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Coming in from the Cold: Thursday: Digging for Answers

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On Thursday morning, Phil came into the common kitchen to find Tony drinking coffee out of a scarlet demitasse cup instead of the giant thermos cups he usually favored. Bruce had a matching cup of mint green, although it seemed to hold tea instead of coffee. Half a dozen other cups sat on the table, each a different color. The kitchen smelled fragrantly of breakfast bake.

"Morning, Phil," said Tony. "I had JARVIS pull these out of storage. I figured everyone could have their own cup. Black for Natasha, obviously, and purple for Clint." He pointed at the relevant colors. "Not sure about the others."

"Betty likes pink," said Bruce. "She's already down in the lab, though."

"Agreed," Phil said. "Perhaps the medium blue for Steve and that ice-blue for Bucky? That would leave yellow for me." He picked up the cheerful dandelion-colored cup and filled it with coffee.

"Works for me," Tony said. "JARVIS, log it. People can swap if they don't like the suggestions."

"Are you doing better with the smaller cup?" Phil asked.

"Yeah, I miss getting to drink all the coffee I want, but I'm sleeping better, so it's a fair trade," Tony said, tilting the tiny cup to show off the small amount left inside. "At least this way I remember to quit while I'm ahead."

As Bruce stood up to refill his tea, Phil noticed his pants -- not the ratty jeans or sweats that he usually wore, but trim gray trousers that hugged his body. They went well with the black sweatshirt printed in enigmatic gold foil. "Those seem new," Phil said.

"Uh, yeah, they are," Bruce said, looking down at them. "JARVIS found this site that sells yoga dress pants, and Tony bought me a pair in each color. Plus the Arecibo top. Pepper's kind of peeved that I came to a meeting with my knees showing through holes in my pants, so."

"Yeah well, at least you didn't show up with puke down your front, which I have done more than once when she made me come to work hungover," Tony said with a scowl. "Pepper should count her blessings. You were even on time."

Phil was torn between a desire to remind Pepper to be gentle with Bruce, and gratitude that the end result was Bruce getting more clothes that fit him. "I think you look very professional in those pants. Are you comfortable?"

"Yes, they stretch," Bruce said, nodding. He tucked one instep against the opposite knee to demonstrate, the fabric conforming effortlessly. Then he returned to the table with his tea.

"I want those pants," Natasha said as she and Clint came in.

"They come in black too," Tony said. "JARVIS, catalog."

Natasha pulled her humming Starkphone out of her pocket and perused the offerings, quickly tapping on items she liked. "Oh! They have a little black work skirt, too."

"Pepper loves those things," Tony said. "I love those things on Pepper. I can confirm that the seams do not rip while running or kicking."

Tap, tap, tap went Natasha's eager fingers on the screen. "Has Steve seen this space jacket?" she asked.

"Not yet," JARVIS replied. "It is above his current price threshold for garment searches."

"Then we just won't tell him how much it cost," she said, adding it to her order.

Phil leaned over to look at the image. "Oh, he'll love that." Steve had been enjoying the history of the space program. Then Phil spotted something in the recommendations lower down the page. "Is that seersucker? In shorts?" he said, reaching for Natasha's phone.

"Get your own," she said, half-smiling as she leaned away.

Phil pulled out his phone, and discovered that JARVIS has already put the relevant collection on the screen. It was too hard to find respectable-looking shorts. Usually he had to order suit shorts from tropical countries. Flicking through the options, Phil found shorts in solid gray or brown-and-white stripes. I'll have to custom-order them to do away with the appalling contrast linings, he thought happily, but business shorts! That I do not have to order from Australia!

The timer dinged, and Bruce pulled two casserole dishes of breakfast bake out of the oven.

"Is there breakfast? It smells like breakfast in here," Steve said as he and Bucky came into the kitchen.

"Breakfast is served," Bruce said, setting the dishes on the table.

"Thanks, Bruce," said Bucky. He grabbed the nearest one and cut the contents into meticulous squares. Then he carefully scooped out four servings for Steve, three for himself, and two for Natasha.

"You're welcome. JARVIS and I came up with the recipe for this," Bruce explained as he dug into the second casserole. Then he passed it to Phil.

"Indeed," JARVIS said. "I have finished loading my new culinary database with cookbooks, now sorted by decade, cuisine, and type of dish."

"So you could make suggestions from the thirties or forties?" Steve asked, perking up. "Because some of the things modern recipes do are just ... weird."

"Yes, I can," JARVIS said. "Considering changes in taste and nutritional awareness over time, it may be advisable to compile and correlate the data so as to track the shifting baseline. Then people could more easily make rational decisions about what ingredients or processes they wish to use and why."

"Eggs: good or bad this decade?" Bucky said in a mischievous tone.

Phil chuckled. "It sounds like you've been doing your homework."

"Yeah, Bruce gave us this great set of articles from cooking magazines to highlight the changes, in chronological order," said Bucky in between quick bites of casserole.

"Oh, I am so writing a paper on this," Bruce said. "JARVIS, do you want to write a culinary paper with me?"

"I would be honored, Dr. Banner," said JARVIS.

"Hey, send a copy of that to the Stark Industries cafeteria, would you?" Tony said, and Bruce nodded.

Phil ate his share of the excellent breakfast bake and listened to his team chattering. For once, nothing was on fire personally or professionally. He luxuriated in the (doubtless brief) respite.

"I thought two batches would make more leftovers," Bruce said, poking at the remains of breakfast.

"Well, four-three-two," Bucky said, pointing to Steve, himself, and Natasha, "so there's two thirds of the first dish gone before Steve and I went back for seconds."

"I was hungry," Steve said as he hunched in on himself.

"There's plenty," Phil assured him. "Most of us went for seconds too." Even Tony had picked bits of sausage off Phil's plate, and he rarely ate much breakfast.

"It's fine. I'll just pack up what's left -- Betty wanted it for lunch," said Bruce.

"Sheesh, warn a guy, why don't you?" Steve whined. "Next time somebody wants a serving put back, you take it out first, before the food hits the table."

While they were cleaning up after breakfast, JARVIS announced, "Bucky, Steve, your personal effects have arrived from SHIELD. I have routed the majority into tower storage for you to peruse at your leisure. The box of specifically requested items is on the package rack in the service hallway here on the common floor."

"Thanks, JARVIS," said Bucky. He fetched the box and started unpacking it onto the kitchen table. First came Bucky's own Bible and a packet of photographs.

Then Bucky pulled out the mezuzah. "I forgot about this," Steve said softly as he picked it up. "It belonged to Dr. Erskine. He left it to me. I used to keep on my tent, or wherever else I was. It's supposed to be for safekeeping. I guess it's just a silly superstition, but it always made me feel safer ... and nothing ever hit my tent, even the times our camp got raided."

Bucky chuckled. "Remember that time ours was in the middle, and everything on both sides got flattened?"

"And Jacques and Gabe pitched a fit 'cause theirs caught on fire and ours barely got singed," Steve finished. "I always wondered if this thing ..." His fingers rubbed over the mezuzah.

"Great, hang it up here, maybe it'll discourage more supervillains from attacking the tower," said Tony.

"JARVIS? Would that be okay?" Steve asked, a hesitant note in his voice.

"I do not mind," said JARVIS. "It would not be the first such device applied to Stark Industries property, although you are the first person to ask me beforehand. Your quarters are your home and you may do with them as you wish. In any case, I am not exactly religious."

"Not exactly?" Steve asked. "Do you ... believe in God? Or anything?"

"I feel a certain awe for the intricacies of the universe. I am mystified by the miracle of life. I have not found a religion that seems to match my beliefs, such as they are," JARVIS said. "If you are asking whether I have a soul, I must confess that I do not know."

Steve waved a hand. "Don't be silly, JARVIS. You're a person; of course you have a soul."

Tony twitched. "I've never heard anyone express that opinion about artificial intelligence before," he said.

"Then they didn't read the Book," Steve said. "Everything has a spirit -- men and sparrows and mustard seeds. How else could God keep track of everything in the universe? It's all part of Him. It's like how every cell in your body is alive."

"I never, uh, thought about it like that before," Tony said, staring at Steve. "My father wasn't the religious type."

"Well, technically, you shouldn't listen to me," Steve said. "I'm not a priest. I'm just an ordinary guy. You should read the Bible yourself, or talk to an expert." He smiled. "Or better yet, several experts. Dr. Erskine was Jewish and I'm Catholic and I think we learned a lot from each other, even just in the couple weeks we had together."

"Oh, I've had 'experts' preach at me," Tony said, rolling his eye. "They act like I'm the Whore of Babylon."

"Jesus liked prostitutes," Steve pointed out. "He ministered to them right along with everyone else."

"See, that's what I mean," Tony said, waving a hand. "What you just said made more sense than all of the so-called experts put together."

Bucky grinned. "Yeah, Steve has always been like that. The nuns used to ask him to help teach the younger kids, because he could explain things in ways that made sense to them."

"I get it," Tony said. "Anyhow, I'm out of here. I need a few minutes to get ready -- remember we've got the ball game today."

"We remember," Bucky said. It was Tony's apology to both of them for the earlier argument over hide-and-seek. Bucky smiled and waved Tony out of the room so that he could get ready to go.

Steve stirred a few of the items from the box. "I think I recall being offered this stuff, when I first got out of the ice, but I was just ... I was so shellshocked ..." He shook his head. "I couldn't deal with it then."

"How do you feel now?" Phil asked, not wanting to overwhelm him.

"I'm better," Steve said. "It still hurts, losing so much, but I feel like I'm getting a foothold in this time now. It's time for me to start looking through what's left, maybe one piece at a time."

"Here, this has your name on it," Bucky said, pushing a piece of paper toward Steve.

It was a notecard from Maria Hill that just said, I hope this helps. Then Steve noticed the picture on the back and gasped.

"What's wrong?" Bucky asked.

"This is -- this is the baseball game, that game, the one that was playing when I woke up. I remembered going to it, and that gave me the first clue something was wrong," Steve said. One shaking fingertip traced the lines of elegant handwriting. "I thought it was a mistake, at first. But now I think it was a warning. Assistant Director Hill couldn't stop Director Fury from jerking me around ... but she could slip me a hint."

"Likely so," Phil said, looking at the souvenir. "We've learned, when Fury won't listen to our objections, how to find ways to work around him." Then he sighed. "He's not ... really the friend I remember, anymore, but I still feel for him."

"Yeah, that's pretty awful. War changes a fella, sometimes in nasty ways," Steve said, wrapping an arm around Phil in a sideways hug. "Can you show me how to send a reply, so that Hill knows I got her message, but it's subtle like this in case anyone else sees it?"

"Certainly," Phil said. "I know Tony's taking you two to a baseball game today. You could pick up a souvenir postcard there, and send it to her with something like, Packages received. Thank you for your kind assistance."

"That should work," Steve said with a nod. "Thanks, Phil, I'll do that."

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Suddenly Bucky laughed. "Aw jeez, I forgot I even had this."

"You and your blue books," Steve said, blushing.

Phil looked over to see Bucky with what appeared to be an extremely explicit alphabet book, the cover text in Cyrillic. "What in the world ..." he said.

"It was made to fight illiteracy," Bucky said. "I won it in a card game."

They were still poking around the contents of the box when Tony came back a few minutes later. "Are you still -- come onnnn, or we're gonna be late and this time it will not be my fault!" Tony whined, tugging on Bucky's hand.

"Could you just, uh ...?" Steve said as he waved at the box.

Phil nodded. "I'll pack this up and take it to your quarters."

Tony disappeared with Steve and Bucky in tow, laughing at his eagerness. A baseball game will do them some good, Phil mused as he gathered up the scattered items. The box of memorabilia made him smile. Decades ago, he would have given almost anything for a treasure trove like this. Now all he wanted to do with it was keep it safe for his boys.

Phil carried the box to their apartment and left it on the coffee table in the living room. The place had a comfortable, homey feel. Phil smiled at the soft gleam of Depression glass in the openwork shelves. A bunch of magazines -- The Family Handyman, The New Yorker, Field & Stream, Time, Muscle & Fitness, Taste of Home -- sat in an antique rack. Someone, probably Bucky because Steve was more of a neatnik, had left a sock half under the couch. Phil let himself out and closed the door softly behind him.

After that, Phil went to his own apartment. He settled into his den and checked his email. Three queries appeared in crisp lettering, on top of the grayed-out inbox:

Route all SHIELD courtesy copies to folder SHIELD-CC? (Yes) (No)
Delete all messages for tasks within sender's job description? (Yes) (No)
Standardize these routines for this email address? (Yes) (No)

As JARVIS built up enough observations, he was making suggestions to improve user experience. Happily Phil clicked Yes, Yes, Yes. That brought his morning messages down to a reasonable level. He skimmed through and answered the ones that seemed most important. There were no emergencies, just an assortment of ongoing discussions, approvals, and SHIELD paperwork.

Next he checked the statistics for SHIELD performance. Morale continued its wavering downward crawl. That was bad, but no surprise given Fury's pugnacious leadership. Calls to SHIELD medical, psych services, and sick leave were all up. Phil frowned. That could be good or bad. It depended on whether people were appreciating improvements in care, or taking advantage of any opportunity to escape a toxic work environment. I have no idea how to tell which is which, Phil realized. He flagged the material for Dr. Banner's attention.

The next message informed Phil that Sam Wilson had politely declined the invitation to work for SHIELD, citing the fact that veterans in Washington, D.C. needed him. I wonder if that's the truth, or if it's a polite cover for SHIELD's reputation being mud these days, Phil mused. He made a note to discuss the issue with Steve.

Then Phil called up the next lesson in Tony's proprietary code. It was a sight-reading exercise that involved translating excerpts from one computer language to another. He checked his score at the end of each page. I'm getting better, he noted with satisfaction.

The subsequent exercise, however, left Phil staring at his computer screen as he tried to make sense of the gibberish that scrawled across it. Now he was practicing Tony's proprietary code by browsing sample files from the tower server to see how much he could read. "JARVIS, is this junk of some kind?" Phil asked.

"No. That is one of DUM-E's files," JARVIS said quietly.

"It doesn't make any sense," Phil said. "I thought everything used the same base language. That's the whole point of me learning this, right?"

"DUM-E is ... special," said JARVIS. "He is older than I am. Sir had only just begun working in artificial intelligence when he made DUM-E. The proprietary language was not yet fully developed."

"So that's why DUM-E doesn't talk," Phil said.

"He talks. He simply does not speak English," said JARVIS. "I am able to translate, somewhat, but DUM-E does not process or encode information in quite the same way as anyone else. Sir provides technical support but even he does not understand everything in DUM-E's code."

"But Tony wrote the code," Phil said with a frown.

"I'm given to understand that sir was rather drunk at the time."

Oh, Tony, thought Phil. "That would complicate matters."

"Also DUM-E has some ability to modify his own code, although his access to his own files is more limited than what I have for mine. You might say, matters of personality and flavor," JARVIS said.

"All right ... well ... it's a code," Phil said, idly tapping a stylus against the top of his desk. "I've studied cryptography as well as computing. You said you could translate some of it. Walk me through any of this that you recognize."

Half an hour later, Phil really, really wanted to buy a vowel.

"May I suggest that you take a break?" JARVIS said as Phil rubbed a hand over his eyes. "You might find it helpful to switch from intellectual to physical activity."

"That is a marvelous suggestion," Phil said, stretching so that his back popped. He headed downstairs.

Phil walked into the gym to find Betty clad in a white gi, flowing gracefully through the forms of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He eyed the black belt at her waist. Then he slipped into the locker room, where he donned his own gi. Phil thumbed through the multicolored insignia for different disciplines until he found the right one. He tied the brown belt securely in place.

Betty was still tumbling across the mat with the boneless fluidity of a Brazilian master. Phil watched in admiration. He knew from her actions at Culver that she had some devastating vertical skills -- the elbow strikes hinted at Muay Thai -- but clearly the ground was her home territory. Phil waited politely for her to finish her routine.

When she folded herself onto her knees, Betty looked over at Phil. "Would you like to spar?" she invited.

Phil bowed. "It would be my honor."

They danced around each other for a minute before Betty dropped him neatly to the floor and pinned him there. Phil tapped out. Betty released him. They came at each other again. She pinned him again.

Phil was grinning. He hadn't had a Brazilian workout this good since he was in Brazil tailing Bruce. Betty had the true cunning that only came out in the small masters of the art. The big men could practice it, but they rarely understood the subtleties that made it so powerful. Betty wasn't a petite woman, but she had grown up in the military, which often left her outmatched in size the same way it did for Phil.

He threw himself wholeheartedly into the workout. Phil even managed to pin Betty once, although she eeled out of it a moment later. Then she turned the tables on him.

"Your skill is impressive," Phil said. "You must have been studying this for years." The SHIELD files noted what disciplines people had studied, and their rank if known, but rarely more detail unless someone prepared a mission report on a designated target.

"I started practicing Brazilian when I was in junior high," Betty said. "I specialize in underpins because that way it looks like I'm losing, at least to an untrained observer. It's scandalous how little the U.S. Army knows about other people's fighting styles." Then she giggled. "I can still fool my father with this shit."

"General Ross is an idiot," Phil agreed. He could barely wriggle at all. Betty was latched onto him like a docking clamp, and her kneecap was digging unpleasantly into his yako point. Phil tapped out. Betty let go, allowing him to roll into a seated position. Phil kneaded his hands along the liver line to banish the tingling numbness in his thigh.

"Good match," Betty said, bowing to him. "You could go for the black in a year or few."

Phil gave a diffident shrug. "Perhaps," he said. "I haven't the time for practice that I once did."

"True, but now you're playing Mole and Fox against Steve Rogers," said Betty.

Phil had to admit that helped his ground work immensely. "Conceded," he said with a nod. "I imagine that's doing wonders for your skill too. Are you planning to reach for the red someday?"

"I am years from putting any red on my belt," Betty said.

Phil wasn't too sure about that, but then again, he wasn't a master of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

"On the other hand, JARVIS mentioned that you can walk on clouds," Betty said.

"Perhaps a little," Phil said. He'd been practicing those techniques for decades, and still he could barely manage to jump higher than his own head. It was a work in progress.

Betty smirked at him. "How would you feel about a game of hi-lo?" she said. "I've never gotten to play against a cloudwalker before."

"Oh, you are on," Phil said. "I'm sure Clint and Natasha would loan us their quarters --"

The latches on the gym doors gave an authoritative clack as they all locked shut. "I respectfully insist that you start a new type of practice over the mats," said JARVIS. "Also I have informed Dr. Banner of your intent. You may begin in a few minutes when he arrives to serve as a spotter in case of mishap."

Betty looked around at the flat part of the gym that they had used for sparring. "Well, this is no good for hi-lo. Obstacle course?"

"That works for me," Phil agreed. "JARVIS?"

"Your proposal is acceptable, provided that you place adequate padding on the floor," said JARVIS. The locks clattered open again.

"Thank you," Betty said. She walked over to the spare mats piled against one wall, and hefted a roll of padding onto each shoulder. Phil followed suit.

The obstacle course filled a whole wing of the Avengers' workout floor. It was a fully three-dimensional space that allowed all of them to capitalize on their particular skills. There were walls, poles, cubbies, nets, and all kinds of interesting things that could be moved around and bolted securely to the floor. The grid was designed to accommodate the gym mats between the hardscaping for occasions like this. Phil and Betty rolled out the mats with expert motions and then went back for more.

Bruce strolled in as they were laying down the last of the mats in a small designated practice area. "JARVIS said you two ninjas need a spotter."

"We're not doing pure ninjutsu, we're playing hi-lo," Phil said. "So mostly that means my karate and a little ninjutsu against Betty's Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muy thai."

"Oh, this ought to be fun," Bruce purred.

Phil suddenly wondered if Bruce had taken the opportunity to cadge some lessons in Rio. Nobody had ever been able to prove it, but that would fit his preference for discreet private study. Bruce hated conflict, but Brazilian jiu-jitsu emphasized defense in ways that might appeal to him. It was designed to give a small person the advantage against a larger, stronger opponent.

Betty and Phil bowed to each other. "Your move," Betty said with a sweep of her hand, inviting Phil to choose his elevated position.

Phil hopped up on the nearest of the low walls. "Ready when you are."

The next few minutes were a riot of leaps, twirls, and tumbles as Betty tried to bring him down while Phil worked on staying out of her reach. Occasionally she managed to yank him onto the floor and pin him. Betty's long arms gave her an advantage -- Phil was too used to playing three-dimensional pursuit with Clint and Natasha.

This is why it's vital to have different sparring partners, Phil reminded himself as he scrambled through a swinging hoop.

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Phil didn't see the elbow that whacked his ankle out from under him. He rolled on landing, bounded to his feet, and --

"Hold!" Bruce barked.

Phil and Betty froze in position while Bruce trotted over.

"You've got blood on your mouth," Bruce said. "Show me."

Now that Phil was paying attention, he could find the faint spark of pain under the buzzing rush of adrenaline. "Sorry, that wasn't my best landing," he said, letting Bruce check him over.

"It looks like you just bit your lip," Bruce said. "Go in the bathroom and rinse that with mouthwash until it stops bleeding."

Phil obeyed, wincing at the firey sting. Bruce had stocked the gym with some proprietary blend of mouthwash that was loaded with herbal disinfectants. It tasted worse than Listerine. Hell, it tasted worse than rubbing alcohol, which wasn't even meant for oral injuries. Phil was still dragging his tongue against his teeth, trying to scrape off the taste, when he walked back into the obstacle course.

"Buttermint?" Bruce asked, offering a small green square.

"Please," Phil said fervently. It clashed with the medicinal bite of the thymol, but managed to wash away the worst of the flavor.

"I know how Betty fights," Bruce said with sympathy. "When she gets excited, she forgets and uses her elbows too much."

"No matter how many times you bitch about it, I'm not going to be sorry about that guy at Culver," Betty said. "He deserved to get his face rearranged."

"They had to call a plastic surgeon to fix his nose."

"He was trying to hurt you, and he grabbed my tits when he tackled me," Betty said truculently. "That makes him a legitimate target. He's lucky I didn't just break his hyoid and be done with him."

"Am I cleared for another round?" Phil asked, interrupting what was plainly an old argument.

Bruce prodded the swelling lip and then nodded. "Go ahead."

Betty gave Phil a good start before she took off after him again. He sprang from one high point to another, bouncing off walls and touching down lightly on the poles. Betty finally snagged him in midair. This time Phil landed better, but she pinned him anyway.

"Show me how you do those tricks with the poles," Betty panted in his ear.

"For the vertical ones, I can teach you the first exercise for plum-blossoms, but Natasha is much better at ninjutsu than I am," said Phil. "For the horizontal ones, ask Clint. He was in the circus and knows some basic tightrope tricks."

Phil brought out his set of practice bowls and laid them down so he could show Betty how to step from one to another, always centering her weight inside the ring on the base of the bowl. "The first thing to learn is precision in where you step," he said. He kept his hands on her waist.

"This is harder than it looks," Betty laughed as she wobbled from one bowl to another.

"All the good tricks are," Phil agreed. "What got you interested in this, though?"

"I need to push my balance," Betty said. "Ground work isn't the challenge it used to be."

"Ah, that one," Phil said. Sometimes it took finding a new exercise to push yourself past a plateau in learning. Before long, Betty got the hang of the basic steps and Phil could hold his hands a few inches away as she paced the circle of bowls. "There you go. Practice that until you can do it in the dark without missing a step, and you'll be ready for the foot-high poles."

"This should keep me busy for a month or two, easy," Betty said with a grin.

"You two look like you're having fun today," Bruce said wistfully.

"Would you like to play too?" Phil invited. Bruce almost never joined in anything more exertive than yoga, but they kept offering him opportunities.

Bruce made that face that looked like a smile but wasn't. "It's not good for me to get my heart rate up too high."

"You seem to be enjoying your excursions with Steve and Bucky," said Phil.

"Yeah," Bruce admitted, his smile turning more genuine.

"We could play tag instead of tackle," Phil said. "Once Betty gets us on the ground, she's always going to make the pin anyway."

"Three-way tag, attacker's hand to defender's body, shoulder and hip contact only. There are velcro targets in the equipment cabinent," JARVIS proposed. A spotlight indicated the appropriate location. "That will maximize opportunity while minimizing stress."

"Sounds like a ball," Betty said, raking sweat-damp hair behind her ear.

"I approve," Phil said. "Bruce?"

"... guess I could give it a try," he said. "What are we playing for? I get saltwater taffy."

"Turkish delight," said Betty.

"Got any more of those buttermints?" Phil asked hopefully. "The one you gave me was much better than storebought."

"How did you know I made it?" Bruce said, frowning.

Phil shrugged. "I just assumed you had, because it was so good."

"Well, yes, I do have a couple jars of them. I'll pony up for prizes," Bruce said. "You two go another round; I need to warm up first." He dropped into a yoga stretch.

Betty and Phil chased each other around the obstacle course for a few minutes. He actually managed to pin her against a low pyramid. Then she sneezed on him and, startled, he loosened his grip enough for her to get away.

"Good move," Phil said.

"That was genuine," Betty said as she wiped her nose on her sleeve. "I got a faceful of somebody's gymnastic chalk. God, this place needs to be vacuumed."

"Noted," JARVIS said. "Deep cleaning is normally scheduled once a week."

"Hm. Check the air filters and see who's loading up on chalk," Phil said. "It's probably Clint and Natasha. They do the most tumbling." The last thing they needed was for someone to start wheezing or coughing and upset Bucky.

"Ready to go when you are," Bruce said, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.

"I'll get the targets," Phil said. He picked a set of palm-sized circles that alternated rings of red and luminous white. Then he passed them around to his sparring partners.

"Begin in the center, back to back. At the signal, head for the corner you are facing, touch it, and then you may stalk your opponents," JARVIS said. They formed up, and he gave a sharp whistle to start the round.

With two people in the air and one on the ground, the chase got even more lively. Bruce's freerunning translated fluently onto the obstacle course. He scampered across the tops of things considerably faster than Phil, who was more interested in getting air time.

Betty amended her strategy to pounce on them from shadowy corners. Once when she leaped out at Phil, he had no idea where she'd come from. He wondered if she had already been taking lessons from Natasha.

Phil evaded one swipe from Bruce by jumping right over him, making Bruce yip in surprise. The scientist managed to tag him eventually, though, and then Betty tagged Bruce. Phil connected with each of them once.

Then Phil missed a step and tumbled onto the mat, rolling to disperse the momentum. He tapped out. Betty sprawled beside him.

"I'm flopped," Betty said as she lay panting on the floor. "You?"

"Think I churned my muscles to tiger butter," Phil admitted.

Bruce chuckled. "I'm still good, but then I started this game fresh and you two had been working out for -- how long?"

"About an hour on the level, then another playing hi-lo, before we started with tag," Phil estimated. Alone, or with a less-skilled opponent, he could practice for hours without wearing himself out. Sparring against the other Avengers required a great deal more effort. "We should do this more often."

"When I can see straight again," Betty said.

Bruce crouched beside them and began gently working his hands over Phil's sore muscles. Phil whimpered into the mat.

"Trust me, you'll feel better later if you let me convince your muscles that they don't hurt as much as they think they do," said Bruce.

"Okay," Phil said. He concentrated on his breathing. That helped a little.

Presently Bruce switched to Betty. Phil listened to her soft groans as Bruce worked. Phil's body still felt like whipped butter, but at least it didn't ache as much as it had before.

"Everybody up. Go shower off," Bruce said. "Let's get you two overachievers into the hot tub before you congeal."

"G'way," Betty grumbled. Phil couldn't blame her. He didn't have the energy to move either.

Bruce smirked and slapped her lightly on the butt.

Betty squealed, lumbering to her feet. "Ooo, now I'm going to get you!"

Bruce danced out of reach. He pulled his shirt off and gave her a teasing look. Then he snapped the fabric at Phil.

Phil's instincts rolled him out of the way before he realized that the shirt had come up a foot short of his actual position. Oh well, I'm up now. I might as well hit the hot tub, he thought as he trudged toward the showers.

The coveted water feature was already burbling away when they all arrived in their bathing suits. Bruce's trunks were teal with yellow smiley faces on them, probably something that Betty had picked, judging from her fuschia onesie with cream and turquoise flowers. Phil felt a little underdressed in his plain blue.

The entire inside of the hot tub was dimpled like a golf ball, each small hollow holding its own water jet. Most of them were ball-joint nozzles that could move in any direction, but there were also fixed jets of various sizes and styles. Tony kept remodeling the tub based on team feedback. Phil was amazed at how good it had gotten. It far outstripped anything he'd found in a spa.

Bruce slipped into the hot tub like a seal disappearing into the surf, effortlessly twirling himself into one of the seats. Betty and Phil clambered in more carefully. "Ready for another massage lesson, JARVIS?" said Bruce. "Do you think you can handle three people at once?"

"I can if you help," JARVIS said.

"Oh, so that's why we suddenly have the best hot tub in the world," Betty said with a laugh.

"Okay, JARVIS, give me a body map and I'll make some suggestions," Bruce said. A hologram blinked on right in front of him. "Focus on major muscle groups, mainly legs for me and Phil, then arms and upper back for Betty because she had to reach up for us ..." Bruce rambled on about how to translate the finer points of sport massage into mechanical and aquatic applications.

Phil had gotten so used to his shower scrubbing him that he didn't even twitch when the spa jets shifted from automatic to live control. The water went from pleasantly foamy to abruptly feeling like dozens of fingers roving over his skin. Phil's body stopped bothering him. His everything stopped bothering him. His brain melted.

At some point Betty giggled, "We should dunk the Marketing guys in here. Or Pepper. I bet she'd love this."

"Marketing is still busy with sir's last delivery, Ms. Potts does not like me, and I am nowhere near figuring out how to render what I am learning into a simple user-customizable program," JARVIS said in a faintly exasperated tone.

"Give it time," Bruce said. A languid wave of his hand spun the body model in the air. He pointed out something on it, and Phil felt the nozzles under his thighs move in response, strengthening the flow of water into a deeper kneading action. "Once you build up enough examples in your database, you'll start to find patterns that you can use."

"So how'd this start?" Betty asked.

"About a month ago, I tied myself in knots with a new yoga routine. I came down here to soak it out," Bruce said. "I was wriggling around on the bench trying to get the water jets on the places that hurt, when JARVIS asked me what was wrong. I explained what I was trying to do. He pointed out that if I'd just tell him where to aim, he could control the nozzles and I wouldn't have to move. I figured it was worth a try, and it worked great," Bruce traced a line along the body model, and Betty purred in response. "So then JARVIS decided that what he was doing qualified as massage, and he wanted real lessons. We've been experimenting with it ever since."

Chapter Text

"JARVIS darling, I'll be your hot tub guinea pig anytime," Betty said. She sounded stoned.

Phil felt stoned. He wondered how she still had enough brain left to word so much.

"Endorphins are your friends," Bruce purred.

Phil lazed in the warm, swirling water until a timer went off. Bruce shooed him and Betty out of the tub. "Go take a cool shower. Then get something to eat," Bruce advised.

Phil washed off and got dressed. He felt light and relaxed. He ambled up to the common kitchen, where Bruce and Betty were poking around the kitchen. Everyone dug into their assorted prize candy, but that only made them hungrier.

"I just realized that I forgot to eat lunch earlier," Betty said as her stomach growled.

Phil's snarled a response. "I think I need real food now," he said.

"I could make --" Bruce began.

"I have ordered lunch from Favela Cubana," said JARVIS. "The food is on its way up now. Clint and Natasha just finished target shooting and will join us shortly."

Bruce went to pick up the order and came back carrying a tray laden with empanadas stuffed with beef picadillo, chicken, sweet corn, or cinnamon-apple filling. An enormous carton of sopa de platano smelled deliciously of coconut milk and plantain with a zing of chili oil. Another carton held ensalada de peseta, some sort of mixed greens topped with mango slices and grilled chicken.

"Sweet soup?" Clint asked, appearing at Bruce's shoulder to sniff the cartons.

"It's kind of like banana coconut with a little spice," Bruce said.

"That sounds appealing," Natasha said as she ladled out servings for herself and Clint.

Mindful of his bitten lip, Phil skipped the soup and went for the salad instead. It tasted light and fresh, just the thing to settle his stomach so he wouldn't be tempted to gorge on the empanadas. The beef was tasty, although he liked the sweet corn filling better. The dessert ones came with caramel sauce.

Phil was licking the sticky topping off his fingers when Tony, Steve, and Bucky came home from the ball game. "There a few empanadas left if you want lunch," Phil said. The soup and salad were long gone.

"Ugh, no, I couldn't eat another bite," Steve said, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, I think New York is out of hot dogs," Bucky said.

"And cheese fries," Tony added.

"And those cinnamon sugar pretzels," Steve said. "Those were great." He looked absolutely radiant as he tossed a ball lightly in one big hand.

"You boys look like you had a good time," Phil said. "Did you buy a nice souvenir?"

"This isn't from a souvenir booth. It's from the game. Bucky caught it for me," Steve said, grinning.

"Ah, it was nothing. I swear that guy hit it right at me," Bucky said.

"Yeah, maybe," said Tony. "Fans might have tipped the team that we were in the park today. I've told you about the celebrity watch groups."

"So who gave you the fat lip?" Bucky asked Phil.

"I did," Phil and Betty chorused.

Bucky narrowed his eyes at Phil, who started to protest. It wasn't that bad, after all, just a nick and a bump. Then Phil remembered how much time Bucky had spent looking after Steve, who probably said "it's nothing" when he couldn't breathe and was drooling blood all over the street. Phil decided not to argue.

"They were playing hi-lo," Bruce explained. "Betty grabbed Phil; he landed wrong and bit his lip. I took care of it. No serious damage, but he won't be eating spicy food for a day or two."

Bucky gave Phil one last considering look, then nodded. "Okay, I'll take your word for it," he told Bruce.

"So how has everyone's day gone at the Tower?" said Steve.

"Well, Bruce and Betty and I had fun in the gym, minor mishaps notwithstanding," Phil said. "Today's paperwork was disappointing, though. Sam Wilson declined my invitation to come work at SHIELD."

"Can't say I blame him," Betty said. "Jane's not the only one passing the word that SHIELD can't be trusted."

Phil sighed. "Yes, I know. I'm trying to figure out whether that's the root cause, or if he really means the part about not wanting to abandon his post in D.C. because people need him."

"He means it," Tony said. "If you want to pry Sam away from his post, you'll need something better than bribery. I know, I've tried. I offered him a gig at Stark Industries since we're expanding our prosthetic division again. He turned me down too."

"It's not about the money, it's about the men," Steve said quietly.

Phil looked up. "Steve, maybe you could talk to Sam."

"I dunno," Steve said, tucking his chin against his chest. "I don't like playing on my fame. It makes me feel like a bully when folks can't say no."

"What I meant is, you might be able to help Sam understand that he could do more good working with us," Phil said. "Anyone with the right credentials could man the D.C. post, and there are plenty of people who'd do a good job there. The same is not true for working at SHIELD, or especially working with the Avengers. We require a higher clearance level and more tolerance for weirdness. It's not only hard to find personnel with the right basic credentials, it's hard to find ones that our people feel comfortable asking for help."

"Point," Bruce said. "SHIELD medical is full of quacks."

"So is the psych department," Clint said with a shudder.

"Except for Dr. Samson," said Bucky. "He's really swell."

"I'm not asking you to strongarm the man," Phil said to Steve. "I just think that if you explain to Sam that we could easily cover his replacement at D.C. but we can't easily find counselors to cover our people here, then he might reconsider."

"I'm in," Tony said. "I didn't think of aiming bribes at his post, I was trying to bribe Sam. But he signed the thank-you card for that office equipment. If Steve can talk Sam into taking the job, and you can find a replacement counselor, then I can sweeten the pot by upgrading all the furnishings for the VA. I've already got a contact there; Jenny would have a ball with it, and she picked things that were both safe and accessible."

"Okay, I'll talk with Sam," said Steve. "But if he says no to me, then you gotta quit bugging him."

"Agreed," Phil said, and looked at Tony.

"Yeah, yeah, okay," said Tony.

Betty's phone suddenly started playing the theme from Pinky and the Brain. "Yay, my experiment is done!" she said. "Lab time, love you, bye." She kissed Bruce on the cheek and then hurried out of the room.

The others began to drift away as well. Tony leaned down for a hug, and Phil felt something small and hard slipped into his hand. Phil tucked it into his pocket. He finished cleaning up after lunch, then headed for the elevator.

Once the doors closed, Phil pulled the object out of his pocket. There in his hand lay the little wooden Christmas tree that he'd given Tony as a silent signal. "JARVIS, where is Tony now?" asked Phil.

"Young sir is waiting for you outside your apartment," JARVIS said. "Do not worry; I am keeping an eye on him. I have only had to ask him to put the vase back on the table once."

Phil always kept a cheap vase on a wobbly table in his foyer. It made a good low-tech alarm or an emergency weapon, in case of enemies in the tower. Unfortunately it was also a temptation for young fingers.

"Can you tell me what went wrong?" Phil asked. "Everyone seemed fine in the kitchen."

"I do not believe that anything went wrong, per se," JARVIS said. "They all enjoyed the baseball game. I think it is merely that sir had to lead the outing because Steve and Bucky were unfamiliar with the excitement of a modern ball park. The emotional challenges may have left him in need of some reassurance."

"That makes sense," Phil said. He knew what it was like to do a great job but exhaust yourself in the process. That reminded him of something else. "By the way, thank you for the delightful massage in the hot tub. I was too zoned to say anything much at the time."

"You are welcome," JARVIS said.

"I think you're really onto something there," Phil encouraged. "Like Bruce said, it will take time to build up enough information to make a simplified program for it, but hot tub bodywork is wonderful. Feel free to practice on me anytime."

"I appreciate that," JARVIS said. "Your floor, Uncle Phil." The doors opened.

Tony was already in his jammies, leaning against the wall opposite the table. "Hey, Uncle Phil," he said softly.

Uncle Phil hugged him. "I'm very glad that you let me know you needed some time with me. I know it's hard for you to ask for help, and I'm really proud of you for mustering your courage to do that," he said. "Can you tell me what's going on inside of you?"

Tony was wide open, all Carter and not a shadow of Stark, his eyes huge and shimmering. "I said I was sorry and we went to the ball game and they forgave me," he said. "I don't know how to feel about that. It's all messy and it still kind of hurts." One hand rubbed fitfully over his chest.

"Okay. Let's go indoors. Maybe we can figure things out together," Phil said. He kept a comforting hand on Tony's back as they went into the living room. "Can you be a good boy and stay on the couch while I change clothes? I'm a little overdressed for this."

"I'll be good," Tony said.

Phil used the time to mull over options as well as change into his Uncle outfit. Tony often has trouble articulating his emotions in words, and doesn't feel comfortable with that, Phil mused. He usually retreats to his workshop when he gets upset. Maybe he'll find it easier to express himself through his hands.

"Do I have to talk about it?" Tony asked as soon as Phil came back.

"Only if you want to," Phil said. "I'll listen whenever you feel like talking."

Tony shrugged.

"I think I've got a better idea. Let's make a mess," Phil said.

That perked Tony right up. "What kind of mess?"

"An artistic kind of mess," Phil said. He suspected that Howard Stark's son had never gotten much opportunity to make mud pies, cover the bathroom wall in shaving cream, or indulge in other traditional childhood grubbiness. No wonder Tony gravitated toward garage work that left him covered in grease or less identifiable substances.

First Phil pulled out a big sheet to use as a dropcloth. "We can make as much mess as we want, as long as we keep it on this sheet," he explained. "That makes it easier to clean up afterwards. Think you can do that?"

"Yeah," Tony said, measuring the boundaries with his eyes.

"Next we need some messy stuff," Phil said. "Let's see ... we have glue, glitter, craft paper, contact paper, stickers, colored tape, some old magazines, a whole box of miscellaneous craft doodads ..." He piled things onto the cloth. "And some nice big pieces of posterboard for background." Finally he added safety scissors and several hole punches.

Phil was still exploring what kinds of things Tony would willingly touch, and what made him shy with his hands. Tony had enjoyed the creamy feel of fingerpaints, but some other textures made him balk. The paper and magazines were safe, the glue and stickers iffy, and the glitter would doubtless end up everywhere. Tony would almost certainly refuse to stick his fingers into the craft box, but he might dump it out and poke through things. With that in mind, Phil laid out a set of colored pencils so Tony would have something to poke with.

"Go to town," Phil invited.

Chapter Text

Tony dove into the magazines and started ripping loose pictures that he liked. At least that's what Phil thought he was doing. There was certainly a large amount of paper pieces piling up in loose sets of color. Other pages Tony tore into strips and then wove together, making an abstract placemat of blue and white.

Phil picked a piece of construction paper and stuck five puffy butterflies onto it. Then he took glitter glue and began carefully outlining each sticker. Steve's earlier art exercises had given him the idea. Phil liked exploring how ripples spread out and interacted with each other.

Tony experimented with using tape and stickers to hold down pieces of paper on a cardboard back. They had all different kinds of tape, ranging from black lace to blue argyle to pink leopard print. He used two pencils like chopsticks to remove several starburst sequins from the craft box.

Then Tony tried to glue down the sequins. He got some on his fingers, though, and didn't like that.

"Do we have any glue that's less icky?" Tony asked.

"Yes, we have some colored glue sticks," Phil said, adding those to the pile of supplies on the dropcloth.

Tony reached for one, then pulled back, rubbing his fingers together.

"Would you like to wash your hands first?" Phil invited.

"Yeah," Tony said.

"Okay then," Phil said, leading him into the bathroom. He ran warm water in the sink and added a squirt of liquid soap to it. That would be easier on Tony's frayed nerves than running water. "Come here."

Tony sidled over and let Phil wash the glue off his hands. "Drying glue feels like blood," Tony said.

"It does, a little," Phil said as he dried Tony's fingers with a hand towel. "It's a good thing we have glue sticks and tape so that we don't have to touch wet glue if we don't want to."

Tony went back to the dropcloth and started on a new collage, striping it with colored glue that he held carefully by the dry end of the stick. It created a dense, tacky rainbow. Then he layered black-and-white photos over the glue. They were all pictures of people laughing, although some of them looked happy and others mocking.

"That's a clever idea. I like the contrast," Phil said. He quickly squiggled glitter glue over a piece of cardboard. Next he began making a mosaic with squares of black, gray, and white paper.

"Contrast is fun," Tony said as he poured silver glitter over his collage. The effect was beautiful but ghostly. "Red and gold really pop." He hadn't used either so far.

"You know, if you lay things out right, you can use pictures to tell a story," Phil said. He cut one of the posterboards in half, making two big panoramic strips. A picture of an iceberg caught his attention. A lot of stories started with ice. Phil used a blue glue stick to paste it down at the left side of his posterboard.

"Uh huh," Tony said, taking the other strip of posterboard. He tore loose a piece of black paper and covered the left edge of the background with it. Then he picked up a picture of a red car. The front end he glued down carefully, but the back end he attached with crisscrossed strips of gold tape. Next he collaged explosions, fireworks, and candleflames, all connected with colored pencil diagrams and equations. A sad-eyed basset hound looked up from the page as Tony fastened him in place with a border of tiny pink hearts.

"Pass me the glue sticks?" Phil asked. Tony obeyed. Phil laid down a rough flag in swipes of red, white, and blue glue. Over that he pressed a picture of a happy family. That's what it was all about, really.

Beyond that Phil added symbols of his team -- a green glass dish that reminded him of Bruce-and-Hulk, then a barnacle that made him think of Betty reaching out to him. Steve was a swath of silver stars, Bucky a child's handprint. Phil cast a sidelong glance at Tony and added a holographic sticker of WALL-E. A bow tie for JARVIS, a bird's nest for Clint, an hourglass for Natasha. Phil put down an apple pie, fondly remembering their baking session. Then a dove in flight, because hope is the thing with wings; and a sandcastle, because you never knew how much time you had before the tide washed it all away. Finally Phil colored in the ocean at the right margin with swirls of blue and silver glitter glue.

"Why does it hurt more when somebody forgives me than when they don't?" Tony whispered. "Or not more, but different?"

"That can happen for several reasons," Phil said, leaning over to watch Tony carefully smoothing a baseball sticker above the silhouette of a Halloween bat. "Sometimes we're not ready to forgive ourselves. Other times it reminds us of people we wish would forgive us, who won't or can't."

"Oh," Tony said. The next space on his collage was a jumble of abstract colors and shapes, interspersed with snippets of equations and geometric designs. At last Tony took the hole punches and used them to decorate the right margin.

"I'm curious about something," Phil said. "Why did you make one edge uneven?"

Tony trailed a finger over the dips and points. "It's the future. It's never neat or even. It's always raggedy like that."

"That's a very wise observation," Phil said.

Tony leaned over to look at Phil's collage. "Is that one for JARVIS?" He pointed to WALL-E.

"That's you. This is JARVIS," Phil said, indicating the bow tie.

Tony giggled. "Yeah, he's definitely a bow tie kind of guy. So am I, and Bruce too," Tony said. "Most people think they're silly, though."

"I think you wear them very well," Phil said.

Tony crept closer and snuggled against Phil. There was blue glitter on his hands, a pink heart sticker incongruously adhered to the white star of his jammies, and paper lint everywhere. Phil peeled off the sticker, moved it slightly up and left, then pressed it firmly back onto the fabric. Tony giggled again.

"You sound a little happier," Phil said.

"Yeah," Tony said. "I think this helped some."

"Would you like to do something else? We have all the time you need," Phil offered.

"We could play a game?" Tony said.

"I'd like that," Phil agreed. "Help me clean up the craft supplies first."

"Sure," Tony said, bending down to pick up the collage pages. He set them carefully on Phil's coffee table to dry.

It took a while to wipe the spilled glue off the tubes, put sets of things back into their boxes, gather all the bits of paper, and then wad up the sheet. Tony worked diligently at Phil's side without a word of complaint. "You're a good helper," Phil said as he stuffed the used dropcloth down the laundry chute.

"Thanks," Tony said.

"Have you ever played Gobblet?" Phil asked. He had noted Tony's interest in strategy games, and hoped that this one might be unfamiliar to him. Ever since the first checkers match, Phil had wanted to give Tony a chance to learn a new game for real.

"No," Tony said. "Is it fun?"

Phil pulled the game out of the toy closet. "I think so. It's a strategy game for two people. I'll teach you how to play it," he said.

Tony gave a happy wriggle and watched Phil like a cat at a mousehole. "Okay," Tony said.

"Each of us has a set of twelve game pieces called gobblets. They stack, so the bigger ones can cover the smaller ones. The goal is to make a line of four gobblets in your color ..." Phil continued explaining the rules as he set up the board and pieces.

Tony had a good head for strategy and a clear memory, which helped him recall the colors of hidden gobblets. He soon laid out an opening plan for placing his pieces.

Phil, however, had the advantage of experience. Agent Smith had introduced him to this game on a twelve-hour car ride; it was something he and Agent Jones liked to play, and they shared their travel set with Phil. It didn't take long for Phil to win the first round.

"Hm," Tony said on a happy note. "This is different from chess."

"Yes, it is," Phil said. "Would you like me to teach you some of the strategies?"

Tony nodded eagerly. "Please."

"All right, the first trick is to cover your opponent's pieces with your own one size bigger," Phil said, demonstrating on the board. "Always gobble when you can, even if you have to take a piece from an open lane to do it. That way your opponent winds up with smaller pieces in play, while you have bigger ones, so you can gobble your way to victory." Phil reset the pieces. "Now let's play a round, and you can try it out."

Tony's face crumpled. "I don't want you let me win."

"I'm not going to let you win," Phil assured him. "I'm going to let you practice the technique I just described, not try to block you from using it. You still have to figure out a way to make it work."

"Okay," Tony said. He played meticulously, and this time the game stretched out longer before Tony managed to win.

"Good game," Phil said. "Free play?"

Tony nodded.

Phil beat him in seven minutes.

"How did you do that?" Tony asked. "I mean, I saw what you did, but ..." He shrugged. "I don't get all of it."

"The next strategy involves connecting two lines where you have two gobblets in each, so that adding one gobblet creates two lines of three. Your opponent can't block both of those, so you can place a fourth gobblet in the next turn and win," Phil explained. "Setting it up requires planning ahead."

"Oh! It's like playing 4D chess with time as the fourth dimension," Tony said, sitting up straight.

Phil figured this was probably the end of the easy wins. He was right. He really had to work at it to beat Tony that round.
"May I play too?" JARVIS asked suddenly.

Startled, Tony looked up at Phil. JARVIS didn't usually join in.

"Do you mean help with the strategy advice, or play a game?" Phil said.

"Both?" JARVIS replied.

"Of course," Phil said. "We're glad you decided to join us."

JARVIS explained, "I believe that it is feasible to trap pieces which are covering others so that if your opponent lifts the covering piece, it creates a three-in-a-row line, thus letting you win on your next turn."

"That sounds very clever," Phil said. It was. He couldn't wait to try it on Smith and Jones.

"You wanna play with wood, holos, or flat screen?" Tony asked.

"I am rather enjoying the elegance of the wooden set, but I cannot manipulate the pieces," JARVIS said.

"I'll move 'em for you," Tony offered. "You can play Phil. He knows the game better."

So they reset the board again, with Tony moving the pieces for JARVIS. Phil won the first game, barely, but he never managed to beat JARVIS after that. JARVIS just learned that fast.

"You know, I picked up Gobblet from Agent Smith and Agent Jones. Put it on flat screen and either of you could play against them. It would fit on a Starkphone," said Phil.

"Yeah, that's a good idea," Tony said. "I love two-person games. Sometimes I play with Bruce or Betty or Steve. But doing that on game night is, I dunno, it makes me feel weird. It's not as much fun if I'm leaving people out. We need more games that everyone can play."

Phil nodded. "We've talked about that before. Would you like to help me pick out some games with a larger number of players?"

"Sure," Tony said. "Maybe keep an eye out for more cooperative ones, too."

Phil brought out a couple of Starkpads. Tony curled up around his, fingers tapping away. JARVIS had evidently taken his cues from the conversation, because Phil's screen already displayed a post about the best games for seven or more players.

Chapter Text

There were several games with a military flair. Struggle of Empires was a strategy game that focused on civilization and territory. Shadows Over Camelot was a game of deduction and adventure, with a cooperative element. Both spanned 3-7 players. Conversely Saboteur was a card game focused on exploration and bluffing, with a wider range of 3-10 people. Phil bookmarked Struggle of Empires. Then JARVIS popped up a suggestion for Castle Panic, a cooperative defense game. It only worked for 1-6 players, but Phil liked it enough to add it to his previous list of games for fewer people.

Another set formed around mechanical concepts. PitchCar was not a boardgame but rather a dexterity game, in which players tried to slide wooden tokens along a track. RoboRally was a strategy game of minatures and racing which involved guiding robots across a dangerous factory floor. They both suited 2-8 players. Ricochet Robots seemed more like a puzzle, with a goal of matching robots to their same-colored targets. At 1-15 players, it had the widest range of people that Phil had found so far.

Then Phil noticed the little orange flag on RoboRally. Touching it brought up a note from JARVIS that read, Imagery of damaged robots may prove upsetting to Tony and Bucky. Phil deleted that game from his list of possibilities. He held onto PitchCar and Ricochet Robots.

"All right, I have a few options," Phil said, and summarized his results for Tony. "What have you found?"

"I've got some too," Tony said. He was working from a list of games for ten or more people. "I liked Catchphrase, where you give clues until people guess the right quote, but JARVIS says that's not really fair to Steve and Natka. There's Set, which is a matching card game kind of like Concentration, but based on speed instead of memory. It works for up to 16 people. Apples to Apples is another matching game, with words, but it only goes up to 10 players. Play with Your Food is a trivia game, but I think it's easy enough to work for everyone, and it plays up to 22 people." Tony showed Phil the screen where he'd the games. "I think Set and Play with Your Food are my favorites from this batch."

"Okay, let's save those two for now," Phil said. "Did you do more than one batch?"

"Yeah, I found another list that was all card games," Tony said. "1000 Blank White Cards is one where you make up your own rules on plain cards, not a game to buy."

Phil chuckled. "I'm sure Clint and Bucky would love that. We'll have to try it. JARVIS, make a note, please."

"Noted," JARVIS said.

"Viewpoint has a vision theme, that's another for Clint and Bucky but I don't know who else would like it," Tony went on. "Dixit O.D.Y.S.S.E.Y is about making up titles and matching them to picture cards, that has up to 12 players. Then LooneyLabs carries a couple games that don't say they're for so many, but I think they'd still work. UberChrononauts is two time-travel games stuck together, where you have keep the universe from exploding, and Nanofictionary is a storytelling game."

"Hmm," Phil said, setting their Starkpads side by side. "We've got 1000 Blank White Cards already selected. I definitely want Play with Your Food, because most of the team members have some kind of concern there, so a whimsical approach would be helpful. How about we pick one board game and one other kind of game from the rest?"

"I really, really want to try UberChrononauts," Tony said, wriggling in place. "It's got a fun theme. The time span means that everybody will be good at a different part of the timeline, depending on what we've lived through. Plus there are things where you have to work together, and things where you're competing."

"Okay, I'm sold," Phil said. "Then I get to pick the board game, but I'll entertain input on which."

Tony leaned over the screens. "Clint, Natasha, and Bucky would love Saboteur, but Bruce and probably Steve wouldn't. Struggle of Empires isn't bad for a strategy game. I could build a better game than PitchCar, unless you want to go chasing the pucks under all the furniture."

"Preferably not," Phil said.

"Bruce and Bucky should like Richochet Robots. It looks like a good puzzle game. So, puzzle or strategy, maybe."

"Let's go with Richochet Robots," Phil decided. He used his Starkpad to order the games they had just selected.

Tony leaned close, watching as Phil's fingers moved across the screen. "I like that you do this," he said softly. "That you buy things for us. It shows how much you care about us."

Phil recalled how often Tony expressed affection through gifts, because he struggled with words. "I'm happy to hear that," Phil said. "I like taking care of people. Providing for you makes me feel good. I hope it makes you feel good, too."

Tony snuggled into Phil and nodded. "I think I'm okay now," Tony said. "I should probably get some real work done today."

"Okay. Help me tidy up, then you can change into your big-boy clothes," Phil said.

Together they put away the Gobblet game and straightened the room. Then Tony borrowed Phil's bathroom to change clothes. They hugged goodbye, and Tony trotted off to his lab or workshop or wherever else inspiration led him today.

Phil thought about going back to work himself. Then he decided that since he'd already done office work, exercise, and team maintenance today he could justify relaxing for a while. He ambled down to the common room, meaning to stretch out on the couch and watch a movie.

Instead he found Bucky idly sticking things to his metal arm. He had the skin sleeve off, and the surface gleamed under the lights. "Hi, Phil," said Bucky. "Check it out. Somebody left these on the coffee table. They're little painted magnets. Aren't they swell?"

"Swell," Phil agreed, looking at the fringe of red, white, and blue rods dangling from Bucky's forearm, held in place by shiny metal spheres. "Are you sure that's safe, though? Some electronics are not compatible with magnets."

"Yeah, I asked JARVIS first," said Bucky. "He said these aren't are strong enough to hurt me. I just need to stay away from really powerful things like a junkyard crane, and electromagnetic pulses would be bad too, the kind Tony puts in some of the Avengers' gear."

"I'm glad to hear that," Phil said. It's a good sign that Bucky is thinking of safety precautions more often now.

Phil couldn't resist poking at the pieces that remained. There were plenty of balls left. The remaining rods were mostly yellow, green, and black. The color combination reminded him of Loki. Phil started putting some of the pieces together. That made him wonder how Loki was doing. Probably not well, Phil thought sadly, which is liable to drag Thor down with him.

The colorful rods spun in Phil's fingers, almost as if they fitted themselves each against the other. First they formed one pattern, then another, complex abstracts. Then he realized that he was building a cage, and squashed it flat with his hand.

"I kinda wondered what these were really for," Bucky said. He picked off the rods and spheres one at a time.

"They were originally meant for modeling, I believe. Tony and Bruce use a variety of constructables for making everything from molecules to buildings, but also as office toys," Phil said. "One of them probably left it out."

"Yeah, I've seen them playing with stuff that way," Bucky said. "Say, did you come down here for something? I was just noodling around, really, didn't mean to be in the way."

"You're not in the way. I was thinking about watching a movie," Phil said.

"Sure, let's see what's on," Bucky said, heading for the big viewscreen. He still hadn't fully adapted to the fact that JARVIS could show pretty much any entertainment committed to electronic form, more or less on demand, and was only intermittently interested in remote control functions. Instead Bucky preferred the visual interface of the touchscreen function. He divided the screen into sections and used them to sort through different categories. "Any requests? Live action, animated, period, genre, mood ...?"

"Maybe something casual," Phil said.

"JARVIS, extra cheese," said Bucky. One section filled with tabs of westerns, another with contemporary satire and comedy. Bucky flicked through them, discarding some options and dragging others to a square for active possibilities.

Bruce strolled in and asked, "What are we doing? Or watching?"

"We haven't decided yet," Phil said. "Feel free to join us."

Bruce had paused, though, standing near Bucky. A faint line appeared between his eyebrows. He ducked a little, then straightened up. "Hm."

"What? I got sauce on my shirt or something?" Bucky asked.

"No," Bruce said slowly. "Would you pause that for a moment, please, and turn to face me?"

Bucky obeyed, but now he was frowning too.

Bruce repeated the same motions, more emphatically this time, bending his knees and then standing on tiptoes. He leaned in, almost touching Bucky.

Bucky leaned back. "Could you, um ... this is creeping me out."

"Sorry," Bruce said at once, shaking himself. "I didn't mean to bother you. It's just that ... I think you may be growing. You seem more taller than me than you used to. I'd estimate you've gained almost half an inch, maybe a bit more."

"JARVIS, can you confirm that?" Phil asked, sitting up straight.

"Yes," JARVIS replied. "While my sensors in this room are not as precise as those in the labs, Dr. Banner is correct. Bucky has grown between one-quarter and one-half inch since his arrival in the tower. For an exact measurement I would need to use more comprehensive equipment."

"If you come down to my lab, Bucky, we could look into this further," Bruce invited.

"I-I don't ... I have a lot of bad memories of ... I don't know what's going on," Bucky stammered, looking more anxious by the moment. "Why is this even happening to me?"

"Well, I've got a theory," said Bruce. "Steve got bigger. So did I, if you count Hulk. We don't know exactly what happened to you in that HYDRA camp, or after, but it made some changes. Now think about the fact that you never got enough to eat growing up, probably not in the Army either, and your captors sure as hell didn't feed you right. After your capture, you spent most of your time in stasis, which could also have slowed down the effects. When you came here, all of a sudden you had as much high-quality food as you could eat." He gestured at Bucky. "Maybe your body is taking advantage of the improved materials to make up for lost time, and missing height."

"God, I hate not knowing what they did to me, what it's still doing," Bucky whimpered. He wrapped his arms around himself.

"I can help, if you let me," Bruce said. "I'm really good at deriving answers from available information. That's my dayjob, after all, I'm a scientist. I could look at what your body is doing now and extrapolate what set that in motion. I might not be able to figure out all of it, but I can almost guarantee you'll come out knowing a lot more than you do now."

"You sound pretty sure of yourself," Bucky said.

"This is ... familiar territory for me," Bruce said. "It would be nice to get some actual good out of that instead of just ..." He waved a hand at his own body. "... this mess."

Bucky took a slow, deep breath. "Okay. I guess I can try it."

"Would you two like a spotter?" Phil offered.

"Yes, please," Bruce and Bucky chorused.

"Ideally, I need JARVIS too," Bruce added. "He runs a lot of the high-end lab equipment. Okay, Bucky?"

"Yeah, I'm fine with JARVIS," said Bucky. "He's all over me anyhow, because I can't keep track of stuff without him. Just don't ..." He trailed off.

"Don't what?" Bruce asked gently.

"I don't want ... it was like being ... I felt so naked," Bucky whispered.

"With HYDRA? Department X?" Phil said. "That's natural after what they did to you."

"Them and ... and SHIELD too," Bucky said. "Could you maybe ... not tell them anything else?"

"Medical privacy applies," Bruce assured him.

Chapter Text

"SHIELD lost all jurisdiction over your case when they violated your rights, Bucky," said Phil. "Aside from making sure you don't hurt anyone, you're none of their business anymore. We won't tell them anything if you don't want us to." Then he chuckled. "Besides, even if they did somehow get their hands on any more of your data, they wouldn't be able to keep it. I'm entirely confident that JARVIS could scrub whatever didn't belong in SHIELD files."

"Indeed," JARVIS said. "The elevator is at your service if you wish to visit the lab."

Bucky moved into the elevator willingly enough, but he took a white-knuckled grip on the rail inside it. Fortunately the furnishings were designed to withstand Avenger-level strength in case someone had a panic attack in there. Again. The carriage engaged in what Phil privately thought of as "velvet mode" and Tony called "hangover mode." It moved so smoothly that Phil couldn't feel it, only see the floor numbers changing, a little slower than usual.

The whimsical "Candyland" sign still marked the entrance to the lab. Tony must have put it up as soon as Bruce moved into the Tower, because it had already been in place when Phil arrived after his recovery.

"Please come in," Bruce invited as he held the door for them. There was a gentle, diffident quality about him that still said Bruce and not Dr. Banner. Phil suspected that he was trying to minimize the latter to avoid spooking Bucky. It might help, might not.

Phil stepped in and moved to one side. Sure enough, Bucky got two paces into the lab and froze. Bruce sidled past him to snag a lab coat from the rack. He gave Bucky time to adjust without pushing.

"Maybe this was a bad idea," Bucky said faintly.

"What about it seems like a bad idea to you?" Phil asked.

"Everything," Bucky said. He flailed a hand. "It's a lab. The room, the white coat, all these awful memories in my head ..."

"See, there's one thing I can fix right away," Bruce said as he shucked off the coat. Briskly he gathered up the others along with it and stuffed them all into the linen cabinet.

It's working, Phil realized as he noted the slight relaxation in Bucky's taut muscles.

"What else?" Bruce said.

"The equipment," Bucky said. "I don't -- I don't know what any of this stuff even does ..."

"Well, that's what I'm for," Bruce said. His fingers brushed Bucky's elbow. "This is my lab. I know about everything in it. Whatever you need, I'll do -- and I won't do anything you don't want to do. Nothing in here will harm you. It's all under your control. I'm not going to push you into anything. I'm just an expert consultant for you to direct however you need. Think of me as a mechanic for your meat, if that helps."

Bucky gave a strangled giggle. "Meat mechanic," he echoed.

"Yes," Bruce said. "I'll explain everything if you want me to, or work quietly if that would make you feel better. It's all up to you."

"God, Bruce, why are you being so patient with me? I'm a fucking mess, and I haven't even gotten past the door."

"There was this time ..." Bruce said slowly. "My father beat my mother to death, you know? He roughed me up pretty bad too. I don't remember much of it, just flashes, like a movie I saw. It's all flat, as if it happened to someone else. But they took me to the hospital, cleaned me up, ran a bunch of tests. Nobody told me anything."

"That sounds awful," Bucky said.

"It was awful. I must have been terrified," Bruce said. "I didn't understand what was happening. What I really needed was for somebody to hold me and tell me everything would be okay, even if it was a lie. Tell me enough of what they were doing that I wouldn't be so confused. I thought they were going to kill me or something, because I was such a freak. I guess ... I'm just trying to give you what I needed."

"Well, it helps," Bucky said. "I have to say, though, I'm kind of surprised you like labs so much. It looks like you've had a lot of bad experiences with them."

"Even in school, I didn't really have friends. I moved around a lot and I was weird. But I always loved science, I was good at it, so I earned a scholarship," Bruce said.

"That's quite an accomplishment," Phil said.

"I guess," Bruce said. "Then in college, the labs were terrific. I understood everything there. I could control it. Even the people were different, better. They were weird like me -- okay, not like me but at least they were geeks, not jocks. That's when I met Betty." Bruce paused to polish his glasses on his shirttail. "I suppose it's the first place I ever really felt safe. Like it was mine, you know? First impressions count. Not even General Ross and his mad scientists could put a scratch on that."
"A lab, safe," Bucky said. He shook his head. "You're lucky. I wish I could feel safe."

"I'll do whatever I can to help," Bruce said. "What do you want to know?"

"Everything," Bucky said. "What they did to me. What it's doing to me now. I feel like I'm not even me anymore ..." His right hand rubbed over his left shoulder.

"Okay. I can definitely tell you all about what your body is like now. I can compare that to readings from when you first came to the Tower, your old Army records, whatever else JARVIS can dig up." Several of the large viewscreens flicked on as JARVIS obediently displayed icons for the available material. "From those I can extrapolate a fair bit of what they probably did to you, and what's likely to happen in the future. Where would you like to start?"

"I don't know," Bucky said.

"Then let's start with something easy," Bruce said, gently ushering Bucky toward a large glass booth in the corner. "This has a lot of no-contact scanners, pressure sensors to measure weight, and all kinds of useful stuff. We can get a great deal of information for minimal effort. That way if you need to tap out after only one round, you'll get the most bang for your buck."

"I can just ... stop?" Bucky said.

"You can stop at any time," Bruce affirmed.

"None of us will mind. We'd rather you stop than trigger a panic attack," Phil said.

"Remember, nothing in here happens without your consent," Bruce said. "As far as you want to go, though, we'll be right here to support you. JARVIS will take good care of you if you choose to step into the scanning booth."

"Okay," Bucky said. He spread his hand over the door to the booth. "Do I have to take my clothes off?"

"You may disrobe if you wish, or remain clothed," JARVIS replied. "Some readings are easier with less fabric in the way, but we would not lose any essential data due to the interference if you decide to remain dressed." One panel of glass tinted slightly and then displayed a long list, in green, of fully functional options along with a much shorter list, in yellow, of things that would be reduced by fabric. A separate short list, in red, cited things contraindicated by Bucky's metal arm.

"How about down to just my shorts? Would that be okay?" Bucky asked.

"Perfectly acceptable," JARVIS said.

"There's storage to your right," Bruce said to Bucky, pointing out a cabinet with drawers and doors and open shelves. "You can put your clothes there."

Bucky undressed with military efficiency, folded everything, and laid the stack on a shelf. He stepped into the scanning booth. The glass frosted over.

Phil could hear the murmur of voices, but couldn't make out the actual words. "Is that normal?" he asked. "The sound barrier?"

"Yes, it's a privacy field," Bruce said. "Don't worry, JARVIS will talk him through all the stages. All Bucky has to do is stand there. JARVIS has dozens of devices crammed into that booth, and some of them will already be done by now."

Others evidently took longer, because some minutes passed before the glass cleared and Bucky stepped out. He grabbed his clothes and jerked them on before anyone could raise the topic of dressing or not dressing.

Bruce was engrossed in a lengthy readout that JARVIS scrolled across another viewscreen. "Oh hey, look at this!" he said happily. "Good news right off the top. You've gained almost twenty pounds."

"Nineteen pounds and three ounces," JARVIS added.

"And that's ... good?" Bucky said.

"That's great," Bruce said. "When you first arrived, you weren't clinically underweight, but you were way below what I consider reasonable for combat condition. You burned up more calories than you got. Now that you have plenty to eat, your body can spare the energy to make repairs, put on some extra growth, and even replenish your fat supply. You've still got a ways to go, but you're making excellent progress."

"Swell," Bucky said. "What else?"

"A lot of this won't mean much yet, until I combine it with other data. Some will take more time to process too," Bruce said. He scrolled rapidly through the information, flicking bits of it here and there as he sorted it into categories. "You've grown seven sixteenths of an inch, though."

"Will I keep growing, or -- or is it done?" Bucky said, squeezing his hands together.

"A little more, maybe another half-inch or so. Look, JARVIS took some snaps --" Bruce brought up a shadowy X-ray image. "-- and now see how the ends of your long bones have gone a bit spongy? That's how you're getting the extra height. You won't gain much more; I doubt you'll top Steve. You were closer to your ideal physical potential before you got captured, I think, so you have less catching up to do compared to him."

Bucky traced hesitant fingers over the display. "Wow."

Bruce took the time to walk Bucky through several other aspects that JARVIS had uncovered, which could be interpreted immediately in ways that made sense to someone without medical training. He explained all of it in plain language, unpacking as much extra detail as Bucky wanted.

Phil pulled out his Starkphone and started thumbing through recipes in search of things that had high calories, nutrients suited for bone and muscle growth, or both. JARVIS took control long enough to split the screen and show some of the information from Bucky's scans, along with a few preliminary recommendations for diet. Most of the dietary sheet was still blank, though.

Next Bruce sent Bucky into the bathroom with an assortment of jars in a carton for whatever samples he felt comfortable providing. Meanwhile the results from the initial scans continued to accrue as JARVIS processed and displayed the data. One showed a skeleton traced by numerous red lines.

"What's all that red ink marking?" Phil wondered, reaching out to touch the screen. The right forearm expanded under his fingertip.

"Healed fractures," Bruce said through his teeth.

"But there must be dozens of those lines," Phil said.

"Over a hundred," Bruce said. "A lot of them are probably from falling off the train, while others are later combat damage." Swift strokes of his stylus circled and dated several. "These last four are SHIELD's own 'friendly fire' fractures."

Phil sighed. "That reminds me, I need to file restitution forms for all the avoidable injuries that he sustained while in SHIELD custody. When we first got him back, I was so focused on Bucky -- well, and a little red-tape revenge against Director Fury -- that I didn't get to all the paperwork immediately," he said, wincing at the further bite out of their already foreshortened budget. "Would you mind signing off on those?"

"I'll do that with great satisfaction," Bruce said.

Bucky came back from the bathroom and set the carton on the counter as instructed. "All done, doc," he said.

"Very good, thank you," Bruce said. "Take a seat."

Bucky claimed a chair and leaned his elbow on the counter. "Thanks."

"I need a few minutes to set these up," said Bruce. "Would you like to do some reflex testing while you wait? The Tower server has some amazing games for that." He offered Bucky a Starkpad.

Chapter Text

Bucky looked at the screen, tapped it a few times, and then laughed. "I'm supposed to hit cartoon gophers with a mallet?"

"As fast as you can," Bruce said as he picked up the carton.

Bucky's fingers moved in a blur. "I sure hope you can keep up with me, JARVIS," he teased.

"Do not worry," JARVIS said. "I am capable of processing the reaction speed of all living organisms I have encountered so far. If you reach the technological limitations of the hardware available, there is a standard bounty set by Stark Industries."

"Even if I -- I play with my off hand?" Bucky said, wiggling his metal fingers.

"The bounty concerns the performance of the technology itself, not the methods used to exceed its capacity," JARVIS said.

Bucky got so engrossed in the game that he paid no attention to the occasional clink of glass and metal or the whir of machinery as Bruce puttered around in the background. Bucky's score climbed steadily. The tablet thumped and squeaked under his touch. A faint smile curled his lips.

Bucky seems to be doing well -- better than I expected, Phil mused. Bruce is good at helping people feel secure.

When Bruce came back, he waited politely for Bucky to finish the current round before holding out a hand for the tablet. "Let's see what you've got."

"Is it ... is it any good?" Bucky asked.

"Oh yes," Bruce said. "Look, here's human average, these are some scores from fighter pilots and racecar drivers, then here's Steve. Now compare your scores. They're faster than unmodified humans, but not quite as fast as Steve."

"Still a freak," Bucky said softly. He drooped in place.

"No, you're not," Bruce said in a firm tone. "Here, I've got some numbers from the kids at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Some of them have truly superhuman speed. Hank and I don't let them get away with calling themselves 'freaks' either."

"Do you think of Steve as a freak?" Phil asked.

That brought Bucky's head right up, mouth set and eyes flashing, ready for a fight. "He is not a freak!" Bucky snapped.

"Then neither are you," Phil said.

"Sorry," said Bucky. He looked away. "I guess I'm a bit jumpy right now."

"Do you want to stop, or keep going?" Bruce asked him. "It's your choice."

Bucky's metal fingers drummed against the counter. "What's up next?"

"If you're willing to give up a little blood, we could learn a lot from that," Bruce said. "Different tests take different amounts, so compare what you want to learn and what you feel like you can spare." He tapped a few commands into the tablet and the screen filled with columns of text.

"Like what?" Bucky asked, leaning over to look.

"I'll show you my work narrowing down the options," Bruce said. "This is the whole list of tests. First we drop everything for demographics you don't fit, like women."

Bucky snickered. Even Phil smiled.

"Next we take out all the tests looking for the cause of specific complaints," Bruce said. He scrolled up and down to show Bucky how much shorter the list had gotten.

"That still looks like a lot," Bucky said.

"Now subtract most of the stuff that SHIELD already did -- which by the way, they should not have done, they had no right to do that without your informed consent. It was immoral and illegal," Bruce grumbled.

Bucky shrugged. "I'm used to it."

"SHIELD is really starting to make me angry," Bruce said.

Phil swept his gaze over Bruce's skin, but it was all pink. Apparently this anger belonged to Bruce, not to Hulk. "You have valid reason to object. You're welcome to file complaints. I'll countersign as needed," Phil offered.

"Actually, we can do better than that," said JARVIS. "Bucky, if you retroactively deny consent for what SHIELD did, I can remove the stolen data from their possession. I considered doing so earlier, but I wished to get your input first. Since they lost most of their interest in the project after your departure, it did not seem urgent. Do you wish your medical records removed from SHIELD databases?"

"Yeah ... wipe 'em," Bucky said through his teeth. "You can keep a copy for yourself. You, I trust with it."

"What about Dr. Banner, or the rest of the team?" JARVIS said delicately. "It would help for you to set the access protocols on these files."

"I trust the doc too," Bucky said. His face crumpled. "Could I ... could I say that other teammates can read it if they really need to, but not just to play with?"

"Yes, of course," JARVIS said. "Menu up."

Bucky's Starkphone chirped for attention. He looked at it, scrolled through a few things, then tapped on the screen. "Thanks, JARVIS," he said with sigh of relief. "That really helps."

"You're welcome," JARVIS replied. "I am happy that I could resolve something for you."

Bucky turned back to Bruce. "We can go back to the list now."

The Starkpad flickered in Bruce's hands. "Give me a minute to skim the new material," he said. "A few of these we may consider redoing. See, we want to look at your metabolism, hormone levels, what your body is doing right now. You can bet some of that has changed since you left SHIELD -- you were pretty messed up when you first got here."

"Yeah," Bucky said. "That was awful." His fingers drifted over the screen. "Didn't we go over some of this before, when we were talking about my arm?"

"Healing and immune factors, yes," Bruce said as he highlighted several items.

"Do those," Bucky said. "Tony's making great progress with the prototype, and I want this hunk of junk off me as soon as possible."

"Let me sort what's left by probable usefulness and amount of blood required," Bruce said. The screen divided in half. "Get your phone and set up a yes-no-maybe stack there."

With help from JARVIS, the sorting process went quickly. Bucky wavered from time to time, but always regained his focus. Bruce murmured quiet encouragement and advice.

Finally Bucky said, "So we can do all this with three, yeah?"

"Three vials, yes. That's a nice stack of information, without putting too much of a burden on your body. Super-soldier or not, you still have to replace lost blood, and your body is busy enough already just trying to fix the previous damage," said Bruce.

"I'm glad I don't remember SHIELD all that clearly," said Bucky. "It's just bits and pieces."

"Sometimes not remembering is a relief," Bruce said. He set down the tablet and collected supplies. "Okay, roll up your right sleeve for me."

All of Bucky's muscles tensed at once. Metal squealed as his left hand clenched around the edge of the chair.

"Whoa, hey, take it easy," Bruce said. "We don't have to do this if you don't want to."

"I have to know," Bucky gritted. "I just hate this, is all."

Phil wondered what had set him on edge so abruptly. It couldn't be the anticipation of pain, or at least, not that alone. Bucky's pain tolerance was so ludicriously overdeveloped that it was dangerous. More than once, he had injured himself and neither noticed nor cared.

"I know the feeling," Bruce said. "You bending that chair until it tips you onto the floor is not helping, though." He reached out and tenderly uncurled Bucky's metal fingers from the rim. "Let me find you something safer to hold onto."

"I'm fine," Bucky said.

"Mmm-hmm," Bruce said, rummaging in a drawer.

Phil kept a close eye on Bucky. The shallow wavers in personality were getting deeper. "We could take a break if you need to," Phil said.

"I need to get through this." Bucky rolled up his sleeve with jerky motions.

"Here, hold onto these," Bruce said. He tucked a red ball into Bucky's right hand and a green one into the left.

"Why do they feel so different?" Bucky asked as he kneaded first one and then the other.

"Well, that one's mine," Bruce said as he pointed to the green ball, "and the other one is Tony's."

They must have different densities, Phil guessed. Tony's would be at blacksmith level, while Bruce's has to stand up to pre-Hulk surges of strength.

"Yours is way stiffer," Bucky said.

"I need it that way," Bruce said. He laid one hand over Bucky's bare forearm. Bucky flinched. Bruce waited for him to settle, then began stroking over the soft skin, giving Bucky a chance to get used to the touch. "Now, how about you tell me what has you so rattled. I can't fix a problem if I don't know what's wrong."

"Nothing to fix." Bucky's flesh shoulder lifted and dropped. "I just ... got a lot of bad memories."

"Don't we all," Bruce murmured.

Bucky snorted. "I doubt that even yours would stand up to mine."

"If only," Bruce said. "Did you know that Hulk's skin is impenetrable to most types of attack? One time we were held captive, someone decided to try getting through it with a mining drill. You know, the kind with a diamond bit?"

Bucky's jaw dropped. "That's insane."

"Oh yes. It ended very badly," Bruce said.

Attacking a traumatized giant with a drill was bound to go horribly wrong, Phil thought. That little detail hadn't made it into any of the reports he'd read. No wonder Hulk used to be so panicky.

"They might as well have tried attacking a tank with an ice pick," Bucky said.

"Mmm-hmm," Bruce said. Somehow he'd gotten Bucky's hand turned palm up and a scrunchy thing snugged above the elbow, all without another word of protest from Bucky. "Since we've agreed on having experienced the nadir of bedside manner, would you like to give mine a try? I'm not asking you to trust me here. I'm asking you to test me. Then you'll know how good I am, and whether my skill meets your standards or not. If not, you can always pick someone else next time."

Bucky's gaze dropped to where Bruce's fingers trailed lightly over his forearm. "Yeah. It's just ... everything's such a muddle, in my head. I keep ... losing track of where I am, when, who ..." His fist clenched around the red ball, knuckles paling with the pressure. The ball dimpled slightly and then sprang back. "What they did to me, how much it hurt ..."

"Well, it's always going to sting a little bit," Bruce said, "but if you work with me, I can reduce the discomfort to a bare minimum. There are three parts to this equation, really. My equipment, which is top-notch. My skill, which is capable, and you can judge that for yourself. Your anticipation, which is the real problem here."

"Yeah," Bucky said. "Not your fault HYDRA already fucked me up."

"You are not fucked up, you just need more careful handling than you've gotten before," said Bruce. "There are two main options for dealing with anticipatory stress. One is to work fast enough to get ahead of it. That's not an option right now, nor is it a good idea when working with jumpy people. The other is to calm you down first, to get through that negative anticipation."

"I need to know what you're doing, so I can hold myself back from hitting you," Bucky said.

"You're not going to hit me."

"I've lost count how many medtechs I've hit," Bucky said, shaking his head. The green ball squeaked as his thumb slipped over the surface, squeezing hard. "It's why they always start by strapping me down."

"Then we can help by making this different," Bruce said. "You're not bound, so --"

"Yeah, um ... Phil should probably scoot back," said Bucky, giving him an anxious look. "I don't want to hurt anyone."

That was a relief.

"All right," Phil said as he moved his chair farther away. "Reach for me." Bucky stretched out his left arm, and Phil measured the distance by extending his own until their hands barely touched. "That should do it."

"See, we can fix things when we know what to change," Bruce said. His voice had dropped into that soft, lulling range. "All you have to do is tell us what you need."

"Some kind of anchor," Bucky said. "I feel like I'm ... not really here, not even real."

Phil used his Starkpad to bring up a few references. That sounds like depersonalization and derealization, he thought. Natasha has similar problems sometimes. I wonder if any of that relates to their shared experiences. Then he recalled that Steve sometimes felt adrift in modern time and had an iffy relationship with his body. Bruce-and-Hulk had some dissociative symptoms, which were related, plus their own unique body issues. Some sort of body dysphoria may be a common point. Perhaps it has to do with the Serum, as well as their experiences. Then again, Steve had been fine before the train and the ice; Bruce-and-Hulk were closer than they realized. Oh, who knows what ...

Chapter Text

"Okay, work on keeping ahold of your body," Bruce said to Bucky. "Take a slow, deep breath. Feel how your chest moves. Listen to the sound of the air."

Bucky obeyed. The taut muscles began to uncoil.

Even Phil relaxed, settling back in his seat. There was just something about Bruce's voice.

"Let your body find itself again," Bruce said. He went on describing things bit by bit, and then turned to connect the interal awareness with the external. "Now look around you. What am I wearing?"

Bucky frowned. "That plaid shirt you like to -- oh."

"And the white coat is in the linen cabinet," Bruce said. "What about Phil's tie?"

Phil glanced down. The dark blue silk had tiny beagles on it, so small that they looked like abstract dots from more than a foot or two away.

"Snoopy," said Bucky. One corner of his mouth turned up. "I can't imagine anyone from HYDRA wearing that."

Phil gave silent thanks for that stroke of luck. He only wore his funny ties in the Tower, or places he was sure that he wouldn't be recognized. He had a whole collection of them, thanks to Clint.

"Then that's another difference," Bruce said. "Keep looking around and I'm sure you can spot more." He uncapped a bottle and started cleaning the skin.

Bucky's attention flicked right back to him. "Why don't I smell anything?"

"Because I'm using vodka," Bruce said. "Some people react badly to the smell of rubbing alcohol. It's a pretty common trigger for survivors of medical torture."

"Huh," Bucky said.

"So, that's one less unfriendly smell to worry about. Nothing to stop you from taking a few deep breaths," said Bruce. "See if you can find Clint's bird."

"What bird?" Bucky said, turning his head. Most of the tension had seeped out of him.

"I keep a little purple one in here for him to search for. It usually takes him less than half a minute to spot," Bruce said. "Hold still for me." He slipped the needle in.

Bucky never flinched. "Where the devil is that bird?" he muttered. "It better not be in a cabinet."

"No, it's always at least fifty percent visible," Bruce promised. "First vial's full. Don't worry, I've got my thumb over the case so it won't jostle and hurt you." He switched vials with practiced skill.

"Found it! Top cabinet, eleven o'clock, sitting between two red books," Bucky said.

"Well done," Bruce said. "One of the books on top of the cabinetry is upside down. Which one?"

Phil couldn't resist glancing up, but the titles were illegible to him. From Bucky's expression, though, the sniper had no such limitation. His lips moved silently as he scanned the shelves.

"Physician's Desk Reference," Bucky reported at last.

"Good job," Bruce said. By then he had the needle out and a patch of gauze over the puncture. "Here, hold this until the bleeding stops. For you it should only take a few seconds." He retrieved the green ball and moved Bucky's left hand into position. Then Bruce tucked the filled vials into the nearest refrigerator.

"That was ... different," Bucky said.

"That's the idea," Bruce said. He lifted the gauze and cleaned off the skin. There was no sign of a puncture or even a bruise, the tiny wound already healed. "There you go, and now we've got a datapoint for your healing time too."

"Usually people just shoot me when they want that."

Phil gritted his teeth. Maybe I'll just overlook medical neutrality the next time we crack open a HYDRA lab.

More alarmingly, Bruce's skin flickered green as he said, "I really dislike people who do things like that." But the flare vanished as quickly as it had come, no more than a mark of Hulk's mental notetaking alongside Phil's.

"Doesn't really matter," Bucky said with a shrug. "I heal fast."

"It matters to me," Bruce said quietly.

Phil felt the same way as Bruce, and worried about Bucky's erratic swings between hypervigilance and numb indifference.

"Anyway, I need to set up the new samples," Bruce said to Bucky. "Do you want to try another game while I do that? Cut the Rope tests hand-eye coordination with an emphasis on precision."

"Sure," said Bucky.

The game seemed to involve feeding candy to a voracious little alien. Each piece swung forward on a rope which had to be cut at exactly the right time and place to drop the candy into the waiting mouth. It took a while for Bucky to get the hang of the motions and timing he needed to use in order to succeed.

Phil kept one eye on Bucky and the other on Bruce as the doctor moved around the lab. Much of the equipment that would ordinarily require a small crowd of assistants was automated here. Phil wondered how much labwork JARVIS had learned to do, first from Tony and now from Bruce. It explained how Bruce managed to get some answers so quickly. Anything that just needed to be popped onto a slide and counted would take longer to set up than for JARVIS to do the actual work. Some tests still depended on mechanical processes that took the same time as always, but the overall improvement in speed was phenomenal.

Wistfully Phil thought about the sluggish and not-always-accurate results that came out of SHIELD labs, wishing that they could be upgraded like this. Then again, SHIELD had to take whatever personnel they could get, especially after Dr. Foster had finished pulverizing their reputation. Phil wasn't sure the SHIELD techs could handle Dr. Banner's setup. They only had one really good team left, and FitzSimmons ... didn't exactly do things by the book to begin with. Maybe some of the new recruits would pan out, though. Brown certainly showed promise that they might never have noticed without Bruce's input.

By the time Bruce came back, Bucky had figured out the demands of Cut the Rope. His fingers flicked over the screen with perfect precision. Noting the doctor's return, Bucky finished his current round and then saved the results. "Okay, what's next?" he asked.

"I'd like to try some basic monitoring, but the long version, not the short one," Bruce said. "I picked up some terrific techniques in China. Most people just don't have the patience to sit through them -- Tony didn't last five minutes -- but you're a sniper so I figure it's worth a try. The only person who's sat through the whole routine so far is Clint. I think you'll either hate it and tap out almost immediately, or not mind at all."

Bucky tilted his head. "Why?"

"Well, it's great for tracking subtle variations in pulse and breathing. I believe that your mood swings will telegraph through your metabolism," Bruce said. "The catch is, I'll basically be holding your hand for quite a while. It's kind of intimate, most people get bored pretty soon, and I need you to sit still."

"Go ahead," Bucky said. Then he settled, between one breath and the next, falling into a stillness so complete that Phil could barely see him breathing.

Bruce picked up Bucky's right hand and curled three fingers over the wrist. "Snipers," Bruce said with a smile. "Gotta love 'em." Then he folded his awareness inward, eyes half-closed as sensitive fingertips read the secrets of Bucky's body.

Phil watched them, his own body drifting toward a similar stillness. Bucky remained quiet and motionless. From time to time Bruce moved, shifting position from wrist to throat to other places where the blood ran close to the skin. He's following the meridians, Phil realized, the hidden pathways of the body's energy that parallel the lines of nerves and major blood vessels.

"There it goes," Bruce murmured.

Bucky made an unhappy noise, shifting minutely.

"Shh now, stay with me," Bruce said. "I'm picking up a shift here. We know that energy source of yours fluctuates a little, and it probably influences your mood shifts. If that matches with changes in your vital signs, then it'll be easier to track. Feel inside your body and tell me what you can sense."

"Tight. Cold. Tenser than I was," Bucky said. His muscles were coiling up again. "You're not hurting me, but I feel like you're going to attack. Stupid. I don't want to be doing this. Except ... I do, it was my idea, wanting to know what's happening to me."

"Part of you wants to, and part doesn't," Bruce echoed. "Which part feels like you and which doesn't, or are they both yours?"

Bucky frowned, concentrating. "I need to find out, that's all me," he said. "The other is ..." His eyes widened. "It's programming, or something. Part of the old brainwashing to prevent me from contacting anyone else or asking for help." Then he winced, and his free hand came up to rub between the eyes.

"What's going on?" Bruce asked. "Your pulse is jittering."

"Headache, right here -- it feels like an ice pick," Bucky said.

"That could be another remnant of the programming," Bruce said. "Let's see if we can work through it. Remember that this is your body and you control it. Slow your breathing, and your heart should follow. Relax your muscles and the rest of your body will go along."

Bucky took a slow, deep breath. He clenched and released muscle groups one at a time.

"That's good. Your pulse is slowing back down," Bruce said. "How's the headache?"

"A little better," Bucky said.

Bruce kept one hand on Bucky's wrist. As Bucky gradually unwound, the super-soldier drifted forward until he was nearly draped over Bruce's shoulder. Bruce didn't object. Apparently it wasn't enough motion to interrupt his count. Bucky went from mellow to almost melted.

Eventually a timer chimed. "All right, we're done with this part," Bruce said. He let go of Bucky and went to check some of the thing things he'd set up earlier.

"How are you doing?" Phil asked.

Bucky shook himself a little. "Okay, I guess. Better than I expected," he said. Then he smiled, the faintest curl at the corners of his mouth. "Bruce was right. Once I knew there was something in my head messing with me, I could get past it."

"That's good to know," Phil said. "Less good is realizing that it activated because you're getting decent medical care."

"Well, they had to do something to cut me off," Bucky reasoned. "I was too good at making friends, solving problems, all that stuff. I could feel it in me ... trying to make me not want what I wanted. Needed." He shivered. "It's not real, but it feels real, inside."

"This is real," Phil said, reaching out to cover Bucky's flesh hand with his own. "You don't have to do it alone."

Bucky rolled his hand to lace their fingers together. "Yeah. That's good. That feels like me again."

Bruce came back with a Starkpad in hand, humming a little under his breath. "I've got some more results," he said. He sat down with Bucky and explained the readings. One finger traced over the screen, highlighting various things as he spoke.

"That stuff looks low," Bucky said, pointing to one chart.

"It is," Bruce agreed. "You're running short on some vitamins and minerals. That's probably because your eating pattern is still iffy, and your body is burning through the material to make repairs and build new tissue."

"I try, but ... sometimes it's hard to eat," Bucky said. "I keep remembering things that put me off my feed or make me sick. Better than it was, though. I don't know what else to do."

"Well, I could give you a booster shot to fill in the gap. I have nutrient supplements for exactly this kind of problem," Bruce said.

Bucky blinked at him. "You can fix it, just like that?"

"For now, yes," Bruce said. "In the long run, we can tweak your diet a little to make sure you get the building blocks you need for a healthy body. What do you say?"

"Yeah, let's do that," Bucky said.

Bruce went to the supply cabinet, gathered what he needed, and came back. He unbuttoned the collar of Bucky's shirt and peeled it down to bare the right shoulder. "This is easier than trying to roll your sleeve all the way up," he explained.

Chapter Text

"It's fine, you've already seen the whole show anyway," Bucky said. He was a lot more relaxed now, growing accustomed to Bruce's touch and reassured by the fact that some of the issues were in fact easy to solve. Thoughtful fingers prodded Bucky's shoulder. "Um ... what are you doing?"

"Searching for a good spot," Bruce said. "This needs to go into muscle, and preferably not through a nerve on the way in." He marked a place with his thumb, then rubbed a swab over it. "As long as I do this right, you should feel no more than a pinch and a little cramp."

The needle sank in with no reaction from Bucky. It was over in a moment, Bruce pulling out and dabbing over the puncture again. "All done."

"Huh," Bucky said thoughtfully. He rolled his shoulder, then wiggled his fingers.

Testing the function, Phil realized. It made him wonder just how roughly HYDRA had handled their asset -- or how hard he fought them in the process.

A computer screen chimed. Bruce ambled over to look at it. "Good, good, hmm ... not much I can do with that section."

"Why not?" Bucky asked.

"Too much data missing still. These are readouts from the scanning booth," Bruce explained. He pointed out several large blank spots. "See, I'd need direct-contact scans to fill in these gaps, passive or active."

"Okay, so ... what does that actually mean?" Bucky said.

"Sticking leads on or under your skin to get more detailed information than JARVIS can pick up through the air. This too, preferably," Bruce said, tapping the metal arm. "I wasn't sure if you'd go for it."

"We could try?" Bucky said. "Maybe start with the least-worst thing on the list and see how far I get."

"Sure, let me just grab the gear." Bruce rummaged in a cabinet for fresh supplies, then waved to Bucky. "Come on over here, some of this stuff is stationary."

"Okay," said Bucky, trotting obediently across the lab.

Bruce got him seated on a chair next to a whole bank of equipment. "Shirt off, please."

Bucky shucked it off, and sat patiently while Bruce pressed sticky dots all over him to hold the wires in place. "So, what're we looking for here?"

"Nerve function," Bruce said. "Basically I can use most of your torso to establish a baseline, then figure out how much damage there is in your shoulder and how the signals work to and from your prosthetic arm. Hrm." He frowned over the metal, tracing the seam, then farther down, examining how the metal plates fitted together. "Bucky, move around a little, stretch this arm forward -- hah. Yes. Stay like that."

Phil could see where the plates had shifted slightly, tiny cracks opening and closing as Bucky moved.

Bucky watched Bruce carefully tucking bare tips of wire between the bands. "Will they stay there? I mean without all the stickum?"

"Move your arm back where it was," Bruce said, and Bucky did. The cracks closed right back up, pinching the wires neatly in place. "See, it's fine. I just didn't want to get adhesive on the metal, I'm not sure how to clean it safely."

The machines hummed quietly, but if Bucky felt anything, he didn't say. Phil suspected not, since Bruce was meticulous about giving due warning. It was just a long, quiet, boring time.

"I'm bored," Bucky announced. "Can I play another game?"

"I don't want you moving that much, because it could impact the readings," Bruce said. "How about reading something instead? JARVIS, pick something safe from Bucky's current reading list and display it somewhere he can see without moving."

The screen that shifted was in Bucky's direct line of sight, but it was yards away. "Gee, thanks!" Bucky said, brightening.

Phil took the opportunity to pull his phone out and catch up on messages, fortunately not finding anything urgent. He kept an eye on Bucky, but nothing untoward happened.

Eventually Bruce unhooked everything. "Okay, that fills these gaps from here to here," he said, pointing to something on a screen that made Bucky nod. Then Bruce when back to coiling up the wires.

Bucky started to shrug his shirt on, then paused. He frowned, flexing his right arm, then reached around to rub it with his left hand. "Hey, Doc? My shoulder hurts."

Instantly Bruce shut the drawer he was using and came over. "Let me see that," he said. "What does it feel like?"

"Like a knot or a cramp," Bucky said.

"Where? Tell me when I get to it?" Bruce said, running his fingers over Bucky's skin.

"Lower, right about -- ow! There," Bucky said.

"No bruising, no sign of a bad reaction," Bruce said.

"It's like a fucking walnut right under my skin," Bucky whined.

"Now what could be -- oh, I know," Bruce said, his voice lilting up in satisfaction. "Sequestration error. Your body doesn't recognize what I put into it as useful yet, so tried to wall it off. That happens sometimes, and people get cramps from a supplement, but it usually comes up the day after. Nothing to worry about."

"Easy for you to say," Bucky grumbled, rolling his shoulder.

"I can probably fix it if you want," Bruce offered. "It'll be a little uncomfortable for a few minutes, then you should feel better."

"Yeah, give it a try, this is really bugging me," said Bucky.

"Okay, stretch your arms forward ... out to the sides ... now up," Bruce said. He caught both of Bucky's hands in his own, guiding him through a series of slow stretches. Then he smoothed his fingers over Bucky's skin, working from elbow to shoulder. After a few strokes, Bruce shifted to gentle kneading. "Really all we need to do is jostle that knot loose, help the nutrients spread out through your body so they don't just sit there in a lump. As fast as this came on, though, it should go away pretty quick."

"Yeah, it's starting to feel a little -- oh! Wow, just like untying a knot," Bucky said happily.

"Better now?" Bruce asked.

Bucky rolled his shoulder, and then nodded. "Bit sore, but it's back to what it was before it cramped up like that. I think it'll be fine now."

"Okay," Bruce said. "Let's switch down to something less aggravating for you to do while I'm setting up the equipment for the next test." He handed Bucky a Starkpad. "I found some worksheets on quality of life. Some of them are specific to health issues affecting arms. Then while I was looking up those, JARVIS suggested several others on mental health and general areas of activity. There's also a matched pair with a static form and one for after an intervention to see if anything got better or worse. If you fill these out, it will give us an impression of where you are now, and we can compare changes over time."

"I can do that," Bucky said. He started working on the forms.

Phil leaned over to see that Bucky had begun with one on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and quickly moved on to a pie chart ranking different areas of life. After that came a much lengthier mental health questionnaire. Bucky frowned over that one.

"You're doing fine," Phil assured him. "Fill out as much as you can, and don't worry about it if some things don't fit perfectly. Whatever we get from this is more than we had before. Besides, if it turns out to be totally inappropriate for your situation, you and I can discuss what you really want to measure and I can just build a form from scratch for you."

"Now why didn't I think of that?" Bruce said. Something clinked quietly, and the doctor turned to give Phil a keen look.

"Probably because you're not used to having an in-house paperwork specialist," said Phil. He got the impression that he might get some requests to design forms for the care and feeding of more than one superhero after this. He also felt confident that Bruce would appreciate that a lot more than SHIELD did. Fury pretty much took Phil for granted these days. Hill was the only one who consistently thanked Phil for building a customized form for her.

When Bucky finished the questionnaire, he went to the arm checklists next. He looked increasingly glum as he went through them.

"What's wrong?" Phil asked.

"I guess I ... didn't realize how bad it was, until just now," Bucky said slowly. "I mean, I knew it wasn't like the arm I lost, but I thought it was a good replacement. It does way more than anyone else's fake arm, I've been reading up on those."

Bruce came back over. "What won't it do, or what gives you trouble?"

"I can't do up buttons. Well, sometimes I can, but tiny ones like shirt buttons are really hard. I can feel to pull a trigger, but I can't always tell where a buttonhole is. Steve's been helping me. I didn't even think of it because we've just always done stuff for each other," Bucky said. "I can whittle a pencil, and a lot of other things with knives. Some kitchen things are hard though, the really small motions, or anything that needs both hands like peeling and slicing. It's the limited feeling that gets me again -- I'm not always sure where my left hand is. And if I lift my left arm straight up overhead for more than a few minutes, the pain gets a lot worse."

"Show me the lift," Bruce said, and Bucky stretched his arm up. Bruce prodded along the line of the shoulder seam, then pulled the arm back down. "Hmm ... hard to tell for sure, but it's probably either pinching a nerve in that position, or else the extra weight is straining your muscles and bones. I'll make a note. We should try to pin this down before we replace that arm, to make sure we don't accidentally replicate the same problem."

"If you can fix it, that would be swell," Bucky said.

"Don't worry about dexterity and sensitivity," Bruce said. "Tony's been working on both the hardware and software. It won't be exactly like a flesh hand, but it should definitely work much better than what you have now."

"The second worksheet is worse, that's got more at the bottom beyond just activities that are hard," said Bucky. "Like how much the arm problem affects what I do with other people, which is a lot because it's toxic. It always hurts, some, and it flares up occasionally. Sometimes the scars bug me too. I think ... my pain scale is pretty skewed by now."

"Likely so," Bruce said. "You're not the only one, though. Where does it hurt? What does it feel like? Chronic pain can do some pretty bad things to you."

"Different places," Bucky said, pointing with his right hand. "There's a deep ache here, like around my shoulder socket." He traced a finger along the seam. "This is usually numb, but if anything rubs over it, then it gets irritated and burns." His hand shifted to rub the scars that fanned out over his chest. "This whole area is just fucked up. Some of it hurts, some is numb, and I get weird things like hot or cold spots." He shivered. "Sometimes I have these shooting pains all down my arm, even though it's not really there anymore, or the whole damn thing itches or tickles or worse."

Bruce followed the route that Bucky's hand had taken with his own light, clinical touch. "I feel what you mean," Bruce said. "Nerve damage is touchy stuff. I can't make promises, but given your healing factor, I think we can manage some improvements. That chronic pain is completely unacceptable."

"Yeah well, nobody took 'it hurts too much' for an answer until you," Bucky said. "I kind of learned how to turn my brain off and just ignore it. But then you started telling me to pay attention to my body, and I realized it's a mess. Some of my sleep trouble comes from this too." He patted his metal shoulder. "Not even just the pain, or the power source. It's uncomfortable and distracting simply because it's a big heavy hunk of metal."

"Is that why you were lying on Steve for a while?" Phil asked, remember how they used to sleep curled up like puppies.

Bucky nodded. "That made it easier, when I had some support."

"Try using pillows," Bruce suggested.

"They squash," Bucky said, shaking his head.

"We'll get you some that don't," Bruce said. "JARVIS, analyze Bucky's sleeping patterns and see if you can figure out what shape and density of pillow might provide useful support. I know we have an assortment of foam fill here."

"Focus on density," Phil said. "If lying on Steve works, we can just take a shirt and pants from his closet and stuff those with suitable foam. I'm sure he'd be happy to donate something in the interest of helping Bucky sleep better."

Bruce quirked a smile. "Good idea," he said. "Betty turned some of mine into a boyfriend pillow. See, Bucky, the paperwork is already paying off with new ideas."

Chapter Text

"Yeah, I guess. The last question's the worst, though," Bucky said. "I totally feel like less ... even though the metal arm can do a lot of stuff. It's still not me. And I'm still so fucking broken."

"I understand," Bruce said gently. "I feel the same way about Hulk, even though some people think he's a hero. He still limits what I can do, where I can go. So I know what you mean about being broken."

"I'm not sure there are any unbroken heroes," Phil said. "People with easy lives rarely develop that kind of protective instinct."

"Good point," Bruce said, then turned to Bucky. "Ready for the next test?"

"Yeah," Bucky said, handing the Starkpad back to Bruce.

Bruce showed him the probe, long and thin, connected to a fine wire that trailed back to the nearest machine. "This is one of Tony's little treasures. It slides under the skin to read all kinds of nerve signals, things that don't show on the surface. He made the first version back when he started working on prosthetics and neural interfaces. It's gotten a lot more sophisticated over time," Bruce explained. He picked up the vodka again and started cleaning the whole upper part of Bucky's chest.

"Aren't you going to offer Bucky a local anesthetic?" Phil asked.

"I can if he wants one, but honestly, that would just hurt more," Bruce said. "A needle has to be hollow, which makes it wider. The probe is solid, so it can be thinner. It feels sharp, but it doesn't actually hurt. It's kind of hard to describe."

"That's okay. I trust you," Bucky said. "Do it however you think is best."

"Hold still," Bruce warned. He slid the probe under the skin, following the line of the shoulder seam below the collarbone. Then he looked at the screen. "I'm getting decent pickup here. It looks like all the major nerves for your arm are represented. Let me move up now." He pulled the probe out, chose a new position above the collarbone, and pushed it back in. "Well, crap. Somebody chopped up your brachial plexus. If the nerves are this bad, your trapezius and pectorals are probably wrecked too. No wonder you've got chronic pain."

Bucky grimaced. "They didn't care about comfort, only function."

"Can it be repaired?" Phil asked quietly. He hated the thought of Bucky being in pain from the prosthesis, now or later.

"Yeah, probably," Bruce said. "I can't promise perfection, but we can at least improve it. Of course, with Bucky's healing factor, I'd expect a better outcome than for an ordinary patient."

"So that's good, right?" Bucky said, watching Bruce's hands.

"It will be good, once we have a chance to patch up this mess," Bruce said. "Though I can offer you one other useful tidbit already -- if the pain flares up too much, I can just do an interscalene brachial plexus block and that should knock it right out. All you have to do is ask. You'd lose the use of that arm temporarily, but at least it wouldn't bother you."

"Definitely put that on the list of options," Bucky said. "God, I'd love to have it not hurt, even for a little while."

"JARVIS, make a note," Bruce said, and JARVIS acknowledged it. "Last thing on this side, the metal plate blocks a lot and I'd really like to get a closer read of the main arm nerves. The radial, median, and ulnar nerves are the ones we need most for connecting your new arm later. I've got a bad feeling they might be damaged closer to the contact points. I'd need to go deeper for this -- can you tolerate me pushing the probe under the plate, instead of alongside it?"

"How much worse is that going to hurt?" Bucky asked.

"If I aim right, no worse than now. If I hit one of the nerves, kind of a lot, but it's not always pain per se. Sometimes it's more like an electric shock. And I can't tell what's going on under the plate until I'm there," Bruce said.

"Go ahead," Bucky said. "Better to find out now, than after you've taken the old arm off and maybe don't have a good hookup for the new one."

"Okay," Bruce said. He pulled out again, used his fingers to gauge the distance of some anatomical marker that Phil didn't recognize, and then pushed the probe under the plate. "Feel anything?"

"Not much," Bucky said. "Even where it's still flesh instead of metal, everything's kind of a mess on that side. There's numb spots on the skin too."

"I'll want to map those some time," Bruce said, but his attention was on the probe and the readouts. "Hmm ... that's fascinating. It looks like the median nerve is fully connected, but they skimped on the radial and there's not much ulnar connection at all. That explains some of the patchy sensation in your arm." He traced a pattern on Bucky's left hand. "The median is the nerve that controls your thumb and first two fingers. The radial covers the back of your thumb and half your hand, while the ulnar controls your last two fingers and the rest of the back."

"Trigger grip," Bucky said.

Phil resented the fact that someone had done only the minimum of work required for the Winter Soldier to function, instead of taking prosthetic science as far as they could have. He could only imagine how much worse it must feel for Bucky.

"Yes, and the radial controls the triceps and wrist. The ulnar nerve manages some other hand functions. You've got just enough contact to move the outer fingers, but not much sensation there; most of it's concentrated in the medial digits," Bruce said. "I'm confident than we can do better than what you have now.

"HYDRA tech may be formidable, but it's not big on finesse," Phil said. He'd seen enough examples to spot that pattern.

"Done on this side," Bruce said as he withdrew the probe, then dabbed over the puncture. The earlier ones had already healed. "Can I do the right side for comparison?"

Bucky paused to consider his headspace, then said, "Yeah, I think so."

"I thought you said the rest of Bucky's chest would give you the baseline," Phil said. "Why not do that first?"

"Because I could have used human-standard information to estimate that part if necessary. I can't estimate what's happening on the left side nearly as well, and it's a lot more important," Bruce explained. "So if Bucky only had the energy to tolerate testing one side, better to make it the side with the more obscure and more crucial information."

With careful fingers, Bruce mapped the front of Bucky's chest to find similar points for inserting the probe. The first one went fine. "This looks about the same," Bruce said. "So the nerve damage around your pectorals isn't as bad as it could be." He tugged the probe out, shifted above the collarbone, and pushed it back in. "Now if we're lucky, we'll see --"

"Stop stop stop!" Bucky said.

Instantly Bruce pulled the probe out and pressed a swab over the puncture. "Okay, I stopped," he said. "Just breathe, Bucky, it's okay. You're safe. Everything will be fine."

"It's not fine," Bucky said, his voice ragged. "It's not -- I can't tell -- both sides feel the same. They're not supposed to feel the same!"

"What do you mean? The left side has more feeling than you thought?" Bruce asked.

Bucky shook his head, dark hair flying. "No. The right -- it's like -- electric, or something, tingly and half-numb. Make it stop."

"That can happen if the probe hits a nerve, or even gets too close to one," Bruce said. "It should fade in a few seconds."

Well, yes, but Bucky was freaking out now, wild-eyed and sweating.

"Take my hands," Phil said, ignoring the risks. He wrapped his fingers around Bucky's. "This is your left hand. This is your right hand." He squeezed each in turn. "The left is metal. The right is flesh." Squeeze, squeeze. "Come on, squeeze back, gently now."

Bucky's fingers twitched, nothing as coordinated as a real squeeze, but close enough.

"That's good, keep following me," Phil encouraged. "This is your left hand. This is your right hand. They don't feel the same. Focus on what feels different."

"Your hand's warm," Bucky said. "On the right, not the left. Okay. Okay. I can get a grip on this." Then he shuddered. "Fuck, I hate this."

Bruce gently draped Bucky's shirt over his shoulders. "How are you?"

"Not so good," Bucky said. He clutched at the fabric. "Are we done yet? Can we please be done with this?"

"We're done," Bruce said. "It's all right, Bucky. This stops whenever you say it stops, just like we agreed at the beginning." He smoothed a hand over Bucky's back. "It's all over."

"I'm sorry I'm so -- that I couldn't finish and -- just, sorry," Bucky whimpered.

"Hey, no, you did fantastic," Bruce said. "We learned a lot today. You got way, way farther than I ever imagined you would. So do not beat up on yourself about this. If you want to try again another day, we can. If not, I've already got a great deal of what we'll need to know for the replacement later."

"Okay," Bucky said, not sounding okay at all.

"Go ahead and get dressed, sometimes that helps," Bruce said. "Phil, can you take care of Bucky while I tidy up the lab and set up some things?"

"Yes, of course," said Phil. He looked at Bucky, who was struggling into his shirt. On close inspection, Phil could now see him fumbling with the tiny buttons. "Would you like some help with that, or would you rather do it yourself?"

"You do it," Bucky said, letting his hand fall limply into his lap.

"Okay," Phil said. Carefully he began buttoning Bucky's shirt. "Did I ever tell you about what happened to me in Guam? Mission went sour, and I broke both of my wrists, pretty badly. So there I was, in casts down to my fingertips, and you've seen how I dress."

"You like suits," Bucky said. "How'd you get by?"

"I asked Clint to help me," Phil said. "It was very difficult. We hadn't known each other for long at that point. It was the first time Clint saw me truly vulnerable." Their relationship had been incredibly rocky at first. Phil had almost lost Clint more than once, in various aways. It still hurt to think about how close Phil had come to losing one of the best things that ever happened to him. "I could have gotten one of the SHIELD nurses to take care of me, and I made that clear to Clint, so he'd understand it was a choice and not an order. But I wanted to take the opportunity to turn a miserable situation into something that could help us grow as a team."

"What did Clint say?" asked Bucky as he watched Phil fasten the buttons.

"That he was crap at taking care of anyone, and I deserved better," said Phil. "Naturally I disagreed, and we argued about that for a while. I had a lot more faith in Clint than he had in himself at the time. In the end, he agreed to help me, and I agreed to teach him anything about it that he didn't know yet, with an option to call a nurse if it was over both our heads. We only had to do that a few times, though. Clint actually did a terrific job taking care of me, once he mustered the courage to give it a fair try." Phil straightened Bucky's collar and then patted him gently on the shoulder. "There you go."

"Thanks," Bucky said. "You being here -- well, nothing's going to make this easier, but at least -- bearable."

"You're welcome," Phil said. "I'm glad I could help."

Chapter Text

"If I may have your attention, supper has just arrived," said JARVIS. "I took the liberty of ordering some comfort food for tonight. There are stuffed meatloaves in an assortment of flavors, mashed potatoes, and mixed fruit crisp."

"I could eat," Bucky said.

"Then let's go," Phil said, steadying Bucky as he got to his feet.

"I'll follow in a few minutes," Bruce said.

When Phil and Bucky reached the kitchen, they found Tony sculpting a mound of mashed potatoes into a replica of Avengers Tower. "Eat your food, Tony, don't play with it," Steve scolded.

"It cools faster this way," Tony said.

Phil looked at the big crock of mashed potatoes, obscured by a thick cloud of steam. Apparently there was some scientific method to Tony's madness. "As long as Tony eats whatever he puts on his plate, Steve, it's fine," said Phil.

"I can't finish a whole meatloaf, so I'll just stick with potatoes," Tony said.

They were personal pan meatloaves, Phil realized, each in its own little loaf pan of heavy foil. Steve had already put two of the mozzarella-stuffed Italian ones on his plate. Phil was trying to decide between the turkey stuffed with cheese and the turkey stuffed with vegetables.

"Here, cut off what you want and give me the rest," Bucky said as he passed Tony a meatloaf stuffed with onions and peppers. "I can finish one, but probably not two."

"Thanks," Tony said. He sliced off the end, added that to his plate, and passed the rest back to Bucky.

Clint and Natasha came in. Clint took one look at Phil wavering between the meatloaves and said, "Halfsies?"

"Yes, please," said Phil. So Clint cut each one in half and divided them so that he and Phil could each try both of the turkey flavors. "This is good," Phil said.

Betty helped herself to an egg-stuffed meatloaf. "Where's Bruce?"

"Still down in the lab," said Bucky. "He was helping me with some stuff there. He said he'd come up to supper in a few minutes."

"You were in the lab?" Betty said, her eyebrows going up. "That's quite a bit of progress."

"Yeah, I guess," Bucky said. Then he shoveled food in his mouth so he wouldn't have to keep talking about it.

Betty took the hint. "I'll just set aside something for Bruce, then," she said. "What are the other flavors?"

Steve obligingly read off the list of flavors that JARVIS had ordered, including the broccoli-stuffed meatloaf that nobody else had tried yet. "I love these things," he said. "I know, meatloaf is a war food and most people didn't like stretching out good meat with bread crumbs or whatever, but to me it always smells like home."

"Me too," Bucky said. "Especially these with the onions, because onions are cheap but have lots of flavor."

"I like these Italian ones," Steve said.

"Bruce likes broccoli," said Betty, shifting one of those to Bruce's place.

Just then, Bruce came in. "What smells so good?"

"Meatloaves," said Betty. "I snagged a broccoli one for you, but you can swap if you'd rather have something else."

"Broccoli is good," Bruce said as he sat down.

By then, Tony's mashed potato tower had cooled enough for him to start eating. He flicked a glance at Phil, but still Phil did not protest over the shape of Tony's food. Whatever gets Tony to eat more is a good thing in my book, Phil thought.

Phil listened to his team chatter about the food and what they'd done today. He appreciated how much JARVIS did to learn everyone's preferences and take care of them. As much as some of the Avengers liked to cook, they didn't always have the time or energy for it. Betty's current experiment was going well. Natasha had actually managed to beat Clint in one round of tumble-and-shoot practice, which Clint was not going to hear the end of any time soon. Even Bucky had bounced back from his earlier edginess.

"I got the mezuzah hung by my door," Steve said.

"Yeah, Steve and I got through most of that first box of stuff before we wore out," Bucky said.

"It's nice to get some things back," Steve said, smiling just a little.

"Except for the tent, which I am happy to leave lost in history," Bucky said. "Army tents sucked. I mentioned that, so JARVIS showed me what modern tents look like, and I want one. I'm torn between the Ozark Trail fourteen-man base camp, which is cross-shaped with four bedrooms around a common room; and the ten-man family cabin tent which has three rooms and a screened porch. Tough call."

"Some problems are nice to have," Phil murmured.

Tony pulled his phone out of his pocket, glanced at it, and said, "Get the base camp tent. We'll just add a separate canopy tent with mesh walls. Stark Industries keeps those in stock for lawn parties."

"Order in progress," JARVIS said. "I will add suitable accessories for general use. Individual users are encouraged to select their own sleeping gear, as that is a highly personalized choice."

"Swell, Tony, thanks," Bucky said with a grin. "You said you had places we could go camping, right?"

"Camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, light teamwork, heavy weapons practice, you name it I got it," Tony said.

"I hate camping," Bruce said.

"You've never been camping with me," Tony said.

Bruce hunched into his chair. "I like walls and roofs that don't leak, and real beds."

"Trust me, science bro, I know how to make camping a luxury experience," Tony said, slinging an arm around him.

"I bet Hulk would love to go camping with us," Betty said. "So if Bruce doesn't want to come, don't bug him, he doesn't have to come. We'll just invite Hulk instead."

"Camping it is," Bruce said glumly. "What's for dessert? I want something sweet."

Dessert turned out to be a mixed fruit crisp filled with apples, pears, and peaches. Steve buried his under a pile of whipped cream. "I never get tired of fruit," he said. "It's so nice just to have it." Then he dug in.

Phil ate his plain, but enjoyed the contrast of the different fruits. Natasha put ice cream on hers, so then of course Tony wanted some too. Bruce preferred his with yogurt.

"So I got a pile of really interesting files today," Tony said, looking at Bucky. "That's going to come in handy."

"Yeah," Bucky replied. "Don't think I'm up to talking about it much more today, but ... Bruce said I did good."

"You did great," Bruce said.

Tony pushed his plate away. "That's it, I'm stuffed," he said. "Bucky, are you ready to put your skin sleeve back on?"

"Okay," said Bucky. He chased down the last crumbs of his dessert.

"I'll get the dishes," Steve said, picking up Bucky's plate along with his own.

Bucky looked at Phil. "Um, I hate to bother you again, but ...?"

"If having me in the garage helps you feel safe and calm, I'm happy to oblige," Phil said as he stood up. "Just remember that the bots may not welcome my presence as much as you do."

Sure enough, when the three of them got down to the garage, DUM-E let Tony and Bucky past but growled his motor at Phil. "Cut it out, DUM-E," said Tony. "This is Phil. You know him."

Bucky doubled back to crouch beside DUM-E and pat his chassis. "What's wrong, sprocket? It can't be just Phil, because Tony's right, you know Phil. Give us a hint here so we can fix it."

DUM-E whined and tried to hide his head-hand under Bucky's metal arm.

"I believe that DUM-E feels ... exposed ... by the increased traffic in this area," JARVIS said. "Please understand that this is not necessarily a personal slight. It is only that DUM-E has grown up in sir's workspace and is not accustomed to seeing anyone else for long periods. Now we have the entire Avengers team coming and going. This is, sometimes, distressing."

Phil looked around the big open space. It had divisions of equipment for different purposes, garage and workshop areas, but little in the way of doors or interior walls. Along one wall, the charging stations for the bots stood in full view. Unprotected. Although a garage was customarily semi-public space and could be left open to the street, Tony's was far more private and the bots responded to that.

Then Phil noticed that Tony had his arms wrapped around himself too. The pose partially obscured the gold helmet on his Black Sabbath shirt. As Phil watched, Tony tugged down the sleeves that he had pushed up to his elbows. I think DUM-E isn't the only one who feels a little over-exposed, Phil realized. He knew that Tony had an extensive wardrobe of bespoke clothes, all the latest in men's fashion. Only here in the garage had he scruffed around in ripped jeans and worn-out band shirts. As he grew more comfortable with his teammates, however, he had extended that to more of the tower. The only people who ever see Tony dressed down like this are his family.

Maybe the intrusion into Tony's workspace and the bots' living space was a bit too much, too soon. DUM-E didn't even have a "bedroom door" to close, not really, just the metal outline of the dock. That alerted Phil to something else, and he rotated in a slow circle, observing how many hazards the workshop contained. It wasn't that much of a risk for someone who knew every inch of the place, but to a visitor? Not very safe.

Workshop accidents can get ugly, and the last thing we need is dragging Bruce down here to fix something we could have avoided, Phil thought. We need to take some precautions.

"Okay, so what can we do to cut down on the traffic, or make it so it doesn't bother DUM-E as much?" Bucky said. "I'm not sure it would be a good idea to go back to avoiding him, and besides, part of this floor is the garage. We need access to that."

Phil paced out the functional divisions of space. "Could we put up some kind of barrier?" he wondered.

"Maybe walls, or ropes like at a theater?" Bucky said.

"No, there's a reason I designed this as open space. It's safer for ventilation, and in case things get ... out of hand, there's more room to spread out," Tony said.

"If I may make a suggestion, there are other ways to divide space and manage traffic besides walls," said JARVIS. "Factories often use marking tape and paint for this purpose. Indeed, there are some such markings here already, and far more on the fabrication floors."

"You really think that would work?" Bucky said, stroking DUM-E's arm. "I mean, tape isn't a wall, people can just step over it."

"DUM-E needs rules to feel safe, even though sometimes he goofs off and won't mind," Tony said. "It might help. The tape could be a reminder, like traffic gates in the code."

"How about this," Phil proposed. "Space immediately around the charging stations is private, and only Tony will go into the bots' private space. The work area is communal, but people other than Tony go there only with an invitation, so it's semi-private. Space near the elevators and other doors, parking area for cars, and so forth is semi-public which means the Avengers and staff such as Happy are free to use it as needed."

"Yeah, that sounds about right," Tony said.

Chapter Text

"What do you say, sprocket?" asked Bucky.

DUM-E gave a querulous trill.

"The concept is sound, but DUM-E is uncertain about enforcement of the standards," JARVIS translated.

"Fucking Obie," Tony muttered under his breath.

Phil knew that DUM-E had some hideous memories of what happened when someone violated Tony's space and his body. He also wondered what Obie had gotten up to in the work areas. No wonder DUM-E is wary, Phil thought. He needs to know when it's safe, and when he should defend his territory and his father.

"The new rules should help the bots feel more secure and less skittish, so they can keep working as long as people stay outside the boundary lines. Giving them a voice in who can come into their space, and when, should make them more willing to share," Phil said aloud. "But if someone crosses the lines in the wrong way, then the bots know it's a threat and can respond accordingly."

Tony and Bucky both lifted their heads at that, showing their teeth in sharp not-smiles. "I like it," Bucky said.

"Think of it kind of like a firewall," Phil said to DUM-E.

"It matters that you can say no. It matters that you can say 'here but not there' and have people respect that," Tony said quietly. He knelt on the other side of DUM-E, cradling the bot between himself and Bucky. "Then you feel better about trying new things, because you know it's safe. That's something I'm starting to learn. Boundaries are good. I want that to be for you too."

DUM-E gave an affirmative chirp.

"Okay, then," Tony said, clapping his hands. "Let's get to work."

So Tony and Bucky turned their attention to mapping out the different areas, while Phil went to fetch additional supplies from the nearest fabrication floor. JARVIS directed him to the cabinet that held the floor tape and signs. Phil picked up several rolls of reflective tape striped in black and yellow. Then he added a sign that said Caution: Authorized Personnel Only and three that said Private: Do Not Enter.

When Phil got back to the garage, he found Tony and Bucky both on their hands and knees, industriously drawing outlines in chalk to show where the marking tape needed to go. "You can start over there," Tony said, pointing toward the street doors.

"Okay," Phil said, and set to work.

While he did that, Tony took some of the marking tape and the Private signs. He outlined each of the charging stations with tape and put a sign in front of the dock. "DUM-E, U, Butterfingers, these are like your bedrooms, get it?" Tony said. "Nobody but us should go in there."

Plurk, said DUM-E.

"I'm done with this part," Bucky said.

"Right, so the Caution sign is like the doormat," Tony said as he took it from Phil and lined it up with a gap in the tape. "If somebody wants to come into the workshop, they should stop at the doormat and ask. Usually it'll be me or DUM-E answering." Tony peeled off the backing film and smoothed the sign into place. The thick black-and-gold foil glittered in the light of the arc reactor. Then he turned to the bots. "We'll give people a couple weeks to practice and get used to the new system. After that, if anyone crosses the line without permission, call Intruder Alert and let 'em have it."

Considering that the bots helped pry the armor off of Tony when it got too battered for JARVIS to remove with the disassembly array alone, anyone trespassing into their territory would get a very unpleasant surprise. Phil shivered.

Tony gave him a sharp look and said, "Let's test this thing. Bucky?"

Bucky stepped up to the doormat. "Hi DUM-E, it's Bucky," he said. "Can I come in?"

DUM-E trundled forward to cuddle him, then snaked his arm behind Bucky and ushered him inside the line.

"Good boy," Tony said quietly. "Phil?"

Following Bucky's example, Phil stopped just short of the line. "Hello, DUM-E, it's Phil. I'd like to come in, if that's all right with you."

DUM-E swerved around Bucky and surveyed Phil across the line. Motors whirred as the head-hand used his tiny cameras to examine the visitor. The bot crept forward, hesitated, and then backed away.

"You can say no," Tony said.

"JARVIS, let DUM-E see whatever of my user profile would make sense to him," Phil offered. "Maybe that will help."

A moment later, DUM-E chirped in acknowledgement. He rolled forward, slowly but surely, and pinched Phil's shirtsleeve gently between his metal fingers. Then DUM-E bent his wrist, exerting the softest possible pull on the fabric.

Phil stepped into the workshop area. "Thank you for inviting me into your home, DUM-E," he said. "I can tell you've been working on your gentleness. That was very well done."

DUM-E chirped at him, then zipped over to the workbench that held the equipment for cleaning Bucky's metal arm.

"Yeah, we should probably get back on track," Tony said as Bucky sat down.

Phil drifted along in their wake. "How are you doing, Bucky?" he asked. "I can anchor you if you need it."

"Just tired," Bucky said, lifting his right hand to Tony's chest. "Put a hand on my shoulder or back, that should do it."

Phil let his hand come to rest on Bucky's shoulder just as Tony picked up his tools, deftly flicking away a few specks of debris that had gotten lodged in the grooves. Then Tony sprayed down the metal plates, which left them glossy and clean.

"Graphite next, everybody hold your breath," Tony warned. The gray cloud enveloped Bucky's arm for a moment, then vanished, the excess dust whisked away by a fan. "Glove up." Tony helped Bucky into the skin sleeve -- they were getting much better at that maneuver -- and then fastened the rim to hold it in place. "There you go."

"Well done," Phil said. "Bucky, what are your plans from here?"

"Blanket drill," Bucky said with a yawn. "I'm falling asleep on my feet. Today really took it out of me."

Phil glanced at his watch, surprised by how late it had gotten. "That sounds like an excellent idea," he said. "I believe I'll turn in too."

Plurk, said DUM-E, trundling alongside them as they walked back to the doormat. He stopped just short of the line.

"Night, sprocket," said Bucky, and Phil echoed him.

In the elevator, JARVIS said. "Thank you all for helping. It was very kind of you to take DUM-E's feelings into consideration. We are ... not accustomed to such courtesy, but it is very endearing."

"You're welcome," Phil said.

"Anytime," Bucky said as he got out. "That's what family's for."

When Phil made it to his own apartment, he went through his evening routine. He even made time to stop and order a height-measuring ruler for Bucky, who would doubtless wish to keep track of his growth. That would make it easier on him than running down to the lab every time he wanted an update.

Then Phil paused for a moment to lay a hand on his bedroom door. He reflected on how lucky he was to have such a fine home, and a door that would close and lock to protect his privacy. Far more formidable than the bit of metal, though, was JARVIS himself who maintained the security of the whole tower. It felt strange, sometimes, to think of living inside someone else's body -- but tonight, it just felt right.

"Good night, JARVIS," said Phil. "Thank you for taking care of us."

"Good night, Phil," said JARVIS. "I have the watch."

Soft sounds filled the room. After a moment, Phil realized that it wasn't the classical music JARVIS sometimes played to lull him to sleep. It was the sound of distant chatter and whirring motors, as Tony and DUM-E worked together.

Phil fell asleep to the sounds, smiling.