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Changing Fate

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He remembers it, of course he remembers it.

And if it were possible, it makes all of this make sense in a terrible sort of way. That is if there was ever any sense to be made from this whole situation to start out with.

He remembers how he met Thor for the first time in those woods after Loki’s capture. He remembers how the angry ‘godling’ had hit him with the lightning called from his hammer and how it had caused the power core in the suit to overload. This was common knowledge of course, but what didn’t seem to be common knowledge was the simple realization that overloading a power core – damaging it like that – when the power core for the Iron Man suit was the ARC reactor that sat in his chest, the same ARC reactor that kept him alive, could cause serious issues for the pilot inside.

Tony remembers in hindsight how all those years ago he had been forced to run the suit’s newly created ‘emergency protocols’ when the ARC over-cycled and JARVIS had been forced to restart his heart, bringing him back into the land of the living as it were. How poetic is it that this is the time he wakes up to? Before the Avengers all get pulled together for the first time?

Tony stares into the mirror, his shirt off as he just looks at the ARC reactor resting in his chest again. He’s contemplating the very strange, and kind of horrifying, turn of events that have led to him hiding out in a small SHIELD bathroom.

A half an hour ago, he hadn’t been in a forest fighting an overgrown toddler with the strength of the Hulk. He’d been in a frozen Hydra base in Siberia, choking on blood that had been rapidly filling damaged lungs and drowning him. Half an hour ago, he’d had to come to terms with the realization that this was how he died. After everything the world and fate had thrown at him: Howard, Obadiah, The Ten Rings, Hammer, Vanko, Maximoff, Ultron, SHIELD, Killian, the wormhole…he got to die at the hands of Captain America – the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

He might have laughed had anything about that situation actually been funny.

He’d closed his eyes in a frozen wasteland, alone and scared – and had woken up in the armor on a SHIELD jet several years in the past. Woken and calmed by the voice of a family member long since dead and haunting Tony’s every waking moment.

But…what does that make Tony now? A dead man walking? A ghost in a man’s shell? An anomaly that shouldn’t have happened but did?

The ARC’s soft blue light and gentle hum creates a strange pang of nostalgia in Tony and he’d be lying if he said that it didn’t help him in some way to push back the rising panic and horror at his current situation.

This is before it all.

Before the ‘Avengers’ and all of their bullshit.

Before ‘Together’ and the collar that it seemed to only wind around his neck like a noose.

Before the aliens and the disillusionment and all of the mistakes.

He doesn’t even know where to start with all of this ‘before’ lying in front of him. He can’t figure out if this is all some kind of cosmic joke or just plain karmatic cruelty. After all, every time Tony has tried to fix something he’s made it worse – or so everyone enjoys telling him – but if this is real, then the foreknowledge that he has is a dangerous map that can lead them down so many different paths of destruction.

He knows the theories of time travel, he’s never really given them much credence or thought before, but he knows them. The Butterfly Effect and all those other pithy sayings basically letting people know that if they ever go back – don’t fucking change anything. But if Fate, or whoever is responsible for this ‘gift’ thinks that Tony’s just going to stand by and watch the same outcomes come about then they’ve got another thing coming to them.

Reaching up, he pulls out the ARC in a smooth motion that his fingers have never unlearned and ejects the damaged core before replacing it with the backup that he always carries with him. Good to know his paranoia is good for something, like keeping him alive long enough to actually do anything about this. He slots the ARC back in and takes the first deep breath that he thinks he’s taken in a while as the soft hum picks back up and carries on ticking for him.

Right now, whether this is real or just some crazy fever dream caused by dying – Tony knows that he needs to go out there and get to work. His first concern of course is Loki and the army that he knows he has waiting for him on the other side of that cube. Things are already in motion and there’s no way that Tony can stop that, the best thing he can do is make sure that New York doesn’t get nuked in the place of the alien invaders.

That of course, leads him nicely into his second concern: The World Council and SHIELD. SHIELD’s Hydra right now, and while Tony may not have realized that last time, it does make for some interesting revelations about this time: he can’t, and he won’t, work for or with them. And a part of him doesn’t trust Nick to handle the job of purging SHIELD correctly when the last time he did it got every SHIELD agent burned by allowing Natasha to Wiki-Leak it all over the internet. That sort of blind sight isn’t something that Tony can ever get behind again. He used to have a kind of respect for Fury, once upon a time. Misguided and completely off base, but a kind of respect. But after seeing all the damage and the lives lost firsthand because of Nick’s call? Or more Nick allowing Rogers’s call? Rogers – who doesn’t understand a single thing about how the world works in the 21st century?

Another issue is of course the Avengers themselves. The bunch of backstabbing traitors who will go on to become ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ after the New York Invasion. The people who will then go on to believe that they should have godlike authority, unchallenged by all and will lay every wrong ever done at Tony’s feet like he’s personally responsible for them all.

Tony refuses to ever go back to a place like that, to be used and abused like that. He’s done being the Avengers scapegoat. He gave one life for them already, they won’t get a second.

That leaves him at the final, obvious issue and it’s one that Tony knows he’ll have to deal with but he secretly wants to bury it deep down and never let it cross his mind again: James Buchanan Barnes – The Winter Soldier. Hydra’s secret weapon that they turned on his parents.

What the hell is he supposed to do about him? And of course, what is he supposed to do about the rest of the band? The other Winter Soldiers waiting in cold storage for Hydra to unleash them out on the world?

“Stark? Are you okay in there?” Coulson calls through the door as he knocks on it. Tony takes a moment, turning on the faucet and splashing his face, before drying off and tugging on a new shirt.

“I’m fine.” He lies as he calls out to Coulson. “JARVIS, buddy, schedule a reminder for me in the lab. Top priority: new backup core.”

“I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment sir. Consider it done.” It’s still taking everything that Tony has left in him not to choke up each time he hears his old friend speak and he swallows heavily as he looks at himself in the mirror one final time.

Dream or not, he has to go out there. It’s time to stop hiding from it.

“Stark? Are you coming out anytime soon? There’s a line starting to form out here.” Coulson tries again to get Tony out of the bathroom and Tony grabs his jacket, tugging it on and unlocking the door before stepping out into the hallway. He gives Coulson a look when a glance up and down the hallway reveals one agent standing near the door with a nervous energy like they have somewhere to be and Coulson just grabbed them to make it seem like there was a line.

God what a liar every SHIELD agent is.

“Some line.” He deadpans and Coulson shrugs as he motions for him to follow him.

“This way, there’s someone we’d like you to meet.” He says as he leads Tony to where he’ll meet the other Avengers starting lineup. He remembers mostly how this all went down the first time, or at least he’s pretty sure he does and he thinks he’s ready to see his ‘team’ again. He enters the area and takes in all the Avengers sitting or standing around save Clint, and he feels a sudden flash of disgusted fury rush through him. What they had the potential to be, what they could have become – all wasted because of their ego and stupidity.

He doesn’t greet Thor at all, choosing instead to just answer the obvious question of what Loki wants with the cube before setting JARVIS to work on SHIELD’s firewalls. He’ll need the information downloaded in order to create a file on Hydra within, and not so much for the Tesseract weapons that he already knows are lying around somewhere. He ignores Rogers and Romanoff entirely – he has no more time for those duplicitous liars – as he greets Bruce.

As funny as it is – Bruce is the hardest to see here. The hope that Tony had for them, the friendship that he thought they had fostered before Bruce abandoned him. When the other doctor had left, it had made Tony look at their interactions in a new light and realize that maybe Tony had just come on too strongly – as Bruce often accused him of – and had just assumed that they were friends while Bruce had figured that they were only work colleagues.

“Doctor Banner. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Your work on antielectron collisions is unparalleled, truly groundbreaking.” He offers up as he holds out a hand and Bruce gets a shy little smile as he takes it and shakes it back.

“Oh, um…thanks.” He offers and Tony lets go of the handshake, let’s go of the friend he never had in his own mind, and turns to a SHIELD agent standing nearby.

“I’m guessing there’s already a workstation set up? Shall we go?”

“Just like that?” Fury asks and Tony looks at him to see him giving him a look that seems slightly distrustful. Like Tony is an old dog doing a new trick he never got taught.

“Well, we are on the clock.” Tony says, trying to put some of his usual bantering into the words but he’s starting to feel so tired. He motions for the agent to lead the way and walks off with Bruce.

“It’s a terrible privilege.” He’ll say later to this Bruce, when they’re all alone and he’ll struggle to ignore the parallels to his own current situation.

+++

“A warm light for all mankind to share.” Tony quotes, leaning up against the railing as he looks at Thor’s adopted, and always so angry, little brother. “What a nicely summed up pack of lies.” Loki turns to him after those words, that sick smile on his face and Tony has to push away the memory of how his hand felt at his throat, of how it felt to be in freefall.

“You were not the one I expected to come.” Loki says amused and Tony tilts his head.

“Oh I’m sure, but you and I both know that Fury didn’t send me. So you’ve still got whatever that pirate plans to throw at you in a little while to look forward too.” Tony says with a wave of his hand. He takes a few steps towards the containment capsule, fearless in a way that he usually isn’t since he knows that Loki wasn’t able to escape from his captivity until Barton and his men came to free him. “I’ll admit, it’s curious to me – that you need the cube to do whatever it is you’re planning to do, and yet here you are. Far away from it, and under willing imprisonment.” Loki’s smile grows as he holds up his hands.

“What can I say Stark, you’ve captured me. Very well done.”

“You surrendered. Poorly so, but still.” Tony corrects. “You could have fought back in Germany, and you could have just walked away while Clash of the Titans was happening – but you didn’t. You chose to wait and get brought here.” Tony says. “You know what I think?”

“Regale me Stark.”

“I think you were truly caught off guard by Thor’s arrival.” Some of Loki’s smirk fades away into frustration and rage at the mention of his brother’s name. “If he hadn’t showed up, we would have probably just kept going on, patting ourselves on the back for a capture well executed. But then Thor happened, and he almost ruined your plan.”

“And why would I want to get captured Stark? It makes no rational sense.”

“Of course it does. Maybe not to us, we don’t know what you know, but to you? Something tells me that you don’t do pointless work if there isn’t a reason for it.” Tony replies, and that smirk is back.

“Hmm…perhaps. So tell me then Stark, what is my plan? What do I want?” Tony shrugs.

“I already said I don’t know. Not yet at least.” Tony figures he has to play some of the role of ‘I’m not a time traveler I promise’ for not just Loki, but the cameras that are watching as well. “I figure that you wouldn’t come here unless you had an exit strategy, so I tried to figure out how you might accomplish that since the Helicarrier is notoriously hard to find.” Loki shrugs. “Did you know that the Scepter puts out the same sort of energy reading as the cube does? It made me realize that we’re tracking the cube with that sort of knowledge and here we go, bringing something on board that could potentially give away our locations. We’d be sitting ducks if something like that happened.” Tony makes a face. “Good thing Dr. Banner and I have already come up with a way to block that energy transmission.” He looks at Loki whose smile seems a little less smug. “I hope that doesn’t throw any kinks in your plan.” Tony gives him an ‘oops’ gesture and Loki steps forward, coming up to the glass. “I do have to ask one question.”

“Go on.” Loki says, but there’s a small amount of rage there. Tony’s messed up his plan in the smallest bit and they both know it.

“The Scepter, your little ‘stick of destiny’, I’m curious where you got it. I mean, it’s close to the Tesseract in power output, but Thor looks at it like he’s never seen anything like it before. Which means that it’s not Asgardian made.” There’s a look in Loki’s eyes for a moment before it’s gone. “It’s just strange is all I’m saying, because if it isn’t Asgardian in nature, and it’s not something made or understood here – then it makes me curious as to where you got it and if there are any more like it coming out of the woodwork someday soon?” None of this is really news to Tony. Thor once mentioned how Loki had told him of a third party, the true controller of the army that Loki had used at his beck and call this day.

Tony knows everything that Loki could tell him about the upcoming invasion, but that’s not the information that Tony wants: he wants the man behind the curtain. The big bad who was coming from beyond the stars to destroy earth someday soon…well someday after Tony Stark died.

“…I have to give it to you Stark, you are not as blinded and made foolish by your own ego as Agent Barton led me to believe.” Tony does a little mocking bow.

“I aim to surprise.”

“I am surprised, that I’ll give you.” Loki steps closer, right up against the glass like he’s still towering over Tony, like it’s some silly power play that Tony probably should – but won’t – back down from. “I will rule this planet, I will be its rightful king.” Loki says, glancing down at him. “You should consider your side in this war very carefully Stark.”

“Oh, I’m very sure where I stand, thank you.”

“And where is that?”

“Between you and the Earth.” Loki laughs at that, a cruel and mocking sound.

“You believe yourself capable of standing against me? A god? I was wrong about your ego before Stark, you should be bowing down and worshipping me.”

“What’s a god to an atheist?” Tony quips back instantly. “And sorry Lokes, no can do. I’m not much of the worshipping sort.” Loki’s lips part in a grin.

“Oh, I’m sure we could change that.” He practically purrs. “You stand here, acting so strong, but I can see it in your eyes. The truth of it Stark – you are already broken. How easy it would be for me to come in and grind you to dust.” Tony tenses a little at that comment, at the poking at the damage left behind by a life now unlived. “You cannot stop what’s coming Stark.” Loki says in an almost soft kind of whisper, like he feels sorry for Tony and the truth of what Loki knows. “The Chitauri are coming, whether I’m locked up in here or not.”

“Even if they do, even if they come and they’re too much for us – I want you to know – there’s no throne here for you. There’s no version of this story where you come out on top.” It’s a rehash of old words and old wisdom, but it’s still something that Tony feels needs to be imparted to the impatient trickster. “Besides, I wonder if it would even be yours if there were.” Tony says and Loki tilts his head a little at him.

“Meaning?”

“It’s funny, Doctor Banner and I have been taking in the energy readings from the Scepter and lo-and-behold, the readings are coming off of you as well.” Tony’s not wrong, and it’s something he already knew. JARVIS has confirmed it and will have the evidence to back it up if Fury comes calling. “So…I wonder, if the Scepter controls people’s minds and makes them the butt-monkeys of whoever is controlling the Scepter…then I’m curious who’s pulling your leash.” Loki’s smile disappears.

“You’re grasping at straws Stark.” He growls and it’s clear that Tony has hit the nail right on the head.

“Stark.” Speak of the Devil and he’ll appear – Fury enters the area and calls for Tony’s exit. Tony gives Loki a small incline of his head as he walks off to leave with the ‘master spy’.

Fury waits a few minutes till they make it through the hallways and reenter the lab that Bruce and him have been sharing. “What do you think you’re doing Stark?” He snaps, obviously trying to keep his voice level and calm. Tony figures that he’s already changed so much in such a short time and this is a situation that is either going to go the way he remembers – which was absolutely terrible – or it’s going to go a completely new way – which has the possibility of being worse. “You were not permitted to enter the holding cells. What were you thinking talking to Loki like that?”

“I wanted answers, figured I’d go to the source, but you kind of interrupted us before we could actually get anywhere.”

“That was reckless Stark, and you learned nothing.”

“I’ve learned a lot actually. I’ve learned that there’s something called the Chitauri who are probably going to come through the doorway that Selvig is attempting to open. I’ve learned that Loki is a middleman, a pawn for an unknown third party that we might have gotten information on if you had just given me a little more time.”

“We have people who know how to handle things like this.”

“Oh, people like Natasha? I’ll admit, I’m not too impressed with her ability to ‘read a situation’ or a person thank you very much.”

“Get over yourself Stark.” Tony rolls his eyes and looks back at the computer screen. The information for Hydra has just finished downloading and he still hasn’t come up with an answer as to what he’s going to do with it.

“Whatever, you do what you’re going to do Nick. I’ve got work to get back to.” Of course, the other people, the other ‘Avengers’ in the room, have to get involved in this conversation.

“Can you take anything seriously Stark?” Steve snaps, “This isn’t the time for your showboating.” There it is – the ‘righteous’ anger and frustration of ‘Captain America’. God, what a one trick pony he turned out to be.

“And what is it the time for Rogers?” Tony asks, turning to him. “What is it the time for? For being ‘soldiers’? For being ‘Avengers’ which who knows what the hell that entails. What’s it the time for?”

“For getting over yourself and putting others first.”

“You don’t know the first thing about me or where I rank things.” Tony fires back. “I’m here because I understand how dangerous the Tesseract is. I’m here because I recognize that Loki is a serious threat that we may, or may not be ready or qualified to take on at this point in time.” He shifts his glance from Steve to Fury. “But I would appreciate not being lied too, and used by a government agency hoping that I’ll be so blinded by the bells and whistles that I don’t realize what’s really happening behind the curtain.”

“I don’t know what you’re implying Stark.” Fury starts, as if he’s already trying to change the subject as Thor walks into the room and Tony cuts him off.

“I’m not ‘implying’ anything, I’m saying it. SHIELD isn’t in the clean energy business. You’re a government agency, not a humanitarian outfit.” Fury’s jaw tightens. “SHIELD doesn’t want the Tesseract to bring energy to the earth, it wants it to build weapons.”

“Just because your own personal history with weapons making-” Steve starts to say, always ready and willing to be the first to throw Tony under the bus, and Tony sighs – pulling up the Tesseract weapon plans on the screen and flipping it around. It shuts Steve up instantly.

“My history isn’t on trial here, no matter how much you might like it to be. Neither is SHIELD’s for that matter, but I dislike being lied to, especially when weapons are involved these days.”

“You were brought in to help find the cube, not to go poking around in things that don’t concern you.” Fury snaps.

“Oh, I am here to find the cube, and to stop whatever evil machinations that Loki has going for him. I am not however, blind. I will not be used to hand something over to people who want to make some kind of new-age weapons with it.” There’s a slight hum in the air that Tony recognizes as the power of the mind stone, and he has to calm himself down. That evil little rock is subtle in its ability to heighten chaos, and Tony can tell that it’s been working on him.

“Why is SHIELD even making weapons with the Tesseract in the first place?” Bruce asks and Fury sighs, before pointing at Thor.

“Because of him.” Thor looks around confused before pointing at himself.

“Me? What have I done?” Tony tones out the rest of the speech that Fury gives after that, taking a moment to calm himself and push the Scepters soft control off of him.

“SHIELD is mean to monitor threats.” Natasha is saying in that way she does, and Bruce snorts as he points at Steve.

“Captain America is on threat watch?” Tony doesn’t mean to let out the sharp, amused giggle that he does at the sound of pure bafflement in Bruce’s voice. He thinks back on Steve’s track record: domestic terrorism, international terrorism, attempted murder, murder, aiding and abetting known criminals, assaulting police officers and civilians, plus a whole plethora of sins that bleed from Steve Rogers and he thinks that maybe monitoring ‘Captain America’ isn’t something that’s that far off the mark.

“You think this is funny Stark?” Steve snaps, coming over and looking at him through the clear screens. “Is everything a joke to you?”

“Only the important things.” Tony quips and Steve grabs the screen and pushes it to the side, trying to ensure that Tony’s full attention is on him.

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off and what are you?”

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” Tony answers back and Steve shakes his head.

“You think you’re so high and mighty. I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. Yeah, I’ve seen the footage. The only person you fight for is yourself. You’re not the one to do the sacrifice play, to lay on the wire and let the other guy crawl over you.” Tony doesn’t deign that with a response this time around, and it doesn’t seem to stop Steve’s little rant. “You may not be a threat Stark, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.” Tony feels the words bite at his tongue to be said, but he swallows them down and chooses to go a different route.

“I’m not sure what ‘footage’ you’ve seen that you feel gives you the right to stand there and judge me.” He says calmly and that seems to irk Steve more than his barbs in the past ever did. “But I think you should take a step back and think long and hard before you decide again that you have the sole authority on what makes a hero and what they do or act like.” He reaches for the computer screen again and pulls it back to its original position between them and has to fight back an eye roll at Steve’s fists clenching.

He ignores the blond and the other members of the room as the rise of the ‘ticking time bomb’ that Bruce calls them comes to pass moments later.

To say he’s surprised a few moments later when the explosions still happen is something to be said, but he guesses that he shouldn’t have underestimated Barton’s ability to find the Helicarrier with or without the signal.

However, he does have to admit that the explosions are a godsend that he never fully appreciated the first time around.

Getting stuck in the propellers though? Yeah, no. That still sucked.

+++

I’m going to stop you. You don’t get the Earth. Do you hear me you bastards? The Earth is not yours and it never will be!

That’s the vow that Tony gives as he watches the spaceships blow into a million smithereens while he plunges back down to the Earth through the rapidly closing portal. The day is saved, but Tony knows now better than ever that the war has just begun.

He snaps back to awareness at the Hulk’s roar and he doesn’t offer up any pleasantries, instead just letting his head rest on the cement beneath him.

“We won.” Steve says, and Tony almost pities him for how naïve that statement is.

“It’s not over yet.” Thor reminds everyone and Tony pulls himself to his feet. In another life there were offers of ‘together’ and ‘shawarma’ on his lips with a hope for friendship and family.

In this life, Tony doesn’t bother with it.

They arrest Loki who seems so different now than the man he was thirty minutes ago and it almost makes Tony laugh. Thirty minutes seems to be changing so much these days.

“Here are the scans if that’ll help.” Tony says, handing the printouts to Thor as they all gather around later to see him off. “JARVIS did a brief scan while Loki was in the Tower and found trace elements of the same energy in the Scepter.” Thor takes the pages from him with a gentleness that Tony has never actually seen him use before. “It might not make much of a difference to the Allfather, but perhaps it will.” Tony shrugs and takes a step back as Thor looks up at him.

“Thank you Stark. I am very grateful for this.” He says and Tony nods.

“Hope it helps.” He turns to walk away, not bothering to interact with the other Avengers members in the area when he’s stopped by a call of his name. He turns to see Steve standing there.

“I…I wanted to say I’m sorry.” He says and Tony wishes that his Steve had apologized for half of the things that he did to him. “I was…I misjudged you and I’m sorry.” He holds out a hand and Tony’s skin crawls when he shakes it.

“It’s a new day, perhaps it’s time to leave all of those preconceived notions in the past where they belong.” He says. “Have a good day Mr. Rogers.” He turns around even as Steve opens his mouth to clearly say something to him but he doesn’t stop as he makes it to his car. Thor departs moments later with the power of the Tesseract and Tony watches as the ‘Team’ interacts with each other. There are smiles, and handshakes and hugs – and Tony realizes that he was never a part of that.

And for some reason – that’s okay.

It still hurts, and who knows, maybe it’ll hurt till the end of his days – but right now? Right now he’s feeling pretty good about it.

“I’m surprised you’re not over there.” Coulson says and Tony shrugs as he pulls open the door to his car.

“I came here to give that information to Thor and to make sure that Loki didn’t escape and ruin all our hard work.” He slides into the car and sighs as Coulson leans against the door, semi-preventing Tony from closing it and leaving.

“Fury hopes that you’ll take a more active role in the Avengers Initiative.” Coulson says with a smile as he pulls out a file and holds it out for Tony.

“I don’t like being handed things Agent. You know that.” Coulson nods and puts it on the dash and Tony opens it.

It’s the same old game that Fury’s always playing with Tony. There in big black letters is Tony’s official addition to the Avengers Initiative, all it takes is Tony’s signature on the bottom line and he’s Fury’s to command. Tony sighs and closes the file with a shake of his head.

“I’m not an Avenger Agent. I’m just a consultant and I prefer it that way for now. Tell Fury ‘thanks but no thanks’ from me.” He hands the file back to Coulson without the signature that Fury no doubt told the Agent to get. Coulson looks so surprised as Tony motions for him to move and closes the door.

“This is kind of bigger than you Stark.” He starts to argue once the weight of what Tony’s said and done settles and Tony starts the car.

“You’ve got big enough problems on your own home front Agent. You might want to focus in house before you start poking inside anyone else’s.” He reaches into the glove box and pulls out the file that contains all of Pierce’s Hydra activity in SHIELD and offers it to him. He doesn’t stick around to see Coulson’s face when he reads the file. He’s got bigger fish to fry after all.

He can’t however, help but look back into the rearview mirror at the small group of Avengers who are huddled together talking as he pulls away.

They’re looking in his direction and they look disappointed.

He figures some things will never change.

+++

 

“Sir, upload is ready.” JARVIS says and Tony nods, going through the final touches. He’s added so many new protections and protocols in order to prevent even the possibility that Ultron – if he comes into existence still by some way- cannot come take any member of his family. (And if he’s created a matrix that mimics JARVIS’s base AI layout in order to be an uplink for Vision just in case – well then so what? He misses that Android.)

“Hello? FRIDAY? Are you there?”

Hello Boss. Systems at 100% integration.” God he’s missed her voice and he laughs giddily.

“JARVIS, meet your new baby sister. FRIDAY, say hello to your big brother.” He can see the two mainframes getting a scan of each other and it warms his heart. He’s always known that JARVIS and FRIDAY would get along swimmingly if they had just had the chance to meet.

Pepper enters the office moments later, and Tony gives her a smile that she matches with just the slightest bit of tenseness around her eyes. It hurts Tony to see her like this, especially because of something he’s done, but he knows that he had to do it. As much as Tony wanted to throw himself back into Pepper, and into their relationship like nothing bad had ever happened between them – he knows that the problems that they had weren’t something that was ever going to change.

As he once told the world – he was Iron Man.

And as Pepper had once told him – Iron Man or her.

This wasn’t an equation that Tony could make work, no matter what variables he plugged into it. So after some quiet, well maybe not quiet, reflection, he does the responsible adult thing to do because he loves her – and he told her that he’ll never be what she needs, or what she wants from him. They had a long discussion about it all, with Tony leaving it on the note of how important she is to him and how he doesn’t want this to turn into something toxic where they can’t be in the same room together or they’re not talking.

Pepper of course took it like a champ, she always did, and Tony knows that it’s because somewhere deep down she’d already been having those thoughts that he’s given voice to.

They’ll get back to where they were someday. Tony knows that, and he knows that he’ll fight for it.

“Do you have a minute?” She asks and he nods.

“For you? Always.” He motions to the chair.

“I just want to discuss your itinerary for the next few weeks. It’s going to be pretty packed.” Tony gets a smile.

“Pep. Pep you know you’re not my secretary anymore.” He jokes and she rolls her eyes.

“Well since you keep refusing all the ones I send to you.”

“Don’t like them.”

“What don’t you like about them?”

“They could be SHIELD.” Tony says seriously and she looks up at him. “I…I don’t want to feel like they’re watching my every move. Like they’re breathing down my neck and let’s face it. I’m never going to trust another secretary after the whole Natasha-Natalie debacle.”

“Not everyone works for SHIELD.” Pepper says softly and Tony shrugs.

“I know that, but enough do. And too many of them are just frothing at the mouth to get their hands on me or control what I do. I don’t want to live my life wondering if those close to me are going to stab me in the back.” She doesn’t say anything to that, just nodding and looking down at the pad in her hands.

“Well. Let’s go over this real quick before I have to get to the Board Meeting.” Tony nods.

“Lets.” She goes over the various galas and charities that he’ll be making an appearance to, as well as the reconstruction efforts that Stark Industries is donating to. On paper, they sound like he’s overbooked his schedule.

In person – he can definitely say that he’s overbooked his schedule.

“FRI? I’m putting you in charge of keeping track of the spending and funding for all this, if that’s okay with you?” Tony says as he looks down over the charity gathering and takes another sip of champagne.

‘Consider it done Boss.’ She says in his ear and he nods. He’ll do his best to hedge out Fisk and all that craziness that’s coming around the corner. Maybe it’ll mend some of the bridges that Matt Murdock had with him. He chuckles to himself a little as he takes another sip – not likely.

Tony puts up the glass and goes down to mingle. JARVIS in his ear reminding him names as he greets and charms his way through the room.

“Hello Mr. Stark.” A familiar feminine voice says as Natasha slinks out from behind him in a red sheath dress that is clearly meant to garner his appreciation.

It falls horribly short.

“Miss Rushman – or is it Miss Romanoff now?” Her red lips part in a mocking kind of smile that looks like she’s pretending that they’re sharing some kind of inside joke with each other. “I was unaware that you were on the guest list.”

“I’m a plus one today.” She says and he nods.

“Of course.” He tilts his head to her. “Well, enjoy the party.” She holds her hand out as the music starts up in a new song.

“May I have this dance?” She asks and Tony inwardly curses her. “It’s impolite to deny a lady a dance.” He gives her a smile.

“Of course, how rude of me.” He takes her hand and leads her to the dance floor before falling into the familiar routine.

“It’s been a while since we’ve heard from you.” She says, leaning up close to his ear and whispering into as if she’s playing coy with the billionaire. It’ll make all the other donors look the other way, and both Tony and Natasha know that. They’ll just see a pretty face trying to get her perfectly manicured claws into Tony for the night.

“I’m a busy man.” He replies easily, swaying with the music. She’s close enough that he can get a clear whiff of her perfume and it almost makes him want to walk off the dance floor – it smells so close to the perfume that his mother loved to wear, god he hates spies.

“So we’ve noticed.” She agrees. “But we were hoping to set up an appointment for a moment of your time.”

“Fury knows how to set an appointment with my secretary, and if he doesn’t I’m sure Hill does.”

“I’m not here for Fury.”

“Ah, Coulson then.”

“He’s worried about you.”

“Can’t imagine why.”

“He just wants to make sure that you’re not having…second thoughts about certain choices.” Tony just sighs and twists her out before twirling her back in and dipping her.

“I’m just a consultant Miss Romanoff. You should know that better than anyone considering our last interaction with each other and the report drafted up by you because of it.”

“Was I wrong in any of my deductions?” She challenges and Tony rolls his eyes.

“I’m sorry, when did you go get a degree in Psychology? I must have missed it.”

“So this is because you’re upset about the report.” She says in the same tone that she always used to drag his ‘ego’ through the mud with.

“No, this is about the fact that I’ve told Fury before that I didn’t want to be part of his Top Secret Boy Band.” Tony corrects. “I haven’t changed my mind about that.”

“I’ll admit, I used to think that was talk.” She says, pushing in closer and Tony bites back the sigh. “You know that Coulson and Fury are still willing to let you join at any time. Things are coming Tony.” She says, whispering in his ear again. “Things that are bigger than all of us, and we need to all work together.”

“I’m not saying I won’t, but I’m more of a freelance contract. I’m not interested in joining myself to the Avengers.”

“We’re trying to make the team something greater than all of us.”

“Then I wish you luck.”

“Iron Man being on the team would be a boon, not just to us but to you as well.”

“I’ll admit to being confused how Iron Man being on a government task force masquerading as superheroes will help me out.”

“You’re doing all this on your own. Imagine having all of us there as backup when you go into the fight, imagine us here, imagine how much smoother these events would go, how much more money would be given to your causes with Captain America standing at the helm.”

“No thank you. I do pretty well on my own and I’m not interested in a war-bonds salesman whose been frozen in ice for seventy years being at the helm of anything.”

“You didn’t seem to have any issue working with him before.” She points out and he shakes his head.

“We were in the middle of battle and despite what you seem to think, and what you pandered around to anyone who would listen – I am in fact able to be a team player when the situation calls for it.” Tony says to her. “But I’ve seen how you’re all so ready to push Rogers into a leadership position and I’m not going to lie – that terrifies me. And as such, I’m not about to get into a situation that I already see going south very quickly.”

“He’s led his own teams before.” She says and Tony shakes his head.

“No he hasn’t, and don’t try to pull that over on me. He was a figurehead that punched things, looked pretty, and took orders well. The Howling Commandoes were run by Colonel Phillips, not Steve Rogers.” She looks at him.

“And who would you rather lead the team? You?” She challenges, clearly amused by the mere thought of Tony leading anything and Tony pulls away at the end of the song and claps.

“I’m not interested, but thanks for the dance.” He turns and walks away, feeling like he needs to go and take a shower to scrub her touch and her perfume off of him.

He fights through it of course, like he always does. With a smile and plenty of charm.

+++

He’s got the final working prototype of B.A.R.F. in his hands and it’s the first time that he’s held it that his hands haven’t been shaking.

“You there buddy?” He asks aloud and JARVIS responds moments later.

“Always sir.”

“You’re about to see some things…some things that aren’t good…and I just…I might need you to talk me through it.”

I will be here sir.” Tony gives a small smile, and pats DUM-E on the claw once before he lifts the glasses up to his face.

It’ll be the first session of many – but Tony thinks he’s ready to deal with it now.

+++

“These…are amazing Tony.” Pepper says as she looks at the prototype for the leg braces that Rhodey once wore. “What made you think of them?” It takes everything in his power not to turn and look at Rhodey as he shrugs.

“It was just a thought that popped into my mind. You know how those go.” He says instead of the truth, and he knows that Pepper doesn’t fully believe him but she kindly doesn’t call him out on it.

“Well they’re amazing. I’ll put them on the schedule immediately.” She reaches over and picks up the file for the Binary Augmentation Device and her eyes go wide as she reads it. Rhodey’s glancing over the files of the prosthetics and nodding as he flips through them.

“Do you think it’s possible? To do this?” She asks and Tony nods.

“I’ve been playing around with it in my own time and I think I’ve made a huge breakthrough. Big enough that I feel confident that it’ll be up and running in a little while.” Tony doesn’t say how he already has a working prototype sitting in the lab that he’s been using as his own personal therapist.

“You’re giving a lot of focus to veterans.” Rhodey says and Tony nods.

“Yeah, well with my history…and then with all the injuries because of ‘The Event’. I just…wanted to help fix things.” He gives a small smile and a shrug. “Besides, it’ll be great press. We can always use more good press.” Both of them nod, seemingly pleased with the idea.

“You’ve been keeping yourself pretty busy lately.” Rhodey mentions a little while later and Tony nods.

“I’ve got a lot of things on my mind, and subsequently plate, these days.”

“Are those assholes at SHIELD bothering you again?” Tony shakes his head, before pausing slightly.

“Well, I mean no more than usual. Romanoff made a surprise drop by the September Foundation Charity Event the other night, but that’s been about it.” Rhodey nods before he gets that look that says he’s about to broach a subject that Tony might not like. “What?”

“Hmm?”

“No, don’t ‘hmm’ me. What is it?”

“Nothing much, I mean I guess I’m just…surprised is all. And maybe a little concerned.”

“Surprised?”

“Yeah, I mean…I was starting to worry…I mean after Hammer and all of that you just seemed kind of…” He trails off and Tony takes a little pity on him although he can’t remember Rhodey ever mentioning being concerned about SHIELD before, in any lifetime.

“Desperate for their approval?” He offers up and Rhodey nods.

“Yeah…just a little. And they were just taking advantage of that and it just made me want to…” He trails off, but the threat is clear and Tony smiles.

“Yeah, they did. And it just took me a while to take a step back and see that.” Rhodey matches his smile at those words.

“Well, I for one am glad you did.”

“You should have seen it though. Their attempts at manipulation were so heavy handed.” He says a few minutes later and Rhodey looks at him confused.

“What do you mean?”

“They had Natasha, or Natalie, write a ‘personality profile report’ on me. It was so horribly off base it was hilarious…and then it was just terrifying because I think they actually believe it.”

“Can I see it?” Tony never let Rhodey see it the first time around, but this time he shrugs and has JARVIS pull it up.

“Careful, it’ll either make you mad or make you laugh. Quite possibly both.”

Happy enters the room about five minutes later while Rhodey is in full ranting mode, reading out sections of the report and tearing them to shreds with so much prejudice that one might think the report had personally attacked him. Tony can’t help the fondness and the gales of laughter at Rhodey’s rants. He arches an eyebrow at the two of them and Tony shrugs.

“Hey buddy, what’s up?” He asks and Happy puts down a letter on the desk next to him. Tony frowns at it before he sees familiar writing on the outside of it.

He’d recognize Steve’s handwriting anywhere.

He opens the letter, his eyes scanning it before sighing.

“What is it?” Rhodey asks, looking like he wants to go hit something.

“Rogers wants to meet. Something about ‘clearing the air’ or some other kind of bullshit.”

“Are you going to go?”

“Probably.” Tony looks back down at the letter, and at the line that says Steve will be sitting there, waiting for him and he shakes his head. “Yeah, I’m going. Pop in and pop out. I guess Natasha had her turn to recruit me, now they’re going for Captain America.”

“Did you want backup?” Rhodey asks and Tony shakes his head.

“I’ve got JARVIS, I’ll be fine. See you later?” He asks and Rhodey nods. “Don’t worry Honeybear. I’m not changing my mind about the Avengers anytime soon.” Or ever again really Tony thinks to himself. “But there was something that I wanted to pass on to Rogers anyways.” He says as he grabs his jacket and the tablet that’s been sitting in his bottom drawer for the last few weeks. “I’ll be back.” He says, taking off and heading to the meeting location.

B.A.R.F. has helped out a lot with the simmering rage that he feels most of the time for Rogers and the Avengers, and now it feels more like a dull ache than an open wound. He thinks he might be ready to talk with Rogers now – he thinks he’s ready to close the door on this once and for all.

The meeting location is some coffee shop teeming with college students and it takes two seconds to notice Rogers in the back. Tony goes over and pulls out the other chair at the table, taking a seat and watching as Steve glances up from his drawing of the shop on a napkin.

“Mr. Stark?” He says, sounding far too surprised that Tony’s arrived and it makes Tony want to shake his head. So clearly Steve didn’t want to come here, they must have twisted his arm and he said that Tony would never show.

“Mr. Rogers.”

“You got my letter.”

“Obviously. How can I help you? Your letter was…vague.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. Did you want something to drink?” Tony shrugs.

“If I do, I’ll grab something on the way out.” He says and Steve frowns. “I don’t have much time here after all. Just a few minutes, so how can I help you?”

“Oh, I was hoping that we might have a discussion.” Steve says. “I feel like you’re keeping your distance from us because of me.” Tony sighs.

“I’m keeping my ‘distance’ as you call it from the Avengers because I don’t like the idea of being under the World Council’s thumb or Fury’s for that matter.”

“Natasha seemed to think it was a little more…personally motivated than that. That you don’t think that I’m fit to be leader.”

“I don’t.” Tony says simply and he can see the surprise on Steve’s face that Tony has flat out said it to his face. “But that is only one of the factors in my choice. It’s an additional concern yes, but still not the deciding factor.” Steve looks down at his drawing.

“I know I’ve said sorry for what I said to you on the Helicarrier. I was unusually rash in my impression of you and I should not have been so quick to label you when we had just met. I hope that if you did decide to join us that you’d realize that it wouldn’t always be that way.” Tony has to fight back the amused sigh that wants to come out at that statement. Steve has literally just described exactly what happened with the Avengers in the original timeline, and how they were so quick to jump down Tony’s throat for their ‘impressions of who he was’ and how he was expected to atone for those impressions. “I think…I think you’d make a great addition to my team.” Tony doesn’t miss how it’s not ‘the team’ it’s ‘my team’. “And I’m not the only one who thinks that. Nat, Phil, Bruce, Fury.” Tony holds up a hand to stop Steve’s words and he can’t help the sad, tired smile that crosses his face as he looks at Steve. God he feels so old these days, so tired.

“Thank you for the consideration, and please try not to take this personally Mr. Rogers – but I stand firm in what I said before. I’m not interested in being under Fury’s thumb and I’m not interested in joining a team that has a…management layout that I don’t personally stand behind.” Steve gets a frown at the obvious slight to his abilities as leader and Tony reaches into his suit jacket to pull out the StarkPad that he brought specifically for Steve. “Now, I’ll admit that I came here to give you this real fast.” He slides it across the table and Steve looks at it like it’s going to explode.

“What is it?”

“You’ve been asleep for some time, and I’ll admit that I’m concerned with how SHIELD is being so lackadaisical in your education when it comes to how much the world has changed.” He points to the tablet. “In there is a program that’ll walk you through everything that you should know. It’s got files on things like politics, both domestic and international and the big moments of history – and the little ones that hold power in creating the society that we live in today. There’s also business in there, history in general – JARVIS made me add a literature grouping when I added a movie culture one.” He gets a small grin and shrugs. “There are a few more sections in there, and it’s not something that you’ll be able to get though anytime soon – but if you’re going to be acting in any form of political position, you should definitely be aware of these things.”

“I’m not going to be in a political position.” Steve says and Tony sighs.

“There’s a phrase, I can’t remember it verbatim, but it basically says how we’re living in a day and age where every action we take has a chance to be political.” Tony shrugs. “If you’re going to be going around, attempting to police or enforce any kind of rule, law or idea – then you can be damn well sure that you’re going to need to know these things. Because people will expect you to know them, and they’ll bury you alive when you don’t.” Tony pushes back his chair and stands. “So use it, or don’t. To be honest, I don’t have any say in it either way but at least I know that I gave you your best chance. That’s all I can do.” He inclines to him. “Have a good day Mr. Rogers.”

“Wait! Mr. Stark – we didn’t really get a chance to talk.”

“If you’re going to request or attempt to change my mind about the Avengers then I’m going to say that we’ve talked enough. I have no intention of changing my stance on this.” Tony puts on his sunglasses. “Although, if you had some time, you might want to look into the art programs at the local colleges.” There’s a blank look on the blonds face. “Remember, you’re not SHIELD’s collared lapdog. You can go do something else.” He motions to the napkin. “You can be something else, and never let anyone tell you differently.” Tony tilts his head to him in parting before he leaves, closing that door on Steve Rogers finally.

This isn’t the one who murdered him, lied to him and allowed for years of systematic abuse amongst his team, and maybe there’s a chance that Tony’s changed enough that he’ll never become that man.

Or who knows – maybe that’s just always who Steve Rogers was.

Tony doesn’t know, and he doesn’t intend to stick around to find out. This is him washing his hands of the blond, he’s given him all he can to assist him in a way that he never received before and now he can bow out without guilt or the question of ‘what if?’

Tony’s trying to heal. It’s hard, and it’s quite possibly a slow process…but he figures that he can offer the smallest of help to those who wronged him…

It’s then that he knows that he’s ready to deal with Bucky Barnes.

+++

“Do I have the right to do this? Even if I’m helping?” He asks aloud and it takes a second before JARVIS responds.

“There are far too many factors to take into consideration to truly answer that question. But if there is no harm done, and it truly helps the other and there is no hostility meant…perhaps if it is the wrong decision to make, forgiveness can be found?”

“I’m not looking for his forgiveness.” Tony says in response to that.

“Then what are you looking for sir?”

“…peace.”

+++

It’s pathetically easy to track down Barnes’s cryo tube. The Winter Soldier is still, coated in frost and something about the image for all the fear that it’s supposed to impart – makes Tony sad.

“You killed them. You put your hands on them and you didn’t stop until they were dead…I hate you for that.” He’s not really speaking to anyone in particular, or maybe he is – maybe he’s speaking to a ghost, or some strange version of Frankenstein’s Monster, but he feels like he needs to get this off his chest. “I loved her…so much, and you took her from me.” He shakes his head. “The things I wanted to do to you if I ever got my hands on you… I won’t apologize for that, or for what I did.” He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “But…I understand now…I understand.” He says to the sleeping prisoner of war. “And for what it’s worth…I’m sorry that this happened to you. No one deserves this.” Tony comes forward and unhooks the capsule after his small piece of mind, unhooking the system before disappearing into the night with the Winter Soldier in tow.

+++

“Sir, he’s awake.” There are voices in the blur as he fights to open his eyes.

“Good, that’s good. Sgt. Barnes, can you hear me?” He barely manages to open his eyes and cringe against the bright lights. He tries to focus on the face that comes into view moments later. “How are the scans coming J?”

“Brain activity within normal parameters sir.” The man nods and looks back down at him.

“Perfect. Okay, Sgt. Barnes, can you hear me? Do you understand what I’m saying?” He tries to make a sound but it comes out as some strained, painful gurgle. “Good, that’s very good. My name is Tony, Tony Stark. My assistant JARVIS and I are attempting to repair the damage caused to your memory and to your brain from your time in Hydra captivity.” The words aren’t making any sense as the lights start to dim. “JARVIS? I think we’re losing hi-” and then there’s nothing.

“Hello again.” The face is back when he opens his eyes. “Shall we try again?” The man asks. “We might get somewhere this time.” He keeps talking as the lights start to dim again. “or maybe not-” are the last words that fade away into the blackness.

“Hi.” There’s a horrible squeak from the rolling stool that the man is sitting on as he slides into view beside him. “How are we feeling today Sgt. Barnes?” Who is Sgt. Barnes? Is that him?

“..w..ho?” He tries to say before his voice just cuts off on him.

“Who am I? Well I thought you’d never ask. My name is Tony Stark, like I’ve mentioned before but you were a little out of it still. JARVIS is the eye in the sky. Say hi buddy.”

“Good afternoon Sgt. Barnes.” A voice says from nowhere.

“He’s helping me out with your treatment, plus a whole array of morons who I should have already donated to a local community college.” He doesn’t look like he’s really talking to him, instead looking over him into the room before glancing back down at him. “You’re in Stark Towers which is located in New York, and you’re down in the lab. You’re completely safe here, no one is going to come cause you any problems. If you’re asking who you are, your name is James Buchanan Barnes. I’ve been told that you prefer to go by the moniker ‘Bucky’ and I have no idea why and I’m going to admit that it makes me question your sanity long before all of Hydra’s bullshit but that’s a rant for another day.” ‘Tony’ shrugs before continuing. “We’re currently attempting to restore your cognitive abilities to a level at which you have awareness and understanding of the events around you, and at that point – which very well might be this moment in time – we’re here to offer continued treatment. However, I need your consent for that.” He looks down at him. “Did you catch all that this time?” James Buchanan Barnes – or Bucky – just stares at him. “Is that a no?”

“Sir, perhaps if you tried breaking up the information instead of dropping it all at once, Sgt. Barnes would be able to process it easier.” Tony makes a face.

“Okay. I’m Tony, you’re Bucky. Please consider changing that but realize that you don’t have to. You’ve been a prisoner of war for a very long time, and we’re here trying to help you. Will you let us help you?” Bucky blinks a few times, staring at him. “I don’t want to go through the B.A.R.F. procedure any more than we already have without your express permission.” He just keeps staring and Tony runs a hand through his hair in a nervous sort of gesture. “I mean, we had to do what we’ve done already. Your brainwaves were all over the place and you needed serious help stabilizing them. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to deal with that on your own…” Tony trails off and gets a pained look. “Anyways, I need a yes before I press on.” None of this is making any sense and the man leans forward towards him. “Will you allow me to help you? I promise – it’s not a golden yes or anything. If you want to stop at any time just say the word and bam! We’ll pull the plug.” Tony just stares at him in silence after he’s said his piece. ‘Bucky’ takes a moment before the obvious answer formulates.

“…yes.”

+++

Tony’ll admit to being slightly surprised to see Fury and the gang in his office when he arrives a few days later. He’s been busy, working through the initial scans with Bucky and it’s left very little time for Tony to get out of the Tower and mingle at the office.

“FRIDAY, did I have a meeting with SHIELD on the schedule?” He asks aloud, ignoring the intruders in his office. Opting instead to walk past them and go to his desk, placing down his tablet and his coffee.

‘No Boss, there were no scheduled meetings for today. Shall I alert security?’ Tony shakes his head as he takes a seat in his chair.

“Wait for now.” He says before glancing up at Fury in his own time. “Now, I don’t know what you’re hoping to accomplish by breaking in here and messing around with my AI programming again.” He interlaces his fingers on his desk. “However I can tell you that, not only do I not appreciate it and I will be taking steps to ensure that it won’t happen again, I’m not going to stand for it.” His voice turns firm, it’s the same voice he uses to wrangle in board members. “I allowed it that one time because of the Tesseract and the fact that it was a world ending event, but I’m starting to notice a troubling pattern with you Mr. Fury where you seem to think that I either work for you, or that I owe you my time whenever you deem it necessary. I have still not forgotten how you attempted to manipulate and control me with Natasha going undercover in my company and taking advantage of me in a very vulnerable time in my life.” Fury is wisely staying silent while Tony says his piece. “But I can tell you that things are going to change, starting right now. You will not send SHIELD agents to spy on me, you will no longer attempt to override my AI or my security protocols again or I will take it as a hostile action from SHIELD against myself and Stark Industries and I will react accordingly. Now, you can turn around, walk out of here and schedule a meeting with FRIDAY or JARVIS and we can talk about whatever you’d like to talk about at that time – or you can push this and I will call security and have you thrown out. Do be aware that if you take the second option that it will mark the end of any professional relationship that I have with you personally, with the Avengers Initiative, or with SHIELD. You have a minute to decide.” He calmly opens a file on his StarkPad as he lets Fury take in his options.

He can see the reactions on each of their faces in his peripheral.

Fury is just staring him down with his one pirate eye, trying to determine if Tony is serious or if he’s bluffing.

Natasha is as neutral as ever, which Tony figures means she’s trying to figure out new ways to play this situation to her favor as per usual.

Clint looks bored, like he didn’t want to come but got dragged along for the field trip anyways and he can’t wait to go home, and Steve looks so disappointed. Like he’s been so put upon coming here and like Tony is just being unnecessarily complicated for no reason.

“…I see now that I was out of line.” Fury eventually says, clasping his hands behind his back. “My apologies Stark, we’ll be in touch.” He turns and walks out of the office, the rest of them trailing behind him like little ducklings following a mother duck. Rogers lingers in the doorway for a moment, turning back to look at Tony.

“…this is really important Stark.” He says and Tony gives him a glance.

“Most things are, but that doesn’t change common curtesy. I told you once before – I’m not a member of the Avengers and I don’t work for Fury. My time is not yours to decide when you’ll drop in and demand my undivided attention. Now please leave before I have to make good on my promise and have you all thrown out. An action from an Avenger has the same weight to me as an action from Fury, I will just cut all ties with all of you if even just one of you tries to do something like this again.” Steve frowns and shakes his head.

“…Howard would be ashamed.” He says and he probably doesn’t get the reaction he was expecting when Tony hums in acknowledgement, already moving on to look at the papers on his desk for the prototype that Pepper and the Board have asked him to look at today.

“Not nearly half as ashamed as Erskine would be Mr. Rogers.” Steve’s shoulders immediately go back at the mention of the German scientist.

“You don’t know the first thing about Erskine, Stark.” He snaps and Tony barely pays him any mind anymore.

“Funny, I would say the same thing about you and Howard. Please close the door on your way out.” Steve lets out a frustrated huff as he closes the door with more force than necessary as he leaves. Tony just shakes his head and works until he hears FRIDAY speak.

‘Boss, Director Fury is requesting a meeting with you. Shall I check the schedule?’ Tony nods.

“Yeah…schedule an appointment.”

‘Will do Boss.’

+++

The headache pounding behind his eyes is slightly distracting as he puts down the glasses on the table between him and Tony. The other brunet gives him a once over.

“Feeling alright?” He asks and Bucky nods slowly, “You sure?”

“I’m fine.” Tony doesn’t look like he believes him but nods slowly and grabs the clipboard that Bucky has come to hate with such a passion in so few days.

“Okay, let’s try some simple questions. Let’s see what we get.” Tony looks at him. “Now remember, don’t get frustrated if nothing comes. We’re only at the beginning, and I know it’s got to be beyond irritating that it’s not coming back on any kind of timetable, but that’s just how this stuff works.” Tony’s been saying things like that for days and it doesn’t feel like it helps as much as it did back then. “Alright, let’s start. What is your name?”

“James Buchanan Barnes.” Tony nods and makes a mark.

“Where were you born?” Bucky closes his eyes and tries to focus. The headache keeps pounding and he hears Tony softly ask the question again.

“I…don’t know.” He grounds out after a few minutes of a blank nothing.

“It’s okay, it’s perfectly okay. You’re not going to be able to answer these questions yet, but I want to sort of…break the ice with them and just get you thinking about them.”

“It’s been over a week.” Bucky growls and Tony shrugs.

“So what? Even if it takes a hundred weeks, it’ll come back when it comes back.”

“And you’re just going to sit there? For a hundred weeks reading me the same damn questions?” He practically snarls and Tony just gives him a look before nodding.

“Yeah.” He says it like it’s such a fact and it makes Bucky feel worse for some reason. “Um, let’s try another.”

“I should know where I’m born.” Bucky says softly and Tony puts down the clipboard and rolls the chair closer to him.

“You’ve been through a lot. I know that I sound like a broken record, but it’s going to take time, but you’ll get there. I promise.” Tony slowly reaches out and puts a hand on his good arm. “Give yourself time to get there.” Bucky clenches his other fist and hears the metal gears whirring.

“People tend to know where they’re born.” He says aloud and Tony shrugs.

“Sometimes, but those same people weren’t held hostage for seventy years by a neo-Nazi outfit with some twisted ideas and a habit of acting on them.”

“Do you know where you were born?” He asks challengingly and Tony nods.

“I do, but I wouldn’t say that if I had been born somewhere else that I wouldn’t still be the man that I am today.” Bucky can’t help but look at Tony and wonder if that’s true.

+++

“Nothin’s comin!” Bucky snaps a few days later, and Tony figured it was a long coming, when he grabs the clipboard off of the desk and breaks it in half. Tony holds up a hand to prevent DUM-E from approaching with his fire extinguisher.

“I’ll admit, it’s strange that nothing’s…awakened yet.” Tony says slowly. “Is it possible that…” He trails off and Bucky looks at him.

“Is it possible that what?”

“…is it possible that you’re actually fighting the memories’ return?” Bucky gives him a look.

“And why would I do something like that?” He challenges and Tony shrugs.

“I think you’re afraid of the Winter Soldier.” He says simply and Bucky freezes, reaching up and rubbing his metal arm like there’s phantom pain shooting through it. “I know that you’ve been having nightmares. It’s one of the unfortunate side-effects of B.A.R.F., it tends to knock things loose.”

“I’m James Buchanan Barnes.” Bucky snaps, more to himself than to Tony. “I am not the Winter Soldier.” Tony sighs.

“You are James Barnes.” He agrees. “But you are also the Winter Soldier.” He says it gently, but the words clearly rub over Bucky like sandpaper.

“I am not.”

“It is a fact. You are both.”

“Shut up.” Bucky growls and Tony shakes his head.

“Asking me to be silent about it doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t erase the truth.”

“I thought you were supposed to be helping me.”

“I am. The Winter Soldier exists, and he is you.” Bucky’s shaking his head a little in denial. “The Winter Soldier didn’t come from Hydra Barnes…he came from a need to survive in a situation where survival was pretty much impossible.” Bucky turns and looks at Tony. “Never let anyone make you feel like you should be contrite for surviving.” There’s a heaviness and a softness to Tony’s voice as he says it and it makes Barnes look at him like he’s trying to read between the lines. “You were in a no win situation. Don’t punish yourself for something that was beyond your control.” Tony reaches over and grabs the broken clipboard. “Now, shall we try again?”

It takes a moment, before Bucky nods.

+++

Tony walks into the small conference room in SHIELD’s headquarters and almost rolls his eyes at what he sees.

“Seriously?” He asks to Fury and Fury motions to one of the seats at the table. At the table sits Natasha, Steve, Clint, Bruce, Coulson and Hill alongside Fury. “Just missing Thor.” Tony jokes before shaking his head. “I’m here for a consultation, not an Avengers meeting.”

“We’re here to talk about what we need your consulting with.” Fury motions to the chair again and Tony sighs before he takes a seat. Fury waits till he sits before he starts the obvious Avengers meeting. Hill stands and walks around the table handing out packets like she always did and Tony just stares at her when she holds it out to him with a challenge in her eyes.

“I don’t like to be handed things.” He tells her and just sits there.

“Just take it Stark.” She says and Tony crosses his arms.

“Put it down on the table. I’ll grab it.” She looks so put upon (god he forgot how much she hated him.) as she all but drops it on the table in front of him and Tony picks it up with the nicest, Pepper-ish ‘thank you’ that he’s possibly ever done in his life.

“That’s quite enough Hill.” Fury scolds as Tony flips open the file and looks at all the Hydra information that he’s already given to SHIELD. “Now, this is sensitive information that cannot leave this room.” Tony almost shakes his head at how everyone not so subtly glances in his direction. “This is going to be a long battle.” Fury’s saying and Tony can’t help but tune him out a little. “Any questions?”

“Yes.” Tony says, glancing up then and everyone looks at him. “I’ll admit that I’m confused why I’m here.”

“We need your help with this.”

“Yes, I got that. I’m saying I don’t understand what that looks like. From this packet it looks like hours and hours of playing a long game of cat and mouse while searching out Hydra bases.”

“In an overly simplified version, yes.” Fury concedes.

“And while you’re all doing that, what am I doing?”

“You’re going to be right there with us.” Steve says like it’s so obvious and Tony sighs, closing the file.

“Okay, I’ll admit that I’m confused why the concept of ‘not being an Avenger’ is so baffling to you all, but I’m not here to give hundreds of hours on search and destroy and playing spy.”

“Stark-”

“I can however help you out in a different way. I can attempt to come up with an algorithm if you will that will locate potential Hydra agents within SHIELD’s walls.”

“We need you on the floor.”

“No.” Everyone stares at him.

“Excuse me?”

“I said no. Consultant Nick, not field agent. I’m here to run the computers and possibly at times troubleshoot. I’m not here to be one of your little toy soldiers.” He glances up and looks at them all. “For the final time – I am not an Avenger.”

“Hydra is a very real threat Stark, and it kind of goes beyond ‘consultant’ don’t you think?” Steve snaps, obviously still smarting over the Erskine comment, and Tony shrugs.

“I don’t disagree that Hydra is a serious issue.” He agrees and Steve looks validated for a second. “But so is the Ten Rings. Will they be on the docket as well? What about this new ‘Kingpin’ that seems to be setting up shop in New York? Or the sudden infestation of ninjas that are coming out of the woodwork?” Tony glances at each of them. “What about issues like what’s happening in the East? Will we be going over there to handle all of that? Or even AIM?” He knows it’s a little early to be poking at them, but Killian is still blowing people up even at this stage and trying to start a joint venture with Stark Industries so Tony knowing about it is reasonable. “I’m sorry, but for every group like Hydra there’s at least four more to take its place. I may be Iron Man, but I’m still responsible for over 500,000 employees on any given day. I do not have the time or the energy to expend chasing Hydra across the world. I gave you all this information like any good consultant would and I leave it to you to handle as I know or at least hope you can. But do not think that I will be there with you.”

“Wow, I mean I’ve read the reports about your ego, but to actually see it in action.” Clint whistles like he’s seen something impressive and Tony shrugs.

“Call it ego if you want, I really don’t care what you think.” He looks at Fury. “Now is there a real reason why I’m here or were you hoping to just browbeat me into agreeing to do this for you?”

+++

“What’s goin on with you?” Bucky asks suddenly, grabbing Tony’s attention as he looks up from the scans and the data in front of him.

“What?”

“What’s goin on with you?” Bucky repeats. “You seem…upset.” Tony pauses a second before sighing.

“Just work stuff.” He says, waving it off the best he can. “Alright, ready for the warm up?” Bucky nods, he’s been doing better at remembering since their little breakthrough over the Winter Soldier. “Alright, let’s start at the beginning. What’s your name?”

“My name is James Buchanan Barnes, I go by Bucky and I’ve been reliably informed that I should think of changing that, but I don’t think I’m gonna.” Tony looks up and sees the self-satisfied smirk on Bucky’s face.

“Punk.” He jokes and Bucky shrugs with a ‘who me?’ sort of attitude. “Where were you born?”

“Brooklyn.”

“When’s your birthday?”

“March 10th.”

“What Regiment were you a part of in the army?”

“The 107th Infantry.” Bucky pulls up instantly and Tony can’t help but match his smile. “So, you gonna tell me what got you all upset?”

“I told you, work stuff.”

“Never seen ‘work stuff’ get you like this before.” Tony almost wants to shake his head and ask how well can Bucky truly know him in about a month but he barely bites it back.

“I’ve been dealing with some…people that I kind of wish I wasn’t.” He admits eventually with a small shrug.

“Why are you dealing with them?” Tony glances up and considers being vague, but opts out of it at the last moment.

“SHIELD has been infiltrated by Hydra and they’re just causing problems. Fury wants me to join the Avengers and help weed them out.”

“And you don’t trust Fury?”

“No one should trust Fury.” Tony replies easily. “But it’s not that…it’s just…I’m doing my best to avoid the Avengers and it seems like every time I turn around – there they are trying to pull a fast one to get me under their thumb and I’m just…tired.”

“I thought the Avengers helped save New York and all that, from aliens.” Bucky makes a face like he still can’t believe what he saw on the news station. “Why don’t you want to be a part of that?”

“What is this? Twenty questions? I thought I was supposed to be the one asking all the questions around here.” The tone is slightly playful and Bucky shrugs.

“Figure we’d mix it up. You’ve been askin me questions for weeks. Guess I felt like shakin it up a bit.” Tony tries to give him a disapproving look but it falls flat.

“…we didn’t exactly…get along the last time we worked together.” Tony says cryptically. “There’s a lot of…I don’t know, just bad mojo there I guess.” Tony shrugs a little helplessly. “I guess I’m just tired with all of the ‘we’re better than you’ bullshit.” He says softly, and a little more honestly than he intended to be. He clears his throat and looks back at the screen. “Any who, let’s get back to work.”

“Sounds good.” Bucky says and Tony pulls up the latest scans. “They’re not you know.” Bucky’s quiet statement barely reaches his ears and he looks up.

“What?”

“They’re not.” He repeats, louder. “Better than you.” He says with so much assurance in that answer and Tony quickly looks away.

They have more important things to worry about right now anyways.

+++

“Is there something you need Rogers?” Tony asks from where he’s looking at the screen and the blond just stands up straighter at the door, crossing his arms.

“Not at all Stark.”

“Is there a reason you’re in here then?” He asks and Steve shrugs.

“Fury tasked me with keeping an eye on you.” He replies. “Since we’re not a hundred percent sure who can be trusted.” Tony turns away from him with a sigh. So Steve’s his unofficial bodyguard when he’s at SHIELD. Great.

“Very well. Are you up and ready FRI?” He taps his ear and opts to ignore the other man.

‘Ready and waiting Boss.’

“Alright, be careful in there and don’t touch anything past the SHIELD personnel files.”

‘Will do.’ Tony pulls up the files and watches as FRIDAY starts rummaging through them, creating pathways and organizational maps that’ll determine who has touched what and who has potentially been a part of what. His fingers fly across the keys and he types in code sequences, and allowances as they work through each level.

“What’s it doing?” Steve asks and it almost makes Tony jump with how close he’s come over.

“Nothing much, we’re just organizing the information right now. Getting it into a better form to be working with.” He shifts around to another screen, pretending that he needs it, but truth be told he still doesn’t like Steve at his back, no matter how much B.A.R.F. has helped in regards to the blond.

“You went too far the other day.” Steve says after a while and Tony looks at him.

“What do you mean?” Steve glances away for a second, his jaw going tight.

“What you said about Erskine. You didn’t have any right to say that.” Tony takes a moment before he speaks.

“I could say the same of you. You had no right to mention Howard, but don’t forget that you did.”

“Howard was my friend, you didn’t know Erskine at all. It’s different.” Tony sighs and turns away from the screen to fully address the blond.

“Are you seriously going to stand here and tell me that you knew my father more or better than I did? In your what – three to six months of sporadically working with him you somehow think that you trump seventeen years?” Steve looks like he still wants to argue that and Tony shakes his head. “Please do us both a favor and try to refrain from telling me what my father would have thought or felt. I’m pretty sure that I’ve got a lot more data on the subject than you ever will.” Tony turns back to the screens. “Now, if you’ll excuse me but I’ve got a lot of work to do and a very limited time in which to do it.”

“Limited time?”

“Fury only has me for two hours today. I’d like to at least have a working idea by the time I have to go.”

“You could just stay until the job was done.”

“That’s not how this works. I have other meetings to be in today and other things that I have to get done. I don’t have more than the two hour window to offer.” Steve crosses his arms.

“Going to a party is a little less important than catching Hydra.” Tony sighs.

“I see you know what’s on my docket today, but you’re wrong. I consider going to a charity benefit that’ll help Stark Industries not only get a decent footing in Africa, but also start creating clean and free energy down there is just as important as fighting Hydra.” Tony looks right at him. “So, you and the Avengers can go ‘avenging’ and fighting to protect the world, while I stand back and try to save it.”

“One man can’t save the world Mr. Stark, and to think you can is just arrogant.”

“I’m not one man, if I were one man doing this then there’d be no need for a party.” Tony quips as he drags a few things across the screens. Steve thankfully falls quiet while Tony gets back to work and Tony tries to ignore the gaze that the blond is giving him. It’s like he’s trying to break down Tony through a look and figure out how he works.

Tony doesn’t have the heart to tell him that it won’t work. Besides – if it keeps him quiet, he can waste his time all he likes.

+++

“You’re distracted again.” Bucky says and Tony lets out a soft snort.

“Ugh…yeah, I guess I am. Long days, longer nights. You know the drill.” He sips at his lukewarm coffee as he looks at the most recent scans. “Things are looking good though, the swelling and the irritation seems to be almost non-existent. How are you feeling?”

“Strangely clear-headed.”

“Strangely?”

“I didn’t realize I wasn’t before, until I was.” Bucky tries to explain and Tony nods.

“Well that’s good to hear.” He looks at the file, and the new branching of questions and glances at the soldier. Bucky’s toying with a screw that DUM-E gave him and looking more bored than Tony has possibly ever seen him before. “How about we celebrate?” The words come out of his mouth before he really thinks them through.

“Celebrate?”

“Yeah. I mean, you’re doing very well. I think a break might be in order.” Tony puts down the clipboard and watches as Bucky sits up straighter. “We could just go for a walk outside or something. Nothing too extreme, I mean I don’t want to risk triggering anything while we’re outside, but fresh air might do you some good.” Tony shrugs. “What do you think?”

“Sounds great.” Bucky says, looking kind of excited. “I’ll go throw on some clothes.”

“Nothing too flashy.” Tony jokes. “We need to remain incognito.”

“I can do incognito Tony, can you?” Tony grins at the challenge.

“With a face like this? Who wants to go incognito?” He waves at himself and Bucky snorts with a roll of his eyes.

“Whatever.” He chuckles and Tony waves him off.

“Go, go, go. Go throw on a jacket and a hat or something.” Bucky gives him a smile as he gets up and disappears into the elevator. “FRIDAY, how’s the list from SHIELD coming?”

‘Completion at 47%’ She answers and Tony nods.

“Right on schedule, keep up the good work.”

‘Will do Boss.’

Bucky comes back down a few minutes later and the look is so reminiscent of old Bucky that Tony almost wonders if it’s really him or if it’s a B.A.R.F. hallucination.

“Ready to go?” Bucky asks and it takes a moment before Tony nods and grabs his suit jacket as he makes his way over. “You’re gonna stick out.” Bucky says and Tony shrugs.

“I’m allowed to stick out. In fact I’m pretty sure that I was born to stick out.” He says and Bucky snorts.

“Of course you were, punk.” Tony takes them to the car and looks over at him. “Where would you like to go?”

“Not a clue.”

“Hmm…well I am remodeling an old Stark warehouse for…things.” He says and Bucky gives him a look.

“Things?”

“Things.” Tony says back and he sighs at the arched eyebrow he gets. “Ugh fine. SHIELD might think that they have the market cornered on ‘special people’ but I think” I know “that there will be or already are others out there. SHIELD can’t be their only option, I want to create a…secondary Avengers team. One that runs nothing like the original group.” Tony knows how that sort of ‘running’ and ‘leadership’ ends – which is up in flames – he can try and be better. The ride goes pretty smoothly out to the old Avengers Compound – well other than Bucky having the gall to critique Tony’s music choices and change the channel to some old timey radio program, and Tony’s constant threats of kicking Bucky out of the car which gets less and less of an effect each time he says it.

Truth be told, the radio program was kind of interesting, even if the voice actors were a little too over the top, but Tony will never admit that to Bucky.

“So here’s where the future will come to gather in a few months’ time.” Tony says, motioning to the large, surrounding area. He pulls Bucky along with him. “These will be the labs, for the sciency ones to come and do their thing in a safe and protected environment.” He moves on. “This will be the medical wing, because being a superhero is dangerous work.” He lays out the other areas too: the common areas, the relaxation areas, the dormitories for those who need or want it and all that jazz. “And here’s the most important area of any and every place.” He says, throwing out his arms and motioning to an area.

“What goes here?” Bucky asks curiously and Tony grins.

“Why the cafeteria of course. What else?” The laugh he gets from Bucky at the joke is worth it, and there’s a look that Bucky gives as he’s still chuckling to Tony. “What?”

“Nothin.” Bucky says with a shake of his head and Tony can totally tell it’s something.

“What?”

“You just look really excited.” Bucky admits. “It’s….it’s a good look on you.” Tony can’t help the heat that feels like rising up his neck at the other man’s comment and he shrugs, looking away for a second. “I’m starving are you? Since the food court isn’t up and running yet – I say we go get some lunch. I know just the place.”

“I’m not really dressed for anything fancy.” Bucky says and Tony waves it off.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. They won’t care in the slightest.”

+++

“Antonio!” Is what they’re greeted with the moment they walk through the door of some small, almost out of the way Italian restaurant. The elderly woman who said it has a huge smile on her face and holds out her arms, to which Bucky is a little surprised to see the ease in which Tony matches her smile and comes over to accept the hug.

“Francesca.”

“È passato troppo tempo.” She says as he bends down slightly and tightly hugs him.

“Lo so, mi dispiace tanto. Non succederà piú.” Tony takes a step back and motions to Bucky. “Francesca, this is Bucky.” She gives him a smile.

“Nice to meet you Bucky.” She grabs two menus. “Come, come. This way.” They follow her into the back of the restaurant and take a table that’s not visible from the front.

“Thanks.” Tony says as she puts Tony’s menu down on the table before handing Bucky his. “Order anything you like, the food here is fantastic.” She smiles at Tony’s words.

“I’ll be back with water, anything else?”

“Not today for me, did you want something?”

“Water sounds great.” She nods and walks off. “You seem pretty chummy with her, how long have you been coming here?” Bucky asks and Tony shrugs.

“Oh my god. Couldn’t even tell you. My mom loved this restaurant, she used to bring me here when she had the time.” Tony shrugs. “Used to say it reminded her of home.”

“She was Italian?” Bucky asks and Tony nods.

“Yup, proud of it too.” He gets a soft smile, so full of remembrance. “I could always tell when I was in trouble and how much trouble I was actually in based on how she called me. There were three stages: Anthony Stark, Anthony Edward Stark – and then the full on Italian that told me to run for my life.” Bucky can’t help but get a small smile, imagining a tiny Tony running around and causing chaos. Like a DUM-E but with two legs and no fire extinguisher. “What about you? Any new memories come out of the woodwork?”

“I thought we were takin a break from all that.”

“Two birds, one stone.” Tony says easily and Bucky shrugs as Francesca returns with their waters and takes their orders.

“I don’t know, sometimes I get flashes, glimpses of things but no solid memories yet.” Bucky says with a sigh. “It like it’s goin backwards. Like I remember snippets of things at the end…but not at the beginning if that makes sense.”

“It’s more recent, it makes perfect sense that you’re remembering that first.”

“It’s hard…around the missions.” Bucky states and Tony nods. “Did it work that way for you?”

“Me?”

“You said you used B.A.R.F once.”

“Oh, yeah. PTSD something bad.” Tony admits with a shrug. “There were a few things that I had to work through, mine was a little different because the first time I was running it while it was still in the early phases. Before I had all the bugs and glitches smoothed out.”

“Glitches?” Bucky says, worry in his voice. “What kinda glitches?”

“Oh, back in the beginning…sometimes it would get stuck on a memory, wouldn’t let me out of it. I can’t tell you how many times I lived through Afghanistan by the end of that. FRIDAY used to get in such a tizzy.” Bucky goes to ask, but Tony gets a smile again as Francesca drops off their plates. He spears some of the spaghetti while Tony cuts into his chicken parmesan.

“Afghanistan?” He asks, and Tony gives him a surprised look before he swallows the bite he just took.

“Oh, that’s right. You wouldn’t know about that. It’s pretty much common knowledge, a google search would pull it up.” He says with a shrug. “Um, Stark Industries wasn’t always in the business of ‘reframing the future’ it was more interested in just making things that blew up. Top weapons contractor for the United States government. That was the legacy dear ol’ dad left me with and I took it to new heights.” There’s a sound in Tony’s voice of self-hatred as he says those words. “But, whatever. A few years back, my dad’s old business partner - hell his best friend and basically my uncle. I mean the man raised me from the day they died till the day he paid the Ten Rings to kill me in the desert while I was doing a weapons demonstration. Joke was on him though, I survived – got this-” He taps the place where Bucky’s seen a glowing blue light before. “and made the first Iron Man armor. They tried to force me to build weapons for them, so I made them regret it.” There’s so much there that he isn’t saying, but Bucky can see it loud and clear.

“I’m sorry.” Tony shakes his head.

“It’s in the past, nothing that can be done about it now. I try not to dwell on it.” Bucky takes a moment.

“And this man – your dad’s business partner…where is he now?” Tony gives him a tight grin that’s not very good at hiding the pain in his eyes.

“Dead.” Bucky knows better than to say ‘good’, so he just nods. Something tells Bucky that the man is lucky he’s dead right now, because Bucky has a lot of skills going rusty and he might have just had the urge to let them out for a night. “Well, that was a depressing turn in the conversation. Let’s get back to better topics shall we?”

“Sounds good.”

“Great. Hmm…what should we talk about?” Tony muses, munching in thought. “I’m not really sure what to discuss.” Bucky takes a second, twirling some pasta and eating it while Tony clearly fumbles with what to talk about so Bucky takes pity on him.

“Why’d ya name him DUM-E?” Tony laughs at the question.

“Well that’s a story. You see it started back in MIT…”

+++

“I really don’t require a babysitter.” Tony says as he scrolls through the data in front of him. Natasha shrugs and crosses her arms, leaning up against the wall.

“Fury just wants to be sure that you’re working hard down here.”

“Oh I’ll bet.”

“He said that you could just leave the program running when you leave.” She offers and Tony shakes his head.

“Not a chance.”

“Why not?” He doesn’t tell her how this is the update to the program that he used to weed out the traitors in Stark Industries all those years ago, and he certainly doesn’t tell her how eerily similar to the Hydra death equation it was.

“I don’t like the thought of people using statistics and probabilities for things that they weren’t meant for. I said I’d give a place to start looking. These aren’t guaranteed to be Hydra sleeper agents, it’s just probabilities.”

“You think we’d take your formula and use it for something else? You don’t trust us very much do you Stark?” Tony can’t help the ‘are you kidding me?’ look he sends in her direction for a moment before returning to the data.

“I’d rather not take the chance.” He says instead of saying anything else as the door opens and Clint walks in to take a place next to Natasha. They whisper amongst each other for a moment, glancing at him non-subtlety every now and then before they both pull back and just lean against the wall, watching him. He opts to ignore them, since he knows that this is just one of their ‘we’re trying to fuck with your mind’ tricks. To make him feel uncomfortable, and to reveal something he might not have originally.

“Fury was hoping that you might be present at the next meeting.” Natasha says after a while and Tony hums.

“Schedule an appointment.”

“He’s tried, you’re all booked.”

“I’m a very busy man.” Tony replies and she shrugs.

“He was hoping that you might find some extra time to just squeeze us in.”

“Sorry, if FRIDAY says I’m booked – I’m booked.”

“He was also hoping to discuss possible concessions for you, to join the Avengers on a play by play sort of basis.”

“No thank you.”

“You could at least hear him out Stark, he’s trying to be generous.” Clint says and Tony shakes his head.

“I’d rather not waste either of our times. Seems like the more generous thing to do.” Tony can’t help but want to sigh, the first time around Fury had always made it seem like his place on the team was fragile and easily taken away, now though – now that he doesn’t seem to have time for them it’s like they’re falling over backwards to get him to play along.

So much for them not needing Tony Stark, or the whole ‘We’d be just fine without you, doubt we’d even notice a difference’ bullshit that they used to pull. “FRIDAY, show me the ratios again?” She pulls them up and he frowns. “You know what…I don’t like the parameters. Let’s loosen them up a little and add a new color for a lower level threat ratio.” He starts typing on the screen, adding in the new code. He gets a tired smile a while later. “Awesome, maybe one more session and then we’ll be ready to actually start sorting for real. Good job today FRI.”

‘Thanks Boss. You too.’ He smiles and grabs his jacket.

“Are you done for the day?” Natasha asks and Tony nods.

“Yup, see you next time.”

“We need this information Stark. As soon as possible.”

“And you’ll get it when it’s ready.”

“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough.”

“I think you don’t have the slightest clue how seriously or not seriously I take things Agent Romanoff, regardless of that fact – I am done for the day and I will return to finish it up. Don’t like it – get your own people to work on it.” He goes to walk around them, hand on the door when Clint speaks.

“Fury’s curious why you’re building more armors. Wants to know if he should be concerned.”

“Tell Fury that I feel like that’s crossing the line of the whole ‘don’t ever fucking spy on me again’ that I warned him about.” Tony says carefully as he tugs the door open and walks out of the area.

He can’t help the bad feeling that he has in his stomach that stays with him all day after that.

+++

Bucky’s watching video recordings of the moments after the attack on New York when Tony comes down into the lab a few days later. He’s silent as he keeps rewinding and re-watching the part where Steve is clearly shown.

“Everything alright?” Tony asks softly as he takes off his jacket and hands it off to U.

“I know him.” Bucky says as he rewinds it again. “I know him.” Tony nods.

“Yes you do.” Bucky turns to glance at him, a strange look in his eyes.

“Who is that?”

“That’s Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America. He was lent to the Howling Commandos and worked alongside you under General Phillips.”

“But…that was…so long ago. He looks so young…”

“He was frozen, kind of like you were but not at all like you were.” Tony says, pulling up a chair and sitting down next to Bucky. “He crashed a plane into the artic. It froze his body until we were able to revive him a little while ago. He, like you, was experimented upon with the Super Soldier serum that a man named Erskine developed.” Tony pauses for a second. “I was…hesitant bringing him up before you were ready for him.”

“Why?”

“…he was your best friend. You grew up together. There’s so much history there between you two and I guess I feared that if I threw him at you too soon that it would be an unknown variable in the healing process.”

“Variable?” There’s a dangerous way that Bucky says the word. “Variable? I’m not a fucking machine Tony!” He snaps. “You don’t just plug in numbers when you want to and hope for the best!” Tony sighs.

“I know you’re not a machine Bucky. I know that. What I also know is that you have a hard time remembering anything about your life prior to Hydra’s interference. I didn’t want to throw someone at you who would be pushing and pulling for the ‘Bucky’ that he remembers and not the one that’s sitting here in front of me today.” Tony runs a hand through his hair. “I guess, in my own way, I was trying to protect you.” He admits. “I wasn’t going to keep you away from Rogers forever, just until you remembered and had a solid footing on who you were.” He gives Bucky a helpless look. “If I was wrong… if I’ve done you wrong…I’m sorry.” The fight seems to bleed out of Bucky at those words and he falls back down into his seat. “I can…get you information on him. A file or whatever you’d like.” Tony pauses for a moment. “I’d still caution against you two meeting in the flesh for a while. I mean, Captain America was a figurehead that openly challenged Hydra and I’ll admit that I’m not sure if there might be a…negative reaction upon meeting him.”

“No, you’re right.” Bucky admits after a few minutes of silence. “I’m not ready to interact with others yet.”

“You will be soon. You did well the other day.”

“That was one outing.” Bucky’s fist clenches. “I’m…I’m not safe to be around yet.”

“You’re safer than you’re giving yourself credit for – I’m just worried that Captain America might be a special case.”

“Because of who we were to each other?”

“And the whole ‘Hydra really fucking hated him’ thing.”

“And you? You hate him.” It’s said like a fact and Tony shrugs.

“I’m trying to get to a more ‘apathetic’ area when it comes to him these days, he makes it difficult.” Tony says in response to that.

“He’s on the Avengers.”

“Yes he is.”

“Have…have you told him about me?” Tony shakes his head with a small laugh.

“Bucky, if I told Rogers about you – you would know because he would have already come in here guns blazing to ‘save you’.”

“Save me from you?”

“I’m pretty sure that Rogers thinks the whole world needs to be saved from me for some reason that I can’t – and really don’t care enough to - fathom.” Tony shrugs helplessly. “Rogers and I have bad blood between us, always have and probably always will. Who knows why, but it just seems to be our lot in life.” Bucky looks back to the screen and loops the footage again. “Come on.” Tony says, standing.

“What?”

“We’re heading out.”

“Where?”

“Someplace that’s going to have a lot more than five seconds of footage on your boy.” Bucky follows Tony with a confused air about him, all the way to the Captain America Smithsonian exhibit. “Go on. I’ll be out here.”

“You’re not coming too?” Tony gets a tight smile at that.

“Personal reasons aside – I think this moment’s for you and you alone. I’ll be waiting here if you decide to come back.” He pushes the ticket into Bucky’s hand and gently pushes the soldier into the line that’ll lead him into the exhibit.

He only hopes that he doesn’t have some kind of mental breakdown while he’s in there. “JARVIS, hack the security feed. Just…keep an eye on him okay?”

“Of course Sir.”

Tony tries not to be surprised when Bucky returns a few hours later, and Bucky’s kind enough not to ask.

+++

The numbers are done running, and Tony feels pretty confident about them.

He also feels a random need to not give them to Fury with the fear that the old pirate will just fuck everything up and somehow blame it on Tony. The door opening catches his attention and he turns to look at who has entered since the whole team is basically already here watching him, and he’s surprised when he takes in Thor.

“Hello again Man of Iron. We missed you at the meeting the other day.” Thor greets with a big smile and Tony just blinks in the face of his enthusiasm.

Was he always that loud? And that obviously pleased to see him? Tony can’t remember a time when that was true.

“Um, yeah – nice to see you again too.” Tony says after a brief pause. “What brings you back to Earth?” He doesn’t remember Thor returning so soon the first time and he’ll admit he’s a little worried when a frown crosses the Asgardian’s face.

“Have you not yet been informed Shield-Brother?” Tony almost blanches at the nickname – a name that was never attributed to him last time around, what the hell is going on here? “The Scepter has gone missing.”

“Wait what?” Tony quickly turns to look at Steve who is glancing away from him. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“You’re not an Avenger, remember?” Clint says dryly and Tony almost throws the StarkPad in his hands at the archers head.

“Oh? Is that why you failed to include yourself in the line-up of the Avengers in our last discussion Stark?” The words are spoken right next to him in a voice he never wanted to hear again and Tony turns to see Loki smirking down at him.

“What the fuck?” He exclaims, jerking away from the trickster only to have the other man - Frost Giant? - grab his arm and tug him back.

“Careful, don’t fall.”

“Yeah, had so much fun last time…falling.” Tony grounds out, glaring at Loki. “Get your hand off of me.” Loki’s smirk doesn’t go away as he takes his hand away from Tony’s arm and holds it up with a ‘here you go’ sort of attitude.

Tony kind of wants to punch him in the face.

Repeatedly.

In the armor.

With the Hulk as backup.

“Does anyone care to explain?” He manages to get out with a calmness that he doesn’t feel and Thor comes over with a smile on his face.

“Aye. I shall. Your evidence was indeed accepted by the Allfather, and my brother and I have been sent to retrieve the Scepter. Alas we returned too late as it has been taken.” Tony tries to search his mind, to remember when the Scepter went missing the first time around. It wasn’t this early was it? Didn’t it happen after the fall of SHIELD? Which is like a year away?

God, how much of the time line has he screwed up at this point?

“That’s good to hear, and I’m glad I could be of assistance.”

“It seems that I owe my freedom to you Stark, I’ll have to pay you back somehow.” Loki says, still too bloody fucking close to him.

“Keep your hands to yourself, that sounds like a good start.” Tony says with a sharp grin that Loki matches. It’s the same grin that Loki had this time around as he took great relish in grabbing Tony by the throat and tossing him out the fucking window.

Asshole.

There’s a look that passes between Natasha and Clint and Tony can already tell that they’re reading into this situation between him and Loki and clearly, as they always did when he was involved, they’ve come to the wrong conclusion.

“So it seems as though we are to be allies Stark.” Loki says and Tony gives him a forced grin.

“Oh…that sounds…great. Can’t wait.” Thor is the only one who doesn’t seem to realize that Tony’s being sarcastic.

+++

“What happened?” Bucky asks the second that Tony enters the lab, looking like he wants to go a hundred rounds with Hulk.

“Remember Loki?”

“The crazy psychopath who tried to take over the earth with an alien army?” Tony nods. “He’s back?”

“Oh, yeah. That was news to me too. They just kind of sprang it on me. Emphasis on the ‘sprang it on me’ part.” He sighs. “So apparently he’s cleared of his actions and behavior on Asgard – go him – and he’s been sent back here to assist in locating the Scepter that SHIELD has apparently lost.”

“Seriously?”

“Yup. Oh! And apparently they can all be pressed to remember that I’m not an Avenger when it suits them and they want to keep information from me, but when they want something from me all of a sudden they just can’t grasp the idea.” Tony runs his good hand through his hair and drags it down over his face in frustration. “I’m sorry. How was your day today? How was the session?”

“Good, I think.” Bucky says.

“Sgt. Barnes is showing significant recovery.” JARVIS backs him up and Tony gives him a smile that makes Bucky feel like he’s accomplished something amazing.

“Good, it’s great to have good news.” Tony glances at the clock, it’s almost midnight, how the hell did he waste so much time at SHIELD?

The answer is of course Thor – but still.

“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” Tony asks Bucky. “I mean, running B.A.R.F. at this time of the night?” Bucky shrugs.

“My sleep schedule is still all messed up, and JARVIS lets me run it whenever I want.”

“Within reason.” Bucky nods.

“Within reason.” Tony shrugs, as if figuring that he’s not exactly the poster child for healthy habits.

“Are you hungry?”

“What?”

“Are you hungry? I could probably use more fuel in my body than I’ve given it so far today and I’m not really feeling that tired.” Bucky gets a small frown.

“What have you eaten recently?” He asks and Tony shrugs.

“To be honest, I can’t even remember at this point. I’m pretty sure the only two things I’m running on right now is coffee and spite.” Bucky’s lips twitch at the description and he tries to reign it in and look disapproving.

“Doubt those two things are going to last you all that long.”

“Oh, I think you’d be surprised on how far I can get on them.” Tony replies. “But I’m thinking that we can have a night out. There’s a diner that’s open all the time and I’m sure you’ll love the pie if nothing else.”

“Why would I like the pie?”

“Because I’m pretty sure that they put crack in it, so everyone likes the pies.” Bucky’s eyes widen in concern for a second.

“Mr. Stark is joking Sgt. They are not turning their customers into crack addicts over pie.”

“You haven’t tasted their pie yet. You’ll understand when you do, plus they make a mean pot of coffee.”

“That sounds good, well except the coffee bit.”

“Heathen.” Tony says playfully as he leads the way and Bucky follows him. The waitress that greets them is all smiles for this time of the night, and Bucky is a hundred percent sure that if there’s crack in the pies – this woman is on it. “So, B.A.R.F. is coming along great?” Tony asks and Bucky nods.

“Yeah…thank you for it.”

“Don’t thank me. Least I could do.”

“No, the least you could do would be nothing – which would make perfect sense since you weren’t responsible for me.” Tony gets a look on his face as he sips his coffee.

“So, you might have a clean bill of health soon. What are you going to do next?”

“Not sure, haven’t really thought about it.”

“Well, you’ll be free to do whatever you wanted. You could even join the Avengers if you so choose.”

“Nah, you hate those guys.” Bucky says before falling silent as Patty comes back with their orders and leaves. Tony’s got that complicated frown on his face again as Bucky takes a bite of his cheeseburger.

“Just because I don’t particularly get along with them doesn’t mean that you can’t.” He says. “The atmosphere will be entirely different for you.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because Rogers won’t stand anyone giving you a hard time for one.”

“But the Avengers are run by SHIELD…which is Hydra. Don’t know about you, but I’m in no rush to be under Hydra again.” Tony nods.

“Makes sense.” He waits a second. “I’ve seen the scans…it’d probably be okay at this point to reintroduce you to Rogers if you felt so inclined.” Bucky pauses as he lets that sink in. He’s been remembering that little snot more and more, and he can’t deny that he wants to go to him, but something’s holding him back.

“I thought I’d wait a little bit longer.” He says after a moment and Tony tilts his head.

“What’s going on?”

“What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me. If I’m not allowed to ‘what’ you, you’re not allowed to ‘what’ me.’” Tony says, tapping his fingers on the tabletop. “What’s up with you and Rogers? I can’t even begin to come up with a reason as to why you’d be reluctant to meet back up with him.” Bucky shrugs.

“I don’t know…I mean…what if I trigger?” Tony’s eyes soften.

“Rogers is pretty tough, and we’d be monitoring you the whole time at first.”

“...what if it changes things?” He asks a second later. “With us?”

“Us?”

“You don’t like them, and you don’t like Stevie.” Tony cringes at the nickname. “…but I like to think we’re friends and I guess…I feel like the moment I see Rogers I won’t see you again.” Tony looks away for a moment.

“What even says you’d want to? Rogers is kind of your end game, and I get it. I wouldn’t be angry. I knew what this was going into it.”

“So what, all this time and we’re barely friends?”

“…I wouldn’t say that. I’ll always be here for you, but…” He trails off.

“But you don’t expect me to come back?” He’s nailed it on the head in one go with Tony’s self-depreciating smile.

“No one chooses me over Rogers. It’s just how it works.” Bucky looks down at his fries and plays with one.

“Have you ever given them the chance?” The pained smile that Tony gives him is worth far too many horrible words, and Bucky knows that he’ll never ask again.

+++

“Hello again Doctor Banner.” Tony greets, and holds out his hand for Bruce. Bruce looks surprised, and vaguely pleased to see him.

“Mr. Stark! I didn’t know that you’d be by.” He says as he shakes the offered hand.

“Fury called me in to help.” Tony relies, “So where would you like me?”

“Oh, over here would be great. I’ve been running the formula that we used to locate the cube, but it’s not finding anything – not even a blip.” Bruce sounds so tired and frustrated and Tony comes over to see the numbers. Bruce is right, it’s like the Scepter doesn’t exist and it makes a thought pop into Tony’s head.

“Do you think it’s possible that when they took the Scepter that they also took the program that I wrote to hide it from detection?” Bruce nods and takes off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose tiredly.

“Yeah, I had the same thought, but I’ll admit that I’m at a loss for how to get around that.”

“We’ll have to track the frequency of the program. And if that doesn’t work, then we’ll have to get really creative.” Tony smiles at him and Bruce gives it back slightly.

+++

“I’m too brilliant for my own good.” Tony laments as he enters the living room area and plops down on the couch dramatically. Bucky chuckles from where he’s sitting.

“Are you now?” He asks. “What’cha do?”

“I made a program a little while back that was meant to be a pain in the ass for the bad guys, but now they’re using it against us. Blast me and my brilliance. I knew it’d be the end of me some day.” Bucky snorts like Tony’s being beyond ridiculous. “What about you buttercup? How was your day?”

“Buttercup?”

“Eh, I like giving nicknames.” Tony leans his head back on the cushions to look at the other man. “Thinking of Buttercup, have you seen ‘The Princess Bride’?”

“The what?”

“Oh hell no. JARVIS, cue it up.”

“What’s ‘The Princess Bride’?”

“Only the best movie ever.” Tony pauses and thinks about that. “Okay, well maybe not ever. I mean, ‘Labyrinth’ is pretty spectacular. David Bowie as the Goblin King? Sign me up.”

“I hope you know that you’re not making any sense.” Tony grins and winks at him.

“It’s all part of my charm. You’ll get used to it.”

+++

“This is the third location you’ve sent us to and it hasn’t been there.” Fury is saying and Tony crosses his arms.

“It was there, it just wasn’t there anymore. We’re doing what we can, but we can only do so much.” He answers and Bruce comes up alongside Tony as if he’s silently throwing in his lot with him.

“We need better than ‘not there anymore’.” Fury snaps and Tony shrugs.

“We’re doing what we can. I can’t give you any more than that. If you want to catch up with the Scepter than figure out where your leak is.”

“Excuse me?”

“You know exactly what I mean. The moment you mobilize, the Scepter moves. They’re always ready for the Avengers when they show up. I know you’re not stupid and I hope that you don’t think I am. You’ve got a leak somewhere in your structure and it’s costing you the Scepter each time.”

“I thought your formula was supposed to weed those people out Stark.”

“Um no. It was supposed to flag potential threats. That means that there could still be some that slipped under the radar, or some that got pinged and aren’t Hydra at all. I’ve told you this repeatedly, don’t throw it at my feet like I’m supposed to do some sort of miracle and just hand you Hydra on a silver platter.”

“Well maybe if you were more dedicated to the problem at hand instead of flying off after only two or three hours we’d have already gotten all of this wrapped up.”

“I sincerely doubt that, but it doesn’t matter. Regardless if it would or would not – you still only get me for these two to three hours and no more. So I’d recommend that you don’t waste that time with pointless arguments like this one.”

“We need Iron Man on the field Stark.” Fury says, with a tone like Tony’s being a naughty toddler and he’s had enough.

“I’m not up for negotiation on that. I told you I’d help you write a tracking algorithm for the Scepter and I’ve done that.”

“If Hydra makes a doomsday weapon with it you’ll be able to look in the mirror and know that it was your own ego that made it possible Stark.” Tony can’t hold back the sarcastic laugh that comes at those words.

“Wow, really Nick? Taking a page out of Natasha’s playbook? Somehow me and my ego are going to end the world. How quaint.” Tony turns with a shake of his head and grabs his jacket.

“What do you think you’re doing Stark?”

“We’re done here for today. I’ve already done all I can, so I wish you the best of luck. Try to keep that new program out of Hydra’s hands okay?”

“Now is not the time for a dick measuring contest.” Tony rolls his eyes.

“That’s not what this is at all.” He says and Fury crosses his arms.

“Really? Because that’s what it’s been looking like to me for a while now.”

“Then you need to get your good eye checked Nick. It doesn’t seem to be seeing so good these days.” Tony turns to Bruce, ignoring Fury. “Doctor Banner, if you have any questions or issues please don’t hesitate to call me. I’ll see what I can do, but I have every faith in your ability to handle it from here.” Tony turns to leave when Bruce nods his head in acknowledgment to the offer and Fury moves in front of him.

“What’s it going to take Stark?” He says and Tony sighs.

“You have nothing I want Fury, and I’m getting really tired of having this conversation with you.”

“Everyone wants something Stark.”

“Well, if I do, I’ll go get it myself. So thanks but no thanks.” Tony walks around him and inclines to Rogers who has been standing mostly silent by the door this whole time. “Mr. Rogers, have a good day.”

“Same to you Mr. Stark.”

+++

Tony enters the gym and stands against the wall, just watching him pummel the punching bag for a while. Bucky knows that he clearly wants to talk to him about something, but he’s got the ‘I’m not sure how to start this conversation’ pose going on so Bucky just continues in his workout and waits for the brunet to decide when to speak.

“So…I guess I should warn you, we might be having some problems come our way soon.” Tony says after a little while and Bucky stops, catching the punching bag and steadying it while he looks in his direction.

“How so?”

“Fury’s really gung-ho on this whole ‘I want Iron Man on the team’ thing and he’s starting to get to the blackmail stage.”

“He has a blackmail stage?” Tony shrugs.

“To be quite honest, I’m not really sure that isn’t his default setting.”

“And…how is that going to bring problems our way?” Tony shuffles a bit, and taps on the ARC under his shirt in a nervous gesture.

“There’s probably no way that he doesn’t already know about you, and he’s kept it quiet from Rogers which tells me that he’ll spring that little tidbit of information when it best suits him, and when he does we’re going to have a rampaging Captain America all up on my ass.”

“I’d protect you.” Bucky says to that and Tony gives him a small smile, before his eyes get a faraway look. “What is it? You’re not really worried about Steve.”

“No…but if SHIELD storms the building…you’re not the only Winter Soldier that they could abscond with.” Bucky freezes at those words and looks right at the brunet.

“…Tony. Tell me that the others aren’t here. That you didn’t wake them up.”

“What? No, of course I haven’t woken them up. God, that would be a disaster in the making. A disaster of epic proportions.”

“But you have them here?” Tony nods slowly.

“Yeah, they’re in the vault.” Bucky’s already walking towards the elevator before he’s considered it. “Bucky? Bucky what the hell?” Tony’s asking, catching up with him quickly.

“You shouldn’t have brought them here.”

“And what else was I supposed to do with them? Leave them in Siberia for Hydra to wake up whenever they wanted?”

“They’re dangerous Tony.”

“Newsflash. So are you, so am I, so is JARVIS for crying out loud.” Tony pushes in front of him, placing himself between Bucky and the elevator. “Damn it Bucky, stop!”

“They’re not like me Tony. You can’t save them.”

“I know they’re not like you. If their files are to be believed they were fully Hydra before they got messed around with on a cellular level, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be helped. You’ve seen what B.A.R.F. can do-”

“To someone who wants to be different. Who wants to change. They don’t want that, all they want is death and violence and destruction. You can’t wake them up.”

“Not all at once, Jesus.” Tony says with a shake of his head. “But one at a time, with a lot of supervision, someday…I mean, obviously no time soon.”

“Ever Tony. Never ever.”

“I’m not going to make that promise.” Tony snaps. “If I can find a way to nullify the serum in their bodies then they’ll be just normal people. Normal people who can get help, or go to jail, or whatever needs to happen can happen. But I’m not just going to leave them as frozen popsicles forever. Or really just until someone finds them and wakes them up at a later time.” Bucky can’t help the sigh as he takes a step back and runs a hand through his hair.

“Damn it Tony, if they get out – I can’t protect you.”

“I can take care of myself.” Tony says and Bucky sighs.

“I know, I know that but I also know what they can do.” Bucky sighs when he sees the look of stubbornness on Tony’s face and takes a step back. “So, you’ve been working on a way to undo the serum.” There’s a little undertone of ‘why didn’t you tell me?’ in Bucky’s voice and Tony nods.

“Well…yeah. I mean right now there are three distinct versions of Erskine’s serum…well four if you count what happened to Bruce.” Tony lists off. “Rogers and Red Skull have Erskine’s original formula and their experimentation on Red Skull’s blood led to yours. Howard and SHIELD experimented with what was left of Erskine’s notes and what he could remember and created the serum that flows through their veins. I don’t know about you, but I think that leaves the door open for far too many people to have knockoff variations of the formula. We have to be prepared for that.” Bucky’s eyes get far too shifty when Tony mentions the serum created by Howard and he sighs. “Oh. So you know.”

“What?”

“You know. What happened to them? You know what happened to my parents.” Tony says and Bucky takes a step back and looks away sharply.

“…you knew?” He asks, through tightened vocal chords and Tony nods.

“I knew.”

“Then why the hell would you help me?” Bucky grounds out and Tony shrugs.

“Because you needed help. Just like those people down there.” Bucky looks back at Tony.

“Just like that…what I did and you’re just…okay with it?”

“I never said I was okay with it. It hurts, it hurts a lot, but I don’t blame you for it anymore.” Tony crosses his arms a little, glancing away from the other man. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. There was a time when I did…I mean, who would blame me, but it just…took some time.” Bucky looks down at his metal arm and shakes his head.

“…I’m sorry.”

“I know.” Tony replies easily. “And I’m sorry too. I’m sorry that they’re going to haunt you when you didn’t have a choice. I’m sorry for all the people who are going to do that. I know a bit what that’s like, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” There’s a moment or two of silence in the hallway before Bucky clears his throat and turns the subject back to the original topic.

“They can’t stay here.”

“I have nowhere else to put them that’s secure enough. Where I would trust that SHIELD or Hydra or anyone else for that matter didn’t get their hands on them.” Bucky sighs.

“You know this is going to end badly.” He warns and Tony lets out a mirthless chuckle.

“When doesn’t it?”

+++

“Your Director said you might be in need of my assistance.” Loki says as he enters the area and Tony shakes his head.

“Not my director and no thanks. I think I’m good.”

“Come now Stark. We’re allies now are we not?” Loki looks far too amused by the prospect as he leans easily against one of the desks, picking up a small object and playing with it. “Although I must say, I did find your lack of presence at the Avengers meeting quite unfortunate. It makes it all so boring.”

“Well, I’m not here to entertain you Loki. I’m here to find the Scepter and get everyone on their merry little ways.”

“I must admit, this stance of yours, this refusal to be a part of your planets warriors is most surprising. You’ve seen what’s coming, you’ve seen with your own eyes a glimpse of what’s out there. And yet here you stand, unwilling to become shield-brothers with them.”

“Why are you here Loki? Isn’t there someone else you could bother?” Tony asks, glancing at the Asgardian as Loki’s grin widens.

“Not at all. As I said before, clearly you weren’t listening, the Director has sent me to you in hopes that I might assist you and take your program to the next level. Delivering the Scepter to his waiting hands as it were.”

“Well since you deal in ‘magic’ and I deal in computer science, I don’t really see how that could work.” Loki slowly puts down the thing he’s been playing with.

“Oh I think you’ll find that I have a great many talents than just magic, and adapting my spells to one of your programs should be quite simple.” Tony takes a second, debating the truth in Loki’s words. He doesn’t doubt that there’s some benefit to having Loki ‘on the team’ now, but Tony still doesn’t trust him as far as he can throw him.

…Or as far as Loki can throw him.

“Tell me how it would work.” He says after a minute of deliberation and Loki gets a smile like Tony’s done something that he approves of as he slides off the desk and makes his way over. It takes everything in Tony not to flinch when the other comes up behind him, completely intentionally, and looks at the screen.

That’s how the others catch them ten minutes later, with Tony explaining the program and Loki standing behind him, practically whispering praises for Tony’s handiwork in his ear.

“It is good to see you again Stark.” Thor says with a big smile. “And it pleases me to see the two of you working together.” Tony gives Thor a look that says: what about this picture doesn’t show that I’m in distress?

Clint and Natasha grin at his obvious displeasure and Tony would flip them off if he didn’t think that’d cause him more problems than solutions.

“Good to see you again as well Thor.” Tony greets back.

“We are busy working brother.” Loki says with a sigh and Thor nods.

“I will not interfere.” He says and he obviously can’t see the cringe that Tony gives when Loki leans into his space again, pointing past him towards the screen.

“Explain this to me?” He asks, one hand on Tony’s shoulder as he’s pushed up far too close against Tony’s back. Tony knows that Loki’s getting a sick, twisted pleasure out of the tenseness and uncomfortable energy that he’s no doubt feeling in Tony’s body language right now.

“That is a new section that I just finished adding today.”

“Hmm, what does it do?”

“It allows the program to scan for areas completely devoid of the Scepter’s energy.”

“So a way to track where the program that is blocking it could be?” Loki notes and Tony nods.

“That’s the plan.” He says, shifting and moving to look at one of the other screens. He makes eye contact with Bruce and mouths ‘Keep him away from me’. Bruce smiles and nods before he places himself between the two of them. Tony can’t help but feel slightly victorious about the annoyed look on the tricksters face.

“So, how’s it coming?” Rogers asks, looking between the three of them and Tony shrugs.

“Hopefully we’ll have a solid location within the hour. Maybe sooner with Mr. Odinson’s help.” He motions to Loki and Loki shakes his head.

“Laufeyson if you don’t mind.” He says, shooting a nasty smile in Thor’s direction and Thor gets a look like Loki’s just killed his puppy.

“Mr. Laufeyson then.”

+++

“They added Loki to the team? Loki?” Tony rants as he lets the walkway take his armor away and is faced with Bucky. “What the hell was Nick thinking?” He shakes his head as he shivers. “God, I feel like I’ve still got creepy on me. I’m going to start calling him ‘Loki Bad Touch’ if he doesn’t back the hell off.”

“Loki’s an Avenger?” Bucky says, with just the right amount of disbelief for the situation at hand. Tony wonders why no one else seems to be responding this way.

“Apparently he’s ‘turned a new leaf’ and the whole ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ bullshit.” Tony shakes his head. “I’m going to go take a shower, I feel like I need to wash the ickiness off of me. How does pizza sound tonight?” He asks as he starts tugging off his outer layers.

“Sounds good.”

“Good, pizza and a movie then? I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on.”

“JARVIS and I will pick one out. Go take your shower.” Bucky says with a shooing motion and Tony nods, stripping and stepping under the spray of the water a few minutes later. The hot water does wonders, and helps ease a lot of the tenseness that he still gets whenever the Avengers are around, with or without Loki.

What the hell are they thinking? Adding Loki of all people to the team lineup? Ugh, it’s like they’re actively trying to make the worst possible choices for the Avengers possible.

But then again, Tony’s not in charge of their P.R. anymore, so truth be told – they can get on with their bad selves and add whoever the hell they wanted.

He just wished that they’d leave him and Bucky out of it.

…Or just him…since Bucky wasn’t someone whom he could speak for.

Tony lets the water wash over his body with a sigh. Bucky would probably be joining the Avengers in a short little while and leave the Tower for whatever black ops location that Fury is housing the Avengers out of without the ability to ask Tony to put them up.

Tony tries to regain the relaxation that the hot water provided for him prior to those kinds of depressing thoughts.

He doesn’t try to understand why he’d be so sad to see Bucky go.

+++

“I think it was okay.” Bucky says after the movie finishes, and Tony looks over at him blearily before shaking his head and throwing a small amount of popcorn his way.

“If I hadn’t just sat here for an entire Star Wars marathon, and if my legs weren’t numb from disuse, I’d do so much more than just throw this at you.” Bucky gives him a smile that’s far too sunny and awake considering how many hours they’ve just put into this endeavor.

“You were the one who said I had to watch them.”

“No one likes Jar Jar Binks Bucky. No one.”

“That sounds overly generalized. I’m sure that there are more people like me who that he was a fine addition to the Star Wars legacy.”

Bucky laughs easily when Tony just glares at him from where he’s wrapped up in the blanket and tosses more popcorn at him.

+++

The next three weeks without Loki, the Avengers or SHIELD is like nirvana.

Tony’s able to get so much done on his docket and Bucky’s scans are finally showing final stage levels. Tony’s not really sure these days who is more excited for Bucky’s soon to be clean bill of health – Bucky himself or Tony.

“What’s that?” Bucky asks as he comes over and glances over Tony’s shoulder to see the holographic plans laid out on the desk table and Tony doesn’t look up.

“It’s a metal alloy that I created and that I’m going to create your new arm out of.” He says around a pen in his mouth and Bucky’s voice sounds surprised when he responds to that.

“You’re building me a new arm?”

“Of course I am.” Tony says like it’s so obvious that he would, one glance up at Bucky tells him that apparently it wasn’t. “Well, I mean, I’m clearly going to be your mechanic. You shouldn’t let just any cowboy in there, and that one is a piece of junk. Plus, I’d rather that I knew every nook and cranny in there, a no surprises sort of thing. I don’t like the fact that right now the enemy knows how your tech works better than we do.”

“Why not just use sheet metal? Like this one?” Bucky taps the arm and Tony cringes like Bucky has personally offended him.

“How dare you compare this masterpiece to that piece of junk. You are officially banned from the workshop.” Bucky has the gall to get an amused smirk at Tony’s silly theatrics. “Next you’re going to be asking me why I didn’t just ask Hammer to make it.” He grouses. “Out with you, heathen. This is my church and you will not speak such blasphemous things down here.” Tony makes a shooing motion and Bucky chuckles.

“You’re ridiculous. But seriously, why not? Wouldn’t that be easier?” Tony shakes his head.

“Easier? Absolutely, but better? Not at all.” Tony motions to the chemical compound for the new metal. “Normal metals have a heating and cooling problem. You don’t want to be somewhere with an extreme temperature and have the metal decide to adapt to the external temps.” Bucky suddenly gets a faraway look, clearly remembering such a time as he rubs the area where the skin meets the metal.

“…yeah, a new alloy sounds great.”

“That’s what I thought.” Tony doesn’t know how long he’s been down in the lab the next time Bucky reappears. He’s already at the point where he’s finalizing everything for production, and his eyes are beyond heavy.

“When’s the last time you had something more solid than coffee?” Bucky asks, looking at the empty coffee cups littering the desk table.

“Coffee has always been good to me Bucky, don’t diss on coffee.” Bucky snorts.

“Yeah, yeah. I remember, ‘Coffee and Spite’.” He says with a small amount of laughing in his voice. “When’s the last time you slept?”

“Sleep is for the weak.” Tony says with a grin, and it might be a little dopier than he realizes with Bucky’s amused smile that he gives him in response. “Einstein only slept three hours a year, or something like that.”

“Somehow I doubt that’s true.” Bucky says. “However, if you’re gonna be workin on my arm. I’d prefer you have at least five hours in you.”

“I don’t need sleep.” Tony argues with a long yawn and Bucky nods like he’s agreeing.

“Of course not…that’s why you’ve decided that I need six fingers on my hand.” Tony quickly stares at the image.

“No I did not!” He argues, checking it over and finding no mysterious sixth finger and Bucky laughs.

“Nah, but the fact that you had to double check something so obvious should say that you need at least a little sleep.” Tony can’t deny the horrible buzz drain that’s happening, and he does just kind of want to lay his head down on the desk. “Tony…Tony, come on…Let’s get you to bed.” It takes a moment for Tony to open his eyes again and realize that at some point he did decide to lay his head down and now Bucky’s gently tugging out the stool from the desk and bracing him.

“Mmm…just need more coffee.” He mutters into Bucky’s neck when the soldier picks him up like he weighs nothing. It crosses his mind that he might in fact weigh nothing to the other man. “Am I even heavy?” He asks as Bucky moves to the elevator. “I mean, with th’ serum an’ all?”

“Not really.” Bucky says softly, like he’s trying to keep his voice down so as to not fully rouse Tony. “JARVIS, can we get Tony’s floor please?”

“Absolutely Sgt. Barnes.” Tony does an aborted fist shake to the ceiling.

“You’re a traitor J.” He says, letting his hand drop. “Makin’ me sleep.”

“However shall I live with myself sir?” JARVIS replies back like the little shit that he is and Tony makes a mental note to threaten to sell JARVIS to MIT tomorrow. He must doze off because the next thing he knows, he’s being laid down on his bed and a blanket is being pulled over him.

“Sleep tight Tony.” Bucky is saying in the background. “Have good dreams for the both of us.” And that’s the last thing he remembers before it’s morning and he’s rolling over in bed.

“FRIDAY? Time?”

‘It’s nine twenty six in the morning Boss.’ She answers as he rubs a hand over his face and drags himself into the bathroom. When his mouth tastes less like death and he’s feeling a little more himself after the shower, he steps out.

“Location?”

“Sgt. Barnes is in the workout room right now.” JARVIS replies.

“Hmm. Is there anything happening today?” He asks. “Something that Bucky might like? And maybe something that we won’t be recognized for? Like a game or something? Isn’t it time for that? I feel like something should be happening today.”

‘There is a game, if you wished I could procure tickets’ FRIDAY offers and Tony nods as he walks down the hall towards the workout room. Bucky is going through all the sets and Tony just leans against the doorframe, waiting for the other man to notice him. It doesn’t take long before Bucky stops and glances in his direction.

“You know. I don’t think I’ve been tucked into bed since I was fifteen.” He says. “And that was because Rhodey is amazing and felt like adopting a gangly fifteen year old who always found trouble and thought he was invincible.” Bucky shrugs. “Go hit the showers, we’re going out.”

“Out?”

“I’m told there’s a baseball game we can catch. I’ve got tickets if you want to go. We’ll be totally incognito. We’ll wear sunglasses and sweaters with the hoods up. For good measure we’ll even wear baseball caps.” He grins as Bucky laughs and rolls his eyes.

“Yeah, that doesn’t sound like we’ll stick out at all.” He chuckles and Tony grins.

“Good, it’s settled then. Go get cleaned up. I need a day off.” Bucky shakes his head with a smile and holds his hands up in surrender as he goes to do what’s bidden of him.

Tony’s strangely grateful that the rest of the day goes by pretty perfectly despite all of the bad things that had the potential to happen.

Bucky’s right, and they totally get noticed at the ballgame, with dozens of people trying to get a picture of him and he just waves with a smile for the fans. Bucky of course shoots Tony a look when Tony bursts into laughter at Bucky’s angry rants at the umpire’s calls, which of course only makes Tony laugh harder and Bucky shoves Tony lightly with his shoulder with a matching smile of his own.

Their ballgame is immediately followed by what Tony will forever call ‘Bucky’s Revenge’ when Bucky manages to convince him to stop off at a Carnival that they pass and goads him into eating funnel cake and riding every. single. sickening. ride. with him. Tony thought he could handle it from his experience with the Iron Man armor – but boy was he wrong. The only upside is that Bucky clearly almost overestimated how much abuse the serum would allow him to take before he started looking a little green around the edges too.

Bucky wins him a ridiculously oversized stuffed animal to make up for it and Tony laughs and takes it with a relish. Pepper, Happy and Rhodey start to get photos documenting the bear’s ‘adventures’ from Tony’s camera phone and they eventually return to the car that Happy has waiting for them , laughing like teenagers on their first night drinking.

Happy doesn’t say anything, he just gets a smile and shakes his head before returning them to the tower where Tony proceeds to regale Bucky with his new arm designs for the rest of the night.

It’s easy in a way that things haven’t been in a while and some part of Tony is valiantly ignoring the signs of what this is.

He lays in bed later that night reminding himself of all the reasons why he can’t fall in love with Bucky Barnes, and he tries to ignore the obvious fact that he already has.

+++

In hindsight, Tony figures that he should have known that the other shoe was destined to fall, and never let it be said that when it rains it doesn’t pour in the life and times of Tony Stark.

It’s been a while since Tony’s been kidnapped, and he’ll admit that it’s not something that he particularly likes living through. He wakes up strapped down on what looks like a medial traction bed, his head is throbbing and the light overhead is far too bright. He can’t remember how they got him, or what happened prior to this and he just hopes that everyone else is safe.

“Ah, it seems that you’re finally awake.” Tony turns his attention and almost groans when he sees Von Strucker. “I was afraid that you’d been hit a little too hard. These brutes, never understanding the delicate touch needed in some cases, I apologize if you’re experiencing any unintended discomfort Mr. Stark.” There’s a movement off to his side and Tony glances at it only to see something that makes his blood freeze.

Wanda.

She’s so young looking, and Tony realizes that she must only be about eighteen or maybe nineteen right now and clearly by the red mist leaking out of her body – she’s newly acquired her powers.

“Stark.” She says with that twisted little smile that was always present for Tony, but no one else ever seemed to see. Von Strucker nods and motions to her.

“Ah yes, a big fan of yours Mr. Stark. She asked if she might be of use for the proceedings and I saw no harm in it. I hope you don’t mind either.”

“Something tells me that even if I didn’t it wouldn’t really matter.” Tony says around a dry throat and Strucker nods.

“Hmm, very true. Come fraulien.” Wanda moves closer to the bed and it’s only years of being next to the witch that keeps Tony from responding. “Miss Maximoff is going to help me with something.” He looks down at Tony. “See, I wish to…what is that quaint America phrase?” He seems to think about it before snapping his fingers. “Oh yes, ‘kill two birds with one stone’. “

“The Avengers aren’t going to walk into a trap just to come rescue me if that’s what you’re after, and Stark Industries has a very strict ‘no listening to terrorists’ policy.”

“Oh, no no no. It is not the Avengers whom we seek. It is not for them that we dangle out this particular lure.” He grabs his clipboard and pulls out a picture from a file on it and shows it to Tony – and it makes Tony’s heart freeze.

It’s a picture of him and Bucky at the carnival. They look like two regular people, but the condemning part of the picture is Tony laughing and Bucky’s fondly amused smile directed at him.

“He’s not stupid. He’s not going to either.” Tony says eventually and Strucker hums.

“Perhaps, but we will of course give him…incentive.” He motions to Wanda as Tony notices the camera being set up to get the best angle of him. “Did you know Mr. Stark, that our Miss Maximoff here has the power to influence the mind?”

“Really, that sounds so interesting. Nope, never heard that one before.” Tony says sarcastically.

“And although she may not be yet in control enough to be as…quick as the chair in certain ways, what she lacks in speed and subtlety she makes up for in sheer power and potency.” Tony can’t help the way his body tightens as the realization of what’s about to happen makes itself apparent to him. “With your mind we cannot risk causing the damage that the chair does to the Soldiers. We need you sharp still you see. I’m sure you understand.”

“Go to hell.” Tony snaps out at him and his fake friendly smile fades away.

“Ah yes. American vulgarity, how unimpressive.” He motions to Wanda. “Do what needs to be done my dear, and have fun. Just be sure that whatever you break you can put back together.” She nods at Strucker’s command and looks down at Tony, the dark sadistic satisfaction in her eyes makes him want to be sick as she runs her hands playfully over his neck and face before resting them near his temples.

Strucker comes back into view for a second, pushing something between his lips and sliding between his teeth. “Let’s keep you from biting off your own tongue yes? You don’t have to thank me.” Tony would give him an inappropriate gesture if he could, but Wanda pulls his attention back to her.

“Let’s have fun.” She all but purrs and the red magic hits him, dragging everything into agony.

+++

It would be funny if this were the time for it, but it’s not. Bucky glances at all of the guns trained on him and looks at them bored.

“I want to speak to Fury.” He says, standing there in the middle of the lobby of SHIELD. “Now.” It’s funny what being back in his Winter Soldier armor does to other people as several of the agents scurry off. The alarms are still blaring and Bucky barely has to wait two minutes – two minutes too long. Two minutes longer of Tony being with those monsters – before the Avengers and Fury come down to the first level and make themselves known.

“This seems highly irresponsible.” Fury says, looking at him while the Black Widow looks like she wants nothing more than to put a bullet in him.

He remembers her now, overrated but determined. One of the red room survivors, and one of his old allies and enemy.

“Why are you here?” Steve asks, adjusting his grip on the shield in his hands and Bucky turns to him, slowly reaching up to pull off the face plate in such a way that he won’t get shot. He lets it come off and watches the surprise and confusion cross Steve’s face. “Bucky?”

“I need your help.” Bucky says, and Steve’s already coming over with a nod.

“Stand down Fury!” Steve’s snapping as he places a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “Buck?” Bucky allows the hug that the blond gives him and he’d love to take a minute and catch back up with the big punk, but Tony doesn’t have the time for them to be doing this.

“We need to go. Now.”

“Where?” Steve asks the same time that Fury asks “Why?”

“Sokovia.” He says to Steve, before turning and looking Fury right in the eye. “They’ve taken him.” Fury proves Tony right in his belief that the director knew where Bucky was this whole time when he immediately understands who ‘him’ his and spins, motioning for everyone to follow him. Bucky wastes no time following along as well, Steve trailing after him confused.

“How long?” Fury asks and Bucky shakes his head.

“Too long. At minimum five hours, at maximum eleven.” Bucky answers and Fury lets out a silent curse.

“Sokovia?”

“Hydra.”

“How do you know?” Bucky holds out the small thumb drive that holds the video of Tony writhing in pain and screaming. Fury takes it and holds out his hand for the brunet woman to hand him the tablet in her hands. They’re in the elevator by the time Fury plays it and the sound of Tony being tortured makes his fist clench and he promises deadly retribution once again to anyone who has touched him. Steve looks horrified by what he’s seeing while the Widow and the guy with the bow let nothing cross their faces. The big blond seems upset as he takes in the video and the dark haired one that Bucky recognizes as Loki has something cross his face before it goes blank.

“We’ll get him back.” Steve says, and Bucky nods. That’s why he’s here after all. It’s clearly a trap and Bucky won’t risk Tony’s life like that. He needs backup to be assured that he rescues the engineer from Hydra’s clutches and he’s not ashamed to admit it.

“Rhodes?” Fury asks and Bucky nods once. The other man is already on his way out there. He’ll arrive around the same time they will. Rhodes is bringing the War Machine – Bucky is bringing the backup.

The Widow and the Hawk keep side-eying him through the entire preparations and he’s not surprised, Steve keeps sending him looks like he wants to pull him to the side and talk, but the Winter Soldier is here now, the man that Tony taught him to accept and now he’s going to go get him back, and he doesn’t have time for something useless like a reunion.

“So, you’re the secret that Stark has been keeping.” Loki says, sounding bored and Bucky looks at him.

“And you’re Loki.” He replies back with the same level of unconcerned air about him and Fury interrupts the two of them sizing each other up.

“We move fast, and we take no prisoners. Clear?” He snaps and they all nod. “First priority is finding and retrieving Stark. Second is bringing these assholes down. Any objections?” There’s silence to that and Fury nods. “Then green light. All units go.”

+++

“What are you hiding from me Stark?” Wanda whispers in his ear, her voice barely cutting through the fog of pain. “What aren’t you letting me see?”

Tony gasps like he’s just broken through the surface of water after being held down so long when she pulls away and Strucker comes over to shine a light in his eyes. He pulls out the thing from his mouth.

“How are we doing Mr. Stark? Well I hope?”

“…fu..ck…y…you.”

“Ah, glad to hear it. I think you can dial it up a bit my dear.” Strucker says as he pushes the bit back and Wanda swoops in like a vulture the second her leash is loosened and everything fades back to red.

+++

Steve waits till they’re up in the air to approach him. This is the worst part, the waiting – the inability to do anything more until they land at the base.

“Bucky…” He starts and Bucky looks over at him. “…how? What?”

“Long story.” Bucky replies, putting a softness in his voice for Steve that he doesn’t feel right now. “Hydra’s serum, I survived the fall.” Steve looks gutted when Bucky says that.

“I’m so sorry Buck…I didn’t know…if I had even thought that there was a possibility that you’d survived.”

“I know.” Bucky says easily, and he does. Steve would have razed the world to come after him. “I don’t blame you, I blame the sick fucks who have Tony.” Steve gets a complicated look on his face.

“Tony...How do you know Stark?”

“…He saved me.” Bucky answers honestly. “He’s been helpin me. Gettin me back on my feet.”

“Why didn’t he tell me?” Steve accuses and Bucky shakes his head.

“Don’t blame him, he was only doing what was best for me.” Bucky looks at Steve. “I need to know that you’re on mission.” He asks and Steve nods slowly.

“Of course I am.” Steve looks like he’s about to bring something else up that isn’t going to help their current mission.

“Don’t.” Bucky cuts him off. “This isn’t the time for nostalgia or sentimentality, it only gets in the way. Save it for after.” There’s a complicated look on Steve’s face.

“Is there going to be an ‘after’?”

“…help me get him out of there, and we’ll talk.” Steve’s jaw clenches before a stubborn look crosses his face.

“Done.”

+++

It would be so much easier to just give in…but he can’t. He knows he can’t…he knows he can’t…he has to hold on…Bucky’s coming, Rhodey’s coming…they’re coming…he needs them to be here already…but he’ll hold on…he has too…

“What is your name Soldier?” Strucker asks again and the grin that he has as he looks down at Tony sets Tony on edge and gives him the strength to push back again. “Who do you serve?”

“…N..ot..you…ass….hole.” Tony hold on to that. He has to hold on to that.

“Not yet perhaps, but very soon.” Strucker promises and Tony can’t wait till his family comes and beats the crap out of him.

+++

The plane lowers as they approach the area and the quiet doctor walks to the open edge.

“That’s my cue.” He says as he lets himself drop out of the plane, and it makes Bucky look at everyone else for confirmation that this man didn’t just commit suicide, when Bucky catches his first glimpse of the rampaging Hulk. Bucky’s on the move the second that the plane hits the ground and storms the place looking for the kidnapped billionaire. Tony doesn’t have a lot of time, if he has any left at all, and so Bucky has to be fast.

“Mr. Stark appears to be two levels down.” JARVIS says over the team earpiece. Bucky nods as he shoots a few Hydra goons left and right, making a straight beeline down for the lower areas. He can feel Steve at his back, along with the crazy Asgardian who gives Tony so much trouble.

It takes far too long to make it past all of the Hydra goons at each level before they finally pull open the door where Tony is being kept. The young girl glances up at them, she throws up a hand and Bucky and Steve go flying, crashing into the wall – Bucky’s gun sliding across the floor and he regrets that he hasn’t managed to put a bullet in her skull.

“Really?” Loki says, sounding bored as he pulls up his magic and lashes out at the girl, throwing her back from Tony who hasn’t moved since they’ve entered, no screaming, no sounds, no nothing. “You think yourself so powerful? So untouchable? How foolish.” Loki’s continuing as the girl gets enveloped in the greenish gold magic of the trickster and Bucky doesn’t pay them any more mind.

He rushes over to Tony and quickly pulls the bit out of his mouth.

“Tony? Tony answer me please?” Bucky asks softly and it takes a moment before brown eyes blink open.

“Bu..c…ky.” Tony manages to get out even though it’s clear he’s not focusing on Bucky.

“I’m here. I’ve got you.” Bucky pulls out a knife and quickly slices through the bindings holding the brunet to the bed. “I’ve got you.” Tony doesn’t say anything, but his body is shaking and Bucky just wants to get him out of here. “JARVIS, let Rhodes know I have him.”

“Done Sgt.” Bucky maneuvers the brunet carefully into his arms, so reminiscent of that night not so long ago, when Tony had smiled and been so relaxed – he should have never been like this, not this terrified and hurt version of him that makes Bucky want to kill everyone here, to let the Winter Soldier out to play fully.

He doesn’t have time for that though, he has precious cargo that he needs to get to safety.

“Steve, on me.” Bucky commands and Steve falls into line like the old days, and it calms Bucky in a strange way, to have the blond there. There’s a strange feeling of invincibility with Steve having his back as they make their way back to the jet. “You’re going to be okay. I’ve got you.” Bucky whispers into Tony’s ear as he gets the brunet out of there.

+++

“Welcome back.” Bruce says as Tony opens his eyes and looks around the room. He’s in a SHIELD hospital room, and he can see all the Avengers plus Bucky, Rhodey, Pepper and Happy out on the other side of the glass. “You gave us a little scare there.”

“…what?” Tony asks and Bruce takes off his glasses.

“Whatever that girl did to you…it had…side effects.” The doctor says carefully. “But between JARVIS and FRIDAY controlling B.A.R.F. and Loki with the Scepter…we were able to pull you back.”

“Wanda?” Bruce gets a confused look. “…the girl?”

“Oh, there was a secondary enhanced. He was able to sprint her away…she lives to terrorize another day.” Tony doesn’t know why hearing that Wanda wasn’t killed sets him at ease, but he figures that he’s not really that surprised. He’s tried to help and care for that woman for the last several years, of course he’d feel somewhat invested when he saw her again. “Are you feeling up to company?” Bruce asks and Tony slowly nods. Bruce glances up and waves the others in.

“Tony!” Pepper says instantly, and her voice calms him. “Oh my god Tony.” She’s in his arms seconds later, half on the medical bed to hug him fiercely.

“Hey Pep.” He says with a soft laugh. She pulls back and he’s practically crushed by Happy, who is hiding his tears in Tony’s shoulder. “Hey Hap, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“You’re never allowed to drive yourself anywhere ever again.” His old friend threatens and Tony chuckles.

“How are you feeling?” Rhodey asks as he moves in line to hug Tony next. It feels like the hug that Rhodey gave him when he found him after Afghanistan and Tony feels tears welling up.

“If you make me cry in front of everyone I’m going to make all your ringtones play Justin Bieber.” Rhodey laughs like it’s torn out of him as he hugs Tony tighter. He pulls back and Tony sees Bucky and he gives him a small smile. “Hey there.”

“Hey yourself.” Bucky takes a step forward and Tony reaches out to take his hand and squeeze it. Neither of them need to say anything past that and Tony appreciates that as he looks at everyone else in the room.

“Did we at least get most of them?”

“A solid blow to their forces Stark.” Thor says happily. “And we are pleased that you have been retrieved and are recovering swiftly.” Tony gives him a smile.

“Thanks buddy.”

“I apologize Stark.” Loki says as he steps forward.

“For what?”

“That I cannot gift you with the head of your attacker.” Tony shakes his head.

“Don’t… I mean, she’s young, and who knows what lies they’ve fed her…” Loki looks at him surprised.

“You would seek to aid the one who harmed you?”

“…yeah.” Tony replies easily. “If possible…I’d rather save them then kill em.” Bucky gets an amused and exasperated smile as he looks down at Tony and Tony shrugs. “What?”

“Nothin. Nothin at all.” Bucky replies and squeezes his hand back.

Tony lets his head fall back down on the pillow again, and takes this moment to just be glad that he’s alive and that he’s him.

There’s a new fight coming over the horizon now, and looking at this bunch of rag-tag morons…Tony thinks that their chances might not be all that bad after all.