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Heroes are Easy, People are Hard

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Bucky checked Steve’s forehead again. He was still hot. Sweat dampened his hair. His breathing, thankfully, was regular and even—that, at least, didn’t seem to be a problem anymore. Bucky sighed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the bed, Steve’s hand held between both of his. It was a familiar position, one he’d hoped never to be in again.

Steve murmured and squirmed in his sleep, moving himself a little closer to Bucky.

That was the third time in 24 hours he’d had a hallucination. If the usual pattern repeated itself, he’d have a few hours of true sleep now, but if the fever continued, he would keep sweating. Bucky was increasingly anxious about getting water into him and entirely out of ideas about how to break the fever. He was all too aware of how limited his abilities were compared to the advantages of 21st-century medicine. What was more, he had a sinking feeling that anything but the best and most intensive 21st-century research would be useless. This was an illness designed to target Steve in particular. Bucky knew what he had to do. Steve would hate him for it. But Steve would live.

Bucky sighed and squeezed the hand he held gently, raising it halfway to his mouth before shaking his head and lying it back on the covers. Then he stood up and went to get the small phone he had dug out of Steve’s pack the day before.

~

Tony’s pocket rang.

He didn’t hear it at first, absorbed as he was in his design process in his workshop, music blasting. But it penetrated his consciousness on the second ring, and he froze. A single, sharp gesture and the music cut off mid-song. He pulled the phone out of his hoodie, distantly noticing that his hands were shaking. “If this is a random-digit robo-call, I’m going to hack the Do Not Call List,” he said aloud to the suddenly-silent room.

Calls to Tony were routed through FRIDAY. If he were occupied in any place FRIDAY had access to, the AI would either take a message or let the call through to Tony via the room’s speakers, at her discretion. That phone was not used for incoming calls. That phone shouldn’t ring.

But it was ringing, and the name on the screen put an end to all doubt. Shaking hands flipped open the ridiculously old-fashioned cell phone. “The world’s not ending, I’d have heard about it,” he heard himself say. “Why are you calling me, Capsicle?”

“Um,” said a voice on the other end, deeper and rougher than he’d been expecting. Tony went from feeling twitchy to feeling cold. “It’s not him. It’s, uh, me.” An intake of breath and a pause, as though the speaker wasere unsure whether to offer a name, or perhaps what name to offer.

“Yeah, I know who you are.” Tony cut him off. “Why the fuck are you calling me?”

“I would like to surrender. Unconditionally.”

Tony blinked as the voice on the phone rattled off a set of coordinates. “I’ll be there. Unarmed. Well.” There was a wry twist to the words. “Got a new one. But I won’t use it.”

“Okay, what’s the catch?” Tony said after a moment. “Sudden change of heart, you know, I can actually almost buy that,” he went on into the silence. “Did something like that myself once. But I don’t buy that Captain Stubborn over there is okay with that. What’s the matter? You two break up?”

“Steve’s dying,” said the other man. His voice hitched in the middle.

Tony froze.

“AID assholes in North Korea--that’s Advanced Ideas in--”

“Destruction, yeah,” Tony said, numb. “I’ve heard of them.”

“Well--they made some kind of . . . super-sickness designed to undo the super-soldier serum. We think they were trying to target the Hulk. Blew up their lab, but one of ‘em injected Steve with something and—” The rush of words stopped. When he went on, his tone was firmer, more controlled. It reminded Tony more of his own worst moments, panicking and determinedly ignoring the fact because there was something more important he needed to do. “It’s been three weeks. He’s only gotten worse. He’s stable, for now—that’s the most that I can do.

“You have the coordinates,” his parents’ killer went on. “I’ll be there. So will he.” A breath. “You said he was your friend. Please. He needs your help.”

Tony repeated the coordinates, received an affirmative response. “I’ll be there with a medical team in five hours.”

The last thing he heard before he snapped the phone shut was a quiet, heartfelt “Thank you.”

~

Bucky leaned his forehead against the wall, knuckles white from clutching the phone so tightly. “Done,” he said softly. Then he walked back over to Steve’s resting form, brushed his damp hair off his forehead, and very gently kissed him on the cheek. “We’ll get you better, Stevie,” he murmured. “Somehow.”

~

Tony grumbled under his breath as he paced inside the quinjet. He was probably stupid to be going alone, probably breaking the Accords (technically, in fine detail, in the small print) in going here at all instead of turning the whole situation over to some government—or the UN. But. But?

He wasn’t sure what the “but” was, only that there was a “but.”

He’d told Pepper about it and left a message for Rhodey on the phone line he hardly ever checked and couldn’t possibly be expected to respond to, except he did check when it was Tony, but no one knew that, because timing and plausible deniability and yada yada yada. They had both agreed that going was the right thing to do, which frankly surprised and even upset him a little—since when was his first instinct ever the right one?

“It’s about jurisdiction,” he said, out loud. One of the researchers he’d grabbed to go along with him shot him a look as she hurried past with an armful of boxes, but said nothing. Everyone here was high-level enough that they worked with him directly, which meant everyone was used to him talking to himself or to JARVIS—FRIDAY, now. “Especially since the revisions. The UN might bat this around for ages before deciding who gets to deal with it, or what to deal with. Arrest Barnes, that might go okay, but they’d take forever to decide if you should give medical aid to a fugitive. We don’t have forever. He doesn’t.” He gently rested his forehead against a wall. Not banging his head on it, definitely not. “Crap.”

“He called you,” Pepper had pointed out before he left. He’d been so thrown by the whole situation that he’d tried to talk her into talking him out of it.

“He said he’d offer no resistance.”

“To you.” She sighed. “Tony. Have you considered that this might be personal?”

“Pep, I am under absolutely no illusions that he’d do this if Cap wasn’t actually dying. That’s the only reason I’m going.”

“So you trust him.”

“Yeah, I guess that means I do, and disturbing as that sentiment is, I don’t see any reason to doubt it. Like, the one thing I am sure of about this guy is he’s completely devoted to Cap. And I mean, that clearly goes both ways, so if Cap isn’t trying to stop him from turning himself in that means the stubborn bastard really is half-dead.”

“And his friend turns to you.”

“Because he thinks I can fix it. Maybe. And he thinks I care about what happens to Cap, which, eh, complicated. But so does, say, the US government, so why not—”

“That’s what I meant by personal, Tony. He trusts you.”

“He trusts me to come after him. Playing that angle.” Tony had spit that one out, because he wasn’t wrong, was he?

“I don’t think it’s all an angle.”

“What are you getting at here, Pepper? Because whatever it is, I don’t see it.”

“I think you do,” she said, putting a hand on his arm and stilling his frenetic pacing. “I saw you when you were working up the nerve to talk with Wanda, remember?”

“The ‘I’m sorry I’m indirectly responsible for killing your entire family one way or another’ talk? There’s a difference between that and ‘oh by the way I murdered your parents with my bare hands’!”

She just looked at him.

“Okay, fine. In the macro, airing-feelings, apologies, whatever, sense—”

“And talking to Wanda, compared to how you answer press questions about collateral damage from Stark Industries’ weapons in the past?”

He’d rolled his eyes and recited from habit, waving his hand in the air as he spoke. “We don’t do weapons anymore; yes, we used to; I realized that was a mistake; not going to do it anymore, next question and you are not invited to the next press conference—oh.”

“Right. You can’t be vulnerable unless it’s personal. What if he’s the same? He might be scared out of his mind for Steve and trust you to take care of him, but you might also be one of the only people he’d trust himself to actually surrender to.” She let him chew on that for a while before adding, “You’re also definitely not working for Hydra.”

“Huh.”

“What’re you thinking?”

“When you put it like that, it sounds like almost definitely not a trap.” He turned to her, trying to cover the relief, but it was out of habit. Pepper could always read him like a book. “When’d you get so good at thinking like—”

“—a paranoid man desperate to protect someone he cares about? Hm, can’t say I have any experience.”

“You’re still pissed, aren’t you.”

“About blowing up the house, or about building the sentient robot that tried to destroy the world? Or about deciding that you needed to follow the rules but then sticking to them so hard you ended up fighting half your friends rather than ask to hear their side of the story?”

He flinched. She sighed.

“Honestly, Tony, I’m not pissed. I’m just very experienced with things going wrong.”

Tony swallowed. “I’m glad you think this is the right thing to do.”

“You were going anyway.”

“Well, yeah, but now I don’t feel like shit.”

She laughed and kissed him on the cheek. “Good luck.”

Rhodey, when he had absolutely not called back right away, had just said, “You went to Siberia because you trusted these guys, right? And when it went to shit, that wasn’t because of anything new happening. I think you can still trust them. It’ll suck, man, but I don’t think it’s a trick.” And, when Tony had hesitated, “Don’t think the Accords are very clear on non-combat situations, either.”

So maybe that was the “but.” He could turn this over to the UN, but it would take too long, and more importantly it wasn’t about them. This wasn’t an Avengers-y, saving-the-world situation. This was personal.

Taking custody of the man who’d killed his parents so that he could save the life of the man who’d lied to him about it. Small potatoes. Easy.

He couldn’t decide if it made him more or less uncomfortable that the guy sounded so damn young.

“Almost there, boss,” said FRIDAY. “Beginning the final approach. You’d better strap in.”

“Uh, right.”

“Preliminary scans show minimal activity around here, with one unusually regular, oval-shaped clearing that seems to be man-made. That’ll be our landing site. I detect a small building nearby that looks like a very remote vacation home but fits the profile of SHIELD safehouses.”

“That’s our guy,” Tony said. He licked his lips. “Bring us in, FRIDAY.”

~

Bucky stood by Steve’s bed. He’d done a complete circuit of the cabin five times, making sure everything was packed, ready, labeled, that there were full notes on everything he could remember happening since Steve was injected. There was nothing else to do, nothing left to prepare. Just wait.

He almost jumped when the phone in his back pocket rang. Heart racing, he flipped it open. “Stark?”

“Hi.” The voice was clipped, stilted. “We’re near your position. Going to land in the clearing. ETA about—what, ten?—ten minutes.”

“Okay,” Bucky said.

“I’ll land on the side of the clearing closest to the safehouse. I want you on the other side, well out of the trees. No weapons. You understand?”

“I do.”

“Good. Well. Seeya.” The line went dead.

Bucky placed the phone on the kitchen counter, along with the notebook and pencil he’d taken to carrying with him. His weapons, aside from the sniper rifle carefully packed into its case, were neatly laid out on the table. He fished out a pocket knife and added it to the collection.

He did not look at Steve. He needed to go outside. He had already said goodbye.

He took one last deep breath, noticing the scent of metal and oil and fever-sweat, of the fresh green smell of spring coming in through the open window, the hint of charcoal and wood as the breeze stirred pencil shavings in the wastebasket. This place had been comfortable, as much as he could make it. Steve was comfortable. But he needed more.

Bucky walked out the door of the cabin into the bright morning light.

~

Tony looked out the window of the quinjet at the figure kneeling in the clearing fifty feet away, hands behind his head. He’d been sitting like that since they’d come into visual range, and hadn’t moved when the jet descended in the other half of the oval. FRIDAY reported that the Winter Soldier was, as far as could be detected by scan, unarmed in the conventional sense—though, as he’d mentioned, he appeared to have a new and equally powerful prosthetic. The only other biological heat-source large enough to be human was inside the cabin and had not moved.

After some deliberation, Tony wasn’t wearing the full suit of armor. He had a packet of his cutting-edge nanoparticles tucked into his jeans pocket, so he wouldn’t be defenseless if the Winter Soldier really was planning something. But when he opened the plane’s cabin door and walked down the ramp, he wore only jeans, a jacket, and sunglasses with FRIDAY’s scans routed to them—and the Iron Man gauntlets.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said loudly, voice pitched to carry. “This is just a precaution.”

The man on his knees shrugged very slightly. “Do what you want,” he said, also clearly. “I’m your prisoner.” He eyed Tony as he came nearer. “I did say I surrender,” he added. “I’m not going to try anything.”

“Looks clean, boss,” FRIDAY reported. “Short-range scans all negative.” Her display overlays on his sunglasses duplicated the information.

“Just checking,” Tony said, to both of them. He shook his right hand and the gauntlet folded up into a bracelet. He used that hand to push the shades to his forehead and squinted as he approached the other man.

He looked a lot less intimidating than he had when they last met. Instead of the thick leather armor and black combat pants, he wore jeans and a hoodie. His boots appeared to be designed for hiking, not combat. Long hair still framed his face, but it wasn’t as long as before—more 70s heartthrob than Aragorn lookalike. Without all that added bulk, he looked younger, less threatening.

It was probably deliberate, Tony knew, but still: it was hard to think of this man as the Winter Soldier. And it was very hard to think of him as the monster who had killed his parents. Simply knowing that that was true didn’t override the part of his brain that insisted the kid would’ve been in diapers around then, if he’d been born at all.

“What the hell do I call you?” he asked, not fully intending to say it out loud.

“Bucky,” the man said. It looked like the answer was startled out of him. He flushed slightly as Tony looked at him.

“Okay, really?” Tony demanded, because hey, if his brain-to-mouth filter was going to shut off completely, this was a much better topic than almost anything else, and he’d always wondered. “Does anyone, other than Cap, actually call a grown man ‘Bucky’?”

Bucky (really?!) looked just as off-balance, but he answered readily. “There, uh, were three other kids on the blocked called James when I was little. Name stuck when I went to work—some of the guys already knew me, and it was that or ‘no, not you, the other Jim,’ so.” Another tiny, non-threatening shrug. “Two others in the Howling Commandos—three if you count ‘Jacques’—it was just easier.”

“Hm.” Tony weighed this for a second, shrugged it off. “Alright. Where’s Cap, Bucky?”

“He’s in the cabin,” the Wint--Bucky--said, with what looked like relief. “Asleep, when I left. He’s been drinking water but he hasn’t eaten anything since yesterday—I left notes—”

“Whoa, hold on there, Locutus,” Tony said. He nudged the glasses. “FRIDAY?”

“Confirm that there has been no sign of movement or other heat signatures in the area.”

“Okay, cool. Patch me through.”

“Ready, boss.”

“Medical team, go ahead.” The quinjet’s remaining passengers appeared on the ramp. He jerked a thumb toward the left side of the clearing, where the small house was visible a small distance into the trees. “In the cabin, uh . . .” he glanced at Bucky, raising his eyebrows.

“In the living room,” Bucky supplied. “On the futon.”

“On a futon in the living room,” Tony repeated. “He should be asleep.”

“If he wakes up,” Bucky added, “he might be . . . out of it.”

Tony looked at him sharply. “How do you mean?”

“He doesn’t always know what year it is. That could be because of me, though. If he’s sick and I’m there . . . I mean, that’s how he remembers a lot of the thirties.”

“You get that?” Tony asked his earpiece.

“Yep,” said someone on the other end. The doctors were already hurrying toward the cabin.

“And he’s had hallucinations a few times,” Bucky added, louder this time, speaking for the microphone feed. “Not sure what those are, but they’re mostly not good. I’ve kept notes on everything that’s happened as far as I could remember it, definitely everything since he couldn’t get out of bed. They’re on the counter. Over-the-counter medicines don’t do anything for him, he metabolizes them too fast, but he had something in a medical kit that brought the fever down for a while if he took a lot of them—I think it was for camels or something, no joke. We’re out of that. Bottle’s on the counter too.”

“Okay—” Tony began. Bucky went on, talking faster now.

“His blood type’s A-positive. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t reject transfusions, but we could never be sure whether they did anything or the serum just made him regenerate lost blood really fast. There aren’t any other samples of the serum; what I’ve got is different, might not do any good, but I’ve got a few vials in the fridge anyway. Drew it this morning. He’s not allergic to anything, not since the serum and the Vita-Rays, but since whatever this thing is it seems to be targeting the serum, he might be allergic to shellfish. He’s had chicken pox, measles, mumps, scarlet fever—twice—he ought to be immune to all that now, but I think anything goes at this point. He was probably anemic and had—hell, he looked it up once a few months ago, I don’t remember but probably some kind of autoimmune disorder, so if the serum goes or is overwhelmed with this thing, you can expect everything else to start hitting him worse. As soon as he starts feeling better he’ll try to get up. He’s a stubborn lying sneak and he’s only gotten worse since he got big--you cannot leave him alone—”

“Hey!” Tony said, stepping in closer. He reached down with the un-gauntleted hand, pulling Bucky’s chin up to look him in the eye. Tony frowned at the tear tracks on his face. “Dude,” he said. “Breathe. They’ll help him.”

“I know. Thank you.” Bucky closed his eyes. “I just—I know Steve. I might know something useful. I’ve written it all down, but these are the important things.”

“Okay,” Tony said again. “Well, that got through. Let them check him out first.” Bucky nodded, a very slight movement Tony felt more than saw. He let go of Bucky and stepped back hastily.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said suddenly. “For everything.” Tony, who had been looking over his shoulder at the house, returned his full attention to the man on the ground. (It made him uncomfortable, having someone in front of him in such a submissive pose. But he had to admit he wasn’t quite comfortable inviting him to stand up, either.) As he looked back, Bucky dropped his gaze to the ground, then looked back up, as though forcing himself to meet Tony’s eyes. “I’m sure you don’t want to do any of this. You were the only person I could think of.”

“Well,” Tony said, unaccustomed to the floundering feeling he had and desperate to avoid the heart of the subject, “I don’t exactly want him to die, either.” Let’s not do the Maximoff talk again….

“I appreciate that,” Bucky said evenly. “I wish I could have done this without involving me, but you know Steve. The only reason I could contact you without him trying to stop me is that he’s unconscious most of the time now, and that means he needs looking after.”

“Yep,” Tony said desperately. “He’s stubborn. I noticed that.”

“But that’s not all I mean. I want you to know—”

“Can we not do this?” Tony asked, sharply, hearing the note of desperation in his own voice.

“I am so sorry about your parents.” Tony spun on his heel and began to pace. Thinking was easier when he was walking. If he coincidentally circled around—Barnes, he thought; that was manageable, that cut down the surrealism quotient—and couldn’t see his face, well, that was just a bonus.

“I regret everything I did for Hydra, but I am especially . . . . Howard was my friend. I never knew your mother, but . . . Stark—Tony, I would rather have died when I fell off that train. I really would.”

“Great. Thanks,” Tony said flatly. “That makes me feel better.”

“I know it does nothing,” he said quietly. “I just wanted you to know. In case you wanted me to suffer. I swear, I already am.”

“Well, that’s not creepy,” Tony said. Really, the creepy part was that he was right—Tony had hurt so much, and for so long, that he almost enjoyed this, almost wanted to see Barnes crumple. But only almost. The idea of causing that much pain was still repulsive. Hell, he had just reassured the guy that his friend would be safe, and that was definitely the most power he held over him. He didn’t even like seeing him helpless on the ground.

“One thing,” Bucky said, quietly. “I don’t want to ask this, because I’m pretty certain you’ll be offended I even want to check, but—you won’t take this out on Steve, will you?”

“What?” Tony paused, genuinely confused.

“It’s not his fault I’m his friend. It’s not his fault what I turned into. You hate me, fine, but Steve’s a good guy. An idiot and stubborn, but he respects you. He needs friends here, now. Don’t give up on him. Not over me.”

“Uh, I am perfectly willing to be friends with him as soon as he’s better and as long as he apologizes for being a dick.”

A chuckle. “Fair enough.”

Tony walked around behind him again, looked over his shoulder at the cabin. All was quiet within. Bucky, however, had tensed up in front of him. “They’re still inside,” he said.

“Yeah. They’re probably getting his blood pressure, looking at your notes, that kind of thing. Something wrong?”

When Bucky spoke again, his voice was thicker and held some of the growl and menace Tony had initially anticipated. He instinctively raised his left hand, still fitted with a repulsor. “Can we get this over with?”

“Huh?”

“You let me see them go for Steve. You let me apologize. I appreciate that. Now quit playin’ games and just kill me before they come back out.”

“What?” Even though he could not possibly have seen it, Tony yanked the hand with the repulsor away, pointing it down and behind him. He reached out to turn the other man around, then realized that any unexpected contact from behind was probably going to be more traumatic than anything else, and stumbled forward and around. Bucky’s jaw was clenched and Tony could see his pulse flutter in his throat. He was trembling. He had been, Tony realized, for quite a while.

“I surrendered,” he said quietly. “You want to kill me. Go ahead.” He raised his chin slightly, baring his throat, making himself a clearer target.

“No,” Tony whispered, shocked. Then, louder, “I don’t want to kill you, why do you think I want to kill you?”

“You tried pretty hard last time we met,” Bucky said warily.

“I—okay, yeah. I was maybe trying to kill you, I don’t think I really had a plan there. But I was pretty upset, you might remember.” He snorted. “Later I thought about it and knew you were only trying to get away. I did notice you didn’t actually fight back until I started fighting with Cap. I didn’t care, not then, but when I thought about it later, it mattered.” His throat was full of gravel and his eyes stung. Images from the tape rose unbidden in his mind. His parents, helpless—the kid on his knees. Light reflecting off a metal hand—morning sun on his gauntlet. He twisted that hand in the sharp gesture that retracted the gauntlet into a bracelet. “I didn’t come here to kill you in cold blood. I don’t do that. I don’t—want that.”

“Some people would call it justice,” Bucky said, and Tony hated that he understood why, that he knew the feeling of pushing as far as you could to make a bad thing happen before you committed to hoping it wouldn’t.

“They’re wrong,” Tony said harshly. “Look. I hate what you did, I don’t really want to be around you, I know it wasn’t your choice, and I hate what they did to you, and none of those things cancels the other ones out. Is being around you complicated and uncomfortable? Yes. But I can be around people who make me feel complicated and uncomfortable without killing them. My dad was one of them, even.”

He crouched down to look Bucky in the eyes. “I’m not going to kill you unless you try to kill someone else first. You try that? I will put you down.”

Bucky’s breath went out with a rush like a sob, and he bent double in relief, hands sliding off his head to catch himself on the grass. Tony looked away, awkward and angry and embarrassed.

“Steve,” Bucky breathed, and he sat up, eyes bright.

“Yeah. You can tell the doctors all your stuff, and watch him so he doesn’t try to run away and pick fights with a fever, or whatever.” Tony waved a hand. Suddenly the earlier flood of information, and of tears, made sense. He thought of darkness, of alien stars and Pepper’s phone ringing and ringing. “Mother hen away.”

He gave Bucky a few more moments to collect himself. Actually, he was pulling his own thoughts together, looking at everything that had just happened through another lens. When he couldn’t wait any longer, he said, “When you called me, you thought you were signing your death warrant.”

“Yeah.” It came out as a breath, a laugh, a sob.

“Why would you do that?”

“For Steve,” Bucky said simply. He looked back at the cabin, and his face, transformed with hope, looked younger than ever.

There were a few times in Tony’s life where he had a theory confirmed and the emotions involved hit like a physical blow. Making the element that powered his new reactor was one--letting himself believe he would survive. Realizing that Yinsen was dying, had always meant to die, was another. And this—

“You thought you were trading your life for his.”

Bucky turned back toward him, and if his face looked young, his voice was old. He shook his head. “I was trading my life for his chance, and I knew it.” Tony opened his mouth. Bucky shook his head, forestalling him. “No. I know it’s not guaranteed now. I know there’s nothing certain.”

Tony could only nod.

“If you’re going to let me live, you need to understand exactly how far I will go to protect Steve Rogers. Listen: I will not be the Winter Soldier again, and I will not hurt kids. Those are the only lines more important to me than Steve. I’m an acceptable loss.”

Tony flinched. “You wanted to die for him?”

“I didn’t want to—God, I just got my life back, I want to live—but it was worth it. He’s worth it.”

Somewhere in the back of Tony’s mind, a memory stirred. You’re not the guy who’d lie down on the wire. Oh.

Tony stood up, shaking his head. “You know he’d probably disagree.”

Bucky smirked. “Yeah, well, I told him I’m not worth it either. He can dish it out, he can take it. He’s saved me three times now from something lots worse than dying.”

Tony felt, once again, out of his depth. “Uh, what he told all of us when we were looking for you was that you basically kept him alive before the serum. And probably after, too.”

Bucky just shrugged, a graceful one-sided movement. “He’s giving me too much credit.”

“Nah, from what he says, I believe him.”

“Either way. I meant what I said, earlier. I’d rather have died when I fell off that train. He brought me back. I’d do a lot more for him than accept a quick death.”

Tony frowned. “I don’t think you’d just sign up to die because of some vague IOU the other guy doesn’t believe exists.”

“He’s my best friend. He’s the only person who remembers who I am.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that. I’ve got a best friend too. But you know what? It’s all kind of beyond owing each other by now. It’s more like—what you do. He stops me from being self-destructive; I make him fancy tech presents; must be a day that ends in y.” He narrowed his eyes. “What am I missing?”

Barnes licked his lips. “It’s a bit different. Everyone else we knew growing up is dead or old.”

Tony crossed his arms. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing important,” the other man said, pale now. “I swear.”

“Tell me anyway.”

He looked down. “Don’t tell Steve.”

“Depends what it is.”

And oh no, shit, he didn’t mean to do this, whatever it was, because Bucky looked as tense as when he’d expected to die. Tony now recognized his expression as vulnerability faced with tremendous courage. He took a deep, measured breath.

Tony was about to say “You know what, never mind” when Bucky said, “I’ve been in love with him since we were kids.”

Tony blinked at him for what felt like an eternity.

He added, “Please don’t tell him.”

“Why not?” Tony said, because nitpicking was something he could do on autopilot and it was better than being quiet while his brain worked in the background. “He doesn’t seem like the type to get all offended over it.”

“He’d apologize,” Bucky said, in a tone that managed to be long-suffering and genuinely mortified at the same time. “He’d feel bad that he didn’t feel the same way. And he’d be all careful around me, and that’s— I get to be his best friend. I get to see who he really is. That’s the most important thing. I won’t risk it.”

“Wow,” Tony said after a moment. “You are just as irritatingly genuine as he is. I’m serious, man, this is some Victorian novel-level shit. I don’t know what to do with that.”

The look Bucky gave him said he didn’t know what to do with that, but he was prepared to be wary, defensive, and heartbroken all at once if he needed to.

“I’m not gonna tell him,” Tony clarified, rolling his eyes. “Stop it with the puppy dog eyes.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said quietly, and again, the tension visibly drained out of him. He sounded honestly grateful as well as relieved, and Tony wondered if soul-piercing earnestness was a byproduct of being frozen. It’d explain what the hell was up with Cap.

“Yeah, sure, don’t mention it,” he said uncomfortably. Seriously, don’t. This was well past his quota of awkwardness for the day.

He was rescued--they were rescued--by the door of the cabin swinging open and the team of doctors coming outside, carrying a stretcher. Bucky was on his feet in less than a second, completely focused on the still form lying there, and so completely missing Tony’s involuntary, startled jump backwards. (Damn, the guy was fast.) But then Tony’s attention was drawn away too, because they were hurrying toward the doctors and he got his first good look at Cap since the guy’d left him bruised and half-functional on the concrete floor of the bunker.

He looked terrible.

For a horrible, gut-wrenching second, he wondered, not if this was a trick, but if they were too late. He’d seen Cap hurt before, beat up and exhausted after the Battle of New York, wounded and resigned at the evacuation of Sokovia, half-dead in a hospital bed in D.C.--but never anything like this.

He was nearly as pale as the sheets on the stretcher, but that wasn’t the difference. He was still unfairly muscular, so Tony couldn’t really say he looked smaller. And it wasn’t just that he was incredibly, unnervingly still. He’d been in bad shape when Tony’d seen him before, but there had always been this sense of presence, as though he had some secret reserve of energy he was just waiting to tap, that in a minute he’d look up with a self-deprecating smile and make some kind of joke. That was gone now. This was the struggling shell of a man who’d exhausted his strength long ago.

Tony wrenched his gaze away, shocked and shaken, and found Bucky watching him. Whatever he read in Tony’s face, it made his own soften. Tony opened his mouth, not really sure what would come out.

“Does he always look this awful, or--”

“He got scarlet fever when he was twelve,” Bucky said. “Almost died.” He looked back at Steve and swallowed. “This is worse.”

Tony tried to imagine that hollowness, that sense of being utterly drained, in a child and felt his brain firmly shut down that line of thought. “Good thing you called.”

What the hell took you so long? he wanted to add, but that was...irrelevant.

The doctors were hurrying away, back to the plane; the researchers followed, some still emerging from the cabin, carrying what appeared to be just about everything Bucky had left in large canvas bags. Tony turned to the nearest doctor, Cassandra Li. “How is he?”

“Besides the obvious? We have absolutely no idea,” she said, frustrated. “Dehydrated, febrile, not really conscious. What does that mean in someone enhanced? Is he even enhanced, still? We can treat the symptoms, but--” She shrugged, looking disgusted. “We have to be careful. I can’t even guarantee a normal course of action won’t backfire. And I assure you,” she added, though the tone of voice said she was mainly speaking to herself, “I absolutely hate that and will change it as soon as possible.”

Tony knew that feeling. Insufficient data was a bitch.

“Frankly,” Dr. Li said, turning to Bucky, “I’m amazed he’s still alive. You’re responsible for that, I take it. He’s lucky to have you.”

Tony’d half-expected Bucky to duck his head and look embarrassed like Steve always did when someone said something nice to him, but he just looked lost, like he didn’t know what to do with the compliment. “I--he hasn’t been this bad the whole time,” he stammered. “And he’s really stubborn.”

“Then you’ve been keeping someone really stubborn alive for three weeks,” she said flatly. “Don’t sell yourself short.”

Then she stalked off in the direction of the jet, following the others and Steve, muttering under her breath about hydration, camel medicine, and fucking irregular physiology. Bucky blinked.

“She’s good,” Tony said, a bit defensively. Dr. Li was the first person he’d trusted to look at anything related to the arc reactor and one of the very few people whose advice he’d listened to when he was thinking about getting it removed. “Works with the whole team--y’know, when we had one. She says she doesn’t like it when people work funny, and Thor drove her nuts because he’s not actually human so . . . his guts are weird, or something--but I honestly think she has fun figuring all that out. She’s great at it.”

“Sure,” Bucky said. When Tony raised his eyebrows at him, he said, “I didn’t think you’d bring anyone who’s not.”

“Then what’re you all edgy about?”

“If she knew who I was, she wouldn’t say that,” Bucky said. His voice wasn’t heated or resentful, just sad.

“She knows exactly who you both are,” Tony said.

Bucky stiffened.

“I brought people who are good,” Tony snapped. “Everyone on this plane is entirely trustworthy and doesn’t usually care about anything but their work, and that’s me saying that. So--not gonna spill the beans. Also not going to consider the beans very . . . bean-y.”

The last few people exited the cabin as Bucky took that in. These were security personnel; Tony hadn’t been expecting trouble, and certainly not anything he couldn’t handle as Iron Man, but even if he didn’t need backup it made sense to have someone who knew how to get rid of anything identifiable. Cap and his friend were off the grid, and Tony wanted to keep them that way. If the security people were leaving the cabin, he knew it was clean. They hustled off to the plane and Tony followed them. Bucky, however, hung back.

“Hey,” Tony said, looking over his shoulder. “You coming?”

“That’s up to you,” Bucky said, subdued.

“Kinda planned on it,” Tony said. Don’t fucking thank me and don’t say please, he thought desperately. He jerked his head toward the jet. “Hurry up.”

Barnes hurried, but he didn’t seem relieved about it. The two of them ducked into the quinjet’s medical bay, where Steve lay motionless, already hooked up to several IV drips. Tony tried not to look at him too much and just stay out of the way of the doctors as much as he could without actually leaving the area. Bucky kept looking between him and Steve, face set, as people bustled around securing everything for liftoff. In just a few short minutes, the quinjet rose vertically from the ground and shot away from the clearing in the woods, bound for the ocean, then New York.

Tony had just about succeeded in distracting himself from the bustle as the doctors clustered around Steve and was in fact more-or-less productively fiddling with his tablet when Bucky spoke again. “So,” he said quietly. “Are you handing me over to the UN? Germany? Portugal?”

Portugal? Tony thought, irrelevantly. What’d he do in Portugal? “Uh, none of those,” he said. “Homeward bound.”

And then he saw something that gave him a sudden boost in empathy for Rhodey, Pepper, and anyone else who’d had to deal with his crap on a regular basis. Something shuttered behind the other man’s eyes. At the same time, his muscles relaxed. Confidence wrapped around him like a wave, like Tony’s nanobot armor. And, like the nanobots, it settled into a thick shell of bravado. He shrugged, a broad, sweeping gesture this time, head cocked to the side. “Makes sense,” he said, almost lazily. “American government has the best claim for jurisdiction, and treason’s probably the best charge to put me up on anyway.”

“You’re your smuggest asshole self when you’re terrified,” Rhodey had said once. Tony had never understood what that meant until he saw it from the outside.

“No!” Tony yelped. “Geez. Chill. I’m not handing you over to anyone. You’re coming back to Stark Tower with me.”

“What?”

Tony sighed. “You. Me. Capsicle. Stark Tower medical facilities. Not that hard.”

“You mean . . . You’re not going to put me away? I get to stay with Steve?” The mask was slipping already. He was wide-eyed and shaking.

Yes.” Seriously, was it that hard to understand?

Bucky stared out the window and swallowed hard. “I don’t deserve this.”

“Nope, you don’t,” Tony said. “But you didn’t deserve a lot of the bad shit that happened to you, either, so.” His chest was tight again. It felt almost like having the arc reactor back. “My choice, and I’m not handing you over.”

“I don’t understand,” Bucky murmured. “Under the Accords, don’t you have to?”

That was a sensible question, at least, and gave Tony something to do. “Actually, that’s very unclear,” he said brightly. “The Accords have undergone a lot of revisions since, y’know, the first attempt at following them kind of crashed and burned, or in the case of the secret underwater supermax prison that wasn’t mentioned anywhere in them, by the way, literally crashed and bur--well, okay, exploded and sank. Which, incidentally, made it kind of obvious that there was a giant underwater prison that nobody knew about, which is creepy, and the Accords lost a lot of public support. And then the head of state of the country that pushed hardest for the Accords in the first place announced reservations about them related to upcoming changes in foreign policy, incidentally just a few weeks after someone in some kind of catsuit, and I don’t mean that in a sexy furry way, went on a car chase through Busan. Now, I’m not a policy analyst, but given that I’ve seen one other person with advanced cat armor and that person happens to be the head of state of said country, I think Wakanda maybe finds it more acceptable to engage in vigilante justice across international borders than they originally said. Just a guess.

“So, since the Accords (a) didn’t work and (b) looked bad, and then (c) lost their main backer, they’ve been significantly revised a couple of times and I’m honestly not sure which version is currently ratified and I don’t know if anyone else does either. Including the UN, which is probably not great. But just about the only thing I’m sure they cover is military engagements, which this is not, so I’m pretty sure I’m acting as a private citizen and I’ll continue to believe that until someone tells me otherwise. With lawyers.”

“Oh.” Bucky looked at him, another long, hollow, cautiously appraising look. Tony waited, but he didn’t follow it up with anything, so Tony shrugged and looked around for something else to do. Standing around trying to make conversation with the man who killed his parents in front of a maybe-dying Captain America was not his idea of a fun time.

Fortunately, Bruce chose that moment to wander out of the quinjet’s tiny (but very comprehensive, thank you, Tony’d designed it himself) lab space and stare wide-eyed at Cap, probably going through his own moment of “shit, this looks bad.” Tony nudged Bucky--okay, started to, then didn’t want to touch him, but the gesture got the guy’s attention anyway so good enough--and nodded toward Bruce.

“Hey,” Tony said. “I want you to meet somebody.” He waved, and Bruce seemed to realize they were there for the first time.

“Oh, hi, Tony,” he said, looking strained. “I’m just looking for--”

Tony walked quickly toward him, Bucky following in tow. “Don’t bother, you’ve got something more important to do now. This is Bucky Barnes” (he couldn’t quite believe that name had come out of his own mouth) “and he’s apparently been taking notes on what this thing does so talk with him. Do biology on it.” Not waiting for Bruce’s reaction, he turned to the man beside him. “Bucky--” he cut himself off. “No, fuck it. I can’t do this. Barnes. You killed my parents--we are not on first-name terms. And besides, your name is stupid.”

Barnes shrugged. “Alright.”

“Alright?” Tony should’ve been happy, not surprised, but people usually got pissed when he messed with their names. Although that was usually when he stuck nicknames on them, not took them away, so maybe there was a relationship between--

Barnes just gave him a look. “You’re calling the shots here,” he said.

“Uh. Yeah. I am. Well.” Tony waved at Bruce again. “I told Pepper I’d call her. Seeya. Have fun sciencing.” And he stepped quickly out of the impromptu medical area, heading toward the more comfortable part of the jet, which had cushy seats and snacks and no sick people or ex-assassins.

~

Bucky was just starting to believe that he’d be around the next day--around Steve, not dead in a forest in Cambodia, not locked inside a prison or a lab, not falling “accidentally” back into the US intelligence apparatus for either dark ops or unmonitored interrogation sessions; he’d be alive and some kind of free and, more importantly, exactly where he wanted to be--when Tony Stark shoved him at a distracted-looking man with rumpled dark hair and made his escape. He’d wondered how long that would take. Of course Stark didn’t want to be around him, and seeing Steve like this clearly upset him. Bucky was grateful for that; Stark seemed to mean it when he said he wouldn’t hold what Bucky’d done against Steve.

“Well, that was very Tony.” The rumpled-looking man looked after him for a second, then shook his head and offered Bucky his hand. “Bruce Banner, since he didn’t bother to mention.” His voice matched his expression: preoccupied and a little hesitant, as though he had just been shaken out of a very different line of thought.

“Dr. Banner,” Bucky said, surprised, as they shook hands. “Steve’s told me a lot about you.”

“Oh yeah?” Banner’s face went guarded. “What did he say?”

That if I don’t think you’re to blame for what the Hulk does, the people I’ve killed aren’t my fault either. But that’s not what either of us wants to hear. “That you’re a genius and a hell of a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for,” Bucky said--which was also true. “And you make science puns that no one can understand.”

Banner blinked and his mouth twitched.

“But he also said you disappeared almost two years ago.”

“I came back,” he said, and it came out nervous, half-laughing, half-apologetic. “I, uh. Well. Tony found me, about three months ago. Maybe less. I was staying off the radar, but I guess he got lonely.”

“You don’t need to explain,” Bucky said. The distracted-apologetic demeanor made Banner hard to read, but this didn’t have the ring of a story he was longing to tell.

Banner gave him a shrewd look. “Yeah, you probably understand,” he said wryly, and Bucky blinked. That wasn’t what he’d meant, but . . . he did. He really did.

“However you got here, I’m grateful,” Bucky said. “Steve told me . . . Well, if I understood him right, you’re probably the only person in the world with any real idea how the serum works, so you’ve got the best chance at figuring out what went wrong.”

“I’ve been trying to figure out what went wrong with mine for the last twelve years,” Banner said. Bucky wasn’t sure if that was an agreement or a gentle warning about getting his hopes up, or maybe something else: testing how he reacted to mentions of the Hulk.

“That means he’s got maybe the best person in the world for working on this here with him,” Bucky said firmly. “I don’t really care about how that happened, Dr. Banner--I’m just glad you’re here.”

“Call me Bruce,” Banner said. “People only call me Dr. Banner if they’re grad students or they’re afraid of the Hulk.” Testing the waters, for sure. Bucky could sympathize with that all too well. But he’d meant it when he said he didn’t care. He didn’t mean it like Steve might have--it wasn’t a wholly noble sentiment, and it wasn’t just that he didn’t have any room to judge. He was desperately grateful for Banner’s expertise, no matter what the man had suffered to gain it. Bucky wasn’t proud of that, but he didn’t particularly care about his own pride at this point.

So when it came to talking or not talking about the Hulk, the least he could do was let Banner--no, Bruce--take the lead.

“But that is what I’m here for,” Bruce added after a moment, apparently satisfied with Bucky’s non-reaction, “to try and reverse-engineer whatever this is so that the more medical-oriented researchers can work on a cure. If there’s anything you can tell me, any observations you have, I’d appreciate it. I think that’s what Tony was babbling about.”

“I have notes on what happened,” Bucky said. “Whatever you need.”

“Great. Can you look back through them and pull out what happened when and make a timeline? I’ll tell you what to look for . . . .”

They got to work. A lot of Bruce’s theories called for extensive testing, simultaneous experiments using Steve’s blood, isolating the super-soldier serum, maybe comparing their different variants of it. They both worked in silence, Bruce tucked in the tiny lab with trays of test tubes and a centrifuge and gel buffers, Bucky poring over his notes. It helped that Bruce was easy to be around. He worked quietly and methodically and didn’t try to hold a conversation. Now and then, he would stick his head out of the lab and ask Bucky a question, or Bucky would ask him if a piece of information would be helpful, but there was no more chat.

Both of them occasionally stopped what they were doing and looked at Steve.

Before long, Bucky had finished the annotated timeline Bruce requested. He handed it over wordlessly and walked back to Steve’s side. A stool sat beside the makeshift bed. He sat down on it and leaned his head back against the wall, bone-weary in a way he hadn’t been since . . . since remembering who he was, maybe. Utterly exhausted, he nevertheless couldn’t sleep. Instead, he watched Steve for any sign of consciousness. Someone had hooked up an IV with some clear fluid. Bucky assumed it had something to do with getting him hydrated, since the biggest problem lately was that Steve could barely keep even water down. It had been the first thing in the notes he’d left in the cabin. Steve looked less drained already--though maybe that was all in his mind.

After a while, Bruce joined him. “That’s as far as I can get right now. We have to wait for this to run. I can compare the sample of Steve’s blood to my own,” he explained, when Bucky looked at him questioningly, “and even isolate, well, the markers of the serum, but there are a lot of differences between the two. I’d have to put both of them through many different conditions, see what differences are due to gamma rays versus Vita Rays, for one thing, and I just don’t have the equipment to do that here. Tony’s lab is great, but he doesn’t have high-radiation-producing equipment or a shielded chamber, because that’s a bad idea on a plane. The best I can do is run a series of simulations.” He nodded at the computer.

“Are you looking at mine, too?” Bucky asked.

Bruce looked uncomfortable. “I could. It would help. I saw the samples, but--are you sure? I can destroy these without testing anything, if that’s what you want. Or I can do the tests, if you’re sure.”

“Please,” Bucky said, hands clenched so tightly he could feel nails biting into the skin on his right hand. He forced himself to relax. “That’s why I did that. If it helps Steve--anything. I wouldn’t hold back.”

“Sure,” Bruce said, with a trace of a sardonic smile. “I’m only asking because consent for experiments is kind of important to me.”

Bucky huffed a laugh. “Yeah, well, you’re not doing anything to me, or anyone else. I don’t really care.”

“Mm,” Bruce said, non-committal, but he turned back to the centrifuge, holding one of the carefully-labeled vials of blood. He whistled. “Did you draw these yourself?”

“Not like there’s anyone else out here to do it.”

Bruce nodded slowly and walked back toward the tiny lab and the even tinier centrifuge. Bucky sat by Steve a few minutes more, thinking, then followed him.

“Please use that, but--two things,” he said. “First, all of this, all of it, not just mine-- You know what this--” He shook his head and tried again. “What will you do when you’re done with the samples?”

“Destroy them,” Bruce said firmly, his voice clearer and more assertive than it had been in the entire conversation prior to that moment. “I have protocols in place for getting rid of any of my own blood. I’ll use them for everything. The world doesn’t need another Hulk.”

Relieved, Bucky took a step closer. “Second thing. Is there any chance you’d need more of my blood? Or anything else?”

Bruce looked up at him owlishly, and Bucky stepped partly to the side, not wanting to box him in to the small room. Bruce shook his head and waved him inside, gesturing at one of the narrow, sleek stools.

“I might,” Bruce said as Bucky sat. “It depends on what we find, or don’t find--and what you’re alright with, of course.”

“I’m alright with anything,” Bucky said reflexively, then caught himself. That was true, but. “In that case, can I ask a favor?”

“Sure.”

Bucky steeled himself. “If it’s anything I can’t do myself--I’d rather you did it than anyone else.”

That didn’t seem to be what Bruce had been expecting. “You know I’m not that kind of doctor, right?” he asked wearily. “I’m sure someone else could do just about any of it better. You’d be more comfortable.”

Bucky shook his head. “I wouldn’t notice,” he said. “Up to a certain point it doesn’t matter, and I guarantee nothing you could do would get there.”

Bruce looked faintly green and started breathing slowly and carefully. Bucky shifted his weight guiltily. He had to remember that even other people who’d been through hell weren’t necessarily prepared for the kind of things he took for granted.

“But that’s the point,” Bucky went on, forcing himself to keep talking. “I don’t . . . it’s all me up here, now,” he tapped his head, “and I’m not going to suddenly hurt people on purpose, but--I forget where I am sometimes. Anything medical--”

“Flashbacks,” Bruce said. He’d gone very still, but not in a tense way--more like he was letting all of this sink in and trying not to react until Bucky was finished. Bucky was grateful to him. That made it easier to keep talking.

“It was fine before, fine getting this,” Bucky said, gesturing to his arm, “but--I’m afraid that was because Steve was there. Steve . . . helps.” He swallowed. “If I forget, if I think I’m back there, I’ll start fighting. And I can hurt people. I don’t want to do that.”

Bruce was still quiet, waiting, but Bucky had run out of words. Very carefully, the other man reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. “You think you couldn’t hurt me.”

Bucky nodded. “I’ve seen footage.” In New York, the Hulk had punched that thing, the skeletal behemoth that had swum through the portal into space, and not taken a scratch. If Banner could transform as soon as there was a threat, as Steve seemed to think . . . . “You’d be alright. And I couldn’t get past you to anyone else.”

Bruce went, if possible, even stiller. “I’m not used to thinking of the Other Guy as the safe option,” he said finally.

Bucky looked up. Bruce sounded doubtful; Bucky wasn’t. He’d watched, over and over, the few video clips of the Hulk catching Iron Man, and while he was doing that, he’d noticed the relative lack of damage to buildings the Hulk had run through in that battle and the way he’d gone after any Chitauri targeting civilians first. “Other Guy” or not, the Hulk seemed to share the scientist’s priorities.

Bucky met his eyes. “Trust me, yours is better than mine.”

Bruce’s face twisted briefly and Bucky wondered if he’d said the wrong thing. Then the other man sighed. “That’s awful,” he said forcefully, not meeting Bucky’s eyes. He raised a hand to forestall any objections. “I’m not saying you’re wrong. And that’s awful.

“You’ll do it?”

“If it’s necessary.”

“And if--if it happens any other time?” Bucky asked before he really thought about it. Bruce glanced up for half a breath, almost but not quite looking at him.“I might lose track of where I am, even if it’s not in a lab. I shouldn’t, but if something goes wrong . . . please. Stop me. However you need to.”

It was a lot to ask of someone, and it was a gamble, but Bruce was one of the few people who might understand and be able to do it. He’d made the same request of Barton when they met in Wakanda. The archer had given him a long, haunted look and a short nod completely at odds with his flip reply.

Bruce shut down again, not moving, expressionless, before he said, “Fine.” Then, finally, he met Bucky’s eyes and added, “But don’t make me have to do it.” He nodded toward the doorway to the lab. “I don’t think he’d approve.”

“Not up to him,” Bucky said, but he felt tension bleed out of him. “I don’t think it’ll happen. But--well, thanks.”

He wasn’t sure what to make of the look Bruce gave him. It made him think of his mother, for some reason. She’d had an expression, proud and sad and guarded, that he’d caught a glimpse of when he told her he’d be working full-time and leaving school; when he moved in with Steve; when he got his draft notice. This wasn’t that look, but it was similar.

Bucky just gave him a nod and ducked out of the lab to let him work in peace.

~

Tony slid into one of his nice, padded, upgraded quinjet chairs in one of the relatively private areas of the jet and put his head in his hands. He suddenly, desperately wanted to be back home, to have the Tower walls around him again and a long, hot shower and Pepper. Actually, just Pepper would be good. Pepper being there made everything better.

And since he couldn’t get out and make modifications to make the jet go any faster while it was flying, so getting home faster was out--

“FRIDAY, can you get me Pepper?”

“Ms. Potts’ schedule shows an uninterrupted period of working marked ‘Absolutely no meetings,’ boss,” his AI replied. Tony rolled his eyes. Sometimes he really missed JARVIS.

“Yeah, but it’s me. Override. And route it to my phone.”

Pepper, bless her, picked up on the first ring--and maybe if he uploaded some more context and programmed priority ratings, FRIDAY could-- “Tony,” she said, sounding relieved. “How is . . . ?”

“We’re on our way back,” Tony said, and god, his voice sounded old.

“You picked them up?”

“Yeah. Everything’s legit.”

“Is Steve--?”

“I don’t know,” Tony said. He didn’t even care that his voice broke.

Pepper sucked in a breath. “Oh . . . .”

“Yep,” Tony said. There wasn’t much else to say.

After a minute, Pepper asked, “Are you alright?”

“No,” Tony said, resting his forehead on the wall and staring blindly out the window.

“Want to tell me about it?”

“Pep--”

“You’re not lying and saying you’re fine. That usually means you want to talk.”

“I was actually going to say I thought you had work to do,” Tony groused, pretending to be offended. After all, on the phone, Pepper couldn’t see that she’d made him smile.

Or maybe she could, because he could as good as hear her roll her eyes. “This is more important. I’m not taking calls from the board or the damn project coordinators. You’re different.”

“Well, good,” Tony said, “’cause seeing Cap look like shit was not the worst part of my day.”

Haltingly, over the next twenty minutes, he filled her in on his conversation with Barnes--everything except what he’d asked Tony to keep to himself. Technically he’d only said not to tell Steve, but outing someone was a dick move and Tony was not that kind of a dick, and besides, he was still processing that little piece of information, thanks very much. And maybe most importantly, when it came to things to process, that was actually pretty far down the list.

“He thought he was going to die for him, Pep.”

“They were in a war together, Tony . . . .”

“No, I get that. But this wasn’t an ‘I might get killed in a fight watching your back and I accept that’ kind of a thing. He was dead certain I was going to kill him and he walked out there anyway. He was polite.” The line was quiet for a while. “I don’t think that arm’s the only thing on him made of vibranium, is what I’m saying.”

That made Pepper laugh.

“He’d set everything up, Pep,” Tony continued. It was hard even to say it. “He’d left all his weapons out, cataloged, a list of every major assassination he can remember doing”—he swallowed hard at that one, because yeah, he’d had a look, and seen his parents’ names in that careful handwriting on that fucking legal pad— “and a timeline of everything important since Cap got sick, along with samples and notes from the lab, and, and his own blood. He drew his own blood and left it in the refrigerator, because someone might want another sample of a similar supersoldier serum, and he’d be dead.”

He heard Pepper swallow. “Are you more upset that he expected you to kill him, or that he’s doing what you did?”

And that, right there, was why he loved Pepper. Tony was very good at dancing around the things in his head that wanted to hurt him, very very good, making nets to capture them and tricks to avoid any situation in which the hurty thing would actually get close enough to hurt him, and one of those tricks was actually distracting himself into forgetting what the thing that hurt actually was. Pepper always knew what the thing was. She also had a horrible habit of saying it so that he had to deal with it, instead of escape it and win, but he loved her anyway.

“I dunno. Both? I’m not an executioner. Shit. I hate that anyone would think . . . . But I can see why he doesn’t exactly want to assume the best. Dude’s more than a little messed up, and he’s got plenty of reason.”

“Mm.”

“–Pepper, did it hurt this much to watch when I was giving away my company, and giving Rhodey the armor, and stuff?”

She was quiet for a moment. “I knew you and cared about you. I can guarantee it felt worse.”

“I am so, so sorry,” he said, sincerely. “Because that is fucking messed up when you see it from the outside.”

Pepper made a huffing sound that could have been a sigh or a sob or a laugh. “I know.”

“Pepper?”

“Hm?”

“Can you just--stay on the line for a while? Tell me what you’re working on?”

“Don’t you have anything you could be working on?” she asked him, light and teasing, and he knew what she was going for and ninety-seven, no, ninety-eight percent of the time it would work, but--

He thought about Steve lying drained and unconscious in the med bay, about Barnes’ voice saying “get it over with,” about the impossibility of modifying a machine while it was working. He could design a better engine for the quinjet but--

“No,” he told Pepper. “There’s nothing for me to do.”