Chapter 1: What the Mirror Shows You
Bucky wants answers. He looks to Steve, like always.
The Asset stares at a wall covered in photographs and news clippings preserved behind glass. He recognizes the man central to all the pictures in this section. He shifts slightly to the side. His reflection appears on the glass. It's the same face as the one in the pictures, though the image of the man so carefully preserved is younger, showing happiness in some photos and sorrow others. Emotions. Things he once had. Maybe he can have them again.
He has no mission here. There will be no more missions. His handlers are dead. He failed to kill Steve Rogers, but he thinks that is a good thing. Rogers had called him by a name. The sound still rings in his head, like a giant bell shaking apart everything he once knew.
Bucky Barnes. James Buchanan Barnes, as the wall tells him. Born March 10, 1917, almost a century ago. He knows he is not a century old physically. His time in cryofreeze slowed his aging, the same as the ice did for Captain America. Steve.
His flesh fingers spasm, twitching toward the glass. Several of the photos show Bucky with his arm tossed over Steve's shoulders, grinning at the camera. They were friends. They fought in the war together, first with the 107th and then as the Howling Commandos. Bucky had been presumed dead. So had Steve, and yet here they are in this strange modern day.
He doesn't remember the pictures being taken. He has no association with what their contents hold or the inscriptions detailing his former life. All that was wiped away, replaced by the Asset.
But he is no longer the Asset. He is James Barnes. He is Bucky. He will remember and there is only one logical place to start.
He needs to talk to Steve Rogers. Conveniently, Bucky knows exactly where to find him.
Chapter 2: Welcome to Stark Tower
Tony gets some unexpected guests.
Expanded from the original version.
"Excuse me, sir," JARVIS announces into the lull between songs, "but there is a group of metahumans in the lobby."
Tony bangs his head on the suit's chest plate. He stumbles two steps back, almost falls, and accidentally throws a wrench at Dummy. "What!?"
Highway to Hell starts but JARVIS softens the volume to be heard over it. "The additional members of the Avengers Initiative are in the lobby, along with Mr. Samuel Wilson and Sergeant James Barnes. Mr. Wilson is a former Air Force pararescueman who test piloted the EXO-7 Falcon, and Mr. Barnes is-"
Tony's heart lodges in his throat. The room spins. He chokes out, "Wait, who?"
Dummy nudges Tony's desk chair against the back of Tony's legs and he sinks down into it before he falls. Dummy rolls him over to his desk and whirs with worry until Tony puts a hand on Dummy's main joint.
"Sergeant James Buchannan Barnes. Born March 10, 1917. Served as a-"
"I know who Barnes is." The words come out sharper than he intends. He scrubs his hands over his face. He hasn't had enough sleep to deal with this. There is no amount of sleep that will prepare him to deal with this. "Fuck."
James Buchanan Barnes. Comrade of Captain America and hero of World War II. Tony leans back and stares up at the ceiling. His fingers absently trace over the arc reactor and the space where his soulmate's name used to be. He'd always thought it was a joke. Like, someone named their kid after the real guy, not that he was destined for some man out of time.
Was destined. No longer. He doesn't have a soulmate. His soulmate is supposed to be dead because Tony doesn't deserve happiness.
Had Rogers known Barnes was alive? Tony's going to guess not because that seems like the kind of information that he'd share.
"They wish to speak to you, at your convenience. Security would like to know where to direct them, sir."
There are indeed five people standing in his lobby, scaring the hell out of the Stark Industries employees who are trying to pass by on their way to and from their afternoon appointments. Barnes looks nothing like the clean-shaven, proper soldier from Howard's photos. Tony can see a shadow of who Barnes used to be, but this Barnes looks worn and haggard, destroyed by whatever he went through to end up in the modern day. He's still handsome in a hot biker kind of way, with maybe a touch of brooding poet. He could be devastating if he put in a little effort grooming.
Tony's been pinned to more than a few mattresses by men like that. Big, muscular men who had no problem tossing Tony around and taking what they wanted, with Tony's permission.
He doesn't quite believe what he's seeing. He's a man of science. He needs evidence. He needs proof. "JARVIS, is that really...?"
"Initial biological scans indicate a seventy-nine percent match. Recorded data inconclusive for further evaluation."
Bucky Barnes and his impossible, should-be-dead, perfect face are eighty-odd floors below him. Alive and in his time. Shit. Barton and Romanov are down there too, flanking Rogers, who's directing his American-as-apple-pie smile at one of the receptionists. The poor receptionist looks so out of his league and the other receptionists have all made themselves busy somewhere else. Tony should have JARVIS send down a gift basket. Maybe some soothing chocolate and tea.
Barnes and Wilson linger awkwardly in the waiting area, avoiding the very comfortable—Tony would know, he's passed out down there on more than one occasion—couches meant specifically for situations like this. Instead they stand, constantly shifting on their feet and looking around like they know how out of place they are. Or like they're scanning for threats. What trouble did they bring to his doorstep? He swears, if someone destroys his building again....
At least they're not in uniform. Tony's pretty sure security would faint. So, social call then? Did he miss a memo? He's been deep in R&D. Surely Pepper would have come to drag him out if there was something important he had to do. She'd tell him if she knew James Barnes was alive.
"Did Fury call?" Tony asks. "I feel like I missed a call." He can't stop staring at Barnes.
"You have no missed calls, sir."
One of the elevators opens, spewing out Happy Hogan, who takes one look at the assemblage and pales. Happy's steps falter, but he blusters forward the like professional he is.
Fuck. Tony pushes a hand through his hair, uncaring of the grease staining his fingers. It's probably all over his face by now anyway. What the hell are they doing here? And with luggage? Did SHIELD kick them out?
"Open a line to Happy and notify Bruce to meet me in the conference room on eighty-four." Tony waits until he hears Happy connect.
Tony does not want to deal with this right now. He's been living out of his lab specifically to avoid dealing with anything that's not a robot. A fucking impossible soulmate is squarely in the realm of things he's avoiding. "Get them out of the lobby. Show them to the conference room on my private floors."
"But their badges..."
Tony rolls his eyes. "The Avengers do not need visitors' badges, Happy. Just show them up. You can make badges later. JARVIS will send you all the relevant info, but I want to pick the headshots." Once the call disconnects, Tony releases the sigh he's been holding in. He looks at the ceiling. "You got any clue about this, JARVIS?"
"There appears to have been an incident at SHIELD."
The screens around Tony fill with pictures of Captain America fighting Barnes on a freeway, a crashed Hellicarrier, and Agent Romanov—looking more like Natalie Rushman, legal assistant, than a secret agent—testifying before Congress. There are reports from every news station, both on television and online. It's on all social media networks, everywhere.
"Well, shit." He's a little overwhelmed. SHIELD disbanded? Fury's dead? Government conspiracy? Leaked documents? HYDRA?
He stares at Fury's obituary and shakes his head. He doesn't quite believe it, because it's Fury. He'll have to send JARVIS digging. He avoids looking at the other obituaries. He doesn't want to play 'did I meet that agent?'
"A heads up would have been nice. How did I not see this?" He'd pulled some SHIELD data during the Chitauri incident, but nothing that made him think Hydra was inside SHIELD.
"You have not yet rescinded the media blackout set two weeks ago."
Two weeks ago? Tony frowns. What the hell happened two weeks ago that made him put up a blackout notice? He asks JARVIS that exact question.
"I believe, sir, that you did not want to see mention of Mr. Stone during his press tour."
Tony gags. Ugh. Eww. No. Down that road lies madness. "I still don't, but you can let the rest back in. And get me a copy of those leaked documents. I want everything SHIELD had and then some. Work backward from Fury's supposed death. If he's not in the ground, I want to know where he's hiding."
"The documents are already saved to your secure drive, sir. Indexing will take a few days due to the volume of data, unless you would like to divert processing from other tasks."
That earns a fond smile. He grins up at JARVIS's closest ceiling camera. "You are a marvel, JARVIS. Have I ever told you that?"
"On several occasions, sir."
"Well, you still are. Don't reprioritize. Much as I'd love to get my fingers in there, Pepper will kill me." Tony thumps his hands on the armrests as he pushes himself out of his chair. His good mood dampens as he realizes the state of his clothes. Tattered jeans and a t-shirt with a hole cut out for the reactor aren't his usual business attire. "I don't suppose there's time to go change?"
"Your guests are already waiting in the conference room. Dr. Banner will arrive momentarily."
"Fine. Whatever." Tony snaps on the bracelets to call the suit, not expecting to need it but he's feeling cautious. He's wary of being near people with super-strength and large swaths of windows. "At least I won't be the only one in lab chic."
Bruce beats him to the conference room. He's wearing a dress shirt and khakis under his lab coat. Tony narrows his eyes and stalks over to stab a finger in Bruce's chest. "Traitor. You changed." He pokes Bruce a couple more times for good measure, because he's mad and not at all because it makes Bruce laugh.
Bruce swats him away. "I don't know what you mean."
Someone clears their throat and Tony turns. The only one not staring at Tony like he's grown a third head is Romanov. Tony can't quite regret that he'd let his guard down enough for Romanov to have seen him like this before. He hadn't expected Natalie Rushman to be another Pepper. There's no one like Pepper, but he'd had this short-lived stirring of hope that they could have been friends. She turned out not horrible.
Agent Baron grins. "You've got some grease," he makes a circle in front of his face, "about here."
Tony snorts. He knows it's not as bad as Barton's implying. He can feel a streak across his temple, maybe a bit on his cheek. "I'm an engineer, Barton. What do you think I do all day? Sit at a computer and play with AutoCAD?"
"Kind of, yeah."
"Yeah, no. I mean, yes, I do that but I also build things. With my hands. I was in the middle of a project when you all showed up."
Barnes stands in the corner behind Rogers and Barton and it's hard to keep his eyes solely on Barton when he's talking. He's trying not to stare, but Barnes is staring back and not in the 'holy shit I met my soulmate' way. There's hostility and a promise of violence. Barnes is wary, like he's expecting to have to defend himself from Tony, which is ridiculous.
"So," Tony says, forcefully tearing his eyes off Barnes. He turns to the other new face in the room. "You must be Wilson." Wilson's grip is politely firm. No hand-crushing power plays here. "I see you brought luggage. Going somewhere?"
Rogers blushes and casts a quick glance at Romanov. "Um, well, I remembered the offer you'd made after the Chitauri incident...."
Tony blinks. After the Chitauri? What had he...? Oh, yeah. At the shawarma place, he'd invited the whole team to come stay in the tower if they needed a place to crash in New York City. Only Bruce had taken him up on that. That'd been almost a year ago. He hadn't put an expiration date on the offer, but he'd assumed after months with no contact that they weren't interested. They probably weren't, really, just desperate for a place to stay after whatever the hell happened with SHIELD.
"Is that still okay?" Rogers asks. He looks uncertain, which is a very strange expression for Captain America to have, and he keeps glancing at Barnes in a way Rogers probably thinks is subtle but is the complete opposite. Judging by the footage of Rogers and Barnes fighting, Tony guesses they hadn't started out on the same side of this whole mess. There're probably some ex-SHIELD dickheads looking for Barnes or Rogers or both.
The smart move would be to say no. What comes out is, "Oh, yeah. Sure." He isn't a complete dick. Sometimes. Mostly he's curious and a nosy motherfucker and Barnes is standing right there like some impossible time-travel anomaly. They can stay. It's too quiet with only him and Bruce living here. All the empty space reminds him of growing up in the mansion, which is a time best left forgotten.
"JARVIS, can I get a map of the tower?"
Barton jerks his feet off the table as a 3D hologram appears in the center. Wilson looks awed. Romanov doesn't even look up from her phone. Barnes doesn't take his eyes off Tony. Seriously, he doesn't even blink. It's creepy.
Does he know? Does he have Tony's name written somewhere on his body? How long has he been looking for an Anthony Stark?
It doesn't matter. He's too old for some whirlwind soulmate romance. He's used goods. Barnes doesn't want him. Won't want him, if he knows what's good for him. Tony certainly isn't interested in Barnes. Not at all. Tony Stark and relationships do not mix.
"So," Tony says, stepping up to the hologram and sliding his showman's mask into place. "You can pretty much ignore the first seventy-five floors. Um, unless you want food. There's a restaurant on two and cafeterias on twelve, twenty-nine, and forty-three."
JARVIS helpfully zooms into the upper section of the tower. "Top ten are primarily Stark Industries research, which is just a whole lot of nerds playing with potential explosives. Best not to startle them. Something might explode."
He waves that section of the tower away and zooms in on his personal levels. "Speaking of explosions, Bruce's lab on eighty-eight and my workshop on eighty-seven." JARVIS helpfully highlights those floors. "Eighty-six holds the hanger and related storage areas. I think I put some equipment up there should Avenging occur. JARVIS has the inventory. There are two Quinjets available for use."
Barton leans forward. His interest piqued when Tony mentioned explosions, but it seems there's something even more interesting than impromptu fireworks. "How do you have Quinjets, plural?"
Tony rolls his eyes. "Who do you think built half of SHIELD's tech and fixed the rest? That reminds me." He looks at Wilson and points at a suspiciously shaped bag. "If that's what's left of the only remaining EXO-7, bring it to my lab so I can destroy it. I did the initial design but someone took liberties. I can do better."
He frowns. "I suppose with SHIELD gone, I need to go hunting down tech again before it ends up on the black market. JARVIS, start a trace from SHIELD's servers and wipe any proprietary Stark Industries documents you come across. I want to know who accessed those files and how long they had it. Also, track any tech that wasn't destroyed with SHIELD. If someone has it and they're not supposed to, I want it back."
"It will be done, sir."
"Is Jarvis your assistant?" Rogers asks, looking very confused. "I mean, I don't mind if you want him here to take notes." Wilson seems about as confused. Romanov is already familiar with JARVIS and has presumably filled in Barton. Barnes, staring, still.
Tony smiles up at the ceiling. "You want to do the honors, babe?"
"With pleasure, sir." The hologram of the tower moves to the side and a slowly revolving column of old news articles and video clips about Tony's scientific achievements takes its place in the center.
Tony rolls his eyes. Drama Queen.
"I am an artificial intelligence, Captain Rogers, built to assist Mr. Stark with whatever he requires. I manage and maintain all of Mr. Stark's personal properties, including this tower. I also assist in research and production of Mr. Stark's inventions. During your stay at Stark Tower, you may consider me a virtual personal assistant. If there is anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable, you have but to ask."
"That's a computer?" Wilson asks. He's got that wide-eyed amazement that Tony can never get enough of. No one looks at him like that anymore.
Rogers frowns, though it's not directed at Tony. "Wasn't that the name of-"
Tony cuts Rogers off before they can go down that unhappy road. "Yeah, whatever. Anyway, if you need clothes, groceries, take-out, whatever, just ask J. If he can't do it, he'll send someone out to do it. We have interns for a reason."
He waves the old articles away and starts pointing out areas of the tower. "Eighty-five is the penthouse but there are other bedrooms accessible through the public elevators. Eighty-four has more suites, plus a communal area with the main kitchen, a bar, entertainment areas, and, obviously, this conference room. Two of the suites are for Rhodey and Pepper when they're in town. Pretty easy to figure out. They have names instead of numbers. JARVIS will have maintenance do the same once each of you pick a suite. Or a couple. Go nuts, no one's using the space."
"Seventy-six through eighty-three are all empty apartments and office space. If you don't want one of the suites on eighty-four, take one of those. Some of the sections can be made secure. Talk to JARVIS." He glances at the very small array of baggage. "Also clothing or whatever. We have a preferred moving company that has clearance for the tower. Bruce's rooms are on, what? Seventy-seven?" He looks at Bruce for confirmation.
"Seventy-nine," Bruce says with a fond smile. "You set up the meditation room there, remember?"
"And this is why we have JARVIS. The gym is on eighty-two and the pool is on seventy-seven. There should already be reinforced equipment in the gym, but if something breaks, let me know and I'll replace it. If you need weapons storage, there's a secured locker on eighty-six that I can grant you access to and two more on eighty." Jarvis displays a 3D diagram of each floor, highlighting the features Tony mentions.
"Happy's going to want to talk to you about badges and security codes, which you'll need to get in and out of the secured areas of the building. There's are two private entrances that require codes, and you'll need that if you take either of the Quinjets out." JARVIS zooms out to a whole view of the tower. The two private entrances are marked in red.
"Impressive," Barton says. His eyes are fixed on the hologram, likely memorizing everything.
"Impressive? That's all you have to say?" Wilson asks. He gestures to the hologram. "Look at this, man. It's amazing." He turns to Tony. "Are you sure you're okay with us staying here and spending your money? I mean, we can find somewhere else. Just, damn..."
Tony blinks. He's only met one person hesitant about spending Tony's money and that's Rhodey. Bastard still manages to steal the check when they go out. He shrugs. "Yeah. It's fine." There's something about Wilson that reminds him of Rhodey. Must be an air force thing. There's an easiness to Wilson that Tony feels like he could fall into. They could be friends.
"I like you," Tony announces, making all of them stare. "I'm keeping you. JARVIS, dig up the EXO-9 sketches and move them to my work folder."
Wilson is stunned. "There's a nine?"
Tony shrugs. "Rhodey was on the warpath about underage drinking that month and I wasn't in the mood to climb out the window again. I was bored."
Barton's face moves through a complex series of emotions—confusion, horror, disbelief, and resignation. "Wait, you've had those designs since college?"
Wilson's mouth hangs open. Yeah, so much like Rhodey in the early days.
Romanov's face is blank but she's looking at him like she wants to dissect him. It reminds him of when she was pretending to be his assistant. Barnes looks at him like.... Tony has no idea. Like a mannequin? Like something unnaturally still and creepy?
"Can I get cool things too if I act impressed with all this?" Barton waves his hand at the hologram.
Tony rolls his eyes. "I don't need your false adulation. I get enough of that from the press. Speaking of, if you try to sell pictures of me to the paparazzi, JARVIS will fry your phone. Fair warning." Rogers opens his mouth to protest. Tony barrels on before Rogers can. "Anyway. Pick a room or seven. Tell JARVIS what you want. Oh, and JARVIS, give these guys access to the floor plans and security stuff. Umm..." He tries to remember what the access levels are. "Whatever level Happy is. I don't care. Use your judgment."
"That is level seven access, sir."
That sounds about right. "So, that's about it unless you want a tour?" He doesn't want to give a tour. He wants to go hide in his lab again. This is the most people he's ever had in his personal space and he's starting to doubt whether he's going to like it. This is why he has Pepper, but she's in Malibu and he can't ask her to fly back so he can ignore the people he invited to live with him.
"We'll be fine," Romanov says, standing. "Go back to what you were doing. Your attention is already there."
Tony shrugs. She's not entirely wrong. Tony's brain is always working. Even when he's fighting, he's thinking of countermeasures and improvements. "Sounds good." He waves over his shoulder as he heads back to the elevator.
He is not running from Barnes's creepy stare. Not at all.
Tony pauses. It's not Barnes, but it's bad enough. He turns with a fake smile. "Captain Rogers?"
Rogers rubs a hand over the back of his head. "I was wondering..." He glances at Barnes. "We were wondering if you could look at Bucky's arm. I damaged it."
Romanov's snort and eye-roll suggest that 'damage' is an understatement.
"Right," Tony says. He can't tell which arm Rogers is referring to. He remembers seeing metal in the footage, but he'd assumed it'd been power armor. "It's mechanical?"
"Yeah," Rogers says. "HYDRA made it."
"Well, then it'll definitely need some upgrades. Swing by the lab and I'll hook you up." He's only ever invited Bruce down to his lab. Before that, only Rhodey and Pepper had access. This sudden altruism feels strange. He doesn't do well with strange people in his space. He doesn't do well with people in his workshop at all, and he's had a rocky history with these ones.
They saved the world together. Some of them. That should count for something, right?
Rogers nods. No one moves to follow Tony, so he supposes that's more of a 'do it later' request. Tony nods back and uses the silence as his cue to leave. He has projects he needs to finish.
He's supposed to have the projections done on the StarkPhone improvements by now. If they aren't too cost prohibitive, he can probably make the same improvements on the StarkPad. Rhodey does a lot of work using those. Maybe Rhodey needs a more durable model. Something that can take a hit and still function. Fall off the Empire State building without a scratch. That'd be a hell of a publicity stunt. The military will scoop that up in a heartbeat and Rhodey will get a little cred for getting more StarkTech in the military's hands.
He steps into the workshop, mind swirling with ideas. He forgets all about Barnes and soulmates and names written on skin that no longer exists. He has too much work to worry about a soulmate that doesn't want him.
Bucky stares after the familiar-but-unfamiliar face. There is something achingly familiar about that man. About Stark. The name alone pulls at his missing memories. He can't remember why and it bothers him.
He follows Steve down the hall. Romanov and Barton disappear in the stairwell, seeking out some other space. Wilson wanders ahead, peeking through the empty suites Stark hand mentioned, likely trying to find the best option. Steve stops at the first door they come to that doesn't have a name tag.
"Is this all right?" Steve asks as Bucky follows him inside.
Bucky glances around. They are in a room with a couch, two chairs, and a TV mounted in the wall, plus a small kitchenette on the far end of the room. There are two bedrooms linked off it, minimal furnishings visible through open doorways. Another open door shows a large bathroom. Steve obviously intends for them to stay here, in these adjoining rooms.
He wanders through the space. There are tall windows in the bedrooms. They look out over the strange form of a city he once knew. He runs his flesh fingers over the not-glass. It's transparent but thick. He presses his metal palm flat against it and exerts a small amount of pressure. It does not crack. It does not yield. He is pleased.
"It is tactically sufficient," Bucky says when he returns to Steve.
Steve rolls his eyes. "But do you like it? We don't have to share. There are plenty of rooms."
Should a fight occur, it would be advantageous to have Steve nearby, both for his enhanced fighting skills and his knowledge of the other occupants of their shared space. "It is tactically sufficient."
Steve sighs. "Yeah. Okay." Steve has two duffels and his shield. Bucky has the clothes Steve loaned him. "Um." Steve looks around before finally, reluctantly looking at the ceiling like Stark had in their meeting. "JARVIS?"
"Captain Rogers. Sergeant Barnes."
Steve shakes his head. "Just Bucky and Steve, please."
"As you wish. How may I assist you?"
"Um." Steve looks Bucky over. "We're going to need some clothes for Bucky. Toiletries. The basics. I have an account, but I think SHIELD froze it."
"I shall inform our legal department to investigate the matter. Until such time, Mr. Stark has authorized usage of his personal fund." The TV flashes to life, showing a 3D rendering of Bucky with a list of measurements. Bucky moves closer to read them. They seem accurate. He has no idea what the numbers should be or what they were before, so he doesn't question JARVIS's readings. "Would you care to choose your wardrobe or have one of our personal shoppers select items for you? A card can also be issued, should you wish to make purchases outside my system."
The 3D rendering flips through different styles of clothing. None of them include tactical gear. None of them spark recognition. "I don't care."
Steve shakes his head. "Just some basics for now, please, JARVIS."
"I shall have a selection delivered to you shortly."
Steve hovers at Bucky's side. "Is there anything you want? Tony's being really generous, and I don't know his limits but I'm sure there's something-"
"Guns." Steve blinks. "Knives." His tactical suit had been unsalvageable after the Potomac. "Tactical vest. Fatigues. Kit."
"Whoa." Steve holds up his hands. "I'm sure we can get you all that stuff..."
"Mr. Stark will need to approve such purchases. Shall I notify him?"
"Not yet, JARVIS, thanks." Bucky frowns at Steve, who frowns right back. "You don't have to fight anymore, Buck. Not if you don't want to. How about we work on getting you back to you before we worry about all that stuff?"
Bucky considers. The Asset would not approve. The Asset would not stay in such a conspicuous location. The Asset would not allow personal attachment. Bucky is no longer The Asset. "One knife," he concedes. Steve grins. "And a vest." He looks down at the jogging shoes borrowed from Steve. "And new boots."
"Of course, sir," the AI says. "I shall make arrangements."
Steve pulls Bucky into a tight hug. "It's so good to have you back."
Bucky doesn't correct Steve. He isn't back. He isn't the person Steve knew. He might be, eventually. That's the plan, at least. If he stays with Steve, he might remember who Bucky Barnes was. Maybe then he will understand the gaping void inside of himself that aches for something Bucky does not remember. Maybe he will remember who once filled that void.
Chapter 3: Second Chance at First Impressions
Bucky and the Avengers settle into the Tower. Bucky's not the only insomniac and Tony's creations are smarter than expected.
Bucky stares out at the city skyline from the dark communal area. Even this late at night, New York is bright enough to illuminate every corner of the room. He can't sleep with that much light pollution, though that's hardly the only reason for his current insomnia. It'd sent him wandering the empty halls. He's already memorized the floor plans, but he feels compelled to walk them as well, to know every inch of the space he's meant to inhabit visually so that if something is out of place, he'll know.
The elevator opens. Bucky turns and tilts his head as a strange robot rolls out. It beeps once as it passes him. Bucky assumes the sound is a sign of operation and not some strange greeting. His intuition tells him that assumption is wrong. He follows the machine as it rolls into the kitchen. The robot must have been programmed for this space, because it pulls glassware from the cabinets and ingredients from the fridge without error.
It appears to be making a smoothie.
He watches as kale, pineapple, yogurt, and blueberries are all dropped into a blender. When the robot reaches its claw toward the dish soap instead of the milk, Bucky nudges the milk forward. The machine chirps and pours milk in with the other ingredients. Then it puts the leftover ingredients away while the blender works. The robot takes the time to clean the blender and leave the pieces on the drying rack before rolling off with its smoothie.
Bucky follows. The machine makes a series of chirps and beeps when Bucky joins it in the elevator, but otherwise seems unaware of Bucky's presence. The elevator moves without prompting. They go up two floors to Stark's lab. Bucky steps out into a small hallway. The glass doors to the lab open soundlessly to allow the robot entry, letting out a short blast of chaotic music before sliding shut.
Bucky doesn't move. This is a personal space. Stark agreed to fix Bucky's arm, but they hadn't set an appointment. It's four in the morning. The sun will be rising soon, but Stark's lab is bright with artificial light. Stark is seated in the center of a cluster of tables, a constant flow of information in the air above and around him. Bucky finds his gaze stuck on Stark, much like during their first meeting. Whatever their connection was, it's lost with the rest of his memories.
The robot places the smoothie at Stark's elbow. The machine must make some noise to get Stark's attention, because Stark turns. The smile Stark aims at the robot once he sees the smoothie it has prepared for him is dazzling. It makes part of Bucky ache in a way he is unfamiliar with. He doesn't understand why.
Stark picks up the smoothie but stops, drink halfway to his parted lips. His eyes are on Bucky. Recognition flits across Stark's face, along with something more. Have they met before? Stark has not been one of his targets, but maybe someone close to him. Does Stark fear him? Does he know the kind of monster he's allowed in his building?
Bucky should leave. Not only this floor where he has not been invited, but this building, this city. He doesn't belong with this group of heroes.
Tony must not fear him, because the glass doors open and Stark beckons him inside. "Hey," Stark says, his voice carrying a friendliness that is not entirely forced. "Couldn't sleep either? Are you here about your arm? Not the best time, but I could use the distraction."
He should go. He is a burden on Stark's time. He shouldn't be fixed. He's too broken. They should let him fall apart in rot and rust. Despite these doubts, his feet carry him forward like the obedient soldier he was conditioned to be.
Stark downs half the smoothie. Bucky wonders if he would have drunk dish soap if Bucky hadn't intervened. "Can I look?"
Bucky pauses. He looks down at his chest. The shirt Steve gave him covers his arms. He hasn't taken off his gloves, even to sleep. He needs to be prepared, always, in case of an attack.
"Hop on up." Stark pats a clear space on the table next to him. Bucky obediently sits. Stark is small up close. More so when he's sitting. Bucky towers over him, simply from the differing levels of their seats. He is aware of Stark's defensive capabilities but without the suit he is small. Breakable. Defenseless.
"So," Stark says as he smiles up at Bucky, unaware that the soldier is sizing him up. "Which arm is it?"
Bucky blinks. Had Stark not researched him at all? Why would he agree to Barnes's presence while knowing nothing about him? He doesn't seem the type for blind trust, but maybe he trusts Steve. Steve is known to inspire that kind of loyalty.
"Or we can just sit here," Stark says. He leans back in his chair and frowns up at Barnes. "This isn't awkward at all."
Bucky removes his left glove and pulls off his shirt. Stark's sudden "Whoa!" is muffled by the fabric passing over Bucky's head. Stark's eyes shift back and forth between Bucky's bare chest and his metal arm with blatant interest and physical attraction.
It has been a long time since Bucky's appearance has inspired such attention. He remembers one of the photos from the museum, with Bucky between two smiling women while a much smaller Steve stood off to the side. Bucky has been told he often inspired attraction as James Barnes, but he has not experienced that since. The Asset's appearance brings only fear.
"Right," Stark says, shaking himself out of distraction. "Let's get to work."
Standing, Stark is only a few inches shorter than Bucky. It's his frame that makes him seem diminutive. Despite being a fighter in a suit of metal, he has a lithe build. He wears clothing tight to his skin, leaving very little of his form obscured. Bucky could crush him easily. He does not want to.
Stark's fingers brush over Bucky's shoulder, turning Bucky's left arm slightly to better see the section affected. The gentleness is strange. He is unfamiliar with kindness.
"'Damage' my ass," Stark mutters. Bucky cannot feel the way Stark's fingers search for the catch, but he hisses in pain when the plates open. "Sorry," Stark says. "Bet that's not too pleasant."
"It is unimportant."
Stark jumps and looks up at Bucky with surprise. "So, you do speak. I was starting to wonder whether you were mute or just didn't like me."
Bucky feels the need to respond, but he doesn't know what to say. He neither likes nor dislikes Stark. He has not yet finished his assessment.
Stark waves Bucky off. "Don't worry. Most people don't like me. Hell, my own parents didn't like me. I've been told I grow on people. Kind of like a fungus. JARVIS, get some scans of this." Stark steps away. "'Damage' barely covers this. The entire shoulder joint is warped." Stark looks up from choosing tools out of a desk drawer. "You been having trouble moving it?"
Bucky nods. The arm has been predominantly unusable. It's a liability but he is more vulnerable without it.
"Yeah." Stark turns back to his tools. "I can see why. I should be able to restore some mobility but you're going to need a whole new rig." He returns to his place at Bucky's shoulder with a handful of small metal implements. Bucky only recognizes one as a screwdriver. He does not know the purpose of the others. "I can have something temporary in a week, but if you want something with the same kind of functionality, then we're talking at least a month while I reverse-engineer this thing, fix all the stupid mistakes in it, and then design a new one. Fabrication itself should only take a day or two, even with all the small parts. I can do most of the assembly without you, so you only need to come back for attachment and testing."
Stark speaks of this new arm as if it's a foregone conclusion. Not as something that might be made, but as if it is already being constructed. "It's not necessary," Bucky says. He is already a burden on this man's resources. "Restoring basic function will suffice."
Stark leans back and gives Bucky a disbelieving look. "Are you really okay with your arm being...." Stark gestures with the small screwdriver. "Well, like that? Don't you want to be able to use it?"
"Basic functionality will suffice." He has no mission. He is worried about eventual combat readiness, but it is not a core need.
Stark rolls his eyes. "Yeah. No. You're getting a new arm. Full functionality." Stark stresses the last two words and prods Bucky in the chest with the screwdriver. "So, shut up with the 'sufficient' crap and be grateful."
Stark rolls his eyes again and turns back to his work on Bucky's shoulder. "I didn't mean right now. You don't have to thank me. No one ever does. Just... just shut up and let me work."
Bucky remains silent as requested. Stark fidgets while he works, talking to himself and the artificial intelligence. Occasionally, he asks his robots to bring him things. The one who made the smoothie is U. There is another called Butterfingers that is given only the most menial tasks. Stark calls on Dummy to hand him tools and hold a magnifier still.
The silence between them is pleasant. The music from earlier has not resumed, but Stark's absent chatter feels much the same. It is sound without purpose, but it creates a soothing effect. When Stark calls his task done and resettles the plates in Bucky's shoulder, Bucky is tired.
He bids Stark a good night, though Stark shows no sign of retiring. The windows are tinted dark when Bucky returns to his room. Bucky thanks JARVIS and lays on the bed. Rest comes surprisingly easy.
Tony stares after Barnes. The elevators have long since carried him away, hopefully to get some sleep. Tony's made good progress on his SI objectives. Another day, maybe, and he'll have most of it wrapped up. He's only got some cleanup left before he sends the StarkPad proposal to Pepper.
Maybe he'll sleep after that. Maybe not. It's been hard lately. He's not self-deluded enough to think the nightmares he's been having of the vast emptiness of space aren't related to the emptiness of his current home. Maybe having the Avengers in the Tower will help. Tony has always been a solitary creature, not by choice but by circumstance.
He knows he's going to fuck up eventually. It's what he does. He will feel bad, though, when he chases Barnes away. He doesn't think about how nice it would be to have a soulmate. He knows it's not going to happen. Barnes doesn't remember and it's best if Tony lets it stay that way. Barnes's life is messed up enough without Tony screwing it up further.
He's lived this long with the gaping loneliness inside of him. He'll survive a little longer.
"Pardon the intrusion, Ms. Romanov. If I may have a word?"
Natasha pauses. She had been on her way out, but she leans against the back of the couch, affecting an easy manner. She remembers JARVIS from Stark's Malibu mansion. She knows better than to ignore the AI that operates the space she now lives in. "Of course."
"I would like to know your current mission parameters."
She raises an eyebrow. "My mission?"
"Yes, ma'am. What are the parameters of your current mission regarding Mr. Stark?"
Oh. Natasha schools her features before her surprise can register as more than a slight widening of her eyes. Her hands clench the back of the couch, squeezing once before releasing the fabric. It seems Stark isn't the only one wary of her. She needs to tread carefully here.
There are several approaches she could take, with differing levels of deceit, but none of them suffice. Honesty is new to her, but it's the only thing that will work here. "There is no mission, JARVIS." She allows her posture to relax. "SHIELD's gone. I'm here because I owe a debt. I need to do some good in this world, and the Avengers are the best option for that."
There is a pause before JARVIS speaks. "And if Director Fury calls?"
She's too slow to hide the raised eyebrow JARVIS's words cause. "Fury is dead," she says carefully.
"Indeed," JARVIS agrees, not calling her bluff, for now. "I wish to inform you that further deception toward Mr. Stark will not be tolerated. Should you attempt to harm him in any way, defensive action will be taken."
She frowns. Did the AI just threaten her? "Are those your words or Stark's?"
"Mr. Stark is unaware of our conversation. I ask that it remain so."
She's suddenly very aware of every camera pointed at her. There are three in this room alone. The door locks are all electronic, including the stairwell doors. This tower is a death-trap to anyone that threatens Stark, though she has a feeling Stark didn't intend it to be.
"Understood." She's not planning to harm Stark. She has no reason to, nor any inclination. She is indifferent to the man and will likely remain so. Baring orders from Fury, she sees no conflict with the AI's request.
"Thank you, Ms. Romanov. Have a pleasant day."
There is a second's hesitation before the door unlocks, allowing her to leave the suite. She has no doubts that was intentional.
Well played, JARVIS. The AI will make an intriguing ally.
"I was threatened by the AI today."
Clint looks away from the rack of dresses he's flipping through to stare at her. "The house?"
She shakes her head. "It's more than that." She holds a sleeveless black shirt against her chest. Clint wiggles his hand in a so-so gesture. She puts it back. "My initial assessment was lacking." A glimpse of bright red catches her attention and she drifts over to a different rack. "The AI has full autonomy."
Clint pulls out a full-length satin dress in brilliant blue and tosses it onto her to-try pile in their cart. "What does that mean?"
The red top has sequins. She passes. Her fingers brush over the soft fabric of a cowl-neck pullover. She chooses two colors and drops them in the cart. "I mean, Stark didn't order the AI to threaten me. It did so on its own."
She holds his gaze. "It has autonomy and holds Stark's safety over our own."
"Okay." Clint drawls out the word as he pushes the cart deeper into the maze of clothing racks. He grabs a few items in passing. She doesn't object. Fashion is a tool for her. For Clint, it's an artform. "I wasn't planning on attacking Stark in his home. I mean, not unless he gets really annoying."
Natasha shrugs. "I thought you should be aware."
"That he programmed his AI to be a bodyguard? I could have told you that."
"Don't piss off the AI, Clint."
He smiles at her with feigned innocence. "Who? Me?"
She shakes her head, a fond smile briefly gracing her lips. He doesn't understand her warning. The ensuing show when he does, eventually, antagonize either Stark or the AI should prove amusing to watch.
Dr. Banner finds Bucky and Steve in their suite in the early evening. Steve has been making Bucky watch movies all afternoon. Bucky insists it's a strange form of hazing while Steve calls it 'cultural education' and insists he went through the same thing. He even shows Bucky his list. It's a long list. No matter what implausible name Steve rattles off, JARVIS has it. Even Weird Science and Back to the Future. Stark's suggestions, Steve says.
"Hey, Captain Rogers, Sergeant Barnes. What do you want to be called? I'm fine with formality, but you don't have to call me Banner or anything. Bruce is fine."
"Steve, please." Steve smiles so easily, like he's full of smiles and they spring out of him. The movie pauses without any action on their part, reminding Bucky once again that he's being constantly watched by one of Stark's computers.
Steve stares pointedly at Bucky until he offers, "Bucky." There. They have a name.
Bruce smiles. It's a small thing, not as wide as Steve's but still genuine. Bucky likes Bruce. He's a formidable opponent. He might be able to stop The Asset. Might be able to kill him. That's comforting.
"I'm making dinner tonight, if you're interested. It's been a while since I've had a chance to cook for more than two. I promise it'll be edible."
"That'd be wonderful," Steve agrees immediately. Bucky does not look forward to this interaction but he has no excuse that Steve will accept. Steve has been adamant that Bucky partake in meals with the others.
Bruce appears to take Bucky's lack of response as acceptance. "Six o'clock then. Or around then. It's been just me and Tony for a while so I've given up on punctuality."
Bruce leaves then, saving Bucky from further expectations of conversation. They have time to finish their current movie—the second Back to the Future movie—before Steve ushers him out to the communal area. Natasha and Sam are already present. Sam sets the table while Natasha assists Bruce. Bucky follows Natasha and Bruce's movements. They work well together. There's a pleasant synchrony to their actions.
"I am so looking forward to this," Clint says as he joins them. His attire suggests that he'd been in the gym. He's still wearing his arm-guard for his bow. "It's been so long since I've had good home-cooked food. You have no idea."
Bruce smiles again, that same small, shy smile. "I think that's something we all have in common."
"If I'd known how cushy this place was, I would have moved in when Stark initially offered. Instead you and Stark have been living it up without us."
Bruce sets two steaming bowls on the table. One has white rice and another a curry-like stew. Natasha follows with a plate of naan and a bowl of vegetables. "I wouldn't go that far. Tony has been generous and I do enjoy his company, but Tony isn't as," Bruce pauses, searching for a word, "exuberant as his media-facing personality would suggest."
"What do you mean?" Steve asks.
Sam pauses before sitting, looking around as if he'd only now noticed Stark's absence. "Where is he, anyway?"
Bruce shrugs. He sits at one end of the table with Natasha and then Sam. Steve is opposite, leaving Bucky the spot between Steve and Sam. He sits and waits. "In his workshop. He doesn't come out much when he's busy on a project. Don't be surprised if you don't see him for a few days."
"I saw him yesterday," Bucky offers. The food in front of him smells incredible but he won't eat anything until Steve does.
Bruce seems surprised, but pleasantly so. "Good. I'm glad." Bruce ducks his head. "Tony could use more people around."
"What did you mean about Stark having a different personality?" Steve insists. He's loading his plate with food. Bucky mirrors him.
Natasha answers before Bruce can. "You've never been around him outside the public eye. He's different. Most of that abrasiveness that you called him on is lessened when he isn't required to perform."
"I know you had your reasons," Bruce says, "for saying what you did. Tony doesn't give the best first impressions. He has his own reasons for that and for acting the way he did. But he's not a bad person. You might actually like him if you gave him a chance outside the spotlight."
"He saved our lives and all of Manhattan," Steve says in that straight-forward, honest tone he has. Bucky's heard people say that it's one of the qualities that make him Captain America but he has a few scattered memories of the time before Steve's transformation. That skinny kid from Brooklyn had the same tone. "I've reevaluated my initial opinion. It would be my pleasure to get to know the real Stark better."
Natasha rolls her eyes. "Then for the love of God, don't call him that. He hates it." Natasha waves her hand. "Daddy issues."
Bruce snorts. "That's putting it mildly."
Clint moans around a bite of curry-covered naan. "He can call me Daddy all he wants, as long as I get to stay here." He points to Bruce with the naan in his hand. "And you keep cooking. I'll even call you Daddy if that's what rocks your boat."
The laugh that escapes Bucky is startling. He doesn't remember the last time he laughed. Bruce's horrified protests are hysterical and he's egged on by the glances Steve keeps shooting him.
Sam shakes his head. "I'm gonna go on record saying no one should call anyone here Daddy."
"Agreed," Steve adds. He bumps his shoulder against Bucky's. "Eat. We can watch the third movie after dinner."
Bucky groans but it's mostly fake. He's been enjoying the movies and only part of that is from making fun of Steve's choice to watch them. He's curious why Stark had recommended them. What part of the movies speak to Stark's personality?
"What movie?" Clint asks. "Please don't say you're watching Star Wars without us and if you are, the third movie you're watching better be Episode Six."
Steve shakes his head. "No. Back to the Future. I've seen Star Wars but Bucky hasn't."
"You definitely have to let us know when you watch that. It needs to be a team thing."
Steve smiles. The conversation shifts into movies Steve—and by proxy, Bucky—has and hasn't watched. Steve eventually tries everything on his plate. Bucky avoids the conversation by going for seconds and then thirds, which pleases Bruce for some strange reason.
The Avengers as a whole are strange. Bucky thinks he's okay with that.
Chapter 4: Downward Facing Wookie
Pepper visits. Natasha, Bruce, and Tony do yoga. Bucky watches Star Wars.
Darkness. Endless darkness.
The portal's closed and the Chitauri ships have left. Even the stars have deserted him. He's floating in nothing. Despite the lack of gravity, he still feels like he's falling. Continually falling but he'll never reach that horrible point where everything ends.
The pain in his chest is agonizing, both from the cold metal of the reactor pressing against his ribs and from suffocation. He's going to die alone and he's scared. There is no Hulk to catch him this time. There are no Avengers. They closed the portal and left him to die. He didn't get to tell Pepper goodbye. He didn't get to call Rhodey.
It's selfish—stupidly selfish—but he wishes he'd never taken that nuke. At least then he wouldn't be here. At least then it'd all be over in one bang and he wouldn't be alone.
"Anthony Edward Stark! What the hell were you thinking?"
Tony screams. He jolts upright in a flail of limb, gasping and clutching his chest as his heart beats painfully fast and he struggles to breathe. His fingers clench around the reactor. His lungs hurt. Diminished lung capacity and being startled don't mix. The pain grounds him, chasing away the fog of his nightmare. The fear lingers. It never goes away. Months and months later and he's still terrified of dying in space.
Pepper stares at him from the foot of the bed, hand over her mouth and StarkPad pressed to her chest. Her expression softens from alarm to pity. Shit. He hates this. He hates how weak he is. He hates that Pepper sees him like this. He should be better by now. Why isn't he better?
"Sorry," he gasps. He swallows a sob. He's not going to cry. Not on top of everything else. He presses the heels of his hands against his eyes. He's shaking and he doesn't know how to stop. "Fuck. I'm sorry."
He hates those words, especially in that tone. It reminds him of his worst fuck-ups. Pepper has seen him at some of his worst times, but that doesn't make this any better. Her weight dips the mattress next to him. He goes with it, leaning into her and letting his head fall on her shoulder. "At least I made it to bed this time?"
He feels her lips against the top of his head. "It's progress."
He's been bad about sleeping. He's been bad at a lot of things lately. Pepper's found him passed out in the lab more often than not. At least Bruce keeps him fed.
"Right." His slides around Pepper and out of bed. He needs to get out of sight, so he can pretend she doesn't know what a wreck he is. "What were you..." He waves a hand toward the door. "What'd I do this time?" He sighs. He knows he slept but he doesn't feel rested. He never does. He's just so tired of everything. Tired of existing. "Was it that charity ball? You said I didn't need to go and I was working. Did I miss another board meeting?"
Their conversation is briefly paused as he shuts himself in the bathroom to relieve himself and wash up. He grips the sink, letting the faint chill of the basin pull him from the vestiges of his nightmare. He doesn't look at himself in the mirror. He can't. He doesn't like what he sees anymore.
When he opens the bathroom door, Pepper has composed herself. She's standing by the door, all business, though her frown isn't quite what it could be. "You're letting them live here?" Pepper says, her tone disapproving. "And you didn't tell me? I had to find out from Happy. He thought I knew."
Tony blinks. He doesn't understand what she means at first. When it does finally click in place, he doesn't get it. "Is this about the Avengers? I thought you liked Captain Apple Pie and his merry band of misfits?"
"I like them," Pepper says, her face showing the exact opposite of like. "I'm sure they're very nice people, but why are they here? Why aren't they somewhere else? Anywhere else."
Tony squints at her. "Because I invited them?" He uses the wall to stretch out the remaining stiffness from being hunched over his desk all night. "I mean, I offered after the big New York thing but I never expected them to take me up on it. Bruce, yes, but not the rest of them. An entire government organization collapsed while I wasn't looking. Do you honestly expect me to leave Captain America homeless? That'd be a great symbol of present-day America, all our national heroes thrown to the streets while huge corporations-"
It's probably good she stopped him. He doesn't really know where he was going with that rant. Veterans make up a large portion of America's homeless. They're a former military company. They should do something.
"JARVIS, make a note for more charity efforts toward veterans. Pass it along to the foundation. See what they come up with."
"Of course, sir."
Pepper doesn't quite roll her eyes but she smiles a little.
He pulls on a loose pair of sweatpants and rifles through his t-shirt collection. He doesn't feel like getting dressed up today. He spent three days locked in his lab and unless he's forgetting something, he doesn't have any meetings today. He doesn't even have to leave his floors. He's earned a day of rest, though he knows he's not actually going to rest. AC/DC or Led Zeppelin? He chuckles as he pulls on a Captain America t-shirt with the dorkiest cartoon of Rogers he's ever seen.
He turns to Pepper. "So what's the problem, exactly?"
"I don't..." Pepper sighs and crosses her arms. "It's nice of you to take them in, but don't you think they're dangerous? Did you see that fight on the freeway? And the ships falling from the sky? You want to bring that home with you?"
Tony stares at her with a raised eyebrow. "I've had a ticking time-bomb of a rage monster living here for months and you never said a word. I already have targets on my back. Plural. If anything, they're in danger by being around me. Remember my birthday party? The Expo? I can go back further than the last two years. Think of them like unpaid bodyguards. I mean, having the Avengers around has got to add some protection, right? It's not all bad."
"I'm more worried about what happened with SHIELD spilling over into SI. Do the Avengers even exist without SHIELD?"
"Good question." Tony tucks his phone in the pocket of his sweatpants. "I'm hungry. You want an omelet? I want an omelet."
"Tony, it's three in the afternoon."
Tony shrugs and heads for his private stairs. "It's still breakfast if it's the first meal of the day." He turns as he hits the bottom of the stairs. "By the way, I sent out the new StarkPhone revisions. You're going to love it. Tripled the processing speed. Half the weight. Managed to work 3D projection capabilities into the firmware. It'll knock your socks off, guaranteed."
"Then it's a good thing I'm not wearing socks," Pepper says. He glances down and yep, those are some killer red heels.
"Very nice. No sock-blowing there. It'll blow Happy's socks off? I don't know. Whoever's in the vicinity."
His steps stutter as he pushes the door open and finds the communal area occupied. Barton and Wilson are watching something on the TV while Romanov reads in an armchair not far away. Barnes and Rogers are having a hushed conversation over a tablet at the dining table. Bruce is in the kitchen making a cup of tea.
"Heeey," Tony says. Despite being in the middle of a conversation about it, he'd forgotten the reality of having guests in his space. They're going to have to get used to his casual dress sometime. Might as well start now.
Pepper offers a smile and soft welcome as she follows Tony into the room.
"This looks cozy." He pauses to see what Barton's watching. "Animal Planet. Interesting choice."
Barton gives Tony's attire a once-over. "It's like you're not even trying anymore."
"Nice try," Tony shoots back. "I'm not wearing a suit every day so you can ogle me. You want a fashion shot, check the internet. Besides, my ass looks fantastic in everything I wear."
Barton frowns. "You know I'm straight, right?"
Tony shrugs. He's never kept his bisexuality secret. "I'm not. If you don't like that, leave."
Barton waves a hand and turns back to the TV. "Nah. You do you."
Rogers is staring at Tony with an expression somewhere between constipated and amused. Barnes is fighting a smile. It's a weird sort of battle, like his face isn't used to displaying emotion and he's not sure what to do about it.
"Where did you get that awful shirt?" Rogers asks.
Tony grins. "The internet. It's full of wonderful things. I'll show you sometime."
Rogers rolls his eyes. "I know how to use the internet."
"Ah," Tony says, a little hop in his step as he heads toward the kitchen, "but do you know how to use the internet to find awful Avengers merchandise? There's a whole world waiting, Cap." He bumps shoulders with Bruce on his way to the stove. "We good on that topic then?" he asks Pepper. "All settled?"
Pepper rolls her eyes. He knows she's not going to argue about it in front of the Avengers, but that doesn't mean she won't bring it up later.
"For now, Mr. Stark." Pepper approaches the super soldiers. "There is still the matter of Mr. Rogers's frozen assets. Our legal team should have it settled in a few days."
"That's great to hear," Rogers says.
Tony ignores them and pulls ingredients from the fridge. Bruce helpfully sets a skillet on the stovetop. Barton cranes his head over the back of the couch, like a prairie dog attracted by the promise of food. "What are you making?"
"Omelet." Tony pauses. He knows what he should say, what politeness dictates. It's been so long since he's said it that the words feel unnatural. "Do..." Barton probably doesn't. It's stupid to ask, but he's committed now. He'll look stupid if he stops there. "Do you want one?"
"I wouldn't," Pepper says before Barton can respond. She steps up to the counter and stares suspiciously as he whisks three eggs with milk and pours it into the pan. "Since when do you know how to make an omelet?"
Tony points the spatula Bruce hands him at Pepper. "I am deeply offended by your accusation."
"Tony, the last time you tried to make an omelet, it had parts of the shell in it and something green." Barton's eyes go wide and he slouches down, out of sight.
"That was kale. You like kale. I like kale."
"I did not like that kale."
"Whatever." He adds pre-chopped onion, green pepper, and mushroom before folding the omelet in half. "There's no kale this time. Besides, it's basic chemistry." He realizes he's making an omelet to his preferences, not Barton's. "Birdbrain, do you want peppers, onions, and mushrooms?"
"My name's Clint," Barton shoots back. "And yes. Plus some cheese if you have it."
Tony hands the spatula off to Bruce and goes in search of cheese.
"Really, Tony, how?"
Tony straightens, shredded cheddar procured and points to Bruce. "Him."
Pepper arches a delicate eyebrow at Bruce. "You taught him to cook?"
Bruce smiles and relinquishes his spot at the stove. "It's a work in progress."
"You are a saint. I apologize in advance for when Tony sets the kitchen on fire."
Tony's about to protest that that was one time and Jarvis—the real one—had died the week before and he never should have let Rhodey tell her that story, but a shout from Clint preempts him. "Hey! What happened to the TV?"
They all turn to look. JARVIS's standard placeholder screen for when Tony's on a media blackout is replaced a second later by a commercial. Tony plates his omelet and throws a dish towel over it to keep it warm while he starts on Barton's. "Nothing," he lies. "Glitch. Happens sometimes."
Pepper knows exactly what's going on. "Tony..." He cuts her off with a look. She knows what happened between Tony and Killian. She'd turned Killian down when he came to SI with the same proposal he's getting all the media attention for now.
"Clint." The name feels incredibly weird to say. It's a strange bridge that he hasn't crossed in a long time. "Food's up."
He leaves the plate with Clint's omelet on the counter and takes his own to sit next to Bruce and Rogers at the table. They're missing two of the others. "Where'd the sergeant and super spy go?"
"Sparring," Rogers answers. "Nice gym, by the way."
"Huh? Sure." Tony curses his insecurities as he's stuck wondering if they left because of him. Whatever. It's his house. They'll get over it. It's not like he leaves his lab much anyways. He pokes Bruce with his fork. "Hour and a half?"
Bruce swats the fork away with a smile. "Yeah. Sure."
Tony grins. It's nice having a yoga buddy. Keeps him fit and Bruce mellow. Pepper never had the patience for his erratic scheduling. "Yours or mine?"
"Are you propositioning Dr. Banner?" Pepper asks, suddenly looming at him from across the table.
"What? No," he scoffs. He pauses and looks at Bruce. "Unless you want to?" Bruce rolls his eyes and shakes his head. "That's a no then. Oh, well." He pops another bite of omelet in his mouth, chews, and swallows. "Bruce is my yoga buddy."
Everyone ignores Clint's surprised, "You do yoga!?"
"And science buddy. Oh, and cooking buddy. We're getting on like a house on fire."
The look Pepper gives him is both exasperated and fond. "No fire, please. My heart can't take it."
He tips his chair back and holds his plate close to his chest. "No promises."
"Why are you setting a house on fire?" Rogers asks, clearly confused.
"It's a euphemism." Tony gestures with his fork while he talks. "Means we're simpatico." Rogers still looks clueless. "We get along well together."
Bruce shakes his head and smiles that fond smile he gets when Tony's antics amuse him. "I believe the word Tony's looking for is 'friends.'"
The fact that Rogers's quick reflexes are the only thing keeping Tony's chair from toppling backward and spilling him and his food onto the floor has nothing to do with Bruce's use of the f-word. "Right. That."
Bruce's forehead wrinkles and he stares at Tony with curiosity. He'd definitely noticed the hesitation in Tony's tone. Tony smiles back, hoping he can deflect Bruce's attention or at the very least, redirect it.
"Tell me, O' Captain, My Captain, how are you liking this century? Catching up on your pop-culture references?"
Rogers rolls his eyes but doesn't take offense. He mentions Back to the Future and Tony has to throw in a "Great Scott!" Bruce lets his suspicions go and Tony counts it a victory.
"Have you told him?" Pepper asks once the workshop door closes behind them.
Tony pulls the new StarkPhone prototype out of a drawer and tosses it at Pepper. "Told who?"
Pepper doesn't fumble the catch, nor does she let the phone distract her. Her eyes are piercing. "You know who."
He turns to rummage in a different drawer. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"James Barnes." Tony flinches. "Your soulmate."
Tony straightens and taps a screwdriver on the desk. He could lie, play it off like that's not the name that once was on his skin, but she's one of the few who'd seen him with his mark uncovered, pre-Afghanistan. "Caught that, huh?"
Pepper sighs. "Yes, Tony. I know how you feel about soulmates-"
"Then you know I don't want to talk about it."
He plasters a fake smile on his face and drops into his chair. JARVIS helpfully loads his saved screens from last night. Might as well be productive while he's avoiding talk of feelings.
"Besides," Tony adds, "he didn't recognize me or my name. I'm not his soulmate." He doesn't mention Barnes's memory issues. "Don't you think Rogers would have mentioned it? They were besties back in the day. Rogers has to know who Barnes's soulmate was and it's not me. There's some other James Barnes out there waiting for me to screw up their life."
He knows there isn't but he's not going to admit it. Barnes's life is bad enough without Tony in it.
He doesn't look at her. He hates that pitying tone and the way it makes his heart sink faster. "It's fine."
Her heels beat a sharp staccato as she moves to stand beside him. She rests on hand on his shoulder. "You don't have to settle for 'fine.' You deserve more than 'fine.'"
He doesn't, but he knows better than to argue with her on that subject.
"There are other properties," she says. "They don't have to be here. He doesn't have to be here."
Tony spins his chair to face her and takes her hands in his. "It's not a problem, honestly. I could use a bit more excitement around here. It's too quiet."
Pepper purses her lips and stares down at him. "I think you've hit the limit on excitement for a while."
"Sure," he agrees easily. "I'll let the villains of the world know that Iron Man's taking a mental health break and only dealing with the boring kinds of evil right now."
She rolls her eyes but doesn't let go of his hands.
He grins and spins back around to his monitors. "What else have you got for me, Pep?"
"There's a fundraiser coming up for the disaster relief fund."
"Damage Control?" He asks with a grin.
"I'm not calling them that. I had JARVIS add it to your calendar. You need to go to this one. We need more donations if we want to complete reconstruction on time."
"Got it." He never says no to fundraisers, at least not when they're for a worthy cause.
There's a moment of silence while Pepper debates what to say next. She's hesitant, obviously loathe to suggest, "It wouldn't hurt to bring the Avengers."
Tony tilts his head back and grins. "See, they're useful already."
"We'll see about that. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?"
"Yes, that will be all, Miss Potts."
She offers a small smile and a kiss on the forehead before leaving. He feels better. More settled. His nightmare isn't completely chased away but the fear has lessened to something he can forget about. For now. It'll be back the next time he falls asleep.
He pulls up his folder of Avengers projects. If they're here to stay, he should make sure they're decently equipped. No budget SHIELD tech and definitely nothing Hammer touched.
The specs for the EXO-9 fill the air in front of him and he grins. This is going to be fun.
Tony is surprised to find Agent Romanov in Bruce's apartment. She's wearing yoga pants and a tank top over a sports bra. She has a mat already laid out on Bruce's left.
"You know," Tony says as he grabs his usual mat from the stack beside the couch, "I should have figured you for a yoga person."
Romanov arches a perfectly trimmed brow at him. "Is there a problem?"
"Nah." He drops his mat on Bruce's right and starts stretching. "As long as you aren't planning to stab me with anything, we're cool." He doesn't point out that he's purposely put a Hulk between them.
Bruce looks askance at them. "I'm not sure I want to know." He presses play on his antiquated CD player—Bruce refuses to let JARVIS handle the music—and stands between them. He turns to Romanov. "Do you have any sort of preferences I should be aware of? I usually lead. We kind of have a routine we go through, but it's open to variation."
Romanov shakes her head. "I'm sure I can follow along."
"Okay. We start with Child's Pose for a count of fifteen."
Tony kneels and stretches his arms forward until his forehead touches the mat. He counts the requisite fifteen breaths.
"Up into a left Low Lunge for five." Romanov shifts position with a fluid grace that Tony envies. "Switch to the right for five."
"I am sorry that the deception was necessary," Romanov says.
Tony rolls his eyes. He stands when Bruce calls for a set of Lunging Prayer Twists. He looks at the back of Romanov's head and says, "You're hardly the first person to spy on me. Honestly, I stopped counting after high school."
"That sounds fun," Bruce says.
They switch sides. Tony shrugs. "Welcome to the life of a celebrity. If I'd been born a few decades later, my birth would have been televised. I'm glad smartphones weren't around during my heavier partying years. Those are some days that do not need immortalized."
He grimaces as he realizes what being an Avenger will mean for Bruce. He wouldn't wish paparazzi on his worst enemy. "Maybe if we spread a rumor that the Hulk hates camera flashes they'll leave you alone."
"That would be for the best. Twisting Triangle is next, starting left."
"It upset you," Romanov says, like it's a known fact. "I'm sorry for that."
Tony huffs. He knows better than to deny it. He's talking to a superspy. She can probably read him like a Times Square marquis.
"I would wager," Bruce says as he turns toward Tony, "that has more to do with Tony's needle phobia than anything else."
"Et tu, Brucey? You spend most of your formative years as every kidnapper's wet dream and see how you like being injected with strange things."
That effectively kills the conversation. They move from Twisting Half Moon to Forearm Planks to Bow Pose.
"I didn't know." The words are so quiet that Tony's not even sure Romanov spoke. Her face is a neutral mask.
Tony stares at her. It's bad form to argue while doing yoga. Sort of ruins the whole point, but he can't hold his tongue. "Right. I've seen what SHIELD has on me. Fury kept a list. It's pretty extensive. I didn't realize he cared so much."
"Seated Twist," Bruce says like there's no uncomfortable conversation going on around him.
Romanov turns to face Tony. "I was not given access to that information."
That's actually surprising. "Huh." He'll have to ask JARVIS what Romanov's clearance level is. He hadn't realized Fury kept some of the information classified. He wonders if the details about Afghanistan are classified too, but there's no way in hell he's bringing that up, ever.
"Seated Forward Fold."
"It made the news a few times," Tony says. Why wouldn't Fury have offered up that bit of backstory? Was it in the file Rogers had? He tries to remember what the press had published but it's old news to him, best forgotten.
"And relax," Bruce says, signaling the end of their routine.
Tony shifts into Bridge Pose to stretch his back a little more. Stark Industries kept most of the later kidnapping attempts out of the press, likely to make him seem less like a juicy target. Not that it stopped the attempts, but it probably slowed them down.
"They stopped making news when I stopped getting kidnapped for money." He's not sure why he says that. It's not information either of them need or asked for.
Romanov's gaze is laser sharp, but it's Bruce that asks, "What do you mean?"
Tony looks at them, confused. "I am a genius, remember?"
"Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist," Romanov quotes.
"Right. Howard didn't believe in paying ransom so that kept most of the high-profile groups at bay, but after I started building things everyone wanted their own pet genius. They thought a child would be easier to control." He shrugs. "I always got out."
Even in Afghanistan, he freed himself in the end. It only cost Yinsen's life.
Bruce shakes his head as he rolls his mat for storage. "Well, that's awful."
"We're watching the first Star Wars movie later," Romanov says in an abrupt change of topic. "You should come. Six o'clock."
Tony's eyes narrow. "Episode one or episode four?"
Romanov smiles. It's a small uplift of her lips but it's real and that makes all the difference between Natasha Romanov and Natalie Rushman. "Four."
"Sure." He shrugs. He's feeling charitable with his time. "Nothing better to do. Are we ordering pizza? We should order pizza."
Romanov's smile widens. "I think Steve mentioned pizza."
Having people in his space isn't all bad if there's Star Wars and pizza.
Bucky likes Star Wars a lot more than he likes Back to the Future. The other movies are fine but Star Wars calls to his early love of science fiction. He used to devour the stories in Astounding Science Fiction when he could get a copy. He remembers reading H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs while keeping Steve company in the hospital.
He's so caught up in the story of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and Hans Solo—they all are—that he doesn't notice Stark until the Millennium Falcon is escaping the Death Star to the Rebel base. He knows Stark is there, of course. He's a hard man to miss, but once the movie started and they'd all quieted down Stark had become part of the surroundings, no more noticeable than the armchair he was sitting in. Or sleeping, as is the current case.
On screen the Rebels are analyzing the Death Star's weaknesses but Bucky's suddenly fascinated by the softness that's taken over Stark's face. He's sitting in the same position he was before but he's turned to rest his head against the cushion of the chair.
Stark is a force of nature, always moving, always talking, so seeing him quiet and still feels like a treasure. Bucky doesn't trust these people enough to lower his guard in his own room, behind locked doors. He hadn't thought Stark trusted any of them—let alone Bucky—enough to be vulnerable. To let them live in his space, certainly, but there is a whole surveillance system keeping an eye on them. Any one of them could attack him right now but he trusts them enough to allow this vulnerability.
Maybe he's reading too much into it. Maybe Stark is exhausted from overwork. Maybe he's narcoleptic. Those reasons are far more plausible than Stark trusting a former HYDRA assassin.
Natasha appears behind Stark with a blanket. She unfolds it and quietly, carefully drapes it over Stark's sleeping form. Their eyes meet over Stark's head. She raises an eyebrow. He shrugs.
He turns back to the screen in time to see a squadron of Rebel ships attacking the Death Star. The movie holds his attention for a little longer, but he finds his gaze drifting to Stark every time there's a lull in the action.
"Should we wake him?" Steve asks when the movie ends. He looks toward Stark and starts to get up.
Bucky grabs Steve's arm before he can take a single step. "Don't."
He has no idea where this sudden, fierce protectiveness comes from. He would suspect HYDRA but he knows HYDRA had no love of Tony Stark.
"It's better to leave him," Bruce says. "Who knows when he'll sleep again if we disturb him."
"Okay." Steve looks down at Bucky. "Are you staying here?"
He wants to, but that seems strange. Creepy. He shakes his head and releases his hold on Steve's arm. Following Steve back to their quarters is more difficult than it should be.
If Bucky happens to return to the communal area after everyone else is asleep, well, there's no one present who can prove it.