Bucky would be lying if he said that he wasn't worried when Steve brought him to the Tower to meet the rest of the Avengers. It was part paranoia — Bucky had been confined to the shadows for so long that being seen and acknowledged made him nervous — but, more so than that, it was knowing who would be there. Bucky's memories were still pretty scrambled, but more and more were coming back to him — some he'd rather not remember.
Like murdering Howard and Maria Stark.
The fact that Bucky had known Howard back during the war, however fleetingly, was bad enough, but now he was to meet the son of the people he had murdered. The guilt was suffocating, even if Steve assured him that Tony Stark already knew — they had talked about it before Bucky even made it to New York.
How Steve had found out about what he had done, Bucky hadn't asked, choosing to simply be grateful that he didn't have to give Stark the news. That might be cowardly of him but, in all honesty, it was probably better for Stark as well, to have heard it from a friend he trusted rather than the murderer himself. Surprisingly, Steve had told Bucky that Stark forgave him, though Bucky didn't quite allow himself to believe it.
How could you forgive something like that?
As if that wasn't enough of a hurdle, there were the nightmares, the flashbacks, and the occasional dissociative episode. With all his issues taken into account, Bucky didn't exactly consider himself as someone who should be around other people. He was only going to make things awkward and no amount of assurances from Steve would change that. Well-meaning as he was, Steve was also terribly partial.
Still, about six months after the events in D.C. and only at the start of his recovery, Bucky reluctantly stepped inside the Avengers Tower. He had his misgivings — perhaps letting Steve find him hadn't been the best choice after all — but it was too late to back out now. He had to face what he had done and accept whatever punishment Tony Stark and the other Avengers saw fit.
To Bucky's surprise, he was met not with suspicion and hostility, but openness and genuine politeness. Well, Natasha Romanoff seemed slightly wary, but Bucky could hardly blame her for that, considering what he had done to her back in D.C. Sam had been equally cool at first, when he and Steve had found Bucky months ago, but he had turned out to be a surprisingly steady presence to lean on once the initial animosity settled — and you looked beyond the snarky bickering.
The one that surprised Bucky the most was Stark.
Not only did he never even mention his parents, but he looked at Bucky with something akin to innocent curiosity — not anger or hate. It made little sense to Bucky — Stark had every right to hate him — but he couldn't claim to know the man or his thoughts. Even Steve, who had been friends with Stark for years, seemed a little at a loss.
Before he arrived, Steve had told Bucky about the rest of the Avengers — quiet Bruce, friendly Thor, and snarky Clint — but he'd seemed unable to put a label on Stark. Bucky had thought that strange, at least until he met the man himself.
Tony Stark was a hurricane of rapid-fire quips, sharp, teasing smiles, and bright, intelligent eyes. He projected an ego and confidence that felt quite jarring but, hinting underneath the arrogant façade, was an undercurrent of care and gentleness that was both surprising and entirely misplaced whenever it was directed at Bucky.
He didn't deserve it.
And yet, Tony seemed to do everything he could to make Bucky comfortable. He never stood too close, breezed past subjects that would make Bucky tense, and seemed more than willing to open up his home to his parents' murderer, even if he had no obligation to do so, whatsoever.
Within five minutes, Bucky realized that there was no way to define Tony Stark with mere words. He was beyond that, somehow — too bright, too brilliant, too much. He was a man who could treat someone like Bucky with kindness, despite what he had done, and Bucky felt humbled just being in his presence. He had no doubt that Stark had his bad sides too — everyone did — but, as far as Bucky was concerned, Stark was someone who deserved respect.
All of the Avengers were, for how readily they allowed him into their midst. They might not trust him entirely, but no one was outright hostile.
So, while Bucky still wasn't sure if he'd made the right choice by coming with Steve, he was willing to give it a try. For Steve's sake, if nothing else. And, perhaps, his own.
With some luck, he might actually be able to start healing.
Having Steve there to ground him helped, however, and, before the first week was up, Bucky had more or less learned not to jump at every sudden sound. By week two, he made tentative attempts to relax.
It was difficult, though, knowing that, in the same building, was a man whose parents Bucky had killed. No matter what Steve had told him, Bucky just couldn't believe he was forgiven. He didn't think that Steve would lie, but Bucky hadn't actually heard it from Stark himself.
He wasn't sure if he could believe it until he did.
So, instead he wandered through his and Steve's shared floor, then up the stairs to the communal areas. Bucky usually avoided those, knowing that was where the other Avengers often were, but he figured it would be safe considering the late hour.
He was wrong.
Bucky was staring out the living room windows, watching the city lights, when Stark suddenly stepped out from the kitchen, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. How Bucky hadn't heard him before that was a mystery, but perhaps he'd simply been too wrapped up in his own thoughts to pay attention.
Stark clearly hadn't expected company, either, letting out a startled noise and flinching so hard it was a miracle he didn't spill his coffee.
"Holy—" Stark cut himself off, placing a hand against his chest while sucking in a deep breath.
Bucky couldn't really think of anything to say, instead debating just how foolish he would look if he made a break for the elevator. Out of all the people currently in the Tower, Stark was the one he was the most nervous about seeing. Ever since he arrived, Bucky had kept his distance, not wanting to make things harder for Stark than he had to. Staying out of sight felt like the better option — a kinder option.
No one should have to look at the person who murdered their parents.
Stark let out a short bark of laughter, shaking his head.
"Barnes, fancy seeing you here." Bewilderingly enough, Stark padded closer, his bare feet barely making a sound. "Well, fancy seeing you at all, really. You seem quite adept at skulking around in the shadows. How is life in the Tower treating you?"
Bucky wasn't sure what to reply. The pale moonlight smoothed out Stark's features, his eyes dark, but there was no mistaking his smile. How could he be smiling?
"It's alright," Bucky managed after a couple of seconds, startled by how hoarse his voice was.
"Just alright?" Stark sipped his coffee. "I must be doing something wrong, in that case. Is there anything you need?"
That was the last question Bucky had expected. Stark had already given him a home, for heaven's sake, and might even be paying for his food and clothes, for all Bucky knew. Considering how he had grown up, Bucky was living in abundance — all thanks to Stark. Bucky had no right to ask for anything more from this man.
"No." He shook his head, a lump in his throat. "It's fine."
"You sure?" Stark sounded concerned now, a slight frown on his face. "Don't hesitate to ask JARVIS if you need help with something and, if there's anything you're missing, just let me or Steve know. We'll make sure that—"
"Why don't you hate me?"
A deafening silence settled between them, Stark staring at him with wide eyes. Perhaps Bucky had said the words a little harsher than intended, but he just couldn't stand the way Stark was trying to be so accommodating.
The man should hate him.
Bucky swallowed and forced himself to continue. "After what I did, how can you—" He faltered, his voice breaking. "Why are you being so nice to me?"
Stark continued to stare at him for a couple of seconds, then shrugged.
"Why wouldn't I be?"
Something inside of Bucky snapped.
"Because I murdered your parents!" he yelled, not able to hold back the panic and fear and guilt any longer. Stark looked taken aback, but didn't flinch or step away, even when Bucky turned to face him, trembling from the release of pent-up emotions. "What I did is inexcusable. You should hate me!"
"Well, I don't," Stark replied calmly. He looked like he meant it. "Did it fuck me up? Sure. Did it hurt? Of course it did. But I also know you weren't at fault."
"How can you—"
Stark cut him off before he got any further.
"HYDRA. They're the ones who did it, okay? You were just a tool." Stark held Bucky's gaze, firm and unyielding. "Were you given a choice?"
Bucky averted his gaze. Of course he hadn't been given a choice — he'd been present and more or less aware of what he was doing, sure, but following orders had been the only thing he knew. There hadn't been any room for morals and regret. It hadn't been part of his training.
"That's what I thought." Stark lowered his voice, his words unexpectedly soft. "And that's why I forgive you. It wasn't your fault."
As much as Bucky had longed to hear those words, he found himself unable to reply. There was relief, sure, but also a wave of misery. Stark shouldn't have to forgive him — none of this should have happened in the first place.
The silence between them was awkward, Bucky refusing to meet Stark's gaze. How Steve thought any of this was a good idea was beyond Bucky. Stark shouldn't have to put up with Bucky's presence in the Tower.
Bucky shouldn't be here.
Leaving would hurt, sure — Steve would be sad and disappointed — but Bucky wasn't sure if he could do this. The guilt was eating him up inside and just seeing Stark made Bucky's chest constrict.
He should leave.
"Hey, would you like to come down to the workshop?"
Bucky's head snapped up, staring at Stark in surprise. Why would he invite Bucky to his workshop? Wasn't that his inner sanctum or something?
Stark was smiling again, careful but inviting.
"I mean, I'm not sleeping anytime soon so, if you want company, you're more than welcome."
How Stark could make such an offer so easily was a mystery to Bucky, especially considering what they had just been discussing. They couldn't go from talking about Stark's dead parents to Bucky being invited to the workshop within minutes. Not even Stark could be that accepting.
The shift was too sudden — too jarring.
"It's up to you, of course." Stark shrugged, clearly unaware of Bucky's inner turmoil. "But I bet it's better than whatever you're doing now."
Bucky wasn't so sure. The thought of spending time alone with Stark was terrifying. They didn't even have anything in common, aside from the aforementioned dead parents. Bucky should refuse. Stark was clearly trying to make Bucky feel better, even if it was at his own expense. Stark shouldn't feel forced to spend time with Bucky.
He opened his mouth to decline when Stark added:
"Actually, now that I think on it, I could use the help. I'm in need of some heavy lifting and I'd usually ask Steve or Thor, but they're both asleep." Stark looked deceptively innocent, but Bucky knew he was being manipulated. Stark was trying to trick him into accepting by making it seem as if Bucky was doing him a favor, not the other way around.
Bucky should refuse — he really should — but a part of him, the one that could still taste the fear from his nightmare at the back of his throat and desperately longed for a distraction, made him hesitate. He still wasn't sure if he believed that Stark had forgiven him, but he certainly wouldn't earn that forgiveness if he didn't spend time with the man.
Hiding away was the cowardly thing to do and Bucky was getting really tired of just how often he fell back on cowardice. Maybe he should just trust that Stark knew what he was doing, even if it was incomprehensible to Bucky.
Stark was beginning to look a little bit uncomfortable with Bucky's lack of reaction, so he decided to reply before he had time to change his mind.
"Okay. I'll come."
Stark blinked, clearly surprised, before a wide, happy smile bloomed on his face.
"Excellent! Come along, Sergeant Barnes." Stark immediately turned to head toward the elevator, as if he was worried that Bucky would regret his decision if they didn't reach the workshop quickly enough.
Bucky followed, swallowing down his nerves.
"Bucky," he said softly.
Stark threw him a look over his shoulder, eyebrows raised in question.
"I prefer Bucky."
That earned him another smile. Stark stopped in front of the doors of the elevator, looking up at Bucky with a breathtaking amount of acceptance.
"Sure. As long as you call me Tony."
That would no doubt take some time getting used to, but shouldn't be impossible. Bucky nodded, feeling an unexpected little flutter in his stomach when Stark beamed up at him.
He looked even more handsome when smiling.
Bucky quickly pushed the thought aside, not daring to explore that any further. Instead, he followed Stark into the elevator, feeling both nervous and a little excited at the thought of seeing Stark's workshop. He'd heard Steve talk about it — all the wonders Stark had created over the years — but had never thought he'd get to see it in person. He knew it was a privilege to be allowed to do so and Bucky would treasure it for the show of trust that it was.
Once again, Stark had given Bucky something he was pretty sure he didn't actually deserve, but was too selfish to deny himself.
With Tony, he was encouraged to explore.
After that first night — when Bucky had been tasked with lifting and holding various heavy objects — Tony kept inviting him to the workshop. First it was to help him with more of the same, but, as soon as Tony noticed Bucky's genuine interest in the finer details of Tony's machines, he started giving him more complex tasks.
Bucky was both surprised and confused the first time Tony handed him a soldering iron and a simple schematic for him to replicate. He'd never done anything like that before — hadn't been seen as smart enough — but Tony didn't seem to care. To him, the only thing that mattered was that Bucky was curious and eager to learn.
It took a couple of tries before Bucky was pleased enough with his work to actually dare to show Tony, and couldn't quite push down his anxiety and shyness when he eventually did. Tony just smiled, however, and praised him for his steady hand. Then he gave Bucky another, slightly more complex, schematic and told him to try that one next.
They did that a couple of times, Tony offering praise and giving instructions when needed, until Bucky was getting quite adept at the whole soldering thing. Bucky would never be even half as good as Tony, but he was definitely more than passable, if Tony was to be trusted — and who better to judge your soldering skills?
Not to mention that Bucky truly enjoyed doing it. To watch the complex pattern of wires, resistors, capacitors, and switches come to life before him was not only satisfying, but held a certain kind of beauty that Bucky hadn't found anywhere else. He'd never actually created anything before — he'd never known how breathtaking that feeling was. How good it made him feel to know he had made something that, while not alive or breathing, was practical and functional.
It was a heady feeling.
So, more and more, Bucky could be found hunched over a circuit board or whatever Tony had him working on at the time, listening to Tony talk to JARVIS and his bots. Occasionally, Bucky dared to offer his own contributions to the discussions and, whenever he did, Tony looked positively delighted, as if pulling Bucky into conversations was his new goal in life.
It didn't take long at all before Bucky knew his way around Tony's workshop — where the tools were, how the computers and interfaces worked, and how to handle the occasionally overexcited bots. Bucky didn't think much of it until he saw Steve's surprise. Only then did he realize that, maybe, that wasn't the norm.
Sure, Steve dropped by the workshop as well, to talk to Tony about Avengers business or just hang out, but he didn't seem as involved in Tony's actual work. Bruce was often there, too, but he was usually concerned with his own projects or just spent his time listening to Tony talk. Bucky, on the other hand, was often asked to help with lifting, drilling, and assembling. Working in tandem with Tony, passing tools back and forth, giving opinions and input, was second nature to him. Bucky felt comfortable in the workshop — with Tony and his bots and machines — in a way he hadn't thought possible.
He hadn't known he could.
Partly for his past — feeling comfortable or finding any kind of relief didn't seem to be in the cards for him — but also because he'd never considered himself particularly intelligent. Tony seemed to, though, and was always eager to hear Bucky's thoughts on what he was creating, as if his opinions actually mattered.
The first time Bucky was willing to start believing it himself — that he might actually have something to offer Tony other than an extra set of hands — was when he caught a flaw in Tony's newest upgrade to his suit.
Tony had been running simulations all afternoon, getting more and more frustrated when they failed and he and JARVIS were unable to find the problem. That was something Bucky had learned early on while watching Tony work — what he did was even more complex than most people believed.
The suit was a marvel — everyone knew that — but the sheer number of small pieces that needed to fit together for it to work was staggering. The amount of math and calculations involved was enough to make Bucky's head spin, but he was, slowly but surely, making sense of some of it. Circuits and wires were easier, but he was definitely learning the math as well.
Unfortunately, with such a complex machine, troubleshooting wasn't as simple as asking JARVIS to find what was wrong — it required careful study of the specs and schematics, which usually took hours.
So, it was definitely part luck that Bucky managed to spot the flaw.
He was watching the holographic projection of the suit's schematics while Tony was arguing with JARVIS about whether or not the fault lay with the design or the program they used to run the diagnostics. Tony seemed to lean toward the latter, but Bucky was pretty sure it had more to do with frustration and impatience than pride. Tony just wanted to move on to the next phase of upgrading his suit.
Bucky only listened with half an ear and, with a flick of his wrist, made the suit do a lazy turn in front of him. Even if he was used to Tony's tech by then, he still couldn't help but be in awe of it — the way it reacted so smoothly to his commands, with only the smallest of movement.
He watched the projection, his gaze tracing the sleek, flawless lines, still amazed that Tony allowed him this close a look at the suit's inner workings. From what Bucky had been told, the government had tried to take it from him at one point, demanding that Tony hand over the schematics. Unsurprisingly, Tony had refused, not wanting his designs to end up in the wrong hands. His caution was understandable — commendable, even — yet here Tony was, sharing it with Bucky.
Bucky wasn't sure what that meant, if anything at all.
He clenched his hand, making the hologram freeze in place, and highlighted the suit's right thigh. The hologram unfolded, zooming in and breaking down the schematics into its smallest components, the complex circuitry spreading out like a glowing constellation map around him. Bucky raised a hand, fingertip trailing along the intricate wiring, the hologram shimmering in blue against his skin. To think that Tony had made something this beautiful — something so breathtaking.
As his finger slid over the lacework of wires, Bucky suddenly spotted a small anomaly that made him frown. Bucky was no expert, but he'd helped Tony with enough of his circuit boards to know the components and what wire went were. This didn't seem quite right.
Still, just to be sure, Bucky opened up the schematics for the left thigh as well, comparing the flow of wires.
For some reason, the two didn't match.
"Hey, Tony?" he called, not taking his eyes off the hologram.
The bickering silenced abruptly — Tony was always surprisingly quick to notice when Bucky wanted his attention.
"What's up, Buckaroo?"
The nicknames had appeared somewhere around week two of Bucky spending time in Tony's workshop and he'd learned that it was no use trying to get them to stop. Truth be told, he didn't mind them all that much.
"Take a look at this."
Tony sauntered over, stopping close enough that Bucky felt their arms brush. A shiver went down his spine and Bucky quickly squashed that spark of warmth that wanted to bloom in his chest. It was best not to go there. Instead, he pointed at the two different schematics, then waited in silence while Tony eyes flicked between them.
A beat passed, followed by a surprised noise from Tony.
"Huh." Tony blinked. "Will you look at that."
He smiled up at Bucky.
"Well spotted, Sergeant Barnes." Somehow, Tony managed to make 'Sergeant Barnes' sound like another nickname. "Truly excellent work."
Bucky tried not to preen, but it was pretty hard not to considering the warm, happy glow spreading through him. It made no sense that being in the company of a genius made Bucky feel smart. If anything, he should be intimidated by how brilliant Tony was — be all the more aware of how different they were — but he mostly felt proud whenever Tony let him know that he'd done well.
"JARVIS, Bucky seems to have found the error. There's been a mix up with the wires, probably when I did the adjustments to the boosters." Tony was still smiling and, when his hand settled against Bucky's arm, giving it a grateful squeeze, Bucky couldn't help that his heart skipped a beat.
Despite having worked in the same space for weeks, they rarely touched. Hands brushed occasionally, sure, and they had bumped into each other when stepping around machines they were assembling, but nothing like this. Nothing intentional.
Tony's hand was gone as quickly as it had appeared, but Bucky could still feel the touch against his skin — a subtle warmth that sent a shiver down his spine. He refused to acknowledge what that meant and instead focused on helping Tony rework the schematics.
Bucky would not go down that road.
Bucky looked up from his circuit board, frowning when he saw the shocked look on Steve's face. That was one of the weirdest questions Bucky had ever heard and he let that be known.
"What the heck are you talkin' about?"
They were in the workshop, Steve sitting next to Bucky with a sketchbook, and Tony had just breezed off to where he was working on something that looked suspiciously like a car engine. Bucky wasn't going to assume that had anything to do with him mentioning his disappointment at the lack of flying cars the other day but, knowing Tony, it did.
Steve kept his voice low, as if not wanting Tony to overhear. Not that Tony would be able to, given that the bots were helping him with the engine, all three of them hooting excitedly. It would be difficult even for a super soldier.
"Just now, he asked you for a screwdriver."
Bucky kept frowning. "Yeah, so?"
It had been lying on the table next to him so Bucky had handed it to Tony when he'd come over.
"Does he do that often?"
This was getting downright bizarre. Why did Steve have such interest in Bucky handing Tony screwdrivers? What was the big deal?
"I don't see why that matters." Bucky shook his head and looked back down at his soldering. "But yeah, it happens."
There was a brief silence, followed by Steve's surprised, "Huh."
The tone made Bucky look up again. Steve was focused on Tony, a thoughtful look on his face. It didn't seem bad, necessarily, but Bucky felt a twinge of alarm nonetheless.
"What?" Bucky asked suspiciously.
Steve let out a soft breath, then shook his head.
"Nothing," he replied, a curious little smile spreading on his lips.
Bucky didn't believe him, but he wasn't sure if he was up for trying to squeeze it out of Steve right now, either. He had a feeling he might not like the answer. So, instead he decided to just finish his circuit board and let Steve keep his secrets.
"Fine, have it your way," he drawled, focusing back on his work.
He could still sense Steve's smile, though, and wasn't quite able to stop himself from wondering what that had been about. Perhaps he'd find out at some point, but he didn't count on it.