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The Others

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When Tony entered the SHIELD facility, a heavy feeling landed on his shoulders and dropped into his chest. The doctor frowned, trying to decipher what it was. His belly felt weird, it kept turning, and that was a bad sign. It felt like something would happen that day. Something serious.

 

He walked the halls, greeting the nurses and the patients, patting some on the back, stopping to talk to others, until he finally reached the door to his usual room. 'Room 1215-- The Avengers.'

 

Tony took a breath and entered the room, and his eyes immediately went to the brunette sitting in the corner by himself. He smiled and walked up to the man, gently patting him on the shoulder.

 

"Hey, James. Took your meds today, big guy?"

 

****

 

Bucky knew who it was before he even entered the room. The Winter Soldier had amazing hearing, augmented by HYDRA’s application of a corrupted super serum. He could tell a person’s identity by their scent, footsteps, or shadow alone.

 

“Tony,” he purred, leaning into the hand on his shoulder, refusing to allow it to pull away. He wished Tony could stay with him instead of checking on the others. James loved him. He would take good care of Tony.

 

But his beautiful Tony was both strong and wily, and he slipped his hand out from under James’ head. James frowned. The Winter Soldier must have let up on his strength for Tony’s sake. The last thing it, or he, wanted to do was hurt the beautiful man he loved. A click sounded across the room.

 

****

 

Tony glared Rumlow's way, mouthing at the guard to put his taser down. The man had taken it out the moment Bucky touched him. Tony held Rumlow’s cautious gaze. The guard glared some more before he complied, though it was a reluctant compliance. Tony sighed in disgust. Rumlow always hated Bucky, for reasons no one could properly figure out. The bad feeling that had plagued him since the morning was soon lost as he sat next to Bucky on the white couch, waiting for the others to arrive so he could give them the news.

 

"Hey, James, " Tony softly repeated, tucking a piece of long, soft, chestnut brown hair behind the man's ear, heart sighing at how gorgeous the patient looked; it was as if strings of light from outside had wriggled through the window slats purely to illuminate his handsome face. As if waking up from a long sleep, the butterflies in Tony's stomach began to fly around, making the man gulp as he tried to put a smile on for his secret love interest. "I heard you actually went to therapy today, " Tony said with a fond smile. "How was it? Bruce is usually especially nice to newcomers."

 

****

 

Bucky’s shoulders slumped a bit at the mention of therapy. Bruce, or Dr. Banner, as he was known, was indeed quite kind and very good at asking leading questions. It was the second part that disturbed Bucky. He didn’t like speaking about his past with HYDRA but something about Bruce’s calm manner brought out all the details.

 

“It was fine.” He finally said, shooting a faux-casual shrug Tony’s way. He was not usually a man to lie to someone he loved, but years killing people as the Winter Soldier had hardened him to protecting others with falsehoods.

 

****

 

Although his smile slightly faltered, and he was not entirely convinced, Tony still nodded. It wasn't a secret that Bucky disliked group therapy. Or any kind of therapy, for that matter. The man was a reserved individual who more often than not kept to himself. If Tony was correct, the only people James really talked to were him and Steve.

 

It took a lot of pleading and puppy-eyed stares from Tony to convince James that therapy would be beneficial for his treatment and would bring him a faster recovery, and as far as he knew, today had been Bucky's first session. He'll have to speak to Bruce about it, just to get a second opinion.

 

Tangling his fingers in Bucky's, Tony asked gently, "How are you and Steve? Still fighting?" A playful smile then reached the doctor's lips. "And will you actually tell me why this time, Bucky Bear?"

 

****

 

The Winter Soldier’s senses went on high alert. Something inside both him and Bucky was losing itself over the feel of Tony’s fingers, so callused and so warm, but the Winter Soldier knew when someone was trying to manipulate him and despised that this treatment was coming from someone he cared about.

 

Bucky tried his best to sooth his instincts, reminding them what Tony had already repeated to him many times when Bucky accused others of manipulation. “Everyone manipulates, James. What matters is whether they do so with good intentions or bad ones.” And Tony was definitely doing it with good ones. Tony did everything with good intentions. The Winter Soldier settled down. Tony was good.

 

Nevertheless, he could not possibly tell Tony what his fight with Steve was about. Steve was his best friend, but now that feeling was tainted with the sour poison of betrayal. Steve knew Tony belonged to Bucky, and yet he persisted in staring at Tony with those faux-innocent little boy eyes, begging for touches, and checked Tony out shamelessly when Tony’s back was turned. The Winter Soldier was working his way up to wanting to have a “talk” with Steve.

 

****

 

Trying not to wince as Bucky's grip got tighter and tighter by the minute, Tony whispered "James?" He snapped his fingers in the patient's face, hoping to get him out of the zone. He sighed in relief as Bucky quickly let go of his hand, probably seeing that it had hurt Tony somehow. "It's okay, James, it didn't hurt me that much, " Tony tried to soothe the man who was frantically fussing over his barely visible bruise. "I'm serious, I'm not that fragile. Now, can we please get back to you and Steve?"

 

Arching an eyebrow, Bucky asked, "Why do you want to hear from him so badly?"

 

There was something in Bucky's tone that Tony couldn't decipher just then, something dark that sent chills down his spine and sparked a form of excitement in his belly. Tony gave a shrug, trying to appear nonchalant.

 

"You're my friends. When my friends fight, I'd like to know why. C'mon, James, it's getting ridiculous at this point. Every time one of you is in the room, as soon as the other comes in, you or Steve either leave or fight like wolves." With a confused frown, he asked '' What happened? You guys used to be so close and now it's like your connection is just gone. You guys act like... Strangers."

 

****

 

Tony snapping his fingers in the Winter Soldier’s face brought Bucky back to himself. He felt every sensation again, including how very tightly he was holding Tony’s hand and the pained wince of his features. He let go with superhuman speed, returning only to cradle Tony’s hand in his palms, staring, wide-eyed, at the small bruises that decorated the back of Tony’s hand. He had hurt the man he loved. Bucky could feel himself shut down further. That’s all he ever did. Hurt those he loved. Even Steve. He had been contemplating beating up his oldest friend.

 

While Tony’s inquiry about Steve still set Bucky’s blood boiling and brought out the Winter Soldier’s voice, he was touched by the concern in Tony’s face. Concern and, affection? There was a deeper tone to it that Bucky didn’t dare name. He knew in his heart of hearts what it was, and it made the Soldier roar with animalistic pleasure, but as wonderful as Tony was, he deserved better.

 

“We’ve had a disagreement. Over who owns a particular…item of intense value to us.” Tony’s face clearly indicated Bucky should go on, but he didn’t dare.

 

****

 

Tony sighed dramatically "It's that comfy pillow everyone wants, right? I'll take it, problem solved." Well, at least that made Bucky laugh, which brought Tony joy and satisfaction, almost forgetting the reason he was even there. ''But in all seriousness, no object should come between you and Steve. You guys are best friends and came here together, remember? Is that object really that important to you that you're willing to break off a friendship over it?"

 

****

 

Bucky stared deep into Tony’s whiskey colored eyes.

 

Yes, said the soldier. “Yes,” said Bucky.

 

It felt like a weight off his chest. To finally realize how deep his connection to Tony went, how truly he loved the man sitting next to him, the warmth of his thigh pressed alongside Bucky’s. Tony though, was horrified.

 

****

 

Gulping, Tony started "James, I--" but right then, the other ' Avengers' entered the room and Tony got up to greet his friends with smiles and pats on the back, except for Natasha and Thor, who always got hugs. The two were touch starved, as they had the darkest stories of the group, and every sign of affection mattered to them.

 

"Hey guys, " Tony said with a small smile, one arm wrapping around the back of Thor's neck while the other one went around Natasha's waist, who happily returned the embrace. "How are you? Chill day?"

 

The two nodded, and Tony locked eyes with Steve, who watched him with a glazed expression Tony tried his best to ignore. But he had to acknowledge him somehow.

 

"Hey big man, " Tony said with a smile. "How was art class today? Hope Frigga wasn't too harsh on you." He added with a chuckle, immediately pausing when Steve planted a kiss on his cheek.

 

****

 

A smile melted over Bucky’s lips. Tony was so caring, so kind to be taking care of them with such beautiful shows of affection. Natasha and Thor had only ever wanted love in their lives and gotten so much pain for it. They deserved every good thing. Bucky longed to hug them himself but wasn’t all that comfortable with physical affection. So he gave it vicariously through Tony, adoring the man more every minute.

 

Natasha had been kidnapped from her home at a young age and forced to do the dirty work in a cult. She buried the bodies, cleaned the “re-education” facilities, and tricked people on the street into the clutches of the cult. Too young to know any better, when she was finally brought in by police who showed her the amorality of her actions, she broke down. Paralyzed by her own self-hatred, she’d tried to take her own life multiple times until finally she was sent to SHIELD.

 

Bucky still remembered the first day she arrived. Everyone was a little scared of her and how she called herself the Black Widow. But Tony, sweet Tony who Bucky had been just beginning to trust at the time, had stepped right up to the red-haired woman and wrapped his arms around her, welcoming her in. Natasha didn’t stop sobbing into Tony’s shoulder for ten minutes.

 

Thor’s story was different, but almost sadder than Nat’s. He had grown up with a single father and his adopted brother. Angered by his divorce from Thor’s mother, his father fixated on Thor, seeing his accomplishments as ways he could punish his wife. His second child, Thor’s brother Loki, was a favorite of his ex-wife’s and a constant reminder of his pain. While reportedly he never hit his second son, Thor’s father was emotionally abusive towards him and cut Loki’s self-esteem to shreds.

 

One night Thor’s father got so drunk he let slip the truth about Loki’s heritage, that he was abandoned on their doorstep by his real father, who didn’t have enough money to care for him. Loki flipped out, running away from home. Thor was terrified his brother would get hurt, so he set off, following a small trail of clues.

 

He was young, and quite naive, and when a couple of strangers promised they knew where his brother was, Thor ended up in a backstreet gang as an enforcer. They dangled the carrot of his brother’s location before Thor for years until finally he did some digging of his own and found that Loki had been kidnapped by a rival gang and had been missing for several years now.

 

In his rage he sent several members of the gang to the hospital and was sent eventually to SHIELD.

Instead of scolding Thor for any of his irresponsible actions, Tony had sympathized with his naïveté and patiently listened to all of Thor’s stories. He talked about his brother most, and always seemed sad.

 

****

 

"Hi, honey, " Steve said, sitting on the couch Tony previously sat on and petted the seat next to him.

 

Raising an eyebrow, Tony was confused by the sudden affection and endearment but still sat down next to the former soldier, trying to laugh it off when Steve placed a hand on his thigh. "Getting kinda handsy there, buddy, " Tony warned jokingly, trying to push away the discomfort resting in his chest and blossoming slowly by the second, "keep it up and I may think you have a crush on me. "

 

Steve just gave him a weird look, not taking his hands off his thigh until Bucky smacked it away.

 

****

 

 “Bucky,” Steve whined.

 

Bucky glared at him. “Let Tony be Steve. It isn’t funny.”

 

Steve was facing away from Tony so only Bucky could see his face. And his glare could melt a glacier. Bucky didn’t flinch. If Tony ever chose between the two of them, a feat which would require them somehow deserving his grace, Bucky was clearly the better choice.

 

Steve showed his obsession by getting handsy and invading Tony’s personal space. Bucky knew better. Tony wouldn’t run a place like this if he hadn’t experienced something himself.

 

Once, on a rare summer day, the air conditioning had broken. They were all sweltering. Natasha lying on her satin blanket, twisting from side to side. Thor tearing up the carpet to access the concrete floor and moaning about how nice and cold blooded his brother had always been.

 

And Tony, well, Tony had responded to the heat by stripping off his lab coat and speaking to them in a tank top and capris. Bucky spent a good part of an hour subtlety ogling Tony’s powerful arms. Then Tony went to stretch, and Bucky saw, through the arm hole of the shirt, bandages, wrapped all around Tony’s chest. It confused and disturbed him, but he didn’t feel like it was his place to ask. Either way, Tony was damaged goods, like them, and it was only right to give him that courtesy.

 

Bucky observed Tony over the next couple of months after The Day and noticed several patterns. Tony always preferred to initiate touch, not receive it, and he hated being handed things. So, Bucky let Tony touch him before he touched back, and when he went to hand anything back to Tony he set it on a flat surface first.

 

When Tony first noticed Bucky’s care his face had lit up, lips splitting into the largest, warmest smile Bucky had ever seen. To his knowledge, that was the first time he had really felt in love with Tony.

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony gulped and stood up, suddenly feeling cramped between the two men. Taking a deep breath, he walked over to Natasha and held her hand, silently thanking her for the comfort and support. If there was one thing that was true in that hospital, it was that Tony had nerves of steel. Violent patients, staff harassment, handsy guards, none of it got to him. But he couldn't handle being the reason for quarrel.

 

Now was no time to get nervous. He had an objective when he came here after all, and he intended to reach it. "I have to talk with you guys about something, " Tony started nervously "you may not like it, but...It is what it is."

 

The worried looks he got made Tony slightly nervous, but he decided, after a big breath, that it was better they found out from him than anyone else. Tony clapped his hands, hoping to shake away the sweat resting on them.

 

"So um...I'm going to be assigned to another room."

 

****

 

The reactions of the others varied but were unanimously negative across the board. Natasha flinched back from Tony, pulling his hand out of hers and wrapping her arms around herself. Poorly suppressed pain shone out of Thor's eyes.

 

Steve made a noise like a suppressed wail and Bucky himself, well, he was numb. His whole body just froze, shooting forward into the future. A future without Tony’s reassuring presence to greet him every day, those beautiful smiles, how much he truly believed in Bucky and was thrilled when he made a breakthrough. And it hurt. It hurt to think Tony would be off with some other group. As selfish as he knew it was, Bucky didn’t want Tony to help other people. He was put there to help them, had selected Pepper Potts as CEO of the facility but had requested personally to be placed in their particular room. And now he was abandoning them?

 

****

 

Everyone let out audible forms of objection, shock or disappointment. “Why?” Natasha asked, trying to hide her disappointment as she folded her arms across her chest. Steve, on the other hand, felt his entire world getting ripped out from underneath him. The color drained from his face and he felt like he was struggling to breathe. What was he going to do in a world without Tony?

 

“When do you leave?” He asked quietly.

 

"Today, at 6," Tony answered, matching their disappointment. He avoided looking at Bucky's face, because he knew for a fact that if he saw it, he would ask Nick to let him stay with his patients. The doctor couldn't do that, though, no matter how much he wanted to. "And because Nick informed me that the patients from room 2327-- The Guardians? Maybe you know them...But, Nick informed me they feel comfortable with only me and won't accept any other doctor. They have really advanced in the beginnings of treatment, and we can't afford to lose that."

 

****

 

Bucky did indeed know the guardians. And, while they were quite kind if a little goofy, they didn’t deserve Tony. Tony belonged to them. While they had never said it to Tony’s face, they considered him one of them. Natasha had even created a code name for him; Iron Man.

 

Iron Man was who Tony became whenever he listened to their stories, or something new came out that upset them. His eyes would get all dark and his lips pressed so tightly together they turned white. He looked like he was on the verge of attacking whatever had hurt them with an iron fist. And while he never used that cooped up physical violence, he was always there to comfort them and defeat their demons.

 

Without Tony, the team wouldn’t hold together. Natasha was attached to Thor because they both arrived at around the same time and because they both had terrible stories. Steve and Bucky were childhood friends, even if they were fighting now. Clint, who spent most of his time in physical therapy for injuries from the explosion that took his hearing was connected to Natasha because she was the only one who could sign, but otherwise their team had very little holding them together without Tony. They wouldn’t be the Avengers without him. They’d revert back to who they were when they arrived, and that had been anything but pretty.

 

****

 

Tony sighed, staring at the floor with a grimace, "Don't worry, you'll be assigned another doctor. Bruce Banner, nice guy. I think Bucky is more familiar with him, so he can fill you in. He'll treat you well."

 

Natasha's lower lip began to tremble at the doctor's words before she caught herself. 'Stop,' she thought, drawing her emotions back inside, where they begged to be left out, to be screamed, to be acknowledged. 'You're a weapon. Weapons don't feel.'

 

But, despite popular belief, Natasha didn't always have control of herself, nor did she have a remote control that magically turned off her emotions. She wished she had, so she could use it in moments like these, when it just got too overwhelming for comfort.

 

Hot tears spilled down her cheeks, and before she knew, her mouth started moving.

 

"I don't want Banner to treat us well, " Natasha croaked, her eyes not rising from the floor "I want *you* to treat us well. Like how you've been treating us since we came to this hell hole."

 

Tony swallowed the lump in his throat as he moved towards the woman and knelt before her, taking out his handkerchief and wiping away her fresh tears, the corners of his lips tugging upwards when the patient snatched it from his hands and repeated his actions, giving him a look that said she was not a toddler and she could do it herself.

 

"I would if I could, " Tony whispered, hand rubbing Natasha's arm gently, "I know you know that. I know all of you know that. But it's not my choice to make."

 

****

 

Bucky felt a wave of rage towards Fury. He had never liked the man, but he knew that this decision could be traced directly back to him. Fury had always been more concerned with making money and improving the reputation of the asylum more than really helping people. He knew how famous Tony was and how effective he was as a psychologist. Having overheard Fury talking one day, Bucky knew that Fury kept a close eye on the rich donors who sent their children to the asylum. One of the biggest donors was Ego, the father of Peter Quill, the leader of The Guardians.

 

Natasha’s tears forced Bucky's hands into fists. Tony’s care only made it worse. He knew Tony’s goal was to care for them more than anything else. He just cared. It was what made Tony such a good soul no matter how humble he was about his virtues.

 

Thor, jaw tight, approached Natasha and lifted her off her feet, twisting her body so she could cry in his arms. Tony reached for her, but she flinched back. Thor always knew how to read Natasha. Bucky suspected it was because she reminded him of his brother, and how he never really got the chance to comfort him.

 

Tony looks heartbroken at Natasha’s withdrawal, but Bucky could understand where she was coming from. In her hurt she had reverted to basic instincts. Tony was a source, even if not a cause, of sadness, therefore he was something to fear and avoid.

 

Steve advanced on Tony, setting a hard on the shorter man’s shoulder then stroking it down to Tony’s hand. He lifted it to his lips.

 

“But Tony,” he purred. “Don’t you like us?”

 

****

 

Tony tried not to wince at the sudden -- and briefly painful -- touch. Everyone in their little circle knew that Tony was a tactile person, but he had to initiate the contact himself, otherwise, he wouldn't enjoy it. But Steve was always a bit pushy when it came to his boundaries, and even if he hasn't shown it as much as the rest, Tony knew he was just as hurt as them, meaning that he was acting on instinct.

 

'Or,' a voice spoke to him from the back of his mind, not an unfamiliar sound, but certainly not pleasant, either ' this is how he acts all the time towards you, but you just turned a blind eye to it because you felt bad for the guy.'

 

Ignoring the inner nagging, Tony ripped his hands from the blonde's hold as fast as a blink, pushing the desire to bolt away from the patient aside, and forced a smile on his lips, trying to play it off. "Of course, I do, Steve. You guys are my friends. But, as I said, It's not my choice to make. I'd stay if I could, but...They need my help, too. I want to help them get better. They need me, buddy."

 

****

 

Bucky took a step forward but didn’t reach out to Tony. He met his eyes steadily instead. It was vital that Tony hear his honest feelings.

 

We need you. We need you, Tony. You hold us together, hold us up, and hold us in your care. We want you here more than anyone else.”

 

Tony’s mouth dropped open. Then his eyes darted away from Bucky. Bucky took another step forward, now on the edge of Tony’s personal bubble.

 

“Tony. Look at me. Look at us. We’re the Avengers.” He took a deep breath. “You’re our Iron Man.”

 

“Your who?”

 

“Our Iron Man. That’s what we call you.” Natasha took a step forward, a fierce glint in her eyes. “Because you’re strong. Because you were forged in fire and you recognize that in all of us. Because you prop us up when we’re weak and reinforce us when we’re strong. You are the support structure of who we are.”

 

Tony ran a hand over his face. “But I can’t always be that. I have to have moments of weakness. I have to trust that you guys can go on without me sometimes. To find strength in yourselves and each other not me. I can’t be the lynchpin that will send you all spinning off into space. I thought I had managed to make that clear.”

 

The room’s residents winced, lightly scolded. While Bucky could see where Tony was coming from, it wasn’t the right emotional environment. He was meeting emotion with fact when he should have been meeting emotion with emotion.

 

“Maybe. But for now you are. You are the lynchpin. And you can tell Fury’s money-grubbing ass to stay away from us and our Iron Man. You’re ours.”

 

“Language!” Steve exclaimed.

 

Tony didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were locked on Bucky’s. When he spoke his voice was low and impersonal.

 

“Director Fury makes decisions based upon what is best for the patients of this facility. I won’t hear another word against him, am I clear?” The assembled Avengers nodded, some more reluctantly than others. Tony straightened up, flicking his shoulders back. “It’s about time you learned to benefit from another’s perspective. Fury’s decision is final, and I will not be contesting it.” His eyes shone, half with anger, half with tears.

 

****

 

Before the doctor could say his goodbyes and well wishes, despite the brief irritation and hurt he felt not too long ago, a smooth, feminine voice coming from the speaker announced, ''Doctor Stark, your presence is needed in room 2337."

 

Tony sighed, giving his friends one last look "Your recovery doesn't end with me. You can still get better even if I'm not here with you. We-We doesn't have to stop being friends! Our relationship doesn't have to change just because I'm not your doctor anymore, " Tony decided that adopting a gentler tone of voice might be a good idea, "I'll always care about you, guys. Lab coat or not."

 

Taking a deep breath and blinking up at the ceiling in an attempt to chase away his tears, he whispered, "I know that you need me. I know that. But these guys...They just need me more."

 

"No, " Bucky shook his head, whisper dripping bitterness and anger, "no, they don't. They just *want* you, Tony. They wanted you to be theirs and you're the one who chose to leave us. To...Abandon us. You just have no use for us anymore, so you found new subjects, right? Shiny ones, not damaged goods like us. Cause that's what we've always been, right, Stark?"

 

"You can't think that, " a disbelieving laugh left Tony's mouth as he looked around, and dread filled his chest when he was met with looks of disappointment and angry frowns. No one corrected Bucky, which resulted in Tony feeling even more hurt, "Come on, guys. You can't believe that's true! I wouldn't --"

 

"Yet here you are, " Natasha's spent voice interrupted him. The redhead was exhausted, both emotionally and mentally, leaning against Thor's chest, not particularly looking at anything more than space, "Proving Barnes's point. If you wanted to stay, you would've. You're leaving. After promising you wouldn't."

 

"This is absolutely ridiculous, " Tony stated wide-eyed, giving everyone incredulous looks before shaking his head, picking up the lab coat that had been slipped off his shoulders and tossed on the couch when he walked in. "I'm a grown man. I don't have to explain myself to any of you. I know that you're upset, and angry, but that doesn't give you the right to act like that. I just wanted to say my goodbyes, but now I see how much of a mistake I've made coming here. Goodbye, you guys. I really hope you get the help you need." He said and turned to leave, only for Steve to dig his fingers into his coat, preventing him from doing it.

 

"Steve, let me go, right now!" He hissed, trying to pull back from the unmoving grip.

 

****

 

Instead of letting go, Steve tightened his grip and placed his other hand on Tony’s shoulder.

 

“Tony. I say this now only because there is no other way to do it but trust me that if I had the time, I would shower you in everything you deserved---”

 

Bucky saw red. Not just because Steve appeared about to confess his feelings to Tony, but because Tony was literally shaking in Steve’s grip, his breath coming fast.

 

Bucky rushed forward and yanked Steve off Tony with a growl.

 

Tony took a couple of steps back then his hand flew to his throat and his knees buckled. He ended up sitting on the floor. Clint flitted around him, unable to lay a hand on Tony but wanting to help.

 

Steve shoved his way out of Bucky’s arms and without hesitating took a swing at him. Bucky ducked, then used his new position to heave Steve over his hip and hard onto the floor. Thor stepped between them while Tony was still on the floor. Bucky and Steve both jerked towards him.

 

“Stop!”

 

Tony’s voice boomed from behind them. Bucky looked back. Tony was on his feet and there were shadows in his eyes.

 

“I can’t reason with you all if you won’t let go of your petty problems and listen to what I have to say.”

 

Natasha’s arms folded over her chest. “Our “petty” problems?”

 

Tony held up a hand. “I wasn’t referring to why you’re here. I am more than aware that you all have become attached to me, but I have a job for a reason. To help people. Holding me back to help patients who have made significant progress already prevents me from assisting those who really need it!”

 

****

 

Tony huffed, and stayed on the floor for a few more minutes, not meeting anyone's eyes. This was, possibly, the most difficult, if not the worst day of his life and all he felt was longing for it to end.

 

"I have to go, " Tony whispered, standing up from his spot and quickly walked out of the room before he could see their devastated faces or hear any more complaints. "Goodbye."

 

A sudden cold fell upon the group as they watched the doctor leave, and a chill ran down their spines when doctor Banner, who must have been waiting outside the door during the whole incident, judging by his obvious uncomfortableness, clapped Tony on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear that got the brunette to quicken his steps, but not before clapping Bruce on the back in return.

 

Once Tony was gone, they all fell into a deep silence until Bruce decided to break the ice. Awkwardly sitting in Tony's spot, he rubbed his left arm, not quite looking at them in the eye, and slowly said

 

"Uh, hi. My name is Bruce Banner, as some of you may know, and uh, I will be your new doctor which shouldn't be the worst thing to ever happen, right?" Needless to say, no one muttered a word. Bruce sighed "Right. Well! I guess this can't be our first session, since I know emotions must be running too high for us to work...In a civilized way. Unless some of you feel like sharing something, then, I am very open to assist. It's kind of my job." He joked, but it fell flat.

 

****

 

Bucky decided to take one for the team. He got up from the couch he’d sunk into and approached Dr. Banner. He gave him a nod as greeting, unable to stand putting his hands in someone other than Tony’s.

 

Bruce calmed at the quick acknowledgement and while he still looked awkward, there was less tension in the room. “If you all would give me one moment I will be right back.” Then he turned on a heel and left.

 

Everyone was too shocked to say anything until he returned, now holding a steaming cup of tea in one hand and a clipboard in the other. “Why don’t we all sit on the floor today?” He suggested. “This is only my second time working with such a large group of patients, and I can’t treat you all alike. We should try to get to know each other a little better. I already know Bucky and I’ve had a session or two with Natasha. Who else do we have here?”

 

****

 

Steve and the others completely ignored him, sitting on the couch and not saying anything. Steve furiously scribbled on his sketchbook while shaking on the couch, bringing his legs up to his chest while doing so. Natasha silently picked at her nails, not sparing her former target of seduction a glance, too upset by what just happened to be cooperative. Thor was looking at the ceiling, counting some flies, trying to deduce which one could be his brother. Clint was playing with the fly of his hoodie, bored, for once, not signing a word.

 

"You guys need to get over yourselves, " Bucky told them, crossing his arms, a look of annoyance clearly plastered on his face "We're all upset Tony left. And we're all angry Bruce is here instead of him, -- no offense, Doctor, " Bruce shrugged, " but that doesn't give you the excuse to act like the assholes you're being now. We're gonna have a fucking therapy session, we're gonna talk about our fucking problems and MAYBE solve our fucked up shit minds, and make friends with the new doctor, and before you ask why, because I fucking said so and because Tony would want that."

 

The patient huffed and sat down on the floor, waiting for them to come down.

 

****

 

Steve scoffed. “As if you’d know what Tony would want.”

 

Bucky made to get up but Bruce laid a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Sit. Down. James.”

 

Bruce said it quietly but with such unbelievable command that both Bucky and the Soldier were back on their butts in milliseconds. Bruce turned his smiling face up to the rest of them.

 

“Come sit down,” he said in the same controlled tone.

 

****

 

"He has a point, though " Natasha agreed with Steve, crossing her arms around her chest and lifted a perfect eyebrow at the pair.

 

The manipulation tactic Bucky tried to pull was almost laughable. Didn't the man have any better aces up his sleeve? Still, she thought that it was kind of low of Bucky to use Steve's husband against him. Everyone knew how in love Tony and Steve wore. Their marriage was the main topic of most of their discussion, but Steve forbade them from talking about it in front of his husband, fearing that Tony would accuse him of being insane and inform Fury of the fantasy. And Natasha knew it was. She knew, among their little group of friends, she knew (or rather, she accepted) that the make-believe marriage between the super soldier and the man shaped of iron was not something that existed, still, Natasha loved the normalcy and warm feeling Steve's invented stories of it held. It felt domestic and homey, almost like a family, so Natasha would play along as long this feeling stayed.

 

"What do you know about Tony?" She whispered lowly, pinning the brunette down with her glare "beside the number of pills he assigns you every day." That seemed to get a giggle out of Thor and Clint.

 

****

 

Bucky bristled. He knew Natasha supported Steve’s fantasy about Tony because it made her feel at home but he hated that it set her against him. She was a master of disguise. Really she just wanted to be loved but she could trick herself into believing Steve’s lies just to satisfy the part of her that didn’t want to be alone.

 

Clint tended to side with Natasha as well, considering how obviously in love with her he was. And Thor tended to get lost in his thoughts very often, hearing voices given to him by “magic.” Orders from someone named “Heimdall.” Tony had done some digging and one day, while following Tony around the halls Bucky had overheard someone mention how Heimdall was an old family friend of Thor’s father’s. Thor couldn’t reconcile the father he loved with the father who abandoned his brother so he turned to Heimdall and his mother for parenting and guidance. He was likely just laughing at something the voices had said. He liked to mostly stay out of the business concerning Tony.

 

****

 

With a smile full of hurt disguised as unkindness and mockery, Bucky replied "I happen to fucking know, " his voice just as low as Natasha's, dripping in a twisted kind of amusement and smugness that brought unsettlement to Bruce's stomach. "That if someone in our little group wanted to hide in white fantasies and happy star-spangled safe rooms to make themselves feel better about their miserable lives and he knew about it? He'd find it *fucking pathetic.*" But Tony wouldn't, Bucky knew that, and it hurt more than Natasha's furious punches and sharp scratches ever would.

 

****

 

Natasha jumped off the couch and rushed Bucky, aiming a powerful high kick at his face. Bucky was ready to counter when a hand flew up between them and caught Natasha’s foot.

 

Bucky stared. Bruce had somehow gotten to his feet, braced in what looked suspiciously like a fighting stance, and countered Natasha in the bare second since she got up. Bruce flicked his wrist and sent Natasha stumbling on one foot.

 

“Violence is not permitted. You know the rules. We are here to heal, here to speak through what bothers us, and determine right from wrong. Violence, no matter the cause, is always wrong.”

 

He glanced at Bucky.

 

“Cruelty,” he continued, “is always wrong. Apologize to Natasha.”

 

Bucky gritted his teeth. “I am sorry for making fun of you Nat.”

 

Bruce nodded at Natasha. “Your turn.”

 

Bucky could see Natasha’s nails dig into her palms but she was still off balance from Bruce’s speed. Bucky knew she wouldn’t attack again until she had a proper assessment of the situation. “I’m sorry I tried to kick you Bucky.”

 

****

 

Bruce sighed, rubbing his temples. This is not going to be an easy task, it seemed. Tony owed him big time. The second Tony let Natasha go, she had attacked Bucky again in the blink of an eye. Tony owed him *so* big.

Chapter Text

I don't like this, Tony thought, eyeing his formers group’s table with a worried frown. I don't like this at all. When he was assigned to them, Tony used to lunch with the group all the time, and every time he did so, the patients seemed more comfortable, more open, dare Tony say, happier. It became such a common event that, out of instinct, he would head to their table, only to awkwardly make a turn when he realized they weren't his group anymore.

 

Still, Bruce was nowhere in sight, and it didn't sit well with Tony at all. Didn't the man think about the possibility of them needing supervision after such a sudden change? Or, did he not recognize lunch as an opportunity to bond with his new patients?

 

Tony sighed and froze a bit when his and Bucky's eyes met. The other man looked drained, like he hadn't closed his eyes in weeks, paler and thinner, and Tony wanted nothing more than to walk over there, to ask what was wrong, if he was feeling alright, if he was happy. But it wasn't Tony’s place to do that anymore.

 

Instead, he gave Bucky a shy wave, not surprised in the slightest when his greeting wasn't returned. Letting Quill drag him away, Tony mouthed one last, “hi,” to the group as he was pulled to a table that wasn't his, with people who had yet to become his friends. The unfamiliarity was alright, Tony concluded. The Guardians were kind people, sharp-minded and downright hilarious. They would become comfortable with each other quickly enough. Yet, he couldn't shake away the feeling of multiple pairs of eyes burning into the back of his neck.

 

****

 

The last few days had been hell. Bucky had never been particularly close to the others, but now it was like an ice pick had been shoved in the middle of their group, fracturing it from the inside.

 

Natasha and Clint were together all the time now, whispering to each other and sticking to the corners of their common room. Thor wasn’t any different during the day, but he’d have screaming, thrashing nightmares every night. Bucky would come into Thor’s room to comfort him, but they both acted like nothing had happened once the sun came up.

 

Steve, of course, was worse than ever, intermittently weeping that his husband had left him, and blaming Bucky angrily for driving him away.

 

Bruce was trying to help them, but his way of therapy was more cheerleading and suggestion than direct assistance. He would encourage them to talk about how they felt, tell him about their personalities, but when they asked for help, he would try to lead them to the right answer themselves rather than providing solutions directly for them to accept or reject.

 

Bucky found this particularly useless for him. The soldier had been on edge in the back of Bucky’s brain for days now. In the past Tony had let him wear himself out describing how the soldier felt and what he remembered. It would somehow exhaust the soldier, and Bucky wouldn’t feel him at the back of his head for at least a week. But now the soldier wouldn’t leave, and Bruce’s gentle pushing at Bucky to come up with his own solutions left them both frustrated and Bucky only reminded further of the soldier.

 

But no matter how awful he felt, Bucky was more concerned for Thor. Bucky had managed to snag a newspaper off a table when a nurse had left it and the headline concerned the gang that Thor used to run with. It had merged with another group, one much more dangerous. There was also a mention of a particularly powerful runner moving contraband for their group, a thin man with green eyes and long black hair. Bucky had made the mistake of letting Thor get his hands on it, and Thor had immediately destroyed the evidence, preventing Bruce from taking Bucky’s concerns about Thor seriously.

 

****

 

"Would you please fuckin' eat already, punk?" Bucky asked, exasperated. They could get into serious trouble if Steve didn't behave himself. "You haven't eaten anything since yesterday."

 

To say that Steve was taking Tony leaving really hard was an understatement. He was devastated. Instead of spending his time in the lounge with the others, he elected to stay in his room and read, or would just stare out the window. He wasn’t very responsive to the doctors either. He just felt empty and numb. In fact, being out in the lunchroom was one of the few times he had been out all day.

 

He missed his husband so much. All he wanted was to take Tony away, to escape, somewhere far away, safe from others.

 

When Tony walked in the room, Steve noticed, but decided not to react or even look at the man. Instead he just looked at his plate...until Bucky said something. “I’m not that hungry Buck,” Steve said, letting out a shaky breath. “Maybe I’m coming down with something, I don’t know,” he sighed, playing with the peas in his tray.

 

You're not the only one upset about Tony leaving, Bucky thought, but bit his tongue in order to keep the words in. He'd been just as sad and angry as Steve when his crush announced he was going to leave. Gods knew, Winter wanted to drag the cute doctor back himself, but Bucky had kept him in check. He sighed and approached with a different tactic, "Tony would want you to eat."

 

"Ohhh, he pulled out the husband card. Low blow, Barnes, " Clint snickered along with Thor, not noticing the way Bucky's nose turned at the word “husband”. Bucky wanted nothing more than to shove the peas down the patient's throat. "C'mon, the guy and his husband got separated, cut him some slack."

 

"Steve's allowed to be sad because his FRIEND left," Bucky said, glaring, "like we all are. But that doesn't mean he gets to neglect himself."

 

****

 

 

 

Natasha glared at Bucky. “Either way, he’s hurting, as are we all. Cut him some slack. Haven’t you noticed how you’ve been more irritable than usual yourself?”

 

Bucky froze and considered, rolling back through his memories like he was rewinding a tape. The soldier had been trained to have an eidetic memory. Bucky couldn’t forget anything, not anymore. After some thought he inclined his head to Natasha, the closest thing to an apology he was going to give.

 

Steve began to sniffle over his peas. “I just, wanna take him away, and, you know, keep him safe.”

 

Bucky sighed. “It’s not healthy or feasible. Tony’s his own man; he makes his own choices. We can’t be so selfish as to completely supersede his wants with ours. I agree with you for once punk, but we just can’t.”

 

Clint flicked a cornflake into the air and Thor caught it in his mouth. “Is there any chance we can speak to Director Fury?”

 

Natasha scoffed. “As if, Fury’s tighter fisted with his personal information than a miser with a chest of gold. We’re not on staff, so we’re not entitled to know where he is or his contact information.”

 

“There’s got to be some way to contact him, at least for ethical reasons.”

 

“We all signed a contract giving over that permission to the relatives and friends who put us here. They can advocate to Fury if they visit us and we give them our complaints. But most of us came here on our own so there isn’t much we can do.”

 

Thor rubbed his chin. “That’s got to be a loophole in the contract. If we came in on our own, we’re our only relatives.”

 

Bucky winced. That had to hurt Thor to say. Upon learning where his son was, Thor’s father had cut off contact with him, refusing to give information about his location to his mother. That left only his brother as a relation, and no one knew if he was alive or dead. Bucky had no one but Steve, Natasha walked in on her own, Clint was rescued by paramedics and recommended to the asylum by a general practitioner.

 

****

 

After a moment of silence in which they all thought on what they should do, Natasha's face brightened up in realization, motioning for them to come closer. "Guys, I've got a plan, gather up," she whispered, still alert to their surroundings. They were in luck; the two guards were too preoccupied with their phones to notice them.

 

Bucky had a bad feeling about what would follow, but he had to prove his loyalty to the group, otherwise he'd end up as an outcast, and in an Asylum, that's the last thing anyone would want to be. Isolation from the outside was bad enough, isolation from the only people who understand what you're going through is hell, especially in a Hellhole such as this institute. He couldn't afford to lose that.

 

For the sake of what was left of his sanity, he'd listen to whatever the widow had to say, but he doubted he would like it.

 

"What if," Natasha started quietly, "we got out? After work hours, let's follow Tony home, and stay with him for a while, talk things out, convince him to take us back. I'd put a tracking device on him, but these fuckers took my stuff away."

 

"Get out?" Clint parroted, eyebrows knitted in confusion as he stared at the redhead, "Tash, this isn't exactly a 5-star hotel where you can get in and out whenever you want. If the guards catch us outside unapproved by Fury, they’ll report us faster than you can say ‘crazy-ass.’"

 

The others seemed to agree, shivering when they remembered what happened to the last patient that tried to run away. With a roll of her eyes, Natasha replied dryly, "I know that birdbrain. I meant 'get out' as in we should sneak out."

 

Something dark crossed over her face as she stabbed her peas, disgust painting her beautiful face and filling her green eyes "Let's just say," she started with a bitter tone, nails stabbing her palms as she curled her hand in a fist, "I’m able to make sure that Rumlow and his goons won't stop us. We just have to get there on time."

 

****

Bucky sighed. This. Was. Insane. Categorically so, beyond simple mental illness. Following Tony home, invading his privacy, scaring him half to death and forcibly ‘convincing’ him to come back. It was insane, absolutely insane.

 

He also did not trust this group, at all, when it came to respecting Tony. If it was maybe one of them, sitting quietly and willing to acquiesce to what Tony asked, like him, the plan would be workable. But Steve was off the rails. He’d fling himself into Tony’s arms and kiss him, or something equally wild.

 

Nevertheless, the Soldier had really been getting out of control recently. Bucky had begun missing time again. Just minutes at a time, but enough to make him very scared that his mind was ceasing to be his own anymore. Without the comfort and skilled treatment Tony provided, Bucky, as he was, could completely disappear.

 

If they were going along with this ridiculous idea, they’d need more than just a few compromised strategists on the planning committee. “What time schedule are we thinking? Steve, give me some of your drawing paper.”

 

Steve handed a piece over, quiet for once. Bucky nabbed a pencil and began to draw a 3D L-shape.

 

‘This is the main building. Seven levels, and we’re most commonly on the third. The levels are small enough that we could likely jump from the second floor with minimal injury in an emergency but ideally the first floor is our exit.”

 

Natasha nodded. “There’s also the roof. I can probably figure out how to fly a helicopter, but the air transport is too randomly scheduled. We should only go for that in a pinch.”

 

Thor tapped a finger to the sheet of paper. “We still don’t know where our destination is.”

 

Clint set his chin on his hand. “Fury will know.” He took a deep breath and turned to Natasha. “What floor is Fury’s office on?”

 

****

 

She stared at him for a few minutes, pondering whether or not he was really serious. The determination in his eyes spoke enough, but she sighed, worry making a nest in her chest, the doubt from earlier hugging her again like a horrible shadow. "Fourth. Clint--"

 

"I can do it, alright?!" Clint snapped, face twisting in anger for a brief second before it transformed back in a mask of calmness. "I--Sorry, Tash. But I can do it, really," he then let out a snort, "besides, what are they gonna do if they catch me? Lock me up? Sent me to sleep without supper? Been there, done that. Multiple times."

 

"But not for something of this level," Thor murmured, looking unsure himself. Was this really worth it? He thinks Loki would say no, doing all of this, risking this much for a simple mortal man, was a fool's errand. "This is not insubordination or resistance towards medication. It is not refusing to sleep or comply with treatment. Those acts are nothing to them, for we do it in front of them only. This could go public."

 

"Could bring bad publicity," Bucky murmured darkly, a bitter huff leaving his lips. "And we all know how important image is to Fury."

 

"I can't stay another day without Tony," Clint's body shook as he said this, out of frustration or stress, Bucky couldn't tell. "It's hell without him here. I like Bruce, but he's no help at all. I need someone to help me, to listen to me, I feel crazier than when I arrived here!''

 

****

 

Thor wrapped an arm around Clint’s waist. Clint leaned into him. It was a common position for many of them to find themselves in. Thor’s sheer size led to a sense of comfort that many of them turned to regardless of its veracity.

 

Steve spoke up. “I’m feeling worse too. Nervous, on edge, like something’s trying to jump out of my skin.” Natasha nodded in agreement.

 

“Bruce is nice. He really is, and I’m sure his intentions are good. He’s a better choice for us than any of the other doctors. I’m sure Tony requested Bruce be placed with us. But he isn’t helping, not enough. We need Tony or we’re just going to get worse.”

 

Bucky silently agreed. While he hated to badmouth Bruce, there was only so much he could do when he didn’t know them very well. Not to mention the disconnect between their needs and his style of therapy.

 

“Clint, even if you know where Fury’s office is, how are you going to get there?”

 

This brought the smallest amount of confidence back to Clint’s expression. “Oh please, do they really think the vents of this building are small enough that no one can crawl through them with a few contortionist tricks?”

 

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “The vents?”

 

“Of course. How do you think I always know what’s going to be for lunch? The ones in my room have an easy path to the kitchens. I spend some time up there most afternoons. It’s…kind of comforting.”

 

****

 

Shaking his head, Bucky buried his face into his hands. "This is so fucking nuts, holy shit. I can't believe I'm agreeing to this." But he could. The yearning for acceptance was a terrible thing. Bucky couldn't get away from it when he first arrived at this horrid place and danced as Tony sang so the doctor would like him, would look at him as something more than just another broken mirror waiting to be fixed, and he couldn't get away from it now, as he was fighting to be a part of an orchestra who produced the music of madness that might just be his final show.

 

Natasha huffed, rolling her green eyes with annoyance. "No one is FORCING you to come. We'll do just fine on our own, just like we did before you came into the picture. You're not as important as you think. As far as I'm concerned, you're just another pawn we could stand losing." The woman would have continued with the verbal smackdown if it wasn't for Steve's hand on her shoulder, giving her a sharp glare in warning.

 

Steve wore a stern frown and spoke in a disappointed tone. "Bucky's our friend, Natasha, not a pawn to use. We talked about it. People are more than just chess pieces on a game board." With a shake of his head, he sighed deeply, continuing to play with the so-called food they served here. "That's what THEY think of us. As playthings. If we treat each other like that, we're not better than these--"

 

"Corrupted assholes with agendas," they all finished simultaneity, sick of hearing the same words from their leader over and over again. "Yeah, we know."

 

"So, how's it going to be, Barnes?" Natasha asked, her tone tired yet still sharp, calculating, as if Bucky was a business partner she wasn't sure she could trust. "Are you in? Or are you out?"

 

"He's in," Steve answered before Bucky could, tone leaving no room for argument as his eyes moved from Natasha to his best friend, baby blues softening significantly. "You are, right Buck? You'll help me get Tony back, won't you? I know you will. Till the end of the line, remember?"

 

****

Bucky wasn’t about to help Steve, “get Tony back,” but he couldn’t say honestly that some of his own motivation wasn’t selfish. He convinced himself that about half of it was his own desire to be near Tony, a quarter fear of the Winter Soldier erasing him, and the other quarter genuinely just wanting to make sure Tony was really alright with leaving them after how negatively they had split in the first place. He nodded at Natasha.

 

“I am in. But we have to be smart about this. We can’t afford to mess up. Fury isn’t the kind of man to allow second chances. If we get caught and our intentions found out, we won’t see Tony until we’re all dead.” Clint blanched. Natasha laid a hand on his shoulder. Bucky accepted the reproachful look she sent him for setting off one of Clint’s triggers. He hadn’t intended to hurt the vent-crawler, just to make a point.

 

He smiled at Clint, trying to say with his eyes how sorry he was. Clint looked a little shook up, but he met Bucky’s eyes. “Clint, you are the only one who knows how to get through the vents and Natasha is the only one who’ll know enough about Fury to get Tony’s address without Fury knowing. Thor, can you still do that trick with, what was it called again?”

 

“Mjolnir.”

 

“Right, mew-mew the EMP. Take out the power for ten minutes. That should be enough to prevent any cameras.”

 

Steve spoke up. “How about we do this in two parts? We’ll use Nat and Clint to get Tony’s address, come back and share it with us so we all memorize it, then play model patients until the guards are secure around us again and we can all escape at the same time.”

 

Bucky mulled this over. It sounded like a good idea, but he had one major concern. He ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if I’ll last that long if we wait for the guards to stop being suspicious again. You guys don’t understand, the Winter Soldier takes me over more and more every day. I’m losing time, I’m being erased.”

 

Many pairs of shocked eyes landed on him, but for once no one had anything to say.

 

****

 

After a moment when silence dominated the group, Natasha, in a tone full of nonchalance, and with just a drop of sneer, suddenly said, "Winter...Likes Tony, right?" She asked, shooting Steve a quick glance before fixating her careful gaze on Bucky.

 

"Tell him about the plan. Make him comply so even if you're not here with us, we'll have him on our side when you're gone. We need all of us so this can work. Not having you there is not an option. He wants Tony back, doesn't he? Let him know that if he helps us, we're taking him to Tony."

 

Bucky felt his stomach drop to his feet as he heard the redhead's words. Frozen needles poked every side of him all at once, making him feel as though he had been dropped in the iciest of rivers. The thought of him being left behind by his friends in favor of finishing a mission that wasn't even guaranteed success was almost too sickening to imagine.

 

But yet here it was, happening right before his eyes and no one was making a move to stop it. Slowly, the ice melted by the almost unrecognizable fury taking over him, a fierce fire lighting up from his core that swam in his veins. Teeth clenched hard enough to bleed, Bucky sneered in Natasha's face. "That isn't how this works." He clenched his fists, breathing through his nose in an attempt at calming himself. "I can't just let the soldier take over and tune in when I feel like it. Once I'm gone there's no promise of me ever coming back, do you understand? If he sees the light of day for too long, there's a weak fucking chance of me getting out in one piece from that hell I call my mind, Natalia!"

 

Face washed of color, Steve turned to Natasha, not taking into consideration that detail. "Nat, there has to be a way to--, " but his sentence was interrupted by the shaking of the table, result from Bucky smashing his fist into the wooden thing, glaring up at Natasha with an intensity that made Steve pause.

 

"But you don't care about that, do you," he hissed through his gritted teeth, tone so low it was almost inhuman. "You don't care if it's me you're using, or the soldier. It doesn't matter who you hurt if the black widow gets what she wants. We can all suffer in silence as long as we comply to you, isn't? It doesn't matter if I'm here or not. It doesn't make a difference to you. You just want a puppet to control."

 

Green eyes laced with the coldness of a thousand winters, Natasha stared back into Bucky's eyes, unshaken by his rant. It was a battle of ice and fire, a silent war between green and pale blue that neither person would back down from. There was a deep sadness in their gazes too, a familiar hurt you could only register at the moment of two longtime friends becoming strangers.

 

Voice soft, Natasha stood up from her chair when the guard announced it was time to turn in. "Better make sure you're a useful puppet, then."