“Leaving so soon?”
Tony froze and stared at the door, which was mere inches away from his outstretched hand. So close, but with the heat of Clint’s caustic stare burning into his spine, so far. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, forcing himself to let it out slowly. It only took a second, but it gave him the courage he needed to turn his head and meet Clint’s eyes without running away.
“I have to get back to New York,” he said quietly. “I have a lot of work to do.”
“Right,” Clint said, bobbing his head. “Can’t let your precious company make decisions without you, can you? They might decide to do something that shows what kind of man you really are.” His smile was mirthless and cruel, implying a wide range of things that made Tony’s stomach heave.
No matter what they said, he was not that kind of man. It was a mantra that Tony was having to repeat more and more lately. The team’s collective opinion of him had definitely soured following Ultron. They could barely stand to look at him now, much less have a pleasant conversation. And it was never more apparent that Tony had made the right choice to step down as an Avenger than it was after he visited the compound.
Hell, even Rhodey barely talked to him now. And that hurt a lot more than Tony had let on, but he’d never been the sort of person to force friendships on anyone. If the team were nasty assholes to him, and if Rhodey decided he’d rather be an Avenger instead of being Tony’s friend or both, that was okay. Well, not okay. But that was a wound Tony would lick in private. God knew he’d been forced to do that a lot lately.
“Like I said,” Tony said, keeping his voice as bland as possible. “I have a lot of work to do.” At one time, he would’ve pointed out that Stark Industries didn’t run itself. With Pepper taking a small step back following their break-up, and the Avengers under more suspicion from the world at large than ever, there was more and more work being piled onto Tony by the day. He hadn’t bothered to tell any of his old teammates about that, though. He was fairly certain it would only end up with mocking comments about the poor little rich boy having to put in an honest day’s work.
“So much work that you’re keeping Vision away?”
Tony paused at that, even though he really should’ve just left. “I’m not keeping Vision away. Vision is free to do whatever he wants.”
“And he’s choosing to spend time with you,” Clint said skeptically. “Come off it, Stark. What are you holding over his head?”
“Absolutely nothing. If Vision wants to visit, he will.”
“I find that hard to believe. Vision spent weeks here, then he takes one trip to go see you and suddenly he wants nothing to do with us?” Clint took a step closer and Tony realize he was holding his bow. It was already strung with an explosive arrow. He swung a disbelieving look up towards Clint’s face, which gave nothing away of course – SHIELD agents were trained in that.
“Are you trying to threaten me?” Tony said incredulously. He flexed his right hand, reminding himself that he was wearing his repulsor-watch and that none of the team knew his watch was anything other than a normal watch. He had been thinking about making similar watches for the whole team before all of this started, since they were small and pretty innocuous – they would’ve been an excellent accessory for Natasha to wear on ops, for example.
Now, Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to make any of them anything unless it was absolutely necessaey. He still personally looked after their weapons and armor (particularly Natasha’s widow bites, Clint’s arrows, Sam’s wings and Rhodey’s armor), but that was the extent of his current generosity. They’d probably noticed that the frequency of his gifts had waned, but none of them would have realized why.
“Not trying,” Clint said. “Send Vision back. Wanda misses him. Let him do your deliveries. No one wants to see you around here anyway.”
The truth of that statement stung a lot more than Tony let on, and it was on the tip of his tongue to say something about Laura or the children. Laura’s last phone call had ended with her quietly crying on the other end while Tony had to sit there and listen, knowing that there was nothing he could do to bring her husband home where he belonged. But, even though that would (maybe) hit Clint where it hurt, any comments he made would only inflame the already tense situation between Laura and Clint and Laura didn’t deserve that.
“I’ll ask,” Tony said instead. “I won’t force Vision to do anything he doesn’t want to do.” He ignored Clint’s snort in favor of finally pushing the door open and stepping out of the compound. A profound sense of relief rolled through him as soon as he was outside. He walked quickly over to his vehicle and climbed inside.
In spite of himself, he couldn’t help remembering the first time he’d left the compound. The days where Steve Rogers personally escorted Tony to his vehicle, and then lingered there making confessions about how much Tony would be missed, were long gone. Now, Tony was lucky to get a curt ‘thanks’ out of any of his former teammates. Usually the best he could hope for was the no one would say anything directly to his face. The muttered comments behind his back or cold silences he could deal with, sort of.
“Guess it was only a matter of time before they saw the light,” he muttered as he started his car. He really had no one to blame but himself. Just when he’d been starting to think that he’d finally found a place where he belonged, he’d gone and created Ultron. That was the catalyst that destroyed Tony Stark’s life as he knew it, and the fault rested entirely on his own shoulders. He still wasn’t sure how he was supposed to cope with that.
He spent the trip back to New York catching up on emails with FRIDAY’s help. He hadn’t been joking when he told Clint that he had a hell of a lot to do. Tony wasn’t like the rest of the Avengers. He didn’t get to fill his days with leisurely training sessions in between meals and movie nights and the occasional battle. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d gotten a full night’s sleep.
He’d briefly entertained a dream where, when he handed in his resignation for the team, Steve would’ve taken over all matters related to the Avengers, including liaising with the government and handling press matters. That dream had been shattered pretty quickly. The Avengers didn’t want anything to do with Tony Stark except where it benefitted them. They might not like him (some, like Clint and Wanda, hated him) but they did want his money, his connections, and his intelligence. Story of Tony’s life, really. As he got out of the car, he reflected that he honestly didn’t know why it still surprised him.
“Welcome back, Sir,” the doorman said as Tony approached the tower.
Tony looked at him, startled. “Thanks,” he said, managing to cover his surprise at the last moment. Oh right. There were people in the world who didn’t hate his guts. He pulled his wallet out and tipped the doorman a hundred bucks as he walked past.
“You have a visitor, Boss,” FRIDAY said as soon as he was inside the elevator.
“Do I? Great.” Tony sighed. There went his plans for getting out of his suit and heading down to the workshop for a couple of hours. He rolled his shoulders, trying without success to get rid of some of the tension, and plastered on a fake smile for whatever government asshole had made it past FRIDAY’s strict rules this time.
That smile vanished quickly when the doors rolled open to reveal James Buchanan Barnes.
“What the actual fuck,” Tony blurted out, freezing in place. He didn’t know whether he should be trying to run away or calling the armor or grabbing his phone to call Steve (which, ha. What good would that even do? It wasn’t like Steve answered his calls now. More likely, Steve would ignore him like he always did, and then, when he found out Barnes had murdered Tony, he’d curse Tony’s name black and blue for ‘letting Barnes get away’.).
Barnes slowly straightened up from where he’d been crouched against the wall. It was like watching a predator unfurl, stealthy and graceful and making Tony’s heart rate triple. Tony swallowed hard and pressed his back up against the elevator doors. In spite of his terror, he noticed that Barnes didn’t look very good. He was thin, almost to the point of being gaunt, and dirty, with greasy, unwashed hair and a noticeable stench. There was dried blood and mud on his clothing.
“It’s not working.”
Tony dragged his eyes away from a particularly large blood patch on Barnes’s pants. “What?”
Silently, Barnes lifted his metal arm. The arm did all the talking for him: the screeching whir as Barnes moved set Tony’s teeth on edge. The sound only stopped when Barnes did. Tony flicked a quick glance at Barnes’s face, noticing the way that Barnes’s eyes had tightened from what had to be pain. He wondered if Barnes was even aware that he had such an obvious tell.
“You’re in pain,” Tony surmised, taking a cautious step forward. “Steve’s not here, you know.”
“I know. I don’t want to see him.” The words were clipped, but a relief to hear. Tony had zero interest in inviting any of the Avengers into the tower unless it was absolutely necessary.
“Okay. You, um. You can come down to my workshop if you want. I can fix it for you, but I need my tools.”
Barnes eyed him, then gave a short nod. The resulting elevator trip was one of the most uncomfortable that Tony had ever taken. His elevators were always designed to be spacious, but there was no space big enough when you were in a confined space with the world’s deadliest assassin. Tony crammed himself into the corner and wondered seriously about his life choices.
Maybe the reason Barnes didn’t want to see Steve was because he already had. Maybe Clint figured that Tony hadn’t gotten the message and had asked Steve to send Barnes along to ‘clarify’ things a little. Or maybe they’d send Barnes here to spy on him. Certainly, none of them believed Tony could be trusted not to create another Ultron. Pretty much every time he went to the compound, he was besieged with questions over what he working on – and he wasn’t stupid enough to think it was polite interest – and that was if they didn’t outright ask him if he was working on another Ultron.
They reached the subfloor where the workshop was located and Tony stepped out first. Words couldn’t accurately describe his sense of relief when he saw Vision standing in the workshop ‘speaking’ to Butterfingers. Dummy didn’t like Vision (he missed JARVIS, and it wasn’t like Tony could really begrudge him that) but Butterfingers and You had warmed up to him.
“Vis,” Tony said. His voice sounded shaky. Vision looked at him.
“Are you well?” he inquired. It still got to Tony, hearing that familiar voice from someone else.
“I’ve been better. We have a visitor.” He gestured to Barnes. He would have to inform FRIDAY immediately that Barnes was not a visitor, but better classified as a threat. JARVIS would have known that.
“I see. Good evening. I am Vision.” Vision started to extend a hand for a handshake, but paused when Barnes just stared at him. He looked at Tony, who gave a small shake of his head, and then lowered his hand. “How was your visit to the compound?”
“It was great,” Tony said, aiming for sarcasm and missing by a mile. “Rhodey ignored me, Steve asked if I was building another Ultron and then told me I was lying when I said no, and Clint threatened me because you never go visit them anymore. Just another fun-filled family visit.” He took off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves, deciding that he would act as though Barnes was just another visitor.
Well, another visitor from back when he actually used to get visitors that weren’t just Vision.
“They want me to visit?” Vision asked. “I don’t want to.”
Tony sighed and, because his back was to Vision, allowed himself the luxury of closing his eyes for a moment. “I know you don’t,” he said, fighting to keep the weariness out of his voice. God he was so fucking tired. And it was only after he opened his eyes and picked up his toolbox that he realized Barnes was staring straight at him. Watching his moment of weakness. This day just kept getting better and better.
“Sit,” he said to Barnes, gesturing to the stool. “Put your arm flat out on the table. FRI, lights over the table to 100% please.” He sat too, wheeling the stool closer as Barnes perched on his own stool.
“Should I go?” Vision asked, hovering behind Tony.
“If you don’t want to, then don’t,” Tony said. It would make his life a thousand times easier if Vision would show his face at the compound, but Vision was basically his grandkid. Tony was committed to helping him in whatever way he could. And if that meant getting pinned and threatened by Wanda’s glowing red hands, then Tony would just suffer the panic attacks and flashbacks in silence and go on trucking.
“I meant, should I leave while you work?”
Oh. Of course that’s what he meant. Tony shook his head at his own foolishness. “Yes, please,” he said, sparing a glance at Barnes. It would be better for Tony’s sanity (and possibly health) if Vision stuck around, but Barnes looked like a spring coiled way too tightly. Having someone else in the room was clearly more than Barnes could take.
Vision glided away, actually using the doors for once. Barnes relaxed minutely once he was gone. Pleased, Tony gently removed two of the plates from Barnes’s arm. He sucked in a breath through clenched teeth as he gazed down at the absolute mess of wires and gears that was presented to him. Several of the gears were dented and cracked, and most of the wires were frayed. Some were sparking.
“Poor thing, what has he been doing to you?” Tony said under his breath, scooting a bit closer. It took him a while to figure out how the arm operated, and longer still to figure out why it was causing Barnes so much pain. From the looks of it, Hydra had purposely engineered the arm to require near constant maintenance. Probably to keep Barnes as dependant on them as possible.
“Okay, so there are two options here,” Tony said finally, straightening up. He winced, realizing his upper back was one solid line of fire from how long he’d been bent over, and hunched a little. “I can turn your arm off so it won’t hurt you anymore and basically replace all of this crap. It will take me a couple of weeks to do, but you’ll have improved functionality and you’ll be able to go a lot longer without maintenance. Or I can fix it short-term, which'll only take about two hours, but it’ll keep doing the same thing.”
Barnes watched him, eyes pale and steely. “How long each day?”
“I don’t know. Five or six hours, probably?” Tony did some quick estimates, thinking about it. “You can have a room in the tower,” he added belatedly, suddenly realizing that Barnes probably wasn’t kicking it up in a hotel room. Sent here to spy on him or not, Tony wasn’t cruel enough to send Barnes back out on the street.
It was practically torture to sit there and watch Barnes hesitate. He clearly didn’t want to stay, but the arm must’ve been giving him a hell of a lot of trouble because he finally nodded. “I’ll stay. Steve shows up, I’m gone.”
“The one thing I can guarantee is that Steve will definitely not be showing up,” Tony said with a thin smile. There went any prospect of sleep for the next couple of weeks, but he couldn’t turn Barnes away. “You know, eventually I could build you something brand new. It would take a long time. I’d have to take more detailed scans and do some testing, but I think I could make it lighter, more maneuverable and maybe even stronger.”
“Okay.” Tony shrugged, not bothered. Barnes was attached to his arm – ha! – and that made sense, considering what the guy had been through. He stood up, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Come on. I’ll show you to your room. FRIDAY can get you anything you need. She can order you some clothes, or there might be some of Steve’s old stuff around that will fit.”
Because Barnes would never into Tony’s clothes, that was for sure. He was a good five to six inches taller than Tony and a lot bulkier through the shoulders, not to mention the metal arm. It was possible that even Steve’s clothing wouldn’t fit. Tony eyed him, then gave up. FRIDAY could deal with it.
He led Barnes back into the elevator, which took them up to Tony’s personal floor. He’d already given Vision a room on this floor too, since there was no point in using the communal floor. Tony didn’t even go on that floor anymore. It hurt too much to see that kitchen and living room and remember the times he’d spent with the team, before he fucked everything up.
Barnes’s eyes flicked around the sparsely decorated living room as they walked through, lingering on the door to the kitchen and the hallway. In no time, Tony figured, he would have the floor memorized and mapped out. Whatever. Tony barely slept up here and Vision didn’t sleep at all, so it was going to be Barnes’s personal floor more than anything else.
“You can have this room,” he said, pausing in the hall and gesturing to one of the guest rooms. “Do whatever you want with it. FRIDAY will – FRIDAY, say hello –”
“Hello, Mr. Barnes,” FRIDAY said obediently.
“ – she’ll get you what you need,” Tony finished. “Help yourself to food and a shower.” He’d gotten used to the smell, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. “My room is at the end of the hall. Vision’s is across from you. If you need me, just have FRIDAY ask for me.”
He looked at Barnes expectantly, but all he got back was a blank look. Tony just smiled and backed out of the room, gently closing the door behind him. He stopped for a few seconds in the hallway, wondering what the hell he was doing. He’d just invited the Winter Soldier – Captain America’s M.I.A. best friend – to live with him for at least two weeks, maybe longer.
Plus, he’d promised not to tell Steve in the process. Or, well, that wasn’t entirely true. Barnes had said he didn’t want to see Steve, and Tony had said that wouldn’t happen. But neither of them had said anything about telling or not telling Steve that Barnes was here. Still, though. They were basically the same thing. One word to Steve and, no matter what Tony said about Barnes, he’d be here in less than an hour – and probably be pissed that Tony had waited so long to tell him. Meanwhile, Barnes would take off again.
No. It was better to keep Steve out of the loop for now, Tony decided. He had no idea how long Barnes would stick around for. It was entirely possible Tony would wake up tomorrow morning and Barnes would just be gone. But he felt like he should keep Barnes here for as long he could. Clearly, Barnes wasn’t doing very good out there running around on his own. He deserved a chance to rest and relax somewhere safe, and the tower was as safe as he could make it.
And if that meant Tony could put off getting lectured (and threatened) to within an inch of life for a little longer, he was okay with that.
“Boss, you should sleep,” FRIDAY said as Tony walked back into the elevator. “You haven’t slept for –”
“Mother Barnes, FRIDAY, not me,” Tony said, rubbing a hand over his face. His goatee was in need of a trim. He’d have to take his own advice and remember to shower later. In the meantime, he had a prototype of a new gauntlet, a report from the Avenger’s last battle, and some contracts to work through.