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Let's Build a Happy Ending (For You and Me)

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Let's Build a Happy Ending

 

 

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.

---

The days that followed were disorienting and, quite frankly, terrifying. There were new routines for Bucky to learn — being around other people had never seemed as difficult as it did now — and the unfamiliar environment had him one edge. The other Avengers gave him a wide berth, sure, offering him time to get settled, but he was still aware of them. He still knew they were there.

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.

---

One night, about three weeks into his stay with the Avengers, Bucky found himself drifting aimlessly through the Tower. He had startled awake due to a particularly nasty nightmare — a blur of red, pain, and echoing screams — and falling back asleep just didn't seem like a good idea. He couldn't be sure the dream wouldn't just pick back up.

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.

---

As he had suspected, Bucky loved Tony's workshop. He had always been interested in technology, even back in the day, but hadn't really had an opportunity to explore it, what with growing up in poverty and, later, the war.

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.

---

"He lets you hand him things?"

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.

 

Chapter Text

Let's Build a Happy Ending

 

 

One day, out of the blue, Tony addressed the one piece of technology in the Tower that had been taboo since Bucky arrived.

"So, what about your arm?"

They were in the workshop, as usual, Bucky sorting through the chaotic mess of screws and bolts that Tony had tossed into a bin and seemed too lazy to organize. It was dull, repetitive work, but quite soothing all the same.

Tony's question made him tense up, however.

"What about it?" Bucky knew he sounded defensive, but he couldn't help it. He tried not to think about the arm — which was easier said than done when it was attached to you.

"Aren't you curious about how it works?" Tony wasn't looking at him, scrolling through some code on one of his holographic screens. "The past couple of weeks, you've picked apart anything you could get your hands on, except your arm."

Bucky grit his teeth, refusing to look down at the arm in question.

"Can't exactly pick it apart while wearin' it," he muttered, tossing the bolt he was holding into the proper container with a little more force than necessary.

"JARVIS could scan it," Tony offered casually. "We could figure out how it works without actually touching it."

Tension was crawling up Bucky's spine, making his tone harder than he'd like. He could still remember the scientists at HYDRA poking and prodding at the arm, each tweak sending lashes of pain through his body. Even if they didn't touch it, Bucky would much rather ignore the arm entirely.

"Don't see what good that would do."

Tony sounded surprised when he replied, "Really? I mean, HYDRA are dicks, obviously, but they were apparently pretty good at—"

"I don't care how curious you are about my arm, Tony," Bucky snapped. "I'm not one of your fuckin' projects. Back the fuck off."

Only when he saw Tony's shoulders stiffen did Bucky realize how sharp his words were — how much hostility he'd suddenly thrown at Tony. There was a reason, sure, but his fear didn't show, only his anger.

A couple of beats passed in tense, awkward silence.

Tony still didn't look at Bucky, his hands suddenly less-than-graceful when he quickly started saving his progress.

"Okay, sure. Whatever you want." Tony's voice was flat but his movements held a stiff urgency that told Bucky just how badly he'd misstepped.

Tony was going to run away.

"Tony, I—"

"Pepper has some papers I need to look at," Tony interrupted, closing his screen with a flick of his wrist. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."

Bucky was pretty sure Tony was lying — he'd stay away from the workshop for the rest of the day if he had to. That was how Tony dealt with conflicts that actually hurt his feelings, according to Steve.

"Tony, wait." Bucky scrambled to his feet, but Tony was already heading toward the elevator. Bucky ducked around Butterfingers, trying to catch up. "I didn't mean—"

"It's fine." Tony turned, walking backward with a fake, cracking smile on his face. "You're right — it's your arm and I shouldn't mess with it."

"It's not fine." Bucky could feel his panic begin to grow. Steve had told him this might happen. When Tony got like this — full of self-depreciation and determined to deflect any and all attempts to talk about what had gone wrong — it was nigh impossible to stop him from shying away and isolating himself.

"Let me explain," Bucky said. It wasn't just for Tony's sake, but because Bucky, for once, wanted to explain why he had reacted the way he had. He wanted Tony to know that it had to do with bad memories, not anything he did.

The elevator doors slid open without Tony having to do anything — JARVIS was attentive, as always — and Tony waved his hand.

"We'll talk about it some other time." Tony stepped into the elevator just as Bucky skidded to a halt in front of it. The look on Tony's face was disturbingly blank. "Right now I need to—"

Tony cut himself off when Bucky's left hand shot out and grabbed the closing elevator door. It stopped immediately, leaving the two of them to stare stupidly at each other. In all honesty, Bucky had no idea what he was doing. All he knew was that if he let Tony leave, things would no doubt become awkward between them. Tony would start avoiding him or stop talking to him and Bucky didn't want that.

It was the last thing he wanted.

"Bucky, let go." All of Tony's fake cheer had left his voice. He did an admiral job of looking calm and collected, but Bucky caught a glimpse of his tightly clenched fists before he hid them in his pockets. Not to mention that the tension in his shoulders was easy to read — Tony was practically vibrating with it.

"No."

Tony frowned. "What do you mean, 'no'?"

Bucky pushed on the door, forcing it to slide back into the wall.

"I mean no. You're not leavin'."

Bucky could see the moment anger began to take over for Tony, but he still maintained a certain level of calm. His eyes were blazing and the tightness in his shoulders didn't ease in the slightest.

"I told you, I have—"

"You're lyin'." Bucky knew he might actually be making things worse, but he just couldn't let Tony leave without having explained himself. He didn't want Tony to get the wrong idea. Yes, Bucky was touchy about the arm and wasn't sure if he was ready to look any deeper into it, but he shouldn't have lashed out. He shouldn't have accused Tony of trying to turn him into one of his projects. Tony had only ever had Bucky's best at heart.

"We're gonna talk about this." Bucky tried to catch Tony's gaze but he kept refusing. "Not later — now."

"And what if I don't want to?" Tony snapped, suddenly in motion again. He slipped past Bucky and marched back out into the workshop. "I'm not interested in a lecture."

Bucky let go of the door and turned to follow Tony.

"How about an apology?"

Tony stopped, but didn't look back.

"You have nothing to apologize for," he said eventually, then continued toward the nearest workbench, as if he had been heading in that direction all along.

"I do." Bucky followed, but kept a certain distance. The last thing he wanted was to make Tony feel cornered, although he suspected that he already had, what with not allowing him to leave. From what Bucky had gathered, people didn't usually do that. "I shouldn't have snapped."

"Hey, you have every right to." Tony breezed past his workbench, absently patting DUM-E as he did so.

"No, I don't. That was rude."

Bucky followed Tony's winding path between workbenches and half-finished projects, feeling more and more like he was chasing him across the workshop. Had he not been so focused on setting things right, it might even have been a little bit funny.

"Will you just stop and talk to me?" he asked, when it was obvious that Tony had no intention of replying. "I'm tryna apologize."

"I don't see why—"

"Tony." Bucky's patience ran out and, despite knowing it might be a mistake, he reached out and grabbed Tony's wrist. Like expected, Tony stiffened immediately, but at least he stopped. "You might as well. I'm not gonna give up."

Tony kept staring ahead, refusing to look at Bucky — kind of like a stubborn child — but, eventually, his shoulders slumped.

"Fine," he said with a defeated sigh. When he turned around, he looked bored and disgruntled, but Bucky knew more was hiding under the surface.

"Thank you." Bucky let go of Tony's wrist, not surprised when Tony took the chance to cross his arms over his chest. It made him look both defensive and a little bit vulnerable, but Bucky supposed that was how he felt, as well.

"Talk."

For a split second, Bucky debated just repeating what he had already said — that he was sorry and shouldn't have snapped at Tony — but he knew he'd be wasting his time. An apology was all well and good, but Tony needed to know the reason if Bucky wanted him to really listen to what he was saying.

"I'm afraid of it." Bucky swallowed around the sudden tightness in his throat, averting his gaze when Tony finally, for the first time in minutes, tried to catch his. "The arm, I mean. I know I could probably figure out how it works — especially with your help, but it... it scares me."

A brief silence settled between them, Bucky trying not to listen to his racing heartbeats.

"Does it hurt?"

Bucky let out a slow breath and shook his head. "No, not right now. I mean, I can feel it and it's not always comfortable, but it doesn't always hurt, either."

"When does it hurt?" Tony's voice was soft now, kind and careful.

Bucky shrugged. "When the temperature shifts too suddenly, repetitive movements — stuff like that."

"See, that's the kind of thing we might be able to fix."

A wave of discomfort traveled through Bucky, but he forced it down. Tony was only trying to help, Bucky knew that. In many ways, he'd probably be less disturbed by the arm if he had known less about technology and machines. He could understand if Tony was curious but, to Bucky, the idea of finding out just exactly what was attached to his body was terrifying. One day he might want to, but not yet. He wasn't ready.

"I know." Bucky forced himself to look up at Tony, not surprised to see the gentle concern in his eyes. "Just... not yet. It works fine so I just want to..."

"Ignore it?" Tony suggested. It didn't sound like he agreed, but he wasn't judging Bucky, either.

"Yeah."

Tony eyed him, as if trying to decide whether he should push or not, but eventually nodded.

"Okay. But let me know if you ever change your mind." He gave Bucky a stern look and added, "Or, for that matter, if it breaks or starts hurting more than usual."

Through some kind of miracle, Bucky managed a smile. It might be faint and probably more tragic than anything else, but at least it was a smile.

"I will." He'd at least try to, which was all he could promise right now. "And I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped."

Tony's smile was unusually weak too. "And I could have been more sensitive when I asked."

The tension Bucky was carrying had begun to ease — it looked like they might actually get through this without Tony pulling away from him. Pushing when Tony so clearly didn't want to talk had felt very inconsiderate, but Bucky would say it was worth it.

"See?" he said, allowing some teasing to slip into his voice. "Talking about it wasn't so bad."

Tony huffed out a laugh, shaking his head. "Don't push it, Buckaroo."

The amount of fondness in his voice sent a tickle of delight through Bucky and he felt himself relax. There might be one or two hiccups still — Tony would no doubt be a little more careful around him now, at least when it concerned the arm — but they would be fine.

They would get through this.

---

To Bucky's surprise, their not-quite-fight only seemed to bring them closer together, as if some invisible barrier had finally lowered. Perhaps it was a matter of trust — Bucky had shared things about himself that he usually wouldn't — or maybe Tony found comfort in knowing that Bucky was willing to put effort into their friendship. He wouldn't let Tony pull away and isolate himself.

Either way, Tony suddenly seemed a lot more at ease. He spoke more about himself, if only in small chunks at a time, and he seemed to move with a smooth, relaxed grace that was, quite frankly, mesmerizing. It was as if Tony had settled, utterly comfortable in Bucky's presence.

Seeing the change was, for lack of a better word, breathtaking. Tony had been captivating before — confident, suave, and altogether too charming for his own good — but this was something else entirely. All that had seemed to be part of whatever image he had crafted for himself, while this was pure Tony.

This — the relaxed smiles and lithe, almost lazy, body language — was Tony at his most comfortable. This was what Tony looked like when he felt safe and content.

Bucky had no idea what he had done to earn Tony's trust — why he, of all people, was allowed to see this — but he was both humbled and grateful.

He would make sure never to break that trust.

---

Bucky wasn't entirely certain when the flirting started — or how for that matter. He thought he'd lost that part of himself long ago, but, as the weeks passed and he made more and more progress with his recovery, his confidence seemed to grow as well. He smiled a lot more and, slowly but surely, he began to reply to Tony's teasing comments.

The first time he did it, Tony looked so stunned Bucky almost started laughing. That, too, felt surprisingly natural in Tony's presence.

He was just so easy to talk to, relaxed and inviting, and Bucky couldn't help himself. If responding to Tony's quips made him happy, Bucky would gladly do it. He loved seeing Tony smile or, better yet, the times when he went shy and awkward whenever Bucky said something particularly flattering. It didn't happen often — Tony was good at deflecting, even compliments — but, every now and then, Tony was unable to brush it off and was forced to accept the praise.

Bucky lived for those moments.

Some days, Bucky even felt a little like his old self — like someone who could be smooth and charming, always ready with a well-timed compliment and a flirty smile. It wasn't that he wanted to go back to those days, but it was nice to feel his self-assurance returning, however slowly. The fact that Tony was never hesitant to respond in kind did wonders for Bucky's self-esteem, even if he never allowed himself to think it meant anything. Bucky was still struggling with those stubborn butterflies in his stomach and the subtle thrills he felt whenever Tony touched him, but he knew nothing would come of it.

Tony was just flirty by nature.

He was kind and considerate, but that didn't mean anything. Bucky was just delusional.

---

"Hey, Bucky, could you throw an eye on this for me?"

Bucky didn't look up from the engine he was working on — the one Tony had admitted was, indeed, for a flying car — and plucked the screwdriver from between his teeth.

"Sure, give me a sec."

He twisted the final bolt — sometimes it was easier to do with his fingers than tools, which Tony thought was wonderful — before scooting back from the engine. Bucky doubted they would ever build an actual flying car, but it was a nice side project to fiddle with when Bucky ran out of other work.

After pushing his hair from his face, Bucky picked up the tablet lying next to him on the floor and looked expectantly at Tony. Without comment, Tony flicked his finger across his screen, transferring the file to Bucky's tablet. The frown on his face was worrying, probably tied to whatever he wanted Bucky to look at. So, after shifting around to find a comfortable position, Bucky started reading, absently patting DUM-E when the bot beeped curiously at him.

It was some kind of proposal for a modification to the arc reactor supplying the Tower with power. Bucky had never actually seen it in person, though he'd gotten a look at the specs and data when he'd asked Tony about it. The thought of something so small running an entire building was fascinating.

Even just after a couple of sentences, Bucky realized this wasn't Tony's proposal. Even if the text was digital and gave less away than, say, a handwritten note, Bucky could tell the difference. He wasn't sure when he had learned to tell Tony's writing apart from someone else's, but he apparently had.

Bucky scrolled back up, feeling his heart stutter from surprise when he saw the logo and details at the top. He'd just breezed past them when first opening the file.

"Tony?" Bucky looked up, feeling both concerned and a little bit flattered. Mostly concerned.

"Yes, dear?" Tony replied absently. He sat perched on one of his workbenches, scrolling on his own tablet — supposedly reading the same document.

The nickname wasn't anything unusual by then, but still filled Bucky with joy.

"Should I really be readin' this?" The question made Tony drag his eyes away from his tablet. He tilted his head to the side in confusion and Bucky decided he better elaborate. "This is for Stark Industries. Isn't it confidential or somethin'?"

"Or something," Tony replied with a shrug. One of his feet was dangling over the edge of the workbench, the other tucked in under him. "I mean, I figured you, if anyone, would be good at keeping secrets."

Bucky wasn't sure what to say to that. Tony definitely wasn't wrong, but it still seemed like a big risk to take.

"Besides, Pepper tells me I get very defensive about the arc reactor and it would be good to get a second opinion before refusing a proposal." Tony said it so easily, as if asking Bucky to be that person was the most natural thing in the world.

Except it wasn't. Bruce would no doubt be better equipped — the man was genius as well, be it in a different field — and Bucky probably wouldn't have much to add in comparison.

Bucky looked down at this tablet, still not knowing what to say. He hadn't expected Tony to have this much faith in him and a big part of him wanted to question it — wanted to tell Tony to go get Bruce instead because Bucky wasn't nearly clever enough. But then he realized how rude that would be, both to Tony and himself. If Tony trusted him with this, the least Bucky could do was give it a shot. He wasn't an expert, but he'd learned a lot over the weeks he'd worked next to Tony.

He wasn't useless just because he didn't have a degree.

"Okay," he said after another couple of seconds of silence had passed, "just give me a couple of minutes to read it."

The guarded look that had begun to take over Tony's expression faded, replaced by a soft, grateful smile.

"Take as long as you need."

Bucky nodded, watching Tony focus back on his tablet before doing the same himself. It was disorienting just how eager Tony was to include Bucky in things, but very flattering, too. He was pretty sure Tony didn't do that with just anyone.

Bucky liked the thought of being special to Tony.

---

They ended up rejecting the proposal, maybe because Bucky was, in all probability, also pretty partial when it came to the arc reactor.

---

It was during team dinner — which Bucky still wasn't sure why he was invited to — that he finally realized why Steve had been so baffled about Bucky handing Tony things. Perhaps Bucky should have noticed it earlier, but he was often too distracted by Tony in general to notice the small nuances involving the team and how they interacted.

But, with his and Steve's conversation more or less fresh in his mind, Bucky suddenly noticed how no one handed Tony things. And, if they did, he never accepted, instead nodding toward the table or waiting for them to place it next to him before picking it up.

Bucky wasn't sure why that was a thing — he could guess, based on what he'd heard from Steve and gleaned from the conversations he'd had with Tony — but asking seemed rude.

Perhaps not even Tony knew.

Bucky couldn't help testing the theory, however, to make sure it wasn't just his own wishful thinking. He was sitting next to Tony so it wasn't difficult to reach for the pitcher when Tony wanted more water, handing it over as if it was no big deal. Clearly, it wasn't for Tony, either, since he accepted it without even pausing in his conversation with Thor.

Bucky felt a clench deep down in his gut that he tried his best to control.

That had to mean something.

For some reason, Tony didn't want to accept things handed to him by his teammates, but he did so from Bucky.

No matter how hard he tried, Bucky couldn't quite suppress the wave of excitement. He still refused to read too much into it, but that definitely meant something. Especially if Steve's knowing smile and the look on Natasha's face was anything to go by.

Bucky was special somehow.

He quickly pushed the thought aside when Tony turned to him, asking for his support in whatever Earth versus Asgard argument Thor and Tony had ended up in this time, and decided not to dwell on it for the time being. Most likely, he would only cause himself grief.

Things were perfectly fine as they were.

---

Not long after, Tony developed a sudden habit for casual yet distractingly intimate touching. It seemed wholly instinctual — little touches that Tony never even registered — but they sent Bucky's heart racing with alarming frequency.

It was a soft brush of Tony's hand against Bucky's arm, Tony's knee and thigh pressing against his during movie nights, and Tony's fingers absently running through Bucky's hair when he passed by and Bucky was at a convenient height, like when he sat on the floor or was bent over one of the workbenches.

Bucky had no idea what to do with those touches — how to react aside from a shudder of pleasure that made him feel pretty ashamed. There was nothing sexual about what Tony was doing. He was just surprisingly tactile when he felt comfortable with you, that's all. Bucky shouldn't be reading anything into it.

He was, perhaps, just a little bit touch-starved, however, and didn't have the willpower to say no. In fact, Bucky found himself leaning into every single one of those soothing, comforting touches, desperately looking for more. Steve gave him backslaps and hugs as often as Bucky wanted, sure, but this was different. The way Tony touched him — instinctively and oh-so-gently — felt different. Bucky never quite dared to reciprocate, but he treasured every single time Tony would touch him.

It was also the touching that forced Bucky to face what he'd been ignoring for weeks. There was just no way to keep living in ignorance when his heart fluttered every time Tony was near.

Bucky was in love with Tony.

It had only taken him a little over two months, but he was definitely and undeniably in love with him.

Bucky knew how stupid that was; he was setting himself up for disaster. Tony was rich, handsome, and famous — why would he want someone like Bucky? A broken, confused shell of a man who sometimes couldn't even get up in the mornings, let alone function like a normal human being. Bucky was getting better, sure — being in the Tower and having support from Steve and the others really did help — but Tony was still so far out of reach, like a bright, mesmerizing star burning in the distance.

Still, Bucky couldn't help how he felt — Tony was breathtaking.

Sometimes, Steve still treated Bucky like he might break. It was understandable — Bucky did feel like breaking some days — but frustrated him all the same. Tony, in comparison, was almost callous, but without being careless. He didn't shy away from Bucky's darkness, often choosing to call him out on it instead, but never did anything to antagonize him. Instead, Tony did everything within his power to assure Bucky's comfort and safety, trusting him with his workshop and his bots without a second thought. He just managed to make caring feel less suffocating than Steve did.

He managed to make Bucky feel normal, however impossible that should have been.

So yeah, Bucky fell in love. After having spent weeks in Tony's company, watching him laugh and smile and share his thoughts and ideas with Bucky as if he was an equal, how could he not? Tony made Bucky feel so good about himself — like he might actually deserve a happy ending at some point.

The fact that it probably wouldn't be with Tony, well, that hurt, sure, but Bucky knew he couldn't be picky. He'd stay with Tony — in love and surprisingly happy — for as long as he was allowed.

Bucky could settle for that.

---

Life found a comfortable rhythm. Bucky spent time in Tony's workshop, getting more and more involved in his projects, offering a helping hand and functioning as a sounding board when needed. Bucky also tentatively started spending time with the other Avengers, playing video games with Clint, sparring with Thor or Natasha, and meditating with Bruce. The latter had been a bit embarrassing at first — it sounded pretty silly to Bucky, if he was honest, to just sit there and be for several minutes — but it actually did help calm him.

He still had the occasional nightmare and bad response to sudden noises, but he was doing a lot better. Bucky hadn't thought it possible when he first arrived at the Tower, but he felt, well, happy. He still wasn't doing much with his life, unless you counted the unofficial work he did for Tony, but that was fine. At some point, he might try to get an actual job, but he wasn't in a hurry.

Sure, Steve was dropping hints that maybe Bucky should join the Avengers, but that might be a bad idea, what with his history. Bucky wasn't sure how much the public knew — he'd steered clear of the news as much as he could — but he was willing to bet that his reputation would do the Avengers more harm than good.

Fortunately, Steve hadn't brought it up and, therefore, Bucky hadn't had to have that discussion with him yet.

He had to admit that a part of him would like it, if only because he'd be less worried. Staying in the Tower while everyone else went off to raid HYDRA bases wasn't Bucky's idea of a good time. More often than not, he ended up in Tony's workshop, distractedly playing with the bots or working on the flying car — which was actually beginning to resemble a car by then. If he was allowed to come along with them, at least he'd be able to make sure that everyone was safe.

Well, if he actually trusted himself not to fall off the deep end — which he didn't.

It wasn't like he had homicidal urges he had to battle on an everyday basis, but he hadn't been put in a combat situation in a while and had no idea how he would react. Even when sparring, especially against Thor, who would withstand Bucky's full strength without flinching, he sometimes found himself letting go a little too much.

There was no telling what would happen if he did that against a regular human.

In conclusion, it was better if he stayed away from Avengers business, at least for now. He had other things to focus on, like building that flying car with Tony.

It was a much better use of his time.

---

"You're spoiling them, you know that, right?"

Bucky didn't look up from where he sat cross-legged on the floor, making sure that the big piece of paper U was drawing on stayed flat and secured. The bots could hold the markers just fine, but sometimes they got a little overeager and started drawing outside the paper.

"Why do you say that?" Bucky asked calmly. Tony was standing beside him, looking skeptically at his bot's artistic endeavor while sipping the coffee Bucky had brought back from the kitchen.

"Because you are. You're spoiling them with attention." If Bucky didn't know better, he'd say that Tony was pouting. "You don't have to play fetch with them and certainly not do arts and crafts."

Bucky smiled, watching the jagged lines U made on the paper.

"I know." He shrugged. "I want to."

Tony huffed. "We clearly have different views on what the bots need for a proper upbringing. I'll blame you if the kids start disrespecting us — we have to show a united front."

For some reason, those words made a lump settle in Bucky's throat, his heartbeats suddenly loud in his ears. It wasn't bad by any means — that clench in his chest was joy and longing, not fear — but it was certainly difficult to breathe around. Tony was just joking, Bucky knew that, but a part of him couldn't help but hope it was real.

He loved the thought of being around long enough to raise the bots, however strange a substitute for kids they might be.

Bucky swallowed, careful to keep his tone light when he replied, "You're just jealous I'm payin' more attention to them than you."

"Am not," Tony shot back, much too quickly.

"I'm pretty sure you are," Bucky teased, looking up at Tony with a crooked smile.

Tony pretended not to notice, suddenly extremely interested in U's drawing.

"I'm just concerned about you spoiling them, that's all."

Bucky laughed and shook his head. "I brought you coffee and dinner," he pointed out. "If anyone's spoiled, it's you."

There was a brief pause and Bucky feared he might have gone a step too far. There were few things they didn't manage to joke about, but this might be one of them. Usually, they didn't know until they stumbled over the sensitive subject in question.

"You know what? I'm not even gonna deny it," Tony said eventually, humor evident in his voice. A second later, Bucky felt fingers wander into his hair, sending a shiver down his spine. Tony didn't even seem to be aware of doing it, as was so often the case with his touches. "I'm an attention whore, through and through."

Bucky felt warm, Tony's fingers absently combing through his hair, and tried his best to remember how to breathe. He didn't dare to look up, not wanting to dislodge Tony's hand. Somehow, Bucky was able to gather enough air to reply, hoping he sounded as carefree as he usually did when they were bantering.

"Don't use that kind of language in front of the kids."

Tony laughed, bright and happy.

"I'm sorry, dear," he said, stroking Bucky's hair.

It was on the tip of Bucky's tongue to reply that it was fine — he loved Tony anyway — but that would definitely be too close to the truth. Bucky managed to bite the words back just in time, his heart hammering.

"I forgive you," he said instead, perhaps a little hoarser than usual, "as long as you do better next time."

"Anything for you, Buckaroo," Tony replied without missing a beat.

Bucky throat seized and he had to close his eyes against the wave of longing. How he wished that was true — he would give almost anything for those words to be true.

But he knew they weren't. Not like he wanted them to be, at least.

What he had wasn't bad, though, he reminded himself. He had Tony's trust and his friendship, and that was precious beyond words. So he made sure to smile when he looked up at Tony, feeling his heart flutter at the fondness in those warm, brown eyes.

"You'll regret saying that someday," he said, trying to carry on the joke.

Tony just smiled, however, shaking his head. "No," he replied, with absolute conviction and a level of seriousness that made Bucky's heart race, "I won't."

That was the first time Bucky wondered if their flirting might, in fact, be real after all, but he quickly shoved the thought aside. It was more difficult than usual, but he managed. It was just his own wishful thinking, or maybe Tony was a better actor than Bucky had thought.

Either way, it wasn't real, no matter how much Bucky wanted it to be.

He was just getting desperate, that was all.

 

Chapter Text

Let's Build a Happy Ending

 

 

Bucky and Tony continued with their now familiar routine. They worked, talked, and flirted. The latter was the most difficult by far since Bucky somehow had to keep his real feelings from showing, but couldn't pull back to the point where Tony would grow suspicious. It was a delicate balance — one Bucky managed surprisingly well — but he had to admit that it was a little bit tiring. Pretending to be carefree — that his compliments and sweet words were nothing but harmless jokes — made him feel like a liar.

Even so, he wouldn't trade it for the world. Being able to be even this close to Tony — within touching distance and often the one Tony turned to when he wanted a conversation — was a blessing in itself. Besides, the flirting was quite flattering, even if it would never amount to anything.

Also, Bucky soon realized that one of the added bonuses of flirting shamelessly with Tony was seeing Steve's suffering eye rolls. It was hilarious to watch him try to keep a straight face while they tossed innuendos and ridiculous nicknames at each other. It wasn't that he disapproved — Bucky knew what that looked like and this wasn't that — but Steve clearly would have preferred it if they didn't.

More often than not, that only made them try harder in an attempt to embarrass him.

It was clearly only a matter of time before Steve would break, Bucky could tell, and he knew it would be glorious. What he hadn't quite expected was how thoroughly it would throw his carefully constructed existence into chaos.

Had he known, he probably wouldn't have pushed as hard.

They were having breakfast, Tony sitting opposite to Steve and Bucky, and, like always, even the simplest of conversations derailed into playful, teasing banter.

"Steve, come down to the workshop later," Tony said, not even looking up from his tablet. He was scrolling through some official-looking document, coffee cup in hand and a cooling plate of Bucky's pancakes in front of him. "I've made improvements to your suit."

"Sure," Steve replied, smiling that smile he always wore when Tony was being generous and trying to play it off as no big deal. "Thanks, Tony."

Tony made a vague noise in acknowledgment — anything more would no doubt be embarrassing to him — and Bucky couldn't help piping up.

"No presents for me?" Bucky made sure to keep his tone light, not wanting Tony to mistake it for an actual demand. Tony didn't need to give Bucky anything — he was already housing and feeding him without complaint, not to mention giving him access to a virtually endless supply of tools and materials — but it did make Tony look up. "I am wounded, darling. Wounded."

Tony grinned, a sparkle of mischief lighting in his eye — that one Bucky that had grown quite addicted to.

"You have to earn it first," Tony replied, his tone sending a shiver down Bucky's spine. Sometimes, in his weaker moments, Bucky almost allowed himself to think this was real — that Tony really meant all the things he said.

That was foolish, however, and Bucky quickly swallowed down his longing in favor of playing along with Tony's demands.

"Oh yeah?" Bucky leaned forward, elbows braced against the table. "So, what exactly do I have to do to earn it? Are you open to suggestions?"

Steve choked on his pancake, which Bucky ignored.

"Well, Steve here has saved my life on numerous occasions — that's always a plus." Tony leaned back in his chair, looking thoughtful. There was no mistaking the devious lilt in his voice. "He also doesn't hog the remote, unlike someone else I know."

"No, but he lectures you if you pick the wrong thing to watch," Bucky argued, even if that had only happened about three times, as far as he knew.

Tony pointed at Bucky. "That is true. Spangles does love a good lecture."

"I'm right here," Steve said loudly, exasperated. Neither Bucky nor Tony acknowledged him.

"He also didn't make you pancakes." Bucky nodded towards the plate in front of Tony. He might only have taken a couple of bites so far, but Bucky knew Tony wouldn't waste them — he never did.

The comment earned Bucky one of Tony's warm, happy grins. "They are excellent pancakes, dearest, I will give you that."

Bucky would be lying if he said that didn't make his stomach flutter. Pride at knowing that Tony liked his pancakes might be a little silly, but incredibly satisfying all the same.

"But, Steve is a national icon." Tony tilted his head to the side. "And I find that hard to beat."

"I can't believe you're making me sit through this conversation," Steve groaned, putting down his fork with obvious distaste. "I can't even believe this is a conversation you're having."

Tony's lips twitched, showing that he heard Steve loud and clear, but didn't want to show it. At that point, they were definitely more focused on teasing Steve than flirting with each other.

Bucky smiled confidently. "Steve doesn't know the difference between an asynchronous and a synchronous circuit."

"A what?" Steve asked, helpfully proving Bucky's point.

"Oh, darling, you know I love it when you speak science to me," Tony drawled, "but that just proves that Steve is in more need of my help."

"Hey!" Steve exclaimed. He didn't sound offended, exactly, but certainly a little annoyed. Bucky decided he better tone it down a little — he didn't actually want to hurt Steve's feelings.

Tony was smiling, casually leaned back in his chair, radiating what most people would think was genuine arrogance, but Bucky knew was just for show. Tony often hid behind his ego, even if it was a lot smaller than the man himself seemed to think.

"Blatant favoritism," Bucky accused, struggling to keep a straight face, "that's all it is."

Tony looked positively devilish. "Oh, sweetheart, don't be jealous. You know you're my favorite. It's just that Steve—"

"That's enough," Steve interrupted, cutting Tony short. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "It's too fuckin' early for this shit. Will the two of you just stop flirting for once?"

Bucky gave Steve a scandalized look. "I would never."

Tony snorted on a laugh, which was possibly the cutest thing Bucky had ever heard. He never grew tired of hearing Tony laugh, especially when he knew that he was the cause for it.

"Bucky, please." Steve seemed torn between exasperation and reluctant fondness. No matter how insufferable Bucky got, Steve still clearly preferred it to how quiet and withdrawn he had been at the start of his recovery. Seeing Bucky smile again — carefree and confident — was probably worth it, if you asked Steve.

"I'm not even sorry," Bucky stage-whispered to Tony, who was trying to hold back a smile and failing beautifully.

"I swear," Steve began, tone inching closer to what Tony had dubbed his Captain America Voice, "if the two of you don't—"

"And that's my cue to leave," Tony said loudly. He got to his feet, tucked his tablet under his arm, and reached for his plate of pancakes. "Steve, I'll be seeing you later." Tony's gaze slid over to Bucky, his smile crooked and teasing in the best way possible. "And, on second thought, I might have something for you too, Buckaroo. Come by the workshop later tonight and I'll give it to you."

Bucky blinked, slightly taken aback. Partly because that sounded like he should stay out of the workshop during the day — which wasn't something Tony had ever asked of him before — but also because Tony had no reason to give him anything. Bucky wasn't a part of the Avengers and didn't need gear like the others. He'd only been joking when he accused Tony of favoritism. He didn't actually want anything from Tony, not considering how much he was already willing to give.

"Tony, you know that—"

"Excellent!" Tony picked up his coffee cup and was already headed for the door, calling out over his shoulder. "Don't be late!"

He disappeared before Bucky could protest further. Bucky wasn't sure if he should be worried or just bewildered. Tony was a mystery, even on a good day, but this was weirder than usual. Bucky just hoped Tony hadn't taken him seriously — there was no need for gifts of any kind.

Next to him, Steve let out an amused snort and shook his head. It wasn't insulting, per se, but Bucky's eyes narrowed all the same.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothin'," Steve replied, but it was pretty obvious that he was lying.

So, Bucky did the only thing he could and jabbed his metal elbow in Steve's side, hard enough to make him flinch.

"Out with it."

Steve stalled, finishing the last sip of his orange juice before replying. "The two of you."

"What about us?"

Again, Steve didn't answer right away, instead getting up from his chair to put away his empty dishes. Bucky followed him with his gaze, watching as Steve shrugged.

"I'm just wondering when you're actually going to kiss."

Bucky's heart skipped a beat, something like dread clenching around his chest. Of course he wouldn't mind kissing Tony — he would love it, in fact — but the others weren't supposed to know about that. It was supposed to be harmless flirting.

"I..." Bucky didn't even know what he had planned to say, the sentence hanging unfinished between them.

Steve turned to look at him, a disapproving frown on his face.

"Bucky," he said, tone admonishing, as if he was talking to a disobedient child. Bucky couldn't help that he bristled, just a little.

"What?" he snapped.

Steve crossed his arms over his chest which, yeah, was quite impressive, but would have been more effective if Bucky didn't also remember what Steve had looked like when he was small and scrawny. He had the same look of stubborn disapproval on his face as he'd had back then, jaw clenched and eyes alight with purpose.

"You better not be leading him on."

Bucky's eyes widened.

"What? No! I mean, we're not—" He fumbled for the right words, his panic only growing when Steve's glare turned colder and colder. Perhaps he should have known that someone might misunderstand the flirting sooner or later, but he certainly hadn't expected it to happen like this.

He didn't expect Steve to take it seriously when not even Bucky allowed himself to.

"It's just harmless flirting?" Bucky tried weakly.

That was the wrong thing to say.

"So you are leading him on?"

God, Bucky hated it when Steve was disappointed in him. Nothing made him feel more like a shitty person than that flat look in Steve's eyes. It didn't matter that it was just a misunderstanding — to Steve, this was clearly a problem. Maybe Bucky shouldn't be surprised to find just how protective Steve was of Tony — he, if anyone, knew how loyal Steve could be — but he still was.

Or perhaps Bucky had just never thought he'd end up on the wrong end of Steve's protective instincts.

"He doesn't mean anything by it," Bucky said, getting to his feet mostly because he was beginning to feel very small under Steve's glare. "It's just the way he is."

"No, it's not." Steve said the words with such finality that Bucky couldn't really argue. Besides, Steve had known Tony longer. "Since he and Pepper broke up, he's been very careful about who he flirts with."

Bucky opened his mouth to reply, but there really wasn't much he could say to that. Instead, he averted his gaze, his stomach churning with feelings he couldn't quite sort out. Did that mean that Tony was being serious? Did he want something more with Bucky?

Bucky had seen hints lately — brief flickers of what could be longing in Tony's eyes — but he hadn't allowed himself to dwell on them. They had seemed too good to be true.

A silence settled over the kitchen, broken by Steve's tired sigh.

"You have to tell him you're not interested."

Bucky's head snapped up.

"That's the last thing I'm gonna do!" He could see Steve's disapproving glare return and hastened to add, "I am interested. I just didn't know if he was."

Steve blinked, the hostility sliding off him so quickly it was a little disorienting. The next second, he was smiling.

"Oh, good. Then you can talk to him about it tonight."

Bucky had the distinct feeling of having been tricked somehow — Steve could certainly be devious when he wanted to.

"What? Just like that?" Bucky's insides twisted from nerves at the mere thought of talking to Tony about this. Steve could be wrong. He usually wasn't, sure, but he might be. "I can't—"

"Why postpone it?"

"Because!" Bucky exclaimed. "There are several good reasons."

He had, through much introspection and a couple of sessions of meditation with Bruce, come to accept the fact that Tony really had forgiven him for what he did to Howard and Maria, but that wasn't the only complication. There was Bucky's recovery, Tony's breakup with Pepper a couple of months ago, and the general uncertainty of the future. Bucky wasn't even sure how long he would be staying in the Tower. No one had tried to kick him out yet, but, unless he joined the Avengers, he probably shouldn't stay.

"Since when do you give up that easily?" The tone might be less harsh than the words, but Bucky still flinched. Sometimes he forgot that about Steve — he was kind and caring, but only up to the point where you started to annoy him with your dawdling. He had very little patience for people who complained without doing something about their problems.

Bucky shut his mouth with a clack. That was a good question. Sure, he could make some excuse about his recovery — that he wasn't ready and that Steve shouldn't put such pressure on him — but then Bucky would be lying. He wanted someone to push him. He was sick and tired of being treated like something breakable and, to be fair, Steve had a point.

Bucky usually wouldn't give up that easily. The only reason he did so now was cowardice.

He found excuses to not have to challenge the status quo — to stay safely wrapped up in his comfortable bubble without taking any risk. That was an understandable reaction for someone who had been through what he had, but he also wanted to get better. He wanted to make progress and reclaim the decisiveness and confidence he'd had back during the war.

What did he have to lose? It Steve was right and Tony actually was serious — which Bucky had seen hints of but always forced himself to ignore — Bucky wouldn't even ruin their friendship. The only thing he did by postponing it was miss out on time he could have spent kissing Tony.

That, surely, had to be a crime of some kind.

"Okay," Bucky heard himself say, despite the frightened, nervous flutter in his stomach. He was done hiding behind his excuses — they had grown more and more thin lately, anyway. "I'll talk to him."

Steve grinned, delighted, and clamped a heavy hand on Bucky's shoulder.

"Good." He squeezed hard enough to make Bucky wince. "And Buck?"

That tone of voice — the firm, unnaturally calmness — made Bucky instantly wary.

"Yeah?"

"If you hurt him, you'll answer to me." Steve held Bucky's gaze, making it absolutely clear that he was not, under any circumstances, joking. If Bucky broke Tony's heart, Steve would make him regret it.

A part of Bucky wanted to protest — Steve was his best friend and he was pretty sure Tony should be the recipient of this conversation — but then he remembered that, out of the two of them, Tony had bigger issues with betrayal and commitment. Bucky was scarred and broken, sure, but not by betrayal — not by those closest to him. The last thing Tony deserved was to experience that again and Bucky could understand Steve's concern.

So, Bucky swallowed back his scathing reply and nodded instead. Steve rewarded him with a bright smile and another pat on his shoulder.

"Good. Now I'm heading down to the workshop to look at that new, fancy suit of mine."

Bucky felt a spike of panic. "You're not going to tell him, are you?"

As much as it terrified Bucky to talk to Tony, sending Steve to do it for him would be pretty cowardly.

Steve scoffed. "Of course not." He headed for the door, stopping on the threshold to give Bucky a wide, shit-eating grin. "But I might make sure to mention that I know what my best friend looks like when he's in love and he's been wearing that face pretty often lately. How it could have escaped Tony is a mystery to me since it's the dorkiest, most lovesick—"

"Stevie, you little shit. I swear—"

Steve quickly ducked out of view and Bucky could hear him laughing all the way to the elevator.

---

Bucky was unusually nervous when he stepped into Tony's workshop later that evening. By then, the workshop was a safe space for him — the place where he felt most at home in the entire Tower — but tonight was different. He wasn't there to tinker on the flying car or play with the bots — he was going to confess his feelings to Tony.

Well, first he was going to tell Tony he didn't want any gifts, then he would confess his feelings.

So, yes, Bucky was nervous, not at all helped by Steve having given him an expectant smile and a supportive, if slightly unnerving, pat on the back when Bucky headed for the elevator. Quite frankly, Bucky wasn't sure why Steve was so invested in his love life.

Thankfully, Tony knew none of this. He looked up when Bucky walked out of the elevator, a happy, excited smile spreading on his lips.

"Buckaroo, glad you could make it." Tony tossed aside what he was working on — some kind of remote from what Bucky could tell — and pushed up from his chair.

The bots were already in their charging stations, silent and motionless, which was unusual, but Bucky chose not to question it. He would only get more nervous is they were rolling around, hooting and beeping while he was trying to ask Tony out on a date.

Bucky decided he might as well get the first point on his agenda out of the way.

"You know I don't expect you to give me anythin', right?" Bucky had learned that Tony was an incredibly generous person, no matter if it involved making new gear for the team, gifting them things they might want, or just giving them some of his precious time and attention. Bucky loved that about Tony, but he didn't want to exploit him. "You've already done more for me than I can possibly repay and I would never ask you to—"

"Bucky, hey," Tony interrupted, tone soft and soothing. He held up his hands and stepped closer. "I know. You're not getting a suit or some upgraded arrows."

"But you are givin' me somethin'?"

Tony smiled, stopping in front of Bucky. "Well, if you want it."

Bucky felt slightly suspicious. He'd heard stories about the kinds of gifts Tony would give people — cars, priceless art, and giant stuffed bunnies — and he wasn't entirely sure how he'd react to that. But perhaps Tony had simply decided to give him his own tools? That would actually be useful since they wouldn't have to pass Tony's back and forth all the time.

It was with some wariness that Bucky replied, "Yeah, sure."

There was a flicker of what could be nervousness in Tony's eyes, but it was gone so quickly Bucky told himself he had imagined it. But then Tony took a deep breath, as if to steel himself, and stepped closer, well into Bucky's personal space. Bucky felt his eyes widen in surprise and, between one heartbeat and the next, Tony had reached up and placed a soft, chaste kiss on his lips.

Bucky was so unprepared he could do nothing but stare — he didn't even manage to reciprocate.

The touch of Tony's lips sent a shiver down Bucky's spine, warmth blossoming in his chest. It was delightful, but also not what he had expected. Even when Tony pulled back, Bucky was too shocked to really do anything. He'd thought Tony would give him some tools or perhaps an expensive gadget of some kind, but not a kiss. That was something Bucky wanted so much it sometimes hurt just thinking about it.

Sure, Steve had said that Tony was serious and Bucky himself had decided to confess his feelings, but he hadn't thought Tony would somehow manage to beat him to it. And, deep down, Bucky hadn't quite dared to believe that Tony would want the same thing as him.

It was downright disorienting to suddenly be given exactly what he'd wanted.

Bucky realized he hadn't said anything for several seconds — hadn't even moved — when the hopeful smile on Tony's face fell. His expression shuttered off, leaving that horrible, blank mask in its place — the one Tony got whenever he was hurting but trying not to show it. He averted his gaze and seemed to fold in on himself, his shoulders tense and posture guarded.

Bucky's hesitation made Tony think the kiss was unwanted.

When Tony began to pull away, Bucky finally regained enough presence of mind to move.

"No!" Bucky grabbed Tony's arm, perhaps a little tighter than he should in his haste to set things right. Those big, brown eyes looked up into his and Bucky had to swallow down the surge of hope rising within him. "I... I was surprised, that's all."

Despite having spent weeks flirting, Bucky suddenly felt clumsy and painfully unsmooth. This wasn't how he had expected this conversation to go. He'd had some idea of what to say before stepping inside the workshop, but all of those carefully chosen words were useless now.

Tony still looked guarded, his expression unreadable. "It's okay if you don't want—"

"I do want." Bucky swallowed, gently allowing his hand to slide down Tony's arm, until he felt Tony's fingers against his own. He rubbed his thumb against the back of Tony's hand, trying to push down his nerves. "I want it more than you can imagine."

A couple of beats followed, tense and silent, before Tony eventually relaxed. He let out a breath — close to a relieved laugh — and looked up at Bucky with a small, careful smile on his lips.

"For a second there, I thought I had miscalculated." Tony twined their fingers together, giving Bucky's hand a squeeze.

"I'm sorry I made you doubt." Bucky's heart was racing and his smile had to be dorky as hell, but he didn't mind it one bit. "But, if you hadn't done it, I would have."

"Yeah?" Tony grinned, leaning just a little bit closer, seemingly without being aware of it himself.

"Well, I was gonna ask you out for a date, not kiss you."

Tony laughed, eyes sparkling.

"You still can," he pointed out playfully.

As if Bucky could do anything but smile at that? Tony was breathtakingly beautiful, relaxed and hopeful, looking at Bucky with that fondness he'd always told himself was just platonic.

How wrong he had been.

"You wanna have dinner with me?"

Tony moved in close, tilting his head back to look up at Bucky.

"I'd love to." The amount of longing in Tony's voice was a little dizzying. That was for Bucky — Tony wanted Bucky.

Despite knowing it might ruin the mood, Bucky couldn't help but say, "Steve is going to be insufferable after this."

Tony let out a surprised laugh, ducking his head. They stood so close his hair tickled Bucky's chin and he had to fight the urge to bury his nose in it.

"Oh, he definitely will be," Tony replied. His eyes were still bright with laughter when he met Bucky's gaze, looking so happy and carefree that Bucky found it a little hard to breathe. "He came in here earlier today, dropping hints left and right. I mean, I had already decided, but he deserves some of the credit nonetheless."

"Yeah," Bucky agreed, his free hand rising to stroke Tony's cheek. His skin was warm against the metal of Bucky's fingers. "I guess we owe him that much."

Tony leaned into the touch, much like an affectionate cat.

"Now," he said, voice low and drawling, "should we keep talking about Steve or would you rather spend our time in more creative ways?"

The look in his eyes — the hot, burning yearning and obvious invitation — caused a flare of sudden warmth underneath Bucky's skin, pooling in his gut.

Bucky didn't need to be told twice.

Without hesitation, Bucky let his free hand slip behind Tony's neck and pull him in for another kiss. This one was noticeably less innocent, sending a jolt of searing pleasure down his spine. Tony didn't seem to mind, meeting Bucky's enthusiasm with equal amounts of his own. It was intoxicating, toe-curling, and absolutely breathtaking.

Kissing Tony was no doubt going to become Bucky's new favorite past-time.

---

Steve was, as expected, happy for them. He didn't even bother to ask how it all had gone when Bucky entered the communal kitchen the next morning. Probably because Bucky wore the exact same clothes — only a little more rumpled — and had a quite telling love bite on his neck.

As predicted, Steve was annoyingly smug.

Well, at least until Tony sauntered into the kitchen, loose and confident like always. He actually seemed a little more relaxed than usual and, the moment he spotted Bucky over by the coffee maker, slid effortlessly into his arms — as if he belonged there and had done so for more than half a day.

His hands framed Bucky's face, pulling him down for a kiss so filthy Bucky let out a surprised, half-choked moan. He could feel Tony press up against him, the lines of his body fitting perfectly against Bucky's, and, despite having left Tony's bed no more than thirty minutes ago, Bucky wanted nothing more than to drag Tony back there.

His hands fumbled, settling against the smooth, tantalizing curve of Tony's back, while he tried desperately to keep up with the kiss. Bucky almost felt lightheaded, his blood rushing south, leaving him hard and aching. He'd never thought he could get so turned on by nothing but a kiss but, then again, he'd never kissed Tony before.

"Oh, come on!"

Distantly, in some part of himself he'd rather ignore, Bucky heard Steve's exasperated exclamation.

Tony pulled back, just enough to let them suck in a much-needed lungful of air, but their lips were still close enough to touch. Bucky was so far gone he didn't even look at Steve, much more focused on the fire in Tony's eyes and the burn it caused deep in Bucky's gut.

"Did you have to?" Steve complained. "I'm trying to eat here."

That spark of mischief returned to Tony's eyes, his grin wide and cheeky.

"I'm not even sorry," he whispered, loud enough that Steve would hear, too, on accounts of his heightened hearing.

"Oh, for— Get a room," Steve grumbled.

"An excellent idea, Captain," Tony replied, backing up a step. The fact that his hand slid down Bucky's chest so that he could hook a finger through one of Bucky's belt loops, well, that was a clear indication that he intended to rectify that right away. "I'm borrowing your best friend. Don't expect him back for a couple of days."

"Fuckin' keep him," Steve shot back.

Bucky stopped long enough to give Steve the finger, then allowed himself to be towed out from the kitchen by his belt loop. Tony was grinning all the while, eyes bright and excited, and Bucky was, quite frankly, helpless against the sight of Tony's happiness. It sent a wave of warmth through him — hope, yearning, fondness, and joy — and he embraced it, wholeheartedly and without hesitation.

"I intend to," Tony replied, tone softer now — meant for Bucky rather than Steve.

Bucky's heart soared and he fumbled to pull Tony in for another searing, blissful kiss. He was so overcome with gratefulness that he barely knew what to do with it all. Bucky was done being afraid — he intended to live life to the fullest, preferably with Tony.

For the first time in several long years, Bucky felt nothing but happiness.

For the first time since all of this mess started, he looked forward to the future.

A future with Tony.