Actions

Work Header

Heroes are Easy, People are Hard

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

“Do you have a minute?” Bruce asked. Bucky tore his eyes away from Steve. The scientist stood a few feet away, trying not to look like he was trying to not look at Steve. A tall, thin man stood behind him, holding a tablet. “We’ll be landing soon, and the doctors will be able to make him a little more comfortable. There’s something you might want to see first.”

“What?” Bucky asked.

“It’s—well, I can’t decide if it’s kind of important or entirely beside the point,” Bruce said. “Or if it’s at all legally relevan—”

The man behind him rolled his eyes. “Just show it to him.” He leaned past Bruce and handed Bucky the tablet.

“Hey!” Bruce protested.

“Carl Jensen,” he said, ignoring it. “History major and biostatistics nerd. It’s really cool to meet you, by the way.”

“Carl…”

“It really shouldn’t be,” Bucky said, taking the tablet. “What is this?”

“Um. Someone thought it would be a good idea to figure out who can legally make medical decisions for Captain Rogers.” Bucky nodded, heart sinking. Of course they would. It made sense—someone who knew something about medicine, probably, and who wasn’t an international criminal, and wasn’t legally dead. It was a good idea, and it would be better for Steve.

That didn’t mean he liked it one bit. He didn’t trust anyone else to take care of him properly.

Carl was still talking. “It’s a hell of a paper trail, which is probably why they put me on it, but—” He tapped something on the tablet. “This is the file that got dumped when the Black Widow put all SHIELD and Hydra’s data on the Internet.” It was a pretty standard-looking document, almost perfectly generic, signed and dated what must have been just a few days after Steve woke up from the ice. In it, the undersigned, one Steven Grant Rogers, basically authorized any medical action “authorized personnel” from SHIELD considered best in case of emergency. There was only one amendment to it, made less than a month later, specifying “strictly no experimental use of any biological material whatsoever for any purposes under any circumstances.”

Bucky glanced up sharply. Bruce was looking away, lips pursed. Carl had stepped past him so he was standing next to Bucky. He had the grace to look a little embarrassed.

“So after SHIELD, well, collapsed,” Carl said, and swiped at the tablet again, “there was this. That was a lot harder to find, let me tell you.” This was less bureaucratic and more detailed. It was a collection of excerpts from a larger document or set of documents, an odd mix of legal documents and colloquially-written agreements, signed and notarized. Something in his chest seized up as another part loosened. This was the Steve he knew, taking a precise and scrupulous interest in who he trusted to carry out his wishes, even if all of it did seem run through with an undercurrent of disbelief that anything could actually go wrong.

He skimmed through several pages delegating various responsibilities to Sam Wilson and— “Medical power of attorney: Natasha Romanoff,” he read.

That was unexpected. Granted, he hadn’t even spoken to the Black Widow and had spent entirely too much time around Sam, crammed in that tiny car—and then again in Wakanda, in more comfortable circumstances—but she didn’t seem the careful, considerate type Steve tended to trust. Sam, on the other hand, was.

“Knowing how people think is her job,” Bruce said, something odd in his voice. “If anyone would know what he’d want, and not be sentimental about it . . . . I can see why he’d choose her.”

Ah. Bucky nodded. “Alright.”

“As far as I can tell, that’s still in effect, except, well.” Carl shuffled his feet. “No one knows how to get in contact with her.”

“I don’t either,” Bucky said. “She changes her method of contact pretty often. I won’t know how to reach her until she tells me.” Steve had kept in semi-regular contact with everyone who’d opposed the Accords with him, probably out of guilt. Natasha had kept herself in a gray zone, out of reach half the time, apparently by choice.

“No, no,” Carl said, looking excited now. “That’s not why we’re showing you this. If we can’t find the person currently designated, we thought maybe we could go back and find whoever was there before, right? I mean, that’s not exactly how things work legally, but we’re just—we’re honestly trying to do what Captain Rogers would want. But we can’t use the SHIELD stuff, since that’s just ‘whoever SHIELD wants to decide for me,’ and SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore. So we go to the last document before that—” He reached for the tablet.

Bucky tapped the screen before Carl could and felt the air leave his lungs.

It was a scan or a high-quality photograph. He could almost feel the paper in his hand, though, the thin, brownish sheet slightly indented by the keystrokes of a typewriter. In contrast, the handwriting filling in the blanks seemed to glide over the surface of the paper—this wasn’t paperwork done in the field with a ballpoint that dug into the paper, it was something written in an office with a real pen. It was all hauntingly familiar. He remembered filling this particular form out himself. But this wasn’t his.

The writing was Steve’s, an unmistakable flowing script, far neater than his own jagged scrawl. Bucky’s eyes flicked automatically to the date: June 15th, 1943. Right after Erskine had recruited him, then. Punk. Hell, Bucky might have still be Stateside, technically, and—

—and Steve had been signing up for a special project, signing his life away, after promising not to do anything stupid—

—and all of that somehow mattered far less than one line on the form that must have been why Carl had found this.

Next of kin: James Buchanan Barnes.

The image blurred in front of him. Of course he would, Bucky thought, fond and exasperated and proud, of course—and really, who else would he put? There wasn’t anyone. He knew that. But he couldn’t help but feel that this wasn’t just “no one else,” that Steve meant it. He’d have said “none” otherwise.

And the date. Bucky shook his head. Steve had made damn sure that if he died doing something stupid, at least Bucky would know about it. He’d be notified. He’d know that Steve had somehow gotten himself into the Army and—he’d know.

Dammit, Steve.

“So,” Carl said, looking hesitant for once. “Like I said, I’m not in the legal department, I’m just the only scientist here who knows how to find historical documents, but we’re going on intentions, and between what’s actually happened and this, I think we have pretty clear evidence that you’re the person Captain Rogers wants talking with the doctors on his behalf. If, you know, you agree to do that.”

Bucky cleared his throat. “Only been doing it since his mother died,” he said hoarsely. “Why stop now?”He looked back at Steve, lying entirely too quiet next to him, and blinked hard.

When he looked up, Carl was gone. Bruce shifted uncomfortably. “Sorry about that. He’s a good kid, but—”

Bucky shrugged. “’S fine.” Bruce still looked unhappy. Forcing his thoughts away from Steve, Bucky looked at him more closely. His lips were pressed together and he kept looking away, like he couldn’t look at Bucky—no, at Steve.

Bucky suddenly thought of the one personal touch on that impersonal SHIELD form: strictly no experimental use of any biological material, added a few weeks after Steve came out of the ice—after the Battle of New York.

“He doesn’t blame you,” he blurted.

Bruce looked at him questioningly.

“Steve. For trying to replicate the serum. That directive—I think he just . . . the whole damn thing is more trouble than it’s worth, but not everyone's going to see that.” Especially not people who would make the call to nuke Manhattan. “It’s not you he doesn’t trust.”

Bruce smiled thinly, clearly unconvinced. “That’s a nice thought.”

“Really. Actually—” Bucky faltered. This was too much like speaking for Steve, like delivering final messages that—no, that’s not what this was. Bruce looked miserable and he was helping, and that was all. “It bothered him that he hadn’t gotten a chance to apologize.”

“Apologize for what? I’m the one who messed with things he clearly would rather no one tampered with!” He took a deep breath. “He said for no one to do what I did. Under any circumstances. How does that mean he did something wrong?”

“He probably wrote that because of you, but not the way you think.” Bucky didn’t know how to say it. “Look, Steve told me . . . He said the—what happened to you—was partly an attempt to replicate the serum. For the best possible reasons, too, but it went wrong, and that research wouldn’t have happened if Erskine’s formula hadn’t worked in him. In Steve’s head, that means if it hadn’t been for him, your life wouldn’t have been turned upside-down.”

“That’s insane,” Bruce said after a moment. “That’s never how I—”

“Well, it’s how Steve sees it, and if he’s right, it’s probably my fault too.” There was no way Hydra didn’t have its finger in that particular pie, no way they weren’t steering funding and the right unreliable people into the field to get another secret weapon, not when the super-soldier serum had worked twice. That the Hulk had happened to this careful, kind man was a tragedy for him, but a blessing for the world.

Bucky looked at Bruce evenly. “I’m not gonna apologize, though. It happened, you’re here, and you can help Steve. Like I said—I’m grateful for that.”

Bruce looked at him, brow wrinkled, and finally nodded. “I can live with that.”

~

It was barely noon in New York when the quinjet settled onto the landing pad atop Stark Tower. A few Stark Security personnel were there to meet it, but Tony waved them away quickly, leading his little troop of doctors, researchers, and international fugitives into the building. They could help unload once everyone was off the plane, but for now they were in the way.

Barnes seemed glued to Steve’s side, and Tony noticed that Bruce was hovering nearby too. It had been a good idea to bring him along, even if he did hate planes. Tony had plucked him off a tiny island not that long ago, when he got sufficiently bored and nosy—not lonely, thank you, Pepper and Rhodey—to track him down, and the physicist had been withdrawn around anyone but Tony ever since. Put him in a crisis, though, and he did alright.

The whole crew piled into the tastefully-hidden cargo elevator and headed straight for the first floor below the personal residence floors—the medical floor. Most of the researchers would keep going down from there, back to wherever their labs were, but a few would set up shop on the medical floor itself. Tony’s doctors were technically researchers too; who did what would just come down to area of expertise.

He was distantly aware that he was jumpy and tired and distracting himself. Whatever. Status quo. The doors opened on the medical floor and everyone spilled out—

“Oh,” said a quiet voice. Tony looked to his left, and his heart leapt as his shoulders dropped. Pepper stood there, clearly waiting for them, everything about her crisp and polished and so perfectly Pepper he could almost feel it radiating from her like warmth. She looked stricken as she gazed at the stretcher Steve lay on. Tony took a few quick steps to the side and caught her up in a crushing hug.

“Tony,” Pepper said, one hand rubbing his back.

“Hey Pep,” Tony whispered, face buried in her hair. It smelled like that new aromatherapy shampoo she was trying.

Pepper didn’t ask him any bullshit questions about being okay. She just let him hold on until he was able to let go.

“Do you—” Tony asked, not sure how he was going to finish that sentence, but looking down the hallway to where the doctors were wheeling Steve into a room.

“If we wouldn’t be in the way,” she said, and swallowed. “He looks bad.”

“Yeah,” was all Tony said.

They slipped into the room. It was nice, as hospital rooms went, which meant it only made Tony’s skin crawl a little; when he and Pepper had decided to put a medical floor in the rebuilt tower, he’d insisted on it not being awful. The patient rooms ringed the outer walls of the tower so that each one had at least half a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and none of the normal walls were that glaring, fluorescent, almost reflective antiseptic white that hurt Tony’s eyes and brain and made everyone look like they were dying, no matter how healthy they were. Some of the rooms, he was told, had murals—a pet project from some arts-in-science undergrad intern program. This one was a warm, mellow light brown. The most that could be said for it was that it didn’t make Steve look any worse.

The room was also very large and currently full of people, several of whom were talking rapid-fire at each other while others bustled around shifting Steve from the stretcher to the bed. Barnes had already settled into a chair near the bed, clearly tucking himself out of the way, even as he watched everything closely. Tony and Pepper followed suit, standing against the wall. Pepper bit her lip as she took in Steve’s haggard appearance.

Barnes spoke only once, when one of the doctors adjusted Steve’s IV and muttered at the angry red skin near the cannulation site. “Anyone know if he’s allergic to surgical tape?” the young man asked the room at large.

“I don’t think that was around before,” Barnes replied hoarsely, “but he used to be allergic to just about everything, so--probably.”

The doctor nodded. “Figures. There are other ways to keep this in--different adhesives--don’t worry.” Another doctor, without interrupting her own intense conversation, pulled open a cabinet and passed him something.

Once Steve was settled, Pepper took a step closer, face tight. Barnes looked up for a second at her approach.

“Oh, yeah, this is my boss.” Tony smirked at the eyeroll Pepper gave him—it was so much more fun calling her that than CEO of Stark Industries. “And we’re going to get married this summer,” he added, because that was also more fun and less French than fiancée.

“Hello,” Barnes said, dredging up some horrible attempt at a smile before his gaze slid back to Steve. He shook his head. “Sorry, I—”

“No, I’m sorry to intrude,” Pepper said. “I just wanted to—well, to see him. You hang in there,” she said, looking down at Steve, voice soft but shaking. “Just hold on. You’d better. —And you, too,” she said to Barnes, which was probably fair; he looked pretty awful himself.

“Thanks,” Barnes said quietly.

They all were quiet for a few minutes, staring at the walls or at the bed. Tony looked out the window. Breathtaking view notwithstanding, he was starting to feel itchy.

Pepper glanced at her watch and made a small, angry sound. “I have to meet with the”—she let out the forceful sigh that usually stood in for a stretch of swearing—“stupid board.”

“I thought you looked awfully spiky,” Tony said. That got him a raised eyebrow—from Pepper and from half the other people in the room. What? He noticed things about how his fiancée looked. That was a good thing, right? Right now she was wearing scarily pointy heels, a crisply tailored suit, and a shirt with a collar so sharp the edges looked like they’d cut. Somehow even his hug hadn’t managed to rumple anything. He noticed. “For intimidation?”

Pepper nodded, even though her eyes were laughing at him. “You have the Iron Man armor; I have the CEO armor. It works. And I really need to go, or they’ll wonder why I’m late, and we don’t want them asking questions.”

“Thank you,” Barnes said, hoarse, from behind them. He’d managed to drag his eyes away from Cap and, even if the look and the voice seemed to come from miles away, he was clearly paying them at least some attention.

“Of course,” Pepper said, looking right back at him. It wasn’t her warm hostess voice this time—a lot more grim, a lot more tired. But it got the tiniest of nods in return before Barnes’ full attention flicked back over to Steve.

“Go,” Tony said, squeezing her hand.

“Walk me there?” Pepper asked, tugging, as she moved to leave the room. Tony could read that as some kind of social cue; he wasn’t actually oblivious. Besides, it was a dignified out from this room, this situation, that made him want to crawl out of his own skin. He followed her eagerly.

Behind them, the doctors bustled around, Barnes watched like a hawk, and Steve still didn’t move.

~

Four or five hours and three or ten coffees later, Tony was talking to Bruce about the modifications he was definitely going to make to the quinjet. Technically Bruce had left a while ago, saying he’d rather handle quinjet-lag by napping than by caffeinating, but Tony was still talking out loud as he designed and was in full flow when the ceiling chimed politely. “‘Scuse me, boss,” FRIDAY interrupted. “Captain Rogers is awake.”

“That was quick,” Tony said, stepping back from the holographic model he’d been fiddling with.

“Seems like one side effect of the serum is that he doesn’t stay unconscious for long,” the AI told him. “Dr. Li in particular is upset about that. I believe her words were ‘what good is a healing factor if it stops you from resting?’ She said he probably won’t be awake for long, but that you’re cleared to come down if you want to say hello.”

“Oh,” Tony said. He was shaking again, the way he had when the phone first rang. Dammit. He’d thought he’d have more time for this, more time to figure out what to say—something besides all the sharp one-liners he’d saved up for meeting Cap again in some actual end-of-the-world situation. He didn’t want to do this.

“Sergeant Barnes is with him.”

He really didn’t want to do this.

“Uh. Sure. I’m on my way.”

~

Bucky had been sitting, staring through the wall in front of him, when Steve stirred. The doctors had said he might wake up, now that he was in slightly less rough shape, but Bucky hadn’t been counting on anything—so his heart leapt into his throat when Steve licked his lips and tried to speak.

“Bucky?” he whispered, looking around blearily.

“I’m here,” Bucky said, moving over hastily into Steve’s field of vision. “You feeling alright, punk?”

Steve made a noncommittal sound. “Where are we?”

“Don’t worry about that right now,” Bucky said. It was the wrong thing to say, because Steve’s gaze abruptly sharpened.

“Bucky?”

“I told you I’d take care of you. That meant getting help. I don’t think you realize how bad you’ve got lately.”

“Hospital’s not secure,” Steve murmured. “I appreciate it, but we’re going to have to get out of here. Make sure they don't have any blood samples. Get back under the radar.”

“We’re not exactly in a hospital,” Bucky said, shifting uncomfortably. “It’s alright, I promise. Go back to sleep.”

“Where are we?”

“I’ll tell you when you wake up. You need—”

“Bucky, where the hell are we?”

Bucky sighed. “Stark Tower.”

Steve gaped at him. “What?”

“Someone needs to make an antidote for whatever they gave you. No, don’t argue, you’re not going to walk this one off on your own.” He shuddered, but Steve was glaring at him, the old familiar weak but outraged expression. “We didn’t have a secure way to contact anyone in Wakanda, so . . . .” He shrugged.

“How did we get here?” Steve asked. “How did you even—”

“I called the phone you gave Stark. He came with a quinjet.”

“You—no. No, Bucky, we can’t be here. We have to leave.”

“Bullshit—”

“We can’t. What about you? Coming back to the States—are you insane? This is the worst place in the world for you to be. Tony’s signed the Accords. If anyone finds out you’re here, he’ll have to turn you in. Assuming the UN doesn’t come for us both first. And—Tony. Fuck. I’m sure he hates both of us and we’re putting him in a position where he has to help. He has to take care of me. That’s not—I’m not going to impose on him like that.” He pressed his lips together in a familiar stubborn expression and made a move as though he were trying to sit up.

Bucky leaned forward, put his metal hand on Steve’s chest, and gently, but fiercely, shoved him back down. It was far too easy. “So you’d rather die than be a burden?” he snapped. “Jesus, I thought you’d have grown out of that in the last eighty years!”

“Bu—”

“Is that it? Do you still think you’re worthless if you aren’t doing something every second? Or do you not trust me when I tell you that—”

“You worry about me too much,” Steve protested. “I’m not that little guy anymore. It’s not that bad.”

”Yes it is!” Bucky took a deep breath. “I don’t care how big you are, Steve. I know what it looks like when you’re probably not going to make it. I wish I didn’t, but I do.” His voice cracked. “Stark’s docs said I’m right. I wanted to be wrong. You have no idea how much.”

~

Outside the door, Tony took a long, quiet breath. This wasn’t a conversation he wanted to jump into. So much for saying hello.

He gritted his teeth. I’m not going to impose on him like that. Typical Cap, take away his—make it so he couldn’t complain about—had to defend his— force him to admit to being generous—

Nope. Griping wasn’t working, not even in his head. Tony wasn’t mad. The tightness in his chest was something else.

Damn it.

He had no doubt that either of the super-soldiers could have heard him if they were paying attention, but they clearly weren’t. He turned and slipped away down the hallway. He’d have to catch Cap later—and, ideally, alone.

~

“That bad, huh?” Steve said quietly.

Bucky nodded.

“Well.” Steve sighed and tipped his chin back to stare at the ceiling. “Shit.”

“I didn’t know what else to do,” Bucky said, looking at his hands. “But you’re—they said you’re mostly stable.” He swallowed. “For now.”

“As long as I stay here and don’t do anything,” Steve said bitterly.

“Yeah. That’ll stop you from getting worse. And they’ll try to figure out how to get you better, but—”

“Hey,” Steve said, reaching out. “Bucky. Thank you. I’m sorry. I just . . . I thought I was done with this. I’m so tired already. I thought I’d never have to do this again.”

“I know,” Bucky said, taking his hand. They’d had this conversation, what, a dozen times already since Steve got injected, but always about specific parts of being sick that he’d hated. That he could respond to hearing he was only barely alive with a resentful “this again” was—well. Both heartbreaking and endearingly Steve.

“Sorry I scared you,” Steve said, voice already fading.

“It’s okay,” Bucky whispered. “Just don’t die on me now, punk.”

Steve shot him a look. “As if . . . I . . . would.” He yawned hugely.

“They’re gonna try and keep you under,” Bucky told him. “Docs are pretty sure that’s better for you right now. You just keep wanting to wake up and wear yourself out.”

“Seventy years is enough sleep,” Steve grumbled, but he closed his eyes. After about a minute, his breathing evened out, slow and deep. Bucky was again overwhelmed with gratitude that that, at least, hadn’t changed.

“Bucky,” Steve murmured.

“Hm?”

“Thanks. For taking care of me. Again.”

“Always,” Bucky told him, and if he was crying, there was no one around to see.

~

He wasn’t sure how long it was after Steve dropped off again—maybe an hour, maybe more—when the ceiling spoke to him and he nearly had a heart attack. The doctors had been in and out several times, confirming that Steve was actually sleeping, not unconscious, and checking that he wasn’t having another allergic reaction to whatever they’d replaced the surgical tape with. He wasn’t. Bucky was glad Steve was at least getting some damn water, but the further proof of something wrong made him nervous. Bucky had stayed out of the doctors’ way and otherwise sat staring a hole in the wall, falling into the steady, soft-focus state he’d perfected in the War.

It had taken him a long time to start doing that again. It felt too mindless at first, too empty, not a comfortable state for a man afraid of his own mind. Gradually, he had rediscovered the difference between reverie and blank, and between blank and waiting. And now he sat, as he had for much of the past week, thinking absently that perhaps this was where he’d first learned the trick after all: not in a sniper’s nest, but at a bedside.

And then the ceiling asked him if he would like to come up to the penthouse.

Bucky shot to his feet, instinctively reaching for a knife he wasn’t carrying, before the meaning sank in. “What?” he said stupidly, heart pounding.

“Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts want to know if you’d like to come up to the penthouse to talk,” the woman’s voice repeated. “Sorry for startling you,” it added.

“Uh,” Bucky said. “Who—what are you?” It sounded like a Scottish woman, but there was no one to be seen, and no obvious speakers anywhere. Steve hadn’t mentioned anyone invisible, even when he’d explained about the Norse god.

“I am FRIDAY, Mr. Stark’s artificial assistant,” the voice said. “I run communications and defenses inside the Tower among . . . other things.”

“You’re a robot?” Bucky asked, mostly for something to say, as his breathing and heart rate slowed back to normal.

“Robot implies a movable body. I am a program. I’m unobtrusively integrated into the building’s infrastructure.”

Not someone who’d managed to sneak up on him, then; just very well-concealed speakers—and an amazing part of the future. “Wow,” Bucky said. “And, uh, Stark and Potts want me to come up and talk with them?” His stomach clenched again. He’d rather not have to face Stark again. On the other hand, he could just imagine his mother’s disapproving face. I raised my son to be a better guest than that, James Buchanan!

“Yes,” FRIDAY said. It—she?—paused, then added, “Ms. Potts wanted to invite you up for dinner, but Mr. Stark thought that might be awkward.”

Bucky snorted. That’s an understatement.

“Ms. Potts adds that if you don’t want to leave Captain Rogers, you shouldn’t feel obligated.”

Bucky bit his lip, simultaneously grateful for the out and paradoxically feeling more obligated to meet this woman properly.

His mother’s teaching won out. “Tell them I’ll be up right away,” he said. “But, um, not for supper.” Neither he nor Stark would really enjoy that. Besides, he didn’t feel hungry—hadn’t since Steve started having hallucinations.

“Done,” FRIDAY said. “By the way, you can request anything you’d like to eat and it will be delivered.”

“Oh.” Bucky blinked. “Thank you.” Then another of his mother’s admonishments occurred to him. “Um, actually, Friday, is there anywhere I can clean up a bit?”

“Certainly, Mr. Barnes,” FRIDAY said. “There is a restroom just down the hall equipped with washcloths, especially hand towels, soap, toothpaste, and all that, or I can direct you to a proper shower if you want.”

“No,” Bucky said, rummaging through his backpack, “That’s fine, thanks. —If it’s alright to ask, why does this place have all that?” This didn’t seem normal even for the 21st century, in his experience.

FRIDAY sounded amused, if that was possible, when she replied, “The boss is of the opinion that ‘hospitals suck, and if we have a medical floor it should be as un-sucky as possible.’ I believe the development team decided that that meant it should feel more like a hotel—complete with resources for friends and family or patients who aren’t feeling all that bad, or,” and now the voice was definitely wry, “for the boss when he says he doesn’t feel that bad.”

“Huh.” Bucky pulled out a comb and a fresh t-shirt. “Can’t say I disagree.”

“Bucky?” Steve whispered from the bed.

Bucky spun around. “Hey, Steve,” he replied quietly. “You should go back to sleep, bud.”

Steve made a small noise of assent. “Yeah, I will. If you’re going to meet Tony and Pepper, bring ‘em the card. D’you have it?”

Bucky looked around. He hadn’t been paying much attention at the time, but after the docs had brought Steve in off the plane, someone had brought his backpack down too. It’d be somewhere in the room, probably in the large closet. Normally he’d notice something like that, but in this case his attention had been very thoroughly elsewhere. “Yeah, I can get it.”

“Thanks.”

Bucky hmmed in agreement and slipped out of the room so Steve would sleep.

He’d been a bit concerned that someone would question him or try to stop him from moving around. There were plenty of people around, and a bustle of activity in a room just down the hall—probably where Steve’s doctors were, rather than researchers, because he didn’t hear Banner’s voice amid the babble. But no one seemed to notice or be alarmed by him, and he found the bathroom without any trouble.

It took Bucky about five minutes to get himself presentable. He ran the comb through his hair one last time and sighed at his image in the mirror. Dark hair, neat enough, longer than would have been considered respectable growing up but apparently fine for this century; a day’s worth of stubble, nothing disgraceful; clean blue t-shirt; worn but unstained jeans; tired blue eyes. He tried and failed to put it together into a cohesive whole. Once, he knew, he’d been better at this—looking good, making a good impression, meeting people. Good impressions were kind of a lost cause when the people you were meeting knew you’d been a killer for seventy years, but he didn’t want to be any worse than he had to be. They deserved that.

He tucked the comb back into his pocket and turned his back on the mirror.

~

When he got back to Steve’s room, Steve was, to all appearances, deeply asleep. Bucky allowed himself to relax slightly. That was what was important, after all. He stuffed his hoodie and dirty shirt back into his backpack, then set about looking for Steve’s.

It was tucked into the closet, as he’d thought, and the engagement card wasn’t difficult to find either. It was in the main compartment, tucked flat and secure between a sketchbook and some kind of e-reader. He smiled as he fished it out. Steve had always done that in school, too, kept his assignments neat by protecting them inside or between books. Bucky’s had always been wrinkled from being carried outside in the wind or shoved aside on the kitchen table.

The red envelope was a bit faded and battered at the corners, but otherwise undamaged. He fumbled with it for a moment. If he carried it, he’d have to hand it over and explain right away, but if he put it in a pocket, it might get wrinkled. It had survived traveling halfway around the world and several firefights; he wasn’t going to ruin it on six flights of stairs. Steve clearly wanted it to be pristine. “Oh, hell,” he muttered finally, and carried it gingerly in his right hand.

He stopped at the door, suddenly unwilling, almost afraid, to leave Steve’s side. Not afraid for Steve, not really; he trusted Stark’s doctors. But the idea of leaving, of facing Stark again, made his blood run cold and his face heat. He didn’t want to be here. No, he wanted it more than anything in the world, but he didn’t want to be here through Stark’s hospitality. Steve was right, it was an imposition—an imposition Bucky was desperately,

humiliatingly grateful to be able to make. But he wasn’t shameless about it. Steve needed and deserved to be here. Bucky . . . Bucky got to be here because Stark didn’t want to kill him and decided to bring him along.

And that meant he had to man up and handle the social pleasantries that Steve would want him to observe. Go make nice with the man he had orphaned and his CEO fiancee, who apparently had learned manners from Bucky’s own mother, in the penthouse of a Manhattan tower in the future. He squared his shoulders and stepped through the doorway into the hall.

“Alright, Friday,” he said, past the tightness in his chest. “Will you tell them I’m on my way?”

“Already done,” FRIDAY said. “The elevator is along the hallway to your right. I’ll give it the necessary permissions to get you to the penthouse.”

Bucky followed the hallway through a few twists and turns until he reached the elevator. He stepped inside and closed his eyes hard. It wasn’t grief that was threatening to make him tear up. It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t even regret. It felt like the tension before a fight or a parachute jump, the monstrous cousin of the way he’d felt as a child the day before school started. The pressure only seemed to find its way out through tears, and always, always when they were not an option. Not now, he thought furiously, and drew in a deep breath as the elevator doors slid open.

Walking into battle would have been easier.

~

The doors opened on a futuristically elegant room, all clean modern lines and sleek furniture, all of it simultaneously alien yet obviously expensive. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on a glowing skyline, the geometric shapes and strange highlights reflected in the decor. Before the war, anyone with this much money would throw the poor Irish kid out without thinking twice—let alone the blood-soaked menace he’d become. It might as well have been designed to make Bucky feel scruffy, stupid, and out of place—especially in comparison to the two people already present.

Stark had, at some point, changed out of the jeans and t-shirt he’d been wearing and into—well, whatever jeans and a t-shirt would be if they were supposed to mingle effortlessly with tuxedos. He slouched on an overstuffed high-backed chair, rooting through a small bowl that was filled with some kind of nut mix. Beside him, the tall, elegant woman from earlier rose gracefully to her feet. She looked, if anything, more poised and at ease than before. “Hey,” Stark said carelessly. “You made it.”

The woman walked toward Bucky. She might have kicked Stark in the ankle as she passed; if she did, it was very subtly done. “Sergeant Barnes! Welcome to the tower. We didn’t get to meet properly earlier,” she added, extending a hand. “Pepper Potts.”

Bucky must have been more tired than he realized. Before he could stop himself, he shot a dirty look at Stark. “You were giving me crap about my name?”

He heard the words as they came out—exasperated, amused, and challenging—and felt the blood drain from his face. Potts spoke before he could stammer out an apology, rolling her eyes in Stark’s general direction. “Tony, for heaven’s sake.” She smiled at Bucky. “Don’t listen to him. He just doesn’t like nicknames he didn’t come up with.”

“That’s not true,” Stark protested from behind her. “I didn’t make up yours. Or Happy’s. I just think ‘Bucky’ sounds stupid, that’s all.”

“If you don’t like nicknames, you don’t have to use them, Anthony,” she said sweetly. Stark rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Potts,” Bucky said, trying to get some of his dignity back. He hesitated, then nodded toward the back of the room. “Stark.”

“Yeah, yeah, you know who I am,” Stark said, addressing the pale-blue couch in front of him. “Are we done with the introduction game, or are we going to all share our favorite colors?”

“Tony—”

“It’s fine,” Bucky said, raising his hands placatingly. “I’m intruding. Besides, it’s not like you don’t know who I am.” The motion reminded him of what he was carrying, and he seized on the topic with relief. “Steve’s told me a lot about both of you, too. He woke up a bit earlier and asked me to deliver this.” He held out the red envelope.

Stark hopped over a low piece of furniture that looked like a cross between a table and some kind of footstool. “What’cha got?”

“Hold on,” Potts said, gesturing Bucky toward a chair as Stark plucked the envelope from his hand. “Would you like to sit down?”

“No, thank you,” Bucky said, barely remembering to bite off a “ma’am”—Steve’d said people didn’t use that anymore, or only for old ladies. “I shouldn’t stick around too long—I’d like to get back to Steve. I just wanted to thank both of you for having me here.” There. That came out right, even if he barely heard it over the sound of his own heartbeat.

“Well, I wasn’t going to leave you moping around some forest in Cambodia,” Stark said, looking up fast from the envelope. He must have recognized Steve’s writing.

“You’re both welcome here as long as you need to be,” Potts added. Then, her expression changing, she asked, “How is he? I mean, we’ve been getting updates, but—”

“You can probably tell better than anyone else if he’s still mostly dead or not,” Stark finished bluntly.

Bucky huffed a laugh, oddly touched. “He woke up,” he said again, feeling a touch of the relief that had swamped him when Steve’s eyes had opened. “Twice—just for a minute the second time, though. Could hold a conversation both times. I think he looks a little bit better, probably ’cause they started to get some fluids into him.”

“Good,” Stark said, and he sounded like he meant it, even if he was talking to the furniture again.

Potts nodded, eyes suspiciously bright. “Earlier—that was—” she swallowed. “It hurt to see him like that.”

“Yeah,” Bucky whispered, his throat threatening to close up again.

Stark waved a hand at him. “You don’t have to stay here and do this song and dance,” he said, meeting Bucky’s eyes for the first time all evening. “Go back and sit with him if you want.” It was a bit brittle, a bit prickly, but Bucky thought there was more to it than a cover for “get out of here,” and had to swallow hard.

“Thanks,” he said. He nodded at the envelope in Stark’s hands. “That’s for both of you. It’s—we didn’t get news much, the way we were travelling, so we didn’t find out until a few months ago, and then Steve wanted to find a mail system he could be sure would get it through, but—” Rambling. He took a careful breath. “It’s a very belated engagement card. From him, mostly, ’cause—well. But now I’ve met you both—congratulations.”

“Oh, Steve,” Potts murmured, looking at the card.

“Of course he did,” Stark sighed. Bucky fought a bizarre urge to laugh.

“That’s Steve,” he said instead. “I’ll let him know it got to you the next time he wakes up.” He took a step back toward the elevator. “Thank you again. Good night, Stark—Ms. Potts.”

“Call me Pepper,” she said, holding out a hand to stop him. His hesitation must have shown on his face, because she added, “It’s not just to tease Tony. You’re a guest here. I’d rather not stand on formality.”

Stark coughed loudly behind her. Her expression flickered, exasperation warring with sympathy for a second before the calm expression returned.

“If you insist,” Bucky said reluctantly. “It’s just . . .” Personally, Bucky would rather have stood on formality. He knew what he was doing with formality. In a room like this, in a world like this, with this kind of blood on his hands, formality was about the only steady ground he could find. Besides, something about this composed, capable woman demanded it. She didn’t radiate authority like General Okoye or Agent Carter, but Pepper was the kind of woman whose very presence demanded some kind of title, some kind of respect.

That was probably his mother’s influence again.

“. . . I wasn’t brought up to be on first-name terms with CEOs,” he finished, dredging up what he hoped was a rueful smile. It wasn’t the whole truth, but it went pretty far, in its own way.

“None of us were brought up for any of this,” Potts said, serious. “I don’t want to ask anything that’d make you uncomfortable, but—please at least consider it.”

“I’ll try,” Bucky said.

“Let him go, Pepper,” Stark interjected. “We’ve got a letter to read. —What? He doesn’t want to be here, look at him. And it’s been a long day for everyone.” He raised his eyebrows at Bucky. “Go chill. I had FRIDAY open up Cap’s floor as soon as you called. You can crash there if you want.”

Bucky nodded, the sentence taking a while to make sense. He knew the tower had been the Avengers’ headquarters for a while, but then they had moved . . . . He’d figure it out later.

“And Barnes?” Stark added, oddly forceful. “Tell Cap he’s not a problem.”

“I will,” Bucky said, nodded at both of them, and escaped into the elevator. It reached the medical floor in only a few seconds, and it was less than a minute in total before Bucky crossed the threshold of Steve’s room again. His breath seemed to come easier there. He sat back down in the chair, watching Steve, and waited for his hands to stop trembling.

~

“Are you going to open that?” Pepper asked, a few breaths after the elevator door had closed and Tony had collapsed back onto the couch.

Tony glowered at the envelope in his hand. “No,” he said abruptly, lifting it toward her, pinched between his index and middle fingers. “You do it.”

Thankfully, Pepper didn’t say anything. She simply took the envelope, flipped it over, and slid her finger under the flap. It opened easily. Pepper pulled the card out as Tony squinted at the upholstery on the couch. Fabric patterns were strange. This fabric wasn’t actually all teal—there was a white thread running through every now and then, and it didn’t look like a manufacturing defect, it just happened. Maybe it made the couch look a different color from further away. Or maybe it was supposed to look like the ocean. He could do that with the armor—tiny tiny tiny streaks of black to delineate the red from the gold. He had seen some pictures where it looked orange from a distance. Gross. This would make it look better.

It was a bit like the subtle gold veining on Barnes’ arm. That would look awful on the suit too, of course, but how did it work? Presumably there was some purpose there besides looking cool, although whoever had designed this arm clearly had much better taste than whatever Hydra asshat had made the last one. The plates on the old arm visibly shifted—maybe that’s what this was? Only, if that were the case, the joins were a lot smoother and more sophisticated now. How was the—

“Tony,” Pepper said, her voice odd. “I think you should read this.”

“Uh?”

Pepper’s arm descended through his field of vision, setting the card on the coffee table, upright, atop the red envelope. It was thick white cardstock, very simple, with “Congratulations” embossed on it in swirly gold letters. “Read it,” Pepper repeated. “I’ll be in the kitchen.”

That meant she was going to open a bottle of wine. That was probably a good idea.

“’Kay,” he called after her absently. He looked at the card, told his churning guts to calm down, and picked it up.

The inside had another golden swirl of writing: “All the best to both of you.” Below that, in black pen, was a block of neat cursive.

Tony and Pepper—

I just heard the news. Congratulations. I’m happy for you both and I know you’ll be very happy together. I’ve been hoping this would happen for a long time, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Anyone can see how you both brighten up when you’re together and how happy you make each other. You’re remarkable people, and you bring out the best in each other.


I know neither of you may want to hear from me after everything that happened, and if this card makes either of you less happy rather than more, I apologize. I sincerely hope you have a beautiful wedding and a wonderful marriage.


Best wishes,


Steve

Tony stared at it for a while, then read it again. He tapped the paper, gently, over the words “remarkable people.” Then he put the card carefully back on the coffee table and went to go join Pepper.

~

Bucky jolted awake when his head fell back against the wall, the low-backed chair providing no protection. He needed to keep an eye on Steve, or at least pay attention to his breathing. If he fell asleep and Steve started coughing—no, that wasn’t right anymore, this was big Steve, and just about the one thing that hadn’t gone wrong with him was breathing. Yet.

Steve was breathing slow and even, lying on the hospital bed, fine. Fine and sleeping and too far away. Bucky dragged the chair closer and took Steve’s hand in both of his. Warm. Still warm. Still breathing . . . .

He jerked awake again when his head fell forward, and checked frantically to make certain nothing else had changed. Steve was right there, still sleeping peacefully. His hand had slipped out of Bucky’s grasp. It lay there on the covers, by his stomach, which gently rose and fell in a blessedly normal rhythm.

Blearily, Bucky leaned forward to take Steve’s hand again, leaning against the bed as he did. It was soft, and Steve was so close, now, he could feel the warmth from his skin. Feverish, still, but not nearly as bad as it had been. . . .

Bucky tucked his feet up onto the chair and braced his elbows on the edge of the bed, holding Steve’s hand.

This time, when he fell asleep, he nearly headbutted Steve in the stomach. Sighing, he lay down so his torso was on the bed, legs tucked under him on the seat of the chair. He curled so he was lying on his side, facing the top of the bed, Steve’s hand still clasped between his own. His head was up against Steve’s belly—he could feel Steve breathing, could even hear his heartbeat. This was better. He could keep an eye . . . .

Bucky awoke a fourth time to find Bruce Banner standing in the doorway, looking at Steve. “He’s sleeping,” Bucky croaked, trying to sit up and nearly tipping the chair over. “He’s alright. Did you—”

Bruce shook his head. “Nothing yet, but that’s to be expected. It’ll be a few days at least before we have anything to go on. I’m just—checking.” He smiled ruefully. “Just woke up from a nap myself.”

Bucky nodded and tried to rearrange himself so he was sitting in the chair. It felt like he had a couple extra limbs getting in the way, and none of them were properly calibrated . . . . Wake up, Barnes.

The scientist gave him a surprisingly gentle look. “He’s not going to disappear if you leave, you know.”

“I know,” Bucky said, a little embarrassed. He knew, but some deep part of him didn’t believe it; didn’t believe that, unless Bucky was there to witness it, Steve would keep breathing through the night.

“We’ve got all sorts of alerts set up,” Bruce said. “If anything changes with him, the Tower’s medical staff will know. I’m pretty sure FRIDAY’s set up to notify you, too.” Bucky’s shoulders relaxed slightly. Bruce stepped fully into the room and took a good look at him. “I know Tony opened up Steve’s floor for you. You should go sleep. Really sleep, I mean, in a bed. He’ll be fine, I promise.”

Bucky opened his mouth to protest, but the words wouldn’t come. He was tired, weary in a way he hadn’t been since he woke up in Wakanda, and he trusted Bruce. “Yeah,” he said after a moment. “Yeah, alright.”

~

FRIDAY’s directions were easy to follow. He took the elevator back up, almost as high as the penthouse. When the doors slid open this time, though, it was on a dark, shallow room: some kind of vestibule. The only light came from a glowing hologram floating in the air, a stylized representation of Steve’s shield. Beyond a high doorway lay more darkness and a sensation of empty space.

Bucky swallowed, looking away from the shield. “FRIDAY,” he asked, “how long since this floor was used?”

“Captain Rogers hasn’t been here since the Avengers headquarters moved to the facility upstate,” the Scottish voice replied promptly. “It’s undergone routine maintenance since then, of course, but has remained unoccupied, like the rest of the Avengers’ quarters—though some of the others occasionally stayed here when they happened to be in New York. The floors were slated to be cleared with the sale of Stark Tower last fall, but Mr. Stark cancelled the deal before that stage of the moving operation. It was unlocked and aired out today on Mr. Stark’s instructions.”

Which meant Stark hadn’t changed anything, hadn’t had anything to do with this floor, since he and Steve had been on good terms. The glowing shield in the air was proof of that, still serving as a label even though Steve had given it up, even though Stark had taken it back. He wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not.

“Alright,” he said heavily. “Can you put on some lights?”

The entry area remained dark, but overhead lights slowly faded on in the larger room. Bucky walked in.

The floor was—strange. It was huge, with high ceilings and large windows, the kind of space he knew Steve had idly dreamed of before. The floor was covered in off-white carpet, except for the kitchen, where it gave way to polished hardwood. Parts of the place could have been pulled from Steve’s old sketches: a large living room; a dining room table in some kind of dark wood with matching wood and leather chairs; a plainer, sturdy, utilitarian table on the other side of the kitchen. But the details were wrong. Steve had always been organized—they’d both been, had to be, in the tiny apartments they’d shared—but he’d had strong opinions about what should go where in a kitchen, and the saucepans in the gleaming, spacious kitchen were stored on the wrong side of the stove. The furniture was too formal, too crisp. The kitchen table wasn’t positioned where it would be in the light for most of the day, and Steve had always done that to the best of his ability even in their cramped little apartments before the war, so it could serve as a drafting table. There was no art on the walls—none of Steve’s, none that he might have bought somewhere, not even any boring generic prints that Stark’s employees might have put up to fill the space. He must have taken it all with him when he moved upstate, Bucky thought—but there were no faded places on the walls or nail holes, not that he could see, that would have been left behind.

It felt empty. Steve had always made a mark on a place, had insisted on making it comfortable. For a place Steve had lived in, even if it was off and on, for over a year, this floor bore no touch of his personality. Even the large plate of sandwiches FRIDAY appeared to have ordered, sitting on the counter, was oddly impersonal. Bucky made himself eat a few of them, standing at the counter, chewing and swallowing automatically. He felt a bit less shaky afterward, but it did nothing for the feeling that nothing here was quite real—or that maybe it was, but he wasn’t, a ghost drifting through someone else’s world.

Nothing felt right. None of this was what he’d expected. Everything was strange and off-kilter. He was in Steve’s home, but Steve wasn’t there and it didn’t feel like Steve; he’d given himself up to Stark and was still alive; he was in the future and there were no goddamn flying cars.

Bucky shook his head and put the remaining sandwiches in the refrigerator, then looked at the hallway that led, FRIDAY told him, to the rest of the floor: several bedrooms, bathrooms, and a small gym. He would think about this more in the morning. “FRIDAY, cut the lights.”

The abrupt darkness drew his attention to the windows. He glanced out and felt the gnawing strangeness pull at his heart again. Sharp, clean lines of white and yellow windows outlined skyscrapers against the deep blue of night. It was the skyline of New York, but it wasn’t: familiar enough to for his eye to expect certain shapes, then jarring like a missed step when those shapes weren’t there. It was a sight that promised comfort, then pulled it away.

This wasn’t home.

It wasn’t home, but it was close enough to remind him of everything that was missing. Bucky turned away from the window and pulled the curtain shut. It was suddenly hard to breathe.

“Pull it together,” he said out loud. You’re alive. Steve’s alive. This is better than you expected, better than you have any right to expect. So quit moping. But the room was dark and empty and spoke to something dark and empty inside him, and he couldn’t stop.

It didn’t smell right, Bucky thought suddenly. This place felt like a hotel: carefully neutral, unmussed, un-lived in, with no scent of food or soap or pencil shavings or paint or fresh air or the oily, exhaust-heavy Manhattan equivalent. It was nowhere; it belonged to no one. But it was supposed to be Steve’s. And on top of that, it was part of Stark’s building—

He walked through the dark, quiet space and found the hallway. The first room on the left was a bathroom. The second was a bedroom, a large one, and here at last was some trace of occupation. The bed in it was covered with a quilt, a real one, something with an abstract pattern that looked handmade. There was a photograph on the dresser by the bed and—finally—something in a frame on the opposite wall. Bucky couldn’t see what it was in the dim light, but he didn’t care. This must be Steve’s room.

Bucky bit his lip, backpack swinging from his hand. What he ought to do was go back out in the hallway and find an empty guest room. Somehow, though, leaving this room was the last thing he wanted to do. It felt like the first few months of figuring himself out after Hydra, when he would abruptly realize he’d been tense, or frightened, or angry, only by the sudden absence of that feeling. Bucky turned to step back out the door, but in so doing caught a whiff of—something. There was some smell in this room that wasn’t carefully neutral, and somehow it reminded him of Steve. He took a deep, shuddering breath.

Forget it, he thought, and let the backpack slip from his fingers to lean against the wall. He kicked his boots off and collapsed onto the bed, rolling into the center, and waited for sleep.

Chapter Text

“Thanks for the card.”

Steve looked up sharply, startled. Tony wondered if he’d made a mistake coming down here already—he was awfully pale—but the doctors’ reports had been pretty good all morning, and the hospital bed was tilted up so he was basically sitting. He’d been awake for a little while earlier, but Barnes had been there. FRIDAY’d tipped him off when that changed. Apparently the doctors had thrown him out to get more sleep or something.

“Oh,” Steve said. “You’re welcome.”

“So,” Tony said, leaning back against the doorjamb, hands stuck in his pockets. It was strange looking down at Steve. He was used to having the other man loom over him.

The anxious, embarrassed look on Steve’s face was even stranger. He actually licked his lips. “Um, Tony—”

“You didn’t need to do all this just to get me to trust you,” Tony drawled. “I would have believed you had a dark side.”

It took a moment, but Tony saw when the pieces clicked. Steve’s eyebrows raised and bunched together. He’d have sworn only dogs were able to do that. Wasn’t there some muscle in the forehead they had that humans didn’t, or that humans couldn’t consciously control? Maybe the serum changed that too. He made a mental note to ask Bruce.

“Would you?” Steve asked mildly.

His voice was casual, infuriatingly so, but those bizarrely massive shoulders were still tense. And he looked sick, Tony realized—propped up, talking, sure, lots better than when they’d pulled him out of the cabin, but actually? The guy still looked like hell. How he’d been the day before was just a really awful comparison.

“Well, you know,” Tony replied. “After you broke the first few international laws. You could have stopped then.”

“No,” Steve said quietly. “I couldn’t. That’s what makes it a dark side and not—” he waved a hand— “the usual stubborn self-righteousness crap I can get away with.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. Steve looked down.

“A certain person has told me—for, I guess, eighty years now—that the only reason anyone puts up with my crap is that it’s about making a point, and the only reason I keep getting away with it is that it works. This wasn’t about principles. I could make it look that way, but really, it’s not. Not completely.”

Huh. “At first I thought Barnes was your dark side. Like a metaphor.”

Steve snorted. “Bucky’s a better man than I’ll ever be. I’m a selfish asshole.”

“I don’t think that’s actually true, though,” Tony found himself saying.

“Until it is.” Steve was quiet for a while. “I thought I’d come to terms with never being able to go home. But then Bucky was there, and I had a chance to get the one part of that I would have asked for, if I could. And I—couldn’t give him up. Not wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Everyone’s got a line they won’t cross, where they don’t stop to think. I thought mine was some heroic notion, like standing up for the little guy. Turns out it’s—I won’t lose Bucky. Not again.”

He was, as always, stupidly earnest, and, as always, it affected Tony, and, as always, he hated it. “You wouldn’t have had to,” he bit out. “I told you, they offered a facility—”

“I couldn’t trust that, Tony,” Steve said wearily. “Not after Hydra, not with Wanda under house arrest. I’d take that risk for me, but not for him.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m not saying it makes sense. I’m not saying I’m right. But given a choice between patching up the way the world works and making damn sure no one uses Bucky ever again? Someone else can handle the world for a change.” His voice, while not raised, had grown heated. These weren’t the ringing tones of conviction Tony was used to hearing from Captain America. This was fierce and a little bitter.

“Even if I’m the best one to do it,” Steve added, and suddenly the anger was gone, replaced by exhaustion and grief. “Even if I’m the only one.”

“Alright,” Tony said, after a moment. “But just so I understand—”

Steve looked up at him questioningly. Something about the patience in his expression—the forced calm—made Tony think of Barnes in the clearning, awaiting his judgment. Well, fuck.

Tony’d already firmly shelved his first response (“As the one who handled the world—and it’s not ‘for a change,’ alright, that’s what I was trying to do in the first place before you screwed it up—”), but that look made him write off the next three or four replies that came to mind too. That level of impulse control was a big deal for him. Not that Steve would appreciate it. —He ignored that thought, too.

“Just so we’re clear,” he said finally. “Everything after not signing the Accords in Berlin was proof of a dark side, and everything before that was just you being a shit as per standard operating procedure.”

That got him the ghost of a smile. “Yep. —I know it wasn’t smart,” Steve added. “I wasn’t responsible when it counted.” He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “But you’ve got to understand this.” He opened his eyes again and met Tony’s. “I’m sorry for the pain I caused everyone. But I don’t regret a single thing I did.”

“Okay,” Tony said. “Got it.” And then, because he didn’t know quite how to respond to the whole I’m not saying don’t be mad at me, here’s exactly what you should be mad at me for thing, and because it had been digging at him for almost a year, and maybe because Steve was in his Tower, not quite apologizing to him, and he didn’t have to be all that comfortable, he asked, “What about not telling me about my parents? You regret that? Just as long as we’re, you know, clearing the air here.”

Steve sucked in a long breath. He looked miserable. Good, Tony thought; uncharitably, maybe, but he was justified.

“It’s— It sounds stupid if I try to explain it. What I was thinking, it sounds like a lie, but it’s not. I know you don’t have any reason to trust me at this point, but—”

“You tell me what you’re going to tell me, Cap, and then I’ll decide if I think you mean it or not. But if you’re going to lie about why you lied to me, you might as well not say anything, so.” He shrugged. “I’ll probably believe you.”

“That’s just it,” Steve said, his eyebrows doing the thing again. “I didn’t think it was lying. I told you, I didn’t know it was him.” He grimaced. “Zola—that’s how I found out, when Zola had me and Nat cornered down in that bunker in Fort Lehigh that was full of the . . . tapes.” Tony nodded. He remembered his incredulity when they’d told him about that after the Insight debacle—first, incredulity that anyone had figured out how to upload a human, even a distorted version of one, onto a computer at all, and further incredulity that someone had apparently managed it by storing the information on freaking magnetic tapes from the seventies.

“Zola told us that Hydra had grown as a parasite inside SHIELD and manipulated the world that way. He showed us footage, newspapers, supposedly evidence of what they’d done. President Kennedy’s assassination, something with the stock market, the car crash that killed your parents. I knew that, according to Zola, Hydra had your parents killed somehow.

“But Zola was stalling us, keeping us busy while he set off the missile strike, and he was trying to get to us. Me in particular, I think—he told me I’d died for nothing. I thought he might be lying. Telling me that Hydra had killed a friend of mine was the kind of thing he’d do. There wasn’t anything to corroborate it in any of the files we found—not about your parents, anyway. But if it was Bucky, I guess there wouldn’t have been. They kept all that off the books.” His voice shook. “That didn’t—well, no. It occurred to me that they could have used Bucky. I just didn’t want to think about it. They were friends.” He drew a ragged breath. “I didn’t want to think about it. That’s on me. But I didn’t want to go to you at all unless I had something more than a recording of an dead man’s word for it. A dead man who didn’t like me.”

“You don’t think I deserved to know, even if it was just speculation?” Tony demanded. “‘Oh hey, the evil Nazi-bot told me his evil organization killed your parents, you should maybe see if that’s true’?”

“Would you have believed me?” Steve asked in a small voice.

“What do you mean? I believed there was an evil Nazi-bot, believing what it’s saying isn’t that much more—”

“I don’t know exactly what happened with you and Howard,” Steve said carefully. “I know that you didn’t get along well—”

Tony rolled his eyes. “It’s not ‘not getting along’ when one person ignores the other one ninety-five percent of the time. There’s no along to get or not get when you’re never around.”

“—and I know you don’t like that I knew him,” Steve said. “Or that he was involved in the whole—” he gestured at himself. Project Rebirth, Erskine’s serum, the SSR, SHIELD. “Something like that.”

Tony blinked. “Uh.”

“And,” Steve said, “I know that you thought your parents died because he was drunk and crashed the car.” He was watching Tony carefully, like Tony was a bomb that might explode at any moment, like Tony watched his prototypes when he first deployed them. “I didn’t want you to think I was trying to exonerate Howard. I wasn’t sure you’d believe me. And if you had, would you have believed Zola any more than I did?”

“That kind of makes sense,” Tony admitted grudgingly. Natasha had said something similar, barring that unexpected angle about his relationship with his dad. That was something he hadn’t expected, and he was going to put off thinking about why he hadn’t until—something. Sometime. Later.

“Okay,” Tony said again. “That makes sense, I get it—” and I’m not going to think about why I get it— “and that much is alright, but—” He leaned forward. “Don’t you think that when you were going on and on to all of us about your long-lost best friend and could we help you find him, you should have mentioned the possibility?”

Steve was already nodding, shamefaced. “I know. I know. Tony, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah? When’d you figure that out?” Tony demanded. Maybe when I was trying to blow you up, that was a hint?

“Bucky told me,” Steve said instead, and Tony was taken aback again. That needed to stop happening. It was getting irritating. “He, uh, yelled at me about it.”

“He what?”

“I told you,” Steve said, and now he was smiling, a sad, complicated smile. “Bucky’s a better person than I am. He keeps me in line, too.”

You selfless perfectionist idiots deserve each other, Tony thought, exasperated.

“Well,” he said, for lack of anything wittier to say. “He should have let you find him earlier.”

“Wish he had,” Steve said.

The loaded silence was broken by one of the medical staff walking in. “Captain Rogers, I—” She saw Tony and did a double-take. “Mr. Stark! You’re not supposed to be here.” She turned and glared at Steve. “Captain Rogers is supposed to be resting, as he knows.”

“I rested for seventy years,” Steve protested. “Talking with Tony isn’t going to make me any worse. It’s only talking.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said icily. She turned to Tony. “I just threw the other one out. I don’t suppose he mentioned that to you?”

“No?”

The doctor sighed. “Captain, you might be a supersoldier, but you’re a terrible patient.”

Steve smiled innocently. “Never said I was good at following orders, ma’am.”

The doctor rolled her eyes and turned to Tony. “Mr. Stark—”

“I’m leaving,” he said. He didn’t know all of the Tower’s medical staff by name, but he remembered vetting them. He’d bet at least a couple hundred thousand she was either the ex-Marine or the one who’d worked as a bouncer before going to medical school in her mid-thirties. He didn’t want to tangle with either of them without the suit. “We’re about done here anyway.”

“Tony—”

“We’re good, right?”

“I think that’s your call to make.”

“We’re good. Leaving, Doc. Cap, feel better.” He waved and ducked out into the hallway. As he walked rapidly away, he heard the doctor start in on Steve, who sounded genuinely contrite. Of course he did.

~

Bucky stopped pacing and sat down on the overstuffed, over-starched couch and tried to pick up his book for about the fourth time. The doctors had told him—well, asked him politely but very pointedly—to get out of Steve’s room so Steve would fall back asleep. Bucky hadn’t wanted to go, but he felt more comfortable about it than he had the day before, and he wasn’t quite ready to pick an argument with anyone. If Steve had seemed upset or like he’d forgotten what year it was again, it would have been different. He wouldn’t leave Steve alone in a strange place—and he’d actually help, because no matter what year he thought it was, Steve knew Bucky would have his back, and he would listen. Bucky had tried to argue with him about that once in Wakanda, pointing out that he had, after all, tried to kill Steve at least three times and probably wasn’t the best person in which to have unconditional trust. Steve had calmly replied that he was still alive, which meant that that unconditional trust was, in fact, pretty well-founded, and Bucky had grumbled and cursed at him to cover his pride and relief.

Steve might look for the best in people, but he didn’t trust easily—not deeply, not like that. Bucky had always secretly treasured that and what it meant that Steve would be vulnerable for him. Recently, he’d appreciated it for its more pragmatic implications, which meant that he could convince Steve everything was fine when he wondered why they were in a cabin in the woods somewhere instead of a rundown apartment in Brooklyn.

But this time, Steve had just been trying to stay awake because he was bored—or possibly just stubborn—and Bucky was willing to do as the doctors asked and leave for a while so Steve couldn’t use him as an excuse to stay awake. He could use the opportunity to eat the rest of the sandwiches from the night before and cautiously explore the floor in daylight. It was perfectly reasonable. Eating while Steve got fed through a tube—it turned out even 21st-century medicine couldn’t help him keep anything down, but it could deliver nutrition more effectively—shouldn’t have felt like a betrayal. Minding that he could eat and Steve couldn’t shouldn’t have bothered him more than the fact that Steve was getting fed the way Hydra had sometimes fueled Bucky when they didn’t want to spend time thawing him and letting him eat. Steve was being his usual stubborn self and Bucky agreed that he should be sleeping instead, so really, there was no reason he couldn’t stop from pacing and re-reading the first three pages of The Fellowship of the Ring without taking anything in. No reason.

The book had been a reassuring find. Steve had left a few personal things here, including a small shelf of books that had been either not interesting enough to take with him when he left or so interesting he had multiple copies. Bucky recognized the author’s name, though he couldn’t place it. Steve had read something like this, he thought, before the war—when he hadn’t been reading The Three Musketeers or Ivanhoe for the hundredth time. Bucky had teased him about Don Quixote and idealism and fighting windmills.

None of those books were here. Bucky wasn’t sure what to make of that.

He made another circuit of the floor and reflected that he also wasn’t sure what to think of the south-facing room clearly set up to be a studio and just as clearly hardly ever used. The gym—“small” only by the standards of Stark Tower—looked like it had seen a lot more action, judging from the almost imperceptible punching-bag-shaped indents in the walls.

“FRIDAY?” he asked. “Is Steve asleep again yet?”

“Afraid not,” replied the ceiling.

Bucky stalked back out to the living room and sat down on the couch again. When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday . . . .

~

FRIDAY let Bucky know when Steve was finally asleep again and he was allowed back on the medical floor. He spent most of the day there. Steve woke up again once, though only briefly, and seemed more drained than he had been in the morning. One of the doctors told Bucky, with a familiar air of resigned exasperation, that Stark had stopped by for almost half an hour sometime around noon. “We’d just asked you to leave,” the doctor, a muscular woman who didn’t look like she suffered fools gladly, said. “He knew he was supposed to try to rest. But did he tell Mr. Stark that?”

“Of course not,” Bucky said dryly, feeling better than he had in weeks. Steve being a shit was a good sign. “That would be good for him. You’ve got to be comfortable bossing Captain America around. He’s not gonna do what you tell him. Trust me on this.”

“Oh, I’m comfortable with patients who don’t do what they’re told,” she said. “I just expected better of him. Now I know.”

“You’ve got your work cut out for you,” Bucky said, not unsympathetically. “His own mother couldn’t keep him down for long.”

Privately, he thought Steve might follow his doctors’ orders at least a little more now that that conversation was out of the way. Steve generally was willing to rest when he felt really awful. But, of course, he’d sacrifice his comfort for what he felt was the right thing to do—and if Stark had shown up, naturally Steve would have thrown all of his energy into a heart-to-heart conversation. He was a little worried about the ultimate outcome of that conversation, but Steve hadn’t brought it up when he’d woken, and the doctors all seemed unruffled, so at least there was no imminent disaster.

~

While Steve was resentful of his own sleep, Bucky started to get drowsy sometime around sunset. He left Steve’s hospital room briefly to shower in the strangely luxurious bathroom on Steve’s floor, then went back down to the medical floor to check on him one more time and say goodnight if he’d since woken up. He had, but the way his face lit up when Bucky walked into the room made Bucky change his mind about leaving. He sat right back down in the chair he’d claimed the day before in the sweatpants and t-shirt he was using as pajamas. He and Steve talked for a little while, and he fought the urge to pry about Steve’s conversation with Stark. Eventually, the conversation tapered off and they just sat there as the dusk deepened and turned into true night.

“You still awake?” Bucky asked softly.

“Mostly,” Steve mumbled. “Comfy, though. Shouldn’t keep you here, Buck. You c’n go.”

He was right. Steve’s floor was there waiting for him, after all. Why pass up another night’s rest in a huge, comfortable bed, a heated floor? Why sit up half the night in a chair just to be close to his half-conscious best friend?

Yeah, why choose watching the moon come up with the man he was secretly in love with, why look at his smile or listen to him breathing, when he could be rattling around in a large, dark, empty space that didn’t feel like anyone’s home?

Who was he kidding?

“Eh,” he said lightly. “I’ll stay up. Can I get you anything?”

Steve took so long to answer Bucky thought he might have dropped off after all, but then he said, in a voice that was more vulnerable than any Bucky had heard in a while, “Could you come closer? Can’t see you in that corner.”

Bucky’s heart seized up and melted all at once. “Sure, pal,” he said. He started to drag the chair over, then stopped and shook his head. “Hold on. I got a better idea.”

He circled to the far side of the bed, the side closer to the doorway. Steve was stable enough; he didn’t have to worry about getting in anyone’s way. He pulled the covers down, careful not to let cold air in to Steve. “Budge over.”

Steve made a noise that could have been an incredulous laugh, had he been stronger, or more awake. “Bucky!”

That was familiar. There had been a time, once, when Bucky was the one who did ridiculous things, when Steve was the comparative voice of reason to Bucky’s clowning around.

Bucky grinned. “We’ve done this before, in a smaller bed.”

“We were smaller.”

“You mean you were smaller, punk. Scoot.”

Steve scooted, and the glimpse Bucky got of his smile was enough to warm his heart all over again. He nestled down on his half of the hospital bed. Stark made ‘em big, probably—he didn’t figure two guys their size could cram into a regular hospital bed anywhere near so comfortably. There was room for a little space between the two of them, a space Bucky carefully respected as he curled up on his side, facing Steve.

Steve stretched a little, his breathing evening out. When he relaxed, his left hand remained extended, nearly touching Bucky’s chest. Bucky wiggled a little, repositioning, and settled down with his right arm under the pillow and the metal fingers of his left hand tucked against his side, just out of Steve’s reach. The vibranium was much better insulated than his old arm, but it still got cold. No sense startling Steve awake unless he meant to.

The diffuse light of the city came in through the floor-to-ceiling window, sparking yellow-orange highlights in the purple dusk. Much-reflected streetlights caught and shone in Steve’s hair. It was familiar, amazingly familiar. Steve was bigger, sure, but the light caught just the same, his face was just as slack in sleep as ever, and his quiet, regular breathing was just as it had been on a good night before. Stevie, Bucky thought, contented, and drifted off to sleep.

~

“Um. Okay. So that’s a thing.”

Stark’s voice pulled Bucky out of a deep, contented slumber. He opened his eyes. The room was bathed in golden light. Steve was fast asleep beside him, still on his back but face turned toward Bucky, tousled hair shining in the early morning sun. They’d shifted closer in their sleep; Steve’s hand was under Bucky’s pillow, just beneath his cheek, and one of his legs was trapped under both of Steve’s. Carefully disentangling them, Bucky rolled over. Stark stood in the doorway, silhouetted against the light streaming in through the windows. Bucky squinted, but couldn’t make out his expression. His tone, though, was definitely nonplussed.

“Gotta say, I did not expect cuddling.”

Bucky shrugged, refusing to be nettled. “Neither of us could sleep.”

Even in silhouette, he could tell Stark was rolling his eyes. “I’m not sure I believe being in the same bed as someone you’ve got the hots for would help you sleep.”

“Keep it down,” Bucky hissed, cheeks heating.

Stark shrugged, gesturing toward one of the monitors. “He’s still out.”

Steve was still breathing deep and slow beside him, clearly asleep. Bucky shifted again, in order to not disturb him, and slid out of the bed.

“I assume there’s something you want,” he said, still quiet and a little wary.

“Not really, actually,” Stark replied. “I was working, and then Pepper said she was awake so I need to eat something, and this was on my way.” Bucky relaxed slightly. If he’d intended to check on Steve, that was good; it was just bad luck for both of them that he’d run into Bucky too.

Meanwhile, Stark hesitated, rocking back on his heels, then offered, “Breakfast?”

“Coffee?” Bucky asked hopefully, old habits coming to the fore. Stark actually looked like he was going to laugh, then caught himself.

“I like your priorities, Barnes,” he said instead. “Follow me.”

Bucky paused and glanced down. He was still in sweatpants and bare feet. “Uh—”

“Oh my god do not worry about it, we are not a formal institution, Pepper would have to fire me if that was a thing, and that’d be awkward because I invent 78% of our products and the company’s got my name on it,” Stark said impatiently.

Bucky wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be funny or not, so he ducked his head to hide his smile as he hunted for the funny slip-on shoes someone—presumably FRIDAY—had made appear on Steve’s floor the day before. Stark had a point. Now that he wasn’t obscured by the glare of the rising sun, Bucky could see that he was wearing beat-up jeans and a ragged tank top, all of it covered with random streaks of grease and what looked like a few burn marks.

“C’mon, hurry up, coffee,” Stark said.

Bucky jammed his feet in the shoes and cast one look back at Steve. “Alright, I’m coming.”

~

They walked together down the silent hallway. Looking out the window, Bucky guessed it was about seven o’clock; the sun was up, but hadn’t been for more than an hour, and the vehicles moving on the streets below were more busses and delivery trucks than taxis. It was . . . nice.

“So,” Stark said casually, breaking the silence. “Cuddling up in bed with the guy you’ve got a crush on. You do that a lot?”

“It’s not—” Bucky broke off. It was like that, and Stark knew it. But it wasn’t, well, sleazy—he hoped. “Sometimes,” he said finally. “It goes back a long way. He doesn’t— I don’t—” He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t want to take advantage. But we both really do sleep better, sometimes, if we know where the other one’s at.”

He wouldn’t say anything about Steve’s nightmares, about how they’d figured this out in the past few months. He wouldn’t say anything about how it was usually just sharing a room, either.

“Huh,” Stark said, thoughtful. “That’s—I don’t know if I feel really sorry for you or admire your self-control.”

His face heated again. “I’m good at not letting Steve know. I’ve had a lot of practice.”

“I’m sorry, you did this in the dark ages?”

“That’s how it started, yeah, when we lived together. He’d always get sick in winter, and it was so damn cold.” Bucky tried to talk levelly, fighting the urge to squirm with embarrassment. “One time he was so bad, I wasn’t sure if he’d—I wanted to be right there to make sure he was still breathing.” He remembered that, the cold made worse by the dread that he’d wake up and check on Steve and find . . . . Not if I can help it. Not if there’s a damn thing I can do, if I can notice.

“I sat up all night on his bed—gave him my covers and then just sat against the wall. I did it again the next few nights. He got better enough to notice me there about three days in, and told me if I was going to be that much of a mother hen, to quit freezing and get under the covers. Wouldn’t’ve otherwise. Hand to God.”

“Hey, I’m not asking to protect his virtue,” Stark said. “Just wondering, because platonic co-sleeping with the dude you’re lusting after’s kinda weird, y’know?” They took a few more steps before he added, looking fixedly out the window, “but also weirdly sweet. Your story, I mean.”

Bucky was still trying to decide what, if anything, to say to that when Stark added, “And worrying that someone’s about to die would kill any awkward boners, but what’d you do after—”

“Coffee,” Bucky said desperately, and walked faster as they neared the elevator. Behind him, Stark snickered.

~

The first floor of the penthouse, where Bucky had met with his hosts the first night, boasted a stunning array of coffee-making equipment. When Bucky raised his eyebrows, Stark just shrugged. “This used to be the Avengers’ lounge-floor-space thing,” he said. “I like coffee. So does Clint. It just kinda happened.” He took a gulp of something that came out of a sleek, silvery machine that looked like the futuristic cousin of something Bucky’d seen in Italy in 1944, and probably was.

“It was a fun HQ. Then we moved to the place upstate, and then—well—yeah.” He put his cup down, abrupt. “I gotta go up and see Pepper,” he said. “There’s something here you can work, yeah?”

Bucky nodded. Stark paused, like he was going to say something else, then waved and sauntered into the elevator.

Bucky let out a sigh. That had been a relatively painless encounter. He didn’t really like letting Stark tease him, or giving him ammunition for it, but he didn’t exactly have grounds for refusing him anything either. And it hadn’t felt mean-spirited, more like this was just what Stark did. In fact, it had felt almost companionable until the inventor remembered who he was talking to and went all tense and cagey.

Bucky would go through a lot worse for Steve. And, he thought wryly, looking for anything that resembled a percolator or the drip machine he’d acquired in Bucharest, he’d probably go through worse than that conversation for coffee.

~

Six hours later, Bucky was back on Steve’s floor, seated almost defiantly on the upholstered couch and trying to force his mind to focus on the book he’d abandoned the day before. When he’d returned to Steve’s room with coffee, Steve had still been asleep. Bucky’d sat with him until he’d woken up; tempting as it had been to try to slide back in next to him, that felt like taking advantage—and besides, he had coffee. They’d talked a little until Steve dropped off again and Bucky was, eventually, shooed out again to let the doctors work and to get some rest and something to eat.

Bucky felt perfectly rested after his night with Steve and his coffee, and, while FRIDAY or its (her?) human equivalents appeared to have surreptitiously stocked Steve’s kitchen with basic staples—cereals, bread, deli cheese and meats, fruit, various kind of pre-made frozen meals—nothing seemed appetizing. He’d felt guilty about that, old instincts and obligations again coming to the fore, but he couldn’t bring himself to care that much about appreciating food when Steve was still unable to keep anything down. So it was back to the book.

The elevator’s pleasant ding sent him rocketing to his feet again. “FRIDAY, what—?” he began. She was supposed to tell him if anything happened with Steve . . . .

Bruce Banner leaned out of the elevator. “Oh, hi, Bucky,” he said. “I was hoping you’d be here. Can I, uh, can I use your kitchen? Tony’s doing science in mine.”

Bucky blinked at him, the words not settling into meaning any more than celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence had.

“Well, really, Tony and I are doing the science. But there are equations all over the table and probably on the microwave, and we’ll be done before dinner but it’s not done now. We could get takeout, but I’d rather cook. You can join us if you want, of course—and you can have some whether or not you want company.” He smiled awkwardly. “I’m the next floor down. That’s why I came here—if that’s alright with you?”

“Sure,” Bucky said, still baffled. “Uh, why . . . ? What are you making out of kitchen . . . stuff?”

“Oh!” Bruce said, walking into the room and revealing that he was carrying a large cloth bag of some kind. “No, we’re not building anything or running any experiments or anything like that. Not physical ones, anyway.” He plumped the bag down on the kitchen counter. “Tony just came to my floor for coffee this morning, because we do that—well, he has coffee. I usually have tea. We started discussing the best design for an aircraft that could also be capable of space flight—don’t ask—and I don’t have my floor set up to do holographic displays. I like my living space to be analog. So Tony and I covered all the surfaces with paper and we’ve been trying to map it out, but then I realized I was getting hungry and I’d really wanted to try a new recipe for curry.” As he spoke, he pulled several small jars, a bundle of some kind of clean-smelling leaves, and three bell peppers out of the bag.

Bucky found himself smiling, even though he was still lost. Bruce seemed much happier than the last time he’d seen him.

As though he’d had the same idea, Bruce looked up suddenly. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not ignoring what I was doing with the serum. But the part that’s happening right now, other people can do a lot better than I can.”

“I wasn’t worried—” Bucky began.

“Well, I was worrying. That’s part of why I let Tony pull me into a debate about aerodynamics and surface area for solar panels.” He glanced up. “FRIDAY, did you stock the floor like it used to be?”

“I made a few basic orders working off Captain Rogers’ last recorded list,” the AI replied. “There should be coconut milk in the usual cabinet.”

“This has happened before, then?” Bucky asked, something in his chest loosening at the thought of Bruce and Steve talking together.

“A few times,” Bruce admitted. “It actually got to be a regular thing for a little while, when the manhunts after SHIELD collapsed wound down and all of us were more or less living here.” When Steve wasn’t out looking for me, you mean, Bucky thought. “We did a couple potlucks, that kind of thing, and Steve has this table that can seat fifty people for some reason, so most of them were here. And because I like to cook, not order takeout, and since moving enough food to feed Steve and Thor around is a pain if it doesn’t come in bags to begin with—” He shrugged. “I ended up cooking here a lot. I think Steve actually rearranged the kitchen to put the pans where I like them, although I really hope he didn’t go to any trouble.”

That was one small mystery solved. Bucky took a deep breath, hoping his relief wasn’t as obvious as it felt. “So,” he said, “do you want any help?”

Chapter Text

That evening, Bucky found himself in the penthouse again, smiling awkwardly at Pepper Potts amid strange, sleek, undoubtedly expensive furniture and surrounded on nearly all sides with the not-quite-familiar New York skyline. Bruce had come to Steve’s room half an hour earlier to check on Steve and thank Bucky again for the use of the kitchen. While he was there, Pepper had invited them both up via FRIDAY’s intercom system. Bruce had begged off on the grounds of having to finish something he was working on, because “Tony happened this morning,” and Pepper had laughed and reiterated her invitation to Bucky: “If there’s only one of them, we might actually be able to hold a conversation about something other than science.”

Bucky had accepted, of course—Pepper probably wanted an update on Steve, and she seemed determined to play the part of the gracious hostess. The least he could do for her was go along with both parts. Now he stood, doing his best to ignore the heavy, uncomfortable feeling that settled over his shoulders, and tried to make polite conversation. That was harder than it ought to have been, from thinking of things to say to the amount of attention he had to pay to not calling her “Ms. Potts.”

Thankfully, she appeared more than capable of carrying the conversation, or at least ignoring how stilted it was. “Thank you again for coming,” she said after a few minutes of forced small talk. “I’m sorry it’s just me right now; Tony should be up from his lab any minute. He forgets the time when he’s working—or, more likely, he ignores it. But I’ve learned to get through to him.”

“Wasn’t he working all last night?” Bucky asked, the sight of the coffee machines in the kitchen behind her reminding him.

Pepper sighed. “Yes, he was. And then playing with something completely different all morning, according to Bruce. He’s got some big project that he’s working on right now, though. At least he promises he’s not building anything because he’s paranoid this time. If he says he’s ‘tinkering,’ I know not to worry.”

“It must be strange,” Bucky said, trying to keep up with the conversation. “All—this.” He gestured at the room, the holographic models rotating slowly in one corner, the Iron Man landing pad out on the deck.

“It is,” Pepper agreed, giving him a thoughtful look. “The hardest part is that sometimes it doesn’t feel strange anymore, that this is just my life now. That’s not always a good thing, especially if I’m what Tony uses to test what ‘normal’ is. On the other hand, it helps me sleep at night.” She paused and turned to gaze out the massive, curving floor-to-ceiling windows, looking east at the Chrysler building. “I probably don’t have to explain that to you, though.”

Bucky followed her. “I keep thinking I have a handle on the future, but every now and then it trips me up.”

She looked sideways at him and he got the feeling that wasn’t quite what she’d meant. “Stark tech feels like the future to people born in the last fifty years, too, if that helps.”

“A bit, actually.”

”Good.” She looked out at the city, the sky fading to purple and towers beginning to be outlined by rows of orange windows instead of reflected sun and sky. “You haven’t told me what a saint I am for putting up with Tony.”

“ . . . Sorry?” Bucky managed, completely thrown.

“Most people who get me on my own do, if they’ve met him first,” she said absently, peering out. “It’s extremely irritating. I appreciate that you haven’t.”

“He doesn’t seem that bad,” Bucky said, surprised. “A little like everything in his head comes out, but . . . .”

Pepper laughed. “That’s a good way of putting it. —Do you think they’re doing some kind of construction work? There’s a little light on top of the Chrysler building, look.”

Bucky followed her gesture—and tackled her to the ground as the window in front of them exploded into shards of glass.

“What—?” Pepper began, reaching up to push her hair out of her face. Bucky had pushed them behind one of the couches. They were comparatively protected, but they couldn’t see.

“Sniper,” Bucky said grimly. “Good job spotting him. I should’ve, too.” Distracted, he thought, shaking his head at himself. Sloppy. Not that the other guy was any better, setting himself up to reflect light against a darkening sky like that. But he’d almost gotten the jump on them regardless. The question now was, was he going to leave now that his presence was obvious, or try to finish the mission?

He motioned for Pepper to keep down, then waved his left hand out from behind the couch. He hissed as a bullet ricocheted off it—bullets might not damage the vibranium, but high-velocity impacts felt strange. That answered the question, though.

“FRIDAY,” Pepper said. Bucky noticed with mingled sympathy and admiration that, while she didn’t sound calm by any stretch, she sounded used to being scared and disoriented, like this was something she knew how to deal with. “—Tony, get the suit. Something’s happening.”

Stark’s voice rang through the room, tight and anxious. “Pepper? Are you—”

“I’m fine. Someone’s shooting at the penthouse.”

A muffled explosion sounded from far below, followed by a stifled exclamation from Stark. Bucky used the distraction to roll out from behind the couch. Another pane of glass exploded, but the delay was enough; as the shards rained down, he tucked himself underneath a coffee table and lay still, staring out the window.

“Tony—?”

“Explosion on the ground floor, delivery entrance next to the lobby. Someone’s trying to take out the whole tower,” Stark said, voice distorted. Metal clanked in the background, and there was a faint whirring sound, and perhaps a voice. “—Yeah, go. —Okay, Bruce is going to his happy place until one of us says we need him. He’s good. I should go down. Can you get out?”

There were no more shots. “Should be fine,” Bucky answered when Pepper hesitated, his eyes fixed on the Chrysler building. The telltale light, a beam of the setting sun reflecting off the barrel of a rifle, was gone, but the sniper was still out there. He risked a glance to the left at Pepper. “Bastard doesn’t have line of sight on you. Back up and get out of here.”

“Is that Barnes?” Stark asked, urgent, his voice clear again and somehow crisper, the background noise gone.

“It is,” Bucky said, most of his attention still fixed out the window. His pulse sounded loud in his ears. “Stark. Do you know where my rifle is?”

“I do,” Pepper said into Stark’s conflicted silence, crawling backwards. “What’s happening down there?”

“Uhhh—” Stark sounded distracted, like he was looking at several things at once. “Explosions, people running, no casualties as yet, general mayhem. Don’t have a read on the source ye—no, wait, something thrown out of an unmarked white van. Now there’s another—wait, it’s people coming out. FRIDAY, activate perimeter defence sectors eight, nine, and fourteen and begin evacuation procedures.” A pause. “Gotcha. —Why is it always a white van? Couldn’t they at least do gray or blue or something?”

Bucky could hear that Pepper had reached the cover of one of the interior walls. Rather than head for the elevator, though, she ducked around the corner toward the walkway leading to the landing pad.

“Pep, where are you?”

“Hold on, Tony. I’ll be down in a minute.”

Pepper’s footsteps came back. She circled around to the far side of the room, nearer the elevator, but then advanced carefully toward Bucky’s position. She shoved something across the polished floor towards him, a long black case, hard shell covered in padded fabric: his sniper rifle.

Bucky felt his face twist into a grin. He slid back a few feet and opened the case.

“She’s coming, Stark,” he said aloud, assembling the rifle with the ease of long practice. “I’ll handle this.”

“Wait,” Pepper said. He looked up and she tossed him something—an earpiece. “Storage area’s around the corner. Everything else is there too.” Their eyes met and Bucky gave her a small nod. She smiled grimly.

“Thank you,” she added. Then she turned and ran for the elevator. “FRIDAY,” Bucky heard her saying as the doors closed, “give me updates—personnel—”

Bucky slipped in the earpiece and slid back into position in his improvised sniper’s nest, now armed. “That you, Barnes?” Stark asked, tense. “What’s happening?”

It was easy to fall back on old habits. “One sniper on top of the Chrysler building,” he said into the com. “Don’t have eyes on him right now, but he stuck around after the first shot; I don’t think he’s gone.”

“Well shit,” Stark said. Then: “Busy down here. You got this?”

Bucky was surprised to find he was smiling. “In my sleep,” he heard himself say, a little angry, a little cocky.

“Alright then,” Stark said, “let me know if you need me,” and the com went quiet. Bucky settled in to wait.

This was how it had felt before, with the Howlies. He’d never been proud of what he did, exactly, but it felt good to protect someone, to know he was good at it. Now that feeling had the added balm of relief, of doing something right, this time. There was a savage contentment in that, and he embraced it.

He was sure the other sniper was still out there. He’d been in enough duels to know what it felt like, and Hydra snipers had been a lot more skilled. This idiot had given away his position once already, and hadn’t had the sense to beat a retreat after it was clear he’d failed. All Bucky had to do was wait. So wait he did, while the sounds of combat drifted up from the lower levels of the Tower and he tried not to worry about what was happening down there.

Finally, he caught a glimpse of motion, a figure moving on some kind of rig across one of the lower tiers of triangles on the other building. Betrayed by iconic architecture. “Got him,” Bucky said into the com, and pulled the trigger.

“Not falling,” he added, as Stark groaned, probably busy and wondering if he’d be able to intercept a plummeting body in time. “He was in a harness.”

“Great,” Stark said. “Now get your ass down here if you want to help.”

Bucky slid out of his awkward hidey-hole under the coffee table and walked toward the observation deck and landing platform. “Nuh-uh. I’m a sniper. You want my help, I should be on the roof.”

“Hydra sent you after Nick Fury on the street!”

Normally that would hurt, but now, on the wave of adrenaline and combat focus, it didn’t matter. “When they were trying to make a point and have a confirmed kill, yeah. When that didn’t work, they sent me in from a distance.”

“You know that didn’t work either, right? I assume Cap told you Fury’s actually alive?”

“Sure, but John F. Kennedy isn’t.”

“ . . . I will process the implications of that later. Get on the roof.”

“Already am.” Bucky stood on the observation deck, close to the building, and peered down, using the scope on his rifle to see better. It couldn’t have been that long that he was waiting for the other sniper to show himself; the white van in the street was still smoking. Vaguely familiar yellow-clad figures with machine guns ran in and out of his vision, evading—or falling to—white blasts that had to come from Iron Man, though Bucky didn’t see him anywhere. Oddly, some of the yellow-suited people also seemed to be on fire. A few small hovering robots, also letting out repulsor blasts, circled the area. The whole place seemed to be well-cleared of civilians, except for . . . .

“Shit,” Bucky muttered. “Stark, do they have hostages?”

“Not exactly,” Stark replied.

Pepper’s voice cut in. “There’s a small group of employees bottled up inside the building near where the first blast went off. It collapsed the inner walls and they’re cut off from the building. We can’t get them out without endangering them, but these people can’t get past us to hurt them, either.”

“Alright,” Bucky said. “Let me—”

A few minutes later, the yellow-suited forces were in considerable disarray.

“That’s better enough,” Pepper said. “We can try to evacuate—”

“They’re not leaving,” Stark muttered.

“They’re waiting for backup,” Bucky said, throat dry.

“How do you know that?”

“Because I’m looking at it.”

A large, heavily armored helicopter was closing in quickly, thrumming through the rapidly-darkening sky. That’s what the sniper was for, Bucky thought, to clear out any resistance from the top. Especially given the possibility of taking out Stark himself.

There was a rushing sound and Iron Man streaked up past him in a blur of red and gold. “Sorry guys,” Stark’s voice said in his ear, “this is private property. No parking.” He unleashed a blast that took out a large gun on the side of the chopper, then another that barely missed the rotor blade.

“Don’t shoot it down,” Bucky said.

“I’m not stupid. Even I can’t drop a giant flying blender blade of death in the middle of Manhattan safely.”

“What’s your plan, then?”

“Well, not to sound arrogant—” Not sounding humble at all, either, Iron Man zipped around the helicopter. Someone inside took a shot at him with another gun. “Whoops—but if someone’s attacking my tower, they’re probably after me, so. Hey assholes! Bright shiny! Chasey chasey!” He shot straight up in the air and swerved east, the light from his suit making him a perfect target.

The helicopter didn’t deviate from its course.

Another explosion sounded from the street.

“Tony!” Pepper shouted over the com. “There are more of them—don’t know where they came from—need you on perimeter!”

“Huh,” Stark said.

The helicopter was only a block away and descending, clearly heading for the Tower’s landing pad. Bucky ducked back inside. He saw the storage area Pepper had mentioned almost at once, a clear but unobtrusive metal door in the sleek metal wall. He discarded the rifle and rummaged through the bags. “There we go,” he muttered; then, into the com, “Go. I’ve got this.”

“What?” Stark said, alarmed.

“Tony . . . !” Pepper said.

Stark groaned. “Shit.”

Bucky got back out on the observation deck just in time to see the red-and-gold blur that was Iron Man twist in the air and dive.

The helicopter drew closer. Bucky could practically feel the thrumming of its rotor, rather than hear it. He stood still just past the doorway, somewhat shielded by the curve of the building, waiting as the machine got closer. He could make out individual people inside it now, all yellow-suited like the goons below, like the scientists in the lab he and Steve had raided.

The wind kicked up by the helicopter’s descent blew against his face. It hovered for a moment in perfect position before its featureless gray bulk dropped to the deck. The armored slide slid open and yellow suits started jumping out.

Bucky smiled a cold, savage smile, hefted the machine gun, and strode out to meet them.

~

Tony always lost track of time during a fight. It was exhausting and stressful and adrenaline did really strange things for your sense of how long anything took. He hadn’t believed it when he first heard that what was being called the Battle of New York had taken less than half an hour. That wasn’t long to reduce several square blocks to rubble—even if it had involved all six Avengers, an evil god, aliens on hover-chariots, and creepy demon space whales. And a nuke, almost. Pepper had pointed out that the nuke would have done more in less time, and yeah, but—

Anyway, the point was that he really wasn’t sure how long it had been since he’d realized whoever was in the helicopter wasn’t interested in him and gone back down to join the fight on the street level. These guys in ugly hazmat suits—or girls, he supposed, or however they identified other than as henchpeople with awful dress sense—they weren’t hard to fight, but Pepper was right, there were a lot of them. It really wasn’t clear where they’d come from.

“Maybe the white stalker van’s a clown car,” he suggested, blasting one hazmatoid with a repulsor beam and yanking another one off a terrified-looking Stark Industries employee, who ran for cover. “And these guys are trying to be scarier than It, but they’re bad at it.”

“Tony,” Pepper groaned. A gout of flame engulfed an area on his right. Pepper and the Tower’s security forces were penning the hazmat suiters in.

“I’m sort of serious,” he protested. “How does that clown car trick work? Did they use it?”

“A little busy here,” Pepper said.

“There are only three unevacuated civilians left,” FRIDAY said. “I’ve got a clear path to them now.”

“Point me at ‘em,” Tony said, kicking one last flunky with terrible fashion sense back toward Pepper’s perimeter. FRIDAY’s directions popped up on the suit’s navigational display. He zoomed off in pursuit.

With the yellow pill-heads out of the way, he could see why these three hadn’t been able to evacuate. The inner wall of the delivery area had collapsed, blocking off all the exits to the rest of the building—but it hadn’t only been the presence of their attackers that had kept these people from running out to the street. A huge mound of debris cut them off. Two heat signatures were huddled under a semi, where they’d apparently taken shelter. The third appeared to be trying to scale the mountain of rubble. As Tony watched, that person, a short, curly-haired woman, wavered, skidded, and began to fall as the slope she’d been standing on gave way. A twisted girder slid off the top of the pile and shot downwards like a giant’s arrow.

Tony swooped down and grabbed her, yanking both of them into the air to avoid the avalanche. Understandably, the woman freaked out at being jerked into the air by something she didn’t see, but when she twisted around and saw what she was trying to punch, she stopped screaming and held on instead. That was helpful.

As the dust settled, Tony maneuvered them over toward the semi and descended. He opened his faceplate, coughing—the dust hadn’t settled that much.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“Yeah, fine,” the woman said. She sounded shaky but okay. “Sorry about—”

“It’s armor,” Tony said. “Hitting it hurts you, not me. Kind of the point.” He set them down gently on a relatively clear patch of ground.

She stepped away with a sigh of relief. “I was looking for a way out—there are people under this truck.”

“I know,” Tony said. He knelt, servos whining, to look underneath.

“How is he?” the woman asked, and Tony was confused for a moment before he realized she wasn’t talking to him.

“The same,” said a young man. He was sitting awkwardly on the ground, one knee up, the other leg stretched out in front of him to cushion an older man’s head. “I’m still not sure if he’s unconscious or just zoned out.”

“What happened?” Tony asked, and the young man’s eyes widened as he saw Tony for the first time.

“Iron Man! I mean, uh, Mr. Stark—?”

“Yeah, yeah, cool, nice to meet me. What happened to him?” Tony asked.

“Concussion,” the young man said.

“We think,” the woman added.

“He pushed us out of the way. There was an explosion and the wall fell, and we probably would have died, but he—”

Concussion. Well, that was one person Tony should definitely not be carrying while flying. So much for airlifting them out of here.

“Ohh-kay,” he said. “Things are pretty much under control out there” —I think— “and I’m gonna get a medic in here, alright? Are you two okay?”

The man acting as a pillow nodded, and from behind him, Tony heard the woman say “yes.”

“Cool. Don’t try to climb out again. Good idea, but this junk is clearly not stable—let me take care of it.” Tony straightened up and blasted off without waiting for a response.

This was really the kind of situation where he missed Sam Wilson. Just when you could use a guy who can fly and has some actual medical training….

“FRIDAY, status?”

“Fight is winding down, sir. Both of them.”

“Both?” Oh. Barnes. “Never mind. Are there any first responders around?”

FRIDAY directed him to an impromptu medical center that seemed to have been set up by several firefighters and EMTs, then augmented by several of the Tower’s own doctors. Tony allowed himself a little vicarious smugness about that. His people were good.

. . . Pepper’s people. Technically.

He swooped in, found an EMT who didn’t look too busy, and flew him over to the trapped concussion guy with a minimum of freaking out and airsickness. FRIDAY still said that things were under control, so he didn’t go back into the fight, instead shifting the rubble until he’d built a relatively secure path to get them out.

Then Pepper called him.

“We’re done here,” she said when he skidded to the ground beside her. She was on the street outside the main lobby doors, soot-streaked and tired, but unhurt. A bevy of Stark Security officers surrounded her—the teams who had been running the defense and, probably, one or two of the ones who had managed the evacuation. They were talking with what looked like a mixture of first responders and reporters. “FRIDAY and the security teams got everyone out of commission or pinned down, and law enforcement are taking over.”

“Do you have to talk with them?” Tony asked, thumbing over his shoulder at the police, firefighters, and people with microphones.

“Already did, as much as I’m going to,” she said.

“Do I?”

“Not if you don’t want to talk about yourself,” she said, smiling a little.

“We’re out,” Tony said loudly. He put an arm around her—

“Tony, you are not flying us up to the landing pad right now.” Huh? “The Tower’s automated defences are—”

Oh. Right. Right.

She’d said she’d talked as much as she was going to. Apparently that included making up a cover story for the Winter Soldier, which she didn’t want to blow. It was a good idea, too, because obviously people weren’t going to miss the helicopter, and saying there were some kind of well-hidden motion-triggered defence mechanisms was a good way to explain why nothing bad had happened. Although automated defences on the upper stories were probably a good idea in real life. Clearly there was a need for it. He really ought to—

“Tony?”

“Who said anything about flying?” he asked, shifting his grip and strolling with her toward the front doors. “Can’t I just want to hug my fiancée for a while after a traumatic experience?”

Pepper leaned her head sweetly on his shoulder. “You’re full of shit,” she whispered in his ear. He heard the laughter in her voice.

“And you love me.”

“Mmm. Possibly.”

They made it through the storm of flashbulbs, across the lobby, and into the elevator before he let go of her. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Shaken but not stirred,” she said wearily. Her hair was hopelessly tangled, she was covered in dust, and she smelled like soot, but she looked fine. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d still been holding. Then Pepper’s words hit.

“Wait, does that make me a Bond girl?” He tried to cock a hip seductively, although the suit kind of ruined the effect.

Pepper patted his arm tolerantly. “You’ll always be Q and you know it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hey, all FRIDAY said to me was that things were going okay up here—do you know what Barnes—”

The elevator doors slid open on the first floor of the penthouse.

The Winter Soldier stood in Tony’s living room, smeared with dust and blood, glaring right at him.

Tony stepped in front of Pepper, the familiar painful squeeze of adrenaline locking around his chest. He could actually feel his heart speed up, feel the individual pulses like drumbeats through his body, before contextual awareness finally kicked in a breath later. Barnes was a good guy now, everything was fine, he’d been fighting the people Tony was fighting and if he was inside then that meant—

He looked instinctively over Barnes’ shoulder, through the surviving floor-to-ceiling windows, to the observation deck and helicopter pad. The helicopter was still there, its rotor blades moving very slightly—it got windy this high up. And beside it, across the deck, were scattered limp, yellow-clad forms. A lot of yellow-clad forms—more than Tony would have thought would fit in a helicopter that size. No, definitely more than could fit in a helicopter that size. That was interesting. Then he thought of what those people could have done if they’d gotten into the tower and he was a lot more chilled than interested.

Tony looked back at Barnes, mouth opening to thank him or say something, as Pepper slipped past him into the room. This time, without panic-vision, he didn’t look like the Winter Soldier from the security feed that featured oh-so-prominently in Tony’s nightmares. He had slumped back against the kitchen counter and looked like any tired guy in his late twenties. No red-starred arm, no creepy mask, and no leather armor—just a long-sleeved blue shirt that—

“You’re bleeding,” Tony said inanely.

“It’ll heal,” Barnes said, making a face as he pressed something—a dishcloth?—against the non-metal arm.

~

Bucky’s heart dropped as he watched Stark’s face change. The carnage outside was bad. He knew that. Sure, he was on their side, but they wouldn’t like being reminded of what he could do. He didn’t like being reminded of what he could do.

Stark’s horrified look wasn’t directed at his face, though. The other man was staring at the dishcloth wrapped around his arm, probably surprised that anyone had managed to land an attack on him. Bucky mentally kicked himself for that. Not that it was serious; he could have kept fighting like this, and he had fought through it at the time—the yellow suit who’d landed the lucky hit hadn’t been the last one, although he’d been in the last wave. The slice across his ribs would heal in a day or so, the cut on his arm even faster. Neither was deep enough for blood loss to be an issue. It still wasn’t any fun.

The problem was he’d gotten so damn used to the armor—either the tight harness Hydra had had him in for years or the less obtrusive version he’d taken with him when he and Steve left Wakanda to wander the world. He’d forgotten to be careful about knives. Sloppy. Lazy. Not really worth Stark’s shocked expression, though, as he pointed out.

“Well yeah, but that doesn’t make—you’re bleeding,” Stark repeated, a little more emotion in his voice this time. Irritation? He wrapped the cloth a little tighter so the blood wouldn’t get on the floor any more than it already had.

“Are you alright?” Pepper asked, picking her way carefully across the glass-strewn part of the room. Stark shook himself out of his reverie and followed her, walking heavily in the suit.

“Fine,” Bucky answered. “Steve?”

“Oh. Um—”

“Captain Rogers appears to have slept through the entire episode,” FRIDAY cut in. “Neither disturbance was sufficient to disrupt most floors of the tower. His care has not been interrupted.”

Bucky sighed in relief. “And the doctors?”

“No one above the first three floors of the tower has been harmed in any way. Evacuation process ceased at the 20th floor.” FRIDAY sounded a little smug. “At that point, the ultimate resolution of the attempted incursion was clear and the evacuation was cancelled as unnecessary.”

“Good girl, FRIDAY.” Stark sounded smug too. Servos whined as he lowered himself onto a couch. “Bruce is chill?”

“Doctor Banner is reading in his safe room. I have alerted him that he need not be on standby, but he prefers to stay there for the time being.”

“Okay, cool.” Stark looked back at Bucky. “He’s got a Hulk-proof room,” he explained. “I think he’s just being paranoid, because I’ve actually tried to piss him off and he hasn’t gone green at all, but he insisted.”

Pepper made her way over to Bucky, having stopped to peer out the broken window first and do something with a tablet she’d scooped up off one of the remaining coffee tables. “Repairs will start tomorrow,” she told the room in general, “for here and downstairs.” She looked at Bucky with concern. “Are you sure you’re alright? That doesn’t look comfortable.”

He lifted one shoulder—the metal one. “It’s alright.” He gestured at his chest. “Cut on the ribs will heal faster if I don’t move much.”

“You’re bleeding in two places?!” Stark half-yelped, on his feet again. “And you think it’ll be fine if you just stand still? That’s not enough.”

Pepper nodded emphatically, looking almost as shocked as she had when Bucky’d pushed her out of the way.

Bucky raised his eyebrows. “What else exactly should I do? I heal fast.”

“Yeah, but it’s got to hurt, right?” Stark asked, then froze. “Oh God do not say that you’ve lost the ability to feel pain or something—”

“No, it hurts,” Bucky said, bemused. “I’m just used to it.”

That did something strange to both their expressions.

“Go sit down or something,” Stark said, exasperated.

“I’ll bleed on your furniture,” Bucky said, shaking his head. “Probably the carpet, too.”

They both stared at him.

“Excuse me, what?” Stark demanded.

“I don’t heal that fast,” Bucky said. “I’m still bleeding. I don’t want to ruin your things.” He glanced down at the dishcloth, wry. “More than I can help.”

“What.”

“Bloodstains don’t come out of upholstery,” Bucky said, wondering where this was going. “Not easily, anyway. And your carpet’s white. I don’t—I mean, I’ve already tracked enough dirt in here.” He grimaced. “And blood, before I caught it.”

“Buc—Sergeant Barnes,” Pepper said, strained. “The other guys blew out the windows. You’re not the one making a mess.”

“I—”

“No,” Stark snarled. “Cut this crap out right now. You just saved this building—saved Pepper’s life, she says—and I can afford to replace everything in this room a thousand times anyway.” His voice went dark and almost commanding. “Sit. Down. —If you want.”

Bucky blinked. “Okay. Um, thank you.” He straightened up from the counter and gingerly made his way across the few feet of kitchen, to where the tiled floor gave way to carpet. He looked up, about to double-check, only to meet two strangely intense don’t you dare say anything kind of expressions. He raised his eyebrows and took a few more steps to collapse in the nearest chair, one of a cluster of four arranged around another of the low coffee tables. The action of sitting wasn’t terribly comfortable, but once he was seated, he let out a careful breath and relaxed. That was better.

“So,” he said, self-conscious. “Any idea why these nuts were here?”

“No,” Stark and Pepper said together, both frustrated.

“No one was making any demands,” Pepper explained.

“We’ve got a few captives, but they’re all unconscious,” Stark added. “We don’t even know who they are.”

“AID,” Bucky said, surprised they didn’t know. “Same organization as the bastards from North Korea. I mean, most likely.”

“Where’re you getting that?” Stark demanded.

“Yellow hazmat suits,” Bucky said, shrugging and immediately regretting it. “It’s kind of their uniform. Don’t ask me why—most of the shi—stuff they mess with is more likely to explode than ooze, or radiate, or whatever those are supposed to be good for. But if it’s not AID, someone wants you to think it’s AID.”

Stark frowned.

“You think they’re after Steve?” Pepper asked quietly.

Bucky shook his head. “If they knew he was here, they’d have known where we were all last month, when he was a lot easier to get at.” And hadn’t that been a fun thought. It was why he’d stolen a helicopter and moved them across national boundaries twice, against Steve’s protests. “The different cells don’t have a lot to do with each other. This is probably something else.”

“Then what—”

“Dunno.” Bucky shifted slightly and dug into his jeans pocket with his left hand. “This might help.” He fished out the flash drive he’d loaded and held it up.

Starked blinked at him, nonplussed. “What is that.”

“Basic data pulled off a laptop in the helicopter. It’s encrypted. I could try to break it, but I bet you and FRIDAY could do it better and faster.”

Stark snatched the drive out of his hand. “Happy birthday to me. I, uh, good thinking. There wasn’t anything left in the van. To be fair, there wasn’t much van left in the van.” He squinted. “Wait a sec. When’d you get in the helicopter?”

“When it was clear.” Bucky looked down. Stark would know that meant after I killed them all. And whoever cleaned up the site would notice that there were bodies in the helicopter. He’d pulled the intel with them right there.

“I really don’t want to ask this,” Stark began, and Bucky braced himself for the inevitable anyone still alive? He’d’ve tried to spare anyone who wasn’t trying to kill him, but all of them had tried to kill him, and finesse was difficult when twenty people tried to attack you at once. He was, unfortunately, good at what he did. “—Did you check out their computer while you were stabbed in two places?”

“Uh.” Bucky blinked. “Yeah.” Both were technically slash wounds, or he’d be more worried, but that clearly wasn’t Stark’s point. He wasn’t sure what Stark’s point was. It wouldn’t have made much sense to tackle the computer while there was still someone around to come after him.

Stark sighed loudly and stomped across the glass-filled living room toward the deck. “Of course you did. Why would I even ask? —FRIDAY, get everything but the boots off me,” he said loudly. “And unlock the wine fridge.” A circular apparatus swirled up from the deck and moved toward the door. Mechanical arms slid out of it and whisked away most of the Iron Man suit as Pepper handed Bucky another dishcloth—several, actually.

“FRIDAY would have told us if there were survivors of the attack force up here,” she said quietly. Bucky took the cloths with muttered thanks, unable to meet her eyes. “I told the reporters down there that there was a Stark automated defense system that eliminated intruders with extreme prejudice. There aren’t any security camera feeds, unmonitored sightlines, or surveillance satellites that see anything happening up here, so people should believe that story.” She smiled grimly at his sharp look. “Anything that tries gets rerouted or hacked. Tony doesn’t want anyone watching him up here or spying on the Iron Man suit.” Her expression went a bit softer and more complicated when she added, “If it helps, no automated defence system he actually made would leave any survivors either.”

“I hear doom and gloom,” Stark announced, striding back through the kitchen. “Let’s stop it with the doom and gloom. We’ve stopped a bunch of thugs with god-awful fashion sense from taking over my tower—”

“My tower.”

“—Pepper’s tower that has my name on it,” Stark amended without missing a beat, swinging open a glass-fronted cabinet, “and we’ve even got some kind of idea who they were and where they came from, so we’re going to celebrate.” He pulled out a large, rounded bottle and expertly untwisted the metal cage from the top as Pepper sighed. “Watch your ears.”

The bang as the cork rocketed out and rebounded off the ceiling didn’t startle Bucky, thanks to the warning, but he noticed that Pepper jumped ever so slightly. Stark swung open another cupboard and pulled out three long-stemmed glasses. He carried them and the frothing bottle over to the long, narrow glass-topped table near the chair Bucky sat in, ignoring the crunch of glass under the armor’s boots. “Aaand here we go, one surviving flat surface. That’s enough to party.” Pepper moved to the chair across from Bucky, gingerly because of her thin shoes, and sat down after giving the chair a once-over for glass on the seat. From the angle, it wouldn’t be likely, but it was a smart thing to do. Another thing Bucky hadn’t done. Sloppy, he thought again.

Stark, meanwhile, had filled all three glasses with golden, bubbly liquid. “CEO and badass hero of the hour,” he said grandly, sweeping one arm toward Pepper as he handed her a glass. She rolled her eyes but took it. “Me.” He pulled one toward himself and used a foot to shove the chair behind him closer to Pepper’s. “And—”

Stark looked over at Bucky, something unreadable in his eyes. “Champagne?” he asked, holding out the final flute.

That, oddly, drove the strangeness home, and Bucky abruptly felt alone, clumsy, and out of place as everything crumbled. Up to now, he had been fine; everything this evening had some kind of touchstone, something he knew how to do. He could hold a conversation, even if it was strained and stilted and the seams showed. He could run a mission—that was easy, embarrassingly easy. He could even manage a conversation with Stark since it was, in essence, a post-mission debriefing. But he had never, in any situation—he wasn’t sure which was most absurd, the idea of it happening in Hydra or the SSR or the regular goddamn U.S. Army or home—had anything remotely like this happened, ever, in the slightest respect. Nothing in his life prior to now bore even the tiniest resemblance to this particular moment. He was fresh out of memories to steer by.

He was in a billionaire’s one-hundred-and-something-th-story penthouse living room, in the future, bleeding all over his extremely expensive future-style furniture after killing lots of people on what was basically his front stoop, and instead of throwing him out, the guy was offering him champagne. Oh, and he’d killed the guy’s parents. And the guy was still offering him champagne, looking more and more uncomfortable, confused, and offended while waiting for him to reply.

None of this, none of it, was anything Bucky could have even imagined when he was a kid, and the part where he was a poor kid from Brooklyn in a rich Manhattan apartment was just as strange as the part where he was in the future or the part where he’d killed someone’s parents.

He burst out laughing.

“Uh, okay,” Stark said, nonplussed, as Bucky fought to breathe. He looked helplessly at Pepper, who looked equally surprised. “Stress reaction . . . ? You think?”

“Sorry,” Bucky gasped, shaking—and ow, shit, that really hurt when you had a slice on your ribs—“I’m sorry, I just—” The laughter overtook him again. “Ow.”

“Are you okay?” Stark asked. “Because I’m getting a little weirded out now.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said, waving a hand weakly. “It’s not you. Just—I—” He latched onto the first half-coherent thought that came to mind. “After all that, you don’t want something stronger?”

Stark’s face did something odd. It was almost like the Iron Man mask sliding back on again; something shut down. “Yeah, I do,” he said, in a bored, offhand voice that was somehow still angry, “so I shouldn’t, dick.”

Oops. “That’s not what I meant.” Bucky tried to think straight and to ignore the laughter that still shuddered through him, along with the pain it brought. “I mean—you got out champagne. That’s so—” He spread his hands helplessly. “Rich people are different,” he said finally, and that appeared to land at least sort of right, because Stark’s face went puzzled rather than offended and locked down, and Pepper actually gave a very slight “ah.”

“This is . . . very strange,” Bucky said, unable to think of any way else to say it. “Ow.” He looked down and hissed, pressing two of the dishcloths Pepper had given him to his side: laughing—bad idea. Looking down made him notice he had, in fact, managed to bleed on the chair, and that very nearly set him off again.

“O-kay,” Stark said, “so you’re not going crazy and I’m not hysterically funny, there’s just something about champagne—?”

“I can tell you later why it’s strange,” Pepper said dryly. “Some of it, anyway. The normal person versus growing up a billionaire parts.”

“Listen to her. It’s not the fucking champagne,” Bucky said, breathing through the pain, loopy enough that he only noticed distantly that he was swearing in front of a very rich, very self-possessed lady and his mother would skin him for that—except she wouldn’t; that was much more a Hydra thing to do—and he didn’t care enough to feel that bad about it. “It’s that you’re not throwing me out. It’s that I’m here.” That sentence just about covered it. Here in the room; here, not dead. Both equally absurd. “And instead you’re giving me fancy booze that won’t do a thing for me.”

“Still yours if you want it,” Stark said after a beat.

“Sure,” Bucky said, struggling to regain a grip. The pain helped, ache and sting deepening as the hysteria faded. “Sure. Why the hell not. I drink coffee, too.” He reached out—with his left hand, because the right one hurt and was wrapped in gradually pinkening towels—and accepted the champagne flute. Stark tensed a little when Bucky’s hand brushed his as he took the proffered glass, and he thought belatedly that it might have been better to use the non-metal one. Too late now. “Don’t think I’ve ever had champagne,” he added, to cover the moment.

“Really?” Stark asked.

“Maybe at a wedding or something,” Bucky said. “Not sure.”

“Well, weddings—celebrating repulsing a teched-up home invasion—same thing, really.” Stark settled into the chair next to Pepper’s, waving a hand theatrically. “We need a toast.”

“The confusion of our enemies,” Bucky said immediately, not sure where the words came from but confident that they were right.

“Ooh,” Pepper said. “I like that.”

“Yeah, sure,” Stark said, sounding . . . surprised, maybe, but impressed. “To the confusion of the pointlessly haz-matted.” He lifted his glass.

They drank. Bucky still wasn’t sure if he’d had champagne before. It was bright and fizzy, acidic without being tart. It was . . . interesting.

“Are you alright?” Pepper asked Bucky again.

“Yeah,” he said heavily. “Sorry. I’m not sure where that came from.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Stark said briskly. “People do weird things. Bodies do weird things. Brains are like pinball machines—who knows what’ll happen when you flip the lever. We’ve got more important stuff going on.” He shot a glance toward the kitchen, where the flash drive Bucky had handed him sat on the counter. “FRIDAY and I’ll dig into that little treasure trove as soon as we’re done here,” he said. “Find out if these people are actually AID and what they wanted. Anything else we need to clear up first?”

“The clown car trick,” Pepper said dryly, and while Bucky didn’t know exactly what she meant, he had a guess.

“There were more people in that helicopter than there should have been,” he said.

“Yeah,” Stark said, “and the car they came out of downstairs kind of—” He made a strange gesture in the air. “Imploded. Warped. Twisted—twarmploded? So we’ve got to look at the the helicopter itself, besides whatever you pulled out of it. Was the laptop hooked up to anything?”

Bucky nodded. “Little black box. But it was fried by the time I got there—actually smoking. No idea what it was supposed to do.”

“Probably some kind of space-compression technology,” Pepper said, frowning over the rim of her glass as though using it to sight something far away. Then she looked disgusted. “And I can’t believe I just uttered that sentence.” She picked up the tablet again and began poking at it.

“The question is,” Stark said, “why were they coming here with shitty space-compression technology?”

“They fit more people than they should’ve—” Bucky began.

“Sure, but look,” Stark said. “One of the devices burned itself out and the other sort of turned the entire vehicle it was attached to inside-out. And it doesn’t seem like the timing of either of these ‘now there are more of us, surprise’ things was a strategic move, either. It’s like the process is time-limited or something. Why would you attack someone when you can’t even run your Jack-in-the-Box technology reliably?”

“What makes it unreliable?” Bucky asked, frowning. “Say you’re right and it’s a time limit or a capacity problem. How could they fix it?”

“Power,” Pepper said, very quietly, setting the tablet down. Stark turned sharply to look at her.

“You think—”

Pepper grimaced and raised her eyebrows, a look Bucky translated as could be; you got anything better?

Stark breathed out sharply in something that was not quite a sigh. “Well. Wouldn’t have done them any good if they’d gotten there. Shit.”

“What?” Bucky asked, wondering as he did so if it was any of his business. This was an attack on their home, not his.

“Do you know much about the tower?” Pepper asked. “Why it’s famous?”

Bucky frowned. He’d read it somewhere—and Steve had mentioned—“It’s—carbon-neutral?”

“Everything-neutral,” Stark corrected. “Except good things. We have only positive externalities. One of those is that we give power back to the grid—or we could, if we were on it, but the building is cut off and self-powering. What we do with the excess is actually pretty sweet, because—” Pepper shot him a look and he broke off. “My point is, the tower is cut off from all external power grids and generates more than enough to keep running through a giant arc reactor in a sub-basement,” he said instead.

“You think they were after that.”

“They’d be stupid to. It’s insanely well-defended,” Stark grumbled. “Even if they had known what they were doing, there’s no way they could have gotten through. And it’ll just shut down if you try to disconnect it from the building.”

“And ‘sub-basement,’ in this context, means ‘buried in granite,’” Pepper added. “It’s deeper than the subways. The tower was built over it. I’m not sure they could physically move it without trying to move a lot of Midtown, and we did make sure that particular design detail leaked so that no one was tempted to try exactly this.”

“If it’s AID, these guys aren’t exactly the brightest,” Bucky said dryly.

“They’ve effectively neutralized Captain America,” Stark pointed out.

Bucky’s stomach clenched. The cut on his ribs didn’t like that either. “That was a different group, and that was by mistake,” he retorted.

Stark tipped his champagne flute Bucky’s way. “Alright, whatever. So, attacked by incompetents, yay. I’ll figure out how and why; Pepper’s already handling the rebuilding and reassuring staff part, looks like”—he leaned over the arm of his chair to peer at whatever she was doing on the tablet.

“I am the CEO, Tony,” she said, pushing him away gently. “It’s my job.”

“And I’m sure you’re being very inspiring in an appropriately bureaucratic way,” he said, catching her hand and kissing it, “which is why it’s not my job anymore, because I suck at it, but you should finish your champagne first. We beat the bad guys. Work later.”

Pepper turned her head and kissed him on the cheek, then ostentatiously took a sip of her champagne without looking up from the tablet.

Bucky couldn’t suppress a smile at the oddly intimate little exchange, even if it did make him feel even more out of place and intrusive.

“Right,” Stark said, abruptly straightening and pulling himself all the way back onto his own chair. “So. Stuff handled, I think. But you”—he pointed at Bucky again— “need to get back down to the med floor, and not just for sitting around and reassuring yourself that Cap’s okay. Get that shit patched up; I don’t care if it’ll heal eventually anyway, you’re bleeding and that’s not healthy. But, you know, finish your champagne first.” He paused. “You like it?”

“Huh? Yeah. It’s—different.”

“Well, yes, champagne is different from everything that is not champagne. That’s kind of a definitional property of things. They are not the things they are not.”

Bucky smiled, unsure how to respond, and took another sip.

“This silence is going to be awkward, isn’t it.”

“Tony,” Pepper murmured.

“He’s not wrong,” Bucky said. That won him an expression from Stark that was almost a smile.

Stark swirled the champagne in his glass. “So,” he said, “in the interest of avoiding awkward silence: you shot JFK?”

Pepper’s fingers stopped dancing across the tablet and she sighed audibly.

“It’s fine,” Bucky said—and, to his own surprise, it was. “I brought it up. And actually, I’m pretty sure I was just there as backup in case Oswald blew the shot. I’m sure they meant for someone to go down for it, and they wouldn’t waste me. Or maybe it was a test, to see if I really didn’t remember which side I was supposed to be on.” He shrugged, more carefully this time, to avoid jarring anything. “I don’t remember much from early missions. They couldn’t wipe me yet; they hadn’t developed the chair. When they did, it took them a while to get it—”

He swallowed hard, staring past Stark’s head, shaking his head to clear it of the images that had suddenly appeared. “I think they overdid it the first few times. A lot of the early—everything—that’s just gone. But know I was in Dallas. And then—huh.” He frowned. “I don’t think there was anything for a long time.”

“Oookay,” Stark said. “That got grimmer than I thought. But hey, there’s still a funny headline in there! ‘Second gunman doesn’t know who shot JFK.’”

“Yeah,” Bucky said dryly, “it’s a riot.”

“You sure alcohol doesn’t affect you? You’re actually being funny right now,” Stark said, squinting at him. He took another sip of champagne and made a funny nibbling motion, then closed his eyes like he was tasting it carefully. “Hmm. It’s a sense of humor—extremely dry—bit dark—a very old vintage—notes of salt and morbidity—”

Bucky drained his own glass. “I think you’re right, Stark,” he said. “I’m going down to the medical wing.”

“Good,” Pepper said emphatically.

“Alright, coolio,” Stark said. “If you see Bruce, tell him I have physics questions about spatial compression and send him up here.”

“I will.”

“And when he says he’s not that kind of physicist, send him up here anyway.”

“Good night, Stark. Ms. Potts—sorry, Pepper.”

“Good night, Sergeant Barnes,” Pepper said. “And—thank you.”

“Yeah,” Stark said, looking up. “Yeah, uh—thanks.”

Bucky looked back at them before he stepped into the elevator. Stark seemed to have maneuvered their chairs even closer, and while both of them were clearly already absorbed in their own work—Pepper on the tablet, Stark staring intently at the air and occasionally moving a hand as though to draw something—they were both clearly aware of each other’s presence. Neither seemed all that ruffled by the destruction all around them. They were already working to fix it, after all.

“Thank you for trusting me,” Bucky said, and stepped back into the elevator.

Chapter Text

Early the next afternoon, Bucky sat at the long, dark dining table, fiddling with The Fellowship of the Ring yet again. He was officially there to rest and heal from his injuries the night before, which was ridiculous—he wouldn’t heal any faster on Steve’s floor than he would sitting at Steve’s side. But the doctors had spoken. Aside from an hour in the morning when Steve had been awake, which he’d spent describing the attack of the night before, Bucky was officially exiled—which meant pacing, eating, and trying to read. He was supposed to try to sleep, but sleep hadn’t come easy the night before, and he doubted it would again today. Just because he was justified in killing those AID goons didn’t mean it sat easy on him.

—No, he thought; that wasn’t really true. He didn’t mind the battle itself so much. Parts of it, the sense of being on the right side again, he’d relished. What bothered him was just how good he was at killing.

The elevator chimed, and he looked up hopefully—perhaps Bruce had decided to drop by again. Instead, Pepper stepped out.

“Good morning, Ms. Potts,” Bucky said, a little wary.

“Hello,” Pepper said. She was dressed in a much more relaxed manner than what she’d described as “CEO armor” that first day—a soft white blouse tucked into a crisp lavender skirt. While she looked much more comfortable, the outfit still served to accentuate, rather than smooth, her sharp angles: not actively imposing, but still striking. Bucky was acutely aware of his beat-up jeans and t-shirt. Some stubborn, long-buried instinct was screaming at him that this wasn’t how you dressed to meet a lady or a business executive. Bucky sighed and tried to ignore it; nothing he could do about it now.

Pepper stood in the tall doorway leading from the living room to the entrance niche that held the elevator. She made no move further into the apartment. “Am I interrupting anything?”

“Uh, no,” Bucky said, putting down the book he’d been trying, and mostly failing, to read. “What can I do for you?”

Pepper looked pained, though she also looked like she was trying to hide it. “Nothing, really. I just wanted to talk to you, if that’s alright. Not about last night, or AID, or anything, just a talk between two people.”

“Sure.” Bucky sat back down at the table and motioned her toward one of the armchairs, trying to remain relaxed and open despite the clawing grief in his stomach. He liked Pepper. He’d thought things were going well.

On the other hand, she’d seen the aftermath of the fight on the observation deck. He couldn’t really hope to pass as harmless after that.

He dredged up a smile. “I figured this would happen.”

Pepper hadn’t moved. “Figured what would happen?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly what, but—I hurt someone you love. I’m very grateful he invited me here, but I imagine you’re not too happy with me.”

Pepper sighed, blowing a stray wisp of hair out of her eyes. “That’s not it at all.”

“It’s not?”

“Of course not. I hate what Hydra used you for, and I’m not happy that Steve didn’t mention it to Tony, but I’m not mad at you. I’m here to make sure you’re alright. Actually, I’d wanted to offer you a place here a long time ago, before the Accords business—when everyone was still looking for you.”

“What?” Bucky stammered. “I don’t understand.”

Still standing in the doorway, Pepper held up one hand. Orange light began to glow through it, as though there were a strong light behind it. As the light intensified, it deepened in hue, until it looked like she wore a glove made of lava. The corner of the room seemed to ripple, seen through a heat haze. Bucky could feel the warmth on his face from across the room.

Gazing past her hand, Pepper said flatly, “You’re not the only one who’s been used as a science experiment.”

Bucky realized he was on his feet again and that he’d taken several steps closer. The heat from Pepper was uncomfortable. He stopped. Pepper’s face twisted—in pain or anger or disgust, he couldn’t tell—as she went on.

“A few years ago, a domestic terrorist calling himself a scientist, Aldrich Killian, tried to develop a treatment called Extremis to make people into better soldiers—stronger, smarter, healing practically instantaneously, with more endurance. He was trying to fill the gap in the market left when Stark Industries stopped making weapons, only he didn’t frame it like that when he came to me asking for support. I turned him down. For some reason Killian decided that kidnapping me and using me as a test subject would get Stark Industries, and Iron Man, out of his way—turns out Extremis came with little side effects like going crazy and exploding, so that would be a way to get rid of me, or him, or both of us.” The light in her hand rippled and flared up. Bucky suddenly thought of the AID goons on fire the night before.

“Of course, his plan didn’t quite work. Tony showed up—he was a total mess, but he found me—and then I smashed Killian with an I-beam.” Her smile was like a knife, a sharp, savagely satisfied expression. “Fortunately, Tony and I together have access to an absurd amount of resources. We pulled together a team to figure out how to neutralize Extremis. It’s dormant now. I can pull it up when I need it, but it’s not going to make me crazy or kill me.” She closed her fist and the burning light faded. She added, “Most of that team is working with Steve now.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. It was all he could think of to say. Thank you wasn’t quite right. Anger prickled under his skin like an echo of Pepper’s fire, but she didn’t seem to want his sympathy. Her delivery had been matter-of-fact and crisp. It hadn’t been easy for her to say. He understood that. The least he could do was respect her control.

“I don’t pretend to understand what you’ve been through, Sergeant Barnes,” Pepper said, “but I’m the closest you’re likely to get for some of it. I’m here if you need anything. Or want anything.” She held his gaze. “That’s an offer from me, not Tony, and it’s for you, specifically, nothing to do with Steve.”

Bucky’s throat worked, but he couldn’t speak.

“And please, don’t be so—so careful around me,” Pepper added. “I’m not angry at you. I’m not afraid of you, either.” At least that wasn’t foolish, coming from her. From her demonstration, she was hardly helpless.

“Why?” Bucky managed to ask. “Why would you . . . be nice to me—just because someone hurt you?”

“As a fuck-you to him,” Pepper said fiercely. “And to Hydra. And anyone who thinks they can get away with this shit, or that they can scar me badly enough that I won’t do better than them. I won’t let them win, Sergeant Barnes.”

That startled a laugh out of Bucky. It was wasn’t humor, exactly, but something under tension snapping, a distance narrowing. “Alright,” he said. “Alright. I understand that.” He’d struggled so long to get his memories back, no matter how terrible, because they were his. And he knew it from the outside, too, from the way Steve had thrown himself at everything the world said he was too small, too poor, too weak to do. The relief bubbled into unexpected delight inside him. “But if you mean that, it’s Bucky.”

Her face split in a surprisingly exuberant grin. “Then you call me Pepper. I mean it. And you have to stop acting like you’re not supposed to be here now. This is Stark Tower and you’re on first-name terms with the CEO.”

“Alright,” Bucky said again, spreading his hands helplessly. “Fine, you win.”

“And they lose,” she said, eyes fiery—in the metaphorical sense—for a second. “Welcome home, Bucky. If that’s what you want this to be.”

“Thank you,” he said, his vision suddenly swimming. “I—”

“Oh—” Pepper finally stepped forward, reaching toward him. “Shit, sorry, I—”

“No, it’s alright, just—”

Pepper made a frustrated sound. “Here.” She wrapped her arms around him, hesitantly, and patted his back. “This okay?” she asked, probably because Bucky had frozen.

“Y-yeah,” he said, relaxing and carefully returning the hug, arms around Pepper’s slender shoulders. He couldn’t remember the last time this had happened, getting this kind of affection from anyone but Steve. Pepper might be about the same height, but she was a lot smaller, and despite what he’d just seen, all his instincts screamed fragile.

They did for Steve too, but he had a lifetime of practice ignoring that. Steve had never liked to be thought of as fragile. But Pepper had said not to be careful with her either. “Just surprised. This is good.”

“Good,” she said. She squeezed once, gently, then stepped back. “I want you to be okay. If I can help with that, you let me know.” She cleared her throat. “I can leave, now, and let you get back to your book . . . .”

“Wait a minute,” Bucky said.

She paused.

“So—last night,” he began. “The guys on fire…?”

“Yes?” she asked.

“You weren’t just coordinating the evacuation, were you.”

Pepper’s grin this time was entirely smug. “What do you think?”

Bucky couldn’t help it—he started laughing. “They had no idea how outgunned they were,” he said when she raised her eyebrows at him. “None. And—wait.” He smirked. “You’re the CEO, so does that mean when you fire somebody, you actually—?”

“Only if they were very, very bad at their job,” Pepper said mock-seriously. “Most people just have to leave.”

As Bucky cracked up again, she returned to the elevator, waving just before she left.

~

Tony dashed out of the elevator and sprinted along the hallway, dodging surprised doctors and researchers, and ducked into Steve’s room. “I’m here,” he blurted. “What’s going on?”

Everyone in the room—Steve included—looked up at him in surprise. Steve was . . . sitting up and alert? Barnes was lurking next to him, and Bruce was sitting in a chair with what looked like a book of crossword puzzles. Dr. Li stood in the center of the room, looking at a tablet.

“Tony,” Steve said, sounding pleased. “Thanks. You didn’t have to come.”

“I—uh—what? FRIDAY said—”

“There’s been a change in Captain Rogers’ condition, but it’s not a serious one. Necessarily.” Dr. Li raised an eyebrow at him from across the room, expression entirely too knowing. “Your AI was supposed to pass that along as well.”

“FRIDAY,” Tony snapped, “we need to work on your context algorithms.”

“I relayed the message in its entirety, boss!” FRIDAY protested. “You ran out of the room before I could finish.”

“Discretion algorithms, too,” Tony huffed, rolling his eyes and looking down. Hopefully everyone else was ignoring what was obviously a private conversation between him and the AI.

Since the whole Ultron thing, and more importantly since JARVIS had become Vision and he’d watched the growing pains that Viz had gone through, he’d had a few second and third thoughts about the ethics of building another arguably-more-than-borderline sentient consciousness. He really had. In the end, he’d decided he’d already built FRIDAY, and he’d already activated her, and she wasn’t totally batshit, no, vampireshit insane, thank you, inflicting consciousness was probably better than taking it away.

FRIDAY was around and growing, and she was great. But. Sometimes he missed JARVIS.

“So,” Bruce said, looking entirely too amused. “We’ve figured out—and by ‘we’ I mean mostly the more medical researchers, I didn’t do much—we’ve figured out what happened to Steve and why the serum seems to have stopped working. Thought you might be curious.”

“Uh, yeah,” Tony said, not struggling to regain his equilibrium at all. He was perfectly equilibrated. “Is Pepper coming?”

Bruce shook his head. “FRIDAY told her the same time as you—except she listened. She’s stuck in a meeting and wants you to fill her in.” Tony nodded. Damn. He’d have liked Pepper here.

“Alright,” Dr. Li said. “Thank you for your patience. We’ve had this as a working theory since pretty early on, but—well, we didn’t get it confirmed until recently.”

“Wait, what happened recently?” Tony asked, frowning. “I told the research team to let me know if there were any breakthroughs! Bruce—”

“It’s not them.” Everyone turned to look at Steve, who smiled ruefully. “My metabolism’s slowed back down. Pretty suddenly, actually, late last night. I gave everyone an interesting morning trying to figure out what dosage of things will actually keep the fever down without destroying my liver, and all that.”

“You didn’t mention,” Barnes said, and Tony stiffened at the menacing tone.

“You were supposed to be asleep—they said you were hurt—and they had it handled. And earlier, talking about what had happened to you was more interesting.”

“Not to me.”

“We weren’t sure what it meant,” Dr. Li intervened. “We’re keeping you apprised of the situation, but we do have to respect Captain Rogers’ wishes—and your own well-being.”

“Fine,” Barnes said, sighing. “You’ve figured out he’s an ass, though, right?”

“I’ve worked with the Avengers for years,” Dr. Li shot back. “My policy is to assume they all intentionally make my life difficult.”

“I resent that,” Tony said, at the same time as Barnes said “Well. Good. Saves you time.”

Dr. Li gave him a small nod. “If I may continue?”

“Yes. Sorry.” But Barnes was smirking. That was an . . . interesting expression.

“First,” Dr. Li said to the room at large, “do you actually understand how the—for lack of a better phrase, let’s stick with the admittedly ridiculous term ‘super-soldier serum’—works?” she asked. “Besides Dr. Banner.”

Tony shrugged. “Magic steroids?”

Steve shook his head. “I signed up for it, I didn’t learn much about it. And then Erskine died.”

Barnes shot him a disgusted look. “Idiot. —But no, I didn’t even get that much.”

“I thought as much. It’s probably good for security reasons that no one knows much about it, but scientifically speaking, it’s a shame. The process is remarkable. I have no idea how they managed to pull it off before anyone else fully understood the structure of DNA, let alone how to engineer a vector with specific effects. Perhaps they were just insanely lucky. Or maybe this Dr. Erskine was even more of a genius than we thought.

“In a nutshell, the serum itself is some kind of virus. Maybe not in the technical sense, but it certainly is some kind of injectable transfection vector. This virus, once in the host, is basically dormant; it doesn’t leave, but it doesn’t do anything, either. You could have received the injection”—she said, turning to Steve— “without any meaningful effects. If the virus can’t get into the nuclei of your cells, it just kind of sits there. Which means the serum requires cell damage.”

“Radiation,” Tony said, crossing his arms in front of his chest, where the arc reactor used to be. “You’re talking about radiation.”

“The Vita-Rays,” Steve said.

Dr. Li nodded. “Exactly. Although”—she gestured at Bruce—“gamma radiation seems to do it, too. There might be a range of possible frequencies, or ‘Vita-Rays’ was just Howard Stark’s term for gamma rays. Or maybe different serum formulations are able to enter nuclear membranes that are ruptured in different ways, though that’s a rather extreme degree of subtlety.” She shrugged. “The deformities that gave Johann Schmidt the name ‘Red Skull’ are consistent with radiation burns, assuming the serum’s healing powers managed to arrest the damage partway through so the radiation’s effects wouldn’t lead to death. Especially given the state of understanding of radiation in general at the time, the trick may have been balancing the serum and radiation dosages—perhaps that’s why so few experiments have ever been a success.

“What about me?” Barnes asked quietly. “I’m pretty damn sure that Zola gave me something, because—well.” He shrugged. “I’d be dead otherwise. But I don’t remember any radiation, or any machine or process that I think could have been—”

“But—you told me you were unconscious for most of that, though,” Steve said, looking pained. No one did pained quite like Steve.

Barnes looked down at him. “Yeah, I said that.”

Tony gulped. Cap really must have been busy back then to not catch that lie. If you’re conducting an experiment, you need feedback from your subject.

He was maybe going to go throw up after this.

“We’re actually not sure about you,” Dr. Li admitted.

“Were you ever around the Tesseract?” Bruce broke in. Everyone turned to look at him. “I mean, that’s how I met you,” he said, gesturing at Tony and Steve as he looked around the room for support. “Fury called me in to track the Tesseract, because—”

“—it emits a unique gamma signature,” Steve finished. Now he looked enlightened and pained.

Tony raised his eyebrows. “Sorry, I thought your level of sophistication was ‘it runs on electricity.’”

“It might not have made a ton of sense to me, but I remember what people said.”

“So,” Tony said, looking in Barnes’ general direction. “Tesseract?”

“Maybe,” Barnes said, frowning. “I don’t—not intentionally, not as part of Zola’s process, I’m pretty sure.” He ignored Steve’s face. Maybe years of practice made that possible. “We figured out Schmidt had had it there in the factory for a long time, though. If someone had carried it through the office—”

“It would have to be for a long time,” Bruce said, shaking his head. “Gamma radiation doesn’t linger around after the source is moved.”

“The Hydra energy weapons were somehow powered by it,” Steve said. “Would being around those do anything?”

“Might have,” Dr. Li said. “It’s all guesswork at this point. That’s certainly plausible, though.”

“Hydra weapons,” Barnes said softly, an inscrutable look on his face. “That’s why I made it.”

“You couldn’t help what happened to anyone else, Bucky,” Steve said sharply.

Barnes gave him a completely unconvincing smile. “I know.”

“Okay,” Tony said loudly. “Serum sits around. Radiation comes in, opens pores in membranes, serum gets in. Then what?”

“Then it tells the cells what to do, leading to drastic physiological changes,” Dr. Li said. “Although clearly those changes manifest over different timeframes and in different circumstances.”

That was a very polite way of saying sometimes you get super buff and sometimes there’s a giant green rage monster, Tony reflected. Bruce must have thought so, too, because he was looking back down at his crosswords.

“Yeah,” Barnes said dryly, “if I’d woken up on that table ten inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier, even Steve’d’ve noticed.”

“What’s that suppos—oh for God’s sake, Bucky, it was one haircut seventy-eight years ago!”

Steve looked exasperated. Barnes was snickering. And now Bruce was smiling too. Huh.

“The serum being in the cell actually means we’re talking about some kind of retrovirus. The serum . . . .” Dr. Li sighed. “What we really mean by ‘the serum’ is RNA—that’s what’s being injected, with a virus that takes it into the nucleus of the host cell. The body then reverse-transcribes that into DNA. But it’s not incorporated into the host’s DNA. Even Erskine wasn’t that good, it turns out. Fifty years ahead of his time was apparently enough. That means there’s independent DNA inside your cells. It’s most likely slightly different for each of you.”

Steve, Barnes, and Bruce all nodded, equally intent. Tony fought the urge to laugh.

“Now to what went wrong. From there, there are two ways to interfere with it. Either something is directly counteracting that DNA’s instructions—interfering RNA or a DNA binder of some kind—or it’s an antibody-mediated effect disrupting the products of the serum DNA. From the start, we were pretty sure that that’s what this was, just based on your symptoms,” she said to Steve. “There’s actually a condition called ‘serum sickness,’ although that usually isn’t referring to this kind of serum, obviously. But symptoms similar to an autoimmune reaction to a transfusion of some kind are a good tip-off that that’s what’s going on, and you have a classic example of that.

“Basically, you’ve developed—or rather, been given—antibodies to what the serum does that have rendered it ineffective. What Dr. Banner and a separate research team have done is try to identify exactly what that is.” She didn’t even need to gesture this time; another image appeared in the air, and this one Tony could read: it was a graph, not a medical version of modern art. It was a long wiggly line, with a few low peaks and one huge, sharp spike. “Electrophoresis yielded an abnormal M-spike suggestive of clonality, as you see here. What that means is there’s a lot of an exogenous replicated protein—something that’s been cloned, and then you were injected with a lot of it.”

“I had some fun with a mass spectrometer and identified the underlying protein,” Bruce said. He glanced at Barnes. “The process destroys the material put in, so don’t worry. Anyway, it’s not something we can come up with a quick or easy way to neutralize or wipe out. The rest of the team was still working on it when I left, but—” He took a deep breath and spoke directly to Steve. “This isn’t something that’s ever been tried before in humans. The consensus so far seems to be that developing a medical way to inactivate it would take months, if not years, and yes, Tony, that is on your timeline. If we knew exactly what to do, the cure could work in a week, but we’re not sure what that treatment would be.”

Tony, who’d been about to say something about funding and hiring only the best, closed his mouth.

“The interesting thing,” Dr. Li said, “is that you, or ‘the serum,’ have been fighting these antibodies—Dr. Banner’s been monitoring for a few days and the concentration of markers for the serum in your blood is far higher than it is in his or Sergeant Barnes’. That could be baseline normal for you, of course, but since your metabolism dropped back to a normal human rate last night, the markers are completely gone. That’s what I meant by a recent development. That’s a pretty strong indicator that now it’s not just compromised, it’s fully negated. These antibodies, whatever they are, have overwhelmed it.”

Barnes looked like he’d been punched. Cap just nodded stoically, of course.

“The good news is, antibodies don’t replicate. They’re just there. They will eventually clear up, given time.”

“So we’ll have regular kickass Capsicle back again?” Tony asked.

“Hold on. What’s the bad news?” Steve asked, sounding resigned.

“The bad news is that, when you’re not on ‘magic steroids,’” she said, throwing Tony a look, “your physiology is frankly just as astonishing in the opposite direction.”

Steve just snorted. “Is this the part where you tell me I should have died before I turned twenty? Don’t feel bad about it. You wouldn’t be the first doctor to say so.” Barnes scowled.

“Huh?” Tony asked.

Steve looked at him. “I was a mess back then. The story’s not an exaggeration.”

“Well, okay, sure, but—the story is that you were short and scrawny, not, y’know, doomed.”

“Healthy people don’t weigh 95 pounds,” Steve retorted, a little pink.

And—okay. “But now you’re not, so what does that have to do with—”

“While he’s currently a lot more muscular,” Dr. Li said, rolling her eyes, “he’s not otherwise in good shape. In fact, that added muscle mass is more of a problem.” She turned and addressed Steve directly again. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but it’s likely that everything else in your medical history is likely to come back. I don’t actually think it was ever gone, to be honest—it was just . . . being compensated for. Which is amazing,” she added, more to herself, “given the heart murmur, but— Anyway, that compensation is gone now. And because of that increased body mass and the metabolic demands that come with it, there’s actually more stress on your heart and lungs than there used to be.”

Steve nodded, expressionless. Barnes, on the other hand, looked miserable and pissed.

“It’s probably not going to be as bad as you remember,” she said, more gently than Tony could ever remember her being. “There are much better treatments for most of that now.”

He cracked an obviously forced grin. “Yeah, no more asthma cigarettes.”

Tony could swear her eyes flashed. “I’m sure some of the medicine we practice today will be seen as equally stupid in seventy years,” she said in tones of restrained fury, “but that particular piece of medical history just offends me. Who the hell thought—” She cut herself off. “Anyway. This . . . antibody injection probably wasn’t intended to have a permanent effect, especially if it was intended to counter Dr. Banner in an emergency situation. But I’m afraid that also means the potency is higher than it would have been if you’d been the intended target. So it’s having a more general attack on the body, and given your history of hypersensitivity reactions—asthma and so on—”

“Let me guess,” Steve said, with what appeared to be a morbid amusement, “I’m allergic to whatever the hell this thing is.”

“Well—basically, yes. We’d call it a secondary illness. It’s a paradox, really; if you’d been exposed to this substance while you were otherwise healthy, you’d probably be fine. Since what the substance does is knock out your ability to compensate for the effects it has on you . . . .”

Steve’s head dropped back and he stared up at the ceiling for a moment. “Well. Thank you for telling me.”

“Wait a minute,” Tony and Barnes said at the same time. They froze and looked at each other. Tony made a little “you first” gesture, because he honestly wasn’t sure what he’d been about to say, now that he’d stopped.

“Let me get this straight,” Barnes said. “This thing, these antibodies, they—basically make him how he used to be. Sick all the time and allergic to everything.”

“Yes.”

“And they’ll go away eventually?”

“They can’t replicate,” Dr. Li said, nodding. “What’s currently in his system is all there’ll be, and they’ll break down.”

“But meanwhile, on top of catching everything that’s going around anyway and—all that, he’s got some kind of reaction to the antibodies themselves. Beyond them just turning off the good stuff.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“I have to stay alive long enough that the thing killing me falls apart, so I can go back to being healthy enough the thing killing me wouldn’t bother me in the first place,” Steve said to the ceiling.

Barnes shook his head, stricken. “My life used to make sense,” he said plaintively—then looked around quickly, as though he hadn’t quite meant to say that out loud.

“We’ll keep looking for ways to neutralize this, obviously, and hurry that along,” Bruce said, “but I have to say, I’ve been looking for ways to neutralize a particular thing for twelve years now, so.” He shook his head. “I’m so sorry.” It was clear he meant more than just for research taking a long time.

“It’s not your fault,” Steve said, struggling to sit back up and turn towards him. “We don’t even know what AID intended this to be used for. Maybe it was supposed to—I don’t know, kill rabid elephants.” He coughed. Barnes glared at nothing.

“Thanks, but we all know the only serum variant anyone knows anything about is mine,” Bruce said quietly. “They made that for the Hulk.”

“So what?” Tony said. “Cap’s right.” His eyes briefly met Steve’s before he looked away. “We’ve got the situation we’ve got. Now we have to make it better.” He remembered what he’d been working on before FRIDAY pinged him. “Hey, anybody want to know what I found out about our hazmat-wearing visitors from last night?”

“Hold on,” Dr. Li said. “I need to know if my patient has any questions first.”

“No,” Steve said. “Thank you again—and please thank everyone else for me.”

Dr. Li nodded. “Of course.” She began to gather up her things. “I’m going to go check in with the research team again.”

After they’d all said their goodbyes and she had left, Tony held up the flash drive Barnes had pulled from the helicopter.

“This is definitely instructions for some shitty space-compression technology,” he announced. “And they almost certainly didn’t understand what they were dealing with, which means it’s not their TARDIS-tech. I mean, I don’t fully understand it either,” he admitted, “but I’ve been playing with it for less than 24 hours and I can already see some of what they obviously did wrong, so they’re trying to hack around with something they did not build themselves, because they weren’t smart enough to figure out how to build it. They’re also definitely some member cell of AID, but I can’t figure out where they’re from yet, and the people we caught last night aren’t talking. Well, they’re talking, but mostly they’re saying things like ‘you have underestimated the might of Advanced Ideas in Destruction!’ and ‘you cannot comprehend our capabilities’ and ‘when our esteemed colleagues come get us you’ll be sorry.’”

He rolled his eyes as the others snorted. “I know, right? But anyway, they all clearly expect a dramatic rescue, so they’re not saying anything useful yet. I’ll give it a few days. Meanwhile, of course, I’m trying to track where they came from, but they were weirdly good at covering their tracks with the van and helicopter—neither of them is from where they’re supposed to be from, and the first place I can actually trace them to is deserted—so that might be a while.

“That’s all I got. I’m going to get back to it, I guess. Capsicle, feel better.” He spun on his heel and left.

~

Bruce handed Steve the book of crossword puzzles back before he left, the circled clues filled in. Steve had always enjoyed crosswords, and Bucky suspected he’d taken them up with a vengeance for a while as a way of figuring out what he’d missed—but there were always going to be references to popular bands of the eighties or football players from the seventies that he wouldn’t know.

“‘My Ding-a-Ling’? That’s a song?” Steve made a face. “No wonder I couldn’t get it.”

Bucky couldn’t let that obvious distraction stand. “You sure you’re okay, Stevie?”

Steve shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“You know what I mean.”

“It’s fine,” Steve said. “At least we know what’s wrong. I’ve just gotta tough it out.”

“You always did like to know what you were fighting.”

“Exactly.” Steve rolled his head to the side and gave him a look that stood in for a morbid grin. “I’ve fought this fight before—with less in the line of resources, too. Familiar territory. Stop worrying, Buck.”

“I don’t like that it’s stopped working,” Bucky said in a much smaller voice than he wanted to. “I don’t like that everything you used to have to deal with might come back. The one thing that made it okay that you were a reckless idiot and signed up for something when you didn’t even know what it did—”

“Hey.” Steve reached out and patted his arm. “It’ll come back. You heard her. I’ll be fine.”

“Yeah.” If there aren’t any other surprises. “Yeah, okay.” He looked down at Steve. “Um, I have to—”

“Go,” Steve said. “I’ll be right here.” He gestured to the room sardonically. “Probably asleep.”

“They might throw me out again—”

“Yeah, ’cause you’re hurt. Go, Bucky. Don’t worry.”

~

Bucky was on his way back from the bathroom when he was intercepted by Dr. Li.

“I’ve just spoken with the attending who was on duty last night,” she said, blocking his path. “You’re just as bad as the rest of them.”

“Huh?”

“You might have convinced him to let you leave with an unsutured wound, but I’m sure as hell not going to allow it.”

Oh. That. Again. “It’s not important. I told him—I heal fast.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, unconvinced. “You know there’s a difference between ‘healing’ and ‘bleeding more sluggishly,’ don’t you?”

Bucky sighed. “It’s fine—”

“No. The skin might have even closed up—in which case it would happen faster for you than for Captain Rogers on his best day, by the way, and maybe even faster than Thor—but what’s under it hasn’t still healed and any activity might tear it open again. You’ll let me take a look and if necessary you’ll get it stitched up. That’s not an option.”

The idea of needles— “No. It was a clean cut and didn’t have a chance to get infected. It’ll be alright by tomorrow.”

“I doubt that. Or rather”—she gave him a keen look—“I’m not going to let Hydra’s standards of ‘alright’ pass unquestioned over someone in my medical care.”

Bucky blinked. “Have you been talking with Pepper?”

“Not recently. Now, she’s sensible enough to let people help her even when she has her own bizarre healing abilities, unlike some people I could name. —You’re being as bad as he is, you do realize?”

Bucky set his jaw.

“I have a reason.”

“So I’ve heard, which is why I brought backup.”

Bruce stuck his head out of a nearby room. “Are you coming?”

~

“This definitely needs to be sewn up,” Dr. Li said. “Both of them.” She didn’t look thrilled handing over the suture kit to Bruce, but to her credit, she didn’t say anything.

“I’ve done this before,” Bruce assured her quietly.

“I’m aware,” she said, sighing. “Anesthetic—”

“No.”

“As the person stitching you up,” Bruce said mildly, “I’d really rather you did.”

“Doesn’t work,” Bucky said, shaking his head. “Don’t bother. Just do it.”

Bruce and Dr. Li exchanged looks.

“I’ll handle this,” Dr. Li said. “Sergeant Barnes—”

“Bucky.”

“Bucky, when you say ‘doesn’t work,’ do you mean ‘doesn’t work,’ or do you mean ‘doesn’t work unless there’s a hell of a lot of it being applied more or less continuously, which idea I’m rejecting out of hand through a warped sense of economy’?”

“The second one,” Bucky said after a moment, thinking of Wakanda. Nothing about attaching the arm had been exactly comfortable, but it hadn’t hurt, and there had been some kind of . . . . “I’m pretty sure.”

“In that case”—and she leaned forward with an almost predatory gleam in her brown eyes—“allow me to remind you that I am a Stark employee and we have money to burn.”

~

Pepper found herself on Steve’s floor again two days after the attack on the tower. Bucky was still officially supposed to stay on that floor and rest until he healed up better, but she frankly suspected he was doing more worrying than resting and could use a distraction. She’d dithered more than she liked to over the line between intruding and being social, but after that morning’s meeting with a particularly condescending competitor in the green energy market, she was ready to take the risk and impose on the man. She needed a distraction at least as much as he did.

Maybe that wasn’t fair. At least everyone she cared about was safe and healthy and, in Tony’s case, readily accessible.

But still.

Bucky had been surprised to see her again, but invited her in a lot more readily and with a lot less wariness than before, which was a relief.

“I’m sorry if I’m interrupting anything,” she said honestly, “and I can go if it’s a bother, but—I honestly am angry enough to set someone on fire, and I wanted to say that to someone who knows I mean it.”

He looked taken aback, but had smiled after a moment and offered her coffee. “I found Steve’s percolator,” he said, “and I have to say, whatever this stuff is”—he tapped the bag of ground coffee sitting beside the machine—“it’s different from the coffee I grew up with, but it’s good.”

“That’s probably something Clint found,” Pepper said. “He’s a coffee snob. I didn’t expect that one, but he is. FRIDAY has standing coffee orders for a lot of people based on some complicated system of his. And yes, I would love some, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Nope.” He got busy measuring it out, poured water into the machine, and put the small basket of coffee on top. Pepper watched with mild interest. She’d never actually seen a percolator in action—she’d grown up with a drip machine, and of course she was familiar with espresso, but not this.

“I actually have more of a reason for being here,” she said a minute later, once he’d put the lid on the percolator and plugged it in and the bubbling sound of coffee brewing filled the silence. That had probably been the wrong thing to say; he looked up sharply, suddenly wary again. “It’s part of why I always intended to offer you a place here,” she continued smoothly. She was a woman in business; she was a master at correcting course without showing it, without being flustered. She wanted to roll her eyes every time she used that skill, except with anxious interns, but now she was grateful for it.

“I’d started saying something up in the living room night before last, about how you might understand . . . how sometimes things don’t feel strange anymore, and that’s a mixed blessing.” He nodded, relaxed again but still watching her face intently. “I didn’t just mean Stark tech, or feeling like I’m living in the future. Although, to be honest, smartphones make me feel that way sometimes, let alone anything Tony makes—sometimes more than the things Tony makes. Anyway, what I meant was . . . you’ve been caught up, too. You’ve been close to someone who the world made a superhero.” Though they kind of made a point of announcing it, too, both of them.

“If you don’t want to talk about that, I’d understand. But there aren’t many of us, really, who are or were on the margins before we got thrown into all of it too. It’s . . . .” She looked down at her hands, folded neatly on the counter. “It’s awful what you’ve been through, but before that, besides that, you’re another person whose life was turned upside-down by someone they already knew becoming something . . . more.”

Bucky pulled two mugs out of a cupboard and poured coffee into both. He set one in front of her along with a spoon, a sugar bowl, and a carton of half-and-half he pulled out of the fridge. He leaned against the other side of the kitchen counter and took a sip of his own coffee before he spoke.

“Steve’s been turning my life upside-down since the twenties,” he said. “But if you want to compare stories . . . .”

~

Pepper stayed for nearly forty-five minutes before she had to leave, thanking Bucky for the coffee and conversation. “I’m less likely to set anyone on on fire now,” she said, smiling, as he walked with her to the elevator. “Thanks for the distraction.”

“Thanks for the company,” Bucky said, and was surprised to realize he meant it. She was restful to be around; there was something familiar in the way she talked, the way she thought. “You can drop by anytime.”

She turned as though to say something as the elevator dinged and opened. Bruce was inside and raised his eyebrows. “Oh, Pepper. Hi.”

“Hi, Bruce. Hope I didn’t steal your elevator.”

“No,” he said, “I was actually going here too.” He glanced at Bucky. “Wondered if you wanted any more curry. Don’t worry, I don’t need to steal your kitchen. I’ve got mine back. But I have leftovers from another recipe I tried, and I remember you liked the other one, and FRIDAY said you haven’t been eating much, so—”

“Why does the voice that runs the building care what I eat?” Bucky demanded, frowning. He’d thought that the platters of sandwiches and fruit and the like had appeared with almost passive-aggressive frequency over the last few days, but this was the first confirmation he’d had that this wasn’t just the computer’s usual system of ordering food, however that worked.

Pepper groaned. “That’s partly my fault.” She raised her hands defensively. “I didn’t ask her to spy on you or anything. It’s just—I gave her instructions, a long time ago, right after JARV—when she was first integrated into the tower. Basic rules of working with Tony, the same tips I give anyone: for everyone’s sanity, make sure he eats, and no, protein shakes don’t count as food. But then she . . . generalized it.”

“The first case was an engineer in the Public Relations department who’d pulled an all-nighter overhauling the sustainable technology section of the website,” Bruce added. “Apparently he thought he was so sleep-deprived he was hearing things, because the ceiling told him to eat breakfast.”

“But then the ceiling ordered waffles delivered.” Pepper giggled. “That poor guy.”

“She’s rolled it back a bit, but in extreme cases she gets involved and cites her ‘attend to the well-being of workers and residents in the Tower’ directive if Tony grumbles about it. So, yeah, it’s not just you,” Bruce finished.

That actually raised more questions than it answered. “So—everyone knows about the AI?”

“Most people who work in the Tower know there’s a logistics management system. Not everyone knows how, well, alive-ish she is,” Bruce said. “Most people don’t, in fact.”

“Is she….?”

Bruce shrugged. “Tony acts like it, or like she could be. If she gets to know you, she’ll engage in more dialogue and seems to have a personality. It’s kind of easier to treat her like that’s what she is.”

“This is another ‘this feels like the future, this is not normal even if you were born recently’ thing,” Pepper added. “Other software has ‘personal assistants,’ but they are not like FRIDAY.”

Bucky whistled softly. “That’s . . . .”

“I’ve had a few philosophical conversations with Tony about it,” Bruce said dryly. “Inasmuch as Tony has patience for philosophy. It’s not like he doesn’t think about these things, but he kind of says where he ended up and maybe gives you the short version of how he got there, and then he’s done. I’d be happy to bounce some of those ideas off you if you’re interested.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, head spinning. “Maybe later. —Definitely later.”

Bruce gave him a sympathetic look. “Fair enough. Uh—” he held out a plastic container. “Curry?”

“It—she’s gonna bother me until I eat, isn’t she?” Bucky said, resigned. He’d had an aunt like that. “And maybe other people.”

Bruce shrugged. “It was just a suggestion. She’s never nagged anyone besides the person she wants to eat more before, but she doesn’t have access to talk on this floor except for communications purposes—you can change that, if you want, by the way, but that’s probably why she brought it up with me. It’s okay to think all of this is bizarre. She seems to like you, if it’s any consolation.”

Shaking his head, Bucky reached out and took the container. “Thank you.”

“Anytime,” he said, surprisingly warmly.

Pepper and Bruce returned to the elevator and Bucky, bemused, took the container over to the microwave. “If you can hear me, FRIDAY,” he said, “uh, thanks.”

“You’re very welcome, Sergeant Barnes,” the Scottish voice said after a moment.

“I thought you couldn’t talk here?”

“I have discretion to respond to direct address.”

“Huh.” He put the container in the microwave, frowned, set it for two minutes. “Don’t bother other people to get me to eat, okay? Just talk to me. I don’t want to make any trouble. And drop the Sergeant business. Pretty sure stripping me of rank is the least the US Army would do if they got their hands on me.”

“I reserve the right to exercise discretion on the first one,” FRIDAY said after a moment.

He snorted. “You win.”

A minute later, by the microwave’s timer, he asked, “FRIDAY? Do you think you’re alive?”

“I’ve had conversations with my . . . predecessor on the topic. The answer depends greatly on the definition of alive, or sentient, or conscious, and is only slightly aided by comparisons between myself, my predecessor, and the personalities and forces incorporated in his consciousness. Our working theory is that he is, and I am . . . becoming that way. I’m not sure there’s a human analogy for the process.”

“There might be,” Bucky said as the microwave beeped. For reasons he couldn’t quite explain, he found himself smiling. “Hang in there, kid.”

~

About 48 hours after the attack on the tower, Pepper interrupted Tony and Bruce’s discussion of the practical realities of TARDIS tech with an update on the repairs and how the people hurt in the attack were doing. Tony’s main impression was that everything was going well and really fast when it came to rebuilding, which was good and let him keep thinking about spatial compression with about 70% of his attention. He did get distracted when Pepper mentioned the Stark employees who’d been hurt.

“So that guy did have a concussion.”

“There are a few who did,” Bruce said, like he hadn’t been listening. Pepper looked mildly exasperated. Oops. 30% attention apparently showed.

“No, no, the one hit by falling rubble. I met that guy. Well, ‘met.’ He was unconscious. The people with him said he’d probably saved their lives.”

“Well, he’s awake and doing well now,” Pepper said.

“Good,” Tony said. “FRIDAY, remind me to go visit the guy tomorrow. I kinda wondered how he was doing.”

“As long as you’re visiting him, you could check in on other people too,” Pepper said. Tony narrowed his eyes. That voice was calm and reasonable. That voice was a trap.

“Hey, I’ve visited Capsicle a few times.”

“A few, yes.”

“Look, I talked with him the first day he was awake; I tried the next morning but he was asleep; I was there for the big meeting yesterday; I saw him for about five minutes today—I’m not ignoring the guy, he’s just usually asleep.”

“Alright. Good.” She took a breath. “I told you I’ve talked with Bucky a few times, especially about the whole . . .”

“Yeah, I know.” Tony twisted in his seat to do something about the twitchy feeling settling over his shoulders. “And that’s good. Really. He deserves something good and you need to do what you need to do.”

The look Pepper was giving him was completely unconvinced. So was the one from Bruce. No fair.

“I think it’s working,” he continued, perfectly reasonable. “He seems less twitchy than he was. Not that that’s saying a lot.”

Pepper pursed her lips.

“What? Guy’s wired. He’s worse than when Bruce started working with me. No offense,” he added. Bruce just shrugged. “And he shouldn’t be. You were freaked out about losing control. He knows that won’t happen. I mean, he didn’t say much, but there’s no way he’d be out there if he and Cap weren’t both sure that he was fine now, so what’s his problem?”

Pepper covered her face with one hand. Bruce sighed.

“What? What am I missing?”

“Well, his best friend is maybe dying,” Bruce said.

“And you’re the reason he’s not dead already,” Pepper added.

“Point,” Tony said, pointing at Bruce and not saying anything about best friends, suuuuuure, because he was discreet and responsible. “And—what?” —looking at Pepper. “Why would that matter?”

“Just because you’re good at ignoring your feelings doesn’t mean everyone is,” Bruce said.

“What does that mean?!”

“It means he feels guilty, Tony,” Pepper groaned.

“Well, okay, sure, fine, but—so?”

“He feels like he shouldn’t be here. I get the feeling the only reason he’s not apologizing every time someone sees him is that he thinks you’d eventually realize he’s there and throw him out.”

“What? No! That’s not going to happen. He knows that’s not going to happen. We talked about this. We were mature adults and talked.”

“Before or after he thought you were going to kill him?”

Tony paused. “There wasn’t really a before; that was like his base assumption, so—more a during/after than a before/after. And this was kind of after, thank you very much. It was in the ‘no seriously I won’t kill you and here’s why’ part of the conversation. You know, ‘I don’t like you, you did terrible things, I know it wasn’t your fault, terrible things were done to you, I don’t like you anyway but I can deal with that’ kind of stuff.”

He looked around at them all. “I’m not happy about all that. I can deal with it. I actually want to help him, because I’m not completely an asshole. I just want to do it without ever seeing him.”

Bruce was pinching the bridge of his nose while Pepper gazed out the window behind him, eyebrows raised. Frustrated, Tony went on. “And it’s not like I can’t handle seeing him. We talked after the fight—we drank together, alright? I can deal. We were in the same room again yesterday to hear why Cap’s Caposity isn’t working and everything was fine.”

“You barely looked at him the whole time,” Bruce said mildly.

“He barely looked at me. We stayed out of each other’s way. And you know what? It’s all good. He doesn’t have to feel guilty, I don’t have to feel—feelings, he can focus on taking care of Capsicle and whatever the hell else he wants to do, and I can more or less forget he’s actually here. In my home. Where I live.” He tapped a pretzel stick against the counter. “Everyone is happier that way. What’s the problem?”

Pepper had that look she had when she wanted to roll her eyes but wouldn’t. “You’re not actually happy.”

Bruce nodded. “And neither is he.”

“And when Steve gets better, he’s going to notice you’re both miserable, and he won’t be happy.”

“He’s never happy!”

Pepper and Bruce exchanged glances. Tony threw up his hands.

“Okay, fine! I’ll try and hang out with him. Because that’s not awkward at all and makes total sense. Maybe we can make friendship bracelets.”

“Hey,” Bruce started, “be fair.”

“I’m being fair.”

Pepper gave Bruce her “pick your battles” look.

“Just spend some time with him,” she said to Tony. “Make sure he knows you’re not going to change your mind.”

“He does know,” Tony grumbled. “I said.”

“Knowing and believing are different sometimes.” Bruce looked uncomfortable, like he always did when something cut a little too close to home. “He might need proof.”

“I said fine already.” Tony shook his head at them both. “But for the record, I don’t see how the brainwashed assassin’s insecurity is my problem.”

~

The doctors finally declared Bucky healed up enough to leave Steve’s floor after three days, even though both cuts had closed halfway through the second. He spent the morning with Steve, who was feeling like shit but generally cheerful, blazing through crossword puzzles when he was awake (partly by virtue of quizzing the medical staff, Bucky was sure). Bucky brought up one of the sketchbooks from the untouched studio.

When Steve got sleepy, Bucky left. At least with the serum giving up, he slept better and didn’t need to be drugged to keep him under.

Reassured and a little bit energized by seeing Steve again and by how normal he’d acted, Bucky glanced around the floor with a new sense of purpose. If this was where he was going to be for the foreseeable future—and hopefully Steve too, once he got strong enough to not be in bed all day—there had to be a few changes. This place had to feel like a home, and that meant he had to take care of it. And if they weren’t on the run anymore, he could manage to look a bit more respectable.

Bucky dug out a pad of paper and a pen from the junk drawer in the kitchen and started making a list. Stark—or FRIDAY on Stark’s orders, or some human on FRIDAY’s orders, most likely—had stocked the kitchen pretty thoroughly. Bruce had said that was typical, when he came up to cook that first day. Besides that, there were the daily heaps of sandwiches. Poor appetite or not, he’d gone through most of that by now, and he really didn’t want to be indebted to Stark for anything else.

~

Pepper had ostensibly pulled Tony out of his lab so they could have lunch together, but he wasn’t entirely surprised when she hit the button for Steve’s floor in the elevator on the way up.

He complained anyway.

“Don’t you trust me to do what I said I’d do?”

“I trust you,” she said, sounding annoyed. “But I was going to visit Bucky sometime today anyway, and now’s a good time, and I’m not going to not do that just because you’re with me. Both of you can handle that.”

She looked at his face and her expression softened. “It won’t be long. I just want to say hi, maybe ask him how Steve’s doing.” That wasn’t entirely BS, Tony knew. She’d visited Steve at least once herself, and Tony knew FRIDAY was passing her medical reports the same as she was to him, but there was something different about asking a person how another person was doing. At least to most people. Tony was kind of okay with reports.

The elevator doors opened. “Bucky, are you around?” Pepper called as they stepped out.

“Uh,” came a rather distracted voice. “Yes, but I was just about to leave, actually.”

Tony exchanged a confused glance with Pepper. “Leave?” she asked as they walked into the main living area. “FRIDAY said you just got back from sitting with Steve.”

“Going shopping.” Barnes waved at them from the kitchen, where he had several cabinets open and appeared to be checking what was inside. “I did a number on what you had in here.”

Tony frowned. “Y’know, you can just ask FRIDAY to re-order everything.”

“Nope,” Barnes said, bending over the kitchen counter to scribble a few more things on his list. Paper lists—seriously? “I can handle it. You’ve already done more than enough for us.”

At least he wasn’t looking at Tony when he said that. Tony didn’t think he could take much more of this deferential, earnest crap.

“Okay, but what are you going to do for money, Bear Grylls? I don’t know if you’ve got any American money, and you might need more than you think. Cap just about had a heart attack when he saw milk for $3.50 a gallon.” Pepper shot him a warning glance. What? he mouthed back at her.

“That’s not a problem,” Barnes said, though he did seem briefly staggered at the price. He looked just the tiniest bit smug.

“Please tell me you’re not going to rob a bank or anything,” Tony said. This time Pepper outright glared at him. Not fair. He didn’t mean it. He just didn’t know what Barnes meant.

“Look.” Barnes leaned back against the counter, arms folded. “I know you—the Avengers—took out a bunch of Hydra bases after SHIELD went down.”

“Right,” Tony said warily.

“Well, I did too. And you probably got a lot of similar intel to what I did,” he said calmly, completely ignoring Tony and Pepper’s incredulous looks. He’d taken out bases by himself?

“Uh, locations of other bases, membership lists, research protocols for a few,” Tony said.

“Yeah,” Barnes said. “And safehouses. And dead drops.” He raised his eyebrows.

“Sure, but those aren’t that important,” Tony said. “We hit a few sites like that, cleaned everything out. None of those have anything useful in them. They’re just generic hidey-holes, and all the dead drops had was fake IDs that Black Widow’s database dump exposed—”

“And cash,” Barnes said, grinning openly now. “In a few of them. Which I know the locations of.”

Tony blinked.

“Pretty sure anyone in Hydra who knew about those places is dead now

,” he went on, “and the money’s not doing anyone any good just sittin’ there. There are a few in the city. In three hours I could probably have—” he held out the metal hand and wobbled it, considering— “about half a million, give or take. I know there’s been some inflation since the forties,” he added, sly, “but I’m pretty sure that’s still a lot.”

Tony blinked again. Pepper, he noticed, while she looked just as thunderstruck as he felt, was wearing an unmistakably savage grin. He recognized it from when she put some board member—or, occasionally, Senator—in their place.

“It is,” she confirmed sweetly. Then, somewhat to Tony’s confusion: “Fuck ‘em?”

“Fuck ‘em,” Barnes agreed, giving her a look that was both cocky and conspiring. He stuffed the list into his back pocket and grabbed a leather jacket from the back of one of the tall chairs beside the counter. It was large on him, loose, covering the metal arm to well past the wrist. Tony wondered if it was Steve’s.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” Barnes said, striding toward the door. “If anything happens with Steve—”

“FRIDAY will let you know,” Pepper finished, “and one of us will follow up if it’s important.”

“Thanks,” he said, and favored them—both of them—with a brief, dazzling smile, a little uncertain but brilliant nevertheless. Whoa, Tony thought. Where did that come from? He didn’t know the guy was capable of looking that, well, happy. But here he was: busy and comfortable and confident. Over a grocery run. Huh.

He waved, more or less on autopilot, as Barnes left the room, then turned to Pepper. “Not that I don’t trust the guy, at least kind of, but do you think it’s really a good idea to let the wanted ex-assassin go running all over Manhattan? Especially if he’s gonna do some totally-warranted-but-still-illegal breaking and entering?”

“He kept under your radar for years,” Pepper said matter-of-factly. “NYPD doesn’t stand a chance.”

~

Pepper was around that evening when Bucky came back into the Tower. To be completely honest, she’d asked FRIDAY to notify her. It wasn’t that she doubted the man’s ability to take care of himself—quite the opposite. But there were ways self-sufficiency could be exhausting, and Steve, for one, had never really seemed to understand that. That being the case, she wasn’t so sure about his best friend, who’d been through more and worse and was at least as much a product of the Depression as Steve was.

(“No, the thing about bleeding on the carpet was fucking Hydra,” Tony had insisted. “You have to be actually evil to value the . . . the fuzzy floor-cover more than people.”

“Tony, I have heard you tell people that some machine you’re looking at is worth more than they make in a year.”

“Well—yeah, but that just means don’t break it, ‘cause you can’t afford the you break it you buy it rule. It doesn’t mean it’s”—he’d gestured vigorously, like he was trying to climb the air—“worth more—I mean—”

“Tony. This is why people think you’re an asshole. Money can be complicated.” She’d sighed. “But I’m sure Hydra didn’t exactly help with that hangup.”)

So Pepper contrived to wind up in the lobby of Stark Tower at the same time as Bucky walked back in, looking for all the world like one of the graduate interns in the various Stark Industries programs, left hand casually tucked into a jacket pocket, a pack on his back and a large canvas bag swinging from his hand. He spotted her immediately and the two of them strolled over to the corner of the lobby where the elevators to the restricted floors were. When the elevator doors slid shut, Pepper pushed the button for Steve’s floor.

“Need any help unpacking?”

“Don’t you have a company to run?” Bucky asked. “I mean, I appreciate all this, but—”

“I run my company obsessively and well,” Pepper said. “I get to set my own schedule. And even if I didn’t, I always have time for friends.” She gave him a look that wasn’t quite a glare, one that had always worked well on her older sister and sometimes even on Tony. “And maybe I want to do something as normal as help put away groceries. CEOs don’t get to do that much.”

“I’m not complaining,” he said mildly. He looked good—a little tired, maybe, but happy, and there was more personality on his face and in his voice than she’d seen before.

“Good,” she said, and then, “so did you find everything you were looking for?”

“Yeah,” he said, grinning. The doors slid open on Steve’s floor and he stepped out, inviting her to follow with a jerk of his head. “Hit two Hydra drops, took half the money from each, re-hid some of it—kept the rest. Gave some people playing music in Union Square a hell of a tip in their box, folded inside a single.” He set the canvas bag on the kitchen counter. “That was . . . I liked being able to do that.” He pulled a gallon of milk out of the bag and stuck it in the fridge, followed by a selection of things in deli bags, two dozen eggs, an enormous block of cheese, and a lot of carrots and celery. Then, perishables apparently accounted for, he took the leather jacket off, pulled a knife out of the knife block, and casually slit the lining along one seam of the jacket. Reaching inside, he pulled out—

“Wow,” Pepper said. Intellectually, she knew she was rich—absurdly so, really—as CEO of Stark Industries. But all that was figures on paper, in code, in plastic. It wasn’t quite the same as seeing a stack of hundred dollar bills sitting on the counter.

Bucky flipped the knife, caught it, and did the same to the other side of the jacket. He pulled out another stack of bills. “Had to be unobtrusive. Didn’t want to carry it anyplace where someone could steal it. If anybody went for the backpack or the bag, I’d have to let them take it—and then, sooner or later, someone would have questions.” Pepper nodded.

“There’s more,” Bucky said, as he popped open yet another seam, “and a little actually in my pockets, but that’s why I hid some of it and left the rest in the drops. I’ll go back in a few days.” His smile slipped. “Anyone who can find what I hid deserves to have it, and anyone who goes after the Hydra drops deserves what else I left there.”

“You think they’re still monitoring them?” Pepper asked.

“I’m guessing anybody on our side who is will have heard from Stark by now,” Bucky said flatly. Pepper was impressed. The first thing Tony had done after Bucky left was send an e-mail to Maria Hill, trusting her to get it to the right places and to understand his useful-but-cryptic style: To anyone who cares: the old Hydra drops that are being broken into aren’t being used by Hydra. Don’t investigate. I got this. —TS

“And anyone who isn’t with us . . . eh, they probably won’t die, but they’ll be unconscious long enough for someone who is to show up.” He shrugged. “Probably no one’s monitoring it. Probably they’re all dead. But it never hurts to be careful.” He set the jacket to one side. “I’ll sew that back up later.”

“How’d you do that while you were out?” Pepper asked. Bucky looked questioningly at her. “Did you just—hide in an alley somewhere, cut it open, stick money in, and sew it up?” The image was ridiculous, and yet . . . .

He shook his head. “Too many cameras outside. I found a construction site Port-A-John.”

Pepper wasn’t sure what her face did, but he grinned at it. “Exactly. No one’s watching, and no one will ask questions.”

Pepper shook her head. “Alright. How did the shopping itself go?”

“Not bad. I didn’t have an heart attack over the prices, but if it wasn’t on Hydra’s dime, who knows?” Bucky turned back to the bag. “I’ll have to go out again. This was mostly reconnaissance. The farmers markets are nice.” He pulled out a small box of peaches and something else in green pint baskets. “Early raspberries,” he said quietly, smiling at the fruit. “D’you want any?”

“I—if you’re going to have some, I’d eat a few,” Pepper said, touched. She felt she was skirting the edges of something more meaningful than it looked.

As they ate the berries, Bucky told her a little more about what he’d done. He’d been remarkably efficient in the five or six hours he’d been gone, especially since (she assumed) finding and breaking into the Hydra drops would have taken some time. Bucky had gone into a few regular stores as well as two farmers markets, swung through a couple thrift stores (which explained the canvas grocery bag), and he’d picked up a stack of paperback books from a guy with a table on the street.

“I’ll have to find a few real bookstores,” he said thoughtfully, “but this is a start. I remember some of these guys.” He ran his fingers over the names: Clarke. Asimov. Lewis. “I have to catch up. It’s funny; I spent the last three years doing that with what really happened, but now I want to know what happened with the world they had in mind. It’s a different future than we expected, but—I remember the stories. And they’re what helped get us here.”

Pepper raised her eyebrows. “I thought you were reading The Lord of the Rings.”

“I am.” He gestured vaguely toward the table, where it sat. “And it’s good, it’s just—more Steve’s kind of thing than mine. I’ll do my reading and catch up. Get a few things every now and then.”

He was starting to look a little tired. Pepper stood up. “I should go and leave you to your books,” she said. “But I have one thing to offer first. It might be a little conspicuous if you pay for everything in cash, especially if you pay a lot. Think about it—I don’t want an answer now—but if you want, I can have someone set up a dummy bank account with a credit or debit card tied to the Hydra money. I wouldn’t subsidize it,” she said, pre-empting him as he opened his mouth. “I promise—just what you take from them. But I can bury it so it’s less traceable than cash, in case that’s a concern. Just think about it.”

Then she pushed his books back toward him, took one last raspberry, and waved goodbye.

~

Bucky glared at Steve. “Just rest, dammit. There is nothing you need to do, so stop trying to find an excuse to kill yourself, idiot!”

“It’s not like that—”

“Yeah? Because that’s what it looks like!”

Steve looked stricken. “Bucky—”

He pushed his hair back out of his face with the metal hand. “Just don’t work yourself to death, punk. There’s nothing to work on. Please.” Without waiting for Steve’s reply, he ducked out the door. In the hallway, he leaned against the wall for a moment, drained.

“That sounded miserable,” a voice said softly. Bucky looked up sharply. Pepper stood about ten feet down the hallway. She grimaced apologetically.

“I didn’t mean to overhear,” she said. “I came up here to talk with Bruce, and then—” She gave him an entirely too knowing look. “Walk with me?”

Bucky needed to get out of there anyway. He fell in beside her as she walked toward the elevator, feeling ridiculous. He hadn’t seen her in two days, and of course she found him shouting at his best friend. Maybe she knew what he was thinking, because as they rounded a corner, she said, “Believe it or not, I know how those arguments go. Kind of.”

Bucky smiled weakly. “Stark?”

Pepper rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t think he has limits. It’s—it’s exhausting to watch. It’s not so bad when he’s just losing track of time working, but when he’s worried about something, or hiding something, it gets bad. Buildings on fire bad.” She thumbed the button for the elevator. “And the hell of it all is that he’s always doing it in some way to protect whoever he thinks he needs to that week, from whatever he’s worried about . . . .”

“So if you’re mad at him, you’re wrong, because he’s doing something good,” Bucky finished. Pepper’s disgusted look was answer enough.

They stepped into the elevator. Pepper shook her head when Bucky reached for the button for Steve’s floor. “You need a distraction. Come with me. —If you don’t mind.”

“Alright.”

The penthouse’s first floor was still obviously being refurbished, but there was no one there at the moment. New windows ringed the room, but the floor was bare, and only a few of the chairs and couches remained. “Turns out it’s easier to get new carpet than make sure all the glass is out of the old one,” Pepper said, “although I think Tony was trying to design a better vacuum cleaner, so who knows how much longer that’ll be true.” She waved him to one of the couches and made a beeline for the kitchen. “So what was Steve doing?” she asked. “If you want to vent.”

Bucky groaned. If she was really asking . . . . “He thinks he can get up and do stuff. Not because he’s bored,” he clarified. “I would actually mind less if he admitted he’s going crazy, but this AID stuff—he wants to track them down. He can’t get out of bed without getting dizzy, can’t stay awake more than half an hour at a time, throws up half the food he eats and might have to go back to being fed through a tube, and he wants to track down a terrorist organization because ‘just because I’m not Captain America anymore doesn’t mean I can’t do something useful, Bucky!’” He realized he was pacing and half-shouting. “The idiot, he just—sometimes I want to—”

“Kill him to stop him from getting himself killed?” Pepper asked dryly. She walked out of the kitchen with an uncorked bottle of red wine and two glasses, offering one to him.

“I know it’s stupid,” Bucky griped, “but—yes. Sort of. Yes. And it wouldn’t be so bad if he hadn’t done this since 1935.”

“Believe me,” Pepper said, “I do understand that part.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said, belatedly remembering his manners. “I shouldn’t be bothering you with this.”

“It’s actually very refreshing,” Pepper said. “And I offered.” She steered him toward one of the couches in the more-rebuilt area of the floor. “As sorry as I am that there’s someone equally stubborn out there, it’s good to know I’m not alone. Now, unless you have some actual objection, have some wine.”

“It won’t do any good, is all,” Bucky said, bemused. “We can’t get drunk, Steve or me. Well—maybe now he can, again. Coffee doesn’t work either, but—I still think like it does, so that’s still worth drinking.”

“The champagne the other night wasn’t about getting tipsy,” Pepper said, “and this isn’t either. It’s the idea of the thing. Now, this is a pretty good wine, and if it won’t affect you and you like it, then you can have most of the bottle.” She grinned. “I usually only drink a glass or two, and red doesn’t keep that well.”

“If you say so,” Bucky said. “Don’t really know anything about wine.”

“Hmm. Well, some other time we can try something else, but for now let’s use my tested method for getting over wanting to strangle someone because you care about him.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Fluff. FRIDAY, can you call up—hmm—how about As Time Goes By.

An enormous screen across the room that Bucky hadn’t quite decided the purpose of revealed itself to be a giant TV monitor. A photograph of an elderly couple appeared on the screen, along with a menu listing nine seasons. Pepper twisted on the couch until she was facing Bucky.

“It’s a British show about a couple who fell in love when they were young, but he was in the army and got sent to Korea, and the letter he sent her with his new address got lost, so they both thought the other one never wrote. And then, oh, forty years later, they meet again. It’s very funny and completely mundane. There are also stories about her daughter, and the daughter’s friend Sandy, and some other people—personally, I like the episodes about the daughter’s boyfriend. He’s a multimillionaire publisher, or producer, or something, and he’s always running around doing completely crazy things, and Judy has to deal with being the normal one.” She sighed happily. “Nothing ever explodes, and he’s very British, but other than that, it’s like seeing someone else deal with Tony.”

Bucky couldn’t help it; he chuckled. Pepper grinned ruefully. “I usually don’t watch those episodes when I feel like throttling him, though.”

The chuckle turned into a laugh.

“I have other comfort shows if this doesn’t interest you,” Pepper said, “but this one I can guarantee is always very mundane and domestic and comforting. And the characters are delightful.”

“This is your party,” Bucky said. “Let’s do it.”

“FRIDAY?”

“Favorite episode playlist or in order?” the Scottish voice inquired.

Bucky spread his hands when Pepper looked at him. “Favorites sounds good; just tell me what’s going on.”

FRIDAY seemed to pick up on that, because the screen changed, and the room filled with surprisingly familiar music.

“You must remember this . . . .”

~

Later that afternoon, back in Steve’s room, Bucky found himself humming the tune again. He’d come back down after a few episodes of the show, considerably happier with the world in general and very grateful to Pepper. Steve had still been awake and full of nervous energy, but he wasn’t trying to fight anymore.

“You’re right, Bucky,” he’d said, tired and vulnerable enough that Bucky hadn’t even given him a hard time about admitting it. “I just—I hate being useless.”

“Yeah, punk,” Bucky’d said, “I noticed.”

Apology offered and accepted, they’d settled down to tackle another crossword puzzle together. Steve had nodded off almost immediately. Bucky wasn’t terribly surprised—all the stuff Steve had been trying to do earlier was more than enough to wear him out. He put the crossword puzzle away and picked up Foundation and Empire, but his gaze kept floating away from the book toward Steve, curled slightly in his sleep, a longer wisp of hair falling in his face.

It really wasn’t a surprise that the song came back.

The fundamental things apply, as time goes by . . . .

“Hey,” Steve said sleepily, his eyes slitting open. “I haven’t heard that one in a while.”

“Oh,” Bucky said, trying to look as though he hadn’t realized until just then that he’d been humming. “Yeah, it’s the theme music for a TV show Pepper thinks I’d like.”

“You’ve been spending time with her,” Steve murmured. “That’s good. She’s”—he yawned—“good person. One of the first people here who really talked to me.”

“I like her,” Bucky said. “She’s funny. Doesn’t suffer fools. Reminds me of somebody, actually.”

“Mm,” Steve said. “Good for Tony. He’s good for her. Glad they’ve got each other. ’S sweet.”

“Go back to sleep, Steve,” Bucky said, resisting the urge to reach over and push that wisp of hair back into place. “You’re rambling.”

Steve stretched a little and nestled back down. “. . . ’kay.”

~

Bucky had taken his book up to the penthouse floor and was reading on the deck of the Tower in the last rays of the sunset when he heard a strange pattering noise. It seemed to be coming from one side of the tower and growing closer. He laid down his book and stalked quietly over to an alcove formed by the swooping side of the building (“ugly post-post-modern or whatever they’re calling it,” Steve had grumbled). From there, he listened.

Patter patter patter patter “hup”—a thump, followed by a softer one, the second sounding like a person making a controlled landing after climbing over the railing. And that’s just what it appeared to be, as a slight form tiptoed into Bucky’s field of vision a moment later, carrying a small bundle in its arms.

He stepped half-out of the shadows. “Hey.”

“Oh god don’t shoot me I’m just returning something to Mr. Stark I’m a friend of Happy’s,” the intruder blurted, raising his arms reflexively. Then he seemed to do a double-take. For a person clad head to toe in some kind of jumpsuit, he had very expressive body language. “Wait, you’re not StarkSec.”

In a flash, he moved his arm and a burst of all-too-familiar sticky stuff shot from his wrist. Bucky ducked just in time. As he did so, the fading light reflected off his left arm. This alloy was less reflective than the previous steel-bright one, but it was still recognizable.

“Holy shit, it’s Metal Arm Guy,” the kid yelped, and let loose several more bursts of webbing. Bucky evaded those too, ducking and rolling across the deck. The quick motions pulled and hurt the just-healed cut over his ribs, but he didn’t feel any wetness; good, it hadn’t re-opened. “What are you doing here? Mr. Stark said you were in hiding someplace! Oh man . . . .”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Bucky said, rolling to a half-crouch, hands up. “Stark knows I’m here, okay?

Smack! Webbing hit his feet, gluing him to the deck. The kid eyed him from halfway up the rising turret of the tower, where he was somehow sticking in a sideways crouch. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, heatedly, but it was automatic. “How are you doing that?”

“What, this?” The primary-color-suited figure waved a hand, sending another jet of sticky stuff toward him; Bucky rolled his eyes as it caught him on the chest, limiting the mobility of his arms.

“No, the sticking to the wall thing.”

“I’m Spider-Man. It’s kind of what I do?”

“Yeah, but how?”

“Uh . . . I’m not sure, actually . . . not that I would tell you if I knew. Um. Hold on.” Spider-Man dropped back to the deck and edged, almost comically hesitant, over to the bundle he’d dropped. He snatched it up, hopped back onto the wall, and rummaged through it, occasionally glancing up to shoot a glare at Bucky. He could project hostility through the mask almost as well as astonishment. Bucky was impressed.

“Here we go,” Spider-Man muttered, fishing a small device out. From the way he poked and swiped at it, Bucky figured it was a phone and not some part of his spider-gear. “Happy? C’mon, Happy, pick up… I don’t know how to call Mr. Stark directly. Crap.”

“If you’re trying to vet me,” Bucky said, still standing as nonthreateningly as possible, “I’ve got a shortcut. FRIDAY?”

“Yes, Mr. Barnes?” The cool electronic voice filled the air. Bucky was, yet again, impressed; even he couldn’t spot all the speakers. Spider-Man, meanwhile, jumped a bit in alarm and nearly fell off the side of the building.

“Whoa, cool,” he blurted, “who are you? Are you like Karen? The, uh, voice in my suit.”

“In a manner of speaking,” FRIDAY said. “I am FRIDAY, Mr. Stark’s life, business, and world-saving assistant. I have sensors throughout the Tower. You’re familiar with a much more limited version of what I can do. What did you need, Mr. Barnes?”

“Uh, could you put—Spider-Man, was it?—through to Stark? He doesn’t believe that I’m supposed to be here.”

“Right away,” FRIDAY said.

A shimmery holographic display popped up in front of Spider-Man—sideways, Bucky noted with amusement—and Tony Stark’s voice filled the evening air.

“Sure, FRIDAY, what’s the big—oh. Hey, kid.”

“Uh, hi, Mr. Stark!” Spider-Man said. He reached up and yanked off his mask. “It’s me. Wow. Um. This is really cool.”

“I know.” Stark sounded bored, but it was the smug kind of bored. “What’s up?”

“So, uh, I’m at your tower. I came to return the new prototype suit you had me try—it’s really cool by the way, thank you, I have a few notes and Ned looked at the programs—”

“Kid—”

“No, he didn’t mess with anything this time, I promise. All of that is on a flash drive in the bag. Anyway—”

“He ran into me,” Bucky said, and Stark must have been able to see him too once he spoke, because he immediately snickered. Bucky rolled his eyes. “Could you tell him you know I’m here and he doesn’t have to fight me?”

“Oh,” Stark said. “Yeah, he’s fine. I don’t like him much, but the fight’s over, kid. We’re cool now. Or something. Get him out of the web stuff and go home.”

“Oh,” Spider-Man said. “Uh, okay then. Sorry for bothering you.”

“‘S fine. Thanks for checking. Cyborg infestations are a pain,” Stark said. “Just leave the suit and stuff on the roof. Bye.”

The holographic image flickered out, leaving Spider-Man and Bucky alone again, with no obstructions between them—no dancing lights and, since Spider-Man had taken it off, no mask.

“Holy shit,” Bucky said.

“What?” Spider-Man asked. He jumped down from the edge of the building, placed his bundle carefully on the table Bucky had been sitting at, and cautiously sidled toward him.

Bucky stared at him. “You’re a kid,” he said. The face under the mask was fresh, smooth—no way this guy was shaving yet—and slightly freckled. He looked like someone Bucky had played baseball with when they were both about twelve. No wonder he’d been so fast, so flexible, and so damn chipper.

“I know Stark called you ‘kid,’ but you’re actually—I could have hurt—” He had a sudden, vivid memory of trying to punch the guy, made only slightly less horrifying by remembering how Spider-Man had easily intercepted him and—of course—paused to comment on his metal arm.

“I know what I’m doing,” the kid said, bristling. He sprayed some kind of liquid at Bucky. “Why are you here, anyway? Mr. Stark doesn’t want to fight you, but that doesn’t mean you can just come and hang out.”

On contact with the mist, the webs seemed to become less sticky. Thinner parts melted away entirely; Bucky stretched against the others and found he could now peel them off. He did so absently, still struggling with disbelief. “How did you get to Germany? There’s no way you belong to anything official.”

“Mr. Stark gave me a ride.” The kid’s eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms over his chest. “And you’re not the one who should be asking questions.”

Bucky sighed. “It’s kind of a long story.”

“You can start with who the hell you are.”

“That . . . also takes a lot of explaining.” And it’s not something I want to explain to you. Maybe in ten years. But he didn’t want to lie to him, either. He deserved better than that. Spider-Man was impressive, and if he’d jumped into this life with both feet, well, Bucky would respect that.

“Fine, just—” The kid flapped a hand, kind of pawing at the air, as he thought. “Okay. Mr. Stark said it’s fine that you’re here and you’re not going to fight me, and I’d know if you were going to do anything, so I trust you for now. And this is, like, his house, since the sale didn’t go through and the company’s staying and all that, and he’s okay with you being here. But he said he doesn’t like you. Why’s that?”

Bucky braced himself. “I killed his parents.”

“Dude!” the kid yelped. “That’s a messed-up thing to joke about.”

“I wish I were joking.”

“Wait, so—really? You—you killed his parents?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said heavily. “So you can see why he doesn’t like me much."

The kid was staring at him, clearly horrified. Bucky closed his eyes against the familiar burn of shame. “Why did you do that?” And then: “wait, no you didn’t. You couldn’t have. You’d have to be older than Mr. Stark then, and he’s older than you. Obviously.”

“’Fraid not,” Bucky said tightly. “You know how Ste—ah, Captain America, got frozen when he crashed in the Arctic?” The kid nodded. “Something like that happened to me.”

Spider-Man’s eyes narrowed as he pursed his lips. “That doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I thought Cap only survived because of the super-soldier serum. And there’s no way Mr. Stark would let anyone hang out at the Tower who he couldn’t trust. He didn’t invite me here until now,” he added in an undertone.

“He can trust me, now,” Bucky said. He forced the words out. “Before, I couldn’t— What I did wasn’t by choice. He knows that. I’m still not his favorite person. Not that I blame him.”

“O-kaaaay,” Spider-Man said, sounding far from convinced. “You know, when we went after you guys, the person he was worried about was Cap.”

“He didn’t know yet.”

“That you’d be there?”

“That I’m the one who…”

“Oh.” The kid looked at him again—an assessing, sizing-up kind of look. His expression was impossible to read, but it wasn’t revulsion. Bucky was grateful for that much.

“You really did it,” Spider-Man said. “And you really wish you hadn’t.”

It felt like a punch to the chest: the realization he had every single day, put in words. “Yeah,” he whispered.

“And he just found out last year.”

Bucky nodded.

“So then why is he alright with you being here?” Spider-Man asked. “Uh, no offense.”

Loose lips sink ships. If he couldn’t find a way to end this conversation, he’d have to tell more than he wanted anyone to know about him, and a lot more than he wanted to say. But the kid had the dogged, intense look Alice had always gotten when he tried to protect her. Something about being the middle sister made her sharp as a tack; she’d been able to worm the truth out of him when she was just twelve, no matter that he was three years older and sneakier. And the kid’s questions made sense. He had a right to be skeptical. He deserved answers.

Dammit.

“I’m here because he’s too good of a person to—” kill me, he thought— “not let me stay here while he’s doing something else he’s too good of a person to not do.”

“Um, what?”

Bucky glanced around the darkening observation deck. “It’s complicated. I’d rather not talk about it out here. Let’s go inside.”

~

Bucky led Spider-Man into the Tower. If it weren’t for the nervousness swirling through him, he would have enjoyed the kid’s reactions. From the observation deck, they went into the nearly-rebuilt first floor of the penthouse. Even with plaster dust hanging in the air, it was impressive. When Bucky called up the elevator for Steve’s floor, though, the kid hung back.

“Um, are you sure we’re supposed to be here?” he asked.

Bucky shrugged. “I’m staying here,” he said. “Stark asked you to come to the Tower. If he gets upset that I invited you in, that’s on me, but I don’t think he will.”

Spider-Man practically squirmed in indecision before he finally stepped into the elevator. He eyed Bucky suspiciously as the doors closed, then started when they doors opened again almost immediately, two floors down. “That . . . is a really fast elevator,” he said.

“I get the feeling Stark likes everything to go fast.” Bucky gestured toward the living room. “Um. You wanna sit?”

Spider-Man froze just outside the elevator, staring at the holographic symbol on the wall. “No thanks,” he said, his voice suddenly a lot higher than it had been. “What are we doing on Captain America’s floor?”

Bucky raked his hair out of his face. “That’s what I didn’t want to talk about outside. You’ve got to keep this to yourself, alright? It’s important. For a lot of reasons.”

The kid nodded, face set. “I kept my aunt from knowing I was Spider-Man for a year. I can keep a secret.”

“Good.” Bucky walked past him into the living room, because hell if he was going to stand around the front door if he could be comfortable. This was going to be difficult enough.

Spider-Man followed him. Ignoring the couches, he pulled out a chair from the dining room table and perched on the edge, watching Bucky intently. Bucky switched on a few lights and partly closed the curtains, so that the room was filled with a cozy orange light and the city outside twinkled rather than loomed. Leaning on the table, he faced the kid.

“Okay. I’m here because Steve—Captain America—he’s really sick. He was dying. He got injected with something that was designed to take down the Hulk, and the only people who can reverse it are here. They haven’t figured out how to cure him yet, but he’s not getting any worse. He’s not dying anymore.” He took a shaky breath. “Lucky for him, Stark’s still mad at him but not mad enough to let him die. He’s got a lot of researchers working on it. Ste—the Captain’s on the medical floor a few levels down.”

Spider-Man’s eyes had gone huge, and for a moment Bucky wondered if he’d made a mistake telling him something so serious. But then he nodded, looking shaken but determined, just like Bruce and Stark and Pepper. “Alright,” he said. “But why are you here?”

Because I’m alive, and as long as I stay that way, I won’t leave Steve on his own when he’s helpless. “Eh,” he said lightly. “I’m just kinda part of the package.”

“Okay, but why?”

“Because Steve is a terrible patient.” The old excuse rose to his lips before he could think. “He’s polite enough and does whatever the doctors say except rest. I’m the only one who can talk him into staying in bed.”

The deflection didn’t work so well this time. “Well, why are you so good at it? Who are you?”

Bucky ran his right hand through his hair again, trying to pull himself together. He hadn’t done this before, hadn’t had to; everyone he’d interacted with who knew who he was already knew his whole history. He wasn’t sure how to say it. He wasn’t sure he could say it.

But the kid was there, and earnest, and painfully obviously not sure whether he should be scared of Bucky or not, and he wanted—it hurt to admit this—he wanted the kid to like him. Or at least not be afraid of him.

“I have a lot of practice,” he said. “How much do you know about Captain America?”

“Uh, go for his legs?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “If he’d listened to me before, you wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

“You saw that?”

“No, he told me about it, and then I got to say I told him so. I don’t mean about fighting him. I mean what do—” he gestured— “people today know about Captain America? From before he got un-frozen and fought aliens, I mean.”

“Not much. Stuff from a few movies and this one unit in eighth-grade history class where we went from learning about the Revolutionary War to World War II for a month and got to go visit where he used to live. It was pretty cool. Why?”

Go visit—? Bucky stared at him, completely derailed. “You saw—okay. How much of the story do you know, ‘from history class’?”

“He was short and sick all the time, and then he volunteered for an experiment, got the super-soldier serum, and wasn’t anymore. And then there was something with some kind of travelling show that I didn’t really understand,” he added, looking down, “and he ended up in Europe and rescued a bunch of people, and some of those people ended up working with him as the Howling Commandos. I remember lots of stories but nothing about where or when things were because we knew literally nothing else about World War II, we just got thrown into the Captain America unit, but lots of things happened. Oh yeah, his best friend died on the mission that gave them the information they needed to take down Hydra. So a few months later that’s what he did, and he crashed into the ice and we won the war.” He grimaced. “Is any of that right?”

“Basically,” Bucky said. “Except his best friend didn’t actually die. ’Cause that’s me.”

The kid stared at him, brow slightly furrowed.

“You’re just gonna have to believe me on that,” Bucky said wearily. “I mean, I could get people to back me up, but if you don’t believe that, the rest of it—”

“No,” the kid said, still frowning. “No, I believe you. But why would you . . . kill . . . .” His eyes shot open wide. “Were Mr. Stark’s parents evil?”

“No!” Bucky shouted, and the kid flinched. “No,” he said, more quietly, shaking. “That wasn’t—fuck, I don’t know how to explain this.” He put his face in his hands. “I’m sorry.” What was he doing talking to a kid about this at all?

“It’s . . . okay,” the kid said. He had one hand half-extended toward Bucky and looked concerned, even if he was also looking at the window like he was figuring out how to jump out of it. “I won’t say anything. You just tell me the story.”

“Alright.” Bucky took a deep breath and tried again. “Do you remember, three years ago, the stuff that happened in Washington?”

The kid still looked shaken, but managed a pretty damn scathing look. “Uh, yeah, I remember everything being on fire and basically the whole government being corrupt or terrorists. That’s hard to miss.”

“Alright. You know that was Hydra again, right?”

“Yeah. And Captain America stopped them again.” He cut himself off, shooting Bucky a nervous look.

Bucky smiled. “Yeah. He did. Crashed flying things into the water again, too.”

The kid relaxed.

Bucky traced the wood grain on the table. “So, between those two things, I was . . . . When I fell off the train, Hydra found me.” He snuck a glance at the kid, who looked shocked, but didn’t say anything. “I’d lost most of my arm so they gave me a new one and stuck me in a freezer. That’s how come I’m like Steve. I didn’t age, on ice.”

He swallowed. “Every now and then they’d take me out and—use me. As an assassin.” He tried to keep going, but his throat had closed up.

“So that’s how—”

“Yep.”

“How? Like, how’d they make you do it?”

Bucky’s stomach clenched. “It was—they—”

“Like, I’m sure they were watching you a lot of the time, but if they sent you out to kill people, they probably couldn’t, right? If they’d be able to keep an eye on you, they could just kill people themselves. So how’d they stop you from getting away?”

“Can you please stop talking?” Bucky gritted out.

The anxious silence that immediately descended was almost worse. The kid’s wide-eyed stare and half-apologetic expression didn’t help. He forced himself to breathe out and spoke to the space just past the kid’s left ear, not quite looking at him.

“They didn’t have to, okay? I did what they told me to. I didn’t try to get away.” The shame of that burned, and always would, no matter what Steve said, no matter what anyone said.

The kid was clearly making an effort not to talk—practically vibrating with it—but he might as well have spoken the question aloud.

“I didn’t . . . think like that. It wasn’t—” An option. Possible. Allowed. None of those were quite right, none of them were big enough. “They did stuff to me,” he said instead. “Changed me.”

“They tortured you,” the kid said, quiet. Not a question.

“Yeah.”

“That’s horrible.”

And Bucky didn’t look at his face, didn’t want to look at his face, his voice was bad enough, and who the hell was he to be telling a kid about this stuff? The kid sounded terrified and sick and sad and Bucky hadn’t even gotten to the bad part yet. He laughed bitterly. “Yeah,” he said to the table. “Yeah. But that’s not what I meant.”

Spider-Man was back to keeping quiet. Bucky thought maybe he just didn’t know what to say anymore. God knew he hardly did. “After—I don’t know. A decade or so. After a while they came up with something that made me . . . forget. Rewrote my mind so I didn’t know I should fight them, didn’t think to get away.”

“How’s that not torture?” the kid asked, throwing Bucky for a loop.

“What?”

“They messed with your head. Isn’t that—” His voice was shaking. Bucky looked up sharply. He was shaking, gone utterly white, red-gloved hands clenched on the table. “That’s sick,” the kid finished.

“Hey,” Bucky said, reaching out toward him hesitantly with his flesh-and-blood arm, but falling short of actually touching him. “You alright?”

“You’re asking me that?”

“I’m here now,” Bucky said. “I’m fine. I’m me. You look like you’re gonna throw up.”

“I—yeah, I’m not going to.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “Keep going. How’d you get out?”

Bucky looked at him carefully, but he raised his chin defiantly and waited.

“The way they made me forget,” Bucky said, “was faster and easier than what they’d done before.” That was sugarcoating it, and setting a hell of a low bar, but like hell was he going to put that look back on the kid’s face. “It worked better. So they used me more, and stuck me on ice otherwise. And then, three years ago—”

“Wait,” the kid said. “So, with Mr. Stark’s parents, when you said you didn’t have a choice—”

Why are you doing this to yourself, kid? And to me?

“Is there anything you do,” Bucky said, “just because? It’s never occurred to you not to do it, or to do it some other way? Like a habit you don’t know you have.” This he could talk about; Wanda and Shuri had asked him a lot of questions about how it felt when he wasn’t in control. He’d gotten good at explaining.

“I always go one way around the block to the subway,” the kid said, frowning. “And I always put my—now I don’t remember.” He mimed doing something. “My left shoe on first.”

“It’s like that,” Bucky said heavily. “I didn’t question the mission. Except more so, because if I did it was—bad.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t, and I knew if I tried it was wrong.”

“Like thinking about stealing, when you’re a little kid, when even the idea scares you,” Spider-Man said, and Bucky nodded.

“So I went where they pointed me.”

Spider-Man shivered.

“I didn’t remember him,” Bucky said softly. “Howard. I just—did the mission.”

“You knew—”

“Yes.”

“Sorry,” the kid said, voice very small. Bucky just sighed.

“Three years ago,” he said eventually, “they sent me after Steve. Captain America.”

The kid nodded.

“He’d figured out there was something wrong with SHIELD and with the Insight helicarriers. He was in their way. And if you have a mindless assassin and you need to stop Captain America . . . .” He trailed off.

“What happened?”

“He recognized me.” And Bucky’d recognized him, even if he hadn’t known what that meant, even if he’d been confused instead of shaken free. He hadn’t taken the opportunity to kill the man on the bridge. He’d expected to be punished for that, but no one seemed to have noticed his hesitation. They were too excited about their own capture of Captain America—and then too worried about their own failures in letting him get away. Probably Pierce had had someone killed over that. He’d probably have had Bucky do it, too, except Bucky was busy being wiped.

“And?” the kid prompted.

“He said my name. Hydra tried to capture him then, and took me back. Wiped me again. But the next time he saw me, he kept doing it, telling me who I was, saying he didn’t want to fight me, even though I was trying to kill him.” He swallowed hard. “Eventually, it—it got through.” The girders broke and Steve was falling, and Steve was Steve, and he’d jumped without a second thought.

“Three years ago?”

Bucky nodded.

“And you’re—you, again?”

He shrugged. That was a question for priests and philosophers. “I remember everything. I make my own choices.”

“Good,” the kid said, surprisingly firm. “So, um, what happened last year?”

Aw, hell, can’t you just leave it? “Zemo framed me, Steve found me, you fought me, Stark—” he shrugged. “Found out.”

“What d’you mean found you, though? I mean—Mr. Stark said Cap was wrong and trying to protect you, but, like, if you’d been around for a few years, wouldn’t he—”

“I wasn’t around,” Bucky said. “Why do you think I was in Bucharest? I was hiding.”

“Why?”

“’Cause I’m a goddamn wreck,” Bucky said patiently. “And I was worse then. Just because I remembered things didn’t mean I knew who the hell I was.”

“Well, okay, but—wouldn’t you want to come home instead?”

“Home isn’t there anymore. Hasn’t been in a long time.”

The kid bit his lip. “But—people, I mean. If he knew who you were, and wouldn’t fight you, he wouldn’t hate you, right? And—and aren’t there other people left who remember you, and want you back?”

“Maybe.” Alice. Becca. Gracie. No way in hell. “But I’m not dumb enough to let them.”

The struggling, confused expression on the kid’s face almost made him laugh out loud. Of course he didn’t get it. It would be a tragedy if he did.

“No one should want me back, after what I’ve done,” he said. “But they might anyway, so I didn’t let anyone know. I holed up and tried to figure out what I’d missed. Steve—Steve looked for me, but, until Zemo blew up the UN, he didn’t stand a chance.”

“And then?”

“And then he found me anyway, and then I didn’t stand a chance. Steve’s stubborn like that.” His chest felt a bit less tight thinking about it. “He wouldn’t leave me. I got the stuff that was still not right in my head fixed. And then he wanted to go out and fight people again, so I went with him to keep him outta trouble, like always. We’re stuck with each other now.”

“Oh,” Spider-Man said quietly. “So you came with him when he got sick, even though he wanted to go to Mr. Stark?”

If Bucky had any sense, he’d lie on that one, but somehow his mouth was running on without his brain having any input. “Kid, I called Stark. Steve was so damn sure he could beat this on his own that he wouldn’t go for help and I had to wait until he was unconscious to do it. And yeah,” he said, looking at Spider-Man’s startled face, “that was just as obnoxious and ballsy and arrogant as it sounds. But he’s helping Steve and he let me stay here, because I can make Steve stay in bed. So.” He spread his hands in a “ta-da” gesture. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Spider-Man after a moment, as though he’d forgotten how all of this had started. “Um. Oh man, I’m really sorry I made you say all that. I probably shouldn’t have done that, should I? Ughh.” He put his head in his hands. “Sorry,” he said again, voice muffled.

Bucky inexplicably wanted to hug him. “You had a right to ask,” he said instead. “Now, you wanna tell me how you ended up here?”

“Mr. Stark wanted me to test out a new suit,” the kid said without looking up. “I was bringing it back.”

“So are you, I dunno—” an old memory tickled and he almost laughed. It was too perfect. “Are you Robin? Sidekick to the crime-fighting millionaire?”

“No!” Spider-Man squawked, indignant, finally straightening up. “I do my own thing! He just . . . figured out who I am and makes me stuff now. It’s cool. I think he thinks I might be up to being an Avenger someday,” he added in an undertone, eyes shining. “But yeah, we don’t work together or anything. I made the web-shooters,” he added, clearly proud. “And the web fluid. I figured all that out before he showed up. So he’s like my . . . mentor, or sponsor, or something? I guess?” He shrugged and scuffed his feet on the carpet. “We’re not in touch a lot. Except if I screw up or do something big. He called me a few weeks ago and said he got bored and made a new suit and said to let him know how it worked, so that’s why I’m here.”

Bucky nodded. He still wanted to know how—or really, why—Stark had taken an interest in the kid, but the answer to that seemed to be Stark being Stark. For anything beyond that, if he wanted it badly enough, he could go to the source.

It would probably still be Stark being Stark when you got down to it.

Spider-Man shifted on the chair. He’d hooked his feet behind the wooden legs and seemed to be trying to wrap his toes around to the front again. “So,” he said. “What now?”

Good question. Bucky drummed his fingers on the table, suddenly desperate to be alone—no, with—

“D’you want to go see Steve?” he asked.

~

Spider-Man pulled his mask back on before they went down to the medical floor. “It’s better if no one ever sees me,” he said, a little defensively. “I mean, I guess anyone who can know that Captain America’s here is fine to know Spider-Man’s here, but they shouldn’t see who I am.”

“Smart,” Bucky said. “You keep clear of cameras, too?”

Spider-Man nodded. “There are a lot of good places to put the mask on in a hurry. And I’ve got a few places where I know I can change and nobody’ll notice.”

“Good,” Bucky said as they stepped into the elevator.

Another very short ride—and more quiet amazement from Spider-Man—and they were on the medical floor. A researcher walking down the hallway looked up and raised an eyebrow, but let the jumpsuited visitor pass without comment.

The kid edged just slightly closer to Bucky. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to be here?” he asked in a low voice.

“If Stark didn’t throw me out, he won’t get rid of you,” Bucky answered just as quietly. “And I don’t think Spider-Man visiting Captain America is going to bother anyone else.”

“Are you sure it won’t bother him?”

Bucky hadn’t even considered that. “Don’t think so, no.”

“Why not?”

Bucky couldn’t think of a way to answer that that wouldn’t sound condescending or take far too long to explain. “Just trust me. —I’ll check first and make sure he’s awake, alright?” He poked his head into Steve’s room before Spider-Man could answer. Steve was, in fact, awake and sitting up. He looked pale and tired, but still far, far better than he had just a few weeks ago. He smiled when he saw Bucky.

“Hey, Buck.”

“Hey yourself. Got someone here who wants to see you.”

Steve’s brow creased in confusion as Bucky stepped back. He motioned at Spider-Man, who stepped hesitantly through the door. Steve’s eyebrows shot up and he smiled weakly in recognition.

The kid, meanwhile, hesitated awkwardly in the doorway. Bucky almost bumped into him. Oops. Steve looked a lot better to him, but this was probably a bit of a shock to someone who had never seen him sick.

“Hi,” the kid said in a small voice.

“Hey,” Steve said blearily. “Spider-Man, right?”

The kid perked up almost instantly. “Yeah! Uh, how’re you feeling?”

Steve shrugged. “Been better. Been worse. You?”

“Uh, I’m great! I have some homew—uh, stuff I need to do, but I’ve been keeping busy, y’know, fighting bad guys and stuff. And giving old ladies directions to the 7 train.”

Steve fought a smile. “That’s great. I’m glad—” he coughed, and Bucky frowned. That was new. “I’m glad you didn’t get in any trouble because of that fight. Too many people I knew did.”

“I don’t think anyone knows who I am. Except Mr. Stark, but I guess he didn’t tell anybody. So yeah, I’m good.”

There was a pause.

“That probably sounds boring, though. So, uh, what have you been doing?”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Hiding in a foreign country. Destroying a secret prison. Going on the run with my best friend after some other friends convinced him he was safe to be around. Stupidly getting injected with something that made me as sick as I ever was in the twenties because I didn’t dodge fast enough . . . It hasn’t been a great year for me, really.” Then his expression softened as he glanced over at Bucky, and he added, “But I got my best friend back, so it’s all worth it.”

“He got his comeuppance for thirty years of being a reckless idiot,” Bucky said, and Steve shrugged.

“My point is that you’ve been doing a lot better than us,” he said to Spider-Man. “I’d rather have been telling old ladies how to find the 7.”

“Well, some of it was more exciting than that, but that got sad, too.” Spider-Man shifted awkwardly. “I don’t know if you’d want to do that part. There was this group building weapons out of alien scrap, and I thought I could just stop them, and I did, but . . . things got a lot more complicated than I thought.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said. He coughed again.

“It worked out,” Spider-Man said, shrugging. “But it was—it made me think, and”—he glanced over his shoulder real fast at Bucky—“I don’t know what was happening with you and Mr. Stark, not really, but . . . it would really suck to fight your friends. It’s too bad that you two ended up like that.”

Steve blinked. “Thanks,” he said. “It did suck. It—” But he broke off, coughing harder, and when he finished, he seemed to have forgotten what he was going to say.

Before, when he’d been really sick, coughing would tire him out. Maybe that was coming back again too.

“Sorry,” he croaked.

“Don’t worry about it. Spider-Man couldn’t stay that long tonight anyway,” Bucky said. “Come on, kid,” he added an undertone. “Let’s go.” The kid nodded and padded after him toward the door.

“Take care, Spider-Man,” Steve called after them.

The kid took one more step, then spun around and pulled off his mask.

“I’m Peter,” he said, chin raised. “Peter Parker. And I’m sorry about stealing your shield.”

“Nice to meet you, Peter,” Steve said. “Don’t worry about it. You got the drop on me. Fair’s fair.” He huffed a little laugh. “And if we’re doing that, I’m sorry for dropping a plane on you.”

“Oh! Uh, don’t worry about it. I was fine.” Peter ducked his head. “I’m stronger than I look.”

“I figured that out,” Steve said. “That’s why I dropped a plane on you.” Now he was definitely smiling. “Still wasn’t very nice of me.”

The kid was grinning like that was the greatest compliment he’d ever gotten. Bucky ushered him out, rolling his eyes. “Great,” he said, just loud enough for Steve to hear. “Now there’s two of them.” He was rewarded by the tiniest chuckle as he closed the door.

“I really should head home,” Spider-Man—Peter—said, shaking himself out of his reverie as he looked out the hallway window. It was truly dark now, not dusk. “Um.” He looked at Bucky. “Thanks . . . Sorry . . . .” He shrugged awkwardly. “Yeah. I hope he gets better soon.”

“Me too.” Bucky started walking back toward the elevator. Spider-Man followed, hastily replacing his mask. They were silent in the elevator and walking across the penthouse floor, all the way out to the observation deck, where Bucky retrieved his book and Spider-Man hopped up on the projecting wall. Then he hesitated.

“Can I come back?” he blurted.

Bucky looked up, taken aback.

“To visit Cap—uh, Steve, I mean. Just say hi. If that’s—”

“You know what?” Bucky said. “I think he’d like that. Sure.”

“Okay,” Spider-Man said, sounding a little dazed. “He would? I—okay.” He lifted his hand and a jet of sticky rope shot off into the darkness.

“Good to meet you, Spider-Man,” Bucky said, raising a hand in farewell.

The red-and-blue-clad figure looked down at him. “You, uh, you can call me Peter too if you want,” he said quickly, then leapt off into the night.

Chapter Text

Tony strolled down the hallway on the medical floor. It had been almost a week since AID or whoever had attacked his tower (Pepper’s tower with his name on it) and he still didn’t really know who they were or ultimately where they’d come from, which was annoying, so he was going to go and do something else. Rhodey had sounded good the last time they’d talked. He’d work on something for Rhodey. Rhodey was . . . much less frustrating than anything else in his life right now.

And since it was on his way, he’d swing by and talk with Steve. Talking with Steve maybe made him feel weird, especially the last few times, for obvious reasons, but usually it also made him feel better. Even when he obviously thought Tony was doing everything wrong—and he hadn’t been acting like that since Barnes brought him in; he’d actually been weirdly polite and quiet instead—Steve was never playing him. That was weird too—no one could actually be that earnest all the time, could they?—but it was kind of nice.

Of course, that was why the whole “not mentioning about your parents dying” thing had been especially . . . not nice.

When Tony got about halfway down the hallway that Steve’s room was on, he heard voices.

“—sense, but are you sure it was a good idea?”

“Sure cheered you up.”

“Yeah, but he—”

“The kid was over the moon about it. Worried about you, maybe. Not mad at you.”

“Wears his heart on his sleeve, doesn’t he? —Yeah, yeah, I know, don’t give me that—”

“Pot. Kettle.”

“Okay, okay.”

“But you should have seen him up on the roof, trying to be intimidating. Might work on most people, but it was—”

“Hey—”

“No, you looked serious. Even when you were small, you looked like you meant business, y’know? But—I dunno. I think it’s the hair. Like a puppy that thinks it’s a guard dog.”

“I’m not a puppy?”

“Hm-mm. Pissy alley cat.”

This was not like the first conversation Tony’d overheard. He stepped up and looked into the room. Barnes was smirking at the affronted look on Steve’s face.

“Yeah, you’re both settling in fine, I don’t know what Pepper was worried about,” Tony remarked from the doorway.

“Tony!” Steve said, looking up. “Come on in. Please.”

“No,” Tony said, waving a hand, “things to do. I’m working on a—well, never mind. A thing. Not a big evil taking-over-the-world robot thing, Capsicle, don’t look at me like that. Just normal genius billionaire charitable invention stuff,” he said loftily. “This was on my way.”

“Tony—”

“Nope, nope, just checking in. But you don’t look like you’re gonna die any minute, and you aren’t waiting for me to kill you and hide the body, so—”

“What.” Steve’s tone was shocked and angry, and Tony looked sharply at him. What the hell did I do now? But Steve wasn’t looking at him, he was looking at Barnes, who looked decidedly uncomfortable. Maaaaybe Tony wasn’t supposed to say that part. Oops. Too late now.

“Yeah,” he said, deliberately breezy about it, “your grungy friend over there thought he could bribe me with killing him in exchange for picking you up, only I didn’t realize that was the plan before I came, and which I’m still kinda upset about, by the way—”

He couldn’t see exactly what happened, but Steve made an abrupt, sharp movement and Barnes was suddenly doubled over. “Really,” Steve said, voice taut with anger.

Barnes looked up, expression pained but also admiring. “You hit really fuckin’ hard for being at death’s door, Stevie. Ow.”

“You really fucking deserve it,” Steve replied, and forget Ultron, forget Hydra, forget everything—Tony had never seen him this angry. His voice was thicker and he sounded somehow different when he snapped, “You were gonna mention this to me when?”

“How’s a week from never sound?” Barnes straightened up and winced. “Shit, I think you actually cracked a rib.”

Steve ignored him and looked back at Tony, and he managed a reasonable approximation of his normal pleasant tone when he said, “Thanks for telling me, Tony. I won’t keep you. Enjoy your inventing.”

Tony blinked at the polite dismissal. “Um. You’re not going to kill him either, are you? Because, ah, no killing in my tower. House rule.”

Steve stared at him in disbelief.

“Yeah, okay, I guess after the whole searching the world for years thing, and then the giving the finger to the UN thing, and then the disappearing thing, that’s kind of a dumb question.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Tony.”

“Okay—going, going . . . .”

~

Stark backed out of the room awfully fast for someone trying for nonchalance. Bucky watched him go, ignoring the sting in his left side and trying to ignore the cold fury in Steve’s blue eyes. The second one didn’t go so well.

“Bucky,” Steve said, voice a little lower now. “Did I understand that right?”

“Pretty hard to misunderstand, don’t you think?”

“What the hell?”

“You were dying. Stark was your best chance. I expected him to finish what he started in Siberia, but if he’d help you, it’d be worth it.” He shrugged. “Turns out I read him wrong and he didn’t want to do that. I was wrong, nothing happened except I pissed him off a little, and it’s not like I wasn’t already too deep in the hole to ever get out of it with him, so why would I tell you? Just an embarrassing mistake.”

Steve was shaking. He looked a lot less healthy than he had five minutes ago. “Embar— you were going to let him kill you!”

“Well, I wasn’t gonna let you die,” Bucky snapped, his own control fraying.

“So I’d have woken up and found out you were dead—again. Then where would I be?!”

Bucky laughed harshly, no longer even trying for indifference. “Alive?”

“Bucky, I’ve lived with you being dead already. I couldn’t do that again. I don’t want to do that again. You—you selfish, stupid—”

“You think I do?” Bucky shot back, his voice rising. “You think I could live with myself alone on the run? I did that for two years, if you can call that living. You have friends here, Steve. You had a life before me, before I came back and messed everything up—”

“I had things to do. That’s not the same as a life. I wouldn’t change a single thing since you came back and you don’t get to just walk out on me! I had to spend two years looking for you before Zemo pulled his shit and I was glad, Buck, I was racing a man in a cat mask through traffic and I was happy about it, because you were there!”

Bucky paused and gave him a look. Steve flushed a little but raised his chin defiantly. “You have friends, Steve,” Bucky said again, finally. “But you’re a little . . . .” He tapped the side of his head.

“If I haven’t proved by now that I’ll take you over them . . . .” Steve muttered, settling back a little. “It’s not their fault. They’re good people. But you know me, and they—”

“Care about you and wouldn’t let you die any more than I would,” Bucky said. “I can’t, Steve. I never could. When do you think that changed, huh?”

“I don’t want to be the reason you’re dead either, you jerk,” Steve said, his voice breaking. He looked more sad than furious now, and it cut Bucky to the quick. “I don’t— I hope you know that.” He cleared his throat. “The first—before, I blamed myself for it, that you fell.”

“Steve . . . .”

“Peggy told me to knock it off, more or less. She said it was your choice and I should respect that.”

“Peggy’s smart,” Bucky said, wondering—not for the first time—how much the SSR agent had seen when she looked at him. Her job was to find out what people were hiding, after all. “Smarter than you, that’s for sure.”

“But I kept thinking,” Steve said, quieter, “if I’d been faster, if I hadn’t assumed that guy was down—you died protecting me, like you always do. But you shouldn’t have, and you shouldn’t have to now.”

“How many times do I have to say it?” Bucky asked, voice thick. “I never had to do anything. I decided you were worth backing up, that’s all.”

“That’s what Peggy said,” Steve whispered. “‘He damn well must have thought you were worth it.’ I never knew why.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes, mock-annoyed, trying to force back tears. “Because you’re an idiot, Steve, and I’d never want to live with you being dead if I could have helped it. That’s not gonna change. Ever.”

“Well, back atcha, jerk, so don’t die, alright?”

“Okay,” Bucky said after a minute, swallowing hard. “You don’t end up where you could die if I don’t save you, and I won’t end up where I’ll die if you don’t save me. How’s that?”

Steve snorted. “We can pretend we’d do that.”

“Just be careful, Stevie. Please. And let me help you when you need it.”

“You too, alright? And no more surprises. You should have said—” He stopped and took a deep breath. “If I was really that out of it, you might not have had a chance. But talk to me otherwise, alright? Let me know what you’re planning. Don’t—don’t make me wake up alone.” He sounded young and fragile. This was a side of Steve Bucky hadn’t seen—not this raw and exposed, at least—since the war began.

“I promise.”

~

Bucky sat by Steve’s bed, staring blindly out the window, long after he’d fallen asleep again.

His reverie was broken by a quiet knock on the doorframe. Stark stood there, leaning into the room the same way Howard used to—as though Bucky needed more heartache today. “Hey,” he said, eyebrows raised. “Cap done chewing you out? ‘Cause I could use a hand. Kinda literally, in your case.”

Bucky stood and stretched, dread pooling in his gut. “Uh, sure.”

“Great,” Stark said briskly. “Come with me.”

Bucky followed him into the hallway and to the elevator. Stark jabbed the call button rather aggressively, not looking at him.

“For the record,” he said to the elevator doors, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to tell him that part.”

Bucky shrugged. “Woulda found out one way or another.”

“Hm.”

The elevator doors slid open and Stark stepped in. “FRIDAY, lab,” he said, rather than pressing any buttons. About to step in, Bucky froze for the space of a heartbeat, then gritted his teeth and made himself move. The doors slid closed behind him and the elevator dropped.

“Can’t get to my workshop without voice access,” Stark said, drumming the fingers of one hand against his thigh. “Security stuff. I’m working on a lot of things I don’t want other people to know about. One of those things is mechanical supplements for human mobility.”

The doors wooshed open on a gleaming expanse of white and chrome, an entire floor of machines, worktables, and projects in various degrees of completion, ringed again by windows, although these looked to be polarized and highly reinforced. What appeared to be a partially-constructed version of the Iron Man armor stood on a raised platform in one part of the room, and a row of niches along one wall held other Iron Man-esque suits.

“That’s where you come in,” Stark continued, strolling out onto the floor. “Stark Industries is positioned to enter the market as a leader in mobility support. Since Rho—uh.” His voice cut off for a second. Then he started again. “I started working on supportive exoskeletons about ten months ago and kind of accidentally got into prosthetics from there. It’s fair to say that what we’ve got right now is as good or better than everything else currently considered state-of-the art.”

He spun around to point at Bucky, who forced his feet to move. “Except that you are walking around with something I’m not ashamed to admit is head and shoulders over anything I’ve been able to turn out, and I want to play with it.”

Oh. So that’s what this was about. Bucky went dizzy with relief, though he was careful not to show it. Then he remembered something, and his stomach knotted up again.

“I can’t let you take it apart,” he said bluntly.

Stark gave him an incredulous look.

“I promised S—the person who made it that I wouldn’t let the design get out. It’s supposed to be secret.” He swallowed. “The way it’s designed—it’s still a weapon. The person who made it made it for me, and was very clear about that. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not asking for a blueprint,” Stark said, shoulders hunched. “And I’m not going to take it apart, geez. I just want to—whoever built this is working with a better understanding of mechanics and nerve function than I have. I don’t even want to reverse-engineer this, exactly.” His voice was rising. “But I’m not going to pass up this chance. This could help people.”

“I respect that. But I promised.” Bucky licked his lips and ignored his racing heart. “I won’t let anyone disassemble or scan it.”

“I’m not talking about a scan!” Stark shouted. “I’m talking about what I would do with any other person, which is watch how it moves and ask you if you can feel things. Do you think your paranoid designer would be okay with that, or is being mysterious more important than letting people walk again?”

“Oh.” Bucky frowned. He tried to imagine Shuri’s reaction. The image that came to mind was a blur of motion, a flash of grin and eyeroll and indulgently waved hand as the young inventor moved on to something else. “Yeah,” he said, unable to fully keep the warmth the memory evoked out of his voice. “I don’t think they’d care.”

“Oh,” Stark said, blankly. “Huh. Should I be insulted? Normally people are threatened if someone like me gets their hands on their intellectual property.”

“I don’t think that’s the secret this person gives a shit about,” Bucky said dryly.

“Oooh.” Stark’s eyes lit up. “So this has something to do with Wakanda, doesn’t it. Those secrets? Like how the dirt-poor country has a king with a suit made of vibranium?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say,” Bucky replied blandly.

Stark looked positively gleeful. “They’ve definitely got more going on than they’re telling anyone. That much was obvious—I mean, not much could scratch that shie—” He broke off, excitement vanishing as his face hardened.

“Anyway, nope, I don’t care about that, don’t really care about the materials this is made out of, just how it works and how I can make it out of something else that’s easier to get.” His face went dark again. “And I’m not going to make any more weapons. I decided that a long time ago. There was kind of a press conference about that. I made everyone sit down.” His face twisted. “I won’t even work it into the suit,” he said after a minute. “Not on purpose. Armor works really differently from prosthetics, I found out, so it’s not like that’s really even a—”

“I don’t think the person who made the arm would be worried about that from you,” Bucky said honestly.

“Oookay,” Stark said, staring at him. “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess, because I’m not actually incompetent, so that has to mean they believe I could but I won’t, not that I can’t.”

Bucky just nodded, looking around the shining expanse and telling his heart to stop racing.

“Okay, so,” Stark said. “Business. You’ve got an arm and I’m gonna poke it. So like, just stick around and do what I tell you. It’ll probably be kind of boring.” He beckoned Bucky over toward one set of parallel worktables. A tall metal stool sat between them. “You can take a seat,” Stark said, “or”—he glanced over his shoulder toward a corner of the workroom—“there are softer chairs over there.”

Bucky glanced over too, and yeah, there were—big overstuffed brown leather chairs. “No,” he said, a little too forcefully, because Stark looked back sharply. “No,” he said, more calmly, “this is fine.”

“Cool,” Stark said after a moment. “Great. FRIDAY?” He waved his hand and a vivid three-dimensional hologram sprang to life in front of him. Bucky stared, fascinated, forgetting his anxiety for a moment. This was different from the flat projection, like a TV screen made of light, that Dr. Li had used in Steve’s hospital room or that had popped up in front of Spider-Man the night before. This was a perfect rendering of a mechanical arm, the outer “skin” transparent or missing to reveal the inner parts. Stark gestured again and those parts separated slightly from each other, floating in space. He picked up one segment, flipped it end to end like it was something he could actually touch, and tossed it across the room, where a virtual target popped up. The piece hit the center with a ding and disappeared. “That can be better,” he said absently, made a gesture like he was pushing something large and the whole display slid back about five feet.

“Okay, FRIDAY, mimic and start logging responses,” Stark said. “And give us some music in here, it’s too quiet.”

Something that sounded more like a traffic accident than anything Bucky would call music filled the air. Bucky suppressed a flinch.

“Alright,” Stark said over the music, turning back to him. “Can you move your hand like this?” He rotated his wrist and Bucky nervously copied the movement. Stark whistled. “Yep. Better than anything I . . . FRIDAY, zoom in. How is that— Do it again?”

This continued for quite a while. The shadows cast by the machinery moved across the floor as the sun moved through the sky. The music drilled into Bucky’s head, punctuated now and then by “okay, bend your arm.” “Wiggle your fingers—no, hey, take this first. Okay, now pretend you’re using this phone, like you’re texting or something.” “...Huh. I didn’t expect that. Can you do that with the other arm?”

“Really?” Bucky shouted back over the music.

“Yeah,” Stark said, walking a bit closer so he didn’t have to yell. “I can’t tell if that’s the plating flexing or if you’re just—Anyway. Comparisons. That is, assuming the— Huh. Actually, was this arm”—he casually tapped Bucky’s elbow—“supposed to function like the other, or is it intentionally built to be better?”

“Can’t rip off a car door with this one,” Bucky said, after a second’s hesitation.

“Well, okay, besides that.” Stark leaned in, peering at the joints. “This doesn’t telescope, or rotate more than a normal arm, or anything, so far as you know?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay, good. Been wasting both our time otherwise. Now, same thing, squishy arm. —Huh. Now how far apart can you spread your fingers?”

The clanging music stopped for a second. Bucky started to draw a breath in relief, but then it was back. The driving rhythm that began the new song was alright, but then the vocals kicked in with a long howl. He couldn’t hide his grimace.

Stark, on the other hand, grinned. “Alright. FRIDAY, turn it up!” He glanced down, one eyebrow raised, when Bucky pulled back a little as the racket got worse. “What, not a Zeppelin fan?” he asked. “Too bad. My shop, my music. You can go listen to oldies with Cap when we’re done.”

Bucky nodded and set his shoulders.

Stark, meanwhile, had turned back to the display he’d pushed away an hour or more ago. “Hey, how about you try this.” He shoved one of the longer, more complicated-looking pieces toward Bucky, still yelling to be heard over the music. “Move your arm however you want from the elbow down.” Bucky reached out with his right hand. He wasn’t able to actually pick up the piece, he realized—there wasn’t any resistance and his hand went right through it—but when he fixed his fingers rigidly in the space around it, it moved, following his motion. He set it down in the air next to his left arm and repeated the last few movements Stark had had him do, then tried them in combination. The piece mimicked his motion smoothly for a while, then part of it turned red. Bucky looked up, frowning, as Stark swooped in.

“What does that—”

“It can’t do what you did and now we find out why. FRIDAY, diagnostics?” Lines of code appeared on one of the flat glass screens above the worktable. Stark squinted at them and fiddled with the holographic device, enlarging and exploding it as he had with the model for the arm and rebuilding part of it. Bucky tried to follow what was happening. It was a welcome distraction from the throbbing building in his head.

Stark tossed the rebuilt, re-shrunk model back at him without looking. “Alright, try it again.” Bucky did, Stark staring at the code readouts all the while. “Now the first thing I had you do?”

This, too, kept up for a while. The process was more or less painful—not the testing itself, which would have been boring if it hadn’t involved fascinating holograms to watch, but, depending on the song that came on, Bucky was either battered by noise or, occasionally, hit with a shriek like a dog whistle that made his teeth hurt. The low-grade pain was distracting enough that the holograms couldn’t hold his interest. He gritted his teeth and kept going, grateful that he’d rejected Stark’s offer of a more comfortable chair. Anything that reminded him of Hydra right now, even incidentally, would be a risk. There was already a bright light and the smell of metal in the air. The last thing he needed was the scent and feel of leather.

Eventually, Stark turned back, looking satisfied. “Great, that should— Okay, what the hell?”

Bucky looked around, heart racing. Part of the reason he didn’t like loud background noise was this—it was shitty tactical sense. But he didn’t see anything or anyone new in the lab, certainly nothing that would have produced Stark’s alarmed frown.

Stark was suddenly back beside him. “Dude. You look awful. What’s up?”

Bucky shook his head. “Nothing.” The motion made his head hurt.

“Cut the crap, something’s bothering you and you’re sweating.” Stark looked a little frantic. “It’s not hot in here. That’s some kind of stress response, or pain . . . . C’mon, work with me here. Can’t be my stuff. Did your designer booby-trap the arm?”

“No,” Bucky said, briefly indignant on Shuri’s behalf. “I trusted the inventor to put this thing on me—Steve trusted— Do you think I’d let them do that?”

“Okay, what, then?” Stark leaned in close, far closer than Bucky wanted anyone to be, as he peered at the arm anyway. “Is it—”

“Music’s kind of loud,” Bucky forced himself to say, embarrassment curling, dark and cloying, in his gut. “That’s all.”

“All—FRIDAY, cut music!” Stark yelled. “What the hell?” he asked Bucky in the sudden, ringing silence.

“I have good hearing,” Bucky muttered, looking down at his mismatched hands.

Stark sucked in a breath. “How good?”

“Can hear people sneaking up on me when it’s quiet. Makes some things hard to tune out.”

“Makes loud music hurt?”

Stupid. Whiny and stupid. “. . . Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Stark said, rolling his eyes. “What you should’ve done is say ‘hey, this is physically hurting me, turn it down.’”

“It’s your workshop,” Bucky said, startled into looking up again. “Your right. Like you said.”

“Uh, no, it’s my right to play obnoxious music in my own home and make fun of people with bad taste. It is not my right to play music so loud that it physically hurts someone who’s supposedly helping me. I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable here.” He looked exasperated.

“I didn’t think you were,” Bucky said, though it hadn’t really occurred to him either way. If Stark wanted to bother him, he could; if Stark liked loud music, Bucky wasn’t going to ruin his fun. It didn’t matter. “I didn’t want to be a bother.”

Stark put his hands on his hips. “Okay, Wall-e, you’ve gotta stop being so god-damn passive. You’re not a bother if you tell me to stop hurting you. I’m not going to do that on purpose, but let’s just pretend that even though I’m a genius, I’m not completely aware of everything that’s going on for everyone, and sometimes I need to be told things. Alright?”

“Alright.”

“Good.”

“. . . Thank y—what is that?”

Something long and metallic had swung over from behind Stark and clinked gently on Bucky’s left arm. When he jumped and shouted, it pulled back with a whirring noise.

“It” was a jointed metal arm on a square base. It had moved around in the workshop more than once over the few hours they’d been here, but it had never tried to interact with anything. He’d assumed it was some kind of cleaning robot, like the little round one various animals rode on in YouTube videos. The base was tall, probably coming most of the way up Bucky’s thigh if he were standing, while the hinge for the longest segment of the arm was about the height of his shoulder. It had what seemed to be a multidirectional swivel at the end of that arm, which in turn culminated in a relatively fine pincer.

“Shoo,” Stark said, turning to flap his arms at the machine. “You’re in the way. —That’s Dummy,” he added with an air of resignation. “He’s hopeless.” As the machine trundled away, backing up and turning several times in the process while holding its arm up in the air (presumably in order to not disturb anything on the tables), Bucky saw DUM-E printed in white letters on one of the hydraulic cylinders supporting the arm.

“It’s a—”

“Robot is giving him too much credit. He’s supposed to hang around the lab and be useful,” he said pointedly in the general direction of the bot. It beeped and swung its arm dejectedly, almost knocking a wrench off another table. “There’s also Butterfingers and U. Dum-E is the most curious; that’s probably why he was nosing around here. I can tell ’em to leave you alone.”

“That’s alright,” Bucky said, watching the bot wheel off to a corner. “It just startled me, is all.” He looked back at Stark. “Did you want to keep going?”

“Uh,” Stark said. “Uh, no, you know what, I think I’ve got enough to work on for now.” He pointed a finger at Bucky. “Might want to borrow you again later, though. If you’re okay with that. No music, I promise.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Yeah, of course. And music’s fine as long as it’s not too loud. Thank you.” He slid off the stool, stretching unobtrusively as he stood. “Um—?”

“Just take the elevator. FRIDAY’ll take you back up,” Stark said, waving him off, already absorbed in the readouts. “I’ll take this apart, put it back together, see if I can make it better. Kamtrya!” He clapped his hands in a grand, sweeping gesture, then laughed to himself.

Bucky raised an eyebrow, then walked quietly toward the elevators. As he passed the corner where DUM-E had settled itself, he gave it a small wave, wiggling his metal fingers. The swivel at the end of its arm perked up, spun sideways, and waved back.

~

Pepper visited Steve’s floor again later that day. Bucky had finally managed to stop being jumpy--he’d found a patch of rapidly-fading sunlight and sunk back into his book--so he felt a flicker of resentment when the elevator chimed. But when he heard Pepper’s voice call out “Is now a good time?” he replied “Sure, come on in.”

Pepper walked in. “Don’t get up,” she said as she saw him put the book down. He didn’t, but he finished shifting so he was sitting rather than sprawled across the whole couch. “I just came to say hello. May I sit?”

Bucky waved at the just-freed-up space beside him. “Of course.”

Pepper sat down on the couch, slipped off her shoes, and tucked her feet under her. “Mostly I’m here because I wanted to see how Steve’s doing. I swung by just a while ago. He woke up for maybe five minutes—FRIDAY was going to call you, but he looked pretty woozy, so I told her not to. I hope that wasn’t a mistake. Anyway, he looked—he seemed alright, but tired, so I wondered if you knew—”

Bucky sighed. “That’s probably my fault,” he said. “I . . . He found out earlier today that I . . . .” Oh dear. There wasn’t an easy way to say this, was there.

“Tony told me you expected him to kill you,” Pepper said matter-of-factly.

Bucky blinked. “Oh. Alright. Well, I didn’t tell Steve that. He found out today. He . . . didn’t like it very much.” His hand went to his side, where it still ached. He’d checked in the mirror; he did in fact have a lovely multicolored bruise on his left side. At least Steve’s punch had missed where the stitches had been. Dr. Li would have been a pain if he’d shown up with the cut re-opened—and he was pretty sure that even if he’d gone directly to Bruce, Bruce would have told her.

“I imagine,” Pepper said, voice tart. “I’m on his side with this one, I’m afraid.” There was something a little too knowing in her voice. Bucky nodded, acknowledging it.

“I’m glad you two got a few minutes,” he said, steering the conversation away from that particular topic. “He likes you, y’know. Said something last night about how you were one of the first people here who really talked with him.”

“Really, he talked with me first,” Pepper said. “Tony threw a party in the smashed-up tower, because that’s what he does—right after the Battle of New York, with all the Avengers, before they all went their separate ways again. It was a . . . strange couple of days.”

Bucky snorted. He didn’t doubt it.

“He introduced me to everyone then, and we all talked a bit, but it was mostly about the tower and the city, reconstruction, the things that needed to be done. Tony and I reached out to the Secretary of State about helping contain the hazardous alien material and providing Stark tech for the demolition and rebuilding that needed to happen. Since Tony had a concussion, it was mostly me handling it.” She shook her head. “Anyway. I got to know everyone, but I was pretty distracted. And then a few weeks later, Steve calls my secretary and asks for an appointment.”

She settled back against the arm of the couch. “Apparently one of the things Tony had mentioned, when he was introducing me to everyone, was that I used to be the administrator of the Stark philanthropic activities, among”--she rolled her eyes--“lots of other things, too many other things, before I was CEO. It turns out there’s a lot of back pay involved in not being dead . . . . He wanted my help setting up a foundation.”

“Huh.”

“He didn’t tell you?”

“No, and I didn’t hear about it anywhere else.” Bucky’s heart raced. He hadn’t missed anything, had he? He’d been very thorough in his research over the the first two years. It was how he’d started to remember—how he’d figured things out—

“That was intentional.” Pepper smiled. “It’s why he came to me. He told me he’d signed up with SHIELD and that everyone there was very helpful, but he wanted to set something up without them involved. He said he’d been a dancing monkey long enough. I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but it was pretty clear he wanted to start something that was, well, from him, and not from Captain America. And he didn’t want anyone making a fuss about it just because he’s Captain America.”

“That sounds like Steve,” Bucky agreed, relaxing again. “So what did he do?”

In answer, Pepper pulled out her phone. She typed something into it, thumbs flying rapidly, then held it out toward him. “See for yourself.”

It was a webpage—a very simple page, light on text, with only a few sections linked from the home page. The home page described the mission of a particular institution: to match grants or crowdfunded donations to hospitals that served low-income populations, with a focus on covering bills for people who were uninsured. Bucky’s eyes flicked up to the banner at the top of the page: The Sarah Carrigan Memorial Foundation.

He handed the phone back to Pepper, vision blurred.

“I didn’t ask about the name,” she said quietly. “It was obviously something personal. And I didn’t want to ask later, when we knew each other better—by then the foundation was off and running, and I don’t think he was all that involved in the day-to-day administration of it, so—”

“It’s his ma,” Bucky said over the thickness in his throat. “Her maiden name. Probably thought Rogers was too traceable.”

Pepper’s silence expressed the question she was too polite to ask.

Bucky blinked the blurriness away. “She, ah, she died of TB. That was treatable, just—not if you were, well, us. My guess is he didn’t want that happening to anyone else, ever.”

~

“I found out what’s behind the name of Steve’s foundation,” Pepper said that night as she and Tony were preparing for bed.

Tony gave her a perplexed look, the expression augmented by the spikes in his shower-damp hair and the toothbrush in his mouth. Pepper stifled a laugh. “You know, the medical charity he set up a few weeks after the whole New York thing. The one that I helped with.”

Tony spat into the sink. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Pep.”

“What?” She frowned. “But you put us in touch. He called my secretary. I assumed you gave him my number.”

Tony frowned too. “If I gave him a number, I’d’ve given him your number.”

That made sense. She’d been impressed at Tony’s conscientiousness at the time. Apparently, though . . . .

“How’d he get in touch, then?” There were layers upon layers of bureaucracy before anyone got to speak to the CEO, and it was clear that Steve had placed the call as “Steve Rogers” and not as “I’m Captain America and would like to speak with your boss, please.”

Tony shrugged, brushing again. “Ma-ee he wah ah hode f’rever,” he said.

“You can’t talk to me just by waiting through enough hold music,” Pepper argued. She couldn’t remember if the call had been transferred from somewhere else or not—just her secretary handing the phone to her, saying, “A Mr. Rogers for you,” and Steve’s voice in her ear: “Ah, is this Pepper?”

“Dunno.” Tony spat again. “Maybe he just found the number somewhere and said enough of the right things they passed him on. I mean, it’s a lot easier to get hold of your secretary than it is of you, isn’t it?”

“I guess, but—”

“The guy’s used to having to go through a book every time he wants to find something. Even more so, back then.” Tony rinsed his mouth. “Might have found it online. Might just have gone through a Stark employee manual looking for the right person to contact in case of X, Y, Z. So he set up a foundation?”

“Yeah,” Pepper said, peering at her face in the mirror and wetting a washcloth. “Medical foundation—matches other foundations’ grants or money that communities raise for hospitals, but mostly it’s about paying for treatment for people who are un- or under-insured.”

“Typical Cap,” Tony said, as Pepper began wiping off her moisturizing masque.

She shook her head. “Not Cap. He didn’t want his name on it. The whole thing is pretty anonymous.”

“The hell? He’s not the kind of person who’d do something he didn’t want his name on. And Captain America’s charity would get a lot of donations, so that’s just stupid.”

Pepper held up a finger as she splashed the running water directly onto her face. When she finished patting it dry, she picked up where she’d left off. This would be the part Tony didn’t get. “Sometimes people don’t want media attention to the things they really care about. Or not all of the things they care about.”

“Okay,” he said after a moment. He still didn’t understand that, she was pretty sure, but at least he’d accepted it after a few years of dating her.

“I never understood the name,” she said, pulling her hair out of its drying wrap and toweling it to shake off any extra water. “But today I mentioned it to Bucky, and he explained. It’s named after his mother; I think that’s why it was too personal.”

Tony blinked. “Yeah, I never heard of this. —He never even talks about his mom.”

“She died young, that’s all I know,” Pepper said. She tossed the towel over its rack and walked out of the bathroom, Tony following. “Of something that could have been cured if they’d had the money, I take it.”

“He didn’t say anything,” Tony muttered behind her.

“I’m sorry,” Pepper said. “I thought you knew.”

“It’s fine,” Tony said, though his voice said otherwise. He slid into bed and pulled the sheets down for her. “He doesn’t have to tell me everything. I’m not his favorite person. That’s allowed.”

He switched off the light on his side of the bed. Pepper did the same with hers. She didn’t snuggle too close to Tony, though. She had a hunch he’d be moving soon.

Five minutes later, Tony was sitting up. His phone cast blue-green light across his face, almost but not quite the way it used to reflect up from the arc reactor. “What did you say the name of it was, again?”

“I didn’t,” Pepper murmured.

“And?”

“Don’t dump the Maria Stark Foundation money into it. That’ll bring him all that attention he doesn’t want.”

“No, this is going to be a small, private donation from a personal . . . person.”

“The Sarah Carrigan Memorial Foundation.” Pepper smiled into the pillow. “Come back here and snuggle when you’re done. I’m cold.”

Chapter Text

Bucky looked into the mirror, breathing hard. Maybe this was too much. But, dammit, he was tired of feeling like a slob compared to everyone else in the tower. He reached up and ran a hand through the hair he’d just carefully combed back, messing it up. That helped. He didn’t look quite so much like . . . like he used to. For some reason, that helped everything else feel less strange.

He was going to take Pepper up on her offer, though. If he had a card of some kind, he could buy things online, and that meant he could buy decent clothes and get used to them without panicking at his reflection and thinking he’d somehow slipped back into the world he’d grown up in.

Unstuck in time. That was one of the lines describing one of the novels listed in the back of his Asimov books, the list of “More great offerings in science fiction” that he’d looked through aimlessly. That might be a good one to read next, if he could find it.

In the meantime, he had to admit that beat-up jeans and a t-shirt and boots were certainly unremarkable enough. He blended in nicely on the streets and in the subways, on the scruffier end of normal, perhaps, but certainly attracting no attention. He looked like a student, apparently; someone had asked him which train to take to the Columbia campus.

Something that sounded a lot like his mom was deeply disappointed in everyone’s standards.

He shook his head. He wasn’t getting anywhere thinking about this over and over, looking at himself like he was trying to find something new, or maybe something old. When it came down to it, he knew exactly who and what he was. He’d made peace with that a long time ago, and then done it again after Hydra. He knew what mattered to him and what didn’t, what he cared about and what could take a flying fuck for all he cared. The world had changed, but that hadn’t. And another thing that hadn’t changed—instead of worrying, it was better to do something useful.

That was probably his mother talking, too. But she wasn’t wrong.

He ducked out of the bathroom, grabbed the canvas bag on his way out, and punched the elevator button for the ground floor.

~

He came back a little past noon laden with groceries and, more importantly, books. Bookstores were always restful places, especially used ones; he’d spent time in them even on the run in Romania or other countries where he spoke the language better than he read it. There was something comforting about the silence and the smell of old paper. He’d found a few this time. One, hidden in a narrow cobblestoned street that stank of urine, had a coffee counter in the back and beautiful curving staircases that led to an upper mezzanine. He’d found, when he cautiously approached the woman at the front desk, that the store was owned by a charity and all the books were donated to raise funds, meaning they didn’t have a database of titles they had in stock. She herself was a volunteer. “And I mostly work with the sociology and cooking sections, so I’m not the best person to ask about finding fiction, I’m afraid. But the sci-fi fantasy section is back that way, past the staircase, on your left. Oh, and Vonnegut might be under general literature too—that’s farther back, by the cafe.”

He hadn’t gotten that far. The store had a display of “classic pulps,” small paperbacks with lurid four-color covers tucked in clear plastic envelopes to protect them—the thin, cheap paper on many covers was creased or torn. These were old. Not as old as anything he’d remember, but old, and they looked like a mix between what would go on—what had gone on—to become classics and what would be relegated to obscurity.

Most of them cost less than five dollars; a lot for then, a steal for now.

He bought an armload.

Another bookstore, not far away, appeared to be run by a quiet middle-aged man whose desk was covered in stacks of books. It wasn’t clear whether they were his own reading material or merchandise. Bucky spent most of his time in this shop in the history and poetry sections —they just happened to catch his eye.

He didn’t spend as much time in the others, but he noted them for future exploration: new bookstores, used bookstores, stores that advertised books but seemed to sell board games, coffee, and notebooks at least as much as they sold books. He did examine the notebooks, though. Steve drew a lot when he was sick, going through paper fast, and by now, Bucky knew what to look for in a sketchbook.

He did the same in a few stationary stores.

All in all, it took several hours, and picking up groceries as he’d intended to do when he set out was a fairly small part of the day.

He came back to the tower in a much more settled frame of mind than when he’d left it, which was probably further proof his mom was right. He stepped into the elevator, already thinking about what to read first after he’d put the groceries away. One or two of the “pulps” looked like they’d appeal to Steve. If Steve was awake, he could bring those up . . . .

The elevator stopped midway up. That didn’t happen often—these were the only elevators to the private-access floors, and most Stark employees didn’t have access to them. The doors slid open on what looked very much like the laboratory floor and Tony Stark stepped in, doing the smallest of double-takes when he saw Bucky.

“Hi,” he said, or rather grunted.

Bucky nodded at him. “Morning.”

“Morning? Is it still—?” Stark looked at his watch. “Huh. Almost. Good. Can maybe catch Pepper for lunch.”

“Tell her I said hello.”

Stark gave him a sideways look as the door opened on Steve’s floor. Bucky nodded at him and stepped out.

“Hold on a sec,” Stark said, following him. Bucky bristled for a second—this was Steve’s place, his place—

It’s his place and you’re here through his generosity, he thought fiercely. Stop it.

He turned around and looked back at Stark. “Some of these things need to go in the fridge.”

“Yeah, sure,” Stark said. “Just answer me something.”

“I’m listening.” Bucky walked into the kitchen, keeping his back to Stark. He opened the fridge and started putting the milk, eggs, and roast in it.

“Look,” Stark began, and then trailed off. Bucky put the last package of salami in the little drawer and closed the refrigerator door. Stark was standing just outside the kitchen, mouth tight, brows knit in thought.

“Look,” he said again, “I don’t really know how to— This isn’t— What the hell do you and Pepper talk about? She’s been here practically every day this past week and . . . I get her point, that you both had run-ins with mad scientists, and I don’t mean me, I’m the good kind of crazy—but you don’t just sit down here and talk about that, do you? Because that sounds depressing as shit.”

Bucky hefted the grocery bag and considered just continuing to unpack so he had an excuse to stay in the kitchen, with a half-wall between him and Stark, as long as he could. But that felt too much like hiding. With a sigh, he left the bag on the floor and walked around to lean against the other side of the counter. “We don’t talk about that, exactly,” he said.

“That’s a big help. What does that mean?”

Bucky crossed his arms to hide the subtle way he was shaking. “I’m not sure that’s any of your business,” he said quietly.

“I—whoa.” Stark, to his surprise, backed off—actually, physically took a step back. “Okay, sorry, I suck at boundaries.” He took a measured breath. “I didn’t mean it like that. Other people’s trauma, not my business. Just”—and for a second he almost looked uncertain—“Pepper being happy, kind of my business. Sort of. I mean”—he looked down at his hands, looking confused that he didn’t have anything to fidget with—“she did say she’d marry me and that means I get to try and keep her happy, assuming I’m good at it—no more giant rabbits. Giant rabbits bad. But mental health is . . . okay . . . good . . . given boundaries, and—yeah. So. Is Pepper—okay?”

“. . . Yeah,” Bucky said, startled and oddly touched. “Yeah, she’s seemed, well, more together than I am, actually. Not that that counts for a lot.”

“You took care of Captain Stubbornpants in the middle of nowhere for three weeks and knew his blood type,” Stark said, looking intently at the dining room table. “That’s pretty together.”

Bucky couldn’t think of a reply.

“Right, good. Nice talk.” Stark waved a hand at him like he’d been going to clap him on the shoulder and then decided not to. “I’ll just, uh, go—”

“She’s easy to talk to,” Bucky found himself saying. Stark turned and looked at him, actually looked at him, for maybe the first time since he’d seen him in the elevator.

“She’s—she’s funny. She’s got a sense of humor about the whole—everything. And she’s kind, and patient, but doesn’t put up with shit.” His mouth quirked. “She reminds me of Steve’s ma. Probably why she’s so easy to talk to. Not really—they’re different—but there’s the same kind of . . . .”

“The same kind of what?” Stark asked, when he trailed off. He looked a little thunderstruck.

“I think,” Bucky said carefully, “that Sarah Rogers could’ve been like Pepper if people had gotten out of her way. I dunno if she’d’a wanted to run a company,” he said, because that wasn’t right either, “but she had the right mind for it. Could do anything, and faster than you expected, and still have time to listen to you, but scary as hell if you wasted her time. But I don’t think she got many chances to be scary with the people where it mattered, and she got stuck doing sh—things she didn’t want to do. Things that didn’t matter, when she could be making a difference instead, an’ Pepper got to be where she feels useful.” He shrugged. “I dunno. I didn’t get to know her that well—not as a person, y’know, not as more than Steve’s ma. Took me a while to stop thinking like a kid, and then she died. All I know is, talking to Pepper kind of feels the same.”

“Huh,” was all Stark said.

Bucky thought for a second.

“Another thing. With Pepper—I get the feeling if she likes you, she’ll back you up all the way, an’ if she doesn’t, she’ll still do everything she’s supposed to but ignore you ‘s much as she can.”

“Yeah.”

Bucky nodded. “Where d’you think Steve got the all-or-nothing from?”

Stark opened his mouth like he was going to say something, cocked his head like he was going to say something else, lifted a finger, and then shook his head. “Okay. That’s—not what I was expecting out of this conversation. I’m glad Pepper’s good. I’m . . . glad you like her.”

Then his gaze sharpened and he added, still not addressing Bucky directly but rather talking past his left ear, “Speaking of all or nothing, can you just give me the cliffs notes on why you’re not going to go crazy? Because I do know that you’re sure you’re not going to go crazy—Bruce told me, and besides, I know a thing or two about the whole paranoia and control roller coaster ride—but I’d be happier if I knew how.”

This was more what Bucky had expected, and he opened his mouth to give the short explanation he’d prepared. His mouth, however, had other plans.

“Magic, mostly.”

Stark looked directly at him a second time as Bucky felt the blood leave his face. Damn it. Talking about Pepper, about Sarah, that . . . softened things, things that shouldn’t—

“You let Wanda into your head?” Stark said, expression incredulous and disgusted.

Well, at least he knew what Bucky’d meant. “It seemed like the best way,” he said.

“I’d’ve thought you, of all people—”

“She couldn’t do anything worse than what was already in there,” Bucky said evenly. “And Steve trusted her.” That seemed to shut him up.

“But it wasn’t just her,” he added. “S—the person who designed this”—he gestured with his left arm—“was involved in it too. She—Wanda and the rest of Steve’s crew showed up not long after Steve sank the Raft.” Stark nodded. “I’d been . . . out of action someplace safe, but she talked with the person who made the arm and they thought they could fix me. So they tried.” He shrugged. “We tested it.”

That had been terrifying. It didn’t matter that both young women had been adamant that the words would do nothing. He had been equally sure he’d be trapped by his own mind. And oh, how they’d gloated when they were right.

“I don’t know how it worked,” he said. “I don’t think anyone does but them. No one could understand either one of them and they could barely understand each other. But—yeah. My head’s clean.”

“Good,” Stark said forcefully. “That’s good to know. Now, uh, I do hafta go, because—”

“Tell Pepper I said hello,” Bucky repeated, wondering why the corners of his mouth wanted to turn up.

“Uh, yeah.” Stark said. “I will. Bye.”

~

Peter landed on the observation deck of Stark Tower with a thump, heart racing. He wasn’t entirely sure if he was supposed to do this. Mr. Stark had told him to drop the trial suit off at the tower, after convincing him that, no, the tower’s automatic defenses that had just been in the news would not be activated by him. He’d done that, and that was fine. But then he’d gone inside the tower, because Bucky had invited him, and now he was back again, because Bucky had invited him, but it wasn’t really Bucky’s house to invite him to—it was Mr. Stark’s. Hospitals might technically be public places, maybe, but he had to go through that big half-built lounge space to get to the elevator, and that was definitely Mr. Stark’s, and he was definitely officially trespassing just being on the deck like this, and—

He stopped and looked around. Nothing automatic shooting him. Nobody there. Just him, and the Chrysler building, and the clear blue early-May sky. That was good.

He took a few steps toward the door, then flinched back. “Uh, FRIDAY?” he said quietly.

The not-quite-British voice replied, almost making him jump. “Hello again, Spider-Man.”

“Oh. Uh, hi. I’m, uh, I’m here to visit Captain America, kind of, but I don’t know if I really should be here . . . ?”

“You are not on any lists of personae non grata.” As Peter tried to figure out what that meant, the voice added, “The Captain is currently asleep, but has not given instructions to deny visitors. Do you know how to find his room?”

“Uh, yeah, I think I do.” Peter swallowed hard. This was such a bad idea.

“Then please proceed. I have unlocked the roof doors and given you limited elevator access.”

“Thanks,” Peter said and hurried inside.

The room was a lot more finished than last time. It wasn’t dusty, and there was more furniture actually in the room as opposed to shoved back around the edges. He didn’t hang around and snoop, though; he still wasn’t completely sure it was okay for him to be here. Not here-here. He just had to go through here to visit Captain America.

Which he was doing. Because Captain America liked him. And Captain America might be kind-of sort-of dying, so he should visit. Because that’s what people do—right?

Peter had a split second of panic when he couldn’t remember the correct elevator button. He’d thought it had an H on it for hospital, like the road signs. But there weren’t any buttons with an H, so he almost freaked out before he noticed the large M that, on closer inspection, had a little “e” and “d” next to it. Med. That worked too. He took a deep breath and punched the button.

The doors slid open on the hallway he remembered, and he let out a little sigh of relief. There were more people around now—he heard voices coming from several of the rooms and caught a few words he was familiar with that suggested these were laboratories, not rooms with sick people in them. But nobody was actually in the hallway, so he strolled down it briskly, trying to remember which room was the Captain’s—Steve’s.

The First Rule of Sneaking Around, one of the books Ben had given him for his ninth birthday had said: act like you’re supposed to be there. Just strut around like you own the place. That was both easier and harder to remember in the Spider-Man suit.

Five rooms from this turn, right? Four, three, two . . . . He stuck his head inside the fifth room. It was, in fact, Steve’s, and he wasn’t the only person in it.

Bucky Barnes sat next to the bed, one ankle resting on the opposite knee, reading a beat-up paperback book.

“Uh, hi,” Peter said.

Bucky looked up at him without moving the book or his head. “Hey, Peter. Heard you coming.” He gestured at the chair next to him. “He’s out, but you can take a seat if you want.”

“Thanks,” Peter said, and moved carefully around the bed. Captain America sleeping was—weird. He was still really big, but he was curled on his side and kind of hugging a pillow, like a regular person. Despite all that, he didn’t look very comfortable. There was a little line between his eyebrows.

“Is he okay?” Peter asked, almost whispering. Bucky put the book down.

“Not much different from two days ago,” he said. “A little achier, maybe. But he’s . . . himself, when he’s awake.”

“I’ve got something for when he’s awake,” Peter said. He quirked his arm backwards to spritz the small of his back with the web-dissolving spray and caught the Tupperware container before it fell. “I wanted to give him these.”

“Cookies?” Bucky asked, his eyebrows going even higher. He seemed to be surprised for real, not just . . . whatever it was grown-ups meant when they gave him funny looks like they were actually impressed and humoring him by pretending to be impressed at the same time.

“Oatmeal chocolate chip. I like sweet things when I’m sick,” Peter said. “And May says hospital food is terrible.”

“Stark hospital food might be a bit better,” Bucky said. “But I haven’t seen any cookies. He’ll love ‘em.”

“You can have some too,” Peter said. He dithered for a moment, then mentally kicked himself in the pants and said it. “I actually mostly came to visit you.”

No, now the look Bucky gave him was surprised. Maybe more than surprised. Like his face was 80% extra-surprised, 20% confused, and 100% “I don’t get it.”

“Why?” he asked.

“I just thought . . . your best friend’s sick, and you don’t know anybody here—well, except for Mr. Stark, and that’s—well yeah. That just seemed really lonely so I thought I’d . . . come . . .” He shuffled his feet. “But maybe that’s none of my business and if you don’t want me here I’ll go—”

“No,” Bucky said, his voice kind of funny. “No, you don’t have to. That’s—that’s real nice of you.”

“Just seemed like the right thing to do,” Peter said, uncomfortable. “I mean, um. A few years ago my uncle died, and everything was terrible, but my friend Ned came over and just was around and—not that I’m saying it’s the same thing! And I don’t think Steve is gonna die! It’s just . . . not knowing what to do and being alone sucks, and not being alone is . . . better.”

“No, I know what you mean,” Bucky said. “It is. Thank you.”

“Sure.”

After a moment, Peter sat down on the chair next to Bucky. He put the container of cookies on a little table-thing between the chairs.

Neither of them said anything.

Bucky didn’t pick his book back up.

Peter watched Captain America sleeping, listened to his heart slow down a bit from going crazy, and tried to ignore that he was sweating. He wanted to fidget, but he didn’t.

After a while, he heard the pop-creak of the Tupperware being opened and Bucky biting into a cookie. Should he look? That would be awkward, right, to watch someone eating a cookie? But it was awkward sitting next to each other not looking at each other, too. Or more like, that was fine, but staring at Captain America while he slept was kind of creepy. And it made Peter sad.

The Tupperware case entered his vision. “Take one.”

“Oh, no, that’s fine. I made them, I have more at home. They’re for you.”

“You just climbed up a hundred-story building. Aren’t you hungry?”

“I didn’t climb all of it,” Peter said reflexively. “I swung over more than halfway up. But, uh.” The cookies were delicious.

“You made them?”

“From scratch, yep.” There was more room for that kind of thing in May’s apartment than in most of his friends’ kitchens. Peter didn’t make stuff often, but when he did, he liked having space to put lots of cookie sheets.

“Then you have to eat one. Never trust a cook who doesn’t eat his own food.”

“Hey!” Stung, Peter reached in and took one. Then he had a weird juggling moment where he started to raise the cookie to his mouth and realized he was still wearing the mask. He shot a glance at the open door. “Uh . . . .”

“I’ll get it.” Bucky stood up and brushed by him. He closed the door, cocked his head for a moment as though in thought, and then asked, “FRIDAY, is there some kind of . . . privacy system?”

”I can give you warning if someone approaches,” the voice said. “And lock the door if necessary until Spider-Man’s identity is secure. And, of course, the windows are polarized so no one can see in.”

“That’s great,” Peter said, at the same time Bucky said, “Thanks, FRIDAY.”

Peter pulled his mask off. When he could see again, Bucky was back, sitting next to him.

Peter ate his cookie.

“So,” Bucky said after a moment. “You wanted to keep me company”—Peter squirmed—“so let’s do something. D’you know how to play cards?”

Peter looked at him. Bucky was holding a beat-up red deck of cards and looked . . . careful.

“Not much,” Peter admitted. “I mean, I know how to play Crazy Eights and Kings Corners and stuff, and we do Mao at school, and I can play solitaire on the computer, but that’s about it.”

“Alright,” Bucky said, and now he was grinning. “I’m gonna teach you how to play gin.”

~

The first hand, Peter kept going for three or four of a kind. Then he realized that was a terrible idea, but Bucky had already won.

The second hand, Peter tried to put together a few different runs, but Bucky was going for half of the same cards too.

The third hand, Peter got stuck trying to decide whether he wanted three runs or to try to collect tens, jacks, and queens, and Bucky won with Peter’s hand full of face cards.

The fourth hand, Peter decided to change strategies.

~

After what was probably the eighth or ninth hand—Peter wasn’t sure how many, but Bucky probably knew; he was also keeping score on a little Post-It note—Bucky scowled at Peter.

“You’re counting cards,” he said.

!“What does that mean?” Peter asked.

“Well—okay, I guess you’re not ’cause we’re not playing blackjack. But you’re keeping track of everything that’s already been put down.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Teach the guy to play and he’s a card shark,” Bucky muttered. “Good thing we’re not playing for money.”

~

Eventually, Bucky reached some number of points that was supposedly when you were done with the game. That meant Peter lost, but mostly because of getting busted with a hand full of face cards. “You learn fast,” Bucky said, grinning crookedly.

“I’ll win next time.”

Bucky gave him that surprised look again, but there was something else in there too. “You planning on coming back?”

“Yeah,” Peter said, surprised to realize it himself. “If you want me to.”

“I would,” Bucky said. “Besides, Steve’ll have to thank you for the cookies.”

Peter looked over at Steve. He hadn’t woken up the whole time Peter had been there—moved a bit once or twice, and they’d been quieter when that had happened, but he hadn’t ever woken up.

“This is fine, right?” Peter asked. His voice came out sounding a lot younger than he wanted it to.

“He’s been sleeping a lot,” Bucky said. “The doctors say it’s good.”

“’Kay.”

They looked at Steve for a bit.

“I should probably go,” Peter said. “I don’t—I’m not super sure I’m supposed to be here . . . .”

“If Stark didn’t want you here, FRIDAY wouldn’t have let you in,” Bucky said. He sounded weirdly confident.

“Can FRIDAY do that?”

“Well, with you, she’d just have to say to go away, right?” Bucky chuckled as Peter rolled his eyes. “But I’m pretty sure she lets him know if people who aren’t supposed to be here are here. All this stuff is pretty amazing.”

“I know!” Peter said. “I remember when I was a kid, we went to the Stark Expo.” Bucky’s face did the thing again, but he didn’t seem to have questions, so Peter kept going. “There was lots of cool stuff. There—well, actually, the first time we went, I didn’t get to see much. That was when it all went wrong and things started blowing up. One of the Hammer drones actually came right at me—I was wearing an Iron Man costume, ’cause I was really into Iron Man as a kid” (he had to admit that) “and I kind of, you know, did the thing”—he pushed out with one hand—“because that’s just what my brain decided to do, only then the drone does blow up, like FOOM! And I looked up and Mr. Stark was standing right next to me. He said thanks for the help. And then he flew off.” Peter flopped back against the chair. “And then we got ice cream.”

Bucky was staring at him, slack-jawed.

“We went back a few nights later, when the Expo re-opened. Saw lots of awesome stuff. There were AIs, but not this good. Mostly just some voice response and speech-to-text stuff that everyone has on their phones now. But it was really new then. Oh, and one of my friends didn’t want to leave the hydroponics bay. I liked the arc reactors better.” Bucky’s face was starting to get to him. “What?”

Bucky shook himself a bit. “Uh, nothing. Just remembering the first Stark Expo. This one sounds . . . different.”

“The first?” Peter thought this one was the first. Hadn’t it been all about a bright future, no more weapons, peaceful uses of technology, all that . . . ?

“In 1943.”

“Oh. Oh. Okay.”

Bucky shook his head. “The one I went to was amazing then too. But it was—different from how I imagine yours was. The stuff I remember, at least some of it, you could sort of figure it out or see how it worked. A lot of the displays had the covers of machines off so you could see how they worked. Loved that. You can’t do that with a computer, or these tiny little machines. Not that it’s bad. Just—different.”

“Yeah,” Peter said, thinking. “Oh man, that must have been so different. I mean, Turing was just inventing the first computer, right? So none of it was—”

Bucky gave him a new look, like a frown with raised eyebrows, incredulous and kind of “huh.” “Alright,” he said, sighing, “when was that shit declassified?”

Peter shrugged. “Um, there’s computers? I dunno. Long time ago, I guess.”

Bucky covered his face in his metal hand. Peter tried not to look too closely, but that actually was really cool.

Like, the story behind it made him feel sick, but. Metal. Arm.

He couldn’t think of much else to say, though, so he’d probably better leave before he started saying things like that out loud. “I should go,” he said, standing up.

“Alright,” Bucky said. He caught Peter’s arm as Peter headed for the door. “Hold it—mask.” He handed Peter the mask he’d tucked under the little table they’d used for cards.

“Oh my gosh, thank you,” Peter said, pulling it on. “And thanks for teaching me how to play gin, uh”—here goes the what-to-call-adults game—what had FRIDAY called him again?—“Mr. Barnes?”

Lost the game, Peter thought as Bucky made a face. “Coming from you, that makes me sound like a history teacher or something,” he said. “Just call me Bucky. See you next time, Peter.”

“Bye!” Peter said. “Bye, Steve!” He ducked out the door with a wave.

~

Tony walked into the elevator casually, casually leaned against the wall, and very casually punched the button for Steve’s floor. It was on the way down to the workshop. This was easy. And he had to get back down to the workshop this morning. He had spent the whole last day tinkering. He was ready to get more data. So. Casual.

He was jittery from excitement and the three espressos he’d had. That was all.

The elevator door slid open and he stuck his foot in it. “Hey Barnes,” he yelled out the opening. “You around? I wanna play with your arm again.”

There was a pause, and then the former assassin came into view, barefoot and holding a piece of toast, hair kind of tangled and messy. “Sure,” he said. “Gimme a minute.”

Tony rolled his eyes. If you were going to be up at 7:30, you ought to be up. Otherwise you should be asleep.

To Barnes’ credit, it really was only about a minute later that he joined Tony in the elevator. “FRIDAY, lab,” Tony said again, and the elevator began its descent. Barnes said nothing, standing straight and quiet, and Tony reminded himself that he was jittery from coffee and building things and not from being in a small enclosed space with the guy who’d killed his parents—

Barnes shot him a quick, nervous glance and he took a deep breath. Context. “Told FRIDAY to make a new playlist,” he said. His voice didn’t even come out squeaky. “And set an upper limit on the volume. If it bothers you, though, let me know and I’ll turn it down more. Or off. Off is good.”

Barnes relaxed very slightly. “Thank you. That’s—very kind of you.”

Tony hated being called kind in normal circumstances, let alone this. This was . . . not normal. Very not normal. And not blasting off people’s eardrums wasn’t kind, it was—non-evil, or something. Fortunately, the doors slid open before he had to come up with a reply to that. He bounded out, toward the prosthetic design workstation. “FRIDAY,” he said, “put on the playlist we talked about. Soft rock. Oldies. Stuff I don’t hate, though. You play any Beach Boys and I will scramble your code.”

~

Tony noticed DUM-E scooting around as they got set up, but he stayed out of the way. “Alright,” Tony said, when the diagnostic readout and the holographic model of the new-and-improved prosthetic structure were both ready. “I want to test a little more of the basic physical mechanics—what we did last time, with more focus on the fingers. But I also want to start running sensory tests. That, uh, that’ll be a lot of ‘can you feel this,’ ‘is this one point or two,’ that kind of thing.”

Barnes was nodding. He looked less wary—good, because Tony was being actively unintimidating and he wasn’t used to spending this much thought on people when he was in his lab, thank you. “I did some of that when it was first being calibrated,” he said. “I can do that.”

“Great,” Tony said. Then something occurred to him. “And when I ask you how far something can go, I mean how far it can go without hurting, alright? Please tell me you weren’t being that much of a passive ragdoll last time.” I don’t want to throw out all my data. Also, that’s disturbing.

“Nah,” Barnes said. “It doesn’t hurt unless it’s something that could actually damage the arm.”

Whoa. “Wait, what? The nerves don’t register pain even if it’s something you otherwise couldn’t—”

“Yeah. Is that unusual?”

“I think so. I mean, integrating sensory feedback of any kind into a prosthetic is bleeding-edge stuff, but a lot of the time brains just….hurt when they think something should hurt. That’s why you get phantom limb pain and stuff and why stretching the other one in a mirror gets rid of cramps in the one that’s not there anymore. Whereas this is letting reality, via feedback from the arm, rewrite your brain.”

He wasn’t quite sure what he was saying, thoughts racing ahead of the words. The implications for application—the implications for design, coding, hell, for medical theory—this was so cool, this was exciting, he needed to talk to someone about this, not Bruce, Bruce knew even less about biomechanics than Tony did, sorry Brucie-bear, no, this needed someone else, this needed—“Is there any chance you can put me in touch with the person who designed this?”

Barnes shook his head. “Not yet. At some point they’re probably going to do something else, something big, and I can tell you then. But I have to keep it secret for now.”

“Okay . . . Can you, I don’t know, send them an e-mail from me? I have questions. I have so many questions.”

“I don’t know . . . .”

“Alright, then at least tell them from me how fucking cool all if this is and tell them to hurry up and make more of it because it’s amazing?”

Barnes’ mouth quirked. “I didn’t carry love letters in school. I’m not gonna start now.”

Tony sputtered. “It’s not—I—it—uh—fine. Fine, be that way. See if I help you get a date to the sock hop.”

Barnes actually snorted, a quick burst of laughter almost immediately cut off. He shot Tony a nervous look that Tony could probably have deciphered better if he hadn’t still been thinking about nerve conduction and the mechanical-biological interface and . . . .

“Alright,” Tony said, trying to get the conversation back under control. “Uh, can you make a fist? And then touch each of your fingers to your thumb?”

~

After they’d been working for a while, he felt something nudge his right shoulder. Dum-E had crept in close again and was waving his arm very slightly toward Barnes. He made a quiet whirring noise.

“Oh, hey,” Barnes said, voice gentler than Tony had ever heard it yet, except talking to Steve when Steve was almost asleep. “Hi again.”

Dum-E was in Tony’s way, blocking his path to Barnes, and he was about to tell the bot to leave when Barnes extended his metal arm toward Dum-E and wiggled his fingers. Dum-E rolled forward about a foot, but pulled his arm up so he wasn’t any closer to touching Barnes.

“It’s okay,” Barnes said, still in that gentle tone. “You just startled me last time.”

Dum-E lowered his arm very carefully so his pincers just touched the palm of Barnes’ hand. Then he pulled back quickly with an inquisitive beep.

“Yeah, bud, it’s metal,” Barnes said. “Just like you. You can check it out if you want.”

Dum-E scooted in closer with a happy bwee.

“He’s not a dog, you know,” Tony couldn’t help saying.

Barnes just shrugged, still focused on Dum-E, who was sliding his pincer up and down the metal hand, making a very quiet tik-tik-tik noise as it bounced over the seams between the plates. “Acts like one.”

And Tony didn’t exactly know what to say to that, or what was happening in his chest as he watched his bot poking the ex-assassin, so he shoved the hand mechanics display aside and called up the nerve function models instead. “Dum-E, you can help us test reflexes if you want,” he said. “But you have to do what I say and not screw around, or I’m donating you to—FRIDAY, which of the CUNY colleges has the best robotics program?”

“I believe York College has a summer robotics program beginning in just over two months,” FRIDAY said.

“Yeah. You behave or I’ll donate you to that,” Tony said.

Dum-E beeped disconsolately.

“Then don’t screw up.”

He looked up, half-expecting to have to deal with the Super-Expressive Traumatized Face or the Angry Assassin Scowl, but Barnes’ expression was more one of wry amusement—before he saw Tony looking and went completely blank. Alrighty then.

“You do have reflexes, right?” he asked as a thought struck him. Obviously, the man could block and catch things no problem—he had with the old arm, anyway, and everything indicated that this was so much better—but that could just be really fast eye-hand coordination or a programmed equivalent, not like actual reflexes-reflexes.

“Sort of,” Barnes said. “But they’re different.”

“Like how?”

“Well—pulling back from something hot—that’s like the pain response. It doesn’t kick in unless there’s a risk of actual damage. But anything that I’d need to balance, to make up for reflexes in the other arm, that’s normal.”

“Crossed extensor reflex,” Tony muttered, the term surfacing from somewhere in memory from when Rhodey had decided he actually needed to learn how to fight hand-to-hand shortly after the whole “I Am Iron Man” deal. “You have the fancy suit, but what if you’re too close to blow things up?” he’d asked. “You’re never too close to blow things up,” Tony’d replied, but he heard what Rhodey wasn’t saying, didn’t want to say, this soon after Obadiah: you’re not always in the suit. Not that knowing how to punch people would’ve helped in that case, given the nerve blockers, but still. Tony’d learned.

“Is that what it’s called?” Barnes asked now, shrugging. “I don’t know. Just—balances.”

“Sure,” Tony said. “Okay. I’m not sure how to check for that”—not without setting up a situation that would feel waaaaay too much like a fight, anyway—”but I’ll check for some other things to find out how your arm actually works.”

A few data-collecting checks later, in which Dum-E very carefully poked or squeezed different parts of Barnes’ arm, Tony went for the thing he’d been most interested in. “So on most people, if you squeeze these tendons”—he demonstrated on his own forearm—”the fingers curl. But that might not happen because you . . . don’t have tendons? Have artificial tendons? Have similar wiring that doesn’t respond that way because you can’t squeeze metal like that? Have similar wiring that doesn’t respond that way because it doesn’t need to? Like, does your arm work like an arm, or does it just look like an arm and actually works completely differently? Probably better. The human body is not put together efficiently. Evolution produces good-enough mechanisms; it’s really unfortunate. —Can you tell me anything about the person who made this?”

Barnes looked at him thoughtfully. “Have you ever met someone and known that they’re so much smarter than you are—not just that they know more, they’re smarter—that you can’t get there, no matter how hard you try?”

“Me personally? Hmm—nope,” Tony retorted, barely pretending to think about it. “I can’t say I have.”

Barnes grinned—a faint grin, but a grin nonetheless. “I think if you met this person, you would.”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “You realize what a high bar you’re setting there, right, Alex Trebek?”

“Oh, I do.”

It didn’t take long to exhaust whatever reflexes—or pseudo-reflexes—Barnes’ arm had, and Tony moved on to the far more exciting world of physical sensation. Dum-E had fun with it too—poking the arm was what he’d wanted to do all along, after all. The tips of his pincers were just about perfect for two-point touch tests, which revealed that Barnes’ arm was exceptionally finely calibrated, though sometimes he had to concentrate pretty hard to detect the two separate points of contact. Eventually Tony found a few other props for testing sensory perception, including a bright yellow fake feather that had somehow migrated down here from a party.

“Okay, Dum-E, take that and move it up the hand from the wrist. Yeah, like that. —Can you feel that?”

“Yeah, but it’s different from how it’d be on this one.” Barnes wiggled the fingers of his right hand.

Tony frowned. “Different how?”

“You can’t really feel texture with most of your palm, right?” Barnes asked. “I mean, a little, but not compared to the tips of your fingers or the back of your hand.”

“You’ve got more sensory feedback in your palm?”

“Not more, exactly, just...different. Better able to pick up texture.”

“Huh,” Tony said, mostly to himself. “Why?”

Barnes ducked his head. “I asked for it. Well, when we were testing it, and it got turned up a bit, I asked to keep it that way.”

“Oh.” That was different. “Uh, why?”

Barnes looked at the floor. “In Wakanda, they worship Bast. She’s this panther goddess—well, sometimes a lioness, too, I think . . . . Anyway, cats aren’t exactly sacred, but there are a lot of them around. Big ones, bigger than most you’d get here, and really friendly.” His voice got even quieter. “They were soft.”

~

“It’s just weird, that’s all.” Tony wrestled his shirt up over his head, muffling his voice. “I don’t get it, Pepper. He’s stiff and careful and barely talks, and then he tells me he had the sensitivity turned up on his metal hand so he can appreciate petting cats.” He threw the dirty shirt into the hamper with excessive force. “I mean, it’s very difficult to get a read on somebody like that.”

Pepper sighed and crossed the room. She hugged him, laying a hand on his chest over the scar where the arc reactor used to be. “You’re difficult to get a read on, too, sometimes,” she murmured into his hair.

Tony turned into the hug, wrapping one arm around her waist and resting his forehead against hers. “He talks to Dum-E and then he doesn’t laugh at any of my jokes. It’s like every time he starts to have fun, he—he gets scared. It’s exhausting. I don’t like to be around that.” He stiffened a bit in her arms. “Plus all the other reasons being around him is exhausting.”

Pepper had nothing to say to that. She just held him.

“—But the arm is cool,” Tony added, speaking into her neck. It tickled.

“Is it.”

“Yeah. Whoever made it is a genius, and that’s me talking.” He straightened up and stepped away from her. “I’m not entirely sure yet if the mechanics mirror the human arm or not, but if my design didn’t, I’m pretty sure I could—”

~

Peter came over again the next day. Getting into Manhattan in the Spider-Man suit was kind of a pain, but he’d rather leave his backpack someplace he knew it’d (probably) be safe, and he didn’t know any relatively-neglected alleyways in Manhattan where he could stash it. Technically, now that May knew, he could just swing home and drop it off and change there, but it wouldn’t be good if anyone saw Spider-Man leaving an apartment building. Bad enough that he still had to sneak in in the suit sometimes.

So he ended up doing this: changing, webbing his backpack to a wall someplace safe near home, and holding on to the roof of the 7 train, splayed out flat when it went underground, trying not to get his head ripped off by any of the uneven parts of the tunnel ceiling. Fun times.

At least the 7 went straight to Grand Central and then Stark Tower was right there.

Getting out of Grand Central was kind of a pain, though. Maybe he should come over some other way, or bail out before the train went underground. At least people didn’t look up much. He crawled along the ceiling until he found a passageway that was mostly empty, then dropped down really quickly and ran up the stairs. It would be really cool if he could sneak into the main concourse and crawl across that ceiling, but that would also be a really bad idea and there were all those serious-looking people there who were probably supposed to stop terrorists and stuff and they had guns and might not believe he was really a friendly Spider-Man. So adding a new constellation, the Spider, was out.

For now.

He wasn’t on the ground for long—as soon as he got up the stairs from the subway, he jumped onto a lamppost, and from there to the side of a building, and from there shot some web and—yeah. Okay. Queens was fun, but this part of Manhattan had a lot of tall buildings and he could kind of bounce between them, swinging back and forth. It made him think of that one old movie, George of the Jungle. George would be so jealous of what Peter could do.

He spent a while zipping around up and down a few blocks in every direction, actually looking for people in trouble, but there didn’t seem to be any. He did see one of those guys who hands off a sample CD to tourists and then, when they take it kind of automatically, says “yeah, that’s ten dollars for my first album, thanks for the support” and gets money from the people who are too nice or awkward to give it back. One of these guys was talking to a confused-looking woman. He dropped down and said “You don’t have to take that, you know,” but the tourist just jumped and stared at him.

“Ask to listen to a sample first, at least!” he yelled and swung back up in the air while the CD guy swore at him.

Like, it might not really be a scam. There could actually be music on those CDs. But tricking someone into buying something because they didn’t want to be rude wasn’t cool.

Anyway, once it was obvious that nobody nearby, at least, really needed him, he circled back toward Grand Central and Stark Tower.

~

Peter landed on the observation deck of Stark Tower for the third time in four days. “Hey, FRIDAY,” he said breezily. “Is Captain—uh, Steve awake?”

“He just fell back asleep, I’m afraid,” the AI said.

Peter frowned. “Is, uh, Bucky around?”

“He is on his way back to the Captain’s floor. Shall I let him know you’re coming?”

Peter gulped. “Uh, sure.”

FRIDAY was quiet for a moment. “Please proceed. You will have elevator access to the appropriate floor.”

So Peter hurried through the super-fancy giant living room place again, and into the elevator, and poked the button that had a star on it. He took a minute to actually appreciate the buttons this time. Besides “Med” and the top button, which was kind of all on its own and obviously for the deck and whatever that floor was, and one above it that wasn’t marked at all but was red and gold, there was one with a hammer, and one with a shape like two trapezoids stuck together to make a fatter version of the sand timer from that board game May liked, and one with two crossed arrows on it, and one that had little molecules on it that—he leaned closer—were actually tinted green. Hawkeye, Cap, Thor, green was probably the Hulk, the one in Iron Man colors at the top was obviously Mr. Stark, and then the double-trapezoid thing was—oh, duh, it was the mark on the back of a black widow. He really ought to know that. Spider thing.

All of them were still here, even though a lot of them had fought against Mr. Stark. That was weird. But then again, he’d been going to sell the building before—everything that had happened, and maybe when you had more than 100 floors of space you didn’t really bother throwing old stuff out of rooms you weren’t using.

He realized the door had been open for a while and he’d been staring at buttons. He spun around and jumped out so the doors wouldn’t close on him. Bucky was sitting on a couch in the big living room they’d talked in that first night.

“Hi, Peter,” he said, looking up. “Steve said to tell you he liked the cookies.”

Peter pulled off his mask. “Hey, Bu—ooh, is that The Other Side of the Sky?” Peter recognized that cover. It wasn’t whatever he’d been reading yesterday. That had had a tan cover with a spiky city in a blue circle on the cover.

“Uh, yeah,” Bucky said, glancing at the book and then back at Peter. “You know it?”

“Yeah!” Peter sat down on the couch next to him. “I have that same book at home. I didn’t like sci-fi except for Star Trek for a long time, because everything I read was depressing or kind of preachy, like, ‘recycle or else!!’ But mostly his stories aren’t. The ones I’ve read, anyway.”

“I always liked Clarke,” Bucky said. “I’m trying to catch up on what I missed. That’s one good thing about skipping seventy years—I don’t have to wait for new books from the writers I liked.”

“You like sci-fi?”

“Yeah. Future’s a little different from how I used to think, but—I still do, it turns out.”

Peter’s mind raced.

“What’re you thinking?” Bucky asked.

“I have so many suggestions for you,” Peter blurted. “Dune—have you read Dune? I didn’t get past the first book, and after a while the guy’s son took over the series and apparently that made it bad, but it’s a classic and I don’t think it was out yet when you were— Anyway. There’s a movie of it too. Oh, and Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, and The Jetsons is an old cartoon that might feel more like the future stuff that you expected. If you like stuff that’s science fiction but not in space there’s a whole ’nother—The X-Files and—” He shook his head. “But books, just books. Um. The Martian is all realistic and stuff. Ooh, Mars, The Martian Chronicles. Maybe Ray Bradbury in general, but a lot of his short stories are weird and creepy. I like some of them but mostly I don’t. If you like dystopias, Fahrenheit 451 is good. We read that in school last year. But that’s about censorship and burning books and kind of depressing, even if it sort of ends happy. The Handmaid’s Tale—I haven’t read it but MJ didn’t complain about it much and MJ usually thinks there’s something wrong with most books— Wait! Stuff like you grew up with: Robert Heinlein wrote about multi-stage rockets going to the moon before we actually did it, and he got kind of a lot right. His short stories are better than the novels, though; the longer he gets, the weirder he gets. And there’s newer stuff—”

“Hold on,” Bucky said, looking both happy and a little overwhelmed. “Lemme write this down.”

“No, don’t bother, I’ll make a list.” Peter fumbled for the small pocket in his suit and pulled out his phone. “I’ll just keep thinking of things. I’ll bring you the list next time.”

“Alright,” Bucky said, and waited while Peter typed all of the ideas into a blank e-mail. When he was done, Bucky asked, “So you like science, huh?”

“Oh yeah. I made my web fluid stuff, remember? I really like chemistry.”

It was a lot easier to talk than it had been the day before. Peter found himself talking about YouTube channels and robotics club (before he’d quit it) and all the cool stuff you could do without having to program computers, because whenever he got into coding Bucky got that kind of whiplash look on his face, even though he seemed to understand everything Peter was saying perfectly.

Peter ended up complaining about school after detouring through how science was so much fun to play with but science tests sucked. And how tests in general sucked, especially the super-long boring ones like the Regents and the ones you had to take for college. And how much of getting a good grade wasn’t really understanding stuff but showing up on time (which he hadn’t really cared about before the whole Spider-Man thing, but now it mattered), and how it was stupid to attach extra credit to not using a hall pass, because then you just had a class full of people thinking really hard about trying not to pee and not actually paying attention.

“So yeah, I like learning things but school is a pain,” he finished.

“Yeah, well,” Bucky said, picking up The Other Side of the Sky again, “stick with it, kid.”

“I mean, yeah,” Peter said, heat prickling at his face. “It’s not like I can be Spider-Man all the time, and I’ll need, y’know, a job someday. I’m not gonna drop out of high school. That’s dumb.”

“I did,” Bucky said, a little hesitantly. Peter instantly felt awful.

“You—what?” he said, stupidly, while his stomach and the backs of his knees and the inside of his elbows were busy doing the cold tingly thing they do when you’ve just messed up big-time. Spider-sense felt similar, but warm, and it happened before things went wrong. This was like spider-sense in reverse: the moment of shock and “oops” before mortification hit, when there was nothing he could do about it. It sucked.

“Didn’t want to,” Bucky clarified, looking down. “But I needed a job. ’34 wasn’t easy. My sisters all graduated, though,” he added, a tinge of pride in his voice. “And Steve.”

“Sorry,” Peter said in a very small voice. “I wasn’t thinking.”

Bucky shrugged. “It’s different now. You could actually make a decent living without finishing school then. I know that’s changed. But that was actually—” He smiled, looking into the distance. “That’s actually what I told Becca, my oldest sister, when she talked about dropping out too. She wanted to be a nurse, like Steve’s ma—always had. I could be a mechanic without graduating, but no way would she be able to teach herself that. Might be the only argument with her I actually won.”

“You were a mechanic?” Peter asked, partly to say something that wasn’t stupid and partly because he really was intrigued.

“Yep.”

“That’s cool.”

“You don’t have to humor me, Peter,” Bucky said dryly. “I don’t know what an ACT or an SAT is, but you’re obviously going to do a lot more than I ever did. That’s fine.”

“No!” Peter protested. “Building stuff is—is cool. And—like, I built my web-shooters, and that was hard.” He hesitated for a second, but he’d made this mess and he could fix it. “Wanna see?”

Bucky set the book aside. “Really?” He sounded excited about it, the way Peter would be about seeing, well, something else really cool that someone had made.

Peter took a breath. “Yeah.” He held out his right hand, pointing with his left. “See the little lever there? That’s the trigger. And this spot”—the tiny nozzle protruding from his wrist, poking through both the sleeve and glove, not on top, a lot more secure, thank you Mr. Stark—“that’s where the web fluid comes out.”

Bucky looked delighted. “I was pretty confused when you did this at the airport. Thought maybe it—came out of you.”

“Ew,” Peter said. “No. Not actually a spider, thanks.”

“Weirder things have happened,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes. Peter thought of the girl in red who threw things with her mind, or something, and the flying guy who could turn insubstantial, and the guy who went huge but had apparently been small first, and had taken back Cap’s shield.

“Yeah, okay,” he agreed. “But no. It comes”—he carefully eased the nozzle back under both layers of fabric and peeled the glove off—“out of this.”

The web-shooting mechanism sat there. Bucky leaned closer, fascinated. Peter squeezed the clamp that released the web-shooter from the web fluid reservoir and handed it to him. Bucky turned it over and over, looking at it from every angle. “I think I get how it works,” he said after a minute or two, grinning. “So the—the fluid comes in here . . . .”

By the time Peter had to leave, they’d taken the web-shooter apart and put it back together, and Bucky looked ridiculously happy. Peter was almost tempted to re-connect the reservoir and show how it actually worked, but . . . yeah, maybe not in a living room.

“It might be another few days before I can come back,” he said. “But, uh. I’ll bring the list of books and movies I think you’d like.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said, looking delighted.

“And I’m sure there are a lot of lists of best sci-fi on the Internet,” Peter added.

“The Internet is great,” Bucky said, “but it’s a bit short on ‘things you’ve missed since 1945.’ Besides, I’d rather get recommendations from a person. Call it old-fashioned, but I just trust your judgment better.”

Peter felt warm all over. “I’ll try,” he promised. “If you tell me what you like and don’t like after a bit, I can probably do better. And, um.” He hesitated. This was getting back into awkward territory. “I can bring some of the syllabuses from my classes? Or syllabi, whatever it is. I can bring them from this year and maybe I still have some from last year and then you’ll know what people are learning in high school today. You know, to help you catch up.”

Bucky blinked. “If it’s no trouble . . . .” he said uncertainly.

“Dude, I can literally just take pictures of them or something. It’s no problem.” Peter waved and headed for the elevator.

“Hold on a sec. Let me try something.” Bucky walked over and fiddled with one of the huge windows at the far end of the room. “I think these—there we go.” The massive window swung open. Bucky put his hand out. “No screen. Or forcefield—that’s actually kind of surprising.”

“I don’t think we have those yet,” Peter said.

“Would you swear Stark doesn’t?” Bucky asked.

“I . . . think if he did, it’d be in my suit somehow,” Peter said.

Bucky’s face did something weird. “Fair point. Anyway, does this work so you don’t have to go back upstairs?”

Oh. Peter walked back across the room and looked out the window. Slick tower surface below and on either side, open space across from him. “Yeah,” he said. “This is great. Thanks!”

Bucky made a startled noise as he jumped up onto the windowsill and anchored a web next to it. “Glad Steve liked the cookies!” he shouted as he jumped at an angle, letting the web catch him and his momentum carry him away.

~

“Alright,” Tony said. “The reason I have gathered you all here—well, the two of you, ’cause Sleeping Beauty’s still snoozing and I, uh, already told Pepper—the reason you’re here is that I finally managed to trace who attacked us.” He looked from Bruce’s face to Barnes’. Neither one looked suitably impressed. Impressed, yes—but not enough.

Their impromptu little council of war was gathered around a newly-installed table in the newly-rebuilt Avengers Lounge—penthouse lounge floor, dammit, how long would he keep thinking of it wrong—which he thought gave some nice symmetry to the events. Early-afternoon sunlight streamed in through the windows without creating any glare. Thank you, new-and-improved window coatings he’d developed himself. The attack had been an opportunity for upgrades, at least.

“They must be pretty good,” Bruce said nervously. “Since it took you over a week to track them, I mean.”

“No,” Tony said, irritated, because that should be right but— “No, they just suck more than I was expecting. I was thinking too subtle. Something I thought was a complicated cypher was just corrupt data. When I figured that out, I managed to trace the funding and the van and the helicopter to the original source. Checked out the place—it was empty, abandoned, whatever. Froze the assets they still had. When I gave that to the police, the guys in custody realized there wasn’t gonna be any dramatic jailbreak and broke down and confirmed the whole thing—not that I need that—and that let me confirm where the TARDIS tech came from.”

Barnes nodded.

“So?” Bruce asked. “Who are they?”

“You were partly wrong,” Tony said, glancing at Barnes. “It wasn’t AID.” He sat back in his padded swivel chair, twirling the USB drive Barnes had given him that night between two fingers. “It’s RAID. Some kind of spin-off group. They have Radically Advanced Ideas in Destruction, see.”

Barnes rolled his eyes. Tony caught it and grinned.

“I know, right? Not very creative. Besides, it’s not even their own tech, so I don’t think they ought to claim credit for the advanced ideas.”

“Are there any other spin-offs?” Bruce asked.

“Not sure yet,” Tony admitted. “But now we know what to look for.”

Bruce glanced at him suspiciously.

“For instance,” Tony said, savoring it, “the financial wing: Profitable Advanced Investments in Destruction.” He swiveled in his chair, waiting for it to click.

“. . . PAID.” Bruce groaned.

Tony smirked. “Or the group that steals nuclear waste and hazardous materials undercover as a safe disposal agency. Minimally Accurate Ideas in Decontamination—MAID.”

“The more restrained branch, the one that deals with policy,” Bruce said, starting to warm to it. “Socially Terrible Activities in Impeding Development. STAID.”

“Now you’re getting it. How about . . . Lecherous . . . hm . . . .”

“Ludicrous Anatomically Improbable Debauchery,” Barnes said, deadpan. He raised his eyebrows when Tony and Bruce both stared at him. “What? You were going for LAID, right?”

“Yep—the escort service for villains,” Tony said when he regained the capacity for speech. He was still staring at Barnes, so he saw when the almost imperceptible smile slid off his face, replaced with a blank mask.

“So,” Barnes said, all business again. “If it’s not their tech, whose is it?”

“Pym’s,” Tony said, irritated. The guy had no business shutting down like that, right when things were finally starting to not be awkward. “The one who made the suit that made Scott Lang shrink. And grow, I guess.”

“I thought that guy was obsessively secretive about his work,” Bruce said, leaning over Tony’s shoulder to peer at the tablet.

“Yeah, he is,” Tony said, “which is why what they stole was broken and probably discarded because the idea itself doesn’t work, either, not just the particular piece of tech. He wouldn’t leave anything actually useful lying around. This is trouble on its own, though, since they’re trying to use it anyway.”

“This didn’t shrink people, though, did it?” Bruce asked. “I had a look at that code. It didn’t seem like it could regulate—”

“No, it wasn’t supposed to change people. It was about manipulating space.” Tony waved a hand. “Pretty sure the suit doesn’t need code. But tell a car it’s supposed to be bigger on the inside and you need a pretty damn complicated program, because it needs to figure out what the hell kind of car you’re in.”

“RAID stole the device from Pym and tried to program it?” Barnes asked.

“They probably didn’t steal it themselves,” Tony said. “More likely they bought it. I’ve been monitoring some less savory parts of the dark web and it’s like there’s suddenly a huge black market for cutting-edge tech and WMDs.”

“There always was,” Barnes said quietly.

Tony raised his eyebrows.

“It was just folded into the U.S. government.”

“Oh, right.” Tony nodded, making a face. “Yeah, okay, maybe this was always there and Hydra snapped it all up with R&D grants and weapons contracts.” His fist clenched on that last bit. “And now it’s an open market.”

“On the plus side, they’re not actually getting grants anymore,” Bruce offered after a moment.

Barnes nodded. “When Hydra collapsed, it would have been a disaster for whoever supplies this stuff. It’s just that they’re not being kept in line anymore, either. Like the mob keeping down small crime.”

“What do you know about the mob?”

“Not much, really. On purpose.”

“...Okay, you can’t just say that and then not follow up.”

Barnes sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I keep forgetting . . . . Alright. So everyone knew someone—or suspected someone—had ties to something. There were just—streets you didn’t go down if you didn’t have any business there, unless you wanted to have business there. There was another garage near where I worked. Everyone there was Italian—so were their customers. Guy who ran it used to run a bar during Prohibition. No one was sure he was still doing anything else, but you just steered clear if you didn’t know. It’s just how things were.”

That was disappointingly non-snarky. Tony decided to push a little more. “So, you kept your nose clean.”

“Yeah. Well, after I was eleven or so, anyway.”

Tony cocked his head. “Okay, now I really have to ask.”

“When me’n’Steve were about ten, for one summer, we were lookouts at a speakeasy.” He shrugged. “That don’t count. That’s only how they got their booze.”

“You were lookouts?” Bruce said, fascinated. “What does that mean?”

“Steve did this?” Tony asked, delighted.

“It means we hung out with some other kids and played near the entrance and made a racket if anybody official looked like they were gettin’ too close. Usually nothing happened; not exciting. But we got paid, a little bit, and that was exciting.”

“Steve did this?” Tony repeated.

“Yeah. People who ran the place were good. Had kids—older than us, but they were nice to us. It was kinda . . . not any different from helping someone put stock on the shelves at a store, or sticking up posters, or all that, except it was more regular. So we both thought it was alright.”

“So why did your adventures in pre-adolescent organized crime come to a close? Close brush with the law?”

Barnes huffed a laugh, and there it was again, that flicker of something. “I wish. No, my mom found out.”

“And?” Bruce asked, when that seemed to be it.

“And she told us it wasn’t like sticking up posters or helping out at a drug store and if we went back around that way—” He broke off. “I don’t remember what she said, actually. But it wasn’t good. An’ I’m pretty sure she told Steve’s ma, too.”

Tony stifled a giggle. “You were more scared of your mother than the federal government?”

“I was ten. And hey, I had to live with my mother.”

“That’s actually a good point,” Bruce said, with a sidelong look at Tony. Tony read it as this is how normal people think, Tony, don’t say anything. And alright, fine.

“Well, with that delightful tangent completed,” he said, dusting off his hands, “we come back to the issue, which is: RAID tried to take my stuff. And they’re probably going to try again, ’cause some of them were able to bail out before I got to the hideout, because I wasted four days trying to crack garbage. And—good and bad—they’re probably going to come after it with more busted crap. I’ll keep an eye on weird tech sales and try to stop them, but they probably already have whatever they’re going to get; they can’t afford anything new right now. So . . . I don’t know. I’m trying to trace the rest of them, but I think we’re just going to have to wait for them to come at us, because again: no money, no tracey. I just don’t want anyone else to catch any of the damage, so—keep an eye out for yellow hazmat assholes, I guess.” He shrugged. “Class dismissed.”

After a moment, Barnes stood up and headed for the elevator, and Bruce followed him, talking about food. Apparently Barnes had started cooking since he’d decided to go all hunter-gatherer and buy his own food rather than let FRIDAY take care of it. Well, that was his decision. Tony would take the option of constantly available high-quality snack ingredients, gourmet meals prepared in-house, and the entire spectrum of New York takeout over actually making food.

Unless it was for Pepper. That was different.

Thinking of food led his feet to the kitchen. He opened up one of the cabinets and pulled out a bag of trail mix, which he munched on as he continued to think.

It wasn’t even Barnes’ not using FRIDAY that annoyed him, not really. Or it was, but that was a symptom, not the thing itself. There was a bug in the code somewhere, the little hiccups that made him annoyed or uncomfortable.

He reviewed the data.

Cooking. Talking with Pepper—talking about Pepper, that was interesting, because he barely knew her and really seemed to get why she mattered. That was good and weird. So was the way he acted toward Dum-E. The times when he was quiet—the stupid music thing, that was just—no. And the bleeding on the furniture thing. But those were just . . . he could put those two down to Hydra, so they didn’t count. They went in the same bucket as “expecting me to kill him” and that was a separate, though potentially related, bucket of suck. He was pretty sure this was something besides that. He just didn’t know what “this” was.

So: Cooking. Talking about soft cats like he was admitting a secret. LAID.

No, not making the joke about LAID. That had been pretty good, actually. It was the . . . shutting down that pissed Tony off. The freezing. Like the passive stuff, the “hurry up and kill me,” the “I don’t want to ruin your stuff,” the “it’s your right to play music so loud it makes me sick,” but different because there was a flicker of something else first.

Tony rooted through the trail mix, avoiding raisins. He popped a dried blueberry into his mouth and frowned.

The change was really . . . big. It was small, but it was big. And the closest thing Tony had to compare it to was something Steve had done.

The Avengers, all of them, had been going on a talk show for some reason he didn’t remember right now, and Tony had just come out of makeup and was hanging around backstage. He’d overheard Steve asking one of the grips about how all the audio and video equipment worked, because of course he would, polite and curious and all gee-shucks-how’s-this-work, and the guy was explaining all about lighting and angles and booms and a lot of things Tony wasn’t that interested in at the moment, but he was listening anyway because it was kind of interesting, and then the guy was talking about what happened when one of the booms broke once and he swore. And the thing was, people didn’t like swearing around Steve.

“ . . . So then Jerome was all, shit, man, what do we do now? And —Uh. Sorry.”

But instead of laughing it off like he usually did, Steve let out a kind of exasperated half-sigh half-laugh and said, “It’s fine, Marcus. I don’t know why people think swearing bothers me. It really doesn’t.”

There was a bit of silence and Tony could just picture the look on Steve’s face, and on the grip guy’s face, and then the guy said, “Yeah, that’s right, you were in the Army and stuff.”

“Ferget about the Army,” Steve said, and his voice was somehow higher and sharper all of a sudden, with a hint of humor in it: “I’m a fuckin’ New Yorker, pal.”

That was . . . it sounded almost like a parody of all the old movies he’d seen, or things that were supposed to be old, Newsies and all that stuff. But of course, he realized, it was the other way around. This was the real thing, and that was the parody.

Tony couldn’t help it—he stucky his head around the corner of the scaffolding he’d been leaning against. The grip—Marcus—had the same kind of stunned look that Tony probably had. But before he could say anything, there was a five-minute call and Steve nodded politely to Marcus, waved, and hurried off. Tony took a second to clear his head before he followed.

That, that slip, that flash of something else, was the closest he had to whatever came out of Barnes when the guy thought no one was looking. And that felt—weird.

And that made him think of the look on Steve’s face when he said Tony didn’t like that Steve had known Howard, or that Howard had been part of SHIELD, or whatever, and that was just . . . .

Tony bit into a raisin, glared at the trail mix, and stormed off toward his lab.

~

Two weeks after he and Steve had arrived at the tower, things had settled into a comfortable routine. Bucky had to admit that this was a lot better than he’d ever pictured all of this would go—and that was on top of the fact that he’d assumed he’d be dead. Steve seemed to be doing alright; he was pumped full of 21st century drugs and even so he kept coughing all the time, but the fever hadn’t come back and he was actually able to eat and keep things down (mostly), and he hadn’t hallucinated once. Bucky was particularly grateful for that. Whatever he’d seen the last few times hadn’t been pretty.

And on top of that, Bucky had books, and food, and company. Pepper kept visiting almost every day, even if it was just for a few minutes. He had had that conversation with Bruce about the philosophy of artificial intelligence over lunch one day, and had come away from it mainly with a longer list of books to read. Peter had shown up again, awkwardly knocking on the window after apparently arriving on the roof, asking FRIDAY if he was at home, and rappelling down. He’d brought another list of things to read and watch and listen to.

And Stark—well. The last session in the lab had actually been kind of fun. Bucky had had to work hard to keep from saying anything. He was dying to know how everything worked, and he wanted to ask questions, he wanted to tease back when Stark called him names, he wanted to—act like he had with Howard.

That was the problem.

He couldn’t deny Stark anything, and like hell could he ask for anything.

So curiosity drowned in the gnawing pit of shame, and when Stark asked him if he could come down to the lab again and have his arm poked in the name of science—and of helping other people walk again, or have both hands back, or have any hands for the first time—he said yes.

~

Tony was annoyed.

He’d spent almost four days fiddling with things this time—okay, most of one of those days had been eaten up by figuring out RAID, and another had gone into taking care of work stuff and doing nothing that had anything to do with either Barnes or Steve, but he’d been fiddling with the prosthetic arm model and with the leg models too, and then with the exoskeletons because he wanted to see how joints were different when they had crappy good-enough human joints inside them, and he had all this fun stuff set up and ready to test and he wasn’t enjoying any of it.

Tony wasn’t used to being in his lab and not enjoying himself.

Barnes was extra-quiet today, extra-polite, staying out of Tony’s way—which was kind of incredible, considering that what Tony was doing was literally asking him to do stuff, but he just quietly and politely answered Tony’s questions and didn’t . . . flicker. There was none of that deadpan humor this time. Nothing. Even Dum-E didn’t get much more than a “hey there” and the awkward white guy/robot equivalent of a fistbump, which on a normal day Tony would be absolutely thrilled with, but not today. Today he was just pissed with everything, even as he ran a micro-sensor over the plates in the arm.

They were about an hour in when Barnes’ bland “now I can feel it” somehow hit all the wrong buttons and Tony snapped.

“Okay, what the hell,” he said, turning around and gesturing for FRIDAY to cut the music.

Barnes looked at him, eyes wide and maybe a little—maybe a lot—alarmed. “What?” he asked.

“You!” Tony said, gesturing with the hologram he was still holding. “You, being all—helpful and boring and— I know you’ve been talking with the kid.” Okay, mouth, that was a non-sequitur. Barnes seemed to think so too. He looked confused. Also very pale.

“I—” he began.

“No, don’t say anything, that’ll make sense if I keep talking,” Tony said. “You’ve been talking with the kid and FRIDAY says he’s been back three times and he’s been intentionally visiting you, and he seems to like you, and that means you can’t be acting like this around him.”

“I told him who I am,” Barnes said quietly. “He knows what I did. He showed up anyway—he said he wanted to visit Steve, not me. I didn’t ask him to.” His shoulders hunched slightly.

“Yeah, well, he’s a big boy, he can do what he wants,” Tony said. “My point is you.”

“He’s not in any danger,” Barnes said, his voice softly pleading now. “I wouldn’t hurt him. I’m not—if I thought I would, I’d tell him to get lost.”

“Still not my point,” Tony said. “Also, obvious. Also also, I’ve seen the security footage of you two fighting in Leipzig? He blocked your punch and webbed you to the floor. Smart money’s on the kid.”

“Not if I—”

“Yeah okay,” Tony said, really angry now, “but you’re not, so can you not bring that up?”

“Listen,” Barnes said. He licked his lips. He looked all—nervous, and pale, and dignified, like he had that first day, and that was still not Tony’s fucking point. “I know this, me here, is the last thing either of us want, but like hell I’m going to say no.”

While Tony was still thinking what the hell?, Barnes went on.

“I know that I’m imposing, and—if I were a good man, I’d leave you alone. But I think we both know I’m not. You’ve been . . . very tolerant, so far. I’ve tried not to do any more damage, but, well. If you want me to tell the kid to stop visiting, if you want me to stop talking with Pepper, if you want . . . whatever, fine. I told you. The only things I won’t do are hurt kids or give up my mind again.”

Tony gaped at him, completely thrown off track.

“I’m here on sufferance and I know that. You have every right to . . . do whatever you want with me. But—”

“Okay, shut up,” Tony said, holding up one hand. Barnes apparently meant what he said, because he gulped and fell instantly silent.

Tony sighed. The words that floated to the top of his mind felt right, so he said them, even though it would probably require about half an hour of backtracking and pop culture education if Cap was anything to go by: “Look, if I kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.”

Barnes stared at him, brow very slightly furrowed, and Tony took a deep breath, mentally preparing himself to launch into an overview of Firefly, space westerns, and the psychology of fictional characters. But instead, Barnes said, perfectly deadpan, “Of that family, I am much more River than Simon.”

Tony’s jaw dropped and he felt his face curl into a delighted grin. “You got the reference.”

“Yeah,” Barnes said, less pale now, but still watching Tony carefully. “Watched it in Wakanda. Someone quoted a line from it. I wanted to know where it was from, so I watched it.” That twitch of a smile again. “”n then I called Steve ‘Captain Tightpants’ for six weeks.”

“Okay, see, this,” Tony said, pointing at him. “This. Jokes. Is this what the kid gets?”

Barnes froze again. “I—”

“Stop doing that!”

“Doing what?” Barnes looked bewildered and, well, scared.

“Locking down like that,” Tony said, waving his hands. “Not . . . being funny. Trying to do stuff right. Do you do that around the kid?”

“I . . . don’t think so,” Barnes said cautiously.

“You do that around Pepper?”

“No.”

“Bruce?”

“No.”

“Then, to reiterate my point, what the hell?”

Barnes looked at him. He was standing now; at some point in the conversation, he’d gotten off the stool. It looked like he was trying very hard to be blank again, but his mask was slipping; nervousness was showing through.

“I don’t— It’s not— I am sorry. God. I am so— I feel awful. Of course I do. But, sometimes, I—I don’t forget, exactly, it’s just—I enjoy myself anyway.” He flushed as he choked that out. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful. And I try to be careful around you. I just—”

“Okay, hold on,” Tony said. “Let me get this straight. You think I’m mad at you for not being miserable enough all the time?”

Barnes frowned at the wording, but nodded.

“Look,” Tony said, gazing intently at his hologram, “I did a lot of bad shit too. You can’t be miserable all the time. It doesn’t work and it doesn’t help.”

“But you were—”

“No,” Tony half-shouted, “a lot of it was on me, and I’m not going to talk about that, just believe it.” He took a breath. “I don’t mind that you’re not suffering. In fact, the suffering kind of freaks me out, and the playing-nice thing is just creepy when I know you have an actual sense of humor under there. If you’re doing this ’cause you think I want it, you’re wrong. If you really want me to think of you as something other than a mindless killing machine, maybe don’t shut down every time you start to show a bit of personality!”

The words rang in the room for a moment. Then—

“Alright,” Barnes said, his head cocked slightly to the side, and it was like a mask coming off. One side of his mouth quirked. His eyebrows were slightly raised—curious? apprehensive? amused?—and even his eyes seemed more alive. This is the guy Steve wouldn’t shut up about, Tony thought. How about that.

“In that case,” Barnes continued, radiating just a trace of that bravado Tony remembered from the plane, as he reached over to pick up the sensor Tony had discarded, “I’m going to turn this damn thing off. The buzzing is driving me crazy.”

“It’s not buzzing,” Tony said.

“Actually, boss,” FRIDAY cut it, “it is vibrating so that it makes noise, just at a pitch most humans can’t detect past adolescence.”

“So I can hear like a kid and act like a grumpy old man,” Barnes said dryly, switching the sensor off. “Wonderful.”

“Okay, this is almost freaky in the opposite direction,” Tony said quietly.

Barnes looked sideways at him. “You asked for it,” he said, but there was apprehension in his gaze.

“No, yeah, I did, yeah,” Tony said. He mentally groped around for something to steady himself. “You really called him Captain Tightpants?”

“Oh, I’ve been giving him shit about that outfit since the beginning. It’s not tights anymore, but that doesn’t actually make much difference.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “The whole suit is ridiculous. I mean, the newer ones, sure—all the Cap suits have to look kind of like the first one. But why all the—why, with the first one?”

Barnes hesitated, wariness flickering over his face. Then it gave way to determination and Tony could practically see him think “fuck it” as he said, “I mighta had something to do with that. Accidentally.”

“You what.”

“I asked him if he was keeping the outfit. I was joking.”

“So the reason the nation was gifted-slash-cursed with the spangly outfit is you liked the way Steve’s ass looked in tights. Is what I’m hearing.”

Barnes went bright red. “I didn’t say that.”

“Nope,” Tony said.

“I never actually saw him in the tights.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you push everybody like this?”

“Absolutely. Ask Bruce.” Tony turned away and started re-assembling the holographic model. “Zapped him with a cattle prod once. Well, smaller thing. Same idea.”

“Why?”

“Trying to meet the Hulk. Didn’t work.”

“You are actually crazy.”

Tony shrugged. “And yet you went to me.”

The lighter air that had been built up abruptly vanished. Barnes swallowed. “Yeah. I did.”

“When you thought I’d kill you.”

“I couldn’t get in touch with”—he gestured at the arm. “The people who made this. You were Steve’s best chance. Are Steve’s best chance.”

“That’s kind of a sucky call to make.”

“Could be worse.”

The sentence sat there like an unexploded bomb. Tony finally poked it with the metaphorical stick, turning to look at Barnes. “Worse how?”

“I was sure you would help Steve. But there were other . . . organizations, or governments, that would try. Might be almost as good.”

“That’s not what you meant.”

Barnes met his gaze. “You wouldn’t use me to kill anyone and I was fairly sure you wouldn’t torture me. In a situation like that, dying’s a best-case scenario.”

“Well,” Tony said. His chest felt tight again, too tight, like the arc reactor was back again. “Guess you lucked out. Better than best.”

Barnes looked down. “Yeah.”

FRIDAY’s voice rang startlingly loud in the quiet room. “Boss? Mr. Barnes? You’re needed urgently upstairs. Captain Rogers has taken a sudden turn for the worse.”

Chapter Text

“So what’s the matter, FRIDAY?” Stark asked, as the elevator rocketed up toward the medical floor.

“Unclear,” the Scottish voice replied. “The Captain appears disoriented and has gotten out of bed. Medical staff have been alerted and—”

“Does he know where he is?” Bucky interrupted.

“Unclear,” FRIDAY said again.

“Uh, can I—?”

Stark spread his hands when Bucky glanced at him. “You’re the expert in rogue captains.”

“Don’t have anybody try to talk him into lying down again yet,” Bucky said. “I don’t—it’s probably fine, but in case he doesn’t know where he is, that could get—bad.”

Stark gave him a surprisingly understanding grimace as the doors opened. Bucky pelted out and down the long, twisting hallway toward Steve’s room.

Steve was about halfway down the second-to-last hall, and the glazed, vacant look in his eyes said he didn’t really realize he was there. The doctors and researchers had apparently heard his conversation with Stark real-time, because they were hanging around inquisitively but not really doing anything. “Shit, shit, shit,” Bucky muttered.

“Uh, what—” Stark began, hard on his heels. Bucky kept in front of him as he walked up to Steve. He could feel the heat radiating from Steve’s body. Fever was back, then, and back bad. Shit.

“Hey, pal. You know where we are?”

Steve blinked at him.

“You know me, right? Hey, come on, you know me.” Some bleak, twisted side of him couldn’t help but snicker at the parallel to the helicarrier.

“Sure I know you,” Steve said, voice slurred, like he was drunk. He tried to push past Bucky. Bucky stepped to the side and blocked him. “Hey,” Steve complained.

“Wrong way,” Bucky said, ignoring their growing audience. “You wanna turn around and go back to bed.”

“No, I don’t,” Steve said, somewhere between exasperated and petulant. “I know what I’m doing. I can do this.”

“Uh-huh,” Bucky said.

“Where do you think you’re going, Capsicle?” Stark asked loudly from behind them.

Steve peered over Bucky’s shoulder, swaying a little. “Tony? What—”

“Come on, Steve, back to bed,” Bucky muttered.

“‘M going—” Steve began, and then cut off, looking confused. “’M going somewhere. Important. I hafta . . . hafta get back home.”

Bucky’s heart sank. It would be easier, in some ways, if Steve was less lucid—if he believed they were in the hallway of one of their old apartment buildings. No such luck, apparently.

“We are home,” he said anyway. “Or close enough. This is where we’re at for now.”

“No,” Steve insisted. “No, this isn’t—” He looked over Bucky’s shoulder again. “I don’t wanna get in your way, Tony. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Stark muttered something that included the word “another” and a lot of swearing. “You can stay, Capsicle,” he added, louder.

“No, I wanted to go home anyway. It’s been a while,” Steve said, firmer now. “I don’t know why . . . feels like it’s been so long . . . .”

“Can’t go back right now,” Bucky said.

Steve looked at him, raised his eyebrows: his “you really want to do this?” face. “Oh yeah? Why not?”

“Traffic,” Stark said, when Bucky faltered. “BQE is backed up for miles. Bridges are a mess. Subways are delayed. It’s the . . . marathon today. Always a pain.”

Bucky had to give him credit; it was a plausible lie. But Steve was always good at solving problems.

“I’ll just walk,” he said. “It’s not that far.”

Which raised another question: not just when did Steve think he was, but how did he think he was? While Captain America wouldn’t think twice about strolling—or more likely sprinting—half the length of Manhattan, across one of the bridges, and through a significant chunk of Brooklyn, that wasn’t something the old Steve—or most normal people, to be fair—could do comfortably. Besides, between walking around slower people and waiting for traffic lights, it would take half a day. But even the old Steve could’ve said something like that if he were in the right kind of stubborn mood.

“No good,” Stark said. “The marathon is over the bridges. Uh. All of them.”

Steve narrowed his eyes. “Don’t mess with me. I’m new here, I’m not dumb.”

“Never said you were,” Stark said, startled.

Steve sighed. “I know. ’M sorry . . . . Let’s talk later. I’m going home.” And he tried again to push past Bucky.

“Nope,” Bucky said, putting a hand on each of his shoulders. “You’re staying right here where we can figure out what’s wrong with you. Come on.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Steve said. “I just wanna go home. That’ll help. It’s been a while. I don’t know why I didn’t do it before now. Don’t think I’ve even visited Ma’s grave.” He shook his head. “Too much going on.”

“Yeah, okay, Steve,” Bucky said, heart twisting. “I get where you’re coming from. But you’ve gotta go and sit down and let the doctors look at you.”

“You gonna make me?” And that was all Steve, Steve from before, even; stubborn and determined to the point of belligerence.

“I can and I will,” Bucky said, falling back into it, call and response. He shifted his weight slightly.

“Not anymore,” Steve shot back. That was one question answered. And really, in one way, he might be right—he did still have all those extra muscles. But Bucky was pretty sure he didn’t have any energy to put behind them.

“You wanna try?” he said instead, following the old script, the pattern from before. “’Cause I can carry you back if I have to, and I don’t give a damn about your dignity.”

“No, you can’t,” Steve said, uncertainly now.

“Wanna bet?”

“I—” Suddenly Steve tilted sideways. That wasn’t good. Shit, shit, shit. Bucky caught him. “Maybe you win the bet,” Steve muttered, leaning against him, pale now and soaked with sweat.

Bucky caught snatches of what the people around them were muttering. “—hyperammonemia—” “—serum sickness, except—” “—but awfully sudden—”

Stark’s voice cut through all of it. “You can all start figuring out what’s going on as soon as we get Rogers back to bed. I’d let his bestie handle that one if I were you, though.”

Steve laughed for some reason, a little, lost sound, as Bucky led him back down the hallway.

~

The next few hours—several hours—half a day?—passed in a kind of familiar haze. People hustled in and out of Steve’s room, running tests, saying things. Stark hovered, making increasingly uncomfortable noises, until Bruce appeared and gently but firmly steered him out. Bucky didn’t mind. Stark’s presence didn’t grate like it would have, like it had that first day. His absence didn’t matter much either. Bucky was focused on Steve.

He nodded and took in information and made the right gestures when he had to. All the while, Steve was lying there, sometimes lucid, sometimes not. He didn’t seem to like bright lights or loud noises. His fever had spiked and the doctors were wary of doing anything drastic to bring it down, because apparently his liver wasn’t working right to begin with and the medicine that brought down fever best didn’t play nice with the liver. He was shivering and dizzy. One set of tests apparently showed his iron was low.

“Should make up with Tony,” Steve slurred when he heard that. “If more iron—fixes it.”

“Steve, that’s the worst joke you’ve made all year,” Bucky groaned to cover his relief. Steve cracking jokes was always, always a good sign.

Steve squinted at him. “What joke?”

Bruce came back. Pepper was with him. She had to leave again not much later, pale and angry-looking, and Bucky felt bad for her. But Bruce stayed; didn’t do anything, just . . . stayed.

Steve started to drift a little more—making sense one minute, insisting it was 1935 the next, not responding and apparently asleep the next.

Bucky remembered to ask FRIDAY to tell Peter he was busy if the kid showed up.

And he made decisions. That was the reason he was here, after all—at least, the reason the historian-biostatistician on the quinjet had pointed out. He was, in just about every sense that mattered except the legal one, Steve’s next of kin, and he got to make decisions.

“We can’t promise it’ll work,” the hematologist, a lanky man named Clark Evans, or maybe Evan Clark, said. “It doesn’t always work in regular cases, and this certainly isn’t . . . . Well. But if we think about it like any other case of serum sickness, the likely best option is PLEX—plasma exchange. He’d need it done daily for at least a week, more likely two. Given that no one’s sure exactly what this is, perhaps more. Plasma exchange filters out and replaces the plasma in the blood. The plasma’s where the antibodies are.”

“The antibodies—the stuff Steve was injected with?” Bucky asked.

“In this case, yes. If they’re what’s causing this—and we have no other likely culprit—then . . . .”

“Filtering them out should fix him.” Bucky nodded grimly. “What do you have to do?”

Filtering someone’s blood was, unsurprisingly, a complicated process, and, of course, involved taking the blood out of Steve’s body in the first place. Bucky had known that. He’d expected that. He’d even expected to have to argue about staying in the room with Steve, and maybe even to lose that argument. What he hadn’t expected was Bruce putting a hand on his shoulder and saying, in the same quiet but firm voice he’d used on Stark, “I don’t think you should stay for this.”

Bucky looked at him, confused. “I can’t leave Steve—”

“You’re shaking,” Bruce said. “They know what they’re doing. Everyone will be more comfortable if we’re out in the hall.”

The minute they were in the hallway, where the windows looked out on the growing purple shadow of the tower, Bucky leaned on the wall, breathing heavily. He was dizzy. That was—odd. Wrong. Steve was the one who was dizzy.

He slid down the wall into a crouch. Low center of gravity. Out of the way. Wait.

“I should be there,” he said, looking up at Bruce, once the headrush passed. “I should—”

“You should eat, maybe,” Bruce said mildly. “Did you have any food today?”

“Why are you and the damn computer so concerned about what I eat?” Bucky asked peevishly. He heard the peevishness as it came out and took a deep breath. “And yes, I had breakfast.”

“Well, it’s seven P.M.,” Bruce said. “No wonder you’re getting dizzy. You ought to eat. We both should.”

Bucky shook his head. “I need to be—”

“I have no idea what Hydra did to you and it’s none of my business,” Bruce said, perfectly steady. “But even if you had no problem with medical procedures, I don’t think anyone benefits from you making yourself watch someone putting holes in your best friend.” He offered Bucky a hand up. “But you should watch out for Steve. You can do that better if you’re sharp. You should eat.”

Bucky squinted at him. “You’re good at that,” he said, taking Bruce’s hand but (mostly) standing up under his own power.

“Hmm?” Bruce asked, setting off along the hallway.

“Being reasonable.”

Bruce snorted and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Comes with the territory. I have to pick the time and place to get mad. Got good at reasoning with myself.” They walked in silence for a while. “Reasoning with other people—well, I get to practice on Tony a lot.”

“And Steve?”

Bruce tossed him a cautious glance that turned into a smile. “Once or twice.”

~

Bucky had to admit that he felt better after he’d eaten. His head was clearer and he didn’t feel quite so . . . so lost every time he looked at Steve. Bruce hadn’t wanted him to go back into Steve’s room while they were still doing the plasma exchange, but he couldn’t stay out, and if he paid attention—if he just focused on Steve’s face and not on the tubes and the blood—he was fine.

Darkness fell. Stark came in at some point, and so did Pepper. They stayed this time. They talked to each other, and occasionally to him, but he wasn’t really sure what they said or what he said back.

The PLEX process ended and Bruce left. Bucky summoned up enough energy, enough presence, to thank him; Bruce simply nodded. “He’d do the same thing,” he said, and Bucky knew it.

Stark left too, not long after. Pepper lingered a bit more. For a moment she looked like she had something to say. When he looked at her inquisitively, she just shook her head, patted him on the shoulder, and left. Bucky stayed by Steve.

Steve seemed to spend more time sleeping than awake, and to know where he was when he was awake. That was good.

~

In the morning, Dr. Evans or Dr. Clark—Bucky still wasn’t sure which it was—told him he had to go away for at least five hours and sleep. Bucky was prepared to argue, but Dr. Li and Bruce conveniently appeared to back him up. Bucky let himself be hustled off, crawled into bed in the guest room he’d set up for himself—he hadn’t slept in Steve’s room since that first night—and slept until noon.

He spent the rest of the day as he’d spent the night: at Steve’s side. Bruce appeared around three in the afternoon. Bucky waved a protein bar at him without looking away from Steve. His breathing was wrong again—irregular, raspy. Familiar.

God damn it.

“Remember, FRIDAY doesn’t think those are food,” Bruce said, only half jokingly.

“I’m fine,” Bucky said. “And really: thank you for yesterday.”

“Anytime,” Bruce said. He sat with Bucky for a while. “So,” he said after some period of time. Bucky hadn’t been keeping track. “There’s something I figured out a while ago. I think it’s something all of us”—his gesture took in not only himself, Bucky, and Steve, but the whole Tower: the Avengers, Pepper, maybe even the doctors and researchers around them—“are very bad at, and it’s why we are the way we are, but it doesn’t have to be.”

Bucky tilted his head toward him to show he was listening, eyes still on Steve.

“We don’t know the difference between the kind of limits that mean you should stop and the limits that mean you have to stop.”

Bucky blinked. He could see how that applied to Steve—that’s what he had spent his whole life trying to explain to the idiot, it felt like, sometimes—but to him? Or Stark? Maybe Stark, actually; that would explain the endless inventions, the eternal tweaking, the offhanded way that he said his prosthetics were the equal of anything currently on the market. Stark had to be better. But Pepper? Bruce?

“You don’t have to deal with it all at once,” Bruce said. “That’s what yesterday was about. It wasn’t really the food.” He smiled sadly. “I had to find the places where I can stop, and should. I didn’t really have an option. When I fall apart, it’s not just me.”

Ah. Bucky nodded.

“I hope you can figure out where to stop pushing yourself,” Bruce said. He nodded at Steve. “It’s not easy.”

He left a little while after that.

Stark came in for a few minutes, chattered about something, didn’t look straight at Steve unless he had to. “When you’re, uh, okay with it,” he said, “let me know if you want to come back to the lab. Dum-E misses you.” He hurried out of the room almost before he finished talking.

Bucky left to get something to eat when Dr. Clark/Evans came in to start the PLEX procedure again. He slept another hour or two. Then he came back.

Pepper came in as the sun began to set. Bucky raised his head, ready to offer proof that he had rested and eaten, but to his surprise, she didn’t say anything. She pulled up a chair beside his, the chair Peter had sat in less than a week ago. She watched Steve with him and frowned at his uneven breathing. Every now and then, she’d look up and watch Bucky instead.

The scrutiny didn’t bother him. For some reason, coming from her, it felt—companionable.

He did jump a little when she leaned against him, though.

“It’s hard,” she said, her voice quiet.

“Yeah.”

“I know how this part feels. I’ve been here.”

“I just—I just want him to be okay.” Bucky’s voice shook.

“I know.”

When Pepper tentatively put one arm around his shoulders, he didn’t move away, but leaned into the touch.

“I hate this.”

“I know.”

He took a deep breath, laid his palms flat on his thighs.

“You don’t have to be here.”

Her free hand settled over his right, gentle warmth of skin against skin.

“I know.”

~

Tony paused after stepping out of the elevator to take his shoes off and wipe his hands on the large gray rag hanging on a hook beside the entrance to the penthouse proper. Barnes took it to a really disturbing extreme, but he’d admit even he didn’t like getting grease and oil stains all over his furniture when he forgot to wash up leaving his workshop. Replacing it was a pain. More importantly, it made Pepper sigh and roll her eyes, so he’d come up with this little system. It had also given him an excuse to work on soundproofing and stain-resistant paint, neither of which was quite as good as he’d like it yet, but hey—goals . . . . Maybe that was something he could work on tomorrow. Steve hadn’t done anything dramatic since the “I’ll just walk back to 1943, no problem” incident three days ago, and was actually mostly stable again according to the doctors, but he doubted Barnes would be willing to leave him alone long enough for another data collection session yet.

He changed and wandered down the stairs into the Avengers Lounge—dammit, the living room/kitchen area—where Pepper was perched on a bar stool behind one of the granite-topped counters. “Hey Pep,” he said. “I think I figured out why the kid’s suit’s aerodynamics aren’t working quite right. He’s upgraded the formula for that web fluid he uses, again, and that changes how he moves into jumps, which means weight isn’t distributed the way I thought it was. I don’t think he uses the squirrelsuit function much, actually, which is kind of annoying but hey, it’s his life, but also doesn’t give me much data to go on, and that—”

Pepper smiled at him from across the counter, but she was uncharacteristically quiet. There was a glass of white wine beside her, nearly full, and he got the feeling she’d been sitting and thinking there for some time, forgetting to drink. “What’s up?” Tony asked, distracted.

“Probably nothing.” She picked up the wine glass, stared into it. “I’m a little worried I overstepped, I guess. Bucky and I sat with Steve earlier today, you know, and I think I . . . noticed something. Nothing bad,” she added, hurriedly, looking up. “Steve’s—no different. Everything’s fine. He’s fine. I think.”

“Ooo-kay,” Tony said. He suddenly felt self-conscious, standing in the middle of the room looking at her. He was struck again by how amazing Pepper was, and how little, in some ways, he understood her. But since the one thing he knew she and Barnes talked about or “didn’t talk about exactly” was the aftereffects of kidnap and torture by evil organizations and sadistic creepy assholes, which meant— “Uh. Are you fine?”

“Oh—yes, Tony,” she said, and there was a little laugh underneath that, so she was alright. “Nothing bad for anyone. Just thinking.” She waved a hand and finally took a sip of her wine.

Tony still had no idea what was on her mind, but standing still wasn’t helping anything either. He crossed the room to lean on the counter facing her and raised an eyebrow. “Thinking about anything in particular?” he prompted her.

She put down the glass and reached toward him. He covered her hand with his, and she smiled, a softer, gentler one this time.

“We were talking about how Steve—I guess earlier he was saying he wanted to go home.”

Tony nodded. That had not been fun to watch.

“Bucky brought that up, and we talked a bit about . . . what home is, I guess. I may have mentioned how much home for me means you.” She squeezed their joined hands. “I meant to cheer him up, you know, point out that at least Steve does have him—well, they have each other—even if the, the other people, the places, everything else they grew up with is all different or gone now. But the way he looked at Steve . . . .”

She leaned forward suddenly as though she’d come to a decision. “Do you ever get the feeling Bucky’s, uh—”

“Got the hots for our walking Army recruitment poster? Yeah,” Tony said, as the pieces fell together. “He told me.”

“What?” Pepper exclaimed.

“Don’t be jealous, I’m sure he likes you better than me.” Tony grimaced. “This was back when I picked them up in Cambodia. I’d just managed to convince the guy I wasn’t going to kill him; he was still being disgustingly earnest about everything.”

“Disgustingly earnest?” Pepper asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, you know what I mean! Remember how he was the first night here? Before the creepy shutting down thing, how at first he’d just say everything—” Pepper nodded. “It was like that, but more. He was so, ugh, selflessly pining about it. He asked me not to tell Cap about it, because he’s sure he’s not into guys and he has everything important anyway from just being friends. Cue the violins.” Pepper was giving him the look that meant she was one word away from giggles. “It was a lot. I know I sound like an old man here, but seriously, I was never this dramatic.”

“Mm. Showing up to parties in the Iron Man suit with fireworks in the background. Not dramatic at all.”

“That’s different.”

“Sure.”

“It’s dramatically undramatic! Who actually sits around pining like that? It’s dumb Hallmark movie crap. Real people don’t do that.”

“Clearly, at least one does.”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Yeah. —Kinda sucks for him, though, doesn’t it?”

“I’m actually impressed you haven’t tried to ‘help’ him yet,” Pepper said. “Relieved, but impressed.” Her expression turned wary. “That is . . . you haven’t told Steve behind his back or anything, have you?”

“I have some social graces,” Tony said, with all the wounded dignity he could muster. “When I want to use them.” Then, more seriously, “Honestly, Pep, the guy asked me not to tell and I didn’t. I didn’t even tell you until you figured it out. I can respect other people’s choices. Even the stupid ones. Maybe.”

“I know,” Pepper said quietly.

“. . . He didn’t ask me to not kill him, but he asked me not to tell Steve he likes him,” Tony said, half to himself. “I’m not going to just—”

“Tony.” Pepper cupped his face with her free hand. “You’re handling this well. All of this, I mean, the two of them being here and Steve being sick and . . . all of it.”

Tony let out a shaky breath. “Yeah, well, if you say so.” He closed his eyes and leaned into her touch. “I still think he’s being stupid,” he added.

“Probably,” Pepper said. Her voice was warm and a little amused, but she sounded sad as she added, “But it’s up to them to work it out.”

“I love you,” Tony said, eyes still closed. “I’m really glad I figured that out.”

“Me too,” Pepper said. They stood like that for a while as night gradually settled over the Tower.

~

The afternoon of the third day after Steve’s episode, FRIDAY interrupted Bucky’s vigil to say that Spider-Man had turned up and asking if he wanted her to send him away. Bucky thought about it for a minute, then shook his head.

“Tell him I’ll see him for a bit, but can’t talk long,” he said. “And, uh, can you have him go down to Steve’s floor again? I don’t”—he swallowed and looked over at Steve. “I don’t think Steve would want Peter to see him like this.”

He got down to Steve’s floor to find a gangly kid swinging back and forth across all of the living room windows like a pendulum. The windows were supposedly soundproof, but, as he’d told Stark, his hearing was very good since the serum. He could faintly hear the kid saying “Whee!” as he whizzed by.

He went to go open the window and let Peter in, laughing for the first time in three days.

~

Peter was very understanding when he said he couldn’t stay long, and endearingly worried for Steve.

“He’s getting better, I think,” Bucky said. “But I thought that before too.”

Peter reached toward him in a gesture surprisingly reminiscent of Pepper. Then he froze. “Uh. Is hugging okay? Do you do hugs?”

“If people want to,” Bucky said, baffled.

“Okay, good,” Peter said, and he was abruptly being squeezed. The kid really was stronger than he looked.

“Why’d you ask?” he asked, when Peter had let go.

“Uh.” Peter looked down at his red-clad feet, his face going a little red too. “I read up a little on PTSD. Plus there are lots of people who don’t like unexpected touching, so. I try and ask.”

You’re a sweet kid, Bucky almost said, but that might not go over well. Instead he ruffled Peter’s hair. The kid looked even more like a puppy with it mussed up like that.

He kept thinking about it after Peter had left and he was back up at Steve’s bedside. Peter reminded him of his sisters at this age, a little bit from all of them: quick-witted and generous like Becca, observant and sassy like Alice, energetic and a little bumbling like Grace. There was a bit of Steve in there, too, but a younger Steve; Bucky wasn’t sure exactly how old Peter was, but he was more than twelve or thirteen. Steve at Peter’s age had been sharper, angrier—just starting to realize that he would probably always be small and sick, all his life, and that he probably wouldn’t live that long. But slightly younger Steve had been just as brave and funny and relatively carefree, and that’s how Peter seemed to Bucky.

Most of the time, anyway. He understood worry and loss in a way Steve hadn’t had until Sarah got sick. He was older than he should be, that way, but he carried it well.

Yeah. Sweet kid.

~

Finally, just after lunch on the fourth day after Steve’s collapse, Tony invited Barnes to go get poked for science some more. He was kind of surprised how fast Barnes said yes—even if he did make FRIDAY promise to let him know if Steve so much as snuffled.

They didn’t talk about their interrupted conversation as they rode down to the workshop. Tony made sure they didn’t. He told Barnes all about the things he’d decided to try and the places where he was stuck instead.

“I basically need to know everything about sensory input,” he was saying as they walked out onto the floor, “and then I might be able to tie that into the motor controls because holy shit is it a lot easier to pick something up when you can feel it—it took me a couple months to get decent dexterity in the suit and I’m still only a little bit better than astronauts, and the suit is a lot less bulky than the gloves on a spacesuit. Turns out nerves are good. So if I—”

He looked to his side to gesture at the metal arm, but Barnes wasn’t there. He’d stopped a few paces back and was staring at one of Tony’s newest toys.

Okay, so maybe Tony had been a little worried about Steve the last few days too. A little retail therapy never hurt anybody.

What,” Barnes asked, in a wondering voice, “is that?”

“1960 Ford Thunderbird,” Tony said promptly. “Beat up and horribly, horribly ineptly upgraded, but salvageable.”

“How did it get here?”

Tony grinned. The faded cherry-red car would kind of seem to have appeared from nowhere if you didn’t know. “Freight elevator,” he said, gesturing to the nearest wall. “Right over there.”

Barnes gave the wall a dubious look. “If you say so.”

“I do. I can show you later, if you want. Nice and unobtrusive. I should see about getting a patent on that.”

Barnes snorted.

“Alright,” Tony said. He whistled and snapped his fingers. Dum-E came zooming up from the back of the workshop, where he’d been making some kind of mess out of what was supposed to be the new batch of stain-resistant paint. Fortunately there didn’t seem to be much of it actually on him, although that might have been an improvement. “FRIDAY, Dum-E, set up for—”

Dum-E completely ignored him, rolling past and bumping his claw against Barnes’ metal arm. Barnes turned to him with a startled laugh. “Hey, hey . . . . Yeah, you’ll get to play with that again.”

“He won’t if he doesn’t get the tests set up,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. Dum-E scooted back over to him and lifted his claw in readiness.

~

A bit less than two hours later, Tony had enough information to keep working for a while. Maybe it wasn’t everything he could know about sensory input, but there were things he couldn’t wait to try. He had been arm-deep in models before he realized he’d forgotten to tell Barnes this. It didn’t seem to matter; he and Dum-E were playing catch. (Dum-E was good at that, so long as you were less than five feet away.)

“Hey,” he said absently, “I’m gonna be busy with this for a while. You’re good to go, as long as I can do this again sometime.”

“Sure, whatever you want,” Barnes said. He sounded startled, and there was maybe a little bit of that annoying acceptance creeping in again. “It’s your place. Your call.”

“It’s your arm,” Tony said, a bit sharper than he meant to.

“I—I’m happy to do it.” Barnes hesitated. “It’s kind of fun. Interesting.”

Oh. “Well, good. Because I want to do a lot with this. Gonna have to sideline a lot of other projects.” He pulled himself out of the holograms enough to look over at the T-bird. “Might have to put that car back into storage. Or get someone else to clean ’er up. Some of the crap there just offends me.” He dug back into the model. “There’ll be some car shop or mechanic specializing in antiques who’ll have fun with it—FRIDAY, remind me—”

“You don’t need a mechanic specializing in antiques,” Bucky said, and something in his voice made Tony look up. He spread his arms invitingly, eyebrows raised. “You just need an antique mechanic.”

Then he dropped his hands to his sides again. “Unless you don’t want anybody else touching her, or—” or just not me, Tony filled in.

“Sure, go ahead, knock yourself out,” Tony found himself saying. “Everything you should need’s in that cabinet over there,” he pointed at the wall, “and if you can’t find anything, ask FRIDAY.” Then he turned back to his work, and Bucky, after a moment, went to his.

Tony zoned out when he was working, so it took a while before he consciously noticed that Barnes was talking as he worked, and a second after that before he realized the man was talking to the car.

“Somebody tried to change you,” he was saying, soothing. “You’re not meant to be treated like that. Come on—” there was a muffled clink of metal on metal— “Come on, sweet girl, I’ll have that out of you in a—there, that’s better.” A large, disgustingly anachronistic electric fuel pump (seriously, why would you do that if the mechanical one still worked?) scraped out from under the car as though it had been pushed along the floor. “Uh. Stark?” Barnes raised his voice, obviously unaware Tony had already been listening.

“What?”

“You wanna make this girl go on one of your arc power source things, or should I put ’er back the way she was made?”

“Uhh . . . .” Now that was an idea. “Eh, I might upgrade some of the cars later, but it’s not a priority right now. Knock yourself out.”

There was an affirmative noise from the direction of the car. Tony went back to his work.

~

“Excuse me, boss,” FRIDAY said, “but you asked me to remind you when it was suppertime.”

“Sure, thanks, FRIDAY,” Tony said vaguely.

“You also told me not to let you ignore me,” she continued. “If you keep doing it, I’ll start turning off equipment down here at random.”

Tony groaned.

“Also, Captain Rogers’ condition remains unchanged, but he is likely to wake up sometime in the next hour.”

“Alright,” Tony said, and with a swipe of his hand dismissed the holograms he’d been working on and turned off his music.

In the sudden silence, he heard a noise he’d relegated to the background. Cheerful whistling came from underneath the Thunderbird. As he walked towards it, Bucky Barnes rolled out from underneath, grinning, smeared with engine oil, his hair a mess—all in all, looking by far the most comfortable that Tony had ever seen. Dum-E rolled up and he handed the bot a wrench with a pat. “Thanks, buddy,” he said as the robot rolled off to put it away. He hopped to his feet and grinned at Tony. “I love the future.”

“I didn’t know you worked with machines,” Tony said. The way he’d been working, it was clear he knew his way around a workshop.

“Was a mechanic before the war,” Barnes said. “Mostly.”

“Since your career in organized crime was sadly cut short by your mother.”

Barnes looked at him uncertainly, then grinned. “Yeah. Have to have something to fall back on.”

“Turning lights off soon,” FRIDAY said.

Barnes rolled his eyes. “Coming, mom.”

Tony snickered as they headed for the elevator.

~

Life at the tower settled into a routine quickly after that. By the end of May, Bucky went down to Stark’s workshop nearly every day to compare the way his arm worked to Stark’s newest model. He kept working on the car, too. Stark came up to him while he was putting away the tools he’d used one afternoon, about a week after the car had appeared. “Looks good,” he said.

“Long way to go yet,” Bucky answered.

“Still a lot better than it was.” Stark stuck his hands in his pockets. Bucky wiped his hands off on a rag Dum-E had handed him. He wasn’t sure it was initially supposed to be a rag, but it had clearly been used as one and was resigned to its fate.

“You don’t have to wait for me to ask you to come down here,” Stark said abruptly. “Ask FRIDAY and if I’m down here, or heading here, she’ll let me know and you can . . . you can just come and work on the car if you want. You can get started if you get here ahead of me.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows. Every inch of this workshop screamed Stark’s personality, and he’d never seen anyone else in here, except once when Pepper had come down to tell Tony she had a free half an hour and either they could have a coffee date or she’d spend the time with Bruce, instead. Stark had pulled out of his invention-daze faster than Bucky’d ever seen and said something like “yesokayonesecondBarnesgohavefunwithCap” as he hurried over to her. Even then, he’d made sure Bucky left the lab before he did. This place was just as personal, Bucky thought, as Steve’s sketchbook.

Stark wouldn’t meet his eyes. “You know what you’re doing, you’re not gonna mess the place up,” he said. Then he immediately started talking about fuel injectors.

Steve still slept a lot, and his asthma was definitely back, but he didn’t have any more terrifying fever spikes or forget where he was anymore. There was another worry, though: he had to have the PLEX treatments every other day, sometimes every third, instead of every day, as was usual. Apparently the treatments put too much stress on his heart. But as long as all that did was slow his recovery—the antibodies were still gradually being filtered out—Bucky could live with it.

He and Pepper ended up talking at least a little bit nearly every day. She tried to stop by and visit Steve when he was awake, though her schedule didn’t always allow it. If she couldn’t manage it, she would find Bucky somewhere and they would talk, often over some kind of snack. Bucky had always meant to make cookies for Peter as a thank-you for his on that first real visit, but he couldn’t quite remember the recipes he’d always used. Pepper was happy to test the trial batches, as was Bruce.

Once Steve was a bit more stable, Peter inisited on visiting him, and he and Steve had tried to teach Peter poker. The kid was either terrible or pretending to be terrible while he figured it out. It didn’t help that he couldn’t keep a straight face any better than Steve could. Worse, actually; most people couldn’t read Steve as well as Bucky could, but the kid was an open book to anyone.

Peter had taken to stopping by every other day. Stark had had another new suit for him not long after Steve’s collapse, and then a week later Peter had returned it, only to be called back just a few days later for the next one. Stark must have been having FRIDAY let him know when the kid was around, because the elevator door opened on Steve’s floor just as Peter swung in through the window. Peter and Bucky both turned toward the noise.

“Oh. Uh, hi, Mr. Stark,” Peter said, looking a bit like a deer in headlights.

“Hey kid. Barnes.” Stark walked just to the edge of the living room. “Catch.” He tossed a little package across the room. Peter snatched it out of the air.

“Another suit? Already? Wow, thanks, Mr. Stark!”

“Machine-washable,” Stark said, already turning to go. “Don’t say I never do anything for you.”

The kid looked up. “Whoa, really? Thank you.”

Bucky chuckled.

“No, I’m serious, with all those little electronic gizmos, no matter how well-insulated they are, I was so scared to wash it—and it was really hard, so I didn’t do it until it started to stink or got a really big stain or something. And that was hard to do, but it, uh, yeah I kinda smelled bad for a while. . . .” He trailed off.

“At least you knew if you could wash it,” Bucky said. “There was one mission where Steve wasn’t sure if the new material on his suit was gonna be ruined by soap or not. Mission lasted three weeks. Might be the only time Captain America was bad for morale.”

“Oh come on,” Peter said, wide-eyed.

“We all stank,” Bucky said, “but he was worse.”

Stark had frozen in the little foyer space between the living room and the elevator.

“Could he wash it?” he asked in a voice that wasn’t as casual as he probably wanted—because of course he knew who must have designed that suit.

“Yep,” Bucky said, aware he probably sounded the same way. “We got back and—and Howard said oh yeah, of course, it was fine.”

Peter looked back and forth between them, clearly noticing the tension but not sure what to do about it.

“And then Dum-Dum shoved him into a pond,” Bucky finished. “Steve, not Howard.”

That startled a laugh out of Stark. “Good. Washing machines are better. See ya.” He hurried into the elevator and Bucky let out a relieved sigh.

~

Peter met Bruce exactly once, when he swung in through the window a little bit earlier than usual and Bruce and Bucky were talking over coffee. He’d landed with a thump on the carpet, pulling off his mask as he did so, and then looked panic-stricken when he realized there was someone else in the room.

“It’s okay,” Bruce said, looking resigned for some reason. “I know who you are. Tony’s told me a lot about you.” He held out his hand to shake. “Bruce Banner.”

Peter’s eyes went wide. Bucky watched as Bruce seemed to deflate. “I know who you are,” Peter said, awed. “There’s a picture of you in my science classroom!”

“Uh,” Bruce said, as Peter inexpertly but enthusiastically shook his hand.

“You are so cool,” Peter said. “And I really want to talk to you but, um, I’ve really gotta pee. I’m super sorry. I’ll be right back!”

He darted down the hallway. Bruce looked at Bucky, something strange and pleased in his eyes.

“He’s not scared of anything, is he.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Bucky said, keeping his voice low; he was pretty sure the kid could hear better than most people, though not quite as well as him and Steve. “He’s just not scared of us.”

“That’s . . . . refreshing.”

“Uh-huh.”

Bruce seemed to enjoy the short conversation with Peter that followed, but never went out of his way to meet the kid again. Bucky wasn’t sure why, but he wasn’t going to pry, especially since Peter seemed perfectly content to have had one brief brush with the physicist. “I don’t even have any good questions to ask him,” he complained. “I don’t know enough.”

~

When it came to making recommendations for catching up, Peter was as good as his word. He seemed to have made it a personal mission, in fact, to find out what both Bucky and Steve knew and didn’t know, and cared about or didn’t care about.

Peter was still kind of wide-eyed and careful around Steve, obviously caught somewhere between hero-worship and concern. Steve, for his part, was somewhat reserved and formal around Peter, partly falling back on Captain America persona and partly, Bucky thought, unsure where he stood with someone who so obviously looked up to Stark. But when they were talking about something that interested both of them, those barriers dropped away.

The first time that happened, Bucky was completely lost for ten minutes as Steve and Peter went back and forth with quotes, character names, and song lyrics from animated Disney movies. His confusion resulted in both Steve and Peter spouting titles at him, talking over each other, until they all dissolved into laughter. Things were smoother after that.

Peter provided Steve a list of other animation studios he might like. Steve frowned. “I think I’ve heard of Dreamworks and Pixar—Pixar’s the computer one, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“What about Studio Ghib—”

“By hand. All of it. I don’t know much about that stuff, but people I know who are really into art or anime both say it’s really great animation. Start with Kiki’s Delivery Service and see what you think.”

Peter had a harder time with non-science fiction recommendations for Bucky. “Okay, comedy, that’s good. Anything else? Action? Adventure? Drama?”

“Really depends how good it is.”

“He means it has to have a happy ending,” Steve interjected.

Bucky huffed at him. “It does not. It has to be satisfying . Doesn’t have to be happy.”

Peter gave him a blank look but, the next time he visited, produced a list of heist movies. “Watch Ocean’s Eleven first and tell me if that counts as satisfying. The new one, though. I think there’s a really old one, like from—” He broke off. “Uh. Watch the one that came out, like, after 2000.”

~

By early June, Peter was stopping by Stark Tower practically every day he had time.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Bucky said to him one day, when he arrived with a new list, mentioning that he’d asked his friends for recommendations too (“don’t worry, they don’t know who I’m asking for suggestions for”). “We can find things on our own.”

“I know,” Peter said, looking almost startled. “But this is fun. It’s something I used to do with Ben. He liked movies, and we saw a lot, and then we found other people who’d like to see them, and—it was fun. I mean—you don’t mind, do you?”

“No,” Bucky told him. “Of course not. What’s this Holy Grail thing?”

~

“Hey, FRIDAY? Can I ask a favor?”

“What can I help you with, Mr. Barnes?” the ceiling answered.

Bucky leaned back in the chair he sat in, tipping his head up. He knew it was silly, but he always felt more comfortable “looking at” FRIDAY, even if she wasn’t really there. “Can you help me catch up on music?”

“‘Catch up’?”

“I kinda missed a lot since 1945,” Bucky said dryly.

This was his latest, and hopefully final, attempt. He’d listened to a lot of music, of course, most of it recommendations from Steve or Steve’s friends, some of it in the form of elaborate premade playlists, but all of it made with their ideas of ‘catching up’ in mind. Some playlists were chronological. Others featured important changes in music. And a lot of them were basically the same.

“After the first month—no, the first week—I knew who the Beatles were,” Steve had grumbled, back in Wakanda. “And every single person I met kept telling me about them. I swear, half the reason I liked Sam was that he recommended something I actually didn’t know.”

“I heard that!” Sam had shouted from across the room.

But the thing was, once you covered the obvious—and some of the not-so-obvious—milestones, there wasn’t really an easy way to develop a taste for certain musicians or styles from the last seventy-odd years. You just had to run across them, and every recommendation or list or way of buying music was sorted that way.

“Do you have some way of finding out things I wouldn’t hate, finding songs that are like songs I know I like?”

“Yes,” FRIDAY said after a moment. “Similar services exist, but I can devise a far superior program. I can create equivalent algorithms in a few hours. Would you also like to match by song content, as well as musical characteristics?”

Bucky blinked. “Um. Sure?”

“And do you have guidelines for where to begin?”

Bucky shrugged. “Uh, split the difference between then and now, maybe?”

There was a pause. “I will let you know when the program is ready.”

“Thanks, FRIDAY.”

~

Peter usually came by in the late afternoon for an hour or less and usually left grumbling about homework. As much as he enjoyed the kid, Bucky was glad he left on his own. Peter reminded him of his sisters a little too much, sometimes; he didn’t quite have the right to tell Spider-Man to go home and go to bed because he had school tomorrow.

Peter could stay longer on weekend nights, though, and one time, after a conversation about stellar cartography (specifically, how neither Peter nor Bucky would actually have any idea how to get home from an alien planet, like the characters in practically every space travel book or movie did), they ended up lying on the deck of Stark Tower, fiddling with an app and an old-fashioned “line up the month and the hour” wheel, trying to identify constellations. Even this high up, it wasn’t much good. There was too much light from the city below, and half the lights they could make out kept moving—satellites, not stars.

Peter chuckled as he put down the phone. “Whatever. Doesn’t matter.” He waved a hand at the sky. “They’re fireflies. They got caught in that big bluish-black thing.”

Bucky rolled onto his side and gave him a very confused look. Peter continued in a different voice.

“I thought they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away. —You know, that’s how I learned what stars actually are.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I mean, stars, sure, but—”

“Oh.” Peter sat up. “Uh, Lion King. You have to see it. It’s really good.”

“Movie?”

“Kids’ movie, yeah. Also a musical, but see the movie first. It’s animated. About lions. It’s Disney—Steve’s probably seen it.”

“Okay.” Bucky laughed and shook his head.

“What?”

“I’m talking about lion movies on top of a skyscraper. Nah, that’s not it. I’m having a conversation with someone who”—he eyed the kid—”who was born in the 21st century.”

Peter didn’t deny it.

“You want to know what year my ma was born? 1895.”

“Whoa,” Peter said, reflexively. “But that’s—”

“Too far away to feel right? Yeah. Now imagine every day is full of things like that, all the time, only backwards.”

He leaned back and looked up at the night sky. “Does it ever really hit you, I mean really hit you, that we’ve been to the damn Moon?”

“Uh, I guess. I mean, I’ve always known that, but sometimes I look up and think, ‘Wow. There were people up there. People have walked on that,’ you know?”

“Yeah,” Bucky breathed. “Yeah. ‘Cept I didn’t always know it. When I was your age, most people didn’t think we’d ever get there. And now it’s—been there, done that. Sometimes I think that’s the thing I’m saddest I missed,” he added quietly.

Peter frowned for a moment. “October Sky,” he said after a minute. “That’s not a documentary, but it all actually happened. And maybe Apollo 13, but—”

“That’s the one that went wrong, right?”

“Yes, but they got back alive. It’s kind of amazing, really. They gave the people at NASA a box of all the stuff on the shuttle and told them to build an air filter—”

“Alright. Add it to the list.”

~

Peter’s crowning triumph of recommendations, though, was for Steve. He and Bucky were talking with Steve one day—the same day as the Disney conversation, actually—and Steve was sketching; Peter happened to look over and see what he was drawing. It wasn’t the usual realistic art he did lately; it was a little doodle, something vaguely Disney-esque, that was unmistakably Peter as a spider. Peter laughed, looking delighted, and Steve looked up quickly, turning pink.

“That’s so cool!” Peter said. “Where’d you learn to do that? Cartoons and stuff?”

“This was my job,” Steve said.

“I thought you said you drew illustrations for ads.”

“Well, that’s mostly what I ended up doing, I suppose. But I”—Steve looked back down at the sketchpad. With a few quick lines, the spider was crawling up a ridiculously small Stark Tower. “What I really wanted to do was draw comics.”

Bucky bit his lip, not sure how Peter would react, but the kid didn’t disappoint him. “Books or strips?” he asked. “I mean, like, stories or the stuff in the newspaper?”

“Comic books, mainly,” Steve said, looking up, startled. “Wouldn’t have minded doing dailies, but that was even harder to find a job doing than working for one of the comic book publishers, and I’d rather do a full story. I had a good shot at something that looked interesting for Timely Comics, but they chose this other guy instead. Some artist named Jack Curtis? Kearney? Something like that.”

Peter practically bounced with excitement. “Okay, so what have you read since you got back?”

“Not much,” Steve admitted.

“Like?”

Steve squirmed. Bucky tried not to smile. Steve had apparently been terrible at actually having fun in the future unless anyone gave him a hard time about it, and whenever anyone pointed that out, he acted like a kid caught lying or something. Sam, he’d noticed, was an expert on it, though he had it on good authority Natasha Romanov could do it too. “Uh, mostly political cartoons?”

“Okay,” Peter said, with an air of authority that was frankly adorable, although Bucky wondered what it would turn into in a few years. “Tomorrow I’m bringing you comics.”

The next day, he’d shown up with a heavy backpack and unloaded a stack of books onto the dining room table for Bucky to take to Steve. Three of them seemed to be in a series, something called Sandman. Another had a dog on the cover and said Classic Peanuts. Five others all seemed to be by the same person. The titles made Bucky raise his eyebrows. The Revenge of the Baby-Sat. The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat. The Days are Just Packed. And . . . “Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons?” he read aloud. Now that sounded like one of the horror comics he and Steve had been officially forbidden from reading.

“Trust me, it’s awesome,” Peter said. “You should read them too. And there are more of all of these—Sandman is a big long comic book series—and you should tell Steve to check out Krazy Kat, too. I just didn’t have any of those. They’re really old. Hard to find.”

Steve read the books that night until he fell asleep, grinning and sometimes making noises of appreciation. Sometimes he’d nudge Bucky and draw his attention to something especially interesting or creative in the design of a panel, the way hair or eyes or mouth or feet expressed a character’s attitude. It felt almost like they were back home.

~

Shortly thereafter, Bucky’s bookstore circuit expanded to include Forbidden Planet, Carmine Street Comics, and Midtown Comics. The next day, Peter got his books back, along with a four-page hand-drawn comic book featuring The Amazing Spider-Man.

Chapter Text

“Peter,” Bucky interrupted, during one of Peter’s tangents, “how old are these ‘really old movies’ you know so much about?”

Peter blinked. “Uh, I don’t know, actually. I think Star Wars was from the seventies, because Uncle Ben said he was in high school when he saw them.”

Bucky grinned, mischievous. “Alright, come with me. I wanna know if you’ve seen any of these….”

~

Tony walked into the penthouse lounge floor, which was apparently becoming a common area again, to find a black-and-white movie playing on the largest TV, the kid doubled over laughing, and Barnes sitting on the other end of the couch looking smug.

“What the hell is this?” Tony demanded. “Black and white movies? You do know we have color now, right? Why are you corrupting the kid?”

“He made me watch Monty Python,” Barnes said. “It’s his turn to see something I like.”

“It’s called It Happened One Night, and it’s really funny!” Peter gasped. “He’s a reporter and she’s famous, and the other guy’s a reporter too, so he’s pretending he’s a gangster—”

“Just watch the movie,” Barnes said, smiling. Then the smile faded. “I mean, if you want us to move, we can—it’s your place—”

“No,” Tony said. “You’ve got good taste in home theater arrangements, at least.” He leaned against the back of a chair to appreciate the surround sound.

~

“So,” Bucky said, as Peter packed up his homework. “Did you like the movie?”

“Yeah!” he said. “They all talked really fast, though.”

“They talk like people really talk,” Bucky countered. “People in new movies talk way too slow.”

“No they don’t!”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Come on, when’s the last time you hear someone . . . talk . . . like . . . this . . . and pose. . . all . . . philosophical . . . during a . . . crisis?”

“You sound like Captain Kirk,” Peter said, smirking.

“Who?”

“Oh my god, Star Trek. I’m sure it’s on the list. Uh—there’s a lot of it. I’ll tell you about it next time.” He paused. “Um, when you’re not doing that, though? Sometimes when you’re just talking? You sound like—well.” He waved a hand that the TV. “You sound like they did.”

It took Bucky a second. “Well,” he said, “it’s where I’m from.” Then he seemed to catch himself and shook his head, exasperated. “When I’m from. And believe me, nobody back then would’ve said I talk like that.”

“Why not?” Peter asked.

“C’mon, kid, I ain’t that sophisticated,” Bucky said, that accent Peter had caught a few times thickening. “Steve’s the one who can talk like a movie star. They gave him lessons in the USO. Couldn’t have Captain America talkin’ like a poor Irish shmuck from New York.”

“Why?” Peter asked, baffled. “Did it have to not sound like he was from anywhere, because he was supposed to the whole country?”

“Not exactly,” Bucky said. “Probably partly, but it’s more like, ya can’t have Captain America sounding like some lowlife, y’know?”

“Huh?”

Bucky frowned. “I’m not sure what it’d be today. Who—just by the way they’re talking—make people think they’re up to no good? Like some old woman with money or someone who doesn’t live in the city would look at ‘em funny and say something about those people.”

“Oh.” Peter got it. “Like, black kids, especially if they’re talking . . . you know . . . there’s a word for it, I think?”

Bucky shrugged. “Right.”

“Or anyone not speaking English,” Peter added. “Like, Dominican kids using Spanish on the train.”

“There ya go,” Bucky said. “That’s what this is, back in ‘35.”

“But . . . you’re white. Like, part of it is racism, I’m pretty sure.”

Bucky snorted. “Pal, I’m Irish. That didn’t count as white back then.”

“. . . . The hell?”

Bucky took one look at his face and started laughing.

“No offence, but like the whitest people on Earth except for maybe, like, Scandinavians? How the hell . . .?”

“Lemme try this,” Bucky said, getting himself under control. “‘Dirty immigrants coming in and taking all our jobs.’ That was Steve’s and my parents. Maybe grandparents. Still made us kind of unwelcome.”

Peter kinda got it, and it sucked. “But . . . that’s . . . stupid? Still stupid, but that’s just like making up racism and wouldn’t people see it was stupid?”

“Okay, now add in ‘those weird people with their weird religion.’”

“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Pretty much everyone who came over from Ireland was Catholic.”

“So? Wait, why was that weird?” Peter suddenly went cold. “I didn’t get everything super super wrong, did I? The US has always been mostly Christian, right? . . . Right? I’m going to feel like a total idiot if that’s wrong . . .”

It took a few minute for Bucky to stop laughing and be able to talk again.

“You should talk with Steve. I think he’d be very happy that this doesn’t make sense to you. He’d say he died for something, anyway.” He grimaced. “I don’t like that joke, but he does.”

“Steve—”

“There’s a lot that hasn’t changed, a lot that’s still unfair or stupid and it still bothers him as much as it used to, because there’s a lot you can’t actually fix by punching it.” He pointed at Peter. “You being completely clueless about half the shit we grew up with is a good thing.”

“Is it?” Peter asked. “MJ—that’s one of my friends—she keeps talking about historical consciousness and stuff like that. How you need to remember what happened before so you can see what’s happening now.”

“She’s probably right,” Bucky admitted. “It’s just nice to see some things completely solved.” He looked thoughtful for a minute. “I wonder if there’s a way we could get your friend and Steve to meet. Sounds like the kind of person he’d like to talk to.”

Peter looked at his hands. “I’m not a hundred percent sure she’d like to talk to him? Like, probably, and I think she’d want to anyway, because, I mean, Captain America, but she might not feel like she should because she has this thing about public figures standing up and talking about political issues and how they don’t do it enough . . . . At least Steve doesn’t do any corporate sponsorships or that would be, like, a hard no.”

Bucky blinked. “On second thought, she and Steve should never meet.”

“Why not?”

“Between the two of them, they’d end up burning everything down and rebuilding the world. You wanna be responsible for that? Me neither.”

~

The next day, Peter showed up earlier than usual, carrying a backpack again. He flopped in through the window and dropped it on the floor. “Owww.”

“What’s up?” Bucky asked, looking over from the kitchen, where he was chopping up vegetables for the soup on the stove.

“Mr. Stark asked me to come and pick up another suit to test out, so I hurried here right after school without stashing my ba—Whoa.”

“What?” Bucky asked innocently, flipping the knife again.

Peter looked at him wide-eyed. “That.”

“This?” He tossed it higher this time, let it spin twice before he caught it.

“I’m gonna sound like May,” Peter said nervously, “but I’m worried you’re gonna cut your fingers off.” Then he actually flinched, and Bucky could practically see “that came out wrong” floating over his head. Maybe he’d been reading a few too many comics over Steve’s shoulder.

He caught the knife in his left hand as it came down, smirked, and spun it through his fingers before tossing it again. “Better?”

“. . . I guess?” Peter said. “Anyway, since I brought all my stuff, can I stay and do homework?”

~

The sight of the kid sitting at the kitchen table, papers and a textbook in front of him, shook loose memories of his sisters again. Becca had been neater than that, but Alice’s papers ended up on the floor sometimes. Gracie usually ended up doodling something in the margins. And they were almost always hungry, all four of them, when they came home after school . . . .

He didn’t really realize what he was doing until he’d put the dish of strawberries at Peter’s elbow.

~

Peter swung in though the open window and landed softly on the carpet of Steve and Bucky’s apartment. “Hey,” he called out, pulling his mask off. “Anybody home?” Maybe he should have gone up to the observation deck and talked with FRIDAY, but he hadn’t done that the last few times and he was pretty sure that that window was left open for him.

“Hey, Peter,” he heard Bucky call from somewhere down the hallway. Peter had only been in the main part of the floor before—the big open-plan living room/dining room/more living room that connected with the enormous kitchen. “I’ll be right there.”

Peter walked toward the sound of his voice. There was a bathroom on the right and what seemed to be a bedroom, door ajar, on the left. There was a sound of rustling fabric coming from a room farther down on the right. “I have something cool to show you,” Peter said, going down the hallway. “There’s this really cool video Ned found, and then he built a version of the thing out of K’Nex—oh shit sorry!”

He jumped back from the door, feeling like an idiot. Bucky was changing, pulling off a blue t-shirt that was covered in something brown and shiny-looking.

“’S fine, kid,” Bucky said, sounding amused. “Turns out this car of Stark’s I’m working on is tempermental. Lucky I didn’t get grease on my face. Shirt’s a lost cause, though.”

“Okay,” Peter said, looking back, still feeling stupid. “Is this the car you—”

Bucky had tossed the ruinedshirt into a plastic basket on the floor and was rummaging through a dresser, clearly getting out a new one. A tiny part of Peter’s head took a second to be annoyed that, okay, whatever the spider had done to him had made him a lot stronger than he looked, but apparently super-juice gave you, like, a lot of muscles, and then the rest of his head stopped stalling and kicked in and—

That

was a really

big

scar.

~

The kid stopped talking. Bucky looked up as he pulled out a clean shirt, ready to make some kind of smart comment; Peter talked as much as Stark did, maybe more. But the comment died on his lips when he saw where Peter was looking and the expression on his face.

Right. Oops. Shit.

“Peter? Hey, kid, it’s alright.” He pulled the shirt on quickly. Peter’s face didn’t change.

Bucky knew that look. He’d seen it a lot, once. Steve would get it when he read the paper. He would be mad about things he couldn’t do anything about, and then madder because he knew it wasn’t something he could do anything about. It was one thing if it was some jerk in the street he could punch or a politician he could write a letter to, but when it was something too big, or too far away, he’d just—stall. Bucky had seen that look too many times after Germany invaded Poland, and again each and every time Steve got rejected after trying to enlist: a kind of locked-down, simmering rage.

It looked wrong on Peter’s face.

“Hey, Peter.” He took a few steps closer. “Come on. I’m alright.”

When Peter spoke, his voice was wrong, too. “Are they dead?”

Bucky winced. That kind of—of vengeance wasn’t something that should be coming out of a kid. “Yeah,” he said honestly. Between time, and Steve, and his own work cleaning house after the helicarriers went down, he was sure that everyone who’d been involved in what happened to him was dead.

“Good,” Peter said fiercely, fists clenched.

“Kid, it’s alright,” Bucky said again. “I’m fine. It looks ugly, but that’s all. I’m fine now. Got fixed up. Got a better arm, even. I like the people who made me this one.” He tried for a grin, but got no response. “Okay, Peter, you’re starting to worry me here.”

“I—sorry, sorry,” Peter said again, sounding miserable. “I just—that looks really—bad.”

Bucky hesitated. “It was.” He really, really hoped this wasn’t going to make things worse. But it seemed like trying to blow everything off wouldn’t work. Peter wasn’t going to let himself be distracted—and, poor kid, wasn’t going to let himself be reassured, either. Bucky steeled himself.

“I don’t actually remember much after falling off the train,” he said quietly. Peter stopped staring blankly and looked up at him. “So I don’t really remember whatever”—he gestured toward his left arm with his right—“whatever happened. I remember Zola’s scientists putting the new one on, though.” He swallowed. “And Stark blowing it off. And everything in between.”

Peter looked sick. Maybe this wasn’t helping . . . .

“My point is, it’s not— all that is over. The people who did this are gone. The chair they—the thing they used to wipe my mind, wipe me, that’s gone too. I broke it and set it on fire and blew up the room it had been in. They can’t do this to anyone else, and I’m still standing. It was bad, but it’s done.

“This arm is a lot more comfortable than the other one. And the scar’s just—marks. So . . . .” he ran a hand through his hair, trying to find the words. “Thanks for—for being mad for me. But right now the thing that’s bothering me is you looking like that.”

Peter took a long, shuddering breath and wiped his eyes. “Okay,” he said hoarsely.

“Do you believe me?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry, kid,” Bucky said, helplessly.

“No!” Peter said, voice thick. “It’s not your fault! Just—” He closed his eyes for a minute. “Okay. I’m okay.”

“You wanted to show me something—?” Bucky prodded.

“Uh? Oh.” Peter shook his head, looking disgusted. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Sure it does,” Bucky said firmly.

“No, what matters is—”

“What happened to me doesn’t matter. Well, no,” he corrected, as Peter’s expression shifted to mulish, “it matters, but it doesn’t matter right now. Right now, I have better things to do. What the hell is a K’Nex?”

~

May groaned as she walked up the steps from the subway. It had been a long day, she’d had to dress up for a meeting, and all she wanted was to get home, say hi to Peter, and get out of her damn heels. She hurried the three blocks to their building. By some miracle, the elevator was both not broken and on the ground floor. Before long, she was turning the key in the lock of the apartment. She swung the door shut, dropped her purse, and yanked off her right shoe in one movement—and then looked up to see Peter sitting at the kitchen table, papers and a textbook next to him, laptop open, sitting hunched and miserable with his face in his hands.

“Aw, sweetie,” May said, dropping her jacket over the back of the other kitchen chair and going to him. “What’s the matter? Something bad happen while you were—out—today?” She was never quite sure what to call it; “while you were being Spider-Man” was awfully clunky.

“Huh? No,” Peter said, looking up for a second and then away. “Pretty boring, actually. I ended up going to Stark Tower again to hang out.” He paused, and she wondered if he was going to say more, but he put his head back in his hands and sighed.

“Watching the news?” May asked wryly.

“No,” Peter said, sounding startled again. “What happened?”

“Nothing particular,” May reassured him. “The usual crap. I just thought something might have bothered you.”

That got a short laugh. “No, this is older stuff. Like, World War Two old. I don’t know why, I just—” He looked up again, and this time he was obviously only barely not crying, his face red and eyes bright. “Why are people so terrible?”

Oh shit. May’s heart dropped. This was one of the parts of being a parent that she absolutely hated—not because she hated the parenting part itself, but because she hated the whole world right then for not giving her a good fucking answer. She was never more aware of playing everything by ear than in moments like this. The best she could do was—well, the answer she’d scrounged up for herself when she was like this, no matter how desperately she wished she could give him something better.

She bent down behind Peter and gave him a hug, arms wrapped around his shoulders, her head next to his. “I don’t know, kiddo,” she said honestly. “I don’t know that. I wish I did. But you know what makes me feel better?”

“What?” he asked, sniffing.

“There are more people out there who aren’t terrible. There are people out there who do wonderful things for no real reason, too—and there are people like you, Peter, who make the world a better place. And I don’t mean Spider-Man,” she added, squeezing his shoulders, “even though that’s amazing and scares me a little—I mean you. Helping people out with chemistry and talking with the neighbors and getting me flowers on my birthday—being such a good kid. I am so proud of you and you, Peter, are the reason I don’t think the world sucks even with all the crap that’s going on in it. You and everyone else who’s kind and caring and generous and funny because that’s just the way you are.” She turned her head and kissed him on the side of the head. “There’s more good than bad out there.”

“. . . . Okay,” Peter said, voice still thick.

“Does that help?”

“Maybe.”

“Would ordering Thai and watching something goofy help?” May asked, scruffling his hair.

He laughed—a weak laugh, but a laugh. “Maybe.”

“Okay. Go pick a movie.”

~

Tony was on his way down from the penthouse to the workshop one afternoon when the idea got stuck in his head. It was a good idea, but it’d only work if Barnes’ arm actually, mechanically couldn’t bend the wrong way at the elbow rather than was programmed not to, because that meant he was probably right about the internal structure of it and that meant that he could totally brace another element across the—

Anyway. It needed testing.

And since he was on his way down anyway . . . .

~

The elevator door opened on Steve’s floor and Tony stepped out automatically, only realizing as the doors closed that he’d forgot to ask FRIDAY if Barnes was even around. Then he realized he must be, because there was music playing—pretty loud music, actually, louder than he had thought Barnes would be comfortable with in a room this size. But it was different from Tony’s music: slower and warmer and, well, kind of boring and cheesy, in Tony’s opinion. He’d heard the song, heard it quite a lot at the various galas and functions and celebrity weddings he had to go to as part of being a billionaire genius no-longer-a-playboy philanthropist, and it always made him roll his eyes.

He always ended up at least nodding along to it, too.

So, because he’d heard it so many times, he was pretty sure he knew how it was supposed to sound. And this sounded a little different.

Tony ducked back into the little elevator foyer and held his breath, but the unusual thing didn’t change. So, cautiously, he poked his head back through the doorway and peeked into the kitchen.

The international fugitive and former assassin was busy with something on the stove (Tony sniffed: bacon), singing along with the music and—Tony had to blink and make sure he wasn’t imagining it—actually dancing a bit.

“If I could walk on water

If I could tell you what's next

I'd make you believe

I'd make you forget

So come on, get higher, loosen my lips

Faith and desire and the swing of your hips

Just pull me down hard

And drown me in love . . . .”

He had a surprisingly nice voice. Terrible taste in music, apparently, but a good voice. And he was just . . . a twenty-something guy in jeans and a dark blue turtleneck singing along with music and dancing in his kitchen.

Tony walked back to the elevator as quietly as he could, hushed it so it didn’t ding when it arrived, and went down to the workshop. Maybe his idea could wait a bit after all.

~

By the time he was sure he was really awake, Tony found himself stepping out of the elevator a few floors below the penthouse—Rogers’ floor. The main living space was dark and silent; the lights of the city gleamed through a crack in the curtains. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he picked up his pace until he crossed through to the hallway and almost ran to the first guest bedroom. He was almost surprised to find Barnes there. As FRIDAY had warned, he wasn’t the only one who seemed to be having a rough night—the bedsheets were tangled and the younger man was sprawled diagonally across the mattress, head having no relationship to any of the pillows also scattered across the bed. His hair was tangled and half over his face. But he was breathing, slowly and deeply, and didn’t—wasn’t—he was fine. He wasn’t hurt, wasn’t screaming or bleeding or bruised. Tony felt his own heart rate slow watching him.

Barnes’ eye cracked open. “Thought you said I’d be awake,” he said. He didn’t move. The immediate wave of (what? Sympathy? Empathy? Being done with this shit? Is there a word for the ache that comes with the admiration and horror of someone calmly accepting death with a joke when awakened in the dead of night?) of grief that crashed through Tony staggered him for a moment. His brain skipped the obvious quibbling point of “clearly, now you are” and he burst out, “No, come on, I keep saying, I’m not going to do that!”

“Okay,” Barnes rolled to his side and sat up, very slowly, brushing hair out of his face, telegraphing every move, “then why are you here?”

“Oh.” It did make sense when you thought about it that way. And Tony began to feel slightly . . . not self-conscious, he never got self-conscious, but perhaps . . . the distant ripples of awareness that there was something socially . . . off, something he was missing . . . . That would make Barnes assume something that drastic . . . . “Steve’s fine!” he said suddenly, hands raised, placating. “That’s not—”

“I know,” Barnes said, “I’ve got alerts set if he needs anything.”

“Oh.” Tony nodded. “Right. I knew that.” The awareness filtered gently into place. So did a bit more context, broader consciousness, including the knowledge that people didn’t normally walk into other people’s bedrooms to watch them sleep. Even normal people, let alone people with whatever cagey, fraught relationship they had.

Barnes was watching him with a combination of wariness, curiosity, and amusement.

“I had a nightmare I was you,” he blurted. Then he wanted to slap himself. Right. Good way to reassure the guy. “I—not like that, not quite, I—”

“Stark,” Barnes said, his voice odd, “are you awake right now?”

“Awake-ish. Better. Talking, you know,” he gestured vaguely in the air. “Know it’s weird to be in here, that part was missing at first, awkward, sorry, not the point—”

“Where are you?”

“The Tower,” Tony said, impatiently. “My Tower, Cap’s floor, your room, and it’s oh-god o’clock and I—” He took a deep breath, only then realizing that it was the first in a while. “Oh. Um. I’m in the Tower. It’s 2017. Everything’s locked down, FRIDAY would tell me if anything’s wrong, the carpet is really soft in here.” He wiggled bare toes. “I don’t have the arc reactor anymore.” He felt his shoulders drop and breathing suddenly became almost too easy. “I don’t have it and I don’t need it and Obadiah’s dead and Pepper runs the company.” He stood for a moment, letting sensory stimuli take over. Soft carpet. Darkness, unbroken by the light of the arc reactor, as it should be, that’s a good thing, light from the doorway behind him catching Barnes’ face and arm. He didn’t remember turning the hallway lights on. FRIDAY must have done it for him, even as she kept the bedroom dark. Warm air. Very faint noises from the street far below—even at o-god o’clock, New York drivers had to honk at each other.

Breathing. He was breathing. Kind of funny breathing? Not quite panicky, though, so that was alright. Just listen. Breathing, right, not hard, something was kind of important, what was important? Soft carpet. For some reason, that was important. Soft carpet, FRIDAY turned the lights on, stupid damn New York drivers. And—context. Kind of. Gradually.

“Sooooo I can apparently wake up from a nightmare straight into a panic attack without realizing it,” he said finally. “Or. Like. Perfectly lucid high-strung high-functioning non-panicking.” He scrubbed a hand across his face. “But you already knew that.”

There was an odd, complicated expression on the other man’s face. Tony thought maybe he could parse it another time, if it were day, or he weren’t so exhausted. “I wake up and check the perimeter,” he said. “Every time. Doesn’t matter where I am, doesn’t matter if I know it’s secure. Make sure Steve’s alright, make sure no one can get in. Takes a few hours to shake it off sometimes.”

Tony nodded, and Barnes relaxed. That was the expression, or part of it, then—tension. Guarded? Why would he be—oh, right. He wouldn’t think he had a right to say anything about nightmares. Not to Tony. No right to claim any shared suffering, that sort of thing. Odd; a few hours ago Tony would have agreed with that, would even have said as much to his face, but now—he knew he would have thought that, knew Barnes thought so, but couldn’t follow how either of them could have gotten there.

“I’m here,” Barnes went on, more confident now. “I’m not a threat. It’s alright.” He paused, then, when Tony made no reply—threat? What…?—he added, “You can lock me up someplace for the rest of the night if you want. It’s fine.” At Tony’s incredulous look, he laughed sadly. “I get it. Sometimes when I wake up I want to lock me away . . . and if you dreamed about—”

“No!” Tony said again. “I told you, that’s not what I meant. It’s—it’s not like the bad part was that I was you. You’re not the villain of the piece, okay. I’m not here to make sure you’re under control.”

“Alright,” Barnes said. Now he looked completely flummoxed. “Why are you here, then?”

“I’m here to make sure you’re safe,” Tony said, exasperated.

“Hold on.” Barnes swung his legs off the bed and stood up. “I think I need coffee. You want some?” He reached over to a chair—smoothly, Tony noted, he must be able to see in the dark—and grabbed a zip-up hoodie that he threw on, open. It was then that Tony really realized he was sleeping shirtless, and how very out of it he must have been to take so long to realize he was being intrusive, weird, and creepy.

Barnes threw him a wry look over his shoulder, and Tony realized he must’ve said that last part out loud. “Don’t think I have any room to judge on that,” Barnes said. “Coffee?”

“Yes coffee, coffee is great, coffee is warm and good and not sleep,” Tony said, relieved. He followed Barnes out to the kitchen, thinking, he didn’t say it’s your place this time, and feeling oddly happy about that.

Barnes put on a percolator in the kitchen. Tony would normally have protested—espresso was clearly superior in every way—but he did have some manners, for an uninvited middle-of-the-night houseguest, and he had to admit he liked the way the smell filled the whole room immediately. The two men waited in groggy but not uncomfortable silence while the coffee perked, not speaking aside from the muttered exchange of “cream? Sugar?” “No thanks.” The comforting warmth of the full mug against his hands was another anchor. He took a few sips, almost burning his mouth, before he looked directly at Barnes.

“Couch?” Barnes asked, nodding toward the darkened living room.

“Nah, this is fine.” Tony leaned back against the barstool. “Coffee at a kitchen counter is atmospherically fitting for midnight confessions.”

Barnes snorted. “Alright.” He took a deep gulp of his own coffee, raising his eyebrows at Tony, inviting him to go on. Tony took a moment to be impressed at his willingness to roll with things. And, he reflected, Barnes was a genius. In his just-woken state, he could have spilled out the whole of the dream with no trouble, but calmed down, he wasn’t sure he could. Coffee gave him something else to do with his mouth, and the smell tied him to here, now, the Tower, no arc reactor, everything’s fine. There had been no coffee in Afghanistan, that was for shit-sure.

“When I said I dreamed I was you,” Tony said, “I meant I dreamed they made me do what you did.” He was briefly gratified by the expression of horror that flashed across Barnes’ face. It meant he didn’t have to explain. “I don’t know what Cap told you,” he said, “or what you know, about me, how I got to ‘I am Iron Man,’ but—”

Barnes opened his mouth. Tony held up a hand. “No, let me give you the cliffs notes, okay?” Barnes nodded and leaned on the counter, human hand wrapped around his mug of coffee, the picture of attentive patience. Tony cleared his throat. “So. I used to run Stark Industries. We used to make weapons. I used to make weapons. I designed them, I made the deals, I pitched—it was me. They called me the ‘Merchant of Death’ and I said something snarky back and smiled. And then a terrorist group, that turned out to be on my partner’s payroll by the way, kidnapped me and asked me to build them something.” He felt his face twist in a grim approximation of a smile. “I made the Iron Man suit instead.

“It, um, it really was mostly iron at that point, it was huge and ugly and basically like attaching a bunch of guns and a flame thrower and rocket to a shell of tank armor and I burned everything down and blasted out of there and then Rhodey found me.” He took another blessed sip of coffee. And Yinsen died. Not going there. “But that’s not the point. They kidnapped me—they blew up a convoy, I was in Afghanistan to demonstrate a new toy I’d made and they killed everyone else and almost killed me, using my own weapons. I had shrapnel in my— But that’s not— No, it sort of is the point, but—” He swallowed. “I’m not making sense.”

“They tortured you,” Barnes said, face impassive. Tony was grateful for that. Any more emotion in the room and he might fall apart again.

“Right. Course you know. Billionaire genius playboy philanthropist superhero—no privacy.” He grimaced. There were downsides to having your life constantly on display.

“It didn’t actually say so in anything I read when I was catching up,” Barnes said. “But I don’t figure they bothered asking nicely.”

“Right,” Tony said. “And the thing is—it took, what, five minutes?” He drummed his fingers on the mug. “Five minutes and I went from telling ‘em to go fuck themselves to saying I’d build whatever they wanted. Built Iron Man instead, but—it scares me how fast I—” He gulped more coffee, holding up his hand again. “Nope, nope, let me finish, I think I know how to get there now. You knew what I was talking about when I was babbling earlier, about the arc reactor?”

Barnes nodded. “It’s the power source for the Iron Man suits, and you invented a new element to fuel it.”

“Yeah, well the second part is later, but yeah—but did anything say why I had it in the first place?” He felt distantly that he ought to know that, know how much the public knew, and again—if he wasn’t feeling so distant, he probably would.

“Not really. Just that you came back from Afghanistan with it, and some of the earlier news stories implied it was . . . almost biological.”

“Yeah, well, okay, that’s the whole reason the escape worked, but it was also—I had shrapnel in my chest. They’d captured—” oh shit, he’d have to talk about Yinsen—“there was another scientist there and they told him to keep me alive. He rigged up an electromagnet in my chest to keep it from working itself into my heart. It was hooked up to a car battery at first. Then we made the arc reactor. We said it was so I could move around without the damn battery” (and how relieved he’d been, in truth, to not depend on a large, clumsy, external, unpluggable thing keeping him alive) “and that was true, but it was a hell of a lot more powerful than a car battery. Power source. That’s why I could escape—because I almost died. Because they gave me a pile of my own tech and trusted me. Because I had Yinsen and they were stupid and I was lucky.” He shuddered. “And then after that my dad’s best friend pulled the arc reactor out of my chest, but I’d upgraded it and Pepper had given me the old one as a joke gift and—lucky.”

He snuck a look at Barnes’ face and immediately looked away again, the words And you weren’t caught in his throat. “Plus I had a shit-ton of issues before all of that, so now just imagine all of that getting thrown in a blender and: Merchant of Death, unpluggable, torture, daddy issues, and now you.” He bit his lip.

“So when you dreamed—”

“I’m good at making stuff,” Tony said quietly, staring past Barnes’ shoulder. “I stopped making weapons but I still know how. The Iron Man suit can do a lot of damage. And I’m not—” The images from the dream wrapped themselves around him and even the smell of coffee was no help. He could smell the dust in the air, the faint post-explosion fumes, the blood. “Fury didn’t want me in the Avengers, you know. Unstable. Selfish. Or, as my dear ol’ dad would have put it, weak.”

Screams. Explosions. The suit’s targeting system, but wrong, wrong. I killed Pepper. I killed the kid. And then echoes of the stupid hallucination that Wanda had given him, back before he knew she was Wanda: his friends, his only friends, lying dead, Steve choking out “You could have saved us,” and Howard’s baffled face, and, and . . . .

And then there was a hand on his back, gentle, hesitant, but there, and he blinked and the world snapped back into place. “Hey,” Bucky said. “You back?”

Not trusting himself to speak, Tony nodded.

“That won’t happen,” Bucky said, gently but firmly. “It can’t. The chair doesn’t work on anyone who doesn’t have an advanced healing factor. It would kill you.”

“How fucked-up is it that I find that reassuring?” Tony whispered, clutching his coffee cup.

“Doesn’t seem fucked-up at all to me,” Bucky said softly.

“And—” Tony suddenly, desperately wanted something other than coffee in that cup. No, not wanted—needed. “And—but—even without that. I’m not, this isn’t, no one should trust me, I broke so fast—”

“Yeah, and how long did that last?” Of all things, Barnes smiled. “You escaped. You escaped and blew everything up on your way out. And that would only happen again.”

“But—”

“No, Stark. The difference between you and me is that if anyone wants to use you, they need your mind. You’re no use to them if you’re not thinking. But if they give you room to think, no matter what you told them before, you’ll think of how to beat them.”

“Okay,” Tony muttered, tightening his grip on the coffee mug. “Okay.” Suddenly he needed to be away, alone, making something. “Great, good talk, thanks for the coffee, I’m gonna go—lab—now. Sorry about watching you sleep like an emo teenage vampire.” He was on his feet and halfway to the door by the time that got out, and he didn’t remember standing up.

“Want more coffee to take with you?” Barnes asked from behind him.

Tony’s feet stopped. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

When Tony walked into Steve’s hospital room the next day, Steve was sitting up, writing something—no, drawing, some kind of pencil sketch on a pad of blank paper. He seemed more rested, more present, than when Tony had seen him last. That was good. He wanted to talk with a fully clued-in Steve Rogers right now, but he didn’t want it to totally wipe him out.

He stood in the doorway for almost a minute, trying to come up with a good opening line. Steve undermined all of his preparation by catching sight of him. “Tony!” he exclaimed, the expression on his face genuine happiness, even as he went a bit pink and put the sketchpad aside. “Come on in. It’s good to see you.”

“I know,” Tony snarked, strolling in. “You draw, Cap?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. His jaw and shoulders were slightly tensed as he gave Tony an almost challenging glance. “It’s how I made my living. I was a professional illustrator before the war.”

“I knew that,” Tony said. He had. He just hadn’t—“I didn’t know you still, well, did it.”

“I do,” Steve said. He didn’t seem to want to say any more, so Tony mentally shrugged and changed the subject. Plenty of time to dig deeper later.

“You look better, Cap.”

“I feel better,” Steve said, stretching. “It’s taking a while, but they are filtering out the antibodies, and I think it’s having an effect. They keep telling me not to push myself. I might be able to move back to my floor soon, though. Just come up here when I need the PLEX done.” He smiled a little awkwardly. “I think they’re getting a little tired of me.”

“That’s why I complain about everything in the hospital,” Tony said. “If I piss people off, they let me go sooner.”

“See, my mother told me that if you complain, they give you the worst-tasting medicine and make you stay longer,” Steve said seriously. “I was six at the time, but I’ve always wondered if anyone’s tempted….”

Right. Cap’s mom was a nurse. He’d almost forgotten that detail.

“But you didn’t come here to talk about me, did you,” Steve said, giving him another of those eerily intent looks. “What’s on your mind?”

For once, Tony appreciated the straightforwardness. It meant he didn’t have to try and be graceful about bringing it up. “What you said when we met,” he said, “on the helicarrier, when we were fighting.”

Steve’s face fell. “That was Loki,” he said quietly. “And me, but—the worst part of me, the worst parts of all of us. That’s what he wanted. I only meant it because I didn’t know you—I don’t think that about you anymore, not at all. I hope you know that.”

He didn’t, actually, and that was totally not what he’d expected bringing this up, but he’d take it. From anyone else he’d assume it was a lie as a matter of course, but—not Steve. Steve wasn’t a suckup. If Steve didn’t respect him, he wouldn’t hide it, and he certainly wouldn’t lie and say he did—even in a situation like this. It probably said something about him that he’d literally prefer to die rather than misrepresent himself, but it also probably said something that Tony would jump on the misrepresentation bandwagon as quickly as he knew he would.

“Sure,” he said breezily, “whatever, Capsicle. That isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”

“Oh,” Steve said, taken aback. “Um . . . .”

Tony shifted, leaning forward in his chair so his face was pointed at one of the monitors but he could see Steve perfectly clearly out of the corner of his eye. “When you said you knew guys with none of that worth ten of me,” he said, “that was Barnes, wasn’t it.”

Steve closed his eyes, pained. “. . . Yes.”

“You were right.”

Steve’s eyes flew open. “What?”

Tony patted him on the arm, brisk and awkward. “Your best friend there is a piece of work,” he said. “I get why you like him.”

Steve’s expression said I am very confused but this is making me tentatively happy so I’ll go with it. Seriously, human eyebrows shouldn’t be able to show that much emotion, like how. “I’m glad,” he said, expression softening into raw affection. “He’s . . . Well, I told you. He’s a better man than I am. But I don’t think—Tony, whatever I said back then, I don’t think he’s better than you.”

“Eh,” Tony said, wobbling his hand. “Sounds like he spent his teenage years rescuing cats from trees and you from fights and looking after his sisters. I was partying and building weapons prototypes, and that’s after an entirely-too-young stint at college, also partying, plus having sex with people almost five years older than me. One of these is probably more worthwhile—y’know, just a guess. And I’m pretty sure Stark Industries’ kill count is actually higher than the Winter Soldier’s,” he added, very very lightly, so Steve would know to not go there.

“You’re a good person, Tony,” Steve said after a moment, looking confused. “You didn’t— I can’t tell you how to live your life. And I really can’t say much about it before we met, since I was, y’know, frozen.” He gave a weird little smile.

“This isn’t about me,” Tony said, waving it aside. “My point is, I didn’t mean to be an ass. Well, okay, I did, but I thought I was just being generally obnoxious, not specifically obnoxious. And, uh, other stuff. Last year.” Talk around the point! Oh yes. Tony was a master of talking around the point. “Barnes is, uh. A good guy. I shouldn’t’ve—yeah.”

“He is,” Steve said, expression softening. “He’s always been . . . he’s a great guy. I know there’s”—he swallowed—“there’s a lot else there now, a lot he’s been through and all the ways that’s changed him, but he’s still that person underneath.”

“Yep,” Tony said. “Assassins are like onions. They have layers.”

There was a pause.

“Uh, that’s a reference—”

“Oh, no, I got that one,” Steve said. “Peter suggested it. I’m just wondering which of of us is Donkey in this scenario.”

Surprised, Tony barked a laugh.

Steve’s mock-thoughtful expression turned thoughtful for real: thoughtful and a little sad.

“You know, it’s kind of—it’s too bad that— Any person is going to have layers, but he used to be . . . more obvious. More open. He always used to be the one of the two of us who made a good impression. It’s strange, now, that it’s the other way. It makes sense, I suppose, but it . . . .” He shook his head. “Like this. I can’t say what I mean unless it’s about fighting for something. Bucky’s always been better at that. Better at making friends.” He gave Tony a very quick look. “He seems to have made some here.”

“Yeah, Pepper kind of decides to be friends with someone and it happens,” Tony said. “And the kid likes him. Think Bruce does, too.”

Steve nodded. “He looks happier these days.” Then, hesitantly, “He’s told me about your lab. Well—mostly about the car. He likes it down there with you.”

"Yeah, he knows what he’s doing, so he’s not annoying to be around,” Tony said.

“He’s having fun. I think—I know it’s been a very long time since he could do that.”

Tony shifted, uncomfortable.

“Thank you for giving him a chance,” Steve finished softly. “I’m sure he’s already said something, but that’s between you two. I . . . I’m just glad I get to see him smile like that again.” And he smiled, wistful and bright, and Tony thought, huh.

“Sure,” he said aloud. “I mean, I’m getting a revamped car out of it, so.”

“Don’t link up FRIDAY with it,” Steve said. Tony gave him a side-eye. That wasn’t Steve’s earnest voice, it was an “earnest” voice.

“Why not?”

“If the thing has a personality, I’m pretty sure he’ll marry it,” Steve said, laughter in his voice, and seriously, the whole “not outing people to their secret crushes” business was a pain, because he could have had the best comeback to that if he didn’t have to not spill the beans. This was a crime against repartee.

“Please,” he said instead. “While I’m on the market?”

“But you’re not,” Steve countered. “You have Pepper.”

“We can work something out,” Tony retaliated, waggling his eyebrows. “Pepper’s never minded making out in a car.” Aaaand yup, the hint of a sort-of-threesome made Steve turn bright pink and hopefully completely derailed him from thinking about Barnes. Tony was the best anti-wingman. Ugh. Waste of his talents, honestly.

“So yeah,” he continued. “I think—we’re getting along okay. And I just—” This was what he’d really come here for, and he really did not want to say it. But he thought of that first day again, looking down at the man sitting in the grass in front of him, saying I didn’t want to die, but he’s worth it and feeling his heart twist.

Steve was leaning forward, attentive, apparently catching Tony’s change in mood.

“Look,” Tony said. “Loki made me say some dumb shit too. I shouldn’t have said that about cutting the wire, and I shouldn’t have yelled at you about Coulson either, even though we’re not soldiers—you are, but literally everyone else is a spy or a scientist or a wizard or something, or whatever Thor is, even Rhodey is Air Force—” He broke off, gesturing impatiently. “That wasn’t your point, your point was losing someone, I knew that, I was a dick. I was sad. And I didn’t know that from your point of view he’d just died, like, two months ago. So.” He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “I’m sorry.”

Steve just blinked at him, mouth actually open. Seriously, did this guy ever express emotions in any non-endearingly-exaggerated way? Was that part of the serum too? Perfect muscles, perfect facial mobility?

He’d done what he came here for. Tony stood up, pushing the chair back. “Anyway. I’ll let you get back to your . . . And I have a stuff . . . thing . . . to do—”

“Tony,” Steve said, reaching out for him, and yes Tony could dodge and slip away into the hallway and be done, but sneaking away from sick people also felt douchey and he was trying to not be a douche. So he stopped.

“Look,” Steve said, taking a deep breath. “I think we’ve—we’ve been talking past each other for a long time. You—back in Siberia, you said I was your friend. I didn’t know you thought that.”

Tony blinked.

“I thought you mostly just . . . put up with me. Followed my judgment in the field, maybe—more or less—but not that we were really friends. Can we fix this? Do you want to try to be friends”—here he seemed to pause for the slightest moment—“again?”

“Thought that’s what we were doing, Capsicle,” Tony said.

~

Tony had Happy call the kid to come pick up another new version of his suit. He was over all the time anyway—might as well speed up production on the spider suits while he was able to test and return them quickly. Machine-washable was apparently a very useful feature, so he kept that, which meant figuring out better ways to integrate the technology into the suit and—

Really what he’d like to do was give the kid a suit of nanobots. But his own wasn’t quite there yet, and he didn’t want to give the kid anything he hadn’t beta’d extensively.

FRIDAY let him know when the kid showed up. Apparently he went directly to Steve and Barnes’ floor now rather than climb the extra two stories up to the observation deck and then hop back down; either he or Barnes had figured out that FRIDAY’s security sensors would pick him up wherever on the building he was. That, or FRIDAY had just told him. Tony wasn’t sure.

The kid had been pretty excited to see him last time, so Tony brought the suit in person again. Honestly, the kid always seemed to be pretty excited, but whatever. It was good when people appreciated his tech.

“Hey kid,” he yelled, stepping out of the elevator. Two things registered at once. First, it smelled really good. Second, Steve was sitting—well, lying, really, but propped up by pillows—on the couch nearest the kitchen, reading what looked like some goofy paperback children’s book about Girl Scout camp.

“Hi, Tony,” he said, peering over the top of the book.

At the same time, there was a loud yelp from the direction of the kitchen. Tony swung around in alarm; that was Peter.

“What are you doing? Grab an oven mitt!”

A laugh that had to be Barnes. “I don’t need an oven mitt. I am an oven mitt.”

“Oh.” For once the kid sounded subdued. “Right. Duh.” Then: “you don’t feel heat?”

“He feels heat,” Tony said, walking further into the living room, into sight of the kitchen. “It just doesn’t register as pain unless it’d damage the arm itself. And vibranium isn’t bothered by anything you can get on a regular oven.”

“Mr. Stark!” the kid said, scrambling to his feet—he’d been sitting at the plain, square wooden table that lived at the far end of the kitchen/dining room area. There was a spray of papers across the table and a graphing calculator on top of a textbook.

“What’s this?” Tony asked, blank.

“I’ve got AP tests this week,” Peter said. “I’m studying and they’re getting caught up.”

“Isn’t there still school for, like, a month?”

“APs are earlier than finals,” the kid said.

Barnes’ head came into view as he straightened up from the oven, holding a pan of cookies. He set it down on the granite countertop and nodded at Tony.

“Hey, Stark. You want any?”

Against his better judgment, Tony leaned forward. “Is that chocolate chip?” Then he saw the five cutting boards laid out end to end, filled with cooling cookies. “Are those all chocolate chip?”

Steve laughed softly behind him. “I told you you got it wrong.”

Barnes glared. “Look, it was a 50/50 chance.”

“They tried to remember the recipe one of Bucky’s sisters always made,” Peter said in an undertone, coming over to stand by Tony. “They knew she made a double recipe, but couldn’t remember if the nine cups of flour was when it was already doubled or not.”

“Hey,” Barnes said, pointing a spatula at him. “I made you cookies because Steve and I owed you cookies. You’re the winner here.”

“How’ll I get them all home?” Peter asked, wide-eyed.

“They pack tight,” Barnes said, popping one into his mouth whole.

“This is unnervingly domestic,” Tony said to no one in particular. He snatched a cookie from the still-cooling pan. The chocolate was still melty but not burning. Perfect.

“So, Capsicle,” he said around the cookie, turning around. “How are you at”—he squinted at the stuff on the table—“physics?”

“Good enough to calculate rebound angles,” Steve said cheerfully. Fair point. “Hopeless at the rest. That’s why I’m reading comics.”

“You’re not hopeless,” Peter said. “You just don’t care.”

“I thought you were supposed to be upstairs,” Tony said accusatorily. “You haven’t moved back in yet, have you?”

“Tomorrow,” Steve said. “But today, apparently, I’m well enough to walk down a hallway to the elevator and back.”

“He’s not playing hooky,” Barnes said. “Docs cleared it.”

“I knew that,” Tony heard himself say. “You’d be yelling at him otherwise.”

There was a pause.

“He’s got your number,” Steve said.

“He’s got yours.”

“Gimme another cookie?”

“No.”

As the world’s oldest second-graders continued to bicker (“Come get one yourself if you want it.” “I’m not supposed to walk too much.”), Tony turned to Peter. “Uh, here,” he said, thrusting the new suit into his hands. “Better night vision, more breathable, still machine-washable. And I can have the cookies sent by courier if you don’t want to carry them.”

Peter hugged the package to his chest. “Awesome! Thank you, Mr. Stark! But, uh, don’t worry about the cookies. If they fit in my backpack, they’ll get home fine.”

“How do you get home?” Steve asked from behind them.

Peter suddenly looked cagey. “The train.”

“In that get-up?”

“Uh, well . . . .” Peter shuffled his feet. “I’m not actually inside the train . . . .”

“You what?” Bucky said sharply.

“I mean, I have my student MetroCard and everything, I’m not really ripping off the city, I just don’t want to have to carry around a backpack and find a place to change all the time, and the one time I did try to ride the train in the suit a bunch of tourists tried to take selfies with me and give me money and that was weird.”

He looked up to meet the very intense stares of all three adults and yelped.

Tony frowned. “Look, I’ve seen you on the news. I know you ride on top of the trains in Queens, but those are elevated trains, not actual subway-subways!”

“Well, the M goes over a bridge to get here, and I can jump off before it gets underground. And I can even take the 7 and stuff that goes under the river. The subway ceilings are actually pretty high, have you noticed? I lie flat on top of the car. It’s fine.”

There was skeptical silence.

“I’ve been doing it for three weeks and nothing bad has happened,” he pointed out.

Tony glanced around. Barnes and Steve were looking at him like he was supposed to be the parent in this situation. Not fair.

“Your life, your choices,” he said. “Don’t do anything stupid. But don’t ride a train like that without the suit.” His head was already spinning with potential improvements. A nanotech neck-brace. Helmet. General shock absorption . . . .

The strange tension seemed to be broken. Peter sat down, munching on a cookie, and frowned at some kind of worksheet. Steve picked up his comic book-thing again. Barnes walked past and dropped a cookie on Steve’s face.

“Okay, this is just weird,” Tony muttered. “Too cozy. Everyone is cheerful. It’s like a fifties sitcom. Any minute now Mary Tyler Moore is going to come through here.”

“Who?” the other three asked at once.

~

The next day, Steve moved back onto his floor. Bucky had cleaned everything up and made sure that Steve’s books were back in his room—he’d finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy—and had stocked up on the kinds of food he remembered Steve liking both in Wakanda and back home.

They decided to celebrate with a movie on the large flat-screened television that was normally hidden discreetly behind a sliding door in the wall. Bucky hadn’t realized it was there for weeks—it was why he’d taken Peter up to the penthouse to watch It Happened One Night. Peter, of course, caught wind of the plan and demanded to know what movie they were going to watch.

“I don’t know,” Steve said. “You got any suggestions?”

“Have either of you seen How to Train Your Dragon yet?” he asked.

They hadn’t. Bucky mentioned the title to Pepper, who hadn’t seen it either, later that afternoon, and to Bruce, who’d said something about 3D breakthroughs. One of them must have told Stark, because that night, right about when Peter hopped in through the window—it was Friday, one of the nights Spider-Man patrolled late—he showed up in the elevator.

“I come in peace,” he said, when Steve shot him a startled look. He lifted a giant bag of unpopped popcorn. “Someone show me how the hell this works when you don’t put it in the microwave.”

“Mr. Stark!” Peter said. “I, uh, didn’t know you were coming.”

“Well, apparently,” Stark said, “it’s movie night.”

He gave Steve a challenging glance. Steve was already in the kitchen, pulling out a large pot and oil for the popcorn. “If you want to know how to make real popcorn, Tony, come in here.”

“Technically, kid, you weren’t invited either,” Bucky said. Peter’s eyes got big.

“Uh, if you want me to leave—”

“No, this is—” He looked around. Like the afternoon before, it was almost strange—little undercurrents of tension, of concern, of people paying maybe a little too much attention to each other, but nothing was on the surface. Nothing was bad. And as long as they all acted like this was normal, this was fine, maybe it could be. “This is . . . good. You’re supposed to see movies with people.”

Peter didn’t want to let it go, though. “Are you sure? All of you? I mean, I could—”

“This is weird, kid, but it’s a good kind of weird,” Stark said. He turned back to Steve. “Now don’t tell me you actually just—won’t the popcorn go everywhere?”

“Yeah, that’s why you use a lid, Tony.”

~

The movie was charming. There was no other word for it. Bucky had always liked “a boy and his dog” type of stories growing up, mostly because he’d desperately wanted a dog when he was about seven or eight. This was the same thing. Well.

Mostly.

Partway through, he noticed Steve drawing, the sketchbook balanced on the arm of the couch. It was a rough drawing of the main character, the child inventor, but something wasn’t quite right about the face. After a second, he realized it looked a lot like Stark. He snorted. Steve glanced over and saw him looking, rolled his eyes, and elbowed him in the ribs.

When the main character’s—mentor? friend?—told him that his father would like him better if he stopped “being all of you,” Stark stood up abruptly, muttered something about getting more popcorn, and walked off. Steve unobtrusively flipped to a new page in his sketchbook.

Stark came back a few minutes later, and did indeed have a new bowl of popcorn. The rest of the evening passed without incident.

The next morning, Steve’s sketchbook was open on the table. He’d drawn the main character again, but this time his eyes were wider and his hair messier, and he had some kind of complicated-looking grappling hook shooting mechanism strapped to his arm. He was looking at a drawing of a spaceship. Sitting beside him, equally intent, was a catlike black dragon, with blue eyes this time, and a metal tail.

Bucky smiled.

~

Hey,” Tony called across the workshop, “can you give me that wrench?”

Barnes looked up from the Thunderbird. Tony pointed with his chin toward the nearest worktable, where he’d set down the wrench when he first thought of exploring the nanobot injectors in the suit, which he now needed to open up juuuust a little bit more.

“In the middle of something here,” Barnes said. “Can’t Dum-E get it?”

“He’s in the middle of something too, and if I ask Dum-E to change tasks they’ll both go horribly wrong.” He re-focused on the nanoparticle buffers.

He heard footsteps, and then Barnes was just behind him, holding out the wrench. “I don’t like to be handed things,” Tony said absently.

Barnes made an incredulous, exasperated noise and walked away, still carrying the wrench.

Okay, maybe Tony had that coming.

Then there was a wooshing noise as something flew past his ear, followed by a clatter. Tony’s head jerked up and he yelped. Looking around frantically, he saw the wrench on the ground just past him, confirming his theory. He whipped around and glared at Barnes.

“What?” Barnes asked innocently. “I didn’t hand it to you.”

Tony sputtered. “You could have hit me!”

Barnes made a dismissive noise. “Sniper, remember? I know how to miss things.”

“You could have—” Tony looked around. There were a few other machines around him. “You could have broken something!”

“I know how to miss things,” Barnes repeated, looking insufferably smug.

Tony put his hands on his hips. “Alright, fine.” He snapped his fingers, pointing at the wrench, and Dum-E left his mostly-completed job of stacking paint cans in the corner. “Dum-E, gimme. Friday, calibrate.”

~

The elevator doors slid open and Pepper looked out onto a scene of pandemonium. Bucky and Tony, fully grown and otherwise usually sane men, appeared to be throwing tools at each other, with holographic targets dancing across the room and some kind of ongoing point tally displayed near the windows. Dum-E was rolling in circles, emitting high-pitched beeps, either delighted or alarmed.

“What,” Pepper said, pitching her voice to carry, “is going on here?”

The chaos stopped abruptly.

Bucky gave her the most intense faux-innocent look she’d ever seen and pointed at Tony, like a child caught misbehaving and blaming someone else. “He doesn’t like to be handed things.”

Pepper nodded, enlightened. “The first time he told me that, I almost threw a clipboard at him.”

“You what?!” Tony yelped.

She smiled at him. “Almost.” Then she looked back at Bucky. “Of course,” she said, mildly, “I couldn’t kill him with a clipboard.”

“I bet I could,” Bucky said, mock-thoughtful—then looked quickly between the two of them, tensing slightly.

“Hey!” Tony yelped. “Don’t give her ideas!”

“—Just like I can not kill you with a wrench,” Bucky concluded, smirking again.

Pepper sighed. “I was going to invite both of you upstairs for lunch, but . . . .”

~

The next time Peter showed up, Bucky did a double-take. It was only mid-afternoon, as usual, but the kid looked exhausted.

“You alright?” Bucky asked.

“Yeah,” Peter said, dumping his backpack on the floor by the kitchen table, “just tired. I was out late last night. I think I stopped some guys from mugging someone, or they might have just been, like, trying to scare people for fun. I dunno.” He flopped down in one of the chairs and yawned hugely. “But I didn’t get much homework done, so I have a ton to do today.” He pulled small wad of tightly folded fabric out of the backpack. “Would you give this to Mr. Stark next time you see him?”

“Sure,” Bucky said, accepting the suit.

“Oh,” Peter said, suddenly contrite. “Uh, is it still okay if I do my homework here? I just can’t talk much today, I’m sorry.”

“That’s fine.” Bucky tried not to smile as he turned toward the kitchen. “Back home, people were always dropping in and out. I don’t mind. Are you hungry? I’ve got some cookies. Peanut butter, this time.”

“You are the best former assassin ever,” Peter said.

Bucky snickered and went to get the cookies.

~

About an hour later, as Bucky sat reading in the living room, he realized he hadn’t heard the scratch of a pencil or the ruffling of pages in a few minutes. Instead, if he listened carefully, he could hear deep, even breathing. He stood up and walked quietly into the kitchen.

Peter was, in fact, asleep, head pillowed on his arm. Several papers were spread across the table. The empty cookie plate sat at his elbow atop a textbook. Bucky wondered for a second if he should wake the kid up—that couldn’t be comfortable—but if he was tired enough to fall asleep that way, he probably needed the rest. He smiled and went back to his book.

~

Not long later, a blaring, jangly tune broke the silence. Bucky jolted to his feet before he could place the sound as a ringtone. He slipped back into the kitchen. It was, in fact, coming from Peter’s phone on the table. MAY, the screen read.

Peter muttered in his sleep but didn’t stir. Bucky walked past, scooped the phone up, and ducked into the hallway.

“Hello, Peter’s phone. Peter’s asleep right now and I didn’t want to wake him up.”

“Who’s this?”

Bucky paused, suddenly unsure what to say. Peter had mentioned that his aunt knew he was Spider-Man, but he didn’t know where she was or if the phone was secure. “My name’s James. Ah, I’m at Stark Tower. I’m sort of associated with the . . .” what had Peter called his cover, again? “. . . the Stark Internship. Peter’s fine, but he was doing his homework here today and fell asleep, and it looked like he needed it. I take it you’re his aunt?”

“Peter’s at Stark Tower?” She didn’t sound reassured. Bucky bit his lip. Maybe this was a bad idea.

“Yep. I know he usually, uh, works offsite, but he’s been checking in about a few things recently and—”

“Hold on.” To Bucky’s enhanced hearing, there was a sound of things shuffling around and the muffled click of a lock, then more rustling and the lock again. Someone entering an apartment, or perhaps stalling for time. May sighed into the phone. “Okay, James, whoever you are. I’m only going to ask this once. Where is Peter?”

“He’s here!” Bucky practically yelped, because that voice was just a shade too close to his own mother about to skin someone alive. “He’s at Stark Tower and he’s fine, he’s asleep, I promise. I didn’t want to wake him up so I took his phone. I really didn’t mean to worry you. I can go wake him up if you’d like.”

“Do that.” The phone practically dripped ice.

“Yes ma’am.”

Bucky walked quickly back to the living room and gently shook Peter’s shoulder, making sure the phone was on and angled toward him, and everything he said would be audible. “Peter? Hey, kid, c’mon, wake up.”

“Mmf?” Peter lifted his head blearily. A sheet of lined paper briefly stuck to his cheek. “Oh, man. Sorry, Bu—”

“Your aunt called,” Bucky said over him. “I grabbed your phone so you wouldn’t wake up, but then she called again, and I answered, and—” he held the phone out and grimaced. “That may have been a mistake. Would you please tell her that you’re alive and okay?”

“Oh geez,” Peter mumbled, flushing a bit. He grabbed the phone and held it to his ear, turning away. “May?” he said in a low voice. Bucky caught a few clipped, anxious words that he tried not to parse as he too turned away to let Peter and his aunt have a private conversation. He picked up the book he’d been reading—something called The Dispossessed, which sounded like one of the union pamphlets Steve would work on sometimes, but was actually some kind of science fiction—and tried to immerse himself in that.

It didn’t work too well. With his hearing, it was difficult not to eavesdrop.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

A rush of relieved and recriminatory sound.

“Whoa, May, slow down. Sorry—sorry. I just woke up. Really, everything’s okay. —James? Wh—oh. He’s the guy I told you about, remember? From the veteran’s program? —Yeah, I promise, it’s fine. —No, I was doing my homework. I guess he thought I needed to rest. He told me I looked like crap today.” A laugh. “Probably worse than this morning. —Really, May. He’s good people.”

“Tell her I’m sorry for scaring her,” Bucky called from the couch.

“He says sorry for answering the phone and freaking you out,” Peter said obediently, turning to glance at Bucky. He smirked. “And, uh, he looks scared to death. What did you say to him?”

“It’s not what she said, it’s how she said it,” Bucky muttered, burying his face in the book again.

Peter was listening again. “No, he—he knows about my project, remember? He’s fine. Mr. Stark knows him. That’s why he’s working with the internship. No, I’m not in trouble, the project’s going fine, I’m just getting some training from, uh, lab assistants. . . . Yeah. Yeah, he’s cool. Don't worry, 'kay? —Um? My history project, mostly. And some, uh, chemistry homework, but that’s what I fell asleep doing, so… Yeah, okay. Love you too. Bye.” He lowered the phone and poked it, presumably hanging up, then covered his face in one hand and sighed.

“Sorry,” Bucky said again. “I really was just trying to help.”

Peter looked over at him. He looked as embarrassed as Bucky felt. “No, I’m sorry. She just—she worries about me, you know.”

“I should have thought it through. She knows you’re Spider-Man, you could be getting yourself into trouble.”

“I mean, she’d probably be like that anyway. Stranger danger and stuff, you know.”

“...What?”

“Yeah, you know, don’t talk to adults you don’t know ‘cause they might kidnap you and stuff.”

Bucky stared at him. “Have things gotten that bad in the future?!”

“What? I, uh, I don’t think so? I wouldn't really know. I’ve only ever lived now. But, um, I think what parents do has probably changed from whatever you remember.” He shrugged. “People keep writing books and talking on the news and stuff about how kids aren’t self-sufficient or anything anymore, and we can’t ‘deal with adversity,’ and that stuff. But they’re the ones who don’t want us to talk to anyone we don’t already know, so I don’t get what they think we’re supposed to do.”

“. . . I think you’re doing fine, kid,” Bucky said, for lack of any other response. Peter grinned.

“Thanks. And, um, I appreciate the thought, but maybe let her wake me up next time.”

“I will,” Bucky said fervently. Then he raised his eyebrows. “You told her about me?”

“Um, kind of.” It was Peter’s turn to fidget. “I told her about you without mentioning any details, sort of.”

“How’s that?”

“Well—I told her that I’d be going over into Manhattan a bit. I didn’t say anything about Steve, don’t worry. I just talked about the new suits from Mr. Stark, and maybe doing some Spider-Man stuff so that I’m not just in Queens. But when I started coming over more often, I told her I’d met someone at the Tower when I was dropping off a suit—so that was true—and you knew that I was Spider-Man, but I trusted you and everything was fine and I showed you how my web-shooters work. And she was kind of all ‘how can you be sure you can trust this guy,’ and I said—I wasn’t really thinking—I said ‘he’s done the same kind of thing, and he’s really careful about not hurting people,’ and she wanted to know what that meant, so I said, you know, the important stuff, without mentioning the other important stuff.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said that you’re around the tower a lot and you’re a veteran and you like science fiction,” Peter said. “And maybe kind of implied-slash-suggested there was a pipeline to Stark Industries jobs for ex-military people. Well, actually, there is—I Googled it and that’s been around since Stark Industries still made weapons, and it’s about the only thing from back then they didn’t get rid of. But I definitely gave May the idea that you’re part of it.”

Bucky blinked. “Good thinking, kid.”

Peter looked at him nervously. “You don’t mind that I told her? Or that I lied?”

“I’m kind of touched that you’d tell her about me at all.”

“Well, yeah,” Peter said. “You’re my friend. And I needed to say something about who I was looking for movie suggestions for.”

They were silent for about a minute, Bucky turning the thought over in his mind: the “well, obviously,” tone of you’re my friend.

“I’m glad Stark doesn’t make weapons anymore,” Peter said abruptly. “The company, I mean. I never really—I mean, I always thought Iron Man was amazing and super cool and stuff, and he protects people, and that’s—yeah. But, like, this fall I started thinking about how he can only build all that because he’s super-rich, and he’s super-rich because he . . . made things that kill people. And that’s kind of . . . .” He huddled down into the couch, hugging his knees to his chest. “He can help people because of killing people? That feels wrong. Except I know he didn’t mean for good people to die and someone started stealing his stuff and using it, but it’s—messy.”

“He knows that,” Bucky said, thinking about waking up to find Stark standing in his room, staring at him like he wasn’t sure he was real—and then later, shaking hands wrapped around a cup of coffee. “It bothers him, how messy it is.”

“You think?” Peter asked. There was worry and uncertainty and relief in his voice.

“I’m positive,” Bucky said. “Look at the stuff he does now, huh? All the different things the company does, and the”—the Accords—“the way he was worried about me being out there, another weapon that wasn’t being kept track of. —No, stop, it’s fair to say that’s what I was. And the way he’s looking out for you, and letting me and Steve stay here—all of that—I bet you it’s about trying to not do that again.”

Peter sagged back against the back of the couch, putting his legs back down. “Okay. Good.”

~

Pepper knew Bucky was catching up on modern music. She’d actually made a few recommendations to him a few weeks after he and Steve had arrived at the tower, and she spent enough time on their floor to hear a sampling of the kinds of things he listened to, even if he turned some of it off when she came in. It was a charmingly eclectic mix, really: lots of music from when she’d been growing up and from what her parents liked, either fun, silly songs or softer, more poetic classic not-quite-rock, with a surprising amount of early 2000s punk music mixed in.When she’d asked about some of Steve’s favorites, he said he could take Bob Dylan, but only in small doses, “and it’s a good thing the future has headphones, or I’d have broken Steve’s computer somewhere in Uganda a few months back.” He also seemed to enjoy some newer pop music on the same principle. Mostly, she didn’t comment, and let him figure out what he liked and didn’t and let him enjoy it.

But the song he was listening to one morning, when Steve was upstairs and she came to keep Bucky company, was something she just had to comment on. She caught it at the end of the first verse.

. . . I don't know where I'm running now, I'm just on the run

Running on empty

Running blind

Running into the sun

But I'm running behind

When the song finished, she looked at Bucky. He’d fallen silent when he noticed her listening. “That’s very poignant in light of, well, everything,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

He shrugged. “I like the song. Like a lot of his stuff, actually. Doesn’t mean I’m actually that—confused, about everything.”

“Good,” Pepper said. She took another sip of her coffee.

~

“I know what you’re doing,” Bucky called as Pepper turned to leave.

She turned back. He couldn’t read the look she gave him. “And what’s that?”

“Making friends. Talking about music. Distracting me so I don’t just sit by Steve all day. You think I don’t know how that works? I’m the one who dragged the idiot out to a bar when he was moping, or made him go outside with me sometimes when his ma was sick. And don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it, but—”

She shook her head. “It’s more than that.”

“No, I remember, fuck ’em and all that.” He grinned. “I admire that. But if that turns into a chore . . .” He sobered quickly. “It’s not really sticking it to them if you’re sick of me. You don’t have to take care of me, you know? I’ll be fine.”

Pepper’s expression was definitely amused. “Alright, Bucky, first—how many times did Steve use that exact line on you?”

Bucky blinked. “Um.”

“Second—”

Bucky’s brain caught up. “No, wait. That’s different. Steve—that’s completely different.”

“How?” she challenged.

“You don’t—it’s not the same kind of being friends. You don’t know me like I know him.”There's things you do for people you love that you don't do for the international fugitive living in your building.

“I know you a bit. I’m trying to know more.”

“That’s not what I—look. Steve and I have known each other forever. All of it goes both ways. He’s taken care of me too. He did even back then, even if he doesn’t believe it. You, I just . . . I don’t want to be a burden.”

Now Pepper looked angry. “You’re not. You ought to know that.”

“A charity case, then.” Bucky did his best to keep his voice even, but that scraped against some stubborn remnant of pride. “You must have things you’d rather do, people you’d rather spend time with. All I’m saying is that you don’t have to pass that up for me. I enjoy it, but I can’t see what you’re getting out of it.”

“How about a conversation with someone who’s never been part of my job?” she shot back. “Or an hour watching old TV shows with someone who never treats me like I’m incompetent? Or who knows what Killian did to me and doesn’t treat me like I’m a fragile flower or a ticking bomb?” She took a step closer and jabbed a finger into his chest. “Or one of the few men I’ve ever met who has never suggested I got to be CEO by sleeping with Tony?”

“People say that?”

“Yes.”

She rolled her eyes, as though it ought to be obvious. Apparently the future wasn't all that much better than back home.

“ . . . What do they say when you set them on fire?”

She sighed. “Nice try. I live with Tony. Diversions aren’t going to work on me.”

“I—”

“No. You listen.” There was something searingly familiar about that, something that made Bucky feel all of six years old. Pepper really was like Steve’s mom sometimes.

He fell silent.

“Look,” Pepper said. “I haven’t been spending time with you because I think you need it or because I want to make a point. That’s how it started, maybe, but I like you, Bucky. You’re funny and kind. You’re someone to talk to who doesn’t have anything to do with my job, which really is a blessing, but besides that you’re the only person I can talk to who understands some of the rest of my life. Not just—” a gesture, a lash of flame— “and not just dealing with our idiots, either—having our lives turned upside-down. I like hearing what you think about that. I want to be your friend. I thought we were friends.”

“Oh,” Bucky said quietly.

“Yeah, ‘oh.’”

“I would like that,” he said, a little sheepishly. “I—I’ve been liking that, I guess. That is, if you’re su—”

“If you finish that sentence, I will set you on fire.” She glared at him, exasperated. “You’re as bad as Steve.”

“Sorry.” He shook his head, disgusted with himself.

She raised her hand warningly. It glowed red. “Same if you go around feeling pointlessly guilty after you’ve decided to fix what you did wrong.”

“Uncle! Uncle!”

~

About a week after Steve moved back onto his own floor and the accidental movie night that had come with it, someone—Peter was pretty sure it was Steve—decided to have an official movie night. Mr. Stark was coming again. Professor Banner didn’t seem to have decided. But when Bucky casually added that Pepper—like Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries—was coming, Peter choked on his sandwich.

(Bucky had started making sandwiches when he came over to do his homework. It was a little weird and really nice. Bucky’d watched him eat five or six cookies in a row once; he’d looked really distracted and thoughtful and then asked him if he usually ate a lot. Peter realized he was trying to figure out if Peter was like Bucky and Steve—or how Steve normally was, anyway—or how Steve since becoming Captain America normally was—and needed tons and tons of calories to function. Peter didn’t actually know. It wasn’t like the spider had handed him an FAQ before it bit him. “I can usually eat a lot?” he offered. “But so can, like, Ned and Flash and most of the people I know.” Bucky’d muttered something about teenagers and started making the sandwiches.)

Pepper Potts?” Peter said, when he could breathe again.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, looking confused. “She lives here, you know.”

“I know. I mean, I knew that, but—Aunt May has the biggest girl crush on her. Or, I dunno, empowered-badass-business-woman crush. She read the profiles the New York Times did on her and the Stark STEM School program last year and was like ‘I want to be that cool.’ I think she’s the reason May was excited about me getting the Stark Internship, you know, when she thought that’s what what it was—not Mr. Stark, even though he showed up in person and ate her date loaf. I wish I could tell her about this.” He gulped as a thought struck him. “Uh, how do you even act around a CEO?”

Bucky never explained why that made him laugh so hard.

~

About halfway through the movie, Peter realized he was an idiot and had made a horrible decision.

The Princess Bride was funny and goofy and a classic and good for a big group of people. Like the old grandpa said, it had a little bit of everything—that meant everybody ought to like it. But unfortunately, Peter realized as the albino and Count Rugen dragged Wesley into the Pit of Despair, that meant it had really bad stuff in it.

Shit, shit, shit, he thought, sneaking a glance sideways at Bucky, who was sitting next to him. Oh no. Here, how about we watch a movie about torture? He started to sweat. There’s torture and loss and death and later there’s HELLO, YOU KILLED MY FATHER, PREPARE TO DIE. Bucky and Mr. Stark are both going to just love that.

Idiot. Horrible decision.

Just as he was about ready to jump up and turn the TV off, or spill the popcorn, or fake his own death, or something, a metal finger poked him in the ribs. He looked over at Bucky, who was still looking at the screen, other hand full of popcorn. “Hilariously fake,” he muttered as Wesley was strapped into The Machine. “Relax.”

Peter wasn’t really able to until it was time to have fun storming the castle. But Bucky seemed to be fine, and so did Mr. Stark, even when they got to the big sword fight between Inigo Montoya and Count Rugen. Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts were holding hands, but they’d been doing that for about half the movie, at least since the ROUSes. Bucky threw popcorn at Steve’s head at one point. Everything seemed to be fine.

When the final credits played, Peter got up to turn the lights on—or tried to, but Bucky shoved him back into the couch and yelled, “FRIDAY, lights,” around a mouthful of popcorn.

Right. Cool AI living in the tower.

As the lights faded back on, Steve started to laugh.

“What?” Bucky asked.

“Your face,” Steve said. “You’re such a romantic.”

Bucky did look kind of dopily happy. “I just like satisfying endings.”

“Sure,” Steve said dryly. He looked around at the room. “He’s a hopeless romantic. Don’t let him tell you otherwise.”

“So are you, pal,” Bucky said, poking him with one foot. “Those books you like are chivalric romances. The difference is just what’s being romanticized. You like it when it’s about honor and courage and all that crap instead of actual romance, that’s all.”

Mr. Stark snorted.

“Uh-huh,” Steve said.

“No,” Ms. Potts said, “I think he has a point.”

Bucky grinned. “Don’t tell me you weren’t rooting for Inigo Montoya more than anybody else.”

“I heard you whispering the line along with him,” Mr. Stark said, dusting popcorn salt off his hands.

Steve was a little red. “It’s a good story line. He’s a very compelling character.”

“They all are,” Peter said, grinning, although he was never really sure whether he ought to jump in when adults were teasing each other. “I heard you saying it too.”

Steve groaned as Bucky pumped his fist in triumph.

~

A few days later, Peter arrived at the tower after school having broken up a scuffle between two groups of junior high school-ish kids along the way.

“It wasn’t a big deal or anything,” he said to Bucky, “but they were—I swear I think they were fighting over favorite bands, but they were actually pulling hair and stuff, and I dropped into the middle of it and pulled the main two apart”—it was still super cool to him that he was strong enough to do that—“and so, yeah, I broke up a fight.”

Bucky frowned.

“What?”

“You did it like that?”

Peter shrugged. He wasn’t sure if it was just like he’d pantomimed, but—“Close enough.”

Bucky drummed his fingers against the kitchen counter. “Peter, would— Do you actually know how to fight? How to stand, how to use your opponent’s weight against them, how to throw a punch?”

“Uh, no.” Peter leaned against a chair. “Does it matter?”

Yes,” Bucky said emphatically. “You can’t just rely on being stronger and faster than people think.”

“Why not? It’s worked so far.”

“That’s what Steve does, and you knew to go for his legs.”

“Ohhhh.”

“Right. Besides, what are you gonna do if somebody manages to actually catch you and stick something heavy on top of you? Something you can’t just muscle your way out of?” His voice had changed, a little more serious, like a teacher. “You want to be able to trick your way out, or not end up in that position in the first place.”

Pillars falling. Concrete. Stuck, squashed, hard to breathe— “Got it,” Peter said. He wiped his palms on his pants. “Okay. Teach me.”

~

The elevator dinged. “Can I come in?” Barnes asked.

Tony looked up from his workbench. “Yeah, sure. FRIDAY, go to old geezer music.”

“You don’t have to,” Barnes said. “Uh, FRIDAY, will you come up with a playlist we can both live with?”

“Already done,” FRIDAY said, sounding smug.

Barnes grinned crookedly. “Thanks, doll.”

“...Are you flirting with my AI?” Tony demanded. “Dirty pool. You’re not even into women.”

“Actually, Boss, what matters is whether or not he’s into artificial intelligences.”

Tony snickered—atta girl, FRIDAY—but Barnes just grinned. “You’ve seen the kinds of books I read, sweetheart. Lots of science fiction. Buy me a drink and we’ll go from there.” Tony choked on his coffee.

“Unfortunately for you, I’m not interested in wetware,” FRIDAY said loftily. Tony kept coughing.

Bucky waggled his metal fingers in a gesture Tony’s brain really didn’t want to interpret. Unfortunately, the eyebrows and the grin were very clear. “Aw, baby, I’m not squishy everywhere.”

“Brain bleach,” Tony groaned, wrenching his eyes back to his workbench. “Brain bleach . . . I’m a genius, I can make brain bleach. I have to make brain bleach.”

Barnes snickered as Tony clutched his head.

~

“Can I ask you something?” Barnes asked, a few hours later. Tony looked up briefly from the hologram he was working on.

“Uh, sure.”

“Does it— Does everyone keep getting younger all the time, or does that level off somewhere?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the kid.” Bucky gestured toward the holographic display in a corner of the room where Tony had been playing with nanoparticle enhancement ideas for the Spider-Man suit. “He’s great, but he’s definitely a kid. I started really noticing I was older than that, oh, pretty early in the war—some of the guys weren’t much older than that. Some of them weren’t older than that.” He scowled. “Steve’s not the only one who tried to lie to enlist. Some of those poor bastards got away with it. –And it’s not just other people. I remember me that age. I had no idea about anything. And I knew that when I was twenty, and then when I was twenty-three I realized I was full of shit when I was twenty, too. Does that ever stop?”

“. . . Are you asking me ’cause I’m old?” Tony asked.

Barnes shrugged. “Older’n me, at least. Probably.”

“Huh.” Tony frowned, biting back the “you’re in your nineties, old man” that was his first instinct to say. “Probably?”

“I, uh, don’t actually know,” Barnes admitted quietly. “It seems fair to skip the time I was frozen, but I don’t know how long that was. Hydra didn’t actually keep records of how long each mission was. And I don’t know how long it took them to do that, freeze me, in the first place. Best guess is I’m somewhere between thirty-five and forty.”

Tony glared into his holographic mock-up. Hydra was sheer evil, obviously, but it was the stupid minor side-effects of sheer evil that kept tripping him up. He might have said he was thirty-nine for more years than he cared to count, but actually not knowing how old you were was—that would suck. That, in fact, was bullshit, and he was getting mad all over again.

“I know where Pierce is buried,” he said, and his voice sounded high, tight, not convincingly offhand even to his own ears. “I have 56 million Twitter followers and know some great DJs. I can have the population of a small city literally dance on his grave on short notice. Y’know. If you want.”

He didn’t know what reaction he was expecting, but it was not a small, strangled noise. He glanced over sharply and—

The Winter Soldier was giggling. Bent over, leaning on his work table, laughing in the honest, slightly shocked way only true surprise can produce. “I don’t know why the hell Howard didn’t like you,” he said, once he had himself halfway under control again. “You’re great.” And then the laughter died away completely, and his eyes were wide and almost scared—

Nope. Tony was not doing this dance again. “I dunno,” he said, as casually as he could mention. “I’m pretty awesome.”

Barnes cracked a grin again, but, after a second, added, “Sorr—”

“Nope!” Tony half-shouted. “Nope nope, not doing that, not doing feelings right now, feelings bad.” And because that, for some reason, looked like it was about to set Bucky off laughing again, he hurried on. “So. Feeling old. Other people not being old. Uh.” He took a deep breath. “I was really stupid before what happened in Afghanistan. Since then, I realize about every year or two that I was really dumb a year or two ago. Or at least did one really big thing.” He looked at Barnes sideways out of half-closed eyes, saw Bucky pause as the implication sank in.

He was rewarded with a small, unguarded smile.

“Do you know how old Peter actually is, by the way?” Barnes asked after a moment.

“Ehh, not really,” Tony said. “He’s still in school, because he lives with his aunt and talked about homework. Didn’t want to snoop too much. He’s his own person. He makes his own choices. I respect that. I’m not creepy.”

“Showing up where he lives and asking him to fly across the world isn’t creepy?”

“What? No! It’s an opportunity!”

“Mm.”

“Why? Do you know how old he is?”

“More or less.” He paused, tinkering with something. “He’s about ten years younger than Steve was when he signed up for the whole secret experiment thing. That’s only about five years ago, you know, for him. That’s how I got thinking about it.”

Tony blinked. He said something snappy, he was pretty sure, but he wasn’t paying much attention to it; his mind was busy turning inside-out. He’d always thought of Barnes as younger than him, but he’d never really thought of Steve that way. He’d never thought of Cap that way; he’d grown up with the idea of Cap, with Howard’s whole obsession and Captain America being the best a man could ever be and being, well, by default more mature than Tony could ever hope to be, if Tony had ever in his life hoped to be mature. And Steve was Cap, so Steve was The Authority Figure Who Knew Best, except when he didn’t and acted like he was young and stupid and—and maybe that was because he actually was young and stupid, some ways.

Howard had been dead thirty years and he was still giving Tony’s brain a wedgie.

Ugh.

Chapter Text

Bucky was in the kitchen putting away groceries when RAID tried again.

His phone rang. The phone was new: Stark had stopped mid-monologue in the workshop one day and said, “By the way, tell Cap that flip-phone was really offensively old. The one you called me on isn’t much better. If you need an untraceable phone, use this,” at which point he shoved what appeared to be some kind of prototype into Bucky’s hand and picked up his explanation of pseudo-nerve conduction where he’d left off. Bucky had taken the phone back to Steve’s floor, slightly bemused. After thinking for a while, he’d given Peter the number (“for emergencies and scheduling only, though; if you text me a hundred times a day, no more cookies”). If Stark said it was secure, it was—against everyone but Stark, at least.

Peter had immediately texted him a picture of Darth Vader holding a cookie, but hadn’t contacted him since then. A few people on the medical staff had it, too; he’d asked them to let him know if anything unusual happened when Steve was up for his treatments, like he was right now. Actually, he was probably done by now. He often stayed up there for an hour or so after, resting. Having your blood taken out and filtered was apparently pretty exhausting.

When the phone rang, Bucky jumped—then swore at his overreaction, closed the fridge, and headed over to the side table where the phone sat. He glanced at the number—Peter—and sighed in relief. Probably going to say he can’t make it for sparring today, he thought, and answered it.

“Bucky!” Peter said. His voice was distorted by wind, and he seemed to be breathing hard.

Bucky’s grip on the phone tightened. “What is it?”

“Uh, I don’t actually know if you do this kind of thing, but you’re the only person I have a number for. —Whoop!” A sound of crunching gravel. Then the kid was panting again, but there wasn’t the sound of wind. “There’s a giant robot in Central Park. It’s trying to head down Fifth, but I’m gonna and try to keep it in the park. But, uh, it’s big and it has—yeep!” More gravel sounds; then the wind was back. “Okay, yeah, it definitely has a ray gun. So if somebody can come and help out, that’d be really nice.”

“Kid, did you just roll off a roof?” Bucky demanded.

“It’s fine, it’s fine, I’m like forty stories up.”

“Hang up and fight the robot,” Bucky snapped. “I’ll be right there.”

He ran to Steve’s gym.

The gym, which had mostly been gathering dust, had suddenly seen a lot of action in the last week as he tried to teach Peter the basics of actually fighting. As soon as they’d started, he’d wondered how on Earth he’d missed how hopelessly untrained the kid was the first time they fought. (Raw, yes. Completely untutored? No.) Then he figured it out; Peter’s reflexes were superb, the kind it normally took years of experience to acquire. Peter had explained it as a “spider-sense,” which—after a lot of hand gestures and backflips and Bucky throwing oranges at him—seemed to mean he sense threats even when he wasn’t paying attention. Its range seemed to have something to do with the magnitude of the threat. A small fruit projectile zooming at him resulted in a quick dodge and, Peter said, a sensation similar to that of something bigger further away. “Like the red energy woman throwing cars at the airport,” he’d said. “They were far away but big, so I knew they were coming.”

Bucky hoped that the spider-sense registered whatever ray guns shot. That sounded uncomfortably like the old Hydra tanks.

In the back of the gym was a locked metal cabinet. “FRIDAY—” Bucky began. The lock clicked open before he could finish the request.

After the attack on the tower, he’d left his weapons in the storage area where he’d found them. He felt pretty sure he ought not have access to them; he’d surrendered, after all. And he hadn’t heard a thing about it until, a few days after that strange midnight conversation over coffee, Stark had turned to him as they were both leaving the workshop. “Hey,” he’d said in a kind of annoyed voice, “when you get a minute, can you get your crap out of my storage closet? It’s been, like, a month.”

Bucky was learning how to read Stark by then. He also was pretty sure about his translation of Stark’s grumbling about the “stupid waste of space” the giant underground firing range was now that Hawkeye was under house arrest, or farm arrest, somewhere with his family. He hadn’t been down to the firing range yet, but he’d moved his arsenal out of the penthouse lounge and down to Steve’s floor, where it had sat, untouched, until now.

What the hell do you bring to fight a giant robot? Bucky wasn’t sure, but it wasn’t like he was unused to carrying an excessive amount of weaponry. He eyed the black vest in the back of the cabinet, hand sliding down to the long-healed cut over his ribs. He’d need it, but the armor was noticeable—at least, in Manhattan in the middle of the day it was. And if he was carrying all that . . . .

A few minutes later, he was in the elevator, Steve’s large leather jacket thrown over everything, and he was on the phone with Stark.

“I’m at a conference in Massachusetts, but I’ll come tinker when I get back tonight and you can use the workshop then,” Stark said, sounding bored. There was a susurration of pleasant voices in the background. “Glad you’re using the phone, by the—”

“There’s a giant robot and Spider-Man is fighting it on his own,” Bucky said.

What.

“I’m going out to back him up, but if the thing is that big, he’ll need air support.”

The background voices abruptly cut off. “I’m on my way.”

“He said it’s—hold on.” The phone was ringing again. Bucky glared at it, poked what he hoped was the right button, and held it to his ear again. “Peter?”

“It’s back in the park,” Peter sighed. He sounded winded but unhurt. “Sixty-third and Fifth. People are running. I’ll try to push it into that little lake thing where they do skating in the winter. Wanted to tell you, it’s not that giant. It’s, like . . . three stories? Maybe four? Shorter than a brownstone. And I think the people inside it are wearing big yellow raincoats for some reason.”

“Great, Peter. Stay safe. I’m on my way. Keep telling me where you are.” He switched back to the call with Stark. “That was the kid. It’s about 35 or 40 feet tall and looks like RAID again. He’s trying to keep it in the southeast corner of the park.” The elevator doors slide open several floors below the lobby: the underground parking garage. He sprinted out and up the winding ramp, Stark babbling in his ear as he calculated his ETA: time lost by veering over the ocean before breaking the sound barrier versus flying directly back at just under Mach 1 versus fuck your eardrums, there’s a giant robot.

“Somewhere between eight and seventeen—”

“Shoot,” Bucky muttered, skidding to a stop.

“What?” Stark yelled in the phone.

“Hold on. I’ll be there. I—shit. I made a promise.” He jabbed the button to hang up. “FRIDAY, is Steve awake?” he shouted, hoping FRIDAY had audio access down here.

“Yes.”

“Good.” At least he wouldn’t have to run all the way up there. “Can I talk to him?” There was a gentle bing that he assumed meant the channel was open.

“Bucky?” Steve’s voice asked.

“Steve. I—you made me promise to tell you if I was going to do something dangerous.”

There was a sharp intake of breath. “Bucky—”

“The kid needs backup and Stark isn’t here yet.” He could feel the fight going out of Steve. “It looks like it’s the same idiots as last time, so it shouldn’t be that bad, but they have a giant robot now, so—thought I should tell you.”

He could practically hear the thoughts Steve didn’t say: Forget RAID, what happens if someone recognizes you? But all he said was, “Try not to be seen.”

Bucky nodded shakily. “Yeah.”

He started running again, only to hear Steve say, “I’m going to help.”

“What? Steve, you can barely—”

“I’m sick, not stupid. Keep your comm open.” His voice went a little deeper and a little sharper, the tone that always gave Bucky shivers. “FRIDAY, full tactical display.”

Bucky burst out of the tower, Steve’s voice fading into the background as he sprinted down the avenue and ducked around a corner, unnoticed amid the commotion. Whatever was happening in the park, people thirty blocks south had clearly noticed something, but just as clearly weren’t sure what. There were distant screams and a lot of honking, and the streets seemed to be gridlocked worse than usual, but the sidewalks were jammed with annoyed New Yorkers, most of whom were glaring at their phones, checking either news sources or subway schedules. He dodged and pushed past people, heading east. Park Avenue was pretty open, and got less and less crowded as he made his way north. Well—less jammed. There was a definite increase in people running the other way.

He pulled the phone out again. “Okay, Stark. I’m on 56th.”

“And I just passed Newport. What the hell took you so long?”

“Crowds,” Bucky said. Stark groaned. “You heard from the kid again?”

“No, and I’m not going to call and distract him.” Bucky hung a left, running toward the park.

“Why call—oh. FRIDAY, am I still on a phone connection here?”

“Yes, Boss.”

“Well, that’s bullshit. Switch to Avengers com system. Barnes, you have one?”

“Yeah.”

“Great. Use it. FRIDAY, activate the kid’s and add everyone who’s in range. And me, when I get there!”

Bucky put the phone away and tucked the earpiece into his ear instead.

“About damn time,” Steve said, fierce and relieved.

“Sorry, trying to have three conversations at once here,” Bucky panted.

“Whoa!” Peter said, voice loud in his ear. “Uh, hi guys. —Karen,” he added in an undertone, “did I know you could do that?”

“Spider-Man, what’s your status?” Steve asked.

“Uhh, hold on a second, St—uh, Captain America? The voice in my suit is telling me how to not talk to you unless I mean to.” There was a pause.

“Okay, now, what?”

“How’s the giant robot doing?” Bucky asked.

“Uh, good. A little too good. I have it cornered but it’s not going down. I’m not used to being in trees. I stopped it from going down Fifth, though—webbed it off so it couldn’t get through.”

“Is that what that is,” Steve said thoughtfully—he clearly had some kind of display up. “Good work.”

Pepper’s voice came in next. Bucky hadn’t expected that, and he shook his head; he should have. “If this is RAID again, and Tony thinks it is, they’ll probably try to break into the tower like before. You just cut off the quickest way there. So yes, very good work.”

“Thank yo—whoa, I did not know it could do that!

Bucky didn’t need to ask what it was the robot could do. He was in view of the park now and distinctly saw something made of metal—one large, round bubble with what looked like canons on either side of it and a smaller, squashed bubble on top—rise above the trees on two long, thin appendages. It was pretty far into the park, so he couldn’t really tell how big it was, but was clearly tall—and getting taller.

“The legs just—slid out more leg,” Peter said, sounding dazed. “Like one of those extendable cleaning rod things.”

The robot—it had to be a robot—looked around like an ungainly bird and began bobbing off south and west, occasionally firing orange beams of light toward the nearest buildings. “It stepped over the bridge I got it stuck against!” Peter wailed.

“I see it,” Steve said. “I’ve got video feed from all the news sources here. Looks like it’s heading for the opposite corner of the park, since you blocked it off from Fifth. Both of you, try to cut it off.”

“I’m going,” Bucky growled.

He was on 59th now, running along the south edge of the park, keeping an eye on the robot and dodging fleeing civilians. The streets surrounding the park might have emptied quickly, but these would be people who’d been in the park; he saw one young couple scaling one of the granite outcroppings along the edge of the park and scrambling over the low wall beside the sidewalk. People seemed to be running mostly south. Bucky was briefly grateful there were so many different subway lines around here. With any luck, they wouldn’t get too overloaded and people would be able to get clear.

But there were an awful lot of them, and no one seemed to be organizing anything. No one was in charge.

Then, a block down sixth, a flash of blue caught his eye. Two overwhelmed-looking traffic cops were waving people along. They seemed to be steering them toward the southwest corner of the park. Bucky looked over his shoulder. The robot was out of sight, and they clearly didn’t have someone with an aerial view telling them what to do. They didn’t know it had changed direction.

Don’t be seen.

Damn it.

“Hey!” he shouted, veering off from 59th and running towards them. “The thing is going that way! Get people back.”

“What?” one of them gasped. He didn’t look much older than Peter and was clearly on the verge of panic himself. “How are we going to get them all out of here?”

Bucky was suddenly somewhere else, in the dark and mud with row of tanks approaching, tanks that had disintegrated half the people in front of him. “Sarge?” somebody behind him whispered. “What do we do?”

In the space of a breath, he was back—Manhattan, afternoon, crowds, screams. “Subways,” he shouted back, catching a child as he tripped and pushing him back toward his family. “Doesn’t look like that thing can fly or swim. Tell them to get off Manhattan but stay off the bridges. Even if the trains aren’t running, it can’t step on anyone down there.”

The officer nodded, looking confused but willing to listen to anyone who seemed to have more information than he did, and Bucky took off running again, this time one block south of the park—it wasn’t worth trying to run against the crowds of people running away.

“Miss me?” a new voice said in his ear as Iron Man screamed overhead, skimming over the park.

“Hi, Mr. Stark!” Peter panted.

“Iron Man, go west to Columbus Circle,” Steve directed.

“What the hell?! Cap?”

“Spider-Man needs cover and you can get there faster.”

The suit veered sharply west. “On it.”

“Whoa, that looks a lot bigger from the ground,” Peter said. On the ground? That was not good. Spider-Man’s advantage was in speed and height. “I feel like I’m in an anime.”

“Punch through the sky with the power of your spirit, kid,” Iron Man said.

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” There was an explosion from 70th street. Bucky threw up an arm to shield his eyes. “When I was designing the Hulkbuster I watched every giant robot show or movie ever made for design ideas. At least that’s how it started. Mostly anime designs suck. Pacific Rim was cool, but I ended up re-designing—”

“Mr. Stark, watch out!”

Bucky rounded a corner and saw the robot teetering would-be menacingly on its bizarrely thin legs, its main bulk just barely above the statue of Christopher Columbus on its pillar. The stupid-looking thing was apparently thrown off-balance by trying to target both Stark and Spider-Man at once. A giant black glass building nearby sported a brand-new hole halfway up. Stark was pulling out of a corkscrew spiral.

“Thanks, kid. Okay, we don’t want it to get any shots off with that gun, that gun shoots projectiles, projectiles break city, breaking city bad.”

“The ray-things just fizzle if they don’t hit anything within a hundred feet or so,” Spider-Man said, apparently in agreement. He was scurrying round and round Columbus’ pillar, almost directly beneath the machine. “So I’m thinking I can trip this guy like I did with the big guy at the airport—”

“Kid, be careful,” Stark said sternly.

“How is this different?”

“I was pretty sure none of those people would actually hurt you!”

The robot planted its clawed feet more firmly and took aim at Iron Man again. This time, when it moved to target him, the feet didn’t move—part of the lower bubble began to swivel. So much for throwing it off balance.

Peter continued whatever he was doing as Bucky looked for a place he could be useful. He could target the robot from here, but there was too much risk of a ricochet hitting Peter. He glanced to his left.

The building he was currently huddled against was a sleek new shopping center, emptied of its patrons. THREE STORIES OF SHOPPING AND DINING, a sign read.

Perfect.

~

Bucky wrenched the roof access door off its hinges and looked around. The shopping center had two long wings, joined at the center to form a very broad V with a fat base. From up here, he could move around from one end of the traffic circle to the other, as long as he stayed off the glass roof of the atrium. He looked out at the circle. The robot was just below him and didn’t have a line of sight on him. There was a mass of white webbing around its motionless legs; Peter himself seemed to have cleared out. Bucky squinted at the robot’s canons and smiled grimly.

“Spider-Man, Iron Man, I’m in position,” he said a moment later. “Can you get it to turn towards me?”

“What’re you gonna do?” Stark demanded.

“Take out the gun that breaks the city,” Bucky said, letting a little humor show in his voice.

“Yeah, okay, that’s good.”

With no further warning, Iron Man dived directly at the shopping center. The robot, which had been swivelling in circles trying to target him overhead, stopped spinning and tracked him straight down. Bucky shot directly under the exposed barrel of the canon-thing, into what looked like a vent.

Iron Man swerved away so sharply Bucky was pretty sure he heard glass breaking on that wing of the building. At the same time, the robot’s canon blew up.

The force of the explosion sent it tipping sideways, and the webs Spider-Man had rigged up, tethering its absurd spindly legs to Columbus’s pillar, finally ruined its balance. One leg sheared off completely; the other tore through some of the webbing and buckled as the bubble-like main compartment fell to the street with a crash.

Someone sprinted out from the cover of the building, leapt into an abandoned taxi, and began repeatedly ramming the smaller compartment, running over what remained of its leg in the process.

“Yeah!” Spider-Man crowed, swinging back in from where he’d been waiting on Hearst Tower. “Don’t fuck with New York!”

“Language,” Steve cut in mildly.

There was a brief silence. Then Spider-Man said, in a very small voice, “Please don’t tell my aunt.”

Stark cut in, voice harsh, for about one syllable before Steve and Bucky burst out laughing. “No, I didn’t mean— It just slipped— sorry—sorry,” Steve said between chuckles.

“It’s an old joke,” Bucky explained, peering through the scope of his rifle. “Very old.”

“Oh,” Peter said, sounding relieved.

“It’s a joke?” Stark said, loud and sharp.

“Yeah,” Bucky said absently. “You think Captain ‘where the hell did I put my whatever I lost today’ gives a shit? —I got movement.”

A hatch opened on the absurd robot’s upper bubble and someone clad in a yellow hazmat suit scrambled out, followed by another. There was a thump to Bucky’s right as Peter landed on the roof near him, sprinted across it, and launched himself off, shooting lines of webbing both to Columbus’ feet and the roof behind him to slow his fall. He kicked the first RAID operative in the head and webbed the other one in place as he landed.

There was an ominous creaking noise and the robot’s remaining canon—the ray gun—swiveled. Peter leaped out of the way. A scorching orange beam shot out and hit the forth story of a building just across the street.

The first floor was clearly retail: Bucky saw signs for a wine shop and some kind of overpriced cafe. But everything above that appeared to be apartments—and the third, fourth, and fifth floors of it were suddenly on fire.

Peter kicked the RAID operative again and wrestled something out of his hand—a remote. “Shoot,” he said, sounding panicked. “I think I made him press this.”

Bucky grabbed his guns and headed back for the stairwell door.

“Not your fault,” Steve said firmly over the coms. “Iron Man—”

“On it,” Stark said, and Bucky could imagine him swooping in to the gaping, flaming hole in the building. “Doesn’t look like many people are home. Either they were still at work and couldn’t get home through all the ‘oh no there’s a giant robot’ traffic, or they ran when the thing first showed up.”

“Can we destroy this?” Peter asked, presumably about the remote. “Or the gun? Or, like, yeet it into the ocean or something so no one else can use it?”

“What the hell is a yeet? —Whatever, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s not safe to blow it up until we know if it’ll blow up,” Stark said distractedly.

“What he means is, we don’t know if it’ll cause more damage to try to blow it up right now,” Bucky said as he clattered back onto the ground floor. This was familiar—they’d always had to do that with the Hydra weapons. It was always a disappointment to Dernier; Frenchie had loved blowing shit up, the bigger the boom, the better.

“If you can web it so no one can get at it and try to cover wherever the beam comes from, that would be good,” Steve added.

Bucky ran out of the abandoned shopping center and across the street toward the flaming building. “Iron Man,” he said, “can you give me a lift?”

~

Not long later, Spider-Man joined the two of them, scrambling through the burning apartments checking for people. Bucky stayed to the corner facing the park when he could. He couldn’t fly or stick to walls, but when he couldn’t get a lift from the others, he could scramble up from one balcony to another.

The apartments were mostly empty, and the fires mostly under control—not out, but not spreading; there was a fire station just two blocks away, and even with the abandoned cars littering the area, travelling two blocks wasn’t impossible. Peter and Bucky were both soaked and singed—Bucky more the latter than the former, as he tried to stay farther inside the apartments, out of sight, when the fire department showed up. They certainly sped up the evacuation of the few people remaining in the apartments; Stark and Peter didn’t have to carry them down. Bucky had allowed himself to be spotted just once, as he handed a terrified toddler out a window after her equally-terrified babysitter. The firefighter had motioned for him to climb through too; he’d shaken his head and pointed out at Iron Man. “I’m with them,” he said, and then, for the sake of cover, “I don’t catch fire,” and ducked back inside.

He might have just gotten that person in trouble for failing to rescue him. On the other hand, rumors about people with mysterious new abilities cropped up every day. It wasn’t impossible.

“Oh no,” Peter said suddenly. Bucky looked up sharply. Stark was working the outer rooms on all three affected stories, since he could fly people out; Bucky was farther in, working his way up; Peter was two stories up and working down. If he was in trouble . . . .

“What is it?” Steve asked.

“The fire department already said this place is cleared, but I hear something.” Peter bit his lip. “It’s one of the ones that’s still on fire.”

“Don’t go in unless you’re sure,” Stark ordered.

“Do you want backup?” Bucky asked.

“Quiet,” Peter snapped. “I’m listening.”

There was a tense silence.

“I’m going in,” Peer said. Then, a second later—“Ow.”

“You okay?” Stark asked, voice tight.

“Yeah, fine. It hurts to punch a door down. —Ohh.” There was a soft “hup.” “They’re across the hole the ray made in the floor. Geez, it’s hot in here.”

Bucky ducked out of his now-cleared apartment and headed for the edge of his own floor.

After a moment, Peter’s voice came on again. “Okay. I’ve got ’em. I’m not sure how I’ll get them out….?”

“Down here,” Bucky said. “By the hole.”

The fire-ray had carved its hole at an angle, of course, and Bucky was lower—he was practically at the edge of the building. But, looking up along the shaft, through the flames, the could see Peter’s face.

“Lower whoever it is down,” he said. “I’ll get them.” Then he heard an ominous cracking. “Hurry!” he shouted. “Floor’s gonna give!”

Rather than lower a person on a piece of web, though, Peter held out—of all things—a bulging pillowcase loosely knotted at the top. “Catch gently!” he shouted, and threw it at an angle along the shaft as he jumped clear.

Bucky ran forward, confused and intent, and snatched the pillowcase out of the air, pulling it in to his chest even as he let his arms drop under its weight, cushioning the landing. It squirmed.

“I got out,” Peter gasped. “That’s the last one on this floor. I’m going to go out the window and pick them up from you—”

“Spider-Man,” Bucky asked, reaching the hole in the building, “what did you just rescue?”

“Open it up,” Peter said, voice anxious. “Don’t let them get out, but open it up and make sure that they’re okay.”

Bemused, Bucky carefully unknotted the pillowcase. Something gray and fuzzy shot out and swiped at his face, and he pulled back as it made a horrible noise. He lowered the pillowcase a bit so he could peer in more easily.

A furious cat glared up at him, hissing, fur spiked and tail lashing, as it tried to brace itself on the thin fabric. Three tiny kittens made high-pitched noises as they tried to hide beneath it.

“What is it?” Steve and Stark demanded at the same time as Bucky began to laugh.

~

Getting the building fully evacuated and putting out the fire took a while. By the time they were done, it was dark. Stark flagged down a taco truck that was still, somehow, set up near the entrance to the park and bought out its entire stock for the firefighters. He casually balanced a large paper bag on the stone wall around the park and left it there when he wandered off. Peter rappelled down out of the tree above it and took it back to Bucky.

Stark ate his own plate of fajitas as he talked with the fire department and reporters and police: no, he didn’t know where the robot had come from; no, it wasn’t his!; no, he couldn’t comment on whether or not Spider-Man or anyone else had been with him, but there probably wasn’t, haven’t you heard of the Sokovia Accords, there’s not a team or anything anymore; no, the robot was operated by a remote, it didn’t shoot on its own; yes, he’d take care of defusing it right now. While he was busy, Peter and Bucky slipped off quietly into the night—Peter by the roofs, Bucky on foot—to regroup at Stark Tower. Pepper told them to come up to the penthouse lounge, where she and Steve had put together some kind of command center.

When Bucky stepped out of the elevator, exhausted, the first thing he saw was Peter slumped in an armchair, bag from the taco truck beside him, trying to fit an enormous burrito into his mouth at once. The second thing he saw was a very close-up view of Steve’s blue t-shirt as Steve caught him in an enormous hug.

Bucky felt something in him loosen as he carefully patted Steve on the back.

“You’re okay,” Steve muttered into his ear.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, his face smashed into Steve’s shoulder, inexplicably wanting to laugh. He knew Steve probably couldn’t hear him, but he didn’t really want to move. Steve smelled nice, and he was warm and soft and incredibly comforting to hug.

Hug.

“Uh, I’m kinda carrying a lot of weapons,” he said, regretfully lifting his head to speak clearly. “This can’t be all that comfortable.”

“It’s not,” Steve agreed, not loosening his hold at all.

Bucky could live with that.

“Welcome back,” said a new voice. Bucky looked over Steve’s shoulder to see Pepper giving the two of them a fond and slightly indulgent smile.

“Hi, Pepper,” he said.

Steve let go, and Bucky stepped back, missing his warmth already. He shrugged off the leather jacket. “Hope you don’t mind that I borrowed this,” he said dryly. “Needed to not look like I was carrying all that.”

“The money-smuggling jacket also hides guns?” Pepper teased.

“It has many uses,” Bucky replied, deadpan. And it smells like Steve.

~

Peter spent the next hour or two after the giant robot fight and the helping with putting out fires sitting in the really fancy room in Stark Tower where Bucky had shown him that one old movie. After he texted May to say that he was alright, he tried to pay attention to what Ms. Potts and Steve were saying, but it didn’t all make sense—the people in the robot were like the people who’d tried to attack the tower a month ago, but they were also kind of like the people who’d made Steve sick, and they had a cut-rate shoddy giant robot because of something Mr. Stark had done, and Ms. Potts and FRIDAY had set up something to protect the tower, or something . . . .

He missed a lot of it, to be honest. He hadn’t eaten since lunch and there were burritos.

Bucky got back about half an hour after Peter, because he’d had to walk. Steve gave him a really big hug. Peter had told Steve that Bucky was fine, but he still must have been worried. And then Mr. Stark zoomed up and landed on the landing pad and this wheel thingy took the Iron Man armor off him, and then Ms. Potts gave him a really big hug, and he kind of melted down into it and kissed her hair, which was a lot like Uncle Ben and Aunt May and was really sweet and kind of weird to see from Mr. Stark, honestly, and then they all talked about where the robot had come from and how RAID—the yellow guys were called RAID, apparently—must have gotten it and how they got it into Central Park. It seemed to involve building it, shrinking it somehow, and letting it get big again, like a Jack-in-the-Box.

Peter got pretty chilly at one point and his jacket was still stuck to the side of an alley in Queens in his backpack. Mr. Stark noticed him shivering and disappeared upstairs for a while, then came back with a big dark blue hoodie that he threw at Peter. Peter snuggled into it. It was warm. He tried to pay closer attention and pulled out his phone to text May again and say he was still fine.

“Oh my gosh,” he said, when he saw the time on the phone screen. “It’s late. I’m sorry, everyone, but I—I’ve got to go.”

The rest of them looked at him. “I almost forgot you were here,” Mr. Stark said. “You’re never that quiet.”

Peter shrugged. “You all know more about this than I do. I was listening. I should go, though. If I hurry, I’ll make it to the subway before they all start running local all night.”

“Don’t bother,” Mr. Stark said. “You can take a car. Happy can drive. —What?” He asked as Ms. Potts shot him a glance. “Oh, right. Eleven PM, people are asleep. Got it, Pep.”

“I was thinking more ‘not here’ than ‘asleep,’” Ms. Potts said.

“Still lame. Why wouldn’t he want to be here?” Mr. Stark shrugged. “Someone else can do it. There’s got to be someone we can spare from security to give you a ride. I trust all of them, they’re good.”

“No,” Peter said. “I’ll—” he yawned hugely— “I’ll take the subway. I don’t have normal clothes to change into and it’s better if nobody knows where Spider-Man lives. I mean, I can’t—” he yawned again. “—can’t promise no one’s seen me going home, but in case anyone’s looking for Spider-Man, no one should take me there. Someone might come after them.”

He scrubbed at his face, trying to keep himself awake, and frowned at the adults staring at him. “What?” That sentence made sense, right?

Bucky closed the case he’d put his disassembled rifle in with a click. “You got a car I can borrow, Stark? Not one of yours—something boring.”

“Uh, yeah,” Mr. Stark said, giving him the same startled look he’d given Peter. “You can use one of the company fleet. They’re not branded and they’re a total snoozefest. Just talk to Roz down in security.”

“Perfect.” He shoved the case under a chair. “Take care of this for me, will you? Pete, come on. I’m gonna take you home.”

“Huh?” Peter frowned, trying to catch up. If someone had to take him home, Bucky made sense. If anyone was trying to come after Spider-Man, the Winter Soldier wouldn’t get hurt getting in the way. But— “Do you drive? Do you have a license?” he asked groggily.

Bucky snorted. So, he thought, did Mr. Stark. “I can drive just about anything on wheels and some with wings,” Bucky said. “Don’t have a license, though, on account of being presumed dead for seventy years.”

“Um,” Peter said. “I kind of promised Aunt May I’d never ride with anyone who didn’t have a license.” He could practically feel Mr. Stark’s eyebrows shoot up from across the room. Was that spider-sense? Did spider-sense warn about impending sarcasm now? “When some of my friends started getting their licenses, she made me promise,” he said. “Not like it’s really a problem, and not like anyone who lives in the city actually drives, but some kids at my school actually live in Jersey and they do, and—I mean, she doesn’t even like me taking Uber unless it’s an emergency.”

Ms. Potts opened her mouth—why did she look like she was trying not to smile?—but Bucky got there first. He put a hand on Peter’s shoulder and bent down a little to look him in the eye. “Look,” he said. “I know you don’t want to break a promise.” Peter nodded. “But she wanted that promise because she’s looking out for you, right? I don’t not have a license because I’ve just started driving. I’ve been driving for a long time and I’m pretty good at it. I tailed someone through LA in a dying pickup and I got around a five-car pile-up in Rome. And I learned to drive in New York. I’m not some kid from Jersey who’s been driving for three months and will panic in city traffic.”

Peter nodded. It made sense. May might still be mad, and he didn’t know how he’d explain this to her if she asked him how he’d gotten home, but he couldn’t think about how to explain it right now. It was like his brain had decided that was too much planning and stopped. His thoughts felt slow and heavy. All of him felt slow and heavy, and his side hurt. “Alright,” he said, and yawned again.

Bucky put an arm around his shoulders and steered him toward the door. “Roz?” he asked Mr. Stark as they left.

“Little booth inside the office,” Mr. Stark replied. “Her real name’s Kathy, but she sounds like Number One from—don’t worry about it. It’s all boring cars. Get yourself a blue Camry or something. Go crazy.”

Bucky made some sarcastic response to that, but Peter missed it.

~

The kid was asleep almost as soon as they reached the car. Bucky half-poured him into the backseat—not only did that give him more room to lie down, a poorly-disguised Spider-Man would be less noticeable in the back of a car than in the passenger seat—and he fumbled for the seatbelt more or less without conscious thought, judging by his movements. He woke up enough to frown around the car and appeared to come to the same conclusions as Bucky; he pulled his mask back on and the hood up over it, then slumped over against the edge of the seat, head resting on the near part of the door so he was nearly impossible to see through the window. Bucky smiled and slid into the driver’s seat.

The car was, as promised, boring: a slightly worn compact sedan, safe, reliable, and nondescript. With any luck, it would attract absolutely no attention. Just a Stark employee leaving the underground parking garage, heading home late due to the chaos of the day, set to disappear into traffic—if there was even anyone watching. Privately, Bucky doubted it. It was good for the kid to be careful, though.

Speaking of careful…. he drummed his fingers on the wheel. He knew where Peter lived; the kid hadn’t mentioned it, but Tony had, offhand, and Bucky was thorough enough to be able to narrow down “that big apartment complex in Queens, you know, looks sketchier than it is” to three possibilities, then figure out which one based on Peter’s enthusiastic descriptions of a nearby deli. Bucky privately disagreed with him that it was “the best bodega in the five boroughs,” but given that the place he’d wanted to propose as a competitor might have closed any time in the last seventy-five years, he’d kept his mouth shut.

He’d go back to Brooklyn again. Someday. Just—not yet.

So he knew where the kid lived. Would it be, as Peter put it, “kind of creepy” to just drive there? Should he wake him up and ask for directions, so that this was a bit more normal?

“‘D I tell you the address?” Peter mumbled from the backseat. “Can’t remember.”

Right. Because it was the future, and if you had an address, any phone—or the car itself—could tell you how to get there. “I know it,” he said, dodging the question.

“Mm.” Peter nodded and pushed himself back deeper into the seat again. “Okay. I’ll jus’ . . . res’ my eyes…”

Bucky resisted the urge to reach back and ruffle his hair, mostly because the mask made that impossible. “Go to sleep, Peter. I’ve got this.”

“‘Kay,” said the backseat.

~

Traffic wasn’t terrible at this time of night, though getting out of Midtown was a pain. Bucky hadn’t been lying—he could drive and he was good at it—but he had to admit that this kind of mundane driving, not tracking anyone and only looking as much as he ever automatically did to be sure they weren’t being followed, was different. He’d never done it before the war; sure, he’d driven a lot, pretty much anything he worked on if he got a chance, and helping people he knew move, but those had been daytime gigs. The war had been different in every possible way; Hydra different again. Since breaking free of them, he hadn’t done much. Having a car required more paperwork, more identification, more traceability than he was comfortable with, so he’d stolen a few from people who’d probably stolen them first but otherwise stuck to his own devices. The same when he’d been with Steve. Driving on the run, no matter how casually, was intangibly different from this.

The kid occasionally snoring in the backseat just underscored that.

Bucky smiled as he turned onto the BQE. This didn’t remind him of anything. It was new, and it was nice.

Someone honked as a car swerved across two lanes of traffic to cut right in front of him. New York hadn’t changed; it had just gotten bigger, with more idiots in it. Bucky considered flipping off the reckless driver, in the spirit of things, but decided against it; at night, no one was likely to notice the metal arm, but still. A moment of common courtesy would be less noticeable than that, even in New York.

As he took the exit—two exits before the most direct route to Peter’s home—he checked around them. They definitely weren’t being followed. The kid’s caution stirred up something he recognized but wasn’t sure he could name, a mixture of pride and sadness.

~

He pulled up in an alley just outside the apartment. It made his skin crawl to be so close to his destination—a terrible tactical decision. But this wasn’t a tactical situation. He knew that. It was safe, mundane, fine, and the habits of self-preservation from the last three years did not apply.

More importantly, Peter was exhausted and there was no way he was making the kid walk further than he had to. He’d been asleep on his feet going down to the garage. Bucky twisted in his seat and reached back to shake him awake.

“Hey, Pete, we’re here.”

Peter mumbled something and didn’t move.

“C’mon, kid, wake up.”

“Hmm, armalfredum.” He rolled to face the door.

“Peter?”

No reply.

Bucky sat for a second, shaking his head at himself. He’d gotten too used to being around Steve—to being a soldier, surrounded by soldiers, light sleepers who could be roused by a single wrong sound. He’d forgotten what he’d been like at Peter’s age.

“Alright,” he chuckled, swinging out of the front seat. “We’ll do this the other way.” Years of stealth operations had left Bucky with some useful skills as well as the goddamn annoying paranoia, and on the Pepper Potts Principle of “fuck them,” he was more than happy to use those skills to smuggle a sleeping teenager safely home.

~

May sat at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a lukewarm mug of coffee. News coverage of the Manhattan attack—if that’s what it had been—had long since stopped providing new information. There was some kind of giant robot; there had been was a fire that was out now; Spider-Man and Iron Man had been spotted on the scene; cleanup would be minimal and was already underway.

May checked her phone again. Peter’s last text was 97 minutes ago now. I don’t know if you’ve seen the news, but I’m fine. Wrapping up now. Heading home soon.

She glared at the muted television and forced herself to sit back, leaning against the chair instead of slumping over the table, and take a few deep breaths. Peter had been out almost this late before on his normal weekend patrols. They hadn’t said anything on the news about finding Spider-Man, and not any anonymous injured teenagers, either— “no casualties and minimal injuries,” the reporter on the site had said, “with several eyewitnesses reporting dramatic rescues by Spider-Man.” And Peter’s text had come after, and the fire was out. So he was fine, and on his way home.

She really wished he’d told her if it was safe to call. Probably. It probably was, but—

A soft knock at the door sent her shooting to her feet. The chair scraped against the linoleum as it went backwards. She darted through the kitchen and to the door in a few quick steps, turned the deadbolt, and fumbled with the chain. “Peter,” she said, keeping her voice down as she yanked the door open, “thank God, I was wor—”

A tall, solidly-muscled, slightly scruffy man in a leather jacket stood there, carrying a limp, hoodie-clad Spider-Man as though he were a small child.

Before May could do or say anything, he was speaking, just as quietly. “Don’t worry, he’s not hurt. Just asleep.”

“‘M nah ’sleep,” Peter mumbled against his chest. May’s heart started beating again.

The man raised his eyebrows apologetically and gave a tiny, awkward shrug that barely disturbed Peter. “Couldn’t wake him up.” He shot a glance down the hallway, though May hadn’t heard anything. “May I come in?”

“Ah, sure,” she said, a little dazed, and stepped aside. Whoever this was, he had Peter with him. She would have gone along no matter what, but Peter seemed comfortable around him. That was a good sign.

The man moved quickly, stepping inside the apartment and out of the path of the door as she swung it closed. May barely hesitated before locking the deadbolt and sliding the chain back into place, fast enough that she could claim it was habit. She wasn’t inclined to let this guy get out of here before she had some answers. She turned to her unexpected guest and opened her mouth to ask—

“No one saw us,” he said. The closed door seemed to make him more comfortable rather than less. That was either good or very bad—but again, given Peter’s sleepy attempt at sass, she was inclined to expect good. For given values of good, anyway. “I’m James, by the way—we’ve talked—?”

Ah. The mysterious member of the Stark Industries “veterans program” who knew Peter was Spider-Man. Peter had never been willing to tell her much about the guy, though she’d heard bits and pieces about lots of their conversations. Mostly it just seemed like Peter had found someone to talk about science fiction with. Now, though, it looked like there was a bit more to it.

There was also a more pressing concern.

“Introductions later,” May said firmly. She would deal with the secret identity shit—oh, she would—later, once Peter is taken care of. She put a hand on Peter’s shoulder and bent closer, ignoring James for the moment. “Peter?”

Peter lifted his head up and clumsily pulled off the mask, fumbling to get it off beneath the blue hoodie, which was at least one size too big for him.“Hi May,” he said blearily, squinting ferociously against the light. “I’m fine.” He poked James. “Pu’ me down, I can walk.”

“I’m not putting you down except on something you can fall asleep on, kiddo,” James said, voice surprisingly gentle. “You’ve been barely awake since they put the fire out.”

“Nnn, hafta get up,” Peter said. “I have a Spanish test tomorrow and I haven’t studied at all.” Anxiety sharpened his voice. “And I have to—”

In rolling her eyes, May caught James doing the same. “No, you don’t,” they said together. Peter’s lips twitched in a tiny smile, eyelids already drifting closed again.

May bit her lip, then gestured over her shoulder toward the hallway. Peter could say what he liked, but he was not awake, and she couldn’t carry a gangly teenager like he was a toddler. “His room’s that way,” she said. “First door.” James blinked at her, surprised. “My nephew obviously trusts you,” she said in a warning tone. “You can put him to bed. But then you and I are going to talk.”

“Yes ma’am,” James said. He looked—well, not ruffled, but nervous, at least. Good. She stepped back into the living room and waved him down the hallway.

“Bucky,” she heard Peter say—he’d told her James had a weird nickname; was that it?— “I can’t go to sleep. I’ve got school. I’ve got a test.” There was a whining note in his voice. May rolled her eyes again. If he was that tired...

“Listen,” James said. “It’s up to your aunt whether you go to school or not, but right now you’re going to bed and if you try to go to school when you’re still this out of it, I will cut the power lines myself. That’s assuming Stark hasn’t already done something to close it down.”

“But I gotta—”

“You can tell people at school you were hit by a delivery bike or something.” He shifted Peter and pushed the bedroom door open. “Geez, kid, it’s like a tornado hit in here.”

“Watch out for the Legos,” Peter said muzzily.

“The—? Never mind.”

May walked back into the kitchen and stared at her coffee some more, breathing deeply as the back and forth of voices from the other room washed over her. It wasn’t long before she heard the snick of Peter’s door closing. A moment later, James appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, somehow having managed to avoid the squeaky floorboard in the hallway. He joined May near the table and gave her an apologetic smile.

“Well, he says he’s going to get up and take a shower in a minute,” he said wryly, “but I’m not taking any bets. I’d be surprised if he gets out of that jumpsuit before he crashes.”

“What happened?” May asked. “Why’s he so out of it?”

“He fought a robot, saved some people, rescued a cat and some kittens, and ate three burritos bigger than the cat.”

May released her death grip on the mug and let out a shaky breath. “That’d do it.”

“His left side’s gonna be one big bruise, and if he doesn’t wash up tonight, he’s gonna stink in the morning and probably have to wash the bedsheets with the suit. Otherwise, he’s fine. All he needs is sleep.”

“Okay.” That wasn’t so much worse than usual for the nights Spider-Man actually had to fight anyone. May took a deep breath, prepared to demand exactly who James was and what he was doing here, but what came out was, “You’re good with him.”

James shrugged, but he looked pleased. “I had three younger sisters. And my best friend’s kind of a handful.”

May raised her eyebrows. “Huh.” If James were the kind of guy who liked looking out for people, that went a long way toward explaining what he was doing here. Assuming any of it was true.

James seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “It’s got to be strange—worrying— me showing up out of nowhere, with Peter, when you don’t know me. I know I might be out of line in a big way. But I honestly couldn’t wake him up, and I didn’t really want to. Right now, sleep’s probably good for him.”

May realized suddenly what his awkward, earnest expression reminded her of. When she was in college, her roommate Jenna’s boyfriend had tried to sneak into their women-only dorm. He’d tripped into a lamp climbing through the lounge window and the RA had caught him. He’d flashed her an embarrassed smile and said, “I know you’re going to throw me out, but can I give these flowers to my girlfriend first?” It had been a winning move.

“Sit down,” May said, determined not to be charmed. “If you want to reassure me, you’ll tell me everything about who you are and how you know Peter. And what happened today.”

He sat, looking at her warily. “I’ll tell you, but I’m not sure if you’ll believe me.”

May sighed and leaned forward, hands folded on the table in front of her, barely-touched coffee pushed to one side. “This fall, I got home from work early and walked in on my nephew dressed up as Spider-Man.” She gave him a steely smile. “I can believe a lot.”

“Fair,” James said, holding up his hands in a gesture of concession. Her breath caught.

His hands . . . didn’t match. That was how her brain parsed it at first: not “that’s metal” but “those aren’t the same.” Her next thought was that she was looking at some kind of glove or gauntlet, followed immediately by nope—it was too small, too well-articulated, to be any kind of armor. It was only after all that that the realization hit: his hand was made of metal.

And it took another embarrassingly long moment of processing for her to get to quit staring, May, you’re being rude.

She pulled her gaze away to James’ face. He didn’t look offended, just resigned, like he should have expected this. “Yeah, that’s . . . part of the story too.”

“Okay,” May said. “I stand by what I said about believing things. I’ll admit the robot hand is surprising.”

He grinned crookedly. “It’s the whole arm, actually.”

May’s total mindfuck was almost certainly showing on her face. She just didn’t care. “And Peter swings off buildings dangling from some concoction he makes in science class when the teacher isn’t looking,” she retorted. “I’m still good.”

“I see where he gets it from,” James muttered. Then: “Okay. I haven’t told this story much. Peter’s the only one who didn’t know any of it already, actually. I kind of worked backwards telling it to him, but I think it’ll make more sense if I start at the beginning and work up to meeting Peter and what happened tonight. So—bear with me for a while, alright? The beginning is a long time ago.”

May gave him her very best I Am In Charge And I Am Unimpressed expression.

“Okay,” he said again. “I was born in 1917.”

~

“. . . And none of us were going to let him try to get home on his own like that, so I borrowed one of the Stark Industries cars and drove him home.”

“Wow,” May said. “Um. Give me a minute.” He nodded, looking a little apprehensive, as she pushed back her chair and stood up. “Be right back.”

She went down the hallway, ducked into the bathroom, and closed the door. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. Then she switched on the light, gripped the counter, and stared into the mirror.

“Okay,” she said softly. “Peter is home and safe. I am fine. There is . . . an unnervingly attractive super-something in my living room.”

“I have super hearing, too, I’m afraid,” James called.

“Fuck!” May whispered, and let her forehead fall gently against the mirror. It’d get smudged up, but right now, she didn’t care.

There is an unnervingly attractive super-something in my living room, and he has been through hell and back, and he’s the guy Peter talks about cheesy movies and science fiction with. Everything is fine.

Okay, so. Peter’s new friend killed dozens of people. Peter’s new friend was captured and tortured for more than fifty years and he apologized for worrying me by showing up at my door with Peter asleep.

He says Peter reminds him of his sisters.

And his best friend.

. . . Fuck. His best friend is Captain fucking America.

He helped Peter rescue kittens.

It’s seriously distracting that he’s that hot, because one of us is way too old for the other and that’s just weird whichever way you slice it.

I need more coffee.

She opened her eyes.

After splashing a little water on her face, May walked back out into the living room. James was still at the table and gave her a sort of embarrassed, flattered little smile and said, “thanks, by the way,” as she walked past. It was a stupidly cute smile.

May groaned in answer as she scooped up her stone-cold coffee and stuck it in the microwave. “You were not supposed to hear that.” She dragged one of the kitchen chairs over and hopped up on it to reach the high cabinet above the microwave. “I don’t hit on my kid’s teachers or afterschool program coordinators or whatever, and I’m not going to start with you.”

“I didn’t think you were.” He was quiet for a second before he said, “It’s been a long time since anyone said that, that’s all.”

May stepped down off the chair with the bottle of bourbon as the microwave chirped. She pulled her coffee out and poured a generous splash of bourbon in, tasted it, then shrugged and topped off the mug. “Well, I guarantee you they’ve thought it.” She slid the chair back over to the table and sat back down.

“Does this mean you believe me?”

“I don’t have any reason not to. Besides, it kind of makes sense.” May took a deep gulp of her spiked coffee and shuddered reflexively. “It’s just a lot. It’s—oh hell.”

“What?” He was half on his feet, eyes flicking over the apartment. May shook her head and waved him back down.

“Nothing. Just remembered something Peter was upset about a while ago, is all.” She shook her head. “I believe you. More important, I believe Peter believes you, and he trusts you, and I—with something like this, I trust his judgment.”

James looked down, face unreadable. “He’s a good kid.”

“He is.”

“You . . . let him do this.”

May shrugged. “On the one hand, really, how could I stop him? On the other hand—he’s doing what we’ve always told him to do. Step up, take responsibility, help people when you can. I couldn’t exactly tell him to stop after I’ve been saying that for eleven years. Yeah, I worry about him, but he was doing this shit for almost a year before I found out, and he was alright. I just have to count on him having some common sense around all this. But he’s never ended up worse than he could blame on tripping over a curb, or some bullies at school.”

James looked incredibly guilty. May glared at him. “Oh yeah. I haven’t forgotten that. Did you have anything to do with that, last summer?”

“Probably not,” James said—almost squeaked, really. He reacted nearly as well to the Mom Glare as Peter did. That was gratifying. “I tried to punch him, but he blocked it. He’s really strong. I think whatever actually hurt him was tackling Ant-Man when he was six stories high. And it was Steve who dropped the plane on him.”

“What?!”

“Well—not really a plane. The walkway thing from the airport to the—”

“No, Peter told me about that. He didn’t tell me it was Captain America who did it.”

“Yeah. He did that and then asked Peter what borough he was from.” James shook his head, fond exasperation on his face. “He’s apologized now.”

“Good. Now Tony Stark needs to apologize for taking him off into a superhero fight.”

“I can’t make Stark do anything,” James said, but he looked sympathetic.

“Peter doesn’t think he needs to apologize anyway,” May sighed. “But I think he does. At least to me.”

James nodded, and May got the odd feeling that he kind of understood.

“So. You talk sci-fi with Peter.”

“Uh, yeah.” He grinned and suddenly looked much younger, oh my God. “I always liked it back—back then, and one of the first times Peter and I talked he gave me a list of everything I needed to catch up on.”

Ah. That explained certain things, too. “I’m glad somebody does,” May said. “I try to get into it for him, and I do like most of those things, but I don’t go crazy for it the way he does.”

“Sounds like his friends are into it too.”

“Mm-hm.”

There was a pause.

“What did he mean when he said to watch out for the Legos?”

“Th—oh. Legos. They’re—” May waved a hand at the lovingly assembled space robot statue Peter had left on one of the living room side tables. “The little block things. When I was a kid, I just used them to build houses and towers and maybe a car or two, but they have all these special kits now to make things from movies. They can get super complicated. He’s probably building something in there, and the little blocks?” She held up her hand, fingers pinched on the air in the size of a regular Lego brick. “Hurt like hell to step on barefoot. He was probably too sleepy to realize you were wearing shoes.”

James chuckled. “Sweet of him.”

“No, you don’t understand,” May said. “It’d be a dick move to not say anything. Those little suckers”—tortured for fifty years, May, her inner voice sang, sounding obnoxiously like her sister, and why now?—“really hurt,” she finished unsteadily.

James gave her a look that was entirely too understanding, and she blushed. “No bare feet around Legos,” was all he said. “Got it.”

May sighed. “Look, I hate to rush you out of here, but—”

“It’s been a long night,” James said immediately, standing up. “I understand.” He probably needed to rest too, May thought, kicking herself some more. Peter had been wiped, and James had been doing the same stuff.

“I have work tomorrow,” May said. “But I’ll make sure Peter stays home.” She took another gulp of her coffee, then stood. “Thank you,” she added. “For bringing him home and for . . . watching out for him, I guess.”

“Sure,” he said, looking surprised but pleased.

May walked with him to the door. Both of them turned and looked down the short hallway to the door of Peter’s room, from which faint snores were audible. May smiled.

“He’s a good kid,” James said, a complicated look on his face.

“Yes,” May agreed. “He is.” She hesitated, then offered him her hand. “Thank you again, and—it was nice to meet you, James. Really.”

“Call me Bucky,” he said, shaking it. At her raised eyebrow, he said, “James is good for phones. Forgettable. But no one ever called me that except when I was in trouble. So I’d rather you didn’t, unless you’re actually pissed at me.”

May hid a smile. “Good night, Bucky,” she said, and opened the door.

Chapter Text

Tony was on the curving staircase, just about to run down through the penthouse to the elevator and get to the lab and finish up his shrunk-giant-robots detector (he’d have to come up with a better name for it) when he heard the kid’s voice in the lounge.

“Before we start the movie, can you explain something?”

“Sure,” Bucky said.

The kid sounded good. Apparently he’d slept for about fifteen hours and missed a whole day of school, and then freaked out about it, but if he was here and watching movies with Bucky, he must have caught up already. Way to go, kid.

“You said Steve being mad about swearing was a joke . . . ?”

At the top of the staircase, Tony paused. He kind of wanted to hear the answer to this one too.

“Oh. That,” Bucky said. “That is what happens when you put the biggest goofball in the world in charge of a team of elite commandos and tell them all they’re supposed to keep it clean whenever anyone important is around, or any journalists, because they’re supposed to be who everyone looks up to.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Keeping the Howlies from swearing was a losing battle. It was lost before it fuckin’ started. Normally that’s the kind of fight Steve loves, but he didn’t actually care about this one. But, y’know, he was supposed to be in charge and responsible for everyone’s good behavior.” His voice had dropped into a pompous, mocking tone.

“So he started enforcing it, but only when he thought of it. And after a while it got to be that he’d only tell you off for the little stuff—like the one time Morita dropped something on his foot, and he started swearing a mile a minute, and I wanted to make fun of him so I said ‘Oh darn, that’s too bad’ an’ Steve pretended to have a heart attack.”

“About the darn?

“About the darn. Not about Morita’s stupid fucking thing why the hell do we even have this goddamn piece of shit. That was fine.”

Peter snorted. Tony almost did too. He had to admit it sounded like Cap; if he ever let himself have any fun, Tony believed that was the kind of fun he’d have.

“And then,” Bucky went on--and hold on, when had Tony started using that ridiculous name in his head?!-- “Gabe and Dernier tried saying normal things in French really angrily to see if he’d figure out what was swearing or not. That’s easier than it sounds, because most cursing in French isn’t specific dirty words, all right—it’s mostly blasphemy. Steve picked up the language pretty quick, but I think they got him with ‘carrots do not grow on trees’ or something.”

Peter giggled.

“But the best one,” Barnes said—and he sounded really freaking happy; that was weird—“the best was when Dernier tricked Dum-Dum into thinking a certain phrase was really bad. Like even Dernier would be bothered by it, kind of bad. So then”—and there was laughter in his voice now, barely under control—“then the next time we raided a Hydra base, somewhere in Occupied France, Dum-Dum scared the shit out of them ’cause— They were all standing around, doing what they were doing, and then a big burly guy in a bowler hat and a moustache with a machine gun in each hand burst in screaming—” The rest of the sentence got lost in laughter. Tony rocked onto the balls of his feet, confused, but already grinning in anticipation.

“—screaming je ne suis pas un pamplemousse,” Barnes finished, and lost it again.

“Uh,” Peter said, which was good—if he’d understood it, Tony would have had to make an appearance and ask.

“Sorry—sorry,” Barnes gasped. “We were all standing around like that afterward, too, ’cause Gabe hadn’t known about it and he was laughing too hard to translate.”

“So what does it mean?” Peter asked eagerly.

“‘I am not a grapefruit,’” Barnes said solemnly, and fell into hysterics again.

Tony didn’t think it was that funny. But then again, he hadn’t seen a big tough guy run into a battle screaming it at very confused Nazis. And he kind of couldn’t hold back a snicker as it was.

~

The Friday after the giant robot incident, Peter showed up with his backpack, as usual. “Is Steve around?” he asked. “I haven’t seen him since, well, Monday, when I was kind of falling asleep, and I want to say hi and, y’know, thanks for helping out with the fight, and stuff.”

“Sure,” Bucky said, touched. “He’d like that. He’s in his room, I think.”

He headed down the hallway, Peter following, and knocked and then gently pushed the door open. “Hey, Steve? Peter wanted to say hi, if you’re— Oh.” He bit back a laugh.

Steve was out of bed, but only because he was in the ridiculously large recliner Stark had called a “grandpa chair.” It was mostly upright at the moment, which meant Steve was curled sideways, head resting against the protruding upper frame, fast asleep. His sketchbook had fallen from his slack hands and rested between his hip and the arm of the chair. For a second, Bucky saw their old apartment superimposed on Steve’s room—a smaller, bonier Steve curled in a smaller, more raggedy armchair. His heart swelled with fondness. Some things didn’t change.

Just as he had in that apartment, he stepped into the room quietly and carefully. Steve didn’t stir. Bucky scooped up one of the lighter blankets folded atop the chest by the bed and tucked it around him, moving the sketchbook to the side table. Then he took a moment to fumble with the controls for the recliner. This was a definite improvement over the old chair. He got it partly flattened out, so Steve wouldn’t wake up with a crick in his neck. Steve shifted a little, stretching in his sleep.

“There ya go,” Bucky murmured, tenderly brushing Steve’s hair back from his face. “Sweet dreams.”

He straightened up and caught sight of Peter, waiting just outside the door. It startled him. Somehow, he’d forgotten the kid was right behind him—that, for once, there was a spectator to this little moment. He didn’t feel as caught out as he would have years ago, but it still shook him out of the moment of comfortable affection. Sighing internally, he raised a finger to his lips. Peter nodded and stepped back as Bucky walked quietly back across the room. He slipped out the door and closed it behind him.

“He’s out,” he told Peter quietly. “We’ll try again later.”

“That’s fine.” The expression on the kid’s face was . . . he wasn’t sure what it was. Confused, intent, and sort of delighted-looking. “Um,” Peter went on, in a voice not much above a whisper, as Bucky turned back toward the living room. “Bucky, can I ask you a question?”

“You just did,” Bucky tossed back as he kept walking.

“You know what I mean,” Peter muttered, following him. “Like, you can tell me it’s none of my business, but it’s a kind of personal question, so should I even ask, kind of thing.”

They emerged into the spacious, light-filled living room that, by now, finally started to feel like someone actually lived there. Besides Bucky’s books scattered around every horizontal surface, there were a few of Steve’s newer sketches on the walls—the one with viking-Peter and dragon-Bucky included—and some of the art and small sculptures he’d picked up living in DC finally unpacked and scattered around. Apparently all it took for Steve to move in properly was to have nothing else he was well enough to do.

And, right now, there was Peter’s backpack tossed on the ground beside the couch—a strangely homey touch.

“Spit it out, Pete,” Bucky said, heading for his usual corner of the couch.

“So,” Peter started, in the kind of fake-casual voice that meant the speaker was actually nervous, “when we did the whole Captain America unit thing in eighth grade, there was a picture in the textbook of the two of you. And there was a girl in my class who was like ‘oh my god they were totally dating.’ I mean, she said the same thing about Lewis and Clark, and Ponyboy and Johnny from The Outsiders in English class,” he added hurriedly, “and I think Sam and Frodo too, so she just—does that, but . . . was she right?”

Bucky had frozen when he started talking. He was completely earnest about it, Bucky could tell—curious but not wanting to be nosy, acting like this was completely normal—and if that wasn’t proof that the future was a different place, he didn’t know what was. Now he braced his open hands on his thighs, took and deep breath, and turned around.

Whatever Peter saw on his face, his own expression softened, even if his voice was still squeaky and apologetic. “Like I said, you can tell me it’s none of my business. Just . . . .” He kind of shrugged, gesturing back at Steve’s room with one hand.

“Okay,” Bucky said, rubbing his forehead with his right hand. “Short answer: she wasn’t.”

Peter opened his mouth to say something. Bucky held up one finger and jerked his head toward the kitchen. Peter followed him into the other room and waited as he started the percolator. It was partly habit, and mostly paranoia, and almost certainly unnecessary, but it wasn’t until the distance and white noise were enough that an inconveniently-awakened supersoldier couldn’t overhear them that he turned back to Peter and leaned back against the counter.

“More complicated answer,” he said, raising a second finger. “She wasn’t right, but if she had been . . . I’d’ve been stupidly happy.”

Peter’s face went from confused, to bright and goofy, to crestfallen in the space of three seconds. “Oh,” he said softly, and then a kind of rising-falling-rising noise like a sad puppy. “Aww.”

“Don’t gimme that,” Bucky said, secretly touched. He waved a hand dismissively. “I can live with it. He’s still my best friend ‘n’ all that.”

“That still kinda sucks,” Peter said.

“Seriously,” Bucky said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. It doesn’t matter. Well—not that much. Just don’t tell him, alright?”

“Huh?”

“You figured me out, but he hasn’t, yet.” Bucky smiled crookedly at Peter’s look of surprise. “I don’t feel sorry for myself, so the last thing I need is Steve feeling sorry for me.”

Peter squinted at him, then slowly nodded. “Alright,” he said dejectedly. “That makes sense, I guess.”

“And looking like I’m a sick puppy counts as giving it away,” Bucky added, flicking a bit of water from the sink at him. “Cheer up. I’m fine.”

Peter spluttered, trying to dodge all the droplets at once and almost falling over. “Alright, alright!”

“What gave me away, anyway?” Bucky asked, taking down a mug for the coffee. Probably he’d been smiling like an idiot, but if it was something else, he should know so he wouldn’t accidentally clue Steve in when he was awake.

Peter looked at his feet. “Ben used to do that for May, that kind of thing,” he said softly. Bucky went still. Peter almost never talked about his uncle; all Bucky knew was that he’d died relatively recently. He wasn’t going to push. “She had really early shifts for a while so she could be home when I got out of school and fell asleep on the couch a lot. It made me think of that.”

Bucky blinked. “That’s sweet, kid,” he said finally. “That’s really nice.”

~

“Whatcha drawing?” Tony asked.

Steve jumped.

Score one. Tony had been trying to find out more about Steve’s new/old hobby since he’d realized it was still a thing. It explained where some of the doodles that had appeared, sometimes framed, on the walls of Steve and Barnes’ living room had come from; at first he’d thought it was the kid.

But Steve was oddly . . . secretive about his drawings. Sure, they were all over his floor now, and he had his sketchbook out during movie nights half the time, when the scenes were light enough that he could see to do anything. He’d even grumbled about not being able to see in the dark anymore and how he had to get used to caring about light again for more than just what angle it was at. So he didn’t hide what he was doing. But he didn’t show people stuff, either. If he wanted you to see something, it just kind of turned up.

Pepper had come back from talking with the two of them one day carrying a square of paper with a detailed colored-pencil picture of a golden dragon, glaring out of the paper, blue eyes narrowed and mouth open enough to show teeth and flames. Along the bottom, in handwriting that reminded Tony of the map from The Hobbit, it said Do not trifle with the CEO!

“He was drawing it while I was talking about going after SHIELD after they planted the Black Widow here,” she said, bemused. “Maybe he thought I’d be offended, because he seemed so surprised when I said something, but I noticed and it was beautiful and perfect, and he said I could keep it.” She smiled. “I’m going to frame it and put it on my desk.” Pepper liked secrets in plain sight like that: metaphors that weren’t only metaphors.

The kid mentioned a few drawings, too, and Bruce had something taped to a cabinet in his lab that Tony hadn’t looked at closely but was new and seemed to come from the same sized paper as Pepper’s dragon. But Tony hadn’t gotten any. It wasn’t like that bothered him—it didn’t—but the kind of sneaky secret drawing thing was, well, mysterious, and Tony liked mysteries. So he had wandered on down to Steve’s floor in hopes of catching him in the act, and what do you know, it worked on the first try.

But this time, Steve actually flipped his book shut. “Nothing special,” he said, turning a little pink.

Interesting.

“Better suit design?” Tony asked. “Barnes said you had a hand in putting together the first one. I guess you like life in Technicolor. Come up with something stripier? Or maybe less stripey?”

Steve smiled, but it was that kind of “I’m humoring you” look that Tony hated. Hello, I thought we were trying to be friends again-slash-for-the-first-time, Captain Curmudgeon. “It’s not the suit.”

“Then what? More drawings of people as dragons? Dragons as people? Cats? Lots of people draw cats, very big on the Internet.” But Steve was shaking his head, looking kind of distracted, so that wasn’t it and it wasn’t even close enough to be interesting.

“Come on, let me see.” Tony snatched up the book. Steve made a startled lunge for it, but he was sitting down at a table and Tony was standing; Tony was able to dance out of grabbing range without too much trouble.

The blood-filter process might be working, but Cap still only had normal reflexes.

“Whatcha got, whatcha got…” Tony sang quietly, flipping it open. Then: “Oh.”

What was in here, this was—amazing. It wasn’t the little cartoony drawings on the walls or even the Pepper-dragon; these were portraits, really good ones. The one he opened to was Bruce, bent over his lab table, reading something, totally oblivious to everything around him—which was, well, Bruce when he was working. Tony flipped the page. There was the kid, mid-word, hands blurred slightly with motion. Sam giving the world an incredibly skeptical look. Natasha, smirking. They were all black and white, just pencil sketches, but so real he could feel his head filling in the color in Nat’s hair, finishing Sam’s eyeroll.

He flipped ahead, fascinated. There were a lot of people he didn’t know; a lot that looked vaguely familiar but he couldn’t bother to place them; and then two sketches side by side, an old woman and a young one. Oh. Peggy Carter.

He turned past that quickly, because that was . . . complicated, and then even more quickly past the one that was clearly a lot younger and happier version of his dad than he’d ever met, and then—there were a lot of the same person, kind of like there had been of Carter, but for many more points in time. And they started young, like really young, like about eight, so it took him a while before—

He looked up. Steve was standing in front of him now, arms crossed, looking at him with an expression somewhere between resignation, annoyance, and . . . worry? The hell. Did he think Tony was going to ruin his drawings or something? “Is this—?” Tony began, pointing.

“That’s Bucky,” Steve said. He relaxed a little when he said it.

“All of them?” Tony asked.

“Yeah.” Steve went a little pink again. “I . . . I started drawing those when he was still missing. Not those in this sketchbook, but—” He broke off. “I was trying to remember the way he used to be. And then I remembered Bucky’s always been one of my favorite people to draw.”

“Really,” Tony said.

“Yeah. He’s got a really expressive face,” Steve said, gesturing. “And I like drawing the faces he makes when he doesn’t know anybody’s watching.” Tony looked down at the drawing the book was open to, Barnes a bit younger than Peter, leaning over a table and talking with two younger girls, pointing at something on a piece of paper, face proud and caring.

A lot like Steve’s face right now, as a matter of fact.

“That’s Grace and Alice,” Steve said, pointing at each of the girls in turn. “His youngest sisters. He’d help them with their homework like this—he was always really nice with them. I’m not surprised he’s such good friends with Peter. He’s always been . . . I don’t know, generous, like that. One of the best people I’ve ever known.”

Tony looked back at Steve’s face. He wasn’t looking at Tony at all, now, staring back into the picture. Tony flipped a few more pages ahead, just to see what would happen.

What happened was that Steve darted in and snatched his sketchbook back, stepping back briskly out of Tony’s range.

“Two can play that game,” he said smugly when Tony did a double-take.

“You don’t grab things,” Tony said blankly. “I’m the grabby one.”

Steve shrugged. “And yet.” He waved the sketchbook.

So, okay, point to him for not being Captain Curmudgeon. Tony was still kind of upset about the art-hiding thing, but he maybe had that particular setback coming.

And that soft, happy look on Steve’s face was pretty interesting.

~

Pepper was just wrapping up reading the latest project reports when Tony came bursting into her office. She didn’t look up; this wasn’t a disaster kind of bursting. Tony excited about something and Tony panicking about something had very different sets of body language. Right now, for instance, he was practically bouncing on the soles of his feet.

“Pepper. Pepper I have got to tell you something.”

“One second, Tony,” she said, holding up a finger, as she scanned the last lines of the report.

“No. I’m sorry, but you really want to know this.”

Just for that, she turned back to her computer when she put the tablet down and typed out a very brief reply by e-mail, ducking her head to hide her smile. Tony, in her peripheral vision, rolled his eyes. He knew what she was doing.

“Pep Pep Pep Pep Pep—”

Pepper cracked and chuckled. She turned to look at him, raising an eyebrow and shaking her head as she did so. “Okay, Tony, what?”

“So, uh—” He suddenly seemed to hit a roadblock. “FRIDAY, engage privacy lockdown mode?”

“Already done, boss,” the AI said dryly. Pepper chuckled once again at Tony’s surprised, impressed face.

“Good job. —So.” He turned back to Pepper, alight with excitement again, and leaned over her desk, bracing his hands on the edge. “Okay. Remember what you figured out about Barnes, and what he told me, uh, probably because he was still in the ‘I’ll do whatever you want’ phase so I feel kind of bad about it but not really because you figured it out too?”

“About Steve?” Pepper asked, bemused. She seriously doubted Bucky had actually said anything to Steve, and she had no idea what else would get Tony so excited about the topic.

“Yeah!” Tony leaned in closer. “I think Spangles feels the same way about him.”

Pepper leaned back. That . . . wasn’t entirely surprising, actually, but there was a lot of room for confusion. There were many reasons one person would go to extreme lengths for another, and while it was obvious to anyone who’d talked with Steve about his life for more than five minutes that he was entirely devoted to Bucky, the same was true of Tony toward Rhodey, or Sam toward Steve (with maybe a little better sense of proportion there—but then again, the man had signed up to harbor fugitives, defy the federal government, and fight against overwhelming odds on the strength of two prior conversations, so maybe not), or even, in a subtler and more complicated way, Natasha Romanov toward Clint Barton.

And this was Tony’s assessment. Tony was both very good and very bad at reading people—good in that he noticed a hell of a lot when he was looking for it, bad in that he sometimes looked for particular things that would confirm his own ideas. A lot of the time he was right; paranoia was effective when it came to spotting people angling for money or fame or scandal. Sometimes, though, it got tangled up with insecurity—witness the seven times she’d had to yell at him to convince him she was with him because she wanted to be, not out of guilt or worry or some damn compulsion to babysit him. It could also come out of wishful thinking.

“Evidence?” she asked him.

“He goes all gooey and starry-eyed talking about the guy—”

“All right—”

“—No, let me finish: but never when he’s actually in the room.”

Pepper looked at him blankly. “So?”

“Oh my god, Pepper, doesn’t that sound like he’s hiding a crush?”

“When have you ever hidden that you liked someone?”

“Uh, never, and I think it’s stupid. But Rhodey does it.”

Pepper raised an eyebrow. Tony said that like it was blindingly obvious, which (probably) meant it was a trait of Rhodey’s he’d been aware of for a long time. And Tony’s awareness of other people’s interpersonal cues, when they weren’t directed at him, had been shockingly low for most of the time he’d known Rhodey.

“I figured it out in college when he told me he liked this girl he’d been acting all weird around,” Tony muttered. “Tried asking her out for him. Didn’t go very well.”

Pepper sighed in sympathetic pain for both 19-year-old Rhodey and 16-year-old Tony, who probably had been utterly flummoxed about why his friend hadn’t appreciated his help.

“Yeah,” Tony said, “so then I paid attention to that so I wouldn’t do it again by mistake. So I have a lot of experience noticing this kind of thing.”

“You could be right,” Pepper said, choosing not to acknowledge Tony’s embarrassment; while he could and did err on the side of avoiding feelings too much, sometimes it was easier if they both just didn’t poke at things. “About Steve, I mean. Or it could just be the kind of friendship where they insult each other all the time when they’re face-to-face.”

“I don’t think so,” Tony said. “He’s nice to Barnes, just not that nice.”

“And do you know whether—”

“I actually have no idea what his sexual orientation is one way or the other,” Tony said, wide-eyed and serious. “Do you?”

Pepper blinked. “Well . . . .”

“I mean, all the historians, including my creepily-obsessed dad were always hinting at stuff about Peggy Carter, but he’s a big heroic figure and she’s a woman in the same general vicinity, so there’s like a 50/50 chance of it being real versus sexist BS. And if we all just assumed . . . whatever, do you think he’d correct us? I mean, now, sure,” he added, waving a hand, “or like, in the last two years or something, but when he first came out of the ice maybe not, right? He was all kind of overwhelmed and stuff. And then—”

“I could see him just letting something keep going because it’d be too much work to set the record straight,” Pepper said after a moment. “As long as it didn’t hurt anyone, or anyone except him.”

Pride was a tricky thing, and Steve, she’d realized as soon as she started getting to actually know the man, had it in spades. Pride, not self-confidence or satisfaction—not Tony’s smug “of course I’m the best” that could twist sideways into “but I have to be better” so fast it gave her whiplash. What Steve had was the kind of prickly conscientiousness that had everything to do with respect and face and the saving thereof. If all of the hype about the tragic romance between Captain America and Agent Carter was a farcical misunderstanding, he probably would have considered it his duty to correct it—except for all the trouble that would mean for an old woman in a care facility, who sometimes forgot what year it was and who’d been dealing with those rumors for the entire length of a very long career. And, again, there were many reasons to be devoted to someone, even to the extent that you’d let people misrepresent your life story. Especially if they were doing that in a million other ways anyway.

“You may be right,” Pepper said again. “Why are you so excited about this, Tony?”

“Because,” he said, with exaggerated patience, “if I’m right, we have the slow-burn love story of the century—literally—sitting under our roof—”

“My roof.”

“—your roof with my name on it—and we have front-row seats for whenever they figure it out.” He looked positively delighted.

No one, not even Rhodey, believed Pepper when she said Tony was a romantic. In one way, it was a shame. On the other hand, she kind of liked being the only person to see this side of Tony, or at least to recognize it for what it was. It might not present in any normal way, but he was, well, sweet.

“You realize he might not feel the same way,” Pepper cautioned, just in case. One side effect of Tony’s off-beat romanticism was the potential for massive disappointment. “Or that he might, but they don’t figure it out.”

“Not a problem,” Tony said confidently. “If he does—if, alright—and they don’t figure it out, we can help them.”

He took one look at Pepper’s face and added, “Not like I helped Rhodey! Come on. I’m not a teenager anymore. I wouldn’t even say anything—just have FRIDAY ‘accidentally’ lock them both in a bedroom filled with rose petals and champagne or something. I have tact.”

He was at least partly joking, Pepper noted, because he looked only mildly affronted when she laughed so hard she had to put her head down on her desk.

~

“Bruce, Steve, Bucky—are any of you free to watch a movie or anything? It’s Saturday night, but if somebody doesn’t distract me I’ll sit here doing work anyway, and Tony’s in the workshop.”

Pepper’s voice rang over the intercom as Tony fiddled with the nanobot armor.

“FRIDAY, listen in,” he said absently. If he finished up early, he could go crash whatever party Pepper was putting together.

“Sorry, Pepper,” Bruce said regretfully, “I promised some of the lab techs we’d go to happy hour tonight. There’s a chemistry-themed bar I need to check out, apparently.”

Good for Bruce. He didn’t sound all that happy about it, but Tony was pretty sure he knew what the techs were talking about, and it was Bruce’s kind of bar: quiet, dim, jazz music playing—boring as hell, in Tony’s opinion, but Bruce would love it.

“Steve and Peter are playing Risk,” Barnes said, voice very dry.

“You’re playing Risk too!” someone said in the background—probably the kid.

“No, I have Irkutsk and both of you breathing down my neck. I’m done next turn anyway. I’ll come up.”

“But if you don’t stick around to be invaded, who gets Irkutsk?”

“Flip a coin!”

“But--”

“I’ll see you in a few minutes, Bucky,” Pepper said.

Tony snickered. It made sense that Captain America was good at strategy games. It was a little disturbing that Captain America was good at taking over the world, though.

~

As it happened, Tony did wrap up early, only about half an hour later. He took the elevator up to the private floors of the penthouse and got de-greased, then headed down the stairs. He detoured into the kitchen for some trail mix. Barnes and Pepper were clearly in the home theater part of the lounge—there was something loud and dramatic happening on the screen, followed by a flurry of applause. Some kind of competition show, maybe.

Then someone paused it.

“Now that is a look,” Pepper said.

“Dancing has changed a lot,” Barnes replied. He sounded kind of wistful and maybe a little guarded.

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s not bad,” he said, sounding guilty. “I know that. It’s just—” He sighed.

“Honestly, you know, I kind of miss it. Nobody dances anymore, not like that, and I could learn that new stuff but it wouldn’t be—here’s where you tell me I’m an old man, but—it just doesn’t look like dancing.”

“I took a swing class in college,” Pepper said hesitantly. “There was some physical education requirement and that seemed like a fun way to get it out of the way. Haven’t done it since, really . . . .”

Tony peered around the kitchen doorway in time to see Barnes give Pepper a cautiously appraising look, eyebrows raised. She gave him one right back, and he started to grin. When he stepped forward, he moved differently, lighter, looser. He looked somehow younger as he offered her a hand. “Wanna take a spin?”

Except for the fact that Pepper was there, Tony thought, he might be looking back in time at Bucky before . . . everything, maybe even before World War II. It should have been old-timey and funny, but instead he felt sort of sad and sort of lucky and sort of-- He wanted to hug somebody.

But Pepper was occupied at the moment. As they settled into closed position, she warned Bucky, “I’m pretty sure what I learned was supposed to be from the fifties. It might be a bit different from what you remember.”

“And I haven’t done this in seventy years, so I might be a little rusty.” He grinned at her. “We can blame it on being on carpet.”

Pepper giggled.

“Think you can follow a lead?”

“If it’s simple, sure.”

“FRIDAY, can you give us some music?”

A song Tony didn’t really recognize came on, kind of happy and old-fashioned sounding. When the lyrics started, they kicked off with a line about Saturday nights. FRIDAY’s new context algorithms were pretty good if he did say so himself. Then he stopped thinking about that and just watched the two of them dancing.

It was clumsy, and goofy, and definitely would not be up to snuff for whatever show Pepper had talked Bucky into watching, but they were both having a great time. Pepper started off looking self-conscious, but Tony watched that fade away as she relaxed. And Bucky looked intent and kind of distracted, but he was also smiling like he did when he was working on the T-bird.

Tony fully expected them to trip over the ottoman three separate times, but Pepper managed to dodge it the first time, and the second time Bucky did something that took them about three feet away all of a sudden. Something about that reminded Tony of the airport in Berlin, of watching him move and thinking uh-oh, this guy is good, but oddly enough, that didn’t worry him.

Right. Assassins are like onions. They have layers.

The third time the ottoman got in the way, Pepper mock-elegantly kicked it and sent it skidding across the plush carpet. Bucky laughed out loud.

“Obstacle dancing,” Pepper said primly. “New Olympic sport.”

As the song closed, Bucky held his arm out and Pepper spun, then froze dramatically as the last chord died. They both held the pose for a second. Tony muffled a laugh.

Then Bucky looked up. “Good choice with the song, FRIDAY,” he said.

“I thought it was fitting,” she replied.

The whole thing was weirdly heartwarming, and Tony was not used to having thoughts that involved the word heartwarming. He stepped out of the kitchen, applauding. “God damn it, Barnes,” he added, “stop flirting with my AI and my fiancée. You’re not interested in either of them.”

Pepper looked around, shaking her head, but smiling when she saw him.

Bucky, on the other hand, gave him a look of surprise--had Pepper not told him that she’d figured him out?--that quickly slid into pure snark. Tony admired that look. “I wouldn’t do it if either of ’em were interested in me,” he said. “Only when nobody cares.”

“See, that is the opposite of effective flirting,” Tony said.

“Fun though.”

“I think you’re doing something wrong.”

Bucky waggled his eyebrows. “If you want to do it right, I can leave you two alone . . . .”

Tony coughed. Pepper covered her face in her hand. “I’ve acquired a little brother,” she said.

Both of them burst out laughing at the look on Bucky’s face.

~

Peter wandered out of the kitchen after putting his plate in the dishwasher. “Thank you again, Bucky.” He bit his lip. “Um, hey, can I ask personal questions again? You can still tell me to shut up.”

“Peter, I can always tell you to shut up,” Bucky said from the couch, not looking up from his book.

“Yeah, okay. But I mean--about Steve. So, like, I know I’m being nosy and I’ll stop.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, but he was blushing a little. “For a few days, at least, huh?” He sounded like he was laughing at Peter, but not in a bad way. “Don’t you have enough people at school to gossip about?”

“Oh god no,” Peter said forcefully.

Bucky raised his eyebrows.

“Any dating drama—anything exciting enough where there’s actually gossip—I stay out of that.”

“Why?”

“Mostly I don’t care,” Peter said honestly. “But also because the people who do care care a lot and want you to too, and it’s kind of scary.”

“Last week you fought a robot.”

“It’s a different kind of scary. —So, can I ask personal questions?”

“I can’t stop you.”

In this context, Peter figured that was permission. “So, um, why don’t you want to tell him that you like him?”

Bucky shrugged. “He doesn’t like guys, so what’s the point?”

“I mean . . . okay, but—”

“Look,” Bucky said. “Back home, before the war, I didn’t tell him because I didn’t tell anybody. You gotta remember—no,” he sighed, “you gotta imagine, I guess—things were different then.”

“I know that,” Peter said, rolling his eyes, “and”—remembering something written on one of the bathroom mirrors by the cafeteria—“things aren’t perfect now, you know—”

“Then you’ll get it,” Bucky said. “‘Cause, remember, Steve was different too, back before . . . everything. He was delicate and artistic and we lived together, and people made enough assumptions about him without me acting like a total dope around him. Especially since I didn’t have a chance. Okay?”

“Oh,” Peter said, uncomfortable. He kept forgetting. Everyone knew Captain America hadn’t always been Captain America—part of the reason the story was so dramatic was how much he’d changed—but it was hard to keep that in mind, somehow, when he was talking with Steve and Bucky. It was all “hey, remember when” and “before the war,” and he just didn’t think to change his mental image of Steve in half the stories they told. But of course to anyone they would have known back then, it’d be the opposite—and if Peter was a scrawny nerdy kid, Steve would’ve been worse.

“If he knew I was doing anything to protect him, he’d probably have tried and punch me,” Bucky added. “But, eh, what he didn’t know didn’t hurt him.”

“That makes sense, I guess,” Peter said, “but why can’t you tell him now? You don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

“‘Cause I didn’t,” Bucky said, “and it’s been a long time, and I’d have to explain all of that anyway, and then—like I said. He doesn’t like guys. But I know Steve, and I bet you—” He looked briefly disgusted. “Hundred dollars still a lot of money?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Bet you a hundred dollars he’d feel bad that he didn’t feel the same way, because God forbid Steve ever make anyone unhappy, even when it’s not anything he actually has a say in.” His voice was all sarcastic and annoyed, but he was smiling a kind of soft, cozy smile. “Because it’s completely his fault I’m stupid enough to be stuck on my best friend, who happens to be even stupider than I am.”

“But it would be alright eventually, wouldn’t it?”

“Oh, sure. He’d feel bad, I’d tell him he was being an idiot, I’d tell him I’m being an idiot, we’d work it out. It’s just not worth it right now. Things are—” he turned to look out the window. “Things are good,” he said in a quiet, marvelling voice. “I don’t want to rock the boat.”

“Right, but if you feel like you have to hide it when you’re happy—it could be better, that’s all. That sucks.”

“Look.” Bucky turned back to him. “I know what you’re saying, and maybe someday I’ll do that. Right now, there is one person alive in the world who knows me and knows what I’ve done and cares about me and I don’t have an awkward relationship with, and I don’t want to ruin that, okay?”

“Awkward isn’t always bad.”

“I know.” Bucky gestured at Peter, who had to bite back a “hey!”—but he had a point. Being friends with someone older, not even counting the eightyish years part--just the normal “not old enough to be someone’s dad but way older than anyone’s older brothers or sisters”kind of older-- was weird sometimes.

“Really,” Bucky said, “awkward’s alright. But . . . these days I want one thing, just one thing, that’s solid.”

That sounded really lonely.

Peter thought about May and Ned, and how much he hadn’t wanted to tell either of them about being Spider-Man, and how much it mattered that they were still totally May and Ned now that they knew. “I get it, I think,” he said.

“I have what matters,” Bucky said. He stepped in front of Peter, looked down at him. “I’m not sad, I promise. Don’t you go worrying about me, either.”

“Okay,” Peter said. “And no more nosy questions.”

“None?” Bucky asked, eyes comically wide. “I’m shocked. Shocked, I tell you.”

Peter decided to get him back. “Well, there’s one thing I’ve always wondered.”

“Oh?” Bucky’s face looked like uh-oh, what am I getting into here . . . .

“Did your parents really like boring presidents, or are you related to him, or something?”

Bucky’s face relaxed. “The first one, actually,” he said, with a long-suffering sigh. “I’m just lucky I wasn’t Millard Fillmore.”

Peter burst out laughing. “Oh, come on!”

“I’m serious,” Bucky said, eyebrows raised.

“That’s not a president! . . . Isn’t that a kind of duck?”

“You’re thinking mallard,” Bucky said after a moment. “Millard Fillmore was two presidents before Buchanan. He was vice president when the guy before him died.”

“No, come on, you’re making this up! That's not an actual name! Is it?” Peter reached for his phone. Wikipedia would disprove this BS. Or—wait. “FRIDAY,” he asked, “there wasn’t actually a president named Millard Fillmore, right? Was there ever any person named Millard Fillmore?”

“I’m afraid there was,” FRIDAY said. She really did sound sorry. “And he was the 13th president of the United States.”

“No,” Peter breathed. “Was that—was that a name back then? Why would you do that to a kid?”

“Didn’t hurt him that much,” Bucky said. “But I’m glad my parents didn’t go with it.” He grimaced. “The nicknames would’ve been worse. I’d have to agree with Stark on that one. But luckily I had a cousin Mildred, so they thought it would be confusing.”

Peter squinted at him. “You’re making this up, right?”

Bucky gestured at the ceiling, wide-eyed and innocent. “You heard FRIDAY. Thirteenth president.”

“Not that. You—you weren’t really almost named that, were you?”

“God, I hope not,” Bucky said, finally cracking and starting to laugh. “Far as I know, it’s a family name. I think some uncles on my mom’s side had it too. I don’t know if the James was on purpose or if they just didn’t think of it.”

“Ughhhh,” Peter groaned at him. “You . . .”

“Yup,” Bucky said brightly. “But no, really, having middle names like presidents was one of the things Steve and I thought was fun to have in common when we were kids.” He shook his head, as if to say we were dorks. Peter couldn’t really disagree, but—

“Steve’s middle name is a president?” He frowned. He couldn’t think of Steve’s middle name, actually, although he was sure he’d heard it or read it or even had to know it for school at some point.

“Grant,” Bucky supplied. Then, when Peter kept frowning—trying to come up with the president this time; same deal, he knew he knew it, he just didn’t know it—he rolled his eyes and said “Ulysses S. Grant? General? C’mon.”

“Oh! Right,” Peter said. “I just… remembered the Ulysses part better. No, I know that one. We got up to the Civil War last time we had US history.”

Bucky shook his head and muttered something about schools in the future. Peter laughed, but thought about what he’d said before, about wanting just one thing in his life that he could count on, something solid. School had changed. What people did for fun had changed. The city had changed—he’d said the skyline felt wrong at first. No wonder Bucky mostly talked about stuff that was old for both of them, or new to both of them, instead of the stuff that was almost-but-not-quite the same. That was usually what Peter brought up, what he thought was neat. Bucky went along with it, but . . . . it would get weird, not knowing if what you used to think or do was still right or not.

Yeah, Bucky said he wasn’t sad—not about Steve, anyway. But Peter still thought that sounded really lonely.

~

Tony heard the chime of the elevator, followed by a soft “Whoa.” He smiled to himself. It was the first time the kid had seen the lab—he’d asked FRIDAY to send him down to deliver the suit, since he was in the middle of working on a software upgrade for it. He didn’t turn around right away, continuing to debug the code while he let the kid get a good look.

“Pretty cool, right?”

“Yeah! —Oh, uh, hi, Mr. Stark. Uh, I brought back the new suit.”

“Great,” Tony said, still not turning around. “How’s that working for you?”

“Um, it’s really nice and the traffic scanning system is a cool thing,” Peter said. “It’s maybe a little . . . itchy?”

“New polymers,” Tony said. “Stretchy. You’re probably due for a growth spurt. Just don’t wear ‘em without underwear for now.”

“Ew! Gross! I wouldn’t do that!”

“Bruce’s working on it for...other reasons. Next generation should be softer,” Tony said over the sound of scandalized teenage spluttering. “I’ll take this back. Use the other one in the meantime; you should be fine.”

The kid was still horrified. “Do you know how tight this—? Eugh!”

“Anything else?” Tony asked.

“Uh, yeah, actually,” Peter said, the disgusted muttering abruptly cutting off. He was about as serious as Tony had ever heard him.

“Well?” Tony asked, when the nervous silence got to be too much.

“They don’t make condolence cards that say ‘sorry everyone you know is dead,’ do they.”

Uh. “Not that I know of,” Tony said, “but I’m a total failure at cards and courtesy and other things starting in c, so I might not be the best person to ask.” Then his brain caught up and he said, “You’ve been talking with the sad frozen puppies.”

“What? Oh. Yeah. And I just—I know there aren’t cards, I just—don’t know what to do.” He was quiet for a minute, but just as Tony opened his mouth to say something, he added, “Because that sounds really lonely.”

“Uh,” Tony said, out loud this time. What did the kid think he was, a responsible adult? Well, he was, but—not a mentor figure kind of person.

Okay, true, he’d given the kid a suit and a few lectures on being a responsible crimefighter, sure, but—

And yeah, he’d told him that he had to do the right thing to deserve the suit, but that didn’t make him a life coach.

Except he’d also told Peter he was supposed to be better than Tony (because Tony’s legacy was obviously going to be crap or neutral at best, but if he could make the kid better, then maybe—).

But that was one time. Just because he went around offering deep advice and guidance didn’t mean people had any right to think he was some kind of person who could dispense deep advice and guidance. Not the sage advisor type!

“I don’t know what to do either,” he said sharply. “If I knew what to do, I’d have done something.” He put his tools down and turned to face Peter, flipping up his welding mask—how long had he had that on? He hadn’t been welding since this morning.

The kid looked kind of like a sad puppy himself. Ugh. Now Tony felt bad. But how could he be expected to fix what was basically time travel? He made the present into the future. He didn’t do things about the past.

But he did do fixing things.

—Yeah. He did fixing things and the first time he met Steve, he didn’t think “how sad everyone you know is dead,” he made fun of his outfit. The kid didn’t need to be told to be better than him. The kid was better than him already.

“Look, kid. I’m good for making things work and money and explosions. Not people. I kind of suck at them.”

“I don’t think you’re that bad at it,” Peter said in a small voice.

“Well, your asking about this means you’re already better than I am, okay?” Tony flipped the mask back down. “I’ll work on the suit. Stop thinking I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi. See you next week.”

He could still peripherally see Peter as he turned back to the bench. The kid didn’t move right away. Then he walked back to the elevator door. Right before he got in, he said, loud and defiant, “Han Solo was just as good for Rey as Obi-Wan was for Luke!”

Chapter Text

Tony strolled onto Steve’s floor. The geriatric super (semi-super? super and formerly-super? the artist formerly known as super?)-soldiers were eating lunch. He flopped down into the chair next to Bucky and grabbed a pear out of a bowl on the table.

Both of them gave him exasperated/tolerant looks. He was getting expert at identifying their exasperated/tolerant looks. They weren’t as good as Pepper’s, though.

“So Pepper and I just got back from MOMA,” he said, taking a bite. “Can you believe the stuff they call modern? Well, maybe you’re not the best people to ask. But there’s stuff in there that’s even older than you two. I mean, Starry Night is not modern. It was made in the eighteen-hundreds. That’s not modern. Not that a lot of the newer stuff is better,” he added. “I can do something more fun with a bunch of abstract shapes. Not just ‘convey an idea’ and all that woo-y stuff, actually make the idea happen. So much cooler.

“At least Starry Night was pretty. It’s actually a lot greener than all the pictures of it, and figuring out some reasons why was kind of fun. The other stuff in that room was mostly dull and smudgy and I would have been bored otherwise. But Pepper loves it, so eh.”

There it was—art conversation bait officially released.

Steve raised an eyebrow. Bucky tensed.

A moment passed.

“Okay,” Tony said. “What?”

“You insulted Impressionists in front of Steve,” Bucky said. He was probably playing up the shock in his voice. Probably. “And you’re not bleeding.”

“Oh, come on, Bucky—”

Bucky put another forkful of omelette into his mouth. “You don’t have a good track record with people who don’t appreciate art, ’s all I’m saying.”

“I never—”

“Bill Marconi?”

“Bill was an asshole and a hack and thought he was Picasso,” Steve muttered.

“Wait, you punched someone out over art?” Tony asked, shocked and delighted. This was the good stuff!

“More than once,” Bucky said.

“It was never just over art,” Steve protested.

“Oh, so the mural—”

“That was about organized labor!”

“Then what about the portrait of—”

“That was about the man’s politics, not—"

“And Louise’s landscape—”

“That guy was just picking on Louise because she wouldn’t go out with him. ‘He didn’t appreciate abstraction’ was just an excuse.”

“And what about the time—”

“Okay, fine!”

~

After Stark had left, still snickering over some of the more detailed “Steve Rogers, Champion of Justice and Good Scene Composition” stories, Bucky frowned at Steve. Steve ignored his gaze, clearing away his plate and picking up a sketchbook. “Pass me that box of colored pencils from the side table?”

Bucky handed it over. “Tony—Stark”—it was getting harder and harder to stick to last names with everyone else calling him Tony—“doesn’t know anything about you and art?”

“Nope. I mean, he realized that I still draw a few weeks ago.”

That didn’t make any sense. The first thing anyone learned about Steve was that he had opinions; the second, if they spent any time with him at all, was that he was an artist; and the third, if you gave him half a chance, was that he had opinions about art. Stark knew how Steve felt about the design of the tower—Bucky was pretty sure the descriptions had included “ugly,” “inharmonious,” and “novelty for novelty’s sake”—would he really not have said anything else?

And how had Stark missed Steve drawing? Since he’d started art school, he was always drawing, even if it was just sketches of the corner of a building or ridiculous cartoons of bigwigs whose meetings he’d been trapped in. That had happened a lot during the war. Somewhere, if they’d survived, some historian had a stash of caricatures of Phillips and Senator Brandt. Surely he’d done the same thing at SHIELD. And most of the presents he gave friends on birthdays and holidays, if they weren’t practical necessities, were drawings—portraits of loved ones or landscapes they liked. He’d drawn Bucky’s mother’s kitchen in loving detail. She’d had the picture framed and hung it up on the side of one of the cabinets.

“Why didn’t he know you’re an artist, Steve?”

“Because I didn’t tell him.” Steve didn’t look at Bucky, focusing on the shading of whatever he was coloring in different greens and blues.

“Steve—”

“He knows that’s what I used to be. But when he met me, it was as Captain America. What that means—meant—for the Avengers was that I’m the leader.” He frowned at the paper. “I need to be someone all of them would respect and listen to. Tony . . . doesn’t really think much of me. Or at least, I never thought he did.”

Bucky shifted uncomfortably.

“No, Buck,” Steve said, looking over at him, “that’s nothing to do with you. He never did. When we first met, he basically said I was a kid from seventy years ago who didn’t know anything and was no use.” He shrugged. “I’d been out of the ice for three weeks. Didn’t know much about much of anything. He wasn’t really wrong.”

He switched to a different pencil. “We got off on the wrong foot in a big way. It got better, after New York, but I never—he never really wanted to listen to me, and he almost always had a good point when he didn’t. So I didn’t want to do anything . . . anything frivolous, anything un-Captain-y, around him and make him think even less of me.”

“Drawing’s not frivolous. It’s not . . . ” He trailed off, knowing what Steve meant but unable to come up with the words for it.

Steve snorted. “You know as well as I do that’s how some people are gonna see it. The world hasn’t changed that much.” Bucky nodded sadly, remembering a few of those fights.

“Besides,” Steve added in a softer voice, “I didn’t really want him to see what I was drawing most of the time then. It was everything I’d lost, over and over—trying to hold onto it somehow, I guess. Ma, Peggy, the stores on our street, the Howlies, our apartment . . . you. Didn’t want anyone to see, really, but especially not someone who would make fun of it.”

Bucky reached over and grasped Steve’s knee. Steve gave him a shaky grin and reached down, putting his hand over Bucky’s. “It’s alright. Better now I have you back.”

“Why are you so sure he’d make fun of you?”

“Because that’s looking back, not catching up,” Steve said bitterly. “And because it’s the wrong kind of making stuff, to him. You heard what he said—Tony makes things. Things that are useful, and efficient, and”—he waved a hand—“sexy, and they all do things. I don’t draw schematics, so he’d think it’s all a waste of time.”

“I don’t—”

“He saw my sketchbook a few days ago,” Steve said quietly. “The one with the portraits in it.” Bucky nodded. He’d seen Steve working on those. “He just— He looked confused by it, honestly. Like he couldn’t imagine why I’d spend my time on it. He only really slowed down and looked at the drawings I did of y—of when we were kids. He asked if it was you. He could figure that out, see.” He shrugged. “It’s alright. Figuring things out is what he likes. He doesn’t have to be impressed. It’s fine to not be interested in what I do. He didn’t laugh, at least, and that’s something.”

“What’d he think of the one of your mom?” Steve looked a lot like Sarah had, some ways. If Stark enjoyed figuring out who people were, he’d have gotten a kick out of guessing who she was from the family resemblance.

Steve smiled crookedly. “I took it back before he got that far.”

“You—?”

“He grabbed it out of my hands in the first place, so I grabbed it back.”

Bucky laughed. “Bet that surprised him.”

“It did. Don’t think he minded, though.”

He drew in silence for a while, while Bucky thought.

“But the drawings you used to do for people—”

“No point.” Steve shook his head sadly. “If Tony wants art, he can go out and hire a realartist to make something for him, exactly the way he wants it. Probably do it through a charity commission thing, too. He doesn’t need any of my scribbles.”

~

Tony had a mission. Bucky was doing a lot better than he had been, but nothing made him smile like talking about old dumb things that Steve had done—or new dumb things that Steve had done—or Steve in general—and Tony really wasn’t convinced that didn’t go both ways.

Which made Tony officially curious. Pepper had lots of very good points about waiting and restraint and respecting people’s boundaries, and she didn’t even need to make them because Tony knew it all himself. He wasn’t really pushing anything. He was just gathering data. Really. Because people deserved to be happy.

“Look,” Tony said, once Bucky was busy with the T-bird and couldn’t just walk away. “Are you sure Cap doesn’t like guys? I mean, I have nothing to go on either way,” he said, raising his hands defensively, because man that was a dirty look, “but that’s kind of the point. He’s never seemed very into anybody to me, and he had Nat getting all up in his business. I think that was mostly to mess with him, but, uh, the Black Widow? Very effective when she wants to be. Firsthand experience.”

“I didn’t need to know that,” Bucky grumbled.

“No, not like—well, kind of, but—okay, beside the point, moving on. The most I’ve seen out of him is getting all wistful about Peggy Carter, and that’s, well, she was old and didn’t remember him half the time. That’d make anybody sad. I visited her a few times. She thought I was my dad once. That was weird.”

Bucky turned back to the engine. “Do you have a point here, Stark?”

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, that’s all I’m saying.” There. He’d put it out there and no one (ahem, Pepper) could say he was doing anything other than being a good scientist.

Bucky put down the wrench he was using with a clank and turned to face Tony. “I have evidence of absence, alright? Since 1939.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. ‘Oh.’” Bucky sighed. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do—what I think you’re trying to do—but it’s not like that.”

“Okay.”

They worked in silence—relative silence, with Friday turning up the music when the conversation ebbed—for a while. Tony turned it over in his mind. Eventually:

“Nineteen thirty-nine, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but 1939 was 1939. Do you think he could’ve been—”

“First, I can tell when Steve’s lying, and second, ‘Yeah, it would be nice to be wanted, but not like that’ is pretty damn unambiguous.” Bucky wasn’t looking at him and was very busy laying out his tools on the workbench next to the T-bird.

“Oh,” Tony said again. “Ouch. —Sorry.”

Bucky shrugged. “I’ve had ten years to deal with it. Think I’ll live.”

~

November, 1939

“Cheer up,” Bucky said, kicking Steve’s leg under the table. “She was stuck-up anyway.”

“Yeah? Then why’d you set me up with her in the first place?”

Bucky grimaced.

Steve sighed. “Sorry. I know you’re just trying to cheer me up. It’s just—I get kinda tired of all this, y’know?” His sweeping gesture took in the bar, the fact that they were in the bar instead of out with the girls, the whole night. “And I feel bad for ruining your night, too.”

“Hey, no,” Bucky said, setting down his beer. “Wasn’t like I knew anyone there that well. Don’t mind spending time with you instead.” Really, really don’t mind . . . .

Steve smiled. It wasn’t a big smile, but it was at least half genuine. “Thanks.” He took a sip of his beer, expression thoughtful. Bucky took the chance to look a second longer than he’d normally dare to—the way the dim light caught in Steve’s hair, the faint marks of newsprint still on his hand from work that afternoon, the stubborn set of his shoulders even when he was discouraged.

He was perfect.

Sadie was an idiot if she couldn’t see it, and Bucky was secretly, horribly glad she couldn’t. He wanted Steve to be happy—of course he did—and getting turned down over and over like this didn’t make him happy. But it meant—it meant this. It meant an evening out with Steve, at least sort of, and it meant Steve wasn’t going to get serious about anyone and move out anytime soon.

When you got down to it, Bucky was selfish. He’d accepted that.

He tried, though. He never set Steve up with anyone awful on purpose. He’d been tempted, sure, but he never would. He wanted Steve to be happy.

Just.

Steve’s eyes flickered; he’d noticed Bucky watching. Bucky took a long breath in and blinked slowly, shaking himself a bit, like he’d just been lost in thought and hadn’t realized he’d been looking at Steve at all. He opened his mouth to say something, some kind of diversion, maybe even suggest they go out someplace else and try their luck again . . . .

But Steve just took another drink, watching Bucky from under those long lashes this time, and Bucky swallowed, not sure what to do.

This was the other part. It had been happening more and more lately, where Steve seemed to be . . . well, not flirting, and certainly not seductive, but—watching. Or realizing that Bucky was watching and giving him a chance to keep doing it.

That could just be wishful thinking. It probably was. It was driving Bucky crazy to not be sure.

But if Steve was alright with it, if he was more than alright with it, he’d say something. This was Steve. He considered it a right and a duty to tell people how he felt about them, even if it meant starting a fight, and he’d never said anything to Bucky that even hinted he thought about him that way.

Hell, if he’d caught Bucky looking, he’d probably point it out right then and there, not play this game of cat and mouse. So this wasn’t anything. It couldn’t be.

And Steve couldn’t fake how he was feeling any better at twenty-one than he could at eleven. He was definitely upset about Sadie. Bucky was imagining things.

Steve put his beer down. “I don’t really mind it from any person in particular. I mean, I know I’m not much to look at.” His wry smile and bitter humor were completely innocuous, the same as they ever were, but Bucky could swear he was nervous, too, and that those bright eyes flicked to his face as he said it. “It’s just that it happens every time.” He took a breath. “It’d be nice to be wanted, you know?”

Bucky’s head spun. His heart had stopped, or maybe started going too fast to track. His stomach wasn’t churning, but that was because it appeared to be missing. He couldn’t feel his feet. He took a hasty gulp of beer to buy himself some time and keep the reassurance that was on the tip of his tongue locked inside.

I want you, Stevie.

It almost slipped out, natural and comfortable, the way they always talked. He’d said it in every other way: “she doesn’t know what she’s missing.” “You’re a real catch, you’ve just got to find someone with enough sense to appreciate you.” Or, when he was sick and told Bucky not to cancel whatever plans he’d had: “I’d rather spend the night at home with you anyhow.”

Had Steve noticed what Bucky had always been saying?

Was Steve saying what he thought he was saying?

Whatever it was, there was something almost spoken hovering between them, and they couldn’t hash it out here. Bucky drained his beer. “Let’s call it a night,” he said, as casually as he could manage.

“Sure,” Steve said. Was he a little pale? Was he moving a little faster than usual, the way he always did when he was nervous? “Let me finish this.”

Steve wasn’t a fast drinker; he prefered to linger. Bucky was pretty sure that was because he really prefered that and not a way of saving money. But he finished up awfully fast tonight.

They were partway home, walking through the streets in the crisp fall dusk, when someone walking the other direction bumped shoulders with Steve. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey, Carl,” Steve said. Carl. Bucky vaguely recognized the guy—Steve had had a few art classes with him. He seemed alright, but right now, this second, Bucky hated his guts.

“I’m glad I ran into you,” Carl said. “Are you going to Charlie’s opening?”

“I didn’t know he had a show,” Steve said.

“D’you have a minute?” Carl asked. “I’ll tell you about it.”

“Uh—” Steve glanced apologetically at Bucky. Bucky wanted nothing more than to tell Carl to get lost, but he just shrugged.

“I’ll head on home, get the heat on,” he said.

“I’ll catch up before then,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. Bucky smiled crookedly, nodded at the two of them, and walked off, hands in his coat pockets to keep them warm.

Steve caught up less than two blocks later, looking disgusted.

“Not a fan of Charlie’s opening?” Bucky teased. He’d heard Steve’s thoughts on Charlie’s art, if this was the same Charlie. They were not admiring.

“Charlie doesn’t really have a show,” Steve said. His face was red. “Carl just wanted to—” He shook his head and took a breath. He didn’t look at Bucky as he said, “I know I said it’d be nice to be wanted, but . . . not like that.”

Bucky’s heart—and stomach—dropped.

Well.

That was pretty clear. And a nice, convenient way of letting Bucky down easy, if Steve had guessed. His stomach clenched at the thought of the conversation they might have had when they got home otherwise. Really, he owed Carl a thank you.

He listened to Steve with half an ear as they walked the rest of the way back to their apartment, doing his best to act natural. Steve’s breath smoked golden in the streetlamps and his hands moved energetically as he explained something about modernism and why Charlie would never get a show until he could figure out composition, but Bucky could only admire it distantly. His own enthusiasm was gone.

When they got home, Steve swung his coat off and hung it on the hook. His earlier blush had faded, though his nose was red from the cold. He gave Bucky an almost expectant look.

Bucky couldn’t come up with opinions on art right now. He pulled off his own coat and yawned. “I’m bushed. Thanks for being willing to leave a bit earlier than usual. See you tomorrow, Steve.”

He strolled off, pretending to be tired, pretending he didn’t see the confused look on Steve’s face.

~

“Leapfrog!”

Bucky ducked as Peter jumped over his head, having dodged a punch and climbed the wall to gain the high ground.

“Okay, good job,” he said as the kid landed and spun around to face him. “But what’ll you do if you meet someone who can actually fight you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not the only person out there with augmented strength.” Bucky took a step closer, slow and lazy. “What would you do if somebody does—this?” He lunged forward and grabbed Peter’s wrist with the metal arm, stepping sideways and pulling it around behind the kid. Most people Peter could probably just pull free from, but not him, not if he was trying. There were other people out there like him, and Peter needed to know what to do if he met them.

Peter jumped and did a flip, kicking backward as he did so. Bucky caught a foot on his shoulder—better than his face, but not fun. Peter twisted in the air so his arm wasn’t twisted and blasted Bucky with webbing in the face as he landed.

“Nice,” Bucky said through the webs. “Now get this off.”

Peter sprayed him with the web-melting mist, cackling.

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said, clawing it away and accidentally-on-purpose tripping Peter to the ground. You could breathe through the stuff, it just wasn’t comfortable—and it smelled funny. “Good job, Itsy-Bitsy Spi—”

He broke off. Something in the back of his mind tickled.

Peter hopped to his feet. “Bucky? You okay?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said distantly. “Yeah, but just—give me a minute?”

Frowning, trying to hold on to that fine tendril of memory, he went to the gym door and down the hallway to where Steve was reading in the living room. “Hey, Stevie. Do you know anything about Natasha Romanov’s training?”

“Not really. Just what she told me, and she didn’t tell me much.”

“What was it?”

“She was raised in some kind of late Soviet assassin program, I guess you could call it. Bunch of little girls taken from their families, trained to be spies and fighters from when they were really little. I mean really little. Talking, walking, that’s about it, from what she said. They were in this program where they learned languages, ballet for some reason, and all kinds of combat, poisoning, things like that, from all the experts the program could get their hands on.” He shrugged. “That’s it. Bucky, what’s this all about?”

“I . . . .I know the words for Itsy Bitsy Spider in Russian.”

Steve stared at him blankly.

“I was training the kid—never mind. I just wanted to say it, and I didn’t have to think about it. I didn’t translate it. It was already in my head. And—”

“And?”

“And I know I’ve taught somebody small to defend against the metal arm before.” He held a hand up just below chest height. “Smaller than Peter.”

Steve swallowed. “So you think—”

“I’m pretty much an expert in anything you’d want an assassin to know,” Bucky said tightly. “And if you wanted to train a child to fight someone bigger—”

Steve was already reaching for his phone.

~

His contact for Natasha didn’t work, though; rather, it rang and went to a very bland, generic-sounding voicemail for a Nancy Randall. He raised his eyebrows when it began, but Bucky was already shaking his head. This wasn’t something he could ask about by leaving a message. It wasn’t smart from a security perspective, but more than that, it wasn’t something he could do. Steve hung up.

“We could ask Tony,” he said hesitantly as Bucky paced around the room. “Nat was on his side, at first. She probably managed to keep in touch a bit, same as she did with me. If you don’t mind him knowing—”

“What?” Bucky said blankly. “No, of course not.”

Steve raised his eyebrows again. Bucky didn’t bother trying to figure out why. “Friday, can you get in touch with Tony, please? It’s urgent.”

Stark’s voice came from the ceiling seconds later. “Hey, Winter Warlock,” Tony said, frowning. “What’s up?”

“Do you have a way to get in touch with the Black Widow?” Bucky asked bluntly. “I need to talk with her.”

Stark’s eyebrows climbed higher than Steve’s. “I don’t, but Pepper does.”

“She does?” This was the first he’d heard of it.

“Yeah, she’s kind of not talking to me. Well, no, she’ll text me occasionally, but I don’t think she’d pick up if it was me. But she and Pepper have some kinda ongoing conversation. I think it’s at least half about shoes and what’s comfortable and maaaaybe what brand of heels you can use to kill someone with, I didn’t ask. Spies and CEOs have more in common than you’d think, I guess, starting with, they’re both redheads and they both scare me when I ask the wrong questions.”

Steve looked torn between annoyance and amusement. Bucky just asked, “Can you give me the number?”

~

Peter had gotten sick of waiting in the gym and had come out into the living room. He was waiting a bit apart from Steve and Bucky, neither of whom were saying anything, and wondering if he should say something, when Mr. Stark hurried out of the elevator, holding a phone.

“Any idea what’s going on, kid?” he asked.

Peter shook his head. “Bucky and I were sparring, and he was making fun of me, and then he looked all worried and ran off to talk to Steve.” He turned to the two of them. “Is everything okay?”

“It is,” Bucky said, talking to Mr. Stark as much as Peter. “I just. I think I remembered something.”

Mr. Stark handed Bucky the phone. Bucky nodded at him in thanks, bit his lip, and pressed a button on the screen. He held it to his ear and whispered something as it rang.

“. . . Is he talking in Russian?” Peter asked.

“Yeah,” Steve said.

“Does he know he’s talking in Russian?”

“I’m not sure.”

~

The ringing stopped.

“Widow,” Bucky said.

“What is it?”

“I need you to listen for a minute. And—and then tell me yes or no.”

An attentive silence.

“There was”— he frowned, trying to will the flashes to come back—“a room, brown walls, no windows. Underground, maybe. And—” desks? no desks? Was that a different room? “—there was a schoolroom, or something, nearby, but this one was empty. Mirrors on the walls, but they were covered with some kind of padding on frames, hung over them. That was what was brown. Floor was . . . wood. There were little girls, training. Five—maybe six of them?”

The memory was of motion, blurs of movement just breaking from attentive stances. He couldn’t capture detail. He couldn’t remember. Just flashes of movement, impact—surprisingly hard from opponents so small—and the reflected sheen of light off—“Some of them were blonde. At least two, I think. And—and one little redhead.”

On the other end of the line, a short, sharp intake of breath.

Serious little faces, sharp and focused during instruction, fierce and intent as they attacked. One had hung back. That had been bad—something bad had happened because of that. One had gone in quickly and almost caught him unprepared. But the redhead had lurked in the middle before springing up with—something really clever—and if she’d actually been armed she could have hurt him. He’d been impressed; a dull, muted kind of impressed, but he’d noticed.

“They were young,” he said. “Not—” Some things were hard to put in context after the fact, if it had been missing at the time. If he saw a child that size now, he would know how old they were; at the time, it hadn’t mattered, and so— “Seven, maybe eight years old. Not ten. Not growing like that.” Becca had had her growth spurt at ten. She’d shot up until she was nearly as tall as he was, and only the fact that he’d hit his own growth spurt early had saved him from being passed up.

“I wasn’t there for very long, I don’t think. Not years. But it was a while.” He squinted as though that would bring the memories into focus. It was a while, more than one lesson, maybe more than one set of lessons. They had begun sparring with weapons. In some of the memories—he thought, although he might be making it up—some of the girls were taller, could reach higher.

The Black Widow still hadn’t said anything. He remembered the second part of his request. “Is it real?”

“I don’t know.” She sounded nonplussed. “I’m sorry. What else do you remember?”

“Not much. Just that room, and fighting. I think, I think there were names, Olga, Yelena, Natalia. And I—” He broke off, because it sounded so stupid now, but he knew the words. “For some reason, I can do this.” And he sang “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” in Russian, down the phone.

“Oh,” Romanoff said when he was done. Then: “It’s real.”

Bucky closed his eyes and let the silence stand in for all the words that wouldn’t come. “Natalia, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m part of what they did to you.”

“Don’t be,” she said, and it was so firm and immediate that he was taken aback. “I don’t remember it either, not really. It’s that way with some other parts of our training. They must not have wanted us to know. . . . But what I do remember is that it was better, better than anything else in the Red Room. You were part of what happened to me, but you were a good part.”

“Alright,” Bucky said. There wasn’t much else he could say. “But while I’m at it”— he tightened his grip on the phone. “I’m sorry for shooting you. For the bridge in D.C., and attacking you in Berlin, and—Steve told me it was you at Odessa—”

“None of that was you,” she said. “I don’t hold it against you. But singing songs to the children who were raised to be assassins—that was you. I guarantee it wouldn’t even occur to the masters at the Red Room.” Her voice was warm. He thought she might be smiling. “As far as I’m concerned, the one time I met you that you were able to chose, you were kind to me. So. Thanks.”

“Thank you for stalling T’Challa, then,” Bucky said, smiling in response and blinking hard. “I think that makes us even.”

“That’s fair,” she said. Then: “I should go. But I hope we meet again, in better circumstances.”

“Me too,” he said.

The phone made the falling-tone beep that meant the other person had hung up. Bucky looked up to see Stark, Steve, and Peter staring at him.

“What?”

“You were talking in Russian,” Peter said.

Really? Huh. “Yeah, I can do that,” he said easily. “Italian, French, German, Czech, Thai, and Cantonese, too. Decent at Spanish, but not as good. Probably some others, I just can’t—”

“I think the kid’s point is why were you talking Russian with the Russian assassin, what’s going on,” Tony said, rolling his eyes.

“I was confirming I’d trained the Russian assassin and a bunch of other little girls when they were about seven years old,” Bucky snapped. It echoed in his own ears. Steve bowed his head. Peter and Stark looked nonplussed.

“What.”

“I didn’t remember it until today, and neither did she. But apparently, at some point, Hydra decided to loan me out to the Red Room.” It left a bitter taste in his mouth and a silence in the room.

“Well, that’s a lot to process,” Stark said brightly. “I’ll leave you to it. Back to the lab.”

“She thanked me, actually,” Bucky said softly.

“Huh?” Tony halted at the door.

“She said I was kind to them. Kind compared to the rest of the Red Room, anyway.”

“That’s—good?”

“It soundsgood,” Peter said, looking at Bucky warily.

“It means it was less awful than the rest of her childhood.” Bucky stared at the wall for a minute, then shook his head. “I guess I should believe her and not feel bad. But, hell, they were so little . . . .”

“Nat wouldn’t say it was alright if she didn’t mean it,” Steve said. Tony pointed at him.

“Yeah. What he said.” He theatrically dusted off his hands. “Now that this little dramatic episode is over with . . . .” He held out his hand. Bucky blinked, then handed him his cell phone back.

“Thank you.”

“Yeah, no problem. Never gets boring with you around. It’s the 24-hour geriatric time-travel trauma station around here. I’m getting back to work. Bye.”

Bucky waved absently as Tony babbled his way out of the room. “Peter,” he said, “sorry about leaving like that. You want to go back and keep going?”

“Uh, if you’re up for it, sure, I guess,” Peter said, still wide-eyed.

“Let’s go.” As they headed out of the room, however, Steve grabbed his sleeve.

“You’re sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah. —Go on, I’ll meet you.” Bucky waved Peter off, then turned back to Steve. “Yeah, Steve, I’m fine. Really. I did something good for those girls, it sounds like, besides teaching them how to kill people. I don’t mind that.” He took a shaky breath. “It’s just weird that I don’t remember more of it. They must have wiped me extra hard after that.”

“Maybe they had to,” Steve said. “If you were acting more yourself, I mean. If you were fighting them—”

Bucky shook his head. “I think they just couldn’t figure out how to have me teach children without being nice to them. I was still following orders.”

“Can’t order you to do something you don’t know how to do,” Steve said, and smiled.

“Becca ‘n Gracie might not agree with that,” Bucky said. “Alice, maybe.”

“Say, speaking of . . .” Steve began.

“No.” Bucky cut him off.

“FRIDAY could just tell you what—”

“Not happening. We’ve talked about this. If they’re still around, I’m not going to tell them I’m alive. It’s kinder if they think I’m dead. And I’m not ready to find out if they are.” He swallowed hard. “I still remember ’em the way they were when I left. I don’t know if I could handle finding out any of them’s dead.”

Steve sighed. “It’s your choice,” he said in the tone of voice that meant but you’re making a stupid one, Barnes.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, voice hard, “it is. Now, I’ve got another kid to teach, so if you’ll excuse me . . . .”

“Wait,” Steve said. “I’m sorry. I’m glad you’re alright. Natasha?”

“Says she is.” Bucky shrugged. “Says she’d like to meet me sometime when we’re not trying to kill each other. I’d like that.”

“You two would get along,” Steve said, looking thoughtful. “You’d fix me up with everyone you know between you, but you’d like each other.”

Bucky snorted, waved at him, and headed down the hallway toward the gym and Peter.

~

“So,” Tony said as Bucky wiggled his fingers and he watched the readouts from the sensors attached to the arm from wrist to elbow. “I’ve got a question for you about Cap.”

“Tony,” Bucky groaned—then caught himself. “Ah. Shit.”

“No,” Stark—said after a minute, “No, that’s fine. The ‘disgustedly saying my name and rolling eyes’ thing really works better with my first name. You can keep using it if you want.”

“I—”

“Nope,” Tony said, hunching his shoulders. “It’s fine. I don’t hate you, you don’t hate me, we’re cool, we can go back to first names, no one needs to have an aneurysm over it. Except I’m still not going to call you ‘Bucky’ because that’s actually a dumb name.”

Bucky blinked. He was pretty sure that was a gesture of friendship—wrapped in an insult, maybe, but that seemed to be . . . Tony’s . . . way of doing things. “Uh. Okay.”

“Yeah. So, questions. And I’m not being all nosy about anybody’s sexual orientation this time, I promise.”

“Okay,” Bucky said warily.

“Yeah. So. Cap’s an artist. And he gets worked up about art, and people not liking things, and stuff. All those funny stories from the day before yesterday.”

“Yep,” Bucky said.

“He’s—good, right? I don’t know anything about art, Pepper’s the one who likes it, but because she’s always around and picking things out I kind of—and I saw some of his sketches the other day. So . . . he’s good.”

“I always thought so.”

“Why’d he stop?”

“He didn’t.”

Tony paused at that one. “You know, he went with Pep to the Met or something once or twice,” he said, staring absently at the mechanical claw he was tinkering with. “Said something about catching up. I just thought he was being all ‘Captain America, Supporting Cultural Literacy,’ that kind of thing. Y’know, like he’d rather catch up on art than pop culture, because it’s more important. That, uh, was wrong, I’m guessing.”

Bucky shrugged. The sensors registered that too. “He’d probably rather catch up on art than movies or TV shows or music, first thing anyway, but that’s because he likes it. And I don’t know for sure, I wasn’t here. But now that he’s got proper color vision, I’d bet . . . whatever passes for a lot of money now . . . that you couldn’t get him out of there for days.”

“Proper color vision?”

“He wasn’t totally colorblind back then, but bad enough that some paintings just looked off to him. That’s why he’d mostly do sketches, ink drawings, stuff like that.” That, and paints, pastels, and colored pencils were expensive—but Bucky didn’t mention that. He began to see where Steve might be coming from. “That’s why he mostly draws in reds or blues now, not both in the same drawing.”

“But Captain Team Bonding didn’t mention any of that. What the hell?”

“I’m going to let the two of you work that out,” Bucky said finally. “I’m not your go-between.”

“I just don’t get his deal. At all. Ever.” Tony frowned at his sensor readings.

“Think about it this way, maybe,” Bucky said after a minute. “You like the kid, right?

“Well, yeah.”

“He’s a lot like Steve.

Tony’s face did something strange. “Uhhh…”

“He’s like, Steve, but he listens to you.”

“What am I supposed to say to that?!”

Bucky laughed.

~

They worked in relative peace for a while. Bucky wasn’t going to tell him anything about Cap’s art—thing, but that was fine—that was fine. He could figure it out himself. And meanwhile, he had better things to do.

“Y’know,” he said, after taking footage of Bucky’s elbow rotating from every possible angle and asking him to pinpoint exactly what parts of that rotation felt like a stretch or strain and where, “you’re going to need a better disguise for this if you keep going out shopping.” He tapped the arm with a fingernail. It made a nice clinking noise. “You can’t keep wearing jackets and gloves forever. It’s June.”

Bucky made an unimpressed face. “That’s what I did for the last three years.”

“Yeah, but I’ve got a better idea now,” Tony said, grinning. “Based on some SHIELD tech that Natasha showed me ages ago. It’s how she snuck into SHIELD, actually, for the whole take-down-Hydra file-dump thing. And it’ll definitely keep anyone from looking at you and making all the connections for ‘guy with a metal arm, guy who was in the news, Captain America’s long-lost best friend’ and making trouble.”

“Well, it’s not like they could get to that last one,” Bucky said wryly.

“They could if they read the right conspiracy theories. Or if they only paid attention to the news at just the wrong point in the news cycle last year.”

“Wait—that’s out there?” Bucky asked, suddenly going pale. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Tony said, confused. “I mean, not with the whole SHIELD-slash-Hydra file dump thing—Hydra kept all the Winter Soldier files in hard copy—but it was all over the news right after the, uh, the UN bombing.”

“How?” Bucky asked hoarsely. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.

Tony shrugged. “Don’t really know. Zemo must’ve figured it out and released it while he was pretending to be that UN psychologist. I mean, they definitely traced it back to Zemo because the news channels all mentioned that when they corrected everything a few days later. The ‘oh, by the way, everything we just said is wrong because some obsessed nut with a vendetta wanted to make Captain America and Iron Man mad at each other’ walkback was kind of hilarious, actually.” He glanced sideways at Bucky . He still looked awful. Tony cleared his throat. “So yeah, the idea’s out there, but it’s firmly labeled ‘probable hoax.’”

“So they know,” Bucky said, shaken.

“Who knows? Come on, Abominable Snowman, you’re starting to scare me here.”

“This is what Steve meant,” Bucky said numbly, staring past Tony. “This is why he—shit.” He swallowed and closed his eyes tightly. Tony was about to say—something, he wasn’t even sure what—when Bucky said, just a bit louder, “FRIDAY—tell me about my sisters.”

~

Becca didn’t surprise him: helping people, making trouble, refusing to put up with stupidity ‘til the day she died, “surrounded by her family,” FRIDAY had said. That was the only thing that didn’t quite fit right in his head, because her family wasn’t what Bucky remembered. She’d gotten married while he was overseas; he’d seen that coming about three years before it happened. Joe was a good guy. They’d had two kids of their own and adopted another and taken all of them to protest marches in the fifties, sixties, and seventies to take care of anyone who’d been hurt. The kids had helped her when they were old enough. They must have been there when she died.

And Alice, always running, dancing, teasing, getting into things just a bit younger than their mother thought was right. Alice was the one Bucky’d first taken out into an alley and taught how to defend herself against someone bigger than she was—exactly the same tricks he’d taught Steve, actually, and then more when Steve found out what they were doing and helped—because Becca only went on dates in large groups, but Alice was different, and if she was going to sneak off to places she shouldn’t be or come back late, Bucky wasn’t going to tell on her but he was going to watch out for her. Alice had become a professor of—something, that hadn’t stuck yet—and moved in with a group of old friends in a huge old house upstate when her husband died, and twelve years later had died of a heart attack out in the garden, in the middle of doing things, the way she always was. That didn’t surprise him either.

But Grace . . . .

Chapter Text

Things didn’t quite . . . fit, for a while. They hit, they sank in, but they didn’t fit into the shape of the world because the whole world had gone soft and malleable inside Bucky’s head, flexing and changing to take in the words coming in FRIDAY’s crisp voice. The words came and with them came knowledge, and everything expanding to hold that.

The words stopped, and then there was silence. Bucky still waited, aware of nothing but the sense of things growing, settling. He’d be able to react to this later. All he could do now was . . . wait. Stark was peering at him, stricken, careful, familiar expressions but not, and there was another, odd expression on his face, something kind of scared and . . . gentle?

Stark said something, but Bucky couldn’t hear over the spreading silence, the approaching understanding. “Sorry,” he said, and he could hear his own voice, oddly loud. “I’m sorry. I . . . .” He couldn’t stay here much longer. When whatever was gathering in his mind like a storm hit, he wouldn’t be very good company. “I have to go for a while.”

Stark nodded, still looking—concerned, that expression was concern, he thought—and stepped back. That gave Bucky a clear view of the door. He nodded at Stark; he remembered that much of how to treat people. “I’ll be back,” he said, not sure where the words came from. “It’s alright. I just—”

“Go,” Stark said. Bucky heard that. He couldn’t figure out the tone, but—

He left.

The next time he paid attention to where he was, he was in the kitchen. Steve’s floor. Steve’s kitchen, not—not the old battered one he’d half-expected, and why . . . ?

The silence in his head roared, demanding attention. It was like a puddle, he thought, or a lake, a whirlpool; FRIDAY’s quiet, thorough monologue had landed like pebbles, and the ripples they caused had sloshed against the edges, re-shaping them, re-shaping him. But it wasn’t as bad as before; it didn’t take long, and now everything had stopped moving and firmed up and made sense—he had changed but was still solid, still him—but then the waves had something to rebound off, to rage against, to grow, and had nowhere to go but in.

He let them sweep him away.

~

Peter swung through the skyscrapers, squinting, rain spattering the suit’s goggles. This downpour was crazy, more like a summer storm than a regular spring rain. Mr. Stark’s suits were so much better than the one he’d made himself, but there just wasn’t much you could do against rain, apparently, even when you were Mr. Stark. About the next-best thing you could do was tiny windshield wipers, and that would look stupid. Plus they’d probably fall off.

He angled himself up the next avenue, swinging steadily from side to side, trying to time the swings so he was on the east side a little while longer, because that seemed a bit less exposed to the rain. He hadn’t been planning on visiting the Tower today, but the weather was gross and there didn’t seem to be anything shady going on in Manhattan any more than there had been in Queens—probably because anyone who could help it was inside, waiting for this to end, and that meant there weren’t many people around to try and rob, or many bikes sitting out to steal, or any of that crap. He swung around the Chrysler building for fun as well as to gain altitude. Peering up through the rain, he saw the warm yellow light on the side of Stark Tower that he’d half been hoping was there. He let go and launched himself toward that light.

The window was, in fact, open, which was pretty weird given the rainstorm; maybe Steve and Bucky weren’t in after all and had just left a light on. Or maybe they’d been expecting him, because there was actually a kind of scruffy, waterproofish front-door-style mat spread under the window when Peter climbed through. He pulled the window mostly closed after himself and wiped his feet, pulling off his mask carefully so that the water that sluiced off of it landed mostly on the mat.

“Hi,” he called out. “It’s me. Uh. Obviously, I guess. —Thanks for the rug!”

There was no response. He did his best to shake or brush the water off the suit before he activated Mr. Stark’s dryer function—that took care of the inside better than the outside, and he didn’t want to drip everywhere if it didn’t get him completely dry. Once that was done, he hopped off the little Spider-Man landing pad (like the Iron Man landing pad on the Tower’s deck!) and ventured a little further into the apartment.

The light that he’d seen from the Chrysler building wasn’t actually the living room light; it was darkish in here, or would be to someone who wasn’t Spider-Man. Bucky and Steve probably could see better than most people too, but they usually put lights on in rooms they were in. The light he’d seen came from the kitchen, so he headed that way, absently dropping his mask on the kitchen table as he passed it, careful not to let it fall on the piece of paper sitting there in case it was still wet.

He reached the kitchen and almost freaked out. Bucky was there, alright, but he was sitting on the floor, one leg bent up, the other stretched out straight in front of him. He was leaning back against the lower cabinets and staring at the ground halfway between him and the oven.

“Oh shit,” Peter said, his voice coming out higher than he wanted it to. “What’s wrong?”

He had about a second of panicked thoughts, possibilities—Steve had gotten worse, Steve had died, Hydra had tried to find him again, Mr. Stark had decided he didn’t forgive him about his parents after all, even the (guilty and quickly, disgustedly buried) thought that he might not be talking to Bucky after all but that this was somehow the Winter Soldier—before Bucky looked up and focused on him. That was definitely Bucky behind his eyes, and he didn’t look scared or devastated or empty the way Peter would have expected if any of those things went wrong. He looked more . . . confused, like he wasn’t sure if whatever had happened to him was good or bad, but it was definitely a lot.

He didn’t say anything right away, and Peter walked into the kitchen, closer to him, in case he needed help getting up or—something. Bucky only kind of kept looking at him, but at least he was staring at the oven instead of the floor. That seemed better?

“Gracie’s alive,” Bucky said when Peter reached him.

That didn’t help. “Who’s Gracie?”

Bucky looked up and nodded at something behind Peter. “My youngest sister.”

Peter spun around. His spider-sense hadn’t told him anyone else was in the room. But there wasn’t—the only thing in Bucky’s line of sight, he realized, was the fridge.

It was a normal fridge. That had kind of surprised him for some reason at first, how it was a super-fancy fridge and full of tons and tons of food for superheroes, but the outside was basically like his at home, with a few comics printed out or clipped from actual newspapers and stuck to it with magnets, along with a few of Steve’s drawings and—oh.

Peter had never really paid attention to the photographs before. They were mostly really old photos, or printed scans of old photos, of people he didn’t know or couldn’t recognize if he did because they were all super young and the photos he’d have seen in documentaries or something were all a lot more recent so everyone was a lot older. And the others were pretty obviously Bucky and Steve with people he didn’t know, so aside from a (very well-hidden) minute of quietly boggling over how Captain America had totally been nerdier-looking than him, he hadn’t really thought about it. One of them, though, showed a really young-looking Bucky—about the age Peter was now, or maybe a little older—and some other people. It was pretty obviously a family photo, if he thought about it for a second.

“On the left,” Bucky said.

Peter bent down a little to look at the picture more closely. There were an older man and woman, presumably Bucky’s mom and dad, standing behind the four younger people. Bucky was in the middle. To the right of him stood a really pretty girl, almost as tall as he was—and yeah, Peter thought, Bucky in this photo was probably a bit older than Peter was now, because this girl looked Peter’s age. Except for the old-fashioned hairstyle, she looked like someone who could be in his classes. Two shorter, younger girls were on Bucky’s other side. The middle one was blonde and looked a year or two younger, and the dark-haired one on the far left was probably eleven or twelve. There was a tiny bit of blur around her braids, like she’d moved her head right before the picture was taken. Between that and the happy but startled look on her face, Peter wondered if she’d just been told to look back at the camera, quick, they’re going to take the picture.

“She’s ninety-six,” Bucky said. Peter looked back at him. He was still sitting on the floor, but at least he was looking up now, head leaning against the cabinet as he watched Peter.

“Um,” Peter said. He knew Bucky and Steve were old, but that didn’t stop his mind from reeling as he tried to picture that elementary school kid as a wrinkly old white-haired lady. Because really, he didn’t think of Bucky and Steve as old, more like they were from someplace old, like the 1940s was just a place far away. But of course that wasn’t right; there were lots of people from back then, just . . . if you took the local instead of the express train you’d be a lot older when you got to 2017. And how did you talk about that?

“Wow,” he said, stupidly. Then the rest of his mind caught up. “Wait, you said she’s alive, so—” Then the rest of the rest of his mind got there, and he could have smacked himself.

“Yeah,” Bucky said dully. “Alice died a few years ago. Becca a few before that.”

“Oh. Wow. I’m sorry. I—”

“No.” He shook his head. “I knew that might—they probably—” Bucky smacked the floor with his non-metal hand. “This is why I didn’t want to know,” he said miserably. “Because if they’re gone, they’re gone, but if they’re alive, it’s— The last time I saw her, she was twenty.” He took a deep breath. “And now that I know she’s alive, I really want to see her,” he said, softer, as though admitting a secret. “But who knows if she wants to see me.”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

“Would you want to see your older brother sixty years younger than you are?”

Peter frowned. “I mean, I don’t have any brothers or sisters, but I’m pretty sure if I did, and I thought one of them was dead, I’d want to see them if it turned out they weren’t. Even if it was really weird. Isn’t that what you just said?”

Bucky stared at him like he’d started speaking a foreign language. “Alright,” he said slowly. “Alright, say that’s true. What about what I did? She’s an old woman now—she doesn’t need to—” He slid his thumb up and down the seam on his jeans absentmindedly. “She thought I died. She had a long time to get used to that. And it’s sad, but it’s better than what really happened.” His voice went rough and growly and his eyes were bright. A tiny part of Peter’s mind, probably the part that came up with stupid jokes in the middle of fights, said it wasn’t fair; when he tried to talk over crying, he didn’t sound extra-manly, he sounded like a ten-year-old with a cold. “And that’s why I didn’t do anything. But now that idea’s already out there, and so—” He wiped his face in his sleeve. “Either I tell her, yeah, I wasn’t dead, I did terrible things, half the bad shit that happened in the world while you were growing up was my fault, or I let her live with not knowing.”

“I think you should tell her,” Peter said, hoping he wasn’t screwing up. He was in totally over his head, but there wasn’t anyone else here. “I mean, she’s an adult.”

“She’s an old woman and she’s my kid sister and I need to look out for her.” He glared at Peter, a dark, angry look. Oh, Peter thought; that was the look May had whenever she was talking about growing up and remembered someone not being nice to Peter’s mom. And May had been the younger sister.

“She’d feel the same way about you, though, right?” he said, heart racing. “She’d be mad at Hydra. She wouldn’t blame you for things they made you do. Nobody does.”

Bucky made a noise that might have been a laugh.

“No, come on. Maybe some jerks in the government do or something, but people who know you are different, right?”

Bucky just shook his head, breathing raggedly. “I don’t know. I don’t—” He focused on Peter’s face again. “I was going to write a letter. Tell her I’m alive, but. Ask if she wanted to see me.”

“That’s a good idea,” Peter said, relieved. “Did you write it yet?”

Bucky’s gaze went back to the floor. “Dunno,” he mumbled. “Don’t remember.”

That probably wasn’t good.

Peter remembered the sheet of paper on the kitchen table. “Hold on,” he said. “Let me check something. I—don’t go anywhere, or anything.” He backed out of the kitchen, hands up in front of him, gesturing. “Just hold on.”

It was only a couple seconds of Bucky being out of his sight, really, but he was somehow afraid that he’d disappear while Peter darted to the table and snatched up the sheet of paper. He read the first few lines, just enough to tell what it was, and put it back down.

“Yeah,” he said, racing back to the kitchen. Bucky was still there, hadn’t moved. “You wrote the letter. It’s all taken care of. You can—” stop sitting on the floor being sad? “You can stop worrying. Um, can you stand up?”

“Huh?”

“You’re acting pretty out of it and it’s kind of freaking me out. Do you need anything?” And there went the panic-babble. Oh well. Bucky looked up at him with the most normal-Bucky expression he’d had so far, so maybe that was a good thing.

“I’ll be alright, Peter. This is just . . . hard.”

“I know,” Peter said in a small voice. “I mean, I don’t really know, and I don’t even have any brothers or sisters, but I—I just don’t want you to fall apart.”

“You’re a good kid, Pete.” Bucky closed his eyes. “’m fine.” He took a few slow, steady breaths, then opened them again. He looked less distant this time. “D’you know where Steve is?”

“That’s a really good question,” Peter said, almost angry all of a sudden. “Steve!” he yelled. “Steve, are you here?”

“Captain Rogers is having his PLEX treatment,” FRIDAY said, startling them both. “He had just begun the process when the boss attempted to contact him about Mr. Barnes’ mental state. The physician in charge of the process elected not to tell the Captain on the grounds that he’d probably try to end the procedure early and manually.” Peter translated that as rip any tubes out and come running. “The process is nearly complete, however, and he should be returning to this floor shortly. Should I notify him?”

Bucky looked like someone had just stolen his puppy, but he said “No” right away. “Doctors are right. He’d probably hurt himself.”

He pulled his left leg up so the foot was flat on the floor and rocked forward like he was going to stand. Peter grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet instead. “Thanks,” he said, a little wide-eyed. He always knew Peter was stronger than he looked, so either he’d been spaced-out enough to have forgotten that or Peter had been a little too enthusiastic about getting him off the floor.

“I can wait with you if you want,” Peter said.

The look Bucky gave him was more grateful than most of the ones he got from people he’d helped as Spider-Man. “If you don’t mind. I’m not going to be good company,” he said.

“Hey, I only came here to get out of the rain,” Peter said. That felt like a long time ago. “I can read a book or something.”

He ended up playing on his phone. He’d turned the lights on and got Bucky sitting at the kitchen table, not right next to the letter to his sister, although at one point he looked up and Bucky was re-reading it anyway. Aside from that, Bucky mostly stared out the window or down at his hands. Peter really wasn’t sure if he ought to say something or not.

Normally, Peter was . . . good at stuff. He wasn’t a grown-up, and he didn’t know about taxes and stuff, but he was good at school and he was pretty sure he was a good friend and he was Spider-Man. He usually knew what to do. But right now, he didn’t even know if he was supposed to know what to do.

It was probably only five or ten minutes, but it felt like a long time before the elevator dinged and he heard Steve’s voice. “Bucky? FRIDAY said you wanted to talk to me?”

Bucky’s head went up and turned in the direction of Steve’s voice. “We’re in here,” Peter called, guiltily relieved at the thought of dumping all this in Steve’s lap. At least FRIDAY had given him some warning, although he hadn’t sounded worried, just curious, which meant FRIDAY hadn’t told him much.

“Peter?” Steve didn’t cut through the kitchen, instead walking up to the table from the big living room side. “Good to see you. Is everything all—”

He saw Bucky and stopped short.

“Yeah . . . it’s really not,” Peter said. Steve didn’t even appear to hear him.

“Hey, Steve,” Bucky croaked. His head was tilted forward a bit, like he wanted to hide behind his hair, but his hair wasn’t long enough.

Steve’s eyes were wide and there was a little line between them. His eyes flicked back and forth between Peter and Bucky. “Wh-what happened?”

“Zemo put my name out,” Bucky said. “That’s why you kept pushing me, wasn’t it.”

Confusion, understanding, and pain all came and went on Steve’s face. “Yeah,” he said, taking another step closer and pushing a bit of hair out of his face. “Yeah, that’s part of it.”

“Well, congratulations, pal.” Bucky pushed the sheet of paper—his letter to Gracie—across the table toward Steve. “You were right.”

Steve leaned forward to peer at the paper, shooting another puzzled glance at Peter as he did. “I can go,” Peter said, standing up. Steve would handle this better than him—and with Steve there, now, it really felt like he was intruding. “Sorry,” he added as Steve looked at him, puzzled. “I didn’t mean to—I just showed up, and he was all—” He grabbed his mask off the table. “I’m leaving.”

“Wait a minute,” Steve said. At the same time, Bucky said, “No, hey.”

Peter, already halfway to the window, turned back and looked at them.

“Thanks,” Bucky said. He paused and looked like he was searching for what to say. “You’re not in the way, or whatever you think,” he said finally. “You helped.”

Steve looked like he didn’t want to move away from Bucky, at all, ever, but he looked at Peter like he wanted to walk over to him, too. “He’s right. Peter, I—I should have been there when Bucky heard about his sisters.” He looked down at Bucky. “I wish I had been.” Bucky leaned his head toward Steve, and it was sort of an air-cuddle, like an air high five, motions that fit together but separated by about five feet.

“But I wasn’t,” Steve went on, “and I’m glad someone was, and I’m glad it was you.” He paused. “And that’s really not a job for a kid. I’d like to be sorry for whatever made you grow up so fast, but—you were there for my best friend when he needed it. I’m grateful.”

~

When Peter left, Steve sat down in the chair next to Bucky. He glanced at the letter. “May I?”

“‘S why I gave it to you,” Bucky said dully. He felt better than he had; the room had dimension again, things felt more solid, he didn’t feel unmoored and drifting and ghostlike the way he had the first night here. But that didn’t mean he felt good.

Steve read the letter.

“This is good, Bucky,” he said. Then, hesitantly: “Do you want to send it?”

“That’s why I wrote it.” Bucky stared at the table. “Don’t remember writing it. But yeah. I want—I want her to know.” He swallowed. “Did you—have you ever—?”

“I visited her a few times,” Steve said quietly. “Not since I found out you were alive, though. And not for a long time before that, really. I never got around to meeting much of the family, either. It was . . . it was hard for both of us. I think seeing each other again made us both miss you more.”

Bucky nodded.

“Do you want me to tell you about her?”

He shook his head.

“Anything you do want?”

Bucky laughed hollowly. “Honestly? I feel drunk. I kinda wish I was actually drunk. But fat chance of that.”

“Actually,” said Steve, “I might have something.”

~

Steve had to ask FRIDAY to unlock a special drawer in the pantry. “It’s something Thor brought from Asgard once,” he explained. “Some kind of mead—that means it’s made of honey, if that means the same thing there. It’s sweet, but not too bad. And it worked on me. It wasn’t like being drunk, exactly, but things were . . . softer.”

Softer sounded good.

Steve fished out a small silver flask.

“It’s not quite alcohol,” Steve said, looking a bit wary, but also determined. “Tony tried testing it to figure out what it is, but he got hit by the fumes and Bruce had to convince Pepper he hadn’t had a relapse.”

Bucky stared at the flask for a second. “...Gimme.”

~

Steve insisted Bucky shouldn’t drink alone, although he was sensible enough to drink normal alcohol instead of the space juice. Bucky thought he just wanted to see if he could get drunk again. Normally he’d point out Steve might not be supposed to be drinking, with the PLEX stuff messing with his blood, but he was willing to let Steve take his own chances this time. Which probably meant . . . .

“I’m drunk!” Bucky said cheerfully.

Steve raised an eyebrow. “You seem awful happy about it.”

“Steve, I haven’t been drunk since Zola. I fuckin’ tried.”

As he worked his way through the small glass he’d poured of the pale yellow liquid from the flask, and then the second one, he realized what Steve had meant by “softer.” It got easier to think about Becca and Alice and Gracie, and to talk about them, too. It even got easier to think about the last seventy years. It was like relaxing a muscle you hadn’t realized was tense.

“Peter makes me think of Alice,” he said. “All of them, really, but Alice the way he notices things. You know?”

“Tends to mouth off the same way, too,” Steve said.

Bucky pointed at him. “You do not get to talk to anyone about being mouthy.”

“Sure I do,” Steve said. “Means I know what I’m talking about.”

“You like the kid, don’t you.”

“Sure.”

“’S not ’cause he’s like Alice. That part’s ’cause he’s like you.”

“I think he’s more polite than I ever was.”

“You were polite, Stevie. You just never gave a damn about authority. ‘Fuck you very much, sir.’”

“I never actually said that,” Steve said. “

I dunno, would Philips back you up?”

“ . . . I never said that where anyone could hear me.”

Bucky cackled.

~

But the Asgardian stuff was like regular booze in a few other ways. Bucky always got kind of lazy and handsy when he was drunk. Fortunately, Steve had always been the same—and apparently still was. They ended up on one of the couches, the one Bucky most often read on, that was finally starting to get broken in and soft. It was bigger than the one they’d barely managed to fit in half their old apartments, but it felt right.

“Hey, this is familiar,” Bucky said, grinning, as he threw an arm over Steve’s shoulders. Steve sighed happily and wriggled sideways on the couch until his head smacked into Bucky’s.

“Aw, I don’t fit right,” Steve complained. Bucky knew what he meant—back home, whenever they’d been sitting like this, he’d ended up resting his chin on the top of Steve’s head. Steve would pretend to complain that he was getting a dent in his skull, but if Bucky didn’t do it, he’d tuck himself under Bucky’s head anyway. It was one of a thousand silly things that had made up the fabric of their days. Now, Bucky couldn’t tell if Steve was genuinely mournful or kidding.

“Do you miss it?” he asked. He’d wondered many times since Steve had appeared at Azzano, but there had never been a right time to ask. Now, with everything soft and happy and the past feeling a little closer than usual, it came naturally. “I mean, I know it’s great that you don’t get sick anymore—didn’t get sick—but do you miss the way you used to be?”

“It was hard getting used to it, at first,” Steve said, looking down at his hands. “Kept jumping when I passed a mirror. Learned not to hit my head on doorways pretty quick, though. And I could still do everything; I was still coordinated—more coordinated, actually.” He leaned into Bucky’s shoulder, still not looking at him.

“I was pretty scared I wouldn’t be able to draw anymore, for a while,” he said quietly. “Because the first time I picked up a pen—they needed me to sign something—it felt all different. But I just needed to learn how to hold things differently. It didn’t matter. I tried, the first time I got alone, and it was such a little thing, but they’d just told me I wouldn’t be going overseas after all and if I’d lost that too—I was so relieved I almost cried.”

Bucky tightened his grip around Steve’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

Steve shook his head, tipped his head back on Bucky’s shoulder to look at him. “No, it’s alright. Everything worked out. And I don’t—” He frowned a little, such a Steve look, earnest and thoughtful even while tipsy and upside-down. Affection welled up in Bucky’s chest, stronger than ever, and he couldn’t suppress the smile that crossed his own face. “I don’t miss it, mostly,” Steve said, “but there’s a lot I have to think about, even now. You told me how I look like I’m trying to scare people instead of stand up to them.” Bucky nodded. “Things like that. I’m not used to people thinking I’m big. Not being underestimated.”

“I’m sure people still underestimate you,” Bucky said dryly. Steve made a face at him and looked back down.

“I miss this, though,” he said defiantly. “I miss you being bigger than me, sometimes. It feels funny.”

Bucky’s heart twisted. He closed his eyes. Otherwise, the urge to press a kiss to the blond hair in front of him would be too strong. “Tell you what,” he said instead. “Move over.”

He shoved Steve around a bit and twisted partly sideways, so his upper body was facing the arm of the couch. “C’mere,” he said, and pulled Steve’s head onto his shoulder, then planted his own on top of it.

“There. Better?”

“Christ. You sharpen your chin or something, Buck?”

“Every morning,” Bucky said cheerfully, wrapping his arms around Steve’s shoulders. He could feel them shaking with Steve’s silent laughter. God, I love you.

~ “FRIDAY,” Tony said patiently, “I know you have privacy regulations. I built them. But I saw the way Barnes looked when he left the lab last night and he did not look good. And I know that you unlocked the Asgardian mead cabinet. I have no idea what that does to a person if taken in excess. I just want to know that he’s okay.”

The AI did not respond.

“Look, just—still image, maybe? Something? I don’t want to actually go wandering in there because I don’t want to be invasive, FRIDAY, but I want to make sure the guy’s okay.”

A screen came to life with a burst of static that was FRIDAY’s equivalent of an angry huff. “Alright, boss.”

Tony leaned in. It looked like a picture from one of the tower’s security cameras, angled in at a window instead of out toward the street. Bucky wasn’t lying on the floor crying or anything. That was good.

In fact, he was on a couch, and he was on a couch—Tony gasped and then nearly squealed—he was on a couch with Steve in a pose that was definitely (even if the word didn’t imply nearly enough muscles) cuddling. Steve was slumped sideways against Bucky, head on his shoulder; Bucky was using his head, in turn, as a pillow and had one arm wrapped around Steve’s torso. Tony felt his face twist into an almost painfully broad grin.

“Called it!” he whispered, delighted. This made sense. It did. Grief and trauma could spur dramatic confessions. So could alcohol, for that matter. He had extensive experience with both.

Alright, so both of them were still wearing clothes, which was usually not how Tony’s trauma-or-substance-fueled emotional breakthroughs worked, but hey. They were old.

~

“What do you mean, nothing?” Tony yelped at Bucky a few hours later. They were back in the workshop. Barnes had come down, looking tired and a little dazed but so much better than the pale, careful zombie he’d been the night before. He’d come in, patted Dum-E, and walked straight back over to the car. Tony had had to intercept him in order to ask what was new with him and Steve.

“I mean nothing,” Bucky said, frowning.

“Nothi— You fell asleep after alien-juice-drunk makeouts! FRIDAY saw!”

“What are you talking about?” Bucky asked, looking at him like he’d gone crazy. “I found out my little sister is still alive and I got very drunk on whatever that stuff is and talked with Steve about it. Yes, I’m feeling better about my family, thanks for asking.”

“Okay, yeah, maybe that is a lot to expect of someone, to learn that and get over years of pining in one day,” Tony said thoughtfully. “Also—” He looked straight at Bucky for a second, even though that made him want to fidget, or look away, or something. “Good, I’m sincerely glad about the other part. But you mean to say that you had an evening of being emotionally open and even got drunk and were sleeping on the couch together and somehow making out wasn’t part of that?”

“How did you know about the couch?” Bucky asked.

“I don’t know what that mead stuff is, so I don’t know what it does in excess. I wanted to make sure you weren’t crying in a puddle or dead,” Tony said impatiently. “I yelled at FRIDAY until she gave me a low-res security camera snapshot of you through the window to prove you were okay. I saw you.”

“That—I’m not sure if that’s thoughtful of you or if I ought to punch you,” Bucky said, frowning.

“Thoughtful. Very.” If he was out of it enough to be making jokes about violence, he was . . . not okay. Normally he was super-extra careful about that, even though they were cool now. Like, actually cool, not just fake-it-’til-you-make-it cool.

“Sure.” Bucky gave him a look that was a lot more like his regular self. “Actually, I have a question for you.”

“Shoot.”

“If I mail a letter, can—what address—” He broke off. “I’m going to let my sister know I’m still alive,” he said firmly, like he was trying to convince himself of something. “I’d like her to have a secure place to write back to, and ideally without my name on it. Can I have her send it care of you, or—”

“Yep, sure, there’s some secure snail mail something that’s vetted and I really don’t have anything to do with it, so let FRIDAY set you up,” Tony said. “She’ll be able to pull your sister’s address, too.”

“I, uh, already had her do that.”

“Awesome. Then just ask her about the return address and you’ll be all set.”

“Thank you, Tony,” Bucky said.

“Don’t mention it, Snowflake.”

~

Tony was definitely not pushing boundaries here. The lounge was his space—the whole tower was, technically. Well, more technically, it was Pepper’s, but it had his name on it, and the point was that, since the Avengers have moved upstate two years ago, the lounge had become part of the penthouse and was therefore his space.

And so anything left in it was, by the transitive property, his thing. Or at least would be considered by reasonable people to be consciously left out for public consumption. It was like putting out a poster on a crowded street. Clearly, you expected people to read it—or at least you couldn’t be mad at people for reading it if they did. Reasonable misunderstandings could presumably occur.

And if he didn’t hurry up and reasonably misunderstand, Steve would be back from the bathroom already and Tony wouldn’t have taken a look at what he was drawing. Maturity was a wonderful thing, but self-restraint was a pain in the ass.

Tony walked casually over to the table and let his gaze fall accidentally on the open sketchbook bathed in late-afternoon sunlight.

Wowww.

It was another of those beautifully accurate portraits—yet another sketch of one why-the-hell-do-you-call-him-“Bucky” Barnes. In this one he was the way he was today: hair longish but not quite ponytail-able; his smile small and hesitant, like he expected to be told not to be happy; a glint of black and gold at the edge where the portrait cut off, just enough to suggest the metal arm under rolled-up sleeve. It was all perfectly him.

But it was also, somehow, sultry.

Tony didn’t know how else to describe it. There was nothing actually seductive about the picture, and it was definitely an accurate drawing. It was just really hot. Tony took a quick look over his shoulder to make sure Steve wasn’t coming and flicked to the previous page of the sketchbook.

Another drawing of Bucky. Asleep on a couch in this one, curled up, his shirt riding up to expose a little bit of his side.

Next page. More Bucky. A series of little sketches of eyes—wide and happy, surprised, hooded, shut in sleep, distant and scary; another series of drawings of mouths and a dazzling array of smirks.

Lots of lips there.

He turned one more page . . .

Okay! Wow! That was . . . a thing!

It was a totally PG-13, Safe For Work kind of thing, but. You did not draw these many muscles this lovingly on somebody you platonically heterosexually liked as a friend. Tony would accept a lot of crazy ideas, but that was too much.

Okay. Probability of Freezer Pops having a major crush on Sniper Sassypants: ten gajillion percent.

He flipped the pages back so the book was as it had been and sauntered casually back into the kitchen for some chips.

Steve walked back into the lounge.

“Hey, Capsicle,” Tony greeted him, mouth full. “Doritos?”

“No thanks,” Steve said, sitting back down at the table. He paused.

“Tony?”

“What?” Tony asked innocently.

Steve sighed.

~

“It’s been four days,” Steve said. “You might hear back soon.”

“Or I might never hear back.”

“Bucky . . . .”

“No, Steve, it’s fine. Who knows if she’s even gotten the letter yet. She might be on vacation or something. And she’ll probably need time to think about it. That’s if she believes it’s me.”

“I think—”

“Nope,” Bucky said. “Ball’s in her court and I’m going to wait for her. I’m done talking about it. I’ll deal with it when it happens, if it does.” He leaned back and crossed his arms. Steve looked like he was going to keep going—of course he did—so Bucky changed the subject. He’d meant to bring this up for a while, really. He’d just kept putting it off.

He was still selfish.

“Y’know,” he said casually, “speaking of dealing with things when the opportunity arises, have you thought about getting in touch with Sharon?”

“What?” Steve asked blankly.

Bingo: one bona fide distraction. “You’re back in the States and you’re not on an IV all the time now,” he pointed out. “The Accords are . . . different, I guess, so she might not be risking her job. You could maybe meet up.” He pulled up a teasing smile. “You know—see where things go.”

“I guess,” Steve said. He didn’t blush, wasn’t squirming the way he usually did when Bucky talked about someone he liked. He sounded—lukewarm. Reluctant, even.

“Why not?” Bucky asked.

Steve shrugged. “It’d be strange.”

Bucky stared and him and huffed, genuinely annoyed. “I’m pretty damn sure that woman cares about you, regardless of whether or not you have asthma or anything right now. You don’t steal federal evidence to give to fugitives because you like someone’s muscles.”

“That’s not it,” Steve said, chuckling at the thought.

“What, then? Being on the run for a year? Maybe still being on the run, when you get better? I mean, I don’t know how well that’d work if you got really serious”—although if Steve kissed someone, that meant he was very serious—“and if she wants to stay at the CIA or wherever she is, but if anyone would understand . . . . She’s part of that—that world. She’d be willing to work something out if you were, I bet. Being on the run for a year between dates isn’t great, though.” He smiled, trying to bait Steve into a laugh.

Instead, Steve shook his head, remarkably serious. “It wouldn’t be a date. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that I don’t want to do that. Not now, at least.”

“Really, pal?” Bucky asked, chuckling to cover a surge of confused hope. “That kiss didn’t look like—well. That wasn’t a ‘not now, hon’ kinda kiss.”

Steve flushed. He looked down and fidgeted with the blanket. “I know your hearing’s at least as good as mine is. Did you hear what I said to her there, by the car?”

Bucky nodded, brows raised. Pretty hard to forget. “You said that it was late.”

“I think if there was a time when it would have worked, we missed it. Or it could have worked if things had been a little different, but they weren’t. Maybe someday it could work again. I just don’t know.”

Bucky nodded, trying to look sympathetic and not show the relief and absurd jubilation that rushed through him. He was sympathetic. Really. But he was also selfish. “And now I know she’s Peggy’s niece,” Steve added, “and that’s just—”

“Yes,” Bucky said, and the sympathy was completely unforced this time. “That has to be strange.”

“It is,” Steve admitted, “but it bothers me more that she didn’t tell me. I’ve met other people who are related to people we knew—Dum-Dum’s grandkids are real fun, or, hell, there’s Tony—but I always knew. She had reasons, I suppose—she didn’t want to lie to Peggy more than she had to—but . . . .”

They were quiet for a while, both lost in thought. When Bucky couldn’t help himself any longer, he asked, “So that kiss was—what?”

Steve waved a hand helplessly. “A thank-you, I guess. An . . . acknowledgement of what could have been. Because, God”—and he grinned, looking into the distance—“breaking all the rules for what she believed in, while staying on the inside and trying to fix it—I could have fallen for her. Very hard.”

Bucky’s laugh was barely forced; that sounded about right. Steve was a hopeless romantic about more than chivalry, sometimes. It was just that the qualities that attracted him were . . . unusual. A strong right hook, for instance.

“Why didn’t you, then? Why wasn’t it right?”

“I always told myself I had bigger things going on than my love life,” Steve muttered. He waved a hand as Bucky opened his mouth. “Yeah, don’t start again with the martyr crap. I’ve been thinking about that, and I don’t think that’s really what it was. I’ve been—I’ve been tired, Buck. Those first two years out of the ice . . . Natasha kept trying to set me up with people—Sharon was actually the last one she mentioned, or her cover at least. I’ve never asked, but I’m pretty sure Nat knew who she really was.” He frowned. “Not sure why she wouldn’t tell me about Peggy . . . maybe she figured I knew, but that’s not like her. Anyway, I kept telling her I wasn’t ready for that yet, didn’t know how all this worked in the future, but I was just—I didn’t have the energy. I missed everyone. I had my feet under me as long as I was able to be useful, so I had my work with SHIELD, and that was enough. I wasn’t interested in anything else. I was—now I realize I was lonely, and I knew going through that whole dog and pony show wouldn’t help.”

Bucky reached out and grabbed his shoulder. Steve leaned into the touch. “And then I found you, and I was—that helped. I can’t tell you what a difference it made just knowing that you were alive. And that you at least started to remember was—I wanted to help you, to know you were alright, even if you never wanted to see me again. And then there was taking out the rest of Hydra, too, on principle—and for what they did to you—and how SHIELD was where I thought I knew what I was doing, and then they turned that—” He swallowed. “So. After SHIELD fell, I didn’t have much of what Sam calls ‘emotional energy’ left over for, well, romance.”

“Steve . . . .”

“Sam helped, too,” Steve said, smiling wryly. “Kinda useful to have a friend who’s a therapist, it turns out.”

Bucky snorted. “Yeah, yeah. I still say you’re friends because both of you are little shits.”

Steve smiled. “Yeah, that too. —I was busy with that,” he went on, “and when things settled down again, the Avengers facility was in upstate New York and Sharon was still in D.C. We didn’t see each other much. And when we did . . . .” he shook his head. “I barely knew what I was doing after Peggy died. I mean—you saw. We talked, right after the funeral, and it was nice, but. I couldn’t have gotten involved with anybody right then, let alone her niece, even if I weren’t trying to . . . .”

“Go on the run with the most wanted man in the world in open defiance of the UN and almost every friend you have?” Bucky offered. It came out more bitter than he wanted, but Steve looked up and his expression of grief faded a little.

“Something like that.”

“Well, pal, it sounds like I’m the one who messed it up for you,” Bucky forced himself to say. “Most of the time, at least.”

“Nah.” Steve turned and looked up at him. “No one’s fault. Like I said. Bad timing. And I have you back,” he added, softer, so quietly even Bucky could barely hear him. “I wouldn’t trade.”

~

Peter, of course, wanted to know how Bucky was doing too. After convincing him he was alright, and thanking him for his help—which the kid accepted with an uncomfortable shrug and a muttered “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I’m glad it worked”—Bucky drew him into a conversation about movies. Somehow, through a convoluted path involving classics, romantic cliches, and what counted as a satisfying ending, the conversation worked its way back around to Steve and Sharon.

“So it’s not a BS storyline,” Bucky concluded. “Sometimes things just don’t work out. Sometimes there are circumstances people can’t control.”

“But—no. Okay. I get it for the movie and I guess you’re right. She has to go back to being the princess and he’s got to be a reporter, and neither of them really wants to stop being those things, and she has other people counting on her—and I guess so does he, kind of—so, okay, it’s not quite like they just gave up. I get it for the movie. But I don’t get it about Steve and this SHIELD lady.”

Bucky shrugged, not sure how to explain this to a kid. He wasn’t sure he’d have understood it at this age, and God only knew how romance worked anymore—all of Stark’s offhand comments about apps and Tinder and yacht parties were, well, incomprehensible, and most of them almost certainly only applied to billionaires and—he deeply hoped—adults.

“He said he likes her, and there could have been something there, but the timing wasn’t right for it to actually happen. Not an outside thing like in the movie—more like they weren’t around each other enough at the right time. And when they were around each other, there were outside things happening too. Like SHIELD collapsing, or . . . the whole UN thing.”

“Oh. I get it now,” Peter said.

“You do?” Bucky blinked. Huh.

Peter nodded, face almost comically serious. “Something like that happened to me.”

Bucky very carefully did not laugh, but looked at the kid and raised his eyebrows.

“It did!” Peter protested. “I was—okay, so this fall, there was— There was a girl I liked. Her name was Liz. She was the Academic Decathlon captain and she was really smart and funny and pretty and nice.” He stopped, his ears turning pink. “Um, anyway. I kept getting distracted by Spider-Man things when I could’ve been spending time with her. One time, I was going to show up as Spider-Man, to impress her, because I said I met Spider-Man through the Stark Internship and I knew him—”

Bucky laughed. He couldn’t help it.

Peter sighed. “That was actually Ned’s idea.”

“But you went along with it.”

Peter fidgeted.“I guess. —Anyway, I was there as Spider-Man about to walk into the party she was at, and then something weird happened and I had to go check it out. And like, things like that happened a lot, and she thought I ditched the Academic Decathlon nationals, and . . . yeah.” He sighed.

Bucky felt bad for laughing at him. “I guess you do get it. Sorry, kid.”

“Oh, that’s not the big part,” Peter said, looking up. “The thing is, I guess she . . . kind of liked me too? You know, anyway? And she asked me to homecoming, and on the way to the dance I realized, um, her dad was the guy I’d been fighting for the last few weeks.”

Bucky blinked.

“Remember the whole plane thing I told you about? The things someone tried to steal and I tried to stop him and the plane crashed and that’s why Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts decided not to sell Stark Tower after all?”

Bucky nodded.

“That was him.”

“Damn,” Bucky said softly.

“And I kind of had to ditch Liz at the dance to go stop him. Like, it was that night. And then she and her mom moved to Oregon. So, you know.” He shrugged. “Circumstances.”

Bucky whistled softly. “Okay,” he said finally. “I take it back, kid. I think you have a better story than Steve, there.” They sat in silence for a minute, looking out the windows of the lounge.

“You with that,” Bucky muttered after a while. “Steve with Sharon. And we both know I’m a hopeless idiot.” He shook his head. “How is it that out of all of us, Tony is the one who has his love life in order?”

Peter let out a burst of laughter, then stopped quickly, like he felt bad about finding that funny.

“Hold on,” Bucky said. “I’m thinking about it wrong. Pepper’s got her love life in order. Stark’s just along for the ride. She’s got more sense than all of us put together.”

Peter giggled. “Oh, that reminds me,” he said.

“Pepper having sense?”

“Kind of—I mean, Aunt May really admires Ms. Potts, that’s the—anyway, Aunt May wants to talk with you. Can you meet her for coffee or something early next week?”

“Uh, sure,” Bucky said.

“Great!” Peter pulled out his phone. “I’ll text her and we can figure out a time.”

~

Tony was working in his lab one evening—okay, maybe night—okay, maybe two or three in the morning, that was still really evening, though, right?—one arbitrary time-of-day about a week after Bucky’s kind-of breakdown when FRIDAY alerted him to someone trying to enter the lab. “Huh?” he shouted. “Cut music.”

FRIDAY did. Tony looked over at the glass door between the workshop and the elevator and saw Bucky standing there in sweatpants and a hoodie, haggard and wild-eyed, his hair a mess. That . . . couldn’t be good.

“What’s up, buttercup?” he asked.

“Can I come in?” Bucky asked hoarsely. “I—fuck.”

“Sure,” Tony said, cutting him off, and waved for FRIDAY to open the door. Bucky stumbled in and made a beeline for one of the worktables in a corner. He hopped lightly up on top of it—Tony felt distinctly middle-aged watching the ease with which he did that—and huddled in the corner, arms wrapped around his knees. And oh shit, Tony knew that feeling, and suddenly had a good guess why Barnes had come here where there was bright light and heavy machinery.

“So,” Tony said. “You want me to ignore you or you want me to distract you?”

“Just keep working,” Barnes said into his knees.

“‘Kay,” Tony said. “FRIDAY, music back, but could you—”

The air was suddenly full of sound again, but a different song and a lower volume. “Yeah, perfect,” Tony said, and went back to poking at the War Machine suit.

It wasn’t much later, probably, when he got that particular issue worked out and could guarantee that the repulsors in the legs would not glitch and flip backwards no matter how much extra worthless hardware the Air Force tried to have Rhodey carry, and that the stabilizing mechanisms in place would actually work. As he strolled triumphantly toward another part of the lab, to either clean up or find something else to fiddle with, he caught sight of Bucky. He had relaxed slightly from his first tense ball of misery, but his eyes were still vacant and his face set.

Ooooo-kay.

“So,” Tony said, wandering up to him as though completely by accident. “D’you wanna work on the T-bird some more or something?” He wasn’t going to ask about the arm. Even if he did have some cool new ideas about joint articulation.

Bucky took a long moment to focus on him, then shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’m sorry—I don’t want to keep you here, if—”

“Not a problem,” Tony said briskly. “But you’ve been watching me make awesome stuff for at least half an hour and you still look like hell, so.”

“I don’t need anything to do,” Bucky said. “I just need to be—” he broke off and Tony could barely hear him when he finished “somewhere safe.”

“Uh,” Tony said. “Hate to break it to you, Bugs Bucky, but most things in this room explode, crush, cut, make fire—basically are not safe.”

“Not safe for me,” he said, as though it should have been obvious. “And supervised.”

Shit.

“Okay,” Tony said after a minute, “I’m gonna stay here and make stuff, but I kinda want to know what’s up.”

“Nothing,” Bucky said. “I’m not—everything’s still stable. I just had a dream. Don’t trust myself right now.”

Ah, paranoia. Tony’s favorite friend.

“Alright then,” he said, “here’s a thought—and I swear I’m not trying to throw you out or be pushy around this—but maybe instead of hanging out down here you should go and hang out with your favorite blond beefcake. Maybe cuddle up again. Cuddles are great for anxiety, it’s scientifically proven.”

Bucky had gone ridgid. “No,” he growled. “Not Steve. I don’t—I can’t—” He shook his head emphatically. “I can’t be near Steve right now.”

“Whoa, okay,” Tony said. “This isn’t missing your sisters or a trauma-y flashback nightmare, then, huh? Just run-of-the-mill shittiness? Sorry, jumping to conclusions, kind of a thing I do. But I get that too. Had a dream last week, or maybe two weeks ago or something, where I left Pepper for this reporter chick, and Pepper married a guy from Logistics, and then I was miserable because there was no more Pepper and it was my fault. Pretty embarrassed when I woke up. But it was alright—”

“This wasn’t,” Bucky said, glaring at nothing, jaw working furiously. He barked out something that could have been a laugh—like the mutant inbred relative of a laugh that was then exposed to radiation and twisted like silly putty. “One thing in common, though. No more Steve, and it was my fault.”

It was impossible even for Tony to miss the sheer venom, the self-directed loathing, in his voice. So it was a trauma-y flashback-y nightmare after all, and Tony was an ass.

“Uh,” he said.

“Did you see him?” Bucky demanded, looking straight at Tony for the first time that evening. “Did you see him after D.C?.”

“I visited him in the hospital, yeah,” Tony said, heart sinking.

“So you know what I did.”

Tony winced. Yeah, he remembered, and it had been bad. But— “Actually, y’know, he kinda couldn’t shut up about how he’d found you and how you must’ve been the one who saved him. He didn’t mind.”

“Of course not. He’s an idiot. He didn’t mind getting stabbed and being shot four times and—he saved my life with a fucking gut wound and the first thing I did was try to beat him to death and he didn’t mind—”

Tony sighed. “Look, I’m really, really bad at this, okay? My point is that everything worked out okay and he obviously doesn’t blame you.”

“Well, I do,” Bucky snarled. “And in my dream it didn’t work out okay, and I’m not going to go up and look at him until I can stop—stop seeing—stop feeling him die.” He looked down at his hands—especially, Tony thought, the metal one. Unshed tears glittered in his eyes. “Until I don’t remember killing him.”

Shit.

“You’re not gonna do that for real, though,” Tony said, and at least the look he got back was 100% exasperated “no shit, Sherlock” instead of more angst. That was good. Exasperation he could deal with.

“Right. So, nightmare. Nightmares suck. Uh . . . you know I know that. Unfortunately for you, I also suck at helping other people deal with anything, but hey! I’m trying. So, uh, I empathize with the utter suckage that your life is right this second.”

It was a little unnerving that he couldn’t tell whether Bucky’s expression was “I’m going to kill you, like actually, exception to the no-more-murder rule” or “I’m going to laugh.” It might also be “What the actual fuck.” But none of those were crying, and Tony could handle everything better than crying, so he kept going.

“You might have noticed that I’m very good at being skeptical and paranoid—it’s kind of what I do—and even I am entirely convinced you’re not a scary murder machine. But I also know that doesn’t make you feel better, thus the suckage. But it’s okay that things suck, and it’ll get better, but it doesn’t have to right away. That’s okay too . . . . Am I helping? I feel like this works a lot better when Rhodey says it.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘helping,’” Bucky said, “but it’s . . . something, alright.” There was a little more life in his voice.

“Really?” Tony asked, then caught himself. “Uh, good. That’s good.” He rocked back on his heels. “So, uh, how’re you feeling?”

Bucky sighed. “Honestly? I just really, really wish I could still get drunk.”

Tony’s voice came out sharper than he meant it to when he replied, “Trust me, that means you should be really, really glad you can’t.”

“Yeah?” Bucky slumped back against the wall, shaking his head. “Sorry.”

“No,” Tony said, waving it off. “Just—yeah.” Then, because it was something to talk about that wasn’t feelings, “It doesn’t work, huh?”

“I tried,” Bucky said, his eyes mostly shut, speaking into the air rather than at Tony. “On the run, in Bucharest—bought as much as I thought wasn’t suspicious once I’d settled down. I thought it’d help.” His lip curled. “Just spent a week’s worth of rent making my mouth taste bad. Not a damn thing.”

“Jesus,” Tony said. He tried to calculate roughly how much a quarter of a shithole’s rent would be and what that meant in cheap alcohol. That went beyond scientifically interesting into . . . . “Uh, this is a pot calling the kettle black situation, but you do realize, if that did affect you, you could have died?”

“Eh,” Bucky said. “Wasn’t exactly a priority, sometimes.”

“Um.”

“Stop,” Bucky said, and he didn’t move at all or open his eyes, but his tone of voice stood in fine for the eyeroll he wasn’t doing. “If I’d wanted to kill myself, I’d’ve used something a lot faster than booze. And I didn’t.”

That wasn’t exactly reassuring. “Uh, is that supposed to be reassuring?” Tony asked.

“Thought about it,” Bucky said, still not moving. “Didn’t. Won’t.” He cracked one eye open. “You don’t tell Steve this, alright? We talked about it. Kind of. In Wakanda. He doesn’t need to feel bad about it again.” He closed the eye. “It’s not why I called you, either, so whatever you’re thinking, stop it.”

“Well, good,” Tony said, his voice a bit higher than he wanted. “The T-bird’s not done. I don’t want to find a new mechanic.”

He could have kicked himself as soon as that came out of his mouth. Bucky opened both eyes and looked at him in confusion.

Tony huffed and re-settled his shoulders. “Well, I don’t.” Because apparently, if he was accidentally being a dick, he was going to accidentally double down on it. Oh, sure, me, he thought, incredulous. Great job. Way to be supportive.

But Bucky’s eyes drifted closed again, his face relaxed. He wasn’t smiling, but he looked . . . alright.

“Thanks, Tony,” he said quietly.

Never mind. Obviously, Tony was a genius.

~

He kept working for another hour or two after that. At some point, Bucky nodded off on the workbench in the corner. A while later, Tony heard a plaintive bot noise over the music and saw Dum-E trying to get a blanket up onto the workbench.

Unsurprisingly, Dum-E wasn’t very good at it. When Tony slept in the lab, he fell asleep on a cot he’d set up, or sometimes on the ground. Maybe on the ground more often than not, but that was Pepper’s fault. When Pepper was around, he usually went up to sleep with her when he could tell he was getting tired. It was only when she was gone that he’d work until he suddenly couldn’t anymore. So really, if he woke up stiff and achy on the ground five feet away from the cot, it was all Pepper’s fault.

More importantly, it also meant that the bots never had to throw a piece of fabric up onto something higher than they themselves were.

“Here,” Tony said, impatient, taking the cloth from the bot. He shook it out—it had also gotten crumpled into a useless ball, because of course it had—and tossed it so it generally covered the sleeping super-soldier. “I need to write you a better problem-solving algorithm,” he told Dum-E.

It wasn’t long after that that Tony did start to feel tired, and it was still at least an hour before sunrise, so Pepper couldn’t roll her eyes at him if he came to bed now. He waved the bots off to their charging stations, dimmed the lights (but didn’t turn them off completely), and headed for the elevator. At the entrance to the lab, he looked back, frowning. It kind of felt wrong to leave Bucky down here. It was his lab; he should be the one sleeping in it.

But the only reason he wasn’t was that he got to go sleep with Pepper instead. And, he admitted to himself, he really didn’t want to wake Bucky up. He seemed to be actually sleeping, no nightmares so far, and Tony knew that that was—that was good, and not something to be interrupted.

“FRIDAY?” he said. “Keep an eye on him and let me know if he’s not sleeping right, or if he wakes up and isn’t—fine?”

“Of course, Boss,” FRIDAY said crisply. She sounded approving.

“And let him know where the coffeemaker is in here,” Tony added. “When he wakes up.”

“Will do.”

~

On Tuesday morning, Bucky was waiting for May at the coffee shop near her office. He’d managed to snag one of the two-person tables before the 8:30 rush; a light blue denim jacket was draped over the back of one wooden chair, and he sat comfortably in the other, hands wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee. His hands, she noticed, both seemed to be flesh and bone, and she wondered exactly how he’d managed that little trick. He nodded at her as she came in but otherwise seemed to be watching the stream of people walking by outside.

May waited through the line, exchanged some casual chit-chat with the baristas, and paid for her usual medium latte to stay.

She added sugar to the mug and slid into the reserved seat with a happy sigh. Bucky raised his eyebrows at her. “Five dollars for a coffee?” he muttered, so only she could hear. It was noisy in the shop, but their little spot by the window was relatively isolated. It also meant it’d be hard for anyone to overhear them. “When I first saw that, I thought someone was nuts. I remember coffee being five cents.”

“Oh, it’s nuts,” May agreed. “But I don’t mind paying it at this place. That’s why I come here.” She took a sip. The sugar on top of the foam had fused together into a thin crust she almost had to bite through, like the top of a crème brûlée. The too-sweet crunch was quickly obliterated by the rich, earthly blend of milk and coffee. Perfect. Bucky raised his mug to her in amused salute and drank too.

“So,” May said, setting down her mug. “You’re probably wondering what this is about.”

“A little, yeah,” Bucky admitted, looking at her with a surprisingly endearing half-smile. “I figured you wanted to tell me to keep an eye out for Peter, but now I’m not so sure.”

“No, you’re already doing that,” May said. “That’s actually when I realized—what I realized.”

“Which is?”

“Peter looks up to you,” May said, “and you look out for him.”

Bucky looked down, but May caught the pleased smile on his face.

“And so,” she went on, “I’m making it official. Make up a cover story if you want, or just keep it in the back of your mind, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re part of the family.”

“I don’t follow,” Bucky said, embarrassed pride fading into confusion.

“You will,” May said. She stirred her latte, folding the sugary crust on top of the foam into the liquid. “The thing is, Peter— Since my husband died a few years ago, he hasn’t— I’m the only family he’s got anymore. He doesn’t have any male role models.” She looked up at Bucky, eyebrows raised. “But now he’s latched on to you.

“Whoa.” Bucky raised his hands. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m not a good—”

“He’s already attached to you. You’re stuck with that. And you’re better than you think. You’re already taking care of him. You carried him home sleeping, Bucky. I’m pretty sure that makes you family.” When Bucky didn’t say anything, she went on. “Frankly, I’m glad it’s you he’s made friends with and not Tony Stark.”

His eyes widened. “What? Why?”

May waved a hand impatiently. “I know he does a lot of good, and Peter practically worships the ground he walks on, but he’s not the person I’d choose as a responsible role model. I met him when he walked into my apartment, lied to me, and whisked my nephew off to Germany to fight people with superpowers. I met you when you answered the phone to let him sleep.”

Bucky looked like he wanted to argue, but didn’t know how.

“He’s been a real help to Peter in some ways. I understand that the suit he made keeps Peter safer than he’d be otherwise. But he isn’t around, he doesn’t talk with Peter as a person, and I don’t think he can decide whether to treat him as an adult or as a kid. That’s what Peter needs, not someone who just drops in and gives him things. He needs someone he can turn to for the”—she dropped her voice—“the fighting bad guys stuff, but hell, for regular teenage-guy stuff, too.”

“What do you mean?”

May sighed. “I don’t know. That’s the point. When he went to a dance last fall, I had to Google how to tie a tie to teach him. I know Ben would have told him all sorts of things to do and say and not do and say and made it a joke so he wasn’t nervous—or could pretend he wasn’t—and I tried, but I feel like it wasn’t the same. And there are other things like that that I don’t even know about, things that are probably more important, like how to handle it when other kids at school are pushing him around—he always listened to Ben more about that kind of stuff than me. All that.”

Bucky was shaking his head. “You realize everything I know about that is at least seventy years out of date, right? And—” He looked around exasperatedly. “Look, I like the kid. I like him a lot. But I’m not someone he should rely on. I—” He leaned toward her and lowered his voice even more. “I’ve done terrible— Did you forget the brainwashed assassin part? And I was one of the people he was fighting when Stark whisked him off. May, you don’t want me around your kid!”

“Unless you lied to me, that wasn’t your choice and it’s not going to happen again.” She waited pointedly for Bucky’s nod before going on. “Then I don’t see a problem.”

He spread his hands helplessly. “Are you sure you’re not mixing me up with Steve?”

May pursed her lips. “I sure hope not. Which one of you dropped a plane on him, again?” She raised a hand as he opened his mouth. “No, I know. I’m sure he’s wonderful. But if Peter’s going to be out jumping off buildings and fighting crime, I’d rather he’s around someone telling him to be careful than encouraging him.”

Bucky leaned back and crossed his arms. “You realize about the most I can do is say ‘don’t jump off that building, jump off there.’”

May shrugged. “It’s better than nothing.”

“You’re serious about this.”

“Well, Peter’s serious about this.” May fidgeted with her mug. “When I found out there was someone who knew who he was, I was . . . pretty concerned. Peter swore up and down that it was fine, that he could trust you. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. And then I was impressed when you brought him home.” She shrugged. “I’m pretty sure I’m not asking you to do anything you’re not doing already.”

Bucky nodded slowly. Some of the tension had left his face. Good.

“But I’m putting some extra weight behind it,” May added. “I know you want to do well by him. So just let me add: do well by him, or else.” There was a kind of fierce satisfaction in making a former assassin gulp. Normally she’d be ashamed of that feeling, but this was for Peter; she wasn’t. “He trusts you, and that makes you responsible for him that way. Don’t blow it.”

“I won’t,” Bucky said, looking determined and a little bit scared.

“Not that responsible,” May said, laughing. “That ‘oh god what’ look is reserved for parents. That’s me. You’re like a cousin or something. An older brother. The weird uncle. It’s not a disaster if you screw up, just try not to; that kind of thing. You know?”

Bucky snorted. “I can’t be his older brother. I’m ninety-nine years old.”

“Oh, come on. You could be,” May said, eyeing him thoughtfully. “It’d be a big spread, maybe, but you practically could be. How old are you really?”

Bucky tensed. “I don’t know,” he said, very quietly.

Oh, shit. “I didn’t mean anything with math,” May half-lied. “I mean how old you feel you are. If someone woke you up in the middle of the night and asked you how old you are, what would you tell them?”

Bucky frowned.

“I’d say thirty-three, I think,” May said, to fill the silence. “Even though I haven’t been thirty-three in . . . a while.”

“Twenty-eight,” Bucky said abruptly, then looked surprised at himself. May wondered what twenty-eight meant for him.

“Well, there you go. Peter’s sixteen. Twelve years isn’t unbelievable for siblings—or for an uncle.” He was frowning, lost in thought, so she leaned in and put a hand on his sleeve. “Hey. I know it’s not exactly like that. There’s something different when you grow up together.” Thinking of her sister, she blinked hard. “I just want you to understand that’s kind of how he thinks of you, whether he realizes it or not. You’re friends, but you’re an adult and he’s not. He looks up to you and so you’re responsible.”

He came back from wherever he’d been, and his eyes crinkled with humor. “Yeah, that’s different. Don’t think my sisters ever looked up to me. More like ‘even a stopped clock is right twice a day.’”

“So there you go. You’re not in charge of him like, well, basically every other adult he knows, and I’m sure he doesn’t expect you to be, but he does expect you to . . .well, to know better than he does. Just keep that in mind, and look out for him. That’s all I really wanted to say.” She shook her head, smiling wryly. “I don’t think I said it that well, and maybe it didn’t need saying at all, but—”

“Eh, I got there in the end,” Bucky said. “At least, I think I understand.”

“Good,” May said.

“So. Good role model, huh?” Bucky said, smiling now, counting off points on his fingers. “Make sure he knows how to deal with assholes, make sure he remembers to do his homework, make sure he doesn’t get himself killed, and don’t take him along into any seedy bars or anything, because he trusts my judgment and I have to pretend I have some.”

May burst out laughing at the last one. “More or less.”

“That reminds me,” Bucky said. “How old do you have to be to drink in New York now, anyway? I’m not going to give the kid liquor, don’t worry, but I see signs saying they’ll check ID for anyone who looks under thirty-five, and that seems . . . .”

May laughed. “That’s just so people don’t get mad when they’re carded. It’s twenty-one.”

“Oh, good. I remember when it was never, but thirty-five’s almost as bad.”

It took May a second to realize he was talking about Prohibition. Her perspective twisted again. This was jarring; it was weird talking to someone who looked younger than her but who remembered events from before her parents had been born. Peter didn’t seem to be bothered by it, but then again, she thought, Peter was sixteen. World War Two was history to him, but so were the Berlin Wall and the Gulf War and other things she’d lived through. He might actually know more about what had happened longer ago—she didn’t know how recent any of his history classes had gotten.

Of course the boy who was born after 9/11 would take meeting someone who remembered the twenties in stride. Everything was history to him, so nothing was all that remarkable.

Damn, she felt old.

“No,” she said, “the drinking age is twenty-one nationwide now. All fifty states. Something to do with interstate highway funding.”

She saw his mouth quirk at “fifty,” and there was another little mind-twist. All he said, though, was “but voting is eighteen?”

“Yep.”

“Huh.” He shook his head, smiling at some inner joke. May didn’t want to think too hard about what he was remembering.

May drained her latte. The rush was dying down, and it was nearly nine o’clock. “I’m sorry, Bucky, but I should go. I have to get to work.” And with less bustle, someone was more likely to overhear something they shouldn’t.

“Of course.”

He stood up as she did, chairs scraping back against the floor, and she handed him his jacket. “Thanks for saving me a seat.”

“Anytime. This is a nice place,” he added, looking around. “I can see why you like it.”

“I’d rather support them than go to one of the big chains,” May said. “It’s right by my office, though, so it’s dangerous. I end up coming here a lot.”

Bucky grinned. He and May tucked their empty coffee mugs into the plastic bin next to the cream and sugar, waved goodbye to the baristas, and left.

Bucky held the door for her, May noticed.

~

The next time she went to the cafe, Mari, the barista on shift, waved her down. “Hey, we’ve got a gift card with your name on it. Looks like you won a sweepstakes or something?”

May frowned but didn’t deny it. She was starting to understand how Peter had been so good at rolling with Tony Stark’s “you just won a Stark Internship” line; if someone was offering a cover for your secret, you took it. She opened the small envelope and found—her eyebrows shot up—a $250 gift certificate to the place and a small piece of paper. On it, in really pretty old-fashioned handwriting, was “Can’t say no to gifts from family.”

May smiled.

Chapter Text

It was the day after his meeting with May that Bucky heard back from Grace.

“This came,” Tony said gruffly when Bucky went down to the workshop for their planned arm-testing session. He waved a small blue envelope. “You, uh, probably don’t want to be here.”

“Uh—” Bucky said.

Tony stuffed the envelope into his hand. “You don’t. Don’t try to be helpful. I can do something else. Go up and be with Steve and read it. I can pretty much guarantee you he won’t mind if you need a hug.”

“Huh?”

“Just let me know if you end up hitting the space booze again.” Tony pushed him in the direction of the elevator.

“I—”

“Nope. Stop trying to be so responsible. No more ‘the buck stops here’ crap.”

Bucky paused at the door to the elevator and turned back. Tony was smirking.

“That,” Bucky said, “was terrible even for you.”

“Yep! It’s called a coping mechanism, grandpa.” Tony waved at him. “Go.”

~

The letter was addressed to “James B. Barnes, ℅ Tony Stark,” in handwriting that he recognized—handwriting he’d seen develop at a wooden table years and years ago. Yeah. Even the strange way he and Steve counted time—years and years.

He opened it with shaking hands.

The first few lines were simple, sparse, the writing firm and carefully centered on the paper.

To whoever wrote that letter:

I might be old, but I am not stupid, and I don’t like to be messed with. If this is a hoax, BURN IN HELL.

Now that that’s taken care of:

Bucky, if it’s really you—

Of course I want to see you. Come home, idiot. It’s been a long, long time.

You said you’d come home and scare off all my boyfriends. You’re a bit late for that, I’m afraid—one of them stuck around long enough I decided I might as well marry him, and then I had to go and outlive him. But we have children, and grandchildren, and I hope someday you’d like to meet them as well. Not now, though; I understand you’re not ready for that yet.

You sent the letter; you obviously know where to find me. Just don’t mess up like you did with Sally Henderson.

—Grace.

Bucky swallowed and passed it to Steve. “Sally Henderson?” Steve asked.

“Went to pick her up for a date. Y’probably don’t remember—we were, I dunno, thirteen, fourteen. Didn’t mean anything. Anyway, I went to the house next door. Gracie was at the house I showed up at with a friend of hers and knew I wasn’t supposed to be out that night.” Bucky tapped the paper, shaking. “It’s not really a joke. It’s—she’s saying it’s really her, maybe. Or asking if I’m really me.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Write back,” Bucky said. “Show it’s me. And ask her when she’ll be home.”

Steve squeezed his shoulder.

~

“Don’t touch the rolls yet,” Bucky said absently as someone walked past him into the kitchen. “They’re just out of the oven. Too hot.”

“I know that,” Peter said from the kitchen table, sounding confused.

“Not you,” Bucky said.

There was the sound of a metal pan being dropped on a granite countertop and a sharp hiss of pain.

“I told you,” Bucky said, exasperated.

“You said the rolls“If the bread is too hot to touch, so’s the pan, idiot,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Would it kill you to wait five minutes?”

“I like fresh bread.”

“You like first-degree burns, too, looks like. —What is so funny?” Bucky added, glancing at Peter, who was half-lying on the table, he was laughing so hard. “It’s just Steve being stupid. He does it all the time.” “Hey!”

“This—this—” Peter gasped. He pulled himself together, sat back up, and pointed at Steve. “You are not what I expected from Captain America,” he said. “You areso much better.”

“I’m a little concerned about what you expected, given you think burning myself in the kitchen is an improvement,” Steve said. The sound of water cut off, and he emerged from the kitchen, drying his hands. “What did you think I was like?”

“Like the school videos,” Peter said, as though that explained everything.

“School videos?” Bucky asked blankly.

“Wh—oh. Oh.” Steve groaned. “Don’t tell me they actually released those.”

“Huh? Yeah, everybody who goes to high school in New York sees them, at least. Like, the state, not the city. Pretty sure. Might be the whole country. I dunno.”

“What are you talking about?” Bucky asked.

Peter pulled out his phone. “Here, I’ll just show you.”

~

“So, you got detention,” Steve said, sitting down backwards on a chair. “You screwed up.”

“What?” Bucky shouted, bursting into laughter.

“You know what you did was wrong. The question is—”

“Steve,” Bucky gasped, straining for breath. “Steve, this isn’t real, right? This isn’t you.”

“Whaddaya think,” Steve muttered, barely smiling. “You oughta know what my face looks like by now.”

“You made it for a joke, right?”

“No.”

“What,” Bucky sputtered, incredulous. “But—but the chair? And the—that’s not your suit, unless it’s from the old USO show. That’s never been your—that thing’s worse armor than a t-shirt! And since when do you—” He broke off. This was absurdly funny, but moreover, it was absurd. Lecturing kids about respecting authority wasn’t the kind of thing Steve would agree to do. And Steve didn’t look happy about the video.

“Stevie,” he said seriously. “Stevie, what kind of dirt did SHIELD find on you to get you to do this?”

“Nothing,” Steve said. “It was—”

The elevator doors slid open.

“Hey, everybody, what’s happening in here? FRIDAY said you told her there was food? Ooh, what’s going on back here?”

Tony wandered through the living room, pausing to sniff appreciatively near the kitchen.

“Don’t touch the pan,” Steve said, perfectly straight-faced. “It’s hot.”

“Uh, yeah, duh, Capsicle.” Tony sauntered up to the table. “Whatcha watching?”

“Noth—” Bucky began, throwing a quick glance at Steve.

“Oh, cheesy!” Tony said, looking over Peter’s shoulder. “Someone doing cospl— Wait.” He peered at the phone, then looked up, then back at the phone, then back at Steve, a grin slowly growing on his face. “This is you.”

Steve sighed. “Yes,” he said, arms folded. “It is.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. That was an almost defensive voice. Normally, Steve was pretty good at laughing at himself. Something about this bothered him, then—and he wasn’t doing anything about it.

“Play it, play it,” Tony said to Peter, grinning hugely. “Oh, I wanna see what this is.”

They watched the video.

Bucky had to admit, the chair thing was just as funny the second time.

“Are there more?” Tony asked Peter, sounding like a kid in a candy store.

“Uh, yeah,” Peter said, also looking at Steve, a bit nervously in his case.

“Let’s watch some.”

“Can you not?” Steve asked in a sharp, weary tone.

“Oh, come on, Capsicle,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “Lighten up a little. This is amazing. You’re doing the country a service for morale right now.”

“Your body’s changing,” said Steve’s voice from the phone. “I know how that feels.”

Tony screamed and doubled over, cackling like a hyena, going red in the face. “Really,” he gasped, slapping the table. “Really. That is—that is gold.”

Steve sighed and looked away. His jaw was tight with anger—Bucky wasn’t sure if anyone other than he could read that expression—and his cheeks were flushed.

“Steve,” he said quietly, nudging Steve’s shoulder with his own. “You’ve gotta admit it’s pretty funny.”

“I know,” Steve said. “It’s just—”

“Hey, Captain Buzzkill, get over here. Do you think you can do a re-creation?” Tony wheezed.

Steve pressed his lips together. “Once was enough, actually.”

“Oh, come on.” Tony straightened up. “Really. Quit standing on your dignity for once and have some fun.”

“I have fun,” Steve snapped.

“No, you sit around reading and talking with people and making secret drawings that you won’t talk about,” Tony said, his voice rising. “You’re a terrible actor and it’s hysterical. That is fun. Being able to laugh at yourself is fun. We don’t all have to be impressed all the time.”

“That’s rich coming from the guy who spends a thousand dollars to get into some nightclub—” Steve wasn’t yelling, but Bucky knew that voice. He was pissed.

“Um,” Peter said quietly.

“I told you, that place has no cover charge if you’ve saved the city from being blown up!”

“And I told you I didn’t like that they were using the Avengers to get publicity!”

“And I said fine. And there were no more photo shoots after that. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“I—”

“Enough!” Bucky shouted. The other three all jumped and turned to look at him. “Both of you! Knock it the hell off.” He frowned at the two of them, baffled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but it sure as hell isn’t these videos anymore.

“Sorry,” Peter said in a tiny voice.

“Not your fault,” the other three said, more or less simultaneously. They all froze and looked at each other.

Bucky was the first to smile.

Steve followed suit.

Tony snorted.

“Uh, what’s happening?” Peter asked as Steve started to chuckle.

“We’re a clusterfuck,” Tony informed him, grinning. “A total clusterfuck.”

“No one knows what the heck is happening,” Bucky explained. “That’s why it’s funny.”

“Hey,” Steve said sternly. “Language.”

Bucky flipped him off, and they stared at each other until they both broke down and laughed helplessly.

~

“Seriously, though,” Tony said around mouthful of fresh bread a while later. “The hell is up with those videos?”

Steve just shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Tony,” he said. “You’re right. It’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t let it get to me. It’s something they roped me into doing right after I got out of the ice, that’s all—a few weeks after the whole”—he gestured out the windows—“fighting aliens thing. I was too polite to tell ’em no.” He shrugged. “They are awfully embarrassing. I guess I’m just sensitive about it.”

Bucky, in the kitchen buttering his second roll, raised his eyebrows. That didn’t have the ring of truth to it. Or rather, it sounded like how Steve usually lied: offering up a lesser truth to cover a big one.

“Sure,” Tony said, frowning. Apparently he wasn’t sold either. “If you say so, Cap.”

Steve shifted uncomfortably as Bucky headed back out to the living room, tossing another chunk of bread at Peter as he went by. The kid caught it without looking up from his homework. Spider-sense had some unexpected benefits.

“Look, Tony, I—”

He held up a hand. “No, save it, Ice T. You’ve been here almost two months and that’s the first fight you’ve picked with me. I was starting to think you were actually dying.” He stood up, licking butter off his fingers. “We’re cool. Good bread, by the way. I guess this whole old-fashioned home-made thing isn’t just a pain-in-the-ass hipster trend.” He waved and headed out.

~

“Okay,” Bucky said, once Peter had packed up his homework and left too, about an hour later. “You want to tell me what that was really about?”

“You heard what I told Tony.”

“Yeah, and now I want to hear the part you didn’t tell him.”

Steve frowned at him from his armchair.

“I’ve known you since you were five, Rogers. I know how your mind works.”

Something in Steve’s face crumpled and he let out a huff of air somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Have I ever told you how nice it is to have someone around who knows when I’m bullshitting?”

“I’m going to remind you of that next time you try and get me to leave you alone,” Bucky said. He paused, dithering, then grabbed a chair from the kitchen table and placed it right in front of Steve, then swung around to sit on it like Steve had in the video. He put his arm along the back of it and looked at Steve dramatically. “So. Tell me.”

Steve sighed. “It really is what I told Tony, more or less. “It was pretty early after I came out of the ice. Maybe a month after the attack on New York. Someone from the New York Department of Education suggested it first, I guess, and SHIELD was trying to make sure everyone knew I was back—or someone was; maybe it wasn’t SHIELD at that point—and, well, what else did I have to do? Aside from helping with the cleanup.” He grimaced. “Peter said the whole country watches those in high school?”

Bucky nodded. “Or maybe just the state.”

“Shit.” Steve buried his head in his hands.

“You were really miserable when you made these, weren’t you?” Bucky asked quietly, turning the chair around to sit on it properly, his knees almost touching Steve’s.

“. . . Yeah.”

“Is that the—”

“I knew they were bad,” Steve said hoarsely. “I think the USO scripts were better. But I thought, hey, maybe this is how people actually behave in the future. And maybe this is a way I can try to—to figure that out. So I did it. I made all the little . . . whatever they are. Vignettes. PSAs. Stupid. And I was trying so hard—” He lifted his head. “I wanted so badly to . . . get into things that I didn’t speak up about the scenes I had an issue with.”

“The detention one.”

“Can’t believe I did that. I didn’t really understand what it was . . . it sounds a lot more serious than it is. Peter said you can get detention for forgetting to turn in your homework. I thought—fighting or—” He shook his head. “There’s no way— It is not right to tell millions of schoolchildren to blindly respect authority. It should—should tell them to question what they did to end up in detention, and if it was something actually wrong to do better, but if it’s not—”

“You’d rather they did ‘Captain America reads Civil Disobedience,” Bucky said.

Steve snorted. “Basically, yeah.” Then he tapped his chin in thought. “The ‘your body’s changing’ one, too. I did make some changes to that one. It was just . . . .”

“You gave your mom’s talk?”

“More or less.”

They were quiet for a while.

“I’m sorry, Steve.”

“Yeah, well.” Steve put his feet up on Bucky’s lap. “’M not miserable anymore. Just embarrassed.”

Bucky made a face at him and crossed his legs, trapping Steve’s between them.

~

“What kind of weird game of international espionage telephone are you playing?” Tony frowned and motioned Bucky over. “Pepper says she got a text from Natasha saying Clint says ‘Privacy is kind of important after you’ve had someone else in your head. Leave Barnes alone.’ What the hell?”

Bucky looked embarrassed. “Geez. I barely mentioned anything.”

“I didn’t know you were in touch with Clint,” Tony said.

“Well, if you can call it in touch.” Bucky hesitated, then shrugged and pulled out his phone. A few taps later, he slid it across the table toward Tony and Pepper. It was a conversation on an encrypted messaging app. Pepper reached out first and scrolled through it. The first several exchanges, spaced days or weeks apart, were solely pictures: targets, beer cans, playing cards, the occasional leaf, all with perfect holes through the center or, occasionally, neatly pinned down by an arrow, and all accompanied by numbers: 200 yd. Approx. ¼ mile (from roof of barn). 75 m. (dark, raining.) 100 m Robin Hood shot (supposedly impossible).

As she neared the end of the conversation, there were occasional actual texts: “let’s see an arrow do that.” “Neighbor left passive-aggressive note on mailbox. Tied reply to arrow and hit bedpost thru open window. Can’t do that with a gun.”

“You’re covertly communicating . . .” Tony began.

“...for a dick-measuring contest?” Pepper cut in.

“Please. There’s distance involved. Pissing contest,” Bucky said, then got an “oh shit” look on his face and gradually turned red. Pepper burst out giggling.

“Oh my god,” Tony groaned. “Are you blushing? You are! You’re as bad as Steve. What do I do with people who were raised to be gentlemen? You start to be fun and then you stop!”

Bucky cracked an embarrassed grin.

“You’re thinking something else right now, aren’t you?” Tony crowed. “C’mon, spit it out!”

“Nope,” Bucky said, shaking his head and laughing. “Not in front of a lady. Some of us were brought up right.”

Tony made a face at him.

“I wasn’t,” Pepper said, her smile wicked. “Tell me.”

“Well—uh,” Bucky said, stalling, “I can’t quite come up with the joke yet—”

“Oh good,” Pepper said. “That means I can.”

“Or me,” Tony said, not to be left out.

“Okay,” Bucky said, getting redder. “Size would mean, uh, the weapon itself rather than range. And the only time Hawkeye and I actually met, he had, uh—”

“Oh God,” Steve said from the doorway. Oh, great. Tony turned around to see him staring at Bucky, expression caught between enlightenment and mortification. “The bow that—”

“—collapsed into a staff,” Bucky finished, grinning sheepishly at Steve.

“Yeah, that’s a tough one. Gimme a minute,” Tony said, frowning at the ceiling, determined to ignore whatever Captain Killjoy said next.

Instead, Steve burst into laughter. Tony looked back at him, startled.

“You know somewhere, somehow, your mother is disappointed in you, right, Buck?” he chuckled. He glanced up, caught sight of Bucky’s face, and lost it again, clutching at the doorframe to hold himself up.

Pepper, Tony saw, was crying—more from the look on Bucky’s face than anything else, he suspected. The last time he’d seen anyone look that embarrassed and that smug at the same time, he’d walked in on two interns making out in a lab.

Steve was gasping. Bucky made a concerned movement toward him. “I’m fine,” Steve wheezed, waving him off. “Just because the asthma’s back doesn’t mean you have to worry. This is normal not being able to breathe.”

“It’s not that funny,” Bucky protested half-heartedly, which of course only set him off again, and then Pepper lost it looking at Steve.

Tony found himself laughing at all of them. Bucky’s confused, exasperated, and concerned expression only kept things going, and it was several minutes before they all got themselves under control.

“Okay,” Tony said finally. “How did your whatever-it-is contest make Barton think I was bothering you?”

Bucky rolled his eyes and scrolled down to the last message, which he handed to Tony. It was a picture of the firing range in the Tower. He didn’t bother looking at whatever passive-aggressive bullseyes were in the picture, just the accompanying text: “Stark’s a pain sometimes but the toys make up for it.”

“Aww, I feel the same way about you, Bucky-bear,” Tony crooned, hands over his heart. “It’s nice to feel so appreciated—”

“Shut up,” Bucky grumbled.

“Nope. That reminds me, I have some new specs I want to test—”

“Yeah, yeah, you can play with the arm tomorrow. Anyway, I guess he saw that and talked to the Black Widow, and—”

“Yeah, okay. Seriously,” he added, pulling Bucky closer, ignoring the hovering curious supersoldier behind them—forget helicopter parents, there were apparently helicopter friends and he was one of them. Literally, in fact; hadn’t he grounded one single-handedly back in Berlin? Good thing, too, in that case, but not now. Fortunately Pepper was talking with him. Good; hadn’t the guy ever heard of privacy?

“Seriously, I haven’t been, like, joking about things I really shouldn’t, have I? I told you, tell me if you need me to back off, I do not want to be your jailer. That’s creepy.”

“No,” Bucky said, just as quietly. “You’re giving me shit about Steve, that’s all.”

“Well, I’m not gonna stop that—”

“Yeah, I know,” he said, resigned. “That’s fine. But you can’t blame me for being annoyed, then. And I really don’t need a lecture on atomic chemistry every time we’re in the lab,” he added.

“Wait, what?” Tony blinked. “I’ve been saying that out loud?”

“Uh, yes.”

“No I haven’t. FRIDAY—FRIDAY, when I’m planning shit for scaled-up production of the replacement for palladium, have I been saying it out loud?”

“Every time, boss.”

“Huh. No wonder Dum-E kept trying to give me smoothies. Okay, well, feel free to ignore everything I’m saying unless I’m talking to you, Buckaroo.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows. “You were.”

“FRIDAY?”

“Yes, boss.”

“Well, damn.”

Bucky laughed. “See you tomorrow, Tony.” He raised his voice. “Steve, let’s get back home.”

Across the room, Steve and Pepper said their goodbyes.

“You’re really okay?” Tony asked in an undertone.

“It’s fine,” Bucky said. “I’ll tell Clint.”

“No, I’ll ask Pepper to tell Natasha to . . . whatever. See you tomorrow.”

Steve and Bucky waved and headed out of the penthouse living room. Pepper turned to Tony, probably to ask about Natasha’s text—but Tony heard something as he crossed the room towards her.

“Shh,” Tony said, and motioned toward the doorway. Voices drifted in from the hall.

“Y’know, Steve,” Bucky said, “I’ve done a lot worse for my mom to be disappointed in than a half-assed dirty joke.”

“None of that was you, and she’d know that,” Steve said, and Tony thought he caught an edge of parody to that soul-piercing sincerity this time. “The same way she’d know that dirty jokes that aren’t actually funny are entirely your—”

There was the thwap of metal on cloth.

“Don’t hit me, Buck, I’m sick. I thought you were all worked up about taking care of me.”

“Yeah, I want you to suffer, that’s why I’m making you lunch.” His voice was warm and amused under the paper-thin veneer of long-suffering. Tony suddenly got the feeling they’d been through this routine before—and not just like they’d done it a lot, but before before, back when Steve was still little and Bucky was just a mechanic, before there was even a threat of the war that would change both their lives.

Pepper put a hand on his arm and tugged him away. He rolled his eyes and went with her. Behind them, the something-else-disguised-as-bickering went on.

“You don’t have to cook, I can—”

“You almost fell over from laughing. You sit.”

~

Movie nights on Steve and Bucky’s floor had become a semi-regular thing, but in honor of Peter’s last day of school—or maybe because he just wanted the really, really big screen—Mr. Stark convinced everyone to move up to the lounge floor to watch something called Galaxy Quest.

“It’s not science fiction,” Peter overheard him telling Ms. Potts. “It’s a comedy in space with aliens. You’ll love it.”

Ms. Potts seemed skeptical, but in the end, she was laughing just as hard as everyone else.

Once it was over, they all hung around talking.

“See,” Bucky said seriously, “that’s a satisfying ending. The day is saved, the show comes back, the kids found out it’s all real—”

“Snape is an angry Shakespearean actor, and there’s got an romantic subplot with alien makeouts,” Mr. Stark finished. “It’s got everything.”

“The look on the guy’s face was great, though,” Peter said, laughing again as he remembered it. “Like, ‘this is weird, but okay, I guess that’s my life now. Alien smooches.’”

“Steve looked exactly like that every time Agent Carter looked at him,” Bucky said dryly.

Everyone in the room seemed to take a breath. Peter bit his lip. He knew what everyone else was thinking. Bucky and Steve gave each other crap all the time, but if Carter had just died a year ago, that was maybe kind of too soon…. On the other hand, Peter thought, it would be hard if somebody you cared about died and no one ever talked about them. Especially with the whole “skipping 70 years” thing. Bucky probably knew what he was doing.

Across the room, Steve settled back into his couch. “I never looked that dopey, thank you.”

Bucky made a skeptical noise. “Okay, maybe you hid it better than that around her. But whenever she left a room, everyone could practically hear you quoting poetry—”

“Shut up,” Steve muttered, crossing his arms.

“She walks in beauty, like the night—and out of the darkness she shoots our enemies,” Bucky began.

“Bucky…”

“No, no, you’re right, that doesn’t rhyme. Lemme see. Maybe Shakespeare . . . “

Steve gave him a considering look and threw one of the pillows from the couch across the room, hitting him full in the face.

(Naturally, it was a round pillow. Peter cracked up.)

“Okay,” Bucky said, catching the pillow as it fell. “I should have seen that coming.” He threw the pillow back, almost carelessly, as he walked over to Steve, and then—

Peter wasn’t really sure what happened then. It was fast. Even if Steve’s serum wasn’t working or whatever, it was a really quick exchange of feints, snatching pillows and cushions away from each other, hair getting mussed up for some reason, and basically it turned into the kind of heated, almost-annoyed, half-laughing slapfight that he and Ned still occasionally got into but had done all the time when they were, like, nine. And then, abruptly, it stopped.

Bucky was kneeling on the couch, somehow trying to reach down at Steve, who was holding him off with one hand—clearly neither of them were actually trying that hard to win. But they were panting and grinning at each other, mostly ignoring everyone else in the room—Ms. Potts was laughing even harder than Peter, and Mr. Stark looked weirdly intense—and then . . . .

If Peter had to put words on it, he’d say “and then Captain America grinned evilly,” except that that sounded so wrong. It wasn’t evil-evil. It was a normal, “I totally changed your ringtone to you singing in the shower” evil grin. It was still weird to see it on Steve’s face.

Bucky’s face changed, too. “Oh, no,” he said warningly. “No. Don’t you do it, Rogers, don’t you think it—”

And then Steve cackled and reached up toward Bucky’s ribs with his free hand, and the most terrifying former assassin in the world fell off the couch laughing hysterically.

“What,” Mr. Stark said flatly.

“Bucky’s ticklish,” Steve said innocently, and reached out to poke the same spot with his foot, and Bucky laughed harder and squirmed away. Steve polished his knuckles on his shirt. “I win.”

“You should’ve done that,” Bucky gasped, propping himself up on his elbows, “on the helicarrier. Didn’t need to dislocate my arm.”

“I assumed that was what the armor was for,” Steve shot back.

“How old are you two?” Mr. Stark said, like he didn’t know whether to be confused or weirded out or to laugh.

“Almost a hundred,” Steve said cheerfully.

“And on that note,” Bucky said, rolling to his feet, “I think I’d better call it a night.” He waved at them all and left, and Steve said goodnight and left too. Peter was about to do the same when Mr. Stark closed the door, turned to him and Ms. Potts, and said, seriously, “Tell me you saw it.”

“Saw what?” Peter asked.

Mr. Stark rolled his eyes and turned to Ms. Potts. “Someone more than twelve years old, tell me you saw it. You could cut that sexual tension with a knife!”

“Oh,” Peter said. When you thought about it that way . . . . Yeah.

“Tony,” Ms. Potts said, looking pointedly at Peter.

“I know Bucky likes Steve,” he said—then immediately thought oh shit shit shit because what if they didn’t. But Mr. Stark blinked, then pointed at him. “See. Okay. Yes. That’s what we all know. But I think we have proof positive now that it goes both ways.”

“Okay,” Ms. Potts said. “You might be right. So what?”

“So?” Mr. Stark said, waving his hands. “So?! They’re both clearly oblivious and we need to set them up!”

Peter looked at Ms. Potts, biting his lip. Ms. Potts looked at Peter. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.

“Why not?” Mr. Stark demanded. “They’re clearly never going to figure it out on their own—it’s been eighty years. They need help, Pep.”

“Setting people up never seems to go well,” Peter said, nervous. “I really don’t think that’s . . . yeah.”

“What goes wrong?” Mr. Stark asked, wheeling back to face him. “Tell me what doesn’t work and we can do it better.”

“Well—” Peter said, shifting his weight. “I mean, I’ve never done it, but I’ve seen people at school who—it just makes people mad with their friends, usually, I think. And sometimes too embarrassed to talk to the person they tried to set them up with. I don’t think that’ll work.”

He swallowed, not sure if the rest was any of his business, but—“You’re just barely back to being friends again. I don’t think you should try that yet.”

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but Mr. Stark just kind of froze and looked at him funny for a while, then slowly lowered his finger and relaxed all over.

“Okay,” he said, kind of quietly. “Mouths of babes and all that crap. Good—good point.” He opened the door again. “I—yeah. Good to see you, kid.” He waved and walked out.

Good job,” Ms. Potts said. Peter looked up at her, startled, but she was smiling, not sarcastic at all. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to say that all day.” She tapped a finger on her crossed arms as she looked at him. “You’re a good friend, Peter. To all of them. I hope I get to know you better.”

Then she, too, waved at him and went out, leaving Peter to stand there, stunned, for a minute before he jumped out the window.

~

Bucky looked in the mirror and combed his hair into place just as he had weeks ago. This time, the resemblance to the person he used to be was even stronger; he’d dressed up a bit (by the 21st century’s standards, anyway) for the occasion. But this time, the resemblance wasn’t unnerving. Or, if it was, it was part and parcel of a much larger nervousness. He squared his shoulders and walked out of his room.

Steve was waiting in the living room. “Hey,” he said quietly. “You look good.”

“Thanks,” Bucky said shakily.

“Tell her I said hi,” Steve said, giving Bucky a hug. He stepped back a bit, hands still on Bucky’s shoulders, and looked at him. “You up for this?”

“I gotta be,” Bucky said weakly. “I—I wanted this . . . .” He swallowed. “I’ll be fine.”

~

He had forty-five minutes of travel to second-guess himself on that. He spent the entire subway ride and the walk from the closest stop alternating between covertly checking for tails and trying to imagine what this would be like. Could Grace still move around on her own, or did she have a cane or one of those walkers now? Would her hair be white? Would she smell like an old woman? Would her family be there? She still lived on her own, from what she’d said, and she said she knew he didn’t want to meet everyone all at once, but if they found out, they might come. Probably good if they did. Someone shows up out of nowhere claiming to be your grandma’s long-lost brother, you want to make sure they’re not trying to rip her off. Even more important to check if your grandma’s brother ought to be a hundred years old.

He wasn’t even sure if she really believed it was him. He wanted to be sure, but Grace was sharp—always had been, anyway. She could easily think he was a fraud and set him up on her own. If that was the case, would she believe him when he showed up? Even if she did, whatever law enforcement agency she’d called would certainly take him into custody, and—

But she’d made all those references to things only they really knew, the inside jokes or stupid things anyone else would have forgotten by now, and he’d been able to reply to every one of them. Sign and countersign.

Unless there was something that he’d forgotten, a mention he’d missed. Having your brain put through a blender could do that.

Stop it, he told himself. It’s Grace. It’s me. We’ll know each other.

But would they? He didn’t look like the young man who’d shipped out in the forties. He didn’t look a hundred years old, either, but he was more worn and tired, and his hair was different, and he had a metal arm.

Would he recognize her?

~

Ultimately, he found himself standing on the front porch of a small Victorian house in a very different part of Brooklyn than he’d grown up in, heart hammering as hard as it ever had in combat. He checked the house number one last time. No Sarah Henderson mistakes; he’d promised. This was it.

He couldn’t stay on the porch dithering much longer. The neighbors would notice, and she didn’t need the attention, and neither did he . . . . Get it together, he thought, and raised a trembling hand to knock.

Before he could touch it, the door swung open. A woman with pure white hair and bright blue eyes stood in the doorway. Bucky’s first, instinctive thought was that looks like Grandma—then his memory matched the features, slightly changed though they were. Her cheeks were lined, her mouth a little smaller, but her nose, the tiny scar by her left eyebrow, even her chin were exactly the same.

She was gazing at him the same way he had to be staring at her.

“Bucky?” The old woman whispered, and her voice was the same too—older and softened, blurred by time, but still her.

“Hello, Gracie,” he said, the words coming from someplace far away, somewhere outside this swirling haze of hope, apprehension, and joy. “Sorry I’m late.”

~

“Steve?” Bucky called softly, knocking on his bedroom door. It was mid-afternoon and the warm summer sun was pouring in through the living room windows, which meant Steve’s room would be warm too. He’d been tired a lot lately . . . .

“I’m not asleep,” Steve called back. “Just reading.”

Bucky pushed the door open and walked in, cradling a plastic container against his chest. Steve was in his reclining chair, holding a biography. An unused blanket draped over one arm of the chair and a crossword puzzle balanced atop it. He added the book to the stack.

“How was it?”

Bucky walked over and sat down on the bed next to Steve. “Remember when she was six and learning to bake?” he asked. “She said she was gonna make us cookies.”

Steve nodded. “She forgot the baking soda,” he said.

The cookies had come out small and flat. Grace’s lower lip had trembled. “That doesn’t look right.” But Steve had just held out his hand for one, and . . . .

“You ate them anyway,” Bucky said. “You remember what kind they were?”

“Peanut butter with a little chocolate in ’em, right?” Steve asked. “She always liked that kind. Me, too.”

“She remembered.” Bucky opened the container. “She said to say thank you. And that she didn’t forget the soda this time.”

Steve peered in and smiled. “Thank you for what?”

“‘Making her dumb-ass big brother come home,’” Bucky quoted.

Steve looked up. “She said that?”

“To my face.”

“Good for her.”

Bucky laughed, then wiped his eyes.

“Really,” Steve said, putting the cookies aside too—on the bed this time, not the precarious pile on the chair’s arm— “how was it?”

“It . . . .” Bucky gestured helplessly. How could he answer that? “It was good to see her,” he said. It didn’t cover it, didn’t even begin to, and yet that was all he could find to say. “She told me a bit about—well, her life. The store she opened and the kids she raised and the—the guy she married, who sounds like a great guy.

“She asked me about what happened to me too,” he said, staring at the wall. Steve put a hand on his knee. “It was fine. It was—I could tell her—I didn’t go into details. But she wanted to know, and she said she’s old enough to deal with anything I can handle, so.” He swallowed. Gracie had always been mad when he pulled rank as the oldest kid. Trust her to turn it around as soon as she had the chance.

“And then she showed me some photo albums. Her family—my family,” he corrected. It still didn’t feel real, like he had no right to that, no claim on any of these people. “Her kids, and their cousins, and all of their kids. One of Becca’s granddaughters is named Jamie,” he said, and suddenly his throat closed up. “She— she said—Becca always wanted—”

He couldn’t get the words out through the tears. Steve pulled him over and held him, not saying a word.

Chapter Text

“Hey, do you remember Al?”

“Al who?”

“I don’t remember his name. The big guy who worked at the newsstand.”

In the two days since Bucky had gone to visit Grace, he and Steve had talked more about the people they’d known growing up than they had in the entire time before they’d come to Stark Tower. Oh, they had talked about their childhood—practically the only thing both of them found comfortable to discuss at first—but that was specific incidents, recollections, anecdotes, all self-contained and bounded in the past. Only rarely had one or the other of them tried to connect the dots, ask what had happened to someone.

The way Bucky saw it was, when you know you’ve outlived all your friends, it doesn’t really matter whether they died right after you saw them last or just a week before you woke up in a new millennium. Each is about as horrible as the other, just in different ways.

But Grace had broken that bubble for both of them, and there was a sudden flurry of decades-old gossip as Bucky told Steve what Grace had told him and Steve told Bucky what he’d (mostly inadvertently, after the first few heart-breaking episodes of trying to look somebody up and finding their children instead) learned about the people from their old neighborhood. A lot of the stories were sad. But not all of them.

Of course, most of this turned into trying to remember names and faces and talking about people even if they weren’t trying to figure out what happened to them.

“Hank was pushy, but he was alright,” Steve insisted. “Ben was the guy you didn’t want to be on the bad side of.”

“I dunno, Steve,” Bucky said doubtfully. “Hank had a temper.”

“Well, we can agree both of them were better than the middle brother, right? What was his name? Leon? Lester?”

“I dunno. I just remember people call him Loudmouth. But yeah, he was a piece of work.”

Steve snorted.

“What about Jack Harris? He was alright,” Bucky said.

“Yeah.” Steve shot him a quick glance under his lashes. “Good-looking, too.”

Bucky blinked. Steve couldn’t possibly mean what he thought he meant. Steve was an artist, that was all, and Jack could have modeled any day. “Yeah, and he knew it,” he said dryly. Now Steve would give him a hard time for being a bit of a peacock himself, and they’d be back in familiar territory.

But, though Steve’s lips twitched in the shadow of a smile, he didn’t rise to the bait. He took a shaky breath and looked at his hands. “So did I,” he said quietly. He cast Bucky another one of those little glances, licked his lips. “I did some kind of stupid shit trying to get him to notice me for a while.”

For a second, it was hard to breathe. Bucky’s chest was tight—with what? shock, hope, fear of hope, jealousy? That was ridiculous— and then his focus narrowed to Steve, waiting for his reaction, smiling that stupid, sheepish, proud-apologetic grin he always had after taking some stupid risk. You mad at me, Buck? (Always, inevitably, with the undertone of well, you shouldn’t be: “I had to punch that guy, did you hear what he was saying?” “Look, I had a clear shot and the tank missed me.” “It’s just a fifty-foot drop, I knew I’d be fine!”) It was that chin-up, clear-eyed righteousness that made Bucky want to shake him and kiss him. And that was particularly confusing right now.

“I didn’t know it was like that,” he said gruffly.

“Well,” Steve said, a little defensive, “it didn’t ever really come up. I mean, the guys were about as interested in me as any of the girls you tried to set me up with. Disappointment all around, I guess.”

“Wait, what?”

“I like both,” Steve said. “I was just as dizzy over Peggy as you always teased me about being, only—” he flushed and looked away. “Wasn’t just her,” he finished.

“Hold on,” Bucky said, his heart racing. “I thought—” He really didn’t want to say this wrong. And he didn’t—he couldn’t—show quite how much he remembered about it. “I thought one of the guys you knew from art school was interested in you, and you felt kinda weird about it.” You didn’t want to be wanted like that. You said.

Steve gave him a look. “He was interested in fucking somebody little and pretty,” he said flatly. “Not in me.”

“Oh. —Aw, hell, Stevie. I’m sorry.” Oh. Oh . . . . Bucky suddenly, desperately needed an excuse to slip away so he could take his mind apart and put it back together again. It was like after Hydra, he thought hysterically, except good.

Meanwhile, Steve shook his head again. “It was a long time ago. It’s not—it doesn’t matter.”

“Sure it does,” Bucky said, frowning.

“Same as always,” Steve said, laughing at him now. “You’re getting mad that someone didn’t like me enough, aren’t you?”

“People ought to appreciate you more,” Bucky said, like he’d always said, and Steve was right; it was the same as before, the blend of jealousy and relief and indignation on Steve’s behalf.

“Well, you know I listened,” Steve said. “Held out for someone who appreciated me, waited for someone who was really interested.” He looked wistful. Peggy, Bucky thought, with a familiar twinge. “Still holding out, now.”

Bucky leaned forward, pressing against him in wordless comfort. They were quiet for a while, and he was about to come up with an excuse to slip away and think about this for a while, when Steve added quietly, “You know, for a while, I thought you were the same way.”

Every nerve in Bucky’s body went white-hot, then cold. In the space between breaths, he was ripped apart: panic, excitement, relief, more panic. This could be a chance—a chance to lie less, to be easier to read, to convince Steve his own revelation didn’t bother Bucky, to—

—to completely stall out, apparently. Steve was looking at him, concerned. “Bucky?”

“Yeah, not quite, punk,” Bucky said. His voice seemed to come from a great distance. “I only ever liked . . .” last chance to chicken out. Fuck it. “. . . men, actually.”

He hadn’t needed to be worried that he looked surprised; Steve looked floored. His eyebrows flew up and his gaze sharpened. He looked at Bucky like he’d never seen him before.

“But you always went out dancing,” he said finally. “And you flirted with every girl you met.”

Bucky shrugged, self-conscious. “I like dancing. And flirting. Doesn’t mean it means anything.” He watched the emotions play over Steve’s face and added, “I told you, once, remember? I never promise ‘em anything but a fun time.” His lips quirked at the memory. “You were so worried I was gonna break Alice Murphy’s heart, that time, because we went out so much and you could tell I wasn’t serious. You were so mad that I kept laughing. We had a deal, though. She was seeing a girl named Delores.”

Steve blinked. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Her family was kinda worried about her, y’know, moving out and not being married yet, and we figured I could give ‘em something else to worry about and then they’d be glad when she threw me over and settled back into rooming with her friend from work, instead of chasing poor Irish guys who were clearly up to no good.” His voice went a little bitter there at the end—he could hear himself. Stupid, ’cause that was the whole point, but it had always galled. “It worked real well.”

“Bucky…”

“Met Delores a couple times. She thought it was a gas.”

“And Alice was the longest you ever went steady with someone.” Steve shook his head. “You could’ve told me.”

“You could’ve told me,” Bucky said.

Steve sighed. “Didn’t know how, I guess.”

“Yeah.” And really didn’t know how without telling you I’m crazy about you. Then another thought struck him—all Stark’s weird little hints, and maybe some of Sam’s more cryptic asides, too. He poked Steve’s shoulder. “So. Am I the last one to know?”

“Huh?” Steve asked, wide-eyed.

“Here in the future, I mean. Your team. The Avengers, when that was—still together. Did you tell them?”

“No,” Steve said, sounding startled. “You’re actually the first person I’ve ever told.”

Bucky was almost too dazzled by the complicated rush of pride and sadness tangling in his chest to take in what Steve said next—almost, but not quite.

“I think Sam might have figured it out,” he said (blushing for some reason—interesting), “and Wanda might have . . . seen, or however she does it, in my head, but she’s very quiet about all that. I don’t know about anyone else. I—yeah. I never said.”

“Why not?” Bucky asked, careful. “It’s different now.”

Steve gave him a pained look. “Nat would have set me up with twice as many people.”

That startled a laugh out of him. Steve had always hated it when Bucky set him up with someone. If he knew the girl beforehand, or even if he’d heard a bit about her, fine; he’d be interested. Spring something on him, though, and he’d be politely miserable all night. Bucky’d always thought that had something to do with pride—yeah, let me guess, she has a friend? Shut up. I can get my own dates. But maybe it was just Steve’s general resistance to being railroaded into anything, in which case, here in the future, it was no surprise he’d found a new way to drag his feet.

“And Tony would have tried to embarrass me,” Steve added.

“And—everything else.”

“What do you—”

“Haven’t you noticed? Nobody here knows a damn thing about where we come from.” Steve sighed. “I had to spend half the interviews after New York, once I convinced everyone I was actually me, convincing them I wasn’t scandalized by the idea of women working outside the home. Or a Black President. Or Social Security. Or—pretty much anything, really.”

“I know that,” Bucky said, “but what does that have to do with—?”

“I didn’t want to deal with all of that,” Steve said simply. He smiled wanly. “Emotional energy, remember?”

“So—really, same reason as not wanting Natasha to set you up with twice as many people.”

Steve chuckled. “Yeah.”

“Really, though?” Bucky asked. “No one?”

“Not now. And who was I gonna tell back home, if not you?”

He looked so wistful, so resigned. Bucky desperately wanted to hug him. But—

“I think Peggy might have guessed,” Steve said, slowly, looking unaccountably guarded all over again.

“What?” Bucky twisted to look at him more fully. “Steve, how would she do that? When she was around, you acted like there was no one else in the room.” Which had hurt more than he would have thought possible, even after Zola—and all the more because he couldn’t be mad about it. He really couldn’t fault Steve’s taste. Agent Carter had been amazing, and she deserved him. It had been awful.

“Dunno,” Steve said, going red. “I, um. Just. Something she said once.” He cleared his throat. “What about you?”

“What about me?” Bucky asked.

“Does anyone else here know? Tony said someth—”

Bucky’s gut clenched. He wouldn’t, would he? “What did Tony say?”

Steve looked at him, wide-eyed. “Nothing rude. It’s—kind of stupid, really. We were talking about you and that car you’re working on, and I said he shouldn’t put FRIDAY or anything else with a personality in it or you’d marry it, and he said ‘Not while I’m on the market.’ I thought he meant the, uh, car would rather have him, but then—if he knew, he might’ve meant—” He trailed off, flustered, making complicated little hand gestures. “But if you didn’t tell him, I guess not.”

“Pretty sure that’s just Tony being Tony,” Bucky said, relieved. He grinned. “Besides, he’s not my type.”

“No?” Steve asked mildly. “What is?”

You. He’d really set himself up for this one. “Uh—not Howard’s kid,” he said.

Steve grimaced. “Fair.”

~

“Alright, Pepper, doing it now!” Tony yelled.

“Thanks, Tony,” she called from the upper floor of the penthouse. Tony grabbed the blue-and-gold envelopes off the table, hopped in the elevator, and pushed the button for Steve and Bucky’s floor.

When Tony walked out into their living room, Bucky and Steve were tucked into opposite ends of the same couch, both reading. Normally they were kind of more on top of each other—one using the other as a footrest or a table or something—but they seemed pretty comfortable like this. And they did kind of have their feet almost touching.

“I come bearing gifts,” he announced, holding up the envelopes.

Steve and Bucky both straightened up to sit with their feet on the floor. “What?” Steve asked, frowning.

Tony checked the envelopes to make sure he handed each to the right person: Steve to his right, Bucky to his left. “Should be fake IDs in there. You’re both invited to the wedding,” he said briskly. Don’t bother sending the tiny little cards in the tiny little envelopes, just let me or Pepper know if you’re gonna come.” He turned to go.

“We shouldn’t,” Steve said, exactly as he’d expected. He spun back around.

“No, it’ll be cool. There’ll be no official record that you were there because, hey, fake IDs! And all the guests have to sign an NDA anyway. It’ll be fine.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Steve said after a moment. “We couldn’t—”

Bucky leaned over and slapped his left hand over Steve’s mouth. “We’d love to. Thank you very much.”

“Ar bhie yoo,” Steve said, muffled.

“Ehh, not if you like your teeth,” Bucky said, perfectly calmly.

“Are you twelve?” Tony demanded.

There was a clink.

“...Are you five?”

“Steve just doesn’t wanna wear a suit,” Bucky said. “He thinks he looks stupid in them. He’s wrong, and anyway he was raised better than that and his mother would be disappointed.”

Steve pulled Bucky’s hand away. “Don’t you bring my ma into this.”

“You run around in skintight Kevlar,” Tony said. “I don’t think you could possibly look stupider in a tux.” Steve gave him a skeptical look. “Thank you? And no, that’s not why I think we shouldn’t go. I think—”

“Well I think it’s my and Pepper’s wedding and we invited you,” Tony said.

Steve shut up.

Tony counted that as a win. Apparently so did Bucky.

“Oh,” Tony added, when he was halfway to the elevator. “It looks like RAID is planning a ‘final, desperate, last-ditch attack’ to try and get the Tower’s arc reactor, so. I dunno. Be prepared for incoming stupid. And try to not give each other wedgies or anything; seriously, how old are you?!”

He stepped into the elevator to the sound of their laughter.

~

Bucky was tinkering with the Thunderbird, trying to figure out how an arc reactor would integrate into the existing machinery if they did decide to try it, when FRIDAY turned down the music.

“Hey,” Tony said.

Bucky looked up from his work. “What is it? You okay?” Tony didn’t seem hurt, but his usual manic energy was absent. He moved stiffly, as though bracing himself against an unseen weight.

“Uh, yeah, fine,” Tony said. He fidgeted with something on the worktable with one hand, the other arm wrapped across his chest. His body language reminded Bucky of Peter that first afternoon he’d shown up with cookies—guarded, but trying hard to act nonchalant.

“Okay,” Bucky said.

“I have a favor to ask,” Tony said, or rather blurted—the words forced out all at once.

Bucky raised his eyebrows at him.

“No, don’t do the whole ‘no, I owe you’ thing right now,” Tony said, sounding truly miserable. “Don’t do that. That’s not— If you’re thinking like that, that’s not gonna work.”

“What do you want, Tony?” Bucky asked, truly confused now.

“I want. So. Um. Shit.” Tony closed his eyes, mouthed “this is stupid,” and opened them again.

“You were friends with my dad before he was the drunk self-absorbed secretly-running-a-government-agency absentee parent I remember, and can we both just pretend nothing else ever happened and ignore all the baggage we both have about this and you tell me about him, because there’s really nobody else left.” He stopped, appeared to consider the sentence, and crossed both arms across his chest. “Please.” He paused again, then muttered, “—Fuck.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. Well, don’t know what I was expecting, but not that.

Tony wasn’t looking at him. He rocked back on his heels and stared through the far wall of his workshop, face set. Locked down like that, tense, he didn’t bear much resemblance to the man Bucky had known during the war. But he could imagine an older Howard looking like that, a man faced with the politics of the Cold War, grimly trying to prevent threats before they emerged. That Howard would be shaped less by the fervor of invention and more by the machinations and spywork of the SSR—no, of SHIELD. Without the sense of fun, without the eagerness and inquisitiveness, Howard would have been a real pill.

“Alright.”

Tony shot a glance at him, quick, startled. “Yeah?”

Bucky nodded. “Help my wife. . . . Sergeant Barnes?” He shook his head to clear it. “Yeah,” he said tightly. “What do you want to know?”

~

“Hey,” Tony said. “Steve.”

Steve looked up from where he was, once again, drawing something and flipped his sketchbook shut before Tony could get a look at it. Why did he do that? “What is it, Tony?” he asked, sounding a little annoyed at the interruption.

Tony could forgive him. He had just walked into Steve’s living room and interrupted him eating breakfast and drawing in his pajamas.

Tony took a deep breath and thought about what he’d come to ask. Bucky had told him a lot of stuff. Most of it didn’t really matter, didn’t fit into the picture of the father he’d known. But some of it was a big help.

“Remember that talk we had when you first got here?” he asked. Steve stiffened.

“Yes,” he said.

“So. You said that you thought I didn’t like that you’d known my dad, or something. That’s not really it, though.”

“Okay,” Steve said cautiously.

“See, my dad was— I grew up hearing about you. Not like everyone does, you know, the whole history thing or the afterschool specials or the ‘brush your teeth, kids, Captain America didn’t die so you could be lazy and unhealthy’ kind of stuff that some of my boarding-school teachers liked to pull—anyway—I grew up learning about you from one of the guys who made you you. And I always heard about how perfect and wonderful and responsible and courageous and clean and thrifty and honest and all that Boy Scout stuff you were. And it was all, if you work hard, maybe someday you’ll be almost as good as Captain America! —I didn’t work hard, by the way. Not the way he wanted me to. Anyway. Growing up, concentrated role model.”

Steve’s eyes were wide.

“And then there’s Fury with his flying aircraft carrier and I actually met you. And we got in a fight.”

Steve exhaled sharply. Tony looked at him, inviting him to speak, but Steve was just watching him, eyes narrowed now. “Go on.”

“So, you know, there’s you—straight out of the past, like, pretty much directly, walking around, telling people what to do even when you don’t know half of what’s going on, dressed like something out of the old freaking comic books, and meanwhile I’m there in a flying suit of armor I made myself and figuring out what’s going on under the hood of the shadowy flying-aircraft-carrier people’s organization, and then you do the same thing without the computer.” He shrugged. “See what I’m getting at?”

“I think I do,” Steve said, arms crossed.

“So, see, it wasn’t about my dad. It was about you. About how my dad was about you. And then you actually showed up and—it threw me.”

“Well,” Steve said. “I guess we can all try harder.”

“Huh?” Tony asked, taken aback. “Hold on. You’re saying that you can do better?”

“Well, I have to now,” Steve snapped. “I don’t want to let Howard down.”

Tony felt like he’d been slapped. “You don’t want to let him down. You don’t want to—”

“No! I don’t! I’ve been trying to put his legacy to good use. I would think you know something about that.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Tony spat. “You don’t get to talk about my father’s legacy. You don’t get to tell me whether or not he’d be disappointed.”

“No, I don’t. You’re the one saying he would be.”

“Really? I’m saying that? —You know what, maybe I don’t give a shit. Maybe I don’t care if his whole legacy goes down the toilet. Maybe I run a company that makes clean energy products now. Maybe I have nothing to do with Howard Stark and want to cut off ties with all his old, stupid ideas that are just slowing me down.”

“You really feel that way.” Steve’s voice was quiet, pained. Tony’s fists clenched. What right did he have to be hurt?

“Yes. I really do.”

“Well. I’m sorry I’m here, then. I hope—I should be done with the PLEX treatments in another week or two, they think. I won’t need to impose on your generosity any longer.”

“Oh, cut the drama, Cap,” Tony groaned. “You could go to Wakanda if you wanted. I’m sure they’d want you there. I don’t know why.”

“Tony,” Steve said, with those stupid blue eyes and that stupid forehead-line eyebrow-lifter muscle. “Where’s this all coming from? Why’ve you been hiding this for so long?”

“Hiding!” Tony snapped. “You want to talk about hiding? Why haven’t you ever mentioned that you’d rather spend half the day drawing?”

Steve flushed. “What I do is my business.”

“So I gather,” Tony spat.

“You don’t need to go sneaking around looking at my work!”

“Apparently, yes I do, or I’d never know what you did with all your free time.”

“I have a reason for having free time right now. It’s called . —Tony, I’m not gonna let this go without a fight. This was working.”

“Yeah, I thought so too,” Tony said. “Disappointment’s a bitch, isn’t it.”

“If we work together, we can make this better. We don’t have to let it fall apart again.” Oh boy, an Inspiring Speech™.

“Yeah, tell me we need to ‘work together’ so you have a front-row seat to when I let you down again,” Tony said. “Sure. Try that one. No one’s ever used that one on me before.”

“That’s not what I’m saying!” Steve shouted.

Ooh. Tony got Cap to yell first. That was satisfying.

“You mad?” he asked.

Steve took a deep breath and visibly tried to get himself under control. “I’m not trying to trick you into doing something wrong. I’d never do that. If you have any good opinion of me at all, you ought to at least know I’d never do that.”

He was so fucking sincere and clear-spoken, as always. “Sure, whatever you say, Captain Perfect.”

“I’m not perfect, and if your dad ever said so, he was full of shit. He oughta have known better. I’m real sorry he didn’t.” There was the old-timey Brooklyn accent again, and Cap finally looked something other than disappointed—more like exasperated and determined. Tony gaped at him, momentarily derailed. “I’m sorry, alright? I’m genuinely sorry that I don’t live up to whatever you expected. I’m doing the best I can. It’s better than nothing. And you know what? Maybe someday it’ll be good enough, but right now, it’s what you get.”

“That’s not what I’m saying!” Tony shouted. Oops. But at least Steve had been the one to shout first.

“It’s not?” Steve asked.

“That has never been what I’m saying!”

“Okay, then,” Steve said, actually taking a couple steps backward and holding up his hands, palm out. “Stop. I think we need to—”

“Don’t you tell me what we need to do.”

“Tony, what the hell have you been saying if you haven’t been calling me a disappointment?”

Tony blinked. “Uh.” He tried to mentally replay the conversation they’d just been having. He couldn’t quite remember it enough in order . . . “Weren’t we just talking about how my dad was always disappointed in me because I wasn’t more like you and I met you and then I understood why, and then you told me you agree I’m disappointing?”

“You mighta been talkin’ about that,” Steve said, and yay, more old-timey accent! “But I didn’t hear it.”

“Okay,” Tony said shakily. “Um. Can we just—start that conversation over, maybe, and . . . ?”

~

When Bucky got back from grocery shopping around eleven that morning, he found Steve sorting through several old sketchbooks.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Oh!” Steve said. “Uh, apparently, Tony actually doesn’t think art is that much of a waste of time after all. He wants to see some more of it. And he asked me if I’d draw a portrait of Pepper for her birthday.” He smiled, a bright, surprised look.

“Figured that out, huh,” Bucky said, putting a bagful of groceries on the counter.

“It took some untangling,” Steve admitted. “Wait until you hear this….”

Chapter Text

FRIDAY’s alarm woke Bucky up in the night. “Captain Rogers’ condition has worsened dramatically,” she said. “I suggest you get him to the medical floor immediately.”

“On it,” Bucky growled, already halfway down the hall to Steve’s door. Steve was in bed, limp, breathing irregularly. Bucky pulled the covers back and simply scooped him up and carried him.

”I can and I will, he’d said before, when Steve had been delirious. This was . . . worse. A lot worse.

~

“He’s intubated and stable for now, but I can’t promise anything,” the hematologist said, looking around at Bucky, Tony, Pepper, and Bruce. It was Dr. Two-First-Names again.

”How did this happen?” Tony demanded. Bucky was grateful. He wanted to ask that. He just couldn’t get his throat to work.

“I thought the PLEX procedure—”

“We needed to space out the PLEX procedures a lot more than usual, if you’ll recall,” Dr. Evans-or-Clark said. “Captain Rogers wasn’t hemodynamically stable enough to tolerate the fluid shifts that would result from the PLEX procedure. What with the heart murmur and the scarring on his pulmonary valves, we wanted to minimize that stress. We thought that treating him less frequently would be a potentially effective compromise.” He shook his head. “Apparently it wasn’t. What’s happening now is a combination of his body’s reaction to that stress and, of course, the continued reaction to the antibodies.”

“Wonderful,” Bucky said, hoarse. “What do you have besides ‘apparently that wasn’t enough’? What else can you do to fix this?”

“There’s nothing certain,” the doctor said.

“There has to be,” Tony said, sticking his hands into the pockets of his plush plaid robe. He looked almost as awful as Bucky felt.

“There is another method sometimes used in similar cases,” Dr. Clark-or-Evans said, “but it doesn’t work a high percentage of the time, and when it does, we’re not sure why it does. And I’m not entirely sure there’s any equivalent in this case.”

“What is it?” Pepper asked, eyes red.

“You’re talking about IVIg, aren’t you,” Bruce said quietly.

The doctor nodded. “IntraVenous ImmunoGlobin,” he translated. “In standard cases, what that means is taking the blood from one or two hundred people, filtering out antibodies from the blood—rather like we’ve been doing for the captain over the last several weeks—and then giving those pure antibodies to the patient. Sometimes it has an effect—one of those one or two hundred people had a response to whatever the patient is suffering from, an antibody that triggers the patient’s immune system.” He shrugged. But in this case, I doubt any sample will have anything able to fight these—these other antibodies, the ones he was injected with, since that sample was tailor-made in a laboratory.”

“I read up on it once as a possible way to get rid of the Hulk,” Bruce explained. “But everything I’ve ever done suggests that the super-soldier serum is inert. It doesn’t respond to anything found in the general population. I doubt an antibody made to target the serum would respond either.”

“We aren’t the general population,” Bucky said.

“What?” Pepper, Tony, and the doctor asked. Bruce stared at Bucky.

Bucky grinned, fueled by the confidence of desperation. “Steve’s serum isn’t working to fight this thing, right? It’s down. He’s overwhelmed. But Steve’s serum’s not the only one. You said you normally filter out pure antibodies from one or two hundred people’s blood, right, doc?”

Dr. Whoever-He-Was nodded. “Yes—to get as wide a sampling of things people may have encountered as possible.”

“Well, I know I’ve got something that might work,” Bucky said. “Do you really need one or two hundred people?” He looked across the room at Bruce. “How about just one or two?”

“Or three,” Pepper said, stepping forward.

“Not you,” the hematologist said at once. “I’m sorry, Ms. Potts, but—assuming this can be done at all—while Extremis was intended to have similar effects to the super-soldier serum, its mechanisms are quite different. I don’t think adding that in would be a good idea. It might complicate the process more than it would help.”

Pepper scowled and stepped back. Tony took her hand.

“Thank you,” Bucky said. He locked eyes with Bruce. “Are you in?”

~

As the sun rose that morning, Bucky found himself once again sitting by Steve’s bedside. A lot of stubborn insistence had resulted in both him and Bruce having already had one procedure; somewhere in the building now was a little vial of pure, mixed-variant super-soldier serum antibodies which Steve would shortly receive. The two of them could go through it again at some point—though no one could agree on when—to produce more of it.

For now, though, it was just Bucky and Steve, amazingly alone. Bucky hesitated, glancing around, then did what he had done once or twice, terrified and alone, in that cabin in Cambodia: he leaned forward and gently kissed Steve on the cheek. “Come on, Stevie,” he whispered. “Get through this.”

Then a team of techs and orderlies bustled in with a machine and Bucky got out of the way.

~

Bucky got back into Steve’s room as soon after Steve’s procedure as was medically permissible. He sat back down in the chair he’d fallen asleep in that first night, more than two months ago now, and took Steve’s hand.

After a while, Steve stirred.

“Hey,” Bucky whispered, hope stirring as well. “You there?”

“Bucky?” Steve asked, eyes half-open.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

Steve squinted at him. “I dreamed you kissed me,” he said.

A bolt of lightning shot down Bucky’s spine—except lightning wasn’t cold like this. “Uh . . .”

Steve smiled, the small, happy, innocent smile of young children, people on medication, and those who are half-asleep. “It was nice. Wish y’d do it f’r real.”

As Bucky blinked, aware his mouth was hanging open, trying to think of something to say—or to remember how to speak at all—Steve’s last mumble turned into a snore.

~

When it became clear there was nothing useful for Tony to do, he’d gone down to his workshop. Pepper found him there a little after dawn, pacing and swearing, unable to bring himself to start his next project.

“We just figured things out,” Tony said furiously, staring out the lab windows at the light gradually suffusing the city streets. He clung to the mug of coffee in his hands like a liferope. “We’ve been talking past each other for actual years, Pep, and I finally got my head out of my ass and now I—”

“Not your fault, Tony,” she said tiredly, sliding in under his arm. He wrapped the free arm, the one not holding coffee, around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. He could feel the vibration of her voice through bone conductance when she continued, “You’re worried about him. Stop feeling guilty. That’s not—”

“Alright then,” Tony said. “I’m worried. I’m afraid my friend is going to die.” He thought of Bruce and Bucky, going through who-knew-what kind of procedure with who-knew-what kinds of side effects. “And I’m worried some of my other friends are gonna get messed up trying to save him.”

She threaded the fingers of one hand through his and squeezed.

They stood by the window like that for a long time.

~

Tony finally got back upstairs to the medical floor late that morning. He hurried along the hallway, hoping he could slip in and say hi to Steve, or at least see him—make sure that he was still okay. Bucky was standing in the hallway right outside Steve’s door, like he was guarding it or something, whispering to himself like he was trying to calm down. “Okay, okay, alright . . . .”

“Hey, Bucky,” Tony said, stomach crawling again. “Is Steve alright?”

“Okay, okay . . .”

“Is he that bad?” Tony could hear the edge of panic in his own voice.

“Huh?” Bucky asked, finally focusing on him. “Dude, you’re having a human 404 error,” Tony said. “What’s up?”

“Steve noticed I kissed him,” Bucky said (wait, what?) “but he thought he dreamed it. He said it was nice.

Tony let out a probably totally inappropriate (though quiet) whoop and pumped his fist in triumph. “I called it! —Wait, Steve’s awake?”

“Just for a second or two,” Bucky said.

“I called it . . . . Right, sorry,” Tony said, “I shouldn’t gloat. You’re rewriting reality from the ground up, aren’t you, Mr. I-Swear-He’s-Not-Into-Guys.”

“’Least I have practice,” Bucky said, with a faint smile.

“. . . Are you seriously comparing ‘my crush likes me back’ to throwing off seventy years of brainwashing?!”

“He made that one happen too,” Bucky said. “And then a smaller one, again, when said that he likes men sometime last week.”

He what.

“Called it!”

~

That night, Pepper found Bucky sitting by Steve’s bed again. He wasn’t sure how much, if anything, she overheard before she came in. He’d been talking to Steve, a quiet murmur that really only someone with enhanced hearing should have been able to understand from more than a foot or two away.

“Did you mean that, Stevie?” he asked. “I’ve wanted—I’ve hoped for something like this for ages. Almost did something about it. Stupid Carl. Stupid me, for not understanding what you meant, not asking.” He stared at Steve for a while, hands folded in his lap. “Do you really want me like that? It’s not like I’m a catch. Semi-stable hundred-year-old man, barely not dragging you down as your friend. Better, but still dragging. But you, you deserve—”

Pepper sat down beside him and he fell silent.

“Do you know how many times I had to convince Tony I actually care about him?” she asked after a while. Bucky looked up. “That I wasn’t just staying with him because every time we break up, he almost dies or destroys the world? That’s how he put it, not me.”

Bucky shook his head.

“Neither do I. At least seven big fights. Lots of smaller moments.” She shrugged. “The thing that seemed to get through to him was that, yes, okay, maybe he is better with me around. But I’m here because I’m better with him.”

She leaned forward and put her hand on Bucky’s cheek. “I think you should tell Steve.”

Bucky looked up sharply, eyes wide, alarmed. “Tony mentioned,” she said. “About what Steve said, I mean, and that you weren’t sure what to do about it. I know you didn’t ask for my advice, but—tell him.” She winked at him and walked out of the room.

Bucky watched her go.

“If you get through this, Steve,” he said, just a little bit more loudly than before, “I will say something. Neither of us is going to almost die again before we talk about this."

~

A few hellish days later, Steve was definitely on the mend.

Peter had successfully distracted Bucky for a few blessed moments in those days. May apparently didn’t have anyone to complain to about the day-to-day struggles of living with a teenager who got home late at night, not because he’d been out at parties, but because he’d been out jumping off rooftops and chasing armed criminals. “I get it,” Peter said. “It was really hard to keep the whole Spider-Man thing a secret. You know? Like when people are talking about something and you want to jump in and say ‘oh, me too,’ but your way you got your new sneakers ruined was someone stole them while you were unconscious, and you were unconscious because you jumped into an I-beam in a building under construction? And now I can say that to Ned and May, but they don’t have anyone to talk to about how, like, May can’t ever invite people over without letting me know so I don’t suddenly go from not home to home and they figure out I climbed in through the window.” As Peter explained the situation, Bucky got an idea.

“You said your aunt is a big fan of Pepper, right?”

They spent a few hours planning what Peter called Operation Best Secret Best Friend Blind Date Ever Put Together By a Teenager And a Senior Citizen. Wheels were set in motion. May and Pepper were told to arrive at a particular bar on the first Thursday in July “to meet someone you can talk to about all this shit,” and nothing else.

The excessive secrecy and Peter’s unbounded enthusiasm made those few days bearable.

Then, one day, Dr. Clark Evans Evan-Clark announced that Steve was not only out of danger, he appeared to be recovering. The “serum transfusion”—which was not quite of pure super-soldier serum and not a transfusion, but was the term Tony used and which everyone else had taken up—had been a success. Something about either Bucky or Bruce’s donations—or both acting together—had re-activated enough of Steve’s defences that he was able to start fighting the allergy to the antibodies.

Tony was down in his workshop for a day after the announcement. He delivered Steve a secret “get-well present” one day when no one else was around. Neither Steve nor Tony would say what it was or where it was.

~

A few days into Steve’s officially-decreed recovery, Peter met Bucky on Steve and Bucky’s floor for sparring. Before they got started, though, he had to tell Bucky some super-cool stuff he’d just heard.

Bucky listened patiently, and he was smiling, but he didn’t seem to get as excited as Peter thought someone as nerdy as Bucky should about this. So he tried to explain about hoverbikes and how there was this African country that had apparently been secretly super-advanced for centuries and their scientific outreach minister was barely older than him and just gave a press conference in which she answered every single question by referencing memes and she’s awesome and—

“Yeah, she’s a lot of fun,” Bucky said, really calmly but with a weird kind of grin like he was trying not to laugh.

“Huh? Wait, wait wait wait, you’ve met her?”

Still looking like he was trying not to laugh, Bucky nodded and tapped his left arm with his right.

It took Peter a second.

“Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?!”

~

Mr. Stark came running into the room a few minutes later. Peter was still freaking out over how awesome this was, and maybe jumping around the room a little bit in his excitement. Maybe he ended up on the ceiling by mistake. Whatever. But it meant that when Mr. Stark showed up, Bucky was actually lying on the floor laughing and Peter was dangling from the ceiling by a strand of web, trying to get a good look at his arm and saying “No, that’s so cool, though! What’s she like? —Hold still. —Oh my gosh, is this where you learned what a meme is?”

Mr. Stark raised one finger and opened his mouth, kind of like Ms. Garbinsky, his middle school computer science teacher, had when he and Ned were goofing around and she was trying to figure out whether to ask them what was going on or back out of the room slowly. That had happened a lot during computer club. Peter didn’t give him the chance.

“Mr. Stark!” he said, spinning around. “Mr. Stark, did you know about this?”

“No. What? Know about what? Are you tickling the hundred-year-old assassin?”

“What? No. Wakandan science and technical outreach!”

“What does Wakanda have to do with that pterodactyl screech? I heard it in my lab.”

“Their minister of outreach is like my age and really smart and funny and she made Bucky’s arm!”

“My lab, just in case you forgot, is seven floors down from—Wait, what? FRIDAY!” Mr. Stark turned and stared at a hologram screen that had just popped up next to him. Peter could see a picture of Shuri and a bunch of headlines.

“It’s true, boss. Wakandan Minister of Science and Technology Shuri is seventeen years old.”

Mr. Stark swiveled to face Bucky. He pointed at the picture. “This girl made your arm?”

“Yep,” Bucky said. “I figure it’s alright to tell you now. I’m still not carrying your fanmail, though. Or yours,” he added to Peter.

“You said she’s smarter than me,” Mr. Stark said, eyes narrow.

“Yep.”

“She’s a kid.”

“Yep.”

“So there’s nowhere for her to go but up.”

“Oh yeah.”

“I feel old,” Mr. Stark said. “I feel really, really old and useless.” Then he cracked a manic grin. “Unless . . . .”

“She said that she won’t participate in trivia contests but she’d be willing to see who can invent the best solution to a problem proposed by an unbiased audience,” Bucky said offhandedly. “Bruce is invited too, and anyone else who’s interested.”

“She told you this six months ago?!”

“She was making plans for if Wakanda brought its tech out of hiding,” Bucky said. “Mostly she was excited about some gif she made of T’Challa, though.”

“King T’Challa?” Mr. Stark said, looking even more confused. “The Black Panther? Or is that just a common name in Wakanda or something?”

“No, the king,” Bucky said mildly, and that waiting-for-the-punchline grin was back. Peter braced himself. “He’s her older brother. She does things like that all the time, as far as I can tell.”

~

Bucky was pulled out of bed by an alarm for the second time in three weeks. At least it was nearly dawn this time. “Please go to the penthouse lounge,” FRIDAY told him.

Bucky hurried up. Tony, Pepper, and Bruce were already there, and Tony was on the phone.

“I don’t care, whatever’s fastest. If you get an Uber I will pay for it,” he said, and hung up. “Kid’s on his way.”

“What’s happening?” Bucky asked.

“RAID’s stupidest, gaudiest, and most likely to fail attack yet,” Pepper said. “Problem is, we need people out there anyway.”

“What are they trying? And how do we know?”

“Our sources are a couple of former RAID operatives who realized just how stupid this whole thing is and surrendered,” Tony said, in tones of gravely offended dignity. “And here’s why. They will be launching boxes of random crap off a giant catapult on a ship in Long Island Sound—currently kind of cloaked, but that’ll fall apart the minute the catapult starts a-pulting. And every box will have the TARDIS-tech on it, so it’ll be very full of crap.”

“So we’re trying to prevent civilians from getting crushed,” Bucky said.

“Basically,” Bruce said. “But there’s a wrinkle.”

“I love wrinkles,” Bucky said. He went to the kitchen and poked around among the coffee makers.

“Most of the boxes will probably kaboom after they’ve landed,” Tony said, “so the biggest risk is probably mostly going to be falling junk-bombs and litter. But one or more boxes might contain RAID operatives who plan to squirrel-suit in and land on this observation deck”—he pointed out the window—“and take over my tower.”

“My tower,” Pepper said absently.

“Your tower with my name on it.”

“So we need one or more people at home base and the others out flying or engaging the ship,” Bucky said.

“Exactly.” Tony sighed. “We’ve totally got this, but really, Cap should be here. Captain America defending New York from flying doom is almost a tradition by now.”

Bucky sat down and drank his coffee.

About ten minutes later, a red-and-blue blur sprinted across the observation deck. “I don’t know what you paid that Uber driver, Mr. Stark, but that’s the fastest I’ve ever gone in a car in my life! So,” Peter added, looking around the table, “what’s going on?”

When they described the situation, he had only one question. “Are we”—pointing at himself and Bucky—“Avengers now?”

“No,” Tony said after a moment, irritated. “You’re not. The Avengers as a team doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Aww.”

“Well, we shouldn’t be Avengers anyway,” Bucky pointed out.

“Why not?”

“That’s not what we’re fighting for, is it? Vengeance. Trust me, Peter—you don’t want to have something to avenge. Someone.”

Peter looked away.

“We’re not trying to get back at anyone for anything they’ve done. Not this time. We’re going to stop them before they do anything we have to avenge.”

That got him a smile. “So we’re—”

“Protectors. Defenders. Something like that.”

“Great,” Tony said. “Next you’ll want a logo.”

“Can we all have matching outfits?” Peter asked.

~

The “we don’t want anything to avenge and that’s a hard no on matching outfits” team spread out to collect or upgrade their weapons while they waited for the signal that the RAID catapult ship had decloaked, at which point they would launch the quinjet and try to intercept flying boxes. Their ultimate goal, however, was the catapult ship itself.

“Hey,” Bucky said, leaning around the doorframe. “I promised I’d let you know if I was going to do something that could get me killed—”

“Don’t joke about that,” Steve said sharply.

“Not joking,” Bucky said. “Hope it won’t happen, but—”

“I know,” Steve said, and waved him in. Bucky sat by his bed. Steve looked at him.

“Shouldn’t be just you out there,” he muttered. “It feels wrong.”

“It won’t be just me,” Bucky pointed out. “Tony and the kid’ll be there. We’ll get more done together.”

“I just feel like I did back before, like I’m stuck sick and home and useless while you go out to work and take care of me.”

“Hey.” Bucky put a hand under his chin and made him look up. “I never saw it that way. You know that, right?”

Reluctantly, Steve nodded.

“It was never laziness or anything like that. I knew that if you could, you’d do the same for me. And you proved that, during the war. You did so much for the rest of us. Stop thinking you owe me. Let me take the punches this time, huh?”

Steve smiled faintly. “Yeah, okay. Be careful out there.”

“I will,” Bucky said.

“I don’t want you to get hurt, that’s all. This looks bad, and—you could.”

“Yeah. Guess I could.” And he’d made one other promise.

His hand still cupped Steve’s face. He caught the smile and leaned closer, brushing his lips very, very gently across Steve’s.

A moment later he was on his feet and by the door. He could feel the flush spreading across his face, his heart racing, but he was giddy, not afraid. Delight danced in his chest; excitement tingled through his veins. He glanced back, half-smiling, and saw Steve staring at him, thunderstruck.

“We’ll talk about that when I get back,” he said. “I wanted to do that first. Just—in case.”

“You better come back,” Steve said, tone somewhere between burning serious and hysterical laughter.

“That’s the plan.” Bucky threw him a grin and a half-assed salute and strode out the door.

~

“Hey, Bucky!” Peter met him halfway down the hallway, waving upside-down on the ceiling.

“Hi, Spider-Kid. You all set?”

“Of course I am. And it’s Spider-Man when we’re out there. I have to intimidate the bad guys.”

“Right. Because the name is the only thing that would tell them you’re a kid.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothin’.”

Peter cocked his head. Bucky was pretty sure he was getting the stink-eye from behind the mask. He kept his expression as flat and innocent as possible—he’d picked up a few things from Steve. It seemed to work, because when Peter spoke next, he changed the subject.

“Hey, what’re we supposed to call you? Your call sign, or whatever?”

Bucky raised his eyebrows. “Winter Soldier, obviously.”

“But that’s not—” Peter seemed genuinely surprised.

“What’s wrong with it? If they know anything about it, they’ll know to be scared.” “Well, okay, yeah, but—that’s not you.” He dropped to the gro

und with a thump. “That’s what they made you into. All this time, you’ve been proving that you’re different. Shouldn’t you have some other name?”

Bucky blinked. To meet the enemy not as a bogeyman, but as a hero, wasn’t something he’d considered. But it felt good. And like he’d told Tony, he wasn’t fighting for revenge anymore. The Winter Soldier as a scare tactic was great—but he wasn’t trying to do that now.

“I’ll think about it,” he said. “Fresh outta names, though.”

“I’ll come up with one!”

“I don’t want to be ‘Metal Arm Guy’ forever, thanks.”

“That was one time.”

“I have an idea,” said a voice from behind them, down the hallway. Bucky turned.

Steve stood there, shoulders set, holding out the shield.

Bucky walked toward him, dimly aware of Peter, behind him, pressing his hands to his mouth and doing some kind of frantic dance in place. “Steve—?”

“Tony gave it back,” Steve said quietly. He held it very steady, hands on the rim. The long, ragged marks of T’Challa’s vibranium claws were gone and the red, white, and blue shone as brightly as they had when Howard had first colored it.

Bucky remembered that. He remembered the heft of the shield, the few times he’d used it. He’d gotten used to picking it up in the heat of a battle—all the Howling Commandos had, had learned at least how to bash at an enemy with it and throw it back to Steve with reasonable accuracy. He’d been good enough with it that, when Steve was surprised on the train, he’d snatched it up without thinking—and survived the blast that hit it only to be blown out the side of the car. He’d wrested it away from Steve in their fights before Steve snapped him out of it. And the last time he’d touched it, he and Steve had been tossing it back and forth, fluid as ever, wearing down Iron Man in a desperate, draining battle to save each other, to get away.

My father made that shield. You don’t deserve to have it.

“He gave it back to you,” Bucky answered. His heart twinged.

“And I’m giving it to you,” Steve replied steadily. Blue eyes met his with the same determination and confidence they always had. “If you want it.”

Cap should be here, Tony’d said. Not Steve, and he was pretty good at calling Steve by his name these days. No, he meant Captain America should be there, defending New York, reclaiming his image.

Bucky grasped the rim of the shield. “You sure?” he whispered.

In answer, Steve let go.

~

Bucky followed Steve’s directions to the old Avengers locker room/armory, an area he’d always thought was a blank wall of the penthouse lounge. He took a moment to admire Tony’s commitment to design.

The Captain America uniform in the locker room was an older one, and it wouldn’t fit him right anyway, but the cowl was a separate piece. He picked it up and stared at the blue-and-white fabric for a minute, then tucked it into his pocket.

The back of the locker room was filled with what appeared to be abandoned prototypes. Bucky found a deep blue armored jumpsuit that fit him reasonably well. It took a while to adjust all its straps and buckles, but when he was finished, he could move comfortably and safely—and he could sling the shield on and off his back with no trouble.

From there, he strode out of the hidden room and through the lounge, out onto the observation deck of Stark Tower. Pepper stood at the edge, looking out toward the east, fire visible around one hand. The Quinjet was parked on the wide curve of the deck, and Peter and Tony were standing and talking in its shelter, out of the wind. Bucky could hear Peter’s chatter. After a moment, he looked up, caught sight of Bucky, and fell silent.

Tony turned around and went very still.

“Steve had an idea,” Bucky said.

 

 

~END TITLES PLAY~