand,” Bob said, and he weirdly looked like he was steeling himself against something. “I will comply.”

“Okay, we really need to work on the whole comply thing, Seven-of-Nine,” Tony told him. “You don’t have to comply to everything I say.”

Bob watched him suspiciously, as though he suspected this was a trap. Tony felt a little sick, because he had a feeling that suspicion wasn’t coming out of nowhere. “I will sleep,” Bob said after a moment, watching him for a reaction.

“Lovely,” Tony said. “Me too. So you get sleep, and I’ll get sleep, and maybe in the morning life will make sense again. I wouldn’t count on that, but it’s a nice thought.”

Bob just continued to stare at him with a look that was somehow both anxious and threatening, so Tony left him to it and went to his own bed. He changed into some sweatpants, face-planted on the covers, and somehow actually managed to go to sleep.

It only lasted about two hours, and then Jarvis was waking him back up.

“I am sorry, Sir,” he said. “But Mr. Bob seems to be in some distress.”

Tony was up and moving before he was fully conscious, which was probably stupid—but he was pretty sure Jarvis would have warned him if he thought he was in danger. Jarvis was good like that.

Bob hadn’t bothered to shut his door, so Tony skid to a halt right in the doorway. Bob was pressed into the corner of the room, looking smaller than he was, and breathing in a way that Tony was distressingly familiar with. He was headed full speed ahead into a full blown panic attack.

Tony carefully approached, before dropping to his knees a couple feet away, not wanting to crowd him. “Hey, Bob,” he said casually. “What’s up?”

"I tried to comply," he said, his voice trembling. Bob looked up at him, and his eyes looked terrified. “I think I'm malfunctioning."

Tried to comply? he wondered, and then it hit him. “You mean because I told you to get some sleep?” Tony asked.

"I don't think I remember how," he said helplessly.

"That's okay," Tony told him. "Sometimes I forget that too."

“I’ve failed,” Bob insisted, though he seemed to be calming down. “You need to punish me.”

“Never much been one for S&M, I’m afraid,” Tony shrugged. “I find pain unpleasant and I’m sort of squeamish, so…how about we watch a movie instead?”

“A movie?” Bob echoed. His brow furrowed like it seemed to do every time he was confused, and it was probably unhealthy that Tony kept fixating on the fact that his parents’ killer reminded him of a perplexed kitten. He was starting to suspect there was not enough therapy in the world for either of them.

“Yeah, a moving picture? Stories that play out on the big screen?” Tony asked.

“I—“ his eyes went distant. “I think I went to a theater, sometimes? There was a girl, and she walked into a world of color.”

“Wizard of Oz,” Tony said, grateful suddenly that the soldier seemed to have at least one pleasant memory somewhere in his history. “Yeah, I might have heard of that one. Want to watch it?”

He shook his head hesitantly. “No, I—“ he broke off, looking stricken, and Tony wondered when the last time he’d actually said ’no’ had been.

“Okay, no problem,” he said quickly, “sort of over that movie anyway. How about something new?”

“Yes,” Bob said, letting out a breath, looking relieved.

“Alright, I think we can manage that,” Tony assured him, before standing and holding out a hand to help him up.

Bob looked at his hand worriedly, as though he expected to be struck. He tilted his eyes up to examine Tony’s face.

“It’s not a trick,” Tony assured him, wiggling his fingers in invitation. “You take my hand, I pull you up. It’s simple.”

“I can stand up on my own,” Bob pointed out.

“Humor me,” Tony told him.

Bob carefully lifted his right hand, his fingers brushing hesitantly against the palm of Tony’s hand for a moment before he tightened his grip and Tony was able to tug him to his feet.

Tony led him to the living room and got Bob settled on the couch, and then he collapsed on the love seat opposite it and had Jarvis start playing random Pixar films. Bob seemed delighted by them, but was trying to hide it, and it was either heart-breaking or adorable, Tony couldn’t quite decide.

But it relaxed Bob enough that by the middle of Wall-E, he finally fell asleep. He sort of just tilted until he fell against the arm of the couch, his left hand dangling over the edge, and his feet curled up under him. Tony left the television on, but stood to grab a quilt from the chair. He carefully laid it over him, and then ran a hand down his face, wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into.

But he was pretty sure his mom would be proud of him, even if his father wouldn't be—and both of those things were pretty good indicators that he was doing the right thing.

"Jarvis?" he called softly.

"Yes, Sir?" Jarvis replied, adjusting his own voice to the same volume.

"Cancel all my appointments this week," he said. "And put the penthouse on lockdown. No one in and no one out. I want eyes on Bob at all times."

"Understood, Sir," Jarvis said. "I'll alert you the moment he wakes up."

Tony checked on Bob one more time, then started back towards his room. He never did anything halfway, so he supposed this shouldn't be any different. Tony was unstoppable when he was on a mission, and he was going to help Bob—somehow, he was going to teach him how to be a person again.

Maybe he could even relearn how to be one himself somewhere along the way.

Chapter Text

“Sir,” Jarvis woke him. “Mr. Bob is awake and approaching. Sir? Sir, he’s—“

Tony pushed himself up sleepily, and squinted at Bob, who was standing awkwardly in the doorway.

“I require sustenance,” Bob told him.

“Wha—?” Tony frowned.

“If I am to remain at optimal performance levels,” Bob said slowly, “I will require sustenance.”

“Oh, food! You’re talking about food?” Tony cried, eyes widening. “Right, I forgot about food.” He grabbed a jar off his night stand and held it out. “Macadamia nut?”

Bob stared at the proffered jar like he thought it might explode, and took a cautious step back. “Handlers provide supplemental nutrition drinks,” he said. “Four times a day.”

“Christ, they had you on a liquid diet?” Tony asked, wincing. He ran a hand down his face. “Jarvis, do we have any real food?”

“The kitchen is fully stocked, as always, Sir,” Jarvis told him.

“Okay,” Tony said, getting up. “Let’s go find something. Probably we should ease you into solid foods, though if you’re anything like the other super soldier I know, you’ll be eating your own weight in food in no time.”

Tony led him back to the kitchen, and opened some of the cupboards. True to Jarvis’s word, they were well stocked. He found some weird, whole grain healthy oats mix that he suspected Pepper had a hand in, and decided it might be healthy and plain enough to start Bob back on real food. He’d add some sugar too, because god knows the poor guy didn’t deserve Pepper’s health food after all he’d been through.

He pulled out a bowl and the oats and sugar, and Bob sat on the barstool at the counter. “You haven’t done this before have you?” he asked him frowning.

“What, cooked?” Tony asked. “Sure. I’ve put ingredients with other ingredients before. It’s simple. I can build robots, I think I can handle breakfast.”

“I mean, you haven’t been a handler before,” Bob said. “You aren’t very good at it.”

“Firstly, that’s cruel,” Tony said, holding a hand to his heart in mock hurt. “Secondly, I am not your handler. We’ve been over this.”

“You prefer a different title?” Bob asked, as he leaned up on the counter a little, watching him prepare the oatmeal. “Some of my handlers have demanded I address them as master instead.”

“Okay, woah, hold it right there, Jeannie Genie,” Tony said. “I’m not your handler, and I’m sure as hell not your master. I’d like to be a friend, but you can call me Tony.” He paused for a moment, studying Bob. “But while we’re on the subject, how far back can you remember your handlers? I thought you didn’t have any memories.”

“I remember my training, and some of my handlers,” Bob explained. “Mission details are…confused. They liked to keep me confused. They had to erase the missions to keep me from remembering things from before.”

Tony froze, glancing back over at Bob. That implied a level of self-awareness he hadn’t really expected. “You knew what they were doing?” he asked.

Bob glanced up to meet his eyes. “They were scared of me. They said I was erratic. I had to be controlled or I would hurt people.”

“You don’t seem erratic to me,” Tony told him. “For being a brainwashed assassin, I’ve been finding you to be remarkably well-adjusted. Though to be fair, my scale of adjusted is a little more skewed than the average person’s.”

“You called me brainwashed before,” Bob said.

“Yeah, you know what that means?” Tony asked. “It means they messed with your head. They forced you to do things you wouldn’t have otherwise done.”

“I keep order in the world. I have helped shape the century,” Bob told him, his voice flat and distant. “My work is a gift.”

“See, that little recitation there? Brainwashing 101,” Tony told him, as he set a bowl of oatmeal in front of him. “You sound like you’re in a cult.”

“And that’s…bad?” Bob asked.

“Yeah, cults generally aren’t shining examples of mental health,” Tony told him, as he leaned on the counter and handed Bob a spoon. “You want to know what I think? I think they kept erasing your memories because you kept figuring that out for yourself.” Tony paused when he noticed Bob was still staring at the spoon. “That’s a spoon, you—“

“I know what a spoon is,” Bob told him, and Tony could swear he almost rolled his eyes.

It was wonderful.

Bob watched the bowl suspiciously for another moment, before carefully dipping it into the oatmeal and taking a cautious bite. He swallowed slowly, and frowned. “It’s…sweet,” he said, before looking down at it with wide eyes. “What is it?”

“That’s the sugar,” Tony said. “Might have gone a little overboard, but I like a lot.”

“I like it, too,” Bob said quietly, like he couldn’t quite believe it.

“That’s good, we need to keep figuring out what you like,” Tony told him, before heading across the kitchen to pick up an journal off the counter. It had been a gift, but since Jarvis kept track of everything for him, it was still blank. He pulled a pen out of the drawer and returned to Bob. He wrote out on the first line of the first page: has a sweet-tooth.

“What are you doing?” Bob asked curiously, stopping halfway through his oatmeal.

“I thought we should keep a list, of the things you like,” Tony told him. He flipped the book around so it was facing Bob, and pushed it closer. “Anything you want to add?”

Bob slowly shook his head. “I don’t…”

“That’s okay,” Tony said. “Why don’t you hold onto it? We’ll figure it out, okay?”

Bob pulled the journal closer, and he kept glancing up to watch Tony as he did, as though he expected it to be taken away. When it wasn’t, he pulled it to his lap, and ran his fingers over the words.

“Aren’t you going to eat any more?” Tony asked.

“Do I have to?” Bob asked quietly.

“No, of course not,” he said quickly. “If you don’t want it, it’s fine.”

“Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Jarvis broke in. “But the packages you requested I purchase have been delivered. I had security load them into the elevator and they are on their way up.”

“Just in time,” Tony said brightly, smiling over at Bob. “Good news, we got you some clothes that should actually fit.”

Bob looked down, seemingly unnerved, but Tony didn’t question him. Instead, he moved the elevator and reached it just in time for it to open on its own. Two large packages were sitting on the floor, and he pulled them out before ripping them open. Bob wandered over cautiously, with his hands wrapped around himself.

A pair of fuzzy slippers with Iron Man heads on the front were sitting right on top, and Tony sighed. He should have known it was a risk to let Jarvis do the shopping. He set them aside, and then pulled out some of the clothes. The clothes, at least, were fairly average. There were t-shirts, sweaters and sweatpants, jeans, tennis shoes, underwear, and even a couple blazers, all name brands in muted colors and probably ridiculously expensive.

But if he can’t spend his money on random assassins he’s brought home with him, then what’s the point of it anyway.

“This is gear for my missions?” Bob asked, carefully approaching. He picked up the Iron Man slippers with a look of utter confusion. He glanced up at Tony like he thought Tony might be a little dim. “I require shoes made with thicker materials in order to carry out my missions. Usually they bring me boots. These…do not seem very functional.”

“Their function is comfort, and keeping your feet warm,” Tony explained. “And also because Jarvis is apparently developing a sense of humor.”

“You did tell me to have fun, Sir,” Jarvis told him primly.

Bob carefully tried on the slippers, and then looked down at them, wiggling his feet. “They’re soft,” he said, looking up with a hesitant smile.

The smile had Tony freezing. “Yeah,” he said cautiously, not wanting to spook him. Jarvis was obviously actually a genius—which made sense, because Tony created him.

Bob glanced into the other boxes and then frowned at Tony’s bare feet. “But what about you?”

Bob looked so concerned that he didn't have any Iron Man slippers of his own, that Tony sort of thought his heart might break. He forced a smile, instead. "I've got tons of slippers," he promised. "These are for you."

“Thank you,” Bob said quietly, like he wasn’t quite sure it was allowed.

“You’re welcome,” Tony said, clearing his throat. “I mean, this is all for you. You’ll need clothes that fit.”

Bob helped him move all the clothes into the guest room, still wearing the slippers. It was pretty adorable, but Tony felt bad about having him do any work because Bob didn’t really seem capable of saying no to him. But it was also kind of normal, which he figured he needed.

Mostly, he had no idea what he was doing, so he gave Bob a juice box and sat him back in front of the television.

It was only about fifteen minutes before he was asleep again, and Tony paced across from him worriedly. “Why is he sleeping so much?” he asked. “Should I be worried about this? I’m a little worried about this.”

“Based on the files we recovered, he was not allowed to sleep,” Jarvis told him. “His body and mind would get some measure of rest during cyrostasis, but once he was awoken for a mission they would not allow him to rest. If the missions ran longer than three days, they would inject him with stimulants.”

Tony pulled to a stop. “Are you telling me that he hasn't slept in the last fifty years?”

“It certainly would not have been something that was encouraged,” Jarvis told him, sounding reserved.

“Shit,” Tony said softly. “Just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? Any luck on figuring out who he is?”

"I'm running facial recognition against all missing in action soldiers going back to the 1960s. As he wasn't conclusively recorded as being an American, I have included British and Russian soldiers as the next most likely,” Jarvis told him. “If it doesn't yield results we may have to expand the parameters yet again."

“Keep me posted,” Tony sighed, before sitting down with his tablet. He started pulling up the files they’d retrieved from the Hydra base: he’d already missed that Bob was enhanced, and apparently not allowed solid food or sleep. He needed to know what he was dealing with before he screwed up again.

After reading twenty something detached and dehumanizing Asset status reports, and watching two hours of maintenance and debriefing videos, Tony found himself in the bathroom throwing up what little he had managed to eat.

And that was barely one fifth of the information they’d retrieved.

* * * * *

When Tony finally got himself together and returned to the living room, Bob was awake again and watching Brave. He’d either figured out how to work the remote pretty damn fast, or he’d worked out he could ask Jarvis to do it for him. He’d have to check with Jarvis later to figure out which. He was just grabbing a flavored water from the fridge when the elevator dinged.

Tony jerked his head up. “Jarvis,” he said warningly. “I thought I said no one gets in.”

The doors opened anyway, and Pepper stood there with her arms crossed, tapping a foot. She looked up and latched her eyes on Tony, and narrowed them.

“Yes, Sir,” Jarvis agreed amiably, “but it was Ms. Potts.”

“Fair enough,” Tony sighed, before smiling over at her. “Pepper, light of my life—“

“Don’t even start with me, Tony,” she said, stalking towards him. She pulled up short when she caught sight of Bob behind him, and frowned. Bob, for his part, seemed utterly unconcerned by someone randomly showing up. He supposed he was used to new handlers appearing unannounced.

Pepper pursed her lips a she studied Bob. “He’s not your usual one-night stand,” she whispered, though she seemed more exasperated than angry. “Do you think you could escort him out so we could talk? That doesn’t really fall under my responsibilities anymore.”

“He’s not a one-night stand,” Tony told her. “He’s my new roommate.” He leaned over the kitchen counter to look over at Bob. “Pepper, this is Bob. Bob, this is Pepper. Say hi, Bob.”

“Hi, Bob,” Bob said earnestly, glancing back at them before quickly returning his eyes to the television.

“Sorry,” Tony said, glancing back at Pepper. “He’s still a little literal, but we’re making real progress with sarcasm.”

Pepper frowned over at him. “Tony—“ she started.

“It’s fine, you can talk in front of him,” Tony told her. “Me and Bob don’t have secrets.”

Pepper gave him a strained smile and then wound her arm through his, tugging him out into the hallway towards his bedroom. “You have a roommate? Since when?” she said. “What is going on with you? You cancel all of your appointments, you—“

“Nothing is wrong. He's a friend, I’m just helping him out,” Tony said. “He needs a place to lay low for awhile.”

“You’re lying,” Pepper said flatly. “What have you done?”

“Why do you assume I’ve done something?” he demanded. “I think that’s offensive. I think I should be offended.”

“You’ve been up to something for months,” Pepper said. “Did you think we didn’t notice? Happy even tried to tail you—“

“I know, it was adorable,” Tony interrupted with a grin. “I let him follow me for three blocks once before I finally got bored and gave him the slip. I think it was good for his self esteem.”

“Tony,” Pepper snapped. “I’ve tried, okay, I’ve tried to get through to you—but I don’t know what else to do at this point. If you don’t tell me what’s going on with you, right now, I’m calling Rhodey.”

“You’re threatening to tell on me?” Tony asked incredulously. “When did we re-enroll in the third grade?”

Pepper just pulled out her phone, staring at him with that prim Pepper-look of resolve, and Tony cracked the same way he always did in the face of it. “Okay, fine, look, Bob may or may not be a brainwashed assassin that killed my parents," he told her. “But everything’s totally under control. The guy likes juice boxes and watching Pixar films, I'm not feeling super threatened."

"Tony," Pepper started disbelievingly.

“I know!” Tony cried. “I tried to get him to give Dreamworks a try, but the kid loves Brave something fierce. He's watched it like eight times already. He's gonna love Hawkeye and the Black Widow, since Merida is basically their love child.”

“I don’t even know what to say that,” Pepper said slowly, as she looked down and started scrolling through her contacts.

“No, hey, don’t,” Tony said, snatching the phone from her. “If you don’t trust me, Jarvis will vouch for me. Jarvis?”

“Sir is correct, Ms. Potts,” Jarvis assured her. “While I have recommended tighter security measures, our guest is undoubtedly a victim of terrible injustice and cannot be held accountable for the crimes he helped commit. He has also not made any threatening moves since Sir awoke him from stasis. He seems to believe that Sir is his handler, and if anything, Sir is in a position of power over him.”

“Wait, so you weren’t—“ Pepper’s eyes go wide and horrified. “That man in there actually is a brainwashed assassin that killed your parents?”

“Uh…” Tony started.

“Give me back my phone,” Pepper said, holding out her hand. “We’re calling Rhodey, right now. Right now, Tony.”

“It’s not—he never had a choice,” Tony said tiredly. “I went after him, okay, I went after him hard, expecting to find this monster…and he was a prisoner. And he didn’t even understand that he was a prisoner.”

He gently grabbed Pepper’s arm, and tugged her back to the kitchen. They could see Bob on the couch, wrapped up in a quilt, wearing the Iron Man slippers on his feet. “Just look at him, Pepper,” he said, motioning towards him. “He’s been terrorized and frozen for decades. He’s always cold. If I move too fast, he thinks I’m going to hit him. He doesn’t ask for anything and when I offer him something I’m pretty sure he thinks it’s a trap.”

Pepper let out a shaky breath, watching him. “Tony—“

“I’m not going to tell you everything they did to him,” Tony said softly, “because I love you and I’d like for you to be able to sleep tonight. But this man killed my parents—how horrible do you imagine what he’s gone through would have to be for me to have forgiven him this completely?”

Pepper dropped down into one of the kitchen chairs, just watching Bob. She reviewed what Tony said, realized with a rising sickness exactly what that meant, and then steeled herself against it with a single shaky breath. She looked up at him. “Is his name really Bob?” she asked.

“They didn’t give him a name,” Tony said. “They called him the Asset. They spoke about him like he was a weapon. So I named him Bob.”

Pepper’s lips quirked slightly, and she glanced back at Bob. “I always knew you had a heart, Tony,” she said softly. “It’s about time you let others see it, too.”

“No one can know about him,” Tony said quickly. “We gotta keep him strictly under wraps. I don’t know who to trust, and I don’t want him ever falling back in their hands. He’s still vulnerable.” He paused. “That’s why we can’t even tell Rhodey. He’d have to report it."

“This is dangerous,” Pepper said quietly. “This is such a bad idea.”

"What else is new?" he asked wryly.

Pepper sighed and looked back at him. "What can I do to help?"

“I think we’re doing pretty good, all things considered,” Tony told her. “I wasn’t kidding about him being hooked on the movies. It keeps him occupied for hours.”

Pepper just stared at him disbelievingly. “Are you telling me you just brought him home with you and sat him in front of the television?” she asked. “That’s what you do when you’re babysitting a four year old, Tony. It’s not what you do for a traumatized victim.”

“See, you say that, but clearly it works,” he told her.

“Tony,” she sighed.

“I don’t know what else to do,” he told her. “There’s not exactly a handbook for this kind of thing.” He paused. “I had Jarvis check,” he admitted.

“I guess—“ she started. “I could discreetly put in some inquiries with some psychiatrists I know, see if we can get some kind of direction for how to handle this.”

"Pepper, no one can know—“ he protested.

"I won't give a name. We don't actually have a name, anyway," she pointed out. "I have a friend that writes detective novels, I can say I'm asking on her behalf."

"You're a genius, you know that?" Tony asked.

Pepper glanced worriedly back into the room. “If we’re going to do this, I need to make sure…I need to talk to him,” she said, though she made no move to approach him.

“Well, you're pretty close to invulnerable, so I don't think he can hurt you,” Tony reassured her. “You think if you didn’t have the Extremis I’d let you anywhere near him? But from what I can tell he’s basically harmless when not triggered, and I don’t think he’d even try to hurt you. Also, it’s probably a good idea if his only human interaction isn’t just with me. I might screw him up even more.”

“What you’re doing is amazing,” Pepper insisted quietly. “I can’t even imagine—“

“It wasn’t his fault,” Tony said firmly.

“But that doesn’t make him your responsibility,” she said.

“Sort of does,” Tony said. “I pulled him out of cyro, I took out his base. I went there to kill him. I keep thinking—what if I’d done it, right there, instead of waking him up? What if I’d just—“

“That’s not who you are,” she told him firmly.

“We’ve all got it in us, Pep, and I was so sure—I got to watch it, you know, the whole thing was caught on a surveillance camera. What more evidence did I need? So I thought I knew everything, I thought I had all the facts,” he said quietly. “This could have gone very differently. If I’d found him when he was on a mission, or if…"

“I need to do this,” he continued, taking a deep breath. “Maybe for me as much as for him.”

Pepper nodded in understanding, before resolutely walking over to the couch. “Hello, Bob,” she said softly.

“Hi,” he said. He looked up at her, then at Tony, and then quickly back. “Are you the new mission leader?”

“What mission?” Pepper asked kindly.

“I—“ Bob began, before breaking off, looking anxious. “I don’t know.”

“There is no mission,” she told him. “You don't have to do that anymore.”

“Okay,” Bob said, looking relieved.

“Okay?” Tony asked incredulously. “I’ve been telling you I'm not your handler all day and nothing, and she just—“

"Tony," Pepper chided, before returning her attention to Bob. “Do you understand what’s happening?”

He looked back at Tony again, before returning his gaze to Pepper. “I was stolen by Iron Man,” he admitted. “Are you here to make me go back?”

Pepper frowned. “Do you want to go back?”

"I’d rather you just kill me than send me back,” he told her solemnly.

Pepper looked a little pale, and she knelt down, carefully looking into his eyes. “We're not going to kill you, and you don’t have to go back,” she promised.

“Why don’t you just finish the movie,” Tony told him, before nodding to Pepper to rejoin him. He followed her back towards the elevator. “Satisfied?”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “God, Tony. This is way our of our league.”

“Speak for yourself,” Tony said. “I’m in a league of my own.”

Pepper sorted, glancing away. “Well, I’m convinced you're doing the right thing,” she said. “I’ll keep quiet for now. But I still don’t like just leaving you here alone with him.”

Tony held up his wrist, showing off the bracelet that could call his suit. "You know me, always prepared," he said. "And we haven't had any incidents. I've been reviewing what they did to him—as long as no one’s screaming out the trigger words in Russian, I don't think we're going to have any issues."

Pepper looked skeptical. “Jarvis, you will keep an eye on him?”

“Always, Ms. Potts,” he assured her.

“Alright,” she sighed. “I need to head back to the office. But I want you to check in with me, and the first sign of any trouble—“

“I’ll call you,” he promised.

“Okay,” she said, before glancing back at Bob once more. Her brow furrowed as she watched him.

“What?” Tony asked curiously.

“He looks familiar,” she said, before shaking it off and smiling ruefully. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Just one of those faces, I guess.” She turned to the elevator, her heels clicking on the hardwood floor. “I mean it, Tony. First sign of trouble.”

“Cross my formerly arc-powered heart,” he called to her.

The elevator doors closed just as Pepper’s eyes were rolling skyward, and Tony turned back to heard towards Bob. He dropped down on the opposite side of the couch, and was unsurprised to see that they were in the middle of another rousing viewing of Brave.

"She thinks I'm going to hurt you,” Bob said quietly.

“How much of that did you hear?” Tony asked curiously.

“All of it,” he answered simply.

Tony tapped his fingers along the arm of the couch. “Just how good is your hearing?” he asked.

"Good," Bob said, before glancing over at him. “But I wouldn't hurt you. You're my favorite handler, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Tony,” Tony told him. “Not your handler, remember? You can call me Tony.”

Bob looked at him speculatively for a moment, and then nodded. “I wouldn’t hurt you, Tony,” he said softly, and then he pulled out the journal Tony had given him. He took the pen, and carefully wrote something down.

And because Tony was a naturally curious person—curious, not nosy, despite the claims of certain other people—he leaned over to see what it was.

He’d written out one word in delicate, beautiful cursive: Tony

Chapter Text

Tony was sort of amazed by the progress that Bob made in such a short time.

It only took about two more days before he stopped waiting for permission before he did anything. One morning, he came out freshly shaven and looking about ten years younger. Tony carefully did not point this out. He didn’t want his usual brand of teasing to spook him, and it turned out to be the right choice—because slowly, he started doing other things on his own as well.

He even started getting food from the kitchen without looking like a skittish cat burglar, which had been a minor miracle and also a blessing, because Tony wasn’t actually great at remembering you were supposed to eat at least three meals a day.

Tony had been all ready to pat himself on the back for a job well done, as though he might have actually helped bring someone back from fifty years of torture almost literally overnight—and that’s right about when the nightmares kicked in.

Tony wasn't a medical doctor—though he’d done the reading, so he was almost as good as—but he suspected that Bob's increased healing ability was fixing the damage Hydra had inflicted on his brain at a very fast rate. It meant his memories were coming back, maybe a little quicker than he could quite handle.

And as disturbing as Bob’s apathy and dissociation from what he’d been forced to do had been, it had obviously been a hard-won survival mechanism. Because the minute he started getting fragments of his memories back, the guilt and horror had started to set in.

Tony was no stranger to nightmares, he'd been having his own whole new brand of them himself after reading through the rest of Hydra's files on the Asset. But Bob would wake up screaming like he was having the very life ripped right out of him: likely because he was remembering when it had been.

Aggression Tony could have handled—but trying to comfort someone so confused and traumatized that they just kept begging him not to hurt them was something else entirely. It didn’t help that Tony was still remembering vividly how close he had come to doing just that.

He honestly wasn’t sure how he would have managed without Pepper—probably he and Bob would be on their thirtieth viewing of Brave, but instead she had thought to get Bob a StarkPad filled with thousands of books and songs. Tony had insisted on parental controls to keep him from going online, even though he was pretty sure Bob wasn’t going to reach out to Hydra at this point, if he even knew how.

Pepper had managed to pull further details from him about what had happened to Bob the first night he told her the truth, and by now she had a pretty horrifying idea of the whole picture, though Tony never intended to let her hear the specifics. She had pretty much melted when she brought them breakfast that next morning and found Bob sitting at the counter in a white fluffy robe with the hood up and the Iron Man slippers. She started visiting more after that than she had in quite awhile—Tony didn’t even know what his life was that his parent’s assassin was the one that managed to finally heal the rift between them from their break-up, but he’d take it.

Pepper came to dinner a couple nights later and Tony had used the time to slip off to his lab. He’d come back to find them together on the couch, Bob with his head in her lap and Pepper gently running her fingers through his hair with an ease he envied. At first he thought Bob was crying, but he was eerily still, and he was surprised to realize he was peacefully asleep. “He had a panic attack,” Pepper had told him quietly. There was a kind of resolve to her voice that was familiar and comforting, and he knew just how lucky he was to have her on his side.

“What happened?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” she sighed. “It was just a press conference on television, the Secretary of Defense was giving a speech. It might have been any of the words or phrases that upset him.”

She pressed her eyes shut for a moment, breathing slowly, trying to stay calm herself. Once, Pepper had been terrified by Tony’s night terrors. Now, she had her own to deal with.

They had all of them been prisoners and had their bodies changed against their will to one extent or another—it was a terrible thing to have in common.

"Do you know who is responsible for this?" Pepper asked him, her fingers not stilling in their gentle movements. Her voice still sounded calm and steady, and quiet enough not to wake Bob, so only someone that knew her as well as he did would know she was furious.

"It's a work in progress," he told her. He was still trying to untangle Hydra from SHIELD, and he was getting increasingly concerned the longer it took. He had a deadly assassin staying in his guest room that he was nearly ready to go to war for, and he wondered if it was SHIELD that was going to fire the opening shots. He wasn't sure he even knew how to tell the bad guys from the good guys, at this point.

"I want them stopped," she said. Pepper was terrifyingly competent before she could burn people alive with a touch of her hand, so god help anyone that ever tried to hurt any of them now.

"They will be," Tony promised, to both of them.

It only took about two more days and Bob stopped waking him up screaming. Tony suspected this more likely meant that Bob had taught himself to stop screaming rather than that the nightmares had actually stopped. He was tempted to ask Jarvis to keep an eye on him and track his sleep patterns, but that seemed invasive and slightly stalker-ish and he’d just barely managed to talk himself out of it. Instead, he told Jarvis to adhere to his regular privacy protocols when it came to their guest, hoping that he wasn’t making a mistake.

Pepper had her own concerns about his methods, and they kept having phone calls that went like this:

“We really need to talk about getting Bob into therapy,” Pepper told him.

“You haven’t given me any viable options,” he said. “I don’t see what there is to talk about.”

“The consensus is that he needs individualized care,” she said insistently. “Everyone’s treatment is different, there’s no magic set of guidelines. Especially not for what’s happened to him.”

“Maybe Bruce can—“ Tony started.

“Bruce is not a therapist,” she interrupted.

“He’s my therapist,” he told her.

“Not by choice, Tony,” Pepper said.

But Tony didn’t trust any therapists enough to be able to let them in on the truth, and if they didn’t have the truth they wouldn’t be able to help. It was a vicious cycle with no obvious resolution, and so he and Pepper just kept trying to do the best they could with what they had.

Tony was mostly fine with this, because it seemed to be working surprisingly well. Bob was improving every day, even giving half a smile almost every other day now. They hadn’t had any major incidents, aside from the panic attacks and nightmares—and Tony had been having those for years, so that was nothing new.

Except just when he thought there wasn’t anything they couldn’t handle, Jarvis woke him up at 2:00 am. Tony knew from the uncharacteristic emotion in the AI’s voice that it was going to be bad even before he was fully awake.

“Privacy protocols advised I take no action, but he has been unresponsive for well over an hour,” Jarvis was telling him, as Tony stumbled to his feet and started moving. “He’s cut off my access, and I’m unable to verify his status—“

“What the hell do you mean he cut off your access?” Tony demanded, as he crashed through the hallway.

“He used your personal override code to lock me out of his room, Sir,” Jarvis admitted.

“That sneaky little shit,” Tony cursed. Jarvis occasionally tried to lock Tony out of his coffee machine to limit his caffeine intake, and Tony would have to enter his override code to start it back up. Bob had been at the counter more than once when he did it, but somehow Tony kept managing to forget that innocent little Bob was a goddamn super assassin.

He reached Bob’s room, but the lock was engaged. “Jarvis,” he called impatiently.

“Sir, the override—“ he started.

“Then override the override!” Tony shouted, and almost instantly there was a click as the door unlocked. The fact that Jarvis didn’t even make a pithy remark had him convinced that Jarvis was almost as panicked as he was.

He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it was quiet in the dark room except for the sound of the shower running in the attached bathroom. He pushed into the room before skidding to a stop at the bathroom door. Something loosened in his chest when he didn’t find any blood, but he didn’t really feel any relief.

Because Bob was sitting in the shower fully dressed in jeans and a dark grey henley, his knees held to the chest as he sat underneath the water.

And his lips were turning fucking blue.

“Shit,” Tony cursed, as he dropped to his knees beside him. “Bob? Hey, you with me?”

Bob let his head fall forward, resting his forehead on his knees. “I just want to go back to sleep,” he said softly.

Tony felt a rush of cold through him that had nothing to do with the ice cold water splattering half across him—he was certain Bob wasn’t talking about just heading back to bed.

Tony had been trying so hard not to micromanage him—Bob had earned a little freedom and privacy more than anyone else he’d ever known—but he was gonna hardwire in some damn temperature controls to prevent anyone from turning them to these kind of extremes. It was a stupid oversight—this building was supposed to be smarter than this, he was supposed to be smarter than this.

Tony pushed himself forward and turned off the freezing water, before returning his attention to Bob. He was shivering, which Tony thought he remembered was actually a good sign. It was when the shivering stopped that you were supposed to worry.

He gently reached out to lift Bob’s head. “What do you say we get you warmed up?”

Bob didn’t seem to hear him. His eyes were focused somewhere past him. “I was a killer,” he said flatly.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, sighing tiredly. “But that wasn’t your choice.”

Bob’s eyes finally focused on him. “I was a killer before they caught me,” he explained. “I remember. I was good at it. I was proud of it.”

Tony didn’t let go of him. “In the files, it said you were a prisoner of war,” he told him, brushing his wet hair back out of his face. “We think you were a soldier. Sometimes you kill for a cause, and it's not pretty, but it doesn't mean you're a bad person.”

“Sometimes it does,” Bob said, and his voice sounded hollow. “You should never have brought me here.”

“Come on,” Tony said, spurred on by the feel of Bob’s cold skin beneath his hands. “We need to get you warm and dry.”

He tugged at Bob’s shirt, and the other man didn’t exactly help but he was letting Tony move him where he wanted. The docile way that he was allowing himself to be undressed like he’d done it countless times before was making Tony a little sick, but he didn’t know what else to do. He couldn’t just leave him in these freezing wet clothes.

He grabbed one of the plush white towels from the rack and pulled it around Bob’s shoulders. “Can you stand?” he asked.

“Yes,” Bob said, but he made no move to stand.

Tony held out his hand, reminiscent of the first day he brought Bob here. Bob stared at it for a moment before reaching out and letting himself get pulled to his feet. He stumbled right away, and Tony had a little trouble keeping them both on their feet. Bob didn’t look huge, but he was about ninety-nine percent muscle and that arm had to weight a hell of a lot.

“Can you get out of the jeans?” Tony asked him. They were plastered to him tightly enough that he suspected Jarvis may have custom ordered them, and Bob didn’t understand he had enough say in this for Tony to be comfortable removing them for him. He didn’t want to actually become like one of his handlers.

Bob reached down and unbuttoned the jeans, struggling a little before stepping out of them. Tony pulled the towel tighter around him and led him to the bed, before grabbing the first sweater and sweatpants he found in one of the drawers. “Can you get dressed?” he asked.

“Yes,” Bob responded, the same way he had before. Bob hadn’t actually said ‘no’ to him since the first night when he was still coming down off a panic attack.

He had to be very careful what questions he asked.

He went back into the bathroom while Bob got dressed, using the other towel to clean up the water on the floor. Bob was thankfully dressed when he came back out. He hadn’t noticed it when he grabbed it, but the grey sweater had the Captain America shield on the front. He didn’t remember seeing that one in the boxes—but he was suddenly having less faith in Jarvis’ taste in fashion.

He noticed Bob was still shivering, and mentally slapped himself. Not the time, he told himself. “Jarvis, crank up the heat,” Tony told him. “Keep it going till we get Bob’s body temperature back where it’s supposed to be.”

“At once, Sir,” Jarvis told him.

Tony lifted up the towel sitting beside Bob and used it to try and get a little more water out of his wet hair. Bob let him, just watching him with a sad and bemused expression.

“Why are you being nice to me?” he asked, when Tony set aside the towel. “Why—why would you bring me to your home?”

Tony stilled at the question, caught off guard. He wanted the answer to be easy, something like ‘basic human decency,’ but it wasn’t quite that simple. Tony could have sent him somewhere else. He could have written a check and gotten him committed to a 5-star rehabilitation center. He could have turned him over to Romanoff and Barton, who he even almost mostly trusted, and who both knew more about coming back from something like this than him. Honestly, those might have even been better ways to go about it.

But this was never just about being a decent human being. This was about redemption, and not just for Bob.

“I was a prisoner once too, but I got lucky. There was another prisoner with me. I’d met him once before, didn't remember it,” he said swiftly. “Apparently, I was an asshole to him, but he saved me anyway. Didn't have to. He knew he wasn't getting out of there no matter what he did, but he saved me anyway.”

Tony took a steadying breath, trying not to remember Yinsen’s last moments, though he couldn’t stop it. They flashed behind his eyes anyway. “That’s not really the kind of man that I am,” he admitted. “I can do the flashy hero thing, but that’s not exactly the same thing.” He paused and looked back at Bob. "But it is the kind of man I want to be."

"You can't save me, Tony," Bob said tiredly.

"Watch me," he snapped. "Cause people telling me I can't do something? Just makes me do it even faster."

“I read about you, you know,” Bob said, wistfully. “When you were captured…they wanted you to make a weapon to hurt people, and you didn’t. You wouldn’t, and you escaped.”

“Where did you read that?” Tony asked in surprise.

“Online,” Bob said. “Christine Everhart writes about you a lot. I’m pretty sure she either loves you or hates you, I couldn’t quite tell.”

“Your StarkPad doesn’t go online,” Tony told him, deciding to worry about how scarily perceptive Bob was at some other time. First things first.

Bob shrugged casually. “Well, it does now,” he admitted.

Tony shook his head, grinning slightly despite himself. “The override code,” he realized. “How often have you been using that?”

“You said I didn’t have to do what you told me to do,” Bob reminded him, which meant in a roundabout way he’d still been doing as he was told. Loopholes for the win. Tony loved them, too.

“So I did,” Tony sighed. “I’m not mad. I’m impressed. Also, a little bit terrified. But mostly, impressed.”

Tony was actually more relieved than anything. With Bob’s skillset, he knew if he had wanted to hurt him he could have done it any time, so he wasn’t worried about that. What he hadn’t been sure of was if Bob would try to leave before he was ready, because Tony couldn’t justify holding him prisoner. But with the override code he could have taken the elevator down to the ground floor at any time.

“I use it to go out on the outside landing sometimes,” Bob admitted after a moment. “I liked to look at the stars.”

Tony felt a brief flare of panic, and he'd definitely be having words with Jarvis later for allowing that, override code or not. He suspected the AI may have as big of a soft spot for Bob as the rest of them.

“Okay,” Tony said. “Well that override code is obsolete, it’s done for, and I’m not gonna make it so easy for you next time. But I’ll make sure Jarvis knows you can go on the landing any time you want. Jarvis, you hear that?”

“Understood, sir,” Jarvis said.

“What you don’t get to do is freeze yourself to death. I think that’s a fair trade, what do you think?” Tony asked.

“I just wanted…” Bob trailed off for a moment. “In Cyro, it was safe. I couldn’t hurt anyone there. I didn’t hurt there.” He let out a shaky breath, turning his eyes to the wall. “I’m not like you. I couldn’t…I wasn’t strong enough to escape. I let them turn me into a weapon.”

“I may have gotten away that time,” Tony said. “I may have taken a stand—but it was the first time I ever did. I made weapons for decades before that. My death count’s probably a hell of a lot higher than yours. So you just can’t…you gotta look forward. I have to believe what matters is what you do from here.”

Bob watched him with wide eyes, shivering in the overlarge sweater like he was seeing him for the first time. “How do you live with it?” he asked quietly. For once, the question didn’t cause him to bristle, because it wasn’t judging. And if Bob had been reading Everhart, there was no way he hadn’t already known all the gory details of his past anyway.

Bob was asking him for advice.

“Work, mostly,” Tony admitted, because he didn’t have much else. “I usually go to my workshop, make suits—“ make myself some friends, he didn’t add, “Honestly, I end up there most nights.”

“Could I go with you sometime?” he asked quietly.

Tony paused, uncertain. He recalled those hours and hours of footage of Bob strapped down and pieced apart by those damn Hydra scientists, and he wasn’t sure how good that kind of environment would be for him. But that wasn’t really for him to decide.

“Sure,” he said after a moment. “I was planning to head down there anyway. Want to see it now?”

Bob nodded, and then reached out to grab his journal from his nightstand before getting to his feet to follow him. He was clutching it to him like it was some kind of talisman.

His list had evolved over the last week. No longer just his likes, he’d begun adding his dislikes as well, as well as new traits and memories as they appeared. It was basically a log of what fragments he was beginning to remember about who he really was, and it seemed to be helping. Who needed therapists, anyway?

Tony stayed close to Bob on the way to the elevator and then all the way down, but he seemed steady enough on his feet now. He would shiver every once and awhile and his flesh hand was trembling, but he was recovering incredibly fast. Tony was going to be impressed by the ability and then he remembered the footage of Hydra testing the limits of that healing, and he just felt tired and sad.

He braced himself for Bob’s reaction when the doors opened into his lab, waiting for it to trigger bad memories. It was triggering Tony just remembering watching what he’d been through, so he couldn’t imagine how much worse it would be for Bob.

What he wasn’t expecting was for Bob to let out a startled and delighted laugh. Tony gaped at him, not quite sure what was happening, as Bob stepped into the lab as if drawn to it.

“This isn't anything like the labs I remember,” he told him in a breathy whisper, looking relieved and more relaxed than Tony had seen him since finding him in the shower.

Tony sort of wished he had his robots here so he could introduce them, but they were on the floor below him in his larger flight test lab. When he saw how Bob was still trembling, he figured it was probably best to take things one step at a time, anyway.

“Here,” he said, ushering Bob into a chair at one of his tables. It was below one of the air vents, and warm air was coming down to heat the lab. “You sit here. You’re still freezing cold.”

“I’m fine,” Bob protested, starting to get up.

“You need to stay under the heat,” Tony snapped.

Bob dropped back into the seat instantly. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

Tony rubbed his forehead. “No, I’m sorry,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong, okay? I’m just worried—but look, lightning would probably strike me down on the spot if I tried to lecture someone else on their self-destructive coping mechanisms.”

“I thought you were friends with Thor,” Bob said wryly.

“That’s cute,” Tony said, half-heartedly attempting to glare at him. “But I’m serious, you could have really hurt yourself.”

“I’m not that easy to kill,” Bob said. “I’ve been flash frozen, a little cold water wasn’t gonna hurt me.”

“I think we both know it hurt you,” Tony said quietly.

Bob looked away. “Yeah, well, maybe that was the point.”

“And that’s the problem,” Tony said. “Like I said, I am an expert at self-destructive behavior, so take it from someone that knows. You get like that come to me instead.” He paused. “Or I’m going to call Pepper on you.”

Bob looked amused, looking up at him through a fringe of hair. “Seriously?”

“She threatens to tell on me to Rhodey, I’m gonna threaten to tell on you to her,” Tony told him. “That’s what family does. Welcome to the hierarchy.”

“I’m not…” Bob broke off, looking bemused. “I don’t have family.”

“Pepper’s already unofficially adopted you as her little brother, it’s a done deal,” Tony said. “You are now the baby of our dysfunctional little family.”

“I’m old enough to be her father,” Bob said, unimpressed.

“Jarvis puts your physical age at twenty-nine on the outside,” Tony told him. “And as much as I like to tease my other formerly frozen senior citizen friend about his age, time in suspended animation doesn’t actually count.”

“You know someone else like me?” Bob asked curiously.

“Well, sort of,” Tony said. “He crash-landed and then got stuck in the ice for about seventy years, but he wasn’t a prisoner. Hydra never had him. Supposedly, Hydra was supposed to have died with him, but I guess he wasn’t the only one to survive.”

“Oh,” he sighed, before glancing away again. “Is he the one you call Rhodey?”

“Rhodey?” Tony laughed. “Ah, no. Rhodey is amazing, and he doesn’t need any special powers to manage it. I’d like you to meet him, sometime. Just gotta think of an advantageous way to present the situation to him.”

“Because he’d be mad at you for helping me?” Bob asked shrewdly.

“No, just mad about how I did it,” Tony explained. “It all worked out in the end so I wouldn’t change it, but going after you in the first place wasn’t exactly my shining moment.”

“Why did you wake me up?” Bob asked quietly. “You could have just killed me. It would have been more efficient.”

“I didn’t want to kill you,” Tony said, sighing slightly as he glanced over at him. “Not even before—well, I really just wanted to know why. But you’re not the reason why, Bob. You never were.”

“I don’t remember. I’m sorry, I—“ he trailed off for a moment. “They wouldn’t have given me a reason, even if I could remember. They never…”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed, cutting him off gently. “I know. I’ve been reading about you, too.”

Bob looked nervous. “What?” he asked quietly.

“I’ve been trying to figure out what Hydra did, so I’d know how to help,” Tony said. “So I’m informed enough to know you never had a choice in anything you did. I don’t blame you. I’m still furious about what happened to my parents, I have this rage inside me—“ he pressed his eyes shut, before shaking his head like he was trying to knock his anger loose. “—but none of it is directed at you.”

He leaned on the counter, meeting Bob’s skittish gaze. “You, I just want to help,” he promised.

“I don’t understand,” Bob said, sort of helplessly, reaching up to rub at his left shoulder. “I still don’t—“

Tony wasn’t going to try and explain his reasons again, because he didn’t think Bob was entirely ready to hear them. Instead, he focused on where the other man was rubbing delicately at his shoulder, and recalled what Bob had said about reopening wounds his first day here. “I don’t suppose you’d let me get a look at that arm?” he asked casually.

“Why?” Bob asked quickly.

“You said it hurts you,” Tony reminded him.

“It's fine,” Bob told him, before giving him a confused frown. “But if you want to look at it, you don't have to ask. You can do whatever you want to me.”

Tony sucked in a breath, and tried not to let the horror he felt at that statement show on his face. He was pretty sure Bob wouldn't realize it wasn't directed at him. "That's not how it works," he said after a moment. "Because I don't actually want to do anything to you that you don't want me too.”

"Maybe not..." Bob trailed off, still shivering slightly, looking suddenly terrified. "Maybe not right now?"

"Sure," Tony said easily. “Whenever you’re ready, or never, if that’s what you want.” He quickly reached over and grabbed a tray full of suit pieces, pulling it closer. “Here, I can work on this instead. I’ve been putting it off cause it’s boring assembly line work, but too delicate to outsource.”

Bob leaned up, looking over at the pieces. “What’s it for?” he asked.

“They’re sort of little mini power cells,” Tony explained. “They channel energy from the arc reactor to the repulsers. Think of it like…if the arc reactor is the heart, these are the motor nerves.”

“Neat,” Bob said, leaning up on the table with his elbows to watch. Tony was a little startled by the seemingly genuine interest—and also, who said neat?—but he decided to go with it.

He carefully wound the fiber-optics around the small power disk, using a pair of razor-thin pilers to tug it through the center and thread it across the opening. By the end it looked a little like a cross between a spool of thread and a half formed dreamcatcher, but there was method to his madness. The web-design diffused the power from the arc reactor enough to give him a lot more finesse with the repulsers than he would be able to manage otherwise.

Bob had stared at him working the entire time, looking the same kind of zoned-out calm that he did when watching one of the Pixar movies he seemed to have developed an addiction to. His earlier unease seemed to have disappeared, and he wasn’t shivering any longer. Tony could sort of admit to showing off for him a bit, finishing the power cell with a little flourish before dropping it onto the table between them.

“Can I touch it?” Bob asked.

“Sure, it’s not active yet,” Tony said, as Bob carefully lifted it and squinted at the delicate threads crossed along the opening. “Want to see it all lit up?”

“Yes,” Bob said, looking up with a flicker of a grin.

Tony headed off to his back room, looking for one of his older arc reactors to use as a power source. He had to dig through a few boxes before he finally found one that had enough power left for a demonstration, and then he headed back. Bob was just setting the pilers aside when he reached him, and Tony frowned as he approached.

Instead of one completed power disk on the table, there were two. “What—?” Tony started.

“You said you didn’t like doing it,” Bob explained, looking worried. He started to slip back along the table. “I just wanted to help.”

“Yeah, no, it’s totally fine,” Tony said quickly, not wanting Bob to think he was going to be punished. He leaned over to look at the disks, and he couldn’t actually tell them apart. “But how did you do it?”

“You did it first,” Bob explained.

“Yeah, no, I know that I can do it,” Tony said impatiently. “How did you?”

Bob watched him like thought he was particularly slow. "Because I watched you when you did it," he stated clearly.

“Just now,” Tony said, to be sure. “You watched me once and then did it yourself.”

“It wasn't that difficult,” he shrugged.

“Yesterday I had to explain to you that toothpaste isn't a food,” Tony deadpanned.

“It shouldn't taste like food if it isn't food,” Bob said defensively. “It was cinnamon. That’s just weird.”

“My point is I thought you were a little...ah…” Tony trailed off, waving his hand in an awkward motion he couldn’t even decipher for himself.

“You thought I was stupid,” Bob realized, sounding depressingly un-offended about it.

“No,” Tony insisted firmly. “I just thought your memories had been taken and you hadn't recovered enough yet to relearn everything.”

“Oh. They never took my skills, they needed them. Wouldn’t be much use if they had to teach me everything every time.” He glanced over at Tony, the hair falling over his face doing nothing to disguise his smirk. “I speak 29 languages and can operate and maintain hundreds of different models of weapons and aircrafts. Also, I can do trigonometry in my head."

"Now you're just showing off,” Tony told him. “And I can do the thing with the trigonometry. You’re not so special.”

Bob grinned at him, tired and shy, and Tony’s breath caught. That was almost two whole smiles, Tony was on a streak today.

“Maybe you’re just special, too,” he told him.

“Oh, god, you’re a flirt, aren’t you?” Tony said, mock-gasping before pointing at him. “Add it to the list.”

Bob dutifully pulled open his journal, and added ‘flirt’ right below ‘hates pineapple.’ He did it with such focus and determination that Tony couldn’t help but grin at him.

“Okay, let’s light these up and see how good you are,” Tony said playfully. He wound the wire around the two disks and then connected it back to the arc reactor. The light travelled along the wires like a flame along a wick, until both disks were shining with a bright white light in a pattern that almost resembled snowflakes.

“It’s beautiful,” Bob breathed in awe.

“Yeah,” Tony agreed softly, though he was watching Bob. He could see the lights reflecting off his blue eyes, and they no longer even remotely resembled the blank eyes that had stared out at him at that Hydra base. “So, hey, I’m assuming you can fly a helicopter?”

“I can fly stealth jets,” Bob told him, pulling his eyes from the lights. “Helicopters aren’t a problem, no.”

“Good,” Tony said, coming to a decision. “I’m putting you on the payroll as my pilot. You don’t actually have to do anything, at least not yet, but we’ve got to start building you an identity and that seems like as good a place as any to start.”

“You're offering me a job?” Bob asked in surprise. “Like, a normal job?”

“Yep. Stark Industries, leader in advanced technology, awesome retirement plan, great health benefits—“ he told him, flashing a brilliant grin, “and you get the full attention and resources of the boss himself. What do you say?”

“I thought Pepper was the boss,” Bob said cheekily.

"Smart ass," Tony said, but he was still grinning. “Better add that to the list, too.”

Bob added it to the list, and then looked back up at Tony. “I think I’d like having a normal job,” he said softly.

“Then consider it done,” Tony told him. He spent the night with Jarvis, building an identity for Bob, using not entirely legal avenues.

By morning Bob Morrison, age 29, Disney geek, NYU graduate, and lover of sugar, was officially the newest employee of Stark Industries.

Chapter Text

He is standing on the road where his parents were killed, when the car comes crashing into the side of the road. The Winter Soldier is stalking them, and he is helpless to stop him. He searches for some kind of weapon, but there is nothing for him to use and his father dies first, and then his mom.

The Winter Soldier approaches him then, and he stumbles back along the road, but the soldier doesn’t harm him, he just hands him his gun. The gun has Stark Industries etched along its side—he doesn’t make guns, not anymore—and he raises it back up with a trembling hand to aim it at the soldier. The soldier is wearing a mask—he wasn’t wearing the mask when he did this—and his eyes are cold and dead.

He shoots the soldier right between the eyes.

He falls back towards the ground, but he is not still the Winter Soldier when he hits the pavement. The Winter Soldier gear is gone, and he is wearing a blue t-shirt with a line sketch of Merida shooting an arrow—Jarvis had bought it for him without even asking—and a pair of artistically ripped jeans that were his favorites.

And suddenly he can’t even breathe.

He drops the gun, and his mother places a bloody hand to his cheek. “Oh, my darling,” she says, “what have you become?”

Tony woke up with a breathless shout, his arm striking out on instinct. His fist was caught in a cold, gentle hold before it could connect to whatever he thought he was aiming for. He blinked blearily in front of him, and it took nearly half a minute to realize that Bob had had caught his fist with his metal hand.

“It’s okay,” Bob told him quickly, his eyes wide but not frightened. “It’s okay, you’re safe.”

Tony gasped. “What—wha—“

“Jarvis couldn’t wake you,” Bob explained, and quickly let go of his hand. He pushed back along the bed until he was nearly going to fall right off, holding his hands up to try and show he wasn’t a threat. “You were having a nightmare.”

“Yeah, yeah. Haven't had that one before,” he said, holding in a hysterical giggle. “Something new, was kinda nice. Wouldn't want to get bored.”

Bob watched him for a moment, obviously struggling for something to say. His eyes held so much emotion, such honest and deep concern, that Tony could hardly recognize them as the same eyes he had first seen in that Hydra base. They did not match the eyes of the Winter Soldier he’d just met in his dream at all.

“Do you want to watch a movie?" Bob finally blurted out, a little overly loud and awkward.

“God, yes,” Tony said, grateful both for the distraction and that Bob didn’t ask him what the dream was about.

Bob kind of hovered around him carefully the whole way to the living room, then abruptly disappeared the moment Tony was safely tucked away on the couch with a quilt. He reappeared a couple minutes later before Tony could worry he wasn't coming back, with a china tea cup that he proudly placed in Tony’s hands.

“Is this Chamomile tea?” Tony asked, slightly incredulous, as he examined the light liquid in the cup.

Bob started to look concerned as he dropped down onto the other side of the couch. “Pepper says it’s good for you,” he offered hesitantly.

Bob looked so worried that hadn’t done the right thing that Tony tried not to look ungrateful, though what he really wanted was some whiskey. Pepper had been working hard to convert Bob to her ‘the body is a temple’ way of life, with varying degrees of success.

Bob had taken to the tea right away, and liked the weird raw fruit and nut bars Pepper was always buying and leaving in the cupboards, but Tony had also once found him sitting at the bar with a stack of sugar packets on the counter in front of him, opening them one by one to dump them straight into his mouth.

He was probably an enabler, but he’d immediately had Jarvis order them both some Pixy Stix. It quickly became item number 36 on Bob’s list.

“Do you want to borrow my slippers?” Bob offered suddenly.

“I’m pretty sure that would take my narcism to concerning levels,” Tony told him, as he cautiously took a sip of the tea. “But I appreciate the offer.”

“Well, what movie do you want to watch?” Bob asked, before turning hopeful. “We could—“

“No,” Tony said quickly. “No Brave.”

Bob sunk back in the couch. “I wasn’t gonna say that,” he said, unconvincingly.

They end up watching Frozen instead, which Tony hadn’t actually ever seen. He didn’t usually have time to keep up on the new Disney films, but he was impressed despite himself. Bob was entranced, entirely absorbed it, so it took him awhile to notice the anxious way he was curling himself into the arm of the sofa, like he wanted to get as far from it as he could.

He set aside the tea and looked towards him. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Bob said, letting out a shaky breath. He tried to smile. “We’re trying to get your mind off your nightmare, you don’t have to worry about me.”

“You already helped me, now it’s my turn,” Tony told him carefully. “That’s what friends do.”

“Are we friends?” Bob asked, his tone heartbreakingly wistful.

“Yes,” Tony said, even though he didn’t quite realize that it was true until he said it. Bob liked to listen to him talk, and he was actually interested in his projects. They liked to argue over music—Tony was hard rock all the way, but Bob like softer instrumental pieces and wouldn’t be swayed to the proper musical path.

Come to think of it, Bob may be the only friend he’d ever made that he didn’t meet through work and/or build for himself.

That should probably be more worrying that it was.

“So, friend,” Tony said, grinning slightly, “are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

Bob’s eyes slipped back towards the screen and he swallowed hard. “I think I might have had a brother, once,” he said after a moment. “I remember—“ he broke off again, looking confused. “Or maybe I just imagined him.”

Tony tried not to watch him too closely, though that sounded like it must be one of the earliest memories that Bob had so far—and one of the only ones that didn’t seem traumatic. “What do you remember about him?” he asked.

Bob grinned, tired and fond. “Pretty sure he was always gettin’ us into trouble,” he said, a faint accent to his voice that wasn’t fully formed enough for Tony to place. He sucked in a breath, looking suddenly lost. “I had a life before this. I had a life, and I—”

“Hey, you still do,” Tony promised him. “Even if it doesn’t always feel like it, you do. Maybe it’s not the same one, but it doesn’t mean you can’t make it something else. Take it from someone that’s reinvented himself more than once.”

“But he’d be dead, wouldn’t he?” Bob asked after a moment. “If he’s even real.”

“Not necessarily,” Tony said. “Jarvis is still searching for who you were, we’ll figure it out eventually.”

“What if I don’t want you to?” he asked quietly.

“Do you not want me to?” Tony asked in surprise, not sure what to make of the request. He couldn’t exactly stop searching, not when protecting Bob may depend upon it—but he supposed there was no reason Bob had to know, if he didn’t want to.

“I don’t know,” Bob told him.

“Well, how about we find out, but you can do whatever you want with it?” he asked. “It doesn’t have to mean anything. You can keep being Bob Morrison if you want. But I do need to find out who you were if I’m going to keep you safe.”

Bob nodded reluctantly, though he still looked uncertain. They finished the rest of the movie in silence, and then Bob was cleaning up the teacups and heading off to his room. Tony knew for his part he wasn’t getting back to sleep any day soon, Chamomile tea or not. Which was probably all for the best, as it was actually one o’clock in the afternoon. He probably hadn’t actually gotten asleep until sometime around ten am.

He waited until Bob was completely out of sight, and then gave Pepper a call. “Bob’s my friend,” he told her.

There was an awkward pause, in which he could imagine Pepper wondering why she continued to be surprised by the things he said. “Did you want me to bring over some friendship bracelets?” she asked after a moment. “Just to make sure it’s official?”

“I swear you never used to be this sarcastic,” he told her, but he was grinning. “I like it.”

“I don’t know why you’re calling me, Tony,” Pepper said. “I figured out you and Bob were friends when you sent me a bunch of texts at three in the morning one day, asking me if you really got to keep him.”

“I don’t remember that,” Tony said quickly. Which was a bold-faced lie—he did remember it. It was not his finest moment, but it had been that first week and he’d been a little sleep deprived and still terrified about traumatizing Bob even more, but Bob had been nice to him before he even really remembered what being nice meant, and Tony had sort of just melted because he wasn’t used to people being able to read between his lines.

“I’m glad you found him, Tony,” Pepper said, letting him get away with the deflection. She’d always been too good to him. “I can’t imagine him in that place, being used that way—you did a good thing. And good things bring good things.”

“That hasn’t been my experience,” Tony said quietly. “I thought the saying was: no good deed goes unpunished?”

“Tony,” Pepper sighed. “You have to—you have to let good things happen, too. Sometimes there’s good in this world, even if it can be hard to find it.”

He moved past it, because that was hitting a little too close to home. “Did you know he’s smart?” he asked.

“Yes, I did notice,” Pepper said. “He’s very bright.”

“Yes, yes,” Tony said impatiently. “But I’m not talking like ‘oh, isn’t that cute, he can put the triangle shape in the triangle shaped hole,’ kind of smart. But smart like I would hire him.”

“I thought you already did,” Pepper said wryly. “I got a letter from HR this morning asking me who Bob Morrison was and why he was suddenly on the payroll. I assumed you didn’t know that many Bobs.”

“That was more just for cover,” Tony explained, before pausing. “Wait, who sent you that? I just put it through yesterday. Or this morning. Or…some unspecified recent time. The point is, no one should be contacting you about it.”

“It was just someone from HR,” Pepper explained. “I don’t think—“

“I need a name, and I need to know exactly what they asked,” Tony said tightly.

“Don’t you think you’re overreacting, slightly?” she asked.

“Do you remember Natalia?” Tony asked. “My lovely assistant—“

“She wasn’t—“ Pepper started.

“—who turned out to be an undercover SHIELD spy?” he continued without pausing. “I have Jarvis run background checks on everyone, but SHIELD is damn good at creating false identities. They’re even almost as good as me. So there’s no guarantee I’d know about it if they put another man inside. Or another woman. Or another ninja-woman hybrid, like Romanoff.”

“Okay, point taken,” Pepper said, letting out a breath. “I got a letter from HR in my in-box. I’m not sure who it was from. I’ll look into it, okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Tony said, trying to calm himself down. The identity he’d created for Bob was bulletproof, anyway, and the Winter Soldier himself didn’t technically exist. It would be almost impossible for anyone to have made that leap.

Except that he still wasn’t sure how much SHIELD really knew about what Hydra’s been up to. And if they already knew about the Winter Soldier’s identity, the leap wouldn’t be very far at all.

“Call me as soon as you know anything,” Tony said, before hanging up. “Jarvis?”

“Already increasing security and reinforcing and improving security protocols,” Jarvis reported. “I have also checked security footage of Miss Potts’ office, but the letter was delivered with the daily mail run and was unsigned.”

“What did it say?” he asked.

“Dear Ms. Potts (CEO), it has come to our attention that Bob Morrison was added to the Stark Industries payroll last night through improper channels. The job description was listed as the personal pilot for Tony Stark. As you have asked that any issues regarding Tony Stark be addressed directly to you, we ask that you please forward details regarding this newest employee. Stark Industries (HR Department).”

“Sounds suspicious,” Tony decided.

“Forgive me, Sir, but it sounds like your typical corporate red tape,” Jarvis said wryly. “This was the sort of thing that had you giving up the position in favor of Ms. Potts in the first place.”

“So you think I’m overreacting?” Tony asked.

“I do not see anything of particular concern, but considering your past history, Sir, I’m not sure I can properly classify what would constitute an overreaction,” Jarvis told him simply.

“Keep an eye on the office,” Tony decided. “If we’ve got SHIELD coming after us again, I want to know about it. This time, I have something a little more important to hide.”

“Of course, Sir.”

- - - - -

He didn’t see Bob for hours, but just when he was getting ready to be concerned, he found him huddled in the corner of the living room with his StarkPad. He was frowning down at it with a look of concentration that was a little bit adorable. Then Tony noticed he was wearing the Merida shirt, and he may have had a minor mental breakdown.

Luckily he was a pro at breakdowns, so he didn’t outwardly fall apart.

“Bob,” he called, feeling a rush of relief when Bob glanced up, looking entirely unharmed. “You do remember chairs, right?”

Bob rolled his eyes—Tony was very proud of how often he was able to get Bob to roll his eyes these days—and then looked back at the StarkPad. “I like the corner.”

“We can put a chair in the corner,” Tony told him. “I can get you a new chair if you want. Maybe one of those massage chairs—or one with a retro bead seat cover. A lime green beanbag chair. You name it, you’ve got it.”

Bob set the StarkPad in his lap, and looked up at Tony like he was analyzing him. “Why do you keep trying to buy me things?” he asked.

“I—“ Tony paused, because that was a ridiculous question. He bought things for everyone. That’s just what he did. “You deserve things. You shouldn’t be sitting on the floor.”

“You’ve already done so much…” Bob trailed off, looking awkward. “I didn’t understand, at first, what that meant. But I don’t deserve anything, Tony.”

“Okay, that’s just absolutely not true,” Tony told him, and dropped down to the floor beside him. “Look, I’m sort of the world’s foremost expert in retail-therapy, and I know it can be overwhelming, but I’ve got more money than I know what to do with. Like, literally, I could not spend all the money I have in my lifetime. It’s pretty much an impossibility. I earn more money in an hour than I could spend in a week.”

“There’s got to be worthier causes than me,” Bob said quietly. “I’m just happy you haven’t kicked me out. You don’t have to do anything else.”

“I wouldn’t kick you out,” Tony promised, concerned that he hadn’t realized Bob thought this was a possibility. “You—why would you think I’m going to kick you out?”

“I’m better now,” Bob told him. “I know I’ll need to leave soon.”

“I made you my pilot, remember?” Tony asked. “It’s a live-in position. On call, twenty-four hours a day. You can stay as long as you want to, but we can set you up on another floor, if you—well, just trust me, you’ll get bored of me long before I ever get bored of you.”

“I don’t really remember much, but I remember enough to know boring is a not word that would be used to describe you,” Bob said with a faint laugh, before glancing back at him shyly. “And you were serious about giving me a job? I mean, you don’t really need a pilot. You can fly yourself.”

“Actually, I just created an AI that could fly for me,” Tony said, leaving out that he had watched Jarvis do it enough that he had figured out the basics for himself, too. “But that’s besides the point. You can’t beat having a trained combat pilot in my line of work. You’re already on the payroll, first pay check comes at the first of the next month.”

“I can’t accept pay if I’m not doing anything,” Bob protested.

“You are though, you’re on call,” Tony reminded him. “And until called, you can do whatever you want. Like—“ he leaned over to squint at the StarkPad, frowning at what he saw, “—are you seriously reading Little Women?”

“Pepper recommended it,” Bob explained, before scrunching up his face in frustration. “I like it, but it’s strange to read this way. I remember books being so different. I miss being able to turn real pages.”

“Oh god, shoulda known, you’re one of those,” Tony sighed, as he pushed himself back to his feet. “Come on, then.”

“What?” Bob asked, glancing up at him in confusion. This time when Tony held out a hand, Bob grabbed it and allowed himself to get tugged to his feet without hesitating. “Where are we going?”

“Secret room,” Tony told him, pleased with himself.

“Oh, the one behind the fireplace?” Bob asked.

Tony froze, before turning to glare at him. “How the hell—“

“I did a full survey of the floor when you first brought me here,” Bob explained with a shrug. “I didn’t go in. I figured you had hidden it for a reason.”

“Maybe not for the reason you think,” Tony said, a little irritated at having the surprise somewhat ruined. He should have known. Natasha had clocked the room in about five minutes her first time in the penthouse, too. He’d been able to tell by the way she’d smirked at the fireplace, though she said nothing, and she never tried to go in, either.

Tony had any number of labs with important super-confidential information, and all of them had complicated biometric locks—but he hadn’t hidden any of them. The room behind the fireplace, that was his. Pepper was the only other one he’d brought there, and he couldn’t say exactly what had prompted him to invite Bob—especially considering the memories that room held, despite it being brand new.

He placed his hand to the wall, and it lit up beneath his palm, scanning before clicking. The entire stainless steel fireplace popped out of the wall, leading to a short downward staircase. Tony might have a bit of a flair for the dramatic, but he liked secret rooms. And this one had been carried over from the home he’d grown up in—really, it was the only thing from his childhood that he’d kept.

He started down the staircase, and Bob slipped in behind him, looking only mildly concerned. He supposed the gothic looking secret staircase might be a little too similar to some of those old, crumbling Hydra bases—but where they were going was nothing like it.

The staircase ended at an open archway, and right beyond it was a library that spanned two floors. The shelves went floor almost to the ceiling, ending at the top in a rounded arches, with little thin breaks of a floor to ceiling window between each of them. Every single one of them was filled to the brim with books that spanned across centuries.

Tony never read many actual books himself—he used his StarkPad for reading—and he didn’t even really come down here.

It was enough just to know it was there.

Bob stumbled out behind him with wide eyes, carefully stepping out further into the library. “This is amazing,” he breathed out, looking even more awed than he had when he’d brought him to the lab. Tony tried not to take that personally, and it wasn’t hard. It was all worth it to see him look actually entirely happy, for maybe the first time since he brought him here. “I thought maybe there weren’t any books, anymore.”

He spun in place near the center of the room, head tilted up as he ran his eyes across the high shelves, his expression full of disbelieving awe.

“Why do I suddenly feel like I’m the Beast to your Belle?” Tony asked wryly, as he pushed his hands in his pockets and stepped further into the room.

Bob laughed, bright and loud and nothing like the hesitant laughs that Tony was just barely getting used to. “I watched that one,” he said, glancing back at Tony. “You’re more of a Lumiere.”

“I notice you didn’t dispute your casting,” Tony told him smugly.

Bob paused, before gently running metal fingers along the spines of the books. “I think we both know I’d be the Beast,” he said.

“Yeah, you think?” Tony asked. “Did you watch that one all the way to the end, then? Because you’ve definitely got the hair to be the Prince. We’ve even got our own Ms. Potts.”

Bob just shook his head, not bothering to contradict him again, apparently too entranced by the books. “Is there a system?” he asked.

“What would be the fun in that?” Tony asked. “They’re just wherever they fit. Not like I’ve got a librarian on staff, and no one is allowed in here anyway.”

“You brought me here,” Bob said quietly, looking back at him. His hair kept falling into his eyes. It drove Pepper up the wall, and she kept trying to get him to agree to see a stylist or at least tie it back. Tony thought it was kind of endearing.

“Well, you’re not no one,” Tony told him. “You’re my guest.”

Bob laughed. “Okay, Lumiere,” he said.

“I walked into that one,” Tony said dryly.

There were four sections set up like reading spaces, with low coffee tables and comfortable sofas. It was sort of ridiculous if you took into account that there had never been more than two people in here at once, but it had been modeled after a very specific library. Tony was never much for holding onto the past, but he allowed himself this.

“You must spend a lot of time here,” Bob said, eyes still running across all the books like he couldn’t decide where to start first.

“Haven’t been here in like a year,” Tony said simply. “But it’s got state of the art air recyclers to keep the books in good shape. I don’t much like coming here, myself.”

“Why did you build a library like this if you didn’t want to come here?” Bob asked in confusion.

“It’s a replica. Of my mother’s library, in the home I grew up in,” Tony admitted, which was something he hadn’t even told Pepper. He wasn’t entirely sure what made him admit to it now.

Bob went pale, his hand dropping away from the books. “I shouldn’t be here,” he said.

“You didn’t kill her,” Tony said simply. He’d forgiven Bob for his part in their murder after reading the first three Hydra files, but he wasn’t sure if he’d entirely let go of it. After last night, he knew it was time.

“You said that I did,” Bob told him.

“Hydra used your hands to do it, and that sucks, for both of us,” Tony said tiredly. “But you didn’t kill her. I wouldn’t have brought you here if I wasn’t absolutely sure of that.”

Bob still looked devastated, and now he was carefully keeping his eyes away from the books. “I can just—“

“I killed you in my nightmare,” Tony told him abruptly.

Bob froze, glancing back at him, slightly wary. It was good to see—a week ago, Bob probably would have offered again to let him. “Okay,” he said.

“It was a reminder of what could have happened,” Tony continued. “What almost happened. And I know—I just know, my mother would have been so disappointed in me. She would have wanted me to help you. That’s what she was like. She was always running charities. My dad would hand them off to her for the tax write-offs and just to keep her busy, but she would take them and she would do so much good.”

“She sounds like she was a wonderful woman,” Bob finally offered carefully. “I think I had a mother, once, but I don’t remember her.”

Tony wondered what it would like to be so without memory. To have a life buried somewhere under so much pain and torture that there was no way to be sure even the little pieces that could be salvaged were real. The only thing Tony had of real worth was his mind—it wasn’t something he thought he’d be strong enough to survive losing.

Bob was sort of amazing, really.

“My mom would want you here,” he said. “She’d be mad as hell at me for keeping her books hidden away, she just wanted people to enjoy them. She used to look at them the same way as you.”

Bob carefully reproached one of the shelves. It had books ranging from early 1900s to the Twilight series—Pepper thought she was being funny—and his breath kept catching every time something caught his eye. “Would I be able to read one?” he asked after a moment.

And god it hurt, to think that Bob thought he’d brought him here just to show him what he couldn’t have. It made him wish he’d blown up that entire base, after all.

“You can read all of them, if you want,” Tony told him.

Bob let out a startled laugh, before shaking his head. “I don’t think that’s possible, there are thousands here,” he said. “But it might be fun to try.”

Bob ended up sitting on the floor with his back to one of the couches, a stack of books sitting on the coffee table in front of him as he sorted and re-sorted them, trying to decide where to start first. Tony dropped down into one of the chairs with his phone, checking on a few of his projects. He didn’t have the patience for old-fashioned books, but for once he felt at peace in this room. It felt just a little less haunted than it always had before.

The peace lasted for nearly two hours, then Tony jerked his head up as he heard Bob scrambling to his feet with a book in his hands. He’d gone pale as a ghost, and he snapped the book shut as he stepped back towards the shelf to quickly replace it.

Tony frowned at the book Bob had shoved back on the shelf like it had bit him, squinting to read the title. It was just one of many—so many—Captain America biographies that he had inherited from his father. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Too many choices,” Bob said, trying to smile at him as he glanced back towards the other side of the library. Tony wondered if his adeptness at deflection was a former trait of Bob’s that he was getting back, or something he’d learned by example from Tony.

“Yeah? And what was wrong with that one?” he asked.

“Do you ever sometimes not know what’s real?” Bob asked quietly, his eyes reluctantly straying back to the book. “Do you know what it’s like to not trust your own mind?”

“Most of the time I don’t trust myself at all,” Tony admitted.

Bob smiled sadly, stumbling back further from the shelf with graceless, hurried steps. It was such a contrast to his usual deliberate movements, that Tony worried what he was really seeing when he looked back at that book.

“Well, I trust you enough for us both,” Bob told him, after a moment. He looked like he was coming to some decision, his eyes resolved, as he tore his eyes from the shelf to look back at Tony. “But right now…I don’t think I can trust anything else.”

Chapter Text

He’d only been planning to disappear from his life for a week while he helped Bob get into the swing of things, but time kind of got away from him, and it wasn’t until they were going on week three that Pepper finally put her foot down.

“You can’t miss this meeting,” she said firmly.

“I’m not leaving him alone,” Tony insisted.

Bob was mostly capable of taking care of himself by this point, but he also still had some dangerous holes in his memory and some conditioning that hadn’t been broken. Tony could ask Jarvis to look after him, but Jarvis had a bad habit of giving Bob whatever he wanted. He suspected Bob was really good at manipulating the AI by pretending to be an innocent little lost lamb.

He’d left them alone to go to his lab downstairs the other day, and Bob had managed to get Jarvis to show him all the files from Hydra despite Tony having restricted their access level to only himself—but, Sir, Jarvis had told him, you said they were restricted so no one could learn of the Winter Soldier, and as Mr. Bob pointed out, he is already aware of the Winter Soldier—.

Afterwards, he hadn’t been able to find Bob for three hours. Apparently, there were some holes in his security network, too, and Bob knew each and every one of them. He’d made it to the roof, somehow, and had been brooding at the skyline like Batman when Tony finally frantically tracked him down.

So Jarvis was no longer allowed to babysit.

And Bob was also now his personal pilot slash security consultant.

“He’s not a child, Tony,” Pepper insisted. “He’s been recovering, and you can’t keep hovering. He’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself.”

Tony wandered back towards the living room, and put the phone on speaker when he spotted Bob. “Bob, tell Pepper what happened yesterday,” he said.

“What?” Bob asked, he leaned over the couch with wide-eyes like he couldn’t imagine what Tony was talking about.

“Remember how I said you could start helping me with some things in my lab?” Tony prompted. “And you wanted to test some of the equipment?”

“Oh, you mean that small fire? ‘Cause I didn’t realize the blowtorch had that much power, that was an accident,” Bob reminded him, looking anxious. “You said it was fine.”

“It’s totally fine,” Tony reassured him, before taking the call back off speaker. “Do you understand what I’m dealing with, now?”

Pepper couldn’t respond for a minute, because she was laughing too hard. “Oh my god, it’s like he’s you,” she said, gasping for breath. “This is some kind of karmic justice, I swear.”

“I know exactly how much power the blowtorch has, I’m the one that modified it,” Tony protested lamely. “And I’ve only blown up one of my labs like three or four times, tops.”

“Tony—“ Pepper chided.

“Okay, whatever, so I’ve lost count,” he said. “The point is, I think supervision may still be called for. Not for me, just so we’re clear. For Bob.”

Bob frowned at him, looking irritated. Tony held his hand over the speaker. “Pepper doesn’t want you here alone,” he explained. “I’m just agreeing with her to calm her down.”

“I can hear both sides of your conversation,” Bob told him wryly, before looking back to his StarkPad.

“I forgot about your freaky hearing,” he said in irritation, before getting back on the phone. “Let’s move it to next week. That work?”

“No! We can’t reschedule this again,” she said, before sighing. “Okay, here’s the deal. If you promise to be on your best behavior at the meeting, then I’ll let you go alone and I’ll stay with Bob. He’s easier to watch than you, anyway.”

There was no way for Tony to really get out of that except to admit that he required more supervision than Bob, so he ended up at the meeting. It was long and boring and at the end he awed them all with the perfect solution to all of their problems, because that was just how amazing he was.

They weren’t grateful for it, of course, but he was used to that.

By the time he was in the elevator heading back up the penthouse, he was anxious and keyed up and really just wanted to be home. He’d never really had anything to come home to before—even when Pepper was living here, she was really living at the office—and before that it used to be something he’d actively put off. Another party, another drink, another one night stand in a five star hotel—it never mattered how late he got back, because Jarvis never minded waiting up.

Pepper had mentioned at the start that it might not be good for Bob’s only interactions to be with only the two of them, because he might get too dependent on them.

Tony was beginning to worry the one becoming dependent was him.

The elevator finally pulled to a stop, and Tony glanced up to step out. Bob was waiting for him, excitedly bouncing on the heels of his feet.

“Wha—“ Tony began when he saw him, before faltering in what was a very rare instance of speechlessness. He swallowed hard as he took him in.

Because Bob’s hair had been cut—still fairly longish, but more Point Break now and a little less L’Oréal. It was hanging down in the front just framed around his ears, and to about the back of his neck. There were also faint gold-tinged highlights whenever the light hit it just right, and he didn’t remember them being there before. He was wearing a black t-shirt with Mjölnir printed on the chest—goddamnit, Jarvis—with a casual blue blazer over it, and jeans with sneakers.

“Pepper brought in a stylist,” Bob explained, flashing a grin, and it had to be a super soldier thing, having such perfect teeth.

“I should have known this whole thing was just pretense to get you alone for a makeover,” Tony said flatly.

“It was no such thing,” Pepper insisted, though she looked way too smug as she appeared to join them in the entryway. She was already holding her purse. “He had split ends. He finally agreed it was time to do something about them.”

“Oh, it was his idea?” he asked wryly, trying to clamp down on his inexplicable panic. He hadn’t expressly said so, but he hadn’t wanted anyone else in the penthouse right now. Still, he knew that she wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t someone she trusted—and as happy as Bob was, he guessed the risk was worth it. “Who was this stylist?”

“Marc, you remember him,” Pepper told him. “He’s been doing my hair for years.”

“Ah, Marc with a C,” Tony said. Tony was ninety-nine percent sure Marc with a C was not a SHIELD spy, or if he was, he had one of the longest and most boring undercover assignments ever. So they were probably fine.

Also, he could admit, at least in the privacy of his own mind, that Bob looked really, really good.

“You look really, really good,” Tony told him anyway, because he’d never actually been very good at keeping his thoughts in the privacy of his own mind.

“Thanks,” Bob said, smiling shyly. “I like the shoes. Pepper says they’re running shoes, but I guess people just wear them everywhere. The future is so weird.”

“We call it the present, these days,” Tony reminded him.

“Right,” Bob said uncertainly, frowning for a moment. He got like that sometimes, when memories started crowding to the front of his mind. Sometimes he didn’t quite know what year it was—but Tony was not letting himself worry about it.

He figured for what he’d been through, Bob was pretty much the picture of mental health. He might actually be coping better than Tony at this point.

“Well, I need to get back to the office,” Pepper said, and leaned over and kissed Bob on the cheek. “I had fun today.”

“What? No kiss for me?” he called.

“How many complaints am I going to have waiting for me when I get back to the office?” she asked.

“How many board members are there again?” he asked.

“Twenty-one,” she said.

“Well, there’s your answer,” he said, grinning widely.

Pepper just huffed at him and hit the close button for the elevator, so Tony was pretty sure he wasn’t getting a kiss. He turned back to Bob, making a note to himself to give further direction to Jarvis regarding Bob’s wardrobe—Iron Man stuff, that was fine. The rest of the Avengers could find their own recovering assassins to dress up.

“Did you know men could get married in New York?” Bob asked him suddenly. He’d dropped down on the bar stool and was pulling some Pixy Stix from their Pepper-proof hiding place. He’d probably been on his best behavior with Pepper, and was now going through sugar withdrawal.

Then his mind re-round what he’d said. “Uh, yes?” Tony said, as he grabbed a sparkling water from the fridge. “I think we really need to expand your movie knowledge beyond Disney and Pixar. I’m guessing Marc with a C brought this up?”

“Yeah, he’s married to a man, and he was wearing nail polish,” Bob told him, looking delighted. "Also, I'm pretty sure we figured out I'm bisexual,” he added, and Tony nearly spit out his drink.

"Huh?" Tony choked out.

"It means I like both men and women," Bob explained patiently, as he chewed on the end of his Pixy Stix.

"Yeah, no, I know what it means," Tony said. "How did that even come up? I thought you were just getting a haircut!"

"Apparently he thought I was a…a bigot? Because I kept staring at his nail polish,” Bob said, "but I just didn’t ever remember men wearing nail polish, I didn’t care that he was. I told him I think lots of men are attractive and it doesn't bother me, either, and after that he was nice.”

"Lots of men?" Tony cried. "Who have you even—? I’m basically the only man you know.”

Bob smirked at him. "Fishing for compliments, Tony?"

"I don't have the patience for fishing," Tony said. “Anyway, I know how good I look.”

Bob laughed, leaning on the counter to look up at Tony. “You do though,” he agreed, grinning around the annihilated Pixy Stix, as he checked out Tony’s six thousand dollar suit. “You clean up nice.”

“Look who’s talking,” Tony snorted, before getting struck with a brilliant idea—like most of his brilliant ideas, it had the potential to go either really well, or terribly wrong. “Let’s go out.”

Bob’s eyes widened. “What?”

“You’re all dressed up, shouldn’t waste it on just me,” Tony said. “I’ll take you out to dinner. I know a nice place. They keep a closed booth in the back reserved for me.”

He’d been meaning to start easing Bob into the real world, but wasn’t sure how he would react around other people. From the sound of it, he and Marc with a C had gotten along like a house on fire, so he would probably be fine.

“I thought—I mean, I can’t be seen, right?” Bob asked. “People would have questions.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Tony said, and pulled a wallet from his pocket. He tossed it to him. Bob caught it out of the air, before glancing at Tony in question. “It’s for you,” he assured him.

Bob opened it, and his eyes widened as he pulled out a driver’s license. It listed his birthday as May 12th, 1985, and his name as Bob Morrison. There were also five one-hundred dollar bills folded neatly into one of the slots. “Tony, I can’t—“ he started breathlessly.

“Consider it your new identity starter kit,” Tony said. “I’m getting you a passport and a social security card too, but we’re still waiting on that. But that—“ he pointed to the license, “—should be enough in case anything happens when we’re out. Anyway, we can wear disguises!”

“Disguises?” Bob asked dubiously. Tony looked far too excited.

“Yeah, I’ve got just the thing!” Tony promised, before heading back to his room. He shrugged out of his suit jacket and pulled off his tie, before pulling on his black leather jacket. Then he grabbed one of his suitcase Iron Man suits, because he’d learned his lesson going anywhere without one.

And then there was the pièce de résistance—two pairs of sunglasses.

He walked back out to hand one pair of the sunglasses to Bob in triumph. They were gold-tinted mirrored sunglasses with rounded oversized lenses. Bob put them on experimentally, and looked back up at Tony. He looked sort of like he was a movie star trying to be inconspicuous, which was probably not going to help them go unnoticed.

Also, Tony had never once managed to be in public without being noticed.

Suddenly sunglasses didn’t seem the brilliant disguise he had been planning for. “Okay, I think we need hats. People hiding always wear hats,” he decided. “Except I don’t have any hats.”

“Oh, I do,” Bob said, grinning brightly. He disappeared and came back with two baseball caps. One had the Iron Man mask drawn out in black lines, and the other just had the Avengers logo. Tony really needed to do something about Jarvis’s fashion taste—though at this point, he was like eighty percent sure Jarvis was just doing it to screw with him. Bob tossed him the Avengers one, and pulled on the Iron Man cap.

It helped a little. Tony glanced down at Bob’s metal hand and considered adding some gloves to the mix, but he figured worst case scenario if someone got too nosy Tony can just claim he built it himself. He totally could have, and was hoping to build a better one anyway, just as soon as Bob let him get a look at it.

Tony pulled on his own cap and his aviator sunglasses with purple-tinted lenses, and hoped he didn’t get caught by the Paparazzi, or the other Avengers would never let him live it down. “Alright,” he said. “That’s probably as good as it’s going to get. I, for one, feel that I look entirely unrecognizable.”

Bob looked less impressed, but shrugged, apparently willing to go with it. Tony texted one of his drivers to meet them at the entrance, missing Happy the whole time. He would have made sure to be discreet—if trying not to laugh the entire time. But Tony figured if they just went right into the restaurant, they shouldn’t get caught in any photos.

Though he wasn’t sure it mattered, he thought, as he and Bob took the elevator down. He might still be recognizable, but Bob certainly wasn’t. He barely resembled the man he’d pulled from the cryo tube at all. Tony could hardly recognize him himself.

The shorter of his limos was waiting for them at the front entrance, his newest driver holding the door for him. He ushered Bob inside, but he seemed mostly blasé about the car. It was sort of like how he wasn’t impressed by Tony’s amazing penthouse aside from the fact that it was a nice place to sleep.

But show him a library, and he goes all wide-eyed and breathless.

Tony was usually pretty good at figuring out what people wanted, and how to get it for them—but Bob was a puzzle. Probably because he didn’t really know what he liked himself.

Right now Bob was leaning forward to look out one of the tinted windows, apparently more interested in passing pedestrians than the sparkling leather interior of the car or the built-in wet bar.

“What’s my cover?” Bob asked after a moment, finally settling back into the seat to glance at Tony.

“What do you mean?” Tony asked.

“So I know how to act,” he explained. “What’s my cover? Am I still your pilot? Is it a business dinner? Or are we just friends? Do I come from New York, or—“

“Woah, slow down there, Mission Impossible,” Tony interrupted. “There is no cover. I don’t want you to be anyone. Just be yourself.”

“So I should introduce myself as the amnesiac assassin that you rescued from a Hydra base and took home with you?” Bob asked, and if not for his sparkling eyes, Tony might not have realized he was just screwing with him. A couple weeks ago, that might not have been a joke.

“Maybe don’t get into the specifics,” Tony said dryly. “You’re my friend. You’re staying with me. These are all true things. You don’t have to pretend, but it’s probably not a great idea to go around telling your life story to everyone, at least not until we know what it is ourselves.”

“Okay,” Bob decided resolutely, and Tony was a little worried that he was just taking that information and making a cover anyway—but maybe it was necessary, for now. He was pretty sure spies used covers like most people used Snuggies anyway, so whatever worked.

“You shouldn’t really have to talk to anyone,” Tony assured him. “I figure we’ll start small. Maybe next time we can—“

“Tony!” Bob shouted suddenly, lunging forward and reaching for the door. “Tony, stop the car!”

“Pull over,” he called, after bringing down the window divider between them and the driver, afraid Bob would jump out of the moving car if he didn’t. Bob disappeared like a shot barely before the car could stop.

“Shit,” Tony cursed, sliding across the seat. They were double parked, so he glanced back at the driver. “Circle the block, I’ll text when I know what we’re doing.”

Then he rushed onto the sidewalk, looking for Bob. Two teenagers with hoodies pulled almost past their eyes were rushing towards him, and he sidestepped them as they went barreling by.

“That pretty boy was fuckin’ crazy, man,” he heard one of them say to the other, before they were turning to the corner.

Tony headed in the direction they’d been running from, and found Bob in the first alley he came to. He was kneeling down in front of a homeless man, looking concerned. As soon as he heard Tony, he looked up at him with such a trusting expression that Tony’s breath got caught in his t throat.

“This is Tony, he can help,” Bob promised. “Tony, this is Luke—he needs help.”

“Will you tell the kid I’m fine? I don’t need any help,” Luke huffed, glancing up at Tony. He was huddled back up against the wall. He looked to be nearing sixty, but it was hard to tell. He was clean shaven with carefully patched up clothes, but he was covered in a thin layer of dirt that meant he’d been sleeping outside for awhile. “Where’s he from, anyway? He one of those aliens? Cause he sure as hell ain’t no proper New Yorker.”

Bob frowned. “I’m pretty sure I am from New York,” he insisted. “Or…it’s possible I’m Russian. We’re not quite sure.”

Luke’s eyes narrowed over at him, and Tony quickly stepped closer. “Okay,” he interrupted with a sharp laugh, “that’s enough, Bob, come here a sec.”

Bob looked up at him in betrayal, and Tony discreetly took his arm and led him a few feet down. “What are you doing?” Tony demanded quietly.

“These two ruffians were giving Luke a bad time,” Bob explained. “But I ran them off.”

“Ruffians?” Tony echoed disbelievingly.

“I don't like bullies,” Bob told him, with a hint of a Brooklyn accent and steel in his eyes. It was like watching him switch into another person right in front of him, but almost before he could see the personality fully form, it was gone again, and Bob’s eyes were big and lost as they turned back to him. “I offered to help him get home, but he doesn’t have one.”

Bob looked heartbroken at this development, and Tony wasn’t quite sure how to explain this was normal—mostly because he didn’t think it should be normal, but was as guilty as everyone else in walking right past the homeless about twenty times a day.

“That’s…that’s a thing that happens, sometimes,” Tony tried to explain. “But he said he doesn’t want help. It’s not a fun lesson to learn, but you can’t save everybody.”

Bob looked down at his sneakers. “Okay, but he’s got to be a better person than me. I mean, he’d have to be, right?” Bob decided. “So if you can only help one of us, maybe…maybe you could help him instead?”

Tony tried not to let his shock show on his face, but that kind of turned everything he thought he knew over on its head. He wondered suddenly how much of Bob’s recovery and well-adjusted behavior was just an act, because those were not the words of someone that had any notion of self-worth.

“People aren’t interchangeable,” Tony tried to explain, trying to be patient even as his heart sped up sickly inside his chest. “You’re my friend, remember? I’m not just gonna switch you out for some random guy on the street. That’s not how it works.”

“But he deserves help more than me,” Bob explained, like he thought Tony was just being stubborn. Then he bit his lip, thinking through ways to help him. “Would it be okay if I gave him the money you gave me?”

“It’s yours, you can do what you want with it,” Tony said, before glancing back at Luke. That kind of money could be as much a blessing as a curse if he got caught out with it on the streets. “But it might not be a good idea to give him all of it. We don’t want him getting robbed for it.”

“We can't just leave him here," Bob insisted. “Tony, you don’t owe me anything—but please, we’ve gotta help him.”

And that was how Tony Stark ended up in a rundown place called Kathy’s Diner with a homeless man and an amnesiac, instead of the secluded and rather overpriced L’oiseau Bleu. Tony hadn’t actually been in many places like this, and was doing his best not to fidget. His mother used to sneak away with him when he was a kid, and take him to this little 50s style diner that was pretty similar. She used to love places like that, always happier there than the fancy restaurants their father would take them to.

It was why he always thought it was ridiculous when people tried to imply that she had married his father for his money. He knew she’d married him in spite of it.

"I don't have a home either," Bob was saying earnestly, when Tony sharply tuned back into the conversation. Bob was sitting in the booth beside him, inexplicably building a model log cabin out of his plate of french fries. "If Tony hadn't taken me in I'd be dead or worse.”

Tony was grateful that Bob left out that part about how he would have been the one to kill him.

Luke squinted at Tony and back at Bob from where he sat across from them . "He your sugar daddy or somethin'?"

"He does supply me with sugar—“ Bob started.

"Ah, no," Tony broke in quickly. "Bob's just a friend."

Luke snorted in a way that implied he doubted that, but decided to take another bite of his hamburger rather than attempt to dispute it. “Well, you didn’t have to buy me dinner,” he said gruffly. “Those kids weren’t gonna do nothing. They’re all talk.”

“They should watch what they say,” Bob frowned, “In my day, kids were taught to treat people with respect.”

Luke snorted. “In your day? Kid, you look younger than my son,” he said.

“In…Russia, things were very different,” Bob said, before grinning. “Anyway, I couldn’t just stand by and let ‘em corner you, ain’t no call for picking on someone two to one, and you’re half the size of just one of ‘em.”

“Didn’t know there was a Brooklyn in Russia,” Luke asked shrewdly.

“I’m from both,” Bob said quickly. “Russia, by way of Brooklyn.”

Tony was beginning to suspect he should have just made a cover for Bob, because telling someone without any memories to 'just be yourself' in a public setting when trying to be low profile was obviously not his best idea ever. He resisted the urge to bang his head against the table.

“Or possibly the other way around,” Bob added, as he began to eat away at his little french fry log house.

“You lose that in that in the service, then?” Luke asked, nodding to Bob’s metal hand. “And maybe take a few hits to the head?”

Bob went still for a moment, glancing down at his own left hand, and flexing his fingers before pulling his eyes back up to meet Luke’s. “I fell,” he said simply.

That was news to Tony, and he glanced over at Bob sharply. “What?”

“There was a—“ Bob trailed off, before glancing back at his plate. “I just remember falling. That’s how I died.”

“You don’t look very dead to me,” Luke told him, and Tony glared at him for beating him to the punch.

“It didn’t really stick,” Bob said wryly, glancing back up at Luke. “What about you? What happened to you?”

“Life happened, what do you think?” Luke snorted. “What, you want my whole life story?”

“Yes,” Bob said, pushing his plate aside to lean forward.

“That was rhetorical,” Luke snorted.

“What my friend here is getting at,” Tony said, wondering when he became the socially conscious one in any relationship, “is that we would like to help if we can. I can get you hooked up with a good shelter. They’ll give you a place to stay, help you find some work. If you want.”

“Don’t know of many shelters that actually do what they say,” Luke said.

“This one does,” Tony promised. “It’s the Maria Stark Shelter and Work Placement Center.”

“Shit, I thought so, but you’re actually Tony Stark,” Luke realized, before looking back at Bob in suspicion. “Christ. He really is an alien, isn’t he?”

Tony smirked, deciding that might be as good a cover story as any, these days. “It’s classified,” he said.

“You one of those Asgards, then?” he asked Bob. “Bob doesn’t sound like a very God-like name, but I bet that’s just a cover, huh?”

“I’m not an alien,” Bob said, frowning over at them. “I’m pretty sure.”

Tony felt instantly horrible, and leaned forward. “Of course you’re not,” he promised. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are aliens. Well. One is an alien. The other just kinda turns into a green rage monster, but he’s human most of the time.”

Luke snorted, before glancing back to Tony. “Why are you doing this?” he asked, watching him with suspicion. “This some PR thing?”

“Uh, no,” Tony said. “In fact, I’d really appreciate it if you never told anyone about any of this.”

“Then why do it?” Luke asked.

“We just want to help,” Bob said quietly. “I’ve been alone with no place to go before, and I wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer that way if I could stop it.”

Luke watched him for a moment before nodding and glancing at Tony. “What about you, Stark?”

“For the same reasons,” Tony admitted quietly. “And also just a little bit cause he talked me into it.”

“Well, you’re honest,” Luke laughed. “Been a long time since anyone cared what happened to me.” He squinted over at Tony. “I always thought from seeing you on the news you’d be a bit of a dick. They always say, never meet your heroes.”

Luke glanced down, picking up another french fry.

“Glad I was wrong,” he added.

- - - - -

The Maria Stark Shelter and Work Placement offices wouldn’t be open until the next day, so they ended up taking Luke home with them and setting him up on another floor in the Tower to get some rest. He’d had him brought some basic toiletries and spare clothes.

Honestly, Tony would have done it just for the look that Bob had given him like he’d hung the freakin’ moon, but by the end he suspected that wasn’t the only reason.

Luke was hilarious and surprisingly sanguine about Bob's quirks. He was also far more appreciative of Tony's limo than Bob, and Tony had made them all Shirley Temples—someone had replaced all the hard liquor, he suspected Happy—while Luke regaled them with funny stories about his time working construction back in the seventies.

Honestly, the whole night had been fun. Bob and Luke made for far better company than most of the people he met at the fancy events he was always going too. He'd have to invite Bob next time one came up, it should make for a much more interesting night.

He wasn’t sure exactly what was changing with him, so he wasn’t sure how to explain it when Pepper called demanding to know what he thought he was doing.

“I don’t even know how it happened,” he told her honestly.

“I’m just saying I would have liked a head's up that you're turning the Avengers Tower into a halfway house,” she said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

“How did you even find out?” Tony asked. “We just barely got back.”

“Derek told me,” she said.

“Who the hell is Derek?” Tony asked.

“He’s your new driver, Tony,” she said patiently.

“Oh,” Tony said. “I call him Happy Six Point Five.”

“Point Five?” Pepper started, before sighing. “Nevermind. I don’t want to know.”

“Well, I want him fired, he could be a SHIELD spy,” Tony decided.

“Derek isn’t reporting to SHIELD, he’s reporting to me,” Pepper told him wearily. “He’s my spy.”

“Right,” Tony said, pausing. He realized he might actually be getting a little paranoid, and then he re-round what she said. “Wait, why are you spying on me?”

“Because I want to make sure you’re not doing anything stupid,” she said. “I’m still trying to figure out if this qualifies. You’re the one seeing SHIELD spies everywhere, and you just brought in some guy off the streets to the Tower?”

“I’ve literally once brought home a brainwashed assassin, so this can’t be a surprise. Anyway, he’s not even on our floor,” Tony said. “I set him up on one of the empty guest floors. We’re going to hook him up at the shelter tomorrow, see if we can help him get back on his feet.”

“That’s…very nice,” Pepper said, as though she were waiting for the other shoe to drop. He couldn’t really blame her. He’d never been exactly up for social work—unless you counted working the high society.

“I know,” Tony sighed. “I think maybe I rescued Pollyanna, the Russian assassin edition.” He paused. “He’s also weirdly started to remind me of Captain Do-Right. God help us all when the two of them meet. They’ll probably have the Avengers rescuing kittens from trees.”

Pepper laughed brightly. "Well, what if instead of working for you, you ask if he wants to work for me? We have a number of charities, you know.”

“I’m not sure I want to be giving him any more ideas,” Tony said after a moment. “When I first tried to get him to leave the guy behind…he told me if I could only help one of them it should be the other guy. He’s not quite getting that he’s important yet. I don’t want him to throw himself into helping other people before he’s even…I don’t know. God, Pepper, honestly I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“No, that’s actually really—“ she broke off for a minute. “You’re right, Tony. I think you need to just keep doing what you’re doing. The rest will work itself out.”

Tony hoped that she was right, and she was Pepper, so she was almost definitely right. Instead of dwelling on everything, he just pulled on some comfortable sweatpants his favorite The Doors t-shirt, then headed back out to the living room where Bob was already waiting.

"Okay, so let's start your introduction to the 21st century through film," Tony told him, grinning.

Bob grinned back. He was wearing his Iron Man slippers and flannel pants with tiny Hulks on them. Those were okay, Tony decided. Bruce was his buddy.

"Pixy Stix?" Bob offered, holding one out.

Tony dropped down on the couch and picked up the remote, taking the candy with his other hand. He didn't even really realize what he'd done until he'd done it, just taken it from Bob and settled back into the couch, even though he usually couldn't stand to be handed anything by anyone—except Rhodey and Pepper, because they were Rhodey and Pepper.

It wasn't the first sign that Bob had slipped neatly past all of his carefully constructed defenses, but it was the most glaring one yet. What made it all the more surprising was that it wasn't even making him anxious, and he wasn't freaking out about it. If anything, he felt calmer and more content than he could remember being in too many years to count.

Maybe Bob wasn’t the only one that was starting to heal.

Chapter Text

Tony had taken Bob and Luke to the Stark Shelter the next morning, and the reactions of the staff to his presence there had been both a little hilarious and also a little bit of a wake up call, because it made Tony realize how long it had been since he had actually visited. He was pretty sure it had been the grand opening of the new building that he was there last, as he had incredible people to manage his charities and for the most part he figured they were all better off without his interference anyway.

But maybe he was a little bit wrong about that.

Predictably, they had all adored Bob. Tony had to firmly explain to them multiple times that Bob was coming back home with him, but he was definitely going to pass along Pepper’s job offer once Bob was doing a bit better. The trouble with that was figuring out how Bob was actually doing, because Tony was learning that he was an expert at pretending. It probably shouldn’t be surprising, considering the whole master assassin thing, but it kept catching him off guard.

Like right now, with Bob sitting at the counter, eating oatmeal like everything was perfectly fine.

“Bob?” Tony asked quietly, not completely able to disguise the panic in his own voice. “What happened?”

Bob looked up at him, frowning slightly. “What?” he asked.

Tony let out a breath, trying to remain calm. “You seem to be bleeding,” he finally said, which was sort of an understatement.

His blue t-shirt was soaked through at the shoulder, and the blood was spreading across the material like a very disturbing Rorschach. Bob glanced at it, then back at Tony, apparently unconcerned. “Oh, I couldn’t find any bandages,” he explained. “It’ll stop soon.” Then he frowned as though coming to realize something. “I’m sorry about the shirt. I’ll wash it.”

“I don’t care about the shirt,” Tony said with false calm, instead of what he really wanted to say, which was some variation of: oh my god what the hell?! “How did you get hurt?”

“Mandatory maintenance,” Bob explained, as he pushed away the oatmeal and sat back. “Technicians weren’t available, so I did it myself.”

“You did this to yourself?” Tony asked, trying to keep the horror out of his expression.

“I’ve watched them plenty of times, I know how,” Bob assured him. “It’s okay.”

“Know how to what, exactly?” Tony asked. “What did you do?”

“Had to tighten the anchor points,” he said. “I guess my advanced healing actually causes issues with the arm, it keeps trying to heal the wounds and push it out. Have to reinforce the connections if I’m out of Cyro for too long. It should be good for awhile now.”

“Okay,” Tony said, trying to keep his voice casual. It was obvious that Bob couldn’t see what the issue was with any of this, and his internal panic probably wouldn’t do either of them any good. “Do you think you could show me? Then I can find some bandages.”

“It’s not pretty,” Bob cautioned, but obediently pulled his shirt off over his head.

Tony kept his face expressionless, but ‘not pretty’ had been another understatement. The entire area around the seam of the metal arm was bleeding and inflamed, as though it were just installed. “Gonna be honest,” Tony admitted, “doesn’t look great. What exactly did you do?”

“They didn’t tell me much about the arm, but they would talk about it around me all the time,” he said. “I don’t think they knew I could understand them. I guess that a month or so after they first hooked up the arm, my skin started trying to heal beneath it, shoving out the connections. It was…painful.”

Tony didn’t really want to think of how bad it had to have been for Bob to admit to it being painful, and he swallowed hard. “Okay,” he said. “You said anchor points, right? So parts of the arm are anchored through your skin, and that’s what’s causing the issue? I mean, it has to be tapped into your nervous system, too, somehow.”

“Yeah, they used something experimental,” Bob said. “Apparently, there’s a shunt anchored to my bone and the connections run through it to hook into my nervous system. After awhile, my body starts to try and close the wound around the shunt. Same thing happens to the anchor points around the seam of my shoulder, and if not addressed it will lose structural integrity.”

The dissociated way he spoke about himself, and the terms like ‘structural integrity’ said absolutely nothing good about his treatment at the hands of Hydra. Not that Tony had held out any remaining hope in that regard after the hours of video he had watched. “There was nothing in the files I stole about the original surgery, and they redacted most of the actual specs around your arm and how they connected it,” Tony admitted. “I think I can help, but you’d have to let me look at it.”

“I already fixed it,” Bob said, looking at him in confusion.

“Uh huh,” Tony said. “Lovely work. Clearly, you should have gone into the medical profession.”

Bob gave him a withering look. Tony still sort of got a little thrill out of irritating him, because he considered the fact that he even could progress. “I can’t stitch up the wounds on the edge of the arm, because the wounds are required for it to interface properly,” he said. “They’ll scar over by tonight.”

“That may have been good enough for Hydra,” Tony said slowly, “but that pretty much guarantees that it’s not good. I think we can do better.”

“And if I want you to leave it alone?” Bob asked quietly.

Tony knew it was a test, just as sure as he knew if ordered Bob to let him look at his arm, he would allow it without further protest. There was a fine, fine line between honoring someone’s choices and letting someone self-destruct, and as someone that had been on the other side of it often enough himself, he knew that line pretty damn well.

And they hadn’t quite crossed it yet.

“Then I leave it alone,” Tony said easily. “We can stick a bandage on it and get on with our day—but there may come a time when it’s not that easy to let it go. There’s no telling what damage this might do to you in the long-term.”

Bob sighed and glanced back at his shoulder for a moment. The skin was inflamed in addition to the slow but steady bleeding, and it was honestly a little horrifying to look at. Tony was glad he wasn’t the sort to faint at the sight of blood. “What do you want to do?” Bob finally asked.

“Go to my lab, get it scanned, for starters,” Tony said casually, then promised, “It won’t hurt.”

Bob pulled his eyes back up to meet Tony’s. “I said I trusted you,” he said. “I meant it. And I don’t…I don’t really trust myself, right now. So…”

“Trust doesn’t mean you do everything I say,” Tony told him. “You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” Bob said wryly. “I know, I just…this isn’t normal, right? That this doesn’t bother me?”

“You’re not normal,” Tony told him. “That’s okay, though. I’m not either. God, I’d be so bored if I were normal, you have no idea.” He leaned across the counter, carefully meeting Bob’s eyes. “So, look, here’s the deal, we’re gonna scan the arm, and we’re going to see exactly what this ‘mandatory maintenance’ is, and then I’m going to figure out how to fix it. But from there, it’s going to be up to you what we do, because I can’t make your decisions for you. And really, I’d be pretty much the worst proxy ever. I make terrible decisions. Ask anyone.”

Bob just nodded, which would have to be good enough for now, and followed Tony to his lab. He was still shirtless, but the bleeding had slowed enough that it wasn’t dripping everywhere. Not that Tony cared about the floors—they’d seen worse—but he didn’t exactly want Pepper to drop by to find a blood trail. That kind of thing tended to upset her.

It helped a lot that Bob was more than comfortable in his lab these days, blowtorch experimentation and small fires not withstanding, and that Jarvis was brilliant enough to be able to scan things entirely non-invasively. Or, that Tony was brilliant enough to have created an AI that brilliant, really, but whatever.

“Alright, just need you to hold still for a minute, okay?” Tony asked. Bob nodded stiffly, and Tony didn’t want to prolong it any longer than he had to, so he quickly ran the small transmitter across his arm and shoulder, and all the way down the other side.

“That’s it?” Bob asked, when Tony stepped away.

“Yep,” Tony said. “Told you it wouldn’t hurt.”

“But how could you have everything you need?” he asked, leaning forward on the table, eyes wide and curious. He was engaging, which was good. Bob liked knowing how things worked, and if he helped this was going to go a hell of a lot quicker.

“Watch this,” Tony told him, and moved the 3-D image from his tablet right into the air with a flick of his hand. The hologram of Bob’s arm hovered between them, blue-tinted and complex. He reached out the rotate it, lowering it until the shoulder joint and the top of the arm was within Bob’s reach.

“Wow,” Bob said, leaning forward to run his eyes from the shoulder down to the tips of the fingers. “Can I touch it?”

“Sure,” Tony said. “If you push hard, your hand will go right through it, but with specific movements of intent, you can manipulate it.”

Bob gently skimmed his fingers along the surface, then twisted his hand, spinning the arm in place. Tony grinned, not surprised he’d gotten the hang of it almost instantly. Bob was a scarily fast learner.

“This is amazing,” Bob told him, his eyes lit up with an eerie blue glow from the light of the hologram. “You created this? I don’t think Hydra was familiar with this technology.”

“It’s mine,” Tony agreed. “Patented. Hammer-tech has a knock off, but it’s not interactive. It’s basically just a light show.” He stepped closer. “This one, is actually a light model of your actual arm. Which means you can show me exactly what you did.”

Bob stilled, some of the excitement fading as he spun the arm back into place. “Okay,” he said. “There’s a release for the panel near the shoulder. I’m not sure how to open it with a hologram.”

“Jarvis has already analyzed the mechanics of the arm,” Tony explained. “The hologram should do anything the real thing does, so just do what you did earlier.”

Bob reached out and delicately pressed some of the panels, in a random sequence obviously meant not to be hit on accident, causing the main piece of the shoulder—complete with its red star—to lift up. He flicked it all the way open with a move of his fingers, catching on to handling the hologram, and then leaned up on his elbows to look inside.

Tony leaned over too, and let out a shaky breath. He could see the shunt Bob had mentioned, pressed up into the stitched up skin of his shoulder. There was very little left of his flesh arm itself, and he could see a complex working of small blades around the shunt. “What’s with the blades?” he asked nervously, even though the was pretty sure he already knew.

Bob leaned up again, and twisted a small valve on the hologram arm, causing the small blades to twist around the shunt, borrowing further up into the holographic skin of his arm. “It’s to clear out healed tissue,” Bob explained dispassionately, “and make sure the scar tissue doesn’t get thick enough to cut off access to the shunt. They considered it an inelegant solution, but expedient.”

“Jarvis, remove the outer casing of the arm,” Tony instructed, even though he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to like what it revealed.

He was right.

There were also sharp pins around the seams of the arm, from the front of the shoulder all the way to the back, anchoring it to the bone of his shoulder blade straight through his skin. They moved when the valve was turned as well, pressing tighter into the skin with each turn like it was just tightening up some loose screws.

He could see where scar tissue was layered on top of scar tissue, his body constantly trying to push out or heal around the metal that had been so brutally attached.

Bob had turned that valve himself, hard enough and tight enough to reopen all the old wounds. Mandatory maintenance, he’d said. They’d probably done it to him countless times. He pushed himself slightly away.

“Are you okay?” Bob asked in concern, glancing up. “Tony—“

“Fine, absolutely fine,” Tony said, even though he felt queasy. “Just a little tiny bit horrified.”

“Why?” Bob asked, glancing back at the hologram.

“This is basically a torture device,” he said, feeling even sicker about his earlier admiration of it as he realized the extent of Hydra’s disregard. He couldn’t even focus on the brilliant interworkings of the hand and wrist, too caught up in the horror that was the connection points. “They had fifty years, and this was the best they could do?”

“Comfort was not a priority,” Bob explained. “I was functional.”

“Functional,” Tony echoed. “We need to discuss what that means. You said when I first brought you here that the pain wasn’t enough to impede your functioning. I need you to tell me how bad it is on a scale of one to ten.”

“Maybe a one?” Bob said uncertainty.

“Right, we probably need to adjust the curve on the pain scale,” Tony said, because it was obvious his pain tolerance was off the charts. He paused, trying to figure out how to measure pain in someone that didn’t really know anything else. “Okay, when you did your…maintenance earlier, that hurt, right? What level of pain was that?”

“Maybe a five?” Bob said. “It’s mostly back to a one now though.”

“Okay,” Tony said. He figured if he had blades ripping through his shoulder, and pins driving themselves back into his bones, all whilst entirely conscious, he’d probably be in screaming agony and definitely at a ten. Which meant Bob was probably at about a six all the time. “Do you want something for the pain?”

“No,” Bob said quickly. “I don’t—no.”

That was obviously another Hydra landmine, and Tony pushed down the anger that he couldn’t even offer that little bit of relief. A least the fact that Bob was saying no to anything at all was a good sign, even if Tony wished he could give him some painkillers. “Will you let me bandage your arm at least?” he asked.

Bob shrugged, and Tony quickly grabbed one of his first aid kits—they kept magically appearing around his lab, he was pretty sure Rhodey and Jarvis were in on that one together—and wrapped Bob’s shoulder carefully with gauze. It didn’t immediately soak through with blood, so there was that.

“Thank you,” Bob told him quietly, as he taped the gauze with the medical tape.

The gratitude still kind of caught Tony off guard, and he sat back, examining his handiwork with the gauze. “You’re welcome,” he said.

After he got Bob all set up with a new shirt and firm instructions to come find him if he started bleeding again, he went back to the lab to go over the scans he’d taken.

He knew he wouldn’t be getting any sleep that night.

- - - - -

Eight different prototypes and one awkward keyboard nap later, Tony wasn’t any closer to a solution.

Any functioning arm would have to be wired internally, and Bob’s healing factor would continue to gum up the works by trying to heal in and around it. He could build the most beautiful, most functional prosthesis in the world, and he still didn’t have a clue how he could put it on him without causing just as much damage as the one he already had.

But he knew someone that might.

“It’s an intriguing problem,” Helen Cho said thoughtfully from his view screen, before frowning delicately. “Captain Rogers hasn’t lost an arm, has he?”

“Ah, no,” Tony said. “He’s not the patient.”

“The level of cellular regeneration you’re describing…it’s another enhanced individual?” she prompted.

“Remember how I helped you solve that wiring issue with the Cradle, and you said you’d owe me one?” Tony started.

She huffed out a sound that was some sort of cross between a laugh and a sigh. “I’m not going to like this, am I?” she asked.

“We’ve got to keep this confidential,” Tony said. “No SHEILD. No anyone. Just us.”

“I don’t think this line is secure,” she cautioned.

“It is,” Tony promised. “Jarvis is making sure of it.”

“Then you have my full attention,” she said.

“The patient is a liberated prisoner of war,” Tony explained. “He was experimented on and fitted with an advanced prosthetic arm. I’ve sent you the scans.”

Helen glanced away from the camera as she received the files, and Tony could see the exact moment when she started to understand what she was seeing. “This isn’t a prosthesis,” she said sickly, “this is a weapon, maybe to be used against the one they put it on even more than anyone else.”

“The thought did cross my mind,” Tony agreed.

Hydra didn’t use just one type of conditioning to control Bob. They’d had to use every trick they could think of to try and keep him under control, and even then they were so terrified of him that they barely kept him out of cyro for more than three days at a time. Keeping him in constant pain, dependent on them for maintenance, was just another measure of control.

“I can build an arm without the built-in torture bits,” Tony explained, “but it won’t actually fix the root problem.”

“I understand your dilemma,” Helen said after a moment, “but the Cradle cannot generate bone tissue. I’m afraid its capabilities still fall short of being able to reproduce an entire limb. I’m not sure what you think I can do.”

“I know exactly what the Cradle is capable of,” Tony told her, and sent her the specs for the most recent prosthetic arm he’d been working on, and the simulations he’d drawn up for creating it. “It’s just a matter of what it needs in order to do it.”

“Tony,” she breathed, once she received the files. “This is absolutely brilliant.”

“Think you can work with that?” he asked, falsely casual.

“I know that I can,” she promised, her quiet confidence coming through in her voice. “When do you want to start?”

“How soon can you be here?” Tony asked, flashing her a grin.

"For you?" she asked, grinning wryly. "The flight to New York is fourteen hours. Give me twenty four."

She ended the call, and Tony was excited about working with her again for about ten seconds before he realized that didn't leave him with much time to sell Bob on his crazy idea—still, in hindsight, he probably shouldn’t have tried to do it when he’d been up for going on twenty-six hours with no sleep.

Because Bob was already staring at him like he was crazy, and he hadn’t even started with the sales pitch yet.

“Why did you build so many prosthetic arms?” Bob asked, when he followed him back into the lab, because Tony had forgotten to hide the prototypes, and they were all just sort of sitting on the table in what amounted to a pretty disturbing pile. One was giving a peace sign, another the Vulcan Salute.

They were not the best examples of Tony’s own mental health.

“Ignore them, they’re barely even working models,” Tony told him, shoving them off the table with a sweeping motion of his arm.

Bob stared at him in disbelief. “Tony, when was the last time you slept? Did you even sleep at all last night?”

Bob had fallen asleep himself sometime in the middle of the afternoon while Tony was on arm number two, and then had kind of just went into hibernation. Tony had been a little freaked out until he realized Bob’s crazy super solider body was putting everything it had into healing. He remembered then that Steve had taken a ten hour nap after the alien invasion, and woken up without a mark.

Bob slept through most of the day and then all through the night, but he’d removed the bandages this morning and the wounds already looked like they were months old. It would be a little spooky if he wasn’t so grateful for it.

“Tony?” Bob questioned worriedly, which made Tony realize he’d probably been staring at him in contemplative silence for the last minute or so.

“I slept last night,” Tony promised quickly. “Can’t you still see the imprint of ‘SDFGH’ on my cheek from the keyboard?”

Bob narrowed his eyes, and crossed his arms, looking eerily like Pepper. “You need to actually sleep,” he said. “You shouldn’t be doing this all for me, I’m not—“

“Don’t finish that thought,” Tony told him, narrowing his own eyes. “I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights over ridiculous things, like trying to make a robot pig that can fly. Don’t ask, it was a whole thing with Rhodey. The point is, this wasn’t one of them. This is important. You’re important.”

Bob knelt down and picked up one of the arm prototypes that Tony had carelessly thrown to the floor. “These do look amazing,” he said. “But how did you make all of these in just one day?”

“That’s a dud,” Tony said, gently taking it from him just to toss it somewhere behind his head. “These are all useless. Ignore them. They’re not why I brought you here.”

“Why are there six empty Red Bulls in this trash can?” Bob asked, frowning adorably as he picked it up, before turning to glare at him. “You do know there’s a daily consumption limit—“

“Pepper is ruining you, I swear,” Tony told him, grabbing the trash can from him to shove it behind him. “Ignore those too. Okay, look, I need to show you something.”

Tony stepped back and then flicked the image from his tablet to the table in front of them with his hand. A metal skeleton of an arm appeared in hologram between them—a perfect gleaming replica of the human bone structure, with seamless connections that made it all just a bit sleeker than the real thing.

“That is so cool,” Bob said, flashing a grin. He leaned over it, looking across it. “Is this the internal structure for another prototype?”

“Uh…sort of?” Tony said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I mean, this would be the only metal component of the arm.”

“Not that it isn’t amazing, and I’m not trying to sound ungrateful,” Bob said slowly, glancing at him with a raised eyebrow, “but are you trying to turn me into Skeletor?”

“How do you even know about Skeletor?” Tony demanded.

“Jarvis introduced me to Saturday morning cartoons,” Bob said, looking up with a grin. “And you’re avoiding the question.”

“Right, well,” Tony said, “this isn’t the finished product, it’s just most of my contribution.” He tapped at his tablet, and muscle and flesh appeared across the arm, leaving it looking disembodied and very human.

“Is this a joke?” Bob asked quietly.

“What? No—“ Tony said, setting the tablet aside to face him. “Look, I’ve been thinking this through, okay. And I could make you the best prosthetic arm in the world, and it still wouldn't entirely solve the issue. It has to connect to your bones and your nervous system to work properly, and that means your healing factor is going to keep rejecting the prothesis and trying to heal over it. But what if instead of fighting against your healing, we encouraged it?”

“Pretty sure I can't regrow an arm,” Bob said wryly.

“No, I know, but what if there was a way someone else could?” Tony asked, reaching back for the table to throw up a biography of Helen. “This is the lovely Helen Cho. She sort of does with biology what I do with mechanics—and she’s created what she calls the Regeneration Cradle. It basically writes cells on command, to heal injuries or provide advanced skin grafts.”

He tossed a small video to the holoscreen, displaying the Regeneration Cradle closing a wound that would have taken months to heal in less than five minutes. Bob’s eyes widened, as he stepped closer to watch.

“It’s like a 3-D printer for people,” Bob said, leaning over it in surprise.

“Yeah, pretty much exactly,” Tony said, grinning over at him, pleased at the immediate insight. “What it can’t do, at least not yet, is replicate bone tissue. With the right template, it can regenerate and replicate nerves, blood vessels, muscle and skin—it just needs something to build around. That’s where I come in.”

“You want to have that regenerate tissue around the prosthetic?” Bob realized.

“I want the Cradle to print you a skeleton out of metal, and then rebuild an arm around it,” Tony countered. “We can use your right arm as a mirrored template, and by regenerating the tissue, we solve the problem of your healing factor trying push out the prosthesis—just gotta fool it into thinking the metal is bone, which should be easy enough considering tissue doesn’t have a consciousness so how would it know the difference? And the arm will be almost as strong as this one, but it will have a new breakable fleshy outside, so you’re gonna have to watch how hard you punch with it.”

“I don’t want to punch anyone,” Bob said quietly.

“Even better,” Tony told him brightly.

“This is insane,” Bob told him after a moment. “I’m not worth all this trouble, Tony. I’m fine with my current arm. I don’t want you to—let’s just forget about this, okay?”

“Helen’s sort of already on her way here,” Tony admitted.

Bob sighed. “You said—“

“I know what I said,” Tony said. “And it’s still your choice. We can make her visit purely theoretical—we’ll need to figure out a way to utilize the Cradle to handle other materials, one way or another. It’s something we’d do for fun anyway, I promise. But I hope you consider it. You shouldn’t have to live with pain, and this is one thing…well, it’s one thing I might actually be able to fix.”

He stepped closer to the table, looking across to meet Bob’s eyes. “I know this is moving fast, but we’re kind of on a tight timeline,” he said. “You haven’t been out a cryo a month and you already had to do your….maintenance, which means we have less than a month until you need to do it again.” He let out a breath. “I’m gonna be honest. I really don’t want you ever doing that again.”

“Did you tell her about me?” Bob asked cautiously. “The doctor?”

“I told her the basics,” he admitted. “I trust her. She’s SHIELD affiliated, but she doesn’t work for them. She works at the U-Gin Genetics Research Lab, based out of South Korea. She only cares about helping people. She doesn’t have any other agenda.”

“She should know the truth about me,” Bob said after a moment. “She should know who it is she’s being asked to help.”

Tony wanted to protest, because he knew Helen wouldn’t care. She would understand, same as Tony did, that Bob wasn’t responsible for what he had done under Hydra’s control. She would never withhold her help from someone that had been through as much as he had—if anything, it would probably motivate her more.

But maybe it was important for Bob to know that, too.

“I’ll send her the files,” he promised.

- - - - -

When Helen stepped out of the elevator to the med lab floor of Stark Tower, she looked even worse than Tony did. Tony had finally managed at least a few hours sleep, but she didn't look like she'd had any. He could tell she’d been crying, and she looked utterly shaken as she started towards him.

Behind her, some of Tony’s security guards were carefully carrying in the Cradle. Normally, Helen would have been micro-managing them, but she didn’t even glance back at them.

“I couldn’t watch them all,” Helen said quietly, when she reached him. “I tried.”

Tony winced, wondering if he should have excluded all of the video files. As it was, he’d only excluded the one. He thought she should have access to the whole picture, but he wasn’t sharing the file with his parents with anyone.

“Sorry,” he said. “I promised him I’d send them. He thinks you won’t want to help him once you know what he’s done. I’m hoping he’s wrong about that.”

“What he’s capable of is terrifying,” she admitted. “But what they did to him was…something I don’t even have a word for. I knew it would be bad, just from the scans you sent of the arm. But I had no idea.” She looked over to meet his eyes. “And they’re still torturing him.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. He didn’t think Bob would ever be completely free of what Hydra had done to him, but he really hoped they could free him at least from this. “You still up for fixing that?”

“Absolutely,” Helen said firmly.

“Okay then,” he said. “Let’s introduce you.”

Bob had come with him down to the medical lab—he’d been anxious and quieter than usual, shuffling around the lab and helping Tony with the preparations. Once everything was ready, Tony had started running simulations on his StarkPad and Bob had dropped down on the couch to fiddle with his own.

He could tell Helen was a little nervous herself about meeting the infamous Winter Soldier, and he smirked as her apprehension faded into bemusement the moment she caught sight of him. Bob was wearing the Mjölnir shirt again, with ripped jeans and sneakers, and was laid out on the couch wearing a pair of Beats headphones. Even with the metal arm, he looked more like a grad student than he did the terrifying assassin he’d been.

“Is that—“ she started, uncertainly.

“Yep,” Tony said. “I’m pretty sure he could kill us all while blindfolded, but it’s still kinda hard to take him seriously once you’ve seen him in Hulk pajamas gnawing on a Pixy Stix.”

Helen smiled suddenly, brighter than Tony had ever managed to get out of her, and he figured another one had fallen victim to Bob’s charms. And he hadn’t even said anything yet. Or moved.

“Hey, Bob,” Tony called.

Bob sat up, tugging the headphones down around his neck. Blinking nervously at Helen. Tony was pretty sure he’d been assessing Helen since the moment she came off the elevator, but was playing up the oblivious innocent act he was getting far too good at in order to put her at ease. Bob jumped up and came over to greet her, his StarkPad still in his hand. “Dr. Cho,” he said formally, “it’s nice to meet you.”

She smiled at him, though her attention was instantly caught by the display on his StarkPad. “You’re reading one of my papers,” she said in surprise. “In Korean.”

“Yeah,” Bob said, glancing back at it, smiling shyly. “Pretty sure I’m supposed to be fluent in Korean, but it’s still like you’re speaking in an entirely different language. It’s all a bit over my head.”

“I’d be happy to clarify any points of confusion,” Helen offered at once. “I of course want you to be completely comfortable with the process.”

He frowned slightly, glancing questioningly at Tony before looking back at her. “Did you read the files Tony sent yet?” he asked carefully.

“I couldn’t go through them all,” Helen said, and Bob flinched. “What I mean is—it wasn’t necessary for me to go through them all. I read enough to be entirely confident in my choice to help you. Even if I didn’t owe Tony a favor, I’d be here anyway.”

Bob looked at Tony then, a little exasperated. “Don’t look at me like that,” Tony said. “I probably would have wasted the favor on getting her to come to one of my parties if you hadn’t shown up. This is best for everyone.”

“He really would have,” Helen said, turning back to Bob with a small grin, leaning forward conspiratorially. “But he could have gotten me to go any time if Thor was there. You like him too, I see.”

“Thor?” Bob asked in confusion. “Oh, the Asgardian? Sure, he’s alright.”

Helen’s eyes narrowed a little, and Tony rolled his. “He hasn’t met him,” he explained, before she thought Bob had anything against her precious Thor. “Jarvis just bought him that shirt because he thinks he’s hilarious.”

“Sir, the shirt fit all of your specifications,” Jarvis interrupted primly. “I assure you I had no ulterior motives in requesting its purchase.”

“Uh huh,” Tony said suspiciously. “Anyway, don’t worry, Helen. I’m sure Thor will sweep him off his feet as soon as they meet.”

Helen went a little starry-eyed. “Yes, well, we’re getting side-tracked,” she said. “We should start preparations. We really need to get that arm off of you as soon as possible.”

Bob’s eyes went wide, and he stumbled back a step. “I didn’t—“ he started haltingly. “I sort of figured you wouldn’t want to do it, once you knew. So I haven’t actually…”

“He’s not sure if he wants to do the surgery,” Tony clarified.

Helen narrowed her eyes at him. “Tony—“

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I sort of sprung it on him after you were already on your way here. But I figured I’d more than make up for it in theoretical research if he decides he wants to do something else.”

He smiled at her, but it didn’t seem to work. Helen had always been surprisingly immune to his own charms, which if he was being honest, was most of the reason he liked her. She held her own against him, and didn’t let him get away with anything. She was basically Pepper with a scalpel.

Which was terrifying.

She turned back to Bob. “I will not be performing any type of procedure on someone that doesn’t want it,” Helen said clearly. “I want you to know that what happens is entirely up to you. And if you have any questions at all while you’re making your decision, I will do my best to answer them.”

“Tony said you were going to modify the Cradle to utilize other materials,” he said. “So you’re planning to modify it to print simulated bone using some kind of metal?”

“Yes,” Helen said, grinning widely, obviously impressed. Tony already knew how quick Bob was, so he wandered over to where they’d left the Cradle, and occupied himself reviewing the changes Helen had made to it since the last time he’d worked on it. “And maybe not just the bone. Once we adapt the Cradle to integrate with metal materials in the printing processes, the possibilities will be endless. We could make a stronger, better arm. I’m more than a little irritated with myself that it never occurred to me to try it before.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Tony called to her. “It was your job to figure out how to replicate the messy, fleshy stuff. Me? I like working with metal. We all have our specialities.”

“That is why I value your partnership, Tony,” she said, smiling wryly. “Though I do hope the majority of your contributions may someday be rendered obsolete.”

“That’s the plan,” Tony agreed easily.

“I understand how the integration would work with metal,” Bob started, “but I’m not sure I understand how you’re able to ‘print’ living cells.”

“Printing is a bit of a misnomer, actually,” Helen admitted. “It’s more like a cloning process, really. We use your own cells as a template, and replicate them.”

“It’s like using the clone stamp in Photoshop,” Tony told him.

Bob ignored him, which Tony figured was fair. “So you want to clone my right arm, basically?” he asked.

Helen smiled. “Basically,” she admitted. “Though it’s a little more complex than that. It’s on a much smaller scale—we’re not regrowing the arm, we’re recreating the cells that make it up. It’ll be new, and not an exact copy. You won’t have fingerprints, for example. We’re not quite there yet. But I can do fingernails, and it will be almost indistinguishable from your other hand, at least on the surface.”

“And it wouldn’t hurt anymore?” Bob asked quietly.

“As the Cradle is reproducing your own cells, we’re going to make your advanced healing work for us instead of against us,” she explained. “By all accounts you aren’t able to regrow bone, so there’s no reason to suspect the metal skeleton should be rejected. The trouble you’re having now is that the arm is keeping your skin from healing properly and closing the wounds. That would no longer be an issue.”

“It’s our best bet,” Tony put in quietly. He didn’t really like that this solution was mostly out of his hands—but he wasn’t used to dealing with the human body, and he couldn’t think of any way to attach any of the awesome prosthetic arms he might create. This was the best option they had, but Bob didn’t look like he wanted to take it.

Bob looked away from both of them. “When would it happen?”

“If you agree,” Helen said, emphasizing the need for his consent, “we should be ready to have the surgery within the next two days. Knowing Tony, maybe as soon as tomorrow night.”

“It’ll be a cakewalk,” Tony said. “Most of the functionality we need already exists in the Cradle. We could wire it up to make you an arm out of titanium or admantium no problem, though the vibranium that arm of yours is made of is almost priceless. Thought that might be one thing you might want to keep.”

Bob looked down at his metal hand, closing it to a fist as he watched the panels shift. “Do I have to decide right now?” he asked quietly.

“No,” Tony said carefully. “But if you don’t want this—then we need to start brainstorming other options. I don’t want to leave you in pain. I’ll need to track down Bruce, he might—“

“Tony,” Helen chided, carefully stepping between them. “No one is going to rush you,” she promised. “Not even Tony, you can just ignore him. I do it all the time.”

“Hey,” Tony protested half-heartedly.

“But this will work, I’m sure of it,” she promised, “if this is what you want.”

“Okay, I just—just let me,“ Bob started, seeming more uncertain than Tony could remember seeing him, since that first night.

“Take as long as you need,” Helen said kindly, and Bob took the out she’d given him to slip quickly past them and right into the elevator.

- - - - -

Helen reluctantly went to one of his guest suites to get some sleep, after Tony promised not to touch the Cradle without her supervision—and Jarvis promised to inform her if he tried. They were planning to start on the modifications in the morning, regardless of Bob’s decision.

Helen was excited for the possible future applications of the technology—Tony really just wanted to use it for Bob. He should probably leave Bob alone, and let him process everything—but Tony’d never been any good at sitting by and waiting for things to happen.

He liked to make them happen.

“Jarvis, where is Bob?” Tony asked, when he didn’t find him watching television. “Is he in the library?”

“He is on the outside landing,” Jarvis said.

Tony froze. Jarvis sounded unconcerned enough, and Bob was entirely allowed to be outside on the landing if he wanted—but it was late, and cold, and Tony doubted he’d bothered with a coat.

So rushing to the doors and throwing himself out onto the landing was completely justified. Bob didn’t even look at him, just kept his eyes on the city. “You said I could come out here,” he said calmly.

“Yeah,” Tony said, watching him cautiously. Bob was sitting on the edge, his feet hanging out over the city. “You mind if I’m here, too?”

Bob shrugged, and Tony dropped down beside him, letting his own legs dangle off the side, too. There was no railing, which had been a stylistic choice that Tony was now regretting. He’d mostly only planned to be out here when wearing a suit that could fly, and he hadn’t expected anyone else to be out here at all.

But Bob was terrifying competent, so he probably wasn’t going to slip and fall.

It didn’t stop Tony worrying, and he wondered briefly if this was how Pepper felt about him all the time.

“Helen’s nice,” Bob said finally.

“Yeah, but that’s not what you’re out here thinking about,” Tony said. “You’re thinking you don’t deserve her help. You’re thinking you should keep the arm you have because you want the pain as a reminder, and because you want to punish yourself.”

“Tony,” Bob sighed.

“Give me another reason, and I’ll leave you alone,” Tony said. “I said it’s your choice, and it is. I just want to make sure you’re making it for the right reasons.”

“It’s not about punishing myself,” Bob insisted. “I don’t want to be in pain. It’s not about that.”

“That’s good,” Tony said, slightly surprised. “You are just, amazingly sane, considering, you know that? I’ll let Helen know—“

“I’m not saying the answer is yes,” Bob interrupted quietly. “That’s just not…I remember waking up, you know, while they were cutting off what was left of my arm.”

“Jesus,” Tony cursed, unable to stop himself. There hadn’t been anything in the files he found about that, or really the initial training—and he used the term loosely—of the Winter Soldier at all, but he didn’t know why he continued to be surprised by them at this point. “I had no idea.”

“The next time I woke up, I had this,” Bob said, laying his left hand across his lap, palm up. He flexed his fingers. “It hurt like it was real, and I could feel pressure. It was part of me. I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t want it, but it was part of me. I guess I became dependent on it, even if part of me hated it.”

“Sounds like an abusive relationship,” Tony pointed out.

“You think I’m in an abusive relationship with my hand?” Bob asked, raising an eyebrow. “Well, I suppose there’s some truth to it.”

“You have a dirty mind, Bob,” Tony said, grinning.

Bob laughed, but looked back out at the skyline. “I don’t think I’m explaining it right,” he said. “I know it’s hurting me, but it just…I guess I just don’t know what I’ll be, without it.”

“It won’t change who you are,” Tony promised. “This isn’t like what they did. This isn’t about hurting you or making you a weapon, it’s about trying to help you heal.” He paused for a moment. “But we do have some other ideas, a few modifications we can make so you can keep your current arm. It would require surgeries every few weeks, at least until we—“

Bob shook his head. “I would never ask you to do that, and I’m definitely not signing up for more surgeries than absolutely necessary,” he said wryly.

Tony forced himself not to say anything else. He wanted to give another speech, he wanted Bob to agree to let them help him—but Helen had already reminded him of the pressure he was putting on Bob to do what he wanted. He didn’t mean to, but the thought of that arm ripping him apart just to stay functional was driving him crazy.

Tony wanted to fix it.

But Bob had to want him to fix it, too.

“Whatever you want,” Tony said, instead of all the things he wanted to say. “We’ll work something out, you just have to tell me. It’s your choice.”

“I don’t want anything of theirs,” Bob said after a moment, and looked back at Tony, his gaze steady and sure. “I want it gone. That’s my choice.”

Chapter Text

Bob spent the next two days with them in the medical lab, observing quietly for the most part, though he’d ask a question every once and awhile that would make Helen light up like he’d only ever seen her do that one time she met Thor. She answered his questions with far more patience that she’d ever answered his.

But Tony was absolutely not jealous. Bob definitely preferred mechanics to medicine, anyway—and him to Helen. Probably. Whatever. The point was he was not jealous.

“I’m not jealous,” he insisted.

Helen smirked at him, and it was unbecoming of her. “Tony, you have been frowning at me for the last hour,” she told him.

Bob had offered to go make them all something to eat—which meant he was pretty sure they were going to end up with some variation of Fruit Loops or peanut butter sandwiches—and Helen had taken the opportunity to imply that he might actually be jealous. Of her. Ha.

She was just lucky she was irreplaceable.

“I’m anxious,” Tony said. “This is anxiousness. I can see why you’re having trouble recognizing it, it’s very uncommon for me.”

Her lips stayed tilted up. “Okay,” she said. “He’s far more interested in integrating the Cradle with your metals than he is with the Cradle itself, just so you know. I don’t think I’ll be stealing him away from you.”

“He’s a person. He can’t be stolen,” Tony said tightly, the thought triggering memories of Bob’s first night. Have I been traded or stolen?

Helen’s smile slipped. “That’s not what I meant,” she said.

“I know,” Tony said, sighing as he ran a hand down his face. “I’m sorry.”

“I’ve never seen you like this, Tony,” she said in concern, the teasing tone she had been using earlier had disappeared completely. As irritating as it had been, Tony missed it the moment it was it was gone, because he didn’t want to have this conversation for real. “Do you—“

Tony was saved by Bob’s timely reappearance, as Helen snapped her mouth shut the moment he stepped out of the elevator. He had a serving tray Tony had no idea he even owned, and he dropped it onto one of the tables. Tony leaned over, and there were three plates with peanut butter sandwiches.

“Really?” he sighed, “again?”

“You like peanut butter,” Bob told him.

“I do,” Tony agreed. “I’m just liking it a little less now that we’re having it every single day. Once we fix your arm, I’m taking you out to a proper dinner. ” Bob opened his mouth excitedly, and Tony quickly cut him off. “Not Kathy’s Diner, either!”

“But you liked it there, too,” Bob said.

“Variety is the spice of life,” Tony told him.

Helen just watched them with a slight grin. “Speaking of going out to eat,” she said cautiously, “I invited Pepper out to lunch while I’m here. I didn’t say anything, but she was concerned why I came to New York so suddenly. She does know about Bob, doesn’t she?”

Tony paused in picking at his sandwich, looking up at her with horror as he read between the lines—because he hadn’t actually told Pepper about the problems with Bob’s arm, but Pepper was Pepper, so she would know he didn’t invite Helen over to hang out just to watch Pixar with him and Bob. “I knew I was forgetting something,” he said, before jumping up and heading to the table by the elevator.

He’d left his phone there with instructions to Jarvis that he wasn’t to be disturbed unless it was an emergency—and there were twelve missed calls from Pepper. He definitely should have set a parameters to alert him to that.

“Shit,” he muttered, before quickly calling her back. “Pepper, my light, my tulip—“

“Tony, finally, what—” Pepper started, and then faltered. “Did you just call me your tulip?”

"It's a perfectly acceptable form of address," Tony said.

"Don't change the subject!" Pepper cried.

“I didn’t!” he protested. “You—“

“I know something’s going on,” Pepper said. “You can’t keep hiding things from me, Tony. I can’t take it anymore. You wouldn’t have invited Helen down on this short notice unless it was something serious. Are you okay? Is Bob?”

“I’m fine,” Tony said quickly. “I was going to tell you. I just…got distracted. You know me when I’m working on a problem.”

Pepper sucked in a breath. “What’s wrong with Bob?” she demanded.

“Bob’s fine, too,” Tony said quickly. “Really. It’s just—“

“You haven’t been concerned with anything but Bob for weeks,” Pepper said. “If Helen’s not here for you, she’s here for him. I need you to tell me what’s going on.”

“I resent that,” Tony told her. “I’ve been working on other stuff. I’ve actually accomplished a lot. I’m also investigating SHIELD, you know, just in all my spare downtime. And I invented a toaster that burns little Cylons onto the bread.”

“Those already existed, you didn’t invent them. And anyway, you built that for Bob, because he’s the only one that will watch that show with you,” she pointed out.

“That’s besides the point,” Tony said defensively.

“Tony, you’re stalling,” Pepper said impatiently, before pausing to take a tired breath. “Is he alright?”

“He’s fine, really,” Tony assured her. “I mean, as fine as he was, anyway. There’s just a bit of an issue with the arm.”

“What kind of issue?” she demanded.

Tony wasn’t quite sure how to describe the horror that was the arm, because it spoke to the kind of treatment that Bob had faced for so many years. He’d so far managed to keep the worst of it from Pepper, though he knew she was smart enough to have filled in all the blanks. “It’s hurting him,” he finally said. “We’re going to make it stop.”

“Why didn’t you let me know what’s going on?” she asked. “I care about him, too, Tony.”

“I know, and that’s why. I didn’t want you to panic,” Tony said.

“I am not panicking,” Pepper snapped. “This is a perfectly reasonable reaction, and one that could have been avoided if you’d just told me yourself.”

“I did tell you myself,” he pointed out, and then she hung up on him with an angry mutter, which he figured was fair.

He walked back into the room and Bob raised an eyebrow at him. “How’s Pepper?” he asked.

“We’re getting you a phone,” Tony told him. “That way she won’t just be mad at me anymore when I forget to tell her things.”

Bob grinned. “Really?” he asked.

Tony was caught off guard by his excitement, and then cursed to himself for not thinking of it sooner. Pepper had warned him constantly about the consequences of keeping Bob too isolated here—but the urge to keep him protected was pretty hard to fight against. He had to find some kind of balance.

“Yeah,” he said. “We’ll get me, Pepper and Helen all programmed in. And hey, I just got Luke a Starkphone, so him too.”

Bob grinned at him brightly, and Tony valiantly managed not to melt, but couldn’t quite resist grinning back.

“Ahem,” Jarvis said. “Sir, you seem to be forgetting someone.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Calm down, you know you’ll be number one on his speed dial,” he promised. “You’ll come built in.”

“I should hope so, Sir,” Jarvis said snidely.

“I swear you never used to be such a drama queen,” Tony told him, glancing at over at Bob. “Is this your doing?”

Bob just laughed and Helen smiled over at them both. “I hate to interrupt,” she said, “but we’re ready for the test.”

She stepped past them and back over to the Cradle. “For you,” she addressed Bob, “the Cradle will run on two programs, basically—one using the metal to create the bone structure, and another to replicate your own living cells and print the flesh around it. But for now, we’re just going to run the secondary program, to make sure the integration to utilize a metal alloy was successful.”

Tony reached out and grabbed a canister full of titanium. “We’re going to test with titanium,” he added. “But I’d still like to use vibranium for yours. It’s got all the benefits without some of the downsides. Vibranium is also a hell of a lot lighter, though you’re going to be in for an adjustment either way, as going from a full metal arm to a partial metal arm is going to throw off your equilibrium.”

“Right,” Bob agreed, biting his lip as he leaned across the table, watching Tony hook up the canister to the cradle. “It only took me a couple days to get used to the arm though, I should be fine.”

“You remember that?” Tony asked curiously, glancing back at him.

Bob went still, glancing away like he hadn’t meant to reveal that. “Some. Flashes,” he said. “It wasn’t—they’re not good memories, but I remember it wasn’t much an adjustment. That was one of the easier things.”

“Well, this should be even easier,” Helen promised, as she glanced at her readings, then started the sequence. “It should take about an hour to create the metal skeleton. So, if you boys don’t mind, I’m going to go try and get some sleep. Let me know if something goes wrong, otherwise I’ll be back in a couple hours to go over the logs.”

“Aye, aye,” Tony told her, tossing a salute as she spun to leave with a roll of her eyes.

There wasn’t much for Tony or Bob to do, either, honestly. They could probably have used some sleep, too. But Bob just laid his metal hand across the glass surface of the closed Cradle, and rested his forehead against it to stare down inside. Bob could be weirdly patient and still, Tony had noticed, when he wasn’t on a sugar high.

Tony dropped back down onto one of the stools, reaching out to pick at the sandwich. Then he paced over to check the progress, then spun on his heel and went over the monitoring logs. He continually asked Jarvis for updates: as I said three minutes ago, Sir, everything is still running on schedule.

And still Bob didn’t move.

“Okay, seriously, you’re starting to freak me out,” Tony told him. “Is this your way of telling me you want to get into performance art? Maybe dress up like the Statue of Liberty and stand in Central Park?”

“I’m observing,” Bob told him calmly. “This is incredible.”

“Well, yeah,” Tony said, moving back over to glance down. It had recreated the shoulder and the arm down to the elbow, all spun into existence with gleaming titanium. It was kind of beautiful. And freaky.

But mostly beautiful.

“But it’s taking forever,” Tony pointed out. “I probably should have just built you a skeleton, but Helen pointed out that it would be harder to attached if not seamlessly generated right around the bone, and I really didn’t want to have to use another damn shunt—“

Bob smirked, but didn’t move his eyes from Cradle. “You don’t have to stay, Tony,” he told him. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”

It was a great out. Tony could run off and get absorbed in something so he wouldn’t have to stop long enough to think too much—but it felt too much like he’d be abandoning him, even though this was just the test run. “I’m fine,” Tony said, getting a sudden idea. He snapped his fingers. “Actually, I’ve got an idea on how to make it faster—“

Bob just snorted as Tony picked up his tablet, running some further simulations. Tony wouldn’t risk any further changes to the Cradle before Bob’s surgery the next day, but it would be good for the future. He was pretty sure he could speed up the process by at least twenty percent.

He got distracted enough by the work that Bob’s eerie stillness stopped weirding him out.

“Tony!” Bob called, after he’d been working for awhile. “I think it’s finished.”

Tony set aside the tablet and rushed next to him, watching the last finishing touches glance across the metal fingertips before the Cradle beeped. He reached over to hit the release, opening the glass canopy. He and Bob leaned over to look at it.

“Can I touch it?” Bob asked.

“Sure,” Tony said. “It’s basically useless, just a prototype. You can keep it if you want, in case you ever need an extra hand.”

Bob just looked over at him, somehow managing the look with Pepper-levels of long-suffering despite their much shorter acquaintance.

“I had to say it,” Tony defended himself. “Also, remind me that we need to watch Toy Story.”

Bob turned back to the arm, before reaching out hesitantly, running the fingers of his flesh hand along the smooth lines of the robotic skeleton. “It’s amazing, Tony,” he said.

“It’s just a skeleton, doesn’t even have a power source, cause you’re gonna be the power source,” Tony told him. “You and Helen have got the hard part, this thing can’t do anything on its own.”

Bob’s lips quirked. “Just because it can’t recite Shakespeare on command or walk on its own doesn’t mean it isn’t still incredible,” he said, glancing up at him. “Everything you make is amazing.”

“Even my oatmeal?” Tony asked lightly.

“Especially that,” Bob said, grinning back at him.

“Well, you’re certainly doing wonders for my ego,” Tony told him. “But then, I’ve been told it doesn’t need the help.”

“Whoever told you that must not know you very well,” Bob said quietly, before looking back at him with another soft smile.

Tony thought he might actually be blushing, for probably the first time in twenty years. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, I’m not exactly known for being humble,” he admitted.

“So you know how your brilliant you are, but you’re right about being brilliant, what’s wrong with that?” Bob asked. “You should be confident. I think Helen’s just as confident in her work as you are in yours. It’s sort of a side-effect of being good at something, isn’t it?”

“I guess I haven’t thought of it like that,” Tony said. “But to be fair, my overconfidence has gotten me into trouble. Probably shouldn’t go around inviting anymore terrorists to come make house calls, for example.”

“You brought me here,” Bob pointed out.

“You’re not a terrorist,” Tony said simply. “You were a prisoner. Different ballgame, trust me. Anyway, that’s enough about me, we’ve got to check this processed correctly.”

Tony pulled out the arm, carefully testing the dexterity of the fingers and the joints. “Seems good,” he said, humming speculatively. “What do you think of the look? I mean, not that it’s gonna be visible, but still. You want to look nice for your X-Rays.”

Bob snorted, and leaned closer. “It looks great. Can’t we just use this one? We don’t need to use the vibranium, do we? I mean—“

“Yeah, about that,” Tony said wryly, turning to pull another canister from the cabinet. He set it between them, and Bob frowned at it. “You said you didn’t want anything of theirs. So I made a deal with King T’Chaka of Wakanda. I’d give him the Hydra arm, if he’d give me enough vibranium to build you a new one. They were curious how Hydra got their hands on it in the first place, and wanted to study it, so they took the deal.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Bob said. “I know you were planning to keep some of the parts to study yourself.”

“Trust me,” Tony said, flashing him a grin. “I got the better end of the deal. And don’t worry—I just told them that I found an advanced prosthetic arm in a Hydra facility, and I’d trade it. I didn’t tell them anything about the person I found attached to it.”

“You don’t trust them?” Bob asked, running his fingers over the glass of the canister with wide eyes.

“I don’t trust anyone,” Tony said. “Well, I mean, that sounds dramatic, and also it’s not entirely true. I trust Pepper and Rhodey. And Jarvis, so zip it, buddy, I didn’t forget you.” He paused, watching Bob. “And now there’s you.”

“Me?” Bob asked in surprise.

“Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t trust you not to eat all the Pixy Stix,” Tony said wryly, grinning over at him. “But I trust you.”

“How can you?” Bob asked quietly. “You don’t even know who I am. I don’t even know who I am.”

“Yeah, you know, it’s sort of like nature versus nurture,” Tony said. “It’s the argument of whether it’s more important how you’re born, or how you’re raised. I mean, that’s a simplification, but basically I’ve always thought, there’s something inside of us, right from the start. Strip everything away, and it’s gotta still be there.”

“And what do you think I’ve got in me?” Bob asked.

“Something so good they couldn’t erase it, not completely,” Tony said. “Something so strong you took the first chance you had to get away from them, even with everything they’d done, even with everything you had to know they’d do if you were caught. Because you knew I was Hydra’s enemy almost from the start, you’re too smart not to have known, even barely conscious. And we both know you could have killed me, the moment I took off my suit. Maybe even before. So the truth is, I didn’t save you. You saved yourself.”

“I’m not—“ Bob broke off, looking sad. “What if I’m not who you think I am?”

“Well, think on this,” Tony told him. “Who you are doesn’t necessarily depend on who you were. I don’t know what we might find out about your past, I can’t make promises you were some decorated soldier, even though from what I’ve seen, it’d be my guess. But who you are? I’ve already seen it. So you’re not going to disappoint me, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“You’re wrong, you know,” Bob told him, glancing back up at him with those large too-earnest eyes as he pushed back from the table. “You did save me, and you keep doing it all the time.”

Tony swallowed hard, and couldn’t think of a thing to say to that. Speechless—he was actually speechless.

Rhodey could never know.

Bob just smiled then, soft and shy, and turned to head for the elevator. Tony was still searching for something to say by the time he was gone.

Chapter Text

Somehow, Tony was more nervous than Bob.

Bob just laid down on the operating table with scrub pants and no shirt, calmly letting Helen hook him up to the IV, apparently entirely unconcerned with the whole thing.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Tony asked again. He was pretty sure he didn’t imagine Helen rolling her eyes.

“I’m fine,” Bob said. “You told me it wouldn’t hurt.”
“What? No, of course it won’t,” Tony said. “She’s giving you the good stuff, she designed it specifically for super-soldiers. You won’t feel a thing.”

“Why do you call me a super-soldier?” Bob frowned, adjusting his arm as he glanced back at down the IV.

“Um, because you’re a soldier with super powers? I don’t know, I mean, I didn’t come up with the name,” Tony said, leaning over him. He watched him with concern. “You’re sure?”

“I’m fine,” he said stiffly. “I just want to be done.”

“Well, we’re ready,” Helen offered quietly. “Whenever you are.”

Tony quickly stepped out of the way, and Bob nodded to Helen. “I’m ready,” Bob said.

She released the sedative into the IV line, and then stepped up beside him. “Can you count back down for me from one hundred?” she asked.

He began counting, and didn’t get pulled under until he was all the way down to forty-three. Helen checked the readings in concern. “That took longer than I thought,” she said worriedly. “He may be more resistant to drugs than Captain Rogers.”

“Should of thought of that,” Tony said, frustrated with himself. “They’ve been drugging him since the sixties at least, he’s probably built up a drug resistance to everything under the sun.”

“Well, we’re going to need to move quick,” she told him.

“You sure you’re okay to do this without a nurse?” Tony said her.
“Who said I’m doing it without a nurse?” she asked. “Why do you think I had you scrub up?”

“You’re kidding,” he said, eyes widening.

“You’re the one that didn’t want to involve anyone else,” she reminded him, before looking up to meet his eyes. “This is delicate work, but it requires an engineer just as much as it requires a surgeon. So you handle the hardware, I’ll handle the…software.”

“Cute,” he told her, before glancing down at the metal arm. “You want me to remove it? I thought I was just going to walk you through it.”

“That was before I realized how resistant he was to the anesthesia,” Helen told him. “I need to keep an eye on his vitals. Tony, you’re the best one to handle this part of the surgery. I’ll take over as soon as you get it detached.”

“Right,” Tony said, taking a deep breath. He and Helen had gone over the plan countless times, it was just that she’d always been the one in the driver’s seat. The plan had basically been to retract the blades and screws that Bob had tightened, and then detach the arm. The pins that had been placed through the bones and skin would need to be more delicately removed by Helen, but this part was fairly simple in theory.

It really was more suited for an engineer than a doctor, and it wasn’t like Tony would trust it to another engineer.

“You sure he’s out?” Tony said nervously, as he pressed the sequence on the shoulder panel of the arm to open it. It was just as brutal in person as it has been in the holographic scans—he could see the blades buried in the skin around the shunt, and the edges of the screws that had tightened the panels straight through the skin at his shoulder.

“Yes, for now,” Helen said. “I’m monitoring him closely. Detach the arm, and we’ll switch.”

“You know I can have Jarvis monitor his vitals,” Tony reminded her. “You could definitely be doing this part. Why do I have a feeling you were always going to spring this on me?”

“You know how the arm works better than I do, and you work better under pressure,” she told him. “Now stop complaining, and get it done.”

Tony put an x-ray display of the arm on the monitor beside him, and then carefully start working the valve in the opposite direction. He could see the blades retracting on the computer screen, slicing backwards through already healed skin, breaking it open once again. It was horrifying, but he forced himself to ignore it and focus on the mechanics of the arm instead—the screws slowly pushed out, causing the panels on the outer edge to pop up away from his skin, and the blades around the shunt going up into his arm all pulled loose.

He carefully disengaged the delicate connections coming out from the shunt into the workings of the arm, then pulled the arm free, leaving behind a number of steel pins and the shunt. Tony stumbled back away from the table, setting the arm on the counter, trying to still his suddenly shaking hands. “Jesus,” he said. “Those bastards.” He was not the squeamish sort, but that had been one of the more horrible things he’d ever had to do.

And Bob had done it to himself.

“Breathe, Tony,” Helen told him calmly, as she moved to take his place. “That was the hard part.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” he said, sucking in a breath. “He didn’t feel that, right? It’s not gonna…it’s not gonna hurt, when he wakes up?”

“The Cradle will heal him,” she promised, before glancing at the monitors in concern. “Jarvis, monitor his vitals please. He’s definitely burning through the anesthesia quicker than I expected.”

“Monitoring,” Jarvis responded immediately.

“What do you need me to do?” Tony asked.

“I need you to stop talking,” Helen told him calmly, and got to work. She painstakingly removed each of the pins that had been driven through skin and bone to anchor his arm, and then she began operating on his amputated arm, to remove the shunt and the wiring that had been tapped into his nervous system.

This was the longest part, even longer than the cradle would take to build Bob a new arm. Helen was carefully focused the entire time, reminding Tony of himself when he was working on one of his suits. He kept himself against the back wall, checking in with Jarvis on his tablet instead of through verbal commands so he wouldn’t disturb her.

When she was finally done, Bob looked like he’d just lost his arm—removing the shunt had left it open and unhealed. The wound looked terrible, but Helen couldn’t close because the cradle would need to graft the new metal skeleton directly on the bone.

“We need to move him to the Cradle,” Helen said, “I’ve administered more sedative. I think I have a handle on it, should keep him out through the regenerative procedure.”

“Should?” Tony asked worriedly. Helen was removing the IV, as the closed environment of the Cradle couldn’t support an IV line. It meant there wasn’t a way to administer more, either.

“I’ve given him almost twice the dose I would have given Rogers,” she admitted. “It’s as much as is safe, but we’ll need Jarvis to continue monitoring his vitals closely.”

Tony and Helen each lifted a side of the flat stretcher beneath Bob, and then carefully set it in the open Cradle beside it. Luckily he was a lot lighter without the metal arm, or Tony might have needed to get in his suit.

Helen closed the lid, and started up the program. “Now it’s up the Cradle,” she said, “Jarvis, can you please monitor both the program and Bob’s vitals?”

“Of course, Ms. Cho,” Jarvis said. “I was already planning to do so.”

Helen raised an eyebrow and Tony shrugged. “He’s proactive,” he said. “Jarvis also has a soft spot for Bob.”

“It’s rare to meet someone that appreciates me properly, Sir,” Jarvis told him primly.

“I appreciate you, Jarvis,” Helen assured him, smiling fondly.

Tony ignored their banter as he leaned over the glass Cradle. The vibranium arm had already started getting built, and he could see the newly built metal bones trailing out from his shoulder. “Status,” he said quickly.

“Everything is working within acceptable parameters,” Jarvis assured him. “Bob’s vitals are well within his normal range.”

“Tony—“ Helen started, narrowing her eyes.

“Who had the bright idea of calling it a Cradle, anyway?” he interrupted quickly. “You bring in a patient, and what, you ask them, please step into the cradle, sir—“

“It’s meant to be comforting, and symbolic of rebirth,” Helen said easily, letting him distract her. “I’ve been told I need to be more aware of my bedside manner, so I thought this might put people at ease.”

“Helen, you know how much I adore you—“ Tony began.

She snorted, not bothering to look up as she continued at the controls.

“—but you have the worst bedside manner of any doctor I know,” he continued. “And I know Stephen Strange.”

"I think I've been very good with Bob,” she pointed out.

"So I just bring out the worst in you, huh?" Tony asked wryly.

"You bring out my competitive spirit," she said slyly, "for which I will always be grateful to you."

Tony laughed, though he was still too nerved up for it to be genuine. “What about calling it the Pandorica?” he suggested.

“That was a prison, Tony,” she said. “How is that better than calling it a Cradle?”

“It sounds cooler,” he pointed out, anxiously tapping his fingers along the counter.

Helen paused, glancing up at him with a furrowed brow. “He will be fine,” she assured him. “There’s no possibility of deterioration. The cradle’s nano-molecular functionality is entirely instantaneous. His cells don’t even know that they’re bonding with simulacra.”

“You’ve never tested it on someone like him,” he told her, because as much as he appreciated her confidence, he’d learned a long time ago to stop trusting guarantees.

Helena finally stopped her obsessive checking of the controls, and glanced up. “True, but I do have some experience with Captain Rogers,” she reminded him. “And the Captain’s cells aren’t exactly different, they’re just more resilient. From what I can tell, Bob’s are the same. It should just make the process go faster, if anything.”

“Right, yeah, I know,” Tony said impatiently, because he’d read all about the Cradle, and he knew exactly how it worked. Biology wasn’t his speciality, but that didn’t mean he didn’t still understand it better than most medical doctors.

“You must care for him a great deal,” she said.

“What? I didn’t—“ Tony started.

“You ramble when you are nervous,” Helen said.

“I always ramble,” Tony protested.

“There is a different quality to it at the moment,” she said, not unkindly, and sighed. “There really is no reason for concern—“

“See, you say that like you’ve done this before, but you haven’t,” Tony said. “No one has. The most you’ve done is some skin grafts and wound repairs. We’re literally trying to regrow a limb, here. I think I’m supposed to be nervous. Why aren’t you?”

“Because I have faith in the Cradle and in my work and yours,” she said. “I wouldn’t have come here to do this if I did not know that it would work.” She looked up at him shrewdly. “Usually you have just as much confidence in your own work.”

“I do,” Tony insisted. “It’s gonna work. Of course it’s gonna work.”

Helen watched him closely for a moment, before folding her arms and leaning back against the counter. “We never did get to finish our conversation,” she said.

He looked up at her disbelievingly. “You want to do this now?”

“You like him,” Helen said, probingly.

Tony snorted and stepped back from the Cradle. “Well, yeah,” he said. “You think I’d call in my favor with you for just anyone?”

“I would have done this one without it, and you probably knew that,” Helen said, quietly glancing back at Bob. “Whoever did this to him…they weren’t doctors, they were butchers.”

“Yeah, but they were brilliant butchers,” Tony said, glancing over at her. “It’s horrifying, but it’s brilliant. Let’s not pretend it’s not.”

“Hmph,” Helen said. “Not as brilliant as us.”

“Well, who is?” he asked with a grin.

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed you’re still avoiding my question,” she added.

“I’m pretty sure you didn’t actually ask a question,” he told her.

She frowned, as she thought back. “Well, yeah, okay,” she agreed. “But only because I already know the answer. You have a crush.”

Tony distracted himself with checking on Bob again. “It’s not a crush,” he said, “don’t be ridiculous. Anyway, it’s entirely inappropriate.”

“How so?” Helen asked, glancing up at him with a frown.

“It’s barely been a month, and he’d been a prisoner for what, decades?” he said. “I’m responsible for him.”

“You shouldn’t rush into anything,” Helen agreed. “He’s got a lot to heal from, but so do you.” She held up a hand when he started to protest. “My point is, there isn’t a test you have to pass to enter a relationship, or we’d probably all fail it.”

“You really aren’t a glass half full type of person, are you?” he asked wryly.

Helen smiled wryly. “Bob has proven he can say no to you,” she said. “He had no problem meeting or interacting with me. Honestly, his social skills seem healthier than yours—“

“Hey!” he protested.

“And while yes, I suspect that some of that is a front,” she said, “we all have them. For instance, most people think I’m sweet.”

“I’ll never figure out how you pulled that one off,” Tony smirked, before glancing away with a sigh. “So what are you suggesting I do, actually? Because the whole ‘we’re all messed up’ attitude is a bit at odds with ‘go for it.’”

“Not really,” she laughed. “All I’m saying is, if it happens maybe let it happen? I’ve seen the way he looks at you, Tony. He adores you, but he’s not afraid to tease you. He’s not afraid to tell you what he wants. He seems perfectly rational to me.”

“Yeah, but…” Tony trailed off. “I have to find out who he was, first.”

“Does it matter?” Helen asked, giving him a disapproving look.

“Not to me,” Tony said, as he ran a hand through his hair. “It matters to him.”

“Maybe it’s more important he finds out who he is now,” Helen said, glancing over at him. “Is he in danger if you take him out of the tower?”

“I don’t think so,” Tony said. “There must still be people in Hydra that know about him, but they most likely think he’s dead. And without the metal arm, he should be pretty unrecognizable. I’ve got him a new identity, paperwork’s all set up. He might actually be safer at this point if I do get him established in the public.”

Helen smiled. “That sounds like a good place to start, don’t you think?”

“That’s it, you’re my new therapist,” Tony told her. “Bruce will be crushed, of course, but I’m sure he’ll get over it.”

“Tempting offer, but I’ll leave you to the experts,” she said. “Seems like it would be a full time job.”

Tony laughed, and wandered back to check on the Cradle’s progress. It had already started replicating the flesh. His arm was healed just below the elbow, the metal skeleton already complete. It was a little disturbing to look at the arm half finished, so he pulled up some of his new suit schematics on his laptop to try and distract himself.

He kept track of Jarvis and Helen's updates while he worked, but everything was going perfectly right up until it wasn’t: “Sir,” Jarvis said, his voice strained, “Bob’s vitals indicate he's waking up—“

Tony had barely managed to spin around and a fist was crashing up through the glass lid of the Cradle. Bob scrambled out through it, crashing to the ground on his knees before pushing himself weakly to his feet and backing up into the corner. His eyes were wild, and they’d have to deal with that, but first Tony quickly glanced down to check his arm.

Thankfully it looked whole—the fingers of his left hand looked a little raw and pink, and he had cuts on his palm and knuckles from the glass, but otherwise it now looked like a mirror image of his right.

Except for the shard of glass that he was holding like a weapon.

Tony intercepted Helen when she started forward, keeping her behind him and as he held his hands up in front of him. “Bob?” he said cautiously. “You’re okay. You’re in the tower. Can you look at me? Do you know who I am?”

Bob’s eyes still looked haunted and far away, but they stilled long enough to meet his. “You’re Tony,” he said, and his voice sounded rough. He looked down at his hand, at the shard of glass that he was holding. “Did I hurt anyone?”

“No,” Tony promised quickly.

Bob glanced back at the Cradle, his eyes clearing as he seemed to realize where he was. “I thought I was back in Cyro,” he admitted.

“You want to drop the glass, maybe?” Tony asked casually, as he took a cautious step forward.

Bob looked down at it, then opened his palm, letting it fall to the ground. He lifted his hand in disbelief when he did, staring at the bloodied left palm. He closed his fingers, and then opened then again, watching with wonder.

“Yeah, pretty neat, huh?” Tony said, taking another step closer. “At least we know your arm’s in full working order. That glass was bulletproof, and you went through it like it was crepe paper.”

“I broke your machine,” Bob said worriedly, glancing back at him and Helen.

“Nothing that can’t be fixed,” Tony promised. “Can you let us look at your arm? The program stopped a little early. Does it hurt?”

“No,” Bob said, his voice a little disbelievingly. “It doesn’t hurt.”

“Okay, good, that’s good,” Tony said.

“No, you don’t understand,” Bob said, looking up with wide eyes. “It doesn’t hurt. It always hurts.”

“Can I touch you?” Tony asked carefully, stepping forward again only once he’d received Bob’s shaky nod. He left him back to the table, and Helen took that as a cue to approach.

“May I check your arm?” she asked gently.

“Yes,” he said softly, still staring at in disbelief.

Helen gently took his hand, running her fingers across the joints to check for responsiveness and mobility. Tony took the time to look back at Bob. Scars still trailed out from his shoulder in a half circle, like the rays of a child’s drawing of a sun. It was oddly beautiful and fitting—or maybe Tony was just so gone on Bob that even his imperfections seemed beautiful.

And when the hell did that even happen? he wondered.

“You have some cuts from the glass, but they should heal on their own,” Helen told him, before letting him go, watching his arm with a tinge of awe. “How does it feel?”

“Weird,” Bob said honestly. “I feel lighter, and just…”

He trailed off, and Helen didn’t press it. “And how about mobility? Is it doing what you tell it to? Any delays?”

He turned his hand up, before closing it into a fist. “It’s working the same as my metal arm did,” he said.

Helen gave him a bright grin. “Then I think we can call this a success,” she said. “I’ll have Jarvis continue monitoring, and if you have any pain or any trouble using the arm, let him know right away to call me. You’ll have to be gentle with it for awhile, let it heal. So maybe don’t go crashing through anymore glass.”
“I’ll try to restrain myself,” Bob promised wryly, before his gaze softened. “Thank you, for helping me.”

“It’s been my pleasure,” Helen assured him. “I need to go check in back home, please call me immediately if anything happens.”

She smiled as she slipped out towards the elevator, and Tony inched closer in her place. “Can I—?” he started hesitantly.

Bob just rolled his eyes and reached out to grab Tony’s hand, threading their fingers, and letting out a delighted laugh as he felt their palms touched.

“I can feel that,” Bob said reverently.

Tony felt himself grinning back helplessly, amazed himself at the feeling of his hand. The only noticeable difference was that the hand was smooth, missing distinctive palm lines and fingerprints, and without the normal marks and wrinkles for someone Bob’s age.

“Thank you,” Bob said softly, tugging a little at Tony’s hand to get his attention.

“I’m just footing the bill,” Tony shrugged. “Helen did the heavy lifting.”

Bob watched him strangely for a moment, like he was trying to figure something out. “I already thanked her,” he said. “Now I’m thanking you.”

“Right,” Tony said awkwardly, reaching up with his free hand to scratch behind his ear. “Uh, you’re welcome?”

“That is generally the accepted response,” Bob agreed with a laugh, as he pulled his hand free. “Better get used to it, Tony.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Tony promised, giving a small grin.

- - - - -

Helen was barely able to stay and have dinner with them before she had to board a flight back to Korea—but Bob had a Starkphone now, and her number was programed in. He’d promised to keep her updated with any issues with his arm, but from the sound of it Tony half-suspected Helen just wanted to keep in touch with him.

Bob for his part seemed lighter, the constant worry lines in his forehead smoothed suddenly away and making him looking years younger. Helen had explained that he was running high on endorphins, as his body suddenly tried to adjust to existing without constant pain.

Tony wasn’t going to complain, he was thrilled that Bob wasn’t in pain…it was just that apparently Bob was morning person. A perky morning person.

Deadly assassins he could handle—morning people were an affront to nature.

But there was no other explanation for why Bob was bouncing around the kitchen in sweat drenched workout clothes when Tony’d just barely managed to roll out of bed.

Bob smiled when he saw him, and leaned across the counter, pushing a cup of coffee towards him. Tony just gaped at him. He was wearing running shoes and a tank top and shorts. The shirt said: Run Like Thor is at the Finish Line. Tony was going to strip Jarvis’s programming to shreds.

“Did you know you have a whole floor that’s just a gym?” Bob asked him happily.

“Yes,” he answered slowly. “Because I built it.”

“Oh, right,” Bob said, his perkiness apparently unfazed. “Well, Jarvis showed me. I ran the track! Helen thought I might have trouble with my balance, but running doesn’t hurt anymore and I didn’t even tip over, so I think I’m good.”

Tony sat down at the counter, desperately clutching the proffered coffee. “How long have you even been up?” he asked in disbelief.

“I’ve been up since four thirty,” Bob said, like that was normal—and okay, it’s not like Tony has a healthy relationship with sleep, but while he might stay up until four thirty, he wouldn’t wake up at four thirty. He wasn’t insane.

“Remember when we just use to lay around on the couch and go into sugar comas?” Tony asked him. “Those were good times.”

“We can do that later, if you want,” Bob said, and then grinned at him like the goddamn sun.

Christ. Helen was right, he had a crush. He hadn’t had a crush since the third grade when Amy Masters beat his score on a test. Pepper didn’t really count, she just sort of snuck in under his radar and he woke up one day and realized he loved her. There’d never really been the awkward in-between step.

Bob was something else: he made him uncertain, and Tony was certain of everything. He certainly knew that this was a terrible idea, and that his traitorous mind had better stop falling for the super soldier. Tony could think of all the reasons that it was a bad idea. They both needed therapy for years. Bob technically killed his parents, which would make telling their ‘how we met’ story at the Christmas parties all kinds of awkward. Also, Bob was a morning person.

Tony shook his head to himself. He knew the only reason that really mattered was number four: he couldn’t initiate anything more than friendship before he was sure Bob was recovered enough to actually consent to it.

Decided, Tony finally looked up from glaring at his coffee to find Bob frowning at him.

“Are you okay?” Bob asked worriedly.

“I’m fine,” Tony reassured him. “Totally fine.”

“In that case,” Bob drawled, “I do remember promises of taking me out to dinner.”

Tony cursed himself, because this was going to be harder to resist than he thought. He could do platonic meals, though. No problem. He went out with Rhodey all the time. “How about lunch, instead?” he decided.

Lunch was casual. People had lunch with friends.

“Okay,” Bob said agreeably. “I better go shower, though. Then I can make us breakfast, too?”

“I’ve reached my quota on peanut butter for this millennium,” Tony told him wryly. “How about I make breakfast?”

“Okay,” Bob said, before flashing him a wide grin.

“Wait—“ Tony started. “Did you just trick me into making breakfast for you?”

Bob laughed as he spun back towards the hall. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he called back.

Tony grumbled to himself, mostly for show, and decided to make some scrambled eggs and bacon. He was halfway through his prep when he felt someone behind him. “That was quick, I was just—“

Tony trailed off as he turned around, eyes widening as he saw Fury standing at the edge of his kitchen. He was looking as dangerous as always in his long flowing Matrix coat, but he was favoring one of his arms, and had butterfly bandages in a trail along his left temple, which sort of ruined the effect.

“Heya, Nick,” Tony said. “How nice of you to drop by, unannounced, as usual.”

“We alone?” Fury asked gruffly.

Tony made a show of looking around the empty kitchen, then looked back at Fury with a raised eyebrow. “If you’re expecting breakfast, I’m afraid I didn’t make enough,” he said. “You should have called ahead.”

Fury narrowed his eye. “You know why I’m here.”

“Really don’t,” Tony said, as he turned his back on him to turn off the heat and save the bacon. Turning one’s back on Fury wasn’t exactly smart, and the fact that Jarvis hadn’t warned him was worrying, but he also knew if Fury wanted him dead he wouldn’t have come himself. He turned back around, and crossed his arms as he leaned back against the counter. “What can I do for you?”

“You need to—“ Fury started, as he stepped forward, before his eyes widened marginally and he froze in place.

“Don’t take another step,” Bob said.

Tony pushed himself off the counter, stepping to the side, and was surprised to see Bob was standing right behind Fury. He had something metal held right against Fury’s neck, which could have been a gun or maybe a knife. Tony hadn’t even seen Bob approach, but his hair was slightly wet and he was wearing a t-shirt with a blazer over it and a pair of jeans, so he’d obviously been coming back from the shower when he’d seen their uninvited guest.

To Fury’s credit, his surprise only had him hesitating for a fraction of a second before he was carefully raising his hands. “Not many people that can get the drop on me,” he said.

“Well, I’m the best,” Bob told him, and his voice was calm and collected, more level and confident than Tony had ever heard it. “It’s why Mr. Stark hired me as his new head of security.”

Tony kept his expression from showing his surprise, but Bob was handling this situation like—well, like Natasha would. Instant cover identity with no hesitation, explained why he was here and who he was without bringing up any awkward questions like: do you by any chance happen to be an amnesiac former assassin?

For a moment, he even thought it would work.

“Really?” Fury said dryly, tipping his head down and to the side, though not far enough he could see Bob. “I thought you were the pilot?”

“I can multi-task,” Bob told him.

“Yeah? So Happy’s out then, huh?” Fury asked. "Wouldn't have thought Stark would kick him to the curb."

“Mr. Hogan transferred under Ms. Potts’ command at Stark Industries,” Bob said levelly. “And if that’s your attempt to trip me up, I have to say I’m disappointed.”

Fury snorted, before returning his attention back to Tony. “I’m here because someone’s trying to kill me.”

“Someone besides me, you mean?” Bob asked sweetly.

“You’re the least of my worries, head-of-security,” Fury snapped, keeping his eyes on Tony. “Rogers is already on this, but your little one-man invasion of that Hydra base has me thinking you know more than you’ve let on. If you’ve got intel, we could sure use it.”

“I’m sure that you could,” Tony agreed. “Have Rogers ring me up, and I’ll tell him what I know.”

“You don’t trust me?” Fury asked.

“Let’s be honest, would you still respect me in the morning, if I did?” Tony asked, tossing him a sly grin.

“’What makes you think I respect you now?” Fury asked.

“The fact that you came here yourself,” Tony pointed out.

Fury narrowed his eye. “This conversation might go better if you’d call off your guard dog,” he said.

“Mr. Morrison has my full confidence,” Tony said. “I leave the little details like handling intruders entirely to his discretion.”

“You got no idea what’s really going on, Stark,” Fury snapped. “This is bigger than all of us.”

Tony assessed Fury carefully, judging from his expressions, the man really was rattled. It couldn’t have been the assassination attempt, he was an old hand at avoiding those. Tony suspected it was about Hydra, and their link to SHIELD, but he wasn’t going to play this game on Fury’s terms. He’d made that mistake one too many times before.

“Like I said,” Tony said carefully, “send Rogers my way and I’ll tell him all I know. As for you, I’m going to be generous and let you leave. Assuming there’s nothing wrong with Jarvis I can’t fix, you might even get to stay that way.”

“You’re making a mistake,” Fury said.

“I don’t work for you, remember?” Tony asked. “I may be an Avenger, but that no longer belongs to you. You want my intel you send me someone I actually trust, because that’s the only way you’re getting it.”

Bob moved his raised hand, tucking something behind him in the waistband of his jeans before stepping back to clear a path for Fury without even being asked. Bob had definitely earned the right to call himself head-of-security, Tony decided.

Fury stomped off to the elevator in a rather stylish fit of pique, and then disappeared behind its doors.

“Sir?” Jarvis called concerned. “My apologies, I’m afraid I was momentarily blocked from access to audio.”

“You okay?” Tony asked him.

“Alarms and my audio were disabled, but no other systems were affected,” Jarvis promised.

“Great,” Tony said, before turning his attention to Bob. “And you! Where’d you even get a weapon?”

Bob grinned, reaching back to grab whatever he had tucked into his waistband. He tossed him something small and silver, and Tony caught it in surprise. He stared at for a moment in disbelief. “Did you seriously just bluff Nick Fury with a wine opener?”

“Wasn’t exactly a bluff,” Bob told him simply. “Coulda killed him just as easy with that as a gun.”

Tony broke out in a startled laugh, utterly impressed and weirdly charmed. “That may be the best thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Jarvis, did you get that all on tape?”

“Of course, Sir,” Jarvis said.

He’d been mostly kidding, but that afternoon before their lunch he did watch the footage. He kept his eye on Fury, and the way he kept a wary distance between himself and Bob as he moved to the elevator. Tony knew from experience Fury wouldn’t have been spooked by something as pedestrian as a gun to his neck—he might have even been good enough to realize it wasn’t a gun.

Which meant he’d been wary of the man, not the weapon.

And he was pretty sure he hadn’t imagined Fury’s look of confusion as he ran his eye across Bob’s brand new flesh hand, when he'd turned to leave.

Chapter Text

Tony prided himself on his own unique—and slightly manic—version of Zen. Life threatening situations tended to make him more sarcastic than terrified, and he’d somehow managed an alien invasion without being anything but mildly tense. So it took a lot to break through his cool. He was kinda known for it.

But Bob going out on his own for the first time, well, that was giving him palpitations.

He had Jarvis monitoring him by his phone—and maybe also by tapping into any nearby security cameras for visual confirmation—but Tony was not technically the one stalking him. Jarvis was only going to report anything dangerous, which was really as much privacy as Tony could allow considering their situation. Jarvis was mostly great at secrets anyway, even if he had been known to rat him out to Pepper and Rhodey if Tony was ever a little to lax with his privacy instructions.

It had been Pepper’s idea to have Bob go alone when he mentioned wanting to visit Luke at the Stark Shelter, and Tony had gone along with it because he knew she was right. It wasn’t good to isolate him, but it wasn’t that simple, either. Even if Hydra wasn’t still looking for their lost ‘Asset,’ Fury, as usual, knew more than he was telling. The danger might be coming from more directions than he was expecting.

Which was why he was maybe freaking out a little, even though that was impossible. Because Tony Stark did not freak out.

“Mr. Bob is still fine, Sir,” Jarvis said helpfully, without prompting. Tony suspected the obsessive pacing had probably given his worry away.

Tony knew that Bob was fine, just like he knew Jarvis would tell him the moment he wasn’t, but he still rushed to answer his phone as soon as it was ringing.

“Stark,” he said in a rush.

“You sound out of breath,” a sultry voice said wryly. “I haven’t interrupted something, have I?”

Tony pressed his eyes shut, and took a deep breath. “You know, it’s funny, you don’t sound like Steve.”

“Steve’s otherwise engaged,” Natasha told him, her voice switching to a falsely causal tone. “We need your intel.”

“You know how much I admire you,” Tony told her, “and by that I mean however much it takes for you not to kill me in my sleep. But I don’t trust you any more than I trust Fury, mostly because it’s your job to do whatever he tells you to do.”

“We don’t have time for this, Tony,” Natasha told him. “I know you found something. A couple weeks ago you called me out of the blue asking about the Winter Soldier. Somehow, I doubt you read up on him on Assassin-Wiki. Up until now, I’ve kept your request to myself. However—”

“Fine,” Tony interrupted sharply, glaring across at the wall. It was probably futile since he suspected Fury knew anyway, but the last thing he needed at the moment was another connection to the Winter Soldier tracing back to him. “I’ll send the files to one of SHIELD’s secure servers.”

“I’ll send you the access codes via secure email, you should—” she started.

“I’ve already got them,” he assured her. “As in, all of them. It’s like no one over there is even trying.”

She snorted, but didn’t take the bait. “Okay,” she said. “There’s just one more thing, and you’re not going to like it—but I do need to know what you know about the Winter Soldier. I won’t pass it on if it isn’t vital, but I need you to at least read me in.”

“Didn’t find anything,” he told her promptly. “It’s like you said, he’s a ghost. If they ever had anything on him, they’d redacted it before I got there.”

Natasha was a brilliant spy and a first class lair, but Tony could bluff with the best of them. He might not have fooled her in person, but over the phone, he at least played it cool enough that she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the truth. He could tell in the way she hesitated that she was trying to figure out if she should press the issue or not.

“Alright,” she said after a moment. “I’ll look forward to receiving the intel.”

“Hey,” he said quickly. “You and the Boy Scout would tell me if you needed help, right?”

“I called, didn’t I?” Natasha asked.

“Yeah, for information,” Tony said. “But I have noticed you haven’t told me why you need it.”

“Trust goes both ways, Stark,” she said wryly. “Or in our case, mistrust, I guess. I just hope you know what you’re doing. I tried to kill Clint like, twenty times, when he first brought me in from to cold, did you know that?”

Tony hung his head, biting back a curse. That was her roundabout spy way of saying she knew exactly what he was up to, so much for his amazing bluffing skills. “Yeah?” he said. “Why do I get the feeling if you really wanted him dead there’d be one less Robin Hood wannabe out scaling the rooftops?”

“Just be careful,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

“That’s what makes it fun,” he said.

Natasha laughed lightly, then hung up on him. Tony quickly grabbed his StarkPad and transferred the relevant files to one of SHIELD’s secure servers, censoring out any file referencing his parents or the Winter Soldier. Whatever SHIELD was up to, they wouldn’t need that information anyway. The Winter Soldier spent most of his nights watching Disney films, so he wasn’t exactly a threat to society anymore.

“Sir, Mr. Bob has arrived back at the tower,” Jarvis reported dutifully.

Tony sighed with relief. He rushed back to the living room and turned on the news, dropping to sit on the couch so he’d look like he hadn’t been standing in front of the elevator pining the whole time. He was barely able to slip into a casual slouch before he heard the elevator doors open.

Bob came over to join him, dropping down in the armchair, looking sort of bemused. Tony straightened up instantly, watching him in concern. “You okay?” he asked quickly. “Did something happen?”

"Luke thinks I regrew my arm," Bob told him sullenly. "Now there's no convincing him I'm not an alien."

Tony almost fell off the couch because he was laughing so hard. He obviously should have been more worried about Bob holding his own against Luke’s wit than anything else.

- - - - -

Tony spent most of the rest of the day in his lab, working on improvements to Jarvis’s security. Bob was off doing Bob things, like Pixar-watching, running, mainlining Pixy Stix, or possibly standing on the edge of the roof in his Batman stance. He’d been getting better and better at occupying himself, which left Tony with no excuses about not getting some work done.

It was awesome. He was glad to be at work. He didn’t miss Bob at all.

Also, he was apparently terrible at lying to himself.

But Pepper had been hounding him about all the time he had been taking off, and Fury’s little visit had made it clear he needed to up his security game, so he didn’t have time for movie marathons.

“Sir, Pepper has arrived,” Jarvis announced, and Tony rolled his eyes.

He spun his chair to face her as she stepped out of the elevator. “I told you, I’m working on it,” he said quickly. “I’ll have the improvements on your desk by tonight—well, you know, in your virtual inbox. Not your actual desk. Who has time for that? I don’t even own a printer.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I’m not here as your CEO, Tony,” she told him.

Tony deflated instantly, sighing as he slouched down in the chair. He ran a hand through his hair. “Sorry,” he said, wincing. “I might be a little on edge.”

“Why?” Pepper asked, frowning prettily as she stepped towards him.

“Got a little visit from Fury the other day,” he admitted. “He shut down Jarvis’s audio and he obviously knows about Bob.”

Pepper’s eyes narrowed. “Fury?” she demanded. “I swear, since we lost Coulson that entire organization has become entirely untrustworthy. Have you contacted any of the Avengers about this?”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” Tony promised. “He won’t be pulling that magic trick again. Got in using one of my own programs, and I can promise I will be more circumspect about what I give them access to in the future.”

Pepper frowned, but nodded. Tony watched her carefully. “If you’re not here about the work I owe you, what did you need?”

“After what you’ve told me, I’m not sure it’s a good idea anymore,” she said carefully.

“Pep,” he said. “You know you can’t not tell me things. I’ll just drive us both crazy until you do.”

She snorted, but sat down in the chair beside him. “I was going to say you should take a night off. We’re having a charity event tonight,” she explained. “I know you don’t usually like them, but I thought you could take Bob.”

“Tonight? That’s the one with the scholarships, right?” Tony asked.

“Yes,” she agreed. “We’re auctioning off some of the art pieces you got bored with to raise money for next year.”

It was another one of the charities his mother had started, and Pepper had given new life to when she took over the reigns of Stark Industries.

Tony kept trying to find ways to make the world a better, safer place, on such a grand scale, that he tended to forget to make time for the more immediate causes.

He should definitely do something about that.

“How much do you need?” Tony decided, glancing over at her. “Let’s cut out the middle-men. I’ll write you a check.”

“That’s not sustainable,” she said patiently. “I know you hate them, but fundraisers are necessary to maintaining the Stark charities. And you know that.” She crossed her arms, and narrowed her eyes at him. “We don’t need your money for this, Tony. But it would make a good impression if you were there, and Bob needs to get out more.”

“And you think a party with a bunch of pretentious snobs is the best place for that?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“He’s got you wrapped around his little finger,” Pepper said. “I’m sure they’re nothing he can’t handle.”

That was most likely true. Bob had handled people flawlessly everywhere on the scale from Helen Cho to Nick Fury, so the socialites that liked to make themselves feel better by attending his various annual charities didn’t stand much of a chance.

“I’ll ask him,” he decided. “But if he doesn’t want to go, I’m not going.”

She quirked her lips. “Uh huh,” she said. “And how exactly are you going to describe it to him?”

“A snake pit?” Tony ventured. “The lion’s den?”

“Tony,” she sighed.

“I’ll mention the charity bit,” he sighed, giving in. “I’m sure we’ll be there.”

- - - - -

“Hey, Jarvis,” Tony called, as he headed back to the penthouse. “Amidst all of that Captain America and Thor paraphernalia you saw fit to purchase, did you happen to get Bob a tux?”

“Sir, I’m offended that you have to ask. I got him three,” Jarvis said. “Will the event be black-tie, or will something more colorful be acceptable?”

“Black-tie, but hey, my party, my rules,” Tony said. “If he wants to go, he can wear whichever one he wants.” He paused for a minute. “Wait. None of them are covered in little Avenger patterns, are they?”

“No, sir,” Jarvis said. “I’m afraid there were none available.”

“Really?” Tony hummed, as he stepped off the elevator. “Hey, we could corner the market. Iron Man only to start, of course. Bet it would be a must-have for the prom crowd.”

“Of course, Sir,” Jarvis responded patiently. “I’ll file it under your growing list titled: ‘Projects for my Copious Spare Time.’”

“Yeah, yeah, no need to be a smart-ass,” Tony said. “I might have time.”

“Tony!” Bob called happily, when he caught sight of him. He leaned over the counter, smiling at him as he approached. He had a book splayed open about halfway through on the counter, and there was flour everywhere. “I’m baking.”

“Are you sure?” Tony asked skeptically. He looked past Bob at the chaos that was his kitchen.

“You said you were tired of peanut butter sandwiches,” Bob reminded him. “So I thought I would make Apple Turnovers.”

“Ambitious,” Tony said. “I like the initiative. How’s it going?”

“It sort of ended up more like Apple Crumb Cake,” Bob said sheepishly, reaching up to put his hair back behind his ear. It left a trail of flour. “But I’m pretty sure it’s edible.”

“Wait, have we actually found something you’re not scarily good at on your first try?” Tony asked, grinning wryly.

“Well, you haven’t tried my Apple Crumb Cake yet,” he pointed out.

“Touché,” Tony said dryly, before reaching up to anxiously scratch at his ear. “So, uh, are you busy tonight?”

“My plans mostly include trying to clean the kitchen,” Bob admitted. “What’s up?”

“Charity dinner thing,” Tony said casually. “Pepper wants me to go. I thought maybe you could come with.”

Bob paused, watching Tony with surprise. “I thought—I mean, I thought I had to keep a low profile?”

“Sure, that was the plan before,” Tony agreed. “But since you’ve threatened to kill Nick Fury right here in the living room, there’s not really any need to keep up the anonymity. Honestly, it might actually be to your benefit to get you established publicly. It’ll make any of their shadow operations harder to pull off.”

“So you want me to go for cover?” Bob asked in realization.

“No,” Tony said quickly. “No, that’s not—I mean, that’s not the only reason. I want you to go. I hate these things. They’re awful. The people are all snobs and the whole thing is like a well-rehearsed play, except I’m not great at my part. I usually end up in the tabloids for saying something I shouldn’t have to someone I shouldn’t have—“

“Wow,” Bob said, grinning faintly. “You’re really selling me on this thing.”

Tony snorted. “I can’t promise a good time,” he admitted. “But maybe we’ll be able to keep each other entertained.”

“I’d love to go with you,” Bob told him sincerely.

“Okay,” Tony said, surprised by the easy acceptance. “Yeah? Okay, great.”

“What should I wear?” Bob asked.

“Jarvis said he got you some tuxes, whatever works for you,” Tony said.

Bob thought about that for a moment, before frowning slightly. “What about my backstory?” he asked. “Who do you want me to be?”

Tony thought about their last excursion and how it ended up with Luke convinced Bob was an alien. It probably wouldn’t hurt to build a story, to come up with some basic responses. Bob had already proven he was adept at playing a part, so with a little direction he could be the perfect Stepford date.

“Just be yourself, remember?” Tony said, instead. “I’m known to be eccentric, and so are most of the people I hang around with. No one’s gonna worry if your answers don’t all match up. They might think you’re a Russian spy, or a visitor from Asgard, but who cares? I hang around with Asgardians and Russian spies all the time.”

Bob laughed. “Okay,” he said. “But this could go very, very wrong.”

“You can’t be more trouble than me,” Tony promised. “Not possible.”

“I’ll try not to take that as a challenge,” Bob told him.

The smirk Bob threw him as he turned to head back towards his room had Tony questioning his claim.

- - - - -

The Charity Gala was being held in one of his buildings, just a couple blocks away, and Tony was a big believer in arriving fashionably late, so it was a little past eight when he finally made his way out.

Bob was already dressed and waiting for him, leaning against the wall beside the elevator. Tony stumbled to a stop when he saw him. Jarvis had outdone himself with the tux: it was a shiny midnight blue, with black lapels and a black bowtie. The white collared shirt underneath the jacket had dark black buttons that stood out in a line down his chest.

He looked like he belonged on the cover of GQ.

“Wow,” Tony said breathlessly. “You definitely clean up nice.”

Then he looked down and noticed Bob was still wearing his white running shoes, and smirked. “Love the shoes,” he added.

Bob followed his gaze, and scrunched up his nose. “There was a fancy black pair, but I didn’t like them,” he said. “Are these okay?”

“Perfectly fine,” Tony said. “Wish I’d thought of it first.”

“I don’t know, you look pretty gorgeous yourself,” Bob said wryly. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“Flattery will get you—“ Tony paused for a moment, “actually, it will get you anything you want. What do you want? That level of skill in a compliment deserves at least its own plane.”

Bob rolled his eyes. “You’re ridiculous.”

They managed the limo ride without any impromptu roadside rescues, and in a rare moment of restraint, Tony avoided the red carpet and took them in by the side entrance. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t want to be seen with Bob, he had plenty of male dates throughout last decades, and they were all well-documented—but he did want to ease Bob into the madness that was his life.

Bob entered ahead of him, and he was staring at the high domed ceiling with wide eyes. Tony had to admit the seven-foot wide chandelier was probably overdoing it a bit.

“You own this place too?” Bob asked, looking back at Tony with amazement.

“Yeah, I mean, don’t blame me for the chandelier though,” he said. “It looked this way when we bought it. I’m pretty sure it’s the inspiration for one of Sia’s songs.”

Bob just shook his head wryly. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “I don’t—I don’t really remember anywhere like this. It’s like something from out of a book.” Bob froze suddenly, reaching out to grip Tony’s arm. “Tony, Tony, they’re handing out tiny cakes.”

Tony valiantly managed not to laugh at him. “You can have one, you know,” he said.

Bob took off for the nearest waiter, and Tony snorted. He grabbed a champagne from the tray of another waiter. He was just taking a sip when he felt a presence beside him.

“You’re the last person I’d expect to find at one of your charity events,” a woman said.

He glanced over to see Christine Everhart watching him. She was wearing a powder blue dress, a small clutch in one of her hands. He wouldn’t put it past her to have a recorder device inside of it. “Ms. Everhart,” he said, grinning. “I could say the same of you. How did you manage to sneak in past security?”

“I had an invitation,” she said dryly. “What about you? Here all alone? That’s so unlike you.”

“He’s with me, actually,” Bob said, appearing beside him. He wound his arm through Tony’s and pressed up against him.

Christine looked at him in surprise, before glancing between them. “Oh, really?” she said. “I don’t think I caught your name?”

“Me? I’m nobody. But you’re Christine Everhart, right?” Bob asked, his eyes going wide and innocent. “I’m a huge fan of your work.”

Christine paused, giving him a bemused smile. “Really?”

“I found your piece on the role of the United States in the destabilization of Sokovia particularly enlightening,” he told her.

Christine grinned slowly, crossing her arms as she assessed him. “You are nothing like Tony’s usual hook-ups.”

“You realize you’re insulting yourself, right?” Tony asked with a raised eyebrow, as he took another sip of his champagne.

Christine ignored him. “You know so much about me, I think it’s only fair you give me a name,” she said.

“Bob Morrison,” he said politely, holding out a hand for her to shake. “I’m Mr. Stark’s new pilot.”

“He has a flying suit,” Christine said wryly, as she shook his hand.

“No space for carry-on,” Tony offered smartly. “The suit is unmatched for crime fighting. Not so great for business trips.”

“Right, I’m sure,” Christine said dubiously, before swiftly pulling a business card from who knew where and holding it out to Bob. “Just in case you ever want to talk. You know, after he has no further use for a ‘pilot’?”

Bob took it politely, then dropped it into the trash can behind them after Christine had stepped away. Tony watched him with amusement. “Her piece on Sokovia?”

“I’m trying to catch up on the world,” Bob said. “I’ve learned that most news sources are inaccurate or skewed. She actually provides evidence in her articles. It’s awful what’s happening there.”

Tony frowned. “I know,” he agreed. “Stane sold a lot of my weapons over there. I’ve run a few raids there with the suit to destroy the weapons, but they keep popping back up.”

Bob glanced away, looking troubled. “I remember being at war,” he admitted. “I remember telling myself to just keep going, one day it would be over. But it’s still not over, is it?”

“No,” Tony admitted, watching him carefully. “How much are you remembering? You haven’t talked much about—“

“Look, Pepper’s here,” Bob interrupted, neatly side stepping him both physically and verbally. “We should go say hi.”

Bob took off quickly, and Tony narrowed his eyes. Tony started to follow him when a hand delicately gripped his elbow. “Hey there,” a sultry voice whispered. “No time for an old friend?”

Tony looked back to see Natasha. She was wearing a low cut white dress, slit from the waist down on one side. Her red hair was curled and pulled back like a twenties starlet. Tony wondered how many guns she’d managed to hide in a dress that skintight. “Natasha,” he said. “What brings you here?”

“I got your intel,” she said. “Seemed some pieces were missing.”

“I didn’t hold back anything you’d need,” Tony told her plainly.

“Just the bits about your new houseguest?” she guessed.

Tony narrowed his eyes, pulling his arm free. “He’s got nothing to do with whatever you’re dealing with,” he promised. “He’s been with me the whole time.”

“How closely did you read those files, Tony?” she asked. “Did you know they’d already assigned a hit on Fury? That they’d planned to send the Winter Soldier?”

Tony went still, holding back a curse. If he’d taken a little longer to track Bob down—he might have killed Fury, or been killed himself. “I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “But my ‘houseguest’ was with me the entire time, he didn’t try to kill anyone. So there’s no reason for you to be here. You’re wasting your time.”

“I had to be sure,” she said, turning to watch Bob. He was on the other side of the dance floor, laughing with Pepper. “He’s not what I expected.”

“Are we going to have a problem here?” Tony asked stiffly.

“Your secret is safe with me, Tony,” she promised. “Just make sure you’re keeping it, too. The last thing Steve needs right now is to see him on the front page.”

“What?” Tony asked, glancing back at her in surprise. “What does Steve have to do with any of this?”

Natasha watched him carefully. “Then you really don’t know?”

“Know what?” Tony demanded suspiciously, turning to face her fully. “Do you know who he is? God damn it. I knew Fury knew more than he was telling.”

Natasha kept her eyes on him, watching him for some kind of reaction, but gave nothing away herself. “The Winter Soldier is probably the only assassin that Fury doesn’t have to worry about right now,” she finally said. “Keeping him out of the way is the best thing for all involved.”

“Tony!”

Tony spun around when Bob called his name. He was waving him over. Tony glanced back to Natasha, but she was already gone. “I really hate it when she does that,” he muttered.

Bob made his way back to him. “Why is it you keep getting accosted by beautiful women every time I step more than three feet away?” he asked.

“It’s my magnetic charm,” Tony deadpanned.

Bob’s eyes went towards the exit. “Who was that?” he asked, his voice deceptively calm.

“Shield agent,” Tony admitted easily.

“Was she here for you?” Bob asked. “Or for me?”

“Both, pretty much,” Tony said. “I think they know who you are.”

Bob’s expression shut down, and he tightened his jaw as he looked away. “People are dancing,” he said. “Do you dance?”

“You’re not that great at avoiding things,” Tony told him. “The non-sequiturs, the running away. It’s pretty obvious. We really should work on that. I’m great at diverting attention. Personally, I’m partial to humor.”

“I’ve noticed,” Bob said wryly. “I’m not avoiding anything.”

“You don’t want to talk about what you remember,” Tony said. “You don’t want to think about who you were.”

“I don’t know who I was,” Bob said tightly. “So there’s nothing to think about.”

“You remember some things,” Tony prompted.

“Well, I remember how to dance,” Bob said, looking back at him with a grin. “Want me to show you?”

“Now see, that was better,” Tony said, holding out a hand in invitation. “Consider me successfully distracted.”

Bob just grinned innocently, taking Tony’s hand to tug him closer. “I only know how to lead,” he admitted. “You okay with that?”

“I’m very secure in my masculinity,” Tony promised. “You can even dip me if you want.”

Bob just laughed as he moved them closer to the dance floor. His steps were coordinated and practiced. He had the same grace in this setting that Tony had seen glimpses of since he found him. “Well, you can definitely dance,” Tony decided.

“This feels…it’s right,” Bob started haltingly, as he spun them further into the center of the floor. “I don’t think I learned how to dance from them. I think this was mine.”

“That’s why we need to figure out who you are,” Tony told him quietly. “We can’t let them have the advantage, and you deserve to know.”

“What if I already know enough?” Bob asked quietly. “What if I don’t want to be what I remember?”

“We’ve been through this,” Tony said. “I have my own past to make up for. What if we make a deal? I want to do more for Sokovia. So far, I’ve just been worried about cutting off their supply of weapons, but I want to help them rebuild, too. You help me with my past, and I’ll help you with yours when we find it. I mean, I’d help you anyway, but a deal’s a deal. It might be good for both of us.”

“What I said before about Sokovia, I wasn’t blaming you,” Bob assured him, frowning worriedly. “I didn’t meant it was your fault. I know you didn’t have anything to do with how those weapons were sold.”

“That was sort of the problem, because I should have,” Tony admitted. “I’ve played a big part in the world we have today, and it’s not the world I want, not yet. We can do better.”

“We?” Bob asked, giving a wry grin. “I’m not sure what I could do.”

“I thought we already established that I need a pilot for my carry-on,” Tony reminded him. “And if we find skeletons in your closet, we’ll deal with them, too. We got a deal?”

“Yes,” Bob said quietly. “We have a deal.”

“Good,” Tony said swiftly. “So the next time you remember something, you’ll come to me? Right? No matter what it is?”

“I don’t want you to hate me,” Bob admitted.

“Be pretty hard to manage that at this point, considering what I already know, don’t you think?” Tony asked.

Bob laughed, but it sounded a little desperate. “I don’t deserve your help,” he said. “I don’t deserve any of this.”

“If we always got we deserved, I don’t think you would have been captured in the first place,” Tony said. “So, you know, there goes that theory.”

“You’ve always got an answer for everything,” Bob said, grinning slightly.

“Genius,” Tony reminded him. “And don’t you forget it.”

Bob dropped him into a dip, sparking a round of distant clapping. “I won’t,” he promised.

- - - - -

Tony flopped back on his bed, though he felt a little too hyped up to sleep. The rest of the night ended up going extraordinarily well. Bob was like a shield against the other partygoers, distracting them all with his ridiculously innocent smile and questions. He also managed to make it every bit as entertaining as expected. His meeting with Mrs. Donaparte had been particularly noteworthy:

“That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, ma’am.”

“Thank you, young man, it certainly cost me enough. You would not believe the prices they charge these days. Almost six thousand, and that’s not even counting the shoes!”

“You spent six thousand dollars on a dress to wear to a charity event? Instead of just donating the six thousand dollars to charity?”

“But, honey, if I did that, what would I wear?”

“You could have just written a check and stayed home.”

Pepper had been hovering nearby, caught between horror and hilarity, for most of the night, and for once Tony hadn’t been the one to blame. It had been amazing, and Bob had actually guilted Mrs. Donaparte into donating an extra twenty thousand dollars before the night was over, so even Pepper hadn’t been angry in the end.

Tony was finally starting to drift to sleep when there was a frantic knock on his door. He blinked his eyes open blearily. “Jarvis?”

“Mr. Bob is at the door,” Jarvis reported, sounding strained. “He seems to be in some distress.”

Tony pushed to his feet, rushing to pull open the door. Bob glanced up at him. He’d changed into a pair of Hulk flannel pants a black thermal t-shirt, and he looked like he’d been crying.

“What happened?” Tony asked urgently.

“I knew your father,” Bob said quickly, looking panicked. “I knew him, and I killed him.”

“Well, yeah, I know. We've been over this," Tony said, watching him with a frown. “It’s sort of the story of how we met, remember? My name is Tony Stark, you killed my parents, prepare to die.

“No, I know, but I remember,” Bob insisted, verging towards hysterical. He reached up to scrub a hand through his hair. “He had a flying car!”

“A flying car?” Tony repeated with disbelief. “His flying car barely got off the ground. He crashed and burned at one of the first Stark Expos.”

“Yes, I was there,” Bob said. His eyes looked glassy, like he was holding back tears. “He used to let me sit with him in his workshop. He’d tell me stories about the things he was planning to build. He gave me a custom rifle and a bulletproof peacoat.”

"Wait, what?" Tony could feel his heart speeding up. He couldn't imagine his father would have been involved in the Winter Soldier project, but he'd suspected for awhile now that SHIELD had dealings with some kind of shadow organization, and Hydra fit the bill. “Oh god,” he said in horror. “Was he your handler? Was my father your handler?”

Bob shook his head. “No, I think I knew him when I was still a person.”

"Okay," Tony said, letting out a breath. "Okay, that's good. But you are still a person, FYI."

Bob looked back at him, pale and shaking. "You should have killed me."

“If I had killed you I would never have forgiven myself for it,” Tony said tightly. “Would you wish that on me?”

"I wouldn't wish that on anyone," he said brokenly.

Tony reached out to carefully take his arm, leading him to sit on the bed. “Okay, look, actually this is good news, this helps,” he told him. “Jarvis, Bob was at the Stark Expo with the flying car, what year was that?”

"1942,” Jarvis replied promptly.

Tony looked over at Bob speculatively. "Well that might explain why we haven’t found you yet. We've only gone back as far as the sixties, and I thought that was a stretch. Jarvis—“

“Already expanding the search to begin in 1940, Sir,” Jarvis interrupted.

"What does it matter what my name was?" Bob asks quietly. “We already know I was a killer.”

Tony kneeled down in front of him, grabbing his left hand and tugging until Bob looked down and met his eyes. “Bobby, baby, you have been through the kind of hell I can't even imagine, and I can imagine a lot, and you came out of it basically an adorable helpless little kitten." Bob glared down at him through his loose hair, which really just made him look like an angry kitten. Tony ignored him. “I’ve got to think you started out pretty amazing."

Bob looked away. “And what if you’re wrong?” he asked. “What if I deserved this?”

“Well, firstly, no one deserved what happened to you, so there’s that,” Tony said. “And secondly, who cares if you weren’t a saint? It won’t change who you are now. Remember our deal? Whatever we find, we’ll deal with it.”

Bob nodded reluctantly, and Tony stood. He grabbed his StarkPad to start running some searches of his own. Unfortunately, there were a lot of dead and missing soldiers in the forties, and the search was taking longer than he’d hoped. It was hours later and Bob had fallen asleep splayed across his bed by the time Jarvis finally found something.

“Sir, I have searched facial recognition against all soldiers missing in action between 1940 and 1950, but there was no match." Jarvis paused for dramatic effect, which Tony figured was his bad influence. "So I did an additional search against soldiers killed in action, and there was a 96.893 percent match to one James Buchanan Barnes."

In other words, Tony realized, his heart speeding up, they’d found a match. "Why does that name sound familiar?"

"He served under Captain Steve Rogers during the second world war,” Jarvis explained.

"Barnes," Tony repeated in realization. His eyes widened. “Bucky Barnes?”

"According to biographical information, that was his preferred form of address,” Jarvis agreed.

"Bring up the info," Tony said, his heart pounding, and holograms lit up around him with images and texts. A small video played, credited to the Smithsonian, of Bucky Barnes laughing on loop beside Steve.

The hair was different, of course, but it was the incandescent carefree smile that made Bucky almost unrecognizable from the man currently sleeping in his bed. It utterly transformed him.

"Shit," Tony breathed. "Cap's gonna freak."

Chapter Text

Bucky Barnes was a legend in his own right, but he had been reimagined through the years as everything from a pre-pubescent side-kick to a teddy bear, and when it came down to it, Tony realized he only really knew anything about the pop culture versions.

His father had told him stories of the real deal, of course, but Tony had rarely sat and listened. He’d always taken his father’s stories for granted, always taken his admiration of perfect Steve Rogers as a coded slight against him.

Still, Tony wasn’t sure how he’d managed to go over a month without noticing he was living with a war hero. There were pictures of his father and Bucky Barnes boxed away in the old family house, with the two of them standing right beside each other. Tony could remember thinking the first time he’d seen those photos how handsome the Sergeant had been, how sad it was the way he’d died so young.

But it had been over thirty years since he’d touched those albums, and since then Tony had gone to great lengths to avoid any form of Captain America paraphernalia out of a sense of self-preservation. He didn’t like to be reminded of what he wasn’t—of what his father had always wanted him to be.

His avoidance tactics had clearly come back to bite him in the ass.

His first instinct was to reach out to Steve, but he paused on that as he glanced back at the sleeping Bo—Bucky. Bucky had fallen asleep splayed across Tony’s king size bed, half on his stomach with his face mostly in the crook of his elbow. Tony could still make out the troubled lines of his brow, and it caused him to hesitate.

Bucky Barnes, he thought incredulously, falling back to lean against the wall. Would Bob even want to go by Bucky? Did he remember? He said he thought he had a brother, but Bucky Barnes had been an only child. That meant he’d probably been remembering Steve.

And Steve brought problems of his own.

Tony knew that as soon as he got a call through to Steve, the man would drop everything and fly right here. Tony wouldn’t blame him. He couldn’t imagine finding someone he’d lost alive and well—or, well enough, anyway, after so long. It somehow seemed fitting that this miracle belonged to Steve, too, in the end.

What could he even tell him, he wondered. So, hey, I went to kill your old war buddy, but decided to take him home with me instead. He’s in my guest room if you want to drop by.

Steve would have to be told somehow, there was no question of that. Tony just didn’t want to spring this on Bob—on Bucky, damn it—all at once.

So he slipped out the room and dialed one of Natasha’s numbers, instead. “I can’t believe you,” he hissed when the voicemail picked up. “You didn’t think to warn me? Call me back, Natasha. We’ve got to let Steve know what’s going on, he’s gonna—“

The line clicked as it was picked up. “Stark.”

It took Tony a minute to place the voice. “Agent Hill,” he said warily. “I was trying to reach Natasha.”

“This line isn’t secure,” she said swiftly. “Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff are unavailable.”

“It’s important,” Tony promised. “I need to reach her.”

“It isn’t safe. We’ll contact you when we can,” she said. “Don’t call this number again.”

“Don’t you hang—“ Tony cursed as the call disconnected. “Damn it.”

Tony set the phone aside, letting out a frustrated breath. He’d suspected for awhile Natasha and Steve were into something big, but this sort of confirmed it. And if Maria Hill was shutting down all communication for his fellow Avengers, it didn’t mean anything good.

He thought over what he knew for sure: First Hydra brought in the Winter Soldier, planning to use him to kill Fury. Losing him, they tried to kill Fury anyway and predictably failed. Natasha has been running interference, collecting his data on Hydra without giving out her reasons—and there was really only one reason why she wouldn’t, and that was if Hydra was so intertwined with SHIELD that they didn’t know who to trust.

It was sort of anathema for him to sit around by the phone when his friends were in trouble, but Tony could make things worse if he went barreling in to try and save the day without more information.

And then there was Bucky to think of, because if Hydra was making their move, then he wasn’t safe, either.

“Jarvis,” Tony said. “I want you searching the grid for Natasha and Steve. Let me know the minute you know where either of them are. And since you love multitasking, keep an eye on normal SHIELD channels too. Something’s up.”

“Understood, Sir,” Jarvis said. “I’ll let you know the moment I find anything.”

Tony headed back to his room, freezing in the doorway when he saw his bed had been abandoned. He glanced to his desk, and the holographic screens with Bucky Barnes’ biographies had been reopened. “Crap,” he muttered, quickly scanning the room. “Jarvis, where’s Bob?”

“Should I continue to call him Bob, Sir?" Jarvis asked thoughtfully. “Or do you suppose he’d prefer Sergeant Barnes?”

“I think I’d prefer if you would tell me where he is,” Tony snapped. “We can work out the name thing later.”

“He exited your room two and half minutes ago, and then evaded my cameras and disappeared,” Jarvis said. “He seemed perfectly calm. I did not realize there was any reason for alarm. However, in past instances, he has gone to the roof or the balcony when seeking to be alone.”

“Right,” Tony realized, pausing for a moment while he considered his options. Bucky probably wanted to be alone, but based on Tony’s own past experiences, being alone in times like this was rarely productive.

He headed to the balcony first, but it was empty, so he took the short ladder against the wall of the building up to the roof. Bucky was sitting at the other end on the ledge, looking more dejected than his usual brooding Batman-esque pose. He had his feet dangling over the edge, one hand balanced beside him.

Tony walked across the roof, and then dropped down to sit next to him on the ledge, facing the other direction. “I was going to break it to you easy,” he told him casually.

Bucky snorted. “Yeah?” he asked. “How would you have done it?”

“Hmm, let’s see…” Tony said thoughtfully. “Hey, there’s an exhibit for you at the Smithsonian. Haven’t been, but heard it’s pretty good. I could have taken you to see it and yelled 'surprise'!”

Bucky laughed lightly, though his eyes were distant. “Needs work,” he said.

“How about this then, I could have told you that you were a hero,” Tony told him. “I’m not surprised about that part, personally. Though the whole you’re ‘Bucky Barnes’ part did sort of throw me for a loop.”

“Those articles said I fought in World War II,” Bucky said quietly. “Certainly gives some context to some of my memories.”

“You were spooked my dad’s book of Captain America history,” Tony reminded him gently. “How much do you really remember?

“Too much,” Bucky said. “Not enough.” He glanced over at Tony with a sigh. “I saw my picture in that book, but I knew it wasn’t me. It couldn’t be.”

“It was,” Tony promised. “We can do a DNA check if you want, pretty sure the Smithsonian has something of yours, but it all fits, and you usually don’t get a facial match that close even with identical twins.” He hesitated for a moment. “Also, I did some research last night. You were a prisoner of war before you joined the Howling Commandos. You were experimented on by Dr. Zola, who was trying to replicate the super soldier serum. Explains how you survived something no one should have survived.”

“Lucky me,” Bucky said, laughing disdainfully.

Tony frowned as he noticed Bucky was cradling his left hand in his lap. He leaned back a little, narrowing his eyes as he saw the blood. He glanced up and took note of the bloody fist size crater in the stairwell wall to their right. It wasn’t hard to put together. “You get in a fight with a wall?” he asked casually.

“Sort of,” Bucky said, smiling wryly. “But it didn’t fight back, so I’m not sure it counts.”

Tony held out his hand, and Bucky sighed as he lifted his and placed it atop of it. His knuckles were bloodied and he could see glints of the metal skeleton where the flesh had been split all the way down. “You know, punching bags were invented for a reason. Mine are especially awesome. And these things called boxing gloves, they’re pretty cool too.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said, letting out a breath. “Wasn’t my finest moment, I know.”

“Can we go in so I can clean this hand up, or do you need longer to brood?” Tony asked.

“I’m not brooding,” Bucky insisted.

“You sort of are,” Tony told him. “Not that you’re not entitled, and it’s a nice look if we’re being honest. I mean, get you a cape, some bat ears—“

“For the last time, I’m not Batman,” Bucky said.

“Right, because you’re Bucky Barnes,” Tony told him, standing without letting go of Bucky’s hand. “You okay with that?”

“Guess it’s not as bad as it could be,” he said. He lifted his legs back over the ledge and allowed Tony to tug him back to his feet.

“Are you kidding?” Tony asked. “I wasn’t kidding about the hero bit. My dad always said—“ He broke off, swallowing hard. “I mean, Howard Stark was the number one Captain America fan boy, sure, but he never mentioned him without mentioning you.”

“Howard…Howie,” Bucky whispered, pressing his eyes shut. “I remember him so clearly now.”

“Howie?” Tony echoed with disbelief. “You called him Howie?!”

Bucky’s lips quirked into a rueful smile. “He refused to call me Bucky, so it was my little revenge. Used to drive him crazy,” he said. “Steve would always—“

Bucky trailed off and Tony tugged gently at his hand to regain his attention. “He never told me that,” he said. “Is that what you want to be called? Bucky?”

"I’m not him,” he said quickly. “Not anymore.”

“That’s okay,” Tony assured him. “I’m just wondering if you want to use the name? You were a James, so there’s that, too. Jimmy, maybe? Jim? Jim-boy?”

“Jimmy?” Bucky repeated, frowning slightly. “Someone used to call me that…a friend from the war…I don’t—“

“Hey, these are all just names,” Tony said calmly. “Anyway, whatever you want to be called, you’ll always be Bob to me.”

Bucky smiled hesitantly, glancing away. “I wish it was that simple,” he said. “I wish I could just be Bob Morrison, Stark Industries employee.”

“Lover of Pixy Stix,” Tony added whimsically.

“Well, that part’s still true,” he laughed. “But I can’t pretend I’m not Bucky Barnes any more than I can pretend I wasn’t the Winter Soldier.”

“You are far too well-adjusted,” he said. “It’s starting to creep me out.” Tony glanced down when he heard a slight dripping, and saw that Bucky was now bleeding all over the ground. “Nevermind, I take it back. You’ve lost points for bad coping mechanisms. Come on, let’s get your hand bandaged before you bleed out.”

“That’s unlikely,” Bucky said wryly.

“Humor me,” Tony said. He led Bucky back inside and to his master bathroom. Bucky hopped up on the counter as Tony pulled out his first aid supplies. He had an entire medical floor and a number of on call doctors, but with Bucky’s advanced healing he didn’t think they would be necessary.

“You sure have a lot of supplies,” Bucky said.

“Dangers of the job,” Tony said wryly. “Even before I was doing the super hero thing, I’d get a little seared every once in awhile from one of my experiments.”

“You’re not a lot like him,” Bucky said thoughtfully, “but that is definitely something you got from your dad.”

Tony froze. “Yeah, I’ve heard I’m not like him. Already got the assessment from Steve.”

Bucky frowned, watching him with concerned. “I meant it as a compliment,” he said uncertainly. “Howie was great. I mean, he was brilliant, like you, but he didn’t really see people. We were all sort of just a means to an end for him. Even Steve…I always kind of thought he felt like he was entitled to him, like he’d made ‘im.” Bucky paused, his eyes going wide. “God, I’m sorry, Tony. I shouldn’t be talking about him like that, I ain’t got no right to—“

“No, it’s fine,” Tony said quickly. “Kind of refreshing to know I wasn’t the only one that saw that in him, actually. He was really good at charming people, so most didn’t notice they were being used.”

“It’s just coming back to me, the war,” Bucky said hesitantly, as Tony swabbed his knuckles with disinfectant. “It feels more real to me now than what I did all those years for Hydra.”

Tony winced at the deep wounds on Bucky’s knuckles, grabbing a roll of gauze to wrap them. “Isn’t that a good thing?” he asked.

“I guess,” Bucky said, leaning forward as he watched Tony bandage his hand. “But I feel a bit like three people at once.”

“Well, I like all of you, if it helps,” Tony told him. “Even the Winter Soldier you.”

“You never met the Winter Soldier, Tony,” Bucky said flatly.

Tony taped the gauze closed and then paused, glancing up at Bucky. “Fair enough,” he admitted. “But I still like you.”

“I like you, too,” Bucky said softly. "You're still right below sugar on the list.”

Tony snorted fondly, feeling relieved that Bucky’s returning memories hadn’t erased any of their new ones. “Give me a little more time,” he said. “I might make it to the top yet.”

“What if we did have time?” Bucky asked quietly. “What if I just want to stay here with you?”

Tony stepped to the side, standing in front of him and bracing his hands on the sink on either side of his legs. “You’re always going to have a place here, that’s a given,” he said, before letting out a tired breath. “But once we tell Steve, he’s going to—“

“I don't want to see him,” Bucky interrupted quickly. “Please, I don't...I can’t…”

Tony had worried this might happen, and he fought the urge to hang his head. If backed into a corner, if Bob—if Bucky—really didn’t want to see Steve, Tony didn’t have any right to force it on him. But keeping this from Steve wasn’t exactly feasible, either. Especially since he was pretty sure Natasha was only planning to keep this secret for as long as it was convenient.

"Okay, look, here's the thing,” Tony started. “Steve will literally storm the tower and probably kill me if I try to keep you from him. But I haven't actually been able to get in touch with any of them yet, and we do have pretty good defenses here at Stark Tower, so if you're serious about not seeing him…” Tony trailed off, already planning contingencies. “Just...can you tell me why?"

Bucky looked away. “He...he shouldn't have to know about me,” he said. “It would be better if he just thought I was dead. I can...I can just disappear.”

“Well, that's just about the stupidest thing I've ever heard,” Tony told him flatly.

Bucky threw him a half-hearted glare, which Tony choose to ignore. “Tony—“

“I adore you, and you literally killed my parents,” he said simply. Bucky looked some kind of mix between scandalized and horrified and guilty. “What, are we not joking about this yet?”

“Please don’t,” Bucky said with a wince.

“Okay, look, my point is, if I can forgive you, if I can be proud of you—do you really think he won’t be?” he asked.

“I guess I don’t know.” Bucky pulled his eyes away, looking down at his freshly bandaged hand. “What’s he like?”

“Steve?” Tony asked. “He’s a Boy Scout.” Bucky looked back at him skeptically. “Okay, so maybe I don’t actually know what he’s like. But that’s only because no one knows what he’s like. He pretends to be the poster child everyone expects him to be, and that’s all he lets anyone see. There’s this thing he does—“ he broke off for a moment, trying to figure out how to explain it. “He doesn’t talk about you exactly, or his past at all, really, but in hindsight, there’s been all these moments where he’s saying something without saying anything, or looking for someone that isn’t there. It’s like he’s been missing a piece of himself, and I think maybe that piece was you.”

“He’s in every memory that I have,” Bucky admitted. “I can’t remember my own mother’s name, but I can remember that he used to wear newspapers in shoes.”

“Newspapers in his—nevermind, off topic,” Tony decided. “If there’s one thing about Steve Rogers that’s never been in question, it’s that he’s a good man. So if you’re not ready, he’d support you. He might follow you around for awhile like a lost golden retriever puppy, but he’d do it at a distance if you tell him you need space. I just think whatever you decide, he’s gonna need to hear it from you.”

“Yeah, okay.” Bucky nodded slowly. “I guess…I mean, I would like to talk to him.”

“Okay,” Tony said, pulling out his cell phone. “I was told not to call him, but I don’t take instruction well. Anyway, I set him up with a secure phone that SHIELD doesn’t know about.”

The phone rang three times before rolling over to voicemail, so Tony hung up. “Well, I don’t want to give him a heart attack if he’s in the middle of a mission, so we probably don’t want you leaving a ‘hey, I’m not dead’ message.”

“Mission?” Bucky asked, his face scrunching up with confusion.

“Huh?” Tony asked, glancing up. “Oh, yeah. Don’t worry, Steve can handle himself.”

“My memories do not support that theory,” Bucky said wryly. “Little punk got into trouble any time I turned my back.”

"If you're his impulse control, that would actually explain a lot,” Tony told him wryly. “But he’s got Natasha with him, and Jarvis is on the lookout for them both.”

“I’m pretty sure I shot her,” Bucky said, looking worried.

“Yeah, that happened,” Tony agreed. “She seems cool with it though. She’s got some personal experience in the brainwashed assassin department, I’m pretty sure she won’t hold it against you.”

Bucky crossed his arms, holding them against his chest defensively, looking sort of pitiful. Tony leaned forward again, meeting his eyes. “Remember when I said whatever happened, we’d deal with it?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said dryly. “But I don’t think you were expecting this.”

“No,” Tony agreed. “This is more of a best case scenario, really.”

Bucky snorted. “How so?”

“Because you’re a decorated war hero, best friend to America’s golden boy, and one of the few people my dad actually admired,” Tony said. “This is going to make spinning PR in our favor a cakewalk.”

“PR?” he asked, looking startled. “I don’t want the world to know about me.”

“Staying incognito when you’re friends with the Avengers is going to be…problematic, to say the least,” Tony told him gently. “Not everyone was as lax a history student as I was.”

“Right,” Bucky sighed, before looking back up to meet Tony’s eyes. “Whatever happens…we’ll still be friends, right? You’re not going to leave me alone?”

“Of course I won’t,” Tony promised.

He couldn’t quite bring himself to tell him that it would probably end up the other way around.

Chapter Text

There was nothing like watching some Saturday Morning Cartoons after you’ve just found out that the brainwashed assassin living in your guest room was also the long thought dead nonagenarian best friend of Captain America. It didn’t matter that it was a Tuesday.

“Sponge Bob is good for the soul,” Tony decided.

“You didn’t name me after him, did you?” Bucky asked. He was laid out on the couch with his head resting on Tony’s thigh, and he glanced up at Tony skeptically as he spoke.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tony told him. “If I was going to name you after this show you would have been a Patrick.”

Bucky snorted and glanced back at the screen. “Do you think he’ll be mad at me?” he asked quietly.

“Steve?” Tony said. “What for? You’re like the perfect friend. There are literally dozens of biographies and two feature films about your epic friendship. He’s going to be thrilled. If anything, he’ll be mad at me.”

Bucky pushed himself up on his hands, looking at Tony in surprise. “Why would he be mad at you?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Trying to kill you. Using Disney films in place of therapy. To name a couple.”

“You never tried to kill me,” Bucky told him earnestly. “You’re the reason I’m still alive at all.”

Tony let out a breath. “Maybe I didn’t make it to the actually stabby-stabby bits, but I was planning on it,” he said. “It’s not exactly a course of action our esteemed Captain would ever get behind.”

Bucky snorted. “You’re kidding, right?” he said. “Just what do you think we were planning to do with Johann Schmidt when we found him? Put him in a pair of handcuffs and pat him on the head?” He paused then, going pale as he sat back against the arm of the couch. “What did happen to Schmidt?”

“Pretty sure Steve did actually kill him,” Tony admitted.

“Good for him,” Bucky said slowly, before swallowing hard. “What about Zola?”

Tony glanced away, unsure how to explain that Zola pretty much did get handcuffs and a pat on the head. In all his digging for a connection between Hydra and SHIELD, Zola was the most blatantly obvious one. His own father had worked with the man, for years, even with what he’d done to his friend.

“They captured him,” Tony admitted. “Think he died in the seventies of some kind of cancer.”

Bucky ran a hand through his hair, and gave a jerky nod. “Yeah, figures,” he said, letting out a breath. “They did want that one alive. But he must have escaped, yeah?”

“What makes you say that?” Tony asked, frowning back at him.

“Because he’s the one that gave me my first arm,” Bucky told him.

“Son of a bitch,” Tony cursed, pushing abruptly to his feet. Tony hadn’t been able to tie Zola to the creation of the Winter Soldier in any of the files, but he was missing everything from the war to the early sixties, which had probably chronicled Zola’s involvement—and consequently, SHIELD’s involvement. No one wonder they’d erased the record of it.

“What?” Bucky asked.

“He didn’t escape, SHIELD had him working for them. I mean, conditionally, supposedly, but they gave him a hell of a lot more leeway than they should have,” Tony explained.

“They gave that bastard a deal?” Bucky asked, his eyes going wide. “Steve would never—“ he trailed off, pressing his eyes shut. “The plane crash. He wasn’t here. I read that about Captain America, but I didn’t…nothing is fitting together right in my head.”

“We’ve got to—“ Tony started.

“Sir,” Jarvis interrupted tensely. “I’ve located Captain Rogers.”

“Where is he?” Tony asked quickly.

“In Washington D.C,” Jarvis explained. “Footage began running on the national news approximately 30 seconds ago.”

The TV switched away from Sponge Bob to a Breaking News Report. It was an aerial shot of the Triskelion and the surrounding lake. Tony watched in disbelief as three huge Helicarriers slowly rose from the water. “Jarvis?” Tony asked tightly. “Where’s Cap?”

The screen abruptly zoomed onto the Triskelion airstrip, and the tiny red and blue and figure running across it. There was another man with him—and did that guy have wings?

The caption along the bottom of the screen read: Captain America wanted for Treason?

“Well, this looks bad,” Tony said dryly.

“Tony—“ Bucky said, his voice breaking. He looked back at Tony with wide, terrified eyes—showing far more fear than Tony had seen from him before.

“Don’t worry,” Tony told me. “I’ve got this. Go call Pepper. She’ll—“ Tony paused on the way to his gear room, after realizing Bucky was following his every step. He spun around. “Woah there, cowboy. Where do you think you’re going? You need to—“

“I’m going with you,” Bucky broke in, tightening his jaw.

“Uh, no, you’re not,” Tony said simply. “First of all, my suit only fits one—second of all, I can’t take you into combat. I mean, I’ve done some pretty irresponsible things, not the least of which, you know, was hunting you down by myself and pulling you out of stasis all willy nilly in the first place. But you are not ready to be going on missions.”

“I’ve been going on missions since before you were born,” Bucky told him flatly. “I’ve never lost my skills, I would have been useless without them. I can assure you, I’m perfectly capable—“

“Can’t risk it,” Tony interrupted. “Sorry.”

“Fine,” Bucky said. “I’ll just take the Quinjet and meet you there.”

“Good luck cracking my access codes, buddy,” Tony said.

“I don’t need to,” Bucky said, glancing up at Tony with honest confusion. “My contract gives me full access to all your aircrafts, including for personal use.”

Tony stilled, and then dropped his head. “So this is why Pepper is always trying to get me to involve the lawyers when I’m drawing up contracts.”

“Tony,” Bucky said softly. “If you really feel you can't take me, I understand. But I will find my own way there."

“Fine, one condition,” Tony snapped, pointing at him firmly. “You don’t use the ‘since before you were born’ thing on me ever again. It creeps me out.”

Bucky broke out into a wide grin. “I promise.”

“And you’re going to wear protective gear without complaining,” Tony added.

“Absolutely,” Bucky agreed instantly.

Unfortunately his easy compliance only lasted for about as long as the walk to the lab, and then Bucky saw what Tony had in mind.

“Absolutely not,” Bucky told him.

“I made this for Steve,” Tony said with a frown, glancing back with pride at the all black, kevlar and titanium lined version of the Captain America suit. “I’ve been trying to get him out of the sparkly outfits since I met him. His shield basically has a target on it. It’s like he’s actively trying to draw fire.”

“Your suit is metallic red and gold,” Bucky reminded him.

“That’s fair,” Tony admitted. “But hey, my suit can take the hit. I’m pretty sure Steve was wearing actual spandex the last time I saw him.”

Bucky looked back at the suit with a frown. “We’re going on a mission,” he said. “I’m not going to wear a leotard on a mission.”

"A leotard? Seriously?” Tony asked, his mouth falling open with disbelief. “This thing is tear resistant, and shock resistant, and flame resistant. It stops bullets—“

"I'm sure it's amazing, but it's still a skintight leotard," Bucky told him. “Let’s leave the skintight suits to Steve. He can almost pull it off.”

“You’d rather go in your Hulk pajamas?” Tony asked.

Bucky glanced down at himself and thought about it. “Yes,” he decided.

Tony realized this was not a battle he was gong to win. “Fine, whatever,” he sighed. “Please just grab some cargo pants out of one of those drawers, and there’s a Kevlar-lined leather jacket hanging up in the corner. They’re for Steve, too, so they should fit you okay.”

Tony very carefully did not look as Bucky rushed to change, and quickly called his own suit to form around him. He kept the mask up, and wondered what the hold up was. “Jarvis, you been able to get in touch with anyone from SHIELD yet?”

“I’m afraid they’re not returning our calls,” Jarvis reported.

“Right,” Tony sighed, before glancing up to check on Bucky. He was wearing a pair of black cargo pants—kevlar reinforced—and combat boots with the leather jacket. Tony’s lips twitched when he saw he was still wearing his white t-shirt with a cartoon Hulk proclaiming: “Hulk sleepy!,” under the unzipped jacket. “You ready?”

“Just need a rifle,” Bucky said, glancing around with a frown.

“I don’t have sniper rifles just laying around,” Tony told him. “I’m a recovering arms dealer. I’ve got my five year coin and everything.”

Bucky glanced at him disbelievingly. “Well, what do you have?”

Tony was about to deny having anything when he recalled he’d been working on some improvements for Clint. “I’ve got a bow and some arrows,” he told him. “Know how to use one?”

“I’ve seen Brave like twenty times,” Bucky shrugged. “How hard can it be?”

Tony grabbed the case with the bow and quiver, and tossed it to Bucky. “Come on then,” he said, turning to lead the way to the floor below them. “The Quinjet can have us in D.C. inside of ten minutes, but we’re still going to be late to the party.”

Bucky didn’t require directions after they stepped onto the Quinjet dock, just put in the sequence to open the back hatch and then slipped inside. “Jarvis, did you give him all the access codes to everything?” he asked.

“It was in his contract, Sir,” Jarvis told him.

Tony shook his head ruefully and followed Bucky inside. Tony was generally a shark in business, but when it came to people he liked he had a habit of signing away everything. As he came to stand behind Bucky in the cock-pit, he decided it was a good thing he was such a good judge of character. Any other international assassin might have taken advantage of the access he’d given him to disappear into the sunset with a Quinjet and some millions.

But then one of the first things Bucky had ever said to him was that he didn’t want to fight anymore. And Tony couldn’t even protect him from that.

“I’m sorry,” he told him.

Bucky was working seamlessly through the prep sequences side-by-side with Jarvis, opening the hatch built into the side of the building so they could take off, but he stopped at Tony’s voice and glanced up with a frown. “For what?”

“You didn’t want to fight anymore,” Tony said quietly. “I didn’t want you to, either.”

“It’s not about what I want,” Bucky said emotionlessly. “That’s one thing I never forgot.”

Bucky’s resignation really only served to make Tony feel worse. He supposed that they’d been lucky, really, to have made it as long as they had without a crisis. The world was always going to come for them, sooner or later.

“Tony…” Bucky started slowly, “Steve isn’t a traitor. I remember—I know that’s true. But I also know, he’d break the rules the moment he didn’t believe in them anymore, and this isn’t the world we were in before.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “I think Hydra has been infiltrating SHIELD for awhile now. I’m not sure of the extent—and I’m not sure how high it goes—but I do know that we can’t trust them. We can trust Steve.”

“So we are going to back up Steve then,” Bucky said, checking with him to be sure. “We could end up labelled traitors, too. But I already am. Maybe it’s best if—“

“Let me stop you right there, because that’s not going to go any better for you than it did for me,” Tony told him. “I’ve skirted the line of treason before. Don’t worry. I coulda been a tightrope walker.”

Bucky just snorted, and the easily flew them out into the New York cityscape. “So what’s the plan?” he asked.

Tony was taken off guard for a moment at being asked. He cleared his throat. “Ah, right,” he said. “Knew I was forgetting something.”

Bucky shot him an amused glance. “You don’t forgot anything,” he said.

“I may have a few ideas,” Tony admitted. “You just might not like them.”

“Try me,” Bucky said.

“I want you to stay out of sight,” Tony said. “Find a perch and lay down cover fire. I’ll do the flashy bits and coordinate with Steve and his team.”

“Got it,” Bucky said easily.

“What? That’s it?” Tony asked, eyes going wide.

“It’s a good plan,” Bucky said, glancing back at him with a frown. “And it probably isn’t the best time to tell Steve I’m alive. It would compromise him.”

“Right, yeah, that’s what I thought,” Tony agreed. “We’ll just break it gently after this is over.”

“Yeah? I remember your idea of gentle,” Bucky snorted, as he pulled an arrow from the quiver and prepared to nock it. “You gonna take him to the museum and have me pop out from behind the Howling Commandos exhibit?”

“That’s actually not bad,” Tony said. “I think we should seriously consider it.”

Bucky went quietly suddenly, returning his focus to the controls. “I don’t know if I’m ready to see him,” he admitted.

“We can’t keep it from him, not after this,” Tony told him gently.

“Yeah, I know, I just—“ he sighed. “I don’t know that I’m ready to be Bucky again yet.”

“Well here’s the good news,” Tony told him. “You never have to be anyone you’re not. Not ever again.”

“That’s not a promise you can make,” Bucky told him gently.

"Yes it is," Tony promised, because he was reckless like that.

Tony grabbed a pair of communicators from a panel in his suit, and held out one of the earbuds for Bucky. Bucky took it without question and placed it in his right ear. “That’ll get you a line straight to me,” Tony told him. “I’ll patch into Steve’s comms when we get there, and you’ll have audio to hear them, but your audio will only come to me. We don’t need Steve hearing your voice before we can get him an explanation.”

“Probably not,” Bucky said, flashing a worried grin.

The next time Tony glanced back at the window, they were already flying over D.C. He could see the Triskelion in the distance, getting closer fast—and Bucky was entirely ignoring the SHIELD landing strip.

“Uh, you just passed the airstrip,” Tony pointed out.

“Yep,” Bucky agreed, keeping them straight on course for the Triskelion. “That airstrip is a killing ground. I had something higher in mind.”

“You’re gonna land on the Triskelion?” Tony asked, leaning forward to get a better view of the building’s quick approach. “Points for style, I guess. And hey, we’re probably already gonna be in trouble.”

Bucky brought them hovering over the highest part of the Triskelion, then gently dropped them down. Their approach had mostly gone unnoticed in the chaos around them. Tony could make out a number of other air fighters landing on the Helicarriers. They were all SHIELD issue—there was no telling what side any of them were fighting on.

Tony quickly opened the back hatch, bringing down his face guard as he exited with Bucky not far behind him. Bucky had strapped the quiver to his back, and was holding the bow like he knew exactly how to use it. Tony did a quick assessment, and realized the concentrated battle was on the airstrip. One side seemed to be trying to stop the fighters from the lifting off, and the rest were trying to reach the Helicarriers.

The Helicarriers themselves hovered ominously, strangely quiet, though there was no way to see what was going on inside them.

“There,” Bucky said simply.

Tony glanced at him, then followed where he was pointing. He could just make out the distant figure of Captain America, pulling himself up to the top of the closet Helicarrier. A team of about five armed men were waiting for him.

“That’s my cue,” Tony said, before casting one glance back to Bucky. “Remember, don’t—“

“I know how to go unseen,” Bucky assured him. “You’re the one people are going to notice if you keep standing there all shiny.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” Tony said. “See you on the flip side.”

Then he fell backwards off the Triskelion, catching himself in mid-air to change his course towards the Helicarrier. “Hey, campers,” Tony said, patching into comms for Steve’s team. “Need some back up?”

“Tony?” Steve answered incredulously. “What are you doing here?”

“Was in the area,” Tony said. “Well, you know, I was in New York, but you haven’t been answering my calls, so I thought I’d better drop by, see what you were up to. Looks like you’ve been busy.”

Steve laughed. “If that’s why you’re here, I’m glad I missed your calls,” he said. “You want to try and run interference? We’ve got two Helicarriers disabled, this is the last one but it’s the most heavily guarded. If you can stop any more reinforcements getting up here, I should be able to handle the guys already here.”

“Roger that, Rogers,” Tony said, but paused in his course towards the airstrip when he noticed a guard sneaking up behind Steve. He was just raising his repulser when the guy went sailing right off the side of the Helicarrier with an arrow sticking out center mass.

Steve leaned over to watch the guy’s descent. “You brought Clint?” he asked after a moment.

"Ah sure, brought his bows and arrows," Tony said, which was weird and awkward, but Steve didn't notice on account of being in the middle of a mission and not as easily distracted as Tony. He had already returned his attention to the remaining guards.

Tony was pretty sure Bucky had him covered, so he dove down towards the airstrip. There were SHIELD personnel everywhere, running back and forth from the buildings and aircrafts, and Tony had no idea who to stop.

“Uh, if Hydra looks like SHIELD, how do I tell them apart?” he asked.

A group of running guards had paused at his approach, and turned as one to open fire on him.

“Never mind,” he said, dodging out of the way as he raised his repulser. “Found some.”

He aimed at the group, and pulled up the targeting on his visor. “Multiple targets,” he told Jarvis, and the target crosshairs multiplied to cover the whole group. “There we go.” Tony fired and they all fell over at once. “Okay, who’s next?” He dropped down in front of another group, and raised his hand defensively. The guards froze, and quickly raised their hands.

“We’re on your side,” one of the braver ones spoke up.

Tony powered down the repulsers. “Right,” he said. “On your way then.”

They continued on their way, and Tony followed them with his gaze. “Track ‘em, Jarvis,” he said. “Make sure they’re not up to no good. I have the strangest feeling Hydra wouldn’t have a problem lying to me about what side they’re on.”

“And people say you’re not cautious, sir,” Jarvis said.

“Who says that?” Tony asked, as he disabled a fighter jet right before it could take off. He hoped that wasn’t one of the good guys, either.

“Everyone we know, Sir,” Jarvis told him.

“This is like fighting blind,” Tony cursed, as he tried to track the movements of the SHIELD agents. Every once and awhile one would get overconfident and come at him, but that was the only indication he had of what side they were on.

“I hate to bring you more bad news,” Jarvis started wryly, “but I've detected a breach of security in the SHIELD systems. I believe it be Ms. Romanoff.”

Tony clicked the comms back on for Steve's team. “Natasha, what are you up to?"

"Stark." Once again, the answering voice was familiar, but very much not who he was calling.

"Should I just start calling you Natasha?" Tony snapped.

“Little busy, Stark,” Hill said tightly. “You have thirty seconds.”

“Need you to let me in on the plan,” he said. “Once again, I’m your calvary.”

There was a short pause, and he was pretty sure he didn’t imagine the soft cursing. “Focus on the armed targets,” she said. “We’ll handle the rest.”

“Gonna need more than that,” Tony said. “We’ve detected some strange activity on the SHIELD systems. I know we’re past our thirty seconds, so if you want me to do a little investigation on my own I’m perfectly capable of—“

“We're dumping the entire SHIELD database online,” Hill interrupted tightly.

Tony’s eyes widened, and he almost didn’t dodge a hail of bullets in time. He spun and then took cover behind a quinjet. “I know I didn’t go to spy school like the rest of you, but that sounds counter-productive for a secret organization.”

“SHIELD has been overrun by Hydra since its inception,” Hill said. “We could either spend the next few decades untangling it and trying to work out who to trust, or we could pull the bandaid off all at once.”

“Ah, meaning Steve wasn’t happy with the corruption and doesn’t trust you to fix it,” Tony said, before spinning out from behind the quinjet to take out two more shooters with his repulsers. “Well, it’s efficient, I’ll give you that. It’s gonna be a hell of a PR mess.”

“You’re not part of SHIELD,” Hill reminded him. “It’s not your concern. If you want to help, try to stop Hydra reinforcements before they reach the Helicarriers.”

“You should be nicer, Hill,” Tony said wryly. “From the sound of it, you’re gonna be looking for a new job soon."

“Is that an offer, Stark?” she asked dryly.

“No promises,” he said sweetly. “We’ll have to see how you do in the interview.” Hill just snorted and ended the call.

Tony considered the repercussions of this for about another thirty seconds, then he thought about the organization that had killed his parents and his vision went red. If they wanted to burn it down, he’d help them light the match.

“Jarvis, get rid of any references to the Asset. I already deleted the videos, but do another check for them too,” he ordered.

"And what of references to you, Sir?" Jarvis asked.

"I've got nothing to hide," Tony said. “My life’s an open book.”

"Consider it done,” Jarvis assured him.

Tony took out the last shooter, and then moved out of cover. “Good, we need—“

A percussive wave of sound stopped him in his tracks. Tony glanced up just in time to see missiles fired from all three Helicarriers, all aimed at each other. The Helicarriers started to waver in the air as the missiles all started to make contact. He clicked his comm back on. “You couldn’t warn me?” he snapped. “Hill? Natasha? …Steve?”

“We seem to have lost access to that frequency, sir,” Jarvis said. “I’m working on it.”

He bet that Hill had shut down communications again. “Oh, you are so not getting that job offer,” he muttered, before spinning to glance back up and survey the damage. The Helicarriers appeared to be crashing in slow motion, as their remaining engines valiantly tried to keep them in the air.

And one of them was far too close to the Triskelion for comfort.

“Bucky, you need to get off that building. I don’t like the way that Helicarrier is tilting,” Tony said anxiously.

“Already lifting off,” Bucky assured him, and Tony glanced up just in time to see Quinjet in a vertical lift off straight up and out of the line of fire. Tony was surprised, but grateful that Bucky wasn’t being as stupidly heroic as the people he was used to dealing with—himself excluded, obviously.

Sadly, his relief was short-lived, and died a very sudden death at Bucky’s next question:

“Hey, you said Jarvis can fly this thing, right?”

“Yeah, of course,” Tony said, frowning, wondering if he’d been injured. “Jarvis—“

“At once, sir,” Jarvis said. “You know how I love to multitask.”

Tony looked back up to see that rather than move to land out of the danger zone, Bucky had the Quinjet hovering right above the tilted, failing Helicarrier. He’d hit the release on back hatch, and it was falling open. “Oh, Bucky-bear,” Tony said, with more calm than he felt. “Whatcha doin’?”

"Crazy bastard is going down with the ship," Bucky muttered angrily. “Tapped into their comms just before they closed ‘em off. He ordered them to fire on his position.”

"And your solution is to follow him?" Tony snapped.

"Pretty sure that bit is hardwired in," Bucky agreed, sounding a little disgruntled about it.

Then Bucky came running right off the edge of the Quinjet hatch into a free fall through the air, spinning into a roll right before he hit the shaky surface of the Helicarrier beneath him.

Tony’s heart might have actually stopped.

“Bucky?” he called urgently, just as he saw his distant figure gracefully lift back to his feet.

“That was a little farther than I thought,” Bucky said, sounding a bit breathless, but alive.

Tony shut his eyes for a moment. “We're going to have a long discussion about self-preservation when this is over,” he decided. “Steve can be the guest of honor, but you're vying for runner up.”

"Yeah?" he asked, with a breathy laugh. "Hey, aren't you the one that goaded a psychotic alien into tossing you out a window?"

"That is—“ Tony started, before switching tracks, “that is a discussion for another time. Also, stop gossiping with Jarvis behind my back. He exaggerates."

"Sir, I resent the assertion. I have never exaggerated," Jarvis protest primly, as he guided the Quinjet to land somewhere out of the way.

"Anyway, we do it right in front of you," Bucky added.

"I hate it when you gang up on me," Tony told them gruffly, but then went pale as the Helicarrier impacted the side of the Triskelion. “Okay, the Helicarrier is literally crashing into the Triskelion now. You need to get back to the roof. I’ll pick you up. Steve knows what he’s doing, he’ll have an exit plan.”

“He doesn’t, and he won’t. We’ll make our way to the roof just as soon as I find him,” Bucky answered.

“Buckster—“ Tony started.

“Not without him,” Bucky broke in simply.

“Goddamnit,” Tony cursed, before starting towards the Helicarrier to join them. He was almost there when his comms sparked back to life.

"Tony!" Natasha cried, the actual Natasha, this time. "We've got a friendly jumping off the forty-first floor, north-west corner. You’re faster than we are. Can you get to him?”

Tony knew he didn’t have time to hesitate, so he spun back to the Triskelion, relying on Bucky to take care of himself for now. "On it,” he said, flying straight to the north-west corner.

He wasn’t expecting to see someone come flying right out the window. “Holy Sh—“ Tony started, and then dove forward, snatching the man around the waist to pull him back against him, before taking off to get away from the crumbling building.

“So, hi,” Tony said to his new passenger. “I’m Iron Man.” The man in his arms tried to glance back at him, and Tony got a good enough look at him to recognize him as the guy with the wings from the news. “Got your wings clipped, huh, bird-man?”

“Are you kidding me, man?” the guy grumbled. “This is why you should never meet your heroes.”

“I’m one of your heroes?” Tony said. “I’m touched. What’s your name? Gotta know who to make out the autograph to. Unless—you’re not really going by Bird-Man, are you?”

“Sam Wilson, but my call sign is Falcon,” he snorted. “Not that I’m not enjoying the view, but you planning to set me down any time soon?”

“Working on it,” Tony promised, using his cameras to tap into what was going on behind them. The Helicarrier was half lodged into the Triskelion at this point, and then the whole thing was going to fall apart at the seams.

He landed at the shore of the lake, gently putting Wilson back on his feet. He could see what had to be Fury’s helicopter landing safely a short distance away, but he didn’t spare a moment for them. He spun back around to watch as the Helicarrier continued to fall into the Triskelion.

“Bob, what’s your status?” he demanded. “Answer me!”

“I’m almost there,” Bucky responded. “I see him.”

Tony adjusted the zoom on his cameras, and then he could see him, too. Steve was on the bottom floor of the Helicarrier, hanging on by a thread to the edge of the glass exterior. Tony took off towards him, leaving a shouting Wilson on the ground behind him.

He already knew he wasn’t going to make it. He could see Steve’s fingers slipping, and then—and then Bucky was there, sliding across the glass and reaching out to grip Steve’s wrist and halt his descent. Tony could just barely make out Bucky’s breathless voice over the comms:

“Hey, Stevie.”

And then the glass was breaking out from beneath him, and the both of them were falling too fast for Tony to catch them.

Chapter Text

There was this thing that happened sometimes, where time slowed down. A moment would just get caught in place, and it didn’t help anything, it didn’t give anyone more time or let them move faster or make the slightest difference—it just caught them there, watching it all happen in perfect clarity.

So Tony could see clearly the look of shock in Bucky’s eyes as the barrier beneath him broke apart, and he could see every tiny fleck of glass that split apart and fell around Bucky and Steve like sparkling sunlit confetti. They seemed to be floating for a moment before gravity won out, and tugged them down.

Bucky didn’t release his grip on Steve’s wrist, so the fall had them crashing into each other. Somehow, Tony knew what Bucky would do before he even made a move—he used his momentum and his grip on Steve to spin them so that Steve was above him.

Then they were disappearing beneath the water, and time started back up with a sickening lurch.

“Bob!” Tony shouted, even as the voice in the back of his mind corrected him—Bucky, it was Bucky now, Bob was gone. He put in a burst of power and landed gracelessly at the edge of the shore. He retracted the face mask, searching the water frantically.

Bucky and Steve broke free from the surface together, and Tony’s breath caught in relief. “Are you—“ he started.

“We’re fine,” Bucky assured him wryly. He was already making his way to the shore, tugging a stunned Steve behind him. He looked very wet—it wasn’t a bad look, some distant part of Tony’s mind noted—but somehow he was entirely unmarked. “I mean, we landed in the water. This was nothin’, you can trust me on that.”

"I am building you a suit that flies!" Tony decided. "Jesus."

Steve didn’t look to have fared as well as Bucky, but then there was no way to tell how much damage he had already suffered on the Helicarrier. He had a cut above his left eye that was bleeding steadily down, trailing down the same path that tears would take.

He didn’t seem to be registering any of that, though, or possibly even Tony’s presence at all.

Because he hadn’t take his eyes off Bucky once.

“Bucky?” Steve whispered desperately.

Bucky froze for a moment, then his whole expression changed, like he was putting on a mask. The crinkles at the corners of his eyes smoothed out and he smiled gently, looking suddenly like he could be in a black and white photo from the war.

“Hiya, punk,” Bucky said fondly. “Long time no see.”

Steve just stared back at him, looking somehow both elated and gutted at the exact same time. “Bucky?” he said again, and his voice was disbelievingly. Tony couldn’t really blame him. He’d had more than one fantasy about his mother just appearing suddenly beside him, but she’d always disappeared the moment that he reached out.

But when Steve rushed forward to tackle Bucky in a fierce hug, Bucky was solid and strong and caught him in time to balance them both.

“You’re really here?” Steve asked brokenly.

Bucky awkwardly patted him on the back. “Far as I can tell,” he said wryly.

Steve pulled back just far enough that he could examine Bucky’s face. He reached up one hand hesitantly, brushing Bucky’s long wet hair back out of his eyes. “I don’t understand,” he said. “How can you be here—?”

“Uh, well…that’s sorta…” Bucky trailed off, glancing over at Tony helplessly.

“Oh, no. Don’t look at me,” Tony said quickly, but it was too late, because Steve’s giant blue eyes were already spinning to latch onto him.

“Tony?” Steve said, his voice getting stronger. “What’s going on?”

“Right,” Tony sighed. “We were gonna break this gentle, right? So…uh, cliff notes version. Bucky didn’t die when he fell from the train, he was recaptured by Zola, got turned into a brainwashed killing machine for Hydra that was occasionally flash frozen over the last seventy years, give or take a couple years. But he’s doing much better now. Obviously.”

Steve stared at him for a moment with horrified eyes, and then his knees seemed to give out beneath him. “I think I need to sit down,” he said distantly.

Bucky reached out to try and catch him, but they both just ended up sitting on the shore in a foot of shallow water. “I don’t think gentle means what you think it means,” Bucky complained mildly, as he caught Steve’s arm to hold him steady.

“I’m sorry, but how do you spin something like that?” Tony asked. “Your backstory is more depressing than a John Steinbeck novel!”

“Not helping,” Bucky muttered, as he guided Steve’s head down and told him to breathe.

Tony winced and bit back his own retort, self-aware enough to realize his fear and adrenaline had him in snark overdrive—and this was definitely not the time. He felt instead like he was suddenly intruding somewhere he had no right to be.

“You survived?” Steve whispered, his eyes searching out Bucky instinctively as he raised his head. “All this time, you were alive? And I—“

“Hey, no,” Bucky said quickly. “I don’t remember much, but I remember enough to know I sure as hell shouldn’t have survived. Nothing you coulda done. They found me before you woulda gotten to me anyway.”

His reassurances just seemed to be having the opposite of the intended effect, and Steve had gone stark white, leaving the blood trailing down his face shining vividly in contrast. “I left you there,” he said. “I left you alone.”

“Look at me, Steve,” Bucky said firmly. “Just, look at me. I’m here now. Okay? I’m right here.”

Steve blinked at him for a moment, as some of his color started to come back. “Why are you wearing a Hulk sleep shirt?” he asked bemusedly.

Bucky broke out into one of those incandescent grins that Tony had previously only seen on film reels. He tried not to take it personally. “You’re wearing red and blue spandex, buddy,” Bucky told Steve. “Maybe don’t throw stones.”

Tony had thought he’d seen Steve smile before, too, but apparently he hadn’t—because the wry grins he was used to had nothing on the smile that broke out right then. He was looking at Bucky like he was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“God,” Steve said, reaching out to grip Bucky by his upper arms. “I’ve missed you, so much. I—“

“Hate to break up the reunion, boys,” Natasha said wryly, as she stepped up beside him. Tony spun to face her, wondering where the hell she had come from, and how long she had been standing there. He really, really hated spies.

“But we’ve got trouble on the way,” she continued.

Tony could hear the distant sirens now, and glanced back just in time to see Fury and Hill disappearing into the distance in their helicopter. “Looks like you missed your ride,” he told her.

“Your pilot looks pretty preoccupied,” she said. “I thought maybe you could use a spare.”

“We can’t just leave,” Steve said, finally pulling his eyes from Bucky. He pushed himself up to his feet, reaching out to take Bucky’s hand and pull him back up beside him. “We need to explain—“

“There will be a time for explanations,” Natasha agreed. “That time is not now. They find us now, and they will take us somewhere very dark and very far away and we won’t be leaving it any time soon.”

“She’s right,” Tony agreed. “We need to do some major damage control, and until we know who we can trust, we need to get somewhere secure. Luckily, I have a fully defensible Tower. They’ll probably know where we are, but it’s unlikely they’ll risk coming for you there. Jarvis is already analyzing the data dump for what information can help us.”

“Data dump?” Bucky asked.

“They just dropped SHIELD’s entire library on the web,” Tony told him. “Or, you know, Hydra’s entire library. Jarvis is having a little trouble figuring out which bits of this information falls into which category, honestly.”

Bucky frowned in concern, but before he could ask more questions, Steve started to list against him. He turned around, eyeing the wound on Steve’s eyebrow with worry. “What happened to you?” he asked. “Did you hit your head?”

“Rumlow, from my Strike team,” Steve explained. “He was Hydra—he, he was waiting for me in the control center on the last Helicarrier. I knocked him out, but not before he got in a lucky shot.”

That meant the ‘cut’ was a graze from a bullet, Tony realized sickly. It was kind of frightening to think about how close this reunion came to never happening. From the look on Bucky’s face, he was thinking the same thing.

“I saw him when I was making my way to you,” Bucky told him, looking back at the wreckage like he was prepared to search for Rumlow to finish him off. “He was still alive when we went down, but he was pretty well trapped.”

“How would—“ Steve started. “You know who Rumlow is?”

“They were training him to be my handler,” Bucky admitted. “I didn’t remember till I saw him, but he was—”

“Sirens are getting closer,” Natasha interrupted calmly. “We really should get to Tony’s Quinjet before they get here.”

Tony knew she was right, and turned to lead the way. He kept glancing back, and saw that Steve wouldn’t let go of Bucky. He kept gripping his sleeve, or holding him by the wrist like he thought he was a toddler that might wander off.

It was sort of adorable, but also almost unbearably sad. Bucky seemed fine with it, smiling at Steve in equal parts astonishment and awe, apparently over his doubts when faced with Steve Rogers in the flesh.

Tony was happy for them, he really was.

But there was a selfish part of him that felt like Bucky was his first—he wasn’t, by about a hundred years, but logic wasn’t all that comforting. He didn’t want to let Bucky go.

And he was going to have to let him go.

- - - - -

Natasha had flown them back to the Tower. Tony didn’t exactly trust her, he wasn’t sure he ever could, but she was still an Avenger, after all—and he knew she was loyal to Steve, if not to him. He wasn’t entirely sure what it said about him that he didn’t think anything of harboring a couple fugitives, but he hadn’t worried too much about bringing Bucky home either, and that had worked out pretty wonderful.

For as long as it lasted, anyway.

Bucky had disappeared with Steve just moments after they’d arrived home, ostensibly to deal with the graze on Steve’s forehead, though Tony suspected they just weren’t ready to be apart.

Natasha had no trouble following them to clean up herself, but Tony couldn’t help but continue to feel like some kind of interloper even in his own house. So he left them to it, and went to his lab instead. He climbed out of his suit and then grabbed a pen from his desk, tugging the cap off with his teeth as he walked towards the large blackboard along the back wall.

“Okay, Jarvis,” Tony said. “Time for some damage control.”

“There was nearly a Petabyte of data on the SHIELD servers,” Jarvis said dryly. “Where would you like to begin?”

“Let’s block out anything older than ten years for now, and archive anything we already knew about,” Tony told him, before drawing a line down the middle of the board. He scribbled ‘Hydra’ on one side, and ‘SHIELD’ on the other. “Focus on the more recent cases that may still have active agents in play. Two main objectives: any threats that need to be dealt with, and any innocents that have been caught in the crossfire.”

“Would you like to start with threats in order of their position of power?” Jarvis asked.

“Yeah, we don’t have time to care about the foot soldiers yet,” Tony agreed. “Give me the big timers.”

“Alexander Pierce,” Jarvis said. “Head of the World Security Council and former Secretary of Defense.”

“Alexander—“ Tony broke off, scribbling the name in cursive on the board. He remembered coming home to find Pepper holding Bob on the couch after a panic attack, and she’d said— “Son of a bitch. Okay. Next.”

Jarvis read out the names one after another:

Senator Maxwell Stern.
Senator Simon Braxton.
Senator Arnold Peters.
John Garrett.
Jasper Sitwell…

There were far too many people in power on the list that just kept growing longer, but as Jarvis made it to the more high ranking members of SHIELD Tony hit pause. The most important part was taking out the publicly visible figures—optics mattered, as much as Tony hated them, and he couldn’t give them time to spin this. He suspected Fury would be handling any remaining active agents on his own, anyway.

He had Jarvis package up the evidence for each name on the list into neat, defense-lawyer-proof files, and then sent them off to every government agency that was still left. He suspected they’d all be in cuffs before the sun went down.

“Okay,” Tony said, sliding over to the SHIELD side. “Now we—“

“I guess you were right not to trust us.”

“If you’re going to be staying here,” Tony told her without turning around, “I’m going to get you a bell to wear.”

“I was trained to move with bells on,” Natasha told him slyly, as she stepped inside the lab. Tony finally glanced back at her. She was freshly scrubbed and wearing a sweater and drawstring sweatpants that were about three times too big. She looked vulnerable and lost—but Tony knew better than to fall for how she looked.

She moved to stand beside him, and held her hand out for the pen. Tony tossed it to her wordlessly. She stood on her tip toes and crossed out Alexander Pierce first, then Jasper Sitwell. She handed the pen back, and continued to stare at the board.

“Isn’t this a little low tech for you?” she asked.

Tony absently tapped at the corner of the blackboard, and it flickered, reverting to a screensaver of the New York cityscape. Another tap, and the chart appeared again.

“This is not a pipe,” he told her dryly.

Natasha’s lips quirked, and she moved around behind him to look at the SHIELD part of the board. “What is this one for?” she asked.

“You burned a lot of agents,” he reminded her. “And let’s not pretend SHIELD only had info on people that worked for them.”

“We were all burned already anyway,” she said, reaching out to brush her fingers against the simulated blackboard. “Hydra cells were activated within every level of SHIELD, and they already knew everything about us. They were us. But their plans only work if people don’t know about them. Making that knowledge public…it loses all value. Now they’re the ones on the run.”

“Which is why I allowed it,” Tony agreed. “But we can’t just wait for this mess to fix itself.”

“I gave a heads up to Clint before we went to the Triskelion,” she told him. “He got messages out to all our deep cover agents, sent them to a couple of safe houses he’d managed to keep off the grid. We didn’t get to everyone in time, but we’re reasonably sure the ones we got to are all on our side, and reasonably sure is the best we’ve got at the moment.” She shrugged. “The rest should be fine. They’ll go to the CIA, or NSA.”

“What about you?” he asked, glancing over at her.

“I think I’m done with the government acronyms for awhile,” she told him.

Tony turned back to the board. “When you were spying on Stark Industries,” he started casually, “do you think you were working for SHIELD, or for Hydra?”

“I don’t know,” she said quietly. “I can ask that question about every single SHIELD mission I’ve ever been on, and I don’t think I really know the answer for a single one of them.” She looked back towards the door, like she was checking on her route of escape. “I got burned this time too, Stark.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. The files on Natasha had been more extensive than any of the other Avengers. He’d had Jarvis isolate them all, and archive them for later. He hadn’t read them yet, but he couldn’t promise that he wouldn’t.

“Barnes is burned, too,” she added.

Tony paused. “Funny thing about that, though, cause I’d already removed all his files from SHIELD servers,” he said casually. “So not really. He’s still in the clear.”

Natasha watched him with surprise, though very little of it showed on her face. “You erased him,” she said. “You let us do it to everyone else, but you erased him. Why?”

“Because if I hadn’t his name would have ended up on the wrong list,” he said simply, tapping the Hydra side of the board. “That’s not who he is.”

“It’s not over for him, you do know that?” she asked. “You may have erased those files, but the past isn’t that easily done away with. It’s still in him.”

“Trust me, I know,” Tony told her. “But it doesn’t matter, now. I’ve done what I can. Steve will—well, he’ll take care of the rest. He’ll take care of him.”

“You think you’ve already lost him,” Natasha realized.

Tony swallowed hard. “He never belonged to me.”

“I’ve seen the way he looks at you, Tony,” Natasha insisted, frowning over at him. “Something like that doesn’t just disappear.”

Tony laughed darkly, and shook his head. “Sure, except when he finds out he’s Bucky Barnes and all that comes with it,” he said. “I haven’t spent the last six weeks with Bucky Barnes. I spent it with Bob, and he’s already gone.”

“I don’t think you’re giving him enough credit,” she said. “He clocked me at that charity ball before you did, you know that?”

Tony turned to her in surprise. “What?”

“I was watching you from the moment you came in, and he made me,” she said, her lips quirking up a bit. “Wasn’t being cautious enough. Forgot who I was dealing with. You excused yourself and went to the bathroom, and he came up beside me and politely threatened to slit my throat if I even thought of hurting you.”

Tony gaped at her. He remembered Bucky that night, all smiles and laughter and innocent delight at the hors d'oeuvres. “No, he—“

“Threats like that tend not to worry me much, but from him…” she trailed off, raising eyebrow. “Well, I know from experience the Winter Soldier always follows through.”

Tony glared at her. “He’s not—“

“He is,” she said simply. “That’s my point. He is the Winter Soldier. He is Bucky Barnes. He is Bob. All of these things can be true at once.”

Tony remembered Bucky’s fierce determination to stand up for Luke in that ally, and he remembered the way he’d been prepared to take down Nick Fury right in the living room with nothing but a wine-opener. All of those pieces were just as important as his love of sugar and Disney, just as much a part of him as anything. He supposed he’d actually met Bucky Barnes before either of them had realized that was who he was.

“You’re right,” he agreed. “But I still can’t compete with a friendship that spans a century.”

“Who says you have to?” she asked wryly. “You think I’m gonna give up my friendship with Steve just because he has Bucky back? No, I’m going to fight for it, and I have a lot to make up for.”

Tony winced on her behalf. “Figured out you knew before him, huh?”

“He’s not happy with me,” Natasha admitted, looking uncharacteristically ill at ease. “But for what it’s worth, I told him you really didn’t know.”

Tony was sort of touched. It may have just been the truth, but Natasha wasn’t exactly known for telling it. He wondered what it had cost her. “He’ll forgive you, you know,” he told her. “I mean, he’s Captain America.”

“You really don’t know him very well, do you?” she asked, smiling sadly.

“Starting to think maybe I don’t,” Tony agreed.

“He’s the one that wanted to burn SHIELD to the ground,” Natasha said. “That’s the trouble with a truly moral man, I suppose. No shades of grey. And maybe you haven’t noticed, but that’s sort of where I live.”

“Well, metaphorically, maybe,” Tony agreed. “Physically, you know you’re welcome here, right?”

“Am I?” she asked softly.

“The twenty-first floor is yours,” he told her, and glanced away. “Built it for you before I knew you and Steve were running off to D.C.”

Natasha leaned up to give him a quick peck on the cheek. “We don’t deserve you, Tony,” she told him, before turning back towards the door.

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said gruffly. He glanced up at her retreating back. “Just stay out of the restricted areas!”

Natasha flashed him a grin that made no promises, and disappeared out the door.

Chapter Text

Tony woke up to the sound of his ringing phone, and nearly fell out of his chair as he instinctively reached to grab it. “Stark,” he answered, mostly on auto-pilot, as he ran a hand through his hair.

He wasn’t sure when he had fallen asleep or how long it had been. His digital blackboard was covered end to end in his hurried writing, with all the most urgent and worrying bits of the SHIELD data. He’d tipped off agencies across the states to handle them, and had finally sat down for a break.

Sitting down had obviously been a mistake.

“Hey, man, I’m supposed to give you a message,” a familiar voice told him. Tony squinted at the board as he tried to place it.

“Right, who are you?” he asked.

“Sam Wilson,” the man said.

Tony blinked, still trying to place it. “How did you get this number?”

There was a short offended silence, and then a sigh. “Look, it’s Bird-Man,” he said. “From the Triskelion? I got the number from Nat.”

Tony’s eyes widened. “Bird-Man!” he cried. “Right, the guy with the wings. Shit, I’m gonna be honest, I forgot all about you. Did we just leave you there?”

“I’m going to try not to take that personal,” Sam said wryly. “But nah, man. Nat put me on a helicopter with just about the scariest person I’ve ever met, and some dude with an eyepatch. She thought it would be safer for me to get dropped at a safe house, rather than somewhere public like the Tower.”

“Probably a good idea,” Tony agreed. No one had come for them yet, but it was only a matter of time before one of the remaining government agencies got their act together and came knocking at his door. He already had lawyers working around the clock to protect everyone involved, but the less people in the spotlight, the better. “Well, what can I do for you, Bird-Man?”

“You can call me Sam, for starters,” he said. “But I’m just a messenger. Dude with an eyepatch wanted me to tell you that you can cross Garret off your list, whatever the hell that means. These spies are driving me crazy, man. I was just in this to get a running partner.”

“I know the feeling,” Tony agreed. “I mean, not about the running part. I don’t really do that except if I’m being chased.”

Sam snorted. “Hey, is Steve okay? He didn’t look in great shape,” he said. “Didn’t want to just leave like that, but Nat was pretty sure he needed some time to process something.”

“He’ll be fine,” Tony promised. “What about you? You’re not still with ‘Eyepatch Dude,’ are you? Cause you probably want to keep your distance from him if you value your sanity and/or your health.”

“No, I’m just at some safe house in the woods with Robin Hood and his merry men,” Sam assured him.

Tony could hear Clint shouting somewhere in the background: “You're not supposed to tell him that! Christ Almighty. Don't you even know what a safe house is?”

"Apparently I'm not supposed to tell you that," Sam added.

"You can tell Clint if I wanted to find him I would," Tony told him. "I just don't want to.”

“I heard that!” Clint shouted.

“Look, just tell Steve I’m here if he needs me,” Sam said. “And also please let me know as soon as I can go home. These people are nuts.”

“Better get used to it,” Tony told him. “You just helped save the country from mass death and tyranny, pretty sure that makes you an honorary Avenger.”

“Does that mean you’ll stop calling me Bird-Man?” Sam asked.

“No, but it does mean I’ll build you a new set of wings,” Tony told him, wondering if he could convince Bucky to take a pair, too. The guy didn’t have a great track record with long falls, and even if he—well, even when he left, Tony wanted to make sure there was something there to catch him the next time he fell.

“Can’t turn that down from the great Tony Stark,” Sam said, and it sounded like he was grinning. “Clint’s about to tackle me if I don’t hang up now, so see you around, man.”

The phone clicked off and Tony laughed lightly, deciding Sam was an okay guy. Then he saw the time on his phone and nearly choked.

It was nearly noon, which meant he’d probably been asleep for four hours at his desk. It also meant he was running behind on his time table. It wouldn’t be long until—

“Sir,” Jarvis interrupted. “The FBI just arrived at the lobby. They are requesting to speak with one of the Avengers immediately.”

—and that was right on cue. Tony hung his head and sighed. “Tell them I’ll be right down.”

“Ms. Romanoff is already on her way to meet them,” Jarvis informed him.

Tony cursed, and rushed back towards the elevator. “She still in the elevator?” he asked.

“Yes,” Jarvis agreed.

“Stop it, bring her back here,” he told him.

He saw the light pause on the sixth floor, and then it started heading back up. He crossed his arms as the elevator reached his floor, and the doors slid open. Natasha was looking far more put together than she had the last time he’d seen her. She was wearing a black pencil skirt and a black blazer over a button up creme blouse, with a pair of a truly frightening heels—they looked a little like they should require a license to wear.

She’d also straightened her hair and applied her make up perfectly, arranging everything like it was her own version of a suit of armor. She looked beautiful, and just a little bit terrifying underneath.

“You hijacked my elevator?” she asked, giving a lop-sided smirk. “That’s not very polite.”

Tony pointed at her angrily. “I’m not just gonna let you take the fall for this.”

“I don’t see how you can stop me,” Natasha said. “Anyway, if you think I’m going down without a fight you’re mistaken, and should know me better.”

“We still need to come up with a plan,” he insisted. “I’ve got my lawyers—“

“This is being tried in the court of public opinion, lawyers are obsolete,” she interrupted him calmly. “We need to put a face on this, it might as well be mine. My undercover days are over, anyway.”

“Captain America is already the face of this,” he told her. “We’ve gotta all be on the same page.”

“Steve’s in no place to handle this right now,” she said stiffly. “This one is on me. I’m gonna own it.”

Tony shook his head, but stepped forward. “Fine, if that’s how you want to play it,” he said. “But I’m coming with you.”

She leaned forward, placing her hands at either side of the door, blocking him out. She appeared so delicately built, but he knew it was deceiving—without his suit, he stood no chance against her in hand to hand. He could disable the elevator, but she could always take the stairs or scale the side of the building or even base jump, one never knew with her, so there wasn’t much point. If she really wanted to go down there, he wouldn’t be able to stop her for long.

“If you need a face, you can’t do better than mine. The press love me,” he reminded her. “Don’t you think—“

“I know how to work a room all by lonesome,” she promised. “They need you more here.”

“They really don’t,” Tony said, ashamed to admit he was reluctant to even return to his floor and see them. “Last I saw they were doing just fine.”

Natasha winced almost imperceptibly, and Tony narrowed his eyes. “What did you do?” he demanded.

“Steve asked me for a favor. He wanted a file,” she said quietly, and Tony got a sinking feeling where this was going. “I owe him so I—well, I asked him not to look in it, but let’s just say he’s probably already read it twice.”

“You gave him the Winter Soldier’s files,” Tony realized, glaring back at her. “Don’t you think Bucky should have had some say in that?”

“Maybe,” she agreed. “But he’s not the one I owe a debt.”

Tony remembered going over those files with a fine tooth comb, until he was physically sick, until he was shaking and couldn’t see anything but Bob screaming every time he closed his eyes. He’d been that effected by it when Bucky was still a virtual stranger—he couldn’t even imagine how Steve must feel.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said, though part of him knew it was only a matter of time. Steve would have found a way to that information one way or another.

“You saw Barnes,” Natasha said. “He’s trying so hard to be what Steve remembers. He’s smiling and laughing and telling Steve that yes, of course he remembers that, even when he doesn’t. He’d nearly had him fooled, he’d nearly had me fooled, and that wouldn’t do anyone any good. He’s not the person Steve knew, he can’t be. Steve needs to understand that, and he needs to know what was done to him to understand who he is now.”

Tony had seen it for himself, the way Bucky had put on a mask the moment he’d turned to face Steve. He was far too good at pretending, and the way he’d slipped right back into the skin of Bucky Barnes had been more than a little disconcerting.

Tony had figured it had just been his own jealousy tainting everything, but if Natasha had picked up on it too…

“The thing about covers is it doesn’t matter how good they are,” Natasha said quietly. “Sooner or later they all fall apart.”

Tony sighed, before looking back at her. “Are you really sure you should go alone?”

“I called the press ten minutes before the FBI arrived,” she told him. “Reporters are already waiting at the front doors, so they’re not going to be able to make me disappear. They’ll take me in for questioning, very publicly, and I will answer their questions. I will answer for what was done. And they won’t be able to touch me after we’re done.”

“Risky game,” Tony warned her.

She grinned, and reached out to press the button on the elevator. “That’s my favorite kind,” she told him. “I can handle this, Tony, if you can manage to look after a couple of ninety year olds while I’m gone.”

“I think we should switch,” Tony deadpanned, but she just laughed at him as the doors closed between them.

- - - - -

When Tony finally forced himself to return to the penthouse, he nearly tripped over Steve on his way to his room.

Steve was sitting on the floor beside the hallway, his head leaning back against the wall and his eyes were pressed shut. Tony could see two small butterfly bandages across his eyebrow, but he couldn’t see so much as a trace of scar beneath it. Tony frowned down at him, feeling his heartbeat pick up as he noticed Bucky’s absence—some irrational fear prickling at the back of his mind that he might already be gone.

“Steve?” he asked. “What happened? Where’s Bucky?”

“He’s asleep,” Steve said, and his voice sounded strange, weirdly rough. He opened his eyes and lifted his head. He nodded towards the living room. “He fell asleep on the couch while we were watching some movie. He used to love science fiction dime novels but never cared much for moving pictures.” He frowned slightly. “Now he’s weirdly obsessed with Disney, which is new.”

“I don't know how that happened,” Tony said quickly, rocking back on his heels. “But none of that really explains why you’re on the floor.”

“Do you already know, everything that they did to him?” Steve asked quietly, and reached beside him to pick up a manila folder, stamped with Russian writing on the front. He held it out to Tony, and his hand was shaking. “Because he wouldn’t tell me, so I asked Natasha for this.”

Tony reluctantly reached out for the folder, his stomach dropping as he opened it up. This was the missing piece—these were the files that weren’t on that Hydra base… this was the genesis of the Winter Soldier, from capture through to when he was finally broken. There was a photo of Bucky in stasis paper clipped to the first page, a small photo of him in uniform beside it. It recounted the brutal way they installed his first arm, the sensory deprivation they used to try and break him, the—

Tony swallowed and shut the folder. He already knew exactly where this led. “You shouldn’t have read this,” he said.

“No, I should have stopped it,” Steve snapped, glancing up at him, pointing to the folder. “That happened because of me. I didn’t catch him, and then I didn’t even go back for him. While I was—and they had him, all this time, the things they did—”

He cut himself off, letting his head fall back against the wall again as he took a shaky breath and composed himself. “I don’t even know what to say to him,” he admitted.

“You were talking to him before,” Tony frowned.

Steve’s eyes strayed to the folder. “That was—I didn’t understand yet,” he explained. “I didn’t realize the cost of having him back. I can’t—“

Tony sighed, and dropped down to sit beside him, and set the folder between them. “Look, you’re gonna have to snap out of it,” he told him flatly.

Steve glanced at him sideways, looking betrayed, but Tony somehow managed to resist the full force of that disappointed stare.

“I just mean, this isn’t really about you,” he continued. “So deal with your guilt, wallow for a bit, take all the rest of the day if you need to, then you need to snap the hell out of it because this isn’t what he needs.”

Steve narrowed his eyes. “Tony—“

“Let me put it this way,” Tony interrupted, “why don’t you ask yourself who your guilt is really for, because it’s sure as hell not gonna help him. I may not have known Bucky Barnes like you knew him, but I know him now. So I know the more depressed you get, the more he’s gonna pretend that he’s fine. That he’s the same. And he’s not.”

The anger faded from Steve’s eyes almost before it could form, and he blinked at Tony in surprise. “When did you get so wise?”

“I’ve always been like this,” Tony told him. “Took you long enough to notice.” He pulled a Pixy Stix from his shirt pocket, and held it out. “Pixy Stix?” he asked. When Steve just eyed it dubiously, Tony shrugged and ripped it open. “More for me.”

Steve snorted quietly, and glanced back towards the living room. “Nat told me what you did, you know,” he said. “She told me how you saved him, and helped heal his arm.”

“The arm was Helen,” Tony said. “And saving him was mostly accidental, if I’m being honest.”

“I’m trying to say thank you, Tony,” Steve told him, his tone a little exasperated. “Just…thank you, okay? Thank you for being there when I couldn’t be. If I’d known…if Nat had told me…”

“She had her reasons for not telling you,” Tony offered lightly. “Not saying I agree with them, but I do think she just wanted him somewhere safe until you got SHIELD under control.”

“That’s what she says,” Steve agreed quietly. “She says she didn’t know about him until after you brought him here. She swears she didn’t know he was the Winter Soldier before.”

“Do you believe her?” Tony asked.

“I don't know what to believe,” he admitted. “Not anymore.”

“She left with the FBI about an hour ago,” Tony told him after a brief pause. “She has some sort of plan, thinks she can get them all to do what she wants. Considering it’s her, I’d say the chances are pretty good.”

“She left?” Steve asked, pushing forward nearly into a crouch, like he was getting ready to spring into action. “She went alone?”

“Her and about a hundred of her closest reporter friends,” Tony agreed. “Jarvis is monitoring the news coverage. She’s fine. She knows what she’s doing.”

“It should have been me,” Steve said firmly. “I should be there.”

“I mean, have you looked in a mirror lately?” Tony asked, then frowned. “Well, actually, you still look weirdly perfect, but that’s not really the point.”

Steve glanced back towards the room he’d left Bucky, looking torn. “I can’t just let her—“

“She needs to do this,” Tony said. “I offered to go, but she wants to do it alone. If I didn’t think she could handle it, I would have found a way to stop her.”

Steve relaxed reluctantly, seeming to hunch back in on himself. He pulled up one knee and let his forehead fall against it. “This day,” he said, huffing out a disbelieving laugh. “When I first saw him—I thought I was dreaming. But nothing’s easy, is it? Nothing comes without a cost, and he’s the one that’s been paying the price.”

Tony watched him carefully, noting that despite the fact that he still wouldn’t look out of place on a magazine cover, his eyes seemed bruised and shadowed. He looked like he was barely holding himself together. “When was the last time you slept?” he asked suspiciously.

“I stopped counting somewhere around hour seventy-two,” Steve said dryly.

“Okay, that’s it,” Tony said, getting to his feet and holding a hand out Steve. “Come on.”

Steve stayed where he was, watching Tony’s hand with a slightly unfocused gaze. “You don’t understand. I can’t sleep—I can’t…I won’t leave him unguarded. Not ever again.”

“Where do you think you are?” Tony asked, reaching out to snatch Steve’s hand and tug him up. “I can watch out for you both.”

Steve let himself get pulled back to his feet, but Tony noticed he had grabbed the file and was holding onto it desperately in his other hand. It was the last thing that Bucky needed to see right now, and it was the last thing Steve needed to see, too.

“Why don’t you let me hold on to that?” Tony asked quietly, and held out his hand for the file.

Steve glanced down at the file, but made no move to hand it over.

“Yeah, I’m just gonna—“ Tony said, reaching forward to gently tug it from Steve’s hand. “It’s not gonna help, reading it over and over.”

“I know,” Steve admitted after a moment, watching tiredly as Tony pulled open one of the cabinets of what had once been a wet bar, and laid the file inside.

“I’d offer one of the guest rooms—“ Tony began, but sighed at the horrified look Steve threw him, “—yeah, figured. Come on, there’s an armchair across from the couch with your name on it.”

He led Steve to the chair. It was right across from the sleeping Bucky, and Steve exhaustedly dropped down into it, with surprisingly little prompting. He was asleep within just minutes.

Tony watched him for a moment, before turning back to look at Bucky. He’d changed into a plain thermal shirt, and was snuggled into the Iron Man throw blanket they kept on the couch. That one had been a gift from Pepper—who thought she was hilarious—and couldn’t be blamed on Jarvis.

He came to a quiet stop in front of him, and gently reached out to tug the blanket a little further up.

“Tony?” Bucky whispered, blinking his eyes open.

“Go back to sleep,” Tony told him, and turned to go. Bucky gently caught his hand, and tugged him back.

“You okay?” he asked. “Romanoff said you guys had everything under control, but—“

“I’m fine. Everything’s fine,” Tony promised softly. “Go back to sleep.”

Bucky’s eyes searched the room until they landed on Steve, and then he nodded and fell back against the couch. “Okay,” he said, but he didn’t release Tony’s hand.

Tony stared down at where their hands were wound together. It was with Bucky’s left hand, which was still strangely smooth and new, but literal steel underneath. Whatever its strength, he knew it would only take a couple words to Bucky to get himself free, but then he didn’t really want to be.

So instead he sat down on the couch next to Bucky’s curled up legs, and let their clasped hands rest between them as he settled in to watch over them all.