“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.
Tony Stark was nothing like what Bucky had expected. Based on what little information Bucky had gleaned from the news and the media, as well as comments the Avengers had made within hearing, the picture he’d formed of Stark was of a barely contained wild child who was in it solely for himself, and who never lifted a finger to help anyone unless it directly benefitted him in some way. A man who lied as easily as he breathed, who lived to build weapons, and who wouldn’t have given you the shirt off his back if you were freezing to death.
The reality was… well, the reality was that Tony Stark was the complete opposite of all that. Bucky had agonized over whether it was a smart decision to seek out Stark’s help, torn between throwing himself on Stark’s mercy and keeping to himself. But his metal arm had been giving off little shocks for a while and they were getting stronger by the day, to the point where he couldn’t focus because of the pain, and the only one who reliably fix it was Stark.
So he’d swallowed his pride and broken into Stark’s tower. He didn’t know what to expect. The police, maybe. Bucky would be a wanted criminal once they found out he was the Winter Soldier. Or, more likely, a sound thrashing from the Iron Man suit. Or for Stark to laugh him out of the place: it wasn’t like Bucky could pay him. He had no money. Or, worst of all, for Stark to pick up the phone and call Steve.
None of those things happened. Instead, Stark allowed Bucky into his private workshop. He’d asked Vision to leave to make Bucky more comfortable, even though Stark clearly would’ve preferred that Vision stay. He’d stopped in the pain in Bucky’s arm and then offered to fix it long term and a place in the tower to boot. And he’d reassured Bucky, multiple times, that Steve would not be showing up to the tower.
It was bewildering. Bucky didn’t understand it. And ten days later, he was no closer to figuring out the mystifying puzzle that was Tony Stark. So far as Bucky could see, Stark spent the vast majority of his time working himself to the bone in the workshop. The other 20% of Stark’s time was spent sleeping or eating. He didn’t even go out to the Avengers call – Bucky watched it on television, so he knew it was happening.
“Why didn’t Iron Man go?” he asked FRIDAY, muting the announcer’s annoying voice.
“Boss retired from the Avengers seven months ago,” FRIDAY replied. She was always cheerful and always willing to either answer his questions or help him find out where he could get an answer, no matter how stupid the question. Bucky thought she was the best thing he’d encountered in the modern century.
“He did? Why?”
And then FRIDAY told him about Ultron. Bucky had heard the name before, of course. It was impossible to miss the news coverage of what happened in Sokovia. The public seemed to be divided on who to blame. Bucky knew it was Hydra’s fault without having to ask. Ultron was exactly the kind of thing that Hydra would’ve pissed themselves with excitement over.
But he hadn’t known that Stark and the Avengers had had a hand in it. FRIDAY’s explanation was very bland and high level, basically amounting to “Boss and Dr. Banner were trying to create a defensive force for the world. Their goal was to create someone like Vision to protect humanity. In order to do so, they needed to use a scepter recovered from a Hydra base. The A.I. became sentient in a way that no one was anticipating and went crazy.”
Bucky had to smile. FRIDAY sounded so disapproving. He was positive that there was more to the story than that, but FRIDAY wasn’t willing to share (the details were classified, she said, not without regret) and he didn’t want to bother Stark. Bringing up old wounds was not the way to endear someone to you. He’d figured that one out pretty early on while he was on the run from Hydra.
“So that means Stark had to retire?” Bucky said, bringing things back to his original question. “But he didn’t create Ultron on purpose. From what you’re saying, Stark was trying to protect people.”
“He didn’t have to retire,” FRIDAY said. “If you ask Boss, he will tell you that his retirement was for the betterment of the team. The Avengers are now comprised of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanov, Clint Barton, Colonel James Rhodes, Wanda Maximoff, Sam Wilson, and, when deemed necessary, the Vision.”
“Did they make him retire?” Bucky asked.
FRIDAY hesitated, then said, “No.”
Which, to Bucky, sounded like the team hadn’t exactly fought Stark’s retirement. “But they didn’t discourage it.”
“Boss used to visit the compound regularly. He enjoyed it,” said FRIDAY. “Now, my sensors indicate he is always upset when he comes home.”
Bucky thought back to the conversation he’d witnessed between Stark and Vision. He hadn’t thought much about it at the time, too overwhelmed, but now he could tell that it said a lot. From the sound of it, Stark’s visits to the compound were anything but enjoyable. Obviously something had changed. The team had clearly lost faith in Stark and his ability to be an Avenger.
“Did he visit just for fun?” Bucky asked. Why would Stark keep going if the team reacted so poorly to his presence?
“Not recently. Boss usually goes to deliver upgrades.”
Holographic screens appeared in the air around Bucky. He tensed, took a moment to breathe, and squinted at them. Each one was filled with complex equations and technical writing and images. It took him several seconds to realize that he was looking at the equipment the Avengers used in the field. Bows and arrows and wings and tazers and something that looked like the Iron Man suit and armor, so much armor that it made Bucky’s head spin.
“Stark does this?” Bucky reached out to touch one of the holograms. It reacted to his hand, letting him pull it closer so that he could look at the mock-up of Steve’s shield in detail.
“That is correct. Boss personally attends to all of their equipment,” FRIDAY said. “He used to deliver things in person so he would be on hand to explain both their use and to do any necessary adjustments. But…”
“Boss said he’s going to start sending them by delivery,” FRIDAY said, sounding distinctly unhappy. “He said they don’t want him around, so he’ll stay away.”
“That’s not fair,” Bucky muttered, looking around. There was so much here. Hologram after hologram. It was dizzying just to look at, and he was positive that this was just the tip of the iceberg. Again, he thought back to that conversation in the lab and remembered the look of absolute exhaustion on Stark’s face. There for only a second or two, until Stark had realized Bucky was watching him and wiped it away.
Did the team express any gratitude? Any at all? Or did Stark give them things and they responded either by ignoring or with petty, sarcastic comments? No wonder Stark had looked so stunned after their first session in the workshop. Bucky had thanked him with as much genuine gratitude as he could drum up, and Stark had actually stopped in his tracks in shock.
“What’s not fair?”
Bucky jumped. He’d been so caught up in the holograms that he hadn’t realized Stark was approaching. Stark had surprised him. He literally could not remember the last time that had happened. The Soldier in him was always sizing up the room, always watching the doors, always aware of potential threats. He looked at Stark in wonder, because Stark was either some kind of stealth genius or the Soldier had deemed him safe and therefore did not feel the need to monitor him. He was afraid it was the latter.
“FRIDAY, are you showing off to Barnes?” Stark asked, reaching for one of the holograms. He winced and balled it up. “Don’t show him my crappy stuff. At least show him the pretty, cool things we’re currently working on so that he’ll be impressed.”
“I killed your parents.”
It wasn’t what Bucky meant to say. He didn’t mean to say it at all. The death of Howard and Maria Stark was one of the first memories to come back to him after he fled Hydra, and to date it remained one of the strongest. Sometimes, when he closed his eyes, he could still hear the crunch of snow beneath his foot and feel the fragile bones of Maria Stark beneath his fingertips.
He'd known he would have to tell Stark, but he wasn’t very good at words anymore. And he was terrified that Stark would make him leave. This was the first safe place he’d found where Hydra couldn’t reach him. The arm was a dead weight at his side, but Stark was improving it a little more each day. He didn’t want to go. He wanted to stay here with Stark and FRIDAY for as long as he was allowed.
“What?” Stark said after a pause, sounding genuinely confused.
Bucky slowly turned to face him. “Your parents. It was a mission. My mission. To retrieve the serum, kill Howard Stark and dispose of any witnesses.” His voice sounded dull, robotic. He repeated the orders in Russian, because that was how they’d been given to him, and watched Stark shudder.
“I don’t… no. My father was drunk. The car went off the road –”
“It was me,” Bucky said. He’d never hated himself more than while having to watch the light fade out of Stark’s eyes. “They told me to, and I obeyed. Natalia dumped the records of SHIELD onto the internet, didn’t she? I’m sure there must be footage out there somewhere. My handlers recorded the majority of my missions. Sometimes for proof, but sometimes to make me watch.”
He forced himself to stop talking. Stark didn’t need to know. He wouldn’t care, even though it was true. Any mission the Winter Soldier made a mistake on – and there was always a mistake for his handlers to find – he was forced to watch over and over, usually while undergoing punishment. And he struggled to be a good student, because the punishment for making the same mistake twice didn’t bear thinking about.
“You…” Stark trailed off. His face was pale. “I’ve seen your records. I know what they did. There’s no mention of –”
“Look for it,” Bucky interrupted. “You’ll find it.” He felt simultaneously weak and powerful as Stark ran from the room. The dichotomy made his whole body shake. He’d never faced a victim before. Never faced the family of someone he’d killed. God, sometimes Hydra would put him straight back into the cryogenic tube after a kill and it would be months or even years before he resurfaced.
It would’ve been so much easier to keep silent, but Bucky wouldn’t have been able to live with himself. He didn’t know much about his likes and dislikes, but he knew he liked Stark. He couldn’t stay in Stark’s house and let Stark work on his arm and eat Stark’s food while keeping this secret. Hydra had forced him to do a lot of terrible, horrible things, but this was one decision that was solely Bucky’s to make and he couldn’t do it.
He had to believe that he was better than that, even if every other speck of evidence said it wasn’t true.
“FRIDAY, what’s Stark doing?”
“Boss is in the workshop,” FRIDAY replied. She sounded distracted, so Bucky let it go. He stared at the television until the room went dark around him and Vision wandered through – literally, he appeared through the wall and almost gave Bucky a heart attack – and offered to cook dinner.
When Bucky asked again, later that night, what Stark was doing, FRIDAY couldn’t tell him. All she could say was that Stark was in the building. Bucky wasn’t surprised by the shut down; if anything, he was surprised that Stark hadn’t kicked him out on his ass yet. It wasn’t even close to what Bucky would deserve, after all. Maybe, he thought, staring out at the city, Stark would call the police. Bucky would go peacefully if he did.
He didn’t see Stark for five full days. On the ninth day, a pretty woman with red hair and very high heels clicked her way into the living room. She didn’t spare a look for Bucky, just held a whispered conversation with Vision that Bucky did his best not to listen to before heading for the elevator. Bucky looked at Vision in confusion.
“That was Virginia Potts,” Vision said. He was getting better at anticipating questions. “She is the CEO of Stark Industries and a very close friend of Tony’s. She will help.”
Help with what? Bucky wanted to ask, but it wasn’t his place. He settled for a tight nod and went back to chopping up onions for whatever concoction Vision was creating this time. He didn’t see Ms. Potts leave that night, but the next morning Stark showed up in the kitchen. Bucky froze halfway through drinking a cup of coffee, wondering if this was the moment when he’d end up in prison for his crimes.
“You’ve missed our past five sessions,” Stark said, swaggering over to the coffee pot. He poured himself a mug. “Do you like having a dead arm that much?”
Bucky opened his mouth and then closed it. That was so far from what he was expecting that he was honestly struck dumb.
“I’m going to take your silence as a no,” Stark said. “You, me, workshop. Let’s go.”
“But I…” Bucky trailed off. What the fuck? “I thought… aren’t you going to call the police? Or Steve?”
“Do you want me to call Steve?” Stark asked.
“No!” Bucky couldn’t think of anything he wanted less, actually. FRIDAY was part of the compound, though not an active part. She’d shown him some of the footage over the past five days – anything public, she said, which meant it had occurred in an open area and with more than three people present. And Bucky was the first to admit that he didn’t remember his life. He had bits and pieces, fragments of memories, but that was it. But he was positive that the Steve Rogers he had grown up with had never been such a bully.
Because that was the only word to describe it. To describe all of them, really. Those so-called superheroes were teaming up to bully a man who had once been their teammate. Out of all the footage Bucky had watched, there had been maybe five sentences spoken to Stark that were neutral – and those came from Rhodes, who ignored Stark the rest of the time. The rest of the team always spoke with anger or poorly hidden contempt, or made nasty, snide comments designed to dig deep.
Stark took it all like a champ. He’d only snapped twice that Bucky had seen, and had quickly removed himself from the compound when that happened. The rest of the time, Stark pretended he didn’t hear the muttered comments or took the high road by keeping the conversation civil – or as civil as it could be when the people talking to you clearly disliked, if not hated, you.
The fact that this was all happening while Stark was visiting, and usually while he was giving out presents or fixing malfunctioning hardware or software, was galling. There was zero appreciation of the time, money and effort Stark put into his creations. The team collectively acted like Stark’s efforts were something to be expected. Bucky hadn’t even seen a speck of gratitude, not even so much as a ‘thank you’.
He wanted to ask why. He really wanted to know why Stark would waste his time with them. But he was more aware than ever that wasn’t his place. Bucky didn’t want to see Steve, but even if he did he would never say yes. Stark had given him shelter, food and kindness: to throw it back in his face by inviting one of his tormenters here would be needlessly cruel. Even though Bucky was certain that, if he said the word, Stark would pick up the phone and call.
“You don’t want me to call Steve. Do you want me to call the police?” Stark asked. Bucky blinked at him. Stark raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t smiling, and his eyes were kind of flat, but he wasn’t throwing hot coffee either.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky said, a little helplessly. “I’m so sorry –”
“Please. I appreciate it, but –” Stark cut himself off, throat bobbing as he swallowed hard. “It was Hydra,” he said finally, staring into his coffee. “Not you.”
“It was my hands,” Bucky had to point out. “Did you see –”
“No. I’m sure footage exists, but Pepper pointed out that it was probably better I didn’t have those images in my head. If it’s out there, maybe someday I’ll stumble across it.” Stark sighed. He looked old and tired. “It was Hydra,” he repeated, more firmly this time. “You were brainwashed.”
“It was me,” Bucky whispered. The words came out shaky and Stark finally looked at him.
“Oh, Barnes,” he said, not unkindly. “Don’t do this to yourself, Buttercup.”
It was too late. Bucky’s eyes were wet. “I killed so many people,” he choked out. “And… and they have trigger words. Code words. To make me go crazy. I can’t control myself.” It was a relief to put that out there, even if he knew that he shouldn’t have been adding to Stark’s plate. “Please keep me away from them. I can’t kill anyone else. I can’t.”
“Okay,” Stark said. He was suddenly close, one hand braced around Bucky’s flesh bicep. Bucky looked down at where they were connected and felt laughter bubbling up in his throat. What kind of sense did this make? Stark was the worst of them all, everyone said. What a fucking joke. Bucky had killed this man’s parents, left Stark an orphan, and Stark was standing here trying to comfort him.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to reach out to some people. People I trust. There’s a therapist I know; I think she’d be good for you. And we’ll work on the code words… there must be something, science or magic.” Stark’s fingers trembled when he said the word ‘magic’. “Hydra won’t have you again, okay? I promise.”
“Why?” Bucky asked. “Why are you helping me?”
Stark tried to smile and failed. “I’m a fixer. That’s what people tell me I do. I collect broken things and I fix them.” He squeezed Bucky’s arm and then let go. “Now come on. We’ll start with that arm of yours.”
Still a little dumbstruck, feeling like it might be a trap, Bucky trailed behind him. He was half-expecting to get down to the workshop and have the Iron Man armor waiting to attack – he wouldn’t have fought if that were the case. Some nights he woke up so stricken with guilt and grief that he would’ve welcomed an attack, if only so that he could stop feeling the scum of the Earth for what he’d done.
But of course, that didn’t happen. Stark pointed him into the chair Bucky had sat in before and then sat across from him. After an absent comment to FRIDAY about music, Stark pried off the first plate and went to work. Bucky tensed at first, like he always did, because the expectation was that it would hurt. It always did with Hydra, no matter what kind of repair they were doing, and so they always strapped him down because he could never stay still.
This didn’t. It was the first thing Stark had attended to. Bucky had very little sensation in the arm right now. But even if he didn’t, he was beginning to think that it wouldn’t have hurt anyway. That was the kind of person that Stark was: he would’ve chewed off his own arm before hurting Bucky, even though he would’ve had every right to and Bucky wouldn’t have stopped him.
It took another seven days before Bucky had a working arm again. He stared in wonder the first time that Stark turned everything on. He’d been in pain for so long that it was a marvel to twitch his fingers and not feel an accompanying surge of pain. He looked up at Stark with wide eyes, wanting to express gratitude, but the words got locked in his throat.
For the first time since Bucky had told him the truth, Stark’s smile lit his eyes.
And if Bucky had thought that he would be kicked out once the repairs were done, well. Stark immediately made plans for them to watch a movie with Vision the next day, and then Wednesday it was something else and Thursday something different, and before Bucky knew it he’d been at Stark Tower for three months and Stark was falling asleep against his shoulder during a movie.
“He is good for you,” said Vision.
“What?” Bucky looked at him in surprise.
Vision smiled serenely. “And you are good for him. It pleases me to see Sir happy.”
Bucky’s eyebrows furrowed. He’d never heard Vision call Stark “Sir” before. “I don’t know about that. I killed his parents.”
“We can agree to disagree,” Vision said, meeting Bucky’s eyes. “But I know Tony Stark, and I know this to be true. I am glad that you stayed, and so is Tony.” He paused, then added, “You might try calling him that. Tony.”
“He didn’t say I could,” Bucky said.
At the same time, Stark stirred, mumbling, “What? I heard my name.” He yawned and rubbed at his eyes.
“We were just discussing whether Bucky could call you Tony,” Vision said, smirking at Bucky.
“What? Of course you can,” Stark said, looking bemused. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“I…” Bucky’s face got hot. “I just thought – you don’t call me –”
“That’s because I call you everything but Barnes,” Stark said, and it was true. He had a litany of nicknames for Bucky, and Bucky had never protested because he loved every one. “Go on, say it. Tony.”
“Tony,” Bucky repeated shyly. He’d said it once or twice in the privacy of his own room, with only FRIDAY to hear. Saying it now felt strangely intimate. He blushed harder, but couldn’t look away from Stark’s – Tony’s – amused brown eyes.
“Good boy,” Tony said, patting Bucky’s shoulder. He stretched. “Anyone for pizza?”
“Boss, you’ve got a call from Laura,” FRIDAY said.
“Oh. I’ll take it on my phone, FRI.”
Tony pulled out his phone, not bothering to move away from Bucky; if anything, he squirmed closer, until there was no space between them at all. Bucky could hear every word of the conversation, but he didn’t understand it. Who was Phil Coulson? Why did that name make Tony’s face go white? And what did they mean, Steve had been brainwashed?
“Tony?” Bucky said.
“I have to go,” Tony said. His hands trembled. “I have to –”
Bucky caught Vision’s eyes. He said, “Not without me.”
Tony opened his mouth like he might protest, then stopped. He closed his mouth and nodded.