One week. Tony waits one week to hear from SHIELD after the triskelion falls. When he does, it’s nothing official (because there’s nothing official left) (SHIELD is ash and rubble) (SHIELD is Hydra) it’s Maria Hill showing up at Stark Industries looking for a job. They hire her, of course, because Pepper’s not stupid and also because Hill is good people and Stark Industries can desperately use good people right now.
That’s it though.
Tony lays awake at night waiting for Rogers or Romanoff to call. He’s got so many connections. He can pull so many strings. He would do-- could do-- whatever it took-- if they would just ask.
But they don’t call, and he doesn’t hear from them, and between the loneliness (Bruce had run) and the boredom (Bruce won’t be back anytime soon) and the overwhelming curiosity (it kills cats but Tony’s not a cat) Tony ends up poking where he shouldn’t.
“JARVIS? Do me a favor. All that data that Romanoff dumped-- see if there’s anything that mentions me. Actually-- scratch that. I know enough about myself to last me a lifetime. See what HYDRA had on dad, will you? And go straight to the Restricted Section. I only wanna read what I was never meant to see.”
Curiosity kills cats. Turns out there are plenty of fates worse than death.
“Did you know?” Tony demands through gritted teeth.
He’s called Steve because if they do this face to face Tony’s gonna punch him straight in the teeth and break his damn hand on that perfect smile.
“Know what?” Steve asks. His voice is weary. Confused a little, but not as confused as he should be, for a call coming out of the blue from Tony at 5:14 AM on a weekday.
“That Bucky Barnes was alive for one? I mean we could start there but probably-- the part with my parents. That’s-- that’s the part--” Tony snaps his mouth shut. Not because he doesn’t have more words but because words fail him. What are words when the world is closing in around you? What’s... what’s anything... when your lungs burn and your peripheral vision blurs and--
Tony throws the phone like it burns his hand and it hits the wall hard and thunks to the floor all in one piece.
Fucking StarkTech. Next time he’s buying a HammerPhone for the satisfying crunch it’ll make when it hits a goddamn wall.
Tony doesn’t realize he’s on the floor until JARVIS speaks. He’s also not sure how much time has passed. Tony’s got his back to the wall and his head resting against his knees. “Sir, Captain Rogers is calling. He’s insisting I put him through.”
“Just ask him if he knew!” Tony growls at the ceiling. “If the answer is anything but no then kindly tell him to take his phone and shove it up his--”
“I didn’t know,” Steve’s voice pipes in. “I thought-- I was sure Bucky was dead. I watched him fall. No one could have survived."
There's a pause and a deep intake of breath. Tony can picture Steve in crystal clarity, setting his jaw stubbornly as he plows through the painful words ahead. "But then-- I mean, you know now obviously-- he’s alive. He’s some assassin fairy tale called the Winter Soldier. And then before I knew he was alive, I saw some information on a screen that might connect him with your parents. But Nat and I were at an old Army base and about three seconds later Hydra was blowing us up. I haven’t had the chance to sort it out yet-- I’ve been in the hospital-- and all Nat could find me was one old file-- It’s mostly in Russian--”
Steve’s connection is fine so it’s not static that’s garbling the conversation. It’s Steve’s guilt.
Or Tony’s ability to process words mid panic attack. Everything hurts. Everything’s bad. Air is hard to find.
“I’m coming to the tower,” Steve says. “I’m already in New York. I’ll be there in ten.”
He ends the call.
Tony’s brain puts the thoughts together in some semblance of an order and after a few more minutes of just sitting on the ground and making himself breath, he’s able to push up off his rear and stumble over to the nearest sink to splash some cold water on his face. It doesn’t do anything for the splotches on his cheeks but it grounds him. Helps him stay on his feet as he paces and thinks.
Bucky Barnes is alive. Bucky Barnes is the Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier killed mom and dad. The Winter Soldier... went down in the helicarrier? Is assumed dead? Steve said is not dead?
It’s too much. And part of him doesn’t want Steve within a hundred miles of the tower and the other part wants him there right now. Rationality is a blur because Tony just found out who murdered his parents so everyone’s gonna need to give him a little bit of grace on this one. Especially Steve. Steve who launches himself out of the elevator before the doors finish opening and skids to a stop in front of Tony on the slippery floor.
“I should have called but I told myself I needed more information," Steve says, all in a rush, before Tony can get out a word. "I didn’t want to drop all that in your lap without some kind of... answer. And then... Bucky. I guess-- in the whole scheme of things your parents weren’t-- weren’t at the top of my mind because it’s Bucky.”
"Weren't at the top of your mind?" Tony growls.
"It's Bucky!" Steve explodes. Like he's been holding it in for days and Tony's finally given him a convenient place to shout.
"Right. I guess that explains everything then, doesn't it?" Tony snaps in return.
He sighs and sits down on the couch and waits. For what, he doesn’t know. An asteroid maybe. Something quick and painless.
Steve appears to have run out of words, too. He stands eerily still and stares out the window at the lights of New York. Or maybe he’s staring through them. Whatever it is he’s doing, it looks like it’s got more to do with the dead than the living. And that right there-- that’s what helps Tony understand what he’s looking at.
“He didn’t recognize me,” Steve says finally. “I don’t know what they’d have had to do to him to convince him to kill your folks. Bucky liked Howard. The two of them got along like a house on fire. The snark never stopped. And we never met your mom. I don’t-- don’t have any answers. I wish I did.”
Steve sounds helpless and pathetic and sorry and Tony’s anger cracks a little at the edges.
“I’ve got answers,” Tony says blankly. “You want to dig through all the answers JARVIS found for me?”
Steve looks an awful lot like he wants to say no. Like he’d much rather wake up from this nightmare than have to keep on living through it. But like the American Hero he is, Steve takes the chair across from Tony, and when he speaks it’s clear his mind’s made up.
“Show me what you’ve got.”
"JARVIS, display it all. Start from the beginning. Pull up everything you've found."
*Five Weeks Later and a Continent Away*
After SHIELD falls, Bruce manages to go a month and a half without trouble. He ends up in the Alps on a whim, with no real thoughts on a destination apart from Shit Shit Shit Run. Maybe it was watching The Sound of Music with Clint last Christmas (I lift up mine eyes into the hills) but for whatever reason, when he needs to split, he ends up in Switzerland, von Trapp style.
Nevermind that the von Trapps didn’t climb any mountains en masse, as far as Bruce knows, and they most definitely took a train to Italy when they left Austria. His escape isn’t defined by its historical accuracy.
And since he will never fess up to Tony that he’s been walking the mountainside humming Edelweiss for the last six weeks, it doesn’t matter.
Bruce misses Tony. It’s a strange, unfamiliar feeling, to be drawn to something or someone. It seeps around the ever present anger in his mind, and numbs it. It drowns out the images of a helicarrier aiming a gun at him while he’s sitting quietly in an NYU library. He sleeps easier. He smiles more often, even if it’s only to himself. Tony keeps him entertained from 4,000 miles away, mostly with jokes, emoji-abuse, threats of dick pics, and occasional news of SHIELD and Steve and Natasha and what all went down in the end.
Tony’s being cagey about a lot of the details, though. It’s impossible not to notice the questions Tony won’t answer and the way the conversation steers to absurd if Bruce ever asks to know anything too specific. Which means Tony isn’t as accurate as say... CNN, but he’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the latest breaking news.
Bruce is sitting on the floor of an old barn, waiting for a text back from Tony, when he first sees the flash. A man is approaching from a distance, with a bare, metal arm angled to reflect the sunlight directly into Bruce’s eyes. It feels deliberate. Without question he knows who has found him. It’s the Winter Soldier.
It helps his control immeasurably that Bruce has already gotten some of the story from Tony (who had gotten it from Steve) so Bruce knows the Winter Soldier isn’t necessarily on team HYDRA anymore. Everything is okay for now. They’re far enough from civilization that this might not even get ugly.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Bruce calls out in warning, as the man approaches. “Please don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.”
The soldier walks on, as if Bruce hadn’t spoken at all. His hands are free of weapons, and he keeps them where Bruce can see them. That helps keep the Other Guy from shoving his way to the surface.
When the soldier steps fully into the barn he isn’t what Bruce was expecting. He’s limping ever so slightly. He looks miserably tired. And when he speaks his voice is scratchy and unexpectedly hesitant. Like English doesn’t come as easily as it should.
“You know Steve Rogers,” the soldier says, and it’s almost a question. There’s room for denial, if Bruce has any reason to deny it. He doesn’t.
“I do know him,” Bruce confirms. His own voice is the sound of calm. He is steady. Everyone gets to live (for now). “So do you, I think.”
“No, I don’t,” the soldier says wearily. “I don’t fuckin’ know him. Bucky Barnes knew him and I’m not Bucky Barnes.”
Bruce puts down his phone and telegraphs his movements as he sits it on the ground. They both need to prove that violence isn’t imminent.
“I guess maybe we should introduce ourselves then,” Bruce says, for lack of better conversation.
“I’m Bruce Banner. And you are?”
The soldier’s eyes bore into Bruce. Bruce takes a deep, stilling breath, and lets it out on a four count. The Other Guy is definitely not a fan of the soldier’s sharp gaze.
“A weapon,” the soldier replies finally. “An asset.”
“I more meant your name,” Bruce points out. “Do you have a name?”
For more than a minute the soldier says nothing. Bruce takes that time to catalogue the soldier’s injuries. When the man lets another minute pass without an answer Bruce speaks again.
“I’ve got some food,” Bruce offers.
He knows malnutrition when he sees it. He sees other things too-- tattered clothing, favoring of the left leg, dark shadows under the eyes, shallow breathing, rib retractions-- those aren’t as easily solved as hunger.
“Won’t stay down,” the soldier replies. He sounds weary in a way Bruce understands. Life on the run is a bitch. Doubly so, if you’re sick or injured.
Bruce really isn’t sure where else this will go and the staring contest going on between them only seems to agitate things. Bruce reaches slowly for his backpack and pulls a StarkBar out of a side pouch. StarkBars aren’t technically a thing yet, so much as a side project that Bruce had been working on before he left. On the run they’d been a lifesaver. When Bruce gets back, he and Tony are going to revolutionize food aid.
For now, it’s the best he has to offer.
“This might be different. At least give it a chance?”
Tony waves the spongy yellow brick in his hands in front of Steve’s face.
“Later,” Steve says. He’s frowning as he types on his laptop. Steve is always frowning these days.
“You know, when I’m the voice of reason in the whole ‘take care of yourself’ argument, you have hit some bad kind of rock bottom. Just eat the damn BannerBar. I promised your partners in crime I’d keep you fed and watered till they’re back in the states.”
That at least draws Steve’s attention. He turns his eyes slowly up to Tony. “I feel like I’m going to regret asking this, but what’s a BannerBar?”
“Side project. Mostly Bruce’s. Redefining food as we know it. Just eat the damn thing. If you’re going to mope around the tower indefinitely you can at least make yourself useful.”
It’s been 6 weeks since SHIELD fell and 5 weeks since Tony called Steve. Between all of Steve’s efforts and Tony’s satellites stalking they haven’t turned up one single decent lead on the Winter Soldier. Steve has made more than half a dozen trips abroad, and Natasha and Sam have done the same. The only reason Steve’s not on this particular wild goose chase is that he took a bullet a few days before while poking at a Hydra nest and Natasha had threatened to nail Steve’s feet to Stark Tower if he didn’t take a few days off to rest.
“You literally insisted we use the tower as homebase to look for Bucky. You wouldn’t take no for an answer. If you don’t want me here, I’ll go back to Washington.”
Tony doesn’t appear to be listening. Tony’s more interested in laying the sponge down on Steve’s laptop keyboard.
“You’ll get it sticky,” Steve snaps, and snatches the BannerBar away from Tony just to make him stop. “How is eating this sponge going to be useful?”
“I need a taste tester,” Tony shrugs.
“I thought you said this was Bruce’s project.” Steve takes a nibble.
“It is,” Tony sighs. “And until Bruce gets back I’m his R&D Department.” Tony’s phone dings. “That’s him now. Don’t keep him waiting.”
“It’s food,” Steve says blankly. “I don’t know what else you want me to say. It tastes like food.”
“God, are you always this difficult?”
Steve shoves back hard from the table and glares at Tony, which, believe it or not, is a vast improvement over the desolate nothingness that Steve’s stare is most days when Tony checks in on him over the video feed. The life in Steve's eyes only lasts a few seconds and then he breathes out slowly before stuffing the rest of the BannerBar in his mouth.
“Happfy?” Steve mumbles.
“That depends,” Tony says. “Did you taste the lemon?”
“I wasn’t paying attention,” Steve relents. “Did you tell Bruce about your parents yet? He'd--”
“No,” Tony cuts him off. “I didn’t tell him. What’s done is done and telling Bruce isn’t going to change that. Did you taste any flavor in the BannerBar at all?”
“Bruce would come back if you told him that you need him.” Steve’s voice is firm, like he’s speaking something he knows to be true.
Steve’s probably right, but Tony’s too chickenshit to ask. He tells himself it’s because he doesn’t want to put Bruce in a bad position but the truth is... he really isn’t sure Bruce would return if he asked. Seems pointless to test it out when right now Bruce’s text company is the only thing keeping Tony afloat and it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.
“You’re the worst taste tester ever,” Tony complains.
“Give me another one. I’ll do better.”
Tony’s not sure why Steve’s conceding. Tony’s really not sure about anything that has to do with Steve anymore.
“The next batch should be done in a few minutes,” Tony says. “Come down to the lab. You can try one there.”
“Later,” Steve says.
Tony gets it. Steve doesn’t want to get up. Doesn’t want to leave his computer for even a second in case JARVIS gets a hit, or Nat and Sam check in.
“If there’s any news, J can send it to your phone. You don’t need to be in this exact spot.”
“Here, I’ll tear it in half and we’ll split it,” Bruce says.
The soldier considers Bruce’s offer and then steps closer when Bruce reaches out half the spongy yellow bar to him. Bruce is reminded sadly of a stray dog he and Betty used to see on campus back in the day. The poor thing had been about as wary of human kindness and food handouts as the soldier is now. The comparison only amplifies when the man sniffs the food cautiously before taking a hesitant bite.
“It’s meant to be easy to digest,” Bruce says conversationally, as if this isn’t one giant mind fuck unravelling around him. “Should taste like lemon. High calorie. And it has enough fat that it will kind of... slide down. Ummmm... won’t induce thirst, and shouldn’t upset your stomach. Maybe. I haven’t let myself get thirsty enough for it to matter. But here--” Bruce reaches back into his bag for one of the two bottles of water he keeps refilling from a nearby stream. He rolls it to the soldier. “Just in case.”
The soldier stares at the bottle of water with the same intensity he’d stared at Bruce. Bruce gets the feeling it isn’t anything personal.
Eventually the man sits down, more obviously favoring his leg when he has to shift his weight to do it. He ends up facing Bruce, with his back to the door, and that feels odd in the same way it felt odd to see him moving toward the barn out in the open. Bruce has spent enough time around Clint and Natasha that he thinks sightlines are just a given with assassins. So either the soldier doesn’t care if he gets shot in the back of the head, or he’s good enough that he doesn’t need the reassurance of a view.
Or he’s Hydra and there’s backup out there, though that seems like the least likely of the three considering the calm Bruce maintains.
“You mentioned Steve,” Bruce says, bringing up the topic that had started this whole bizarre encounter. “Is there something about him you wanted to know?”
“He’s got eighty-six biographies in print,” the soldier says. His focus is entirely on his food as he takes small bite after small bite.
“Eighty-six, huh?” Bruce asks. “Did you read them all?”
“The ones I could find.”
“Did you read any biographies on Bucky Barnes?”
The soldier’s eyes flick up. “The ones I could find.”
There is the slightest hint of life in the soldier’s stare.
“Did you learn anything interesting?” Bruce asks.
“Bucky Barnes is dead. I’m what they stuffed in his corpse.”
“That sounds painful,” Bruce says, which is the first thing that comes to mind. He hasn’t spoken out loud much lately either so he’s not exactly at top form. He has never been at top form, really, now that he thinks about it. “Is there a specific reason you came to find me?”
Bruce isn’t sure how to get an answer without being awkwardly direct.
“You know Rogers and you would be the most difficult to kill if I couldn’t...” The soldier struggles for words.
Bruce gets it though.
“If you couldn’t stop yourself from killing?” Bruce guesses.
“Yes,” the soldier replies. “I kill. That’s what I do.” He says the words in a different voice. It’s recitation. Rote learning.
“You didn’t kill Steve,” Bruce says carefully. He wants to tread lightly here, since he imagines the soldier’s conditioning makes a failure unacceptable. “You rewrote your mission. That’s... it’s incredible, honestly.”
“He’s an idiot,” the soldier says. For a moment he sounds as young and frustrated as he looks. “I could have killed him. He was going to let me kill him. I... I couldn’t let that happen.”
“Maybe Bucky was protecting his friend?” Bruce asks, not wanting to accidentally program any definites into the soldier. He knows just enough about brainwashing to know he treads on dangerous ground, and that he’s probably already fucking things up. “You said you’re Bucky’s corpse. Maybe there’s more of him left in there than just a body.”
“I don’t have his memories,” the soldier says. “Only his face.”
“It was a guess,” Bruce offers. “Not even an educated one. Maybe wishful thinking on Steve’s behalf. He’s got friends out looking for you.”
“I know,” the soldier says. “He’s an idiot.”
The soldier stands, and despite his natural grace, lists a little on his feet.
“You can stay if you want,” Bruce offers. “I have more food. And a blanket. If Hydra comes looking for you, they’ll have to get through me first.”
“Hydra isn’t looking for me. I went down with the helicarrier. They won’t be looking for you either. They have other objectives.”
“You know that for certain?” Bruce asks.
“Yes.” The soldier’s tone leaves no room for follow up questions.